I do not own InuYasha or any of the characters created by Rumiko Takahashi

Chapter 159

Miroku walked down the main street of the village, his staff rattling with each step. It was still quite early, the sun barely over the horizon, and the village was still just beginning to wake up. He looked tired but wide awake as he passed the steps to the shrine and Kaede's empty house. Pausing for a moment, he closed his eyes, as if trying to sense something, but after a moment he just shook his head.

"Not here," he said. "Or I'm just too tired to feel his youki."

He began walking again. Only a few houses had smoke drifting out of their smoke vents, a sure sign that most of the houses were not yet moving much. A dog scavenged along the side of the street, looked up at him, and scampered away. One of the women was hurrying down to get some water. Other than that, he saw very little sign of life.

As he neared Tameo's compound, though, he saw smoke drifting out of both Kinjiro's home and the main house, and was not especially surprised to see a yawning Susumu step out of the compound gate.

"Well," Miroku said. "I didn't expect to see you out and about this early, Susumu-sama. I see you're uninjured after your call on Chiya-sama yesterday evening."

"Good morning, Houshi-sama," the village guard said. "You're up early yourself." He shook his head, and sighed. "No, I am totally uninjured, mostly because there was no real call. By the time we got to Eiji's home, Kaede-obasan had already arrived, and given Chiya some medicine, and she was too far asleep for anybody to rouse her. Actually, I think both Kimi-chan and Kaede-obasan would have brained us with kettles if we had tried."

"Ah," Miroku said, leaning on his staff. "So the scene is yet to happen."

"Indeed." Susumu shrugged and looked resigned. "I just hope the elders know what they're doing. You might pray some sutra for us." His resignation turned to a grin. "I hear they finished your temple roof yesterday evening, even without me."

"That's what Ryota told me," Miroku said, smiling in return. "Without you, Michio or InuYasha. He stopped by before I went to sleep. It was too early to inspect it when I got up this morning."

"Good, good," Susumu said, yawning. "One less thing to worry about." A rooster in the compound behind him gave a full throated crow. "Chichi-ue got me up before the sun with a whole list of things to do today. He's got some new idea that maybe will help us move Chiya and Morio with less . . . well, danger. I've got to talk with Tsuneo and round up Michio and a few others. Tsuneo tends to get an early start on things. I wanted to get there before he started doing anything."

There was a rumble behind them, and they turned to see Kinjiro pushing his work cart, followed by a still sleepy Aki.

"Heading out this early?" Susumu asked.

"You're not the only one with things to do." Kinjiro curled up the edge of his mouth in a mirthless way, as if his brother had asked a stupid question. "My work yesterday got . . . well, interrupted."

Aki bowed his head, looking at his feet. "Sorry, Kinjiro-sama," he muttered. That made Miroku's eyebrows rise.

Susumu, though, took it in stride, and grinned at his brother. "Yes, yes, but you like to get up before the sun," he said. "I at least like to wait until the women get up so I can have some decent breakfast first. Cold rice and Chichi-ue's tea aren't really how I like to start the day."

"Whine, whine," the younger man said. "It's always good to get an early start on things. It's easier when they aren't as many people in the way."

Aki coughed. It was hard to tell if it was a comment or not, but Susumu gave a short laugh. "You, too, son?" Susumu said. "Do you like to get up this early?"

The boy gave him a hesitant smile, and then yawned and rubbed his eyes. "I don't know, Dono. Still waking up."

"You're not the only one," Susumu said. He turned to Miroku. "But you - how come you look so bright-eyed, Houshi-sama? Yesterday," he paused, trying to find the right words. "Yesterday was a bit intense."

Kinjiro snorted.

Susumu ignored him. "Didn't sleep well?"

Miroku sighed, and shook his head. "Yesterday was bad enough, but I was awakened in the middle of the night by Eiji-sama banging on my door. He brought Rin-chan to my house. I never did get fully back to sleep."

At the back of the compound, Jun, also getting an early start, yelled something undecipherable. It was followed by the lowing of a cow.

Kinjiro turned around quickly, but didn't see anything, and turned back to look at the monk. "Now why would Eiji do that?" he asked. He dropped the handle to his push cart. "Something happen to Kaede-obasan?"

Miroku shook his head. "Not to her personally, but she was called out."

"It wasn't Daisuke-ojiisan getting the back spasms again, I hope?" Susumu said. "He's driven both his daughter and Kaede-obasan crazy with that this last winter."

"No, no," the monk said. "Something totally different. It seems that Sayo-sama decided her child was coming last night." He tapped his staff idly on the ground.

"Ah, finally," Kinjiro said. "I'm sure everybody in that household is happy for that news."

"And," Miroku said, "that is why I am out and about. Rin told me that Eiji was going to get Kagome-sama to help."

"Ah, I was going to go up there this morning," Kinjiro said. "Maybe I should wait."

Miroku nodded. "A wise move. InuYasha gets grouchy when he's tired. Which no doubt, means there's a tired and bored InuYasha somewhere hanging around Toshiro's place. I thought I'd go rescue him if he needs it. It seemed better than tossing and turning and waiting for it to get later."

