Once Burned, Twice Shy
Disclaimer: I don't own Inuyasha, even if he is a little kid in this story. I do sort of own Ayame and Taro. I say sort of because I got 'Ayame,' the name, from the RuroKen anime, and there's someone named Taro-maru in one of the Inu-Yasha books.
Author's Note: Now part of the A Time for Everything series.
Feedback: It would be very nice.
Once Burned, Twice Shy
A Time to Survive
Ayame sighed as she walked into her meager garden, one of her few sources of food during the current famine. There had been famines before, but this one had lasted quite a while, and she and her husband Taro were feeling the pinch. She scuffed her feet in the overworked dirt and sighed, breathing in cool night air.
There's barely enough here to feed us for a few weeks, she thought unhappily. How are we ever going to get by?
Suddenly, she shivered, feeling as if someone watched her. She turned slowly, squinting in the light of the quarter-moon, staring as hard as she could around the fields and surrounding forest.
"Taro? Is that you?"
"Who's there? I felt you watching me."
A cricket chirped. Ayame sighed and went back to her work of gathering a rationed amount of vegetables for tomorrow's meals. Laying her small pile down, she rose and stretched, closing her eyes for a long moment.
She sighed again, and bent to pick up the plants. Suddenly, she paused, noticing something.
"I know I had more than that," she muttered. "Am I just going crazy?"
She ran over the last ten minutes in her head. She had a good memory, so she could check off the vegetables she had now with the vegetables she had then. She came up one short.
"I know I had another daikon; I remember reminding myself to pick two. But there's only one here. Strange…"
She looked around her garden as if expecting to see the mystery thief. But she was alone.
"Maybe I am just going insane," she grumbled, pulling up an extra daikon radish and heading back towards her house.
"Taro," she asked as she pushed the door aside to allow her to enter, "have you noticed things going missing occasionally?"
"Hmmmm," Taro pseudo-responded, not paying attention to her, but concentrating on the wooden statuette he was carving.
"I said, have you noticed things going missing lately?"
"No, why do you ask?"
"I must just be going crazy then," she muttered.
"Crazy? What are you talking about, Ayame?"
"Oh, I gathered two daikon, but when I turned around, there was only one. So either we have a mystery thief, or I'm going a little off the wall."
"How could someone have stolen a daikon? How long were you looking away?"
"About five seconds, and I was standing right there. No, there's no way someone could have stolen it from right under my feet."
"You're probably just tired. Go to bed. I've got to finish this if we're going to have any source of food besides the forest and your garden."
"Yeah…" She was tired. "That must be it."
The next morning, however, she wasn't so sure. Taro departed early for town, as it was quite a way, to try to peddle his statuettes. He had been working on some of them for weeks, and he had a couple dozen, all different.
Ayame spent the morning in her garden, weeding. As she shuffled along the rows of small and occasionally sickly plants, she brooded over last night's vanishing food.
You're imagining things, she told herself roughly. She stood up.
I was standing right here, she recollected. Her bare feet had left footprints in the earth, and they were still visible, if only faintly. She slotted her feet into the prints. Looking around, there was nowhere anyone could have hidden. And if they had zipped out of the forest and back in the few moments she had her eyes closed, they would have left prints in the dirt too. She bent, careful not to touch the ground, and squinted at the ground. Nothing, nothing, and nothing.
Wait. There was one maybe-footprint she couldn't account for. It's nothing, surely. But there was a faint mark, like a child's small footprint.
Some stray child, perhaps? Ayame was suddenly seized with curiosity. Well, this mystery thief showed up at night before, so he or she might be here again tonight. He or she's probably hungrier than we are.
Taro wasn't back by dark, but Ayame refused to worry. Instead, she kept herself busy designing a trap to catch her mystery thief, as she dubbed him/her, in the act. Once dusk fell, she headed out to the garden once more, carrying a plate of fish 'absently.'
She placed the dish 'absently' on a flat stone that she often sat on to rest, and half-turned to her garden, continuing her weeding job. No matter how hard or how often she tried, she never seemed to get all of the weeds, and they inevitably choked out part of her crop.
Keeping the plate in the corner of her eye, she worked diligently, but paid close attention to her bait. Her patience was rewarded when she noticed a faint movement around one corner of the house.
