Written for iyfic_contest, week 200, in the form of twenty 200-word drabbles telling a larger story.
beta by Empath_eia
Years have passed, vows have been made, children born, old friends well-mourned. Kohaku has grown fine and strong, and still, this shadow passes over him.
He doesn't need to ask the day.
Yesterday, he visited his father's grave. He burned incense, and waited. If he could, he would have asked for forgiveness, but even the thought came with pain. As much as he craved it, as much as his mind made beautiful excuses for him, his heart would still not forgive him. So he said nothing, waiting for a forgiveness he felt he did not deserve, for a miracle he did not expect.
The night before today, he did not sleep. The familiar ache grew in his chest until his scars burned like brands and he broke into a cold sweat. When the sun rose, it seemed dim and distant to him, its light not quite reaching him. He heard children playing, and for a moment envied their carefree voices, until he heard the names they called each other—they were the children he grew up with, the ones who died on the same day he did.
Today will be a dark day, Kohaku knows. Today is the day he died.
"Wake up, Kohaku-san!" the girl pleads.
Kohaku had not been asleep. After a few moments he looks at her from under half-lidded eyes. "Mizuho," he says, exhaustion in his voice.
"No, it's Mitsuko, and a band of youkai are attacking the village! Please do something!"
"Mizuho," he says again. "Let the grownups take care of it. We'd only get in the way."
Mitsuko is baffled. "Kohaku-san, you are the grownup."
Kohaku laughs, weakly. "Always pushing me, my sweet cousin."
There's a flash of despair on Mitsuko's face. "It was a trap. Inuyasha-sama, Miko-sama, Houshi-sama and Sango-sama were all tricked into hunting them! We're all going to die if you don't do something!"
Kohaku grabs her hand. "No, there's still time."
"Yes," Mitsuko says in relief.
"If you're here, then I've gone back. Back before everyone died. There's still time to stop it. Where's Father?" Kohaku gets up, and a sharp pain shoots through him like a rain of arrows. He cries out in surprise, and tries to catch himself on Mitsuko as he falls. "No," he whispers. "Not now. I need to get back to the beginning."
Mitsuko shakes him. She's crying. "Get up!" she commands, so loud her voice breaks on it. "Up!"
Kohaku gets as far as a crouch, until he sees his hands. "No," he says.
"What do you mean, 'no'? They're all gonna die!"
He holds his hands up, and they're shaking. "So much blood. How many...how many did I kill?"
Mitsuko grabs his trembling hands. "Whatever this is, you've got to fight it, okay?" Her grip is very tight, and her nails dig in.
"You want me to fight?" Kohaku asks uncertainly.
"Yes. Something's done something to your head, but you have to—"
Kohaku leaps to his feet so violently that Mitsuko's nails leave scratches on his hands. "You're not Mizuho. Are you one of the people I killed? Did you beg me to come to my senses? I forgot you, but you didn't forget me."
Screams carry over from the direction of the village.
"Do you hear them? They're screaming!" Mitsuko shouts.
"They're always screaming," Kohaku says.
"So save them," Mitsuko says. She gets his sword and pushes it into his hands.
Kohaku takes it, his grip suddenly firm.
In the village, several men face off against a band of boar youkai, holding crude weapons and farm implements. There are injuries on both sides, although the villagers have suffered disproportionately.
Kohaku walks into the scene like a lost child, holding his sheathed sword as if he doesn't know what it is. The villagers make way for him, but their relief soon gives way to uncertainty.
The largest youkai takes a stance. "I am Ikarimaro, leader of the..." he trails off under the intensity of Kohaku's gaze.
Kohaku approaches him, and one of the youkai looses an arrow that strikes him in the shoulder. Kohaku doesn't even seem to notice.
"What are you?" Ikarimaro snarls.
Kohaku raises his hand, seemingly unperturbed by the blood dripping down it from his arrow wound. He places his hand lightly on Ikarimaro's chest, and there's a brief flash.
