Disclaimer: I do not own InuYasha or any characters created by Rumiko Takahashi

After the End

A/N Back at the end of 2007 I conceived a story that was at that time, my vision of what the end of the InuYasha story might be like. In some ways, I guessed correctly, and in some ways, I guessed wrong. As the story that RT gave us unfolded to its final conclusion, my original concept for this story got washed away in the real ending, and I lost the urge to finish the longer story I had conceived, of a particularly nasty youkai monster and the revenge against Sesshoumaru that had been part of this story. Rather than let it linger unfinished forever, I've re-edited the story to be a divergent story of how, in a world where Kagome was trapped in the past after the purification of the Shikon no Tama, InuYasha and Kagome began their life together. It is now complete.

Two months had passed since the fall of Naraku, his dark spider self burned away in a blast of pure pink light. Two months since a wish was made to heal the hearts of all those touched by his darkness and to release the souls so long trapped in the fight of dark and light in that small round bead. Two months since the well sealed forever. Two months to heal and try to make sense of things.

It wasn't a lot of time gone by and living with this new reality wasn't always easy. Sometimes, the lack of focus, the end of the all-consuming quest that had dominated them for so long, let all the differences in the world come crashing down.

Like this day. Today it was Kagome's turn to feel lost.

Today was not the first time the homesickness for her mother and family had touched her, and InuYasha was not surprised to find her where she was when they had told him she was not in the village. As he drew near to the Bone Eater's well, he could smell the sadness in her scent, a touch of salt from her tears long before he saw her.

She seemed like a small, lost waif curled up next to the old well. Her left cheek pressed against the rough wood of the well's top edge while the rest of her body, dressed in a simple blue kosode and curled up against the old wooden wall, her small frame looking even smaller than it was. Her eyes, reddened, stared away into someplace not there. He knew where - about five hundred years into the future.

He sighed as he walked up to her. Besides the worry about her safety, still a real threat between bandits and those youkai that didn't succumb to Naraku's call, at moments like this he always felt the sharp touch of guilt in his heart. Somehow, he felt her being caught here, so far from her family, was because of his own selfish need to be near her, and if he had been stronger, maybe she wouldn't be going through this. But trying to keep all the negatives out of his voice, he simply said, "Oi, Kagome. Thought I might find you here. Kaede was worried when you didn't come back."

"Hello, InuYasha." She looked up into his amber eyes. His white, unruly bangs cast shadows over his forehead, but the look of gentle concern was easy for her to read. She smiled at him, patted the ground beside her. "I told her I was going for a walk. I really didn't know I was going to end up here."

She sat up straighter, resting her back against the well. "Today is Souta's birthday. I know it's silly of me, but I guess I came here because it was the closest I could get to him."

He sat down next to her. "Kagome..." he started.

Kagome looked up at him, her stormy blue eyes tear touched, but not anguished. Looking carefully at her companion, Kagome saw the discomfort, the tinge of guilt in his eyes, how he held his ears, his mouth. "I don't regret it, you know," she said, reaching out to take his hand, "promising to always be with you. Sometimes, though, I just wish they weren't so far away."

He didn't say anything, afraid to say the wrong thing, but allowed his other arm to circle around her as she laid her head against his shoulder. They sat there for a time, InuYasha resting his cheek on Kagome's head.

"InuYasha," Kagome said at last


"We probably ought to get back. Kaede might send Shippou after us."

InuYasha let Kagome go, and reluctantly got to his feet. Reaching out his hand, he helped her to her feet. "Better now?" he asked.

She nodded, and gave him one of her special smiles. They headed back to the village.

InuYasha and Kagome walked back quietly. A group of children dashed in front of them playing chase and called out, "Konnichiwa, Kagome-sama!" as they flew by. One of the farmers, an older man that InuYasha had helped out with firewood once when the man was injured, passed them by and bowed slightly in greeting. Kagome briefly thought that she actually knew more people here in the village than she knew in modern Tokyo, if she didn't count the people at school.

"InuYasha, if you were going to call one place home, where would it be?" she asked.

"Don't know," he said after a moment, idly flicking one triangular ear as he thought about her question. He looked down at Kagome, into her gray-blue eyes which looked at him peacefully, if still slightly red. "I lived moving around so long. Here's been where I come back to longer than most places. Why?"

"Oh, just curious," she replied, smiling softly. "I was just thinking about how this village has come to seem more like home than the world I grew up in."

"Maybe it's cause you spent a lot more time here the last year than back in that world you grew up in?"

"Maybe," she said, "it's because who's here."

He stopped, reached out and took her hand in his, brushed his other hand against her cheek, then sighed. "Shippou's coming," he said. "You were right when you said Kaede would send him if we stayed gone too long."

Looking down the path, they could see Shippou running up to them, his red pony tail bobbing almost in time with his tail. "There you are, Kagome!" he yelled.

"Hello, Shippou!"

The boy looked at Kagome, sniffed, then gave InuYasha a dark look. "Are you okay, Kagome?" the little kitsune asked. "InuYasha didn't hurt your feelings, did he?"

"No, Shippou," she said, laughing gently and giving the small child a bright smile. The tug of war between the hanyou and the kitsune for her attention was an old one, and it amused her somewhat to see him so protective of her. "Nope. He made me feel better. I was thinking about my brother earlier and got sad. Today is his birthday, and I was just thinking about him and how much I miss him. Then InuYasha came by and made me smile again."

"Oh," he said, looking as if he didn't quite believe her, then held up his arms. Kagome reached out and picked him up, and he put his arms around her neck. "I hope you stay feeling better," he said, staring at her with his big blue eyes.

"I'm sure I will," she said, then put him back down. "You are just getting so big, Shippou!"

"Kaede asked me to work in her garden this afternoon. Said something about how younger backs than hers are better at getting the weeds."

"Oh did she?" Kagome said, knowing that probably Kaede was ready for a break from the little fox beyond any aches she happened to have. With Sango and Miroku visiting the old slayer village, the fox child didn't have very many adults to entertain him. "Maybe I'll help you then."

They walked back to the hut, pushed aside the mat door, and walked inside. Kaede was sorting through some bundles of herbs she had dried and was putting them into containers.

"Ah, I see InuYasha found you, child," the older woman said.
"He did, Kaede-sama," Kagome replied. "I had wandered over to the well. I'm sorry if I made you worry."

"Nonsense. I just wanted to make sure all was well. I could see a heaviness about you today." She looked at Kagome with a knowing eye. "But I see some of that has passed. And that is good."

"I was remembering..." Kagome started. "But Shippou tells me that your garden needs work. If you don't need me for anything else, I'd like to help him."

Kaede nodded her yes, and Kagome went to get the gardening tools.

"Kagome likes working with you," InuYasha said as they left the hut. He sat down next to the older woman.

"Aye, and I am glad she is here to help. I don't wear my years as well as you, InuYasha. Come and talk with me," she said, taking the tea kettle off of the fire.

InuYasha watched her preparing her tea things. "Now that Naraku is dead and gone, what do you plan to do?" she asked.

"About what, Kaede-baaba?" he said as she made the tea. " I do what I always do. Fight when necessary, hunt, take care of my people. What else should I do?"

"It's been two months since Naraku was defeated, and nearly as long since Kagome lost her way back to her own family," Kaede began. "She is now a young woman without family, InuYasha. She has no means of support save the charity of her friends. The village elders are starting to talk. They ask me if I am taking her to train her as a proper miko."

She handed him a cup of the hot liquid.

"Kagome has been mourning her family, you know," he said, sipping on the pale green liquid.

"I know," Kaede said. "But she's not the first girl to be separated a great distance from her family, InuYasha. People here are tired. After the damage from Naraku, people just want life to be normal again. They want to know where you stand in all of this. They are uncomfortable watching a single woman with no position or place or family. They want to know how she will fit in with their lives if this is going to be her home. I do not think she wants to be a shrine maiden, although I would be happy to train her if she wants this life."

"Keh," he said, crossing his arms and stuffing them into his sleeves. Blushing slightly, he said, "She is under my protection. I will provide for her."

Kaede sighed. She wished the monk and the slayer were here, and longed for them to return. It might make things easier.

"Build her a house, InuYasha. Maybe that will be enough."

"What?" InuYasha said.

"Build her a house," Kaede repeated. Her manner remained calm but serious, and her one eye took in his two amber eyes with a steady gaze. "Let everybody know how things are. If you are going to be her protector and provide for her, you can't hide it, InuYasha."

InuYasha broke eye contact, looked towards the fire, saying nothing for several minutes. Finally, he uncrossed his arms, brushed the hilt of his sword lightly. "Feh, old woman. Who's going to let me build a house in the village, anyway?" He glared at her. "You think the headman's going to be happy with a damn hanyou and a kitsune taking up permanent residence and spoiling their lovely human village? And to add a human woman into the mix? I'd be lucky if they didn't burn the house down the first month."

She poured herself another cup of tea. "You have more friends here than you think, InuYasha. They appreciate what you've done and what you do, both you and Kagome-chan. But you cannot stay forever in this in-between place. The monk and the taijiya are moving on with their lives."

He stared into the fire not speaking.

"Let me ask you this," Kaede said, taking a sip of her tea. "How would you feel if a go between came here looking to arrange something for Kagome? Could you deal with letting her find a match? Would you let her go?"

His eyes grew wide, and he grasped the hilt of his sword tightly. "No," he said softly. "That's not supposed to happen."

She pursed her lips. "If you don't make it clear about whom Kagome-chan is to you, I am sure that one day, one could very well show up."

He grasped his sword tighter, scowled without meeting her glance. "Do you know something that I should know, old woman?"

She shook her head and sighed. "Do not act rashly or stupidly, InuYasha. Kagome-chan is lovely, brave and capable. Right now to a lot of people here, she seems . . . well, otherworldly, touched by the kami, and I do not believe that anyone yet has actually thought of that."

Kaede took a sip of her tea. "But time will pass, and as they see her doing her laundry, working in the garden, even, perhaps taking her place in the weekly classes learning to sew with the other maidens, running errands, living an everyday life, she will become more and more an ordinary woman in people's eyes. She is very kindhearted, and if no one thinks you have a claim on her, young men will start paying attention. No doubt some family or another would think that a lovely girl like her might be worth bringing into the family, even if she has been known to associate with youkai. Farmers aren't as picky as samurai.
"Miroku and Sango should be back tomorrow. Perhaps you would like to talk about it with them?"

InuYasha's ears flattened to his head as he took in what she said. "Keh," he muttered.

They both sat silently for a moment. Suddenly, he stood up. "I need some fresh air," he said as he pulled back the mat covering the door and walked out into the sunlight.

The garden spread out in front of the hut, just across from the pathway. Herbs nodded in the afternoon sunshine, yomogi, shisho, mitsuba, shungiku. Kagome looked up from where she was kneeling in the garden as she heard the doormat move. Her hands were still wrapped around a weed she was tugging up while a wasp flew lazily past. She wore a straw hat to keep the sun off of her face. Dressed that way, in traditional clothes, hat, blue and beige kosode and wrap skirt instead of that exotic short-skirted school uniform from her time, InuYasha realized she could pass for just another pretty farmer's daughter, just like Kaede suggested, instead of the pure and stubborn girl filled with spiritual power who had stood up to a monster and won.

Something inside of him, welling up from the desire he had to keep her near and the need he felt to keep her safe, shivered at the thought of what that was going to mean. "O Kaede-babaa," he muttered, "Can you tell me how to keep her safe and happy, too?" Louder, he said, "Oi, Kagome, you're still digging?"

Kagome pushed her hat back as she watched InuYasha walk up towards her, his silver hair glinting in the sunlight. He noticed that there was a smudge of dirt on the tip of her nose, but was pleased how her stormy blue eyes looked content without the sadness of earlier. Wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, she stood up. "I thought you'd have come outside sooner," she said. "But I got a bit of work done."

"I'd have been out sooner, but Kaede wanted to talk to me," he said. "You got some dirt on your nose; hold still." He came close enough to dust her nose off with his sleeve. Looking around, he asked, "Where's Shippou?"

"He ran off to play with Akiko's boys," she said, raking up the weeds. "Weeding didn't compare to playing tag. He did manage to pull three or four, though, before the boys came through and he ran off. What did Kaede want to talk about?"

Putting the weeds into a basket, she bent over to lift it, but InuYasha took it from her. "Into the compost pile?" he asked. Kagome nodded and he carried it over and dumped it. "Kaede was wondering about the future," he said.

