Continuing Tales


A InuYasha Story
by forthright

Part 7 of 8

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Kagome strolled along the village's main thoroughfare, taking her time with Kaede's few errands. Shippo had her by the hand, and judging by the kitsune's youthful swagger, he was enormously pleased to be able to show off his Okaasan… and heads were turning. She knew that her modern clothing stood out, but Kagome's simple summer dress wasn't anything scandalous—just outlandish by village standards. Smiling and nodding at familiar faces, she tried to ignore the whispers that followed their progress. "It's her… there she is… she's back…"

Many considered Kagome to be Kaede's successor, even though she didn't dress the part very often. They called her the Shikon Miko and looked upon her as a kind of village guardian—an unconventional gift from the gods who had guarded them in the past and whose presence would bless their future. Kaede assured her that the consensus seemed to be, 'she's odd, but she's ours'. So, the chatter was just the garden variety gossip one heard in any small town—fueled more by curiosity than malice.

"Take these, Miko-sama," urged an old woman, pressing a small basket of berries into her hands along with the packet of dried fish Kaede had asked her to collect. "Your monk is fond of these," she explained, giving the young woman a conspiratorial wink. Kagome bowed her thanks and hurried away, ignoring the unsubtle hint.

"Why does everyone seem to think he's my monk," she grumbled under her breath as she allowed her kit to take the packet.

"Dunno… lucky guess?" Shippo casually replied. He met Kagome's glare with an unapologetic grin, then darted ahead to keep his ears out of tweaking range.

The kitsune was happier than she'd ever seen him… and she was glad to see him brimming with exuberance. This was due in part to the decision she'd made after her extended visit for Tanabata the week before. With Mama's encouragement and Kaede's blessing, Kagome's weekly visit to the Feudal Era was being expanded so that she now spent three days in the past and four in the future. "It will give you time, dear," Mama had said.

Time. She never said what I needed the time for, Kagome mused. Time to think… time to accept… time to decide… Pushing that line of thought from her mind, she paused at the turning that led back to Kaede's. A pair of young girls presented themselves with shy smiles and shuffling feet. "Good morning," Kagome greeted, wondering what they were up to.

The older of the two, who was probably minding her sister for their mother, coaxed the little one forward, whispering, "Go ahead, Sa-chan. Give your flowers to the monk's lady."

Well… that's a new one… Kagome crouched down to make things easier on her wide-eyed admirer, and once she'd thanked them for their gift, she sent the girls off with a cheerful wave. Her cheeks were still burning when she caught up to Shippo at Kaede's and ducked inside the hut to deliver the supplies. Back outside, the young woman met Shippo's eager gaze and clapped her hands decisively. "Let's go for a walk," Kagome proposed. "I need to get away from all those busybodies for a little while."

"Sure!" the kitsune readily agreed. "Where should we go?"

The midsummer sun was climbing quickly into the sky, and the day promised to be a hot one, so she replied, "Someplace shady—woods or river?"

"Let's go see what Miroku's doing," suggested Shippo. "He said he was going to be checking the wards this morning, and most of them are in the woods."

"I guess that would be okay…" Kagome replied slowly.

"Maybe we can help," the kit continued, his excitement growing. "Which way, Okaasan?"

"Uh-uh," the miko countered with a shake of her head. "You're the fearless hunter in the family; you can track him down without any hints from me."

Shippo took the challenge to heart and lifted his nose to test the air before taking off into the trees. Kagome had no trouble at first because there was a faint trail, but before long, the kit opted for a shortcut through the undergrowth. Even in the shade of the trees, the air was heavy, and the canopy was filled with the sleepy song of cicadas. Keeping the vibrant red of his tail in sight, she gamely pushed aside slender saplings and eased her way between the trunks of more venerable trees.

After several minutes, Shippo circled back to report in. "I found one!" the kitsune cheered, proudly leading her to a large rock where a sutra had been affixed. "We're really close, now!"

He forged ahead again, and as Kagome picked her way along, she tried to get her bearings. She knew which direction they were headed in a general sense, but she wasn't exactly sure where they were until she broke into the open on the riverbank. Dark water silently slid past with barely a ripple, and branches arched overhead, creating a green tunnel of filtered sunlight. Shippo darted downstream, following a fern-lined footpath towards a pile of jutting stones. He stopped in front of them, and when Kagome caught up, he looked up at her, holding a deep purple kesu in his hand. "This is weird; it's only his clothes."

Sure enough, the monk's kosode, leggings, sandals, and even his shakujou were stashed among the rocks. Kagome's immediate flash of concern was interrupted by a splash from behind, and she turned in time to see Miroku surface. His back was to them as he shook his head and passed his hands over his face; she stared in shocked fascination as water droplets slid down his back to where the water lapped around his hips. He's… not wearing… clothes, Kagome's mind managed in a strangled moment of inner panic. Edging back the way she'd come, she desperately hoped he wouldn't turn around until after she dived back into the threes, but before she could make a run for it, her escape was neatly thwarted.

Shippo whooped and waved, shouting, "Hey! Miroku! I found you all on my own—with no hints from Okaasan!" The monk turned, pushing hair out of startled eyes, and Kagome whipped around, covering her face.

It didn't take long for Miroku to recover. Backing up a step into deeper water, he replied, "So you did, Shippo-kun! Nicely done… though I'm not so sure your Okaasan is pleased with your success." Eyeing the obviously mortified miko's rigid back, he cheerfully called, "Are you quite all right, Kagome-sama?"

She answered with a flustered, "Of course I am. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Just an impression," Miroku chuckled as he sloshed his way towards the bank. "Shippo-kun, could you bring me my clothes?" The boy gathered them up and met the monk at the river's edge. "If you'll just give me a minute, Kagome-sama"

"Take all the time you need," she hastily replied.

"Perhaps you should have you mother sit… she's looking a little shaky," the monk said, only half-teasing. He was fairly certain the water had been deep enough to prevent the young woman from seeing everything he had to offer. Glancing down at himself, he saw nothing to be ashamed of, so he shrugged at the kitsune as he accepted his kosode. Shippo rolled his eyes in silent agreement. Clearing his throat, Miroku began to fill the uncomfortable silence. "You came all this way to see me? I'm touched. So, what have you been busy with all morning?"

Even though he'd just seen her at breakfast, Miroku led Kagome through small talk about commonplace things all the while he was getting dressed. He didn't rush, wanting to give her natural optimism time to find the bright side to this situation. When he finished knotting his kesu, he gathered up his staff and let the end thump against the ground, creating the familiar jangle of rings. "There!"

"It's safe to look," Shippo added, hopping down from his perch and asking, "Are you going to do any more wards? Can we help?"

"Of course," the monk replied easily, indicating the direction they'd be going. Shippo was off like a shot, and Miroku fell in step beside Kagome, who was more relaxed but too silent for his tastes. "I must say, I'm a little surprised, Kagome-sama. Over the last few years, there have been interrupted baths… and you've patched me up before… and I know you helped tend me when I was half-delirious with fever two winters ago. You can't have seen anything you haven't seen before."

She nodded slowly. "I know, but it was different, then."

"Different… how?" he pressed.

"All those times, it was necessity—emergencies and injuries, stuff like that."

"And now?" he pried.

Her cheeks took on a faint flush, and she looked away. "I don't know; it's just different."

He hated to see her so ill at ease, so he tried to put things into perspective by making light of the whole thing. "I see," Miroku replied seriously. "I seems I must apologize for imposing my overpowering masculinity on your unsuspecting feminine sensibilities. The shock must have been devastating."

Kagome did smile, though her soft laugh betrayed some lingering discomfort. "It was a shock, but you don't have to apologize. You didn't do anything wrong."

"Neither did you," the monk gently pointed out.

As they meandered through the forest, setting an easy pace and sticking to the shade, Miroku explained the wards that he and Kaede had designed to help protect their village from marauding youkai. It was rather an ingenious system, and the monk was proud of it, so he was disappointed when he realized that Kagome wasn't really listening to him. Her responses dwindled to vague hums and polite noises, and she kept casting sidelong glances his way.

"What?" he finally demanded.


"What are you looking at?"

Caught, Kagome traded covert glances for frank staring. "Your hair," she replied. Miroku ran self-conscious fingers through his still-damp hair and looked at her quizzically. "I've never seen it down like that," she explained.

The monk took a lock between his thumb and forefinger, inspecting the straight, black strands; unbound, it fell to his shoulders. "I suppose you wouldn't have," he mused aloud, "since—at one time—you weren't in the habit of peeping."

"Of course not!" Kagome retorted. "I never…"

"Except for today," Miroku smoothly interrupted.

