This time it really is the last chapter. I promise. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I do not own Inuyasha

Chapter 8: Family

Miroku tightened his hands on his staff to disguise their trembling. He smiled charmingly at the two guards, fully aware of the nervous sweat dampening the underarms of his robe.

Three days had passed since Kimiko's awakening, three days of wary gratitude by the inhabitants of the castle. Despite repeated reassurances that Inuyasha, Shippou, Hachi, and Kirara weren't going to hurt anybody, most of the people still regarded them with suspicion. Inuyasha didn't really help with the harmless persona they were trying to foster. He had been cooped up in one place for far too long and he was itching to get back on the trail of Naraku. Scowling and arguing with Kagome wasn't endearing him to anybody.

The Lord had insisted on rewarding them. The request, delivered by a young servant, delicately suggested that the youkai would be more comfortable away from prying eyes. Shippou was the only one upset at having to stay behind. It very neatly solved the problem of keeping Inuyasha's little secret from becoming general knowledge.

Miroku brushed imaginary dust from the front of his new robe. Clothing and a heavy bag of coins came from the Lord. He had been prepared to offer more, but the travelers politely declined the offer of horses and other valuables. Instead, they took payment in a form that would be easier to take with them.

The old miko emerged from the room that the soldiers guarded. She ignored them and fixed her eyes on Miroku. The monk broke out in a fresh sheen of sweat.

The opportunity had finally arrived.

"The hime will see you now," she announced, a faintly puzzled frown on her face. That expression had become common every time she looked at him.

Miroku nodded and strode into the room before he could change his mind. The hime--Kimiko-- sat on a small cushion watching the antics of the birds outside her window. A servant politely offered a dish of sweets that he just as politely declined.

"Welcome, Lord Monk." Kimiko looked up at him and smiled. "How goes the blessing?"

Miroku bowed. "Your castle is now free of evil taint." Glib words failed him and he fell silent, unsure of what else to say.

"Come. Sit." Kimiko gestured for a servant to bring another cushion. Miroku sank to his knees on the cushion with a brief smile of thanks for the pretty, young servant girl. She blushed becomingly, but he didn't pay as much attention as normal. There was only one person in the room who commanded his undivided attention.

Silence stretched between the two of them. Kimiko returned to watching the birds, seemingly not intending to make the first move.

Miroku cleared his throat. "Are you happy, hime?" he blurted.

She turned to him with a confused look. "Of course. Why do you ask?"

Mentally cursing his lack of tact, Miroku nonetheless seized the opening. "It is my duty to ensure happiness wherever I can. Does--does your husband treat you well?"

"My Lord is very kind," she responded. "We have two beautiful children. I am quite fond of him." Her brow creased with concern. "Is something wrong? Is my Lord unhappy with me?"

"No." Miroku hastened to reassure her. "Nothing like that. I was--I was just curious," he finished lamely.

She subsided back into silence. Several times, Miroku started to speak before changing his mind. There didn't seem to be any good way to bring up the subject he most wanted to discuss.

"The tajiya is one of your traveling companions?"

Sango? What did she have to do with anything? Miroku gaped like a witless fool, unable to comprehend the abrupt change of subject. Abruptly he realized that she was waiting patiently for a reply.

"Yes," he said, and fell silent again. What a wonderful conversationalist he was turning out to be.

"How can she handle being so close to those youkai all the time?" Kimiko shuddered delicately and lowered her voice. "I must admit, Lord Monk, that they frighten me. They are so wild and uncivilized."

"They aren't so bad," Miroku chided. He frowned, beginning to grasp that he and his sister had had vastly different upbringings. If she couldn't deal with the thought of youkai in the same castle, he hated to think how she would react to the family curse.

Stubbornly, he felt compelled to defend his friends. "Inuyasha has proven to be very valuable on our quest. And Shippou wouldn't hurt a fly. In fact, I couldn't imagine not having any of them around."

From the look in her eyes, he didn't think he had convinced her. But she didn't pursue the subject. "Where will you go from here, Lord Monk?"

He shrugged, inwardly grateful for a less sensitive topic. "Wherever the next shard rumor takes us I guess. And please, call me Miroku."

