Summary is from The Cry of the Children, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
A/N: Much of recent canon. Beware spoilers, particularly that one that I have a fondness for dwelling on of late, "Light," or 465.
No, No! Go from me. I have left her lately.
I will not spoil my sheath with lesser brightness,
For my surrounding air hath a new lightness;
Slight are her arms, yet they have bound me straitly
And left me cloaked as with a gauze of aether;
As with sweet leaves; as with subtle clearness.
Oh, I have picked up magic in her nearness.
To sheathe me half in half the things that sheathe her.
No, No! Go from me. I still have the flavour,
Soft as spring wind that's come from birchen bowers.
Green come the shoots, aye April in the branches,
As winter's wound with her sleight hand she staunches,
Hath of the trees a likeness of the savour:
As white their bark, so white this lady's hours.
-Ezra Pound, A Virginal
There were gaps in the terrain of her memory. Sometimes she'd stumble upon them; take a step expecting solid ground only to slip and fall, helter-skelter, down the uneven slopes of the forgotten, until bruised and shaken she would find—nothing.
But sometimes she felt the fault lay with the body. Memory resided in the scent of wet leaves, the first draft of cooler air fluttering up the legs of her hakama, and maybe, once, the warm breath of a lover on her lips.
Such a pretty word, that. Once. It can almost take her back.
Once there had been something so beautiful it had made her weep. Now there is only the dull smoke of far-off cooking fires to make her eyes remember watering. Once I saw your face clearly, but now I strain through glass and darkness... Yes, there had been glass, then. The temple window, a luxury. Inuyasha broke it when he stole the jewel. But there had been a time when it was whole.
Had she gazed at him, put her face to the cold glass unflinchingly, only to exhale and watch his image fade into her frosty breath? Had he, pretending to be lost, happened to gaze back at the temple's shadowed window with its slowly dissipating patch of exhalation and wonder?
Yes, it had been like that.
There was a time when she had loved him with all the power of her untainted heart, and her every desire had ended on his name. Once.
But that was easy. Death couldn't erase that passion, and cremating fires stood no chance against that burning ecstasy of love she had branded her soul again and again with. It wasn't that which she was trying to remember.
No. This lay in the details. Greasy hair. Roasting sanma. Washing blood from her undergarments by the light of the setting sun, her fingers frozen to the bone. There, somewhere. Something important she had missed.
Inuyasha was there that night, and not there, the way he always was. Dancing on the edge of the village, on the edge of her imagination. Forbidden but not forgotten. And she remembered something that had to do with him, and didn't.
"Winter is coming so early this year, isn't it?" Spoken to herself, because her fingers are stiff and sore, gripping the edges of the book long hours in cold air. The trees are bare, the night has come early, and Kikyou is not sleepy. If she is to remain in the temple all hours, she might as well read the scriptures there. She isn't very interested in them. A thousand ways to become pure, and not one to sully oneself. She supposes the authors assumed that everyone knew how to get filthy, but Kikyou is different. She hasn't even figured out the trick of the most chaste kiss upon the lips of the boy she loves.
She knows that he is watching her; she can feel his golden eyes on her skin, though the window reflects only her candlelit room. As if she believes herself utterly alone, she slips her gi off one shoulder, the revealed nipple standing suddenly erect in the chill. Gooseflesh crawls up her arm, and she turns her face aside, as if in penance.
No, winter wasn't early. Its season had arrived. She had been quoting someone, an acquaintance from bygone years.
"The snow," a voice said, inside her temple-memory, "is falling. Though green leaves are still on the trees, snow is falling."
And in that moment, if Kikyou recalls correctly, she had fallen too.
Green leaves, a memory of light that did not exist. How was she to know that it would come back to her, in a muddy stream with ice just beginning to lattice the surface, holding her teeth grimly together to keep from chattering, with red maple leaves stuck to her skin? In these moments when she should be most pure...
That day, summer died not with the slow decline and death murmurs that recall the encroaching feebleness of old age, but with a sudden snap like Hyacinth slain by the discus.
That day, morning had not truly arrived, and dawn did not break. Instead, they woke inside a dream world, where snow had only just begun to dust green leaves and flowers in a silvered, fairy light. Tsubaki had been out in it before the sun had even begun to rise behind the storm, when the clouds hung luminous and pink, without even so much as a lantern. "It brings its own light," she told Kikyou when the younger miko-in-training had woken to see what draft had been blowing in her window and had found cold powder between her toes and Tsubaki with her tongue sticking out, gazing into the sky. "I don't need any other."
So she'd thrown on such clothes as she had, and wrapped a blanket around herself, and they played in the snow until their skin became wet and red and swollen. They went inside and held one another's hands, so they would not scratch at the warming frostnip. "The world's gone mad," Kikyou said. Tsubaki's hair had been covered in snow and green leaves—hers too—but then it melted and they pulled the leaves out, and Tsubaki was only Tsubaki again, and it would be a long time before she saw Tsubaki's hair touched once more with any frost.
