AN: This is the last chapter, and completes the story.
As they stumble onto the shock of solid ground, Shiori's few meager fish clutched in a small net, Kohaku stiffens and looks intently at the stand of bramble near the shore off to one side. Shiori notices, and focuses in that direction as well.
"There's someone there, isn't there?" Shiori whispers to Kohaku.
Kohaku frowns. "I'm not sure," he says, relaxing a bit. "I thought so, but I'm always jumping at shadows. Do you sense anything?"
"It can't be what I think," Shiori says. "I must be mistaken."
"Why, what do you think it is?"
Shiori fidgets, looking embarrassed. "Another hanyou."
But there's a crashing sound, and out from the bramble emerges a young woman in a short yukata, her disheveled hair not able to hide ears which resemble fins.
"Ai!" Kohaku exclaims, astonished.
Ai's eyes widen first with shock, then recognition. She seems to be drawing breath to shout to someone behind her, but never gets the chance. In an instant, Kohaku is on her, his legs carefully locking hers, one hand restraining her, and the other over her mouth.
Shiori can see that the strange woman carries weapons which she presumably knows how to use, and that her brief struggle with Kohaku showed evidence of martial training. And, to her dismay, how easily Kohaku was able to overcome her. He'd told her that he'd never been a good fighter, but she can see clearly that this is not the truth. In Kohaku's movements, she can see the body of a fearsome assassin, a killer that few stand a chance against. She is grateful to see that at least Kohaku's expression is not ruthless, but wide-eyed and frightened.
"If you're here," Kohaku says, "it means that she can't be far behind. Isn't that right?" They are a strange sight to behold, Kohaku holding Ai close, and both looking scared witless of each other. Ai nods her head furiously and struggles again, but is thwarted.
"I...I'm going to let you go now," Kohaku says, "but you mustn't scream. If you do, I'll have to take you with me wherever I go, and you'll never see the people you love again. Understand?" Again, Ai nods, looking close to tears with panic. Kohaku releases her.
Ai falls to her hands and knees, catching her breath. "Who is she?" Shiori asks, standing back a little with her bundle of fish.
"An old acquaintance of mine," Kohaku answers, and to Ai: "You mustn't tell her. If I let you go back, it has to be as if this never happened."
"She wouldn't believe me anyway!" Ai says, incredulous. "You died! You're dead!"
"Nothing has changed," Kohaku says.
"No!" Ai shouts. "We buried you, we put you in the ground! I've put flowers on your grave for years!"
Kohaku seems to soften at this. "That was very nice of you."
"I've lost my mind," Ai says. "That's the only explanation." She gropes about the ground as though she had only dropped her mind, and could expect to find it again.
"This is what I was afraid of," Kohaku says. "If I stayed in one place too long, if I formed attachments, they might all find me."
"It doesn't have to be that way yet," Shiori says, catching on fast. "So far, Ai's the only one who knows."
"And she'll tell the first person she sees, I know her," Kohaku replies. "She couldn't bear a heavy secret like this one. What am I to do! Shiori, you don't know how to erase memory, by any chance?"
"You are not messing with my head!" Ai objects. "I won't allow it!"
"Sorry, that isn't something I can do," Shiori says.
"Why is this a secret, anyway? Sango-nee-chan loves you. It would be a happy reunion if she saw you again," Ai says.
" 'Sango-nee-chan'?" Kohaku repeats. "So, has she already found someone else to follow her around and call her sister?"
Ai looks at him, dismayed. "What happened to you, anyway?"
"Not a day goes by that I don't ask myself that," Kohaku says bitterly.
Kohaku takes Ai's hand. "Shiori, grab the other one," he says.
"But, I—" Shiori says, put on the spot. Kohaku gives her a pleading, desperate look, and against her better judgement, she takes Ai's free hand, though keeping a firm grip on her net of fish.
"Are we going back to my place?" Shiori asks as Kohaku starts off at a brisk walk.
"Do you have a better idea?" Kohaku replies.
"And what are you going to do once you get me there? Sango-nee-chan will notice that I'm gone. It's not like you could tie me up and keep me there forever."
Kohaku closes his eyes as if wincing with pain. "Dammit. No matter what I do... eventually I'll have to let Ai go, and once I do, it won't matter if I run. I swore my presence in this world would never trouble Aneue again. If she knows, she'll think of nothing else."
"Why!" Ai demands, lagging slightly against their tugging on her hands. "Why can't she know?" Shiori says nothing, but she had wondered this as well.
"You were there! Don't you remember the pain I caused her?" Kohaku says to her, his voice twisted in distress. "The sleepless nights? How she would cry for seemingly no reason, how she was always gazing away, into the wilderness, into the stars, as if she could find me there? Can you tell me she hasn't been happier since she grieved for me and moved on?"
