TWO MONTHS LATER
"Now will ya look at that…"
Sango sat upright on the grassy slope, and leaned forward in amused intrigue. Kohaku had just given Rin a small bow and arrow, and was showing her how to work it in the practice field below. The little girl's eyes were wide with wonder, her hands unsure as she grasped the weapon.
"Hmm…" the sound was contemplative, disapproving. "There is no part of Rin's nature that is violent. She won't do well with weapons."
"Oh no?" Sango winked at the dog demon seated beside her, and nudged him with her elbow. "I seem to remember my grandmother saying something similar about me when I was a child."
His glittering, amber irises rolled to peek at her through the corners of his eyes. She smiled and brushed a chunk of opalescent hair away from his angular face and tugged playfully on his ear. "I just think you don't want your little girl to grow up."
He grunted annoyance, and jerked his head away. Sango studied him as he turned his attention towards the kids, doing his best to project bored indifference. There was a time not long ago when she would have bought the expression, too. A time when those sparkling, beautiful eyes had taken in all, yet revealed nothing.
But that was before the Shikon no Tama. Before she'd seen his soul. Before they'd become such close friends… And it was as clear as the footprints of a spider youkai that he was uncomfortable with the thought of his little Rin having a weapon in her hands.
"It'll be better for her to have some skill in such things," Sango said reassuringly. "Being domestic doesn't do one any good when they're being attacked."
"I protect her."
"When you're here."
"I'm always here."
Sango considered how seldom he'd left in the past two months. Ever since that day when he'd found her weeping over Miroku, the youkai had suddenly found less reasons to patrol his lands. She conceded with a smile. "You are," and then added more quietly, "And I'm glad."
He looked back at her, and instead of shying away from expressing her gratitude, she held his gaze and nodded her thanks. His eyes crinkled - a small acknowledgement between friends, before turning back to the field below.
You've done wonders for my self esteem, demon, she mused quietly. I must not be all that bad if one as callused and solitary as you would rather stay in my company than roam your lands.
Sesshoumaru's utterance of her higher worth had given her the insight she needed to re-establish her relationship with Miroku as platonic, only. The monk had sighed, and smiled ruefully. But recognizing his unchangeable nature, he made the comment that she indeed deserved more.
But the oddest thing of all was that instead of feeling empty when he left - instead of feeling some gaping void where Miroku's place in her heart had been - she felt liberated. Confident.
And of course, Sesshoumaru had been right there to ease her back into reality, with his quiet, but steadfast presence. His constant nearness had become as natural as the feel of her new boomerang in her callused hands. Sometimes she thought that she could be happy for the rest of her life in this village, with his friendship.
Then there were moments, when she lay awake at night, yearning for the family life that she knew growing up. Wanting a husband, children… In said times, she felt unbearably lonely, despite Rin's laughter, or Kohaku's smile. Despite Jaken's teaseable nagging, or Sesshoumaru's nearness.
But they were seldom. The brief thoughts on family made her consider her demon friend's true reason for wanting Rin to stay young and innocent. Knowing him like she did, it was easy to catch the underlying anxiety as he watched his adopted human child. A sore spot that hadn't quite healed.
"Do you still worry, Sesshoumaru, about losing Rin to her human lifespan?" she asked quietly.
His eyes widened marginally, obviously not prepared for such a blunt question. She could see his reflexive barriers go up, and she could see him let them back down. Over the past several weeks, he'd learned it was pointless to hide things from her. She knew him too well.
After a moment of reluctant contemplation, he answered, without taking his eyes off the field. "A…friend…once told me not to live for my past," he said quietly, and Sango's jaw dropped. It was the first time she'd heard him use that word. And in reference to her, no less.
"In the same spirit," he continued quietly, "it is neither wise to live in fear of the future. So with no other option, I have accepted the fact that I must enjoy the now, and live for today." He looked at her over his shoulder then, and did something that caught her completely off guard.
