Author's Note: So, this time we get another installment of what Miroku and Kagura are up to (refer back to chapter 9 if you don't remember what was going on with them). It's slightly porny, though not enough to go past the R rating, and there's character death in this chapter, too.

New stuff you might enjoy, all accessible from my profile (just click my name on the top left):

1) Check out my newer one-shots, written for iyflashfic on LJ: White Ladder, Lacuna, Say Goodbye, A Paper Illusion, and Frozen in Amber.

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That said, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy this chapter :) Thanks to the lovely and talented Resmiranda for her fast-n-dirty beta.

Chapter 14

Miroku listened with a sort of baffled horror to the conversation taking place on the steps to the little hut in which he continued to recuperate, but at the same time was helpless to stop it. Kagura sat just outside the entrance, having been shooed outside by Ryouta so the portly man could give Miroku his daily bath. She hadn't seen why she should leave, at first.

"I have seen the houshi unclothed before," she informed the healer with considerable consternation.

"But Miyaka has not," Ryouta replied archly. His terror of the demoness had faded over the past few days when it became clear that Miroku would recover and therefore Kagura would not be slaying him. For that, at least.

And little Miyaka had taken quite a shine to Kagura, to the bafflement of all concerned, and would not leave her side for meals nor sleep. Miroku had been a trifle worried about that until he saw the grumpy affection in which Kagura seemed to hold the child.

"I don't understand why you ningen always seem ashamed of being naked," he heard her say on the other side of the tatami door. She always spoke the same to everyone, be it himself, Ryouta, Miyaka or any of the other villagers: plainly, bluntly, and with a breathtaking lack of discretion.

"Why," Kagura continued, "is it fine for infants and small children to run around in the nude, but not an adult?" Beside Miroku, Ryouta gave the washcloth he held a vicious twist and began scrubbing at his patient's back with perhaps more force than strictly necessary.

There was a pause, and Miroku imagined the look of concentration on Miyaka's face as she pondered this eternal mystery. "I don't know," she said at last. "But it seems silly."

"Exactly," Kagura affirmed, and he just knew she was nodding for punctuation. "Not all nudity is related to sex, after all. Bathing is a perfectly innocent action, but we are exiled from this mean hovel while the houshi has his bath," she added darkly, not raising her voice but it was clear she'd meant Ryouta to hear every word.

And hear he had. His fleshy face turned rather purplish and he threw the cloth into the bowl, sloshing a surge of soapy water onto the floor, then beginning to stand. But Miroku took his wrist in a grip that was still weaker than he'd have liked, shaking his head in warning. Kagura might tolerate Ryouta, but there was no telling her reaction when actively confronted by him.

Sulking, Ryouta knelt once more and took up the cloth, wringing it out before slapping it onto Miroku's chest and rubbing vigorously. He was a great believer in the need to stimulate one's circulation with strenuous scrubbing during bathtime, and Miroku never failed to end up beet-red after each of the healer's not-so-tender ministrations.

Then came the question Miroku had dreaded. "Kagura-sama," Miyaka piped, "what is sex?"

Beside him, Ryouta stiffened, his complexion slowly turning both waxen and florid at the same worrying time. Both he and Miroku went utterly still, frozen with apprehension for what would next follow.

It was not long in coming. "It's when two people want each other," Kagura replied, her tone perfectly normal, as if this were a discussion of no unusual occurrence.

"How does it happen?" Miyaka asked. Ryouta washed Miroku's newly healing arm with such enthusiasm that the monk was positive his flesh was about to fall from the bone.

"Generally, a male will stick his penis into his partner," Kagura replied matter-of-factly. "This can be a female, or another male, but that's more rare. I've also heard of two females who desire each other, but they don't have anything to put into each other, so they have to be more creative."

Miroku was forced to bite his lip to keep from bursting into laughter. Ryouta just looked fit to burst, almost physically swelling with rage.

"Does it hurt?" Miyaka wanted to know.

"I haven't done it in that way, yet," Kagura replied calmly, "but the other things I've done have not hurt at all… just the opposite." Her voice had taken on a dreamy quality that had Miroku reacting physically before he could stop himself. He was relieved to see it, to be honest—it had been a week since his terrible injury had almost claimed his life with its dire infection, and he had had so little interest of anything of a more erotic nature in so long he'd begun to get somewhat worried.

