Chapter 1: A Meeting of Necessity
"Please, Miroku," Kagome begged, her eyes as big and wide as they would go. "Will you at least take a look at her?"
He knew immediately who Kagome meant by "her", and could not quite hide his surprise at the request. She was talking about the slayer. He hadn't thought they would willingly let him within a foot of this new girl, considering she was completely incapacitated and they didn't seem to trust him one bit. And yet here was Kagome, asking for his help.
It didn't hurt her case that she was looking a little the worse for wear, and as if she might be sick at any moment. He had known the slayer girl was grievously injured, but had no real idea what to expect. Kagome had taken it upon herself to act as the group's healer and mender-of-wounds, but obviously something about the slayer's injuries had deeply upset her. It would do no good to approach Inuyasha about the issue, and thus, out of necessity, she had come to him.
With a weary sigh, he resigned himself to the inevitable. "I will see what I can do."
"Oh, thank you, Miroku!" Quietly, more sullenly, she added, "I'd never forgive myself if she died!"
As he pushed himself to his feet, Miroku wondered when she had become so attached to a girl that until quite recently had been trying to kill their companion. At the same time, he knew he could not in good conscience simply leave her to die.
When he stepped into the hut, or what remained of it, he did not know what to expect. Obviously something had turned Kagome's stomach, or she would never have allowed him to treat a woman without supervision.
He knelt beside the woman; Sango, he thought her name was. She lay so still that for a moment he thought she might already be dead. Only a closer look revealed the slow, shallow movements of her breathing.
Kagome had already removed the slayer's uniform, but had abandoned her post as the group's healer shortly thereafter. She'd covered the other girl with a blanket and fled, leaving even her first-aid kit behind in her flight from the hut.
As soon as he pulled the blanket back, he saw what had her so upset. His breath caught in his throat and stuck there uncomfortably.
This girl's wounds were massive. There was blood everywhere. He had no idea how she had made it as far as she did, much less taken Inuyasha on in battle, in her condition. Were it him, he would have stayed abed a month or more before he would consider himself healed enough to attempt to walk at all, much less fight.
She was covered in old scars; perhaps covered was the wrong word. There were a few here on her arm, a few scattered there across her shoulder. In fact, she was remarkably un-scarred for one in her line of work, save for the wounds in her back. It appeared that she had been shot, several times, with arrows, and recently, too. But the largest wound, in the center, was a mystery. No mere cut, this, but a deep puncture wound. Something large and bladed had caused it, but he had no idea what.
He knew enough to know that she had been in Naraku's clutches before falling in with their little group… and that bastard had to have something to do with these wounds. He just had not realized that Naraku would resort to physical torture rather than his more typical methods of prolonged emotional torment.
He realized he was staring at his own hand, bound against Naraku's curse, and forced himself to look away.
He supposed that in the end it did not matter what had caused this, only that he patched it up as best he could in the hopes that she might live. But as he carefully selected supplies from Kagome's first aid kit, he knew that no matter what he did, even with his very best effort, this wound would not knit clean. For the rest of her days, this girl, Sango, would bear this scar on her back. And he had to wonder, even if she lived, if she would ever be whole again.
Chapter 2: Houshi-sama
Sango had always hated bedrest. But for now, while her body was weak and refused to obey her will, she had no choice but to accept it.
She lay on a tattered old futon, covered by what remained of an old kosode that by chance happened to be hers. By some miracle, this hut had survived the attack that had slain the villagers and destroyed much of the town. The building was whole, even if its contents were in disarray and the air was stale and smelled of dust.
And so Sango lay listlessly on her side, so as to avoid putting pressure on her healing injuries, and let her attention wander. It was dim inside. Someone had hung a mat over the entryway. Sunlight filtered through, along with occasional quiet sounds from outside. There was the ever-present sound of a fire, the occasional rumble-scrape of something heavy being dragged along, a shouted exclamation... She half allowed herself to imagine that they were rebuilding the village, or at least trying to help.
They… Inuyasha, Kagome, the kitsune, and the monk.
The people she had at first thought to be enemies, to be responsible for the destruction of her village. Only now it turned out that they were… if not friends, then allies, at least. They had destroyed Naraku's puppet, and got him to reveal that everything that had befallen the slayers had been his doing. And then they had brought her home, and treated her wounds, and waited for her to heal.
And, she had to admit, there was little more she could do now. Like it or not, she had survived her family and her village, and there was nothing to do but rest, heal, and seek revenge if she could.
For the most part her new companions left her in peace, and gentle quiet reigned over what remained of the taiji-ya village. The quietude was punctuated, a few times, by vehement arguments.
Sango recognized the voices as belonging to Inuyasha and Kagome. They were a strange pair, if she had ever seen one. Contemplating their strangeness – from Kagome's unusual clothing to Inuyasha's bizarre attachment to her – helped both to pass the time and to stave off the mind-numbing boredom of recovery.
They were both searching for shards of the Shikon Jewel, like the one that had caused her village to be destroyed, but beyond that she knew precious little. Kagome did not wish to burden her with their story while she was still healing. She would have loved to hear, if only to alleviate her boredom. How had such a strange, otherworldly girl come to travel with a hanyou, and share the same quest for a jewel that was not supposed to exist? But she knew for now she would have to resign herself to curiosity.
The kitsune child, Shippou, was far more forthcoming with both his story and his willingness to spend time entertaining her. He sympathized with her, she gathered, because he had watched his own family be slain by vicious youkai, just as her family had been destroyed. But his antics made her smile, however small the spark of happiness within her empty heart, and for that she was grateful.
The fourth member of their party was far more mysterious: a Buddhist monk, who she vaguely recalled having seen before engaging in battle with Inuyasha.
So fleeting was his presence that at first she wondered if she had merely imagined him. It was only as the days passed and he returned, occasionally, to check on the progress of her healing that she realized he was real. But by the time three days had passed, her wounds had healed enough that he left her care up to Kagome, and she saw him no more.
When she eventually worked up the courage to ask about him, Kagome informed her that his name was Miroku and that he was indeed traveling with their group, adding a grave warning that he was a lecherous man and prone to taking advantage of women… but by that point he was already 'Houshi-sama', and Sango could not quite believe a monk to be capable of such dishonorable actions.
Chapter 3: A Kind Gesture
Miroku paused, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a sleeve, and surveyed the area.
It was covered in debris; the youkai horde had definitely done its job when it attacked the village of the taiji-ya. What had seemed like a good idea at the time, putting the village back in order to help pass the time while the slayer girl healed, was now beginning to look like an insurmountable task. He didn't think he would ever finish, even if the girl spent a month or more recovering.
His gaze fell on the surly hanyou. Inuyasha had been mysteriously absent for much of the day, but now he was crouched nearby, watching Miroku with something akin to consternation in his eyes.
Amused, Miroku turned his attention back to the log he had been hauling. Judging by the size of it, it had once been part of a support beam for some building. He managed to drag it the last short distance to the fire and, expending more effort than he would have liked to admit, heaved it on top of the burning pile of timber. Sparks shone and drifted lazily upward, fading against the late afternoon sky.
He watched for a moment, entranced and calm.
"Just what are you up to, monk?" The peaceful moment was irreparably shattered by the irate hanyou's voice. Miroku sighed.
"Just cleaning up a bit," he replied amiably.
Inuyasha did not seem impressed by the explanation. He huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. "What for?"
Miroku paused for a moment, considering. Finally, he decided, "It's simply a kind gesture."
Inuyasha gave him a dubious look, but had nothing more to say. For now, anyway.
Chapter 4: Consigned to Memory
There was a row of fresh graves at the edge of the village. Small wonder it had seemed so quiet and empty; there was no one left.
Sango approached slowly, mindful of her weakened condition, but drawn inexorably closer. The graves told their story even from a distance. They were arranged neatly, one beside the other, and each with its owner's weapon laid lovingly on top. She could name them all: family, friends, comrades-in-arms.
She needed to see them, the final resting places of everyone she had ever known.
With slow, careful steps, she came to stand beside the fallen ones. Memories of her own grave flashed through her head, and a fleeting question: why did I survive?
Shaking from the effort of holding her weary, injured body upright, she sank gratefully to the ground. Kirara, her ever present companion, chirr-ed mournfully. There was no helping it. They were all that was left.
She heaved a shuddering sigh, borne of loneliness that went all the way to her core. She had never been alone before. It was an eerie, unsettling feeling, half expecting Father or Kohaku or one of the others to come by at any moment and ask what was wrong, knowing that they never would.
She tried to imagine the village as it had been, as it should have been: lively, happy, filled with people. But the memory skittered away, just out of reach, leaving her alone in the empty ruins of her home.
There was no one left. It was the simple truth, or as close to it as she could get without wanting to curl in on herself and die beside her fallen comrades. And yet she found she had no tears to shed.
Nothing would ever be the same. Everything was gone, irretrievable. Her past was consigned to memory... and her future had become merely a might have been. But she had to carry on, for those that could not. There was just one question.
Where do I go from here?
There came the sound of footsteps, soft and faltering, behind her. Sango did not turn to look; she knew who it would be.
"Sango-san..." The voice confirmed her guess. It was Kagome. "Sango-san, you shouldn't be up and about just yet..."
Sango had not been able to stay in that ruined hut one more moment. She had needed to get out. It did not matter that she was still healing and weak, only that she needed to see the damage with her own eyes. It was not entirely unexpected to see the village so destroyed, but this... "You made graves for everyone."
"Yeah," Kagome murmured. "About that... Since there's nobody left, what do you think of coming along with us?"
Sango turned, then. She needed to see the other girl's face. Uncertainty and hope were reflected in equal parts in Kagome's eyes; Shippou peered eagerly over her shoulder. They were serious. Even after everything she had done, after she had tried to kill them all, they wanted her to join them. And how could she refuse? They had helped her. They had held funeral rites for the dead. They shared her objective - they wanted to destroy Naraku as much as she did. And... she wouldn't have to be alone anymore.
"You're gathering pieces of the Shikon jewel, right?" Kagome nodded. "And Naraku is after them as well?" Another nod. "Then that means he will come after you again at some point."
"Yes," Kagome agreed.
"Then I'll go with you."
Excitement flashed across the other girl's face, but faded quickly. "You want to avenge everyone, don't you?"
Sango sighed. "I have to."
Chapter 5: A History Lesson
It had started with a conversation beside the graves, Kagome said. The slayer girl, Sango, had agreed to travel with their group in the hopes of avenging the fallen slayers, and she had also offered to tell them the story of the Shikon jewel's creation. So their next step was an arduous trek up the side of a mountain, in search of a cave they had already visited once. But this time, Miroku supposed, it would be different; this time they had Sango, and she would be able to answer their questions.
Their progress was slowed by the fact that Sango was unable to make the trip on her own and had to be carried. He had offered to do the job himself, but had been quickly rebuffed by his companions, and so the task was left to Inuyasha. The confused look on her face in response to their overzealous reaction was enough to brighten his day in spite of the fact that his friends clearly still did not trust him one bit around women.
He sobered quickly as they reached the cave, air whistling ominously from the hole in the mountain. The group paused only for a moment, just outside the entrance, before proceeding. It was chilly inside, damp and eerie and disconcerting.
"Have any of you been inside this cave before?" Sango asked. "And seen it?"
"That great big mummy? Yeah," Inuyasha answered.
"Yes, that." Inuyasha helped her down then, so she might sit and lean against the wall rather than cling to him. Once she was settled, she went on to explain how innumerable youkai had gathered their power together, merging into one enormous being in an attempt to defeat a single human being. The dozen or so types of youkai she listed explained the bizarre shape of the creature they had seen entombed here. And it might also explain something Miroku had seen and wondered about earlier.
It was at that very moment that they came upon the mummy. Good timing, Miroku thought as he wandered over to take a better look, though he was not sure she had timed her speech for dramatic effect so much as waited to start her story until they were inside the cave. His gaze fell on the human shape protruding from the side of the remains. "So this is a human, then," he mused. "To judge by the armor, an ancient general of some sort."
"Wrong." Her tone was almost... bored. "Many centuries ago, this was a woman. A priestess."
It made sense, when he stopped to think about it. When it came to fighting youkai, one holy person was worth a hundred, or even a thousand, ordinary warriors.
Sango told them the story of a time of great war and strife, in which many humans died and, consequently, youkai were much stronger than they were now. A priestess named Midoriko had surpassed all others in taking care of the threat; the legend said she was able to purify ten youkai at once. Sango explained how this was done, seemingly oblivious to the growing confusion Miroku could see in his other companions. "She had a special ability that allowed her to drive out souls and purify them."
"Drive out souls and purify them?" Kagome echoed.
"Yes, any of the four souls."
And, with that, it looked like she had lost Inuyasha, Kagome, and Shippou. Miroku stepped in smoothly. "In Shinto thinking, it is said that 'shikon' is made up of ara-mitama, nigi-mitama, kushi-mitama, and saki-mitama. These four principles - courage, family, wisdom, and love - come together to form one spirit," he explained, though the others looked as confused as ever. "Human nature is correctly maintained between these four parts."
For a moment there was silence; only Sango looked as if she had understood a word he had said. In fact, she looked to be halfway between pleased and bored by his explanation. He had guessed that this might be the case, and had not considered discussing philosophy with his companions before. Between Kagome's strange ideas of how things ought to be and Inuyasha's general ignorance, there had seemed no point to the endeavor. But perhaps Sango would be a more interesting addition to the group than he had previously thought.
"... And then?" Inuyasha prompted crossly.
Miroku shrugged. There really was not much more to it, even if Inuyasha was too stupid to see that. "If you do evil, then the shikon will follow."
"He means that souls can become good or evil, depending on a person's thoughts and actions," Sango clarified.
"Right," Miroku agreed with a heavy sigh.
They let that topic go, and Sango returned to her story. Miroku only half listened, instead shifting his attention between the mummy and Sango. The taiji-ya looked weary. This trip had taken more out of her than she was willing to admit, but he could see she was not going to back down and leave the job unfinished. His heart skipped a beat - something she said struck a chord, even though he had only half heard: "To defeat Midoriko, many youkai merged into one, using a human body with an evil heart as an anchor to bind them."
It sent a shudder down his spine; it was as if she had just repeated the story of Naraku's creation... only this tale had occurred centuries earlier. "Inuyasha," he interjected, fearing the hanyou might have failed to pick up on the parallel, "This is just like Naraku... when the thief Onigumo sold his soul to the youkai and became Naraku."
"Naraku was -" There was something like anger in Sango's voice.
"Just finish the story already," Inuyasha interrupted. "When she fought the youkai, did Midoriko win or lose?"
Reluctantly, frustration evident on her face, Sango continued. "The battle went on for seven days and seven nights, and in the end her power was exhausted."
"What happened then?" Kagome prodded, no doubt seeing a bit of herself - or Kikyou - in the ancient warrior priestess.
Sango shrugged. "The youkai ate her. It tried to absorb her soul... but she used the last of her power to push its soul out of its body, and hers with it. They both died, right here, but their souls clumped together and did not die. All that remained was a jewel, the Shikon no Tama. And inside it, Midoriko's soul continues to do battle with the youkai she could not defeat in life."
"This is why the jewel can be tainted or purified, depending on who has control of it..." Miroku mused.
"Yes," Sango said, nodding. "If a youkai or an evil person holds it, then the taint grows and the youkai becomes stronger. If someone with a pure heart holds it, then it is purified and Midoriko grows stronger. That's what our legends say, anyway." She paused for a moment to let that sink in. It made sense with what they already knew of the jewel. "The jewel changed hands many times over the centuries," she continued, "but all I know is that my grandfather found it and brought it back to our village again. He got it from a powerful youkai, but he died soon after from the wounds it had inflicted. It was very tainted, so my father gave it to a priestess to purify it and watch over it, and ensure it did not fall into the wrong hands again."
That priestess, Miroku knew, had been Kikyou. She had died with the jewel and it had disappeared, only to return somehow to start trouble all over again. It was much the same as how Kikyou herself had returned and caused all sorts of problems.
The whole thing was a mess, convoluted and sometimes mind-bending. Even if they managed to kill Naraku, they would have to find a way to destroy the jewel for good or it would simply keep coming back, that much was obvious. Even Sango did not seem to have the answer they needed.
Inuyasha broke the silence, leaping headlong and wholeheartedly into this newest challenge just as he did with every other obstacle he faced. "If the jewel keeps turning everything to evil, I'm gonna put a stop to it, with my own hands."
A worthy sentiment... I almost believe you. He knew as well as Inuyasha that they needed to take care of the jewel, or else another Naraku would simply crop up somewhere. It was almost amusing, the way a group of people with such different backgrounds and motivations had been drawn together for a common cause; he might almost call it fate. Inuyasha thought of Kikyou, and of avenging her and his own ruined past; Kagome felt the responsibility for the jewel's return keenly; Sango sought revenge for her village. And as for Miroku, he had his reasons too, and his right hand twitched slightly, as if he needed a reminder.
Sango sighed, then. She looked as if she might pass out at any moment.
"I think it would be best if we returned to the village," Miroku suggested. Kagome followed his line of sight to Sango and agreed immediately. Even Inuyasha made no protest; he must have figured out that they would learn no more here, so there was no point in lingering.
"Yeah, let's go," the hanyou said quietly. Kagome nodded her agreement.
They approached Sango together, but Miroku noticed that they made sure to carefully place themselves between him and her, as if to block any potential mischief. Miroku smiled faintly. The lengths they would go to in order to "protect" Sango from him, even when he had given them no cause to think him a threat...
"Kagome, help her onto my back, would ya?" Inuyasha asked, and almost didn't sound grumpy about it.
"It would be my pleasure to assist," he offered.
"No!" Inuyasha and Kagome said at almost the same time.
Chapter 6: A New Chapter
They were ready to leave. There was nothing left for them here, and enough of Sango's strength had returned that she could handle herself without assistance. She was still reluctant to leave.
She perched on a handy outcrop of rock and stared forlornly at the small bundle at her feet. It contained everything she owned. Her entire life, or what was left of it, in such a small package… there was no longer any home to return to, even if she wanted to. The village was empty, her family and friends dead and gone.
And, for all that, she was not truly alone. She was fortunate enough to have found new companions, a group of kind strangers that shared her quest. She glanced up at the four of them; they graciously pretended to be patient, as if they were waiting of their own accord, and not for her sake.
She should have known the peace and quiet wouldn't last long with Inuyasha and Kagome around. Sango watched, happy for the distraction, as the other girl scanned the horizon. "Even after all this, we have no idea where to find Naraku," she commented, breaking through the awkward silence, though she did not sound nearly as forlorn as her words might imply. Sango envied her optimism.
"Sango," Inuyasha cut in, "don't you remember anything about where that castle was?"
She had told them all that she remembered, and resented the implication that she had not. Her voice was harsh when she responded. "If I remembered, I would already be on my way there to take Naraku's head."
"Maybe we shouldn't be looking for the castle in the first place," Miroku suggested.
"Then what should we be looking for?" Inuyasha demanded.
"Shikon shards. If we collect them, Naraku will come to us."
Sango knew the truth of that well: she had unwittingly brought a Shikon shard back to her village, without realizing just what dangers it could bring, and Naraku had destroyed the entire village to obtain it. If they managed to get even one shard, he would be unable to resist hunting them down to take it from them.
"Sango... is that okay with you, too?" The monk had approached so smoothly that she did not hear him until he was crouching beside her. She had not expected them to take her feelings into consideration, but the look of honest concern on his face soothed her frayed temper. He was certainly good at smoothing ruffled feathers. "I know you want to get your revenge as soon as possible, but..."
"It's annoying," she agreed, "but there isn't much else we can do right now."
"I understand how you feel."
Moved by his compassion as much as the intensity of his stare, all she could manage for a moment was a quiet, "Houshi-sama…" Followed shortly by, "What do you think you're doing?"
Frowning in distaste, she pried away the hand that had insinuated itself against her thigh.
Perhaps Kagome hadn't been entirely wrong after all.
Chapter 7: On the Road
Four travelers had arrived together at the village of the taiji-ya... but five left it.
On the surface, it was almost as if nothing had changed, but Miroku could feel the subtle ripple of the group's altered dynamic. He had not been entirely surprised to hear that Sango was going to be traveling with them for the time being - leave it to Kagome to make yet another new friend - but he took some interest in observing how each of them adjusted to the new addition. They were a strange procession, all things considered: a monk, a miko, a hanyou, a youkai, and now a taiji-ya.
Inuyasha led the way, with the girls behind him and Miroku bringing up the rear. He seemed perfectly comfortable dictating their course, and did not receive much protest from the others. His way was as good as any until they got some sort of clue to the whereabouts of a jewel shard.
They let the afternoon slip by in silence or quiet conversation, content merely to wander. Inuyasha's posture was almost conspicuously rigid. But, Miroku noted, a keen eye would see the way he occasionally glanced backward, almost jealously, toward where Kagome walked beside Sango. He had lost his companion to the excitement of having a new, female friend.
For his part, Miroku was content to trail behind the others; he found this gave him a better vantage point, and not just because he now had not one, but two lovely ladies to observe. In any case, the girls were an interesting comparison. From looking at them, it was difficult to believe they were on an urgent quest, save for the slightest bit of melancholy in Sango's expression and posture. Kagome walked beside her, chatting animatedly, a stark contrast to Sango's more reserved disposition.
Kagome was a young woman, but she looked almost frail and girlish beside Sango's more mature figure, though his view was obstructed by the enormous weapon the slayer carried, hampering his ability to properly compare. He knew from previous experience that Kagome needed a protector or else was likely to be kidnapped or wounded in battle, but Sango was another story.
She could take care of herself, and quite handily, too. He had seen evidence of that firsthand. And not just during her initial fight with Inuyasha, but later, before they had left the village. She had seemed so sad and lonely that he'd forgotten he was trying to behave, but she'd stopped him before he could do anything inappropriate. And that, he had to admit, made him curious. Just what, if anything, would she let him get away with?
Kagome - and Inuyasha, ever-zealous protector - had not let him get away with much of anything. But Sango...
Just then, Shippou cast a baleful look over Kagome's shoulder, as if he could tell what Miroku was thinking. The monk feigned unperturbed innocence, but wondered how long it would take for his companions to realize he was no threat. Not that sort of threat, anyway.
It was the curse in his hand that might get him, and them, in trouble someday.
Chapter 8: Shady Situation
Traveling with Inuyasha and the others, Sango found, could be quite overwhelming. It was almost as if, in their efforts to be respectful of the healing process and give her a little peace, they had allowed themselves to fill up with enthusiasm and were overflowing with it now. They had been walking for most of the afternoon, and she did not think there had been a moment of quiet the entire time.
She was unaccustomed to traveling with other women. The taiji-ya hunting parties had mostly consisted of men, even though the women were also trained for battle; however, most of the women were trained in defense and expected to keep the village safe while the men were away. Sango had been an anomaly, but it had been decided early on that her skill was too great to confine her to merely a defensive role. She could do a lot more good for the village and its clients by going out into the world and fighting.
It was a strange sort of melancholy she felt, listening to Kagome chatter and supplying the occasional noncommittal response. It was all so very different from what she had known before.
The men from her village might have considered her their little sister, and treated her as such, and they might have made ribald jokes from time to time... but they knew to be focused and aware of their surroundings and to put their duty first. This was ridiculous. She knew the other girl might have the best of intentions, but Kagome's comparative noisiness was giving her a headache.
So she watched Inuyasha for a while. He did have the look of a leader about him, sometimes. With maturity, the hanyou might someday be a good leader, but right now she saw mainly jealousy in his face and posture. He kept looking back at Kagome, instead of focusing on what was ahead of and around them. She supposed that with his keen sense of smell, it was assumed that he did not need to watch as carefully as a human might. She thought of the scent beads she carried in her pack, and did not like being so dependent on something so easily misled.
But for better or worse, Inuyasha was the leader of their group right now. It wouldn't do to question his authority right away; she had only just joined them, after all. For now she resolved to be as aware as possible to make up for any lack, though it was difficult to focus - and listen - with Kagome constantly demanding her attention.
Sango sighed and hoped that the monk was being more vigilant.
As the afternoon wore into evening, they came upon a main road. There were many men about, and it looked as if there had been a great deal of destruction recently. Sango's first thought was that Naraku may have been behind it, but a closer inspection revealed the damage to have most likely come from a flood.
Without saying a word, the group had bunched closer together. Even Kagome and Shippou had fallen silent.
They paused at the crest of a hill to listen to the hustle and bustle below. The men working to clean up the area were talking amongst themselves; a procession of some sort, carrying a palanquin, passed by. The discussion turned dark as the procession went past, giving Sango a chill.
"Almost all the children in the village have been given up as sacrifices now..."
"Whose child is it this time?"
"... To protect the village from Suijin-sama's curse..."
Sango stood a short distance away from the others, watching uneasily.
"Did you hear that?" Miroku asked.
"Sacrifices..." Kagome confirmed sadly.
"Hey," Inuyasha interrupted, speaking loudly to address the men in the procession. "You call it 'Suijin', but it's really just a youkai, isn't it?"
Sango was stunned by his audacity, though she found herself agreeing with his assessment of the situation; Miroku, more accustomed to Inuyasha's antics, stepped in as the leader of the local men sputtered indignantly. "Don't mind him," the monk said smoothly. "If it is acceptable to you, please allow me to appease this god."
"You can do that?" one of the men asked, his expression a mixture of awe and hope.
"Don't be fooled!" the leader snarled. "He's just a trickster dressed like a monk. If we trust him, Suijin-sama will surely be angry enough to destroy the entire village!"
"But Nanushi-sama, won't you even let them talk..."
The man looked suddenly distraught, large tears spilling out of his eyes as if on command. "Now that it's my own child's turn, don't you think I just want this to be over with? Come on, we don't have all day! Let's get moving!"
"What's going on?" Kagome whispered. She was watching the palanquin, where a child in a sacrificial mask had just peeked from between the curtains.
Sango shook her head; it was not a good time to try to explain. The entire situation was no good. These villagers had been pushed to the point where they would willingly sacrifice their own children to some supposed 'Suijin-sama' in the hopes of ending the hard times... a Suijin-sama that was, no doubt, nothing more than a clever youkai. And that Nanushi-sama, the headman... he was up to something.
The taiji-ya would not have allowed something like this to continue, and she felt a strong urge to step in and stop the foolishness, but it was not her place to do so.
She kept her opinion to herself until night had fallen. In the comfortable silence after camp had been set and everyone fed, it came spilling out almost of its own accord. "That village headman was suspicious," she said. "He seemed almost anxious to sacrifice his own child..."
Such a thing would never have happened in her village. And it should never have been allowed to happen here.
"It certainly does look like trouble," Miroku agreed. Sango wondered what he thought of the situation, but Kagome did not give her the opportunity to ask.
"Say," the other girl was saying, "This probably sounds weird, or stupid, or something, but... inside that palanquin, there was this strange creature..."
So that was what had been bothering her. "It's a mask," Sango supplied.
"For the sacrificial ceremony," Miroku confirmed.
The atmosphere of the camp had grown tense. It was clear, at least to Sango, that they all wanted to do something about the situation, but no one was willing to get it out in the open. Except, of course, for Inuyasha. "So, what are we gonna do? Just leave it alone?"
He was toying with a small rock and looked almost bored. The fidgeting was the only outward sign that he was not at ease. Suddenly, he stiffened and tossed the rock into the trees. The motion looked almost random, but it earned a loud, "Ouch!" from within the forest.
Kagome and Shippou made sounds of surprise, peering into the trees in an attempt to see who - or what- was out there. Even Sango was chagrined; she had been lost in thought after their encounter with the sacrificial procession, and had not even noticed that they were being followed. She snuck a glance at the monk, but his expression was impassive and it was impossible to tell if he had been aware or not.
"You've been following us for a while now," Inuyasha said. "Why don't you come out and tell us what you want."
A figure emerged from the forest. It was a boy, a young boy that reminded her rather painfully of her brother when he had been that age. He had the same determination as Kohaku, though he seemed more confident and self-assured. And, it turned out, he was also a great deal less polite than her brother had ever been.
As he came into the camp, he tossed a large bundle into their midst. It landed with a clank between Sango and Miroku.
"Take it! It's all yours!" the boy shouted.
Curious, Sango watched as the monk opened the bundle, revealing expensive-looking jewelry and tea sets, and quality rolls of fabric. It was an impressive selection, especially for a child so young. Even as she examined one of the bolts of fabric, Sango had to wonder where all this had come from. The boy certainly didn't look wealthy; he was covered in dirt and wore tattered clothing. Had he stolen it, then?
"There, now I've hired you guys," the boy continued. "You're gonna help me exterminate the Suijin."
As Inuyasha and Kagome descended into an inevitable argument over whether or not they were, in fact, hired, Miroku looked up from the fancy tea pot he was holding and caught Sango's gaze. She got the impression, even without words, that he was wondering the same thing she was: what were they getting themselves into?
Chapter 9: A Child's Deception
The thought flitted through Miroku's head that this was probably not a good idea. They were in unfamiliar territory, in the dark, and following a child they did not know to be truthful. On top of that, they were burdened by the stolen goods said child had just used to bribe them into helping him. In the thick grass, there could be a trap anywhere; thanks to Inuyasha's nose and keen hearing, they did not have to worry about an ambush, but Miroku was still on high alert.
Something just felt wrong.
He could hear voices off in the distance, a quiet, murmuring backdrop to the boy's hastily spoken instructions. "There's a ship that takes the sacrifice to the Suijin's island," he was saying, "So we'll follow the ship and then you guys beat the Suijin up."
Leave it to a child to think beating someone up was ever the solution to anything. It might work, he supposed, if the Suijin were actually a youkai and it was Inuyasha that did the beating. But if they were truly dealing with a god, as the villagers seemed to believe...
"Say," Kagome was saying, "just whose child are you?"
The boy froze up at that, and the whole group came to a stop. Miroku had been wondering much the same thing. Finally the boy managed a shaky, "I-it's none of your business! I just hired you to help me. You don't need to know who I -"
"Now listen up, kid," Inuyasha said, bopping the child on the head, "We haven't actually agreed to do anything."
"If we don't hurry, the whole village might be destroyed, not just the sacrifice," the boy said, frazzled and stuttering a bit. He had fully expected them to obey him after the bribe. And, clearly, there was something more at stake here than he had originally led them to believe. "Because the sacrifice is..."
"You're the village headman's son, aren't you?" Kagome asked gently. The boy nodded.
"Now that you say that, it makes a lot of sense," Miroku said, considering. It probably should have been more obvious.
Inuyasha, of course, chose to see the negative. "It also explains his arrogance."
Unperturbed, and carefully ignoring Inuyasha's grumpiness, Kagome continued, "So the one inside that palanquin is a substitute."
The gentle approach worked; Miroku glanced at Inuyasha, but the hanyou seemed to be as oblivious as ever, even as the boy began to tell his story.
"I am the heir to the village-head, Taroumaru," he explained. "My father... when the Suijin demands a village child for a sacrifice, it's what must be done. But when it was his own child that was chosen... He made me hide, and he took a servant's child."
"You could almost say that your father is stupid, or at least blind," Miroku mused.
"He is a stupid father." Leave it to Inuyasha to just bluntly say it like that.
Kagome sighed, but she had a kind smile on her face when she turned back to Taroumaru. "You want to save that child, don't you?"
"We're friends," the boy confessed.
As the conversation carried on without him, it occurred to Miroku that he knew what was wrong. They had lost Sango somewhere. He hoped she would be able to find them again, but it would be no easy task in the dark and surrounded by such tall...
There was a rustling in the grass behind them, and as he turned to look his thoughts ground to a halt. It was Sango, returning to the group, her mask around her neck and her weapon at the ready, clad in her battle armor. That armor... he'd almost forgotten. Black, supple, and skintight. It was a shame, he thought somewhat dazedly, that all the other taiji-ya women were dead, and that more women did not choose to take up the mantle in their place.
The world could use more women dressed like that.
Chapter 10: Into the Water
Sango hung back from the group, listening with utter disbelief as Inuyasha seemed dead set against helping the subjugated villagers - and the child that had been offered up as a sacrifice. Was he really that callous, or was he just arguing for the sake of appearances? Sango frowned, her grip tightening reflexively on Hiraikotsu. For better or worse, she was ready.
"Let's go get that ship," she said, just as the boy admitted that the sacrifice was his friend and that he was, in fact, the headman's son. She hated to interrupt, but had seen no better opportunity to announce her plans. "I can't speak for the others," she continued, "but I'll help you."
Inuyasha made a face.
"Come on, Inuyasha," Kagome said with a pointed look at the hanyou. "Let's go!"
"Remember, we're also saving a person," Miroku added. Sango smiled; the monk sounded suspiciously like the conscience Inuyasha liked to pretend he didn't have.
"Bah. God or youkai... it doesn't matter," Inuyasha decided. "If he eats children, I'm not going easy on him." It seemed all he needed was the right push to admit he wanted to do the right thing, after all.
The headman's son, Taroumaru, looked a bit surprised at the sudden turnaround. Inuyasha didn't let that last long. "Hey, kid, you got a boat around here, or do we have to swim?"
"Uh," Taroumaru stuttered, "I think there's a boat hidden in the reeds over this way." He led them a short distance along the shore of the lake. It was really more like a swamp than a shore, Sango thought as she trudged along behind the others, grimacing at the way the muck pulled at her boots.
"There, I see it!" Kagome said. They followed where she had pointed and, sure enough, there was a small boat concealed nearby. "It's kinda small, though... I don't think we'll all fit..."
Sango glanced to Kirara. "I hate to ask, but..."
Kirara mewed, understanding what was asked of her. She leaped from her place on Sango's shoulder and transformed. Sango ran her fingers through Kirara's long fur, ignoring Taroumaru's fear and Kagome's whispered explanation of what was going on, and smiled. "I know you hate water, but we can't risk being seen," she murmured. "We're going to have to swim."
"Ah, that's right," Kagome said. "Without Sango we'll fit in the boat."
Inuyasha hauled the boat into the water. "Come on then, it's not like we've got all night."
As the others got into the boat, Sango took her place on Kirara's back. She could feel the chill of the water seeping through her armor - and she was glad she did not have to swim in it. Without waiting for orders, she urged Kirara to take the lead, moving in front of the boat to scout the way.
The dense reeds alone were enough to put her on edge, and the fog that rolled in after a few moments only heightened her wariness. It seemed that ominous figures surrounded them, fading in and out with the fog. But up ahead, there was definitely...
"Something's coming up," she announced. As they drew closer, a torii loomed out of the shadows.
She heard Taroumaru whisper that it was the Suijin's torii, and kept her gaze focused straight ahead. It was good to know they were heading in the right direction and that she had not somehow gotten them all lost. As they passed through the gate, an enormous building came into view. It could only be the Suijin's mansion... but there was no sign of a boat or the child sacrifice.
As if reading her thoughts, Miroku said, "The sacrifice must already be inside..."
"Then hurry up!" Taroumaru ordered. "You have to save him before the switch is found out!"
Kirara moved aside to let Inuyasha pull the boat up to the edge of the mansion; they scouted along the front for a while, looking for an opening. There wasn't one. The only door was guarded by several fishy looking men, a fact which made Taroumaru balk but had Inuyasha flinging himself straight for them.
Sango sighed. She should have known he would be too rash to attempt a more strategic attack. She expected the others to be similarly unimpressed by his brute force approach, but they simply followed in his wake. Frustrated by the blatant lack of coordination - and planning - Sango could only hurry after them and hope that there was no ambush lying in wait inside.
But as they hurried into the compound, it became obvious that there was no ambush waiting and that the guards outside were mostly for show. The suijin - whatever it was - apparently believed the villagers to be so cowed that no one would dare investigate. Well, it was about to find out differently, if only they could find it.
It was obvious that they had no real idea where they were going. Sango had been eager to help, but now their lack of planning and proper investigation of the situation were making her worry. She couldn't help but fear that there was some secret attack waiting around every corner. Her mind flashed unpleasantly back to a castle courtyard and an enormous spider...
Clear your head, Sango... This is no time for dwelling on the past.
There was a commotion up ahead and to the left. Inuyasha headed straight for it, busting through a wall and a mob of fish-men to do it. He crashed through the wall and into a large room, flinging fish-men into the water on either side of the pathway.
As soon as they hit the water, the fish-men turned back into fish. Maybe there was something to Inuyasha's "no worries" approach, after all... "They're all just... fish!"
"It seems like it," Miroku agreed. He leaped through the hole Inuyasha had left in the wall, as if the entire affair were an everyday occurrence. Sango followed. What else could she do, at this point?
The room was large and well built, but mostly empty. But there, when they stopped to look, was what must have been the Suijin: a tall, slimy looking man with a disgusting face, holding a small child up by the neck.
