Disclaimer: I don't own KnM, yadda yadda yadda, you already know the drill.

Author's Note: I apologize for the delay this time around... my inspiration has a bad habit of carrying me through a story and then abandoning me at the very last chapter. I hate writing last chapters.

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Chapter 18

"I love you
I have loved you all along
And I forgive you
For being away for far too long
So keep breathing
'Cause I'm not leaving you anymore
Believe it
Hold on to me and never let me go."

-Nickelback

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It's been two years since we became human.

The night after we howled for the last time, Miyako got into contact with her brother Girochi and filled him in on the situation. It turns out they've been keeping in touch (As in touch as a wolf and a human can be, I suppose), and when he learned about the hunt he offered us a place to stay. We've been there ever since.

As soon as we moved in with Girochi and held our human forms for the seven days and seven nights required to make us human, Tsubasa insisted on marrying Miyako 'the human way', as he so grudgingly put it. Miyako quietly pointed out that technically they'd been married as wolves, so he didn't really need it; but Tsubasa wanted their marriage to be legal in the eyes of any human who saw them together. And then, when that was all being arranged, Corona and Reiko decided they wanted to get married, too. So we had a double wedding.

We all settled into human lives well enough. Tsubasa went to work at the company Girochi owns; he's like his second in command or something. The two of them don't exactly get along (apparently there's some past history concerning Miyako's decision to become a wolf and Tsubasa losing his eye), but they get along, if that makes any sense. Jin and Shirayuki are both currently nine (by human standards, anyway) and they've become good friends. Shirayuki was adopted by Corona and Reiko not long after they got married, and she views them both as mother figures. Well… except for the fact that she calls Reiko 'Dad', but we all get a laugh out of it. And the way Reiko looks as a human, who can blame her?

Corona went back to her band and is now a famous pop idol; everyone who sees her on the street knows her name now. Reiko became a mangaka, and she's actually quite good at it; the first manga she ever sold was based off me and Chikane-chan, and it's a popular title even now. I think she called it Wolf's Moonlight.

Mako, Yukihito, and I all enrolled in high school; we're starting our first year at college now. Mako is hoping to become a track star—she's a truly gifted runner, and she told me once that it reminds her of her days as a wolf—but she's also studying in journalism and photography if that falls through (I doubt it, though… some pretty famous coaches already have their eyes on her). Yukihito's apprenticing with Tsubasa and Girochi at the international company Girochi owns. And me? Well…

I'm studying photography with Mako at the moment; it intrigues me, honestly, the ability to capture a moment on film and preserve it forever. I've been interested in it ever since I read that book while I was with Chikane-chan. Mako insisted that she took the course just as a backup if track fails her, but somehow I get the feeling she's just keeping an eye on me like she always does.

I have a health condition now. It's not really that serious, you know, but… I guess my lung never fully recovered from the damage of Chikane-chan's bullet, and then fighting Tsubasa right after that was just too much for it. It's not fatal or anything, every now and then I just cough up some blood when I'm not feeling well. The first time it happened after we became humans Mako panicked and thought I was dying, but I couldn't blame her, after everything she's been through…

She's gotten awfully close to Yukihito as of late, though. They're always arguing or teasing each other, and Miyako just rolls her eyes and says that it means they care about each other a lot. I hope she's right. I know Mako will always love Souma, but I don't want her to be alone for the rest of her life.

We also have a new pack mate… well, member of the family, since we're not really wolves anymore. Her name is Kazuko, and she's Miyako and Tsubasa's daughter. She's only two years old, she was born not long after they got married. According to Girochi, her name means "harmonious child". It fits; she's so young, but she never picks a fight with anyone, and she always tries to make people laugh and smile. It's nice to have a little one around; it keeps us all busy.

It's funny, but even now, I can't forget Chikane-chan. My feelings for her haven't changed in the least. I… I still love her. I'm still in love with her.

