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Purity 8: Vendetta

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The sound of the bus’ horn cut through the peaceful tranquility of the late spring afternoon in the small town. It was the last time he’d hear the sound for a few months since Divide County Elementary School had been officially dismissed for the summer, and with talk of a trip to Disney World in late July to look forward to, Kurt Drevin figured that this vacation was shaping up to be one of the best so far. The seven year-old had been promoted to the second grade with the distinction of having attained perfect attendance—all in all, no small feat since winters in Crosby, North Dakota, tended to be quite harsh. More than half of his class had been absent one week, victims of a particularly nasty strain of flu. Kurt hadn’t been touched by it. His mother was fond of saying that it was all in his blood, but that was something that Kurt really didn’t understand.

He hurried around the front of the bus and onto the sidewalk, scowling at a rip in the bright red shorts his mother had just bought for him. He hadn’t meant to tear them, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped when he was playing dodge ball during recess, and while he knew that his mother would likely scold him, he also knew that after she was finished, she’d ruffle his hair and give him a cookie from the never-empty jar on the counter in the bright and airy kitchen of the Drevin family’s home . . .

“Bye, Kurt!” Billy Rotmore called, waving over his shoulder before Kurt turned down the alley—the short-cut to his back yard.

“See you!” Kurt yelled as he stooped to retrieve a short stick off the ground. “Come over if your mom says you can!”

Billy nodded and ran up the steps onto the wide porch that spanned the length of his house. He heard Billy’s front door slam moments later as the wail of sirens erupted in the distance.

Letting out a deep breath in a heavy gust that lifted the fringe of black bangs that framed his little face, Kurt reshouldered his backpack and trudged down the path to the high wood plank gate, letting the stick thump against the picket fence edging the neighbor’s yard. It fell from his fingers as he reached for the heavy iron handle of the gate and let out a soft little grunt as he bore down on it with all his weight. It opened with a loud groan that made him grimace, and he pulled it closed in case his dad decided to put Loopy, Kurt’s clumsy golden retriever puppy, out for a while. He frowned, cocking his head to the side as he scanned the empty yard. Caroline wasn’t outside, and that was strange. His three year-old sister loved to wait for him on sunny days, and sometimes she would sit on the swing with a cold Capri Sun packet, just for him. ‘Stranger still,’ he thought as he scowled at the emptiness of the screened-in patio door, ‘where’s Loopy?

An odd ripple of foreboding ran up his spine, prickling like a thousand tiny needles along the nape of his neck, and he couldn’t help the slight tremor that he felt deep down when the empty swings started to sway. Maybe it was just the breeze that stirred them, but for reasons that he didn’t grasp, the movement seemed somehow eerie, like the whisper of ghosts that couldn’t be seen or touched. The air stilled abruptly, and Kurt swung around, scanning the area with a thoughtful scowl. He couldn’t figure out why he thought it, but he knew—just knew—that something wasn’t right. The trees, maybe, were a little too still; the air a little too empty . . . the only thing that Kurt could hear was the slowly increasing wail of distant sirens . . .

Letting his backpack fall from his shoulder, Kurt broke into a sprint, closing the distance to the back of the house and throwing open the door with a dull thud as it hit the white vinyl siding and snapped back. The air piston caught it, keeping it from slamming hard, and it clicked closed as Kurt stopped in his tracks, staring through the plate glass window in the door that led into the kitchen. From his vantage point, he could see directly through the kitchen and dining room into the living room at the front of the house, and what he saw . . .

Reddish brown streaks on the walls; splatters of the same color on the ceiling; the pristine white paint indelibly marked with the crimson stains . . . He could feel the stagnant aura that seemed to seep from the very edifice around him . . . He’d seen that color before, if he could only remember where or why. As the trepidation he’d been feeling surged and swelled, he reached for the doorknob but couldn’t bring himself to turn it.

B . . . Blood . . .?’ he thought suddenly, his eyes flaring wide as he gaped at the stains. He’d tripped last summer, cracking his forehead against the corner of the wall that separated the kitchen from the living room and breaking the soft flesh against the unforgiving metal support. His blood had marred the stark white wall back then, and he’d stared at the smears with a sense of morbid curiosity as he touched the gauze covering the stitches for which he’d had to go to the emergency room.

Now . . .

Now there was no perverse urge to see it up close this time . . .

He couldn’t see Caroline, but he could hear her terrified shrieks as a malevolent shadow moved off to the right. His father’s voice was muffled by the door, but the words were clear enough, and despite the filter, Kurt could hear the unmistakable desperation, could sense the anguish that thickened his father’s tone, “Don’t kill her! Please don’t kill her! For the love of God, don’t—God, no!

Kurt gripped the door knob so tightly that it rattled in his hand as Caroline’s shriek was abruptly silenced. His father was sobbing, mumbling things that Kurt couldn’t discern. Blood thundering painfully in his ears, his heart lodged in his throat, silencing a scream that he could feel but couldn’t voice, he wanted to run inside, to help his father, to save his sister, and yet . . .

And yet he stood rooted to the spot, unable to run, unable to speak, unable to do more than watch as the monster—no, two monsters—lumbered into view. Kurt gasped, eyes widening as he gaped at the creatures—the demons . . . knobby horns atop their heads, they looked like the gross depictions of devils that he’d seen somewhere—he couldn’t remember where at the moment. Razor sharp teeth protruding from grimacing maws, they had no lips, their faces forever caught in a permanent snarl, their mouths gaping, dripping, glistening hideously in the sunshine pouring through the windows, eyes red—crimson—and glowing with a perverse sense of grim enjoyment . . . Grotesquely long arms with spindly fingers . . . grayish skin that looked more like reptilian scales than real flesh . . . and hideous claws . . . In one of the beast’s hands dangled the lifeless form of his baby sister—of Caroline. Kurt uttered a sound caught somewhere between a strangled cry and a choked sob.

Monsters . . . demons . . .’ he thought wildly, his chest constricting painfully. ‘Monsters are real . . . demons . . .’

He couldn’t understand; it made absolutely no sense to him. Where had they come from, and why . . .? Why?

Why?” he muttered, his voice little more than a squeaky whisper. He could feel the edge of panic wrapping around the edges of his psyche, but it was blunted, dulled, almost more frightening than the altered reality that he was observing through the window. As though he was no longer a part of himself, as if the only real part of him was floating somewhere else—near enough to touch but far enough away to protect him from the understanding that was he was bearing witness to was absolutely real. “Daddy . . .”

His father stood, head bowed, staring at the floor, or maybe he had his eyes closed. The monster tossed Caroline away as the other creature raised his claws and brought them down with a terrible bellow, and Kurt watched in abject terror as his father’s blood sprayed, fanning through the air only to fall like a macabre rain as the demon’s claws sank into his chest. The beast growled and swung again, catching the right side of Kurt’s father’s head. The man never cried out as his blood spilled from him, as he staggered back from the blow, careening wildly: a puppet on invisible strings commanded by a drunken puppet master.

The monsters stood still for a moment. Kurt could hear the sirens coming closer despite the roar of his erratic pulse throbbing in his ears. They seemed undecided, as though they’d lost their focus. Seconds later, they grunted to each other and ran out the front door, moving faster than Kurt could credit, their forms little more than blurring streaks of washed-out color.

Kurt blinked, eyes burning though the tears he could taste wouldn’t come. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. The door opened with a soft groan, and he flinched, staring incredulously at his fingers wrapped tightly around the knob—fingers that he couldn’t stop from shaking, gripping the knob so tightly that his knuckles leeched white. Fumbling with the door, he shoved it open and stumbled inside, whimpering quietly when the residual rage hit him. It hung thick in the air like a funeral pall, choking and cloying and malevolent.

He didn’t want to go in there; didn’t want to see—didn’t want to understand, and yet his feet carried him forward slowly, haltingly, gingerly. “D-Daddy?” he whispered, his mind oddly numb, unable to fully comprehend what he saw, what he knew.

His mother was sprawled on the floor in front of the sofa, her chest ripped open, her face contorted in pain; frozen in time and indelibly etched into the haze of memory, precluding the memories of the mother he knew so well—the laughing mother who would tell him to make sure he wore his helmet when he went biking, the one who tousled his hair and checked behind his ears after his bath. He took a hesitant step toward her then jerked back. Something deep down—a whispering voice, a warning, perhaps—told him that his mother wouldn’t have ever wanted him to see her that way. ‘Mom . . .’

Caroline lay nearby, folded at an odd angle, her head nearly severed from her body, her hand still wrapped tightly around the arm of her favorite doll; the grisly tableaux laid out before him like the roiling remnants of an inescapable nightmare. Golden curls stained in blood, her eyes were still open, staring at him in an accusing way, demanding to know why he wasn’t dead, too. Shaking his head and swallowing hard, he forced himself to look away as a strangled scream welled up inside him but wouldn’t come out. In his head, he could still hear her laughter as she teased him and followed him all over the place, and he wasn’t sure why, but all he could discern was her scream over and over again, ringing in his ears like a fell wind.

Stumbling back, shaking his head in a pathetic effort to challenge the knowledge that couldn’t be denied, his feet bumped against something, and he glanced down. Loopy, his beloved puppy . . . mauled so badly that all he could discern was the color of one patch of golden fur. One of the pup’s legs was missing, the jagged edge of bone glistening in a twisted mass of tendon and muscle, and her mouth was open, spilling grayish-pink—something—and blackened blood all over the floor beneath her.

Kurt leaned over quickly, pitifully heaving so hard that his chest ached, his vomit furthering the thickened stench of death that seeped into his very being. He closed his eyes and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, struggling to breathe, to think . . . struggling to figure out just what he was supposed to do.

A wet gurgle drew his attention, and slowly, hesitantly, he opened his eyes, turning his head to the side, gazing in shock at his father.

“K-Kurt . . .” his father whispered, lifting his trembling hand for a moment.

“Daddy!” Kurt yelped, scooting across the floor to his side, trying to ignore the oddly misshapen contour of his father’s face. “Daddy . . . the monsters—monsters . . . monsters,” he babbled as a thick sob choked him.

He reached out unsteadily, trembling as he groped for Kurt. Fingers already being leeched of warmth, he somehow managed to latch onto Kurt’s hand. “Don’t tell,” his father said, his eyes strangely clear, uncannily bright as he stared at Kurt as though he were willing his son to understand this awful thing. “Never . . . tell . . .”

“M-M-Monsters,” Kurt repeated, clumsily clutching his father’s hand, his voice cracking, crumbling. Nothing made sense; nothing seemed real. Everything he saw, everything he knew was fuzzy around the edges like a surreal dream where demons lived—where those things that dwelled in the darkness rose up to strike man down. “Devils . . . demons . . .” he babbled, dashing the back of a shaking hand over his eyes.

His father shook his head, his breathing growing shallower, more rasping, and his grip on Kurt’s other hand tightened as a desperation seeped into his voice. “Don’t . . . tell . . . Live, Kurt . . . Live . . .”

Don’t tell? Don’t tell . . .?’ Hysteria was rising thick and hard, hitting him squarely in the chest and squeezing with an invisible hand, tightening around him, choking him, as a little whimper spilled over. “Monsters, Daddy; monsters . . .”

His father’s breathing sounded wet, garbled as his chest cavity slowly filled with blood, as the brightness of his gaze flickered and faltered, and yet he smiled . . . He smiled . . .

“Daddy,” Kurt whimpered as the first cold prickles of true understanding began to penetrate his overwrought brain. “Daddy, don’t leave me . . .”

His father squeezed his eyes closed for a moment when the pain grew to be too much, and when he opened them again, he had trouble focusing on Kurt’s face, but his grip tightened, and a low sound borne of pure sadness slipped from him as a single tear fell. “You . . . live, Kurt . . . Happy . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~October 30, 2070~
~Thirty-One Years Later~

 


 

 

Scowling at the slim-file in her hands, Samantha Izayoi tapped her claws against the hard plastic casing as she read through the information she’d been given.  ‘Jean-Pierre Benoit; viper-youkai . . .’

“He’s the one responsible for a rash of killings in and around Paris about seventy-five years ago.  According to reports, he cut down fifteen children at a daycare facility then disappeared.”

Glancing up from the file long enough to shake her head and flick her ears, Samantha narrowed her gaze on her cousin-in-law and employer as Sydnie Zelig pushed herself onto the desktop and crossed her slender ankles, idly kicking them to and fro as she met and returned Samantha’s look.  “So if he was able to elude detection back then, why is he surfacing again now?”

Letting out a deep breath, Sydnie’s expression darkened considerably, her emerald green eyes glowing with pinpoints of angry light.  “Why, indeed,” she muttered.

“Calm down, kitty,” Bas Zelig said as he leaned back on the desk beside his mate.  “There’s reason to believe that he hadn’t actually disappeared—at least, not as well as he could have.  The truth of it is that he was hanging out in Europe until recently, and, well, you know how that goes.”

Sam snorted indelicately, snapping the slim-file closed as she shook her head again.  “Since he killed humans, then it wasn’t a very big concern for the MacDonnough, you mean,” she reiterated, unable to completely repress the scorn in her tone.

“Well,” Bas said, obviously struggling for a semblance of objectivity, “Ian claims that he had more pressing concerns at the time—at least, that’s what Dad said.  However, since Benoit was stupid enough to try to slip into the States . . .”

“Then that makes it a whole new ball game,” Sydnie finished when Bas trailed off.

Bas sighed but smiled wanly.  “Something like that.”

“Doesn’t exactly sound like a youkai special crimes case,” Samantha remarked slowly.

Bas’ golden eyes narrowed slightly, but he didn’t look away.  “You’re right; it’s not, but Dad had to dispatch all his hunters on that syndicate investigation, so he asked if I had anyone I could send.”

Samantha’s delicate eyebrows rose, disappearing under the thick fringe of silvery hair that framed her face, and she couldn’t help smiling at the pure chagrin evident in her cousin’s expression.  “And you chose me?” she teased, unable to help herself.

Bas made a face and shook his head, leveling a no-nonsense glower at her.  “Not really, no, but Dad had to call in some of my hunters, too, so you won by default.”

Repressing the urge to roll her eyes, Samantha pasted on a tolerant smile since the subject was a sore one, in her estimation.

No one in her family with the possible exception of Sydnie seemed to think that Samantha ought to put her years of training to use and become a youkai hunter; not one.  Even her very open minded parents were against it from the start though at least her father, Kichiro pretended to support her choice.  Looking back now, she figured that it was more of a show of indulgence than actual approval on her father’s part. She had a feeling that he believed that she would eventually change her mind and settle on a less violent line of work.

“Anyway, I trust you’ll be careful,” Bas went on, narrowing his eyes just a bit, enough to give away his understated concern that had waned over the past few years since she’d come to work for the youkai special crimes division.

She nodded and pushed herself to her feet.  “You know I will,” she remarked with a shake of her head.  “Besides, you have bigger things to worry about, like that baby,” she pointed out, leaning forward to rub Sydnie’s slightly protruding belly.

Sydnie giggled, cheeks pinking in a happy display of absolute pleasure.  “Just make sure you call when you’re done,” she said with an arched eyebrow.

“Of course,” she said, hoping that they couldn’t discern the thinness of the smile that surfaced on her face.  “I always do.”

Bas frowned as though he wanted to say something, pressing his lips together in a tight line, but he must have decided against it.  Reaching back, he grabbed a plastic card off the desk and held it out to her.  “Here are your funds,” he said as she took the card.  “Your flight leaves in about nine hours, and a courier will be by later to deliver your ticket.”

“Okay,” Samantha agreed as she headed for the door.  Sparing a moment to offer a jaunty wave and a flashing smile, she couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when she pulled the door closed behind her and stepped into the hallway.          

She could understand everyone’s concern, and she supposed that she could appreciate it on some level, as well.  The trouble was that she’d been doing this for nearly two years, and she knew that she could keep up with the best of them.  The truth of it was that she was damn good at what she did, and she only wished that the rest of her family would acknowledge that, too.

“Oh, Samantha, I didn’t see you come in,” Connie Leadbetter, Gunnar Inutaisho’s personal secretary called as she stepped out of the hallway.

She paused and shot the secretary a smile.  “Gunnar was probably barking at you at the time,” she said.

Connie gave a deep belly laugh.  “That sounds about right,” she agreed easily.  “Heading out on an assignment?”

Offering a small nod, Samantha’s smile faltered just a little.  “Yeah.  It shouldn’t be a big deal.”

“That’s what they all say,” Connie commented, waving a hand as she lifted a steaming mug of coffee to her lips.  “Between you and me, though, some of the guys who come in here regularly are a little shady in my estimation.”

Samantha laughed that off and reached for the knob.  “I’ve thought that myself,” she replied then waved.  “I’ve got to get going, so keep Gunnar in line, will you?”

Connie’s laughter followed her out of the office, and Samantha heaved a heavy breath that lifted the fringe of silvery bangs that framed her face.  Hurrying toward the metal door of the enclosed stairwell, she shook her head as she lightly ran down the steps.

It was strange, she figured, that Gunnar had hired a human secretary.  He’d maintained that Connie had been the best choice, but Bas had given him hell for it, or so Samantha had heard.  Because of that, the hunters that were employed by the youkai special crimes office were hidden under the disguise of clients who would come in to see Bas and Sydnie or Gunnar since it was deemed better to keep their association with the division as confidential as possible, and not simply because of Connie, either.  Renegade youkai would undoubtedly love to get their hands on information such as the identities of the hunters.  In fact, Samantha was the only one who actually frequented the office to receive her assignments, and only because Bas insisted on giving her the ‘You’d-Better-Be-Careful’ speech each and every time he sent her out . . .

“You’d think I was still just a pup,” she muttered under her breath to no one in particular as her cheeks pinked at the prodding of her disgruntled thoughts.

That’s not entirely fair,’ her youkai voice chided reasonably as Samantha pushed through the doors and into the lobby on the ground floor of the youkai special crimes building.  ‘Would you rather that no one cared about you at all?

A long sigh slipped from her as she stepped outside into the late October sunshine. The day was crisp but not quite cold despite the chill wind blowing off the Atlantic Ocean, and she closed her eyes for a moment, lifting her chin as she savored the invisible fingers of the breeze rippling through her hair.  Being out of doors never ceased to calm her, no matter how badly frazzled her nerves were, and she could feel the irritation ebbing away as cleanly as waves receding from the shore.  Feeling somewhat renewed, she took a step toward the nondescript white car parked in front of the building.

“Samantha!” Bas called, throwing open the door and leaning outside.

She stopped and whirled around to face him.  “Yes?”

“Think fast,” he said, tossing an unlabeled amber bottle at her.

She caught it and shook it, turning it over in her fingertips with a thoughtful frown.  “What’s this?”

Bas shrugged.  “Scent-tabs,” he said.  “You said when you got back the last time that you were almost out, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” she agreed, slipping the bottle into her pocket.  “Thanks.”

“No problem,” he called after her.  “Be careful.”

She waved a hand over her shoulder as she stepped off the curb to skirt around the car.  “I’ll call when I’m finished,” she assured him.

He nodded but remained silent as she got into her car, started the engine, and pulled onto the street.

If it weren’t for Sydnie, she wouldn’t be a hunter, she supposed.  She’d gone to her father’s uncle, Sesshoumaru, the Inu no Taisho, to ask him for a job when she’d finished school only to be turned away.  Sesshoumaru had maintained that she would have to talk to Toga but that he was quite certain that there was no need for more hunters in Japan, and when she’d approached Toga later, he’d pretty much echoed his father’s sentiments.

She’d even asked her grandfather, the North American tai-youkai, and hadn’t been at all surprised when he’d turned her down flat, too.  As a matter of fact, she’d started pondering the idea of contacting other tai-youkai in hopes that someone might give her a chance when Sydnie had called her.

Cain tells me you’re looking for a job,” the cat-youkai had said, her soft alto voice reminding Samantha of a purring feline.

Jii-chan did?” she blurted before she could stop herself.

Sydnie laughed.  “Actually, he said something about it to my puppy, but I overheard him.  Is it true?

Samantha frowned.  “Sure, but I’m looking for work as a hunter.”

Sebastian said that you were trained by the same men who trained him?” Sydnie went on, ignoring Samantha’s statement.

InuYasha-jii-chan and Ryomaru-oji-chan, you mean?  Of course!

Good, good,” Sydnie intoned,  “and Mikio?

She wrinkled her nose at the reminder since she wasn’t particularly pleased about that part of it.  She was hanyou, after all, and while she could appreciate her father’s thoughts on the matter when he’d insisted that she learn how to use a firearm, she didn’t want to use that knowledge unless she absolutely had to, either.  Her uncle, Mikio had taught her how to fire guns, though, more for her father’s peace of mind than for her own.  “Yeah,” she admitted slowly.

Sydnie uttered a low sound of approval.  “Well, I could use a decent hunter who can use her head when necessary.  Would you be interested?

Samantha clutched her cell phone tight, blinking quickly as she tried to understand that she really was being offered a job—a real job—as a hunter.  “Of course I am!” she blurted.

Excellent!  I don’t know how soon you can be here, but I’d feel much better if you were able to come sooner than later.   I hope that it won’t be a problem . . .”

And it hadn’t been.  Much to her parents’ collective chagrin, she’d packed up her things that afternoon and had grabbed the first flight out of Tokyo, and while Bas had insisted that he test her skills in a mock-battle, he’d grudgingly given in when she managed to prove that she really could hold her own.  She knew that he hadn’t really fought her toe-to-toe, but he was forced to acknowledge her abilities, and that was more than enough, in her estimation.  Aside from the oldest male members of the family like InuYasha and Sesshoumaru and very likely Ryomaru as well as his own father, Cain, it was common knowledge that Bas, the next North American tai-youkai, was the force to be reckoned with when it came to fighting.

For the most part, she enjoyed her job.  Well, maybe that wasn’t the exact word she’d use, but it was close.  It was more of a calling, she’d thought before.  She felt compelled to do what she did.  Protecting humans and youkai alike, she’d always felt as though what she was doing was important, and while she didn’t particularly relish the idea of taking a life, she knew deep down that it was worth it in order to bring closure to people who had lost loved ones in inexplicable acts of violence.

Stopping at a light at the corner of Fox Street and Twenty-First, Samantha bit her lip as she scanned the surroundings with a critical eye.  It was second nature, really.  She’d learned early on in her training that a hunter always had to be fully aware of his or her surroundings or they wouldn’t be alive very long. When Ryomaru-oji-chan had said that at the time, she’d thought he was being a little melodramatic, and maybe he was trying to scare her out of wanting to be a hunter, but regardless, she’d taken that lesson to heart.

The soft trill of the cell phone broke through Samantha’s musings, and she tapped the blue intercom button on the dashboard beside the windshield wiper controls.  “Hello?”

“How’s my girl?” Kichiro Izayoi’s warm voice greeted.

She smiled, the dimple in her right cheek flashing as she turned the corner.  “Just fine,” she assured him.  “How are you and Mama?”

“Missing you, of course,” he replied smoothly.  “Don’t suppose you’ve decided to come home for a visit any time soon?”

With a soft laugh, she shook her head.  “Sorry, Papa,” she apologized without sounding at all contrite.  “I’m heading out on a job in a few hours.”

She didn’t miss Kichiro’s sigh though he didn’t say anything about it otherwise.  “Your mother said to remind you that you’ve not been home for Christmas in the last two years,” he pointed out.

She winced, her little white hanyou ears flattening for just a moment.  “I’m sorry, Papa,” she said again, this time sounding truly genuine.  “I can’t make any promises, but I’ll try.”

“I’ll be more than happy to talk to Bas,” he warned.

“That’s hardly fair, you know,” she remarked.  “Just because I’m related to the boss isn’t really a good reason to take advantage of it.”

Kichiro grunted.  “Everybody is entitled to a vacation every now and then,” he reiterated.

Sam pulled into the driveway in front of the apartment building she called home.  “I know, Papa,” she assured him.  “I’ll talk to Bas and Sydnie when I get back; I promise.  Besides, I did make it home both years for your birthday party.”

“I’d hardly call a one day furlough a visit, Samantha,” he reprimanded her gently.

“But I did make it,” she quipped once more.

He heaved a sigh designed to let her know that he was going to be well beyond upset if she wasn’t able to go home for the holiday this year, and she smiled.  “I promise,” she repeated solemnly.

“I’ll tell your mother,” he said.

Samantha grimaced since that, in her opinion, was hitting below the belt.  If he did that—if he told Bellaniece Zelig Izayoi—that she was coming home for the holidays, then she’d have to make sure that it happened.  It wasn’t that her mother was mean or anything of the sort.  No, it just wasn’t really an option to disappoint her, and Kichiro knew that, too.  Bellaniece wasn’t exactly the typical mother by any means, but she was always the first to hug her children when they came home from school, always right there when Samantha had a piano or dance recital.  She was the kind of woman who would drop everything at a moment’s notice to make sure that her children came first, and while Samantha had grown up with a stay-at-home father for the most part, it had made a huge impression on her whenever her mother somehow managed to juggle her schedule between an internship at one of the local hospitals in Tokyo and still make the time whenever Samantha asked her to.

“All right, Papa,” she agreed as she slipped into the parking spot in front of her ground-floor apartment.

He chuckled.  “Good, and do me a favor?”

Yanking on the emergency brake and killing the car’s engine, she smiled wanly as she reached for the slim-file on the seat beside her.  “What’s that?”

“Call your mother when you get a chance.  She worries about you.”

“Of course, Papa,” she said as she scooted out of the car and bumped the door closed with her hip.  “Love you.”

“You, too, babydoll.”

Smiling as the line went dead, she clicked the phone off and dropped it into her pocket as she hurried up the walkway toward the staid door of the building.  Kichiro had called her ‘babydoll’ for longer than she could remember.  Her mother was fond of telling her that it was the first thing he’d said when he’d held her minutes after her birth, as he’d taken in Samantha’s silvery tufts of flyaway hair, the tiny hanyou ears that were flattened against her head.  Bellaniece had said that Samantha was rosy and smooth and perfect, and that she’d stared up at her father in complete fascination as her sparkling blue eyes—her mother’s eyes—slowly blinked in the brightness of the birthing room.  “She looks like a porcelain baby doll,” he’d said with a tender smile.  “My babydoll . . .”

She knew well enough that her parents’ worry wasn’t completely restricted to her.  She’d overheard her mother often enough over the years as she fussed over Samantha’s older sisters.  It was a mother thing, she figured, and it came part and parcel with the years that passed, even after the children weren’t children any longer.  She’d seen the sad sort of smile that touched her mother’s lips from time to time—the melancholy that was mingled with absolute love when she spoke of the daughters that had left home long before Samantha had.

In fact, she’d wondered more than once if it wasn’t her sisters’ leaving home that had prompted Bellaniece and Kichiro to have her.  Her sister, Alexandra, was eighteen when Samantha was born, and Isabelle, the oldest, was twenty.  She’d grown up as an only child, for the most part, and while she’d always known that both of her sisters adored her, she couldn’t help but feel as though they would never truly see her as anything but their ‘baby’, and while she’d tried not to let Alexandra and Isabelle’s uncommonly close bond bother her, she couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of it, too.  They were always like the best of friends, no matter how much time or space existed between them.  Isabelle, after all, lived in Maine with her mate, Griffin—one of the three men that Samantha adored above all others.  The surly and oftentimes gruff Kodiak bear-youkai was also one of the gentlest men she’d ever met, and while he’d grouch and turn a bright shade of red if anyone pointed that out, there wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s minds that he loved his mate and respected her family without question.

Alexandra, on the other hand, lived in Sydney, Australia, about three blocks from her long-time boyfriend and might-as-well-be-mate, John Troyer—quite possibly the most perfect man on earth—and Samantha wasn’t the only one to think so, either.  The male members of her family tended to refer to John as ‘Mr. Perfect’, and while it was meant to be a playful nickname, it was entirely appropriate, too.  He was completely in control of every given situation and could just as easily spar with Samantha’s notorious grandfather, InuYasha as he could talk art for hours with her other grandfather, Cain Zelig.  He watched sports with Bas whenever he was in the area, and he discussed youkai policy with Gunnar for hours on end.  He even knew a hell of a lot about music—more than enough to earn Evan Zelig’s overwhelming respect, and even Kichiro had been known to discuss his current research with John, too.  He brought Alexandra flowers, took her to the nicest restaurants all over the world—when he could coax her into leaving her own research behind for a much-deserved vacation, that was—and basically treated Alexandra like a princess, and Samantha had harbored a crush on him ever since the first time she’d met him.

These days, though, she knew that it was more of a young girl’s hero-worship than real love.  Over the years, she’d learned how to differentiate between those feelings, and while she still adored both John and Griffin, she knew that they really weren’t the ones for her, but she couldn’t help but compare men to them, either.  Unfortunately, that was the problem, wasn’t it?  She’d yet to meet a man who could measure up to John or Griffin, and if that wasn’t bad enough, even if she did manage to find the one man who might be able to outshine those two, she sincerely doubted that she’d ever meet anyone who could hold a candle to her father . . . Well, if she was a betting kind of girl, she wouldn’t like the odds; not at all . . .

Stopping outside the door of her apartment, Samantha pressed her thumb against the identilock and waited.  Seconds later, a soft beep announced that her print had been accepted, and the door opened with a click.  Her stack heels clicked against the slate floor as she stepped inside, depositing the slim-file and her purse on the immaculate glass top of the small wrought iron stand nearby before reaching back to nudge the door closed with her elbow.

The LCD panel on the wall blinked to life as the apartment’s computer system started up, running through a list of phone calls and received emails that she’d missed while she was out.  ‘Nothing important,’ she decided as she tapped the screen to close the reminders, and she heaved a sigh as she turned away, checking her watch and breaking down the list of things that she needed to do before she got on the plane later.

Pulling the bottle of scent-tabs out of her pocket, she headed for the kitchen.  It took a few hours for the tablets to take effect, after all, and she didn’t like going to the airport with her real scent intact.  Her grandfather had told her time and again during training that a youkai’s scent was akin to their fingerprints and infinitely easier to identify.  After her father had accidentally stumbled across the gene that controlled an individual’s scent, it had become par for course for hunters to be issued scent-tabs before they left on a mission.  The overall effect lasted for about seven days before another scent-tab had to be taken to prolong the effect.  It helped to conceal them, and it helped to protect the hunters’ families because it wasn’t uncommon for a renegade youkai who felt as though his or her loved one was unjustly targeted to lash out at the hunter who had been charged with the task of taking care of the deviant youkai, in the first place.

She shook a small tablet out of the bottle and held onto it while she carefully filled a glass with tap water.  Making a face at the chalky, bitter taste left behind by the scent-tab, she dumped the rest of the liquid down the drain and set the glass on a towel beside the sink to dry.

The next thing, of course, was to pack, and that never took very long.  She wasn’t going on a recreational trip, anyway, and whenever she was sent out on a job, she made a point of making sure that everything she needed fit into a carry-on bag.  In fact, most often, she only bothered packing one change of clothes, minimal toiletries, and, of course, her gun.  It could be a bit of a pain, but her family insisted that she carry it with her at all times, and while Samantha had been detained at the airport more than once as security checked and double checked her concealed weapon permit, she also had to admit, at least to herself, that the bother was ultimately worth the peace of mind that her family had in knowing that she was absolutely protected.

She’d also learned that, while she could take the gun with her, she was not allowed to carry ammunition with her in any capacity at all.  Instead, she’d stop at a local gun shop on her way to the hotel before she even bothered to secure housing for the duration of her say.  If she didn’t, there was a good chance that her family would flip out on her.

You’re being harsh today, aren’t you?’ her youkai voice spoke up.

Samantha wrinkled her nose and leaned against the wall as she bent down to pull off her boots, taking a moment to straighten them neatly before she stood up and strode through the living room and down the hallway toward the bedroom.  ‘I’m not trying to, no,’ she replied defensively, pressing the flat switch beside the mirror fronted closet doors and tapping her claws against the smooth plastic as the door slowly slid open.

For not trying to, you’re being awfully touchy.’

Heaving a sigh, she shook her head and retrieved the utilitarian black leather carry-on bag that looked more or less like a very large backpack.

She wasn’t trying to be touchy.  Shuffling toward the bed as she unzipped the bag and checked to make sure that she’d unpacked everything the last time she was sent out on an assignment, she bit her lip.  She loved her family; of course she did, but there were times when their concern became a little stifling, and there were moments when she couldn’t stand it, she supposed.  That was natural, wasn’t it?  After all, every single one of them had voiced their concerns over her choice of profession at one time or another.

Even her renegade cousin, Evan had asked her if she was sure that hunting was something that she really wanted to do.  As close to a big brother as she had, she had spent many a summer of her youth trailing after him when he’d come to Japan to learn how to fight.  Back then, he’d ditched training as often as he could, preferring to hang out with Kichiro, who taught Evan how to play the piano.  She was only three or so at the time, but she could remember Evan, who was nearly fourteen, sitting at the baby grand piano with Kichiro, listening as her father played piece after piece.  It was remarkable, her father had said later, just how quickly Evan had picked up on any song he heard.  He played by ear—that’s what Kichiro maintained.  He’d said, too, that Evan had a gift for music.  Samantha had simply thought that the songs that they played were beautiful.

She’d followed Evan around all summer like a puppy, she supposed.  Thinking back now, she had to marvel at the patience he’d shown.  She couldn’t remember him ever grumbling at her or telling her to go away even though she had to have frustrated him.  After all, how cool was it for a teenage boy to be toting around a toddler?

And maybe that was the real reason that she couldn’t help but feel a little betrayed by his line of questioning.  Coming from a man who thumbed his nose at convention with a cheesy grin on his face and a smart-ass remark on the tip of his tongue, she hadn’t really thought that he, of all people, would be anything but supportive of what she thought was a perfectly logical choice.

The men in her family were well known for their compassion in dealing with humans.  As tai-youkai, as legendary figures that were commonly regarded as heroes, they’d fought the vilest of evils, had passed on to their children and grandchildren the responsibility that they all took very seriously: the need to protect those who didn’t possess the strength to do that for themselves.  Her grandfather, InuYasha had fought to destroy the monster known as Naraku centuries ago, fought to protect Samantha’s grandmother and their friends.  After he’d traveled through the Bone Eater’s Well to Kagome-baa-chan’s time, he’d found his niche in working with children, starting a specialized and elite school on the outskirts of Tokyo near the shrine where Kagome had grown up—near InuYasha’s Forest.

In the wake of his defection from Sengoku Jidai, the youkai had come up against another frightening menace; one that had ultimately led to her uncle, Sesshoumaru’s rise to power.  As the eldest son of the Inu no Taisho, Sesshoumaru had been recognized as leader of them all in a time when they desperately needed someone to step forward; to bring the youkai together in a show of alliance against humans.  Those same humans had discovered gunpowder, and that innovation had very nearly brought about the end of the youkai.  In the simplest terms, youkai were faster, stronger, lived longer, possessed powers that humans feared, however even the mightiest of youkai were unable to outrun a bullet.

But it had taken a hideous act of violence to bring about the legendary edict that had come to dictate their lives since then.  A youkai family was lured into a human village.  The father, believing that if he helped humans fight against the lesser-youkai—the ones who could not hold even a semblance of a human-like form—had gone with them since he recognized the threat that the lesser-youkai posed.  The lesser-youkai were animalistic than intellectual: incapable of cognizant thought, relying heavily on instinct and possessing far too much power to be viewed as anything but a menace.  Because of that, the villagers had managed to lure the youkai as well as his family into the village where they had procured the assistance of a traveling monk who subdued the youkai with his barriers and ofuda.

The family was tortured and killed, one by one, starting with the mother, then the father, and then the youngest—a little girl.  In the midst of it all, the teenage boy managed to get loose, and in an insular act of sheer desperation, he cut down the villagers: every last man, woman, and child.  He’d managed to escape in the end, taking his sister’s ravaged body and burying her under a lone sakura tree in a quiet field near their family’s home, but he could not retrieve his parents’ bodies since they’d been scattered on the wind as little more than dust.

That boy had grown up, bearing the scars of that awful day, and he’d eventually ended up in North America—in Maine.  His name was Griffin Marin, and he was Samantha’s oldest sister’s mate.

But his family’s sacrifice had been the beginning for the youkai in so many ways.  When he witnessed the senseless violence, the horrific act, Sesshoumaru, the reluctant Inu no Taisho, had felt there was no other recourse than to issue the edict by which all youkai lived now: hide their true natures; do what one had to do to keep the existence of youkai a secret.  Blend into human society and let them believe that they’d won, and while many youkai had protested, they’d all understood that the only way that they could ultimately survive against the threat of guns was to do exactly what Sesshoumaru had ordered.

So they’d faded into myth and legend, lending humans the sense of security that they seemed to crave and creating an illusion that mankind was the ultimate power.  The ruse suited the youkai well enough, and while there were dissidents who felt like the edict was akin to cowardice, the more vast majority ascribed to the belief that Sesshoumaru’s command was the only reason that youkai had been able to survive in the centuries that had passed since then.

And with the rich history of the men who had fought and carved the world in which she now lived, Samantha had understood that same sense of honor and duty very early on.  It was that sense of honor and duty that had compelled her grandfather, InuYasha to protect Kagome and the Shikon no Tama so long ago, that had forced her great-uncle, Sesshoumaru to forge a sense of reason in a time so full of chaos, that had driven her uncle, Ryomaru to be a hunter, and even her father, Kichiro in his never-ending quest to understand and aide youkai through his medical research.  The list of achievements in her family was long and proud, and while she didn’t even try to delude herself into believing that she could top even one of those milestones, she couldn’t help but hope that maybe she could leave an indelible impression with her chosen profession, if even just the smallest bit.

It wasn’t personal glory that she sought, and she had no desire to have everyone in youkai circles know her name.  The reason she’d chosen to do become a hunter was simpler than all that—something that she’d come to realize normally was the case with the biggest decisions in life.

To be completely honest, it was something she’d just felt.  She’d overheard her uncle talking to her father one day.  Sitting at the table in the dining room going over notes for a school test, she’d seen the obvious disgust in Ryomaru’s expression, but she’d sensed the underlying melancholy in his aura, too.  He’d just gotten back from a hunt for a youkai who had murdered a family of humans for no apparent reason, leaving only a three-year-old girl who was struggling to survive in a hospital downtown—a little girl, he’d said, who woke up every night crying and calling for her mother.  She’d seen the saddened emotion in her father’s eyes as they’d slipped to the side to stare at her, and as she met his gaze, as she watched him try to smile for her sake, she’d understood, hadn’t she?

Humans’ lives were far more precarious than theirs.  She’d realized at that time and in that place that she wanted to protect those lives if she could.  All of her friends were humans, and as she grew older, as she came to understand certain truths, she’d known.  If she could use herself to protect the lives of those who were unable to do so for themselves, especially against beings that were faster, stronger, tougher, then that’s what she wanted to do.

Heaving a sigh, Samantha dropped the empty bag on the bed and turned back to the closet once more.  Standing around thinking about the past and the reasons why she’d chosen to be a hunter were all well and good, ‘But I have a job to do,’ she reminded herself sternly.

After all, she could sit around and wax nostalgic after the target was silenced, couldn’t she?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~October 31, 2070~
~Chicago, Illinois~

 

-=0=-

 

 

Opening her bag, Samantha pulled her gear out to check it, arranging it on the light tan bedspread that looked just like every other bedspread in every other run down motel that she’d checked into during her course of time as a hunter.  The room was cleaner than some of them she’d rented before, though the smells that always seemed to linger in places such as this still whispered in the back of her mind—base odors that she could recognize and that she’d learned to ignore a long time ago.

Shuriken—one of the weapons that she’d painstakingly trained with—etched with her father’s seal—her subtle reminder of the family that she was fighting for . . . The wicked-looking twin daggers that she used in hand-to-hand combat . . . Forged from the fangs of her grandfathers, Cain and InuYasha, and great uncle, Sesshoumaru, they were just as formidable as the men’s swords, but it had been decided that she was too small to wield a sword, too, and to that end, her uncle, Ryomaru had spent hours upon hours upon hours, training her how to fight with the knives, instead . . . Her gun—she’d already stopped off to buy ammunition . . . She’d never actually used the weapon in a fight, but if she’d opted to leave it behind . . .

Wrinkling her nose, she shook her head, checking the gun to make sure that it was loaded and ready.    To her knowledge, she was the only hunter who carried one—even Cain’s hunter, Cartham, who was a notorious gun enthusiast—didn’t carry one on the job.  To him, they were toys though he did show them the utmost respect.  Still, it grated on her nerves that she was constantly admonished to carry hers . . .

Shaking her head as she pulled her leather coat from the confines of her luggage, she shook it out and pulled it on, scooping the length of her hair free before flipping back the collar.  She hadn’t bargained on the chill in the air.  Even Maine hadn’t been this cold when she’d gotten onto the plane earlier in the day.  One of the men she’d overheard in the airport upon arrival had said something about a blast of arctic air that had moved down from Canada.  Add to that the looming threat of a heavy rain, and, at least in her estimation, they were in for a heck of a ride from dear old Mother Nature.

Letting out a deep breath, Samantha reached for the slim-file.  She spared a cursory glance at the shoddy photo of the youkai in question before tapping the touch screen to open the file that contained pictures—images of the children that had been killed for no other reason than because they were human—children who didn’t realize that their lives were going to be so short, who didn’t deserve what had happened to them, in the first place.

She’d already memorized every line of Benoit’s face, knew them by heart.  No, she wanted to remember the faces of those that Benoit had cut down without thought and without caring that they meant something to someone.  Those faces would give her the strength—the will—to see this mission through.

She took her time, scrolling through the images.  A golden haired girl with bright blue eyes and rosy, rounded, chubby cheeks with deep dimples as she smiled at the camera . . . a little boy no older than four, holding onto the limp arm of a much-loved teddy bear . . . another girl, this one with deep brown eyes and her thumb in her mouth . . . Just babies, they were . . . babies who shouldn’t have known or ever had to feel that sort of fear . . .

Snapping the file closed, Samantha set it aside and reached for the throwing stars, stowing them carefully in the inside pocket of her coat.  The knives fit snugly into holsters that hung on her hips within easy reach, and the gun was strapped to the small of her back.  A couple extra cartridges of bullets fit into her left side pocket, and she ticked off the inventory in her head before reaching for the small black beret and heading for the door.

The late afternoon sunshine outside the motel was dull and watery, diluted by thin, filmy clouds that seemed more of a high fog than clouds.  It reminded her of the haze of smog that tended to linger over Tokyo, though she’d been told often enough that the smog was much better these days than they had been in years gone by.  Still, there that many people gathered, it was an inevitable thing, and while Chicago was no where near the size of Tokyo, it was certainly large enough.

Striding through the nearly abandoned parking lot as she maneuvered between a couple rows of parked cars, she stepped onto the sidewalk, letting the crowd encompass her as she moved along the tired old streets.  She’d purposefully found a motel on the seedier side of town.  The last bit of intelligence they’d gotten had placed Benoit in this neighborhood, and from what she’d been told, the youkai seemed to have taken a liking to a particular bar a couple streets over.  That was her destination now, and while she didn’t try to delude herself into thinking that she’d actually find him tonight, she couldn’t help but hope that maybe she’d get lucky, anyway . . .

 

 


 

 

The incessant drone of the electronic alarm clock rattled through the silent room with a vengeance.  Uttering a low growl, an arm reached out from beneath a thin pillow, waving wildly in the general direction of the clock without actually hitting it.

With a frustrated grunt, Kurt Drevin rolled over and sat up, smacking the offending timepiece with a balled up fist before swinging his legs off the bed and slumping forward, elbows on his knees.  Blinking his bloodshot eyes, he slipped a hand around the back of his neck, rubbing hard in an effort to alleviate the stiffness that had set in during the forty-five minute nap he’d allowed himself.

“Shit,” he muttered, shaking his head vigorously to dispel the lingering haze that fogged his brain.

It didn’t help.

Heaving a sigh, he stumbled to his feet, shuffling across the cramped room to the dingy kitchenette as he shook his head.  He could have sworn that he’d set the coffee maker to brew before he’d grudgingly stretched out, but no, he hadn’t.

He turned on the tap, letting the water flow for a few seconds to force out the orange-tinted water that always retained the pervasive metallic tinge of rust before filling the carafe to start a pot of coffee.

He didn’t pay much attention as he scooped grounds into the filter basket and pushed it closed.  That done, Kurt shambled over to the backpack sitting on the grungy table and checked over his equipment.  Night vision goggles—fairly pricey but well worth the investment since he tended to prefer to take care of business under the cover of darkness whenever possible—a fresh roll of duct tape . . . the talismans that he hoped he’d need . . . Pushing all that stuff aside, he dug out the reel of sturdy steel rope—not nearly as thick as the old fashioned hemp, but a lot more dependable, and it didn’t take up nearly as much space, which, in his estimation, was a good enough reason to use it, in the first place.  He had to stop earlier to buy more of it since he’d ended up having to cut the old one the night before while he was out.

Setting the wire and the retractor on the table, he plugged in the soldering iron, then moved back to the counter to pour a cup of coffee.

Scowling into the mud brown mug and deciding against taking the time necessary to wash it out with soap, Kurt blew into it, called it good, then dumped coffee into it and slugged down half of it despite the scalding heat as he strode over to the window.

The late afternoon sunshine was patchy and thin as he stared out over the washed out gray buildings that made up the skyline of Chicago.  He hated the city—really hated it.  It had always been a strange thing to him.  People in larger cities seemed to see less of what was directly in front of them than small town folks did.  ‘Then again,’ he thought, the right side of his upper lip curling up in a derisive sort of grimace, ‘maybe they just don’t want to see what’s around them . . .’

He supposed it was something of a defense mechanism.  Living so close to so many strangers conditioned people to guard what little privacy they had by summarily ignoring things that intruded on that sense of forced solitude, and it didn’t matter if he were in New York City, Los Angeles, or here in Chicago.  None of those places were considered his home, if he considered them at all.  No, they were merely hunting grounds, at best.

He didn’t really call anywhere ‘home’.  There was too much of a sense of familiarity about that sort of thing.  It made it too easy to fall victim of the misplaced sense of complacency that was so easy to lose.  Nothing was forever, and he knew it better than anyone.

Turning away from the window, he trudged back to the kitchenette to refill his coffee mug before he got to work again.  He had to finish checking his gear and solder the wire rope around the pulley that he wore on his belt, check his equipment, and sharpen the knife that he’d had to use to cut the other wire free last night.  Evening wasn’t far away, and he had a job to do.

 

 


 

 

“Target acquired.”

“Good.  Where are you?”

Sparing a surreptitious glance around the crowded bar buried deep in the Chicago slums, Samantha narrowed her gaze as she honed in on the youkai she’d tracked to the kami-forsaken dive.  Grimacing and shaking her head in abject disgust, she uttered a terse growl then sighed.  “He’s barely concealed,” she reported quietly.  “It’s almost as if he wants to be seen.”

“Wouldn’t put it past him.  MacDonnough let him get away with his shit for a little too long, if you ask me,” Bas Zelig said.  “You sure you’re up for this?”

Rolling her eyes at the discernible hesitation in her darling cousin-slash-uncle’s voice, she shook her head.  “I’ll earn my pay, thanks,” she retorted mildly, a hint of her native Japanese accent seeping into her words.

Bas sighed.  “Just be careful, damn it.  Uncle will have my head if something happens to you.”

Uncle,” she replied in reference to her father, “knows very well that I can handle myself, thank you very much—and since when do you call Papa ‘uncle’?”

“Since he’s your father, and that kind of outweighs the ‘brother-in-law’ aspect in this given situation, don’t you think?” Bas retorted mildly.  “Anyway, I’ve got to run.  Got a lead on that youkai rumored to be hiding out in Nevada.  Give Sydnie a call when you’ve silenced the target.”

“Will do.  Tell Sydnie to take it easy.  She’s pregnant,” she reminded him then clicked off her cell phone.

Pausing long enough to drop a couple crumpled dollars onto the dingy bar, Samantha slipped through the rough crowd and headed toward the doors.

The laughter of children was the first thing that she made note of.  Halloween was a holiday that she thoroughly enjoyed.  Seeing the children all dressed up with bright and shining faces as they rushed here and there, collecting all their sugary loot . . . It was something that Samantha loved.  Her first year in the States, she’d had the night off work, and she’d absolutely reveled in passing out candy to her callers.  She’d even gone as far as to dress up for the occasion, donning a goofy clown costume, complete with the bulbous red nose and white greasepaint makeup . . .

Smiling to herself at the fleeting memory, she indulged herself a moment before turning her attention back to the task at hand.  There’d be time enough to revel in the children after her work was finished.

She had to rely more on her ability to sense the target’s youki since there were too many people about.  At this time of day, the general population was either coming or going from work or out to play, and with the holiday to add to the confusion, it took her a minute to hone in on the one she was following.  He seemed to be in a hurry, though she didn’t think he had a clue that he was being followed.  Men like him tended to be in a constant state of rushing, and they always looked over their shoulders—a lesson she’d learned long ago, as well.

Quickening her pace enough to keep a steady distance between herself and her target but not enough to close in on him, Samantha bit her lip and frowned.  There were just too many people out and about for her comfort—too many humans in front of a monster who loathed them.

He turned down a narrow alley.  Sam stopped at the corner of the building and leaned against it, counting to twenty before she carefully peered around the side.  The youkai strode around the corner at the far end, taking the left passage without looking back.

Sparing a moment to glance around, to make sure that no one else was going to take note, Samantha slipped into the alley, sticking as close to the shadows as she possibly could.

To be completely honest, she was surprised at the luck she’d had thus far.  The damned bastard wasn’t even trying to hide, prowling about in the open as though he were thumbing his nose at the North American tai-youkai . . .

Stopping when the vibration of her cell phone erupted against her hip, she made a face but dug out the device.  She didn’t recognize the number, but it wasn’t entirely surprising.  As a rule, everyone involved in the special crimes office as well as Cain Zelig’s normal hunters switched phones frequently, so it was a good guess that the call was work-related.

“Hello?” she answered, peeking around the corner at the end of the alley.

“Sam, it’s Larry.  Zelig told me you were sent out after Benoit.”

“Yeah, I’m following him right now.”

Larry grunted.  “Listen, I finished up what I was sent to do, so the boss told me to fly on in.  I’ll be there in the morning.  I can take care of him then.”

A flash of righteous indignation forced her to grit her teeth as she stepped into the pathway and cautiously kept moving.  “Not necessary,” she replied tightly.  “I’ll have him silenced within the hour.”

There was a very pregnant pause on the other end of the line, and Samantha nearly rolled her eyes since she knew—just knew—that the man was about to try to pull rank on her.  “I’ve got it under control,” she stated.

“All right,” he agreed slowly.  “Don’t push yourself.  If you can’t get him or if you lose your track, just go back to the hotel, and I’ll take him out when I get there.”

Shaking her head with an irritated scowl, Samantha clicked off the phone and stashed it away, unable to contain the seething anger that she was still being second-guessed despite the fact that she’d yet to fail at any mission they’d assigned her.

It irritated the hell out of her, and damned if she was going to let this one pass.  When she got back to Maine, she was going to drive straight out to her grandfather’s house and let him know exactly what she thought of his perceived need to ‘send in help’.  She wasn’t a child, after all.  Benoit wasn’t going to be able to harm her as easily as he’d murdered those little ones . . .

But the farther she went, the more irritated she grew.  She couldn’t seem to help it.  Everyone in her family underestimated her, didn’t they?  She knew damn well that it wasn’t normal protocol to send in a second hunter without just cause.  For kami’s sake, she’d just talked to Bas.  He knew well enough that she had the situation under control.  This, in her opinion, was like a slap in the face—yet another example of her family’s inability to reconcile themselves to the truth of the matter, which was that she was fully capable of doing her job, just like anyone else . . .

She was so irritated that she didn’t notice the strange way and eerie quiet that surrounded her as she turned another corner in Benoit’s wake.  So focused on the task at hand and proving once and for all that she really was quite capable of doing her job, Samantha kept moving . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Target sighted . . .’

Lowering the long range telescoping binoculars, the violet eyes narrowed as the lone figure atop the roof of the derelict building scanned the area as the demon skulked in the shadows of the night.  The sliver of moon faded in and out of view as thick clouds drifted across the sky just minutes after the sun had finally disappeared.  It was a perfect night for hunting, providing him with the cover that he needed to carry out his mission.

Pushing himself to his feet, he crouched low as he swung himself over the side of the building, repelling down to the filthy alley below and making quick work of unhooking the wire apparatus that he used for such ventures.  He slipped on the night vision goggles, creeping toward the street.  The hulking creature grunted as it knocked over a trashcan, stumbling over the debris left scattered in its wake.  Little more than an inky blob against a slightly paler backdrop, the demon was about mid-way down the section of street that he had already marked off.  ‘That thing isn’t one of them, either,’ he realized with a slight curling of his lip, the familiar sense of disappointment roiling up inside him.  Gritting his teeth, he shook his head once, willing himself to relax.  It didn’t matter, did it?  They’d pay, regardless of whether or not the beast he caught was the one of the ones that he was hunting.

Closing his eyes and mumbling the words that would activate the yellow Post-It notes with the scrawled incantations that he’d stuck to the surrounding alleys at precise intervals, he felt the surge of his spiritual power flow out of him, radiating from him in waves of energy.  Opening his eyes, he glanced up to check his handiwork.

Satisfied that the barrier was in place to prevent his actions from being inadvertently observed, he slipped out of the shadows of the alley only to stop short at the sight that greeted him.

A small figure clad in black stood just behind the demon he’d targeted.  He couldn’t discern much about the intruder aside from the cascade of silvery hair that spilled down its back.  Face contorting in an irritated grimace, he drew back into the shadows a little more.  He was a creature of habit, and he hated—loathed it, actually—when something forced him to deviate from the set plan he’d constructed.

He could sense the new demon’s power—easily more power than he’d ever sensed before.  In the stillness created by the barrier he’d erected, he could hear the creature’s shuffling footsteps.  He could hear the soft click as the strange demon shifted its weight.

He’d sensed that same aura, hadn’t he?  After he’d set up the barrier and before his prey had entered the area, as he’d sat, crouched low atop a nearby building, he’d felt it then.  What he couldn’t reconcile was the realization that the whole of the demon’s power belonged to the one before him.  It wasn’t possible, was it?  The figure was too small—mere inches over five feet tall.  Frowning as he stared at the creature, he shook his head.  It wasn’t possible . . . It just wasn’t possible . . . He’d seen groups of those things over his lifetime, and they hadn’t possessed that sort of aura.  Just what the hell was it, anyway?  That thing in black . . .

“You dare to come here?” the intruder spoke, drawing the demon’s attention as it swung around.  “You disgust me.”

It sounds like . . . a woman?

He scowled as the smaller demon flicked its wrist.  The flashes of metal glowed in the night, three tiny objects that whipped through the air.  One struck the demon in the knee, bringing it down.  One struck it in the chest with a sickening thud.  The last one embedded itself between the monster’s eyes.  Howling in pain, its arms flailing wildly, the beast swung at the intruder.  It—the intruder—sauntered toward the creature, drawing a long, thin blade.  Without a trace of hesitation, it jerked the knife, silencing the creature’s howls in one deft motion.  An unearthly rise of a gale wind ripped through the area enclosed by his barrier, and the demon exploded in a flash of purple light and a cloud of dust.

The thing bowed its head for a moment before sheathing the knife in the holster on its belt.  He slipped out of the shadows, deliberately striding toward the demon.  The irritation that it had cost him his target dissipated with the underlying knowledge that the researchers would pay more for this one.  It had taken the other one down with minimal effort—a feat he wouldn’t have thought possible had he not seen it for himself, even if it did possess more strength in its aura than any other single monster he’d run into thus far.

If it realized that the barrier would prevent its escape, he wasn’t sure.  It let out a deep breath, stowing two of the small silver throwing stars in its pocket as it walked slowly, pulling off a pair of leather gloves and stashing them in its other pocket before adjusting the little black beret perched on its silvery hair.  It started to reach down, probably to retrieve the third star, but stopped, standing perfectly still, as though it had sensed something.

Reaching into the pocket of his black leather coat, he closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the gathering of the energy within him, concentrating it into his palm as he pulled a longer Post-It note out.  The text painted onto the page meant nothing to him: silly Japanese kanji that contained the power to seal one of those creatures.  He didn’t know how or why they worked; he just knew that they did.

The energy that he’d forced into his hand seemed to throb just under his skin, and he gritted his teeth, dashed forward, closing in on the beast fast.

It started to turn around, and whether it had heard him or sensed him, he didn’t know.  It was too late, though.  Fathomless dark eyes flared wide seconds before he slammed the paper against its chest, and he felt the discharge of energy flow from him into it, creating a crackle in the air like the hum of power lines on a quiet summer’s day.  It didn’t make a sound aside from a whoosh of breath.  He landed in a crouch as the monster’s form fell to the ground and didn’t move.

Pushing himself slowly to his feet, he approached the demon with caution.  Strangely enough, the aura surrounding it hadn’t waned—an odd thing that he’d never encountered before.  Crossing his arms over his chest, he stared down at its body.  Half-curled on its side it looked harmless enough . . .

His lip curled up in a derisive sneer as he nudged its hip with the toe of his boot.  It lilted back and forth slightly but didn’t stir otherwise.

Satisfied that it wasn’t going to jump up and attack him, he dug a roll of duct tape out of his coat and hunkered down to work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Samantha moaned quietly, unable to recall exactly why she felt like hell. Biting down with a grimace, she almost gagged on the strips of duct tape that were wound around her head. The room where she lay was disturbingly quiet—so quiet that she heard a faint buzzing sound that wasn’t really there—the sound of nothingness, and, stifling a groan at the strange numbness in her right arm, she cautiously opened one eye.

She was lying on a metal and plastic cot, curled on her side with her hands confined behind her back, probably with the same duct tape that was gagging her. Her feet were also taped at the ankles, and while the constraints bothered her, her main concern at the moment was where she was and how she’d gotten there.

She’d silenced her target. She distinctly remembered that much of it. She also remembered hearing the sound of rapid footsteps—someone running—and she remembered seeing a blur of motion that was more of a shadow in the even more shadowed darkness. A flash of light and a sense of pain that ended as abruptly as her sketchy memory . . . The pain was still there in the center of her chest though it had dulled. Shifting her head just enough to peer down at herself, she frowned. A sutra written on a Post-It note was affixed to her shirt.

It was difficult to tell whether or not she’d been dealt any real physical harm, but she didn’t think so. Closing her eyes for a moment as she willed her mind away from the dull ache in her chest that radiated out from the makeshift ofuda, ignoring the throbbing just above her numbed arm, she methodically moved the parts she could, starting with her fingers and toes.

Wiggling her thumb, she scraped at the tape on her wrists, only to gasp and groan when a sharp shock shot up her arm. Definitely a shock—her captor had must have taped ofuda between the layers. Blinking quickly, fighting back the blackness that ringed her vision, she bit down hard on the gag, telling herself that she was not—was not—going to pass out, no matter what.

That, however, was easier said than done, and it took a few precious minutes for Samantha to compose herself enough that she didn’t. Forcing her eyes open again, she slowly shifted her gaze around the room, instead.

A small lamp fitted with a naked light bulb burned in the center of a bare metal table about six feet away with a few papers draping limply over one side. Behind the table was a cold gray sheet metal bookshelf. The books were haphazardly stacked on the shelves without any discernible order. A rusted old white filing cabinet stood beside the shelf, looking grotesquely stark against the perforated panel board wall. Behind the cabinet was a menagerie of equipment that she didn’t recognize. A mint green metal cabinet mounted to the wall above a rusted white sink bore a stout chain and padlock. Craning her neck to continue her perusal, she frowned at the barren panel where a telephone might have once been mounted, and she took note of her coat and bag tossed carelessly in the far corner near the sink. Across the room from the sink was an open doorway—the door had been removed at some point, and the barren half-hinges stuck out like rotting teeth contorted into a permanent grimace. Through that door, she saw the side of what she assumed to be a shower stall. Grayed with age and streaked with yellowed orange against a lighter shade of gray that was the painted cinderblock wall. To the left of the gaping doorway was a dilapidated plywood dresser, so old and rickety that it bowed down in the middle.

The place was devoid of anything that might have otherwise told her something a bit more personal about her captor. No pictures, no nothing to give her a clue about who had nabbed her or why. Her first thought was that someone had managed to find out that she was a hunter, but even common logic dismissed that idea fairly quickly. She was too careful, wasn’t she? She’d never confronted anyone in any place where there might be a witness. It was obvious, though, that her captor knew what she was and had known that the ofuda would stop her cold, too.

Stifling a low groan, Samantha closed her eyes for a moment, willing away the dull throbbing behind her eyes as she flopped back down, sucking in a sharp breath when her shoulder protested the abuse.

The door beside the foot of the bed swung open, and a man strode in. He carried a beat up canvas bag that looked like something that was issued by the military, and he only stopped long enough to kick the door closed before continuing over to the table. Letting out a metallic groan when he set the bag down with a heavy thump, he didn’t even glance at her as he tugged the drawstrings that held the bag closed and started pulling stuff out of it.

She recognized the field test kit. It was one that she’d never had the occasion to use herself, but she was familiar enough with what they did. Marked with a biohazard stamp, it was a blood sample collector kit, and it could be used to test blood type and that sort of thing, but it wouldn’t be able to provide much more than the barest modicum of information.

He dropped the kit rather carelessly on the table and delved into the bag once more. The next kit he pulled out was a bit more perplexing. In truth, she hadn’t seen one of those before. It looked much like the blood kit, but it was slightly larger. He tossed that one down, too, and shoved the bag off onto the floor.

He stared at the table for a long minute before slowly turning on his heel to look at her. She didn’t make a sound, but she didn’t look away, either.

He was human—something that she hadn’t really realized right off, probably because her sense of smell was altered. In fact, all of her senses felt dull. Still, she couldn’t help but think that he didn’t look completely unfriendly, despite the marked scowl on his face. Brusque, businesslike, but not exactly cruel . . . She couldn’t put her finger on why she felt that way, but she couldn’t shake it, either.

But what did he want . . .?

It seemed to Samantha that he spent an inordinate amount of time staring at her, his gaze so intense that she had to control the urge to fidget. One arm crossed over his chest with his other elbow propped on his hand, he chewed on his thumbnail as he continued to frown at her. Most of his face was lost in the darkened shadows cast by the paltry light behind him, his black hair shone with a soft bluish hue. Eyes that were reduced to little more than pinpricks of light, he didn’t move, and she wished that he’d straighten up or turn his head—anything to allow her to see his face just a little better.

Nodding curtly, as though he’d figured something out, he let his arms drop as he strode over to the rickety metal shelf, shuffling stacks of books aside until he found the one that he was searching for. Turning slowly as he leafed through the pages, he took the two steps that separated him from the table and sat in the folding metal chair, thumping the dog-eared book down with a heavy thud.

Stifling a groan as she mustered enough strength to push herself onto her back, she bit down on her gag to keep herself from vomiting as a wave of nausea shot through her with a vengeance.

Unable to staunch the low moan that seeped out of her as she tried in vain to lay impossibly still, she squeezed her eyes closed. The scrape of the chair—the legs had worn through the rubber shoes that would have kept the noise to a minimum long ago—resounded in her ears like nails on a chalkboard. Footsteps, neither soft nor heavy, moved away from the table . . . The rattle of a chain, the vague sound of metal scraping against metal in arbitrary contact . . . Ripping paper mingled with other sounds that she didn’t quite recognize . . .

After a moment, the footsteps drew closer, and with a dull sort of expression, she forced her eyes open as a stabbing prick—more of a nuisance than a pain—erupted in her shoulder.

He’d given her a shot of . . . something; what, she had no idea, but the effects of it were almost immediate and intense. Scowling in concentration, he lifted the empty syringe and narrowed his eyes at it, and for a crazy moment, she wished that she could ask him what color those eyes really were. A sudden surge of drowsiness bore down on her despite her best efforts to keep herself awake, and she blinked quickly at the bizarre thought that occurred to her.

He . . . reminds me . . . of baa-chan . . .’

And then the blackness descended.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Kurt frowned at the lifeless form of the demon curled up on its side in the middle of the cheap old cot. It was breathing, and that was enough, as far as he was concerned. The things he needed to do were easier accomplished with it knocked out, anyway. Glancing around the unremarkable cube of a room in an unremarkable building he rented by the month, this was where he brought the demons he captured so that he could haggle with them before he attempted to make a delivery . . .

Its eyes disconcerted him, damn it.

To be entirely honest, a lot of things about it disconcerted him.

How could such a tiny demon possess that much power—power that he’d sensed and that he had to admit, he’d almost feared, at least for a moment?

Don’t be stupid, Drevin. Fear one of those things? Hardly!

No, it wasn’t fear, exactly . . . More of a healthy understanding of exactly what things like it were capable of. He’d seen it firsthand, hadn’t he . . .?

Besides, fear in and of itself pissed him off, didn’t it? He’d vowed to himself long, long ago that he would never, ever fear a damn thing, ever again. Those things might be powerful, and they were definitely monsters, but they still bled, and they still breathed . . . and, ultimately, they still died, too.

What was it about this one? Why was this one so much more powerful than the others he’d come across? It shouldn’t be, should it? It was the smallest monster he’d come across in all his years of hunting them.   Freaks of nature or nightmares come to life . . . Kurt didn’t give a damn, what they were. All he cared about was finding the ones who had attacked his family, to make sure that those demons would never hurt another soul, ever again.

Heaving a sigh as he tossed the empty syringe into the dented metal trashcan near the door, he crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at the huddled form. It looked entirely too human, didn’t it? That was what bothered him most. Strange, fuzzy little triangles atop its head—dog ears, they looked like—and fangs—he’d seen those while he was gagging it—nasty looking claws that he knew were made for the express purpose of tearing things to shreds—pretty little girls in pink sundresses with golden curls and bright violet eyes . . . Those things aside, though . . .

Gritting his teeth so tightly that his jaw bulged slightly, Kurt let his right hand hover just above the beast’s silvery hair, murmuring the same incantation he’d used earlier to remove the disguise that it clung to.

Something was barring him from removing the concealment completely, wasn’t it? That was why it still bore such an unsettling and uncanny resemblance to humans. If he could remove that, then his business would be much simpler, wouldn’t it?

There was no change. He didn’t figure that it’d work, anyway. After all, it stood to reason that if it were going to have an effect, it would have showed the first time he did it. Well, it had worked, to a point. It had revealed the dog ears and fangs; the claws and the strange slits of its pupils . . .

Giving himself a mental shake, he whipped around and strode over to the table, retrieving the blood sample kit so that he could get to work.

It didn’t take long to draw a sample and test it, and he wasn’t at all surprised at the unreadable results, either. Those things didn’t seem to have a true blood type like humans did—at least, not one that was classified by the standard tests. The only reason he bothered was because they insisted, citing that anomalies occurred often enough that they wanted to be sure before they paid him.

Cheap ass bastards,’ he thought with a decisive snort. They’d use any reason they could to keep from having to pay his full fee. Not this time, though—not if he had a say in the matter. If anything, he’d charge them more since it was obviously more powerful than the others that he’d caught before. How much more powerful remained to be seen, but if the strength of its aura meant anything at all, then it was light years away from those demons he’d already handed over . . .

He’d heard it talk, hadn’t he? It had actually spoken to the other demon—the one he’d originally targeted. It had spoken in a low, melodic tone—definitely a woman’s voice. Articulated despite the lingering hint of some sort of accent that he hadn’t been able to place at the time, it had surprised him, of course, but it hadn’t deterred him, so he supposed that he should be grateful for that . . .

A rapid tapping drew his attention to the careless heap where he’d tossed its jacket earlier, and he frowned. It sounded almost like something vibrating, and he strode over to inspect. It didn’t take him but a minute to locate the cell phone. The number that it showed was unremarkable. It hadn’t even bothered to enter a name into the memory. Kurt flipped the device over in his hand a few times before switching it off, and he dropped it into the drawer beside the sink without a second thought.

Turning back to the table once more, he pulled the small amber bottle of pills from his pocket, staring at them thoughtfully as he dropped into the rickety metal chair once more. He wasn’t sure what those were, but he aimed to find out. He’d never seen one of those things carrying anything that resembled medicine before—just one more thing to add to the list of peculiarities regarding this demon . . .

He took his time, setting up the equipment he needed for testing. Opening the nondescript bottle with a marked scowl, he shook out a couple of them and dropped them into a clean mortar. Smashing the pills into a fine dust with the thick stone pestle, he tugged on a clean pair of sterile gloves and used the flat side of a knife to carefully dump some of the powder into a clean plastic vial.

He ran about seven tests on the substance, and not one of them was conclusive. He’d figured that they wouldn’t be. As it was, the tests would have only given him a base amount of information, to start with, but what surprised him was that the alkaline test that he’d conducted hadn’t showed any results, either. He might not have been able to pinpoint exactly what the drug was, but he would have been able to rule out whatever it wasn’t.

Lifting the securely closed bottle to examine it against the wan light of the lamp on the table, he frowned. There were only five or so left, and while it didn’t matter to him if the beast needed some sort of medication, it might well matter to them . . .

Setting the bottle aside with a heavy thump, he stood up and made quick work of disposing of the testing kit.

None of his books said anything that he didn’t already know about the removal of illusory spells. He knew they didn’t. Still, he had thought that maybe he’d missed something along the way, so he’d re-read them. There was nothing.

“Damn it,” he muttered, slamming the book closed. Unconsciously, his gaze rose to linger on the tiny form in the center of the cot as an irrational surge of irritation shot to the fore. No demon was going to get the better of him, especially one so diminutive . . .

But it was, wasn’t it? The strength of the concealment was proof enough. It was knocked out, wasn’t it? Why the hell could he still feel such a lingering power? He’d dealt with more than his fair share of the beasts over his years of hunting. Once before he’d felt an aura as strong as that one, but he’d been reasonably sure at the time that it had belonged to a collective group of them—at least, that was what he’d thought at the time. Now, though . . . Now he had to wonder.

Making a completely disgusted face, he stood up, striding over to the cupboard once more and reaching for the nondescript stoneware jar shoved to the back behind the sparse contents therein. Heaving a sigh since he couldn’t quite believe that he was actually about to try what he’d always called ‘ridiculous’, he flipped back the wire that held the top in place and set it aside before striding over to the cot once again.

He dug a generous handful of the grayish brown dust out of the jar and flung it on the demon, only to shake his head in frustration when nothing happened. “Crazy old coot,” he grumbled to himself. He should have known, all things considered. The old man hadn’t actually done much of use for years, and while he’d maintained time and again that his peculiar kind of witchery worked, Kurt had been a bit more dubious.

Sometimes it really sucked to be right.

 

 


 

 

Samantha awoke slowly, feeling the strangest sense of déjà vu creeping over her as she stifled a groan and forced her eyes open.

The same darkened room that she felt she’d seen before despite the fogginess that surrounded her brain . . . The same reluctance to let go of the obliterating blackness that she’d felt all along . . . It took a minute for her to realize that she’d seen everything in the place already when she’d woken up before. The drugs that her captor had forced into her, wasn’t it . . .? They were impairing her senses . . .

Stifling the urge to whimper as a handful of different aches in her body demanded her attention, she bit down hard on the gag but couldn’t contain the revolt in her belly. Whether it was the drugs or the gag, itself, she wasn’t sure, but to her horror, she couldn’t stop the rise of bile, either.

Choking on the vomit that she couldn’t get out of her mouth because of the gag, she barely managed to turn her head to the side to let some of it out, as the rapid approach of footsteps, the low, hissed expulsion of breath preceded the rough jerk that brought her upright.

The harsh tug on her head was abrupt, as was the sudden freedom as he jerked both the length of her hair, as well as the gag, away. She swayed just a little as she spit out the last of the purge before slowly lifting her head—her eyes—to meet his.

He’d taken a step back, her hair and the tangled duct tape dangling limply from one hand, a nasty looking bowie knife held slack in the other, and he didn’t look angry, exactly, but he was definitely quite irritated. Swallowing hard, she focused on telling herself that she did not have to throw up again, Samantha licked her lips with a swollen, dry tongue and cleared her throat a couple of times before she could trust her voice to work. “W . . . Water . . . Please,” she croaked.

He didn’t answer, and he didn’t move. Samantha sniffled—her nose was suddenly leaking like a sieve—and let her head fall forward onto her chest as she closed her eyes and drew a few deep, steadying breaths.

She heard him set the knife aside; heard him toss her hair away. Grabbing her arm, he hauled her to her feet, letting go as soon as she was standing so that he could turn to the dingy old sink. She watched in silence as he used the handheld sprayer to wash the cot clean. The water ran along the slightly tilted floor, ebbed around her bare feet, and gurgled down the drain hidden in the shadows under the table.

Biting the inside of her cheek as a thousand stabs of pain shot up her leg straight to her brain, she wondered vaguely just how long she’d been here already. It was obvious to her that he wasn’t out to avenge someone she’d hunted, but the trouble was that she really didn’t know what he wanted, otherwise. Maybe he was after money . . . Maybe he’d figured out who her family was . . . A sudden surge of panic swept through her as the idea solidified in her head. She was related to far too many powerful people, wasn’t she? A scrap of memory from her training years ago edged closer . . .

If you’re ever caught, you don’t tell them who you are,” Ryomaru had said. Bright golden eyes flashing in the wan sunlight of the late summer afternoon, he stared at her hard for a long moment before shifting his gaze away to drop his sword into the nondescript magnolia wood scabbard strapped to his hip. “There’re far too many bastards out there who’d dearly love to get a-hold of one of Sesshoumaru’s kin . . . or Toga’s . . . or Zelig’s . . . hell, even jiji's . . . Don’t tell them who you are, and don’t let on that you’re hanyou, either.”

Samantha blinked to clear away the memory, she willed herself to clear her mind—no small feat, considering. As her body woke up from the forced position she’d held for far too long, one pressing idea entered her mind, drawing a wince from her.   Her captor was kicking the bottom of the cot, sending remnant droplets of water in a fine spray. That done, he turned toward her, lifting his hand to grab her again. It seemed as though he were moving in slow motion, and she uttered a small whine as she twisted out of his grasp. “P-Please,” she whispered, unable to summon her voice to be stronger. “I . . . I have to . . . pee.”

He pulled his hand away and stood still for a moment or two, contemplating her claim with an air of dubiousness. He thought she would bolt or something, didn’t he? Samantha grimaced inwardly. Maybe she would have if she didn’t still feel like she could throw up all over again. At the moment, though, the insular thought in her head was that she sorely, desperately, absolutely needed to pee. “Please,” she whispered once more.

He let out a deep breath—not a sigh, but a very irritated sort of sound—shaking his head as he hefted her over his shoulder and strode toward the bathroom.

Samantha clenched her jaw, closing her eyes against the bile that was rapidly rising in her throat again, but she couldn’t help the sharp whine when her feet hit the floor hard again. The consuming pain that reverberated up her legs—still not used to bearing her weight at the moment—was intense, and she had to blink back the blackness that seeped into the edges of her vision.

The bathroom was filthy—deplorably so—the toilet worse than some gas station ones she’d seen before. The only reason she could see in the room was because of her advanced vision, which likely meant that he couldn’t see anything at all, though he didn’t reach for a light switch or anything, either. Still, beggars couldn’t be choosers, could they, and the mere sight of it nearly brought tears to her eyes as she waited for . . . well, something . . .

He grunted at her, jerking his head toward the stool, obviously indicating that she should go. Samantha slowly shook her head. “I-I . . . My pants . . .” she forced herself to say.

That drew a real sigh from him as he seemed to consider her words. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out something, and she heard the soft click as the blade of the pocketknife snapped into place.

It took everything she had to keep from gasping . . . screaming . . . as he stuck the end of the blade beneath the waistband of her pants, cutting through the fabric with one deft stroke before he repeated the process on her other pants leg. The material fell away as he repeated the process with her panties, leaving her naked from the waist down. She opened her mouth to protest but thought better of it as he pushed her down onto the toilet and scooted together the scraps of her clothing with the toe of his boot. Despite the pervasive thought that the stranger wasn’t really going to hurt her—she had no idea where that idea had come from—she didn’t figure that she ought to test it, either, given the situation . . .