Eyes creasing with warmth, the sunlight reflected off of his pretty, white teeth while the tips of his fangs rested pleasantly against his lower lip. A breathtaking expression for his stunning features - and for none other than her…
Oh, Sango thought as the blood rushed to her face. Do that again…
It elicited such a response in her that even after he turned back to watch Rin and Kohaku, she still stared at his profile in stupefied longing. It was the first time she'd experienced a wave of spontaneous sensuality since that day with Miroku, only this time, it was unexpectedly stronger.
His ridiculous prettiness had always been untouchable - like the meadows in spring, or the northern mountains in winter. But masculine allure? She had found him no more desirable than she would a noblewoman of renowned beauty. Hadn't even occurred to her the demon lord had that kind of appeal.
All of a sudden she noticed the strong, broad shoulders that filled out his sleeves, and the heavy arms folded in his lap… Sango tried to look away, but in the process her eyes fixed on the swell of his chest through the open 'V' of his neckline… And then the sun's heat had left him with a glistening, sweaty sheen along his collar, giving her the outrageous urge to…
Gods… Sango shuddered, and forced her wide-eyed stare to the ground. She wrapped her arms around her calves and rested her chin on her knees, as though closing her body off like that might somehow hide the tempest of feelings raging inside her head. She blinked several times as the thumping of her heart became embarrassingly loud, and she became achingly aware of his close proximity. Sitting down next to her as he was, the usual heat that radiated off his body suddenly triggered all sorts of hormonal responses.
Agh. Get a grip, Sango, she silently berated herself, praying that his heightened senses wouldn't catch what was happening to her. He's your friend. Nothing more.
She gasped, and her head jerked up to see him staring at her with the slightest crease in his brow.
"What is it?" he asked.
She swore under her breath. Damn dog demon senses… "Nothing," she blurted out, trying to smile.
He frowned, and his eyes trickled from the top of her crown to the tips of her toes. She could almost see him going down the mental checklist of her unusual ailments. Short, rapid breathing, flushed cheeks, trembling fingers…and a heartbeat so loud, one can barely hear his own thoughts… After a moment, his lips pursed in a set line, and he searched her face. "You're lying."
She coughed, and then tried to cover it up by laughing nervously. Fortunately, she was saved by concocting another lie by an excited squeal from Rin down below. Sesshoumaru's head swiveled on his neck, and he blinked astonishment. Sango followed his stare to see the little girl hopping in one place, empty bow in hand. Kohaku smiled, clearly impressed. There, impaled at the furthermost tip of the straw target was an arrow.
"Well," Sango choked, immensely grateful for the distraction. "Looks like we have a little archer on our hands."
Sesshoumaru shook his head incredulously. He decided to say nothing in his defense, which was best, considering that this just might be the beginning of Rin's knack for weaponry.
Kohaku patted her head encouragingly and then took his own chained scythe, and began to practice on the dummies lined up in the straw. Instead of putting another quiver in her bow, Rin stood by Kohaku, with her hands clasped behind her back. She was hovering so closely, that he accidentally bumped into her on a rebound.
"Stand back, Rin," he urged and roped up his chain again. She did, but barely, her wide, adoring eyes locked on the boy.
Her body finally calming down enough to focus on something else, Sango laughed, recognizing the look. "It appears Rin has developed a little crush on my brother."
A pause. "Crush," Sesshoumaru said, as though trying out the word for the first time. "Hmm… Fond of him, perhaps," he conceded, the barest hint of amusement lightening his tone.
Relieved his attention was elsewhere than her previous lack of composure, Sango continued the thread. "Who knows? They might end up courting several years from now."
He turned to her, his direct attention dropping Sango right back into twitterpated stupefaction. This better pass, she thought, trying to squash out the latest pop up fantasy of how good it would feel to kiss Sesshoumaru. There's no way he'd feel the same…
"Sango," he said, studying her face for…something. "What is it like," he breathed, and then frowned, trying to rephrase words that were obviously having difficulty making it out of his mouth. "Having a…crush…?"
