Continuing Tales


A InuYasha Story
by forthright

Part 4 of 8

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Kagome poked her nose out from under the haphazard pile of her bedding with a muffled groan, her face scrunching discontentedly as she attempted to cling to the last vestiges of sleep. Whimpering in protest against the unavoidable light of a new day, she pulled the blankets back over her head. I don't want to wake up, she thought peevishly. Waking up means moving, and moving hurts. Every muscle in her body protested as she struggled into a sitting position and pushed the hair out of her eyes. Three long days had been required to get out of the foothills and put the mountain which had been her haven at their backs, and after more than four months ensconced in Yamataku Shrine, Kagome knew she'd gone completely soft. The evidence was all too apparent—and painful. I don't know which is worse, walking all day or sleeping on the ground. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes and greeted her traveling companion with a rueful smile. "I'm definitely not used to roughing it anymore."

Miroku smiled good-humoredly from where he was adding a few sticks to the fire. "We'll take it easy for a couple more days so you can toughen up a bit."

"We've been taking it easy?" Kagome asked incredulously.

"As a matter of fact, we have," replied Miroku matter-of-factly. When the miko flopped back into her little nest with a string of grumbled nonsense, he chuckled but wisely refrained from further comment.

Kagome grumped a bit more as she folded her blanket, though it was more for show now that she was properly awake. Reaching for the cup of tea the monk extended to her, she had to admit that traveling again really wasn't so bad; she had many reasons to be grateful to be back on the road again. Restlessness had often plagued her during her weeks of quiet living on the mountain, and though she loved Umeko-sama and the others at Yamataku, Kagome had never quite achieved a sense of belonging there. The shrine had always been a stepping stone, a place to prepare herself for whatever the future might bring. Knowing that she was ready to move on now hadn't made saying goodbye any easier.

"Do you have to go, Kagome-sama?" lisped little Etsu, wide eyes shining with tears.

"Oh, sweetie," soothed the young woman as she bent down for one last hug. Michi sniffled and was drawn into the little huddle. "I had such a nice visit with you all, but I need to go home now, understand?"

The girls clung closer still, and Kagome looked up to their mother for help. Noriko smiled softly and began to disentangle her daughters from the girl they'd come to consider their own. Kisho caught up his older daughter, depositing her on his shoulder, and Noriko propped little Etsu on her hip; Kagome bowed her thanks to each of them for opening up their home to her. Taro gradually edged closer, reluctant to make a show of his feelings, but not about to be left out. Kagome tousled his hair and leaned down to whisper for his ears only, "I thank you for helping me to train, Taro-kun. I am glad to have been friends." The boy flashed a bashful grin before moving to stand with his father.

Last, Kagome turned to her mentor. "Umeko-sama, thank you. I don't know what I would have done… after… if it weren't for you."

The older woman's eyes were warm with understanding, and she gathered the girl up into her arms. "You have been a source of great joy here, Kagome-sama—of that you can be sure. It has not been the kindest of seasons for you, but you are strong. I can see it." Cupping Kagome's face in warm, dry hands, Umeko asked, "Promise me something, Kagome-sama?"

"Yes?" replied Kagome softly.

"Promise me you will not forget what I told you. Your duty to the Shikon no Tama is just your starting point. Allow your heart to join your will so you can protect the things you love."

"I will try to remember, Umeko-sama," pledged the girl as she threw her arms around her for one last, long hug.

Right now, the road was carrying Kagome towards the things she loved most—towards Kaede and Shippo, towards Mama and Souta and Grandpa and even Buyo. True, her muscles ached, but it was a good ache; she found it satisfying to stretch her legs and push her endurance because it felt like she was finally doing something. This isn't so bad. Kagome reveled in her renewed sense of purpose—she was going home.

A few hours later, Kagome was eating her words. Not so bad, indeed. Feh! Finding the use of Inuyasha's favorite note of disgust rather satisfying, she grumbled another inner Feh! for good measure. Earlier, she and Miroku passed through a tiny village where they could have stayed the night, but she'd voted to press on. Thoughts of home overrode the common sense that three years of experience tramping through the feudal era should have reinforced. Kagome cursed her optimism, which had assured her that another opportunity to stop would present itself. If only... That cheerful outlook had dimmed considerably when the sky began lowering with grey clouds. Kagome peered up from under the dripping brim of her straw rain hat at the fine drizzle, which swirled like mist around her, pervading her clothes until she was soaked to the skin. "It looks like we'll be camping under the stars tonight," she said glumly, then laughed at her own words. "Not that we'll be able to see any stars in this murk."

Though they had prepared for autumn's temperamental weather as best they could, she and Miroku were caught in open country without much hope of finding shelter. There were no hills along this part of the road, so there would be no convenient caves. A hut, Kagome thought wistfully, This is about the time an abandoned hut should be turning up just around the next bend, but the few bends their road took led to no pleasant surprises. Though sunset was still a ways off, it was already growing darker, and they needed to find a spot to wait out the night.

Kagome was just resigning herself to hypothermia and perhaps a mild case of pneumonia when Miroku gave a triumphant little "Aha!"

"Good news? Please have good news," muttered the exhausted miko.

"Yes, Kagome-sama, I believe I've found us a bit of shelter from the weather." The monk had stopped in the middle of the road. "It's not much, but it will be better than nothing," he assured her.

Kagome scanned the area in front of them, puzzled. "Miroku-sama, there's nothing…"

The monk laughed softly and said, "I've been a wanderer for quite a bit longer than Kagome-sama. Come, let me show you." Miroku led the way off the road and into the surrounding underbrush, where long grasses further saturated the red fabric of her hakama. Water dripped heavily from overhanging limbs, barely slowed by the sparse leaves remaining this late in the season, but Miroku marched on, unhindered by such small discomforts. He made a beeline for a massive evergreen, its impressive peak towering far above its neighbors, and its lowest branches dipping down enough to touch the ground. Poking around a bit with his staff, the monk pulled aside a couple of boughs and invited Kagome to duck under, following close on her heels as he urged her to move towards the center.

Kagome was pleasantly surprised. A wide, open circle surrounded a thick, venerable trunk, and if she minded her head, there was room enough in this unexpected shelter to stand and even walk around. The dense evergreen needles overhead appeared to be effective for keeping out the drizzle, and the tree had also obligingly provided a small supply of dry material which meant they might actually be able to start a fire. She turned a dazzling smile on the monk. "Miroku-sama! How did you know this was here?"

"I've had to take shelter under evergreens like this before, especially in winter months," he supplied with a careless shrug.

Kagome helped clear a space in the russet carpet of needles, and Miroku dug a shallow pit in preparation for a much-needed fire. The miko ranged outward, gathering as many dry pine cones as she could into a pile at the base of the tree, then switching tactics to break off several of the small, dead branches that were in easy reach. Satisfied that everything was in readiness, Miroku stood and dusted off his hands, giving Kagome a critical look. "We need to get you out of those wet things. Do you have a change of clothing?" he announced.

Kagome nodded slowly, and Miroku helped her drape one of their blankets over a branch to provide a modicum of privacy. While she used the second blanket as a rough towel and changed into a spare yukata, Miroku kept his back turned and began building the fire. "I rather miss your matches, Kagome-sama," he called out as he tried to coax a spark into being.

The miko slipped back out from behind the blanket. "Ugh! You have no idea," Kagome replied with feeling. "What I wouldn't give for shampoo… and soap… and toothpaste."

