Continuing Tales


A InuYasha Story
by forthright

Part 5 of 8

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Snow had finally fallen the night before—just a dusting, but enough to make winter's arrival undeniable. The rutted road they now traveled was one Kagome's feet knew well, for after a weary week of walking, she and Miroku were finally in familiar territory. The young woman smiled in happy recognition as they passed an unmistakable outcropping of rock, a distinctive tree, a well-known bend in the road. Unconsciously, she quickened her pace in anticipation, and Miroku cleared his throat lightly to catch her attention. "Do you wish to run the rest of the way, Kagome-sama?" he asked, a teasing sparkle in his eyes.

With a soft laugh, Kagome slowed her steps to match Miroku's, but replied unapologetically, "It's just that we're so close, I can almost feel it!" Oh! That's right! I should be able to feel it. Coming to a sudden halt, the miko reached out with her senses, and Miroku paused to watch over her efforts, having felt her light inner touch. In moments, the village lay before her mind's eye. Kagome sifted through the bustling inhabitants, then let her consciousness spring beyond to where the Bone Eater's Well unerringly called to her. The portal throbbed with old power, pulsating in her mind's eye with the familiar cerulean light of her passage between eras. Goshinboku was also a tangible presence on that distant landscape, and beside the tree she found a spark of life… one she knew quite well.

Shippo's busy brightness shone in his adopted mother's sight—the brilliant blue of foxfire, with folds of jade green rippling through it, echoing the vivid hue of his eyes. Kagome touched his aura gently with her own, curious to see if he would recognize her; the kitsune's youki drew up defensively, and then he was in motion. Tracing his path with her senses, Kagome realized he was racing headlong in their direction, and her heart clenched in a swift paroxysm of happiness. For a moment, she worried at his recklessness in leaving the village unescorted, but a quick sweep found no threats standing between them. "He's coming. Shippo's coming," she murmured to Miroku. After an introspective pause, she commented, "I think he's gotten faster."

Three years ago, when he had first joined their party, he'd been little more than an armful. The orphaned kit had called out to her maternal instincts with his diminutive features—tiny hands, puffed tail, fox paws, and wide, trusting eyes. Kagome wasn't quite sure how youkai aged, nor how old Shippo was in actual years. Sango had said that as he grew, the kitsune would gain greater control over his youkai abilities—senses, transformations, attacks, illusions—but all that had really mattered when they'd met was that he was very young and needed her. In truth, Shippo wasn't exactly helpless, what with his small bursts of foxfire and sharp little fangs and claws. Kagome supposed that Shippo could have hurt her right from the start if he'd tried, but the boy had been homeless, lonesome, and dejected. With an innocent acceptance that mirrored her own, he'd clung to the miko, basking wholeheartedly in the affectionate security Kagome provided. Not a night went by that Shippo wasn't curled against her side; they'd never been apart for more than a few days at a time, and her arms ached to hold him again.

Miroku pulled Kagome from her thoughts with a light laugh. "Brace yourself, Kagome-sama," he warned.

Sure enough, running headlong up the road was a russet blur. "Kagome! Okaasan!" yelled the fox youkai as he flung himself up into her arms.

Kagome didn't even try to hold back the tears that came to her eyes as Shippo tightened his arms around her. He clung desperately, nuzzling his face into her neck as if trying to memorize her scent. The kit's cheeks were wet with tears, and he kept repeating, "You came back… you came back… you came back," in a disjointed mumble.

After a bit, she settled him more comfortably in her arms, and Kagome felt Shippo wrap his legs around her waist. She began stroking her fingers through his hair, trying to reassure him of her presence. "Yes, I'm back. I came back to you, Shippo-kun. Miroku-sama brought me home," she soothed.

Shippo pulled back at this, and gazed seriously into Kagome's face. "Of course he did. I sent him." Turning to look at Miroku, the kit addressed the monk importantly. "You did good, Miroku. Thank you. I kept the village safe, just like I said I would."

"I thank you, Shippo," Miroku returned with equal gravity.

Meanwhile, Kagome examined the kitsune in her arms. Some six months had passed, and the boy had changed a good deal. The increased speed he'd just displayed was only one hint that Shippo had begun to grow into his youkai heritage. Growth spurt? "Look at you!" Kagome exclaimed wonderingly.

The miko ran the tip of one finger up to the point of Shippo's elfin ear before cupping his flushed cheek. He'd lost some of the babyish fullness in his face, and Kagome thought she caught a glimpse of the handsome young man he would eventually become. She lifted him up and away from her, holding him overhead as he grinned down into her face, then set him down to stand before her. Shippo pulled himself to his fullest height, puffing out his chest slightly as his adoptive mother inspected him. When they'd met, the kit had barely reached her knee. Now, his topknot came to her hip. He was still small enough for her to lift easily, but Kagome couldn't help but feel that 'her boy' had been growing up without her.

Shippo's tail was no longer a furry bush tufting out of the seat of his pants. It had lengthened, sweeping sleekly towards the ground, but even more startling were his feet. Apparently, the boy had gained sufficient mastery over his youki to maintain a fully humanoid appearance, and the small feet peeking out below his hakama looked like any child's might, tipped though they were by sharp claw points. No little fox paws, Kagome realized with a pang. Shippo stood barefoot in the snow, heedless of the cold, and Kagome was reminded in passing of Inuyasha. He wouldn't wear shoes either.

"Shall we continue homeward?" invited Miroku, gesturing with his shakujou in that direction. The three fell in step together, Shippo walking between the two humans.

"You were at Goshinboku when I reached out to you. How did you know it was me?" asked Kagome curiously.

Shippo looked at her blankly for a moment. "Why wouldn't I know it was you? You're my Okaasan," he stated unequivocally. "Besides," he continued. "Once I knew where to look, I realized I could smell you. You were upwind."

"Your range has improved, Shippo-kun," Miroku complimented.

"Yeah," replied the pleased kit with a fanged grin.

As they neared the village outskirts, Kagome hesitated. "Would it be all right if we went to Goshinboku first?" she asked slowly.

"Yes, of course, Kagome-sama," assured Miroku, easing her off the main road with a hand under her elbow. "Let's see if we can't get you there without drawing attention to ourselves, shall we?"

Shippo served as pathfinder, guiding them through the underbrush. Miroku held back branches and steadied Kagome over the various obstacles they met. Before long, they broke through the tree line and into the familiar clearing. Goshinboku—the tree stood in the backdrop of every major event in Kagome's life, no matter what era she was in. At first, she lingered on the edge of the forest, eyes following the line of the trunk upwards to the interwoven network of branches that spread out overhead, now bare of leaves. The sky beyond was steely, the threat of snow carried on bitter spates of wind. Shivering, she let her eyes fall to the stone markers at the tree's base. Shippo was already there, rearranging the little pyramid of pinecones he'd brought earlier. Laying aside her pack, quiver, and the sword, the miko moved to join him. The kitsune looked up into Kagome's face as she came even with the tree, then stepped quietly back and hurried to Miroku's side, where he was boosted to his favorite perch on the monk's shoulders.

Kagome dropped to her knees before the three stones. Memories from that dreadful night poured into her mind, but she thrust them aside, reaching desperately for kinder recollections—ones that did not suffer and bleed and die all over again. Slowly she reached out to gently touch the mound of pinecones Shippo had left. How many days has Shippo spent in lonely vigil over these graves? She brushed her fingers against Kirara's marker. Such a good friend. With a hand that had begun to tremble, Kagome moved on to the stone bearing Sango's name. My confidant. My sister. Tears rolled quietly down the miko's cheeks, and she gave a shuddering sigh of regret. I miss you so much, Sango.

Turning her head slightly, she looked at the last of the three markers. She scooted closer to it, then lifted her hand to the cold stone. With tentative fingers, she traced Inuyasha's name, melting the frost trapped in the crevices of each carved line with her repetitive strokes. Inuyasha. Images flooded her memory—warm golden eyes, rough red fabric, thick silver hair, strong clawed hands. Inuyasha… my beloved protector. Thoughts of their almost-happily-ever-after brought a keening cry from the depths of her soul, and Kagome collapsed into sobs. In a moment, she was surrounded, her son and her friend pulling her up off the ground with a muddle of comforting words and sounds.

When the miko was finally able to think coherently, she found herself in a kind of group hug. She'd been pulled into Miroku's embrace, where she'd curled like a child seeking comfort. Shippo was stationed on her lap, burrowing close in an effort to console his mother. All three had tears on their cheeks. Kagome sniffled a little and laughed weakly over their tangled positions, then got to her feet with a little boost from Miroku. "Let's go back to Kaede's…I'm ready to see her now," she decided.

Miroku and Shippo flanked her as they made their way down the path towards the old miko's hut. Kaede welcomed them, giving the young woman a long hug and an even longer look before motioning her to her old seat by the fire. Kagome felt drained, and was relieved when Miroku took up the task of recounting a few highlights of their journey. She focused instead on the warm bowl of vegetable stew that was pressed into her hands, then looked longingly towards the pallet in the corner. Though it was only the middle of the afternoon, she excused herself to lie down, and soon felt the tickle of fur as Shippo joined her under the pile of blankets. With the crackle of the fire and the quiet tones of Miroku's story in the background, the miko relaxed and pulled her kit close. Physically and emotionally exhausted, she soon drifted off to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning found Shippo pressed against Kagome's side as he ate his porridge. Observing the kitsune's possessive behavior concerned Miroku. Now that he's got her back, he won't want to let her go. The monk was just trying to think of a way to warn Kagome that she would need to gently break the news of her plans to the boy when Shippo's next question preempted his scheme. "What are we going to do today, Kagome?" the kitsune asked cheerfully.