"But that was all because she was afraid for you, because she couldn't be near you," Ai says. "If you were together again, it would bring her joy."
Kohaku shakes his head. "You don't understand anything. Even if I stayed by her side, her little brother would still be long dead, and I would just be a reminder. You don't want that for her!"
"Hush!" Shiori says in a sharp hiss, her sudden stop yanking on Ai's arm.
They can just see Shiori's house through a few sun-bleached reeds, and barely hear two voices. Shiori's mother says something, then another voice speaks, one which makes Kohaku grip Ai's arm with his other hand, and cover her mouth again. Shiori looks over at him, astonished. She never thought that she would see his calm, unperturbable face in such agony.
"It's funny that you should show up just when I was reminded of you," Shiori's mother says. Their voices are coming from outside, on the other side of the house. Kohaku starts as if to run over there, but hangs onto Ai, torn. If his heart can beat, Shiori thinks, it must be pounding now.
"Reminded of me?" the other voice says. "After all these years?"
"I saw that old red-and-gold crest of yours," Shiori's mother says, and that decides it for Kohaku. He drops Ai's arm and bolts towards the hut.
"But what will you do?" Shiori calls after him. Kohaku slows in mid-run, as if struck by this, but continues.
"I suppose that's why you came," Shiori's mother continues. "Because your little brother Kohaku is here."
Kohaku falls to the ground and skids in the sand. He lies there, trembling, as Sango's words pass over him. "That's impossible! Don't say that... it's cruel."
"You... didn't know?" Shiori's mother says.
Kohaku scrambles to his feet, and presses himself against the wall of the house. Shiori can see her mother and Sango walk out from behind the house on the other side. "It can't be," Sango says. "My brother is dead."
"I didn't say he wasn't," Shiori's mother says. "But he is here."
Kohaku takes off running, in the opposite direction of Sango. Shiori hesitates, then goes after him. Ai, unguarded, immediately runs to Sango. Shiori pauses when she looks back and sees this, but only redoubles her efforts to reach Kohaku.
"Kohaku!" she calls, when she's sure they're far away enough that Sango won't hear them. "Kohaku, wait!"
Kohaku continues on as if he hasn't heard. They've come to the rocky part of the shore, and Shiori stumbles on the crags. Kohaku seems as sure-footed as ever, and not at all worried by the sheer drop into the sea off to one side of him.
"Don't go that way!" Shiori calls, short of breath. She's always considered herself a strong runner, but Kohaku is making her go faster than she's gone in years. She doesn't feel safe going at these speeds over terrain like this.
Kohaku jumps down off the cliff, landing easily on a ledge far below. Shiori looks down, feeling nowhere near brave enough to try such a thing, but continuing to follow from above. "Running into the bat's cove won't help you!" Shiori shouts down at him. "You'll anger them, and innocent people will die!"
Finally, he stops.
Not a moment too soon, Shiori thinks. The island of the bats looms ahead, the dark cave opening clearly visible.
"It's too late to run away," Shiori calls down. "We have to face the situation."
Kohaku does not respond, but presses his back to the side of the cliff to look up at her.
"I'm going to come around to where you are," Shiori announces. "Just stay there." Not without misgivings, Shiori starts off at a run again back along the side of the cliff. Short of jumping, the only viable way down is back the way they came, where the path splits off. Of course, by the time she gets to where Kohaku is, he could have gone into the sea, where she would never find him. But then, he could have done that at any point before, too.
So it is with some relief that she finds him still there on the stone ledge. He's sitting with his legs dangling over the water, looking somewhat calmer.
"I've pulled you in this with me, haven't I?" Kohaku says, without looking at her.
"No. I followed you of my own free will."
"Well, then, it was stupid of you. I can't protect you."
Shiori sits down next to him. "I'm stupid, then."
"Won't you walk away from this?"
Shiori shakes her head. "Even if you can't protect me," she says, "if you tell me what's going on, I might at least be able to protect myself."
Kohaku sighs. "It's all caught up to me, hasn't it. And here I thought this place looked so peaceful. I looked into your face, and thought there might be some rest for me yet."
"Maybe this is best," Shiori says sagely. "Maybe you'll find some closure to your problems, and be able to really relax without worrying about them, without running away."
"That would be nice," Kohaku says, and takes a deep breath before beginning. "When I was eleven years old, everyone in my village, except for my sister, was killed by the scheme of a hanyou named Naraku."
"A hanyou?" Shiori asks.
"Not like you or Ai," Kohaku says. "An unnatural merging of a man and several hundred youkai. The slaughter of my village was orchestrated in order to taint a sacred jewel, the Shikon no Tama. The more evil deeds he poured into it, the more powerful it became in his wicked hands. And so everyone was killed, save for my sister, who was wounded and left for dead."
"So that's why she thinks you're dead?" Shiori asks uncertainly. "You haven't seen her since that time?"
