Disclaimer: Inuyasha belongs to Rumiko Takahashi.
Summary: Tohyama is alive, and has teamed up with Naraku. Sesshoumaru's past is finally revealed, Takeda Kuranosuke returns and Miroku tries again to convince Sango of his undying love. For the first time, Sesshoumaru feels threatened.
Tactics of Revenge
Chapter 1: Heartbeat, Heartbreak
Miroku wasn't laughing this time. He was pleading.
Sango stared fixedly at the ground. She could hear Miroku desperately trying to reason with her, but it was muted and she wasn't listening. Little lies were spewing out of the houshi's mouth, and she knew it, and there was no way he could convince her otherwise.
"Sango," Miroku begged, "don't do this! You don't understand—"
"Of course not, houshi-sama," Sango whispered, slowly bringing her cinnamon eyes to his wide lavender ones. She was rewarded with a little satisfaction when he realized she had called him 'houshi-sama'.
"'Houshi-sama'?" he spluttered, stopping dead in his tracks on the dirt road.
Sango kept on walking. Adjusting the Hiraikotsu's straps for more comfort, the young woman allowed the world to slip away. Distantly, she heard someone call out to her; she didn't answer.
"Sango!" Kagome called again. She sighed miserably and turned to Inuyasha, who shrugged. So, turning back to where Miroku was trailing dejectedly along, she shrieked in his direction, "Miroku-sama!"
The houshi winced. Kagome had sounded mad. He turned. "Y-yes, Kagome-sama?"
"How could you!" she screeched, coming up and jabbing a finger at the unsurprised but distressed houshi. "After all you two had been through—I can't believe this! You cheated on her? You lying, degenerate houshi!"
Miroku shut his eyes to block out the pain. Kagome wasn't one to randomly throw out curses. The houshi glanced toward Sango. "You know nothing," he murmured, and walked on.
Kagome's mouth became a hard line, and she raced after him. When she caught up, she grabbed his robed shoulder and spun him around. "What are you doing?" the futuristic miko hissed furiously. "Go! Beg Sango's forgiveness!"
"Don't you get it?" Miroku snapped. Kagome was taken aback by his anger, and shook her head. "Sango hates me! She is not going to listen!"
Kagome's gaze fell to the ground. "Well…" she whispered after a pause, and didn't finish for lack of knowing what to say to the poor houshi. The schoolgirl glanced at the taijiya, now almost out of sight.
Miroku let out a long sigh. "Now tell me, Kagome-sama, what's the point of me staying when you all hate me for what I have done?"
Kagome flushed. "We don't hate you!" she said hurriedly. "It's only…" She trailed off, and flushed.
"Exactly! What's the point of me staying when the person I care for most hates me!" Miroku snapped loudly, having known exactly what she had been about to say before she wisely stopped herself. Immediately he regretted it; Sango turned and shot him a glare to freeze the soul.
"Yes… there is a demon in your house, sir," Miroku said listlessly.
The rich man, stunned, pleaded with them to exorcise the demon in exchange for a room. Miroku agreed, stuck a sutra on the wall, told the old man it would be gone by morning and then asked him to lead them to their rooms.
"G'night, Kagome," Inuyasha said as they parted for the night. Kagome took Shippo and Kirara in her arms and all save two disappeared inside their respective rooms. Miroku and Sango faced each other outside. Sango was silent, deaf to Miroku's pleads, no matter how desperate.
"You betrayed my trust," Sango said monotonously after he had run out of things to say, and she turned to the door. Throwing open the shoji, Sango stepped inside and tossed this remark straight at his heart: "I knew you would, but I hoped you wouldn't."
Then she shut the shoji with a clack, leaving Miroku alone in the dark.
Kagome watched with tears in her eyes as Kaede's bloodied body disappeared underneath a mound of dirt. She turned to Inuyasha and buried her face in his haori, small fists beating his chest. "How could he!" she sputtered, hampered by her tears. "How could he kill Kaede? I hate him, I hate him!"
"She's gone, Kagome," Inuyasha said heavily. "But so is he."
Kagome sniffled miserably, while Sango and Miroku just looked on with grievous hearts. It had only been earlier that day that they had discovered Kaede's untimely end, and they had rushed to the village. Now the sun was setting.
"I can't believe Kaede is dead," Sango said to no one in particular, voiced hushed to keep Kagome from hearing. She closed her eyes. "And she was the one who warned us about Tohyama in the first place…"
Miroku nodded, but through her peripheral vision, Sango saw his head move and her eyes narrowed and shot him a glare. The houshi flinched internally. He, hurt, raised a hand in Sango's direction, but then dropped it, knowing that there was no way Sango would let him touch her. "I'm sorry," he said.
"I'm sure," Sango remarked coldly.
Miroku bit his lip and looked away.
Kagome stayed at Kaede's grave long after everyone else had left, kneeling before the mound with sad eyes. She had said that she was coming, so when her friends saw that she was not going to go, they prodded Inuyasha forward, and he, slightly reluctant, went to console her.
Inuyasha knelt beside her and stared at the grave before her. "I'm sorry," he closed his eyes, "but I'm sure the old—err, I mean, Kaede—wouldn't have wanted you to mourn this way."
"How can I not mourn?" Kagome whispered. She turned away from Inuyasha and wiped at her eyes. "But I guess you're right…"
Inuyasha let a small smile grace his lips and helped Kagome up. "Well, let's go. No use hanging around here."