"So you're the man-eating Suijin, are you?" Inuyasha bellowed.
The Suijin did not answer. In fact, it ignored everyone except for Taroumaru, turning to eye him eagerly. "You, child," it said, its voice almost like a hiss. "You're filthy... but you're the headman's son, aren't you?"
At the sight of his friend, Taroumaru's resolve seemed to be breaking down. Sango took a defensive stance beside him even as he shouted, "Let Suekichi go, and then I'll be your sacrifice and -"
Inuyasha glared at the boy. "If that was your plan, why the hell did you bring us along, kid?" Turning back to the Suijin, he shouted, "Hey, you! You're really a youkai, aren't you? I'll make you show what you really are!"
The Suijin said nothing, but reached with an arm that extended grotesquely, for a halberd that had been stashed against the back wall. It used the weapon to parry Inuyasha's attack. In a flash of holy light, he was flung to the ground, his sword's transformation was undone.
"Fool," the Suijin said finally. "Did you think a mere youkai weapon could face my halberd?"
Back on his feet in an instant, Inuyasha countered, "So what?"
"Inuyasha, stop," Miroku interrupted, but he had to physically stop the hanyou from attacking again. "This is worse than we thought. That halberd's the real deal. It's a true holy weapon."
"No way..." Kagome murmured. "So if he's holding that, he must be a god and not a youkai, right?"
"What? You guys came all this way just to chicken out? So what if he says he's a god? He's acting just like a youkai!"
Sango frowned. Inuyasha was at least partially correct. This Suijin was definitely not acting like a god, despite the evidence indicating that he was not a mere youkai. However... she had a feeling this was no time for recklessness. "Don't be stupid. If this is a god we're dealing with, it's much more dangerous than a simple youkai. Anger a god, and you'll be cursed for life."
"Right," Miroku agreed. "It's too dangerous to just rush in."
"Too late," the Suijin said with a slithery smile. "You've already sinned against this holy place."
Inuyasha did not like the sound of that. "Oh yeah?" he growled. "Show me what you've got then, water god!"
Shippou cowered against Kagome's shoulder and whimpered, "Not a good idea, Inuyasha!" as the Suijin attacked. He waved the halberd wordlessly, almost casually, at the interlopers. Nothing happened for a moment, and then with a sudden, deafening splash the room filled with swirling water.
It rushed and pounded, sweeping them all up and out of the room, scattering their small group. Sango struggled against the current, searching amidst the white-rushing waters for any sign of her companions... but her focus was fading fast in the face of a rising wave of panic. She was reminded, horribly, of that other place where she had been unable to breathe - below ground, in her own grave.
She could not find Miroku or Inuyasha or Kagome... She was abruptly slammed against something hard and solid. The ground? She could no longer tell which way was up or down, and allowed herself to be propelled by the current.
She did not want to die like this. As she fought against the steadily growing need for air, she looked, irrationally, for the monk. Vaguely, she knew it was foolish, a sign of delirium. Still... he had saved her life once before, maybe he could help her again.
But there was no sign of him, and when she tried to breathe, there was only water.
Chapter 11: Waterlogged
There was water everywhere.
After being tossed about in the current of summoned water, Miroku was not quite sure where he was, where the others were, or even which way was up. But suddenly, he hit the bottom. Struggling to regain his sense of balance, he gathered his legs beneath him and pushed upward. He broke the surface, gasping for air and glad to be alive.
He took a moment to catch his breath before swimming toward the nearest island. It was tiny, barely big enough for him to sit on, but it was dry, and it gave him a relatively safe place to consider what to do next. It was obvious that he was outside of the Suijin's mansion - he could see it looming distantly in the fog - but there was no sign of any of his companions. For a moment he thought they had all been separated, but a dark shape in the water nearby caught his attention.
It was Sango. He would recognize that enormous weapon - and that skintight black armor - anywhere.
She was face-down and not moving, her hair and armor forming a dark stain against the inky black water. Her hand still gripped her weapon, which drifted next to her. If not for the high, bright moon piercing through the fog, he might not have seen her there at all.
He did not even stop to think, just flew into action. He scrambled over to her, half swimming and half flailing as he sank into water that was deeper than he expected. With some effort, he managed to snag her, hooking his hands under her arms and awkwardly heaving her up onto the island with him. She was much heavier than she looked, probably due to the sheer size of that weapon she carried.
He disentangled the leather strap from her hand and set the boomerang and her sword aside. Her feline companion, Kirara, crawled out from underneath the boomerang and shook herself dry, watching him with keen interest. Miroku had not even noticed her there, and felt slightly self-conscious under that red-orange gaze... but right now he knew he needed to see to Sango. In the moonlight she looked very pale and still; it did not appear that she was breathing.
"Hang in there, Sango," he muttered, pressing his ear to her chest to listen. Her heart was still going, but she was definitely not breathing. She must have taken in water when the Suijin expelled them from the mansion. Well then, he would simply have to breathe for her.
She was not an unlovely woman, and the idea of kissing her - even in an attempt to breathe life back into her - held a certain appeal. It did not take much to convince him of the necessity; in fact it seemed to be the logical conclusion, almost a matter of course. And if it saved her life, he could hardly imagine that she would be opposed to such an action, even if it would ordinarily be an outrageous breach of decorum.
As it turned out, he was wrong about that.
Just as he was about to press his lips to hers, she opened her eyes.
And to judge by the force with which her hand connected with his face... she was not pleased with him.
Chapter 12: Misplaced Trust
Sango felt dizzy... weak. She lingered for a long time between consciousness and sleep, her heart pounding slowly, her lungs never seeming to find enough air. She burned from her nose to her chest. Water... she thought, dimly. She had taken in water when... she couldn't quite remember.
She knew she needed to find the others even as she was unsure of just who the others were; there was something urgent to be done, and every moment she spent here was a moment wasted.
She needed air. If she didn't breathe soon, she would suffocate. Was she still under the water? She hoped not. Finally, her lungs worked, and she drew a breath deep enough to stave off the dizziness and confusion.
She forced her eyes open because it was all she could manage, and found herself face to face with the monk. No, face to face was the wrong term; for all the look of shock on his face at her sudden awakening, he was so close to her that he might have kissed her with only the slightest tilt of his head.
In that moment, Sango forgot everything else. She had never let anyone this close to her before, let alone a man that she had perhaps admired from afar but barely knew. And certainly not in the middle of a dangerous battle. Her heart was suddenly beating faster and faster, the sluggishness and aching in her body all but forgotten. One thought echoed in her head:
Kagome was right!!
Her face contorted with anger and her hand moved on its own, by instinct and lifelong training, and slapped him forcefully away.
He grunted, protesting uselessly that, "It's not what you think!"
On the contrary, she knew exactly what he had been up to, or could at least wager a guess. Before he could react, she scrambled out of reach, settling a short distance away with an angry huff. Her hand stung from the impact with his face, and an echoing pain blossomed in her heart. She had trusted him, in spite of the numerous warnings she had been given. And she had been wrong.
Somehow the breach of trust, trust she had given so easily, hurt more than her wounded pride. After a few long moments of awkward silence, she risked a quick glance in the monk's direction. Miroku looked for all the world as if he truly believed some grave mistake had occurred; Sango fixed him with an unsympathetic glare. He had tried to take advantage at the first opportunity that presented itself, just as Kagome had warned he might.
He might win over other girls so easily, girls with fickle hearts and little to lose... but not her. She knew what he was up to now, and she was not going to let him take advantage of her. There was too much at stake. Her quest was too important. She couldn't risk letting someone like him get in her way.
She had to put up with him - for now - because she needed his help, just as she needed Inuyasha and Kagome... but she wouldn't make the same mistake again.
Chapter 13: Regrouping
"Where are we?"
Miroku had assumed that the stony silence would last until someone had a brilliant idea; Sango's outburst caught him a bit off guard. And not just her outburst, but the angry tone that suffused her voice. Still, determined to minimize the damage his ill-considered actions may have caused, he did his best to keep his own voice calm and rational when he responded. He had not intended to cause offense, and he hoped she would eventually realize that. "We are outside the Suijin's mansion."
Sango looked unimpressed.
"I was also here when I awoke," he added. It was not the entire truth, but he hoped it might make her feel better. "I saw you in the water... I was worried you might have -"
He strained to see in the dark and the fog - and wondered how Sango knew something was coming - before he caught sight of a red form in the water. "Inuyasha..."
There were a pair of large fish pushing the hanyou in their direction. Fish... both of which were wearing ornate headdresses. He would have bet money that these were servants of the water god, and had to wonder what they were doing helping the intruders. As soon as they got close enough, he helped them push Inuyasha up onto the island.
He heard Sango mutter, "Are you going to help him breathe, too?"
Smoothly, he answered, "He is breathing on his own. You were not."
She looked as if her temper was still hot, so he let it drop. Once he and Sango had Inuyasha safely out of the water, he turned back to the fish. "Did you also assist us?"
The fish gave what looked like a nod, and one answered, "Yes."
His guess seemed to have been right on the mark - they were probably benign lake spirits, rather than youkai. "Aren't you worried about what the Suijin will think? He won't be happy that you've helped us."
"That Suijin is a fake," the fish said.
"A fake..." Miroku repeated.
"So it is a youkai," Sango mused. "I'd wondered about that."
"I don't think that's the case," he disagreed. "It's using a holy weapon. Youkai can't touch such things without being purified."
"The imposter used to be just a spirit like us," one of the fish supplied.
"He served the real Suijin," the other added. "But he imprisoned the real Suijin in a stone and stole the holy weapon so he could take the Suijin's place."
Mournfully, the first fish continued, "And now that he has taken the holy weapon, he has the powers of a god and no one can oppose him."
"I see," Miroku said, thoughtfully. "Well, then we'll just have to rescue the true Suijin."
There was a rustling behind him; Inuyasha must have woken up. A moment later, a gruff interruption proved him correct. "That's stupid."
"Ah, so you're awake, finally," Miroku countered, as pleasantly as possible.
"You guys do whatever you want. I'm going back to the shrine."
"Rescuing the Suijin would be the wisest course of action at this point -"
"I'm rescuing Kagome first!" Inuyasha's indignant tone brooked no argument, and Miroku was wise enough to let him go. As the hanyou vanished into the fog, Miroku turned back to Sango and the fish spirits. Sango was staring into the fog where Inuyasha had disappeared; for a moment Miroku wondered whether she would choose to follow or stay.
Finally, she seemed to come to a decision, picking up her weapons and making sure everything was in place. "Let's go get the Suijin," she said.
"This way," the fish said. The humans followed into the water, Sango's cat companion riding on her shoulder, the short distance to the island where the Suijin was imprisoned. It was a small island like the first one they had taken refuge on, but it was rocky and rose up high out of the water.
"The Suijin is locked in a cave at the top of this island," the fish explained.
"We'll take care of it," Miroku promised, though he was not at all sure how easy the task would be. There could be a trap waiting for them, or guards, or...
As they scrambled up the hill, Sango said, "We should hurry, Houshi-sama. I'm worried about Kagome and the others..."
"They'll be fine," he assured her, though secretly he was glad that she seemed to be less angry with him now than she had been a few moments ago. Her temper made him nervous, especially when it was directed - with painful results - at him. "I'm sure Inuyasha is with them already."
Sango paused and frowned. "Is he really that strong?"
Miroku considered this for a moment. "Well, if you ignore a couple of personality flaws..."
She did not respond, and they continued the last short distance to the top of the island. It was a rocky peak, with a sealing scroll pressed against a crack in the stone. That had to be the cave the fish spirits had spoken of. "This is it..." he murmured.
"Is someone out there?" He paused right as he was about to pull the scroll off, when a voice suddenly came from behind the seal. A female voice. So the Suijin was...
"It sounds like a little girl," Sango commented.
"Then the Suijin is a goddess," Miroku agreed, wondering what this goddess might look like. He was not sure he had ever glimpsed such a divinity before, much less a female one. Perhaps she might be amenable to -
"Quick, pull the scroll off and let me out!" the voice continued, interrupting his wandering thoughts.
"Of course, right away!" he said, and ripped the paper off.
The island top burst open, showering them with rocks. But when the dust settled, a small cave appeared, and within it a tiny woman was visible.
"The true Suijin," he murmured, his tone duly reverent.
Sango was... less impressed. "She's... kind of small, isn't she?"
"It would seem so," he agreed.
"We must get back to the shrine as quickly as possible," the Suijin urged, ignoring the humans' conversation. "I must regain my halberd if we are to stop the imposter."
"Yes, of course," Miroku said, gently scooping the goddess up. They raced back down the hill as quickly as they could without stumbling.
Sango paused at the water's edge; Miroku almost bumped into her, but managed to avoid it at the last moment. "Let's fly," she said.
"It'll be faster than swimming. Kirara, can you help us?"
The fire cat growled and transformed into her larger form, the one that could fly. Sango climbed onto Kirara's back as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Miroku only watched, feeling slightly horrified. He had ridden on Kirara once before, and was not sure it was an experience he wanted to repeat right now. Unfortunately, Sango was not in the mood to be patient.
"Are you coming?" she demanded.
Trying his best to quell his misgivings, he nodded and joined her on Kirara's back. I guess she's forgiven me, at least a little...
As they took off, which left him feeling slightly nervous, Sango turned back to him and added, "Just be careful. If you fall off, I'm not going to save you."
Then again, maybe not.
Chapter 14: Into the Fray
Sango was feeling significantly less than pleased as Kirara took to the air. This situation was no good at all. She was sitting in her usual place, just behind the thick mane of fur along Kirara's shoulders, with the monk behind her. He had one arm around her waist to keep from falling - something she had reluctantly agreed to after his second near-fall - and kept the Suijin tucked safely against him with the other, lest she be swept away by the rushing air. Both of their weapons, which seemed suddenly to be ungainly and large, were pinned across her lap. If they were going to fly into battle again, she would have to find a better way to do it; this way, she was unable to strike quickly with her weapon, and there was the very real possibility that she might knock him off his place if she tried.
The last time she had flown with another person like this, it had been with Kohaku, before... when there had been less need for haste, or weaponry. Kohaku, her little brother, who had died because she had realized too late what was going on. Why was she thinking of Kohaku now? Because two other little boys could lose their lives if she screwed up, and because countless other children already had been killed by this creature.
Sango steeled her resolve, setting aside the painful memories so she could focus on the task at hand. There would be time for remembering, for mourning, later, but right now her friends were in danger and she could not take the chance that her hesitation might cost them their lives.
The monk leaned closer to her, asking, "Sango, is something the matter?"
She guided Kirara into a steep, banked dive, both because it shut him up and saved her having to answer the question and because she had seen something out of place near the Suijin's shrine. There was something large in the water, and it did not look friendly.
"Did you see that?" she asked, almost shouting to be heard over the wind.
"It's Inuyasha," he said. She saw suddenly that he was right. The hanyou was battling with a monster that looked like it had once been the imposter Suijin.
"Then we'll take the Suijin to Kagome," Sango decided aloud, shifting her knees to indicate to Kirara that they should change direction and approach from behind. If the creature decided to attack them right now, they were in no position to fight back, so it was best to avoid being seen. A quick look back told her that it had grabbed a hold of Inuyasha and dived beneath the lake, but there was no sense taking chances. They were almost to their destination anyway.
She had feared, in an offhanded, back-of-the-mind way, what their landing would bring. Necessity had dictated that she bring the monk with her this way, but he had already thoroughly demonstrated that he did not always have his priorities straightened out. She was not looking forward to having to straighten them out for him again.
But when they landed on one of the mansion's porches, he did not do whatever lecherous thing it was she had been afraid he might; instead he withdrew discretely, obviously glad to be back on solid ground, even if it was leading them straight into battle.
"Here," she said, offering his shakujou. If they were going to have to fight, he would need it.
He took it with a nod of thanks, and they set off down the porch to where Kagome and two small boys were watching the battle.
"Kagome-chan!" Sango shouted when they were close enough.
Miroku rushed ahead. "Are you okay?"
Sango saw immediately why he asked. Kagome was a mess. Her expression held a mixture of fear and horror; she was worried about Inuyasha. All that was visible of the battle was a swirling vortex and a stream of bubbles. If Inuyasha had been underwater all this time... no wonder Kagome was worried. He might be half youkai, but he needed to breathe or he would die.
"Your friend is down there?" the Suijin asked. "Please put me down, Houshi."
The monk did as she asked, and she removed one of her sparkling pearl earrings, tossing it into the lake and ordering the waters to part. Sango felt a shiver go up her spine as the waters did as the Suijin ordered, parting to reveal the battle that had been going on below. The imposter Suijin had transformed into a creature that seemed more snake and less man, and was gripping Inuyasha tightly in its tail. But as the waters rolled back to reveal the fight, it craned its head upward, taking note of the interlopers.
"Get back," Sango urged, "It's seen us."
Kagome and the boys moved out of the way just in time. The imposter Suijin surged upward, its halberd at the ready. It struck the wooden platform they were standing on, right where Kagome had been kneeling a moment before, and the wood dissolved into bubbling foam.
"You!" the imposter said, its expression decidedly unpleasant, even for such an ugly creature. Sango scowled, and hauled Hiraikotsu into a defensive stance. "You lot have been interfering all night. It stops now!"
"Really, now?" Miroku asked.
"We have the real Suijin-sama," Sango said, "who will -"
"Who's asleep!" Kagome supplied, her voice high-pitched and irate. She was right. The tiny woman was sound asleep in the palm of Kagome's hand, snoring quietly. "It looks like she used up all of her power," Kagome added, her tone much calmer.
"Already?" Sango sighed, wondering why they had gone to all the trouble of rescuing the real Suijin if she had so little power.
"That being the case, we'll just exterminate you instead," the monk said to the imposter, a little too pleasantly for Sango's taste. He charged forward, his staff ready to strike. Sango hoped that he actually had any spiritual power, or else this could quickly turn into a suicidal move, but she followed him anyway. What else could she do? She could not just stand by and let the imposter Suijin - whatever it was: youkai, spirit, or god - kill all of these people.
The imposter grinned. "We'll see about that. As long as I have this halberd -" It cut off as it toppled backward, suddenly off balance.
"Hey, bastard!" Inuyasha shouted from below, where he had dug his claws into the imposter's scaly back, "Don't forget about me! I'm not done with you yet!" The imposter rose up again, slithering ever higher into the air, completely disregarding the hanyou and everyone else as it headed skyward.
Seizing her opportunity, Sango called for Kirara and leapt onto the cat's back as she transformed. They had long ago practiced this sort of maneuver until it was second nature for both of them. They needed to get up in the air - someone had to cut the thing's head off or the situation would quickly get out of hand. As they whipped past Inuyasha, she shouted a warning, "Draw back! I'll get him." Catching sight of the hanyou's glare from the corner of one eye, she felt compelled to add, "The only way to contain a youkai like this is to cut off the head!"
Kirara snarled; Sango recognized the signal and turned her attention ahead. The imposter Suijin was not even paying attention to her - its gaze was focused up and ahead. It was giving her the perfect chance to strike, and she was not about to let that chance get away.
She gave a battle cry and hurled her weapon straight at it. Despite the stab of pain from her still-healing back, her aim was true. Unfortunately, the imposter was ready for the attack, and knocked her weapon aside with its halberd. Sango grimaced as she caught it, which was no easy task, considering it was now covered in bubbles. She was lucky it had not dissolved like the pier.
As if deciding she was no threat, the imposter Suijin turned its attention back to the sky. "I will show you the true power of the holy halberd!" it announced, raising the weapon toward the clouds. Thick storm clouds rolled in at its command, plunging the area into near total darkness. For a moment, it caught Sango off guard, and she felt fear pull at her heart. It was dangerous to fly in complete darkness like this. But... the imposter had turned its back to her again, and she could still make out its silhouette against the advancing clouds.
She threw her weapon again, this time without the battle cry, but the imposter Suijin blocked the attack again, and this time he seemed significantly less than pleased.
"Futile," the imposter proclaimed. This time when he swung the halberd, great spouts of water appeared out of nowhere and rushed toward Sango. She barely had time to gasp in a last breath before she was hurled forcibly from Kirara's back and was tumbling through the air, with the imposter Suijin charging straight for her, its halberd ready to strike.
This was not going according to plan. It would have been simple, if not for that halberd... She did not want to think about what would happen if the imposter used its power directly on a human.
And then Inuyasha was there, knocking the imposter off course, and trying to wrestle the halberd out of its grip. And Kirara was there, too, having recovered from the water spout attack. Sango managed to turn herself over in midair; Kirara swooped to catch her, and not a moment too soon. They raced back upward and into the fray. Sango did not even mind that she had lost her Hiraikotsu somewhere - it was obvious that she could not land a blow with the weapon anyway.
"Inuyasha!" she shouted. "How did you get up here?"
"I climbed," he snarled, still trying to get the halberd away from the imposter Suijin, "while you were playing decoy."
She did not have time to be angry because the next thing she knew, Inuyasha had ripped the halberd out of the creature's grip, and taken its arm with it. Her eyes went wide with surprise; she had not realized that Inuyasha was quite that strong.
"Damn you!" the imposter Suijin yelled, its voice shifting into a hiss as it transformed.
"Without the halberd, he's really just a snake..." Sango mused, half to herself and half to Kirara. She watched for a moment as Inuyasha and the snake plunged downward, and then snapped out of it. "Kirara, we need to find Hiraikotsu!" Inuyasha might have been able to rip the thing's arm off, but she sincerely doubted he would be able to remove the head from the body. Not while he was clinging to it like that, and trying to keep it from regaining the halberd. She would have to be the one to strike.
With rain pouring down by the bucketful and the waterspouts still swirling dangerously, finding her weapon was no easy task, much less recovering it. She counted herself lucky that the hiraikotsu was designed to float in water, rather than sink.
She had only just pulled it from the roiling water when the snake, mangled and bloody, burst writhing from the water. Inuyasha must still be fighting the thing... underwater again. Did that hanyou never learn? She hefted her weapon over her shoulder and threw it again; with the snake distracted by Inuyasha's attacks, it was unable to dodge hers, and the hiraikotsu cut the tail clean off.
Her weapon bobbed to the surface amidst deathly quiet. There was no sign of activity from beneath the water. What had happened? Had she aimed poorly and managed to strike Inuyasha as well? There was blood in the water, but she could not tell if it belonged only to the snake...
Suddenly the creature burst from the water again, head first this time. If it had looked beaten before, it certainly did now. Its lower jaw had been peeled back, leaking blood and gore even as it flew. Having failed to retrieve the halberd, it made no attempt to attack Sango, even though she was close to where it had emerged, moving right past almost as if it did not see her... or its focus was elsewhere. "It's... running away?"
An instant later, too late, she realized its intent. "It's heading toward the village!"
There was no sign of Inuyasha, but she could not risk taking the time to look for him while the snake attacked the village. "Come on, Kirara," she urged as they raced after the snake, "Inuyasha can take care of himself. We've got to take care of this."
She pulled Kirara up short when she caught sight of something ahead: Miroku was waiting with two of the real Suijin's fish servants. He must have guessed that the snake would try something if he was unable to recover the halberd's power. Suddenly, she remembered a whispered warning Kagome had given her: when Miroku uses the weapon in his hand, the kazaana, get out of the way. She had only heard passing mention of this secret weapon of his, and had little idea of how it actually worked, but she had a feeling he was about to use it now.
And he did. He pulled away the beads that he normally kept wrapped around his right hand and arm, and opened what could only be described as a vortex... like a whirlpool in the air, sucking in everything that came close, including the entirety of the giant snake. Her heart pounding as the wind rushed around her, Sango was glad she'd remembered Kagome's warning and stayed out of the way. That would be a horrible way to die...
"Sango!" His voice startled her.
"Any word of Inuyasha?"
She guided Kirara closer and lower so it would be easier to talk. "No," she said, shaking her head. "I lost sight of him a while ago... If I'd known you were going to catch the snake before it could get to the village, I'd have looked for him..."
"He's too stubborn to drown, anyway."
She smiled a little at that. "You're probably right." She hesitated a moment, awkwardly. "Uh... want a lift?"
He looked surprised; she was a little surprised, herself. She had not really meant to offer - she was still quite angry with him, after all - but it was growing light and, after a battle like that, she guessed he was as tired as she. It would be unkind of her to make him swim back to the Suijin's mansion when they could fly.
"Of course," he said, as if the question had not been awkward at all.
She slung the hiraikotsu across her back and offered him a hand even though Kirara had by now drifted low enough that it would have been easy to climb aboard unaided. Still... if she held his hand to help him up, she knew where that hand, at least, was. That way she could be a bit more certain that he was not going to take advantage of her kind gesture.
The clouds parted suddenly, bathing the lake in the warm golden light of dawn. Sango breathed a sigh of relief that turned into a yawn. Miroku slumped against her, perhaps dozing off himself, his arms looped loosely around her waist - a position that was, in her mind, and in spite of the fact that her weapon was keeping them safely separated, entirely too intimate. She would definitely have to lay down some ground rules if they were going to fly together in the future. But that could wait until she'd had a chance to get into some warm, dry clothes.
And, she decided as another yawn crept over her, until she'd had a well-deserved nap.
Chapter 15: The Spoils
Miroku carefully slid the door open. Not far, barely the width of one finger, but just enough to create an opening he could peer through. He waited for a moment, half expecting a shout of outrage and for the door to be slammed all the way shut again, but no sound was forthcoming.
Cautiously, he pressed his face close to the door and looked through the hole he had made. The room's two occupants gave no sign of being aware of his presence. They were supposed to be changing into dry clothes after last night's battle with the impostor water god, but they were being woefully slow about it; Kagome was chattering excitedly, thrilled at the conclusion of the battle, while Sango merely forced a smile and nodded agreement.
And neither of them was taking her clothes off. Miroku sighed. Just his luck: a prime viewing opportunity, and no action.
But he was not about to give up yet, and a few minutes later his patience paid off. Kagome turned to dig a new set of her strange clothes out of her pack, and Sango began the - apparently laborious - process of stripping out of her armor. It seemed to Miroku that she had gotten into it a lot more quickly than she was getting out of it. Maybe it was his eagerness showing through, or perhaps she was just taking her time when she had the luxury of doing so.
She knelt to remove each of the various pads, guards, and braces that she wore on top of whatever that wonderfully tight black thing was, carefully folding up the ties and storing all the pieces in her travel bag, from which she had already removed her kosode, as she went. And then she was standing, her fingers working the hidden clasps at the neck that kept the black suit securely closed. She slipped one arm out, then the other, and eased the material down her torso and over her hips. The thick, damp fabric hit the floor with a soft squish; Miroku released the breath he had been unconsciously holding, and with it an appreciative murmur. "Ah, very nice..."
"Just what do you think you're doing, monk?"
Miroku glanced over for a second, grateful that Inuyasha at least had the decency to whisper. "The wound in Sango's back is healing nicely," he said, keeping his voice smooth and quiet.
"That better be all you're looking at." The hanyou was leaning against the wall nearby, his eyes closed, and yet Miroku got the distinct impression that Inuyasha would know if he did anything he was not supposed to. "Besides," Inuyasha went on, "the village head's waiting for you."
He was right, of course, but Miroku wasn't about to tell him that. They had plenty of time, considering they still had no leads on Naraku or any jewel shards, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to indulge himself a little once in a while... especially after the harrowing battle they had just been through. The village head could wait a few minutes.
He turned his gaze back through the slit in the door.
Sango had shifted a bit, blocking his view of Kagome, but he found he didn't mind. Kagome was already dressed anyway, and Sango had the sort of physique he had only seen in his dreams: luscious curves, with an ass so perfect he itched to squeeze it - and he was sorely tempted to indulge that desire even if it meant earning another slap to the face. Without her armor, she was soft and feminine, but when she moved he could see the steely muscle underneath.
Oh yes, he was more than glad she had joined the group, if only for the eye-candy and fuel for his fantasies she was sure to provide. The things that woman could probably do to a man, when properly persuaded...
"You know, I almost hope they catch you," Inuyasha said, louder this time. "It would serve you right to get your ass kicked."
"You could give it a try sometime, you know," he responded, delighting in the bright red hue that overtook Inuyasha's face at the mere suggestion of spying on Kagome. Getting a rise out of him was almost too easy. "It might be good for you."
"Just... go talk with the village head!" Inuyasha sputtered. "The sooner you take care of that, the sooner we can leave."
Miroku was grinning as headed into town. Between the wondrous view he had been treated to back at the inn and the promise of a sizable reward for their heroism, today was shaping up to be a pretty good day. There was a spring in his step and the chiming of the rings on his staff seemed especially cheerful as he looked for the spot where the village head had requested to meet with him.
It was not difficult to find. A large group of villagers, everyone who could put their work off for a few hours, had gathered there, milling about as they waited for word from their saviors. It sounded funny when he thought about it that way, but in defeating the fake water god they really had done something good for this village. He did not even mind being elected as the group's official mediator.
As he slipped into the crowd, the headman noticed him right away. He waded into the crowd himself, and led Miroku to the front, where an open space had been cleared for the presentation of the reward. Miroku thought it was a lot of fuss for something that ought to have been handled privately; then again, the headman was probably making a big show of being generous in front of his people... even though by now they all probably knew just how selfish and cowardly the man really was.
"We owe you a great debt for saving my son - and our village - from the fake Suijin," the headman said grandly, pressing a pouch filled with coins into Miroku's palm. "Please accept this as a token of our gratitude."
Miroku kept his expression carefully neutral, but on the inside he was frowning. If this was all the coin they could spare, they would have been better off giving rice or other supplies. This amount would fetch a night at an inn, maybe two, and a couple of meals, but no more. They would not get far on this. And, more importantly, the group's combined skills were worth far more than this paltry sum. A taiji-ya such as Sango would fetch more for her services alone.
And a man wealthy enough to not only employ servants, but attempt to sacrifice their children, could surely spare more than this.
He accepted the reward with as much grace as possible, but his mind was already racing, seeking a way to turn this to his advantage - and found it in a passel of curious villagers that lingered nearby, eager to hear the story of the fake Suijin's undoing. Miroku smirked. The village head had wandered off a short distance, but he was keeping a keen eye on the visitor, watchful lest his secret be revealed; perhaps his tune would change if Miroku gave a little shove.
One of the villagers in the group was a likely looking young woman, who was quite comely and seemingly unattached. Miroku inched toward the group as if it were the most natural thing in the world, angling for the young woman.
"Excuse me, my lady," he said when he was close enough.
She turned, a slightly confused expression on her face, and he caught her hand in both of his, his grip at once firm and gentle. "Would you do me the honor of bearing my child?" he asked.
It took her a moment to process the question. When she realized what he had requested of her, her face flushed a pretty shade of pink and she stammered, "What? Isn't that a little forward, Houshi-sama?"
Forward... perhaps. But it had certainly got their attention. The other villagers suddenly pressed closer around him, their expressions curious, some of them even being so bold as to openly ask for the tale of last night's battle.
Miroku smiled and let the young woman pull away from him, though he rather wished she had given him a proper answer to his question, turning to the other villagers instead. "Ah, you see," he said, "my friends and I were traveling this way on our own quest, when we came across the sacrificial procession..."
He got no further than that before the village head insinuated himself directly beside him, whispering, "Stop talking, monk."
Miroku gave him a pointedly innocent look.
"Perhaps a more... sufficient reward can be arranged," the headman continued, flustered but keeping his voice hushed. "Come with me, please..."
To the villagers, Miroku quickly summed up the battle: "We couldn't just allow a monster to keep devouring innocent children, so we put a stop to it."
If any of the villagers were suspicious about the sudden tension in the air as the headman led Miroku into his house, they were wise enough not to mention it.
A while later, Miroku found himself waiting for his companions outside the inn, with a horse, a cart, and assorted household goods - the only things the headman, the stingy bastard, would part with - in tow. Truthfully, he was most grateful for the horse. The others had taken the opportunity to rest a bit while he was haggling for their reward; at least this way he would not have to walk.
He planned to sell the rest of the supplies the first chance he got. Having such supplies would be useful, but they needed to travel quickly and lightly; a cart would only slow them down and get in the way. The horse might be a problem, too, but he would be sad to see it go. He rather liked the idea of riding, rather than walking, for a change.
It wasn't long before Inuyasha emerged from the inn, with Shippou hitching a ride on his shoulder. The young kitsune quickly clambered up on top of the cart, enjoying the novelty of riding on a vehicle instead of being carried by one of his companions. The girls followed a few moments later, though both were, rather disappointingly, fully clothed.
As they set off, all of them seemed to be reluctant to mention the massive pile of loot Miroku had secured as their reward. They even made it quite some distance down the road before Inuyasha started grumbling.
"What a nasty side-trip."
"It's not so bad," Miroku countered. "After all, we did save many lives."
The hanyou stopped walking and glowered up at him. "So what's with all the junk, then?"
The girls, who who had been walking in front of them thus far, stopped to listen, too.
"As you know, since we did such great work for the village head on behalf of his son," he told them, "he thought we deserved a reward for our efforts."
Inuyasha's look turned skeptical.
"I was just about to tell the villagers about what happened, when suddenly the headman decided we might be better off with a bigger reward," Miroku went on. "He didn't seem to want them to know about how he switched the children for the sacrifice..."
"Hey, wait a minute, that's blackmail, isn't it?" Inuyasha said, scowling. Miroku only shrugged in response. Up ahead, Sango whispered something to Kagome, an angry look on her face. Kagome only muttered something under her breath in response, her posture radiating disapproval.
Miroku gave an exaggerated sigh. Somehow, he knew the girls were talking about him, a suspicion that was confirmed when they both turned back to glare at him for several long seconds. "What's with them? It's like they don't appreciate anything I do!" he moaned, hoping to find a halfway sympathetic ear in his hanyou companion.
"Can't imagine why," Inuyasha sneered.
"You're right," Miroku mused. "These rewards aren't very exciting. But just think of the fun we could have if we sold all this stuff..."
Resigned now to his inability to put a stop to the monk's more questionable behavior, Inuyasha shook his head. "It's like you get worse every time you open your mouth."
Chapter 16: Wandering
There was only one road out of town. Sango was glad of that; it made life much easier. With only the one road, ramrod straight, heading off into the distance, she could just keep putting one foot in front of the other and avoid focusing too much on where she was going. She maintained at least a superficial awareness of her surroundings, as she had been trained to do since childhood, but felt reasonably safe in letting her mind wander a bit.
They had been given the chance to rest a bit earlier, having spent much of the night engaged in battle with the false water god, but she had been unable to quiet her mind enough to sleep. Their departure had seemed to come far too quickly, but she made no protest as they headed out of town. The monk had secured an exorbitant reward for their efforts, and so he brought up the rear with the horse and cart that were necessary to even move the piles of household implements and rolls of fine fabric they had acquired. She and Kagome traveled at the front of the group, while Inuyasha walked in the middle.
And so now she merely trudged along, nodding occasionally to whatever Kagome said to her, and trying to sort through the conflicting thoughts that swarmed in her head.
She had already managed to work out that she would trust Inuyasha. He was clearly more than a little brutish, but his instincts tended to be spot on, he had more powerful senses than she did and therefore a better perception of their surroundings, and she was by now pretty certain that under all that bluster beat a good heart. He had the potential to be a good team mate, just like Kirara. All he was lacking was foresight... and, she had to admit, good manners and some stern training.
She almost giggled at the idea of attempting to train Inuyasha like a dog. Kagome gave her a curious, sidelong glance; Sango quickly sobered, as she did not particularly relish the idea of explaining to Kagome and the others just what was amusing her so much. Kagome and Shippou would see the humor in the idea, she was sure, but Inuyasha would not take it well.
And then there was the monk. Would he be amused, too, or would he take the hanyou's side? She had a feeling he would be more amused than offended.
But she had been wrong about him before.
She had been trying not to think about him, because it brought to mind how easily he had slipped past her defenses. She had thought, in spite of her other companions' warnings, that he was truly a good man. But she could not deny the facts of it now. She had been weak, and he had taken advantage. Or tried to.
It hurt, to think that the man who had tended her wounds so carefully and had seen to her care was at heart a womanizer and a con man. It hurt more that she had given her trust so easily, had chosen to ignore the warnings, and had been burned for playing thus with fire.
And yet... he had pulled her from the water and saved her from drowning. He had fought beside her and ensured that the false water god did not escape to attack the village again. These were good, even noble things that he had done. And in return she had been kind even though her heart seethed with uncertainty and wounded pride.
She knew that she could not afford to trust him again.
The worst part was that she wanted to trust him again.
This realization so unsettled her that she immediately tripped over some unseen bump in the road, dropped Kirara, and staggered hard into Kagome, who nearly toppled under the sudden burden.