Ikarimaro stumbles backwards, his eyes wide. Kohaku continues to stare at him, unblinking. The youkai loses his nerve. "Whatever mess you've gotten tangled up in, boy, I don't want none of it."
Kohaku does not answer, or even seem to hear. He continues to stand there as the youkai retreat into the forest.
Mitsuko's cry cuts through the sudden stillness. "Father!"
Kohaku sees her run to one of the injured villagers. Blood runs from Mitsuko's father's wound until it's knee-deep all around them. He watches, bemused, as a young woman wades through the blood to reach him. There's something different about her, as though the walls of the living world, already weak, bend and crack more under her weight.
"You're hurt, Kohaku," she says. From the lack of honorific more than anything else, he knows her.
"Are you hurt, Rin?" He can't tell by looking. There's blood everywhere.
Rin looks at something in her hand, a bloodied farm axe, and drops it to be swallowed in the sea of blood. "Please, let Kaede-sama look at you."
"The other villagers need her."
"And what about the arrow sticking out of you? Doesn't it hurt?"
"Which?" Kohaku asks.
"Kohaku, I'm worried about you."
Kohaku smiles at her reassuringly. "I'll be all right, Riri."
Rin is taken aback. "How did you know my Nii-chan's name for me? I never told anyone."
"Just stay away from me!" Kohaku says with surprising venom, stumbling away from her.
He needs to get to high ground, away from the rising tide. He rests on a hilltop, the breeze cooling the sweat on his brow.
"Long time no see. You look like death warmed over."
Kohaku startles. "You're late. All these years, and you never thought to haunt me?"
Kagura materializes out of the air, floating in front of him. "I'm not like the others."
"Are you alive?"
Kagura shrugs. "Who needs labels."
"I'm glad I got to see you again," Kohaku says. "I always wanted to tell you: I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Kagura repeats.
"I couldn't save you."
Kagura laughs long and hard at this. "You? Save me? From Naraku? Sure, kid."
"We were companions," Kohaku insists. "It was my duty—"
"I fought alone," Kagura says. "You couldn't help me, any more than I can help you now." She passes an insubstantial hand through Kohaku's arrow. "Sorry. Looks like you're alone too."
"I get tired, always fighting," Kohaku says. "And then I miss your strength."
"Thank you," Kagura says, already fading.
"No, thank you," Kohaku says, but he's already alone again.
He wanders through the woods for some time, nothing looking entirely familiar to him. His wounds, both real and remembered, pain him greatly, but he senses that this is no place for him to rest.
Usually he arranges to have this day to himself, and lies in his hut until the fever-dreams pass. But once put into motion, his legs continue to carry him onwards.
As he continues, Kohaku hears footsteps behind him. At first a single set, then more and more, until he feels as though he's leading a vast army through the forest. When he stumbles, they pause. He looks back several times, but each time the space behind him is empty. Suspecting who they are, Kohaku considers this to be a blessing.
Though they mostly match his pace, the invisible crowd seems to be slowly gaining on him, until he fancies he can feel breath hot on his neck. A fear grows in him that they will overtake and trample him. Kohaku tries to go faster, but something unseen trips him, and he falls hard, driving the arrow shaft in deeper.
Groaning, Kohaku rolls over. The footsteps split around him, forming a circle. There's no escape now.
Kohaku doesn't have to ask the dead what they want. He remembers.
He doesn't apologize to them. That's one of his needs, not theirs.
Throughout a person's life, they live their future lives again and again in their minds, until the path ahead of them is clear and well-tread. Kohaku was no exception to this. On his path, he grew up, became strong, married and had children, and his father was proud.
The dead begin to take shape faintly. He sees a woman with child at the front of the ranks, her hands pressed to her belly. Kohaku can only begin to understand the weight of the future she bears.
The ranks of the dead begin to part, and he sees them making way for two children, twin girls. As the pregnant ghost steps back, Kohaku sees a look of longing on her ethereal face.