Kagome, not very pleased by this remark but too tired to show it, murmured, "Wait. Let's stay here tonight. I'm really tired… I guess all that crying just drained all my energy…"
Inuyasha nodded and walked back to Kaede's hut. A brooding Miroku was waiting outside. "Kagome wants to stay here tonight," Inuyasha told the houshi. "We better sleep here, then."
"Hmm," Miroku said skeptically, "are you sure Kagome will want to stay in this hut? It is Kaede-san's, after all…"
Inuyasha shrugged. "We can't sleep anywhere else. Besides, if Kaede had written a will, I'm sure she would have given this to Kagome or somethin'…" Miroku nodded, and Inuyasha, after looking around and seeing that no one else appeared to be nearby, asked curiously, "Kagome's still at the grave, but where are Sango, Shippo and Kirara?"
The houshi bit his lip. "Well, Shippo and Kirara are inside, but Sango ran off after…"
The sun had just disappeared over the horizon. Miroku was striding slowly through the empty village, dejectedly thinking of Sango. There's no way in hell that Sango is going to bear my child now, the houshi thought bitterly. He sighed. What am I to do? She doesn't—
Just then, a pretty, giggling girl sprinted out of the house and collided with him—hard. Both tumbled to the ground, and Miroku's arms wrapped automatically around the girl's waist to protect her from the dirt. They lay there together for a moment, stunned, when a pair of soft padding footsteps was heard coming toward them.
Miroku tried lifting his head (the girl's head was buried the crook of his neck) and, to his horror, saw Sango standing before them with a blank expression on her face. Perfect, Miroku thought dryly.
Sango's lip curled angrily. "You really have to learn to stick to one girl, houshi, and don't think I mean me… tell me, what about that poor girl you left behind?"
"Sango," Miroku said quickly, pushing the startled, innocent maiden off him. He sat up and pleaded, "You don't understand. We fell—"
"Please, miss!" the girl said, standing and brushing dirt off her pink and white kimono. "It's the truth…!"
"Of course it is," Sango said, shrugging. "It's not like this has happened before."
She turned on her heel and stalked away, ignoring Miroku's now outstretched hand. The houshi stared after her forlornly, watching as she hurried into an awkward run, and he listened to the muffled sounds of her pain as she darted away.
Miroku looked at the ground. The tale had not been a pleasant one to tell, especially while watching Inuyasha's suspicious face.
"Are you sure you fell on her?" Inuyasha asked accusingly.
"Yes, I am!" Miroku snapped; he was very—and understandably—sick of hearing things like that.
Sango ran blindly through the forest, failing in avoiding the sharp, prickling branches scratching at her arms and legs. Tears ran in rivers down her cheeks, and when she arrived in a grassy clearing, she dropped to her knees. Burying her face in her shaking hands, Sango let out a small, quivering sob. Damn, damn, damn…
The taijiya immediately glanced up in the direction of the voice that she knew well, and saw through blurry eyes the figure of a man that she was so deeply in debt to. Golden orbs stared back from behind a thick silver fringe, his mouth a thin, annoyed line.
"Sesshoumaru," Sango gasped, wiping furiously at her teary eyes, shocked and a little displeased by his appearance. She looked ridiculous; she did not want him to see her like this, though she couldn't exactly say why.
Sesshoumaru narrowed his sharp golden eyes. "It is that houshi, isn't it?" he asked heavily. His tone was not gentle; in fact, he sounded annoyed, for once.
Sango looked away and swallowed another sob. "P-please," she begged, refusing to meet his eyes, "leave me alone."
"What has he done to you?" the taiyoukai questioned monotonously. "What has happened to the taijiya who has proved herself stronger than any other human I have encountered?" Sesshoumaru winced inwardly. He had not meant to say something like that.
Sango's eyes widened and she sat up straighter, her tears slowing ever so slightly. "W-what do you mean?"
His brow drew together in a dissatisfied frown. Why couldn't she understand? Leaning forward slightly, he caught her chin in his tapered fingers, and tipped her head skyward until she was forced to meet the very honey-colored eyes that she had been avoiding.
"Can you let yourself be broken by a weak, womanizing houshi?" Pulling back, the taiyoukai let go of her stunned face and stood, retreating into the darkness.
"Kikyo-sama?" called a meek farmer, stepping toward a beautiful woman with long, black hair who dressed like a priestess.
The woman glanced up immediately from where she had been playing fondly with the children. "Yes?" she answered, smiling, her eyes crinkling kindly at the corners. "What is it, sir?"
The human took an uneasy step forward and pointed toward a particularly fancy bamboo hut behind him. "The village priest," he said in a hushed tone, "he won't tell me why, but he wants you gone. By tonight."
Kikyo's mouth turned down at the edges, and she stood. "Tell him I will not leave," she stated abruptly, clearly offended.
The farmer, nervous, nodded and hurried back to the hut. There was a hushed conversation and then a great clamor. A white-haired head poked out of the door, and the priest shot Kikyo a horrible glare.
Kikyo stared levelly back at him, and turned away when there was a tug on her hand.
"Why does the village priest want you to leave, Kikyo-sama?" the little girl, whose name was Mayu, asked cutely.
Kikyo smiled down at the little girl. "Don't worry about it, Mayu-chan," she said softly. "But I must go now. I promised to help Shigure-san gather herbs today."
Mayu nodded innocently and disappeared into the field with her other young friends. Kikyo looked after her and walked gracefully away, to go and help an old farmer gather herbs for his dinner that evening.