"Hey, Sango, watch where you step!" Inuyasha said. His voice was gruff and loud, and Sango could picture the angry scowl on his face perfectly, even without turning to look.
"Then maybe you should walk in front," she retorted, righting herself. She regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth, but she was tired enough that she no longer felt like hiding her opinion that if he was going to appoint himself leader, he ought to act like it all of the time, instead of being petulant when his companions failed or erred in some small way.
A few long strides saw the hanyou move to the front of the group, glowering over his shoulder at Sango as he went. She thought she heard him mutter something about being the only one that knew where they were going anyway, and sighed.
"Are you okay?" Kagome was watching her, wide-eyed and concerned, but it was the monk that had spoken. She had thought, riding behind them as he was, that he would not be paying much attention to the bickering of his companions. Apparently he was more observant than she gave him credit for.
"I'm just a little tired, I guess," she murmured by way of explanation. Her flash of temper was already cooling into a melancholy quiet. She honestly had not expected her sleeplessness to affect her so much, but her body was still healing from the wounds Naraku had inflicted so many days ago, and this battle had taken a greater toll on her than she had guessed. "I didn't rest well back at the inn."
"You could always ride up here with me," the monk offered pleasantly.
Sango felt her face heat - though she could not be certain if it stemmed from anger, or something else - at the suggestion that she should sit so close to him, rather than make use of the cart. "Uhm... no thank you, Houshi-sama. I'm fine."
"Suit yourself." He let the matter drop, and she resolved to keep her face turned firmly forward until they stopped for the night. Unfortunately, Kagome had not only noticed the offer, but also the way it discomfited Sango. And Kagome was not so content to let things go. Worse, she knew just how to attack, waiting to pounce until her intended target - Sango - had let her guard down.
"Hey, Sango, did something happen between you and Miroku back there?" she asked, just as soon as Sango had decided she was safe from further questioning. She should have known better.
For a fleeting instant, she wanted to respond honestly. But she felt the damn monk's eyes on her back - and knew he was listening - and could not admit her moment of vulnerability, even to Kagome. "No," she said, scowling slightly. "Nothing happened. Why do you ask?"
Wisely, Kagome did not push her luck, and from there they traveled in silence.
Chapter 17: Making Amends
Miroku had guessed that Sango's anger was a dangerous thing; what he hadn't counted on was her remarkable ability to hold a grudge. She still resented his attempt to breathe life back into her when she'd nearly drowned, having mistaken the gesture for something a great deal less wholesome, and did not seem inclined to forgive. He maintained hope that eventually her temper would cool and they could go back to being, if not friends, then at least companions.
Unfortunately, she had a knack for lulling him into a false sense of security, only to hit him with a stony coldness when he least expected it. He understood, a bit, that she was trying to work through some inner conflict that had arisen because of his actions; her natural inclination was to be kind to him, but she no longer felt safe trusting him.
He supposed he could deal with that, if he had to. After all, there were plenty of times when Inuyasha and Kagome barely tolerated his presence. He was accustomed to it by now.
He had earned a couple of surprised looks from the girls when he sold the spoils of their last victory, including the horse and cart. It hadn't changed their opinion of him much, but it had made their journey somewhat quicker and ensured that they would have food and shelter for some time to come. Inuyasha, of course, appreciated none of this, and if the girls did, they tried not to let it show. Miroku got the - rather sullen - impression that Sango was slowly but surely turning even Kagome against him.
Whatever she had told them about what had happened between them during the fight with the false water god, he was certain it was greatly exaggerated and that his intentions had been grossly misrepresented. But he knew better than to think that protesting that would get him anywhere. He would be better served by finding a way to redeem himself in their eyes.
That was what he had spent the last few days doing, to little effect. It seemed that every village they journeyed through, no matter how great or small, had some sort of youkai problem. There had been a surge, so to speak, in the population of troublesome spirits since Naraku's resurgence and the shattering of the Shikon no Tama, which meant that taiji-ya like Sango and Buddhist monks like himself were in high demand.
Most of the buildings that were supposedly haunted by youkai and other angry spirits were not. Miroku took care of those himself, putting on a show for the villagers and earning them room and board in the bargain. Each of these earned him a sour look from Sango, who saw through his ruses and quick talking, and disapproved. She didn't realize that he was weeding out the false problems, sowing hope in their stead, and trying to find a real youkai for her to take care of.
Exorcisms and exterminations... They could have been a very dangerous team, even against a powerful youkai like Naraku.
Too bad wounded pride and this silly grudge were getting in the way.
He wondered, watching her now, if it would have helped to explain that he had only been trying to save her life; she would only see some dark and selfish ulterior motive in it, he thought. Sango was quick to jump to conclusions.
But she was still handy in battle. And for petty, annoying exorcisms that he did not want to bother with. Which was why he had spent the afternoon touting her skills to the owner of house, which proved to actually have an inhuman resident, and secured her a job taking care of the problem. Such tasks appealed to her desire to help others, and she even preened a little under his praise and pretended he wasn't asking for a ridiculous reward for her efforts.
To be honest, he had been curious, too. He wanted to see how a taiji-ya worked.
Sango carried with her a great many mysterious things, pellets and poisons and vials of nameless powders and salves, and all of them served a different purpose in the slaying of youkai. It was an impressive array of knowledge, and he watched, captivated, as she listened to the homeowner's story and selected the proper supplies for the extermination. She seemed to have some idea of what she would be up against.
Her expression was grave when she turned to Inuyasha and gave him a stern warning: "This stuff stinks. You'd best stay out of the way."
The hanyou didn't like that one bit, and stubbornly refused to budge, in spite of Kagome's best efforts to convince him. For better or worse, he would stick with the group. When everyone's role had been decided - Kagome would mind the stink pellets and use a fan to blow their smoke into the space beneath the house, while Sango would wait on the other side with her weapons at the ready; Miroku and Inuyasha were instructed merely to stay out of the way - they all went outside to begin the extermination.
Word spread quickly in a small village. Already a sizable crowd had gathered nearby to watch the proceedings.
If it surprised Sango, she did not let it show. But for an instant, her eyes met his and held his gaze. She knew he had orchestrated the extermination for her benefit, rather than simply performing an exorcism himself, but what he did not know was what she would do next. He'd made the peace offering. Now it was up to her to accept it, or only grow more angry with him.
No sense worrying about it. She would do what she wanted.
So instead of watching the proceedings, he looked out over the crowd, surveying the village out of habit more than anything else. He always looked for targets, both for potential sources of money and for likely women. It was the latter he saw in the crowd: a young woman of surpassing beauty and dressed in unusually fine clothing. And she was staring straight at him; when she realized she had been caught, her expression shifted from sly to coy.
That was intriguing.
She curled a finger back toward herself, beckoning. His breath caught in his throat for a moment. There was no mistaking the intent behind that gesture.
Miroku cast a furtive glance back at his companions to make sure that they were all duly occupied and that they had the situation under control; they did. Rather, the girls did, but that was close enough. The smoke that Sango was using to drive the youkai out had a rather potent effect on Inuyasha, just as she had warned it would. Miroku did not think his absence would be noted for a while yet.
He had done his part in setting this stupid grudge aside. The rest would be up to Sango. For now, he had far easier - and far more intriguing - prey to pursue.
Chapter 18: Unasked Questions
"Keep driving it this way!" Sango shouted. Smoke poured from the crawlspace beneath the building, pungent and overwhelming. If not for the gas mask she wore, she might have been in serious trouble herself. But thanks to her slayer's gear, she could safely stand even in the midst of the billowing column of smoke, lying in wait for the youkai it would expel from the inn.
Behind her, she heard Miroku answering a few questions from the crowd concerning her skill and Inuyasha's reaction to the smoke; he was trying to talk up her skills, probably recognizing them for the steady source of income they were. That or being lazy, she thought darkly. But she did not have much time to worry about him. At least he was staying out of her way.
Something moved in the darkness beneath the building. Something big.
"It's coming!" she announced, for all that Inuyasha cared. He was still lying senseless on the ground, both hands clapped over his mouth and nose against the smoke.
The youkai - a mouse of great size, with sharp teeth bared - leapt out from the crawl space. Sango was ready for it, and crushed its skull with her Hiraikotsu before it could do any damage. She waited for a long time after that, but no other youkai were forthcoming; the owner of this building had been lucky, there had only been one. But where mice were concerned, and mouse youkai were no exception, one typically turned quickly into many.
"Okay, Kagome, put out the fire!" she called. Eventually the column of smoke dwindled and faded completely, though its stench would remain for some time. Sango hated the thought of being covered in it, but her business here was not done yet.
Now that she knew the origin of the youkai, and its type, she had some advice to give the building's owner, and some pellets that would help stave off future infestations. This she did as swiftly as possible, leaving Kagome and Shippou to tend to Inuyasha, who was still visibly suffering the effects of the smoke. She almost felt bad for him at this point, though if he had just listened to her instead of being a stubborn idiot, he wouldn't be suffering.
In return for her services, they were given access to the baths and a room in which to spend the night, with the promise of food for dinner as well. After spending so much time on the road recently, it seemed a bounty. It was not until the innkeeper had wandered off on his own business, and Sango was thinking longingly of a hot bath, that something odd about the exchange seemed to jump out.
"A room for three, plus the small ones," the man had said. Three?
"Hey, where's Miroku?" Kagome asked suddenly.
"He went off with some girl," Shippou supplied. Indeed, the monk seemed to have slipped off while Sango was performing the extermination, and with Kagome busy helping and Inuyasha incapacitated by the smoke, no one had noticed.
"Hmph!" Kagome muttered, scowling.
"It figures, he makes someone else do the work so he can run off and pick up girls..."
"She was really pretty. They probably went off to fulfill his request to bear his child," Shippou added, not exactly helpfully.
"Huh?" Sango managed, feeling a little lost. She watched as Kagome's expression grew darker.
"It's something he asks every woman he meets," the other girl said finally. Sango knew better than to press her about it, and turned her mind backward with a strange sense of... something that was almost disappointment. He never asked me.
Chapter 19: The Monk's Misadventure
With nearly all its inhabitants eagerly observing what they could of the ongoing extermination, the village was a quiet and tranquil place. Meandering down its main street with an exceedingly lovely woman beside him, Miroku felt almost at peace. There was, of course, the customary niggling voice of doubt in the back of his mind, but for the moment he was content to ignore it and simply enjoy the day.
He and his companion walked in silence. She was beautiful indeed, surpassingly so. And enigmatic, too.
She had been unwilling to give her name or any other information until they were assured of privacy, and this was what they were seeking now. She had not even given him a chance to ask her if she might be interested in bearing his child; now it hardly seemed important. There was clearly a matter of great importance afoot.
And while her behavior might, perhaps, have otherwise set off warning bells in his head – particularly if, say, she had been a he – he had never been able to resist a damsel in distress. So he went with her willingly, trusting his companions to take care of the village's problems. He fully intended to find out what this woman's story was, and if there was any way he could help her. And if there was any chance he would be likely to end up in her bed tonight.
They walked for a while longer, until they had passed the last buildings of the village and were walking across open countryside. Long grass billowed in the wind, whipping around them on either side. If she was looking for privacy, this would more than suffice.
"What is it you wished to discuss with me?" he asked pleasantly, when the village had faded into the distance.
The woman gave a shudder that was visible even through the many layers of clothing she wore, and the voluminous robe she kept draped over her head. She kept walking and did not look back. Miroku had just decided that she did not wish to tell him, after all, when she paused and said, "I am a lady from what was once a prestigious house. But it was destroyed in battle and I... I am the only one left."
It was a terribly tragic fate, and Miroku told her as much.
She nodded, coming gradually to a stop and letting him catch up to her. She let him draw close, so close that he was almost holding her. Her story was moving, there was no doubt about it.
"Because I am the last one left alive," she went on, her voice tremulous and near to tears, "It is my duty to revive my house, by giving birth to a strong son, who will grow into a strong lord..."
"And for that," Miroku guessed, "you cast your gaze upon me."
She did not contradict his assessment, but pressed herself hard against him. Clinging almost desperately, she whispered, "Would you like to make my wish come true?"
And, unfortunately, Miroku could no longer deny that something was not right with the situation. A noble lady would not have led him out into an open field in search of privacy, much less a place to make love. A noble lady would not have been able to escape slaughter without help, but she had made no mention of being abandoned by her assistants.
Perhaps her story was meant only to elicit sympathy, to aid her in convincing him (never mind that she was attractive enough that he'd have come with her anyway). Perhaps she was deluded and really believed what she had said. Perhaps it was even true, and she was merely desperate enough for this.
But all of those things were moot points, because a pair of enormous mantis arms was rising from her back, preparing to strike. Miroku caught sight of them out of the corner of one eye a moment before it would have been too late. The jointed arms drew back...
"I knew it sounded too good to be true," he commented dryly, and struck the woman across the face with his shakujou.
The holy staff made a sizzling sound as it contacted her face; she vibrated, wavering for a moment before the false skin was shed completely. Miroku leaped backward, but did not manage to make it out of striking range before the youkai revealed itself.
The skin of a young woman crumpled to the earth at its feet.
"So you were just wearing the girl's skin," he mused. "Did you kill her?"
"I ate her insides," the creature rumbled.
Miroku scowled. The girl had been young and beautiful, her life cruelly snuffed out before its time by a hungry monster. If he could not share at least a moment of time with her, if he could never even learn her name or the truth of her story, then the least he could do was avenge her death. And, hopefully, allow her soul to rest in peace.
"I'm going to eat you, too, monk," the youkai went on.
"Then you'll regret your choice of victim," Miroku replied calmly, reaching for the beads that kept the kazaana bound.
"I'll eat you!" the mantis youkai cried, leaping toward him.
Miroku took a step backward and opened the kazaana. "You're the one that will be eaten," he said.
The inexorable winds of the kazaana drew the youkai forward, pulling it inside no matter how hard it tried to escape. Miroku's eagerness to avenge the youkai's young victim had made him careless. He had forgotten that the mantis possessed sharp blades on its forelimbs... and as it was devoured, these blades cut into the edges of the kazaana.
Miroku grimaced as pain shot up his arm. Damn it, it's been torn open wider, he thought, wrapping the beads back around his arm. Even that did little to help; the wound still throbbed painfully.
His thoughts took a dark turn as he made his way back to the village. Had he just shortened his already limited lifespan by making such a careless mistake? As if to taunt him, the wound in his palm throbbed more hotly with every step. If it did not calm down soon, there would be nothing to do about it but go see Mushin. The old monk would know what to do. He hoped.
Chapter 20: Up to No Good
It was dinner-time before the monk returned from wherever he had spent the day, slinking into the room as if he'd been there all along. The act, as well-performed as any he had attempted before, failed to impress.
"He's been up to no good," Kagome whispered.
"There's no other reason he'd have snuck off like that instead of staying to help with the youkai extermination," Sango agreed, keeping her voice low so he would not hear or take offense. She was not as certain of the monk's guilt as Kagome was, but she had learned her lesson about not trusting the strange girl. If nothing else, Kagome had proved to be an excellent judge of character.
Failing to heed Kagome's warnings about Miroku's proclivities had earned Sango nothing but trouble thus far.
She remembered waking up after nearly drowning to find the monk on top of her, ready and willing to take advantage of her even in the middle of a dangerous battle... and nearly twitched. It was enough to make her lose her appetite; she kept eating only because it meant she did not have to say anything to him. This way, she could simply glower at him over her bowl and remain silent.
She had underestimated him before. She would not make that mistake again.
Not even when he was looking piteously innocent and confused, acting as if he knew nothing of what they were talking about. Unwilling to feel sorry for Miroku, she clamped down on her sympathy and turned it into skepticism. Even Inuyasha knew what the monk had been up to, and he wasn't afraid to say something about it.
"You were out picking up girls, weren't you?" the hanyou asked dryly.
"It's not what you think," Miroku protested, his voice calm.
Not a one of his companions believed him.
Chapter 21: Deceiver
Miroku was an accomplished deceiver; it was a gift he normally prided himself on. He could swindle even the stingiest lord out of the better part of his fortune - or talk his way into the bed of even the shyest of virgins - without breaking a sweat. He was putting that skill to the test tonight, although none of his usual motivations were to blame.
Tonight he was hiding something altogether unpleasant from his so-called friends. The same 'friends', he thought a little ruefully, that were so quick to assume he had been out picking up girls while they worked hard at slaying the youkai. In fact, he had been doing much the same thing as they had: he had slain a mantis youkai that had disguised itself as a beautiful maiden. He might have won the battle, but the damned mantis was having the last laugh.
The torn kazaana in his palm pulsed and burned.
This wasn't something he was going to be able to hide. It would be foolish even to try.
The only person that could help him now was Mushin, but seeking Mushin's aid meant he would have to abandon his companions, if only temporarily. And yet in spite of his ire, a small part of him was reluctant to do so. A much bigger part of him worried that this might signal the beginning of his end, that with this small injury the kazaana would grow inexorably wider until in only a matter of hours or days it became large enough to swallow him.
So he looked them over as they prepared to bed down for the night - kind Kagome, faithful Shippo, gruff Inuyasha, compelling Sango - and he knew his path was set. He could not stay with them. He must go, tonight, lest his doom become theirs.
Chapter 22: Wakeful Night
Sango slept restlessly, plagued by bad dreams. But then again, she could not remember the last time she had slept through the night without waking in breathless fear at least once. The memories were simply too painful. Too fresh and raw.
If she managed to keep those specters at bay during the day, in the dark of night they invariably came creeping right back in, filling her up inside until she was ready to burst. And in the darkened room of an inn or the quiet of a campsite after her companions were asleep, there was very little to distract her.
In a way, the day's extermination had helped... but with the victory had come regret. Today's hunt had been a success. If only that final hunt with Father and the others could have ended the same way, and had not turned out to be a snare laid by Naraku. Then perhaps Father and Kohaku and... and...
There were far too many ands, too many names. Too many regrets. And far too little progress in her quest for vengeance.
Fending off pointless tears, Sango could feign sleep no longer. She opened her eyes.
Incongruously, the first person those eyes sought was the monk. The room was quiet and still; she had heard nothing all night, save for the quiet breathing of her sleeping friends. And yet Miroku's place was empty.
Some small part of her was strangely hurt by his absence.
She narrowed her eyes and waited a few moments, thinking that perhaps he had merely gone in search of the latrine, but there was still no sign of the missing monk. Finally she loosed a frustrated sigh and gave up. He probably snuck off to meet up with some girl from the village.
She rolled over and clutched the blanket closer around her and determinedly squeezed her eyes shut. Well, I don't need him anyway.
If only that helped.
Chapter 23: Dark Thoughts
Miroku's thoughts were as dark as the night he trudged through. The wounded kazaana in his palm throbbed a constant reminder of all he stood to lose.
His steps remained measured, as they always did when he was traveling, but he fought the urge to run. He knew running would be pointless. He vividly remembered a time when he had run faster than ever before, and had still been too late. It did not matter how fast he was; his father had died anyway, consumed by the same curse that threatened Miroku now.
He wondered if he would be too late this time, too. If he would always be too late.
It was a long way yet to Mushin's temple.
He decided that walking a bit faster couldn't hurt.
A while later, he caught sight of movement in the long grass up ahead. For a moment he wondered if it was some sort of animal, but almost immediately he realized that it was a youkai. A very familiar youkai, at that.
"Hachi!" he called out.
The tanuki emerged from the grass in front of him, looking alarmed. "Master Miroku," Hachi stuttered. "I did not expect to see you here."
Miroku suspected that Hachi was also surprised to see him alone. He had sensed the tanuki's presence a time or two since he had teamed up with Inuyasha and Kagome, so he had a feeling Hachi probably knew how long he'd been traveling with a group. Still, meeting up with him was a stroke of luck that Miroku was not about to pass up.
"I need a favor," he said.
"A favor? From me? What are you planning, Master?" Hachi asked, his tone implying that if it involved trickery - and little danger - he wanted the details of any plot Miroku might be hatching.
"There's a temple I need to get to," Miroku explained. "Time is of the essence: it's a matter of life and death. Will you take me?"
One of the best things about Hachi was that he knew when not to ask questions. "I will take you."
In a matter of moments, the tanuki had changed his shape, allowed Miroku to climb onto his back, and taken to the sky. Traveling by air was much faster than walking, though it did not make Miroku feel any better. The torn kazaana in his palm ached and burned as much as ever, and now he had nothing to do but sit and think.
He had expected to feel regret. He had not expected to regret the loss of his companions. They seldom trusted him and often misinterpreted his intent, but he had come to like them. Even Inuyasha and Sango, in spite of everything. Somehow, it especially rankled that he had not been able to make amends with Sango after the incident with the false water god. For a while, he was content to think about that rather than the other painful memories that seemed so desperate to intrude upon his mind, but as night lightened into dawn and they drew closer to Mushin's temple, Miroku's thoughts returned to that fateful day so many years ago.
He'd run so fast, been so desperate... and it had done him no good at all. A violent rushing of wind, and then his father was gone.
The sky grew pinker and pinker as the sun rose, and Miroku found himself watching the landscape below with a feeling that might almost have been anticipation. It was not long after that that he saw the first clear landmark, and called for Hachi to take them down.
They came to rest at the foot of the hill and began to climb the stone stairs leading up to the temple.
"Is this the temple where you grew up, Master Miroku?" Hachi asked.
It was indeed this temple where Miroku had spent his childhood. And it was not far from here that Miroku's father had been sucked into the kazaana in his hand until nothing remained of him. Mushin had assured him that his grandfather had died in the same way. The kazaana in Miroku's palm pulsed strongly, as if reacting to the memory. He had to wonder if he would be the curse's next victim.
As they reached the top of the hill, they walked past an enormous, perfectly round hole in the ground. Oblivious to Miroku's determined attempts not to look at it, Hachi commented, "What's this big hole?"
"Oh that," Miroku said, still refusing to look, "it's my father's grave."
Chapter 24: Gone Missing
Kagome's question jolted Sango out of a light doze. It was light in their small room now; she had not worried too much when she woke in the night to find the monk gone, but for him to still be missing in the morning...
While Kagome shot out of bed, Sango sat up, rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and looked for herself. Indeed, Miroku was nowhere in evidence. Before Sango could think to stop her, Kagome had left their room, still dressed in her night-clothes, to go see what the villagers knew.
He's probably with his woman from yesterday, Sango thought sourly. It was possible that Miroku really was in some kind of trouble, but she suspected that even if he was in trouble, it was of his own making. Perhaps having to deal with the consequences of his behavior would teach him a lesson.
Content to let Kagome do the panicking for the moment, Sango took her time getting dressed and ready for the day. She half expected Inuyasha to follow Kagome, but the hanyou remained stubbornly where he was, sitting on the other side of the screen that divided the room and grumbling quietly to himself or to Shippou, she was not quite sure. She had finished dressing and had just begun to inspect her weapons for wear and damage when Kagome returned.
"He's gone!" she burst out. "He left the village entirely!"
Now that came as a surprise.
Sango finished tending to her weapons while Kagome hurried to change into her day-clothes. As soon as she was ready, they took to the road, following the directions the villagers had given Kagome.
Sango walked alongside Kagome, letting Inuyasha lead the way. With his keen sense of smell, he might have a chance at picking up Miroku's trail when the rest of them would simply be searching blindly.
"The men in the village said he looked angry when he left this morning," Kagome sighed after they had been walking for what seemed like a long a while. "And that he told them he had to go on a little journey of his own, but..."
"Are you sure it's not because you two were mean to him yesterday?" Shippou asked.
Kagome gasped in outrage at the very idea, but Sango felt an unexpected pang of guilt. She did not trust Miroku, did not even particularly like him, but the thought of being responsible for his departure weighed heavily on her. He had been a part of the group before she joined. She might not trust him very much, but it had not been her intention to force him away from his companions by being cruel and cold to him.
"He's not that sensitive," Inuyasha said, his tone clipped and impatient. "And besides, something's fishy here. Someone's been following us all day."
Sango barely had time to wonder how he had noticed such a thing, and she had not, before Inuyasha was moving. He leaped into the trees beside the road so quickly that his companions could only watch as he drew his sword and sliced vegetation away to reveal the spy: a human-like shape covered by the pelt of a baboon. Sango's heart stopped at the sight even as the figure slipped back among the trees. She knew that figure only too well: it was Naraku, the monster responsible for the deaths of her family and the destruction of her village.
If Naraku was involved, then Kagome had been right to worry, and Sango had been foolish not to. She hurried after Inuyasha, racing after the retreating form of the man in the baboon mask. She had a hard time matching Inuyasha's pace, but Kirara knew she would need help and was there to provide it. It only took an instant for Kirara to change forms and for Sango to leap onto her back, and then it was not long before they were gaining ground, rather than being left behind.
"Naraku!" Inuyasha shouted. Sango cursed under her breath when the man did not so much as look back. Gripping Kirara with only her legs, she steadied herself enough to take aim and threw her Hiraikotsu. Even with the thick trees all around them and the moving target, her aim was true; Naraku stumbled as the massive boomerang struck him, and that was enough. Inuyasha was on him before he could recover.
As the hanyou attacked, Sango's heart raced. She suddenly found that she couldn't breathe. She was so close to her goal... but where Inuyasha had slashed him open, Naraku did not bleed. Instead, all that came forth from the gash was soil. Soil, and another one of Naraku's damned puppets.
Sango stared down at the remains, bracing herself as a wave of crushing disappointment washed over her. Of course it could not have been so easy...
While she and Inuyasha silently observed their handiwork, Kagome came running up behind them with Shippou in tow. "It was just another puppet?" Kagome asked.
Sango could not seem to make her voice work, and Inuyasha did not bother to reply, since the answer was obvious.
"So he just wanted to distract us," Kagome murmured, at the same time as the thought was occurring to Sango. She had to agree with Kagome's assessment. Naraku had obviously wanted to lead them on a chase, and he had succeeded... but why?
"I wonder what the real reason was... why Miroku felt he had to leave," Kagome went on, inadvertently echoing Sango's thoughts.
"Why?" Inuyasha asked, as if he hadn't thought about it.
Sango had not thought much about it either. She had simply assumed he was off with that woman Shippou said he'd been friendly with back at the village. But now she had more questions than she knew what to do with, and no answers at all. Had the monk encountered some sign of Naraku's presence yesterday? It was possible. But if he had found such a sign, he would have told the rest of them, right?
A tiny voice piped up, "Um, Inuyasha..."
Sango nearly did a double-take before remembering the flea youkai that was Inuyasha's sometimes-companion. He spent so much of his time hiding, or off on other errands, that it was easy to forget he was with them at all.
"Myouga?" the hanyou asked.
"If you are wondering why the monk departed so suddenly, I may have some insight to share," the flea went on. Sango listened carefully as he explained, "During the night, while the rest of you were sleeping, Miroku stayed awake. He was sitting in the dark and brooding."
"Brooding?" Inuyasha interrupted. "What's he got to brood about?"
"He was staring at his hand, the one with the kazaana, while he did it. For some reason he looked very serious."
"We should find him," Kagome said. Fear was written all over her face, and Sango shared the sentiment. If Miroku was worried about the curse in his hand, and Naraku was around and up to his usual no-good tricks, then the monk could be in very real danger. They all could.
Chapter 25: Tricks and Traps
The temple was quiet as Miroku and Hachi approached. It was still quite early, so Miroku would not have been surprised to find Mushin sound asleep somewhere. Still, as he entered the temple he called out, "Mushin-sama, are you in? It's me, Miroku."
Sure enough, the old man was sleeping on the floor of the temple's main room, his head pillowed on a sake jug. Irritated, Miroku kicked the jug right out from under him. "Wake up, you drunkard."
Mushin grunted as his head hit the floor. "Oh, it's you," he muttered, sitting up to rub one hand against his sore head. "Still alive, I take it."
"I could say the same thing to you. You're not likely to live long if you keep drinking like that."
Mushin scratched himself. "Did you come here to preach to me?"
Miroku set his irritation aside and told Mushin the story that had brought him back to the temple in such a hurry. While his former companions would have doubted the tale, Mushin listened with what passed for attentiveness from the old drunkard. "The youkai's claws tore the edge of the kazaana," Miroku concluded. "Can you heal it?"
"Let me take a look," Mushin said. He took hold of Miroku's hand and gently prodded at the cloth that covered the kazaana, sliding it back ever so slightly so he could take a look at the damage. He inspected the wound thoroughly, with an air of supreme seriousness, before finally letting Miroku's hand drop. He looked the younger man in the eye and said, "You will die tonight."
Miroku did his best to appear unmoved, but deep inside he felt a flash of panic.
"Kidding, kidding," the old monk assured him a moment later.
"Keep it up and I'll suck you up."
"Now, now. I can heal your injury, but for a while afterward you will have to avoid using the kazaana," Mushin said.
Hachi shuffled around the room to stand behind Miroku; he hadn't expected the tanuki to actually take much interest in what was going on. Ignoring Hachi for now, Miroku asked, "What would happen if I were to use it?"
"The kazaana will widen where it was torn, and you will die sooner." At least the old man didn't try to lie about it. "You know that when the kazaana starts to grow wider, even I won't be able to help you." Miroku made no response. There was nothing to say. "Well then, I'll go prepare some medicine. You go wash the impurities from your body."
"Well, excuse me for being impure," Miroku muttered, but he did as he was told.
He found fresh clothes in a tiny side room, exactly where they had always been, and changed out of his monk's robes and into the plain white ones. It was not far from the temple to a small waterfall where visitors could cleanse themselves. The sound of the water there was familiar, but not welcoming. Miroku had spent some time here as a youth, but no more than he'd had to. He faced the waterfall now as a task that must be tolerated, but not enjoyed in the least.
As he attempted to meditate, he was aware of Hachi lurking around, keeping an eye on him. "If there is something you'd like to say, go ahead and say it," he said without bothering to open his eyes.
Hachi stifled a startled sound. "So, uh, that's the same Mushin that raised you, Master?"
"Yes," Miroku said. He had a feeling this was not the question that Hachi really wanted to ask. "I learned all my bad habits from him."
Hachi murmured something that sounded like, "He doesn't seem so bad," but the water carried the sound away. Miroku did not mind. He found he wasn't much in the mood to talk, anyway.
For a while the only sound was that of the water rushing over the rocks and down the falls. It was almost peaceful. But despite the chill of the water, the torn kazaana in his palm still seemed to burn and pulse. The constant reminder of the danger he was in made it impossible for Miroku to relax.
When he judged that enough time had elapsed for Mushin to finish preparing whatever medicine he thought was necessary, Miroku made his way out from the water and back to the temple. He had guessed correctly; Mushin was waiting when he and Hachi had arrived.
"Wait out here," he murmured to Hachi. The tanuki obeyed, taking Miroku's staff from him and letting Miroku enter the temple alone. When Miroku had taken a seat across from Mushin, the old monk handed him a bowl of strange-smelling liquid.
"Drink up. That's a painkiller," Mushin explained. "You're going to need it."
"A painkiller? What for?"
"I've got to stitch up that tear in your hand. I can't have you moving around and reacting. So drink that, and you'll sleep soundly and feel no pain, and when you wake up your wound will be taken care of."
It sounded like a good idea on the surface, but Miroku was skeptical by nature. "Your hands are shaking," he pointed out.
"Ah, no matter," Mushin said amicably. "I'll just have another drink and that'll take care of that."
However dubious Miroku might be about that, he let Mushin go without much protest. If more alcohol was needed, then more alcohol was needed, he supposed. When Mushin had been gone for a while, Miroku found himself staring at the pain killer. Such a thing could come in handy in battle, but then again if it made him sleep it wouldn't do much good after all. Still, he supposed it would be better to go to sleep than to feel the pain of each stitch Mushin must sew into his hand to close the wound.
The medicine was bitter, but he drank it all. He discarded the bowl and then went to lay down on the mat that Mushin had set out for him. True to Mushin's word, the pain in his hand began to gradually subside, and it was not long before he began to feel drowsy. His whole body felt heavy, and he had the feeling that sleep would be a wondrous thing, but it wasn't enough to stop him from thinking that Mushin had been gone for a long time now.
Just as he was wondering if he should get up and look for the old bastard, Mushin returned. Looming over him, the old man asked, "How are you feeling?"
Miroku sighed. Turning his head to look at Mushin seemed to take a tremendous effort. "Feeling kind of sleepy."
"Then sleep," Mushin said, kneeling beside him. He rested a hand on Miroku's forehead and gently used his thumb and little finger to slide Miroku's eyelids closed. "It'll be done soon."
"Your hand's not shaking anymore," Miroku commented, feeling sleep begin to overtake him.
Even though he dozed, it seemed to him that Mushin said, "Was that easy or what? It seems you have a lot of confidence in this monk, Miroku..."
That seemed odd, though it took him a long time to arrive at that conclusion. Mushin did not normally talk to himself, even when he was quite drunk. When he went on to say that, "Now I'm going to make sure you rest in peace," Miroku knew that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
He wanted desperately to see what was going on, but knew that if he gave himself away now he might just make the situation worse. If he was going to reveal that the medicine had not worked as well as Mushin had thought, he needed to choose the right moment.
He felt the rush of air an instant before the knife cleaved down where he had been lying. Miroku could hardly believe he had managed to roll out of the way in time to avoid having his throat cut; a faint but growing pain in his shoulder, and the sensation of something warm and wet trickling down his arm from his shoulder, told him that he had not escaped unscathed after all.
"Oh," Mushin said, almost laughing, "so you weren't asleep after all."
"Who are you?" Miroku demanded. He did not know what was going on for sure, but he did know that something - or someone - was in control of the old monk, and it was not Mushin. The drunkard's body and voice might be the same as always, but something was definitely not right.
"What are you talking about? I'm Mushin, the man who raised you, of course."
Suddenly, sneaking off in the middle of the night seemed like a bad idea. He should have been more honest with Inuyasha and the others. His former companions would have made short work of whatever was controlling Mushin. But instead of their help, Miroku had only Hachi to rely on now. With that in mind, he began to make his way slowly toward the temple door. Why had he told Hachi to wait outside?
He did not make it far before his body ceased to obey him. Mushin followed patiently, laughing as Miroku collapsed to the floor. "You can't fight the medicine's effects forever. Now that your body is numb and you can no longer move, I'll take my time ending your life."
When Mushin struck again, Miroku somehow found the strength to stagger to his feet and send himself crashing into - and through - the nearest wall. He expected to hit the floor hard, but something squished underneath him, breaking his fall and accompanying it with a pained yelp. "Hachi!" Belatedly, he realized that Mushin's knife had only barely missed him this time. "Hand me my staff."
Hachi grunted. Miroku could feel the tanuki squirming beneath the wall panel, so he scuttled to one side as best he could. A moment later, Hachi popped out from beneath the panel, staff in hand. Miroku seized the weapon just in time to fend off another attack from Mushin. Nearby, Hachi flailed, trying to comprehend why Miroku was bleeding and why his mentor was the one attacking him. Finally, he seemed to arrive at some conclusion and took action.
The next thing Miroku knew, there was smoke everywhere and Hachi was catching hold of him and dragging him away from Mushin. "Climb on my back," the tanuki hissed.
Miroku gritted his teeth and tried, but ended up with less a climb and more of a fall. In the end, that sufficed. As soon as Hachi gauged that Miroku was secure enough on his back, he took off running. He might be a fat and often lazy tanuki, but Hachi knew how to run.
For a few moments Miroku thought they might actually get away, but a bad feeling in the air had begun to grow and as soon as they rounded a corner he saw why. There were youkai perched atop the temple buildings. Lots of youkai.
"Hachi," he said calmly, "Leave me here. Save yourself."
"N-no way! I won't just abandon you."
"Then take a good look around us. There are youkai up there." He could see them lurking around other places now, too, but did not see a need to upset Hachi further. Not when Hachi had turned out to be one person he could actually count on. "If you stay with me, you'll just be killed."
"I guess you're right," Hachi admitted.
"Once the medicine wears off, I'll be able to move again and defend myself, so I'll create a barrier to hold them off until then," Miroku said, doing his best to sound confident enough to convince Hachi to leave. There was no sense in both of them dying here.
As Hachi crept along the temple wall, Miroku realized that the youkai had not actually seen them yet. They must not have begun to gather until he and Hachi had escaped from Mushin. He glanced back once, pain twinging through his injured shoulder as he craned his head around, but there was no sign of the old monk anywhere.
"Where should we go?" Hachi asked.
Miroku needed to find a place that was out of the way, where a protective barrier would not quickly be noticed. Unfortunately the temple did not have a lot of strategic defensive locations. "Take me to my father's grave," he said reluctantly, knowing that the deep depression in the ground with the grave marker standing in its center was likely the only place where the youkai would not search for him.
