by Scribe Figaro

The young houshi sat quietly on the hill not far from Kaede's village. Menomaru was defeated by Inuyasha and Kagome, but it was he and Sango who suffered the worst injuries in their battles with the youkai's minions.

Inuyasha and Kagome had left not long afterward. They had claimed to be going for more supplies from her time, but Miroku believed they had other reasons. He wondered if they knew how often he, Sango, and Shippou spied on their lovers' quarrels.

If they were as discreet as Kagome and Inuyasha were when they spied on him and Sango, it was most likely.

Miroku turned to where the young taiji-ya had approached. Perhaps she read the look of mild surprise on his face and thought she had snuck up on him, interrupted his thoughts, but that wouldn't be quite true – he knew her well, knew her gait, her step, and could even detect her aura at most times. He knew she was coming.

Konbawa, Sango-sama, he said, softly. Her eyes stayed on him, wavering a little – she was uncertain, perhaps a bit nervous about what he might do, but that was understandable. Finally she nodded, the slightest bit, as she made up her mind.

She sat down at his left side, a little over an arm's length in distance. This did not pass by Miroku's observation. For that matter, the way she paused to adjust the folds of her yukata as she sat down implied that she wanted him to realize the distance between them. This both disappointed and amused him.

You've been avoiding me, Houshi-sama.

He glanced back at her, uncertain whether that was a question or an accusation. Perhaps both. Her eyes burned at him, her head cocked so that she could read his expression, her bangs tilted oddly, the blanket of her raven-black hair, poorly restrained by the white ribbon near its end, spilling off one shoulder.

Oh, those eyes. He could tease her, play with her, even lie to her, but when she looked at him that way there was very little he could do. So quickly could she strip the guile from his words, so effectively could she see through the facades and walls he constructed to hide his true feelings.

Perhaps she is joking.

He smiled, an almost imperceptible upturning of the corner of one mouth.

It occurred to me that – despite your assurances to Kagome-sama and Inuyasha to the contrary – you were badly injured in your battle. I thought that perhaps you would like me to leave you alone while Kaede-sama could bandage your cracked ribs.

Her eyebrows rose, and Miroku's smile widened. She thought she had fooled him, that Miroku wouldn't have the restraint to not offer to bandage her chest, and he was glad now for showing that restraint, knowing it perplexed her even more.

How . . . how did you know?

You were making effort to breathe very regularly when we came back to the village. It seemed to me you were trying very hard to conceal that sort of injury. I've done it myself in fights where I wanted my enemies to think I was still in top form, even when I was about to pass out. He raised his eyebrows, glancing at her briefly: this was his turn to be accusatory. Though I can't imagine why Sango-sama would find it necessary to hide this from me, unless I am her enemy, too.

She was blushing now – Kami-sama, he loved doing that to her – and shook her head curtly.

It's not that, she said. I wasn't trying to fool anyone. I just didn't want Kagome-chan to worry about me, and spend time with me when she should be with Inuyasha.

Is that all?

She replied a bit too quickly for his taste.

I also didn't want Houshi-sama to be hurt, which would surely happen if he offered to bandage me.

He furrowed his brows in annoyance, and glancing at Sango, found her eyes locked upon his. She stared him down easily, for only a few seconds later he laughed warmly.

I spared you from that because, after being through so much so quickly, I thought I might give you a rest from my legendary charm, he said, ignoring the way she rolled her eyes at him on that last word. I had a feeling that losing Kirara was a traumatic event, and that you might want to spend some time alone with her. And she with you, for that matter.

Her face revealed that small, hesitant smile of hers again, a bit more blush on those cheeks, but only for a moment, and she turned away. Kirara's been so loyal to me for so long, and it wasn't her fault what she did to me. To us. It made me think of how easily the enemies we fight can take over our friends and turn them against us.

She sighed, and out the corner of his eye Miroku saw her staring at the stars as she did so very often when thoughts turned to her captured brother.

We will rescue him, Miroku said sternly. He may be in the fetters of Naraku's will, but we know that he can resist, and does resist at times. So long as he has a heart, Kohaku can be freed.

she whispered.

