Kagome had a distinct feeling that she did not want to wake up. Although her mind struggled to grasp exactly what it was, she knew there was definitely some unpleasantness to face in the waking world were she to return to it. So she hovered indecisively on the border of consciousness, hoping to fall back into the darker depths of sleep.
There was noise, though, somewhere near her head. Some sort of raspy, snuffling noise invading the calm of her mind. It was her mother, Kagome thought with sudden insight. She was crying. Just as she had been crying before Kagome…
She suddenly recalled why she had wanted to remain asleep. Too late, though. Her mind had already begun to regain focus. With an inward grimace the she opened her eyes, resigned though not ready to deal with the oddity that was currently her reality.
Her mother's face came into focus first, directly above her. It was red and puffy, tears still dribbling forlornly from her dark brown eyes. They left small tracks of clean, tanned skin amidst the customary thin coat of dirt they all wore like a second skin in the village.
The older woman made a strangled sound when she realized her daughter was awake, her sudden motion joggling Kagome's head where it rested in her mother's lap. Her mother bent double to hug Kagome's torso tightly, mumbling nonsensical words.
"You're smothering me, Mama," Kagome protested, upset by her mother's distress.
"It's for your own good, Kagome, I swear it is," was the watery response as her mother finally regained the ability to form words.
"Smothering me is for my own good?" Kagome joked weakly, though no part of her felt like joking.
Her mother hiccuped feebly, the sound choked as she reluctantly released her daughter. "No, not that. I mean…" she trailed off, shaking her head.
Kagome, free of the stranglehold, sat up.
"Are you certain you are feeling well enough to get up, Kagome-chan?"
The question came from somewhere down by her feet. The houshi was sitting there, joined now by her brother and grandfather.
"I feel fine," Kagome replied, an edge to her tone that she could not blunt.
He was, after all, the cause of this mess.
"Are you sure you're alright, Nee-chan?" Souta piped up. "It's not like you to go and have a fainting spell."
His unsuspecting tone told Kagome that he still had no idea of what had come to pass between their mother and the houshi.
"I'm alright, really. Being out in the rain and working all day must have taken more out of me than I thought," she offered, loathe to be the one to inform him of the circumstances.
Judging by the utter silence in the room, the rain had finally stopped. After considering the situation for a moment, Kagome rose carefully.
"Might I ask you to accompany me outside, Houshi-sama?"
"Kagome," her mother said, a warning edge to her tone. Her apprehensive expression said that she anticipated violence if Kagome were allowed to be alone with the man.
"I just need to speak with him, Mama."
"Then I'll go with-"
"I need to speak with him alone, Mama," Kagome interrupted her gently.
"Then let us go outside and be alone, Kagome-chan," Miroku said, rising to join her.
"Just yell if he tries anything, Kagome," Jii-chan spoke up, giving Miroku a suspicious glance.
Her grandfather had always had an instinctive wariness of outsiders, but Kagome thought him quite justified in this instance. She surreptitiously sped up her steps, keeping just out of the range of the nobleman's hands.
"Sir, I am a houshi- a man of the cloth," Miroku protested, his expression one of exaggerated innocence.
"Yeah, yeah," Jii-chan muttered disrespectfully. Kagome turned her head to conceal a small grin.
When they had exited the hut and were far enough to be out of hearing range, Kagome spun to face the man gravely.
"I'd like an explanation of what's going on. A very thorough explanation," she demanded with only trace amounts of her former politeness.
"As long as you promise not to faint again, Kagome-chan, I will be more than happy to give you an explanation," Miroku ribbed lightly.
"Don't blindside me with any more life altering information, and I promise I won't faint again," Kagome returned, irritated at the reminder.
Miroku nodded and raised his hands in a gesture of peace. "Where would you like me to begin?"
Kagome took a moment to organize her thoughts. "How about the real reason you came to this village?"
"I truly was sent from the capital to investigate the spiritual disturbances," Miroku said. "There have been unusual occurrences all across the land, but the most prominent happenings have been here on the southern edges.”
“And though I have been unable to locate the exact source, the majority of the jyaki I have sensed has been in this general area. But there is more to it than mere investigation."
"So you lied earlier?" Kagome interjected, her expression growing stonier by the moment.
"Not lying, Kagome-chan, merely excluding a few details here and there. There is a world of distance between the two," Miroku replied with the air of something profound. Kagome scoffed in a most unladylike manner.
