Several years had passed since Naraku had been defeated and Miroku had learned many things about himself. The first was that he was surprised to find he missed the prayer beads around his hand. He did not miss the wind tunnel, but after so many years of enduring it, he'd become accustomed to checking the beads frequently. Sometimes at night he'd wake and reach for them, his body jerking awake in panic when he'd find the bare flesh of his own palm.
After a breathless moment or two, he'd always relax, turn over on his side and hold his wife close. Usually Sango would murmur a sleepy reassurance, knowing that it was less than a nightmare, more than a dream, but all the same Miroku never could quite shake the notion that there was something missing. He missed feeling the beads tight around his fist…he missed the security his covered hand had given him.
But he didn't miss death. He didn't miss the sucking feeling at the back of his soul whenever he opened the tunnel and took one step closer to his father's fate. Sango remarked that he rarely spoke of his father as she spent hours telling him about her own. Her father had been a hero for her, while his had been a warning to avoid the black fate of their curse.
"Miroku?" His wife's soft voice nudged him from sleep. "Are you getting up? It's already past dawn."
"Not yet," he muttered into the bedding.
"Now," she said briskly, pulling at the blankets that covered his face. "You promised that village you'd be there to bless their shrine."
He sighed, rolling over on his back. Sango was kneeling beside him, the early morning light teasing reddish highlights from her dark brown hair. She was wearing a light yukata, it had been years since he'd seen her wear her armor. The thin fabric did nothing to conceal her shape and he reached out fondly to caress her.
"They can wait," he said softly, sitting up to take her hands. "Won't you miss me, Sango? I will be gone for two nights."
She smiled as she always did and eased his hands away. "I will miss you, husband. But I will welcome your return."
"How about now?" he asked, his desire for her always ready. Teasingly, he reached for her bottom, but she slipped out of his reach. He tried not to let it hurt, knowing as he did that Sango didn't find much pleasure, if any, in their marital union. It was a bitter fact that she didn't seem to like sex, but she still insisted that she loved him.
Flushing, she turned away, getting to her feet and starting to prepare his breakfast. "You promised them, Miroku," she said, her tone quite serious. "You shouldn't take your duties so lightly."
Miroku sighed, knowing better than to press her on the subject. Sango took everything seriously and had often accused him of never being serious at all. He had no doubt of her love for him, no doubt whatsoever of her faithfulness. She accepted him as her husband, but from their first night together he'd been disappointed that Sango had no interest in the physical side of their relationship.
Maybe it had been his fault. He'd been so eager to finally touch her, show her how much she meant to him. And he'd been a little tipsy from the wedding wine, thinking that her blushing and shyness was nothing more than maidenly modesty. So it hadn't been until afterwards that he'd seen tears on her cheeks and a dawning horror had gripped him that he might have caused her pain.
She'd denied it, of course, saying that she hadn't been hurt. That hadn't stopped him from feeling hideously guilty and he'd been the gentlest and most considerate bedmate ever since. He'd tried everything he could think of to coax the passion from her, teach her to enjoy her own body and his touch. Sango didn't turn him away, never refused him what was his right as her husband, but there was an air of resignation when he made love to her that had never disappeared.
The monk thought on the subject of his marriage and his life as he made his way to the small village that was only a day's comfortable walk from his home. It wasn't as if he wanted to look for comfort in the arms of other women. He loved Sango, loved her as he'd loved no other woman before or since, and he could see in her eyes, the shy smile, that she did love him too. But she'd never wanted him as a man, and Miroku had discovered far too late that he needed that from her.
Often he told himself that once they had children, perhaps she'd be less cold to him. It pained them both, that they'd been married for this long and still not been blessed. Sango confessed that she wanted to have a large family, partly to make up for the family she'd lost, partly because she knew it was something he'd also dreamed of. They had that much in common at least, but privately Miroku wondered if he would be the last of his line.
At least Sango's brother might continue their family, even if his sister was too frigid to conceive.
"Thank you, houshi-sama! Our village is most grateful that you came to bless our humble shrine."