“Nothing funny,” he stated flatly as he stooped over to grab her clothes.

She blinked and watched as he turned on his heel to toss them away despite the absolute embarrassment that she should have to do something as base as pee in front of him. His back was only facing her for a moment, but in that breath of time that it had taken for him to turn and discard her pants, she’d seen a glimpse of his face in the meager light of the lamp on the table. There was a measure of hostility, wasn’t there, and yet, she knew it wasn’t exactly directed at her . . . A sense of melancholy that tightened the muscles at the corners of his eyes . . . How she knew that it was melancholy, she wasn’t sure, and yet she felt in her heart that it was so . . . but what bothered her most was the emptiness in his darkened gaze. She hadn’t been able to discern a true color, but that didn’t matter. She’d seen that expression before on the youkai that she’d hunted over time—the vast emptiness that bespoke a life that had been abandoned long before the flesh had been sent to follow . . .

She didn’t stand up right away. In truth, she doubted that she actually could. Her legs were too weak, her body still affected by whatever drugs he’d shot into her, and while she’d wanted to move of her own accord, her body simply wouldn’t allow it.

That irritated him more. Satisfied that she’d finished what she needed to do, he jerked her to her feet once more, his movements efficacious, direct, but not cruel. Forcing her feet to move, she stumbled a little but caught herself, though it seemed impossible to close the distance to the cot once more.

The long shirt she’d chosen for the day tumbled down as she moved, affording her at least a modicum of cover that she could be grateful for. When she finally reached the cot again, he pushed her down with a hand on her shoulder. “Try anything stupid, and I’ll bind your ankles again,” he warned.

For some reason—maybe it was because of the drugs—that statement struck her as amusing, and while she tried not to laugh out loud, she couldn’t help the giggles that escaped her. She’d heard that line before, hadn’t she? Some old gangster movie that her cousin, Evan seemed to love, maybe . . .

That reaction drew a narrowed gaze from him as he sat back on his haunches, hands dangling between his spread knees. With a shake of his head and an unintelligible grunt, he pushed himself to his feet and stomped over to the table once more.

It didn’t take long for Samantha’s amusement to die away, especially since the pain in her arm and shoulder was exacerbated in her current position. Her skin felt clammy against the plastic cot that hadn’t completely dried, but she couldn’t rightfully say that she was more than a little uncomfortable, either.

Settling for watching him as he leafed through a thick, old tome, she fell silent.

Propping his elbow on the table, he absently tapped his index finger against his forehead.

“Will you tell me where I am?”

He made no move or indication that he’d heard her at all.

Samantha frowned. “Do you want something from me?”

Still no answer.

“Do you need money?” she asked, her voice stark and harsh in the otherwise silence despite the quietness of her tone.

He seemed surprised by her softly uttered question, and he glanced at her for a moment before looking away again.

“I have some,” she went on. “Y-You can have it . . .”

He ignored her.

“Do you . . . know . . . who I am?” she ventured to ask when he didn’t respond.

“I know what you are,” he growled without lifting his face.

His words were sharp, cutting her to the quick as her eyes flared wide just for a moment. ‘What I . . .? He . . . can’t . . .’ Struggling to regain her composure, she forced a half-laugh and shook her head. “What I . . . am? What do you mean?”

He didn’t answer in words, but he did lift his chin long enough to narrow his eyes on her, and for the barest of moments, the briefest of heartbeats, she was almost frightened of him—almost. Then he blinked and dropped his gaze to the book opened before him.

Sami . . . Maybe you should stop,’ her youkai voice warned.

Samantha blinked and closed her mouth on the next question she had been poised to ask. ‘Why?

He’s not going to answer you, and . . . and you can feel it, can’t you?

Feel . . . it?’ she echoed with a shake of her head. ‘What do you—?

His power, Samantha . . . The gross overabundance of spiritual power—so much that it almost flows from him . . . Can’t you feel it . . .?

Spiritual . . .? Like . . . baa-chan . . .’

Her youkai didn’t answer, and Samantha swallowed hard as her gaze shifted back to the man at the table again. “Who . . . are you . . .?” she murmured, though it was more of a rhetorical question than one she actually expected to be answered.

His chair flew back with an angry screech, and he stalked over to the sink, yanking open the cupboard and rummaging around inside until he found whatever he was searching for. She could hear the sounds but couldn’t quite associate them with whatever he was doing, but when he turned toward her, he didn’t miss the small syringe he held in his hand as he stalked toward her.

Her brain seemed to freeze and yet speed up at the same time, compelling her to do something—to say anything—that might keep him from sticking her with the needle. “M-My name is—” she began only to be cut off when he jabbed the needle into her arm.

“Shut up or I’ll gag you again, and if you puke, you can choke on it for all I care.”

She fought against the instant effects of the shot even as she felt her body starting to shut down again, even as the familiar void beckoned her . . . Even as she closed her eyes . . .

 

 


 

 

Letting out a deep breath, Kurt scowled at the demon, jaw ticking as he clenched it tight, as he tried to tamp down the irrational surge of anger that it would have the audacity to try to play some sort of mind game with him. Common sense told him that he would do well to gag it again, but the unfortunate truth was that it was worthless to him dead, and if it threw up and choked to death, he wouldn’t get paid, would he?

Gotta get that disguise off of it,’ he reasoned with a shake of his head. In that form, it looked entirely too human, despite the ears and fangs and claws. He knew damn well that those things always tried to look like humans; tried to blend in with everyone else.

What bothered him most, though, was that he could normally see right through their disguises—he always could. He hadn’t thought it odd or weird when he was young, no. Back then, he’d thought that everyone could do that. His father certainly could. Kurt knew that. It hadn’t been until he was forced to live with his aunt and uncle that he’d started to understand that it wasn’t true, at all; that most people couldn’t see the demons—the monsters—and that maybe he was the odd one.

But why couldn’t he see past this one’s concealment? It didn’t make sense, damn it. He knew—knew—that there had to be an uglier façade under it all, but he couldn’t see it.

Because it’s more powerful than the other ones,’ he thought suddenly, his eyes narrowing as he continued to stare at the tiny form. ‘Remember what the old man said . . .?

Put that over there, boy!

Kurt wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand and shot Old Granger as fulminating a glower as he could muster before grasping the handles on the huge earthenware urn and scooting it across the rough plank floor. “I’m not slave labor,” he pointed out, his violet eyes reproachful as he dropped the urn into place and stepped back.

Sass me again, and I’ll beat you,” Old Granger warned, lifting the gnarled old walking stick that he’d picked up somewhere in the forest and shaking it at Kurt. “Didn’t beat your daddy near ‘nough, and look how it turned him out!

Dad said you were just a crazy old man,” Kurt pointed out since he’d yet to actually see the old codger lift a hand to him. “Guess he’d know, wouldn’t he?

Old Granger snorted, pushing back the brim of the dusty old hat he always wore to wipe his forehead on a bright red hanky. “It was that ma o’ yours fault. Filled his head with idiot notions . . . Bah!

You leave Mama out of this!” Kurt bellowed, balling his hands into tight fists at his sides.

The old man slammed the end of the cane into the floor so hard that the window panes rattled. “Shut up, boy, and listen good, else you’ll end up just like ‘em!

Kurt recoiled slightly, angry that he’d fear the old maniac; angry that Old Granger always—always—took potshots at his mother.

Satisfied that Kurt’s tantrum was over, Old Granger huffed indignantly and shook himself. “Them what came after your’n wann’t so tough. There be others—ornery sons o’ bitches—that you won’t see. They hide what they are, see? More powerful . . . and them’re the ones to just laugh at you, and you never see ‘em comin’!” Turning away, his shoulders slumped slightly, as though the long statement had worn him out, Old Granger shook his head as he stared out the window at the small rise just before the tree-line—at the small wooden cross that stood under the spreading branches of a thick old tree. “Them’s the ones you fear, boy. Them’s the ones . . .

Blinking away the last of the memory, Kurt shook his head and tightened his jaw as his gaze fell to the small demon once more. “Fear that . . .? Never . . .”

The low hum of his cell phone rattled against the pages of handwritten notes he’d left on the table, and he turned away with a snort. “What?” he barked in lieu of a proper greeting as he grabbed the phone and hit the ‘connect’ button.

“How’s the hunting?”

He almost smiled insincerely at the sound of the calculated calm in the voice on the other end of the line. “Got one,” he admitted at length, but not before giving a pregnant pause designed to make the man squirm. “It’s going to cost you.”

“Doesn’t it always?” the man quipped in a facetiously pleasant tone.

“Yeah, well, this one is going to cost you more.”

“Why’s that?”

Unconsciously shifting his gaze to the huddled form once more, he sucked in his cheek while he contemplated how much information he was willing to divulge over the phone. “It’s . . . stronger.”

“. . . Stronger?”

“I’d say one-point-five is a good place to open negotiations,” Kurt went on, knowing damn well that the cheapskate would never come close to coughing up that much for the creature.

The man bit out a very terse laugh. “One-point-five . . .? Does it shit gold?”

“You want it or not?” he went on in a deliberately bored tone of voice. “Makes no difference to me. Maybe the guys in Wichita would be more interested in paying the fine.”

“Wait, wait,” he hurried to say. “It’s just that I’ve got to see it before we commit, you understand.”

Kurt’s smile was as thin and insincere as the man’s voice on the line. “Tomorrow,” he replied.

“All right, then. We’ll be expecting you tomorrow.”

The line went dead, and Kurt stared at the device for a second before clicking it off and dropping it onto the table once more. To be honest, he figured he’d be able to talk them into seven-fifty, tops, but it didn’t hurt to try . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Besides, even if they didn’t want to pay over the base rate, he had other options, didn’t he?

Chapter Text

“Five is the normal fee.”

Kurt didn’t bat an eye as he watched Harlan slowly circle the small demon. It hadn’t moved since he’d put it down in the middle of the examination table.

“It’s smaller than the ones you normally bring in,” he went on, pulling a penlight from his pocket and tentatively pushing back its eyelid.

“Don’t insult me, Dr. Harlan,” he growled in an even tone. “That’s one of the most powerful ones I’ve seen, and if you’re not willing to pay what I want, then I’ll just take it elsewhere.”

“Wait, wait,” the good professor hurriedly said, letting go of its eyelid as he scowled at it. “You say it’s more powerful, but it doesn’t look it. Surely you can appreciate my predicament here. I have to answer to my investors, and shelling out that much for one untried specimen . . . Well, I’m sure you can see the problem here.”

“And it is your problem, not mine,” Kurt maintained, reaching for the black leather gloves that he’d peeled off when he’d arrived at the nondescript building. Situated on the outskirts of the Chicago suburb amid other medical research facilities that all pretty much looked the same, Bradford Medical was a good cover for the clandestine establishment, but the research done here was entirely different.

Research aside, though, the other thing that made this building different from the others were the strips of paper that were embedded around the perimeter of the building, itself—papers that, with the proper inscriptions, ensured that other demons wouldn’t sense the presence of the ones inside. Kurt, himself, had mounted them—had painted over them with weatherproof paint. For that task, he had managed to demand a payment of twenty-five thousand dollars—a price that the cheapskates were willing to pay since none of them were willing to tangle with the beasts without the proper precautions in place.

“It doesn’t look powerful,” Harlan stated again dubiously, his beady little eyes taking on a calculating slant as he turned to eye Kurt over his shoulder.

“Let it rip your heart out of your chest so you can watch yourself die and see if you still agree,” Kurt remarked acerbically as he pushed himself away from the wall with a nonchalant shrug. “I already called Claxton in Houston, and they’re very interested . . .”

“Claxton, huh?” he echoed, tapping his chin with his index finger—a nervous habit that irritated Kurt nonetheless. “Hell of a trip with one of these.”

“Be worth my while,” Kurt replied, taking a step toward the form on the gurney, his intention clear: either they bargain reasonably or he really would take it somewhere else.

“Six,” Harlan grudgingly offered.

Kurt’s gaze flew back to Harlan. He had been eyeing the security team stationed around the perimeter of the large room. Seven men on detail, and Kurt doubted that it was nearly enough to deal with that particular demon if it should happen to freak out . . . With a tight and completely insincere smile, he stepped toward the gurney, his intention clear: negotiations were over. Six hundred thousand dollars for that particular demon was an insult, in his opinion.

“You get what you pay for, Dr. Harlan,” Kurt muttered.

To his credit, the professor looked duly perturbed. On the one hand, it was evident that he dearly wanted to get his hands on this one. On the other, he hesitated at the price that Kurt had stipulated, and Kurt could probably understand that, too. Too bad that this was all strictly business. If Claxton would pay more, then that that’s where he’d go.

Loosening the restraint holding its left hand in place, Kurt held onto it as he skirted around the gurney. It was still out cold and probably would be for a while. He’d taken care to dose it a little heavier than he had the night before since it seemed to have a high resistance to the tranquilizers on a whole. Three different kinds of tranquilizers, and none of them had knocked it out for more than a couple hours, tops. He’d given it another shot before wrestling it out of the rental car, just to be on the safe side.

He made quick work of taping its wrists together, slapping a couple extra seals between the layers of duct tape. He’d also cut its claws before leaving the rented office building where he’d been keeping it just in case. Those claws were just like dog’s claws with a vein that extended up into it. He’d cut one of them a little too short, and it had bled like a stuck pig—yet another mess that he’d had to clean up, of course.

“If I had some proof that it’s as powerful as you say . . .” Harlan blurted in a plaintive tone.

Kurt didn’t spare him a glance as he ripped the tape and strode toward the end of the gurney to unbind its feet. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Harlan that he’d do well to reinforce the paltry leather straps attached to the table, but didn’t. What did he care if the damn things got loose and killed the lot of them, anyway? Overbearing, condescending bastards . . . thought that they knew how to control these beasts when their ‘control’ was only illusory, at best.

“Wait, Doc,” Harlan said, striding over and pushing Kurt away from the gurney as he reached for the second restraint. “Don’t be hasty . . . say we let the meds wear off of it . . . I’d like to observe it for a day or so before we finish discussing the terms.”

Kurt slowly shook his head. “It doesn’t leave my custody until it’s paid for.”

Harlan grimaced then pasted on a bright, if not completely fake, smile. “Okay, okay . . . how about this? I can give you the five now, right? If it proves out to be as powerful as you claim, then we’ll authorize a . . . shall we say . . . bonus?”

Kurt didn’t miss the man’s flash of near panic that filtered over his features at the offer. “How do I know that you won’t damage it just so that you don’t have to make good on that?”

Harlan chuckled nervously. “Damage it . . .? Why would we do that? We only observe them . . .”

“Cut the crap, Harlan,” Kurt intoned, narrowing his eyes on the pudgy, balding man. “Now, I can’t say that I give a shit, one way or the other, but you don’t really think that I’m too stupid to realize that none of the others that I’ve brought in to you is still here, which means that you let ‘em go, sold them to another lab, or killed them . . . Guess which one of those I’m banking on?”

Harlan backpedaled quickly enough, then grasped Kurt’s arm to lead him farther away. “We have run some tests . . . to check their immunities . . .”

Kurt shrugged offhandedly, as much to shake off the man’s grasp as to indicate his utter indifference. “Spare me. I don’t care what you do with them—after you’ve paid me.”

Harlan heaved a sigh, adjusting the lapels of his lab coat. “Okay . . . five now—your standard finder’s fee . . . another two-fifty after it regains consciousness, and we verify that it’s healthy, and another two-fifty if it proves to be as powerful as you claim.”

Kurt considered the offer and slowly nodded. In truth, he’d been doubtful that he could get seven-fifty out of them, and while he wasn’t particularly pleased with the idea of waiting for part of the payment, he wasn’t too worried about getting the shaft. They could talk big if that’s what they wanted to do. He knew that they understood that they’d be shit out of luck if he decided not to supply them anymore.

Sure, they employed a couple other freelance hunters. Too bad that their real catches had been nothing more than flukes. Though they often professed to be able to sense the demons, it hadn’t taken Kurt long to figure out that they were just blowing hot air. To his knowledge, there were only a couple of people in the world who actually could do what he did, and of those that he’d met—he could name two of them—one was a crazy old man who had lost his precarious touch with reality long ago, and the other? Well, that guy lived in a constant state of denial about the monsters he saw sometimes when he walked down the streets near his home in Heidelberg, Germany . . .

Kurt had sought him out after hearing whispers of some astounding young man who wrote books that were rumored to be based on the creatures that he saw—creatures that hid themselves in the guise of humans. He’d been cautiously optimistic that the writer would know something about them that Kurt didn’t. Unfortunately, Stefan Ulrich refused to acknowledge the things he saw, and Kurt . . . Well, he couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him, in the end. Living his life behind the confines of a three-foot-thick stone wall, complete with security cameras stationed in every single room of his modest home, he ventured out when he was with a group of people—as though other humans could possibly provide any sort of real defense against the demons that frightened him.

His family hadn’t been killed by the monsters, but maybe it was just as bad. His father had bailed out when he was a child after Stefan had claimed that his boss at work was one of those things. His mother had signed the papers to have him committed to the Schliessel Assisted Living Center—a nice name for a nut house—in Hamburg about a year later, and from what Kurt could tell, Stefan had spent the majority of his youth in soothingly painted beige rooms devoid of furniture with electronic fields over the windows. They shocked him if he tried to reach through them to touch the glass panes. With a quiet smile, he’d said that they’d been afraid that he’d bust the windows and use the glass to cut himself . . .

Still, Kurt had felt for the young man in the end. Taking his time as he set up a protective barrier around the perimeter of the home, he knew well enough that such a show of generosity wasn’t really in his nature, and yet, he really had felt sorry for young Stefan—an emotion that Kurt hadn’t thought that he possessed anymore.

Still, he had almost laughed outright the one time that he was here when another of their supposed hunters for hire had brought in his catch of the day. The idiot had brought in a chimpanzee—where or how he’d managed to find it, Kurt never found out and didn’t really care—citing that it was the creature’s “true form” and that it “talked” to him. He’d been inclined to tell the powers-that-be that it really was a demon, just to give himself something to chuckle about later—at least, he’d considered it until he remembered that he hadn’t laughed in years.

But it irked him to hell and back that those damn researchers didn’t trust his judgment. After all, every beast he’d brought them was the real thing.

Dr. Harlan smiled in what Kurt supposed he thought was a warm affectation. To him, it seemed entirely facetious—the kind of expression that was offered to pesky children or to the waitress who snapped her gum and tapped the toe of her white canvas Keds sneaker as she waited to take your order. “Put it in the cage,” he ordered when Kurt nodded once more.

Two of the security guards stepped forward without a word. Kurt shook his head at the perceived carelessness. They were wearing riot gear, sure—par for course in this place—but it seemed to him that they were underestimating it entirely; lulled into a false sense of security since the demon still had yet to move.

The one guard unfastened the last binding that secured it in place. The two pulled the demon off the gurney, its feet dragging across the cold cement floor. The other guards fell in behind them as they headed out of the room to take it to the holding area with their tranquilizer rifles trained on the unconscious form.

“Authorize that payment now,” Kurt demanded mildly.

Dr. Harlan nodded, pulling his cell phone from his pocket.

A loud bang, the sound of men yelling at one another erupted in the distance. He gritted his teeth as he broke into a sprint when a volley of gunfire rang out. Muttering curses under his breath, he dashed out of the room and down the hallway, stopping short as he rounded the corner into the holding room.

The two men who had been holding it lay sprawled just inside the doorway. Kurt didn’t stop to find out if they were dead or alive, stepping over them with his eyes fixed on the demon. It was surrounded by the remaining guards who seemed to be at a loss as to what, exactly, they ought to do. Three yellow-tagged tranquilizer darts permeated its skin, and it still showed no sign of wavering. Somehow, it had managed to wrangle its hands to the front, and it stood at ready, neither moving nor shying away.

Three of the guards rushed forward. It whipped around in a blur of motion too fast for his gaze to discern, bringing its clenched fists down against one man’s throat. Momentum brought the demon down into a crouch, and, planting those hands on the floor, it spun around, kicking out it’s legs in a scissor motion, locking its ankles around the second guard to bring him down, twisting its body as it pushed off the floor enough to force more power into its legs before smashing the heel of its foot into the center of the man’s chest to make sure he stayed there. The third guard dashed forward, unleashing a loud battle cry. The demon lifted its feet, let its legs bend as it caught the guard in the center of his chest and shoved him back. He didn’t stumble; his feet didn’t touch the ground as he flew back, hitting the two way mirrored, tempered glass wall across the room. The mirror did nothing to slow the man’s momentum, but the concrete wall on the other side of the observation deck did, and the impact rattled through the building, the sound dulled but the resulting tremor reminding Kurt of a sonic boom. Kurt shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. He’d known, of course, that it was powerful. He’d known that, and even though it swayed slightly as it got to its feet again, he didn’t delude himself into thinking that it couldn’t very easily take out the remaining two guards without any trouble at all.

Damn it, it shouldn’t be that cognizant. It had been heavily sedated since he’d caught it. None of the others that he’d brought in had ever woken up while he was dealing with the bargaining of fees and payment arrangements. Powerful, maybe, but . . . just what the hell was that one . . .?

“I thought you tranquilized it!” Dr. Harlan hissed between labored breaths as he trotted into the room.

“And you saw that I did,” Kurt shot back mildly since Dr. Harlan had been in the docking bay when Kurt had arrived with the demon. True to protocol, he had administered the dosage that Harlan had handed to him, himself, before he’d hauled it out of his car with the good doctor standing right there.

“Do something before it tears up the place!” Harlan demanded.

Kurt snorted indelicately and stepped forward, methodically removing the black leather glove covering his right hand. One of the remaining guards fumbled around, jerking the gun from the holster on his hip. The demon noticed it and laid back its ears, uttering a fierce growl as the man, hands shaking, brought up the weapon, aiming it directly at the demon’s chest.

“No!” Kurt yelled, darting forward to intervene. “Don’t be stupid!”

But the little demon leapt at the man, raising both fists to strike.   The man screamed and squeezed his eyes closed as he pulled the trigger in rapid succession. The deafening sound of the firing gun resounded in the room, but didn’t stop the beast. Kurt heard the bullets hit the wall behind him—the fool had missed. The beast was bringing its fists down hard, and in a last ditch effort to reach it, Kurt sprang forward, bringing his hand down on its shoulder as a hiss of energy surged from him in a flash of purple light.

The demon crumpled to the floor in a pitiful heap as Kurt glowered at the guard. “Put that away,” he growled, pushing the demon onto its back with the toe of his boot. He’d been careful not to hit it too hard with the full brunt of his power, but it had been enough. Dark blue eyes staring at him with emotion that he didn’t want to understand as a thin rivulet of blood dripped down the demon’s cheek from the singed streak where a bullet had grazed it, he slowly shook his head and, seeing no help for it, hauled it over his shoulder as he stepped past the guards, heading for the small cage situated in the center of the observation room. “Do anything like that again, and I’ll kill you, myself,” he muttered, knowing damn well that it could hear him.

He shoved the monster through the door and slammed it shut, touching the panel that hissed as the air lock slipped into place. The cage was one that he’d built for the center. It looked like a large dog kennel—that’s where he’d come up with the design—but every single bar had notes sealed into them—notes that would hurt the demons if they tried to break them. The control panel on the outside of the door was the same, but that was just a safety lock, anyway. The real locking mechanism was the main cage that extended up out of the floor once the computer lockdown was initiated. No sooner did he pull his hand back from the device than the slow series of beeps tell him that Harlan had initiated the main lockdown from the terminal near the door. The grates rose up and locked into place with a heavy clank, and all the while, the little demon stared at him.

“It won’t be moving around for a while,” Kurt said, standing up and pulling a pad of Post-It notes out of his jacket. Reasonably certain that the creature was secured, sure, but something about this one made him uneasy. It was just too damn powerful, wasn’t it? And that feeling of unease ticked him off.

He plastered the entire top of the cage with more of the notes then stepped back, lifting his hand perpendicular to his face, his index and middle fingers extended as he closed his eyes and muttered the words to activate the seal. Satisfied that it was finally secured, he spared another moment to eye his handiwork before turning back to face the men once more.

He wasn’t entirely surprised that they were all staring at him with varying degrees of awe laced with fear in their expressions. Two of the guards had woken up, and the one it had managed to club was stirring. Harlan met Kurt’s gaze and tried to cover the utter revulsion in his expression a moment too late.

Kurt didn’t say a word as he strode toward the door.

“You can wire the entire amount right now,” he muttered before he strode out of the room. “I think my claim’s been proven, don’t you?”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Gunnar Inutaisho leafed through the small stack of pink “while you were out” notes he’d found lying in the center of his desk when he’d walked into his office at the youkai special crimes office. Nothing that couldn’t wait until later, he figured, dropping them into a careless heap as he reached for the steaming mug of coffee that his secretary had slipped onto his desk a few minutes ago.

“Hey, Gunnar . . . you just get in?”

Gunnar nodded as he turned in time to see his cousin, Bas poke his head into the office. “Yeah. Why’s Ms. Dunkirk calling me? I thought you were handling that case . . .”

Bas sighed and stepped into the office. He started to close the door but stopped when Connie asked if he’d like a cup of coffee, too. “No, thanks,” he said as he quietly closed it. “You, uh, heard from Sam?”

Gunnar sat down behind his desk and leaned back. “No,” he supplied slowly. “Should I have?”

Bas rubbed his face and smiled, though the expression was entirely too thin to me marked. “No, I just thought . . . maybe she’d called you instead of me.”

Gunnar shook his head and sipped the coffee. “She’s out on assignment, isn’t she? That Benoit case, right?”

Bas nodded, but he still looked entirely unsettled. “Yeah, she is, but she hasn’t called since she located him.”

Gunnar digested that for a moment then shifted his gaze to the computer monitor on his desk. Tapping the keypad built into the arm of his desk chair, he pulled up the reports around Chicago and the outlying areas. Newspapers, news stories, weather reports . . . ‘Technology can be a bitch,’ he thought with a wry smile as he navigated the pages via the trackball under his fingertips. “Hmm . . . looks like they got one hell of a storm,” he pointed out reasonably, nodding slightly to indicate that Bas should look at the monitor, too. “Knocked out power in a number of areas . . . tornadoes verified just outside the city . . . Maybe it knocked out cells for a while, too.”

“Maybe,” Bas agreed in a tone that indicated that he didn’t really believe it, at all.

Gunnar didn’t say anything as he scanned the pages of headlines. “Nothing remarkable,” he finally said with a shake of his head. Turning his attention to Bas once more, Gunnar regarded him in silence for a moment then sighed. “Bas . . . she’s only been gone a couple days, hasn’t she?”

Bas nodded. “Yeah.”

“So maybe you’re worrying about nothing.”

Bas nodded again. “Yeah . . .” Letting out a deep breath, he rubbed a hand over his face and leveled a serious look at Gunnar. “She knows that she’s supposed to call,” he pointed out quietly.

Gunnar was inclined to agree, but given Bas’ grave expression, he figured he’d be better off not to voice that thought. “Maybe she lost the target after she acquired him.”

“Gunnar . . .”

“What?”

Bas looked like he was deliberating whether or not he wanted to voice his current line of thought. “I . . . I’ve got a really bad feeling about this . . . and so does Sydnie.”

Gunnar nodded. He’d figured that it was something like that. “Sydnie’s pregnant. Her feelings are impaired,” he half-joked.

“And me?” Bas countered mildly, arching a golden eyebrow.

Gunnar smiled slightly. “You’re pregnant by proxy.”

Bas sighed and shook his head, but he finally smiled. “You’re a jackass,” he muttered, standing up to leave.

Gunnar chuckled and shrugged. “Probably,” he agreed.

He watched Bas go as the slight smirk on his features dimmed as he reached for the telephone but didn’t pick it up until after Bas had closed the door behind himself.

“Myrna,” he said when the sound of the youkai woman’s voice greeted him after two rings.

“Ah, Lord Puppy-pants . . . what can I do for you?”

“I need you to do something for me.”

“Hmm, okay . . . what kind of ‘something’ are we talking about?”

Gunnar sighed and sat back. “I need you to hack into Ian MacDonnough’s system. I need to know everything you can find about that Benoit character.”

“The MacDonnough’s system?” Myrna echoed dubiously. “Wow, nothing like asking for huge favors . . .”

“Just do what you can,” he stated.

Myrna uttered a small hum. “Anything in particular?”

Tapping his claws on the polished surface of the desk, Gunnar’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I need to know if Sam could take him down.”

“Sam,” Myrna repeated. “How’d she get sent in on that? Benoit would have fallen into Zelig’s jurisdiction.”

“Call it a comedy of errors,” Gunnar intoned. “Just have that information for me as fast as you can.”

“Will do, Son of the Puppy . . .”

“Thanks.”

He dropped the phone into the cradle and leaned to the side, curling an articulated finger over his mouth as he propped his chin on his hand. Samantha took her job seriously, and he knew it. She wouldn’t ignore protocol, and he knew that, too. She would have called, at least to give a progress report, even if she had failed to secure her target right off, and that was the hell of it, wasn’t it? Bas was right, damn it. Something struck him as strange, too . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Samantha rubbed her arms in the filmy darkness of the room where they’d finally left her. The row of security lights that ran around the perimeter of the large, drafty room did little to dispel the pervasive darkness. One of the fluorescent bulbs in the far right corner flickered but clung to life, and in the quiet, she could hear herself breathing.

If she could just figure out where the hell she was, she’d be able to settle herself down, at least a little bit. After the incident yesterday when she’d taken down five of the guards, they’d pretty well left her alone, which wasn’t to say that she wasn’t of sovereign interest to them. On the contrary, it seemed to her that they’d spent the bulk of the day watching her, scribbling notes on their clipboards, but they seemed to be a little afraid to come near her, even when they’d opened the four inch high slot that ran along the base of the cage in order to slip a tray with a crockery bowl of dog kibble and a metal tin of water through. She’d stared at the food with unabashed surprise, unsure exactly what to make of it, but she’d figured out quickly enough that the men in the white lab coats seemed to believe that she was some kind of animal.

It was some kind of research facility; that much she’d figured out. She’d also realized fairly quickly that the one who had brought her here had somehow managed to remove her concealment, too. She’d overheard the men talking amongst themselves about her ears and fangs. Apparently, the holy man had to have warned them to trim her claws, too, because the only other time they’d bothered to come near her was to tell her with as few words as possible that she needed to stick her hands through so that they could trim them.

Tucking her legs a little tighter under herself, she grimaced and bit the inside of her cheek. She needed to pee, but she was loathe to do it. When she’d finally managed to move after the holy man had zapped her, she’d noticed that the cage was not only affixed to the floor, but it was situated over a six inch drain in the floor, too. In the time since, she’d figure out two more very important things about that drain. Firstly, a lot of really cold air came out of it, and the second thing?

Biting her lip as a humiliated flush crept up her cheeks, she’d rather not think about the second thing. It hadn’t taken long for her to realize that they weren’t about to accommodate her as far as taking her to the bathroom, either. In fact, one of them had even said that ‘it’ could go wherever ‘it’ was, and that was true, too. She’d even gone as far as to rattle the bars of the cage, ignoring the painful jolts that shot through her for her efforts. In the back of her mind, she had considered breaking down and asking them to take her, but in the end, stubborn pride had kept her silent, though to her own mortification, she hadn’t been able to control her body, either. In the end, they’d gotten out the power hose and had turned it on her, blasting both her and the cage with the icy spray in what they called, “cleaning it up.”

Which was partially why she was freezing now. The draft coming up from the drain didn’t help, either, but she didn’t delude herself into thinking that she’d at least be a little more comfortable if she weren’t soaking wet.

Letting her forehead fall against the cold bars of the cage, she closed her eyes for a moment and sighed. How had she ended up here? The time that had passed since she’d been captured was little more than a dull blur in her mind, and she had no way of knowing exactly how long had passed since that fateful night. The conspicuous lack of windows both in the small room where the holy man had taken her as well as this place made it impossible for her to gauge the time accurately. The only reason that she knew it was night now was because the men in the white coats had left a while ago, murmuring last minute instructions to the man in the brown service suit—her warden, she figured.

The bars of the cage really were reinforced. She’d figured that out a little while ago. The guard was leaning back in a metal chair behind the wide desk that was lined with monitors and glowing buttons—a far sight better than earlier when he’d strolled around the cage, glowering at her as though he thought that she were going to sprout a few more heads or try to eat him. She hadn’t moved an inch, refusing to allow herself to retreat to the far side of the cage—refusing to even look at him as he slowly sized her up.

After almost an hour of pacing around, though, he’d suddenly grinned nastily as he pushed his hat back to scratch his head. “You’re not so tough,” he decided, kicking the bars of the cage for good measure. The incursion had activated the ofuda that seemed to have been sealed into the bars, though, and she couldn’t help the smothered gasp that escaped her when the residual energy shot through her with a vicious jolt. White hot fire burned her deep, and, satisfied that he’d made his point, he stuffed his hands into his pockets, whistling off key as he strode over to the desk, falling asleep while reading a magazine.

Do anything like that again, and I’ll kill you, myself . . .”

Shivering slightly as the thread behind the words echoed through her mind, she sighed and drew her legs up, wrapping her arms around her ankles in a vain effort to retain some measure of warmth. She didn’t doubt that he was fully capable of making good on that threat. Still, why did she feel like it was just a threat, after all? She didn’t know the holy man, not really, and yet she couldn’t help but think that he really wouldn’t hurt her, even if she wasn’t feeling up to testing that theory. He hadn’t used the full extent of his power in bringing her down. She knew that he hadn’t. He was strong—really strong—maybe as strong in spiritual power as Kagome, herself, was . . .

He has . . . violet eyes . . .’ she thought almost absently as she scrunched herself a little smaller against the corner of the cage. Black hair cut short though the bangs were a bit on the longish side, his sideburns were touched with gray. Those eyes had been scowling at her as she lay immobile at his feet. Those seconds when their eyes had met, though, she knew that he understood what she was trying to tell him, even if he’d ignored her plea in the end. He wasn’t a small man, by any means. Easily six feet tall—maybe an inch or two over—with a sturdy build though he wasn’t even close to the brute of a man that Bas Zelig was. No, it was obvious to her that he took care of himself though maybe it was a little more difficult to maintain as he grew older. Still, she could sense the man’s power easily enough, especially since the medication that he’d kept pumping into her had worn off. With her mind cleared of the drugged fog, she could process things with a lot more clarity.

She remembered hearing rumors regarding youkai disappearances. At the time, it had been speculated that they were fighting amongst themselves. They all seemed to have been lesser-youkai, anyway—the beings that were only a bare step above being complete animals. Most of those kinds ended up on the hunt list sooner or later. They didn’t know how to control their impulses, and since the way of the youkai tended to revolve around violence, it wasn’t entirely surprising that they’d eventually turn renegade, either. She’d discounted the rumors she’d heard, figuring, like everyone else, that the disappearances were mere infighting, but now . . .

Had they been hunted down like she’d been? Had they been brought here or to another facility like this somewhere else? Maybe not all of them—it was too easy to chalk up every single incident to the same cause, wasn’t it? Still, she didn’t have to be brilliant to understand that the holy man had obviously captured beings like her before, even if she doubted that he’d ever managed to snag anyone as advanced as she was.

But why . . .?

She’d sensed his anger, his perceived lack of caring, and yet she’d understood somehow that it wasn’t necessarily her that he hated. It was more of a general dislike, wasn’t it? An animosity for her kind as a whole . . . Hadn’t she seen the emptiness in his gaze? He was just going through the motions, wasn’t he? Living because he wasn’t dead yet, but unwilling to look for the good in the world, too . . .

Heaving a quiet sigh, she shook her head, slightly irritated with herself for letting her mind dwell on the holy man. Chances were that she’d never see him again, anyway, right?

 

 

 

 

 

Besides that, she had bigger things to worry about; things like just how the hell she was going to manage to escape from this place . . .

Chapter Text

Kurt reshouldered the knapsack as he trudged through the dense trees of the familiar old forest. He’d spent years in these woods, hiding from the insane old codger who lived there. He hated the place even as he felt the old familiarity of it seep into his psyche. How many times had he huddled under these trees, telling himself that once he got out, he’d never come back again?

Yet here he was, retracing the paths that he’d despised. The irony of the situation was not lost on him, though. The one man that he had always maintained that he’d never ask for help . . . and, well, he needed it now.

It irritated him to no end that he wasn’t able to completely remove the little demon’s disguise. He’d tried for almost a whole day before giving up and readying it for transport. He’d combed through every text that he owned, had tried everything that he could think of to remove the concealment, to no avail, and that, more than anything, had goaded him into making the trip to this God-forsaken area of the world.

Trudging through the trees, he let out a deep breath and shook his head. Best just to get over with, and fast.

It took him a few hours to hike through the forest, though he did stop here and there to stare at a few different places that he remembered from his youth. Funny how the area hadn’t really changed even though his perception of it had. How large had the trees seemed when he was a boy? How many times had he stared up through the branches, hating how alone he felt? Afraid to let anyone get too close . . . afraid that only bad things happened to people who tried . . . Even the old man . . . he’d kept him at a distance, too . . .

And he still did, didn’t he?

Don’t . . . tell . . . Live, Kurt . . . Live . . .”

The memory didn’t dredge up the same emotions that it used to. It was entirely different now, wasn’t it? His father hadn’t understood a damn thing, had he? He’d honestly thought that Kurt could just forget what he’d seen that day—forget about it and move on.

He’d moved on, hadn’t he? His body had aged, his mind had matured, but something deep inside him had been destroyed—murdered that day, along with the rest of his family, leaving him with a lifetime of nightmares. So many emotions had been decimated. He’d learned to function by blocking out everything that could possibly hurt him. He’d forgotten how to smile, how to laugh. He’d trained himself to look through humans, shoving them to the very recesses of his mind as he buried himself in his training. He’d attended college to study medicine—not to help people, but to aid his cause in identifying those monsters by the differences in simple biology. Spending more nights in the library than he had in his dorm, he’d read everything that he could find on the occult, on things that went bump in the night.

There was truth behind legends, fact behind lore. All he had to do was to strip away the romanticism that had been built up around these beasts. Some called them vampires, others called them poltergeists. Still others called them gremlins or even aliens, but Kurt knew better. They were demons—monsters—ghastly visions of grotesquely distorted humans. Thing was, they weren’t human, not at all, and he, better than anyone, knew this to be true.

So he’d listened to Old Granger’s instructions on how to paint just the right symbols on a strip of paper—different symbols for different things, and they worked, didn’t they? They worked . . .

Old Granger had taught him a lot of things, even if Kurt was loathe to admit it, and while he knew that the old man was about as bent as a paper clip, he’d also managed to live well into his late eighties and still counting. Having spent a lifetime being able to see those same monsters that plagued Kurt, he’d also managed to avoid the fate that had befallen Kurt’s family years ago. Crazy, maybe, but he was a survivor, and that had to mean something, right?

Snow started to fall though it was blunted by the tree cover. Kurt had read in the paper over a cup of coffee and a stale doughnut—breakfast at a local diner—that a pretty bad storm was blowing in—the first of the season albeit definitely not the last. Winters in the northeastern corner of Minnesota were harsh, and it wasn’t uncommon to find himself snowed into the small cabin with Old Granger for company for days on end during the winter. Those were curious times, he recalled. Old Granger normally found new and oftentimes annoying ways to pester his grandson. One time, it was the beads created from a mixture of tree resin and badger’s blood—it had reeked so badly that Kurt had wanted to cry while it boiled slowly on the wood burning stove. Old Granger had been sure that the bracelet he created from the nasty things would make them invisible. It hadn’t worked, of course, and the old miscreant had maintained that it was because Kurt had ruined the mixture. Impossible since he’d refused to go anywhere near it.

Another time, Old Granger had gotten it into his head that Kurt was possessed by a spirit demon, and all because he told his grandfather to go get bent when the old man had told him to walk into town for a bottle of whiskey. Even at twelve years old, Kurt wasn’t entirely stupid. Trudging thirty miles into the nearest town for a bottle of booze in three feet of snow during a zero-visibility blizzard was just not something that Kurt was willing to do. So instead, Kurt had sat in a stout old chair while Old Granger performed a ritual that was probably closer to a Native American war dance than an actual exorcism. Kurt had rolled his eyes but stayed perfectly still for nearly three hours until Old Granger was satisfied that the demon had left his body.

Come to think of it, a lot of Old Granger’s child-rearing skills were probably akin to abuse. Still, Kurt couldn’t complain too much. After all, his upbringing had helped to shape him into what he was . . .

Still, going back to that place . . .

Straightening his back and steeling his resolve, Kurt hastened his step.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Cain Zelig sat back in the thickly cushioned chair, elbow propped on the armrest and his fingers curled over his lips as he frowned at the document in front of him. It was a request for asylum from yet another European family—this one from London—who felt as though they were in danger of being blacklisted by the long reach of the MacDonnough. ‘Makes the fourth family this year,’ he thought with a frown. Two of the three had been accused of high treason outright, and charges had been pending against the third, and they’d barely been able to escape before the hunters had been sent in. According to the correspondence, that was probably close to the same in this situation, too, and the worst of it was that Cain knew damn well that Kensington was one of MacDonnough’s generals.

Heaving a sigh as he shifted his gaze out the window, his turbulent thoughts were soothed almost instantly by the mere sight of his mate as she wandered along the tree line on the outskirts of the yard with Munchy, their nine month old Rottweiler-Collie mix puppy gamboling along beside her. Cain grimaced but smiled. It was easily one of the ugliest animals he’d ever seen, but for Gin, it had been love at first sight. ‘Oh, well,’ he thought with a shake of his head. ‘She took me home, too, didn’t she?

“There’s a reason you don’t get a damn thing done,” Ben Philips commented mildly as he strode into the office.

Cain didn’t turn away from the window. “I’d much rather look at her than at you,” he shot back just as mildly. “You’re not nearly as pretty.”

“I’ll agree with that,” Ben replied with a chuckle as he settled into the chair opposite Cain’s desk.

“See what you can find out on the Kensington situation, can you? And I need the information as quickly as possible.”

Ben sighed but remained silent for several moments. Cain was the one to break it. “He’s going after his own generals now,” he muttered, his irritation apparent despite the hint of a smile that had surfaced as he watched his mate stumble backward when the exuberant pup barreled into her.

“I’ll talk to Myrna.”

Cain nodded. “He didn’t say why he’s being exiled,” he remarked, tossing the missive onto the desk for Ben to look over if he had an inclination to do so.

Ben picked it up but didn’t look at it right away. “There’s been a lot of unrest there ever since . . .”

“Ever since he issued a hunt for his own daughter,” Cain finished when Ben trailed off. “Yeah, I know.”

“I don’t know how much truth there is to it, but I heard a rumor that there’s been a movement of late to allow both her and Morio back into Scotland. Something about the line of succession.”

“Fat lot of good that’d do . . . Morio wouldn’t go back there if you paid him.” Cain frowned and finally looked away from the window. “The line of succession . . .? How can that be in danger when he recently had a child?”

“A girl,” Ben pointed out, “and from what I understand, there’s also rumor that MacDonnough’s mate passed on recently.”

“That’s not possible,” Cain stated incredulously. “Everyone would know about something like that, don’t you think?”

Ben shrugged.

Cain snorted. “So he goes out and finds another woman stupid enough to let him intimidate her into marrying a bastard like him. Problem solved.”

“He was challenged; did you hear?”

That got Cain’s attention quickly enough. “He was?”

Ben nodded. “Yes, and he won, but from what I understand, there was a . . . problem.”

Cain’s expression turned dubious, and he shrugged. “Problem? What sort of problem?”

This time, Ben chuckled, and it wasn’t a particularly nice one, at that. “Let’s just say that the equipment is still there, but parts of it are . . . missing.”

Cain flinched. “You mean his . . .?”

“Not enough to make him a eunuch, but enough to kill the libido.”

“Ugh,” Cain grumbled, shaking himself as he tried to get the entirely too-vivid image out of his head. “More information that I wanted or needed, I think.”

Ben looked like he was inclined to agree.

“How’d you find this out, Ben?” Cain pressed, shaking a cigarette out of the slightly crumpled pack that he’d been carrying around in his pocket.

Ben shook his head and reached forward to nab the pack out of Cain’s hand. “Myrna. Apparently she hacked into the MacDonnough’s system and found a memo.”

Cain took his time, lighting the cigarette before tossing the gas station dark blue Bic to Ben. “Why was she doing that?”

“Gunnar wanted her to, apparently. Wanted more information on our friend, Benoit.”

Cain frowned. “Why did he want that?”

Ben shook his head again then chuckled. “Myrna didn’t know. She swears that she got more peace when you had her under lockdown under the special crimes headquarters.”

“She like her new place?”

Ben shrugged but smiled. “the penthouse in the tallest building in Maine? Damn straight, she does. She said to tell you ‘thank you’.”

Cain nodded since he was the one who had secured the apartment for her. He’d let her go last summer, and she’d promised to keep working for him. Good enough, as far as Cain was concerned. The woman was frighteningly good at gathering intelligence . . .

“I tell you, that woman is hell on the ego . . . You ought to have heard some of the things she said . . . I swear, I’ll never, ever commit anything to computer that I don’t mind if she finds out. I sincerely thought that she was going to pass out from laughing at the poor bastard.”

Cain shook his head and turned back toward the window again. Gin caught sight of him and smiled but quickly shook her head and wagged a finger at him when she noticed the burning cigarette dangling from his lips. Cain almost smiled though he made no move to put out the offending thing.

“So the generals want to ask Meara to come back?”

“That’s the rumor.”

Cain considered that for a long moment then snorted. “Even if Morio would—and that’s a huge if—MacDonnough will never allow it,” he predicted.   “Besides, he still has the young one—what’s her name?”

“Aislynn,” Ben supplied.

Cain nodded. “Right, Aislynn . . .”

“Yes, but she’s still a child. If something were to happen to him now, it doesn’t matter that he’s exiled Meara. Since Aislynn is still too young, Meara would be MacDonnough’s heir by proxy, regardless—or more to the point, her mate would be.” Narrowing his eyes on Cain, Ben lifted an eyebrow. “Why am I explaining all of this to you? You’re tai-youkai. You know how this works.”

“Not really,” Cain argued but grinned just a little. “I have an heir, remember?”

Ben’s retort was cut short by the curt knock on the door seconds before Larry Rowland stuck his head in. He looked tired, but he nodded before stepping inside the room. “Figured I’d check in.”

Cain stood up and strode over to grab a bottle of water out of the small refrigerator across the room. Larry never drank anything else, as far as he knew. “Think fast,” he said, tossing the bottle at the hunter.

Larry caught it with one hand and popped the top. “Thanks,” he muttered before draining half of the liquid in one go.

“I take it you got him,” Cain remarked, not bothering to clarify of whom he spoke.

“Didn’t have to. Sam got to him, first.”

He almost smiled. He was getting more comfortable with the idea that the girl had chosen to be a hunter even though the grandfather part of him still wasn’t entirely thrilled. That didn’t mean that he was unhappy with the skill she’d shown thus far. Of course, it also didn’t mean that he was about to offer her a job working for him, either . . . “Good.”

Larry nodded. “If there’s nothing else, then I’ll be going. Been meaning to spend some time fishing . . .”

“Fishing?” Cain echoed with a raised eyebrow. “Just take your phone with you, okay?”

“Ayuh,” he muttered, finishing off the bottle of water and tossing it toward the trash can as he turned to leave. “Oh, yeah,” he said, turning quickly once more. “I almost forgot . . .”

Cain frowned as Larry dug into his pocket. He pulled out something and looked it over for a moment before flicking it at Cain. He caught it as his frown darkened, opening his hand to reveal the flash of metal that he knew well enough. It was one of Samantha’s shuriken. “Where did you get this?” he called out.

Larry stopped again and turned back with a shrug. “With Benoit’s remains,” he replied simply. “Why?”

A savage surge of foreboding shot up Cain’s spine. “Did you see her?” he demanded, his tone a lot sharper than usual.

Larry shook his head, giving Cain a rather conspicuous look. “No . . . that’s why I brought that back,” he said. “She hasn’t checked in?”

Slumping into his chair again, Cain held the throwing star between his fingertips and let it spin slowly. “She doesn’t check in with me,” he replied.

Larry stared at Cain for a moment then slowly nodded. “All I found were Benoit’s clothes and that.”

Cain considered that in silence. The shuriken were a gift from Samantha’s parents, he knew: a symbol that she had finished her training, and they meant a lot to her. She wouldn’t have just left one behind, especially if it was right there in plain sight. No, something about this just wasn’t right . . . “Larry,” he said as he reached for the phone, “would you mind holding off on that vacation . . .?”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Hey, Dad,” Bas said as he lifted the phone to his ear. “You going to be home later? I think I need to talk to you . . .”

“Bas, did, uh, Samantha check in with you?”

Frowning at the abruptness of his father’s question, Bas sat back, dropping the ink pen that he’d been using to jot notes in the margins of a police report. “No, not yet,” he admitted. “Did she call you?”

“No,” he replied then sighed. “When’s the last time you heard from her?”

Unable to control the wince that surfaced on his features, Bas gripped his forehead and cleared his throat. “She checked in to let me know that she’d acquired the target,” he said.

“That’s the last time you heard from her?”

“That was three days ago,” he went on. “I was going to come over in a bit to tell you about this . . .”

“Have you tried to call her?”

Bas grimaced since he figured that Cain’s reaction to what he was about to say wasn’t going to be any better than his was. “She’s either out of range or she’s shut it off,” he admitted.

“What? Why the hell didn’t you tell me this before?”

“Listen, Dad,” he went on, “Sam’s gotten a little . . . irritated lately. Thinks that we constantly second-guess her. Sydnie was afraid that she . . . that she might have been a little irked when you sent Larry in to cover.”

“I don’t care if she was irked or not,” Cain growled. “You should have told me about this sooner, Bas!”

“They’ve had some storms around there, too, and they knocked out some stuff. We were waiting to see if she’d call once power was completely restored.”

Cain didn’t answer right away, and Bas forced down the irritation that he felt like a pup caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “So why didn’t you call me this morning?”

Letting out a deep breath, Bas shook his head. “I was waiting for the manager of the motel where she was staying to get back to me. He said that he’d check the tapes to see if he could find out the last time she’d gone into or come out of her room.”

“Larry got back a bit ago,” Cain said, his voice much huskier than it normally was. “He found Benoit’s remains . . . and one of Sam’s shuriken.”

Bas closed his eyes tight, clenching his jaw. His bad feeling . . . but he’d told himself that he was overreacting . . . “Shit,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Damn it . . .”

“I’m sending Larry and Cartham in to see if they can find anything else. Give me the room number and the address of the motel. She’s been taking the scent tabs, right?”

“Right,” Bas admitted. “I-I’ll go, too.”

“No,” Cain barked, the groan of his desk chair erupting in the background. “Sydnie needs you here. Ben’s calling everyone. Just get out here so you can brief us with what you do know.”

“Right,” Bas agreed, hauling himself out of his chair. “Give me fifteen minutes.”

Clicking off the phone, he dropped it into his pocket as he headed for the door. Damn it, he’d listened to Gunnar when he said that Bas was just being paranoid. He’d told himself that he was worrying over nothing. Samantha was good at what she did, even if everyone, including himself, wasn’t particularly happy that she’d chosen such a violent line of work. Maybe that was why he’d been so reluctant to call in the troops, as it were.

He muttered something to Connie as he headed for the door. So wrapped up in his own thoughts that he didn’t really pay much attention to anything else, he headed out of the office without breaking his stride. ‘Damn it, Sam, where the hell are you?

The sounds of traffic, of everyday life were his only answer as a bitter wind blew over him, the whisper of snow hanging in the air.

Ducking into to the alley beside the office, Bas spared a moment to look around, and seeing no one in the near vicinity, he vaulted onto the building and set out at a sprint.

Time was of the essence now, and he could move faster this way than he could in a damn car . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Kurt opened the creaky old door and stepped into the small cabin, noting that it hadn’t really changed since the last time he’d ventured this far out. It was amazing. It was ordinary. It was . . . completely unsettling.

“Old—” cutting himself off when the crazy old coot stepped out of the shadows to heave a handful of dirt right into his face, Kurt coughed and waved a hand to dispel the dust, glowering murderously at the old man—at least, he would have, had he been able to see through the cloud of tears that filled his eyes. All in all, he figured that he looked pretty damn stupid. “Hell, old man! Is that any way to—” He sneezed. “—greet me when you haven’t seen me in a while?”

Old Granger snorted, thumping the end of the gnarled walking stick on the plank floor. “And just whose fault is that, I’d like to know? Ingrate . . . you’ve always been an ingrate . . . Now you come a-traipsin’ in here, reeking of them demons . . . come back to do in the old man, have y’?”

Sniffling loudly as he shoved the door closed behind him, Kurt brushed at his shoulders and hair, grimacing since the melting snow combined with the dirt was making a mess of him. “So you going to tell me what that was for?” he complained.

“Been up to no good, boy. I can tell it from your aura. Purified, that’s what you are.”

Kurt sighed. He’d figured that it was something like that, anyway. “I didn’t need purified,” he grumbled as he followed Old Granger into the cabin.

“So you say,” Old Granger shot back. He was pulling various jars off the shelves, muttering to himself about this and that. Kurt wrinkled his nose and stepped back, knowing damn well that the old man was trying to figure out what else he could throw at him.

“I brought this out for you,” he said, pulling a fifth of Jack Daniels out of his backpack and thumping it onto the table.

Old Granger snorted. “Cut the crap, boy. What do you really want?”

Kurt almost smiled—almost. “You don’t think I came out just to see you?”

“I know you didn’t come out just to see me,” Old Granger retorted as he grudgingly eyed the liquor. “What’d’ya do to it?”

“Not everyone is as bent as you are, old man,” Kurt pointed out. “I didn’t do anything to it . . . but if you keep drinking it like water, it might do something to you . . .”

“D’ you know how old I am?” Old Granger grumped as he broke the plastic seal on the neck of the bottle. “When you’re as old as me, you can say whatever you want and do whatever you want! You can even fart wherever you want and piss wherever you want, too, so don’t lecture me! Just shut up and . . . and find me a glass.”

Kurt shook his head but retrieved a reasonably clean glass from the stack of dirty dishes near the rusted old sink. “What do you know about the more powerful demons?” he asked, setting the glass on the table beside his grandfather.

Old Granger held up the glass, squinting in the candlelight and glow of the fire. He must have decided that the dingy glass was clean enough, though he did spare a moment to blow in it for good measure. That done, he reached up, popped out his upper plate, and dropped the dentures into the cup before slugging down a few gulps from the bottle.

“You stay the hell away from them ones,” Old Granger muttered, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve. The rough robe he wore over the grimy shirt that used to be white was looking pretty rough. Come to think of it, Kurt didn’t remember having ever seen Old Granger without it. It looked like a surplus army blanket, and maybe that’s what it had been once upon a time. It certainly wasn’t something that was bought in a store, that was for sure . . . “Kill you, they will . . . kill you and eat your eyeballs.”

“I’m pretty sure that there are far more tasty parts on my body than just my eyeballs,” Kurt remarked dryly.

Old Granger snorted. “There be a mystic quality to the eyeballs, boy. I told you that a hunnert times if’n I told you once.”

“The ones that look more like humans,” Kurt went on, ignoring the crazy fool’s comments. “How do I remove the rest of their concealments?”

Old Granger stopped and eyed his grandson closely. “Didn’t I tell you to leave those ones be? Better ‘n that, run like hell, boy! You ain’t no match for the likes o’ them! Damn it, I ain’t even a match for them! Just run away fast, and don’t piss yourself when you’re going.”

“Their concealments, old man,” Kurt repeated. “How do I remove them?”

“You can’t! Ain’t you never heard a word I said? With them, you can’t see but what they want you to, and they don’t want you to see what they really is!”

“You’re telling me that there’s nothing I can do to remove their disguise?”

“Ain’t that what I just said, boy?”

Kurt heaved a sigh and shook his head. Old Granger lifted the bottle to his lips again, his stance familiar enough: subject closed, as far as he was concerned. To Kurt, it meant just one thing: Old Granger didn’t have a clue. Not surprising since he also figured that the old man hadn’t really come into contact with one of the more powerful ones, either.

Gritting his teeth against the sense of frustration that rose in him, he frowned. Damned if he’d let that little demon get away with making a fool of him. It was entirely too human looking, wasn’t it? That was the reason that it unsettled him, even if he were loathe to admit as much.

A small beep drew his attention, and he dug his cell phone out of his pocket. The daily transmission of his bank account balance had failed due to lack of available connection. Not entirely surprising since he was stuck in a cabin deep in the heart of nowhere.

He strode outside without a word. It was an iffy proposition, either way. Sometimes he could get signal if he were outside; sometimes he couldn’t. Luck was on his side this time, though, and the signal was weak but good enough to download the report.

Heaving a sigh, Kurt shook his head as the message opened. As he’d figured, that damn Harlan had only authorized the payment of five-hundred-thousand. If he wanted the rest, he might have to beat it out of the cheap bastard . . . a prospect not without its merit, in his opinion . . .

Snapping the phone closed with a muttered curse, he turned on his heel and stomped back into the tiny cabin. “I’ve got to go, old man,” he said.

Old Granger didn’t look up. Staring at the dancing flames on the hearth, he looked about a million miles away—he always did when he was drinking. Kurt also knew well enough that Old Granger knew well enough what was going on around him despite the vacant expression on his face.

Digging into his backpack again, Kurt set down another bottle of whiskey, a nice chunk of sharp cheddar cheese, a couple pouches of chewing tobacco, and a roll of money secured with a rubber band. “Take care of yourself,” he said, pulling the laces to close the backpack once more.

He was almost out the door when Old Granger finally spoke. His voice oddly quiet, he didn’t look at Kurt, when he did, either. “You stay away from them powerful ones, boy. Mess with them, and you’ll end up as dead as your daddy.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bellaniece Zelig Izayoi rubbed her face with one hand as she tapped around on the nightstand to locate her cell phone, as a wide yawn brought tears to her eyes.

Blinking rapidly, she shook her head and tried to focus on the glowing green numbers on the clock. Almost midnight, but she’d had to stay at the hospital late the night before since she was watching over an infant who had been born about a month too soon, so she’d crawled into bed a while ago to catch up on some much-needed sleep. She didn’t even bother trying to read the name on the caller ID as she opened the device and put it to her ear. “Hello?”

“Uh, Bellaniece . . . hi . . .”

Smiling at the familiar sound of her father’s voice, Bellaniece laughed softly and pulled the comforter up a little more. “Hi, Daddy! How are you?”

“Fine,” he assured her. He sounded a little reluctant, maybe even a little shy.

Typical Daddy,’ she thought with a shake of her head. “I’m looking forward to seeing you for Christmas,” she went on.

“Me, too,” he said then sighed. “Listen . . . sweetie . . . I’m sorry to call so late, but . . .”

Pushing herself up as the smallest hint of a frown furrowed her brow, Bellaniece couldn’t help but think that her father’s tone just wasn’t right. “Daddy . . .? Is something wrong?”

She heard him sigh, heard the snick of a lighter. He was smoking—never a good sign, in her opinion. “Daddy?” she prompted again when he didn’t answer.

“Samantha’s, um . . . missing,” he finally said. “We’re not sure where she is or why.”

Bellaniece’s brain slowed to a crawl, her mind refusing to acknowledge the meaning of her father’s words. “Wh . . . What?”

“Bas sent her out on an assignment, and we . . . we know that she managed to take him down, but . . .” Cain trailed off, as though he didn’t have the heart to continue.

“But . . . That’s not . . . She . . . she . . .”

“Bellaniece, is Kichiro there? I tried to call him, but I got sent straight to his voicemail. Why don’t you let me talk to him?”

Closing her eyes, clutching the comforter tight against her chest, Bellaniece shook her head stubbornly. “N-no . . . I’ll tell him. Thank you for calling, Daddy . . .”

“Bellaniece, I—”

She hung up her phone, waited a second, then dialed Samantha’s number. She was forwarded straight to voicemail—the central terminal in Samantha’s apartment. It fell through her listless fingers as a strange sense of numbness settled over her. The device hit the floor, dislodging the battery. She heard it bounce under the bed. Slowly, methodically, she got out of bed and reached for her robe before padding out of the room and down the hallway.

Kichiro was standing at the back doors, staring out at the glow of the city that hung over the tree-line of InuYasha’s Forest. “Why aren’t you still sleeping?” he asked quietly. She could hear the smile in his voice though he didn’t turn to face her.

Bellaniece shook her head, unable to grasp the meaning behind her father’s words. “Kichiro . . .” She swallowed hard. ‘Our baby . . . is . . .? No . . .’

Turning his head to look over his shoulder at her, his smile faded slightly, his golden eyes darkening just a shade. “Belle-chan?”

“We need to fly to Maine,” she said in an oddly empty monotone. ‘Daddy said . . . but . . .’

“We will,” he replied, his eyebrows drawing together as he continued to stare at her. “I mean, that was the plan, wasn’t it?”

She shook her head. “No, we can’t wait . . .” They couldn’t, could they? ‘Sami . . . my Sami . . .’

“What’s going on?”

“You’ll call, won’t you? For tickets? Even coach is fine . . .” Turning on her heel, she started back down the hallway. ‘This can’t . . . be happening . . .’

She pulled a suitcase out of the closet and moved over to the bureau for clothes. Kichiro strode into the room, grasping her arm firmly but gently to force her to look at him. “Belle, what’s going on?”

“You turned your cell phone off, Daddy said,” she replied in the same efficient tone of voice. “I’ve got to pack. Do you think we should bring along our winter coats? Oh, that’s a silly question . . . Maine’s cold this time of . . . of year . . .”

Shaking his head, his expression registering complete confusion, his scowl was darkening every second. She could feel his mounting trepidation, and she tried to smile. “What’s going on?” he asked again, his tone growing gentler as his youki spiked.

“I-I . . . I don’t know,” she whispered as the first crack in the overwhelming sense of numbness started to widen. Dark blue eyes wide, scared, she shook her head as she struggled to understand what she’d been told. “They . . . They don’t know where she is . . .”

“What?”

Grimacing when Kichiro’s hand tightened just for a moment before he realized what he was doing and immediately loosened his grip, Belle shook her head again, swallowing hard as a soundless sob rose to choke her. “Bas sent her out, but she . . . she hasn’t come back, and . . .” she muttered in a voice that sounded wholly unlike her.

Kichiro stared at her for a moment then let go, striding out of the room. He was back a moment later, cell phone in hand. Bellaniece cast him a wild-eyed look moments before he drew her against his chest in a comforting embrace.

“Hey, Kichiro,” Bas said, his voice loud in the stifling silence. Kichiro had placed the call on the speaker.

Kichiro gave her a reassuring squeeze. Crazily, through the fog that had settled over Bellaniece’s every thought, every movement, she wondered fleetingly if he were trying to reassure himself or her. “Bas, where’s Cain?”

Bas sighed. “He’s briefing Larry and Cartham. They’re heading to Chicago within the hour.”

“What the hell is going on? Where is my daughter?” His grip on the phone was so tight that it groaned under the pressure he was exerting. With a grimace, he dropped it onto the bed before he managed to mangle it.

“I . . . I sent her after a youkai who’s wanted for the murders of fifteen children in Paris,” he explained. “She got him—we know she did. What we don’t know is where she is now.”

“How can you not know where she is?” Kichiro demanded from between clenched teeth. “What about your protocol? She’s supposed to check in, isn’t she?”

“She is,” Bas agreed quietly. “They’ve had some really bad storms in the Chicago area. There was no way to know whether or not coverage was out. We had to wait until we could get confirmation.”

Confirmation?” Kichiro echoed incredulously, stepping away from Bellaniece in favor of prowling the bedroom floor. Bellaniece stood still for a moment then abruptly turned back to the bureau again. “Track her, damn it! How hard can that be?”

Bas cleared his throat but didn’t reply right away. Kichiro erupted in a low growl. “She probably took a scent tab before she went out. It’s standard procedure, and . . . and it’s going to make tracking her a lot more difficult.”

“Tell me what you know; tell me everything you know!”

“That’s pretty much it, but . . . but Larry got in this morning . . . and he had one of her shuriken.”

Kichiro stopped dead, the color leeching from his skin. “Her shuriken . . .” he whispered, more to himself than to Bas.

“Yeah.”

“How long has she been out there?”

“It’s been almost five days since she last communicated with us.”

“Five . . .? She’s . . . She’s been missing for almost five days, and you’re just now telling us?

Bellaniece flinched at the rage that nearly crackled in Kichiro’s aura as she carefully, methodically, arranged clothes in the suitcase.

“We’re doing everything we can, Kich,” Bas said in a low, placating tone. “I understand your worry, and—”

“The fuck you do!” Kichiro bellowed. “You don’t understand a damn thing! You don’t have children! Sami isn’t one of yours! She’s mine! Mine and Belle’s . . .” Trailing off, Kichiro ran his hands over his face in a show of complete exasperation. “Look, we’re going to get on the next flight out, but if you hear anything—anything—you will call me.”

Bas sighed again. It struck Belle, just how weary he sounded. “Absolutely.”

Reaching down, Kichiro snapped the device closed to end the call. Staring at it as though he were willing it to ring, he didn’t move for several moments.

“She’s fine,” Belle murmured, a certain amount of clarity entering her gaze. “I can feel it—feel her. She’s . . . she’s fine . . .”

He finally turned to look at her, his gaze darkened by a fear so deep, so wrenching that she could feel it, too. He nodded slowly. “O-of course . . . she is . . .”

Bellaniece would never know how she found the strength to smile, but standing there, staring at the misery delineated in every inch of Kichiro’s face, she couldn’t think of anything but the fierce need to reassure him, even if she wasn’t sure if she believed her own words. “She’s . . . she’s tough. She’ll come home.”

He reached for her so quickly that his motions were a blur. Dragging her in to a stifling hug, he heaved a sigh. “She will,” he whispered though he didn’t sound at all confident. “She . . . she will . . .”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Griffin ran as quickly as he could, ignoring the white-hot burn as his hip protested the movement. Though he’d had the first of the reconstructive surgeries over a month ago, his body was still recovering. Still, now was not the time to hesitate, to count the numbers of aches and pains brought on by the overexertion. Dashing through the crowded parking lot near the medical clinic where Isabelle worked, he ignored the strange looks he was garnering as he slammed the door open and strode inside.

“Isabelle Marin,” he muttered, running into the front desk since he hadn’t bothered to stop properly.

“Morning, Dr. G . . . Isabelle’s with a patient—”

“Where?” he demanded, striding toward the closed door that led back to the examination rooms.

The receptionist shot to her feet, running parallel beside him behind the wide counter. “If you’d like to wait in her office, I can—”

“Forget it,” he growled, stomping down the hallway despite the girl’s protests.

It didn’t take him long to find her, and for once, he tossed all manners and courtesy by the wayside, slamming open the door and striding into the room. The woman who was in the middle of what looked to be a pelvic examination screamed, and Isabelle glanced up at him only to do a double take. Whatever she had been about to say died on her lips, and she reached over to pull a thin blanket over the embarrassed patient and snapped off the rubber gloves. “Griffin?”

“You’ve got to come with me, now,” he stated in a tone that left absolutely no room for discussion.

“Can this wait?” she asked, casting the patient a worried glance. “It’ll only take—”

“Now, Isabelle, now! You know what that means, right?”

He wasn’t sure if she reacted to his tone or to the fact that she knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t one to blow things out of proportion. It didn’t matter. She nodded and mumbled an apology to the patient before following him out of the room.

He grabbed her arm when they reached the hallway, hurrying her down the corridor and back the way he’d come. She seemed surprised by the direction in which he was hustling her, but she didn’t argue. “I-I’ll be back,” she called out to the receptionist as he pulled her toward the clinic doors.

“Give me your keys,” he demanded without breaking his stride as they moved down the sidewalk and around the corner to the smaller, exclusive parking lot reserved for the clinic’s doctors.

“What’s going on?” she asked, digging her keys out of the pocket of her lab coat and dropping them into his hand.

He let go of her, loping around the bright yellow sports car to unlock the doors. She climbed in just after he did, and when she turned to face him, she couldn’t help the worry that marred her brow.

Griffin didn’t speak until they’d turned out of the parking lot and were heading out of Bangor. “Your cousin called . . .”

She shook her head, and he could feel the intensity of her gaze boring into his skull. “Mamoruzen?”

He nodded. “Yeah . . . He said . . . Sam’s missing.”

He almost thought that she hadn’t heard what he’d said. He opened his mouth to say it again but was cut off by a harsh bark of incredulous laughter that ended as abruptly as it had begun. “What do you mean, missing?”

He grimaced inwardly at the disbelief in her tone. “I mean, she never checked in after she finished her assignment. I mean . . . one of the hunters who was sent there to back her up found one of her throwing stars in what was left of the youkai.”

He could feel her gaze on him, probing, disbelieving. He didn’t look to confirm it as he willed his own turbulent emotions to calm. “But that . . . that . . . It can’t . . . Griffin . . .?”

“They haven’t heard from her in about five days, give or take—at least, that’s the best estimate they’ve gotten thus far. They’re hoping that someone else might’ve heard . . . uh, she . . . she didn’t call you, did she?”

“N-No,” she mumbled thoughtfully. “Did they ask Mama or Papa? Sami might’ve—”

He gripped the steering wheel a little tighter as he turned onto the highway and urged the car just a little faster. “Your parents said that they’ll be out on the next flight,” he went on. “I . . . I’m sorry, Isabelle.”

“Why would you say that?” she demanded sharply. “You sound like she’s . . .” Trailing off, she shook her head stubbornly. “No! Absolutely not! Look, I-I-I don’t know what happened, but Samantha . . . She’s not . . . not dead! Do you hear me, Griffin Marin? Do you?”

Keeping his eyes trained on the road, Griffin nodded, unsure whether she believed what she was saying or if it was just something she needed to tell herself. In actuality, he didn’t want to think it, either, but given what he’d been told, he wasn’t entirely sure that it could be ruled out. “No one knows where she is.”

“Then we find her,” Isabelle stated matter-of-factly as she dug out her cell phone. Griffin put a hand on hers to stop her before she could dial it. “I want to call and see what they’re saying,” she explained impatiently.

“Don’t,” he growled in his normal, gruff tone. “Leave the phones open. What if . . . What if Sam tries to call?”

“Oh . . . right . . .” she replied, her voice suddenly quiet, completely unsure. “She’s okay; I know it. She . . . She has to be . . .”

Griffin nodded but drove in silence. In the couple years since Samantha come to live in the states, the sisters had grown a lot closer, though he’d noticed that there was still a certain distance between them, one that didn’t exist between Isabelle and her sister, Alexandra. He supposed that it had a lot to do with the gap in ages between Isabelle and Samantha, and while he knew damn well that Isabelle adored Sam, he also knew that, somewhere in the back of her mind, Isabelle still thought of Sam as that little girl that he’d first met years ago. Maybe it was because she hadn’t really been there while the girl was growing up. He supposed that was possible.

“Papa gave her the shuriken,” Isabelle ventured just as quietly. Griffin glanced at her only to find her staring out the window. “Mama said he . . .” She lowered her gaze to her hands, still gripping the cell phone, in her lap. “She said he made a huge production out of it: threw this big party and invited everyone in the family—at least, everyone in Japan . . . Then he made this speech about how proud we were of her for completing her training, and he . . . he gave them to her.” She heaved a sigh and shook her head sadly. “And I . . . I was too busy to go. That’s what I told Papa. Too busy . . .”

“Stop that,” he commanded a little more fiercely than he’d have liked. Reacting to the rising anxiety in her youki, he couldn’t help himself, either. “You didn’t do anything wrong; you hear? A-and you said, yourself . . . she’s fine, right? So . . . don’t do that.”

She sniffled loudly but nodded. “You’re right,” she murmured, forcing a thin smile despite the worry that lingered in the depths of her gaze. “She’s strong . . . and she’s an Izayoi. Izayois are made of tougher stuff than that.”

Still, the last thing he’d ever do was to tell his mate that he wasn’t quite as optimistic, no matter what he thought, and, stealing a quick glance at Isabelle, he felt the familiar and uncertain flicker of hope ignite. She’d taught him that hope, that love, that she could work miracles in her own way . . . Maybe her peculiar kind of magic . . . maybe it could work again . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Alexandra Izayoi leaned to the side, staring through the microscope with her right eye as she held the tiny recorder in her left hand, hovering near her mouth. “Day seven . . . The structure of the cell hasn’t altered in the least. It seems to be a very hearty strain . . . If I could isolate the part of the code that controls that behavior . . .”

The soft knock on the door interrupted her observation, and with a start, she glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “I seem to recall that a certain lady promised to have dinner with me,” he reminded her.

She winced as she glanced at her watch then smiled contritely. “Oh, I’m sorry . . . I guess I just lost track of time.”

John chuckled and held up a white deli bag. “That’s all right . . . I assumed you’d be here, so I figured that the mountain must go to Mohammed.”

“Aww, what a sweet mountain,” she teased, setting the recorder aside and strolling over to peek into the bag he held out to her. “Ooh, my favorite!” she gasped, pulling the fat, batter-dipped fish plank out of the bag with a delighted giggle.

John grasped her waist and gently set her atop a high worktable, a good-natured smile lighting his eyes. “And chips . . .”

She laughed as he pulled a steaming hot slightly thick wedge of potato out of the bag and held it out to her. “What would I ever do without you?” she teased.

“Well, you would probably waste away to nothing since you never remember to feed yourself when you’re deep in the throes of your research,” he teased back with a gentle smile.

“I’m almost done here,” she offered as her conscience pricked her. She hadn’t meant to stand him up . . . “How about a late dessert? My treat?”

He chuckled and leaned forward to kiss the tip of her nose. “Dessert sounds great, but I’ll buy. After all, I was going to take you to Maison d’ Moi, and I daresay that would have cost more than Briney’s Fish and Chips . . .”

She laughed and shook her head, figuring that she wasn’t going to win an argument against John or his wallet. “Oh, I almost forgot . . .” He trailed off, opening his light jacket and carefully pulling a single long stemmed white rose from inside. “I don’t think it got too rumpled . . .”

Alexandra rolled her eyes but lifted the blossom to her nose, closing her eyes as she inhaled deeply. “Dinner was more than enough, you know.”

He shrugged. “I saw it as I was passing by—the florist was getting a late night shipment—and—”

“And you sweet talked the florist into letting you buy one after hours?”

His cheeks pinked just slightly as his smile turned bashful. “Something like that.”

She laughed as her cell phone rang. Staring at her greasy fingers, Alexandra made a face and stuck out her chest at John since the she’d dropped the device into her breast pocket earlier. “Would you mind . . .?”

Eyebrows rising in an affectation of mock surprise, he uttered a soft, warm chuckle. “Why, Lexi . . . is that a come-on?” he teased.

She rolled her eyes but grinned. “My hands are all messy,” she complained, “and you bought the messy dinner, so the least you can do is answer my phone.”

He chuckled, reaching out with his index and middle finger to snag the phone from her pocket. “Hello?” He winked at her as she hopped down to wash her hands in the utility sink. “No, it’s John . . . Lexi’s washing her hands. How are you . . .? Oh? Anything I can help you with?”

Wrinkling her nose—no one had bothered to get out more paper towels to fill the dispenser, Alexandra knelt down to rummage through the supplies under the sink.

“What . . .? My God . . . When?”

She slowly stood, frowning at the strange tone in John’s voice. The man she knew was utterly unflappable, wasn’t he? So why did he sound so . . . so . . . worried . . .?

“Yeah, don’t worry . . . Listen, you’re breaking up . . . I’ll tell her.”

He let the phone drop away from his ear by degrees, his expression inscrutable as his gaze sought out hers, and when their eyes met, he grimaced slightly then quickly looked away. “J-John?”

He squeezed his eyes closed at the sound of her voice, quietly closing the phone on the heel of his hand before he cleared his throat and shook his head. “That was . . . that was Isabelle,” he said, his voice hushed, reluctant. He still refused to look at her. “Samantha . . . She’s missing.”