Susumu tapped the monk on his arm. "Now that's what good friends are for." His face suddenly got serious, and he looked at the house. "Haha-ue's going to be irritated that nobody came by to let her know this was happening." Rubbing his chin, he looked back at his brother. "You want to let her know what's happened? I have got to catch Tsuneo early or Chichi-ue will be skinning me. And then I have to go find Michio, and talk with Kisoi about the move, and . . . "

"Bah," Kinjiro said, crossing his arms. "You just want me to get skinned instead."

"No, no," Susumu said. "Haha-ue skin you? When has she ever skinned you? I don't think so." He scratched the back of his neck. "But maybe I ought to tell Eiji to be careful around her today. It's a good thing we're going to need him on official business."

Kinjiro snorted, and Miroku grinned, but the younger brother gave a nod. "You'll owe me."

Susumu sighed. "It'll be worth it. Haha-ue doesn't like me very well in the morning, and I've got enough to do."

"I'll collect later," Kinjiro said. He turned to Aki, and gave him a serious look. "Stay here with the cart. I'll just be a moment. I remember what you promised me yesterday. Think I can trust you to live up to it?"

Aki, solemn-faced, gave a nod. "I promise. After what happened yesterday . . . "

Kinjiro patted him on the back. "Good boy." He headed back to the main house.

The monk leaned on his staff as he watched Kinjiro step up on the veranda and enter the house. "What happened yesterday?" He glanced at Susumu who shrugged, and at Aki.

Aki, still with the solemn look on his face, met the monk's eyes, but then bowed his head. "I...I learned who my friends were."

Susumu gave him an appreciative pat on the back. "A good lesson to learn. It's always hard to admit the people we trusted turned out not to be our true friends. And sometimes, it's even harder when the people we didn't trust turn out to be the ones we ought to have. I'm glad you've been able to admit it."

He turned back to Miroku. "I have to hurry. Tsuneo normally likes to get a much earlier start than me. Tell Yasuo congratulations for me, if you see him." With a small bow, he hurried off.

Miroku shook his head, then turned back to the boy. "So you learned who your friends were? Susumu-sama's correct. That's an important lesson to learn, and sometimes hard, too."

"I...think so," Aki said. He rubbed the bottom of his chin, trying to gather his words. "Houshi-sama?"

The monk was looking down the road and about to take off, but the question in Aki's voice made him turn around. "What is it, Aki-kun?"

"I...I don't understand." The boy rubbed his nose and sighed.

Miroku gave Aki a more careful look. The boy looked tired still and a bit battered, with scratch marks and a cut near one of his eyes, but more interesting to the monk was that all defiance the boy had carried around him the last time he had really watched Aki was gone. Surprised, Miroku waited to see what the boy wanted to say.

Aki's forehead was creased in a pondering look, and he sucked on his bottom lip as he considered his words. Finally, he spoke, meeting Miroku's eyes. "Morio-sama was supposed to be a holy man, right?"

The monk nodded. "He claimed to be a yamabushi and A yamabushi is supposed to be holy, that's true," Miroku said, nodding. "They are supposed to be following both the teachings of the Buddha and the ways of the mountain kami." For a moment he thought of his own life, and gave the boy a small, sad smile. "Alas, not all men who follow the calling of holiness actually act that way."

Aki tilted his head, reflecting on that. "And I've always heard that youkai are supposed to be evil. My obaasan's family was killed by one."

"Many are," Miroku said, nodding. "You know I do many youkai exorcisms. But I've learned that just because a person is a youkai, doesn't mean he's wicked. Look at Shippou-kun. Nobody would say he's really evil."

"I've . . . I've seen him playing in the village, but my obaasan wouldn't let me go near him." Aki looked up. "I sort of thought you and Kaede-sama were using your magic to make him behave."

The monk laughed. "It's more likely my staff or InuYasha's fist. He needs disciplining the way most children do. No magic involved."

The boy looked surprised at this, and gnawed on the knuckle of his right hand. "Morio-sama did things to my obaasan, and got me into trouble. I thought I was being a hero, fighting the bad guys, and all I got was punished and hurt, and then I found out he's the reason my obaasan is sick." He looked up at Miroku, and the monk saw a flash of the boy's anger surface. "But he was supposed to be a good guy!"

"Sometimes, evil comes to us in unusual shapes," the monk said. He shrugged. "People will do and say many things to get their way."

Aki dropped his head. "Yeah. I know . . . " But then he looked back up. "It was the guy who was supposed to be evil who saved me yesterday. InuYasha threw his jacket over my head to keep the bird from getting my eyes, and got attacked himself."

"I heard about that," Miroku said.

"But why?" Aki asked. He looked really puzzled. "He's got youkai blood. And . . . and . . . I've been mean to him."

"Sometimes," Miroku said, patting the boy on his shoulder, "good comes to us in unusual shapes as well."

"I guess," Aki said, shaking his head. "I just don't understand it."

"I don't know if I do, either," Miroku admitted.

Aki was about to ask another question, when Tameo stepped out of his house.

"Ah, Houshi-sama," the headman said. "I was hoping I'd find you out and about this morning." He looked up at the sky, and how low the sun still way. "I just didn't expect it would be so early."