Kagome gave a little smile and answered truthfully, "I was planning to go back through the well today, Shippo."

The kit paused, a spoonful of breakfast halfway to his mouth. Hurt and disbelief were plain on his expressive face. "You're… You're going away again?"

Kagome obviously hadn't been prepared for this reaction, and sat stunned as Shippo clenched his fists and bit his lip to stop its trembling. Tears welled up and he wailed, "You just got here! I don't want you to go away again. You just came back. Don't leave me!" With a whimper he pushed his breakfast aside and climbed into her lap, small claws catching into the miko's hair and clothes.

Aghast at Shippo's teary outburst and heartsore that she hadn't anticipated it, Kagome raised pleading eyes to Kaede and Miroku. The monk rose smoothly from his seat and came around to her side to lend his aide. Gently disentangling the sobbing kit from Kagome's robes and gathering him up into his arms, Miroku carried him to the other side of the hut. Sliding down in the corner, he arranged the kit into a more comfortable position in his lap, held him close, and began speaking in a low voice, desperately hoping Shippo would listen to reason.

"I know you don't want to say goodbye to Kagome-sama already, Shippo," Miroku soothed. When the kit nodded, Miroku continued softly. "Kagome-sama hasn't been to see you in months, and we just got back. She's your beloved Okaasan, and you've missed her."

Shippo's crying slowed to sniffling, and he nodded again as he looked up into Miroku's face. "I want her to stay," he whispered.

So do I, the monk thought with an ache. "Shippo, we have to remember that Kagome-sama hasn't been to her home for even longer. She misses her Okaasan."

At this, the kit looked surprised. He wiped his nose on his sleeve as he turned the idea over in his mind. Miroku continued gently. "She has her little brother and her mother and her grandfather back in her time. They don't even know what's happened. Kagome-sama has to tell them about Naraku and the Jewel and about Inuyasha and Sango."

"And Kirara," added the kit with a hiccoughing sigh.

"Yes, and Kirara," agreed the monk gently.

Shippo squirmed uncomfortably for a bit before reluctantly admitting, "They must be worried."

Miroku patted the boy on his head, proud of the kit's willingness to see things from another's perspective. "I'm sure they have been very worried about Kagome-sama. She needs to go to tell them she's safe."

"She can tell them that she's safe with us! That we'll protect her now, even though Inuyasha is gone?" added Shippo hopefully.

Miroku hesitated, "Well, I…"

He was rescued from answering when Kagome came over and knelt beside them. She wrapped her arms around Shippo's slender shoulders, hugging tightly. "Please try to understand, Shippo-kun? I need to go."

The kitsune nodded reluctantly, "Just for a little while, though. Right?"

Kagome's brows drew together uncertainly. "I hadn't really thought about…"

Shippo hurried on, not letting the young woman finish her thought, "If I let you go, will you promise to come back? Promise?"

Miroku looked on as the boy gazed pleadingly up into Kagome's eyes. This isn't a clever kitsune wheedling for candy; this is a desperate boy afraid to lose the mother he loves. Shippo turned and climbed from Miroku's lap into Kagome's, tucking his head under her chin and nuzzling close with tiny whimpers. The monk could see Kagome weakening and decided to give Shippo some support. With a guileless tilt of his head, Miroku dared to admit his own feelings on the matter. "Shippo is not alone, Kagome-sama; I would miss you as well. Perhaps if we knew you were coming back, it would make this parting a little easier for your kit?"

Shippo's eyes immediately brightened with hope. "Yes, Okaasan. Promise me? Will you come back real soon? I'll wait for you by the well!"

Kagome was helpless to withstand their united front, and hugging Shippo close, gave her word that she would return. "I will come back to see you, though I don't know when—so don't wait by the well, Shippo-kun. If you're here, I'll find you." Satisfied, Shippo helped Kagome to gather up her few things, and Miroku collected his staff from the corner to escort her back to the Bone Eater's Well.

When they reached low wooden structure, Miroku stepped forward to gather Kagome's hands into his own. It was a familiar clasp—one that in times past would have been followed by a half-jesting proposition. Miroku didn't speak the old phrase, though. Instead, he held Kagome's gaze wordlessly, running his thumbs gently over her knuckles. He was searching for something in her eyes, for some sign that his hopes were not in vain. Kagome looked up at him expectantly, her expression communicating only surprise and curiosity. There was no hint of awareness or attraction in their warm grey depths. She said she needed me, and I suppose she does. I am her ally and her friend, but she doesn't need me in the same way I need her. Not yet, at least. "Your presence is cherished, and will be missed, Kagome-sama." Resigned to wait, Miroku released her hands and stepped back with a sad little smile, allowing Shippo to claim another fierce hug.

Kagome hesitated just before climbing onto the lip of the well. Looking back over her shoulder, she met the monk's eyes again and whispered, "Thank you, Miroku-sama."

He could not help himself. With billowing robes and hurried steps, he closed the distance and wrapped his arms around her from behind, quiver and all, mindful of where his hands came to rest. I don't want her to go any more than Shippo does. She will be so far out of my reach. I wish I could make her want to stay with me. He bent over her shoulder until his cheek brushed against hers. With a surge, he flung his aura around her, embracing her as possessively with it as with his arms. In an emotion-choked voice, he hoarsely whispered in her ear, "We will wait for you, Kagome-sama."

Kagome gasped and raised one hand to lightly touch the top of the monk's head. "Miroku-sama?" she queried uncertainly. Miroku could feel the confusion and concern whispering through her aura and berated himself for acting so rashly. The monk clung for just a moment longer before relinquishing his hold. Stepping back, he met the miko's wide eyes with a smile that trembled around the edges. Gazing from the young man to her kit and back again, Kagome tried to give them what comfort she could. "I'll come back. I promise." Miroku nodded and moved to stand beside Shippo again as the girl from the future disappeared from sight.

The kit ran to the edge of the well as the blue light faded and gazed down into the empty shaft. "I wish we could go with her," he said mournfully.

"I don't think either of us would fit into Kagome-sama's time very well," replied the monk, looking over Shippo's shoulder.

"So… you want to go too?" asked the kitsune.

"No, no. I didn't say that," Miroku dissembled as he slid down into a crouch, leaning wearily against the wooden planks of the Bone Eater's Well. "It hardly matters, Shippo. The fact of the matter is we can't pass through the Well. You know that."

"Yeah, I suppose you're right." admitted the fox. "It'd be much better of Kagome stayed here with us anyhow."

Miroku nodded distractedly, but was brought forcibly out of his thoughts when Shippo dropped down from the well's rim and onto his shoulders. The kitsune leaned around to look the monk in the face, sharp green eyes boring into startled violet as a low growl began vibrating through the air. "So, why'd you hug my Okaasan like that?" Shippo demanded.

The monk, very aware of the sharp claws piercing his robes and pricking against his skin, answered calmly. "I was bidding her farewell, Shippo."

The kit snorted. "Miroku," he said with a note of warning in his voice, "I was standing right here. We both said goodbye already before you hugged Okaasan."

Miroku closed is eyes and rubbed the fingers of one hand against his temple, cursing the overprotective instincts of pack youkai. With resignation, he met the youngster's snapping eyes. "Shippo, I really was just saying goodbye."

Shippo considered this for a minute, tail flashing back and forth as he tried to decide if the monk was telling the truth. "You weren't trying to grope my Okaasan like you used to do to Sango?" he asked suspiciously.

The monk was indignant, "No! No, I wouldn't do that to Kagome-sama."

"Why not," asked the kit. "You used to."

"I know," acknowledged Miroku tiredly, "but everything's changed."

"Yeah," Shippo said softly, retracting his claws and scooting down to balance on Miroku's knee. "So you're not trying to flirt with my Okaasan?"

"It would not be… respectful to Kagome-sama," Miroku answered carefully.

"I'm gonna protect Kagome, you know," explained the kit. "Anyone who tries to touch Kagome's gotta get through me first," he boasted.

Miroku smiled softly. "Then I can rest easy, knowing you're on guard."

"Yup," grinned the kit. Thinking over the monk's last words, he tipped his head. "You were worried about her?"

The monk gave Shippo a lopsided smile. "Didn't I tell you yet? Sesshoumaru-sama asked me to keep Kagome-sama safe. It's nice to know that I have help."

The kit grinned, "We both can protect her—that's good." Looking over Miroku's shoulder at the well, he frowned again. "I still wish we could reach her somehow. At least before, Inuyasha could go after her." Miroku simply nodded. "She did promise. She'll come back, won't she?" Shippo ventured worriedly.

The monk looked into the kit's distraught face and offered a sad smile. "As you say, she promised. It is something to hold onto."

Shippo looked at him keenly for a moment. "Say, Miroku? Do you miss Kagome?"

"Very much," the monk replied without thinking.

"Already?" the kit said suspiciously. "Why is that?"

Catching himself, Miroku tried to keep his tone light. "Because she'd not here."

Shippo rolled his eyes. "Miroku," the kitsune said with some disgust. The look in Shippo's eyes reminded Miroku that the little youkai was much older than he appeared. "I saw that hug. I'm not blind."

Miroku cleared his throat uncomfortably. "What is it you think you see, Shippo?"

"You like my Okaasan," he said firmly. "You like Kagome."

