Mana shivered as she followed the strange figure up the pathway to his home. The rain had completely soaked through her clothes. But all she could think about was Yuta, who lay dead in the figure's arms.
A structure loomed up ahead in the darkness. As they got closer, Mana saw it was an old, traditional dwelling in serious need of repair. Wood was beginning to rot through, and it almost seemed to sag under some invisible, crushing weight. But Mana could tell that in its day, it must have been something magnificent.
She squinted as they approached the entrance. Lined with ivory stones along the path was a tangled mass of weeds. A garden…? she wondered. Though it had long overgrown any semblance of order or design, Mana knew that once, a long time ago, someone must have tended this place with care.
She stared at the forlorn, deserted garden. Then, looking up, she realized the figure had already disappeared inside the house. "Oops!" she called, and hurried in after him.
Mana frowned. She should have been relieved to get out of the cold rain, but the exterior appearance of the shelter had proved indicative of its inside's. Lantern light revealed it all: It was a pigsty. Trash and debris had taken a hold of it like the weeds in the garden. Everything was stacked and piled up carelessly. There was hardly a place to sit.
The figure shoved things out of his way and lay Yuta down on a futon. Then he turned to Mana, stared at her for a moment, and disappeared into another room before she could utter a word.
"Ooo-kay," she said after he had gone. She pushed past a pile of junk, and putting her pack down, sat next to Yuta. There was blood spattered all over his face and shirt. She frowned and tore off a strip of her own rain-soaked clothes, and dabbed at his face. Her teeth chattered as she worked. It was so cold…
Suddenly she felt a shadow on her back, and looked up. The figure was there, his face blank. "There's a hot bath ready for you in the other room. Unless you want to freeze to death."
Mana's eyes widened, but then she glanced back down. "Yuta… I don't want to leave him."
"What more could happen to him? He's already dead."
She cupped Yuta's cheek in one hand, and looked back up at the figure. "Will you watch him for me?"
The figure's eyes narrowed and he said nothing. But as Mana wandered into the next room, she saw him remain by Yuta's side.
How had he heated the bath so quickly? Mana wondered as she submersed herself in the steaming water, scrubbing away the blood and mud. It felt rejuvenating—exactly what she needed after so disturbing a night. She closed her eyes and puzzled over her mysterious benefactor.
He had appeared so monstrous out by the lake. But now he looked completely different. Mana blushed to admit it, but it was true: He was handsome.
Getting out of the bath, she picked up her wet, muddy clothes again, and sighed. They would have to do. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed something on the floor. A woman's yukata, of pale blue with flowers embroidered in gold. It was a bit dusty, but elegant all the same.
Mana held the cloth in her hands, considering it. The figure had left it there for her….
"Um, thank you," she said when she reentered the room dressed in the yukata. The figure jerked slightly at the sight of her, and then turned away. He didn't answer.
Mana edged closer to him. In the light she saw he had long white hair—yet he did not look old—and a great, white puff that seemed to wrap around his shoulder. Even if he didn't look monstrous anymore, this guy could never pass as human. He was too—Mana searched for a word—otherworldly. Her eyes widened. "What are you?"
The figure didn't raise his head. "A demon."
She bit her lip. She didn't know how to respond to that. Finally, she said, "I'm Mana."
There was a long pause, and then the gruff reply, "Sesshomaru."
The girl's presence unsettled him. It was so long since he'd heard another voice. He concentrated on Yuta, hoping the girl would take a hint and keep her mouth shut.
Sesshomaru sat deep in thought. Seeing Yuta again brought back unpleasant memories…
Suddenly his musings were interrupted by an odd tugging at his side.
"What the heck is this thing, anyway?" Mana gave his mokomoko-sama another yank.
"Don't. Touch. That."
Mana gulped and jerked her hands back. "Sorry."
