Sting

by Scribe Figaro

In her training it was made clear to Sango that the work of the taiji-ya should not be taken lightly. To say that the slowest, most dim-witted youkai were still deadly was an understatement, for in fact, these are the sort of youkai that have claimed the most taiji-ya. A taiji-ya's work should be instinct but never routine, because when a taiji-ya goes through the motions she becomes slow and dim-witted herself, and then only stupid luck protects her.

And Sango's training has taught her that stupid luck is never on the side of a taiji-ya.

So the routine fights were the most dangerous. And even if the taiji-ya is true in form and action, she is still vulnerable. Every battle is a roll of the dice, and every taiji-ya falls in battle when her number is called. Skill loads the dice, and the odds are with her, but this does not change the fact that she is always gambling with her life.

So the proper response to being blindsided by a large but weak scorpion youkai's attack, neatly hidden between its death throes, is not "How could this happen?" but "I guess I was due."

Slicing off the offending tail and then smashing the scorpion's brains in with Hirakotsu is also good and proper.

The scorpion's movement had been so fluid, so fast, that even Houshi-sama did not notice the contact. He stood to the side, hand before him in prayer for the thing that they had slain, and she took the moment to inspect the wound.

A scorpion curls its tail over its enemy and strikes from behind. She saw it coming, and jumped closer to the creature to foul its strike. The stinger might as well been a sword, quite pointless for poisoning men, as it had good chance of running straight through a man and injecting its venom into empty air, but good enough for livestock and other youkai. Of course, poisoning is not necessary if you run an inch-wide slit through someone's internals, and if Sango had not moved at the last second she would have taken the spike into her lower back, piercing her kidney, driving down into her bowels, out her hip, and the poisons in her own intestines would do a fine enough job of killing her. She had seen more than enough men die this way.

Her armor did not hold. But it almost held. Held well enough to keep her pelvis from being split. Her jump had moved her into this position, half-intentionally, and the stinger struck her only a few inches below and to the right of the base of her spine. The thick soft-shell armor that hung from her waist crushed inward, allowing no more than an inch of the stinger past, and the black leathery armor beneath let that pass without much resistance, and Sango's flesh was pierced.

The stinger was so damaged by the armor that most of the acrid yellow venom simply painted her coral armor with a sickly glaze, and much of the rest sprayed the skin of her uniform with dark and wet, and what little bit made it into her wound mostly flowed directly out.

The scorpion's last attack and its own death were nearly one in the same, as one might have trouble blinking an eye in such a short period of time.

So Houshi-sama had not seen, and still did not see, his hand still in prayer, and Sango turned and inspected the inch-long tear in her armor, and slipped a hand underneath, and tried not to laugh as she thought of Houshi-sama watching Sango grope herself, and her fingernail traced the small rip in her uniform, just below the apex of the curve of her left buttock. It was not only Houshi-sama who could find that spot so effortlessly.

She judged, from the venom spilled outside her flesh, that she took in a tenth of a dose at most, which was very unlikely to be fatal. But the venom is a nerve agent, and causes paralysis, and at very least she would be too weak to walk in a matter of minutes, and would remain that way until the venom ran its course over the rest of the day.

Houshi-sama now saw, the hand on her bottom, the venom that trickled down her leg, and without a word he was beside her.

"It got a lucky shot at me," she said.

"How much?"

"Not much. But I'm going to be down for the day, I think."

"I could suck the poison . . ."

"Not after I tear off your lips."

His hand was on her shoulder even before she realized how unsteady she was on her feet. She gripped his arm.

"Tell me what to do," he said.

"Back to camp. I'll be fine if I lie down for a while. Where is Kirara?"

He gestured toward the woods. "She's finishing off the scorpion spawn."

Her knees buckled. He caught her with an arm around her waist.

"Call her," Sango said, with an even and unconcerned tone, beneath which lay the fearful timbre of a woman who suddenly can no longer feel her legs, and lacked strength enough in her voice to call her own firecat.

