Disclaimer: I definitely don't own them…probably should be smacked (but not sued) for what I'm about to do to them…

A/N: If you were perfectly happy with the ending of 'Snowbound', then read no farther!

For all those diehard Sess/Rin romantics, who have been melting the tar and cutting open the feather pillows, this is for you…

Bouquets: to Nokomarie the Snake and Lady Rhiyana for helping with the final edit, applying swats with rolled up cyber-newspapers and dashes of humour as required. Thank you both so much!

'Mature' warning applies due to suicidal thoughts, rampant WAFF and citrus. You can blame anything you like on 'Al' the plot bunny, who came out of rehab blowing raspberries at the angst…

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Snowbound: Requiem for a Prince

April 1997 (three months later)

"Michikoto-kun, I have a project for you." I lifted listless eyes to regard my bosses' boss, who was taking up most of the opening into my cubicle with his bulk while holding a meticulously-wrapped package in his pudgy hands.

"Thank you, Sasaki-san. What is it?" I tried to inject some interest into my voice, but failed miserably. That didn't stop him from waddling over and depositing the package onto my desk.

"It is something a little unusual…thought it might appeal to you."

Might appeal to you…doubtful, but sweet of him to try.

Since that night on the island, my life was empty and dark. If I wasn't careful, or my room-mate less vigilant, I'd be part of one of those group suicide cults that seem to currently be the rage here in Japan. Don't frown at me. If you felt like your life had begun and ended on a single night, you might be thinking very dark thoughts as well.

Wait for me.

What did that mean? Next week, next month, next year, next lifetime? What if he didn't find me? I couldn't help think that if I was dead, I would be with him, and we could wait together for the moment of rebirth.

Chiyo, noticing my lingering glances, made a point of locking the knives away.

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On that horrible night three months ago, I'd stayed where I sat in the foyer until dawn, until I had no more tears to cry. The watery pale sunlight creeping over the crest of the ridge had turned the ice-like crystalline remains of my Prince to sparkling fire. I slowly stood up, stripped off my nightgown and used it as a shroud, scooping the piles of silver onto it, tearing off a strip from the bottom and dampening it to wipe up every last mote of his existence from the cold floor.

I folded the material and its rustling contents into a neat package, knotting the corners securely. Dressing quickly, I tucked the package into the front of my red jacket and headed out into the woods. I was taking him to The Glade. It was where we'd first laid eyes on each other, where he'd apologized for his attack, where he'd rescued me from the wolves; I hoped that the resident spirit would watch over him through the seasons to come.

I couldn't take him with me; he belonged here.

Crunching through the icy snow, I noticed that the buds were beginning to swell with the promise of spring, new beginnings…rebirth…making a mockery of my desolation. Reaching my destination, I stopped for a moment, looking up at the sentinel tree. A cedar, symbolic of sorrow…he would be safe here. I pushed through the drooping boughs, until I reached the huge bole of the trunk, twisted and deeply crevassed with extreme age. I found a place where the roots writhed around a deep indentation in the bark, and discovered that the bundle fit perfectly…as if it were waiting for this. I stayed for a long time, kneeling at the base of the tree, unwilling to leave him there alone…unwilling to leave when my soul longed to stay with him forever.

Wait for me.

The peaceful serenity of The Glade finally penetrated the stifling pain, and gave me the strength to leave. As I exited the enshrouding boughs, my eye was caught by a single silver filament fluttering in the breeze. A strand of the Prince's hair. Did he come here on full-moon nights, assume his human form, and commune with the resident spirit? Perhaps this was a final gift of The Glade… to prove that it hadn't all been a dream.

The house was very dark and empty that night. I locked myself in my room and awaited the dawn.

I had my luggage piled on the dock by the time Jiro touched down the next morning. His face was drawn and haggard; his co-pilot and three friends had disappeared without a trace after leaving Rikuzentakata by boat a few days before. I mumbled something sympathetic, then climbed up the ladder to sit in the cabin, determinedly looking away from the house and the ridge as he and his new co-pilot loaded the cargo. As we lifted off into the wind, I risked a final glance, then resolutely turned away.

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A page turned, then a whole chapter.

I moved out of my parents' apartment within a week of returning to Tokyo; I didn't even bother to unpack most of my stuff. Chiyo threw me a lifeline again; her roommate was transferred to Osaka, and I moved in. Her cheery presence helped with the first few weeks, when I moved slowly in a haze of pain, feeling like a deep-sea diver pushing my way through heavy water. The worst part of it was, I couldn't tell anybody what had transpired out there on the edge of madness, or they'd be locking me up in an asylum, so I suffered my grief in silence.

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A month after I returned, a large, heavy box was delivered to the apartment. It came from the owners of the house, and contained a very nice letter thanking me for taking such good care of the property, and an open invitation to do the same next year. I laid that aside, as well as the ball of bright-red yarn and one right-handed glove… and was surprised to find my entire collection of rocks and driftwood packed in the bottom. They must have cleaned up the foyer; a small item, tied neatly into a square of white silk, lay on top. When unwrapped, it proved to be the tiny, perfect-crescent clam shell from the beach that day. I sat very still, while the thundering waves of memory crashed through my head, making my heart bleed all over again.

That night, Chiyo helped me arrange the rocks and wood on a large bamboo platter and we put it in the living room. Later, in the privacy of my own room, I undressed, and unwound the silver hair from its resting place around my neck. Carefully, I tied the shell onto the strand, replaced it at my throat, and then cried myself to sleep, which is pretty much what I did every night.

Wait for me.

