Well, here is the final chapter! I hope that it is a satisfactory ending and that you have enjoyed it. Thank you to those who have reviewed -- I appreciate that more than you probably know!
While her plum blossoms had gradually wilted, Rin had received three other sprigs to replace it over the next week or so: a peony, a narcissus, and a branch of peach blossoms
While her plum blossoms had gradually wilted, Rin had received three other sprigs to replace it over the next week or so: a peony, a narcissus, and a branch of peach blossoms. Some of the flowers were growing in parts of the garden that she could see, like the peony, but she had already decided that their beauty paled in comparison to that of the flowers Lord Sesshoumaru had given her.
She leaned back against the wall, considering the flowers and trying to decipher their meaning for the hundredth time. She could not think that Lord Sesshoumaru really meant anything by the gesture, but the fact that he had done it was, by itself, strange. He had not brought any of them to her personally, but had done nothing to conceal the fact that he was the one who gathered them. For all her musing on the subject, she had never gotten any closer to understanding what had led him to do something that seemed so at odds with his usual character.
Of course, Rin could never have asked him about it. It was a gift enough that he was doing such a thing for her; she did not want to taint it by looking too much into it. Not that she had even been given the chance to do so, since he had not returned for the past week.
This time, however, she did not mind, since even though he did not come personally, she knew that he was thinking about her. That was enough, at least for the present.
She stretched, fighting the drowsiness that had been sneaking up on her for the past hour or so. For the first time since she had been sick, she had been able to get up long enough to manage washing and dressing properly. Even though the routine had been tiring, she also felt infinitely better now that she was clean. She had even thought at one point that she might risk standing for a time, but had soon realized that such would not be a prudent decision.
So for now Rin was content to merely sit, even if she required the wall to support her. Stiffness that had crept into her muscles from being still for so long seemed to be loosening as she gently tested the condition of her body. She smiled wryly at the thinness of her arms and the boniness of her hands; her mentor at the palace probably would have been pleased to see that the muscles she had found so repulsive in a woman were considerably smaller.
Sighing, Rin returned her hands to her lap and looked outside, wondering if it was realistic to think she would be able well enough to enjoy any of the spring for herself.
- - - -
Sesshoumaru had no idea what flower to pick.
Rin had been right; within the last week, a handful of the previously blooming flowers had started to wilt. At the same time, however, it seemed like twice as many were starting to open. He had not realized that there were so many different flowers.
Having never noticed the variety of flowers, he also knew nothing about them. They had played no role in his concerns before, and any knowledge about them would have been superfluous. Besides, flowers were what made spring his least favorite season; the saturation of the air with a thousand different smells could become so overpowering that at times he would wish he could cover his nose.
Regardless of this, Sesshoumaru now found himself staring at the tiny white flowers of some unknown plant, trying to decide on which one would be best. Somehow, he could not imagine Rin caring much about the condition of the flowers – that tended to be her nature – but for himself he did not want to spend time on something so ridiculous for an inferior item.
He had just decided and snapped the stalk of the flower when Atsuhiko walked up to him. "This is not exactly the sort of hobby I would expect from you," he said, voice colored with amusement as he idly flicked one of the nearby blooms. "Although, I suppose it is not for yourself."
Sesshoumaru glanced at him from the corner of his eyes. "I am not in the mood for your feigned conjectures. You understand perfectly well what I am doing and for whom without my confirmation."
"All the same, I do hate to assume."
While he knew this to be untrue, Sesshoumaru did not feel like continuing the conversation; already it had been too long. He moved to walk past Atsuhiko, but the other demon quickly stepped into his path, sparking the first flicker of irritation. Many had died for lesser offences than blocking his way. It was the fact that the humor usually coloring Atsuhiko's expression was no longer there, instead replaced by a serious thoughtfulness, that made him pause.
"Since you truly do seem so adverse to indirect speech, I suppose that gives me leave to speak my mind freely." His eyes slowly dropped to the flower hanging from Sesshoumaru's fingers before he sighed, folding his arms within his sleeves. "I told you, when you arrived, that I wished to know what the girl meant to you. And while you would not tell me, I believe you have revealed the answer nonetheless."
Whatever Sesshoumaru had believed Atsuhiko would speak of, this was far from it. That was not, however, the unsettling part. He had no desire to even have this topic again brought to his attention. "I will not have this discussion," he said coldly, finally moving past Atsuhiko towards the palace.
"I guessed that you would not want to, but continuing to avoid the subject as you have will not allow either of you to have peace. Really, knowing as much of your temperament as I do makes it difficult for me to comprehend how you have been able to deny yourself for so long – I'm sure it has not been a pleasant experience. Am I not right?"
Sesshoumaru paused, feeling the poison pool in his fingers. "You cannot presume to understand my thoughts or motives now. We may have known each other as youths, but we have not walked the same path for centuries."
