Chapter One

From a distance the boy had been watching her all night. She'd gone into the mini-shrine around midnight for about an hour then come back out and stopped by the tree. There had been no movement since, so when the sun peeked over the horizon and she finally stood, he'd stood too. Dusting dirt from the back of his jeans, the boy turned to face her direction again, but instead of finding her still starring at the mini-shrine or moving towards the house, she was digging through her backpack.

He'd thought it odd that she would take a pack obviously full-to-the rim into the mini-shrine, as though she was going on some extended journey, yet when she'd returned, the pack had seemed smaller. Now in the full morning light he could tell that the pack was certainly less bulky. Perhaps she had left some of its contents in the mini-shrine for some reason. One of his friends that they both knew had said she was performing a strange, western ceremony in the mini-shrine. That she spent weeks at a time in there and had been seen on numerous occasions coming and going from the shrine did not help to refute the claims.

On an interested and concerned hunch he had come to see for himself the previous evening. Her grandfather given the excuse that she was visiting an acupuncture institute about an hour outside Tokyo in order to correct some strange dreams she was having. Adding this excuse to the obvious lies that the old man had told in the past, he had decided to stakeout the shrine and see what was really going on. Finding a comfortable knoll of grass near the far wall, he was able to watch both the mini-shrine doors and the backdoor to the house. He'd only had to wait a little while for her to come out into the yard. Apparently flustered about something but not really stopping to notice her surroundings, she'd gone straight into the house where he'd heard her declare that she was home and that she was going to clean-up and go back. He'd stayed out of curiosity.

She straightened from her bag, facing the tree with something in her hand. From his point of view it didn't look like much, maybe a pen or a pencil, except that it was about the length of her forearm. The best he could figure it was a stick. The skeptical voice in the back of his mind snorted in disgust, been here all night and it turns out everyone was right. She is crazy. He shrugged it off and watched her examine the piece of wood as the morning light began to grow stronger. When she turned her gaze up to the tree, he caught the reflection of metal in the growing rays of sun. He left the wall, approaching her from the back, concern and interest etched in his face and glowing from his eyes. She did not hear him, did not notice his shadow, and portrayed the perfect image of one who thought she was alone in the world.

He was ready to reach out and touch her, to figure out what the hell was going on, when she stepped up to the tree. She reached the roots and began to climb. Once she was level with the prayer beads, apparently studying the ancient scar in the bark, he was beginning to believe that perhaps she had been in a mental institute. She reached out and touched the scar, sobbing as though it hurt her to even look at it.

He hadn't realized she was crying. She seemed so strong all the times he had admired her from across a yard, or spoken about her to their mutual friends, but here she stood, crying because a thousand year-old tree had seen a rough time probably half a millennium ago. She dropped back a little, holding the stick to her chest in her right hand, the other in a loose fist at her side. He didn't understand.

The twitch of muscle was minute, causing her action to be laser fast when she turned slightly and struck the tree. But she didn't really hit it. She had jammed the stick into the center of the ancient scar, though looking at it now he could tell it was an arrow. An incredibly authentic looking arrow, which she had somehow managed to ram pretty deep into the trunk. He stepped back a little, unsure of the situation though certainly intrigued.

She did not release she arrow's shaft immediately, but rather stood gripping it, head bowed, her other hand still fisted. He thought for a moment she resembled a statue, frozen in harmony with the tree for all eternity, but then her shoulders began to shake and the soft sound of tears drifted on the morning breeze to him. It broke his heart and prompted him to act.

Climbing up the roots, he decided that if he were going to mean as much to her as she meant to him, he'd have to act carefully. He didn't want to seem overbearing or perverted, yet the strange music that her sobs composed almost overrode his own emotional composure. It made him want to grab her and hold on tight, banishing whatever it was that was hurting her now.

She still did not know he was there, so when he came level with her and reached a gentle hand to her arm, she turned as if on a dime and backed up to the trunk, the arrow on her right about chest high. She focused on him for a second, confusion and tears causing her to blink several times before finally recognizing the boy who stood before her. It was certainly a shock, but there was no pity or anger in his eyes, only concern and something else, something she didn't quite know.

They stood for a time, watching one another as the morning sun peeked through rooftops and trees to shadow them with a wild pattern of light and dark. Neither spoke beyond the conversation that seemed to pass through their eyes.

Let me help, his said. But you cannot. You are not the cause, she thought in response to the pools of blue and crystal. You are not the cause and I cannot tell you who is or why. I'm sorry. She dropped her gaze, focusing on roots at their feet.

He seemed to hear her thoughts. The hand on her arm that he had not released gave a slight squeeze. She had to center herself on the present, and on the person standing in front of her in order to control her emotions. In order to banish the image in her mind that was causing her so much anguish. She looked again at the boy, at the man he had become since she'd first met him, at the friend she had and the lover she could have. The look in his eyes had changed.

It was one friend asking another for trust enough to comfort. He wanted to love her and be loved in return, but right now, right here, there was something else between them. Whatever it was that was hurting her inadvertently hurt him too. Her suffering and torment was obviously longstanding, but he wanted her to see that she would not be alone anymore if she would let him in. He didn't need to know everything, he already knew enough, he just wanted to help.

They saw this in each other. He could see her pain and she could see the comfort he offered. It was only a matter of accepting or turning away. In the back of her spine she felt a tingle, a presence she never felt unless the half-demon was around. It was enough to crack her resolve and bring the tears to her cheeks again. She crumpled before the other, as though the pain was in her heart, which it was, and it was cutting her in two

There was a great battle within him. She had not given him permission to be her confidant, her support, yet his own feelings were screaming for him to take the step she had not cleared, to reach out for her. He knew he must not be tentative in whatever action he took, and as she tried to regain control of herself he made his choice and drew her to him.

Wrapping strong arms around her shoulders and gently cradling her head to his neck, Hojo spoke the first words of their conversation.

"Cry, Kagome. Just cry..."