Sesshomaru glared at her. This girl, even after all she'd seen of him, was not afraid. His expression hardened. She was just like…
Mana looked around uncomfortably. "This place reminds me of where I grew up. All secluded in the mountains. Nothing modern at all. And I was the only…" she trailed off. "Do you really live up here all alone?"
"Oh. But don't you get lonely?"
"The pitiful need for companionship is something only lowly humans possess."
A prolonged silence followed. Mana swallowed a lump in her throat. "So… are you going to tell me how you know Yuta?"
He nudged Yuta's body with his foot. "How long will it take this fool to wake up?"
Mana shrugged. "Within half a day. It varies sometimes."
"What a bother." Sesshomaru frowned, and partially drew the sword at his hip. "I'd revive him right now just to get it over with, but I already know from experience Tenseiga doesn't respond to him." He ignored Mana's questioning look, and sheathed his sword. "Probably an effect of his immortality. Why bother saving someone who will come back to life on his own anyway?"
"You mean, that sword…" Mana gestured. "It can really bring people back to life?"
Sesshomaru barely nodded.
Mana was incredulous. She thought of all the tragic souls she'd met since she first ate the mermaid's flesh. "Imagine all the miracles you could perform. You could spend your whole life traveling around the world saving people."
Sesshomaru glanced her way, annoyed. This girl's manner was making him more and more uneasy. "You're an idealist, I see," he muttered. "Always wanting to do the right thing. I harbor no such feelings of goodwill."
"But you said you tried to use the sword on Yuta before, right? So you have saved people."
"Only when the fancy struck me. And don't be mistaken, if I had known Yuta at all back then, I never would have bothered."
Mana suppressed a smile. That sounded like a joke to her, but Sesshomaru acted serious when he said it. Better not to risk it.
"So how many people have you saved with your sword?"
Damn this girl's curiosity, Sesshomaru thought. "Why would I remember that?"
"I don't know. You'd think it'd be the sort of thing someone would keep track of. I mean, I know that if I saved someone's life, I'd remember them forever."
Sesshomaru averted his eyes. For the next few minutes, nothing could be heard but the sound of rain pounding on the roof. Mana shifted awkwardly and returned her attention to Yuta. She sat down next to his still form, pushing the hair out of his eyes. He looked so uncomfortable. Gently she lifted his head into her lap and held his hand.
"…I saved a servant of mine once…"
Mana looked up. Sesshomaru was speaking, though his eyes seemed unfocused.
"…And a girl…"
Mana squeezed Yuta's hand. "A girl?"
Suddenly Sesshomaru caught Mana in a piercing gaze. "You remind me of her a bit."
Mana stared into his face. Behind his eyes, was that… pain?
The rickety house creaked as a gust of wind blew through gaps in the rotting wood. Mana shivered.
Without a word, Sesshomaru got up and went to the empty hearth. Next to it leaned an ornate, wooden staff with two grotesque heads carved at its end. Sesshomaru picked up the staff and knocked it once against the floor. Instantly, flames shot out of the heads and lit the hearth.
That staff, Mana realized. That must be how he heated the bath so quickly.
Golden fire crackled, and the next thing Mana knew, she felt a blanket being draped around her shoulders. Another one fell into her hands.
"For Yuta," Sesshomaru said lowly. "I knew you'd only give yours to him."
Mana nodded her thanks and wrapped Yuta in the blanket, pausing to check his neck. The wound was still healing, though at a slow rate.
Sesshomaru stared at her as she tended Yuta with such care, her face lined with worry. He turned to leave.
"Wait, aren't you going to stay with me?"
Sesshomaru kept his back to her. "You can stare at that corpse all night if you wish to. I hold no such desire."
And then he was gone, disappearing down the hallway into the very last room.
Mana caressed Yuta's forehead, listening to the fire crackle and the rain patter outside. Throughout the night, her mind kept drifting back to Sesshomaru. Every comment he'd made should have lead her to believe he hated Yuta, and yet… he'd taken them into his home and, whether he realized it or not, treated them kindly.