"Uncle Kohaku!" one of the girls says.
"How'd you get hurt? Did you fight a youkai?"
"We went looking for youkai with Mother and Father, but there weren't any!"
As the childrens' bright voices fill the air, the dead retreat. Kohaku can feel their longing. This is what he took from them.
Kaede's gnarled hands pull out the arrow, and Kohaku accepts it calmly. "He's lost a lot of blood," she says. "It could explain his delirium."
"The villagers said he was acting strange before he got shot, though," Miroku says.
"Maybe he hit his head!" one of the twins offers.
Normally, Kohaku avoids hearing Sango's voice. There's something sharp about it, like a winter wind, that cuts right through him. But her silence is worse.
When Kaede finishes dressing the wound, Sango speaks at last, asking for a few moments alone with him.
Kohaku waits in dread. He does not want to be alone with her.
Sango puts her hand on his shoulder, very lightly because of his wound. As if bubbling up from that simple point of contact, Kohaku feels tears welling up, and hides his face from her. He's a man now. She shouldn't see him cry.
"I wish you'd talk to me, okay?" Sango says. Her voice is a bit raw too. "I wish you'd forgive me."
The tears flow from him, a silent, steady flow, and Sango rests her head on his waist. He can feel a dampness through the cloth.
"Do you remember my first mission?" Sango asks at length. "I was a little younger than you were on yours. I did something really stupid, and got myself half-mauled. I still have the scars." She shrugs off her kosode, and Kohaku looks up furtively at the faded old scars on her chest, disappearing beneath her bindings.
"When I came home, I wouldn't stop crying. I thought it meant I was going to be a terrible taijiya. You rubbed ointment on my wounds, and told me I was strong and brave." She laughs. "My chest hadn't developed yet, and I didn't tell you, but I was afraid it would grow wrong because of the scars."
The Sango before him fades, and Kohaku once again sees Sango aged nine or ten: her tearstreaked face, her fierce smile. "Father said as long as we stuck together like that, we'd be all right."
She closes her kosode.. "Maybe you don't remember. After all, we've made new memories, gotten new scars. Here I am still stuck on the old ones."
"I remember," he says. There's a funny gap in her teeth when she smiles. "All too well."
Kohaku gasps when he sees the figure behind Sango.
Every time he has seen his father on this day, it has been as a mutilated ghost, his severed head in his hands, mouthing words he cannot speak, blood bubbling from his throat. But this time he is whole, and his expression is full of warmth and concern.
"What is it, Kohaku?"
"Do you know what today is?"
"Of course," Sango says solemnly. "If you're able, we can visit Father."
Kohaku shakes his head, looking at the ghost in amazement. "He's already here."
No longer ashamed of his tears, Kohaku gets up, turns to Sango and says, "I can't believe you would think you needed my forgiveness for anything."He kisses her forehead.
"Then why can you never look me in the eye?"
"Because it's like looking at the sun." He turns towards the image of his father. "You're right, Aneue. Father wants us to be together."
His father gently strokes his cheek. Kohaku feels it as a sort of tingle, almost-real. For an instant as he leaves, Kohaku sees the rest of the taijiya with him, walking in the shadow-land.
Kaede enters, leaning heavily on her cane, Kagome close behind.
"Many people say they saw Kohaku use a purifying light on the youkai," Kaede says.
"But that's impossible," says Sango.
"Even so," Kagome hedges. She sits in front of Kohaku. "Kohaku-kun, do you mind if I...take a look?"
Kohaku, instead of looking at her face, keeps his eyes on her arm, where he left her first battle-scar. "If you think it's a good idea, I won't resist."
Kagome tries to smile comfortingly, and puts her hands over his.
Something in Kohaku responds to this, like a circuit being completed. Kagome looks startled. "Kikyou's light...you carry it still?"
