Spoilers: Kohaku spoilers up to the conclusion of the first anime and well into the post-anime arcs of manga. Also contains characters and situations from the fourth movie. (Ai is not my invention. She's as canon as movie-only characters can get.) Also, this story will make next to no sense if you haven't seen the episode 73-74 anime arc, or the corresponding manga chapters: i.e. Shiori's story.
Conversely, this story is AR of chapter 465, as it was started before that was written. If you haven't read that arc, you won't notice the discrepancy. The beginnings of this story are about a year old, and were posted in my livejournal (aiffe) a few months before this was posted here.
There is a boy at the edge of Shiori's village. He shaves no part of his head as a mark of class. He likes to watch the waves come in. He is not antisocial, and seems amicable enough when spoken to, if a bit terse, but is decidedly asocial, initiating no contact, never giving a greeting first. He wears something Shiori has finally identified as a burial robe. It's long and black, with a golden insignia over his heart. A complicated garment, with something like a cape trailing behind. He carries a katana at his side, (not two like a samurai, only one, and a long one at that) which is entirely rusted shut, so that it would take a man of far greater strength than this boy seems to possess to draw it, and doing so would probably cause it to crumble. There's no way this boy could have used it; back when it was functional, he would've been far too young to hold such a weapon.
And for a while, this is all she knows about him.
It hurts her to see him. Not because she knows him, or really has much cause for empathy with humanity, but because his stark black figure against the land seems to scream "alone!" which somehow makes seeing an otherworldly figure in a burial robe sadder than it is scary. It's as if he's saying he'll die alone here, or already has. Without doing anything at all, the solitary figure at the edge of Shiori's village has poked and prodded at her greatest fear. When people talk to him, or give him food, she sees the friendly interaction in the distance, and can breathe.
He does move around, but never very far or very fast. He strips to wash his clothes in fresh water, and occasionally builds lean-tos, the decision to do so seeming more based on whim than weather. He has politely declined offers of shelter, though he has accepted food. This seems to have convinced people that he's merely a drifter, possibly a survivor of war, and most likely touched in the head, and not some kind of spirit or apparition. Shiori has more time on her hands than most, though, so she notices things. Like how sometimes they forget to feed him, and it seems to do no harm. She remembers one time when for a span of at least three weeks, everyone assumed someone else was doing it, or he was getting food for himself, and gave him nothing. The boy appeared no weaker, no thinner, and not at all concerned by this oversight.
He wears no more or less depending on the weather, but occasionally strips down to swim. He does so naked, like a child, and no one minds, since they all know he's mad anyway. His body is scarred, and everyone says that they're the marks of blades and arrows. This boy was the victim of no accident or animal. Talk spreads, not that he gives any sign of hearing it.
His attitude grates at her. If she was ever cold to people, it was because she knew they would not accept her, she only preferred isolation to torment. But everyone has pity for this boy, scarred mind and body and clearly human, and he's not scared of people, that much is clear… Why does he casually reject companionship? How could he choose such a sad, lonely fate? What's so great about those stupid waves anyway, see one and you've seen them all.
So she goes to him. And she brings food. She already knows that he doesn't need it, but it gives her an excuse to approach him without gawking. (She'd hated being gawked at so.) He takes the offered food, and eats it without rush or appetite, though she knows for a fact that he's fasted the last five days. Close up, he isn't quite what she'd expected. He doesn't have the all-knowing look she'd imagined on a sequestered monk—no closer to enlightenment here. He doesn't look insane, though she supposes one can never truly tell. He doesn't even look sad, which she thinks surprises her the most. Just somewhat resigned and relaxed, like someone who waits for the sun to set so they can go home.
"Do you like it?" she asks tentatively. He hasn't said 'hello' or 'thank you,' which in anyone else she would take as a reaction to her unusual coloring.
"Oh, yes. It's quite nice. Did you make it yourself?"
"Not the food," Shiori says. "This."
He pauses a bit, and takes another bite. When he's finished with it, he says, "I don't know what you mean."
There really is no way to say, "Do you like being alone, do you like being hungry and cold and thought mad by a village that pities you, do you like the view from here so much you'd rather do this than live your life, would you have preferred to look like me, so that people would leave you alone, and you could have more time with your precious ocean?" so Shiori changes tack.
"What's your name?" It occurs to her that no one knows it, and she isn't sure if he's even been asked.