Ryouta, of course, noticed immediately, since he was in the middle of scrubbing Miroku's right leg. "Hentai!" he howled, scrambling away so quickly he fell backwards onto his plump bottom. Hurriedly, Miroku grabbed at the blanket and hauled it over him just in time for Kagura to enter the hut, Miyaka on her heels.

"Is there a problem?" the demoness inquired, her scarlet eyes taking in the scene before her.

"This man is a pe--pervert!" Ryouta cried, pointing at Miroku with a shaky finger. "A lecher!"

"I know," Kagura acknowledged with a nod. "What's your point?"

Ryouta scrambled up and started stomping toward the door. "I cannot b-be expected to tend the personal needs of an ecchi," he muttered.

Kagura reached out and grasped the beck of the healer's haori, hefting him effortlessly from the ground. "You'll do what I say, or I will kill you," she said pleasantly.

"You would not do su--such a thing!" the fat man protested, his feet kicking impotently in space.

"And why not?"

Ryouta's gaze cast about for a plausible reason. "Be-because Miyaka is here!" Ryouta gasped, relieved the girl finally had a purpose. "You would not kill me in her presence!"

She only quirked an elegant brow. "Life is filled with death and destruction," was her cool reply. "The child would be well-served by such a lesson." Ryouta went pale.

Miroku sighed and propped himself up on his good elbow. "Kagura, though I appreciate your… fervour… in getting me healed, I must ask you to put him down."

She let Ryouta drop to the floor with a thump and turned to Miroku, studying him a long moment. "And why was he shrieking that you were a pervert, houshi?" she asked, her voice a low purr that had a certain part of his anatomy perking up once more. Her gaze flicked downward, noticing the sudden tenting of the blanket over his midsection, and then flew up to lock with his.

"Ningen," she addressed Ryouta and Miyaka, eyes never leaving Miroku's, "go away."

"B-but… but this is my hut!" the healer protested, wringing his hands. He was no fool; he knew what the sleepy expression on the youkai's face, combined with the blanket-tent, indicated.

"Ningen," Kagura repeated, hands going to her obi and beginning to untie it, "go away."

Ryouta grabbed the reluctant Miyaka and fled. "I am going to have to burn that futon when they depart this village," he grumbled.

"That seems like it would be a waste," Miyaka commented from her position tucked, in the manner of a sack of rice, under his arm. "Why would you do that?"

Ryouta only muttered dire imprecations against demons, monks, and children who really ought to stay in their own homes instead of pestering the honest, hard-working apothecaries of the world.

Inside his hut, the scene was far more convivial. Kagura, naked, had peeled away the concealing blanket, straddled Miroku's lap, and was currently teasing his left earlobe with firm, moist nibbles.

"This past week has been… frustrating," she murmured into his ear.

Miroku stared at the thatched ceiling and wondered what to do. This week had not been enjoyable or easy for him. He was not used to being inactive, the pain and fever he'd been wracked with from his infected wound had been hard to endure, and chief among all the things unsettling him was the growing realization that Kagura had feelings for him that went beyond mere attraction.

Her insistence on getting him healed, for example. A demon who cared nothing for her companion would have sliced his arm off with her claws, cauterized the stump with a torch or some similar thing, and they'd have gone on their way with little, if any, regard to his suffering or survival.

That she had taken over an entire village and subjugated it to their needs in order to have him put back together alarmed him, because it meant that he mattered to her. When he had given in to his urges with her, he had done so with the belief that, since she was youkai, it meant nothing more than a physical release, a satiety of curiosity.

But the first face he had seen, upon waking from his delirium, had been hers, and it had been pinched with worry. Worry for him. And relief for him, too, when she had seen his eyes were clear and focused instead of glazed and confused.

It had been unsettling, to say the least, but Miroku kept silent. It was not his way to speak before considering at length, after all. And so he had bided his time, and watched. Watched as she effortlessly bullied Ryouta into tending him, watched as she befriended the motherless Miyaka so she'd have someone to talk to, watched as she coerced the villagers into providing for them.

It likely should have been disturbing to him, all this self-serving manipulation, but how far was it in actuality from all the times he'd pretended there were evil omens that he, as monk, could easily dispel… for a fee. Kagura, at least, was being obvious in what she was doing. Miroku had deceived those of whom he had taken advantage.

