Anyway, thank you all *so* much for your wonderful reviews! They're an absolute joy to read, I still can't believe this fic has gotten such good response so far. *is amazed every time she checks here* And thank you also to everyone who emailed me and IM'd me; not only did it encourage me to pick up the pace, but sometimes your comments helped me through the rough sections in this chapter. In other words, thank you everyone! ^_^; (oh--some people said in the reviews that they were having trouble sending mail, especially with files (fanart? *eyes light up happily* I love art! ^^;; ). For a long time I had been having email problems, so now I've got a completely new address and that seems to have fixed the problem. If you're still having trouble, let me know in a reply and I'll figure out another way somehow. ^^;; )
Disclaimer: I own a dream I had the other day about Inu coming to visit in my dorm and going to the showers with me. ^_^ But, alas, I own no copyrights. ;-;
This, Inuyasha thought ruefully, was why I hadn't wanted a prisoner.
The whole situation made him want to bite something. Not because he was angry, no--perhaps if he had minded the rain he would have been a bit more irritated by the whole debacle: after all, it wasn't exactly a brilliant idea for half the tribe to lay their blankets down on the collapsing bank of an overflowing river in the middle of a howling tempest. No, what bothered him..was that it should never have happened at all.
And it was his fault that it did.
Tucking a roll of damp blankets under his arm, the half-spirit began one last round through the recovering camp, stalking as though he could out-pace his own thoughts. How could I have been so blasted careless? How? Near he could still hear the steady, low rushing roar of the river lashing at its banks like a mad, caged animal, ready to break out, alive, and it only amplified his guilt. Half his tribe almost drowned tonight, and now he was leaving his captive alone in the rain while he rescued them. Under any other circumstance, their idiocy in campsite-choice would have been their fault and their fault alone, but this was not any other circumstance. This was a war party: even with the fighting over, it was still a war party. And he was the war leader. So until they reached home, he was responsible for anything and everything that happened.
It didn't matter to Inuyasha that the tribe didn't blame him--if anything, they were quite grateful for his rescue. What mattered was his conscience blamed him. If just a one had fallen in, the unwelcome voice lurking at the edge of his awareness reminded, the river would have pulled them under and swallowed them whole. And whose fault would it be, hmm?
Damn it, conscience, you're supposed to be on my side.
It would be all Inuyashas fault, it would.
It would be his fault because, had he been paying attention like he should have, he could have prevented it. Why hadn't he taken the time to look properly, why? Why oh why hadn't he hell-be-damned noticed?
Oh, he knew why. He had let himself get distracted. Stupidly. His thoughts weren't where they should have been--it alarmed him how much that was happening these days.
Which brought him right back to why he was feeling so bloody bad.
He sighed and cursed himself as he finished his head count of the tribe--cursed himself for not doing better and making sure they didn't, in their exhaustion, make a mishap like this. For not being the responsible leader they all looked up to and expected of him. He cursed himself thrice-fold and twelve ways to Tuesday.
And he cursed her for distracting him.
Her. Infuriating, frustrating, intriguing, baffling, confusing, aggravating, fascinating her. The girl he had rescued, or captured; put it either way. The conundrum that was Kagome. This whole big mess was all her fault, Inuyasha sulked as he walked. Completely her fault--how dare she be in his head all the time!
..Fine, so maybe it wasn't entirely her fault. But that didn't stop her from being mad at her, he thought stubbornly, and righteously so. Hmph. She deserved a good soak in the rain, that'd put her in her place.
He certainly didn't feel bad about it.
Not in the least.
.. Stupid conscience.
The sudden image his thoughts conjured of her curled in a pale, miserable, shivering heap in the rain brought another unwelcome pang of guilt to the forefront of his mind, stronger than before. He sighed again, for what must have been the millionth time that night. She must be freezing by now, he thought. He'd had to leave her all alone to go help the tribe, and now he was wishing he hadn't. The storm didn't faze him a bit, but the girl had been looking weaker and weaker..she probably wasn't handling it as well as he was. He just hoped she had the good sense to stay put and wait for him to return.