"She was asking about my time?" she asked as she picked up the garden tools lying on the ground.

"No," InuYasha replied. "More like what we wanted to do. Whether you want to study to be a miko like her, or something." He stared down, kicked aside a dirt clod with a bare toe.

"Oh," she said. She took the empty basket and began moving back towards Kaede's hut.

"Oh?" he asked.

"I guess . . . I guess I was sort of hoping things could just keep going on like this for a while." She smiled wistfully up at the hanyou. He took the rake from her as he helped her put the garden tools back up in the storage area.

"I've been kind of playing a game in my head, InuYasha," Kagome said, leaning up against the hut as he put the last things away, not meeting his eyes. "It's like I've been kind of pretending that nothing's really changed. It's just like before when we were still looking for Naraku, but now I'm just staying in the village a little longer than usual. There's that part of me that wants to believe that if I could keep everything the same way it was the last year, that I'd wake up one day, go to the well, and jump through, and I'd have both worlds again."

She plopped down on the ground, wrapped her arms around her legs, and rested her head on her knees. "I know it's stupid. I guess it's time to get real."

InuYasha sat down next to her. "Kagome . . . "

"Everything's changing even though I was pretending it wasn't. Miroku and Sango are busy starting a new life. I'm scared, InuYasha. Are you going to move on and leave me, too?"

Kagome's head lifted up from where it rested on her knees, the ebony of her hair glinting where the sun struck it. Her face, though, was shadowed. She turned and looked at him, her blue eyes stormy, unsure, searching, then dropped her eyes, as if afraid of his response.

"Leave you?" InuYasha said softly. "Why would you think I would do that?"

His hand, clawed and rough and callused from fighting his way through life, a warrior's hand, wanted something solid to hit to take that sadness away from her. Instead, with no enemy he could attack, he reached out to Kagome, took one of her hands from where it was resting on her knee, and pulled it into his. Her hand was so small compared to his, fine and soft. As he felt how his larger hand surrounded it, he remembered another time he took her hand and made her promises. So much had happened in those few months that it felt like a lifetime ago.

"I...I don't know," she replied. "I just thought . . . "

His memory flashed back to an image of Kagome standing up to Kaou, with pain in her heart and fire in her eyes, the strongest woman he had ever known. It hurt him to see her now, stripped of her certainty, unable to trust in the promises he'd given her. 'Damn you, Naraku!' he thought, not for the first time. 'Damn anybody that would try to hurt her. Damn me for getting her trapped in this place to begin with.'

He sighed. "Well, stop thinking it. You're not getting rid of me that easy."
She gave him a tentative little smile, fragile, but she looked willing for the moment to cling to what he was saying. He reached out, lifted up her chin with his free hand, searched her eyes with his amber ones, looking for some sign of that old fire, and wiped away one small tear with his thumb.

"Kaede told me that if you wanted to, she'd train you to take her place. She'd be happy to do it," InuYasha said.

Kagome sighed. "I really feel bad. I love Kaede. She's like a grandmother to me. But it just seems like lately everybody assumes I'm going to be here to take over from her when she's gone. Miroku, Sango, people in the village. It's like everybody expects me to turn me into Kikyou, to be a shrine maiden the rest of my life." She stopped, looked up at InuYasha. "I'm not Kikyou. I don't want to be Kikyou. Do I have to?"

"Feh, " he said. "You are Ka-go-me, not Kikyou. You only have to do something like that it if you want to."

She plucked a blade of grass and began twirling it in her fingers, and rested her head on his shoulder. "Thank you, InuYasha," she said at last. "Let's go find Shippou before he gets into too much trouble. I bet he's down by the river."

They wandered through the village, not saying much, not sure of what to say until they neared the river. From where they were standing, looking towards the water, they could see the banks lined with green spring growth. As the late afternoon sunlight touched the stream, a couple of girls were getting water, but not a lot of other people were out. Under the shade of a willow tree, some boys were playing, intensely looking at a top spinning in a circle in the dirt. Two of them were dark haired, the third red.

"Hey Shippou!" said InuYasha.

The one with red hair and pointed ears and a bushy tail looked up.

"Looks like I gotta go home," the kitsune said. Suddenly, the top toppled over. He grabbed it, put it in his clothes and ran over to the hanyou and girl. "Hi, guys," he said, running up to them. InuYasha picked him up and put him on his shoulder.

"Well, Shippou-chan," said Kagome. "Where's your friend Kohana? I thought you were running off because you and the boys were going to find her."

"She was here earlier, but she left. Yoshi caught a really big fish, and she left with him." The kit sighed. "I think she likes him better than me," he said.

Kagome reached up and ruffled his hair. "There will be other times, Shippou," she said fondly.

They began walking back to the hut.

"Hey, look, there's Kaede," said Shippou. "And Jiro's sister is with her. I don't think she likes me very well."

"That's what happens when you get mud on the laundry girls are washing," said Kagome. "I'd have been mad, too."

"Feh," said InuYasha. "You're lucky she only threw a rock at you. She could have beaned you with the laundry tub."

Shippou rubbed his head in memory. "That rock hurt."

Kaede and the girl under discussion, a thin, short girl of perhaps twelve, were walking towards them. The girl, her long black hair escaping from her hair ribbon, was carrying the big basket Kaede used for midwifing with her. She had an excited but worried look on her face.

"Ah, there you are. Good, child. I'm glad we found you three," said Kaede. "I'll be at Joben's with Akina tonight."

"Hello, Hana-chan!" Kagome said. "Is something wrong?"

"My sister's going to have her baby!" said the girl with a nervous smile. "I'm going to be an aunt!"

Kagome looked up at Kaede. "Is there something I can do to help?"

Kaede sighed. "You might want to feed those two," she said, nodding at InuYasha and Shippou. "There is stew on the fire. This is Akina's first child. I'll probably be gone a long time."

"Is there anything that I can do? Would you like me to come and help?" Kagome said.

"No, Kagome-sama," said Hana, her expression moving from excited to embarrassed. "Joben asked me to find just Kaede."

"And you found her," InuYasha said. His ear twitched in expectation, and he moved behind Kagome where he rested his hand lightly on her shoulder.

"My brother-in-law . . . he . . . he told me to make sure you didn't come, Kagome-sama. He said having a hanyou's woman at the birthing would be bad luck for the baby." Hana dropped her face in her embarrassment. "He thinks that you might . . . might have a youkai . . . ta . . . taint that could cause problems."

Kagome could feel InuYasha's fingers tighten at the girl's words and his body tense. She could feel the blood run to her face and suddenly she was angry. "What? I thought the people in this village knew better than that!"

"I'm sorry, Kagome-sama," the girl said. She dashed off, clearly unhappy.

Kaede sighed. "Child, if anything went wrong with the birthing, and you were there, it could cause problems for you and InuYasha. It's better this way. Go home for now. If there's anything I need, I'll send Hana to the hut, and you can get it for me." Shaking her head sadly, she walked off after the girl.

Kagome started to move forward, ready to follow the two, needing to do something, but InuYasha wrapped his arms around her to keep her in place. "No, Kagome. No. Let it go. If you want to live here, you can't go telling bastards like him off."

"But it's not right! You saved his brother from a bear youkai!" she said. "You aren't tainted!"

An angry Shippou muttered, "Baka Joben."

InuYasha gave her a gentle hug."Let's go home," he said.

They ate mostly in silence, Kagome and InuYasha both wrapped deep in their own thoughts. After she washed the dishes and had put away the meal things, Kagome came back and sat near InuYasha. Drawing her knees up to her chin and wrapping her arms around her legs, she gave a long sigh.

"I remember a story I read once, " Kagome said at last. Her voice cut through the deep quiet like a knife. Both InuYasha and Shippou looked up at the sudden break in the quiet.

"A story?" said Shippou, looking up from where he was drawing by the light of the fire pit. "You gonna tell it to us?"

"Let me see if I can remember it well enough." Kagome said. She thought for a moment. "Once, there was this young man who was traveling through the mountains when a horrible snowstorm blew up. He got lost and wandered off his normal path. The storm got worse and worse, and he knew that if he didn't find shelter soon, he was going to die. Suddenly, he found a hut hidden far away from the busy road and went up to it to see if anybody was there.

"Standing there, shivering from the cold, he stood in front of the door, when a beautiful woman let him in. 'Please,' he asked. 'Please let me come in out of this storm. If I don't, I think I will die before morning.' The woman, in a fine silk kimono decorated with sakura blossoms, let him in, gave him tea and soup, and sat him near the fire."

"She sounds nice," Shippou said.

"Yes she was," Kagome continued. "The beautiful woman warned the traveler: 'Please, sir, you must be very polite and quiet, for my husband is a Yama-Inu, and he will be coming home soon. And you must promise very solemnly not to tell anybody of this house, or else he will send you out into the storm.' Soon, a huge dog, larger than Kirara gets when she transforms, came up to the door. The woman, hearing him outside, hurried to slide the door open and let the huge white dog into the house. The young man trembled at the sight before him, but the woman walked up to the dog fearlessly and touched his ear with affection as she welcomed him home."

Kagome glanced up at InuYasha for a moment, and a small look of amusement touched his eyes.

"'My Lord,' the beautiful woman said, addressing the dog, 'This traveler came to our door, lost in the storm, and I allowed him in to sit by the fire, rather than send him out to perish.' The dog walked over to the man, sniffed him carefully, and then withdrew to the back of the house, where the beautiful woman followed him. The young man, frightened out of his wits by what he had seen, sat by the fire a long time, listening as the wind howled, but eventually fell asleep. Some time during the night, the storm had ceased, and the day dawned to fine, calm weather. The beautiful young woman fed him tea and rice and soup and gave him food for his journey. After he had eaten, the great white dog led him back to the road. Before he left, the dog stared at him in the eyes, and clearly said: 'Here is your road. Because of the soft heart of my wife, your life is spared. If you return, though, it will be your death.' With that the dog disappeared into the mountainside, and the young man continued on his way."

"Probably should have killed him then, I bet," InuYasha said.

"Hmph," Kagome said with a small smirk."Just listen and find out. The young man went off to the city not far from the mountain and dreamed about the beautiful woman who lived with the huge white dog. At first she just filled her daydreams, but as time went on, he began to think of the white dog, and he grew angry. In his mind, she changed from being a kind woman who welcomed him mercifully and who lived with the Yama-Inu, obviously happy with her youkai husband, into a woman who was being kept prisoner by the evil monster in the mountain. The more he thought about it, the further from reality the story became. Eventually, one night over sake, he told a group of his friends about his adventure, how he had come across this beautiful maiden who was being held captive, who had only been able to protect him for the night by telling the monster who kept her prisoner that he was her brother, and how he had promised to come and rescue her."

"Even Kouga's not that stupid," said Shippou, looking up from his drawing.

"Feh! Speak for yourself, Runt," InuYasha snorted.

"Hush, you two," said Kagome. "Where was I . . . oh yes, one of the young man's friends was a Buddhist monk who knew something about fighting youkai, and urged him to remember his promise to the fair maiden. Before he knew what was going on, a group of men had agreed to go back up the mountain and fight the monster. One day in early spring, the young man led them back up the mountainside, up to the Yama-Inu's house. When the beautiful woman opened up the door, she saw this group of men standing before her with swords and torches. The young man bowed low and said, 'O lovely Hime, I am here to save you from the great beast who holds you prisoner.' The woman, looking at the group in front of her, grew frightened. The young man reached out to take her by the arm. She screamed, 'Yama-Inu, come save me!'

"Suddenly, there was a thump behind them, and they heard a loud growling. Turning, they found themselves staring into the red eyes of the great white dog. Before long, all but two of the men were dead: the young man and the monk, both who ran away down the mountainside and, for the moment, escaped. Three days later, the monk went to check up on his friend and found that the young man was dead. Something had broken into his house at night and attacked him horribly. It looked like he had been mauled by some great beast."

"Serves them right, trying to steal someone's woman," InuYasha grumbled.

"Hush," said Kagome. "The monk reported this to the authorities who investigated his story. A group of them followed the monk up the mountainside and found the bodies of the slain young men. But of the Yama-Inu there was no sign. Instead of the strong and beautiful home that had once been there, they found only the ruins of a burnt hut, still smoking. The youkai and his wife had moved on."

Kagome met InuYasha's eyes as if trying to communicate something. He raised one eyebrow, stood up, and said, "I'll be back. I'm going to bring in some firewood."

