A/N: So, it belatedly occurred to me that it might have behooved me to put some kind of warning on the previous chapter. The latter half could, in the eyes of some, be deemed offensive and risqué. So, I'm going to warn you now…

WARNING: The previous chapter contains sexual situations and crude usage. If you are offended by mentions of ERECTIONS, BONERS, BONER COMMITTEES, MORNING WOOD, DISTENDED VEINS on ERECTIONS, ROBOREOUS PRODS, PENISES, or CUDDLY EXCHANGES in which PENISES are RECOGNIZED, shield thine eyes! Thank you.

I certainly hope you all feel safe and de-scandalized now. I know I sure do.
"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."
-Isaac Asimov

On this morning, cued by a bulbous sun rising into a clear sky, painting the pallet purple and crimson, the ice began to melt. In trickles, the frigid stuff laid down in the battlefield where it had waged a vicious war against the mounting temperature, waving a white flag that the sunlight promptly devoured and urinated out. The morning symphony, no longer the wailing bassoon of the wind, was now the gentle percussion of water dripping and icicles shattering as they lost purchase on the awnings and plummeted to the ground. But icicles had known their fate when they were first drafted; they knew long before signing on that they were kamikaze fighters and that their most glorious moment would be standing, or hanging, tall against the climbing sun for one beautiful instant, giving the orange orb and obscene gesture, and then acquiescing with as much honor as they could muster while growing damp with fear.

The snow had put up a damn good fight, had conquered the land with it all-encompassing regime where squirrels hid in attics and wrote in diaries, leaves preferred to shrivel up and die instead of endure, and any liquids were stopped and asked to produce their papers. The birds had flown south, seeking freedom from the reigning regent and Her torturous tendencies, but they waited every day for word from their underground connections of the coup d'etat, of a time when it would be safe to return home. And for a terrifying span of days, it seemed as though it would never be.

However, Creation had a secret weapon hidden in the entrenchment of the horizon, waiting for the right moment to jump out and win his territory back from the oppressor. And on this morning, Earth, fettered and starved in the dungeon below the ice, cried out in indignation and desperation, and Her lover heard Her. Like any good partner, Sun came to Her rescue, and with one strong, hot sweep of His hand, freed His mate from the shackles of Winter.

And the promise of Spring was upon them, fluttering just out a reach and surveying the area for a place to land. The battle was won, the adversary defeated, and Earth let out a long sigh of relief. Now, trudging the uphill climb of liberation and reconstruction, She wept with joy.

Sesshomaru could hear Her, laughing and sobbing, and his bitterness roused him with a rough swat to the pride.

Already, patches of ground were showing through, stones poked their gray heads up to see if the coast was indeed clear, trees began to shake off their disguises to reveal the strong bodies they had hidden in fear of being considered a threat. All the while, warm light streamed down without shame or hesitation.

What a happy time this should have been. Spring was typically considered a season of celebration for those who had actually survived the winter. Their jubilation was not without weight, though, for along with festivities for the living, there was mourning for the dead. Like the Earth, they laughed and they cried. But, Earth would be the first to tell you that no experience is worth having if one cannot both laugh and cry upon its conclusion.

The Demon Lord, poised at his window, watching Earth and Sun cuddling together in his garden, was one again reminded of how much he detested the spring. Perhaps it was from decades spent sitting separate, observing the merriment and the sorrow of others in which he could not participate. There was no place in Sesshomaru left for giggles and tears. It had long ago been filled with parchment, blood, and expensive silks.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that he had been born in the spring that embittered him; the infant foliage was quick to remind him that he was one year older.

He would be three hundred and seventy-eight this spring.

Three hundred and seventy-eight winters endured. Three hundred and seventy-eight springs ignored. Three hundred and seventy-eight summers tolerated. Three hundred and seventy-eight autumns wasted. Wasted. Wasted. Wasted. Three limbs left. Two human females too many. One furious pseudo-mate probably plotting his castration in the night. And nothing to show for surviving his three hundred and seventy-eighth year.

He could feel himself atrophying.

Earth was still joyous. She looked like She was going to start singing. Sesshomaru let out a warning growas though something as significant as Earth would heed a threat from something as insignificant as he. He hated spring.

Sesshomaru found himself in the great hall, not bothering to toss glances at the servants who clumsily dropped their work and bowed deferentially to him. His steps were soft and quick, sounding as though he was in too great a hurry to actually touch the ground, and he chose to, instead, hover frictionless and merely skim the tatami when necessary.

Sesshomaru found himself in the garden, his feet sinking silently in the weakening snow and splashing puddles angrily out of their way. His right hand, his only hand, rested on the hilt of Tokijin, savoring the feel of his greatest tool, his prized negotiating tactic, and his undefeated strategy. In this world of Springs and humans, Tokijin was like a doorway, a picture frame containing a glimpse into what made him great.