Mana frowned, remembering how Sesshomaru had scoffed at the idea of loneliness. He was a stubborn man, she thought. Stubborn… just like Yuta.
To Yuta, it happened as though no time had passed. The last thing he knew, he was yelling at Mana to run as she stared up at him in terror. Then, the monster's claws connected with his throat and everything went cold and black. And the next thing he knew, his eyes were fluttering and he only had one thought on his mind.
"Mana!" he screamed, eyes snapping open. He expected to find Mana's mauled body lying broken in the mud of Mermaid's Lake, but instead he saw her lovely face staring down at him with a relieved look in her eyes.
"Yuta, you're awake."
"What, Mana…" he sat upright and wrapped his arms tight around her. "You're okay."
"You were out all night," she murmured, releasing him.
Yuta blinked, eyes adjusting to the light, trying to take in his surroundings. He was sitting on a futon in a cluttered, dusty old room he'd never seen before. "Where are we? What happened to the monster?"
Mana opened her mouth to explain—
"Here I am," Sesshomaru stepped out of the shadowy doorway. "What took you so long, Yuta?"
Yuta clenched his jaw, eyes wide. "You. It was you. Sesshomaru."
"You remember me after all this time. Did I make that big an impression on you?"
"Don't flatter yourself," Yuta grunted, looking him up and down. "It's easy to remember someone when they're wearing the same outfit. I hope you wash that thing."
Sesshomaru narrowed his eyes. "Now I recall why I never liked you."
Mana's gaze darted nervously from one man to the other. She had never before seen the atmosphere in a room change so quickly. "Well, at least now we know that Yuta's all right. He's got his old attitude back."
Yuta got to his feet in a huff and headed straight for Sesshomaru. "I always knew you were an asshole…" He pulled his fist back and punched Sesshomaru across the face. "But your little antics last night could have killed her!"
Sesshomaru turned his head slowly back to Yuta, making no move to retaliate. "I let you have that one, Yuta, on account of your woman."
"Well how about another!" Yuta raised his fist again, but suddenly his arm was jerked back.
"Yuta, stop!" Mana held his shoulder down. He looked at her in surprise. Her eyes pleaded with him. "Don't fight anymore. We're… guests."
"Feh," Yuta yanked his arm away from her. "Fine. Truce."
He stared up at Sesshomaru and let out a short laugh. "I have to admit, I'm surprised. What a situation you find yourself in. The once-mighty Sesshomaru sequestering himself in a tiny little shit-hole far away from the eyes of the world." Yuta shook his head. "What the hell happened to you?"
Sesshomaru glared at him. "The same could be said about you, Yuta. All these long years and still bent on your pathetic, hopeless quest, I see. You're as miserable as ever."
Yuta was silent for a moment. "No, neither of us would have predicted things to turn out this way…. Don't you find it ironic, Sesshomaru? That humans suffer short lives, yet it was humans that multiplied and thrived, while you immortal demons are now all but extinct?"
Sesshomaru's expression remained blank, but Yuta could tell his comment annoyed him nonetheless. "I find reflections of that sort entirely irrelevant." His gaze drifted from Yuta to Mana, who was standing behind him looking limp and exhausted.
She didn't get any sleep, Sesshomaru realized, frowning slightly. She stayed up all night holding Yuta in her arms.
"Hey," Mana tapped Yuta's shoulder, "Are either of you gonna explain how you know each other?"
"Wait a minute, Mana, this is important," Yuta shrugged her away. "Sesshomaru," he demanded, "Were you telling the truth last night? Is this really Lake Ningyo?"
Yuta's eyes gleamed. "Then you know why we came here. So tell us one thing, and then we'll be on our way."
Sesshomaru made no answer.
Yuta got up into his face, deadly serious, and emphasized each word, "Where are the mermaids?"
Sesshomaru's eyes narrowed, glancing at Mana. "Single-minded as ever, Yuta. I'd think you'd be more concerned right now with the pitiful state of your woman. She hasn't slept or eaten all night for your sake." He gave Yuta a pointed look. "You don't take very good care of her, do you?"
