Chapter 1: "Anticipation"
By Yioujuin. June 2003.
NOTE: It helps if you are familiar with the manga, at least up through Volume 30, Chapter 292.
If not, don't mind the unclarified references made in this fic. I've made them vague to avoid spoilers.
The noonday sun bore down relentlessly on the strange band of companions. The wind was nothing more than a fleeting breeze at best, just enough to tease the senses into a weary yearning for relief. The dirt road they had been traveling responded to their drudging feet with small clouds of heavy dust. And not a cloud was in the sky.
"...So hot..." Shippou whimpered, barely managing to lift his head up from Kagome's shoulder.
Inuyasha, who had been walking ahead of the group as usual, shot a glare at the fox cub, as if he didn't care to be reminded of that which he was already trying to ignore. Miroku gripped his shakujo more tightly than usual and kept his pace silently alongside Sango, who merely closed her eyes and nodded slightly. Kirara had untransformed in an attempt to save energy and was now trotting alongside her master with some strain. Everyone silently agreed with the kitsune, though none felt it necessary to waste precious effort voicing the agreement.
They had been through countless demons and life-threatening battles, and yet nothing they had faced so far was as daunting as the terrible heat that had been plaguing them for the past week. If Naraku didn't kill them first, they would all die from heatstroke.
Inuyasha gritted his teeth and turned around. "...Nani?" he asked, unable to keep the general irritation out of his voice.
"...Let's take a break. I... I don't think I can keep up," Kagome said weakly.
Inuyasha's expression of annoyance changed into one of slight concern. While he was son to one of the greatest youkais ever to tread Japan, even he was a little more than uncomfortable under these glaring rays of heat. And if he was tired... Inuyasha cast a quick glance at the rest of his companions. This was no good. The last town they had come across was already long behind. And if any of Naraku's detachments came after them now, they might not be able to take it.
The white-haired hanyou sighed. "Yeah, fine. This heat is really annoying, anyway. But we gotta find some kinda shelter first or we'll fry out here."
Kagome breathed a sigh of relief. Definitely.
Naraku will just have to wait.
* * *
A short while later, the group found itself entering the cool, pleasant shade of an old forest. Sango and Miroku dismounted Kirara and looked around. Kagome slid off of Inuyasha's back and stretched her arms. Although the air was still humid and hot, it felt wonderful to be out of the sunlight at last.
Kagome ran a hand over her forehead, which was slick with sweat. She grimaced as she felt her hair already plastered to her face and neck. "Aah... What I wouldn't give for a cold swim right now..."
Inuyasha paused and sniffed the air. "Actually, there's a small lake up ahead."
"Really?" Kagome asked excitedly.
"...Do you think I would lie about something stupid like that? ...That way," he said in his usual, slightly annoyed manner, pointing in a direction down the path.
Kagome narrowed her eyes as if she was about to say something back... but she calmed decidedly and smiled instead. Life was too short, especially with Naraku to hunt down, to engage in pointless arguments. Her eyes shone at him with a mixture of affection and understanding as she smiled at him in a way that compelled Inuyasha to start, then shyly avert his gaze.
Shippou silently clambered down Kagome and shuffled away from the couple, knowing where he was not needed.
Sango, a few feet behind them, suddenly felt a twinge of embarrassment. Of course she had always noticed the subtle affection between Kagome and Inuyasha, but she had always tried not to stare. Now, for some reason, she couldn't help but watch them, transfixed by the way they carried themselves. The way she looked at him... The way he calmed down when she was near...
She allowed herself a small smile. Even though she had lost her family, being with Inuyasha, Kagome, and Shippou gave her more comfort than she understood. Maybe it was their acceptance of her. Maybe it was the constant cycle of their bickering and peaceful moments that reminded her so much of family... but then...
As naturally as possible, Sango shifted her stance so that she could steal a quick glance at the houshi at her side.
But he had already been staring at her with a slight smile on his lips.