Sesshomaru found himself on a covered veranda, staring at a reinforced sliding door, closed to keep the waning winter out and the hesitant heat in. And angry Demon Lord would have slashed through the door, shattering it to splinters just because he could. And annoyed Demon Lord would have thrown the door open loudly, announcing himself in hopes of inspiring fear in his prey. But what of a resentful Demon Lord? A Demon Lord who had endured more than he ever believed he would deign to? A Demon Lord who, upon a quick review of all of his sufferings, had found what he believed to be a deep root in the orchid of his shortcomings? This Demon Lord would have slipped in silently, the hushed hiss of his sword being drawn from its sheath the only sound. After all, the key to the perfect hunt, the secret of the swift kill was the element of surprise.

Sesshomaru gripped the handle of the door and slid it open soundlessly and quickly enter, aware of the cold air and the rousing effect it might have on his target.

Sesshomaru found himself standing in a bedroom, diffused sunlight from a shuttered window at his back casting his blurry shadow over the futon at his feet. Down the narrow, disdainful avenue of his nose, Sesshomaru's gaze traveled. It cut a straight path through the chilly, still air and found purchase on the slack face of his sister-in-law.

Phantom sensations shot down phantom nerves, causing a phantom left arm to ache with phantom pain. He scowled at the stirrings of his doppelganger limb.

Never before had anyone had the audacity to insult him so. She publicly disgraced him with her presence. Every thump of her fragile heart was another affront. Every twitch of her parted lips was a slur. Every step, every word, every thought was a direct offense against him.

Tokijin purred in approval as he pulled it free from its sheath. He could feel it pulsing with pleasure, excited to taste flesh once more. Sesshomaru tightened his grip as though to say, "Patience, my pet."

The human stirred, her shoulder tucking up closer to her cheek before falling limp once more. Her little hands tightened on the cover pulled to her chin as she murmured something unintelligible.

And Sesshomaru found himself hesitating.

His single hand, the companion he treasured more than he would ever admit, was defying him. Around Tokijin, it clenched until his already pale knuckles turned white. It heard the Demon Lord's commands, but would not heed them.

Sesshomaru would have growled but refrained, reluctant to endure the shrill screams of the female should she wake. He glared down at his right hand, trembling from the force of its grip. Under that stare, even his most contrary servants, who were few and rather short-lived, would have crumbled and obeyed. But not his hand, his confidant, his trusted advisor.

By definition, it is an advisor's responsibility to give advice. Those lucky enough to earn the esteemed rank must be wise and shrewd, perceptive and discriminating, respectful yet assertive. They must know when to offer counsel and when to step down, and at that moment, Sesshomaru's hand thought it was appropriate to voice his opinion.

It was dishonorable to kill anything in its sleep, it said. Even the lowest, foulest creatures deserve the opportunity to defend themselves or at least escape; however, the prostrate human at his feet could do neither whether she was awake or not, so would it be safe to assume that it did not make a difference is she were asleep?

Oh, but it did. At least, to Sesshomaru's hand and now his sense of dignity it did.

He scowled at the human for being too helpless to be killed as he shoved Tokijin back into its home. He could hear the sword whining in protest, so he gave the hilt an assuring squeeze. It would get it long drinks of blood. But it would have to be patient.

Sesshomaru turned and exited the building, feeling pleased with himself for conserving his dignity while also fuming at his infuriating pride for being so damn honorable.

But no matter, Sesshomaru thought. He could wait. Once she was awake, he would kill her.

Tokijin giggled.
Kagome awoke to something tickling her nose. Thinking it an insect, Kagome swatted her face with the grace of someone one part present and three parts elsewhere. When the tickle persisted, she passed her palm over he face while sucking through her nose her morning mucus.

This sensation, it seemed, was rather persistent.

Kagome finally huffed dramatically and sat up, smacking her innocent nose with such bleary aim that her cheeks and forehead received a bit of the attack as well. It was only after the barrage on her countenance that Kagome discovered the culprit to be a strand of hair. Pinching it between her fingers, she pulled it away from her face. As she was about to toss it away, her encrusted eyes noticed something odd about the intrusive little hair.

"What?" Kagome asked out loud as she scrubbed her eyes with her free hand. Confined in the press between her thumb and forefinger was a very long, very white hair.

This was certainly not hers. Not was it Kouga's. It could not have been Rin's either. For a moment, Kagome's stubborn imagination entertained the thought of a ghost, more tangible than the run of the mill specter, hovering over her, watching her in her sleep, perhaps caressing her cheek while she slept and accidentally dropped a long, silky strand from its beloved scalp.

Kagome frowned and shook her head slightly. That was a stupid thought, and she resolved to push it aside.