"That was an accident!" she sputtered.

"Mm," the monk replied, sounding unconvinced.

"Shippo, tell him!" Kagome called, but the kitsune was intent on reaching the position of the next ward. He only turned and waved at her before disappearing around a clump of trees. "He'll back me up," she stubbornly insisted.

"You can hardly blame him for not wanting to get into the middle," Miroku pointed out, pausing to search for the tie he used for his hair.

Kagome watched curiously as he expertly gathered his hair at the nape of his neck and secured it in its low tail. "It's longer than I would have expected," she commented.

Miroku's mind took a turn he knew Kagome hadn't intended, and he struggled to keep a straight face. Lips twitching, he took a deep breath and gravely inquired, "My… hair?"

Giving him an odd look, she replied, "Yes… what else would I be referring… oh." The monk fully expected a disgusted look, an outraged glare, or a repeat of her earlier blush-and-stammer. However, Kagome surprised him by drawing herself up with considerable dignity and haughtily declaring, "That… remains to be seen."

As she set off down the path with her nose in the air, a lopsided grin spread across the monk's face. That was definitely a maybe.

They caught up to Shippo, who'd already sniffed out the next ward and was waiting for them. Kagome studied the sutra, which had been fixed to a large tree; the weathered paper was curling at the edges and the ink was fading. "Will these last during the heavy rains in the fall?" she asked curiously.

"An evergreen would offer more shelter, and it's possible to find outcroppings of rock. It might even be possible to build small shelters at intervals to protect the boundaries."

"Like those tiny shrines we see on the roadside?" Shippo ventured.

"That's right," Miroku agreed. "But until then, I'll just have to keep making my rounds to check on them and renew the ones that are fading."

"So… what can I do to help?" Kagome offered.

"Yeah, me too!" Shippo exclaimed.

"Well, now… let me see," murmured Miroku thoughtfully. "It's quite a luxury, having two extra pairs of hands. Shippo-kun, I'll have you hold this for me," he said as he extracted a fresh sutra from within his robes. "Kagome-sama, do you have steady hands?" he inquired.


"Then, I would appreciate it if you would take this," the monk directed, holding out his shakujou to her.

Kagome accepted the staff, admiring the smooth wood and testing its considerable weight. Reaching up, she ran her fingers under the metal rings of the finial, tickling them into musical laughter. Miroku thoughtfully tugged at the golden hoops in his ears and wondered if they might possibly offer as much temptation. Shaking off the thought, he cleared his throat and called his 'assistant' to attention. "I want you to hold the shakujou in both hands, palms up, keeping it level," he instructed.

"Like this?"

He frowned and shook his head. "Pull your elbows and brace your arms like so," he patiently directed. She corrected her stance, and he rubbed his chin before declaring, "Much better. Yes, this could work."

"What kind of ritual is this? I don't recognize it," Kagome inquired.

"Really? How odd," Miroku replied before getting back to business. "For this to work, it is very, very important—completely essential, Kagome-sama—that you hold the staff still. No dipping, wobbling, or dropping it until I finish."

"Understood," Kagome said, giving a firm nod.

"No matter what," the monk cautioned.

"You can depend on me," she replied seriously. "But… what does the staff do?"

"Hmm… it is a symbolic representation of the barrier we are creating."

"I guess that makes sense."

"Say, Miroku," Shippo skeptically interjected, "How do you keep the staff level and hang onto this sutra when you're all by yourself?"

The monk arched his brows significantly before dryly answering, "Years of training."

"Okay, I gotcha," the kit returned with a smirk.

"Wait… what?" Kagome frowned, growing suspicious.

"Oops! Don't let that end droop," Miroku chided, darting forward to catch the sagging finial. Once she'd leveled off again, he continued. "Silence will be required."

"Why?" she asked.

"It will give me the upper hand," the monk glibly explained.


"Shh!" Miroku interrupted. "Silence… and now, you must close your eyes." Kagome narrowed her eyes at him, so he heaved a longsuffering sigh and explained, "We're trying to hide the village from sight—making your average youkai blind to our presence."

"Are you lying, Miroku-sama?" she asked bluntly.

He leaned close and smiled. "I may be exaggerating a little," he admitted, and reached across the 'barrier' to tap her nose. "Shippo, I'm ready for that sutra," Miroku called. The kit handed it over, and the monk approached the old ward. Without any fuss, he peeled the paper away from the bark; with a murmured prayer, he pressed the new one in its place with the palm of his hand. In a matter of moments, the job was accomplished.

"That's it?" Kagome asked in disbelief.

"That's it," Miroku smiled. Fixing her with serious violet eyes as he reclaimed his staff, he said, "There's no reason to make things any more complicated than they are, Kagome-sama."

Before Kagome next returned to her home, Miroku found an opportunity to speak with her alone. "Kagome-sama, may I beg a favor of you?" he asked with a touch more formality than was usual.

"What kind of favor?"

"I would like to write a letter to your family. Would you be willing to carry it to them for me?"

Kagome blinked in surprise, then nodded slowly. "Yes, of course."

The monk nodded gratefully, then thought to ask, "Will they be able to read it?"

"Actually, that probably won't be a problem. Grandpa has always been fond of old documents and does a lot of reading in the shrine's archives—that's where he gets all of his wild stories about youkai," she said with a smile. "You know, since I was... away last year, he's been in contact with a local museum. One of the archivists there has been teaching him how to preserve the scrolls, and they've been working together to translate some of the records. Even Mama's been helping with the transcriptions."

"He must be quite a scholar," Miroku remarked, impressed even if he didn't quite follow all the nuances of her explanation.

"Well, an amateur one, anyhow," Kagome allowed.

"Perhaps I should provide your grandfather with more interesting reading material and make a record of the daring exploits of a traveling monk."

"I thought being the resident historian was Shippo's dream," Kagome laughed, remembering his crayon-rendered pictorial record of Naraku's demise. Gently pushing the bittersweet memory away, Kagome got back to the point. "Grandpa should be able to decipher your letter, even with the changes to the language that may have occurred over the centuries. May I ask why you want to write to them?"

"I wish send my greetings… and my thanks… and perhaps tell them something of myself… in my own words," he haltingly explained, showing an awkwardness that just wasn't like him.

He actually seems nervous about it. Kagome suspected that somewhere in that letter, Miroku would be bringing up his intentions, and that thought gave her a case of butterflies. "All right. When your letter is ready, I'll carry it to them," she promised.

It was disconcerting how important Kagome had become to him, although he couldn't bring himself to resent the power she had over him. Her decision would affect his whole life—or at least the direction his life would next take. In a sense, all he could do was wait, but Miroku wasn't satisfied with that. He couldn't make Kagome's choice for her, but he could try to influence her decision. Inuyasha fought for her in his way; I'll do it in mine.

Bridging the gap between their eras seemed the most logical way to smooth the path towards acceptance, and that following week, Miroku spent a lot of time deciding what he wanted to say in his all-important letter. As he collected his thoughts, he also collected the supplies he needed in the small hut he owned—but rarely used for anything but storage. He had great confidence in his abilities as a communicator, but striking the right tone with written words would be a challenge. When he was ready to begin, the monk settled on the floor and laid out his wares. Wanting everything to be perfect, he cut paper to size and methodically trimmed the edges, then took great care with each crease and fold—providing himself with columns for writing. He could see the finished product in his mind's eye. When it was completed, the words and parchment would unfold together—like a story. After all, this is for an old man who is fond of stories.

He could not formally approach her family or present himself as Kagome's suitor. There was no one to speak on his behalf, so this letter was his attempt to extend a hand in greeting. Miroku took a deep breath, and then he began to make his case. With steady hands and graceful strokes, he offered the tale of a monk who hadn't always been a monk, but had once been a boy—a boy who lost his father and was raised in a temple. He told them of Naraku's despicable plots and of the curse that had been his grandfather's legacy. Sango and Kohaku's story was woven in, along with that of an orphaned kitsune. As the indigo-tinted ink glistened on the parchment, he spoke at length about Inuyasha and Kagome, who made it possible for him to complete his quest, avenge his family, and foil the kanzaana.

He spun the tale with care, weaving his thoughts and feelings throughout, wanting them to see glimmers of the man behind the calligraphy. With every stroke of his brush, he was saying, I am here; my place is distant, but no less real. With carefully chosen words, he made himself known. I am Kagome's protector, and I want you to trust me. With subtle turns of phrase, he declared himself. I love her, and I want you to accept me.

Kagome placed the paper on the table in front of her grandfather. "What is this?" the old man asked, eyeing the elaborate folds with keen interest.

