Timeline: Post-series. Much hypothetising abounds.
Spoiler Warning: If you have not read vol. 14 of the manga, or seen ep. 33-35 of the anime (the Tenseiga storyline), this piece contains spoilers related to Sesshoumaru.
Author's Notes: Coming from me, this is a strange story. But upon studying the latest few manga tankoubon, I felt an inclination to try my hand with Sesshoumaru and Rin, characters I have long loved but never written about.
When word spread that Lord Sesshoumaru, first-born son and heir to Inu no Taishou, Master of the Western Lands had, to all appearances, become the foster father of a human girl-child, the outcry was hushed but the rumours swelled like the ire of a dragon. Among youkai, such was not unheard of, and the Great Dog Demons of Kyuushuu were known throughout the islands for their close relations with humans. However, it was widely agreed upon that Lord Sesshoumaru was the exception that proved the rule - haughty and arrogant, with a heart as icy as the deepest Ezo winter. Thus, the hearsay invoked much puzzlement, although no one felt confident enough to challenge the youkai lord for the verity or falsity of the information.
After the final defeat of the demon Naraku and the destruction of the Jewel of Four Souls, in both of which Sesshoumaru was said to have had a hand, he retreated into his ancestral territory, and not much was heard of him in years. He had always been one to keep his own counsel, but now he all but vanished into the Kyuushuu wilderness, keeping only a handful of faithful servants about him.
The house lay in a sheltered valley hemmed in the north and east by the bastions of broken cliffs, and everywhere else by thick woodland which formed a labyrinthine circle of protection around the compound. This was where Lord Inu no Taishou had lived in his late days, after taking a mortal woman as his mate. Now his elder son again took the house into use after long years spent wandering across the land. There was some debate as to whether Lord Sesshoumaru would be better served by the great hidden halls of stone where his forefathers had resided and ruled, but he was as inshakable in his decision as in all other matters. The house was certainly spacious enough, worthy of his station, and well guarded. A river wound its lazy way through the vale, and its banks were covered in cherry trees. They were heavy with fruit on the morning the mists in the valley parted as if to admit the three travellers through - the lord of the house, his liege, and the sleeping child borne in the crook of his one remaining arm.
As soon as she awoke in the next morning, she began mapping the house with meticulousness rivalling the scribe of her adoptive father, and when she was done with the building, the valley was naturally next. Children of the samurai were hoisted on horseback and expected to stay there early in their lives, but she rode two-headed dragon creatures along the river bank. She had long conversations with capricious kitsune that respectfully approached the master of the house with tributal gifts. She listened to the flute of the tatarimokke in the forest, saw wolf spirits run across the hills under the moon, and was as happy as she could be.
She was a mortal child who had followed her saviour when her own people had deserted her, into a savage and wonderful realm that most humans only saw shimmering afar. What they dreaded, she had embraced.
She loved the house, loved the wilderness around it, loved the one who had given this new life to her. Her memories of the human world and the village of her birth were already growing dim and disjointed. She knew that there had been another who had looked at her with gentle eyes and made her feel safe and protected. There had been a woman, mother, who had held her in her arms, but war and disease and hunger had taken all that from her. She had been left with the tatters of her former life, existing only at the mercy of the villagers who had too little for themselves as it was.
She was an orphan of war, but more fortunate than most. Perhaps this marked her, and perhaps the mark became more prominent as she left childhood behind, but for a long time she was content and carefree under the vigilant, if apparently aloof, guard of the youkai lord.
In the spring she would play among the tumbling cherry petals, catch them and watch them drift on the river. When summer came she anxiously waited until she could gather the ripe cherries, handfuls after handfuls, and sit in the oldest of the trees, sucking the sweet pulp from the stones. She was allowed to roam the vale at her whim, and as she gained years she often did so for days on end, only returning to the house when her wanderlust ran dry and she could again stomach the thought of walls around her. Lord Sesshoumaru's methods of upbringing did raise their share of disapproval, especially among the ladies of the various nightfolk courts, but he was never known to listen to such chatter. Thus, his daughter grew up to be more wilful than dainty, more spirited than ladylike, more beautiful than refined. The comparison to her foster father was a sharp one, but the wisdom in the matter was his, for she could not survive in his world unless she utterly became a part of it. So when she reached her youth, the moon sang in her ears and the forest hummed through her bones, and the earth called to her like to no child of her people.