She stared at him for a moment before striding over to him and pulling her phone out of his hands. After dialing the phone, she paced the floor, gritting her teeth as she waited for an answer. In the background, she could hear John talking on his phone, making reservations on the next international flight to whatever United States destination he could get.

“Lexi?” Isabelle answered on the second ring.

“What’s going on?” she demanded, ignoring standard pleasantries. “John said that you told him that Sam’s missing?”

Isabelle sighed. Alexandra didn’t miss the slight tremor in the sound. “They sent her out on a hunt, and she hasn’t checked in . . . and they found one of her shuriken . . .”

“Well . . .” Gripping her forehead, she stopped her pacing when John’s strong embrace wrapped around her. “I-I don’t understand . . . She wouldn’t have left one of those behind . . .”

“I know. Anyway, that’s about all I know. Mama and Papa are on their way.”

“Me, too,” she blurted. “I’ll be right there.”

“Okay,” Isabelle agreed. “Be careful.”

“Yeah.”

Snapping the phone closed, Alexandra leaned against John for a moment, allowing herself to draw on his quiet strength before pulling away and turning to face him.

“I already made the reservations,” he told her calmly. “The flight leaves in twenty minutes, but I talked to them and explained things, so they’ll get us through security fast. If we hurry, we can make it.”

Shaking her head, she turned her troubled gaze on him. She’d give anything to have him go with her, but she wasn’t entirely sure she could or should ask that of him . . . “But you . . . what about your business?”

He shot her a dark look that could easily have passed as his version of the ‘don’t-be-stupid’ expression, if it were possible for John to have one of those. “Business is business, Lexi, but you’re far more important to me than it is.”

Nodding slowly, letting her eyes drop away from him, she blinked rapidly to dispel the sheen of moisture that his words had stirred in her. The sudden and shocking image of Samantha’s smiling face shot through her head, and she bit back a sob with a vicious tenacity.

“Come on . . . Maybe she’ll turn up before we ever get there.”

She nodded once again, but she didn’t dare open her mouth. John’s words had been optimistic, but his tone had not.

Slipping an arm around her protectively, he led her out of the lab and down the hallway toward the elevator then past it to the door of the stairwell. John was saying something—reassuring her, she supposed. It was white noise to her, her mind replaying the only words that meant anything to her at the moment, over and over again until she thought she might scream.

“. . . and they found one of her shuriken . . .”

“. . . and they found one of her shuriken . . .”

“. . . and they found one of her shuriken . . .”

“. . . and they found one of her shuriken . . .”

Biting the inside of her cheek as John led her by the hand down the flights of stairs, Alexandra shook her head and hastened her step.

Oh, Sami . . . where are you . . .?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Samantha sat perfectly still, watching for the moment she knew wasn’t far off.

Having spent the last few days doing nothing but observing her captors—especially the one who watched her at night, she knew his habits now, and while he might vary them slightly, changing the times that he performed certain tasks, he still did them, and all she had to do was wait.

He always slipped a fresh bowl of dog kibble into her cage, followed in close order by the replacement of the water bowl. She’d figured out quickly that both of those were drugged, and while she didn’t know exactly what kinds of drugs they’d added, she wasn’t about to eat or drink any of it, either.

Her gut instinct had been that maybe they’d figured out who her family was, that they’d ordered her brought in an effort to extort money or something from them. She’d really believed that, hadn’t she?

At least, she had until today . . .

For the first time since her forced incarceration, they’d let her out of the cage, though only after cuffing her wrists—the cuffs had ofuda in them, she could tell. Then they’d chained her ankles, too. The length of chain that separated them was barely a foot long, sorely inhibiting her movements. At the time, though, she was so relieved to have been finally allowed out of the cage that she’d told herself that she didn’t care what they were planning to do to her.

Or so she had thought.

They’d strapped her to a table and had drawn near a pint of blood from her before hooking her to an array of machines that she didn’t understand. They’d spent hours poking her with various gadgets, trying to get readings from this and that, and while her grasp on English was damn good, she’d faltered in the face of the more technical jargon. Lying in the center of the gurney she’d been strapped to, she’d had nothing to do but watch the clock, making little to no sense of the snippets of conversations that she was able to hear.

But the most alarming thing wasn’t the testing, no. It was the gradual realization that her senses were slowly dulling. Not surprising, she figured, considering she hadn’t had anything to eat in days, and nothing to drink, either. Stubbornly refusing to eat or drink anything they offered her might not be good for her system, but without knowing exactly what they’d added to everything they’d offered her, she couldn’t take that kind of risk, could she?

It seemed to baffle the good doctors, too, actually. Every day, they carefully measured all food and water, and every morning when those things were taken away, they were carefully measured again. It—she’d come to figure out that she was the ‘it’ in question—was eating a little bit, wasn’t it? So why wasn’t it showing any reactions to the drugs they’d added to the food and water?

The automatic response to that was to add more, and they did. Every night after her keeper had fallen asleep, she took a handful of the kibble, carefully discarding it one piece at a time down the drain beneath her cage. ‘Down with the rest of the shit,’ she thought to herself one night. For some reason, that thought had made her laugh, and she’d had to cover her mouth with both hands to keep from waking the guard . . .

The water was easier to dispense of, though. Every morning, roughly an hour before the white coats arrived, her warden—the name patch on his standard issue security shirt read ‘Dustin’—turned that damned power hose on her, and more often than not, he upset the bowl during his careless spraying. She wasn’t entirely sure how much pressure went into that stupid hose, but it was enough to leave marks on her when it was directed at her, and she’d come to know the stinging pain of the water’s spray very quickly.

Her waning energy, though, was what worried her the most. If she continued to refuse to eat, then she’d continue to grow weaker day by day, as well, and last night as she’d lay in the crate wide awake, a thought had occurred to her . . .

Every time Dustin sprayed the cage, some of the back spray hit the ofuda that the holy man had papered the top with, and as she looked a little closer, she realized that some of them were already starting to peel back, not that it mattered too much. What interested her the most was that the writing on those pages was starting to run and drip, thus altering the original orientation, and while she wasn’t entirely certain it would matter, she couldn’t help but think that it might.

But the main thing that she’d learned was that the reinforcing cage that retracted into the floor didn’t dare get wet. When retracted, it was hidden beneath tented metal plates that tilted down to the concrete and the drain hole beneath the cage, and once those walls were retracted, Dustin never, ever raised them again.

With a little more luck, too, she might be able to escape . . .

Frowning as she glanced around, she had to squint to make out the clock on the far wall, and even then, she wasn’t entirely sure if it read two or three in the morning. She’d watched closely enough to understand that the cage panel would not shock a human in the same way it would a youkai or hanyou, and, as luck would have it . . .

It’s now nor never,’ she told herself as she carefully scooted toward the door of the cage. She knew well enough that her plan was chock full of holes and variables that she couldn’t control or even anticipate, but how much of a choice did she really have? As it was, she’d been lucky to have escaped detection tonight since Dustin always shut off all the lights except for the security ones that were always lit, and once he’d put the food into her cage, he never, ever bothered to look in on her again, so with the added cover of the makeshift paper roof, she’d been able to keep in the shadows with her hair caught back under the patients’ smock that they’d tossed at her earlier—after cutting away her shirt with a surgical scalpel.

Her cheeks burned hotly at the memory of that awful encounter. Two of the older doctors didn’t say much, but a couple of the younger ones . . . Well, she really didn’t care to remember their assessments, anyway.

Shifting so that she could keep an eye on the sleeping guard, Samantha bit the inside of her cheek as she inched her hand between the bars, half expecting to be zapped with the painful jolt despite her human form. Nothing happened, and when she pressed on the seal that locked the door closed, she almost yelped in relief when the soft beep sounded twice.

Pulling her hand back into the cage, she scooted over again. Luck might be with her, but she knew well enough that she couldn’t rely on that, alone. After all, given the season, she wasn’t at all positive that she’d be back in her hanyou form before the white coats arrived for the day . . .

Letting her head fall against the cold bars of her prison, Samantha wondered exactly how long she’d been here. For as near as she could tell, it’d been at least three or four days since the holy man had brought her in, but she couldn’t say for sure, how long he’d had her before that, either. She’d spent the majority of the last couple of days wondering whether or not her family had figured out that she was missing yet. She supposed that they might have—after all, she never had called in after she’d brought down Benoit, but maybe not . . . They’d surely come looking for her, wouldn’t they?

Heaving a sigh, she winced. Of course they would. They all worried about her so much that she’d be stupid to think otherwise. Trouble was, she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted them to do that. As badly as she wanted to escape, she couldn’t help but worry that somehow, one of them would get caught, instead, and that just wasn’t something that she dared to dwell on.

She’d heard the rumors before, of course: the disappearances of youkai that couldn’t rightfully be explained. At the time, it had made sense, the idea that the lesser youkai were just too geared toward infighting that it couldn’t be helped, but . . .

But just how many had the holy man caught? How many of them had been here before her? During her first full day here, she’d sensed them, hadn’t she? The lingering auras of some nameless, faceless youkai, and she’d overheard enough whispers to know that she certainly wasn’t the first . . .

And if they’d been here before, where were they now . . .?

Maybe I don’t want to know . . .’

Nodding slightly, Samantha sighed. That thought had come from somewhere deep inside her, and under ordinary circumstances, she might have thought it was her youkai voice, but that voice never spoke to her when she was human, and at times like that, she missed it so fiercely that it made her want to scream.

She was under constant surveillance, and she knew it. She hadn’t missed the camera affixed to the metal support beams high above the cage, and while she thought that was the only one in this room, she knew that there were at least five in the examination area where she’d spent the bulk of yesterday.

If only she had an idea of how long they’d keep her here . . . if only she knew why they wanted her . . .

The first, snaking tendril of a fear so deep and so vast that it could engulf her turned her stomach.

No,’ she told herself stubbornly, biting the inside of her cheek so hard that she drew blood. ‘Stop that! If I let myself think that way, I’ll go crazy . . .’

The first stirring of change was so subtle that she nearly missed it: the first palpitations of the resurgence of her youkai blood. Glancing fearfully at the sleeping guard, she grimaced when she realized that he was starting to wake. Holding her breath as the throbbing in her body grew stronger, she watched in horror as Dustin yawned and stretched, sparing a moment to turn his head from side to side, his neck cracking as his joints popped. “Damn cold,” he muttered as he hauled himself out of the chair and shuffled toward the panel by the door to lower the reinforced sides. They dropped down and locked into place as he headed for the water spout that jutted out of the cinderblock wall. The creak of the turning handle made her grit her teeth, and all at once, she felt her ears open up as a deluge of her returning senses told her that the transformation was complete.

She couldn’t help cringing into the corner of the cage when he turned the power nozzle on her, gasping loudly at the frigid flow of water that pounded against her. Shifting her body so that her legs took the brunt of the onslaught, she huddled down as far as she could and waited for the torrent to end.

It seemed to her that he took an inordinately long time hosing her down this morning, but he finally finished. “Aww, shit,” he grumbled, kicking her cage when he realized that he’d soaked the food bowl again—an offense that he’d already gotten griped out for once since they couldn’t get an accurate reading of how much she’d eaten during the night. She hissed as a painful shock shot through her and leaned forward on her hands as she willed the pain to pass.

She didn’t have enough time—certainly not enough to will away the pain. With a nasty chuckle, he turned to walk away, and Samantha reacted.

Shoving herself against the door and thanking whatever gods there were above since they’d also removed her ankle restraints the night before, she was out of the cage before the jolt could hit her. She didn’t bother trying to subdue the guard, either, her intent clear. Shoving him out of the way, she bolted for the door, only to yelp in pain when Dustin caught her ankle and wrenched it hard.

She tumbled to the floor seconds before he landed on her with a dull grunt. She started to push him off with her feet but stopped when the ‘snick’ of a gun being cocked resounded in her ear.

Dustin grinned nastily as he pressed the barrel of the gun to her head. “Give me a reason, bitch,” he hissed.

Something inside her snapped, and with a vicious shriek, she shoved him hard as the reverberation of the firing gun echoed in the room.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bas rubbed his forehead as he trudged up the steps onto the porch of the small house he shared with his mate. It had been one hell of a night. To be honest, he figured that he should probably still be over at the mansion, and he would have been, but his father had told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to go home and check on his mate.

He sighed. ‘What the hell is happening?’ he asked himself for what had to be the millionth time. The sun was rising out over the ocean, and normally he loved to take the time to look at it. This morning, however, he didn’t see it.

Evan was gone. He’d been at the mansion when Bas got there; he’d stopped by to bring their mother a present, or so he’d claimed. Sometime during the briefing in Cain’s study, though, he’d slipped out, and by the time they’d managed to reach him on the phone, he was in Chicago. “Why the fuck are you all sitting around discussing it?” he’d growled. “Scratching your asses isn’t going to find her, is it?

The hell of it was that Evan was right.

Cartham, Larry, Evan, and Gunnar were already out there scouring the area for any signs of Samantha, and with InuYasha and Ryomaru on their way from Japan, he didn’t doubt for a moment that they’d follow the others straight away.

No, the real trouble had started when Kichiro had strode into the mansion, walked right up to Bas and had proceeded to deck him. He wanted to go to Chicago, too, but Cain and Ben had advised against it—at least until after he’d calmed down a little bit. That had stared a nasty round of name calling and finger pointing, none of which was actually helping the situation in the least, but damned if Bas could blame Kichiro for that, either.

He’d grab a shower, a change of clothes, check on Sydnie and head back to the mansion.

The door opened suddenly, and Bas blinked. Sydnie stood there, eyes suspiciously bright, with a suitcase in her hands—her suitcase.

“Kitty? What are you doing?” he barked.

Sydnie’s face took on a defiant scowl, and she shook her head. “I’m going to Chicago, puppy,” she replied in a calm, smooth way.

He reached out to stop her when she tried to breeze past him. “What?”

She sighed. “I’m going to Chicago . . . It’s my fault she’s out there. I’ve got to find her . . .”

“No,” he stated in a tone that should have left no room for discussion. “You can’t. You’re pregnant!”

“I know that,” she shot back, her emerald eyes flashing dangerously. “I have to. She’s somebody’s kitten, and kittens shouldn’t ever, ever be lost!”

Bas heaved a sigh and tugged her back gently albeit firmly. “Sydnie . . .”

She struggled against his hold then suddenly collapsed against his chest, shaking so violently that Bas winced as he held on tight. “Will you go, puppy?”

Closing his eyes, he let go of her and took her bag, leading her back into the house. “Sydnie . . . you’re pregnant . . . you need me . . .”

She shook her head. “What I need is for one of us to go! I told you to send her! I told you . . .! Sebastian, I . . .”

He stared at her for a long moment, knowing in his heart that her mind was made up—knowing it but hating it, just the same. The pleading in her gaze, the unshed tears that he could smell and just couldn’t stand . . . and it wouldn’t matter if he told her that this wasn’t her fault, deep down, she would think that it was. “Okay, kitty,” he murmured. “Okay.”

She didn’t look relieved, but she nodded curtly. He stared at her for a long moment before turning on his heel to retrieve his sword, hung over the mantle in the living room. Staring at it before he reached out to take it down, he smiled sadly of the pewter keychain that dangled from the hilt: the dog etched against the flat, silver moon . . . The last time he’d drawn this sword, he’d used it to protect Sydnie, and maybe, in some strange way, that was his reason now, too.

“Bring her home, Sebastian,” Sydnie murmured, leaning in the doorway as she watched him.

Bas turned the sword over in his hands and nodded once. “I’ll do what I can.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Where is the rest of my money?”

“It’s too early in the day to be talking money,” Dr. Harlan insisted as he waved a Styrofoam cup of coffee in Kurt’s general direction.

“By my calculations, you owe me another five, so either you authorize it right now or I start deconstructing the barrier outside that I set up to keep this place safe.”

Harlan grimaced, his already ruddy complexion darkening a few more shades. “I’d love to authorize the money,” he hurried to say, tossing the cup into the nearest trash can. “Unfortunately, I can’t.”

“And why’s that,” Kurt asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

“There was an . . . incident this morning. The demon was shot.”

“What?” Kurt exploded. Without waiting for further explanation, he turned on his heel and strode down the hallway to the holding area, only to stop short at the sight of the empty cage. He could hear Harlan trotting up behind him, but he was sorely pressed not to wring the bastard’s rubbery neck. “You killed it?” he bellowed.

“No,” Harlan rushed to say, his eyes widening as he took a step back away from Kurt’s very obvious irritation. “We didn’t kill it. It tried to escape, you see? The night guard shot it.”

“Shot it.”

Harlan nodded enthusiastically. “The others are treating it now. They think it’ll be fine—a clean wound straight through the shoulder . . . the thing is, this one . . . We feel that we need a little extra security, obviously. Dustin—the guard—said that it literally broke out of the cage—the cage you constructed, right? And you don’t have any problem controlling it, right?”

Kurt drew a deep breath, satisfied, at least for the moment, that his prize catch wasn’t dead, though he wasn’t entirely certain that he liked where Harlan was going with his current commentary, either. “What’s your point?”

Harlan’s smile was downright smug as he rubbed his chubby hands together. “Now, we can authorize the rest of your payments in increments, provided that you do a little side work for us . . . as the night watch.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“I want to see it.”

Dr. Harlan glanced around as though he were trying to find a way to put off Kurt’s demand. “See it?”

“Yes, damn it, see it. I want to see it. Now.”

“I’ll take you to see it as soon as we have an agreement.”

Narrowing his eyes, Kurt wondered briefly if Harlan really understood exactly how daring he was truly being, and not for the first time, he realized once more, exactly how much he actually could despise another human being. That the good doctor held Kurt in about the same level of regard was arbitrary, as far as Kurt was concerned. If the man walked out in front of the noon cross-town bus, he certainly wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, and if he didn’t need the damn money, he might consider doing the shoving, himself . . .

“Do we have a deal?”

Gritting his teeth—this entire situation was just getting stupider and stupider, in Kurt’s opinion—he narrowed his eyes at the doctor. “You want me to work as your night watch? For money that you already owe me?”

Harlan twittered out a chuckle that sounded entirely forced. “Of course not; of course not! We’ll pay you what we were paying Dustin.”

“And how much were you paying Dustin?”

Harlan’s broadcast-journalism smile dulled just a notch. “Seven-hundred a week plus medical and limited dental.”

Kurt snorted. “Forget it.”

Harlan grimaced. “N-nine hundred a week, no benefits.”

“I don’t need your damn benefits,” Kurt reminded him, “and I make way more than that for one night’s work as it is. If that’s your best offer—”

“Fifteen hundred a week,” Harlan blurted as his skin shifted from blotchy red to a sickly shade of doughy yellow.

Kurt didn’t respond right away. Frankly, he was surprised that Harlan was willing to offer him that much. “I want to see it,” he stated again.

Harlan finally nodded and led the way down the hall to a darkened observation room that looked into a clinical white room devoid of most everything though there were a few monitors spewing out steady streams of papers that pooled on the floor. A couple doctors moved unobtrusively around the sturdy table where the little demon was secured via metal bands. It appeared to be unconscious, but Kurt noted the tape and gauze that covered its shoulder. Dark red blotches marred the stark white of the bandages, and he frowned at the IV that had been pushed off to the side. “It was shot, right? Why aren’t you giving it blood?”

Harlan sighed and shrugged, as though it were of no consequence. “It got agitated when they tried to hook it up to the IV, and its vital signs evened out well enough that we figured that we’d just monitor it. For now.”

“And Dustin?”

Harlan forced a weak laugh. “It knocked him out just after he shot it. No permanent damage, but I don’t imagine that he’ll be willing to mess with that kind again.”

“Has it spoken to you yet?”

The doctor frowned and slowly shook his head, his expression stating plainly that he thought that maybe Kurt had been smacked upside the head at one point or another. “She doesn’t talk,” he said slowly.

Kurt snorted indelicately, pinning Harlan with a bored sort of glower. “Those things spend their lives trying to deceive humans. Don’t be so quick to pin a sex on it. You only see whatever they want you to see. Don’t you get that? And it does talk.”

“Are you saying that . . . it . . . has spoken to . . . you?”

He didn’t have to be brilliant to see the mocking glint in Harlan’s eyes. “You’ve heard other ones speak, haven’t you?”

Harlan forced a condescending laugh. “I’d hardly call broken sentences and series of growls ‘speaking,’ Doc,” he replied. “Those other ones you’ve brought in . . . Are you sure that they’re not more advanced than that one? All it does is sit around and watch—watches everything—but it doesn’t speak. I doubt it knows how.”

Kurt didn’t reply to that despite the irritation that surged inside him. What kind of game was it playing, anyway? He knew damn well that it did talk—it had talked to him a few times—even when he hadn’t wanted it to do any such thing . . .

The doctors stepped over to check it, mumbling things to each other. Kurt turned away, satisfied that it was being taken care of. “You’ll authorize the first payment now,” he warned.

Harlan considered that then nodded. “You’ll understand that I’d like you to start as soon as possible.”

Kurt nodded. He wasn’t overly pleased with the circumstances, and he was even less impressed with the feeling that he was being manipulated. Maybe he could coerce Harlan into paying, but it wouldn’t be worth it in the end.

Besides, as loathe as he was to admit it, Kurt figured that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do a little observation of his own. After all, it was the most powerful demon he’d captured. He might as well see if he could figure out anything else about it while he collected the money that was due him.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Cain Zelig glared at his eldest son in abject disbelief. “I forbid it,” he stated flatly.

Bas shook his head and heaved a sigh. “Dad, this isn’t actually open to debate. I’m going. I have to.”

“What you have to do, Bas, is to take care of your mate,” Cain shot back. “She needs you here!

Raking his hands through his hair in abject frustration, Bas glared at his father and stubbornly stood his ground. “Yeah, that’s just it! She was walking out the door with her suitcase this morning! If I didn’t agree to go, she was going to! I have to do this!”

“Damn it! You’re the next tai-youkai,” Cain maintained. “Why don’t you start acting like it?”

“You think I’m not?”

“No, I don’t!”

Slamming his hand down on the desk so hard that it groaned under the strain, Bas met his father’s formidable glower without backing down. “What am I supposed to do? What if it were Mom?”

Narrowing his eyes dangerously, Cain shook his head. “I’d damn well stay home with her if she were pregnant!”

Drawing a deep breath, Bas pressed his lips together and considered his words. “Dad . . . Sydnie was the one who said that Sam could handle this job. She’s the one who backed her up, and she feels like it’s her fault that Sam’s missing now. You, better than anyone, understand what guilt can do to someone. I’ll be damned if I’ll let Sydnie suffer that kind of thing.”

Cain heaved a sigh. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Bas’ words struck home, and as much as he hated the idea of his son taking off while his mate was pregnant, he had to concede that he did understand. “All right,” he finally said then held up a hand to stop his son’s departure. “But this is non-negotiable, though. I want her to stay here where we can keep an eye on her. A pregnant woman shouldn’t be left alone.”

Bas nodded though his scowl didn’t diminish. Cain knew, too, that the cat-youkai was very likely going to balk at the idea of staying at the mansion, but Bas understood Cain’s reasoning there, too. “Okay,” he agreed, glancing at his watch. “I’ve got time to go get her.”

Cain watched his son go and sighed. He felt as though he were going crazy, plain and simple. In the hours since they’d figured out that Samantha really was missing, he’d had to make more judgment calls—calls that he could only hope would bring her home in the end . . . and the worst of them had been the decision that he, of all people, couldn’t go.

Actually, it was Ben who had reminded Cain of the problems that his accompanying the search party could present, and though it had ticked him off completely, he really did have to admit that Ben . . . well, he’d been right.

Don’t be stupid, Zelig! You cannot go,” Ben said when Cain announced that he was going, too.

What do you mean, I can’t?” he snarled, glaring at Ben furiously.

Think about it,” Ben went on, ignoring Cain’s outburst completely. “You have no idea where she is or why. If someone managed to find out that she was related to you or to Sesshoumaru . . . You’d be playing right into their hands, wouldn’t you?

She’s my granddaughter!”

And you’re the tai-youkai, and whether you like it or not, you have to be the tai-youkai first! You know that!

Forget it, Ben! You can talk all you want, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to listen to you, either,” he growled. “She’s my granddaughter,” he repeated in a calmer tone.

No, Daddy . . . Ben’s right.”

All heads had turned in time to see Bellaniece slip into the study. Worry tightened the skin at the corners of her eyes, but she looked determined as she approached the assembly of men. “Bellaniece . . .”

Ben’s right,” she stated once more. “You’re the tai-youkai. You can’t . . .” Trailing off as she swallowed hard, she shook her head before continuing. “You’re needed here.”

Don’t worry about it,” InuYasha grumbled. “We’ll find her. Besides. You’d just get in the fucking way.”

Letting out a deep breath as he brushed away the memory, it was all he could do not to growl in utter frustration. Sometimes he really despised his position as tai-youkai . . . Unable to do anything but sit here and watch as everyone else went out to look for Samantha . . . Well, it was enough to drive him insane.

The familiarity of a comforting aura seeped over him, engulfing him like an invisible embrace, and he looked up in time to see his mate slip quietly into the office. She managed a very thin smile that he knew damn well was solely for his benefit, and, after looking around to make sure that she wasn’t interrupting, she slipped across the floor and around the desk to hug him for real. “You looked like you could use one of those,” she pointed out, her voice muffled by his shirt.

Wrapping his arms around her, he sighed, accepting her offer of comfort. “I’m completely useless,” he mumbled, wishing for the life of him that it wasn’t true.

“Why do you think that?” she asked. There was nothing condescending or humoring in her tone.

No, she sounded genuinely puzzled, and he shook his head. “I can’t even go and . . . and look for her. I can’t do anything but sit here and be tai-youkai.”

“Well, that is a pretty important job, isn’t it?”

He snorted but didn’t bother to answer since it was debatable—at least in his mind. “Is it?”

“Papa said that I should tell you not to worry.”

Cain rolled his eyes since he highly doubted that InuYasha Izayoi said anything of the sort. “Oh, did he?”

She smiled wanly. “Maybe not in those exact words . . .”

“Yeah, I didn’t figure.”

“I’m sure that this is all a huge misunderstanding. She’ll come . . . come walking through that door any minute, and . . . and she won’t understand what the fuss is all about.”

Cain almost smiled at Gin’s optimistic words. He might have done it if she didn’t sound like she couldn’t even believe herself. “If she walked through that door right now, I’d let her say whatever the hell she wanted,” he admitted quietly.

Gin sighed and gave him a squeeze before leaning back to stare up at him. “You look like you could use some coffee, Zelig-sensei . . . How about I go make you some?”

He flinched inwardly, knowing damn well that her show of bravado was strictly for his benefit, and he tugged her back into his arms, against his heart, and closed his eyes. “How about you just stay here, like this . . .? Better than coffee, at any rate.”

“Have you talked to Bellaniece yet?”

“Uh, no . . . haven’t had a moment to stop and think until now.”

“She’s in her room. She said she was tired right after Kichiro and Sebastian left, but I . . . I doubt she’s actually sleeping.”

Cain nodded slowly, and this time, he didn’t draw Gin back when she stepped away. “Definitely coffee,” she stated briskly. “I just finished a nice cake to go with it, too.”

He watched her go as the frown on his face deepened. He’d been the one who had taught her how to smile and fib when she didn’t want anyone to know the truth. He’d taught her how to do that so long ago, and while he knew that she had the best of intentions always, he had to wonder how much of a toll it was taking her on her now.

Still, there’d be time enough to talk to her later, to remind her that it was all right if she wanted to cry, but right now . . .

Stuffing his hands deep into his pockets, he strode out of the study and headed for the stairs.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“How was your flight, my lady?”

Bellaniece didn’t turn away from the window as she stared at the long driveway for any sign of movement. “It was fine,” she murmured. “Not much turbulence, and . . . and it was quiet.”

She felt her father’s youki draw near, felt it envelop her moments before his arms followed suit. Leaning back against him with a heavy, tired sigh, she indulged the warmth and safety that she felt for several seconds, drawing on his strength to bolster her own. “Where is she, Daddy?” she whispered though it didn’t sound much like a question in her own ears.

“They’ll find her,” he assured her, giving her a tight squeeze as he buried his nose in her hair.

“Why does she want to be a hunter? I’ve never understood that . . .”

Cain sighed softly, his breath stirring her hair. “She wants to protect people . . .”

Bellaniece nodded vaguely, her gaze fixed out the window. “And who will protect her from people?”

She felt him stiffen, his body recoiling from her softly uttered question though there wasn’t a trace of it evident in his tone. “We . . . we will.”

She laughed sadly: a sound devoid of humor but full of a quiet sense of irony. “She would have called if she could . . . Even when she was younger and still in school, if she were even a few minutes late, she always called . . .”

“They’ll find her,” Cain stated once more, his voice a little stronger, full of quiet conviction. “They’ll find her, and they’ll bring her home.”

“Of course,” she replied, turning away from the window and smiling up at her father. She wasn’t sure if the pained expression on his face was because he didn’t believe the show of emotion or if it was because she was entirely too convincing with her lie. “She’s all right,” Bellaniece went on, carefully straightening Cain’s rumpled shirt, smoothing the fabric with light brushes of her palms. “I can feel her. She’s out there, but . . . but I can feel her.”

Cain nodded and tried to smile. It fumbled and faltered and failed, but she had to give him credit for trying. ‘Daddy has always tried to smile for me, because that’s what he does . . .’

“I need to get downstairs and call Ben. He and Myrna were checking into anything that could be a possible lead,” Cain said apologetically.

Bellaniece nodded and quickly leaned up to kiss his cheek. “It’s not your fault, you know,” she said.

He blinked a few times and turned his face away. “I know,” he muttered. “I’ll be in the study if you need me.”

She watched him go with a frown, knowing and hating that he would dare blame himself over Samantha’s disappearance. It was no one’s fault, was it? It couldn’t be.

Because, if she were honest, Bellaniece would have to believe that if it really were someone’s fault then the precarious tightrope she was navigating with her own emotions . . .

It would break, wouldn’t it . . .?

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sam flinched and uttered a low moan as the intrusion of consciousness invaded her senses. Her shoulder ached with a vengeance, and it took a few minutes for her foggy mind to recall the reason. She felt the cold grate under her, and she knew without opening her eyes that her attempt at escape had failed.

She’d been shot, hadn’t she . . .?

Even worse, as the memories floated back to her, she remembered that she’d been so angry—angrier than she’d ever been before—that she’d actually attacked the guard. As if something in her brain had snapped, she could recall the absolute rage that had engulfed her when the man had dared to put his gun against her head. She’d seen in his eyes, hadn’t she? He wanted to pull that trigger, and yet the anger had obliterated all sense of who she was and what she believed. To protect humans . . .

She’d kicked him off as he fired the gun. She could remember the searing pain as the bullet had ripped through her shoulder, and curiously, it had only served to deepen her resolve, and while she ought to have just got up and ran, she’d actually wanted . . .

Trailing off as a mortification so deep and consuming overwhelmed her, she covered her face with her hands, ignoring the pain in her shoulder. She was everything she professed to protect others from—a terrible creature who gave in to their hatred and animosity. How many times in her life had she heard those kinds of actions condemned on the lips and tongues of those whom she loved? And yet she’d almost . . .

Sitting astride the guard, she’d had her hands clasped around his neck, choking off his oxygen supply, her brain lusting for the scent of his blood. Pressing her claws into his flesh as the coppery tinge of his blood filled her nostrils . . . the perverse pleasure that coursed through her—the desire to kill him stronger than any insular emotion she’d ever felt before . . .

She’d felt the small pricks, secondary to the puffs of air as the tranquilizer rifles shot their venom into her, but whether it was her anger that steadied her or the intrinsic thought that she’d rather be dead than trapped there like a wild animal, she wasn’t sure. It was something else she hadn’t understood—the sudden desire to die . . .

They’d shot her again and again with those silly little darts, over and over again. She must have passed out finally—blessedly . . . and she couldn’t remember anything else.

What would her family say if they found out what she’d done? Harming humans . . . that was wrong—always wrong. Weaker than youkai, weaker than hanyou, it was her job to protect them, wasn’t it? If they found out, they’d be disgusted by her and by what she’d done, and worse, they’d be disappointed in her . . .

She didn’t deserve to be a hunter—the one thing she’d always wanted, and now . . . Even if she managed to escape from this place, what right did she have to profess to be a hunter? Allowing herself to be consumed by that hatred—that anger . . . How could she possibly say that she wanted to protect humans when she’d had so little regard for one of those lives . . .?

So lost in her own miserable thoughts, trying to refute the truth in her mind as she struggled against a melancholy so overwhelming that she felt as though she were drowning in a pitch-black ocean, she didn’t hear the approaching footsteps.

The definite scuff of metal against metal got her attention, though, and, peering up between splayed fingers, she watched as the ruined layer of ofuda was stripped away. The blank expression on the holy man’s face swam in and out of focus. Samantha gasped—she hadn’t meant to, but she really hadn’t thought she’d ever see him again, either. For the first time in days, a strange sense of hope swelled in her though she didn’t dare stop to consider why that might be. She knew that he didn’t like her. She understood that well enough. Still, he really hadn’t been unkind to her, either, and that . . . well that had to mean something.

He shot a cursory glance at her before spreading a layer of thick, opaque plastic over the cage. Then he placed another layer of sutras under a second layer of plastic. He’d apparently figured out that the ofuda had been ruined in the course of spraying out the cage. Then he secured the plastic with a layer of duct tape that he wrapped around the cage a few times for good measure.

Gasping softly when he knelt down and reached into the cage, she stared in mute fascination as his long, slender fingers caught the edge of the makeshift bandage on her shoulder and lifted it. When she glanced at his face again, he was scowling: not at her, exactly, but at the rent flesh of her shoulder, as though he was assessing the damage for himself.

It seemed to her that he spent an inordinately long time, scowling at her before he dropped the dressing once more and withdrew his hand. He said nothing as he braced his fingertips against the floor and pushed himself to his feet. He said nothing as he strode over to the utility sink to wash his hands. He said nothing as he moved off to raise the security panels around the cage. He said nothing as he shut off the overhead lights, and he said nothing as he walked over to the barren desk in the corner, bathed in the stingy circle of a lit desk lamp. Shaking open the newspaper, he began to read as a strange thought occurred to Samantha.

He didn’t speak, no, and yet . . .

. . . And yet, for the first time in days, she didn’t feel entirely alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

He couldn’t believe it, and he wouldn’t have if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes. Okay, sure, he’d dealt with enough of those beasts to know that they possessed an uncanny ability to heal, but . . .

The gunshot wound was completely healed over. It wasn’t scabbed over or anything; it was gone. A trace amount of pinkness remained along with a slight indentation in its flesh, but the wound, itself, was gone.

Three days to heal a wound that would have taken a human months to recover from . . . months and a few reconstructive surgeries, and even then, they probably wouldn’t be able to regain full mobility in that limb . . .’

Kurt gritted his teeth. Those things were damn near indestructible, weren’t they? Maybe guns could kill them, and maybe there were other ways of bringing them down, but if they were left to their own devices . . .

Leaning back in the squeaky metal office chair with a loud sigh, he found himself staring thoughtfully at the cage yet again. He’d done that a lot the last few nights since he’d unwittingly found himself employed: staring at it, trying to figure out just what was going through its head . . .

And growing more and more irritated at the fact that it wouldn’t speak now. It ticked him off more than he cared to admit, actually. That damn Harlan, staring at him as though he thought that Kurt had managed to sprout two heads, Kurt could understand exactly what the bastard was thinking, that Kurt was just as freakish as the demon was . . . He’d heard it speak, hadn’t he? So why was it refusing to now?

And why did it stare at him as though it were trying to make him understand something . . .?

Just now, though, it was facing away from him, slumped against the bars of the cage. It never raised a fuss at night, never tried to escape. Whether it heard and remembered the threat he’d muttered in its ear the day he’d delivered it was debatable. He was inclined to believe that it was probably trying to formulate another plan to get away, that maybe it was simply attempting to lull him into a false sense of security, just waiting for him to lower his guard. Too bad that would never, ever happen . . .

You’re thinking about it too much,’ he told himself sternly. He was letting it become something akin to an obsession. The overwhelming sense of anger that he felt whenever he stopped to consider that the little demon refused to talk, coupled with the indulgent looks he’d intercepted from the good doctor and his damn cronies . . . They thought he was crazy, didn’t they? They thought that he was a bare step above those monsters on the proverbial food chain . . .

Already preoccupied by the strange aura that he’d felt when he’d stopped at a corner newsstand on his way to the facility, he’d been late to work since he had turned around to follow it.

He’d lost track of it, though—another thing to irritate him, he supposed. The most puzzling aspect of it had been that it had felt so much different—so much stronger—than that of the little demon. Was that really possible? The strength evident in its aura had, quite frankly, stunned him. Common logic told him that the aura he’d felt earlier couldn’t have come from just one of those creatures. Still . . .

Shaking his head, he snatched up the newspaper and snorted inwardly.

It was just one of them. How he knew that, he wasn’t sure. It might have had something to do with the uniformity of it, but the thing that had drawn the most thought from him was the conflicting sense of agitation in the aura, a restlessness that seemed sorely out of place . . .

Like it was . . . looking for something . . .’

Brushing that stupid thought aside with a mental shrug, Kurt scanned the headlines. The city was still working to recover from the storm that had taken out the power in some sectors the night he’d captured the little demon. There was an updated report on a missing five-year-old boy that said that there were no new leads . . . a shoot-out between inner city gang members and the local authorities had resulted in three deaths . . . If those monsters didn’t destroy humanity, it was a safe bet that they’d manage it, on their own, anyway, he figured.

By the time he’d made it to the facility, Dr. Harlan had been in quite a snit. “I thought you’d backed out on our deal,” he’d growled in a completely mulish tone.

Kurt offered no apologies. “I’m here now,” he pointed out.

Yes, well, I had plans and didn’t really want to sit around here to wait for you,” he remarked in an accusing tone.

I didn’t realize that you had to wait for me to get here before you could leave,” Kurt said, carefully tugging off his black leather gloves and stowing them in his pockets.

Ordinarily, no,” Harlan went on with a long sigh. “I wanted to ask if you wouldn’t mind doing something for us, though.”

Kurt almost refused on general principle. Wasn’t it enough that he was spending his time, babysitting the little demon since no one else was adept enough to do it? “What?” he asked instead, inflicting just enough boredom into his tone to let Harlan know that he wasn’t really committing himself, one way or another.

Harlan shook his head, obviously not quite as stupid as Kurt had figured. “She’s losing weight,” he stated flatly. “We weren’t entirely certain the other day when we had her under observation since we hadn’t actually gotten her weight, to start with, but, well, look at her . . .”

Kurt reluctantly followed Harlan’s gaze through the one way mirror that looked into the holding block. He personally didn’t see any real difference. Huddled as tiny as it could be inside the small cage that was its prison, he glanced back at the doctor and shrugged. “It looks fine,” he remarked, adding extra emphasis on the ‘it’.

Dr. Harlan stared at him for several moments before he shrugged. “If you say so, Doc . . . It’d be a shame if it got sick, though. It’s not good business to keep making payments for dead merchandise.”

No doubt about it, Kurt loathed that man . . .

Tossing the newspaper down, he stood abruptly, sending the metal chair scraping across the floor as he stomped over to the chart that they’d been keeping on it. Frowning at what he read, though, he wasn’t entirely sure what to think. According to the charts, it was eating well enough. Okay, so maybe it could stand to eat a little more, but then, maybe it didn’t need to. After all, kept in the cage as it was, it certainly didn’t get any decent amount of exercise. Harlan had made it sound like the beast was losing mass amounts of weight, didn’t he?

But no, the food was weighed before it was put into the cage, and it was weighed again when they brought it out again in the morning. According to the reports, it was eating about six to ten ounces of food every night—not a lot, but enough . . . Water readings were nearly always inconclusive, but that didn’t really concern him. It was a rule of nature that animals behaved instinctively when it came to the basic needs of food and the like. Hunger was hunger, wasn’t it? It’d be a strong enough impetus to break even the strongest of wills.

And just what did he care whether or not the damn thing starved itself? If it were really stupid enough to do that, then it would just mean one less demon in the world, and that, in Kurt’s opinion, was more than a little all right . . .

Yeah, except for one minor detail, genius . . .’

Wrinkling his nose at the not-so-gentle barb, Kurt rolled his eyes and tossed the chart onto the high workstation.

Even if you don’t care if it dies, maybe you should consider that if it does, they’ll stop paying you. Harlan said as much, didn’t he?

Head jerking up as his eyes flared wide, Kurt couldn’t contain the hostile snort that slipped out of him. “The hell . . .” he muttered, stomping across the floor. He knelt beside the cage, glaring at the huddled form within. It didn’t turn or even acknowledge that it had heard his approach, but those strange ears atop its head twitched and turned to listen to the sound of his movements, no doubt.

He didn’t say anything as he stared into the darkened cage. The layer of notes that he’d plastered all over the top of it had only served to lend to the darkness that lingered within. The creature didn’t move, but even from his vantage point, he could tell that it really did seem a little smaller—not an easy feat, considering it was never what he’d have considered ‘large’, anyway.

“Quit trying to starve yourself and eat your damn food,” he muttered, knowing full well that the demon could hear him.

Its movement was little more than a whisper of sound, a flutter in the dark that he almost didn’t see. He couldn’t miss the brightness behind those eyes, though—those fathomless eyes that were entirely too human despite the unusual oblong pupils. It was trying to tell him something, he could feel it. Narrowing his gaze, he tried to understand. “What? You’d prefer a different brand?” he growled.

Its eyes blinked quietly, and it shook its head, ears flattening slightly—almost drooping.

Those ears, though, were a reminder—a blunt statement that shot through to his core. It was trying to garner his sympathy, wasn’t it? Too bad he didn’t have any; not for the likes of a demon. A hot and putrid anger roiled within him—anger at himself for deigning to try to communicate with that thing. In the half light, it was almost easy to forget that those eyes belonged to a monster. With a mental snort, Kurt pushed himself to his feet and turned on his heel to stalk away again.

As if that would ever—ever—happen!’ he scoffed. ‘Forget what that thing is . . .? I’d sooner forget to breathe . . .’

It pissed him off, no doubt about it. He knew damn well what those vile monsters were capable of. He’d seen it, first hand. The carnage and destruction—the encompassing hatred, and he’d always understood that there was no rhyme or reason, that they simply despised him because he could see what they were: because they could not hide from his eyes. That one might look less intimidating on the outside. That meant nothing when it came right down to it. If anything, maybe that made it a much tougher adversary, one that could hide behind the guise of an unsettling face.

He could feel its eyes like a physical thing. Not a sound had come from the cage, and he knew that it hadn’t turned around, but it was watching him—studying him. Well, it could study him all it wanted. There wasn’t a damn thing that it could do about the situation, after all . . .

Snatching up the newspaper once more, Kurt dropped back into the chair and propped up his feet, set to ignore the monster, even if it killed him.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Kichiro stopped, draping his hands on his hips as he stared at the dingy alleyway that he’d already surveyed a thousand times, and while he knew deep down that there was nothing else to find here, he couldn’t help but look anyway.

There was no rhyme or reason behind his logic. He wasn’t entirely certain why he kept feeling like he needed to check this place over and over again. Maybe it was the inner knowledge that this was the last known place where his daughter had been, and though he knew that the area had been looked over many, many times, he couldn’t help but feel compelled to check it over just one last time.

There was a certain measure of comfort in knowing that those who loved Samantha were dispatched all over the unfamiliar city, and common sense told him that the ones who were here were the undisputed best of the best, as far as tracking went. If anyone could find her, they could. That had become his mantra over the last few days since he’d gotten the news. It was a father’s worst nightmare, wasn’t it? A missing daughter—a daughter whom he loved—and no one knew where she was . . .

“The old man said you were out here.”

Kichiro turned at the familiar sound of that voice, the familiar brush of that youki. He knew it almost as well as he knew his own. Unable to summon even the smallest fragment of a smile as his twin brother slowly got to his feet—he’d dropped from the buildings above to land in a crouch behind him, Kichiro nodded and turned his attention back to the cold brick and mortar of the alley. “She was here,” he murmured, his eyes scanning the surroundings, searching, searching for just a sign—a hint—something . . . anything . . .

“Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner,” he said.

Kichiro nodded. He knew that Ryomaru had been out on a hunt when the call had come. It had probably frustrated him almost as much as it had frustrated Kichiro that he hadn’t been able to drop everything. “It’s all right,” Kichiro heard himself saying in a quiet tone that just didn’t sound like him. Raw, rough, almost ragged, it sounded almost as broken down as he felt.

Ryomaru sighed, stepping over to touch the walls. He was searching for any lingering traces of her youki, wasn’t he? The same thing that Kichiro had done only moments before . . . “Cain briefed me on the flight over. Said she, uh . . . she took a scent tab.”

That comment drew a wince from Kichiro. If he’d beaten himself up once, he’d done it a million times already. Those scent tabs . . . those were his creation, weren’t they? Designed to protect the twin brother who stood next to him, the very last thing that he’d thought at the time was that those very same things would mean the difference between tracking his daughter through the streets of Chicago and not being able to find her at all. He knew her scent. He knew every nuance of it. The sweet little girl who smiled at him and blushed when her mama asked her about boys at school . . . the little girl who had come to him, her mother’s eyes staring at him out of the face that reminded him of the baby sister whom he loved . . . She’d had such an air of determination around her, as if she’d known that he wasn’t going to like what she wanted to tell him.

And, kami, he hadn’t. The words she’d said that fateful day had struck a fear in him so deep, so dark, and while he’d never discourage his children from doing what they felt in their hearts was the right path, how desperately had he wanted to tell her that she just wasn’t old enough, big enough, tough enough? How desperately had he wanted to tell her that it . . . It scared the hell out of him, didn’t it?

Papa . . . I’ve decided. I want to be a . . . a hunter.”

And he’d prayed that it was just a phase, hoped beyond hope that she would realize that the life of a hunter wasn’t really what she wanted at all. But he’d said nothing as she’d progressed, had held his own council as his baby had grown up, training harder than any of the boy ever could, working harder than she needed to, driven by the inner knowledge that girls weren’t supposed to want to be what she wanted to be.

“Morio took off to join up with Bas and Evan,” Ryomaru went on, letting his hand drop away from the walls with an irritated expression on his face.

“Morio came, too,” Kichiro mused as he turned around to re-examine the area where the remains of Benoit had been found along with one of Samantha’s shuriken.

Ryomaru followed along. “Insisted,” he ventured. “He’s a better tracker than he was a hunter, anyway.”

Kichiro nodded, hunkering down in the slightly paler outline where the youkai’s body had exploded. The impact had, in essence, sandblasted the dingy sidewalk beneath him. Touching the area, he gritted his teeth. Even the lingering traces of Benoit’s youki had been swept away—or washed clean in the rains that had hammered Chicago . . .

“Toga had a fit. Sesshoumaru said that it’d be better if he stayed where he was since they don’t want to draw too much attention here. You heard from anyone?”

Kichiro shook his head as he stared at the surroundings once more. What was it about this area that brought about such an understated sense of foreboding? “Nope,” he replied absently, still glancing around. The common thought was that somehow, Samantha might have been taken by someone who knew who she was, at least in a broad sense. Though they might not have realized that she was a hunter, there was certainly no mistaking her looks. The silver hair and hanyou ears were enough to proclaim who she was, even if they didn’t know exactly how she was connected in the family. If anyone wanted to get to Sesshoumaru or InuYasha or even Ryomaru, what would be better than getting their hands on one of their own? Even then, the theory had been suggested that maybe someone had mistaken he girl for Gin. After all, the wife of the North American tai-youkai would make a hell of a bargaining chip, wouldn’t she?

But to him, Samantha was none of those things. She wasn’t his sister; she certainly wasn’t a bargaining chip. She was his daughter—his baby girl. How the hell would he find her . . .?

“This place is weird,” Ryomaru remarked at length, stating the thing that Kichiro had thought, himself.

Kichiro nodded. The layout of the area was . . . well, unsettling. He’d seen streets in different old European cities that reminded him of this one: a broad street square with buildings curving around it like an old town square or something. The buildings here were as dilapidated and tired as the ones in Europe had been quaint and warm—what was it that he couldn’t put his finger on?

Ryomaru sighed and pushed himself to his feet, venturing around as his critical eye took in the area.

Kichiro stood, too, heading in the opposite direction, hoping against hope that he could find something—anything—that might help to at least shed a little more light on the situation.

And yet he couldn’t understand just who would want to hurt her, either. The precious little girl with the brightest eyes and happiest smile . . . everyone loved her, didn’t they? She was the daughter that he’d never had to Ryomaru, the little girl who never, ever got tired of listening to InuYasha and Kagome’s stories . . . the sensitive young woman who’d worn black to her sister’s wedding as a form of protest since she’d developed a huge crush on the groom . . . Whenever he turned his head, the fading peals of her laughter reached him, and every single sound dug a little deeper into his heart . . .

“Oi,” Ryomaru called, snapping Kichiro out of his reverie. “Kich . . .”

Standing up, he loped over to where Ryomaru stood just inside the opening of an alley on the far side of the square. He was holding a soggy slip of paper—it looked like a yellow Post-It note, and when Kichiro drew closer, Ryomaru shook his head. “Damn it . . .”

“What’s that?” Kichiro asked, holding out his hand.

Ryomaru turned the bit of paper over, examining the backside, then held it out to him.

Kichiro’s eyes widened, and only sheer will kept him from jerking his hand away. The ink on the page had faded and smudged, but the lingering pulse of spiritual power was still contained in the document. Narrowing his eyes, he could make out the slightly misprinted kanji. “What is this?” he muttered, more to himself than to his brother.

Ryomaru grunted. He was staring around at the other entrances into the square—there were three others. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “If it’s what I think it is . . .”

“What do you think it is?” Kichiro demanded a bit harsher than he’d intended.

“We need to take it to the old man,” Ryomaru stated. “I think . . . I think it might be a barrier marker.”

“A barrier?” Kichiro repeated, shaking his head in confusion. “No . . . only a really powerful miko or monk could construct something like that. Someone like Mama or . . .”

Ryomaru was slow to look at him, and when he did, Kichiro blinked. He’d never seen Ryomaru look so serious, had he? “The old man will know if that’s what it is,” he said.

Kichiro nodded as Ryomaru dug his cell phone out of his pocket. It still didn’t make sense, though. As far as he knew, there wasn’t another who possessed the holy power necessary to construct a barrier, and even if then, it couldn’t possibly be any ordinary person, anyway. The ability to contract a barrier like that took training—years of it. ‘Still,’ he thought, staring at the scrap of paper. ‘What else could this possibly be?

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Samantha stared at the form huddled on the small metal cot not unlike the one she’d found herself on a few days ago in that tiny room without windows. The holy man—she’d come to understand that the white coats called him ‘Doc’—hadn’t moved in a while. Even from where she was in the center of the room, she could make out the light, even sound of his breathing, and she knew that he was sleeping.

In fact, he’d been sleeping for a while. Still, she wasn’t sure how heavy of a sleeper he was since this was actually the first time she’d seen him doing that.

But he’d been watching her fairly closely tonight, and while she wasn’t entirely sure why, she knew that it had something to do with his earlier irritation when he’d come to hunker down beside the cage. For a dizzying few moments, she’d honestly thought that he’d understood what she was trying to tell him. If he had, though, he hadn’t remarked on it, and then he’d gotten so angry . . .

She didn’t understand his anger, either. She’d already sensed the underlying emptiness inside him, and she could tell that there was a lot of pain deep down that he was trying to hide. She wasn’t entirely sure how she knew that, but somehow, she did . . .

Shaking her head, she licked her lips, grimacing at the sting of her cracked lips brought on by the trace moisture provided by her tongue. She’d almost broken down and drank some of that tainted water earlier. Kami, she was thirsty—and hungry: so hungry. Recalling the times over her life when she’d thought that she was hungry, she slowly shook her head. She hadn’t understood then what it meant to truly be hungry. She’d never felt the cramps that were so bad that the felt as though her entire being were being twisted in half, the ones that were so bad that she had to bite down on the inside of her cheek, her mouth flooding with blood as she struggled to keep herself from crying out. She wasn’t entirely sure how long she’d be able to refrain from eating the food they provided. She could feel her strength ebbing away. It was a gradual thing, and maybe that horrified her more than anything. She wasn’t allowed any sort of exercise, confined for most of the day and all of the night in a three foot wide, four foot long, three foot tall cage that she barely had room to turn around in . . . She was filthy, she was exhausted, and she was sore.

Carefully scooping up a handful of the dog kibble, she brought her hand up and stared at it. Her hand was shaking when she lifted one off her palm, holding it in front of her face as she considered what it would mean to eat it.

With a marked grimace, she dropped the kibble down the drain under the cage, frustrated with her own perceived weaknesses. If she gave in, they’d win, wouldn’t they? If she gave in and went along with their perceived ideas, would it really help her situation?

Still there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that her family was out there looking for her. They’d find her, wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t give up until they did. They’d take her home where she was safe, where she was loved.

But it seemed so far away, the warmth and laughter of home. For the first time since she’d been taken, she allowed herself to think about that place, about the faces and the voices of those she called family. Stubbornly refusing to dwell on them before, afraid that the memories would somehow break her, she’d pushed thoughts of them aside, focusing instead on surviving.

And maybe she was just too weak to stave them back. Maybe she couldn’t help the overwhelming desire to see them again, she smiled vaguely, remembering how often she sat beside her mother on the sofa in her father’s study, her eyelids growing heavier by the second as she tried to stay awake, to hear the comforting sounds of her parents’ voices as they conversed about their days, as they joked and teased each other. She’d fallen asleep with her head in her mama’s lap so many times, only to wake in the morning, safe in her own bed . . .

Dropping the kibble down the drain, one at a time, Samantha let her temple fall against the cool bars of the cage.

Don’t let them break you, Samantha . . . You’re stronger than that . . .’

Smiling vaguely at the encouraging words of her youkai blood, Samantha let her eyes drift closed as the last kibble slipped through her fingers and down the drain. ‘Yes,’ she thought as the fuzziness of sleep crept up on her. ‘Stronger . . .’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kurt frowned at the slightly smashed and dented cheeseburger that he’d picked up earlier. Warmed up in the utilitarian microwave just a little too long, the bun had taken on a somewhat rubbery consistency not unlike shoe leather, he supposed.

It was his own fault, he figured, for not paying a lot of attention to the food. Staring instead at the motionless figure inside the cage, he almost thought that it wasn’t paying any attention to him at all if it weren’t for the way its ears kept twitching.

Giving up all pretenses that he was actually going to eat the sandwich, he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. The demon’s ears twisted around, almost facing backward as the small, dull rattle sounded again.

Narrowing his gaze when the demon turned its head just enough to look at him out of the periphery of its vision. Reaching for his book, he opened it in his lap, watching through the veil of his bangs that had fallen forward as he wondered just what the hell it thought it was doing.

It didn’t do anything for a few minutes, and he could sense that it was still eyeing him though he couldn’t rightfully tell. Still, he trusted his instincts well enough. ‘Sneaky beast,’ he thought with an inward sneer. ‘Just what the hell are you up to, anyway?

He pressed his lips together in a thin line as he turned the page.

He knew that it was up to something, just like he knew that it could talk, just like he knew that the few times he’d actually deigned to approach the cage, it had been trying to tell him something even though it stubbornly refused to speak. In the week that had passed since he’d started watching it at night, he’d tried a few times to get it to talk. He knew it could; it had very obviously spoken to him when he’d had it at his office. So why was it playing dumb now?

Just last night, he’d stomped over there and all but demanded that it speak though to be completely honest, he hadn’t really expected for it to comply. After all, if it was going to, it would have started to do so already, wouldn’t it?

But it had stared at him for moment with an intensity in its expression that was almost uncanny. Lifting its eyes as though it were looking at something high above the both of them, it had slowly lowered its gaze again. Too bad Kurt wasn’t in any sort of mood to play the little demon’s games, and he’d stared at it for another moment before stomping away, muttering curses under his breath since he wasn’t sure why he even bothered to try to get it to talk.

Okay, so that wasn’t completely true. He knew damn well why he had tried. With every day that passed, he couldn’t help but get a little more irritated that it was making him look like a damn fool. Those research bastards were laughing at him, and he knew it, thinking that he’d finally cracked and lost his mind. Talking to those beasts? Yeah, he could understand why they’d think he was mad. The other demons he’d brought in had spoken to some extent, even if it were confined to single words and guttural sounds—normally curses, of course. But this one . . . maybe it was more advanced than the others had been, and maybe that was the reason why it could talk. That was probably also the reason why it was refusing to do it now.

Even still, he was about to decide that he was being paranoid, after all, when it finally moved. Leaning forward in a very quiet movement, he hear the strange scrape as it sat up again, cradling its hand to its chest as it scrunched up its shoulders as though it were protecting something. A moment later, he heard the dull rattle—come to think of it, he’d heard that sound quite a few times over the past week, hadn’t he—and before he could stop to think about it, he stood up and crossed the floor to the cage.

“What do you have?” he demanded.

The little demon jerked like he had startled it then shot him a perfectly blank look.

“Don’t give me that,” he growled, reaching into the cage to grab its arm. It was faster, shoving against the side as it scooted back, still cradling its hand against its chest with its back smashed against the bars. It didn’t wince at the jolt it got for rattling the bars of the cage too hard, but Kurt didn’t miss the suspect brightness enter its gaze, either. “What do you have in your hand?” he demanded again.

Damned if it didn’t keep staring at him in that completely stupid way. Kurt had had enough of its games. Slamming his hand against the release lock, he yanked the door open and reached into the cage, grabbing the little demon and dragging it out. “Do anything stupid, and it’ll be the last thing you ever do,” he warned as he seized its wrist and pried its fingers open.

It uttered a small sound—almost like a smothered sob though its eyes remained steady and clear, and it crumpled to the floor, suspended only by his hand around its wrist as he stared at the six kibbles that it had been holding onto.

A fleeting surge of emotion swept through him; one that he didn’t want to identify as he let go of its wrist and let it drop. The dog food fell to the floor in a deafening clatter in the silent room. Staring at the demon for a long minute, Kurt slowly shook his head. “I wasn’t going to take it away from you,” he muttered, unsure exactly why he was saying anything at all to the beast. Maybe it was just the understanding that, at least at that moment, it was far more pathetic than he’d ever been . . .

It didn’t try to move. It didn’t try to fight him. Hunched over on the floor, its dull, grimy hair hanging into its face in nothing but a filthy, smelly old hospital smock, it didn’t look even remotely fierce or tough, and while he wasn’t fool enough to underestimate it, he certainly didn’t fear it, either.

“Get in there,” he ordered, tapping the cage with the toe of his boot.

It didn’t move. Kurt scowled, unsure why he felt like it wasn’t trying to disobey him as much as that it really couldn’t do it. Narrowing his eyes as he carefully regarded it, he had to admit that in the harsh light of the fluorescent bulbs, it really had diminished. Shoulders thinner, bonier—he could see that despite the thin smock that covered it, everywhere he looked, he could make out angles and bones protruding just under its skin.

What the hell was it doing? That wasn’t right . . . if it were trying to eat the food, then why was it so damn frail looking?

Something wasn’t right, was it? Unable to make sense of it, Kurt glanced at the empty cage then stopped. ‘The . . . drain . . .’

And he understood. It hadn’t been holding onto the food to eat it; it had been deliberately dropping them down the drain to make the researchers think that it had been eating all along . . . What the hell was it doing? Trying to starve itself . . .? Enraged that it would try to do something as stupid—irritated as hell that he had almost—almost—felt a little sorry for it—Kurt uttered a frustrated growl and gestured at the cage once more. “Get in there.”

It swayed slightly but made no move to comply. Kurt snorted and grasped its wrist again, its pulse erratic and thready under his fingertips as he brought it to its knees and pushed it toward the cage. It gasped but complied, crawling somewhat slowly back into the darkness of the cage once more as Kurt shoved the door closed behind it and secured the locking mechanism.

What the hell do I care if it starves itself?’ he fumed as he stomped back over to the desk once more and plopped into the chair. Irritation rising rapidly—it was trying to make him feel sorry for it, wasn’t it? Was that its new ploy? Well, he was on to it, damn it. There was no way on earth that he was going to fall for that, just none.

Yeah, but . . . if it starves itself . . .’

Ignoring the voice in the back of his head that he’d always thought sounded quite like his father, Kurt snatched up the newspaper and loudly shook it out.

If it starves itself,’ the voice stated again, ‘you know well enough that Harlan won’t finish paying you.’

Damned if that didn’t get his attention entirely. Unfortunately, that was entirely accurate, and he knew it. If something happened to the little demon before they finished paying him, then he was just shit out of luck, wasn’t he?

“Eat,” he stated, crossing his arms as he glowered down at the huddled form inside the cage.

It didn’t move.

Rolling his eyes, he wondered how bad it would be if he dragged it out of the cage and force-fed it . . . As if it gave a damn about what happened to it—he didn’t—really didn’t—but there was no way that the stupid creature was going to cost him money, too . . .

And he really was pondering doing exactly that when it finally sat up, its eyes glowing in the semi-darkness.

“Eat,” he demanded once more, hunkering down to get a better look at it.

Its only response was a slow blink.

Glancing at the food and water bowls, Kurt snorted. Somehow during the ruckus—maybe when he’d dragged it out of the cage earlier—the water had been upset. The empty bowl was upended on the side of the food dish, and with a muffled curse, Kurt reached around, unlatching the small panel that popped up so that he could grab the water dish and pulled it out of the cage. Heaving a sigh, he stomped over to refill the empty bowl and returned, shoving it into the cage without spilling it though a bit did slosh precariously.

The little demon watched him, its eyes still alert enough. No sooner had he slipped the panel back into place than it sat up in the cage, grasping the water bowl in shaking hands as it lifted it to its face.

Why did it surprise him that it drank from the bowl as though it were a cup—albeit a very large one? Sputtering, choking, it gulped down the water as fast as it could, its throat bobbing in greedy swallows as dribbles of liquid spilled onto its chest.

Shaking his head in abject disgust, Kurt rolled his eyes and snorted. “Jesus, you’d think that it hadn’t had a drop to drink in . . . Shit!” he bellowed as realization dawned on him. If it had been dumping its food down the drain, would it actually have been drinking, either? With a muffled curse, Kurt reached through the bars and smacked the bowl out of its hands. It clunked uselessly against the grate floor, the metal clanking with an empty ring as the demon slumped back against the cage wall.

Heaving a sigh, Kurt pulled his hand out, resting his elbows on his bent knees as he continued to regard the strange little demon. It stared at him for a long moment before leaning to the side as a pitiful wretch brought every last drop of water right back up again. “Damn it!” Kurt hissed, hopping back out of the way. The demon heaved a couple times, resting on its hands and knees, and as irritated as Kurt was, he couldn’t help but notice that the only thing that it threw up was water . . . “God, you’re stupid—stupid!” he growled, pushing himself to his feet and stomping over to the water spout. With a deft tug, he loosened the power hose and strode back over to the cage once more.

The little demon saw the bright yellow hose and pushed itself back into the deepest corner of the cage, eyes squeezing closed, ears flattening as Kurt turned on the nozzle with a vicious yank. The water shot out in full force, drenching the cage and the floor beneath, cleansing away all traces of the vomit and washing it harmlessly down the gurgling drain.

The water pressure suddenly dropped off, and Kurt glanced over his shoulder. The hose had kinked up near the faucet. Transferring the nozzle to his left hand, he turned around and gathered up a handful of the hose, then gave it a swift flick. He repeated the motion a few times. It finally worked the kink free, and Kurt’s left hand tightened as roughly four-thousand-five-hundred pounds of pressure shot through the hose once more.

Wincing when the cold spray rained down on him—he’d been holding it upright while he messed around with the kink—followed in short order by a spray of sparks and billowing smoke. Kurt dashed out of the way as the little demon’s shriek rang in his ears. Shutting off the water tap and dropping the hose, he spun around in time to see a few errant sparks showering down from the observation camera mounted high above the cage.

He snorted, his expression darkening. He supposed that those damn bastards would tell him that he had to pay to replace that . . . ‘Like hell,’ he thought with an inward snort.

The rattling of the cage drew his attention, and he narrowed his gaze when he noticed that the little demon was clutching the cage bars and staring at him again.

Suddenly, the memory of it, raising its eyes and lowering them again—how many times had it done that in the last week, anyway—shot through his head. The camera . . .? Was that the reason that it had refused to speak . . .?

“P-please,” it whispered, its voice much rougher than he remembered. It cleared its throat and swallowed hard. “Water . . . please . . .”

His gut instinct was to ignore the quiet plea, but his next thought was far baser than that. If it came to harm before they finished paying for it . . .

Kurt heaved a sigh and shook his head, his irritation skyrocketing at the very thought of pandering to the demon.

Too bad he sorely needed that money. Some of his equipment was in dire need of replacement, and unfortunately for him, all of that stuff cost a lot more than he’d like to think about. Damn it all . . .

Stifling a sigh, Kurt strode forward to retrieve the bowl. This time, though, he’d be damned if he’d let the beast make itself sick all over again . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“How can that be possible?” John Troyer asked, gaze intense as he stared at Ben Philips.

The panther-youkai shook his head slowly, his eyes shifting to the women assembled around the dining room table in the Zelig’s kitchen. They were trying to catch up on small-talk—that was what Isabelle had said with a tight little smile that was supposed to pass for her normal show of ebullience. Gin Zelig, her daughter, Jillian . . . Bellaniece Izayoi with Isabelle and Alexandra . . . Sydnie Zelig and Meara Izayoi . . . Nezumi and Kagome . . . Some of the strongest women that Ben had ever had the pleasure of meeting were gathered there, and not one of them would give in to what had to be the natural desire to cry . . .

“Your guess is as good as mine, but there’s no doubt about it. It was definitely an Ofuda. InuYasha verified it in the field,” Ben commented without taking his eyes off the women.

John sighed and nodded, his expression shifting into a thoughtful scowl. “What does that mean?” he finally asked.

Ben rubbed his temple in an infinitely tired sort of way and shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, but . . . but if that’s the case, then it’s safe to assume that we’re not dealing with youkai here. Youkai can’t create a barrier, not using a medium like that . . .”

“Then who the hell has her?” John hissed, careful to keep his voice lowered.

“Who do you think?” Griffin Marin, the surly bear-youkai rumbled. Expression even darker than normal, he shook his shaggy head and let out a deep breath. “It’s not a question of who has her; it’s a question of what the hell they want to do to her. Zelig heard anything yet?”

Ben shook his head and jerked his head as he turned around, indicating that the men should follow. He led the way to Zelig’s office and waited as Cain paced the floor with the telephone receiver plastered against his head. “No, I’m not overreacting,” he growled, clenching and unclenching his fist by turns.   “Yeah, I hear you. Call me if you find anything else.” Lowering the device away from his ear, Cain didn’t glance at the men as he strode over to his desk and dropped the receiver into the cradle. “Nothing,” he stated in answer to the unvoiced question. “Not a damn thing.”

“They’ve only been out there a little over a week, Zelig. They’ll find her,” Ben remarked mildly.

That comment earned him a darkened scowl as Cain shoved a chair out of his way and strode over to the wet bar. “A little over a week with some bastard who possesses holy powers? I don’t like the odds, Ben.”

“Isabelle’s mama keeps saying that she’s alive,” Griffin muttered. “A mama would know, right?”

Cain grabbed a clean glass and sloshed a good amount of scotch into it before draining and refilling it before he trusted himself to speak. “A mama might believe what she wants to believe . . .” Heaving a sigh, shaking his head, Cain downed that drink, too. “I know she believes it, and I . . . I want to, too . . .”

“Then do it,” John commented with an offhanded shrug. “It’s a little premature to give up hope.”

Cain stared at him for a minute then nodded. “Sorry,” he muttered, waving a hand as he pulled more glasses up onto the counter. “I’m just . . . frustrated . . .”

The men stepped over to take the drinks that Cain offered—even Griffin, surprising as that was. The bear didn’t normally drink at all that Ben knew of, and he didn’t now, either, simply holding the glass though he made no move to lift it to his lips. “We’re all frustrated, Zelig,” Ben pointed out gently.

Cain shook his head and grabbed his glass, pacing the floor in a caged sort of way. “What good is being tai-youkai if you can’t do a damn thing to protect the ones you love? I should be out there, looking for her, and I’m . . . here . . . Completely useless . . .”

“You’re where you’re needed,” Ben said. “Bellaniece needs you. Her mate is out there looking for their daughter . . . The last thing that she needs is to be worried about you, too.”

There was truth in that, and Cain knew it. Still, logic was just not something that Cain had a mind to hear at the moment. “Have you gotten that list from Myrna? The ones that could be capable of possessing spiritual powers strong enough to construct a barrier?”

“She’s still working on it,” Ben supplied, settling into a chair across from Zelig’s desk. Griffin sank into the other one as John slumped against the wall just inside the doorway.

Griffin cleared his throat, his gaze fixed on the amber liquid in the glass he held. “How long are you planning on keeping this from the women?” he asked quietly. There was no censure in his tone, no underlying hints that he disagreed with Cain’s decision on the matter.

Cain heaved a sigh and plopped down at his desk, raking his hands through his hair before answering. “I want more facts before I tell them,” he said. “They’re still . . . they’re still hoping that this has all just been some sort of misunderstanding . . . a miscommunication . . . or something . . . Telling them about the barrier . . . they would know what it means. They’d know that someone had meant to trap Samantha; that it was premeditated, but they—we—don’t know why.”

Griffin nodded. “That’s what I figured,” he mumbled.

John shook his head. “I cannot fathom anyone wanting to do this to her . . . not to Samantha . . . It just . . . it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.”

“If it made sense, we’d know where she is,” Gavin Jamison stated as he walked through the doorway. “Any news?”

“No,” Ben stated. “Nothing.”

“Did you find out anything?” Cain interrupted impatiently.

Gavin let out a deep breath as he headed for the wet bar. “No. Dad said that he’s still checking into a few things, though. Said he’d give you a call later.”

Cain nodded though he didn’t look at all appeased. “Thanks.”

“What about this ofuda?” Ben asked.

“InuYasha said that he’d send it back with Larry. Maybe Kagome can tell us more about it.”

“But she doesn’t use them, does she?” Griffin put in.

“No, she doesn’t, but InuYasha said one of their friends from the old days did and that maybe she’d be able to verify that it was a barrier anchor.”

Gavin strode back over with a bottle of water in hand. “I’d like to go,” he stated. “I can help them track her.”

Cain rubbed his forehead and sighed. “That’s the problem, Gavin. There’s no trail to track, and as much as I hate to say it, the more people we send in, the more attention it may draw. Whoever has her knows about our kind, and sending in more people might work against us in the end.”

Gavin nodded despite the frustration in his expression. “All right, but if you need me . . .”

Cain managed a tired smile that wasn’t nearly as bright as it normally would have been. “If this drags on . . .”

“I can go, too, if you need me,” John added.

Griffin nodded once.

“Did Attean know anything?” Cain asked.

Griffin shook his head and set his untouched glass on the desk. “He said he hasn’t heard anything from the Chicago area, but he did say that he’s heard rumors about some guy professing to be able to see youkai out near New Mexico.”

“New Mexico,” Cain repeated thoughtfully. “Sound like anything, Ben?”

“I’ve heard that, too, but from what I gathered, the guy also believes that we’ve got a little green man locked up in Roswell and that the assassination of President Werner some years ago was a sign of the Apocalypse.”

“Did he make Myrna’s list?”

Ben raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “Yeah, he did. The woman is thorough, I’ll give her that much.”

“So it’s just a waiting game,” Gavin muttered.

“Yeah,” John replied then heaved a sigh of his own. “It’s the figuring out what the next move is that’s the problem.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Samantha reached for the bowl, only to be stopped short when the holy man uttered a terse sound. “Slowly,” he warned, narrowing his gaze to emphasize his point. “Puke again, and you can lie in it all night, for all I care.”

She grimaced but nodded, her cheeks pinking as she brought the bowl to her lips again.

“Sip it,” he commanded.

The water on her parched tongue felt like heaven, and she had to fight against the basic instinct to drink it down fast. She knew that he was right, though. After so long a time without eating or drinking anything, her body just wasn’t ready to cope with anything in large amounts. Curiously enough, though, the sip she’d swallowed only served to make her thirstier—so much so that she had to grit her teeth together hard to keep from trying to gulp it down again.

He didn’t say anything as she slowly sipped the water. His expression still suspicious, he just watched her without batting an eye.

Even sipping the water was creating a bit of trouble for her. The coldness made her shake violently as her stomach knotted up a little. Still, she wanted the liquid—wanted it worse than she’d ever wanted anything before, and when the holy man reached through the bars of the cage to take it away, she couldn’t help the growl that escaped her as she bared her fang and wrapped her arms around the bowl to protect if from him.

“Give me that,” he snarled, yanking it away from her despite her attempt to keep him at bay. She whimpered quietly as he turned it sideways and pulled it out of the cage. “Why the hell weren’t you drinking the water they gave you?” he growled.

Letting her head fall back against the cage bars, Samantha swallowed a few times to keep the liquid down. “They drug it,” she murmured, her eyes slipping closed of their own accord.

He snorted and shook his head. “Well, I doubt they poison it,” he muttered. “Don’t you dare throw up again.”

She almost smiled—she tried to. She was simply too exhausted to manage it. “Thank you,” she whispered as her eyes slipped closed again.

He grunted something completely unintelligible and shoved himself to his feet to dump the bowl.

Stupid demon,’ he thought as he emptied the bowl in the sink. Didn’t it figure that it would just make itself sick if it tried to drink the water too fast again? It apparently hadn’t learned anything from the first experience, and he had thought that it might have possessed at least a base level of pseudo-intelligence . . . Obviously wrong . . .

They drug it . . .”

Rolling his eyes, Kurt set the bowl aside on the drainer board beside the deep sink. It wouldn’t surprise him if they did exactly that, though the kind of drugs was debatable. He knew damn well that the researchers were concerned over its apparent weight loss, so it was entirely possible that they were adding vitamins or something—though Kurt highly doubted that, too.

Shuffling back over to the desk, he dug his notebook out of the knapsack he wore pretty much everywhere, flipping through the pages until he found a blank one. He’d figured that, if he had to spend his time babysitting the damn thing, he might as well see what he could learn about it, too. The information might come in handy later, after all, and while he’d never actually considered studying them, himself, he had to admit that the idea held merit. It wasn’t as though he wanted to know what made them tick, no, but any information he could gather about them might help him in the end.

There were things that he’d already noticed about them from dealing with others. The first time he’d cut off one of their hair only to discover that it was completely grown back by morning had been odd. At the time, it had been the simplest way to remove the duct tape that he’d used to gag the beast, and that one was no different, he thought as he glanced thoughtfully at the cage. The little demon wasn’t moving, obviously content to sleep after having that drink of water. Its hair had done the same thing—had grown back over night—when he’d cut it off to remove the gag lest it should have choked on its own vomit.

The claws had also grown back. The researchers weren’t smart enough to keep them cut back, either, but Kurt was. No, he’d seen first hand what those claws could do, hadn’t he? That memory was more than enough to make him cut them every morning before he left for the day.

He’d seen signs of he uncanny ability to heal before he’d ever encountered the little demon. A couple of the larger targets had been harder to secure, especially in his first days of hunting them. He’d learned a lot along the way, and he’d seen a lot of things, and while he had never gone out of his way to doctor any of those damn beasts, he had noticed that their wounds seemed to close up fairly quickly. Still, it had been a bit of a shock to see exactly how fast that process could be. The little demon had definitely been shot clean through the shoulder, and yet there was no lingering scarring or anything to attest to the wound that he knew it had suffered.

All in all, the more he learned about them, the more frightening they became. How could a race of beings that powerful, that strong manage to hide and why? Why would they bother to do that, in the first place? With a swipe of their claws, they could rend human flesh without a second thought. Lips twisting into a cynical sneer, Kurt snorted and jotted down a few notes. Unless they were lying in wait, biding their time for something . . .

