A/N: Thanks to Silverontherose for betaing this chapter.
"That bastard Sesshomaru," Yuta muttered as he hurried across the fields, clutching his new harpoon in one hand. He was gripping it so tightly that the circulation to his fingers was practically being cut off. He'd gone to Sesshomaru for help and that arrogant demon had had the gall to tell him to go kill himself. Now Yuta couldn't wait to get as far from Sesshomaru as possible. The whole excursion had been a waste of time.
Dusk neared as Yuta reached the edge of the demon lord's territory. Up ahead there was a river with a wide bridge running across it. All he had to do was cross that bridge and he'd never suffer the misfortune of meeting Sesshomaru again.
As Yuta stepped onto its wooden planks, he couldn't get Sesshomaru's words off his mind. Shall I assist you? the demon had said with raised claws. Yuta scowled in recollection.
"Shall I assist you? Shall I assist you?!" he said under his breath. "Stupid jerk. Assist this!" With a violent swing, he threw the harpoon down into the river. As it sailed over the side of the bridge, a shrill cry rang out from below.
Yuta's heart stopped. He hadn't even considered that someone might have been under the bridge. Quickly he dashed back to see who was there and if they were hurt.
"Watch what you're doing, you insufferable human!" A little toad demon stepped out from under the bridge in the shallow end of the river, brandishing the harpoon at him. "You almost hit me with this thing!"
"I'm so sorry. I didn't realize…."
"No, you didn't! And what's a peasant like you doing passing through the great and powerful Lord Sesshomaru's lands?"
Before Yuta could reply, he heard a girlish voice saying, "It's okay, Master Jaken. This is the nice man I was telling you about." A slight figure appeared from out of the shadow of the bridge beside the toad demon.
Yuta's eyes widened. It was that girl he'd tried to rescue yesterday, Rin. Now he felt even guiltier for throwing his weapon so carelessly.
Rin took the harpoon out of Jaken's hands—much to his protests—and gave it back to Yuta. "This is yours, I assume?"
"Yeah." Yuta blanched with shame. "Sorry about that."
"Don't mind Master Jaken," said Rin. "He's in a grumpy mood today."
"I am NOT!" The toad demon stamped his foot in anger, splashing water in all directions, but Rin ignored him.
"It's a lovely weapon, by the way," she said, motioning to the harpoon. "Where'd you get it?"
Yuta's mood instantly soured, once again recalling his encounter with the demon lord. "Since I lost my spear yesterday and all… Sesshomaru gave me this harpoon to replace it…." He was about to tell her what a smug bastard that Sesshomaru was, but at the mention of his name, Rin burst into smiles.
"So Lord Sesshomaru was able to help you then?" she said.
Yuta paused. She had spoken so cheerfully, and he didn't feel like letting her down. "Oh… yeah," he said, feigning a grin. "That Sesshomaru is one… great guy."
Rin nodded her head emphatically. "I knew he would be able to help you."
Yuta said nothing, but continued to smile through clenched teeth. He'd have helped me into a fresh grave if the harpoon had hit her, Yuta thought, which brought a new concern to mind.
"What are you doing out here hiding under a bridge anyway?" he asked.
"Master Jaken and I were just trying to catch some fish with our hands." She held up an empty bucket and laughed. "No luck so far, you can see."
"Do you fish here often?"
"Well, there's your problem. The fish here are used to you by now if you stand in the same spot all the time. Let me show you something." Yuta led them away to a position upriver. He motioned to them to be quiet and stood still in the water. Minutes passed and the fish began swimming through his legs as though he were part of the surroundings. Then with great aim and precision, Yuta struck with the harpoon. Soon the bucket was teeming full of fish.
Rin was looking at him in awe. "That was amazing, Yuta," she said when he was finished.
"It was nothing," Yuta said modestly, but he appreciated the compliment all the same. "I've been a fisherman for so long, it's like second nature to me at this point."
Even the little green demon who had called him an insufferable human seemed impressed. "Could you teach me how to do that?" Jaken said, not quite succeeding in sounding nonchalant.
Yuta laughed. "Sure. It's all in the wrist…" He started showing Jaken how to hold the harpoon properly when Rin interrupted.
"We don't have time for that right now, Master Jaken. The sun is setting. We better get home." Rin clutched the bucket to her chest. "These will make a great meal. I can't wait to show Lord Sesshomaru." She looked up at Yuta, beaming. "You'll join us for dinner, right?"