"Shippo, I…." The monk trailed off and dropped his gaze from Shippo's hopeful face. Is there any point in denying the truth. He's right, and he doesn't seem to mind the idea. "Yes," Miroku admitted.

"Does Okaasan know?"


"Aren't you going to tell her?"


"Why not?"

"I think it would make her… uncomfortable."

"Why?" persisted the kit.

Miroku ran frustrated fingers through his hair, tugging at the tail in back. "She still loves Inuyasha, Shippo. Surely you can see that."

"Maybe she'll change her mind?" offered the youkai uncertainly.

"Not if I scare her off," muttered Miroku.

"Let me get this straight," the kit tapped a finger against his chin, giving the monk and appraising look. "You like Kagome, but you're not going to flirt with her or grope her because it might make her stay away from us?"

"Do you really think she would come back if it meant facing unwanted attentions," Miroku asked rhetorically.

"Oh, man. You're right. You better behave yourself then," admonished Shippo.

"I've already said I would."

"It wouldn't be so bad, though," the kit said thoughtfully. "If she liked you, I mean." He continued to brighten. "In fact, that could be really, really good."

Miroku couldn't help but cringe at Shippo's growing excitement. The kit's eyes were sparkling with mischievous intent. This could be trouble. "Why is that?" prompted the monk, wondering what Shippo was planning.

"If Okaasan likes you, she'd want to stay twice as much—for you and for me!" explained the kitsune enthusiastically.

Realizing the tricky kit was scheming something, Miroku attempted to rein him in. "Shippo, I don't think…."

"You sure we can't just tell her? How's she gonna find out you like her then? You think she'll just eventually… notice?" The kit tipped his head to one side, waiting for answers.

Miroku answered slowly. "I don't know, Shippo. I'm not sure if she'll ever see me as anything other than a friend. The best thing we can do for now is keep it a secret. We may have to be patient for a long time. Can I trust you to keep my secret?"

"Sure you can."

"Good," said the monk, relieved. "You know, Shippo, it's rather gratifying to know that you approve of me. You aren't bothered by the idea that I am... fond of Kagome-sama?"

"If it will keep my Okaasan here, I'm all for it," replied the kit with a cheeky grin.

Miroku shook his head. "Sounds to me like you'd marry her off to just anyone so long as she stayed with you."

Shippo frowned. "You're not just anyone, Miroku." Then his face lit up again, "Did you say marry?"

"My intentions are honorable," Miroku affirmed.

"You have… intentions?" gasped Shippo, before collapsing into giggles at the look on Miroku's face. The monk cuffed the kit gently before hoisting him up onto his shoulders and standing. With one last long look at the quiet well, the two turned back towards the village to wait.

The old, familiar feel of the time slip pulled Kagome through the centuries. Light flickered and expanded, flowing around her with a silent wind that lifted her hair and rustled through the fabric of her miko robes. A part of her heart sang with the joy of going home, yet something about the boys' goodbyes was bothering her. So as Kagome's body was being pulled forward, her mind was going back over their farewell. Shippo's distress had been understandable. I should have realized sooner that this would be hard for him. The look in his eyes when he'd begged for her promise to return had cut her to the quick. Then, there was Miroku—her anchor. The feeling of the monk pressed against her, and even more the brokenness in his voice, were troubling.

All along their journey to this point, Kagome had relied upon Miroku, needing his familiarity, his kindness, his strength. She'd taken all he'd offered, but had she taken him for granted? I'm not the only one who's been grieving. All those times he comforted me—should I have tried to comfort him? Trying to think of something she could have done differently, Kagome drew a blank. What could I have offered him? I don't even know. Bothered by the thought that she'd withheld something from a friend in need, the young woman frowned. Has sorrow made me selfish? Shippo had been asked to set aside his feelings for her sake so that she could come home. Had Miroku wanted her to stay just as badly? It didn't seem likely, but he'd held her so tightly and let her go so reluctantly. After all they've risked and lost and done, have I been thoughtless?

The blue shimmer dissipated, and Kagome came to rest in her own era. Placing her hand on a ladder rung, she bowed her head in consternation. For a moment, she felt a tug, urging her to go back. It wasn't the first time she'd felt divided—torn between two times. Shippo was her kit, and Miroku was her friend, but her rightful place was here, in the future—wasn't it? Confused thoughts chased each other in useless circles until she banished them with a sigh. I'm not sure what his hug means, but I don't want to think about it anymore. I'm here now.

Adjusting the quiver and sword slung across her back, Kagome looked up towards the venerable roof of the well house. I'm really home. She made her way out of the ancient well and into the dimness of the cold little building. Light filtered through a few cracks between boards, and in the quiet, Kagome could hear the soft whisper of snowflakes as they pattered against the thin walls. Climbing the steps, she hesitated just a moment before sliding the well house door open enough to peer outside.

Snow had been falling for some time in this era, and stood in drifts all around the shrine courtyard. Flakes still spiraled unsteadily through the air, tossed about by sporadic gusts of wind. City noises were muffled by the heavy blanket, though Kagome could hear the scrape of a shovel somewhere near the main shrine building. With a trembling lip, the young woman blinked back tears as she realized that someone had not given up on her, even after all these months. A path had been shoveled from the front door of her home to the well house door.

Stepping cautiously down the slippery steps, Kagome followed the rhythmic scratch of shovel against paving stones to where a young man bent to the task of clearing snow. Could this be my little brother? He's so much taller! "Souta?" she asked cautiously, suddenly unsure.

At the sound of her voice, the youth whirled around. "Sis?" Souta's voice cracked in adolescent surprise. "Kagome!" The snow shovel fell with a clatter against the cleared steps as Souta pulled his big sister as close as his thick down jacket would allow… and Kagome was startled to realize that they were the same height.

As quickly as he'd brought her close, her little brother pushed her back, holding her at arms length. "Have you seen Mama yet?" he demanded. Kagome dumbly shook her head, and in a heartbeat, she was turned firmly towards the house, a mittened hand urgently pulling her along. "Come on then, we gotta tell her you're back! She'll be so happy!" He began shouting at the top of his lungs as he hustled her along. "Mama! Mama! Kagome's back! Mama!"

As they hurried across the courtyard, Kagome's eyes fell on Goshinboku. She'd been kneeling at its foot just yesterday, bidding farewell. The markers are gone now. Kagome stumbled at the sudden, sickening realization that all those times she'd sat under Goshinboku with Inuyasha, they'd been sitting atop his grave. Swallowing against her nausea, Kagome took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. All her senses were in an uproar of confusion. The background noises, though distant, were all wrong—the underlying din of modernity replacing the quiet of the meadow of a few minutes and five centuries ago. The air… tasted funny. Kagome's eyes burned. This is home. This should feel like home.

The front door to the house slid open, and Mrs. Higurashi ran towards them in her apron and house slippers, heedless of the slick snow. She skidded a bit when she reached her two children, and then Kagome found herself in her mother's tight embrace. "Oh, Kagome! My baby, my girl. Oh, honey, you're home! You were gone so long… I was starting to worry!" Rocking and laughing and crying, Mrs. Higurashi fussed over her prodigal daughter, commenting on her miko get-up and worn sandals. She smoothed her hand over the braids in her hair, cupped her cheeks and gazed into her eyes, kissed her forehead and pulled her in close for another hug.

"I came as soon as I could." Blinking tears from her eyes, tears of happiness at finally being home and tears of sadness for the news she brought, Kagome looked back over her shoulder at her younger brother, who was eyeing the Tetsusaiga strapped next to her quiver. He met her eyes, and she saw dawning realization and then dread written in them.

"Come in, come in… you can rest up before you share your news. Where's Inuyasha?" burbled Mrs. Higurashi excitedly, herding her children towards the house.

Before Kagome could answer, they reached Grandpa, who stood waiting just inside the door. He pulled his granddaughter into a rib-cracking hug and exclaimed, "That's our girl; I knew you'd be back. I told you so, didn't I Souta?"

The young woman stepped cautiously into her childhood home. Everything was so familiar, yet so strange as well. The house seemed too large after living so long in borrowed rooms. Turning her head this way and that, Kagome felt as if she was seeing everything for the first time, yet recognizing every detail. It's almost like déjà vu.

After another round of hugs, her mother noticed Kagome's disorientation, and sent Souta and Grandpa out to finish the shoveling. She urged Kagome up to her room for a bath and change of clothes. "You go ahead; relax and settle in." Kagome nodded slowly and moved towards the familiar stairs and her room, the leaving behind the sounds of dinner preparations in the kitchen.

Her bedroom was just as she'd left it. Kagome removed her quiver and the sword from her back and set them onto the middle of the bed before moving around the room, touching various objects. It will take a while to reacquaint myself with the future's little luxuries. Home. She was home, and her family hadn't given up on her. There'd been no remonstrations, no difficult questions, no scolding. All she'd received was glad welcome—welcome and love. How do I tell them about Inuyasha? That he… we… were going to be married? That I… I loved him

Kagome's family did most of the talking at dinner, while she merely picked at her food. They chatted about local happenings and family events that had taken place while she'd been gone. The spring festival at the Shrine, the soccer camp Souta had attended over the summer, the plans they'd made for the fast-approaching New Year's rush. It was nice to listen to talk about Buyo and the neighbors and the latest movies, but Kagome knew they were all avoiding the one topic that needed to be addressed. Gradually, she could feel the tension build as the unasked questions loomed between them.

Mrs. Higurashi waited until she brought a fresh pot of tea to the table, and as she set a cup in front of Kagome, she gently broached the subject. "You've been very quiet, dear. Can you tell us what happened on the other side of the well?"