She watched the hair for a long moment as though waiting for it notice her and offer a stammering plea for pardon before scurrying off to breakfast.

Had it not been for her state of slow waking, the mystery of the hair would have been solved much faster; however, since of the wrinkles of deduction in Kagome's brain were still slapping the snooze button on her Circadian Rhythm, she required a full minute to realize what this slender, silvery trespasser meant.

Kagome sat up very straight and drew in a quiet breath as realization struck her: Sesshomaru had been in her room while she was asleep. The hair had not been there the night before; had it somehow found its way to her person during her altercation with the Demon Lord, it could not have lingered through her bath and change of clothes before she had retired.

But why… why would Sesshomaru be in her bedroom, close enough to shed on her face, while she slept?

This was… terribly unsettling.

A quiet rustle of silk from behind her made Kagome jump and gasp in surprise. She flung herself around, still gripping the hair, to see a petite female, donned in the uniform of all of Sesshomaru's servants. The female youkai, russet haired and violet eyed, knelt by the door with a folded kimono before her knees. Her face was young and unadorned, bearing the deliberate void that seemed to frequent the faces in the Palace of the West.

"Good morning, my lady," the youkai said with a respect that clearly was only skin deep.

"Good morning," Kagome replied, too shocked to really think of anything else to say. "Uh…" Despite the mountains of irk Kagome had piled up, just itching to be vomited all over the next disrespectful bystander, Kagome was not fond of being rude. She feared, however, that there was no polite way of wording this. "What are you doing in here?"

"Lord Sesshomaru asked that I dress you this morning, my lady." She bowed her head slightly.

"What does he want?" Screw being polite. Kagome was too apprehensive to care.

"He did not deign to explain his reasons to a lowly servant, my lady," replied the female. "He is awaiting your arrival, my lady. I must ask that we begin."

It might have been more satisfying to cross her arms over her chest, stick out her lower lip, and refuse to humor Sesshomaru, but Kagome's fuzzy mind agreed before her sleek ego could initiate a reaction.

Kagome and the servant rose to their feet in time, and the youkai began her assignment. From beneath the folded kimono, she removed a cream colored nagajugan and carefully unfolded it. Removing her sleeping kimono, Kagome could not help but notice the servant's furtive eyeing of her green, cotton underwear. That was one part of the modern era that Kagome would simple not forsake. She had given up bras when she had found that her mate had been more prone to ripping them apart than patiently unhooking them, but not the panties. Oh no, the panties were not going anywhere.

With the servant's careful and rather unnecessary aid, Kagome donned her layers, all bound together with a simple, narrow obi. Kagome felt rather formal in what had originally appeared to be a simple kimono but was now clearly a furisode.

"Why am I dressed like this?" Kagome asked, looking herself over. She had to admit, it was a beautiful furisode: an earthy green embellished with embroidered maple leaves in coppery threat, sleeves that hung nearly to the floor, heavy, high quality silk. She had never worn anything so fine.

"Lord Sesshomaru wished it so," was the servant's reply.

Kagome huffed. She should have been used to the carefully vague answers she got from any of the help around the palace. "All right," she replied a little tightly.

"He is waiting, my lady," the servant prompted. Kagome expected the other female to turn and guide her out of the room, but the youkai merely stood with her hands clasped before her, watching the human.

"Uh…" Kagome began. "Where is he waiting?" She felt foolish under the gaze of a youkai servant who seemed to be insinuating that Kagome had missed a rather conspicuously posted memo.

The servant feigned a smile that was thin enough for Kagome to see through. "In the garden, my lady," she replied, gesturing toward the door.

"Oh, I though he would be in his study or library… or something." Kagome's response faded when the servant just continued to smile that artificial smile. "Okay," Kagome added, feeling her senses tickled by the youkai's presence in a way that toeing the precipice of a canyon might. Those lilac eyes, as hidden in shadow as the craggy bottom of the chasm, remained still, unblinking and unwavering. She looked as though she knew something that Kagome did not, that Kagome would definitely want to know.

Unable to endure the strange stare any longer, Kagome lifted the trailing hem of her furisode and brushed past the servant without a word.

The air on the veranda felt much lighter, much less dense, and Kagome drew in a long, appreciative breath. However, her relief was short-lived. Her eyes fell on the main source of her apprehension, sitting atop a tall decorative stone with his legs crossed and folded and his eyes closed. The Demon Lord appeared to be meditating.

He looked strangely serene, perched motionless amidst the waking garden. The breeze touched him only gently, clearly just as anxious as Kagome was about contacting him. His face, a medley of cold planes and hard edges that Creation had not bothered to sand down, was blank and slack. He was a scroll, smooth and white, waiting for a brush to pass, to paint an expression across its vacant expanse.