"Oh, no, I couldn't," he said, inwardly scoffing at the thought of spending even a single moment in Sesshomaru's presence. "You've been very sweet, Rin, but I don't want to wear out my welcome."
"But you're the one who caught the fish. It wouldn't be fair if we ate it without you." She seemed genuinely disappointed. "Besides, I would—I mean we would be honored if you stayed."
Yuta glanced at the bridge ahead and the darkening wilderness beyond. It would likely be hours, if not days, of trekking in the cold, dark forest before he would have human contact again. And who knew if they would be friendly? It had been so long since he'd been in pleasant company. So long since he'd found any place to settle down for a while in between his fruitless search for mermaids. Not since the Village of the Fighting Fish and his own beautiful Rin had he felt welcomed.
Now this Rin was smiling up at him expectantly.
Finally, he gave her a big, dopey grin. "Ah, how can I refuse such nice company?"
"Great! I'll make everything so nice for you, you won't regret it."
But as Yuta followed Rin back to her home, there was a sinking feeling in his stomach. As happy as he was to be around Rin—and the little green guy seemed okay too, despite his moments of crankiness—Yuta was already regretting it. What was the point of going back to that arrogant demon Sesshomaru… unless he could think of some way to pay him back for his insults? Not violently—Yuta knew he was no match for such a powerful demon—but perhaps there was another way to get under his skin….
"Jaken. You're late."
Sesshomaru was already standing there looking none-too-pleased as soon as his vassal entered the premises.
"Forgive me, Lord Sesshomaru!" As Jaken bowed over and over again in contrition, Rin entered carrying the bucket of fish.
"It's my fault, Lord Sesshomaru," she said. "I had trouble catching dinner."
Sesshomaru was about to reply when suddenly a third figure appeared in the doorway.
"Nah, it's my fault, Sesshomaru." Yuta strode in as though it was natural that he should be there instead of a great distance away by now. "I'm the one who held them up." He stood there grinning, savoring the almost imperceptible look of shock and anger that had briefly flashed on Sesshomaru's stoic face.
"But look what Yuta caught for us, Lord Sesshomaru!" Rin held up the bucket of fish. "It was lucky he found us. We couldn't have done it without him. I knew you wouldn't mind if Yuta joined us for dinner."
Rin looked so cheerful that there was no way Sesshomaru could object without appearing cruel, Yuta thought, enjoying the moment. Indeed, the demon lord said nothing as Jaken and Rin disappeared into another room to start the meal preparations.
When they were gone, Sesshomaru addressed him in a quiet manner that did not betray his displeasure. "She thinks she owes you something for your antics yesterday."
"Is that why she puts up with you?" Yuta threw back at him. "Does she feel obligated to treat you kindly because you protect her?"
Sesshomaru simply glared at him for what felt like a very long time. Even Yuta was beginning to lose confidence under his intimidating stare. Finally, Sesshomaru turned to leave the room. Before he was gone, he spoke in a clear, low voice. "I expect you'll take your leave at dawn."
The air practically sizzled with their mutual enmity as Yuta watched him leave.
We'll see about that, Yuta thought, and with a smirk forming at the corners of his mouth, he went to go find Rin.
"Of course," Sesshomaru interrupted Yuta now in an annoyed tone, "I was overly magnanimous and you ended up staying with us for several months."
Yuta glared at him. He had been happy to have his chance to tell their story and have Mana's attention focused on him for a change, but now she was staring at Sesshomaru once again as though Yuta didn't exist at all.
"No wonder you two don't get along," she said lightheartedly, and pointed in Yuta's direction. "Living with him isn't exactly a picnic all the time."
"Hey!" Yuta said, offended, but Mana paid him no mind.
"So how did Yuta weasel his way into your graces?" she asked Sesshomaru.
"As Yuta has stated," Sesshomaru said, "Rin invited him to dinner. I didn't join them. That proved to be a mistake, for the next morning I found out that over the course of the meal, Yuta had promised to teach Jaken and Rin to become expert fishermen. He wouldn't leave until each of them became perfect marks with the harpoon."
"Actually," Yuta said, grinning slyly, "you're leaving out the best part. They thought it was your idea in the first place. I told them that you had insisted while we were alone that I should stay and teach them. Made them very happy, and left you in quite a bind, not wanting to backtrack and look like a heartless fool."
Sesshomaru looked as though he was about to slice off Yuta's head, but suddenly Mana said something that drew both men's attention away from each other.