"You! Woman!" came a voice out of the darkness as Kikyo headed back to the hut she was staying in late that evening.
Kikyo whirled around and faced the village priest. "Yes?" she asked, absently petting a stray Soul Collector that had come along bearing the soul of a recently departed young female from a nearby village.
"You are not of our world," the priest said, waving his staff around. "I want you to leave at once."
Kikyo thought back to the incident with that man who she killed, and that little girl Sayo… the miko did not want something like that to happen again. "If you wish it," she said softly, obviously surprising the priest a little. Without another word, Kikyo gathered her remaining soul collectors and swept off into the night.
One week had passed since Kaede's funeral, and Inuyasha and the others had stayed in the village, much to the hanyou's frustration.
In Kaede's hut, Kagome sat, motionless and deep in thought, looking at a certain spot in the wall as if expecting it to bare news. Sango slept next to her, ignoring Miroku as he stared sullenly at the taijiya from across the hut. Shippo and Kirara were playing, and Inuyasha was outside.
Suddenly, Kagome smiled; she had it all figured out. The futuristic miko had decided that she needed to know how Inuyasha felt about her, and had come up with a plan. Her plan was to take him into the forest (she knew exactly which clearing she wanted to take him to, too) and tell him that she had a boyfriend. The schoolgirl squirmed happily. It was perfect, and it was about to be put into action.
Kagome stood, waking Sango. After hurried apologies, Kagome sprinted out, leaving Sango and Miroku in uncomfortable silence.
"Inuyasha!" Kagome called softly, and smiled upon seeing him sitting on the roof of a hut. "Come down!" she exclaimed.
With a puzzled expression on his face, Inuyasha hopped down and asked, "What is it, Kagome?"
Kagome took a deep breath. Time to see what Inuyasha's true feelings for me are, Kagome thought. She marched forward and grabbed Inuyasha's arm, ignoring his surprised cry as she dragged him off and into a nearby wood.
Knowing precisely where she was going, Kagome led Inuyasha through thickets of sharp, thorny branches that scraped at their faces and clothes, through a clump of damp ferns, and finally, over a stony hill.
There, at the bottom of the little valley, lay a small, grassy clearing with a tree stump in the center. Kagome, pleased with herself that she found it so quickly, squeezed Inuyasha's arm and hurried him down until they stood before the trunk.
Nervous, Kagome knotted her hands behind her back, cleared her throat, and said, "Inuyasha, I've never told you this, but I have someone back home."
"Yeah," he agreed immediately, scratching his head in confusion and resting one leg on the mossy tree stump. "Your mother, your grandfather—
"That's not what I meant," Kagome interrupted impatiently, crossing her arms over her chest in exasperation. "I mean, I have someone waiting for me at home… a boyfriend."
"A boyfriend," Inuyasha repeated slowly. He didn't do anything for a moment, and Kagome frowned.
So… he doesn't care, she thought sadly. He loves Kikyo after all… "What?" Kagome snapped angrily, her nervousness giving away to momentary frustration and foolishness. "You have Kikyo."
Inuyasha shook his head, which made a spark of hope ignite in Kagome's heart, and said, "Keh." The schoolgirl took this to be a good sign, and her heart leaped into her mouth. He continued, "What's his name?"
"H… Ho… Hojo!" Kagome exclaimed, thinking of her sweet friend who was so devoted to her. This was a lie, of course, but Kagome wanted to see what the hanyou would do after hearing this.
"Hojo," Inuyasha tried the name out slowly. He shook his head and said, "But…"
Then, to Kagome's surprise, he drew her close, so her head was nestled in his chest. "I don't want you to have a boyfriend." He drew back and looked at her, an innocent pout on his face. "I don't want you to have 'boyfriends'," he repeated roughly. "Can't you just stay here with me?"
Happy tears sprung into Kagome's eyes. "Of course," she squealed, jumping forward and wrapping her arms around his neck.
"Inuyasha?" came a deep, feminine voice from the sky.
The hanyou glanced up and his eyes widened as he saw a woman descend from the skies, riding on pale bluish-white creatures. "Kikyo," he breathed, letting Kagome go.
Kagome took a deep, shuddering breath. It had hurt, that Inuyasha had immediately let her go when Kikyo appeared. Perfect… She gave a half-hearted wave and retreated behind Inuyasha, feeling both angry at Kikyo's intrusion and guilty for feeling angry, and, in some respects, for stealing Kikyo's man.
Kikyo was smiling a dry smile. "I see… I was right," she said slowly, one foot coming gently down on the ground so she could stand without the help of her Soul Collectors.
"What do you mean?" Inuyasha said, shifting his weight from foot to foot awkwardly.
"This girl is more precious to you," the miko said softly. There was a burning sensation making itself known in the back of her throat, and tears were building in her eyes, but she wasn't about to let Inuyasha know that.
Inuyasha stretched out a hand toward her. "Kikyo—"
The pale miko narrowed her eyes, and brushed off his hand. Her dark orbs flitted to Kagome; when the revived miko had come across the two, she considered asking to speak with Kagome alone, but now she had lost all interest and felt rather numb since she had gathered what had been going on. A pale, chalky hand clutched at her heart. "I have to go," she said suddenly, sounding rather broken as her vital soul collectors gathered around her, preparing to lift her into the sky.
"I'm sorry," Inuyasha said immediately. Kagome's heart throbbed.
"Are you really?" Kikyo asked as she began to rise. "Inuyasha?"