Kohaku shakes his head. "It's difficult, for me. When I tell this story, I can't help but leave lies of omission. There are some things too painful, too shameful..." he trails off. "But if I am going to retell such a thing, I must do it justice. It is true that Naraku killed my people. It is also true that I killed many of them, and that I was the one who left my sister on the brink of death, that night. It was the last thing I did in my life."
Shiori's breath comes fast in shock. "No, you're not like that," she says. "Maybe he got you to think that, but I know you wouldn't do such a thing."
"I know that too," Kohaku says. "It wasn't my will. But it was what I watched myself do. I don't know why Naraku chose me to possess. If I was weaker in some way than the others, or had within me some taint that he could use. When the men Naraku had deceived into serving him decided I had gone mad and shot me, I welcomed it.
"But then Aneue recovered, and rebelled against Naraku. And Naraku woke me with a shard of that jewel. He intended me to be a monster without conscience, whose sole purpose was to hurt Aneue, and that's what I became. And during that time is when I committed my worst sins, because I chose to let Naraku use me. I could have resisted him at any time, but if I served him well, he made me forget. Forget everything—my family, my pain, my own name. Such a complete obliteration was the closest I could come to death, and while I was there, I didn't care that I killed entire villages, that I killed mothers with their babies. It was forgotten the instant the blow was struck.
"That, I think, is when Aneue began to hate me, as well as love me."
"But you did fight this Naraku, eventually." Shiori says.
"I left him. And ultimately, I let others fight him with my life. But don't delude yourself into thinking I was a hero under adversity. I was a pawn the whole way. I didn't do anything for Naraku that he or one of his minions couldn't have done, except that by having me do it, the jewel shard became tainted. On my own, I wandered, and achieved nothing. With Kikyou-sama, I felt most at ease, but the purpose was merely to purify the jewel shard. To defeat Naraku, the shard was removed, and I died again." He slips the left shoulder off his robes. "You can still see the scar where it was. It's the only one of my scars from a wound made after my death."
Shiori runs her hand over the skin there. "You keep talking about dying, and being dead," she says. "But your skin is warm, and I can see you breathing. You don't smell like a dead thing to me."
Kohaku looks at her gently. "You're just like her. You think that because I can sit here and talk with you that I'm somehow still salvageable. Aneue kept seeing me long after she knew that I was dead, and even if it was with a bloody blade in my hand, and destruction in my wake, she felt certain that there was a way to reclaim me, to take back part of what she lost the night I died. And it was that misconception that led her to do the cruelest thing she ever did to me. When the Shikon Jewel was reclaimed, our enemy defeated, and my body was in their possession, Aneue begged Kagome-sama, a girl travelling with her who possessed spiritual powers, to restore me. And for twenty years, they were meant to believe that that effort had failed."
Shiori sits there staring at him, stunned. "You let them bury you."
"I didn't just leave, afterwards. I spied on them, just to make sure that they were all right. At first, Aneue didn't react much, and I thought that all her tears for me had already been wept. But then something snapped, and she cried all the time, calling for me. One time it was almost too much, and I nearly went to her. But all her friends were there, comforting her, and she swallowed her tears and said, 'It's better this way.' Just like that. After that, she settled more and more into the rhythms of life, and I began to realize that she was happy at last. She didn't need me anymore, so I left, and tried to find what peace I could."
Shiori cannot shake the image of Kohaku lying there, without making a sound, as the people who love him most bury him. She sees him in her mind's eye, perfectly still, not even drawing breath, and unafraid. She is helpless to stop the tears that come at that image.
"Why?" Kohaku asks softly, looking near tears himself. "You had a choice, to go about your life and find happiness, or to be dragged down by my old problems. There was no reason for you to choose me, so why, of your own will..."
Shiori gasps for breath between the sobs, and struggles to say, "Don't you understand? It doesn't matter how it looks to you. This is what I want, my heart's desire. And if I feel this way after only having known you for a short time, how must your sister feel?"
"But," Kohaku cannot help but object, "she was happier after I died."
"That was meaningless," Shiori says, her voice doing little more than riding the sobs on their way out. "She may have seemed happy, but it was all meaningless. I know she would give it all up in a heartbeat to hold you again."
"She doesn't have a choice," Kohaku says glumly. "Your mother told her, and Ai will be sure to back that up."
Shiori's sobs slow, as she seems to realize something. "You resent her."
"Your mother, or Ai?"
"Neither. Sango-san. You're angry with her for being happier without you. For letting you bring her pain."
Now Kohaku's face is twisted with misery. "Letting me? You have no idea what I did to her. A bodhisattva would have hated me."
"A bodhisattva, maybe. But not your sister."
"But she did," Kohaku says, choking a little. "In the end, she knew she was better off with me gone. It was the truth, I know that. I can't blame her for seeing it."