I won't say that I was suicidal all the time, but it wasn't far from my thoughts most of the time. I sat up on full-moon nights, shrouded in darkness in my room, replaying those four months, twirling the hair necklace like a rosary. A gleam of white glimpsed out of the corner of my eye made my heart pound erratically for an hour or more; a golden-eyed dog spotted while out for a walk tore fresh wounds in my soul. I compulsively collected sexy nightgowns that slid off my shoulders at the slightest provocation, but hid them from my roommate. If I could have taken up drinking without Chiyo catching on, I might have tried to numb the pain with sake. Depressed? Look it up in the dictionary, and you'll see my picture right next to the word.

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Once Sasaki-san trundled off, I waited a few minutes, then left the neatly-wrapped bundle on my desk and walked over to the water cooler. It was my favourite vantage point, because I could see out the windows to the adjoining park, where the flowering cherry and plum trees were in full bloom. The vista reminded me of the snow banks on the island, and soft white fur; with a pang, I turned away and went back to my desk.

I carefully cut the linen string holding the package closed, and folded back the expensive paper. Inside was a manuscript, by a Haru Tobashima, entitled 'Folklore of Japan'. I was entranced as soon as I turned the first page. Tobashima-san was not only a fluid and gifted writer, but was also an illustrator of no small talent. The first chapters covered all the charming, clever and somewhat dangerous denizens of Japanese folk culture; his writing had wit and humour. The final chapter was entitled 'Demonology'.

I couldn't breathe when I saw the first illustration. I instantly began to tremble, and my fingers fumbled inside my blouse where I carried the strand of his hair, thrice-twisted, around my throat.

It was my Mountain Prince.

The line drawing, done in ink, captured him perfectly in a few detailed strokes. A gusting breeze swept his long hair back and rippled the white fur of the pelt worn over one shoulder, streaming the long sleeves of a formal kimono behind him. He wore two swords at his hip, an armoured breastplate and looked towards the viewer with calm, slightly arrogant confidence. The cheek stripes and the crescent moon were carefully delineated; I lightly ran my fingertips over him, and then I noticed the neat kanji of the title.

Sesshomaru.

I whispered his name, and closed my eyes. Sesshomaru.

Yes, this project definitely appealed to me.

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Two weeks after taking on the book project, Chiyo unknowingly helped me either strengthen or loosen my grip on sanity, depending on the way you looked at it. On our lunch break, she invited me down to her department to have an extremely unauthorized preview of a new manga series being published. It was called 'InuYasha' and featured various creatures from Japanese folklore and myth. The title character was a half-human, half-dog demon, and his brother was…I nearly spilled my tea all over the artist's proof…Sesshomaru. He looked just like the drawing Tobashima-san created; he was arrogant, disdainful of humans and in the early going, spent most of his time trying to kill InuYasha. His demonic form was a giant white dog…

I know I went pale, and began to rub the shell pendant to calm myself down. Chiyo didn't notice; she was chirping away at how interesting it was, that I'd been given a 'serious' project based on this exact subject matter. Through the internal static caused by my mind melting down, I heard her say that another character joining the series later on was a little girl named 'Rin', whom Sesshomaru raised from the dead with his magic sword after a fatal wolf attack.

She thought this was a hilarious coincidence, that I was a 'Rin', and I would be 'following' Sesshomaru around to make sure the book was published. Yeah, a real laugh riot. For the briefest second, I almost blurted out that I had recently followed Sesshomaru around and been saved from wolves by him, but wisely bit my lip and gave a strained smile instead.

I puzzled my way back to my desk, and agonized over this revelation of Sesshomaru's 'true' personality until I gave myself a tension headache. If Sesshomaru hated humans, allegedly, what the heck was he doing in my bed back on the island? Had he really been that cold-hearted and uncaring at one time? I had trouble reconciling that image with the loyal creature that I knew without a doubt loved me, to the extent of losing his own life in order to protect mine.

Okay, he had attacked me the first time he'd seen me, but he'd more than redeemed himself, wouldn't you say?

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November 1997

I declined the lodge owner's offer of another winter on the island; nope, not going to do the horror-movie standard scenario of woman-living-alone-in-remote-locale. I'd lucked out by having my own private security-demon on hand the first time, and was fairly sure that I wouldn't be that fortunate again.

Besides, I know I would have killed myself if I'd stayed another winter, surrounded by memories of him.

I heard from Chiyo, who was still dating the contractor, that although their boat had been eventually found washed ashore on an island well south of their last known position, the bodies of the co-pilot and his buddies were never located. I wondered what the Prince had done with them, and decided that I really didn't care. Cold-hearted? I don't think their intention was to challenge me to several rounds of shogi while sipping herbal tea.

The first snowfall of that winter tore open all the scabs that had tried to form over my heart. I was already in bed when Chiyo flew in, all glitzed up from her night out clubbing, burbling that it was snowing, which is an extremely rare occurrence in Tokyo. She twirled across my room and yanked up the blinds, revealing soft, fluffy flakes drifting against the glass…and a crescent moon gleaming. I knelt on the floor, staring out at the snow…and came as close to ending it, to escape from the yawning chasm of despair, as I ever did again.

Wait for me.

Even if it kills me?

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August 1998

After repeated invitations from the owners of the island, I was finally pressured into visiting it for a long weekend. What backed me into a corner was the fact that Chiyo and her boyfriend (now fiancé) had been invited as well, and that made it all nice and cozy for the trip up. Chiyo had urged me to allow her to invite one of her fiancé's friends along too; what is it about the newly engaged that makes them want to pair everybody else off? Could you imagine her response, if I told her that I was saving myself for my one true love's reincarnation?