"Kikyo!" Inuyasha called out instinctively, stepping away from Kagome and stretching out a hand towards his former love, but she was already gone. Kagome's heart gave another painful lurch.
The hanyou and the schoolgirl stood in silence for a minute, Inuyasha frozen from where he had been reaching for Kikyo, and Kagome immobile, her heart slowly cracking.
After all he said… he still loves Kikyo…
Finally, after what seemed like forever, Inuyasha stepped back and looked to Kagome. "Should we go back to camp?" he said, giving her a weak grin. Kagome felt as if the earlier events had been forgotten, and nodded numbly.
Inuyasha saw that she was in pain and bit his lip, looking away. "I'm sorry… but it's not fair… you know?" he asked awkwardly, avoiding Kagome's gaze. Though his next sentence was one of the most difficult he had ever said, he managed to get it between inaudible mutterings and mumbles.
"But don't think that this changes anything between us, Kagome."
When he was finished, he summoned the courage to look at Kagome's face. He was glad he did so; watching a blush rise into her cheeks was satisfying.
Back at the hut and having no idea what had happened between Inuyasha, Kagome and Kikyo, Miroku was trying to make small talk. Sango wasn't listening.
"Shippo is getting quite big, isn't he?" the houshi said, attempting at conversation.
Sango didn't answer; she merely looked at the floor of the hut and fingered the Hiraikotsu, resting against the wall behind her.
"So, how did you and Kirara first meet?"
Sango wasn't going to tell him that the faithful cat demon was given to her by her father, or anything else, for that matter. This had been going on for ten minutes, and the taijiya couldn't understand why Miroku couldn't get the hint: she did not want to talk to him.
"Sango," Miroku said desperately, leaning toward her and grabbing her hand. Sango tried to pull away, but he had her hand in a vice-like grip and he wasn't about to let go.
"What?" Sango replied emotionlessly, looking into his eyes so he could see the anger—and the pain—in them.
Miroku flinched inwardly as he stared into the depths of her eyes and saw such feeling, but didn't look away, as Sango hoped he might. Taking a deep breath, the houshi decided to abandon the truth and simply apologize. "I'm sorry. Please. Believe me."
Infuriated, Sango managed to shrug out of his hold. She stood, and walked out of the hut. "Tell Kagome and Inuyasha that I will be back for dinner."
"Where are you going?" Miroku yelped.
"To the hot spring."
"That's an awfully long bath," Miroku exclaimed mildly, but the taijiya didn't answer. She was already gone.
Sango let out a long sigh as she slipped into the steaming pool. Her clothes and a towel that she had borrowed from Kagome were dropped on a rock on the edge of the water. Resisting the urge to yelp at the heat and spring back out, Sango lowered herself further and let the water slip over her head until she was completely engulfed.
Soon needing air, Sango shot back up in the cool late afternoon air and leaned back, closing her eyes peacefully.
"Sango-chan?" came a soft, timid voice from behind.
"Hmm?" The taijiya glanced back to see Kagome, fully dressed and clutching a towel, bending toward her, a small smile on her face. "Kagome-chan," she said softly, and smiled back.
"Do you mind if I join you?"
Sango shook her head. "Not at all."
Dropping her towel next to Sango's and hurrying off with her clothes, Kagome dove into the relaxing water. "Ah," Kagome sighed blissfully, sitting back against the cool gray rocks on the side. "This is sonice…"
"It sure is," Sango agreed, a little part of her wishing that she had said that she wanted to be alone. Glancing wearily over at her friend, Sango saw, to her mild surprise, that Kagome was nearly hopping about with joy, splashing water all over. "Kagome," Sango said as humorously as she could, "it isn't that great."
"You're right," Kagome noted, and blushed.
Sango got the feeling that something had happened that Kagome was not letting on about. The taijiya immediately perked up and crawled toward her friend. "What is it?" she asked curiously. "Kagome…?"
"Inu… Inuyasha," Kagome said shyly, "h-he… I think…"
Sango frowned. He what?
"I think he loves me…"
Sango bit back a snort. Of course he does, Sango thought. What's so special about tha— Suddenly a thought struck her. "Kagome," she said hurriedly, excitedly, "did he say so? To you?"
"Well," Kagome blushed more, "not in those words, but… yes…"
Sango's mouth opened in pleased surprise, and she grinned happily at her friend. "Wow, Kagome," Sango said truthfully, "that's so wonderful!"
Kagome beamed. "I know," she said softly, deciding not to tell Sango about Kikyo. "I… love him too…"
Sango chuckled. "I know," she said, letting out another giggle when she saw Kagome's shocked expression.
Sango nodded and admitted, "It was pretty obvious."
Kagome ducked her head in embarrassment and asked meekly, "So how are you and Miroku?" Immediately she regretted it, and covered her mouth, glancing at Sango's expression in the reflection of the murky water. I can't believe I forgot…
Sango shook her head and looked away, eyes going glassy as she remembered her talk with Sesshoumaru a week ago… that talk had made her feel a whole lot better; she had never thanked him.
The taijiya's head snapped back to where Kagome's wavering voice had come from. "Yes?" Sango said, pulling herself away from her thoughts.
"I'm sorry," Kagome said softly, "I didn't—"
"It doesn't matter," Sango answered automatically. She turned back to the schoolgirl, and offered a fake smile. "So, how did it happen?"
Kagome reddened again, and launched into her plan, and how successful it was… until Kikyo showed up. But Kagome, not wanting to ruin the moment, didn't bother telling Sango about that particular occurrence.