Miroku's patience was rewarded, and soon a small fire crackled promisingly. "If we hang your clothes along here," he said, indicating a series of branches fanning out just overhead, "the fire might have a chance of drying them a bit before morning. I'll hang my outer robe as well," he remarked as he ducked behind the impromptu screen to divest himself of his wet kesu. Kagome took over feeding the fire with twigs and small bunches of pine needles until it was established enough to take a few cones.

The sun set, and Kagome and Miroku were taking turns choosing sticks to add to the fire. Since the old knobs of pine sap made very satisfying snaps when the flames reached them, Kagome made a game of trying to choose the noisiest ones. Periodically, she got up to turn their damp clothes, trying to encourage the drying process in spite of the damp. The air was heavy and wet, and she could still hear the soft patter of rain out in the dark beyond the circle of firelight. "I think we'd better check to make sure we're safe here," Kagome sighed. "I'm tired, and it needs to be done before we can sleep."

Miroku agreed readily. "Come here, then," he urged, patting the ground in front of him, between his legs. "We might as well make ourselves as comfortable as possible; it may take a while to check in every direction. Bring the blankets over here," he directed.

Kagome hesitated for a moment as she considered her traveling companion. His long legs were comfortably stretched out to one side of the fire, back propped against the tree trunk, shakujou within easy reach. Since he'd stripped off the deep purple outer garment, he was left wearing a simple black kosode and close-fitting leggings. Miroku's eyes, which had remained alert to their surroundings throughout the evening, were now fixed on her with a trace of bemusement. The suggestion was a sensible one, and Kagome scolded herself for her hesitation. Scooping up the blanket she'd been sitting on, Kagome tossed it over to her companion before moving to pull down their little privacy wall. Carrying the second blanket over to Miroku, she shook them both out carefully, mindful of their small fire, then self-consciously took a seat in front of the monk. Kagome stretched her legs out, noting how much shorter they were than his and realizing with some chagrin that she was really going to appreciate the added warmth of doubled blankets for as long as it lasted. As she squirmed to find a comfortable position on the cushion of pine needles below, Miroku's hands gently clasped her shoulders and pulled her back into his chest. "I did say we should get comfortable," he said lightly, pulling the blankets up around her shoulders, tucking her in securely against him. "We can't have you catching cold, now, can we?"

Kagome shot him a warning glance over her shoulder, but Miroku merely raised one eyebrow as if daring her to argue. Though he'd not once shown signs of taking up his former lechery, the teasing note to his voice let Kagome know he was aware of her concern. It is easier to search when we're touching anyhow, she rationalized. The miko sighed and tried to relax, preparing for the meditation that would allow them to scout out the surrounding area, and before long, they were breathing in time with each other. Kagome was suffused with the soft glow of the Shikon no Tama's power, and Miroku provided ballast as she stretched her awareness outwards, looking for danger. She found nothing to be concerned about, and ended up drifting off to sleep where she sat, relaxing in the shared warmth.

Miroku was more than a little surprised by his reaction to having Kagome in his arms. It's not as if they had never been in close quarters before—traveling in company, camping together, fighting side-by-side. Their little pack of shard hunters had developed a unique friendship, an understanding of each other. While Miroku never doubted that their group belonged together and to each other, neither had he ever doubted the fact that Kagome belonged to Inuyasha. As a result, while he'd enjoyed her cheerful conversation, accepted her strange, modern provisions, and admired her ability to purify the shards of the Shikon no Tama, the monk had stopped thinking of her as a woman… well, as an available woman. She was just… Kagome. Oh, she wore short skirts and was passably pretty and easy to tease, but Miroku was beginning to realize that he'd taken her for granted once Sango came along. Shifting slightly to settle his back more comfortably against the trunk of their sheltering pine, Miroku had to wonder. Was she always this soft?

Throughout the course of their reconnoitering, he felt the tension seep out of Kagome's muscles, and as she relaxed trustingly into him, her body molded to his in a most distracting manner. The monk had known the moment she'd lapsed into a doze, exhausted from the day's hard slogging, but rather than prod her back into wakefulness, he'd used his own senses to finish off the survey. Miroku was surprised at his own range, but shrugged it off as an effect of the Jewel's proximity.

Perhaps I should wake her so she can bed down for the night on the other side of the fire? Miroku was surprised by his own reluctance to do so. This is… nice, having someone close, someone to watch over. The monk lowered his chin to rest atop her head, then tipped forward slightly to brush his nose against her hair. He'd just nuzzled in a bit when Kagome shifted against him, turning onto one hip and burrowing her face into his kosode. Miroku froze while the miko resettled herself, hunching her shoulders slightly and curling her fists up under her chin. Is she cold? Cautiously, Miroku settled his arms around her, lending her what warmth he could. With a small sigh, Kagome's breathing steadied back into the rhythms of sleep.

It was very difficult for Miroku to ignore the fact that the person he was sheltering was most definitely a woman. She was small and soft and sweet, and though Miroku had no intention of taking advantage of Kagome's trust, his body wasn't averse to responding to her obvious femininity. This is a most inconvenient time for my masculinity to reassert itself. Miroku fought to rein in his reactions and relax. It's safe here, and I need the sleep, too. Lowering his face so that his cheek brushed against her hair, he allowed himself to doze.

Throughout the night, Miroku intermittently awoke, stretching out his senses for signs of danger and adding sticks to their small fire. The rain fell steadily, delaying the dawn with overcast skies. Knowing another wet and miserable day awaited them, the monk ignored the lightening sky and allowed Kagome to sleep herself out. Eventually, the miko's breathing changed and she shifted restlessly, turning herself around until she rested on her other hip. Eyes still closed, Miroku reached out to make sure the blankets hadn't slipped from her shoulders. However, when the young woman gave a little wiggle and her arms snaked around his waist, the monk's eyes snapped wide open.

Kagome was nestling into his kosode, and Miroku felt the warmth of her breath against his skin right through the heavy fabric. Her unconscious nosing was doing strange things to his insides, and he stifled a groan. Placing a hand on her head to put a halt to her disconcerting movement, Miroku tried to gently wake her. "Kagome-sama," he murmured. The only reaction the young woman had was to wind her fingers into the back of his robes. If she tucks her chin down any more… Clearing his throat, Miroku tried again. "Kagome-sama?" he tried again, his voice cracking slightly in his urgency to gain her attention.

The young woman stilled, then raised her head, squinting up into Miroku's face. With drowsy confusion, she mumbled, "Oh… mornin', Ro-kun," before dropping her forehead back down to hide a lengthy yawn.

Miroku's eyebrows disappeared into his rumpled bangs at the unexpected nickname. She's certainly never called me that before.

After a few moments, Kagome seemed to recollect herself and tensed. When she looked up at him this time, her eyes were wide awake. "Oh, Miroku-sama," she gasped as she pulled away, struggling to sit up, "I'm so sorry. I guess I fell asleep."

"That's quite all right, Kagome-sama," assured the monk. "Perhaps you can check and see if our things have dried sufficiently?"

"Yes, of course," she nodded, flashing an apologetic smile as she straightened her yukata and smoothed her hair.

Kagome felt decidedly awkward. All through the night, she'd been warm and comfortable, and in her waking muddle of semi-consciousness, she'd known it was because of Miroku's presence. His nearness at that moment was reminiscent of their sessions with the Shikon no Tama. The monk was close by—familiar and steady and dependable—and she'd been trying to hold onto the comfort his presence always brought. When Miroku managed to shake her free of her drowsy contentment, she'd lost her bearings for a few moments, but seeing his face had anchored her just as surely as his aura always did. He was near; she was safe. She wished that she hadn't felt quite so free to open her mouth, though. I can't believe I called him Ro-kun. What must he think?

