Continuing Tales


A InuYasha Story
by forthright

Part 6 of 8

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The very next morning found Kagome on her hands and knees in the main shrine building, running a dust-cloth along wooden lattices. Mama worked nearby, lifting statues out of their niches to swipe each recess with an oiled rag, leaving behind the clean smells of oil soap and citrus. Grandpa was on the other side of the room, replenishing the incense sticks at the altar and muttering prayers under his breath. It was a cozy sort of feeling, rolling up their sleeves and actually 'keeping' the family shrine like this. I've been dusting these screens since I was old enough to walk.

"How was your visit yesterday, dear?" Mama inquired. "Anything new happen?"

"New?" Kagome echoed in a voice that was a little too high and a little too cheerful.

"Yes, dear," replied Mrs. Higurashi evenly. "I couldn't help but notice you seemed a bit distracted when you came in last night."

"Did I?" Kagome rejoined, trying to sound nonchalant.

"Yes, you did," Mama stated firmly.

"Well… yes, actually," Kagome sighed, glancing over her shoulder to where Grandpa was puttering to make sure he couldn't overhear. "Shippo-kun and Miroku-sama had a wonderful surprise prepared for my visit yesterday. They filled Kaede's hut with flowers to give me an early springtime. Cherry, plum, quince, pear—it smelled heavenly." Kagome's eyes glowed at the memory.

"They forced branches from fruit trees?" Mama asked with interest.

"Yes, and some shrubs too, I think," Kagome nodded.

"That must have taken them weeks to prepare," Mrs. Higurashi noted appreciatively. "How very thoughtful."

"I know. They said it was Shippo's idea, but Kaede and Miroku-sama helped him pull it off."

Mrs. Higurashi hummed to herself for a few moments before picking up the thread of conversation. "Then what happened?" she inquired innocently.

Kagome met her mother's knowing look and sighed, allowing her confusion to show. "Miroku-sama kissed me, Mama," she confessed.

"Ah," the older woman murmured and moved to sit down beside her daughter, "This surprised you?"

"Of course! I mean, he's… Miroku-sama," she insisted, trailing off with a weak wave of her hands. "It happened so fast, I'm not even sure it happened at all."

Mama made an encouraging noise, letting Kagome know she was listening.

The young woman slumped disconsolately against the wall and pulled the Shikon no Tama out from beneath her blouse, considering the sphere as it swayed like a pendulum on its silver chain. "My life is tied to this Jewel because I am its protector. It's my duty, my destiny; and yet it's not a task I can do alone—not yet, at least. Miroku-sama lends me his greater wisdom and experience in spiritual matters. He's been helping me along, and I depend on him."

"But…" Mama supplied.

The young woman turned troubled eyes towards her mother. "My life is bound up in the Jewel, and through the Jewel, it's been bound to Miroku-sama. I need Miroku-sama, but it's only because of the Jewel… right?"

Mrs. Higurashi pursed her lips, then answered carefully. "Perhaps that's how it started, but isn't it possible for things to change?"

"What kinds of things?" Kagome ventured warily.

"Your reasons for needing him," suggested Mama with a soft smile.

Kagome just shook her head in denial, but it felt good to talk about this with someone, so she pressed on. "Why would he kiss me, Mama?"

This brought a genuine smile to her mother's face. She reached over to pat her daughter's cheek. "Why wouldn't he, dear?"

"Well, what about Sango and Inuyasha?" Kagome argued.

"It's been nearly a year, Kagome. Perhaps over time his heart has healed enough to begin anew."

"He can't possibly want…" Kagome balked. "Maybe he was confused?"

"Were you planning go back as usual next weekend?" Mama asked, turning the conversation slightly.

"Oh, I have to," Kagome answered quickly.

"So, he didn't offend you or frighten you," surmised Mama. "You won't avoid him?"

"I don't know what I'd do without him," admitted Kagome. "Miroku-sama is my friend, but… I don't think I've ever done anything that might give him the wrong impression."

"I'm sure you haven't been leading him on, dear," Mama said, "but that wouldn't prevent him from forming his own attachment."

Kagome groaned. "We're always together when I go back to the Sengoku Jidai, but that's a matter of necessity. It hardly means Miroku-sama would want me in a more… personal way."

"It looks to me as if you'd better consider the possibility," Mama warned. "Your young man may very well be pinning his hopes on you. He's already given you much more than his friendship; it's not so farfetched to think that he's also given you his heart."

"Oh, no."

Mrs. Higurashi pressed just a bit further, "You say he hasn't been flirting as he once did… that he's become more serious?" At Kagome's nod, she continued, "Then I think it's safe to assume that he's serious about this, Kagome."

Miroku dragged himself to his usual seat by the fire in Kaede's hut and accepted a bowl from the old miko with a grateful nod. Shippo, who was already attacking his breakfast with gusto, paused long enough to give the flagging monk a cursory assessment. "Miroku, you look awful."

"Why, thank you," the monk replied dryly as he accepted a cup of tea from Kaede.

"Did ye not sleep well?" the woman asked, concern evident in her tone.

"Not especially," sighed the monk, swirling his cup absently. His night had been plagued by vague fears and fierce recriminations. What was I thinking? He had promised himself to take it slow. He never should have done it—one moment of weakness may have foiled all his secret hopes. What does she think? He could still see her wide eyes and flushed cheeks. Nothing had been said, so he had no way of knowing what further reaction his lapse might have had. What have I done? Worries and what-ifs always managed to become inevitabilities during sleepless nights, and the doubts lingered in spite of dawn's arrival. What will she do? At the moment, Miroku doubted he would ever know.

Shippo and Kaede exchanged glances, and the kitsune took the lead, affecting a pout. "How come I didn't get to say goodbye to Okaasan last night?"

Miroku winced slightly. "You were sleeping so peacefully, Shippo. Kagome-sama did not wish to disturb your rest."

"Oh," returned the kit. "Will she be back next week?"

Kaede's quick eye caught the monk's hesitation, and the sudden paling of his face worried her. "Miroku-sama, what ails thee?" she prodded gently.

"I'm not ill, Kaede-sama," he offered, setting his bowl aside without touching its contents.

"Something is amiss," she pressed.

The monk hesitated, but finally raised troubled eyes to meet the miko's sympathetic gaze. "I might have made a mistake when I saw Kagome to the well last night," he admitted.

Kaede nodded. "Did you speak to the girl of thy feelings then?" she asked bluntly.

"Not exactly," he said wearily, then frowned, studying the old woman's lined face carefully. "You knew?"

The old miko chuckled. "I may be old, Miroku-sama, but I haven't lost the use of my wits."

"Ah," Miroku murmured moodily, turning his attention back to his teacup.

"What has thee worried, then? I was under the impression that this sort of thing was thy… strength?" The miko kept her voice even, but Miroku could hear the smile underlying her tone and shot her a bland look.

Shippo didn't even try to hide the twinkle in his eyes. "Yeah, Miroku, you've had years of practice flirting with girls."

The monk stared into the fire pit, finding it easier to unburden his heart with an averted gaze. "I promised myself I wouldn't do anything until I saw some sign of receptivity on Kagome-sama's part." He traced the rim of his cup with a finger. "Last night was the first time…" he paused, remembering. "She was so happy, and there was this look in her eyes, and then she blushed." He risked a peep at Kaede, who nodded encouragingly. "I could feel it in her awkwardness—her awareness of me. It was like she saw me for the first time, and maybe I lost my head." Miroku floundered, setting aside his tea and clasping his hands tightly together.

"What happened?" the miko asked curiously.

Before the monk could answer, Shippo chimed in. "You didn't grope her, did you?" he demanded, arms folded over his chest threateningly.

"No, no, no," Miroku dissembled, giving the kit a horrified look.

"What then?" he asked simply, tipping his head.