Kagura's nibbles had travelled to a ticklish part of his neck, and he found himself giggling rather girlishly as he squirmed out from under her.

"Enough," he gasped, trying to at least try to be decent. "Kagura, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I don't think my arm is recovered enough, even if… other parts of me are. And it would be very disrespectful to our reluctant host were we to indmmmph."

His words were cut off because of the youkai's mouth covering his. Kagura soon stopped however, and smiled knowingly—he'd not fooled her one bit. She pushed him gently to his back, then curled against his side. "When will you be ready to travel, houshi?" she asked, fingertip tracing swirly patters over his bare chest.

Miroku stilled it by trapping it with his own, pressing it flat. "Tomorrow, I think." She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder, fingers plucking at a flat nipple, and he began to rue stopping her before. "Perhaps… I was hasty when I said it would be disrespectful—" he began, and felt her smile against him.

"I thought you might think that, eventually," she teased, hand travelling down. "Maybe if we're very quiet…" Her hand reached its destination, curling around and squeezing, and Miroku arched into it, eyes closing.

"We will have to be very careful indeed," he agreed, a trifle breathless as her lips began to follow the same path. "We must not cause a mess on Ryouta's futon—" His words shuddered to a halt when she took him in her mouth.

Kagura released him for a moment, smirking at him up the length of his body. "I promise," she said, "I won't spill a drop."

Kagome slapped her hand hard against the malfunctioning water pump's handle, and accomplished nothing more than injuring herself. There was nothing for it; she'd have to go to the well in the courtyard for the water they needed.

She was reluctant; though yesterday Takeshi had seemed to accept her wide-eyed avowal of ignorance as concerned Masuyo's whereabouts, she didn't want to remind him of her presence any more than necessary. He hadn't tried touching her again, but those eyes of his were like cold blades, watching her, slicing her. She had a feeling he was just biding his time until he tried something else.

His soldiers were rowdy and destructive, and just as Jaken had predicted had pretty much decimated the entirety of the little valley the house stood in. There was not an animal left alive that could be eaten, and Kagome was pretty sure she'd spied a few of Takeshi's troops popping beetles and other insects into their mouths, too.

She, Jaken, Kohaku and Kirara were reduced to eating rice and whatever the toad-youkai could scrounge after nightfall, when his tiny body could dart under cover of darkness into the vegetable patch. They'd been making soup out of everything, in hopes of stretching it as far as possible until Sesshoumaru came back.

And now that the pump in the kitchen was broken, there wouldn't even be that unless something was done. Jaken, long the target of malicious pranks by their unesteemed guests, flatly refused to go outside.

"It takes many weeks for youkai to starve to death," he announced, arms crossed over his chest and a most determined expression on his green face. "If you frail humans perish after just a few days without food, that is of no concern to me."

Kagome briefly considered feeding him to Kirara, who as a carnivore was unhappy at having to subsist on weak daikon gruel, but decided against it. The flak from Sesshoumaru once he returned just wasn't worth it.

So she put the handles of two buckets in Kohaku's hands, took two herself, and ventured into the courtyard. He was to the point now of being able to follow a person without being led by the hand, and Kagome was not only glad for another pair of strong arms to haul water but also his company, because the moment she stepped from the house, every voice fell silent.

Darn, darn, darn, darn… Kagome chanted it like a silent litany in her head with each tread, knowing every single youkai there was watching her. Carefully avoiding eye contact with any of them, she began filling the buckets, Kohaku's first. She plunked the last of the four onto the ground and then straightened up, hands going to the small of her back to rub away the little ache at hoisting such a weight before taking up her two once again. Then she went very still at the sound of the hollow thunk right behind her head.

Turning slowly, she was confronted with the sight of a full bucket suspended in mid-air directly at eye-level by Kohaku's outstretched arm. Her first reaction was elation; finally, he'd done something, and all by himself! But then she realized the bucket was vibrating, and poked her head around it to look at the other side.

Buried halfway to its hilt in the side of the bucket was a kunai, the type of dagger used specifically for throwing, and it was still vibrating from the force put into its pitch. Water was trickling from the bucket's newest leak, and Kagome swallowed hard past the sudden lump in her throat as she realized that, if not for Kohaku's quick reflexes, the kunai would have been sunk that deeply into her own skull.