He followed her glance to his right arm, which he was absently stroking with his left hand.

Houshi-sama, are you injured?

he said, too quickly and made too curt by the grimace he was trying to hide.

You said earlier you overused the Kazaana, she said. Did you . . . are you . . .

He snorted, annoyed. Am I going to be consumed by Naraku's curse? Of course. Or do you just mean to ask if it will happen tonight? I ask myself the same question every night, and the answer only comes in the morning.

The harsh gasp from Sango's throat shook him, made him wince, and silently he cursed himself for this weakness, began to make up excuses about why he would speak so freely and burden Sango, who already held more than her share of troubles on her shoulders.

Forgive me, Sango. It's been a long day and I'm overtired.

He stood, reaching for the shakujou where it lay between them, but as his fingers wrapped around the staff her hand lay atop them, gripping his left hand firmly.

Her hand – the hand that so easily and so often cast Hiraikotsu – hooked around his fingers, made him release his grip on the staff, and held his own hand at chest level between them.

Is that really how you feel? she asked.

He tried to break her grip, but with some embarrassment he realized she was quite a bit stronger than him. She wasn't letting go. He tried to pull back her fingers with his right hand, but she clasped her other hand over that.

So there they sat, beside each other, hands locked together in what was not the passionate affirmation of young love but the violent tug-of-war between man and woman. Woman was, as always, winning.

Miroku sighed. Trying to argue with Sango was as futile – and as dangerous – as engaging her in combat.

What is it you want, Sango?

She relaxed her grip.

Your honesty, Houshi-sama.

It's late, and – Itai!

She squeezed one hand, the right one – Kami-sama, it had to be the right one – and the dull pain that had been radiating up his arm for the past few hours suddenly became an inferno of hurt, a burning, stabbing hell radiating from the Kazaana on his palm all the way to his shoulder.

His teeth clenched, tears squeezing from the corners of his eyes, Miroku slid his hands free of Sango's waning grasp and turned away from her.

Gomen ne, Houshi-sama! Sango gasped.

It's alright, he choked out in an explosive breath. Just . . . pain from the fight. It's nothing serious.

He took in a deep breath, steadied his breathing, and the pain became much more manageable.

You win, Sango. Ask your question.

She seemed disappointed by this. She wasn't merely trying to avoid his games – no, she was making games of her own, and annoyed that he would not play. She wanted him to fight her so that she could prove her dominance. Inexperienced or simply discontent with the games of love, she would much rather play games of combat with Miroku.

This would, of course, please Miroku immensely on some other evening, but the Kazaana was bothering him quite badly now, his brief outburst had instilled an uncharacteristic shame in him, and – as he said himself – it was getting late.

Your Kazaana, she said. Why does it hurt now?

I used it for so long that the force of it strained my arm very severely.

Is there anything I can do?

Aside from a therapeutic massage, no, there's nothing you can do. I'm sure it will be fine by tomorrow.

Then lie down.

Kami-sama, but he had not expected that, and could only stare dumbly as Sango pushed his good shoulder, guiding him to a comfortable position on his back. She crossed over to his injured side, kneeled mere inches from his hand, and pulled up the sleeve of his robe.

he gasped.

She shook her head dismissively. It's nothing to me. Everyone in my village learned a little bit of medicine. But don't get any ideas, Houshi-sama, or I swear I'll break your arm.

Iie, iie, he replied, waving his good hand. I wouldn't dream of it.

She eyed him suspiciously.

Besides, I couldn't possibly do anything . . . unsavory . . . when I was so badly injured.

She continued to eye him suspiciously.

Look, just break my arm and be done with it.

This got a laugh out of her, and – a bit roughly, he thought – she took his arm and began to work strong fingers into the strained and torn muscles.

It hurt quite a bit at first, but he bore it without any obvious discomfort, and slowly he felt shoulder, bicep, and tricep relax into a state of warm half-numb soreness. It was the best he could have hoped for, and the relief was so great he actually found himself slipping into a light doze.