After laying a reluctant Shippou down on her bedroll, Kagome walked outside. It was taking InuYasha much longer than necessary to bring in a load of wood. She found him sitting alongside of the house in the same place where they had sat earlier. She sat down next to him.

"You took too long," she said.

"Keh. I was thinking," he replied. He was sitting cross legged, with his hands thrust into the sleeves of his suikan. His white hair caught in the moonlight, a silver shimmer among the shadows, but his ears drooped some, like they did when he was thinking unhappy thoughts. He looked otherworldly, not mundane at all, yet at the same time solidly belonging right where he was. Kagome reached out and lightly touched his shoulder.

"You do know that if I left, life would be easier for you," he said after a while.

"You do know if you left, life would be miserable for me," she said. "And I wouldn't have you to protect me."

"Days like today will happen over and over."

"I didn't want to be the village miko anyway," she said, laying her head on his shoulder.

"How'd you get to be so strong, Kagome?" InuYasha asked. His ear twitched like it did when he felt nervous.

"I'm not strong," she said, sighing. "I'm scared."

"Me, too."

"It's nice not to be alone," she said.

It was a dark windless place, where even the walls thrummed like the beating of a heart. The soft walls glowed with a purple-red light, beaded with moisture. Wandering, he found himself hearing it everywhere - doki, doki, doki. His ears, twitching, couldn't find its source, couldn't escape it. It surrounded him.

Things began slowly to make sense as he began coming out of the red haze that told him his youkai blood had taken over. He was alone. He wasn't supposed to be alone. Where was she?

He looked at the blood on his claws . . . that blood, that scent . . . "What's going on?" he said, cold shivers creeping up his spine.

"Don't you remember?" said the voice, low, smooth, chuckling in dark amusement. "Weak half-breed, don't you remember how you transformed and ripped up your beloved woman?"

"Kagome . . . " he whispered, feeling his stomach tightening in knots.

"Smell the blood," the voice continued, smooth and gleeful. "You failed, half-breed. Once again, you failed to protect your woman. What good are you? Tainted and useless."

"Kagome!" he yelled. "Kagome!"

He turned and saw Sango and Miroku. "You told us you were going to keep her safe," said Sango. She looked sad and determined.

"Where's Kagome?" InuYasha said.

"When you didn't take care of her, we had to make sure she would have someone who would," said Miroku.

Suddenly, he was standing in the village. A wedding celebration was taking place.

"I tried to tell you," said Kaede.

The bride looked up. It was Kagome. "I'm so sorry, InuYasha. But I need a home and a family. I had to find one. You wouldn't give me one."

Suddenly, her white wedding kimono sprouted red streaks of blood. He looked at his hands. They were covered in blood.

"Useless half-breed. You always destroy the women you love," said Naraku's voice.

"No! Kagome! Kagome!"

Suddenly, InuYasha bolted to awareness. He was breathing in hard, ragged gulps. He shivered at the feeling the dream had left with him as he looked around. A soft glow from the dying embers in the fire pit lit the room dimly, and he slowly oriented himself. He was in Kaede's hut, sitting with his back to the wall. Shippou was sleeping soundly on Kagome's bedroll. She was kneeling next to him, dressed in a long pink sleep shirt, her small hand gently making soothing motions on his shoulder.

"Kagome?" he said softly. "What's wrong?"

"You called my name out. You must have been having a nightmare," she said.

"Yeah," he said with a deep sigh. "Sorry I woke you up." He turned his face and looked at Kagome. Even in the dim light, he could see how she watched him, searching his face with concern. Tilting his head back, he stared up at the ceiling, still seeing the images from his dream, feeling the waves of anxiety and guilt that it brought up.

"It's ok, InuYasha. It's over," she said. "It was just a dream."

"How can you stand to be near me?" he asked.

She was startled by his question. "What do you mean?" She moved closer, brushed his hair with her hand.

"I hurt you. I turned into a monster and hurt you. I had your blood on my claws. I almost killed you."

"The nightmare is over, InuYasha, " Kagome said as she wrapped her arms around him, rested her head on his shoulder. "That was Naraku. He's dead. He can't do that any more."

"Not only did I hurt you, but then I took you away from your world, your mother, your friends, all the wonders you had there. Being near me is going to ruin your life." He turned to face her, gently taking her shoulders in his hands. "You saw what happened yesterday. They're already talking about you in the village. You deserve a life that isn't . . . " His words were stilled by soft fingertips pressing against his lips.

Kagome had risen to her knees, meeting his eyes with a loving but determined look on her face. "No. Don't talk like that. I'm exactly where I want to be."

His arms wrapped around her, holding her tightly. "I'm such a selfish bastard. I can't offer you anything you deserve, but I can't hardly breathe when you're away from me. I ought to make you go, but I can't."

"I wouldn't go, you know." She cupped his cheek in her hand. "You've tried that before and it didn't work."

He pulled her into his lap and rested his chin on her head as she snuggled into his shoulder.

"So you're going to stay with me, even knowing how hard it might get?"

"Always," she replied. "I promised."

He held her warm body next to his, covered by the large sleeves of his suikan, listening to her soft breathing, the beating of her heart as he stared into the darkness. After a little while, first she, then he fell asleep.

Later, Kaede would return home after the successful delivery of Akina's child, to find them still curled around each other. She smiled a little when she pulled up the mat door of her hut and saw how they were sleeping. They were laying down on the floor, a bundle of red and white and dark, her ebony hair cascading over his shoulder, his white hair spilling around them both, the voluminous sleeves of his suikan blanketing her as he snuggled her spooned up against him, his arms wrapped around her in a protective embrace. Shippou lay nested in the sleeping bag alone, snoring softly.

Walking softly as she could to her place by the fire pit, the old miko rested her basket of medical supplies on the floor and then quietly sat. InuYasha's ears twitched a little as she settled herself down and took a deep, tired sigh. The dimness of the room couldn't fully disguise her fatigue as she bent over the fire pit to stir the last of the coals, adding some shaved bits of wood and straw and a few sticks to rekindle the flame for the morning fire. As she fanned the red coal back into flame, he raised his head a bit, and looked at her.

She glanced his way, and inwardly winced at the instant wariness in the hanyou's eyes as he realized she was in the room.

"Rest easy, InuYasha," she said, gently feeding the barely flaming coals a bit more wood. "I am not Miroku to make a jest of you and Kagome-chan. But it is first light, I've been out all night bringing in a new life, and these old bones of mine are tired." She brushed a few stray gray hairs off of her forehead with the back of her hand. "I would like a bit of fire and some tea. It was a long night."

InuYasha let out a long breath, reaching over Kagome to grab the pillow from her sleeping bag to replace his shoulder and carefully unwrapped himself around her. Sitting up, he rubbed his hands over his face as the center of the room brightened with the growing fire. As careful as he had been, Kagome stirred as he moved, opened her eyes, and saw Kaede by the fire. Covering a yawn, she looked around her, and saw InuYasha sitting next to her.

"Did I fall asleep when we were talking?" she said, blushing slightly, sitting up and smoothing down her sleep shirt.

"Yeah. I must have too." Inu looked down at his hands, as if fascinated by his claws.

Kagome reached out, touched his arm. "I slept so well," she said softly. He quickly looked up at her and gave her a small smile.

Kaede gave a half chuckle at the two of them and their mix of ease and uncertainty with each other and moved the kettle onto the fire. Kagome got up, stretching and running her fingers through her hair, then moved next to the fire pit, warming her hands by the fire.

"How did things go?" Kagome asked.

Kaede tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. "As well as they should have. Akina now has a fine looking new son," she said. "I do not know who is happier, the parents or the grandparents."

"I'm glad," Kagome replied, sighing.

"You have a good heart, Kagome-chan, but we managed all right. You did better staying here last night. The birthing room was too full as it was," Kaede said. "I did have a wish to ask one or the other of Akina's aunts and sisters to go home as well."

Shippou suddenly sat up, rubbing his eyes. "Is it breakfast time?"

"Not yet, Runt," said InuYasha. "Come on and get up. Let's go fishing."

"Really?" said the kitsune. He gave a yawn, then jumped up out of the sleeping bag. "Are you going to show me how to catch a big fish like Yoshi?"

"We'll see, runt," he said as the boy rolled up the sleeping bag to put it away.

"I'll fix rice porridge," said Kagome, looking up at InuYasha.

He nodded, walked over to the door mat and opened it to a sky just starting to color with sunrise. "Oi, Shippou, I thought you were a youkai! How come you're so slow?"

Shippou muttered something very softly, and dashed out of the hut. "I heard that, you know," InuYasha said, and followed him out in a flash of red and white.

For a moment, there was no sound in the room except for the crackling of the fire. Kaede broke the silence by saying, "He cares deeply for you, Kagome-chan."

Kagome, taking a bowl from its shelf, went over to the rice bin and measured out enough to make porridge. "I know," she replied, pouring water over the rice to wash it.

"And I know that I am not mistaken about your feelings for InuYasha," Kaede continued, preparing her tea.

Kagome looked down at the rice she was washing, and blushed a little as she strained the rinse water out into a bucket. Carefully, she poured the clean rice into a cooking pot, and adding enough water, put it on to cook.

"You are to my heart like a granddaughter, child, and I want you to think carefully. You are welcome to stay with me as long as you want, but soon you will find yourself being pressured to make choices about your life. You and InuYasha have been through so much this last year, and I know how it has bound your hearts. But the life he could offer you will never be an easy one - there will always be people who will say or even do harsh things. He knows this, and hesitates, I think, frightened about what might happen. If you go with him, you will need to be strong, strong for yourself, and strong for him," Kaede said as she sipped her tea.

"I know," said Kagome. "It sounds easy to say that I don't care what others think, and I mean it, but sometimes I get scared about what that actually might be like. And then I get angry that it will be like this, like last night when I wanted to help with Akina." She looked up at Kaede. "It's not fair! InuYasha has helped so many, and they treat him like this. What would have happened if no one had stopped Naraku?"

She stood up, went over to the battered pack where she kept her things, pulled out her other kosode, and slipped behind the privacy screen and changed clothes. The soft blue and white cotton felt cool against her skin. Not for the first time, she wished she had the foresight to bring more clothes with her the last time she came through the well. She stepped back, tying on her wrap skirt.

"But child, think of this - do you think you could be happy living another life?" Kaede asked, watching the younger woman carefully. 'He cares enough, I think, that he would give you up if it would make you happy."

"No, just no." Kagome's face had no indecision on it. And a small flash of irritation touched her eyes at the miko's suggestion. "I couldn't do that. How could I give up his happiness and mine, too, just to have an easier life?"

Kaede smiled. "Well then," she said, getting slowly to her feet. "You know all the answers you need when the right time comes. I am going up to the shrine. I will say an extra prayer to the kami for you."

Kagome was outside at the back of the hut, kneeling by a wooden tub filled with water doing laundry. Nearby, in the bright sunshine, she had the drying rods stretched out over t-shaped support beams waiting for their load of wet linen.

"Is that enough water?" Shippou asked, bringing one more bucket in to fill a second tub.

"Yes, I think that will do," she said, wiping her forehead with the slightly drier back of her hand. "Thank you for helping. And stay out of the hut; Kaede is taking a nap."

She scrubbed the white cloth in her laundry tub, fussing over a stain when she found it, and found herself singing softly to its rhythm.

"For love I journey,
For love I will show no fear,
As the road winds on,
I will not shed a single tear.
Even in this dark
Guided only by the moon,
Love directs my steps
That will bring me to you soon.
And so I will climb
Up this mountain path tonight,
Heading to the dawn
Until you're once again in sight.
Beloved, do not forget
my love before the sunset."

Content with the cleanness of the cloth she had scrubbed, she stood up to wring the heavy length of linen out. Sighing at its weight, Kagome turned to put it in the rinse tub, and almost ran head-first into a bright red suikan. She looked up into a slightly amused face and amber eyes.

"InuYasha!" she said, surprise adding an edge to her voice. "I didn't hear you walk up. How long have you been here?" She put the wet cloth into the rinse tub and went back to her wash tub, kneeling down to start on the next piece.

"Long enough to hear you sing," he said, sitting down with his back to the hut. "You sing good. You should do it more." He rested his sword against his shoulder. "Where's Kaede?" he asked.

"She's taking a nap. I thought I'd wash the linen she used last night for the birthing while she sleeps. It's gotten hard for her to do this work." She finished rinsing the linen sheet, and began the hard work of wringing it out, twisting the fabric to get as much water out of it as possible.