"But to return to my point," the houshi pressed on, the corner of his mouth tipping wryly upward. "Several reports were made by merchants and visitors to the capital about a village that had been left miraculously unscathed after the youkai rampage."
"Your village, indeed, as well as your miracle. I initially expected that the safety of the village could be attributed to the inhabitance of youkai nest or something equally unpleasant in it. I was quite surprised and pleased to find such a treasure as yourself in such an unlikely place."
"Listen," huffed Kagome with what fraying patience she had left, shaking her head. "Perhaps you weren't listening earlier or you thought I was just being modest, but I was serious when I said that Kaede-sama was responsible for most of it. I barely did anything."
"I was listening, but rather than modesty I believe it to be misconception on your part. Though Kaede-sama may have acted as a channel through which to funnel them, it is your powers that created the barrier that saved your village.”
“Even a spiritualist of the lowest order would be able to sense that. You have a very distinct aura, Kagome-chan, and though you may respect her deeply, Kaede-sama's pales in comparison."
There were no traces of joviality in his face or tone, not so much as an easy half-smile resting on his lips. Kagome faltered, her certainty and ire failing for a moment.
"There's no way that I…it's just…not-"
"I assure you, Kagome-chan, that I have never before encountered a spiritualist of your caliber," the houshi asserted with firm relentlessness, pressing the idea forcefully into her head. "Though your training is lacking, I believe you have the power to rival the kami themselves if handled properly."
"I thought we weren't dropping any more of that life altering information," Kagome muttered, pressing a hand to her brow as if it might help to sort out the flurry of her thoughts.
"That's the reason you want me to come to the capital?" she managed after a moment.
"I was instructed to find out the situation of this village and act accordingly. I find it very according that you should come back with me."
"But why? I mean, even if by some chance I do turn out to be as great as you think I could be, aren't there hundreds of other great spiritualists at the capital's disposal?" Kagome pleaded. She found herself wanting to lie back down, despite her resolution to have everything out in the open.
"Sadly, these past few years have seen a great decline in the number of those entering the orders, as well as the deaths of many of the greats already within them. Certainly there is no one with quite your raw potential there.”
“And in times such as we find ourselves, with spirits all across the country suddenly up in arms, your power, I am sure, would prove to be invaluable," Miroku explained with an air of slight apology.
It was impossible not to take pity on the pale young woman, with her small world suddenly being torn open at the frayed seams.
Kagome turned away from him, scrubbing roughly at her forehead with the calloused palm of her hand. She took a deep, measured breath, exhaled, took another, exhaled, and her mind slowly calmed, her agitation fading to a mild buzz in the back of her head.
It was a technique Kaede had taught her when she was young and her father had passed away. For weeks she had been so distressed that she had had trouble concentrating and, subsequently, trouble using her powers to help others who had fallen victim to the same plague that had killed her father. The technique had helped to stabilize her and to save those others that could be saved.
She grouped her thoughts carefully. Her mother had essentially promised her to the houshi and the court. She had done it for Kagome's own good, that much the young miko could understand.
And truly Kagome should have felt grateful, ecstatic even. To be taken so easily out of an existence of struggle into a secure life, to learn that far from being just another mundane spiritualist she possessed such an immense gift from the kami, to be put in a position to help hundreds with her powers rather than just the small circle of her village- all of it should have been like some wild fantasy reserved solely for her dreams.
But it was not good at all. In fact, all Kagome could feel was ill, wishing the houshi and all his grand plans for her as far away from her village as possible. She could not simply abandon her village, her responsibilities. She could not so easily let go of the burden she had been fated to bear, not after carrying it so diligently for so many years.
"I don't think they'll last long here without me, Miroku-sama," Kagome voiced at length. "I know it sounds conceited of me to say that, but they depend on me for a lot and…"
"Your honorable mother has already taken the trouble of explaining exactly how much this village depends on you. Frankly, I am surprised that you are not more eager to escape such a burdensome existence," Miroku said sympathetically.
Kagome shrugged, shaking her head. "They're my people to protect, and you see why I can't just abandon them."
"On the contrary, I see all the more reason for you to leave," Miroku said. Kagome frowned, waiting for him to elaborate.