Whether he sensed Miroku's distaste or not, Hachi did as he was told. Somehow he managed to make it past the youkai without being noticed, and to get them both down the slope without falling. When they had reached the bottom he helped Miroku, as gently as possible, to take a seat with his back to the grave marker.
"Go," he said when he was as settled as he was likely to get, "before they see us."
As soon as Hachi was safely out of the way, Miroku summoned a barrier that would hopefully keep the youkai from spotting him. With the medicine still in effect, he had to dig deep to find the spiritual power necessary to create the barrier, but If he could just keep out of sight and conserve his energy until the medicine wore off, he might have some chance of making it out of this mess alive.
He closed his eyes, the better to concentrate, and repeated, "Get out of here, Hachi. Go find someplace safe to hide for a while."
He did not open his eyes to see if Hachi obeyed. Maintaining the barrier required his full concentration, at least at first. As time went by, the medicine must have begun to weaken, or he must have begun to lose his patience, because maintaining the barrier became easy enough that he could risk opening his eyes again.
Night had fallen over the temple, and still the youkai swarmed around in their search for him. He could hear them talking amongst themselves, trying to figure out where he might have gone. He even thought he saw a couple of praying mantises among their number, no doubt relatives of the one he had slain so recently. Had it been a trap all along? He was beginning to think that it must have been, and that he should have realized it long ago.
If he had, he might not be here now, waiting for his inevitable demise within his father's grave.
Chapter 26: Finding Miroku
The group was somber as night fell. Inuyasha did not call for a stop, though it was obvious his mood was growing darker and darker, and not even Kagome was willing to argue with him. Not when they had found no sign of their missing companion all day.
For the past few hours, Sango had taken to silently wondering, herself. Maybe they had been unable to locate Miroku because he did not want to be found. When he left the group, he had to have known they would look for him. The part that mystified her was why he did not want them to find him.
She just couldn't figure it out. He had been traveling with Inuyasha and Kagome up to this point. He'd even stuck around once Sango joined the group, even when things grew awkward. So why leave now? What had changed? Had something happened with the curse in his hand, as Myouga implied?
"Kagome-sama, can you think of any clues? Anything that might have happened?"
Kagome sighed unhappily. "We may have been traveling together, but I still don't really know anything about Miroku-sama."
Shippou's tone was mournful. "Do you think we'll ever see him again?"
Sango knew how he felt. She hated the thought of losing yet another companion, even if she had not been nearly so close to Miroku as she had been to the people of her village that had been taken from her.
"Feh. He just didn't want to rely on us, that's all," Inuyasha grumbled.
The way he said it, it sounded as if he was fed up with searching. Sango didn't know if she should speak up, but fortunately Kagome saved her the necessity of making that decision. "But if Naraku's involved, there might be a trap," she pointed out. "We can't just give up and leave him."
"Well then, where should we look?" Inuyasha snapped.
Sango watched them wordlessly, bracing for the argument that seemed imminent, but Kagome suddenly calmed and pointed to the sky. "Up there. It's Miroku-sama's friend, the tanuki!"
The creature in the sky looked nothing like a tanuki, at least at first. It was enormous, and surrounded by a familiar buzzing of wings.
"Naraku's insects," Sango gasped. Every clue they found seemed to point directly to Naraku. The thought of following Miroku into a trap like the one that had killed her family made Sango's blood run cold. And yet, she knew...
As the insects continued to harass him, there came a burst of smoke and then the tanuki was falling instead of flying. He hit the ground with an impressive thud a few moments later. Insects swarmed around as Inuyasha leaped to the rescue, but as soon as he unsheathed his sword, the insects withdrew to hover in the distance.
"Are you okay?" Kagome asked, abandoning her bike to see to the tanuki.
Shippou immediately followed her while Sango hesitated. "Sango," he asked, pausing halfway to his destination, "are you coming?"
"In a bit."
While Shippou, Kagome, and Inuyasha clustered around the tanuki, Sango slipped off to the first halfway private place she could find and put on her armor. She was certain now that Naraku was involved in whatever had caused Miroku to part company with the rest of them. She knew equally well that, if she asked the tanuki how to find Miroku, she would most likely be doing exactly what Naraku wanted her to do. And she knew, too, that she could not simply let Miroku go to his death in one of Naraku's insidious traps.
She would go after him, and she would save him the way she had been unable to save Father and Kohaku and all the others.
She refused to think of failure even as phantom pain throbbed in the scar on her back.
"Sango," Kagome murmured when she rejoined the group. "You're going to fight, aren't you?"
Since her voice seemed suddenly stuck in her throat, Sango simply gave an affirmative nod.
"Good," Inuyasha said. "Cause the tanuki says he can lead us to Miroku, and we're probably gonna have a hell of a fight on our hands."
"We'll talk on the way," Inuyasha replied.
Sango wondered how he thought they were all going to make the journey so quickly, but she had her answer soon enough. When the tanuki transformed for flight, he was large enough to carry them all with little difficulty.
It was a strange feeling to climb onto the tanuki's back and slowly rise off the ground; Sango was only accustomed to flying on Kirara's back, and by now that was almost instinctive. This was just different enough to throw her off balance. But maybe, she thought, it would also help keep her on edge. After all, it was already past nightfall and they had been searching all day, but they still had to get to Miroku and get him out of whatever trouble he had gotten himself into.
Once they were airborne, Sango did not have to ask for the story. The tanuki seemed perfectly happy to repeat himself for her benefit. "Master Miroku's kazaana was torn by a mantis," he said. "Right now he can't use it at all. At least, that's what the monk said before he went all weird. He said that if the kazaana is opened, it will widen through the cut and shorten Miroku's lifespan."
No one had anything to say to that, least of all Sango. Nobody had mentioned Miroku's curse being related to his life, or rather his death, and now all she could think was that she might be too late again. He might already be dead by the time they arrived to rescue him.
When she first heard the buzzing, she thought it must be all in her head, but a glance over her shoulder told her it was all too real. "We're being followed," she said. "It's Naraku's insects... but it doesn't seem like they're trying to attack."
"That's because they're keeping a fucking guard on us," Inuyasha growled.
He was right. The insects never came any closer, as if they were perfectly content to simply follow. "But why?"
No one wanted to guess the answer, so they flew on in silence. Until... "That's it! That's the temple!"
As the tanuki flew lower, something seemed wrong about the temple. The air around it did not feel like the air of a holy place. Instead, it seemed dark and oppressive, as if it might smother them all at any moment. Sango had time to wonder if they had been wrong to trust the tanuki before the swarm of youkai came bursting out of the temple.
"Nobody said anything about a bunch of youkai," Sango murmured, suddenly glad that she had thought to change into her armor earlier. She was apprehensive at first, but once she had a chance to scan the swarm, she realized the massed youkai didn't pose much of a threat. As her father would have said, these were all small fry. There were a lot of them, but they were nothing she or Inuyasha couldn't handle.
"Go right through them, tanuki!" Inuyasha ordered.
The tanuki made a panicked noise, but he kept going full speed ahead at the approaching mass of youkai. Inuyasha stood and drew his sword, easily taking out the first youkai brave enough to come close, but it was plain to see that Inuyasha's strength, impressive as it was, would take too long to get through the youkai horde.
"Kirara, come on," she murmured. Kirara transformed in a flash of flames and a moment later Sango was on her back, Hiraikotsu to hand, the two of them charging into the air alongside the tanuki. "Go on, Inuyasha," she shouted above the rush of the wind. "These are just small fry. Leave them to me!"
While Inuyasha had to get close to strike, Sango could attack from a distance. Her Hiraikotsu was designed for just this sort of thing, and her years of training as a slayer of youkai had not been for nothing. Sango could take out several youkai with a little luck and a well-aimed throw, and she only had to do it once to convince Inuyasha to leave the mess to her.
She did not have the luxury of watching Inuyasha and the others make their landing at the temple; she had already drawn the attention of the youkai. So she hacked her way methodically through the masses of creatures, trusting to Kirara to help her stay out of the way of any attacks. This was the kind of thing they had always trained for. In a way, it was exhilarating... but her heart wasn't entirely in it.
She hated to be left behind, but time was of the essence and she knew this was the best way to handle the situation. She would have to trust that Inuyasha would save Miroku. And that if Naraku was lurking around somewhere, that they would save a piece of him for her to destroy.
Chapter 27: Together Again
When Inuyasha dropped out of the sky and started calling him a coward, Miroku was certain he must be imagining things in his final moments. But Inuyasha certainly sounded real when he said, "Oi, Miroku, listen here, you bastard..."
He knew he wasn't seeing things when Kagome and Shippou came rushing over in Inuyasha's wake. While Kagome slid down the slope of the grave, Shippou catapulted himself to land on Miroku's chest. "You idiot!" the kitsune shouted, no doubt to mask his fear, "What were you thinking running off without us like that?"
"You worried us!" Kagome added.
For once in his life, he was at a loss for words. Or perhaps he was just too weak to think of anything after losing so much blood and maintaining his protective barrier.
Over Inuyasha's shoulder, he saw something moving in the sky, cutting down the masses of youkai that gathered there: Sango. Somehow, he had not been expecting her to come along with the others.
"So you're still alive, houshi-sama?" she asked, shouting to be heard. He thought he saw a hint of a smile cross her face, though the distance between them made it hard to tell.
"Inuyasha, you say something, too," Kagome prodded.
"Enough of this," Inuyasha said. His ears twitched suddenly and he turned an instant before Miroku heard the footsteps in the grass. From his angle Miroku could not see who had approached, but he recognized the voice immediately.
"You lot have brought trouble to my temple," Mushin said warningly. The moment he heard the old man speak, Miroku tried to get to his feet. He knew that if he didn't stop Inuyasha, the hanyou might very well kill the old monk. He couldn't let that happen.
"I'll have to punish you," Mushin went on, oblivious to the danger.
"If you want me, just fucking try," Inuyasha challenged.
"Inuyasha." Miroku stumbled and would have fallen on his face if Hachi had not rushed over to support him. "Please do not kill that person."
"Yes, don't kill me," Mushin sneered. "After all, I'm the one who raised Miroku here."
Inuyasha growled. "Guess I have no choice then. I may not be able to kill you, but I'll hold you back, you corrupt priest!"
From here, Miroku could see that Mushin had not come unarmed. The old monk carried a large strand of houriki beads over his shoulder, and he used them against Inuyasha now. Against an ordinary youkai they would have been deadly, but Inuyasha used the Tessaiga to block. For a moment it seemed as if he might be able to slice his way through, but the beads merely undid the sword's transformation and wrapped around him anyway.
When Inuyasha was well and truly tangled in the strands, Mushin charged the beads with enough holy energy to make the air crackle and hiss. Kagome and Shippou clustered beside Miroku and Hachi as they watched Inuyasha collapse to the ground.
"Inuyasha!" Kagome cried out in horror as a group of youkai split off from the main horde and headed over to investigate. She was right to be alarmed; Mushin was not the only threat, after all. As soon as they realized that Inuyasha had been weakened, the youkai moved in for the kill.
With Inuyasha weakened and the youkai to do his dirty work, Mushin walked off to sit on the edge of the temple porch and drink from his ever-present jug of sake. Miroku looked away as Inuyasha faced down the youkai. Even with the houriki beads affecting him, Inuyasha was stronger than these youkai by far. It was their numbers that made them dangerous, and Sango was helping with that. So in the meantime, Miroku was determined to figure out what was going on with Mushin.
One moment the monk would act almost as if nothing were out of the ordinary, and the next he would try to kill someone. As if in response to Miroku's thoughts, Mushin laughed and said, "You're doing very well for being tied up in my houriki beads. But how long can you keep it up?" He charged the beads up again, and from somewhere out of Miroku's sight Inuyasha cried out in pain.
Miroku couldn't afford to see what trouble his friend was in. He wanted more than anything to figure out what was controlling Mushin. If the could just cure the monk, Miroku was certain they would put an end to this whole mess. But first they needed to know what was wrong.
"What's that?" Kagome asked. "Something just came from the old man's mouth when he spoke..."
"Myouga?" Sure enough, the flea youkai was sitting on Kagome's shoulder. Miroku wondered how long he'd been watching.
"He is being mind-controlled by them," Myouga went on.
"Can he be saved?" Miroku asked. If Mushin could not be saved, there might be no hope of healing the torn kazaana... and Miroku did not want to think about that.
"There should be a tsubo pot user nearby," Myouga said. "If you can get the pot away from him and point it at Mushin, then the kokochuu should return to the pot."
"Then we've got to go find that tsubo pot user!" Kagome decided. "Come on, Myouga!"
"What, me too?" the flea protested, but Kagome was already climbing out of the depression in the ground where they had been hiding. Miroku attempted to follow, but he was too weak yet to match Kagome's speed, especially uphill.
"Kagome-sama," he began, but she was already up and out, and was not listening to him. "Be careful."
As she ran off toward the temple building to search for the tsubo pot user, Sango, on Kirara's back, swooped down out of the sky to hover next to her. After a brief conversation, the two went off together.
Sango's willingness to help surprised him, and made him feel somewhat better about allowing Kagome to go off in search of the tsubo pot user alone. He had done nothing in particular to merit this sort of effort from her, or any of them, really. And yet here they all were, willing to do whatever it took to keep him safe and sound. Even though he'd kept his secrets hidden, even though he'd left them and done his best to cover his trail.
When had he found such loyal friends?
Chapter 28: Miroku's Fate
Sango barely had time to enjoy the job-well-done feeling of having eliminated the last of the youkai in the air before Kirara was swooping down to keep pace with Kagome. Amidst her surprise at the sudden drop, she had to admit she was curious as to why Kagome would leave the relative safety of that bowl-like depression in the ground.
"I've got rid of the youkai up above," she announced in order to draw Kagome's attention. "But what's Inuyasha doing?" He was obviously not faring well against the corrupted monk, but he had shrugged off her attempts to help in the fight against the false water god and now she was unsure if she should step in. With any luck, Kagome would provide her with a cue.
"Sango-chan, he's, uh..." Kagome glanced to her shoulder, where Sango could just make out the shape of Myouga. "He can't kill that man. That's Mushin, the man who raised Miroku. Something's controlling him, and Myouga thinks he knows what it is. If we can find the tsubo pot user..."
Sango did not hear most of the rest of Kagome's explanation; memories of her sorrow and fear at the loss of her own family swept over her, overwhelming her into horrified silence until the flea youkai hopped from Kagome's shoulder onto hers. "Sango! I appreciate your coming," Myouga said cheerfully.
Kagome's pretty face twisted with a grimace. "You mean it's safer over there?" she asked.
"I'll stick with you," Sango promised. "We'll all be fine. Now, where do you think this tsubo pot user is?"
"He'll be somewhere hidden, but where he can still keep an eye on what's going on," Myouga said.
"Do you have any ideas, Sango-chan?"
After a moment's thought, she did. "The temple. It will be hiding somewhere in the temple building. It had to have gotten control of Mushin somehow..."
"Then let's go!" Kagome said, hurrying off up the hill to where the temple building loomed.
Sango followed quickly, dismounting so as to better keep pace with Kagome. She trusted Kirara to follow along and help if she could without being told to do so.
The temple was quiet and seemed at first glance to be empty. It was not as shabby inside as Sango had expected, and there were very few potential hiding places inside. It would have helped tremendously to have advice from someone like Miroku, who knew the temple layout well, but that could not be helped. As she and Kagome carefully began to explore, both keeping their eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary, Sango became aware of a strange rumbling, grunting noise that seemed to be coming from a nearby storeroom.
She slowed, indicating silently for Kagome to pause and wait while she investigated. When she was sure Kagome would not follow, she inched over to the door to the store room. There was definitely something inside, something that was making the unusual sound.
She was not sure what they would find within that room, so it was better to play it safe. From a compartment hidden in her armor she withdrew a few small pellets that would burst when thrown against a hard surface, creating a thick fog. Moving quickly now, so as not to lose the element of surprise, she hooked her fingers around the edge of the door and slid it open. At the same time, she threw the fog-beads with the other hand.
The beads worked like a charm. Perhaps it worked a little too well, because the entire temple began to fill up with smoke.
Before Sango could go into the store room, Kagome had fired an arrow inside. She missed her mark, but only just, and the tsubo pot user knew it. He had been hiding among a group of large pots but now he bolted out the door, slipping past Sango before Kagome could ready another arrow.
"After him!" Sango ordered, already moving in pursuit. "If he gets out of the temple building, it's going to be a lot harder to find him again."
"Right!" Kagome said from somewhere behind her, but with the fog everywhere Sango did not want to risk losing sight of her target long enough to check on Kagome. She heard Kagome's footsteps as the other girl followed her, and tried to trust in her new friends to do their part the way she would have trusted her taiji-ya comrades to do the same. Outside, the battle between Inuyasha and the monk raged on, but Sango paid little attention to it until she heard Miroku's tanuki friend cry out, "More are coming!"
More... she knew before she risked a glance out a nearby door that the tanuki meant more youkai, and felt her fragile plan of action shatter into a hundred shards. She couldn't hunt down the tsubo pot user and fend off another batch of youkai for Inuyasha, but she was reluctant to send Kagome after the tsubo pot user alone. If she could have sent Kirara along to protect Kagome, the decision would have been easier, but to take down that many youkai at once she would need to be airborne.
"Damn it," she muttered. She did not want to give up on Miroku's father figure to save all their lives, but recognized that she might have to. And all the while her slayer's instinct told her that each moment she was distracted was another opportunity for her target to escape. But she couldn't seem to look away, especially when Miroku pulled the rosary from his arm.
He did it so casually, despite the terrifying potency of the weapon he was about to unleash, that Sango could only stare. She had only seen that weapon in use once before, but she knew to fear its power. And thanks to the tanuki, she knew to fear for Miroku each time he used it, too.
If he used it now, torn as it was, he risked cutting his lifespan short.
Kagome, get the tsubo pot back. Kirara, come with me! The words died unsaid as the kazaana opened and began to pull the youkai in.
"Don't!" Kagome screamed.
"He opened it," Sango murmured in disbelief. He had really done it. He was really attempting to sacrifice himself to save the rest of them, when they were the ones who had come to save him.
And there was nothing she could do to stop it. She was too far away, and could not risk flying when the kazaana was open like that. She and Kirara would simply be sucked in if they tried it.
Fortunately, Inuyasha was close enough to act. He bashed Mushin on the head hard enough to send the old monk sprawling unconscious to the ground, leaving Sango wondering why he hadn't simply done that to begin with, and raced toward Miroku just as the monk lost his balance and tumbled back into the depression in the ground. While Miroku was still stunned from the fall, Inuyasha managed to retrieve the binding beads and wrap then back around the monk's arm, sealing off the kazaana before any more damage could be done.
Watching them, hearing Inuyasha threaten to break Miroku's arm should he ever attempt something so stupid again, Sango could finally breathe again. She knew they were far from out of danger, but at least now she and Kirara could go help with the youkai problem. It wouldn't be easy, but at least they could try...
She realized quickly that there would be no need - or time - for that. Inuyasha positioned himself between Miroku and the approaching demons and called out a challenge: "Hey, bastards! You're not coming one step further!"
Sango knew it was a bad idea to bait youkai like that, but she was not surprised to see Inuyasha do it. She adjusted her grip on her Hiraikotsu and prepared to charge into battle to assist him, but she did not get far before he drew his sword and attacked. All it took was one swing of his sword, and then light flashed and the youkai were no more. There had been at least fifty of them, and they were all gone after that single swing of his sword.
Sango and the others could do little but stare in the aftermath as shattered bits of youkai rained down from the heavens. While Sango could take out several youkai at once by using Hiraikotsu, she could not create damage on a scale anything like this. She had seen it with her own eyes, but she could not believe it. "With one slash of the sword," she murmured.
"He used the true power of Tessaiga for the first time!" Kagome observed.
"It's amazing," Sango agreed, though Kagome did not seem to hear her. No one had told her that Inuyasha's sword was supposed to have any sort of special power, but it had certainly come in handy.
While Kagome headed back toward their friends, their objective forgotten now that the immediate threat to their lives had been taken care of, something else caught Sango's attention. Turning, she watch the tsubo pot user make a break for the tree line. In the moment that it abandoned its cover within the temple, Sango knew that the moment to strike was now or never.
Her Hiraikotsu made short work of the creature, slicing it in half while leaving the tsubo pot to fall to the ground unharmed.
"Great shot, Sango-chan!" Kagome cheered. "Let's go get that pot!"
Sango trailed behind while Kagome ran to retrieve the pot, and together they made their way to where Mushin was still lying unconscious in the grass.
"Is he still alive?" Kagome asked, trepidation in her voice as the two of them knelt beside the old man.
"He should just be unconscious from the blow to his head," Sango assured her, though she knew that head injuries could be tricky. She didn't think Inuyasha would have hit him hard enough to cause permanent damage, but it would be impossible to tell until the old man woke up. "Try the tsubo pot."
Kagome aimed the pot toward the old monk, and just as Myouga had said, strange hairlike filaments began to emerge from the old man's mouth. They twisted alarmingly through the air, but as soon as they found the pot they whooshed inside it. But even when the last of the kokochuu was gone, Mushin remained still and silent on the ground.
"He won't wake up?" Kagome asked in despair. "The kokochuu strands all came out..."
Inuyasha walked over to kick the monk's head. "Wake up, old man," he grumbled. Miraculously, his callous approach worked. The old man opened his eyes and began to absent-mindedly scratch his chest.
"Well, it seems like he's okay now," Kagome commented.
"Miroku needs your help," Inuyasha went on, ignoring Kagome's dismay. "The idiot went and opened the kazaana while you were sleeping. Can you fix it?"
Mushin stared up at him with eyes that only slowly focused. "I can try to repair the damage, but I can make no promises."
While Kagome and Inuyasha helped the old man to his feet, Sango asked, "Is there somewhere private where I can change out of my armor?"
"Just use one of the storage rooms," Mushin said. To Inuyasha, he added, "Go. Bring Miroku to the temple. And do it quickly. I'll have to sew up the tear in the kazaana, and I'm going to need to make some more medicine for that. As you can see, I'm in no condition to go hunting for herbs right now..." He turned to look at Kagome. "And see if you can find another jug of sake..."
Sango did not stick around to be assigned some duty or other. She loped up to the temple, Kirara on her heels, and sought out a storage room for a little privacy. She had plenty of time to change back into her regular clothes while Inuyasha and Kagome dealt with Mushin and Miroku, so she did not rush and instead gave herself a little time to breathe - and think. Thankfully, Mushin seemed fully restored to his usual self after everything, even if his usual self was a lazy drunk. At least he knew how to tend to Miroku's injuries.
By the time she returned to where Kagome and the others were waiting on the porch, Mushin had already taken Miroku inside to tend to the wounded kazaana and there was nothing left to do but wait and hope for the best. Sango seated herself to one side of where Kagome and Inuyasha were sitting, and smiled a little as Kirara and Shippou came over to sit with her.
Silence loomed over the group as they waited, and Sango was not about to be the first to speak. Instead, she listened to the sound of the wind rustling the grass, her ears straining for any sound from within the temple. She wondered about that strange, perfectly round depression in the ground with the marker at its center. The marker looked like a gravestone, but it was unlike any grave Sango had ever seen before.
It was fairly easy for Sango to stay still and quiet while they waited; she had a lot of experience waiting for companions to receive medical treatment after tough missions. It was less easy for Shippou. Sango remained calm and still, but the young kitsune began to fidget impatiently almost immediately. She could tell he was trying his best not to be annoying or ask questions, so she left him alone. He reminded her very much of her brother Kohaku, when he had been young...
Thinking of Kohaku made her think of Father and all the other lost slayers, and she was glad all over again that they had been able to save Miroku without sacrificing Mushin. Miroku had already lost his true father. She could not imagine the pain he would feel at losing a second father figure. No wonder Naraku had tried to separate Miroku from the group like this...
He had been trying to kill Miroku or, failing that, do to him what he had done to Sango. Doing her best to hide her dark and angry thoughts from her companions, she was glad to have been able to thwart Naraku this time. If only the coward had showed his face, and given them a chance to defeat him once and for all...
Finally, Shippou could take it no longer. "What's taking so long?" he asked.
"Well, Mushin said he would have to sew the wound shut," Kagome explained, gentle and infinitely patient with the kitsune, "so it's going to take some time."
As if in response to his disappointment, the door to the temple opened a few minutes later to admit Mushin. "Sheesh, he's so reckless," the old man muttered.
Kagome was on her feet in an instant, Shippou leaping to cling to her shoulder as she did. "How is Miroku-sama?"
"He's sleeping," Mushin said. He turned to Inuyasha then. "You're Inuyasha, aren't you? Come with me. I need to talk with you."
As Sango watched them go, she couldn't help but frown. "What do you think is going on?"
"I don't know," Kagome answered. "It seemed like everything was going to be okay with Miroku-sama... Maybe we should go see how he's doing."
Sango hesitated. "But the old man said he was sleeping."
"Weren't you worried about Miroku-sama, Sango-chan?"
"Well, yes," she admitted. She was not entirely sure how she felt about Miroku. Until now she had mostly been thinking of how Naraku must not be allowed to destroy another family. It had just been a coincidence that the "family" in question had been Miroku's. And of course she had been worried when she found out the kazaana was tied to Miroku's very life...
But doubts lingered. His behavior was one contradiction after another. She was never sure if it was safe to trust him, because at any moment he might shift from trustworthy to lecherous again, and she did not wish to be taken advantage of.
"Come on," Kagome said, unable to stand the waiting any longer. "Mushin-sama left the door open. Let's just check in on Miroku-sama and see how he's doing."
Sango followed rather stiffly as Kagome seated herself beside the monk. He looked almost vulnerable, dressed in a white robe and sleeping off the last of whatever medicine Mushin had given him. But he was alive, and she supposed that was what counted.
"Miroku-sama," Kagome began quietly. "Sango-chan and I are here to see you."
Miroku did not stir, so Sango judged it safe enough to sit beside him with Kagome. She watched him quietly for a few moments, letting her thoughts wander. When he gave no sign of waking up any time soon, she murmured, "Houshi-sama... He's very strong, isn't he?"
Seeing Kagome's slightly confused glance, she went on, "He always seemed so carefree and cheerful, no matter what was happening." No matter that he must have known the curse in his hand might kill him. No matter that he knew an injury could be fatal. And he had kept it a secret from them, acting as if everything was normal... and she and Kagome had been cold to him, even when he might have been dying, and he'd simply shrugged it off. Or pretended to.
Silence fell over them as Kagome doubtlessly contemplated the same things that Sango was thinking of.
Sango was wondering if she ought to make a point of apologizing to the monk later - she had wronged him, yes, but he had also made a point of not letting her know anything was wrong - when suddenly Miroku opened his eyes.
"Ah," she said, to make sure Kagome and Shippou noticed. "He's awake."
"Miroku!" Shippou was quick to rush to the monk's side.
"Miroku-sama!" There were tears in Kagome's eyes as she spoke. Sango did not want to admit it, but there might have been a tear or two in her eyes, too.
"I'm still alive, huh," Miroku commented. He sounded quite groggy and out of sorts, not that Sango could blame him after what he had been through.
"You're going to be fine," Kagome assured him. "Mushin-sama treated your wounds while you were sleeping."
"I see." With some effort, Miroku raised his arm so he could inspect the hand in question. He examined it for a long moment, then gave a startled shout.
Unthinking, Sango followed Kagome's example and rose onto her knees and leaned forward to get a better look at what had upset him so much. It seemed like the closer she tried to get, the farther away Miroku moved his hand... until he finally let her get a look and and she found herself immediately rewarded by the feeling of a hand rubbing her bottom.
Her heart suddenly raced in alarm even though she knew, without even having to think about it, who the culprit was. She seized the nearest object, which happened to be a bucket, and brained the damned monk with it. Not hard enough to seriously harm him, but enough to effectively tell him "hands off."
He sighed almost happily, as if it had been worth the injury to grope her like that, but she couldn't help feeling a bit disappointed. It seemed like every time she let herself care about him or allowed herself to trust him, even just a little bit, he couldn't help but let her down.
At least, she thought sourly, this was a good sign that their monk was well on his way back to being his usual self.
Chapter 29: Respite
The temple was quiet after Sango stormed off. Inuyasha and Mushin had returned in time to see the worst of Sango's ire, but Inuyasha lingered while Kagome and Shippo snuck off in search of Sango and Mushin departed in search of more sake.
"Don't do anything stupid like that again, got it?" Inuyasha snapped when they were alone.
Miroku considered feigning ignorance, but opted for silence. He had learned his lesson; Inuyasha and the others had given him their loyalty, and there was no going back from that. And in return, he rather suspected they had earned his loyalty, as well. After all, they'd saved his life. Even Sango had been so worried about him that she'd fallen for his stupid ploy and let him feel her up, he recalled with a smile. Sure, she'd hit him for it afterward, but that woman did have a fine ass...
"Wipe that smirk off your face," Inuyasha groused. "I mean it."
"I know," he admitted. He did his best to appear serious, as the hanyou requested, but he would not promise that he would never attempt to leave the group again, no matter how moved he felt by their recent display of loyalty. If he felt that the kazaana threatened them... he knew he would slip away again. They had saved his life. He would not be responsible for taking theirs.
Inuyasha stared at him intensely for a moment, perhaps trying to judge if he meant what he had said. Miroku pretended not to notice.
Finally: "We're leaving when you're ready."
"Of course," he replied. Inuyasha was already out the door and gone, but he had no doubt that the hanyou had heard him.
The past couple of days had taken more out of him than he would have liked to admit, and though he told himself that he would get up and change back into his own clothes so they could be on their way, when Inuyasha had gone and all was silent, he soon found himself fast asleep. And when he slept, he dreamed.
He dreamed that he stood beside Sango, and this time when he grabbed for her ass she didn't beat him for it. Instead, she caught his hand in hers and wordlessly met his gaze. He woke suddenly in confusion, wondering what that dark and hurt look in her eyes had meant, or if it had been all in his head...
And then he was confused all over again because the eyes he was looking into were gold and belonged to Inuyasha, when he could have sworn they should be Sango's warm brown eyes.
"About damn time you woke up," Inuyasha grumbled as Miroku finally came fully awake. "Come on, we've wasted enough time on your sorry ass already."
He could tell by the light that Inuyasha was right. It had been late morning when he had awoken from Mushin's medicine to find the kazaana healed, or as healed as it could be. It was now late afternoon, nearly dusk. He had not intended to sleep at all, much less for so long. But the last of the medicine's effects had faded now. He felt alert and reasonably well. "Give me a few minutes. I know a good place to camp not far from here," he said.
Inuyasha seemed to accept that answer, and left him alone again.
When he had got up and out of bed, Miroku noticed that someone had found his clothes and left them, along with a bowl of rice, near the door to the room. He wondered briefly as he ate who had been so kind, and decided that it was probably Kagome. Sango was probably still too angry to consider being kind to him.
A while later, when he was as ready as he was going to get, he met up with the others on the large porch that surrounded the temple.
Kagome watched him with shining eyes and asked, "Are you feeling better, Miroku-sama?" while Sango stubbornly refused to so much as look in his direction.
"I'm feeling much better," he told her.
Shippou, who was clinging to her shoulder, punctuated the response with a hearty nod.
He appreciated their enthusiasm, but the entire group fell silent and turned to listen expectantly when Mushin emerged from the temple.
"Miroku," the old man began, "I have done what I could to help you. But I must warn you: for at least one month, until the wound has truly healed, you must not open the kazaana under any circumstances."
"I understand," he said. Mushin eyed him skeptically; the old man knew him better than anyone else, well enough to know that if it meant getting a shot at Naraku, Miroku wouldn't hesitate to open the kazaana again at that very moment.
"If you open the kazaana before it has healed," Mushin cautioned, "you will widen the tear, and there may be nothing I can do to help you again."
"I understand," he repeated, and this time Mushin let it go. There was nothing to be done about it. He would do what was necessary to destroy Naraku, even if it meant putting his life at risk. Before Mushin could try to caution him further, he turned to Inuyasha and said, "I'm ready."
"Then let's get moving," Inuyasha said in a tone that brooked no argument.
There were no goodbyes. There never were. Miroku simply followed where Inuyasha and the others led, and did not look back. He could feel Mushin's gaze on his back for a long time after they left the temple.
As they made their way down the road it did not escape his notice that Sango was careful to walk well away from him. He didn't mind, because she also insisted on walking ahead of him. And with Kagome walking and chatting beside her, that meant he had a very pleasant view as they left Mushin's temple behind. If only more days could end so pleasantly...
Chapter 30: Scars of the Past
There was something about that monk... Something so effectively charming and disarming that Sango just kept falling for the act. The first time she let Miroku slip past her defenses, she had been angry but had considered it a simple mistake. But this second time left her feeling disheartened. She had let her guard down. She had let him dupe her. A youkai taiji-ya really should know better than to be taken so easily, especially when it was the second time. Had she really lost so much of her training along with the rest of her people?
As they left Mushin's temple, Kagome was well aware of Sango's bad mood. She didn't comment when Sango insisted on walking well away from Miroku, and she kept her chatter to a minimum, at least until Sango's temper had cooled a bit.
For the most part, the entire group was subdued. It seemed none of them was quite ready to talk about what had happened back at the temple yet. The threat to Miroku's life had worried them all, and now they were all shocked at the power Inuyasha had released from his sword in order to save Miroku from the youkai.
While they walked, while dusk settled over the land, Sango found herself wondering just how much she didn't know about her traveling companions. It seemed like they all had their secrets...
As dusk turned to dark, Miroku said, "The camp site I know about is a little way ahead."
With their destination at hand, Inuyasha dropped back to walk beside Miroku, muttering angrily all the while. Sango ignored him, focusing instead on finding the camp site Miroku had mentioned. The sooner she could get to bed, the sooner she could put this day behind her and move on to the next.
The monk was right; it was only a little while later that they found a small path leading off the main road. The path meandered a bit before ending at a clearing in the forest that was big enough for a sizeable campsite. There was an old fire pit in the middle of it, indicating that it had been used quite often in the past, though it was empty now. She could hear the faint sound of moving water, and there was a certain warmth and humidity to the air that told her a hot spring was nearby. Kagome noticed it, too, and nudged her gently. "I think we aren't far from a hot spring," Kagome whispered.
"If they keep talking like that," Kagome went on, motioning conspiratorially at Inuyasha and Miroku, who were still in deep conversation, "we should try for a bath."
After the past few days, a soak in a hot spring sounded heavenly. "Someone needs to keep an eye on the monk," Sango said bluntly. Miroku had already been far too forward with her. She was not going to give him another chance to take advantage.
Kagome nodded. "We'll ask Shippou once we get camp set up."
And that was exactly what they did. They remained quiet while Inuyasha and Miroku continued their conversation, apparently oblivious to their female companions' plans. After waiting a few minute, Sango and Kagome were able to slip away unnoticed, taking Shippou with them and leaving Kirara to stand guard.
It was easy to find the spring, even in the dark. A well-worn path led the way from the campsite.
"Are they still busy?" Kagome asked once Sango had scouted the spring for intruders or dangerous animals.
Shippou slipped off through the trees only to return a few moments later. "Looks like it," he reported happily.
"Good, then let's get in the water," Kagome said.
While Kagome got undressed and slipped into the hot spring, Sango thought of something. "It's obvious that the monk would try to peep, but Inuyasha does, too?"
"He won't look," Kagome said, her tone tense with displeasure. "He acts like he doesn't even care."
Do you want him to look? Sango bit back the words, knowing they would only cause trouble. But still, she wondered. She knew that Kagome and Inuyasha had some sort of a connection, however strange it seemed to her, but she had not really thought that they had that sort of relationship...
Time was wasting, so she decided Kagome and Inuyasha's romantic relationship - or lack thereof - was something she could worry about later on. She hurried out of her clothes and carefully made her way into the steaming hot water.
It was only when Kagome gasped that she realized her hair had fallen to one side, revealing the mass of scar tissue that crossed her upper back. Unpleasant memories shocked through her, but she did her best to push them away. She was getting quite good at that - keeping the memories at bay. But she could tell that Kagome was still bothered by the sight, so in a noncommittal way she said, "Oh, the scar."
"From a youkai?" Kagome guessed.
Sango sat down on a submerged rock that wasn't too far from where she had been standing. She felt better having something solid and stable beneath her, rather than searching for safe footing in the depths of the spring. "No, it was my brother, before he died," she explained falteringly, realizing that while the others kept their secrets from her, she was keeping her own from them.
- Kohaku's chain scythe, slicing through the air, piercing effortlessly through her armor to puncture her back -
"Naraku laid a trap at his castle."
