1) Livejournal's Secret MiroSanta Assignment. I was assigned to write a story for yumi_michiyo.
2) In the anime, Inuyasha and Kagome get a red thread. I thought Miroku and Sango deserved one too.
Chapter 1: Petals of the Tea-Plum Tree
It was a strange thing to break the silence of a languid afternoon. No wind in the late autumn air to disturb the breeze, no birdsong to give life to the landscape outside the window. Even the soft scratch of his needle against cloth had ceased as he became more aware of the silence encircling him than he was of the task spread out in his lap.
It was as if the world was holding its breath. Waiting. Waiting for the softest creak of floorboards; the pad of a bare foot against wood.
Blinking out of his reverie, he glanced down at his small hands, at the rough seam he had so recently completed. How long had he been sat there staring at nothing, waiting for the sound of the old priest's approach? Why was it now, after having looked forward to it for so long, all he felt was the icy touch of fear trailing slowly down his spine and curling into a knot in his belly like a sunbathing snake?
'Miroku, he's here.'
In the depths of his gut, the snake reared up, hissing. His stomach churned. Mushin's voice sounded like the deep chime of a temple bell. It only served to make the boy realise that he couldn't remember the last time he had heard the bell today, as if the air was laden with the absence of its sound. An absence filled only by the negativity that laced the old man's voice. Miroku found himself unable to raise his head, unable to even look at his master or even speak. 'I am a coward,' he realised, a thrill of very personal horror at this new awareness lacing its way through his spine to join the nameless terror that had been building up inside him all day. It only made him duck his head even further in shame.
'Coming,' he whispered, scrambling to his feet to follow the old monk who was already retreating down the corridor. For such an oversized and elderly fellow, Mushin could certainly walk fast when he wanted to - Miroku had to hurry to keep up, his small strides no match at all for his master's heavy gait. The harsh rub of hemp against his skin made him look down. He hadn't consciously picked up it, but he was relieved to see that he hadn't forgotten to bring the object he had been working hard to complete all day.
It was only a pillow, a poorly crafted one at that. He had spent all the previous day twisting the grasses that he would stuff it with, and all of this day sewing it into the pillow itself. A pillow of twisted grass… it was said that to carry one on a journey was to ward off misfortune, and with each step closer to the outside of the building, Miroku grew more and more certain that it was absolutely necessary for him to do everything in his power to ward of the misfortune he could feel. The air was thick with the sense of it. Overhead, black clouds were gathering in honour of it. His lungs were clogged by the very weight of it.
Clutching the pillow tightly to him, he burst through the already opened doorway, squinting against the one last shaft of sunlight that seemed to be defying the growing storm to highlight the figure that waited patiently in the grass below them. It was just a monk, not an unusual sight for a temple, even one as isolated and poor as this temple was. He wasn't even of any noteworthy rank – just a low-ranking itinerant monk, a houshi. Not hidden enough by the hat he wore to disguise the youth, the newcomer wore a face much too serious to be justifiable for either a young man or even a monk.
'Father!' Miroku hurried forwards, only to be hauled back by a hand on his shoulder before he had managed even two paces. It wasn't the strength of the grip on his shoulder that almost drove him to his knees, however. A mere two paces – that was all that was required for him to sense the difference in the air, the movement. Miroku froze, his eyes wide. On such a still day, there was no place for the wind to blow – but he could feel it, gathered in an eddy that was focused solely on his father. He could see it in the restless stirring of the heavy black kimono and the ripples that swept across the purple kesa that covered it. That, more than Mushin's tight grip, gave him pause. His father could summon the wind, this he knew without doubt. But this wind was different, ominous, and it took the boy only a moment to work out why.
His father… his father was creaking.
It wasn't a sound Miroku could fully identify with, for he had never heard anything quite like it. Certainly, it wasn't the sound of bare feet on the floorboards. It was perhaps a little similar to the sound of an old building in a storm, the sound of wood bowing in the wind. It was a sound that forced one to respect the strength of the wind and to never, ever ignore it.
'Stay here, Miroku,' Mushin's ample frame moved in front of the boy, blocking his view of his father as he walked forwards. Unable to resist, Miroku sidled a little to side to regain that vision, and was met by the old man's stern glare from over one shoulder. He froze. It was rare for Mushin to glare at anything – except perhaps the sake jugs in the store house upon realising they were empty - but somehow, Miroku always managed to bring that side out of him. He shifted his grip on the pillow he had made for his father to carry with him, the one he had been so desperate to complete in time for his father's visit and next journey. Now, he sensed, was not the time to antagonise the old monk.
