I know it has been a long time, but here's another chapter! Things aren't really looking up, except that I am finished with school. Now comes the hard part. Finding a job.
The story is still moving along. It's headed off in a couple of different directions because I can't remember what I originally intended. But it's all good. I think things will still work out more or less the way originally planned.
Disclaimer: I don't own Inuyasha. Sole rights belong to Rumiko Takahashi.
HERE COMES SANTA CLAWS
Chapter 13: Deck the Halls
Kagome followed Inuyasha who followed the mad demon as he scuttled down random halls humming tunelessly to himself. Inuyasha had his arms crossed and, though Kagome couldn't see his face, from the set of his ears she could guess that he had a humongous scowl on his face. What was his problem, anyway? Wasn't Santa Claus supposed to be jolly? She couldn't imagine the grumpy half-demon sitting on a padded chair at the mall listening to kids talk about their Christmas lists.
Quickening her pace, she caught up to Inuyasha. He flicked her an annoyed glance, but didn't say anything. "Um, Inuyasha?" she whispered.
There was no reply, or indication that he had heard. She raised her voice a little louder. "Inuyasha?"
Inuyasha stopped so abruptly that Kagome almost tripped over her own feet trying to stop. "What is it, little girl?" he hissed. "Are you trying to get us caught? This place is filled with demons. All with ears sharp enough to hear a fly sneeze in the next room, not to mention your incessant chatter. Can't you just shut up for five minutes until we're out of this palace of death?"
Kagome felt like she'd been slapped. She drew in a breath to yell back, but paused. As much as she hated to admit that Inuyasha might be right about anything, he did have a point.
"Fine." She sniffed and turned away. "I won't talk to you anymore."
He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "Yeah, and reindeer can fly." She chose to ignore that.
Jaken was almost out of sight, toddling along quite fast for such a dumpy demon. "Come on." Inuyasha grabbed her arm and started walking again. "The crazy demon may actually know a way out of here. Or he's leading us into a trap. Either way, we can't be any more screwed than we are right now."
Several times, Kagome almost said something just to break the tension-filled silence. Then she remembered that she wasn't talking to Inuyasha. He made her so mad! Telling her what to do and acting like a total asshole. Naraku had been perfectly pleasant to her. Well, the walk through the spider-filled room and the weird woman in the garden had creeped her out. And she didn't want to be here. And Mama must be worried about her. Still, Inuyasha didn't have to be such a jerk.
Jaken abruptly stopped in front of one of the many doors. Kagome wondered what made this one so special. Did they give off some sort of scent that only demons could smell? Was there a subtle difference that only demon eyes could see? A glance at Inuyasha's face let her know that he didn't notice anything different about this particular door.
"This the one?" Inuyasha continued without waiting for an answer. "Finally? Let's get out of this Hellhole."
"You'll be so~rry."
Inuyasha paused with his hand centimeters away from the doorknob, turning to look at the little toad demon who was grinning in a mad way and clutching his silver disk to his chest. "Is it booby-trapped?" he ground out between clenched teeth. All of these delays were making him increasingly twitchy.
"Only need the key," Jaken sang out, holding up the disk. "Otherwise—ppffft—intruder is vaporized. Jaken knows." The little demon nodded his head vigorously. "Jaken saw it happen with own eyes. Stupid demon melted into puddle of goo. But key keeps Jaken safe. Lord said so."
"Kagura didn't have a key," Kagome pointed out. "Neither did I."
The toad's face twisted. He shook the disk. "Jaken has key! Jaken special! Only special demons can enter throne room! Lord said so!" He was almost frothing at the mouth. Abruptly his manner changed. Cradling the disk against his chest with both hands, he smiled slyly. "If human cow and abomination not want Jaken's help, that okay. Jaken not mind dancing as human cow and abomination melt into goo."
"Fine." Inuyasha stepped back. His gaze was calculating as he stared at the little demon. "Open the door."
Jaken reached up and hung the disk over the doorknob by its string. He started tapping on the door in random patterns, muttering disjointed phrases and nonsense. "All around the mulberry bush. Tap, tap, tap says the woodpecker. Boom. Boom, boom chicka boom. Icka backa soda cracka. Icka backa boo. Eeny. Meeny. Miny. Moe!" On the last word he grasped the knob firmly and gave it a twist. The door swung open to reveal another pitch-black room.