Kagome was reminded of his snarl, his fangs revealed and creaseless visage marred with the wrinkles of rage. She shivered, for as grateful as she was that he was not wearing that face now, his void expression held a great deal of potential. And it was certainly more likely that the first strokes across his page would be bellicose than friendly.

Feeling awkward in her finery, Kagome stepped into the pair of shoes provided and off her veranda. She trudged through the gathering slush, resigning her poor hem to the mud. With her hands completely inaccessible in her long sleeves, she had no choice. She would have winced had her face not been paralyzed with anticipation.

Sesshomaru remained still. Kagome knew he could smell her drawing closer. She was making enough noise, squishing inelegantly, for him to notice her. With every step, Kagome cringed inwardly. She hated being so artlessly human.

But there is nothing I can do about that, Kagome told herself without conviction. Somehow, that simply made it sting worse.

The Demon Lord looked like some kind of idol, a statue erected to the god of heartlessness, a monument for the goddess of cold. Only the gentle swelling and sagging of his sleeves and hair betrayed his existence as something animate.

"Sesshomaru," Kagome endeavored, pleased to hear that her tongue was on her side and rooting for her by not tripping over itself in the most human of ways.

He opened his eyes slowly, revealing the Spanish galleons beneath his lids. He was silent and watched her for a moment that grew longer and longer until Kagome could feel it tying itself into a noose and hovering before her.

"Did you want something?" continued Kagome. If he did not do or say something soon, Kagome feared she would grow so tiny that she would disappear into the crunchy mud and drown.

His stare, unmoving and content to stay that way, was peeling her away. Kagome could feel layers falling off of her, revealing something tender and vulnerable underneath. She was naked in a field, and he was there with her. He had been a distance away only a moment ago, but not he was standing a breath away from her, holding her down with his eyes. He was leaning forward. He was speaking huskily into her ear. He was murmuring, "Your soul is showing."

In a flash of movement that defied light so sharply that she blurred with flustered indignation, Sesshomaru whipped Tokijin from its sheath. The sword sang with glee as it cut through the air on its way to the target: human throat.

Kagome stepped back onto the hem of her furisode and fell with a wet squish. Luckily for her, the Shikon Jewel that had taken up residence in her person had sharper survival instincts that she and triggered a barrier around Kagome before the sword could come close enough to do any damage. Reflexively, Kagome threw her arms before her face and recoiled.

A loud clanging sound reverberated through her ears so intensely that Kagome winced. When the nigh-inevitable pierce of steel did not arrive, she opened her eyes. The clanging sounded again and again, making Kagome recoil further and further. Through her narrowed eyes, she could see Sesshomaru, no longer blank but now glaring piercingly, hacking at her barrier mercilessly with a glowing sword.

After a quick recovery, Kagome lurched to her feet and took another few stumbling steps back. Again, she treaded on her hem and plopped to the ground. Sneering at her falter, Sesshomaru seized the opportunity and charged her, swinging Tokijin with practiced, and yet futile, grace. With each attack, his glower grew darker and darker.

"Sesshomaru!" Kagome cried, still shying away from his raging assault. "Stop! What are you trying to do?"

Sesshomaru thought that was rather obvious. "You were warned, human," he replied, staying his sword to speak.

"What?" asked Kagome; the adrenaline churning through every inch of her successfully turned her logic into tapioca pudding.

"Remove your barrier and die with as much dignity as you can, human," Sesshomaru commanded. He squeezed Tokijin, preparing his companion in blood for the bounty of his patience.

Careful to hold the abundant bottom of her furisode up, Kagome clamored to her feet again. "What have I done to you?" She took three trembling steps back. Sesshomaru took three imposing steps forward.

"Your existence is trespass enough," was his reply before he raised Tokijin again and took another chop at her. The barrier held.

Through the heavy curtains of fear and confusion, a rather useless notion occurred to Kagome. It could so nothing to save her or even level the playing field, but it was something solid to which Kagome could grasp, so grasp she did. "That's why you had me put in this ridiculous kimono! I can't move!"

"How astute." Even in his lack of cadence, his irony was transparent. "Be grateful that you will die in finery."

"And you make cracks on my dignity?" Kagome exclaimed. She was abruptly shoved back by the impact of Tokijin glancing off her barrier. Her heel caught her hem once more, but having practiced falling down enough, Kagome was able to catch herself before she fell.

"Silence human," snarled Sesshomaru as he leaned into Tokijin and pressed against Kagome's barrier. He cursed is single-limbed condition when he found himself poorly balanced even after all the years of reteaching himself the combat skills he had once mastered so well. He could not achieve the force he desired.

Red lined his eyes, and the urge to sacrifice his control for his full strength danced on the outskirts of his consciousness, beckoning him to the edge of his sagacity. Tightening his grip on Tokijin, Sesshomaru bit down the thought and willed his transformation down, down, down, away from the surface and back into its kennel cage.