"Not at all," he said generously, collecting his fee with one hand while making a holy gesture with the other. "Your hospitality has been more than worth my journey. I look forward to visiting again very soon."
It was no lie, but he doubted the village elder had any idea why. Apparently his reputation had preceded him, but for once it wasn't a source of trouble. As expected, the young women and girls of the village gave him flirtatious looks, but kept well away. This would have made him quite sad under normal circumstances, but he'd discovered that while the village might guard the chastity of its maidens, its matrons were more than willing to make up for it.
Miroku sighed heavily, walking home in the early afternoon. He hadn't meant to sleep in for quite so long, but the ladies had fussed so, offering him a bath, offering to bathe him. It would have been rude to deny them. And the kind woman who had taken such attentions with him would have been insulted if he hadn't stayed with her. She had been a bit older than him, not much, and widowed. It was a monk's duty to provide comfort for the lonely.
Didn't mean he that he wasn't feeling terribly guilty now. He told himself he'd had the best intentions, but he was still a man. And the dear woman had been so delighted to have him, her inspired response meant more to him than the fact she wasn't as young as the blushing maidens. Experience and enthusiasm were after all what counted and he was more than satisfied physically.
His heart, however, felt as empty as the wind tunnel that had once rested in his palm.
"Well, well, brother of mine. Isn't this a pleasant surprise?"
He stopped cold at the sound of the soft voice just behind him. Miroku scowled, turning to glare irritably at the young man who had crept up like a shadow. "Damn it, Kohaku. Haven't I told you not to sneak up on me like that?"
"Many times," Kohaku answered, unperturbed by his brother-in-law's annoyance. "Not my fault you were lost in thought. Another village that needed a blessing? And how much did you charge them this time?"
"And since when did you exterminate demons for free?" he grumbled, starting to walk again, now faster. Sango's younger brother chuckled softly, a slim figure in black that bristled with sharp weapons. Kohaku was often absent for weeks at a time, out following the family vocation and perfecting his skills. Just his damned luck to meet him on the way home.
"I don't work for free," Kohaku said easily, giving his sister's husband a sideways glance and a grin. "It's expensive to be an exterminator and I have to charge something. Unlike your clients, mine get what they paid for."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Miroku stopped and glared at the young man, sensing he was about to be treated to yet another lecture. "That village asked for my services as a priest, to bless their shrine. I didn't have to haggle."
Kohaku's dark smile bored into him, knowing as ever. Funny how such a quiet kid had grown into such confidence. Over the years, the scars that Naraku had placed on the boy's personality had faded away; leaving a dark wit and intelligence that was quite unexpected. He'd grown quickly, becoming taller than his sister within the first year, now taller than Miroku himself although just barely.
"I never accused you of haggling," the young exterminator answered smugly. "I just accused you of charging more than a poor village like that could afford to pay."
"That's not fair," Miroku said bluntly. "They offered, I accepted."
Still grinning, Kohaku leaned close. "Was money the only thing you were offered, brother? Don't you usually comfort lonely women for free?"
Swearing under his breath, Miroku turned away. "We're not talking about this, Kohaku."
"Really?" Kohaku fell into stride next to him, uncomfortably close and Miroku didn't miss the way the young man's eyes narrowed when he looked at him. "I think we're talking about it. Something to hide, houshi-sama?"
"It's not your business!"
"It's my business that you're fucking around on my sister," Kohaku said, his voice darkening dangerously.
They stopped, tension radiating between them and Miroku found that his hands were clenched into fists. Not for the first time he wanted to beat that smug expression off Kohaku's face. At first he'd been ever bit as happy as Sango that the boy had miraculously survived. They'd thought his death certain once Kikyou had removed the final shard. Miroku still swore that Kohaku had been dead, dead as dead could be, cold and not breathing.
Then Kikyou had used the jewel and Inuyasha had used Tessaiga, and Naraku's evil soul had been forced from his corrupt, misshapen body. That soul had screamed in torment while they'd been forced to watch, tearing itself apart as the monster fought with every bit of strength and stolen life to escape.