Inuyasha flung himself backwards, grabbing Kagome on the way and holding his sleeve over his nose. "Miasma!" he hissed.
"Ow!" Kagome jerked her arm free. "What is wrong with you? Why do people keep grabbing me?" She took a step forward, only to be brought up short when Inuyasha grabbed her wrist.
"You have got to be the dumbest mortal on the planet!" He yanked her back across the hall, as far as they could get from the open door without dissolving through the wall behind them. Jaken fixed them both with a quizzical look as he retrieved the disk. "Naraku has filled that room with miasma. Even around the safe zone that has been created I can tell. Come into contact with it and you will melt into a puddle of goo."
"I've already been through two of these rooms. And, as you can see, I am completely unmelted!"
"That's because Naraku was expecting you!"
"Of course he was expecting me! He invited me!"
"Will you get it through your thick human skull that Naraku is not a nice person? A nice person does not make people he invited walk through rooms of miasma!"
Kagome looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, the slugs were gross. And the spiders nearly gave me heart failure." She glared at Inuyasha again. "But that doesn't mean that Naraku isn't doing the best he can with what he has."
Inuyasha looked like he wanted to strangle her. "Listen here, you little—"
"Will human cow and abomination be done arguing soon?" Jaken interrupted. "Jaken has better things to do. Yes, yes he does. Plans to make, revenge to take."
"I am not a cow!" Kagome shrieked. Her voice echoed down the hall, splintering into mocking fragments.
"Cow. Cow. Cow," they chanted.
"Oops," she whispered, glancing apprehensively up and down the hall. "Do you think anybody heard that?"
"Nice going, idiot." Inuyasha dropped Kagome's wrist and strained his ears, listening for anything coming their way. A door opened and slammed shut somewhere to the right of them. The angry shout of a demon sounded to their left. There was only one way to go.
"Move!" Inuyasha pitched Jaken through the doorway, ignoring the little demon's sudden squall of outrage and fear. Grabbing Kagome by the hand, he pulled her into the room after him and shut the door.
Kagome blinked in the sudden darkness. Faint glowing lines marked out the path, though the glow was fainter than it had been the other two times. One of the glowing creatures stopped and waved its antennae at her. She bit back a scream.
"Cockroaches. I hate cockroaches."
Finished listening at the door, Inuyasha walked over to where Jaken cowered on the floor. He prodded the little demon with one foot.
"Get moving, demon. Unless you want to stay here and let them find you. They won't be happy. Especially since it's me that you've led this far."
Jaken whimpered and dragged himself to his feet. Clutching his disk like a precious talisman, he crept down the path, staying well within the limits marked out by the glowing insects.
"Inuyasha?" Kagome groped a hand out in front of her. "Where are you? I can't see a thing."
Clawed fingers closed over her own. "There's nothing to see. Stay close. My demon eyes can see better than yours. I won't let you get lost."
Kagome felt oddly reassured by Inuyasha's grip on her hand. Willingly, she let him lead her on. Jaken scuttled ahead of them, muttering to himself. The blackness felt suffocating, like there was something pressing down on her. It was getting harder to breathe. How big was this room, anyway? It felt like they had been walking forever.
Wait. Large gaps were appearing in the line of cockroaches. Kagome blinked, trying to force her bleary eyes to focus.
Their path of safety was disappearing.
"Damn!" Inuyasha growled and let go of her hand. Alarmed, Kagome tried to snatch it back. There was a rustle of cloth and something was draped over her head and shoulders.
"Inuyasha?" By smell and touch, Kagome could tell that it was the half-demon's haori covering her. "What's going on?"
"Don't worry." Inuyasha took her hand again. "The safety zone is fading. We can just hope that it is natural, and not that Naraku knows we are here. The miasma is seeping in." Kagome tightened her hold on Inuyasha's hand.
"Don't worry," he repeated. "My haori is made from the fur of the fire rat. It will protect you from the poison. Hold the cloth over your face when you breathe. That should filter out most of the fumes."
"Most?" Kagome squeaked. "I don't want to die, Inuyasha."
Kagome tried not to hyperventilate, trusting in Inuyasha to keep her safe. This brought back all the fears she'd had when she was little, and why she'd slept with a nightlite for so long. Faint whispers scratched at the edges of her hearing, promising her anything she could want if she'd just stop fighting. Darker shadows swirled across her vision, bringing all her childhood monsters to life.
