Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in this story. They have been kind enough to do their part in the telling of this tale, but in truth they belong to another. A nod of recognition is bent towards Rumiko Takahashi for her creative prowess.

A Debt of Gratitude: Thank you to mine beta, Fenikkusuken, whose inexhaustible enthusiasm was pushed towards the brink of exhaustion by this finale. Thanks for sharing the adventure with me!

Chapter 8
Following in Footsteps

Sesshoumaru intently assessed the human female hanging limply over his arm, pleased that he'd managed to catch her but concerned for her well-being. Her scent was thick with fear, and the taiyoukai felt a fleeting twinge of regret for delaying his arrival. He could have disposed of the oni, but there had been no doubt in his mind that the Shikon no Tama was superior. He'd waited to see the outcome, to see if the miko's resolve was as formidable as the power at her disposal.

Judging by her pale, drawn face, the test had been a harsh one, but no less cruel than the world to which she continued to cling. From what she had told Rin during her stay at his estate, fate had tied this woman to an era vastly different from her own. To survive, she needs courage. Sesshoumaru flicked an assessing glance towards the prostrate monk, whose blood flowed sluggishly, pooling in the dirt. She found it, but at what cost?

The taiyoukai knelt in order to shift his grasp on the young woman, easing her slight frame into the crook of his arm and rising slowly. To his relief, the Jewel lay inert, not responding in any way to the youki he'd been forced to release in order to protect himself from the after-effects of Kagome's purification blast. The air around him fairly crackled, reminding him strongly of Yamataku Shrine, whose aura was barely tolerable, even for him. She must have had sense enough to recognize me. It would have been troublesome if she hadn't, for this miko was one of those rare individuals whose power was a match for his own. Sesshoumaru sighed quietly and strode in the direction of the village in order to find suitable help.

At the base of the stairs stood a simple hut, and from its door flew a young kitsune, his coppery hair standing on end and his teeth defensively bared. He drew up short, his green eyes widening at the sight of Sesshoumaru cradling his adoptive mother against his chest. His shock quickly morphed into anger, and he growled at the taiyoukai, who merely arched a brow, silently inviting the boy to reconsider. When Shippo's wits finally made sense of the tableau, he clenched his small fists and lowered his gaze, acknowledging Sesshoumaru's position and rights. Just as quickly, the kitsune edged closer, his nose working. "Okaasan?" he whispered, giving the taiyoukai a fearful look. "What happened? Where's Miroku?"

"Fetch the old woman."

The kitsune hollered, and Kaede appeared, hurrying forward without giving the towering demon more than a glance as she exclaimed over the unconscious young woman. Sesshoumaru didn't even blink at her perfunctory tone when she ordered him to carry Kagome inside. Ducking his head under the lintel, he followed the stout woman to the corner and knelt beside a waiting bedroll. Kaede took up a position on the opposite side of the mat and helped steady his lolling burden as he gently lowered her to the floor. Before any questions could be raised by either the old woman or the kit, he announced, "I will return with the monk," and walked out.

Miroku proved a more difficult burden, so Sesshoumaru simple grappled the monk around the waist and tucked him under his arm. What was sacrificed in gentleness was made up for in speed; he was back at the door to the old miko's hut in moments. With a cry of dismay, Shippo stumbled across the planking and peered up at the injured man's face to assure himself that Miroku was still breathing. "He's bleeding!" the kit anxiously exclaimed, pointing Sesshoumaru towards a mat on the opposite side of the fire-pit from Kagome. Shippo helped the taiyoukai lower the monk to the floor and carefully arranged his limbs into a more comfortable position.

Kaede moved to check on her second patient, and the kit backed away until he thudded softly against the wall, then slid to the floor. Sesshoumaru could feel the tremors traveling through the boy's youki and wondered at the extent of his fear. His nose should tell him what his eyes cannot discern.

The old woman gave Miroku's injuries a quick inspection and staunched the flow of blood before briskly announcing, "He'll live."

The kitsune's lip quavered, and he looked up to meet impassive golden eyes. "Th-thank you, Sesshoumaru-sama. You saved them—my family."

The taiyoukai slowly shook his head. "They defeated the attackers without my assistance."

"They were in no fit state to return to us," Kaede quietly countered. "Without thy help, their suffering would have been multiplied. Ye have our humble thanks."

Sesshoumaru gave the barest nod of acknowledgment, then exited the hut, stationing himself beside the door, within easy earshot.

"Can I do anything, Kaede?" the kitsune asked in a small voice.

"Aye. Use this cloth to bathe thy mother's face. Perhaps it will wake her."

"She's not hurt anywhere; why is she like this?" he inquired moments later.

"Ye felt that burst of energy; she has probably exhausted her strength," the old woman replied in reassuring tones. "She needs rest—plain and simple."

The sharp scent of healing ointment reached the taiyoukai's sensitive nose, and the boy spoke again. "That looks bad."

The miko grunted an acknowledgment, then called the kitsune over to lend a hand. "Miroku is strong; his wounds will heal in time. If ye want to help him, keep thy nose sharp. Wounds that fester can be as deadly as any foe."

"Yeah, okay," the boy replied earnestly.

Sesshoumaru listened carefully, trying to assign meaning to each sound that reached his ears. Water boiled. Cloths dripped. Bandages wrapped. Herbs crumbled. And every so often, he caught the sound of a teardrop splashing upon the floorboards.

Hnn… that boy will barely be into his second tail before his human mother breathes her last and orphans him anew. In fact, the kitsune was about the age his half-brother had been when he'd outlived his human mother. The taiyoukai gravely pondered the extent of his familial obligation. Protecting Inuyasha's intended mate was one matter, especially since she was the keeper of the Shikon no Tama, but… an intended mate's adopted youkai son…? Perhaps, he decided. I will extend this one favor since Inuyasha counted the boy as pack.However, he drew the line at the kitsune. Any further progeny can fend for themselves.

Kagome woke with a start and blinked up at the familiar herb-lined rafters of Kaede's hut. Spots of sunlight swayed through lazy dust motes, and the peaceful silence seemed wrong somehow. Her heart was pounding, but she couldn't remember why she was afraid. What happened? She closed her eyes again and willed herself to remember. Snatches of memories flitted past, flashes of vivid light in a dark world—green fireflies, blue lanterns, a pink explosion. The festival. We were interrupted. Scenes from the nighttime attack came flooding back, and Kagome's breath caught. Am I… alone? Afraid to open her eyes to check, she cautiously reached out and almost immediately brushed up against Miroku's reassuring presence.

Her heart leapt with gratitude, and she opened her eyes, turning towards him with a smile. However, the monk lay upon his mat, pale and still. His head was bandaged, as was one shoulder, and his blanket was folded down far enough that she could see snug wrappings around his ribs. "M-miroku-sama!" she gasped.

Sitting up proved to be a struggle; nothing hurt, but her arms and legs felt rubbery as she freed herself from her blanket and crawled across the floor. She scooted right up to his side, then sat back on her heels and tried to assess the damage. Very gently, she lifted the rag that lay across his forehead and dropped it into the nearby bowl of water. With tentative strokes, she pushed damp bangs away from his face; Miroku didn't stir at her touch, so she grew bolder. Slender fingers sifted through his hair, tucking some of it behind his left ear, then traced the line of one eyebrow. "Thank you for staying with me," she whispered. "I couldn't bear it if you'd gone."

She limited herself to one last, fleeting caress of his cheek before adopting a more businesslike manner. Pressing her hand to his forehead, she checked for fever, then carefully eased back the dressing just above his right temple. Herbs had been applied to a shallow cut and the knocks the oni had delivered had raised a couple of very nasty lumps. Replacing the bandages, she wrung out the cloth and replaced it on Miroku's brow. "You know... usually, when either Sango or I was in this position, we'd have been groped by now. Even when you were unconscious, it was as if that hand had a mind of its own," she said softly, tears beginning to well.

Kagome half-expected him to respond, admitting that he'd been shamming to lure her into reach. She badly wanted that reassurance—twinkling eyes, crooked smiles, gentle teasing—even if it came with wandering hands. However, the monk lay still, and Kagome's sadness spilled over. I should have been quicker to do what he said... tried to fight... something. Dashing away tears, Kagome murmured, "I'm sorry, Miroku-sama. This is all my fault"

"He owes you his life," smoothly corrected a deep voice. Sesshoumaru straightened to his full height after ducking through the door and met the young miko's startled gaze.

"Sesshoumaru-sama," she breathed before a look of concentration furrowed her brow. A memory tickled at the edges of her mind. "You came?"

The taiyoukai inclined his head. "Afterwards," he qualified.

"We were attacked, and it was terrible. The shrine was destroyed, and Miroku was so confident, and I was so scared, and he was hurt," Kagome rambled. She wasn't sure why she felt the need to confess all this to Sesshoumaru, but her guilt was overwhelming.

"The oni were defeated," he calmly pointed out once she paused for breath.

"Y-you saw?" she stammered, confused. "Why didn't you help us?"

Sesshoumaru's brow arched. "It was not my battle."

Her eyes widened in shock, which quickly morphed into horror. "Did you also sit back and watch when Inuyasha and Sango died?" she demanded in a hoarse whisper.

The taiyoukai blinked—the only indication that her question startled him. Slowly, he shook his head. "No, miko. On that night, this Sesshoumaru did all that was in his power to do."

Kagome could only nod, ashamed of her accusation.

"Miko," he said, commanding her attention. "The battle and the victory were yours."

"But it was an accident," she admitted wearily. "Everything happened so fast, and Miroku... I thought he would be taken from me, too. I don't even remember how I stopped the oni."

"Hnn." Sesshoumaru's unreadable gaze dwelt for several long moments on the unconscious monk before he murmured, "You had something to protect. It was enough."

Kagome's breath caught. How many times have I heard those very words applied to Inuyasha? How many times was I the one he fought to protect?

The turnabout was staggering. Umeko-sama had said something similar back at Yamataku Shrine. "Your duty to the Shikon no Tama is just your starting point. Allow your heart to join your will so you can protect the things you love." The huge burst of power from the Shikon no Tama had been the overflow of her heart's desperation to keep Miroku safe. And not just him, but Shippo, Kaede, and everyone in the village she'd come to think of as her second home.

Her train of thought was interrupted by Sesshoumaru's next remark. "Your kit is waiting outside."

"Shippo?" she called.

The door mat was pushed aside, and a tousled head poked around the door frame. Her heart lurched at Shippo's thoroughly subdued appearance, and she was taken aback when the boy first looked to Sesshoumaru for permission to enter. This was given with the barest tilt of the taiyoukai's head, and then Shippo hurtled into Kagome's arms. No tears were shed, but he clung fiercely. Initially, she thought he was simply putting up a brave front for Sesshoumaru's sake, but then he looked up at her with his jaw set and his eyes glinting with a vengeful light.

"You kicked those oni's asses—both you and Miroku!"

Kagome's expression softened, loving the boy for his faith in her... and for the pride shining in his eyes. "Yes," she managed, pulling him into a tight hug. "We kept our promise, and you kept yours. Everyone's safe."

"Keh... 'course," the boy gruffly agreed.

Stifling a giggle, Kagome glanced over the kit's head to where Sesshoumaru looked on, a contemplative expression on his face. He offered no comment and excused himself by the simple expedient of leaving the hut. As soon as he was gone, Shippo butted his head up under her chin in a silent plea for comfort, and she gently stroked his hair.

"Tell me what happened?" he begged.

She started from the beginning, when they first felt the stirrings of youki and the tremors of approaching footsteps. Shippo had seen as many battles as she, and he questioned her closely on the points she tried to gloss over until she gave in and told him everything she could remember. Oddly enough, in the telling, the lingering knot of dread in her soul eased. Kagome calmed as the previous night's nightmare was exposed to the light of day.

A soft touch on her behind, light as kitsune's fur, registered fleetingly as she relayed her experiences. The inconsequential brush recurred thrice before Kagome noted that the position of Shippo's tail made it impossible for him to be the source. Realization dawned as the stroking grew bolder, and she turned to peer over her shoulder at Miroku... whose expression was positively euphoric.

Too relieved to be truly angry, Kagome uttered an exasperated, "Miroku-sama!" before catching hold of his wrist and putting a stop to his gentle fondling.

Shippo popped up and peered over her shoulder at the monk, whose eyes remained closed. "'Bout time you woke up," he scolded.

The kitsune wriggled off of Kagome's lap and hurried to Miroku's other side, and she eased around to face the monk. Leaning over to remove the damp cloth from his forehead, she asked, "Are you with us?"

A slow, sleepy smile spread over his face, and he took a long breath. When he softly murmured, "Kagome," it was a sigh of contentment. His eyes blinked open to focus on her face. "Mmm, good... we won," he quipped in a raspy voice.

"Same old Miroku," observed Shippo with a small grin. "I'll get you some water."

As the kitsune hurried to the water bucket to fill a cup, Miroku rotated his trapped hand so he could curl his fingers around her wrist. A fingertip lightly tickled a sensitive patch of skin just above her palm as he inquired, "Why do you look so sad, Kagome-sama?"

Enfolding his larger hand in both her own, she replied simply, "You're hurt."