I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not…

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Among the trees, birds chirped softly, calling to each other as the gentle beams of light lazily broke through the branches. A quiet wind wafted across the clearing, stirring the grass and bringing with it a brief chill to distract from the general warmth of the day. Despite it, Himemiya Kazumi never once stirred from her sitting place, quietly twirling a flower between her fingers as the wind toyed with the black strands of her hair. She closed her eyes and smiled briefly as she let the flower fall from her fingers.

"Well, well," she murmured quietly to nobody in particular, "it's been eighteen years today since you died, Tsuki. I imagine it makes no difference to you, though." She leaned back, bracing her hands behind her to support her body as she gazed up at the sky with midnight blue eyes—the same eyes her daughter had, the same eyes her adopted sister had somehow possessed.

The grass felt faintly warm against her fingers, most likely from the sunlight, and tickled her skin. "You never were one for time," Kazumi continued. "You just grabbed the moment with both hands and lived for it." She laughed briefly. "I'm amazed, honestly, that Chikane's Himeko is related to you at all. She's so different from you, but I guess that's just the generation gap. Still… I bet even you never imagined that her human form would be the spitting image of your beloved Orihime."

There had been some things, Kazumi mused as the wind blew by again, that she would never really know about Tsuki. But there was still plenty that she did know, as well; or, at the very least, suspected.

"You know, you're one of those people whose gut instinct is always right. And for someone like me, your little sister, that's extremely annoying."

Even now, she could recall the indignant tone a then twelve-year-old Tsuki had used when she'd said this to her sister, who had been thirteen at the time. Back then, Kazumi had just laughed it off. But as she'd grown older, it had stopped being funny.

"Chikane's gone." Leaning forward again, Kazumi plucked a strand of grass from the ground and twirled it between her fingers again, much like she'd done before with the flower. "She left two years ago, about the same time your surviving wolves vanished. Searching for her Himeko, no doubt." She sighed. "I worry about her… Isamu and I both do, but she's always been a gifted hunter and I've no doubt she'll find what she's looking for. She sends letters anyway, so we know she's holding her own." She tossed the grass away, watched it dance briefly in the wind before it was dropped back to the ground. "I know I've never been one to really believe in ghosts or spirits or the afterlife, but I like to think you're watching over her, little sister, wherever you are. You and Orihime both. I hope you're watching over Chikane and Himeko, because they need all the help they can get."

With that said, Kazumi closed her eyes and sighed, wiping at the tears that had started to gather.

And though she was never one to believe in ghosts or spirits or the afterlife, for just a brief moment, she felt the warm brush of fur against her shoulder, felt the wolf muzzle that touched the skin of her neck, a phantom touch.

And she believed that Tsuki was assuring her that everything would be just fine now.

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"Don't you think you should be studying, Mako?"

"Oh, come on, Hime. We don't have school today. What's a break if you can't enjoy it?"

Makoto smiled and closed one eye, completing the playful face she'd hoped to achieve; Himeko just sighed and shook her head, running her fingers absently through Jin's hair as the boy sat curled in her lap, playing his Gameboy. "Do what you want," the golden-haired girl said, yielding and brushing loose strands of hair out of her eyes. Next to her Shirayuki was studying the small screen with intent golden eyes, encouraging Jin on in a quiet tone.

"I'm bored." From his place on the couch, Yukihito sat up and slowly set his legs on the ground, leaning back. His human form was just as lanky and lean as his wolf form had been, and after two years Himeko still wasn't completely used to it. "If I'd known it would be like this, I would have gone with Girochi-sama or Tsubasa."

"Oh, hush. You're the one who chose to stay home when you were given the choice." Makoto rolled her eyes and grabbed the remote, flicking the television on as Yukihito grumbled and slunk off the couch to disappear behind it, probably to get a drink or something. Her eyes lit up. "Oh, look! Wolf's Rain is on!"