"Well, I kissed her," he confessed, absently tugging at the earrings in one ear. "What if I frightened her?" he asked, finally blurting out the worst of his fears. "What if she doesn't come back?"

Shippo looked startled by the notion, but Kaede proceeded calmly. "How did the child react, if I may be so bold?"

Miroku took a deep breath as he gathered his thoughts. "Surprised," he decided.

"Not angry, offended?" Kaede questioned.

"No," he replied slowly, "She was just… astonished."

The elderly miko hummed. "I suspect ye will need to give Kagome time to get used to the idea." She smiled at the distraught would-be suitor. "Ye have communicated your hopes after a fashion, but it would be wise to make thy intentions clear. Ye saw how difficult it was for young Kagome while Inuyasha wrestled with his feelings." Kaede shook her head sadly. "If ye are serious, ye must tell her plainly."

"I am quite serious," he assured her. "I will tell her, given the opportunity."

"She will be back," Kaede said confidently. "It is not like Kagome-sama to abandon her friends."

"I hope you're right," Miroku responded morosely, summoning up a weak smile before turning halfheartedly to his breakfast.

Kagome stood facing the Bone Eater's Well, hesitating for the first time in months. She wanted nothing more than to see 'her boys' again, but she felt caught by the tangle of conflicting emotions that swamped her. The week had crawled by with agonizing slowness, and it had occurred to her more than once that her time in this era was spent looking backwards. For the first few days after her return from a visit through the well, she'd savor the memories of her feudal free day. Then, the next few days were spent in eager preparation for her return the following weekend. It was like living for one day out of seven.

To hesitate now, when this is what she lived for, seemed horribly unfair after everything else she'd lost. A small part of her was furious with Miroku for robbing her of the simple pleasure of anticipation. Kagome wanted none of this anxiety or uncertainty.

She just didn't know how to act towards Miroku now. Should she pretend nothing had changed? Had something changed? Maybe it never happened? That was a desperate hope to cling to; it was useless to pretend it hadn't. Maybe it meant nothing? This was Miroku after all. Maybe a kiss didn't mean anything to him; he always was a flirt. A little voice argued that he didn't flirt in the same way anymore, and he hadn't been teasing when he'd kissed her. Maybe he regrets it? That would be for the best, surely.

Kagome fidgeted indecisively, unsure what behavior would be appropriate. This is going to be awkward no matter what, she admitted to herself. Deciding the only thing to do was get it over with, she hitched up her pack and swung a leg over the side of the well and leapt through time.

Thinking quickly, Kagome tried to prepare herself for what a 'normal' greeting should be like. Miroku and Shippo were always waiting for her when she arrived, and the young woman doubted today would be any different. The first thing they always did when she got back through the well was reconnect to release the reckless energy built up within the Shikon no Tama. She and Miroku had simply fallen into the habit of taking care of it right away upon her arrival. This re-acquaintance and release took mere minutes, and the results were often spectacular. She'd even made an innocent jest about the explosive nature of their relationship—lighting up the sky every time they touched.

Looking at it another way, Kagome's stomach did a flip. How could I have missed the intimacy of our little reunions? It felt so natural, had become so familiar. Umeko-sama had said they'd be stronger together, and Kagome had accepted that at face value. She needed Miroku, and they were stronger together; they had a well-established and quickly-deepening connection. His help, his strength, his guidance, his experience, his understanding, his comfort, his friendship—all these things she could accept from him without a qualm. For her, the bond had been a matter of practicality, but there was no way to ignore the fact that it meant something more to him.

What am I to him? The answer was uncomplicated, though multi-faceted. She was his friend, his connection to their shared past. He trusted her, surely. He sought her out, put her at ease, gauged her moods, understood her unspoken questions, teased her amiably, and reminded her how to laugh. Miroku had proven to be protective of her, respectful of her position, and considerate of her feelings. He was always glad of her return, wistful at their partings, and right by her side between-times. Thinking back, she realized that his eyes never left her; for months now, he had quietly studied her face and followed her movements. All of his courtesy and attentiveness should have hinted at the depths to which he had invested himself. I never considered the fact that our relationship might change—was changing.

The soft, blue lights that accompanied her passage through time left her standing in a patch of sunlight, which was quickly crossed by a shadow. "Welcome back, Kagome-sama," hailed a voice from overhead. As she crossed to the thick vines that lined the side of the Well, she looked up, catching sight of Miroku's face.

"Okaasan!" cheered Shippo, grinning from ear-to-ear as he appeared next to the monk.

Kagome clambered upwards, and as she neared the top, Miroku bent towards her. "Here," he beckoned. "Allow me to assist you, Kagome-sama?" Her eyes flickered towards him and his outstretched hand. Without a moment's hesitation, she reached for him—it never occurred to her not to.

She allowed Miroku to help her, then opened her arms to catch the kitsune who had already launched himself towards her. Shippo made a show of reacquainting himself, growling and pushing his head up under his adoptive mother's chin, clinging tightly and sighing in contentment. Understanding his need for physical contact, Kagome pulled him close and nuzzled his hair, stroking his back and smiling softly. "How's my kit?" she cooed softly, pleased to feel him hide a responding smile in the crook of her neck.

Then, the time had come to complete their welcoming ritual—it was Miroku's turn. Shippo patted her shoulder as she lowered him to the ground, and he backed away to a safe distance. Kagome turned to face the monk, feeling rather skittish, and Miroku approached her slowly. "Kagome-sama?" he called softly, pulling her eyes up to his face. "Are you ready?" Wordlessly, she nodded, and in a moment she was the one with her head tucked under a chin. Strong arms circled her in a loose embrace, and the monk led her through the familiar, inward-turning that connected her with the Shikon no Tama.

So tense. Miroku's heart ached at the uncertainty that reverberated through Kagome's body and soul, knowing he was responsible for it. Keeping his voice gentle and his touch neutral, he called her to him so they could send off the pent up energies of the Jewel. To his relief, she didn't rebuff him, but stepped into his cautious embrace. Miroku wanted nothing more than to reassure her, so he called up his spiritual energies and focused on making his presence a soothing one. Even after the release was accomplished, she kept her head bowed and her eyes hidden by her bangs, so he lowered his head and murmured, "Kagome-sama?"

"Mm?" she hummed, still not speaking to him.

"Thank you for coming back," he said quietly.

After a pause, Kagome asked, "Did you think I wouldn't?"

"I was afraid you might not," Miroku admitted, but he quickly changed his tone, raising his voice to address Shippo. "Perhaps if we bring her back with us, Kaede-sama will let us through the door?"

"She'd have to," agreed the kit.

"You were evicted?" Kagome inquired with a hint of a smile as she backed out of the monk's arms.

"We were turned out shortly after daybreak with instructions not to bother her. I believe she's cooking up something special for your visit," Miroku explained.

"It smells awful good in there, but when I snuck close and asked Kaede what she was making, she chased me out," Shippo mourned.

Miroku led the way towards the village, adding, "We've had to fend for ourselves all morning, but I suspect that whatever Kaede-sama has in store will be worth the wait."

The elder miko welcomed them warmly. "Another hour is needed before we will eat; sit ye down and tell us about thy time away," she urged as she returned to her seat beside the fire and readied the teapot.

Miroku watched Kagome carefully. With determined cheerfulness, she tried to behave as if nothing was wrong, but within minutes, the young woman was a wreck. As she rambled on about her week, she kept losing her train of thought, contradicting herself, and talking herself into corners. It was obvious that she was uncomfortable in his presence, and Miroku found it almost painful to see her so ill-at-ease. The next time she faltered awkwardly, Kagome lifted uncertain eyes to his, silently pleading for help. I'm the one who put her in this position, yet I'm the one she turns to? Dearly hoping that this was a sign that his prior impulsiveness had not spelled the ruin of all his hopes, he stood. "We need to have a little talk, Kagome-sama," Miroku said firmly, extending his hand.