Kagome clenched her fists in her lap and gathered her courage as tears burned her eyes. "Yes. I need to tell you. So much has happened." Slowly at first, Kagome told her family about the final battle against Naraku. They exchanged looks as she explained how everyone had worked together in the end to defeat their mutual enemy. When she drew out the completed Shikon no Tama on its chain around her neck, and it glimmered very faintly against her palm, her grandfather gasped in awe. Smiling quietly, she murmured, "This is the real thing, Grandpa…doesn't look at all like the key chains in the shop, does it?"

"What about… Inuyasha?" Mrs. Higurashi barely breathed the question and the name, fearing the answer. The others watched, horrified, as Kagome pulled out a different necklace. When the blood-stained beads of Inuyasha's rosary were laid gently on the table, Mrs. Higurashi covered her face with her apron and sobbed. Souta scrubbed angrily at his eyes, and Grandpa sat in stunned silence.

The old man finally asked, "How, granddaughter? How did he die?" Controlling her voice with an effort, Kagome painfully told the story of the youkai attack that had claimed both her dear hanyou and her adopted sister, ignoring the tears that dripped off her chin and splashed onto her tightly-gripped hands. In the silence following the tale, Mrs. Higurashi moved to Kagome's side and wrapped her arms around her daughter as they both cried for the golden-eyed youth they'd loved. Souta abruptly swore and pounded the table before slamming off up to his room, where the sounds of a video game soon made themselves heard.

"We will have a memorial tablet made for each of them and placed with honor in our family shrine." Wiping at his suspiciously-moist eyes, Grandpa gamely picked up the thread of conversation. "All this happened in the spring, you say? Where have you been all this time?"

Sighing, Kagome explained about Sesshoumaru-sama claiming her as pack, and about Umeko-sama and Yamataku Shrine. The shrine interested Grandpa greatly, and for a few minutes Kagome's story was delayed while he raided the bookcases and pulled out some maps, wishing to see if the mountain shrine still existed in the modern era.

Mrs. Higurashi dabbed her eyes, then called them back to more important matters. "So how did you manage to leave this mountain sanctuary and get back to us? You didn't travel alone, did you?"

"Miroku-sama came all the way to the mountain to make sure I was safe and offered to bring me home. He trained with me so that he could protect me on the journey, and he's the reason I was permitted to come back." The young woman's eyes drifted out of focus as memories of their journey played out in her mind. When she returned to the present, she added, "Miroku-sama and Shippo-kun saw me off at the well."

Mrs. Higurashi, her face suddenly older, quietly clapped her hands together and called their evening to a close. "You've had a long journey home, Kagome dear. Why don't you go to bed early tonight? We could all use the rest, I think." After a few more hugs, the miko dragged herself to her room, and for the longest time she lay awake, wrestling against the distinct feeling that something was missing. Tucking Tetsusaiga under her chin, she considered her nightly routine, and then realized she hadn't searched for threats like she always did. Tentatively, Kagome reached out through the power of the Shikon no Tama, but she quickly pulled her aura in again. This era is too full, but so empty. She missed her kit, and she missed Miroku's steadying presence. The centuries between them stretched too far, and the miko didn't feel quite as safe now that she was cut adrift from her anchor. I hope they're okay, she thought as sleep finally claimed her.

The very next day found Kagome accompanying her mother to the local market. After months in the feudal era, all the sights, sounds, and smells of modern-day Tokyo were more than a little overwhelming. I'll be glad to get back to the relative sanctuary of the shrine. Kagome followed her mother idly through the store, letting her mind wander as Mrs. Higurashi picked over some vegetables in the produce section and calculated the best deal on canned goods.

Just as her mother finished her list and headed towards the registers, Kagome's attention was caught by the contents of a shelf just at eye level. Matches. Miroku said he missed matches. Pulling down half a dozen boxes, Kagome scurried after Mrs. Higurashi to add them to their cart. I'll bring Miroku the matches when I go back to visit. Then, she blinked. I haven't even been home a full twenty-four hours, and I'm already planning my return visit. Shaking her head, Kagome fell in behind her mother.

Kagome tried to fit back into the niche she'd left behind, but it wasn't working out very well. I wonder what's changed about me to make this era so awkward now? For her mother, her brother, and her grandfather, she did her best. There were a few bad moments, like the time Mrs. Higurashi found Kagome crumpled on the kitchen floor in tears because she'd opened a cupboard only to find it overflowing with packages of ramen. Still, she watched television with Souta, poked through the storage shed with Grandpa, helped her mom chop vegetables at the kitchen counter, filled her place at the table, and took part in the small talk of the day. Poor Buyo's ears had never received so much attention, and she even made it to the mall.

That had actually been kind of funny. Mama hadn't been too surprised that all of Kagome's clothing had been set aside long ago in favor of period attire, but her shock over her daughter's complete lack of suitable undergarments was monumental. Declaring the need to take immediate measures, the two embarked on a full-blown shopping trip. "It'll be a nice mother-daughter bonding experience," promised Mrs. Higurashi happily. The young woman obediently followed her mother around a crowded department store, trying on the outfits her mother piled into her arms. She played along, but though she smiled and twirled and posed for her Mama, Kagome's heart wasn't in it.

Kagome did put her foot down when her mother offered to look into correspondence courses and community colleges for her. "I'm not ready, Mama," she'd said quietly, but firmly.

She reconnected with high school friends, who'd heard through the neighborhood gossip that Kagome was back in town. An afternoon spent with Yuka, Eri, and Ayumi at their old after-school hangout was politely endured. The three girls chatted enthusiastically about boys and university and job interviews and fashion trends, and as far as Kagome was concerned they may as well have been speaking a foreign language. Though she listened to every word they said, Kagome couldn't seem to keep up with what they were talking about. She felt hopelessly out of place and out of step. Have I spent so much time in the past that I no longer fit in the future? Do I even… want to fit in here anymore?

That line of thinking distracted the young woman for the rest of their visit. Am I not taking part because I don't know how, or because I don't want to? How hard could it be to pick up the threads of her life and tread the expected path? She could finish her schooling, find a job, help out at home—it wasn't a very interesting prospect, but it was far from impossible. I could do it. I could try to go back to… normal. Pulling the Shikon no Tama on its chain out from under her sweater, Kagome faced the truth. Her life had been touched by many terrible, wonderful, magical things, and the changes they had wrought in her were soul-deep. She didn't want to leave that behind in order to fit in with the rest of this world.

Waving her farewells to the still-nattering trio of girls, Kagome turned to slowly climb the long stretch of stairs leading up to the shrine. Her wandering steps took her to the base of Goshinboku, where three smooth stones served as markers until Grandpa could get more formal markers made. Sliding down to sit with her back against the tree, Kagome looked off to the side where the well house sat unobtrusively. Are they all right? Her thoughts turned to her adopted son. If I stay here, what will become of Shippo? Is it fair to my kit to have a part-time mother who commutes between centuries? Who else is there to take care of him? He wants his Okaasan, and that's me now.

For that matter, what of Miroku? Kagome's mind drifted back to the force of his last embrace and shifted restlessly at the longing look that had haunted his eyes. The three of them were the only ones left of their little group, so of course he would miss her. That only made sense. Look at me. I'm practically surrounded by family, friends, and acquaintances here, but I've never felt so lonely. Maybe Miroku feels lonely too, with just Kaede and Shippo to keep him company. Do they miss me as much as I miss them?

She… missed them. The truth of that thought hit Kagome so deeply that tears spilled down her cheeks. For months, all she'd yearned for was the chance to come home. Now that she was home, she wasn't content either. Her sense of displacement made her restless and uneasy, and her home didn't feel quite like home anymore.

Pulling the rosary from her pocket, she ran her fingers over the smooth surface of the beads. She had been so close to choosing, to staying in one era for good instead of trying to stand with one foot in each. All she wanted was Inuyasha by her side—for their little feudal family to be together again, the way things were meant to be. That was what home was supposed to be, but it was gone now, and she knew it. It didn't stop her persistent longing for that something that was missing. I want to feel at home again.

Kagome remembered the last time she'd been crying under Goshinboku. The memory of being pulled close and cradled by Miroku and Shippo made her ache for their presence. They'd all cried together because they all shared the same grief. That had been comforting—a gift no other person could give her right now, not even her own mother. She needed them, and perhaps Shippo and Miroku needed her too? Maybe we belong together?

Kagome was willing to set the idea aside, to think on it further another time. For now, she was content knowing that she would definitely be going back to see her boys… soon. She had a promise to keep—a promise she'd made to her kit. They were waiting for her, and she wanted… needed to see them again.

Nine days had passed. While helping her mother with the breakfast dishes, Kagome tentatively brought up her promise to Shippo. "Mama, I was wondering… Well, actually I was planning… You see, I made a promise…."

Mrs. Higurashi smiled at her daughter's false starts. "Just spit it out, Kagome. What do you want to do?"

"I need to go back through the well," the young woman said in a rush, feeling a little childish.

Mrs. Higurashi seemed surprised but was unfazed. "You're going back already, dear? I thought, now that your quest is over…" she trailed off with a shrug, waiting for Kagome to explain.

Kagome hesitated, searching for the right words, wanting her mother to understand the need that compelled her, even though she wasn't sure she understood the feeling herself. There wasn't a world at risk. No lives were on the line. There was no emergency, no rush, not even a sense of duty to drive her into the past, yet the pull was strong—perhaps stronger than when they'd been chasing down shards. Kagome wanted to go back, and her eyes pleaded with her mother for acceptance. "I made a promise."