"You are in no place to comment on dignity," said the Demon Lord before he withdrew his sword and took a single, broad step back. He stood strong, careful to keep his stance wide and sturdy should the human choose to foolishly attack.

"Neither are you!" exclaimed Kagome, pushing herself against the tree. Desperately, she willed her buzzing mind to focus. Plot, she commanded herself. Plot, or this'll be it. Sesshomaru was a walking mine field, and he did not seem open to revealing the path out.

With an internal kick that jumpstarted her survival instincts, Kagome saw an option. Darting to the right was her only possibility. Sesshomaru could not attack her right as quickly as he could her left; it was his only opening. It was not much, but evasive maneuvers are never implemented without a touch of desperation.

Seizing the opportunity to dash away, Kagome unconsciously dropped her barrier to slip by him. But Sesshomaru slipped faster. Even with his handicap, the youkai's attack was far faster than Kagome could have ever hoped to escape. Before she could get around him, Kagome looked up to see the blade, long and glinting in the newborn sun, descending on her.

What then occurred, neither Kagome nor Sesshomaru could have predicted.

Frozen in fear, Kagome watched the glistening blade slicing through the air toward her. Human instincts, it would seem, are only partially useful and even less practical in perpetuating the life of a human. Instinct told Kagome to throw up her hands to block the sword. Instincts convinced her that she could hold him at back with her bare hands. Instincts tricked Kagome into believing that she could somehow stop Tokijin. Luckily, the Shikon Jewel made it true.

Her sleeves slipped down to her elbows, revealing her shaking flesh.

Kagome's hands burst into a fiery blue light just as Tokijin slammed into her open palms, slipping into the fleshy cradle between the pad below her thumb and the rest of her palm. Her entire body was compressed by the impact, her elbows flexing, her knees bending, and her back curling, but her ignited hands held strong. She pushed against the sword and held the Demon Lord back.

Sesshomaru's eyes widened marginally when he found himself in a standoff with a twig of a human. His sword should have been slicing effortlessly through her forearms, cleaving her trunk in half. She should have been crumbling into severed flesh and bone, flopping into a muddy puddle of her own blood. But, it would appear that she was not.

She was holding Tokijin over her head. She was pushing against him. How dare she defend herself?

The human let out a whimper and squeezed her eyes shut as Sesshomaru pushed harder against her. Her joints were beginning to collapse under the force, and Sesshomaru felt the tingle of anticipation for them to finally fail. She bean to shake, slowly at first, but her trembling gradually grew so violent that Sesshomaru could feel the quivering of Tokijin in his fist.

"You cannot win," Sesshomaru said in a crisp voice, laced with the brutal glee of victory.

"I'm not trying to win," Kagome ground out, attempting to straighten her knees. She could not. "I'm trying not to die!" she exclaimed as her left knee gave out. Before she could falter though, Kagome torqued her torso just enough to change Tokijin's path. Instead of crashing down on her, Kagome redirected the blade in an arch, sending it into the trunk of the tree behind her with a resounding thunk.

The impact against the bole was enough to make Sesshomaru's hand sting. He gritted his teeth, ignoring the bone-shaking pain and jerked Tokijin from the wood. His momentary lapse was enough, however, for Kagome to dart around him and escape into the open garden where she could not be cornered.

"Then you admit your defeat?" Sesshomaru asked, slamming Tokijin into its sheath and furtively flexing his tingling hand.

"I can't beat you in a fight, Sesshomaru!" she shouted from what she assumed was a safe distance across the garden. The Demon Lord smirked. "Does that make you feel better? You can defeat an unarmed human who is in a kimono so big she can't even run away. Good for you!" Kagome threw her heavily sleeved arms into the air for emphasis.

Sesshomaru's smirk vanished. She was mocking him.

"If you are so resigned," he replied, icy enough to conjure memories of the blizzard's regime. "Then lay down your barrier and accept your death." From nowhere, Sesshomaru brandished a new weapon, the first weapon he had ever wielded. It had been a giftthe skill to manifest from his youki a luminescent whipfrom his father for his twenty-first birthday. For years, it was his weapon of choice, and now he only summoned it in times when he wanted to truly enjoy a kill.

For the love of intimidation, Sesshomaru cracked the whip just right of the human, making hr barrier flicker as she retreated with a yelp. He withdrew before she could recover and snapped the whip back at her. His aim, of course, was flawless, but the human's instantly erected barrier stopped him from victory once more.

She stood strong and dissident in the slush, her hands held out before her, palms pressed against the barrier around her while she consciously fed it her energy. "Try again," Kagome goaded. "This is an unfair fight, and you know it. But I'm not about to die."