Startled, Kagome reached up, allowing Miroku to pull her to her feet. He did not release her, instead turning to address Kaede. "You'll excuse us for a bit, Kaede-sama? I'm sure we'll return in plenty of time for dinner."

"Aye," the old woman replied agreeably.

Next, Miroku faced Shippo, who hadn't moved from his place by the fire. The kit simply looked between the two of them and nodded gravely. Satisfied, Miroku gently tugged Kagome's hand and led her out the door.

Once they reached the edge of the village, Miroku slowed his pace to an easy stroll and relinquished his hold. She didn't comment, and the silence stretched as they put some distance between themselves and the last of the huts. He noticed her sidelong glances and felt the nervousness vibrating through her aura, so he opted to break the tension. "Kagome-sama?" he began gently, "Is something on your mind?" Kagome kept her eyes forward, toying with the lowest button on her sweater. She mumbled a reply, and Miroku couldn't quite catch the words. "Did you say something?" he asked patiently.

The young woman sighed and squared her shoulders, speaking more clearly. "Did you… kiss me?" she repeated.

"Yes, Kagome-sama," Miroku stated plainly, face serious but eyes sparkling.

The young woman blinked at his straightforwardness. "Why?"

"Because I wanted to, Kagome-sama," he said easily, as if such things happened every day.

"That's no kind of answer, Miroku-sama," the miko said, a hint of her usual spark returning with her frustration.

"It's the truth," Miroku challenged.

"Then why did you want to kiss me?" she asked.

"Ah, now that's more difficult to answer," admitted Miroku.

"Try," Kagome insisted flatly.

"Do you want the truth?" Miroku asked carefully.

"Of course," the young woman replied.

Miroku frowned slightly, "What if I tell you the truth, and you stop trusting me?"

Kagome's brow furrowed in confusion. "Why would telling the truth make you untrustworthy?"

"Let me rephrase that," Miroku sighed. "What if you don't like the truth?"

Kagome stopped walking and just stared up at him, her nervousness forgotten in her effort to understand what Miroku was and wasn't saying. As her own guardedness slipped, she took in the hesitation in Miroku's stance. "Miroku-sama, you're not making any sense."

Miroku ran his fingers through his hair and shifted his grip on his shakujou. "Kagome-sama, we are from two different eras, so I would like to make sure we understand each other. What does a kiss mean to you?" he asked.

She blushed, but obliged her friend by answering with equal candor. "In my time, a kiss can mean different things to different people. Some are quite free with their affections, others more reserved. Still, I don't think it's that different than here. A kiss is an expression of liking… or at least of wanting…"

Miroku simply nodded. "Yes, but what does a kiss mean to you, Kagome-sama?" he repeated insistently.

Wistfulness flickered across her face, and she answered in the barest whisper, "Love."

Now we're getting somewhere. "A kiss is an expression of abiding affection, a way to communicate one's feelings. I kissed you because I wanted you to know how I feel. You are very precious to me Kagome-sama."

"I… am?"

"Yes, I need you," he said softly.

"Well, I need you too, what with the Jewel…" Kagome mumbled, apparently missing the point.

"No, Kagome-sama," Miroku tried again. "Please, listen carefully. I need you."

"You need me," the miko repeated, then cocked her head. "For what?"

Chuckling, Miroku shook his head in disbelief, "Honestly, are you trying to be obtuse?"

Kagome shifted uncomfortably, "Well, 'need' can be taken so many different ways. I don't want to assume…"

"Fair enough, Kagome-sama. Allow me to make myself very clear."

Miroku stepped closer so that Kagome had to look up to meet his eyes. "Kagome-sama, I kissed you because I have every intention of courting you, and what I need from you is for you to accept my suit," he explained, quirking a small smile.

Kagome gulped, "Are you serious?"

"Yes, Kagome-sama, I am very serious. Is it so hard to believe?"

"Well… yes?" replied the young woman dazedly. "I don't understand how… what about Sango?" she blurted out, bewildered.

Miroku nodded in understanding, having expected this turn. "There is that. Is that all?" he prompted.

"Well, no. There is Inuyasha too," Kagome supplied tentatively.

"Undoubtedly," agreed Miroku kindly.

"Then how can you… don't you still love Sango?"

"Of course, Kagome-sama," Miroku replied with a faint smile.

"Then why would you…?" Kagome gave up trying to finish her sentences with a small growl of frustration.

"Sango is out of reach now, as is Inuyasha," Miroku stated patiently.

"I know that," Kagome frowned.

"Though things haven't turned out the way we all expected, I haven't given up all hope on… living." The tightness in Kagome's expression wasn't very encouraging, and Miroku sighed and tried again. "Let me ask you this. You love Inuyasha, yes?"

"Yes," Kagome agreed with a firm nod.

"He will always be a part of your life, hold a part of your heart."


"You've mentioned before that your time here is kept a secret from the people in your era." At her nod, he continued. "They don't know about your experiences here, nor about the Jewel you still protect. Any potential suitors from your era could never fully understand or even accept the reasons why you continue to love Inuyasha. Could they?"

"No," Kagome whispered.

"With us, it would be different," he pointed out. "You don't have to hide anything from me, nor I from you. I know about Inuyasha; you know about Sango."

To Miroku's surprise, a flash of temper glittered in Kagome's eyes. "So… because of our shared past, I can be taken as a stand-in for my best friend and sister? I would become a… a convenient replacement for what was taken from you?"

"No!" Miroku exclaimed, then more gently, "No. You misunderstand me. I am sorry, Kagome-sama." The monk reached for her hand and tried to soothe her ruffled feelings through his touch. "I admit it is nice not to have to explain my past to you. You understand because you're part of it." There was a pained look on Miroku's face. "I didn't turn my affections to you because it was convenient to do so, nor was I expecting… this." He shook his head resignedly, and spoke the honest truth, "I tried not to, Kagome-sama."

Kagome gently withdrew her hand from Miroku's grasp. "I'm sorry, Miroku-sama, that was rude of me." With downcast eyes, she admitted, "I guess I still don't like the idea of being someone's second choice."

"I can sympathize with that sentiment as I now find myself in the same position," he said dryly. "Please believe that I see you for yourself and not as a stand-in for Sango. I would not wish that for you anymore than I would want to be a replacement for Inuyasha."

Her gray eyes filled with tears and she shook her head sadly. "I can understand that."

Miroku shifted uncomfortably at Kagome's tears, reluctant to reach out after she had pulled away. "I do not doubt that you understand me better than anyone, Kagome-sama," he acknowledged. "If it helps, I want you to know that you are not so much my second choice… as my second chance." He watched as she considered the idea. "I will not press, but I wished to make my intentions clear. Maybe I can be your second chance as well?" he offered quietly.

When Kagome arrived on a warm spring morning two weeks later, Miroku was relieved to find a genuine smile of welcome on her face. The young woman seemed to be adjusting to the idea that he harbored feelings for her, though there was no sign as yet that she might return them. Still, he was grateful that she'd been able to set aside most of her discomfort. The return of their easy camaraderie was nice, but at the same time, it was a bit of a blow that she could be so casual in his presence again. Why does her attitude seem so familiar? It took him most of the morning to figure out where he'd seen this particular brand of politeness before, and once he had, he really wished he hadn't. Her behavior reminded him far too much of the manner in which she'd always ignored Kouga's advances, and the very idea that she was only tolerating his foolish hopes for the sake of their friendship… hurt.

After their midday meal with Kaede, Miroku caught Kagome's eye. "How about a walk? I need to speak with you on a small matter." Her smile faltered, and he quickly explained, "The headman asked me to get your advice on a project the village has planned for the summer months. Come with me, and I'll show you."