"Another thing that your mother and I covered in our discussion was the problem of the void that would be left by your absence. As a solution, I put forth the protection of the capital in return for taking you. They will receive imperial guards, access to the imperial food supply, and any spiritualists or healers that they might have need of. In short, they should be comfortably set for the rest of their lives."
"You could really do all that?" Kagome asked incredulously.
"It would only be fair to give them at least that much in return for taking something so precious. And it would be my personal pleasure to give you a chance at a life that you might have some say in," Miroku said, the warm smile returning to his face.
"Ah…" was all Kagome could manage.
There was something wet on her face, and for a moment she wondered if it was starting to rain again. But the skies were clear.
Kagome realized she was crying. She had never felt so relieved in her entire life.
She slipped slowly down onto her knees in the muck, all of her muscles relaxing at once. Burying her face in her hands, she cried softly.
She had been struggling to do her duty by the villagers as far back as she could recall, just barely managing to keep them one step ahead of disaster at every turn. The future, however, had always been a bleak prospect, with no change in sight and little hope for improvement. But now, with this...
She sobbed, pressing clenched hands to her eyes. They were saved. She was saved. At last, the struggle seemed to be over.
"There, there," Miroku cooed soothingly, kneeling down and patting her gently on the head like a small child. "Everything will be fine now."
For the first time in a long time, Kagome was actually able to believe it.
After crying until it felt as if there were no tears left in her in front of the houshi, Kagome had been left feeling acutely embarrassed. Luckily he had seemed to understand and, after giving her a quick pat on the backside to "return her fully to her old spirit", had informed her that he would be going to prepare for their departure. He said that he would be returning to fetch her in one day's time and suggested that she should pack and say her farewells in the meantime.
Kagome had seen him off with a sheepish smile and a wave, making a mental note to ask Kaede for a staff or club of some sort as she would probably be traveling alone with the houshi all the way to the capital.
Now the young miko took a moment to close her eyes and center herself before entering the hut. Her mother might already know, but she still had to inform Jii-chan and Souta of everything that had come to pass.
She pushed aside the coarse door hanging and stepped inside. And ran straight into her mother, brother, and grandfather. She tumbled back onto the ground with a small 'oomph'.
The three were slow to move forward to help her up, all of them looking rather abashed.
"Doing a bit of eavesdropping, huh? And here you always told me that was rude, Mama," Kagome griped lightly, standing without their assistance. "How much did you hear?"
"No, Kagome, we weren't-"
"Foolish granddaughter, how could you think your grandfather would-"
"We weren't able to hear anything, Nee-chan. You went too far away from the hut," Souta put in bluntly. The other two shot him sharp looks.
"Well, alright, then," said Kagome, slightly disappointed. It would have been easier if they had simply overheard. "Why don't you all sit down and I'll explain everything."
They complied. Kagome explained.
At the end her mother was crying again, but Kagome could tell most of it was happiness. It was what she had wanted to begin with. Souta and Jii-chan were both silent for a long, strained amount of time.
At length Souta stood and brushed roughly past her out of the hut. Kagome rose instinctively to go after him but hesitated, unsure if chasing after him would be wise. She looked back towards her grandfather, awaiting his reaction.
He stared hard at her for a long moment before sighing, his old face sagging deeply. "Go after your brother. This old man, for one, understands your reasoning. And who knows, maybe you'll be able to kick that Tennō into action when you get to court."
Kagome flashed him a brief, grateful smile and rushed out. Souta was out of sight already, but she knew well enough where he would be headed. She made her way towards the river.
As she had predicted, he was there. He stood ankle deep on the muddy bank, pitching rocks into the current.
"Souta?" Kagome called tentatively.
"I don't want to talk to you," was the terse reply. He pitched a stone hard and it skipped three times before sinking.
"Then I won't talk. I'll just sit right here," Kagome said, flopping down on the muddy bank.
It hardly mattered at this point, she was such a mess. Absently she ran her fingers through her dark hair to tidy it a little, waiting.
"It's even more annoying if you just sit there and stare at me, Nee-chan," Souta snapped, a little sooner than she had expected. Kagome could not help but smile, bowing her head to hide it.
"Then what would you like me to do?" Kagome asked.
"I'd like you to just go away. That's what you're planning anyway, right?" Souta sniped, uncharacteristic scorn in his voice.
"That I can't do for you. Anything else?"
"You could explain to me exactly when you got so high and mighty that you thought you needed to move to the imperial court!" Souta barked, spinning to face her with eyes bright with feeling. "You could explain when you got so far above all the rest of us!"