"Miroku-sama asked me to bring this letter to you and Mama. I'm not really sure what it's about," she replied.

Mrs. Higurashi's brows arched. "He didn't say?"

"He was very… vague."

"Did he say you couldn't read it?" her mother asked as Grandpa reverently unfolded the intricately creased paper and scrutinized the opening lines.

"No," Kagome admitted slowly. "I just got the impression that this was meant for you alone. I'll go shower and unpack and leave you two to it."

Mrs. Higurashi settled across the table from her father-in-law, who was muttering rather excitedly over the rarity of the document. "It's ancient—five hundred years old—and yet it looks as if it was written yesterday."

"It probably was," she pointed out with a smile, earning a good-natured harrumph. "This is beautifully written—such a strong hand, and yet so graceful! He's a true artist!"

"Yes, yes," Grandpa agreed, already puzzling out some of the characters. "Look at this color, too. I've seen this kind of tinted ink before."

"It has a faintly blue cast to it," Mrs. Higurashi remarked.

"Rather rare," he said with a nod.

"Will you read it aloud, then?"

"I can," Grandpa agreed. Smoothing the parchment with careful hands, the old shrine keeper set aside his admiration and got down to business. The telling took quite some time, and as he progressed through the story, Kagome's mother quietly puttered around the kitchen. It was the same routine they had with the evening paper, however, this time the news was much more interesting because it hit much closer to home.

"It sounds like he's had a difficult life," Mrs. Higurashi sighed when the old man paused to take a drink of tea. Grandpa grunted his acknowledgement, and she continued. "His world is very different than ours, but this makes him seem more real, doesn't it?"

"Yes… yes, it does," Grandpa murmured thoughtfully. "Listen to this…" Then he read Miroku's explanation of the Lord of the Western Land's proprietary claim over their daughter.

"Kagome didn't say it in so many words, but yes, she did mention spending some time with Inuyasha's half-brother. He promised to protect her in his brother's stead."

Grandpa tapped the document. "This demon took Inuyasha's place out of family obligation, and yet this Miroku says that he's gained permission from Lord Sesshoumaru to look out for her. Now, the monk is our Kagome's protector."

"In an official capacity," Mrs. Higurashi added, looking thoughtful.

"Yes, it sounds like he went through a good deal of trouble to gain this permission, at some risk to himself."

She nodded. "Kagome did say that he traveled a great distance to collect her from that mountain shrine, but she didn't mention this transfer of the protection."

"Do you think she knows?"

"I'm not sure; perhaps I can find out," she said with a soft chuckle.

Grandpa harrumphed again, saying, "A subtle inquiry wouldn't be amiss."

"What else does her monk say," Mrs. Higurashi prompted.

"They're in the process of building a shrine—our shrine. He's been asked to serve as its keeper."

"Really? Does Higurashi Shrine date back to feudal times? Our shrine can't possibly be the original."

"Well, now… I don't know about that," Grandpa countered. "The Bone Eater's Well certainly exists in the Sengoku Jidai, and the earliest records we've archived in the last year date back five centuries."

"Goshinboku is there as well," Mrs. Higurashi reminded him.

The old man nodded. "There have been renovations over the years, the last being when I was a boy, but it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that parts of the main building are original." He hummed thoughtfully. "I wonder if we have any documents that go back to the founding. Maybe I should tell this boy to keep good records; at least his writing is legible."

Mrs. Higurashi laughed, adding, "Wouldn't it be funny if he was your ancestor in some way?"

Grandpa shrugged. "Who's to say he's not? The Sunset Shrine has been handed down through the Higurashi family for centuries."

At this point, Kagome returned to the kitchen, pink-cheeked from her shower. "What did his letter say?" she asked, giving the lengthy parchment a slightly nervous glance.

"Many things and nothing," the old man answered cryptically.

Mama shook her head in amusement and added, "It was a kind of introduction, sweetheart. Inuyasha used to come and visit us, so we got to know him so well. Though this isn't quite as nice, it's certainly better than nothing. Your young man is very well spoken."

Grandpa tapped the letter. "He seems polite, knows how to handle a brush, and his regard for you is obvious."

Kagome slipped into one of the other kitchen chairs and demurred, "Oh, I don't know about that…" However, she then closed her eyes and shook her head. "No, that's not true. I do know. He's asked to court me; he's waiting for my answer."

"This letter is not a proposal," Mrs. Higurashi candidly supplied. "But it certainly could lead to one. Do you know if he will be applying to us or to Sesshoumaru-sama in the end?"

A standoffish taiyoukai who's declared himself my guardian… or my family in the unreachably distant future. The young woman frowned as she toyed with the Shikon no Tama on its chain around her neck. "I have no idea; either one is next to impossible."

"Oh, I don't know," Mrs. Higurashi smiled and nodded to the letter. "Miroku-sama seems to have surmounted the centuries rather neatly."

When Kagome walked into Kaede's hut the following week, it was impossible not to notice the change in décor. "What's all this?" she asked in surprise, trailing off the instant she realized just exactly what 'all this' must be. Two small chests stood against the far wall along with a stack of lidded baskets and a couple of rather expensive-looking vases. What held her gaze, though, was Sango's weapon. Hiraikotsu was propped in the corner, and Miroku moved to lean his shakujou next to the giant boomerang.

"One of the young men in the village is making plans to wed, and I offered my hut to him since I wasn't using it," Miroku explained. "Kaede-sama has graciously allowed me to store my belongings here until other arrangements can be made."

Kagome shook her head, confused. "I thought you were living here."

"I suppose I have been," he conceded solemnly. "I couldn't quite bring myself to live there alone."

The miko glanced towards the sum total of his worldly possessions and felt a sympathetic pang. He and Sango were going to move into that hut after their wedding. I'm not sure I could have borne it either. "Yeah… I understand," she murmured.

"The hut will be put to good use, and I won't be troubling Kaede-sama much longer," Miroku remarked casually, though his smile was a little tight.

Kagome suddenly felt out of the loop. "You're planning on leaving?"

"Did ye not know?" Kaede asked, the barest hint of chastisement in her tone. "Miroku-sama was invited by the headman to be the shrine keeper."

"There will be a house," the monk explained, nodding in the general direction of the hilltop.

"Oh, I see. I had no idea," she replied. It occurred to Kagome that there were a lot of things she didn't know about what went on in the village.

"You're… alone?" Kagome asked when she arrived for her visit the week after that.

"Miroku-sama isn't back yet," Shippo replied as he walked with her towards Kaede's.

"Oh, really?" she replied, rather surprised. "Where did he go?"

"Dunno," the kit said with a casual shrug.

"How long will he be away?"

Shippo gave her a sly look, but he answered nonchalantly. "We expected him back by now."

"Oh… I see…" she murmured as her mind raced through possible reasons for the monk to leave the village. "Does he do this often?"

"Do what?"

"Go off by himself," Kagome replied, feeling a little silly. Just because Miroku rarely left her side during her visits didn't mean that he spent the rest of his week sitting around waiting for her to return. He has responsibilities, she reminded herself.

"Nah," Shippo drawled. "He's usually up on the hill, helping Shun-san with the shrine and stuff… or talking to the headman… or helping the villagers. Sometimes people ask him to come and do exorcisms for them."

"Oh? How long has Miroku-sama been gone?"

"A few days… three, I guess."

"So… maybe he's doing something for the headman—making extra arrangements for Obon?"

"Maybe," Shippo replied noncommittally, then gave her an all-too-innocent look. "Are you worried about him?"

Kagome started and quickly said, "No, no… just wondering." The miko wasn't sure she wanted to admit to the little fears and suspicions that were whispering in the back of her mind, and she definitely didn't want to face her disappointment over Miroku's absence. "It's just that he's usually here."

The morning dragged, and as the afternoon wore on, Kagome grew increasingly restless. If Kaede noticed, she didn't say anything, although the old woman found ways to help keep her busy. Midday came and went, and it was strange, realizing that Miroku wasn't as trapped by his past as she was. He'd made it clear that he was ready to move on, but she thought he was waiting for her to be ready, too. Am I being left behind?

The impression that Miroku should be waiting for her had probably taken root because they always spent her visits doing fun things together. In hindsight, the very idea was a ridiculous one; life in this era wasn't all picnics and presents, strolls and stories. Real life involved both work and play, and it was obvious that Miroku had taken on new obligations. Just because he said he'd wait for me doesn't mean he put everything on hold.