Like the cherry blossoms, she seemed to bloom overnight, tentatively opening into maidenhood. She herself appeared initially very surprised, and then took the changes in her body and mind with the straightforward ease that was a profound part of her nature. If, at this time, the whispers that Lord Sesshoumaru intended to make young Lady Rin his mate gained any truth to them, it was not known outside the house.
One day, he called her to his quarters. She went trustingly, greeted him and knelt across from him, only an expanse of woven tatami between them. He spoke to her then, in quiet, precise words, his countenance tranquil. She was already an adult among her people, but she had lived most of her life cloistered in the valley, among ageless beings. What did she intend to do now? The house was a shelter, but it was not a prison.
She smiled as she stood up in a rustle of flower-patterned skirts and crossed the floor, halting beside the regal, distant youkai lord who had raised her. Her brown eyes were serious, her fingers tender on his maimed shoulder. "There's nowhere I would be happier than here."
He looked upon her for a while, the clear-eyed, silver-voiced child who had become a woman, and the matter was settled.
The years slid on, long to her, so short in his eyes. She remained with him, bringing a sense of joy and vivacity to the seclusion of the hallowed house, one that had been missing since the death of its erstwhile master. Sometimes she did not see him for many a moon, and she grew used to the waiting. She had only ever seen a very small patch of the lands that fell under his reign, and when he sat in his airy room, deep in thought or perhaps writing a letter with precise brushstrokes, it was so strange to imagine that he was indeed the lord of the whole southwestern island. But she did not allow his absence to cloud her days. She rewakened the garden that had lain in disorder and neglect since the departure of the late lady of the house, coaxing the water-lilies in the pond back to life, seeing to that the paths were raked and kept clean. She browsed through the library, unearthing texts many a human scholar would have given his left eye to see. In the winter, she even sometimes took up the brush and wrote short verses of her own. Only those who had been with her since she had been a child could perceive the sadness that dwelled in her when he was away, so subtle it was.
However, no one disagreed on that she always was the first one to know when he would be home. Whether it was in the light of day, or under the faint aura of the last stars, she would walk through the house to the gate and stand there until the silver and white figure melted into view from the forested landscape.
And as she aged, and he remained unchanging, he seemed to be gone less often, as if he understood that his time with her was slowly drawing to an end. He might come to stand on the veranda as she tended to her treasured garden, or she might enter his room with a tray of tea and simply sit in silence as he read, or wrote, or discussed in a low voice with one of his messengers or watchers.
Any of his kind would have said that he seemed to have aged prematurely, like time had etched an invisible sigil upon him. But like all things, this mark of time had its counterpart in the hidden gentleness behind his impartial eyes, in the rare peace that could sometimes be seen on his face as he beheld the human woman who had spent her life with him. For anyone other than those two, it was impossible to say exactly what it was that existed between them, bound them together. Regardless, they both knew and were secure in that knowledge.
Autumn blew again over the cherry grove, the last flowers in the garden nodded into sleep. It was a cold season, and she felt it much more strongly than the other residents of the house. She was old in human years, and the shell of her body was becoming weak, too weak to hold the spirit still blazing clear and steady inside it. At times he sat beside her bed as she slumbered, not looking at her, not touching her, but it still seemed that he was able to imbue her with some strength, offer her some comfort.
During that winter she slept more and more, her form dwindling beneath the folds of her robes. When she had strength to stay up, she was easily exhausted. But there was still vigour in her voice and a light in her eyes, and every day she walked into the garden to watch the high sun dance on the snow, or then to observe as flurries of grey descended from the heavens, deepening the cold.
It was almost spring, the sky a particularly clear blue, on the day she stayed in bed past noon for the first time. Not hearing her move, not smelling the soft waft of her scent, he came to the room and found her buried in the blankets. Her sharp dark eyes darted at him as soon as he entered, and her lips drew into a tired, tender smile. She extended her arms towards him.
"Please. Take me to the garden."
He picked her up with his one arm like a child, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. She had always been tiny, but now she seemed nigh weightless to him, fragile as a butterfly.
Their breath smoked in the chilly air. The trees rose still in the bright midday, a crown of fresh snow upon each of them. There was not yet a single path of tracks in the crisp whiteness over the ground. The whole valley seemed a magical land captured in glass, frozen under an enchantment, cold, scintillating, perfect.
"It looks... as if they were already blooming." Her hand moved towards the cherry trees.
"So it does."
They watched the spellbound winter for a while, and then he carried her inside.
