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

Chapter 237

At the temple, Miroku burned incense, and chanted prayers in a deep resonant voice. Then afterwards, he led the men to a comfortable spot nearby; ironically, it was the same spot that Chiya had attacked InuYasha the day of the workday. InuYasha looked at the scorched area of ground where Kimi and Yaya had tended the tea fire and stuffed his hands in his sleeves, scowling.

"Let's sit here," Miroku said. He looked up at InuYasha, and gave him an understanding look, but he sat down in spite of the hanyou's scowl.

Susumu and Fumio joined the monk and the boy. InuYasha gave a little sigh and sat next to Susumu.

"I've been thinking about the best way to insure Maeme-sama will be kept safe - safe from her own self, or from . . . others." Miroku said. He placed his staff over his lap and then steepled his fingers together, half closing his eyes. "This is a tricky thing to accomplish."

"Feh," the hanyou said. His hand went to his sword hilt. "I could just . . . "

Susumu grabbed InuYasha's hand, and nodded his head in the direction of Sukeo. InuYasha looked at the boy, who was sitting there, struggling between trying to look like a man, but at the same time, looking like a frightened and overwhelmed child. He met Sukeo's eyes and his scowl softened. "Yeah," he said.

"So," Fumio said, placing his own hammer in front of him. "Have you come up with any ideas?"

"Maybe," the monk said. "That's why I wanted you three here." He looked down at Sukeo. "Your mother now owes a life debt to me, son."

Sukeo looked up at the monk, confused. "A life debt?"

Susumu's eyebrow went up at that. He scratched the back of his neck. "Going to try that way? I wonder what Chichi-ue would say to that reasoning . . . "

"I saved her life, didn't I?" the monk said.

"What do you mean, Bouzu?" InuYasha asked. "You've saved a lot of people before. Never heard you talk about them owing you a debt." He plucked a blade of grass near his feet, and twirled it between his right thumb and forefinger. "Why now?"

"Usually, when I save people, they stay saved for a while," the monk said. He opened his eyes wide, shattering the look of composed Buddha he was trying to convey. "If I send her back home, is she going to stay safe?"

Sukeo covered his face with his hands and shook his head. "My otousan . . . "

"I do not want the life of that woman thrown away by sending her back to her husband," Miroku said. His eyes were very serious. "I promised her that I would protect her if she let me rescue her. How can I do that if we let her go back to Seiji-sama?"

"But . . . but . . . " Sukeo said, frowning. "You can do this? How?"

"I'm not sure," Miroku said. "But I know she's not going back to that man's house tonight. She might not be going back tomorrow, or the day after."

"Are you going to turn your temple into one of those refuges that women who run away flee to?" Fumio asked. His voice was somewhat hesitant, but approving.

"The thought crossed my mind. There's only one of me, and it wouldn't be an easy thing." Miroku rested his face in the palm of his hand.

"Why are you telling this to me?" Sukeo asked. "Are you asking me for permission? It sounds like you've made a decision." He rubbed his hands through his hair. "I...How can I do anything to stop you or help you?"

"You are the eldest son," Miroku said. "I thought you had a right to know. And I need to know whose side will you be on. Will you stand with your father or your mother?"

"Houshi-sama," Susumu said, frowning at the monk. "Is that fair? He hasn't even had his coming of age yet. And look at what he's gone through today."

Miroku shook his head. He looked at Sukeo, and reached out and rested a hand on his shoulder."When I was a small boy, younger than Sukeo here, younger than Nakao, I watched my father die from a horrible curse, and I had to accept an awful burden. My friend here," he said, nodding at InuYasha, "lost first his father, and then his mother, and then he was disowned, and sent out to live or die the best of his ability. Maeme's family died of a sickness, and left her alone, and she was sent to live with a man who would beat her until she decided death was better. Life isn't about fair." He sighed. "But we need to figure out something."

The boy's face drained white. "But . . . but . . . "

"I have seen you, Sukeo," Miroku continued, "how you have tried to shield your brother from your father, how you ate shame rather than admit how you hated how he behaved."