Stay there, girl, he urged silently. Just a little longer and I'll be back. Don't do anything stupid. He'd even found the last half-dry roll of blankets in the whole camp to take back to her--that ought to make up for things, he reasoned, pleased. Maybe even cheer her up a bit: blankets made everyone happy. Well.. they made him happy at least. She had still been very quiet since that afternoon, and while at first he'd disliked her constant babble, now he wanted it back just so he'd know she was alright.
This Kagome was quite possibly the most confusing, baffling creature he'd set eyes on in his life. At first, she had enraged him. Then she had alternately irritated and amused him, and, finally, it had settled down to a reasonable level of irk. But he found that irk being displaced more and more of late by quiet puzzlement, which at some point had, against his will, turned into..curiosity. Why, he'd spent the entire day just watching her and trying to figure her out.
Which, he frowned, is what I'd been doing instead of paying attention to the stupid tribe. Agh! This is why he'd never wanted prisoners --he had enough to deal with already. Too much to handle; how was he going to take care of her? Everything was already in a big ugly knot--because of the girl, he'd neglected the tribe. And then, when he goes to the tribe, he neglects the girl. Which in a way was worse..she depended entirely on him until they reached the village.
He'd..never had anyone depend on him before. He wasn't quite sure how to handle it. It made him nervous, and Inuyasha didn't like being edgy. He generally just channeled it into anger, but being angry at the girl somehow wasn't as satisfying as it should have been.
Maybe, his conscience suggested, he should stop blaming her for things?
Bah--enough of this, he cut off his own thoughts, shaking water out of his hair with a frown. It was getting him nowhere. He was doing it again--letting her distract him. That had caused enough trouble already tonight. Honestly, he should be happy: tribe was safe, girl was safe, prisoners were safe--miserable but safe, and he was sure they'd needed a good bath anyway--and he still had those blankets.
His ears pricked suddenly. Cloth swishing, footsteps, heavy breathing. The clinking of talismans hung on a staff.
"I know that you're there, Miroku," he said blandly, not looking back or slowing. The young shaman threw up his hands in defeat and jogged to catch up with the prowling half-spirit, and when he did he pushed his dripping wet bangs off his forehead and smiled.
"Hello there, Inuyasha." He paused to listen the tell-tale flapping of the thunderbirds wings, the sky rumbling overhead. Then he continued on cheerfully, as oblivious to Inuyasha's glare as he was to the downpour. "How are things going with your new friend?"
"I'm still not speaking to you."
"And you're doing a very good job of it," Miroku said, nodding sagely. Inuyasha, affronted, opened his mouth to respond ..then shut it quickly. Miroku chuckled. "Say now," his glance flicked down to the bundle in the others arms, "could I have one of those blankets? There's a very pretty girl who--"
"No." Inuyasha clutched his prized blankets tighter.
"You should really give me the silent treatment more often; it makes you more talkative," he mused aloud, shaking his head with a sigh. He turned and waved his hand at the waterfalls running off the trees down on them, at the river come alive down the slope, and at the ankle-deep puddles they were slogging through. "Oh, come now--it's not like you need them, you don't even get cold! The way you prance about in the middle of a flood like this, one would think you were half duck spirit."
Clenching his jaws, Inuyasha said nothing.
"Ah--" the shaman's grin widened, realization dawning in his eyes. "Unless, of course, the blankets are for someone else?" Miroku clapped his hands in delight when Inuyasha's petulant silence seemed to answer for him. "My, my. My indeed--I never thought I'd see the day. Are you softening, Inuyasha?"