"Are we all some big burden to you? Do you really want to leave so badly? Have you always just been waiting for a chance to get out of here?" Souta accused, anger stealing away his good sense.
There was a rock in his hand and for a wild moment Kagome thought he might toss it at her. But he merely chucked it out into the river where it made a small splash and was carried away with the flow.
"Is that what you really think of me, Souta?" Kagome asked quietly.
He looked frustrated for a moment at her lack of real response. It was obvious that he was trying to provoke her. He was angry and wanted to fight it out. But then his fierce expression collapsed and he threw himself down beside her in the mud, pounding the ground with a fist.
"Of course that's not what I think of you. But why…why do you have to go? I don't care about all that stuff they'll give us for you. I don't care about any of that. You shouldn't have to sell yourself to save us! You shouldn't have to go…" Souta trailed off, unable to look at her.
"I'm not selling myself, Souta. I swear. The village needs the things they're going to give us, but I wouldn't go if I didn't really want to," Kagome said.
Souta shot her an accusatory look, opening his mouth to start in again.
"It's not that I want to be away from you or the village or anything," Kagome cut him off firmly. "Despite everything, I want to stay here. I love you and Mama and Jii-chan more than anything in the whole world, you know.”
“But I'm being given an opportunity that I know will never come again. I can go to the capital and learn and work at changing things for the better for all of you. I'll be put in a position to help so many people, Souta.”
“That's what Papa always said was most important, right? And that's what Kaede-sama always taught me. But I'll tell you what. If you tell me you really want me not to go, I won't go. Because I love you more than anything."
Kagome smiled at him, meaning every word of it though she was already certain of his answer. He was his father's son, after all.
"You're so embarrassing, Nee-chan, always spouting girly stuff like that," Souta whined, flushing faintly. He mumbled something else that she could not catch over the soft babble of the river.
"What was that?"
"I said, I want you to stay," Souta reiterated, turning to face her now.
"Souta," Kagome said, surprised.
Her brother smiled wryly, shaking his head.
"Just joking, Nee-chan…sorta. Maybe I just needed to get it out of my system." He chuckled humorlessly.
"I know things…haven't been easy for you, despite the way you act. There's always something scared in your eyes, and something sad.”
“I just…it's hard to just let you go like that. I can't help but think, 'what will I do now'? It's pathetic, and selfish…"
Kagome gingerly put her arm around his shoulders, aware that he was in the midst of one of those awkward in-between stages of growing up that did not much appreciate affectionate gestures. He allowed her to hug him without a struggle this once.
"I know exactly what you'll do when I'm gone."
"You'll go on being the man of the family, just as you have been for a long time now," Kagome asserted confidently.
"If I'm the man of the family, then what's Jii-chan?"
Kagome tapped her chin thoughtfully.
"Hmm…the entertainment?" she offered. They both laughed a little at the idea.
"Seriously, though, you're more the man than I am, Nee-chan," Souta argued.
"Thanks, that makes me feel special," Kagome quipped. "But really, I've been too busy running around the village all the time to care for our family. You're the one who makes sure Mama and Jii-chan eat well and take care of themselves.”
“You light the fire pit at night when it's cold. You go out and bring down most of the game and fish for the meat. You manage the family crop plot. So whatever you might think, you are most certainly the man of the family."
"You really think so?" Souta asked.
"Maybe you're right."
They lapsed into silence, watching the sun sink in a blaze of red and orange. It reflected dazzlingly off of the water.
"You'll come back and visit, right?" Souta asked.
"Every chance I get," Kagome replied firmly.
"I'll…miss you, Nee-chan," Souta admitted quietly. He looked painfully embarrassed.
"Awwww, I'll miss you, too," Kagome cooed teasingly, pulling him to her and kissing wetly him on both cheeks. He struggled now, laughing a little and trying to pull away.
"Gross, Nee-chan! Sto-…Stop it! You're so embarrassing!"
The two had made their peace. Even so, Kagome felt a bit like crying.
The rest of the night passed without event. The two returned to the hut and Kagome's family helped her to begin packing before they all retired for the night, exhausted in every sense of the word.
They slept with their futons closely huddled together for the first time since Kagome's father had passed away. It seemed appropriate, and Kagome savored the feeling of their warmth surrounding her.