Curious, Kagome followed him out of the hut, Shippo close on her heels. "Why would the headman want my opinion?" she asked.

"I've been helping him in an advisory capacity since our return last fall, and one of the major plans he has for the upcoming year is the expansion of the shrine. Since I've traveled, he wanted the benefit of my experience. I'm to assist in drawing up the plans." As he talked, they walked under the torii gate that marked the entrance to the current holy site and passed the village's cemetery. "It occurred to me that you happen to live in this very shrine, so it seems the simplest course is to ask you where everything should go."

Kagome glanced at the simple structures, then pointed up the slope to where Goshinboku's crown could be seen above the surrounding trees. "My house is further away than this, through this part of the forest," she explained. "It might be easiest to show you how things are laid out in my time if we start at the Well."

Pausing a moment to let Shippo scramble up onto his shoulders, the monk gestured for Kagome to lead the way, and they returned to the quiet meadow where the Bone Eater's Well stood as the only landmark. Miroku looked around thoughtfully, and asked, "Am I correct in remembering that Goshinboku stands near your family's home?"

"That's right," Kagome replied, somewhat surprised. "It's right within the courtyard."

"Is the tree even bigger in your time?" Shippo inquired.

"I think it is a little bigger, yes," she admitted.

"Can you show me where the shrine stands in your era?" prodded Miroku gently.

"Sure," Kagome said, looking between the tree and the Well to get her bearings. "When I go home, I climb out here." She rested her hand on the weathered wood. "Grandpa has a ladder inside to make it easier for me. Then, I climb up the stairs." Striding forward, she pantomimed pushing a door aside. "Down a few steps, and this is the courtyard, right here."

"Is it like this meadow?" Shippo asked, squinting at the surroundings as if trying to conjure up Kagome's home.

"No, the shrine compound is bigger than this meadow in my time."

"Do we have to cut down the trees, then?" the kit wondered aloud.

"I don't believe so, Shippo," replied Miroku. "I'm sure that many things changed over time. We just want to make a good beginning."

"There are trees all around the shrine, but it's not a forest," Kagome told her kit. "We're surrounded by city, and there are buildings all around us, much taller than Goshinboku." She went on to describe apartment complexes and office buildings, busy streets and city lights.

"Inuyasha used to say that your era is crowded with lots of people," Shippo recalled. "Isn't it noisy?"

"It is, especially when you're not used to all the sounds. When Miroku-sama first brought me home, I had a hard time adjusting. Still, for being in the middle of the city, our shrine has always been a peaceful place. It's like… a sanctuary."

Miroku listened with keen interest. I wonder why I never thought to ask her more about her home. It's always been right here. Kagome had spoken of her time before, in general terms, but many of her passing references to the future were difficult to fathom. Inuyasha had seen it for himself, but he wasn't often in a talkative mood, and his rare comments left a lot to the imagination. Now, Miroku found himself paying greater heed, eager for details.

"The ground is paved so that it looks like smooth, grey stone, and the main shrine is this way." She cut across the meadow at an angle, gesturing to things that were invisible to his eyes, but vivid in hers. "Right about here, there are steps… and here are the columns… and these will be the doors."

"Shippo, would you find me some sticks so we can mark this off?" Miroku murmured.

"I'm on it!" grinned the kitsune, sliding off the monk's shoulders and disappearing into the undergrowth.

Miroku stayed by Kagome's side, listening to her descriptions, which grew more excited and more detailed as the minutes passed. She was seeing it all in her mind's eye, and her eyes took on a shine as she tried to help him envision it too. She really loves this place… her home. Having been raised at a shrine himself, he thought he could understand, at least in part, her deep attachment.

After she'd finished with the shrine, Kagome caught Miroku's hand and tugged him back 'out' into the courtyard, this time headed towards a dense copse of trees. "My house is this way," she explained eagerly.

Miroku glanced over his shoulder, wondering what was taking Shippo so long, only to glimpse the kit sitting casually on a low branch, watching them. The boy waved cheerfully, but made no move to rejoin them. That little schemer. He shook his head and smirked, then turned his full attention back to Kagome, who dove into the trees.

"Just a little farther. The house isn't too close to the main shrine, which is nice when things get busy." She slowed, then turned a critical eye towards Goshinboku, which was still visible through the yellow-green haze of leaf buds on the trees surrounding them. "I think we're at the front door now," she decided aloud. Suddenly conscious of the fact that she had Miroku by the hand, she released him and beckoned for him to follow. Again, she went through the motions, as if the house stood before them. "The door slides like this, and there's an entry. Step up, and there's a short hall. In this room, there are comfortable seats and a television… which is hard to explain, but it's mostly for news and entertainment. Over here on this side, is the kitchen. Here's our table," she pointed, then proceeded to walk around, gently touching items as she named them. "A stove for cooking, a sink for washing. This is where Mama hangs her calendar. Here's the refrigerator, which keeps food cool. Mama keeps a copy of that picture of all of us on it. She says it helped to keep us close even when we were far away." Her smile wobbled a little, and she worked to straighten it. "Buyo's dish is right down here, but I like to give him scraps under the table. He's so spoiled."

Miroku chuckled. "I know your brother's name is Souta, so this must be a pet?"

"A cat," supplied Kagome. "You didn't know I had a cat?"

The monk shrugged. "I suppose it never came up."

"Well, I do. He's old and fat and lazy… and comfortable and huggable and mine. Inuyasha used to play with him whenever he visited my house."

Her eyes took on a faraway look, and Miroku gently cleared his throat. "If I am understanding your descriptions, your home is quite spacious, and blessed with many conveniences."

Kagome nodded slowly. "It does seem large, I suppose, compared to the houses in the village. This isn't all of it, either. The bedrooms are upstairs." She pointed to where the stairs would lead to the second story. "If we were on the next level, my room would be here, and Souta's is here. There's a bathroom and closet, and then Mama's room and Grandpa's room are on the other end of the hall."

Miroku kept her talking, and learned odd tidbits of information. They weren't important things, or even private things… just details that might help. If nothing else, Miroku knew how to make the most of things. As Kagome's mind wandered, he surreptitiously dragged his sandal through the leaf mould, exposing the rich soil beneath. Each room, each door, each window—he fixed them in his memory and marked them where he could. I'll come back tomorrow with Shippo and stake this off as well.

When they exited the trees, Kagome spied Shippo, who had kept busy by driving his collected sticks into the ground where the new shrine would be built, and they moved to rejoin him. "I've lived here my whole life, so it's difficult to imagine being anywhere else," she admitted.

Oh, how he wanted to reply—to point out that this could still be her home—but he'd given his word not to speak of such things until she was ready. Miroku wisely bit his tongue, and set his mind to finding ways to show her the things he couldn't say.

A few weeks later, Kaede spoke up over tea. "Do ye remember the woman I introduced ye to earlier in the spring? She is wife to Shun-san, our village's carpenter?"

"She's Kouki-kun's mother," Shippo supplied, adding, "She's nice."

"Yes, of course," Kagome replied. "Hitomi-chan is expecting her third baby…"

"Hitomi-san welcomed her babe five days ago—a daughter. She has requested that ye and Miroku-sama visit their home this afternoon so the two of ye can offer blessings for the child," Kaede explained.

The younger woman's face lit with pleasure. "I've watched my mother do blessings for infants before. Did Hitomi-chan really ask for me?"

"Aye, that she did."

"I've already prepared some talismans to leave with them," Miroku remarked.

Kagome's brow furrowed, and she looked to the old woman. "I wonder how much things have changed over time. Will you talk me through what you usually do and say, Kaede-sama?"


"Do you think I should… change?" Kagome ventured, plucking at the skirt of her obviously modern attire.