Snorting, the half-spirit rolled his eyes and with a slow, exaggerated deliberateness, shook his wet white hair out all over the shaman like the dog he half-was. A useless gesture, sure, since the rain had soaked them both long before, but it was the principle of the damned thing that counted. The playful banter between the two had become a tradition of sorts, and each constantly drove to get one up on the other; it had been that way for years. What was a fight on the surface was, strangely, their way of getting along. It was like a game.
Sometimes, though, Miroku went a bit too far. This was to be one of those times. He was touching on a subject that Inuyasha carefully trying to avoid right now, the girl. Further, he seemed to be making fun of Inuyasha's gift. Which meant he was poking the white-haired indian's already precarious mood with a flaming stick: sooner or later, he'd strike a spark.
"Why, I believe you are!" Miroku sang happily, doing a pirouette in the mud. "Mighty war leader spirit Inuyasha has a soft spot. Soon you'll be making puppy-eyes at your enemies instead of fighting them--forgive the pun." Flashing the half-spirit a cheeky smile, he tapped Inuyasha on the nose with his staff and then skipped ahead just out of reach, twirling it in his hand. "I can see it now! First its bringing blankets to lovely strangers, then, who knows? Helping people without complaining?" He put his hand to his heart in mock-disbelief, then looked about conspiratorially and winked, as though imparting a great secret. "Yes, you're definitely softening, my friend. But don't worry, I won't tell."
Inuyasha was sorely tempted to break that staff in half.
Continuing his impromptu little dance, Miroku swaggered ahead, chuckling to the waterlogged night. Eventually, though, he settled down again, and fell back along the half-spirit's side. Inuyasha growled, telling the shaman with his eyes that if he made one wrong move he'd find himself dancing in the river, but Miroku wasn't impressed. It seemed though that the shaman had finally decided to let the subject alone, to Inuyasha's relief. The two continued in silence down the sloping bank, the heavy rain drowning out all sounds but its own steady fall.
Then, all innocence and solemn seriousness, Miroku gave a sidelong glance and added: "I knew a good woman was all you needed."
The turtle that supports the world on its marbled back would have cowered and sunk beneath the waves had Inuyasha's glare been directed at it, but instead his half-lidded stare was focused with deadly intensity on Miroku.
As it was, Miroku merely blinked and put on a blithe smile.
"You," Inuyasha said, coming to a halt and glowering down at the shaman with eyes of angry amber, "Are dead. But before I take that pretty little ponytail of yours and hang it by your bloody scalp on a pole, just tell me this: What the hell kind of malignant, unholy deity have I offended?" His movements were tense, abrupt--he was fighting to keep them under control. "Because I swear, I must be pissing off at least one of them!"
Turning, the half-spirit stalked away several paces and stopped, tightening his fists and growling under his breath. Miroku waited patiently, and the half-spirit finally spun around in frustration and ran a hand through his soaking hair, sighing heavily. "Everything that could have gone wrong, has gone wrong, and more. Hell--the only thing keeping me from just throwing myself in the damned river right now is the fact that at least things couldn't possibly, possibly get worse! "
The gods of irony, hearing this, took up the challenge.
For unbeknownst to Inuyasha, a certain girl had been standing a mere dozen yards away or so for their entire conversation; though she was unaware of their presence as well. The certain girl's human hearing was drowned away by the rain and wind's snarling, and it was the same rain that kept the half-spirit from having scented her. It was a situation of impossible coincidence and cruel, cruel irony. Had they only known, what followed could perhaps have been prevented. But they didn't.
And so it was at that precise, unlikely moment that she fell in.
The choked, strangled shriek that reached Inuyasha's ears made him stop at once and hold his breath, flooding his blood with ice water. A shriek of surprise and pure, unfiltered fear, one that cut off far too quick. And the voice..was familiar. Too familiar. He knew that voice.
"What? What is it?" Miroku asked, a frown slipping over his face as he took a step towards the half-spirit, but Inuyasha barely heard him. His golden eyes glazed over like breath on a windowpane, ears pricked high and twitching violently like those of a rabbit who had just heard the fox. Oh no, no. It couldn't be--it just couldn't. He'd left her back in the trees--
--Why was her voice coming from the river?