"I...I..." the boy said. He took a deep breath, and nodded before burying his face in his hands one more time. "Sometimes."

"If you stand with your father, no one will say you are a bad son." The monk's voice grew gentle. "I'm not trying to make things difficult. I, too, am struggling to find a path that might protect everybody. Some might even praise you for being a dutiful boy, and see that as a virtue." Miroku leaned forward. "I will not criticize you, either. I just wanted you to know what I want to do."

"Don't pressure the boy, Houshi-sama," Fumio said. "His world just turned upside down."

Sukeo looked up at the blacksmith, looking at him with a grateful look.

"I don't know what you want me to do, Houshi-sama. You saved my mother," the boy said. "Thank you. I don't know what else to say."

Miroku scratched the side of his head. "I'm not sure I do either," the monk replied. He sighed. "I don't know what your okaasan will want to do either. I just . . . I just hate that all this happened." He hung his head. "Maybe I'm still too tired myself to make sense. But you deserve to know what's going through my mind. I just want to make things right for you and for her."

"Can I . . . " Sukeo said, getting to his feet. His eyes looked red and glistening, and his face reflected his agitation. "Do you mind if I go back to sit with her? I'm afraid she'll wake up and find I'm gone."

"Go ahead, son. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have even started this. I just . . . I'm just glad I was there for her. This way you have a mother left to sit with."

Sukeo got up, and bowed, then hurried back to the monk's house.

The monk looked up at the men who were still sitting with him. "That didn't go over the way I meant it to." He rested his head in his hands. "I don't know if I even know what I meant to do."

"Are you serious about claiming that she owes you a life debt?" Susumu asked, leaning forward, thoughtful.

"Maybe. I don't know. It was the first thing I could think of that might keep her from going back to that animal of a husband."

"Where would you put her?" Fumio asked. "Your temple doesn't even have real living quarters yet."

"Something more to think about tomorrow," Susumu asked. "We're going to give the elders a lot to deal with, it sounds like."

"It does, indeed," Miroku said.

Back at the village, away from both the monk's house and the headman's compound, Yurime was the first to break the news to Fujime and Emi and Kimi.

"Did you hear?" she said, walking up to Fujime and Emi as they sat on the verandah.

Fujime looked up at the wife of Choujiro, standing there, wringing her hands. Next to her was her son Daichi, a small child not yet four years old. He looked at the children playing and tugged on his mother's skirts.

She bent down and picked him up, balancing his weight on her hip. "Not right now, little one. Let Okaa tell Fujime-sama the news."

"Well?" Fujime said. "Sit down, woman. It's hard looking up." Yurime bowed, and sat down next to the two women. "So what is this news?" the older woman asked.

"My man, you know he's been working up the hill, making boards for InuYasha-sama?" Yurime said. Daichi tried to wiggle out of her lap.

"Okaa, play!" he said, looking up at her with pleading eyes.

"Let him go join," Emi said. "He's welcome."

"You're sure?" Yurime said, a little shy of putting herself forward.

"Of course. He's just the right age to play with Riki's little boy. Mikio!" Emi called.

Mikio looked up from a pile of sticks and rocks he was making.

Emi smiled and gestured for him to come join them. "Come here, boy. Come meet Daichi."

He walked across the yard, a little hesitant. Yurime put her boy down. They looked at each other a little shyly. Mikio stuck a finger in his mouth.

"Go play?" Daichi asked.

"Yeah," Mikio said. Soon both boys hurried over to whatever it was Mikio was building and they both got busy building the structure.

"So," Emi said, looking at Yurime. "Choujiro told you something about things at InuYasha's house?"

"No," Yurime said, shaking her head. "Not at that house. At Houshi-sama's house. They brought Maeme there about an hour or so ago. She had jumped into the river."

"Now that's interesting," Fujime said, leaning forward. "Tell me more."

Back at Miroku's house, Kagome and Koume sat by Sango's fire pit, drinking tea. The girls were playing with their dolls in one corner. Chika the cat curled up next to Sango, trying hard to ignore everybody else in the room.

