Sesshoumaru leaves her in the fall.
Disclaimer: I don't own Inuyasha. I don't make any money. And any coherency is credited to Odeena Skywalker, who did me the honor of acting beta and reassuring me that this fic isn't quite as out-of-control as I initially believed.
Notes: Every soul is reincarnated four times, as different as the four seasons. It seems inevitable that this soul's every tragedy be intertwined.
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By Lady Dementia
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Sesshoumaru leaves her in the fall, when the scent of the woods changes from growing trees to dying foliage.
Rin always remembers that, because the day of the change starts with a scent. Jaken is squawking about something in her face (He never stops squawking about something so long as it involves yelling at her) when her lord suddenly appears between them. She doesn't notice Jaken tumbling backward with his usual graceless comedy; Sesshoumaru's nose nearly touches her, he's come so close, and the flare of his nostrils seems larger than the rest of the world.
Everything he's done has always seemed larger than the rest of the world. It has made it easier to forget anything exists outside the presence he projects, like a tiny world of her own circling a burning, white-cold sun. She could happily stay in that frozen summer with him forever.
Seasons change, however. Time passes, and everything that grows up much reach a certain point and begin to die. Her body, too, reaches a turning point, one of budding breasts and the fuzz of hair in secret places. This is the scent he smells on her.
If she had bothered to keep track of the years (Why would she? Her life paused indefinitely the day she met her lord, because surely his power makes him timeless, and inside his sphere of influence it is always summer.), she would know that her thirteenth birthday has passed. For five years she has followed Sesshoumaru faithfully, adoring him like a demon sun god. For five years, the only human contact she has known had been accidental, and even that dims outside, left behind as the dog demon strides away while she hurries in his wake. Three years have passed since Naraku fell, Kohaku faded away, and Kagome left. She only vaguely remembers them. They were only been people-shaped scenery in her Sesshoumaru world, and she is blinded by his light.
The light fades when he leaves her. Not right away, of course, because he has left her many times before, but it does fade. This time he leaves her alone. Jaken seems relieved (He hates babysitting her. He always has. She loves him for his grumpiness, never knowing that outside that summer, Sesshoumaru world, it is hate he feels toward her.) and tells her with much relish that their lord has arranged for her to marry a well-to-do noble, human man. Jaken seems somewhat puzzled that their lord cares enough to do that much. Her own puzzlement turns to fear as the sunlight fades day by day, and the seasons don't turn back. Jaken doesn't stay with her. Her sun god doesn't return for her.
She has spent endless days picking flowers and finding food. Time didn't matter then, and she hadn't realized it even passed. Now she learns womanly arts with her mother-in-law and maids: how to make tea and sew, weave cloth and judge silks for a kimono, bow properly before a guest and master the womanly art of being demure. They cover her tan legs with full lengths of cloth and smother her smiles in voices where before she has only know Jaken's strident commands and the sparse handful of words from her demon lord. The seconds drag by in slow ticks she feels in the marrow of her bones. Each day becomes marked with inane human tasks, separated by these arbitrary measurements of the day that only succeed in hammering the truth home in her:
Time passes. Summer fades away into a time she cannot return to, and inside she realizes she truly is alone. He is not coming back. This is her new life.
As her hope fades to nothing and the first cold winds sweep over the rice fields, desolation moves in. Without her hope, without that summer-warm shield to keep her walled into that joyous world, all that remains is her new home. But their fear scares her from the start. Few women can say that they have encountered a demon and lived, much less talk incessantly about her hopes for his return. The great lord of the household makes it clear that she will be treated as a noble daughter (What Sesshoumaru pays for that privilege, she never knows. Women are not privy to such things in this human world.), but fear, not respect, couches the life she is now resigned to. They are frightened of her, of her happy hopes and mysterious origin. She is so strange to them.
Fear fills her days, those short, fall days. She awkwardly reaches for comfort, but who would offer it? Her new mother-in-law is a bitter old woman whose parents had sent her off to an arranged marriage at an even more tender age than Rin. Her maids are afraid of her past and twist that fear into genteel mockery of her attempts to adapt to life as a human. Her bloodflows start (Only a week after Sesshoumaru smells it coming, a day after she is engaged to the man she'll marry at his bidding. She is scared and ashamed of the blood no one has ever explained to her and fumbles through her first time without instruction. Later, she'll learn what she needs from gossip among the women.). Her husband she barely sees, save for the three nights per moon he visits her bed. The middle-aged heir of the house is astonished to find her a virgin, although she can't figure out why until a hurtful comment from one of her maids puts it into context. After that experience, she doesn't question why her husband keeps his distance; he, too, fears her.
Rebuffed by the fear she can't understand (She has never understood why anyone fears Sesshoumaru. He has never, no matter what the rest of the world perversely assumes, been anything but impassively gentle with her.) and sinking into despair, Rin shuts down. Her open, smiling face, already faltering under human disapproval, smoothes into a stone mask. The flow of words clogs in her throat and leaves her in silence. Her muteness seems very familiar and does not bother her. Despair, like the snow outside, covers everything inside her, killing her lingering remains of hope like frost on a late flower. Winter sets in and numbs even the sadness.
Eventually, it even kills the fear she's lived with every day since she knew her lord would not return. She wanders the white gardens in silence, withdrawing from the things she can't change and shying from anything that intrudes on her emptiness. Numb, at least, doesn't hurt. She pushes it all away, freezes it into winter-locked branches in a lattice-work guard around her heart, their leafless reach protection as well as prison. So long as the ice stays unmelted, she can't feel it--can't feel the beat of her wounded heart like a broken-winged bird frantic inside a pretty cage.
This life is a cage made of things she distantly knows she's too terrified to feel.
She wants winter to last forever.
Her belly rounds as the months drip onward, measured in footprints across the gardens and fingernails growing, a thousand breaths taken as she lies awake on the floor (She can't stand futons. She misses the feel of grass under her body and the smell of fresh-picked flowers even more when she tries to sleep on a futon.) and the sandy count of blinks throughout the days. Her maids titter annoyingly, one moment elated by her pregnancy and the next muttering absurd suspicions about the babe's parentage. Her mother-in-law screeches orders to stay inside for the baby's sake whenever she catches Rin standing at the edge of the gardens, staring over the wall at forests and rice fields and things numbed unrecognizable by the cold filling her hollow innards.
Rin dully wonders if she is supposed to feel something about this growth in her womb, then decides she doesn't care. She begins measuring time by the expansion of her waist.
When her new lord takes his son to war, it has been seven months since Sesshoumaru left her. She hasn't counted how many months she's been pregnant. Each second since her lord's summer-world is the only time frame that matters to her. The air has warmed. Farmers work the fields, and sunlight streams through the paper screens the maids keep trying to close around her (They think, for some reason, that her ceaseless pacing will harm her unborn child. She doesn't know why; she's spent most of the last five years walking, and only when she's stood still has she been hurt.). The days lengthen, but she hardly notices. For her, the chill never leaves. However much the world moves on, inside she stays motionless in time. She is waiting, and she is no longer sure for what.
The night raid takes everyone by surprise; everyone, that is, but her. The other women scream and panic, but Rin has little enough emotion to spend on fear or shock. She weighs her options, the tales of women in war whispered by her maids, the death of her parents long ago--the life she lives in now versus the life she's actually lived. Then, while the maids get in the guards' way and her mother-in-law collapses weeping (Womanly vapors are one of the things Rin hasn't a knack for, not having been indulged even during the fight with Naraku, when anyone sane would have been excused for having hysterics.), she quietly pulls her darkest kimono over the layers she already wears and steals a servant's wooden shoes.
She walks out into the gardens, around the house, and into the kitchen. The fighting hasn't reached here yet, and the servants have already fled. She helps herself to a bag of food that will last (This certainly isn't her first kitchen raid, although it is the first without Jaken telling her to hurry up.) and the head cook's knife, dropped when the alarm had been raised. She piles it into a small sack and swings it over her shoulders. The weight is less than she'd estimated, and she almost reaches for more food. A shriek changes her mind, however; someone nearby gurgles, dying on someone else's sword. She probably knows whoever it is who died.
In the frozen landscape around her heart, a twinge of heat, maybe a bit of regret, causes a drop of water to run down a branch. A moment later, an icicle hangs from the branch, shining and solid again.
She climbs over the garden wall and leaves, walking unhurriedly toward the forest she knows lay past the fields. She doesn't run. She is only a little off-put by her big belly. She knows how to travel at night, and she is not afraid of the dark. The others running from the house carry lamps and torches, easily tracked and run down by the attackers, but the pregnant woman walking methodically down the hill catches no one's attention. She makes no sudden moves, and she doesn't seek the roads (Roads have humans on them, and Sesshoumaru has never followed them for that reason.). She just walks, distantly unconcerned about pursuers or fear of being caught. If it happens, it happens, and the only thing she really cares about is leaving. She has nothing else to lose.
At her back, the night flickers garishly as the house she's lived in for seven and a half months burns. Screams rise into the night air. Closer, men on horses grunt and shout, and weapons clash. Servants plead for mercy, and her human lord's men curse as they fight. A pang of something that might be sadness shoots across her winter like a weak sunbeam. Another droplet rolls down the dead trees fencing off her heart and freezes into a sharp point.
She doesn't look back.
When she reaches the first trees, she takes off the shoes and the white tabi she's always disliked and hides them under a bush. No sense in giving anyone trying to find her a clear trail to follow. The fine layers of kimono required of a high-born woman are stripped off and stuffed into the sack with her food, and she places the knife on top within easy reach. With the added weight of silks, she finds she's glad she didn't add more food. Her hair falls past her hips when she tears it out of the elaborate style the maids inflicted on her that morning; after some thought, she puts the handful of ornaments that secured it into the sack with the silk kimono wrapped around them so they won't clatter and jingle. The pack is bulky, but lighter than expected (Apparently the silk is easier to carry when she isn't required to wear it. How odd that men want to effectively cripple their women with clothing.). She ties the darkest kimono tightly around her bulging waist, hiking it upward until it tucks around her hips so she can walk easily.
From there she jogs, not walking but not running in a strange, slow lope no true-born noble daughter would know to use, eyes straining in the dark as ingrained skills come flooding back. One hand seeks the trees with light touches, guiding her through the forest in a pattern seeking no particular direction, only away. Her other hand moves back and forth in front of her, catching branches and bushes before she smacks into them. Her toes never quite leave the ground, brushing forward to seek the next step. When she stumbles, she falls. When she gets up, she keeps going. Each fall jars her stomach and leaves her scratched and sore within a few hours. Her feet, not as calloused as they had been seven months ago, blister and bleed. Her whole body is in excellent shape for a noble woman's, but out of shape for her (Did the silly women think she paced the garden every day just out of restlessness?). She pushes it further ruthlessly.