She was glad for Miroku… really. The man had found a place to fit in, settle down, and build a future. He'd fought for his life against Naraku's curse, and now he had just that—a life. She could hardly begrudge him his independence… especially since he'd freely offered to share that life with her. Still, when the setting sun still hadn't brought the wandering monk home, Kagome felt the first stirrings of annoyance. He shouldn't be off gallivanting.

Kagome tried to 'wake' the Shikon no Tama on her own and it didn't improve her temper any to find out she could dispel the accumulation of energy without assistance. She supposed that she should be proud of her accomplishment, but harnessing the jewel's power without Miroku's help only dampened her mood. If I can do this alone, should I tell him I don't need his help anymore? She liked knowing that she could function independently, but the prospect of withdrawing completely from the monk was a bleak one. Reaching out with her senses, she searched for his familiar presence, but she couldn't find him. I guess he's still too far away.

By the time the moon was high in the night sky and Kaede and Shippo were sound asleep, Kagome was sick with worry. She lay awake, staring at the mat that covered the entrance, reminding herself that the world was a dangerous place. If something were to happen to Miroku, too…. She refused to finish the sentence. The frustratingly over-attentive monk absolutely had to be safe.

She'd worked herself into an emotional froth that was edging towards despair when the first faint jangle of rings reached her ears. Kagome pulled her blanket up over her face to hide the tears that prickled against her eyelids, then trickled down her cheeks. Miroku ducked through the entrance, and she listened as he removed his shoes and propped his staff against the wall. He padded softly across the wooden platform to where his mat waited and eased down. It didn't occur to her that the monk might be able to sense the enormity of her relief until he whispered her name. "Kagome-sama… I know you're awake." Much to her embarrassment, she sniffled. "I apologize for the lateness of the hour," he continued gently. "The delay was unavoidable. My business carried me farther afield than expected."

Kagome tried to wipe any evidence of her tears from her cheeks before emerging from under her blanket. "I'm glad you're safe," she confessed in a low voice. "Were you… doing something for the headman?"

"No, this was a personal matter," Miroku replied. "Come here, and I'll show you." She hesitated a moment before pushing back the covers and crawling towards the monk, who leaned against the wall. He patted the bedding at his side, and she accepted his silent offer, sitting down next to him. After her unexpectedly tumultuous emotional day, the calming brush of his aura as it insinuated itself around hers was so comforting that Kagome didn't even protest when he also wrapped his arm around her shoulder and tugged her closer. "I'm sorry I wasn't here to greet you," he apologized again.

Kagome shrugged, intending to brush off both the comment and the encircling arm, but he tucked her even closer against him and leaned down so that he could whisper in her ear. "I know it's hard to see, but I don't think you'll have any trouble recognizing what I've brought." He turned towards her, and Kagome realized that his other arm was folded across his chest, and he was cradling something inside the front of his kesu. He gently jostled the mysterious bulge and murmured, "Wake up in there; you'll want to meet Kagome-sama."

Almost immediately, a purr could be heard, and when the miko reached out, soft fur met her questing fingertips. "A kitten?" she asked as she traced a tiny, pointed ear.

"It took me a longer than I expected to find a late litter," he said, sounding vaguely sheepish. "I thought it would be nice to have a cat at the shrine; she might make a good pet… for Shippo."

"Oh," she replied, tickling the kitten under its chin. "Can I hold her?"

"By all means," he chuckled.

"Come here, sweetheart," she cooed as she lifted the kitten, who mewled in protest over losing her warm nest. Kagome had to unhook the wee feline's claws from the fabric of Miroku's kosode, but soon she was cuddling the purring ball of fluff. "She's so tiny! What color is she?"

"Mostly black," he replied, and Kagome could hear the smile in Miroku's voice. She turned her face and nearly bumped noses with him, they were so close. At first, she thought he might try to kiss her, but after hovering for several breathless moments, he eased to a safer distance and hummed softly. "I think she likes you."

"The feeling is mutual," she said with a soft giggle, curling around the kitten as she leaned into Miroku's side.

"Good," he whispered with weary satisfaction.

Kagome was fidgety. There were a couple days left before she was supposed to return to the Sengoku Jidai to help with the final preparations for Obon, but her mind kept wandering. I wonder if Shippo had settled on a name for the kitten. Did Kaede remember the bottle of spice I left in the cabinet last weekend.? And more than anything, she wanted to talk with Miroku—not about anything in particular… just to talk.

I wish I could go back now—just a quick little trip. Her mounting impatience evaporated at the novel idea. Why not? It's not like anyone over there will mind if I show up, and nobody on this end will miss me for an hour or so. Feeling a bit like a truant, Kagome slipped out of the house and hurried towards the well house. She skipped lightly down the steps and took an unscheduled leap into the past.

By the time Kagome reached the top of the ladder, Miroku was hurrying towards her, radiating concern. "Kagome-sama!" he hailed. "Is something wrong?" He'd obviously been working, because his sleeves were tied back and his hair curled damply against his face and neck.

"No, not at all," she assured him as she swung her legs over the edge of the well and hopped onto the grass.

He relaxed visibly and said, "You're quite early. Have your plans changed?"

"No, I'll need to go back in a little while."

Miroku nodded, but he still seemed puzzled. "Not that I'm complaining, Kagome-sama, but to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?"

"I was restless, I guess," she admitted. "I was wishing I had someone to talk to, and I thought I'd just… drop by."

"I see," he replied with a pleased smile, adding a light, "I'm flattered."

She wasn't sure how to respond to that, so she glanced around the shrine site, where a few of the village men were hard at work. "So… what are you doing up here?"

He waved towards the slowly progressing structures. "I'm trying my hand at a new trade. Shun-san has been good enough to advise my efforts."

"You're building something?" she asked with a healthy measure of disbelief.

"With my own two hands," he affirmed, bemused by her reaction. "Since this will shortly become my home, it's only right that I contribute some of the labor."

"May I see?"

The monk hesitated briefly, but said, "Yes, of course." He led her towards a structure that was smaller than the rest, but only by contrast. "This is the house," he explained neutrally.

There was no roof yet, but the wooden platform was in place on the floor. Kagome wandered from one corner to the next, intrigued by the fact that this dwelling was so much more spacious than any of the huts in the village. It's at least three times the size of Kaede's. "What were you working on today?" she asked conversationally.

"These," he replied, picking up a narrow strip of wood from a pile resting in the corner. "I've been smoothing these and making sure that the ends will fit into the frame." He pointed to what would be a slatted window opening.

"Very nice," she commented. Back outside, she noticed that there was another smaller structure behind the house, close to the tree line and partially hidden by a shrub and two saplings that had been left intact after the rest of the undergrowth had been cleared away. "What's that?" she asked, already headed for the door.

"Oh… that," Miroku replied awkwardly. "It's… um…"

Kagome circled the little building before poking her head through the door, then ducking inside. It wasn't very big, but a lot of care had obviously gone into the construction, because it was further along than the house. "Did you build this, too?"

"Shun-san has been helping me with this little… project," the monk explained. "I explained the basic concept, but he has the necessary skills."

The platform inside was dominated by what looked like a squat, wooden barrel, and in a sudden flash of recognition, Kagome understood what she was seeing. "This is a bathhouse, isn't it!" she exclaimed, giving the monk a startled look.


Hot baths were an unheard of luxury in a village as small as this, and Kagome was impressed. She peered into the small but serviceable tub. "How will you fill it?" she asked.

"There's a spring among the rocks not far from here. We were thinking of digging a cistern since we're too far from the river up here for carrying water to be practical."

"You always did find us a room in the finest house in any village," she teased. "It looks like you'll be living in the lap of luxury, Miroku-sama. You may need to beware of wandering monks from now on."

He chuckled softly, saying, "Is that your way of saying that you approve of my plans?"

"This is wonderful," she said with a sincere smile. For the next half hour, Kagome poked around the rest of the building site, exclaiming over the progress that had been made since the last time she'd been given a tour; but finally, she declared it time to get back, and Miroku escorted her to the well. "Thank you for showing me around. It's kind of exciting to see the shrine that will someday be my home taking shape."

"May it be just as you say," he replied with a wry smile.

It wasn't until she stood in the bottom of the well five hundred years from then that she realized what the monk had meant, and her heart gave a flippety-flop. He wasn't seeing to his own comfort; he was thinking of mine.

On the last day of Obon, Kagome slipped back through the well to her own time in order to pick up some supplies from her mother. Mrs. Higurashi had begged for the chance to prepare a meal for her daughter's feudal 'family' since they wouldn't be together for the festival. "I hope I made enough," the older woman fretted.

"Mama, I can barely carry all of this. It's more than enough!" Kagome exclaimed, staggering under the weight of the picnic lunch.

