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

Chapter 268

The sunset was fast sinking below the horizon, casting long shadows in Tameo's courtyard. In the area near the lockup, the little fire Koichi had made was beginning to throw warm highlights on the faces of the two men sitting next to it.

A cat came wandering by and rubbed up against Koichi's leg. He brushed a hand against the animal's back nearly without thinking. Pleased, the cat curled up into a ball and closed her eyes.

"Cat has a good idea," the farm worker said. "I'll be glad when I can curl up in my own bed."

"I'm afraid we have a while to wait," Jun said, looking at his companion. "Tameo-sama wants us to keep watch until they get back."

"Doesn't seem fair. All that food . . . " Koichi sighed.

"Oh, there'll be some for us when they get back," Jun said, reaching over to the small stack of wood Koichi had brought out for their use. "Knowing Chime-sama, it'll be good. And if they run out, you know Hisa-sama will make it up to us." He grabbed a good-sized piece out of the stack.

"I guess," his companion said. "Still rather be doing other things."

"You and me both." Jun threw the piece of wood on the small fire, and a cascade of sparks flew up. He stared at the fire a few minutes, watching the flames lap it and it start to catch. "So I wonder what they're doing right now?"

Koichi scratched the back of his head, thinking."Oh, if I know Daitaro's bunch, someone, Genjo maybe, is saying something to make Erime-sama blush," he said. "Easy to make a bride blush. Your Riki sure blushed easy when you brought her home."

Jun laughed. "And I remember you didn't miss a chance our first week to tease her. I laughed when she threw that bucket of water on your head."

Taking his very last bite of food, Koichi smiled at the memory. "She's a strong thing, your woman. Puts up with you well enough." Having finished his soup and rice, he leaned back on his elbows. The cat, unpleased by Koichi's change of posture, wacked its tail on the ground three times, then moved into a position where it could sleep undisturbed.

"So what else do you think they'll be doing?" Jun said.

"What else will happen at the wedding?" Koichi reached for the sake bottle, and took a sip. "After Genjo thinks he's embarrassed Erime-chan enough, Daitaro-sama will make a joke about the quality of Tameo's sake and how everybody but him is a lightweight, Kinjiro will pout, but Hisa-sama will probably persuade him to sing something that's clean, and Masayo will probably try to sing something rude. After the women get him to stop, Takeshi-sama will laugh at all of it."

"That sounds about right to me. Especially the part about the sake. Old man Daitaro is mighty proud of his sake. Although," Jun said, grabbing the sake jug they had from Koichi's hand and taking swig for himself. "Tameo-sama's sake isn't half bad, if you ask me." He gave the jug an affectionate pat.

"Ha," Koichi said, obviously amused by his coworker. "That's because you and me and Tameo-sama are the one who make it."

"Has nothing to do with it," Jun replied, putting the jug down. "I know what tastes good."

"I wish I could hear the singing," Koichi said, looking up at the sky. "I want to know if Masayo sings the rabbit song. Everybody knows how his sister reacts"

"He wouldn't dare," Jun replied. He too looked up. Venus was shining very brightly, and a couple of other bright stars, but it was still too light to see most of them. "Wonder if they'll get home before moonrise?"

"Heh," Koichi said. "I bet Shinjiro's wondering if he and Erime-chan can get away before moonrise. Last quarter moon. It'll be midnight before it's up."

"He'd better be careful," Jun replied. "He'll be too drunk by that time if he doesn't watch out. I remember when Genjo got married. Getting sick on your wedding night . . . " He looked back down and shook his head.

Koichi began humming. Jun picked up the tune and began singing.

"Girl with the flower in your hair,
Be careful to lift your skirts.
Your husband is a mighty man
and he might tell you a thing or two
if you come home with hems
wet with the midnight dew.

"Girl with the flower in your hair,
brush off that grass on your back.
Your husband is a mighty man
and he might tell you a thing or two
if you come home with a back
covered with bits of grass."

"Sing that around Hisa-sama, and you'd get that look she gives people," Koichi said, grabbing the sake jug from his companion. "I don't like that look. Somehow, it makes me feel like a little boy getting caught trying to steal a rice cake from my mama's kitchen."

"You noticed that, have you?" Jun said, laughing. "It works even better on Susumu-sama."

Koichi took a drink from the jug. "And sing it at a wedding, and I bet she'd do more than look at you."

Jun chuckled. "But she's there, and I'm here now."

"She always finds out," an amused voice said.

They turned to see Eiji walking up. He was carrying his club, the sign he was doing his official village guard patrol, but it was tucked into his obi, and instead, his arms were crossed in mock disapproval.

"Checking up on us, are you?" Jun said.

"Someone has to," the village guardsman said. He sat down next to the two farm workers. "Just ask Tameo-sama about Hisa-obasan. He'll tell you. She always finds out. It's like she has some spiritual power about things like that."

"Bah," Jun said, taking back the sake jug and taking another swig. "Rumors, rumors. I know a thing or two about Tameo-sama that she's never found out." He offered the jug to Eiji. "Can't tell you what happened. Old man swore me to secrecy."