Instinct sent him suddenly running, and he had reached the waters edge before his mind caught up with his reflexes. He crouched on an overhang leaning over the water, scanning the surface desperately for any sign, any trace--
There. A flash of pale skin against the blackness of the swollen river. Then the dark waters swirled and churned and it was gone, as though it had never been at all. She..she fell in.
For the first in a very, very long time, Inuyasha felt the grip of panic.
In one liquid, graceful movement, he threw the blankets aside, pushed off from the crumbling riverbank, and glided in an arc through the air. Then he plunged into the roiling, frothing waters, and all was darkness and ice and rush. The water was so cold it forced the air from his lungs, and he literally clawed his way up to breath. The current was dragging him downstream, and as it wound down through the land it seemed intent on pulling him down to the bottom as well; his deerskin pants were suddenly heavy and slow, and he was glad he wasn't wearing a shirt or moccasins.
Sucking in a sharp breath of air and water as he breached the surface, the rain whipping and sleeting down so hard and the spray so thick that he could barely tell he wasn't still underwater, he treaded. Strained to see over the water. Then gritted his teeth, took another starving breath, faced downstream, and dove under again.
This time he had some control. He was moving with the current--it was helping him. The shock of the biting cold had worn off fast; he was as hot-blooded as he was hot-headed. Opening his golden eyes, he hung suspended in the murkish water, strands of ghostly white hair floating about his face. Yes, he could see better down here--up above the spray was blinding, now his unnaturally piercing vision cut through the underwater gloom.
Focusing, he narrowed his eyes and shot forward with powerful strokes. If he'd been anywhere else at the time, Miroku's little duck spirit comment would have almost come back to mind--accompanied by the most violent, blood-boiling cursing known to man, courtesy of himself, of course--but when Inuyasha focused, it was with the intensity of a spirit..a predator. It was consuming. Complete.
He nearly collided with the billowing mass of cloth, hair, and drowning girl before he realized what it was.
His heart caught. The form drifting in the water seemed so..so still. Then, a sudden movement--and he nearly let out his breath in stunned relief. And..surprise.
She was still conscious.
That she was alive amazed him, that she was still conscious put him beyond words. That shouldn't have been possible. But his relief and gratitude was short lived--she was sinking like dead weight. Fast. The girl wasn't even struggling anymore, wasn't trying to swim, wasn't trying to reach the surface at all. She was curled over, her face hidden by her hair. But her hands were doing something; trying to tear her own dress.
Inuyasha acted at once, without even thinking; he swam the last few feet and grabbed her around the waist, turning in the water and hauling up. The river resisted, holding fast to her dress with its claws, the fabric phenomenally, unimaginably heavy with the weight of the water dragging her down. The girl was much smarter than he'd given her credit for..she wasn't trying to swim because she knew that she couldn't. Not with that ridiculous lot of cloth pulling her back.
But that held Inuyasha back for no more than a moment; he just growled and kicked harder, bursting to the surface while holding her tightly to his chest. She gasped, coughing up volumes of water, and took several deep, shaky breaths. He simply held her still and above the water, silently watching while she drank the air like a starving woman. He felt her whole body trembling in his arms.
"Don't worry," he said, choking around a mouthful of water, "I've got you." It wasn't until then that she opened her eyes, turning her head. Gray-blue irises met those of amber, glazed over in shock--and then the moment of recognition. Her eyes widened, surprise flashing across. Then with a small cry, Kagome threw her arms around his shoulders and clung to him, burying her face in his ivory hair.
He tightened his hold on her, afraid she might tremble right out of his arms and be swept away. And he looked around for a bank to climb, swimming towards a dark shape stretching along the side of the river. He reached it, grabbed it with one hand to pull them up--and found the slick mud clay giving way in his claws, part of the soaked ground heaving and collapsing on their heads, pushing them back under. Quickly he hauled her back up, gasping and choking and covered in mud, and pushed as far away from the bank as he could.