"I'll help, Sis," Souta offered, taking charge of the bundle and slouching off towards the front door.

"Is that everything?" Kagome asked, looking around the kitchen and distractedly smoothing her hands down the front of her yukata.

"Nearly," her mother replied, then produced a small, flat box that had been tied shut with a ribbon.

"What's this?"

"Something for Miroku-sama," Mrs. Higurashi replied with a gentle smile. "You can tell him that it's our reply to his letter… and that he may keep it."

Kagome gave her mother a quizzical look, but she accepted it. "I don't mind playing messenger girl, but should I be worried?"

"No, dear," Mrs. Higurashi chuckled. "He reached out to us, and I wanted to reach back. That's all."

"I'll make sure he gets it," Kagome promised, hugging the box to her chest.

Her mother pulled her into quick hug. "You look beautiful… so grown up."

Kagome flushed with pleasure over the compliment. "Thank you," she whispered back, holding tight.

She had been worried about spending Obon away from her family, but Mama had insisted she spend the lantern festival with her friends in the Sengoku Jidai. Her mother had grown up in a riverside town, and she had many fond childhood memories centering around the finale to the midsummer gathering. "Do you have our lanterns?" Mrs. Higurashi asked.

"Yes," Kagome affirmed, lifting a roomy paper bag by its handles. "I put them in here so they wouldn't be squashed."

Mama gave a satisfied nod, and the two of them slowly followed Souta to the well house. "Make sure to let me know what your monk friend thinks of this yukata," she urged, smiling mischievously.

Kagome murmured a vague sort of agreement, though her feminine heart did a little skip of anticipation. If it had been Inuyasha, she was sure she'd have had to be content with covertly approving glances, but Miroku wasn't shy with compliments. He might actually say something about her festival clothes.

Over the weeks between Tanabata and Obon, Mrs. Higurashi had been on a quest to find a suitable summer yukata for her daughter, and when Kagome arrived home after last weekend, there had been three spread out on the bed for her to choose from. Her mother's objectives were obvious enough; all three were in shades of purple and lavender. Kagome had settled on one with a dragonfly pattern and allowed her mother to arrange her hair with a delicate set of combs decorated with beaded flowers.

Souta was waiting patiently inside the well house, his lanky frame sprawled carelessly over the bottommost steps. He stood as the two women descended the stairs, and he didn't bother with the pretense of reluctance when Kagome opened her arms, silently asking her younger brother for a hug. "I'll light the lanterns on this side for everyone," he promised, his voice cracking as it wobbled between registers.

"Thank you," she whispered, then allowed him to help her up onto the well's rim since the yukata restricted her movements. He handed her the cloth-wrapped stack of bento boxes, then stepped back, offering a little wave of farewell before his sister took the plunge.

Kagome touched down lightly in the feudal era and managed not to drop any of her armload. She'd only been gone for a few hours, but her welcome was no less enthusiastic than if she'd been gone a week. "Okaasan!" cheered Shippo, practically dancing in his excitement over the special treats that had been promised. "Oh, wow! Something smells good!"

"Do you need some help?" Miroku called down.

"Yes, please," Kagome gratefully replied. "I'm not sure I can manage the ladder with all of this."

The monk descended nimbly, and Kagome stepped back to make room for him in the close confines of the well shaft. When he turned to face her, his eyes lit up, and she blushed at the obvious appreciation in his violet eyes. "Why, Kagome-sama," he declared with unabashed delight. "You look like a princess!"

"Really? Let me see!" exclaimed Shippo, who practically tumbled down the ladder in his haste to join them. Mindful of his claws, the kit gently stroked one of the dragonflies on her sleeve. "Maybe Miroku should call you Kagome-hime for today," he said with a mischievous grin.

"Just what I need—another nickname," she replied dryly.

"Do you have many?" Miroku asked curiously, and Shippo snickered.

"Too many," Kagome sighed as she surrendered the better part of her load into Miroku's capable hands, then offered the smaller bag of lanterns for the kit to carry.

As they walked down the hill towards Kaede's hut, Kagome spotted a dozen boys coming back from their morning's forage, shoulders bent under the weight of piles of bamboo fronds that would be needed for the evening's observances. The group of youngsters was under the oversight of a few of the old men, who laughed and chatted almost as much as their young charges.

At midday, Miroku, Kagome, and Shippo joined the throng and trekked back up the steps to the meadow where the new shrine was being built, this time with Kaede. The villagers had been busy for the last few days, cleaning up the small cemetery that stood on the hill's summit and tending to the gravestones of their ancestors. There was a festive atmosphere to the gathering, and everyone was exclaiming over the fine weather they'd been blessed with for the occasion. A village-wide picnic had been organized, and Miroku was conducting tours of the construction site.

Kagome and Shippo took their time helping Kaede set up an offering at Kikyo's grave, but when it was time to claim a spot for their lunch, they slipped through the trees that still stood between the shrine site and Goshinboku. In the shade of the massive tree, Kagome spread a blanket, and Kaede began to disassemble Mrs. Higurashi's carefully-arranged meal, exclaiming over the many delicacies that had been included. Shippo had carried his kitten up the hill, and he sat amongst the God Tree's roots, quietly petting her while watching Kagome go through a ritual that was achingly familiar.

With quiet deliberation, she set up her traveling kettle over its portable flame and waited for it to come to a boil. From her pack, she extracted a couple of instant ramen cups. "Would you like some, too?" she asked the kit.

"Yeah," he agreed. "You should make one for Miroku, too."

She pulled two more cups from the bag and fished around for chopsticks; once the water came to a boil, she removed the lids and poured it over the noodles, replacing the lids to let them steep. While they waited, she scooted over to sit next to Shippo. "Have you settled on a name yet?" Kagome inquired, nodding towards the blue-eyed kitten who displayed all the curiosity of her kind as she explored a nearby shrub. She was almost completely black, with a bright white blaze on her chest and white stockings on her front feet.

"Uh-huh," Shippo nodded. "Me and Kouki were talking about it, and his mom said Tabi would be a good name. I liked it, so that's what I'm going to call her."

Kagome chuckled softly. "That is a good name." When the ramen was nearly ready, Shippo offered to go find Miroku so they could eat together, and she decided to go with him. "I think we'll have more success if we're both prying him away from his adoring audience," she joked.

They found the monk and the carpenter in the midst of a crowd of men in front of what would be his new house. Shun was quietly beaming, and Miroku was laughing and talking… but once she and Shippo caught his eye, he quickly excused himself. "Lead me to the feast, for I am faint with hunger," he declared melodramatically.

Shippo smirked and said, "Okaasan made ninja food."

Miroku's expression grew thoughtful. "It's been a long time, hasn't it? I think I will enjoy tasting Inuyasha's ramen again. Very appropriate to the day."

"I brought cans of Sango's favorite juice, too."

The monk smiled wistfully, but only offered a quiet, "Ah."

"And she brought some of Kirara's treats," Shippo piped up. "Maybe Tabi can share?"

"Of course," Kagome replied. "We'll all share. Mama outdid herself, so there's plenty."

They rejoined Kaede under Goshinboku and took the time to arrange their gifts before the three markers. Kagome's hands trembled as she perched a set of chopsticks across the steaming cup of ramen she placed it in front of Inuyasha's stone. "Grandpa put new markers under the tree in my time, too, so Souta's making sure you have a double portion," she whispered.

Miroku produced a cupful of pink and white flowers that he'd gathered earlier and calmly selected some of the taijiya's favorite foods from the trays to accompany his bouquet. He smiled when Kagome handed him the glaringly modern can of juice so he could add it to his offering. When Shippo added the brightly-labeled package of cat treats, the display under Goshinboku demonstrated just how much Kagome's presence had influenced all of their lives.

Kaede called them away from their reminiscences, urging them to sample Mrs. Higurashi's fine cooking. After a leisurely meal, Miroku excused himself to continue his duties as tour guide, and Kaede also returned to the clearing to visit with their friends and neighbors. Kagome packed up the remains and took charge of Tabi so Shippo could go play with Kouki and their friends for a bit. By midafternoon, the villagers made a haphazard exodus from the hilltop, returning to their homes in order to let the old and young rest up in preparation for the evening's observances.

A tower had been erected in a wide grassy stretch of land down where the river widened into shallows. Bonfires would be lit at sunset, and there would be dancing long into the night. Kaede excused herself and laid down on her bedroll for a short rest, and Shippo moved to his corner, where he sat in a thoughtful silence as he stroked Tabi. Miroku claimed a seat in the opposite corner and stretched out his legs, looking very relaxed.