She saw the Demon Lord's fangs appear as his lips peeled back from his teeth. He would not be taunted. With a severe snap of his arm and wrist, Sesshomaru cracked the whip against Kagome's barrier once more, causing the entire lattice-work of energy to tremble from the impact. But the human stood sturdy.

He attacked another time before bounding closer and assaulting her with more force. She withstood him, thought. It seemed no demonic attack could pierce her barrier.

With a furious growl, Sesshomaru allowed the whip to dissipate. He came to stand directly before Kagome and watched her with a face so cold, so motionless it made Kagome shiver.

"I'm not afraid of you," Kagome said, hoping she sounded convincing.

Sesshomaru chose not to waste his time replying to such a bold lie. His eyes narrowed just enough for Kagome to know that he could see through her easily.

When that avenue seemed to be closed, Kagome selected a side road and began that direction. "Why were you in my room while I was asleep?"

Sesshomaru paused. He had not recalled waking her, and he was certain no one had been alerted of his presence there. Her reasons for knowing were unclear to him, and he felt the flicker of self-reproach for not being more careful. Of course, had he just killed her in her sleep, he would have been spared the embarrassment of being discovered. Again, he reminded himself that he had refrained from ripping her viscera from her abdominal cavity because of his self respect, which was a very decent reason for doing anything. Unfortunately, his self respect was doing nothing to wipe the suspicious look off the female's face.

What exactly was she insinuating? He wanted to know.

He did not wish to tell her that he had chosen to let her survive until waking. She could perhaps misinterpret his actions and think that he had taken pity on her or had mustered up some compassion for her pathetic case.

He could feel his patience wearing very thin, and Sesshomaru knew the hindrance of her barrier would require the strategic attack of one focused and calm. The Demon Lord was not prone to admitting defeat, but he was not above giving his opponents rain checks, on in this case, nigh-encompassing frustration checks.

"Consider yourself spared for the time being," Sesshomaru announced anticlimactically before stepping around her and walking unhurriedly to one of the side doors into the main hall.

Somehow, that ending to their interaction did not feel right. How dare he walk away like that? Kagome wanted to spin around and scream at him. She wanted to demand an answer and then demand his reasoning. Why was he so damn angry at her? Kagome knew she had not done anything to him while he had been inexcusably neglectful of her. And where did he get the audacity to sneak into her bedroom while she was asleep?

While on this tirade, Kagome would insist that he disclose why he threw Kouga out. She had a suspicion that Sesshomaru had done it simply because Kouga was the only thing that brought Kagome any kind of joy. He certainly was not the deliverance from grief she had hoped he would be, and his stay with her turned out nothing like how she had anticipated. But he had smiled at her even when he was angry, and he had taken her misdirected abuse without retaliation. He had been exactly what she needed at the time.

In the back of the library of Kagome's mind, sitting in a corner illuminated only by a single desk lamp, was a young woman who had read all the self-help books and remembered what the therapists had said all those years ago when Kagome's father had turned in his library card and walked away with an armful of books never to be returned. This girl was logical and assertive and nearly always right, and she had a habit of, at the most inopportune moments, raising her hand. Now, she looked up from the library's dog-eared copy of The Vagina Monologues and told Kagome what she did not want to hear: Kagome was grateful Kouga had left.

The wolf had been wonderful, perhaps too wonderful. Grief makes people do foolish things, and Kagome discovered that she was not exempt. She would have gone with him. She would have resigned herself and sat down in the snow. Kouga was too familiar. He was too willing. And, worst of all, he lacked the foresight to see the repercussions of his actions. He could not understand that the girl he adored would flicker and fade away if she followed him, if she opted to chase a replacement.

But above all else was the undeniable knowing that would hold her for an unknown duration, the one thing on which Kagome and her bookworm conscience could agree: she was not ready to let Inuyasha go yet.

Kagome felt the beginnings of tears, but blinked them away. If Sesshomaru's reasons were truly rooted in the desire to cause her pain, she would not reward him with her tears. She would save those for a time when she really need them. However, she noted abstractly how good it would feel the sit down in the slush and cry herself dry. She was already muddy and wet and tired and hurting. Certainly swollen eyes and blotchy skin could not damage her appearance anymore.

But her appearance did not really matter that much to her; she could hold back her sobs for purposes that ran far deeper than vanity. She might have admitted defeat in battle, but she would not let Sesshomaru win this one. Her tears were hers alone. They were the only thing she had left.

Before turning around and heading back into her oversized residence, Kagome noticed for the first time that it was no longer snowing. The air was still chilly, but it was brisk chill not an icy chill. She looked down at the dwindling patches of snow with a weak feeling of triumph.

So the cold had not killed her. So she had managed to keep moving long enough to hold the snow at bay. That was one enemy defeated, and perhaps that meant she was one step closer to learning how to live with herself in the aftermath.