Kimiko blushed and lowered her eyes. "That wouldn't be seemly, Lord Monk." She paused. "I thank you for your concern over my welfare. Our miko has assured me that the parasitic youkai did no lasting harm. Now I only wish to return to my duties and forget all about this unpleasantness."

The smile froze on Miroku's face as his last hope died a final death. There was nothing left to say. Feeling as if he had aged years in the space of a few minutes, he pushed himself to his feet. His eyes lingered on Kimiko's face, memorizing her features.

As Kagome often said, ignorance was bliss. In that instant he made the toughest decision of his life. It would do her no good and could cause immeasurable heartache if her true family origins were revealed. Silently he vowed to destroy Naraku no matter what. His gentle sister would never feel the burden of the kazaana.

"May you always be happy, hime." Giving her no chance to respond to that puzzling comment, he bowed his head slightly and let himself out of the room. Barely heard were Kimiko's last words of thanks before she turned her gaze back to the window.

"I know who you are."

Somehow, it came as no surprise that the old miko was still waiting outside the door. She had managed to be no more than a shout away from him for the last three days. With his thoughts still in the other room, he barely registered the triumphant tone of her words.

"Of course you do," he replied distractedly. "I'm the same person I was three days ago."

"You're the twin."

The increased pounding of his heart should have become a familiar sensation by now. Enough had happened in the last few days that nothing should surprise him. But he was caught off balance again. "I don't know what you're talking about, Miko-sama," he stammered.

The old miko grabbed his arm and dragged him out of earshot of the curious guards. "It took awhile," she continued conversationally once they were alone. "I couldn't understand why I felt that you looked familiar when I know that we had never met before." She tilted her head as she regarded him thoughtfully. "You look remarkably like your twin sister. You both have the same eyes."

"I--" Miroku tried frantically to think of something--anything--that would convince the old woman that she was wrong.

"Don't deny it, boy!" Miroku shut his mouth with a snap. "I hope that you are not going to use family connections to blackmail the hime. Nobody knows the circumstances of her birth. There would be chaos if it became known that their beloved hime is not the true daughter of the old daimyo."

Miroku's shoulders slumped in defeat. "Have no fear, Miko-sama. I haven't told the hime. And I don't plan to."

She didn't look convinced. "Then what do you want? You and your friends have been tiptoeing around the castle for days. And I know that it couldn't have taken more than an hour to bless this place from top to bottom. Except for that unfortunate possession, I and the other visiting priests and priestesses have kept this castle free of youkai."

"The hime--" Miroku sighed. "Kimiko has had a very sheltered upbringing. She doesn't need to know about a brother who has his own set of problems." He held his cursed hand up between them. "Just know that I am laboring under a curse. I have no wish to burden Kimiko with such knowledge."

"The Lord should know about this," the old miko insisted.

"No," Miroku said forcefully. "My companions and I will be leaving in the morning. We will never directly trouble you again." He held his breath, hoping that she would not question him more. It would ruin the small measure of peace he had attained if she forbade him from keeping watch through Hachi.

She thought about that. "Tell me about this curse," she commanded. "As long as you never approach the castle again I will not inform the Lord or the hime."

Miroku let out a long breath. "It shall be as you command, Miko-sama."

It didn't take long for Miroku to explain a portion of his tragic past. There were several things that he neglected to mention. The old miko didn't need to know everything. Afterwards, she agreed that the hime did not need to know about this curse. If things went well, she would never need to know.

Miroku joined his companions in their room just in time for supper. He attacked the food like a starving man. For the first time in days he actually had an appetite. Nothing had been really resolved, but even the decision to say nothing seemed to lift a great weight from him.

"You sure must be hungry tonight, Miroku," Shippou observed.

"Did you finally tell Kimiko?" Inuyasha asked.

Miroku polished off his sixth bowl of rice and leaned back with a contented sigh. "No, I did not."

"What?" Inuyasha stared at him. "Isn't that why we stayed this long?"

Miroku met the hanyou's gaze calmly. "Telling Kimiko would only make me feel good. I talked to her today and decided not to jeopardize her happiness. Kimiko had a very different childhood. If she has found some measure of peace, then I refuse to take that away from her."

Inuyasha was the first one to look away. "I still say that's the coward's way out," he grumbled.

"We're behind you all the way," Kagome assured him. "I've been away from home for a long time anyway. There is something very important I need to do on the other side of the well."