InuYasha stared into nothing, like he was remembering something. "She was a cute kid. Almost as cute as my brother's runt."

"Who?" Kagome asked. She took the sheet over to the drying rods and carefully hung it over one to start drying, then rolled her shoulders to release some of the tension. A small wisp of hair escaped out of her head scarf, and she tucked it back in before going back to the wash tub.

"Kaede-babaa," InuYasha said. "She used to trail after her sister like a puppy. She would sort of hide behind Kikyou when I came around."

Kagome kneaded the cloth in the tub, picking it up to scrub at spots. "I bet she had a crush on you."

"No way!" said InuYasha, shoving his arms into his sleeves.

"I bet. Exotic, mysterious, dashing . . . " she said, smiling as she looked up at him.

"Probably thought I was gonna eat her," InuYasha said, with a mock scowl.

She began wringing out the last sheet. "All that wonderful silver hair . . . "

"Feh," he said, pulling his hand out of hiding to look down at his fingers. "Claws and fangs, too."

Kagome dunked the sheet in the rinse water. "Bet she wanted to pet your ears, too."

InuYasha flicked his ears in her direction. "Oh, you think so, eh?" He flicked them again.

Swishing the sheet in the rinse water, she lifted it up and began squeezing it. "Yes, I do."

He watched her wrestle with the sheet, then go to hang it up. As she moved to the drying rope, he walked up behind her and helped her spread the cloth.. "And what makes you so sure, Kagome?" he said, moving closer to her and flicking his ear one more time.

The temptation proved too much for Kagome.

"Because I always want to!" she said, giggling and reaching up to touch his ear. For a moment, his eyes closed as he leaned into her touch, then he opened his eyes, looking deeply into hers, and reached up and covered her hand with his. His amber eyes had grown heavy and dark, and his breath quickened. Standing very close together, InuYasha pulled her hand off his ear but didn't release it. Slowly, he brought it towards his lips, kissed her fingertips, red and roughened from the laundry.

Her heart raced as he dropped her hand and gently cupped her cheek. "Kagome," he whispered as she found herself locked into the warm intensity of his gaze.

"Kagome!" called a much louder voice. "Kagome! They're back!"

InuYasha dropped his hand and stepped back as she dropped her eyes, looking at the ground and blushing prettily. Taking a deep breath, he turned to see an excited Shippou running around the corner of the house, his hair ribbon and tail bobbing as he hurried to them.

"Oi, runt, who's back?" he managed to say without barking at the kitsune.

"Miroku and Sango! And they brought Kohaku with them this time!" he said.

"That's great, Shippou," Kagome said, giving a quick, smiling glance at InuYasha. "Now, maybe you and InuYasha can empty these tubs on the garden, and I'll go around the front to meet them."

"Do I have to?" Shippou asked, frowning.

"Yeah, runt. Give me a hand, and we can get this done sooner," InuYasha said. "I'll carry the tubs and you can scoop the water out with the bucket."

With a definite pout, he followed the hanyou down to the garden.

Kagome moved to the front of the hut where a long wooden bench was set up. Grabbing the sewing basket she had left there earlier, she settled down and threaded a needle and began to hem the kosode she was working on. She looked up from her work to watch the antics of InuYasha and Shippou as they worked on watering Kaede's herb and vegetable garden. InuYasha, handling the larger bucket, stepped carefully, trying hard not to damage the plants as he moved. Shippou, with a bamboo dipper, skittered around, not paying much attention to where he was stepping, obviously trying not to do any more work than necessary.

She could see InuYasha begin to lose patience, and the occasional call of baka! and kuso! began to grow more frequent. Shippou eventually bumped into the hanyou, spilling his dipper of water on InuYasha's foot. The two froze, then suddenly InuYasha's fist came down on the kitsune boy's head. Shippou began to wail, and made a beeline back to where Kagome was sitting.

Kagome worked hard to stifle a laugh, putting her sewing aside as Shippou ran up to the bench and jumped in her lap.

"Kagome! InuYasha is being mean to me!" he sobbed.

"Oh, I don't think so," she said, kissing the top of his head. "I was watching, you know. You were being kind of mean to InuYasha."

"But I'm just a little kid!" he said.

"Not that little any more," she said. "Now I thought you said that Sango and Miroku were back?"

"Yeah, they were right behind me, I thought," he said. "Somebody must have stopped them to talk."

"Why don't you go see what's happening?" she suggested.

He gave a quick look towards InuYasha who was finishing up the watering as he gave dark looks at the two of them, then beamed at her, his blue eyes glittering. "Good idea, Kagome! I'll go find them."

He ran off before InuYasha came back to the hut, carrying the empty tubs. He sat down next to Kagome, who had picked up her sewing again.

"The runt gone?" he asked.

"Yeah. I sent him off to find out what's keeping Sango and Miroku. Someone must have stopped them before they got here," she said.

"Maybe someone's looking for a youkai exterminator. It's been too quiet lately. Be nice to go after something worth fighting," he said, with a wistful look in his amber eyes.

"You miss it?" she asked, looking down at her sewing.

"Miss what?"

"All that fighting and traveling and not knowing what was around the next bend?"

"Maybe it was just having something to do. I don't know what to do any more, some days," he said, shifting a bit uncomfortably, then putting his hands in his sleeves. They sat there quietly for several minutes, each lost in thought, Kagome patiently hemming away. Approaching footsteps caused InuYasha to break out of his thoughts and look up.

Sango wearing her favorite pink and green kosode and wrap skirt walked up, Kirara perched on her shoulder. "Oh my, how domestic we look today," she said. "Where is Kagome, and what have you done with her? All I see is another village girl!"

"Sango!" Kagome exclaimed. Throwing her sewing in the basket, Kagome jumped up and hugged her friend.

Neither of them had seen how wide InuYasha's eyes had gotten at Sango's little joke. Kaede's words ran in his mind, "But time will pass, and as they see her doing her laundry, working in the garden, living an everyday life, she will become more and more an ordinary woman in people's eyes."

"Where's Miroku?" he asked, looking down the road and not meeting their eyes.

"Oh, the village headman was talking to him," Sango said. "In fact, they asked me to send you down there. I think he wants to talk to you about something."

"What about?" he asked, frowning.

"I don't know," said Sango. She swung her Hiraikotsu off her shoulder and leaned it up against the wall of the house. "I was kind of busy talking to Erime about her sister getting married."

"She is?" said Kagome. "Nobody told me yet!"

InuYasha wandered down the road as talk about weddings and bridal kimonos and go-betweens began to fill the air. He had learned a long time ago that when it was the time for the "girl thing," there was nothing a man could do but let it happen. It was safer to face a village headman who was getting ready to send you packing. Sighing, he steeled himself for the worst, and went on to find out why they had asked for him.

It was over an hour before InuYasha returned. Kagome was at the back of the house, checking on the sheets.

"What did the headman want?" she asked, as she decided the sheets weren't quite done.

"Come walk with me, Kagome," InuYasha said. His eyes twinkled with a nervous but happy look. She looked at him, not hesitating, but curious.

"Sure," she said.

They walked quietly for a bit, Kagome extremely curious and InuYasha saying nothing, heading to the edge of the village, where the ground began to rise, near to where the forest began. From where he stopped, looking towards the village, you could see the rise of the shrine, the gleam of water in the rice paddies, but it was away from the road that lead out of the village and down to the coast and the sleepy village of Edo. Behind them was the larger hill that would one day house the shrine where Kagome grew up. They were a short walk away from both the well and the Goshinboku. InuYasha rested his hand against the trunk of a lesser tree which had a strip of yellow cloth tied to one of its lower branches.

"The village headman had a long talk with Miroku and me," he said at last, breaking the silence. He looked down at the ground, watching his toe roll a pebble back and forth.

"Why?" she asked.

"He was wondering if we - all of us, Miroku and Sango and you and me, were planning on staying in the village. He thought . . . " he said, swallowing, still not looking up.

"Yes?" she asked.

"He thought it might be good to have us here to guard the village," he said, finally meeting her eyes, his warm and happy.

"That's great news, InuYasha," Kagome replied, flashing a smile at him. He took her hand, and smiled back, drawing her closer.

"He told us we could have the land here to build on, near the forest and near the village," he said, bringing her with him as he turned around in a slow circle. Facing the village, InuYasha pointed. "Look - it's just a little walk to Kaede's house from here. We could still keep an eye out on her and help her." Moving towards the forest, he said, "You can see the Goshinboku from here, too." He pointed towards the hill. "There's a spring over there. It feeds a stream that runs down to the river, so we won't have to go as far for water, either. And it's cleaner, I think."

His eyes got a faraway look. "I've never been asked to stay in a village before."
"How does it make you feel?" she asked.

"Good, and nervous, both," he said, looking down at her. "I keep wondering how long it's going to last - wondering when they will wake up and realize who they've asked to stay with them."

Kagome rested her hand over his heart. "Some of them, at least, have seen what is here: a good man's heart."

Suddenly he swallowed, as if his mouth had gone dry, and his ears began laying low the way he would get when he was insecure. He put his hands over hers. "Would...would you let me build this house for you, Kagome?" he said in a soft, shy voice. She looked up into his face, and saw nervousness mixed with a deep longing.

"I never had anything I could give you before." His arms slid around her, pulling her tight against him. "I own my clothes and my sword, and have lived by my wits and my strength, sometimes tolerated, but never really welcome anywhere. This is the first place that has asked me to call it home. I can't promise that life will be easy, but now at least I have something to offer you. Stay with me, Kagome. Now. Always. Let me take care of you and give you a home."

His eyes, amber pools of want and hope, gazed deeply into hers, their faces close enough that she could feel the warmth of his breath.

Her heart raced, and his look was almost too much to bear. "Yes," she said, holding his gaze for as long as she could. "Yes. Always." She rested her cheek against his chest and listened to the racing of his heart. "There's no place else I'd rather be."

He cupped her face in his hand, tilted it up to look at him. His lips ghosted across hers, once, twice, warm and soft, and on the third time turned into a hungry, needy kiss filled with those feelings he couldn't say. She melted into his embrace, her want responding to his as hungrily. Kagome could feel all the barriers they had built to keep her pure and safe as a miko dissolve under the assault of his mouth, his hands.

At last it ended as they broke for air. InuYasha looked down at Kagome, flushed and beautiful, and although she was still in her village woman's head scarf and with her sleeves pulled back, she looked like a princess to him. He kissed her on the forehead and said, "We need to go get Miroku."

"Why?" she asked.

"You think I'm going to let a Shinto priest purify my butt?" he said smiling, dragging her behind him as he held onto her hand. "We're going to have a Buddhist wedding!"

The late afternoon sunlight was honey warm and sweet. Miroku sat down on the ground, leaning his back against the bench in front of Kaede's hut, resting his head lightly against Sango's knee. She was bent over some sewing, working on something new for her brother. She sat there, a content picture of female domesticity, weaving her needle back and forth through the fabric she was stitching, with her eyes focused on her work. At this moment, she was blushing prettily as Miroku's violet eyes glittered with amusement. A passerby on his way to the shrine would never have guessed what a powerful fighter she was instead of a pretty housewife.

Kohaku, her brother, came and sat down near her. "Have you seen Shippou?" he asked. "Kaede wanted to ask him something."

"I think he went down to the river," Miroku said. "He's trying to catch fish for some reason or other. I think there's this girl he's trying to impress." Miroku grinned widely.

"He's spent too much time around you, Miroku," Sango said, nudging him with her knee.

The monk sighed, but was secretly pleased to hear his name said by the young taijiya. It had taken him a long time to persuade her to call him by his name even after they had become promised to each other. It wasn't until Naraku almost killed them in the final battle with him that she began to want to drop that distance she had always kept between them, and their new closeness pleased Miroku greatly.

"Why don't you go and see if you can find him?" Miroku suggested to the young boy. Even with his fresh face and freckles, Kohaku had an old man's eyes, having seen and done too much too early in life, and Miroku wished he could do something to help him recapture his childhood. He had made a habit of trying to encourage him to rediscover his youth, but without much success. But the boy was sweet-natured, and happy to do what he was asked.

Kohaku stood up. "I'll go see if I can find him," he said, and wandered down the road.

"An interesting day," Sango said.

Miroku shifted a bit, and rested his cheek on Sango's knee. "I have the strange feeling that all of this was a plot hatched by Kaede and the village elders, my lovely Sango," Miroku said. "Everybody who knows them knows that there is no way to separate our hanyou friend and miko. I think they offered him a place and are hoping that by doing so that they can at least make something respectable looking out of the situation. And perhaps, after nearly a year, Kaede might like her house back."