I do so love those nice white coats with the really long arms that cross over the front and tie in the back…

When I phoned to cancel a Friday meeting with Tobashima-san to look over the proofs of his book, of course he asked me why I needed to reschedule. When I told him that I was going to visit the island as a guest of the owners for the weekend, he chuckled softly. "A wonderful opportunity to reacquaint yourself with what you left behind…enjoy yourself, Rin-kun, and I will see you on Tuesday."

If that statement doesn't define 'cryptic comment', I don't know what does.

The trip up was fine, beginning on a warm summer morning and ending at dinner time on a long evening under the stars. Jiro was happy to see me again; he looked older, and Chiyo's man whispered that he'd never recovered from the disappearance of his former co-pilot two Februarys ago.

The house looked the same from the dock, except that all the chimneys were lit, as they had elegant swirls of pale smoke floating above them. I stood with a lump in my throat looking up at the stark granite face of the ridge, trying not to cry in front of everyone.

Coming here was a mistake.

I could feel the cracks in my heart bleeding gently again. Damn.

Ducking my head, I silently followed a laughing Chiyo as she headed up the gangway, arm in arm with her man, until we were met by the house owners on the pathway…at nearly the spot where the Mountain Prince had intervened in the confrontation with my attackers. I managed to nod and bow politely without completely collapsing, and then was startled when the aristocratic owner embraced me like a long-lost daughter before leading me up to the house.

Entering the foyer was the hardest part. I half-expected to see him sprawled out across the dark slate, his white fur stained with blood. I had to take a very firm grip on myself to walk normally, not scream, not faint. As from a great distance, I heard the lady asking if I had displayed the driftwood and rocks that they had sent…and mercifully, Chiyo answering that yes, the arrangement looked lovely on our living room table.

I had automatically turned toward the curving corridor which lead to my former quarters, when a chorus of good-natured laughter stopped me. The lady gently took my elbow and guided me towards the stairs, chuckling. "Not this time, Michikoto-san. We have a guest room ready for you." Well, of course I wouldn't be sleeping in the servant's quarters…duh. I was immeasurably relieved that I wouldn't have to sleep in the same bed that I had shared with him; maybe this wouldn't be too bad after all.

And pigs just might take flying lessons.

Chiyo and her fiancé were shown into the room on the water side; the lady opened the opposite door for me. "We thought that you would enjoy this view of the ridge, Michikoto-san…it is especially lovely at night, under a full moon."

I managed a nod; my eyes were beginning to dampen with unshed tears. She regarded me with old-knowing eyes and then she smiled mysteriously before bowing out of the room. I stared at the now-closed door for a few moments after she left.

What the hell was that all about? It was kind of creepy.

Shaking my head a bit, I took a deep breath and forced myself to walk over to the window and look up at the ridge. A slightly different view as that from the master suite, but similar enough to bring tears to my eyes…again. At this rate, I'd be wringing salt water out of all my clothes by the end of the night. The arrival of my overnight bag in the hands of a smiling staff member veered my thoughts onto a safer tack, and I readied myself for dinner.

Late that night, which of course was the full moon, I sat on the windowsill and relived the past. The ache in my heart was a dull roar in comparison to what it had been before, but it was still there.

How long would I have to wait?

After breakfast the next morning, the owners suggested that I show them my favourite spots on the island. Staying as far away from The Glade as possible, I took them down the path to the sea-viewing platform, and then along the shore on a brisk hike. After lunch, nearly everyone begged off any more sightseeing in favour of naps and chatting by the fire, which was burning due to the chill in the deep shade, even in mid-August.

I wanted…no, needed…to go to The Glade by myself. I hoped that the spirit there would be able to touch my soul and help me find peace… I could also sit with my Prince for a while. Letting myself out quietly, I headed towards the spot where the faded flagging yarn trembled in the breeze, and turned into the bush. Searching among the underbrush, I was able to locate the opening without too much trouble. My heart was hammering by this time, my blood surging loudly in my ears. I took a deep, steadying breath, and stepped into the space, waiting to feel that calming, tranquil magic.

And stopped dead in shock.

The sentinel tree was destroyed. Half of it lay awkwardly across the ground, twisted and broken; the other half still pointed skyward, but on a drunken cant. Broken branches littered the clearing. My feet moved without my prompting, carrying me closer to the destruction. The wood was blackened and charred; a faint, harsh-tasting scent hung on the air. The closer I came to the trunk, my heart wedged itself more firmly in my throat. A lightning strike had torn the tree apart, the wood cracking and tearing and burning…right down to the scorched spot on the bole where I had placed the Mountain Prince.

My legs gave way, and I plopped down in a graceless heap.

Wait for me.

The magic was gone…was he, as well?

I didn't stop crying for quite a long time. Finally, I pushed myself to my feet, wiping at my eyes, my breathing ragged, and decided to walk out to the viewing platform and back, to give my eyes a chance to become less puffy and red.

I stumbled away from the tree, from my hopes and dreams, but paused to torture myself with one last look. A warm breeze ruffled the trees surrounding The Glade; I felt it brush over my damp cheeks like a fingertip caress. I sighed heavily. My hair rose on the currents, as the breeze became a strong wind whirling around me, a near-tangible embrace.

I almost believed I was being held by strong arms, and then…the breeze sighed past my ear.

I almost believed it whispered just a little longer....

But then I'd have to believe that I had completely lost it.

