Sounds trickle peacefully over the firelight; they seem unreal, like memories of a life that is over. It's nice here, Miroku thinks. With Inuyasha and Kagome enjoying themselves on the other side of the well, he has only Sango and Shippou to watch after. He can close his eyes until they sound like his own wife and child, but nothing can obscure the reality in his hand.
Miroku tries to avoid thinking this way, and decides on a walk to clear his head. Perhaps it is their combative lifestyle that has led him to think of death so frequently. Over time, Miroku has gained a great deal of respect for Inuyasha, and at times even thought of him like family, yet he remembers that he never fought this much when he traveled alone. True, he is much closer to defeating Naraku, but what was supposed to be one battle has turned into countless battles, not only with Naraku's minions, but with everything else that has crossed their path.
He notices someone standing by the village border, facing outwards. He senses power, certainly not youki, and nowhere near as strong as Kagome's. "Kaede-sama," he says softly, to let her know he's there.
She turns a fraction, her wizened face looking ancient and powerful in the moonlight. One canny eye sizes him up. "Houshi-sama. Come to help me guard the village?"
For a fraction of a second, Miroku is thrown off his guard. That this feeble old woman should take it upon herself to stand guard in the middle of the night, when he and Sango are there to protect them… it's ridiculous, it's pitiable, and if he didn't actually care about Kaede, it might even be funny. "You should be in bed," Miroku says seriously. He wonders if the old woman might be going senile.
"Most other nights, that would be true," Kaede says in a slow, thoughtful tone. "But as much as I enjoy seeing you lot, you tend to call trouble. Don't feel guilty, it's the youkai's fault, not yours."
They have barely spoken, but Miroku finds himself thrown off yet again. It isn't like him to be so easily maneuvered in a conversation, so he has to admire Kaede's skill. She was probably clever when she was his age, but has had much longer to perfect it. Miroku stifles his emotional reaction, (the thought of being a pariah, seen as a bringer of destruction to villages!) and enjoys the challenge.
"Even if we bring trouble with us, we are perfectly capable of dispatching it. Sango and I are a match for any youkai that may come, short of Naraku himself."
"You'll take care of yourselves just fine, I'll warrant, but who will mind the village?" Kaede asks. "I told you not to feel guilty. If there were human errors, they were made in my generation, not yours."
Miroku puts a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I assure you, the village will be safe tonight. You shouldn't punish yourself for things you didn't do. For now you should—"
"How do you know what I did or didn't do?" Kaede snaps. "Old women keep many secrets, you know."
"Oh?" Miroku asks, his interest piqued. This has become a game he knows—she wants to tell him something, and he has only to play along. "I thought it was your revered sister who did everything. Not that you haven't done an admirable job of protecting the village in her stead…" Backhanded flattery, and intentionally inflammatory. This is how the game is played.
"No one asks me," Kaede says. "I'm only an old woman, after all…" She pauses, a flash of enjoyment crossing her face before utter seriousness replaces it. "I knew you, when I saw you. That glove on your hand, I'd seen the likes of it before. But no one asks old women, they never know anything useful anyway. Maybe I should go to bed, it's late, and we both know how capable that hand is." With that, she turns and begins to hobble off with staged stiffness.
"Wait, Kaede-sama," Miroku says, cursing her inwardly with great amusement. "You're completely right, I'm too irresponsible to be guarding a village. For the people's sake, I beg you to stay here and keep vigil. And perhaps… allow me to keep you company, and hear some tales of your youth?"
Kaede quirks an eyebrow. "You wouldn't mind hearing an old woman's rambling?"
"It would be my honor," Miroku says with a graceful bow.
"Very well," Kaede says, feigning reluctance. "First I should ask you: what have you heard of my sister?"
"Kikyou-sama…" Miroku says thoughtfully. "I've met her, but I doubt she is the same now as she was then. I've heard that she and Inuyasha were in love, and that Naraku deceived them into believing that the other had betrayed them. I know of what they did to each other."
"Do you think that Kikyou-onee-sama was a hateful woman? Do you find her to be bitter?" Kaede asks, watching him carefully.
"She is… passionate," Miroku answers, trying to be diplomatic.
"Not what I asked you. Do you find her hateful."
"Yes," Miroku admits.