Strain his hearing though he tried, Miroku couldn't hear anything of the conversation. In fact, there barely seemed to be a conversation taking place. The two monks seemed to know everything significant that needed to be said, and had very little else to communicate. This wasn't like his father's other visits at all. It looked like his father had stopped by just long enough to leave again. Miroku glanced down at the pillow in his hands. Perhaps it was just long enough to pass along his gift?
It was the sense he was being watched that made him lift his head again. That gleam among the shadows of the hat – it was his father that was watching him, at least from his peripheral vision. 'Miroku, you better come closer, boy,' Mushin raised his voice just loud enough for Miroku to hear the command. He leapt forward without hesitation, raising his hands to offer the pillow when he was stilled into motionless once more.
'Huh?' Miroku stared up at his father in confusion. It couldn't be a mispronunciation of the name of the Sixth Realm of Hell – his father's Buddhist education was too good to make such a ridiculous mistake – but he knew of no other association that would explain what his father had just said.
From the corners of his eyes, his father was still analysing him. 'This name, Miroku,' he explained. 'Naraku – the youkai that killed your grandfather. The youkai that has killed your father. This youkai that will also be your death if you do not avenge us all. This is a name you must never forget. Do you understand?'
Miroku stared at him speechlessly before managing a quick nod that revealed he understood nothing at all. A youkai that had killed his father? But his father was standing right there in front him, speaking strange words, standing straight-backed and smartly dressed. He possessed no injuries. He didn't look close to death at all.
His father's piercing gaze vanished from his sight, focused on Mushin. 'He'll understand,' the old monk promised with an emphatic determination that made Miroku's insides wobble sickeningly.
The lower-ranked monk started to turn away, but paused. Miroku was at exactly the right height to see the way his left hand balled suddenly into a fist. 'Miroku.'
Tearing his gaze away from that clenched fist, he raised his eyes to search his father's face for clues about what was happening – but found only a face so lost in darkness and shadow that his heart leapt to think that he had to rely on his memory of what his father looked like even though he was standing right in front of him. As if his father really was dead, after all.
'As a son, I had a father to avenge. As a father, I had a son to save. I have done neither, and so it depends on you now… please forgive me.'
'Yes…' Miroku trailed off. His father was already walking away.
He wasn't certain what it was that made him move forwards, to race after his father. Perhaps it was the brevity of the visit, or perhaps it was the strange words. Perhaps it was simply the sense that if he let his father walk away now he knew with absolute certainty that he would never see him again.
It was the howling gusts, the crashing end to a windless day, where the first true seed of understanding was planted in his mind and began to sprout, reinforced by the bruising grip of the old monk that held him back from approaching any further, and which, as the winds finally died and the still of the day returned as if nothing at all had happened, left behind nothing more than a giant crater that had changed his life forever and flung his path into a darkness he was either too young, or too much of a coward, to fully understand.
Behind him, forgotten, a pillow of twisted grass withered in the dirt – completed far too late, after all.
It was a strange thing to break the silence of a languid afternoon. No wind in the late autumn air to disturb the breeze, no birdsong to give life to the landscape outside the window. Even the soft scratch of her needle against cloth had ceased as she became more aware of the silence encircling her than she was of the task spread out in her lap.
It was as if the world was holding its breath. Waiting. Waiting for the softest creak of floorboards; the pad of a bare foot against wood.
She wearily passed a hand across her eyes, her gaze shifting from the window to the crumpled form lying next to her. Her young brother hadn't moved for hours, but the expression on his face was miserable. In sleep he seemed as affected by the atmosphere as she was while awake. 'I'm sorry, Kohaku,' she thought. 'I can't protect you from this.'
She couldn't protect him from much of anything, it seemed.
Her head lifted, startled not to have heard any approach, but the beating of her heart wasn't the result of surprise. She knew from the tone of his voice why he was there. She didn't need to see his face to know the truth. 'Thank you, Houshi-sama,' she whispered, her voice almost unrecognisable to her own ears. She took a deep breath, her hand resting on Kohaku's shoulder. She wanted a moment to compose herself before waking the boy. She didn't want him to hear that voice. She wanted him to think of her as strong. She needed to be strong.
Even if she wasn't strong at all.
He was staring at her face with frightened eyes, awakened only by that simple touch, and she realised he hadn't been sleeping as soundly as she had first thought. 'Come on,' she whispered, helping him to his feet. 'It'll be okay.'