Kagome realized that this was her first opportunity to give Miroku the box from her mother, so she pulled it from her pile of things and knelt down in front of the monk, whose eyes lazily followed her every move. "I have something for you," she said in a low voice, not wanting to disturb Kaede.

Miroku straightened slightly, eyes questioning… and hopeful. "For me?"

"I'm not sure what it is," she confessed. Adopting a more formal tone, she said, "My mother sends this to you in response to your letter. It's a gift… I think. She said you can keep it."

He eyed the box with furrowed brows. "I see…" he mused as he accepted it with both hands, and after a long moment, he placed it with his other belongings.

"Aren't you going to open it?" Kagome asked, somewhat surprised.

His smile was self-effacing. "Once I find the courage," he replied lightly.

Silence hung between them for a few moments, but Kagome sighed and broke it. "Miroku-sama, may I ask you a personal question?"

"Of course," he replied easily.

She nodded and scooted a little closer. "Did you keep your prayer beads?"

The monk didn't have to ask which ones she meant. "Yes, I kept them."

"Can… can I see them?" she tentatively asked.

"Certainly," he replied. Rising to his feet, he crossed to his cache of belongings against the far wall. From one of the chests, he removed a smaller box, skillfully carved with a pattern of overlapping gingko leaves.

"Oh, that's beautiful," she murmured while he resumed his seat.

"Hmm," he agreed as he lifted the lid. Inside were the gauntlet and the familiar beads that had kept the kanzaana in check for so many years. Without any reservations, he picked up the strand and reached over to take her hand. He gently lowered them, letting them pool in her palm before releasing her.

Kagome had never touched them before; they were heavier than they looked and cool to the touch. Letting them slide over her fingers with a soft rattle, she admired… and remembered. "Are you a very nostalgic person, Miroku-sama?" she asked.

"Not especially," he replied.

"Why do you keep them?"

"Some things are worth remembering," Miroku explained. "These remind me that I had to fight for the life I now have. When I recall the struggle—the cost at which my life was bought—I am less likely to take it for granted, and it gives me the courage to persevere."

Kagome laid the strand in her lap and slowly reached into the folds of her yukata. There was a soft clatter of beads, and she withdrew the necklace he'd known must be there… but had not seen in over a year.

"May I?" he asked softly, extending his hand.

She hesitated, but then she mimicked his earlier movements, placing her hand under his and lowering the precious strand of beads into Miroku's hand. "Why do you keep them?" he asked, echoing her words.

"I… I needed something to hold onto," she quietly confessed. Kagome scooted forward on the mat so she could reach and placed the prayer beads back in their box. Miroku offered Inuyasha's necklace to her in return, and her fingers twitched, but she slowly shook her head. "Would you mind if…" she started, but she paused to take a shaky breath. "Could you put Inuyasha's beads with yours… for safe keeping?"

"In this box?" he asked gently.

"It's a nice box," she murmured.

He smiled reassuringly. "I wouldn't mind at all; in fact, I am very honored that you would entrust them to me." Miroku swallowed, and his voice was husky was he asked, "You don't need to hold onto them anymore?"

"No," she answered. "I don't need them to remember… and maybe… I shouldn't try to hang onto something that is already out of reach."

With infinite care, Miroku lowered Inuyasha's necklace into the box with his prayer beads and replaced its lid. He struggled for several moments to find his voice, and when he did, he said, "If you change your mind, they're right here."

"Yes, I know."

"And… if you need something else to hold onto…" he dared to offer.

"Yes, I know that, too," Kagome whispered.

When the sun began to set, the villagers made their way down to the river. Kagome watched from a vantage point midway up the shrine stairs as winding processions crossed bridges and skirted rice paddies to merge on the meadow where the menfolk were already at work lighting bonfires.

"Can you still see Miroku?" she asked Shippo, squinting into the dusky distance.

"Yeah, he's talking to the musicians," the kitsune replied with sharp-eyed confidence. "We should get down there, too. I want a good spot."

Kagome nodded and adjusted her grip on the handles of her bag before joining those still trickling down towards the gathering place. Every household bore its lantern; some even had more than one this year thanks to their young miko's generosity. As they walked along, Kagome overheard parents explaining the festival to their youngsters. Obon—the lantern festival—was a time to honor ancestors. For the last few days, their spirits were said to be close to their homes and their loved ones, and this final procession was a way of thanking them for their presence, saying goodbye, and lighting their way home.

When Kagome and Shippo finally reached Kaede's side down by the river, the bamboo fronds were already being laid out upon the water. Some of the older children waded out into the sluggish shallows so they could distribute the branches evenly. Amidst their slender leaves, the first few lanterns were set afloat, and soft exclamations of approval were raised when the current caught the flimsy crafts and carried them downstream.

This tradition was older than all of them, but the villagers seemed especially pleased this year because their new shrine keeper added a touch of formality to the observances. Several of the families stopped to speak with Miroku before moving to the brink to launch their lanterns. As Kagome watched, he offered ready smiles, solemn greetings, and simple blessings—much to the delight of all involved.

She hung back, quietly watching as the river filled with twinkling lights that stretched downstream to disappear around the next bend. Lightning bugs rose from the long grasses, adding flickering lights to the muggy night air as the darkness deepened and the stars made their appearance. It's so beautiful; I understand why Mama has such vivid memories of Obon from her childhood. When it was finally Kagome's turn to face the monk, she offered Miroku a shy smile.

"Good evening, Kagome-hime," he greeted with exaggerated solemnity. Glancing around to locate Kaede, the monk sent Shippo to extricate her from a knot of elderly tongue-waggers. "Shall we do our part?"

"Yes, please," she replied, raising her bag. "My family wants me to add their lanterns to ours—for Inuyasha and Sango and Kirara."

"I'm eager to see them," Miroku remarked as he grasped her elbow and steadied her down to the water's edge. Once she was securely perched on a rock at the brink, he moved to help Kaede, who gratefully claimed a seat beside Kagome.

Shippo sat at Kagome's feet and patiently waited while she opened her bag and withdrew a homemade lantern. It was rectangular, with the four sides squared off at crisply-folded angles, and on each face, a precise diamond-shape had been incised. "Grandpa made this one," Kagome explained, tilting the lantern's face to catch the firelight so they could read the bold brush strokes that created the kanji for Kirara's name.

Miroku hummed appreciatively and extended his hands. "Your grandfather's calligraphy is very fine," he murmured as he gave the tiny craft a closer inspection.

"He liked yours as well," Kagome replied as she lifted another lantern from her bag and passed it on to Kaede. "He actually asked me to tell you to be sure to keep careful records of the founding of our shrine… since your writing is so legible."

"I'll see what I can do," the monk said with a soft chuckle, the commented, "This paper is… unusual."

"Aye," Kaede agreed, fingering the slick surface of the water-resistant, flame-retardant paper. "And such a nice personal touch," she added, inspecting the second lantern.

"Souta made that one," Kagome said softly.

Miroku passed Kirara's lantern on to Shippo and took the cylindrical one from Kaede. A bold pattern had been inked along the top edge—black circles interspersed periodically with white magitama. The homage to Inuyasha's beads was obvious, but the words scrawled along the seam were harder to decipher. "Thank you, Inu-no-niichan," he finally read aloud. "How old was your brother when he first met Inuyasha?"


The monk nodded and passed the lantern along for Shippo's inspection. "It would seem Inuyasha left a big impression on Souta-kun."

Kagome smiled sadly as she withdrew a third lantern. "He looked up to Inuyasha a great deal. Here… Mama made one for Sango-chan."

The third lantern was another cylinder, but the paper had been tinted pink and adorned with flowers. Miroku accepted the lantern and examined the way Kagome's mother had slit the paper and curled the flower petals, making them seem three-dimensional. Sango's name had been printed neatly amidst the blossoms, and the monk touched them reverently. "This is very fine."

"Thy family's gifts are works of art," Kaede warmly declared. "They do honor to these dear ones."

"Our lanterns aren't nearly so fancy," Shippo said, holding up a simple paper lanterns much like the ones the rest of the villagers were using—thanks to Kagome's generous donation of a ream of paper. "But… I have an idea." His face creased in concentration, and there was a small flare of youki as the kit summoned a burst of foxfire. With a satisfied smirk, he displayed his lit lantern, which shimmered with cerulean flames.

"Oh, Shippo!" Kagome exclaimed. "That's perfect! Will you light the rest of these, too?"