"So you felt betrayed by her, and punished her by pretending to be dead."
Kohaku smiles wanly. "Not pretending. Just embellishing a little."
"Semantics. You know what you did."
"Can't you accept that it was done in altruism? That rather than punishing her for her own humanity, I understood it, and knew that my presence could bring her nothing but pain? What I did...letting Aneue think I was gone...that was mercy."
"For her, or for you?"
"I think," Kohaku says, "that it was both. She wasn't the only one who felt pain when we were together."
"Then I think that I have the solution," Shiori says.
"Do you, now," Kohaku says, with the air of someone who is very familiar with his own private hell.
"That's right. All I need to do is kill Sango-san, and Kohaku will have a chance to be happy." With that, she rises to her feet. Kohaku is up and barring her path in a flash.
"You can't! How did you even come such a conclusion! I won't allow it!"
"So you love your sister," Shiori says, looking at him coyly.
"Yes," Kohaku answers as if the word could break him.
"But you don't want to see her sometimes, and there's pain in your relationship."
"Haven't you been listening? That's what I just said."
"So it's okay to kill her, then. You're better off with her dead."
Kohaku grips her arm. "I don't want to hurt you, Shiori, and I know you think you mean well, but you must drop this foolishness immediately. Nothing would pain me more than her death." His eyes look fiercely into hers, and Shiori smiles.
"So finally, you understand how your sister feels. I'm glad."
Kohaku falls to the ground as if struck. "You—you just said those things to make me see..."
"No matter what else was wrong with your relationship, she didn't want to lose you, Kohaku. I know that."
Kohaku looks up at her, uncertain. "How could you know such a thing?"
"Because I, also..." Shiori breaks off, shakes her head as if to clear it, and tries again, looking at him with her face twisted with tears that still need to be cried, but her jaw set, and Kohaku thinks that despite the pain in her face, it's almost a smile—"Because I also love you." She drops down to her knees and puts her hands over his. "And even if what we could have had was taken from us, I want to be near you, to protect you."
"Shiori, I... appreciate your feelings, but, you understand, I cannot become a man, not even for you." He reaches out with one hand, trembling just a little, and runs his fingers through her hair. "Please, understand, with my tenderest feelings, that I am—was—a boy who died when you were still a child. Though that little boy was revived, the man he should have become was lost forever. I fear that it is him you long for, and you cannot help but become dissatisfied with me."
"I don't know what you're talking about. There's only one Kohaku. Of course I would have loved for you to have become a man, because no one likes to see people they care about hurt. But because you were wronged, this does not lessen my feelings for you, or make you less of a person in my eyes!"
"What would we do, then," Kohaku asks, his voice filled with dark humor. "Would we ape life, pretending to be like any other couple, aside from my 'little problem'? I cannot die, Shiori, but I cannot live either. I cannot father children on you, and I cannot be the hope of my tribe. Do not think me unwilling, or suppose that I hold back out of self-pity." He moves forward suddenly to kiss Shiori, and pulls back with his cheeks wet with her tears. "But for me, what I do out of love more closely resembles cruelty."
"The sun will be setting soon," Shiori says. They've been silent for a while. Shiori gets the sense that something has been decided, but isn't sure what.
"I know that."
"We ought to be getting back."
Kohaku turns in her direction, and Shiori is oddly reminded of the expressions on the faces of the people who saved her from Taibokumaru, physically close, but separated by all the miles of the journey they have yet to finish. Shiori sighs. "If you choose to leave, I am confident that we'll meet again. I have a very long lifespan, you see. Someday you'll be walking around, plagued with memories and regrets, and you'll turn and see my face in a crowd. It is a distinctive face, so even if many, many years have passed, you'll be sure to recognize it. But Sango-san is no longer young, and she can't wait for you forever. She already knows you're here."
Kohaku nods slowly. "Yes, I suppose the time has come for that."
"You want to see her, right?"
"I do, actually. I'd been dreading it...thinking that it would be like tearing all her old wounds open again. But I think—I hope—that maybe you're right. Maybe we're finally ready for this. Hearing her voice again was... I want to see her face."
"Then she will be happy to see you, too." Shiori leads the way, and when the path widens, Kohaku walks by her side.
"What will I tell her about you?"
Shiori takes his hand, and instead of pulling it away, he gives her a small squeeze. "Tell her whatever you want," she says.
"I'll concede," Kohaku says at length, "that sometimes the good can outweigh the bad, but it doesn't overcome it. I don't want to give you false hope. Just because I was underwater, doesn't mean I was drowning."
"I know that," Shiori responds. "If you're not going to drown, it's easy to lie in the water. But isn't it nice to sit in the sun sometimes? Even if in the long run, it doesn't make a difference, and you're not saved. Just for its own sake."
Kohaku smiles at her. "Just as long as you understand."