The breeze died away, and I staggered through the bush back onto the flagstone path, then out to the shore overlooking the empty Pacific, where I sat until I was thoroughly chilled and saturated with ozone. Making my way back to the house, I met Chiyo and her man, ostensibly looking for me, but taking some time to smooch on the benches along the path. They carried me in to dinner on their laughter, and I managed to keep up with the conversation. Once or twice, I had the distinct impression that the lady of the house was watching me keenly, as if she knew what had happened out there in The Glade.

Now I was becoming paranoid and delusional. Next I'd be hanging around off-leash parks, chatting up the dogs. Only the big white ones with yellow eyes, of course.

After dinner, I stood in front of those enormous windows in the living room, thinking about the first night that the Mountain Prince had entered my dreams, and then nearly crying again when I thought of the destruction of The Glade. I was so far gone into my thoughts that the lady of the house was able to slip up beside me without my noticing. I jumped, badly, when she cleared her throat. "Your soul is heavy, Rin-chan. Do not fear… believe."

I stared at her, flustered by the use of the familiar in how she addressed me, never mind the strange insinuation that she knew my thoughts. She smiled, and held out her hand to me. "You need to heal…please allow me to help." I eyed her hand like it would bite me, but instead of backing away, I slowly reached out and allowed my fingertips to touch her palm.

That same sensation of peace and contentment as before…as from The Glade-that-had-been…stole over me. My eyes fluttered closed, and I swayed slightly. I was dimly aware of her arm going around my waist and her cheek leaning against my forehead. I don't know how long we stood there like that, but at some point her husband arrived and awakened me from my stupor with a hand on the shoulder. Totally startled by all of this physical contact from what were essentially complete strangers, I knew that I resembled a deer caught in the headlights when his fingers lifted my chin.

He had ancient eyes. "You are very patient, Rin-chan…stay strong in your heart." I blinked at him; he smiled and let me go at the same time his wife released my hand. I backed away from both of them, bowed…and fled.

At the curve of the staircase, I glanced down on them as they murmured together. Who were they? Cryptic comments, soothing touches…but I had to admit, my heart did feel a bit lighter, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from my soul. We left the next day with an offer from the owners to visit again; I was able to thank them graciously with an almost-genuine smile plastered all over my face.

I doubted that I would ever come back. My heart was too fragile.

Tobashima-san said nothing at our meeting on Tuesday, just smiled at me in a most annoying and somewhat knowing way.

Refer to previous comment about delusional paranoia.

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April 1999

"Congratulations on a job well done, Rin-kun."

I turned to face the speaker, and bowed, smiling widely. "I had wonderful material to work with, Tobashima-san…it was a pleasure." My favourite author bobbed on his heels, a broad smile lighting his features. We had become quite friendly over the course of the publishing process; I had spent more than a few long evenings in his study, pouring over his work notes and asking questions about Japanese demons, dog demons in particular.

Tobashima-san was an odd little fellow; squat in stature, blessed with bulbous eyes and a quirky personality, but he had a kind heart. He'd noticed my particular area of interest, and had devoted himself to ferreting out more information on Sesshomaru for me from his extensive collection, so that now I had a fairly good grasp on the creature that had enchanted me. However, I still didn't trust anyone with the knowledge that he actually existed…he was tucked up inside my heart, and it didn't hurt so much now to have him reside there.

When I knew Tobashima-san better, I asked about the capriciousness apparently displayed by demons, using the situation of the 'Rin' character in 'InuYasha' as the example. He told me that many creatures of folklore displayed this strange two-sided behaviour, condemning some of those they encountered to instant, painful death, but the next minute sparing or even protecting a potential victim, driven by some kind of whimsical impulse. Tobashima-san maintained that this was an essential component of their magical nature, and emphatically demonstrated that they could not be judged by any human standard.

I had to agree with that last bit. Sesshomaru's lovemaking was way off the scale I'd experienced with my ex-husband…

I also worked up the nerve to ask if Tobashima-san had any ideas as to how long the rebirth cycle for a dog demon might be, or even if they reincarnated at all; he cocked his head on the side and gave me a very odd look. Before I could blush and duck my head and try to cover up with some muttered excuse, he reached over and patted my hand. "I don't believe it is the same as for a human, but there's no sure way to know, is there?" His words were spoken calmly enough, but there was a bit of a twinkle in his eye.

We were enjoying the launch party put on by the publishers; Tobashima-san had been very patient with the photographers, but had impishly told the interviewers to ask me any questions relating to demons, as I had become a bit of an expert in the area since coming on board with the project.

At the end of the afternoon, as the party was winding down, Tobashima-san stepped up to me, a beautifully-wrapped package ornamented with a sprig of greenery under his arm and a wide smile. "A gift for you, Rin-kun, to show my appreciation for your efforts on my behalf." He handed me the parcel, I blushed and bowed my thanks. Just as he was about to leave, he stopped and looked me dead in the eye. "A word of hope, Rin-kun…believe." And then he whisked out the door and was gone, leaving me deeply puzzled.

When I arrived home, still baffled by another one of Tobashima-san's trademark cryptic comments, I opened the gift. It was a beautifully framed, hand-coloured version of the drawing of Sesshomaru in the book. When I held it up to show it off, after Chiyo stopped squealing in appreciation, she noticed the inscription on the back. " 'Believe.' What does that mean, Rin-chan?" I could only shake my head. I then noticed that the greenery embellishing the packaging was cedar fronds…my heart lurched painfully.

Later, I propped the picture of Sesshomaru against my bedroom wall and ornamented it with the bit of cedar, where I could see him before I went to sleep, and as soon as I woke up. As I lay in bed that night, I wondered if Tobashima-san knew something that I didn't, but I dismissed that wild thought as soon as it waved cheerily at me.

Wait for me.