Kaede hummed approvingly. "If ye are willing, I'm sure it would please them, but the people of this village claim thee as their own, no matter how ye dress, Kagome."

Shippo was sent to let Hitomi know that they would arrive within the hour, and Miroku was chased out so Kagome could slip into the attire of a miko. Kaede talked her through the customary words, which had changed little over time, and when both priestesses made their appearance outside, Miroku was waiting patiently under a nearby tree. Kagome smoothed a hand over the bright red of her hakama and smiled a little self-consciously at Miroku. The traditional clothes brought back vivid memories, but she found it strange that most of them were attached to Umeko-sama… and the journey she'd made with Miroku from Yamataku Shrine. They used to only remind me of Kikyo, she mused. It was a welcome change that lightened her step.

As they came even with Miroku, he bowed deeply, setting the rings on his staff to jangling. "Kaede-sama, Kagome-sama, it is a lovely day, and your presence only serves to make it lovelier," he declared.

Kaede fixed him with a dark eye that sparkled in spite of her grim expression. "If ye expect to deceive any but thyself with thy words, ye should stay closer to the truth, monk," she remarked blandly as she ambled past. "Save thy breath for the blessing of the babe."

"As you wish, Kaede-sama," replied the monk with questionable contrition. He fell in step beside Kagome, allowing the elder miko to lead the way, and soon their little delegation reached the small hut that stood close to the rice paddies. When Kaede called out a greeting, there was a rushing of feet, and Shippo appeared beside Shun and Hitomi's oldest, a boy who had become one of his best friends. Their young greeter bobbed his head and held the door mat aside for their honored guests. "Good day, Kouki-kun," Miroku greeted seriously, earning a pleased grin from the lad.

Inside, Kaede took charge, asking questions until she was assured that both mother and child were doing well. Meanwhile, Kagome tried to coax a smile from the small girl who was hanging back, clinging to her mother's skirts. Hitomi turned to Kagome with a shy but friendly smile. "Thank you for coming. Let me just call my husband. He's close by. Would you… like to hold her?" she offered, extending the bundled newborn towards Kagome.

With a bright smile, Kagome accepted the little one and soon had her cradled in the crook of her arm. She lifted a corner of the blanket to get a better look at the fuzz of dark hair and one tiny, flailing fist. Kagome swayed gently, then to Miroku's amusement, she addressed the infant in a ridiculous display of baby talk. He managed to contain his chuckle as she kept up a steady flow of nonsense and carried the newborn over to Kaede for her inspection as well. The elderly woman smiled softly at the new life that had been added to their village. "Isn't she just beautiful?" cooed Kagome.

"Aye," Kaede agreed, reaching out to brush the baby's cheek with a wrinkled finger.

Hitomi returned with Shun, and Miroku greeted the man easily. "You have added another beautiful daughter to your household." Though the carpenter didn't seem much inclined to talk, he straightened proudly and placed his hand on young Kouki's shoulder. "Shall we begin?" the monk invited, moving to stand beside the two priestesses in the crowded little hut. "First of all, may I ask your daughter's name?"

The parents exchanged glances and Hitomi blushed and spoke up. "We wanted for her to have a strong name, one that would bring honor to our house and the village." Kagome smiled and nodded encouragingly.

Shun met Kagome's eyes, then looked to Miroku. "We thought to name her Sango."

Surprise melted into delight as Kagome gazed down at the baby in her arms, and she felt the prickle of tears. "It is a strong name… and beautiful," she assured the couple. She peeked up at Miroku, who seemed stunned. "I'm sure our Sango would be pleased to be honored in this way."

Miroku finally gathered his wits and grinned a little foolishly at Shun before getting down to business. Kaede presided as Kagome pronounced a blessing and Miroku chanted a prayer, and before they withdrew, the monk presented the couple with talismans bearing words of protection for their growing family. Their walk back to Kaede's hut was quiet, but not oppressively so.

If I'd known it was going to be this hot, I would have brought my swimming suit along, Kagome thought absently as she dangled her feet into the lazy current of the river. Her sundress was suitable enough for the heat wave the Feudal Era was enjoying, but hardly conducive for taking a dip. I'll have to make sure to pack it next time. The miko let her eyes wander towards Miroku, who was further up the embankment, sprawled in the grass with his hands behind his head. He'd removed his dark purple kesu and rolled up the sleeves of his kosode and seemed content to doze in the shade after the picnic lunch they'd enjoyed.

"Watch this one, Okaasan," called Shippo excitedly, drawing Kagome's attention back toward the river. He was demonstrating his rock-skipping skills, and sent another smooth stone skittering across the water's surface. "Nine!" he exulted, having counted the hops. "That's better than last time!"

Kagome cheered her kit on and kicked up a few celebratory splashes, taking pleasure in the lazy pace their afternoon was taking. It's rather nice just to be together and do nothing in particular.

Having exhausted his pile of ammunition, Shippo bounded along the bank towards Kagome, but veered off at the last minute towards Miroku and flung himself onto the ground beside the monk. Miroku cracked an eye at the kit and smiled in welcome, but resumed his drowsy contemplations without comment. Kagome gathered herself up, shaking water droplets from her feet, and reseated herself on Shippo's other side. The young woman drew her legs up and arranged her skirt before propping her chin on her knees. Lost in thought, the corners of her mouth tugged downwards into a small frown.

"What are you thinking about, Okaasan?" asked the kit in concern.

Kagome blinked and turned towards the boy. "I guess I was thinking about some of the little things I miss," she admitted.

Shippo accepted that with a nod, but her vague answer didn't completely satisfy his curiosity. "Like what?"

"Well," Kagome paused, considering how much to tell, "I really miss girl talk."

Miroku snorted softly and opened one eye. "I am almost offended, Kagome-sama," he teased. "Surely you realize you can tell me anything. Your innermost secrets are safe with me."

"I know that, Miroku-sama," conceded Kagome seriously, "but it's just not the same. You aren't a girl."

"True enough," he allowed. "I suppose you wouldn't want to bare your heart to a couple of bachelors like us." He traded grins with Shippo before adding, "Indeed, if I understand the process, we're the ones you would be gossiping about."

"I shall not breech the sacred trust of womanhood by divulging any of our secrets to the likes of you," Kagome declared loftily, then giggled. "I guess it's one of the little things I miss most about Sango being gone," she added softly.

"I know!" cried Shippo, jumping up and searching in his vest pockets. He extracted a green leaf and flashed a fanged smile before disappearing into the puff of smoke that heralded a transformation. When the air cleared, Kagome bit her lip to hold in a snicker. In place of her young son there stood a shapely redhead who fluttered long lashes over bright eyes before striking an unintentionally provocative pose. "You can tell me all about it," Shippo offered in a falsetto.

Miroku bolted upright and gaped at the kitsune, at a loss for words, but Kagome gamely threw her arms around Shippo. Chuckling, she gave him a poke in the ribs, "So, you're offering to provide me with some good mother-daughter bonding? This could be fun! We can shop for new kimonos and then I'll braid flowers into your hair."

"Uhh…" blinked the curvaceous illusion uncertainly, then with a pop Shippo reclaimed his own form. "Maybe that's not such a good idea after all," he mumbled.

Kagome laughed merrily and tousled his hair. "It was a nice thought," she assured him. "So, what do you miss most, Shippo-kun?"

The kit screwed up his face in thought for a moment. "Lots of stuff, I guess," he said slowly, "but right now I wish I could play tag with Kirara. How about you, Miroku?"

A suspiciously rapturous expression spread across the monk's face. "Without a doubt, I miss Sango's…"

Kagome squawked and waved her hands, "Hold that thought!" she interrupted desperately.

Shippo collapsed into a heap, snorting in a most undignified fashion until he pointed an accusing finger at the bemused monk. "I miss Hiraikotsu. Sango'd have nailed you good for that one, Miroku."

