by Scribe Figaro
There were unpleasant things, the fighting of youkai, the endless traveling. Youkai taijiya were strong, and were fierce, but there were not nomadic. At least, they weren't before Naraku came. But their fortress was gone, and their numbers were decimated.
But their ways were not lost, for Sango kept them within her. This had been a thing of sadness once, but now it was a thing of great pride. The village was lost, and she would waste no more time dwelling on such a thing. Taijiya adapted, and thus Sango had adapted. She would fight with her friends, and share her vengeance with them. And, if at all possible, she would save her brother, and forgive him of the things she had seen him do.
But there were also pleasant things about the life she now led. She met new people every day. She met people who respected her, respected her friends. She had fought so hard for praise from her father, praise given so rarely that she knew every time he offered it, it was meaningful and well-earned. He loved her, loved her so much he would not let his affections for his daughter taint his evaluation of her abilities, loved her so much that he would not let her training fail because he was afraid of scolding her, or of being disappointed in her.
And thus it was strange, for Sango to come across so many villagers, to be given such thanks. She had fought alone before, fought the weaker insect-youkai, but now she fought in a whole other league. She did not know if her father had ever come across such strong youkai as she had defeated with her hanyou, houshi, and miko friend.
She knew what it was to be respected, to be thanked for her skill and effort, but she knew the difference between the reception she received previously, and the reception she received now. Before, she fought youkai who were nuisances, who attacked food stores and livestock, who frightened women and children, and who very rarely would kill some unwary traveler who went too far from the village proper after dark. But now, she fought true demons, horrible demons, creatures that thought nothing of racing into a peaceful village at daybreak and killing everyone within a matter of minutes, feasting on them, burning the village to the ground, and moving on to the next. Sango knew the difference between a thing that kills because it is hungry, and a thing that kills because it enjoys killing. The things she fought now were true monsters, and the relief of the villagers they saved was so sincere she sometimes didn't know how to deal with it.
This morning was a good example. A bear youkai extermination went well the previous night, and all of them slept well afterward in one of the nicer homes the village had to offer. Their farewell had been brief but warm – dozens of them came to see them off, thanking them, some with gifts, some with tears. The young boys surrounded Inuyasha and Houshi-sama, burying them in compliments and unrestrained idoltry, begging them to demonstrate their moves again, or to teach them how to be demon-slayers, or to bring them along as apprentices. Inuyasha was standoffish, as always, but Sango could tell by his posture he was more embarrassed than anything else. Houshi-sama, of course, dealt with the children beautifully, kneeling down, speaking to them in hushed, excited tones that mimicked their own, telling them to work hard for their families, to build up the strength to be demon-slayers, and to watch out for their little brothers and sisters. She watched him talk to the children, patting them on the head, smiling so sincerely, and it made her blush. She loved him. She loved seeing how he played with children. She loved knowing what a great father he would become.
They left, and traveled nearly an hour before they realized they were missing some supplies. It was her turn to buy food for the journey, but it slipped her mind that morning, and now they only had enough rice and fish to last a day. They offered to go back with her, but she refused. It was a short journey, especially with Kirara, and there was no reason for all of them to be inconvenienced. She would catch up with them by the time they stopped for lunch.
Houshi-sama made eye contact with her, for just a moment. It was a look she received from him often, subtle to the others but very clear to her. Though he never said anything when he gave her that look, she eventually understood it to mean something like this: I am here for you.
She knew that, of course, but the reassuring look was something she came to expect from him, never overwhelming, but always reinforcing the fact that he cared for her. He dealt with her at arms' length, as he dealt with all things that were important to him. It was not his style to tell her he loved her. She knew that already.
She was subtle too. She returned the look, meeting his eyes, and with the slightest nod of the head, or upturning of one corner of her mouth, responded. I know. Thank you, Houshi-sama.