Deliberately ignoring the voice in the back of his head that sounded entirely too much like Old Granger and his asinine babble, Kurt rubbed his forehead as the pen dropped from his fingers. There was only one real goal that he had in mind—that he’d ever had in mind. He was going to find those demons that had destroyed his family . . .

And he was going to kill them.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Samantha groaned and rubbed the back of her neck, almost happy to be back in the relative quiet and safety of the cage. At least when she was in there, they left her alone, didn’t they, and as much as she loathed the confinement, the knowledge that they were leaving for the night served to calm her nerves just a little.

They’d drawn more blood from her today—maybe three pints of it. Focusing her gaze on the clock mounted high on the wall, she’d lain perfectly still, telling herself over and over again that she didn’t care, that they couldn’t break her, that one day, she’d be free again.

As if it hadn’t been humiliating enough to have been bound to the table by a series of restraints, they had also removed her smock for the duration, too, leaving her completely naked and completely at their mercy while they took a series pictures and scribbled on their clipboards, examining every inch of her, or so it had seemed. A couple of them had made remarks about how ‘human-like’ her body was, and that, even if she was a monster, he’d have been more than happy to fuck the hell out of her if he’d met her in the bar. They’d inspected every single cavity on her body as she’d bit her cheek and stared at the painfully slow hand on the clock as it ticked off the seconds, the minutes, the hours. As they’d unfastened her, shackling her wrists and ankles, she’d wondered if anyone really deserved to be degraded like that . . .

She sighed, trying not to wonder whether or not her family was searching for her. On the one hand, she missed them insanely, especially at times when she had nothing to do but think. On the other, she couldn’t stand the idea that they were out there somewhere, looking for her. The frustration that they would feel when they couldn’t find her . . . how hard would that be for them to deal with?

Her mother and father . . . That was the worst thought of all, really. Her parents—people who were always smiling, laughing . . . ‘Please don’t let them cry . . .’ she thought to herself as she closed her eyes. ‘Mama . . . Papa . . . I’m so sorry . . .’

The door slipped open, and the holy man stepped inside. His hair was damp, his collar streaked with moisture that had soaked into his sweatshirt. Black leather jacket slung over one arm and knapsack slung over his shoulder, he didn’t even spare her a glance as he stalked over to the desk and dropped his gear.

She frowned, unsure why her heart had lurched when he’d entered the room. He shook his head, sending fine droplets of water flying, and with a heavy sigh, he peeled off the sweatshirt and let it fall over the back of the old office chair.   The effort drew up his shirt, exposing the small of his back, and she almost smiled when she noticed that he had the smallest little love handles. He was quite fit—she had to give him that. His back wasn’t overly muscled, but she could tell that he obviously took care of himself.

He’s the enemy, Sam,’ her youkai voice reminded her.

She wrinkled her nose and forced her eyes away. ‘No, I don’t really think he is . . .’

Her youkai heaved a sigh designed to let her know what it thought of the capriciousness of her own thoughts. ‘Maybe you ought to spend more time considering how the hell we’re going to get out of here and less time contemplating the holy man’s back.’

Hmm . . .’ she muttered though her gaze returned to the holy man once more.

He plopped into the chair and dug into the knapsack to draw out a sandwich wrapped in plastic and wax paper.

Turning her face away, she bit her lip and tried not to breathe too deeply. It seemed like a simple deli sandwich, and she could smell it, which only served to make her stomach growl in blatant reminder that she hadn’t had anything to eat in days.

She knew, didn’t she, that she couldn’t keep going on like this. Youkai, in and of themselves, did not necessarily need to eat, but hanyou did. She could feel her strength waning. The water that she’d had last night had helped her, but water wasn’t food . . .

She’d almost started hoping that they’d stop putting the drugs on the food that they gave her. If they did, maybe she could bring herself to eat it. After all, if worse came to worst, then she figured that her pride was the least of her concerns, but she could smell whatever they added to the food, and while she wasn’t entirely sure what it was, she knew that it couldn’t be good.

Even if she could bring herself to eat the dog food, that would just lead to another bout of humiliation, wouldn’t it? The white coats made fun of her, made comments about her, but she’d had no choice but to do what she had to do. Just the memory of that was enough to strengthen her resolve. She couldn’t—really couldn’t—deal with that kind of humiliation all over again . . . Hungry or not, didn’t she deserve to retain even a semblance of her pride . . .?

It was pastrami on rye.

As hard as she’d tried not to smell that sandwich, she couldn’t help it, either. Squeezing her eyes closed as she let her temple fall against the cool bars, she gritted her teeth, wrapping her arms over her stomach in an effort to stifle the sounds she couldn’t control.

At least the holy man couldn’t hear it, and even if he did, he made no indication.

But the thought of food was enough to trigger her thirst, as well, and she opened her eyes, only to stare at the hated bowl of water that the main white coat—Dr. Harlan, she thought his name was—had stuck in her cage just before he’d left. He hadn’t added the same drug to it; it smelled just a little different, but he hadn’t tried to mask it, either. Even in the weakened light, she could see the slightly cloudy water, like the last of a glass of milk after the ice cubes had melted.

The crinkle of the wax paper signaled that dinner was mercifully over. Letting out a shaky breath, Samantha bit her lip. She wasn’t entirely sure that the holy man would give her water if she asked. Still, she had to try, didn’t she? She had to . . .

“M-May I have . . . water?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

He glanced up from the newspaper that he’d gotten out after he’d finished his sandwich. He didn’t lift his head, but she could feel his eyes on her, and for a moment, she thought that he was going to ignore her.

Standing slowly, he strode over to the cage and pointedly looked inside. “You have water,” he told her brusquely. “Drink that.”

“It’s drugged,” she whispered, unable to keep the hint of desperation out of her voice. “Please . . .”

She really didn’t think that he was going to cooperate. Staring at her for what felt like forever, he refused to speak; he didn’t move. An irrational surge of panic shot through her, and she sat up quickly, grasping the bars of the cage so tightly that her knuckles leeched white. “Please,” she whispered once more.

He heaved a sigh and shook his head but walked over to lift the panel and retrieved the dish of water. Without a word, he strode over to the utility sink and dumped the contents, then rinsed the bowl a few times before finally filling it with fresh, clean water. “Sip it,” he commanded as he started to put it back into the cage. “If you puke it up, I’m not giving you more.”

She nodded enthusiastically and made a grab at the bowl. He pulled it back before she could reach it. “I mean it,” he stated.

“Okay,” she blurted.

This time he let her take the bowl. “Sip,” he repeated as he flicked his wrist to stare at his watch. “Stop.”

It was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, to stop herself from gulping down the liquid. The only reason she did was because she knew he’d take it if she disobeyed. Still staring at his watch—he was obviously timing her—it felt like hours before he finally nodded. “Okay,” he instructed. She tipped the bowl. “Stop.”

She couldn’t help the tiny squeak of dismay when he reached in and pushed her wrist to make her lower the bowl. “I’ll take it,” he warned.

She shook her head.

He eyed her for a long moment. “Sip.”

He let her take about ten sips of water before he made her put it down again so that he could remove it from the cage. She felt like crying when he slipped the panel closed again despite the warning pangs in her stomach that weren’t quite as bad as they had been the night before but were enough to remind her that she really did need to take it slowly. Still, telling herself that she should be grateful that he’d given her the water at all was a bittersweet thing, at best.

Satisfied that she would leave him alone—at least for the moment, the holy man set the bowl in the sink and returned to the desk and his newspaper once more.

Samantha sighed and curled up against the corner of the cage. From her vantage point, she could watch him, and that, for the moment, was enough.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Almost two weeks . . .’

The soft rattle tray drew Alexandra Izayoi out of her reverie as she stared out the window in the sun room of the Zelig mansion. Turning her head to watch as Isabelle approached with a tea tray. She set it on the small wicker coffee table and proceeded to pour. “Would you like sugar or honey?”

Alexandra stared at her sister for a minute before letting out a deep breath. “Uh, honey, please,” she replied as the frown on her face deepened.

Isabelle smiled brightly as she squeezed honey out of a plastic bear bottle. “Griffin loves honey, too . . . I have to admit, I like it much better than I used to . . . Is that enough?”

“Sure,” Alexandra said.

Isabelle stirred the tea carefully before handing the cup to her sister. “I got a call earlier about one of my moms. She’s doing well, which is such a relief. She was diagnosed with gestational diabetes during her last checkup, but she seems to be controlling it just by watching what she eats.”

Alexandra stared at her sister, the air of disbelief growing by the second as Isabelle sat down and slowly sipped her tea. She looked completely calm, wholly collected despite the slight tightness around the corner of her eye. “I don’t care about your patient,” she said quietly as she set the cup of tea back onto the tray.

Isabelle shot her a cursory glance. “Sorry . . . I was just making small talk . . .”

Shaking her head, Alexandra rubbed her forehead, unable to wrap her mind around her sister’s strange behavior. “Small talk? Do you think that I want to sit here and discuss your patient’s gestational diabetes? Women get that all the time, and they’re fine, you know.”

“Of course they are,” Isabelle replied, that strange little smile back in place. “If you don’t drink your tea, it’s going to get cold.”

“I don’t care about the tea, either, Bitty! Our baby sister is out there somewhere, in case you hadn’t heard!”

The first crack in Isabelle’s forced calm showed in the quick fluttering of her eyelashes as her smile faltered for an instant. “Samantha’s fine,” she said, her voice trembling despite the forced cheerfulness behind her words.

Alexandra stood abruptly, unable to deal with Isabelle at the moment. Stomping through the house, she didn’t stop until she’d pushed past the glass doors in the living room. The blast of frigid air that hit her as she strode over to the railing that wrapped around the great stone patio was a welcome thing, soothing the anger that she couldn’t control, and she drew a deep breath, lifting her gaze out over the ocean.

What the hell was happening?

She couldn’t understand it. Isabelle’s behavior baffled her. She was starting to wonder if her sister even realized exactly what was going on. Always smiling, always making tea or putting together a snack or helping Gin make dinner . . . It simply didn’t make sense at all.

Her grandfather rarely came out of his office. He seemed to think that he’d miss a call if he did, and she seriously doubted that he’d gotten any sleep at all since Samantha’s disappearance.

Everyone seemed to want to know exactly was going on, but no one seemed willing to discuss it, either. As if they thought that talking about it was going to make the entire situation a little too real, they danced around it, making small talk and going out of their ways to be as courteous as possible, but . . .

But it was all fake, wasn’t it? Fake and contrived and . . . and stupid . . .

Even her mother was putting on a strange sort of act that horrified Alexandra, as it made her feel even more alone. When she caught anyone looking at her, she just smiled—thin, strained, painful—and said that Samantha was fine; that she was simply having trouble getting back home.

And every day that Alexandra saw these things, she couldn’t help but feel a little more isolated, a little more alone . . .

“Hey . . . You’re going to freeze out here.”

Alexandra didn’t turn around at the sound of John’s voice. Slipping up behind her, he sighed and dropped his coat over her shoulders. “So you . . . had a disagreement with your sister.”

Alexandra sighed and suddenly covered her face with her hands. Seconds later, John’s strong arms slipped around her, pulling her against his chest, sheltering her from the blowing wind. “I don’t understand,” she said with a sniffle. “Has everyone gone mad? Isabelle acts like nothing at all is wrong, and Mama . . . Grandpa won’t say anything, and Grandma just keeps baking cakes and cookies . . . What’s happening . . .?

John kissed her forehead. “People deal with things in their own ways,” he mused. “Maybe it’s too hard for them to admit any of this to themselves.”

She shook her head and turned her face to the horizon once more. “Samantha’s the reason we’re all here, and yet it seems like everyone’s afraid to say her name.”

“Do you really think so?” he asked.

She nodded then sighed and shook her head. “I don’t . . . I don’t know . . . It’s been two weeks, John . . . two weeks . . .”

“Your mother’s convinced that she’s all right,” he ventured at length.

Alexandra leaned back and to cast him a haunted look. “Do you believe that?”

He tried to smile. It didn’t work. “They say a mother knows.”

“How much does she know, and how much does she just want to believe?”

John let out a deep breath and pulled her close. “Isn’t it . . . all right . . .? To believe . . .?”

Alexandra choked out a broken sob and buried her face against his chest. “Where is she, John? Where is she . . .?”

He didn’t answer. He didn’t know how. For as long as he’d known her, Alexandra was never the one to cry. Strong, stubborn, almost fixated sometimes, she formulated her hypotheses and systematically worked to achieve the logical end, and yet . . .

And yet maybe this—maybe now—this thing that she couldn’t control . . .

“I believe she’s okay,” he murmured, hoping against hope that for once, she couldn’t see through his lie.

She nodded slowly as her tears soaked through the fabric of his shirt. “You do?”

He closed his eyes and cleared his throat, his arms unconsciously tightening around her. “. . . I do.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

They really did drug that water . . .’

Reading through the same page in the book he’d brought along, Kurt pushed the text away and rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand.

He really hadn’t doubted that they had drugged the water and likely the food, as well. Seeing the proof for himself earlier, though, just hadn’t set well with him.

It ticked him off, damned if it didn’t. It wasn’t human, was it? Administering any kind of drug on a system that wasn’t meant to absorb it wasn’t a good idea. Even he could figure out that much. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear that they were trying to hurt it in hopes that they wouldn’t have to pay him the full finder’s fee.

Not even they could be that stupid, could they?

Snorting loudly, Kurt pushed himself to his feet and stomped over to the cot. Yeah, they really could be that stupid. He’d dealt with them long enough to know that much to be true.

Heaving a sigh as he stretched out on the uncomfortable cot, he glowered at the naked beams high above. For almost fifteen years, he’d worked for them and other facilities like them. His job had always been simple: hunt down the demons and capture them. Sell them to the centers—normally whichever one he was closest to—and use the money to further his real mission.

Everything felt as though it were spiraling out of his control. He’d never wanted to be coerced into watching that one. He hadn’t wanted to see it again after he’d walked out the door after making the initial deal. He certainly didn’t want to be stuck here, night after night. It pissed him off that it would have the gall to speak to him. It irritated the hell out of him that he had to pander to it, giving it water and making sure that it was healthy . . .

Flopping over onto his side, Kurt smashed his fist into the pathetic excuse of a pillow and uttered a low growl. “Damn it,” he hissed. Those bastards didn’t comprehend it, did they? They really, really didn’t understand what those things could really do. To them, it was just a fun little game. To them, it was just something else to pick apart and examine, to look at through the eyes of those who professed to be smarter than the rest of the hapless population . . .

To them . . .

To them, the things that had happened to Kurt—to countless others that were as unfortunate as his family—were nothing. They didn’t care because they hadn’t seen it. They hadn’t seen the horrific things, and they didn’t really give a damn, either. They didn’t hear the voices of those who were dead calling out to them in the depths of their dreams. They didn’t know what it was like, coming home, believing that everything was all right, only to find out that it wasn’t; that it never, ever would be again . . .

They called themselves doctors. They went to their parties, and they laughed over their own cunning. They patted themselves on the back and smiled their broad, empty smiles. Then they went home to their wives, doped up on Prozac, to their children who were all in the top ten percentile at their respective schools . . . The perfect little existences, right? And they never knew—never would know—just how easy it’d be to lose it all.

Kurt knew. All it took was a blink of an eye, an insular moment in time, and everything—everything—could be taken. Call it fate or misfortune or even just circumstance, it all came down to that one moment—that space in time that you could spend a lifetime regretting . . . ‘If I’d only have gone on that vacation that my wife begged me to take . . .’ ‘If I’d only taken the right road instead of the left one . . .’ ‘If I’d have listened to that gut feeling that said there was something wrong, to start with . . .’ ‘If only . . .’

And if wishes were mountains, then that consuming sense of melancholy that was always left behind would be the sea . . .

And if that were true, then the ones left behind? The ones left with a lifetime of distorted memories and nightmares that never ended . . .? What would that make them?

Uttering a terse sound—a half growl born of frustration and doubt—Kurt gritted his teeth, swallowed hard against the surge of anger that he just couldn’t repress. ‘That’s simple enough,’ he thought with a grimace, a shake of his head. ‘That makes them the damned, the pitiless . . . That makes them . . . just like me . . .’

Heaving a sigh, he closed his eyes. As far as he was concerned, he was gone just as soon as they finished paying him what they owed . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Come on, Kurt . . . you know this song, don’t you?

Kurt kicked the scuffed toes of his tennis shoes in the dirt and shrugged.

Mary glanced over his head, casting Marcus a worried frown. Marcus smiled in an encouraging way and continued to poke marshmallows onto the sharpened end of a stick. “Here you go, champ. Toast those up as much as you want, and I’ll help you put together a s’more.

Kurt didn’t reply, his large violet eyes staring blankly at the dancing flames. Marcus wrapped Kurt’s little hand around the stick and helped to position it over the campfire. “You got it?” he asked.

Kurt’s arm locked into place, and Marcus let go, reaching behind him for another stick and another handful of marshmallows. “These are really cool, huh, Mary?” he went on. “Red, white, and blue marshmallows . . . who’d’a thunk it?

Mary smiled and slipped her arm around her nephew’s shoulders, giving him a gentle squeeze as she brushed his long bangs out of his face and kissed his forehead. “We can go fishing tomorrow if you want,” she offered, her tone overly bright.

Slowly, Kurt turned his head, his eyes searching her face in the semi-darkness that had fallen. ‘She looks . . . like Mom,’ he thought suddenly. His eyelids burned, and he wanted to look away. She smiled, scrunching up her nose and squinting her eyes just like his mother used to do. “Why do you look like Mom?” he whispered with a confused shake of his head. She looked like her, but she wasn’t, was she? His mother . . .

Well, sweetie, it’s because your mama and I were identical twins,” she said quietly, her smile faltering but not disappearing. “You miss her, don’t you?

Kurt didn’t answer. The question seemed dumb to him.

She sighed and winced, and the smile that returned was more apologetic than bright. “Of course you do. I’m sorry, Kurt.”

Hey, hey! Burning mallows!” Marcus said with a laugh as he grabbed Kurt’s stick and shook it high to extinguish the flames. “How about we try again, champ?

Kurt stared at his aunt for another long moment then turned to face his uncle. “Those aren’t red,” he stated flatly. “They’re pink.”

Marcus chuckled and swatted the bill of Kurt’s oversized baseball cap. “Actually, they’re black now,” he joked.

For the briefest of moments, Kurt smiled. Mary gasped softly, pressing her hand to her chest as tears sprang to her eyes. “I like the white ones,” he finally said.

Marcus nodded, winking at Kurt as he tossed the pink one he’d been about to jam onto the stick into the fire. “White, eh? I like the classics, myself.”

Daddy did, too,” Kurt said at length.

Marcus smiled and nodded. “That’s because your dad was a smart man . . .”

Eyes flashing open as the dream dissolved, it took Kurt a moment to regain his bearings as he blinked in the dim, filmy light. The room was silent, eerily so, and he sat up quickly, throwing his legs off the cot, leaning forward and clenching his head in his hands as he tried to steady his breathing.

Damn it,’ he thought, clenching handfuls of hair and tugging. ‘Damn it . . .’

Stumbling to his feet, he stomped over to the utility bathroom, jerking hard on the cold tap and filling his hands to douse his face with water. Hands shaking, he couldn’t steady them—couldn’t deal with the lingering traces of memory that clung to him, that wouldn’t let him go.

Leaning his forearms on the sink, he drew a deep breath and closed his eyes. ‘Sh-shit . . . even . . . those memories . . . hurt . . .’

That was why he hated to sleep—shadows of things best left forgotten . . .

It took a long time for his thoughts to clear . . . seconds slipping by with the uneven stream that fell from the leaky faucet. Straightening up, he splashed another handful of water on his face and let out a deep breath. Slowly, his heartbeat was starting to return to normal as a semblance of his self-control resurfaced.

Shutting off the tap as he wiped his face on his shoulder, Kurt sniffled as he caught his reflection in the mirror. Violet eyes still bright, wild, hair sticking up here and there, he looked like he was completely spooked, and maybe he was. Skin leeched to a sickly pallor, he hated the weakness he could discern in the expression on his face.

Damn it . . .’

Drawing a deep breath, he pushed himself away from the sink, telling himself that he was just being stupid, that he outgrew that sort of thing a long, long time ago.

Striding out of the bathroom, he ignored the little demon. It’d be too dark to see whether or not it really was looking at him, but then, he didn’t need to verify it. He could feel its eyes following him, could sense the unmasked curiosity behind its gaze. Swiping up his sweatshirt, he tugged it over his head before dropping into the creaky chair and grabbing the book he’d brought along.

“Are you . . . all right . . .?”

Ignoring the softly uttered question, Kurt’s scowl deepened as he buried his nose in the book. If he didn’t know any better, he might have actually thought that it sounded sincerely worried. It was trying to fuck with him, wasn’t it? Kurt’s jaw tightened. ‘The hell it will.’

It sighed quietly but continued to stare.

Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge its presence, Kurt forced himself to read a couple of pages; forced himself to keep his eyes averted from the cage in the middle of the floor.

It cleared his throat. He didn’t look up. “Um, I . . . I have to . . . to go to the bathroom,” it said in a whisper.

Kurt didn’t answer, either. The more he thought about it, the angrier it made him. It felt sorry for him, didn’t it? That realization ticked him off just a little more. How dare that creature—that monster—pretend to have feelings like that? How dare it try to . . . to humanize itself when he knew damn well what it really was.

It was nothing more than a monster—a living phantasm—a demon that preyed upon humans, that wanted to destroy them . . .

And that was something that Kurt would never, ever forget.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Kami, this seems so . . .”

Evan Zelig shot his cousin a darkened glower as the two ran silently over the rooftops in the northwestern quadrant of Chicago. Morio didn’t look like he had any desire to finish that thought, which was just as well with Evan. It was something that both of them had acutely felt during their time searching for any trace of Samantha. It was also something that no one—no one—wanted to admit out loud, either . . .

Heaving a sigh as he told himself that Morio wasn’t trying to be obnoxious, Evan drew to a halt atop the Perode Communications Corporate Office building, planting his hands on his lean hips as he silently surveyed the city. “It’s like searching for a needle in a fucking haystack,” he muttered.

Morio stopped beside him, his expression more serious than Evan could ever remember having seen on that particular cousin. “I’m starting to wonder if she’s even here,” he admitted.

Evan nodded. He’d wondered about that, too. After all, thanks to his damn brother’s reluctance to admit that he’d lost contact with her, they’d lost a few valuable days, hadn’t they? By the time Evan had heard what was going on, he’d slipped out of the Zelig mansion and caught the first flight out, irritated as all hell that the powers-that-be were wasting even more valuable time in sitting around Cain’s office discussing tactics and motives when the thing that mattered—the only thing that mattered—was finding her.

So he’d scoured the city, checking every business, every hotel, every motel he could find. He’d found the bar where she’d had a drink, probably while scoping out Benoit. The bartender had remembered her, grinning lecherously as he’d recalled her silver hair and deep blue eyes. He’d said that she hadn’t been in there long, simply sipping her drink while she talked on a cell phone. No, he didn’t overhear her. He just recalled that she had a damn fine ass . . .

Morio frowned at his phone when it rang, the sound empty and hollow and thin. “Hello?” he answered as Evan continued his perusal. “No, nothing,” he went on. “You having any luck?”

Evan snorted when his own cell phone rang, though for entirely different reasons. Half tempted to ignore the caller since he really didn’t feel like arguing with his manager about his whereabouts, he shook his head but answered the call, anyway. “What?”

“Nice, Roka. Where the hell are you? I got a bus, a band, about a hundred gigs, and no damn main attraction,” Mike Murphy grumbled.

“Something came up, man,” he said, unable to keep the hint of irritation out of his tone. “Cancel.”

“What?” Mike blasted—Evan had figured that he would. “You didn’t just say . . . shit, you did . . . Listen, Roka, I can’t just cancel! These shows have been sold out for months! Months!

“Some things are more important,” he growled, “and this is one of those things.”

Mike heaved a sigh. Evan figured he was probably slumping in his chair, furiously rubbing his forehead. “This isn’t like the time you took off with that dancer—what was her name? Mississippi or something? Just to fuck around on Nassau, is it?”

Evan grimaced and glanced at Morio, who was still listening to whoever had called him. “Listen, Mike . . . Sam’s missing. She disappeared while she out on a hunt. I gotta help look for her.”

Mike was silent for a few moments. “Jesus,” he muttered, his tone registering late worry. “Yeah.”

“I don’t know when I’ll be back,” Evan went on. “Just . . . refund the money for the tickets and release my apologies.”

“No problem,” Mike said. “You just find her, okay?”

Evan clicked the phone off and heaved a sigh of his own. Mike had only met the girl once after a show in Oklahoma City. She’d been in the area after a hunt, and he’d talked her into coming out to see him. She’d been awed by the entire affair—she’d never been to a concert before in her life—not a real one, anyway, and Mike, who hadn’t minded escorting her around all evening to give her the VIP treatment, had adored her.

She’d followed him during the pre-show insanity as Mike took care of a thousand small details that had slipped past until the last moment. She’d stood just offstage while he performed, her eyes shining as she sat back and enjoyed the music. Half way through, she’d managed to talk the stoic youkai into escorting her down into the audience. He’d said later that she had complained that she couldn’t rightfully see everything from her vantage point. Evan wasn’t sure how long it had been since Mike had actually braved the insanity of the frenetic crowds, but in his estimation, it was good for him, and Mike hadn’t complained at all . . .

Evan smiled a little at the memory of that night in particular. Everyone loved her, didn’t they?

So why in the hell would anyone hurt her now . . .?

“You find out anything?” he asked when Morio dropped his phone into the inner pocket of his black leather jacket.

Morio shook his head and winced. “The old men aren’t having much more luck than we are,” he admitted. “Guess Bas and Gunnar had just checked in, too, and the old man was on the phone with the hunters . . .”

“I’m starting to wonder . . .” Evan mused then heaved a sigh and slowly shook his head.

“What’s that?”

“I’m starting to wonder if she’s even here,” he confessed quietly, his scowl darkening as he glowered over the cityscape stretched out before them.

Morio sighed and slowly nodded. “That’s what my father said, too.”

“Damn it, she could be any-fucking-where,” Evan growled.

Morio chuckled though the sound was a lot emptier than usual. “Yeah, and that’s what the old man said . . .”

Evan grunted and pushed off the roof, clearing the thirty foot gap between buildings with Morio close behind. He wasn’t about to give up, even if it did seem impossible. Samantha needed him, and he’d be damned if he’d let her down . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Samantha huddled in the corner of her cage, thankful that she was hidden in the shadows. Still acutely embarrassed over the situation, she figured that she’d do well to make herself as unnoticeable as possible, at least for the moment.

She’d tried to hold it; she really had, but she had to pee too desperately to do it. She wasn’t entirely sure that he’d listened to her when she’d told him that she needed to go, but she couldn’t help but try. He’d taken her to the bathroom before, hadn’t he? She’d hoped . . .

In the end, she’d done what she needed to do, her face flaming with mortification that was at least somewhat eased by the darkness that she was blessedly allowed. But the sound of the drain gurgling below her was deafeningly loud in the stifling silence as she bit her bottom lip and tried to console herself by repeating that she just didn’t have a choice.

It hadn’t helped much.

Actually, it hadn’t helped at all.

Still, she reasoned as her acute embarrassment had receded, something was bothering the holy man; something that he’d dreamt. She’d been sleeping, herself, when his soft moans, his harsh breathing had roused her. She hadn’t meant to say anything to him about it. Knowing deep down that he really wouldn’t want her to comment, she’d tried to stay quiet when he’d come out of the bathroom.

It was the expression on his face, she supposed, that had done her in. He’d looked so . . . so pale, so worn that she hadn’t been able to remain quiet. He’d looked a little afraid—no, not afraid, exactly . . . It was more of a mixture of sadness, complete horror . . . and a lingering sense of loneliness . . .

And she’d forgotten for that moment that they weren’t really friends, and while common sense told her that he was nothing more than her warden, she’d sensed that strange sort of familiarity from him that she couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

She closed her eyes and wished that she could go back to sleep. Kami, it was difficult to do that here. Trapped in a room that smelled like everything and like nothing at all, she wondered absently if this was what it would be like to be trapped inside a vacuum.

How long will we be here?’ she wondered, willing her mind to take her somewhere outside, somewhere far away.

Maybe we shouldn’t think about that,’ her youkai murmured in a comforting tone.

I wonder what he was dreaming about . . .?

What does that matter, Samantha? We need to figure out how we’re going to get out of here, don’t we . . .?

Samantha frowned, unable to repress the next thought that came to mind. ‘Even if I managed to escape . . . what then? Wouldn’t they just capture someone else . . .?

Even if she were able to escape, even if she were sure that there was no way that they could capture another youkai or hanyou . . . Even if she believed that it would be all right . . .

The overwhelming memory of her anger, her rage, seeped in around her once more.   Frightening, obliterating all logical thought of what she should or shouldn’t do . . . For that one brief moment, she’d understood exactly why some youkai went out of their ways to hurt humans—she’d known it because she’d felt it, too, and as ugly as it was, uglier still was the knowledge that she might not have been able to stop herself in the end. The barest thread separated her from the ones she hunted, didn’t it? The barest thread: the barest scrap of reason . . .

In a way, didn’t she deserve this? She’d always believed that she was somehow better than those youkai who killed and destroyed and cared nothing for any sort of morality aside from their own, and yet, wasn’t she the same? Weren’t her reasons just as strong, her beliefs just as righteous? If right and wrong were all a matter of simple perception, then which side really had the right to claim to be superior?

She realized now that she’d lived her entire life in a smug sort of superiority, positive that what she was doing was just and even pure. She believed it because she had been raised in it, raised to understand and acknowledge the truth in the idea of hiding her true nature, in blending into the human’s world . . . She’d always looked down on those who hurt and exploited humans, considering them to be so much lower than she, herself, was, but how true was it? How much of her understanding was nothing more than a hazy gray pale?

Those youkai who hurt humans—youkai like Benoit, and even ones who just stood by and turned a blind eye to the destruction and desecration every day . . . Didn’t they wake up in the morning, absolutely believing their ideals to be right?

And yet she understood that the idea of hurting and killing just because they were bigger or stronger or faster was wrong. She knew well enough that there was a simplistic sort of beauty to be found in the humblest of moments. Walking to the grocery store on the corner near her apartment . . . watching humans walking their dogs or children riding their bikes on the sidewalk . . . seeing mothers laughing with their babies . . . fathers teaching their sons how to swing a bat to hit a baseball . . . These were the things that Samantha had always found comfort in: the things that she wanted to see again someday . . .

Those were the reminders of why she fought, weren’t they? They were the reason that she stepped out and hunted down those who had trespassed—the ones who had destroyed a thousand moments just like those without so much as a second thought and without ever stopping to wonder exactly how many of those insular moments they’d managed to end before they’d ever begun . . .

But what if she couldn’t protect humans from herself? What if that anger, that rage came back? What if the next time, there was no one who could stop her?

That question was enough to strike a deep fear inside her; a painful fear that festered and grew. Maybe she belonged here, locked away and confined. Maybe she just hadn’t realized before, how very close she was to completely losing her grip . . .

A sudden, twisting sense of melancholy swept through her; the sense that everything she knew was just out of her reach. Even if it was supposed to be this way, she couldn’t help but wish that she’d had just one more day—another day to tell everyone how very much they meant to her.

And even as the innate knowledge that they were out there somewhere, looking for her occurred to her, she squeezed her eyes closed a little tighter. What if they didn’t find her . . .? What if they did? What if they searched everywhere and never, ever found her? What then? How long would they go on looking? How long would they sit by the phone, willing it to ring?

The answers to those questions were far too painful to contemplate. Much easier, it was, to think about them all as she’d always known them, sitting in their homes with their loved ones close at hand, joking and laughing and sometimes just enjoying one another’s silent companionship . . . That was simpler, wasn’t it? Smiles, laughter . . . in her mind, that’s what she heard, and that’s how she wanted it to be.

She heard the rustle of movement but ignored it, but she couldn’t ignore the scrape of metal when the holy man shoved the water bowl into the cage again.

He didn’t say anything, turning on his heel and stomping back over to the desk once more. Samantha looked at the dish. There wasn’t a lot of liquid inside, but there was enough to entice her, and with a wan little smile, she picked it up and started to tip it to her lips. The rustle of the holy man’s newspaper interrupted her, and, flattening her ears just a tad, she tamped down the desire to swallow the water in a few large gulps.

He wasn’t looking at her, and he hadn’t said a thing. It was enough for her, though. That he would think to give her a drink of water . . . well, she didn’t care what his reason was. All she cared about was that at least one person in that awful place wasn’t a complete and utter monster . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Samantha watched the second hand on the clock as it moved with painfully slow precision, willing her brain to ignore the throbbing pain in her arm as she deliberately thought about things that made her happy, instead. Practicing with Grandpa or Uncle Ryomaru . . . knowing that they didn’t really have to pull their punches as much as they did when she’d first started training . . . the scent of leaves falling on the earliest days of autumn . . . the crisp wind blowing off the ocean, tingling in her nostrils as she breathed deep . . . Running free for hours on end through the majestic trees in InuYasha’s forest or along the craggy coast of Maine . . .

They were testing her nerves—at least, that’s what she thought they were doing. They never, ever told her anything directly, of course, but the series of pins they’d stuck into her arms and chest and legs were soldered to tiny, thread-like electrodes. They had spent the majority of the day sending small electrical shocks into her via those needles. It had become a game to her to ignore the pain. They were watching the monitors they’d affixed to her as well as the expressions on her face to get a reading on her pain thresholds, she supposed.

As if she’d ever give them the satisfaction of knowing when or if they hurt her. That was something that she wouldn’t do, no matter what. Bad enough to be stripped naked; to have everyone passing by eyeing her like she was no different from any other animal, strapped spread-eagle on the cold, clinical table, but to give them the satisfaction of knowing that they could hurt her . . . ‘No,’ she thought stubbornly. ‘No . . .’

“It’s weird,” one of the white-coats said as he shoved one of the needles just a little deeper into her skin. “None of the other ones were this docile.”

“She’s scared,” another commented. He was on the other side, and she couldn’t see his face, not that she wanted or needed to. She could tell from his tone that he was smiling. “Damn, though . . . Never thought that there were demons that looked like her.”

“Makes you a little worried, doesn’t it?” the first one went on. “Meet a girl in a bar and take her home, only to find out later that you went and screwed a demon.”

The second one laughed. “Like that’d matter,” he commented. “I’d screw this one . . .”

“Oh, man, that’s messed up,” white-coat one said.

“Like you wouldn’t!” white-coat two argued. “Her vagina looked normal enough, and she’s got nice breasts even if they are a little on the small side . . . Besides, something like that . . .? It would all feel the same with your eyes closed.”

Gritting her teeth as she tried to ignore the feel of their eyes on her, she gritted her teeth and concentrated on the clock.

One more hour . . .

That thought was enough to strengthen her resolve moments before another painful jolt rattled through her. They were upping the voltage little by little. It was a battle of wills, she figured: hers against theirs, even if there really wasn’t anything on the line. ‘Nothing but my pride,’ she thought absently. ‘At least, what’s left of it, anyway . . .’

She wondered for what had to be the millionth time in the time since she’d woken up, only to discover that she was trapped in a place that she didn’t know. ‘Why am I doing this?   Struggling to hold onto my pride? What’s the point?

You know why,’ her youkai voice replied.

Do I?

You want them to win everything? To give them everything? It’s the last thing—the very last thing—that separates you from them, and you know it. Hand them your pride, and you’ve got nothing left: nothing at all, and what would you possibly say to your family—to your mother and father—if you let them win?

Wincing inwardly at the blatant reminder, she felt the rawness resurface again. Her mother and father . . . kami, she missed them. Did they miss her, too, she wondered?

Don’t answer that,’ her youkai commanded.

No, she supposed that she was better off not answering that, wasn’t she? Better to think of them, sitting at the kitchen table as they quietly chatted about their plans for the day over breakfast . . . better to think of them, her mother sitting in a comfortable chair as her father played song after song on his baby grand piano in their living room . . . better to think about the warmth, the pervasive feeling of complete and total safety that she’d felt as a child, snuggled between them in the huge bed: so close that she could hear both of their hearts beating as one; close enough to feel the warmth of their arms wrapped around her to protect her as she slept . . .

Isabelle and Alexandra: her sisters . . . She knew well enough that they loved her—the blind love of siblings who never really stopped to consider that the baby they’d first encountered really wasn’t a baby anymore . . . Still, that was all right, too, wasn’t it? She didn’t doubt that they loved her, and that was more than enough . . .

Only one more hour . . .

They all went home around five. They would put her back in her cage and leave her alone in the blessedly quiet room . . . alone to think, to listen, to wonder . . . alone with nothing but her thoughts and feelings and silence . . .

Except for him: the holy man. He’d be there, too, wouldn’t he? He’d be there, and she’d know that she wasn’t really as alone as she felt sometimes. It was a strange thing, wasn’t it? Here, in this room, surrounded by the white-coats, she was more alone than she’d ever been, and though she knew that the holy man didn’t really like her, she didn’t think he hated her completely, either. Oh, sure, he wanted to think that he did, and maybe he even believed it, too. But she’d seen him when he found himself staring at her, a myriad of questions lost among the lonely shadows of his haunted gaze.

It wasn’t the first time that she’d wondered what, exactly, could create such a void in one’s very existence? She’d never seen that sort of expression before—the complete emptiness, as though there were nothing and nobody . . . as though there were just another day to wake in the morning without the basest of comforts . . .

Had he forgotten how to smile, how to care? Had he ever known these things at all? Somehow, she thought that maybe he had. If he didn’t know what those things were, in the first place, why would he be so lost without them now?

Stranger still was the underlying feeling that she somehow knew him, too. The familiarity of him, of his very presence . . . She didn’t understand it. Like a whispered secret that she hadn’t been able to grasp, it lingered there before her—truth that she could not comprehend.

Closing her eyes for a moment as another jolt of pain ripped through her, she almost smiled when she opened her eyes, when she looked at the clock and the retreating minutes.

Forty-six minutes,’ she thought. ‘Forty-six minutes . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“It’s a barrier.”

All eyes turned to stare at Kagome as the miko’s soft voice echoed in the quiet.

“You’re sure?” Cain asked, shaking his head as he stared at the ofuda in Kagome’s hand.

She nodded slowly, her expression clouded over in concentration. “Yes . . . I remember . . . Miroku used ones like these . . .”

Cain heaved a sigh. “Right. That’s what InuYasha thought, too.”

“Miroku used proper ofuda. This one is pretty crude, but they’re the same idea, and the kanji . . .” Kagome heard herself saying. It felt as if she were talking in a dream, as though she could remember every detail, as though time were slowly inching by . . . surreal . . .

“Wh . . . what does this mean?” Bellaniece asked quietly, her eyes flashing from Kagome to her father then back again. “That ofuda . . . what does it have to do with Samantha?”

Cain didn’t answer right away, staring at his daughter as though he were trying to figure out exactly what he wanted to say. “It means,” he said, casting Kagome a quick glance, “that whoever took her . . . meant to do it. It meant that they knew what they were doing: that they’d thought it through long enough beforehand to secure the area.”

A strangled sort of sound escaped her, muffled by the back of her hand. “Meant . . . to . . .?”

Cain grimaced and stepped forward, tugging his daughter into a comforting embrace. “We’re looking into it now, Bellaniece: anyone who could possess the wherewithal to create this kind of barrier . . .”

Kagome eyed him for a few moments as he struggled to comfort his daughter. It was a harsh thing, wasn’t it? Cain was trying desperately, but he was struggling, as unsure as everyone else. It made no sense, did it? Also something that she was certain that Cain understood. Why would anyone want to hurt Samantha?

Turning abruptly, she slipped out of the room, needing some quiet, some room to think. The rest of the mansion was silent as she let herself out the front door. The frigid air of the early November afternoon cut through the thin sweater she wore, lifting her hair and tossing it unmercifully.

Stepping off the porch, she pulled her sweater closer around herself as she wandered toward the yellow painted bench swing suspended from the lowest branch of a white ash tree that stood beside the looping driveway. All the children who had come to visit had scratched their names into that swing. The paint was faded with age, the wood that peeked through was grayed and old, but the chains that secured the swing into place were newly replaced, likely by Cain, himself, and likely at Gin’s request.

Samantha’s name was easily found. In the center of the middle slat on the back of the bench, she’d sat and scratched her name . . .

Was it warm that day, Samantha?’ she mused as she sat and lovingly traced the bold lines. ‘Were you just sitting out here by yourself as you watched the clouds drift by? Were you talking and laughing with Cain or Gin as you idly etched your name here?’ Lifting her gaze as she saw the thick, gray storm clouds rolling in, she knew that they were in for a heavy snowfall by nighttime. ‘Where are you, Samantha . . .? Help us to find you, can’t you . . .?

“M-mama . . .”

Kagome blinked and turned in time to watch as Mikio, her youngest son, approached. Hands stuffed deep into his pockets, he came from the direction of the mansion though she wasn’t entirely sure he had been inside. Smiling gently, almost absently, she stared at him. He was certainly his father’s son, with his silver hair and golden eyes, but the shape of his face, the almost regal lines, gave testament to his lineage as his grandfather’s son, or so she’d been told. Sesshoumaru had remarked a few times over the years that Mikio looked like the great Inu no Taisho. He sat down beside her, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his head inclined to the side as he idly fingered his left ear—a habit that he’d done ever since Kagome could remember . . .

“Anything new?” he asked quietly.

Kagome sighed and shook her head. “No,” she admitted. “The ofuda, but you’ve heard about that already, haven’t you?”

He nodded. It didn’t surprise her. Cain had said that they’d known about it for a couple days, but he’d wanted Kagome to see it before he said anything to the rest of the women. She’d understood, of course. He’d wanted to keep them from worrying if he possibly could. That Mikio knew wasn’t really so remarkable. The rest of the men had already heard it, too.

“I feel so useless,” he muttered, scowling at the ground. “I mean, Sam’s important to me, too . . .”

“I know she is,” Kagome said, hating the understated sting to Mikio’s pride that he always felt whenever it became apparent that he was vastly different from the other male members of the family. He normally accepted his limitations as par for course, sure, but she knew well enough that it had to hurt him, even when he tried to hide things from everyone else in the family. “We’ll find her, and I have to tell you, I think that you’ve been underestimating yourself, you know . . . Having you here, especially when some of the others aren’t . . . it means a lot to all of us, and . . . and you know that, too, right?”

He shot her a grimace that told her plainly that he knew what she was trying to do and didn’t really appreciate it, either. Kagome sighed. “Yeah . . . because no one else can do that, huh?”

“Mikio . . .”

He shook his head and turned a little red. “Sorry, Mama . . .”

Kagome drew a deep breath, her shoulders falling back as she lifted her face to the heavens. “Do you know what the hardest thing for your father to learn to do was?”

“No . . .”

Smiling a little sadly, she reached over and patted her son’s hands. “Learning to let your brothers protect their own . . . and learning to let your sister be protected by the one she chose.”

“And Sam?”

“Do you believe that she’s all right?”

He nodded slowly. “Y-yeah.”

Kagome stared at Mikio’s profile for a long moment as her smile faltered. He looked like he believed it, and yet . . . and yet he couldn’t mask the quiet anxiety that he felt deep down, either. She understood that feeling, didn’t she? Knew it because it reflected her own . . . “Me, too, Mikio,” she said quietly. “Me, too . . .”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Gunnar set aside the news reader folder and pulled off his glasses with a sigh. Out of the corner of his eye, he couldn’t help but see the constant motion of his uncle’s leg as Kichiro tapped his foot. Staring out the window at the darkened skies, he looked like he was ready to snap, and Gunnar supposed that he couldn’t blame him for that, either.

“You all right, Uncle?” he asked, breaking the stony silence that had fallen moments after the pilot had announced their flight plan just after taking off.

“Yeah, sure,” Kichiro muttered, his expression darkening by the second.

Gunnar didn’t take it personally. “Getting a couple days’ rest will do you some good,” he said.

That got Kichiro’s attention quickly enough. Glowering incredulously at his nephew, he shook his head and snorted. “A couple days’ rest? Is that what you call it? My daughter’s out there somewhere, and you say that I need rest?”

“Aunt Belle needs you, too,” he remarked, letting Kichiro’s tirade roll off him.

“Listen, pup, don’t presume to tell me where I need to be right now.”

Gunnar nodded. Of course he could understand the predicament. His uncle felt compelled to be in both places at once, didn’t he? Still, when the call had come in that they should check into the short list of people rumored to possess the spiritual power to erect any kind of barrier using the ofuda they’d found, Kichiro had stubbornly maintained that Samantha was still in Chicago; that he could feel it even if he couldn’t explain it.

It was Ryomaru who had suggested that Kichiro return to Maine for a few days—at least long enough to get a little rest and to check up on his mate. The irony of that was not lost on Gunnar. That Uncle Ryomaru was the voice of reason was a strange, strange thing, indeed . . .

Gunnar, though, had said that he needed to get back to check up on things at the office. Sydnie was out—everyone was afraid that the stress of work, coupled with her acute worry over Samantha wouldn’t be good for her unborn child—and Bas was heading for Idaho to check up on a young man there rumored to be able to see through youkai disguises. Evan and Morio were heading for Los Vegas while InuYasha and Ryomaru were checking into a lead in Austin, Texas. The two hunters were staying in Chicago, performing a more in-depth sweep of the city, and after Gunnar made sure that everything was all right there, he and Kichiro would be heading for Detroit, Michigan to seek out a woman who had managed to create a barrier some years ago to save some children when mass flooding had caused a nearby dam to burst.

“This is all fucking wrong,” Kichiro grumbled angrily, digging his claws into the arm of the plush seat. Sesshoumaru had sent in both of his private planes so that they’d have ready transportation available should they need it.

Gunnar nodded. “We’ll find her, Uncle,” he said.

Kichiro snorted indelicately but didn’t refute the claim, either.

Gunnar stared at him for another moment before picking up the news reader again. Scrolling through his subscriptions—he was collating news from all over the United States and Japan—he navigated the listings of headlines via the touch screen, searching in vain for anything that sounded even remotely like it could pertain to Samantha. It wasn’t likely, of course. Still, it couldn’t hurt, either . . .

Missing children in Vermont . . . a crazed gunman opened fire in a Wal-Mart in Clarksburg, Tennessee . . . a thousand headlines, none of which sounded like it could have anything to do with her at all . . .

But it just didn’t make any sense. According to records, the prepaid cell phone that Samantha had been issued still contained unused minutes. The representative that he’d talked to had maintained that the phone appeared to be shut off, so it wasn’t possible to track its location, either.

Letting the reader fall to his lap, Gunnar rubbed his eyes with a weary hand. Why did he feel as though they were missing something; something really, really important?

Gaze darkening as he scowled at the open article on the softly glowing reader screen, he shook his head. He’d figure it out, wouldn’t he? After all, solving this sort of case was something that Gunnar did every day, and he’d be damned if he’d fail this time, not when his cousin was at stake . . .

Hold on, Sam,’ he thought as a steely resolve entered his amber gaze, as the lingering mirth of her laughter rang in his ears. ‘We’ll find you . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Kurt scrunched up his shoulders, tugging at the sleeves of his sweatshirt as he stood up to check the system panel by the door. The room had dropped about ten degrees in temperature just since he’d gotten there about two hours before. Turning up the thermostat, he shook his head. Those cheap assed bastards had it set at fifty-eight degrees, which just figured. He’d be damned if he’d wake up with icicles hanging from his nose just because they were too stingy to properly heat the place . . .

The groan of the heating system responded, and with a shake of his head, Kurt turned away from the panel once more.

The demon was strangely quiet this evening—not entirely unwelcome, really, but a little suspicious, he figured. Striding over to its cage, he frowned at the bowl of food. It was obvious to him that it had been up to its usual tricks of dropping a handful of kibble down the drain. Shaking his head since he knew well enough why it was doing it, Kurt shoved the panel open with his foot and swiped up the bowl. He dumped the contents into the trash without stopping as he headed for the utilitarian workstation nearby. Under the sink was the nondescript bag of dog food, and he frowned at it for a moment before dumping a little bit of it into the empty bowl.

It was watching him; he could feel its gaze. Crumpling up the top of the bag to keep the contents from spilling out in the cupboard, he tossed it into the cabinet once more and kicked the door closed with his heel, snatching up the bowl once more before heading back for the cage again.

He shoved it through the slot and kicked the panel back into place. “Eat,” he commanded in a tone that should have left no room for discussion.

The little demon’s ears flattened slightly, and it didn’t lift its chin from its raised knees. “No, thank you,” it said.

Kurt snorted and knelt down, irritation rising at the stupid creature that didn’t have the common sense to eat. It was thinner—visibly so—and as much as he hated to admit it, he was starting to worry: not so much about the beast, but worried that it really was trying to starve itself to death. Reminding himself for the hundredth time that if it died, Harlan would stop paying him, he narrowed his eyes on the demon and tapped a bar on the cage with his fingernail. “I don’t think I asked if you wanted it. I told you to eat it,” he clarified.

“I don’t eat dog food,” it replied icily.

“Why not?” he blurted before he could stop himself.

It shifted its darkened gaze to meet his, and for a moment, he thought he could almost sense its anger before it squelched the emotion and slowly shook its head. “Because I’m not a dog,” it replied simply enough, as though it were telling him that it was cold outside.

He couldn’t stave back the loud snort brought on by its claim. “Oh? Then what are those?” he demanded, reaching into the cage to flick one of its ears.

The ear twitched and jerked and flattened against its matted hair before popping back up into place and twitching around like a little radar. “It’s an ear,” it replied in what could only be described as a haughty tone.

He snorted. “A dog ear,” he retorted.

My ear,” it corrected.

“Your ear that looks like a dog ear,” he shot back.

“Hmph!” it snorted and turned its back toward him, at least, as much as it could manage. Kurt blinked in surprise. “I don’t think I like talking to you. Go away, houshi-sama.”

He shook his head. “What did you just call me?” he demanded.

It snorted again. “. . . Houshi-sama.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Go look it up,” it huffed.

Letting out a deep breath as the realization of the situation occurred to him, Kurt pushed himself to his feet abruptly, his irritation growing by leaps and bounds. He was arguing with a damned demon! “Eat your food or else,” he warned.

“Or else what?” it muttered.

Kurt narrowed his eyes and leaned down to peer into the cage once more. “Or else I’ll force feed it to you. Don’t think I won’t; you hear me?”

“You can try,” it grumbled. “I’ll just throw it up again.”

“How do you know that? I didn’t drug it. You saw me get it out for you.”

“I’ll just stick my finger down my throat until I puke; that’s how!”

Drawing a deep breath, Kurt tapped his fingers against the cage as he tried to convince himself to calm down. “Do that, and I’ll break your fingers,” he warned.

It turned his head far enough to glare at him over its shoulder. “I told you: I’m not a dog, and I refuse to eat dog food.”

“You’re also not in a position to be so damn picky,” he pointed out.

It shrugged—mock bravado, he figured. “I don’t care what you say,” it maintained stubbornly. “You can’t make me eat it.”

“Listen,” he snapped, tapping on the cage a little harder. A loud hum erupted when the bars were disturbed, and it flinched slightly but otherwise made no sound. “You are not going to cost me money,” he growled, “so I don’t give a damn if you like the dog food or not, but you will eat it. End of discussion.”

“How much money will I cost you?” it asked suddenly, levering itself up on its hands to turn in the cage once more. This time, though, it looked quite fascinated.

Kurt shook his head, unwilling to believe the abrupt change in temper. “A lot,” he muttered. “Now eat it.”

“Is that why you caught me? For money?”

Caught off guard by its candid question, Kurt stood and stepped back with a frown. “Enough questions,” he growled as he turned on his heel to head back to the desk. “Just eat.”

It let out a deep breath, and he heard the rattle of the bars as it leaned forward and grabbed hold of them. “Youkai don’t need food, you know,” it said.

Kurt spared it a glance despite his almost perverse resolve not to do anything of the sort. That word was somewhat familiar to him, maybe one he’d stumbled across in his research. Still, it meant nothing in particular to him, and he snorted indelicately as he grabbed his knapsack to dig out his dinner. “Youkai? What’s that?” he asked as he dropped the smashed and rumpled sandwich onto the desk.

“That’s what we are . . . you didn’t know? Well, to be more precise, I’m not really youkai. I’m hanyou.”

That wasn’t a word that rang any bells, and he snorted again. “Han-what? What the hell does that mean?”

It laughed—an entirely pleasant sort of sound, he had to grudgingly admit. That thought drew an even darker scowl from him. Just what the hell was he thinking, anyway?

“Hanyou,” it repeated again. “It means that I’m only half-youkai.”

“Half-youkai,” he echoed with a shake of his head. “Hanyou, youkai, monster, demon . . . it’s all the same to me. Now shut up and eat. You’re giving me a headache.”

It heaved a sigh and shook its head, its ears drooping just a little. Kurt saw the response out of the corner of his eye as he carefully unwrapped the soggy BLT he’d picked up at the deli on his way in.

It seemed to do the trick, though. The creature finally stopped talking though it stubbornly refused to touch the bowl of food. Thanking his luck for small favors, Kurt took a bite of the unappetizing sandwich.

Youkai . . .’ he mused, his gaze taking on a thoughtful light. He had heard that term before, hadn’t he? At the time, he’d just lumped the name in with the rest of the generic and fanciful terms he’d come across in his research. Now, though, he had to admit that the creature referring to itself and its kind as youkai was quite interesting . . . interesting enough to look into it a little more, even if Kurt knew damn well that a demon was a demon was a demon.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Youkai . . . magical creatures. Though there are a number of youkai that are able to harness the power to control the elements of nature, many also are the manifestation of wild creatures. Those that are derivative of beasts are often referred to as ‘mononoke’ in Japanese texts and lore. Rumored to possess the ability to control their wild counterparts, these creatures are popular in Japanese fairytales and lore and have been referred to by many names . . .’

Kurt shook his head as he crossed the street, reshouldering his knapsack as he flipped up the collar of his coat against the bitter wind blowing straight off Lake Michigan. Why couldn’t he get that passage out of his head?

Did it matter, really? He knew what they were, those things. He didn’t care what word the little demon seemed to favor for it, either. What he had found interesting, though, was that there really wasn’t much text regarding that particular word. He’d found other references to different names, but they were all the same in his head, weren’t they? Damnable beasts and scourge that preyed upon humans . . . They all needed to be destroyed.

He quickened his pace as the snow began to fall—huge, fluffy flakes that would be reduced to slush within moments of it hitting the ground. It was lost on him even as the hint of a voice whispered in his head . . .

Why’s snow so white, Kurt, huh?

Kurt—he’d smiled in a completely self-important way—shook his head and shot her an overly indulgent look that made his mother laugh. “Because it’s light like feathers,” he replied.

O-o-oh,” Caroline breathed, her eyes wide, her tiny mouth opened in a perfect ‘o’ . . .

Gritting his teeth as he forced the memory away, Kurt shook his head and kept moving. He’d failed to mention that the same pristine snow would end up dull and dirty the longer it stayed on the ground. Then again, maybe that was something that he hadn’t learned back then . . .

The strange burst of an unseen power stopped Kurt in his tracks, drew him up short as he slowly looked around. He didn’t see anything odd, but the aura he felt . . .

It was weird. It was . . . searching . . .? Easily on par with that of the little demon, maybe even a little stronger . . . where the hell was it coming from . . .?

But all he could see were normal people—people hurrying here or there, trying to get out of the falling snow. Damn it, he couldn’t stand not being able to tell where they were . . .

The aura seemed to be moving, though, moving away, and while his gut instinct was to follow it, he knew well enough that he really wasn’t prepared to deal with another one of them, either. He hadn’t brought along any of the gear he normally had with him when he went hunting. Besides that, he was already running late, wasn’t he?

Uttering a terse grunt, he started moving once more, irritated that he’d missed out on a chance to track down another one of those things, but promising himself that he would be far more diligent from then on, Kurt heaved a sigh and turned down the street that led to the facility.

The building was already empty when he stepped inside the service door in the alley beside it. He wasn’t entirely surprised. According to the clock near the freight elevator, it was already a quarter after five, and the researchers seemed to live and die by the time. He didn’t care, one way or the other, did he? In fact, it wasn’t so bad, really. It saved him from having to talk to them, and that was a plus. Striding past the small surveillance room, he pressed the button beside the elevator and stepped back to wait.

“Oh, Doc! There you are,” Harlan greeted in a very fake, very warm tone when the elevator doors opened.

Kurt stepped inside, wondering if he could get away with ignoring the man. When Harlan punched the button for the basement, Kurt stifled a disgusted sigh. ‘Apparently not,’ he thought with a shake of his head. ‘Damn it . . .’

“The camera in the holding room . . . do you know what happened to it?” Harlan asked at length as they dropped below the ground floor.

“Camera?” Kurt echoed in a completely noncommittal tone. “Nope.”

Harlan looked him over, his friendly smile cooling by degrees. Kurt knew damn well that the old bastard suspected that he knew something, which, he supposed, proved that the old man wasn’t nearly as stupid as he looked. Still, there was no way that they were going to try to deduct that expense from Kurt’s pay. “You’re sure?”

“You think I’m lying?” Kurt countered mildly. “Fine, then. Pay me what you owe me, and I’ll be happy to get the hell out of here.”

“Well, we need to replace that camera,” Harlan muttered.

“So send someone in maintenance down there with a thirty foot ladder.”

Harlan sighed as his ruddy complexion darkened a little more. “Well, it isn’t that,” he admitted as the elevator jerked to a halt. “Those cameras are expensive,” he muttered as Kurt stepped out.

“Not my problem,” he tossed over his shoulder, half expecting the good doctor to give chase. Then again, if he were as old and fat as Harlan, he doubted he’d do any such thing.

The little demon sat up, clutching the bars of the cage when he entered the room. Pausing just long enough to slap the security locks on the terminal, he ignored the anxious expression on the demon’s face as he strode over to put his knapsack down and take off his coat.

“You’re late,” it said in that sing-song voice. “Did you get a traffic ticket or something?”

Kurt ignored that question as he draped his coat over the rickety old chair before striding over to check the chart that was lying on the work desk. Observation, it said on the day’s schedule. As usual, nothing listed for breakfast or lunch, which only made him wonder if they ever bothered to try to get it to eat during the day. Probably not, and even if they did, did it really matter? The damn thing was far too stubborn for its own good, and while it may have said that they didn’t need food, he wasn’t entirely sure that he was going to buy into that. After all, if they didn’t need food, why was it losing weight?

Heaving a sigh, he shook his head. It never did touch the food he’d put into the cage last night, and he hadn’t bothered to try to force the issue, either. Well, he could be stubborn, too, couldn’t he? The last thing that it was going to do was to cost him money, damn it.

It watched him closely as he took the bowls out of the cage, replacing the contents of each with clean, fresh food and water, and he wasn’t surprised when it went straight for the liquid, downing the contents in a series of gulps. At least it wasn’t making itself sick anymore. Still, he figured that its manners left a lot to be desired as he watched as it wiped the back of its mouth with the back of its hand. “More, please,” it said, setting the bowl back in place again.

“You want more?” he asked, sudden inspiration dawning on him.

It nodded, eyes sparkling in the pervasive shadows.

“Then eat your food, and I’ll think about it.”

“I will,” it agreed easily enough.

Kurt couldn’t help the suspicious narrowing of his eyes. It had agreed too easily, hadn’t it . . .? “You will,” he repeated dubiously.

It nodded. “As soon as you give me something edible, yes.”

Kurt blinked and stared, unable to come up with a suitable retort for that right away. Caught off guard by its almost flippant response, he pressed his lips together in a thin line and shook his head. “You have your food,” he muttered, turning away from the cage. “Eat that.”

“But it’s dog food!” it complained.

“Yeah, and you’re a dog.”

“We’ve been through this,” it said patiently. “I’m not a dog. I’m—”

“A demon,” he interrupted coldly. “A demon that should be glad that it’s fed at all.”

“And I will be,” it went on calmly, “as soon as you actually feed me.”

“Then don’t eat,” he snapped, growling under his breath.   “I don’t give a damn.” Kurt stomped over to the desk, intent on ignoring the irritating beast. Why did he allow himself to be drawn into any kind of conversation with it, anyway? That thought only served to further his anger. Talk to it? Hardly . . . just another mind trick that it was trying to pull over on him, and he’d be damned if he fell for it, wouldn’t he?

No, as far as he could tell, that little demon was just trying to get under his skin. He hated it—despised it—more than he cared to think about. It was no different from the rest of them—the rest of its kind: a violent monster that would cut him down if given the chance. Worse than wild animals, they were. At least wild animals only killed when they needed to eat or if they felt as though they had to protect themselves. Those things . . . Well, Kurt knew better, didn’t he?

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“It’s cold out here.”

Kichiro turned at the sound of his mate’s voice. Standing behind him with her arms crossed over her chest, holding her thin violet robe closed, she didn’t look particularly cold as she shuffled over to his side and slipped her arms around his waist, resting her cheek on the back of his shoulder as she sighed softly and closed her eyes.

“Why don’t you go on back inside, Belle-chan?” he murmured as his gaze returned to the restless horizon. He just hadn’t been able to sleep, had he? Lying in bed long after everyone else in the mansion had fallen asleep, he couldn’t get past the feeling of guilt that had plagued him. How could he possibly be here, pondering why he couldn’t sleep while his youngest daughter was out there somewhere? Not for the first time, he felt that painful indecision, as though he were being torn into pieces. Part of him wanted to be here with her, wanted to reassure her every day that everything really was going to be all right while the other part of him couldn’t help but be angry that he was here instead of out there searching for his daughter. Bellaniece needed him, but so did Samantha, and though he understood that he really needed to take care of both, he couldn’t help but feel as though he were failing them, instead. Lying warm in bed with his mate huddled close . . . She hadn’t slept at all while he’d been gone, had she? Falling into an exhausted slumber, she’d looked so very forlorn, as though she couldn’t help but think about Samantha, even when she was supposed to be sleeping . . . and he knew that feeling, too, didn’t he?

It didn’t make sense; nothing did. They’d combed the city, hadn’t they? Searched everywhere they could . . . Not even the disjointed scent they’d located in the abysmal motel room helped. There wasn’t an overlying scent to track. She couldn’t have been there long enough to leave a lasting imprint of her scent behind, and the myriad of scents of others hadn’t helped at all. The torrential rains that had beaten down on the city for days following her disappearance had all but obliterated anything that might have otherwise helped them in the search. It was as if the universe were conspiring against them, wasn’t it?

“Will you come inside with me?” she asked, her words breaking through the bleak thoughts that plagued him.

Sighing softly, he forced a smile that he was far from feeling. “Yeah . . . sure,” he said,

Bellaniece could see through that, though, couldn’t she? It was her gift . . . or her curse . . . he wasn’t entirely certain which . . . “She’s fine. I can feel it,” Bellaniece said in a calm, steady tone.

He nodded slowly as he pulled her around to hug her properly. “Me, too.”

She smiled just a little and stared up at the skies—completely clear and bright with a thousand stars dancing high overhead. “Do you think she can see the same stars that we do, wherever she is?”

“Yeah,” he replied slowly.

She sighed. “I just want to find her . . . bring her home . . .”

“Me, too.”

With a soft laugh, she shook her head. “Do you remember when she was five and wanted to bake that cake for your birthday?”

He uttered a quiet groan but nodded and smiled. “Oh, yeah, I remember that . . . best cake, ever.”

Which, of course, was a bit of a stretch. He’d had to go in to the clinic for an emergency meeting, and Samantha had somehow managed to convince him that she’d be all right if he left her by herself, promising that she’d call her grandfather or uncle if she had trouble since Bellaniece had been trying to catch up on some sleep after working a very long graveyard shift in the emergency room at a local hospital. He doubted that he’d been gone longer than five minutes when Samantha had decided to bake him a special birthday cake.

She’d forgotten to add flour, and, while she could read, some of the words had tripped her up since she wasn’t entirely familiar with baking. The measurements were in cups and table and teaspoons since it was one that Bellaniece had brought over from one of their trips stateside, and Samantha hadn’t understood how to convert everything to metric units.

The cake had overflowed the small glass dish she’d selected to bake it in, and it had been quite raw in the center. All in all, he figured it was likely one of the worst cakes he’d ever seen or tasted, and yet he hadn’t had the heart to say anything of the sort when she’d so happily presented it to him later. He’d eaten the whole thing as she’d stood at his side, her face beaming with pride as he’d told her how delicious it was. Later, he’d ended up sick to his stomach because of the mass amounts of sugar and honey that she’d added to the batter. Still, he’d eat as many as she set in front of him, if she’d just come home . . .

“So she’d never be a great baker,” Bellaniece admitted with a sigh. “God, I wish I’d told her that I didn’t want her to be a hunter . . . I should have . . . should have told her . . . forbade her. If I had . . .”

Kichiro tightened his arms around her.   “Don’t do that, Belle-chan,” he admonished gently. “When did we ever tell the girls what they could or couldn’t do? It wouldn’t have done any good, anyway. She’s as stubborn as you are. She . . . she just wanted to do what she thought was right.”

She nodded slowly and let him tug her back into the house before wandering back to the bed as he pulled the balcony doors closed and drew the curtains. He slipped back into the bed and pulled her close, kissing her forehead as she cuddled against his shoulder. “Bring her home, Kichiro . . . promise me that you will . . .”

Blinking into the darkness as he listened to the sound of her heart beating, Kichiro let out a deep breath and tightened his arms around her. “I will,” he promised, praying that she never figured out exactly how hard it was for him to say what she wanted so desperately to hear. “I . . . I will . . .”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

You’d do well to stop antagonizing him, don’t you think?

Grimacing at the accusing tone in her youkai blood’s voice, Samantha tugged her smock over her legs a little more and hunched forward in an effort to warm herself up.

You’re listening, right? You need to stop saying things that you know you shouldn’t. He’s barely tolerating you now, you know. Do you really think it’s a good idea to keep pushing your luck?

Her gaze sought out the man in question and stuck. Sitting back with his legs kicked up on the desk, he had his nose buried in another book. ‘I’m not trying to antagonize him,’ she thought with a sigh. ‘Not really, anyway . . .’

Well, then try a little harder not to. At least he gives you water, and you can probably hold out for awhile longer without food, but water? Forget about it . . .’

She let her temple fall against the bars of the cage and let out a deep breath. Kami, she was so hungry that her stomach was in a constant ache—almost a pain, really, and the times that she smelled food? That was worse, wasn’t it? So much worse . . .

Talking to the holy man . . . at least she tended to forget about that gnawing ache for a little while, anyway, and that was worth something.

Scratching thoughtfully at her head just behind her ears—what she wouldn’t give for a real bath with warm water and shampoo—she grimaced. If she kept scratching, she’d make herself bleed, but it felt good. ‘Hell,’ she thought sourly as she forced her hand to drop away from her head, ‘let’s not gild the lily here. I’d be happy enough with a cold shower and a bar of soap . . . That’s it; the first thing I’ll do when I ever get out of here is take the longest bath in recorded history . . .’

That was, if she ever got out of there. It led right back to some other thoughts that she’d been having lately. If she didn’t eat, she could survive, that much was true enough, but if she didn’t eat and she didn’t get any kind of real exercise, her muscles were going to disintegrate, too. She could feel it already, the slow but steady decline in her physical abilities. Caged all day and night, the limited walking she was allowed wasn’t even worthy of being considered real exercise, was it?

She sighed. If she’d only have gotten away the first time she’d tried to escape . . .

Gaze slipping back to the holy man again, she couldn’t help but to stare as he frowned at the pages of the book. Brows furrowed, expression darkened with intense concentration, he looked like he was pondering the things that he was reading mighty heavily. What was it about him that spoke to her, she wondered. What was it about the look in his eyes that intrigued her?

Nothing . . . and everything . . . and . . .

And what did it matter? He hated her kind, and she knew it, but she didn’t know why. Why would he hate youkai so much that he’d hunt them and catch them and sell them? And yet she knew, too, that he didn’t exactly hate her. It wasn’t something that she could readily explain. She knew that he hated what he called ‘demons’, and she knew that somewhere deep down, he felt he had a right to. She’d seen that much in his eyes. Maybe if she could understand that . . .

He stood up suddenly, letting the book thump onto the desk as he strode over to the control panel near the door and fiddled around with it. A few seconds later, she heard the indistinct hum of the central heat. Common sense told her that he hadn’t turned it up for her. Did that really matter when she would benefit from it, too?

He turned around to stare at the cage, then hit another button to bring the outer walls up from the floor. They locked into place with a loud groan. A third press of a button resulted in a dull static that was barely discernable to her, but she knew it well enough. It meant that he’d activated another barrier over the doorway—a barrier that he thought she couldn’t pass. True enough, she figured. She probably couldn’t, at least, without being purified. If she were full youkai, that would be more of a deterrent. As it was, though, it would purify her, sure, but the end result would just be that she’d be stuck in human form for awhile. That was a risky venture, at best, and not one that Samantha really wanted to test. The last thing that she needed was for those damn white-coats to find out that she was half human, after all. If they’d do these things to her now, just what would they do if they were armed with information like that?

Apparently satisfied that she was secured, the holy man turned on his heel and strode out of the room, completely unfazed by the artificial barrier he’d erected.

The emptiness that engulfed the room, though, was a nearly painful thing. Samantha had never really been a social butterfly or anything, preferring to keep to herself, but she did have a few friends—friends she’d lost touch with over the years. Most of them were back in Tokyo, and these days, she hadn’t really had the time to spend making new ones. Still, she hadn’t realized how one other person could alleviate the complete emptiness without saying much of anything. Kami, she’d taken so much for granted, hadn’t she?

Letting her eyes slip closed, mostly to blot out the overwhelming sense of loneliness, Samantha huddled deeper into the corner of the cage and sighed. Thinking too much was a dangerous venture at best. She wanted to sleep, but she never could manage more than a brief catnap. Too uncomfortable with her surroundings to really be able to sleep, she figured. Not surprising, really. It went hand in hand with the sense of security that had been compromised, too. She’d forgotten what it was like to close her eyes and not still harbor some deep rooted sense of trepidation . . .

The footsteps, the familiarity of his aura brushed over Samantha as the holy man stepped back into the room. She heard the metallic pop of a soda can but didn’t open her eyes. She’d known that there were some sort of vending machines close by—the white-coats were constantly carrying around coffee or soda, weren’t they? So that’s where he’d gone . . .

It was all right though, wasn’t it? He’d come back, and maybe . . .

She felt herself yawn as she slumped a little lower in the cage, as a hazy sense of numbness settled over her mind.

Maybe that was enough . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

So, Kurt . . . what do you think of the four of us going to Disney World this summer?

With an excited yelp, Kurt hopped up and ran over to his father, who was sitting on the sofa with Caroline tucked neatly in the crook of his arm. The girl yawned and whined as the exuberant seven year-old threw himself onto the couch and bounced up and down happily. “Really? Honest?” Kurt insisted.

His father chuckled. “Really and honestly,” he agreed. “Shh . . . don’t wake up your sister.”

You and me and Mom and Carrie?

Yes, you and me and Mom and Carrie. What did you think? That we’d leave her home?

He stumbled to his feet and dashed out of the living room. He could hear his mother running water in the kitchen, finishing up the pots and pans from dinner. Tearing into the bright room, he flung himself against his mother’s back, hugging her tight around the waist—something he normally wouldn’t have done, but it seemed okay this time, all things considered. “Disney World, Mom!” he hollered.

She laughed, leaning to the side to grab a clean hand towel to dry herself before she turned far enough to tousle his unruly black hair. “Glad you approve, Kurt. And you were complaining that you didn’t have anything good to write in your summer vacation essay . . .”

He grinned up at her, and she gave his shoulders a quick squeeze before letting go. “Now you’d better get out of here before I decide to put you to work . . . you know I had to wash dishes at your age . . .”

He knew a blatant threat when he heard one, and he ducked out the kitchen again. Loopy darted after him, yapping happily, and while she might not have understood the words ‘Disney World’, she certainly could pick up on Kurt’s excitement.

Can we stay there all summer?” Kurt asked as he ran back into the living room and vaulted onto the sofa again.

His father laughed. “All summer?   Geez . . . that’d be something, wouldn’t it?

Kurt shook his head. “But Disney World is huge . . . Billy Rotmore went last year, and he said that they didn’t see everything, and they stayed a whole week . . .”

Well, we did figure we could stay for two weeks . . . That’d be okay, wouldn’t it?

Kurt scrunched up his face in a thoughtful frown as he considered that. Two weeks was a whole seven days longer than Billy’s trip, and Billy had bragged for months afterward about it, too . . . “Two weeks is okay,” Kurt finally allowed.

His father laughed as Caroline sat up in his lap, rubbing her eyes with a chubby little fist. “I wan’ go, too,” she murmured drowsily.

Kurt rolled his eyes. “You don’t even know what Disney World is, Carrie,” he pointed out. It was all completely logical in his seven year-old mind.

She was undaunted by the censure in Kurt’s tone, and she smiled widely at him, her deep dimples digging into her cheeks as she wiggled off her father’s lap. “Dis-ney, Dis-ne-e-ey,” she sang as she ran off to the kitchen, her arms bent at the elbows, her hands stretched out as though she were trying to retain her balance.

Babies,” Kurt said in a resigned sort of way that made his father laugh.

Jerking awake with a disoriented start, Kurt blinked and glanced around the darkened room. That dream . . . wasn’t so bad, and yet the emptiness that it left in its wake was bitter, harsh. Right after he’d gone to live with Aunt Mary and Uncle Marcus, the psychologist that they’d taken him to had prescribed drugs that were meant to help him sleep. He wasn’t sure why, but he recalled that the nightmares he’d had after taking those damned blue pills had been more vivid, more frightening than any other he’d had before the pills or after . . . Gross distortions of that day, and then . . .

Deliberately slamming the door on those thoughts, Kurt rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, refusing to think about or acknowledge the power that those dreams had once held over him, he clenched his teeth and willed away the black rage that licked at him.

Drawing a deep breath, he rubbed his eyes and heaved a sigh. Having fallen asleep while reading through one of the books he’d brought along, he couldn’t help the hint of disgust that crept over him after the anger had subsided, either. He hated sleeping, and he loathed sleeping here, of all places, and especially in the presence of . . .

Half afraid that he’d managed to wake up the little demon again, he rather reluctantly glanced at the cage in the middle of the room. Luckily, blessedly, it was sleeping, too. Come to think of it, it had been oddly quiet all night—not exactly something that bothered Kurt. Not at all, but . . . but it was a little strange, wasn’t it?

Snorting at his own thoughts, he shook his head. He was glad, really. After all, the last thing he wanted was to be pestered incessantly by the damned creature. Maybe it had finally figured out that he really didn’t welcome conversation with the likes of it . . . He could hope, couldn’t he?

Still, that dream . . . it may not have been as vindictive as some, but it was bad enough, wasn’t it? More of a memory than an actual dream, that was. Maybe that was why it was so much easier to deal with after the fact. Memories were controlled things; things that had happened that made logical sense in a logical order. Dreams were wilder, unmanageable . . . inescapable . . .

Letting out a deep breath that lifted the fringe of bangs on his forehead, Kurt scratched the back of his neck and glanced at the clock. Two a.m. He picked up the book again but let it thump back onto the desk carelessly. He really didn’t feel like re-reading the same texts he’d already read so often that he practically had it all memorized. He felt restless, damn it, and normally when that sort of feeling assailed him, he squelched it by going out to see if he could find any trace of demons nearby. Sometimes he did; sometimes he didn’t. He figured that it was all the same, anyway.

Demons . . .

That thought brought back into focus the strange aura he’d felt a couple days ago on his way in. It was the third overwhelming aura he’d felt of late. One of those had belonged to the little demon, he knew. The other two? Those unsettled him more. He’d worked for years, tracking down those things, hadn’t he? And while he knew now that he’d probably happened across an aura like that before, at the time, he’d chalked it up to belonging to more than one of them because he simply hadn’t realized that one of those things could possibly contain that much power, but now . . .