The monk tugged at his hair sheepishly. "You didn't let me finish," he protested. "I was going to say I missed Sango's smile."

"Suuuuure," Shippo drawled skeptically.

"How about you Kagome-sama?" Miroku asked, redirecting the conversation. "What else do you miss?"

"I guess I'd have to say…" Kagome hesitated, looking embarrassed. "I miss piggyback rides."

Shippo nodded vigorously. "Yeah. Inuyasha was so fast. It was all, like, whoosh!"

Relieved that her kit understood what she meant, Kagome allowed some of her excitement over the memory to filter into her response. "Yep. He'd sort of coil his muscles and spring upwards, and for a minute you were flying, then falling, then it started all over again."

Miroku shifted thoughtfully. "You know, I haven't flown since then either. Riding Kirara was always amazing, with the cool wind in your face mixing with the heat of the flames she stirred up underfoot. Such strength and speed—I suppose not many people have had the privilege of riding a youkai like that."

"Well, I can fly," Shippo boasted smugly and promptly transformed into a buoyant pink sphere. "Want a ride, Okaasan?"

"Yes!" agreed Kagome happily, jumping up.

Making sure his adoptive mother had a firm hold on his feet, Shippo gently lifted her until they floated over the river, above the level of the trees, turning so she could look in all directions.

After a minute, Miroku's voice drifted from where he waited below. "How's the view up there?"

"It's amazing," called Kagome happily.

"The view's not bad from here either," Miroku declared significantly.

"What?" Kagome looked down towards the monk in confusion, only to have her line of sight blocked when her sundress billowed slightly in the breeze. The miko squeaked in surprise and began kicking and twisting. Startled, Shippo wobbled and began lowering his mother towards the ground, causing her skirts to balloon outwards even further.

"Stop looking up my skirt, hentai!" Kagome shouted, face flushed and eyes snapping in indignation.

Miroku just dropped back on the grassy slope and laughed, holding his sides. His mirth didn't subside, even when Kagome stalked over and glared down at him, hands on hips. "I think… I missed that part, too," he finally gasped out as he grinned up at the glowering miko.

Kagome huffed and flounced down onto the grass again, but relented a little. "I suppose it has been a long while since anyone's called you a hentai," she admitted with a shake of her head.

Once Miroku had calmed back down, he asked, "Did that satisfy your longing for flight?"

The girl sighed and leaned back on her hands, looking up into the sky. "Yes and no," she said, glancing over at her kit. "It was a nice view, Shippo, but you'll have to admit it's not quite the same as a piggyback ride."

"Yeah," Shippo agreed. "The whoosh is missing."

Miroku sat up suddenly, propping an elbow on one knee as he considered the young woman by his side. There was a playful gleam in his eye. "I think I can remedy this problem, Kagome-sama," he announced and rose to his feet. Pulling the miko up after him, he turned and crouched, presenting his back.

Kagome stared at him in disbelief, "You can't be serious, Miroku-sama."

"Oh, but I am, I assure you!"

"But…" Kagome wavered uncertainly, then looked towards Shippo, eyes wide.

The kit was grinning broadly, but quickly adopted a more serious expression. "Oh, I can vouch for Miroku, Okaasan. I ride on his shoulders all the time. He should be able to lift you."

The monk chuckled at Kagome's indignant sputter. "I shall not require hanyou strength for this, I think. Come, Kagome-sama," he coaxed.

"Go on, Okaasan. It's fun!" encouraged Shippo, trying to shoo her towards Miroku.

Kagome weakened and finally complied. Cautiously placing her hands on Miroku's shoulders, she made the little hop up onto his back, gripped his waist with her thighs and trying to settle against him without getting too close. He's not built the same as Inuyasha—leaner, maybe? Or longer—was Miroku taller than Inuyasha? Kagome tensed for a moment when Miroku's hands came around, but he hitched her up and steadied her in place without any unnecessary fondling, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

Miroku glanced over his shoulder at her. "Comfy?" he inquired solicitously.

"I guess so," she reluctantly agreed.

"Well, you'd better hold on tight," he warned as he shifted into a more upright position and gave an experimental bounce on the balls of his feet. This sent Kagome scrabbling for a better grip, and she soon found herself hugging Miroku tightly around the neck.

"That's better," declared the monk approvingly, and he set off at a trot, Shippo running alongside. This jostling was nothing like Inuyasha's smooth rhythm, and the disparity made Kagome shake her head in disbelief. Have these two taken leave of their senses?

Shippo was running ahead of them, laughing and making encouraging motions. "Now jump, Miroku," coached the kit enthusiastically.

"All right," agreed Miroku, who performed a clumsy hop and landed with a jolt on both feet. Grinning madly over his shoulder he quirked a brow at Kagome. "There, does that bring back memories?"

Kagome couldn't help it; peals of laughter rang out through the river valley, and she dropped her forehead onto Miroku's shoulder. "No, Miroku-sama. I'm afraid this is nothing like it at all."

"I shall just have to try harder," Miroku insisted, and resumed his parody by jogging for a short stretch, then adding a jarring little hop. Shippo cheered them on, running in circles around them and yelling, "Whoosh!" All three of them were laughing so hard it hurt, and Kagome wondered how much longer Miroku could keep this up.

Suddenly, the monk paused, then changed directions, "Hey, Kagome-sama! I have an idea," he said excitedly.

"What?" she answered, curious at the change in his tone.

Miroku just shook his head and grunted slightly as he clambered up a short slope and turned back towards the river. He backed up a couple steps, and Kagome clutched at him more tightly in surprise. "Ready, Kagome-sama? This time it's for real," he promised in a pleased voice.

"What?" Kagome repeated, perplexed.

With a burst of speed, Miroku dashed forwards, calling just one warning over his shoulder, "You might want to hold your breath."

Then, they were airborne. Miroku had carried her to where the embankment rose above the river, leaving a drop-off nearly two stories in height above deep, slow-moving waters—carried her there and jumped. Falling. I'm falling. Kagome burrowed her face into Miroku's neck, closing her eyes and tucking her chin. For a few precious moments, she felt nothing but her heartbeat, the wind whipping through her hair, and the giddy pull of gravity. For those few seconds, it was the very same sensation she remembered and missed, so she clung to Miroku and savored it.

With a mighty splash, the water closed over them, and Kagome released her hold on Miroku to swim to upwards. Breaking the surface, she took a deep breath. Above her, Shippo was leaping wildly on the edge of their little cliff, whooping with glee. She grinned and waved to let the kit know she was all right. Shaking the hair from her eyes, she turned to the monk who was regarding her expectantly from the shallows a short distance away. "Are you okay?" he asked softly.

"Miroku-sama, I…" she faltered, at a loss for words. Instead she started towards him, paddling through the water until he caught her arm and steadied her against the current. He was looking at her closely, concern flickering through his eyes as he waited for her to speak. "It's just… that was…." The young woman floundered for a moment, then gave up, simply throwing her arms around Miroku's neck in a fierce hug. "Thank you," she whispered against his neck. "Thank you so much!"

Miroku's arms tightened around her, just as a second, voluminous splash sent a shower of droplets around them. Shippo doggie paddled towards them, shouting, "That was fun! Very whoosh! Can we do it again, Miroku? Okaasan?"

Kagome stepped back and looked up at the monk, asking "Do you want to?"

"Kagome-sama, you may embrace me anytime you wish," he assured her, opening his arms wide in invitation.

The miko just giggled and splashed at him. "No," she said with mock exasperation, "Let's all jump together this time. Please?"

"If that is what you wish, then whoosh we shall," proclaimed the grinning monk, as he led Kagome and Shippo towards the riverbank.

"Whoa! Three bags?" exclaimed Shippo from his seat on the lip of the well. "You never used to pack so much. What did you bring?"