So she turned back to the village on Kirara's back, at a fast pace, but not running. She was in no hurry, and took advantage of the chance to be alone in her thoughts for the brief time it took her to get to the village. She wasn't quite sure why she wanted to be alone, but it might have something to do with Houshi-sama. Perhaps she just wanted a few moments to fantasize about him, to think about him and blush, without her friends prying into her thoughts. Perhaps she just wanted to say his name, here, where no one else could hear it.
It was a good name. But she would keep calling him Houshi-sama for a while yet.
She was finished with such thoughts when she arrived at the village. The villagers had gone on to their farming, which was good, as she hated reappearing after saying goodbye. She went straight to a rice-seller near the edge of town.
"Taijiya-san!" she said, excitedly. The woman was young, not much older than Sango herself. She was re-tying the knot on her head scarf as Sango appeared, and finishing that, immediately ran to the storefront and bowed.
"We realized we were missing some supplies shortly after we left," Sango said. "I was hoping we could get three pounds of uncooked rice, and a pound of dried fish, if you have any."
"Of course!" Smiling, the woman turned to the rice-bucket behind her and began to measure out a portion.
Sango fidgeted slightly.
"So . . . I suppose with the youkai gone, things are back to normal around here."
The woman laughed curtly.
"The children are back to fighting with bamboo swords instead of helping with the fields. My husband's gambling again, and cheating at it. Things are back to normal, all right."
She shook her head, placing the rice measure aside, producing something from inside her kosode.
"Here, look at these. My husband's been caught cheating twice now, and what does he do? He just buys better dice. Spent a fortune on these, saying they're from Nara, that nobody will ever catch him again. How the hell is he going to help me carry the rice when that den owner finally breaks his arms?"
Sango reflexively held her hands out as the rice-seller dropped a pair of dice in her hands.
"These are loaded dice?" Sango asked. She rolled them in her hands. They looked normal to her.
"Roll them out on this counter and see."
Sango shook them in her cupped hands and rolled them out. Six and four. Even.
"Try it again."
Sango tried three more times. Different numbers came up, but they added up to evens each time.
"They always land on even?" Sango asked.
"Not always, but most of the time. It'll land on odd maybe once every five times, just to make it look like all the evens are just a lucky streak. If you play a few rounds with someone on one of these dice, he'll never know the difference. But after two or three games, it's going to be obvious what's going on."
Sango rubbed the bone-white faces of the dice, admiring the feel of the rounded corners, and the luster of the black painted dots. She had played gambling games with the other taijiya, though not for money, and she recalled those dice being roughly cut. These looked expertly made, and if they were indeed cut oddly, or weighted, she could not tell.
"So even an expert gambler would be fooled, if you only played a short while with him?"
"Absolutely," the rice-seller said. "But nobody with any passion for gambling can play a short while. My husband would win for one night, but he'd keep using these damn dice until he got caught."
The woman placed the rice on the counter.
"Could I . . ." Sango squeezed the dice in her hand. "Could I buy these from you?"
The woman laughed.
"Buy them? Dear, if you promise to take them far from here, you can have them. No matter how hard I try to hide them, my husband will find them sooner or later. Take them, please, with my blessing."
Sango smiled. "Thank you."
She wasn't sure she was going to use the dice. She was certain of it at first, when she took them a week ago. But it was risky. Houshi-sama trusted her, and she did not want to betray that trust. Yet he also acted poorly around her. And she wondered sometimes, whether he had stopped spying on her when she bathed, or if he had simply become much better at hiding.
He groped her that afternoon while she was polishing Hiraikotsu, and that's about the time she decided that he was well-deserving of some very serious embarrassment. It was only fair.
They had separate rooms that night, since it was a large inn, and they had a great deal of money from the last extermination. They ate together, and retired to their separate chambers.
Sango waited about an hour, then made her way to Houshi-sama's room.
He was surprised to see her, but slipped on that smirk of his very quickly, and expressed his gratitude for her finally coming around, and would she like a back rub? With every word she felt less and less pity for what she was about to do.
She brought him sake. She knew he was bigger than her, and more accustomed to the drink, so if she drank as much as him she would probably be throwing up while he was still sober. But she drank very little, and filled up his cup immediately after every sip, like an obedient teahouse-girl.