He has never seen Kikyou's ghost. Perhaps it is that her spirit is at peace, or because in a sense, they have become one. Her light is his life.
"She protects you," Kagome whispers. "She loves you as a mother loves her child. A terrible darkness is over you," she says looking up at him suddenly. "She can't stop it. No one can. But she does her best to shield you. You are her legacy. Her life's work. Through you she is redeemed."
"Darkness?" Sango repeats. "But...he's better now. I got him back." She sounds almost as if she's trying to convince herself.
"Aneue," Kohaku says. "I asked you before if you knew what today is."
"Today is the day Naraku tricked us into his castle. Today is the day you were controlled by him into killing the other taijiya. Today is the day our village was destroyed." She seems bitter at being forced to say it. "Did you think I could forget?"
"One more person died that day," Kohaku says.
Sango is stricken by this. "We were both badly hurt. Both buried. But—"
"I have walked in yomi, the shadow-realm. My presence sullies the world. Naraku created this abomination for one purpose—to cause you pain."
"And yet you have become a source of joy and hope to me."
"That was Kikyou's gift. Though brought back as something impure, she could purify the jewel and Naraku. Though dead herself, she could give life. But even she could only do so much. So this is my price."
He walks to the door with some difficulty. "Let me have this day in peace."
As he walks back to his hut, Rin approaches him. He feels again that her presence amplifies the effects of his condition.
He does not know why she doesn't suffer as he does, only that she doesn't. Tenseiga was made to bend the rules, not break them—it cannot return souls that have left, but revives those that are not yet gone. But the second time, she went body and soul into the Meidou. She shouldn't have been able to come back unscathed. Perhaps, even if it isn't obvious, she hasn't.
"Everyone's talking about what you did," Rin says. "That you purified the youkai like Kikyou-sama. But that's not what scared them off, is it?"
"No," Kohaku agrees.
"I was mad at you at first," Rin continues. "For talking to me like that, and calling me.... But I think I figured out why. Or at least part of it."
"I didn't mean to call you that."
"No, it's okay. It hurt, because I miss Nii-chan. But I'm very lucky. I got another nii-chan." She kisses his cheek and runs off.
The rest of the way home, Kohaku is followed by hungry wolves, howling mournfully.
At the door to his hut, Kohaku finds maggots writhing on the threshold.
"About time," he mutters, stepping over them.
A burned man lies in his bed. "Water," he rasps. "Please."
Kohaku sits next to him. "Even if I pitied you, you couldn't drink it."
The burned man gasps and cries, and his body deforms, forming grotesque tentacles and naked, pulsing organs mixed with proud flesh. A face coalesces from the mass, twisted with pain. "Why could I not be saved?" the creature gurgles. "I gave everything."
"You took everything," Kohaku says.
"I gave myself first. When that was not enough, I would have burned the world as an offering as I myself once burned. You carried a shard I corrupted within you. You know my wish. Every person you killed as my puppet was a payment towards that wish." His voice turns angry. "Kikyou's light should have purged me. She should have freed my soul. Instead it was wasted on you."
He turns away, in pain. "So thirsty. Always, always thirsty. The more I give of myself, the more I want. The more I take, the more I need."
Naraku pulls himself into his human form, malevolence in his eyes. "I know the secrets you keep in your mind," he hisses. "I know that I only enslaved you because you thought it was easier not to fight me. You could have reclaimed your memories and been free at any time. Was a creature so pathetic worth Kikyou's life?"
"Apparently my life was more worthy than yours," Kohaku says. "Which may not be saying much."
Beautiful and terrifying as he was the first time Kohaku knelt before him, Naraku stands up. "But she could have granted me peace. What is it you're been granted? A half-life? Torment?" He leans in to whisper in Kohaku's ear. "Why do you carry on? I only brought you forth to bring more pain into the world. Is there a reason you carry on my will when you don't have to?"
Kohaku draws his sword, and looks calmly at the blade. "There was a time I thought of this every day," he says. "The only reason I lived was to see you dead first."