Stunned, Sango quickly turned her face away as she felt her heart skip a beat. H-how long has he been looking at me like that? she wondered nervously.
Kagome took Sango's wrist, jolting her out of reflection. "Come on, Sango-chan! Let's go."
Sango suddenly remembered how her clothes were rough with the wetness of her sweat, sticking uncomfortably to her back, not to mention arms and legs. She was all too ready to follow when a thought occurred to her. She stopped and looked back. "But what about you guys? You must be itching for a bath as well..."
Predictably, the monk stepped forward and gently placed a hand on Sango's shoulder. "Very well," he began solemnly. "I accept your invitation to accompany you in bathing."
Inuyasha still had his fist out as he dragged an unconscious Miroku across the dirt path by his outer robe. He and Shippou looked reseignedly annoyed. "There's a stream further down. We'll be over there."
* * *
Kirara, once again in her smaller form, eagerly quenched her thirst at the water's edge, pausing briefly to cast a watchful eye over her mistress and the black-haired girl cleansing themselves in the deeper waters.
"Mou, Sango... Can I ask you a question... if you don't mind..." A mischevous smile played on Kagome's lips.
Sango didn't mind. Immersing herself in the crisp, cool waters had improved her mood tenfold. The feel of cold, rushing water running through her hair and easing her warm scalp was gloriously refreshing. She would answer a thousand questions, really, as long as they had nothing to do with--
"...Eh?" A bead a sweat distinctively formed on Sango's wet face. She had missed the question.
Kagome made a face. "Didn't you hear me? I said, 'What do you think of Miroku-sama?' "
Sango sat up against a rock and tried to look angry. "W-well..."
"...Well?" Kagome looked at her expectantly, trying to suppress a giggle.
Sango looked back at her with a half-lidded stare. "Haven't we already been through this?"
Kagome grinned. "I''m sorry, Sango-chan. I'm always getting into everyone's business, I know, but... I can't help but think that he really likes you."
"Really..." Sango gazed at the water flowing around her right arm. She wasn't blushing this time. She had learned her lesson: last time she started believing he might have returned his interest, she saw him walk off with some village girl. But then... he did apologize. And after that, he even asked her... if... if...
She cupped some water in her hands and splashed her face lightly, trying to rub the coldness into her face. He couldn't have been serious, though, that playboy...
Not that it really mattered to her, of course.
* * *
Further down, where the lake turned into a lively stream, Inuyasha and Miroku were immersed in a conversation of their own. Shippou, bored long ago by the topic of choice, drank, bathed, and left to set up camp.
"--and what did she say after that?"
Inuyasha cocked his head to one side. "Eh... It sounds like all she said was, ' Really.' "
"Yeah, that's what I said. ' Really.' "
Miroku put a hand to his chin thoughtfully, mentally running through the various implications of the word. "Hmm... 'Really'..."
Inuyasha gave him a half-lidded stare. "So are you done using me yet?"
"Hey, it's not as if you weren't curious to know if Kagome was saying anything about you. Admit it."
"What the...? Don't be stupid!" growled the hanyou. "I don't care what that girl--"
Suddenly, he paused mid-sentence. Miroku could see his ears twitching attentively and allowed his lips to curve upwards into a satisfactory smirk. "So now--"
They waited in silence. Suddenly, Inuyasha began howling with laughter.
Miroku stiffened, not sure if he wanted to hear what was so funny.
But he didn't have a choice. "Oi, Miroku!" Inuyasha managed in between chuckles. "Sango just said she would rather bear the child of a boar youkai than yours."
The monk looked startled at first, but then, with the perfect serenity of a buddha, he lifted up his hands in defense and smiled. "She's merely shy, that's all. I understand the nature of denial..."
Inuyasha finally stopped laughing to give him another look. ...Who's the one in denial?
* * *
Kagome sat down next to Inuyasha under the tree and sighed contentedly. "That was refreshing, wasn't it?"
