The riverbank was soft, the grass gently brushing her fingertips, a gentle breeze blowing. Below her, the river took its time, flowing gently through this flat stretch of land, only hurrying slightly when it reached a large rock halfway out.
The opposite bank was clear, stretching out for a few lengths before sloping down into a hill. A little behind her, a single tree decorated the grassy space, and all was calm. Kagome had gone home to her era for a while, and Inuyasha had followed to have dinner with her family or something like that. Kirara was off playing with Shippo somewhere. Who knew where Miroku was--it didn't matter right now.
She had sat down just to rest a few moments ago, tired of wandering around with nothing to do and no one to do it with. These were the times that were the worst, she knew--the time she was alone. With no one to talk to her, to anger her, to make her laugh, to distract her, she was left with her mind, her memories, and a gentle aching in her heart.
She had gotten used to it, this ever-present tug. Sometimes it worked its way up and catch in her throat and she couldn't swallow, couldn't talk, could barely breathe without letting it take over. She fought it down most of the time, and when she couldn't bear it any longer, Kirara was there to whisk her off at a moment's notice or provide a distraction. She only needed a few moments, she discovered, if everyone was around--only a little while to release the pressure, trails of tears coursing down her face, and then swipe them away with her yukata sleeve. By the time she was done they would be there to make her think of other things.
She bit her lip as the red-orange in the clouds deepened, becoming more intense, and a purple hue added itself to the picture.
Miroku, she thought fondly. The monk with the blessing and the curse was a blessing and a curse himself. He could do this thing where just a word, just a light touch set her entire face ablaze. He didn't know what it was about himself that did it--when he noticed, to her embarrassment, he would sometimes ask, "What was it that time?" Usually then he'd add a few teasing words, a gentle pat where it was not welcome, and slap, the moment would end.
She didn't hit him hard anymore, unless he was watching another girl too much. It was just the way they'd always been--he, playful and flirtatious, she, graver and less expressive of her feelings.
And then there were the times--
She shook her head violently. Tears were pooling in her eyes. She didn't want to give herself over to it, not now--there was nothing to help her stop. Once she let the tears come, she would be helpless, immobile, and unable to pay attention to her surroundings. Dangerous things happen when you let your guard down, she had been taught: always be on the watch.
She had seen a sunset like this before, she realized. A calm day, the sky violently bright with color, and as Kirara played on the edge of the porch she had heard the slayers' friendly yells as they returned. Her father, a heroic figure, stepped into her vision unexpectedly, his dark silhouette against the brilliant sky making him seem like some great god. He had called her name, opening his arms, and she leapt off the ledge and ran for him.
He had smelled like smoke and a delicately sweet demon stink, and his hands were filthy with congealed demon blood and dirt. She was used to that. And as they embraced momentarily and Kohaku walked out on the porch for his hug, her father had swung her around, feet flying out behind her, and placed her down beside him. Kohaku ran into his father's arms and Sango, standing stock still, watching the sunset to her left and the pair of her father and brother to her right, had had a moment of intense clarity for such a young age.
Kohaku, this stumbling boy, her annoying baby brother, had suddenly looked so small and innocent. So helpless. He was swallowed by the monstrous figure of their father, and yet their father certainly wasn't the biggest demon slayer in the village. And her father, enveloping the tiny boy who was her brother in his arms, he seemed so weary and old. Sango always looked to him for strength--resenting him sometimes during training, making faces behind his back when he wanted to teach and she wanted to play--and all of a sudden in the glow of sunset light she could see his hair and the places where it was thinning or streaking with gray. She could see every line on his face, on his hands, highlighted by the dirt and grime of the battle. She could see the places where his armor was ripped, saw him hefting Kohaku carefully, as exhausted as he had to have been. All of a sudden she had been very afraid.
That had been the day she realized that they were all mortal. Certainly she knew that people died--she had seen funerals, seen demon hunts gone wrong. But never had she connected in her young mind that those dearest to her--her father, her brother--would have to die someday, too.
Standing in that sunset, she had begun to cry and, ashamed, took a few steps away from her family. She heard the sound of her father's footsteps, his call back over his shoulder for her to come inside and get ready for dinner, the giggling of Kohaku. Tears ran down her face. She had figured it out. One day there would be some hunt, some expedition, and her father wouldn't come back.
She jumped. The sun had sunk lower, the sky had deepened with more purple, and Miroku stood over her, matching the sky. "Oh," she said, looking up. His face looked blurry. "Oh," she said again, putting a sleeve to her eyes to wipe away her tears.
Miroku sat beside her. She waited for it--he was going to do it again. He was going to bring up Kohaku. He was going to say not to worry, that Kagome and Inuyasha would protect his life, that everything would be okay--something gentle and serious and so unbearably sweet that she would have no choice but to break down in front of him.
"Don't--" she began, but she found she couldn't really speak after that. Her eyes were stinging; her throat was closing up; she felt sick to her stomach.
"It's just so damn---" Sango felt a hot tear escape. She swallowed. "Hard." She heard her voice shake, but continued, staring straight out into the deeply-colored sky. "I don't know what to do. I'm helpless. And whenever I need to be on my guard, I get… thrown off course. I can't concentrate. I can't sleep. I can't… live this way."
"Sango," Miroku's voice was low, barely audible over the rustling of the grass. "I know I can't fill the void in your heart. But maybe I can mend it."
Time passed. Sango twisted her hands in her yukata.
"Sango, let me help you. Please trust me that much."
The silhouette of Miroku appeared before her, unlike her father on that day so many years ago--young, crouched down, in robes rather than armor, smelling clean and waiting patiently but not smiling. He dropped to his knees and opened his arms.
And as he waited, the exterior she had clung to for so long faded. She found she was in his arms, though she didn't remember getting there. She clung to Miroku's presence, pulling herself out of the darkness she was sinking into. And when, coughing and sputtering, she realized she could cry no more, she looked at the sky once more.
The sunset had turned to dusk. The sun had already disappeared from view, though the lingering light colored bands of deep purples and blues. Darkness settled, but not over her heart--not now. For now she could continue. For now she could be strong. For now, with Miroku beside her, Miroku enveloping her, she would live.