Mama had always been discerning, and perhaps she grasped more at that moment than Kagome did. Her eyes softened, and she turned to give her daughter her full attention. "What are your plans, dear?"

"I wouldn't be going back for long. Just for the day—for a visit. I want to make sure Shippo-kun is all right. I promised him I'd go back to see him when I could."

Mama didn't bat an eye. "Of course dear, what do you need?"

Relief flooded Kagome's heart, and the smile that spread across her face was the first genuine one in far too many days. "A few supplies would be nice. I already have those matches for Miroku-sama, and you know the kinds of things Shippo-kun asks for already."

Mrs. Higurashi laughed. "Yes, I'll bet it's been months since he's had his Pocky. Poor boy."

Kagome rolled her eyes. Her mother's soft spot for the orphaned kit was something of a family joke. "Crayons would be nice. Maybe an extra blanket or two for Kaede?"

"Let me think on it, and I'll make up a list; we can run to the store this afternoon. Then you can go back tomorrow morning and spend all day with your friends." Kagome smiled at the excited gleam in her mother's eyes.

"That would be perfect. Thank you, Mama," said Kagome as she gave her mother a quick hug.

The two women busied themselves with familiar preparations over the course of the day, working together as if Kagome was about to embark on a long shard hunt. The familiarity of it all brought tears to her eyes more than once, and each time, she had to sit down to collect herself before she could continue. At one point, Mrs. Higurashi stopped in the middle of a rummage through some cupboards to call out, "What does your monk friend like, dear?"

Stymied, Kagome thought for a bit. "Umm, fruit, I think… maybe soap… and paper?"

Mrs. Higurashi returned to her riffling through the pantry, and after a few moments, came up with some dried fruit. "Will this do?"

"Yes, Mama."

"Fetch my old backpack out of the closet, please, and we'll see how well this all fits."

When the nondescript grey bag was fairly bursting at the seams, Mrs. Higurashi was finally satisfied. "We'll just pack you a lunch in the morning, dear. Off to bed, now, so you can have an early start."

"All right, Mama," Kagome agreed with a hug. "Thank you for… for everything," she whispered.

Mrs. Higurashi gave her girl and extra squeeze before turning her around and nudging her towards her room. "How could I do any less? They're practically family," she chided gently.

Kagome hesitated, looking back with a bright smile. "Yes, I guess they are."

Pausing at the top of the stairs, Kagome noticed a light shining out from under her brother's bedroom door, and the muffled sounds of his video games could be heard. Souta had idolized Inuyasha, and the death of her hanyou had been a shock to the teen. She was concerned for him, but hardly knew how to help him with his grief. I don't think he's even cried yet; just pushed the pain away and buried himself in those games of his. She rapped a knuckle against the door before opening it partway. "Souta? Can I come in?"

Her brother looked up from his game when she poked her head in, expectant. "Sure," he shrugged.

"Can I talk to you for a bit?" she ventured.

Souta hit the pause button on his game. "Yeah. What's up?"

Kagome perched on the edge of his bed, looking down at the teen sitting cross-legged on the floor. He had changed so much since last spring. His height, his hairstyle, his voice—Souta was leaving the sweetness of childhood behind. He was the same, but so different that it was like looking into the face of a stranger who had her brother's eyes. "Sis?" Souta prodded, shaking Kagome from her reverie.

"What? Oh, sorry. I got a little lost there." Kagome couldn't resist reaching a hand across to ruffle his hair.

Ducking his head, Souta made a noise of protest before demanding, "What, Kagome?"

Kagome giggled as her brother tried to rearrange his hair, but quieted before asking, "I was wondering… if you would do something for me?"

Souta caught the seriousness in her tone, and his brows drew together slightly. "Sure, sis. What do you need?"

"I'm going back through the well tomorrow morning," Kagome announced.

Her brother nodded. "It was kinda hard to miss the packing. Mama went a little crazy, I think."

"Yeah," agreed Kagome with a fond smile. "You know how she gets."

"Why?" he asked bluntly.

"Why what?"

"Why are you going back?" Souta elaborated.

"I need to check on Shippo-kun, and…" she trailed off uncertainly. Will it help to confide in someone, to say it out loud? Maybe by trying to explain it to Souta, I'll be able to explain it to myself? "I… I miss them," she confessed, picking at a spot on the bedspread.

"You mean Inuyasha and Sango?" asked Souta in confusion.

She frowned, "Well of course I miss them, but no. I meant Shippo-kun and Miroku-sama." Kagome twirled the end of one braid around her finger. "Sometimes I feel like I belong to the past just as much as I do to this time," she admitted. "There are people who need me here, and there are people who need me there. I'm kind of… caught in the middle, you know?"

"That's not really surprising, considering how much time you spend on the other side of the well," Souta pointed out matter-of-factly.

"It's like being homesick even though I'm home," Kagome sighed.

"The feudal era is like your second home. Your friends there are like a second family—even Mama says so. I don't think you should feel bad for missing them," Souta assured her.

"You don't think it's… strange?"

"Oh, you've always been strange," Souta quipped, dodging the pillow his sister lofted at him. "How long will you be gone?"

"I'm just going back for the day," explained Kagome. "Which brings me to my favor," she continued briskly. "While I'm gone, I was wondering if you'd take care of something for me."


"Would you hold onto Tetsusaiga for me?"

"Inuyasha's sword?" Souta exclaimed, voice cracking.

His sister nodded calmly. "I don't really want to bring it with me, but I'd feel better if I knew you were looking after it for me. It's a very powerful sword, and I don't like to just leave it lying around."

Souta's head dropped down so that his bangs covered his eyes. "I guess I could do that," he said thickly.

Concerned, Kagome dropped down to join her brother on the floor, kneeling in front of him and leaning over to catch a glimpse of his face. Souta's eyes were tragic, filled with all the pain and confusion of his bottled up grief. "I miss Inuyasha," he said in a low voice.

"I do too," whispered Kagome.

Souta wrestled for his next words. "I didn't think anyone could beat him. I thought he was invincible."

Tears trickled down Kagome's cheeks. "He was very, very strong… but I suppose no one's invincible," she said gently.

"He was going to be my brother, wasn't he," Souta managed, though his breath kept catching as he held back the sobs that wanted to come.

"Yes. He would have loved being your big brother, Souta," Kagome affirmed.

Something broke and Souta sagged into his sister's arms, all his tears finally finding an outlet. Kagome held him close, her own tears falling softly into his hair. He's going to be all right.

The next morning saw Kagome practically teetering under the weight of her mother's generosity. "I'll be back this evening, Mama!"

"All right, dear. Be safe."

"Take care of Tetsusaiga, Souta," she called to her brother.

Souta patted the tattered hilt of Inuyasha's sword, beaming. "It's safe with me," he assured her. Kagome nodded once, then turned to cross the courtyard and enter the well house.

Kagome dropped through the well's portal and came to a rest beneath feudal skies. I'm glad I dressed warmly. Balancing herself against the inside walls of the Bone Eater's Well, the miko dipped into the Shikon no Tama's resources and stretched her awareness outward, looking for… ah! Miroku and Shippo were together, and she felt a leap of gladness when she brushed against the monk's comforting presence. Before Kagome could completely haul herself up the side of the well, she could hear Shippo excitedly shouting, "Kagooomeee!"

The young woman laughed as she swung Shippo around and then hugged him. Miroku, unable to match the kitsune's greater speed, puffed up shortly thereafter. Leaning on his staff as he caught his breath, the monk grinned down at Kagome. "Welcome back, Kagome-sama. Did you find your family well?"

Meeting sparkling violet eyes, Kagome's heart swelled with elation. Seeing them again, knowing they were all right, being welcomed back—she blinked back joyous tears, nodding in answer to the monk's inquiry. Cuddling her kit tightly, the miko took a long, deep breath of fresh air, exhaling with a sigh. "I missed you," she said earnestly. "I missed both of you so much."

Shippo piped up excitedly, "Okaasan? Are you going to stay with us now?"

"Oh, Shippo. No, I'm just here for a visit," explained the miko, and was disconcerted when his eager face fell. "I have to go back later this evening, but I can spend all day with you. I brought you some things," she added, trying to coax a smile from the kit.

The youngster's eyes brightened obligingly, and he began to sniff curiously at her pack.

"Ah, ah, ah! No fair peeking with that clever nose of yours. Come on, let's go down to Kaede's and you can see what's in there for yourself."

In its way, Kagome's absence proved just as hard on Miroku as Sango's death. Sango had carried all of Miroku's love and hopes and future plans. Everything they'd looked forward to together ended far too abruptly, and when she'd died, Sango had just been… gone. Miroku had cradled her body, wept out his sorrows, and buried her himself. When Sango was taken from him, Miroku felt as if his heart had been torn out. When Kagome left, Miroku felt as if his soul had been ripped in two.

For weeks, he'd known the constant touch of Kagome's aura, and the power of the Shikon no Tama had been a bright presence, always tingling at the edge of his awareness. Miroku hadn't realized how closely knit they'd become until the moment Kagome slipped through the well. The sudden shock of their severed connection was almost physically painful, and when the monk gazed down into the emptiness of the Bone Eater's Well, he'd felt an unwelcome and familiar loneliness. Kagome was just… gone. For several days he'd struggled with very real feelings of grief, because even though he knew Kagome wasn't dead, the complete absence of her inner touch had the same eerie taint as death. Miroku found himself trying to draw reassurance from a new mantra. She is alive. She is safe. She will return.