He nodded, slipping his hand into hers and clinging to it tightly. She allowed it only because he was so young, because this was his first true experience of something that he would have to get used to. In their lifetime, with their lifestyle, this was something that would be a reality for both of them when they were adults. As they followed the black-robed monk down the corridor, she glanced at the boy from the corner of his eye. His head was down. She couldn't see his expression at all.
But his shoulders were shaking already.
He was so young. Would he even remember this day in the long run? Was he old enough for that? Would he rely on her for the memories that he would never have? She couldn't even think about this day, how could she possibly recall it in the future, except as anything other than a yawning abyss that was rapidly swallowing them whole? Their clasped hands tightened, and suddenly it wasn't him clinging to her hand. She was the one clinging to him.
'I'm sorry, Kohaku,' her thoughts wailed. She was the older sister. Surely she could be – should be – stronger than this?
They were there before she knew it, the journey having been so bitterly short. Kohaku froze at the threshold. Or perhaps she did and he copied her action. The monk turned away, abandoning them to a road he couldn't lead them down. She squeezed Kohaku's hand gently, hoping it was a reassuring gesture, but she couldn't look at him. She didn't want to him to see her face. She didn't want to see his face. She didn't want either one of them start crying. Not now. Not yet.
She felt as though she was flying apart at the seams as she stepped through the door into the room beyond. It was odd. Her attention should have immediately been drawn to the centre of the room – to the futon and the figure lying so still within it. Perhaps her attention should have first been drawn to the figure bowed over the futon, her father, still as stone – almost as still as the figure he was leaning over.
Instead it was drawn to the insignia that defined their clan, that defined their village and their way of life. The one that told the world who and what they were, what they could be relied on to do. That they could be relied upon at all. As she knelt down beside the futon, tugging Kohaku down with her, it was her bitter reflection that it wasn't fair that this was how a woman of this nature should be entering the next world. Didn't they die in battle? Wasn't that what her father kept saying? That all things in life were like the cherry blossom – flourishing so briefly and brightly, before being cut down by the winds of fate? Wasn't this the way of things, especially for their clan?
He had said nothing of the crippling, useless wastage of sickness and disease. Of watching someone lingering away into nothing, unable to move, where every shift of the chest was a battle for life all by itself. What kind of death was this?
'Mother?' she whispered. She spoke because she knew if she didn't, right now, she never would. She didn't want the first sound out of her mouth to be a sob. She didn't want start crying. Not now. Not yet.
There was so little response from her still form. Even her chest was barely moving. Fearfully, not certain what to expect, Sango touched her mother's hand with her fingers. The hand was cool, far too cool for a healthy person, but it wasn't the unyielding chill and rigidity of death either. The surge of relief she felt at this seemed utterly ridiculous to her, and inappropriate. Yet she couldn't stop this feeling that rushed through her.
'Mother?' she tried again, and that relief vanished in waft of realisation that her mother was far too weak to respond. Perhaps she didn't even know Sango was present at all. Sango bit her lip at that thought. 'Mother, I know you have to go away,' she whispered. 'So I made you this. I hope you don't mind.' She wrapped her mother's cold fingers around the object she'd been working on. 'The monk told me that when people go on long journeys, they sometimes take a pillow stuffed with twisted grass so the journey will be free from misfortune. I-I can't go with you, so please… please take this with you and think of me. Kohaku… Kohaku collected the grass. So please, think of him as well.'
She felt it, so faintly, a twitch of the fingers that lay underneath her own, a feeble attempt to grasp the pillow more tightly. It was an answer, she knew. The only one her mother was capable of giving, one that had taken the very last of her strength to give. Kohaku's sob at her side forced her to give up her grip on her mother to embrace him, but holding him felt strange, distant, as if they were touching through a sea of grass.
Her mother was dead. Why was she so calm?
The strangest wail broke through her thoughts. It was the keening of a tormented ghost, the grief known only to the hungry dead. Her grip on Kohaku tightened. 'Please don't cry,' she whispered. 'Mother had a kind heart; she's going on a good journey.'
The words were barely out of her mouth before she realised her mistake, before she realised that the sobbing youngster in her arms wasn't the source of the terribly cry. Nor was the source as bad as that of a restless ghost.
It was much, much worse.
She had found some comfort in the thought that, while her mother had gone, the suffering had ended. That she would no longer be a witness to the lingering collapse of a once powerful, vital being. It was only now, as she stared open-mouthed at the sight of her father – her father – crumbling before her very eyes that she began to realise just how wrong she'd been.
She had been so worried about her brother. She had been so worried about the consequences of a son's grief that it hadn't occurred to her to worry about the consequences of a husband's grief as well.