I was thirty-one years old. I had to get on with my life.

The next afternoon, I skipped a meeting and went for a walk in the park beside the company offices. Families and couples were strolling among the heavily-perfumed cherry trees; the blossoms were falling like snowflakes. I stopped at a vantage point, where jagged chunks of granite had been set to mimic a miniature landscape. The coating of fallen blossoms indeed gave the appearance of snow. I closed my eyes and my fingers hooked into the silver necklace; I rubbed it tenderly.

The long-unfelt hair-raising sensation jolted me. I froze, my heart beginning to thunder, my breathing ragged. Slowly, I pivoted in place, looking, fearing, hardly daring to hope…

No big white dog, or better yet, tall silver-haired demon in sight.

Puzzled, I scanned the area and the people carefully.

But…how could I have possibly mistaken that sensation for anything else? Feeling very shaken, my mood ruined, I trailed back to work.

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I arrived home from the office late that night, feeling rather tired and out-of-sorts; Chiyo was already gone, leaving a note that she had to meet with the caterer. Great. Alone again. Seemed to be my fate.

Riffling through the mail, I found a note from my parents. It was the usual veiled litany of complaints about my life and how I was choosing to live it…if you call this living…followed up by a healthy dose of parental guilt for not visiting more often. Once a week was about all I could handle right now, quite frankly. Looking for quick comfort, I eschewed any of the healthy food in the refrigerator in favour of a container of ramen, but in a concession to Chiyo and her concern over my well-being, I included some fresh fruit with my meal. While I ate, I perused the newspaper and did my best to forget about the sensation that had unsettled my heart and my day.

It had been three years. I'd just made the decision that I had to turn my back on all of those hopes and dreams…and pow! I was hit by a memory out of left field. Sighing, I left most of my noodles uneaten and then, casting about for some busy work, began to tidy the already pristine apartment, which only took about half an hour. I was standing in the middle of the floor, feeling aimless, when my eye fell on the arrangement of rocks, driftwood and shells on the table. My feet pulled me over to it; I contemplated it for a moment, wondering if it wasn't time to dispose of it, and truly move on, instead of hanging onto the symbolic past like a child afraid to let go of a cherished stuffed animal and step across the line towards adulthood.

I had just picked up one of the wave-tumbled rocks, feeling its smooth silky texture in my fingers, when Chiyo sailed in the door, bubbling about appetizers and desserts and napkins, and I replaced the stone to join in her happiness, although my own heart was clenching painfully. We were interrupted by a knock on the door, and she sprang to answer it, while I went to the kitchen to put on the kettle for some tea.

"Um, Rin-chan…a package has arrived for you." The odd way she said package caught my attention, and I turned around as two uniformed men deposited a rather large, square, woven-split-bamboo container equipped with old-fashioned carrying handles in the centre of the floor. They bowed politely, retrieved the clipboard from Chiyo, and were gone. I hesitantly rubbed one foot against the other before crossing the space and joining her in examining the beautifully-made box, gleaming with lacquer.

"Was there a letter, or anything with it?" She handed me a beautiful envelope adorned with elegant kanji. Tiny, perfect red maple leaves floated in the translucent paper, and it was sealed with an aristocratic chop mark. With Chiyo peering over my shoulder, I carefully opened the flap and withdrew a heavy card outlined in more tiny hand-drawn maple leaves.

We regret the long wait; know that your patience has been appreciated.

I looked at Chiyo; she looked at me, then we both looked at the container. I put the letter down on the table, and knelt in front of the box. Toggles made of carved wood secured it down the front on the side opposite the hinge, and I struggled to push them through the twined loops. Just as the flap came open, I heard a soft whine, and something pushed against it from the inside. I scooted backwards, suddenly nervous, my heart instantly in my throat.

After an agonizing moment, the door swung open…and a half-grown pup tumbled out.

I was too stunned to move as it rolled up onto its rather large paws and shook itself in what might have been irritation, its fluffy white fur still looking rather mussed. Straightening its lanky body in a very non-puppyish way, it raised its head…and yellow cat's slit eyes locked on mine.

My mouth dropped open. The dog gave me a rather old look and sat down on his haunches as regally as possible, curling his long tail around himself. Chiyo started to squeal in delight at the anonymous gift…isn't he adorable…how romantic…you must have a secret admirer… and he winced as he glanced her way.

Living proof that the gods have a sense of humour.

I guess it was too much to hope that he'd be old enough to pick up where we left off…well, you can't have everything.

He'd returned to me.

Biting my lip to keep from giggling at his obvious disgust with his gangling new form, I smiled brightly and held out my hands. The pup promptly fell over his paws; I scooped most of him into my lap as he grumbled in an annoyed fashion. I kissed the centre of his forehead, right above his eyes, and gently scratched his ears while smiling at him. His tail waved; those yellow eyes softened, and a pink tongue swiped my cheek.

"Look at the size of those feet, Rin-chan…he's going to be huge."

I smirked into his fur. Girl, you have no idea….

"What are you going to call him?" The pup regarded me with an aloof expression; I swear he arched an eyebrow.

" 'Prince', of course."

"Oh, come on…how about something cuter, like…'Snowflake'?" The pup bared his teeth and growled fiercely at her. I soothed him with a kiss on the nose, which promptly made him sneeze.

"I don't think so. 'Prince' suits him just fine…what do you think, my love?" The pup held my eyes for a long moment, and then dipped his head slightly. I hugged him, and then carefully set him on his feet. He was definitely not impressed with his new body and his lack of control over it. I secretly agreed with Chiyo…he was 'adorable'…but I'd never say that in front of him.