Shippo returned with water, and Kagome withdrew her hands in order to help Miroku into a sitting position. The monk paled at the pain the effort cost him, but gratefully accepted the proffered cup. Once he'd drained it, he experimentally cleared his throat, then asked, "The oni were defeated, and the village was spared?"

"Erm... yes."

He offered a faint smile and pointed out, "As we've both lived to tell of it, I'd say we have reason for much gladness." Miroku took his time inventorying his injuries, cautiously stretching his limbs and wincing as he rolled his shoulders. After gingerly probing the knobs on his head, he grimaced and said, "...or justifiable relief, at the very least. I think it would be wisest to lie back down."

Shippo blurted, "I'll get Kaede!" before dashing out the door.

While the bamboo mat clattered back into place, Kagome hastened to assist the monk back onto his mat. In the process, Miroku managed to slide an arm around her waist and wind his fingers through her hair, effectively pulling her down with him. "Miroku-sama, you'll hurt yourself!" she scolded, floundering as she tried to keep her weight off of his bruised ribs.

"Ah... I believe you are right," he managed in a tight voice. "It seemed a good idea at the time."

"Serves you right," she mumbled, cheeks flushed.

He didn't argue, but once she'd straightened and replaced the cool cloth on his brow, he caught her hand. "I'd rather have you angry at me than sad because of me," he said solemnly.

"I'm not angry with you," she countered primly. "And if you want to cheer me up, that's not the best route to take."

The monk's lopsided smirk held no traces of apology, but his tone was contrite as he answered, "I will exercise restraint." Then, he gently tugged her hand closer and placed a kiss upon its palm. "You should be resting, too, Kagome-sama," he murmured as his eyes drifted shut.

She withdrew her hand and clumsily scooted back to her bed. By the time Kaede returned to check on them, Kagome was curled on her side, fast asleep... holding Miroku's kiss to her heart.

Three days later, Miroku's injuries were healed enough that he was restless with his enforced recuperation. He'd been a docile enough patient when Kagome was the one hovering over him, but she'd returned to her home in the future, trusting him to Kaede's care. Keeping busy would have helped the time pass until Kagome-sama's return, but everyone keeps insisting that I shouldn't do anything. The whole village was aware of his injuries and had been giving the old miko's hut a wide berth so he'd have plenty of peace and quiet. However, being cut off from daily life only made the time drag.

When Shun looked in just after breakfast, Miroku was delighted by the chance to catch up. The carpenter was on his way to the meadow, where the men were doing their best to salvage lumber from the demolished shrine building. The monk tentatively offered to accompany him, but Kaede adamantly insisted that it was too soon... and so Miroku's confinement persisted. Left to his own devices, he wasted much of the morning preparing a fresh batch of wards for around the village limits. His mind wandered so much, he ended up discarding the entire lot, knowing they'd be worthless. How can I put my heart into a task when it's so far away? With a sigh, he cleaned and stowed his brushes and ink, then sat against the wall, letting his head fell back with a frustrated thunk.

At least two more days stretched emptily ahead of him, and all he could think about was the way Kagome had smiled at him... her fussing that offered excuses to touch him... and the emotions lingering in her eyes. She's ready! Finally, finally, the woman was sure of her own heart, but instead of making the most of all the innocent little cues she was dropping, he'd been flat on his back. As much as he cursed the injuries that kept him from pulling her into his arms and renewing his proposal, he blessed the brutish creature that had kicked him out of the battle... and past the obstacle of Kagome's hesitation. A small price to pay for a bride... if only I can find the chance to properly speak with her!

Miroku's gaze drifted around the hut's interior, much cluttered by the the addition of his things, and came to rest on an item that he'd been deliberately avoiding since its arrival. The box from Kagome's mother that held the 'answer' to his letter had been sitting upon the his storage chest since the afternoon before their confrontation with the oni. He was curious, to be sure, but as yet, the monk's courage had not been equal to the task of gift-opening. Until now, he'd used the lack of privacy as his excuse, but Kaede was off tending to other patients now that he was on the mend, and Shippo had taken Tabi over to Kouki's house. It would seem that this is the perfect opportunity.

Even though his decision was made, the monk was unwilling to rush and took the time to stretch muscles that had grown stiff from inactivity. As he eased his way through a simple routine, it occurred to him that these were the same motions he went through when preparing for battle. With a self-deprecating chuckle, he struggled to his feet... and immediately wished for his staff. However, the shakujou was propped in the opposite corner, so he settled on taking the 'long way' around the room in an unsteady shuffle, trailing his hand along the wall.

The flat box Kagome had carried with her through the Well was interesting in and of itself. Neither wood nor paper, the sturdy material had a lid that would simply lift away once he removed the ribbon keeping it shut. Resuming his seat against the wall, Miroku took a deep breath to steady his nerves, then slid the binding over the end of the box and lifted the lid. What have we here...? He tilted his head to one side, trying to orientate himself with the box's contents, and he exhaled on a note of surprised delight. Kagome-sama's mother has answered in kind!

With reverent care, he lifted the topmost item by its edges, recognizing the artistic masterpiece as one of the 'photographs' Kagome occasionally showed them. Miroku thought that the way people in the future could perfectly capture a likeness on glossy paper was truly a wonder. Noting with pleasure that there was a goodly stack awaiting his perusal, Miroku gave this first one his full attention. From the snapshot smiled a couple who looked weary, yet exultant. The woman's brown curls were cropped short, and she cradled a newborn as she leaned back into the embrace of a man with unruly, black hair. Though he could see little more of her than a dimpled fist and some downy fuzz, Miroku realized that he was witnessing a moment from Kagome's past... a birth that wouldn't take place for centuries.

The photographs progressed chronologically, and the monk felt as if he was watching her grow up. He was offered glimpses of a bright-eyed toddler in a flowered sundress, then a gap-toothed young girl with pink hair ribbons. A younger brother made his appearance, and there were more glimpses of her mother, her grandfather, and even her cat. Soon, the girl was teetering awkwardly on the edge of womanhood. Miroku chuckled softly over a photograph in which Kagome seemed to be trying very hard to look more grown up. She wore a brightly-hued summer yukata as she stood before Goshinboku; her hair was pinned up, and she held her head high. She's so young, but there are hints of the woman she has become. Far too soon, you'll trade innocence for sorrow... but you will never lose the sweetness in your smile.

A series of informal photographs showed Kagome dressed in the same clothing she'd worn all throughout the first year of their mutual quest. Miroku found himself smiling nostalgically as memories surged to the fore. You had no idea how much havoc you played with that little green skirt of yours. Ah... I rather miss it! In one of the pictures, Kagome posed with a group of other young women, all wearing the school uniform. He scrutinized each of them, but decided that Kagome's smile was the brightest. None of them held a candle to the slim young woman with long, black hair who beckoned to his heart. Perhaps I am biased, but that is as it should be.

He took his time over each snapshot, noting with interest the people and places in the backdrop of each. Clothing, buildings, furnishings—so many small details piqued his curiosity, and he wished Kagome was there so he could ask her about some of the particulars. As he continued through the collection, he gained a greater appreciation for the sense of family, of history, and of generosity they communicated. No words had been offered, but words were not required for him to understand the meaning of this gift. Kagome's mother was entrusting him with her daughter.

The last photograph in the box took his breath away. I'd forgotten... yet once he thought about it, he remembered the day when Kagome had brought a camera into the past. She coached Kaede in the intricacies of aiming the small, black box and cajoled the whole group into posing. Everyone smiled when directed, there had been a small click, and nothing else had happened. However, their young friend from the future was pleased, so they shrugged it off. That was early in our acquaintance, before we fully understood what Kagome was talking about when she spoke of 'pictures'. This was taken that day.

Miroku's eyes misted as he drank in the sight of Sango's smile, Kirara's intelligent gaze, and Inuyasha's scowl. Taijiya armor, twin tails, hanyou ears—all were perfectly preserved in an unremarkable moment. This is a good memory. Gently, he traced the face of each figure with a fingertip. Fate had thrown them together, made them inseparable, and then torn them apart. His heart ached, but it was for gladness. I am simply grateful for the chance to see your faces again. The monk closed his eyes and breathed deeply, carefully reining in his scattered feelings. He took his time turning them over as he calmed his heart and mind, and in the end, he was content in the knowledge that he was ready, too. Flipping slowly back through the photographs, restlessness once again took hold. Hurry back, Kagome-sama. I have something of importance to discuss with you.

"What are you going to do, dear?" Mama asked out of the blue.

Kagome looked up from rice she was rinsing to where her mother gazed thoughtfully out the kitchen window, a bundle of scallions in her hands. "What do you mean?"

"Are you going to keep going back and forth between two times, or are you going to choose one?"

"I don't know," Kagome sighed. After a few moments, she added, "Maybe I won't have to choose?"

"I think..." Mama began, but she sighed and shook her head. Instead, she said, "Do you remember when we used to visit my parents' home? You were very little, but we went every summer up until the year Souta was born."

"Sure!" The young woman went back to stirring the rice, smiling at early memories. "They had chickens in the side yard and two cats in the shed behind the house. And Grandma sewed me that pretty yukata with fans all over it, and Grandpa fed me shrimp crackers on the sly."

Mrs. Higurashi laughed. "I see you remember all the important things."

"They were important to me!" Kagome countered.

Her mother simply smiled and went on with her discourse. "When I married your father, I left my home in that tiny river town and moved here, to the shrine. I loved your father, and I loved this place... but I missed the quiet, country life I knew... and my parents... and the traditions I'd known since I was small. And so, every summer, your father allowed me to go back for a few weeks."

"Without him?"

"Mm-hmm," Mama replied. "He had work here, so I packed my bags and brought my baby back to the country so she could have a taste of the life I remembered so fondly."

"It was fun, but I do remember missing Daddy."

"Yes, I was always anxious to return home by the end of our visit."

"So... we stopped going?" Kagome prompted, suspecting her mother was aiming towards a point.

"My mother took me aside and gently pointed out that as much as they loved our visits, my home and my future were with my husband." Mama's smile deepened as she mischievously added, "She thought I might be living too much in the past."

Kagome giggled, but pointed out, "I loved visiting, though."

"True, dear," Mrs. Higurashi assured. "And we went back regularly for short visits... with your father... while he was with us."

"I remember," Kagome murmured.

"That last summer, though... I think that's when I finally grew up," Mama shared.

"But... I was five!"

"True," her mother calmly agreed. "I suppose I was a late-bloomer." They worked in silence for a several minutes before she spoke again. "It's just a part of life—growing up, moving on, starting afresh. I had to leave behind my family and my traditions, but your father and I began our own family and our own traditions... borrowing a bit from both our pasts."

"Are you saying you think I need to choose?" Kagome asked quietly.

"Wouldn't it be better to choose?" her mother gently inquired. "You've been dividing your time between two worlds for years now."

"I have people I love on both sides."

"I know, sweetheart," Mrs. Higurashi soothed. Once Kagome had started the rice cooker, her mother set her to work slicing cabbage while she peeled carrots. "You know," she said conversationally. "You've never met my older sister—your Aunt Saki. She married a good man she met at university and almost immediately moved overseas. That was nearly thirty years ago, and she's never come back to visit... not even once."

Kagome hummed, not entirely pleased with Mama's reminiscences... but willing to hear her out. "That must be... hard?"

"It was at first," Mrs. Higurashi agreed. "But it helped to know that she was happy."

"And you want me to be happy?" Kagome sighed.

"Yes, dear," her mother smiled. "I know it's not an easy choice, but it's one that many have had to make... and one that you'll be facing before long."

Kagome wanted to argue... to say that no one else had ever had to say goodbye forever, but that simply wasn't true. Perhaps it was childish to want to hold onto everything she loved instead of deciding what she loved best. I think Mama is trying to say is... it's my turn to grow up.

Shippo carried a summons from Sesshoumaru, and Kaede deemed the invitation important enough to warrant releasing their convalescent. The monk had been chafing under her watchful eye for an additional two days, and he was only too glad to make his escape. Taking the stairs slowly, Miroku relished the fresh air, open sky, and cool evening breeze. By the time he reached the torii arch and stepped into the shrine meadow, fireflies were beginning to rise from the long grasses.

The clearing was quiet, all the workmen having long since gone home to their dinners, and a quick testing of the vicinity for youki gave the monk his direction. Setting an easy pace, he strolled purposefully towards Goshinboku. Sesshoumaru waited beneath the giant tree, gazing at the scar upon its trunk, apparently lost in thought. As he'd done the last time he met with Inuyasha's older brother, Miroku waited quietly for the taiyoukai to acknowledge his presence. Eventually, Sesshoumaru's assessing gaze swept him, and smiling, the monk said, "I understand you came to our aid."

"Hnn," he acknowledged.

The deepening shadows leeched the color from their surroundings, playing up the stark whiteness of Sesshoumaru's silks, the bright sheen of his silver hair, and the pale profusion of fur that rode proudly upon his shoulder. Cheek stripes were dark slashes against fair skin, sharp reminders of the deadly power that this demon possessed. Miroku hardly realized he was staring, but Sesshoumaru didn't seem to be bothered by the silence that lay between them. He simply went back to gazing at the tree.