In a flash, it had been over. No great proclamations, no redemption for the guilty. Inuyasha had looked stunned, standing protectively beside Kagome and watching as Kikyou absorbed the foul miasma of Naraku into her own false body. It had seemed too easy to Miroku, he'd been willing to die, not ready by any means, but willing if that's what it took to take the bastard down. He hadn't believed it was over, not even when he'd looked into his own cursed palm and seen with his own eyes that the wind tunnel had closed.
There would have been rejoicing then, relief at the defeat of their enemy who had tried so very hard to destroy them all. There would have been joy, but there was only solemn witness when Kikyou had faded away, taking what was left of Naraku with her. She'd spoken to both Kagome and Inuyasha before that, spoken in words so soft and private Miroku hadn't dared to ask what was discussed. Some things couldn't be healed and he'd seen the tears on Inuyasha's face before Kagome had tenderly wiped them away.
But in the midst of the grief, there had been a sudden cry of joy. It was Sango, crouched on the ground and holding her brother's body in her arms. "He's alive," she cried out, her face shining. "Kohaku is alive!"
And Miroku thought he'd never been so grateful to see her smile, to know that her brother's death wasn't a burden that she'd have to bear. She'd already sacrificed so much, endured what was unendurable, it had seemed like the gods themselves had given their blessing and restored Kohaku's life. And all that night he'd sat beside her, holding her hand, whispering promises for the future, the family that they would build together, the three of them.
Now it looked as if that family was going to tear itself apart.
"You want to hit me?" Kohaku asked, his voice a soft hiss of contempt. "You fuck some village whore and expect me to be happy about it? Sango always did deserve better than you, don't think that she doesn't know it."
His breath was coming in shallow pants, Miroku was so angry he could hardly keep himself from attacking the younger man. Then he took a deep breath and closed his eyes, forcing back the anger and dislike. He wouldn't do this, no matter how much Kohaku tried to provoke him, and it wasn't the first time, he wasn't going to strike his wife's little brother.
"I'm not going to do this," he murmured. "I've done enough to hurt Sango with my own weakness. I won't hurt her again by fighting with you."
"And you'd lose, Miroku," Kohaku said viciously, striding away. "You're a damned coward, a liar, and a miserable lech. But she loves you anyway. Gods only know why!"
He watched Kohaku storm away, feeling his guilt settle like a stone in his stomach. It made him sick, that Kohaku was right. He didn't deserve Sango, not when he couldn't be faithful to her, not when she didn't desire him in the way that he so desired her. But she loved him. Gods only knew why.
When he reached the village where he and Sango had settled, he saw that his wife was sitting outside. Her sleeves were pushed past her elbows as she held a deep basin between her knees. It made him smile, watching as she worked at scrubbing vegetables, her lovely face flushed and sparkling with perspiration. She didn't even notice as he approached, a faint look of concentration of her face and silky black hair plastered to her cheeks.
He thought she was beautiful. Always, whether fighting youkai or rescuing the helpless, cooking dinner, keeping their small home immaculate…she was always the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Grinning, he knelt beside her, slipping his hand into the water to touch hers and meeting her startled gaze.
"Can I help?"
Sango's mouth twitched in a smile and she gave his fingers a quick squeeze. "You're kind to offer, but I'm almost finished. Why don't you go inside and rest? You must be exhausted after your journey."
He leaned forward to kiss her, but Sango looked down when water slopped from her basin and all he got was her forehead. "Oh damn," she murmured, realizing that they'd just gotten the front of his robes all wet. She eased away from him, carefully setting her basin to the side.
"I'll find you something dry to wear," she said, taking his hand and pulling him into their home.
"Can't wait to have me to yourself?" he asked teasingly as she started to untie his robe.
Sango gave him an impish smile. "Is that what is it?" she drawled. "Shouldn't a wife miss her husband?"
"Definitely," he answered. She started to turn away, reaching for his clothes but he caught her and pressed her against him. Her arms slowly slipped around his waist and she leaned against him, the scent of her clean hair in his nostrils.
"I did miss you," she murmured against his chest. "It just doesn't feel like home when you're not here."