Camp was a grove of trees and low grass, and one of Kagome's soft, smooth futon was Sango's bed. She lay quietly, Kirara mewing, Sango's left hand atop her furry body, scratching idly, and then twitching slightly, and then Kirara moved her back against Sango's still hand.

Houshi-sama kneeled to her right side and prepared his medicines, which apparently centered around a packet of herbs and tea leaves produced from his inner robe. He began to grind the materials in a shallow ceramic bowl, and Sango sat up, just a little, and fell back against the mattress of piled green wheat shoots and his black robe.

"How bad?" he asked.

"I feel dead below my shoulders," she said. "I can barely move."

"Can you feel?"

She glanced to Kirara, moving slightly beneath her still, cupped hand.

Houshi-sama took her right hand in his own, and boldly pressed the knuckles to his face for an instant.

"Can you feel?"

"Yes," she said. "Only a little, but yes."

He smiled, and placed her hand beside her.

"Now what?" he asked.

"Now we wait, and I rest, and the poison will take its course."

"And the wound?"

"It will be fine."

It of course would not be fine, but there were levels of not-being-fine she would tolerate.

Of course, she would also suffer chills and fever soon, and her taijiya-uniform would be soaked with sweat, and when night fell her wet uniform would take the heat right out of her, and then pneumonia would not be unlikely . . .

This really wasn't fair.

But she already rolled the dice once today.

Miroku had already turned away to crush the sharp-smelling herbs and tea leaves in a small bowl.

"Okay," she said.

He looked up.

"Okay?"

"The wound. And this uniform."

He blinked.

"Are you certain…?"

"Yeah."

He set his work aside.

"How should I . . ."

"My boots first. Then the armor."

"Right."

The sensation of cool air on her bare toes was surprisingly satisfying. She could wiggle them, though only with great effort. There was no strength in her limbs; she could move fingers and toes in uncoordinated twitching movements, but her arms and legs were so heavy they might as well have been made of lead. Her attempts to move and aid Houshi-sama's efforts accomplished nothing aside from making herself break out in sweat and turning her face red with futile exertion.

Her boots and shin guards aside, he fumbled with the pads on her shoulders.

"The belt first, then the rest comes off with it."

It took a taiji-ya weeks of practice to wear the uniform correctly, fitting it perfectly to her body, so that the dragon-skin moved like her own skin, and the youkai-bones moved like her own bones, so she was not surprised he did not find its construction easy to navigate. And at this she was saddened, just a little, that he was working his way through her fortress, and here she was instructing him, redirecting him from dead ends, telling him which gates to break open and which walls to devote his attention.

The armor came loose, and he pulled all aside, and found the way to take off the pads on her elbows on his own.

She looked away, face crimson; the prospect of being naked was exacerbated by her complete immobility; she knew that he knew he stood very close to a bold line, one he would never cross, but there was something in his personality that might compel him to try that line, and tease her just a little, and she wasn't sure what would happen if Houshi-sama tried to test her.

"You can figure out the rest," she said.

The clasps at her neck, across to her shoulder, down to her hip, each parted, the layer of sweat causing the leather to adhere to her bare skin, such that she felt a bit like a litchee nut being peeled. With her arms to the side he could pull off her tunic, and then the bindings on her gauntlets, and finally the ties to her leggings, in a sensitive place normally covered by her armor, and the final wall fell, mortar and stone and modesty lay in rubble and awkward black folds about her knees, and Sango bit her lip because she had never trusted anyone this much.

Miroku arranged his kesa over her, placed his hands on his knees, and strangely, he did not lean back and smirk like she felt so sure he would – rather, he formed his mouth into a hard line and balled his fists so tightly his knuckles turned white. He appeared so tense she thought he might have been stabbed. What thought could possibly cross his mind to react in such a way? What terrible temptation was he fighting?

"Houshi-sama," she said, "I would not allow this if I did not trust you." Silently, she added: Feel free to think perverse things as long as I don't know about them.