"When I was a girl-child, I thought if Kikyou-onee-sama had one flaw, it was that she loved too much. That may seem a ridiculously complimentary thing to say, but it turned out to be true. She took on guarding the jewel for the love of her village, and she ended up hurt through the depths of her love.
"Not me, though. I was the bitter one. When Onee-sama died, she was at peace. I was the one filled with hate."
Miroku is tempted to urge her on about the kazaana, but feels if he does so, she will most likely recount tales of her childhood kitten just to be spiteful. Besides, the old woman is quite interesting, even if it's not what he wants to hear. "Go on," he says, and she does.
"That day, there were three fires. One was Onee-sama's pyre. One was Onigumo's cave. The last burned in my heart. I know you know what it is to lose family. I lost my parents young too. But Onee-sama was both mother and sister to me, and she didn't just die, she was murdered. My wounded eye gave me great pain, and I was completely alone, and filled with hate. It did not surprise the villagers or myself when I went mad.
"If I had known about Naraku, it would have saved me much grief, then. I saw things that could not be real, that I now know to be his games. He is a beast drawn to hate and pain, and he delights in twisting the knife. You can already imagine the form he came to me in."
"Kikyou," Miroku says. Though he is still curious as to what she knows about the kazaana, they are getting closer. Stories about Naraku's origins fascinate him, because there might be some weakness to use there, even if it's only psychological.
And against his will, Miroku can imagine being visited by Naraku in the guise of a dead loved one. It is more disturbing than he would like to admit.
"She was dead," Kaede says, "and she looked it. I knew how impossible this was, we burned her to ashes, I gathered them with my own hands, and buried them in an urn, but this Kikyou looked as if she'd been left out to rot. Whenever I was alone, she shadowed me, but if anyone else came near, she was always gone before they could see her. If I'd had any sense in my head, I would have insisted on company at all times, but you must remember, I was eight years old. I thought I was special for being able to see these things, thought I was some kind of powerful miko.
"In my heart, I missed Onee-sama more than anything.
"When I was thirteen, a man came to our village. As you know, this village has only ever had three things of worth: the well; the jewel; and Kikyou-onee-sama. I suspect he came for the last of these, as he claimed to come seeking a miko of legendary beauty. He came five years too late.
"What he found was a mad thirteen year old miko, who spoke more to her rotting sister than to anyone else. I was too young to be called anything but pretty, but I have never claimed exquisite loveliness. The stranger must have been disappointed to see me, but he did me the service of hiding it well. He said, 'A dark cloud of jaki hangs over this village.' Do you think he spoke the truth?"
Miroku chuckles. "Are you implying that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree?"
"How do you know that this man was any kin of yours? For all I told you, he's just some stud I had a whirlwind affair with in my youth."
"Kaede-sama!" Miroku says in shock.
"At the time," Kaede continues, with a slight wink to Miroku, "I believed him. We gave him the best food and lodging we could, and I knelt at his feet, and begged him to put the ghost of my sister to rest, for the things she said frightened me, and I loved her enough to want her to be at peace. He lifted my chin, and told me I was beautiful.
"I believed that, too.
"In a sense, you could say that I had heard about Naraku, because he told me. Yes, the stranger's name was Miyatsu, and he was indeed your grandfather. But his type are always chasing some youkai or other, and he didn't say anything that would have connected it to Kikyou, so I didn't think much of it at the time."
"What was his grievance with Naraku?" Miroku asks.
"Well, all Miyatsu told me was that Naraku was a cruel and dangerous youkai, but knowing Naraku, I would imagine he was up to his usual games, that is, turning people who love each other against each other. Back then, I thought that maybe this Naraku had killed someone important to Miyatsu, because he hated him too much for it to be anything less than personal. In hindsight, perhaps he was tricked into killing that someone himself."
"I see," Miroku says, looking down.
"I had sympathy for this man," Kaede says. "He was charming, and utterly disarming, but unlike everyone else, he understood my pain and hate." Kaede, who has not moved from her stoic guard this whole time, turns to Miroku, and walks just enough to force him to make an effort to follow. "What would you do," she wonders aloud, "if a girl as young as I was told you that she saw her dead sister, and spoke with her?"