Yuta glared at him, and turned, red-faced, to Mana. She did look a bit peaked.
Sesshomaru felt pleased seeing Yuta flounder. "Let's get the girl something to eat before she passes out, then."
"Thanks, I'm really starved!" Mana beamed, glad that someone had finally noticed her. Plus, she thought, breakfast would be a good opportunity to force these two to tell her about their past.
Yuta grit his teeth. At a crucial time like this, food could wait. Here they were, in the company of a very powerful and dangerous demon who might be the only person in the world with legitimate information on mermaids, and all Mana could think about was her stomach! "This is ludicrous, Sesshomaru. You think we have time to waste?"
"Come now, Yuta. For you of all people time isn't an issue." Sesshomaru started heading out the door.
Mana grabbed a bucket lying amongst the clutter and ran after him like a puppy after its master. "Sesshomaru, wait! I'll come help you!"
She slid the door behind her and Yuta suddenly found himself all alone. "Feh."
Outside, Mana passed the mournful garden and hurried to catch up with Sesshomaru, who was already halfway to the lake.
This place isn't so scary in the daytime, she thought. When she reached the shore, Sesshomaru had already pulled several fish out of the water.
"Thank you for doing this," she told him as she knelt down and rinsed off the bucket. "But you were wrong, you know."
Sesshomaru didn't bat an eye at her. "Hm?"
"Yuta takes very good care of me."
Sesshomaru turned to her, watching her smile as she worked, the wind playing with her hair. The blue yukata on her looked brighter than the morning sky.
By the time Sesshomaru and Mana returned, the former carrying firewood and the latter clutching a bucket of fish in her hands, Yuta knew he was beaten on the breakfast issue. There was no way to force Sesshomaru to speak. He wouldn't talk until he was good and ready. As for Mana, Yuta thought, she was easier to deal with on a full stomach anyway.
"I suppose you humans want your meal cooked," Sesshomaru muttered. "How bothersome." Already he was busying himself at the hearth. He threw fresh wood onto the fireplace and grabbed the staff leaning beside it. Knocking it once on the ground, he used the flames to rekindle the smoldering logs.
Yuta's face lightened in recognition. "I remember that staff. Your little vassal used to carry it around. The green guy, what's-his-name."
"Jaken," Sesshomaru muttered absentmindedly.
"Yeah, that's it. Jaken." Yuta glanced around, chuckling. "So where is the little guy anyway? What, did he finally have the good sense to leave you and quit being bossed around?"
Sesshomaru paused. "He's dead."
"Oh." The smirk fell from Yuta's face. "Sorry."
"Don't be so impudent as to think I care."
"Oh, right, I forgot you only think about yourself. I suppose you don't mind that Rin's gone, either."
Mana looked up from the floor, where she was rummaging in her pack for tea. "Wait, what?"
Yuta felt emboldened. He'd hit a nerve. "And judging by the size of that yukata Mana's wearing, I'd say you let that human girl tag along with you longer than you thought you would, didn't you?"
Sesshomaru glared at Yuta, but said nothing.
Mana clutched her sleeve thoughtfully. She had never bothered to wonder why Sesshomaru had the yukata. The idea that he'd traveled with a human had never occurred to her when he gave every indication that he loathed mankind.
There was a stifling silence in the room. Yuta and Sesshomaru were still glaring daggers at each other. Mana excused herself to go get water for the tea. As she traveled down the pathway to the lake, a weed reaching out of the garden like an arm caught hold of her ankle. She escaped its grasp, but still felt its touch on her when she reached the shore…
As she dipped her container into the water, Mana thought about Sesshomaru. There was more to his story than she had realized. And she was determined to find it all out…
The mystery of Mermaid's Lake was yet to be revealed. But as Mana trudged her way back up to the house, she knew that she was heading closer to answers.