Now he knew better. Still, it bothered him. Why now? Why so many, and why now?

It had been searching.

He wasn’t entirely sure why he knew that, but he did. It was searching for something.

Shaking his head, Kurt pushed himself to his feet, unable to reconcile the unsettling notion that made no sense. Searching? He snorted. He was giving them far too much credit, damn it, and that, more than anything, really ticked him off.

Then again, something else had occurred to him, too. Maybe it wasn’t that they hadn’t been there before. Maybe he’d somehow managed to grow stronger in his ability to sense them. Maybe spending time watching the little demon was aiding him more than he cared to consider, like mental training or something. It was entirely possible, wasn’t it?

In fact, the longer he considered that, the more probable it seemed to him. Just as he hadn’t learned back then to differentiate a collective bunch of their auras from one really strong one, maybe it was all a matter of teaching himself how to do it, instead.

It made sense. It wasn’t that those things were getting stronger, by any means, but maybe he was . . .

Glancing down, his gaze fell on the clipboard lying on the work desk, and he opened it. He hadn’t actually checked the chart in a few days. It always seemed to say the same thing: observation. He frowned when he read the agenda from the day before.

Blood testing. Low readings on all counts. Borderline anemic. Insulin levels erratic . . . Skin, blood, urine, and hair samples taken . . . recommend vitamin injections . . .’

Low levels . . .

Flipping the chart closed, he heaved a disgusted sigh as his gaze lifted involuntarily to the small form huddled in the corner of the cage. He hadn’t bothered to try to get it to eat for the last couple days, either, since that only tended to invite unwelcome conversation on his part.

He snorted. He honestly didn’t give a damn whether it ate or not. As long as he was still collecting payments on it, he could care less . . .

Let the damn researchers figure out how to keep it alive. They’re the ones who wanted it, weren’t they? As far as he was concerned, they could just deal with it, themselves . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Hey, Cartham. Any luck?”

Deke Cartham grunted as he prowled around the dilapidated hotel room. “Nothing,” he muttered, unable to keep his irritation in check. “You find out anything about that list?”

Cain sighed and spared a moment to light a cigarette. The sound was completely unmistakable. “Nope. InuYasha and Ryomaru said that their lead was worthless. Bas said that the guy he was supposed to check into committed suicide last year, and Evan and Morio’s target has been a resident of the Fernlowe Clinic for the past two months. Cocaine, I believe they said.”

“And the one in Michigan?”

“Gunnar said that he checked into it from the special crimes office and that it’s no good. They’re heading out tomorrow, though. They’re flying back to Chicago . . . Kichiro seems to think that she’s still there.”

“But we’ve been everywhere,” he pointed out.

“Yeah, but . . . Cartham . . . If the person who got a hold of her to start with was able to construct a barrier, then who’s to say that he or she didn’t do it again around wherever they’re holding her now?”

Cartham nodded. He’d thought that, too. “I ain’t sensed no barriers.”

“You wouldn’t necessarily, would you? InuYasha said that back when they were searching for Naraku, that he’d erected one that had made his castle virtually undetectable.”

“But Naraku was a hanyou,” Cartham pointed out.

“Yes, well, the theory’s the same. Myrna’s running a cross check on every listed residence and business in the greater Chicago area to see if she can’t figure out where Sam might be held. Right now, we’re figuring that if we can find a location that has an active listing that we can’t see . . .”

“That might be where they have her, you mean.”

“Yeah.”

“Makes sense.”

Cain sighed again. “I’ll have Myrna fax over what she finds.”

“All right,” Cartham muttered.

The line went dead, and Cartham clicked off the phone before tossing it onto the bed. What they’d said made sense, didn’t it? Even still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a little too simple, wasn’t it? No, he had a bad feeling about this case, he really did, and while he hadn’t breathed even a word of that to Zelig or any of his kin, Cartham couldn’t shake the feeling that something menacing was looming just out of view—something that none of them had ever even considered.

The problem was figuring out exactly what that could be; what could possibly make him feel that much unease . . . He’d seen some ugly things over the years. Hunters normally did. Call it par for course, he figured. So why did he feel like this—whatever ‘this’ was—had the potential to be far, far worse—far uglier than anything any of them had seen before?

No, it didn’t matter how you looked at it. Cartham had a feeling that the real problem wasn’t so much in finding Samantha alive—she was a damn clever girl, and if anyone could survive the unknown, he figured she could. The real problem, as far as Cartham could tell was in fighting an enemy that couldn’t be seen . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Sydnie sat on the window seat, staring out at the falling snow. She could hear herself blink in the quiet. Watching the beach just off to the right, she frowned at the lone figure that wandered close to the water’s edge. Even from the distance, there was no mistaking her: Bellaniece—Samantha’s mother.

They blame me.’

Those three words had been haunting her ever since Samantha’s disappearance. It didn’t matter if they smiled at her or if they always—always—offered her a cheerful ‘good morning’ or a ‘sleep well, Sydnie’ before she went to bed. She could feel the accusation in their gazes, could feel the sharpness of their condemnations, even if they were all in their own minds. She knew, didn’t she . . .?

And even as she thought that, she knew that she was wrong, too. Not one of them blamed her—not one.

And maybe that made her feel all the worse about it, too.

She was the one who had told Cain that Samantha could handle it. She was the one who had stared the men down and laughed, telling them all that, just because Samantha was a female didn’t make her any less capable, did it? In her own way, it might even have made her tougher than her male counterparts: tougher because she had to be, because the men would continue to baby her if she didn’t prove that she really was.

After all, women were far more vicious, far more vindictive than any man could ever be, and Sydnie . . . Well, she knew that from personal experience, didn’t she?

She’d sensed Samantha’s frustration of late, and she knew damn well that it was wholly grounded. Sydnie had been livid when Bas had told her that Cain had sent Larry into Chicago. The implication was clear in her mind: Cain was telling her, whether he believed it or not, that he didn’t think that Samantha had what it took to do her job, and yet . . .

And yet the life growing inside her belly gave Sydnie pause, too—gave her a new perspective on things that she had once believed were cut and dried. She had never considered a parents’ point of view, had never understood fully, what it meant to love someone so much that the very idea that they weren’t completely safe was enough to make you want to scream inside . . .

And she knew that her understanding of that was growing day by day, along with her child.

It scared the hell out of her.

Kichiro and Bellaniece . . . Sydnie had always thought that they were amazing parents: encouraging their daughters to be who they wanted to be yet possessing the patience to catch them when they faltered . . . Even if they weren’t perfect, they tried, and that meant something, didn’t it?

To be honest, she’d always thought that the strained expressions that they got on their faces whenever they spoke of their daughter the hunter though only when Samantha wasn’t looking, was a little too much. They worried too much or they didn’t believe in Samantha.

How had she ever been so very wrong?

It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in the daughter they’d raised. It was simply that it didn’t matter in the end. Samantha had been their daughter from the moment she’d entered their lives, just as her unborn child was a part of her and Sebastian, and even sight unseen, she knew she loved him or her; knew that there was nothing she wouldn’t do to protect the life that she nurtured. That was what Bellaniece and Kichiro were feeling now, wasn’t it? The pain of a parent who didn’t know where the hell their beloved child was . . .

And they ought to blame her, oughtn’t they? They ought to yell at her and curse her and tell her that it was all her fault. Guilt was a painful emotion. She’d recognized it in the beginning, the first time she’d met Cain Zelig’s gaze. She’d thought that he deserved to feel guilty, as ugly as that was to admit now. He ought to suffer as much as she had—that’s what she’d thought at the time. The tai-youkai who had failed her . . . she’d wanted him to understand exactly how much pain she’d endured.

But now . . . now she wished that she had understood at the time. The guilt was worse than anything else, wasn’t it? Pain gave way to anger, and anger was simple to deal with. Guilt was something else, entirely, and the more people sought to show someone that they weren’t to blame, the worse that guilt became, didn’t it . . .?

A soft knock on the door drew her out of her reverie though she didn’t look away from the figure wandering the shore.

“Hey, Sydnie . . . I was hoping you weren’t lying down . . .” Sydnie didn’t answer though she heard Jillian Jamison cross the floor. “How are you doing? I brought you some milk . . . I know, I’m hardly Bassie, but . . . Well, he called a little while ago, and he asked me to give this to you . . .”

Sydnie took the tall, frothy glass with a trembling hand. “Thank you,” she murmured and shook her head sadly.

“He says that he’ll be home in a couple days since Gavvie, John, and Griffin were going to head to Chicago, too.”

Not even the idea of her mate’s return was enough to draw a smile from her. On the beach far below, Bellaniece had stopped atop a large formation of rocks that sheltered the small cove from the wind. Standing still, facing into the wind, her absolute melancholy had the power to reach Sydnie where she sat, warm and secure in the safety of the mansion.

Bellaniece was waiting, wasn’t she? Waiting and looking for the daughter that she wanted to come home . . .

“Are you feeling all right? Mama said that I shouldn’t fuss over you so much, but someone has to, right? Having a baby is hard work. That’s what Gavin’s mother said, anyway. Of course, she also said that Gavvie was a really big baby, so that might have had something to do with it, too . . .”

“I’m a real bitch, aren’t I?”

Jillian blinked in surprise. “What? No! Why would you say that?”

Uttering a humorless laugh, she nodded at the window then shrugged. “Her baby’s missing, and mine’s right here . . . and all Sebastian can think about is who will give me a glass of milk . . .”

“That’s not true,” Jillian chided gently. “Bassie loves you. That hardly makes you a bitch.”

“And what would you say if I told you that it’s my fault that Samantha’s . . . missing . . .?” she countered, her voice as raw as her emotions, unable—unwilling—to meet Jillian’s compassionate gaze.

“It’s no more your fault than it’s Daddy’s or Bassie’s or Gunnar’s . . . or Kichiro’s or Belle’s . . . or anyone’s. The only one to blame is the . . . the bastard that took her . . . It’s not good for you or the baby to get this upset, Sydnie . . .”

Sydnie shook her head stubbornly and set the untouched glass of milk aside. “It is, you know,” she whispered, her words cracking and breaking as emotion rode up thick in her throat. “I told them to stop babying her. I told them that she could—”

“And you were right! We all knew you were right! Daddy thinks so, and so does everyone else! Sydnie . . .”

“I know,” Sydnie relented with a sigh, a half-hearted attempt at a faltering smile. “I know; I know. It’s not my fault.” Drawing a deep breath, she let her head fall back, staring up at the ceiling, looking for answers that were nowhere to be found. “I just want her to come home.”

Jillian nodded and smoothed Sydnie’s hair back off her face. “I do, too,” she murmured as she squeezed Sydnie’s icy cold hand. “I do, too . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Have you actually seen her eat anything when you’re there with her at night?

Kurt crossed his arms over his chest and leveled a look at Dr. Harlan. “Can’t say I have,” he admitted.

Harlan sighed and rubbed his temple as he made a deliberate show of pacing around the observation room. “You know what we’re trying to do here,” Harlan began in a conspiratorial sort of tone. “We’re on the same page, you and I . . . but the thing is, if we cannot keep her healthy enough to stand up to our testing, we won’t be able to do it.”

The same page?” he echoed. “Is that right?

Harlan shot him a broadcast grin—a hollow gesture that he honestly believed Kurt would find genuine. “Aren’t we? These creatures aren’t normal—probably produced by some freak of genetics . . . If we can figure out what makes them tick, we could—”

Could what?” Kurt cut in coldly, pinning the good doctor with a penetrating look. “Harness their power? Is that what you were going to say? You can’t. No one can. Those things need to be destroyed. They only thing they want to do is to kill humans because we’re weaker than they are. Do you understand that? That’s it, and that’s all. It’s not a woman or a girl or anything like that. It’s a beast: a monster. That’s all it’s ever going to be.

Of course, of course, but you know, this research is important! It’s that old adage: know your enemy as you’d know yourself.”

Spare me your reasoning, Harlan. I don’t give two shits about any of it. If you’re so worried about that demon, then you figure out how to make it eat.”

A slight narrowing of the eyes was Harlan’s immediate response. Kurt turned on his heel and stalked out of the observation room that he’d been dragged into before he could make it to the holding area. Harlan followed. He’d figured that he would. At least he was tenacious, Kurt had to give him that . . . “The board isn’t overly impressed with your demon. They’re questioning whether or not they should keep compensating you for it.

And that didn’t really surprise Kurt, either. “Is that right?

She needs to eat,” Harlan went on. “If she loses more weight before the next board meeting, I’m not too sure that I can talk them into continuing your payments.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell the fat old bastard to go straight to hell. If there was one thing that he couldn’t stand, it was being manipulated. That Harlan was trying to do that and quite blatantly at that irked the hell out of him, damned if it didn’t. “Then I highly suggest you find a way to make it eat,” he growled. “Or do you really have that little control over it?

Just think about what I said,” Harlan remarked as he offered Kurt a tight little smile. “Have a good night.”

Glowering at the demon’s chart, Kurt still couldn’t brush away the complete irritation that just wouldn’t leave him alone. The more he thought about Dr. Harlan and his smug attitude, the more ticked off he got. He wasn’t sure whether it was funny or just really, really sad that those damned morons actually thought that he could make the demon eat. More to the point, they spent the bulk of their time making idiot comments when they thought that he couldn’t hear them: comments about his stubborn insistence that the little demon could talk, comments about his own ‘freakish’ power . . .

But who did they come to when they had a problem, after all? The freak, of course . . .

Never mind that he’d felt the little demon’s eyes on him all evening, too. It had yet to speak to him, but it didn’t have to, did it? It was infinitely more annoying to just be stared at, he supposed, so if it were trying to tick him off, then its plan was working in spades . . .

Testing pain reflexes,’ the chart had listed for the day as another little ‘ping’ announced that it had just dropped a kibble of dog food down the drain. Kurt shook his head, tossing the clipboard aside. Besides, he seriously doubted that those things felt anything akin to pain, anyway . . .

Shuffling over to the small desk, he dug his dinner out of the knapsack and unwrapped the cheeseburger he’d picked up on the way. The bun was soggy, the meat looked gray—all in all, a pretty sorry looking sandwich, he figured. He took a couple bites of it and pushed it away with a grimace before grabbing his bag again, this time pulling out his night vision goggles and the cleaning kit.

Since the last time he’d come across such a strong aura, he’d figured that he’d be better off to carry his gear with him. Might was well be prepared, right? At least, that’s what he figured, anyway. He couldn’t afford to let his guard down, not that it was likely to happen. He wasn’t going to go out of his way to find another one at the moment, but he wasn’t going to miss an opportunity, either.

Besides, with the way his luck was going, if he did manage to capture another one, he’d be stuck with watching over two of them, at least long enough to collect his money . . .

It didn’t take long to clean his gear despite the methodical way he checked everything over. He relied on the stuff far too much to take it for granted, didn’t he?

Testing pain reflexes . . .’

That was laughable, wasn’t it? Those things only knew how to inflict pain, didn’t they? What did they know about that sort of thing, anyway? It pissed him off. That damned Harlan had told him in the beginning that they were trying to find a way to destroy the beasts, to discover a way to ensure that they could not survive—a type of genocide, he’d called it. The demons were far too powerful to be allowed to thrive. Kurt hadn’t completely bought into it, but he hadn’t been against the idea, either. Researching them? Testing pain thresholds? What point was there in all of that?

Of course, Kurt wouldn’t have cared, one way or another, as long as he got the funding he needed to continue his quest. He didn’t care how long he had to search or what he had to do to find them, one day he’d run into the ones who were responsible, and when he did, he’d destroy them. He didn’t care what happened afterward as long as he knew that those monsters couldn’t ever do what they’d done to another family, ever again.

A rattle sounded from the cage, and Kurt glanced up with a frown. Nothing out of order, he supposed. The little demon was trying to stretch out in the cage. Even as small as it was, it had difficulty accomplishing its task. It heaved a tiny sigh—a sound that he wasn’t meant to hear—and he sat back, crossing his arms over his chest as he continued to watch it.

It fidgeted around like it was trying to get comfortable before finally settling for propping its feet on the end above the food and water bowls, then using those feet to brace itself to lift its hips enough to wiggle the smock down just a little more.

Letting out a deep breath as he slowly shook his head, Kurt stood up, swiping up the abysmal sandwich and started toward the trash can. He stopped mid-step, though, frowning at it thoughtfully, then altered his course, ripping a small bite-sized piece off the sandwich as he walked.

The little demon blinked and sat up with minimal difficulty as it stared at the food he dropped into the cage. Eyes darting curiously from the disassembled bite he’d tossed in to the rest of the half wrapped sandwich in his hand, it looked completely suspicious.

Kurt snorted. “I know damn well you saw me eating it, so you can’t say that I drugged it,” he pointed out.

It blinked slowly, its mouth shifting into a petulant little pucker as it forced its eyes away from the food. “No, thank you,” it muttered.

He couldn’t help the incredulous growl that slipped from him as he eyed the stubborn demon. “Oh, yeah? You don’t eat dog food, and you won’t eat that? What the hell do you eat?” Rolling his eyes as he turned on his heel, he uttered another loud snort and stomped over to the trash can. “Don’t answer that,” he grumbled, berating himself for his own stupidity as he crumpled the wrapper around the sandwich and dropped it into the trash. Of course it didn’t eat food like that. Those damn things . . .

Completely disgusted, he pivoted again, but stopped short at the sad expression on its face at it stared almost mournfully at the scrap still lying in the cage where he’d dropped it. Kurt frowned. It did want it, didn’t it? The way it was staring at it was obvious enough. The little demon wanted that sandwich, and it had to know that he really hadn’t drugged it, but he couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t eat it.

Exhaling sharply, Kurt dragged his hand over his face and shook his head. He didn’t care, damn it, but he couldn’t let it starve itself, either; not if he wanted to finish collecting his fee, that was . . .

Tamping down the feeling that he was being completely manipulated, Kurt stifled a sigh and crossed his arms over his chest. If he left it there, maybe the damned stubborn creature would give in . . . Maybe . . .

So he forced himself to move back over to the desk again, careful to keep the little demon in the periphery of his vision the entire time.

That thing gives the word ‘stubborn’ a whole new meaning,’ he thought as he plopped into the desk chair and propped his feet up, making no bones about the fact that he was blatantly observing the demon. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. Staring at the bite of food so intently that Kurt actually doubted that it was even blinking, it took no notice of its audience as he settled back to watch and wait.

Okay, little demon,’ he thought with a grimly determined scowl. ‘I’m going to win this round . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“What do we know?”

Inutaisho Toga sighed and rubbed his forehead as he settled back in the thickly cushioned chair across from his father’s desk. “Not a hell of a lot,” he admitted with a shake of his head. “Cain said that none of the leads were even remotely connected, but it doesn’t make sense, does it? The person has to be able to use spiritual powers. It stands to reason that someone knows something.”

Sesshoumaru nodded slowly, his gaze calm—almost bored—the normal expression that he tended to favor when he was considering things in his head. “She has been missing for nearly three weeks . . .”

Toga sighed and inclined his head once, acknowledging his father’s observation. “Yes.” Standing abruptly, Toga paced the floor, knowing damn well that Sesshoumaru wasn’t going to like what he was about to say. “I want to go,” he stated.

“And what will you do if you go? Can you accomplish something that the others cannot?”

Shrugging offhandedly, Toga shook his head. “Probably not, but . . .”

“But?” Sesshoumaru prompted when his son trailed off.

“If it were one of my girls . . .”

“And if Samantha isn’t really the target that they’re after?”

Toga shook his head again and met his father’s gaze full-on. “I would not sacrifice one of the children in order to avoid an altercation . . . and I daresay you would not, either, Father.”

A vague hint of recognition sparked behind Sesshoumaru’s gaze; the acknowledgement of the complete understanding of his son’s logic. “I would not,” he allowed quietly. “Toga . . .”

“Yes?”

Sesshoumaru stood and turned toward the window, his gaze scanning the horizon as he contemplated the situation. “I do not believe that you or Zelig or even I am the target of this. If that were the case, they would have already voiced their demands.”

Toga considered that and nodded. He’d thought as much, himself. Even then, it wouldn’t have changed his mind. If it were different—if one of his daughters had gone missing—he knew damn well that Kichiro and the others would not just sit back and do nothing.   That he’d given in to his father’s initial insistence that he stay put irritated the hell out of him, and while he certainly could appreciate the concern that it would draw too much attention, the bottom line was that Samantha was family. Kichiro was family, and if family didn’t come first, then nothing in the world ever would.

“Will your mate be going, too?”

Toga sighed. He’d had that particular conversation with Sierra before he’d come over to apprise Sesshoumaru of his plans. He’d wanted to her to stay here just in case it wasn’t safe. She’d insisted that she was going and was probably home packing right now. She might not be able to help them search, but she could be there for Bellaniece, and despite his reservations on the matter, he hadn’t had the heart to argue that logic, either. “She will,” he said quietly.

Sesshoumaru nodded but didn’t turn away from the window. Toga, figuring that the discussion was over, started to go, only to be stopped once more by his father’s voice. “Tell Zelig . . . he has the full support of the Inu no Taisho.”

“Absolutely.”

Narrowing his eyes as the sound of the door softly closing faded away, Sesshoumaru stared past the drizzle falling from the hazy November sky. How many times had he watched out this same window as Samantha had wandered around the yard? A quiet child—not exactly shy, but thoughtful, she was . . . and yet he hadn’t been nearly as surprised as he likely should have been when she’d stated that she wanted to be a hunter.

And she’d gone to Toga to ask for a job. Toga had been horrified, and rightfully so. No one wanted her to take on such a daunting occupation. For some, they disliked the idea of a woman hunter. For others, they worried that she was far too petite to be effective. Sesshoumaru had his own reasons for disliking the idea . . .

He knew that she was capable. He did not believe that her size was a disadvantage. He did not believe that women were inferior or any ridiculous notion such as that. No, what worried him was the gentleness within her—the same gentleness of spirit that her father also possessed. It was that part of her that gave Sesshoumaru pause. That sort of quality was so easily crushed, and to have chosen to be a hunter . . .

“So you’re going to let him go?”

Turning at the sound of his mate’s voice, Sesshoumaru regarded Kagura as she slipped into the office and wandered over to his side. “I do not believe he was asking my permission,” he remarked dryly.

She nodded, her bright eyes slowly shifting over his features as she tried to read him. “This isn’t right, is it? I can feel it . . .”

“I’ve thought as much,” he allowed. “You believe that we should go, too.” It wasn’t a question.

She didn’t answer right away as she turned her attention outside. Sesshoumaru had very little doubt that she wasn’t seeing the past, just as he had when he’d stared out the same window. “She’s such a beautiful girl,” Kagura murmured, lifting a hand to press against the glass. “That smile . . . everything about her smiles when she does . . .”

Sesshoumaru shook his head slowly, uttering a terse grunt—a sound that was rather unusual for him. “Her grandfather is there,” he said at length. “That baka will tear down everything he sees if given the chance . . .”

Kagura turned her head to look at him, the barest hint of a smile touching her lips. “And, of course, you’re the only one who can stop him.”

Sesshoumaru nodded once as his gaze narrowed the smallest bit. “Of course.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

I hate him; I hate him; I hate him; I hate him . . .’ Samantha fumed as she glowered at the bit of sandwich the holy man had dropped into the cage.

You ought to hate him,’ her youkai admonished. ‘You don’t, but you should . . .’

Flattening her ears for a moment, Samantha tried to force her gaze away from the tiny hunk of meat and bread but couldn’t. ‘I do,’ she insisted stubbornly. ‘It’s right there! But . . .’

Don’t you touch it!’ her youkai snapped. ‘You know what’ll happen if you do.’

Stifling a sigh since she did know what would eventually happen if she did, she dug her claws into her arm—they were crossed and resting on her drawn up knees—she grimaced as the scent of her blood hit her hard. It didn’t smell right, and she knew it.   It didn’t smell quite as rich as it normally did. Deliberately trying not to consider what that might mean, she tried once more to get her mind off the food that was much, much too close.

Umm . . . remember that time that Morio broke his arm? The bone was sticking out all funny? I thought I was going to puke . . .’

Her stomach growled in reply.

Or the time he fell out of Goshinboku and busted his head on the pavement?

Yeah, that one didn’t work, either.

How about the time Papa told me about that patient of his that got his big toe cut off with a length of fishing line . . .’

The sigh she was trying to hold in slipped out in a dull whoosh.

She couldn’t forget that bite of cheeseburger. It was entirely too close for her to do it. She wanted it. She really, really wanted it. It was the aftereffect that she didn’t want . . .

How could he do that? How could he be so cruel as to offer her what she desperately wanted, anyway? It wasn’t enough that those damn white-coats were trying to strip away every last bit of her dignity, but that he would help them was almost more than she could stand. The couple times that she had broken down and let her body’s needs take precedence were entirely too vivid in her mind. The humiliation of the white-coats’ disgust and ridicule—laughing and sneering as they’d gotten out the power hose and sprayed her with it . . . They’d spent more time disinfecting the table she’d been strapped to than they had in cleaning her up, and all the while, they’d talked and jeered and belittled her . . .

And there was no way she was going to repeat that, even if it killed her.

She’d spent hours trying to console herself, telling herself time and again that she hadn’t had a choice. They’d taken that away from her, and even though she knew that logically, it hadn’t helped her; not at all . . .

Okay, so it wasn’t the perfect solution. If she didn’t eat, she was going to get weaker, and if she got too weak, she’d never be able to escape, but she also couldn’t stomach the idea of repeating that kind of humiliation. Just considering it was enough to bring a sudden and savage surge of panic rising to the fore.

She heard the holy man move but didn’t look to see what he was doing. She heard the sound of the power hose being pulled loose. With a smothered gasp, she jerked away into the corner of the cage as he slowly turned on the hose and fiddled with the nozzle, taking his time as he aimed it at the floor and started to spray.

He was going to flush out her cage, wasn’t he? He hadn’t done that since the night she’d puked up the water he’d given her . . . Gasping out loud when she realized exactly what he meant to do, she couldn’t help herself when she laid her ears back and uttered a rather vicious growl, snatching up the bite of sandwich before he used the hose to push it into the drain.

He didn’t look particularly impressed by her show of ferocity. If anything, he looked a little irritated by it. Still, he switched off the hose and crossed his arms over his chest, arching an eyebrow at her as he waited impatiently for her to explain.

“So you do want it,” he finally said when she ventured nothing.

Grimacing when she realized that she was cradling the food against her chest, using her body to shield it from him, she tried to make herself lower her hands but couldn’t. “Of course I want it,” she whispered, unable to keep her ears from flattening slightly as she scrunched up her shoulders a little more and tried to keep from looking entirely pathetic though she figured that she’d already failed in that department, anyway.

“Of course,” he echoed, his voice thick with sarcasm. “That’s why you wouldn’t touch it, right?”

Clenching her jaw, she forced her hands to lower as she stared miserably at the food. “They . . . they won’t . . . take me to the . . . the bathroom,” she muttered.

He stared at her for several moments, as though he couldn’t quite believe what she’d said. “You’re refusing to eat because they won’t take you to the bathroom?” he blurted incredulously.

Her ears flattened at the underlying contempt in his voice, and suddenly, she had to blink fast to keep herself from crying. “No,” she whispered, shaking her head slowly as she swallowed hard to keep him from hearing the emotion that she was fighting to hide. “I refuse to eat this because of that . . . but I won’t eat dog food. Not ever.”

She didn’t really know what she expected of him. She supposed that she figured he’d say something caustic and tell her to eat it anyway. Maybe she was even hoping somewhere deep down that he’d make good on his threats to force her to comply. It struck her then, just how pathetic her situation really was, and at that moment, she just wished that he’d go back over to his desk and leave her alone . . .

“Yeah, well, you’d damn well better tell me before you have to do anything like that,” he grumbled as he turned his back and strode away to hang the hose back on the hook. “They’re not paying me nearly enough to clean up after the likes of you.”

She gasped and blinked, her chin shooting up as his words slowly sank in. He’d sounded angry, and he’d sounded disgusted, and she couldn’t really blame him for that. Somehow, though, his offer was enough, and even if he’d made it for purely selfish reasons, Samantha didn’t care. That he’d allow her that much of a concession . . .

She started to shove the bite into her mouth but stopped when he whipped around to face her. “Chew it, demon,” he commanded, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “Throw it up, and I won’t give you more. Got it?”

She nodded quickly.

“I mean it,” he stated once more. “You chew it until I tell you to swallow. Understand?”

She nodded at that, too, and hastily shoved the food into her mouth before he could give her another condition.

Closing her eyes as she suddenly slumped against the back of the cage, she couldn’t contain the rapturous moan that slipped out of her as she slowly chewed. At the moment, she couldn’t recall having ever tasted anything as good as that cold bit of meat that was more gristle than lean . . . stale bun that was starting to harden on the outside . . . and she simply didn’t care.

“Swallow,” he said.

She opened her eyes and did as he said. Sometime during her moments of blissful chewing, he’d come closer and was hunkered down in front of the cage with the wrapped up portion of the sandwich he’d thrown into the garbage can earlier. Sparing a moment to eye her dubiously, he broke off another small bite and tossed it into her lap. “Same rules, demon,” he said.

She wasted no time in stuffing that into her mouth, too.

He continued to feed her little by little despite the obvious irritation in his features. The very last thing he wanted to do was to sit there and babysit her, she figured, and in her absolute relief, she never thought to question whether or not he really would make good on his word later. Somehow, though, she knew he would, even if she didn’t understand why.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Doc! Glad you’re here!”

Casting Harlan a suspect eye, Kurt stepped off the elevator and let it close behind him as he adjusted his grip on the knapsack and waited for the proverbial gauntlet to fall. An unsettling sense of trepidation crept up his spine as he waited for the aging doctor to reach him. Plodding down the hallway in what Kurt figured was an all-out sprint to him; at least, he looked a little shaken.

“The . . . demon . . . is . . . sick,” he huffed between labored breaths.

“It’s what?” Kurt demanded, brushing past the doctor and heading down the hallway. “What do you mean, sick?”

Dr. Harlan ran after him. “Sick! Sick! We were testing her hearing, and—”

“It’s not a ‘her’!” Kurt interrupted angrily, quickening his stride as he closed in on the researchers who were milling around in the hallway.

Harlan waved his hands in blatant dismissal. “It, then!” he agreed with a wheeze. “It vomits every time we try to move it . . .”

Making a face as he skidded to a halt just outside the door of the room where it sat, legs bent and splayed on either side, hands shackled before it with its head down so low that its hair spread over the floor around it. The room reeked of bile, and not one of the researchers seemed willing to step foot inside, though he highly doubted that it was the demon that kept them at bay nearly as much as it was the idea of being puked on that did it.

Kurt snorted loudly and pinned Harlan with a glower. “And just what the hell am I supposed to do with it?” he snapped.

Harlan shrugged and took a step back. “You can put her in her cage, can’t you?”

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell the bastard to do it his damn self. Before he got a chance to, Harlan mumbled something about a business dinner that he was already late for and that he’d see Kurt in the morning.

Shaking his head as the rest of the team followed suit, Kurt heaved a disgusted sigh and dropped his knapsack on the floor before stepping into the room.

He took about three steps, the sound of his boots echoing off the cement floor, then stopped short when the little demon lurched to the side, barely managing to catch itself on its hands as it reared up on its knees and heaved almost pitifully. He wasn’t sure if it was better or worse that it had nothing left to purge, and as he stood there, watching it, he couldn’t help the grimace that enveloped his features.

It didn’t make sense, did it? Harlan had said that they were testing its hearing, hadn’t he? So why was the creature so sick?

He was almost inclined to think that it had something to do with the sandwich he’d fed it the night before, but then, he was fine, wasn’t he, and he’d eaten some of it, too . . .

It had seemed fine this morning when he’d left, hadn’t it? Awake, alert, it had sat in its cage, content to look around and watch as he double checked the cage as well as the security walls. It had watched with avid interest as he’d inspected the doorway barrier, too. In fact, he’d checked everything in the holding area, making sure that nothing needed to be fixed or replaced, and it had cooperated completely, if not even a bit easily, when he’d demanded that it scoot out of the cage, feet first so that he could fasten the ankle chains on it before he allowed it to go to the bathroom . . .

Something had definitely happened, hadn’t it?

Scowling at the stench that choked him, he rubbed his forehead and weighed his options. He really didn’t like the idea of staying in this room. There was too much stuff that the demon could grab and use to its advantage if he weren’t careful, and the room, itself, was far too small, and while that might limit the demon, it also limited him. The problem was that he wasn’t overly keen on the idea of being vomited on if he tried to move it, but the smell was entirely overwhelming in here, turning his stomach unpleasantly as he tried his hardest not to breathe too deeply.

“Turn . . . it . . . off . . .”

Kurt blinked and glanced at the demon, not entirely certain that he’d really heard it speak. Barely above a whisper—more of a breath or exhalation than spoken words. He shook his head and stared at it. “Turn what off?”

Uttering a soft whine, ears flattened against its head, it forced its eyes open painfully slowly. “Turn it . . . off . . .”

Damn it!’ he thought as he realized that those idiot researchers must’ve left some sort of sound on, Kurt shot the demon a darkened scowl then turned on his heel to stride into the adjacent booth . A modified sound board not unlike those used at recording studios had been left on, the needle on the indicator dancing erratically up near the red zone. Muttering curses under his breath since he had no idea what button or knob worked the sounds that it could hear even if he couldn’t, he glanced through the one way mirror before running his hand under the row of knobs, turning them all counterclockwise.   The dancing needle faltered then dropped. A moment later, he flicked off the main power then heaved a sigh as he strode out of the booth.

“Can you stand up?” he asked. He figured that it couldn’t, but asked anyway.

It tried to comply but didn’t get far. The exertion brought on another round of heaving. Deciding against trying to move it, Kurt looked around and frowned. This room wasn’t equipped with a hose, probably because of the sensitive equipment in the booth, but the smell was overwhelming. Even if it did throw up again, at least he could clean it up in the holding area, which was a far sight better than enduring the stench until it felt up to moving on its own.

There just was no help for it, was there?

He started to haul it over his shoulder but thought better of it since the added pressure on its stomach could not possibly help the situation. It whimpered and moaned but didn’t fight him at all as he scooped it up, trying his damndest not to breathe as he strode out of the room.

He grimaced. It really was tiny, wasn’t it? He hadn’t really noticed that before . . . If it weighed more than eighty-five pounds, he’d eat his knapsack, and that . . . that was because it hadn’t been eating, wasn’t it? It . . . it hadn’t felt that light before, damn it, and now . . . It leaned against him without even trying to give any kind of token resistance, almost . . . almost trustingly . . . like a . . . a . . .

His frown darkened. ‘Like a . . . child . . .’

Somehow, that idea didn’t sit well with him, either.

He stifled a sigh. Even if he didn’t like the thought, it had lied to him about its kind not needing to eat, and that knowledge only served to tick him off just a little more. ‘Stupid . . . stupid demon . . .’

Luckily, he managed to get down the hall and into the holding area before it pushed against him. Striding over to the trash can, he leaned it over, gritting his teeth as it heaved again then spit. A few more steps put it back in its cage, where it huddled against the far corner with its ears still flattened against its head.

He spared a moment to lock the cage but didn’t bother to bring up the security walls before he hurried out to gather his things.

It still hadn’t moved when he returned to the room a few minutes later. He almost thought that it had fallen asleep when it moaned quietly.

Was its sense of hearing really so acute that the sounds that it had been subjected to could make it physically ill? Crossing his arms over his chest as he stared at the huddled form, he thought that maybe it was possible. He wasn’t sure how bad the noise was that it had asked him to shut off. He hadn’t heard a thing, had he?

That was interesting, he decided. He’d never actually thought that those monsters could be susceptible to something like that, had he? He’d never considered it, really . . .

He considered cleaning up the examination room for all of thirty seconds before discarding that idea altogether. They were the ones stupid enough to leave the sound on that made the demon sick, in the first place, weren’t they? They could just clean up after it, too . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Here.”

Kichiro glanced up and took the Styrofoam cup from Gunnar, frowning at it for a moment before he lifted it to his lips.

“I hate this place,” he muttered, flicking his ears to shake off the snow that had settled on them in the few minutes that he’d been waiting on the cold metal bench.

Gunnar sat beside him and nodded, slowly sipping his coffee as tendrils of steam rose from the tiny holes in the lid. “Me, too.”

Kichiro sighed. He hated waiting, too, and that was what they were doing at the moment: waiting. Because neither Ryomaru nor InuYasha were entirely fluent in English, they’d figured that it’d be best to split up, which meant that Gunnar would be heading out with Ryomaru while Kichiro was paired up with InuYasha. At least, that was the story they’d come up with. Kichiro had a feeling that there was more to it than that. Gaze shifting up and down the street, wishing and praying that he’d see the familiar streak of silver hair that he knew so well . . . Kami, he felt as though he were going crazy . . .

“We’ll find her,” Gunnar said quietly as he scowled at his coffee cup.

Kichiro shot him a quick glance. “Yeah, I know,” he murmured.

“She’s a smart girl,” he went on. “I remember the first time she came back from a hunt—she brought in a youkai for questioning . . . old buffalo youkai . . . We’d tried to get him to come in for years, but he never would. Sam convinced him, and when I asked him why he’d agreed, he said that he just trusted her.”

“I’m not worried that someone would trust her,” Kichiro admitted with a shake of his head. “But she tends to trust everyone else, too . . . and that scares the hell out of me.”

Gunnar didn’t get a chance to reply when Ryomaru and InuYasha strode out of the alley beside them. “No luck?” Ryomaru asked in lieu of a proper greeting.

“Keh!” InuYasha snorted as his eyes darted up and down the busy street. “Would’ve been sooner if I didn’t have to waste time talking to your father-in-law,” he complained. “Damn that Zelig . . . if he’s so damn concerned, why don’t he get his ass out here to look, too?”

“You know why, Uncle, and if I recall rightly, you agreed with the rest of them at the time,” Gunnar pointed out rather acerbically.

Ryomaru shook his head, draping his hands on his hips as he, like his father, took his time as his gaze roamed up and down the street. “There’s still a few decent hours of daylight left,” he interrupted. “How ‘bout we make use of ‘em?”

Gunnar nodded as he got to his feet. “We’ll call if we find anything.”

InuYasha grunted as the two strode away. “How’s your mate, pup?” he asked.

Kichiro stood, tossing the cup into a nearby trashcan. “She’s all right,” he said. “She’s stronger than people think she is.”

“So’s your mama,” InuYasha allowed as he fell into step beside his son.

“Speaking of Mama, she said that the ofuda was definitely a barrier anchor.”

InuYasha nodded. “Figured as much. That damned monk used to harass me with ‘em—him and that old hag, Kaede.”

“Belle says . . . she says that Sam’s fine. She says she can feel her . . .” Kichiro ventured.

InuYasha nodded. “Sounds ‘bout right. Your mama could always tell when any of you got in over your heads, too.”

“Except for Gin.”

InuYasha shot him a quick glance. “Hell . . . I think your sister . . . No one thought she’d do something that damn stupid.”

“It’s not the same,” Kichiro finally muttered as they ducked into an alley to vault onto the building. “All the idiotic things we’ve done . . . we’ve done them to ourselves . . .”

“Keh!” InuYasha snorted as he landed beside Kichiro atop the building. “And you think that matters?’ It don’t. When it’s your pup, it don’t.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Samantha slowly opened her eyes, sighing heavily in the welcome silence. She didn’t remember coming back here. To be honest, she didn’t remember a hell of a lot about anything. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She did remember some of it. She remembered being shackled and then being led into the examination room. She’d figured that it was just more of the same and had been bracing herself for it. To her surprise, though, they’d shackled her legs to the iron loop embedded in the wall, followed by the collar that they’d secured to a chain hanging from the ceiling. Locked into place, she couldn’t do much more than just stand there, but it hadn’t taken long before she figured out exactly what they’d had in mind as they affixed sensors to her body at various points to get accurate readings on her reactions.

Oh, it hadn’t been too bad in the beginning. Playing a series of tones that she recognized easily enough as being a standard hearing test, she’d simply stood there, expression blank.

But as the minutes then hours ticked away, the researchers had gradually increased the sounds, ranging from low tones that she barely heard to the loudest, most obnoxious tones that jarred through her with a painful clarity.

She didn’t know when she’d started to feel sick. Unable to block out the barrage of sound, she’d felt her legs giving way. She vaguely remembered feeling as though she were going to choke to death when her knees finally buckled, as she’d remained there, suspended by the collar. Her already weakened body just couldn’t hold up, she’d realized, and she’d nearly passed out when they had finally unfastened the collar, letting her crumple to the floor.

The thing was, that didn’t stop them, either. Intent on continuing their tests, she supposed, they’d continued to inundate her with sound—sounds so high in pitch that she knew that they couldn’t hear it, and to her mortification, she hadn’t been able to stop herself when the first waves of nausea hit her hard.

Everything after that, though, was pretty much a blur. She vaguely recalled one of the guards unfastening her ankles when they tried to get her back to the holding room. She sort of remembered tugging off the sensors and tossing them away, herself. The weak and blurry image of the holy man’s face swam in and out of her conscious, and she thought that maybe she’d asked him to turn the sound off, though that might have just been wishful thinking—something she’d wanted to do but couldn’t.

Still, she knew that he had been the one to bring her back here. That was enough.

Drawing a tentative breath, she pushed herself up. Her head felt heavy, and her throat still hurt from the collar, but she supposed that those things were pretty incidental, really.

The panel slid open, and he pushed a fresh bowl of water into the cage. She stared at it for a moment before willing her body to move. The first couple mouthfuls, though, she swished around and spit out, wishing that she had a toothbrush or some gum—anything to get rid of the nasty taste that lingered.

It was strange, the things that she found that she missed; the simplest things, really. Toothbrushes or soap . . . a soft, warm towel or a fresh cup of coffee . . . the smell of a summer breeze blowing straight off the ocean or the gentle sound of laughter . . . the freshness of a spring rain or the crisp cold of a winter storm . . . the crackle of a fire, the rustle of autumn leaves . . . the burn in her muscles after a good, long run . . . simple things: beautiful things . . .

Things that felt a little further away with the passage of every single day. ‘We’re . . . not made for this . . . to endure this . . . We’re . . . not . . .’

The confines of this place, the limitations that she couldn’t control . . . Youkai weren’t meant to survive like this, and she knew that, too.

What she couldn’t understand was why, exactly, she didn’t mind it—at least, not as much as she ought to. She ought to loathe the constraints, shouldn’t she? She should . . .

She should hate . . .

Grimacing at the vehemence of her own thoughts, Samantha bit her lip, stared at her weak and distorted reflection in the mirror of the water’s surface. It was odd, wasn’t it? A little dirty, a little smudged, but really, she didn’t look that different . . .

“Take these.”

Samantha blinked and lifted her chin to stare at the fingers stuck into the cage. He held out two nondescript white tablets, and when she made no move to take them right away, he shook his hand impatiently.

“W-what . . .?”

“Ibuprofen,” he muttered. “Should help your head.”

She smiled despite the ache in her skull. “I thought . . . you hated me . . .” she teased.

He snorted loudly and shook his hand again. “I do,” he insisted. “I just don’t feel like cleaning up after you if you throw up again.”

Well, she figured, that was better than nothing, and at this point, she would take whatever she could get. Accepting the medicine despite her general dislike of such things, she stuck them in her mouth and downed a few drinks of water. “I don’t like those,” she said as she wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “They always make my head feel thick . . .”

“Why won’t you talk to them? The researchers?” he asked suddenly, and judging from the expression on his face, he had surprised himself by asking it.

She shrugged and set the bowl aside. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint them,” she replied, only half joking. “They seem to like to think that I’m an animal.”

He snorted again, shaking his head as though he’d found something she’d said to be utterly ridiculous.   “Demons aren’t even worthy of being compared to animals,” he stated though his tone lacked any real rancor. Disgust, sure, and even a hint of irritation, but the way he’d said it—as if it were known fact he was quoting—didn’t bother her.

“And you think I’m a demon.”

“You are a demon.”

She shook her head. “I told you before. I’m hanyou.”

He sighed and braced his fingertips against the floor to push himself to his feet. “Look, I don’t give a damn, what you call yourself. I know what you are, and I know what your kind is capable of, so don’t try to play your mind games with me.”

“I’m not that good at mind games,” she admitted quietly. The look he shot her told her quite plainly that he didn’t believe her, and she figured that was all right, too. She honestly hadn’t expected him to, anyway.

He said nothing else as he headed back over to the desk once more. Shaking out his newspaper, he seemed content to ignore her. She frowned. He seemed to read the paper every night, she’d noticed, which made her wonder why he didn’t just get a digital reader like most people. Sure, the papers were still printed on a daily basis for those who choose to buy it sporadically, but most people who read the paper every day tended to buy the readers instead since the subscriptions overall were far cheaper in the long run . . .

Then again, maybe it didn’t surprise her that much. He struck her as an old fashioned sort, didn’t he?

Sam . . . we have to talk.’

Wrinkling her nose at the incursion of her youkai voice, Samantha heaved an inward sigh and waited patiently.

You need to stop fixating on him. I don’t think he was joking when he said that he didn’t like you.

No, she didn’t think he was joking, either, but somehow, she didn’t quite think that he really meant it, even if he thought he did or wanted to . . .

Don’t be stupid! You’re here because he put you here!

And she had to allow that that was true, too. Still, she knew that there was more to it. She wasn’t sure how she knew that, but she did. She knew . . .

“Stop staring at me,” he growled without lowering the paper.

Samantha bit her lip, her cheeks pinking almost instantly as she forced herself to look away.

But he has been decent to me,’ she rationalized to herself.

Because he has let you go to the bathroom? That’s being nice, is it?

Isn’t it?’ she countered angrily. Maybe it wasn’t a huge allowance, especially since he’d completely shackled her beforehand, but it was enough—more than enough. It was enough to let her retain some small measure of her dignity, wasn’t it, and even if he had much simpler motives for the actions, that just didn’t matter; not really.

Stop trying to make excuses for him, and concentrate on what matters, can’t you? We need to get out of here! You know it, and I know it, too! We can’t stay here—we really can’t. If we stay in here . . .’

Her youkai didn’t need to finish that statement. In her heart, Samantha knew that it was true. Staying here . . .

Rubbing her arms against the chill that was never very far away, Samantha deliberately forced herself to think about other things since dwelling on those aspects was just not good for her. She hoped that Sydnie wasn’t letting herself get too worried. She didn’t need to be thinking about Samantha when she had much more important things—things like her unborn child—to consider . . . and Bas should be there with her, shouldn’t he? Gunnar . . . she’d never really gotten a good feel for him. Certainly, she respected his abilities, and yes, she spoke with him whenever they were in the same room, but there was always a certain level of awe, she supposed, the residual effect of having grown up so much later than them, maybe . . . Her grandfather, InuYasha . . . Kami, he’d hated it when she’d told him that she wanted to be a hunter. Worse, he’d just stared at her then nodded, but she hadn’t missed the heightened brightness that he’d masked in his gaze . . . Aunts and uncles, cousins, everyone . . .

All of her family . . . they worried her. The last thing she wanted was for them to drop everything, just to look for her. If her thoughts were like the ocean, would they reach them one day?

Besides . . . the holy man had brought others here, hadn’t he? She’d gotten that impression from the few things he’d said. It stood to reason, didn’t it? If he had, if she weren’t the first, then he very likely had done something to ensure that she couldn’t be found, anyway . . .

A slow sense of melancholy crept up her spine—a melancholy so fierce that she had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep herself from screaming out loud. For a girl from a large extended family, she couldn’t help the overwhelming sense of loneliness that ate away at her. All her life, she’d been surrounded by people who loved her, even in those few times when she’d thought that she was isolated. Even then, she’d felt them—the warmth of their presences, even if they weren’t right there with her. She’d never, ever felt their absences as deeply as she did at that moment . . .

And she realized then with a poignant clarity that she really and truly was alone.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Come on, son . . . It’s not polite to stare at people . . .”

Dragging his eyes off the creature standing in the line at the Hotter Totter’s booth at the North Dakota State Fair when his father grasped his hand to pull him away, Kurt blinked and shook his head. “Daddy?

Yes?

What was that?

Doug Drevin stopped and shot him a quick glance—a wary glance. “What was what?” he asked, his tone oddly strained as he hurried Kurt along a little faster.

Kurt glanced over his shoulder only to find the monster staring right at him. “It looks like E.T. only bigger,” Kurt mused.

Your mother’s probably waiting for us near the bathrooms,” his father went on, ignoring Kurt’s assessment.

It looked all scaly,” Kurt continued.

Did it?” Doug asked distractedly.

Yeah, like a snake man or a lizard . . . Why didn’t he have skin?

Doug glanced over his shoulder as he tugged Kurt along a little faster. Catching Kurt’s gaze, he tried to smile. The smile was thin, weak . . . and the expression in his eyes was a mask of horrified dismay. “Uh, Kurt . . . Oh! There’s Mommy! Hurry up.”

Frowning at his father’s strange preoccupation, Kurt hurried along beside him.

I wanna wide the horsies!” Caroline hollered as she hopped up and down. Kurt made a face. He most certainly didn’t want to ride a silly carousel . . .

Sweetie . . . why don’t we go back to the hotel? I’ve got a, uh, headache . . .”

Lainie Drevin’s eyebrows drew together in a concerned frown. “Oh . . . okay . . . I’ve got some Tylenol in my purse . . . Let me –”

Doug forced a weak laugh, shuffling his feet as he glanced around with his hands on his hips. “It’s okay; it’s fine . . . I’d rather lie down, I think. You know how those migraines can be . . .”

Lainie stared at him for a minute then nodded slowly. “Okay . . . Come on, Carrie . . . We’ll ride the horsies another time.”

Mom?” Kurt piped up suddenly, raising his voice to be heard over his sister’s angry protests.

Hmm?

He pulled his hand away from his father’s grasp and dashed forward to catch up with his mother. “Did you see the lizard-man, too?

Lizard . . .? No . . . no, I didn’t . . .” she replied vaguely as she quickened her pace. Forcing a strangely bright laugh, she shook her head as she scooped up Caroline and kept moving. “You know, Doug, I . . . I just remembered that I forgot to check the garage door before we left home . . .”

“Houshi-sama?”

The quiet voice seemed to drag him up through the stifling layers of sleep that enveloped him. The lingering memory clung to him tightly—too tightly—as he struggled against it.

The sounds of that day seemed to have convoluted in his head: insane sounds . . . the canned music of the midway, the screech and clank of the mechanical rides, the distant hum of a thousand voices . . . a droning incontinence in a wash of white noise . . .

It had followed them, hadn’t it? Through the crowds, along the walkways, the exits to the enclosed fair grounds . . .

“Houshi-sama . . .?”

That voice—again, that voice . . .

As though he were suddenly floating: floating above the throngs of people . . . that voice was calling to him, softly but steadily . . .

“Are you all right? Houshi-sama . . .”

His eyes flashed open, and he sat up straight, his heart hammering against his ribs with a painful intensity. Half forgotten details that he hadn’t really considered beckoned him, reminding him of things that he hadn’t remembered for so long . . .

The . . . the State Fair . . .’

He hadn’t understood why his father had been so worried at the time, had he? He hadn’t understood why his father had looked so horrified . . .

He hadn’t wanted Kurt to see those demons, had he?   He’d never wanted Kurt to see them, and Kurt, at that time, hadn’t realized that not everyone could see the things that he could.

And they’d only gone back to the hotel long enough to gather their things and check out. Doug Drevin had been afraid, hadn’t he? Afraid that the beasts had realized that Kurt could see them . . . and maybe afraid that they’d realize that he could see them, too . . .

But Kurt also couldn’t remember a time that he hadn’t been able to see them. Still, it was strange. The little demon still looked the same to him as it had the first time he’d gotten a good look at it. It shouldn’t look like that, and he knew it. It shouldn’t, but it did. Why? A violent surge of utter rage shot through him. Why could it hide the things that he knew had to be there? Why could it hide the grotesque features, the hideous reminder that it certainly was not human? Why did it have to look so much like a . . . a . . .?

Drawing a deep breath, he deliberately told himself not to think about it; not to consider what it really looked like. Those things—those vile, malignant beasts . . .

A strange and unsettling thought occurred to him, and he couldn’t help it as he shifted his gaze without raising his head, stared at the demon with mounting suspicion. Were they . . . evolving . . .?

It stood to reason, didn’t it? Every living form, even humans, evolved. With every passing generation, things subtly changed. It had been so since the beginning of time. If that were true, then it would mean that those damnable monsters could, too . . . Was that it? Was that why he’d sensed such a different kind of power of late . . .?

No,’ he thought, tucking his head securely between his raised hands, digging his fingers into his hair as a roughened groan slipped from him.   It should have been enough that they already possessed strange powers that defied human reason. It should have been enough that they were stronger than anything had a right to be. It should have been enough that they possessed no remorse for the things they did and the lives they destroyed. It should have been enough . . .

“You’re all right, aren’t you?”

Caught off guard by the softly uttered question, Kurt lifted his head, stared incredulously at the little demon. Sitting calmly, docilely, in the cage, it stared at him, its dark blue eyes candid if not a little concerned.

The concern, however, set him off, bringing forth an unnatural rage that seethed from deep within him. “Shut up,” he snarled, his voice gravely, low. “Just shut up!”

It blinked at him, the concern in its gaze taking on a certain sadness that only served to further his outrage. Gritting his teeth as he turned his face away, he forced back the bitterness that ate at him. He had to get out of there, didn’t he? Had to put some distance between them before he gave in to the rage.

Pushing himself to his feet, he stomped toward the door without any real destination in mind, pausing only long enough to activate the security walls and the barrier that covered the exit. Then he strode out of the room and down the long corridor, following the artificial glow given off by the vending machines that stood across from the elevators. Digging into his pocket for change, he dropped in enough for a cup of coffee and let out a deep breath.

Damn it . . .’

He couldn’t deal with it, could he? The anger, the rage . . . the hurtful memories . . .

It was because of that demon, wasn’t it? All the memories, all the nightmares . . . the things he’d tried his entire life to forget . . . Everything was being dragged up all over again because of it.

Watching absently as a waxed paper cup dropped down and slowly filled with coffee, he shook his head. He couldn’t do it anymore, could he? He couldn’t keep coming in here to watch that thing, no matter how much money it might cost him. That thing was entirely far too dangerous to his sanity . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“So you are telling me that you know nothing.”

Cain’s gaze fell away as he nodded once, feeling the bitter surge of frustration well up deep inside. He was becoming far too friendly with that emotion, but standing there facing the one being who even came close to intimidating him was harder than he’d anticipated.

Sesshoumaru inclined his head, his expression completely devoid of any trace of what he was thinking. “Nothing.”

Cain drew a deep breath. “Nothing,” he allowed. “Well, we figure that she’s being hidden,” he went on with a shake of his head. “A barrier or something. Kagome wants to go, but InuYasha insists that it’s too dangerous. She thinks that she might be able to help locate the barrier, if there is one. I can’t help but wonder if she could be right, and at this point . . .”

“At this point, you believe that the potential outweighs the unforeseen risk.”

Cain nodded. “Yeah.”

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond right away. Striding over to the wall of windows, he intently stared at the falling snow. “It frustrates me to rely upon the miko in this,” he admitted at length. “She has done enough.”

“Naraku, you mean.”

“And there are no other options.”

Rubbing his forehead with a slightly shaking hand—a silent testament to the sleepless nights that he’d sat up, staring at the phone and willing it to ring—Cain shook his head. “Options? There haven’t been any real ones from the start.”

Sesshoumaru nodded as though he’d figured that, too. “I trust that her mate can see to her safety.”

A soft knock interrupted the conversation. A moment later, Gin peeked around the door with an apologetic little smile. She looked like she was ready to retreat if given the word, but Cain forced a small smile to draw her forward.

She stepped inside with a tray of coffee and a small plate of various cookies and mini-muffins. “I thought you could use a break,” she murmured as she slipped the tray onto the desk and reached for the porcelain carafe. “It’s good to see you, Uncle. Your flight was all right?”

Sesshoumaru turned and stared at her, his eyes taking on a slight glow as he nodded at Gin. “It was fine,” he assured her. “I trust you’re keeping her out of mischief,” he said.

Cain shrugged and accepted the cup of coffee she offered him. “She’s an Izayoi. I don’t think it’s possible to keep her out of mischief.”

“Cain!” she chided, her cheeks pinking, shooting him a chagrined sort of look as she presented a cup to her uncle. “I don’t get into mischief,” she assured him.

Sesshoumaru took the cup and nodded. “Less than your brothers, in any case.”

Gin heaved a sigh designed to let them know how sorely put-upon she felt at the perceived slight. Cain’s smile widened just a touch as he pulled her over to kiss her forehead before she slipped out of the room with a wiggle of her fingers and a soft little giggle.

“She has not changed,” Sesshoumaru remarked as he shifted his gaze away from the door.

“Yeah,” Cain agreed.

“And she is holding up well, it seems.”

“A little too well,” Cain muttered as he lifted the coffee to his lips.

“What does that mean?”

Letting out a deep breath as his smile faded, as he stared thoughtfully at his cup, Cain shook his head slowly. “She tries to be everything that anyone might need,” he said in an almost distracted tone of voice. “Bellaniece needs a friend . . . her mother needs a daughter . . . Jillian needs reassurance, and Evan . . . God only knows what he’s ever thinking, but it’s never anything he’s willing to tell Gin, and even if he would, he’d never tell me . . . Sydnie needs a mother . . . Bas tries not to need a damn thing . . . and all the while, she plays the hostess, and she says that everything will be just fine, but . . . But she’s worried, too, and I know she is, and she won’t tell me that, either.” Shuffling over to the fireplace, Cain set the mug on the mantle and busied himself by dropping a couple hunks of wood on the dying flames, but he didn’t stand up right away, staring at the fire without seeing it at all. “Isabelle and Alexandra act like strangers, exchanging only the most necessary of words . . . Everyone’s walking around on eggshells, afraid to offend or upset someone else, and Gin . . . Gin’s answer is just to try even harder . . .”

“And you try harder because she does.”

Uttering a half-hearted chuckle, Cain shook his head, propping his elbow on his knee and rubbing his forehead. “I told her the other night that if she wanted to say something to me, I’d listen . . . You know . . . You know what she did?”

Pivoting on the balls of his feet when Sesshoumaru didn’t respond, Cain barked out a harsh laugh as devoid of humor as it was full of irony. “She baked me a cake, of course.”

Sesshoumaru chuckled—a rare sound coming from the formidable man. “Perhaps you are interpreting things wrong,” he remarked at length as he sipped his coffee. “Perhaps it is not that she needs to be these things for everyone else. Perhaps, in truth, she needs to be these things for herself.”

Cain considered that and nodded. In truth, he hadn’t actually thought about it that way. Overly concerned that she was simply brushing aside the things that he knew to be true, he hadn’t stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, she was dealing with the situation the only way she knew how.

Even still, it didn’t alleviate the oppressive feeling that everything was desperately wrong, and that feeling . . . God, he hated it . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“I quit.”

Dr. Harlan stopped with his coffee mug hovering near his lips as he slowly shook his head. “Quit?” he echoed. “Wh-what do you mean, Doc?”

“What do I mean?” he countered with a slight shake of his head. “It’s pretty straight forward, don’t you think? ‘I quit’ normally means that I quit.”

“You can’t quit!” Harlan exclaimed with a very loud, very fake laugh. “We had a deal, and—”

“Don’t tell me about deals,” Kurt interrupted impatiently. “You’re the bastard who keeps altering that deal, aren’t you? Forget it. I changed my mind. You’re going to pay me the rest of what you owe me, and you’re going to find someone else to watch your prize at night.”

Harlan made a face. It was obvious from the panicked expression on his face that the very last thing that he wanted to do was to try to find someone else to watch the little demon. Too bad Kurt didn’t really give a damn . . . “You know as well as I do that this is highly sensitive research. We can’t trust just anyone with the information, and you saw for yourself that someone else might not be able to handle her. You were right; she seems to be quite powerful, but—”

“And you’re missing the point! I hunt those things—that’s all I do. The rest of it is yours, not mine.”

“But without you—”

“Look . . . Authorize the rest of my payment unless you’d really like to see how long this place stays standing once I remove the barrier outside,” Kurt warned.

Harlan looked like he was going to panic for a few minutes before a strange sort of glint entered his expression. “You’re scared of her, aren’t you? Scared that you can’t handle her!”

It took every last bit of Kurt’s self-restraint to keep from beating the old bastard senseless. Narrowing his eyes, gritting his teeth, he planted his hands on the desk and leaned in close—close enough that it caused the self-serving smirk on the good doctor’s face to falter as he sat back. He could see every spidery blood vessel just beneath the thinning surface of Harlan’s face, could “I’m not afraid of that thing in the least . . . but then, I’m not the one grasping at straws because you’re too damn stupid to admit that you’re afraid of it.”

Harlan opened and closed his mouth a few times before clearing his throat and pasting on a tepid smile. “Okay, Doc, I’ll admit it. She’s . . . creepy . . . That’s a good word for it. Anyway, I’d like for you to reconsider. After all, it’d be a shame if I had to call the others and tell them that you’ve become . . . unreliable.”

“Unreliable? Is that so?” Kurt countered quietly. “You think they’ll believe you?”

“You think they won’t?”

“I think you’re bluffing,” Kurt retorted.

Harlan shook his head but only shrugged. “But you don’t want to find out, do you? As I see it, we need each other, right? You need us. We pay you, and we need you or else we don’t get the demons . . . Why are we arguing, anyway?”

Kurt could think of a few reasons why they would be arguing, but he leaned back just a little.

“I can offer you a raise; would that be acceptable?”

Kurt stared at him for a moment. “You really haven’t been listening to me, have you? I told you, I—”

“Think about it, why don’t you? A nice, fat raise on top of the amount we agreed on . . . not such a bad deal, is it?” Harlan straightened his tie and pasted on an indulgent smile.

Kurt narrowed his eyes on the man and slowly shook his head.

Harlan held out his hands in a pleading gesture and shrugged. “Look . . . if you’re not scared of her, then you really don’t have anything to lose, do you? You can’t tell me that hunting like you do in the dead of winter really appeals to you, does it? Think about it . . . I’m offering you a nice, steady income, and all you have to do is sit in a room all night and make sure that our girl doesn’t do anything stupid . . . Is that really so tough?”

Kurt snorted, more at the girl reference than in response to anything else that Harlan had said. Without bothering to reply, he turned on his heel and headed for the door, stopping just long enough to grab his knapsack off the table nearby before striding out of the office and down the hall toward the elevator.

That was the problem, wasn’t it? He wasn’t afraid of it. He never had been. In fact, he sincerely doubted that he actually possessed the capacity to fear anything at all anymore. After all, fear was a conditioned response when one felt threatened, right? Kurt hadn’t actually felt threatened for a very long time, not really. To be honest, he hadn’t actually felt real fear in years . . .

Because he wasn’t afraid of death . . . that was the real reason that he feared nothing. If he died, it wouldn’t matter, aside from the idea that he had yet to find the ones responsible for murdering his family. If he found them tomorrow—if he destroyed them—he wouldn’t have anything left.

He’d dedicated his entire life to hunting down and summarily destroying those demons, and if the only reason he had to get up in the morning was the potential to find them, then he’d figured that was enough, too.

If I stop coming here, then I can resume my search, can’t I?

That was true, of course. He could. Still, he knew damn well that there was more that he could learn just from observing the little demon . . . things like weaknesses that they might possess—things he might not have considered before, like its susceptibility to extreme noise . . . What else could he learn?

Digging his hands into his jacket pockets as he stepped out of the building and onto the pavement, Kurt frowned when his fingers wrapped around a bottle. Tugging it free, he stared at it for a moment, unable to place what it was or where it had come from.

Then he remembered. He’d gotten the bottle out of the little demon’s belongings, hadn’t he? He’d stuck them in his pocket as an afterthought a couple days ago, thinking that he could steal some time in one of the labs to run a more in-depth analysis on the pills. That was the night that he’d come in, only to find that it was sick, so he’d forgotten to test them . . .

Staring at the bottle, turning it over in his hand, he considered his options and sighed. Common sense told him not to ever go back, but damned if he wasn’t entirely too curious about the pills, especially after the little demon had gone to such lengths to avoid eating or drinking the tainted food the researchers had given it . . .

Heaving a sigh, Kurt shook his head and stuffed the bottle into his pocket once more. In for a penny; in for a pound—wasn’t that the old phrase? And if he were stuck in it for a penny, he might as well take the pound, too . . . Besides, he reasoned as he pulled the front of his jacket a little closer around himself, Memories were just memories, and despite what he might think when the lights were out, they really couldn’t hurt him, either . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Fourteen twenty-two, please.”

Digging into his wallet for a ten and a rather crumpled five, Kurt handed it to the girl and waited for his change.

“You’re number ninety-seven. Please step down, and wait for us to call your number.”

It was a pain in the ass, wasn’t it? It was Thanksgiving, for chrissakes! What the hell were all these people doing, out and about, anyway?

The restaurant was inordinately busy, considering it was a holiday. For a guy who wasn’t particularly fond of crowds, anyway, the added stress was taking a serious toll on him.

When he was small, he remembered hearing his mother complain once because all the stores were closed. She’d run out of eggs and needed some for the turkey dressing she was making, and Kurt and his father had driven all over Crosby, trying to find somewhere that was open. In the end, they’d stopped just outside of town at a small farm that normally sold fresh eggs at the summer farmers’ market, and Doug had wheedled half a dozen eggs out of the farmer’s wife while Kurt sat in the car flipping through the radio stations.

It just proved that city folk were a strange breed. It amazed him, how many people would rather eat precooked dinners than make their own. He wasn’t nearly as picky, though, which was why he was standing in line at Burger King.

Besides, he had to get to the damn facility. No rest for the wicked, he supposed . . .

He was still of two minds about it. Even when he’d grabbed his knapsack off the table in the ramshackle apartment, he hadn’t been sure that he really was going to go back. He didn’t really care about Harlan’s threats. Even if he did spout off about Kurt, the other places would change their tunes as soon as the needed demons and realized that no one else could supply them.

And if they didn’t . . . well, he’d figure that out, too. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there were things that he could find out from that little demon; things that could help him in his quest to find the ones who had destroyed his family . . .

“Number ninety-seven! Ninety-seven!”

Kurt stepped up and muttered a terse ‘thank you’ as he took the bag from the girl and turned to go. Maneuvering through the crowd, though, was a study in patience, and it took almost five minutes just to reach the doors. By the time he did, his patience was wearing thin, and he shoved the door open without paying much attention, blinking quickly as his senses lurched violently, as his eyes shot up to meet those of a very tall, very large . . . demon . . .?

“Oh, sorry, man,” the demon said, offering him a quick smile despite its slightly haggard appearance, overall.

Kurt backed out of the building without taking his eyes off the demon, unsure exactly what to think. It had talked, hadn’t it? It had actually apologized despite the fact that Kurt was the one who had bumped into it with the door . . . What the hell was going on . . .?

Ducking his head, he turned and quickened his pace as he strode away, opting at the last moment to hop on the bus that was just stopping nearby. He didn’t care where it went, did he? He dropped money for the fare into the tray beside the driver and hurriedly dropped into the first vacant seat he could find. Peering out the window, he grimaced. That demon was still standing outside the restaurant with a strange expression on its face, as though it had recognized something about him, and beside it . . . Kurt narrowed his eyes, unsure whether or not he honestly could believe exactly what he saw. ‘Two . . .?’

Clenching his jaw, Kurt shook his head. Way too many things bothered him about that, didn’t it? Had he been so preoccupied with simply getting out of the busy restaurant to have noticed the excessive power in that demon’s aura? He really hadn’t thought it was possible, had he? After sensing the little demon’s tremendous power, he had honestly thought that there couldn’t possibly be a stronger aura, hadn’t he?

Damn it, he had been wrong. The one outside the restaurant . . . ‘Shit . . .’

And the other one didn’t look much better, in his honest opinion. Even through the distance that separated them, coupled with the barrier presented by the tempered glass windows of the bus, he could feel it, couldn’t he? The combined strength of the two of them . . . Hell if it wasn’t just a little frightening . . .

Even if it hadn’t been remarkably strong in aura, though, he still would have noticed it. Damn it, that one had really been huge—tall and wide. Long hair mere shades darker than its golden eyes—startling eyes . . . and the second one—the one he hadn’t seen at all when he’d gotten out of the restaurant—it wasn’t that much shorter than the first one though it definitely wasn’t nearly as broad of build as the first, but it had the same unsettling eyes though it had black hair, and worse was the feeling of easy power that fairly exuded from the damned creature . . .

Raking his hand through his hair, Kurt stood up to get off the bus at the next stop. He could see through whatever disguises they donned, couldn’t he? So why . . . ? The black haired one had strange blue lines on its cheeks though he hadn’t been able to discern anything else at that distance, but the first . . .

Damned if that one hadn’t looked entirely human.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“What’s the matter?”

Bas shook his head without taking his eyes off the bus that had just merged into traffic. “That was . . . strange . . .” he allowed almost absently.

“Strange, how?” Toga asked. Something about Sebastian’s demeanor struck him as odd.

The bus turned the corner, and Bas sighed though the troubled expression on his face had yet to diminish. “I don’t know,” he muttered as he stepped back to allow some people who were waiting behind them to enter the restaurant. “Just a . . . feeling . . .”

Tamping down the feeling that he was playing the ‘why’ game with a toddler all over again, Toga shrugged. “What kind of feeling?”

Letting out a deep breath, Bas shook his head again. “That guy . . . didn’t you feel it?”

Toga wasn’t entirely sure what Bas was talking about since he’d lagged a little behind as he talked to Sierra on his cell phone, letting her know how much progress they were—or weren’t, as the case was—making. “I didn’t even see him. Why?”

Bas bit his bottom lip thoughtfully as he considered what he was about to say. “I sensed . . . something,” he explained slowly. “Like a . . . a kind of power.”

Toga frowned as he digested that. “You mean like a spiritual power?”

Bas nodded then grimaced, dragging a hand over his face. The young man desperately needed a good shave, and very likely, a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, Toga knew firsthand that the latter wasn’t likely to happen until the found Samantha and brought her home because he was suffering the same thing, too. Letting out a long sigh, Bas stared at Toga for a moment. “Or maybe it was just wishful thinking . . .”

“Do you really think that?” Toga asked quietly as the two started down the street again.

Bas snorted, the strain of the constant searching starting to show through. “I-I don’t know . . . I mean, I don’t think so, but . . .”

But maybe he wants to believe it too much,’ Toga thought. “Even then . . . did you get a good scent on him?”

Bas shook his head, a hint of irritation entering his gaze. “No, damn it. It was too fast, and . . . and there were a lot of scents coming out of that place, and . . . And damn it!” Stopping abruptly, the future North American tai-youkai raked his hands through his hair in a thoroughly frustrated way. “I didn’t expect . . .”

Toga sighed and clapped his hand on Bas’ shoulder. “You’re second guessing yourself. Don’t do that.”

Letting out a deep breath, Bas stared at Toga for a long moment then nodded. “Yeah . . . Maybe . . . maybe I just thought . . . Hell, I don’t know what I think anymore.”

Toga sighed and nodded, understanding the emotion a little too well. As if the search, itself, weren’t bad enough, Bas’ unborn child had to weigh heavily on his mind, too. “Maybe you should go on back to Maine, at least for a little while.”

Bas uttered a terse laugh and shook his head. “Can’t. Sydnie . . . She blames herself, and if I go back, she’ll insist on coming out here.”

And what could Toga say to that? As Samantha’s boss, it wasn’t entirely surprising that Sydnie would feel that way, even if no one else blamed her for it. In the end, Toga nodded. “Let’s go find the others. Maybe they’ll have an idea about that guy you saw.”

Bas nodded, too, though he still didn’t look entirely convinced. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Or maybe I’m just off my rocker . . .”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

The soft clink of dinnerware echoed in the quiet as Bellaniece lifted her gaze, peering up through her eyelashes at the assemblage of family around the huge Zelig dining table. It was completely wrong, wasn’t it? A holiday meal that just didn’t feel right; not because of who was there, but because of who was not.

Jillian slowly cut a miniscule bit of turkey and stuck it in her mouth, her eyes trained on the sparkling china plate before her. Isabelle sat beside her, pushing her food around more than she was actually eating. Alexandra sat at the opposite end of the table beside Cain, wordlessly sipping a glass of wine while Sierra and Nezumi did their best to eat, too. Gin was sitting at the moment though she kept hopping up to refill glasses or to grab something out of the kitchen that she’d forgotten to set out.   Even Sesshoumaru and Kagura remained silent. Sydnie . . . the poor thing wasn’t even attempting to eat, and Bellaniece frowned. Sydnie had barely said two words to her since she’d arrived from Japan. She blamed herself for Samantha’s disappearance, no matter what anyone said to her . . .

Morio shot Meara a rather guilty sort of look, as though he didn’t think that he belonged there, either. On the other side of him sat Mikio, fiddling with his twitching left ear as he, too, shifted his gaze around the table. He intercepted Bellaniece’s glance and inclined his head just a little, his expression saying the same things that she felt: the entire affair bore more resemblance to some sort of warped play, didn’t it, and the silence was more oppressive than anything that she’d ever felt before . . .

Had it only been a year ago that she’d sat down with Kichiro in the quiet of their home in the forest to a rather modest but entirely warm dinner where laughter and love had been far more prevalent than the necessity of food? Alexandra and John had flown in for the holiday, and Isabelle had called and spent a few hours just talking and laughing and catching up. Samantha had . . .

Of course, she’d called, telling her parents how much she missed them. They’d talked and laughed and reminisced, and in the end, Bellaniece had been so happy . . .

Letting out a deep breath, she shook her head and raised her chin. It was all wrong, wasn’t it? Completely wrong, this air of impending doom . . . Samantha, with her smiles and her laughter, would never, ever want this. Wherever she was, Bellaniece had to believe that Samantha was smiling now, too, laughing the same as she had when she was a little girl and her father would dance with her all over the living room . . .

“You know,” she said in a completely conversational tone, drawing the attention of everyone seated around the table, “I think that I’ll go Christmas shopping tomorrow . . . the malls might have some good sales since it’ll be the first official shopping day . . .”

As if no one else really knew what to say to her, they all exchanged surreptitious glances that Bellaniece supposed that she wasn’t supposed to have noticed, so she smiled brightly and pretended not to, intent on playing out her part.

“If you want to,” Sierra said quietly, tentatively. “I . . . I think that sounds great . . . Don’t you think, Nezumi? Gin . . .?”

Nezumi smiled a little weakly, but nodded. “Oh, uh . . . yeah . . . a lot of fun . . .”

Gin’s smile was bright, hiding her concern a lot better than Bellaniece might have thought possible, though she didn’t miss the quick glance that she shot her mate before replying. “Of course, of course . . . That sounds fantastic!”

Bellaniece’s smile faltered just a little as her eyes flicked over Sydnie and back again. “What about you, Sydnie? Why don’t you come, too?”

The cat-youkai shot her a nervous sort of glance. “I . . .”

“You should . . . have you bought anything for the nursery yet? Daddy’s going to paint it, aren’t you?”

Cain blinked and set his fork down, staring at her for several moments before finally nodding just once. “If you want me to, Sydnie, I’d . . . I’d love to.”

She seemed genuinely surprised by the offer, as though she hadn’t actually considered that Cain would want to do that, and for some reason, that made Bellaniece sad. “Did you have anything special in mind, Sydnie, or are you going to wait until you find out whether you’re having a boy or a girl?”

The abrupt scrape of a chair interrupted the stilted and forced conversation. Without a word, Alexandra stood up and walked out of the room. Bellaniece sighed and watched her go before she started to get up, too. Cain motioned for her to sit back down as he stood up, instead.

He understood what she was trying to do, of course, and he knew that in her own way, Bellaniece was coping, but he also understood Alexandra’s upset because it mirrored his own. Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he followed his granddaughter through the living room and out the glass doors.

She was standing with her arms crossed over her chest, her gaze stubborn, defiant as she stared out over the horizon.   She looked just like her mother, didn’t she? And still . . .