So winter, in the end, truly is like old age, Kikyou thinks. And I, I am stuck forever in this false spring, unable to revisit the winters of my bygone youth.
All this, she saw, the moment she breathed on the windowpane. "Although this time, it is only my breath."
Kikyou can laugh now at this foolishness. "Only breath. Oh, what I would give for warm breath now. You treasure not what you have, innocent girl."
And the Kikyou-that-was looks at her out of the past, known as only herself can know her, her eyes dark and imploring and accusing, and says, "I treasure it. Every golden breath."
Tsubaki had gripped her arm once, terrified. "You'll die, Kikyou."
And Kikyou, with that knowing smile that had indeed treasured every breath. "We all die someday."
Had she ever wished for it? A mundane life? Never, she thinks fiercely, as she recalls the terror of seeing Inuyasha, of lowering her bow, of reaching her sanctified hand out to touch his tangled hair. The joy of it. I never wished for such a thing.
Had she not, after all, sunk into cold, muddy water where he could watch, whispering prayer after prayer of purity as the silt curled between her toes, searching the bright but heatless sky for his shadow? When she held her breath and pulled her head underwater, had her head not spun as though she were drowning, and had the jewel not floated above her?
She'd needed to wash, and heating water was not easy. It was winter, and she was young and foolish.
That day, too, like all days, had had an ending. The storm had spent itself. They stood ankle-deep in snow, and Kikyou had said in amazement, "It isn't even cold."
She remembers it most when the other side of her gi slips away, and there is only the jewel to burn on her breast. The empty blackness of the window watches her, a monstrous, unblinking lover. Her hair is greasy again and her fingers are burned from holding them too close to the candle, trying to counter the cold.
And that day, she recalls, in the memory of a memory, a wish by a shrine maiden that had naught but wishes left, Tsubaki had said:
Always so heartlessly beautiful.
Will you not relent in this?
Will you not be ordinary,
For the sake of my soul?
The storm hung yet overhead, but not on the horizon, and the setting sun came through to them, summer sun beneath a snowcloud, light as golden as plum wine and at least as heady. They danced and spun until their fingers slipped through one another's hands, and Tsubaki kissed her on the lips.
Not love but a game, for they were people incapable of tainting one another, and so immune to love. Kikyou remembered not the feel of Tsubaki's lips, which was fleeting, but the sigh afterwards, warm breath like the reflection of air breathed on glass.
Kikyou laughed. "I cannot be ordinary, not while I live and breathe."
"Then you must not love either, or you will be destroyed." A prophecy, not a curse. How often Kikyou had forgotten that. "And I, lofty Kikyou, will certainly not be so foolish as to love you."
"Ah, and who are we, to speak of love at all."
Then later: "We all die someday."
"How can you say that, when it was you who scorned love to begin with? Have you at last become 'ordinary?' "
Tsubaki, she thinks, you seem almost jealous. But he would also be jealous, if he knew that when I look at him, being unordinary, being unable to take him into my arms, I fall into thinking of the only time I was ever kissed. He would envy you that.
And so. Memory is the domain of the body, not the mind. What her ears can no longer hear, and her fingertips no longer trace, these are forgotten forever. So Inuyasha she remembers, she remembers that night in the candlelit room, but how can she remember remembering?
All until that moment when he presses her lips against hers, and her body says, of course. We have kissed at last, Inuyasha and I, Kikyou thinks, and the world has not ended. Perhaps I am 'ordinary' after all.
But against her lips he does not sigh, rather he hitches back a sob, and she remembers that she is dying.
"It's cold," Kikyou says, lost to the past. "Winter is coming early this year." Even though the frost is really past due, and the days have been shortening for some time now.
"Do you remember it, the winter we spent together?"
How could he forget? Her lovely face in that barren land, how she held her door open for him in the blizzard, snow entering the room but dying at the hearth, how she had kissed his frozen toes that time when he ran for miles to meet her? He tells her so.
"Back then, the nights were so cold my head ached in the mornings and my neck was always stiff. I remember that, finally. The ordinary details. And I am at last..."
Oh, like how snow can be smelt weeks before it falls, in that particular foreboding tang in the clear autumn air, so the miko know when Death is at hand. So Tsubaki had watched Kikyou in the cold water plastered with red maple leaves and said for no one's ears to hear, "Snow is falling, though the leaves are still green on the trees, for Kikyou is in love," and so, when Inuyasha lay dead beneath her arrow, Kikyou had wrapped her arms around him and the first snowflakes had fallen, though summer was in full blaze.
Kikyou smiles, though it is tempered by pain and cold and knowledge as inevitable as the first scent of snow. But it is a real smile nonetheless.
"At last, I am warm on these cold nights."