A few hours later, after enduring Chiyo's good-natured attempts to change my mind about his name and me scoffing heartily at her girly suggestions, he followed me into my bedroom and watched as I closed the door. I unrolled my futon and arranged the bedding; he stepped onto it as soon as it was ready and settled down on one side. I eyed him. His tail was curled back on itself, the tip lashing gently, his front paws crossed elegantly at the joint, his yellow eyes almost challenging me to make him leave. He abruptly appeared an awful lot less 'cute', and a whole lot more 'predatory'. I wondered if the 'don't touch unless touched first' rules were back in effect, and realized that there was a very great deal I didn't know about him… having him here, and taking up space on my futon was suddenly overwhelming. Biting my lip, overcome by the hollow feeling in my stomach, I collected my nightgown and left to change in the bathroom. A low growl sounded from behind as I opened the door, but I went anyways.

I paused to study myself in the mirror, and decided that for someone who should be all starry-eyed because their Prince had returned, I actually looked pretty nervous. Stop it, dammit! I shook my finger at my reflection. Isn't this what you've wished for? I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and tried to think positive thoughts, but there was no getting around it. Having my memory made flesh and looking me in the eye was making my stomach twist when my heart should be fluttering in anticipation.

When I re-entered the room and turned to close the door, I locked it with a sense of finality. Whatever happened was destiny, right? I hung my clothes in the cupboard, smoothing the fabric, conscious of his eyes burning holes in my back, took a deep breath, and turned around trying to smile confidently. I blinked. Something was…different about him. He lay in exactly the same position on the futon, gaze intent, but he appeared somehow larger, more as I'd known him before. I stared at him, my brow furrowed, while I considered this. My Prince gravely observed me…and then his eyes narrowed, and he 'woofed' softly, a definite command to come here. Hesitantly, I walked around the side of the futon, and sat down on the edge, giving him a view of my profile as I folded my hands in my lap and tried to control my nervous thoughts.

The bedding rustled as he stood up and moved closer, until I could feel his hot breath on my skin, even from beneath the thin fabric. I closed my eyes, then felt teeth gently grip and tug, pulling the wide neckline off my shoulder. A sharp nose nudged my hair away from the side of my neck, and then a tongue lightly trailed from my earlobe down to my collarbone. My heart rate sped up…and then he stopped, his breath puffing across my chest. I opened my eyes as large paws, larger than I recalled from his arrival in the apartment, straddled my hips, and I was nearly nose to muzzle with him, but he wasn't looking at my face. His attention was several inches lower, at the base of my throat.

I frowned, studying him. How on earth did he suddenly become tall enough to look me in the eye, when I'd held about half of him on my lap only a few hours before? This was…odd. I realized he was looking at the crescent moon shell, and probably the silver strand holding it. I touched it lightly, then cautiously reached to touch the soft fur of his ruff. "It kept you in my thoughts…I-I've missed you so very much." That was the truth; I'd missed him, but was completely overwhelmed that he was alive, in my apartment, and apparently intent on seduction. Before the potential ramifications of that thought could unsettle me any further, he lifted his gaze to mine for a moment, his eyes unreadable, then slowly, very slowly, he lowered his muzzle to touch the shell.

There was a frisson, an electrical shiver, and then the bones under my hand shifted and changed, and abruptly I was caught in slender arms and clasped against a strong chest, silken hair filling my vision. I was too stunned to react as he pressed me down into the futon, his weight settling over me. His bangs brushed my chin as he tasted my pulse, his tongue tracing the curve of my breasts, making me very much aware of exactly how long it had been since I'd been so intimately touched. Finally, he lifted his head to look me in the eye, a smile gently quirking his lips, and his other hand tenderly caressed my cheek, his lethal claws curled away. My heart nearly forgot how to beat, as my soul was instantly recaptured.

"Rin."

His voice was deep and throaty. I opened my mouth to ask him how why what but he bent his silvery head and kissed me in a way that made my thoughts spin and dance like leaves before a spring wind. He tasted like winter storms, mossy glades, summer seas and frozen moonlight. He tasted like magic.

When he let me breathe, I reached up to stroke the stripes on his cheeks, run my fingers into his hair.

"Sesshomaru." The light that shone in his eyes when I whispered his name thawed and evaporated the last of the icy pain in my soul. He kissed me again in that possessive way and then closed his eyes, leaning his cheek into my hand. I admired the beautiful markings on his eyelids, traced pointed ears, a slender neck, lean muscled shoulders and arms, was aware of a feeling of complete contentment as well as relief stealing over me. I pressed my hand to his chest, feeling his heart thumping steadily. He opened his feline eyes and we gazed at each other for a long moment.

A million questions raced through my mind, a hundred emotions on their heels.

"How…"

He pressed a claw to my lips, shaking his head. After a pause, I nodded, and then he kissed me deeply and thoroughly, at first gentle and then more intense. All the sadness and hopelessness that had darkened the past three years burned away in the bright flames of this reality, this moment in time. Ignited by his touch, intoxicated by the caress of skin and fur, I opened up to him, wanting to feel those sensations that only he could invoke, that had been so painfully lacking in my life.

Good thing Chiyo is a sound sleeper…

Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ

My eyes didn't want to open the next morning, and my body didn't want to move, either. I was warm and relaxed and so very content. A deep vibrating thrum rumbled against my back; my eyes popped wide open as I registered that I was naked, I wasn't alone… and then I remembered.

He'd found me.

Now what?

A long, slender arm, striped in red at the wrist, stretched out across the futon from under my cheek; its similarly-adorned fellow curled around my ribcage and the claw-tipped hand lightly cupped my breast. A waterfall of silver hair cascaded over my waist and hip and pooled on the sheet…and a soft white length of fur draped over my thigh, the tip twitching.