The next instant, Shirayuki gave a little startled shriek as Yukihito flew over the couch, a blur of golden-brown; Jin's head immediately shot up, and he pulled the girl closer to him protectively, causing Himeko to shift as the two children tumbled into her lap. "We are watching that show over my dead body!" the boy bellowed, diving on Makoto and making a grab for the remote. "That anime is depressing and the ending makes me cry! Gimme that remote!" The two began to grapple for it.

Himeko sighed and shook her head before looking down, smiling a little. "Jin, you can let go of Shirayuki now," she said gently.

"Oh." Jin blinked. "Right." The nine-year-old boy immediately released the girl, but made no move to force her away from his side. Shirayuki's eyes had narrowed just so when he'd moved his arm, but when he made no complaint about her being so close to him she settled back down.

Puppy love, Himeko mused with another fleeting smile. Shirayuki turned her eyes back to Makoto and Yukihito, who were both still wrestling for control of the remote; she blinked. "They're still going at it?" the silver-haired girl asked after a moment.

"More or less." Himeko sighed again. "They do this a lot. You just get used to it."

"They won't hurt each other, will they?"

"I doubt it."

At that moment, Makoto's foot braced against Yukihito's chest. The boy's eyes widened. "Mako, don't you dare—"

Makoto kicked out. Hard. So hard that Yukihito tumbled across the floor and landed with a loud crash on the other side of the room. "Too late," Himeko muttered.

Well, as long as there was no blood, she wouldn't get involved. She still had to keep an eye on the kids, anyway.

That was her excuse, and she was sticking with it.

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It had taken her two years to just get her hands on the human name Himeko had adopted after leaving her wolf self behind, and ironically it had all come together surprisingly fast after that. Some part of her was still kicking herself for not realizing sooner that the young golden-haired woman would probably use the same name she'd used before, but that was a different matter.

She hadn't been surprised to discover, after dipping into school records, that Himeko and Makoto shared the same surname, Kurusugawa. The two had a strong bond, and probably always would, and by sharing a surname they were reflecting that bond in a way that humans could understand.

When those kinds of thoughts entered her head, she felt a sick feeling welling in her stomach, bile rising in her throat; so she did her best to forget those thoughts all together.

(She still couldn't forget that night, that night when they brought her to the bodies of two of the wolves that had been slain, and with a choked sob she'd recognized the black fur of Himeko's dear friend Souma.)

Shaking her head and pushing old memories back into the darkest corners of her mind, Himemiya Chikane brushed loose strands of blue hair out of her eyes and blew out a long, ragged breath she hadn't even been aware of holding. She shifted quietly from foot to foot as a stray wind whistled by, studying the large house before her with quiet eyes. Her hand reached up, her fingers closing tightly around the pink seashell she wore on a gold chain.

The young heir of Himemiya was still a distance away from the porch, close enough to see what was going on but far away enough so that no one had realized her presence just yet. Oota Reiko and Oota Corona sat on the porch, Reiko sketching on a pad as Corona leaned comfortably against her, eyes closed and listening to an iPod, no doubt searching for new inspiration. Oogami Miyako sat with her knees against her chest, watching a small, purple-haired young girl play on the stairs, occasionally crawling over to Reiko and tugging at her sleeve, which caused the mangaka to tilt her pad just so and letting the child see whatever it was she was drawing.

It was a scene of a family. Blood bonds didn't matter, had never mattered. They were human now, but still wolves at heart. And they still considered each other family.

It scared the hell out of Chikane, because those same family bonds could be just the thing that kept her away from Himeko. Wolf memory ran deep, and that fateful night was only two years old. Still, she hadn't come this far to quit now. Taking a deep breath she started toward them, praying she appeared more sure of herself outwardly than she did inwardly.

Another stray wind kicked in, whooshing past her and whipping by the people gathered on the porch; as one she saw them all glance up, with the exception of the little girl that had obviously been born human. Chikane felt her heart plummet to her feet but kept walking, quietly cursing the fact that the wolf sense of smell was still very much intact. As she drew closer, Miyako narrowed her eyes and slowly rose.