He felt her release him, setting his hand gently on the grass between them, setting her own hands on her own lap and clamping them together tightly, as if she did not trust her hands to keep to their business anymore than she trusted his. She cocked her head to his face, staring at the slits of his barely-closed eyes and wondering, no doubt, if he had fallen asleep.

How bold she can be, out here in the starlight? he whispered, the rambling of a man drunk on the vestiges of waking life and tasting the beginnings of long-fought-for sleep. And how beautiful.

Sango gasped. Surely now she thought he was dreaming, but the way she blushed, perhaps it didn't matter if he was. He did, on occasion, talk in his sleep. How much credibility did he have when dreaming? Perhaps far more than he did awake. Wasn't the sleeping mind the guileless mind, the mind that held no barriers?

she whispered. She leaned closer, close enough that her hair brushed against his face, and seemed ready to gently shake him awake, but her hands froze in midair.

Are you dreaming, Houshi-sama?

He made no reply.

She leaned her mouth near his ear, not too close but close enough that he could hear her whisper, and spoke – in a voice she surely didn't realize or at very least didn't intend to sound so sultry: Are you dreaming of me, Houshi-sama?

The response she was going for was one of two things, so far as Miroku knew. First, he would open his eyes in shock, she would embrace him, and they would immediately make love here beneath the stars. Second, he would open his eyes in shock, she would scream You thought you could fool me, sukebe! or something similar, and dent his skull with her fist.

Given that Sango was more predisposed to the second type of behavior, Miroku found it in his best interests to make no reaction, and continue to feign sleep while being, in truth, still half-asleep himself.

She leaned back, releasing a of either disappointment or deep thought. She turned away, brought her knees up to her chest, and stared at the sky.

No doubt dreaming of his village girls, asking them that damned question. Would you give me the honor of bearing my child?' How can he be so shameless?

She turned to him, placing her left hand on the ground between them to steady herself.

I bet they say no' even in his dreams.

She turned back to the sky. Her fingers dug into the ground.

I hope they do. Stupid houshi.

Her hand encircled a tuft of grass and began to tear it loose.

Asking every woman he ever sees to bear his child. Even Kagome-chan. Everyone but me.

Miroku thought this too was a trap, watching her out the corner of one mostly-closed eye, but the way she stared off into the distance was proof enough to him that she thought him asleep, that the feelings she spoke now were never meant to be heard by him.

Knowing he was probably setting himself up for a severe beating, his right hand searched out hers.

Sango gasped. Her dirt-stained fingers, in the middle of absently ripping a weed from the ground, froze under his touch.

She turned to him, mouth agape.

And what would Sango-sama say, Miroku spoke, opening his eyes, if I were to ask her such a question?

She blushed, tore her hand from his grasp, and turned away.

Miroku laced his hands together on his waist and stared upward.

She would say nothing at all, then. Much like last time, if not allowing me to ask her that question is the same as not answering it.

He turned to her.

Still, this is better than the alternatives.

He left the bait out for her. She knew it was a trap, could see the poorly-camouflaged pit she was about to step into, and went toward it anyway. Curiosity drove her on.

And what could she have said? Sango asked, quietly. Still she remained turned away from him, but her head was cocked a little in his direction, such that she could see him out the corner of her eye.

If Sango – he paused, knitted his brows. If a woman said yes, then this houshi would give her a burden. Even though he would do such a thing, for he would find it impossible to resist, he would regret giving a most kind woman such an obligation. Especially so if motherhood would by necessity make her own burdens impossible to carry.

She didn't care much for this – the way her eyes narrowed made that clear, as did the flatness of her voice.

How kind of Houshi-sama, to care so much.

He sighed.

Tell me, please, what I've said that concerns you.

This took her off her guard – so rarely did he ask about her thoughts directly.

It's . . . it's that you would think you're some great man, that you would seek a woman, have her raise your child alone – your child, Houshi-sama – and just go on your way. You would leave her, perhaps remember her at times and wonder if a child was born that was fit to continue your mission, but otherwise you would forget her. Her burden, not yours.

For a moment he lost his composure; her barbed accusations tore into him and exposed the anger beneath. He took a calming breath. He would not shout at her. Ever.

