(standard disclaimers apply)
The moon glowed in the sky as the lone figure of a wolf quietly stalked her prey. With a sniff of her delicate nose she caught his scent. He was near. The wolf ran quickly but softly so as not to make a lot of noise. A human lived by the side of the mountain - away from the other humans in the nearby town. He was far enough away from the roads to be safe from thieves and murderers, and he had fortified his hut to protect himself from the animals of the forest.
The small house was finally in sight, and for a moment the wolf paused under the cover of some bushes. For a long time she had watched the young man who lived inside, yet had never dared to approach him here while he was awake. Something inside of her had not been able to let her. Taking a deep breath, she leapt out of cover and closed the final yards. Tentatively she tried the door and was not suprised to find it unlocked. Though he had taken great care in giving himself enough protection from animals (he was not on friendly terms with all of them), he always managed to forget to bar his door at night. Slipping inside, her eyes adjusted to the darkness as she made out his sleeping form on the heap of bearskins.
San quietly pushed back her headdress. She had come there that night to see him not with the senses of a wolf but through those of a woman. Her eyes took in his handsome features as her slim fingers reached out to touch his hair. San wondered how such a gentle being could also be a fierce and capable warrior. "I know I never say or show what I feel," she whispered. "But I do feel something for you ... something that confuses and frightens me because you are ... a human." He was too deeply asleep to be aware of her presence, and this was good because she feared speaking such things to him while he was awake. Her fingers lingered over his lips, and she remembered the softness of them from the time she had to feed him from her own mouth in order to keep him alive.
"San," murmured the soft voice from within the depths of sleep. San scuttled backwards, desperately trying to think of some excuse for her to be sneaking around in his hut in the middle of the night. But Ashitaka merely rolled over onto his side and continued to sleep. San picked up her headdress and became the wolf once more. Making her way back, she thought that staring down a bear as a wolf frightened her less than speaking to a man as a woman. San regretted sneaking around. She would love to ... no. She could not.
* * *
"You smell of human. Did you hunt one down last night, San?"
San glared at her wolf brother. "It is none of your affair."
"What happens in the Wolf Clan is my business, and you are still one of the clan, are you not?"
"I went to see Ashitaka last night."
"Why? He comes around often enough during the day," her other brother remarked. "I do not mind him, but it is a shame he has to stink so badly."
"Ashitaka does not stink!" San indignantly replied. "He is something different, something better than them, he ..." she stopped when the wolves began to chuckle.
"We are just teasing, sister. We mean the boy no disrespect. But why do you stalk him at night when he sleeps? And why do you merely watch him from the bushes during the day? You should go and see him just as he comes here to see you."
"It's complicated, brother," San said.
"How so?" asked the other wolf. "When a wolf wants to take a lifemate, he confronts her without hesitation. He does not dance around the issue."
"Human mating rituals are different than ours," his brother answered. "Sometimes they dance around each other until one or both gives in, and there's no telling how long it will take for them to make up their minds. I think that is what you are doing, San."
"I do not act like a human!"
'Then stop this foolishness and confront the boy. It is hard, even for a wolf, to face a potential lifemate; but you have great courage, San."
* * *
Later that morning, San walked to the river with a secret dread in her heart. But it evaporated when she saw Ashitaka crouched beside the river. Yakkul and the two packhorses were drinking, and Ashitaka was filling his bowl. When he caught sight of San, he stood and greeted her. Walking towards him, San thought, He's here! He came! She knew it was silly to doubt him, for he always came for his regular visits. But lately she had become afraid that one of these days he would not come; that he would forget. Or worse: that he would be too busy spending time with one of the Iron Town girls. Though Ashitaka did not live in Iron Town, he still went there to help with its restoration. And many of the girls were still unmarried ...
Ashitaka fixed her with his warm gaze, and she quickly tried to bury her feelings. "Are you ready?" she asked brusquely. He nodded, and she proceeded to lead him toward the lake. A few days ago he had told her there was a shortage of food in the town, so she had promised to take him to the river's source where the fish were plentiful. No human, save for herself, had ever been there because it was located deep within the Forbidden Forest. San had agreed to take Ashitaka, but refused to take anyone else. She could not trust the humans. Not yet.
During the hike, Ashitaka taught San a song he had learned in his village. As she sang the funny song with him, her stiffness melted away and they laughed together. When they reached the lake, Ashitaka surveyed their surroundings and said, "This is beautiful, San. How often do you come here?"
"Not often; usually when I have an appetite for fish. Or when I need to be alone."
They spent the day talking and laughing quietly while they fished. By that afternoon, the pack horses were loaded down with the catch.
"It's hot," Ashitaka said, taking off his shirt. "Let's go for a swim!" Yelling a battle cry, he took a flying leap into the lake.