"This is where we buried them," Miroku quietly announced.

"I know."


The next conversational lull was somewhat more awkward, for during its space, Miroku debated whether or not now was a good time to speak up with regards to Kagome-sama. He had not secured her consent, but Sesshoumaru was here... which saved him a long and tiresome journey. I have nothing to lose... except all my hopes for a happy life. The melodrama of the thought struck Miroku as particularly pathetic, and having thus amused himself at his own expense, he dared to broach what he feared might be a delicate subject. Please hear me out. Clearing his throat lightly, he asked, "Sesshoumaru-sama, may I speak with you on a matter of considerable importance?"

Golden eyes slanted in his direction, and then the taiyoukai turned to face him. Miroku wasn't sure whether it was best to match the unnervingly direct scrutiny or to lower his eyes, so he settled for what he hoped was a respectfully even gaze. I can hold my own, but I know my place. Not fidgeting took a considerable amount of concentration as the taiyoukai considered his request.

Suddenly, Sesshoumaru turned and began to walk away slowly. Miroku sagged against his staff, relieved to no longer be the focus of the powerful demon's examination... but despairing of the audience he'd hoped to be granted. Then, a smooth voice carried through the evening stillness. "Come."

Without missing a beat, the monk trotted after him, as eager to follow as little Rin had always seemed. Feeling like a child—and not caring for the role—Miroku hurried his steps until he walked alongside the taiyoukai. His shakujou made the only noise as they approached the site of the new shrine. In the aftermath of their 'visitors', little more remained of their summer's work than toppled walls, crumbled tiles, and splintered wood. Noting the piles of undamaged lumber that Shun had begun stacking, the monk sighed and said, "We will salvage what we can and begin anew. Though the attack set us back, we cannot truly lose hope, for a Shrine stands here in Kagome-sama's time. Her family are the shrine keepers, and this is her home... or it will be. Actually, I hope that this will be...."

Miroku trailed off awkwardly, and Sesshoumaru ignored his vague hint. Instead, he led the monk in a slow inspection of the ruined building's perimeter. He's not making this easy, but that doesn't mean it has to be difficult.

"What is this?"

The monk followed the taiyoukai's line of sight, then hurried to keep up as he strode towards the house he'd been helping to build. "This is where the village's first shrine keeper will live. They have offered the position to me."

"Hnn," Sesshoumaru replied vaguely, his nose twitching. Then he said, "You said there was a matter of importance?"

"Yes," Miroku breathed, relieved to be offered an opening... and that the taiyoukai's eyes were busy inspecting his handiwork rather than his face. "I do not know how such things work, and I have no desire to offend you in any way," he began circumspectly.

"I will take your ignorance into account, monk."

"Ah... many thanks," Miroku earnestly replied. "When I applied to you earlier for Kagome-sama's whereabouts, you accepted me as her protector in your brother's stead."

"Half-brother," Sesshoumaru corrected quietly.

"Yes… Inuyasha." The monk plunged ahead, saying, "I wish to know if I'm expected apply to you for permission in order to court Kagome-sama. It would please me to take her for a wife."

"She wishes this?"

"I... do not know," Miroku admitted.

"She is ignorant of your plans?" Sesshoumaru inquired

"Not precisely."

"You have spoken of your intentions?"

"Yes, I have."

Sesshoumaru frowned slightly. "She refused you?"

"Not entirely," Miroku replied, concerned by the way they seemed to be dancing around the subject. He tried his best to clarify matters. "Kagome-sama's loyalty to Inuyasha runs very deep, and I don't think it would have ever occurred to her to search for another... 'mate'. She was still grieving when I became attached." The monk glanced towards Sesshoumaru, but the taiyoukai's face revealed nothing of his opinions on the matter. Deciding there was nothing to be gained from holding back, he explained, "She knows how I feel, and I have expressed a willingness to wait. However, I think she'll accept me; there have been encouraging signs."

"She saved your life," Sesshoumaru announced.

Miroku blinked at the non sequitur. "What?"

"The miko unleashed the power of the Shikon no Tama when your life was endangered." The taiyoukai fixed him with keen eyes. "Everything in the vicinity was purified... except for a small section." Pointing decisively, he announced, "The unaffected area lies towards the old miko's hut. She spared the kit."

Stunned, Miroku stretched out his senses, quickly verifying the taiyoukai's words. It's as if the land has been scoured. Residual purity lingered most strongly in the direction of the slope where they'd faced off against the oni. "It reminds me of Mount Hakurei!" he exclaimed in awed tones.

"This is worse," the taiyoukai calmly replied. "She is very powerful."

Looking at Sesshoumaru in concern, Miroku asked, "Aren't you uncomfortable in this atmosphere?"

"Hnn," he murmured, skirting the inquiry and stepping up onto the outer porch of Miroku's future home. He peered casually into the spacious room, which still lacked dividing screens. "The Jewel must be kept safe at all costs... even at the cost of its keeper's freedom. I am not convinced that the miko can fulfill her duty on her own."

Miroku stilled. He can't mean... The monk couldn't quite keep the alarm out of his voice as he asked, "Are you planning to take Kagome-sama?"

"Only if it becomes necessary," the taiyoukai smoothly replied. While the monk fumbled for words, Sesshoumaru spoke again. "This is... small."

"It must seem so to you, but this home is large by the village's standards," Miroku pointed out with careful politeness.

The taiyoukai solemnly contemplated the pitch of the roof before stepping back down onto the grass and following the footpath towards the small bathhouse. The monk followed more slowly, unsettled by the Western Lord's cursory inspection... and alarmed by the implications of his words.

When he caught up to Sesshoumaru, the youkai was gazing into the now-dark interior of the small structure. "Why do you want the Shikon Miko?" the taiyoukai asked, keeping his gaze to the front.

"I don't."

Golden eyes slanted his way. "You have done all of this for her. You want her."

Miroku heaved a longsuffering sigh. "I didn't do all this for 'the Shikon Miko', and I don't want 'the Shikon Miko'. I want Kagome-sama."

"There is no difference."

Sesshoumaru peered down into the monk's face, and this time, Miroku showed a little less deference and a lot more determination. "Yes... there is," he argued stubbornly.

"If the miko had been unable to withstand the oni attack, I would have insisted that she remain under my protection."

"I will protect her!" Miroku urgently interjected.

The taiyoukai huffed softly and said, "It is more likely that she will protect you."

The monk balked, unable to argue, and Sesshoumaru continued. "You may have my brother's miko, provided that she wishes it. I do not care one way or the other, so long as the Shikon no Tama is secure."

"I understand," Miroku replied, elated to have the taiyoukai's somewhat offhanded blessing for the union.

"Do you?" Sesshoumaru inquired, something like amusement shading his tones. "You would willingly become the one the Shikon Miko fights to protect?"

The monk's slow smile held no shadow of doubt. "I would, and gladly."

"So be it."

When Kagome returned on the agreed-upon day, Miroku was waiting. Framed by the square of blue sky above, he beamed down at her, and his unabashedly eager smile gave her a tiny thrill. Deciding it was wisest to focus on the rungs of the ladder as she climbed, the miko attempted to calm her inner tizzy. It's just Miroku-sama. Then again... I feel this way because it's Miroku-sama.

The monk assisted her over the rim and tugged her into a quick embrace. "I missed you," he confided in a low voice, before setting her at a more respectable distance. "If you don't mind, our resident carpenter has something he wants to show you."

"Shun-san?" Kagome replied, glancing around and realizing for the first time that the meadow beyond the Bone Eater's Well was a busy place... and the monk's warm greeting may have been observed. Color rose in her cheeks, and she flashed a chastising glance at Miroku, who remained benignly unrepentant. "Where is he?"

"The house. He wants a woman's opinion on the placement of shelves," Miroku explained, leading her towards the secondary structure at an easy ramble. "Since there's room, I thought we might try for something similar to Mushin's cabinets.

"The big storage ones in the kitchen?"

"Hmm... no. Do you recall the ones built into the back of the tatami room?"

"Where we ate our meals?"

"Those are the ones, yes."

"I remember them vividly." Kagome replied, her nose wrinkling at the memory. "They were a mess! It took Sango and I half the day to empty them of junk!"

"Well... clutter aside, did you find them acceptable?"

The miko nodded slowly. "They were very nice... even better than my closet at home."

Miroku's looked quite pleased with this assessment, and he cheerfully hailed Shun when the carpenter came into view. Kagome was astonished to discover that the shy man could speak with considerable enthusiasm where his trade was concerned. Not only that, he was a natural teacher, quietly imparting lore about various types of wood that had been passed down to him by has grandfather. He showed her the three possible places to build the cabinetry, offering pros and cons for each, and once she'd offered her opinion on that matter, they moved on to the particulars. With a combination of hand gestures and rough sketches in the sand of the firepit, he laid out simple designs. Kagome was quickly caught up in his enthusiasm, and they fussed over an increasingly elaborate scheme.

"Miroku-sama, this will require more materials than I first estimated," Shun confessed, his dark eyes troubled.

"Ah, do not skimp on my account!" the monk replied breezily. By the time he'd assured them that he was well-acquainted with a merchant who could secure the finest fixtures for a reasonable price, Shun's eyes were sparkling with nearly as much anticipation as Kagome's.

In the end, Kagome thanked the carpenter profusely for his fine craftsmanship and attention to detail, and Miroku was having difficulty hiding his amusement. His barely-contained laughter confused her; it didn't occur to her until after they'd left that it wasn't even her house. Realization was coupled with disbelief... and indignation. He tricked me! "You did that on purpose!" she accused.

"Did what?" he returned, all innocence.

"You made me choose the cabinetry!"

Miroku strolled along, unconcerned. "I told you Shun-san wanted a woman's opinion."

"There are other women in the village; he could have asked his wife!"

"Actually, he did ask Hitomi-san... but she told him that every woman has her own ideas about such things. That's why they decided I should apply to you."

Kagome's cheeks flushed, and she stammered, "B-but... it's not my house."

"It could be," Miroku quietly reminded.

Kagome opened her mouth to argue the point, but closed it again. I know.

Flustered by everything that remained unsaid, she turned towards Kaede's, but the monk caught her hand. "Wait," he urged. "We still need to wake the Jewel."

"There are too many people here," she replied, gently reclaiming her hand. "They wouldn't understand why we.... Erm... let's just wait until we get to the hut."

"Now, now," he gently chided, herding her towards Goshinboku. "We're not doing anything scandalous, and for every tongue that wags, there are ten that would leap to our defense. I have no intention of letting this opportunity pass."

Opportunity? For what? As they walked, she thought to ask, "Where's Shippo?"

"Ah... it would seem you made this hilltop a little uncomfortable for youkai when you made your final push against the oni. He's waiting impatiently at Kaede's."

"Uncomfortable?" she echoed, already reaching out with the aid of the Jewel.

"According to Sesshoumaru-sama, your powers put Saint Hakushin to shame. You purified everything in the vicinity, yet managed to shelter your kit from the blast."

"Oh my," Kagome murmured, suddenly aware of the bright tingle of spiritual energy all around them.

Once they reached Goshinboku's clearing, he led her around behind the tree, which shielded them from the building site. Propping his staff against the venerable trunk, he opened his arms in melodramatic invitation. Smiling reassuringly when she hung back, he said, "Come, Kagome-sama."

"Why are you acting so silly?" she grumbled.

"Because every time I'm serious, you grow nervous."



Kagome hung back, considering the monk's amiable expression. "What would happen if you were being serious?"

"Oooh... probably something scandalous," he replied lightly.

"Is that supposed to reassure me?"

"Enough to lure you into range, yes," Miroku deadpanned. When she didn't budge, he gestured coaxingly with his still-outstretched arms, and with a show of reluctance, she stepped closer, allowing him to draw her into their customary embrace. "Much better," he sighed. "I was beginning to think I'd be waiting forever."

Something about the way he said the words made Kagome's stomach flip, and she didn't know whether to pull back or hide her face against her hands, which currently rested on his chest. "How are your ribs?" she asked, hoping to distract him... or muself.

"Don't worry; I'm on the mend," he replied, his voice taking on a teasing lilt. "I won't complain if you hang on more tightly, though."

He's flirting. The stunned realization caused her breath to catch. He's flirting with me. Though his hands remained in neutral territory, his tone was filled with the unique brand of insinuation that the 'old' Miroku had been famous for.

"Have I thanked you properly for saving my life?"

Kagome's heart began to beat faster, for whenever the 'old' Miroku spoke that casually, it meant that he had the upper hand. "You don't need to thank me," she replied warily.

"Ah, but I do," he smoothly countered. "And properly." Moving slowly, he took one of her hands into his. Waiting until she peeked up at him through her bangs, he raised it to his lips and brushed a kiss across her knuckles.

"Miroku-sama... what do you think you're doing?" she demanded, albeit weakly.

"Several things," he smiled.

"Such as?" she asked, trying to ease backwards, but the monk's other arm was still looped around her waist, preventing her escape.

"I am making you blush," he offered, eyes twinkling.

"That's what you're doing?"