She couldn't stop the surprise from opening her face, and he turned away, clearly embarrassed by the question. But he didn't leave, which in Sesshoumaru language meant that he really wanted to know the answer.
"Uh…" Oh, you would ask me this now, she thought in dismay, mentally batting away another visual of them together. "It's…" deep breath, exhale, okay, "When you have a crush on someone, you're drawn to them. You enjoy being around them, and every gesture they make, everything they say is exciting. And as one gets older, it's…intensified…by physical attraction. Longings to be intimate…" Sango was momentarily impressed at her own on-the-spot definition of a very elusive subject, but thanks to her very acute, and very abrupt sentiments towards her dear demon friend, she was quite in tune with all the nuances of a crush.
He looked pensive…almost…afraid? He stared absently at his hands for a long while as an uncomfortable silence passed between them. It was her turn to be alarmed, and she rested her fingers lightly on his forearm. He flinched at her touch, and she withdrew her hand.
"Then what is it to love?" he interrupted, glancing back up with probably the most earnest expression she'd ever seen on his face. Brows lifted in the center, mouth part open, eyes penetrating...
"Love…" she breathed, bewildered by his sudden curiosity. Explaining the concept of love to a creature that had boycotted the sentiment most of his life would be about par with explaining where babies came from to a child.
She wanted to smack herself for not anticipating questions like these from the youkai. Of course he would have inquiries as time progressed. Aligning oneself from evil to good was neither a smooth, or simple transition. And there was so much he needed to relearn.
"You know what love is, Sesshoumaru. You love Rin, and I'm sure you love Jaken on some level. A part of you lives for them, and if you had to, you'd die for them," Sango said, drawing the silent parallel to how she felt about him. "It is selfless, loyal-"
"No," he interrupted her, a visible flush tingeing his cheeks. "I meant…" he paused, his discomfort with the topic making even Sango squirm.
"You mean to be in love?" she asked helpfully.
He hesitated and then nodded once.
"Oh," she paused. "Well, I guess it's everything I said earlier, except that," her gut tingled with butterflies, "it is compounded," her heartbeat sped up "by all the physical longings," she wanted to touch him, "of a crush…"
Oh crap… Sango jumped to her feet, barely noticing his bewildered stare as she did so. "I have to go." Leaving him there, she walked briskly into the village, her mind caught up in a whirlwind of confusion. Of discovery. Of panic. She tried to rationalize her way out of it.
This is insane. Suddenly finding him attractive doesn't mean I'm in love him, she told herself, as she whisked around the corner of a building and leaned heavily against the wall. "I'm just lonely. It'll pass. It has to pass."
And if it didn't? The thought mortified her. He would never feel the same. His reluctant friendship with her didn't negate all his previous years of seeing humans as lesser creatures. Befriending one, sure. Loving one? Out of the question…
"SANGO!" A holler, from the distance.
Her head snapped up, and she squinted against the sun to see a growing dot on the outskirts of the village. A growing, extravagant dot. Ornate, redwood carriage, purebred stallions, an assembly of a smart-looking guards… And there, richly dressed, and sticking his handsome head out of the window to wave frantically in her direction, was none other than…
You've got to be kidding me. What timing…
"Who is that?" Sesshoumaru materialized at her side, the only sign that he'd moved to get there was the soft feathery sway of his hair as it settled around his arms. Hand on his hilt, his eyes narrowed in the stranger's direction, ready to attack.
"A young king," Sango answered as she rested a light hand disarmingly on Sesshoumaru's wrist. "His name is Takeda Kuranosuke. And he's come to make me his wife."
Half a day, and a hundred propositions later, Takeda was finally gone. He'd left at dusk, but the full moon would be out tonight, giving him plenty of light by which to travel. Had it not been for that, she might have been listening to his woos all night long. As it was, the king was undeterred by her hesitance, and had left with the very same happy confidence that he'd arrived with. It made her wonder if he knew something she didn't.