The monk and the kitsune became inseparable in the days following Kagome's departure. Shippo's treks to Goshinboku now included a side trip to the Bone Eater's Well. Miroku convinced himself they'd likely have to wait out the cold season without word from their miko. She's been without her family for so long. Why would she venture back to us in the dead of winter? He dared to hope that spring would bring her back for a visit, and he remembered how much she loved the abundance of flowers that covered the meadows. According to Kagome, the modern era had been paved so completely that there were only small patches left in their natural state.

The moment Miroku detected the gentle touch of Kagome's search, his heart swelled with gladness. It was far sooner than he had dared to hope. Ten days. An eternity counted out on my own two hands. With a wide grin, Miroku turned to the kit at his side. "I think we have a visitor, Shippo"

The kit looked up into the monk's face and recognized the challenging lift of one brow. Taking the hint, Shippo raised his small nose to catch any scents the winds might be carrying. His jade eyes goggled in astonishment, and then the boy whooped. Tossing a fanged grin at the monk, Shippo lit off up the hill towards the Bone Eater's Well. Left in the proverbial dust, Miroku began to jog after the little youkai. "He could have waited for me," he grumbled to no one in particular.

She's come back to us. Kagome stood beside the well in her strange, modern clothes, Shippo already clasped in her arms. Miroku longed to pull her close—just to touch her and reassure himself that she was really here—but he held himself in check. As he drew to a halt beside her, he couldn't help grinning foolishly at the happiness in her face. When she said she'd missed them both, his heart leapt with hope.

Kagome's eyes were full of unspoken messages, and Miroku did his best to discern them. The young woman was undeniably happy to see them, yet there was a hesitance behind her smiles. What's confusing her, I wonder? He did not like for Kagome to be uncertain with him. It's not about me, though, the monk admitted to himself. There was turmoil in her aura, and he thought perhaps Kagome was feeling just a little lost again. I want to give her something of which she can be sure. As much as he wanted to gather her up and comfort her, Miroku knew there were other ways of letting Kagome know that she had been missed, that she was welcome, wanted.

So Miroku smiled, asked about her family, and teased Shippo. He tried to ease Kagome's transition between eras, help her relax, and make her laugh. Before they'd reached the bottom of the slope where Kaede's hut was nestled, the miko's tension was gone and she'd fallen into their easy, familiar camaraderie. In a matter of minutes, the monk had made sure that they were all in step together again.

After escorting Kagome into Kaede's snug hut and installing her beside the fire, the two males watched with a kind of proprietary pride as 'their' Kagome began pulling innumerable gifts out of her backpack. Miroku smiled over her excitement. She's just as pleased to give these things as Shippo is to receive them, he thought as the kitsune began to dance around the room with a new box of crayons. His attention was brought back to Kagome when she moved to kneel beside him, eyes shining. "I brought something especially for you, Miroku-sama," she said, watching expectantly for his reaction.

Miroku's gaze dropped to the boxes in her hands, and he smiled in delight. "You brought me matches? You remembered," he murmured warmly. Kagome's smile widened as she nodded. She's been thinking about me—at least a little. "I thank you Kagome-sama," he said with a show of formality. "Your gift is most thoughtful."

After all the parcels had been shared out, Kagome turned to Miroku with a business-like tone. "Miroku-sama? Do you mind if we search the area together—like we used to? I've tried meditating with the Jewel in the evenings at our shrine, but it's not the same. The Shikon no Tama doesn't react the same way in my time as it does here; it's hard to explain, but the Jewel seems unusually quiet. I thought it might help if we used it together?"

"Of course, Kagome-sama. I'd be more than happy to assist you," the monk replied smoothly.

Kagome got up from her seat across the fire and settled down on her knees in front of Miroku. He tipped his head to one side and teasingly pointed out, "You could have done this from over there, you know."

The young woman looked genuinely surprised, and glanced back at her former seat. "I suppose you're right," she answered slowly. "It's not quite the same, though, is it?" she shrugged, spreading her hands before her.

Miroku nodded sagely, and with feigned seriousness bowed his head. "Then I shall submit myself to your touch, Kagome-sama."

Kagome rolled her eyes and sighed gustily, "Miroku-sama, you know what I mean," she scolded.

When he grinned and gazed challengingly into her eyes, she huffed and fluttered her hands at him. "Close your eyes. You're making it hard for me to concentrate."

Smiling beatifically, Miroku complied. At least she's not completely unaffected. After a moment's pause, he felt her hands settle against his chest. He slowed his breathing and relaxed into the tempo of his heartbeat. Kagome was soon matching his rhythm, and the monk felt her fingers skim along his jaw to settle against his cheek.

Immediately, Miroku understood what Kagome had meant when she'd said the Jewel was oddly quiet. As he became attuned to the miko's aura, he found the normally busy energies of the Shikon no Tama to be strangely subdued. It was as if time in the modern era had left it sleepy. Their link, however, began to stir the somnolent forces, and all the initial restraint Miroku observed was shed with stunning speed.

Frissons of power surged through Kagome, and as Miroku looked on she was swamped by its joyous swirl. Unprepared for the torrent welling up around her, Kagome gasped in surprise. All this pent up spiritual energy was more than she could easily contain, and it endangered the only youkai present. The hand against Miroku's cheek dropped to his shoulder as the miko fought to steady herself. Her other hand fisted tightly into the front of his robes, and Miroku felt fear wash through the young woman. The monk didn't think the Shikon no Tama would harm Kagome, but her moment of panic called for his immediate response.

With an inner lunge, Miroku clamped his aura down around her, forcibly stemming the rivulets of power that had begun to flow outwards. I need to help her release this surge without harming Shippo. The connection he had lost when she'd leapt through the well ten days ago needed to be reestablished. Deftly, the monk entangled his aura with hers, filling familiar niches and deepening his contact with her silvery core. Needing Kagome to focus, Miroku hastily reached out to catch hold of her. His hands found purchase around the young woman's ribcage, just above her waist. Spanning his fingers to cover as much of Kagome's back as he could, Miroku held her fast, hoping to reinforce a sense of stability.

Once again, Kagome responded beautifully to Miroku's soothing pressure, and he felt her begin to relax under his hands. Leaning forward, he spoke calmly. "Good girl. Work with me now, Kagome-sama. One burst, straight up. I'll help you focus, but you must give the push. Are you ready?"

Holding onto Miroku's robes for all she was worth, Kagome hummed her assent and gathered herself up, ready for his prompt. It was all over with a rush and a flash, the release of power safely funneled away. Miroku opened his eyes, looking for Shippo. The kitsune was peeping out from behind Kaede, who had raised a small barrier for his protection. Smiling in relief, the monk turned back to face Kagome. She was looking up, as if expecting the roof to be missing from her hostess's home. Lowering her gaze to meet Miroku's, she shook her head wonderingly. "I'm glad that little crisis was averted." The miko shuddered slightly before continuing, "I really do appreciate your help… I didn't know what to do, but… Miroku-sama?"

Gazing earnestly into her wide, grey eyes, the monk replied, "Yes, Kagome-sama?"

"You can let go now."

Miroku blinked and looked down at his hands, which still encircled the young woman's frame. Quickly letting them drop away, he gave Kagome a rueful smile. "My apologies for taking such liberties, Kagome-sama."

"Under the circumstances, I'm willing to overlook your lapse," replied Kagome with a crooked smile of her own, then turned towards their audience of two. "Are you all right, Shippo-kun?"

"Yes, Okaasan. Did you know that you glow when you do that?" asked the kit with a measure of awe in his tone.

"Glow? Do I?" the miko laughed, a bit uncomfortably.

Shippo nodded vigorously. "Oh, yeah. All glow-y and sparkle-y. It's kinda pretty."

"You don't say," returned Kagome with a look towards Miroku that clearly said, You're kidding me, right?

Miroku only laughed and nodded his affirmation.

Kagome toyed with the Shikon no Tama, sliding the Jewel back and forth along the length of the chain around her neck. In the dim light of the hut, its luminescence was clearly visible. Looking from Kaede to Miroku, she gave voice to her wondering. "Why do you suppose the Jewel's power… exploded like that?"

"Did ye say the Shikon no Tama was unusually quiet in your time?" Kaede asked slowly.

"Yes, that's right," affirmed Kagome. "It was dim. I could barely see its glow, even in the middle of the night."

The elderly miko exchanged glances with Miroku, who spoke up next. "You say there isn't much magic in your era, right Kagome-sama?"

The young woman nodded. "If there are youkai in the future, they've hidden themselves away. Demon swords and sealing spells and glowing Jewels sound like fairy tales in my time." Tickling Shippo under the chin, she added with a wink, "Kitsune are considered a figment of the imagination."

"People in your era sure are dumb," scoffed her kit.

"Well, child," interposed Kaede, "It sounds to me as if the Shikon no Tama sleeps in your era because it has nothing to respond to."

Miroku agreed with this assessment. "With no threats, no dangers, and nothing needing to be purified, the Jewel went into a kind of hibernation until it was needed."

"Maybe it was lonely?" Shippo added helpfully.

"So if that's true, then why did it wake up all of a sudden?" Kagome wondered. "It can't have been reacting to Shippo's youki, surely?"

"No," Miroku said slowly. "If that were the case, he would have been rebuffed by the Jewel when we met by the well this morning. It wasn't until we accessed the Shikon no Tama's power together that it surged to life."

"Your call woke it," Kaede suggested. "It responded because the two of ye asked it to."