"Did the headman say something about that directly?" she asked, suddenly sticking her finger in her mouth after accidentally stabbing it with the sewing needle.

"No, but Kaede told me she had a talk with our friend. We'll find out soon if it was enough, or if I will have to sit down and explain the facts of life to him." He reached up and took her hand, and kissed the offending finger. "You must be more careful, Sango my dearest."
"Swords sometimes are easier than needles," Sango murmured, blushing at his attention. Taking her hand back, she asked, "So what did the headman actually tell you?"

"He's expecting us to continue acting like the village protectors. In exchange, he set aside that land over there and will build two houses on it. He made some broad hints about what a nice place it would make to raise families."

Sango looked into Miroku's smiling face when he said that, and what she saw made her drop her eyes and return to her sewing.

"I think, though, when InuYasha joined us, he thought he was going to be asked to leave. He really doesn't understand how many people here appreciate what he's done and how he takes care of Kagome-sama." Miroku looked down at his right hand, so long hidden behind its wrap, and stared at the unscarred and naked flesh. It still felt strange for it to be uncovered. He missed the weight and feel of the prayer beads. "So many of them still think of her as Kikyou returned to them. Most never knew Kikyou-sama, but she has almost a kami status with them. This last year he has become not the monster in the woods, but the hero released from the spell to protect the miko. They now say that he was preserved to make things right by ending the evil that took Kikyou away from them to begin with. This is something our friend just doesn't understand."

"Then he must have been very surprised when the head man told him about the land." Sango said.

"Oh, yes indeed. It was hard to describe, the transition from InuYasha of the scowl - you know the one where he expects to have to deal with bad news or rejection, and doesn't want people to think he's weak enough to be hurt by it – to surprise. He's not used to being accepted, and can act gruff and embarrassed about it, but he does like it." Miroku stood up, straightening his robes. "Once the headman left us, he ran back here as fast as he could. All he told me was that he had to go talk to Kagome."

Miroku sat down on the bench next to Sango, looked at her needlework, and said, "You have a very fine hand, Sango my dearest, with needle or sword."

She smiled into her work.

They grew quiet for a few minutes. Shippou walked up to the hut carrying a fish, with Kohaku trailing behind him.

"Well," said Miroku, "Did you find your friend?"

Shippou sighed. "Yeah. But Kohana told me it wasn't as good a fish as the one Yoshi got. But she smiled at me this time."

Miroku nodded with a sage look on his face. "Very good, Shippou. Perhaps next time, she'll do more than smile."

Sango nudged the monk with her elbow. "Don't teach him your hentai ways – Kagome will skin you!"

Miroku, with a mock frown on his face, shook his head. "I am so misunderstood."

Shippou laughed and sniffed the air. "Where is Kagome?" he asked.

"She went for a walk with InuYasha," said Sango. "She should be back soon."

"Then I'll go find her. I want to show her my fish. Come on Kohaku!" Shippou said. Miroku grabbed him by his collar.

"Not this time, Shippou. I know she'll be proud of you, but this is one of those times they need to be together alone. Why don't you go show it to Kaede? She's awake now." Miroku said. "Maybe she'll fix it for dinner."

Frowning, but realizing Miroku was serious, Shippou sighed and said, "Oh, all right," and walked into the hut with Kohaku following him.

Not long after the boys went inside, Miroku looked up. "My, my," he said, nudging Sango with his elbow. "InuYasha and Kagome are returning. Look at them, Sango my dearest."

Kagome and InuYasha were walking quite close together. From time to time, Kagome's eyes would meet those of the silver-haired hanyou, then drop away, but she kept a small soft smile the entire time. They both walked with an easy gait, and even though InuYasha's ears were on alert as always, listening for potential problems, he only had eyes for the slight woman at his side.

"Well, what do you think?" Sango asked. "And don't you dare tease them."

"Well, if he asked her anything important, she didn't say no," the monk replied. "I give you my solemn word I won't, but it won't be easy."

Miroku's eyes danced with an amused light as the two drew up to the front of the hut, and it was obvious he was suppressing an even larger smile than he had.

"What's your problem, bouzu?" InuYasha said.

InuYasha stood there, with his arm wrapped around Kagome's waist, and she was looking up at him, her blue-gray eyes sparkling, with a contented smile, a light dusting of color across her cheeks.

"You look like a man who's much too happy, InuYasha," Miroku said.

"Keh," InuYasha said. "You should speak for yourself, Monk."

"I will admit to being pleased by events," said Miroku. "Sango and I have been discussing what to do next."

"I have two more months of mourning for my father," Sango said. "But after that, we will be officially wed, and I will move into the house Miroku is going to have here," she said, putting aside her sewing. "I think it would be better for Kohaku, too."

"Wonderful," said Kagome. "I'm so glad that you will be staying here in the village."

"And what about you, my friend?" asked Miroku, smiling. "You too will be staying in the village, will you not?"

"Somebody's got to keep an eye on you, bouzu," InuYasha replied. "But I need to ask a favor of you," InuYasha said.

"Oh?" Miroku said, raising an eyebrow.

"I need a wedding done. Might be hard for me to find a Shinto priest to agree to it, and I'd rather not have one of them try to purify me to a crisp during the wedding," InuYasha said. "I know it's not common, but we'd like you to do the ceremony for us with the Buddhist blessing."

Sango jumped up and squealed loudly enough to make InuYasha flatten his ears as she ran to embrace the younger girl. "I'm so happy for you!"

"Oi, Sango! I believed they heard you in Edo," said InuYasha, rubbing his abused ears but smiling even as he complained.

Kaede and the boys, hearing the noise, stepped out of the hut. "Well," said the older miko, her single eye glittering in amusement. "From the sound of things, I do believe some congratulations are in order. Come in and eat dinner. This may be one of the last quiet days you have for a while."

After dinner, the circle of friends sat in the hut lit by the light of the fire pit, as they had done so many nights for the past year.

Kagome was sitting next to InuYasha, where she had been most of the evening. "So, Sango, what made you decide to stay here instead of back at the Taijiya village?" she asked.

Sango looked up from the cord she was braiding, a piece created from bright linen threads for her slayer's gear. "It is too quiet and still there any more," she said. "The difference between the way it was in my mind, and the way it feels today – I just realized I didn't want to live there any more. We will go there if we need things, and to tend to the graves, but it's not a place to start a family or make a life any more. Miroku, Kohaku and I – I want us to be happy." Sango smiled into the violet eyes of the monk who sat next to her, then quickly looked down again.

"You deserve it," Kagome replied. She leaned her head against InuYasha's shoulder.

Shippou came and sat next to Kagome, looking at her with big, but worried eyes. She rested her hand on the little kitsune's head. "But Kagome, if you're going to marry InuYasha and live with him in his new house, what's going to happen to me?"

"What do you think, runt?" said InuYasha, smirking at the kit. "You're coming with us."

Kagome nodded in agreement, ruffling his hair. "You'll always have a place with us, Shippou."

"Good," said the boy, looking up at InuYasha. "Somebody's gotta make sure you treat Kagome right!"

Miroku, leaned forward, and suppressed a laugh.

"So what's next?" InuYasha asked the monk.

"Well, the houses, I guess, although from what the headman said, the village will see to their construction. We will need to find some wood. And after you and Kagome are settled," he said, with a knowing grin, "Sango and I will go to visit Master Mushin and there will be another wedding," he said, taking Sango's hand. She blushed prettily. "I'm sure the women will find lots to keep us busy with all the wedding plans in the meanwhile."

"Oh, I am sure they will find a thing or two for you to do," said Kaede wisely.

"I need some fresh air," InuYasha said, standing up. "Let's go for a walk, Kagome." He offered her his hand.

"Can I go?" asked Shippou.

"No, you stay here with me," said Kaede. "You can show Sango and Kohaku that new illusion you were doing when I wanted you do bring more firewood in the other day."

InuYasha stood by the door, holding the mat open. Kagome grinned as she walked through the doorway, remembering how Kaede had almost tripped over the wooden pickle barrel that was standing in front of the house the other day where no pickle barrel had ever been before. It had gotten Shippou stuck in a corner with a sutra on his back for half an afternoon.

Once they were out of the hut, InuYasha kneeled, and Kagome got on his back. He ran under the moonlight, its light highlighting his pale hair into a softer silver, making the red of his robes almost a black.

Suddenly, they were at the Goshinboku. InuYasha stopped, and Kagome slid down. He quickly shed his suikan, laid it on the ground. He sat down. "Sit with me?" he asked.

Kagome sat down, and rested her head against his shoulder. His arm wrapped around her, pulling her close. "Happy?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied. "And excited. And nervous."

"Me too," he said, resting his cheek on her head. "Do you get the feeling our friends have been plotting about things behind our backs?"

"Maybe," she replied. "They sure seem to know everything we're supposed to be doing the next few weeks. I was listening to Kaede and Sango talking while we fixed dinner."

"Wouldn't put it past them," he said. "Maybe we should start calling Kaede 'Go-between-sama.'"

She laughed a little at that. InuYasha lifted her chin up, looked at her deeply, intently. Her breath caught as he bent closer and ran his fingers into her hair. His lips brushed against her forehead, across her cheek, coming to rest on her lips, where they lingered, soft and tender. Kagome relaxed into his kiss as his arms encircled her, her mouth opening up to the gentle touch of his tongue, felt herself overwhelmed by his taste, his smell, the strength of him enfolding her.

He broke off the kiss, rested his forehead against hers, taking a deep breath, as if trying to regain control. "Damn, woman, you taste so good." She reached up, and gently touched his cheek. He caught the hand in his, brought it to his lips, kissing the palm, then intertwined his fingers with it, and pulled it away.

"Listen, Kagome. Tomorrow the word will be all over the village. Lots of people here mean us well. But if you hear anything, anybody make a rude comment about you and me, you tell me. I can't protect me if you don't let me know." His face took on a totally serious, intense look. "Some of'em aren't going to like the fact that the Inugami is marrying the Inugami-mochi."

"InuYasha!" she said, sharply. "You are not an Inugami! You may be part Inu youkai, but you are not my familiar spirit to control. I'm not some old woman witch who has a dog spirit to do my bidding."

He sighed, and straightened up. "I know it, although you used to use the beads around here enough that I know some of them think just that. Just tell me, Kagome, if someone treats you rudely or says something. It could be important."

She searched his face, saw traces of anxiety there. "You're thinking about your mother," she said.

"She went through hell before she died, Kagome. I don't want that to happen to you." He sighed.

She kissed him gently on the cheek. "I promise," she said.

Miroku walked up the path to the work site where one mostly and another partially completed house now sat. The grounds around the finished house were still a little trampled from the construction work, but a garden had been laid in. InuYasha sat on the veranda looking down towards the village, his face marked with an intense scowl. His ears flicked as Miroku kicked a rock on the path out of the way, and the hanyou took a deep sigh that let the monk know that his presence was known.

"I thought I might find you up here," Miroku said, joining him on the veranda. The house smelt of newness, of fresh wood and oil, and had none of those smells that a lived-in house develops. He settled down and rested his back against the wall, and laid his staff across his lap. From where they sat, the monk noticed how the sunlight glinted off the rice paddies and how well they could see the torii gate of the village shrine. It reminded him, in a way, of how InuYasha would sit in trees, the better to watch over the people he was protecting.

"Keh," InuYasha said. "I decided it was just too dangerous for me down there where all the women were. I was afraid I would end up in a cook pot."

"Not much else for us to do but wait, anyway. The girls are keeping Kagome busy, determined not to let her anywhere near you until it's time. They've set up quite a pretty shrine for Amida, too. Flowers everywhere," Miroku said, resting his staff along the wall. "You're taking this all in good stride, my friend,"

"I'd rather face a dragon, I think," InuYasha replied. "Somebody around here might not be as happy as those hens helping Kaede. Look at the entrance door."

Miroku got up and went over to the door and noticed the line of anti-youkai ofuda pasted there. "Hmm," he said, studying them and reaching out to peel one off. "Well, they haven't been blessed. There's no power to them." He proceeded to peel all of them off. "Someone has a bad sense of humor."

InuYasha snorted, taking one of the papers from Miroku. "Smells like Akiko's boy Daichi," he said, frowning.