Half-nervous and half-glad at her sudden proximity, Inuyasha nodded without thinking. "Yeah... I guess..."
Her eyes lit up. "See! See! Ah, I told you we should have stopped for a break!"
"Oi, what are you being so loud for? We stopped, didn't we?"
"Oh!" Kagome waved her hands in clarification and smiled. "Oh, I'm not mad. Just happy."
"...Right..." Inuyasa eyed her warily. Geez... She can even be scarier when she's happy...
"Yeah..." She scooted a little closer and leaned on his shoulder. "So... Thanks for understanding... Inuyasha."
He twitched. "Feh! I would have suggested it sooner or later anyway, since you guys looked like you were gonna drop dead at any minute..."
Sango, with her hair slightly damp, sat down a small distance from them and rubbed her hair with the long, slightly rough cloth that Kagome had lent to her. She looked over at Kagome and Inuyasha, lost in their own little world, and decided to give them some space. She quietly got back on her feet and made her way out of the clearing... but not before looking back and noticing the absence of a certain houshi and fox kid. Shippou had probably gone off to keep himself amused and as far away from "grown-up stuff" as possible. As for houshi-sama...
It was just as well that he wasn't there. Her mind was already occupied with thoughts of him, ever since Kagome's inquisition at the lake. To see him now would only jumble what she had been trying so hard to sort out ever since they'd met...
She walked back to the water's edge where she had bathed only moments ago. But, as if drawn by her wishes to keep him away, she heard the familiar clanging of a shakujo approaching from behind.
"Oi, Sango," he called pleasantly.
She turned and greeted him with a polite smile. "Houshi-sama."
They stood overlooking the peaceful waters in a moment of comfortable silence.
"So, you've also decided to leave Kagome and Inuyasha alone?" he asked with a tone of mild amusement.
Sango smiled and nodded. "Un. We... I mean, they rarely get moments alone like these."
Miroku scratched the back of his neck sheepishly. "Yeah... Were it not for the fact that we are on such a terrible mission..."
Sango nodded again. Silence hung in the air for a while after that, since neither of them wanted to discuss Naraku during such a moment.
Although Sango tried not to notice, she felt relieved to have Miroku next to her again. His being by her side had become so normal during their travels that his absences became all the more noticeable, and admittedly disappointing to the youkai exterminator. But whether he felt the same way... She could never tell. One moment he was fondling her; the next, treating her as casually as a roadside comrade. And then there was a side to him, she was certain, that he kept carefully to himself. She had seen glimpses of it. But it was that side that she wanted to expose, more than anything else... but how?
Lost in thought, she didn't realize that she had been staring until Miroku noticed her gaze, grinned, and took a step closer to her.
"Yes, my dear Sango?" he asked. He was smiling; altogether pleasant, although there was a certain glint of playfulness in his eyes that indicated a lack of seriousness on the word "dear."
So... that was it. He hides by playing foolish, but just with the right amount of obviousness so that I can assume that he's joking, even if he's not... she pondered slowly, trying to ignore both his closeness and the creeping warmth in her cheeks. He always does this, and I always react with annoyance or anger. So that's what he expects.
She found herself staring into his well-masked eyes searchingly, revelation slowly dawning on her. That's why... he can always stay so calm and collected. He anticipates reactions, even before he acts... in battle... and now, with me. But what if...
She tore her gaze away from his handsome features for the fear of giving her thoughts away to those penetrating eyes, and focused instead on the water's edge.
What if... I can catch him off guard by reacting differently? Unexpectedly?
Unless he can think quickly on his feet...
...I just might be able to find him out and--
She froze at the all-too-familiar touch on her rear and shot him a death glare, shaking with fury. L-Like now... He expects me to hurt him now... I-I should try something...
A flock of birds was suddenly startled from its place in the treetops as a deafening slap reverberated throughout the forest.
Miroku lay crumpled by the water with a pained smile on his face, clutching a hand to the redness of his left cheek as Sango stalked away, fuming.
...I'll start that tomorrow.