When all their lamps were aglow, Miroku offered to ferry them out to the middle of the river, but Kagome shook her head. "I want to do it myself," she said firmly. Hiking up her yukata until it rode just above her knees, she let Kaede help her tie back her sleeves. Then, she picked up Souta's lantern and stepped into the shallows.

"Give me your hand," Miroku urged, and she allowed him to steady her progress.

Smooth river rocks were slippery underfoot, and cool water rippled against her calves, swirling past in lazy eddies. Shippo carried over an armful of bamboo fronds, and Miroku used them to help buoy their small paper lanterns. Before their little cluster was carried too far, Kagome, Miroku, and Shippo released the three lanterns honoring their fallen friends. All together, seven plumes of azure foxfire drifted downstream, standing out amidst the warm, golden light of the other villagers' lights. Many of their friends and neighbors exclaimed over the pretty display, and Shippo stood a little taller, looking very proud to have played a part in making their tribute a memorable one.

Miroku wasn't bothered by the strange tangle of emotions that wrestled for his attention as he watched the lanterns drifting away. Obon had brought so many memories of Sango to the fore, and he was grateful for them even though they were tender to the touch and tinged with regret. He found no contradiction in admitting that he had loved his betrothed—still loved her—but his feelings for the young woman by his side were playing havoc with his heart. Kagome seemed to have forgotten that he still held her hand, and he gently twined his fingers with hers, finding it odd that being closer to the source of his upheaval did the most to calm it.

Shippo alerted first. He'd joined the other boys in filling the river with bamboo boughs, but Miroku saw the kitsune stiffen and turn towards the forest above the village. The redhead dropped his armload and was pelting towards them when Kagome's fingers tightened around his in a death grip. "Oh… no!" she gasped.

A low rumble vibrated up through the ground, deep and ominous. Miroku followed Shippo's gaze over the trees, but he couldn't see anything beyond the light of their bonfires. Glancing down at the miko, he prompted, "Kagome-sama?"

"Something's coming," she urgently whispered. "Something big."

Kaede eased to her feet with Shippo's assistance and fixed the monk with her dark eye. "Will thy wards hold it back?"

Miroku took a moment to assess the ominous youki and grimaced as the earth shook noticeably beneath their feet, causing the first stirrings of alarm from the villagers. "Slow it down, yes… but stop it?" He shook his head regretfully.

Kagome stood very straight, her face very pale in the starlight. He didn't even need to reach out to know how keyed up she was; the Shikon no Tama stirred with a frenzy of warning, bathing her skin in a soft glow that would have been beautiful if it hadn't been so telling. The threat is real, and she knows it. Kagome's wide eyes reflected firelight… and fear. "Miroku-sama's right; the wards won't do much," she murmured.

"What should we do?" Kaede asked, all business.

"Protect the village," Kagome replied, her voice filled with a detachment that concerned Miroku.

Tugging gently on her arm, they splashed back to the riverbank. "Have the villagers return to their homes; Kagome-sama and I will head off the youkai," Miroku ordered.

"What about me?" demanded Shippo. "I want to fight, too."

"It would be best if you stayed with Kaede-sama," the monk gravely replied. "You can look out for her… and Tabi." To the monk's relief, the kit sulked but didn't argue further. Scooping up his staff, Miroku turned to Kagome, who was fumbling with her sandals. "Is it fast?"

"N-no, it's moving slowly."

"Good… we have time," he remarked, half to himself. Kaede was already calling the villagers to attention, so the monk took hold of Kagome's arm and hurried her back in the direction of the huts.

"It's coming through the forest—beyond the shrine," she announced when they paused at the base of the long flight of steps beyond the torii arch. "I think I'm better off without these," she groaned. Kicking off her flimsy footwear, she was off in a flash of slender limbs, running lightly up the steps.

He watched her go with mingled amusement and appreciation. Only Kagome…. Stirring himself back into action, he chased after her, and he had to raise his voice to be heard over the noise of his shakujou. "How close is it?"

"It hasn't reached the wards yet," the miko panted. When they crested the hill, she leaned against the torii arch that marked the topmost step and sent her senses flying.

The monk scanned the forest, trying to catch any signs of movement. The ground reverberated with sporadic rumbles, and he wondered if the quakes denoted footsteps or the destruction of obstacles that lay in the oncoming demon's path. His mind raced from one option to the next, trying to formulate the best plan for confronting, diverting, or destroying the youkai. We must protect the villagers, their homes, this shrine. However, the most important thing was Kagome.

He could feel her reaching, stretching, testing her limits as she searched for the source of danger. She's trembling. Without hesitation, he stepped close and pulled her into his arms, offering his support. Kagome isn't a warrior—not in the same way Sango was. He and the young miko did not merely fight side by side; they were closer than that. Drawing upon the Jewel's vast resources, he and Kagome were united in purpose, down to their very souls. It was unique, this bond. Rare beyond words, and something he considered a privilege. Her strength was his strength; his strength was her strength. Together, they could win—would win.

Confidence welled up inside, and he made sure she could sense it. "Don't worry; we can do this," her murmured. With a grateful sigh, she leaned into him, trusting him, believing in him. He tightened his embrace, understanding in part why Inuyasha could be so strong, had been so fierce. I will protect her. It was a promise he intended to keep, no matter what the cost.

With Miroku for an anchor, Kagome hurled her senses outward, focusing in the direction of the encroaching enemy. In her mind's eye, the demon was hungry, greedy, and eager for blood. She recoiled from its maliciousness, but stayed the course long enough to gauge its lumbering progress. "Oh… oh, no!" she gasped as the enormous mass of dark youki resolved itself into two forms. "There are two of them!"

"There are two of us," Miroku replied lightly.

"They're almost here."

"I can tell," he replied, pointing.

Kagome stared in horror as the first oni waded through the forest towards them, its chest towering over the tops of the trees. Fear washed through her, and her knees locked. It's been a very long time since I've faced anything this huge. Who am I kidding? I've never had to face demons this size. Inuyasha always took care of the big ones. As feelings of inadequacy wormed their way into her flagging courage, Kagome tried to swallow and almost gagged at the dryness in her mouth.

"Hey," Miroku said, grasping her shoulder and giving it a little shake. "Just because it's big doesn't mean it's invincible."

"I know, I know," she muttered, hardly sounding convinced. Right now, what I want more than anything is a rescuer. Without thinking, Kagome's fingers flew to the fold of her yukata where Inuyasha's beads should have been. Catching herself, she glanced guiltily up at Miroku, but if he noticed her slip, he didn't say anything.

With his eyes on the first enormous demon, he said, "Come now, Kagome-sama… even the villagers would agree that they're no match for the monk and his lady—the Shikon Miko."

Kagome was almost grateful for the distraction. "You knew about the nicknames?" she demanded.

"I know everything that goes on in this village," he replied, flashing an easy grin. "And I'd like to keep it that way. Tomorrow, I want to go back to building my home and tending the wards and advising the headman and listening to gossip. This is my home, and there are people here I need to protect."

When Kagome was finally able to respond, it was with a firm nod and a quiet, "Me, too."

"This way, then," the monk heartily replied and tightly clasped her hand.

As he led her towards the confrontation, she sensed his concentration… and his courage. It's not the same as when we were all together… but I'm not alone, either. We can do this; it will be all right. She could believe it because he did. "Thank you, Miroku-sama."

They stopped in the midst of the construction site, where picnickers had spread their lunches under the summer skies. Miroku released her hand and took up a stance slightly in front of her. His voice deepened with authority as he raised his staff and shouted, "You there… stop where you are! If you continue, it will mean your deaths!"

In response, a reverberating howl split the night air, to be joined almost immediately by an answering roar from the second oni. "I don't think they're going to listen to reason," Kagome murmured.

"So much for diplomacy," he shrugged. "Shall we begin?"

Kagome nodded and turned her mind inward, blocking out the glowing eyes and jagged teeth of their attackers, focusing instead upon the well of power residing within the Jewel. As pure light blazed up around her, she could feel the monstrous demons home in upon her, drawn to the Jewel like moths to a flame. All they see are two puny humans. Underestimating us will be the last mistake they make! Bringing up her hands to guide a blast of purifying energy at the first oni, Kagome's eyes snapped open to fix upon her foe… and all her determination evaporated. "No! Don't!" she screamed.

The first oni had reached the forest's edge, and Miroku ran forward, hurling sutras that clung and crackled against blackened skin. At the same moment that Kagome cried out, he dodged backwards, avoiding the swing of a huge, ugly foot. The kick missed Miroku, instead connecting with the village's new shrine. Wood snapped like twigs, and she stared in mute dismay as all of Shun's hard work was brought to nothing.