“I take it you don’t think Christmas shopping is a great idea,” he said softly.

She shot him a quelling glance, obviously not appreciating her grandfather’s misplaced attempt at humor. “Everyone acts like nothing matters . . . They all just laugh and joke like everything is just fine, and it’s not.”

“Do you really think that’s what they’re doing?” Cain asked carefully.

She nodded then shook her head and sighed. “I don’t know, Grandpa,” she muttered miserably then drew a deep breath, as though she was trying to get a grip on her rampant emotions, and maybe she was. “I know that’s not what they’re trying to do, but it feels that way, and this dinner . . .”

Cain reached out, grasped her arm to turn her around as he drew her against him in a warm hug. Her entire body seemed to resist him just for a moment before she threw her arms around him, clinging to him so tightly that Cain almost grimaced. “It’s all right, Lex,” he murmured, kissing her forehead as he wished yet again that he could fix the entire situation. “Let me tell you something. I’m not sure that you know it. See . . . a parent never wants to fall apart in front of their child. They’re afraid . . . afraid that it’ll frighten them, you see? But the truth of it is that sometimes . . . sometimes children should see that. They should see that a parent has emotions, too. Thing is, even if the parents know that in their heads, that doesn’t mean that it’s any easier for them to do. Your mother . . . She’s coping the only way she can, just like you are.”

Alexandra nodded slowly, her dark blue eyes so lost, so forlorn that the broke Cain’s heart. “I . . . I just want Sami to come home,” she whispered as the brightness of tears filled her eyes. Nostrils quivering as she fought to keep those tears from falling, she couldn’t hide the unabashed dread in the depths of her, the choking fear that she simply couldn’t deal with. “I want her to, but . . . but I . . .”

“Lexi . . .”

Shaking her head, she spun away suddenly, lifting her hands to cover her face as a harsh sob slipped out of her. “Mama says that she can feel her, and Bitty says she can, too, but . . . I don’t, Grandpa . . . Kami, I don’t, so what . . . what does that . . . mean . . .?”

Taking the two steps that separated them, Cain pulled her back against him again, holding her close as silent tears racked through her. He didn’t know what to say to her, didn’t know how to comfort her, and as a single tear slipped from the corner of his eye, he closed them tightly as he wondered just how much more his family could take . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Hold on, damn it,” Evan muttered as he stumbled toward the door of his hotel room, idly scratching his bare stomach. “I’m comin’ . . .”

Glancing at the clock as he unlocked the door and turned the handle, he made a face. He’d only meant to take a short nap when he’d stretched out a few hours ago. “Shit,” he growled with a heavy dose of self-disgusted as he yanked the door open.

“Bas called,” Gunnar said in lieu of a greeting as he brushed past Evan, stepping into the room. “Said that he thinks he ran into a guy that he thinks had some form of spiritual power, but he couldn’t get a good lock on his scent.”

“Why the fuck not?” Evan growled as he stomped over to snatch a shirt off the rumpled bed.

Gunnar shook his head as he leaned against the wall and waited for his cousin to finish his grouching. “Take it easy, Evan. It was crowded, and the guy took off before Bas could really figure anything out.”

Dragging his hands over his face, he peered out from between his fingers. “Yeah, well, we could use all the help we can get right now, can’t we?”

“Anyway, Bas said that he got onto a bus, so we’re going to check around the stops to see if we can find any traces of him.”

“And you think it’ll work?” Evan countered, sparing a moment to cast Gunnar a dubious glance.

Gunnar stared at him for a long moment then shook his head. “Not really, but it can’t hurt to try. At this point . . .”

Evan nodded, understanding well enough, exactly what Gunnar was saying. “At this point, anything’s worth a shot.”

“Yeah.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Samantha bit her lip thoughtfully as she stared at the holy man who seemed to be taking his sweet time reading the newspaper. He’d barely said two words to her since he’d arrived, which wasn’t entirely surprising since he really didn’t seem to be one to stand upon small talk. Still, she’d rather hoped that he would be in a reasonably good mood since he’d left in such a hurry before.

“I don’t suppose I could have a drink of water,” she ventured, breaking the silence that encompassed the room.

He turned the page of the newspaper but otherwise ignored her.

“Just a little one?”

Making a face, she wrinkled her nose and shifted her position in the cage. Placing her palms flat on the floor between her feet, she stared at the holy man, wondering if he’d had a bad day or something. “Can I ask you something?”

That finally got his attention though he still refused to lower the paper. “You can try,” he muttered.

Figuring that was about as good as she was going to get, Samantha’s ears perked up. “What’s a C-Gen?”

“It’s a machine that doctors use to see inside your body,” he replied.

“You mean like a three dimensional x-ray?”

“Sort of.”

“Oh . . .”

Letting out a deep breath as he folded the paper and set it aside, he finally looked at her, his gaze darkened with a suspicious glint. “Why?”

She shrugged. “The white-coats said that they’re going to stick me in one tomorrow.”

“Did they.” Grasping the edge of the desk, he pulled himself out of the chair and strode over to retrieve the empty water bowl that she’d drained moments after he’d shoved it through the opening. “They say why?”

She shook her head. “Nope, though I suppose they want to see my innards.”

“Well, that’s disgusting,” he muttered as he rinsed out the bowl and refilled it with clean water.

She giggled. “So this machine . . . they use it to look at your insides?”

“No, they use it to look at your bones.”

“So why not just use x-rays?”

He hunkered down and pushed the bowl back into the cage.   “Radiation,” he replied with a shake of his head.

“And the C-Gen doesn’t use that?”

Rolling his eyes, he gave her a look that stated quite plainly that he thought she was a little on the dingy side. Samantha ignored that. True enough, her parents and her sisters were doctors, but that didn’t mean that Samantha had ever really paid attention to their boring medical talk, and while she’d heard the term ‘C-Gen’ before, she didn’t rightfully know what it was or how it worked. “No, it doesn’t.”

“So what’s the difference?”

He sighed and shook his head as she peered over the rim of the bowl at him, and for a minute, she didn’t think that he was going to answer her. “C-Gens use sound waves to create three dimensional images of the bones. They’re also far more accurate.”

Sound . . . waves . . .?

Scowling at his description, she lowered the bowl and pressed her lips together in a thin line. “Sound . . . waves . . .”

“Yes, sound waves,” he repeated as he stood up again. “You stink.”

She blinked, her mind still stuck on the idea of the sound waves he’d mentioned. “Like those tests?” she asked, unable to keep the hint of absolute dread out of her voice.

“You really stink,” he stated once more. “Ugh . . .”

His statement sank in slowly, and she couldn’t help the quite livid flush that crept up her cheeks at his callous appraisal. “I don’t smell a thing,” she lied. Okay, it wasn’t a complete lie, after all. True enough, she’d caught whiffs of herself at different times, but she hadn’t thought it was that bad. Then again, if it was bad enough that she could smell it, then it stood to reason that others could smell it much easier . . .

Not that it was her fault, damn it. She certainly hadn’t volunteered to be locked in a cage for days and days on end without the ability to bathe herself. Still, knowing that she wasn’t to blame for her deplorable state wasn’t really working for her. “I wouldn’t if I had a proper bath,” she grumbled under her breath as her ears flattened against her head.

“You’re downright offensive,” the holy man went on.

She snorted, slipping her arms around her ankles and ducking down a little lower. “You don’t have a girlfriend, do you?”

“What?” he barked rather sharply, looking less and less amused by the second, not that he actually had looked amused at all . . .

“Nothing,” she replied in a completely innocent tone.

He snorted loudly as he grabbed the handcuffs off the table nearby. “Turn around and put your hands behind your back,” he instructed.

“Why?” she countered dubiously.

“Because your stench offends me.”

Snapping her mouth closed as even more blood infiltrated her skin, she did as he had instructed since there didn’t seem to be any real way around it.

“Now your feet.”

Heaving a sigh of protest, she scooted around once more. To her surprise, though, the cuffs that he clamped around her ankles were connected by a much longer chain than the one she was normally forced to endure. “So what am I doing?” she finally asked as the embarrassment of his harsh assessment slowly wore off.

He shot her a ‘don’t-be-stupid’ sort of look. “You’re going to get cleaned up so you don’t offend me anymore—at least, not that way.”

No doubt about it, the man was hell on a girl’s ego, wasn’t he? Casting him a sorely injured sort of look as she wiggled her way out of the cage, she braced herself against the wire wall and pushed herself to her feet.

“Nothing stupid,” he warned, narrowing his eyes to emphasize his point. She blinked at him almost mulishly but remained silent when he slipped the collar around her neck and fastened it closed with a slight yank.

She said nothing as he hooked her to the restraints nearby. In fact, her brain was in a quandary. On the one hand, she desperately wanted to get cleaned up. On the other? Well, she was really not looking forward to being blasted by that damned power hose, never mind the embarrassment of being naked all over again.

Then again, the naked part wasn’t nearly as disconcerting to her as the stupid hose was. Maybe she’d spent entirely too much time here in that state, even if she hadn’t been that way in front of the holy man, or maybe she’d just come to accept that she really couldn’t do much about it. With the white-coats, she simply refused to give herself away. With the holy man? She stifled a sigh. He just wasn’t going to give her a choice in the matter, she figured.

In any case, the idea of being clean—at least, cleaner than she was, was a far sight better than the residual embarrassment—all in all, a decent trade-off. The only thing that would help would be a nice bar of soap, but she figured that’d be pushing her luck, anyway.

He slipped his foot between hers and kicked them apart, and she noticed not for the first time that he wasn’t cruel when he handled her. No, she’d consider his movements to be more clinical than anything, and that was fine with her. After spending days on the table, she’d come to understand that the white-coats might say that they despised her, and they really might, but they liked her body well enough, the bastards.

Gritting her teeth as the unwelcome memory of their assessments whispered in the back of her mind, she paid no attention as the holy man snapped the reinforced chains to the shackles around her ankles.

After a moment of deliberation, he let out a deep breath and strode over to her, stepping behind her to unfasten one of the cuffs, and she understood. He might be willing to make sure she got cleaned up, but there was no way in hell he wanted to touch her. Whatever his reason was, she didn’t care as a welcome surge of relief shot through her. Then again, she was pretty secure, wasn’t she? The chains around her ankles, she knew, contained ofuda, as did the collar around her neck. She really wouldn’t be going anywhere, even if she wanted to. The holy man was entirely too careful for that, wasn’t he?

“Take that thing off,” he commanded as he headed for the hose.

Biting her lip—she’d never been told to take her clothes off, herself, and it was a bit more daunting than she’d have thought possible—she did as she was told, yanking open the snaps that held the garment on her shoulders. She drew a deep breath and let it fall. It caught on her ankles as she automatically moved to cover her breasts with her freed hands.

He strode back into view, staring at the hose nozzle as he moved in front of her. Standing about five feet away with the hose pointed at the floor in front of her, he pulled the lever that started the water flow, adjusting his grip until there was a steady stream but nothing even close to full power before he lifted his arm, pointing the spray at her.

Samantha blinked—she really had expected him to turn the hose on her, full force, and it took her brain a moment to comprehend that he had no intention of doing that. Still, there was something oddly sweet about the way he scowled at the wall. Head turned just enough that he wasn’t looking directly at her, he said nothing as he held the hose in place though she didn’t doubt for a second that he could see her well enough out of the corner of his eye.

But it felt good, didn’t it? Despite the frigid water, the steady stream felt good. Using her hands in lieu of a washcloth, she managed to get herself reasonably clean, and as the weeks of accumulated filth rinsed away, and as she did, her sprits lifted, too. There was just something comforting about the idea of being clean, wasn’t there? It was a feeling that she’d sorely missed.

He still said nothing as he slowly started to walk around her, and she scrubbed at her head as best as she could. There wasn’t much she could do about washing her hair, but she tried, and that was good enough. She still felt much cleaner than she had in what seemed like forever, and by the time he turned off the hose, Samantha was smiling just a little despite the little tremors that she couldn’t hide. The air inside the room was chilly—she couldn’t remember it ever being truly warm or even close to comfortable for her—but in her sopping wet state, it was that much worse, and still she refused to complain.

The holy man strode over to a metal cabinet and grabbed another of those damned patient smocks. He still didn’t look directly at her as he tossed it in her direction. She stared at it, unsure how she was going to manage to put it on since it had to go over her feet or her head, and both of those were still shackled.

He unsnapped the chain in her collar and stepped away. Samantha struggled into the smock—it was hard to put clothes on when one was soaking wet, wasn’t it?

“Hands behind your back,” he ordered about the second she’d managed to tug the smock into place. The water left in her hair had already soaked her back, and the front was clinging uncomfortably, but she was clean, and that was enough, she figured as she gritted her teeth to keep them from rattling and stuck her hands behind her back.

He secured her wrists before unhooking the chains on either side of her ankles that held her in place. “Get in the cage,” he ordered.

She didn’t say a word as she did as he’d ordered. He closed and locked the door before he reached in, waving his hand impatiently for the shackles. She stuck out her feet, the chain between them rattling since she wasn’t quite able to control her shaking. He unfastened those then dropped them beside himself before uttering a grunt to indicate that she was to turn around if she wanted her hands unbound.

She complied quickly, and no sooner were her hands free than she wrapped them around her raised knees in a vain effort to warm herself up.

He put the restraints away and strode back toward the desk.

Samantha let her temple fall against her raised knees and smiled to herself. She’d warm up a little when she was dry, and while she’d have preferred to be dry before she’d gotten dressed, she couldn’t rightfully complain about that, either. Drawing a deep breath, she hugged herself a little tighter, realizing in a vague sort of way that she could smell something entirely familiar—entirely comforting.

As she started to drift to sleep, a gentle realization dawned on her. That smell that comforted her . . . it was her own scent—a scent that was a gentle mix of her mother and her father . . . and maybe the two of them weren’t really as far away as she’d thought . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The strangest sound awoke Kurt late in the night, and he blinked in confusion as he struggled to make sense of it. A constant rattle, wasn’t it? A metallic jingle that just wouldn’t stop . . .

Sitting up slowly, he shook his head as though to clear his mind. The sound was coming from the cage, wasn’t it? It sounded like . . .

Shooting to his feet, he stomped across the room as he tugged off the black leather glove that covered his right hand. It was trying to escape, wasn’t it? That was the sound he’d heard . . .

But as he drew nearer, his pace slowed, and his eyes narrowed.

It was lying in the corner of the cage, wrapped up as tightly as it could in a tiny little ball. As far as he could tell, it was sleeping, maybe, but it certainly wasn’t trying to rattle the cage loose, which had been his initial thought.

No,’ he realized slowly as he stopped and crossed his arms over his chest. ‘It’s . . . cold . . .’

Which stood to reason, he supposed, and he might have thought it sooner had the thing been human, to start with. The water that it had used to clean itself up had been straight out of the ground, he figured, and damn chilly, at that. Still, he hadn’t stopped to think—hadn’t actually cared, to be honest—that it might be cold after that makeshift shower.

Turning on his heel, he strode over to the desk. What did he care if it was cold or not? Why should he care? It was a monster, and those things—no matter what it looked like on the outside—those things . . .

Uttering a terse grunt as he dropped into the chair, he dug the notebook out of his knapsack and flipped through the pages.

Susceptible to variations of temperatures. Shows marked resilience, overall,’ he wrote, then gritted his teeth as he added in his head, ‘and that shaking is driving me nuts . . .’

Rubbing his eyes, he heaved a sigh and shook his head. ‘So six of one, half a dozen of the other . . . at least it doesn’t stink anymore . . .’

Which was true enough, he had to admit, even if he really didn’t want to think about that impromptu shower, not at all. What he’d seen had only served to reinforce his belief that the little demon had to be a creature born in the fiery pits of hell. For as diminutive as it was, it certainly had good form, which, of course, was more than enough to irritate him even more.   He’d scoffed before when he’d read passages pertaining to succubae—demons who could take the form of women to entice men into having sex with them in return for their souls. He’d honestly thought that tales that those were absolutely ridiculous . . .

Was that the kind of demon that it was? If that were the case, he supposed it could explain the creature’s outward appearance. Of course, the texts he’d read indicated that succubae tended to have very large breasts, which was not the case at all with the little demon. Still . . .

Shaking his head at his own absolutely ridiculous notions, Kurt scowled at the notebook and gritted his teeth.

That thing was not a succubus, damn it, and he didn’t care what he had or hadn’t seen. It was a monster, just like every other monster—an evil creature that just wanted to kill and destroy.

A . . . kind of pathetic one . . .’ he mused as his gaze unwittingly slipped back to the demon in question. The cage was rattling worse now, and for a moment, Kurt had to wonder why it hadn’t been shocked by the papers he’d sealed inside the bars.

Heaving a sigh—the rattling was embedding itself in his brain, damn it—he stood up and strode over to yank one of the thin army-type blankets off the cot. Stomping over, he shoved it through the bars of the cage. “Now knock that off,” he grumbled, turning on his heel to adjust the temperature control on the main panel near the door.

The rattling stopped for a moment as the demon turned over to watch him. He heard it shuffling around as it covered itself up in the blanket. When it grew silent again, he almost sighed in relief—until the rattling started up again, signifying that it might take a bit longer for the damned creature to warm up enough to stop that infernal racket.

The groan and shudder of the heater roaring to life was enough to dull the sounds, though. Kurt shook his head. He supposed it was one of the drawbacks to having been raised out in the middle of nowhere with only a loony old man as company, but he had trouble concentrating when it wasn’t very, very quiet, especially if he were trying to read or something like that.

Pushing the button to bring up the security walls of the cage, Kurt heaved a sigh and stomped out of the room, deciding that he might as well have a cup of coffee while he waited for the silence that he craved.

He was becoming entirely too familiar with that particular machine, he thought with a dour glare.

The groan and hiss of the vending machine echoed in his ears as he tapped his foot and waited impatiently.

Damn, it was strange, wasn’t it? He’d stretched out, thinking about the demons he’d seen earlier in the day, and then he’d fallen asleep, too. He hadn’t meant to, of course. Those demons bugged the hell out of him, didn’t they?

Oh, sorry, man . . .”

It had talked, just like the little one. It had spoken . . .

But the second one—the one he’d seen when he’d looked out of the window . . . What was it about that one that disturbed him? Wearing its power so loosely, it was . . . and yet it was the first one that had looked almost entirely human. The strange pupils, sure, but it hadn’t opened its mouth wide enough for him to see the fangs. Those things aside, it looked entirely normal though he couldn’t really say about the ears, either, given that the thing had long hair that had hung over where its ears should have been, and that was what really bothered Kurt the most.

Were they evolving somehow? Had they found a new kind of magic—some way of hiding what they really were better than they used to?

Without really thinking about what he was doing, he took the dropped more change into the machine and hit another button. ‘Those things . . . Damn it . . .’

Where were they all coming from now? Ever since he’d captured the little demon, he’d started to notice the strange auras, hadn’t he? Stronger auras; more powerful, and yet . . .

Shaking his head as he blinked at the two steaming cups of coffee, he shook his head and carefully lifted them out of the tray before starting back down the hallway toward the holding area once more.

But he couldn’t be positive that they had just suddenly appeared, either. Unable to tell whether or not they’d just started miraculously appearing or if they’d been there all the while and he simply hadn’t realized it, it left him feeling as though he were beating his head against a wall or something.

He had felt that kind of aura before a few different times over the years. Always before, he’d chalked it up to a horde of those things gathering together for whatever reason. He knew now that it was simply because he hadn’t wanted to believe that there could possibly be a single being that possessed that sort of power.

But he’d looked for them—it—before. He’d gone to search them out at the time, too, but he’d never actually found it. Recalling the image of the little demon, so effortlessly taking down the one he’d been stalking, was still fresh, vivid in his mind. He deliberately tried to remember that, to remind himself that regardless of what it looked like on the outside, it was quite capable of as much destruction as the ones he had seen for himself so long ago.

“Sit up,” he commanded as he stopped in front of the cage once more. It was rattling worse than ever, and he rolled his eyes.

It complied slowly, as though it was loathe to give up the relative warmth of the blanket he’d given it. With a grunt, he slipped one of the cups through the bars.

It blinked at the offering for several moments before finally, hesitantly, reaching for it. “Th-thank you,” it said in little more than a whisper.

Kurt didn’t respond to that as he lifted his cup to his lips.

It took a deep swallow before it went on.   “You know, I never used to like coffee at all, but this is really good . . .”

“Anything hot is good when you’re that cold,” he muttered.

“You’re probably right,” it agreed simply enough. Peering over the rim of the cup without blinking, it breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of the freshly brewed coffee. “This smell reminds me of . . .”

Kurt paused mid-drink to eye the demon. “Reminds you of what?” he prompted when it trailed off.

“Uh . . . oh, nothing,” it said with a shake of its head.

He grunted noncommittally.

It finished the coffee in silence. Kurt wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. He’d take it as good, though, all things considered. That little demon tended to talk a lot more than he figured it ought to.

Still, he had some questions of his own, and as much as he hated the idea of initiating any sort of conversation, he also knew that he wasn’t about to get answers if he didn’t. Peering out of the corner of his eye at the beast only to find it staring into the now empty cup with a melancholy expression on its face, Kurt figured that it was as good a time as any to find out. “Tell me something,” he said, drawing its attention. “Are there a lot of demons like you?”

“Like me?” it echoed with a shake of its head. “Like me, how?”

Narrowing his eyes to let it know that its flip answer wasn’t at all welcome, Kurt crouched down to look at it dead on. “Like you,” he repeated. “How many others are there?”

The little smile that had surfaced on its features dulled and faded away as it pondered his question. Biting its lip, it slowly shook its head then shrugged just a little as it lifted its gaze to meet his once more. “Not so many; not really,” it confessed. “I mean, back in my . . . in the old days, it was taboo to make others like me. These days, it isn’t really a problem, but . . . but there still aren’t that many.”

“They make you? Who makes you? What the hell does that mean?”

It blinked at the vehemence in his tone. “Everything is made, isn’t it, in one way or another . . .?”

Heaving a sigh, he leaned forward to snatch the empty cup away, his temper snapping at the coquettish answers he was getting. He should have known better, anyway . . . asking questions of something like that . . . He had to have been insane to think that he’d actually get answers out of a being like that, in the first place. How dare it smile at him and act like he was just trying to amuse it . . .?

He hated it—despised it and every other monster like it—and he’d be better off to remember that before he got any more stupid ideas about asking it questions in the future . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Kichiro strode out of the police station with his father not far behind. “Fucking bastards,” InuYasha muttered under his breath as he shot a fulminating glower over his shoulder at the building. “Damn it!”

Kichiro shook his head and quickened his stride. “They have a point,” he had to admit despite the rampant surge of irritation that he had to admit as much.

InuYasha snorted loudly. “I’ll shove Tetsusaiga up their asses and see what kind of point they got,” he snarled.

Kichiro didn’t reply to that since he was hard pressed to come up with a good reason why he shouldn’t let his father do exactly that.

“Since when does someone get arrested for having a fucking rusty-assed sword?” he growled, flexing his claws in abject irritation since he was the one who had just been bailed out of jail for the offense.

Okay, so it might have been damn amusing at any other time, he figured. That the great Izayoi InuYasha, hero of Sengoku Jidai, had been arrested because the police had taken offense to the fact that the hanyou of legend refused to give up his sword . . .

But nothing really amused Kichiro anymore, and he was starting to wonder if anything ever would again, come to think of it . . .

In the end, it had taken Kichiro a lot of money as well as a few phone calls to his uncle, who fortunately was still in Maine though he was planning on flying in tomorrow with Kagome. In the end, Sesshoumaru had somehow managed to convince the authorities that InuYasha wasn’t out to slice and dice anyone and that the sword he carried was more for show than anything.

Which, Kichiro figured, wasn’t entirely a lie. InuYasha was much better these days about drawing the sword on people who ticked him off than he used to be, or so he’d been told.

Even so, he’d wasted the better portion of the day, arguing with the police, and the already suspect authorities were even more irritated when InuYasha had mentioned rather belligerently that his granddaughter was missing. Kichiro had covered his face with his hands right about then since he was pretty certain that the police really did think that InuYasha had lost his marbles at that point. Given that the hanyou in question might actually look like he was around twenty-five years old, if that, then it was understandable, that the authorities eyed the hanyou as though they thought that InuYasha was about to leap onto the table that separated them to start spouting show tunes or something . . .

“At least they gave it back,” Kichiro pointed out calmly, jerking his head in the general direction of InuYasha’s sword.

“Keh! I’d’a liked to see them try to keep it,” he snarled. “Where the fuck is my phone?”

Digging the device out of his pocket—the captain had handed it over just before Kichiro had rushed his father out of the station—he handed it back to InuYasha. “Bas called earlier. Said that he met some guy he thought had spiritual powers.”

“He get ‘em?”

Making a face and shaking his head, Kichiro tried to ignore the police car that was half-assed trailing them. “No. Toga said that the guy slipped away before Bas could figure out if he really did have them or if it was just his imagination.”

“Helluva thing to imagine,” InuYasha grumbled. “They look for him?”

“Bas said he hopped on a bus. He and Toga, Evan and Gunnar are hunting around every stop that bus made to see if they can locate the guy.”

“Diggin’ for a needle in a haystack,” InuYasha muttered.

Kichiro sighed. He agreed with that . . . “Bas should have stopped him,” he gritted out.

“The pup ain’t never met anyone with spiritual powers other than your mama, and ain’t another one like her anywhere.”

He conceded his father’s point, knowing damn well that Bas probably hadn’t ever actually encountered someone with real spiritual powers other than Kagome, and her aura was tempered by InuYasha’s. Having known her since birth, too, would confuse him, and even though Kichiro knew damn well that the pup was doing everything he had within his power to do, he couldn’t help the anger—the frustration—that roiled inside him, just the same.

“Take it easy on him, Kich. He ain’t to blame for any of this.”

Grimacing at the gruff censure in InuYasha’s voice, Kichiro nodded. “I . . . I know,” he muttered with a shake of his head and a slight flattening of his ears. “It’s just so . . . frustrating . . . I’m . . .”

InuYasha stopped short when Kichiro spun around to veer down an alley, seeking some sort of refuge from the people milling about on the sidewalk. Little by little, he could feel his carefully constructed façade wearing thin, could feel the layers of his psyche crumbling away. “It’s been . . . almost four weeks,” Kichiro said in a harsh, broken tone. “Four weeks . . . where the hell . . .? M-my little girl . . .”

“Don’t be so stuck up to think that she just belongs to you,” InuYasha growled, grabbing Kichiro’s shoulder to stop him, to bring him around to face him. “She ain’t, you know. Yours . . . your mate’s . . . your mama’s . . . mine . . . Hell, Sam belongs to all of us, and we’re damn well gonna find her.”

Staring hard at his father, Kichiro felt the anger, the outrage that had sustained him for the last few weeks start to recede. The emptiness that surged up in its wake, though, was a painful, horrible thing. An incredulous bark of laughter welled up inside, constricting his chest, his throat as a sudden and burning ache erupted behind his eyelids. “I . . . I feel like I’m losing my fucking mind,” he muttered. “When I’m here, I feel like I should be with Belle—she needs me, doesn’t she? But . . . But when I fly back to Maine, I feel like I’m giving up on . . . on Samantha, and . . . Damn it . . .”

InuYasha nodded slowly, his trademark scowl firmly in place. “You do what you gotta do, Kich. That’s all anyone can expect from you.”

Dashing a hand over his eyes, he scowled at the telltale moisture that clung to his skin. “I never wanted to tell her what she could or couldn’t do . . . Never wanted to do that to any of my girls, but . . .”

Leaning against the grungy brick wall in the filmy light of the alley, InuYasha’s ears twitched as his eyes took on a more contemplative expression—an expression that Kichiro hadn’t seen very often through the years. “Did you know that the first time your brother went out on a hunt, your mama sat up the whole night with the phone in her lap and tears in her eyes?”

“Mama did?”

InuYasha nodded. “Hell, you pups have caused your mama more sleepless nights than Naraku ever did, but I tell you . . . not one of you ever knew it. Thing is, you do what you gotta do. Your mama knew that, and your mate knows that, too.”

“Yeah,” he replied in a tone that bespoke his quiet doubt. “Old man . . .”

InuYasha stared at him for several seconds then snorted. “Keh! We’ll find her, got that?”

Drawing a deep breath, Kichiro nodded. When he was a boy, he’d believed his father unconditionally. Whenever InuYasha said anything, he always made good on his word, no matter what, and now . . .

Now he desperately needed to believe that InuYasha could do the same this time, too.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Frowning at the holy man as he read a thick old book, Samantha stifled a sigh.

She really wasn’t trying to antagonize him; really she wasn’t. She wasn’t even certain why he’d gotten angry in the end. She’d answered his question to the best of her ability, hadn’t she? What, exactly, did he want her to say?

It was true enough, she knew.   The union of humans and youkai was no longer the taboo it used to be; didn’t carry the stigma that it had in times gone by though she knew well enough that her family was the exception, not the rule. Many of the youkai still tended to gravitate toward one another, and while it might not have been a conscious decision to do so, there it was.

It still perplexed her, why he insisted on calling her a demon. She’d told him what she was, what her kind was called, yet he still seemed to cling to the name that he’d given her. Still, she was starting to realize from having overheard the white-coats talking about him that he was viewed as a bit of an anomaly, himself, and because of that, there was a certain hesitation, too. They feared him: who he was and what he could do. They feared him as much as they feared her. There was an almost perverse sense of fascination about him, as well, and she wondered not for the first time if they’d have locked him in a cage, too, if they didn’t need him.

Why did humans feel the need to do this sort of thing to those things in the world that they didn’t understand? Was it simply the need to prove that they really weren’t inferior, after all? Samantha didn’t see humans in that sort of light—at least, she didn’t see all humans that way. Still, she had to ask herself exactly why it was that those white-coats could do what they did to her every day and still think that it was all right?

Because it’s all done in the name of science,’ her youki remarked acerbically.

There was a certain truth in that, wasn’t there? The name of science . . . ‘Hardly,’ she scoffed with a very loud inward snort. ‘Papa is a scientist, and he doesn’t do anything like this . . . When I get out of here . . .’

When you get out of here?’ her youki contended. ‘Do you really want out of here?

Of course I do!’ she shot back hotly. ‘That’s the dumbest question . . .’

Is it? Is it really? Because from where I sit, dollbaby, you don’t seem too anxious to try escaping again.’

Letting her temple fall against the bars of the cage as she pulled the blanket a little tighter around herself, Samantha heaved a quiet sigh. There was a certain measure of truth in that, too, wasn’t there? A secret sort of truth that she wasn’t entirely certain she wanted to admit, even to herself . . .

It wasn’t exactly that she didn’t want to escape. It was quite the contrary, actually. The problem wasn’t her will to escape, her desire to return to those who loved her. The real problem was that she wasn’t sure that she could stand the cost of her freedom. If she managed to do it—if she managed to escape . . . he’d just go out and catch someone else, wouldn’t he? He’d catch another one, and he’d bring him or her here . . .

So you’ll be a martyr? Is that really what you think you could do?

No . . . not a martyr . . .’

Then what, Samantha? What is it that you think you’d accomplish by staying here? And maybe that’s not fair for the next one who is dumb enough to get caught, but you know, we can’t do it . . . we just . . . can’t . . .’

There was entirely too much truth in that, wasn’t there? Entirely too much finality that she just didn’t want to consider. Even still, though, did it matter? She couldn’t stomach the idea of anyone else being subjected to the horrors that she’d already experienced, and worse, if they somehow managed to catch another . . . could she trade her freedom for that of her sisters? Of her parents? Of anyone she loved? And even if it weren’t one of her own, did that give her the right to trade her freedom for someone else’s child . . .?

And she knew the answer to that question; knew it as well as she knew her own heartbeat. She couldn’t do it. She didn’t have it in her. For every day that she’d live for the rest of her life, she’d have to wake up in the morning and wonder exactly who they’d caught to take her place . . .

No, as much as the thought scared her—shook her to her very core—she wasn’t entirely sure that she could do a damn thing . . .

And you think that anyone will thank you for it? You think that your parents don’t deserve to know? Your sisters . . . your aunt and uncles and cousins . . . what do they deserve, Samantha? What do you deserve?

She blinked in surprise as the overhead lights flickered to life, as the entirely too loud voice of the head white-coat rang out in the welcome silence. “Good morning, Doc!” he greeted. “Everything looks good in here.”

The holy man didn’t even bother acknowledging the white-coat’s greeting as he slowly moved his feet off the desk and got to his feet. Without a word, he shoved his book into the worn old knapsack and reached for his coat.

“So how’s our little demon this morning?” the white-coat asked as he swaggered over to the cage, eyeing Samantha like she were nothing more than a prized hog at the State Fair. When he shook his finger between the bars, she had to rein in the perverse desire to bite the bit of wiggling pink flesh. Instead, she blanked her features, pasting on the dull, vacant expression that she strove to keep in place whenever those men were staring at her. It served her well, really. They were entirely convinced that the holy man was crazy since he’d apparently told them before that she could speak. The white-coats liked to make idiot jokes about how the two of them—the freaks, they’d said—were able to mind-link or some such ration of crap.

All right, so she felt a little bad for perpetuating the idiot persona, especially since the white-coats were already leery of the holy man. Still, she had to admit that she didn’t feel nearly bad enough to open her mouth and speak to them. It was all a matter of pride, wasn’t it? She’d be damned if she’d give them that last little bit of herself, too.

“She didn’t give you any trouble, did she?’

That got the holy man’s attention, and he paused as he tugged on his coat to glower at the white-coat. “It was just fine,” he stated flatly.

“You gave her a blanket?”

“Is there a problem with that?”

The white-coat waved his hands and laughed jovially. “No, no problem, no problem . . .”

The holy man eyed the white-coat defiantly for another long second before snatching up his knapsack and heading for the door. Samantha watched him leave, forcing down the surge of loneliness that welled up inside her. Whenever he left, she felt that way, but she always just figured that it was normal enough. After all, he was the only one who was even halfway decent to her, even if he didn’t really seem to want to be. At least he’d allowed her to go to the bathroom earlier, so that wasn’t something that she’d have to worry about. That was the real difference between him and the others, wasn’t it? He didn’t like her, she knew that much, and he didn’t think that she was anything more than a demon, did he? Some sort of strange beast, really, and yet . . . and yet he still allowed her to retain some measure of her pride, such as it was. Taking her to the bathroom, bringing in food for her so that she didn’t have to denigrate herself by eating the dog kibble that the others left for her . . . even allowing her something as base as a shower was something, wasn’t it? There really was something decent about him, even if he didn’t really want to show it.

The white-coat’s chuckles drew her attention, and she reluctantly shifted her eyes away from the door to blink at the man. Something in his demeanor set her on edge; something entirely predatory in the smile that only widened when he intercepted her gaze. “We have something special planned for you today,” he murmured, his smile taking on a slant that Samantha really didn’t trust at all. “Something really, really special . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kurt stomped his feet as he entered the facility, shaking snow out of his hair. It had started to now around noon and showed no sign of letting up. He didn’t mind that. At least it had dissuaded some of the insane people who enjoyed the mass-madness that was the day after Thanksgiving sales.

The door closed behind him with a loud bang, and he started down the hallway, heading for the elevator.

“Hey, Doc!”

Stopping short at the impromptu greeting, Kurt peered into the security office.

The researchers inside chuckled. One of them—Kurt thought that his name was Warren or something like that—was leafing through a stack of pictures while the other—Peterman—gestured with two fingers for Kurt to step inside. “What?” he asked, not bothering with any sort of pleasantries.

The two exchanged smug looks. “Now, now, don’t be like that. We’re all friends here, aren’t we?” Peterman drawled.

“We are?” Kurt replied with a raised eyebrow.

“Sure, we are! We both work here, right?”

Kurt wasn’t entirely certain how that could possibly make them friends, but he had to admit that he was somewhat curious as to what the two were up to.

“Well, you know . . . we just wondered if you’d be willing to take the night off . . .?”

“And why would I do that?” he asked rather casually.

“Ah, you know . . . figured we’d get a little more research in with our little demon,” Peterman remarked.

“You don’t have enough normal working hours to do that?” he countered mildly.

The two exchanged what Kurt could only consider to be shit-eating grins. “Well, Doc, just between us . . .”

Warren chuckled. “Let’s just say it’s a little . . . private research.”

Narrowing his eyes, Kurt crossed his arms over his chest and slowly shook his head. ‘Private . . . what? What is that supposed to mean . . .?’   Then again, did he really want to know . . .? “What the hell are you talking about?” he demanded.

“Look, man, she’s got all the parts in all the right places, and maybe she’s a damn freak, but she’s a damn hot freak, you follow?”

“No, I don’t follow,” he countered, reaching over and snatching the stack of pictures out of Warren’s hands. Snorting loudly as he leafed through the first few, he peered up at the two men. “Have you lost your damn minds?” he growled, unable to wrap his head around what the two researchers were suggesting. “That thing is not a . . . female . . . and it could kill you.”

Peterson chuckled somewhat smugly, crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned against the panel of monitors, crossing his ankles as he regarded Kurt with what could only be described as complete asshatishness. “Oh, she’s a girl, all right. We checked her out today. Everything’s there . . . and I do mean everything.”

“Aw, come on, Doc! You saw the pictures! She’s hot—damn hot! And who the hell will care, anyway? It’s not like she’s human or anything,” Warren went on.

“You’re right,” Kurt growled. “It’s not human, and maybe you’ve forgotten what, exactly, it’s capable of. Stick your tiny little prick anywhere near it, and I guarantee you won’t have it long, so be my guest, if you’re really that stupid. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Oh, Jesus! Like she can do a damn thing once we’ve got her rigged to the apparatus,” Warren scoffed.

Kurt wasn’t sure if what they wanted disturbed him nearly as much as the idea that they’d already put that much thought into it. Either way, he wasn’t going to be a part of it. Those things were hellspawn, damn it . . . How idiotic were they, anyway? “You’d compromise the entire project just to get a good fuck? You really are stupid,” Kurt remarked quietly.

Peterson shook his head in abject disbelief. “You can’t honestly say that you wouldn’t do her,” he insisted. “I tell you what . . . We’ll make sure she doesn’t try anything funny while you take a turn. That okay?”

“And just what do you think your boss would do to you if you actually do what you’re planning? You think Harlan’ll be all right with that? You think that he’ll appreciate you potentially ruining his prize puppy? Don’t be stupid. You do that, and it’ll fight back, and regardless of whether I want to or not, I’ll have to kill it . . . though I might wait until after it has a go at you, instead . . . Fair’s fair, after all . . .”

The two finally looked like they might actually be listening to Kurt. “Harlan know you ripped off these pictures to jack off in the John with?” he asked, tossing the stack of pictures onto the narrow desk below the monitors. “You two seriously need to get out more.”

That said, he turned on his heel and stomped out of the room, half expecting the two deviants to follow him. They didn’t. Kurt wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or not, all things considered. It turned his stomach, what they were suggesting in any kind of capacity. Just what the hell were they thinking, anyway?

Look, man, she’s got all the parts in all the right places, and maybe she’s a damn freak, but she’s a damn hot freak, you follow?

Slapping the elevator call button, he scowled. What the hell did he mean by that? Even as he asked himself that, though, he snorted. Those pictures, of course. What in the world were they doing, anyway? What part of ‘research’ were those?

Those images looked like some sick masochistic peepshow, didn’t it? Strapped to the table completely naked with its limbs spread, it did look like it had all the parts of a female. Still . . .

Snorting at his own bizarre thoughts, Kurt stomped into the elevator and jammed the button for the lowest level of the facility. Those things could change their form, right? They could look however they wanted to look, and that one was powerful enough to hide exactly what it was, right? Enough so that it actually looked pretty damn human with a few small exceptions . . . There was no way to tell what sex it was, was there? Assuming that demons actually had a sex, to start with . . .

And why the hell am I thinking about this at all?’ he fumed as the elevator ground to a squeaking halt. Stepping out of the claustrophobic box, he strode down the hallway. He was so irritated that he didn’t really notice that the little demon wasn’t waiting for him in its customary fashion. Scrunched into the far corner of the cage, it barely moved when he crossed the room, thumping his knapsack onto the desk with a muffled curse. Too irritated to pay much attention to anything else, he paced the floor in a vain effort to alleviate his growing irritation.

Damn those idiots, anyway . . . If they did something as stupid as to try to force themselves on that demon, then they wholly deserved whatever they got for their efforts, didn’t they . . .?

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

It was late when Griffin stumbled into the house in the quiet cul-de-sac in Bangor, Maine, that he called home. The place was quiet—eerily so—without even the click of dog paws to greet him, and even the hideously ugly cat that Isabelle had brought home as a kitten so long ago was hiding. Isabelle must have taken both Charlie as well as the cat with her.

Then again, he wasn’t going to be there long, either, was he? He’d just gotten back from Chicago where he’d been of absolutely no help at all. At least, that was how it had seemed to him, anyway. His initial thought was that he would head straight for Bevelle where Isabelle undoubtedly was, but he’d changed his mind, deciding that he really ought to take the time to shower and change clothes as well as check things out to make sure that everything was secure before he headed that way.

He couldn’t figure it out. Everyone seemed so convinced that Samantha was still there, and yet he wasn’t entirely convinced, was he? Certainly, the idea of someone with spiritual powers having gotten to her did pose a whole new array of problems that Griffin just didn’t want to think about, but that didn’t prove that she was still in Chicago, did it? After all, some of the best trackers in the world were there, scouring the city, but the fundamental problem as he saw it was that they were looking for someone who was being hidden—who had to be hidden—and if that were the case, was anyone really going to be able to find her?

Yet none of the leads regarding those rumored to possess spiritual powers had panned out, either. Why?

Shaking his head as he moved through the familiar surroundings, he headed for the bedroom to grab some clean clothes for a quick shower before he headed to the family compound.

The true problem was that, with every passing day, it became increasingly difficult to hope for the best, and while no one would actually say it out loud, Griffin knew damn well that everyone had thought as much at least once in the weeks that had passed since Samantha’s impromptu disappearance. That wasn’t to say that they should give up hope. That wasn’t what he meant, at all. Samantha was precious to him—to everyone, really—and Griffin would no sooner give up on her than he would give up on Isabelle if she were the one who hadn’t come home . . .

He turned on the water taps before he went to find clean clothes since the old house didn’t have the more modern conveniences and it took a bit for the water to warm.

He was tired, too: bone weary, pushing himself too hard and too fast so soon after the reconstructive surgery, and yet he couldn’t help himself, either. He couldn’t rest—none of them would—until Samantha was found.

So he ignored the twinges and little pains that were meant to thwart him as he hurried through his shower and make a quick attempt to shave. He’d just finished up when the cumbersome song that was programmed in to alert him when someone was trying to call him sounded.

“Hello?” he answered, wrinkling his nose at the Winnie the Pooh theme song.

“Ah, Griffin. How are things there?” Attean Masta, Griffin’s long time friend, greeted.

Grabbing a small hand towel to dry the counter around the sink, Griffin grunted. “Nothing yet,” he admitted in reference to the search for his sister-in-law.

“They say no news is good news,” Attean ventured. “Then again, I don’t hold much stock in those old sayings.”

Letting out a deep breath, Griffin scooped his keys and wallet off the counter, stuffing them into his pockets as he lumbered out of the bathroom. “You hear anything?”

“Possibly,” Attean replied. “At least, it might be something. I don’t know.”

“What’s that?”

“There’s a rumor of an old man with some kind of spiritual powers,” he said. “Lives somewhere up in the woods in northern Minnesota.”

“Who told you this?” Griffin asked sharply. To his knowledge, no one had been dispatched up that way.

“It’s just a rumor,” Attean repeated. “I don’t know if there’s any truth to it or not, and even then, from what I understand, the man is quite old. For that matter, he could well be dead, but I did not know whether this would interest the Zelig or not.”

“Thanks,” Griffin muttered, rubbing his temple as he plopped into his recliner and tried to tug on his socks with one hand. “You know where, exactly?”

“I’ve told you what I know,” Attean stated in an apologetic sort of tone. “However, if this man is there—if he isn’t dead or nothing but a simple legend—the chances are good that he will be hidden, and if that is the case, then I’m not sure that he can be found.”

Griffin grunted, having already figured as much. In the end, though, he let out a deep breath. “Can’t hurt to check it out,” he reasoned. “An old man, huh?”

“Yes . . . I’m sorry that I don’t have more information than that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Griffin insisted. “I’m about to head to Bevelle, anyway. I’ll tell Zelig what you said.”

“If there is anything else I can do . . .”

Griffin let out a deep breath and shook his head, not that Attean could see it. “Just keep listening,” he replied.

“Absolutely,” he assured him.

The line went dead, and Griffin sighed, stowing the device in his pocket as he reached for his other sock. An old man with spiritual powers in Minnesota? Did it matter whether or not this rumor was true? At this point, they needed to check out every available lead, didn’t they? Time was working against them, and they all knew it, even if they didn’t say it out loud. Sooner or later, they’d have to get some sort of break. No one was that good. No one could possibly have thought this thing through to the very last detail so perfectly. It stood to reason that eventually, the youkai would uncover Samantha’s whereabouts. Rumor or not, it was worth looking into, wasn’t it?

Griffin could only hope that they weren’t too late . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Kagome leaned forward on InuYasha’s shoulder, her eyes scanning the area below as he dashed over the tops of buildings. It was a strange feeling; she couldn’t rightfully remember the last time they’d traveled anywhere this way, bringing to mind a myriad of memories that she loved and cherished.

Yet this time, it felt so uneasy with an underlying desperation that she couldn’t help but feel. It was enough to choke her as she struggled to remember that as much as she worried, her granddaughter needed her.

The ultimate goal of finding and defeating Naraku seemed to pale in comparison in her mind. Samantha needed her—needed them, and while Naraku had been evil, at least Kagome had known what she and InuYasha and the others were up against. This time . . .

This time there was no such luck.

The trouble was that they were relying upon her to detect a barrier—something she wasn’t entirely certain that she could do. But she had to try, didn’t she?

“Oi, wench . . . You sense anything?”

Huddling closer against his shoulder, she used his body to block the icy chill in the air. “Nothing yet,” she replied.

InuYasha grunted and kept moving. “Kich says she’s still here in Chicago,” he went on to say.

Kagome nodded. “I know. Bellaniece says that she can feel her.”

“Feel her,” he echoed. “Sounds ‘bout right . . .”

She frowned, her optimism failing her as she gazed at the immense cityscape below. To sense a barrier . . . she’d done it before, but it always seemed to have been constructed by Kikyou, and she’d always wondered if she’d only been able to tell because they were Kikyou’s—because she was Kikyou’s reincarnation . . .

Stopping abruptly, he let her off of his back then shrugged off the fire-rat haori that he’d chosen to wear when the temperature had dropped. “Here,” he said, dropping it over her shoulders. “You need this more than I do.”

She blinked and smiled wanly, understanding what it was he was trying to say. He was trying to reassure her in his own way. It was something that she loved about him, and she nodded in agreement as he scanned the horizon once more. “Thank you, InuYasha . . .”

He spared her a little smile though his gaze retained a saddened sort of brightness.   “When I find whoever took her,” he vowed solemnly, “I’m gonna rip ‘em limb from fucking limb.”

For once, she didn’t chastise him for the harshness of his remarks. For once, she might actually agree with him . . . It still made no sense to her, no matter how many times she considered it. Just who would want to hurt Samantha, and why? All right, she’d chosen to be a hunter, but the girl Kagome knew was too sweet, too gentle. Protecting those who were weaker than herself was a way of life that was not uncommon among those in her family, and while Samantha chose to do it in a most literal sense, every last one of them did that in his or her own ways, too. The young girl with the bright smile, the clear blue eyes that hid nothing . . . Where was she now? Where was she, and how on earth would they ever be able to find her . . .?

Kagome’s concern must have showed on her face. InuYasha grimaced, ears flattening against his skull as he crossed his arms over his chest and tossed his head defiantly. “InuYasha . . .”

“Come on, wench . . . you’re tougher’n that.”

“Am I?” she countered though she couldn’t help but smile at the high praise coming from the hanyou she knew and loved so well.

“Don’t go getting all mushy on me,” he warned, his cheeks pinking just a touch.

“Okay!” she exclaimed softly as he pulled her onto his back once more. “We’ll look as long as we have to, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . Let’s get movin’,” he muttered as he set out once more.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Huddled in the corner of the cage with the blanket pulled up to her chin, Samantha gritted her teeth without taking her eyes off the holy man. Slumped into the chair behind the desk, he still looked entirely agitated. Something was bothering him, and she didn’t need to rely on her senses to tell her that, and as much as she wondered what it could possibly be, she had larger things to worry about, didn’t she, and in the end, his preoccupation was helping her. He had yet to notice that she hadn’t touched the fresh water he’d given her and that the soggy looking hamburger that he’d dropped through the bars still sat, untouched, nearby.

Shifting slightly, she bit down a little harder—hard enough that her teeth groaned under the force she was exerting; hard enough that her jaw ached.

She’d removed the top layer of stitches despite the overwhelming pain that it brought on. Now to pull the second layer . . .

That took a lot more out of her, though. The pain that shot through her brought a blackness to her vision, reducing it to mere pinpoints of light. Her hand was shaking terribly, but she managed to force her fingers to split the cut open, and she reached into her own body to snag the first stitch and slice through it.

The second and third ones were pretty much the same, but to her dismay, the pain was growing steadily worse, and there was another layer of stitches just below this one, too. ‘Stop that!’ she chided herself sternly. ‘One thing at a time . . .’

Kami, it hurt . . . It hurt more than anything she’d ever felt before. Being shot had hurt, yes, but not quite like this . . . This was more of a slow, intense pain that just didn’t let up. Cutting through another stitch drew a soft whine from her. Unable to staunch the sound, she blinked as tears filled her eyes, let her head fall back against the bars of the cage as she willed the incessant vertigo to pass.

“What are you doing?”

Blinking dully—she had distinct trouble focusing on the holy man’s face—she slowly shook her head but didn’t even try to speak.

Hunkering down and narrowing his gaze on her, he snorted loudly. “If this is some sort of ploy . . .”

A harsh sense of urgency shot through her despite the dullness of her brain. If he found out what she was doing, he’d try to stop her, wouldn’t he? Yelping as the next stitch gave to her claws, she couldn’t stop the slight keening as she gave voice to her pain.

The holy man’s eyes flared wide when he reached through the bars to yank the blanket away. “What the . . . Shit!” he bellowed, slamming his hand against the lock release on the cage. “What the hell are you doing?”

He reached inside, seized her arms, and jerked her roughly out of the cage. She whimpered, rolling onto her side as she drew her legs up. He pushed them down and yanked on her blood soaked smock. “What are you trying to do? Kill yourself?” he demanded as he gaped at the incision that traversed her stomach.

She didn’t try to answer. Gathering what was left of her strength, she pushed herself up against the cage wall, moaning as she pulled the wound open once more, as she cut the next stitch away.

He grabbed her hands and shoved them aside. “Are you stupid? Are you insane?

She flopped back, her entire body breaking out in a cold sweat. She had to get those stitches out before she passed out . . .

The holy man stared at her in something akin to abject horror. “Why did you do that?”

Shaking her head, she could only look at him. “I have to take them out,” she whispered. “I won’t . . . won’t heal . . .”

“What?”

Swallowing hard, breathing shallow, harsh, Samantha tried to lift her hands but couldn’t. She was exhausted—completely exhausted. “My body . . . heals faster . . . than yours . . . Stitches . . . won’t heal . . .”

“They don’t heal,” he repeated, scowling at her as though he were trying to make up his mind whether or not she was telling him the truth. The scowl seemed to dissipate just a little, and he nodded as he pushed himself to his feet and strode over to the supply cabinet.

He returned with a sterile kit and a box of gauze pads. Ripping the pack open with his teeth, he pulled the a pair of rubber gloves out of it and tugged them on before letting the pack go, catching it in one hand as he pulled a pair of clamps and surgical scissors out with the other. The quick look he shot her spoke clearer than words. He understood, didn’t he? He understood that she hadn’t done this to herself, at all . . .

He worked in silence as Sam averted her gaze, staring at the clock on the wall as she willed the pain to go away. It didn’t work completely—she hadn’t figured that it would—but she was strangely comforted by the efficacy of the holy man’s movements, and with a loud exhalation, he sat back on his heels. “They’re out,” he muttered, letting the scissors drop from his fingers. “What did they do?”

She was slow in turning her head to face him, her smile weak and weary. “It seems they wanted to know whether or not I was a girl,” she murmured. “I guess they figured that looks could be deceptive . . .”

A strange sort of expression filtered over his features, but only for a moment. It was long enough, though. In that instant, she saw it: the complete revulsion at what he understood. The white-coats had cut her open just to see if she had ‘girl parts’ . . .

Of course, he probably didn’t realize that she had been completely awake when they’d done it, and she wasn’t about to mention it, either. Listening to their clinical description of her uterus and ovaries was a little more than she really wanted to think about at the moment, anyway.

The holy man didn’t say anything else as he carefully wiped her stomach with a clean, sterile pad. “These won’t hurt you, will they?”

Blinking at the grudging tone in his voice, she shook her head when she saw the butterfly bandages he held up. “Those are . . . okay,” she managed.

He nodded once then carefully applied them. That done, he bandaged her up before gathering up the mess and heading back toward the cabinet. The sterile kit clanged into the bin beside the cabinet, the rubber gloves were disposed of in the biohazard can. He took his time, scrubbing his hands—Samantha almost laughed. ‘He had to touch me . . . how much did he hate that . . .?

But he returned to the cabinet and rummaged around before heading back over to her once more. He held a clean smock in his hands, but a he stared at her, he sighed. “Can you sit up?” he finally asked in an irritated tone of voice.

She swallowed hard and nodded, but it took a bit longer to get her body to comply. She tried to tug the soiled garment off, but she just couldn’t. As though all of her strength had been used in the stitches she’d been able to remove, she simply didn’t have anything left, did she?

He said nothing though he did heave a sigh, sticking the clean smock under his arm and grasping the soiled one with one hand on either side. Then he tugged it over her head and tossed it aside before shaking out the clean one and helping her to put it on. To her surprise, he picked her up and moved her aside before striding over for the hose. Setting the untouched burger atop the cage, he sprayed out the cage then shut off the nozzle.

“Eat this,” he said, slipping the sandwich into her hand before putting the hose away again.

She stared at the sandwich and swallowed hard. To be honest, the idea of eating made her stomach turn over, but she understood what he hadn’t said. If she didn’t eat, she wouldn’t heal as quickly, right? So with that in mind, she bit into the sandwich and slowly chewed.

“They cut you open to see whether or not you were female?” he asked at length.

She nodded and swallowed a few times before nibbling on the sandwich again. “I guess so.”

He heaved a sigh and shook his head. “They could have just used an ultrasound to see that.”

“It was broken, they said,” she mused.

“Broken.”

She nodded again.

He regarded her for several moments while she finished the sandwich before jerking his head toward the cage. “Get in there.”

She did—at least, most of the way. Her legs were too shaky to move very quickly. She ended up crawling part of the way. She managed to scoot into the cage most of the way before her body just gave out. In the end, he had to pick up her legs and scoot them in, too.

She was asleep within moments.

She didn’t feel the gentle fingers pull back the bandage, didn’t see the trouble gaze as the holy man frowned at the angry gash that was already starting to seal itself closed. She didn’t hear the soft sigh as he pressed the bandage into place once more, and she never knew that he knelt there in the opening of the cage for a long, long while with a frown on his face as he watched her sleep . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Is he sleeping?

Kurt snuggled deeper into the warmth of his sleeping bag, blinking in the murky darkness at the strange shadows cast by the living flames of the campfire.

Yeah, he’s sleeping . . . Poor kid . . .

I worry about him. So young . . . everything he’s been through . . . a little boy never should have had to see that sort of thing . . .”

Uncle Marcus didn’t respond right away. Kurt crawled out of the brightly colored Power Puppy sleeping bag that Aunt Mary had bought especially for their camping trip and over to the flaps that were zipped closed.   He wasn’t sure why, but for some reason, he just wanted to see the two of them. Maybe it didn’t make sense, and he didn’t know why. For some reason, though, he . . . he didn’t want to be alone . . . “I know you had your differences with your sister . . .

Aunt Mary let out a long sigh as the crackle of the fire broke the stillness of the night as Kurt carefully unzipped the bottom of the opening, just enough to peer out of the tent, to satisfy the part of him that needed to reassure himself through seeing the two of them that he really wasn’t alone. “Can we not talk about that?

Uncle Marcus slipped an arm around Aunt Mary and kissed her temple as he pulled her a little closer. “Sorry.

Mary leaned forward, rubbing her face with a weary hand. “The last time I saw her,” she said, her voice dropping to barely more than a whisper, quivering, shaking with emotion that Kurt didn’t really understand, “I told her that she was . . . was stupid . . . I told her that . . . that if she stayed with Doug . . .”

Don’t do that,” Marcus insisted, sounding harsher than normal—or maybe that was simply Kurt’s imagination. “She loved him, right? And she was happy . . . Isn’t that all you can ask for someone?

It is,” she said in a tone that made Kurt wonder if she really meant that at all. “She was . . .”

Besides,” Marcus went on with a little grin, “that kid is pretty cool, don’t you think?

She finally smiled, too, and she leaned up to kiss his cheek. “He is, isn’t he?

I always wanted a boy,” he ventured with a shrug.

She sighed and nodded. “Maybe we should cancel our appointment with the clinic? At least for a bit, until he’s a little more settled.”

He smiled encouragingly, gave her a quick squeeze. “We’ll have a baby of our own, you know, but I have to admit, I think Kurt needs our full attention right now.”

A strange noise interrupted the moment, an unsettling sound that made Kurt’s blood run cold in his veins. The angry growl of an unseen creature, the unsettling brush of something sinister and malignant . . .

Uncle Marcus heard it, too, and he glanced around slowly, like he didn’t trust what he’d heard. As he rose slowly to his feet, waving a hand at Mary to silence her, Kurt opened his mouth to yell a warning, to scream, to do something, and yet no sound would come.

The low growl murmured again; a quiet sound that was not meant to be heard. Marcus reached for a flashlight, shining it into the darkness just outside the range of the rollicking flames. He gasped and jerked back, the beam of light flickering as his hand shook. “Wh-who are you?” he demanded. “What do you want . . .?

The flash of movement, a blur of shadows . . . Kurt smashed his hands over his ears, cringing away at the deafening scream, the shriek that echoed deep within . . .

Awaking with a smothered cry, sitting up straight on the thin little cot, Kurt could hear himself gasping, struggling to breathe as a thousand lights seemed to explode in his head. Bending over, clutching his head in his hands, he winced at the chill that streaked down his back—the same cold sweat that soaked the blankets and his clothing.

“Houshi-sama?”

The softness of that voice cut through the dull, aching fear, and for a moment, he had trouble placing it. Lifting his head, he saw the little demon, dark eyes blinking at him from the recessed shadows of the cage. It looked as though it wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to talk to it. In the end, it just sat there with a candid sort of expression on its face, and he sighed.

Why did the anger, the pain, the fear drain out of him so suddenly? And it was gone, wasn’t it? Despite of the painful cadence of his own heartbeat . . . despite the overwhelming knowledge that those emotions really didn’t help him at all . . . But the emptiness that consumed him was a much more terrible thing—an endless void that neither time nor space could ever truly fill . . .

He’d come to understand so very long ago that any emotion, be it good or bad, meant that he was still alive—living for a reason; for a purpose, even if that reason was vengeance. So the complete and utter lack of emotion felt like a naked space where nothing could touch him and where he could not touch anything else, either.

Yet there was something in the little demon’s voice—a sadness, a weariness that he could understand. It was that thought that brought him up off the cot, crossing the floor to kneel down in front of the cage. Without a word, he pushed its hands aside, pulling up the smock so that he could get a look at the incision. Shaking his head slowly, narrowing his eyes as he stared, he wasn’t at all surprised to see that the wound had almost disappeared. Not even forty-eight hours since it had been cut wide open, and it was fine again . . .? Even less time than it had taken to heal the gunshot wound through its shoulder . . .

“What the hell are you?” he murmured: a rhetorical question in the hazy dark.

It—she?—uttered a soft sound—a chuckle? “I’ve told you,” she replied calmly. “I’m hanyou.”

“Half . . . youkai—magical creature . . . a creature that can heal itself . . .” he mused, his tone not friendly but not hostile either. “So you’ve said before. What’s that make your other half?”

Its smile turned a little sad; its gaze skittering away as though it were trying to hide something from him. “Does it matter?”

Kurt heaved a sigh and shook his head, abruptly pushing himself to his feet once more. What the hell had he been thinking? To get a real, genuine answer out of a beast like that? Not likely . . .

“Save your fucking riddles,” he growled as he stomped over to the desk. The rage was back in spades, or so it seemed. Unable to do more than gnash his teeth at the irritation that he’d actually bothered to ask it anything at all, he dragged his hands over his face and heaved a frustrated sigh.

“Houshi-sama,” it said again.

Kurt tried to ignore it.

“I . . . I need to go . . . to the bathroom . . .”

And he considered ignoring that quiet statement, too. Unfortunately, the idea of having to clean up after it was far worse than the irritation of having to cater to the damn thing’s needs. Still, he was fairly certain that he really was cursed as he pushed himself out of the chair and stomped over to it again. Heaving a sigh as he wondered whether the rest of the money were really worth this kind of frustration, he could only shake his head when the little demon wiggled around and stuck its hands behind its back.

Guess it wasn’t lying,’ he thought dryly.

After making sure that both hands and ankles were bound, he let it out of the cage and, as normal, escorted it to the bathroom where he unfastened one of its hands so that it could take care of itself in there though he did remain in the doorway.

“You know,” it quipped in what could only be described as a teasing sort of tone, “I’ve heard that relationships end the moment that you’re comfortable enough to do this sort of thing in front of each other.”

Snorting indelicately, Kurt ignored the comment, pressing his lips together in a tight, thin line.

“You don’t have to come in here with me,” it went on in a conversational tone as it pulled paper off the roll. The metal holder squeaked horribly. Kurt gritted his teeth since that particular sound was akin to nails on a chalkboard to him. “I can’t take an energy form, so it’s not like I can just fly up the vent or anything.”

He was going to ignore that comment, as well, but he stopped and shot it a calculating look. “Some of your kind can do that?” he asked somewhat grudgingly.

“Some of them,” it replied. “Full youkai . . . but only really strong ones . . .” It stood up and flushed the toilet then shuffled over to the sink, the chain scraping the floor between its feet.

Rolling his eyes—it always took an inordinate amount of time in washing its hands, Kurt knocked on the doorframe and cleared his throat. “Get moving, little demon,” he muttered.

It stopped and blinked and stared at him. He could see the smile forming at the corners of its lips. “Little demon?” it repeated. “Is that what you’re going to call me now?”

“Move,” he growled, jerking his head in the direction of the holding area.

It giggled then scooted toward him, turning around and wiggling its hands for him to secure it once more. For some reason, he had a feeling that it simply wasn’t taking him nearly as seriously as it should . . . Shaking his head, he snapped the other cuff around its wrist and gave it a light shove toward the cage.

“Houshi-sama—”

“What’s that mean?” he demanded suddenly. For some reason, the term sounded familiar, but he couldn’t remember why or where he’d heard it before.

Shaking its head, it shrugged offhandedly. “It means . . . monk, basically . . . Are you a monk?” it asked as it crawled into the cage once more.

He stopped for a moment, narrowing his eyes. “What?” he demanded, unfastening the shackles around its ankles.

It shrugged and held still while he opened the handcuffs. “A monk,” it repeated again. “Or you could be a priest, I guess . . .”

A surge of indignant irritation shot through him, and he couldn’t help the loud snort that escaped him, either. “No,” he stated flatly.

It scooted around in the cage and stared at him in apparent confusion. “But you have spiritual powers,” it said. “You have to be—”

“I’m not,” he insisted, cutting it off short. “Hard to be something like that when you know damn well that there is no God.”

“Is that what you believe?” it asked quietly.

Another rise of anger frothed over deep inside him. Without another word, he stood abruptly and strode away from the cage.

A monk? A monk . . .? A fool who dedicated his life to serving some entity that didn’t give a damn about anyone or anything? What was that old saying? There was always a reason for everything? No, there wasn’t. There really wasn’t. There were just gross injustices and lives left destroyed, and all at the whim of some omniscient being? That wasn’t it. That couldn’t be it. He knew that better than anyone, didn’t he?

Believing that there really was something out there controlling everything like some macabre puppet show was simply beyond Kurt’s ability to reason. Choosing to believe in something like that . . .

That’d mean that he’d have to believe that his family was meant to die . . .

And that was simply something that Kurt could not—would not—accept.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Kagome stepped out of the door that led to the roof of the hotel that they’d unofficially taken over as the center of operations. Situated roughly in the heart of Chicago, it had been the most logical place. Everyone had come in from their day spent scouring the streets of the city, and while everyone was optimistic, she’d felt the pervasive feeling of absolute desperation, too.

She’d watched as her son had slipped out of the suite where they’d all gathered to debrief. She’d thought that he was going out to look again, but when she’d followed him, she’d found him up here, instead. “How are you holding up, Kichiro?”

Kichiro drew a deep breath and let it out in a long gust. “Been better,” he admitted, leaning on the four foot ledge that ran around the perimeter of the hotel roof.

Kagome nodded and sat beside him, casting him an encouraging smile as she leaned forward to rub his clasped hands. “You look exhausted.”

“I can’t rest till I find her, Mama.”

“I know.”

Letting his head fall back as he stared at the stars so high above, it struck him that they didn’t look all that different from the ones that he saw every night from the half-dark of InuYasha’s Forest. Like there, the glow of the city precluded the weak light that shone from the smaller ones, and yet if you looked hard enough, you could see them, couldn’t you? “I, uh, keep remembering the day Sami was born . . . Belle-chan said that she wanted a boy because, you know . . . we already had two daughters. She said every man needs a son to carry on his father’s name, and I remember thinking . . .” Trailing off as though he needed a moment to gather his scattering thoughts, he shook his head and stared at the horizon, looking for answers that he simply didn’t have. “The bows and the dresses and the . . . the dolls and the kisses . . . and the dancing and all of that . . . the things you don’t always get from boys . . . I love those things . . .”

“We’ll find her.”

He laughed quietly, a broken sort of sound, as his gaze dropped to his feet, to the darkness below the rooftop’s edge. “Do you know how arrogant I am, Mama?”

“I’d hardly call you arrogant,” she countered gently.

“I thought those scent-tabs would revolutionize hunting. I thought that they’d . . . protect those whom we love.” Shaking his head, he cleared his throat and shrugged. “I never thought that they c-could cost me my little girl. That was my arrogance,” he murmured, dashing a hand over his eyes. “What if I . . . what’ll I tell Belle if I can’t bring her home . . .?”

“Do you think that Samantha would want you to blame yourself?” Kagome asked quietly. “Do you think she’d ever want to see her papa beating himself up like this?”

He shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t . . . It’s not that simple, Mama.”

Kagome stared at him for a long moment, her gaze inscrutable in the dim half-light. “Right now, she needs you . . . She needs you to make sure that she has a place to come home to. She needs you to make sure that you don’t fall apart. She needs you to be strong so that she can smile, and because you’re her father, you’ll do these things for her.”

Kichiro finally looked at her, his eyes bright though no more tears fell. “I’m scared, Mama,” he whispered.

She leaned up and kissed his cheek then hugged him tight, squeezing her eyes closed when she felt him trembling. “I am, too, Kichiro. I am, too.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

She hadn’t meant to make him angry.

Stifling a sigh as she rested her temple against the cold bars of the cage, she wondered why he’d said what he’d said.

I’m not. Hard to be something like that when you know damn well that there is no God.”

Did he believe that? How could he believe that? Samantha might not call it God, and she might not even say that she believed that it was a single entity, but . . . but she had to believe in something, didn’t she? Maybe she didn’t believe in God in the strictest sense of the word, but she believed that there were things out there: things that were still beautiful, still pure. Remembering the vast colors contained in a single raindrop, the myriad of scents that flooded her senses just after a good rain . . . There was beauty to be seen, wasn’t there? All one had to do was to look for it . . .

She had to believe it or she’d go mad. She knew that—knew that if she stopped believing, she’d die. Somewhere deep down, she believed that one day, she’d see those things again. Belief was the single thing that she had left, wasn’t it?

And those she loved . . . where were they now? Shivering slightly, she pulled the thin blanket a little closer around herself, she hoped that they were all warm and happy. Maybe her father was playing the piano . . . and if he was, then Mama had to be close by . . . Isabelle and Griffin . . . he’d be recovering from his latest reconstructive surgery, wouldn’t he? And Alexandra . . . maybe she’d finally get around to marrying John.

Was Sydnie starting to show yet? Samantha smiled wanly. It was hard to imagine the tiny cat-youkai with a big belly, round with baby . . . ‘Bas had better be good to her,’ she thought with a vague shake of her head. Their child would be the first of the next generation . . .

Jillian and Gavin, Evan and Madison . . . Kagura and Sesshoumaru . . . Toga and Sierra . . . Coral, Cassidy, Chelsea, and Charity . . . Rinji and Reiko . . . Shippou and Rin . . . Gunnar and Morio and Mikio . . . so many faces, so many memories . . . She’d always felt as though she had to run to catch up to them all. Always the youngest; always the baby . . .

She didn’t want to think of them, out there looking for her. She didn’t want to consider the worry, the panic that they’d feel . . . Grandma and Grandpa . . . She couldn’t remember a time when InuYasha ever said that he loved her, yet she’d never, ever doubted it; not once in her life. Uncle Ryomaru . . . how often had he guided her training with a proud grin on his face that he hadn’t been able to hide. “Not bad for a girl,” he’d said so often, and she’d understood that he’d meant it as the highest of praise.

How often had she sat in the studio while her grandpa Cain worked in silence. It wasn’t an unfriendly silence, though, and she’d marveled in the wonder of watching his hands as he bent and molded clay into the most intricate creatures, the most delicate beings so beautiful that she couldn’t bring herself to call them ‘women’. How many times had Gin read her stories—children’s books that still made her laugh . . . how often had she sat with Kagome, listening to stories that painted a pictures of InuYasha as larger than life?

The memories were sweet, but they hurt her, too. The conflicting emotions were vindictive . . .

Sami . . . don’t do this to yourself,’ her youkai chided gently.

Smiling sadly, she swallowed hard, swallowed the tears that welled in her throat. ‘We’ll see them again, right?

Of course we will.’

The voice didn’t sound positive, at all.

Glancing at the clock, Samantha stifled a sigh. It was almost five in the morning.

The mere thought of spending another day alone with the white-coats was a frightening thing. She didn’t want to think about it; didn’t want to consider what manner of testing they had in mind for today. It seemed to her that they were growing more and more daring with each passing day . . .

And yet it wasn’t really as bad as it could have been, was it? The nights weren’t so bad, aside from the cold. Gaze slipping to the side, she stared at the would-be holy man. If she said she was sorry, would he believe her?

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, breaking the stony silence.

He didn’t look up from his book, but then, she really hadn’t figured that he would.

“If you’re not a monk, are you a taijya?”

He blinked and glanced at her, his gaze suspicious. “And what’s that?” he asked tightly.

She sat up a little, pleased that he was at least speaking to her again, even if his tone wasn’t exactly friendly. She figured it’d do. “Well, technically speaking, it means youkai exterminator . . . of course, you haven’t exterminated me, but it’s kind of the same in theory . . .”

“You know, it doesn’t matter what term you use to describe yourself. You’re still a demon, plain and simple.”

“And you’re still a taijya,” she quipped.

“So what language is that?” he countered.

Samantha blinked since she hadn’t actually expected him to ask that question. “Language?” she repeated.

The expression he shot her stated very plainly that he knew damn well that she was trying to avoid the question. “Yes, little demon: language.”

“What language do you think it is?”

He was not amused by her evasive responses, but Samantha wasn’t entirely certain how much she really should tell him. After all, even though she might well think that he wasn’t going to hurt her, she wasn’t at all certain what he’d do with the information that he could get from her, if he had a mind to. No, she was much better off to keep her answers as general as she possibly could.

“How come you can see us?” she asked, hoping that he wouldn’t notice her blatant attempt to change the subject.

He shrugged and turned his attention back to the book once more. “I don’t know,” he admitted absently. “Always have . . .”

“But humans can’t see through our concealments,” she continued thoughtfully. “You shouldn’t be able to, either.”

“Well, I don’t consider it to be a good thing,” he assured her. “Your kind is nothing but monsters.”

She smiled wanly, letting her chin fall onto her raised knees. “That sounds about right,” she murmured, wondering not for the first time if she ought to hate the part of her that branded her the same as the white-coats: the human part of her that was frightened and weak that cowered in the dark beneath her hanyou façade.

If she were full human, would she feel compelled to help the white-coats? She’d like to say that she never would, but how true was that? They didn’t believe that she was even remotely close to being like them because they didn’t want to believe it. But if she were like them . . .

“Oh, you agree that you’re a monster,” he scoffed. “Right . . . Sure . . .”

“There are some who are bad,” she reasoned. “Aren’t there humans who do bad things?”

“Bad things? Is that what you call it? You destroy every single thing that you come across, and you say that it’s just a ‘bad thing’?”

“Some youkai hate humans,” she admitted. “I don’t know why, but . . . Causing harm to humans is viewed as the gravest of offenses to us.”

“Is that so?” he said, his tone as clipped and measured as it was cold. “Hurting humans is an offense? Do you really expect me to believe that?”

“It’s the truth,” she replied simply.

“I’ve seen what you demons are capable of. I’ve seen it. Don’t try to tell me that you aren’t like that or that you don’t think it’s right or that you think it’s an offense.”

“I wish you didn’t think that.”

He snorted, jamming the book into his knapsack. “Of course you don’t. This discussion is over.”

Letting out a deep breath, she winced inwardly but remained silent. She might not understand a lot about him, but she did know one thing: whatever had happened to him in his past, it was safe to assume that some youkai had caused it. If that were the case, then she could appreciate his irritation.

The question was, exactly what had happened to him before . . .?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Samantha sat up in the cage, feeling inordinately restless though she was hard pressed to put her finger on why. She’d felt that way all day, really, and while she’d been forced to endure another bout of being strapped naked to a table while the white-coats poked and prodded and basically pestered her, she’d stared at the clock, willing the minutes and hours to pass.

Today’s research—if one could call it that—was what she considered to be the morbid fascination with watching how fast she healed. They’d been astounded with how quickly the wound in her shoulder had closed up—she already knew that—but when the incision in her stomach had also disappeared so rapidly, they’d decided that they should see it, first hand.

So she’d done her level best to ignore them as they inflicted wounds on her fingertips and feet. They hadn’t cut her more than a few centimeters at a time, though, and she hadn’t really bled much, either. All in all, she’d figured that it was more annoying than painful, and there was the added bonus that it had thoroughly irritated the white-coats that she hadn’t really shown any remarkable reactions to their brand of havoc—a feat that she was quite proud of, really . . .

And she was also quite healed by the time they’d shackled her and walked her back to the cage, accompanied, of course, by a legion of security guards after she’d pulled her smock back on.

Shackles aside, she rather felt like a rock star.

That thought made her giggle. She wasn’t entirely sure why. She’d gone to one of her cousin’s concerts once, and the entire affair had amused her. Seeing Evan Zelig surrounded by a host of bodyguards was absolutely one of the funniest things she’d ever seen, never mind that he could probably have kicked all their asses, if he’d wanted to.

He’d said later that it was all just a ruse. After all, his fans were mostly human, and they wouldn’t have understood why Evan really didn’t need a bodyguard, in the first place.

That she’d managed to require more guards than he did, though . . . now that really was funny, in her opinion . . . and knowing Evan, he’d probably think that it was funny, too . . .

Glancing at the clock on the wall, she frowned just a little. It was nearly seven, and still the taijya had yet to arrive. She’d taken to calling him that since he really seemed to despise ‘Houshi-sama’. Besides, she had to admit that she liked taijya better. It sounded more dangerous, didn’t it?