He shook his head, eyes lowered. No, he wasn't thinking perverse thoughts. Not at this particular moment.

"Every time that I have kneeled beside a naked woman in this way, who did not respond to me as I dressed or undressed her, it was because that woman was dead, and I was preparing her body for cremation." He exhaled a long, soft breath. "It is too easy to confuse this incident with those incidents, so excuse me if this situation makes me a bit ill."

She blinked, seeing his face transformed for an instant, to that of a man recalling some torture, the shadow of his past flitting across his face, there and gone like a firefly, and then he forced a smile.

"The wound," he said. "I have something that should speed your recovery. May I move you, so that you are lying on your chest?"

She nodded, as much as she could. He turned her over, pillowing her head in her crossed arms, arranging the kesa over her again, and she blushed as she felt cool air on her exposed bottom.

She watched him break the top off his bamboo water flask, rub the edges with a small stone, smoothing it down, running his fingers over the exposed wood to check for splinters, and then he took a small branch from the fire, held it inside the flask for a moment, then removed the flame and pressed the flask firmly on her bottom.

She arched her eyebrows.

"What are you doing?"

"The Chinese call it ba-guan, I believe. It draws suction on the skin, and is very good for blood stagnation. I have read it's more effective on back pain and muscle aches than acupuncture. And, of course, it is an effective way to draw poison out of the body, one that does not require a houshi to place his mouth on a taiji-ya's bottom. That is a thing which will happen at a later date, under more auspicious circumstances, of course."

Try as she might, she could not determine an appropriate response to that.

"The fire drives the air out of the cup, and then draws in the flesh, and in your case, the poison, and the corrupted blood. Better than Myouga working back there, I imagine."

She really didn't have anything to say to that either.

"This should take about twenty minutes, I think."

He arranged his kesa over her backside again, and turned back to the medicine he was grinding.

"Houshi-sama?"

"Mm?"

"You know Chinese medicine that well?"

"My abilities are very limited, I'm sorry to say. It was part of my studies as a child, but I'm not experienced enough to do more than a few tricks."

"You know the layout of the body, then? The meridians, acupuncture points, things like that?"

"I dabbled in acupuncture my first year while traveling alone, but nobody trusts someone my age with their health, so I sold my needles at a gambling den and never really missed them. But I remember the charts, if only vaguely."

"So this point on my bottom . . . does it correspond to anything?"

"It's on the pang-guang line, not on any particular point of interest, but close enough to the pang-guang-shu point that it is likely to be stimulated."

"So what does that point mean?"

"The bladder. The point is associated with repairing diarrhea and genital problems. And if, by some chance, you have had difficulty achieving orgasm, this would fix it."

Her voice held all the fury a woman with a bamboo cup stuck to her butt could possibly amass.

"I will hurt you so badly when I recover."

"You did ask," he reminded her.

He wet the medicinal concoction in his lap with some hot water.

"Anger is associated with the Liver," he said. "Excessive sorrow is associated with the Lung." He smiled. "The first lung point is zhong-fu, just below your shoulder, and that is a convenient place, as that is where my hand naturally rests when you are unhappy and we are sitting together."

"I don't think that has anything to do with making me feel better," she said.

"I've just found it to be an odd coincidence. Here. This should lessen the muscle cramps when the paralysis wears off."

He leaned over her, bracing himself with one hand on the ground beside her hip, and took the bowl to her lips. She sipped slowly. She could not identify the taste, but it was not unpleasant.

"Thank you," she said.

She closed her eyes as he began to meditate beside her.

When she awakes, she will likely be stiff and sore, and she will stretch, and wipe the sweat from her body, and dress, and embrace Houshi-sama, and kiss him, and she might do these things in a different order.

Until then, she closes her eyes, and here, naked beneath the blanket he had given her, she lay far from her own defenses, and blushing slightly as she thought of how a massage from Houshi-sama might feel.