"Just some things for tomorrow," Kagome called up, shifting her hold on her armload. "Erm… I think I may need a little help with these."

When Kagome had approached her mother about spending a few days in the feudal era to assist Kaede with the village's annual Tanabata festival, Mrs. Higurashi readily agreed and offered to help in any way she could. After much discussion, Kagome decided that by staying over, she could be on hand to help Kaede with the preparations, participate in the festival itself, and assist with the clean-up afterwards. When Shippo caught wind of her plans, he'd been ecstatic, so the plotting had proceeded on both sides of the well for her extended visit.

"Look this way," urged Miroku from the opposite side of the opening overhead, and Kagome turned in place. He thoroughly enjoyed her surprised expression once she registered the new addition.

"A ladder," she managed, reaching out to touch a rung. "For me?"

Miroku propped his chin on his hand, a smug look on his face. "Shun-san wanted to do something for you."

Shippo was already halfway down, and he leapt to the ground beside Kagome. "Shun-san let Kouki-kun and me help," he boasted, then added in a conspiratorial whisper, "but the ladder was Miroku's idea."

"Give it a try, Kagome-sama," urged the monk.

Shippo held out his hands for her bags. "Let me take those, Okaasan. I can make trips while you and Miroku wake up the Jewel."

Bemused, Kagome relinquished her supplies and climbed up into the bright sunshine. Since the base of the well was comparatively cool, she blamed the summer heat for her warm cheeks as Miroku handed her down from the brim. "Thank you, Miroku-sama," she murmured.

"It's no trouble," he replied lightly.

"I mean… for the ladder," she clarified. "It was very thoughtful."

"Ah," he said, his smile deepening. "My pleasure, Kagome-sama. It wasn't the only thing we accomplished this week. As you can see, Shun-san has been keeping us quite busy."

She glanced around the clearing, which had been undergoing a slow and steady transformation since the end of rice-planting in June. The removal of trees and underbrush had widened the meadow in places, and piles of lumber and heaps of wood shavings surrounded the beginnings of the shrine. Crossing to the newly-laid foundation, Kagome admired the smooth planks that already covered much of the raised floor. "This looks good," she pronounced. "You've been helping, too?"

Miroku offered his blistered palms as evidence. "Shun-san has as many men as can be spared from the fields doing their part, but we all get to rest for a few days and enjoy the festival. It will be a welcome break."

As they strolled into the village, Kagome could see signs of festival preparations everywhere. Though Miroku had called the next day or two a 'break' from work, everyone looked busy, and Kagome found the bright, celebratory mood contagious. Traveling merchants had laid claim to shady patches on the main thoroughfare, hoping to tempt the women into choosing a pretty new obi or hair ribbon for the Star Festival. In an open space near the center of town, the ground had been cleared and a large pile of dry wood and brush was being accumulated for tomorrow's bonfire, and paper streamers had appeared around the trunk of one of the trees near Kaede's hut. Its many low branches would soon bear everyone's wishes.

Throughout most of the day, Miroku was called away, helping to oversee who knows what on the headman's behalf. Kagome assisted Kaede, but from time to time she would glimpse the monk, who seemed to be everywhere at once. As he moved from one group of organizers to the next, he joked and chatted; the villagers greeted him with respect, and Miroku seemed to know each person by name. Kagome was fleetingly surprised to realize that the monk had been downplaying the role he had assumed in the village.

At Kaede's request, Kagome stepped in to retell the Tanabata legend to the children, who gathered together under the 'wishing' tree. The story was a romance that had taken place among the stars. Once the children were seated in the shade, she recounted the tale of Orihime, the beautiful weaver star, and Hikoboshi, the dashing cowherd star, who became so enthralled with each other that they neglected their duties. As punishment, the two were separated, and each star was placed on the opposite side of a vast river. On just one night every year could the pair be reunited—on the seventh day of the seventh month, during Tanabata, the Star Festival.

That evening, when Miroku returned from a neighboring town, where he'd been sent to check on a promised shipment of sake, he took his seat before Kaede's cookfire with a sigh of relief. "Well, ladies," he said wearily, "I can give you my personal assurances that the musician's instruments are tuned, the meat for the cooking pits has been secured, the melons are chilling in the river, the sake will be delivered on the morrow, and there is sufficient pickled daikon. Orihime may cross the river to join her lover with my blessings, for all is in readiness."

Kagome giggled, saying, "I'm sure Hikoboshi appreciates your efforts, at least."

After the sun set and night began to deepen, Kagome produced a paper lantern from her collection of bags. The whimsical thing was all in pinks and yellows, with stars and swirls scattered over its surface. Miroku helped her suspend it from the ceiling, and they lit it with care. They all talked and laughed long into the night, enjoying its mellow glow until finally, its flame guttered and snuffed out. Kaede spoke into the resulting hush, declaring, "Today was busy, but tomorrow will be busier still. This old woman needs her rest, and ye would be wise to do likewise."

Kagome nodded her agreement, but touched her fingers to the place where the Jewel was hidden beneath her shirt. Looking to the monk, she asked, "Miroku-sama, would you help me? I haven't had to do this in a while, but I think it would be best to check for any signs of danger before we sleep." He didn't speak, but beckoned her to his side. She accepted his silent invitation as Kaede stirred up the embers of their small fire and added a few sticks to give enough light to unroll their bedding. Sparks swirled upwards, and Kagome slowly reached out until her fingertips brushed Miroku's cheek. The soft look in his eyes left her completely tongue-tied, and she quickly closed hers so she could focus on the task at hand.

When they finished, Kagome unrolled her sleeping bag in the place that had always been hers, and Miroku excused himself for a breath of fresh air—and to calm his racing heart. By the time he returned, the other occupants of the hut had drifted off. Someone had thoughtfully set out his mat, and he quietly lowered himself onto it. There was still enough light from the ebbing flames for him to see Kagome, who had Shippo snuggled up under her chin. Even in sleep, the boy's smile was beatific, and Miroku's lips curved upwards in response. For as long as the fading light allowed, he watched over her slumber and wondered how long she would make him wait.

In spite of everything that had been accomplished on the previous day, dawn brought a fresh round of activity. Early, the smell of wood smoke filled the air, and by midmorning the cooking pits were releasing the savory aroma of roasting meat. A cart rattled into town carrying several casks of sake, and Miroku excused himself to oversee the cargo's delivery to the headman's house. At Kagome's request, Shun-san provided a small, makeshift table and a pair of stools, which were set up under the 'wishing' tree, for that was where the miko expected to spend the better part of her evening.

Lunch was a rushed affair, and as afternoon shadows began to lengthen, most of the village women escaped to the secluded bend in the river that was set aside for bathing. Kagome joined them and caused a commotion of gasps and giggles when the womenfolk got a good look at her outlandish undergarments. Some were scandalized, most were curious, but they all were distracted when Kagome rummaged through her bag and began distributing bars of scented soap. With growing excitement, the novelties were passed from hand to hand, and soon the river's surface was skimmed by lather.

When she'd finished her bath, Kagome dried off quickly and slipped into a brightly-colored yukata, trading smiles whenever she caught the shy glances being sent her way. Though she recognized faces, she'd really only been introduced to people who'd happened to need Kaede's attention during her weekly visits. They all knew her, though, and a few bobbed their heads and offered thanks to 'Miko-sama'. Hitomi stepped forward to help her tie her obi, and Kagome was grateful when the rest of the women took this as a cue to include her in their chit-chat. By the time the last of the village girls had emerged from the river, Kagome was assisting with the group preening by tucking folds and fussing with necklines. Hitomi's little girl even warmed up enough to let the priestess tie ribbons into her hair. The sun was sinking towards the horizon when Kagome hoisted her bag and trekked back towards the village in the center of a chattering flock of excited women.