He looks weary at the question, as weary as she must have been when she got "Hanyou!" yelled at her like a revelation for what had to have been the millionth time. He finishes the last of the food, with the air of one completing a performance for another's benefit, and says, "Thanks for the meal."
"I'm sorry," Shiori says, "that was thoughtless of me."
"No, really, it was quite good. With cooking like that, you're sure to be a fine wife."
"Why, would you marry me? Never mind, you're too young." It's a sore point for her. While the village has been slightly easier on her over time as they got used to her, marriage to her is still out of the question.
He only gives her an odd look she isn't sure how to interpret.
"What I meant, was that you've obviously been through a lot, and everyone says you aren't all there, so it was thoughtless of me to ask your name. Since no one knows it by now, I should have considered the possibility that you've forgotten it."
Most people, Shiori knows, got infuriated at this point. "It's like talking to a stone wall," they would say, and blame it on madness, or call him unfriendly. But Shiori's seen unfriendly, and this isn't it. She's had people be disgusted by her, and wish she would go away, but he isn't reacting like that. He's barely reacting at all.
"My name's Shiori. If you can't remember yours, maybe someone could give you one, so you don't feel left out."
"I remember my name," the boy says.
"But you won't tell it to me?"
"I might," the boy says. "But I don't see why it makes any difference."
"Well, it would give me something to call you by," Shiori offers. Why did names have to have a point? Weren't they just there?
"I wouldn't come, you know. It wouldn't do you any good to have a name to call me by."
Shiori thinks. "If you don't use it, you might end up forgetting it."
"That's okay. I'm trying to forget a lot of things."
"If I knew your name, it would make me happy."
"For how long?" he asks, interested.
"I don't know. The whole day!" she declares, throwing her arms out expansively.
"You should enjoy that happiness. Days like this are rare." He settles down against the rock, and gazes out over the water.
Shiori is happy for the rest of the day. But maybe it's because she hasn't been happy in so long, she'd just forgotten that happiness feels like wanting to cry.
What both endears Kohaku to her and frustrates her about him is his complete lack of interest in her. How often could he see a girl with eyes and hair like her? Why doesn't he want to know what she is, and upon finding out, all about her parents, if she has any "powers," when she's human, if she likes it better, and so on and so forth. The sort of questions she has come to associate with a slightly more open mind. He hasn't even asked why she isn't married, or if there's anyone she likes.
What she also finds simultaneously endearing and frustrating is that he doesn't seem to care about himself, either. He must be the only male in the world who has no desire to talk about himself, and he's also the only male in the world she would actually like to hear more about.
There is one thing he seems to be interested in, though. The sea. It's the only constant. So she asks about it.
"Do you see them?" he responds. "Over there, out past the cove." She does see them. A pod of dolphins.
"Ever see one up close, Shiori?"
Shiori shakes her head.
"I've been on the boats that bring them in to shore. Most get killed by the fisherman, because there's competition for the fish. But sometimes, you find one already dead without a mark on it. Especially a baby, after its mother is killed."
"Maybe their hearts stop," Shiori suggests.
"No," he says slowly, "it isn't their hearts. It's like every breath is a choice for them. So they are always deciding whether the next moment is promising enough to take a breath and try to live through it. If they want to die, they just do nothing."
"You make it sound like they're sad all the time."
"Quite the opposite," Kohaku corrects her. "The living ones should be reasonably happy, or at least hopeful."
"When I first saw you, I thought you took the clothes off a dead person out of desperation. But that isn't why, is it?"
"These clothes?" He looks oddly warm then, as though remembering something pleasant. "They were a gift." He doesn't say whether he'd been on the giving or receiving end of that 'gift.'
Shiori leans forward, suddenly passionate, her fists clenching sand. "You don't have to punish yourself!" she tells him. "Whatever you went through, it doesn't mean you have to be alone like this! Anyone here would take you in—I would take you in, though I'd understand if you wanted someone better. There's no reason to force yourself to endure this, after all you've been through."
Kohaku only looks puzzled. "Force? Punish? I came here to rest, not to worry about the past. I'll move along if I'm bothering you, of course..."
But Shiori cannot shake the feeling that Kohaku is unnecessarily tormenting himself. "You survived a war, right?" she says, ashamed to meet his gaze, but determined to dig deeper.
"It's not something you need to hide. It's normal, these days. And anyway, anyone can tell by looking that your scars were made by weapons."
Kohaku smiles, an odd, knowing smile with his eyes closed as if in pain. "Does it still show so much?" he asks. "I think of it as being so long ago. I don't have any new scars, you know. But I suppose they aren't ever going to fade."