Miles away, Sesshoumaru, having figured out loosely what Miroku did to Sango, was now seething underneath his cool exterior. True, a week had passed, but Sesshoumaru would not let it go. Not this time.
"Sesshoumaru-sama?" Jaken squeaked nervously. They had been traveling for days on end; Rin was asleep on Ah-Un's back, Jaken was curious as to where they were headed, and had gotten wind that his lord was annoyed.
"What is it, Jaken?" Sesshoumaru asked, sounding calm despite talking through gritted teeth.
Jaken gulped nervously and said, voice quivering, "Wh-where are we going, milord?"
Sesshoumaru paused, looked around, and cringed inwardly. He had found that they had gone in a huge circle, and were now headed back to his brother's camp. The taiyoukai glanced up, and saw the sun was setting. "Perhaps it is time that we rest," he stated monotonously, surprising Jaken, who had not expected an answer.
"Y-yes, milord," Jaken exclaimed, looking around. "But where?"
"Find a clearing. Take Rin. I will be back," Sesshoumaru said, taking off into the darkening forest without another word. Jaken stared after him, mouth agape, before squawking and attending to Rin.
Miroku let out a loud, lengthy sigh as he stood and exited Kaede's hut. Inuyasha, who had returned and bashfully told him of what had happened between him and Kagome, sat inside in a stupor. Secretly jealous, the houshi sauntered down the dirt path and thought miserably of his pathetic excuse for a love life.
He had always thought he would be very successful, and when he met Sango, he was positive. But now his happiness had come crashing down around him along with the painful truth: Sango was going to find love in the arms of another.
Miroku crossed his arms over his rumpled robes, the cursed hand balled into a fist. His dark fringe hung over his violet eyes, shadowing them from view. He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't notice a figure appear, as if by magic, in the tree above him.
"Are you the houshi they call Miroku?" came a baritone voice that cut through the air like a knife.
Miroku recognized the voice immediately, and took a step backwards. "Yes," he said. "And you are S—"
"You are a deceitful fool," said the voice before the houshi could expose him.
Miroku gave a start. "How dare you!" he shouted, outraged.
Amber eyes narrowed, and thin lips hidden behind white silk curled into a smirk at the houshi's ignorance. Satisfied, he stood up to go, but not before hissing, "You stupid, womanizing idiot."
"Stop it!" Miroku shouted furiously, placing his hands over his ears and curling into himself. What on earth was going on? Why did Sesshoumaru seem to hate him so much? A thought struck the houshi and Miroku blanched. This couldn't have anything to do with Sango... right? What had happened between the taijiya and the taiyoukai?
Sesshoumaru shook his head subtly. Before departing, however, the demon couldn't resist tossing one last comment at the poor, confused young man; one that Miroku knew all too well: "She detests you."
Miroku moaned softly, knowing now that Sesshoumaru had been talking about Sango, but his head snapped up when he heard branches rustle above him. Sesshoumaru was gone.
"I'm going to go back to the village," Kagome announced, standing and reaching for her towel.
Sango wasn't really paying attention, but she nodded. Her head was empty, light-headed, and it was pleasant. So, drained of both her energy and any intelligent thoughts, she slowly slunk down below the water. Kagome left a few minutes later. Sango didn't notice.
Just when it started to become too hot, and black splotches were appearing in Sango's vision, the taijiya decided to get out, and return to camp. With one arm wrapped protectively across her chest just in case some perverted houshi might come along, she stood, and grabbed her towel from the side.
She got out, quickly dried herself off with the towel, and, still wrapped in it, reached for her kimono. Unexpectedly, there came a great noise from above, in the trees. It startled the girl, and she clutched the towel to her tighter.
Sesshoumaru hopped off from tree to tree, satisfied with his chat with the houshi. Then, during his trek, the taiyoukai caught Sango's scent from off to his left. Curious to see if she was still upset, he jumped down and walked lightly through the trees until he could see her clearly.
Sesshoumaru's face turned scarlet.
Sango, sensing a presence, turned and peered into the darkness. "Who's there?" she called sharply. "Is that you, Kagome-chan?"
Sesshoumaru fought down his blush, and was preparing to leave when Sango emitted a small shriek. He turned, and took a step backward when he saw Sango staring at him through the trees, eyes wide.
Before he could run, the taijiya, picking up a rock, chucked it at the taiyoukai with a shriek of, "Pervert!"
"Sango," Sesshoumaru said, sounding strangely nervous, dodging the stone and stepping carefully out through the trees into plain sight. "You don't understand—"
"Get away!" Sango cried shrilly, hurrying away to hide behind a large rock. Red-faced and furious, the girl peeked out and ordered loudly, "Turn around, dammit!"
Sesshoumaru did what he was told, and whirled around immediately. Still flushed, the taiyoukai stared fixedly ahead, arm crossed over his chest in embarrassment.
There was a rustle of clothing, and the sound of a wet body slipping into dry clothes. Sesshoumaru's face reddened again. A few minutes later, apparently unaware of the taiyoukai's current state, Sango announced curtly, "You may turn around now."
Sesshoumaru turned slowly back, and regarded Sango with a stern eye to hide his no longer obvious embarrassment. But all was not perfect. Sango had not had a chance to dry off properly, and her kimono stuck to her like a second skin, exposing all those curves that were not that obvious in her usual kimono.