Kagome hid herself behind the hanging folds of her miko robes, glad for the pretense of checking them for dryness. I don't think Miroku-sama would be offended, but I've never spoken to him so familiarly before. That wasn't the worst of it, though. She'd woken up enough to realize just how intimately she'd been wrapped around her friend. What should I do? I should probably apologize at least… Resisting the urge to hide forever, Kagome peeked around the edge of her mud-spattered hakama to see if the monk looked upset. No doubt feeling her gaze, Miroku looked up, so gathering her courage, Kagome stepped out. "Um, Miroku-sama," she began, eyes downcast.

"Yes, Kagome-sama?" he replied, concern tingeing his voice.

"Oh, Miroku-sama," she said in a rush, "I'm just so sorry."

The monk got to his feet and stepped to Kagome's side, worry now apparent in the furrowing of his brow. "What do you feel you need to apologize for, Kagome-sama?" he asked gently.

Gesturing towards the spot where they'd slept last night, the young woman let her discomfort show. "I didn't mean any disrespect," she said, hoping he'd understand.

A smile broke out on Miroku's face. "You are worried about my feelings, Kagome-sama? I thought maybe I was the one to upset you." The monk ran fingers through his hair, tugging at its tail. "Perhaps I should have woken you last night so you could move to your own bedroll?" he shrugged uncertainly.

Kagome breathed a sigh of relief. "No, Miroku-sama, it made sense to stay together," she reassured him. "I hope you weren't too… uncomfortable?"

"Not at all, Kagome-sama," replied the monk smoothly.

Both of them needed to regain their composure somewhat, and the business of making breakfast and breaking camp provided the time and space needed for the morning's unexpected tensions to dissipate. At least small talk was something Miroku could manage with ease. "I don't believe the rain is letting up any, so there's no sense in delaying our departure. Maybe we'll find better shelter tonight."

Kagome nodded as she folded away her yukata, having changed back into her more durable miko robes. "A room would be nice, though I can't complain about this shelter one bit." Looking up into the branches that had given them a night's respite, she mused aloud, "I was warm and safe and dry, thanks to you, Miroku-sama." Offering the monk an admiring look, she said with a grin, "I'll never look at a pine tree in the same way again."

That first day's drizzle had merely been the precursor to a full-fledged deluge, and for four days they wallowed through a morass. Kagome decided that she hated autumn. She hated rain. Most of all, she hated mud. Her once-clean yukata was thoroughly caked with the stuff, and her skin was liberally spattered. The flimsier material was hardly up to the task of protecting her from the elements, but when she'd tried to put on her hakama that morning, they were so plastered with muck that they were actually stiff. There'd been no opportunity to properly clean them, so the miko was enduring as best she could—cold, wet, and filthy. By midday, Kagome was clenching her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering, and though she hated sounding like an impatient child, she applied to her companion for information. "Will there be a village soon, Miroku-sama?"

"Mm. I believe so, Kagome-sama," he answered patiently, just as he had the last time she'd asked.

"That would be nice," sighed Kagome longingly. "Or a hot springs would be almost as good. Have you been through this area before? Are there any springs?"

"I'm sorry, but don't think there are, Kagome-sama. At least… none of which I'm aware," he added apologetically.

Kagome immediately felt bad. He's just as miserable as I am. Maybe I can think of something to distract both of us from all this muck and mire. Anything was better than cataloging all the places she'd found mud on her person—between her toes, under her nails, behind her ears. During their last brief rest, Miroku had snorted softly and wiped a streak off the bridge of her nose where she'd inadvertently smeared herself. Let's see, what would lighten the mood? She could hardly expect Miroku to play 'I Spy', like she did with Shippo or the shrine children. Besides, in this downpour, everything looked grey. What could we talk about that would interest Miroku? Kagome considered what little she knew of the man. She supposed he must have had wide experiences, since he'd traveled so much. He told good stories. He liked to make jokes. He was clever with words. Aha! I have it! "Miroku-sama, do you like riddles?"

Miroku seemed amused by Kagome's random question, but answered equably. "Riddles, Kagome-sama? Yes, I suppose so."

"Good. Then I challenge you to a duel of riddles," rejoined the smug miko.

The monk's interest was sparked. "Hmm. I may know a few. Very well."

"Give me a second. I have to think of one that doesn't require knowledge of the future…." Kagome trailed off thoughtfully for a minute, then posed her first question. "What belongs to you but others use it more than you do?"

Miroku was quiet for a scant minute, then gave a low chuckle.

"What? Have you figured it out already?" exclaimed Kagome, a little disappointed.

"I believe so, Kagome-sama."

"Well?" He flashed a knowing grin, and she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What's so funny?"

"I believe your riddle is simple to answer, but the answer may not apply to everyone," he said teasingly.

Confused, Kagome persisted. "What do you mean, Miroku-sama?"

"I was just thinking that Sesshoumaru-sama is a notable exception to the rule."


Clearing his throat Miroku adopted a blandly affected tone, "This Miroku believes that the answer to Kagome-sama's riddle is—your name."

Kagome giggled. "He does that a lot, doesn't he." Then, pretending to take umbrage, she scolded back. "I will not have you disparage Sesshoumaru-sama. After all, he's part of this Kagome's pack."

Miroku smirked, then announced amiably, "If this is to be a duel of riddles, then I have one for your consideration."

"All right, I'm listening."

"There are four brothers in this world that were all born together. The first runs and never wearies. The second eats and is never full. The third drinks and is always thirsty. The fourth sings a song that is never good."

"Oh! You do know good riddles," Kagome enthused, impressed by the monk's first offering. "Wait, say it again for me slower," she begged.

Miroku repeated the puzzle phrase by phrase as he paced along, glancing at her every so often as she chewed her lip and pulled at the end of her braid. Finally, Kagome's shoulder's slumped in defeat. "Can I have a teeny little hint? Please?" she wheedled.

"Of course, though you must concede this round," bargained the monk.

"Oh, I've got more riddles. You haven't beaten me yet," Kagome returned confidently.

"Fair enough," accepted Miroku. "The first of the four brothers that runs and never wearies is water."

After that, recognition only took a moment. "Oh, oh, oh!" Kagome hopped in place as the pieces fell into place. "The four brothers are the four elements—water, fire, earth, and wind." She gave him an admiring glance. "That was a good one."

"Thank you. Your turn, Kagome-sama."

Kagome was ready with another. "The more you take, the more you leave behind. What are they?"

Their plodding steps were quiet for a bit as Miroku contemplated the riddle. "You know," he said, "the road is widening a bit. I think we're nearing a village."

"Good. So…do you have the answer to my riddle yet?"

There was a long pause. "No, Kagome-sama. I don't know the answer to your riddle," Miroku confessed blithely.

"Shall I tell you the answer?" offered Kagome magnanimously.

"Yes, please," Miroku said with exaggerated politeness, eyes laughing at her obvious excitement.

"Footsteps! The more you take, the more you leave behind."

"So we do. Very appropriate, Kagome-sama," he complimented.

It was quiet for a few more moments of slogging through the mud before Miroku spoke up again. "I have another riddle for you, Kagome-sama."

"Ready!" she chirped.

"What is it that you can keep after giving it to someone else?"

Kagome racked her brain. Giving and keeping. Several ideas reeled through her mind, but none seemed to fit the riddle neatly. Finally she admitted defeat. "I don't know, Miroku-sama. What is it that you can keep after giving it to someone else?"

"Your word," the monk answered quietly.

Just then, they rounded the bend and a village lay sprawled before them. Kagome's relief was enormous. Food, baths, beds—bliss. Casting a quick glance at the monk, Kagome said conversationally. "Look at that. I've never seen such an ominous aura over an inn before; perhaps they should be made aware of its presence. Then, we could exorcise it for them."

