The wind moaned through the trees, blowing unnoticed tendrils of ebony hair into the face of the woman perched, crouching, on the one of the many boulders surrounding the keisu garden. She turned her face to it and breathed deeply, letting her eyes fall closed. She sought out every nuance in the scent, cataloguing every detail. The rich, thick smell of wet earth, the perfume of the surrounding lotus trees, the fresh, heavy air of just-past rain, and the salt of the distant sea. Perfect.

She was leaving this place tomorrow, forever.

A sob caught deep in the woman's chest, and, with an angry rush of breath, she leapt off the boulder, landing gracefully without a sound. Normally, as she walked through this garden, she was careful not to crush any of the delicate inhabitants growing here; now, however, as the woman trodded through, blinded by her frustration, her grief, her rage, she left an ugly scar where her boots trampled years of love and dedication.

She continued on, avoiding the rock path in defiance of habit and conscience, until she came to the shrine which stood as the centerpiece of the garden. On a carved stone platform sat a large marble statue of Aizen Myo-o. The personification of the Spirit of Love for Illumination. Guardian of pilgrims on the true path.

With a feral snarl, the woman flexed her right arm, sending a shock of pain through her, only feeding her rage. The skin on the backside of her right hand resisted for only a minute before surrendering to three foot-long arcs of metal. She drew her hand back, hesitating only a moment, studying the kind face that shone with the compassion that never seemed to reach her, or any of those unfortunate enough to be loved by her, before bringing it down, across, slicing cleanly through the left half of the statue and destroying the once perfect symmetry.

Adrenalin rushed through her veins, and the woman was filled with the warm, familiar glow of triumph, of violence, of power over... over, over a cold chunk of rock. The glow receded, and was replaced with disgust and regret. But that, too, soon proved useless; and the hunched, shaking figure was left with only emptyness inside, face to face with a work of her own masochistic obscenity.

She fell to her knees, and pressed her face to the gutted statue, feeling the razor sharp edge of the wound slice into her cheek. She closed her eyes, and let the cold of the stone soak into her, filling her. Only then did she let the tears fall, unnoticed, onto the already wet surface.

After a few moments, the woman rose. She picked up the shaven chunk of marble and placed it onto a bed of ivy, ringing it with the lotus flowers that had fallen all around, leaving it as its own shrine, its own promise. As she began the walk back, this time staying carefully on the path, the wind changed, and she caught a scent.



A woman stepped from behind a grove of trees and smiled a sad smile. "You're getting easier to sneak up on, old girl." Her voice was teasing, trying to disract from what the older woman knew she had seen, but her eyes were serious, and told of a willingness to go to the ends of the earth to wash away the pain that lay, hidden, in the depths of the other woman's eyes.

The older woman did not respond, but merely looked on stoically, not coldly and accusatorily, as Yukio had feared, or lovingly and indulgent, as she had dreamed, or furious and violent, as she had expected, but blank and removed. At this, Yukio made a small noise, a gasp or a sob, perhaps, and ran to her. She threw her arms about her and drew the shorter woman to her, trapping her, shielding her from whatever had done this to her.

But Loren had never allowed herself to be shielded, and, though she did not draw back, she tensed immediately. Realizing her mistake, that after all these years, sharing her home, her bed, her heart with this woman, Loren did not belong to her, and never would, Yukio released her, and stepped back. "Go, then, Loren. Go to these Americans. Maybe they can heal you. Let them love you," here her voice choked off, and she took a deep breath. "Let them give you what, for some reason, I never could." Her eyes suddenly teared, and she turned away, ashamed; but not before she caught Loren's shocked look in the corner of her eye.

"No . . ." came the strangled whisper, and, before she knew what was happening, a hard, warm mouth had claimed her own, and strong arms were circling her, crushing her to a hard, warm chest. A repentive kiss; Loren was begging her forgiveness for any pain she had brought to her, but not denying. And Yukio answered in kind. Yes; Oh gods, it has been worth it; I love you; and, finally, Go.

Yukio drew away from the embrace to gaze into loving, sorrowful eyes, and smiled. Perhaps she had given her something after all, and now there was something else to give, perhaps the hardest thing of all. "Go. It is time. You have a new life waiting for you, with these Americans, this X-Factor; but remember, I, we," gesturing toward the garden,"will always be here for you." She leaned forward for another soft kiss, and then was gone.

Loren stood there for a minute, wondering why, instead of the loss she thought she should feel at the sudden absence of her lover from her arms, she felt fuller than she could ever remember feeling. She turned toward the garden again, breathing in the scent of it one last time, and then turned to leave. She had a plane to catch...