She almost jumped out of her skin when Inuyasha abruptly stopped. "Well, we've reached the other side," he said. "Now to find the door." He felt around until he found the knob, jiggled it. "It's locked. Any ideas, demon?"
Jaken moaned, clutching his skinny green arms across his chest. "All around me. They are, they are. Poison darts to eat their hearts. Poison words bend and squirm." He started rocking back and forth, humming frantically or crooning strange words. "Little voices cry. Little bodies break. All will fall. All will fall!" His voice rose to a wail. "He's coming! Get out! Get out! Get out!"
"I don't have time for this. Stand back." Dropping her hand, Inuyasha rammed his shoulder into the door. It shook but held. He backed up a few paces and charged again. Cracking sounds came from the door. Jaken groaned, but at least he was quiet again.
"One more time." Inuyasha slammed into the door. With a sound of breaking wood, the door fractured into large chunks.
Kagome hurtled through after him, nearly sobbing with relief to get away from the grasping shadows of her past. Miasma spilled through the break. Strong arms grabbed her, and she found herself almost flying through the air.
Inuyasha deposited her on the ground near Naraku's throne. He let Jaken fall with a harsher bump. The little demon didn't seem to even see them anymore. He crouched where Inuyasha had dropped him. His silver disk had been twisted and half melted beyond recognition. Miasma continued to seep through the break, radiating a dark glow that Kagome found almost painful to look at for long.
"That wasn't very nice, Inuyasha."
Kagome turned to see Naraku standing over by the far left-hand wall. Kagura and Kanna flanked him on either side. The bitchy wind demon tapped her fan against her palm, staring at Inuyasha with a look of anticipation. The child-like demon showed no emotion at all, her blank stare fixed on the trio huddled by the throne. Naraku looked more amused than anything else.
A single door on the opposite side stood open. Butterflies danced by lazily on the breeze and the heady aroma of cherry blossoms drifted into the room.
Inuyasha didn't even seem to notice.
"Naraku." Kagome was standing so close to Inuyasha that she could feel his muscles bunch. He showed his fangs, radiating fury like she had never sensed before.
"Now I'll have to get the door repaired," Naraku continued. "I should send Kaede the bill."
"Don't you dare even think about talking to Kaede!" Inuyasha snarled. "Not after what you did! Where is she?"
Naraku sighed. "Always so impatient, Inuyasha. She is holding the boundaries, doing what your Kaede had called impossible. You really should see her garden. It's quite lovely."
He transferred his gaze to Kagome. She squeaked and tried to hide behind Inuyasha. "Ah, Kagome," he said. "I trust you slept well, child."
"Fine, thanks." Kagome couldn't quite hide the quaver in her voice. She still didn't think there was any reason for Inuyasha's hatred, but Naraku's presence made her uneasy.
"Is this any way to repay my hospitality, child?" he chided. "Young people today. No manners at all." He sighed, looking a bit put out. "I must insist that you stay. This is no weather to be traveling in, and we haven't finished our talk. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for your companion. I'm afraid he'll have to leave. Kagura, please show our unwanted guest to the door."
Kagura snapped open her fan and sliced it through the air in front of her. "Dance of Winds!"
Inuyasha cursed and dove to the side, away from Kagome and the cowering Jaken. He gave her a shove, sending her stumbling to her knees behind the throne. Gale force winds whipped through the place where they had been standing. Kagome was partially protected by the throne's bulk, but the winds picked up Jaken like a flea and flung him against the wall on the other side of the room. He slid to the floor and lay there without moving. Kagome couldn't tell if he still breathed or not.
Peeking from behind her shelter, Kagome could see Inuyasha bouncing off the floor, walls, and ceiling, trying to get closer to Naraku. Kagura swished her fan, sending blades of wind to blast him away each time. Display cases shattered as the winds sliced through them. Naraku hadn't moved at all. He wasn't paying attention to the enraged half demon at all. Instead, he was looking right at Kagome. It was almost as if he expected her to do something.
"Inuyasha can't keep this up for long," Kagome muttered to herself. His leaps weren't as high as they had been a few seconds ago. When he paused, Kagome could see that thin red lines were appearing on his face and hands.