Miroku-sama looked down at her cheerful face and smiled warmly. "Why Kagome-sama! How positively mercenary of you."

"I learned from the best," she said with a smirk. Anything for a bath.

Kagome tried to contain her eagerness as Miroku presented himself to the innkeeper, offering his skills as an exorcist in exchange for rooms. Kagome played her part by remaining quietly behind the monk, eyes downcast. The older man had been most curious about the pair, eyeing the weapons strapped to Kagome's back with interest. Miroku did his best to distract the innkeeper, making an offhand remark about family heirlooms and dedicating the honored sword to a shrine before leading the man off for a closer inspection of the 'cursed' structure. The two men spoke for a time in low tones before coming to an arrangement. When the innkeeper bustled away, the young woman turned eager eyes to the monk. "Well," she asked hopefully. "Did you get rooms?"

"He's gone inside to order a dinner for us, and we will be shown to a room. Kagome-sama, it had not occurred to me before…" The monk trailed off uncomfortably. "It would be highly… unusual for a man and woman to travel together if they were not…" Again he faltered.

Kagome scanned Miroku's violet eyes, which were sheepishly pleading with her to understand. Oh! "He thinks we're married," she stated flatly.

Miroku nodded. "It would be wisest, not to mention safest, to allow the man to remain misinformed."

Kagome shrugged carelessly. "It's all right Miroku-sama. I should be thanking you for salvaging my reputation. We were always in a group before, and it never occurred to me that we are currently… unchaperoned."

The innkeeper returned, nattering on about the weather and how slow business had been and the honor of having such a holy man under their roof. The room to which he led them was quite comfortable, and dinner was promised within the half hour. Smiling and bowing, he left. "I am sorry, Kagome-sama," began the monk again awkwardly, as he eyed the single futon.

"It's all right, Miroku-sama. This room is dry, and I'll finally be clean. I'm not complaining." Determined to make the best of the situation, she added, "We've shared lodgings all along the way so far, and you've been a perfect gentleman." She narrowed her eyes at him, but kept her voice light, "You aren't going to suddenly lapse into your old hentai ways, are you, Miroku-sama?"

"No, Kagome-sama," replied the monk in a subdued tone.

"Then nothing more needs to be said," stated the miko firmly.

Miroku was grateful for Kagome's matter-of-fact attitude. Perhaps it is because she's from a different time? It certainly made things simpler. They had all shared quarters during their travels—open rooms with dividing screens. Yet… to share a room with only Kagome seems inappropriate, somehow. Miroku ran agitated fingers through his hair, trying to settle his inner turmoil. It's not so different than setting up camp, is it? The dissonance between common sense and custom made the monk more than a little uncomfortable.

Kagome seemed to be waiting for him to say something, and he blinked and scrambled to carry his end of the conversation. "Do you wish to eat first, or have a bath?"

"Bath, definitely," Kagome said as she plucked at the fabric of her sodden yukata.

"Let me see if I can arrange for that, then," offered the monk, and he made his escape.

Miroku found the lady of the house busy in the steaming kitchen, and inquired genially about baths, laundry, and extra bedding. "I suppose an extra blanket or two wouldn't be amiss in this damp," she clucked as she crossed to a cupboard and began pulling out linens. "I've extra things for the bathhouse too. It's just there," she nodded to a low building across the courtyard. The little woman was brisk and efficient, piling the monk down with blankets, towels, and even simple white robes. "If you stay a few days, send your wife to me, and I'll show her where she can do her laundry," she added.

"Thank you," Miroku murmured as he bowed his way out of the room. Outside the kitchen, the monk leaned against a wooden support, allowing his head to fall back and hit the heavy beam with a small thunk as he tried to sort out the confusion in his heart.

Why is this bothering you so much?

She called Kagome my wife.

Is the thought of Kagome being your wife so terrible?

Yes! No. I mean, it's not that Kagome is objectionable. In fact, she'd make any man a very suitable wife.

Any man?

Well, not just any man. Kagome is kind and strong and honorable and precious; she should belong to someone worthy of her.

Ah. So the problem is not with your miko. It's marriage itself you're opposed to?

Of course not; I was preparing to marry Sango. This is what I dreamed of—having a wife, taking care of her, sharing a life, sharing a bed.

And this is bad, why?

It's not bad. It's good. It's wonderful, but being here with Kagome, going through the motions with another woman—it's not right.

Are you afraid you're betraying Sango's memory?

Perhaps. Yet that would imply that I'm in danger of giving my heart to another. It's not as if I….



Why not?

I won't. I can't. She belongs to another time.

That didn't stop Inuyasha from loving her.

Kagome-sama is leaving. She'll be gone before the first snowfall. She's excited to go home, to return to her family. She doesn't want to stay.

You could ask her to stay.

I can't ask her to do that.

So you're not enjoying this small taste of the life you've been denied?

I don't want to touch something I cannot hold onto.

She doesn't seem to mind.

She doesn't understand.

What? She understands you better than anyone.

I know. That's why this is so awful. She'll know.

Know what?

That I need her.

You don't think she wants to be needed by someone?

Not by me.

So, you're just going to let her go?

I have to.


I already lost Sango. I don't want to lose another woman.

Then hang onto her.

I can't. It would be foolish to become attached in any way, knowing she has to leave.

It's a little late for that, isn't it?

Miroku's inner dialogue rambled its way through his head as he walked slowly down the corridor towards the room he would be sharing with Kagome. He gave a gentle tap on the door before sliding it open and slipping inside. Turning to Kagome, the monk's breath caught in his throat. Far too late.

Kagome, still bespattered with mud, stood in the middle of the room combing her fingers through her unbraided hair, untangling it in preparation for washing. The plaiting had crimped her tresses so that they stood out around her in heavy ripples which fell past her waist. She looked pensive, but when her eyes met Miroku's, Kagome smiled her welcome and moved to take the teetering bundle of cloth from the monk's arms. Miroku cleared his throat so he could speak. "The innkeeper's wife sent these."

While Kagome turned to set the pile on the futon and sort through it, Miroku closed his eyes. This can't be happening… I wasn't looking for this. It was true to some degree, Miroku did feel appreciation, affection, even attraction for the young woman. It doesn't really matter though. Kagome-sama loves Inuyasha, and clings to him still.

The monk looked on soberly as Kagome snatched up a fresh yukata and looked to him expectantly. "Which way to the warm water?" she demanded cheerfully.

Miroku saw the young woman safely to the door of the bathhouse, promising her that he wouldn't wait for her before getting something to eat, then returned to the room to await their dinner. He moved across their quarters to lean his shakujou in the corner, noting the presence of both Tetsusaiga and Inuyasha's rosary on the end of the futon as he did so. I promised Inuyasha I would keep her safe. Miroku groaned inwardly as he struggled with his emotions. Would it even be honorable to pursue this woman? He doubted marriage is what the hanyou had in mind when he'd requested Miroku's protection. What else can I do? I promised to protect her. I promised to bring her home. I'll just have to concentrate on that.

Kagome returned some time later, pink-cheeked and glowing. She had taken the time to wash out her dingy yukata, but explained that her miko garb still needed a thorough soak and scrub. "I hope I can get all the mud out. I can wash your robes too, while I'm at it," she offered.

"I've been doing my own laundry for years, now, Kagome-sama," Miroku reminded her. "There's not need for you to trouble yourself."