He knew this was odd behavior. She was trying very blatantly to get him drunk. Not enough that she could take advantage of him. But enough that he would be slow to realize any trickery she was about to pull.
It was good that theirs was a quiet relationship, as she could not think of things to say as they drank together. She was too eager to think about other things.
Eventually, she began to ask him about gambling.
"Like dice. Have you ever played?"
"Well, yes, but it's not much of a game. No real skill involved, just luck."
"I've never played," Sango lied. "But I came across a pair of dice a few days ago, and it got me thinking that I wanted to learn how to play. Since I couldn't sleep tonight, I was wondering if you would play with me for a while, and teach me."
She pulled the dice out from the fold of her kosode, and placed them on the spot of floor between them.
"These are very well-made," Miroku said, picking them up. "You bought these?"
"They were a gift."
He put them down.
"Well, it's a very simple game. It won't take long to teach."
Miroku drained his sake-cup, wiped the inside dry with his sleeve, and then dropped the dice in. Rattling them for a moment, he slammed the cup upside-down on the floor.
"Even or odd?" he asked.
He lifted the cup. Below, the dice read two and six.
"Even it is," he said. "You win this round."
"What did you bet?" she asked.
"What did you bet, Houshi-sama? As this is a gambling game, we must bet."
"You don't want to practice a bit first?"
She shook her head.
"Well, I'm not sure what to bet," he said. "I have our money with me, but as it's not mine, I cannot bet it."
"And all I have with me are my clothes," Sango said.
Miroku swallowed audibly.
"I see . . ."
"But I certainly can't bet those," she said.
"Because I might lose, and then I would be naked."
"That would be very uncomfortable," she said. "If Houshi-sama stared at me, while I was naked."
"It would be scandalous," he agreed.
"It would be very wrong," she agreed.
Sango took up her sake cup and drank it in one gulp. Keeping the cup to her lips, she stared at him over the brim.
"So I better not lose," she said. "Houshi-sama, I believe I just won your kesa."
Miroku nodded slowly. He untied the knot on his shoulder and unwrapped the article from around his body, folding it reverently and passing it to Sango.
"Roll the dice again, Houshi-sama."
He did so.
"Even," Sango stated.
Again, it was even. With bemusement, Miroku untied his heavy black koromo and passed the robe to Sango. She could not resist nuzzling the warm material, for just a moment.
"So comfortable. I wish my clothes were this warm," she said. She smiled. "I guess I can start wearing this now, though, since I won it from you. Roll again."
Miroku sighed. Again, evens. Again, Sango won.
"This isn't fair," Miroku mumbled.
Hiking up his hadagi, he pulled off the kyahan on his right leg.
"Both of them, Houshi-sama."
"Anything in pairs counts as one. What good is one kyahan?"
"I think you are more experienced at this game than you say you are," Miroku said.
"I think you are a sore loser," Sango said.
Both kyahan were set before Sango.
One more round. Even again. He would become suspicious soon, but he was about to lose everything.
She suspected he was trying very hard not to blush as he unfastened the tie on the right side of his hadagi and slipped the garment off his strong shoulders. She felt a rush within her as she studied his well-defined chest, the muscles in his upper arms and thighs, the muscles on his stomach.
Here she sat, fully dressed, staring at her Houshi-sama, who wore nothing but a fundoshi.
"If I lose the next round," Miroku said, "I fear I'm going to be slapped. A lot."
"I assume you're sticking with even?"
"Of course. It is lucky for me tonight."
Miroku rolled the dice and lifted the cup. Six plus one. Odd.
She wasn't too surprised. The dice wouldn't land on even every time. The next time, she was sure, Miroku would lose.
Sango untied her mo-bakama and unwrapped it from around her hips, handing it to Miroku.
The next round was again odd.
Just a fluke, she thought. She reached in the sleeves of her kosode, untying the knots that secured the tekkou to her forearms, and slid them off.