The cramps start in her side. When she ignores them (She learned quickly that Sesshoumaru never waits for anything, especially not a human girl's aches and pains), they spread with painful quickness to her back and stomach. She grits her teeth and keeps going. Blood runs down her legs from a hidden place when she finally stops for the night. If every demon within miles hadn't run to the massacre, her trail would soon have been picked up and followed. Instead, she sleeps the last of the night and most of the day under an overhanging stream bank, disturbed only by the spasm of muscles drawn taunt over her belly. Every time the pain brings her to waking, the sound of the wilderness soothes her back to sleep.
She cannot believe this is real. Winter holds her trembling in its grip, the chilled heart at the core of the dead season tentatively starting to warm. It peers through the ice-coated briar-shield, searching with old hopes (He has come back before. Maybe, if she could just find him…).
Yet her waist is heavy, and fear--condensed and familiar, winter-dead branches covered in dagger-sharp drips of terror--chokes off the foolish hopes. Rin can't face it. So she stores it away, shoring up the melting icicles, and fills her days and nights with away. Somewhere, anywhere, as long as it is away from the life that scares her and anything that reminds her of being abandoned. She pretends to forget and blanks her mind of all but the present. Humans, intimately entwined with the desolation she clutches to her breast, she avoids doggedly. She dodges them by traveling at night, trekking miles around villages and turning away from even crossing roads. It is not hard. Humans fear the wild, fear the demons that prey on them, and she has never learned this fear (Naraku fell, as she'd known he would. Her faith has never wavered, because Sesshoumaru has never failed to save her.). The wilderness is her shelter.
She strips the kimono from her body and stuffs it with the rest of her humanity into the sack she carries because it is still cool at night and it is nice to sleep on silk over grass. She wishes sometimes that she could crawl inside the sack as well. Words stay locked under her tongue. Sometimes, late at night, she wakes with a taste on her lips of salt water and loss, and her mouth silently shapes a sound she hasn't the voice to say aloud. She exhausts herself running the following days, and sleeps too deep to dream at night.
Her feet develop calluses, but her ankles swell painfully. Her scrapes scab over and infect, then break open to drain and heal, but still she leaks blood down her inner thighs. The food runs out, and she does not approach even the village fields to raid for more; fish and early fruit cannot keep her cheeks from hollowing and her ribs from standing out, but her belly grows enormous. Her breasts, which had swelled with her belly, are tender for a few weeks, briefly become hot and painful to the touch, and finally seem to shrink within the skin like the rest of her body. The white liquid that leaked from the tips earlier dries up. It becomes more difficult to travel. She waddles more than she lopes, now.
She is too sluggish from the cold filling her mind to care. If she starts to care, the feelings will overwhelm her, and she's not ready (Maybe she never will be, and winter will go on forever.).
The day the ice breaks is the day her determined numbness cannot drive her through the pain. She has hurt before. She has been scratched and bruised and bleeding. But she has never known she will die (Summer is timeless. There is no death in summer, only the sudden bloom of life as she looks up into the white dog-lord sun.).
The pain of hunger, an old friend, disguises the first stabbing cramps. Her knees give out after three hours of non-stop muscle spasms. She is bewildered as she looks at her stomach to see the hard mound rippling. It looks alien. It doesn't look like it belongs to her. She has never seen contractions before. The women she'd known never thought to explain births to her. She'd never thought to ask. To them it had been obvious, and it hadn't been important to her, not until now, not until she can't ignore it. Naked and chilled with sweat, she clutches her belly and crouches hunched over it. She knows the baby must come out, but she does not know how it happens.
When the blood and noxious fluid gush down her thighs and soak the ground she twists on, she knows for the first time that she is dying. Her body is turning inside out. Her screams sound agonized and familiar (Her mother, screaming, screaming, and Rin runs as the calls for help go unanswered. The demon-huntress sobs as her brother disembowels her with tears running down his face, and a priestess screams as Naraku towers above her. Dimly--but the memory rushes back, no longer forced away by the brilliant white demon-summer that had bleached it away--the cries of a child resonate down the years as wolf teeth crush her fragile throat.). They echo among the trees. She desperately waits, winter waiting for life to fill its death, for salvation. It does not come. Her guts convulse, and the stench of blood, sweat, and terror clogs her nose. She pants for air uncontrollably. It floods down her throat like boiling water and shakes the ice from the branches surrounding her in the peace of numbness.
A hundred icicles of pain and fear fall, loosed by certain death. Suppressed emotions pierce her heart.
And she knows.
Rin is human. But she lives as the demon she was raised as, and she is stranded alone in a human world.
Spring wins when death falters and reveals itself as only a very deep sleep. To sleep is to dream, and spring is the awakening. Letting the dreams of winter go is the only way to begin anew and start to grow again. Something has to be sacrificed, the dead crops tilled under to fertilize the new year's seeds. Something has to die. The turn of the seasons is inevitable, and if one is not the sacrifice, something must die to allow life to go on.
She knows, no secret hopes or waiting games, that he has abandoned her to her own fate. No one will save her. She isn't sure she would allow it if someone tried. Sesshoumaru has always saved her, he and no one else…but not this time. She's on her own, and like the snap of a branch, she recoils from that betrayal (He has left her, and now she must be the one who decides. She is the one who walks away. To rely on anyone else will open her to more fear and pain than she can possibly bear again.). She is dying outside the summer left too long ago, and she struggles with the primal fear of an animal in a trap to live. There are no reasons. The utter terror of confronting death overcomes the despair rising like a stream flooded with melted snow, and Rin fights to keep her head above the waters.
The trees stand witness to her screams. The ground is clawed up, bled upon, and pounded flat by her hands. Sweat and mud plaster her hair to her body, and her eyes are shot with red as she does as her abused body demands and pushes.
The babe lives only a short while past his birth, thrust too early out of her pain-wracked, half-starved body into the slimy, body-fluid mud at the crux of her legs. She falls unconscious when the afterbirth finally oozes free, bloody and disgusting.
She wakes groggy and stares uncomprehending at the tiny, blue-tinged shape between her legs for a long time before understanding what happened (This? This is birth? Never, never in stopped summer-time had there been such a thing of measured months and pain, and a chunk of ice rips another hole in her heart to know it.). She knows the babe lived at all because he successfully squirmed out from underneath the gooey mass, but he died without anyone to wipe his airways clear or take him from the mud. It appears that his weak thrashing mired him in mucus and churned, fluid dirt, and he slowly drowned. He wouldn't have lived, anyway; she has only carried him five months.
Not that she knows this. In the wild woods, the animals she preys upon tolerate no predator observing their pregnancies and births, and the young simply appear. In her ignorance and welcomed blindness, she'd begun to hope she'd carry forever like some parasitic memento of her time among humans.
As she kneels in stinking mud and hesitantly picks up the child, she doesn't feel any sense of connection. She touches his gritty cheek, waiting to feel fear, or despair, or even betrayal. Surely there must be something to feel for this baby she has carried unwillingly for hours and days uncounted (She shook the human habit of splitting the days into arbitrary increments soon after she shed the habit of wearing clothes. It made it easier to forget everything related to her life before.). Instead, a weird mix of regret and relief fills her. The body at least distracts her from the raw wounds on her heart, and her regret is that this baby, supposedly her son, is only a reminder of and release from her human life. He has interrupted her winter and thrown her into a spring she is not ready for. At the same time, however, this small form she's expelled after so much effort has absorbed some of the pain, some of the heart-sick fear and abandonment. Like a tiny sponge, he's soaked it out of the despair drowning her, his death reducing to deep spring puddles that first flood of melted sentiment.
The winter had granted her time, a gift that blunted the knife-edge fall. Perhaps, had she been given more time, the winter would have run its course in a gentler way, and spring would have dawned gradually in gentle, sad, sorrows. She might have cried as truths thawed and sank cruel icicles of emotion, sharp but thoughtful, into her heart. The wounds would have scarred. Eventually, they might have healed over.
Instead, her winter ended violently, not softly, but it has ended. She is sorely wounded, and the scars will form slowly, but they will form. He is dead, the babe's body says to her as she clumsily holds him, and she is not. She has survived death. Isn't it time to start living?
She crawls away from the birthing fluids and blood but brings the baby's corpse with her. She rests nearby until she is able to move on. There are no berries within crawling distance, and the mushrooms are gone in a day. She cannot fish. On the second day, she builds a fire and burns the baby to bones and ashes so the smell of rot won't attract scavengers. Then she puts the afterbirth, washed clean in the stream, on a flat rock in the coals to cook enough to be edible. She usually doesn't mind raw meat, but it's a little too oozy for her taste raw. It tastes like an old fish, but she is hungry.
For the first time since the fall, she thinks of herself (He is gone, and she is no longer just a part of his summer.), and although she cries ceaselessly, through her tears she explores the world she had pretended didn't exist. Her hands shake as she counts her ribs, rubs the points of her hipbones, and pokes with bemused interest at the sagging mass of her belly. The hole between her thighs is torn, and it brings tears of physical pain to her eyes when she walks. Since she is not ready to think, she walks a lot once she is strong enough to climb to her feet. The pain in her heart is so much worse than any other pain, but being sore is a good distraction. She likes distractions.
Her body has changed, and she thinks of it in terms of being separated from Sesshoumaru. This would have never happened, any of it, but she refuses to think beyond that. He has left her. She is still alive.
Her feet turn from the stream and replace the ashes gummed between her toes with dust. It never occurs to her to mark the place of childbirth as hallowed or haunted. Sacred and sacrilege are concepts she's never grasped.
She dons a kimono again, reluctant but knowing that her body is frail enough to need the extra warmth. She chooses the outermost layer she had worn, once upon a time: a placid, sea green silk with jade birds and white patterns meant to be clouds. The silk is thin, pretty, and, like the rest of her kimono, misused for bedding, wash cloths, and other inappropriate activities that have given it a variety of stains and frayed hems. She tucks and ties the absurd length (High-born women are meant to be gorgeous baby-makers. Stationary, gorgeous baby-makers. In practical terms, that means she has extra cloth to use.) until she has created pouches out of the excess material. It looks ridiculous and works exactly as she wants when she starts raiding peasant fields. She strays from the wild woods to sneak through tamer greenery and steal gourds, handfuls of grain, and herbs, stuffing them in her battered sack and 'pockets.'
The few times she is seen, the sight of a sun-browned woman in a scanty, bulging robe that exposes her thighs apparently stuns any would-be pursuers. It helps that, now that she's no longer pregnant, she can resume the tireless, loping pace she'd learned as a girl tagging along at her demon lord's heels. Even before her body heals and her stomach tightens again, the sheer release of weight makes her seem as fleet as a bird. Most humans aren't conditioned to run as she does. If there are pursuers, she simply outlasts them. Considering her tangled riot of hair and general inhuman look, there are few daring enough to try.