- Kohaku's face covered in blood, her blood, Father's blood, blood dripping from the blade of the chain scythe -
"Kohaku was controlled by a youkai. He killed our friends. He killed our father..."
- Kohaku, at the very end, staring at her with wide, sad eyes. Her little brother... -
"In the end, though..." She trailed off, struggled to set her thoughts back on their proper path. "He was always a timid and kind child."
"Ane-ue... I'm scared..."
"The youkai changed him into a killer... but before he died, he returned to being my little brother again."
She could not bring herself to tell Kagome how the guards had fired arrows at Kohaku, how they had fired at her, how she had been buried alive with the bodies of the dead slayers... It was too painful a memory to share, and it would only upset Kagome more.
If only the water from the hot spring could soothe the wounds in her heart the way it eased her sore body.
"I'm sorry," Kagome said. Her voice was gentle and earnest, as if Sango needed confirmation that she had meant no harm. "I never meant to bring up such a sad story."
"It's okay," Sango assured her. "I mean, everyone that deals with Naraku seems to have some sort of tragic story, don't they?" Like the monk and his curse.
Once again, there was Miroku, intruding on her thoughts. And, she thought upon hearing the telltale rustle of dead vegetation underfoot, there he was, intruding on her bath, too. "Besides," she went on warningly, glad to see Kagome turn to follow her gaze, "they did too come to peek." And with that she swept her arm across the top of the spring, hurling water into the darkness at the other side of the spring.
When no alarm was raised, Sango motioned for Kagome to stay where she was while she went to investigate. Of course, Kagome did no such thing, so they both crept over to where the noises had been coming from, only to find nothing more than a stunned - and sopping wet - monkey lying in the brush. Sango frowned. "Only a monkey?"
She'd been so sure it was Miroku lurking in the bushes, she was almost disappointed to find out it wasn't.
And then to her horror, as if her thoughts had summoned them, Inuyasha and Miroku stepped out of the gloom right in front of her.
Chapter 31: Foreseen Consequences
Miroku's head throbbed unpleasantly as he settled himself beside the fire again. Nearby, Inuyasha sulked furiously, but Miroku could not share the hanyou's displeasure. After all, the two of them had just been granted a most marvelous vision. And no matter how forceful Sango's infuriated punches had been, they could not make him forget what he had seen: Sango and Kagome, utterly naked, standing thigh-deep in the hot spring.
He had expected to see Kagome in the nude, but somehow he had thought Sango would be more guarded than that. She seemed like the type to wear a robe - or her slayer's armor, he thought and tried to hide a smile - even while bathing. He'd thought it would be a few more weeks of peeping through cracks in walls and peering past doors accidentally left ever-so-slightly ajar before she let her guard down enough that he could get a better look at her without her clothing. He had seldom been so happy to be wrong.
True, the light had been dim due to the late hour and it had been somewhat difficult to see, but...
"You should have known better," Shippou scolded.
On the contrary, when Miroku had suggested that they see what all the fuss was about - when he had pointed out that the girls might be in danger - he had known exactly what he was getting into. Of course, he knew better than to mention this to Inuyasha, but it was hardly surprising to creep up to the edge of the hot spring where their female companions were bathing and wind up catching a glimpse of something that they were not meant to see.
"They wouldn't even listen to me," Inuyasha grumbled. "I wasn't there to spy on them! I was just trying to make sure they were safe! Who knows what Naraku might be up to next?"
"Never mind that," Miroku said amicably, closing his eyes and picturing the scene at the spring all over again. "They will think what they will. And after all, we were given a splendid view just now."
"You would say that, you damned pervert," Inuyasha retorted, golden eyes flashing with anger. Clearly he was ready to lay all the blame at Miroku's feet, without considering that he might have chosen to stay behind rather than investigate whatever had disturbed their companions' bath, and thus remained blameless in the eyes of Kagome and Sango.
"They will forgive us," Miroku promised serenely. "Eventually."
Chapter 32: Nighttime Thoughts
An awkward silence descended when Kagome and Sango finally crept back to camp. Inuyasha took one look at Kagome, promptly flushed bright red, and then refused to even look at either of the women. For his part, Miroku remained where he was. His eyes were closed, as if he was deep in meditation. As if he was entirely innocent, and not the least bit fazed by what had happened at the hot spring earlier.
Sango narrowed her eyes to glare at him, but when this earned no response she decided it wasn't worth it and followed Kagome toward the fire. She made a point of sitting as far away from Miroku as she could get without sitting directly across from him, but he gave no sign of noticing that she was even there at all. She glared for a moment longer.
Let him pretend innocence if he wanted. She knew what had happened, just as he did. And she was taking no more chances this night.
"Kirara," she murmured.
At the sound of her name, the cat got up from where she had been resting by the fire and came to see what Sango wanted. Sango pulled her close, hugging the small form to her chest and whispering, "Kirara, will you keep watch tonight?"
Later on, as she lay with Kirara curled protectively around her, Sango could not sleep. No matter how she tried, she could not seem to stop her thoughts from racing wildly. She should have been able to rest easily, knowing that for the moment at least, everything was at peace. Miroku's kazaana was mended, if not healed, and Naraku's minions had been defeated. They had a chance to breathe and rest for a bit.
And yet she could not. They were victorious, but it had been a close thing. Too close. And after...
Sango squeezed her eyes shut and willed her mind to calm before outrage could ruin any chance of sleep, to no avail. She just couldn't stop thinking about how determined she had felt when she had found out Miroku's life was in danger, or how she and Inuyasha and Kagome had put themselves on the line against unbeatable odds to save him. Or how he'd repaid her efforts by groping her and spying on her while she bathed.
She could not deny that he had deceived her on purpose back at the temple, just for a chance to feel her up. She felt her face grow warm just thinking of it. She had fallen for the ruse so easily...
And in spite of herself, she wanted very much to think that the spying at the hot spring had not been intentional. She had even said as much to Kagome, pointing out that he and Inuyasha had only showed up after the ruckus with the monkey, but now that she thought about it, she wondered if she should have just kept her mouth shut. Inuyasha, at least, had seemed genuinely embarrassed afterward. But not Miroku. He had seemed suspiciously calm, calm enough to make her think he might simply have been waiting for an opportunity that would allow him to appear blameless while still sneaking a peek.
Tired of this line of thinking and wishing she could just get some rest, she sighed and opened her eyes. Maybe if she talked with Kagome for a little while, she would feel better. But Kagome was facing away from her, wrapped up in her sleeping bag so that Sango could not tell if she was awake or not. Rather than disturb her, Sango turned her gaze to their other companions.
Inuyasha had taken to the trees as soon as he thought the girls were sleeping, and now there was no sign of him at all. And Miroku... the monk was staring into the fire, or perhaps past it to where Kagome and Sango were resting.
For a moment that surprised her, but of course he was awake. He had spent most of the day sleeping, after all. Too bad talking to him would do her no good at all.
Lest he catch her looking at him and mistake her intentions, she turned onto her side and buried her cheek against Kirara's warm fur. She felt her anger finally begin to fade, but it left a lingering sadness in its wake.
How many times, before, had she and Kirara slept together like this on the road? She couldn't remember. And those times seemed impossibly distant now, anyway. Now, Kirara was all she had left of that life. Of home.
And she missed home very, very much. She missed her father and her brother, and everyone else from the village that was now dead and gone. She longed for the days when she went hunting with her friends and family, or on her own, and had a home to return to when the battle was done. She missed seeing the excitement on everyone's faces as they gathered round to see what she and the other slayers had brought back with them...
She fought against tears for what was no longer and would never be again. She would not allow Miroku to see her so vulnerable, but it was hard to keep the sadness at bay at night, when everyone else was asleep and the darkness pressed in around her, bringing the worst of her memories with it.
Despite her efforts, her mind flitted back to that horrible night, the night her family had died and her world had shattered. She had lost everyone... and today she had almost lost Miroku, too. He's always irritating me, she thought, but I can't stand the thought of losing even him.
She had to open her eyes and look around the camp again in order to calm herself. Her companions might be sleeping, but they were still there. They were still alive; she wasn't entirely alone. Kirara was still with her, and she had Inuyasha to guard her back and Kagome and Shippou to lend a sympathetic ear... but reminding herself of that did little to quell the loneliness in her heart. They had been traveling and working together for a little while now, but in the dark and quiet of the night Sango could admit, if only to herself, that she still did not truly feel like a part of the group.
She tried to fit in... and she was terrified of losing them, when they had taken her in after everything she had done, but she still felt like an outsider. So far, Inuyasha seldom allowed her to join him in battle, and then only if she forced the issue. It was obvious that the monk did not respect her as a warrior or as a woman. And Kagome...
She would miss Kagome if they were ever to part ways. Sango had gotten along well enough with the other girls in her village, but Kagome was the closest thing she had ever had to a female friend.
She felt a little guilty for having been irritated by the other girl's cheerful talkativeness in the past, realizing now that it was Kagome's support and good cheer that had kept her afloat when she might otherwise have drowned under the weight of her grief and despair. It was Kagome that had ensured her a place in the group so that she did not have to bear the pain alone, who was always there to check if she was doing all right, or to share in her indignation at Miroku's antics. And it was Kagome, she could see clearly now, that had bound all of them together in the first place.
But now that she had truly become aware of it, she had to wonder if that would be enough. The next time Naraku tried to drive them apart, would they pull together and make it through, as they had this time... or would they fall apart?
Seeing for the first time just how precariously balanced their little group was, she was afraid to find out.
Chapter 33: A New Day
The day dawned bright and clear, a welcome sight and a good sign as far as Miroku was concerned. He and his companions had been through quite enough darkness lately, and he was ready to put that behind them and move on in their quest. They still had plenty of Shikon jewel shards to find, and Naraku was still lurking out there somewhere, waiting to strike, but Miroku did not allow himself to dwell on those things. He had too many other things to appreciate today.
Like the fact that he was still alive at all. And that he had been reunited with all of his companions in spite of his attempts to leave them. And even though he had managed to thoroughly anger both of the women, they were all still with him this morning.
Not even Sango's half-hearted glower over breakfast could dampen his mood. He understood why she was angry, and although he considered himself blameless, he had already decided that he would let her cool off before pushing his luck. Although, if he found himself gifted with the proper opportunity, he thought he might not be able to resist.
At Inuyasha's insistence, they were on the road again as soon as breakfast was finished. The hanyou led the way, with Sango and Kagome following a long a little way behind, chatting amongst themselves. Since he did not much feel like talking just yet, Miroku took up the rear. If not for the painful sensation of the wounded kazaana as it slowly healed, he might have thought it was any ordinary day.
The sun was high in the sky before they encountered anyone else on the road. Miroku had been perfectly happy to pass the day without incident, since it seemed like lately they had run into one problem after another, so when he caught sight of the figure up ahead on the road he hoped that it was simply another traveler. But it only took a few moments of watching to realize that something wasn't right. The way the man was walking, it almost looked like he was seriously injured.
Inuyasha stopped walking and sniffed the air. As Miroku came up behind Sango and Kagome, he saw what Inuyasha had smelled: the man was covered in blood.
"That man," Kagome murmured in horror as the figure staggered ever closer. "What's going on?"
Seeing the other travelers at last, or perhaps just hearing Kagome speak, the man hurried toward them. "Help me," he managed to say before collapsing to the ground practically at Kagome's feet.
At close range, Miroku could see that the man was indeed grievously injured. His clothes were soaked with blood, particularly down the back, as if he had been stabbed there. It was a miracle the man had made it this far, when Miroku knew the next village was quite a way down the road yet. While his companions looked on, he knelt and searched vainly for any sign of life; there was none. "He's stopped breathing," he told the others.
"Not just him," Inuyasha said quietly, sniffing at the air again. "I smell blood. A lot of it. Probably a lot of people."
Hurt or dead? He did not say.
"Then we have to help!" Kagome said, even as Inuyasha had already taken off down the road. Not wanting to be left behind, she took off after him.
Miroku paused to say a few words for the dead man, and was a bit surprised to see that Sango had waited for him. He wondered what she might be thinking, but did not dwell on it. There would be time for that later. "Come on. We don't want to be left behind."
Chapter 34: Recognition
The village was in ruins. It reminded Sango unpleasantly of her own village, or how her own village must have looked before Inuyasha and his friends cleaned it up and gave all of the villagers a proper burial. There was no one to bury the villagers here. The bodies lay where they had fallen. The stench of death was strong enough that Sango could smell it long before she and Miroku caught up with their companions, but the bodies had not yet begun to rot. Whatever had happened here had been very recent. So recent, in fact, that Sango wondered if the perpetrator had had time to flee, or if there might not be someone left alive somewhere in the village.
But even a quick look around the village told her that they had no hope of finding survivors.
As she and the monk caught up to Inuyasha and Kagome, Sango made sure to stick close to the other girl. There were no survivors, as far as she could tell, but whoever had done this might still be around. Sango could defend herself in close quarters, but she wasn't so sure about Kagome.
"Do you think we'll find any survivors?" Kagome asked in a hushed voice.
Sango hesitated for a moment before deciding to answer truthfully. "No. Judging by the condition this place is in… It looks like everyone's been killed."
"How awful," Kagome breathed.
Sango wondered if this was what it had been like for Kagome, Inuyasha, and Miroku when they entered the village of the taiji-ya. Only in that case, it had been Naraku's horde of youkai that had done the killing. These villagers had been slain by weapons. Human weapons, from the look of it. But when Sango knelt to get a closer look, it seemed to her as if the wounds had not been created by swords, but rather by something with a curved blade.
Too late she realized that Miroku had come over to see what she was investigating. "It looks like they were all felled by a single blow," he murmured. She wondered if he was seeking her opinion. "It would take a master swordsman to do this."
"These wounds were not made by a sword," she told him quietly. It should have been obvious from the lack of slashing cuts. All of the injuries were deep punctures. In fact, they reminded her of nothing more than the wounds inflicted by a chain scythe like the one her brother had used. The wounds she had borne and somehow survived.
The scar on her back throbbed unpleasantly.
"But if they're not sword-cuts, who could have done this?" Kagome asked.
No one had an answer for her.
Sango glanced to the side, hoping against hope for some sort of clue as to who might be responsible for the slaughter. Identifying the weapon that created the victims' injuries was easy compared to figuring out who had done the deed. She could try to find the killer's path out of the village, but there were so many trails and footprints to begin with that it was difficult to tell what had happened leading up to the chaos and destruction. Unless, it occurred to her, they could use Inuyasha's nose to track the killer.
It seemed that the same idea had occurred to Inuyasha himself moments before. His face had screwed up as he sniffed the air. "Why don't we ask the guy hiding over here?" he asked. In one swift motion he drew his sword and slashed open one of the nearby huts.
At first nothing happened. Sango and Miroku braced themselves for a fight, ready to defend themselves and Kagome.
And then a chain scythe lashed out of the darkness of the hut, a chain scythe identical to the one her brother had used before his death. Sango's heart pounded fiercely in her chest. Had someone stolen the weapon from her brother's grave? Whoever it was, she was determined to have her revenge.
Inuyasha knocked the chain scythe out of the way effortlessly, but it was too late. The perpetrator could no longer risk hiding in the shadows. Sango got a clear look at him in the instant before he took off running for the forest. In that instant, she felt her heart stop beating.
He was slight and small, lithe and quick, and he wore the uniform of a professional youkai taiji-ya, with his hair pulled up into a tail at the back of his head. A mask covered the lower half of his face, but she didn't need to see his face to recognize her dead brother.
Chapter 35: Trick or Trap
Miroku noticed it in the instant before Sango shouted for Kirara and took off after the young man wearing the slayer's armor. She had frozen where she stood, an expression of shock on her face. He was certain of it: despite the distance she had recognized that man. It was no real surprise; even before the destruction of the village of the demon slayers, there had never been very many of them. If another slayer had escaped the slaughter, it only made sense that Sango would know who he was. But that meant that this young man was no imposter, and that being the case, Miroku wondered why would he have slain an entire village of innocent people.
Then again, he remembered all too well the way Sango had tried to kill his friends when she first ran into them. As curious as he was, Miroku knew there was no time to fully consider the answers to his questions just now. The mysterious young man was getting away. Sango and Kirara had already taken off in pursuit, and Inuyasha was hot on their heels. If Miroku didn't hurry to keep up, he would be left behind.
As he raced after his companions, his thoughts scattered a hundred different ways seeking an answer.
Part of him, the part that was always suspicious, thought that this must be a trap of some sort. Thus far, Naraku had simply let Sango go without testing her loyalty to her new companions or making any apparent attempt to regain his pet warrior. The sudden appearance of another surviving slayer would be exactly the kind of scheme Naraku would devise, and if that were the case no good could possibly come of this.
Back at the village of the demon slayers, Sango had indicated that each of the villagers was accounted for. But if this young man was indeed someone Sango knew... there was no telling what might happen next. Like her, he might have been forced to fight against his will. Or there might be something else afoot altogether.
It had been easy to trust Sango after Naraku revealed his deception. Miroku had even enjoyed having her as part of the group, but now he had to wonder what this would mean for the group's future. If another of her people truly had survived the massacre at the village, would she join forces with him or would she stay with them? Would both of them stick around?
He, who habitually made a point of forming only casual bonds with anyone, was surprised at how much he already cared about what happened to Sango. She had lost so much already that his instinct was to shield her, in whatever small way he could, from more suffering. And besides, he still owed her somewhat for showing up with the others to help save him at Mushin's.
Huffing for breath, Miroku caught up with his companions at last. He could sense its presence, malignant and impenetrable, but he asked anyway, "A barrier?"
Inuyasha made a face that was half snarl.
Kagome nodded, looking pensive. Shippou mirrored her expression from his perch on her shoulder. "That boy," she murmured. "He had a shikon shard, I could feel it."
Miroku ignored the sudden chill. The presence of a shikon shard was no proof of Naraku's involvement. Even so, Miroku was certain that his enemy was wrapped up in this. And he didn't like it one bit.
Chapter 36: On the Precipice
Sango's heart pounded fiercely as Kirara hurtled forward through the trees. The two of them were of a single mind now, in the heat of the moment and the unexpected and unhoped-for discovery. Kirara's reaction told Sango everything she needed to know: she had not imagined the similarity. Her quarry could be none other than her brother Kohaku, as impossible as she knew that to be.
Despairing, Sango wondered if Kohaku had not died after all, and had somehow managed to escape Naraku's clutches as she had done. It was too much to hope for, she knew, but she could not help herself. That another of her people might have survived... she clung frantically to that last bit of hope.
She would have gladly given anything for just one more slayer to survive the slaughter of the village, and for that one to be Kohaku...
Kirara came to a sudden halt. The boy had stopped running. They had caught him. Or he had allowed himself to be caught. Sango hardly dared to breathe as he turned to face her. There was no denying it now. He wore the armor of a youkai taiji-ya, and he carried a chain scythe just as her brother had done. His height and slight build were painfully familiar. But with the mask on, she couldn't be certain.
The boy stared at her, motionless. Sango carefully slid off Kirara's back, keeping one hand on Hiraikotsu's strap as she approached, just in case. She stopped just a few feet from him.
When the boy made no move to attack, she said, "Show me your face."
She braced herself for the attack, but it never came. The boy did exactly as she requested, moving slowly so that she would see he meant her no harm.
Sango watched him, terrified and overwhelmed with yearning at the same time. It couldn't really be Kohaku, could it? She only saw the resemblance because she was so terribly lonely and wished so desperately not to be the very last of the slayers...
And then the mask was off and she was looking into her brother's familiar face. Tears sprang to her eyes and she made no attempt to stop them. "Kohaku!"
She had a hundred questions, a thousand questions, and none of them mattered in that moment because her brother was alive. It was impossible. She knew it was impossible, it had to be an illusion, or some sort of snare. And Sango did not care. None of that mattered if she got to see Kohaku again.
She lurched toward him, clumsy as giddy emotion threatened to overwhelm her. And then she froze in her tracks.
"Are you happy to see your brother, Sango?"
The voice was soft and sickeningly sweet. It was the voice of Naraku, the accursed creature who had slain all of her people and tried to use Sango for his own ends. She bristled with fury. That Naraku had managed to sink his claws into Kohaku was unthinkable. Better that Kohaku should have died along with the rest than be turned into nothing more than bait in a trap...
She couldn't really believe that, not even for an instant.
"Naraku," she hissed, loath to even acknowledge the hated presence.
She did not have to see the face behind the baboon mask to hear the smirk in his voice. "I've been waiting for you, Sango."
She stayed rooted where she was, her face frozen lest she betray her rage, as Naraku loomed out of the shadows to stand behind Kohaku. "You should thank me, Sango," he said.
The insolence in that voice snapped her out of any pretense of calm. "What did you say?" she snarled. "Why in the world should I thank you for anything?"
"Because I have saved your dear brother's life." The voice was as slithery-sweet as she remembered.
She knew it couldn't be true, because she'd held Kohaku in her arms as he died, but she couldn't deny that Kohaku stood before her now. Phantom pain seared across her back, the memory of wounds that should have killed her, as well. Is it possible? she wondered, Kohaku, did you survive? She wanted more than anything to believe that it was possible.
If Kohaku had been revived the same way she had, then he might also be saved from Naraku's schemes, just as she had.
As if he knew her innermost thoughts, Naraku slipped a hand out from beneath the thickly piled furs that obscured his body. Gripped in that hand was a shining crystal shard, unmistakably part of the shattered Shikon no Tama, which he almost seemed to offer to her. Sango watched, transfixed. Naraku spoke, but the words slipped right past her. She could not seem to tear her eyes away from the jewel shard. Hope made her giddy, almost dizzy.
"You saved Kohaku?" she murmured.
And then Naraku's chuckle chilled her to the core. "Yes," he said, sounding like nothing so much as a snake's hiss. "By this power your brother was saved."
By that power, she had also been saved when she might have died... but she had also been coerced and controlled, tricked into fighting against InuYasha and his innocent companions. In the end, if they had not saved her, she might have been Naraku's slave. Recalling the destruction at the village, Sango had a sinking feeling that she knew what Naraku intended for her brother.
She wanted to howl her fury, but could not seem to move. Naraku hadn't given her enough information yet. She needed to know more about what he'd done to her brother before she could risk making a move. Struggling to calm herself, she recalled her training and did her best to pretend that this was any other mission. That she would slay the monster, save her brother, and return home to...
"Your brother was not as lucky as you," Naraku explained. "You were able to survive your wounds without the shard. However... if you remove the shard I have given to your brother, he will die immediately." He paused long enough to let the full implication of his words sink in before continuing. "His life is in my hands, Sango."
It was all Sango could do not to let anger and despair get the better of her. But she knew what was coming next, and she wanted to hear it: the trap. "If you want to save your brother... then you will do as I say. You will steal InuYasha's sword for me."
She did not realize that she had waited, intending to seize Hiraikotsu and attack, until the weapon was in her hand and she was swinging it directly at Naraku's head. To demand her service for her brother's life was appalling, but to ask that she betray the one that had saved her was unthinkable. And she intended to make Naraku pay for even asking this of her.
Naraku uttered no command and made no visible attempt to control Kohaku, but the boy immediately moved to defend his captor. His chain scythe lashed lethally toward her and would have seriously injured her if she had not stopped her attack and used Hiraikotsu to block the scythe.
"Kohaku!" she cried. "Why are you defending him?"
Kohaku interposed himself between her and Naraku, ready to attack again, as if he did not hear her words at all. Suddenly, the boy's silence made sense. He was under Naraku's command.
"He remembers nothing from the time before I woke him," Naraku explained, sounding altogether too pleased with his own cleverness. "Right now, Kohaku is my loyal servant."
He paused long enough for her to realize that he was giving her a false hope and making her his pawn again. She hated this monster and wanted to destroy him for what he had done to her father and her village... but what if he was telling the truth? What if she didn't do as he demanded, and Kohaku died because of her when otherwise he might have lived?
In her heart of hearts she knew it was a trap and that there was no way Naraku would give Kohaku back to her, not when he could use Kohaku to manipulate her. And yet...
Having delivered his message, Naraku was content to leave Sango to her own devices. A poisonous miasma erupted from beneath the furs, obscuring the two figures and preventing her from following as they retreated into the forest.
Sango considered using her gas mask and giving chase, but in the end she remained where she was. Naraku would not allow himself to be caught so easily. For now, she saw little choice but to return to her companions. But what would she tell them?
She knew they would be curious about what had happened, but she didn't want them to know about Naraku's proposition because then they might fear betrayal. But if it means I could get my brother back, does betraying InuYasha and the others really matter so much? she wondered. In the end, she barely knew them...
Sensing her companion's inner conflict, Kirara butted her head against Sango's hip and rumbled comfortingly. Sango sighed and let her eyes close for a moment. She still wasn't sure what to do, but... "Come on, Kirara. It's time to go find the others."
Chapter 37: Kohaku
The waiting was interminable, not least of all because of InuYasha's impatience. While InuYasha gave vent to his rage and frustration, Miroku stood silently beside Kagome and wondered what the barrier really meant. Obviously it was meant to keep them from Sango. But why? He could venture a few guesses, and did not like the direction his thoughts were taking at all.
Sango had been through enough tragedy already. Miroku should know, he'd been the one to see to her wounds. So little time had passed since then... She couldn't possibly be fully recovered yet physically, much less spiritually.
"I don't like this," Kagome murmured, subdued in her concern. "What does Naraku want with Sango?"
It seemed she had arrived at the same conclusion as he had. Miroku chose not to tell her what he thought Naraku might want with Sango. Instead he said, "We'll have to wait and see, or find a way past that barrier."
He could still feel the intense power of the barrier looming to one side, though it remained as invisible as ever. He wondered if he or Kagome had the power to get through it, and if they might regret it if they did. The longer they waited, the more he thought it just might be worth it.
If Sango ended up ensnared - or worse - because they had delayed...
"What the hell made her run off like that, anyway?" InuYasha grouched, giving up on the barrier for the moment. He sheathed his sword and glowered into the forest.
"She seemed to know that boy," Kagome suggested. "And... he had a shard of the Shikon no Tama."
"Feh," InuYasha said by way of agreement. "That means Naraku's probably involved in this." His glare intensified; Miroku guessed he was trying to decide whether to go after the barrier with Tessaiga again.
"She did indeed know the boy," a voice piped up from nearby. "And Naraku is definitely involved."
Kagome startled; Miroku took a moment to recognize the voice as belonging to Myouga, the flea youkai that served InuYasha when it suited him to do so. The last time they'd seen him had been just before Sango joined their group, when he'd arrived with Kirara and told them about the fate of the slayers and their village. Miroku was beginning to see why InuYasha had so little respect for his "retainer," though he had to admit the flea was useful.
"That boy was Sango's brother, Kohaku," Myouga went on.
"Are you sure that kid is Sango's brother?" InuYasha demanded.
"There can be no doubt," Myouga replied, his tone inexplicably sad.
Miroku gazed down the path where Sango and Kirara had disappeared. No wonder she had taken off so quickly. No wonder she'd told them nothing of what she knew or who she was chasing. She hadn't wanted them to know the truth, that her own kin could have caused such destruction.
So you still don't trust us, he mused. Not, he supposed, that he could blame her. She had been hurt, and deeply, by the loss of her family and her village. Those wounds would take time to heal, if they ever healed at all. Time that Naraku was not giving her.
Did you think we would cast you out if we knew it was your brother that had done this? he wondered, though of course he had no answers, only guesses. Even if or when they were reunited with Sango, it wouldn't do to ask about this. She would have to come forth with it on her own, or else they would risk hurting her further or even alienating her from the group completely.
Even as he resolved not to pry, he felt he barrier begin to fade and knew they would soon have their chance to find out what had happened. The hair-raising, prickly feeling began to dissipate without warning, leaving behind merely the cool afternoon shade of the forest.
"The barrier," Kagome commented, hesitating slightly as if she did not quite trust her instincts.
"It's gone," Miroku confirmed. What remained to be seen was what had happened to Sango. Whatever Naraku had been up to, he had achieved his goal or he wouldn't have allowed the barrier to fall.
"Then what are we waiting for?" InuYasha demanded, starting down the path.
He didn't make it far. Sango emerged from the forest just ahead of him. At first Miroku was glad to see her alive and whole, but her expression was grim and her posture wooden. Clearly, something unpleasant had befallen her out there in the forest. But what?
Kagome rushed forward, past InuYasha, to meet Sango. "Sango!" she called. The sound of her voice seemed to snap Sango out of her angry trance. "Was that boy... was he really..."
"That was Kohaku, wasn't it?" Myouga blurted out.
Miroku carefully hid his irritation at their tactlessness. They should have left it for Sango to explain rather than tearing the emotional wounds open again, but there was no going back now.
Fury flashed across Sango's face. "That was not Kohaku," she snapped.
Kagome flinched. Sango immediately looked repentant, realizing that she'd gone too far. Miroku caught her gaze with a wry look, thinking, Well, they asked.
Sango lowered her eyes.
Miroku watched her intently. The pain he'd seen in those eyes was intense. She hid it so well most of the time, but now it was like the mask had been torn off, leaving her hurt bare for all to see.
She looked up suddenly, and he couldn't look away. The pain was still there, but now he also saw a fierce determination. And anger, shame, regret... "I have a request for you, monk," she said. He almost thought he saw her tremble. "Please give a memorial service for all the villagers that were slain."
Miroku nodded once. "Of course."
InuYasha fumed. "We can't waste time on something like that. That kid is still out there with a shard of the Jewel."
"Go after him, then," Miroku suggested mildly. "I think you already know he's long gone by now."
He left them behind then, heading back to the ruined village. Sango was fragile enough right now. She did not need his dissent or mistrust as well. If it would ease her burden to lay the villagers to rest, then that was what he intended to do.
InuYasha might doubt, but Miroku did not. For Naraku to lower the barrier meant that he was already out of their reach. And Sango's brother, too. There was no point in chasing. It was better to do what they could here and wait and see what might happen next. Sango had returned to them, and Miroku would wager that meant sooner or later Naraku would return, too.
All they had to do now was have patience.
Chapter 38: Loyalty Tested
InuYasha, Kagome, and Miroku spent the better part of the day digging a massive grave for the slain villagers. Sango did not join them, but worked alone to gather the bodies.
In some ways, it felt like atonement.
In others, cowardice.
It was easier to throw herself into the physical labor of burying the villagers than it was to think about what had happened here, and what had happened in the forest not far from here. The repetition and the sheer effort of hoisting bodies onto mats and dragging them to their final, proper resting places helped drown out the memory of Naraku's offer. InuYasha's sword for her brother...
InuYasha, Kagome, Shippou, even the monk... they had taken her in when they could have left her all alone. They had believed in her when they had no reason to do so; they had borne her up and cared for her when she would have died otherwise. Could she really betray them so easily, and for a boy that could not possibly be her brother?
But she couldn't shed the certainty that the boy beside Naraku had been her brother. There was no mistaking Kohaku's face, she would have recognized him anywhere. That he had not responded to her presence only meant that he didn't remember her, or that Naraku had gained control over him. She had vague memories that Naraku had done the same to her and then pitted her against InuYasha, but her memories from that time were misty at best.
The scars on her body, however... those were still fresh, only beginning to truly heal.
It can't be Kohaku. She repeated it to herself for each lifeless villager she helped bury. It can't. Kohaku was kind and gentle and sweet. He would never do something like this. It can't be him.
But it was. She knew it. And, knowing it, she couldn't ignore Naraku's offer. How could she choose InuYasha and Kagome and Shippou over her brother? They were all but strangers to her, but Kohaku...
She gently lowered her burden to the ground, the mat slipping out of her numb fingers. The man she had been pulling toward the mass grave wouldn't notice the difference anyway. She knelt beside him, looking into his face, wondering what kind of man this had been, what kind of life her brother's actions had cut short.
They were talking about her, Kagome and the monk. She could hear the soft murmur of their voices, but the words were lost to her.
She didn't care. Let them talk.
She wasn't really one of them, anyway, it seemed.
InuYasha was more difficult to ignore. He was loud, and less concerned for her feelings than the others, and he wanted answers. "I'm going to beat it out of her!" she heard him declare loudly, his voice obnoxiously clear, and decided that he could try.
A moment later, a clearly frustrated Kagome shouted, "InuYasha, sit!"
Sango was so startled that Kagome had so forcefully stood up for her that she forgot to wonder why on earth InuYasha had just plunged face-first to the ground.
"What is wrong with you?" Kagome went on. "Don't you have any sense of decency at all?"
"No need to be impatient," the monk chided gently. "All we have to do now is wait, and Naraku will return on his own."
He was even more perceptive than she had realized, if he had guessed that much already. Sango wondered if that was all he'd figured out, or if he guessed that Naraku had given her an impossible choice, too. He knew her enemy better than any of the others. Did he also know that her enemy wanted her to betray them?
Looking at him now, she couldn't be sure. For once, she envied his ability to so completely mask his inner thoughts. It would have been much easier if she could hide her feelings from him and the others, instead of showing them so plainly on her face.
And if I could hide all my thoughts from them, what then? What would I choose to do?
In the depths of her heart, she already knew the answer.
Chapter 39: A Shared Vigil
"Miroku-sama, what do you think happened back there?" Kagome's voice was hushed, but lacked the malicious tinge of gossip. She was worried for Sango. For that matter, so was Miroku.
He had schooled himself to patience when it came to waiting out Naraku, but waiting for Sango was another story. He could not deny that her continued silence was worrisome. Since none of that would reassure Kagome in the slightest, he feigned ignorance instead. "What?"
"In the woods, behind the barrier," Kagome pressed. "I wonder what happened, is all."
Miroku paused in his work and wiped the sweat off his brow. The momentary break gave him the opportunity to observe Sango. She was facing away from where he and Kagome were working, and so did not notice their eyes on her.
"Something happened, that much is sure," he said noncommittally. It wouldn't do to speculate wildly yet.
"If Naraku really does have control of her brother, that would be heartbreaking," Kagome prodded.
Miroku refused to rise to the bait. Gently, but firmly, he told Kagome, "Let's leave her alone for now. She'll tell us what happened when she's ready."
Kagome was right, of course, but Sango would have to come to them in her own time - or not. They couldn't force this out of her without making the situation worse, he was sure of it. Shippou understood this instinctively. Kagome seemed to be, grudgingly, coming around. InuYasha, on the other hand...
The hanyou came stomping up to the open grave Miroku and Kagome had been in the process of digging, trailing some support beams he'd salvaged from one of the buildings. He took one look at Sango and frowned. "Bah, enough of this!" The angry bite to his voice was obvious, and drew a frown from Kagome.
"InuYasha," Miroku cautioned. Kagome's irritation was palpable. Coupled with her desire to help and protect Sango... This situation had the potential to quickly get out of hand.
As usual, InuYasha missed the subtle cues and blundered right on ahead. "That kid, whoever he was, had a jewel shard. That means that Naraku's involved in this, one way or another." He stared hard at Sango, who had stopped what she was doing to crouch next to one of the bodies she had been moving. Miroku had the sinking feeling that she was fully aware of everything InuYasha was saying. He glanced to Kagome and saw his fears mirrored in her eyes.
InuYasha and Sango had fought during their first meeting. Might it come to blows between them again?
"I'm going to beat it out of her," the hanyou decided. Sango turned as he spoke, fire flashing in her eyes.
Miroku grimaced, his mind racing for a solution that would avoid bloodshed and wounded pride.
Kagome found one before he could. "InuYasha, Sit!"
InuYasha had just finished a graceful leap out of the grave when Kagome uttered the command. He landed with typical lightness, and then plunged face-first to the ground as the subduing spell took effect. Had circumstances been otherwise, Miroku might have felt a pang of sympathy for the hanyou - he certainly had before - but now he knew it was a necessary action to protect their companion.
Kagome abandoned her work to see to the incapacitated InuYasha, demanding to know what was wrong with him even as she made sure that no permanent damage had been done. In the meantime, Miroku stayed where he was and kept his gaze leveled on Sango. She tried to hide it, but only partially succeeded. Kagome's intervention on her behalf had surprised and unsettled her.
Eyes still on Sango, he told InuYasha, "No need to be impatient. All we have to do now is wait, and Naraku will return on his own."
Sango's expression darkened. They were lucky that she wore her emotions so openly. If Sango were skilled in subterfuge, they could all be in grave danger. As it was, he was not entirely sure they weren't in danger. That dark and furtive look in her eyes did not bode well.
She turned away first, returning to her work as if InuYasha's outburst had not happened at all. Miroku watched a few moments longer, wondering if perhaps Kagome was right after all. Whatever Naraku had told Sango, it was troubling her deeply and she felt she could not confide it in her companions. Miroku had a sinking feeling that Naraku was attempting to manipulate her again, as he had during their first encounter.