Odd came up yet again.
"You're cheating!" she hissed. "You're throwing the dice wrong!"
"I assure you I'm not. Why don't you throw them yourself?"
"I will," she said, hiking up her kosode and untying the kyahan around her calves. These too she gave to Miroku.
She took the dice in her hands, shaking them furiously, spilling them out with a loud clatter.
"Even," she called out.
"You're not supposed to guess if you're casting the dice," Miroku said.
"I don't care. I'm calling even."
She lifted the cup. Three and two. Odd.
"You called it yourself, Sango."
Shaking her head, she unfastened her obi and tossed it toward him.
"What good is an obi without a kosode, I wonder?" Miroku mused.
Sango slipped her kosode off her shoulders and threw it at his face.
"Such nice stitiching," he said. "I expect this would fetch quite a lot at the next village we pass, ne, Sango?"
"Roll the damn dice."
She sat before him, dressed in a hadagi, arms crossed over her chest, as the material was likely thin enough for him to see the outline of her chest otherwise. At the next round, one of them would be naked.
She knew what he had done. He switched the dice on her. After only a few rounds, he must have realized she had even-loaded dice. What were the chances he had odd-loaded dice somewhere on him, identical to her own, and managed to switch them without her knowing?
She glanced at his heavy black robe, folded beside her. The material was so thick, so large, that it was quite possible he had dozens of tricks concealed inside it. She had not felt the sack of coins, or stack of sealing scrolls, or the small container of ink, that she had seen him produce at times. She had been trying so hard to look aloof at him undressing that it would have been easy for him to surreptitiously palm another pair of dice and beat her at her own game.
The dice were rolled. The cup sat between them. Sango smiled.
"Odd," she said.
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure, sukebe. I know you switched the dice. Odd."
"Sango . . ."
"I'm not going to fall for it, Houshi-sama. Odd."
So saying, she leaned forward and lifted the cup herself.
Two and two. Even.
"How?" she stuttered.
"Because I cheated," he said, "you don't have to do anything. The game is over."
"You cheated so that you would lose."
"Since I cheated to begin with, it was really just a matter of who outsmarted who."
She was blushing furiously, and her fingers fumbled at the tie of her hadagi. But she was determined. She was determined Houshi-sama would not see her as a hypocrite. As someone who was afraid. Ashamed. Threatened.
Staring him in the eyes, she unfastened her hadagi and let it fall to the floor.
He cast his eyes downward.
"Sango, it is enough. Please…"
"Don't belittle me, Houshi-sama. I take my games seriously. If you can't keep control of yourself you had no business playing. Are you some boy who can't look at a woman without losing it?"
He smirked, looking up.
"In situations where most women would be the most timid, you are always the most bold. It is rare for a day to go by where you do not surprise me, or impress me, or simply frighten me."
She gave him a sideways glance.
"Which reminds me," she said. "I don't really expect you to do anything strange, but if you do, I've already planned out five ways to break you. Would you like me to describe them to you?"
He waved one hand, while righting the sake-cup with the other and then filling it. "No, no. Please don't spoil the fun." He leaned back in a pose that looked very much like the accomplished gambler she knew he was, and brought the cup to his lips.
"I guess I should make the most of this, then. A pity I didn't expect this sort of thing from you, or I would have asked Kagome to lend me one of her picture-making toys."
So saying, he let his eyes wander. He stared shamelessly, expression changing from ambivalence to studiousness to boyish wonder and curiosity. His gaze enveloped her, caressed her, and with each movement of his eyes, as his focus moved from one feature to another, she found herself looking with him, thinking as he did.
Here was her hair, black, straight, long, with tufts before each ear, a style she knew was popular in her own village, her bangs thick, curled over her forehead. Here were her eyes, wide, brown, eye shadow above each, powdered coral, unless it had faded by this evening, or she forgot entirely to apply it this morning. When was the last time she had looked in a mirror, for that matter?