It filled him with happiness to have her leaning against him so trustingly. Miroku brushed the hair away from her ear, kissing her tenderly. "Sango," he whispered, "can we?"
She squirmed a little. "It's still light outside," she murmured back, as if the time of day should be a problem. "I promised to finish cleaning those vegetables for…"
He silenced her protests with a soft kiss. "But you missed me."
"Of course, but…"
Nibble. Lick. "But what?" A hand sliding down to the small of her back, resting on the swell of her hip. "No one will mind if we take a little time for ourselves."
He felt her giving in, her head on his shoulder, and one hand wandering up to stroke his cheek. "All right," she agreed softly. "If you…"
Miroku wanted to curse and shout when Sango suddenly pushed him away. He turned in time to see her fling herself into her beloved brother's arms. A hard knot formed in his heart and bitterness filled his mouth as he watched his wife enthusiastically hug and kiss her younger brother.
"Kohaku, I've missed you so much! Why were you gone for so long? Please say that you're staying for a long time now."
He didn't want to see this, of all the damn timing. Miroku met Kohaku's eyes and knew it was no accident. "Hey, I'm not interrupting, am I? I can come back later if you want."
Sango flushed, but hugged her brother harder. "No, you weren't interrupting at all. Miroku just got back too, this is wonderful. Let's all have supper together tonight, just like we used to."
Was he imagining it, or did Kohaku's eyes glow a little bit when she said that? Miroku frowned, wondering if it was just anger or frustration that had made him see that. He couldn't help but be jealous, that was his wife, his wife that he'd been about to passionately make love to, and now she only had eyes for Kohaku. He felt his back stiffen as he watched Kohaku's hands curve around Sango's body, resting exactly where his own had been, almost mapping the places that Miroku had been planning to touch. Surely it was just a sibling's embrace, maybe a little bit of punishment directed at him for his infidelity. Kohaku was very protective of his big sister, and if her husband didn't like that, it was too damned bad.
Their supper seemed to last forever, Miroku thought, feeling left out as Kohaku and Sango laughed and talked. They discussed Kohaku's recent adventures, slaying demons and protecting innocents. Talk turned to their childhood as it always did, remembering people Miroku had never met and never would meet. He sighed, practicing patience and knowing that sooner or later Kohaku would have to leave and he could have Sango to himself again.
Almost as if he'd been able to hear Miroku's thoughts, Kohaku grinned and shook his head. "It's late," he said mildly. "I'm sure Miroku is every bit as tired as I am. I should let you two go to bed."
Sango looked appalled. "But…" she said, glancing over at Miroku as if she wanted his agreement. "You can't leave; you're staying here tonight. Please stay, it's been so long since you've been home."
She reached for him and Kohaku caught her hands. "If you really want me here," he said. He shot a wicked look at Miroku. "You sure you don't mind?"
"He doesn't," Sango said quickly. Kohaku didn't miss Miroku's scowl or the angry way his fingers were drumming on the floor. Was that triumph in his eyes, that she'd choose her brother over her husband even now?
"Well I can't argue with my big sister," Kohaku said heartily.
His teeth were grinding together…
"No, you can't argue," Sango laughed. She reached over and playfully tickled Kohaku's ribs. "You might think you're all grown up but I know your weakness!"
He was going to explode…
Kohaku laughed, grabbed Sango and wrestled her to the floor. "And I know yours, Sis. I remember that you're ticklish right here and…"
They were writhing on the floor, not like siblings…more like lovers at play…
Sango pushed Kohaku over and sat on him, tickling him mercilessly while he shouted with laughter. She didn't even notice that her yukata had ridden up and exposed her legs. And she didn't notice that Kohaku's hands were on her thighs, playfully trying to push her off, but it didn't look like he was trying too hard.
Kohaku's hands were on his wife's legs, sliding over that smooth skin that should only belong to him, was by all rights his, and Sango didn't even realize…
The siblings turned to stare at him as if he'd lost his mind. Miroku was shaking, trembling with anger and hurt and jealousy. He got to his feet, his hands clenched into angry fists that had no place to hit. He couldn't stand to watch them another minute; if he did…he was going to do something he'd regret.