She was torn between joy at his spontaneous recovery and blind terror at how close she'd just come to dying in a painful, bloody, and all-round horrific manner, so she settled for being almost barbarically angry and was not at all surprised to see herself begin to glow a vibrant, almost lurid, pink.

"Who did that?" she demanded, hands on her hips in classic woman-pissed-off mode after making Kohaku lower the bucket to the ground.

Twenty paces away from her, a demon with thick striped fur stepped forward. "I did."

She was just about to give him a piece of her mind when, across the courtyard, another demon stepped forward. "I did."

Then a third. "I did."

And a fourth. "No, it was I."

More and more voices joined the chorus until the courtyard rang with the sound of a hundred youkai taking credit for the attempt on her life, and Kagome dimly felt a sense of panic rising within her. Kohaku might have saved her with the bucket but he still seemed otherwise dazed, and they had no weapons besides. Kirara and Jaken were inside the house, and Ah-Un was in the stables. By the time any of them even knew she was in danger, she'd be dead.

And then Takeshi was striding forward, flaming hair blowing in the breeze and eyes shining. "I threw it," he told her, and she knew it was the truth.

"If it were you, then why did everyone else say it was them?" she asked, and was surprised at the surge of relief she felt. Murder attempts she could easily handle; it was when he was trying to molest her that she had problems dealing.

He shrugged. "Wishful thinking, perhaps? The desire to intimidate? I do not think I would be wrong to say that of our number, I alone did not wish your death until today."

And Kagome knew all too well why. "What changed your mind?"

"I have come to the conclusion that I do not believe your ignorance of Masuyo's disappearance, ningen. The area behind the house reeks with his scent, yours, and the girl's. I also know that she and the kitsune are gone, and have been since yesterday."

He stepped close to her, lowering his face close enough to kiss her. "You will tell me where they are, and what happened to my lieutenant."

There was little to gain from lying about Masuyo now, Kagome figured. "I'd be happy to tell you what happened to Masuyo," she said. "He tried to rape Rin, and then me. I killed him."

Takeshi's troops all burst into laughter at the idea of the mighty Masuyo being brought low by this small human female, but for once, the Lord of the North was not smiling. "Have you proof of this?"

Angrily, she shoved the shoulder of her kimono down to reveal the huge bruise Masuyo had caused. Takeshi ran a slender fingertip over the twin scratches caused by the demon's sharp fangs, caressing the marred skin. "Purified him, did you?"

Kagome nodded defiantly, pushing his hand away and adjusting her clothing once more.

Takeshi sighed. "What did he expect, to try and take a miko against her will?" His soldiers sobered at the reminder that Kagome was a priestess, and all took a step back from her, as if her purification was contagious. "He was always one to think with the stupider of his heads, that one." Takeshi said with resignation. "The blame for his death falls squarely upon himself, then."

She was amazed, quite frankly, at how reasonable he was being about it. "Right! So, now that that's settled, we'll just go back inside—" She spun, grabbed her buckets, and began to walk toward the house but his hand on her arm swung her back around. She dropped the buckets, sloshing her legs with water from the knees down, and glowered up at him.

"Now," Takeshi said gently, his tone at odds with the iron grip he had on her, "you will tell me where the girl and the kitsune are, or I will slaughter you and the others, and burn this place to cinders."

An almost overpowering sense of wrongness filled Kagome, almost as strong as when she'd known she must not join the jewel and give it to Inuyasha. This time, she thought she could actually hear Midoriko's voice saying "no, no, do not."

Frightened by how very important their safety must be for Midoriko to go to such lengths, and also not ever one to be fond of being given ultimatums, Kagome somehow found it within herself to be the one smiling for once. "I guess you'll have to do that, then," she said cheerfully. "I'm not telling."

Takeshi studied her a long moment, silver eyes blank, face expressionless. "I think perhaps your death would be a… significant waste," he murmured, and hauled her into his arms before beginning to give orders to his troops. "Kill the rest, and put the house to the torch." With that, he slung her over his broad shoulder, completely ignoring her frantic struggles, and began to walk away.

Behind him, his soldiers were only too happy to their reign of havoc. Two unsheathed swords and advanced upon Kohaku, still standing dumbly beside the well; he killed one demon by snapping his neck and disabled the other with a broken arm before they could even raise those swords to strike him. But a third removed the kunai from where it was still lodged in the bucket and flung it at him while he was otherwise distracted, and it sank into the centre of his back.