Sango exhaled, and shook her head. The sun had just barely gone down and the sky was bleeding from rust to indigo. Everyone seemed to have settled for the evening, and the village was quiet. She hadn't seen Sesshoumaru since the king arrived. Once he'd assessed that Takeda meant no harm, he had left them alone. But if she knew him at all, Sango suspected he'd been hovering somewhere within hearing distance.
She walked out into the field nearby, taking comfort in the cool breeze as it whispered through the waist-high wheat stalks, pressing her clothes in fluttering folds against her body. So tranquil, here. The only home she'd ever known. Would she be able to find a similar peace in Takeda's kingdom?
She had a decision to make - perhaps the biggest one of her life. Even Sesshoumaru couldn't complain about this guy. He was wealthy, gentlemanly, and most importantly - completely crazy about her. She'd be royalty if she married him. From a logical viewpoint, it just made sense.
But why, after spending all afternoon with a handsome, charming king, did she still long for such closeness with her demon friend? Was that the source of her reservations?
If so, they were sorely misplaced. If anything, she'd be doing their friendship a favor by placing her affections elsewhere. Not a reason for saying 'yes' to the king's proposal, but certainly something to consider. As long as she could avoid ruining the purity of her relationship with Sesshoumaru with these stupid, nonsensical feelings…
He meant too much to her, now.
"When he left, he was smiling."
Sango startled and spun around. Between the breeze that tugged at his mane and clothing, and the pale blue moonlight that blanketed him in an ethereal glow, Sesshoumaru seemed not of this world. An apparition, almost. Or some god, underwater.
And for the first time in weeks, his porcelain face was unreadable to her. Perfectly masked, shadowed by his bangs, heavy lids, smooth angles…
"When he left, he was smiling." The words were terse. Deliberate.
"He always smiles," she answered, slightly confused. "Royalty does tend to have an elevated sense of self worth…"
"Did you give him cause to be so happy?" Again, no emotion. Had his mouth not moved, one could have mistaken him for a statue.
"I didn't say yes," she answered, and was it her imagination, or did his shoulders seem to relax? "But I didn't say no, either."
Quick squint of his eyes. "So you might yet marry him?"
Sango considered. That was the question, wasn't it? Perhaps if she analyzed the situation out loud, she might be able to pinpoint why she didn't want to. And Sesshoumaru had proved to be a good sounding board as of late.
She sighed heavily. "He has it all, Sesshoumaru. Status, charm, dedication. I do want a family one day, and I don't want to be alone forever. Takeda would be…a smart decision. And he really seems to care…"
Before she could expound on how, despite all that, she still couldn't see herself marrying the king for all the logic in the world, Sesshoumaru's mask dropped.
The muscles in his jaw jumped, his hands clenched into fists, his eyes flashed with anger... Hurt. "You said you'd stay here. You said this was your home."
She blinked at his abrupt change in demeanor. "I did," she said cautiously, trying desperately to read him. "But home isn't always a place, Sesshoumaru. It's people."
"Then go be with your king!" he snapped, surprising her with the amount of raw emotion in his voice. "I should have known you would leave the first chance you had."
She stared at him mutely, the light of comprehension tickling her mind. He'd gone so long without a home, without affection - that he'd forgotten things weren't so easily broken. The village. Her. They signified his emotional rebirth. They were his stability. His cornerstone. He opened his heart enough to trust her, and now he thought she was abandoning him. That had to be it…
"Sesshoumaru, I'm not writing you off-"
"I was a fool to believe all your nonsense about loyalty," his face scrunched, "and friendship." He turned on his heel, and strode off. Collecting herself, she trotted after.
"Will you listen to me, you impulsive, overgrown pixie doll? How would my marrying the king change things between us?"
"There would be no room in your life for both." He said without turning around.
"I'd never give up what we have, don't you understand that? No matter what happens," she caught up to him and yanked on his sleeve, "the nature of our friendship wouldn't change!"
He spun around and grabbed her wrist. "I want it to!"
She froze. She blinked. She shook her head, positive that something must be wrong with her hearing. "Wh-what did you just say?"