Of course, there was a great deal of mud between where Kagome was standing and the front door of her residence, and there was no natural hindrance better at holding a person motionless than mud.
She frowned and looked down at her long fingers, now slightly swollen and ruddy. She was from the islands. Cold did not suit her. Turning her hands over, she was once more reminded that her bronze skin was better adapted for the sun and the heat.

Sokkenai's nostrils flared in concurrence as she thrust her chilly hands into her sleeves. She found Winter to be the most stupid waste of time, and her opinion of those who bore it was even lower. There were, after all, lands where the baleful fingers of Winter never touched. Cold never drew pictures in the sand. Cold never climbed palms to pluck heavy coconuts from clusters nestled in fronds. Cold never laid in the sun until cooked golden brown and warmed to the core. Cold never visited Okinawa.

For all the reasons she thought Sesshomaru was a fool, Sokkenai certainly believed this to be amongst the top five.

And it appeared that number three, possibly number two, was darting around the garden below her.

Sometimes she wondered how he endured the shame. Perhaps it was the same way he endured the cold. He seemed to swallow it all in silence, never actually admitting his wounds and chilblains. But Sokkenai knew they were there. The few times he ever handled business outdoors during the winter, his hands and feet would turn bright red. As would his nose. (This characteristic Sokkenai found particularly hysterical. Imagine, if you will, a tall, impossible attractive and imposing male standing over you, launching a glare that would melt lesser beings. Now, picture this male with a rosy snout. Somehow, that simple addition of hue takes the edge off the entire thing. Let us take a moment to laugh at Sesshomaru's expense.)

Yes, he was silent about most of his woes, Sokkenai had found. There had been a time when he had not even voiced his displeasures concerning her, but that had been years ago. It would seem that once the Demon Lord reached the end of the Path of Tolerance, he stepped not so gingerly into the yawning fields of Expressed Loathing. He had a summer home set up near the border of Silent-treatment Territory and Snide-comments-during-sex-ville. When the weather turned cold, Sesshomaru would retreat to this villa more frequently. And she hated it.

Growing up on the sunny shores of Okinawa, Sokkenai had been a princess among her clansmen. From birth, she possessed a stunning beauty and was often paraded about or presented like a doll to the guests of her father. Her childhood was dedicated to learn the art of being feminine. She was a conditioned work of art. She was born into pulchritude. And, for a time, it was good. Superficial… but good.

But the slippery, pink dragon of growth slithered out of the cavern between her thighs and made quick work of the precious doll that was Sokkenai. Into her more formative years, she followed the dragon blindly, ignorant to the consequences of maturing aestheticism.

Sokkenai glared down at her lover and is sister-in-law, battling once more in the chilly garden. Had she known what it meant, had someone told her the price she must pay for beauty, she would have never stumbled along behind that cursed, manipulative dragon.

As with most females, Sokkenai discovered a sudden, warm wave of inclinations washing over her. She grew taller, more rounded in places. Her chubby cheeks leaned, and her childish pout metamorphosed into a seductive purse. She sprouted breasts like coconuts and grew legs like palm trunks.

By her fourteenth birthday, Sokkenai was already receiving marriage proposals.

By her fifteenth birthday, she had been raped twice.

By her sixteenth birthday, she had miscarried once and aborted thrice.

And by her seventeenth birthday, she had been shipped to the land of frozen winters and muggy summers to entertain and relieve the sexual frustrations of a male who seemed to suffer from impotence in all places but his bed.

Early on, Sokkenai had found her purpose in life. She had unveiled what gave her value in the eyes of others; more specifically, she found that she would never have another friend in her life. All females hated her. All males wanted her. There was no happy medium in the spectrum.

Lust and hatred are almost the same color. They are, after all, derived from the same catalyst: passion. They both sprout up from the same plot in the garden of afflictions of the free will and higher thinking. (What a dangerous and breathtakingly beautiful combination thinking and will can be.) One must feel a passion toward another person, a carnal drive so strong that it surpasses the boundaries of desire and saunters into the territory of lust. Compared to lust, desire is downright chaste. You desire a pet cat. You lust for your pool boy.

Hatred is dislike set aflame, and, as we all know, passion is the kerosene of emotions. Hatred is resentment whose shoulder was bumped one too many times on the subway train from one synapse to the nest. What drives exasperation to rage? Irk to homicidal tendencies? It is passion, of course.

But what exactly is passion?

If Sokkenai could answer that question, she would have harnessed the serpent of sexual potency years ago. But were the dragons of potency and satiety the same, or merely cousins?

Sokkenai pounded the railing with a trembling fist.