In the morning they rose late, a luxury that was unusual for them. They finished packing with much fuss from Kagome's mother, who insisted that she pack the family's finest kimono for the miko's arrival in the capital. Jii-chan, of course, insisted that Kagome pack every hokey protection amulet that the family owned, including a rather questionable looking dried bird's foot.
Kagome had protested that she was nearly carrying the whole hut away with her, but had quietly savored all of the familial fussing and concern.
Eventually, after they had frittered away as much time as possible with packing, the time came for Kagome to make her rounds. She did not relish the idea, though she was very fond of many of the villagers. Nonetheless she made her way out and slowly worked through the huts, saying her good-byes and placing her last blessings on the inhabitants.
Reactions were mixed, from tearful well-wishers to those that threw themselves at her feet and begged her not to go. A few, Kagome could tell with a sinking heart, were resentful, either seeing her departure as a betrayal or angry at her chance at something that might as well have been oceans away from them. It could not be helped, though, and she bore it with all the grace that she could muster.
At last Kagome reached the village's largest hill and the temple atop it, her final stop for the day. Her family fell away from her at that point, understanding that she wanted to say her farewell to her long-time mentor alone.
With a deep, heavy feeling of finality, Kagome climbed the hill and entered the temple for the last time.
Kaede-sama sat facing the door, looking as if she had been expecting her student at any moment. Though that would not have surprised Kagome much, considering how fast news spread in such a tiny village as hers. She bowed to the elder miko, a formality the two rarely observed.
"My dear child, sit down," Kaede ordered gently.
Kagome complied, coming to sit across from her.
"I already understand the situation, child, and I'm certain your poor lips have had enough of explanations to last several lifetimes, so why don't we just skip to the important things," Kaede preempted her, holding up a gnarled hand.
"This is what you were speaking to Miroku-sama about yesterday, isn't it?" Kagome asked, events suddenly connecting in her mind.
"Yes, it was. Miroku-sama came seeking answers as to this village and I provided them. He then inquired into your particular situation in the village and as to whether or not I thought it wise that you accompany him. I told him that I did think it prudent, though I believe he would have tried for you either way. He is quite stubborn in that way," Kaede said with an indulgent half-smile.
Kagome frowned, something odd catching her attention.
"You speak of Miroku-sama in a very familiar manner," she stated, a question lacing her words.
"We had met and become slightly acquainted before our unexpected reunion yesterday," Kaede answered the implied question.
"But the houshi has never been to this village before that I can remember…Wait, you don't mean…" Kagome trailed off, disbelieving.
"As hard as it may be for you believe, child, I did once reside in the capital as a spiritualist. For reasons I would prefer not to disclose, I chose to leave that life for a simpler one.”
“Actually, though it may rile you a bit to learn it, I chose this village to live in because of you. I had never seen such a brilliant aura before," Kaede explained, her voice soft with the air of remembering something awe-inspiring.
"Because of me?" Kagome echoed dumbly.
It all made sense, oddly enough. Though she had not thought much on it at the time, Kaede had come into the village when Kagome was already seven years old.
How else would Kaede have learned how to read and write, as she had taught Kagome to do? Not to mention all of the etiquette lessons that the elder miko had given to the younger. Still, it was difficult to comprehend.
"Are you sure you don't want to talk about why you left?" Kagome pressed, deeply curious.
"I'm quite certain," Kaede replied, unyielding.
"Alright, then," Kagome surrendered, a bit disappointed. "Well, then, how do you think I'll fare in the capital?"
"I won't lie to appease you worries, child," Kaede warned.
Kagome nodded eagerly.
"Well, then, I suppose it will be a struggle for you. Though I have taught you as much as I am able, your manners are nowhere near those of a courtier born and bred. Nor do I think you cunning enough to deal well with all of the deceptions that are commonplace in the world of the court.”
“You also have the fact that you were neither born nor raised among them to contend with, and they have never thought well of outsiders. Add to all of that the strenuous spiritual training you will undoubtedly have to undergo. Other than that, however, I believe you might have quite a wonderful time."
"Well, you said you wouldn't be easing my worries," Kagome mumbled, though she was really only vaguely troubled. It all still felt very far away. "I suppose I can only try my best."
"There's the child I love," Kaede said fondly. "Don't let them pervert that spirit of yours, no matter what. Stand as an example, even if you have to stand all alone."
Kagome smiled, warmed by Kaede's affection.