Kagome considered him thoughtfully, then insisted more formally. "Please permit this, Miroku-sama. I want to do something for you." When he still hesitated, she teased him gently. "After all, you're not a bachelor anymore. Remember? What would they say about me if you did your own laundry? You'll tarnish my reputation as a good wife."

"I… thank you, Kagome-sama. You are most kind." With that, Miroku left to take his turn in the baths, feeling very much as if he was running away again.

When Miroku returned to the room later, Kagome's empty food tray was stacked atop his beside the door, and she was tucked under the blankets on the futon. He'd already decided to insist that Kagome take the bed for herself, but when he turned from the door to face the room, the young woman was looking up at him expectantly. In the lamplight, her eyes shone in welcome, and the monk wished for a moment that their little masquerade was the truth. To have a wife welcoming me to bed with so much happiness… Miroku shifted uncomfortably under the young woman's gaze. Doesn't she know what she's doing to me? Turning towards the opposite corner of the room, he cleared his throat. "You can take the futon for yourself, Kagome-sama. I'll just…"

Propping herself up on an elbow, her loose braid falling over one shoulder, she didn't let him finish. "Nonsense, Miroku-sama. There's no need to stand guard tonight. This is the first time in days we've had a real bed, and we're both going get a good night's rest."

Miroku looked over the situation with trepidation, and Kagome must have sensed his hesitation, because she smiled up at him and patted the mattress. "Look. I fixed the blankets so we can share the bed."

Sure enough, the extra bedding he'd obtained earlier had been divided to create two separate sleeping areas atop the futon. "I suppose it is… practical," admitted Miroku.

"I'll stay on my side; you'll stay on yours," stated the miko, with just a hint of a warning to her tone.

Miroku relented. "That is very sensible of you, Kagome-sama. Thank you." As he moved to douse the lamp and edged his way under the blankets, he heard Kagome laugh softly.

"I never would have expected to have to coax you into bed with me, Miroku-sama," she said with a teasing lilt. "Usually we had to fend you off, you know?"

Miroku smiled in spite of himself, seeing the humor in the situation. "Yes, well, perhaps all those former experiences you're referring to taught me caution?" he returned pleasantly.

The young woman giggled as she turned away from him, burrowing down under the covers with a happy sigh. "Good night, Miroku-sama."

"Good night, Kagome-sama."

For a while, the monk stared up at the ceiling, but he was relaxed from the bath and weary from the last several days of travel. Turning on his side so Kagome was at his back, he savored the comfort of being warm and dry and allowed the steady rhythm of the autumn rains to lull him to sleep.

At dawn, Miroku was the first to stir, but he was reluctant to leave the shelter of his blankets to face the early morning chill. Steeling himself to face the cold, Miroku tried to quietly ease his way off the futon so he wouldn't disturb Kagome. To his surprise, he couldn't move—something had him pinned down—and after attempting a careful but ineffective tug, the monk turned slightly to see what had him trapped.

He and Kagome were still back to back, but during the course of the night she'd crept closer to him. His blankets and part of his borrowed robe were caught underneath the sleeping miko. As Miroku's drowsiness slipped away, he realized this wasn't all. Shifting his legs slightly, he confirmed the presence of two small feet pressed against his calves. Her feet must have been cold. Miroku smiled to himself and shook his head. I can't believe I've been reduced to a bed warmer. It was so commonplace, so prosaic, so… pleasant. Miroku laid his head back down and settled himself to wait for the young woman to wake. He rather liked sharing this cozy familiarity with Kagome. It was a tiny intimacy, and she wasn't even conscious of it, but this closeness was something Miroku longed to hold onto. I could get used to this.

Later that morning, while Miroku helped Kagome to hang up their newly laundered clothes on a borrowed drying rack, he broached the subject of their continued journey. "Kagome-sama? I know you are anxious to get home to your family, but the rains show little sign of letting up. What do you think of staying here for a bit to wait out the storms? It would be just until the weather clears."

Kagome paused in the act of smoothing creases from the red hakama that were now mud-free and nodded thoughtfully. "I'm not exactly eager to go back out there while the roads are such a mess, and a rest would be nice. I wouldn't mind, Miroku-sama."

For two more days the rains continued without abating, and the two travelers kept much to themselves. They rested, indulging in afternoon naps. Meals appeared at regular intervals, and they visited quietly about inconsequential things while they ate. Kagome talked about her home in the future. Miroku tried to explain to her the training he'd received which led to his greater control over his spiritual powers. Kagome mended little tears in their robes. Miroku added to their purse by creating sutras with blessings for the villagers thereabouts. They monitored their surroundings through the Shikon no Tama, not wishing to bring a youkai attack down upon the village that was sheltering from the storm.

Miroku found more things to appreciate about Kagome, and though he struggled against it, her kindnesses won his growing admiration. He was taken aback at her thoughtfulness towards him as she quietly saw to many little details of his comfort during their stay. She'd made sure the innkeeper's wife knew what his favorite kind of tea was; he hadn't even realized she knew. While he was out peddling talismans and telling fortunes, she inquired after a supplier of ink and was able to pass along the information to him upon his return. Apparently, she'd noticed how little he had left during their stay at Yamataku Shrine and remembered it.

Despite his best efforts to the contrary, the monk was being helplessly drawn to Kagome like a moth to the flame, and he was more than a little worried over the fact. As the miko's skill in meditation increased, Miroku became more guarded. Just because he'd admitted to himself that he had… hopes… regarding Kagome, that didn't mean he was ready for Kagome to find out about them. It's selfish, I know, but I don't want to be alone, and I don't want anyone but Kagome. She understands me; I understand her. I want… I want what I cannot have. All he could do was bury his vain longings and make the most of the next several days. They'd reach Kaede's village in less than two weeks if the weather cooperated. Saying goodbye would be painful enough; she was a dear friend and her absence would mean the return to a rather bleak state of affairs. Letting his heart get involved like this would only make the inevitable parting more wretched. As much as he might wish for it, Miroku couldn't ask her to stay, and he shook his head over the impossibility of this new dilemma.

When the sun rose brightly into clear skies on the third day, Miroku recommended that they stay until tomorrow—to let the roads dry. If he was completely honest, he had to admit he just wanted to put off the journey. It was hardly fair to her, but it was the truth. He wanted to prolong his time with Kagome, even if it was for just one more day.

Kagome skirted another puddle and hurried her steps to catch up with Miroku. She was pleased to be underway again, and even more pleased to be doing so under sunny skies. The air had taken on a noticeable chill, but at least they weren't plodding through the rain anymore. Miroku seems quiet. She considered the monk as he paced along, shakujou jingling rhythmically in time to his steps. He seems preoccupied. Of course, he's always been a thinker, but still…. Something is just a little off with him this morning. Kagome was debating whether or not to ask him about it when she felt something pull at the edge of her senses.

The miko stopped, her head turning sharply towards the northwest. Tensing, she reached out from within to tap Miroku's strength. The monk's head snapped around at this inner touch, surprise written across his face. He doesn't feel it yet? Following the line of her gaze, he squinted into the distance. "What is it, Kagome-sama?"

"Something's coming," she said, a little worried. "Youkai, and a strong one."

"Can you read its intent?" asked Miroku-sama, concerned.

Kagome paused in the act of drawing an arrow from her quiver. "It's definitely homing in on us, but…. Oh!"