"I would follow her," Miroku says after pondering a moment. "If she started talking to someone who wasn't there, she would most likely be touched in the head, however if I could see her sister too…"
"Yes," Kaede says, a glint in her eye. "And so Naraku was caught. It would have been better for you, perhaps, if old Miyatsu had not been so clever.
"He came charging in like the cavalry, ofuda flying every which way. I, who was supposed to be a miko, I just sat there and laughed in terror. Nothing made any sense.
"Miyatsu said, 'I have been tracking you for some time.' I didn't understand. 'And every time,' he continued, 'you eluded me. No more.' He raised his shakujo to strike, and the creature who looked like Kikyou-onee-sama, it was beautiful again. I thought he was going to kill her anyway, and I couldn't bear to watch. I closed my eye…
"I felt the kazaana, rather than saw it. It is my belief that Naraku made it as a distraction to facilitate his escape, more than as some long thought out torment. Void is a tool that comes easily to him. But I didn't know any of this, then. I didn't even know that the wind I felt was coming from Miyatsu, and not the creature. It was only when he shouted for me to run that I opened my eye and saw.
"You must have been terrified," Miroku says, his expression unreadable.
"I should have been," Kaede answers. "At the time, I was far too stupid. I had been behind him when Naraku struck, which is the only reason I wasn't sucked in immediately, but the kazaana wasn't stabilized yet. It twisted and turned and took his hand with it, pulling in dirt and rocks and branches and anything else that wasn't nailed down. He wasn't in control.
"I ran to him, doing my best to keep behind him, and he of course was screaming his head off for me to get away, but I reached in my gi, for something, anything… I didn't know what I was looking for, but I found a string of rosary beads. A passing monk had given them to me, believing me to be insane, and pitying me for it. I had never really used them, but no one ever gave me anything, so they had been special to me. I slipped behind him," here Kaede stands behind Miroku, reliving the moment. It is of course not the same, she keeps a respectful distance from Miroku, not really touching him, but back then it had been desperate and thoughtless, her weight thrown onto his back, crying, her nose running, scrabbling inch by awful inch towards his hand, armed with a string of beads and a spell-prayer from a different religion, neither of which might do anything anyway.
Then she had faced death, and now death weighs on her, inevitable.
"I was successful, of course. It seems easy now, talking with his grandchild." Her eye strays to his bound hand. "And yet not easy."
Kaede sits down, and Miroku, thinking that her old body must be tired, sits with her out of politeness. "He couldn't strike a beautiful girl, is that it?" Miroku asks, shaking his head. "That Kikyou's beauty is a hazard to us all."
"It was me," Kaede whispers.
"What do you mean?"
"He never showed any mercy to Naraku, and he was never fooled by him for a second. In the stories passed down in your family, I was the beautiful girl. Because I was afraid, he hesitated to strike something that looked like my sister in front of me. I have borne that guilt all these years, and when I saw you, it was a reminder."
"Why didn't you say anything before?" Miroku asks, frowning—not the angry kind of frown, but the kind his brows knit into when he is thinking hard about something.
Kaede shrugs. "I was ashamed, I suppose. It's not like there's anything there to help you defeat Naraku. Just an old woman's rambling, how indulgent of me. I probably shouldn't have said anything now… I just wanted to tell someone who would understand."
Miroku smiles slightly. "We weren't cursed because my grandfather was a lecher," he says, looking almost relieved.
"Oh, he was still a lecher," Kaede says, grinning. "Afterwards, I begged him to forgive me, and he held me close, closer than anyone had since Onee-sama. He looked into my eyes…" Kaede looks into Miroku's eyes, lost in memory and age and darkness, and Miroku is conscious of her proximity, of her scent that is female and not at all objectionable, and feels an empathy with her that no one has since before his father was born. She is old, and he feels it acutely.
Her lips are close to his now, not touching, never touching. She wouldn't, he thinks, and yet part of him wants her to.
"…and he kissed me," she says, barely more than a sigh. She withdraws, distant again, yet there is a connection between them that wasn't there before.
"He was the only man who ever dared." She lies down, eyes reflecting starlight. For a moment, she is no longer the haggard old woman who must guard a dilapidated village, but the girl whose legendary beauty could be someone's downfall. Miroku supposes it runs in her family.