"Are you going to be late for your 'date'?" Inuyasha asked sarcastically.

"What are you talking about, Inuyasha?" Sensing an imminent fight, everybody found somewhere else to look. Right now Kagome was mostly perplexed, but that would change soon.

"I heard you talking!" Inuyasha glared at Kagome, his hands curled into fists against his thighs. "You were telling Sango all about your date with this Hojo character from your time!"

Kagome stared at the hanyou suspiciously. "Are you jealous?"

"Me?" Inyasha spluttered and tucked his hands into his sleeves, turning his head away. "Of course not! I just think we have more important things to do. Like shard hunting."

Kagome took a deep breath, visibly trying to control her temper. "Eavesdropping is a nasty habit, Inuyasha. You never know what you'll hear. I told Sango that my friends wanted to set me up with Hojo. I also told her that I turned them down. Between schoolwork and shard hunting, I don't have the time to go on dates." She relaxed and directed her eyes to the floor in front of her bent knees. "Besides, I'd rather spend time with my friends here instead of going on a date with Hojo or any boy from my era."

Miroku watched with interest as Inuyasha's ears twitched and a slight flush spread across his face. It was clear to everybody except the stubborn dog-boy that Kagome held more feelings than mere friendship for him. He suspected that Inuyasha's feelings were nearly as strong, if he would just admit it.

Sango cleared her throat and offered a piece of leftover fish to Kirara. "Which direction do you think we should head in tomorrow, Lord Monk?"

Frowning in thought, Miroku watched out of the corner of his eye as Inuyasha slowly relaxed. "I heard a rumor the other day that there is youkai trouble to the north. It might be worth investigating."

"Sounds good to me." Kagome's eyes were troubled as she handed the last chocolate bar to Shippou. She kept glancing at Inuyasha. "If everyone agrees." Inuyasha just snorted.

Hachi started whining that he didn't want to go. The uncomfortable mood was broken as Miroku turned his attention to the loyal raccoon-dog. Everybody got ready for bed as he assured Hachi that he had done more than enough, would be well rewarded, and didn't have to go with them on any dangerous shard hunts.

Miroku had almost as much trouble getting to sleep as he did before he made his decision. It hurt to know that this would probably be the last time he ever saw his gentle sister.

Tomorrow they would leave the castle. Life would go on pretty much as it had before. Kimiko would forget about them. Her children would never know their uncle. But if Kimiko remained safe and happy, then it would all be worth it.

Obscurely, he was comforted by the thought that the old miko was now partial to his secret. She would keep an eye on the hime. Hachi would continue to watch from afar. Things couldn't be better.

It hurt. His throat tightened with emotion and he had to swallow several times. Why should this hurt so much? Mushin had trained him in the ways of the monk. It should be nothing to distance himself from his emotions.

Deep breathing all around him indicated that the rest of his companions were mostly asleep. Kagome's big yellow backpack leaned against the wall nearest him. A pair of trim ankles crossed his line of sight and Sango walked over to rummage for something in the backpack. She seemed to sense that he was watching her because she turned to look at him.

"Don't," she whispered.

Perplexed, he could only whisper back, "Don't what?"

"Don't shut yourself away." She reached out with one hand as if to touch him, hesitated, and withdrew her arm. "Don't forget how much Kimiko means to you. Remember that we are your friends. We'll support you no matter what."

Friends? With everything that had been going on, he had neglected his friends. These companions had been with him through some of the most trying times in his life. Miroku sucked in a breath and released it slowly. His heart felt lighter.

Beautiful Sango. He admired her determination to regain her little brother. In a small corner of his mind, he was almost willing to admit that she meant a lot to him.

"I promise, Sango."

She smiled and went back to her sleeping place, Kagome's hairbrush in one hand. Miroku's eyes grew heavy. He welcomed sleep, not for the oblivion it would bring, but that the morning would come faster. Suddenly, the future looked much brighter. There was only one thought just before sleep claimed him.

Be always happy, Kimiko.

The End.

What did you think? Not much is really resolved, but then it wasn't meant to be. Feedback is appreciated. Now to work on 'All of Me.'

Food for thought: Equal amounts of dark chocolate and white chocolate is a balanced diet.