Her brother was the obvious leverage, despite her disavowal of the boy earlier, but what could Naraku possibly hope to gain? Sango had failed to defeat InuYasha once before, and in her current condition would no doubt fail again. And, knowing that Naraku was responsible for the deaths of her family and her fellow slayers, he did not think she would willingly serve Naraku again. Yet if her brother's life were the prize, Sango might attempt anything.
Miroku turned his gaze away from her, disliking the wariness he felt at the sight of her. This, too, was very likely part of Naraku's plan. The four of them were stronger together than on their own, and Naraku was doubtless just as aware of this as Miroku was. It would be easier to destroy them separately. Perhaps Naraku intended Sango to be the wedge that splintered their group's resolve.
The best way to maintain the peace, at this point, was to help Sango and do what she had asked of him. To that end, Miroku threw himself back into the work of digging the grave for the villagers. Kagome wisely directed InuYasha's attention elsewhere - after all, they would need a place to stay for the night - and took Shippou with them, leaving Miroku and Sango to work in silence.
If he had been expecting her to talk now that they were alone, he was wrong. Sango maintained her stony silence even as they worked together to bury the villagers. And when they were done, she sat beside the newly-filled grave, looking numb and far away, as he said the proper words over the bodies. They both knew nothing of these people, except how they had died, but at least now they could hope that the slain would know some measure of peace.
When he had finished doing what he could for the villagers, Sango stayed where she was. Miroku remained where he was, too. He was reluctant at this point to leave Sango alone, and there was something compelling about the lingering melancholy that hung over this place. It reminded him, and, he suspected, Sango as well, of the empty village of the taiji-ya with its deep silence and its many graves. Silence had fallen over this village as well, thanks to Naraku.
They had spent most of the day here by now. The sun was drawing low in the west and Miroku caught the scent of cooking food on the evening breeze. Wherever she and InuYasha had gone off to, Kagome must be making dinner. If Sango noticed, she gave no sign.
Miroku had half a mind to take a seat next to her, but in truth he wasn't sure what he would say if he did, much less that she would even permit it. While other women tended to appreciate kind words and assurances that everything would be all right in the end, Sango had no use for empty words. And she had even less appreciation for physical closeness. Comforting her would be challenging at best. Not that he'd done much over the past couple of days to help matters. If anything, he'd made it worse, although that had never been his intention.
Sango was watching him sidelong, a hunter's wariness evident on her face, as if her thoughts were traveling the same path as his. He gathered from that look that he'd lingered here long enough that his presence was no longer welcome, and yet he still refused to depart. None of his usual tactics seemed to fit this situation, much less this woman. All he could do was sympathize. He knew better than the others what Naraku was capable of, and to what depths he might stoop in order to inflict pain and suffering. He knew something of what it was like to be on the receiving end of that pain and suffering.
"Why are you still here?" she asked finally. She sounded almost like a petulant child. She clearly wanted to be left alone, but he still worried about what she might do without someone to keep an eye on her.
He gave a small smile. "I think I'll let Kagome take care of InuYasha for a bit longer," he said easily, as if that were his only motivation. "And besides, it's peaceful here."
"Peaceful," she echoed quietly, her voice bitter. "That's one way to describe it, Houshi-sama."
He wondered a bit at her insistence on the title. He'd certainly done very little to merit it, but he let his questions go. It was clearly something important to Sango, so that was that.
After a while, she spoke again. "What do you think, Houshi-sama? Do you think that was truly my brother?"
She deserved better than a lie. "Yes."
Anger flashed over her face, honest at last. "Kohaku could not have done this." The words came out unthinking, in an angry rush.
"And you would not have attacked InuYasha on your own," he pointed out calmly. "Naraku's manipulation is powerful. I believe that the boy you saw in the forest was your brother... though I do not know how it is possible, and I cannot say what Naraku might have told him."
Sango's hands had curled into tense, angry fists as he spoke. She might not want to believe, but she sensed the truth the same as Miroku did. Naraku was playing a game here, and they were only pieces to be moved at his whim. The best they could hope to achieve at this point would be to discover what Naraku's ultimate goal was, and try not to be merely swept along.
Before Sango could make an angry rejoinder, Kirara slunk out of the forest and scurried over to nuzzle against her mistress. Miroku had not even noticed the cat's absence, and he wondered if Sango had perhaps sent her to track the boy that might be her brother. Regardless, Sango's anger seemed to subside with Kirara's return. She ruffled her fingers through the thick, pale fur and almost seemed to forget Miroku's presence.
Sensing that this was the best opportunity he was likely to get, Miroku suggested, "We should join the others before it gets dark."
The uneasiness was back in Sango's eyes when she turned to look at him. "You think Naraku will be back soon?"
He couldn't be sure if the faint dark presence he was sensing was Naraku or merely his own certainty, but he saw no point in hiding his thoughts from her. "Yes."
She said nothing and her expression was grim, but she got up and went with him to find their companions.
Chapter 40: Sango's Choice
Dinner tasted like ash in Sango's mouth, but she ate it anyway. She listened in numb silence as Kagome chatted idly. Despite Kagome's best efforts at creating a sense of normality, everyone in the group was on edge.
Well, not quite everyone.
Shippou was watching Sango curiously, InuYasha furiously. Kagome's nervous babble only partially masked her fear at what might transpire if another conflict arose between the two. Alone among the group, the monk seemed unperturbed in spite of his firmly stated belief that Naraku would soon return. Like many of his actions, this both baffled and frustrated Sango.
After dinner he retired quietly to the far end of the small hut they would all share for the night, and settled into what might have been meditation but seemed more like sleep. Being irritated with the monk helped distract her from InuYasha's intense stare, but it wasn't much better. Sango felt that if Naraku were going to return, they ought to remain a bit more alert, but at the same time, she envied him that easy rest.
She did not like to admit it, but her exertions over the last several days were catching up with her. Her injuries pained her less each day, but the healing had slowed of late and she knew the cause was likely her lack of rest. Glancing over at InuYasha and meeting him glower for glower, she suspected that if Naraku did not show himself tonight they would be on the road again tomorrow. InuYasha had surprisingly little regard for the limitations of his human companions.
Maybe, she thought, the monk was getting some rest while he had the chance. And maybe she would be wise to do the same.
It took effort, but she turned away from the hanyou and curled up on her mat to sleep with her back to the rest of the group. With a mew and a gentle headbutt against her thigh, Kirara joined her, curling into the crook of her hip. They'd slept like this occasionally before, but only when Sango was exceptionally upset about something.
Kirara was smarter than most people gave her credit for; she was definitely more than a brute animal, she was Sango's partner. And Sango had no doubt that Kirara had recognized Kohaku every bit as much as she had. She'd probably even sensed that something was terribly wrong.
Sango let her breath out in a sigh and ran her fingers through Kirara's soft fur. As Sango stroked her, Kirara curled into a more comfortable ball and nestled more deeply against Sango's legs.
Behind her, she could hear the remaining members of the group settling down for the night. Even in the quiet, listening to the steady sounds of her companions' breaths, Sango could not fully relax. She could practically feel InuYasha's eyes boring into her back, as if he could stare hard enough that he would eventually see the truth of what was in her heart. It was too bad she couldn't make him understand that she herself wasn't quite sure what was in her heart.
Naraku had said that Kohaku remembered nothing of his previous life. Indeed, she had not even seen the slightest flicker of recognition in the boy's eyes. He had even moved to defend Naraku against her. How could she want to defend such a person when it meant betraying the ones that had saved her life?
She knew she shouldn't.
That boy might have been Kohaku once, but Naraku had perverted and warped him almost beyond recognition.
She still wanted to save him. She wanted to cling to the minute hope that one day he might be her brother again, that she might somehow find a way to return him to normal if she could just get him away from Naraku.
What might the monk have said if he knew her thoughts, or Kagome? She did not want to think about it. They would be sympathetic, of that she had no doubt, but would they think there was any hope for Kohaku? She doubted that. They knew what Naraku was capable of just as well as she did, perhaps better.
Sango sighed again and fidgeted where she lay. It felt like she had been trying to sleep forever, even though she knew that could not be the case. She knew she ought to at least stay where she was and take what rest she could, but something felt wrong. She rose cautiously, twisting to look over her shoulder, and saw that the fire had burned low. Even InuYasha seemed to be sleeping. Was she the only one still awake?
Kagome and Shippou were sleeping peacefully, snuggled together on the big pile of hay in the corner that they had turned into their bed for the night. The monk remained exactly as he had been when Sango first tried to sleep. InuYasha's eyes were closed, his head drooping as if deep in sleep. She could scarcely believe it. They had always been so vigilant…
Her eyes fell on the sword nestled against InuYasha: Tessaiga. What Naraku could possibly intend to do with the blade, she had no idea. She knew only that giving it to Naraku must be a colossally bad idea. And yet in that moment, she was sorely tempted to grab the blade and run. With his instincts dulled by sleep, she might even be able to get it away from InuYasha and flee before he fully realized what was happening. She might be able to do it…
And then what? Naraku would hand over her brother like an honorable opponent and let the two of them be on their way? Even she knew how foolish that sounded.
At that moment, InuYasha's eyes snapped open. Those golden eyes seemed to catch at hers and hold her gaze there, locked with his own. "Feel like talking yet?" he asked.
There was a thinly veiled threat there, and Sango didn't like it one bit. "InuYasha," she cautioned.
He blundered on anyway, oblivious to the consequences. Or perhaps he just didn't care what damage his words wrought. "Come on," he went on. "You expect us to believe you went after your brother and didn't catch him?" Sango's fury grew with every word he spoke, yet he kept going anyway. "I don't think you'd make a mistake like that."
The truly infuriating part was that he was right, but Sango wouldn't give him the satisfaction of admitting that.
"What are you hiding?" he demanded. He seemed to think that if he just kept asking questions and making accusations, eventually she would give him an answer. "What really happened earlier?"
Sango half hoped that he would wake up their companions, but she was not so lucky. For a moment she hesitated, torn between wanting to continue her lie and the sudden, utterly foolish, desire to tell him the truth. If he knew that Naraku was blackmailing her, if he knew what the stakes were, maybe he would loan her the sword…
"Nothing happened," she bit out, careful to keep her voice quiet. Remembering what had happened – the carnage her brother had inflicted upon this village, the bargain Naraku had offered her – threatened to make her sick. "Besides, I already told you. There's no way Kohaku could have done this. He would never kill people like this. Even if that used to be Kohaku… it's not my brother anymore."
"You think it's that easy?" he asked. "No matter what happens, he's still your brother, isn't he?"
Something in the tone of his voice made Sango less irritated with him. Some incident in his past had made him more sympathetic, or at least more understanding, than Sango had thought he would be. He was still rough around the edges, but in some way he really did seem to understand what she was going through.
"He shouldn't be able to forget you or hate you so easily," he went on.
And that brought all her anger crashing back down around her. Whatever it was that had made InuYasha think he understood what she was going through, it couldn't be anything like this. "What would you know about it?" she snapped angrily, more loudly than she had intended. To her left, Kagome's eyes cracked open. Sango wondered with chagrin just how much she had overheard.
To her right, without stirring from his place, Miroku said, "Don't be careless, InuYasha. We're surrounded."
She hadn't noticed it until the moment he spoke, but now she couldn't help but feel the oppressive presence of many youkai in every direction. The monk was not wrong, they were surrounded. And Sango had been so wrapped up in her personal pain that she hadn't even noticed until it was too late. She wasn't sure what was worse: that the monk had been the one to notice, or that her chance to obtain the sword was probably gone forever. At least she was spared the necessity of making the choice.
Sango followed while InuYasha and Miroku carefully pulled aside the mat that hung over the doorway so they could peer outside. She almost did not want to see what awaited them beyond the walls of their tiny refuge, but couldn't stop herself from joining them. Youkai swarmed around the hut, but the situation was worse than that. The youkai had not come of their own accord. Someone had led them there. Kohaku had led them there.
Sango froze in the doorway, horrified at being confronted by her brother again so soon, while InuYasha leaped into action. He drew Tessaiga and lunged as the youkai swept down from the sky and up from the ground, heading directly toward their human targets.
He slashed through several of the youkai before Kohaku attacked. As the chain from his weapon tangled around Tessaiga, hampering InuYasha's attacks, Sango rushed back into the hut for Hiraikotsu. Kagome and Shippou stared at her with bleary, confused eyes.
"Get ready," she told them, slipping easily into her more accustomed role of youkai taiji-ya. "We're under attack." And then, Kirara at her side, she strode out of the hut. She would have preferred to put on her armor, but there simply wasn't time. She couldn't take the chance that InuYasha might do any serious damage to her brother during her absence.
The two were still locked in combat when she returned to the field of battle. She stood beside Miroku, as helpless to intervene as the monk. A moment or two later, Kagome came up beside them, watching the fight with just as much horror as Sango felt.
Suddenly, InuYasha turned and seized the chain. Kohaku failed to anticipate this tactic, reminding Sango painfully of just how much training the boy still needed to undergo before he could be considered a properly experienced slayer, and InuYasha fairly tossed him away by the chain.
Seeing the difference in strength between her brother and InuYasha so clearly, Sango could barely breathe.
"InuYasha," Kagome cried, "don't kill him!"
"I know," the hanyou snapped.
Sango could scarcely believe what she had just heard. Were they intending to save Kohaku?
Kohaku landed safely on his feet, skidding backward through thick grass but not losing his balance. In another fight, Sango would have been proud of him for pulling that off. Now she could only watch in horror as InuYasha gave him no time to recover before charging at him again.
The boy leaped backward, but not in an effort to get out of the way. Instead, he landed softly and plunged the blade of his chain scythe into his own back.
Sango couldn't help it. "Kohaku!"
She was vaguely aware of Shippou and Kagome's shock beside her, but all Sango could hear was the sound of her own unsteady breathing and pounding heart. All she could do was watch as Kohaku began to dig at the wound with his fingers. Trying, she realized with a sense of mounting horror, to dig the jewel shard out of his back.
Without that shard, he would die…
Despairing, Sango knew what she had to do.
Chapter 41: Betrayal
This story was recently awarded first place for Best Characterization, for my portrayal of Sango, by the Feudal Association. A hearty thank-you to those who nominated and voted for me!
Listening in on Sango's conversation with InuYasha, Miroku knew they were in for trouble even if Naraku didn't show up tonight. The two companions were dangerously at odds over the issue of Sango's brother. If they did not reach some sort of resolution soon, it might come to blows between them and Miroku wasn't entirely sure he or Kagome could stop them.
Sango had disavowed the boy; that should have been enough at this point. They should have showed her at least that much trust. Time would tell whether she was telling the truth, but for the moment behaving divisively was not in anyone's best interest. Worse, the angry atmosphere was distracting Miroku from his meditation – and his growing certainty that trouble was brewing beyond the confines of their hiding place. At this point he knew beyond a doubt that youkai were gathering outside, but he'd been doing his best to read the oppressive aura for the telltale darkness that signaled Naraku's presence.
"What would you understand about it?" Sango demanded, the telltale tone of a fraying temper in her voice.
Concentration duly shattered, Miroku peeked his eyes open and decided he may as well tell them. "Don't be careless, InuYasha: we're surrounded."
Watching shock come over the faces of his two companions almost made up for their arguing. They joined him, thankfully in silence, at the door to the hut and peered out alongside him when he pulled the mat back. Shippou climbed up his robes to look over his shoulder with the rest, but Miroku hardly noticed.
The situation outside was worse than he had thought. The youkai were almost upon them already. Just a little while longer and they would have been taken completely unawares.
He probably should have warned the others instead of spending so much time trying to pick out Naraku, who might not even be there at all, but there was no time to worry about that now. Instead, he focused his attention on making sure that InuYasha and Sango were not going to turn on each other during the coming battle.
At first it seemed that his worrying had been in vain, because the two warriors were completely focused on the approaching enemies. And then the leader of the youkai became visible, an all-too-familiar figure at the forefront of the horde, and Miroku's hope of a peaceful conclusion for his companions fell into a hundred pieces. That small, lithe figure dressed in a slayer's armor could be no one but Sango's wayward brother.
Sango did not move, but Miroku knew she was not as unaffected as she pretended. Naraku had picked a potent weapon in Sango and her brother.
When she first fell into their hands and joined the group, Miroku had assumed that Naraku had allowed it because she had outlived her usefulness, or because he thought she would die without any intervention on his part. But now Miroku had to wonder if Naraku had been playing a deeper game, even then, or if this latest scheme had arisen later, after Sango's unexpected survival was assured.
But why allow Sango to join their group only to use her brother to lead her astray only a few days later? Try as he might, Miroku couldn't figure it out. Given more time, perhaps he would have succeeded in teasing apart the strands of Naraku's plan, but Sango's anguished cry of her brother's name drew him back to the present.
At the very moment she cried out, the youkai plunged toward them and InuYasha dove in to the fray, Tessaiga slashing furiously through several youkai at once. Sango seemed frozen on the threshold, her eyes fixed on her brother even though the boy gave no sign of recognition. In fact, the eyes that stared out at them past the half-mask of the taiji-ya were cold and hard, unlike any child's eyes that Miroku had ever seen before.
As InuYasha cut his way more deeply into the mass of youkai, the boy turned his attention from Sango and Miroku to the hanyou. The chain end of his chain-scythe, expertly thrown, entangled Tessaiga almost before InuYasha fully realized what had happened. A tug, just as expert in its execution, brought the hanyou to the ground and prevented him from attacking more of the youkai. InuYasha would have no choice but to fight him now.
His attention torn too many ways between InuYasha, the boy, Sango, and the looming, seething mass of youkai, Miroku wasn't sure what to do. He could try to use the kazaana on the youkai, injury or no, but with InuYasha and the boy between him and them, it was too risky. For the moment he opted to remain frozen near the entrance of the hut where he could keep an eye on Sango. Thankfully, she made no attempt to interfere as InuYasha wrangled with her brother.
Although the boy was small and obviously young, his strength was enough to challenge InuYasha. Some of that, Miroku knew, was the hanyou holding back, but some of it was pure, trained skill. The boy was a natural fighter, just like his sister, steadily pushing InuYasha back and seeking to strike a killing blow. With InuYasha's quick instincts, it was unlikely that he would succeed, but the fight was still thrilling to watch up until the moment InuYasha tired of it. And when he did grow tired of the game, he seized the chain-scythe by the chain and hurled the boy effortlessly away from him.
Sango gasped in horror, tensing as she prepared to jump into the fight to defend her brother. Miroku's heart raced. Could he grab her in time, before she could interfere?
"InuYasha, don't kill him!" Kagome shouted.
"I know," InuYasha snapped back.
Somehow, Miroku did not think Sango had expected that. But then, she had not been with the group as long as he had. Maybe she couldn't tell yet when InuYasha was holding back. Or perhaps it was just her fear for her brother that was clouding her judgment.
A short distance away, Kohaku landed effortlessly on his feet, as if he had intended to make that jump all along.
"I'll make you wake up," the hanyou growled, charging toward the boy before he'd had a chance to recover fully from his landing. He didn't land another blow. He didn't have to.
Kohaku thrust the scythe end of his weapon into his own back, slicing deeply. Blood spurted; InuYasha stopped short, sputtering in surprise. Oblivious to his enemy's shock, Kohaku tossed aside the scythe and dug his fingers into the wound.
Miroku stared, transfixed and horrified. What in the world was Kohaku doing? What could he possibly hope to gain by injuring himself?
A single glance at Sango told Miroku exactly what the boy – what Naraku – hoped to gain. Before Miroku could even hope to stop her, she'd run several paces from the hut and hurled her weapon into the fray, aiming not for her brother or for InuYasha, but for the Tessaiga. Her aim was perfect. The force of the blow pulled the sword from InuYasha's grip and hurtled across the clearing with it. Abruptly, it reversed direction, returning to Sango and depositing the sword at her feet.
That simply, she had ended the conflict, or so it seemed.
Kohaku turned and fled, the youkai swarm carrying him away into the night. Sango and InuYasha stared at each other, Tessaiga embedded in the ground between them.
"What the hell was that?" InuYasha began. Sango did not give him time to finish.
She strode forward and seized the Tessaiga, calling for Kirara as she went. Obedient to her master's whim, Kirara burst out of the hut and changed into her larger form. With the effortless ease of long practice, Sango leaped onto Kirara's back without the cat even having to slow her momentum.
"She took the Tessaiga," Kagome gasped.
"Sango, what the hell are you doing?" InuYasha demanded.
The slayer did not respond. Her gaze was focused dead ahead, in the direction where her brother had disappeared.
They had absolutely no hope of catching her; Kirara could outfly any of them. But still Miroku knew they had to try. Naraku was behind this. Whatever Sango hoped to gain by betraying them and stealing the sword, she wouldn't get it. She would end up dead, as likely as not.
And while Miroku's stomach turned at the thought of putting himself at risk for another person, and the realization that he might face his lifelong enemy this night, he turned to Kagome and said, "Kagome-sama, let's go."
She didn't hesitate for even a moment, racing down the path alongside Miroku. "Right."
InuYasha was already on the move, already tracking Sango through the night. Of them all, he was the only one with a real chance of catching up, but he gave up that hope to circle back around and pull Kagome into her usual place on his back. They could make better time that way, overall, but all they could do now was follow Sango's trail and hope to catch up before she got into too much trouble.
But with Naraku this deeply involved, Miroku had a feeling they might already be too late. And without the Tessaiga's power, they would be at a definite disadvantage, and they all knew it.
"Damn it, I knew we shouldn't have trusted her!" InuYasha cursed. His fangs were bared as he raced through the trees, and no expression but rage at the betrayal was evident on his face.
"Don't be angry, InuYasha," Kagome soothed, her voice barely audible over the sounds of the forest rushing past. "I'm sure there's a reason for this."
"Oh yeah, like what?"
"Sango-sama is most likely being blackmailed by Naraku," Miroku interjected. "He holds her brother's life in his hands, and so she stole Tessaiga when he told her to. It's exactly the kind of thing he would do –"
"You think I don't know that?" the hanyou snapped.
I think you had better not let Sango bear the brunt of your anger before we find out the truth of the situation, he thought, but he kept such thoughts to himself and focused his energy on keeping up. He would be of no use whatsoever if he fell too far behind.
It felt as if they had been running forever when InuYasha skidded to a sudden stop. It was all Miroku could do to stop alongside him and not run into him. Looking up, he saw exactly what had attracted the hanyou's attention. He'd been wondering if they were still on the right track, but Naraku's insects hovering above proved that they were. And yet the insects weren't attacking, but seemed content merely to hover above, watching.
"Saimyoushou?" Miroku mused aloud.
"That means Naraku's nearby," Kagome murmured.
Still the insects did not attack. It was almost as if… "They're inviting us," Miroku observed.
"So it's a trap, then?" Kagome asked.
"Interesting," InuYasha said, although his tone said the opposite. "Naraku really is trying to kill us all off."
Miroku got the same impression. As much as he hated the thought of delaying an attack on Naraku, they were very likely walking into a trap. It was all too perfectly set up. "Right now, with this injury, I still can't safely open the kazaana," he said.
"And he had my Tessaiga stolen, so I can't use the Wind Scar on him," InuYasha added, sounding surprisingly calm. Perhaps he really did realize that Sango was not at fault. "And he's been using Sango to make sure he gets his way…" He growled quietly. "That guy… if he's gonna invite us in, he's gonna regret it."
Miroku had no doubt of that, but as he followed InuYasha and Kagome down the trail abuzz with hovering insects, he wondered just how much they would regret it as well.
Chapter 42: Siblings Reunited
As Kirara carried her through the forest, hot on Kohaku's trail, Sango threw guilt and caution aside. If she paused for even a moment to think about what she had just done, if she acknowledged that she was helping her worst enemy, then she might not have the courage to keep going. If the boy she was chasing really was Kohaku, then she had to keep going. She couldn't risk letting him die because of her own weakness.
If it would save Kohaku, then it couldn't matter that she'd betrayed InuYasha and the others. If any of the other slayers had survived the slaughter at the village, she would have done the same thing. For her brother, she would have done anything.
She couldn't hesitate. A moment's delay could mean life or death for her brother. If Naraku knew she had hesitated, if he suspected that any sort of plot were afoot, he might not keep his word.
Deep down she knew he was unlikely to keep his word no matter what she did or did not do, but she had to cling to that last bit of hope. Kohaku was still alive, she was sure of it, and if there was a chance yet that he could be restored to himself, then she was going to seize it.
She hadn't realized just how alone she was until Naraku gave her the chance to not be alone any longer.
I'll save you, Kohaku, she thought, refusing to think of Inuyasha or Kagome or the others. No matter what!
A wall loomed suddenly out of the dense foliage just ahead of them. Kirara banked upward sharply to avoid flying into it. Sango gripped hard with her thighs, fighting a frightening sense of recognition as the castle spread out beneath them. It was impossible, but this building looked just like the one where Father and the others were slain.
It was the same castle, she was almost sure of it. It had to be.
This castle, however, was completely empty of people. Where there had been the noble lord and his servants before, there was now only silence. There was no sign even of Kohaku or the youkai horde that had carried him here, yet Kirara seemed certain that this was the place. After topping the wall, Kirara dropped low so that Sango could dismount.
Sango slid off of her companion's back cautiously, Tessaiga still gripped awkwardly in one hand. The Tessaiga was longer and heavier than her own blade and would be difficult to use in a fight. She had to hope it would not come to that. Or, if it did, that she would have time to strike before her enemy realized what was happening. If she could kill Naraku here and now, perhaps her brother might yet be saved…
She could not think of that. She had always been bad at disguising her thoughts. If Naraku knew she thought of slaying him, all could be lost.
Best to be cautious for now, until she knew that Kohaku was safe.
"Are you here, Naraku?" she called out.
She felt the familiar sense of unease, the same thing she'd felt when Naraku was leading her to the place where he said the demon InuYasha had slain her fellow taiji-ya. A moment later, a deep, rumbling laugh made her blood run cold. "Such loyalty," Naraku said. "It brings tears to the eyes."
Sango whirled and spotted Naraku seated upon a nearby verandah. She was certain that the figure, clad as ever in the baboon pelt, had not been there a moment ago. He did not move as he continued to address her. "So you betrayed your friends for your brother, did you?"
Sango's grip on the Tessaiga tightened.
"Are you going to give me the sword, Sango?"
For the space of a single heartbeat, she hesitated. Could she truly give him the sword? She held the Tessaiga out in front of her, as if in offering. "As promised," she said slowly, taking a single step toward him. "The sword is yours."
"Halt," Naraku ordered.
Sango froze in place. Now was not the time to take chances.
"Leave your weapon there."
He was foolish to think that Hiraikotsu, slung across her back as it always was, was her only weapon. Nonetheless, she set the bone boomerang on the ground as requested. "Wary, aren't you?" she commented. As if, having betrayed even her friends, she would not hesitate to betray him as well.
Then again, perhaps he had reason to be cautious.
"Where is Kohaku?" she demanded. "He's here somewhere, isn't he?"
"Don't worry, he's waiting for you," Naraku assured her.
There was no sign of Kohaku. He could have been anywhere within the castle, or nowhere at all. She couldn't even be sure that he was really alive and not just some trick of Naraku's.
"Give me the Tessaiga, and I will give you your brother," Naraku said, his voice dripping with sickening sweetness.
Sango closed the short distance between them and with her left hand offered the sword, hilt-first, to Naraku. This was the moment. She must decide now whether to betray again or simply obey. What do I do?
In the instant before he would have set his hand upon the sword, she knew what she would do. His hand closed upon empty air as she hurled the Tessaiga away. With her right hand, she released the trigger on the blade that always rested against her forearm. The mechanism engaged and the blade sprang free, locking into place.
She lunged forward, slashing. "Prepare to die!"
Naraku evaded easily; all she managed to do was slice through the baboon pelt as he vaulted over her and into the courtyard. The baboon mask fell away with a chunk of long, dark hair. "A hidden weapon, huh," he commented, as if it were not the least bit threatening.
Sango realized too late that he'd landed practically atop the Tessaiga. She couldn't tear her gaze away from his face. That face. The face of the young lord Kagewaki who had helped her recover after the rest of the taiji-ya were slain. He'd been Naraku all along?
"You're not a woman to be careless with, I see," he said, smiling as he took hold of the Tessaiga.
"You…" Sango managed.
"So you remember, do you?"
"You're Naraku," she snarled. "You were Naraku all along."
"That's right," he said. He sounded inordinately pleased with himself.
Sango tensed for another attack. Could she reach him with her arm-blade before he could bring Tessaiga around to stop her? Maybe.
Something coiled tightly around her wrists and yanked sharply toward the ground. Taken by surprise, Sango fell to her knees and found that she could not rise. The bits of hair that she had severed in her initial attack had tangled around her, and now some power of Naraku's was immobilizing her with that same hair. "Damn it," she bit out. She really should have known better.
"Foolish woman," Naraku went on, kneeling before her. "Did you really think to slay me all by yourself?"
Not by myself, Sango thought. Naraku had been focusing entirely on Sango and had ignored Kirara. Now, Kirara was in position behind him.
The cat demon pounced.
"Kirara, kill him!" Sango shouted, an instant too late. Naraku began to turn, but Kirara was already upon him. He did not have time to turn fully, much less dodge, before the enormous fangs plunged into his shoulder.
For a moment Sango thought they had won.
Kirara reared back, jerking her head away from Naraku. Thick poison foamed in Kirara's mouth, sizzling powerfully.
"Kirara!" Sango could not even move to go to her. Kirara fell to the ground, shrinking in weak puffs of flame until she was kitten-sized and trembling. "Kirara!"
"Don't be so surprised," Naraku chided. "This body of mine is made of poison, you see."
He stood, examining the sword. Sango wondered if he could even use it, or if he only wanted it to weaken InuYasha.
"Your work here is done, Sango," Naraku told her. With the blade in his hand, he seemed ready to be her executioner.
This was it, then. Sango braced herself for death.
But Naraku did not strike. Instead, he smiled slightly. "As a reward for your service, I'll let your brother be the one to send you to the next world."
My brother… She was suddenly aware of a shadow behind her. She managed to turn her head enough to see that it was indeed Kohaku. "Kohaku!" she cried, knowing it was hopeless.
His chain-scythe slashed, tearing a deep rent just below her shoulder. Blood soaked her kosode, dripped down her arm.
Again and again the scythe leaped toward her, piercing her flesh in a dozen places. The hair that had bound her wafted away on the breeze, leaving her free to fight back.
Sango fought past the pain and refused to attack her brother. "Kohaku, wake up."
Naraku laughed coldly. "You can't reach him."
The chain-scythe lashed forward again. Sango reacted on pure instinct, raising her own blade to block what she knew would have been the final blow. Her blade deflected the scythe, but Kohaku retrieved it effortlessly.
"Snap out of it, Kohaku!"
"Kill her, Kohaku."
Kohaku did not hesitate. He ran forward, raised the scythe –
– and when he would have brought it down to slash her throat, Sango dove for him. She did not slash with her blade, but threw her arms around him, using her greater weight in an attempt to pull him bodily to the ground. But she was too weak, or he was too strong. He stood firm under her weight; she sagged against him.
"Kohaku, remember me," she pleaded.
But Kohaku did not hear.
Chapter 43: Miasma
By the time the castle came into sight, Miroku thought his lungs might burst from the effort of running so far, so quickly. He was a good runner by necessity rather than choice, and Shippou was still a dead weight on his shoulder threatening to drag him down before they even reached their quarry. But when he saw the castle wall, he felt a flash of hope that they had reached their goal after all.
The Saimyoushou no longer led the way, but hovered idly all around. Inuyasha leaped effortlessly over the wall, taking Kagome with him, but Miroku had no hope of making such a jump. Instead, he jogged around the length of the wall until he found an entrance. Expecting a fight, he approached with caution; he could feel Shippou's nervous trembling against his shoulder the whole time. And yet when he rounded the corner, tensed and ready for a battle, there was no one there. The entrance was wholly unguarded.
It was almost as if Naraku himself were welcoming Miroku inside. And he did not like it one bit.
This was the moment he had been waiting for: a chance to confront Naraku. A chance to end the curse of the kazaana once and for all.
He had no choice. He went in.
He found Inuyasha and Kagome easily enough. The castle was entirely devoid of life. Not a human soul dwelled within, so there was no resistance as he made his way over to where his friends stood in apparent shock.
As soon as he drew near, Miroku saw what had inspired such a reaction.
They had found Sango, indeed, and it was worse than he had expected.
"Sango-chan?" Kagome said, her voice trembling in horror.
The slayer was clinging to her brother, his eyes as hard and cold as ever. The boy was unharmed. His sister was soaked in blood. Her own, most likely. The smell of it was strong enough even for Miroku to detect, and yet Inuyasha had said nothing.
Sango turned her head at the sound of Kagome's voice. "Inuasha?" she asked. The word sounded like it would be her last.
Kohaku released his grip on her and Sango collapsed to the ground with a hollow thud. She made no attempt to rise. Miroku could not even tell if she was still breathing.
Tears filled Kagome's eyes. "How horrible," she breathed. It was taking everything in her to remain calm, Miroku could tell. But where Kagome was horrified, Inuyasha was furious. And it was that which worried Miroku more.
"Her own brother was forced to do this," he observed, hoping to remind Inuyasha that Kohaku was no more to blame for this than Sango was for stealing the Tessaiga.
But he need not have worried. "Naraku, you bastard!" Inuyasha shouted. For the first time Miroku noticed the shadowed figure lurking on the verandah of the nearest castle building. He'd been so distracted by the sight of Sango, murdered at her brother's hand, that he had not looked further. He feared the mistake might cost them dearly, but Naraku seemed more interested in taunting Inuyasha to further heights of rage than attacking.
"Such a foolish lot," Naraku observed idly. "You came all this way even though you knew it was a trap, and all for a woman that betrayed you."
"Oh, shove it," Inuyasha retorted. Without warning, he leaped past Kohaku toward his real enemy, but Naraku was even quicker to react. His hair burst toward the hanyou as if it had a life of its own, attempting to ensnare Inuyasha.
Kohaku turned and fled as Miroku and Kagome raced forward to reach Sango. Shippou leaped down from Miroku's shoulder to cling to Kagome as she gently lifted Sango and cradled the fallen slayer on her lap. Knowing that he was useless to Inuyasha in this situation, Miroku brandished his shakujou in an effort to keep the hair, impossibly long and always moving in search of an opening, from reaching Kagome and Sango.
"Sango? Sango, please wake up," Kagome murmured quietly.
Miroku did not dare turn his attention away from Naraku long enough to check on them, but Sango's silence spoke volumes.
If you die here, Sango, I will avenge you along with my father and grandfather, he promised. The thought of Naraku claiming another victim was unbearable. And this was even more unbearable because Sango had survived one of Naraku's plots before, only to be drawn back in and horrifically wounded by her own brother.
"Damn it!" Inuyasha cursed from somewhere amidst the swirling hair. "He's fucking run away!"
Naraku's mocking laughter echoed from everywhere – and nowhere. "You're wrong, Inuyasha. I won't run this time, because I wanted you to come here."
All at once, all the hair fell limply to the ground. Miroku knew better than to assume this was a good sign. Power pulsed through the air, strong enough that even an ordinary human might have felt it. Within moments, the limp strands of hair had transformed, taking on the shape of venomous serpents.
When the serpents leaped forward from all around, it was all Miroku could do to intercept them all before they could reach Kagome and Sango. Inuyasha must have fared better, because Miroku heard him shout, "Is that all you've got?"
Don't speak too soon, Miroku cautioned mentally, though he knew the words spoken aloud would be lost on Inuyasha. He detected the toxic fumes of miasma an instant before Inuyasha muttered, "Ugh, miasma…"
If we kill the snakes, they become miasma, Miroku realized. If we defend ourselves, we'll be consumed by poison…
Naraku laughed again. Infuriatingly, Miroku still couldn't tell where the sound was coming from. "If you want a fight, then have one," he said, as if granting them a boon. "This place is filled with my miasma. So go on and fight, but you'll only end up covered in miasma."
Inuyasha backed toward them, muttering curses under his breath. Miroku had no better idea of what to do. He could try to use the kazaana to absorb the snakes, but with his injury and the miasma, the most likely outcome would be his death – and that of his companions. There simply wasn't enough room in the castle courtyard to put enough space between them to render them safe from the kazaana's destruction.
"How does it feel, Inuyasha, to have nowhere left to run?" Naraku taunted.
"Show yourself, Naraku!" Inuyasha demanded.