"So you were in a war."
"I'm not sure you could call it a war. A feud, maybe, or a vendetta." He hesitates. "It isn't hard to find tales of tragedy these days. I doubt it ever was, really. I don't know why you're so keen on my scars. Half the men in your village are scarred from something or other. I've already given you my name, but I don't think there's anything else I can say to you that will bring you happiness. I'm sorry for that, but I'm sorry for a lot of things anyway."
"So you're just going to bottle it up and feel sorry for yourself?" Shiori asks. "People need to rely on other people. How do you think we get through hard things like this? Even if your story is very, very sad, even if it makes me cry, I want to know about it, because I like you. If it isn't... if it isn't too soon to be talking about it. I don't want to force you, but I—" She puts her hand on his arm, in a gesture that's half comforting, half possessive. She waits to see if he will relax under her touch, or try to brush her off, but he does neither. He's so unresponsive that at first she thinks he must not feel her there through his clothes, and grips harder and harder in increments, until she has to make herself stop, sure that she must be hurting him.
And as an answer to her impassioned entreaty to open up to her, he merely shakes his head. Shiori isn't sure what he's negating. He rises to his feet in an easy, fluid motion, and walks away from her. There's no rush or tension to his step—he could just as easily be inviting her to follow as trying to escape her.
She goes home for the night, and when she looks for him the next morning, she finds his footprints everywhere, but cannot find him.
The morning is overcast. Shiori paces the beach where Kohaku usually stays, growing more and more frantic. She pushed him too hard, she knows, she asked too much of him, and he left.
He went someplace where no one would ever make the mistake of caring about him again, and he could be as lonely as he liked.
She thinks, hopes, that that was the thought that made her cry. She would rather cry for someone else than for herself.
Experience has taught her not to cry where anyone but her mother can see. Even though the beach is empty, she hides herself in a bit of bramble, and cries as she has not cried for years, not since the first time she realized that the other children had a future and she didn't, not since the time when things stopped mattering to her.
She exhausts herself easily this way. And so, she dreams.
There is a monster in her dreams. There always is. It's the monster everyone else sees when they look at her, the monster within herself. She isn't afraid of it.
In her dreams, she can fly. And in her dreams, when she cries out, she can see.
So she sees beneath the receding waves, down, into a place those who rely on light would never see. And down there, she sees Kohaku, fully clothed, looking up at the blinding light of the surface.
He isn't breathing, Shiori realizes with a shock. And with another, she knows that he isn't dead.
The third shock comes slowly and with dread. She knows that he isn't alive, either. Living people do not lie beneath the waves, calmly not breathing. She's suspected, but it had seemed too terrible a thought to entertain.
She wakes to the delicate patter of a light rain on her skin.
Rain falls in veils, and she feels as if she could push them aside and step into the sun. Far out over the sea, it is bright and sunny; the storm has nearly spent itself. She commiserates, feeling a fatigue that is not physical, but weighs heavily on her steps.
Her bare feet pad slowly out to the sea, which, being at low tide, takes a bit longer to reach. On the way, she crosses the part of the shore that's usually underwater, suddenly laid bare and vulnerable. The water is cold, but not bitterly so. The ground gives way only gradually, so that she has walked out a long way before the water is high enough that merely hiking up her skirts is not enough, and she will have to get her clothes wet to go on. She hesitates, deciding, the glare of the distant sun seeming to add to her haze, combined with the white noise of tiny droplets of rain hitting the water's surface.
In that moment, she feels both lonely and peaceful; troubled yet insignificant. The falling rain washes her face, so that she doesn't feel the grime of having just cried herself to sleep, though the fatigue and clarity remain. She finally decides that it doesn't matter if her clothes get wet—she's wet enough from rain anyway—when she realizes that Kohaku has been watching her stand there, unnoticed.
Through the shimmer of the disturbed water, she sees him: fully clothed in billowing black, gazing back at her with something not even remotely like fear or disappointment. She can't place that expression—curiosity? surprise?—because she's thrown by what it isn't. How could he have come to be here, if he was not hurt or frightened by her?
They just stay like that, Shiori with her fists holding her kimono above the water, long after she's soaked through from the rain and it has ceased to make any sense, and Kohaku, his robes floating in the waves like some otherworldly thing, watching her calmly when he should be drowning, dead when he should be dying. Only their eyes meet through the shaky film of the surface.
And Shiori finds that, after all that, she has nothing to say.