"Stop staring!" Sango snapped at him, stepping closer, obviously absolutely furious. "The last thing I need is another stupid idiot peeping at me while I'm in the bath!"
Sesshoumaru raised a brow, surprised. Another stupid idiot? His eyes narrowed. Houshi…
Then, before he knew what was happening, Sango had raised her hand out of fury, and was bringing it down on his cheek, screaming all the while about stupid perverts.
The taiyoukai didn't mind letting her vent, but he would not stand to be slapped. Catching her hand an inch before it reached his face, he tugged her toward him and hissed in her face, "Human, I am not that houshi."
Noting that, for the first time in a while, he had called her 'human', Sango stared defiantly back at him, eyes narrowed. They stayed in that position for a full minute, until Sango snatched her hand back and turned her back. "I know that," she said finally. "But it's the kind of thing that he would do."
"Nevertheless," Sesshoumaru growled, nostrils flaring. "Besides, how was I to know that you were having a bath? I could not have known, and I did not."
"Of course," Sango agreed sarcastically, turning back toward him. "That's why you were staring."
Sesshoumaru shook his head in exasperation. Turning to leave, he said, "Believe what you want." His bright eyes flashed. "Do you honestly think I would stare at a human like you?"
Sango's mouth opened. "What a horrible thing to say!" she cried. "Then again, I would expect no less from you."
Within a matter of seconds, they were facing off forehead-to-forehead, snapping insults at each other with barely enough time to breath in between.
"Well, you better listen, you—"
"A weak human woman can't compare to the power of this Sesshoumaru."
"You're so stuck up! I could defeat you!"
"Who's the conceited one?"
"You perverted monster!"
"Stop comparing me to that damn houshi, woman!"
Sango stopped short, and pulled away. "I-I wasn't," she spluttered.
Sesshoumaru's annoyed face loomed in front of her once more. "Don't lie to me," he snapped, ignoring their obvious proximity.
"Step down from your throne, demon. It's not my fault that you were peeking at me in the bath, and it's not my fault that it is something he would do," Sango snarled, irritated once more.
"It is your fault, however, when you start turning every little accident into something that 'he' would do. Do you miss him that much?" Sesshoumaru asked. His heart thumped painfully at the thought of her missing that useless houshi, but he fought it down. "Well?" he demanded at her silent figure.
Sango bowed her head. I don't miss him! I don't! She paused. Right? Glancing away and biting her lip, the taijiya thought, I can't be missing him! That's stupid! He betrayed me… I do not want him back!
Sesshoumaru, tiring of her contemplation, grabbed her hand and forced her to look up. Knowing his eyes were betraying him, the taiyoukai said levelly, "Don't force yourself to hate him, huntress."
He backed up; not realizing her hand was still encased in his. He was perfectly happy to depart, not realizing that he would be leaving a shocked Sango both thinking of his words and the emotion she was positive she had seen in his eyes. But then, there was a rustle and a crash, and Inuyasha dropped onto the scene.
"Sango!" the hanyou cried, eyes wide and flickering between the taijiya, his brother, and their entwined hands. Not again, he thought angrily. Stepping forward, Inuyasha grabbed Sango's hand and ripped it out of Sesshoumaru's grasp. "Get away from her!" he warned furiously, shielding a shocked and motionless Sango.
Sesshoumaru glanced blankly at his hand. Oh. His amber orbs narrowed. "Be more respectful of your elder brother, Inuyasha," the taiyoukai replied evenly. "Or do I have you fight the impudence out of you?"
Inuyasha flung Sango back and drew Tetsusaiga. "Don't make me laugh!"
Sango tumbled backward and just before she was going to catch her balance, she collided with someone who gripped her sides, steadying her. The taijiya glanced back and when she saw the anguished face of the houshi, she immediately pulled away and shot him a glare. Inwardly red, Sango wondered how long they had been there, as she now saw Kagome appear through a net of closely-knit trees. She also wondered if they had been eavesdropping, and if they had heard Sango and Sesshoumaru's talk.
Miroku stared ruefully after Sango as she stalked off to where Kagome was timidly stepping out into the open. Inwardly, he was in turmoil. The three had been there for a while, ever since Inuyasha caught Sesshoumaru's scent and raced off to find the two talking. The hanyou had dashed back to tell he and Kagome what was happening, so they had set off immediately and had been listening since.
Is it true? Does Sango not hate me after all? Does she really… miss me?
Sango shot a glance at the houshi, displeased at his expression but confused as to its meaning. Suddenly, it dawned on her and her face paled. He knows, she thought, upset. Oh, no… Fixing her mouth in a hard line and raising her head high, she decided, I'm not going to take him back… even if I do miss him…
"What were you doing?" Inuyasha demanded at Sango as Kagome bandaged up a deep cut in his back from his brief battle with Sesshoumaru. "Ouch!" The hanyou winced. "Watch it, Kagome!"
"Sorry," Kagome murmured timidly.
Inuyasha focused once more on Sango and asked irritably, "Why were you holding hands with my brother? Why does this keep happening, Sango?" When she didn't respond, his face screwed up in frustration and he snapped, "Answer!"
Sango shrugged. "Inuyasha, we've discussed this for long enough." She cast a weary glance at the hanyou. "Can we please drop it?"
"No!" Inuyasha exclaimed. "We can't! I want to know what you were doing with him. You've stalled for long enough, now I want to hear the truth."
"Inuyasha," interrupted Kagome, stepping back and putting away the bandages in her first-aid kit. "Please. Sango said she's had enough. I think we all have, so please drop the subject?"