Red. Passion was red like roses. Red like sunsets. Red like thin skin stretched tightly across blood vessels and stimulated nerve endings. Lust was pink: the blush of a maiden eyed a little too closely for a little too long. Hatred was crimson: rouge smeared across an eyelid in hopes of winning back a prize that was busy ogling a flushed girl, fresh off the puberty boat.

Sokkenai knew red, in all shades from her plush lips to her purring pussy. She was red.

After so many years of long crimson days and even longer crimson nights, Sokkenai had learned to grudgingly yield to the things she believed beyond her control; however, she was not acquiescent. For every favor she dribbled over Sesshomaru, she expected him to pay. And when the stream of kimono and jewelry grew shallow all those years ago, the neko youkai had found something just as rewarding: the way Sesshomaru looked with a frostbitten nose.

She was owed that much.

Sokkenai wondered how she had become so cold. She was a battlefield in a blizzard. She was a fresh kill in the snow. She was ice stained red.

Yet somewhere beyond the wreckage, if you were to peel back the heavy vermilion curtains, if you wove your way through the snapping jaws of disillusionment and teenage nightmares, if you plowed through the mounds of bloody snow, you might have found a doll, sitting quietly on a shelf, smelling the roses and watching the sunsets.

Sometimes Sokkenai thought about killing her lover.

She scoffed. Like killing him would improve her situation. Like wiping the slate of the world clean of the thin, angular calligraphy of Sesshomaru would mitigate the weight of her fate… her fate to be beautiful and loathed and appreciated in all the wrong ways. Like slitting his stupid throat in the night would make her choices and abuses sting less.

No… but it sure as hell would make her feel better.

A loud, woody thunk interrupted her thoughts, and Sokkenai's gaze, where it had one slipped so gracefully down the bridge of her nose, tripped and stumbled over her distended nostrils. So appalling was the scene below her, Sokkenai felt a growl of protest caught in her the constriction of her throat. Her consort, the illustrious Sovereign of the West was pressed flush with that ugly human who was pressed flush with a tree. All this was wrapped snugly in the rounded envelope of a crackling barrier.

Sensing that she could not bear much more of that reproachful display, Sokkenai turned and entered her bedroom, her kimono swishing quietly at her ankles.
From the perspective of the balcony, the Demon Lord and the tree made quite an interesting sandwich of the struggling human between. In fact, their position appeared rather close, certainly closer than a dignified youkai and a human would ever be.

Sesshomaru agreed entirely even through the view from the balcony was incorrect. They were not flush with each other. He had the girl pinned to the tree with a clawed hand, her toes just touching the ground. The girl, on the other hand, had him in a place just as precarious. With the sparking barrier at his back—he had slipped in for the attack before she could react, successfully trapping himself within—Sesshomaru was just as pinned in place.

Kagome, glaring as darkly as she could, had one knee raised and planted in the Demon Lord's solar plexus. From that launch point, if she pushed hard enough, he could be shoved backwards into what would undoubtedly be searing injury.

With the girl about to be strangled and the demon about to be sautéed, they found themselves in a standoff.

How inconvenient, Sesshomaru thought.

"Remove your knee."

"Remove your hand, and I'll think about it."

No, that would not do.

"If I end your life now, your barrier will dissipate. You are at a disadvantage."

Kagome almost laughed. "If I push you into my barrier, you'll let go of me, and I'll be on my merry way. I think we're equally disadvantaged, Sesshomaru."

"I will not remain in this stalemate, human."

"Well, I'm not suggesting that you do." Kagome shifted uncomfortably, feeling rather awkward with her knee pressed to his gut. Of course, the claws at her throat did little to ease her discomfort. "Fine, I'll remove the barrier and you let go of me on the count of three. Okay?"

Sesshomaru did not agree. He merely stared at her, silently contemplating the sheer stupidity of her proposition.

"One," Kagome began, starting to think that maybe this was not the best of ideas. "Two," she continued with even less conviction.

Here it comes… any minute now…


And neither of them moved.

Somehow, Sesshomaru's blatant disobedience frustrated her. "Fine," she said tartly, glaring harder. "I can stay like this all day."
A/N: And they all lived happily ever after, appalled and pressed to a tree? Hmm… no… somehow I don't think it would work out like that. Ahem My sincerest apologies to my readers and reviewers alike. I have recently moved from the town of Kula to the town of Pukalani (Oh, how I love Hawai'ian names!) and it has taken an obscenely long time for my internet to get hooked up. I had to do things as mundane as pass my time at the beach or read a book! I actually picked up The Great Gatsby and am enjoying it thoroughly. Anyway, long story short (too late) I wasted away from lack of cyber-nourishment, but I'm back in the game and building up my strength once more! You're all great sports… of course to have actually endured my sometimes nonsensical and always verbose style this long into the story, you've all already proved your worth to me! I'm making you all little medals that you can hang over your computers.