His lips moved over uncollected thoughts, his golden eyes shimmering in the moonlight. There was so much anguish in his face right then, it stole her breath. Made her eyes sting.
With a hissing curse, he flung her back. Then, without explanation or apology, the demon lord bolted. Straight through the crops.
Dammit! Sango lunged forward, grabbing a long chain off the field's weapon rack as she went. Without losing momentum, she swung it about her head like a morning star, homing in on the fleeing figure in front of her. Had he expected her attack, he could have avoided it with ease.
But as it were, the noise in his head was too loud for him to think clearly. Sango released her demon lasso and it looped around his legs. With a strangled growl, he fell forward, crashing down in the brushing wheat. As he twisted to get back up, Sango dove at him, tackling him backwards.
He grunted with the impact, and she straddled him. With a firm knee planted on either side of his legs, Sango curled her fists in the neckline of his shirt. Thankfully, he was too stunned to fight her…yet. "You can't," she paused to catch her breath, "run…away from me."
His eyes flashed, and he glared up at her incredulously. "You think you can stop me?"
She yelped as he rolled them over, pinning her under him. But she still had two good handfuls of his shirt, and when he tried to raise himself up to sprint off again, she kicked his feet out from under him and pulled him back down.
His head bounced against her temple, and the weight of his body knocked the breath from her lungs. But despite the momentary dizziness, Sango managed to snake her arms around his torso, and clasp her hands behind his back. All pretenses aside, she was well aware that this was getting delightfully ridiculous.
He flexed against her grip, and huffed against the skin of her neck. "Tenacious…little minx…"
She snorted, struggling to keep her hold. "I've…been called," pant, cough, "worse..." His hair was tickling her face, so she tried to blow it away. As a result, he got a whole earful of her pointed exhale. Sesshoumaru went rigid, and Sango blushed.
He lifted his head until his face was directly above hers, his heavy-lidded stare stealing the breath from her lungs. "You are," his gaze trailed back and forth between her lips and her eyes, "toying with me?"
She opened her mouth to speak, but was assaulted by his nearness. His weight. His feel. His breath on her chin. She shook her head slowly, as her heartbeat thumped wildly in her ears. "N-no…"
He quirked a brow. That look alone could have done her in. She smiled tentatively, and too anxious for the impasse, Sango found herself uncharacteristically lifting her chin and nipping at his lips.
He'd seen it coming. He must have, but the youkai still gasped at the contact, making her wonder if she'd crossed a line. She pulled back to utter red-faced apologies, but with a smirk, he followed her down, nudging her mouth in return.
"I was sure…" she swallowed, finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate as the mutual attraction between them became tangibly obvious, "you wouldn't feel the same…"
A small surprised snort was Sesshoumaru's response, giving her the impression that he might have been assuming the same thing of her. His eyes crinkled as he leaned down again, and paused a breath away from her lips. "You…were wrong."
At that, he fell on her.
The frenzied kiss that followed was wild, desperate, all-consuming… It was accessorized with a tangling of limbs, muffled whimpers, and a good helping of human and demon pheromones. Had she been any less virtuous, or he any less disciplined, then they wouldn't have made it to the small bonding ceremony the next day, performed by none other than Jaken.
As it were, Kohaku had found them the next morning in the wheat field, still dressed, but highly disheveled and curled tightly in each others' arms. After the initial embarrassment, Sango simply shrugged, and declared with a wink that she had no intention of marrying Takeda Kuranosuke.
And for the second time in the span of a day, Sesshoumaru's eyes crinkled with a smile.
A MONTH LATER
Washed over in that blissful fog somewhere between slumber and consciousness, Sango stretched lazily against the demon in her bed. He was always so warm. His skin radiated heat like a rock in the sun. With her head nestled against his shoulder, and her left limbs splayed out possessively over his body, she blinked against the darkness of the hut.
Still night. But the moon's rays filtered into their sectioned-off sleeping quarters, illuminating it just enough to see him…
Sango lifted her chin to behold the demon she'd fallen in love with, and there he was, as awake as always, blinking back down at her with a pleasant expression of contentment on his face.