I don't think of myself as a great man. I haven't put much thought into my plans of siring an heir, but it was my plan that I would attempt it whenever possible while continuing my quest to defeat Naraku. A son would be my safeguard, the last hope for my family should I fall to Naraku. If successful, I would return to be his father. I might not ever be a good husband, but if I am able, I will care for my son.

As for seeking a woman to bear and care for my child while I go about my own business – well, out of every woman I have ever met, I only know of one that would be dissatisfied by such an arrangement. And even she would find it impossible to fight alongside me while with child.

She opened her mouth, ready to deride him further – the mere thought he would even imagine Sango pregnant with his child! – but he cut her off.

he continued, I resent the idea that I would be callous in giving some village girl the burden of keeping my child while I risked my life to destroy Naraku. He clenched his fist. I would give her a choice, which is more than what my father gave me when he died and passed me this goddamned curse.

Her eyes were wide with realization, and Miroku hoped she understood. She seemed to, the way her shoulders sagged, and the look of pain on her face made him wonder if he was too harsh in his words. He never wanted to hurt her, to make her pity him, but Kami-sama, how else could he make her understand?

Gomen nasai, she said simply.

Miroku watched her face, turned toward the field far ahead so that he could see her in profile. Could she have recognized his kindness, his compassion, for understanding how great a sacrifice motherhood was? Could she have understood how desperate his need was for an heir, how Sango would clearly have been the best mother to bring him a child strong enough to succeed should Miroku fail in his quest, and how her sacrifice of body and soul for his child would by necessity make her fail in her own mission to save Kohaku? Is it possible – dare he think it – that she knew the pain of his failure to sire an heir would never compare to the pain of destroying Sango's only chance to save her brother?

And if she said no? Sango prompted, breaking the silence between them.

Her voice was quiet, contemplative. Perhaps she understood him better than he thought. He smiled.

If she said no, then this houshi's heart may well be broken.

I don't find that likely, she intoned.

Nor do I, Miroku responded, amused. I've been with many women, Sango. He paused for emphasis. Many women.

she growled, through clenched teeth.

And thus, he continued, a woman who, by rejecting me, would be able to cause me such pain, to break me, to bring me to the deepest depths of sadness. . .

She turned to face him. He smiled.

Why, Sango, such a person would have to be a very special girl. More important to me than any girl I've ever met before.

That blush again. Her eyes quavered.

she whispered.

He chuckled lightly and got to his feet.

Thank you for your attentions to my arm, Sango, and for keeping me company. If you would excuse me, I think I'll have a bath before I turn in for the evening.

He turned back to the village, feeling her eyes on his back. From the corner of his eye he could tell she was standing, one fist held tightly to her chest, her cheeks blushing, her eyes wide and wet. She was vulnerable then, in one of her very rare moods when she was opened to him, her feelings for him naked. He feared this, feared what might occur if she called for him, if her firm hand found his shoulder and refused to let him leave her, though it drove him to the very brink of madness to walk away.

Walk away. She may think she is ready, but she is not. Nor am I.

Why dismiss her feelings like this? What if she is willing to take responsibility for bringing forth an heir?

That responsibility is mine. It is my family, my curse. I could not pass that responsibility to her and be absolved of it myself; it is impossible.

What if she left him?

She will not leave me.

But if she did?

Then she will return, else, it was never meant to be. She is not mine; I cannot claim her. I cannot cage her because I love her; I love her because she does not fly away.

What if you go mad, resisting her so often?

Then I will go mad, and she will live.

He made his way down the hill, alone save the ever-present company of his jangling shakujou, and turned, stopping for a moment.

He could not see her anymore, but he knew she understood him, that he would not go to the onsen this late unless he wanted to be alone. She would grant him his privacy. Perhaps she would wait there on the hill for him to find her, or perhaps he would see her curled in her bedroll in Kaede's home. Perhaps she would sleep turned towards him this evening, and he would be able to steal guilty glimpses at her sleeping face.

A thought occurred to Miroku as he continued along his path to the onsen. He smiled.

I forgot to caress her bottom.

Completed 17 July 2003