Smashing her hands over her mouth as another bout of giggles welled up inside her, Samantha shook her head and wondered if the white-coats had slipped her something when she wasn’t paying attention. Why else would she be in that good a mood? She really figured that she shouldn’t be, all things considered. After all, she was still quite trapped here, and that, alone, ought to have been enough to silence her amusement, right?

The door opened, and she sat up straight, but frowned when two of the white-coats stepped into the room. They normally left long before now, didn’t they? What in the world were they still doing here?

“You really think this will work?”

“Sure . . . why wouldn’t it?”

The first guy didn’t look entirely convinced.

“Hands behind your back,” the second guy ordered.

Samantha didn’t move.

“Now,” he demanded, kicking the cage just enough to shock her.

Biting her lip and refusing to let them see how badly the jolt that slammed through her hurt, she didn’t blink and didn’t move. As far as she was concerned, they’d had their time earlier, and she wasn’t nearly stupid enough not to have smelled the changes in their scents as they’d studied her, strapped spread eagle on that damn table. Their long lab coats might have hidden the obvious results from each other’s views, but she knew, didn’t she? And she’d be damned if she’d let them touch her, either.

“What the hell are the two of you still doing here?”

The white-coats whipped around to face a very bored looking taijya. Samantha almost cried in relief.

Neither looked happy to see him stride into the room and over to the desk where he deposited his knapsack and coat.

“Didn’t you get the memo?” the second one finally asked, apparently deciding that a show of mock bravado was in order.

The taijya nodded. “I got it,” he agreed mildly enough.

“Then you know that we’re going to be conducting a night study on her.”

“Weird, though . . . Harlan didn’t know a damn thing about it, and since all testing has to be cleared through him, then I guess it means that you’re not authorized.”

“W . . . it’s just . . . o-observation,” the first doctor finally said in a rather pathetically weak tone.

The taijya shrugged. “Then pull up a chair, boys, and observe all you want. Be a little boring, though, if you want my opinion. It doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot.”

Samantha might have thought that the situation were a bit more humorous if she didn’t need to pee. Fidgeting just a little, she concentrated on not thinking about it—no small feat, really. She didn’t dare speak in front of the white-coats, and even if she did, she wasn’t entirely certain that the taijya would take her to the bathroom with the impromptu audience . . .

But as luck would have it, the two miscreants seemed to settle in for the duration. She bit her lip.

“So, Doc . . . You give any thought to what we talked about the other day?” the more talkative of the white-coats asked. His clearance card had read ‘Peterman’, she thought . . .

The taijya pulled a newspaper out of his bag and shook it out. “Nope.”

The sleazy bastard chuckled, and Samantha had to tamp down the vindictive desire to shove a few of the man’s teeth right down his throat. “You sure about that? I mean, she isn’t very big, but I’m sure that there’s enough of her to go around.”

The taijya didn’t respond to that.

“Maybe he’s gay,” the other white-coat muttered to his partner in a quiet tone that the taijya was probably not meant to hear.

“Maybe I am,” the taijya agreed as he let his feet drop off the desk and slowly rose, tossing the newspaper down as he pinned both white-coats with a menacing glower, “I mean, nothing sounds quite as good to me right now as fucking the two of you up completely.”

Peterman chuckled. “Oh, come on, now, Doc . . . Warren was just joking, right, buddy?”

The one who must’ve been named Warren nodded. “Just a joke,” he echoed, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I mean, what’s the harm?”

The taijya looked like he was sorely pressed not to lose his temper completely. “The harm? The harm? Look, I’ve yet to get my full payment out of that demon. You’re not doing a damn thing to compromise that till I do. You got that?”

“We’re not going to hurt her,” Peterman insisted with a wide, fake grin meant to reassure the taijya, she supposed. “What’s wrong with having a little fun?”

“I already told you,” the taijya growled, jerking his head toward the door. “Now get the hell out of here before I lose my temper.”

She couldn’t help her sigh of relief when the two white-coats decided that it was in their best interests to comply. The taijya didn’t back down until the two had left the room, and then he followed them to the doorway, watching, she figured, until they had gotten onto the elevator before he slumped against the frame and slowly shook his head. “Sick bastards,” he muttered under his breath.

Samantha opened her mouth to thank him, but faltered. Something in his expression stopped her, didn’t it; something that she didn’t completely comprehend . . .? Anger, sure, and even a marked disgust, but something else, too; something much subtler, something . . . something she wasn’t entirely certain of . . .

Pushing himself away from the door, he stomped over to the cage and made quick work of pulling the water dish out to refill it.

“Uh,” she interrupted before he could move away.

“What?” he grumped, though she had the strangest feeling that his tone really didn’t have a lot to do with her.

“I, err . . . have to pee,” she muttered.

He stared at her for several seconds then heaved a sigh. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?” he retorted dryly.

She bit her lip but couldn’t help the contrite little smile that surfaced, either.

He shook his head and heaved another sigh, setting the bowl atop the cage and rolling his hand in a gesture meant to hurry her along. “All right; all right. You know the drill.”

Samantha giggled then hurriedly turned around.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Ryomaru glowered at the map spread on the table in the hotel room. “That’s a hella big area,” he muttered, tapping the page with a tapered claw.

Griffin nodded but remained silent.

“It’s just another wild goose chase,” Kichiro growled, stomping away from the table and looking like he was ready to tear something to shreds. “Damn it!”

“Maybe,” Gunnar intoned as he eyed the map. “Maybe not.”

“I’ll go,” Ryomaru said. “Anyone know that area?”

Griffin shrugged and nodded. “I do.” All eyes turned to stare at him. “It’s been a while, but . . .”

Ryomaru stared at Griffin for a moment then slowly nodded. “All right. We’ll head out in the morning.”

“What the hell can some old bastard tell us about where my daughter is?” Kichiro went on angrily. “There’s nothing in Minnesota that’s going to help us!”

“You don’t know that,” Evan pointed out. “If we find the guy, even if he isn’t involved . . . maybe he knows something.”

“Look, Kich, Mother and the old man are still checking around here, and like it or not, she’s our best chance at the moment. If this old bastard can tell us anything, then we gotta go,” Ryomaru pointed out.

Kichiro didn’t look like he wanted to agree, but he finally nodded. “Then I should go, too.”

“The hell,” Ryomaru muttered with a shake of his head. “What if the old man gets himself arrested again? You’d better stay here . . .”

“I ain’t going to get arrested again,” InuYasha grumbled as he stomped into the room with Kagome right behind him. “Baka pup . . .”

“Any luck?” Bas spoke up from his spot where he was lounging against a wall with an untouched cup of coffee in his hand.

Kagome shook her head and sighed. “Nothing yet, but we’ve decided that it’s better to move around on foot. It’s hard to tell much of anything from the air.”

“Damn it,” Bas gritted out, his grip tightening on the tiny cup that looked like a child’s miniature in the man’s huge hand.

“Take it easy before you break it, Bas,” Gavin said, nodding at said-cup.

Bas blinked, his grip loosening just a touch though the irritation on his features did not wane.

Gunnar’s cell phone rang, and he nodded at the others to go on as he stepped to the side to field the call. It was his father, who had gone out for the day with Morio to check into a few places that they weren’t sure had been explored as yet. “Hello?”

“Mamoruzen? How’s everything there?”

Rubbing his eye, Gunnar let out a deep breath and glanced over at the gathering. “Griffin’s friend, Attean contacted him about a potential lead in Minnesota. Ryomaru and Griffin are going to head out tomorrow.”

“Minnesota? What’s up there?”

“Attean heard a rumor about some old man up that way who is said to possess spiritual powers. It may not have a thing to do with this, but it doesn’t hurt to check it out.”

“Ryomaru . . .” Toga sighed. “I don’t know that it’s a good idea to send him in. That’d be like sending Uncle Yasha in, only a little goofier . . .”

Gunnar was inclined to agree, but he shook his head. “He’s the best bet we have as far as tracking goes, Uncle Yasha aside.”

“I know, but Ryomaru tends to act first and think later—when he thinks at all, that is . . .”

“Kami, you’re starting to sound like Grandfather,” Gunnar pointed out.

Toga sighed. “I would rather avoid having your uncle blowing up the whole of the North American woodlands . . .” he admitted ruefully.

Gunnar rubbed the back of his neck as he pondered that, then made a face. “Then maybe you ought to get back here and warn him.”

“Afraid of your uncle, Mamoruzen?” Toga teased.

Gunnar smiled just a little. “No, but I do have a healthy respect for his swords.”

“Duly noted . . . we’ll head back right . . . Oi! What do you think you’re doing?”

Gunnar heard rustling in the background and shook his head.

“I’ve never seen a flower like that one,” Morio pointed out, his voice muffled by the distance between him and the phone receiver. “Meara would love it.”

“So take a picture of it, baka! That’s called breaking and entering, you know!”

“What the hell is he doing?” Gunnar couldn’t help asking.

Toga heaved another sigh, this one decidedly frustrated. “Someone’s got a bunch of plants in their window, and your cousin’s trying to jimmy it open . . .”

“I wasn’t going to steal it!” Morio complained. “But the light would just bounce off the glass if I tried to take a picture . . . you think they’re home?”

“We’ll be back as soon as I beat some sense into your cousin,” Toga grumbled. “Don’t let them leave before I get there.”

“Okay,” Gunnar replied as the line went dead. The irritated look on his face dissipated, and he smiled just a little. It put things into perspective, at least a somewhat. Maybe Morio didn’t take everything as seriously as everyone else, but maybe that was all right, too . . . His heart was in the right place . . .

When he turned around again, it was to see everyone staring at the map on the table. “Attean didn’t know anything other than ‘northern Minnesota’?” Bas asked. He’d traded the cup for his cell phone, probably talking to Cain at the same time as he was discussing the search plans.

“No,” Griffin mumbled. “He said it was just a rumor.”

Bas hit a button and set the phone on the table. “Rumor . . . It should still be looked into,” Cain’s voice came through on the speakerphone. “Has Ben made it there, yet?”

“I haven’t seen him,” Bas remarked.

“How’s Bellaniece?” Kagome asked as she looked away from the map.

Cain sighed. “She’s all right. Went Christmas shopping today with the girls.”

“Good,” Kagome said with a wan smile. “And Gin?”

“Gin’s fine, too.”

“Have you heard anything else, Zelig?” InuYasha cut in impatiently. “Anything useful?”

Kagome shot her mate an unimpressed look. The hanyou ignored it.

“Nothing,” Cain admitted. “I’ll look into that rumor. I don’t know what I’ll be able to find out, though. If Myrna didn’t come up with anything on her first search . . . I’ll call if I find out anything.”

InuYasha grunted. Kagome nudged him with her elbow before he could say anything contentious.

“All right,” Bas agreed. “Tell Sydnie I’ll call her in a bit.”

“Sure,” Cain replied. The connection ended, and Bas shut off his phone and dropped it into his pocket.

“So the rest of us’ll just keep searching on foot, then,” Evan muttered, looking entirely irritated about it.

“That’s all we can do,” Bas said.

“We’re not getting anywhere like this,” Evan said, his voice thick with the frustration that everyone else was feeling, too. “Remind me not to come up missing if this is the best you can do, Bubby.”

Bas shot his brother a warning look that Evan summarily ignored.

“Goddamnit! This feels so fucking pointless!” Evan snarled, pacing around the room like a caged animal. “Where the hell is she?”

“Evan,” Bas began in a warning tone.

Evan rounded on him, jamming a finger against Bas’ chest. “Shut the fuck up, Bassie! You don’t know any more than the rest of us do, now do you? So don’t pretend that you do, all right? Just spare me . . . Sam’s out there somewhere, and we’re all sitting here talking about some fucked up mountain man who may or may not have spiritual abilities? No! Fuck no! Stay here if you want, but I’m going back out there! I’m going to find her, and I’m going to bring her back, damn it!”

Bas sighed as Evan stormed out of the room. Kichiro glanced around, his gaze lingering on every face that he knew, and finally, he, too, turned and left. Clenching his jaw, Bas looked like he wanted to say something. In the end, he let out a deep breath and strode out onto the balcony.

Kagome stood still for a moment, the turmoil in her eyes speaking volumes about the worry in her heart and soul as she patted her mate’s back and hurried after Bas.

The night was cold—colder than she could credit—a deep-rooted cold that seemed somehow entirely appropriate in its unrelenting quality. Bas stood at the railing, staring out over the city, his back strong and proud as his hair whipped into his unblinking eyes. “He’s . . . he’s right, you know,” the young man said quietly. He hadn’t turned to acknowledge his grandmother’s presence. He didn’t have to. “That’s the hell of it, see? He’s right . . .”

“Do you think so?” she asked gently, pulling her sweater a little closer as she wrapped her arms around her chest and wandered over to his side.

“Grandma . . . Evan didn’t say anything that the rest of us haven’t felt. How hopeless is this?” He sighed and shook his head. “I’m not giving up; I just . . .”

“Sebastian, I’m going to tell you something, and it’s going to sound completely un-grandma-ish.”

He finally turned to look at her then pulled off his coat to drape it around her shoulders. “Un-grandma-ish?”

She nodded then sighed, letting the warmth of the garment encompass her for a moment before she spoke again. “Do you know how many knees I’ve bandaged or elbows I’ve kissed? How many bedtime stories I’ve read or how many times I’ve just stood and watched while my grandchildren have played? How many times I’ve helped one of you get back on your bicycles when you fell off or stood at the doorway, wondering if you intended to stay in the forest all night because you’ve lost track of the time . . .? And I always knew that you’d come back home because you always—always—did . . . Oh, your grandfather would grump and swear that he was going to thump you—all of you . . . The summer you boys took off—hiking through Japan, Mikio’s note had said . . . Afraid it was going to be your last summer spent together, and I worried, of course. I’m your grandmother. That’s my right . . .

“Your grandfather told me that I was worried about nothing; that you boys could take care of yourselves, and it wasn’t that I thought you couldn’t . . . I suppose I just didn’t want you to have to do it . . .” She smiled, uttered a sad little laugh. “And you came home, all safe, all happy . . . You never said so, but I know that you boys had had the time of your lives, so I . . . I never had the heart to scold you—not when you were right. It was the last summer you all spent together, wasn’t it?”

Bas nodded, the expression on his face stating plainly that he did remember that summer that seemed so very long ago. Kagome had fretted and worried, staring at her cell phone for hours on end, almost dialing it so many times until InuYasha had stomped into the kitchen and told her to leave the boys be . . . And when they’d finally wandered into the house weeks later . . .

How happy had they looked? How much closer had the four boys bonded? The next generation had somehow become this united front, and while they had retained their individuality, together, she’d realized, they’d become something entirely different. They’d deepened that friendship into something that would withstand anything that anyone else could throw at them. She’d been proud, hadn’t she? Proud of the boys who had snuck out in the night, only to return home as full-grown men. Every child had a moment like that, when they were able to shed the mantle of the one only to step into their own . . . Looking back, Kagome could remember those insular moments in all those children’s lives . . . all except Samantha—the silvery girl with the brilliant eyes and the laughter that had the ability to make everyone smile . . . and in Kagome’s mind . . .

Her smile faded, and she shook her head. In her mind, Samantha was still that little girl, wasn’t she? And maybe . . .

“Today, as your grandfather and I were walking through the city, we passed this window of a vacant store—one of those huge, sheet glass windows . . . easily fifty feet long . . . maybe twenty feet high . . . and all over that window, people had posted these flyers . . . men, women, children . . . They were all missing. Every last one of them had a face and a name and a home where someone was waiting for them . . . and the flyers were all different: red ones, white ones, yellow ones . . .” Blinking quickly, she shook her head and cleared her throat as emotion threatened to overwhelm her. “I looked at those flyers, and I thought to myself . . . if we posted a picture of Samantha there, would anyone see her? Would . . . would anyone care . . .?”

Shaking her head, she suddenly covered her face with her hands, her tears silent but poignant, drawing a grimace from her grandson as he quickly reached out to pull her into a comforting hug. She leaned against him for a moment, wondering in what crazy, messed-up world did the child become the adult, even if it were only for a second?

Drawing a shaky breath, she sniffled and swiped at her eyes. “Those papers were two or three layers thick . . . different faces, different stories . . . but how many of them ended with that child—that person—coming home? How . . . how many . . .?” She bit her lip, rubbed her arms, felt the warmth of Bas’ lips against her forehead. “And I . . . I couldn’t help but wonder if our Samantha . . . Is she just another number now . . .? Another face that some strangers might see and think, ‘Oh, she’s a pretty girl,’—if they even think about her, at all . . .”

“Grandma . . .”

“That’s why,” she said, her voice taking on a determined tone.

Bas shook his head. He didn’t understand, did he . . .?

“That’s why,” she stated again, an expression of sheer determination brightening her gaze as she slowly, steadily stepped back, stared her grandson in the eye. Bas blinked at the expression on her face, the absolute conviction in her resolve. “That’s why we have to bring her home,” she said. “Because my Samantha . . . she’s more than a face on a window plastered with the other faces of the lost souls. She’s more than a number—a statistic. She’s more than just a pretty girl, and she deserves more than just a fleeting glance of an uncaring stranger. She’s ours, and she is coming home.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Shut up.”

That giggle again. “But—”

Kurt snorted and shook his newspaper to cut it—her?—off. “You already peed—twice. You ate. You had a drink. You have your blanket. You have everything you need, so shut up and go to sleep, demon.”

“I know, but I—”

“Shut. Up.”

“But . . . I smell chocolate.”

That gave Kurt pause, only because he actually did have a candy bar in his bag. The odds that he was sharing it with the demon, however, were slim and none. “Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied instead.

It uttered a terse grunt. “Hmph! But I love chocolate!”

Rolling his eyes as he tried to remember exactly why he’d wanted it to talk to him, in the first place, Kurt pulled the newspaper a little higher over his face and decided it was best to ignore the frustrating creature.

“Oh, come on,” it implored. “Didn’t you ever learn how to share?”

Folding down the corner of the paper, he peered over it at her and slowly shook his head. “If you don’t shut up,” he began in a warning tone, “I’ll gag you, and if you really don’t believe that I’d do it, then just keep talking.”

That, at least, seemed to stop it. Snapping its mouth closed on whatever it was going to say, it ‘hrmph-ed’ again, but it did remain silent.

Talk about minor miracles,’ he thought, returning his attention to the newspaper once more.

He wasn’t entirely certain, exactly what had gotten into the creature tonight. Laughing, giggling, almost teasing, and Kurt really didn’t know what to make of any of it. It was unsettling. It was unnerving. It was completely exasperating.

Maybe it’s just . . . relieved . . . after all, it can hear, right? Surely it had to realize what those two were trying to do to it—to . . . her . . .’

Frowning at his own line of thinking, he had to admit that he really wasn’t comfortable, referring to the demon in such a way. Identifying it as a female . . . Okay, he could accept that, he supposed. Gritting his teeth as he remembered that night, he winced. Yeah, he’d seen for himself that . . . she . . . was definitely female.

He sighed. Yes, he had been the one to tell them not to trust everything they saw on the outside, wasn’t he? So why had it horrified him so badly, to see that they’d decided that they wanted affirmation that she was a female, after all? They cut the demon open just to see if it—she possessed reproductive organs . . .? Even if it hadn’t affected the creature long-term, just what did that say about the doctors? Kurt wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to answer that, either . . .

Yet he also knew damn well what it—she really was. He’d seen the carnage that those demons seemed to crave. He saw it in the depths of his nightmares, remembered it at odd times when he sometimes wished he didn’t. It was an inescapable truth to him, wasn’t it? Dangerous . . . and it only took a second for them to take away everything that Kurt had ever had . . .

Female but not woman; a being that he just didn’t want to understand . . . Everything he needed to know, he’d learned thirty-one years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

And that was something that he’d never, ever forget.

Chapter Text

Kurt laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to the traffic passing by on the street far below the windows of his tiny apartment. Though he’d always had trouble sleeping, today was much worse, wasn’t it? The fact of the matter was that he’d given up on the idea of sleep long ago and was just trying to rest . . . and think.

It really was a female, wasn’t it?

Why was that such a difficult thing for him to accept? Why was the very idea of that enough to make his stomach lurch unpleasantly?

Why didn’t he want to accept that . . .?

But it really was a female. He’d seen that for himself, hadn’t he? When he’d taken out the stitches, he’d seen the parts that he really hadn’t wanted or needed to see: her uterus . . . Sick bastards . . . just what the hell were they doing? True enough, he wasn’t exactly a fan of those demons. That didn’t mean that he thought they should be dissected alive, either . . .

And didn’t that make them no better than those creatures? It wasn’t all right, was it? It wasn’t . . .

Yes, he believed that they needed to be destroyed. Beasts like them didn’t need to have free reign to kill and to destroy without as much as a second thought, but . . .

Even if he accepted the idea that the researchers were just looking for answers, trying to understand the fundamental differences in biology, he couldn’t accept the idea of what Peterson and Warren wanted to do. He’d seen the pictures, hadn’t he? Why the hell had they needed to catalog every single facet of the demon’s body, anyway? He hadn’t looked at all the images—he hadn’t needed to. He’d seen enough, hadn’t he? Fastened to the table, unable to move at all—that hadn’t bothered him nearly as much as the helpless images, of every part of the little demon so blatantly presented? They bothered him—the gross misuse of the term ‘research’ to blanket their sick and twisted desires . . .

He understood, of course, that Harlan viewed the little demon as his prized toy; as something that could be constructed and deconstructed at will.

What he didn’t understand was why the little demon let it happen. He didn’t even try to delude himself into thinking that it couldn’t easily overpower the researchers—the white-coats, she called them. The things that they did to it—to her . . . how much more would she tolerate before she snapped? Before they put a bullet through her that didn’t have a chance in hell to heal . . .?

It wasn’t that he cared—hell no, of course not. It wasn’t that the idea bothered him at all . . . One less . . . less demon in the world, right . . .? One less . . . monster . . .

Scowling at the ceiling as the gray light outside the window crept in like a gentle intruder, Kurt rolled onto his side and closed his eyes, trying not to think—not to think . . . not to think . . .

The police who had arrived at the house first had stared at him with undisguised horror—a little boy covered in blood, face streaked with tears and snot . . . He’d heard the whispers as he sat at the station, huddled in a blanket that smelled completely unfamiliar . . . Sitting in an oversized chair, feet drawn up as he shivered and stared, hearing whispers and sighs and words: so very many words . . .

“—He’s too little . . . There’s no way he could’ve had anything to do with that . . .”

“—sister nearly decapitated . . .”

“—mother’s heart crushed inside her chest . . .”

“—father had to be ripped up by something like a pitchfork or something . . . Fucking Freddy Krueger . . .”

And the questions . . . Detective Shonberg, the guy who looked like a round rubber ball with legs . . .

You mean you came home and there were monsters in your house? As in, what? The kind that hide under your bed and try to eat you?

Kurt shook his head. “Demons,” he murmured, staring at the table. “Demons . . .”

Look, son, don’t you want to help us find whoever did this to your family?

Demons,” Kurt said once more. “Demons . . .”

So you wanna tell me that the closet monster came out and attacked your mommy and daddy and sister? You’ve gotta help us, Kurt. We can’t help you if you don’t try.”

He didn’t know how long he sat in that room. He didn’t know how many times Detective Shonberg asked him the same questions. He vaguely recalled his aunt and uncle arriving. They spoke to the detective for a few minutes, and then Uncle Marcus had picked him up, blanket and all, and had carried him out of the station.

But they hadn’t taken him to their house right away, either. He remembered that he couldn’t understand why they’d stopped at the hospital. He remembered telling them that his family wasn’t there. “The monsters tore Carrie’s head off,” he’d said—he thought he’d said . . .

His aunt had cried—he remembered that, too. His lack of emotion had frightened her. He could understand that now, he thought with a wince. He’d felt so numb, so empty, so unreachable . . . so alone . . .

They’d checked him into the psychiatric clinic for a few weeks for observation, and maybe that had been the best thing for him. It wasn’t that the doctors had made him talk or anything, but maybe what he’d needed at that time was just the quiet, the unobtrusive apathy of doctors and nurses who didn’t try to coddle him, didn’t try to force emotion onto him that he didn’t want to feel. It was in that blessed and welcome silence that he had been able to begin functioning again. It was there that he’d been allowed to reach out at his own pace, away from the stifling hugs and overly rapt attention that he neither wanted nor needed.

By the time he’d left the clinic to go live with his aunt and uncle in a town about forty-five minutes away from Crosby, North Dakota, he was able to reach for Aunt Mary’s hand. He didn’t shy away when Uncle Marcus mussed his hair. He remembered seeing the relief on their faces, and, while he knew now that they hadn’t thought that he was ‘better’, they also had known that he would get there . . .

And who knew, really? He might have . . .

Heaving a sigh, he sat up, raking his hands through his hair. Why was he thinking about all of this, anyway? What good did it do to relive the past? He couldn’t change anything that had happened . . . He couldn’t fix anything or bring anyone back . . .

Giving up on the idea of catching a nap of any kind, Kurt stood up and shuffled toward the bathroom, tugging the nondescript black tee-shirt over his head and dropping it on the floor as he went before unfastening his jeans and walking them off, too.

He could still remember the first time he’d met with Robert Harlan. Having just graduated from medical school, he’d been working at St. Benedict’s on the outskirts of Chicago when he’d heard whispers about a facility that was researching the kind of creatures that Kurt was intent on hunting down. The first demon he’d caught was a freakish-looking thing with a rat-like face that didn’t speak more than a series of grunts and growls. Kurt had brought that one in muzzled since it had an unnatural preoccupation with trying to bite. Harlan had walked around the beast, his beady little eyes sizing it up as Kurt stood back and waited. The old bastard had given him a hundred and fifty thousand for it, citing that he’d have paid more had Kurt not accidentally burned its arm. The limb was unusable, and Kurt had learned his lessons well enough. Though there had been a couple of the damn things that he’d inadvertently injured or even had given a little too much of a shock in the days before he’d learned how to regulate his power, He’d done well enough, he supposed.

He stood under the tap, letting hot water flow over him for a long, long time. Harlan had told him that he wanted to find out what made those things tick; wanted to know everything there was to know about them in order to find the most effective way to get rid of them en masse. “It’s all well and good to hunt them down, but what if we could devise a way to destroy hundreds of them—thousands of them—all at once?” he’d said . . .

Kurt hadn’t liked Harlan from the start, and he certainly didn’t trust him, either. Still, he’d seemed earnest enough when he talked about his ultimate goal, and even if he weren’t, did Kurt honestly care? Harlan had said that he’d never actually seen a demon before Kurt had entered his office. He’d heard rumors of these horrific creatures, he’d heard whispers of things that could not be explained; things like entire families found torn apart—one in Texas the authorities had claimed was a ritualistic gang murder . . . another in Tulsa that was blamed on a husband gone mad who had supposedly killed his wife and two children with a hatchet or other ‘heavy, sharp instrument’ before somehow managing to kill himself. Speculation had it that the wife had fought back, that she had managed to inflict the fatal wounds that had ended up killing the husband in the end.

Kurt knew better, hadn’t he? He’d seen some of the pictures from the crime scene—some sick-o had stolen them out of the police station and had posted them online. It had only taken a glance for Kurt to recognize the wounds. They’d been inflicted by claws, and the police had to be stupid if they honestly thought that an injured wife could have possibly done that to her husband, too.

Those demons . . . They held no respect for life, no remorse for what they did, no reason to hate anyone enough to inflict that kind of pain. He barely noticed as the water cooled, as the steam that had built up in the air started to dissipate.

Thing was, he didn’t care, did he? He just didn’t have it in him to care . . . The families he’d seen or had heard about . . . he didn’t care at all about the horrors that they had endured. He had his own issues to deal with, his own burdens to bear. If he could just find the ones responsible . . . if he could make them pay for what they’d done . . . He didn’t think of it in terms of justice or punishment, but more of a leveling of the score.

Old Granger had asked him once if he thought that he was some sort of great avenger. Kurt hadn’t answered. He had no intention of doing anything like that, not really. It wasn’t a gross need to see the injustices of the world set right, was it?

No, his motivation was far uglier than that, far baser. He wanted to hurt them, needed to destroy them. There was no sense of doing what was right and no desire to vilify his actions. What he had was anger and hate and rage, and even if destroying the demons who had torn apart his family couldn’t assuage those feelings, then at least they’d know for sure what they might have thought in the beginning: they should have killed him when he was a boy, when he’d been too small to protect himself, because he wanted them to know, didn’t he? He wanted them to understand that he was the one who was doing the killing the next time . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Everything looks good, Sydnie. Your baby’s doing just fine, though I’ll advise you that you should probably try to eat a little more, okay?”

Nodding slowly as she straightened her skirt, Sydnie tried to smile at Isabelle. “Of course,” she murmured.

“I’m a little worried, too . . . you know, Bastian should be here with you,” she went on. “I think that everyone would understand if he came home.”

“I wouldn’t,” Sydnie insisted stubbornly. “Not until they find Samantha.”

Resting on the edge of the bed, Isabelle nodded slowly. “Sydnie . . . it’s not your fault,” she whispered as her gaze dropped away. “It’s no one’s fault . . . Sami’s fine—just fine. She’ll . . . she’ll come home. You’ll see.”

“Do you believe that?” Sydnie asked quietly, rubbing her arms as she wandered toward the window.

“I have to believe it,” Isabelle remarked with a little laugh. “She never really said it out loud; not to me, but I know . . . Your support means so much to her. It always has.”

Sydnie nodded slowly though Isabelle could tell that the cat-youkai didn’t really believe her. “My support is why she’s out there,” Sydnie admitted at length, her arms wrapped protectively over the slight bulge of her belly. “I . . . I told Sebastian that she could handle it . . .”

“And she did, didn’t she? She did . . . She’ll come back; you’ll see, and you know she’ll want to see that baby, too.” Standing briskly, Isabelle hurried over and slipped an arm around Sydnie’s narrow shoulders.   “Now, come on. Mama bought a few things for that baby . . . did you know that she’s convinced that it’s a boy?”

“D-does she?” Sydnie stammered, looking a little dazed.

Isabelle smiled brightly. “Yes. What do you think?”

She shook her head. “I . . . I hadn’t thought about that . . .”

“Really? Well, you should! You know, I think that it’s just what this family needs . . . a baby . . . and the next tai-youkai? That really would be fantastic, don’t you think?”

Sydnie stopped and stared at Isabelle. Isabelle gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze. “You’ll see, Sydnie. Babies are blessings.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

A soft knock on the door drew Ben’s head up as he dropped the pen on the desk and sat back. “Come in.”

The door opened slowly, almost hesitantly, but he knew the youki well enough. Charity Inutaisho poked her head around the thick oak slab and offered him an apologetic smile. “Hi,” she said. “Busy?”

“Always,” Ben said but smiled. “What are you doing out so late?”

She stepped into the office, holding a beautiful arrangement of Christmas roses and holly and ivy. “I thought you could use something to brighten up in here . . .”

“They’re lovely,” he assured her as he rose out of his chair. “Thank you.”

She nodded and set them on a table near the door before turning around to face him once more. “Any word?”

“No . . . but we’re still looking.”

Pushing an errant lock of black hair out of her face, the young woman sighed. “Less than three weeks till Christmas, and it doesn’t seem like it at all, does it?”

“We’ll find her,” he promised quietly.

“I know,” she replied, managing a wan smile. “It always surprised me whenever I saw her . . . I just can’t remember her growing up. She was the baby for so long . . .”

Ben sighed and shrugged, stepping over to retrieve two bottles of water out of the small refrigerator nearby. “Tell me about it,” he remarked. “Every time I turn around, I’m reminded of exactly how old I really am. Now Sebastian’s going to be a father, too . . . and I remember when he was just a tiny babe, and I’ll admit I was a little afraid that he would take after his mother in height.”

Charity laughed quietly, accepting the water that Ben offered. “I went out to the mansion earlier,” she confessed, toying with the sealed plastic cap. “Everyone seemed so . . . weird . . .” Shaking her head as her cheeks pinked, as though she felt that she was speaking ill of her family, she sighed. “Mama was sitting with Bellaniece, and . . . and they were laughing and carrying on, wrapping presents and singing Christmas carols . . . making up words when they couldn’t remember the verses . . .but the more they laughed, the . . . emptier it felt . . . like if they stopped laughing, they’d . . . they’d cry . . .”

Ben nodded slowly. He’d heard and noticed the same sort of thing, too. “They’re coping,” he murmured, wishing that he had a better answer to give her, knowing that he didn’t. “They’re trying.”

Charity suddenly barked out a harsh laugh as she ducked her head, as her hand shot up to swat at her eyes. “Sam would be so mad if everyone cried, right? I mean, she would; she really would . . .”

Grimacing at the angry sound of the woman’s voice, Ben stepped over to her, slipped his arms around her. “Charity . . . if it matters, I won’t tell her. If you want to cry . . .”

She resisted the comfort he offered her for a long moment before collapsing against him, muttering words that meant nothing at all and everything at the same time. Her worry, her pain, was a viable thing—the worry of an entire family that felt as though they couldn’t cry . . . This one woman had felt that, too, and maybe that was as much to blame as her own fears and concerns. Crying for the family that struggled to keep it together . . . crying for the ones who could not . . .

“We’ll find her,” he whispered, smoothing her hair away from her face as her sobs racked her body. “We’ll find her; I promise.”

“W-will we?” she stuttered.

Ben nodded. “Yes,” he said, his tone unyielding, full of confidence despite the underlying worry that he was speaking a lie. “We will.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“You know, I’m starting to think that this rumor’s nothing more than a lot of hot air,” Ryomaru muttered as he pushed away the half-eaten plate of food in the small roadside diner.

Griffin grunted and shrugged. He’d given up on trying to eat the greasy fare a while ago. “I don’t know,” he said. “Seems like a good place to hide if someone had a mind to.”

“A holy man in these parts?” Ryomaru scoffed with a shake of his head. “I don’t know if I buy it . . .”

“We’ve only been out here a few days,” Griffin reminded him with a shake of his head. “What do you want him to do? Seek us out?”

Ryomaru rolled his eyes but shrugged belligerently. “Be a lot easier. Maybe the old bastard’ll just jump out at us and toss an ofuda in our faces. Suppose it’d purify me or something . . . ‘Course, it might do you more damage . . .”

Griffin snorted and sipped his water, making a face at the metallic tinge that hadn’t been removed by whatever filtration they had set up. “You’re a little cocky, aren’t you?”

Ryomaru grinned. “Been called worse.”

Griffin shook his head.

“Hey, sweeties . . . you want dessert? We got fresh cherry and apple pies, cream pie, peach pie, and our Christmas special, cranberry pecan,” the waitress rattled off in a monotone as she stopped by the table again.

“No, thanks,” Griffin muttered, ducking his chin and tilting his head to keep the scarred side of his face hidden in shadows.

“Nope,” Ryomaru said. “But tell me . . . you from around here . . . Kay?”

The waitress smiled rather clinically, as though she thought that the hanyou were trying to hit on her. “All my life, sugar . . . married my high school sweetheart, too.”

Ryomaru grinned and nodded. “So you’d know if I asked about someone?”

She looked a little surprised by Ryomaru’s quick question. “I suppose,” she ventured.

His grin widened by degrees. “We’re looking for an old man . . . kind of a . . . um . . .”

“. . . Hermit?” Griffin supplied when Ryomaru trailed off.

“Yeah, like that,” Ryomaru agreed.

Kay shifted her weight, tapping her chin with the harrow side of the order pad in her hand as she considered their question. “Hermit? Hell, sweetie, half of the people up ‘round these parts are hermits. You got a name?”

“No, we don’t,” Griffin muttered.

“He’s supposed to be, like a holy man,” Ryomaru added. “Spiritual powers and all that.”

She blinked, staring at him as though she thought maybe he’d lost his mind. Griffin was ready to grab the hunter and drag him out of the diner. Digging some money out of his pocket, he started to get up when the waitress suddenly laughed. “Holy man? Like a voodoo-hoodoo witch doctor of the mountains or something?”

Ryomaru shot Griffin a quick glance then nodded. “Yeah, sounds about right.”

“Well, I don’t know anyone like that personally, but there was this story back when I was a kid ‘bout this crazy man that lived up in the woods. Said he’d come down into town, and whenever he did, he threw this powder-stuff all over. They said that he claimed it cast out demons . . . My friends and I drove down there a few times, hoping to catch this guy out, but we never saw him. That was a while back now, though, about fifty miles down the road, here, a little town they call Manitou.” Popping her gum, she shrugged offhandedly before digging into her dingy white apron for their bill. “Who knows? Probably just one of those stories—those urban legends, you know? Why are the two of you looking for someone like that?”

Ryomaru grinned. “We thought maybe he could help us.”

She laughed and took the money that Griffin held out. “Got a demon you need to get rid of?”

Griffin grunted and stood up. He heard Ryomaru following suit. “Could be,” he remarked. “Thanks, Kay.”

“You two be careful out there!” she called after them. “TV says that we’re in for a hell of a blizzard . . .”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Something was bothering the taijya. In fact, it had been bothering him since he stomped into the holding area a few hours ago. He’d sloshed out half of her water when he’d stuck the bowl into the cage, and then he’d dropped the wrapped hamburger through the bars without bothering to see if she caught it. That was all right, she figured, but it seemed like the more he looked at her, the more irritated he became, and that was strange, wasn’t it?

She hadn’t done anything to antagonize him, had she? Well, she had asked to go to the bathroom a few minutes after he’d gotten his coat off, but she didn’t really think that warranted the hostility that he was displaying. In fact, it was the first time that she’d actually felt as though he was truly angry at her, and that just didn’t set well with her, at all.

She considered asking him about it, but had discarded that idea. The foreboding scowl on his face had convinced her that it wasn’t a wise idea. Not for the first time, she had to wonder exactly what his story was, why it seemed like the strangest of things tended to set him off . . .

Does it really matter, dollbaby? Maybe we should just leave well enough alone . . .’

That was sound enough advice, she supposed. Shifting her gaze to the side, she frowned. He hadn’t sat down yet, either, prowling around as though he were trying to get a grip on his anger.

You know, if he’s this out of sorts, maybe we can use that to our advantage,’ her youkai voice suggested. ‘If he’s preoccupied, and you can get him to let you out of the cage . . .’

She shook her head. ‘Something happened,’ she thought abruptly. ‘Something happened that’s bothering him . . .’

Earth to Samantha . . .! Does it matter that something’s bothering him? You’re entirely too preoccupied with that man, you know. Don’t you want out of here . . .?

Grimacing inwardly, Samantha shook her head. She did want that, didn’t she? To get out of here and to go back home . . .? So why was she hesitating . . .?

He’s . . . he’s worse off than I am, isn’t he?’ she mused slowly. He stomped over and dropped into the chair behind the desk but couldn’t quite get himself to stay there. A minute later, he was back on his feet and pacing once more. ‘I mean, he might not be caged—at least, not like this, but . . . but maybe his cage is worse . . . and maybe he’s been in his a lot longer than I’ve been in this one . . .’

Samantha . . . that’s crazy talk. That man . . . he’s dangerous; don’t you know? He wants to hurt you—destroy you . . . You’re nothing but a paycheck to him! Nothing but a demon . . .’

She shook her head slightly. ‘You don’t . . . you don’t believe that, do you?

Her youkai sighed. ‘It doesn’t matter, what I believe . . . just like it doesn’t matter what I know . . . In another lifetime, he would have been . . . but in this one—right now . . .’

But you don’t believe it. You’ve felt it, too, and you felt it long before I ever did . . .’

He doesn’t want us, you know? I’ve felt it, every time I’ve tried to . . . It doesn’t matter, Samantha. No matter what we feel, he doesn’t . . . and you have to understand that . . .’

Her eyes flared wide as the taijya whipped around, as a spike in the air around him reached out, touched her. He didn’t know it; she knew he didn’t; and yet it was there, as plainly as she’d ever felt anything else in her life. ‘It’s pain,’ she thought with a shake of her head. ‘He’s . . . he’s hurting . . . but he’s been hurting for so long and so badly that he doesn’t realize that’s what it is anymore . . . He doesn’t understand . . . and that confusion—that anger . . . It’s all just an extension of that pain . . .’

And you can’t fix him! You, more than anyone else . . . you cannot fix him!’ her youkai hissed. ‘He put you here! Do you understand? He put you here, and he hates you—us! Hates what we are and everything we stand for!

She frowned, letting her head fall against the cage bars as she pondered her youkai’s assertions—her youkai’s confusion that mirrored her own. Her youkai . . . it wanted to believe—she heard it in the depths of its voice, and she understood that because she felt it, too. Her father . . . hadn’t he always told her that everything happened for a reason? Hadn’t he told her time and again that there was always something, even if she hadn’t known what it was at the time? He’d told her this, and she knew that he believed it . . .

Maybe this is why . . .’ she thought slowly as a strange surge of something bright flared deep within her. Sitting up a little straighter, her eyes following the taijya’s every movement, she started to realize, began to understand . . . ‘This is why . . .’

No . . . no . . . It can’t be why . . .’ her youkai argued weakly. ‘To put you through all of this, just so you can try to show him . . . But, Samantha, he doesn’t want to see! It won’t matter how hard you try; if he doesn’t want to see . . .’

But maybe,’ she rationed as the barest hint of a smile quirked her lips, ‘maybe he does . . . maybe he’s simply tired of the pain he’s been living with . . . even if he doesn’t realize it yet.’

He’s familiar with youkai, even if he doesn’t know their proper name. You know he is, don’t you? You know he’s brought others here, and the ones he brought here . . . Well, they’re not here now, are they? They’re dead, dollbaby: dead . . . and if we don’t get out of here, we’ll be dead, too, only our death . . . It won’t be the white-coats who kill us . . .’

She knew that, yes; of course she knew that. But those others that he’d found . . . they were nothing like her, were they? Considered to be higher youkai . . . and if all he’d ever seen was the worst of them, how could he know what they really were? And while she acknowledged the truth in her youkai blood’s statement, she couldn’t help the burgeoning desire to help him to understand, either . . .

That’s not what I meant, Samantha . . .’

She swallowed hard and pressed her lips together. She understood what her youkai was trying to say well enough. She simply wasn’t quite ready to admit that much; not yet . . .

It was the creed of the hunter, wasn’t it? It was what she’d fought so hard to protect: the safety of humans—of all humans—even those who would harm her. Just because she’d been captured and brought here to this place . . . it didn’t release her from her obligations, did it, because sometimes protection came in different forms—something she was only beginning to fully comprehend. A hunter would give his or her life, to fight to the death, if necessary, to protect that which could not protect itself. So what if the battle wasn’t fought with weapons and if the blood that flowed wasn’t something that could be discerned with mortal eyes? So what if the wounds ran deeper than the skin—so deep that they transcended the flesh; so deep that they transcended time? That was the nature of a hunter—a true hunter . . .

And Samantha Izayoi . . .

She smiled a little sadly as the faces of those she loved and held dear flashed through her mind, one at a time.

She was a true hunter, wasn’t she . . .?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Can I see that when you’re done?”

Kurt blinked and glanced over at the demon. Stretched out on its—her—stomach with her feet kicked up, crossed at the ankles. “See what?” he asked slowly since he wasn’t entirely sure what she was talking about.

“Your newspaper,” she replied in a tone that indicated that she thought he ought to know as much.

He snorted. “My paper? Demons can’t read.”

She rolled her eyes and sat up. “Well, maybe demons can’t,” she quipped, “but hanyou certainly can.”

“You know, you don’t really change a thing by changing the word that you call yourself,” he pointed out.

“Neither do you,” she replied lightly. “So can I read the paper when you’re finished?”

Peering around the edge, he stared at her for a moment then shook his head. “Nope.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t like dog germs.”

“Wh—y—I—I do not have dog germs!” she huffed indignantly.

“It stands to reason,” he replied.

“How do you figure?” she demanded.

“You look like a dog,” he pointed out reasonably.

“I don’t, either!”

He shrugged. “You have dog ears.”

She snorted.

Kurt wasn’t finished. “When you’re wet, you smell like a dog.”

Her voice dropped to a pouty sort of drawl. “You’re kind of mean, aren’t you?”

“You know, that wet-dog smell . . .”

Really mean.”

Scanning the classifieds, he replied absently, “And you bark like a dog.”

“Now, I know I don’t do that,” she grumbled.

Kurt shook the paper. “You’re doing it right now.”

“And you’re kind of a jerk,” she amended.

“You know, that might bother me more—if you weren’t a demon.”

She rolled over and sat up, her face shifting into a marked frown that was more like a pout than anything. “But you just throw it away when you finish reading it,” she muttered.

“Why do you want to see it?” he countered.

She made a face, her ears flattening just a little in the process. “I just wanted to read the comics.”

“You mean you really can read? Such as it is, anyway . . . I’d hardly call the comics ‘reading’.”

She shot him a narrow-eyed look. “What can I say? I like the pretty pictures.”

“I think I’ll start reading the Wall Street Journal.”

“Then you wouldn’t get to see the pictures, either,” she replied pleasantly.

“Yeah, but I can read.”

She heaved a sigh, her chin falling to her knees as she wrapped her arms tightly around her ankles.

It—she—wants to read the paper . . .?’ he thought as he turned the page. To be honest, he wasn’t entirely sure why he bothered to read it since it hardly ever had any anything good in it. Just the same stories, day after day . . . stories of deaths, accidents, one country threatening war against another . . . Was there really a point to any of it?

“You know, you aren’t getting paid nearly enough for me,” she remarked at length.

“Why’s that?” he asked against his better judgment.

She shrugged, rubbing at her teeth with her index finger. “Because they want to use me to create a strain of super humans,” she replied simply.

That got his full attention right quick, and he dropped the newspaper as he turned to stare at her, full on. “What?”

“That’s what the head white-coat said . . . Harlan, right?”

“What, exactly, did he say?”

She shook her head, telegraphing him a look that implied that he ought to know damn well what she was talking about. Still, she must have decided to humor him, just the same, because she ran her tongue over her teeth to finish the impromptu cleaning and rinsed her fingers in the bowl of water beside her. “He was talking to the other white-coats . . . They think that if they could isolate the part of my blood that makes me a fast healer that they could use it to inoculate their soldiers . . . or something to that effect . . . Anyway, if they were able to do that, then they’d make a lot of money, wouldn’t they? If they made a lot of money, it’d make what they paid you seem like . . . what’s that phrase?” Tapping her chin thoughtfully, she concentrated for a moment before snapping her fingers. “Ah, yes! Chicken scratch!”

“He said that,” Kurt repeated.

The little demon nodded though she looked entirely preoccupied. “Well, not the part about chicken scratch.”

A surge of anger rose inside him, a bitter feeling that he couldn’t repress. Damn, he’d known that Harlan couldn’t be trusted. He’d known it, but he’d chosen to think . . . ‘That bastard . . . that bastard . . .’

If he’d known that was what Harlan had wanted, he never would have brought demons here . . . If he’d understood that the ultimate goal of the research was to somehow bridge the gap between those thing and humans . . .

“Maybe you should tell him you want more for me,” she suggested, unaware that she’d inadvertently set off his temper.

“And this doesn’t bother you? You want to be the one to . . . to infect countless humans with your blood?” he countered.

She shrugged and shot him a droll look. “It won’t work,” she said simply. “I mean, they could try, but . . .”

“Why won’t it work?” he demanded. “How would you know whether or not it could?”

A strange sort of expression flickered over her features; a certain amusement that was tinged with a hint of sadness. “If it got that far, that is . . . I wouldn’t let it happen.”

“And you could do something to stop it?” he jeered, tossing the newspaper aside and stomping over to the cage. “You can’t do anything, locked up like you are in there. You can’t do a damn thing.”

“You’d be surprised at what I can do,” she murmured, her gaze igniting with a certain brightness. Then she sighed. “Our blood is different than yours,” she finally said. “Human blood can be stored, right? In blood banks and stuff . . .”

“Yours can’t?”

She shook her head. “No. Well, I don’t know for sure, but . . . but I do know that if we die, so does our blood. It’s that simple.”

He snorted. “So you’re saying that if they tried to inject it into a human to create, as you say, some sort of super human, then you’d just kill yourself so your blood would die?”

She nodded slowly. “See? Simple.”

“And how do you know that’s true?” he demanded.

“I just know,” she replied with an enigmatic little smile.

“Seems awfully convenient, if you ask me.”

The little demon shrugged and pulled the blanket a little closer. “So about that paper . . .” she reminded him.

Kurt blinked and scowled then shook his head. “You’ve got a one-track mind, don’t you?” he muttered. “And I’m not done with it, anyway.”

“Is that your not-so-subtle way of saying that you’re not going to let me see it?”

“Yeah, I think it is.”

She heaved a longsuffering sigh and pulled the blanket up over her shoulders. “Fine, fine . . . if you insist on being that way . . .”

Kurt let out a deep breath and headed for the desk again. The demon looked like she was going to go to sleep, anyway, which was just fine with him.

Reaching for the paper, he settled down again, scanning the headlines for anything that might be of interest. Too bad he was a little too preoccupied to really read it, though. A race of super-humans who possessed the demon’s ability to heal itself? And just what sort of good could possibly come of that?

Kurt’s scowl darkened a little more as he considered that idea. If what the demon said were true, then he supposed he could be thankful for that.

If we die, so does our blood . . .”

Was it really that simple, after all?

If we die, so does our blood . . .”

If he took that at face value, what did it mean? Did it mean, as she had said, that she would simply find a way to kill herself? But it wasn’t that easy, was it? He’d seen for himself, how quickly the damn thing healed. Even if she wanted to, would she be able to do that . . .?

Still, it bothered him. Harlan’s claims . . . the little demon’s assertions . . . and what, exactly was the truth . . .?

Tugging the page of comics free, he glanced over at the cage, but shook his head. It was already asleep with the blankets pulled up over her head. He could tell from the rhythm of her breathing in the quiet.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Five weeks . . .’

Staring out the window of his office at the snow that gently fell from the sky, Cain slipped his cell phone back into his pocket and sighed.

“I heard you talking, Daddy . . .”

Turning to smile wanly at his daughter, he held out a hand to her. “Yeah . . . that was Bas. Said that Ryomaru and Griffin called in a bit ago. They’re stuck at a motel on the interstate that runs through Minnesota . . . A blizzard, I guess.”

Bellaniece nodded, slipping her arms around her father’s waist and leaning against him with a soft sigh. “Six weeks feels like such a long time,” she murmured.

“I know,” he intoned softly.

“And tomorrow night . . .”

She didn’t have to finish her statement. Cain knew well enough what Bellaniece was talking about. Tomorrow night was the new moon—Samantha’s human night . . . and it scared Bellaniece.

“Sam’s a smart girl,” Cain assured her. “She’ll do everything she can to hide herself.”

Bellaniece laughed softly. “You know, when she was little, she was the only one of my girls who never cried on her human night . . . She didn’t mind it . . . She said . . . she said she liked looking just like her father . . .”

Cain remembered that well enough. How many times had Bellaniece called him, telling him that Kichiro had to go out looking for Samantha? She’d found it interesting to view the world through the eyes of a human, and while he knew well enough that everyone had tried to curb that tendency in her, he would have been surprised if anyone actually had been able to do that . . .

She shook her head and stared out the window at the darkness of the night, watching at the snowflakes stuck to the panes of glass, some of them melting, others creating a thin sheet that frosted the corners of the panes. “Do you suppose that we’ll all be together again? Next year or . . . or the year after . . . just sometime . . .?”

“Yeah,” Cain murmured, forcing a smile for his daughter. How often had he done that over the years? How many times had he smiled, just for her—smiled when he felt like breaking down . . .? How many times would he continue to do that? Just for Bellaniece . . . for Bellaniece . . .

“Daddy?”

“My lady?”

“I love you.”

He tightened his arms around her, blinked to disburse the moisture that clouded his vision. “I . . . I love you, too, Bellaniece.”

“Christmas is the season of hope, right?”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

She relaxed just a little, only a little, and her voice was sweet and soft. “Then everything’ll be all right.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

The dulcet sounds of the piano drifted through the quiet of the hotel restaurant. The ambient clink of dinnerware being cleared away did not detract from the somber tones . . . Old songs that lingered in his memory, playing every single one of them by heart with his eyes closed and a sad sort of smile gracing his lips . . .

“Is he one of the guests here?” one of the waitresses leaned over to ask another as they stood at the end of the bar, dividing their tips.

“Hmm, yeah, I think that’s what I heard,” another remarked slowly. “He’s something else, isn’t he?”

“Oh, wait . . . isn’t he staying on the top floor? There’s a whole group of them, and they’re all just gorgeous,” a third waitress added.

“I don’t know . . . there’s something hot about a man who can play the piano like that, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely! You know, I . . . oh . . . oh, my . . .”

The three women fell silent, all three staring, wide-eyed as another man slipped into the restaurant. One of the busboys murmured something, probably telling the man that they’d just closed. The man nodded and lifted a hand before sauntering over to the one at the piano. His movements were like a study in harmony, a perfect collision of motion and grace . . . deep blue eyes that sparkled with a sober sort of expression, he drew attention as easily as he wore the tee-shirt and scruffy looking jeans that seemed to cling to him. He didn’t look around but headed straight for the piano with a purpose, flowing like water . . .

The two looked like they could be brothers—long silvery hair that seemed to shine in the gentle lighting. The piano player’s hair was caught back in a long braid while the other’s hair hung loose to his narrow waist. The second man said nothing to the one who still played, and to their surprise, the one playing just scooted over on the bench to allow the other to sit. Without missing a beat, he joined in, too, playing a quiet harmony that perfectly matched the melancholy song.

The first waitress—Shelly—watched, mesmerized, without noticing as a tear slipped down her cheek. The two men . . . the song they played . . . the perfect symmetry of the sound . . . The men said nothing. They didn’t even glance at one another, but then, they didn’t really have to.

A few of the kitchen staff appeared in the doorway, holding open the swinging bombazine doors. Even the clatter of the clean up crew seemed to die down, as if everyone in the place had stopped, just to listen to the two strangers.

Without a word, without a glance, the song ended but flowed into another. Neither man missed a beat.

The waitress beside her sighed softly. The third had sat on a high barstool to watch. Shelly reached up, smashed her hand against her chest, wondered why it felt as though her entire being was crumbling.

There was an infinite sadness in the voice of the piano, an understated emotion, as though tears had been put into song. The one man was scowling at the keyboard as his fingers danced over it. The other man still had his eyes closed. Shelly knew the song; it was vaguely familiar to her, and yet she couldn’t think of the name to save her soul.

When it ended, the entire establishment was silent, as though applause would only cheapen the effect, as though everyone was afraid to break the spell cast over them in such a beautiful way. The two men looked at each other; the second one smiled just a little. Neither said a word, though, as they stood up and walked out of the restaurant.

Shelly wasn’t sure how long she continued to stand there, even long after the men had left. The rich tones of the piano had long since faded, and yet the song still lingered in the air . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Kurt closed his book and lifted his face to stare at the little demon. She hadn’t said anything since she woke up, but she’d started humming quietly and had been doing it for the last few minutes.

It was a song that seemed vaguely familiar to him though he wasn’t sure why since he rarely listened to the radio or anything. Crossing his arms over his chest, he wasn’t sure why, but he was loathe to interrupt her, too.

What did she see when she stared off into the darkness? She wasn’t focusing on anything in particular, was she? And yet, she didn’t have to, either. He didn’t have to move in closer to know that she was smiling. Maybe it wasn’t a full smile, but . . . but he could feel it, couldn’t he?

The song was sad, beautiful, bringing to mind emotions that he couldn’t quite place. An exquisite melancholy, an ethereal pain . . . a fleeting thought of something just a little too distant for him to discern . . .

He didn’t know if the song had words, but it didn’t matter, did it? Something about it—about her . . . Something . . .

The song ended, and she sat back with the softest sigh. She said nothing, and if she noticed that he was staring at her, she didn’t remark upon it.

There was something infinitely frightening about her in that moment; something that had little to do with her physical abilities or her demon nature. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, and yet he could feel it more acutely than he’d ever felt anything before in his life. A slow trill of fear that gripped him, a silent understanding in the darkness . . . The absolute isolation that engulfed her . . . it was familiar, wasn’t it? He knew it because . . .

Slamming the door on those thoughts, he yanked open the book once more. That wasn’t possible, was it? It wasn’t true; it couldn’t be. Deliberately misunderstanding . . . because he just couldn’t . . .

She was a demon—a monster—every single thing that he hated. Her kind had no regard for anything at all; wasn’t that right? No thoughts, no feelings, no emotions . . .

Images solidified before him in the pages of the book: vile, unspeakable images of those things that he simply couldn’t escape. All those things in his life that he’d seen, that he’d done . . . the grossly distorted faces of the demons he’d captured . . . the broken bodies of the family that he’d lost so long ago . . . Everything and nothing seemed to converge . . .

The vow he’d made as he stood at the foot of the three graves in the lonesome cemetery . . . The two graves in a Presbyterian church yard less than an hour away . . . He’d promised that he’d find them; promised that he’d destroy them, and all the anger, all the hatred that had sustained him for so very long writhed and twisted inside him with an ugliness that he could scarcely contain.

As if she could sense his rioting emotions, the little demon turned her head, and while he couldn’t make out her features in the darkness, why did he know that she was still smiling—not a mocking grin or a condescending smirk . . . but a sad little smile . . .?

“They let me run today,” she said quietly. “They let me run . . .”

He grunted unintelligibly, distrusting himself to give her a proper response.

She laughed softly—a warm sound that grated on him, nonetheless. “Almost all day, really,” she went on, her eyes glowing steadily in the darkness. “It was . . . like heaven.”

“Running all day? That was a good thing?”

She nodded enthusiastically then heaved a little sigh. “I don’t suppose . . . I don’t suppose they’ll let me do that tomorrow . . .”

He didn’t respond to that as a bit of her ebullience faltered.

“It reminded me of . . . of running through the forest . . . barefoot with my hair blowing behind me . . .The scent of the trees, the decaying leaves . . . the feel of the sunshine on my face . . .”

She fell silent for a moment then sighed. “I want to do that again one day . . . just . . . run . . . to see the sky . . . the sun . . . the stars . . .”

Kurt stood abruptly, shoving away the strange and unwelcome emotions as he shot to his feet and strode over to the cage. “You’ll never get out of here, demon,” he growled, his voice thick and harsh. “You’ll live here; you’ll die here, and no one—no one—is going to give a damn.”

She stared at him for long seconds: owlish eyes glowing in the darkness—eyes that did not falter . . . eyes that still smiled just a little sadly. “Probably,” she admitted quietly.

He snorted, stomping past her as he paced the floor. “And you’re all right with that? You don’t care? You think I’m joking? I’m not! I don’t care what happens to you; do you hear me? I don’t care! You and all of your kind! You’re monsters—monsters! Just . . . just beasts that do nothing but kill and kill and . . .”

“I suppose you’re right,” she said. “I’ve killed youkai . . . a few of them . . .”

He uttered a terse grunt, feeling perversely vindicated and even emptier, at the same time. “Yeah, well, there you have it . . . So . . . so you might as well get used to it, demon, because the inside of that cage is the only thing you’re ever, ever going to see.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

So . . . so you might as well get used to it, demon, because the inside of that cage is the only thing you’re ever, ever going to see.”

Samantha sighed inwardly as the truth behind those words sank in, but it wasn’t really his words that troubled her. The anger, the confusion so evident in his tone, as though he’d had to lash out at her, as though he’d had no other recourse.

And for the last three days, he’d said nothing at all. It had helped her a lot as she’d worried about trying to hide herself on her human night. He’d let her go to the bathroom and had fed and given her water. After that, though, he’d proceeded to ignore her, and at least for that night, that had been all right, too. Huddled under the blanket, she’d sat up all night. Fearing that he’d discover her secret, she hadn’t been able to sleep.

Luck had been with her, though. He’d said nothing to her until he let her out of the cage to go to the bathroom, but by then, she’d returned to her hanyou state, and that was all right, too.

The thing that bothered her about that, though, was the inner knowledge that she wouldn’t be able to hide it forever. What would they do if they found out? The white-coats . . .

Biting her cheek as she tried to ignore the painful intrusion of the pin sensors they’d placed all over her body, she willed herself to think about other things, to ignore the barrage of tiny shocks set off at timed intervals as the hateful machines spewed a steady stream of paper—her reactions broken down into scribbled lines that measured her body’s responses.

She really wished she’d managed to get the newspaper from the taijya. She’d told him that she wanted to read the comics, but the truth of it was that she wanted to see the date. She had no way of knowing exactly how long she’d been here, and while she knew that it had been over a month just because of the frequency of her human nights, she couldn’t quite figure exactly.

Grinding her teeth together as an especially painful shock shot through her from the probes stuck into her nipples, Samantha was otherwise pleased to see the marked lack of response from her body on paper. That one was by far the worst so far. Still she stubbornly refused to allow herself to show the white-coats any kind of reaction.

The one they called Harlan slipped out of the room, muttering something about stepping out for a minute, which was also fine with her. The two miscreants who had tried to stay over the one night, though . . . they were staring at her, their gazes carefully bored, but she could smell them, couldn’t she? They made her stomach turn.

Spending a moment jotting things on his clipboard, the one called Peterman cleared his throat. “Who’d have thought that a demon could look like that?” he murmured with a grin.

His friend nodded. “You know, I think that ol’ Doc is trying to keep her for himself.”

Peterson stopped writing, glancing at the other with a calculating sort of look on his face. “Maybe,” he allowed at length. “I mean, without the camera in there, it’d be hard to prove, wouldn’t it?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me . . . Doc’s always been a little weird.”

“Yeah, but he acts like he hates her . . .”

Peterson rolled his eyes. “He doesn’t have to like her to fuck her, right? You don’t like her, do you? Hell, I don’t like her, either, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t fuck her . . . Besides . . . he’s just as much of a freak as she is. I mean, think about it. He can see these things? I don’t care what you tell me, that can’t possibly be normal.”

The other white-coat was silent for a moment before casting a concerned eye toward the doorway. “Didn’t Dr. Harlan say that he’s got those researchers from San Diego coming in today?”

“Yeah, so?”

He chuckled, stepping over to casually turn off the camera beside the door. “So that means he’ll be busy for a while, right?”

Peterson blinked and slowly grinned. “That’s true enough.”

Samantha could feel her panic rising. She’d have to be stupid not to understand exactly what those two had in mind, and regardless of what her upbringing had dictated regarding not causing humans harm, there was no way that she’d let them defile her . . .

But she wasn’t entirely sure how she could stop them, either.

“And this is our latest acquisition, gentlemen!” Harlan exclaimed in a loud, booming voice as he strode into the room with three other white-coats in tow. The bastard looked inordinately pleased with himself, like he’d been the one to apprehend her . . . Trapped between sheer relief that the two miscreants couldn’t try to do what they had in mind and abject horror as the new arrivals stared her casually up and down, she had to fight down the outrage that boiled up in her as she shifted her gaze to the clock on the wall.

“She doesn’t look like a demon,” one of the men remarked dubiously.

“She looks almost human,” another added.

“Looks can be deceiving, can’t they?” Harlan stated jovially. “She’s a demon, all right. Allow me to demonstrate.”

He stepped over beside her, grabbing a scalpel off the small tray beside the gurney where she was restrained. Without ceremony, he sliced her thigh. Samantha bit down on her lip to keep from making a sound. The smell of her own blood hit her hard, and she closed her eyes as a trickle of blood ran down her leg. “Wait a few minutes, and you’ll see for yourselves,” he offered generously. “Her healing powers are amazing!”

Those hateful men gathered in close, staring at her, their eyes traversing every inch of her body without even a hint of remorse or shame. “Oh, wow,” one of them breathed, leaning in closer to stare at the cut on her leg. “It’s . . . it’s closing up . . .”

“That’s right!” Harlan crowed. “The scientific ramifications of it are staggering!”

“A demon . . .” one of them murmured as the trace of a smile appeared on his lips. “Remarkable . . .”

“Our handler swears that these things are dangerous,” Harlan went on with a broad wink, “but this one is quite tame.”

“Does it talk?” the third one asked.

“Pity, but no,” Harlan said. “We think it has the ability to do it; it simply doesn’t appear to know how.”

“I’ve heard that some of them can hide in human form. Never thought it was true, though . . .”

Harlan gave a hearty laugh and herded the visitors toward the door. “Come, come! Let’s go talk business, shall we? You two . . . You come along, too! I’d love for you to tell our guests about your observations.”

Samantha could have cried in relief. The two didn’t seem like they wanted to go, but they didn’t dare gainsay their boss, either. It was fine with her, wasn’t it? Though it was about an hour before she was normally put away for the day, she figured that her cage would be preferable than remaining fastened to this stupid damn table . . .

A few minutes after the last of the white-coats finally, blessedly left her alone, she was caught off guard when the taijya strode into the room. His step didn’t falter as he approached the table, the clink of the restraints resounding with his movements, though she thought she might have seen the faintest glimmer of irritation as he brusquely jerked the probes free.

She couldn’t contain the little whine that slipped from her when he pulled the needles out of her nipples. Those two were the only ones that had actually hurt. His expression was impassive, stony as he let the probes fall on the concrete floor, the metallic pings echoing in her ears almost painfully.

He finished that quickly enough before jerking the sensor pads off her skin. The measurement machines protested the abrupt loss of data, beeping obscenely as they kicked over into error mode. He turned those off with a flick of his finger and didn’t bother speaking to her as he unfastened one of the arm bands, which was just as well. Even though she knew that the camera by the door was off, she wasn’t entirely certain if there were others. Snapping the cuff around her newly emancipated wrist, he loosened the straps around her neck, upper arms, chest, and waist. Swiping up the slightly smudged smock that the white-coats had carelessly tossed onto the floor, he dropped it in her lap without a word.

She wasted no time, pulling it over her head, feeling at least a little better with the addition of clothing, such as it was. He fastened the shackle around her other wrist as soon as she’d let go of the smock.

It didn’t take him long to finish unbinding her and snapping the cuffs around her ankles. Then he tugged her off the table and set her on her feet before jerking his head toward the door. She understood and complied, grimacing inwardly as the muscles in her body protested the movement. Those damn pain sensors always seemed to force her body into involuntary spasms for a few hours following the testing. Her left knee buckled, and she veered against the wall, wincing as her shoulder smacked hard against the cinderblocks.

He pulled her back and held on long enough for her to steady herself, and she managed to make it into the holding area without another incident.

He stopped her before she could kneel down in front of the cage. “Do you have to go to the bathroom?” he asked in a brusque tone of voice that reflected his behavior thus far.

She didn’t really have to go, but she figured she might as well, and when he unfastened her wrists, she couldn’t help the involuntary reflex as she lifted her arms to cover her sore breasts, glad for once that she wasn’t facing the taijya—glad that he couldn’t see the pain she couldn’t hide.

It didn’t take long for her to take care of her business. When she approached him after she was finished, though, he was staring over her head rather thoughtfully. She turned around so that he could secure her hands once more, and she frowned at the vent in the ceiling. He’d been staring at that, hadn’t he? But she told him that she couldn’t get out through there . . .

“You’re here early,” she said as she made her way back to the cage.

“I needed to talk to Harlan,” he muttered. “Anyway, I thought they already tested your pain threshold.”

She shrugged as she crawled into the cage and stuck her feet out for him to unlock the restraints. “I guess they didn’t like the first set of results,” she replied rather evasively.

He eyed her for a moment before unfastening the cuffs and pulling them away. “I’ll bet they didn’t,” he replied in a tone that she didn’t really understand. “Turn around.”

She did as she was told then scooted over into the corner to retrieve her blanket as soon as she was freed. To her surprise, though, he didn’t close the cage right away. Resting on the balls of his feet with a strange sort of expression on his face, he stared at her for a long minute then finally shook his head and sighed. “You stink again.”

Wrinkling her nose, she shot him what she thought was a decently formidable glower. He snorted at her attempt. “You know, you’re horrible for a girl’s ego,” she pointed out, “and it’s hardly my fault . . . It’s not like I’m offered use of a shower . . . or soap, for that matter . . .” Heaving a sudden sigh of longing, she leaned back, a dreamy expression flickering over her features as she shook her head slowly. “Ivory soap . . . and shampoo . . . You have no idea what I’d give for either of those things . . .”

“You’re a weird little demon,” he grumbled, carefully pushing the door closed before reaching around the side to pull the pan of water out of the cage.

“And you’re a grouchy old taijya,” she retorted. “Guess we’re even.”

He snorted at her assessment as he headed over to rinse and refill the bowl. “Harlan thinks that he can teach you how to speak,” he remarked, hunkering down in front of the cage after slipping the bowl back inside.

Samantha spared him a blank look before reaching for the water. “Does he?”

“Yep . . . so can he?”

She giggled quietly and waved a hand before helping herself to a long drink. “Of course not. I’m stupid, remember?”

He rolled his eyes but his expression said that he’d figured as much, already. “So you’re really going to let them think that you can’t talk.”

She shrugged offhandedly and sipped the water. “Why not? Besides, it’s much better if they don’t know that I understand them, don’t you think? Did you know that those two white-coats that stayed over the one night think that you only act like you hate me and that in reality you’ve been fucking me every night in secret?”

“What?” he said, his tone a lot flatter than she’d figured.

She nodded, setting the bowl aside.   “Said that you’re probably just telling them all this so they don’t figure out that you really like me.”

“Is that what they say . . .?”

“Don’t worry,” she went on airily. “I know that you really do despise me and all that, so it’s all right, don’t you think?”

He didn’t answer. He seemed rather agitated, not that she could blame him, she supposed. He really didn’t like youkai, after all, and she knew that well enough. Still, he did come in early for whatever reason, so she figured that she owed him one . . .

The strange look he’d gotten on his face, though, as he’d started to pull the probes flashed through her head, and she frowned just a little. He’d looked almost . . . dismayed . . .?

You’re reading too much into it,’ her youkai voice ventured. ‘Don’t go looking for things that just aren’t there.’

Right . . .’

Even so, why did it bother her, anyway? Why didn’t she care so much if those damned white-coats saw her body, leered at her, stared at her as though she were some kind of sex toy, but . . . but the idea that the taijya saw her that way . . .

Why did that seem somehow worse?

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Ryomaru stopped short, scowling at the forest that seemed to stretch on and on, dense and unyielding, in every conceivable direction.

And they’d been wandering around in it for a couple days now, damn it.

“This ain’t getting us nowhere,” he growled, shaking his head as he struggled to reign in his mounting sense of frustration.

Griffin glanced at him but kept moving, trudging steadily through the knee-deep snow. “Just keep moving,” he muttered. “This area feels different, don’t you think?”

Ryomaru spared a glance at the bear-youkai, considering Griffin’s words carefully. “Different? Different, how?”

“There’s something around here,” Griffin remarked. “I don’t know what, but I feel . . . something . . .”

Ryomaru opened his mouth to tell the old bear that he was crazy but stopped suddenly, glancing around as a strange sort of premonition crept up his spine. “Someone’s out here,” he mumbled, narrowing his eyes s he tried to see deeper into the trees. He couldn’t smell anyone, but that wasn’t surprising if the person were standing downwind. The thing was, he didn’t know quite what to make of the strange feeling, either.

Griffin nodded but said nothing. Ryomaru cast him a quick look, and the bear nodded in understanding. Ryomaru veered away, moving off to the left in the hopes that they could intercept whoever was out there.

It didn’t take long to find him. A strange old man stood just beneath the barren branches of a maple tree. Using one hand to steady himself, he was using the cane in his other hand to scrape snow away from the base of the tree, muttering under his breath though Ryomaru couldn’t understand a word he was saying. But he was wearing some sort of old, rough robe with the hood pulled over his head though straggles of wiry gray hair had slipped free to blow in the bitter wind. All in all, Ryomaru wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the old guy, but he did notice a couple of things just from watching: firstly, the old coot did seem to possess some sort of spiritual power though not nearly enough to construct a barrier, and secondly? He had to be insane to be wandering around the forest in the cold with nothing but that flimsy robe for warmth . . .

“Oi, old man . . . what are you doing?”

The old guy turned his head and squinted to see him better before muttering to himself and resuming his task.

Ryomaru blinked. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was expecting, but he supposed that being summarily ignored wasn’t exactly it.

“Old man?”

“I heard you the first time!” the old man exclaimed irritably. “I ain’t deef, y’know!”

“You need some help there?” he asked.

That got the man’s attention well enough. Moving stiltedly, he turned to face Ryomaru, waving his walking stick at the base of the tree. “I dropped m’choppers,” he muttered.

Choppers? What the hell are choppers?’ Ryomaru wondered but stepped forward just the same. “Down here?”

The old man nodded.

With a grunt, Ryomaru stepped forward and hunkered down to dig through the snow.

“You . . . you’re one of them fairies, ain’cha?” the old man exclaimed suddenly.

Ryomaru blinked and turned his head to look at the old man. “I been called a lot of things, old man, but I don’t think I’ve ever been called a fairy before . . .”

“It’s the ears,” he mumbled, raising a gnarled old finger in the direction of Ryomaru’s ears. “Yeah, you’re one o’ ‘em fairies . . .”

“Have you seen any other fairies lately?” Griffin demanded before Ryomaru had a chance to digest that strange bit of information.

The man stepped back as Griffin lumbered out of the trees, his gaze intent on the old man. Lifting his finger from Ryomaru to Griffin, he shook his head slightly as the wind whipped his robe around. “You’re a fairy, too! Why ain’t you got them ears?”

Griffin grunted and shot Ryomaru a quick look. “Because he’s only half fairy,” the bear intoned.

Ryomaru snorted and flicked his ears. “Half fairy?” he growled.

Griffin ignored him. “So . . . have you seen any other . . . err . . . half fairies around lately? Maybe one that looked like him but, um, a girl?”

The old man scratched his head and looked duly befuddled by the question. “Huh? You mean that one ain’t a girl?” he asked, waggling his finger in Ryomaru’s general direction.

“Listen here, you old bas—”

“Shut up, Aunt Ryomaru,” Griffin interrupted.

“I’m a guy,” Ryomaru gritted out.

“You sure about that?” the old man demanded.

Ryomaru opened his mouth to tell the old crackpot that he was looking for his niece and that he could shove his idiot questions right up his ass. Griffin waved a hand at him to silence him before he could do it. “You . . . you can see us . . . what we are . . .?”

The old man nodded slowly, idly stroking his scraggly beard. “Eh . . . ain’t like you’re one of ‘em monsters—‘em demons . . . Them’s the ones you gotta watch for. Sneaky bastards, ain’t they? Prowlin’ around, waiting to ambush you . . . Killed m’boy some years back. Killed ‘em cuz he seen what they was . . . Him and his . . . for a damn thing like that . . .”

Ryomaru scowled at the ground, wondering exactly what the old man was trying to say . . . Demons? Demons . . . Narrowing his eyes as he caught a glimpse of something vaguely silver buried deep in the snow, he reached down, pulled it loose, eyes widening as he blinked at what he’d picked up. “Oi, is this what you’re—Ack! It’s your fucking teeth!” he hollered, dropping the denture as though it were searing hot.

“Eh?”

Ryomaru gritted his teeth and forced himself to reach down to retrieve the dentures again. They were covered with snow and decaying leaves. Ryomaru wasn’t about to touch them more than he already was, though, so he held them out and shook them in a vain effort to get the old geezer to take them back. “Here, you old nutbag . . .”

Griffin nudged Ryomaru with the toe of his boot for the choice of address. Ryomaru ignored him.

“Eh, you found m’choppers!” the old man gloated, snatching the denture out of Ryomaru’s hand and jamming them into his mouth, dirt and all. “Now I’ll be on m’way . . .”

“Ugh,” Ryomaru grunted, making a face.

The bear didn’t look much more impressed than Ryomaru felt at the display of grossness. “Wait! Where . . . where are you going?” Griffin called after him as he started to leave.

“Headin’ to town,” the old man called back over his shoulder. “Needs me some whiskey . . .”

Ryomaru straightened up, pausing long enough to brush the snow off his knees. “That guy was a nut and a half,” he muttered as he slowly shook his head. “Fairy . . .?”