"The one who plays with Shippou all the time? Sounds like a joke in the making. I think Shippou's trying to teach them how to be as tricky as kitsune," Miroku said. "I doubt there is anybody in this village who would actually try to do anything against Kagome-sama, InuYasha. And there's nobody here strong enough who could begin to be a threat to you."

"Doesn't mean they're going to like it, either," InuYasha replied. "Just means they don't think they can do anything about it. That can be worse, sometimes."

The two men fell silent for a long moment, then InuYasha broke the silence with a question. "So how did you escape from down there?"

"Me? I didn't actually escape. I've been sent to keep you company," Miroku replied. "I don't think Sango likes me being around all the village girls when she's too busy to keep an eye on me." He sighed.

"All that cooking going on. Who would have guessed your wedding day was going to be such a public spectacle?"

"It was Kaede's idea," InuYasha said, looking at his hands. "She thought that if the whole village sees us married, then maybe . . . " His voice drifted off.

"Then maybe they'll accept Kagome-sama as your wife and let her live here in peace? Kaede is a wise woman and knows the villagers well."

InuYasha tilted his head back against the wall of the house and looked up at the overhang. "I need to do something. Not even any low-level youkai to take care of around here anymore. Naraku must have used up most of'em right before we took care of him."

Miroku smiled. "You, my friend, have the bridegroom jitters. It'll be over soon."

"Feh," InuYasha said

In another house in the village, the air was warm with steam from a bath.

"It won't be much longer, Kagome," Sango said, standing next to the bathtub. "When you're done and dry, we'll start dressing you."

The small room was filled with steam from the hot water. Kagome sat in the tub, her hair piled high on her head, and her head tilted back against the tub wall.

"Not quite as good as a hot spring in the mountain," Sango said. "I wonder if we'll ever get to go traveling and discover places like those again?"

"Do you miss it, Sango?" Kagome asked.

"Some of it. I don't miss being tired or lost or being afraid for my friends," she replied, reaching for a towel. "I don't mind eating more than fish on a stick, either."

"What I don't miss the most, I think, is the smell of youkai guts," Kagome said, wrinkling her nose in memory. She stood up in the tub, and carefully stepped out, taking the towel Sango wrapped around her. "I kind of miss seeing what's around the next bend or beyond the next pass. I never thought what life after the end might be like. What happens after Momotaro the peach boy kills the oni and returns home? Did he just go back to live an ordinary life?"

Sango held up a kosode for Kagome to slip on. "That's the way my grandmother said, I think. Something about he went back home to his parents and with their treasure, they all lived happy lives." She tied the back of the plain linen kosode with a blue obi. "Although I can't imagine that after killing all those oni and taking the treasure, he went back to live as a poor peasant. But maybe that's not the story to be thinking about today."

Kagome slipped her feet into her sandals as Sango walked over and slid the bathroom door open. "So what story should I be thinking about?" Kagome asked, walking across the dirt-covered work area to the raised platform of the main section of the room. Sitting down, she slipped off her sandals and went to sit by the fire pit.

Sango, walking right behind her, went over to a chest sitting out in the middle of the room, opened it up and handed her a pair of tabi. "Better put these on first," she told her. As Kagome slipped the soft garments over her feet, Sango looked thoughtful. "Now what story should you be thinking about? Hmmm. How about this one?"

She pulled out the undergarments and handed them to Kagome. "Once there was a pass across a mountain, and near the pass was a forest called the Mujina Woods because there were some mujina youkai there. They are a lot like kitsune, and tend to trick the unwary. They are known especially to harass people with mean hearts, the legends say.

"Two villages lay at either side of this wood, but because of the mujina, people didn't like to take the road to visit the other village often. Yet one day, a go-between came by to arrange a marriage between the daughter of one village and the son of another. The father of the bride, who loved his daughter deeply, knew the family of the young man the go-between was coming from, and believed he would treat his daughter well, and the wedding was agreed to.

"Finally, it was the day for the bride and her family to go to the next village. As they were walking through the woods, the girl paused, and let them know she had to stop. They waited for her a long time, and began to worry and started looking for her, but after much searching, they sadly gave up the hunt.

"Several years later, the girl's father was wandering in the woods, when he heard someone singing beautifully. It was a song his daughter used to sing, so he followed the voice, and at last came to a clearing. There he saw a woman washing clothes in front of a cave, and a small child playing nearby. The woman looked up, and he saw it was his daughter.

"'Keiko, Keiko!' he said, running up to her. 'I thought you were lost forever! What happened? Why did you disappear on the way to your wedding?'

"The girl looked up, and embraced her father, very happy to see him. She sat him down and made tea, and told him her story. It seems that before the go-between showed up to make the arrangements for the wedding, she had been wandering in the edge of the woods one day, and met a beautiful young man. The young man was actually a mujina. They talked, and met again, several times, and as it happens with young people, they fell in love. With the help of several of his relatives, the mujina arranged the wedding, but when it was time to go to the bridegroom's home, he met her in the woods, and this is where she had lived since then.

"'But even though he used a trick to get you to agree,' she told him, 'I am his wife, and have a son, and am very happy.'

"The father looked into his daughter's eyes, and saw that it was true. She looked very happy. 'Then I give you my blessing,' said the father. "All I ever wanted was for you to be happy.'

"It is said that after that time, the family's fortunes prospered, and on moonlit nights, strangers still tell of hearing a beautiful woman's voice singing of her happiness."

Sango looked over to Kagome, who was standing there, half-dressed but smiling. "A much better story," Kagome said.

Picking up the soft white silk wedding kosode, Sango draped it around her shoulders. "You are like a sister to me. Don't worry about all those other things you were thinking about, or what people will say. Be happy."

Sango walked up to the house. Still dressed in her everyday kosode and wrap skirt, she clutched a bundle of clothes in her hands.

"Oi, Miroku," she called out as she neared the house.

He hopped off the veranda. "Yes, Sango my dearest?" The monk smiled at his intended as she walked up towards him. "Have you come to set me free from my exile here?"

"Where's InuYasha?" she asked, looking around.

"Taking a bath," he replied. "I was trying to get him to do something to calm down. I was afraid he was going to start to tear up something."

She smiled slightly. "Are you going to be like that when we get married?"

"Oh, just as tense, I'm sure, although I doubt if you'll have to worry about me taking out a tree that could fall on the house." He sighed. "Watching a tense and bored InuYasha is not really my idea of a good afternoon."

"There is that advantage," she replied. Their eyes met for a long, lingering glance. Suddenly breaking it, she thrust the bundle she had been holding into his hands. "It's time to get him dressed. Here. Please try to get him to wear these. Kagome spent a lot of time working on them.

"When you get InuYasha dressed, have him come down to Tameo's. And Kaede wants to go over the ceremony with you. I'll try to keep Shippou away as long as possible, but no promises."

She half-turned away, and he grabbed her hand. "We'll be as quick as possible," he said.

She gave a small smile, a quick kiss on the cheek, then took her hand back. "I've got to go do Kagome's hair and get ready. Come down as soon as you're done!" She hurried down the path.

Miroku dutifully took the bundle in the house and delivered the clothes and his instructions. After what he thought was a reasonable amount of time, he stuck his head into the doorway.

"Well," said Miroku "Are you ready?"

A fully dressed InuYasha walked out onto the veranda. But it was an InuYasha that he hadn't seen before.

"I feel strange," said InuYasha. "You sure I need to wear this and not my fire rat clothes?"

"Yes, I am sure," said the priest. "It is important to wear new clothes for your wedding. It is the sign of starting something new and significant in your life, and it is auspicious. Any way," he said, resting his head back against the wall of the house, "Sango and Kaede and maybe Kagome would kill me if you showed up there in your fire rat robe. Evidently, they worked quite hard on your outfit."

InuYasha stepped out onto the veranda dressed in the black and white of his wedding ensemble. He tugged on the sleeve of his doboku jacket. The black silk of his jacket was decorated with mon that looked suspiciously like the Goshinboku, worked in white. Beneath that he wore a fine silk kosode, also of black and under that, a white. Black hakama. A white obi went around his waist, where he had already tucked in Tessaiga.

"Very striking, all silver and black," said Miroku. "You will no doubt take Kagome-sama's breath away and the village girls will be green with envy."

InuYasha turned and looked at him, ready to say something rude about Miroku teasing him, but the gentle light in the monk's eyes had none of the lewdness he expected, but a clear sincerity, and perhaps a little envy of his own. "Keh," he said, blushing, and instead, stared down at his feet. "My ankles feel naked. I'm used to the strings. It feels weird to feel the bottoms of my hakama swish around."

"Then practice walking," Miroku suggested. The hanyou sighed, and walked back and forth on the veranda.

After three trips back and forth, he stopped in front of Miroku. "How much longer?" he asked.

"If you are ready, we can leave now," Miroku said. "Sango told me to send you to the headman's house. And remember, be nice to Shippou when he shows up. He will be standing on your side since you have no other relatives here and you've already promised to take him in. It'll be bad luck if he has a lump on his head and he's crying once we start the wedding ceremony."

"Feh," InuYasha replied. "Let's go."

By the time they got to Kaede's hut, Shippou found them. He too was dressed in new clothes, a jacket and hakama of bright blue, with a new white bow for his hair, and was sitting in front of Kaede's hut, playing with his top.

"InuYasha?" he said, looking up and seeing Miroku and the hanyou approach. "You look . . . "

"What?" InuYasha said, scowling. "And don't jump on me."

"Uh, all right," Shippou said, untensing from the jump he was about to make. "Kagome's gonna be really surprised."

"Keh." InuYasha crossed his arms over his chest.

"I'll leave you two to head out to Tameo's house," said Miroku, grinning. "Kaede wanted to talk to me before the ceremony starts. And Shippou, don't make InuYasha mad." He lifted the bamboo mat and entered the hut.

"Come on, InuYasha," said Shippou, bouncing ahead of the hanyou. "They're waiting for us!"

Tameo's house was about halfway through the village. Shippou was filled with excited energy as they made their way there. He would run ahead, then run back. There were a surprising number of people out, watching them as they went. Two of the older women on the road stopped the boy, and gave him some treats wrapped in paper, which he put into his sleeve. After that, he ran back to InuYasha, trying to hurry him up.

"I've never been in a wedding procession before." Shippou said.

"Keh," InuYasha replied.

"Kitsune like to get married when it's raining while the sun shines," the boy chattered. "But it's just sunny today. Does that bring bad luck?"

"No," InuYasha replied.

"Are you sure I have to spend the night at Kaede's tonight? I want to start living in my new room."

InuYasha sighed. "Yes," he said.

They passed two girls not much younger than Kagome, who giggled as the two of them went by. "Congratulations!" the youngest one said.

Shippou yelled back their thanks. "How come you're so tense?" he asked InuYasha. "You better not be planning on doing anything that'll make Kagome unhappy, baka!"

"Shippou!" he said in a low and threatening voice. He caught himself starting making a fist to bean the boy, but remembered what Miroku said about causing bad luck today. Fortunately, they arrived before he gave into the temptation.

Tameo the village headman and his wife were sitting on the veranda in front of their house dressed in festive clothing. His wife, seeing the approaching hanyou, went inside. The headman, old and a bit frail, but with an open and friendly smile, stood up, and walked down the step.

"Congratulations, InuYasha-sama, on this auspicious day!" he said with a courteous bow. His dark eyes twinkled beneath his gray eyebrows.

InuYasha, taken back, bowed in return. "I don't know why you've done this, but thank you for making this day something special for Kagome."

The older man smiled. "You don't remember, do you?"

InuYasha shook his head.

"Once, when Kikyou-sama was fighting a youkai who came for the jewel, there was a small boy who got in the way and almost killed by a snake youkai. But a certain silver-haired hanyou scooped him up and out of the way before he could be attacked. That small boy was this old man."

"That was you?" InuYasha asked. He looked thoughtful for a moment. "I remember that day. There were more youkai there than we realized. Kikyou was irritated with me for letting the villagers see us together . . . " His voice drifted off.

The older man smiled. "It's funny how the wheel of fate turns sometimes. I would like to ask you since you have no family here if I and my wife could stand on your side at the wedding ceremony."

"You . . . you would want to do that?" said InuYasha.

The older man nodded.

"Th . . . thank you," the hanyou said.

Suddenly, the shoji door slid open. Kagome stepped through the doorway, walking carefully in the unfamiliar geta she had put on. InuYasha's mouth went suddenly dry at the sight of her in long robes of shimmering silk. A beautiful red and white uchikake, worked in a crane pattern covered a long kosode of white silk. Her hair was pulled back into a low pony tail.