It was a hopeless request. Naraku had the upper hand, and he wasn't one to level the playing field if he had any other option. Several of the hair-snakes leaped for Inuyasha at once. He slashed effortlessly through them with his claws, but thick miasma spurted out from the remains, showering over him.
"Inuyasha, if you keep that up, your body won't be able to handle it," Miroku cautioned.
"You think I don't know that?" Inuyasha demanded.
Miroku was spared from having to answer when Sango suddenly groaned.
"Sango-chan!" Kagome exclaimed.
"I'm sorry," Sango murmured. She sounded horrifyingly weak. "I…"
"It's okay," Kagome assured her. "We understand."
"Thank goodness," Miroku commented, relieved almost beyond words to hear her speak. Perhaps he would not need to avenge her after all. "Sango's still alive."
"You thought she'd drop dead so easily?" Inuyasha replied, though his voice betrayed that he'd been worried about her, too. To Sango, he said, "Sango! I'm really going to complain about all this to you later. So don't you die, okay?"
Sango did not respond; a quick glance revealed that she had fallen unconscious again.
Miroku had no time to worry about her. He had to trust that Kagome would protect her and keep her alive, because Naraku's serpents were surging through the air all around them again, threatening to attack at any moment. If that miasma were to reach Sango, she would die for sure… so they couldn't let that happen.
Miroku thought frantically, trying to come up with a way out, but the only possible option seemed to be the kazaana. Was the trap really for Sango? Or was it for all of us? he wondered.
Naraku's laughter filled the air along with the serpents. "So you still think you can get out of this alive?" he asked. "This is where you die."
Miroku tensed, but the attack did not come.
"All of this," Naraku went on, taunting, "is because of Sango's betrayal."
Kagome looked up suddenly, fury in her eyes, as if she'd detected something. If Naraku noticed, it did not stop him from continuing to gloat. "Instead of your lives, Sango chose to save her brother's. If you're going to hate someone, then hate Sango for being so shallow and selfish."
Only then did the serpents attack, plunging toward them in an enormous mass. "Damn!" Inuyasha breathed. In an instant he had pulled the robe of the fire rat off and tossed it over Kagome's head.
"Put it on!" he ordered. "It should be able to keep off some of the miasma!"
Miroku mentally prepared himself for what was to come. Inuyasha flung his blades of blood into the serpent horde, destroying enough of them in that single attack to blanket the courtyard in miasma. Huddled beneath the robe of the fire rat with Shippou and Sango, Kagome cried out Inuyasha's name, though Miroku could not have said if she was more worried or afraid.
"It's no good," he warned Inuyasha, though he had to cover his mouth and nose with a hand in order to breathe at all. "We're getting nowhere."
"You think I don't see that?" the hanyou snapped.
Miroku closed his eyes and focused. This entire time, he had known there was really only one way out. Naraku had made sure that the kazaana would be their only hope, despite the risk it posed to Miroku's life. He had hoped to find another way, but now it was clear.
He pulled the sealing rosary free –
"Miroku-sama!" Kagome admonished.
"Miroku!" Shippou cried in horror. "Don't do it!"
- Miroku suddenly found himself with an armful of kitsune as Shippou launched himself right into Miroku's arms. "If you open it now, you'll die!"
"Let go, Shippou," Miroku sighed.
"Don't die in vain, you idiot!" Inuyasha snarled.
"There's no choice!" Miroku snapped, desperation more obvious in his voice than he would have liked. "If I can save the rest of you from being killed, then –"
He never finished that thought. Inuyasha's fist in his gut forced the air out of his lungs and left him gasping, stars dancing before his eyes. "You bastard," Miroku gasped. "What are you doing?"
"You're such an idiot," Inuyasha muttered.
Miroku didn't have the breath to argue. He fell to his knees, struggling to regain control of himself. Like this, he was worse than useless. He was one more easy target for Naraku's schemes. Damn it, Inuyasha…
Laughter, again. "Inuyasha, your foolish sentimentality will be the death of you," Naraku observed.
Damn it all, where was he?
Miroku tried to breathe, but the miasma was making him weaker and weaker.
"You refuse to hate Sango the betrayer," Naraku went on. "And you value that worthless monk's life enough to cut off your only means of escape." He laughed again, for a long time. Miroku had never wanted to kill that monster so fiercely. If only he could stand…
"Such fools you all are… And now, because of that, you're all going to die."
Miroku was too weak now to even remain on hands and knees. His arms trembled for a moment, then shook dangerously, and ultimately gave out altogether. He crashed face first to the ground, and couldn't find the strength to rise.
Damn Naraku. Damn him for being right. Damn him for winning in the end.
Kagome stood up suddenly and cast the robe of the fire rat over Sango. "Everything that happened today isn't because we're fools," she said. Her voice was quiet at first, but grew with every word as her anger increased. "It's because of your scheming!"
Miroku realized dimly that she was looking for Naraku. There was no hope left, but her bravery was almost inspiring.
"Inuyasha, I sense a fragment of the Shikon jewel!" she gasped suddenly. "Over there!"
Inuyasha leaped away in the direction she had indicated, slashing his way through the lingering serpents… but it was only a matter of time before the miasma grew too strong and threatened to overpower even him. "Damn it!"
Miroku struggled upright again only to see the serpents swarm around Inuyasha, dragging him down into the miasma. For a moment Miroku had thought that with Kagome spurring him on, Inuyasha might actually succeed. Now it seemed he had been wrong. Nonetheless, he dragged himself closer to where Sango lay under the protection of the fire rat. Feeble as it was, that protection might be their only chance to survive at this point.
"How pathetic, Inuyasha," Naraku's voice echoed ominously once more. "You'll die here with your friends, in terrible pain. For a failure of a half-youkai… it is an appropriate way to die."
Suddenly the entire courtyard was engulfed in a brilliant, pink-tinged light. It took Miroku a few stunned seconds to realize that Kagome had fired an arrow, and her arrow was the source of the light. He was aware, of course, that she possessed strong spiritual power, but he had never seen her unleash it like this. Her arrow flew true and left a swath of destruction – and breathable air – in its wake.
It took out the entire side of the tower she had fired at. Dimly, in the shadows that remained, Naraku was visible. His expression was one of stunned and horrified shock. Astonishingly, the explosion of power from Kagome's arrow had destroyed one of his arms.
Kagome stood firm, staring him down, daring him to try and attack them again. "Naraku!" she shouted, as if issuing a challenge. "You really are the absolute worst!"
"The miasma!" Shippou realized. "It's disappearing!"
"Is this because of Kagome-sama?" Miroku wondered aloud, though he could think of no other explanation.
"Kagome…" Inuyasha murmured.
"You are not getting away," Kagome continued, ignoring the rest of her friends. She readied another arrow and drew the string back. Her focus was solely on Naraku, and it was evident that she meant every word she had said. She had destroyed his deadly miasma, purifying it with her spiritual power, and she would destroy him as well if he remained.
"Don't move!" she ordered.
Naraku did not move. Miroku began to fear that he had some other scheme planned.
"Girl," the monster said. "Just who are you?" He seemed almost to be genuinely curious. "A long time ago, there was another girl with such power…"
Kagome snapped. "You also tricked Kikyou into a trap and killed her, didn't you?" she demanded, trembling with tension.
Naraku paused, realizing, "You're Kikyou's…"
"Shut up! Now I'm getting angry!" she shouted and released the arrow. It flew true, despite her trembling, and lodged itself in Naraku's chest. Power burst forth, destroying what was left of Naraku's body until only the head remained.
"Got him!" Shippou cheered.
"Amazing," Miroku breathed. Truly, he had never seen anything like this. Was this what the warrior miko, Midoriko, of whom Sango had spoken, had been like?
Naraku's head tumbled slowly to the ground. Inuyasha realized it was a trap an instant before the miasma came bursting out. "Watch out!" he cried, leaping to haul Kagome out of the way of the miasma.
Cursing, knowing that Naraku was about to escape him yet again, Miroku grabbed Shippou and threw himself toward Sango, and the meager protection that the robe of the fire rat might provide – and hoped for the best.
Chapter 44: Delirium
Sango's injuries pulled painfully, jolting her back to half-consciousness. Something had just wrenched her up off the ground. She gasped in several sharp breaths, squeezing her eyes shut against the burning agony of a dozen bleeding wounds.
The air was hot and close around her; something large pressed sharply into her diaphragm, making it even more difficult to breathe. Sango groaned, but whatever was holding her only squeezed more tightly.
From somewhere nearby, she heard something whimper in protest. The voice was high-pitched but familiar. The lump jabbing into her middle squirmed unhappily. Shippou?
Sango opened her eyes, trying to regain her bearings, but everything was dark. Slowly, she realized that it wasn't that everything was dark, but that her face was pressed hard into dark fabric. Dimly, she became aware that it was a person she was crushed so awkwardly against. She could feel taut muscle under that fabric, straining against something, holding her tight as if letting her go would mean letting her die.
A person… wearing dark clothing. No, dark robes…
Her eyes drifted shut again. It was so hard to breathe… there was so much pain…
What's going on? Where is Kagome? Why is Houshi-sama here instead? she wondered, but she did not have the breath to ask. Why is he… protecting me?
She smelled the rank stench of youki and began to understand. The monk must have grabbed her and Shippou, and used his own body to shield them from the miasma. She had no idea where the miasma had come from, wondered furiously what had happened during the time she had been unconscious.
She could already feel her consciousness slipping again as she struggled for air, and thought the monk would have been better served by saving himself than a traitor like her.
Chapter 45: A Small Victory
A gentle wind breezed through the castle. Realizing that he was somehow still alive, Miroku relaxed his grip on Sango, Shippou, and Kirara. Miroku sucked in a grateful breath and found the air still foul-smelling, but breathable. The worst of the miasma had already dissipated.
Breathing more freely now, he gently lowered Sango to the ground, placing Kirara beside her with equal care, and sat up to have a look around.
Naraku's castle might as well never have existed, for all that was left of it. A few ruined buildings crumbled nearby, hinting that such a castle had once been sited here, but the area was now fully overgrown. This place had been abandoned for a long time. And now it was abandoned once again: there was no sign of Naraku or of Sango's brother. Miroku and the others were all that remained.
He knew better than to hope that Naraku might be dead.
"The castle's gone," Shippou observed, hopping up to cling to Miroku's shoulder. Shippou shivered slightly and Miroku did not blame him. The battle had been harrowing. They had all of them come close to death.
"It was a fake," Miroku murmured. "An illusion the whole time…" An illusion that had been frightening in its realism. If Naraku could do something like that, they would have to be extra careful in the future. Anything and any place could be a trap.
From somewhere behind him and to one side, Kagome called out, "Inuyasha, look! The Tessaiga!"
Miroku turned to look and found that Naraku had indeed abandoned the sword. He had used it to force Sango to betray her companions before coming here, but it clearly had no value to him. If Naraku could use the Tessaiga, Miroku felt certain he would have taken it with him. That he'd left it behind was telling.
He picked up his staff from where he had dropped it during the fight and rose to join Inuyasha and Kagome; Shippou hopped down from his shoulder to stay with Sango. Her expression was tense, but she was still unconscious. Miroku suspected that she was going to be in a lot of pain in the coming days, but at least for now she could rest, however uneasily.
Inuyasha retrieved the Tessaiga and sheathed it. He was clearly pleased to have the blade back in his possession, but he still seemed ill at ease. Miroku felt much the same. They had only barely survived, but it almost seemed too easy.
"Naraku escaped?" Inuyasha asked.
"Yes," Kagome said glumly. "I don't sense the Shikon fragment anymore, so he must have got away somehow." She was standing with her back to them and would not turn to face them. She gave a shuddering sigh. "I'm sorry. I couldn't do it. I wasn't good enough. I didn't kill him."
"If you hadn't been there, Kagome-sama, then all of us would have died," Miroku pointed out when Inuyasha failed to reassure her. He fixed the hanyou with a stern look.
"It seems like you're actually the most amazing of any of us," Inuyasha said at last. It was a shocking admission, coming as it had from Inuyasha, but it was undeniably true. Miroku had never seen anything like the display of sheer power Kagome had unleashed when she fired her arrow at Naraku and ended the fight. It felt as if his eyes must have deceived him, and yet he knew what he had seen. More than that, he knew what he had felt. The power had been palpable.
Kagome lowered her head, anger rippling visibly through her again. "When he started making fun of Inuyasha, I just snapped," she bit out.
Inuyasha's face went blank as his cheeks flushed. "What a stupid reason," he muttered.
"What do you mean, stupid?" Kagome demanded, finally willing to look at them.
Miroku chuckled at their antics, feeling some of the lingering tension from the battle slough off. If they had the strength to bicker with one another, they were going to be okay. On the other hand…
"No, Sango, don't move!" Shippou urged.
Miroku turned to find that Sango had somehow managed to retrieve her weapon and was attempting to stand in spite of Shippou's protestations. "Sango!" the kitsune repeated, tugging hard on her torn kosode.
Sango paid him no heed. She struggled nearly upright, stood there trembling for a moment, and then her strength gave out. If not for the bone boomerang she leaned upon, she would have fallen to the ground.
"Sango-chan!" Kagome called out in alarm.
"Where are you going?" Miroku asked mildly. He kept his tone gentle to mask his surprise. That Sango was even able to move was remarkable.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but I- I can't stay with you anymore." She clung to her weapon as if it were the only real thing left in the world.
She's afraid, he realized suddenly. She wants to leave before we cast her out.
He didn't know how, but he was certain he knew what she was thinking in making such a choice. He was equally certain that if they allowed her to leave, she would die. She was in no condition to fend for herself right now. Naraku might be grievously wounded, but he would not let such a golden opportunity pass him by.
"Sango." He stepped closer, but still she did not acknowledge him. "If this is about your brother, and Naraku manipulating you… we all accept that. We understand."
"That's why!" The sound of despair in her voice was heart-rending. She whirled to look at him then, and he saw that it wasn't just despair. It was desperation to save her brother. It was fury that Naraku had manipulated her so easily. And it was stark terror that he had never expected to see on the face of a warrior like her. "I'll betray you again! Naraku has Kohaku completely under his control. I'll do whatever it takes to save him."
"Sango-chan," Kagome's voice was little more than a whisper in the silence.
"Sango, you intend to defeat Naraku on your own, don't you?" Miroku asked. He was stalling. The more he kept her talking, the more time they had to dissuade her from this suicidal plan.
"It's the only way," she said. Her voice was dull. Defeated.
"No," Kagome said. "That's not true. Let's all look for Kohaku-kun together." She rushed over to Sango, ignoring the way that the slayer tried to push her away. For once Sango was not strong enough. "But first we have to see to these wounds."
"You can't match him alone," Miroku pointed out. None of us can. But together… They had struck a decisive blow today. Perhaps together they really did have a chance to win.
"Why?" Sango demanded, her voice grating. "Why are you all –"
"You're a strong fighter, that's why!" Inuyasha burst out suddenly. Miroku glanced to him in surprise, taken aback by the vehemence of his answer, but he saw that Inuyasha was being earnest. He'd complained enough when they first took Sango in, but it seemed he had come to care for her just as much as the rest of them. "It's better when we're all together."
"Inuyasha," Kagome murmured. "That's so kind of you!"
Ignoring Kagome, Miroku seized upon what Inuyasha had said. "Even when you had stolen the Tessaiga and run off, Inuyasha said this same thing," he told Sango. It was close enough to the truth, although Inuyasha shot him an angry look for it. "There is no problem if you stay with us."
"You saying I'm an idiot or something?" Inuyasha groused.
Miroku sighed. "I'm saying you have a big heart."
Kagome still clutched at Sango's elbow, and Shippou at her knees. Watching her now, Miroku was fairly certain they were the only things keeping her on her feet. If they kept this up, she would pass out from blood loss and solve the problem for them, at least for now.
"Do you hate us?" Shippou asked, and Miroku knew they had her.
She trembled visibly and clutched even harder to her boomerang. "Is it really okay if I come with you?"
"We already said so!" Inuyasha shouted. He had put up a valiant effort, but he had reached the end of his patience. "What's your problem?"
He looked suitably chastened when Sango released her boomerang, flung herself into Kagome's waiting arms, and burst into tears. Wracking, powerful sobs shook her entire body. Watching the tears flow down her face, Miroku realized he had not seen her cry at all since she joined their group. She had not even really allowed herself a chance to grieve over her fallen family and the destruction of her village. Instead she had trapped it all inside and tried to seek revenge first, without acknowledging the powerful emotions she was feeling.
Such behavior was dangerous under any circumstances. With Naraku involved, it had almost been deadly.
Kagome smiled gently, reassuringly, at Sango and sank to the ground. She carefully folded Sango in her arms so as not to cause further injury. "Oh, Sango-chan," she murmured. "It's okay now."
Inuyasha and Miroku could do little but watch awkwardly as Sango cried herself out in Kagome's arms.
"Why is she crying?" Inuyasha asked, managing a quiet tone of voice for once. "Was it something I said?"
"I'll explain it to you later," Miroku promised. "For now, we must get Sango to someplace safe."
Her outburst had drained the last of her energy. Already she was slumped against Kagome and her powerful sobs had subsided into a stream of silent tears. Soon, if Miroku was any guess, she would be sound asleep. And good thing, too. She would be easier to move that way.
Kagome was reluctant to hand Sango over to Inuyasha, though the two of them seemed to have reached an unspoken agreement that letting Miroku carry her was out of the question. He settled for scooping up Kirara, who was still huddled where he had left her earlier, and letting Shippou hop back up to his customary place on his shoulder. He wasn't sure how far he would have made it carrying Sango, anyway. He was still pretty winded from chasing her – and from Inuyasha's punch in the gut.
So he trudged along behind Inuyasha and Kagome in silence save for the ringing of his staff. Sango did not even protest as Inuyasha hefted her onto his back and set off down the first path that presented itself.
In a way Miroku was glad to let Inuyasha lead the way. He really had no idea where to go. If Kirara had been in flying shape, Kaede's village was the obvious sanctuary. But with Kirara and Sango injured for the foreseeable future, they would have to find a place to shelter somewhere close by.
Unfortunately the only place that he knew was nearby was the ruined village that Sango's brother had destroyed. In the rush to catch up with Sango, Miroku had not taken note of his surroundings. They might have passed right by a suitable shelter.
"Where are we going to go?" Kagome asked after they had left the ruined castle behind, her voice quiet with uncertainty.
Inuyasha grunted. "Hell if I know."
Gloomy silence fell over the group, even Shippou and Kagome. They followed the main path through the forest without speaking for what must have been half an hour. Miroku wasn't surprised by the silence or the remoteness of the castle ruin. Not really. He was exhausted, and suspected that the others must be as well, although Inuyasha would never admit to it. It was a long time yet before night would fall, but they would need to find somewhere to take shelter long before then. That didn't leave much energy for idle chatter.
Frankly, even Miroku would have been happy to set up camp alongside the road and take a well-earned break, and he never slept outside except when he couldn't avoid it. But Inuyasha just kept pushing them onward, determined to find somewhere safe to see to Sango's injuries.
Eventually Miroku could take it no more. It felt as if his feet would not carry him one more step. "Inuyasha."
"Look," the hanyou said, pointing.
Up ahead, a hut stood beside the path where it grew wider and intersected with a more heavily used road. It looked deserted. Miroku might have been more suspicious of the sudden turn of good fortune if Inuyasha had not been with him. The hanyou's senses would have alerted him long ago if there were people in that hut.
Since Inuyasha was with him, Miroku walked right up to the hut, pushed past the mat that covered the doorway, and found it was blessedly if predictably empty inside. It had seen better days and there were thick cobwebs in the corners, but he didn't care. It was shelter. They could hole up here for several days if they needed to, and in all likelihood no one would pass by during that time.
Kagome followed him inside, and seemed to share his relief. "Inuyasha, this is perfect!" she said, poking her head back out the door for a moment. "Come on, Miroku," she went on, "let's get this cleaned up a bit so he can bring Sango in…"
Sighing heavily, Miroku got to work.
Chapter 46: Dressing Wounds
Sango kept an eye on Miroku as he entered the hut; Kagome trailed along behind him, looking sheepishly toward Sango as she did. There was no use telling her she didn't need to feel bad, so Sango didn't bother. She wasn't nervous, not really. She knew the monk wouldn't try anything unseemly, not while she was injured and unhealed. Later, when she'd begun to heal and had started to regain her strength… that would be the problem. But for now, she was fairly certain she was safe.
He'd treated her injuries once before, after all, and he hadn't done a bad job of it. She would bear that scar on her back until the end of her days, but even the most skilled healer could not have done much better with an injury of that nature. That she'd lived at all was something of a surprise, and the speed of her recovery spoke to Miroku's skill as a healer.
"It's the wound on her shoulder," Kagome murmured. She kept her voice low, but Sango heard anyway. "I…"
Miroku smiled in that disarming way he had and responded with something Sango didn't quite hear, but for the first time it seemed he wasn't trying to get anything by turning that smile on an unsuspecting young woman. He was trying to put Kagome at ease, to reassure her that this wasn't a problem, that he didn't mind helping out. That she wasn't weak or less useful for not knowing how to do this.
That he wasn't going to do anything Sango wouldn't approve of, because there were more important things to be done right now.
Sango bit back a sigh and tried to be reassuring herself. She was still angry at Miroku for his behavior lately, but his actions at the ruined village and Naraku's castle had caused her to question that anger. He'd done as she asked, burying the slain villagers as they deserved. Where Inuyasha had seen only the potential for treachery, Miroku had trusted her. And he had come with the others, following her into Naraku's trap. She'd been slipping in and out of consciousness at the time, but she was sure he'd saved her from the poisonous miasma.
But she remembered all too well the feeling of his hand on her bottom.
She didn't like the sensation of inner conflict, or her confusion over this seemingly contradictory behavior, one bit. One moment he would be charming or thoughtful or kind, and the next he would be infuriating. Even now she was bracing for the inevitable feel of his hand on her body, even though she knew that wouldn't come until she was on the mend. All things considered, she would rather not have had to deal with him at all just yet.
Looking at Kagome again as the two companions came over to crouch at her side, Sango decided that for Kagome she could put up with it.
With Kagome's help, Sango slipped her shoulder and arm free of her tattered, blood-stained kosode and the shirt beneath it. Both would need washing and mending, and soon, but those things could wait for now. Kagome carefully unwrapped the bandages she'd placed over the wound only a short time earlier so Miroku could see the extent of the injury. Sango watched the monk warily while Kagome worked, half-expecting a leer now that her breasts were covered only by linen binding, but he seemed focused entirely on the injury to her shoulder.
"Ah, yes, unfortunately this will require stitches, Sango-sama," he said.
She'd known that, but nodded anyway.
That was the part Kagome didn't know how to do. The thing she couldn't stomach, though she was trying bravely to do better this time than she had the first time. This time she had stuck around to watch what Miroku was doing, and hopefully learn a thing or two.
Sango wished that Kagome could have stuck to bandaging mild injuries and handing out miraculous pain-numbing pills and other wonders. Somehow it seemed like learning this would take a piece of Kagome's innocence away. But there wasn't anything she could do about it, so she sat quietly while Miroku explained the principles of treating such a deep gash to Kagome.
They'd had to wait a long time to treat the wounds, though all of the various cuts and punctures had been more or less superficial save the slash across her left shoulder. Sango was exhausted and lightheaded, but she knew she was not in danger of her life as her friends had feared. A few days of rest and she would be back on her feet again. The shoulder injury would take longer to heal, but it wasn't her throwing arm. It could have been worse.
Her companions hadn't brought any of their supplies with them when they chased after her, so they'd had to wait for Inuyasha to run back to the ruined village and return with everything. Fortunately, Kagome's first aid kit contained a sterilized needle and thread in addition to bandages and salves.
There was probably going to be a big scar, Sango realized, feeling numb. Another one.
She'd seldom received injuries bad enough to scar like this before… before. I'm becoming careless, she thought as Miroku wiped the wound clean with one of Kagome's sanitizing wipes and began to stitch it shut. He went slowly, speaking soothingly to Kagome as he demonstrated what to do.
He was good; she barely felt the needle. Or maybe that was Kagome's medicine. She wondered if it was Mushin who had taught him, but did not ask. There would be plenty of time for questions later.
Sango fought against an anguished shudder. There would be time for questions later, and discussions around the dinner-fire, and sneaking away for a hot bath with Kagome. She wasn't going to be alone, because they had refused to hate her in spite of Naraku's best efforts. Even now, when she had no more tears to shed, the feeling was nearly overwhelming.
Almost before she knew it, Miroku was placing a large adhesive bandage over the newly stitched wound. "You're certain none of the other injuries require stitching?" he asked Kagome.
Sango flushed – though with embarrassment or anger, she could not have said – and prepared to go on the defensive. Kagome nodded silently, staring resolutely at her lap. Instead of making a suggestive remark about the locations of Sango's other injuries, Miroku carefully put away the contents of Kagome's first aid kit and handed it back to its rightful owner.
"You did well," he assured her. "Better than last time."
Kagome ducked her head. "Last time I ran away and almost got sick," she murmured.
"And this time you didn't. We'll make a healer of you yet," Miroku promised. He glanced toward Sango, who was watching with unabashed curiosity. "Now come, we should let Sango get some rest."
She watched them go, only belatedly realizing that she'd forgotten to pull her clothes back into place after Miroku finished dressing her wound. She shoved her arm into the sleeve and tugged the layered garments back up over her shoulder. Her fingers brushed Kirara's fur. She paused, then stroked gently. The tiny, limp form shivered and mewed.
"Please be okay," Sango murmured to her old friend. Kirara still hadn't managed to shake off the effects of Naraku's poison and remained huddled against Sango's leg where Miroku had left her earlier. She couldn't bring herself to say it out loud, but Kirara was all that she had left. From her village, from her home, from her family. With her own wounds tended, Sango was beginning to realize just how dire Kirara's situation was. She had never seen Kirara appear this fragile before.
Please be strong, Kirara, she thought. The warm, soft fur was so familiar, so comforting. Even though she had Kagome and the others now, Sango couldn't bear the thought of losing Kirara. I don't know what I'd do without you.
Chapter 47: A Cure for Kirara
"Where did Inuyasha go, anyway?" Miroku asked as he escorted Kagome out of the hut.
"He said there was something he needed to do," Kagome answered, sounding as perplexed as Miroku felt. "But he never said when he'd be back."
She was staring off into the distance where Inuyasha had disappeared earlier, and her tone was so wistful that Miroku couldn't help a small smile. If you wanted to go with him so badly, you could have, he thought, taking a seat on the ground outside the hut. He could have tended to Sango's injuries without her. And he certainly wouldn't touch Sango inappropriately when she was so badly injured, but Inuyasha and Kagome did not trust him that far. Part of that was, he knew, his own doing. And part of it…
Miroku sighed. "Inuyasha will want to be back on the road as soon as possible," he observed.
"I know," Kagome murmured, sinking to the ground beside him. She was sitting well within reach but Miroku made no attempt to touch her, not that she noticed. "Sango's in no condition to travel though, is she?"
"It's Kirara I'm worried about, actually." He paused, but Kagome said nothing. "Sango will be in pain for a while, but she's tough. She was on her feet again before any of us expected her to be, after she fought Inuyasha," he pointed out. "She will do the same now if she has to." Judging from the slashes and bloodstains on her kosode, most of her injuries had been to her shoulders and arms, with only a few across her hips and thighs. She would be able to walk once she had a chance to recover from the loss of blood from her wounds.
"Kirara's a youkai," Kagome said, catching on to his concern. "She should be healing even faster than Sango. But she's not." She frowned. "But what can we do to help?"
Miroku had never needed to heal a youkai before; he had always been hired to exorcise them. Hachi had been the one exception, and he had always looked after himself – and run away before any situation could get bad enough to require healing from Miroku. "That is something we will have to ask Sango," he decided, though he wondered if Sango really would know of a way to help Kirara. To his knowledge, no one had ever successfully dealt with Naraku before. It stood to reason that the youkai taiji-ya lore might not contain any remedies for the miasma's poison.
Shippou emerged a few moments later from the long grass that grew beside the road. He was patrolling the area around the hut, Miroku knew, because Inuyasha had given him that duty. They were unlikely to need the precaution after the damage Kagome had done to Naraku, but it made Shippou feel braver and more important, even useful. "Kirara's still sick?" he asked.
Kagome nodded. "I'm really worried!"
"She's a youkai, so she's strong," Shippou said thoughtfully. "That must have been some really bad poison!"
Miroku murmured his agreement, and suddenly found both Kagome and Shippou staring at him. That combined gaze was disconcerting, to say the least. He stared back, feeling a bit alarmed.
"Was it the same poison as the Saimyoushou?" Shippou asked.
So that was it. They were concerned for his well-being as well as Kirara's. "No," he told them, though he was really only guessing, "this was much stronger. This came directly from Naraku's body. I suspect it was stronger even than the miasma he released after you injured him, Kagome."
She stared down at her hands, which were folded in her lap. "I wish we knew what to do," she said quietly.
"Can't you make a decision without me? I haven't been gone that long," Inuyasha groused loudly from down the road. Grumpy as he was, Miroku was actually glad to see him return. Perhaps he would have some new insight into their current situation.
Glancing toward the hanyou – while Kagome got to her feet and ran to meet him – Miroku was surprised to see him carrying Kagome's bicycle, of all things. She'd left it behind a long time ago, after the incident with the Peach Man, he thought. Had Inuyasha really run all the way back to Kaede's village to retrieve it? It seemed as if he must have done so. He certainly couldn't have acquired another one of the contraptions anywhere else.
Miroku hoped this did not mean Inuyasha intended to be back on the move soon. It would be feasible. If Kagome rode the bicycle, she could easily keep up with Inuyasha and Miroku, even if Inuyasha had to carry Sango and Kirara. But Sango's healing would be much improved if she could stay here and rest for a few days.
Inuyasha propped the bicycle against the wall of the hut, peeked inside briefly to check on Sango, and then joined Miroku, Shippou, and Kagome where they had clustered near the road. "All right, Myouga," he grumbled. "Tell them what you told me."
"Kirara is still suffering from the poison's effects?" the flea asked.
"Yes," Kagome told him. "We're really worried about her!"
"There may be an antidote," Myouga went on. "As a flea demon, I'm familiar with things like poisons." Naturally, Miroku thought. Anything that had anything to do with blood would be of interest to a flea. "But I also know a thing or two about antidotes. And I know of some herbs that might be able to help Kirara."
Kagome's face lit up. "You mean we can really save Kirara?"
"Yes," Myouga affirmed. "However…"
"Oh, just tell 'em," Inuyasha said.
"The field where these herbs grow is quite far from here," the flea admitted. "And I have heard it is guarded by a powerful youkai. It may not be as easy as you think to obtain these herbs."
Kagome looked to Inuyasha. Miroku followed her gaze. He, too, was curious. What did their surly friend think of this?
"We're leaving first thing tomorrow," he told Kagome. "We'll leave Sango here with the monk, and go get this herb."
"That's an awful plan," Kagome protested.
At the same time, Miroku assured them, "I will endeavor to take the best possible care of our friend."
This earned him sour looks from everyone except Myouga, who stared blankly. Miroku sighed.
"Shippou can stay with Miroku and Sango," Kagome decided. "To keep an eye on things." Her stern tone indicated that Miroku should not try anything with Sango while she and Inuyasha were gone. As if he had needed the hint.
"There is still plenty of daylight left," Miroku pointed out, as if he were unaware of the implication of Kagome's words. "You could get a head start by leaving now."
"You that eager to get some time alone with a woman?" Inuyasha jeered.
Miroku sighed again. He knew they did not exactly think well of him when it came to his behavior around women, but he hadn't realized that they thought this poorly of him. "I am that eager to obtain the remedy for Kirara's ills."
"He has a point," Kagome admitted. "She really wasn't looking well earlier…"
"I'm really worried about her," Shippou chimed in. "I can keep an eye on Miroku and make sure he doesn't try any funny business." He declared it so sincerely that even Miroku felt a little amused at his own expense.
Inuyasha and Kagome looked at each other. It was painfully obvious that they both liked the idea of being on the road again with just the other for company. But at the same time they felt a responsibility for Sango's well-being that meant they had to stay.
Suddenly Inuyasha sat back and sighed. "The sooner we leave, the sooner we get back with that herb."
"If you knew about the herb all along, why did you spend all day running after my bike?" Kagome asked.
"We might need a lot of it," Inuyasha protested, "and I'm not carrying it back here."
Kagome smiled. "It'll be just like old times."
Miroku had seldom felt more like an interloper than he did at that moment. "Go," he told them, noting the way they both flushed. "Kirara needs that remedy sooner rather than later. Shippou and I will look after things here."
It only took a little more prodding to get them to agree to it; this was what they both wanted, after all. And if it was also what was best for Kirara, then that only made it a better idea. And it would give Sango – and Miroku – the chance to rest for a few days. All things considered, it seemed a solid plan.
The decision might be made, but there was still much to be done before they could leave; Kagome spent much of the afternoon washing and mending Sango's torn and bloodied kosode. Inuyasha disappeared and returned again with a small stash of food and a mat for Sango to sleep on. Shippou continued his patrols, keeping a watchful eye out for any sign of danger. And Miroku sat just outside the door to the hut, ostensibly in case Sango needed anything.
But mostly he just watched the road and wondered. There was a lot to be learned about Naraku from that battle. Part of his reason for staying to look after Sango right now was to give himself a chance to consider everything he now knew about his old enemy. This would be much easier to do without the added distraction of traveling or fighting.
Sango had provided useful information on the origin and power of the Shikon no Tama before. Perhaps she could also provide information about Naraku.
Then again, he thought, suppressing a grin, Sango might be just as much distraction as help.
It was with some relief that Miroku watched his two companions set off down the road, following Myouga's directions. The sun was still high in the sky, and Miroku had no doubt they would make good time toward their destination. Then he turned to Shippou and saw the suspicious way the kitsune was watching him and had to suppress a sigh. It seemed he was doing that a lot lately. If only his friends had a better opinion of him…
He supposed that couldn't be helped. "Shall we go see to our patient?" he asked mildly. Shippou watched him warily, but nodded his agreement. At the very least, they needed to let Sango know about Inuyasha and Kagome's plan.
Well, he thought, letting Shippou precede him into the hut, she's going to love this.
Chapter 48: Lingering Distrust
Sango didn't take her eyes off Miroku. He hadn't made a move in her direction, but she had a bad feeling about this. A really bad feeling.
It was odd that he'd come in with Shippou to see her. She'd honestly expected Kagome to be the one to look after her for the next few days, much as she had done in the past. But there was no sign of Kagome or Inuyasha. Just Shippou and the monk, one seated on either side of where she lay near the center of the hut.
Finally she could stand it no longer. "Where is Kagome?" she asked.
"She and Inuyasha are on an errand," Miroku explained, his voice unwontedly cheerful. "Myouga has informed us that there are certain herbs that may help Kirara to heal. Inuyasha and Kagome have gone to get those herbs."
"I see," Sango murmured. And why are you here, then? she wondered.
"I stayed behind to watch over you," the monk went on as if he'd heard her question. It probably hadn't been that difficult to guess what was on her mind. "Put your mind at ease, Sango. I will keep you safe while you heal," he assured her.
Sango didn't trust the innocent look on his face one bit. She shimmied a bit further under her kosode, which was serving as a blanket now that Kagome had mended and washed it. Beside her, Kirara did not stir.
Miroku noticed her discomfort. "What is it?" he asked, his innocent expression unchanging.
"Somehow I feel like I'm in more danger with you here," she told him. How was she supposed to get any rest when she had to watch out for his wandering hands? She was pretty sure he wouldn't try anything just yet, but once her strength began to return, she felt certain that would change.
"Don't worry, Sango," Shippou chimed in from her other side, leaning forward to give Miroku a stern look. "Kagome told me to keep an eye out in case Miroku starts acting strange."
The monk sighed as if she had misjudged his intentions. That was something he did often, she noted. He would do something to convince the lot of them that he wasn't trustworthy, then mope and sigh when they treated him as if he couldn't be trusted. She wondered why that was. If he wanted them to trust him, he should behave as if he were worthy of that trust. Why spend so much time undermining his own efforts at earning their trust?
She wondered, but she knew better than to ask about it. He would only deflect or deny. Or, more likely, blame the curse in his right palm as if his actions were involuntary.
Deciding that the monk was a puzzle that could wait for another day, she rolled over to face Shippou and Kirara instead. The motion jarred her shoulder painfully, but she ignored the pain. She was getting quite good at that. She ran her fingers gently through Kirara's fur, feeling the now-familiar shudder run through her friend's tiny body.
"Does it hurt?" she asked quietly.
Kirara did not even open an eye to look at her.