"I don't think Sesshomaru was playing the fool, Yuta," Mana said in a soft, serious voice.
"Oh?" said Yuta. "How do you figure that?"
"You said it yourself," Mana said. "You were all alone. Rin was likely the only friend you'd meet for a long time. Maybe Sesshomaru let you stay because he pitied you."
This time it was Sesshomaru's turn to act offended. "Ridiculous," he scoffed.
"I'll second that," Yuta said. "He was only too happy to finally get rid of me…."
"Race you to the river, Yuta!" Rin called happily, running past him out onto the grass.
"Hey, no fair!" Yuta yelled. "You got a head start!"
Rin turned her head to stick out her tongue and laugh, and then darted off across the field.
"Oh no, you don't," Yuta said, running after her. But he had barely taken two steps before a cold voice stopped him dead in his tracks.
Yuta recognized the tone in that voice. It meant business. He watched as Rin disappeared over the first hilly stretch of land, and sighed.
"What do you want, Sesshomaru?" he asked without even turning around.
"Come with me."
It wasn't a request; it was a command, Yuta knew. He also knew that he could only push Sesshomaru's limits so far, and this was not the time to try him.
Sesshomaru led Yuta away to a secluded spot in the woods where Jaken and Rin would neither find them nor hear them. When they finally stopped, Sesshomaru did not turn to look Yuta in the face. "By my reckoning," Sesshomaru said, "it is nearly half a year since you first showed us your miserable face. Why do you persist in staying?"
"What can I say?" Yuta shrugged innocently. "The little green guy is a slow learner. He has terrible balance. I admit it's taken me longer than I thought it would to teach him to master the harpoon…."
"But he has mastered it. Rin as well from what she tells me."
"Yeah, she's a quick study. Dedicated, that one…." Yuta spoke of her fondly.
Sesshomaru turned to face him in a flash. "You have no reason left to linger."
"And why should you care whether I stay or go? You hardly spend any time with your friends anyway. Always off on some mission or other. So secretive all the time. If I weren't around…." Yuta shook his head. "She worries about you, you know."
"My matters do not concern you… or her."
"Yeah, well, I think she feels differently."
Sesshomaru's eyes betrayed no hint of emotion. "I do not care how she feels."
Now Yuta was getting angry. "I think you do. In fact, I know the real reason you want to get rid of me. Maybe it's why you've wanted to get rid of me since the beginning. You're jealous."
"Jealous? Of a pathetic human like you?"
"Jealous because I'm the one person who could mess up the little dynamic you've got going on. Jealous because you can't stand to see Rin look up to anybody else."
Sesshomaru's features had hardly changed, but he was livid, there was no doubt about that. "Ever the small-minded idiot, Yuta. You can only think of yourself, never the larger picture. That's why you never had the sense to die."
"What are you babbling about?"
"Mermaids, you fool," Sesshomaru growled.
"You have, from day one, been giving Rin the wrong impression of mermaids. The mermaid's flesh is not to be taken lightly. In all my years, I have never seen a case like yours. Indeed, I would deem it impossible for anyone else to eat the mermaid's flesh and come out unscathed. But you prance around in front of the girl's eyes day after day giving her the illusion of happiness. As though immortality can grant happiness."
Sesshomaru's words pierced Yuta deeper than any dagger could have and left a scar that would not magically heal over like all his other wounds. It had never, not once, occurred to him that his presence could be harmful to Rin. All the conversations, all the probing questions, all the eager attentiveness with which Rin had hung upon his every word… only now did he realize that Rin had an unhealthy fascination with immortality.
Everything suddenly became clear to Yuta. "I'll leave," he said. "I'll leave right now."
"No," Sesshomaru said. "Tomorrow. Give her a day to get used to the idea and say your farewells."
Yuta was surprised. "That's almost generous of you."
"You know as well as I do if you run off without a word she's liable to go chasing after you." Sesshomaru turned his head and added lowly, as though the words burned his mouth, "I don't know what she sees in you."
Yuta tried to ignore that last comment, but he knew as well as anyone that Rin had become a bit taken with him. "Tomorrow, then." He began walking off, but then stopped as though wrestling with some inner debate.
"I don't expect I'll be seeing you again, so I better say this now. You know, Sesshomaru," Yuta said slowly. "Sometimes I think you forget how old I am. Younger than you, I'm sure, but I've lived a long time. Willing to bet I've seen as much as you. And I'd regret it if I left without telling you this: I think you're making a mistake."