"She looks like a hime," said Shippou.

"Yeah," said InuYasha.

Kagome, her eyes focused on the ground where she was stepping, paused and waited a moment, until Sango stepped out of the house and helped her with her train. She looked up and met InuYasha's gaze. Suddenly blushing, she looked down at her hands.

"InuYasha looks . . . amazing," said Sango, softly, but still loud enough he could hear it.

Kagome took a deep breath. "Amazing," she repeated. Looking back up at him, she smiled. Carefully she stepped off the veranda and went to stand next to InuYasha.

"Last chance to change your mind," he said, looking straight ahead, afraid of the wash of feelings he couldn't quite describe that had come over him. She smoothed her clothes and the others got into line.

"No way," she replied. "Sango would kill me."

"Or me," he said, taking her hand and giving it a little squeeze.

"We're ready," Tameo said.

They began to walk.

"Kaede-sama, they're on their way here," said a young girl who stuck her head inside of Kaede's hut. The girl was dressed in a pretty blue and yellow festival kimono, with a large blue bow in her hair, and a larger smile on her face.

Miroku was sitting next to Kaede with a scroll open in his lap. The two of them looked away from the text, and up at the door.

"Thank you, Kohana-chan. Have you seen Shippou yet?" answered Miroku, with a twinkle in his eye, knowing how the young kitsune felt about this girl.

The girl blushed a little, then nodded. "He looks very nice, Houshi-sama." Giggling, she dropped the door mat.

Kaede shook her head. "You really shouldn't encourage her, Houshi-sama," she said. "I know that Shippou-chan is fond of her, but her family isn't really looking for a kitsune as their kinsman, you know."

Miroku bowed his head slightly towards the older woman. "You are right as always, Kaede-sama," he said, calmly, but with a little sigh. "Shippou is really drawn to her. But you make a good point. The ways of the heart are fraught enough with complications. Just look what it took to get these two together."

"Aye. The hand of destiny itself, and now here we are," said Kaede. "Well, I think that is a beautiful text for the wedding, Monk. You chose well. And just in time, too, from the sound of it."

The two of them stood up. Miroku went to the door of the hut, and held back the mat to let the miko through. Together, they walked to the makeshift Buddhist altar he had set up near the steps of the village shrine. Miroku noticed a number of villagers had gathered at a respectful distance, some on the shrine steps and some nearer the road who were evidently there to watch the proceedings.

"As I expected, I see we are the spectacle of the day," Miroku noticed. "But then, I suspect that might not be a bad thing."

"A Buddhist joining is rather a rarity," Kaede commented. "Just like the joining of a miko to a hanyou. No doubt some folks will tell about this a long time. But they won't be able to deny the bonding."

"You are wise, my friend," said the monk.

They had marked off the area for the service with ropes and with a canopy. Beneath the canopy itself was a large painting of Amida Buddha on an altar set up for the occasion, and some of the village girls had chosen to adorn the area with flowers of red and white. A low table and cushions faced the altar, and on the sides of this arrangement, there were a few other cushions.

"Are you ready for this, Kaede-sama?" asked the monk. "Are you sure you shouldn't be taking the go-between's place instead of assisting as miko?" There was a twinkle in Miroku's violet eyes.

She looked at him steadily with her one good eye, letting a small smile touch her lips. "I wouldn't be standing there alone, if all the truth were out, I believe," she said.

Looking down the road, she watched as Kagome and InuYasha led the way, with two small lines of people following them, walking solemnly through the lengthening shadows of late afternoon. Behind them, at a distance that made it clear that they really weren't part of what was going on, some of the villagers followed along. Just before they reached Kaede's hut, a small girl darted out from her mother's hand, and handed Kagome a yellow flower. Kaede watched as Kagome bent over and smilingly took the flower from the young girl's hand. But what was more impressive to the old miko was the wide smile on the hanyou's face as he rumpled the little girl's hair and his eyes met Kagome's. "A rare day indeed," she muttered.

As the procession moved to the makeshift wedding shrine, Kaede stepped forward to lead InuYasha and Kagome to their seats in front of the altar.

"Welcome, children," Kaede said smiling.

Kagome bowing respectfully "Thank you for all you have done for us since we first showed up on your doorstep last year."

"Keh," said InuYasha, also bowing. "We wouldn't be here without your help, Kaede-sama."

Kagome looked at her partner with pleased amazement.

Kaede, smiled at InuYasha's honorific. "When I was a child, I knew there was something special about you, InuYasha. This year has been proof of that. I am happy that I was able to ease the way for both of you a bit."

She led the two of them to their cushions in front of the altar and helped Kagome arrange her skirts. Kagome gently nudged InuYasha, and whispered, "I told you she had a crush on you when she was little." He nudged her back and blushed, just a little.

After they were seated on the cushions, Kaede led Shippou, Tomeo and his wife to InuYasha's side of the shrine and then led Sango and Kohaku to Kagome's side.

With a deep breath, Miroku stood up from his meditation before the image of Amida, his violet eyes taking a quick, longing look at Sango, where she sat on her side of the area whispering something to her brother. He moved towards the table where InuYasha and Kagome sat, grinned broadly, and said, "Shall we begin?"

InuYasha swallowed once, put his hand over Kagome's, and nodded.

Miroku turned and began the ceremony, lighting incense, touching the earth in a series of short prayers, and chanting a sutra, all in perfect Pali. The hanyou was impressed as he watched his friend with the lecherous smile and easy ways go through the prayers and motions with great grace and deliberation, his voice sonorous as he chanted. It was hard to believe this was the same man who had made a living hustling exorcisms. When the last sounds of the chant passed away, he turned to the couple in front of them and smiled.

Miroku said, turning towards InuYasha and Kagome, "In the teachings of the Buddha, we learn that when a man and a woman come together as husband and wife, there are five things to consider to make a good union."

Someone suppressed a snicker. Miroku raised an eyebrow at the sound, but pretended to ignore it.

"The first is the fact that all the past generations that lead up to your birth and all the future generations that will stem from your union are present in you at your joining and throughout your life together. You are part of a chain that moves from the timeless to the timeless. Move through your life always with this knowledge.

"Second is the blessing that comes of your union will reflect how well you live up to the expectations of your ancestors and also the generations yet to come. Walk in the mindfulness that you do not walk alone.

"The third fact is the joy and peace and harmony that you find in your lives is not merely your own good, but the joy and peace and harmony that reflects back upon your ancestors and will transmit down to your descendants. May your life be filled with this good.

"The fourth fact is that being willing to understand and reach out with compassion is the foundation of all love. May you always grow in this willingness.

"The fifth fact is that moving in circles of strife will never strengthen the growth of your souls, but only harm it. May your union lead you down the roads of peace.

"And finally, may the wisdom of the Blessed One shine within your hearts."

Walking towards them a few steps, Miroku said, "It is now time for you to come forward and recite your vows before Lord Amida."

InuYasha with a warm, but hard to read look, stood up and took in Kagome. She looked up, smiling, accepting the hand that InuYasha offered to her. Gracefully, the two of them walked up to the altar, gasho'd respectfully to the image, then turned and faced each other.

Kagome, blushing took out a piece of paper. "I know I'd forget, otherwise," she said.

"Keh," InuYasha replied, taking her free hand, grinning. "Let's just do it."

Together in unison, their eyes mostly focused on each other, but with quick glimpses to Kagome's paper, the two of them said:

"On this day of good fortune
we two bind our vows
together as husband and wife
before Amida Botsu.
From today forward,
we swear that we will,
with love and understanding
establish our home,
joining together our lives,
working to make
our family to flourish."

The two returned to their cushions.

Miroku nodded to Kaede, and went back to take his seat, but not before taking a quick look at Sango. She smiled back, blushed slightly and dropped her eyes to look demurely at her hands.

Kaede brought out the cups for the san-san-kudo on a red lacquered tray. Deftly, she poured the sake three times into the cup, and handed it to InuYasha, who took three tiny sips. Kaede then handed it to Kagome, who did the same thing. They repeated this two more times. Kaede removed the cups, and Miroku stepped up.

"It's almost done," the monk said, smiling. "One last blessing."

He took their right hands, and twisted a rosary around their wrists.

"InuYasha and Kagome, in the midst of worldly illusion and their temptations, try to preserve in your hearts the truths taught by the Buddha. Be compassionate to all, and set your feet on the path which leads from sorrow to peace. Go forth in joy as husband and wife."

Tameo, the village headman, watched the celebration going on in front of his house. The young woman who was Kikyou-sama returned to them and the hanyou whose fate was so bound with hers that nothing could keep them apart, sat in the places of honor at the wedding feast that he and the old miko had insisted on.

"I don't envy them their days ahead," he muttered. "Not everybody's happy with this."

"What, you don't think anybody's going to do anything?" said Hisa, his wife.

He shrugged. "They were grumbling again. But most of them showed up to pay their respects. Soon as something bad happens - sickness or famine . . . "

His wife patted his hand. "You have done the right thing, my husband. Because of today, at least, those two will have something good to remember. Look at how happy they are."

He looked at her, her dark eyes pleased with him. And even though her hair was touched with gray and her skin was marked with time, he saw the bright girl he married long ago, and considered what a good woman's care had meant in his life. He squeezed her hand. "We will give them their chance," he said.

Two girls stood up. One began to play on a small biwa, and the other began to dance as she sang:

"White fans opened wide,
Sign of two pledged together
Until time's ending.
The vow of two, like silver,
Binding them as one.

"In the shade, the pines
Sigh in the breeze, deeply green.
But the garden pond,
Crystal clear like a mirror
Unruffled by wind.

"Fortunate the signs,
For two joined as one this day,
Destiny smiling
What an enviable state,
And now comes the night."

Tameo's eyebrow went up, seeing who one of the girls was. Members of her family were well known to be unhappy about the hanyou and the kitsune. The biwa player let the last notes of the song die on her instrument.

The old miko, though, seemed to take it all in stride. "Very nice, Hana," Kaede said to the girl.

"Thank you for wishing us luck," said Kagome, dressed in a lovely kosode of pale blue worked with flowers, a good choice for the change of clothes that custom demanded of a bride.

"Kagome has much grace, husband, and a kind heart," Hisa said, "even with those odd ways she has. I am glad she will be here to keep an eye on Kaede."

Suddenly a small shrill voice broke through the laughter and talk.

"InuYasha! Kagome! It's awful!"

The small kitsune boy who lived with them ran up to the couple and threw himself into the woman's arms. "I can't believe – "

"What's wrong, runt?" asked the hanyou, frowning seriously.

"All . . . all the blood. Right by the front door. Why'd they do it?"

Miroku walked through the darkened village until he found Sango with a group of young women sitting around a lantern in front of Kaede's house.

The light glowed, highlighting a group of animated faces, Erime and her sister Tama, Sango, and a couple of other girls he didn't recognize immediately.

"And then I heard her father tell him if . . . " Erime's voice trailed off as she heard him walk up, and her eyes dropped demurely. "Oh, hello, Houshi-sama."

He laid a hand on Sango's shoulder. "It must have been an interesting story, ladies. It wouldn't happen to be how a certain young man got caught two days ago standing outside of his sweetheart's house, now would it?"

Erime and her sister giggled.

Miroku gave a deep, theatrical sigh. "I'm sorry to break this up, ladies, but I must speak to the Taijiya for a moment. Sango, if I might have the pleasure of your company?"

Sango nodded, standing gracefully, and allowed him to walk her away from the group as they headed back to Tameo's house. Seeing that Miroku had dropped his playful look and slipped into a serious mode, Sango asked, "What is it, Miroku?"

"Something's happened. I just ran into Shippou, who was running through the village in a panic. He told me something about blood on the ground in front of InuYasha's house," he told her. "I think we better join the others."

Sango stopped him, and grabbed his arm. "You think someone got hurt? Shippou's seen an awful lot to get panicked easily."

"Not really," Miroku said. "I suspect someone was voicing their unhappiness about our newly wedded couple. But if we're not careful, someone may end up that way. If it bothered Shippou, I expect it will really bother InuYasha."

They returned to Tameo's to find Kagome holding the young kitsune. A small knot of people had gathered around InuYasha and Kagome, while others were picking things up or leaving.

"I see the party is over," Sango said.

Kagome looked at InuYasha, who was crouching next to Kagome and the small kitsune. Miroku moved behind his friend. Sango knelt next to Kagome.

"I heard something had happened," Miroku said. InuYasha nodded.