Miroku moved towards her protectively, but before he could put himself between Kagome and the demon on a direct course towards them, the two were surrounded by a wild upsurge of wind. Kagome tucked her chin down and squinched her eyes shut against the whirlwind of dust and debris. I know this wind. I know this youki. Opening her eyes, Kagome found that her hands had been captured, lightly held in the grasp of an enthusiastic, blue-eyed, dark-haired youkai. "Kagome! How's my w—"

The Shikon no Tama's reaction to Kouga's grip on its protector was immediate and violent. With a crackle that raised the hairs on Kagome's arms, the swell and pulse of her spiritual powers hurled Kouga backwards, and he yipped like a kicked dog. Kagome gasped in horror, running to the wolf demon's prone form and dropping to her knees. The air held the singed smell of burnt hair, and the miko was desperately afraid that she'd just killed a good friend. Oh, that was not good. Bad Jewel, she scolded nonsensically in her head. "Kouga-kun? Kouga-kun, are you all right?"

The youkai was spread-eagled on the ground, and the hair on his tail stood out like a bottlebrush. He was panting slightly, and as Kagome leaned over him, he goggled at her in stunned disbelief. "Ka-Kagome?"

"Oh, Kouga-kun! I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to… I mean, the Jewel, and…" Kagome was mortified. She hovered over her friend, but hesitated to touch him in case she really did purify him this time. With a frantic look towards a very bemused Miroku, she asked, "Do you think it's safe, Miroku-sama?"

"Perhaps that was just a warning of sorts, Kagome-sama? The Shikon no Tama could have purified him, but didn't," the monk suggested, stifling the urge to snicker into his sleeve.

Kouga rose stiffly to his feet, running his hand uncertainly through his long hair to dislodge the debris his tumble had left there. "That was some welcome, Kagome," the wolf commented with a wry shake of his head.

I really am sorry, Kouga-kun. It wasn't intentional. Apparently, the Jewel is wary of youkai. Are you hurt?"

"Nothing I can't handle," he said, with a dismissive wave of his clawed hand. Stepping closer to her, but this time keeping his hands to himself, he peered intently into Kagome's widening eyes. "So, how's my woman?"

"Oh! Well. That is…." Kagome fumbled for something to say. "So… where's the rest of your pack?" she inquired, glancing around as if expecting Hakkaku and Ginta to pop out of the underbrush.

"Oh, they'll be along eventually," Kouga shrugged carelessly, flashing a roguish fang.

Miroku chose this moment to assert himself by casually stepping between Kagome and the youkai. "Welcome, Kouga-sama. It's good to see you again. What brings you to these parts?"

Kouga was forced to step back a pace and appeared to notice Miroku for the first time. He studied the man with clear, blue eyes while crossing his arms casually across his armored chest. "I came to see what had happened to my woman. Kagome's been missing for a long time, so when I caught her scent…" He trailed off, the rest self-explanatory, and turned serious eyes again to the young woman. "Are you okay, Kagome? I heard about Mutt-face and what happened."

Miroku bristled at the youkai's offhand reference to his deceased friend, but Kagome chose to ignore what had become more of a nickname than an insult. "Yeah," she said, wavering slightly. "It was bad." Unconsciously, her hand slipped into the fold of her waistband, fingers sliding gently over the smooth surface of Inuyasha's beads.

Kouga glanced speculatively between the monk and miko, eyes lingering for several moments on Tetsusaiga's hilt rising above Kagome's shoulder. "Just the two of you left then?"

Kagome nodded and swallowed. "Shippo-kun's back with Kaede-sama, but yes, we're the only ones…" She trailed off, as her throat closed up on her.

The wolf youkai considered her seriously for a moment and took a step closer. "You can travel with my pack if you like; you'd be safe with us. You know they already consider you family."

"I know," said Kagome quietly, eyes downcast.

Uneasy with the tears that were now threatening, Kouga looked to the monk. "So, where are you two headed?"

"We've several more days' journey in this direction," Miroku said, pointing with a thrust of his shakujou.

"Well," returned the youkai cheerfully, "As it happens, I'm headed that way myself. I think I'll keep you company for a bit."

"That'd be nice, Kouga-kun," said Kagome, pulling herself together with a small smile. She set off again by the wolf youkai's side, Miroku trailing in their wake.

After so many months isolated from all her friends, it really was a pleasure to see Kouga again. Kagome was enjoying the chance to catch up—or rather, she was trying to. This would be much more pleasant if Kouga didn't stand quite so close. The miko laughed lightly over some comment the wolf made, trying to nonchalantly edge away from him at the same time. I don't think I ever noticed how very… masculine Kouga is. Frankly, Kagome had never paid him much attention since her heart already belonged to Inuyasha, but it was hard to ignore the wolf who was trying so hard to catch her eye and make her smile. Perhaps she'd taken Kouga somewhat for granted? I suppose he's actually very handsome, she mused distractedly.

Kagome glanced up through her eyelashes at her companion as he talked. He hasn't changed, really. Kouga's tall, muscular form was still clad in an eclectic array of armor and fur. The pelts left much of the wolf youkai's skin exposed, and he was deeply tanned. At that moment, Kouga looked down into Kagome's face and smiled knowingly. Caught, Kagome flushed. It was very unnerving to have those ardent blue eyes fixed on hers without the distraction of Inuyasha's threats to break the tension. Her thoughts inexorably turned to her much-missed hanyou. He wouldn't stand for all this flirting, she realized with a this time, wolf and dog would have been happily tearing into one another, trading insults and testing their limits. Inuyasha's gone now. I've lost my defender, my protector, and now I'm all alone. Well… not really alone. Kagome let her gaze drift back towards Miroku. He seemed tense, jaw clenched and knuckles white around his shakujou. Is he upset about something?

Kouga made for a gregarious addition to their traveling party. He's nearly as good a storyteller as Miroku, Kagome decided, for the day and the distance had passed quickly, and it was already time to set up camp for the night. Miroku made preparations for a fire, and Kouga offered to hunt for them. "That would be wonderful, Kouga-kun," she smiled, and the wolf beamed at her.

"Anything for my woman," he replied affably. Kagome threw a sharp glance at Miroku over the youkai's shoulder when the monk emitted an audible sigh. Did he just roll his eyes?

Kouga stepped close and cautiously gathered Kagome's hands up in his own. Thank goodness there's no zap this time. Flustered by his proximity, Kagome dropped her eyes to consider the hands holding her own instead. Kouga's were large and rough. Slipping one of her comparatively tiny hands free, she gently touched one of his claws. They're so much like Inuyasha's claws. She ran the tip of one finger along an edge, tracing it to the point. Kagome sighed. The wolf youkai reminded her quite a bit of her hanyou. They're both so brash and confident, possessive and protective. If nothing else, Kouga was definitely a loyal suitor; his declarations of undying love were a familiar refrain over the last few years of shard-collecting.

The wolf seemed pleased by the way Kagome was absentmindedly toying with his fingers, and leaned in close to the miko's ear. She jumped slightly when his breath tickled the fine hairs, and in words barely more than a whisper, Kouga made his intentions clear. "I still want you for my woman, Kagome. I'll take care of you if you'll let me. Think about it, hmm?"

Later that night, Kouga sat back to watch with interest as Miroku prepared to assist Kagome in using the Shikon no Tama to survey the area. It was a part of each evening's routine, and Kagome was loathe to diverge from the pattern, even with an audience. "You don't need to do that, you know," Kouga offered. "I'm here. I'll know if anything's coming."

"I know that, Kouga-kun, but I am the protector of the Shikon no Tama—it's my responsibility. I need to see for myself if there's any danger," explained the miko.

"So, what's he doing then?" asked the wolf curiously, flicking a claw towards the monk who was seating himself beside her.

"Miroku-sama helps me. He lends me his strength and sharpens my focus," Kagome said with a smile as she gave a little shrug. "I need him," she summed up.