Sesshomaru said nothing, but there was an uneasiness in the air that told Yuta he knew exactly what he was getting at.
"Rin looks at you as a friend now. But she's already past the time for friends. The longer she's with you, you're just asking for trouble."
Sesshomaru's voice remained even. "I have no interest in humans," he said honestly. "When the time comes, Rin must follow her own path. I've never kept her here. She's always stayed by choice."
"Well, you better be making the choice for her and soon. Get rid of her." Yuta lowered his eyes darkly. "Humans and demons live in two separate worlds. You know this." Sesshomaru said nothing, and Yuta muttered under his breath. "It won't end well…."
And Yuta stalked off into the forest, leaving Sesshomaru alone in the growing darkness to ponder these words long after he'd gone.
"I don't want you to leave, Yuta."
Rin was looking at him very sadly.
"I told you already…." Yuta couldn't seem to look her in the face when he spoke. "I've stayed too long already. I can't put this off anymore."
"But… what if we came with you? Couldn't we come with you? Lord Sesshomaru's always traveling. I'm sure he could help you find a mermaid. He has an excellent sense of smell…."
This was Yuta's worst fear, the last thing he wanted to hear. Not the prospect of spending yet more time in Sesshomaru's presence, but proof indeed that Rin was interested (and hiding it none too successfully) in finding a mermaid of her own.
"No," he said firmly, and there was such meanness in his voice that he almost regretted it, for Rin looked terribly hurt. "I'm sorry. Listen, this isn't good for me. I can't keep getting attached to people with this cursed life of mine. Friends as sweet as you are hard to lose, Rin, but I have to keep conditioning myself to be alone. If I grow attached to anyone, all I can do is watch them die as I live on."
Rin laughed bitterly. She was old enough to understand about life. "You're a real loner, huh, Yuta?"
"Yes, I'm a loner," he said, painfully aware of a similar conversation he'd had in the Village of the Fighting Fish. "And I always will be."
He halfway turned to go, but Rin ran into his arms and hugged him. When she let go, he murmured, "So long."
As he walked away, Rin called after him. "Yuta!"
He looked over his shoulder. "Yeah?"
"I don't think you'll be alone forever," Rin said solemnly. There was a twinkle in her eyes, but Yuta couldn't tell if it was from sorrow or hopefulness.
"What makes you say that?"
Rin's voice came out small and sincere. "When my family died, I thought I would be all alone forever. But one day, when I least expected it, I found Lord Sesshomaru. I think you'll find someone too, someday. I know you will," she added softly. "Otherwise it would be too sad."
Yuta just laughed gently. Rin was such an optimist. He gave her one final smile… and that was the last she ever saw of him.
Mana and Sesshomaru were staring at Yuta now as he finished his part of the story.
"She was right," Yuta said with a somber smile, looking up at Mana. "I hadn't thought about that conversation for… so long. But I guess I'm not a loner anymore, huh, Mana?"
Mana said nothing, but her eyes were shining and she took Yuta's hand.
After a few moments, Sesshomaru cleared his throat, and Mana, suddenly bashful, let go of Yuta's hand. Unlike Mana, hearing Yuta's story had not touched Sesshomaru. In fact, Sesshomaru looked colder than ever.
Peering into his harsh, golden eyes brought Yuta back to the here and now. "All right, then, Sesshomaru. I've said my piece. Now it's time for you to say yours. And you better hurry before it gets to be lunchtime and we have to feed this one again," he said, gesturing in Mana's direction.
"Hey!" she said, giving him a pointed look, but it was more out of habit than anything. She had long ago gotten used to Yuta making fun of her unruly eating habits.
Yuta ignored her outburst. "The mermaids, Sesshomaru. We came here to Lake Ningyo to find mermaids. What happened to them?"
"Oh, Yuta, no!" Mana cried. "We can't go on about that now. I want to hear what happened to Sesshomaru after you left. What happened to Rin?"
Yuta was about to try to talk some sense into the girl—she was more concerned about the far-gone past than their own futures—but Sesshomaru spoke first.
"I believe I can appease you both," he said softly, "for what happened to Rin is directly tied into the current whereabouts of the mermaids, Yuta."
Suddenly Yuta felt a lump in his throat, and it was growing larger by the second.
"And I want you to know, Yuta," Sesshomaru said darkly, "that I blame you entirely for what happened…."