It was true that Chikane had only gotten a brief glimpse of the former Second Head on that long ago night, and that had been in her wolf form; her fur bristling, her muscles tense, teeth bared. Even so, her human form successfully appeared to be just as majestic—and just as subtly threatening. She moved the way a mother wolf moved when her pups were threatened, quietly crossing her arms over her chest and studying Chikane.

"Himemiya-san." Her voice was calm, with no particular emotion showing through, a neutral tone. "What a surprise. "

"Likewise… Oogami-san now, isn't it? I heard about the wedding." Chikane nodded, figuring a smile would be a little too friendly, considering the circumstances. "Congratulations."

"Thank you, but I somehow doubt you came all this way to just talk about that."

The lie had been flimsy, and even Chikane herself knew it; still, she couldn't fight the small twinge of annoyance and fear when Miyako saw through it clearly. She squared her shoulders and met her gaze evenly. "That's true."

"What makes you think she wants to see you again?"

It was the exact thing Chikane feared, even more so than death itself; because if Himeko didn't want to her ever again, she didn't know what she'd do. The ache she felt in her chest right now was testament to how hard it had been to live two years without the golden-haired girl, and somehow the former hunter doubted she could live with it for the rest of her life. But if Himeko really didn't want her around, then… "If she doesn't want to see me again, then I'll leave," Chikane said softly. "I'll respect that. But I just… I need…" She trailed off, lost, and looked helplessly at Miyako, not knowing how to explain her feelings to the older woman.

Miyako's eyes softened slightly. "You want to be sure she's all right, is that it?"

"Yes. That's all I need." She took a deep breath. "Once I know that… if she wants me gone… then I'll go. As long as I know she's okay… that she'll live… then I can be alone."

For a long moment of silence Miyako studied the young hunter, lowering one hand to run it through the hair of her little girl as she wandered over to her mother, hiding behind her legs as she looked at the stranger with wary golden eyes. Corona had long since removed her earphones to listen to what was being said, and even Reiko was watching the whole thing silently, intrigued.

Finally, Miyako sighed heavily.

"Wait here. I'll go get her."

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"I swear to God, Mako, if you don't give me the remote I'll shove it up your—"

"Oooo, Yukihito, didn't know you were into kinky stuff."

"Ass, you pervert, ass!"

Himeko didn't even bother scolding the pair for their use of language with Shirayuki and Jin in the same room; she doubted they'd listen, anyway, and the words weren't anything the kids hadn't heard before. Jin and Shirayuki had long since abandoned the Gameboy in favor of watching Makoto and Yukihito wrestle for the remote, and were currently cheering the combatants on and making various bets about who would win and what they would do to the loser.

The golden-haired girl made no move to stop it. The whole was amusing and made her smile, and it was a nice distraction from the painful throb in her chest that had haunted her for the past two years. She smiled slightly.

"I leave you alone for two minutes and all hell breaks loose, eh?"

Makoto and Yukihito immediately stilled and looked up; Himeko smirked before following their eyes. Miyako stood in the doorway, holding little Kazuko in her arms, gazing at the small group with amusement. Jin immediately streaked to his mother, proclaiming his innocence, and when Shirayuki saw Corona and Reiko flanking Miyako she immediately did the same thing. "It was funny, Mom," the green-haired boy pleaded, looking up at her.

"Yeah, Mom, Dad, it was funny." Shirayuki held out her arms and Reiko immediately obliged, handing her sketchpad to Corona so she could lift their adopted daughter into her arms. "But Jin and I didn't do it."

"No, no, we didn't. We're totally innocent."

"Yeah. Innocent."

Reiko laughed and exchanged amused looks with Corona as Shirayuki tucked her head beneath her chin. "Is that so?"

"It's the truth, Dad! Tell Dad it's the truth, Jin."

"It is!"