I had never woken up in his arms before. My heartbeat sped up.

Where do we go from here?

Chiyo knocked on the bedroom door; I jumped, ready to spring up and answer it, but was instantly pulled back against a strong chest and gripped tightly, a light growl making me shiver. From somewhere in the back of my mind, I blessed the fact that I'd had the foresight to lock the door.

"Hurry up, Rin-chan, or we'll miss our train!" Chiyo was Miss Punctuality in the mornings, and being twenty seconds late to the platform was a major issue. Somewhat distracted by the growling, I had to think rapidly to concoct an excuse.

"Uh…I have to take 'Prince' for a walk anyways, so go on without me. I'll catch a later train and make up for the time I missed on the weekend."

"All right, Rin-chan…why don't you just call in sick today, so you can spend some time with your dog?" I blinked; Never-Miss-A-Day-Chiyo was telling me to play hooky? I should get off the futon and take her temperature…

"I…I'll do that…"

"You worked so hard on that book that you deserve an extra day off. I'll tell your boss that you have a slight cold when I get in to the office…don't bother to phone. See you later!" I listened to her footsteps crossing the apartment, and then the click of the outer door being locked. Exhaling slowly, I turned my attention back to the fact that I was in bed with a demon…and while he'd stopped growling, he was still rumbling in a cranky sort of way. I brought up my hand and lightly traced the stripes wrapping around his wrist, and noted that the sound coming from his throat changed in pitch.

Dealing with him when he was supposed to be just a figment of my imagination suddenly seemed a whole lot safer than this reality of a living, breathing, fanged and clawed creature wrapped possessively around me. Granted, those fangs and claws were a part of him, and he was oh-so-gentle with them while he pleasured my body…but how on earth was I going to explain him?

Something had happened in a very definitive way last night, both before and after he touched the shell pendant. I had a feeling that he was not going to revert back to canine form in the dawn…I squinted at my clock next to the bed. Sure enough, it was already morning.

My parents were just going to love this.

My panicky train of thought was derailed when lips gently kissed the skin just below my ear, and that purring sound, which I well remembered from when the Prince felt particularly content, vibrated against my body. Trying to ignore the sinking feeling that pooled in my guts, I cuddled backwards into the warmth of his body, and he responded with a low growl and an even closer embrace.

Tilting my head back, I smiled up at my demon lover, and reached up to stroke his cheek markings. Our conversation last night had been wordless, made up of caresses and emotions that had overwhelmed me again and again. He observed me through his lashes, a faint smile on his lips. I squeaked when he rolled me over, his hair sweeping over his shoulders to veil us from the world. "Once more, my Rin, and then we must say goodbye."

I went into instant wide-eyed panic. "G-goodbye? B-but…"

"Shhhh…all will be well."

Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ

It was midmorning before I came out of the shower and found the exquisite kimono and contrasting obi laid out on my futon; Sesshomaru was nowhere in sight. Wondering, I knelt and touched the rich material. It was as beautiful as the elaborate furisode that I had worn as a twenty-year-old, the silk heavy and thick. I heard voices outside the bedroom door; the deeper tones I instantly recognized, but…there was something familiar about the other as well.

I jumped badly when the door opened, and Sesshomaru loomed. His eyes narrowed slightly when he saw I was still wrapped in a towel…I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I had half expected him to revert into canine form, or disappear at any moment…instead, his tail was coiled up over his shoulder and he was dressed in very traditional kimono and hakama. I opened and closed my mouth several times, but no sound came out. A small smile quirked his lips.

"It is time."

I stared at the closing door and bit my lip. The compulsion to obey him, borne of lifetimes of doing so, was too strong to resist. Moving as quickly as possible, I tied myself into the three layers of cotton and silk, knotted the obi in the back and pinned up my hair. I folded up my bedding neatly and then sat and looked at it for a few moments, trying to organize my thoughts.

Sesshomaru was wearing clothes that he certainly hadn't found in the apartment, there was someone else out there with him…and apparently we were going somewhere.

I had to tell someone.

I pulled a pad of paper out of the box next to my radio, found a pen, and began to compose a note that I hoped would sound plausible when Chiyo had to read it to my family and co-workers. I didn't want her to think I'd committed suicide…not after all this time…but rather, that I'd decided to quietly drop out of sight. I might come back, or I might not…I did not want them to worry, or come looking for me. I thought I might be leaving the country…

There was a firm knock on the door. My hand paused in mid-hiragana; I looked up to see…Tobashima-san? The squat little man smiled at me. "Good morning, Rin-sama. What are you doing?" I gaped at him, not comprehending; he came in to look over my shoulder and read the note, nodding his head in approval. I was still staring at him, the pen dangling from my fingers when he patted my shoulder and scooped up the picture he gave me at the book launch. "Hurry and finish…we must go."

My brain finally caught up. "G-go? Waitaminute…sama?"

His bulbous eyes twinkled and he made shooing motions with his hands. "Yes, my lady…now hurry up. Sesshomaru-sama is impatient to return home."

That stopped me cold. "Home?"

"The very last of Sesshomaru-sama's ancestral lands." He arched his eyebrows at me, obviously expecting me to figure it out.

Click. "The island."

"It is a long trip, as you well know, and the car is waiting."

Something else occurred to me; I jabbed a finger in his direction. "Hey, just a second…you…this…you knew but didn't…"

Tobashima bowed deeply. "It has been my very great honour to protect you until Sesshomaru-sama was able to return for you. It was good fortune that the lightning bolt struck the tree; that, plus the meticulous care you took in gathering all of his remains, sped up his regeneration quite dramatically." Nodding briefly to me, he walked out into the apartment.