He sheathes the sword. "Because it is her wish."
As the exact time when he first died approaches, the pain gets worse. He wanders in the dark for what seems like a long time, seeing his lifetime winding back toward the moment he was born, erasing his self. He wanders, having forgotten who he is, or if he is alive or dead.
And deep, deep down, through the earth and into the underworld, wind the roots of the great tree, its highest branches scraping the heavens, its life spanning three worlds. Kohaku can feel its benevolent, calming energy, both in the dream-world and in the roots that spread beneath his hut, beneath the entire village, connecting him with his sister, his nieces and nephew, with everyone. He sees through the illusion of separation to the common roots that bind them.
Though Kikyou, whose spirit is still with him, died under that tree and sealed her betrothed to it, there are no grudges held. The Goshinboku is beyond such earthly affairs, beyond human judgment of right or wrong. Its power is ancient, sacred, beyond reproach.
Kohaku surrenders himself to it, and dreams with the Goshinboku, down beneath everything, to the center of the world and the root of all things.
Kohaku finds himself on a broad green field. He feels that this is his home, yet somehow it's different.
There is a woman there with him. He squints at her. She is the sorrowful ghost, she is his mother, she is Kikyou, she is....
At last he knows her face, although he's only seen it in stone.
"Midoriko-sama." He kneels. After Naraku, he had sworn he would never bend his knee again, but somehow he knows this is right.
"We travelled together for a while, didn't we?" Midoriko says uncertainly.
"I think so. You're familiar to me."
"You shouldn't be here." She looks up, and there's a hole in the sky slowly closing. Through it, Kohaku can see tangled roots running up for a very long way. "You won't be able to get back."
Kohaku smiles. "But isn't this my home?"
Midoriko takes him into her arms. "In a sense, yes. This will always be your home."
"But I can't stay, can I?" Kohaku asks.
"Part of you is always with me, as part of me is always with you," Midoriko says. "But for now, I will guide you back."
Kohaku climbs the long path of roots up into the sky, feeling Midoriko's strength within him. While he no longer bears the jewel shard, before her gift to him, Kikyou and Midoriko's souls were merged, and so part of her still sustains him, a reflection of a reflection.
He looks down, and sees Midoriko turn to a man and embrace him. Midoriko has a child. The youkai come, and Midoriko goes to war.
He sees the man and the child weep when Midoriko's soul is lost in the fray, and sees the child grow up strong like her mother. Midoriko's daughter searches for her mother's lost soul for many years, and when she has children, they carry on the search.
As he climbs, he feels as though he is climbing the tree of his own ancestry, each handhold another generation who spent their life in search of the Shikon no Tama—their pride, their goddess, and their great shame, for all the evils that were done with her strength.
And in that centuries-spanning struggle, he feels the desire of the jewel to reunite with her children.
At long last, we are one again.
Kohaku wakes in his hut, the fever passed.
Kohaku stands at the funeral, by the shared pyre of the men who fell in yesterday's battle. A white pillar of smoke rises into the air.
He sees Mitsuko mourn her father. He doesn't go to her—there's nothing he could say that would mitigate her grief.
Someone takes his hand. "It wasn't your fault, you know."
Kohaku turns to her and half-smiles. "You always say that, Aneue."
"We were tricked. We shouldn't have left the village unguarded." Her grip tightens on his hand. "I shouldn't have been so blind."
"There were things I didn't want you to see," he says gently.
Mitsuko steps forward with a few other mourners, and makes her offering of food to be burned in the fire. Kaede raises her strong old voice in a dirge. She sings with a lifetime of mastery, and the sorrow of having performed too many funerals.
As the flames die and the funeral draws to a close, people pay their final respects and depart. Kohaku approaches the still-smoldering pyre and burns an offering with a gesture of respect. In a low voice, for only the dead to hear, he says, "Until we meet again."