Inuyasha, annoyed, looked at Miroku in hopes of the houshi siding with him, but the young man shook his head and the hanyou slunk down into a slouch, admitting defeat. "Fine," he grumbled. "Have it your way." His head shot up, and piercing amber eyes stole into Sango's. "But I want to know what is going on soon, yeah?"
"Sure," Sango murmured monotonously, and let the hut fall silent.
No one said anything for a good long time; they simply let the awkward silence ensue. The tense quiet was broken, however, when Kagome stood, claiming that dinner had to be prepared and that someone had to go and look for Shippo and Kirara, who had not returned from a long day of playing.
Then she pulled Inuyasha off, giving him the job of finding the two demons, while she hurried off to make supper, leaving Miroku and Sango alone in the hut.
"Do you really miss me, Sango?" Miroku asked after letting the silence reign for a good ten minutes.
Sango let out an inaudible growl. So they had been eavesdropping! "No," she lied. "I don't."
Miroku examined her with a scrutinizing gaze. "Are you sure?" he inquired. Flushing, he soon added, "I don't mean to sound conceited. It's just what I heard from Sesshoumaru's mouth."
"He read me wrong," Sango said levelly.
"Mm-hmm," Miroku agreed. He highly doubted that the great taiyoukai had made a mistake in his calculations, but he wasn't about to say so.
Sango nodded, doubting he believed her but pleased he obviously wasn't going to pry. Standing, the taijiya walked out, leaving Miroku alone with his thoughts, his doubts, and his doleful, unfortunate love for a strong maiden who had walked out of his life without a glance back.
Elsewhere, in a village where the only people to have seen the deserted ruins in years were a select group of misfits battling a dangerous demon, a strange patch of darkened soil rippled.
The leaves rustled in the trees, the calm aura disturbed, but, as no one was around, nothing more happened.
But then it rippled again, slowly at first. But then it sped up, until the ground was rocking with energy and movement. Then, out of the soiled dirt, came a hand. It ripped up through the ground and grasped at the roots of a dead plant that had died the moment the soil had turned black.
The hand was rotting and white bone showed clearly through the scant patches of pasty, wasting skin. Then, another appeared, with a similar disgusting appearance. They pulled up the body of something strange; it seemed almost shapeless as it rippled and blew in the cold wind. It was as if that silly little breeze threatened to tear it apart and scatter its remains to the skies.
"They thought I was finished," a voice like one thousand demon and humans combined garbled from the direction of the shapeless monster. "But they were wrong."
"What!" Kagome shrieked at the unfortunate farmer cowering before the schoolgirl and her friends.
"I said, miss, that K—"
"I heard what you said!" Kagome snapped at the intimidated commoner. "But are you serious? Kaede-san's grave has been desecrated?"
"Yes, miss, and what's more," the villager gulped at the verbal assault he was about to endure, but plowed on, "Kaede-sama's body… it's missing!"
"Missing?" all of the group shrieked as one, save Inuyasha, who merely looked surprised and nothing more.
"Yes. As of this morning," the man said, promptly bowing and retreating, the deed done.
"Who would do such a thing!" Kagome cried, turning on her friends, miserable and infuriated. "Why would they steal her body?"
"Yeah," Inuyasha agreed. "Why would you steal the old hag's body? It's all old and wrinkled, while the body of that—"
"Inuyasha!" Kagome exclaimed hotly. "Sit!"
Inuyasha crashed painfully to the ground, but that didn't stop his friends from hurrying to Kaede's grave. They found the space open and filth was piled around it; sure enough, the elderly miko's body was gone.
"Oh no," Kagome said, tears building in her eyes as she dropped to her knees before the defiled hole.
Sango sucked in a large breath and glanced around sorrowfully. "Who would do such a thing?" she murmured, bending over and picking up a stray piece of the worn kimono Kaede had been buried in.
"Well, they weren't neat about it," Miroku remarked, inspecting a pile of dirt. "And it looks like whoever did this was desperate. What say you, Sango?"
Why is it always meSango wondered before answering curtly, "I don't know. You're right, I suppose."
Miroku nodded, and glanced at Kagome, motionless beside the grave. He heard rustling in the trees, and looked away and up into the big one above just in time to see Inuyasha land on it.
Hopping down, the hanyou, not bothering to brush the dirt from his haori, stepped over to Kagome's crumpled form and, with narrowed eyes, examined the damage. He sighed, and shrugged. "What purpose could they possibly have stealing that crone's body?" he asked no one in particular.
Kagome's head whipped around, eyes bright with tears. "What do you know? Don't speak so disrespectfully about Kaede-san! Inuyasha, you jerk!"
Inuyasha, who had been steeling himself for another 'sit' command, shuffled his feet and looked at the ground, feeling guilty. "Sorry," he said after a long pause. "I just wonder why—"
"I do too!" Kagome snapped.
Inuyasha, cowed, stepped back to where Miroku was now kneeling, hands together before his young face, muttering a prayer.
"No one knows what could have happened," Sango told her friends, gathered before the taijiya like an eager flock of birds. The reaction was as she expected: both Kagome and Miroku sighed heavily, Inuyasha's brow furrowed just the tiniest bit, and Shippo hung his head miserably.
The little kitsune thought himself particularly at fault, as he had been puttering around the grave the day before Kaede's body was found to be missing. Shippo had left to play sometime in the evening, so now he felt that had he stayed, the old miko's body might have not been taken.