"Yet that does not mean that you have changed significantly since then," Atsuhiko said calmly. "You have always remained distant from others, but you have never been unreachable. The difference now seems to be that you refuse to acknowledge when such things happen."
"There is nothing to acknowledge."
"If that were so, I do not think you would be out here picking flowers." Silence followed his words, broken only by the soft rustle of the wind through the young plants around them. "The flowers she enjoys fade so quickly, but it is easy to find new ones." Atsuhiko's voice was now soft, so quite that it almost faded in the distance between them as he returned to the path into the garden. "I do not think she will be so effortless to replace."
- - - -
Rin swung her legs absently as they hung over the edge of the walkway, letting her heels tap out a rhythm with her humming. She tried to breathe as much of the cooling air as she could, drawing in her surroundings on this first day she had managed to get outside in weeks.
Everything seemed so much more vibrant than she remembered. The sun was obscured by some trees that had already managed to put out their leaves, dark nets catching the peach light of dusk. The soft croon of a nesting bird sounded somewhere in the distance as she watched the thin moon start to pull itself over the horizon.
Inside there was the low hiss of the screen being opened, and Rin sighed. She supposed it would be impossible to argue with Aoi when she had been allowed to sit outside so much longer than the time they had agreed upon. The demoness had even let her eat her dinner there instead of pressing that she return inside, perhaps accurately realizing that being outside had made Rin feel better than she had in a long time.
"I must speak with you."
The swinging of her legs paused, surprised at the voice that greeted her ears. Almost disbelieving, she turned and looked over her shoulder, her eyes trying to adjust to the shadows inside.
Sesshoumaru's pale figure reflected what little light shown in from the gathering darkness as he made his way through the room. He came outside and stepped down into the soft grass below before looking down at her. "Can you walk?"
Forcing her mind to absorb the situation, Rin shook her head. "I… I do not know. I mean, I came this far so I can a little, but I don't really know how much."
"There are too many curious ears in a palace, but we will not go far." Slowly, he raised his hand toward her. "I will help you."
Although Rin had believed that she'd managed to catch up with what was happening, she now felt even more lost than during the surprise of his arrival. Wordlessly, thoughts still spinning, she slid her hand into his and allowed him to help her rise.
Even though she could not go very fast, he patiently slowed his pace to match hers. It was rather sudden when she finally felt the weariness, and it was with both thankfulness and embarrassment that she relied increasingly on his strength to help her as they continued. She could not look up at him when it became necessary for her to hold his arm with both hands, the heat of her blush almost enough to rival that of her fever.
They seemed to reach the location he had intended, and Rin finally considered her surroundings. As she did, she felt the smile start to cross her face. "The cherry trees are blooming!" she exclaimed, glancing up quickly at Lord Sesshoumaru.
He nodded, eyes remaining on the distance. "Many things are."
This topic was relaxed, undemanding. For all the strangeness of his appearance and their walk there, everything seemed perfectly natural now, loosening her tongue. "I'm sure you have become well aware of that," Rin replied, smile becoming softer. "I have meant to thank you for those flowers, Lord Sesshoumaru. I cannot express how happy I was to receive them; while I suppose it is possible to live without all those things, I would much rather not. It is things like that which make life pleasant."
Now he did look down at her, something flashing deep in his eyes that she could not identify. Under this intensity, she suddenly felt awkward, wishing that she was not so weak that she could not stand apart from him; it seemed likely that his proximity played a role in how she now felt.
She found herself rambling, the lengthening silence becoming unbearable. "It is likely just a human thing, to enjoy flowers and spring so much. It's just that, to me at least, it reminds me of how fragile everything is, and yet how much more beautiful that makes it, too. The memories of spring are the ones I carry with me through the rest of the year. I suppose seasons mean very little to you, but surely there are memories that remain with you?"
After a long minute, he finally answered, voice softer than was his usual manner. "I did not used to care for memories. But I believe that has changed."
"Why?" she wondered, trying to think of what could compel Lord Sesshoumaru to change something of that nature.
Again, there was that touch of emotion in his eyes. "Because I want to remember you."
- - - -
Sesshoumaru watched the shock flicker clearly across her face. While he remained unmoved, speaking his words calmly, he could not recall having ever felt so uncomfortable. These matters were not the ones he dealt with or understood – it was because of this ignorance that he found himself in the position he was now.
He had spent the entirety of the day in the mountains around the palace, wishing to be far from everyone, everything. It was too difficult to think when Atsuhiko's words still rang so clearly in his ears, and where the person they concerned was so near. There was too much interference to be able to make any decision, and so he had returned to what had always been a refuge from distraction.
By that time of the year, most of the birds had apparently returned, so there had not been the silence for which Sesshoumaru had hoped. All the same, it was so much quieter than the palace, and the higher he had climbed, the more he distanced himself, the deeper the silence became.