"Trust me... it's a worthwhile goal where you are concerned."

She frowned and asked, "What else?"

"I am risking life and limb," Miroku supplied. "Not only might I fall victim to your temper, I could incur the wrath of the inu-youkai who sees you as his responsibility."

The miko's eyes narrowed a little. "Are you saying I have a temper?"

"Although you are unfailingly kind and courteous with those you meet, I have witnessed the sparks that fly when someone close to your heart brings out your most passionate nature," the monk replied with blatant diplomacy.

"Be serious," she huffed.

"Are you sure?" he asked mildly.

Kagome hesitated, finding he was correct; the prospect of letting Miroku get serious made her very nervous. I already know what he really wants, and before, I didn't want to hear the words, but now... maybe... He was waiting for her answer, patient and hopeful. "Y-yes," she finally breathed.

"Very well." He laid another kiss on her hand before saying, "I am also thanking the woman I love for saving my life." Miroku waited for his declaration to set in before concluding, "And I am once again offering to share that life with her."

Before she could formulate a response, he placed her hand back on his chest, then folded his arms around her, laying his cheek atop her head. She was grateful for the opportunity to hide from him... even though it was in his embrace. Feeling rather silly—yet safe—she gripped the front of his kesu and laid her ear against his chest, listening to his strong, steady heartbeat. Out of habit, she relaxed into the rhythm and reached for the connection they shared through the Jewel, seeking the calming weight of his aura. To her chagrin, the monk seemed to be in a state of inner agitation; hoping to soothe away whatever was troubling him, she gently wound her consciousness around his.

It took some time for Miroku's call to filter through her concentration. "Kagome-sama... have mercy, woman." He groaned softly, and then lips tickled her ear. "Kagome-sama, would you mind? You're making it extremely difficult for me to be a patient man."

She released the contact with a regretful sigh, only to find herself somewhat more entwined with Miroku than she had been moments ago. Somehow, her arms had found their way around his neck, and one of the monk's hands was pressed against the small of her back. They fit so snugly together, she could feel the hammering of his heart. When she tilted her face to look at him, her nose nudged the man's throat... and he swallowed hard. "M-M-Miroku-sama?" she responded uncertainly.

"And... just what do you think you're doing?" he asked in a strained voice.


"Ah." She lowered her arms and tried to ease away, but he didn't let her go. Instead, he dropped his forehead onto her shoulder. "Kagome-sama, I cannot wait to see what you're capable of when you're doing something," he remarked bemusedly.

"I was just trying to calm you down," she sheepishly admitted.

"You need more practice."

"Oh," she replied meekly. "I'm sorry, Miroku-sama." He hummed vaguely, and she searched for a safer topic to rally around. "So... was that your whole list—the blushing and risking and thanking?"

"Those were the important parts."

"Because I'm not sure that counts as 'several' things," she countered.

Miroku chuckled quietly, then straightened to allow her to assume their more customary Jewel-waking stance. "Then you may add teasing, playing with your hair, and a forlorn offer of marriage to the list."

"You're playing with my hair?" she asked, latching onto the random tidbit.

A gentle tug alerted her to the fact that a long lock was very much entwined around Miroku's fingers. "Afraid so," he admitted. "Are you ready?"

"N-no... I mean yes," she floundered. "Erm... for what?"

"We need to wake the Shikon no Tama," he reminded. "Although if you're ready to give me an answer... that would go a long way towards easing my mind."

In that moment, Kagome realized just how much power she held over this man. With a word, she could give... or take. Miroku was all but begging her for a decision, and she found she was ready to make it. Taking a deep breath, she gazed up into the overshadowing boughs of Goshinboku... and was happy that this was the place they would speak these words. Inuyasha was here; Sango was here. They'll know, and I'm sure they'll understand. It's not what we were looking for, but it's what we found. And somehow, it's right. Kagome offered the monk a tremulous smile. "Ask me again?"

He returned her smile in a lopsided fashion and cleared his throat. "Marry me?"

"Yes," she shyly agreed. In the next moment, Kagome found herself held so tightly, she was gasping for breath.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," he chanted softly. She wasn't sure if he was talking to her, the gods, or Fate itself, but it hardly mattered. Miroku heaved a shuddering sigh, and said, "My heart is yours, Kagome-sama... for as long as we have."

Heedless of his mending ribs, she hugged him back tightly and tearfully whispered, "I love you, too."

"I just knew you would pick us," Shippo confided, and for once there wasn't a trace of smugness in his tone.

Taking in her kit's serious mien, Kagome asked, "How could you know? I didn't know myself until a little while ago."

She sat cross-legged against the wall of Kaede's hut, and Shippo was curled beside her, his head propped on her hip. "I think it's because... we need you more," he finally replied.

Kagome giggled softly and ruffled the kit's bangs. "Not as much as I need you two."

Quick as a wink, he caught her hand in both of his and rubbed his face against it like a kitten demanding to be petted. "You and Miroku and me... we belong together," he declared with childish wisdom.

"What about Kaede... and Tabi?" she asked lightly.

"Them, too," he smiled.

Word of the upcoming nuptials had spread like wildfire through the village, and it was no wonder. Miroku, hub of the local gossip network, put a word in all the right ears just to be sure of it. He may as well have shouted it from the rooftops, Kagome thought wryly. For the last few weeks, she'd graciously accepted the villagers' congratulations, even as Miroku put up with much good-natured teasing. She was growing used to having different village women dropping by the old miko's hut to chat with Kaede... and offer her advice.

Most of the planning for her wedding had already been whisked out of her hands since the entire village seemed to have decided they held proprietary rights to both monk and miko. According to Miroku, the headman wished to have their union coincide with the dedication of the new Shrine, with all the attendant formalities and festivities. Though the work had been severely set back, Shun-san claimed that everything could be ready before winter settled in. Kagome was content to wait, for in the intervening weeks, she still planned to travel freely between eras, prolonging the time before she'd have to say goodbye to her family in the modern era.

When Shippo's tail flicked and he gazed towards the door, Kagome assumed that another entourage of well-wishers was bearing down on them and heartily wished the hut had a back door. I wonder if I can convince Miroku-sama to have one installed in our house to facilitate quick getaways?

Her pleasant daydream involving 'our house' was interrupted by her kit, who tugged her sleeve sharply. "Sesshoumaru-sama is back. I'm gonna go see what he wants."

"Oh... okay," Kagome replied, but the kitsune was already out the door.

When he returned a short while later, Miroku was close on his heels. "How would you like to join us in greeting your former future brother-in-law?"

"Sesshoumaru-sama didn't say you shouldn't come along, so I think that means he wants you to be there," Shippo added helpfully.

"I'm pretty sure he's here about your dowry," Miroku cheerfully added.

"My dowry?" she exclaimed, that query quickly followed by, "My dowry?"

Miroku appeared to be enjoying her incredulity. "Since he's claimed you as his responsibility, he intends to fulfill his familial obligations. To do otherwise would bring dishonor to his house."

"I see," she replied slowly, her eyes clouding over with uncertainty.

"Think of it this way," Miroku suggested. "In doing this for you, Sesshoumaru-sama is finally doing something for his brother."

Almost instantly, Kagome's expression cleared. "For Inuyasha?"

"That's right," he replied amiably. "If my suspicions are correct, your marriage will prove to be a great boon to the village, for the Western Lord is finally prepared to make amends."

Sesshoumaru was waiting for them on the outskirts of the village in a little copse of trees on the opposite side of the river, not far from its edge. The setting fell within the narrow swath of land that remained untouched after Kagome's purification of the area, unobtrusively ensuring both Shippo's presence and comfort for the meeting.

Miroku's assessment of the Western Lord's intentions turned out to be quite correct, and Kagome listened with awkward embarrassment as the monk and taiyoukai calmly dickered over the particulars. As her 'value' was laid out in terms of cured lumber and roof tiles, she cringed at the escalating contributions. This is wonderful for the villagers, but is it fair to Sesshoumaru-sama? Miroku seemed to find the haggling process entertaining, but when the discussion moved on to paving stones for the courtyard, Kagome tugged on the monk's sleeve. "You shouldn't take advantage of Sesshoumaru-sama," she muttered, knowing the taiyoukai could hear her, but unwilling to let her future husband overtax Sesshoumaru's resources or patience.

The monk smiled reassuringly and quietly explained, "He's only making things official. The arrangements were already made, and the first delivery of lumber will arrive tomorrow."

Kagome glanced towards Sesshoumaru, who simply said, "It is true."

"Oh... if you're sure, then," she mumbled sheepishly, stepping back.

Shippo grabbed her hand and wrinkled his nose at her, saying, "They talked some before."

She nodded, noticing the ease with which Miroku carried the conversation... and Sesshoumaru's tolerance of the man. It does seem as if they've already reached an understanding.

"One thing we haven't discussed," resumed Miroku, an anticipatory gleam in his eye. "While you've generously provided the means to rebuild, autumn is fast approaching. I am concerned that the village men will not be able to complete the Shrine that will be Kagome-sama's home before the snow flies."

Sesshoumaru's brow arched. "What do you propose?"

"Extra hands... preferably skilled workmen," the monk shrewdly replied.

"Hnn," the youkai murmured thoughtfully. "Do you ask this for the good of your people... or to hasten your wedding day?"

"Both," Miroku answered glibly.

The youkai's eyes sharpened, and negotiations began anew. "Will your village accept the presence of youkai craftsmen?"

Miroku rubbed his chin. "The people have welcomed Shippo-kun."

"He is young," Sesshoumaru countered.

"They also accepted and admired your brother."

After a long pause, the taiyoukai murmured, "Inuyasha."

The monk waved towards the collection of huts that lay beyond the paddies. "If you and I vouch for your people, I am sure their assistance will be gratefully accepted."

"What of the purified ground?" the taiyoukai inquired.

"Ah... yes," Miroku replied thoughtfully. "The effects are wearing off, but slowly. Could we establish a secondary site here—across the river? I'll need to ask Shun-san how much of the work could be divided."

"The humans will ferry the materials."

"The youkai will provide for their own meals."

And so it went, back and forth, give and take. When the terms were finally settled, Kagome made bold to speak again. "Sesshoumaru-sama, will you stay for tea? We have not offered you any hospitality on this visit."

He declined with a shake of his head, saying, "I have arrangements to make." Her disappointment must have been plain, for he added, "I will return tomorrow."

"Tea tomorrow?" she invited. When he inclined his head, she beamed and said, "That will give me time to bring something special from my home!"

The comment caused Sesshoumaru's brows to draw together slightly, and he addressed her solemnly. "Your duty is to protect the Shikon no Tama, and mine is to protect you. However, you live in two worlds. What are the threats to the Jewel in the land beyond the Well?"

Kagome shook her head. "I don't think there are any youkai in my time; at least... I've never seen or felt any signs of them. But that won't really matter any more. Enough time has been spent living between two worlds; I've chosen to stay here with Miroku-sama and Shippo." She failed to see the stunned expression on Miroku's face, being rather distracted by the kitsune's joyous whoop.

"In protecting this village, this man, and this child, the Shikon no Tama's safety is assured," Sesshoumaru solemnly pronounced.

He turned to leave, but Kagome held out a hand to forestall him. "Sesshoumaru-sama, may I have a word with you? Erm... privately?"

The taiyoukai remained, and Miroku quietly collared a very curious kitsune, saying, "We'll meet you back at Kaede-sama's. Until tomorrow, Sesshoumaru-sama."

Once she guessed that her kit was out of earshot, the miko turned back to the taiyoukai, feeling a little nervous in his presence, but determined to make herself clear. This is so important, I hope Sesshoumaru-sama understands how much! Meeting calm golden eyes, she took a deep breath and a plunge. "You are being very generous, and I'd like to thank you on behalf of the whole village. Your contributions affect them all, but they may not have words to express it personally."

"Hnn." A brow arched, silently urging her to get on with it.

"Please... I have three requests."

The other brow rose slowly, though his face remained unreadable. "I will hear them."

Having gained her audience, Kagome clasped her hands to quell their trembling and asked, "Would you please write to Umeko-sama and let her know what has come to pass? I would like her to know of my plans; I think they will please her."

She paused hopefully, but Sesshoumaru merely prompted, "Second?"

"When the time comes for our wedding, would you do us the favor of attending... and would you bring Rin-chan... please?"

He tipped his head slightly, as if surprised, but all he said was, "Third?"

Kagome's heart beat faster, and nervousness made it difficult to breathe. "On that day," she said, struggling to steady her voice, "...would you please accept a gift from my hand? It wish to give you your father's sword—Tetsusaiga."

The taiyoukai's eyes widened slightly, and she knew this was the correct decision. Continuing in somewhat surer tones, she said, "Since Inuyasha can no longer wield it, the sword should pass to you."

Fleeting emotions passed over his face with surprising expressiveness, but Sesshoumaru finally said, "I doubt he would approve."

"He treasured his sword more than anything," Kagome countered. "You're the only one who could possibly give Tetsusaiga the honor it deserves."

"Inuyasha valued Tetsusaiga so highly because it was a means to protect that which he treasured most," Sesshoumaru corrected.