In any case, she is well aware that Jaken is no longer there to keep watch over her. Death has visited her once. She learns caution and practices it religiously. Her luck (She knows now it is why she is still alive. Her blind faith has met a brutal end and left her wary.) will not last forever, and the knife she'd originally brought for cutting up food is kept close at hand as she runs the forests. Running free. Running ever away.
For all her newfound wariness, the knife is brought into use once, on a lone bandit who surprises her while she sleeps. He pins her down and rapes her. She does not resist. It is only pain, after all. While he shudders in climax, she slides her wrist from his loosened grasp and coolly slits his throat.
She takes his clothing, supplies, and sword. The armor is discarded. The body bloats in the sun, cradled in the gnarls of tree roots as she sits naked beside it, rearranges her things. She leaves the nicked and bent cooking knife and replaces it with the man's dagger. Her worse-for-wear silks (She wonders why the clothing Jaken had grudgingly given her in those endless years with Sesshoumaru never wore out. She'd outgrown them, but they had remained unchanging in that white summer.) are packed at the bottom of her sack with the handful of hair ornaments she keeps for their prettiness. She scrubs the man's clothes vigorously to rid them of fleas and drapes them out on the branches of the tree while flies buzz and feast on splashed blood. Patiently, she waits for the cloth to dry, chewing on the corpse's food.
The dried meat is tough and tasteless. After some hard thought, she uses the dagger to open the bandit from ribs to crotch. It is not, as she suspected, unlike gutting a fish, just bigger. It doesn't seem wrong to cut his heart out and bite into it, cooled blood seeping out in congealed globs to coat her hands (Wolves run through her mind, hunting villagers. The villagers chase her, beat her, and the wolves finish the job. They are all animals beneath the skin. Humans are only more pretentious than most.) It's just like eating day-old rabbit, although the meat is not as sweet. When the bandit's clothes are dry, she leaves wearing the durable cotton material wrapped around her naked body. She takes his liver and other choice internal organs as well, wrapped in a broad leaf in anticipation of dinner.
The bandit's sword balances over her shoulder, a slight inconvenience, but she has a plan. Time is meaningless away from the humans who would measure it, but away from Sesshoumaru and his changeless aura, Rin sees it pass in the shape of the moon. She smells it in the air and feels it in the dirt beneath her calloused toes. Autumn approaches.
Internal clocks run much more slowly, powered by emotion instead of time. The guarding lattice-work of branches around her heart ever-so-slowly reveals tiny hints of green, growing against the memories and despair. Spring blooms, day by day. Rin does not notice it happen. She wakes and sleeps and drifts through the wild mountains far away from villages and other humans while inside her the seasons turn. Despair eventually wears down and reveals other feelings. It does not leave, just as the brambles protecting her wounded heart do not crumble. Dead black branches put forth fresh leaves, and desolation becomes wrapped in shoots of something different, something heady and new.
These things fade as all things do, with time. It cannot be measured. It simply happens when it does. The time it takes is of no importance.
She used to smile all the time, filled with summer joy. She never smiles now. But, one day, she goes without the urge to cry. There is a sadness in her, a scab over deep injury, but time passes. The sight of a toad does not slump her shoulders. The sword she carries does not remind her of Tenseiga or Tokijin. It is only a long blade of cheap metal.
The plan develops in her mind as the days begin to shorten. Inside, she lives in spring, searching and finding new things budding at the back of her head and around her tender heart. That does not stop the harvest season from beginning. She knows that soon winter will cover the forest in a white blanket, and she is just a human (Winter had never nipped her toes red or made her joints stiffly ache when Sesshoumaru had sheltered her, but he is not here. She has lived through the winter as a human, and it is far, far different without demon-summer sunlight shining in her eyes.). She fears, sensibly enough, that on her own she may not survive.
It is the first time she has thought of her future. It is a bleak thought. Death looms, as it never had in her demon god's light. Once again, she knows she will die. She is determined not to.
So she seeks a haven. She doesn't think in terms of finding a home. Homes are people, and she is alone. She wants a place. She wants a river to fish in, because fish are plentiful all year round. She wants it to be defensible (She remembers her maids chattering of demons and lesser predators attacking peasants in the villages, driven by hunger as the snow starved them out. She remembers thinking she had more than enough to share and leaving meal scraps out in the garden by the wall.) because she is one woman with a knife. She wants a cave, if possible, because she doesn't know how to build a hut. She needs the cave to be large enough for a store of food, because she does not want to starve. She wants a large source of wood nearby, and a place to stockpile the firewood she plans to cut with the bandit's sword. It's horribly unsuited for that use, but so is she.
…Is there actually a life she is suited for?
Her search takes her deeper into the north, winding into the mountains inhabited by wild animals and demons. She is nearly one of them now, anyway. The last human she sees is a priest searching for sacred peace in the foothills; he tries to bless the unearthly creature she appears to be and purify her if she is held by a demon. She bats his hands away and leaves him staring after her, troubled by his apparent failure. A week later (Something that only matters to those who care to measure time.), she finds a likely place. It isn't too far up the mountainside, and it seems to be adequately shielded from wind and weather by the trees and large rocks surrounding it. It is hidden near a low waterfall, beside a deep pool that she stops to fish in. It is so hidden, in fact, that she would have never found it but for the wolves.
They come from downstream, following her scent-trail. She may look inhuman to human eyes with her tangled locks and feral face, but she smells like prey. Sound travels well over water, even faster than a wolf on the hunt, and her throat tightens when the small river carries growls and panting to her ears (Familiar, sickeningly familiar, and there is no magic blade to bring her back from the snapping fangs. Phantom aches ghost through bone and muscle where teeth tore her apart. The kill and little girl screams shrill fear in her head.). The water will not save her, and she sloshes to the bank, heading for the slabs of stone where the waterfall tumbles down the short cliff. She can't outrun wolves, she can't out-jump them--but maybe she can out-climb them?
It's not like she has a choice. It's either die where she stands or try to flee, and that's not much of a choice.
Her nails are ragged from digging grubs and gathering firewood, but they break further as she scrabbles for fingerholds in the rock. Tough as they are, her hands nevertheless are pierced by stone slivers. Moss comes away in great bunches, dug out by bare toes desperate for traction on the rock underneath. Her sack of supplies tumbles away, ditched without a second thought because what's the purpose of supplies if she's not alive to use them? Behind her is a vicious bark as a wolf enters the clearing around the pool. Too soon, she thinks, and grimly hauls herself higher. She grabs a handhold that turns out to be a ledge and drags herself over the edge, only then taking one fearful glance over her shoulder.
The pack stares back hungrily, at least twenty strong and eager for her flesh. They tremble with energy, ready to leap forward and slash and tear and yet she cannot, for the life of her, interpret the look on their furry faces. Their bodies are crouched and prepared, forelegs working the soil for good footing for that starting leap, but she's seen ears flattened like that before on a dog. Their eyes are shifty, returning again and again to the trees behind them. They mill restlessly around each other, looking up at her, then back the way they'd come. Do they crouch like that because they're eager to chase her, or do they cringe, ashamed? They look suspiciously similar to the dog she'd seen eat the head cook's gamebirds: guilty and knowing it, but still wanting more (The dog's teeth crunch the bones in her memory, and it echoes through her body.).
A whimper pushes out of her throat. The pack slavers, and, despite knowing better, she looks away to flee. Wild animals will pursue what acts like prey, and the temptation is too much. The wolves lunge forward. She blindly stumbles across the ledge, aiming for the next handhold up, and nearly falls straight into a crack in the stone at her feet. She staggers, hands waving for balance, and that is when she sees the opening, low and dark on the ledge.
The wolves have found another, easier route up the shallow cliff. Desperate, she dives into the hole and yanks the dagger out of her waistband, wriggling around to slash at paws and wrinkled muzzles that try to follow her. There's no room for thought or planning, just the flash of teeth and her knife drawing blood through fur. They yip and snarl; she shrieks back in anger and fear. They bleed red on the moss-green rock and learn quickly to stay out of her reach. Welts swell on her forearms from the near-miss of teeth dragging down her skin, and there is a puncture wound on her wrist. She switches the knife to her other hand.
The wolves become more reluctant to approach. Their eyes are brighter than natural, demon blue in a demon pack, and they smell like crushed leaves over meat-heavy breath. The scent swirls into the hole, mixing with her sour human sweat and smothering her.
A call from behind the multitude of paws halts the attack. "Oi! Wait up!" Her grip tightens as the pack turns, because who else would be with a pack of demon wolves but a demon wolf? Two legs, not four, approach through the pack, clad in furs and barefoot (The two-legged wolves face off before her hut, and the scarred one is cut down without mercy. Wolves are wolves, animals growling beneath the skin, and she is afraid.). Her knife flashes out, but the feet jump back out of reach. "Yaa! What's this you've cornered?!"
Barks and whines answer the man's voice, low and shamed even to her ears. Exasperated barks snap back at the pack, presumably from the two-legged demon, and the wolves cower. After a sufficient period of groveling, the two-legged wolf demon returns to the front of the hole, carefully out of reach of her knife. "Hey, you can come out. They won't bite. They're not supposed to hunt humans, but they got excited when you ran." She doesn't respond and doesn't come out, knowing that her luck won't save her if she walks stupidly into traps. He heaves a sigh and kneels in the dirt to look into the hole. "Are you hurt? I smell blood, and--"
For a moment, half a lifetime at least, they are face to face. She frowns (A vague shape in a Sesshoumaru world, but she should know him, she should.) but his eyes pop impossibly wide. He falls flat on his butt as his arms flail and send him over backward. "S-Sister?!"
Her frown becomes a scowl, and she raises the knife defensively as the odd demon with a mohawk scrambles around to take another look at her, a strange, eager look in his eyes. She is not his sister. Her brother is long dead, and even his memory is faded with those of her mother and father. This weird person is not her brother, and even as she thinks it, the light falls from his eyes. It leaves them sad and tired, and there is an unexpected pang in her heart at the sight. Her knife does not waver, but she makes no move to hurt him as he shuffles to his knees and stands within her reach.
"Let's go, guys. There's bound to be game up further." His voice sounds dull. The packs turns to leave, but he stays a minute more, his feet half-turned back toward the hole. She wonders if he is looking down toward her, or off into a memory of the woman she must look like. A sister to wolf demons, who looks like her…how had he mistaken a human for kin? "Don't stay in these lands, human. This is our territory." The warning sounds as lackluster as his voice.
Then he is gone, and she is left alone in a hole that smells of wolves and fresh terror.
Long after the familiar demon runs off and the pack has disappeared from her hearing, she crawls from the hole. Caution slows her emergence. Dusk has fallen over the waterfall, and it feels as though wolf eyes peer at her from every shadow. Frost rimes the ground come morning these days, colder than the farmlands had been, and she needs a fire to ward the cold (Demon eyes the color of winter skies that chill her, and child she was dies.) away. Cold can hurt her as surely as wolf fangs. She cannot be made foolish with fear.