Maybe he wouldn't regret it. She was his wife, damn it! And Kohaku was…
"Miroku?" Sango's voice was surprised and a little hesitant. Damned right she knew he was mad, damned right she knew what was going on.
"I'm leaving," he said coldly, turning his back on them both so he wouldn't have to see her confusion, Kohaku's smug grin. "If he's staying here tonight, you won't be alone. You don't need me here at all."
"Miroku!" His wife's pained voice echoed back to him as he left and almost, he wanted to turn around, let her smooth things over. He would let it slide, let it go, and hope that Kohaku wasn't planning on staying very long. Then things could go back to normal, the way they should be.
Even if she didn't enjoy it, she was still his by rights…
"No, Sango," he heard Kohaku say. "You stay here, I'll go talk to him."
They met in the forest, as Miroku had known they would. At least he got to choose the place, stalking to a dark glade and waiting, knowing that Kohaku would be drawn to seek him out.
He didn't know what he'd do if the boy didn't show. He didn't know how he'd deal with the thought that Kohaku was in his home, with his wife, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.
"So are you hiding out here?"
"You've got a lot of fucking nerve," Miroku snarled as Kohaku appeared from the forest. "Who the hell do you think you are, I don't care if you're her brother or not, you don't put your hands on my wife!"
The young exterminator chuckled and the sound made Miroku's skin crawl. "She wasn't complaining, I'm her baby brother. You're just a jealous bastard, that's what she's thinking. Sick to be jealous of a sister's love for her own brother."
"I'm not jealous," Miroku snapped. It did sound sick when he put it that way and he realized with chagrin that this was what Kohaku had intended from the beginning.
"You are." Kohaku was moving closer now, a slim shadow against darkness, and his face seeming ghostly pale in the night. "Maybe that's why she doesn't want you touching her, you're not the one she really loves."
Miroku felt dizzy, his head was pounding and he couldn't think straight. "Why do you hate me so much?" he muttered.
"Because," Kohaku hissed, "you're in my way. Just like you've always been in my way…I won't let you stop me again."
Again? Confused, Miroku met Kohaku's gaze and felt his blood turn to ice. He wasn't imagining it; there really was a glow to the young man's eyes. A menace that turned them dark red with hatred and fury. At the moment, he didn't even look like the vulnerable and tormented boy that Miroku had met so long ago. It wasn't just his stature, his strength or his skill at slaughtering demons.
He didn't even look like Kohaku at the moment, his hair seemed darker, seemed to fall in waves around his face. And damn it, he'd been distracted over the years, trying to make a life with the woman he loved, never thinking to look closer at the little brother who had so miraculously been spared from certain death.
"Who are you?" he whispered, wishing that the sky were lighter so he could see more clearly. His vision seemed to swim, like something foul was radiating from the young man's body, poisoning the very air around him. "You aren't Kohaku."
"I'm nobody else," Kohaku said softly, his footsteps silent in the dry grass. He paused, glancing around at the darkened forest before moving to stand only inches from Miroku. "But I am your enemy. Brother."
He was a fool…
Miroku felt Kohaku move before he saw it, trying to throw himself out of the way. The young exterminator's speed was inhuman, catching the monk by the back of his robes and throwing him on the ground. With a mocking smile, Kohaku held him down, leaning close to whisper the words like a brush of death against his skin. "What are you going to do, houshi-sama?" he taunted. "Your wind tunnel is gone, you have no defenses left."
"You aren't Kohaku," Miroku husked. "Sango's brother wouldn't do this."
"Are you so sure?" Miroku yelped when one of Kohaku's knees dug into his gut. He could almost feel the young man's pleasure at his pain, the way that hard knee cut off his cry and stifled his ability to breathe. Grinning, Kohaku shifted his weight and Miroku coughed violently.
"You are pathetic, monk," the exterminator said quietly. "You used to have some spiritual strength, but you've wasted it all on blessing the sad little shrines of frightened sheep."