Kagome fought to keep her tears at bay, but her voice wavering dangerously when she replied, "M-maybe it will now accept you... since you have humans to protect."

Sesshoumaru closed the distance between them until he practically loomed over her. He held her startled gaze for a long moment, at once aloof and familiar. "These requests are acceptable."

When he spoke, it was with careful dignity, but Kagome secretly thought he was very glad indeed... especially when he took the time to escort her back to Kaede's hut before leaping skyward and disappearing towards the western horizon.

Miroku barely allowed Kagome to say two words before he had her by the hand and out the door. He tugged her around to the back of the hut, which only permitted a modicum of privacy, but he was too agitated to seek out a more secluded setting. "Kagome-sama... what you said..." he began, flustered enough for his thoughts to jumble on him. "I never intended to force you to stay. I'll understand if you want to travel. The Well will be nearby, so it's convenient. Your family..."

"No," she said softly.


Kagome shook her head emphatically. "No, I... I'd already decided before I accepted your proposal. When the time comes... after I've had the chance to say goodbye... I'm going to stay. Permanently."

"You would give up the future for me?" he asked, dumbfounded.

She pursed her lips, then patiently asserted, "I wanted to spend all of my future with you."

Miroku was flummoxed. He'd given Kagome's unique situation considerable thought and concluded that he wouldn't stand in the way of whatever she wished to do. If his wife still wanted to spend a couple of days each week in her era to visit with her family there, he would see her off with a smile. He refused to acknowledge the niggling worry that the Well might stop working one day—with Kagome trapped on the other side. But... she'll stay! Joy and relief mingled freely.

Her decision meant that once they were wed, he would never again have to feel the soul-rending sense of loss that accompanied the separation. Though he hated the way their spiritual connection ripped each time Kagome leapt through time, he'd never mentioned it to her. Instead, he focused on how much sweeter the sense of loss made her invariable return, concentrating on the pleasure of drawing her presence back in and firmly twining it into its rightful place.

The enormity of the gift she was giving him stirred Miroku to express himself in a much more tangible way, and he boldly asked, "Kagome-sama, may I kiss you? Because I'm not sure I can restrain myself."

"Just a little?" she offered shyly.

With a firm hold on his natural proclivities, Miroku eased closer and brushed his lips across hers. When Kagome didn't pull back from the light contact, he dipped in and sprinkled a series of tiny, teasing kisses along the curve and bow of her mouth, ending with a playful peck on the tip of her nose. He was afraid that if he indulged in a real kiss, he wouldn't be able to stop. Judging by the starry look in Kagome's eyes, she wasn't disappointed, and he reminded himself that Inuyasha hadn't been the most demonstrative of people. I wonder if he ever got around to kissing her? An odd pang of guilt and responsibility touched his heart, and he gently caressed her cheek before stepping back.

As they strolled around to the front of the hut, Miroku marveled over the fact that the spring in her step, the sparkle in her eyes, and the sweetness of the smile upon those just-kissed lips were his doing. Making Kagome-sama happy will be a fine pastime, indeed.

"Souta?" Kagome called, tapping on her brother's bedroom door before poking her head through the half-open door. "Can I talk to you?"

The teen looked up from his schoolbooks and shrugged. "Sure, sis. What's up?"

Two days ago, she'd returned from the feudal era with a beautifully-written scroll containing a formal request for Kagome's hand in marriage. She's presented it to her grandfather, who spent nearly as much time exclaiming over the fineness of the calligraphy as he did over the contents of the message.

"Is this what you want?" the old man inquired.

"Yes... I told him 'yes'," Kagome smiled.

Miroku's letter detailed the nature of Kagome's relationship with the Lord of the Western Lands and the generous supplies Sesshoumaru was providing for her dowry. He also included a line about the taiyoukai's acceptance of her bride price—Tetsusaiga. Her grandfather had harrumphed and begun plotting his letter of acceptance, and Mama had been all smiles and curiosity... but Souta only made the most perfunctory of congratulations before excusing himself to his room. He'd avoided her ever since, and Kagome couldn't bear the unhappiness that flowed off him in waves.

Uncertainly, she took a seat on her brother's bed and asked, "Would you please tell me what's bothering you?"

He looked away, but didn't answer.

"Souta... I only have a couple more months at the most to spend with you, and I don't want to spend them like this. Please, can we talk about things?"

Her brother's dark eyes flashed, and he grumbled, "If that's what youwant, I guess we will."

Kagome recoiled at the bitter edge to his retort. "Souta?"

He folded his arms over his chest and said, "This monk guy asks you to marry him, and he asks Gramps and Mom if it's okay... but no one asked me what I think."

"Oh," she replied quietly, dreading the answer before she even asked the question. "What do you think about my engagement to Miroku-sama, Souta?"

His expression wavered between anger and grief as he answered, "I thought you loved Inuyasha, sis. What about Inu-no-nii-chan?"

"I do love Inuyasha; I always will," she protested urgently, stung by the accusation in his tone. "Miroku-sama knows that."

"Then why are you marrying him?" the teen demanded. "Why are you choosing him?"

"Souta... I want to be with him," Kagome tried. "Miroku-sama is just as precious to me as Inuyasha is, but in different ways... and for different reasons. It's not the same love, but it's still love."

"Well, I don't like it," Souta muttered before turning his back on her, making a show of going back to his schoolwork.

Heart aching, the miko glanced around her brother's room and noticed the conspicuous absence of the sword she'd paced in his care; Tetsusaiga usually enjoyed a place of honor on the wall at the head of Souta's bed.

The barest brush of her senses quickly located the demon-forged sword, whose youki emanated from overhead. It had been secreted above the ceiling panels, and with a sick jolt, Kagome realized the truth. He's hiding it from me.

Kagome was beginning to understand that life was all about give and take. Sometimes, we're given wonderful things that make our hearts soar, and sometimes, the things we love are taken away, making our hearts heavy. Knowing which of the two was around the next bend was impossible, and most often, days held a bit of both. At the moment, Kagome was facing a whole lot of 'take'... and doing her best to deal with it positively.

Piles of cardboard boxes cluttered her bedroom floor, and she was in the process of folding away the contents of her closet. Most of it could be dropped off at a donation center, but many of her most favorite, well-worn clothes were being heaped into a discard pile. Giving them up was hard, but it was also her own choice. She doubted the villagers would begrudge her a couple of sweaters or a pair of winter boots, but how could she truly embrace her new life in the feudal era if she clung to future conveniences? I want to fit in... to belong.

Empty hangers swayed on the rod in her wardrobe as she finished packing the last of her skirts and dresses. When Mama came to check on her progress, Kagome was kneeling in front of her dresser, petting the soft flannel of a pair of pajama pants. "You still have a few more weeks," her mother said gently. "Why don't you enjoy your things while you can?"

"No... this is best," Kagome replied quietly. Now that her heart had chosen its place, she wanted to stay true to her decision.

Mrs. Higurashi knelt beside her daughter and slipped an arm around her shoulders. "We can finish this later. There are other things we need to do to get you ready, and now would be a good time to take care of one of them."

"What?" Kagome asked, puzzled.

"I made a few calls this morning, and I've found a seamstress who can meet our deadline."

"A seamstress?"

"Yes, dear. You'll need a whole new wardrobe, and we can't exactly buy suitable clothing off the rack. She gave me some measurements, so our first stop is the fabric store."

Kagome perked up considerably. "Shopping?"

"Shopping," her mother smiled. "Let's go."

They rummaged through the largest fabric store in the neighborhood, searching for the perfect balance between pretty and practical. Taking their first few purchases to the seamstress's shop, they were given the address of a much smaller shop that specialized in vintage-look fabrics... which is where they were now. "Oh... look, dear!" Mama exclaimed, holding up a bolt of sturdy fabric in hues of wine and rose. "You would look lovely in this!" Kagome fingered the cloth with a pleased smile that slowly shifted until her forehead was creased with worry. Mrs. Higurashi watched her daughter with concern and softly asked, "You're not getting cold feet, are you, dear?"

"What? No!" Kagome exclaimed, a blush making its appearance. "I was just wondering about... well... worrying about... you see, Miroku-sama is very...."

Mrs. Higurashi frowned in concern and quietly prompted, "Miroku-sama is very...?"

"He's very... erm... experienced... I think," Kagome whispered, giving her mother a furtive look.

Her mother's eyebrows rose. "Do you have doubts about his fidelity?"

Shaking her head firmly, she replied, "No, that's not the problem. I'm worried about my... erm... lack of experience."

"So it is jitters," Mrs. Higurashi said with a smile. Kagome fidgeted and shrugged, and her mother added. "Your monk may be 'experienced', but he's never experienced you... in fact... hmm..." The older woman tapped her chin thoughtfully. "You have access to things he's definitely never seen before. Come on, sweetheart! Let's take these to the cutting table, and then we have more shopping to do!"

"For what?" Kagome asked warily.

"Confidence boosters!" her mother replied conspiratorially.

When Kagome arrived in the feudal era the very next weekend, she wore a simple kimono, just like those worn by every other maiden in the village. The seamstress was making quick work of the fabric she and her mother had chosen and was even adding a few flourishes to the basic pattern. She'd insisted on adding some understated piping here, a touch of decorative stitching there, and the insertion of extra lining for winter wear. Mama was ecstatic with the results, and the woman had been engaged to complete Kagome's entire trousseau, from the traditional red and white garb of a priestess, right down to the silk kimono that would be her bridal turnout.

For her return trip, the miko had chosen the simplest version in a soft shade of blue-grey. Instead of a backpack, she'd folded a few supplies and a change of clothes into a traditional furoshiki carrying cloth and tied it around her shoulders. Straw sandals completed her humble ensemble, because she wasn't quite ready to don the kerchief most village women wore. Instead, Kagome had braided her hair into a thick plait that reminded her keenly of Umeko-sama. I wonder if Sesshoumaru contacted her yet... and what she thinks.

Reaching the top of the ladder and Miroku's welcoming embrace, she hid self-consciously against him while they released the Jewel's reserve of energy. However, once that was accomplished, he held her at arm's length, studying her change of attire with frank interest. "Something's different," he mused aloud.

"Miroku-sama..." she protested, cheeks tinged pink.

"No, no, don't tell me," he chided lightly. "I'm quite sure I can guess. Give me another moment."

"Don't tease," she pleaded.

With a low chuckle, he pulled her back into his arms and soothed, "You look as though you belong here, Kagome-sama... which is made all the sweeter by the fact that you also belong with me."

He always says the nicest things, she thought with a happy sigh as she leaned into his comfortable presence. Miroku brushed a kiss against her temple before releasing her and leading her towards the stairs... and the waiting kitsune below, who hooted and hollered the minute she came into view.

A few days later, when it was nearly time for Kagome to return to the future, she beckoned to Miroku and asked for his hand. He proffered it willingly and watched with interest as she used a simple slip of paper to take a measurement of the ring finger on his left hand. As she worked, she explained, "In my time, it's traditional for a couple to exchange rings. Married men and women wear a wedding band on this finger, and I want you to have one."

Once she'd tucked the slip of paper safely away, Miroku caught her hand in his and wove their fingers together. "Will you wear a ring as well?" he inquired.

"Of course... The rings are usually sold in matching sets."

"That would please me very much, Kagome-sama," he assured in a voice that made her stomach do a giddy little flip.

"Kagome?" Shippo called worriedly.

"Down here," the miko answered miserably, stating the obvious.

She was hunched in a teary ball in the darkest corner of the well shaft, and her kit all but tumbled down the ladder in his haste to reach her. A small, clawed hand patted her shoulder as Shippo softly asked, "Why are you so sad?"

"Souta," she mumbled, her face hidden against upraised knees.

"Your brother?" Shippo inquired, gently insinuating himself into Kagome's lap.

"Yes... I was going to ask Miroku-sama what I should do, but..."

"He's gone."

"I know... I can't feel him anywhere in the village."

"Miroku took a trip to buy stuff for your house," the kitsune explained. "He and Kouki's dad made a long list, and he's not supposed to be back until tomorrow evening."

"Oh," Kagome sighed morosely.

"But I'm here," Shippo pointed out. "Let me fix it!"

The miko giggled softly and pulled the kit into a tighter embrace. "I don't think you can fix it, Shippo. My little brother is angry at me for agreeing to marry Miroku-sama. I thought he would accept the idea, but it's only gotten worse."


"He thinks it means I don't love Inuyasha anymore."

"Did you explain?" he asked.

"I tried, but... he's not listening."

"Oh..." Shippo said thoughtfully. "Well, maybe you're not telling him right."

Kagome petted the fox-child's red hair. "I'm open to suggestions."

"Okay," he replied. "I'll tell him!"

"You can't go through the Well," she gently pointed out.

"Miroku and your grandfather traded letters, so I'll send one to Souta!" he eagerly offered.

"What will you say?" Kagome asked curiously.

"You'll see," Shippo said confidently. "C'mon down to Kaede's; I'll start work on my letter right away, and you can take it back with you."

Kagome dabbed at her eyes and smiled a little more brightly. "Okay, Shippo. We'll try it your way."

When the miko returned to her own era a couple of hours later, she once again played messenger. Knocking softly on her brother's door, she nearly jumped out of her slippers when he opened the panel instead of calling out.