Shards of glass littered the floor all around the throne. Some were no bigger than a grain of sand, others about the length of her leg. Kagome scrabbled among the shards, wincing as she cut her hands, until she found one about the length of her forearm. It fit comfortably in her hand, the edges dulled by the force that had splintered it away from the case. One end was pointy and still quite sharp, though. It nicked her palm as she picked it up.
All she needed to do was distract Kagura. Then, she and Inuyasha might be able to get away. Naraku had looked away to watch the battle. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out from behind the throne.
"Run, Inuyasha!" she screamed. She threw the shard.
The shard started to glow even before it left her hand. It zinged toward the demoness as if guided, going faster and with more force than Kagome had actually put into it. Kagura saw it coming and twisted at the last second. She fell to the floor with a curse that made Kagome's ears burn. The shard cut a narrow furrow in Kagura's arm before burying itself in the wall behind her.
Naraku glanced thoughtfully at the fallen wind demon, then turned to look at Kagome. "Interesting."
Inuyasha crouched on the floor, exhausted and bleeding. The expression on his face, as he looked at Kagome, was unreadable.
Kagome flinched under the weight of all the stares. Even Kanna was watching her, as if wondering what she would do next.
Naraku finally broke the silence that had descended upon the room. "You always did manage to attract certain girls, Inuyasha. Be careful. Or the cycle will repeat."
"Bastard," Inuyasha panted. He backed up, one slow step at a time, until he had reached Kagome. Naraku made no move to stop him. "Stay away from Kagome. We're ready for you this time."
"Stubborn fool. You've already lost."
There was no signal, but Kanna took one step forward and lifted her mirror. At first Kagome thought that it was light reflected from the bright surface. It took several heartbeats before she realized that the mirror itself was starting to glow. A hidden memory drifted to the front of Kagome's mind.
A glowing mirror.
A solemn child.
Unbelievable pain, and then…
Inuyasha grabbed Kagome around the waist and sprinted for the open door. Her thoughts scattered again as she grabbed onto the half demon.
"Don't look back!" Inuyasha yelled. He bounded out into the garden with Kagome clutched tight in his arms.
Behind them, Naraku began to laugh.
It seemed like Inuyasha was never going to stop, that he was going to run all the way back to the North Pole. Kagome could do nothing but hang on. She was afraid that one wrong move would cause Inuyasha to drop her. He bounded through trees as much as along the ground, and the ground was sometimes quite far away.
Kagome managed to get one hand wrapped around a lock of hair. She gave a tug. "Put me down, you idiot! All this bouncing around is making me sick."
Inuyasha stopped abruptly, tumbling Kagome to the ground. He glared at her suspiciously. "You're not gonna throw up, are you?"
"You're worse than a plane in turbulence," she shot back. Taking several deep breaths of cherry-scented air did wonders for her queasy stomach. "Where are we, anyway?"
"Don't know." Inuyasha crossed his arms and directed his scowl at the trees, plants, and innocent butterflies instead. "We're not in the palace anymore. That's all that matters." He waved a hand in front of his face, trying to shoo away an overly inquisitive butterfly.
There was something familiar about this particular spot. It nagged at the edges of her memory. Where had she seen that particular dwarf pine before? Kagome shook her head. Trying to remember was giving her a headache. She switched her attention to Inuyasha instead. It was then that she noticed the multitude of cuts lacing his hands and face, some still oozing bright red blood.
She scrambled to her feet. "Inuyasha! You're bleeding."
He looked at one hand, studying it thoughtfully. "You're right. I guess that's what happens when you fight with a demon bitch that can turn the wind into razor-sharp knives."
"Come here." Kagome sighed in exasperation, and a little bit of worry, as she grabbed Inuyasha's hand and pulled it towards her. Frowning, she dabbed at the bleeding cuts with her sleeve. "Where's a first aid kit when you need one?"
Inuyasha had gone rigid when she grabbed him. He tried to pull out of her grip. "I'm fine."
"No, you're not. You're bleeding. And your voice sounds funny. Do they hurt?" Kagome looked up. She saw a strange look in Inuyasha's golden eyes before he turned away.
"I'm fine," he repeated. "We'd better go."