"Do you think they'll be long?" Koume asked. "I'd really like to get to Nakao before he hears all the rumors. Furume probably told everybody she saw on the way home."

Chika shifted, opening her eyes. Briefly looking around the room, she jumped up into Sango's lap. The taijiya's hand went to her back without thinking, and stroked the soft calico fur.

"Not too long," Sango said. "Miroku hasn't eaten, and I know InuYasha must be hungry, too."

"Hunger can speed them along sometimes," Koume said nodding. "But we really need to get moving."

"I could go get them," Kagome said, holding the cup in her hand. She took a sip of the pale green liquid.

"I think," Sango said, "that what you really need to do is go home and get ready for Shinjiro's wedding."

"But what about Maeme?" the young miko asked. "Shouldn't I stay here and help?"

"Chime is really looking forward to having you and your husband show up," Koume said. "She got me and several other people to donate pickles."

"She didn't!" Kagome said. This got a small smile from her, but it was just a little one. "She really means to have InuYasha sample all the pickles?"

"Oh yes," Koume said, nodding. "You have to show up."

Kaede stepped out of the back room and slid the door behind her. "No, child, you shouldn't stay. Maeme will probably sleep off and on for a while after the medicine I gave her. There is no need for you here, child. I'll stay here in case she needs something, but mostly she needs time and sleep and quiet."

"But I thought you were going to Shinjiro's wedding, too?" the young miko asked.

"Ah, but you are going, child." Kaede said. "Chime knows that sometimes emergencies happen, and I don't have a husband who must try all the pickles. They don't need two miko. You can give them the kami's blessing."

"Me?" Kagome said, surprised. "What blessing?"

"After they've both shared their cup, take water and sprinkle them with it," Kaede said. "That's a final purification. It signifies that they are starting their new life together as pure in the eyes of the kami. Then say a word or two of blessing. I usually say something like 'Be blessed all the days of your life together.'" She looked at her apprentice, who was looking back at her with some anxiety. "I know you did miko work for your grandfather. You've told me that. You never did something like this as a miko at your old home?"

"No, what people did at weddings was much different where I lived," Kagome said. She thought about what Kaede had said, sucking on her bottom lip, then nodded."This sounds much easier. You're sure they'll want me to do this?"

"I can't see why not," Kaede said, sitting down near the fire. "But if Chime or someone else is bothered, they can send me word, and I'll walk down the hill to do the blessing. But you are a miko. This is the type of work you will be asked to do from time to time."

Kagome looked uncertain, but nodded. "I'll talk to Chime and Daitaro before things get started."

"Good," the old miko said. Sango poured her a cup of tea which she drank gratefully.

As she sipped, Sukeo slid the door open, and walked inside. His eyes were troubled and he looked as if he might have been crying. Chika peeked up at the boy, and for some reason, decided to walk over to him and rub her head against his leg. He bent down, and patted her gently between the ears.

"How is my okaasan?" he asked, still bent over. Chika started to purr, a loud, pleasant sound, but then he stood. "Did she wake up?"

"Just to take a sip of water. Then she went back to sleep," Kaede said. "Why don't you go sit with her? I suspect she will rest better if she knows you're there."

He nodded and went to the back. As he went in, Rin, who had been sitting with her, came back into the main room. Noriko, seeing her, held up her doll. Rin walked over to her and sat down, and Noriko put the toy in the young woman's lap.

"Sing to her?" the girl asked.

Rin picked up the doll, and Noriko climbed into her lap.

"Go into the mountains,
and count the flowers," Rin sang,
"Azalea and lily,
camillia, peony,
and don't forget the wisteria -
how sweet it smells."

Yusuko crawled over next to them, and rocking her own doll, sang,

"Lily sweet,
azalea sweet,

This amused Rin. "Let's go outside, and see if we can find any flowers."

Yusuko nodded, and Noriko got off her lap. Taking each of the girls by hand, she led them out of the house.

"If it were only that easy to solve all problems by singing about pretty things," Sango said.