"Why would someone do that?" the boy cried.

"What did they do, Shippou-chan?" Sango asked, ruffing her fingers through his hair.

"I...I went up to the house to leave Kagome a present," he sniffled. "I know I wasn't supposed to go there tonight, but I wanted to leave something special there for them. I...I drew you a picture, Kagome," he said, holding up a rolled piece of paper in his hand, crumpled a little, and Kagome took it from him.

She unrolled it slowly, to find a crayon drawing of a man in red with white hair and dog ears holding hands with someone dressed in something like her old school uniform.

"That's so sweet, Shippou-chan. Look, InuYasha," she said, handing it to him.

"That's . . . nice, runt," InuYasha said. His arm went out to wrap around the two of them.

"But when I got there . . . I found it," Shippou continued. "There was a dead dog. It looked like the dog Hana feeds sometimes. Someone had killed it. It was a white dog. There was blood everywhere. They . . . they had cut its head off and put it right in front of the door."

"A white dog," muttered InuYasha. "Not very damn subtle, are they?" Kagome looked up at InuYasha, whose eyes met hers, angry. She reached over and rested her hand on his as he lay his cheek against the top of her head. She could feel his youki flaring, wrapping around her as if it could keep her safe. He would need to do something soon, even if it was just run.

"This is not good. We're going to need to purify the site," Kaede said. "Someone was mocking the making of an Inugami. Miroku, will you come with me? The dog's spirit is going to have to be put to rest." The old miko slowly stood up.

Tameo rose as she did and motioned to two of his sons. "This is an insult to me and to our village. We will find out who did this, InuYasha."

"Sango, will you stay here with Shippou?" Kagome asked. "And be sure to have another mochi cake, Shippou. We'll take care of it. Everything will be ok."

"You're sure you want to see?" InuYasha whispered. She nodded, and gave his hand a gentle squeeze.

"I need to," she replied.

It had been hard, when they returned to the house, to see what the troublemakers had done. It was a mockery of the tradition of how to make an Inugami, with the poor dog's head surrounded by various dishes of food, and blood spread everywhere.

While others removed the body and Kaede and Miroku had done what they could to purify the site, Kagome had watched silently for awhile, and then, unable to take any more, had run into the house. Finally, the last of the incense and chants were done, and the blood washed off, and everybody had left.

InuYasha heard the sliding of the door behind him, the rustle of silk and soft footsteps. The air, still smelling of blood and vinegar and salt, grew scented with something sweet and soothing to him.

"Are they gone yet?" Kagome asked. She stepped out of the house and passed the stained, wet ground to where InuYasha was standing. He stood there motionless, staring into the distance, his aura restless and angry, his body shadow-wrapped and touched by the moonlight, like a wraith longing to pounce. Light from an almost full moon lit up the village below them, making it look cold and alien and remote.

Suddenly he moved, turning towards her. "Yeah, everybody's finally gone. They took off that poor dog's carcass. I think Miroku's going off to bless it, and then burn it." He crouched down and punched the ground in his frustration. "Those fuckers couldn't wait to cause trouble. Not even one day."

He looked back up at her, still crouching, his face hidden by his bangs. "Why are you still here, Kagome? Don't you know that I pollute you just being near you? If you had any sense, you'd run. They're never gonna let me forget that."

She reached out and rested a hand on his shoulder. "This is where I belong," she said simply.

InuYasha sighed and covered her hand with his own, giving it a gentle squeeze, and stood up. "Let's go inside," he said.

He led her back into the house, then slid the door behind him. A fire was burning in the fire pit, giving the room its only light. InuYasha stepped up to the wood floor of the living area and shrugged off the wedding jacket.

"Give me a moment," Kagome said, walking past him as she headed to the back into the nando, their sleeping room.

Theirs. The thought gave him a shiver.

He rolled his shoulders, releasing the tension that had built up there. Kneeling down, he banked the fire for the night. While he was still bent over, the door to the nando slid open. Turning his head, he saw Kagome standing there in the doorway, her long blue-black hair hanging loose. She had changed out of the silk kosode she had worn earlier into a soft cotton one in a pale pink color, decorated with darker pink flowers. The color reminded him of her room lost to them on the other side of the well and all she had given up and done for him, and he felt a strange tightness in his throat.

Taking a deep breath first, he managed to swallow finally and said, "Kami, you're beautiful."

Blushing, she chewed on her bottom lip, watching as he stood up, picked up his jacket and moved towards her. He stopped in front of her, and looked into her eyes, trying to read them. Her scent wrapped itself around him, tinged with nervousness and excitement and some sadness. Brushing her cheek with the back of his finger, he said, "Are you all right?"

She nodded, then looked down, and moved back into the nando. A lamp flickered against one wall. Kagome, still not looking at him, knelt next to the futon she had rolled out, head bowed. The lamp cast warm highlights over the blue-black of hair, tumbling freely down her back, but her eyes were hidden in the shadows beneath her bangs. His heart wrenched as he saw her kneeling there, looking small and delicate and unsure. The scent of her wrapped around him and goaded him on to do something, anything. He draped the jacket over the clothes chest against the wall, then pulled off the black silk kosode he wore, and laid it on top of it. Dressed only in his white under kosode and hakama, he walked over and knelt down in front of her.

"Kagome," he said, softly. "Kagome, I'm sorry –"

She opened her eyes as he said her name, but didn't look up, but instead looked at his knees front of her, and how the dark silk fabric draped around them. "Don't say it," she whispered. "Don't tell me today was a mistake and I shouldn't be here."

He felt his ears flattening as he reacted to her distress. "Hells, no," he said. "We both knew that shit like this was going to happen. I've always known it. I've always had to fight for the right to have a place in the world," he said, taking her hands in his, letting the calloused pads of his thumbs brush gently against her wrists. "You are the one good thing that's happened in my life."

He put a finger under her chin, lifting up her face. "I'm sorry this happened. I want to kick the asses of those who did it until they get the idea that hurting those I hold dear is a bad thing. But I will never think today was a mistake."

Kagome met InuYasha's gaze. His eyes, amber and warm, threatened to swallow her. The intensity of his look was filled with hope and need and longing, and her breath caught in her throat. Hesitantly, shyly, she lifted up a hand and cupped his cheek. "InuYasha – "

"I wanted today to be perfect for you," he said softly, bending closer to her.

She could feel the heat of his breath. The taint on their evening faded in his closeness. "It has been an amazing day," she said.

He raised himself from where he had been kneeling until he was standing on his knees. With a gentle tug, Kagome's body lifted up as well. His hands drifted up to cup her face. She leaned into his warmth, overcome by the feel of his hands, the closeness of his body, the heady, woodsy scent that was only InuYasha's.

"Kagome-chan," he whispered. His lips brushed across hers, tender, gentle, lingering. Her hands, desperate for something to hold onto, fisted the soft linen of his kosode. His hands threaded through her hair, cradling her head. "Wife," he said. His mouth found hers once again, this time hungry in his need. Her own heat built inside of her as she was wrapped in the warmth of his arms and pressed against the hardness of his body, and she found herself matching his kiss hunger for hunger, need for need, melting into his touch, his taste.

His mouth trailed down her neck, igniting something that coursed through to the center of her, as her head arched back, baring her throat, her body pressing closer to his.

"Kami," he breathed, nuzzling her neck, discovering the shape of her ear, "I've wanted you so damn long."

Four people sat near the pathway up towards InuYasha's house, keeping watch about halfway between the village and the rise where the house sat.

"This day has been so long," Miroku said, yawning, leaning up against a tree.

The campfire sparked as Mitsuo, Tameo's youngest son, put another piece of wood on the flames. He was young, only about seventeen, and restlessly snapped a dead branch into pieces to throw into the watch fire.

"You could go home," suggested Toshiro, his brother. "We can keep watch for you." He had a small hand drum with him, and beat out a simple but interesting rhythm to pass the time.

"No, " said the monk. "I've camped out and kept watch many nights. This is something I need to do for my friends."

Sango knelt next to Miroku, petting Kirara who was curled up in her lap. She had changed out of her wedding finery and was back into her everyday dress of pink and green, but under it, she wore her armor, and had Hiraikotsu at hand.

"But you, Sango, you could go home if you'd like," Miroku added. "I am sure Kaede wouldn't mind someone besides Kohaku and Shippou to talk to."

She shook her head no. "They are my friends, too. Do you really think anybody will try to do something else tonight?" she asked.

"No. I think they've made their point, but keeping watch helps make sure of that." Looking up the slope, he said, "I wonder how they're doing up there."

"Miroku!" Sango said.

Toshiro snickered.

"No, my dearest Sango, you misunderstand me. InuYasha was quite angry about what they did. I know he won't take it out on Kagome, but it was a hard day for him all day. You weren't there with him waiting with him. And you know how hard it was to get them together in the first place. I hope he doesn't try to do something foolish, like send her back to Kaede's."

"No sign of trouble yet," said Mitsuo, looking up the hill.

"I don't think Kagome will actually let him do that," said Sango.

"They both can be incredibly stubborn, though," Miroku said.

The conversation drifted off.

"I wonder who did it," Sango said.

"I suspect my father has some idea," said Mitsuo. "Not sure what he'll do next, though. But he was really angry."

"We'll know by tomorrow. You can't hide something in a village this size. Father'll want to make an object lesson of whomever it was. He gave his blessing and approval for their wedding with the other family heads. Anybody who'll want to cause trouble in the future might find themselves in serious trouble," Toshiro added.

"I hope we can get this settled soon," said Miroku. "I really need to go visit old Mushin." He gave Sango a meaningful look. She dropped her eyes and smiled prettily, but let him reach out for her hand.

Toshiro let out a particularly loud bang with his drum.

For so long the two of them had been so careful around each other, afraid to do more than the smallest of touches to show their affection, and even this last month, there had not been a lot of time or privacy to do more than just gently explore the space behind the barriers they had constructed. But now, something that had been restraining Kagome gave way, and she gracefully stood up. Without breaking eye contact, she reached behind her and pulled on the knot to her obi. It slowly released and drifted down to the floor. With a shrug of her shoulders, she let the smooth fabric of the garment slide down her body until it crumpled on the floor by her feet.

"You are the only one I've ever wanted," she said, "I've loved you so long."

InuYasha's eyes widened as the cloth rustled to the floor, watching as her body was revealed to him – the rosebuds on each of her breasts, the softness of her tummy, the dark nest of her curls. Overwhelmed by the sight and smell of her, for a moment, he forgot to breathe. Her hands reached out for his shoulders, flowed upward into his hair, touched an ear.

"O woman, what you do to me," he breathed as he leaned his head against her.

His lips brushed the dimple of her navel as his arms reached around her. She threw back her head and gasped at the feeling it produced. His hands traced the softness of her curves as he arose in front of her, memorizing the texture of her skin, the outline of her shape, the weight of her breasts in his hand.

Kagome's arms slid up the linen of his kosode, finding new anchor points around his neck, buried in the white silk of his hair, then they slid back down to push the fabric of the cloth aside, her hands hungry for the touch of his skin. Cradling the back of her head, he pulled her into a devouring kiss, his tongue hungry for the taste of her. A hand traced the long arch of her spine, cupped her bottom, pressing her against his hardness.

He eased her onto the futon only to withdraw his touch as he removed his hakama and lay them aside. Shrugging off his kosode, he revealed at last the hard chiseled lines of chest and arm, the power of thigh and leg, the strength of his arousal. Her breath caught at the sight of him revealed, and she lay there, nervous and excited, anxious and wanting. Sliding onto the futon, and into her waiting arms, he covered her with his body, his face hovering above hers, nose to nose, amber eyes burning into stormy blue gray. "I love you," he said. "I want you so badly."

He let his mouth and hands explore her, listening as she moaned and made needy sounds as his tongue and fingers and lips learned her mysteries, how she arched up as he tugged and suckled at her breasts, discovered the wonderful wetness between the folds hidden beneath her curls and how touching her there made her buck into his hand from the pleasure it gave her, and how absolutely incredible it was when he entered her and they became one for the first time.

Later, as they lay spooned together in the darkness, he listened to her breathing and the soft sound of her heartbeat and considered the way his life had become transformed by this small and delicate woman. She was too stubborn to back off, his Kagome, the woman who had freed him from the darkness not just once when he was pinned to the Goshinboku, but time after time, teaching him so much about love and living and hope. And he knew most certainly that no matter where they lived, or what fate had in store for them, wherever she was, was his true home.