Now he could see where they were. They had gone far, far downstream, to clay beds his tribe had once used before they moved to their new home farther west. The sides of the channel rose high above them in steep miniature cliffs, and the rain threatened to bring them all crashing down. And he knew then, with frightening clarity, that it could be miles before the river would let them leave.
Glancing down at the pale girl in his arms, Inyasha began to worry. Truly worry. Because she might very well die if she didn't get out and get warm soon, and the odds of that happening weren't good. He was filled with the strange and disturbing sense that the life in his arms would fade away if he didn't hold onto it tight enough, so he clutched her against him as he kept her head up, not caring how much water he swallowed in the process.
Her body started to go slack, and his eyes widened. "Oh no you don't. I forbid you to die. You got that?" He shook her until she looked up again and locked gazes with him, their faces nearly touching. "I order you," cough, "not to die." His stern glare faltered. "Please?"
Dawn's fresh scent came at last, bringing with it the end of the storms. The forest sky began to lighten well before the sun rose; the trees still dripping and a faint mist clinging to the air, the gray morning gloom still all but for two figures. The first stood slowly, almost shaking with the effort. It stayed for a moment unmoving, hunched over while the water ran off its body. Then it straightened and turned, pulling the second form from where it lay unmoving on the bank and scooping it up. Cradling it in strong arms, the figure shifted it gently, then bounded wordlessly into the trees.
Inuyasha ran in silence, ran until he found a small clearing sheltered by thickly woven branches, and it was there that he set the girl down. She made no complaints as he lay her as carefully as he could onto a hastily gathered pile of rushes and leaves; she made no moves at all. The only sign that she was still alive was the rise and fall of her chest, her shallow breathing. Consciousness had abandoned her at last.
He crouched down on the ground beside her to examine his ward, ears flicking back and forth to make sure nothing approached. He put a hand on her wrist to feel her pulse, a slight frown touching his brows at how cold her skin was. Then he checked for cuts and bruises.
His light touch brought a response from her at last. As his claws passed over her left leg, her body jerked away with a pained hiss, eyes clenching tighter without opening. Startled, he scooted back a few paces and settled into a defensive crouch, but the girl didn't move again. It had been reflex; she was still asleep.
Flattening back his ears, he cautiously approached her still form again, and examined the leg closer. Twisted. Damn. The swelling and bruising around her slender ankle marked the early signs of a bad sprain. She wouldn't be walking back.
"You're a tough one, I'll give you that," he said at last with a sigh to break the silence, setting her leg down again. "Fool..running away in the middle of a storm like that. What the hell were you thinking?"
No answer, but he hadn't expected any.
"You could've died. Hell, it's a miracle you didn't. You're just lucky I'm not angry, or I'd kill you myself for pulling a stupid stunt like this." He blinked. What the..I'm really not angry. The revelation surprised even himself.
By all that was good and reasonable and holy, he should have been mad. No, he should have been furious--livid. But somehow, he just couldn't summon up the energy for it. All attempts to call on his temper and direct it at the girl failed: he was just relieved she wasn't dead. Inuyasha sighed again and rested his forehead in his hand, feeling his exhaustion all at once. Both physical and mental.
"Well.." he said uneasily to the unconscious girl, slowly getting up. "I suppose I don't have time to be angry right now anyway, so I'll overlook it this time. But don't you dare do it again." Looking about the clearing in the crisp morning light, he inhaled deeply, breathing in all the scents of the area. I guess I threw myself in the damned river after all, he thought, noting the irony of it, and turned back to Kagome. She was breathing steadily now, but her skin was still an unhealthy pale, and every so often she shivered. His frown deepened every time she did.