"Ashitaka, you'll scare the fish away!" San giggled. "Are you trying to starve your people or something?" He suddenly jumped up and yanked her down into the water with a splash. "Oh, you'll pay for that!" she growled, her eyes shining with mischief.
Ashitaka yelped and swam away as San chased after him. She caught him easily and proceeded to shower him with a barrage of splashes. He quickly returned the favor, and when San was momentarily overwhelmed he took hold of her wrists and pulled her gently to him. "I've got you now!" he said triumphantly. They laughed, but then they gradually became silent as they caught their breath.
"You're still holding me, Ashitaka."
"Because ..." Ashitaka faltered. He looked at her helplessly for a moment, then bent his head and brushed his lips tentatively against hers. San stiffened and stared back at him in surprise. Ashitaka, his head still bent towards hers, whispered, "Don't be afraid, San." His dark eyes were full of hope and longing.
"I'm not," she answered, and then she kissed him back. The kiss deepened to the point where they forgot to tread water, and so they began to sink. The pair emerged sputtering and gasping for air.
Chuckling, Ashitaka said, "The next time we kiss, perhaps we should find a place where we don't have to worry about drowning."
"You are very wise," San replied with a smirk.
They sloshed to shore, and Ashitaka put his arms around her and said, "You know, with all the fish we caught by ourselves, imagine how many a group could catch."
"That must be the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me," San remarked.
"How about it?"
"All right," San reluctantly agreed. "But I still don't like the idea of humans tramping around in the forest."
"I know," he said, drawing her close. "Thank you." He leaned forward and said softly, "I love you, San."
Upon hearing this, San froze and her emotional barriors slammed back into place. It was too much; this was too much for her to handle all at once. "That's all you wanted, wasn't it?" she said coldly, pushing him away. "You're just using me to help the humans!"
"What are you talking about, San?" Ashitaka asked, wondering what he had done wrong.
"First you convince me to take you to the lake, and then you trick me into letting you bring the others. Fine, then! Bring as many humans as you want, I don't care! Just leave me alone!"
Ashitaka was confused, but anger began to flush his cheeks. "I didn't trick you into doing anything, San. I really do love you; and if you weren't so afraid to let yourself get close to someone then you would give me a chance."
"You don't know a thing about me, human. I fear nothing, least of all you." San growled menacingly. Then she turned and ran into the forest.
* * *
But of course San found herself crouched in the bushes outside Ashitaka's hut later that afternoon. He had just returned from delivering the fish to Iron Town, and she could see that his clothes were still damp from the lake. She caught his scent, and it contained sadness mixed with anger. San remembered the look on his face before she ran away: he had been angry but his face had mainly held an expression of deep hurt. He's just a human! she scolded herself. You're getting yourself worked up for nothing! Now forget him and go back to the Wolf Clan where you belong! Suddenly, Ashitaka raised his head and seemed to be looking in her direction. She ducked down lower, hoping that he had not seen her. After a moment, he turned and went into the hut. Her displeasure at the idea of letting the humans go to the lake had merely been another excuse to keep herself separated from Ashitaka. San also realized that it had not been a very good one, and that lately she had been grasping for anything to give her reason to distrust him. Truth was, she had no real reason and was actually playing head-games with herself. Oh, I am acting like a human! she groaned. With a sigh, San hurriedly snuck away.
* * *
The moon glowed in the sky as the graceful figure of a woman quietly entered the young man's hut. Watching him sleep, San nervously ran a hand through her hair. He was right, she thought, I am frightened of loving him. But my brothers are also right: I must confront him. I am ready to end this dance. Leaning forward, she caressed his cheek and spoke his name softly. Ashitaka abruptly sat up, and San stumbled backwards in surprise.
Concerned, Ashitaka said, "Wait, San, please don't go!"
She smiled and sat beside him on the bed. "I wasn't planning on going anywhere. I want to be with you, Ashitaka, and I have come to say that I am sorry for the way I acted today. I can explain ..."
Ashitaka wrapped his arms around her and held her close. "There's no need to explain anything. I do know you, San; why else would I leave my door unbarred at night?"
San flushed and said, "You know about my sneaking around?"
"Yes, I can always sense when you are near, even when I'm asleep." Then he added shyly, "I was hoping that sooner or later you'd wake me up."
"And what were you planning to do once you were awake?"
"Just this," he replied, kissing her.
And San pulled away only for a brief moment to whisper, "I love you, Ashitaka."
Author's Note: I hope this didn't wind up being too sappy and/or Blue Lagoon-ish. This is my first romance fic, and I tried the best I could to keep it from inducing a gag-reflex. But then romances are supposed to be sappy; so if I succeeded in making anyone float away on a cloud of happiness, then the fic has served its purpose.