From that day, with painful slowness, winter began to break. She did not gain strength nor health, however. For her, there was even no battle, only a gentle slide towards something utterly calm and consoling. She loved her life, and thus could also accept the parting from it.
If he guessed at her thoughts he gave no outward sign. But when he woke after a night-long watch in her room and the bed was empty, he rose without hurry and made his way towards the southern wing of the house, outside which lay the garden and the cherry trees. It had snowed during the night, he noticed, there was still a dusting of frost across the rough planks of the porch.
She stood on the veranda, garbed in a cream-coloured robe, her silver and black hair tumbling down her back. She was leaning heavily against a column, her coat a pool of warm fabric at her feet.
He picked up the garment and draped it around her, carefully lifting the locks of hair from the way.
"Today... I think." She stared out into the river, golden in the hazy springtime light. His eyes were a deeper hue, more amber, as he nodded slowly. An understanding passed between them. She had stamped the sign of mortality upon him, and he had given her a glimpse, a vague, fleeting sense of infinity. Now it was time for her to relinquish that brief insight.
"Over there," she went on, pointing at the broad, gnarled shape of the oldest cherry tree, the tips of pale red flower buds casting a delicate veil over it. He moved to lift her, but she shook her head. "I want to walk myself, even if it's slow going."
He offered her his arm, and supporting herself on his shoulder, she stepped into the yard. Drifts of snow still littered the ground, but strong green blades of grass pushed from the soil. The heavenly lilt of a lark echoed over the garden, and the sun peered from behind the clouds, swathing them in warmth as they slowly, at her ponderous pace, walked towards the tree.
She sank against the trunk of the tree, the bark rough against her wrinkled cheek. For a moment everything was so still that she thought she could hear the sap flowing through the ancient tree, from the deepest roots to the ends of the smallest branches.
He stood a ways behind her, almost respectfully, the wind weaving through his hair. At that moment she was a mystery to him, as indistinct and shifting as the glitter of the stars on water. To say that he was truly immortal, infinite like the gods, was of course false and even meaningless. He was a creature of blood and bone as well as of spirit, and thus as shackled in time as she was. But they were not the same, they had only come together for the span of one human life, and ultimately the paths they trod would diverge.
She made a feeble gesture with her hand. He took a step forward, coming to her side. The river was a ribbon of molten opal under the sun that had fully emerged from the cover of the clouds.
Spots of light like twin fireflies glimmered in the darkness of her eyes. "Sesshoumaru," she said quietly. "I... I'm going now." She held out a hand and silently he took it, his pale, taloned hand enveloping her small, slender one. He could feel every beat of her heart as the faint throb of blood in her withered hand, could hear every rasping breath she drew.
"You will cross the river in peace," he whispered. "Don't wait, Rin. This time do not wait. When I follow, where you go will not be my destination."
"I know." She smiled once, and died there amidst the snow and the opening cherry blossoms, on the brink of winter and spring.
That night the braziers in the verandas and courtyards burned with scented herbs scattered among the coals. The blinds were drawn down, the doors pulled shut, and one by one the inhabitants departed, leaving only the lord of the house sitting in the innermost chambers, in darkness. She lay before him, wrapped in white silk, her eyes pressed closed. He kept a silent vigil beside her body and sought no one, indeed forbade every one of his servants and lieges from the house that she had made a home.
Finally, he gave the frail shell to the fire, watching as the bright flames swallowed the flesh that had once sheltered a life, a heart, the only one to ever have stirred his own. The cherry trees shed their blossoms in clouds of pink and white and silver, and the glowing ashes scattered into the sky, joining the dance of the flowers, as transient as it was eternal.
Such is the burden of immortals loving those bound in flesh and time. Such is the legacy of fathers passed down to sons, reluctantly received but, in time, cherished and protected.
He did not weep for her, for that was not his way, and she did understand, but never did he take another to share his life. Thus the years passed in the house in the cherry valley, in the wide world around it, and in the heart of a youkai lord who had, among very few others of his kin, tasted the tang of mortality and loved it to and beyond its end in this world of living.
Ezo: the archaic name for Hokkaidou, the northernmost of the islands of Japan
Kyuushuu: the southernmost of Japan's four main islands
samurai: the warrior/social elite of feudal Japan; also indicates a soldier of noble birth
tatarimokke: a rather benevolent youkai that plays its flute to guide the souls of dead children into the next world
youkai: "demon"; a creature of magical nature
I have to credit the inspiration for this piece to Neil Gaiman's novel The Dream Hunters, which I warmly recommend if you're at all into Japanese folklore.