Turning to Miroku, she blinked at the odd expression on his face. Did I say something wrong? "Ready, Miroku-sama?" she asked politely.

"Yes, of course, Kagome-sama," replied the monk, and their eyes closed as the shimmer of power filled the air between them.

Miroku was decidedly disgruntled. He didn't like Kouga butting in like this, monopolizing Kagome's attention and turning on the charm. Two whole days now. Two days of watching Kouga pursue Kagome. Not that the wolf's protestations of love and offers of protection were anything new. He just hadn't gotten very far with his courtship in the past because Inuyasha always jumped in and drove him off. I may be Kagome's protector, but I can't really speak for her. Miroku sighed and shifted his grip on his shakujou, trying to relax. It wasn't just the wolf either; Kagome's reaction to Kouga's attentions was frustrating. While she wasn't encouraging the wolf, she wasn't exactly discouraging him either. She was her usual friendly self, but her blushes bothered Miroku more than he cared to admit. Is she truly attracted to the youkai?

Miroku's mind supplied several things he'd really like to say to Kouga at the moment, and it occurred to him that the voice in his head was beginning to sound very much like a certain possessive hanyou. The monk leveled an annoyed glare at the back of the wolf's head and embraced the fellow feeling he had for Inuyasha at the moment. Kouga was walking much too close to Kagome, and whenever his tail brushed against the back of her hakama, Miroku had to squelch the impulse to tear it out with his bare hands. Anger and jealousy warred within him, causing his stomach to twist sickeningly. Surely she won't fall for the wolf's heavy-handed flattery? She wouldn't stay for Kouga… would she?

The monk was attempting to manfully set aside his own growing attraction for the young woman so that he could see her safely home. It's the right thing to do. It's the promise I made to her. I gave my word. It had never occurred to Miroku that Kagome would even consider staying in their era. If she did, it wouldn't be for the wolf, would it? If she were to give up her whole life in the future for anyone—if there was even a small chance that she would—couldn't it be for me? Maybe I should tell her after all, let her know she has another option… let her know there's someone else willing to take care of her. Miroku gave Kagome a worried look, trying to gauge the level of attachment she felt towards the wolf. She wouldn't. She couldn't.

That night, Kagome dropped off quickly, sound asleep under the pile of blankets that were sure to be a tumbled mess by morning. Miroku sat with his back against a tree, staff balanced over his shoulder. Kouga lounged across from him, and in the darkening night the two males sized each other up. Miroku broached the subject. "I am bringing her back to her home—to her family, Kouga-sama."

Kouga grunted. "That doesn't necessarily mean she'll refuse my offer," he said with a cocky grin.

Miroku sighed and tried to make the stubborn wolf see sense. "Think of Kagome-sama's feelings. She's lost everything; don't ask her to give up her family too. Let her go home. She's not ready to consider your proposal so soon after Inuyasha's death."

Kouga-sama smirked at the monk. "Oh really—and what makes you such an expert on Kagome's feelings?"

"I know Kagome-sama very well, and I made a promise to Inuyasha to keep her safe. She's my responsibility."

"So you're the new guard dog, eh, monk?" rejoined the wolf. "Want to fight me for her?"

So, he won't listen to an appeal to Kagome's feelings. What will make this youkai back down? Ah. I do have something I can use to my advantage. Miroku smoothly dropped his ace in the hole. "I am her protector. I was designated as such by the head of her pack."

Kouga leaned forward. "Her pack?" His eyes narrowed at the implications of this. "What do you mean, monk?"

"Oh!" breezed the monk offhandedly. "I thought maybe you'd heard. Inuyasha declared her as his intended mate just before he died, so Sesshoumaru-sama brought her under his protection. She's part of his pack now."

Kouga's eyes widened, and Miroku mentally patted himself on the back. "If you intend to pursue Kagome-sama, I'm sure Sesshoumaru-sama would like to hear of your intentions firsthand." By now, the wolf's tail had developed a decided tick. Thank goodness for pack hierarchies. Miroku's eyes took on the twinkle of a man who knew he had the upper hand. "I applied to him myself, you know. I'm with Kagome-sama on Sesshoumaru-sama's personal approval. She doesn't need another protector, Kouga-sama. I'm here."

Kouga thought for a minute. "You're just her guardian, though. I am offering to be her mate."

"Ah, but she is the Shikon Miko. She has duties to the Shikon no Tama, so she can't just run with your pack. In fact, the Jewel's presence among you would effectively endanger your pack because there will always be those who seek its power." Masking a wicked gleam behind an incredulous expression, Miroku twisted his own words. "Unless… Are you hoping to use the power of the Shikon no Tama for yourself or your pack? Would you really take advantage of Kagome-sama that way?" He shook his head and spared a pitying look for the blissfully slumbering miko.

Kouga drew back, offended. "No. No! That's not why…"

Miroku carried on smoothly, ignoring the wolf's protestations. "What a shame. Kagome-sama would be so disappointed if she knew you had ulterior motives in courting her favor."

"I… No… She… Now look here…" Folding his arms and clamping his jaws tight shut, Kouga ended the discussion by stubbornly refusing to continue. The monk said his goodnight cordially, hiding his glint of triumph. As Miroku settled amongst his blankets, he smirked at the occasional gruff mumble emanating from the youkai. I do believe the tables have turned.

The very next morning, Kagome stopped in the middle of the path they'd been following since daybreak. "There's a group of youkai approaching," she announced, gazing off to the east through the density of the surrounding forest.

"Is it Kouga-sama's pack?" Miroku asked.

Kouga looked surprised by his speculation. "No. They're in the north right now, so it can't be my pack." The youkai lifted his head and scented the wind, releasing a low growl as he did so. "Weasels. It's just a bunch of vermin," Kouga scowled as he moved into a battle stance, crouching low in front of them, his claws extending.

Meanwhile, Miroku moved calmly to Kagome's side. Bracing his shakujou in the crook of his arm, he stepped behind the miko and rested his hands lightly on her shoulders. In passing, the monk spared a thought to wonder about the appearance of Kouga's true form. There is a definite feral look to that coiled wolf-youkai. Dismissing his curiosity for later consideration, he gave Kagome his full attention. Leaning over her shoulder, he began to talk softly to her. Pitching his voice low, he spoke reassuringly to her, letting her know he had confidence in her ability to protect them all. "Are you ready, Kagome-sama?"

The miko leaned back into him, drawing strength from his calm presence and their contact. "Yes, Miroku-sama," she assured him, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. "They're almost here."

The monk gave her shoulders a pat. "Do you remember how you directed your attack against the boar youkai? We need to focus the Jewel's power in that way," he advised. "If you send out a burst in every direction, I'm afraid Kouga-sama might be injured."

"Yes, of course," Kagome murmured, then spoke up. "Kouga-kun? You might want to get out of the way," she called.

At her words, Kouga cast a look over his shoulder at the two humans he was attempting to protect. Miroku admitted to feeling a small surge of satisfaction when the wolf's mouth fell open comically at the sight of the shining aura of the Shikon no Tama, which was already flowing rapidly outwards in response to the approaching threat. Shimmering, potent energy suffused the monk and miko and Kouga hastily withdrew to a safe distance. Good. He's no fool. He's already had a taste of what Kagome's powers of purification can do. Miroku watched as Kouga reset himself behind them and off to one side. The wolf stood at the ready, guardedly shifting his eyes between the tree line that hid their oncoming foe and Kagome.

The weasels did not attack all at once, instead using the surrounding woods to cover their approach as they slunk closer. Miroku could see the youkai slipping stealthily though the underbrush, darting from one tree to the next, and caught glimpses of gray fur and glowing eyes. Sharp teeth protruded from narrow muzzles, and the click of snapping jaws began to fill the air around them. They're trying to encircle us. "It's time, Kagome-sama," he whispered gently.