So she stumbles down the waterfall on legs clumsy with stiff joints and searches the banks of the stream for her sack. Her fingers are nearly numb with cold by the time she finds it snagged on a rock near the edge of the clearing, washed downstream from the pool. Wading into the icy water doesn't help her body any, and by the time she has collected enough dry wood for a fire, she can barely strike the flint through her shivers. It gives her a glimpse into what the winter will be like, and for a long time afterward she huddles next to the fire, afraid.
With her bag soaked through and no dinner, of course, she finds that she must stay the morning in the clearing. It is not a decision she makes lightly, but at the same time…Rin spreads her silks across the frost-killed grasses of the clearing and returns thoughtfully to the ledge that had saved her life. Yes, they had been savage beasts (The bandit rapes her on the forest floor.), but she saw the shame and hesitation.
"They're not supposed to hunt humans," the demon says in her memory.
A wolf pack that is obliged to leave her alone would be unreliable. She could never trust them. Yet she could see the advantages of being in wolf territory. Wolves are big predators. Other predators avoid their territory. This is as true for demon wolves and demon predators as it is for natural animals. It's not like she trusted anything, anyway. Nothing in her world is reliable. Her family died. Sesshoumaru abandoned her. Even the castles of great men burn to the ground. Wolves were no more or less a risk but for her own fear of the past repeating.
She shivers on the rock ledge, body heat sucked away by the wind. Death by winter is more certain a future than that by wolf fangs. She must have a place to stay.
Time passes. She tries, for a little while, to keep track of it. She has plans to fill every day with tasks and pushes the most she can into every hour. Winter will be cruel, and she must do many things in order to survive its cruelty. There is food and wood to gather before the snows start.
Only a few short days into her plans, Rin gives up on hours and minutes. She cannot keep up with her own timetable, having never done half the tasks she sets herself, and attempting to push herself to do the impossible only depresses her. It is enough to know that she is doing what she can, when she can. Sometimes, she even thinks her plans might work.
She chops wood with the sword every day. At first she gathers the loose branches on the mountainside, dragging the deadfall back to her waterfall and stacking it clumsily. There are nooks and crannies throughout the cliffside beside her own chosen cavern, and she busily fills them with mushrooms and roots she finds after she tires chopping wood everyday. The local wildlife busily helps itself to her stores. When she figures out where her food is going, she begins stacking her wood at the entrances to the caves. It doesn't stop the smallest creatures, but it slows them down. Sometimes she can even set traps that catch the worst thieves.
It upsets her when the first of her storage caves goes to rot, but how was she to know to dry and preserve the things she typically ate? She had never stored food of any kind before. Dismay threatens to overwhelm her as she throws out the gooey remnants of mushrooms and fruit and turns dirt over the mess left in the cave, but Rin sets her jaw and goes to chop wood. That, at least, she can do right. Wood burns no matter how awkwardly shaped the final result. Dull as the sword becomes, sheer determination lets her hack through the small trees and downed branches. The muscles of her arms and shoulders ache nightly, blisters burst and calluses rearrange on her hands, and the woodpiles grow.
That reassures her even when wolfsong echoes through the cold night air. It gives her something to do beside sit and shiver by the fire. Wood is fire, and fire is life during winter. Fire burns against the wolfsong in her mind. This is how she fights her fear.
Not long after the first cave goes to rot, she finds signs of rot in another cave. The smell alerts her as she moves the wood at the entrance, and it drains the almost manic energy driving her away. She sits abruptly and stares out over the waterfall without seeing it. A woman cannot survive on fire alone. It seems hopeless.
So Rin does what she's always done when she can't get food on her own. She steals it.
The journey doesn't seem nearly as long downhill, but perhaps that is because she isn't wandering. This time she jogs directly down the mountain, thoughts already far ahead. She is afraid of men (The bandit rapes her, and before him, the village peasants beat and beat her. She remembers men.), but there are ways to deceive men. Humans are afraid of demons and the wild lands they come from, and humans are sometimes stupid in their fear. She can use that. She can look human. It takes precious time to detangle her wild hair and scrub away the dirt on her skin, but the woman looking back at her in the frost-rimmed forest pool afterward can pass as human if one doesn't meet her feral eyes. She can even act like one, if she must. But when the time comes, she can be the demon they fear.
It isn't easy, but she hadn't expected it to be. There are few easy things in her life anymore. That is a fact she sometimes remembers bitterly as she trades the last of her hair ornaments for a bag of uncooked rice or lies under a grunting guard after being caught looking through a shed's dried stores. Sex is a distasteful trade, but one she makes often. It isn't the act so much as the men who disgust her, and when she can, she takes what she needs and leaves a cooling corpse in her wake.
Occasionally, late at night when she creeps away with a jug of vinegar and pickling herbs stained with the blood of a man who had been fondling her breast so recently her flesh could feel him still, she wonders if she should feel something for all the death. It is hard to feel much of anything for the villagers. Sometimes while surveying a village for a raid, she finds herself watching a woman bent and worn with childbearing and farming. A child would run in and out of the huts, calling for her mother, and Rin's heart aches. She wonders--would she have been happier as that woman?
Then she sees a husband beat his wife, or a mother-in-law berating her daughter-in-law for some petty thing, and it all seems so alien. This human world bewilders her at best. She can use it for trade or theft and all her own ends, but she doesn't belong to it. She is more demon than human even to herself, and only the demons know better. If Rin had ever made the connection, she might think herself a halfbreed: half demon, half human, but belonging to neither world.
She doesn't think that, however. She watches from the shadow of the wilderness surrounding the villages like a farmer looking at the flock from outside the pen. Whatever memories of humanity she'd once had, Rin has little now (Sesshoumaru raises her to be like him by example. She learns quickly that he tolerates nothing but himself. She's never had another child to compare that upbringing with, and never questioned what she'd been raised to be--if anything.). To her, this is how the world is. For her, this is how it has to be. It doesn't bother her much.
She takes what she needs to survive and fades away into the night, another demon to fear.
There are many trips down the mountain, as many as she can make before the frost becomes snow. There are many small villages scattered around, and one larger village that is the greatest distance away. She tries her best to be cunning in taking from them and leading her trail to other villages to confuse any trackers. Despite the deaths and theft, her plan works. The villages have been raided by demons and neighbors before, and she gives them few witnesses to say differently. She notices that one of the villages is burnt out later, but never realizes that her trackers might have believed that the village she framed was guilty. The only consequences she cares to ponder are those that affect her.
She carries her spoils back to her cave on her back, ripping up her old kimono to bind the loads into packs, and even works out how to pickle fruits and vegetables. The results taste odd, but she stuffs what she can into buckets and gourds full of vinegar in hopes of staving off rot. Odd is fine, so long as it is edible. She learns to cook rice and weird dried lentils she's never eaten before. After far too many decayed body parts, a fish smoked over her fire finally stays good. She can't figure out how to turn animal furs from her traps into the soft, pliable furs the villages produce, but smoking at least stops the pelts from rotting. She uses the stiff furs to line the floor of her chosen cave. They smell, but the cold is less penetrating that way. She packs wood into the entrances of her storage crannies tightly, trying to keep the animals out.
For all her effort, she is only one woman. Perhaps if she had started earlier in the year, or been able to preserve what she could gather from the forest around her, it might have been enough. But what she can steal is not enough to last an entire season, and she knows it.
It might have worried her more, had the wolves not come back.
There is snow on the ground, a finger-length deep, and she has wrapped herself against the cold. A swath of what had once been red silk wraps her neck, head, and face in a crude hood. Steaming breath smokes from the wrap snugged under her eyes, condensing moisture on her eyelashes that freezes into white frost. It shimmers around the periphery of her vision, and occasionally she must stop to rub the ice away so she can see better. Her feet are wrapped in rags stuffed with old grass. They leave strange tracks behind her, but it is the last day of her return trip; so far as she knows, no one is tracking her. Her burden this trip is made of stolen bags of rice and a bolt of rough cloth. As much as she dislikes clothing (Jaken complains of her immodesty, and she does not understand what he means until she is smothered under layers and layers of silk in the name of 'modesty.'), she must have it to keep warm. Her frayed silks are little use as clothing in the wilderness anymore.
Thoughts of clothing dominate her mind as she trudges through the snow, but Rin knows better than to not pay attention to her surroundings. When she sees the first pawprint, she stops dead.
In her time on the mountain, she has become accustomed to the sound of wolfsong in the night. While the fear never disappears, she has learned to sleep through the hunting calls. Sometimes it is faint, almost lonely with distance, and she listens with half an ear to the hunt. Other nights, it sounds as if the wolves course through the clearing around the waterfall, and she hides her cave while terror crawls across her scalp (They chase her with bared teeth and bristled ruffs, and all she sees is the flash of demon eyes above their fangs before she dies.). Yet for all the wolfsong, she has never seen the wolves again. She has lived safe from bears and large demons in the territory of the predators she fears most, but they have not returned to her little waterfall life.
Now a lone wolf howls ahead, wild and carnivore, and she is afraid for that life. The print in the snow is human enough that she knows it is really a pawprint. Demon wolves run with two-legged demons that are wolves for all their human appearance.
Fear urges her to turn and run, but predators chase what acts like prey. She is close enough to her cave that the wolf knows she is here. To flee is to die. To go forward…
Does she have a choice?
She pulls her clothing closer like her courage and pushes onward up the mountain.
Wolf tracks criss-cross the clearing. True wolf tracks, leaping and playing up and down the stream. Peer as she might into the shadows of early winter evening, she cannot spot any of the wolves she so fears. Then she looks up.
The wolf looks down at her.
He is alone when she sees him, perched on the ledge in front of her cave. His hair and skin are darker than the two-legged wolf she'd expected to see, blue eyes sunken in a narrow face and more savage for their setting. Black hair looks neglected, falling out of a tail high on his head, and the furs at his waist are obviously unwashed. A broken piece of armor juts up over his stomach, and a massive scar shows the path of the blow that must have destroyed the missing chest plate. The wound looks badly healed. In fact, there is an aura of something left unhealed hanging about him, and even though her fear Rin can sense it. Mad creatures feel like this. Sensible animals run from such creatures. Unfortunately, Rin-animal has nowhere to run.
Her packs drop from shoulders hunched with terror, and a guttural snarl comes from him at her motion. The other wolf had looked like a human that was a demon, but this one…from the inhuman crouch to the injured-animal feel, there is nothing of a man in him (Even injured, Sesshoumaru is greater than a man. She brings him food and water because if he is greater and more perfect than a man, he must be a god, and food and water are all she can bring him as offerings and aid.). This demon is a wolf, but as Sesshoumaru had the elegant perfection of a man's body, this demon embodies the savagery of wolves.