Miyako chuckled softly and ran a hand through Jin's hair as Makoto and Yukihito scrambled off each other, both blushing deeply and unable to look each other in the eye as they realized exactly what position they had been in. Deeply amused by the whole thing, Himeko continued to sit where she was, content to just be the spectator.

"Himeko, that reminds me." Miyako turned her attention from her son to speak to her. "You have a visitor outside."

"A visitor?" Himeko blinked in surprise.

"Yes. A young lady. I believe her name is Himemiya Chikane, and she was wearing a little shell pendant around her neck." Shifting Kazuko slightly, Miyako tapped a finger to her chest, where she'd seen the pendant. "Sound familiar, by any chance?"

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"I should go with her."

"Mako, no."

"Yes! I should be there! At the very least, I should be there for support!"

"Mako."

The soft, firm tone of Yukihito's voice cut Makoto's weak protests off immediately. She grimaced and looked away, staring at the floor. "We knew she'd come," she said softly. "Himemiya, I mean. Everyone knew she'd come for Himeko eventually, except maybe Himeko herself. Even Tsubasa knew, and he and Miyako agreed with everyone else to let them figure this out."

"You're still worried"

"Of course I'm worried!" Makoto's eyes whipped back to meet Yukihito's again, anger and hurt mingled. "She hurt my cousin, physically and emotionally. I know Himeko doesn't blame her for any of it, but I still think of it that way. I… I don't want her hurt again."

"Don't you think she'll just be hurt more if she and Himemiya don't resolve things somehow?"

Makoto trailed off and shook her head, biting her lip. Smiling a little despite himself, Yukihito gently touched his forehead to hers. "Hey," he said, and she looked up at him. "They'll figure it out."

She smiled weakly. It wasn't much, but somehow, it soothed her. She closed her eyes and chuckled.

"You know, I think I might kind of like you after all, Yukihito."

"Same goes, Mako."

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"Chikane-chan."

As the other girl looked at her, blinking a few times, Himeko had to resist the urge to fly down the stairs and tackle her and never let her go again. Chikane's eyes widened briefly and for a moment she seemed to just stare. She swallowed gamely and nodded. "Himeko." Around her neck, the shell pendant gleamed weakly in the sunlight.

Himeko saw it immediately, and her heart both jolted painfully at the memories it carried and jumped joyfully with the knowledge that Chikane hadn't gotten rid of it. "You kept it," she murmured, cautiously meeting Chikane's eyes as she walked down the stairs, stopping again just a few feet from the other girl.

"Yes." It's all I had left of you.

A tense, almost awkward silence fell after the soft word let the blue-haired girl's lips; Chikane hesitated before speaking again, forcing herself to meet Himeko's gaze steadily and not look away. "So… how have you been since…?"

A moment; then Himeko spoke, her voice unusually soft. "I've been all right. We've been all right, all of us. A few everlasting health problems here and there for me, you know, but it could have been worse." She shrugged and rubbed the back of her neck. "My lung isn't what it used to be—I cough up some blood now and again when I'm not feeling well or when I'm stressed, you know—but I'm not dead, which probably counts for something. I haven't figured out what yet, but I guess I will sooner or later."

"And… are you the only survivors?" Chikane winced. Nice, real nice.

"We don't really know. The pack was scattered, so we've never really… known for sure how many of us survived. We don't even know how many of us died, with the exception of Kazuki and Souma."

Despite the fact that it had been two years since their deaths, pain still flickered clearly in Himeko's eyes and her voice still shook; subconsciously she backed away a step, wrapping her arms around her waist in a gesture that was both protective and vulnerable. Seeing the movement for what it was, Chikane realized what it was she had to do—for both of them, and even if not, for Himeko.

She felt her heart snap neatly in two and pointedly ignored it, forcing the smile.

"I just wanted to make sure you… were okay," she said. "And now that I know… I can be at peace with myself. I… I guess I should go now."

Chikane turned away, so Himeko couldn't see the tears gathering in her eyes. And because she knew her heart wanted so badly to stay, she began to walk away.