"Shippo," came Sango's voice soothingly as she knelt before him and put a comforting hand upon his head, "it's not your fault. Don't blame yourself, please."
"B-but," he choked, "now Kaede-baba's soul isn't at peace b-because her body isn't w-where it's supposed to b-be, and it's all my f-fault!"
Sango shook her head and didn't bother continuing in trying to console him. No matter what anyone said, Shippo held himself particularly responsible. No amount of 'Don't blame yourself,' was going to change that.
"I'm going for a walk," Inuyasha announced suddenly, promptly standing and making his way to the door.
"Why? Where?" Kagome inquired, leaning forward.
"Out," Inuyasha responded sullenly, brushing the curtain-like door aside.
"Out where?" Kagome pressed on.
"Just out," Inuyasha snapped crabbily.
They act like they've been married for years, Miroku observed humorously. He snorted with glee, and when he saw the glares that Inuyasha and Kagome were giving him, he stifled his laughter and decided not to share his thoughts.
Kagome wouldn't be quiet, so finally a fed-up Inuyasha snarled, "I just heard something about a demon off in the west, okay? Whole villages have been ransacked, and supposedly demons flock around that area—they sounded like they might be Naraku's demons, and that might mean that Naraku is somewhere near there."
"Then why are you going alone?" Kagome asked, shooting up and placing her hands on her hips. "We're coming with you, right, guys?"
Sango nodded, and squeezed Hiraikotsu's strap for comfort. Shippo jumped up onto Kagome's shoulder and also nodded resolutely. Kirara meowed and hopped onto the crown of Sango's head, while Miroku immediately stood up and boomed, "Let's go!"
Inuyasha, outwardly disgruntled but inwardly relieved, agreed and they set off westward at a brisk, even pace.
"How far away is this place?" Kagome wondered aloud the next day as Shippo trotted next to her. Her back was sore from sleeping on cold ground the night before, and she didn't want to travel that much further without another rest, so she glanced back to where Inuyasha, Sango and Miroku were lagging behind, and wearily asked the hanyou, "When can we rest again?"
"Tonight," was Inuyasha's answer.
Three groans echoed through the thick woods in which the group was traipsing. Kirara, Inuyasha and Shippo were perfectly able and perfectly happy to keep going, but they were demons. Miroku, Sango and Kagome (the ones who did the groaning) were humans, and their energy was almost gone.
"Well," Inuyasha said, looking around, "I think we're almost there, anyway."
"Good," Kagome sighed. "We should ask the people in the next village," she pointed ahead, where bamboo huts could be seen rising over the grassy horizon, "if they have been bothered by any demons."
"I agree," Miroku said, and squinted into the distance. "It doesn't look that far off."
Sango nodded, and hurried to the front, wanting to talk to Kagome. Just then, she noticed that Kagome had stopped dead, and that the futuristic miko's eyes were narrowed in concentration.
"What's wrong, Kagome?" Sango asked worriedly.
"A barrier," the girl informed her friend. "There is a barrier here."
"A barrier?" Inuyasha exclaimed, bounding up and examining the forest in front of them. He stepped a bit further, and the air around him rippled. "You're right, Kagome. Naraku must be here… why else would a barrier be here?" He grinned wolfishly. "I'll break it with my Tetsusaiga!"
He drew the sword from its sheath and watched proudly as it transformed into the fearsome glowing fang. He raised it, and as he swung it downward, the sword turned blood red and slashed through the barrier, effectively cutting a way through.
"Feh," Inuyasha snorted, closing his eyes and swinging his precious sword back to rest on his shoulder. "Piece of cake. Let's go, guys!"
"Inuyasha!" came Kagome's cry from far ahead. "What are you doing? Hurry up!"
The hanyou's eyes snapped open and his mouth nearly dropped open as he saw his friends in the distance, impatiently waiting and beckoning to him before resuming running. "Wait!" he shouted, hurrying after them. "Wait for me, dammit!"
Sango wasn't listening. She was too busy hurrying ahead on Kirara. There was a grand house visible, silhouetted against the sun on the horizon. Willing Kirara to fly faster, the taijiya swore then and there that she would annihilate Naraku for destroying her family.
Kohaku, she thought, and blinked away sudden tears. Her friends had been left behind minutes ago, and she didn't care. The horizon was swiftly approaching, and in a minute she jumped down off her faithful companion. She now stood before a grand castle.
"Naraku," she hissed.
"Sango!" came a recognizably soft voice from behind. The taijiya whirled around, and saw Inuyasha, Kagome, Miroku and Shippo all on his back. The hanyou was wincing from the weight, but he was jumping resolutely toward Sango, and toward the castle.
"Are you all right?" Kagome asked once Inuyasha had stopped. The three climbed off the hanyou, who gave a huge sigh of relief, and the schoolgirl stepped toward her older friend. "You ran off so fast…"
"I'm… fine," Sango said, and jerked her head in the direction of the castle. "This has to be it."
"It is," Inuyasha confirmed. He sniffed the air, and shuddered. "The air is thick with Naraku's miasma." Covering his mouth with his red sleeve and motioning for the others to do the same, the hanyou plodded forward. But then, before anyone made another move toward the grand house, they heard hushed voices.
"Naraku," Miroku confirmed under his breath, and listened again. "And someone else?"
They crept up and as the voices got louder and clearer, it became obvious as to whom Naraku's visitor was. Sango clapped a hand over her mouth to keep herself from screaming.