The thing glaring down at her is colder than the oncoming winter night, and she shivers under his scrutiny. She dares not move. Adrenalin courses through her body in shivers and shudders, but she doesn't move. There is nowhere to flee, and she would be no match in a fight.
They stay that way long enough for the last of the pale sunlight to fade, and the wolf's eyes glitter unnaturally in the night. When her muscles stiffen and shiver from the cold in addition to fear, her teeth begin to chatter. The wolf's head, darker than the shadows around him, jerks back at the sound, then cocks an ear toward her--or so she thinks. She can't really see anymore. Her fear conjures images of what he is doing above her, but her imagination isn't up to reality. She is taken utterly by surprise when the snow beside her explodes as the demon lands in another of those inhuman crouches.
She shrieks, of course, the noise shrill in her own ears, and he slaps her across the face hard enough to spin her around and knock her to her knees in the snow. Her arms flail out as she topples over, and her right hand skids over one of her dropped packages before twisting and sending a bolt of pain up her wrist. The pain barely registers. The breath leaves her in a shocked gasp. Her teeth rattle, and a hot swelling starts along her jaw. Cold-stiff and frightened to trembling, Rin scrambles over onto her back and freezes (The wolves gather outside her hut and wait for the kill, and she is trapped inside. There is nowhere to run for the prey cornered in its den.). Her eyes are so wide they hurt. She doesn't care.
He stands beside her head, looking straight down at her, and she nearly gags at the smell. Greasy fur and unwashed hair stink of wolves and neglect. Had she not been paralyzed in terror by those blue eyes, she might have moved back just from the strong stench.
He studies her, this rag-wrapped human lying in the snow, and growls. After a long moment, the growl becomes guttural words, nearly unintelligible. "Start a fire, girl. I…will return."
Rin is left looking at darkness as he walks away.
The fire roars.
Maybe it's a foolish reassurance, but humans have sought the heat and light of fires since the first spark hit wood. Rin is human enough to be mesmerized by the swirl of reds and yellows, the hints of sapphire near the wood as it burns hot and bright. It fills the crevasse entrance of her cave and makes it hard to breath, but she sits as close as she can to the shallow firepit without catching fire herself. It bars the entrance. It guards her. It warms her. It even crackles and snaps, bringing the sound of life to the otherwise silent area.
She'd be a fool to trust its protection, but there is something resigned to the point of calm deep inside her when she meets demon-blue over its flames. There is fear, yes, but it does not seize her limbs in trembling. Animals shy from humanity's fires. Demons are attracted to them. Somehow, however, a demon by firelight is less frightening than one out in the open. This is more civilized, even by her warped standards.
Besides, what murderer tells his victim to start a fire when she is cold?
Words are a waste of breath. Rin has not spoken a full sentence in months. She has not bothered to keep track. She keeps her peace now, as well, but not only because words hold little meaning to her anymore. Sesshoumaru…("Be silent, Rin.")
Wolf eyes set in a emaciated face watch her with a frankness that only another predator would understand. Assessing her for threat. For worth. For use. Her silence pleases him, in the small fraction of his madness that cares about it. The bizarre wrappings of cloth concealing her from head to foot stink of humans and sweat, but her eyes lower from his with a pack animal's submission. In some ways, he understands that he isn't thinking right. It had been important once. It had been…(It hurts, and he cannot breath for the pain as the bodies fall and fall and the pain will be real if he remembers so he won't.).
He is here for a reason, and that reason crystallizes slowly like ice down the waterfall in his blue eyes. It is important, or so he tells himself. Maybe it's even true.
To Rin's eyes, he appears disoriented under the menacing appearance of a wolf. Those slit-pupiled eyes are not sharp and clear; they seem clouded, the mind behind them muffled like a man buried beneath snow. She doesn't understand it, can't risk trying to understand a demon's mind where she has never understood her own, but she knows what he is here for. She trespasses on his territory. How she knows it is his territory doesn't matter. She knows. She read it in the missing wolves' tracks and the mohawked demon's behavior. That demon left her with a warning. This wolf demon came alone to confront her for her crime, but hasn't demanded yet that she leave. Like the guards in the villages, he would have demanded she leave immediately if he meant to toss her out of his home.
Like the guards in the villages, he has something else in mind. A trade for her presence.
Words are unnecessary. They know what the situation is, and how the scales tip in his favor. There is a price, and she must pay it. Rin is only glad that she does not read her immediate death in those chaotic blue eyes. Mad he might be from wounds she cannot see, but behind the confusion is the echo of words that saved her once, and save her again tonight ("They're not supposed to hunt humans," the demon says, and she knows this demon. She knows him.).
She offers the forequarters of a rabbit, smoked and tough. He knocks it from her grasp, and it burns in the fire. The smell of charred meat fills her cavern and leaks in gray smoke up into the night sky. When she looks at him through the flare of flame, the hollows of his face are pathetic, like a starving puppy. A starving puppy with a monster's fangs fixated on her throat.
She offers a bowl of rice across the fire. He takes it, sniffs it once, and throws it over his shoulder. Neither of them look when pottery shatters on the rocks somewhere below. His eyes are locked on her, and something close to sanity shines in the firelight for the space of this moment. A moment, like a patch of ice to stare through for a smothered mind, perhaps, giving him something to focus on. Something concrete to do.
She offers him a coin stolen from a dead man's purse, and he lifts his lip in a sneer. It is an almost normal gesture.
She offers him her hand, and he accepts.
It disappoints her a bit that demons can be so humanlike.
The girl is fever-warm under him, resigned but pliant beneath her layers of silk and cotton. This is not rape (She would never forgive him for that any more than his wolves hunting humans, and he knows that even now. He doesn't know he knows it, but he knows it.) but payment. That is important. Or it was. Or maybe it still is.
He could drive her out of this cave and destroy the stores she's carefully amassed. Hakkaku should have done it immediately upon discovering her. In fact, he should have driven her out of the pack's territory anytime during the last moons. The pack has hunted this area frequently. Hakkaku has known she was here since she first hiked up the mountain. But the pack did not mention her to him, not until now. Now, when the first snows have fallen and more is heavy on the wind, when she is incapable of surviving should she leave. Now, when Hakkaku's eyes are cautious but determined, and the wolves snuffle around him in the home caves like a furry, restless horde. Now, when they present the girl's intrusion into his territory before him like a puzzle to be solved. They could have solved it on their own, Hakkaku and the pack, but they stare at him with hope that the problem they created will be enough.
It is probably the most benign challenge a wolf chieftain has ever received. Even through his confusion and rutting, he matches the human girl's resignation as his forehead falls to her shoulder. He does not want to be here, but a strange sort of duty compels him. This is what Hakkaku had planned, he realizes dimly, and he wonders if it makes him weaker that he complied with the pleading in his comrade's eyes.
The time of demons is closing. Somewhere in his denial, that knowledge hides. Somewhere in Hakkaku's rash ploy lurks the bitter dose of reality, a last-ditch attempt at a cure using a human pill for a demon illness. Because human power is rising where their strength fails.
He has not left the pack's caves in months on end. At first it was injury that laid him up. Then it was…this. His pack understands as best they can. They are, after all, the only ones left who can. The other packs are gone. What few wolf demons remained after Naraku have gone far, far north. Humans have grown too prevalent to face without strong packs, and his pack is the last with anything resembling strength. It makes him immeasurably sad that his pack is considered 'strong' at all when he stays in the home caves and most of his pack is…gone.
There is comfort in the remains of the wolf pack, but he cannot bear to run with them in their hunts. They leave and return with food for him, and he stares at the rock walls as they offer it as if their absence scooped his mind out of his body and left an empty shell in his place. The caves are always so quiet. Even when the pack is present, they are missing (Kagura laughs, Naraku looms over the fight, and he cannot protect his followers from their own loyalty. Behind him Ginta has fallen to silence, the disrespectful wolf finally shut up.). The missing persistently stings in the scar tissue in his calves, and behind his ears where he strains to hear the sounds of the dead and gone. It hurts behind the scar on his chest, one large ache of failure. It hurts in his head where…where…it used to be important.
It has driven him crazy. Sometimes he knows that.
Hakkaku thought it important that the girl live, because…someone once cared if humans lived or died. Humans living or dying had mattered to his pack, at some point. It hurts to think of humans or of the future of his pack, and his mind twists dizzily when he tries to follow the thoughts.
Here he is, however, thrusting and panting, and for a while…
For a while, Kouga doesn't think, and he isn't alone. And that is important.
If either of them knows what gentle feels like anymore, they don't pretend it applies between them. The wolf takes her on the stone ground before the fire, hot even through the layers of silk he fumbles at until she hitches them up above her hips. He slips his hand underneath the cloth, searching, until he finds what he seeks and follows his hand with his cock. He doesn't seem to care that her face is covered. Most of her is covered, still, but this isn't about the beauty of a woman or the appreciation of a man. This is paying the rent. It's business. It's nothing Rin hasn't done before (The lord's son grunts above her on the futon with his eyes closed. The guard leers, then gurgles when she slits his throat.).
The difference is in the smell. The peasants she's encountered have been unwashed and filthy, but their stench is sour and fatty. The demon smells rank, like a wolf kept underground for years. There is underlying scents of rotting meat on his breath and a general unhealthiness on his skin, but the greasy musk over it all nearly suffocates her. She feels faint and turns her face to the side to breathe shallow and near the hot stone.
She knows he finishes because men of all species seem to have the same signs. He stiffens once and jerks, and she waits patiently. What else can she do? Already she is thinking of the next day. She will be slightly pained, at least in the morning, and she may bleed. She has close to a week until her bleeding time, but she thinks that she may use her collection of rags in the morning so as to not make a mess (No one told her what to do during her bleeding times the first time it happened, and now no one can tell her what to do anymore. She makes up her own solutions to the problem.).
The fire needs wood. She wonders if the wolf will kill her now, or if she will live to put more wood on. It's surprising, once all the adrenalin has drained away and left her numb, how unafraid she is. Or perhaps not. Rin has always been afraid of wolves (They chase her through the woods.) but never of the men who use her body. Sesshoumaru is not here to save her (Never again. She can die, she can die…). It's a kind of full circle to have a wolf take her here, far away from humans and Sesshoumaru alike.
This wolf in particular, because he's a vague shape in her summer-glare world that she should remember, she does remember.
They've returned to where they began, wolf and girl, staring at each other in the dying firelight.
He should remember her. It's something about her scent, something about the sweep of her eyelashes even if the rest of her face is covered. He should, and…and…
He blinks, and it slides away like an ice floe in a spring flood (A raven-haired human girl standing in a massacred village, indignant and about to change his life forever.).