"Be that way," she huffed. "Where do you suggest we go? If you haven't noticed, we're at the South Pole. There's a lot of land and water between here and the North Pole. And a lot of it is covered in snow. Did I ever tell you how much I hate snow?"
"Only about a million times." He finally looked back at her, frustration in his eyes. "Naraku may be your hero, but this place he created is unnatural. There are things out there a lot worse than you could ever dream of, little girl. Kuroro will come back, or she'll send help. I'm sure she survived the blizzard."
"Nobody knows where we are?" Kagome's voice rose an octave. As warm as her winter clothing was, she didn't think it would keep out the Antarctic cold for long. And her coat was still back in her room. "We have no food! No supplies! How are we—"
"Quiet!" Inuyasha snapped. Startled, Kagome obeyed him. He stood very still, except for the flicking of his ears. A warm wind brushed through the trees, shaking cherry blossoms loose to twirl around them. The branches whispered together, sending even more blossoms spiraling down.
Inuyasha stared at a row of Senryo bushes, their yellowish-green flowers shivering in the breeze, then he switched his attention to the trees. Visions of marauding ladybugs and blood-sucking butterflies flitted through Kagome's head as she followed his gaze. She'd already seen so much that she never knew existed so far that anything seemed possible.
"Come out of there, you little brat!" Inuyasha shouted. "I know you're there!"
Kagome blinked twice as the branches rustled more violently and a small child who couldn't have been more than eight slid down the trunk to stare suspiciously at the two of them. The child was wearing a thin tunic of what looked like undyed cotton, with matching trousers that were a couple of inches too short. Bare, dirty feet scuffed at the ground. The hair, though clean, had been raggedly hacked off just above the shoulders and looked like it hadn't seen a comb in weeks.
"It's a kid," she said in surprise. "He must have been one of the ones I heard singing yesterday."
"What's your name, kid?" Inuyasha asked. Kagome looked at the half demon. His voice had softened to a tone she hadn't believed him capable of. He sounded almost… nice.
The child stared at them for what felt like a long time, idly rubbing one bare foot against the other ankle. Obviously, the kid didn't feel like talking to them.
"What a cute little boy!" Kagome exclaimed when the silence had stretched on for longer than felt comfortable. "He must be one of the orphan children Naraku told me about."
The child looked irritated. "I'm not a boy, lady, I'm a girl." She then ignored Kagome in favor of studying Inuyasha. "My name's Haru. Are you Inuyasha? Miss Kikyo told us stories about the Dog Demon from the North. You don't look as stupid as she said you were. Have you come to take us home now?"
Inuyasha had gotten a funny look on his face. "Kikyo's here?"
"Who exactly is Kikyo?" Kagome asked, a little louder than she had intended. She was getting tired of being ignored. "She said that she knew you when I met her yesterday."
"Why don't you tell your little human everything, Inuyasha." Kagome flinched at the pure venom in her voice as Kikyo stepped out from behind a clump of Senryo bushes, a quiver of arrows slung across her back and a simple wooden bow in her hand.
Kagome looked sharply at Inuyasha. She'd never heard him sound like that before, either. Sad and hopeful at the same time. He never looks at me like that! she thought resentfully. She felt her face heat up when she realized where her thoughts were going. Not that I want him to! Inuyasha is rude, violent, and a jerk! I don't even like him! Although—
She shook her head, trying to rid it of such disturbing thoughts. But even more disturbing, were the memories of Inuyasha being nice to the orphan children at the North Pole and coming to the South Pole to rescue her when he had made it clear that he didn't even like her.
In one smooth move, Kikyo nocked an arrow and aimed it at Inuyasha. "Leave now, Inuyasha. You are not welcome here. Haru, go back to the other children."
"I don't want to, Miss Kikyo," Haru whined. She latched onto Kagome's hand. "Take me with you, lady! I'll be good!"
"It's not safe, Haru." Kikyo's voice was like steel. "Go inside. I'll tell you a story later."
Haru clung tighter to Kagome's hand. "Don't make me stay here! I've already been here too long!"
Inuyasha hadn't moved since Kikyo appeared, but now he seemed to shake off his paralysis. He smirked and crossed his arms over his chest. "The kid doesn't want to stay." He looked over his shoulder. "Kagome, take the kid and start walking north. I'll catch up with you shortly."