"No!" she repeated, more softly, then glanced wildly around their chosen battlefield. More than the shrine was endangered by fighting in this place. There are too many precious things here—the cemetery, the old shrine, Goshinboku, Miroku's house… the Well. What happens if the Bone Eater's Well is destroyed? It can't be… right? It's there in the future. She stared up at the looming oni, sick with guilt. It's my fault; these demons are after the Jewel. By staying here to protect these things, I'm actually endangering them! Choosing a direction that would lead both oni away from the hilltop shrine, Kagome fled into the trees.

Miroku's shout didn't stop her stumbling retreat, but it didn't take much time for the monk's longer legs to overtake her. "Kagome-sama, what are you planning?"

She could have kissed him for giving her the benefit of the doubt. "The house, the tree, the well," she listed breathlessly. "All your hard work…."

"And your way home," he concluded. "You're right, of course. Let's find a better place to make a stand."

Once again, Miroku took the lead. "This way," he urged.

There was no doubt that the oni were giving chase, for the creak of snapping timber grew ever louder as the demons cut a swathe through the forest. The percussive force of heavy footfalls caused the ground to quake, and Kagome stumbled more than once as they rushed to gain higher ground. As leaf mulch gave way to rockier terrain, she winced as sharp stones cut into her bare feet, but she gritted her teeth and fought upwards, refusing to complain. However, when an uprooted tree crashed to the ground right behind her, she screamed as she lost her balance.

"Kagome!" Miroku exclaimed as he reversed direction, picking his way back down the slope.

"I'm okay," she assured, accepting his hand up and dusting herself off.

"You go on ahead," the monk briskly urged, already slapping sutras onto the trunk of the tree the oni had thrown. "This will slow them down a little. I'll catch up with you on the top of this ridge."

She continued her uphill scramble, though her attention was fixed upon Miroku, whose presence shone brightly in her mind's eye. Be safe, be safe, she silently chanted as the dark mass of jyaki pressed relentlessly towards him. Then, there was a brilliant flash and an explosion, and Kagome covered her head with her hands as dirt and pebbles showered around her. A howl of pain ripped through the night, and Kagome resumed her climb with a smile on her face. It's no Wind Scar, but Miroku's sutras sure pack a wallop.

At the crest of the rise, Kagome turned to see how much ground they'd gained on their pursuers, and it wasn't much. The hulking figures were clearly outlined against the stars, and though they didn't appear to be moving now, it wouldn't take them long to close what little distance remained between them. Wanting to be ready as soon as Miroku arrived, she closed her eyes and wrapped her fingers around the glowing orb of the Shikon no Tama. It was useless to try to find the inner calm she normally sought, but necessity lent her a surprising degree of focus. When the jingling of metal rings announced Miroku's arrival, Kagome was prepared to take his direction.

The monk jogged up, hesitated for a moment, then cast caution to the wind by pulling her into a quick embrace. There was no mistaking the elation in his voice as he said, "That last blast exceeded expectations. Any chance you gave it a little boost?"

"Erm… I don't think so?"

"No matter," he grinned, giving her back a reassuring pat before moving to stand a couple paces away. "I left more sutras in their path, so if they're stupid enough to charge straight for us, we might be able to weaken them further. Once they're closer, I'll establish a barrier… just in case they start throwing things again. You concentrate on gathering the Jewel's energy, and I'll be your focus. It'll be just like picking off weasels!"

The monk's confidence rolled off him in waves, and the light of battle was in his eyes. Miroku is strong; I'm so glad he's here. I don't think I could do this alone. When the first oni charged, they enacted his plan. Beneath the shimmering arc of Miroku's barrier, Kagome gathered her power as the towering giant bore down upon them, hurling ineffectual punches.

From his position at Kagome's back, Miroku gave her shoulder a light squeeze and murmured, "Together… on three." He counted as each glancing blow landed upon their shield, and when the third failed to penetrate the barrier, he dropped it. Kagome gave the necessary push, thrusting her power outward as Miroku directed it with deadly accuracy. In a flare of pink light and a swirl of grey ash, their first opponent met its defeat.

Kagome sagged back against Miroku, feeling incredibly drained, yet strangely elated. "We did it," she murmured. "Thank goodness."

"You did it," Miroku corrected with a chuckle. "But let's not grow complacent just yet." In a twinkling, his barrier was back in place, just in time to deflect a sizable boulder as the second oni retaliated for its companion's demise. "I need you to do that once more. Can you manage?"

"Of course, Miroku-sama. Whatever it takes."

Again, they waited for their attacker to approach, safe within Miroku's barrier. However, this oni seemed capable of learning from its predecessor's mistakes. It didn't waste time trying to pummel their shield; instead, it drove its heavy fists into the ground on either side of their shelter. The blows shook their footing, and as the relentlessly slow barrage continued, cracks formed in the rock upon which they stood. "Not good!" Miroku exclaimed.

Tossed this way and that, the monk leaned heavily upon his shakujou, trying to maintain his focus, but it was no use. As they were flung to the ground, their sole source of protection fizzled out of existence, leaving them exposed. "Move, Kagome! Run!" Miroku shouted, but she was already scrabbling across the ground, barely avoiding the oni's fist.

The enormous demon moved slowly, but at this range, its immense strength was unmistakable. Kagome shrieked in dismay as a descending fist sent her reeling again. Hearing Miroku calling for her, she hollered, "I'm okay," as she picked herself up, peering warily up at their attacker. She tried to dart around the oni so she could rejoin the monk, but a huge foot crashed down between them.

"We don't need to be in contact!" Miroku yelled urgently. "Remember our training, Kagome! Attack from there—quickly!"

Kagome scowled. She might not need his touch for them to connect, but that didn't mean she didn't want it very badly. And it was difficult to concentrate while the oni was attempting to trample her underfoot. Skittering out of range of a lumbering kick, she called back, "If I close my eyes, it's going to step on me!"

"Hold on; I'm coming!"

Keeping her eyes on the demon's shuffling feet, Kagome gave them the widest possible berth as she circled around, trying to edge out of range of its peripheral vision. What I need is my bow. If I had my bow, then I could…. Suddenly, a pair of glowing red eyes veered her way, and she braced herself, knowing that when the oni turned, the quaking would begin anew. She hadn't considered the possibility of a back-kick until the oni's heel was already driving towards her.

"Look out!" Miroku shouted, and then the monk was there with her, pushing her out of the way. With a pained grunt, he took the brunt of the demon's kick, and he was flung a short distance to collide with a tree. He dropped limply to the ground and lay unmoving.

Kagome stood shakily, waiting for Miroku to do the same. Except… he didn't. "Miroku-sama?" she called, totally ignoring the oni, whose shifting was making it difficult to keep her feet. "Miroku-sama!" Hurrying to his side, she dropped to her knees and eased him onto his back. "Miroku?" she whispered in a frightened voice. She pressed her ear to his chest, desperate for any sign of life, but with the blood pounding inside her head, she couldn't tell. With fingers gone cold, she touched his face, and whimpered when they came away slick with blood. Kagome whimpered. The oni's roar snapped her out of her panic, and she hurried to stand, planting her bare feet on the uneven ground as she took up a protective stance in front of Miroku's prone form. "I won't let you take him, too!" she screamed defiantly.

Protecting the Jewel is my duty. Protecting the village is my promise. Protecting Miroku is absolutely essential. Light and power wound together, flowing up around her, churning in time with her inner tumult as they burned away every vestige of fear and doubt, leaving only resolve. She needed Miroku, but not for this.

With her hands outspread to bar the enemy's approach, she felt the Jewel's power swelling and succumbed to it. Unlike the last killing blow, which had been neatly directed by Miroku's experienced touch, Kagome's attack was raw and impulsive. There was no finesse, no control, no direction to her push. A burst of purifying energy bloomed around her, then rushed outward, flowing from her heart. The surge built until it encompassed the entire hilltop, and when it dissipated, there was nothing left to the oni—not even ash.

Completely wrung out, Kagome's arms dropped to her side in the sudden stillness; she blinked in momentary confusion as the silence seemed to echo around her. It's… over? Swaying unsteadily, she turned to peer at the prostrate monk. He's hurt. She was limping towards him, wondering how in the world she was going to carry him back to the village, when she felt the first hazy brush of a demon's power. Was there a third oni? Blanching at the very thought, Kagome raised dull eyes towards the fast-approaching youki. Reaching out involuntarily with her senses, she recognized the newcomer, and relief weakened her knees. The blood drained from her face, and her vision whitened; she knew she was falling, but Kagome never felt the ground.


A InuYasha Story
by forthright

Part 7 of 8

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