With an absent-minded huff, Kouga rolls off the girl--woman, rather--and to his feet. His scalp itches, and his nose wrinkles as he catches a whiff of himself. How had he not cared about the smell before? His scars ache. His head aches, too, but for the first time a long time, he can nearly understand why. Shifting things burn and subside a bit differently inside, like overstretched muscles between his ears. There's an odd feeling inside his skull, as if a broken lens in his mind's eye is trying to focus and bring a blurry picture into clarity, or he's clawing toward the surface after an avalanche.
He gives the woman a considering look but turns away to leave. He has other things to do. More important things, even if he's not entirely sure what those things are.
He remembers the feel of the hunt, and the memory calls to be reenacted.
The fire flares as the wolf leaps over it. He doesn't look back. She doesn't watch him go. There is wood to be added to the flames before they die, and the difficult process of banking the fire for the night must be started. It is easier than lighting another fire in the morning, but it is touch-and-go whether she does it correctly each night. It is dark, and therefore she will sleep until dawn. A woman just trying to survive does not waste wood or oil on light to sit by, no matter how afraid she is. The fire had not saved her, after all.
Strangely, her fear has subsided. Or maybe not so strangely. Adrenalin only lasts so long, and she has traveled far today. Physical exhaustion pulls the terror away, and…the wolf hadn't hurt her. Yes, her heart had raced. Yes, the place between her legs throbs with friction and bruises, and her jaw has swollen from the smack earlier. Compared to what he could have done (The battered demon's head bounces back into the hut, torn off his neck by a single blow, and she stuffs her hands into her mouth to muffle a scream as it stares blindly at her.), she takes the pain as part of--of--dealing with the landlord. Her human husband had never been gentle with her, in any case, nor any of those who used her body afterward. Sex always left pain behind, and it is minor enough that she will only limp tomorrow. Wolves enjoy the chase, but unlike cats, they don't play with their prey before the final blow. If the wolf demon had meant to kill her, she would be dead.
These thoughts cycle endlessly through the back of Rin's head, and she refuses to acknowledge the remains of her terror. Fear makes humans foolish, she knows this, and she can't afford to be paralyzed by a future she can't stop. She can't leave this place. She is at the wolf pack's mercy, and that is how it's going to be. Therefore, she'll keep on with living. Better to die living how she wants than cowering in a hole like a rabbit (She walks away from the useless women and turns her feet toward the wilderness as the castle burns. Sesshoumaru will not save her, so she will do it herself.).
Underneath her cowl of insulating silk, Rin's face splits in a fierce smile that resembles her feared wolves' snarls more than she knows. She may not have the supplies to survive the winter, but she can pay for the chance to at least try here on the mountain. If the wolves return, she will pay again. Other creatures pay for their place in wolf territory by being hunted. The toss-up between death or sex makes her heart flutter like a panicked bird, but it is a fair bargain to her mind.
A strong howl fills the clearing, echoing under the cold winter sky and bounding down the mountainside. The girl's head whips around, and she gasps as the howl leaps into her cavern and runs up her spine, making the fine hairs covering her body stand out. Her hands clutch the nearest branch and hold it like a weapon, but it falls from her nerveless grip. She draws closer to the fire to peer through into the night. The howl starts again.
It is more than a little mad, and the wolves who answer sound tentative. The mad wolf bays, calling them with blood hoarse and rasping underneath where lust for the hunt should be. It is not a wolfsong Rin has heard before, but the other wolves howl back in a sudden joyous chorus as if they had been waiting. They recognize it, even if she does not.
Yet when she hears it, a face rises unbidden from her memory to match it.
Later, once she's banked the fire and burrowed under the pile of smelly, smoked pelts and rags she uses for a bed, she looks into the embers and listens to the hunt in the distance. For all the red among the ashes, she still sees blue. Demon blue, wolf blue, but blue like a frozen winter when the sky is an icy bowl covering the world. There is no heat there, and definitely no protection from the cold (Sesshoumaru is the sun, summer sun, and she is safe within his season. No more, no more…). Under that winter gaze, the world takes care of itself. It is not expected to conform to the wolf's wishes because he will make his own way. She is not expected to be like him. She has already been rejected. The wolf will take what he wants and not care if nothing cooperates with his plans.
He has given up everything, and the inside his head is as smooth and deceptively featureless as shattered crockery blanketed in snow. She knows this. She remembers.
It doesn't matter if she doesn't understand why or even how. The child she had been remembers that face--not so narrow, not so worn--and Naraku facing off. She remembers the Wind Witch and Kohaku. She half-remembers words said in her child-presence that only now she can puzzle out into some sort of larger picture. Beyond the wolves that killed her, there had been other days, other passing encounters. In the greater presence of her demon lord, the wolves and Sesshoumaru's half-brother had never really registered. Naraku had been dangerous and evil, and now as she looks back, she understands how close to dying she had come several times but for Sesshoumaru's possessive pride. There had been far more going on than Rin will ever grasp, but she remembers the last battle.
Little children often see more than adults want. Sesshoumaru hadn't cared what she witnessed, so long as she didn't die without his consent.
There had been death, insignificant to one girl happy inside a permanent summer, but Rin dimly remembered the wolves. Many dead wolves. Oh, and the priestess. There had been a priestess, and a girl on the edge of womanhood who looked identical to the priestess…and screaming.
So much screaming.
A battlefield covered in snow, hiding all the pitfalls and broken things he wasn't ready to face, and she knows this. She knows this as she knows the feel of her heart inside her chest. Once surrounded and protected by ice and dead branches, she can feel it beat life through her body in a creeping growth like spring leaves stretching from a crawling vine. Blue, winter-sky eyes, she thinks, and in her mind's eye is the dangerous, savage demon crouched above her ("They're not supposed to hunt humans."). Wolfsong hovers over the mountain, laced with madness as snow hints at what lurks underneath.
Rin shivers and closes her eyes. She doesn't understand why or how. She hasn't the whole story, but she doesn't really need all the answers to feel the chill of winter. And, like winter, she can do little against its onslaught.
Dawn wakes her with bright, gold drops of light on her eyelids. Although the cavern mouth faces south, frost crystals pick up and reflect the rising sun in every direction. The tiny, mirrored flashes impress her more than the metal they resemble ever has. The human love of gold metal has never infected her, but pretty golden light is something she can appreciate. Sleep-dazed, the woman lays under her pile of covers and peers through the fine fur of a rabbit, enjoying the way it breaks up the gold into shimmering highlights.
It is only when her eyes open completely that she sees the wolf demon. He, too, breaks the dawn apart; the skin of his scalp gleams, and the improbable spikes of blonde hair are dusted with snow that turns them into a glittering crest. For a second, safe and warm in lingering sleep, Rin marvels at the sight. He looks hard as crystal and warm as summer (Perfectly inhuman, and forever warm…), and her throat pinches shut as her memories substitute another for him (Sesshoumaru leaves her in the fall.).
Then a gust of wind blows cold air heavy with the scent of a carnivore into the cave, ruffling the fur she stares through, and beauty is the last thing on her mind. Prey before a predator, she doesn't move. He cocks his head under her stare and steps over the gray firepit she slept beside. Out of the sunlight, he is a wolf demon instead of a godling, and she is strangely glad for it. Sesshoumaru belonged to a world of finery and class, the sad reflection of which her human husband had belonged to. This wolf belongs to the world she inhabits. He has no elegant mask. Every emotion and intent lives its fullest, and subtly is lost on him. Where Sesshoumaru would wear the barest hint of disdain over his expression, the wolf's disgust is thickly spread across his face.
She clings to that disgust, to the knowing. No games, not with wolves. Whatever his purpose here, it isn't to toy with her and play vicious little games. She may die, but it will be an honest death.
It seems that the demon isn't interested in her death. He bends toward her and sniffs, nose wrinkling. Her bed, like her body, smells pungently of wolf. It is obvious even to her weak nose what occurred here. She sits up slowly, stiff pelts and rags falling to her lap, and her gaze is steady. Blue eyes, demon eyes, lock with her human brown. Searching her eyes. Moving away and searching her face where layers of silk have sagged down below her chin. Searching for something, but not asking.
Everyone she's ever met has assessed her with a look, but these wolf demons demand no words, no answers. For them, silence is enough. When this mohawked demon had originally met her, he'd tried to coax more out, but then he'd seen her. He'd looked at her, as he did now, and words were unimportant. The answers he seeks today are drawn in through his flaring nostrils, and he gathers them thoughtfully, carefully. The bruise on her jaw adds to the story he pieces together, that scent of her blood pooling beneath the skin telling more than words, and the tacky liquid hidden between her thighs ends the unsaid tale.
No words are needed to tell her he is pleased. When he leaves, he lets her live, and that says it all.
Rin wishes vaguely she knew what is going on. Two wolf demons out of a pack of wolves: one sane, one mad. And then her, the outsider, knowing nothing of why she has one's grudging approval for the other's usage of her body. The stilted sense of being thrown into a play with no understanding of the reasons behind the role given to her is oddly familiar (Naraku holds the girl by her throat, and Kohaku pauses, his eyes anguished. She doesn't hesitate to leave the boy behind when Sesshoumaru calls her, and doesn't think of him again.). She doesn't wonder why.
She lays her traps in the forest and fishes, shivering in the cold water. Crusts of ice form on the banks, but the fish are plentiful. A thread of crimson winds its way down her thigh and into the water, unfolding in lazy patterns downstream. Rin watches it in a trance as her feet numb. Her mind is a river rock, picked up and skipped at will by those who grasp her. She has never known what is going on. Things happen, and she adjusts. The river rock sinks to the bottom, to wait for another hand to find it. The drama of the hand's owner isn't known to the rock; it only feels the hand close about it, and the violence of each throw.
There is survival, and the hurt between her legs, and her feet are numb. When she climbs from the freezing water, there are fish to cook and tattered clothes to wrap around her goose-pimpled body. There are rabbit skins, and all day and night is the eternal slough of the winter wind, biting and cold. These are things that had never occurred to her in the Sesshoumaru world she'd once lived in (Jaken's voice suddenly reminds her of the disgust on the wolf demon's face this morning. The past realigns minutely in her head, and she blinks at the strange feeling of reality seeping into her memories.).
Life sweeps onward, and the clouds move in. Winter closes in around the mountain, but inside her there is a tiny feeling of warmth. Of accomplishment for earning her place, perhaps, or for surviving another day. Around her heart, a bud swells fat and heavy green. The woman who had once been a child shivers and turns her attention to cooking dinner. Of all the things going on, she at least knows what she herself is doing. That is good enough for the moment.
When the snow drifts thick and heavy from the sky, he comes again. She simply turns around, steam wafting from the silk wrapped up to her eyes, and finds him staring at her through the cloud of her breath meeting the falling snow. The furs wound about him are in better repair than before, or perhaps the white snow covers filth from her sight. His eyes, however…they glint hard and mad, pebbles of winter-blue frenzy framed against the white-and-gray mountainside. Rin thinks of river rocks, smooth and ignorant, and beckons the wolf inside.