Ah ha, she thought triumphantly, not letting her smug satisfaction show on her face. Welcome back. I guess you're still hungry, little one.
The child, for so it was, was actually quite small, from what she could see unobtrusively. It-no, he- looked no older than four or five, but had long, pale hair. No doubt the child's hair would shine white in full sunlight, but with only the moon and faint stars to illuminate it, he was near invisible. What he was wearing, she could not tell, but it was dark enough to blend with the dusk.
She watched subtly, still 'weeding', as the boy slunk around the corner, dropping to all fours. However, he still moved quickly and silently, not at all as clumsily as she had first guessed. Only when he reached the rock and the plate of fish did he rise to his feet, watching her just as closely as she watched him. Focusing on a tree off to his left, she avoided appearing as if she were watching him, but now that he was closer, she could see more details.
He was keeping one golden eye on her as he reached slowly for one of the fishes. What caught her attention, however, were two things. One, he was pathetically emaciated and had the hollow-eyed quality of the truly starved. Two, he wasn't just any child. Her mystery thief was clearly demon-born; he had a clearly canine profile, and dog's ears.
Child's fingers gripped the fish, and he transferred it to his mouth, still keeping a wary eye on Ayame. Silently, he began to edge away backwards, passing out of her field of view, and at that point, she couldn't help herself.
She spun around, looking straight at the demon-child. They both froze, staring at each other, Ayame holding a weed like a weapon, the demon-child halfway to all four feet. His eyes widened; he knew he was in for it.
"Hey, little one, I guess you're hungry too, huh?" she said softly.
He didn't reply, not with words. Instead he bared his fangs and snarled defensively around the fish. Ayame raised both hands, dropping the weed in case he felt threatened by it. "It's all right; I won't hurt you."
He fled, vanishing into the forest.
"If you come back, I'll have more food," she called after him. She couldn't tell whether he'd heard her or not.
Taro returned not half an hour later. Darkness had truly fallen, and she was starting to get worried, but she needn't have. Her husband was in a wonderful mood, and the statuettes had been quite popular at the market.
"See, Ayame, we may live through the winter after all," he said happily.
"Winter's months away," she retorted. "You were worrying that far ahead?"
"I hoped I didn't have to. But now I'm sure I don't."
"Good, I'm glad the statues worked out."
"And how was your day? Any more problems with the mystery thief?"
In the split second before she replied, several thoughts went through her mind. First was that the child hadn't been a problem. Second was that Taro hated demons. Third was that, if he found out about the demon-child, he would probably stop her from feeding it; and the kid looked near to terminal starvation. Fourth was her answer.
"No, I don't think the mystery thief is going to be a problem any more."
"I told you that you just imagined it, didn't I?"
Yes, you did. And you were wrong.
The demon-child had heard, after all. He was haunting her garden next evening.
Ayame had left another plate of food on the rock. It wasn't much, but she couldn't spare much without Taro noticing. She worked on her hands and knees, keeping an obvious eye on the platter. It was a while before she spotted him.
He hovered on the outskirts of the forest, perched on a low branch, watching her- and the food- warily. He was definitely difficult to see at this time of day, she decided absentmindedly, and that was probably why he chose to show up now.
"Hello, you're back," she called softly. "I almost thought you wouldn't come. C'mere. I brought more food for you. It's all I can spare."
He crept forward, at first on all fours, but then rising, watching her like a frightened hawk.
"I'm Ayame," she said softly as he approached, trying her utmost not to scare him off again. "What's your name?"
He remained silent.
"Can you speak?"
The boy nodded cautiously.
No, he wouldn't.
"That's okay, I can't make you talk. But I would like to know what your name is."
"Do you have a name?"
Yes, he did.
"Why won't you tell me?"
That wasn't a yes or no question. He didn't react.
"I'll have to call you something."
He inched past her at a safe distance.
"You don't have to be scared of me, I promise I won't hurt you."
He bared his fangs at her again and reached for the food. The message was clear. You hurt me, I'll hurt you right back.
"I understand, little one. Tell you what. I'll be out here quite often at this time. I'll bring food with me; if you show up you can have it."
He watched her suspiciously.
"No, I don't want anything from you. I just don't want to see a child starve."
He considered this.
She watched him closely, but not intensely enough for him to get spooked again. He seemed more intelligent than your average demon, despite his youth.