"It was overwhelming," recalled Kagome. "It was as if the Jewel was excited to be active again, eager to exert itself."

"It doesn't like to be neglected?" offered Miroku.

"It doesn't shine as much when it isn't needed," Shippo declared. "It was glad to be wanted again. See how it's glowing now?" pointed out the kit smugly.

Kagome sighed. "In any case, do you think it'll flare up like that again?"

Miroku looked thoughtfully at the iridescent sphere. "Yes, I believe so, Kagome-sama, and I expect that the longer you are away, the more… turbulent the reawakening will be."

"How long was I gone?" mused the miko aloud.

"Ten days," Miroku supplied immediately.

Kagome was startled by Miroku's certainty. It's as if he was actually counting the days. "So it would be wise to come back at regular intervals then… to allow the Jewel to let off steam?"

Shippo flashed the monk a wide smile, which Miroku calmly ignored. "Perhaps it would be for the best if we accessed the Shikon no Tama's powers with greater frequency," he declared smoothly.

The miko nodded seriously. "You're probably right, Miroku-sama. It seems wise to tap into the Jewel's powers more often. When I return, would you be willing to help me?"

"I would be happy to assist you, Kagome-sama" assured the monk warmly.

After enjoying Mrs. Higurashi's generous lunch, the rest of the afternoon passed quietly enough, and as evening drew close the monk and kit offered to escort Kagome back to the well. They stopped at Goshinboku first, allowing Kagome to admire the bright arrangement of boughs and berries Shippo had left in front of the markers the day before. When they reached the low wooden structure of the well, Miroku once again stepped up to gather the miko's hands into his own. Will there be a change in how she looks at me? Have I given her any reason to see me in a new light? Miroku's searching gaze was met by a thoughtful one. It is not truly a reason to hope, but neither is it cause for despair. The monk gave the young woman's hands a warm squeeze before releasing them. "Can we hope to see you again, Kagome-sama?"

Shippo, who'd been waiting his turn, jumped up into his mother's arms. "Yes, Okaasan. Will you come back soon?"

"Actually, yes. I talked it over with my own Mama, and we thought I could come back every weekend." At the slight confusion in Shippo's face, Kagome clarified. "Every seventh day, I'll come for a visit." She looked to Miroku before saying, "This works out well, because we can release any pent up energy the Jewel is harboring when I arrive."

Shippo's face bloomed into a smile that matched the elation in Miroku's heart. Regular visits would give them all something to look forward to over the long winter months. "We shall be waiting for you then, Kagome-sama," responded the monk.

Kagome leapt into the future, leaving both Miroku and Shippo gazing wistfully after her. Miroku leaned a little heavily against his staff, once again affected by the inner wrenching of her departure. I wonder if she experiences the same sense of loss that I do? Miroku pondered, sighing.

Shippo stepped over and tugged on the monk's robes, pulling him out of his reverie. "Miroku, I want to do something special for Kagome. Can you help me plan a surprise?"

"Let's think on that, Shippo. I'm sure we can come up with something that Kagome-sama will enjoy," replied the monk with a reassuring smile.

A couple of months later, an icy late-winter morning found Kagome and her mother kneeling side by side, folding laundry at the dining room table. Mrs. Higurashi smoothed the wrinkles out of a pillowcase with an expert flick, then out of the blue asked, "Tell me about your friend, that monk?"

Kagome looked up from the socks she was picking through in search of a match. "What do you want to know, Mama?"

"I'm just curious about the young man you have been going back through the well to see so regularly," replied Mrs. Higurashi teasingly.

"Mama!" Kagome sputtered, "You know it's mostly for Shippo-kun that I go back."

"Mm-hmm. Humor me. How old is your Miroku-sama? What does he look like? What kind of man is he?"

Kagome rolled her eyes, and shrugged. "You already know most of what I know about Miroku-sama. He's the monk we traveled with during our quest for the Jewel shards. He's the one who had the kanzaana in his hand, and he and Sango were going to marry… but she died before they could."

"Yes, dear. I remember the generalities. I was hoping for details."

Kagome thought for a moment before answering. "He's just a few years older than me and wears robes of black and purple. His weapon of choice is his shakujou, and he can also use sacred sutras to exorcise evil." Standing for a moment and searching her memory, she stretched one hand up, then looked down into her mother's face. "He's about this tall, with black hair that he pulls back in a low tail, and he has violet eyes."

Kagome's mother raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Violet eyes? That's unusual."

"I suppose so," replied Kagome, settling back down at the table before leaning over to whisper conspiratorially. "They're really very pretty."

Mrs. Higurashi smiled indulgently, but persisted. "What about Miroku-sama's character? Is he a good man?"

"The very best," affirmed Kagome without hesitation.

The woman cast a sidelong look at her daughter, then wondered aloud, "Isn't this the same young man you always called a pervert and a peeping tom, dear? I thought Miroku-sama was a bit of a con artist, according to the tales you and Inuyasha told."

Kagome sat back on her heels, thinking about all the flirtatious mischief Miroku had been famous for. "He was, I guess. The very first time we met he grabbed my… well, let's just say he was very forward. Sango settled him down some, but after she died he changed a lot. He's really very serious now." Kagome gave her mother a wobbly little smile and confessed, "You know, sometimes I sort of miss his flirtatious ways. Half the time I think he did it to give us something to laugh about. He's sadder now." Shrugging as she reached for a pile of dishtowels to fold, Kagome continued. "He's never been anything but a perfect gentleman with me since the others died."

Mrs. Higurashi considered her daughter's pensive face and nudged her a little with one elbow. "Do you like this young man, Kagome?" she inquired quietly.

"Mama!" Kagome protested, shocked that she would suggest such a thing.

"No?" prodded Mrs. Higurashi, studying her daughter closely.

"No!" insisted the young woman. "Miroku-sama is a good friend, that's all. We're the only ones left… He would never… He just helps…." she trailed off in consternation. "It's not like that at all!"

"That's all right, dear," said Mrs. Higurashi gently before changing the subject entirely.

Kagome couldn't dismiss their conversation so easily, though. The young woman spent most of the rest of the day in a state of distraction. By the time she'd retired to her room for the night, her agitation kept her from sleep. I just need to sort through these thoughts and feelings reasonably. No need to make such a big deal of this. After all, it's not terrible for me to notice Miroku's eyes. Sango and I talked about the boys' eyes sometimes—it was just girl talk in the hot springs. She thought it was funny that both our men had violet eyes, at least on Inuyasha's human night. Similar tastes, and all that. I shouldn't have said so to Mama though. She'll get the wrong idea.

How did a girl describe a man to her mother without giving said mother the wrong idea? Just the fact that she'd noticed something beyond the generalities suddenly seemed suspicious. How ridiculous. It's just Miroku. He's certainly tall and strong and trustworthy and funny. Sure, he's handsome… handsome? The young woman turned this over for a minute. Perhaps he is. Kagome's ideals had run to silver hair, golden eyes, claws and fangs for so long, she'd not really given Miroku's appearance much thought.

Calling up his face in her mind's eye, she tried to consider Miroku's features objectively. Tall and lean. Broad shoulders. Rather tanned from outdoor living. Wind-rumpled hair, expressive eyebrows, strong jaw. Steady hands, knowing smile, teasing banter. Kagome remembered how it felt to be pulled back into his chest. She remembered the brush of his cheek against hers and the sound of his voice murmuring in her ear. She remembered his hands around her waist. With a gasp, Kagome slapped both hands over her mouth. Oh. No. Miroku, the man she'd put her hands all over, the man whose very essence she'd so innocently but intimately explored, the man who had held her in his arms whenever she'd been frightened or sad or weary—this Miroku was a man. Not just any man either. He's a very handsome man, a very attractive man. Kagome's eyes widened in dismay. I find him attractive?

The young woman shifted uncomfortably under her covers. I suppose I can admit to myself that he's attractive, in a purely objective sense. It's not as if he finds me attractive. Like I told Mama, he's never shown a bit of interest in me. No flirting, no inappropriate touches, no propositions. At that moment, the memory of his beautiful, serious, violet eyes searching hers by the side of the well came back to her with startling clarity. She recalled the way his thumbs had brushed gently over her knuckles with light strokes. He'd watched her so carefully before stepping away. Abashed by the mere recollection of Miroku's intensity, Kagome blushed. Oh no… he'll know!

Flopping onto her stomach and giving her pillow a few firm thumps, Kagome tried to shake her growing discomfiture. Don't be silly, Kagome. Miroku loves Sango. I love Inuyasha. He wouldn't... I couldn't... I really shouldn't even be thinking such things. Turning to face the wall, the miko tried to settle her mind and body for sleep, her fingers automatically slipping under her pillow to gather up the smooth beads of Inuyasha's rosary. When Kagome finally fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning, it was with her hand clinging to the past, and her heart pondering the future.

"Miroku, Miroku! I have an idea!" An excited kitsune came bounding up to the monk as he stood talking with the village's headman.

Miroku finished up his conversation with a smile and a bow before turning to his young interruption. "Yes, Shippo?"

"You know how Kagome was saying that spring still seems a long way off? I know a way to make spring come early!" The kit was hopping from foot to foot in his excitement. "It's something my honored mother used to do when I was really, really little. I remember, though."

"What was it your lady mother used to do, Shippo?"

"She made flowers bloom early, before the snow was all gone." Shippo got a far-off look in his eyes. "It was amazing… only, I don't know how she did it," the kit admitted.