"Thank you, Kaede-sama, for all that you have done for me."
She bowed low, hoping that even in its simplicity the gesture was enough to express her deep gratitude.
"Take care, Kaede-sama."
An understanding ran deep between them. Words were inadequate and unnecessary. Kagome smiled. Kaede smiled back. The young miko left.
Kagome returned to her hut to eat her last meal with her family and wait out the time until the houshi came to retrieve her, knowing that it would only be a matter of time. The majority of the meal was whiled away with small talk, as no one was willing to acknowledge the inevitable.
The knock came at last, a gentle rapping on one of the walls. The houshi obviously wanted to give her a bit of privacy in which to say her final farewells. Kagome was grateful for the small gesture. With a deep breath filling her lungs, she put down her bowl and stood to look over her family.
"This is it," she said, though it was rather unnecessary.
"Now, don't exaggerate, dear. This isn't any 'it', just another little happening in life. You'll be back when you can, very soon I'm sure," her mother chided her shakily, standing as well.
She embraced her daughter in a hold fit to strangle a bear, and Kagome returned the hug with equal force. She breathed deeply, imprinting firmly in her mind the smell of mud and rain and the river.
"You're right, Mama. I'm sure I'll be back in no time at all," Kagome said, though she knew neither of them believed it.
Her brother stood next and gave her a swift, masculine sort of one armed hug.
"Don't worry about anything here. I'll take care of it all," Souta declared with a certainty meant to send her off at ease. Kagome bent down and kissed the crown of his head, despite his protests.
She walked over to her grandfather who had remained seated and kissed him on the temple. He patted one of her hands, smiling a gap-toothed smile up at her.
"Don't let them change you, dear girl. Whatever they say, you'll never be better off than you are now."
Kagome nodded and went to pick up her heavy sack of things, fine kimono, faulty protection charms, and all. She slung it over her shoulder, buckling a little under its weight before straightening back up.
Viciously she bit her lower lip, swallowing back the tears that threatened to overflow. She flashed her family one last smile, though it wobbled a bit at the corners.
"I will definitely be back, so keep a futon laid out for me, alright?" she said.
They all nodded, and Kagome could only assume that their silence meant they were struggling as hard as she was to part without tears. With hurried steps Kagome exited the hut.
Her throat was too tight for her to say anything to the houshi, but he seemed to understand this. Without a word he took her sack and went about hitching it to the back of his large, dark horse alongside his things.
Kagome shifted agitatedly from foot to foot while watching him, glancing back every now and again to see if any of her family happened to be peeking out to watch her go. She did not see any of them and was slightly thankful. She was not sure that she could actually go through with this were she to see them now.
A short eternity later and Miroku was finished, turning back to help her mount the horse. His hands remained respectful as he lifted her into the saddle and as he climbed up in front of her.
He instructed her to hold on and she complied, burying her face and hands in the back of his robes. He did not question her actions, merely saying, "We're off," before kneeing the horse into a mild trot.
Kagome cried quietly into the back of his robes as the sun set and they moved further from the village, never once looking back.
Kagome awoke the following morning as the first rays of dawn colored the sky, bleary-eyed and disoriented. She was wrapped in the futon she had packed and could only assume that she had cried herself to sleep at some point during the night.
Sitting up, she realized that her village was nowhere in sight and felt her heart clench sharply. A profound, hollowing wave of loneliness swept through her and she was tempted to lie back down to sleep for a while.
"Feeling better, Kagome-chan?" Miroku's voice came from a few lengths away, breaking through her dark thoughts.
He was sitting beside a small fire, roasting a couple of fish over it for their breakfast. The horse was tied to a nearby tree, grazing among the forest foliage.
"Yes, much better, thank you," Kagome fibbed, forcing a smile. "I apologize for falling asleep on you like that, Miroku-sama."
"No problem at all, Kagome-chan," the houshi said, waving her off cheerfully. "I quite enjoyed putting you in your futon last night. I considered crawling in with you to keep you warm, but I was afraid it might be a bit small for the both of us."
Kagome chuckled disbelievingly, one fist flexing threateningly beneath the covers as she wondered how much of that statement was in earnest. She vowed silently never again to fall asleep before him.
"Would you like some breakfast?" Miroku offered, pulling from over the fire one of the sticks on which had been roasting a fish. He held it out to her.