"You're a Demon Lord's child, aren't you? Where's your family?"
He froze, staring up at her with huge golden eyes.
"Was that not a good question?"
The demon-child slid off the rock and backed away. Whether this was due to her question or because there wasn't any more food left was debatable. It might have been both.
"I promise to bring more food tomorrow, ok?"
He paused and nodded clearly before disappearing among the trees again.
"Wow, that went well," Ayame said, not completely sarcastically. Ok, from that I've learned that he's hungry enough to brave humans, he won't talk but he'll answer yes or no questions, and he's a Demon Lord's child. But he didn't like that question. Oh yes, and once the food's gone, so is he.
This same routine continued for several nights. Ayame would bring food, the demon-child (for Ayame refused to name him something that wasn't his actual name) would show up and listen to Ayame chatter cautiously until the food was gone, then leave.
"I'd still like to know what your name is. Calling you 'demon-child' seems rude, somehow. I know I wouldn't like being referred to as 'woman' all the time."
"Why don't you talk?"
Another evening, it was "Hi."
"Is this your only source of food?"
"I guess the famine has hit demons as hard as humans."
"If I wasn't feeding you, what would you do?"
"You would be a lot easier to hold a conversation with if you would just talk."
Inevitably, Taro figured out that something was afoot. Unfortunately, he found out at probably the worst possible time. He hadn't sold many statues since that first success, and on his way home on the last trip to the village, a pair of minor demons had attacked him. He'd managed to defend himself and drive them off, but he'd been solidly injured. He spent a couple days recuperating, and by the end of that time period, he was justly suspicious.
"Ayame!" he called.
"Who else are we feeding!"
"Who else are we feeding!"
"Why are you asking that?" she asked, shaken.
"You've been taking food outside every evening to work in the garden. After dinner. I don't think you'd sneak snacks, so you must be feeding someone else. Who, Ayame?"
She sighed. "Taro, remember the mystery thief incident a couple weeks ago?"
"Mystery- Ayame, don't tell me you're still on about that. You made a mistake, that was all."
"Actually, I didn't. There actually was a mystery thief. He's just a stray child, Taro. I didn't want to see him starve to death."
"What's his name? Where's he from? And how come he's on his own?"
"Um, I actually don't know. He won't talk. He can, but he won't."
"Weird. I want to meet him."
No! Bad idea, he hates demons! "He's terminally shy, scared stiff of people. He won't go within arm's reach of me. I spent days trying to persuade him to even come out of the forest. If you're out there too, I doubt he'll show up."
"Odd for a child."
"He's an odd child."
Taro considered this. He was a little too perceptive. "What details have you left out?"
"Uh, um, he's, ah, a demon-child."
"You're feeding a demon." It wasn't a question.
"For now! Ayame, are you crazy! Look what demons did to me, and you're making a pet of one!"
"No! I didn't want to see him starve to death."
"The only good demon is a dead one."
"That can't be true!"
"Interpret it how you like. But I'm not happy with you making a pet of some demon-child. He'll turn on you, mark my words."
"Taro, he won't do that. He won't come within my reach; he won't get close enough to hurt me. And I'm feeding him. Not even demons will bite the hand that feeds them."
Her words were prophetic. The next time she saw the young demon, his shoulder was oozing blood.
"You're hurt! What happened to you!" She reached out one hand. "I have some skill at healing; do you want me to help-ah!"
She'd touched his shoulder, and a split second later his fangs were buried in her hand. He let go immediately and backed off, snarling.
"Sorry," she whispered, clutching her hand, which had begun to bleed. "Ok, ok, I won't touch you. I didn't mean to hurt you."
The child made a quick escape, leaving her alone. Ayame tore a strip of cloth from her rough apron and bandaged her hand, which continued to bleed sluggishly. She stayed outside until it stopped, not wanting to give Taro more fuel for his argument. He didn't say anything when she came in; he didn't have to. The 'I told you so' that he was thinking radiated around the whole house.
"Ayame," he said finally, a couple days later. "I really would like you to stop taking care of that little demon. I'm not going to say I told you so, but look at your hand. You can't tame a demon; even that little child turned on you."
"I touched his wounded shoulder," she said stubbornly, "and it hurt him. He merely retaliated."
"I'm sorry, but I can't believe you."