"What?" he brusquely demanded, filling the opening with his slight frame and making it clear that she was not welcome to enter.

"This is for you," she announced, proffering a neatly tied scroll.

He grudgingly accepted it, frowning at the characters printed along its edge. "To: Souta-oji'... 'Uncle'?" he muttered.

"From Shippo," she explained, trying not to fidget.

Souta finally slipped the string tie, unrolling the three drawings, each with their own caption. She left quietly, hoping Shippo was right about what her brother needed to hear.

The teen retreated into his room and seated himself on his bed. Smoothing out the colorful papers, he inspected the kits missive. The first of the series was a crayon rendering of Inuyasha, which bore the message, 'I miss him, too.' Second was a picture of Miroku, which carried the words, 'This guy's okay.' The last sheet had taken Shippo the most time, and Souta spend a long time looking at it. His sister's image practically beamed with happiness; this time, the boy had scrawled, 'Her smile is back.'

When Kagome arrived home, she smelled smoke... and followed her nose around to the back of the house, where Mrs. Higurashi was stooped over a sturdy-looking tripod, poking into a cooking pot with a long-handled wooden spoon. "Hey, sis," Souta greeted, smiling in welcome as he fed twigs to the glowing, ember-rich fire that had been lit on the edge of one of the flower beds.

For a moment, the young woman was taken aback by the change in Souta's demeanor. He almost looks... content? Shaking her head in confusion, she switched her focus to the matter at hand. "Mama, where in the world did you find this contraption?"

"Well, dear... I was curious about cooking in the past, and I mentioned it to Mr. Osusuki when he dropped off a new packet of scrolls for transcription. You remember, dear... the nice man from the museum?" she burbled.

"The archivist... right," Kagome replied, peering into the heavy-looking pot that was very similar to the one Kaede used, if a bit larger. "What are you cooking?"

"Oden!" Mama beamed. "Or... a close approximation, anyways, based on a recipe Souta found online. There's an entire website dedicated to historical reenactment... very interesting."

"But... this?" her daughter prompted, waving at the tripod.

"The very next day, Mr. Osusuki brought it over! He said it was just gathering dust in his shed, so he cleaned it for us and helped us rig it up out here."

"That was very nice of him, I'm sure," Kagome remarked. "But... why are you suddenly interested in historic cuisine?"

"Before you go, I was hoping to adapt some of your favorite recipes. We've had to make a few substitutions." She gave the steaming pot another stir. "But keeping things at a slow simmer is trickier than I expected. The fish dumplings I made for this batch seem to have boiled to pieces," she confessed with a slight pout.

"Oh... Mama," Kagome murmured, her eyes and heart brimming.

"Coming, Mama!" Kagome called, hurrying to open her bedroom door. She'd expected a laundry-laden mother, but when she realized that it was her brother waiting on her, she blinked in surprise, then stepped back. "Oh! Sorry, Souta... come on in."

"Thanks," he said gruffly. "I just needed to say some stuff, if that's okay."

Kagome's eyes widened at the request... and with the realization that he had Tetsusaiga in a white-knuckled grip at his side. Souta hesitated, cocking his head to one side. He stared in a vaguely unnerving way, as if seeing her in a whole new light, and she twisted her fingers under his gaze. "What is it?" she finally asked self-consciously.

"Uhh... It's just that... I'm sorry, okay?" he blurted.

"For what?"

"For expecting you to keep living in the past... uhh, I mean, you will be living in the past... but you know what I mean."

"Oh... thank you," she whispered, flinging her arms around her brother and hugging him fiercely. "I never meant for my choice to hurt you."

"It's not your fault," he muttered in embarrassment, awkwardly patting her back. "You and Miroku are gonna be happy, and that's pretty good... so... I just wanted you to know that it's okay with me. I think I kinda understand now."

Kagome laughed and cried in relief, and when she finally held Inuyasha's sword in her own hands again, she thought to ask, "What changed your mind?"

The teen shrugged carelessly. "Shippo did."

In early autumn—a full week ahead of schedule—Shun-san declared the Shrine 'finished', so early the next morning, Kagome began her move, the details of which she'd already arranged with her soon-to-be husband. Carrying all of the accumulated baggage through the Well would take several trips, so Miroku and a few of the village men would stand by to transfer her belongings to the home that awaited them. Once that was accomplished, she would spend the rest of the day and that night with her family in the future, saying her last goodbyes. Tomorrow, she'd return for their wedding. Having Mama, Souta, and Grandpa see me off in my wedding clothes is as close to having them included in the ceremony as I'll get.

Mrs. Higurashi had located three small authentically-aged trunks for her daughter's use. Two were a matched set—solidly built, beautifully stained, and sturdy enough to last for years. Though they made a hefty armful for Kagome, she could lift them well enough to make the trip through time. The third chest was much smaller and more decorative; it sported glossy red paint and had a very pretty lock on its hasp. Mama placed the key in Kagome's hand with a mischievous smile. "Let's call this my contribution to your dowry, dear."

"Mama, Sesshoumaru-sama already..." she began.

"I'm sure Sesshoumaru-sama covered the practical aspects," Mama agreed amiably. "But a woman needs a few impractical things. I'm sure these will be a welcome addition to your trousseau, and if you use them sparingly, they could last for years to come."

Kagome tested the key, which smoothly opened the locked box... and groaned. "Mama...!"

Her mother merely patted her hand and said, "There's no reason for you to give up every shred of your modern heritage... and I think your husband will be pleased."

"Undoubtedly," Kagome admitted, giving the key a turn before tucking it safely away. It's a mercy this one has a lock, she thought as she headed out to the wellhouse where Souta was waiting.

"What do you want to send through first?" he asked.

"The big quilt," his sister replied as she placed the small chest on top of one of the larger ones. "That way if no one's there yet, I can take a short nap."

The teen snorted, but hefted the bulky bedding while she climbed onto the lip of the Well. Souta handed it off, and Kagome made her first jump. When the shimmering time slip set her down under feudal skies, a muffled oof alerted her to the presence of another person inside the well shaft, and she craned her neck to peer around her armload. Miroku smiled back. "Good morning," he greeted softly. He gave the bedding a lingering look but refrained from comment... though the gleam in his eyes was enough to send a tremor through Kagome's composure. "I'll take that, if you like."

"Thanks," she murmured, watching as he accepted the heavy blanket, tucking it securely under one arm.

"You're early," Miroku noted. "My able assistants haven't arrived yet."

"So are you,"

"Couldn't sleep," he shrugged.

"Me either," she admitted.

He opened his one free arm in invitation, and Kagome gratefully slipped under it, closing her eyes and trying to steady her nerves. Gently, he enfolded her with his spiritual powers, a calming weight that helped settle her. "Preparations are in full swing," the monk offered, filling her in on what had happened since she'd left the day before. "The hunt was a great success, due in large part to the fact that our demon visitors did the honors. The women were beside themselves about the sheer quantity; you should have seen their faces when the inu-youkai foreman explained it was because they have large appetites." He chuckled and added, "The headman's wife sent several of the men to dig more pits. There will unparalleled abundance at tomorrow's feast."

"With the Shrine dedication and our wedding, this is going to be the biggest festival this village has ever seen," Kagome remarked.

"That reminds me... Kaede-sama and Hitomi-san will be here tomorrow to help you up the ladder. Because the village leaders want the marriage to help consecrate the Shrine, the wedding will be held just inside the main doors, which will remain open so everyone can witness the blessed event."

"But... what about..." she began, however, Miroku raised a finger for her to wait.

"Sesshoumaru-sama arrived late yesterday evening with Rin-chan, and he'd only been here an hour when I think he overheard some things, and decided to take action." There was amusement and a trace of awe in the monk's tone, and Kagome waited expectantly. Violet eyes shone with delight over this tidbit of gossip, and she missed a few of his words when her attention was caught by the way his bangs fell across his forehead. "You'll never guess what he did next!" Miroku said excitedly.

"Hmm?" she managed.

"He transformed—letting loose enough youki to cancel out the remaining effects of your purification. Knocked me right back on my heels, and I was with Shippo and Rin down by the river."

Kagome's eyes widened. "Sesshoumaru-sama can do that?"

"Can and did!" Miroku cheerfully agreed. "Thankfully, he was more careful than that oni and didn't put a foot through the Shrine. With the barrier lifted, as it were, the youkai craftsmen spent the whole night going over the site, checking out the final details."

"Why didn't Sesshoumaru-sama do that sooner?" Kagome wondered aloud.

"To be honest, I'm not sure he could before now. The residual spiritual energy has been dwindling over the last couple months, which perhaps made it possible at this time. I don't think he would have bothered at all except..."

"Shippo," Kagome breathed.

"With the village leaders insisting that the wedding take place in the Shrine, it was the only way Shippo would be able to attend. Speaking of which... I asked him to give me a head start, but it would appear my time is up."

"Okaasan!" called a voice from overhead, and a blaze of red hair popped into view.

The kit clambered down the ladder and onto the monk's shoulder before he helped him slide down and around into Kagome's waiting arms. She tightly hugged her adopted son while leaning back into Miroku's side, trying very hard not to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the changes that would take place between today and tomorrow.

Eventually, the sound of approaching voices above alerted them to the arrival of Miroku's volunteers, and the three disentangled themselves. "How many more loads?" the monk asked.

"Eight," she said apologetically. "We tried to keep things as simple as possible, but everything added up so quickly."

"There's no need to apologize," Miroku assured, giving her shoulder a squeeze. "Now... I'll be directing the men, so I probably won't see you until tomorrow in front of the Shrine."

"I suppose not," she replied, smiling weakly.

"Hmm." Long fingers found their way into loose tresses, pulling gently so that Kagome's face tilted upwards. With a faint smirk, he said, "Until then," and stole a quick kiss... right in front of a grinning Shippo.

When the last moments with her family came, Kagome was relieved to discover that most of her sadness was used up. This is so different from before. The night Inuyasha had been taken from her, confusion, desperation, fear, horror, and pain wrung her until she was limp. Shock numbed her for weeks afterward, and subconsciously, Kagome had been bracing for the same kind of emotional havoc when the time came to leave her mother, brother, and grandfather behind. But... I'm okay.

She'd been saying her farewells for weeks now, filling her days with small partings. Last looks, last times, and what she hoped would be lasting memories. The prolonged goodbye gave her chances to prepare, adjust, and accept the oncoming finality. Maybe that's why I don't have the same sense of loss. Her family wasn't being stolen from her; she was simply leaving home. It was a natural progression, part of growing up, and her heart was ready to make one final leap.

"You look beautiful, sweetheart," her mother said reverently, once she'd finished all her tucking and fussing. "Do you have the rings?"

Fingers that trembled just a little dipped between the folds of silk to check, and the motion gave Kagome a sudden sense of déjà vu. The small pouch in which the wedding bands had been secured was tucked into the very place where she used to carry Inuyasha's beads. "They're here," Kagome confirmed.

Even with all the preparations they'd made, last minute offerings were collecting on the kitchen table—a large tin of black pepper, a box of matches, a small book in which Mama had carefully written out her adapted recipes, and a packet of handkerchiefs. Grandpa's final contribution was a small box that was heavy for its size. "This is for your husband-to-be," he pronounced gruffly. Kagome peeked under the lid and found a generous supply of ink sticks. "We were able to find the right color, and these are archive quality."

"He'll be very grateful, I'm sure!" Kagome assured, giving the old man a careful hug.

Souta's impulsive addition was a tiny glass wind chime he acquired from their gift shop, its wind catcher boldly emblazoned with 'Higurashi Shrine'. "Gramps always tells the customers that they make good housewarming gifts," the teen said with an embarrassed shrug.

"I'll hang it up next summer," Kagome said with a smile, knowing the bell-like chime would bring back memories of the thoughtful little brother who would finish growing up without her. As she tucked it back into its complimentary gift box, she managed a quiet, "Thank you, Souta."

Mrs. Higurashi used a pillowcase to bundle up everything, and Kagome giggled when she recognized it as one of her childhood favorites. Though it was faded, the menagerie of baby animals that danced across its borders was as cute as ever. "Tuck it away for your children," the older woman whispered.

They walked slowly across the courtyard to Goshinboku, where they took several photographs of Kagome in her wedding kimono. Though they were subdued, there was no clinging or crying... just a lingering togetherness. Neither rushing nor avoiding, Kagome's family escorted her towards her future in the past.

As they neared the wellhouse, the miko's excitement grew. Miroku's waiting for me... and I want to go to him. Slowly up a few steps, then down several more. A tablecloth had been draped over the rough timbers on the near side to prevent the bride from snagging her silk. Mother and brother helped Kagome sit down on the rim, then turn so her sandaled feet dangled over the darkness.

Grandpa moved around to face her from the other side of the well, and light from the door above illuminated his creased face. "The Higurashi Shrine has a long and proud history," he stated. His stiff formality was softened by emotion as he added, "It is a fine thing to know that my own, dear granddaughter will be the one to make sure it has a good beginning."

Souta cleared his throat and proffered Tetsusaiga. "Mama said you might cause a scandal by bringing a sword to your wedding, so we fixed it up."