Kagome's weekly visits had Shippo and Miroku counting the days. Every seven-day, they planned a walk to the Bone Eater's Well that coincided with the usual time of her arrival. Most weeks, they got there ahead of her, and Shippo's eager face was already peering down into the deep shaft when she appeared in a shimmer of blue. Over the intervening weeks, neither monk nor kit had come up with any ideas for surprising Kagome with a gift of their own. Until now, mused the monk.

"That is a good idea, Shippo, and one that I'm sure Kagome-sama would enjoy." The monk considered for a moment before suggesting, "Kaede-sama knows a lot about plants and things. Maybe she can help us?"

"I'll ask!" yelled Shippo over his shoulder as he raced the monk back towards the village miko's hut.

Kaede proved most helpful, though she warned Shippo that his surprise would be a few weeks in the making. "Timing will be trickiest. Is there somewhere ye can keep everything while preparations are underway?"

Miroku cleared his throat. "I still have the hut that Sango and I planned to use after we were married; it's standing empty. We can keep everything in there," he offered.

"That will do nicely," Kaede agreed with a nod, then began explaining what would be needed.

A few weeks later, Kagome knew something was up the moment she was lifted over the lip of the well's wooden frame. Miroku was making a fair attempt at his usual pious serenity, but his eyes danced with eagerness, and Shippo was doing an even worse job of containing his enthusiasm. All the way to Kaede's, the kit kept running ahead of them, circling back around, and dashing forward again, urging his Okaasan to walk faster.

Curious, Kagome turned to the man beside her. "What have you been up to, Miroku-sama?"

The monk merely smiled pleasantly, "Whatever do you mean, Kagome-sama? I can't think of any reason why you would ask such a thing."

"Oh, really," Kagome said skeptically, then turned to her kit. "What are you so excited about this morning, Shippo-kun?"

Shippo just shook his head and grinned, though he exchanged a knowing glance with Miroku. "Just come on, Okaasan," insisted the fox youkai, pulling on her hand insistently.

Nothing looked out of place in the village as they approached Kaede's hut. Shippo broke away and flew ahead of them through the door to announce their arrival to the elder miko. When she and Miroku reached the door, the monk held back the door covering for her. "After you," he offered with a courteous bow.

Giving Miroku a puzzled little smile, Kagome ducked through the opening, then stopped in her tracks. "Ooooooh," was all she managed to say as she gazed at the transformed room with wide eyes.

The entire hut was filled with blossoms—pink, white, and yellow. Spring flowers lined every wall and spilled out from the corners; the humble little hut had become a fragrant bower. Miroku urged Kagome to take a couple more steps forward so that he could enter and then watched, bemused, as she turned in a complete circle, admiring their patient handiwork. Branches from different varieties of flowering trees had been cut, their ends stuck into a collection of buckets and basins, and they had been coaxed into early bloom.

"Do you like it, Okaasan?" asked Shippo.

Kagome stepped over to a crooked branch leaning in one corner, and with a reverent finger stroked a pink petal—delicate as rice paper, soft as silk. "Oh, Shippo-kun! This is amazing!" Turning again to take in the full effect, Kagome asked in awed tones, "Did you do all this?"

"Yep," beamed her kit, though he quickly added, "Miroku and Kaede helped me."

The young miko cast a warm look towards the old woman, whose single eye twinkled with the shared excitement. "Thank you, Kaede-sama," Kagome smiled, then turned to the monk who stood at her shoulder. "And you too, Miroku-sama."

"It was all Shippo's idea, Kagome-sama," the monk confided. "He wanted to give you a little foretaste of things to come."

Twirling in front of his mother, Shippo chimed in. "Spring came early just for you, Okaasan!"

"Come here, you," urged Kagome, as she scooped the kitsune up into her arms. "This is the most wonderful gift I've ever been given."

At Kaede's invitation, Kagome took a place of honor on a pile of blankets beside the fire and accepted a cup of hot tea, relishing the warmth it transmitted to her cold fingers. Tipping her head back and closing her eyes, Kagome lost herself in the perfume of spring. Smiling softly, she tried to unravel the sweet scents that swirled around the room. Was that plum or cherry blossom, she wondered. Opening her eyes, she found she was looking directly into Miroku's face. He'd seated himself across the fire from her, resting his chin in the palm of his hand as his deep violet eyes studied her expression. Kagome felt caught by his gaze and couldn't help the blush that tinged her cheeks.

"So, Shippo-kun, any news from your week?" she asked quickly, trying to divert attention away from her momentary fluster.

"We re-set Miroku's wards around the village. That took a few days," replied the kitsune. Then as an afterthought, he added, "Miroku's been making the rounds in the village, too."

"Making the rounds?" asked Kagome with a glance towards the monk.

"Oh yes, he's always going into different houses," affirmed Shippo innocently. "He's become quite popular."

"You don't say?" said Kagome archly, giving the monk a sharp look.

Miroku started, then waved both hands before him. "Now, don't jump to the wrong conclusions, Kagome-sama."

"What conclusions do you think I'm jumping to, Miroku-sama?" returned the young miko, putting her nose up in the air.

At this point, Kaede began to laugh. "Kagome-sama, young Shippo left out a few minor details. Ye should know that the headman invited Miroku-sama to be a part of a delegation. They've been going through the village over the last several days making a count and determining which families are in need of assistance."

Miroku nodded vigorously, "It was an honor to be included."

Kagome blinked as she realized she'd impugned the monk's honor. "Oh! I see," she said lamely.

Miroku mischievously pressed his advantage. "I'm most curious. What did you think I was doing in all those homes, Kagome-sama?" he asked with an exaggeratedly innocent expression. At a loss for words, she squirmed under his twinkling gaze, unable to prevent another blush from suffusing her face.

They spent their day enjoying all the little games and treats that usually marked Kagome's visits. Reluctant to leave the flowery arbor that Miroku and Shippo had created for her, the miko lingered later than usual. Hours slipped by unnoticed while Miroku told a particularly funny story about a con he pulled with Hachie a few years back. To hear him tell it, he's a regular feudal Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. By the time his tale wound down to its conclusion, both Kagome and Kaede were laughing so hard, there were tears running down their cheeks.

Shippo fell asleep with his head in Kagome's lap, and she shifted out from under him and carefully carried him over to where his pallet lay. The kitsune's corner in Kaede's hut was a small trove of boyish treasures. A string of acorn caps had been tacked to the wall along with some pressed leaves and barred feathers. The wall beside his bed was lined by his collection from their travels—smooth pebbles, nuts, mossy twigs, and egg shells. She tucked her son under his blankets and brushed the hair off his forehead. With a soft kiss to his cheek, she rose to her feet and turned to face the others.

"May I escort you back, Kagome-sama?" Miroku offered.

Kagome nodded and hurried to bundle up her belongings. Thanking Kaede again for her part in the day's surprises, she shouldered her much-depleted bag and followed Miroku out into the night. It was well past sunset, but there was enough of a moon to see by.

When they arrived at the Bone Eater's Well, Kagome turned to her companion, unsurprised when he pulled her hands into his. It's the way he always says farewell. The miko smiled up into searching violet eyes. "Thank you again for the flowers, Miroku-sama; I know you and Shippo must have worked very hard to gather them all. It was a wonderful surprise."

"It was a pleasure to see you smile," replied the monk, moving half a step closer, his expression somehow very intense.

Suddenly nervousness, Kagome babbled on, "Yes, well, it was just like Shippo-kun said… Spring came early this year. I've never seen anything so beautiful."

"Beautiful," echoed the monk softly as he reached up to tuck a strand of Kagome's loose hair behind her ear, his touch feather-light.

The miko's breath caught. "Miroku-sama?" she managed to squeak out, watching his hand as it again moved to touch her hair, her heartbeat thundering in her chest.

"Kagome-sama," the monk returned silkily.

Kagome felt Miroku's hand slip beneath the soft waves of her hair until it curved gently around the back of her head, all the while searching her face. His usually perceptive gaze was suddenly so self-assured, and the confidence she read in his eyes made her stomach do a little flip. Such pretty eyes, the miko thought fuzzily. When he bent to catch her lips in a gentle kiss, Kagome gasped, but Miroku had already stepped back.

"Will we see you after another seven-day then?" inquired the monk politely.

"Yes, next week," Kagome replied automatically, her heart still pounding erratically, her knees a little weak.

Miroku offered a cordial hand up onto the well's edge, just as he always did, before softly adding, "Goodnight, Kagome-sama."

Nodding, the miko let herself fall into the light.

When she reached the modern era, Kagome leaned weakly against the side of the well. I didn't just imagine that, did I? Miroku just… kissed me. He kissed me. Slowly, the young woman pulled herself up the ladder and out of the well's shaft, trailing absently across the courtyard and into the house.

Mrs. Higurashi and Grandpa were waiting up in the kitchen. Mama was just putting away the last of the dishes, and Grandpa was pouring over the local paper while sipping his tea. They'd been discussing some tidbit in the news when Kagome walked through, her eyes a little dreamy. The two elders looked at each other, then examined the preoccupied girl more closely. "How was your visit, dear?" inquired Mrs. Higurashi.

"Nice. Very nice," Kagome answered vaguely, her eyes focused somewhere else. "I'm off to bed, then."

Mrs. Higurashi watched her daughter meander towards the stairs, then exchanged a knowing look with Grandpa. The old man shook out his paper, then glanced back to where his granddaughter had disappeared. "That girl's just been kissed" he stated with authority.


A InuYasha Story
by forthright

Part 5 of 8

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