But it also became heavier, strangely less comforting than he had anticipated. He had realized that he could not remember the last time he had gone somewhere simply to be alone. There had been numerous occasions when he was by himself, taking on journeys that it would be hazardous for the others to accompany. Yet all those instances had not been for the sake of being alone, and as he walked through the barren trees, still untouched by the warmth below, he had realized that he did not want to be alone.
That was not to say that he could not exist in such a way. He depended on no one, and the majority of his life had been spent on his own. It was in many ways simpler to rely only on his skills, to have no other considerations but what he willed, to have none of the weight that went with companionship. But, looking back, he had found that caring for Rin had not been the irritation he might have found it in his youth. In fact, those things about her that might have been annoyances – the ridiculous songs and dawdling for flowers, vivid emotions and compulsive actions – were what had made it impossible to send her away.
Sesshoumaru would have never concerned himself with her had she not pulled her bruised and swollen face into such a joyful smile that day long ago. How she could smile in such a condition had been confusing enough, but the fact that she had smiled at him had been nearly shocking. Nobody smiled at him in such a manner, so freely and with such genuine happiness.
But that, he realized now, had been the beginning of the end. The warmth of that one simple gesture had managed to thaw something within him without his notice, and time had only continued the work of that first moment. In allowing Rin to stay, he had made himself susceptible to her, to the luxury of her unwavering devotion, to the satisfaction of being the only one for whom she smiled so brightly.
Unconsciously, she had melted the coldness he had grown accustomed to feeling and had made something grow in its place. He had not even been able to resist because it had been so gradual, so unexpected and unwanted. Yet, now that he knew, now that he could no longer deny that he loved her, he had been able to see so clearly how it had happened.
And he had realized that he did not want to deny it anymore, either to himself or to her. Sesshoumaru had always feared that the weakness of his father would become his own, that he would sacrifice everything that had been important to him for something so transient. But he now realized what his father must have known; those things he had thought of as important would still exist in decades, even centuries, from now, but the one thing that suddenly meant more to him than anything else ever had would not.
With his decisions made, he had returned to the palace, going to her room. He had immediately known where he wished to speak with her, and had brought her to finally see those flowers she anticipated every year. The color had almost completely drained from the sky by now, stars shining as the sunlight was pulled into the west.
Rin was still looking at him carefully, her eyes bright and curious as they met his. Her stillness as she clearly waited for him to continue almost matched that of the twilight around them; he had not heard her exhale in the long moment since he spoke.
Part of him wished to look away to speak further, almost distracted by the intensity of her gaze. For as much as he had considered what he would say while he had returned, how he would approach the things he had realized, it now seemed impossible to recall them.
"There have been few people in my life who I have found worth considering," he finally said slowly. "Of those, there have hardly been any I took any interest in knowing. But there have been none I wished to remember, before you."
If it had not been for the pressure of Rin's fingers against his arm as she held him tighter, Sesshoumaru might have thought that she had not heard him. A part of him had expected her to have said something by now, but he had to accept that doing so would have been against her nature. It was not often that he spoke so much to her, but whenever he had, she would simply listen to his every word quietly, reverently, just as she was now.
Yet this was different, even if she did not speak. Slowly, he raised his hand to her throat, carefully resting it again the pulse the fluttered beneath her delicate skin. It was merely physical proof, reassurance to what he had heard; without touching her, he had still caught the speeding of her heartbeat. And now, looking back into her eyes, he suddenly found that he could identify the light that was half hidden in their depths.
Sesshoumaru moved his hand to her face, brushing his fingers against her cheek. Without the uncertainty that had plagued him, he could allow himself to indulge in these things he had longed for but never allowed. "I want to have more memories of you, Rin."
One of her own hands rose now and pressed softly against his as she leaned forward against him. This close, only the top of her dark head was visible, preventing him from guessing at her thoughts in the long moment she remained silent.
"I have so little time in which to make memories," she finally said, the forced composure in her voice tattering as tears fell against his hand.
For a moment, Sesshoumaru fought against the shadow of pain that her words inspired. He knew that this would be nothing in comparison to what he would feel when he did lose her if he did not accept the escape she was offering now, if he continued to pursue this.
He stepped back slightly, turning her face up toward his. "That is why I do not want to waste any more time."
A flicker of a smile spread across Rin's face before he leaned down, kissing her gently. He committed every detail to memory: her soft intake of breath, the warmth of her lips, the mix of her scent and the cherry blossoms. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her as close as he could, trying to draw in every fragment of this moment, trying to hold onto every piece of it so that it would last.
When she gradually returned the kiss, timid and unsure, Sesshoumaru suddenly knew that choices and decisions no longer existed, that this had likely been inevitable from the start. For, although winter could try to hold onto its iciness, the slow touch of spring was impossible to avoid, something as gentle as flowers and sunlight always tempering the cold.