His claws pierce the skin of her upper arms, and his shaft is hard between her legs. Her thigh bruises where he braces one knee against her and lifts her pelvis to meet his thrust. Her moon blood smears his loins vivid red. It looks as though she's punished him for penetrating her.
She takes him unflinching and stares up into his melting world, deep in that slip-slide madness whirling 'round his head. His eyes avoid her own.
He doesn't know why he's returned to this place. He doesn't know her. The stinging smell of an unwashed human penetrates the smoking fire and slashes the delicate frame of his mind with its familiarity. Fragile new mends break painfully, and his face creases with confusion so strong it resembles agony. Yet she's no one he knows, no wolf in his pack nor a villager he's savaged…is she? No, no, his wolves no longer hunt humans because (Her face flushes crimson with anger and embarrassment, and he smiles at her. His kindness is foreign; his love voracious.) of a reason he can no longer remember.
If there were anything to remember. Kouga can no longer recall.
Sweat rolls down between his shoulderblades and itches under his tail as it trickles into the crack of his buttocks. They clench rhythmically; he concentrates on that, lunging into each forward motion and hissing upon withdrawal. This, this he understands. Sex, payment, rutting that requires no thought and eases the frayed seams of his broken mind. Under the layers of silk and rougher cloth, their skin is lubricated with salty water and red blood, steamy with exertion. His face is taunt and conflicted. Hers is covered, a blank silk mask. He cannot tell what expression she wears.
Even as his spine arches and climax shudders in the hard, tensed muscles of powerful thighs, the wolf knows he is glad for such small favors. Even if he doesn't remember precisely why.
Who can say how much time passes this way? They do not count seconds as humans do, the wolves and their tame wild-woman tenant. These creatures measure the winter in snowfall or windchill, in prey caught or escaped. Rin spends her days fishing in frigid waters or chopping wood doggedly with her dulled, pot-metal sword. She huddles beside the fire and drowses in the sudden evenings as wolves pant in the darkness outside her cave. Massive pawprints criss-cross her clearing in the mornings before the wind sweeps the snow clean and deceptively smooth. Eyes glow at the limit of the trees, reflecting flames red and orange from eyes of winter blue.
The wolves hunt the mountains, their voices raised in haunting song that lingers among the peaks. When she hears them, now, her head tilts as she listens as the wild animals do. They pass, and she returns to her toil. They come too near, and like the chattering creatures she traps to eat, she retreats to her burrow and hides. Furry bodies made of shadow and hunger emerge from the trees as she goes, and she never looks back. Sometimes they sniff outside her windblock at the cavern mouth, but they come no further, respecting his claim. Respecting his territory.
He comes to her, sable and bronze, silently invading where the wolfsong does not trespass. She measures the time by the sunlight he takes with rough, calloused hands tipped with inhuman claws. He uses her in daylight or comes to her at night. He wakes her in the darkness, breath hotter than the banked fire when he rolls her onto her back and unwinds the worn silk from her hips. Her eyes close to his labor, night or day, fire or sunlight, and he is gone when she opens them again.
She takes pains to always, always keep her face covered. It's true that it cuts the scent that frightens her even now, but there is more. She has never had an opportunity to become vain; when the only reflection to be caught is in still pools of water, why bother study her own face? Still pools were for fishing, not mirrors. Yet she knows what she looks like ("Sister?!" asks the demon, and it is not the first time she has heard him cry out for this sister of his. It is the first time she understands that the people outside her Sesshoumaru world really do matter.) enough to keep her face hidden.
He comes to her looking for simple release, seeking a glimpse of hope when its lack has driven him mad. She watches him sidelong, watches his glassy eyes with eyes that are barely any saner, and feels the gentle bloom of something in her chest when, just for a moment, his madness thins away, cracks the scab, and allows festering memories to breathe. It is not her he needs, but she is what is available, and what they…share…is healing him. Ever-so-slowly, gradually, one hunt, one rut, one clear night under the stars at a time, and reason seeps into a wounded mind.
A spring breeze may not seem like much in a frozen world, but it starts a bead of water rolling down an icicle. Any more, and the shock might snap the ice and drown his unprepared mind in a sudden flood. She knows this as she knows her own pain (The child is cold in her hands, mud-covered and dead.), and she knows why the other wolf demon cried out at the sight of her. Cried out for a dead woman with black hair and a priestess' face, a face she recognizes from still pools of water instead of from memory. She thinks, maybe, that her visitor--her landlord, her killer, her sorrowful descendant of a blurred memory--isn't ready for that sight.
Alone in her cave, waiting out the cold, Rin covers her face with compassion and never questions why.
Winter is a featureless season. Snow coats the world in timeless white swept clean by the wind. The animals live through it as they have always done, foraging and hibernating. The cold days and nights are spent conserving heat, and their simple minds are content with this. One has enough food to live; why worry about tomorrow?
In dens on the side of the mountain, wolves play as they have not for years. They hunt in a united pack, following at the heels of a two-legged packmate who speaks to them in a voice they have missed from his years of near-silence. True, his voice is raspy. True, his huntsong carries an instability of mind that they are wary of. But when Kouga runs with them, he is there among them instead of far away in past times. The empty husk that has dwelt in their midst for too long lives again, if unpredictably. When they don't hunt, the wolves play, rejoicing. When they don't play, they sleep nestled together in a pack that is closer than family. He lays curled in their furry embrace: father, leader, brother, and friend.
There are days when he wanders, and they let him go his way. He is no animal to be content with winter lethargy. With the wisdom of wild animals, they roll over and return to their dozing. They wait for hunger to wake them. Boredom is the danger of humans and human-like demons. For animals is the patience of necessity.
Hakkaku follows him, quiet in his wake. Sometimes, Kouga knows he is there, and those times are good. There is none of the carefree energy of years gone by, but occasionally the black-haired wolf grins faintly at him (At him, not at Ginta's memory, and grief lifts its heavy burden for an instant, just an instant.). Sometimes they speak, although the words are slow to come from their mouths. Instead, they converse in cocked heads and slanted looks, soft barks and growls from the language of their furry packmates.
It isn't casual. It isn't easy. Hakkaku can see trembling in the tendons of his chieftain's wrists on days when the wind blows up the mountain, and the abrupt stillness seizing the too-thin body when Kouga's nostrils flare. The automatic inhale of a wolf searching. Eternally searching.
Hakkaku breaks a little more each time. It isn't the searching. The search is a habit ingrained in them all, from grizzled one-eyed bitch to the gangly yearling male. They search, knowing the scent is gone. Kouga, however…it's the look in his eyes, the mad eyes so full of bitter knowledge that it's clear the mind behind them is utterly ignorant. He knows, and keeps searching because he no longer remembers what he searches for, only that it is desperately missed. He knows that it is gone, but not how or when or why. There is a horrible, gaping tear in Kouga's memory, jagged and badly mended, and Hakkaku looks away from his friend's eyes because it hurts to see (The grief closes in, crushing him, and what can any of them do against it?).
The dark-haired demon is trying, it's obvious, and some days he succeeds in bridging the massive flaw. He is--almost--normal. Distant and sometimes confused, but once again the leader of their pack instead of an empty shell of demon. The pack swarms around him in a happy, welcoming horde, and leaves tomorrow's problems for tomorrow.
The paler wolf demon looks away, and worries today.
If he had continued looking, he might have seen Kouga watching him in return.
In a cave on the other side of the mountain, Rin sleeps with the darkness and wakes with the light, but she has her own stash of worries to fill her waking moments. There is wood to chop and haul, and food stores to check for rot. She rations her food stores obsessively, hoping to somehow find a way to extend them further. How long is winter? Time, time, she has little inclination to measure it yet she knows ignoring the length of winter won't make it shorter (Her belly grows as women chatter around her and dice time into hours and minutes.). She checks her traps when the snow is not too deep and nearly becomes lost in a sudden mountain blizzard. After that she sticks with fishing, but there is an uneasy compromise between burning and storing energy and wood when hunting and gathering.
More and more, she finds herself sitting beside the fire with little to do but stare out into the snow-covered clearing and brood. Restless thoughts turn to the time passing by, the rations running out, memories she can't forget.
It is not healthy for humans to sit idle and useless. Animal demons find contentment in instinct. More intelligent demons learn stillness, to find peace or entertainment inside their minds because their lives stretch spans of centuries. It is a method of enduring the years for them. Humans haven't the luxury of time for their tricks. Trapped in a hole by winter, Rin's already-tilted mind becomes…unbalanced.
She focuses on things that she's worked hard to avoid thinking about. She broods on death, and a time when she hadn't thought of it at all. That time seems very far away now. The memories are clear and hard yellow like Sesshoumaru's eyes when he'd glanced down at her with lordly distain. From the perspective of a young woman living in a cold cavern far from that artificial summer-world (Time stopped, because even time bent before the demon lord's will.), she picks over them and reinterprets her blind devotion. How different Jaken is when she rethinks his words. How contemptuous Sesshoumaru, although that at least she understands. He had never disguised how little he wanted her around, but her own persistence had kept her at his side. His pride had done the rest. How naïve she had been!
Rin wallows miserably, prying and prodding the aching memories like a masochist with a bruise, and silence pools like unshed tears around her until each breath ripples waves through the air and across the snow-buried meadow. Around her the cavern is cold and empty; there is nothing here to hold onto. Memory piles up over the present and drags her down to drown.
When the wolf comes, the woman looks up at him. Their eyes meet. For the first time, he seems to know why he is there, and she does not look away (Mad eyes of winter blue and hair of pitch-black night. Why had she never realized he was nothing like him?).
The predator reaches for his prey, and she opens to him. His touch pulls her out of memory and buoys her in the present, and for that she is grateful.
Kouga moves intently within her, taking what he can get if not savoring it, and he is glad the human has closed her eyes. The brown eyes disturb him on a level that he doesn't care to think on, feeling the warning signs underfoot like trying to run up a greased hill. One wrong step and he has the feeling that he'll slide all the way down.
It has taken too long and too much effort to reach this point, and he huffs against stinking cloth as he drives in and out. She smells--reeks!--of human, and he pressed his nose to the patch of skin and hair at her temple where the silk covering her face gapes a bit. An empty pit opens in his belly (There had been someone once, someone capable of filling that pit with fire and passion.), but it doesn't cripple him. He is thinking, not just reacting, hard as the distinction is when her leg twitches with a cramp and he shifts his weight without his hips missing a beat. He knows there is a reason why he can't kill this woman, just as there is a reason he can't remember so many things about his pack, about humans, about the scars he bears. His head spins dizzily to think about it, but he grits his teeth and jams one knee against the ground.