Eiji accepted the jug and took a short pull on it. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he grinned. "Oh, I wouldn't be so sure," the village guardsman said. "More likely she just didn't decide to make an issue of it. She's a clever general, choosing her battles wisely."

"You're all a bunch of fools," Seiji croaked from the lockup. "No woman pushes me around like that."

All three men turned their heads to the little building, none pleased by the sound.

"Did you hear a frog?" Eiji asked, looking at his companions, but speaking loud enough for Seiji to hear.

Koichi was far less amused. "You don't know shit," he said. "Shut up."

"I know better than to worry about whether my woman knows if I did something she didn't like," Seiji said. "She wouldn't dare tell me I couldn't." His voice, even though strained, dripped with scorn.

"Fat lot of good it does you," Jun said, spitting.

"I wouldn't talk if I were you," Eiji said. "Our women are safe at home. Where's your woman?" He passed the jug back to Jun. "Our women didn't try to walk into the river, and will be home when we get back. Our women want us to come home. What about you?"

Something, maybe his food platter, flew against the side of the lockup, and it was followed by the sound of breaking pottery.

"I'm not going to clean that up," Jun muttered. "I don't care if he cuts himself and bleeds to death."

"That bitch Maeme," Seiji said. He would have yelled if his voice could have handled it. "She's got something coming to her, pulling a stunt like that. Wait until I get out of here."

"You're going to go through the elders and Houshi-sama to go beat her up some more?" Koichi said. He grabbed the jug from Jun's hand, and took a long deep swallow. "That'll really make her want to come home."

"Shut up," Seiji said. "That damn monk. She's mine. He can't take my woman away from me like that. Once I get out of here . . . "

"Once you get out of there, you'll be lucky if you get to keep your head," Eiji said, standing up. "Going to go finish my rounds." He looked down at the two farm hands. "Send for me if you need some help keeping him quiet tonight."

Jun nodded.

"No man takes what's mine," Seiji muttered. "Monk's going to find out what that means tomorrow."

"Nobody took anything, you stupid fool," Eiji said. "You threw her away." And with that, he headed out.

At Miroku's house up on the hill, the monk led his wife and the others inside. Sango reverently placed Hiraikotsu next to the stand where she kept her sword, and then threw some pine wood on the fire pit to increase the light in the house. "It's getting dark," she said.

"It is indeed, lovely Sango," the monk said as he let his daughters down. "That back room gets too dark for a visit." Miroku walked over to a storage shelf in the domo. "I'll put the lamp back there for now."

"A good idea," Koume said. "I have heard that troubled people do better when there's a light available."

"Kaede must still be with her," Fumio said. "If she's sleeping . . . "

"We're awake," a voice called from the back.

"Well then," Fumio said, looking at the boys, "let's go see here." He led his wife and the boys to the sleeping room door.

"Are you ready?" Koume asked in a low voice. "Remember, you're here to make your okaasan feel better. Be soft-voiced, and smile if you can. And don't argue. She'll like that."

Nakao nodded, although it made him wince a little bit. Sukeo rested his hand on his brother's shoulder. "We will do our best," he said, just as softly.

"Good boys," Fumio said, and knocked on the door.

"You can come in, " Kaede said. They could hear the old miko moving as Fumio slid the door open.

As the door slid to the side, the boys peered in. In the dim light, they could see their mother, still wearing Sango's borrowed kosode, sitting up in her bed. Her face revealed nothing, looking emotionlessly at the far wall. As she turned her head slowly to look at the newcomers, for a moment, real feeling flickered in her eyes, a deep sadness almost painful to look at. Nakao made a small, wavering smile in her direction, and her mask snapped back into place, replaced by a smile that was merely made by turning up her lips, with no feeling behind it.

"Nakao-kun," she whispered. "Sukeo-kun. You came back. I..."

The boys looked up at Fumio. "Is... is she fox-possessed?" Sukeo's hand tightened on his brother's shoulder as he asked it. "Otousan used to ask that about her. I never believed him . . . " His voice was soft, and he was looking at Koume, but it was loud enough for the woman to hear, and she hung her head. "I...I..."

"No, child," Koume said. "Your otousan has said many wrong things. She's merely very sad."

"It's been a very hard day for her." Kaede walked to the entrance, carrying a half-filled soup bowl. "Her soul is tired, more than her body. Come sit down, sons. Spend some time with your okaasan. You two can be the best medicine for her." She looked back at the woman, her usual calm troubled as she looked at her patient. "It should do her some good."

Nakao nodded, and stepped inside. Sukeo chewed on his lip a moment.

"I'll sit with you if you'd prefer, son," Koume said. "I know when Naohi-chan was sad after . . . it was a hard thing to just be there. Other people can help."

He looked up at her for a moment. "I...I..." He shook his head and squared his shoulders. "No. My okaasan needs me." He stepped across the threshold.

"You're sure this is what she needs?" Miroku said, returning with the lamp.

"As sure as I can be," Kaede said. "In affairs of the soul . . . being surrounded by love helps."

Miroku nodded. "Let's hope."