Now her face, her small nose, her upturned mouth, her teeth biting the edges of her lips in nervousness, her blushing cheeks. Her ears, perhaps a bit larger than she would have liked. Her shoulders thin but too muscular for a woman. Her arms, strong and well toned. Her breasts, larger than she ever wanted them to be – she had bound them since she was thirteen years old, tighter and tighter to slow their growth, but her body grew with belligerence, and her chest ached with the binding, so that at sixteen she admitted defeat, and relied on the heavy top of her taiji-ya uniform to accommodate her ever-more-womanly form. She still in some ways desired a flat chest that would not interfere with a sword draw, that would not sway like a counterweight on casting Hiraikotsu, that would not ache when she ran, and that would not beckon to Houshi-sama's hands like ripe fruit.
He spent his attention upon her chest, as she knew he would, but she did not scold him or cross her arms over her chest. She studied his face, seeing him struggle to look somewhere else, seeing him look to her eyes again, the slightest look of apology. Then there was her stomach, muscles barely visible, betraying her lifestyle as a fighter and a woman whose livelihood was her body – flexibility and strength, the ability to run and leap and kick. His eyes followed the slope of her belly, the curve of her thighs, her knees, calves, and feet.
He finished the cup, placed it aside, and bowed deeply.
"I lament that now the autumn moon and the summer sky hold no beauty for me anymore. My perception of beautiful things has changed entirely. Compared to what I have seen tonight, the most lovely garden is naught but weeds and foul things."
"Idiot," she muttered, picking up her hadagi. As she pulled it over her shoulders he poured another cup and stood up.
"However, I do feel much closer to Buddha now, and for that I must thank you."
He brought the cup to her face, too close for her to take it in her own hands without an awkward movement, but slowly enough she could have done so if she chose. She merely tightened the knot at her side and returned his gaze.
"Because I have understood great mysteries. The enigma of joy and suffering. The number of stones in Kyoto. That sort of thing."
He brought the cup to her lips, turning his head so he could make sure not to spill any. She parted her lips, and sipped, very slowly. He smiled, and drew the cup away, and a drop rolled over her bottom lip and made it numb.
"I am of course dreaming, right?" he asked. "Something in the sake?"
"Yes," she said. "You're actually in a ditch somewhere. Small children are poking you with sticks as we speak."
"I see. Forgive me, I spilled . . ."
He leaned forward, kissing her, drawing his tongue over her bottom lip, drawing away numbness with warmth, and when he leaned back she smiled, and slapped him across the face so hard the cup flew from his hands and rolled in a spiral on the tamati, and she kept smiling.
"Are you awake yet, Houshi-sama, who dreams such unlikely dreams?"
He rubbed his face. "Sadly, no. This dream might last all night. You may as well lie down and get comfortable."
"I could kick you a few times between the legs," she suggested helpfully. "Just give me a minute so I can stretch," she said, hiking her hadagi to mid-thigh and leaning forward.
"That would make your promise to me difficult," he said. "The part about children was rather integral to the entire deal."
"We could adopt them. Ready, Houshi-sama?"
"On second thought, I feel my eyelids fluttering. Yes, very nearly awake now. I should lie down so I don't awake too disoriented."
"Oh?" she said, her lips drown into a pout. She watched him put away the cups and organize his clothes as she slowly collected her own.
He placed down his bedding and lay there as he watched her dress, and he made no attempt to hide it.
When she was decent enough to be seen leaving his room she approached him, kneeled beside him, and kissed his cheek.
"Soon," she whispered.
"When you are ready," he said.
"Of course I'm ready. It's just . . ."
"Making it last," he said.
"Yes. Little tastes."
"We'll starve to death this way," he warned.
"No," she said. "But we may go crazy."
He smiled. "I'd like that."
"Love is madness anyway," she said.
"I know. Isn't it wonderful?"
She placed the dice in his hand.
"For next time," she said.
Authors Note: "There Was a Ship" is at a crossroads, so I won't be updating it until I can make a some decisions on how convoluted I want to make the storyline. Until then, I have a couple stories like this around to distract everyone.