Kohaku didn't talk like this…Kohaku had never said such things. It reminded him of someone else, but Miroku was still too dazed to recognize it. He found himself focusing suddenly when Kohaku leaned back and twisted Miroku's arm until he was able to use his other knee to trap that hand. Moving quickly, he pulled a short dagger from his belt and drove it into Miroku's undefended palm.
"There," Kohaku said with satisfaction as Miroku's scream cut the air. "I've given you another hole in your hand, you pitiful bastard."
Miroku grit his teeth and fought back the pain. He was stronger than this, he had to be, he needed to protect Sango from this thing that was pretending to be her brother. He knew she'd never see it, not until it was too late, when it was her flesh under Kohaku's blade.
"I know who you are," Miroku said, choking on the pain. "You can't fool her forever. Sooner or later, she'll see your true face."
"You can't make her happy," Kohaku whispered, leaning so close that Miroku could taste the malice on the young man's breath. "I'm the only one she wants, the only one she needs. That makes her mine."
"I won't let you have her," he gasped out, twisting away from Kohaku's sadistic grip.
Miroku screamed when Kohaku yanked the knife out of his palm, blood poured from the wound but it was still the only chance he'd get. He rolled away from Kohaku's killing blow, digging out a sutra with his bloody hand and ignoring the pain as he slapped it against the young man's forehead.
It only held for a second, Kohaku's face rippling and shifting like the evil soul inside the boy's body was drawn to the surface by Miroku's talisman. The monk didn't hesitate, it had been a long time since he'd had to fight for his life, but he was fighting for Sango's as well. Before Kohaku could react, Miroku yanked the sickle shaped blade from the exterminator's belt and drove it home between Kohaku's eyes.
He was never able to tell Sango the truth; in fact, he'd sworn he'd never tell her even before he'd limped back to the village. Instead he'd held her, comforting her grief as he told her that her beloved brother had died like a hero. He apologized over and over for his part in it, pleading with her to forgive him. He'd been jealous of her love for her brother and stormed off like a selfish fool.
Sango sat quietly, tears streaking her face as she listened to her husband's story. He'd been alone, consumed with his own insecurities, when the demons had attacked. If Kohaku hadn't been there to fight them off, Miroku would have died. It was only her brother's skill and selflessness that had saved him, battling a horde of demons alone to give his sister's wounded husband a chance to escape.
They'd never found his body…only a blood stained sickle blade and a torn sutra.
"And I swear," Miroku said, holding her hands and begging her to give him another chance. "I swear to be a better man, a better husband for you, Sango. I will not let Kohaku's sacrifice be wasted. I swore to him I'd do everything to make you happy."
And he meant it. And he swore to himself that this would be the last time he lied to her. Maybe she sensed that he was truly sincere, maybe she could feel how much he needed her to believe him. He suspected that she believed him because she wanted to, just like she'd believed that Kohaku was her brother.
After several months of grief, they slowly returned to each other, and he knew that he'd done the right thing in keeping the truth from her. Whether it was her loss or his earnest attempts to comfort her, the walls between them melted. Now it was Sango who clung to him in the night, holding him close and asking for his touch, the simple comfort of their devotion to each other.
And they were devoted. One year after Kohaku's death, Sango gave birth to their first child, a son. The baby had dark hair and freckles, but he laughed like the whole world was new and only joy to be learned.
"I want to name him Kohaku," Sango said, smiling shyly as she held their son to her breast.
"Of course," he murmured. "We couldn't call him anything else."
And if sometimes in the night, he still awoke and clenched his scarred hand, he didn't tell Sango about it. The memories were fragile, brittle almost, and Miroku would not allow himself to doubt for a minute the truth. He swore he had seen the demon Naraku looking at him from behind Kohaku's eyes.
He wouldn't let himself believe otherwise. If he did, then he might have come to believe that he had murdered Sango's mad, obsessed and tormented brother. And that was a truth he feared, just as he feared that Sango might someday suspect what had really happened in the dark forest.
Just as he feared one night he'd wake suddenly, look across the room at his sleeping son and see a hint of evil lurking there, well disguised by the lies they'd chosen to believe.