The precious blade had been swathed in soft cloth, then slipped into a silken sleeve made from remnants of the kimono she wore. She gently tickled the tasseled ties of the closure, and murmured, "Thank you for taking care of Inuyasha's sword for me. Now, it's going from my brother to his... kind of appropriate, isn't it?"

As she hugged the blade's familiar length across her chest, the teen opened and closed his mouth, clearly at a loss for words. In the end, he placed a bashful kiss on his big sister's cheek.

"I'll miss you," Kagome admitted softly.

"Yeah. Me, too." he mumbled, then took up his post along the side of the Well to her right.

Mrs. Higurashi passed the pillowcase bundle to her daughter and gently touched the combs and decorative hairpins that secured Kagome's tresses. Her eyes were bright, but pride shone through her tears. "May your husband discover your true worth. May your home overflow with your shared love. May your future unlock your full potential." And with that three-fold blessing, all their words were done. Mama stepped back, taking her place along the left side of the Well... a four-square family circle.

Kagome met each pair of eyes in turn. "I love you. I love you. I love you." And they all understood that this was the last goodbye.

The shifting winds of time faithfully delivered the miko into the past, and she was immediately accosted by the laughter of children. "Okaasan! You're back... and to stay!" Shippo exclaimed.

"Kagome-sama is beautiful!" gasped Rin in awed tones.

"Of course!" the kitsune scoffed with boyish pride.

"I didn't know I'd have a welcoming committee!" Kagome laughed. The two children had been waiting for her, tucked close against the wall behind the ladder so they wouldn't be in the way of her arrival.

"There ye are!" called Kaede from above.

"Am I late?" Kagome asked worriedly.

"Neither late nor early, child. But I'm sure thy groom will be glad to know of thy safe arrival." In businesslike tones she directed, "Shippo, carry Kagome's bag up here, then go put Miroku-sama's mind at ease."

The kitsune did as he was bid, and Rin presented her hands to the bride. "Can Rin help?"

"Please," Kagome smiled, passing Tetsusaiga to the girl and watching her nimbly navigate the ladder to the top.

"Will ye be able to manage the ladder?" Kaede asked worriedly.

"I'll manage somehow," she assured.

However, there was the sound of dialogue at the top, and the old miko leaned back over the edge. "Other arrangements have been made, Kagome. Can you step back into the corner?"

The flare of an unmistakeable youki alerted her to the 'other arrangements', and she quickly stepped back to make room for Sesshoumaru. While she watched, the taiyoukai appeared on the lip of the Well far above, then stepped off, dropping into the shaft with her. He landed lightly, with a swirl of silk and hair, then extended his hand. "Thank you," she said, giving the solemn-faced demon lord a tentative smile.

"You are welcome," he replied gravely.

As youki billowed underfoot, forming a cushiony cloud, she smiled with more confidence. I do feel welcome.

Sesshoumaru lifted them up, then over... setting Kagome down upon the grassy meadow without so much as a bump. He released her hand and stepped back, but she hastily said, "Erm... wait? Rin-chan, could you bring the parcel you carried for me?"

The girl trotted forward and handed over what amounted to Kagome's bride price, though she preferred to think of it as a gift. Taking a deep breath, the miko held the wrapped sword on the palms of her hands and extended it towards him. "Since the night your brother died, my brother and I have kept your father's fang safe. Today, we return Tetsusaiga to you as a token of our gratitude," she intoned, and then added, because she couldn't resist, "...and because I want you to have it."

The taiyoukai carefully lifted the heirloom blade, and when Kagome bowed deeply, he returned the gesture. Without comment, he paced slowly towards Ah-Un, who was drawing a great deal of attention from several curious men and children. Now that Kagome had the chance to survey her surroundings, she realized that the whole village must have turned out for the combined wedding and dedication ceremony. The low hum of conversation carried on crisp, autumn air from the direction of the Shrine, whose gracefully-arched tile roof line was visible beyond the screen of a stand of trees with red-gold leaves.

Kaede took over then, reviewing the order of the ceremony, making sure Kagome knew what to do and when. Shun's wife Hitomi stepped forward to help, lifting the trailing hem of the miko's kimono so it wouldn't drag through the dust. "Are ye ready?" Kaede inquired, her dark eye sparkling with excitement.

"Yes," Kagome breathed and, suddenly feeling a presence at her other side, looked up to find Sesshoumaru stationed at her other elbow. Golden eyes slanted her way, and the lift of a brow daring her to question his right to be there. And so, the Shikon Miko was escorted the rest of the way towards her waiting bridegroom by two of the people she respected most. Rin followed in their retinue's wake, quite happy to be entrusted with Kagome's adorable pillowcase sack.

As the Shrine came into view, Kagome searched the gathering of men at the front for a glimpse of golden staff and purple kesu... in vain. Miroku wasn't wearing his monk's robes; instead, he was resplendent in a very fine kimono, and beneath the wide legs of his hakama, she could see pristine white tabi instead of bare feet. Her shock at seeing him in anything other than his usual clothes must have been plain on her face, for several of the villagers traded knowing looks and grins. He's very... erm... wow...

Miroku, who'd been watching her face while she sought him out, wore an expression that managed to combine smugness with amusement. Sesshoumaru remained behind the crowds with Rin, and Kaede led Kagome the rest of the way to the small table at the front where the ceremony would take place. Throughout the proceedings, Kagome stole peeks at the monk out of the corner of her eye. He looked just different enough that she felt a little shy about facing him. Without thinking, she reached for him from within, wanting to feel the reassuring familiarity of his presence. It was right there, and quickly moved to encompass her. He turned his head slightly and caught her next glance; his brows lifted, and her lashes lowered. They spent the remainder of the ceremony invisibly entwined, Miroku providing ballast for Kagome's fluttering heart.

Finally, a cheer went up from the crowd. I'm a wife... Miroku's wife. She smiled at the idea and looked up to find undisguised happiness dancing in her husband's eyes.

The village headman stepped forward, and the festivities segued directly into the dedication of the Shrine itself. Miroku rose to do his part—offering prayers and adding words of thanks to the many villagers who had pulled together, to Sesshoumaru-sama for his generosity, and to the youkai workmen who had lent their expertise. In conclusion, he gestured to Kagome; Kaede helped her to her feet, and she joined him. Leaning down close to her ear, he whispered, "Let's give them a proper show... just for appearance's sake."

"What do you mean?" she asked suspiciously.

He smiled at her hesitation. "A display of the Shikon Miko's power would be a crowning moment, don't you think?"


"Let's just do a quick reconnoiter," he murmured, holding up his hands as he'd done the very first time Umeko taught Kagome how to connect.

She didn't quite understand Miroku's reasoning, but promptly pressed her hands against his own and focused the Jewel's energy. In mere moments, she'd brushed past everyone in the vicinity, lightly touching each soul as she accounted for each guest. Shippo's with Sesshoumaru-sama, who is the brightest by far. To her delight, she was able to pick out a number of other youkai guests. Four, five, six! Those must be the craftsmen that were brought in to help Shun-san. As her consciousness ranged outward in increasingly larger circles, soft gasps and murmurs of amazement began to rise from the onlookers. Drawn out by Miroku's call, she blinked up into his face. Another cheer, even louder this time, surged through the crowd.

Raising his voice to be heard over the celebratory clamor, Miroku said, "As Shippo would say, 'you're all glow-y' when you do that. It's really quite pretty."

Though the Jewel's aura quickly receded, Kagome's cheeks were still quite pink.

The afternoon passed quickly, with everyone wanting a look at the finished Shrine and to offer their congratulations to its newly-established keepers. Eventually, people trickled back down the stairs, beginning with the women, who had a feast to lay out, and then the men, who had a bonfire to start. As guests of honor, Miroku and Kagome joined them, and almost before she realized how late it was getting, the sun had set, the musicians were striking up a tune, and the dancing was in full swing. Standing beside Kaede, the new bride looked on with smiles, laughing and clapping at the antics of her friends and neighbors. In the midst of the merrymaking, her husband found her. "Would you like a look at your new home?" her invited, speaking close to her ear. "Shippo is offering to light the way for us."

The kitsune peeked around the monk's leg and grinned hopefully.

She smiled wearily and nodded her acceptance, and the monk turned to the elderly miko with a bow. "We'll be retiring early, Kaede-sama. I trust you can manage this lot?"

"Oh, aye," the old woman agreed.

"Should I say farewell to Sesshoumaru-sama first?" Kagome asked, looking for some sign of the taiyoukai.

"His lordship excused himself much earlier," said Miroku with a knowing smile. "And if I'm not mistaken, he took a certain sword with him. In a sense, he's celebrating with us."

"I don't envy any demon who runs across his path," Kagome commented.

"He left Rin-chan with me for the night, so he'll be back before for her," Kaede supplied. "Go on now... and let Kagome get settled a little."

"Yep!" Shippo replied, grabbing Kagome's hand and excitedly tugging her towards the stairs. "Everything's just about ready, so c'mon!"

Miroku chuckled, and once they were away from the general din, he explained, "Shun-san is anxious to test the new bathhouse. We took the time to fill the tub this morning, and he stayed behind to take care of... ah... there he is now!"

As they came to the foot of the stairs that lay just beyond Kaede's hut, Shun-san reached the bottom and bobbed his head. "I did it just like you asked, Miroku-sama."

"You have my deepest gratitude," the monk cheerfully replied.

The carpenter bowed to Kagome as well, offering a shy, "Miko-sama," before continuing towards the revelers.

"Up we go," Miroku urged. "Shippo, if you would?"

Blue light blossomed above the kitsune's palm as he lit their way up the long flight. Evening breezes were decidedly brisk, but the stars shone brightly in the clear night sky. The hubbub of the party faded somewhat by the time they reached the top, and Kagome decided she was glad that her home was somewhat removed from the everyday sounds and smells of village life. It's going to be peaceful up here.

As they drew near the house, Kagome felt another flutter of excitement. She hadn't been inside for a while, since Miroku wanted to keep the finishing touches as a surprise for their wedding day. He helped her up onto the wide porch, and Shippo waited for the monk's cue to slide the door open. "Welcome home," her husband murmured.

Everything was fresh and clean and new—a home that had seen little, but promised much. All around the room, she recognized small, homey touches. Miroku's shakujou leaned against the wall next to the door; beside it, Kagome's bow and quiver were suspended from pegs. Just inside the door, the miko noticed the small pillowcase-wrapped bundle Rin had carried around for most of the afternoon and wondered who'd been successful in coaxing the girl to relinquish it.

Stepping inside, she tiptoed past the small fire crackling in its pit, lending warmth and light to the main room. Miroku's things, which had lined the far wall in Kaede's hut for most of the summer, had been distributed throughout the room. Tatami mats covered the floors beyond one set of screens, and behind another, Kagome found her own small trunks in a neat row beside a large futon, which was already spread with the heavy quilt she'd brought from home.

Kagome turned from the bedroom and crossed to the kitchen, determinedly ignoring the flutter of nervousness that accompanied the recognition that this was her wedding night. There's no need to rush ahead, she mentally chided. Shippo's still here, and it's too early for bed. With a glance towards her husband, who leaned against the doorjamb in a relaxed fashion, she realized that he wasn't in a hurry either. However, she was very conscious that his eyes were following her every movement with his own brand of casual intensity. The kind that makes you wonder if he's thinking... 'those' thoughts.

"Do you like it?" Shippo inquired anxiously.

"You can rearrange to your heart's content," Miroku remarked.

"Everything is wonderful," Kagome quickly assured. "And it was nice of Shun-san to leave the party early in order to start the fire for us."

"Ah... yes. He's probably been up here for some time, indulging a whim of mine."

"The bathhouse?" Kagome asked, curious about the slight awkwardness in her monk's tone.

"Yes and no," Miroku hedged, sounding even more embarrassed.

She frowned, growing suspicious. "Which is it?"

"It seemed like a good idea... a symbolic gesture more than anything... and Shun-san was quite agreeable..."

Shippo watched the conversation with sharp, green eyes. "Did you do something stupid?" he asked bluntly.

"Perhaps a little foolish?" the monk allowed. "Kagome-sama, I hope you aren't offended...?"

"What is it?" she asked, mystified.

"The fires," Miroku said, gesturing towards the pit. "Both in here and the one that's warming your bath..."

Kagome glanced curiously towards the fire, which offered nothing more suspicious than the occasional snap and shower of sparks. "Yes...?" she prompted.

"It's... the ladder," he confessed.

Shippo edged closer to the pit, and Kagome took a step forward. The most recent 'logs' on the fire were suspiciously even in size and shape. "You're actually burning the ladder that was inside the Well?" Miroku nodded solemnly, and she slowly shook her head. "But... why?"

"I suppose because... you won't be needing it anymore," he replied, the lift of uncertainty at the end of his sentence nearly making it a question.

"Miroku-sama... the ladder being gone wouldn't keep me here," she pointed out, and she was beginning to feel offended.

"I am aware of that fact," the monk asserted.