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Wait, what?

Himeko blinked and stared as Chikane began to walk away. Just stared. Her eyes widened; her mouth opened, but no words left her throat. Her whole body was frozen, almost paralyzed, as though some unseen force had reached up from the ground and now gripped her feet so tightly that she could barely move, much less think.

She saw a flash of pink as Chikane turned away, her shell around the other girl's neck, and it snapped her back out of her self-induced trance. Without thinking she reached out, taking a step. "Chikane-chan!"

The former hunter froze at Himeko's call; a small tremor rippled through her whole body before she turned. "Yes?"

Were those… tears shimmering in her eyes? Tears that hadn't yet had a chance to fall? Was it possible that Chikane… didn't want to go, but was leaving because she believed it to be best, because she believed that Himeko wanted her gone? The thought made her heart jump again, but she couldn't find the words, the way to express what she wanted so desperately to say.

At that moment, the wind picked up again, whipping past both girls; Chikane blinked in confusion and brushed loose strands of blue hair out of her eyes as the breeze tugged at the pendant around her neck, and Himeko felt a shiver run down her back, as though someone was watching her; she looked over her shoulder as the wind continued to blow.

For an instant, just a single moment, she thought she saw them; the two forms standing side-by-side behind her, one a young, light-haired woman with a gentle smile and the other a slim black wolf, both of them standing together, the woman's hand resting lovingly on the wolf's back, their bodies shimmering and see through, almost as though they were ghosts. The black wolf gazed steadily at Himeko, her dark blue eyes quietly urging her on.

She blinked, and they were gone.

For a moment Himeko just stared, unsure if her eyes had been playing tricks on her; after a moment, she turned back to face Chikane. The other girl looked just as confused as Himeko felt, though somehow she got the feeling it was for a different reason. "Himeko?" Chikane asked softly, her tone uncertain, slightly pleading.

Himeko closed her eyes; after a moment, she opened them again and slowly met Chikane's gaze, swallowing the lump in her throat and praying her voice wouldn't fail her now, when she needed it the most.

"Don't… please don't go, Chikane-chan," she whispered. "Because… because I love you. I don't want you… to go away. I don't want to be anywhere without you ever again." She swallowed, felt the first tears fall. "Please."

Chikane's eyes widened; timidly she took one step, then another, and another, walking slowly but surely toward Himeko. She hesitated briefly before pausing. "I love you too," she murmured. "And I don't… I don't want to go. I don't…" She smiled. "I don't want to be anywhere without you, either."

Cautiously, the blue-haired girl began to walk again, still smiling; beginning to smile in return, Himeko started to walk, as well. Somehow, the walk became a run, and suddenly Himeko was in Chikane's arms and there was only a brief moment as they looked into each other's eyes. Himeko smiled quietly before leaning up and gently touching her lips to Chikane's, and the blue-haired girl's arms tightened around her, pulling her closer.

"Caught you," Chikane whispered when they finally broke apart, smirking. She nuzzled Himeko's neck as the golden-haired girl laughed softly, tucking her head under the taller girl's chin and closing her eyes.

"Yeah. Yeah, you did."

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"Told you it was cute, Reiko."

"Yes, you did, Corona. You did."

"… You know, you owe me twenty bucks now."

"… Dammit."

The End

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... GOD, that was freakin' CORNY. And I choked up while writing it. Hell, something must be wrong with me.

Anyway, since this is your last time reviewing this fic and whatnot, feel free to just cut loose; tell me how you felt about the OCs, how the AU characters were potrayed, whatever you want. I always enjoy reading your opinions... helps my writing.

I have some other KnM ideas, but they're on hold until I update my other stories... I kinda sorta abandoned them to devote so much time to this one... (shot by fans of other stories)

I'd also like to thank all the readers and reviewers who carried me through writing this story, you're all my inspiration to keep going and... God, that sounds even sappier than the ending of this fic. (laughs)

Anyway... for the last time, read and review, please!