Kagome screamed wordlessly as he sank to his knees. A flicker of awareness passed over his face, and with a sigh, he fell forward into the courtyard's dust. She began to glow pink without even realizing it, and Takeshi gave her a sharp smack on the backside.

"Even should you kill me, you cannot purify all of them," he told her. "And they will not be as… lenient with you as I shall be."

Kagome's blood ran even cold at his words, then colder; the first of the torches was brought forward and she watched, speechless with horror, as Sesshoumaru's ancestral home went up in flames. She corralled her power, stuffed it deep within, perhaps to be used later…

The door of the stable burst open then; with twin roars from his two heads, Ah-Un erupted from it. There was a tiny, stunted figure on his back, and Kirara in battle-form flew right beside him. Ah-Un began flying East, but Kirara circled over the burning house uncertainly, moving quickly to dodge the arrows that began flurrying her way, and Kagome knew the fire-cat was reluctant to leave her.

"Go, Kirara!" she screamed. "Go, go!" Takeshi spanked her again, hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. But Kirara turned and did as bidden, looking back at Kagome even as she strove to catch up with the dragonet and Jaken.

Takeshi strode into the most luxurious of the tents and dumped her off his shoulder onto an equally plush futon. Sprawled back, kimono askew to reveal her legs, hair spread about her, she made a most tempting picture to the demon-lord. He reached out and ran a hand up the inside of her leg, laughing when she squeaked and clamped her knees so tightly shut his hand was trapped between them.

"You look positively debauched," he murmured with satisfaction. "Alas that there is no time to tarry…" He extracted his hand from the death-grip of her knees and lifted a lock of hair from her shoulder. With a flash of claws, it was severed from her head.

"A memento for my nephew," Takeshi said. "Something to remember you by." He tilted his head to the side, grinning boyishly. "And they say I'm unsentimental…"

He busied himself with directions to his troops for breaking down their camp, and Kagome rolled to her side, curling up fetal as she began to cry. Great, soundless sobs of misery— for Sesshoumaru, certainly; the loss of his home would be a devastating blow. The image of the tiny dog frolicking with the red tiger in the fusuma paintings kept popping up in her mind's eye.

But Kohaku—dead a third time, and he'd only just started to come back to life. This was more than just his death; Sango, wherever she was, would surely be devastated at losing her brother yet again. She felt an inundation of longing for her friends, for Sango and Miroku and especially Inuyasha, the old Inuyasha she'd loved so much, all those years ago when she was young and still thought he'd love her back, if only she tried hard enough.

She tried to comfort herself with the thought that at least Kirara was safe, and Shippo and Rin too if they'd managed to find somewhere to go. Kagome was sure they had; Shippo was smart and enterprising. They were probably somewhere right now being treated like royalty. But clearly, they hadn't managed to locate Sesshoumaru or he would have returned well before this catastrophe had taken place.

Her crying turned into a shout of surprise when strong arms picked her up once more, but this time it was Yori instead of Takeshi. "Try not to kill this lieutenant, if you please," he said wryly, and carried her from the tent as the walls were taken down.

The house was almost gone now, she saw, and thought again of the white puppy on the fusuma painting. Yori bore her out of the courtyard, through the gatehouse, and Kagome burrowed into his unwelcome embrace, her arms tightly around his neck as she wept.

"My lord," he addressed Takeshi, sounding pained, "the human is… hugging me."

Takeshi's own tone was serious when he replied. "Yes. They are known to do that. I suggest you bear it stoically; it could be worse." Apparently Yori made some sort of disbelieving expression, for Takeshi soon continued, "She could be trying to purify you." Pause. "It hurts."

Kagome choked back the hysterical laughter that bubbled up. It had only been a week since Inuyasha had stolen her half of the Shikon, and now this… she curled further into Yori and just concentrated on breathing without hyperventilating.

It worked, too, until she saw Takeshi pinning the lock of her hair to the gatehouse wall.

"Why are you doing that?" She hadn't wanted to speak to him again, ever, but couldn't help but ask what it was about.

"Have you not figured it out yet?" he asked, seeming amazed.

"No…" Kagome wracked her brains for a possible point to it all, and came up with nothing.

He could only shake his head in reaction to her ignorance. "I seek the Shikon no Tama, of course. My information was that Inuyasha's miko gave half to Sesshoumaru. You can imagine, I am sure, what a surprise it was to learn you were she, and you were here… but without your half of the jewel, I am sad to say."