She exhaled in a weak chuckle, her voice hoarse with lethargy. "Sesshoumaru. Do you ever sleep?"
"Sometimes," his deep, baritone voice was almost a whisper.
"So you lay here," she said, tracing a finger around the corded muscles of his stomach, "all night long-"
"With me," she smiled, "wide awake?"
His eyes widened marginally, momentarily entrancing her. Those beautiful, glittering orbs that were once so cold now spoke of endless depths…emotions as close to the surface as his own blood. And she knew without any added expression in his face that he wouldn't be anywhere else in the world than with her. Just like this.
"Why?" she asked, testing him. A month ago, he might have gotten defensive, but Sesshoumaru's walls were coming down one by one. Around her, specifically.
He tensed, and then sighed defeat. The tips of his claws gently pressed against her lower back until she found herself warmly sandwiched between his arm and his torso.
"Why?" he repeated, for good measure, "Because it makes you happy."
That was certainly enough, Sango thought as that neat little feeling in her heart made her think that heaven would pale in comparison to being in his arms. But she was decidedly playful tonight. "How altruistic," she mused. "Selflessly dedicating so much time and affection to your poor human wife..."
He stiffened and looked down at her with a raised brow. She smiled, tugging her bottom lip in between her teeth in mock innocence. After a fairly annoyed look, he relented.
"The rest you already know, Sango," he managed, and dug his fingers into her side until it made her squirm. "It's not like I can hide it from you."
An ear-splitting smile creased her face. Oh, she knew, alright. Could see it in the way that he spoke to her, held her, and looked at her, that he loved her. So she spared him the discomfort of saying it out loud. "No, you can't hide it from me."
He relaxed. An easy silence followed as Sango slid her hand over and lightly caressed his chest. It was something she did absently, not realizing how often until he said something.
"Why do you always do that?" he asked, suddenly catching her massaging fingers in his hand and bringing them to his lips. "You're as obsessed with mine as I am with yours…"
She shuddered as he began kissing her knuckles. "Be…because," she slurred, unable to resist the urge to tease him more, "I need to reaffirm on occasion their…" giggle "masculine definition…"
He tensed. "Hn?"
"Well, you're so damn pretty, I half expected to find breasts under your clothes… H-hey! Ow!"
He'd caught her fingers gently between his teeth, biting them. She tried to pull her hand back, but his grip was firm, and he nursed the little wounds he had caused with his tongue.
"You made me bleed, you blood sucker…"
She gasped convulsively as he continued his administrations, replacing the sting by tantalizing her with the little tricks he'd learned over the past month. He finally let go of her hand, but by the time he did, she half wanted to put it right back in his mouth.
Which apparently, was precisely what he'd intended. The youkai lord met no resistance whatsoever as he rolled them over, nuzzling the curve of her neck.
"You know," she began, combing his hair back with her fingers, and turning her head to the side. "People get pregnant from this very activity…"
He paused for a half second, and then began kissing the sensitive skin behind her ear, mumbling something inarticulate that sounded suspiciously like a 'So what?'
"So our little half breed pups would probably adapt better with the influence of their hanyou uncle-"
Rumbling, impatient growl. "Sango."
A chuckle was lost on her lips as they proceeded to end the night the same way they'd started it. It was just another of the many manifestations to her that the demon lord had not only let himself love her, but he'd let himself love her as a human. Despite her short lifespan.
As they were swept away in the euphoria of their bond, Sango considered telling him about the side effect that had remained with her from being inside the Shikon no Tama. The one thing that might prove to prolong her life after all, making his fears null and void. She secretly moved her thumb along the skin of her fingers where he'd left small bites.
As anticipated, the wounds were wholly mended. Not even a scratch. And it had only been moments.
Should I tell him? she thought, as her eyes rolled back into her head from his advances, her thoughts rapidly scattering.
Hn… Maybe later.
Continued in VENGANZA