"I'll prove it to you!" she shouted. "You come outside this evening and meet him. Once you have, you'll understand."
"All right," he agreed with a sigh, "I'll come and meet this demon-child of yours, and then we'll take it from there."
"He's not mine, but thank you. Just give him a chance, that's all I ask."
Taro was as good as his word. He did accompany Ayame outside that evening, and waited with her at her flat stone seat.
The little demon-child showed up as usual, but froze, staring at Taro. Taro stared back, taking in the picture. Despite Ayame's help, he was still pathetically skinny, and his demonic traits seemed particularly obvious this evening, or maybe it was just Taro's presence. The demon-child snarled slightly.
"It's all right," Ayame called soothingly. "This is Taro; he's my husband. I love him very much. He wanted to meet you. Is that ok?"
He didn't respond, but that was normal. However, he also didn't run off, and that was a good sign. He looked at Ayame cautiously.
"Really, it's all right. I promise."
His very movements screamed I am not happy with this; I don't like this. But he did come a little closer.
Then he stopped short, tensed, and snarled, looking over Ayame's shoulder.
Taro's old rifle went off, ringing it Ayame's ears from mere inches away. Before her horrified eyes, the demon-child she'd befriended, who'd trusted her, collapsed in a bloody heap.
"What have you done!" she shrieked, unable to believe it. "Taro, oh, god, Taro, what did you do!"
"I'm sorry, Ayame," he said sorrowfully. "There's a bounty on a higher-level demon's corpse, issued by the lord of our domain himself. If we want to live through the winter… I had to."
Tears leaked between the fingers she'd clapped over her mouth. "You tricked me into this," she sobbed. "He trusted me, and it killed him. You used me! How could you?"
Taro set his jaw and ignored her sobs. He set the gun down and walked across the field to the demon's body. He picked it up by the scruff of the neck and looked the child over like a dead rabbit.
"I hate you, Taro!" Ayame shrieked after him as he walked back towards their house, and burst into fresh tears.
Late that night, Ayame crept into the house, all cried out, completely miserable. All she could see was the child's face as he realized he was betrayed.
How could I have done that; how could I have been so easily tricked?
Taro's shot still rang in her ears; it wouldn't go away.
She searched the dark house, lighting no candle, trying to make no noise, for fear of waking Taro.
Where would he have put the child's body? What would he have done? I can't bring him back to life but I'll be damned if Taro profits from this!
She stopped and thought, then decided, he keeps important stuff for a journey under that loose section of floor. He will have put his body there.
She edged quietly over to the loose floorboards, and lifted them silently. She'd been right; even in the faint light from the stars she could see his white hair. Ayame picked him up carefully, biting her lip as she felt crusted blood crumble under her hands. Carefully, she replaced the floor and snuck back outside.
It was dangerous outside at night in the forest, but she didn't care about that right now. She headed a random direction, hoping to find an obscure spot where Taro couldn't retrieve the corpse.
In a torn-up clearing, she placed the child's body down carefully and began to dig a grave with a big stick. So she got the shock of a lifetime when a boy's voice interrupted her.
"So I should talk to people; so I should trust people. See? This is what happens."
Ayame shrieked and spun around. The boy's 'corpse' had sat up and was licking dried blood from his shoulder. He watched her sarcastically.
"And, don't tell me- let me guess; I can talk after all."
"Um, well, yes."
"You were shot! Why aren't you dead?"
"I'm hard to kill. People have tried before."
"Look, I'm sorry about Taro, I didn't know he was going to do that."
"Hmph. I shouldn't have come out. Believe me, if I'd been thinking straight, I would have been halfway across Japan by the time he had that nasty rifle to his shoulder."
"But I feel so guilty."
"Live with it," he said coldly, "there's nothing you can do about it. I'm still alive, and believe me, he won't see hide or hair of me for the rest of his life."
"You're leaving here, then?" Ayame said pointlessly, dropping her makeshift shovel, as it seemed she wouldn't be needing it.
"Wouldn't you be? Yeah. I am. I appreciate the food, by the way," he added as a goodbye, rising to his feet.
"You're welcome," Ayame said, relieved. "Oh! Now that you're talking…what's your name?"
The kid paused, about to vanish. "My name? Still bugging me about that?" He rolled his eyes. "Inuyasha."