"Okay." Keeping a wary eye on Kikyo and the pointy weapon in her hand, Kagome started to edge around them. Then, she stopped. "Um, Inuyasha, which way's north?"
Inuyasha rolled his eyes. "Moron." He pointed at a slight angle to the direction they had been traveling in. "Just keep going that way, but don't cross the barrier until I catch up."
"Right." Kagome started walking in the direction indicated. Haru hadn't let go of her hand yet and was following so closely that Kagome had to be careful not to trip over her. She expected Kikyo to stop them, to perhaps shoot them with that very sharp-looking arrow. Her shoulders prickled until there were several trees between them. She heard Inuyasha say something, but couldn't make out the words. Squashing her curiosity that demanded she try to eavesdrop, she listened to Inuyasha for once and kept walking.
Haru was even more nervous than her, and kept looking around as if expecting someone to jump out of the trees and drag her back to wherever she'd come from. As the minutes ticked by with no signs of pursuit, she relaxed.
"Did you really mean it, lady," Haru asked, looking up into Kagome's face. "Will you and Inuyasha really take me away from here."
"Of course, Haru." Kagome smiled and squeezed Haru's hand. "And my name's Kagome."
"Kagome," Haru said, as if trying out the word. Then, she nodded. "I like it."
"Good. So do I."
Naraku surveyed the damage done to his throne room. Shards of glass littered the floor and his prize trophies had been torn to shreds. The only thing that had escaped the devastation was his throne. Flicking away a few particles of glass, he sat down.
A door opened into the room and a small army of little green demons scurried inside. They immediately began to clean up the glass and carry away the trophies to see if they could be repaired. One of the little demons scuttled up to him, carrying a goblet filled with thick, red liquid. He accepted it lazily and the demon hurried away.
Another figure entered the room. Naraku ignored him for the moment. Kanna ghosted to his side, where she should be. Kagura took her time, picking herself up off the floor and straightening her clothes. If she'd had a comb she probably would have fixed her hair, anything to delay and try to annoy him.
Two of the little demons brought the cowering Jaken forward and dropped him at Naraku's feet. The half-mad imp had regained consciousness some time ago, but hadn't moved from the spot where he'd been thrown.
Naraku looked down from his lofty height. "What am I going to do with you, Jaken?" he said. He idly twirled the liquid in his glass.
Jaken scrambled forward to seize Naraku's boot in his warty fingers. "Jaken is sorry, sorry! Yes he is! Jaken did not mean to lead abomination to throne room. Abomination threatened Jaken! Jaken is good! Jaken go now? Yes?" He peered up hopefully into Naraku's face.
Naraku waved his hand at a pair of demons that had entered the room unnoticed. "Take that thing away and have it beaten."
The two demons seized Jaken in their meaty hands and started to cart him away. Jaken let out a high-pitched terrified scream and began to writhe and bite, but the demons didn't seem to notice. He was still screaming as he was dragged out of the room.
Naraku looked over at the man who had come over silently to stand beside the throne. "Well, Bankotsu? What news do you have for me?"
"They reached the sakura garden a few minutes okay," Bankotsu replied. "Jakotsu reported that Kikyo showed up. Inuyasha stayed to talk to her, but he sent Kagome ahead to the border." He glanced sideways at Naraku. "He wants me to remind you that Inuyasha belongs to him."
"Tell Jakotsu to be patient," Naraku said. "Let Kikyo and Inuyasha have their little reunion, but don't let her kill him. Inuyasha and the girl are still of use to me. I can't have them getting themselves killed."
"And our payment," Bankotsu said blandly. "My men and I don't work for free."
"I'll have Menoumaru bring you a coffer from my treasure room," Naraku promised. "And I'll arrange some entertainment for your men. A few demons are becoming unruly. The Shichinintai can make an example of them."
Bankotsu nodded once, turned, and walked away.
Naraku smiled to himself once the mercenary had vanished. How like Bankotsu to try and withhold vital information from him. It would be entertaining to watch Inuyasha and his young charge try to escape. And when they inevitably failed, he would personally see to it that Haru learned the folly of trying to run away from her destiny.
Food for Thought: Some people are like slinkies – Not really good for anything, but they bring a smile to your face when pushed down the stairs.
I hope that was enjoyable and worth the wait. If we're lucky, it won't be another 3 years before I write another chapter!