The woman gasps as he heaves her onto her side and slams into her heavily, catching and hoisting one slim leg over his shoulder despite her wince, but Kouga needs this. It is important, pounding its ways into his dreams like he pounds into her soft flesh, and she distracts him the way sleep does, only he's not dreaming. This is real. The momentous thing screaming (A girl) on the peak (with black hair) of each thrust (and eyes wide with terror) shudders closer (as she flees), and all he has to do is crack (the shambling bodies) the numb paralysis and really feel (wearing familiar faces)what he's forgotten--
But a wolf demon is only a wolf demon, damage or desperation aside, and Kouga jerks roughly as he comes. The strength of it startles him, lifting his tail up and spurring him deep into her heat a final time with a spasm of pleasure that curls his spine and erupts from his mouth in a strangled sob.
And just like that, everything fades away. It leaves him the afterimage of a nightmare, and he grasps it with frantic mental hands that fail to hold on. Numb joints, dull reflexes, frostbit fingers; they can't grasp the memory that could save him, the memory he's seen lurking in Hakkaku's grief-stricken eyes, and Kouga struggles impotently against the snow that closes in upon him, burying his heart in muffling, muddling layers of insanity.
He lays his head down, and mourns. He no longer knows why.
It had been important.
Uncertainty keeps her still at first, then caution. The immediate reflex of a pinned animal is to thrash free, but Rin knows better than to act like caught prey around a wolf, especially one as dazed as this. She'd thought he'd had a seizure of some kind from the convulsive way he'd tossed her over, but he'd proceeded to fuck her from that position as if whipped into frenzy. Her hip throbs from the wrench he's given it, and the opposite hip had missed the cushion of her rucked-up clothing and oozes blood from a sharp pebble now imbedded in it. Her entire pelvis will be mottled black and blue where he's hit her so hard and repeatedly the rhythmic 'whup' of impact has shoved her forward nearly into the fire. One of the rabbit skins near her shoulder smolders, but she dare not move to put it out, not until she knows what's going on.
She doesn't think he's trying to kill her ("They're not supposed to hunt humans."), or honestly trying to hurt her at all. He's never shown any intent to cause her pain before. While he's undeniably mad, it's almost a predictable kind of madness to her.
So when his forehead comes to rest on her collarbone, she doesn't know what to do. The whine of a tortured animal works its way out of his throat to cry against her in strained hitches. It sounds as if the pain is choking him, and she doesn't know what to do. This is outside her ability to predict, beyond any and all of her experience with other humans much less demons. Spots of wet warmth patter one after another on her breast. His shoulders heave. Since one of her legs is still held captive over one of those shoulders, she flinches at the sudden stab of a stressed tendon.
The motion prompts him to look up. From the distance of a handsbreath, wolf and woman stare into each others' eyes. She cannot interpret what she sees there in depths of demon blue, winter blue, melted-tears blue. Misery twists his mouth, baring his fangs in a rictus grimace, and above them are those eyes, those horror-filled eyes overflowing onto her breast. Winter eyes, brittle and impenetrable with frozen psychosis that nonetheless look into her barely-sane eyes of ordinary, human brown and see…something.
Something familiar (A girl.). Something dreamlike (He knows this girl…). His nostrils flare, searching for what is not there, and beneath the winter's ice a desperate demon cries out.
Rin's eyes pop wide as the wolf lunges forward to press his cheek to the silk covering her own. Covered as her face and hair are with cloth, she can still feel his skin as if they are both naked, and more intimate yet is the hoarse whisper in her ear:
"Help me, Kagome…"
Had he been anything but out of his mind, Kouga would have never asked for help from a human. Had he been remotely sane, he wouldn't have thought to ask anyone, even as a last resort. Had it been anything but an unconscious act of desperation, he might have heard what he said.
Had he said anything else, Rin wouldn't have done anything even if she'd known what to do. Latching onto the wolf's brief interludes in her life to pass the winter time gave her nothing more than a vague feeling of compassion. They were not, but any stretch of the words, companions, friends, or mates. The ability to feel compassion was a new thing for Rin, fragile and not up to the task. What feelings her blooming heart salvaged from the wreck made of her life were still too tentative to escape her ingrained wariness. He is mad, and she is at his mercy. His cry for help inspires a survivor's need to escape his random mood swings as soon as possible
All these things roil inside her, twining through the intense uncertainty of not living through the winter months that has dogged her through the bland days. But there is something else. Today, and yesterday, and the day before, she has thought of nothing but the bitter cold and Sesshoumaru. Since the wolf arrived, Rin has thought of river rocks and winter-blue eyes that fill her with terror and an emotion too new for her to identify as sympathy. Her thoughts have been conflicted and confused. She has feared for her life.
She has not thought of Sesshoumaru at all.
It occurs to her that if she were to die today, by starvation or cold or a wolf's fangs, that she would die Sesshoumaru's chattel. She's taken a thousand steps forward and never moved on (The castle burns behind her. The child is dead in her arms. And she still acts as if she lives these moments right now.). All the progress she's made has been in distancing herself from that bright summer childhood, but actual progress, actually determining her future instead of just surviving and waiting as the river rocks wait…
Had he said anything else, she wouldn't have seen the parallel. He'd called for help from someone dead and gone, and it sliced her unbalanced mind open so the emotions poured out. He'd never moved on, still trapped in a time he'd couldn't possibly return to and unable to see that simple fact.
They're not so different, wolf and woman.
Compassion is too weak to move her as she stares blindly at the cavern ceiling and feels the heat of fire and tears upon her neck. Selfish desire, however, lights like spring sunshine around her heart. Flowers, like her stunted maturity, do not care what feeds their growth. Legends and heroes can afford selfless sacrifice, but her life is not a storybook tale. Anger boils up inside her: anger at herself, at her foolishness, at Sesshoumaru, and finally, at her continued helpless acceptance.
Rin does not want to save the demon. Rin does not care enough for that.
Rin just wants to live.
It takes him by surprise when she bucks underneath him. She's slight, but strong; he's disoriented enough that the move tosses him aside. It shocks him out of his stupor, especially when his hair nearly catches fire. "Oi!" he yips, scrambling back on all fours.
But she trips him up with an ankle stuck between his knees. Her other foot thuds against the repaired armor protecting his ribs, and Kouga finds himself tumbled over onto his back before he realizes what she's done. Humans always seem slow compared to demons, but he's not exactly up to par at the moment. His head is a mix-mash of memories he can't quite grasp and present despair. She straddles him in the time it takes to process what she's done.
The silk over her face covers any expression, but there's no mistaking the look in her eyes. Kouga has faced swords with blunter edges and more give. It's sheer reflex to clamp his hands over the nails aimed for his vulnerable throat, but nimble fingers twist within his grasp to pierce his skin anyway. He bares his teeth, snarling--
--and she grinds down on him.
The wolf demon's mouth flops open, threat forgotten, as the human--girl--woman, gods damnit--digs her pubic bone into him and smashes his cock in a wet, hot, seed-slick circle against his lower belly. Slippery folds of flesh and wiry hair stroke harshly around sensitive balls and apply pressure that could be too hard if he weren't hardening to meet it. His hands clench convulsively, and she shrieks angrily, painfully, as the knuckles of her hands pop. They'll bruise, and neither of them care.
Every madness-mired thought and feeling shunts to the side in the face of her assault. Suddenly clear-headed, Kouga surges up to meet her.
Blue eyes rimmed in white glare at her, and she glares back with a determination that borders on hate. The look of shocked arousal on his face is one she's only ever seen on a guard whose throat she cut at the moment of orgasm. For some reason, it triggers drugged heat to flood her, pulling the tips of her breasts into sensitive peaks and filling her groin with a pleasure Rin has never before experienced. She pushes down, humping her crotch over the hard line of the wolf's shaft faster and harder while the unexpected pleasure pulses higher at each pass.
He hisses as her hips snap against him, and hysterical laughter bubbles up beside the uncontrollable anger already riding her like she rides the demon. Her knees brace on either side of him, lifting up, and he lets her hands go in order to grab her waist and lift her further.
The engorged head of his cock slips inside her, and she plunges down upon him as her hands slam into his unprotected throat. His head smacks back onto the stone under them, but Rin's frantic pace hasn't slowed. She rocks astride him even as her fingers close his windpipe.
He doesn't fight back.
This isn't about 'paying the rent.' This isn't about wolves, or winter, or survival. This is most definitely not about Sesshoumaru, and only peripherally about Kagome. Mutual despair and misplaced desire has driven them to this, and here it is:
This is about two damaged people using each other. This is a woman fucking a man, and getting off on the control she seizes. This is about a man submitting to the moment, and regaining his past on the intensity of total surrender.
Rin climaxes quickly, bent over and gasping, and Kouga screams behind her chokehold.
On a subconscious form of autopilot, the wolf demon gingerly peels orgasm-relaxed fingers away and takes a shuddering breath. Then another. It takes longer than it should, but eventually he takes another after that.
His head lolls to the side, and his eyes don't track when the woman slumps down beside him. Exhausted and overwhelmed, she's fainted. Her body curls into his side, but he doesn't notice. His pupils are dilated with distress far beyond what human or demon minds can cope with; he's staring, but he doesn't see a thing. He knows now what he went crazy to avoid remembering. The snow behind his mind's eye has melted and revealed all the lethal things lying in wait underneath.
When he finally blacks out, the memories follow him where he can no longer hide.
In Rin's dream, the black-haired girl with the priestess' face dies as skeletons clad in ragged, rotten flesh tear her apart. Sesshoumaru stands by Rin's side and observes the brutal murder impassively. Wind whips the scene with a witch's laughter, and a despairing howl loses to the wind. It isn't until the dream turns undead wolf demons toward her that she realizes the dead girl wears--has always worn--her face.
It isn't until Sesshoumaru leaves her to her fate that Rin wonders how many times in her life wolves will kill her.
Side by side in a cave high on the mountain, a wolf and a human sleep by a dying fire and cry silent tears. It's nearly for the same reason. They've lost so much, and gotten so little in return. Kouga has avenged his pack, but at such a cost…and when he wakes, he'll stagger from the cave as if aged a thousand years in a night under the weight of that cost. He'll return to the remnants Kagura and Naraku left him, and stand before Hakkaku wearing a face gone gaunt with memory.
She'll watch him go, mouth set grimly beneath silk and jaded eyes. At least…at least she won't think of Sesshoumaru as he leaves. It's a lopsided trade, unfair at best to exchange this winter demon for her summer memories, but she's decided. She chose. Better a life fighting on her own and taking what she can get than merely accepting the inevitable and regretting the rest. Winter cannot last forever; she feels in the eddy of warmth hesitating around her heart, in the mending sanity in blue eyes, that the seasons will change again: winter to spring, spring eventually to summer. Will she live to see summer? She may yet die of starvation, but she won't spend her limited days thinking of what she can never again have.
Survival over sentiment. Better to keep living, the wolf and the woman know, and think, and dream beside each other --and tears seep quietly down their faces as even in sleep they try so hard to believe it.
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