And he did look sad indeed. It was eerie, that he would be disappointed over not obtaining the jewel when his nephew's home was now scarcely more than charred timbers and there was a dead boy laying discarded in the dirt.

"Where is your half, incidentally?" When no answer was forthcoming from her, he only sighed. "Irrelevant, I suppose. I already suspect its location. It is just a matter of time before I find it." He smiled. "And then none shall be able to oppose me, else it be their ruin."

In Yori's arms, Kagome began to struggle, to no avail. "You're crazy," she said flatly when she gave up and slumped back against him.

Takeshi quirked a bright red eyebrow. "Demon," he reminded her, spreading his arms wide. "And gloriously free of that annoying thing you ningen are so burdened by." The last of the camp packed, he left them to walk at the head of the company, leading them up the dusty road toward the North.

Unable to resist, Kagome asked Yori, "What annoying thing is he talking about?"

When he bent his face to speak to her, his long whiskers brushed her face ticklishly. "I believe," he said, sounding amused, "that he refers to 'a conscience'."

Kouga had never been to the Western lands; he didn't even know where Sesshoumaru's home was, so he settled for terrorizing the inhabitants of every village he came to for directions. He'd always had a finely honed sense of premonition; when the first tangy whiff of fire and smoke floated to his nostrils he'd known, somehow, that Kagome was involved.

Ignoring the last villager's direction that he take the road northwest of where they now stood, he took off due west, leaving only a cocky smile and a dust devil. Even though he'd given up the shards in his legs at Kagome's prettily phrased request, he was still the fastest demon around and it took him no time at all to arrive at what had, just a few hours earlier, been a rather nice spread.

The place was a maelstrom of scents, but three familiar ones stood out: Kagome's, Shippo's, and Kirara's. Standing from his crouch beside the dead boy—whose scent was remarkably like Sango's, actually—he followed his nose to the gatehouse.

Skewered by a rusty nail was a two-foot length of familiarly wavy hair. Kouga touched it with fingertips that were suddenly shaking a little. Clearly, a company of demons had been here; the myriad scents and signs of recent civilization in the form of flattened grass and pole-holes from tents were proof of that. What had they done to his Kagome? Why hadn't Sesshoumaru stopped them from destroying his home?

What the hell had happened here?

He curled his hand into a fist and slammed it into the other's palm. The rubble was still smouldering; this had happened but several hours ago. The odor of the demon soldiers went North, so that was the direction Kouga would head.

He took off, slowing down only every few miles to be sure he was still on the right track. And it wasn't long before he caught up to them, just an hour later, as twilight was turning the hills and hollows blue. They'd taken over some hapless farmer's field to make camp for the night, and there was Kagome in the arms of a tall skinny fellow with ebony skin and whiskers.

There were too many for him to fight. Even with the shards in his legs, Kouga would have been hard-pressed to handle a hundred battle-hardened demon troops, but now… no, he'd have to do it the sneaky way. Kagome was a woman; like all females, eventually she'd insist on some 'private' time to handle personal issues. And when she did, he'd run in, grab her, and be away before anyone was the wiser.

Kouga circled around until he was downwind of them, not wanting to give them any hint of his presence, and settled in to wait. This was the part he hated; he was a youkai of action, not of patience. Finally, blessedly, she left the tent she'd been carried into a few hours earlier and walked toward a clump of bushes. He could hear her scolding the youkai accompanying her.

"Go away!" she was saying, flapping her little hands, her face and tone irate. "I can't go with you standing there, watching me!"

Kouga got to his feet, digging his toes into the ground for traction, and the moment her guard turned and shuffled away a few paces, sprang into motion. His cyclonic dust cloud wasn't as impressive as it had been last year this time, thanks to loss of the shards, but he was still almost faster than the eye could follow.

One moment Yori was waiting for his charge to finish and the next, a strong breeze whipped by him. Then there was silence, and the area behind the bush was now void of any living presence. He frowned, checking all sides of the bush, then the surrounding area.

She was gone.

If he could have, Yori would have blanched. The miko was instrumental to Takeshi's plans to obtain the Shikon no Tama; losing her was sure to bring out the Northern Lord's no-so-latent homicidal tendencies.