Regeneration. Realization dawned, and I hurried to sign my note and leave it on my rolled up bedding. He waited for me by the door, a silver and white statue; I rapidly crossed the room and grasped his sleeve, looked up into gently amused yellow eyes. "That…that was you…that day in The Glade…" I breathed, recalling that particular memory with almost painful clarity. He curved his arms around me, drew me close to his heart.

"I only had enough strength to whisper; for that, I am sorry."

I nestled against his chest, and felt a kiss on the top of my head. "More than forgiven…can we go home, please?"

Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ Ψ

May 2006

"Your parents have finally declared you legally dead." I marked my page with a piece of ribbon and sat up slightly in order to peer around his arm; he was perusing a Tokyo newspaper in the bright morning sunshine flooding our house-top bedroom. The textured face of the granite ridge was still in shadow, and the whitecaps surged and chased each other on the restless sea.

"Any kind words about the dearly departed?" I asked, my voice heavy with sarcasm.

"Apparently you were a model daughter, and only disappointed them by disappearing without explanation; they have arranged for prayers at a prestigious shrine in your memory."

"Once again, I'll die twice in one lifetime…" I smiled up at him, and reached to tuck a few stray silken strands behind his pointed ear; he caught my hand and pressed kisses to my fingertips, watching my reaction with intense hooded eyes. I blushed lightly pink and stroked his cheek markings, then pulled my hand away and turned back to my book. Peace descended, but only for a few moments.

He gave me a side-long look, his eyes glinting. The newspaper was tossed with a flick of his wrist, my book dropped over the side of the bed. "Hey! I'll lose my page…" I protested, reaching after it. I was stopped by long-fingered hands running lightly up my thighs, tracing my hipbones, piling the soft fabric of my nightgown back onto itself, claw-tips lightly prickling my ribs. I looked at him over my shoulder; his hooded eyes glowed, then an arm snaked around my waist and pulled me backwards into the red-ribboned cradle of his hips.

Lips mouthed the crook of my neck; fang-tips lightly scraped as his tongue lapped up the side of my throat to my ear, his body curling around mine, his hands cupping my breasts.

"Remove this…I wish to feel all of you." His husky purr sent a shiver up my spine, and I shrugged the flimsy garment over my head. He pulled it away from my fumbling hands and it joined the book. I rolled onto my back, smiling up at him, stroking my hands up his muscled arms, over his shoulders, down to his narrow hips. He quivered under my touch, and then he trapped me beneath him at the same moment as he kissed me very thoroughly. Skin slid against skin, caresses lingered, ribbons of silver flowed over our bodies and off the side of the bed to coil on the floor. Fur softer than a whisper brushed against my leg.

Making love with him was even more enjoyable when I was wide awake and an active participant. On those long-ago snowbound nights, he had been afraid of my awakening when he pleasured me in the dreaming hours, afraid that I would reject his truth, his reality. My trusting acceptance of him as my protector, my companion, even my bedfellow still did not assuage his fears. Not until that final, devastating night did he give in to his desire for me to see him in his most familiar form, so that he could know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my soul recognized his.

We had spent the last seven years making up for lost time, and still couldn't get enough of each other.

His body shifted, slipped deeper into mine, and I sighed into his skin. His breath was hot against my ear while we moved together, his soft growls counterpoints to my whispers. Soon, too soon, the spiralling coils of pleasure tightened, wound tight, so tight…and then exploded into white lights behind my eyelids as I bucked helplessly against him. He picked up his rhythm, and his primal growl rumbled as his body shuddered in my embrace. Slowly, he collapsed, panting raggedly into my throat, his claws flexing against my flesh.

Our breathing gradually steadied, and then my Prince lifted his head to flash a rare, dazzling smile. I brushed his damp bangs away from his crescent moon and traced it with my fingertip, then cupped his face and drew him down for a lingering kiss.

"My lord…my lady? Breakfast is served," called a familiar voice from the other side of the door, and the latch rattled, as if the speaker intended to enter. There was a lightning-fast movement, and my book, along with a ferocious snarl, was flung at the door. I snickered, listening to the sounds of rapid retreat of our most devoted retainer.

"I should have eviscerated him centuries ago," he rumbled testily. I soothed him by gently rubbing his back, until the tension left his body. He carefully withdrew, and rolled over, tugging me along with him to snuggle on his shoulder. I draped my arm across his abdomen and hugged him awkwardly; he kissed my forehead. A contented thrumming rose from deep in his chest, and my thoughts drifted.

I was secure in the knowledge that this house, and this island, would be our home for many of my lifetimes to come. His family's retainers had gained power, influence and wealth, and created this sanctuary of sorts, and we spent our days much as we had in the past, enjoying life's simple pleasures. He no longer rose to the lure of conquest; since there wasn't much call for demonic warlords any more, that was probably a good thing. If he felt the urge to slaughter something, well, the wolves on the surrounding islands provided challenging outlets for his aggression.

We had everything we needed; my eventual death would only start the cycle over again, when he would have to send out his servants to search for me throughout Japan, to bring me home.

In another thousand years, perhaps, it would again be his turn to die in my arms, and I knew that I would patiently wait through the turns of the seasons, the cycle of life to renew our bond, as steadfast in my devotion to him as he has ever been to me, no matter our form or appearance.

With the Mountain Prince's strong reality encircling both my body and my heart, I smiled into his chest, and drifted off to sleep.

finis