The miko opened her eyes and stretched out her hands before her, tensing when one of the weasel youkai launched itself at them. With an inner prompt, Miroku helped her shape a pulse of purifying energy, neatly disintegrating their attacker. The weasels caught on quickly, and altered their strategy to confuse their prey. Soon, decoys feinted across the edge of the forest, distracting Kagome from the approach of the enemy on her blind side. Kouga quickly moved to guard their backs, pouncing on the encroaching weasels with a snarl. One weasel had its neck snapped with a sharp twist of the wolf's hands, and another was dispatched with a swipe of his claws.

Miroku couldn't understand why the weasels persisted in their attack, as one after the other their ranks were decimated, yet they continued to come, perhaps driven senseless by their greed for power. Kagome persevered against the onslaught, mouth tightly pressed in a line of concentration. Burst after burst erupted from her outthrust hands, and eventually all the youkai were vanquished. "Well done, Kagome-sama," complimented Miroku, giving her arms a quick squeeze before stepping back.

"Yeah, Kagome, you're a real force to be reckoned with. Remind me never to get on your bad side," the wolf youkai drawled. Kouga's words were casual, but Miroku didn't miss the grudging respect in his gaze. Good. He's seen that she can take care of herself.

The following day found Kagome kneeling in the middle of a wide stream. She was glad she'd been able to wait until the warmest part of the afternoon to take her bath, because the water was extremely cold. Though the temperature had her gasping, it felt good to get clean. As soon as they'd come across the welcome resource, Miroku decided to call it a day quite early and make camp. Kouga offered to hunt for them again, and Kagome was looking forward to a little roast meat for dinner. Inuyasha always brought back a couple of rabbits at the end of the day.

Shaking herself slightly, Kagome returned her concentration to her ablutions. It really is time to wash my hair. Vigorously scrubbing her scalp in the swift moving water, Kagome smiled to herself. At least I don't have to worry about peeping monks. At this thought her hands stilled for a moment. Why is that? Resuming her scrubbing she thought it through. It's kind of odd. Well, maybe it isn't, all things considered. Miroku hadn't flirted with her, propositioned her, groped her, or peeped at her once in all the time they'd been together—just a little teasing now and then. Not that I mind, she firmly insisted. It's just so… out of character.

The monk had been playful about his hentai ways, almost as if he was acting a part. He'd always been a bit of a paradox. He was trustworthy, but not entirely honest; he was flirtatious, but completely faithful. Miroku-sama was supposed to be a pervert—that's just the role he'd always filled. After he and Sango had come to an understanding, the monk had settled down considerably. Now, Miroku is always serious. She supposed he was still just grieving over Sango. Of course he isn't flirting with anyone—let alone me—when he's recently lost the love of his life.

Her thoughts turned to the handsome wolf youkai. Now, Kouga is the one to watch out for. He's courting 'his woman' and doesn't see any reason to not flirt shamelessly in the process. His heated gazes and earnest promises should be enough to turn any girl's head. Kouga was unapologetically confident, forward, and single-minded in his pursuit. He may not have wandering hands, but it had not escaped her notice that on more than one occasion, Kouga had flicked his tail so that it brushed against her hip. As a matter of fact, it rather reminded her of the way Miroku used to be, with that wicked twinkle in his eye when he'd managed to slip a double entendre into the conversation… or when his hand would just graze your thigh as he walked past, so you couldn't be quite sure if it was an accident or not… or the way he'd laugh cheerfully when he'd been slapped, letting you know that the pain was worth the fleeting moment of pleasure. Kagome paused in her thoughts. Wait a minute. Wasn't I thinking about Kouga just now? She tried to trace her train of thought backwards to see how it had diverted to Miroku.

At least the two aren't fighting over me like Inuyasha and Kouga always did. That gave her pause. I wonder? Which one would I choose if I had to—Kouga or Miroku? The wolf youkai was attractive, attentive, and very attached to her; he wanted her and made no effort to hide it. Kouga's youki was one of the strongest she was familiar with; there was no denying her wolf friend was powerful. He could do a lot to protect her and the Shikon no Tama, especially with the aid of his pack. I do like Kouga.

Her thoughts then turned to Miroku. They'd been friends for years, and she figured after everything that had happened, he knew her better than anyone else in this era. Her mind wandered over the incidents of the past few weeks. He'd come to get her and bring her home, calmed her fears, and promised to protect her. She'd been permitted to explore him quite intimately through the Shikon no Tama, and he'd willingly lent her his strength and aid in keeping the Jewel safe. Miroku was always with her, teaching and teasing, reaching and remembering, coaching and caring. I suppose if it came down to it, I'd have to choose Miroku. Kouga has his pack, but Miroku is like me… alone. I think maybe he needs me more. She shrugged to herself. It isn't a very good reason, I guess, but it's a reason.

Kagome settled back on her haunches and sent her senses outward. Miroku was indeed in the camp, seemingly lost in morose thoughts. He responded her touch though, and she felt his attention bend her way with concern. She tried to reassure him, not wanting to bring him hurrying to her side, what with her current state of dishabille. I'm fine. Just checking, she tried to telegraph. The flash of amusement through his aura made her giggle. She could almost hear his response. Making sure I'm not peeping? Kouga was farther afield, but heading in their direction. That might mean dinner will be here soon… I'd better finish up and get back into my clothes. Miroku could have his turn at the stream while she cooked dinner.

Miroku was still having his bath and Kouga was crouched beside the fire, eyeing Kagome over the skewers of roasting meat she was rotating. "You're not going to come with me, are you?" he asked suddenly, though his question was more of a statement.

"Um…What?" asked Kagome, startled by his abrupt demand.

"My pack… you're not planning to put yourself under my protection, are you?"

"No, Kouga-kun… I'm not," Kagome replied softly as she gave the last of the skewers a quick turn and stood.

Kouga poked with a stick in the fire for a few minutes, then tossed it in before answering, "I see. I think I'll be on my way in the morning then." He rose to his feet and stepped closer to the young woman, looking at her with wistful longing, "If you change your mind, Kagome, I still want you to be my woman."

Kagome gulped at Kouga's proximity and tried to collect her thoughts, "Erm… well… I don't think…" she faltered.

With a little huff of frustration, Kouga wound one arm around Kagome's shoulder, pulling her close to his side. He was warm and smoky from the fire, and the young woman blushed to find herself pressed against fur and leather and tanned skin. The Shikon no Tama sparked at Kouga's sudden intrusion into Kagome's personal space, but she fought down her nervous reaction so her friend wouldn't get zapped again. The wolf youkai buried his nose in her hair for a moment, breathing in deeply before releasing his breath as a sigh. "Don't worry, Kagome. I think I understand." With that he stepped back, chucked her under the chin, and winked, dispelling the tension that had built up between them.

Relieved, she granted her would-be suitor a small, but appreciative smile. "Thank you, Kouga-kun."

Miroku stepped back into the camp then, scrutinizing the pair alertly. It looked as though the monk had hurried back, and Kagome wondered if he'd felt her discomfort through the Jewel. "Something smells good, Kagome-sama," he declared evenly. Attention redirected to the forgotten skewers of meat, she scurried to the fire to turn them before they had a chance to scorch on one side. Miroku narrowed his eyes at Kouga, but the wolf only smirked and moved to reclaim his seat.

When Miroku and Kagome woke the next morning, the wolf youkai had already gone.


A InuYasha Story
by forthright

Part 4 of 8

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