Shippo was the first to pick her out of the crowd, and he clambered up onto Miroku's shoulders, rapping his head to alert him. Turning, the monk patted the kitsune's knee and moved to intercept the contingent of females. He bowed and flashed a charming smile, exclaiming "What a bevy of beauties! You ladies are indeed a credit to our village!" A chorus of tittering erupted, and the blushing women scattered, though Hitomi lingered long enough to touch Kagome's elbow and smile before leading her daughter towards their home.

"I think you scared 'em off," Shippo noted dryly.

"So it would seem," replied Miroku in an amused tone, "though you shouldn't complain; now, we have Kagome-sama all to ourselves."

Kagome shook her head and addressed the monk. "Have you finished with all your responsibilities, then?"

"Alas, no, Kagome-sama. I still have many things to care for tonight," he answered, genuine regret in his tone.

"Well, I'll be busy too… helping with the wishes," Kagome reminded him.

"Don't worry, Miroku. I'm staying with Okaasan, so she'll be safe," Shippo announced, squirming to be let down. "I'll go get your box of papers and meet you by the tree," he added to Kagome before dashing towards Kaede's.

The monk watched the kitsune disappear between the huts, then said, "If I can slip away for a few minutes later on, I'll come and find you."

"I'd like that," she said all-too-politely, turning to leave.

The monk frowned, dissatisfied with her response. Does she think she can ignore me so easily? "Oh… Kagome-sama?" Miroku called, holding up a hand for her to wait. "There is one last thing I needed to tell you."

She paused, giving him a curious look as he strolled back to her side. "Yes, Miroku-sama?"

He beckoned her closer, and once she obligingly leaned in, he bent his head just enough to murmur in her ear, "You are… so beautiful." Kagome's breath caught when he 'accidentally' let his lips brush her temple as he straightened, but when she pulled back, his guileless expression was firmly in place. She treated him to a glare, but Miroku was pleased to note the flush creeping across her cheeks. Much happier with this reaction, he turned, giving a casual wave over his shoulder as he ambled away.

Kagome had brought paper and string from her era to be used for the Tanabata wishes, and when she fanned out an array of slips atop the table, she attracted a passel of children. They loitered nearby until the young woman invited them to take a closer look, and several edged closer and touched the pretty colors and patterns with reverent fingertips. Kaede eased onto the second stool and accepted one of Kagome's pens with a nod of appreciation. "With such fine materials as ye have, this is sure to be an uncommonly lovely display," the old woman remarked.

Kaede explained that since few in the village could read or write, people would take turns coming over to the table and explaining what they wanted written on their slip of paper. Since many of the peoples' hopes were considered personal, a certain amount of privacy was afforded to each. Kagome gave the old woman a sidelong glance. "In my time, most girls write down the name of the person they want to marry."

"Aye. So it is, even now," Kaede replied calmly.

"Village priestess… confidante and matchmaker?" Kagome teased.

The old woman chuckled. "I don't meddle often."

They watched with interest as the bonfire was lit, signaling the beginning of the festivities. Knowing that she and Kaede would soon be busy, Kagome selected a few sheets of paper from her stash and made each of the lingering children an origami ball and sent them off to play.

In small groups or one-by-one, the members of their tiny community approached. Kagome listened with growing wonder as they shyly shared their hopes for the future. Simple wishes—good health, good crops, good fishing. Generous wishes—for family, for friends, for leaders. Her favorites by far were the wishes of the children—boys with dreams of adventure, girls with hopes for handsome suitors. They were just like the wishes she'd read year after year, hanging from bamboo branches at her family's shrine. Things have changed so much over the centuries, but at the same time, they are the same as they've always been. For reasons she couldn't explain, Kagome found this knowledge a comfort.

As the hour grew later, the tree began to fill with paper streamers, thanks to Shippo. He ferried the newly-made wishes upwards and tied them among the overhead branches. Around the bonfire, dances had been organized, and the men were currently doing their best to impress the womenfolk with their agility. In the midst of the revelers, Kagome caught a glimpse or two of Miroku, who had been in the thick of things all evening. What the local farmers lacked in grace, they certainly made up for in enthusiasm, and she smiled over their obvious enjoyment. "They certainly know how to cut loose," Kagome commented over the din.

Kaede snorted. "If ye think this be rowdy, wait until they find the bottom of the last sake barrel."

Not long after that, Miroku slipped from the circle of firelight and sidled up to Kagome, peeking over her shoulder. "Mm… I thought she might be pining after young Taki-kun," he mused aloud, making the miko jump.

"You will be keeping that little tidbit to yourself," she scolded, shaking her head at him. "Are you making wishes tonight, Miroku-sama?"

He gazed upwards, admiring the decorative arrangement of papers that fluttered and swayed in the breeze. "If I thought it would help…" he mumbled indistinctly.

"What was that?" Kagome asked.

The monk caught himself and smiled. "Perhaps I will. It's traditional after all."

He knelt beside the tabletop, and she offered him her pen. As he plucked a sheet of paper from those that remained, he asked, "Will you make a wish, Kagome-sama?"

In partial reply, the young woman tugged at the sliver chain around her neck, displaying the faintly glimmering Shikon no Tama upon her palm. "No, Miroku-sama. I don't have the luxury of wishes any longer."

"Ah," he replied in quiet understanding. Standing, he handed his slip of paper to Shippo, who scampered up and over tree limbs on light feet. "Then I suppose it is up to us to make sure you want for nothing." Kagome stared up at him, speechless, and Miroku chuckled and changed the subject. "When you are finished here, you should come over," he invited, gesturing towards the bonfire. "I hear the storyteller they've arranged for later has had quite a few adventures." With that, he took his leave.

When Kagome and Shippo arrived on the fringes of the crowd, most of the people had made themselves comfortable. People sat on blankets or lounged in the grass, and every eye was fixed on the monk who'd made the hard-packed ground that ringed the bonfire his stage. In the ember-glow, he spun his tale. Kagome pulled her kit into her arms so he could see, and from their vantage at the back, they listened as Miroku slowly circled the dwindling blaze, his strong voice rising and falling. He had always been an excellent speaker, and Kagome watched with a growing sense of awe as he gestured broadly, even acting out portions of his story. She could see it on the rapt faces of his listeners—for them, the story was coming to life.

She was pleasantly surprised when she realized that Miroku was sharing a story about Inuyasha. He called her hanyou a hero, and using all the charisma that had once wangled their group into the best rooms in town, Miroku waxed eloquent on the legend of Inuyasha, their village's friend and protector. Blinking back tears, Kagome recognized the scene he was describing—how Inuyasha had fought and defeated the great dragon, Ryuukotsusei. The monk let the dramatic tension build, and soon his entire audience was leaning forward, hanging upon his every word.

"Miroku-sama should have been a politician," Kagome whispered to Shippo. At his confused look, she said, "They should make him headman. With his silver tongue, he would lead them all around by their noses… and they'd gladly follow."

Shippo shrugged. "Yeah. If he wanted to be in charge, he could be. They trust him enough… but that's not what he wants."

Kagome glanced at the boy perched on her hip. "What is it he wants, then?" she inquired softly.

"You don't know?" the kitsune asked incredulously.

"I… no."

Shaking his head, Shippo pointed to Miroku. "Watch him. It's not that hard to tell. I can see it plain as day." Kagome returned her attention to the story for a while, trying to see whatever it was that Shippo found so obvious. As the monk came around the far edge of the fire, Miroku finally spotted them. Catching her eye, his smile broadened slightly and he sent her a quick wink before continuing his tale. "Can you see it now?" asked the kit.

Slowly, Kagome shook her head. "What is it he wants?"

"You, Okaasan. All he wants is you."


A InuYasha Story
by forthright

Part 6 of 8

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