The dust cloud had headed West; it was clear to Yori that she'd been taken by something incredibly fast. Well, he wasn't too poky himself, and with a resigned sigh, took off in that direction.

Yori might be fast in his own right, but Kouga was smart. He went West until he hit water, then bounded down the stream completely unperturbed that he was soaking his passenger as well as himself. "Hi, Kagome," he greeted her, smiling.

"Kouga?" she asked, peering up at him in disbelief. "Kouga?

He laughed, eyes gleaming down at her in the speed-blurred moonlight. "Yeah, it's me. Surprised?"

"Um, yeah!" Then he was the one surprised when she flung her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly enough to cut off both air supply and circulation. "Thank you," she whispered against his neck. "I'm so glad you came. I was so scared."

He sobered instantly. "What happened there? I came to Kaede's to see you… Shippo and his little girlfriend were there, told me this story about everything going to hell after Mutt-Face went nuts and stole the Shikon shards from you."

Kagome went limp with relief. "Oh, good," she whispered. "I was so worried about them… were they okay?"

"They're fine," Kouga replied impatiently. "What happened at Sesshoumaru's place? That dead kid… that was Sango's brother, wasn't it?"

She said nothing, just buried her face against his shoulder and began to cry. Cursing under his breath, he decided they'd gone far enough in the stream to throw off anyone who might be following, and took off toward the East. He ran until Kagome's weeping stopped, and then ran some more. Finally, even his reserves of strength and speed were tapped and he found a village.

Zipping through it, Kouga collected enough laundry from the lines for them to change into, since their things were still wet from the stream, then collected a bit of firewood and made a fire while Kagome ducked behind a tree to change. Made for a man, the yukata made her slight frame seem even more diminutive. With her hair in damp waves around her face, and the pronounced shadows under her eyes, she appeared even more beautiful to him, delicate and fragile, and he didn't even think before scooping her into his lap.

He half expected her to protest or try to wriggle away, but instead she just curved herself into him, holding on tightly. "I'm so glad you came for me," she murmured. "I sent Shippo and Rin for Sesshoumaru, but he never came, and things just kept getting worse…"

"Why didn't you send them for me, Kagome?" he asked, even though he already suspected the answer. "You know I would have come for you, right away." Even though he loved Kagome and knew she'd be excellent as his consort, a fine co-ruler for his wolves, Kouga knew he was never first in her thoughts or heart.

She looked up at him then, her eyes huge. "I'm so sorry, Kouga," she said mournfully.

"Don't be," he replied roughly, pressing her head back down against his shoulder. "It's not your fault."

"I feel like everything's my fault." Her fingers curled into the fabric of the pilfered haori he wore.

"It it's anyone's fault, it's Mutt-Face's," Kouga told her fiercely. Oh, he was going to pound that dog into a pulp the next time he saw him!

But Kagome was shaking her head. "No," she insisted, "if I had listened to Midoriko, none of this would have happened. But I couldn't do it, Kouga! I couldn't kill Inuyasha like she told me."

"Because you love him," he said, his voice flat and resentful. "Even though he doesn't deserve it."

"No!" she protested, staring up at him. "Well, yes. I love him, because he's one of my best friends. But I'm not in love with him anymore. I got over that, a while ago I think… when I realized it was pointless."

She seemed so sad, Kouga wanted to kick himself for reminding her of bad memories. "Does that mean," he said, smiling rakishly in an attempt to cheer her up, "that you're finally ready to be my woman?" He was glad to hear her laugh, even though it hurt that she would laugh instead of agree, or kiss him, or at least take him seriously.

"You're a good friend too, Kouga," Kagome told him, hugging around his waist. "Thank you so much for saving me from Takeshi."

"Was that his name?" he asked absently. "You don't have to keep thanking me. I'll always save you, and not because I want to be your friend."

She went very still in his arms. "I know," she replied in a small voice.

"You should at least give me a chance." He knew he was being petulant, but couldn't seem to help it. "I've waited so long for you, Kagome."

Her face, shadowed and highlighted by the fire, was stricken. "Kouga," she entreated, "not now. Please. I can't take any more today." Her voice sounded broken, old and broken.

"I'm sorry," he sighed.

She nodded under his chin and shivered a little, so he held her tighter and pulled another of the stolen yukata over them, then settled back against a tree and just tried to memorize how she felt in his arms. It was, he figured, the only time he'd have the opportunity.