For some reason Kagome was reminded of the time Inuyasha had shoved an entire tree down the Bone Eater's Well in order to keep her in the future—impulsive, overbearing, and fruitless. In his own way, Inuyasha had been trying to protect her, and now, Miroku was trying to... what? Is this a glimpse of some latent possessive streak? It was such an... un-Miroku-like thing to do, she was completely baffled. "I told you I would stay. Didn't you believe me?"

"I took you at your word," he assured. "I will admit that when we made our plans, Shun-san and I may have been on our second bottle of sake. At the time, it seemed like a grand idea; I do apologize if our scheme has cast doubts of any kind."

She looked down at the fire, and a smile quirked at the corner of her mouth. "I can't believe you burned my ladder."

Miroku's answering smile held a trace of relief. "I'll just check on the bathhouse to make sure everything is in order. Make yourself at home."

For the next half hour or so, Shippo was in and out of the house, tracking the progress of both of his parents. According to the kitsune, the water in the tub was heating slowly but surely. Meanwhile, Kagome busied herself by putting away the last minute gifts her family had sent along. When she removed the box of ink sticks, Shippo crept forward cautiously. With wide eyes, he opened the box and peered inside. "Okaasan, what's this?" he asked.

"Ink. Grandpa sent it for Miroku-sama; its special, high-quality ink that will last for years without fading," she explained. She opened one of the cabinet doors that Shun-san had taken such care to build and set the tin of black pepper inside. "I think he wants the first shrinekeeper to keep good records... and then he can read all about us when he finds them later."

"Uh-huh... where did he get it from?" Shippo persisted.

"Well... Gramps works with an archivist from a museum. He probably got it from him."

"Huh," Shippo replied, his nose twitching furiously. "What's an archivist?"

"Someone who keeps a record of historical events, writing them down so that people in the future will know exactly what happened in the past," she said, stowing the matches and recipe book on another shelf. "They take good care of scrolls and letters and even things like your drawings so that they last a long time."

"What's he like?"


Shippo huffed impatiently. "The archivist!"

"Oh! Erm... I never met him, but Mama said he was a very nice man."

"Huh," the kit said again. "Okay, then." With that, Shippo scampered back outside to check on Miroku.

Once the bathwater was ready her husband returned to the house, and Shippo bluntly explained to Kagome that he was planning to remain with Kaede, Rin, and Tabi in the hut below... for now. "I'll come back to visit tomorrow," he promised.

"Not too early," Miroku said firmly.

"Nah, I know better'n that," the kit said with a roll of his eyes.

"Light your mother's way to the bathhouse, first?" requested the monk.

"Sure," the boy agreed, settling down on the front step to wait for Kagome to gather her things.

A small bench had been placed against the bathhouse's far wall for the comfort of the person assigned to tend the fire. Since it was conveniently located beneath the building's slatted window, the seat proved conducive to conversation. Now clad in a simple yukata, Miroku slouched lazily against the wall that separated him from his wife, watching steam drifting slowly towards the stars... listening to the occasional splash of water... and breathing deeply of the enticing scent of perfumed soap.

"Shippo has expressed an intention to live with Kaede-sama for as long as... well, for as long as she is with us," Miroku remarked.

"Really?" Kagome answered. "I thought he would stay with us."

"I have no doubt that he will take his place in our household, but he's remarkably sensitive to the feelings of others," the monk shared. "Shippo does not want to intrude on our privacy, but even more than that, he does not want Kaede-sama to feel abandoned."

"He's so careful of others," she mused aloud.

Miroku hummed his agreement. He toyed with the wedding ring she'd placed on his finger, and silence stretched for some time, but a passing thought prompted another question. "Kagome-sama... what's in the red box? It was the only one that is locked."

"You peeked in the others?" she asked.

"I peeked, yes," he readily admitted. "I'm a very curious man."

A soft huff echoed from inside the bathhouse, and the miko replied, "Confidence."

"Excuse me?"

"I said... confidence."

"I see," Miroku drawled. "I wasn't aware that this was a commodity in which you were lacking."

"No... I... I brought some with me," came her quiet voice.

Miroku chuckled and shook his head over the young woman's odd way of phrasing things.

When Kagome declared herself ready to emerge, Miroku was ready and waiting to take her arm and see her back to the house. He handed her up onto the front porch, then brushed a quick kiss across her hand before turning her loose. "I won't take long," he promised, excusing himself for his own bath. Upon his return, he found Kagome kneeling on the very corner of their futon, idly combing out her hair with her fingers.

She started when she realized he was there... and watching, but he didn't give her time to tense up. With an unceremonious thump, he joined, sitting beside her on the mattress—close, but not quite touching. He leaned back on his arms, stretched out his long legs across the floor, and asked, "What will you remember most?"

"About today?" she inquired.

"Mm-hmm," Miroku hummed. "Because I'll never forget the look on your face when you finally noticed me standing in front of the Shrine. It certainly took you long enough to pick me out of the crowd!"

His gentle teasing sparked a defensive grumble. "You looked... different," she protested.

"In a good way, I hope."

"Of course," she mumbled.

"You look beautiful," he countered.

"Mama helped me with my kimono and did my hair," she explained.

Miroku's eyes softened, and he said, "I'm most glad for your mother's efforts, but I was speaking of how you look now."

"Oh..." she breathed.

"What will you remember?" he prompted.

Kagome's face grew thoughtful, and she slowly answered, "I guess the thing I'll remember most is a strong sense of belonging... to Shippo, to Sesshoumaru, to Kaede... to this time, this village, this Shrine... and mostly, to you."

"I will forever remember Shippo's tears..."

"He cried?" she gasped.

Miroku nodded and continued, "...Sesshoumaru-sama's yawn..."

"He yawned?" she demanded dubiously.

"...and the way you groped me in front of everyone."

Kagome's eyes widened. "I did no such thing!"

"Ah, but you did!" Miroku corrected. "Right in the middle of the wedding, your spiritual energy insinuated itself with mine in shockingly intimate ways!"

"I don't think you can grope someone's aura," she protested.

Her husband's eyes twinkled as he shrugged, but he didn't retract his memory.

Realizing that he was waiting, Kagome thought back over the day and added, "I'll remember Mama's blessing... Sesshoumaru's formal bow... and my poor, ill-fated ladder."

Miroku chuckled and bargained, "I'll tell you about Sesshoumaru's yawn if you'll tell me about his bow."

"I will," she promised. "But... not tonight."

Violet eyes took on a shine, though he kept his tone light when he agreed, "Another time." He casually adjusted his position so he could press a soft kiss to her lips.

"Miroku-sama...?" she began, but he shook his head.

"Just 'Miroku', please," he invited, dropping another fleeting kiss on the corner of her mouth. "Since you are my wife..." A teasing caress found its way to the other corner. "...and I am your husband..." The next kiss lingered longer. "...at least in name."

"You, too," she vaguely offered.

"All right, Kagome," he murmured, coaxing her with more kisses until her lips moved against his. "This way." Miroku eased backwards until he sat against the wall, legs outstretched; he beckoned her to join him, then maneuvered her around so that she straddled his lap. Placing her hands on his chest, he reached up to tangle his fingers in her hair and said, "I give you fair warning, my hands are apt to wander."

He drew her down for another kiss, and she melted against him, willingly succumbing to his greater expertise. Taking his time, Miroku swept her along, letting his hands meander up and down her back, over her thighs, and finally, around the tempting curve of her backside. Kagome didn't complain when he pulled her more firmly against him, nor when the knot holding closed her yukata came undone... for he kept her thoroughly distracted.

However, when her husband's attentions came to a sudden halt, Kagome opened her eyes to see what was going on. Miroku had made a discovery, and he gently pushed aside the fabric to bare her upper body to his extremely intent gaze. He seemed to be having difficulty comprehending the seductive contours of her very modern lingerie as he traced the scalloped edge with a fingertip. Barely managing to tear hungry eyes away from sheer white lace; he asked in awed tones, "What is this called?"

She arched her back, he stifled a groan, and the answer became obvious. "Confidence," Kagome said with a playful smile, then took advantage of Miroku's distraction to steal a kiss for her own.

- Epilogue -
Tracing the Genealogy

A few weeks later, Mrs. Higurashi opened the door to a familiar face. "I apologize for intruding on a weekend, but this is something that really can't wait any longer."

"We're always glad to see you, Mr. Osusuki," Mrs. Higurashi said as she ushered the museum's archivist into the entryway. "My goodness! You've certainly brought more than usual this time!" The man balanced a small stack of boxes in one hand as he slipped out of his shoes. In his other hand, he carried a large artist's portfolio. "Souta, come help our guest with his things?" the woman called.

The teen rounded the corner and grinned at the museum worker. "Hey!" he greeted.

Mr. Osusuki winked as he passed along the pile of boxes, saying, "Be careful with this lot... very precious cargo in these!"

"Sure thing," Souta agreed.

Mrs. Higurashi led him through to the other room, and her father-in-law rose and bowed to welcome their associate. After the initial greetings were made, the archivist politely inquired, "Is your granddaughter out of town again?"

The old man shook his head and proudly announced, "Our Kagome has moved away permanently. She became engaged to a shrine keeper, and they were married not long ago. She's following in my footsteps... carrying on the family tradition just as Souta here will do one day!"

"Who's following in whose footsteps, I wonder?" murmured their bemused guest.

"Eh?" Mr. Higurashi asked.

Osusuki shook his head and said more clearly, "I wish her happiness!"

The old man nodded, but his eyes were already on the stack of boxes Souta had placed in the center of the table. "What have we here? This looks like a large task! Is it a series of some sort?"

"Yes and no," the archivist said with a nostalgic chuckle. "I'm afraid there's not much to transcribe this time around; most of these materials are pictorial in nature. The earliest pieces aren't in very good shape, but the record-keeper learned along the way."

With this, he removed the lid on the topmost box and removed a single sheet of paper that was preserved in a plastic sleeve. "This is the earliest record I have; it dates back nearly five hundred years."

The three Higurashis leaned in for a closer look, and Grandpa was the first to make a comment. "Is that... crayon?"

"Whoa!" exclaimed Souta. "That looks like Inuyasha!"

"There's Kagome," gasped Mrs. Higurashi. "Where did you find this?"

The archivist only smiled and said, "These are chronological, and approximate dates have been noted on the upper right-hand corner."

The Higurashi family huddled closely around the end of the table as the museum archivist slowly paged through his collection, quietly weaving a story to accompany his illustrations. Crayon soon changed to charcoal sketches, which was later replaced by ink and watercolors. Scenes of everyday life, of milestones, of humble beginnings and happiness.

Disbelief shifted into awe as each new revelation inspired gasps and sighs. Children arrived one after another as the monk and miko's home was filled with bright eyes and smiling faces. Mrs. Higurashi was dabbing at tears by the time Kagome's grandchildren made their appearance in the record. This was proof that Kagome's life had been full. "She was happy," she murmured.

"Very," agreed their guest.

"But... how do you know," demanded the young miko's grandfather, fixing Mr. Osusuki with a speculative look.

Again, the archivist smiled and turned to the portfolio. "I'm afraid those early pieces really don't do justice to the subject matter, but thankfully, the skills of the artist improved in time. These are done from memory, but they'll give you a clearer picture of what has gone before."

Mrs. Higurashi breathed in sharply as a detailed drawing of a woman tucked into the embrace of a man in monk's robes. Their eyes were closed, and the artist had managed to capture a shimmer of suffusing light that emanated from the pink sphere she wore on a chain around her neck.

"Kagome!" Grandpa Higurashi murmured, a quaver in his voice.

"That's Miroku-sama?" Souta demanded, squinting closely at the drawing. "He sure looks different than that first picture you gave me."

Mr. Osusuki grinned, and he continued to turn pages, showing vivid portraits of Kagome as she entered various seasons of life—aging before their very eyes. "The Shikon Miko lived many, many years, and when her time came, her instructions were carried out. The Jewel was burned with her so that it could return to her in the future. Here it was born; there it was sent. The loop is closed, and she keeps it safe for all time."

"That makes it sound as if she's her own reincarnation," the old man murmured skeptically.

"The theory has merit," agreed the archivist. "Especially since she seems to have also become her own ancestor."

Mrs. Higurashi peered into the face of their guest, questions in her eyes. "You're not just a historian, are you, Mr. Osusuki?"

"No, I suppose not," he smiled. With a small flourish, he flipped to the final portrait, which showed the once-more youthful Kagome cradling an impish-looking boy in her arms. Dropping his illusion, the kitsune cleared his throat and quietly said, "My Okaasan called me Shippo, and I'd really like it if you would, too."

- The End -

End Notes: Miroku & Kagome are my OTP (one true pairing). Their stories occupy a very small niche in the IY fandom, but they were my first love... and where I began my journey into fanfiction. Unsought stands as my very first multi-chaptered story, begun late in 2006... and it was definitely a hands-on learning experience. It's highly gratifying to finally complete this gently-paced romance, and I'd like to thank readers for their patience. This final chapter was posted on October 1, 2009... two years after the first chapter was originally published.

I'm not finished with this pairing by any means. The odd drabble or oneshot will still appear in my Incorrigible collection, and there's a new multi-chaptered story in the works... watch for it! ::wink::