Kagome crawled out of her futon and accepted the fish with a small, "Thanks." She blew lightly on it before taking a bite.
"You are certain that you are feeling better, Kagome-chan?" Miroku inquired, nibbling at his own fish.
Kagome looked up, but the houshi had his eyes fixed on his food. She grinned wryly. A lecher he might be, but Miroku really did seem to be a good man. Quite perceptive, at that.
"I'm sure I'll be fine," Kagome replied, already feeling a little less alone. "Even if I wasn't always happy there, it's still a big change to just pack up and leave. And I'm a little worried about what it will be like in the capital, as well as how the villagers will fare now that I'm gone, even with the help you send. It's a big change for them, as well."
"I believe that things will actually become more peaceful now that you are gone, if you will pardon my saying so," the houshi said. Kagome frowned.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't wish to upset you in any way, but I think it important that you understand," Miroku said, his expression losing a bit of its levity.
He tossed the stick his fish had been skewered on into the flames, watching as it was consumed.
"As I have mentioned before, your spiritual aura is very unique and very large. And because you were never taught to control it properly, it is easy to sense from quite a distance. That being the case…I believe it may have been you that attracted some of the youkai activity to your area.”
“After all, a powerful but essentially untrained miko is a prime target for any youkai that might want a quick boost in power. They eat you, absorb your abilities, and automatically become a power in the spirit world."
Kagome gaped at him, eyes growing wide.
"You don't mean…it's my fault that horde destroyed all those villages?" Her skin prickled, horror sliding over her like the cool brush of a snake's skin.
"I don't mean anything of the sort. You can only be held accountable for your own actions, and youkai will do as they want regardless of anything. So please…"
Miroku trailed off, drawing from her blank expression that she was not listening. He sighed, half-wishing that he could take the words back.
Kagome gazed fixedly at the left over half of her fish, no longer hungry. Her stomach churned. By the kami, had it truly been her fault? All those people…
There was something else, too, creeping around on the fringe of her mind. It was vaguely prickly, like…
"Miroku-sama," she said, the wheels in her mind abruptly set to turning. He looked up at her, surprised.
"Can you feel that?" she asked.
The prickle had grown into the sting one might feel from a splinter. Miroku cocked his head questioningly at her.
"What do you-"
Kagome was already up, dashing over to the horse and desperately fishing through her enormous sack. The feeling had swiftly grown into a pain like being stabbed, though not a physical pain so much as a detached discomfort she could feel with her spiritual sense.
Miroku was up now, shakujou jangling in hand. He could obviously feel it as well, though the way that he kept turning to keep an eye on all directions told Kagome that he could not pinpoint the source of it either. With a yip of triumph she pulled her bow and arrows free of the sack.
Only to scream as she was knocked back and pinned roughly to the ground by countless thin, pointed insect legs, belonging to the youkai that had burst from the foliage directly behind her. She struggled and writhed vainly beneath it, watching as a torso that was humanoid and female bent down towards her face. It was a centipede youkai, Kagome realized, and a huge one at that.
"Kagome-chan!" Miroku called from somewhere to her right.
Kagome struggled harder, but the thing had her arms firmly pinioned to the ground, preventing even a simple warding gesture.
The youkai was face to face with her now, beady eyes staring into her own and rows upon rows of pointed fangs bared. It seemed to be sniffing her, moving down her stomach slowly as if scenting for something. It paused at her right hip, grinning fearsomely.
"Shikon…" it hissed, opening its mouth wide and sinking its jaws into the flesh of her hip.
Kagome shrieked. In a burst of pearly light, the youkai exploded.
Bits of green flesh rained down on the stunned miko and the houshi. Their eyes met amidst the debris, the houshi's hand frozen in its hold on the rosary wrapping the opposite hand.
"Are you alright, Kagome-chan?" he asked, shaking off his stupor and rushing to her side. Kagome ignored the hand he proffered to help her up, preferring to remain on the ground for the moment.
"I'm fine, I think," she managed.
The monster's fangs had barely pierced her skin before it had spontaneously exploded. Quiet reigned for a few moments, both of them absorbed in watching the falling pieces of flesh.
"Well, that was quite a start to our trip. Welcome to the wide world, Kagome-chan," Miroku joked feebly, more to break the silence than anything. A spindly leg landed atop his head, flailing slightly.
Kagome fell back against the ground, chuckling a bit hysterically. Welcome to the wide world.