It was time to get started. He could smell the plants he needed; they'd make the swelling go down, that was first priority. And wood, he'd need dry wood for a fire; he dreaded finding that after this rain. Going over his mental list, he started out. Then glanced back nervously at her as if she'd disappear if he turned away. "I'll be right back, just hold on." He took a few more steps and hesitated. "You stay this time, alright?"
She whimpered in her sleep, wincing painfully.
"Oh, fine," he said gruffly, going back and picking her up. He did it so gently that her leg wasn't disturbed at all. "I'll take you with me just this once. A bear would probably come and eat you anyway. Feh." For a moment he felt silly, lecturing and posturing to an unconscious human. "But don't you think I'll be getting into a habit of this--soon as that leg is better you can use your own feet, thank you very much."
A sudden thought occurred to him, and he scowled. "And I am not softening."
Miles back upstream, the first of the tribe began to stir as well with the morning light. They were tired and bedraggled from the night's adventure, but awoke without complaint and began to prepare the morning meal. By the time the sun had fully risen over the hills, the camp had come alive with bustling movement, from checking on prisoners to drying out supplies; nearly everyone was up and doing something.
All but one.
A young brave ran everywhere through the camp, a worried frown touching his boyish features. He searched high and low, circling the tribe twice before he stumbled upon Miroku at last, buried under a massive heap of blankets. The only part showing was the tip of the shaman's staff.
The brave blinked. He thought Inuyasha had taken the last of the sheets; where on earth had the shaman gotten so many? Oh well. "Miroku? Sir, is that you?"
The mountain of blankets groaned and shifted, before the shaman finally managed to find his way out and blinked drowsily in the morning sun. "Ahanu?" He yawned and stretched, rubbing his eyes. "What is it, what do you need?"
"Sir," Ahanu said in earnest, dipping his head in respect, "I came to tell you that Inuyasha is missing. I have searched the whole camp all morning, but there's no sign of him at all, or of his prisoner. They're both gone."
"Oh," Miroku said, scratching his head. "Yes. That." He looked slightly sheepish for a moment, but immediately composed himself and got up, dusting himself off as he straightened. "Inuyasha told me he will be away for a few days," he lied smoothly, "on important spirit-business. He says not to worry and to keep going, he'll catch up with us on the way." The shaman's face was a flawless mask of grave calm.
The young boy nodded quickly, still nervous. "Thank you, shaman, I'll tell the rest of the tribe." He turned to leave, but Miroku suddenly held up a hand to wait. Ahanu stopped and waited, clearly confused, while Miroku put a hand to his chin in thought.
"Ahanu," Miroku said after a long pause, acting on sudden impulse. He had a plan. Oh yes, he had a plan. "One..one other thing. Inuyasha asked me to inform the tribe of his, how shall I put this..romantic intentions." The boy's face positively lit up, and Miroku nodded, smiling. "Yes, towards the girl he selected. I'm sure you understand what a joyous occasion this is."
"Oh, yes! I can't believe it--we thought he'd never take a wife. The whole tribe will want to know about this!" The boy was absolutely delighted at the thought of their great leader finally finding someone; Ahanu was simply that good-hearted, innocent type. And there was no doubt most of the tribe would feel the same.
This was turning out so much better than Miroku had thought. He didn't even regret not capturing the girl himself now, even if she was very pretty. He had only been teasing the half-spirit before about needing a woman, but now..now, he wondered if maybe it was true. Maybe this is exactly what the irate Indian had needed all along. Much as he loved to taunt Inuyasha, he really did have the spirit-boys well-being in mind.
They'd thank him for this someday. Really.
Miroku pat Ahanu on the back, guiding him in the direction of the tribe. "Why don't you go tell them, then?" he suggested innocently. "All of them."
Author's Note: Again, eternal apologies for leaving you all waiting so long, and on a cliff hanger at that. *bows before all and begs for forgiveness* It won't happen again! (if it does, I give you all free lisence to beat me).