Something in Sango's chest felt tight.
"Don't worry, Sango-sama," Miroku said quietly from behind her. "Inuyasha and Kagome will get those herbs."
She wanted to believe him, but she knew of no herbs that could cure what ailed Kirara. There had been people in her village that specialized in healing rather than fighting; Sango had been quite young when she chose to follow her father's footsteps and become a warrior, so she had not trained often with those healers, but she still knew most of the useful healing plants. But if Myouga said this cure existed… maybe it did.
But there was still a part of her that feared she would never see Inuyasha and Kagome again.
Chapter 49: Telling Tales
Never before in his life had Miroku found himself confined in close quarters with a beautiful woman and found the experience so painfully awkward. But Sango did not trust him and this, combined with her rather impressive stare, had him wondering if perhaps he ought to go sit outside and keep watch from there. And Shippou was not helping matters, glaring at him from across Sango's sickbed as he was.
Only Kirara seemed to have no interest in glowering at him, and that was only because she was too ill to do so. Did they really think so little of him? And yet he knew they must, or they wouldn't be staring at him so balefully.
Miroku sighed for what must have been the hundredth time and hoped that Inuyasha and Kagome would make a speedy trip and an even speedier return.
"Oh, quit sighing like that," Shippou grumbled. "You act like we don't have any reason to be suspicious."
"Inuyasha and Kagome asked me to look after Sango and Kirara, and that is what I intend to do," he retorted, his voice sounding more serene than he felt.
"It's okay, Shippou," Sango said at last. "I think Houshi-sama will behave himself for now."
"Are you sure?" Shippou asked.
She nodded tiredly. She looked exhausted. The last thing she needed right now was him and Shippou squabbling over her. They ought to let her get some rest, so Miroku said nothing in his own defense.
But even after Shippou fell silent, Sango could not seem to rest. Miroku didn't blame her for feeling restless. Her companion was suffering and there was nothing she could do to help. She must be in a great deal of pain, herself. And on top of that, she was not accustomed to bedrest even when it was necessary. He remembered quite vividly how she had chafed at being confined to her bed back at the village of the slayers. And, too, he remembered how quickly she had recovered from her injuries back then.
It seemed so long ago, but it had not been even a month since they set out from her village. So much had changed, and nothing had changed at all.
Upon reflection, he thought, perhaps everything had changed. He had never suspected that Kagome possessed the power to strike such a decisive blow against his lifelong enemy in a single shot. With just one arrow, she had saved them all. If her aim had been only a little bit better…
Best not to think on it that way.
Miroku closed his eyes and let his mind empty. It wasn't as easy as he would have liked, not with everything that had happened over the last two days demanding his due consideration, but he needed rest nearly as much as Sango. And he knew that as soon as Inuyasha returned with the herbs for Kirara, he would want to be on the road again.
When Miroku opened his eyes again it was fully dark in the hut save for the moonlight that streamed in through the open door. He realized with some chagrin that he'd fallen asleep, but was somewhat pleased to see he wasn't the only one. Shippo was curled up beside Sango, as sound asleep as Miroku had been until a moment ago.
Sango, on the other hand… She was laying on her back now, her breathing calm and even but her eyes open. She had let her head tip to the side so she could see him, and she was just looking at him now, rather than glaring defensively. She had quite an arresting gaze even when she wasn't trying to be intimidating.
"Can't sleep?" he prompted.
She immediately became defensive. "I don't need your help."
"I didn't mean to imply that you did."
Her expression softened; she was too tired just now to hold a grudge, it seemed. This time, at least, the silence wasn't as awkward as it had been earlier. She wasn't going to give him an opening if she could avoid it, but she also didn't really think he was going to try anything inappropriate while she couldn't fight back. Or so he hoped.
"You've been chasing after Naraku your whole life, haven't you?" she asked finally, her voice quiet.
"More or less."
She hesitated. "Is it always like this?"
Like what, he wondered. In any case, the answer was the same: "No."
She seemed surprised. "No?"
"In all my years of searching, I discovered no definitive proof that Naraku still existed beyond the presence of the kazaana in my hand," he admitted. "I did not even know what he looked like. Not until I encountered Inuyasha and Kagome." It was only then that he'd begun to realize that he wasn't chasing a ghost, and that his quest might have an end after all.
"How did you team up with them, anyway?"
Somehow he'd assumed that Kagome had already told her everything. Apparently that wasn't the case.
Since he had assumed Kagome would take care of introductions and explanations, he had never really considered what he would tell her if she asked how he had come to join Inuyasha and the others. Joining them certainly had not been something that he had wanted to do at first, although now he could look back on that decision and be glad that it had happened as it had. "We were both searching for shards of the Shikon jewel," he explained. "We started out as rivals, trying to claim shards before the other could reach them… but after I ran into them a few times, Kagome convinced me it would be better to work together." He chuckled. "Inuyasha wasn't too thrilled with the plan, but I like to think he's coming around."
"Did they know about… your hand?" she asked. She seemed surprised that he was willing to answer her questions.
"They did. That didn't stop them." It still surprised him that they had been willing to join up with someone as dangerous as himself and had, in fact, insisted upon it. Remembering the way Kagome had nearly thrown herself into the kazaana still made him anxious. She'd come so close to sacrificing herself just to make the point that he wasn't as bad as Inuyasha thought.
Sango looked thoughtful. He hoped that by sharing some of his experiences with Inuyasha and Kagome, he could put her more at ease. While Sango seemed to fear the prospect of being abandoned after her betrayal, and seemed to think this the right and just response to her actions, Miroku had no doubt that Inuyasha and Kagome would return. Too bad there was nothing he could do to convince Sango, save waiting with her.
"They're… strange… aren't they?"
He chuckled. "Probably even more strange than you think they are."
"Inuyasha is a half-youkai," Sango pointed out. "And Kagome seems to have some sort of spiritual powers that enable her to purify Shikon shards. How much stranger a pair could you get?" For a moment she actually smiled. It was slight and it vanished quickly, but he saw it. He never would have guessed Sango for a gossip, but if talking about their companions lightened her mood, then that was what he would do.
"Theirs is an odd story, or so I've gathered," he said with an air of false solemnity. "Inuyasha is quite cagy, and even Kagome doesn't volunteer much unless you ask her directly."
"All right, then, do you know how those two ended up looking for the shards of the Shikon jewel together?"
"From what I understand, Kagome is the one that obtained the jewel, though I do not know where she got it." He shrugged. "She is also the one that shattered it into the fragments we now seek."
"So it's a personal obligation," Sango mused. "How does Inuyasha play into this?"
"Ah, that is something of a sore spot for our companions."
"How do you mean?"
He hesitated for a moment, wondering how much of this he ought to tell her and how much she really should hear from Kagome instead. "Kagome really hasn't told you any of this already?"
"I think she's scared of upsetting me," Sango admitted. "She talks about things she think won't hurt my feelings, like the weather or what she's studying. She mentioned once that she has a brother, but once she found out that I had… have… a brother, too, she got quiet about it."
She had seemed to be perking up, but at the mention of her brother she'd gone sad again. Miroku could see why Kagome was reluctant to do more than make small talk. She wouldn't want to risk causing any more hurt by saying the wrong thing. Unfortunately, the longer she knew next to nothing about her companions, the more Sango would feel like she wasn't truly a part of the group. He suspected that she was already feeling a great deal more isolated and worried than she was letting on.
So with that in mind, he told her much of what he knew about their companions. All things considered, it wasn't that much. He supposed it was only fair, considering he told them very little about himself. In the telling, he was surprised all over again at how quickly he had fallen in with Inuyasha and Kagome and Shippou, and that he had come to feel as if they really were a group. Perhaps by bringing Sango up to speed on the others, he could make her feel in some small way as if she were truly part of that group, too.
Some things he left out of his retelling, such as the truth of how he had first encountered Kagome and discovered her jewel shards, or how he and the others had stumbled upon the ruined village of the slayers. Sango already knew that last part, and like Kagome he had no desire to cause her any more pain.
She seemed to like his tales of Inuyasha and Kagome's antics best, rather than the ones about the battles fought and jewel shards won so far, so that was where he focused his efforts. He had to admit, their squabbles were both amusing and endlessly fascinating, if occasionally frustrating.
It was growing light outside by the time he began to run out of things to tell her. In the early morning light Sango looked even more exhausted than she had yesterday. Miroku guessed she had slept very little, if at all, and decided it would probably be for the best if he convinced her to at least try and rest. He just needed the right opening, and Sango conveniently provided it.
"So tell me then, why does Kagome dress so strangely?" she asked. "I've never met another woman that dressed like that, and it seems hopelessly impractical for a journey like this…"
"Kagome actually lives in another world," he confided. He wondered what had inspired the question, but was more curious to see how Sango would react to the answer. "She comes here to our world by jumping into a magic well in her world, and ends up at the bottom of a well in a village here."
Sango giggled at that. She actually laughed. "Now you're just making things up!"
"You'll see," he promised. "Everything I have told you is true." He paused for a beat, then gently told her, "You should try to get some rest now, Sango."
She heaved a tired sigh, but did not argue. Even he could see that exhaustion was finally catching up to her.
"Rest while you can," he advised her. "If our friends have been lucky, they may have already obtained the remedy for Kirara."
She nodded wearily. She let her eyes fall closed with none of yesterday's defensive wariness, and he was gratified to see that within a few minutes she really did seem to be asleep.
Shippou ambled over a few moments later, careful to move silently in order to avoid disturbing Sango and pausing only briefly to check on Kirara. Finally he plopped down next to Miroku. "You know," he said quietly, all impish innocence, "I didn't think that once you got a girl alone you'd just want to talk about Inuyasha and Kagome."
Miroku just laughed.
Chapter 50: On the Mend
Sango awoke to midmorning sunlight and an intense desire for a bath. Her mouth felt thick and dry and pain numbed by Kagome's medicines last night now throbbed through each of her injuries, but what she wanted most of all was to be clean. She groaned and rolled into her side, and immediately regretted it.
She lay still while pain lanced through her injured shoulder, vaguely aware that Shippou had raced out of the hut, calling for Miroku.
She hadn't even realized the monk was gone, and wondered where he had wandered off to.
By the time he came into the hut, she had managed to sit up and pull her kosode more or less into place. He crouched beside her, wisely saying only, "Sango."
No doubt they were worried because she had tried to slip away from them back at the castle. They had nothing to worry about. Now that she was truly feeling her injuries, she would be lucky to make it to her feet on her own.
She realized that he had brought one of Kagome's strange bottles, and that it was filled with water. Taking it, she drank eagerly and almost immediately felt better. "Thank you," she murmured, disliking the strained sound of her voice.
He smiled softly. For reasons she couldn't explain, it annoyed her that he could look so carefree and cheerful after everything that happened yesterday. Unfortunately, she needed his help even if he was irritating her right now. "Where did you get the water?" she asked.
"There's a stream not far from here," he explained. "I hope you don't mind that I left Shippou here to watch over you while I brought some back. It seemed safe enough."
He was saying all the right things, but none of it improved her mood. "Take me there."
He looked surprised. "Sango, you should rest."
She hated the way her shoulders and arms shook. "I want to be clean," she told him, bracing for an inappropriate remark from the monk.
The surprised, almost stern expression on his face softened. "Shippou, see if you can find a good spot. I'll help Sango."
Always happy to be useful, Shippou nodded. "Right!" he said, and scrambled out the door.
When he was out of the way, Miroku set the water bottle aside and scooped Kirara up gently with one hand, cradling her against his side. "Can't leave you here, can we?" he murmured. When Kirara was secure, he stepped closer to hook his free arm around Sango's waist. With her arm over his shoulders, he was able to help her climb to her feet without much trouble.
It wasn't until they had hobbled out into the sunshine and started heading around behind the hut that Sango realized he'd spared her the embarrassment of being carried by choosing to bring Kirara with them. She wondered if it had been deliberate, and decided that it must have been. But why? He had the perfect opportunity now to get away with whatever he wanted. She was obviously healing now, and couldn't have fought him even if she wanted to. And he still wasn't taking advantage.
As they came upon the stream and turned to follow Shippou's trail along it, she remembered how Miroku had been back at her village when they first met, how he had treated her injuries and helped Inuyasha and Kagome bury the villagers and do what they could to clean up the damage. All this he had done without making any overtures toward her whatsoever. And now, as he helped her make the short trip to the stream without making a single inappropriate gesture, she wondered why he couldn't be like that all the time. If he could, she might actually like him, instead of finding his behavior so frustrating and inconsistent.
Shippou came bounding over a small rise to announce that, "I found the perfect spot! You can't see it from the road, and the water's a little deeper there, Sango."
She managed a smile even though there wasn't a single part of her that didn't hurt right now. "Thank you, Shippou," she said, and realized with no little horror that the monk might well be behaving himself now to lull her into a false sense of security. After all, she could barely stand. And who better to help her bathe than the one who had gotten her this far?
She glanced over at him, suddenly skeptical, but he seemed entirely serene. She couldn't tell at all what he might be thinking or planning.
All she could do was lean on him for support as they followed Shippou to the spot he had picked out. It was indeed a better spot than any other part of the stream they had passed. A curve in the stream and a copse of trees hid it from view of the road, and the water here looked much deeper than the mere trickle they had followed up until now.
Miroku helped her down to the water's edge and stopped. "Do you think you can help her from here?" he asked Shippou, earning an enthusiastic nod – and a suspicious look – in response.
"Don't you dare even try to peek!" Shippou scolded.
The monk chuckled. "Kirara and I will wait on the other side of the trees," he assured them. "We have to stay alert in case there is any trouble." When he realized that both Shippou and Sango were aware of what he was not saying, he added, "And I won't peek."
Sango knew that she would have to accept this, and was surprised to find that she could stay on her feet without Miroku's help. She felt off-balance and unstable, but she could do it. Whether she could stay upright once she got into the water and the uncertain footing of the streambed remained to be seen.
When Miroku had taken Kirara and passed out of sight beyond the trees, Sango took a few tentative steps forward. Her legs could indeed carry her weight and she wasn't so pained and exhausted that she toppled over without support. All of this was, she supposed, good progress. Once she had divested herself of her clothing and stepped into the water, none of that mattered.
The water was clear and blessedly cool around her ankles and, as she stepped further into the small pool, all the way up to her knees. She had no soap to wash with and no towel to dry with, but none of that mattered. The water was clean and by itself could wash away the worst of the grime and dried blood.
Shippou left her to it, reclining on the shore and glancing over occasionally to make sure she wasn't going to fall or hurt herself. She was grateful for the quiet, unobtrusive companionship. In a way, he reminded her of Kirara just now. She knew he was there, and was happy to know someone was there to help should she need it, but he was content to just let her be until she did need his help.
That way, she could focus on the task at hand instead of trying to listen to whatever he might say. Any other time she would have been happy to chat with him, but today her various injuries meant that washing took more of her concentration than it ordinarily did. It hardly seemed like she could do anything without feeling a twinge in one arm or the other. Her wounds stung when she washed them, but at least they felt somewhat better afterward.
The worst part was bending down to scoop up water to rinse with. Each time she worried that she might lose her balance and fall face first into the water, but for the most part she managed to keep her footing and only wobble a little. After she was more or less clean and all that remained was her hair, she gave up on this tactic and dropped to her knees in the water with a chagrined glance at Shippou. "You'll have to help me up," she told him, and then leaned forward to dunk as much of her head as possible into the water.
It took several more dunks and a lot of scrubbing before she finally felt like she had washed all of the remaining miasma from her hair. Feeling a little embarrassed at her inability to get back up on her own, but much better for finally being clean, she let Shippou help her up and onto the shore. When she had dried enough, he helped her get her clothes back on, too, before calling for Miroku.
The monk appeared several minutes later, Kirara still cradled comfortably against him. They headed back to the hut together the same way they had come, though Sango was pleased to notice that she was already moving more easily than she had earlier. By the time they made it back to the hut, she was actually feeling hungry. And maybe a little less worried that Inuyasha and Kagome weren't coming back.
It still felt as if dark clouds loomed all around her in spite of the day's sunshine, with her brother's fate and Naraku's still unknown, with Kirara still fighting for her life and the memory of her own foolish betrayal still fresh in Sango's mind, but the path ahead seemed a little brighter than it had before.
Chapter 51: Healing Herbs
Miroku was sitting outside the hut, contemplating the perfectly straight line of the road as it cut through the countryside, when Inuyasha and Kagome at last returned from their journey. It took only a single glance for him to see that the two had come to some sort of understanding during the time they had been away and on their own. In a way, he was glad for them. They deserved a little peace.
Kagome called out cheerfully as soon as they were within earshot, pedaling faster on her bicycle to reach the hut all the more quickly. Inuyasha, perched on the back of the contraption while Kagome did the work of propelling it, looked less than pleased. Miroku knew from experience just how difficult it was to balance the bicycle long enough to ride, especially when accommodating a passenger, and sympathized.
"We got the herbs!" Kagome announced as the bicycle skidded to a halt. "Now Myouga just needs to tell us what to do with them."
Without further ado, she slipped past where Miroku was sitting and went in to check on Sango. Rather than following, Inuyasha came over to loom over him. "You didn't try anything funny while we were gone, did you?" he asked.
Miroku sighed. "Even I would not stoop so low as to take advantage of a woman in Sango's condition," he protested, though he knew his words would not make a difference. Kagome and Inuyasha had already made up their minds about him. There was no sense getting upset about it, no matter how exasperating he found it.
"Right," Inuyasha snorted, heading past Miroku to follow Kagome into the hut.
Miroku gave them a few minutes alone with Sango before heading in to join them. Sango looked a little bleary-eyed, and had probably been asleep when Kagome came rushing in, but was otherwise showing steady improvement. Kirara, on the other hand… Inuyasha and Kagome had returned not a moment too soon.
Already Myouga was instructing Kagome and the others on what additional supplies would be necessary. Thankfully, it sounded as if they simply needed to brew a tisane from the herbs and entice Kirara to drink from it at regular intervals until her symptoms abated. A simple enough remedy, if you had the required supplies on hand. Miroku wondered if the herbs would be as effective against the poison from Naraku's hell wasps. Perhaps they should have gathered more, just in case.
Eager as always to feel as if she were useful, Kagome set about gathering the needful items and preparing the healing concoction. With Kagome busy preparing the remedy for Kirara and Inuyasha to keep watch for trouble, Miroku was happy to find he was suddenly superfluous. He settled himself in a corner, out of the way of Kagome's bustling and Inuyasha's scrutiny, and let his eyes drift closed.
There was nothing really for him to do now, and he knew Inuyasha would want them back on the road as soon as possible. He might as well get some rest while he had the opportunity.
He waited in his corner of the hut, half dozing, until Kagome had finished preparing the remedy for Kirara. After she had coaxed Kirara into consuming some of the medicine, he allowed himself to slip into a deeper sleep. There was nothing to do now but wait anyway.
Chapter 52: Kirara's Recovery
Sango ran her fingers gently through soft fur, taking care not to disturb Kirara's rest. She knew she should let her friend sleep while Myouga's herbs worked their healing magic, but she was too restless to sit idly by any longer. All she wanted was for Kirara to be well again. Wishing that there was more she could do to help, she sighed.
"Was it bad?" Kagome asked from behind her. Sango startled at the sound of her voice. She had assumed that Kagome had followed Inuyasha and Shippou out earlier. "I mean, Miroku behaved himself while we were gone, right?"
Sango wondered why Kagome hadn't stayed, if she had seriously thought the monk might be a danger, but kept that unfair thought to herself. After all, she had not been part of the decision; for all she knew Inuyasha had insisted on Kagome's company or the monk had talked them into it. And if she were to be honest, Miroku had turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant companion and caretaker. It seemed that every time she thought she had him figured out, he would throw her off balance all over again. So she said, "Shippou kept him in line."
Kagome came around to sit opposite her, on Kirara's other side. "What did he try to do?" she asked. Her face was so determined, her expression so defensive that Sango wasn't sure whether to laugh or feel honored.
"Nothing," she assured. "He didn't try anything inappropriate. We talked, mostly." She had expected the worst, but he had surprised her. Even more surprising was the fact that she now felt compelled to defend him.
The other girl frowned slightly, as if deep in thought. "That doesn't sound right. I wonder if he was injured, too, and just didn't say anything…"
"He seemed fine," Sango supplied. He'd certainly been strong and steady enough to bear most of her weight when he helped her to the stream for a bath. If he was injured, she didn't think it was a physical injury, though she wasn't sure how to explain that to Kagome without getting the monk in trouble. She had no doubt that he had kept his word and hadn't spied on her. Yet she also knew that if she hadn't been there herself, she would never have believed it.
"Are you sure?" Kagome pressed.
Sango let her gaze drop to where Kirara lay. Was it just her imagination, or was her friend sleeping more restfully now?
"I didn't notice anything weird, if that's what you mean."
Kagome seemed to accept this, and Sango hoped that meant they could be done talking about the monk for a while. "So what happened when you and Inuyasha went to find the healing herbs? Did the journey go smoothly?" she asked, just to make sure they stayed on other topics of conversation.
The question did the trick nicely: Kagome seemed excited for the chance to talk to someone about what had happened, and quickly forgot about the monk. She told Sango how they'd traveled for a long time, following Myouga's directions, until they came to a village where there had been a number of strange deaths lately. The villagers blamed the deaths on the half-youkai who grew the very healing herbs Myouga had led them there to gather.
Kagome had, of course, been undeterred by the accusations, much less by the hanyou's strange and frightening appearance. She had befriended him and his mother, and though things had nearly come to violence with the angry villagers, ultimately the real culprit revealed itself and proved the hanyou innocent. She had been given the herbs that Kirara needed as thanks for her trust.
The girl had a knack for talking at length without requiring any encouragement from anyone. Sango didn't mind. In fact, she appreciated it because it gave her the chance to just listen for a while – and to keep her eye on Kirara for any signs of improvement.
As she listened to the tale she had to admit it surprised her a little to hear that Kagome had put herself in danger just for the chance to help Kirara get better. After Sango betrayed them, the last thing she had expected from Inuyasha or Kagome was such selfless kindness.
As the other girl's story wound down, Sango almost wanted to ask Kagome if what the monk had told her was true. Could she really be from another world? It seemed so ridiculous as to be impossible, and she wasn't sure if Miroku had intended it to be a secret, so she did not ask. But looking again at Kagome's strange clothes and outlandish mannerisms, she had to wonder… and abruptly chided herself for taking the monk's story so seriously.
When Kagome had at last fallen silent, Sango sought another question that would keep the other girl talking. She did not feel like being interrogated about the monk's behavior all over again, but found that she also didn't want to be left alone in the hut, in silence, left to heal while the others went about the task of planning their next move without her.
She opened her mouth to speak only to be interrupted by an explosive sneeze from Kirara. The force of it even seemed to startle the little youkai. She blinked her eyes open and gave a questioning chirp, as if asking what had happened.
Everything Sango had thought to say went straight out of her head. "Kirara!" she said instead.
Kirara gave an exhausted mew before tottering over to nestle herself under Sango's chin. The twin tails fluttered over Sango's neck, tickling, but she didn't mind. With one careful hand she pulled her old friend close and breathed a sigh of relief as Kirara went boneless against her. She was still a long way from fully healed, but this was a good sign.
"Kirara!" Kagome echoed. "Are you feeling better?"
The cat blinked one eye open, lifting her head to peer at Kagome, then determinedly tucked her head beneath one of her tails for a well-deserved nap.
"She barely moved the entire time you were gone," Sango told the other girl. "I think this means she's on the mend."
"Thank goodness!" Kagome breathed, with a smile that lit up the room. "We were all so worried about her!" A moment later, she added, "Should I go tell the others?"
Sango nodded her assent, mindful of the cat tucked under her chin as she added, "I think she still needs her rest, so we shouldn't crowd her."
Kagome gave a nod to show she understood, then got up and went out to let their friends know that Kirara was improving, however slowly.
A short while later everyone had gathered in the hut, keeping a respectful distance from Sango and Kirara.
"If Kirara is going to recover, what do we do next?" the monk asked.
"What do you think?" Inuyasha countered irritably. "We keep looking for Naraku."
Kagome frowned. "What about the shards of the Shikon Jewel?"
"Feh. Where we find Naraku, I bet we'll find jewel shards, too." The hanyou looked to Sango, and she braced herself for an accusation or biting comment about her brother. It never came. "How soon do you think you'll be able to move around?"
For some reason she had not expected him to ask about that. Kagome or the monk, maybe, but not Inuyasha. Caught by surprise, it took her a moment to consider. Her injuries still ached, but it was the dull, itchy ache of healing. "Soon," she said at last. "Maybe as soon as tomorrow morning."
"That's a good idea," Kagome added. "We can stay here and all get a good night's rest, and then move on in the morning."
"What about Kirara?" Shippou protested. "Will she be ready so soon?"
"I can carry her," Sango told him.
"I have a better idea!" Kagome announced. "She can ride in the basket on my bike!"
Sango would have preferred to keep Kirara close, but gave the idea a little more thought. Kagome meant well, and the last thing she wanted to do was rebuke that kindness. And besides, she would have to carry the hiraikotsu as well. That would be burden enough for her healing wounds, she suspected. Maybe it was for the best to trust someone else to look after Kirara for a while.
Looking where Kagome and Inuyasha sat, already drifting to the edge of an argument over what they would have for breakfast tomorrow and how early they might be able to leave, Sango thought about how they could have left her to die and had not. They could have chastised her or abandoned her for her betrayal, but they had not. Instead, they'd helped her. They were still helping her.
It was hard, when Kirara was all she had left of home, but she made up her mind. If she never allowed herself to truly trust Kagome and the others, she would never truly belong in their group. She would always be apart. Alone. And so tomorrow she would entrust Kirara to Kagome's care, and hope for the best.
Chapter 53: Wishful Thinking
By the time they were ready to depart their temporary haven, Sango looked a little lost.
She had given Kirara over to Kagome willingly enough, but looked a bit bewildered by the metal contraption that was the bicycle, as if she wasn't quite sure it was safe for her friend – or Kagome – to travel that way. Having once attempted to ride the bicycle himself, Miroku understood how she felt. He also knew that Kirara and Kagome would be perfectly safe, and that it would be better for Sango to discover that for herself.
She had only a few more moments to look so heart-rendingly forlorn before Inuyasha headed off down the road. He strode forward confidently, as if he knew exactly where they were going, rather than acknowledging that they were more or less setting off at random. Miroku let Kagome and Sango fall in behind Inuyasha, then took up a place at the back of the group.
The sun was shining gently between puffy white clouds and a soft wind blew at their backs; overall Miroku thought it a very pleasant day for traveling, and the view on the road ahead of him certainly didn't hurt matters. Rather than riding, Kagome had chosen to walk alongside her bicycle so that she could more easily chat with Sango. The breeze ruffled her short skirt so invitingly that Miroku sighed regretfully…
…and wished, rather wistfully, that the style would catch on.
"Why do you always walk at the back?" Shippou asked, interrupting his daydreams.
Miroku had forgotten that Shippou was there, even though the kitsune was clinging to his shoulder. That seemed to have become his custom lately.
"Someone has to watch everyone's backs," Miroku commented smoothly, as if that had been his intention all along.
Shippou saw right through him. "Don't you mean their backsides?" the kitsune asked archly.
"In case there's trouble," Miroku explained, though he suspected that Shippou was not fooled in the least. "It's good to have someone in the rear that's on the alert."
"And that's you?" Shippou seemed on the verge of laughing out loud.
"In this case, yes."
That really did it. Shippou burst into gales of laughter. Miroku could only sigh and mutter, "I am so misunderstood."
Chapter 54: A Peaceful Interlude
Kirara's health improved with each hour that passed and slowly, in fits and starts, Sango's spirits rose in response. Her own steps were still slower than usual on account of her injuries, but it felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Even the hiraikotsu felt lighter than she had feared it might.
InuYasha and Kagome had come back. Kirara was, if not well, at least on the mend. And they were all on their way again, searching once more for shards of the Shikon jewel. If her wayward brother, in need of saving, and her enemy, in need of slaying, were still out there… well, at least she didn't have to face them alone.
During the past several days she had discovered a newfound appreciation for the friendship and support Kagome had been offering all along. It had been easier to keep her distance before, to feel like she wasn't really a part of the group, like she might leave them without a second thought if it turned out anyone from her village had survived its destruction. Now she knew that wasn't true, and she would have to live with that.
To pass the time as they walked, Kagome told her silly stories about her friends "back home". Eventually Sango found herself wondering if the strange things Miroku had told her about Kagome could really be true. Jumping through a well to travel through time? It didn't seem like it could be possible. Kagome was very different from the girls Sango was used to, but not so different that Sango was ready to ask for the truth about her origins. If Kagome wanted to volunteer the information, Sango would gladly listen, but she wasn't going to ask just yet. In the meantime she would just keep an eye out for indications that Miroku hadn't just been teasing to see what he could get away with.
As if Kagome could tell what she was thinking about, the other girl whispered, "Don't look now, but we're being watched."
Sango frowned. InuYasha was leading the way, which left Shippou and the monk to bring up the rear. There was no one else around. "The monk?" she ventured.
Kagome gave a curt nod. Sango wasn't entirely sure whether Kagome was annoyed or not.
"So he's just… always like this?" she asked.
"He has been ever since I met him, anyway," Kagome complained. "Always looking at girls and putting his hands where they're not wanted." She paused to glare over her shoulder. "You're sure he didn't try anything funny while InuYasha and I were gone?"
The monk had been nothing but kind during her recovery. This was entirely at odds with the other side of his personality, which Sango knew to be exactly as Kagome described – always looking to take advantage. Sometimes it was hard for her to believe he was just one man, and not two men with opposite personalities who just happened to look exactly alike.
"No," she murmured, knowing Kagome wouldn't believe it. "He didn't do anything like that. As weird as that may be."
"Well, he's definitely staring now," Kagome told her, her voice taking on a conspiratorial tone.
Personally, Sango figured he was more likely to be interested in the way Kagome's skirt left her legs almost completely bare than in whatever views she herself might offer, particularly with the hiraikotsu slung over her shoulder to block much of her body from view. It also seemed probable that he merely wanted to keep an eye on her, since she had been under his care only yesterday. "I don't think the monk is interested in me that way," she began. She wasn't sure she really wanted to go there, but it might ward off future awkward conversations.
"What are you talking about?" Kagome asked, far too loudly for Sango's taste. "He sticks closer to you than he does to me or InuYasha."
Did he? It didn't feel like it to Sango. And if he did, she could think of a hundred reasons why that had nothing to do with any imagined interest in her, romantic or… otherwise.
Determined to steer the conversation away from the increasingly awkward path it had taken, she asked, "Remember what you told me about how he asks every woman he meets to bear his children?" At Kagome's nod, she pointed out, "He never asked me. I think that settles it."
Had she sounded disappointed just now?
"He never asked you?" Kagome sounded shocked.
"As if I would want him to!" Sango protested, perhaps more defensive than she absolutely needed to be.
"No, of course not," Kagome murmured, suddenly subdued.
They walked in silence for a while. Sango let her mind go empty while she kept an eye on her surroundings, letting the repeated motion of walking calm her nerves. All she had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other, and everything else would eventually fall into place.
Finally, Kagome asked, "Can I ask you something?"
She hesitated, as if she might still back out. "Does it bother you that Miroku might not see you as a woman?"
Sango shrugged. Did it bother her? Maybe a little, but this was something she'd had to learn to deal with a long time ago. "Some men can see me as a fighter or a woman, but not both," she explained. "Some women, too. I'm used to it."
"That's so… sad."
It didn't seem particularly sad to Sango. Occasionally frustrating, but not really sad. It was just how things were in the world outside the village where she'd grown up. All the women in her village had been trained to fight, so a woman fighter wasn't unusual or considered unattractive there, but she knew that wasn't the case elsewhere.
"It's not that sad," she assured Kagome. "And besides, I'd rather the monk not take that kind of interest in me. Not with those wandering eyes—and hands!—of his."
That put a smile back on Kagome's face and, happily, an end to that particular strand of conversation.
Chapter 55: A Slayer's Secrets
It had been an idle question, not something Miroku thought she would take seriously. He'd just wanted to kill some time by striking up a conversation.
Still, Sango cast a beleaguered glance toward InuYasha and Kagome before turning back to answer him. Their companions were too busy arguing with each other to offer her a reasonable excuse for refusing.
"I guess I can show you," she murmured.
He held up his hands in a vain attempt to convince her that he meant no offense. "I'm only curious," he added. "There's no need –"
"No," she sighed, suddenly downcast, "you should know." She glanced toward Inuyasha and Kagome again. "One of you should know, anyway. In case…"
So she still thought she might one day be forced to choose between them and her brother. "Let's hope it won't come to that," he said.
Sango did not look particularly encouraged.
"Only if you want," he reiterated.
The two of them looked over at InuYasha and Kagome again—the hanyou was now sulking while Kagome seethed a few feet away—and back to each other. Shaking her head, Sango sat and indicated that Miroku should do the same.
"Where should I start?" she asked.
He hadn't thought it through far enough to get to that point. "Wherever would make the most sense," he suggested.
"Well, there's the hiraikotsu…"
That seemed as good a place to start as any. "How about that, then?"
She looked like she suddenly felt self-conscious. "The hiraikotsu is made from the forged bones of many youkai," she began. "Long ago, the people of my village had a method for creating materials out of a mixture of youkai bones like that… the art was lost, but we still have—had—a few heirlooms that were made using that technique." She paused to draw a deep breath, and let it go. "It can be used effectively as a shield or a club at close range. If the fighter is strong enough it can be thrown, too."
Next she skimmed over the various blades she carried, including the spring-loaded ones hidden along her forearms that could be triggered as a last resort for close-quarters fighting. By that time, Shippou had climbed back into his accustomed spot on Miroku's shoulder and even InuYasha seemed to have drifted a bit closer, while Kagome quietly worked on making dinner for everyone.
It was only after she had covered the last of her mundane weapons—namely, a length of chain that she could use in a variety of ways to snare and incapacitate an enemy—that she finally arrived at the tools that had prompted Miroku to ask about her arsenal in the first place. These were various powders, pellets, and what looked like small dumplings, each of which possessed unique properties or produced some special effect when properly activated.
She spread one of each of the pellets and dumpling-shaped objects on the ground in front of her, explaining what each did in turn. This one produced a brief, but blinding flash of light. That one produced a potent and pungent smoke when heat was applied to it. This other would burst on impact and produce thick smoke that could provide cover for a retreat. One in particular proved distasteful to InuYasha, who had been drifting ever closer throughout Sango's demonstrations.
"We call them scent beads," Sango confirmed. "They don't have any real effect except that they stink horribly when you break them. Not very useful unless you're up against something with a keen sense of smell, like an inu youkai, or a wolf pack."
"I think InuYasha remembers those scent beads only too well," Miroku told her, stifling a laugh as the hanyou grumbled.
"Isn't it dangerous to use stuff like that?" Shippou asked. "Or is that why you wear that mask?"
Sango, already scooping up her samples to stow in their usual places, nodded. "Every fighter of my village is given one of those masks when they officially become a slayer. They work as air filters so you can breathe even in thick smoke or when surrounded by a youkai's evil energy."
"Perhaps you should let InuYasha borrow yours sometime," Miroku suggested. It seemed to take a few moments for Sango to realize he was joking. What she made of that, he couldn't tell.
"What about your armor?" Shippou cut into the sudden awkward silence. "You talked about all your weapons, but is your armor made from youkai parts, too?"
Sango removed the carefully folded leather bodysuit and padded armor from her pack and allowed the fox kit to investigate to his heart's content; as he explored, she explained how the leather was the specially treated skin of a particular type of youkai that could absorb enormous impacts without damage to the wearer. The padded armor, on the other hand, was different for each slayer. It wasn't just the color that varied, but the materials used to make it, which were tailored for each slayer's unique weapon and fighting style.
It surprised Miroku a bit, just how eager Shippou was to find out the specifics about a youkai killer's arsenal. Being a youkai himself and having seen what befell his parents, Miroku worried that the truth about Sango's people and her weapons and armor might resurface bad memories, but that didn't seem to be the case. If anything, proof that her arsenal contained no kitsune parts seemed to make the boy even more comfortable with her as a companion and ally.
While InuYasha and Shippou were still pawing over Sango's armor and peppering her with questions, Kagome came and sat down next to Miroku and handed a bowl of noodles his way. He accepted the bowl with a smile, adding, "My thanks, Kagome."
She nodded absently. "That was a good idea, asking Sango about her weapons like that. I wish I'd thought of it," she mused. "Somehow I feel like I know her so much better now…"
Digging into his dinner, Miroku thought, Me too.