Griffin snorted and strode past Ryomaru, obviously heading to intercept the old man. “At least you’re only half fairy,” he muttered.

“Keh!” Ryomaru grunted and heaved a sigh as he followed along behind . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Kurt stepped back, cautiously eyeing his handiwork with a nod of satisfaction. As far as he could tell, the tiny barrier he’d constructed over the air vent in the bathroom would do its job well enough. At least this way, he wouldn’t have to keep escorting the demon to the john, right?

Besides, it was good enough, he figured. He wasn’t scared of her, anyway. It just annoyed him to have to drop whatever he was doing just to let her out to use the bathroom; that was all.

That done, he turned his attention to removing the door. He might be willing to allow the thing to see to her own base needs, but he certainly wasn’t stupid.

Except that the real reason you’re doing this is because you felt sorry for her, didn’t you? You felt sorry for her just a little, and no small wonder after you saw what they’d done to her all day . . .’

Ignoring the gentle chiding of his conscience, Kurt knocked the pins loose that held the hinges tight. Besides, that really didn’t have nearly as much to do with it as his far more juvenile desire to irritate the living, breathing crap out of that damned Harlan . . .

He’d come in early just to talk to that rotten lump of flesh. He’d demanded to know exactly what Harlan was planning on doing with the little demon. Unable to shake off her claims that Harlan was planning on creating some sort of super-soldier or something, he’d only gotten angrier and angrier. Just what the hell was that old bastard thinking? Kurt had warned him about exactly what those things could do, hadn’t he? Playing with that sort of power . . . did he really think that it was all just some sort of really big, really stupid joke . . .?

Harlan, the jackass, had just laughed and said that they’d be fools to pass up such a golden opportunity to help out their fellow man. Kurt had stared at him like the idiot had somehow managed to grow an extra head. Help out their fellow man?   Help him do what? Get good and dead . . .?

If we die, so does our blood. It’s that simple.”

Was it? Kurt frowned. Was it really as simple as that . . .?

Brushing aside the absolute irritation that he just couldn’t shake, he grasped the door and carried it out of the bathroom, leaning it against the wall. There was still something about the entire thing that bothered him, damn it . . . The little demon . . .

“Won’t you get in trouble for stealing company doors?”

Blinking quickly as the sound of the demon’s voice broke through Kurt’s silent contemplations, he shot it a quelling glance and deliberately strode past her cage.

“Or maybe that’s the big plan,” she teased as she rolled over onto her belly, kicking her feet in the air. “You’re trying to get fired, huh?”

“Hardly, and you’d better be glad. If I quit, you’ll be stuck with Dustin again . . . or worse.”

She wrinkled her nose and propped her chin on her raised hands. “So what’d you bring me for dinner?”

Raising an eyebrow as he sat back and pulled his hand away from the nondescript white deli bag, Kurt crossed his arms over his chest and slowly shook his head. “What makes you think that I brought you anything? Awfully presumptuous bit of baggage, aren’t you?”

She tried not to pout; he had to give her that much, he supposed. That she failed miserably . . . well, she probably was a little hungry . . . “O-o-oka-a-a-ay,” she drawled as her ears drooped in a completely pathetic sort of way, she actually did look like she was trying not to look overly upset by the perceived turn of events. “That’s all right; I’m not hungry.”

Rolling his eyes as he let out a deep breath, slightly put out by the fact that he really did feel a bit bad for teasing her over dinner, he pulled the two deli sandwiches out of the bag and got up to take one over to her. “Here . . . you’re kind of a pain in the ass, aren’t you?”

She brightened up considerably when she saw the white parchment wrapped food. She let out a happy little squeal as she sat up and bit into the sandwich.

He watched her for a minute then shook his head as he headed back toward the desk once more. It certainly didn’t take much to please her, did it?

Deliberately trying not to think about that, Kurt shook his head and let out a deep breath. ‘No doubt about it,’ he thought as he slowly unwrapped his sandwich. There was something about her, wasn’t there? Something that scared the hell out of him . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kurt pulled his coat a little tighter against the bitter December wind blowing off Lake Michigan as he lowered his shoulders and hurried across the street toward the small newsstand where he normally bought his paper. The bells above the door jangled merrily as he slipped inside, his body giving an unconscious shiver as he straightened up and sniffled.

Tribune,” he said to the old guy behind the counter.

The man got up slowly and tottered to the end of the counter where he kept the few copies of the Chicago Tribune that he got in every day. “I tell you, son, those digital papers are going to run me out of business,” he said as he stepped back to the counter again.

Kurt nodded, understanding what the old guy meant. Newspapers, magazines, books . . . they were all readily available in digital format. The days of the old-fashioned books and dusty tomes, of the familiar musty smell of old paper . . . those days were being left so far behind.

“Just to make an honest living,” the man went on with a shake of his head. “Seems a little sad, doesn’t it? What happened to the days when people held magazines or spent hours in a book store? M’ granddaughter came home from school the other day, and I ask her where her books are. She give me this weird look and says, ‘Gramps, that’s why we have the laptops,’ . . . They do everything on those, you know? From kindergarten all the way up . . .”

“Sorry to hear that,” he replied.

“That be it for you?”

He opened his mouth to say yes, but a rack of tacky postcards caught his eye. Various greetings from Chicago were stenciled on each one with different pictures of the city’s landmarks, he would have ignored them, but one in particular caught his eye. Without a second thought, he grabbed it and tossed it onto the counter along with a bag of chocolate candy. “That’s it.”

“Five-seventy-seven.”

Kurt handed the man a crumpled ten dollar bill and waited for his change, stuffing the items into his knapsack.

“Stay warm, will you? They say there’s a blizzard moving in . . .” the old man called after him.

Kurt waved a hand as he strode out the door, grimacing as a frigid blast of wind hit him square in the face.

A blizzard, huh . . .’

He didn’t care about a damn blizzard. Even the worst of them didn’t seem too bad in the city, anyway. The longest he’d ever seen anything shut down around here was maybe twenty-four hours . . .

Turning a thoughtful eye to the skies, he blinked as the first fat flakes of snow landed on him. Even as he stood still, they fell thicker and heavier. That got him moving. Hurrying away from the small store, he grimaced. Roughly fifteen blocks from where he needed to be . . .

All around him, people were scurrying to get wherever they were going, like rats running from the light. Kurt hunched his shoulders forward to block some of the wind and hastened his step as he plunged forward. The temperature was dropping; he could feel it.

By the time he reached the facility on the outskirts of the city, he was damn near freezing. Stepping inside was a bit of a shock to his system, and even though he knew well enough that Harlan tended to keep the place hellaciously cold, it was still welcoming and more than warm enough in comparison to the outdoors.

Letting out a deep breath, he reshouldered his knapsack as he headed for the elevator.

“Evening, Doc,” one of the guards—Tony, according to his clearance badge—said as he stepped out of the security room. “News said that we’re in for a helluva storm,” he remarked almost jovially as he pressed the locking panel beside the door to secure it.

“It’s already started,” Kurt muttered.

“Aww, shit. I was hoping it’d hold off till I got home,” he confessed. “Have a good one.”

Kurt didn’t reply as he continued on his way.

The rest of the trip to the basement was uneventful, blessedly devoid of doctors, and by the time he reached the holding area, his toes were throbbing with his pulse as the numbness wore off. When he stepped into the room, though, he wasn’t greeted by the sight of the little demon. With a frown, he dropped the knapsack on the desk and turned around just in time to see the legion of security guards escort her into the room.

They seemed relieved to see him, and they left her there, wrists and ankles shackled together, as they made their hasty departures. Kurt narrowed his eyes as he stared at her, and she ducked her head, unwilling to look him in the eye. Hair lopped off unevenly, a long, angry-looking welt that started at her knee and disappeared under the dirty smock, he opened his mouth to ask her what had happened to her, but snapped his mouth closed before the question came out.

Making a face at his own perceived stupidity, Kurt stepped closer to unfasten the shackles around her wrists before propelling her toward the bathroom with a brusque little shove.

She stumbled but caught herself—he’d forgotten that she was wearing the short-chained shackles—but she went willingly enough. By the time she’d returned from the bathroom, she seemed to be in slightly better spirits. Crawling into her cage, she stuck her feet out so that he could unfasten the shackles. He did it, then closed the cage door as Harlan wandered into the room.

“Ah, good. She’s behaving herself again, is she?”

Sparing a moment to glance over his shoulder at the fat old bastard, Kurt shrugged indifferently. “Was it misbehaving?” he countered, deliberately referring to the little demon as ‘it’ though mostly just to irk the researcher.

Harlan shrugged and pasted on one of his broadcast-news smiles. “Well, she had an incident and shoved Dr. Peterson . . . He’s all right, but I think it took him by surprise. Anyway, just keep an eye on her. I think she’s up to something.”

Kurt very nearly rolled his eyes at the censure in the doctor’s tone. As though he had ever actually let his guard down around her . . . Damn fools, the lot of them. “Oh, absolutely,” he replied dryly. “Thanks for the warning. I’ll be sure to watch out for any signs of trouble, yup.”

Harlan seemed a little confused by Kurt’s acerbic answer, but he nodded at length and turned to leave. Kurt watched him go out of the corner of his eye and snorted. “Fucking moron,” he muttered under his breath before turning his attention back to the little demon, that had scrunched herself up into the corner of the cage with what could only be described as a sullen expression on her face. “Going to tell me why you freaked out?”

“No, I don’t think I want to,” she replied tightly.

Why didn’t that surprise him? Letting out a deep breath, he let his hands dangle between his knees as he eyed the little demon carefully. “Tell me anyway,” he commanded.

“He’s not a scientist!” she blurted hotly, her cheeks blossoming in indignant color. “He’s a dirty, disgusting, foul, putrid piece of work, and I’m not sorry for pushing him away!”

Kurt’s frown deepened as he continued to stare at her. An idea of what had happened was starting to form in his mind, and if what he suspected were true, he wasn’t entirely certain that he could blame her for doing what she’d done. “What did he do?” he asked quietly.

She shrugged, ears flattening at the perceived censure in his tone. “Maybe I don’t have any rights, but I don’t think that he should be allowed to . . . to touch me wherever he wants, either.”

And that spoke volumes as far as Kurt was concerned. With a terse nod, he pushed himself to his feet and strode over to the desk, somehow needing to distance himself from her though he was hard pressed to understand why he felt that way.

Her chart read ‘regeneration testing’, which, he supposed, explained the shoddy job of cutting her hair, and while he knew damn well that he’d done the same thing; knew damn well that it would grow back without any real problems, Kurt couldn’t help but wonder what was coming next . . .

The thing was, he knew that the other demons he’d brought in—those monsters who were barely cognizant enough to realize anything save for an inner bloodlust that Kurt could feel—hadn’t lasted long in this place, and he was beginning to wonder exactly how much actual research had been done to any of them, given the circumstances. In truth, this was the first time he’d actually seen a demon once he’d delivered it, and while he knew enough to know that none of the others he’d brought in were still here, he didn’t know particulars about what had ultimately happed to them, he knew well enough that they were dead.

Gaze shifting to the side, he found his eyes once more trained on the little demon. She was still pouting, wasn’t she? Still very upset over whatever had transpired, and considering that he had a good notion as to what really had happened, he couldn’t help but think that she had a right to feel that way . . .

Right?’ his conscience spoke up suddenly. ‘Since when do those things have any kind of right to anything at all?

Wincing inwardly at the deadly accuracy of that voice, he forced his gaze away as the sickened feeling in the pit of his stomach started to gnaw at him. What the hell was wrong with him? Feeling sorry for a creature like that . . .? He knew well enough what those things were capable of, didn’t he? Knew damn well that it didn’t matter what kind of package she wrapped herself up in, the bottom line was the same: always the same. She was a demon, no matter what kind of name she claimed. And demons only understood destruction, bloodlust, and carnage.   As such, they deserved to be destroyed.

Didn’t they . . .?

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Zelig-san, have you heard from Griffin and Ryomaru?”

Cain turned and nodded as Mikio Izayoi slipped into the office with a nondescript black slim-file in his hands. “Yeah . . . Seems they tracked down the old mountain man, but according to them, he’s a little . . . crazy.”

Mikio nodded, his expression registering his disappointment though he didn’t look like he had really expected any different. “So he didn’t have spiritual powers, after all . . .”

“Oh, no, he did. Griffin said that he knew they weren’t human right off the bat, but . . .”

“But?”

Cain rubbed a hand over his face as he plopped down in the chair behind the desk. “He, uh, thought they were fairies . . .”

Mikio blinked in surprise, his left ear twitching madly as he absently reached up to fiddle with it. “Fa . . .? O-oh . . .”

Cain nodded as he dug a cigarette out of his pocket. “Yes, fairies. The two of them walked him to the nearest town—he was out on a whiskey run, I guess—but they weren’t able to get much more out of him. Neither of them think that he had anything to do with Samantha’s disappearance. In fact, Ryomaru said that he was pretty sure that the old guy couldn’t have found his way out of a plastic bag—I’m pretty sure those were his exact words, anyway . . .”

Mikio pressed his lips together as though he were trying not to find humor in the situation, but given that Cain couldn’t help but find it oddly amusing, he couldn’t rightly fault the young man for thinking so, too. “I . . . I doubt Ryomaru appreciated that . . .”

Cain cleared his throat delicately, hiding a vague half smile behind the cigarette. “Probably no more than he appreciated being called a woman . . .”

“The . . . the old man thought . . .? Oh . . . Did Ryomaru hit him?”

Cain finally chuckled. “Actually, no.”

“W-wow . . .” Mikio spent a moment mulling over that before he shook himself slightly and made a face. “So we’re back to square one.”

Cain’s amusement died with that remark, too, and he nodded slowly. “So it would seem.”

Mikio let out a deep breath and flipped the slim-file open. Grimacing at whatever the file contained, he hesitantly leaned forward and handed it to Cain.

It was the mock-up of a missing person flyer with a smiling image of Samantha situated in the center. Below the large picture were three smaller ones, each from different angles and different distances. Below those were her statistics and a few contact numbers to call with information. Cain’s gut reaction was to say no, to insist that the very idea was ludicrous. But Mikio had done what Cain understood should be done, hadn’t he?

“I never wanted to go public with this,” Cain ventured, his voice throaty, raw.

Mikio nodded. “Me, either.”

Repressing the initial surge of irritation, he reminded himself that Mikio really was trying to do what he felt needed to be done, reminded himself that as hard as it was for him to look at such a clinical presentation, that it had to have been just has hard if not worse for Mikio to create.

I’ve been checking into it, and if we use Uncle’s name . . . If we use his name, we can have this out in every major news outlet within hours.”

Cain nodded slowly, staring at the small calendar on his desk. All the pictures for the different months were images created by his children as they’d grown up. Gin had compiled them into a calendar and had presented it to him last year. Frowning at the date, he shook his head. One week until Christmas, but it didn’t feel at all like it . . .

“Let me talk to the others,” he said at length. “I don’t know how Kichiro will feel about this, but . . .”

Mikio nodded, understanding Cain’s dilemma. As much as he might think that putting Samantha’s face out there would be for the best, the level of impersonalization that always seemed to accompany such a thing was difficult to reconcile. “I just can’t help but think that maybe someone’s seen her . . .”

Cain nodded, smashing out the cigarette in the tin ashtray on his desk. “I know,” he replied. “I know . . .”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Plopping down on the high stool behind the counter with the row of monitors, Kurt frowned as he reached out to touch the control panel, his fingertip hesitating just over the master switch.

It had been bothering him all night, and as much as he was loathe to admit it, the little demon’s strained silence was strange.

Pressing the button, he blinked as the monitors lit up, one by one. The three on the far end were changing displays of the security cameras located around the building—at this time of night, nothing to worry about. The one on the other end seemed to be the terminal screen, and the last one—the one directly before him, was caught up in a stagnant blue.

Pulling the keyboard shelf out, he read through the lines of text. It was a Marxim system: one often used in areas dealing with restricted information because it had a higher level of encryption. Most of the computers that ran it within a network, however, tended to be allowed certain levels of access. Kurt only hoped that this one had an open enough connection to get to the data he wanted.

“Enter access pass,” he mumbled, reading the screen. Glancing at the clipboard lying beside him on the desk, he typed in the words, “Project Demon.”

That worked, and Kurt brought up the main directories. Each one was presented as a cluster, and the top level clusters all seemed to be fairly straightforward. Clicking on the one called, ‘documentary’, he wasn’t surprised when the file opened, showing him list after list of daily video files. Some of them had locked icons on them, and he figured that if the system followed standard protocol, then the older archives had already been automatically written to some sort of hard backup, probably encode sticks. That was all right since he really wasn’t interested in the older archives, anyway. No the one he wanted was the one from earlier during the day, and that one was simple enough to find.

Archive 12.22.2070?

Kurt typed in ‘confirmed’ and waited for the video to load.

It only took a few seconds for the video to buffer, and the blue screen flashed once, twice, then opened the file. Boring stuff, for the most part: Harlan murmuring their plans for the day into the ear mic that was set on ‘record’. He and his cronies watching as security guards fastened the little demon to the neck collar and stints jutting out of the wall. Today’s experimentation had obviously not been of too much concern to her, and while he could discern a certain wariness about her, she seemed calm, overall.

Arms outstretched, feet parted wider than her shoulders, neck secured to the chain that was anchored in the beams above her, she couldn’t have done much from that position, could she?

With a grunt, he hit the forward button, scanning through the video since they didn’t seem to be doing much to her at that point.

Stopping when Harlan stepped in front of the camera, Kurt frowned and backed up the video. “Here, Dr. Peterson . . . I need to make a few calls . . . my wife wants me to see if we can’t get her parents into the Restaurant de Scion . . .”

Peterson took the earpiece and slipped it over his ear with a broad grin. “No problem, chief . . . I’ll carry on without you.”

Harlan moved out of the picture, the sound of his heavy footsteps moving away. Kurt glanced over at the cage. The demon hadn’t moved and seemed to be sleeping—just as well, he figured, plugging in a set of earphones and positioning them on his head.

The bastard actually grinned and winked at the camera, rattling around with something that was just out of view. When he crossed over to the little demon again, though, Kurt saw the scissors in his hand. “Now be still . . . this won’t hurt a bit,” he said in an exultant sort of tone. To her credit, she somehow managed to keep a completely blank, even somewhat vague expression on her face as he snatched the length of her hair in his hand and pulled firmly, forcing her to turn her head. He wasn’t exactly cruel in the way he handled her, no, and certainly that couldn’t have been what had set her off . . .

Peterson pulled his hand down a little and lopped off her hair with a loud ‘snick’ of the scissors, letting the silvery strands fall onto the floor as a little laugh escaped him.

She didn’t react as he set the scissors aside and moved in closer, quickly tugging the snaps on her shoulders open—the snaps that held her smock up. She didn’t even blink as it slipped down her body, only to gather around her knees that were spread too far for the smock to pass. With a chuckle, Peterson bent down, retrieved a long lock of her hair off the floor and using it to trail up and down the center of her body, between her breasts down to her belly button and back up again. She had her face turned to the side; Kurt couldn’t see it, but Peterson, the bastard . . .

“Oh, you like it, don’t you? See? You’re not so different from a real woman, are you?”

The little demon didn’t move.

He toyed with her awhile longer, and with every passing second that he forced himself to watch the tape, the more disgusted Kurt became. That damned Peterson . . . Flicking the strands of hair over her nipples, reaching down with his free hand, fondling her between her legs . . . the sound of the bastard’s heaving breathing was the only sound in the audio file—the little demon said nothing, did nothing.

Kurt was almost ready to turn the tape off—too disgusted to watch any more—when the idiot finally stepped back with a harsh laugh. “You want to touch me, don’t you?” he asked in a ragged tone. “You’ll be a good little girl, right?”

And all he could do was shake his head when the damn fool reached over and unlocked her wrist. What happened next was nothing more than a blur of motion as her hand shot out. Peterson screamed and flew back across the room out of the view of the camera. The little demon just stood, staring, her free hand pressed against her lips, her eyes wide with a horrified sort of expression. Moments later, the thunder of footsteps preceded the entrance of the security guards. They rushed toward her—one of them smacked her thigh with a bobby stick—manhandling her as they forced her into the wrist restraints.

Kurt narrowed his eyes as he rewound the video, slowing it down to see if he could discern the actual attack. He couldn’t be sure—the image was awfully blurry—but he thought that maybe she’d only slapped the doctor, albeit hard.

With a sigh, he hit the main power button, shutting off the system without bothering to do it the right way. The entire thing left a bitterness in him, one that he neither understood nor wanted to try to . . .

It bothered him, damn it. He’d told them numerous times that she could be dangerous, hadn’t he? He’d warned them about letting her have even an inch, and yet . . .

And yet he couldn’t bring himself to be irritated with her for it, either. What he’d seen had sickened him, hadn’t it? So exactly what had she felt at the time?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The strangest sound awoke Samantha, and she blinked and pushed herself up on her elbows as she tried to make sense of it. It took a moment for her to place it, and when she did, she frowned. Had it really been that long since she’d heard a telephone ring? ‘Maybe . . .’ she thought with a marked scowl. That was a little more disturbing than she could credit.

“’Lo,” the taijya mumbled, having obviously just woken up, too. Samantha glanced at the clock as her frown deepened. It was almost nine o’clock—much later than he normally stayed . . .

“What?” he demanded sharply. He must have been able to wake up faster than she could. “Oh, no . . . No, no, no . . . I’m leaving; that’s what I’m doing.”

That got her attention quickly enough. Rolling over onto her stomach, she propped her cheeks on her fists and wished that she could hear what the other person was saying. He was too far away for her to do that, unfortunately.

“Absolutely not,” he insisted. “Just . . . hold on . . .”

Dropping the receiver with a loud clatter, he stalked out of the room without a second glance. Samantha sat up, her ears flicking as she tried in vain to catch any sounds that might be coming from that phone.

Ten minutes later, the taijya stomped into the room once more, his expression completely foreboding as he swiped up the receiver once more. “You’d better find a way to get here,” he warned. “I’m leaving as soon as you do.”

He listened a few minutes then uttered a terse snort before slamming the receiver down again. Heaving a long, drawn out sigh, he shook his head and draped his hands on his hips. “Damn it,” he muttered, rubbing his hands over his face as he paced the floor. “That just figures . . .”

“Um,” Samantha interrupted, unsure if she really ought to say anything at all but unable to help herself, either. “I . . . I need to go to the bathroom,” she pointed out.

He started to open his mouth, likely to grumble at her since he’d started leaving her cage open while he was awake so that she could do those things herself, but he snapped it closed when he realized that he’d locked her in last night just before he’d laid down.

Letting out a deep breath, he crossed the floor and opened the cage, wiggling his fingers to get her to stick out her legs. She did, and he made quick work of fastening the long-chained shackles around her ankles.

She took her time in the bathroom, mostly because she was still getting used to the idea that he really would allow her to go by herself now. He’d muttered under his breath that it was a pain to cater to her, and while she really didn’t doubt that in the least, she had to wonder if that really was the only reason for the concession. Then again, she wasn’t about to second-guess him on it, either. It was amazing how much of her pride it allowed her, and even without a door, she couldn’t help but be pleased by it.

She sighed as she took her time washing her hands and face—that was the other nice thing about the bathroom. It didn’t have a shower, but it did have a hot water tap, and while the soft soap in the clinical dispenser left a lot to be desired, at least it was soap, and that, in Samantha’s mind, was good enough for her. Wetting down a coarse paper towel, she used it to wash her vital parts—something else that greatly improved her mood. Even if she couldn’t have a full bath or shower, that was better than nothing, and she wasn’t about to complain.

After yesterday, she’d been almost afraid that the taijya would confine her to her cage again. She knew that the taijya thought that she was dangerous, after all, and she knew damn well that she had inadvertently made the white-coat bleed. The thing that she found most disturbing, though, was that . . . well, she didn’t really feel sorry for it, either.

It was frightening, that. She’d reacted solely on instinct when he’d unfastened her wrist. She’d seen it in his eyes: he hadn’t given a damn whether or not anyone caught him, didn’t care what he was doing. He really would have raped her if given the chance. That he was stupid enough to unfasten one of her hands . . .

She’d only meant to slap him; really she had. Her claws had grazed his skin, though, and she’d been horrified enough by that after the fact. Still, she couldn’t say that she regretted her actions. Had he honestly thought that she’d just stand there and let him do whatever he wanted to her?

And he thinks I’m a monster,’ she thought with a wry smile as she blotted her face dry with a paper towel. How naïve had she been, really? Believing that all humans were good . . . she had thought that not too long ago, and now . . .

Now she didn’t know anymore. No, she didn’t think that all humans were bad or even that most of them were, but she was starting to comprehend the truth that humans possessed the innate ability to be just as evil, just as malignant, as any youkai could be. Having been raised around such a loving family, she realized, had sheltered her from a lot of ugly truths about the world, in general, and while she still wanted to believe that humans were, on the whole, good, she had to accept that there were some who weren’t so nice, so kind, so benevolent . . .

Those white-coats . . . The more she had to deal with them, the more she understood that some humans really did believe that they had the right to inflict their beliefs upon everyone else; that to be different in their eyes was some sort of sin. They honestly saw her as no better than a wild animal—maybe worse, actually. After all, would they treat their pets as horribly as they treated her?

“I think you’ve been in here long enough,” the taijya remarked rather dryly as he appeared in the doorway, leaning on the frame and crossing his arms over his chest as he lifted an eyebrow and shot her a droll stare.

“I was washing my face,” she informed him haughtily. “But I’m done now.”

“Good,” he replied, pushing himself away from the frame and stepping back. “In your cage.”

She made a face but started to move. “Are the white-coats on their way?” she asked, unable to keep the hint of disgust out of her voice.

He shook his head. “Nope. They aren’t coming in today.”

She couldn’t help it when she stopped abruptly and shot him what could only be described as a hopeful look. “Really?”

He snorted, scratching at the back of his head. “There’re about three feet of snow outside with more dropping every minute and drifts up to the top of the doors.”

“Snow?” she echoed, her eyes lighting up at the mention of it. “Oh . . .”

He nodded toward the cage, and she sighed but started moving again. Closing the door behind her, he retrieved her water dish and refilled it without a word before slipping it back inside the cage.

“But you left the cage open last night,” she reminded him in a plaintive voice.

The taijya stood up and started to walk away. “Yeah, and now I need to use the bathroom, so I guess you can stay there till I’m done.”

Samantha snapped her mouth closed on the complaints that had been forming on her tongue, and she giggled. “Ah . . . sorry . . .”

He shook his head and kept walking. Samantha busied herself, folding her blanket and drinking the water he’d given her. Another little laugh escaped her at the prospect of evading the white-coats for the day. It seemed like a holiday, didn’t it? An unexpected gift . . .

It didn’t take him very long, and when he strode out of the bathroom, Samantha was a little surprised to see that his hair was wet. She pressed her lips together. The first time she’d seen him, the back of his hair was really short thought the front was a little long and unruly. Now, though, the back was growing out a little, as though he had forgotten to get it cut or something. She rather liked the effect . . .

“You know, I’d love to see the snow again,” she ventured as he pressed the lock release and pulled the door open again.

“Snow’s a nuisance,” he replied with a shrug. “Damn it, I’m starving . . .”

You’re starving?” she countered as she crawled out of the cage. “What are the odds you’ll let me have a shower today?”

“Well, you do stink,” he allowed rather acerbically.

She snorted indelicately, her cheeks pinking as she shot him a baleful glower. “Seriously . . . you don’t have a girlfriend, do you?”

He stared her for a moment, violet eyes oddly bright, and he shrugged. “Of course I do. Ten of them. They’re all mute with gargantuan breasts, and they love me and want to bear my children.”

“Oh, very funny. You don’t have time . . .” Trailing off, Samantha frowned. ‘Did he just . . .?

“Of course I don’t,” he muttered with a shake of his head. “I’m too busy playing babysitter for a little brat demon.”

She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times like a fish out of water. “B-brat?” she squeaked.

“Yes, brat,” he reiterated. “Now stop being a pest, will you? I’m trying to think.”

“I’m a pest, too?”

“Yes, a pesky brat . . . or a bratty pest . . . whichever . . . both apply . . .”

Scrunching up her face in a marked scowl, she shook her head and watched as he dug into his pocket. He pulled out a nondescript keychain—actually just a simple silver loop with keys dangling from it—a slightly bent subway token, and a bit of grayish lint. He heaved a sigh and shoved everything but the lint back into his pocket as he strode toward the desk and grabbing his coat. It didn’t take him long to check those pockets, too, but he frowned when he pulled an unmarked amber pill bottle free. Turning it over in his hand, it took him a moment to figure out what it was, but suddenly, he looked at her, his eyes narrowing then widening as he tossed the bottle lightly and caught it in his palm.

“Little demon . . .”

“What?”

He shook the bottle. “What are these?”

Samantha started to tell him that she didn’t know then stopped. “Where did you . . .?”

He shrugged. “You had them when I caught you.”

The scent tabs . . .’

She wasn’t entirely sure what she ought to tell him. He must have seen it on her face, her indecision, because he snorted. “Don’t lie to me,” he warned.

She shifted just a little. Then again, what did it matter if he knew? Those pills weren’t really the big problem, anyway, were they? “They’re scent-tabs,” she confessed slowly.

He didn’t look like he understood what she meant. “Meaning what?”

“Meaning,” she said with a shrug, “they change the way I smell . . . makes it harder for other youkai to find me.”

“And why would you need that?”

Samantha stepped away, wandered around a bit restlessly. “I’m a hunter,” she whispered, unsure as to what, exactly, he’d say about that.

Shaking his head, he stared at her. She could feel his gaze locked on her. “What does that mean? A hunter?”

“It means that I hunt youkai . . . youkai who break the laws—our laws.”

“What? Like a cop?”

Smiling a little wanly, she nodded. “I guess you could say that.”

He snorted, and his voice was thick with sarcasm. “Right.”

She sighed, wrapping a long strand of hair around her finger as she paced the floor. “Youkai have their own laws . . . like hiding what we are.”

That earned her a significant scowl. “You hunt your own kind for not hiding what they are?”

“No.”

“Then why would you possibly hunt others like you?” he asked, his tone clipped, tight as his irritation spiked.

Biting her lip, she considered not telling him more. He didn’t seem as though he was interested in hearing it, anyway. Even still, she was what she was, and dancing around it . . . there simply wasn’t a point, was there? “Youkai aren’t allowed to hurt humans,” she said quietly.

“. . . What?”

She heard the deadly calm in his voice but didn’t stop to think about it. “Ones that hurt a lot of humans are hunted. It’s partly so that we aren’t discovered, but it’s also meant to protect humans since we’re stronger . . .”

“Is that so?”

Blinking at the hostility in his voice, Samantha tilted her head to the side and shot him a quizzical glance. “Yes . . .”

He didn’t respond right away, but she could feel the sudden change in his mood, the overwhelming anger—hatred—that boiled up inside him. “Shut up. Just shut up. Your kind . . . your kind are nothing but monsters—demons! Your kind only kill; that’s all they do, so just shut the hell up, will you? I’m done listening to the likes of you.”

Shaking her head as she tried to make sense of the taijya’s outburst, she could only watch as he stomped away, snatching up the book that he’d been reading the night before and summarily ignoring her though she had little doubt that he knew exactly what she was doing.

Maybe though . . .

Biting back a sigh, Samantha crawled into the cage and wrapped her arms around her knees. She’d be better off to keep from drawing too much attention from him for a while, she figured. He was far too agitated for her liking.

With a heavy sigh, she ducked her head. It had been nice, hadn’t it? Until she’d made the comments about hunting, that was . . .

Your kind only kills; that’s all they do . . .”

Grimacing inwardly, she shook her head. His words . . . what was it about those words . . .? His secret was hidden beneath those words, wasn’t it? If she understood that, then maybe . . .

Her chin snapped up suddenly as her gaze unconsciously sought him out. That was it, wasn’t it? It made sense—perfect sense . . . Someone he’d loved . . .

Youkai had killed someone he’d loved . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

You know, you did see her do it.’

Ignoring the voice in his head that kept pestering him about his harshness with the little demon earlier, Kurt turned the page of his book and pretended that he couldn’t hear her babbling. Besides that, he wasn’t entirely certain what he had seen that night; not really. Everything had happened so quickly, and while he had seen her take down the other demon, he couldn’t bring himself to believe what she’d said, the day before, either.

Going on day two of being stuck in here with that demon . . . It was almost more than he could stomach.

Oh, she’d been quiet after his outburst the day before—on her best behavior, or so it would seem. Today, however, was an entirely different story. Kurt rolled his eyes and kept his gaze trained on the book he was pretending to read. If she didn’t shut up soon, he was going to snap, he just knew it . . .

It’s . . . convenient,’ he thought with a decisive snort, his mind slipping back to the little demon’s assertion that she had been ‘hunting’ that other one. ‘Too convenient . . .’

It was, wasn’t it? Easy for her to say that she was going after a demon that had hurt humans, but really . . . It just wasn’t something that he could believe, was it? He’d seen too many things—way too many things—ugly things; horrid things, and her claim . . . It had ticked him off, and why not? Trying to put a benevolent face on those beasts was just a little more than he could tolerate . . .

They didn’t know, did they? They didn’t understand what it was like to have a family, to love them, to think that his entire life would be that comfortable; that secure; and then to have it all jerked away in the blink of an eye . . . It was something that he knew a little too well, didn’t he? If those things just understood . . .

But they didn’t; they couldn’t. If they did, he wouldn’t be where he was now, would he?

And it was something that he had never truly been able to reconcile. His father . . . His father had been able to see demons, too, hadn’t he? He’d been able to see them, and he’d hidden it. He probably would have continued to hide it, too, had it not been for Kurt. Kurt couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been able to see them, and Kurt hadn’t realized that he wasn’t supposed to, and he certainly hadn’t understood the idea that he shouldn’t let anyone know, either . . .

Old Granger had said once that Kurt was the reason that everyone else had died. Those monsters were after him: the boy who could see them. He was a threat, or so he’d been told, and everyone else . . .? They’d just been in the way . . .

So by rights, he ought to hate her, shouldn’t he? He ought to despise everything about her, and while he could say that he didn’t trust her, he couldn’t say . . .

Damn it . . .’

“A big, fat steak—rare—with a baked potato and chocolate cake for dessert . . .” She slumped against the cage—she was sitting on the floor outside it—and heaved a longsuffering sigh since the odds that she’d get the aforementioned steak were slim and none. “Or Maine lobster, just caught and cooked fresh . . . with melted butter and a twist of lemon, and—”

“And you do realize that a lobster is related to a cockroach, right?”

The little demon just laughed at him. “Just because they’re both arthropods doesn’t mean that they’re that similar.”

He shot her a quick look, grudgingly surprised that she actually knew that word. “All the same, they’re a little too closely related for my liking.”

She wrinkled her nose and shrugged offhandedly. “Well, I suppose I’d eat one if it tasted like lobster.”

“Ugh,” Kurt grunted, shaking his head. “That’s disgusting.”

“I didn’t say I’d really eat one,” she shot back.

“Close enough.”

“All right, then, if you could have anything to eat, what would you ask for?”

Letting out a defeated breath, he sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. He’d ignored her for the better portion of the morning, at least until she’d started whining about being hungry. After about ten minute of her incessant chatter, he’d told her that she apparently didn’t know how to shut up, to which she had simply informed him that she was trying to get her mind off of being hungry . . . by talking about food.

“Ever stop to think that maybe—just maybe—talking about food is only making it worse?” he prodded.

She shook her head and waved her hands. “Oh, I know; I know! Why don’t you just order a pizza?”

“And how would it get here? That is, assuming that anyone is actually open, which I doubt. The whole city is shut down.”

She made a face and mumbled a little growl of frustration. “But I’m starving . . .!

“You went for days and days without eating, and now you’re whining about having to go without for one or two days?” he shot back with an incredulous shake of his head. “You’re a little pathetic, aren’t you?”

“I’m smaller than you,” she pointed out. “That means that I get hungry faster than you do.”

Kurt heaved a sigh. “I swear that the next time they tell me that there’s going to be a blizzard, I’ll make damn sure I call in sick.”

It didn’t really surprise him when she giggled then groaned as she leaned over, clutching her stomach in an entirely melodramatic way.

She’d already had her makeshift shower, too, having used almost an entire bag of the soap dispenser refills. He’d read his book while she’d fussed with the hose. In the end, though, she’d stubbornly refused to ask for assistance—until she began shaking like a damn leaf since she didn’t have the common sense to dry off with something before struggling into the clean smock he’d tossed in her face. So he’d gotten her another one along with a pack of paper towels so that she could dry her hair a little. Funny thing, though. He’d offered to cut it off for her since it’d grow back, anyway. She wasn’t impressed with his offer in the least.

“Seared tuna . . . or a huge bowl of ramen . . .” she muttered.

Kurt rolled his eyes. As if he weren’t hungry enough, as it was, her incessant chatter was only serving to make him hungrier, damn it. “Talking about it isn’t really going to make you any less hungry, little demon,” he pointed out reasonably.

She made a face as she crawled into the cage to retrieve her blanket. “Are you sure you don’t have any money?”

“You saw me check my pockets. Twice,” he reminded her as he checked them for a third time. The only money he had on him was a twenty dollar bill, and that just wasn’t any help at all, given the circumstances.

“Why don’t you carry more change?” she demanded since she knew as well as he did that there were vending machines just down the hallway.

“I would have had change if I didn’t have to buy a cheeseburger for you on my way in here,” he muttered.

“A chee-eeseburger . . .” she sighed happily.

Letting out a deep breath, Kurt shook his head and stomped back over to the desk once more.

“Roast beef . . . or a pulled pork sandwich . . .”

“I’m ignoring you now,” he rattled in a monotone.

She was quiet for all of thirty seconds. “Can I ask you something?” she finally ventured.

“If I say no, will that stop you?”

“Hmm . . . how come you can see us? I mean, I know you’ve got ho—spiritual powers, but it’s still unusual, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know,” he muttered tersely as he dug a pad of Post-It notes followed by a small glass bottle of ink from his knapsack.

“Is anyone else in your family like you? Able to see us, I mean?” she went on.

Kurt shot to his feet, sending the chair careening backward with an obnoxious scrape as he stalked toward the doorway. The barrier was still activated—it always was whenever she was out, and even if he had a mind to force her into the cage, he was in too much of a hurry to do it. He needed to get away from her before he lost his temper.

He just didn’t like to talk about his family, and even if she didn’t know that, she really didn’t have a right to ask him things like that, did she? It wasn’t like he was there to visit, anyway. He was there to do a job so that he could collect his money.

Even still . . .

He hated when anyone asked questions about his family; it didn’t matter who it was. That it was her, however, was even more than he could tolerate, and yet . . . Rubbing his hands over his face in an infinitely weary way, he grimaced. Common sense told him that she wasn’t really trying to tick him off. Too bad he had very little room in his brain to listen to common sense.

The anger deep down just kept growing—spiraling up and outward like a thick, dense fog. Scowling at the damned snack machines, he didn’t think about what he was doing too deeply. Reaching out, he smashed his hand over the lock and released a surge of energy. The machine shuddered and groaned as the lock gave way, and he blinked as the door popped open with a soft hiss.

Well, it certainly wasn’t high-class cuisine, by any means, but it was food . . .

Grabbing an armload of different snacks, he strode back down the hallway toward the containment area once more. Strangely, his irritation had been released with the surge of energy, hadn’t it? He was still a little irked, but at least he didn’t feel like he was going to explode anymore. Then again, the idea of eating something was a welcome enough distraction, he supposed . . .

And he wasn’t entirely surprised to find the little demon huddling in her cage—her normal tendency when she perceived that she’d managed to piss him off. She remained silent but he didn’t miss the way her ears twitched as he crossed the room with the pilfered bounty and dropped it onto the desk.

“I . . . I thought you didn’t have any money,” she finally ventured in a timid sort of way.

Kurt shrugged indifferently as he ripped open a bag of plain potato chips. “I didn’t,” he replied simply enough.

She digested that for a moment before she sat up a little straighter. “Then how did you get those?” she demanded.

He didn’t miss the hint of censure in her tone, either. “I have my ways,” he muttered around a mouthful of chips.

Her gaze turned even more accusing; he could feel it boring into the back of his head. “You broke into the vending machine, didn’t you?” she finally asked.

He turned around slowly, regarding her with undisguised amusement as he reached back and grabbed a bag of corn chips. “Want one?” he countered.

Her cheeks blossomed in indignant color as her gaze brightened and she sat back. “W—I—No! And you shouldn’t be eating that, either! I can’t believe that you’d do something like—You realize, don’t you, that breaking and entering is a felony!

He shrugged and dropped the bag of corn chips on the desk again. “Suit yourself, little demon, but don’t come crying to me that you’re hungry when I offered . . .”

She snorted indelicately and crossed her arms over her chest. “Keh!” she scoffed. “I don’t want your ill-gotten gains . . . Is . . . is that chocolate?”

Kurt didn’t pause as he ripped open a Hershey’s bar and bit into it. “Uh-huh,” he garbled. “Too bad you’re a dog.”

She opened her mouth then snapped it closed as another surge of color washed into her cheeks. Uttering a terse little growl, she dug into the bowl behind her, scooping up a handful of the dog food that had been sitting in there with her for at least three days. One by one, she chucked them at him, and while the flying kibble didn’t faze him, the absolute irritation on her features was a little difficult to ignore.

“You sure you don’t want some?” he asked, grabbing and waving the corn chips at her once more.

Her immediate answer was a barrage of kibbles.

He ripped open the bag and pulled one out, whipping it at her in retaliation. She caught it in her mouth and chewed it thoroughly before heaving defeated sigh and crawling out of the cage, her blanket wrapped around her and looking entirely like Yoda from Star Wars . . .

“Thought you didn’t want them,” he couldn’t help goading as she stomped over to him and swiped the bag out of his hand.

“I’m eating under duress,” she informed him as she stuffed a few chips into her mouth. “You’re a very bad man, taijya . . . You know, someone makes their living off of those machines, and you’re probably costing him!”

He blinked and stared at her as he dropped an empty bag into the trash can and reached for another. “You’d think that I’d feel bad, wouldn’t you?” he ventured at length. “And yet . . . I don’t.”

She heaved a sigh and shook her head but continued to eat the corn chips. “I am starting to wonder whether or not you really have a soul,” she informed him.

He rolled his eyes. “Weren’t you the one who kept barking and barking because you were hungry?”

She shot him what should have been a quelling glance but just wasn’t. “I was not barking,” she retorted haughtily.

“Oh? So what do you call it, then?”

She reached for a chocolate bar. He was faster. “It’s bad for dogs,” he pointed out as he tucked the candy bar into his pocket.

“But I’m not a dog!” she protested. “And even if I was, you don’t need it either . . . it’ll go straight to your love handles, you know.”

“My . . . what . . .?” he growled, unable to staunch the indignant color that infiltrated his features. “I don’t have—”

She shot him a droll look and poked his side. He jerked away, pinning her with a fierce glower that just made her smile widen. “Knock that off!”

She clucked her tongue, giving him the distinct impression that she was, in fact, humoring him. “Well, it isn’t like you have a full-on beer-gut,” she pointed out in an entirely placating sort of way—the kind of tone that one used when dealing with a sulking child.

Kurt snorted very loudly and stomped over to grab the hose. Since she was out of the cage, he might as well wash it out. Turning it on with a vicious twist, Kurt snorted again. The little demon giggled, damn her.

I don’t have love handles,’ he thought with a very loud grunt as he aimed the power hose at the cage.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Would you like something to drink? A cup of coffee, perhaps . . .?”

Kurt shook his head and stared at the old bastard, ignoring the thickly cushioned chair that Harlan had motioned to when he’d stepped into the office. Located on the third floor of the facility, Kurt had only actually been asked in there a handful of times. That he’d been invited up this time was more than enough to set little warning bells off in his head.

Damn it, he was tired, he was hungry, and he wanted a shower, though not necessarily in that order. Having spent the last couple days here, waiting until the snow had finally been cleared away enough to make travel possible once more, he was more than a little anxious to get the hell out of Dodge . . .

“Just tell me what you want,” Kurt said, blowing off the small talk since he knew damn well that there was absolutely no love loss between the two of them.

Harlan stood up and paced back and forth, fiddling with his left sleeve cuff, a nervous habit that Kurt knew well enough. Whatever Harlan wanted wasn’t good, was it?

“Well, you see, we were thinking . . .”

Why did he get the distinct feeling that he wasn’t going to like what ‘they’ had been thinking . . .? Kurt remained silent and waited.

Harlan cleared his throat and shot Kurt another of those fake smiles, as though he were trying to convince Kurt that he was harmless or some such other bit of nonsense. “We’d like you to capture another demon for us—one like her . . . but male.”

Kurt blinked. It took a minute for the ramifications of what the doctor was requesting to sink in. ‘Another . . .? A male . . .? What the hell do they need anoth— . . .?’ His eyes widened slightly as complete comprehension slowly dawned on him. ‘They want to . . .? Fu-u-u-uck . . .!’ Staring at the researcher, Kurt slowly shook his head. “You want to . . . breed them.”

“In order to get a full understanding of them, you see, the it’s necessary for us to witness and document every aspect of their natures . . . Reproduction is crucial, of course.”

It was on the tip of Kurt’s tongue to tell Harlan that he could go straight to hell. Was the old bastard really so idiotic that he couldn’t see the problems presented in that area? Even if he could get the little demon to comply, Kurt wasn’t entirely convinced that any other he caught could or would cooperate, and if the two demons turned on each other . . .? Were they really willing to take that big a risk with her? After all, she was the first one that had complied with the testing thus far . . . If another demon were to become aggressive with her . . .

But he said nothing, simply staring at Harlan in a rather direct sort of way while giving no indication, one way or another about what should or should not be done. As far as he was concerned, there was no way in hell that he was going to do any such thing; not for Harlan, anyway.

Harlan must’ve figured out that he wasn’t going to get a reply right away, and he shrugged. “Well, you think on it,” he offered, sounding much more magnanimous than he ever actually was. “We figured that we should ask you first since you were able to capture her, right? I mean, that wasn’t a fluke, was it?”

He was deliberately trying to provoke him, and Kurt knew it. He brushed the comment aside, focusing instead on exactly what he was going to stop and pick up to eat before he headed to the apartment. Harlan really had to think that Kurt was a fool if he honestly believed that Kurt would agree. After all, even if he did go along—even if he didn’t think that it was a really, really stupid idea—that’d just be shooting himself in the proverbial foot, wouldn’t it? If they were able to breed them, what use would they have for him to catch them . . .?

“Did she . . . give you any trouble over the snow days?”

Kurt shrugged and turned to leave. “It was fine,” he replied tersely. “Stared at the wall kind of stupidly and didn’t do a thing.”

He didn’t miss the odd expression that passed over Harlan’s features, but he didn’t comment on it, either. He honestly didn’t give a damn if the old bastard believed him or not. That said, though, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the office.

Smashing the elevator call button, only to discover that the damn thing was on the basement level, he uttered a frustrated grunt and stomped over to the enclosed stairwell. He needed to get out of there before he lost what was left of his temper, damn it . . . Breed those things . . .? Had they lost what little brainpower that they’d had?

When hell freezes over . . . and maybe not even then . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Merry Christmas.”

Sesshoumaru didn’t answer as Kagura slipped up beside him. In the quiet of the hotel suite, he had been looking over pages and pages of intelligence that simply wasn’t getting them anywhere. It wasn’t that the information they’d been able to gather was worthless, no, but it certainly wasn’t actually helping them, either . . . “What are we missing, Kagura?” he murmured almost absently, his question directed more to himself than to his mate.

Kagura sighed and crossed the room, stepping behind her mate and rubbing his broad shoulders. “Sometimes I think that maybe we’re a little too close to the situation,” she confessed just as quietly. “As though we cannot see what is right in front of us because we aren’t objective enough.”

Sesshoumaru nodded. He’d thought as much, too. “How does one become ‘objective’ when it involves one’s own child?”

Kagura let out a deep breath and shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine,” she confessed.

“I believed we resolved this sort of trouble long, long ago . . .”

Kagura sighed and nodded before leaning down to kiss her mate’s cheek. “I know this is hardly the time or place, but I did get you a Christmas gift,” she said, stepping to the side and perching lightly on the edge of the desk beside him as she set a small package before him. Wrapped elegantly in gold foil with a simple bit of white ribbon, it glimmered in the light filtering through the window beside them.

He sat back, his golden eyes lifting to stare at her for a long moment as the barest hint of a smile shone through his expression. “Is that so?”

She nodded again as he reached for the package. True, Christmas wasn’t exactly a Japanese holiday, but with as many family members as there were who did celebrate it, Kagura and Sesshoumaru had taken to doing it, too. He tugged the end of the ribbon and let it fall onto the desk. The paper unfolded slightly since it was only held in place by the bow, and he opened the lid of the plain white box and chuckled quietly. “And what is this?” he asked as he lifted the single white feather—one of her feathers—from the carefully arranged bed of wine colored velvet.

Kagura smiled and took the feather from him, twirling it idly in her fingertips. “It’s just something that I wanted you to have,” she replied with a delicate shrug. “Besides . . . I hardly need this these days.”

He took the feather back, holding it lightly as he stared at it. “I have something for you, as well,” he admitted. Standing up, he strode over to the small table near the door and picked up a neatly wrapped package out of the stack. The rest of them were simply decoration placed there by the housekeeping staff. He had hidden her gift among them.

She opened the gift without a word and smiled at the fine platinum necklace inside. The pendant was a simple ruby about a half inch across cut into the shape of a heart. “It’s beautiful,” she told him, carefully pulling it out of the box. “Would you . . .?”

He took it from her as she slipped off the desk and turned around, her fingers touching it lightly as he draped it over her head and around her throat. He fastened it and let his hands fall on her shoulders as he leaned down and kissed the back of her neck. “I cannot tolerate this feeling of helplessness,” he said at length, holding her against him in an uncharacteristic show of affection.

Kagura sighed softly, leaning back against him, offering him her quiet support in a way that he would understand. “You’re doing the best that you can, aren’t you?”

“And that isn’t nearly good enough, Kagura.”

“Perhaps not in your eyes, but it is all that can be expected, Sesshoumaru.”

He didn’t like her answer, and the expression on his face said as much.

“Come. I think you need to stop looking at all that, just for a while. Besides, Kagome’s opened up Zelig’s house in Wake Forest to cook Christmas dinner. She does not presume that everyone will join us, but they should stop by when they can.” Leading the way out of the study, Kagura let out a deep breath. “Samantha would not want us to forego the season.”

He nodded. As much as the idea of taking the time to sit down to a family dinner when half of that family was here and the other in Maine and back in Japan, he understood, and maybe this day was more for Samantha than it was for anyone else.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“I thought I’d find you in here.”

Kichiro didn’t turn around at the sound of his mother’s voice. “How’s dinner?” he asked, hearing the perfunctory tone in his voice and loathing it.

“It’ll be done soon,” she assured him. “Did you . . . did you send the emails . . .?”

Kichiro nodded once without turning away from the window that overlooked the immaculate snow that covered the sprawling yard of the Zeligs’ Wake Forest estate. “Yeah, I . . .” he swallowed hard, blinking quickly as a hateful sheen of moisture blurred his vision. Gritting his teeth hard, he nodded again. “Yeah.”

Kagome let out a deep breath: not exactly a sigh, but close to it.   “It was difficult, wasn’t it?” she asked softly, her hand rubbing the small of his back gently.

“It, uh . . .” Letting his gaze fall to his hands, he closed his eyes and licked his lips but had to clear his throat before he could trust himself to speak again. “Kami . . . it felt like I was giv-giving up,” he muttered, ears flattening as he struggled to reassure himself that that wasn’t the case, at all. “It’s just . . . seeing it on paper like that . . .”

“But maybe someone, somewhere, has seen her,” Kagome said. “Maybe . . .”

Kichiro nodded. “That’s what I . . . keep telling myself.”

Kagome cleared her throat. Kichiro didn’t miss the tightness in the sound. “No one thinks you’re giving up, you know,” she insisted, her voice all the more powerful in its husky quality. “Samantha won’t give up, and you won’t, either.”

He didn’t respond to that. What was there to say? As much as he wanted to believe that she was going to come home, he started to doubt just a little as the days passed without a sign. Every morning when he got out of bed, he felt the same emptiness, only it was growing worse with every setting of the sun, too. Trying to remain optimistic was a painful thing, but to allow himself to consider the worst . . . He just wasn’t able to do that, either, was he?

And the growing feeling that he’d somehow failed her—Samantha . . . A father was supposed to protect his children, and he . . . Kami, he hadn’t done that, had he? No . . . and then he’d created those damn pills. There hadn’t ever been much of a chance, to start with, had there, not without her scent to follow . . and that was because of him . . .

“I . . . I gave her to them,” he rasped out, his body racked by the pain of the guilt that had manifested itself in a living, breathing way. “I . . . I thought I was helping, and . . . my d-dollbaby . . . my . . . Sami . . . Kami, I . . .”

Kagome gasped softly as a bitter sob broke free of him, as he lifted his forearm and slumped against the window. Absently, he felt her arms around him and yet he couldn’t feel them, not with his soul. The emptiness that surged through him precluded even the basest allowances of comfort. Weeks of worry, of frustration, of the strong front he’d tried to erect around himself came crashing down in a torrent of tears, in broken half-sobs that hurt . . . Kami, it hurt . . .

“You didn’t. You didn’t . . . You did no such thing,” Kagome murmured, her voice choked with her own tears. “Kichiro, don’t do that to yourself . . . p-please . . .”

But he couldn’t stop that, either. Tears born of the desire to be everything that everybody needed and the absolute frustration that he couldn’t do any of those things; not one . . . Kagome cried quietly, her own tears coursing down her cheeks though she made no sound at all. Torn between the mother’s innate desire to fix things for her son—her baby—and her concern over her granddaughter, she was. And Kichiro had always tried to fix things by himself, hadn’t he? He’d always hated to ask for help, and even now, even in this . . .

The flyers they’d emailed to all the generals, the world over—Mikio’s flyers that he’d made because he’d thought that there wasn’t anything else he could do . . .

They’d decided against mass distribution to start with. Afraid that the wrong people would see them and panic, they’d left the ultimate decision to Kichiro, and maybe that, in and of itself, had been a mistake. How much more could he take, really? Twenty years of a life condensed down in hard facts and statistics with images that paled in comparison to the beauty that was Samantha . . .

And it seemed that the harder he cried, the worse it grew, an ugly thing that he simply couldn’t contain any longer.

Kagome closed her eyes tight, wishing that she could help him, that she could take away the pain he was feeling, that she could somehow make it better for him, and maybe for the first time, she could truly understand what the great miko, Midoriko had tried to do for her so very, very long ago . . . She didn’t want to take away his memories, no, but she wished . . . Kami, she wished . . .

“Oi, wench, I . . .”

InuYasha trailed off as he stopped just inside the doorway, his eyes widening as he intercepted Kagome’s helpless plea. If Kichiro realized that his father had just walked in, he gave no indication. So wrapped up in his own regrets, his own impotence, maybe he hadn’t noticed at all.

The hanyou stood there for a few minutes, watching as Kagome sought to comfort their son. Kichiro was winding down, it seemed, though his upset was still a palpable thing. Without a word, InuYasha finally stepped forward, grasping Kagome’s arm and giving her a curt nod. She understood—she always understood, and with one last squeeze, she let go of Kichiro and quietly stepped away.

“You . . . you ain’t done that before, have you?” InuYasha asked gruffly though not unkindly.

Kichiro hiccupped and shook his head, looking entirely disgusted as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “S-sorry,” he muttered.

“Keh! Don’t apologize—don’t ever apologize—for loving your pup,” InuYasha chastised.

Kichiro nodded though he still couldn’t meet his father’s gaze.

Stopping beside him, he stared at the window, understanding that Kichiro didn’t want him to look at him like that. InuYasha was the same way, wasn’t he? Hated to show weakness . . . hated to feel that familiar insecurity that he simply wasn’t good enough . . . “You . . .” he began after a moment as he felt Kagome’s aura retreating. She was giving them privacy—him privacy—with his son. “You think that I never cried before?”

“Did you?” Kichiro asked grudgingly.

InuYasha didn’t answer right away. Instances flashed through his head: moments in time that he simply hadn’t been able to deal with, and while they might have been few and far between, he remembered every last damn tear, too. Almost losing Kagome and Miroku and Sango in the burning shrine . . . waking up to find that Kagome—stupid Kagome—had wished Kikyou back to life; that she’d left him . . . the faces of twin sons and a daughter . . . and a little boy who didn’t understand why he wasn’t just like everyone else . . . holding his daughter’s hand as a menagerie of machines kept her alive . . . some of the most horrifying and some of the most beautiful moments of his life, and the tears that had come along with them . . .

“’Course I have,” he muttered. “It ain’t . . . it ain’t weak.” Grinding his teeth together, InuYasha cleared his throat. It’d taken him way too long to learn the lesson he was about to give his son, hadn’t it? Too damn long . . . “Used to think that it meant that I was weak,” he went on, his voice tinged with regret. “Thought it meant that I wasn’t tough enough to keep things inside. But that ain’t it.”

Digging his hands into his pockets, Kichiro stared outside without seeing a damn thing.

InuYasha shrugged, struggling to find a way to put to words what he knew in his heart was true. “What it means . . . It means that you know what’s important. Means you’ll protect those things.”

Kichiro swallowed a few times, as though he couldn’t quite find his voice, before he managed to speak again. “And . . . and if I can’t?”

InuYasha grunted. He never had been good with words, had he? “That’s why you got family.”

Kichiro nodded and turned toward InuYasha, his gaze saying everything that he just couldn’t voice. The boy he’d never understood had grown into a man, and a damn fine man, at that. InuYasha nodded once, acknowledging the things that Kichiro didn’t say—or maybe he’d said them much better than he could have with mere words.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Toothpaste.”

The taijya didn’t even glance up from the newspaper he was reading, and Samantha heaved a sigh. “Did you hear me?” she demanded.

“Trying not to,” he admitted as he shook the paper for added emphasis.

Samantha wrinkled her nose and used her claw to pick the bit of meat from between her teeth. “I ed ooth-aste,” she garbled without taking the finger out of her mouth.

That got his attention quickly enough. Quirking an eyebrow as he shifted a rather bored stare in her direction, he uncrossed his feet and dropped them to the floor from the top of the desk. “What was that? Demonese?”

She rolled her eyes but giggled as she popped her finger out of her mouth and shot him an entirely toothy grin. “I said ‘toothpaste’,” she reiterated.

He snorted. “And why do you need toothpaste?”

She scooped up the hamburger wrapper left over from her meal and strode over to toss it away. “Let me ask you: what’s the longest you’ve ever gone without brushing your teeth?”

“I don’t know,” he replied as he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in the squeaky chair. “A month or two . . .”

“Ugh!” she grumbled, backing away slowly. “And you think I’m an animal . . .”

“So you brush your teeth,” he shot back. “Big hairy deal.”

“And your teeth have been brushed; I can tell,” she retorted. “In fact . . . Hair!”

He blinked, his eyebrows lifting at her strange outburst. Without another word, she separated out a single strand of her hair and tugged. Rubbing her head where the hair had been yanked out, she held up the emancipated strand, eyeing it speculatively. ‘Yep,’ she thought with a satisfied little peal of laughter as she carted around and sped off toward the bathroom as fast as her chained ankles would allow her to go, she didn’t stop until she was staring in the cloudy old mirror over the sink.

The lighting wasn’t great in there, but it’d do. Leaning in closer, she wrapped the strand of hair around her fingers and started to floss her teeth.

“And just what do you think you’re—yuck!” the taijya blurted as he appeared in the doorway a moment later. “You’re using your hair to floss?”

She shifted her gaze in the mirror then giggled at the appalled look on his face before returning her attention to the task at hand. “I didn’t see you volunteering to bring me any,” she explained as she adjusted her grip on the hair. “What else was I supposed to do?”

“Urgh . . . that’s just nasty,” he complained.

“Then go away, and don’t watch,” she said.

He only grunted at that, but he did turn on his heel to stomp away.

Samantha finished her task quickly enough then rinsed her mouth with water, wishing for the life of her that she at least had a toothbrush. Still, the makeshift floss had worked just fine, and for that she supposed she ought to be thankful.

When she emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, the taijya was busy pulling her blanket out of the cage.

“What are you doing?” she asked, tamping down the momentary alarm at the sight of him taking her blanket.

He shrugged. “What’s it look like, little demon? I’m changing your bedding.”

She snorted, more at the word ‘bedding’ than at what he was actually doing.

He tossed the blanket into the canvas laundry cart nearby before heading for the hose. “Now explain to me why you’re so hyper tonight,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the ruckus the power hose made.

She squeaked and skirted around the spray.   “I got to run again today,” she stated.

He shot her a look out of the corner of his eye. “And that made you hyper?”

“I like to run,” she stated simply. “I would’ve run all night if they would have let me.”

Shaking his head, probably at her strange idea of fun, he took his time washing out the cage before turning off the hose and putting it away. “You want to run,” he stated dubiously as he wrapped the length of the hose around his hand and elbow.

She nodded enthusiastically. “I miss it,” she explained simply. “When I was little, I used to run with . . .” Trailing off slowly, Samantha shook her head, unsure even now whether or not she was safe enough to mention her family. In the end, though, she couldn’t take that chance. The taijya didn’t seem to notice her lapse, though, as he hung the hose up on the hook once more. “Anyway, it’s good for you, right?”

He snorted. “A lot of things are ‘good for you’. Doesn’t mean I want to do them.”

Wrinkling her nose, she shook her head. “But you exercise. I mean, you look like you do.”

He shrugged. “I walk . . . and I hunt demons.”

She giggled. “Maybe you should try Pilates . . . I hear they’re great for getting rid of love handles . . .”

He spun around to glower at her. “I don’t have love handles,” he growled.

She waved a hand dismissively as she retrieved her water dish to get a drink. “Okay,” she agreed easily enough. “You don’t . . . But you know, you’re really in great condition for a man your age.”

W-wh-what?

She took her time, carefully drinking the water. “Well, that wasn’t an insult . . .”

“The hell it wasn’t,” he grumbled, cheeks pinking slightly as his irritation surged around him. “Just how the hell old do you think I am?”

Setting the bowl aside, Samantha leaned back against the sink and tilted her head to the side as she considered his question. True enough, he didn’t look that old, but he did have gray hair interspersed with the black hair on his head, though it all seemed to be concentrated in his sideburns. “Hmmm . . . forty . . . five?”

He choked. “Forty—what?

“Forty-six?”

His scowl darkened.

“Forty-seven?”

He grunted indignantly. “Try going the other way with that, demon,” he grumbled.

“Oh-h-h-h . . . Um . . . forty-four?”

“I’m thirty-eight,” he stated. “Thirty-eight.”

“Really? You mean you’re really not over forty?” She narrowed her eyes. “Are you sure?”

Yes, I’m sure!” he bellowed then shook his head and turned away, muttering under his breath about not really expecting much better from an ill-mannered little demon who probably wasn’t any older than twelve.

“I’m am, too, over twelve!” she insisted, her own cheeks blossoming in color.

He snorted but didn’t respond out loud.

“I am!” she insisted once more.

“Oh? Do demons just go through puberty later or something?”

She blinked and stared at him, unable to grasp exactly what he was implying. “What’s that mean?” she asked despite her resolve not to do any such thing.

The taijya shot her a rather bored look. “It means,” he said simply, “that it’s obvious enough that you haven’t even started to go through puberty yet.”

“I have, too!” she gasped.

“Is that right? So all female demons are flat-chested then?”

That barb struck home, and she couldn’t help the momentary expression of hurt that filtered over her features before she could stop it. She’d always been a little self-conscious about her relatively small chest, especially when both her sisters had inherited their mother’s ample bosom . . . Still, she knew damn well that she wasn’t entirely flat, the jerk . . . “I will have you know that some men rather prefer smaller, perkier breasts,” she retorted haughtily, using the really lame excuse that her father had told her more than once over the years. If she then pointed out that her mother had quite generous cleavage, Kichiro always seemed to change the topic, too.

“Yeah,” he responded acerbically as he plopped down at the desk once more and reached for the newspaper again. “Most of them are gay . . . or they will be eventually.”

She wrinkled her nose and crossed her arms over her chest with a pronounced ‘hrumph’, her ears twitching as a clear indicator that she was still irritated. “Is this your idea of retaliation for the forty-five guess?”

He grunted but didn’t emerge from behind the newspaper.

Samantha narrowed her eyes then suddenly laughed. That did get his attention, though he looked like he thought she might be going mad.

Quite the contrary, really. She’d just had a rather comical image of his face if she told him that she was actually twenty years old flash through her mind. “I’m sorry,” she relented, waving a hand in front of her giggling face as though she were trying to stop herself from laughing.

“Somehow, I just don’t think you are,” he muttered.

“No, I am,” she insisted.

He heaved a long, loud sigh when her giggling escalated. Pushing himself out of the chair again, he strode over to the supply cabinet and yanked out a clean blanket. “There,” he said, tossing it in her face. “Go crawl back into your hole, and leave me alone.”

She did as he told her to though she left her feet sticking out as a not-so-subtle reminder that he had yet to unfasten her ankles. Her laughter died down though her good humor remained. True, she hadn’t meant to offend him, of course, but then, who would have figured that he’d be quite so amusing?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

He stumbled in the blackness, fumbling for something—anything—yet knowing deep down that there was nothing—nothing to grab onto, nothing to steady himself . . . Just nothing . . .

It was the darkness that he knew and despised. Negotiating the passages and the eerie corridors yet knowing deep down what he would find when he reached the inner sanctum . . . It was always the same, so why . . .?

Kurt . . .”

A row of shackles hanging from the wall . . . five sets . . . five skeletons that laughed at him . . . one set that hung limply, the cuffs agape: waiting . . .

Kurt . . .”

Candles burning on a table inside a room to the left, molten wax pooling around the misshapen stone candelabras . . . five empty plates . . . one filled with maggots and cockroaches and millipedes . . .

Kurt . . .”

The steady, dull plop of something dripping just out of view: a constant, a never ending monotone . . .

Kurt . . .”

A dull whine: almost a whimper . . . a scrape against the cold stone floor . . .

Kurt . . .”

Slapping his hands over his ears, he ran deeper and deeper into the undulating, twisting maze. He wanted to escape, but he couldn’t . . . He knew he couldn’t . . .

Stumbling over something firm but yielding . . . a ragged cry; an unvoiced plea for help . . .

‘Not again . . . not again . . . not again . . .’

Cold, grubby fingers stretching out to grab him, trying to stop him, pulling him back and pushing him forward. The floor was soft and squishy under his feet, squelching like mud after a healthy summer rain . . . but . . .

It was flesh; a giant throat. The humid air was hard to breathe. ‘Carbon dioxide . . .’ The stench of bile that lingered, a putrid sourness . . .

Struggling onward; there was no escape—no turning back.

The countless groans and cries mingled in his ears. They meant everything, and yet they meant nothing at all. Grimacing, running, stumbling, faltering . . . The rattling of the two gold hoops dangling from his left earlobe rang in his head . . . He couldn’t escape, couldn’t escape . . .

But he couldn’t tell if it was him or if it was a child version of him; the sounds, the cries . . . were they from a different place and time—a different Kurt . . . or . . .

The menacing laughter that filled the corridor echoed off the walls: laughter mixed with indeterminate sounds: not human and coming closer and closer and closer.

Kurt . . .”

Panting as he tried to run faster, he could feel the hotness of breath hitting his face. Losing his footing, faltering, falling . . . Opening his mouth to scream, but no sound would come . . . Falling, falling . . . falling . . .

Landing on his knees in the midst of a slimy, pungent mass, Kurt grimaced and pushed himself to his feet, and this chamber . . . the entire room was pulsating, living . . . breathing . . .

The blackness seemed to thicken; the air was stifling, horrifying. He could hear the beat of a heart—a savage and bitter thing.

A slow haze congealed in the darkness; a glow that seemed even brighter against the stark black . . . “Uncle . . .”

Blood dripping everywhere: from the gash on his head, the ragged stump where his arm should have been . . . Blood gurgling and belching, tiny droplets spraying with each of his words: “What are you doing, Kurt . . .? What are you doing . . .?

N . . . No . . .”

His body faded as another appeared in his wake . . .

Monsters, Kurt . . . why can you see those monsters . . .?” Aunt Mary, silvery tears streaking down her blood splattered face; her chest ripped wide open; her arms keeping her intestines from spilling out . . .

How could you? You wicked, wicked boy . . .!

Mom . . .” he whispered, closing his eyes against the sight of her—her chest ripped open, her crushed heart in her hands . . .

I told you not to tell, Kurt . . . I told you not to tell . . .”

“. . . Daddy . . .”

Too much blood, too much gore, too much . . . just too much . . . Hands shaking, body quivering, too many memories—too much bitterness . . .

A tiny hand slipped into his. He screamed; he jumped, but the little hand hung on. Fearful, fearful . . . Looking down, he saw her . . . “C-Carrie . . .”

Her head was at an odd angle, her legs akimbo but holding her up. She smiled at him—a gruesome, vile distortion . . . “Kurt . . .”

Awaking with a jerk, he sat up straight, chest heaving as he struggled to breathe. That dream . . . that dream—he hated that dream . . . Five consecutive days of that same nightmare . . . Waking up in a cold sweat, babbling . . .

Stumbling to his feet, he barely took two steps before he hit his knees, his stomach lurching, heaving, as he closed his eyes tight. The stench of his vomit brought back the nightmare with startling clarity, and he squeezed his eyes tight, pushing against the floor, drawing back into himself . . . Hating . . . loathing . . . despising . . .

It took several minutes for him to regain control of himself, and he sat back, closing his eyes, dragging in lungful after ragged lungful of air.

They were condemning him, weren’t they? From the hell in which they were cast, locked together for all of eternity in a medley of hatred, they could see him, always, like angels with malice in their hearts, and he might well have believed that if he actually believed in heaven and hell . . .

He didn’t. As disturbing as those dreams were, that’s all they were: dreams. He’d stopped believing in everything and everybody a long, long time ago. The only one he could rely on was himself . . .

Himself and the vengeance that he craved . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Isabelle shifted her gaze in the mirror as she fastened the simple diamond stud earring. Meeting her mate’s troubled expression, she smiled wanly before turning around and smoothing the form-fitting black dress over her figure. “How do I look?” she asked, holding her hands out at her sides.

Griffin’s trademark scowl deepened, and he slowly shook his head. “Why are you all dressed up?”

She waved a hand as she leaned over to pull on the two-inch heeled black pumps. “It’s Papa and Uncle Ryomaru’s birthday. You’d better get ready for the party.”

“Party?” he echoed, eyeing his mate as though he thought that maybe she’d lost her mind. “I don’t think—”

“We have this party every year,” she reminded him.

“You think your father’s going to want this?” he reiterated.

Isabelle’s thin smile grew even more transparent. “Mama does.”

“Your mama.”

She nodded. “Yeah . . . and . . .” faltering, she stared at her hands for a moment before lifting her chin once more, her smile back in place. “Sami would want us to have it, too.”

Griffin heaved a sigh, unsure whether or not he actually was buying into this, but Isabelle . . . She looked so damned determined, and maybe this was a small way for her to feel as though she were helping, even if it were only an illusion.

“I don’t know, Isabelle,” he muttered, shaking his head. The entire thing seemed so . . . so fake . . . and he wasn’t too certain that anyone else would welcome this particular idea . . .

“I’ll bet that she’s singing ‘Happy Birthday’ right now, wherever she is.”

Griffin didn’t say anything as he reached for the clothes that Isabelle had laid out for him and headed for the bathroom. In the end, he supposed it didn’t really matter, did it? Whether they had this party or not . . . but maybe it would help her mother, at least.

A crisp knock sounded on the door, and Isabelle stepped over to answer it. “Lexi,” she greeted. “You haven’t changed yet.”

“Have you lost your damn mind, Bitty?” she demanded without preamble, her dark blue eyes sparking dangerously. “A party? Are you mad?

Isabelle grasped her sister’s arms and smiled gently. “Calm down, sweetie. You know as well as I do that we have this party every year.”

“Not this year!” she hissed, yanking herself away from Isabelle’s grasp. “What the hell has gotten into you? Don’t you get it? Samantha—our baby sister—is missing! Missing! Can’t you comprehend that?”

Isabelle flinched, blinking rapidly as a suspect brightness entered her gaze. “Of course I know that,” she replied stiffly. “This is for Mama. Isn’t that all right?”

Alexandra heaved a sigh and shook her head, glaring at her sister before turning on her heel and stomping out of the room, leaving Isabelle with a sad frown on her face as she watched Alexandra’s abrupt departure.

In truth, the party was the last thing that she really wanted to do, but . . . but Bellaniece had seemed so adamant that she simply hadn’t had the heart to gainsay her on it; to point out how entirely unwelcome some of the others, Alexandra included, would find it. Her mother seemed so damned determined to conduct things as though nothing at all were amiss, and as much as Isabelle could understand that, it frightened her, too.

With every day that passed, a little more hope slipped away: hope that Isabelle, like everyone else, was struggling to hold on to.

Griffin slipped out of the bathroom in the clothes that she’d put out for him. She felt his presence though he didn’t make a sound. A moment later, he slipped his arms around her, drawing her back against his chest in a comforting embrace. “You . . . okay . . .?”

“It’ll be two months tomorrow, won’t it?” she murmured quietly. “Two months . . .”

Griffin grunted in response then shrugged. “She . . . she’s all right.”

Isabelle nodded slowly, letting him offer her his silent support—his strength.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Zelig-sensei, are you ready?”

Cain looked up from the stack of papers he’d been reading over, frowning at the sight of his mate in the festive red dress. She looked like she’d just stepped out of some fashion magazine, and he knew damn well that he’d never seen that particular outfit before. Letting out a deep breath, he slowly set the papers aside and stood up.

“Let me straighten your tie,” she offered, stepping around the desk to adjust the bow at his throat. “There. Perfect.”

“Gin . . . Do you really think that this is a good idea?”

Her little smile faltered slightly before she could catch herself. “Sure, it is,” she insisted. “Bellaniece really wants it.”

He nodded and rubbed his face. “I know. I just don’t think . . .”

“Kichiro needs this, too . . . I think . . . I think he’s forgetting how to smile.”

“It’s not that,” he said.

She leaned back, staring up at his strange expression. “What’s the matter?”

He shook his head, shifting his scowl at the blackened windows behind his desk. “I’ve gotten no less than eight calls since those flyers were released to the generals: eight different youkai in eight different places who swear they’ve seen Samantha in the last few weeks.”

“But that’s good, right? Leads . . .”

“Maybe, but if we have to chase down every lead we get, only to find out that they’re flukes or . . . or someone’s damn idea of a joke . . . We’ll be wasting time . . .”

“If one of them is pans out . . .”

“That’s a big if . . .”

She nodded slowly. “But worth it if it’ll bring Samantha home.”

“Yeah.”

Gin smiled again and took his hand. “Come on. Kichiro and Ryomaru will be here soon. They called a while ago to say that their plane had landed safely.”

Cain said nothing as he let his mate drag him out of the study. The trouble was that not one of the leads had seemed solid enough to track, but he just didn’t have a choice, did he? He’d already dispatched all three of his hunters to check into the most promising leads, and even those were vague, at best. “I might have seen her . . .” “I thought I saw her . . .” “Well, it rather looked like her but her hair must have been dyed . . .”

The front door opened as they stepped out of the study, and a very worn-looking Kichiro stepped into the house with his twin brother. “Oh, surprise!” Gin hollered, hurrying over to greet them properly.

The brothers exchanged looks. Cain grimaced since neither looked very pleased about the apparent ambush. Having heard Gin’s exclamation, the others hurried into the foyer to greet the birthday boys, too. Cain stepped over and slipped an arm around Gin’s waist to draw her back, away from the two since it looked like Kichiro was about ready to lose his temper.

But the hell of it was that Cain couldn’t really blame him for it, either. When Gin had first mentioned that Bellaniece wanted to throw the annual party, he’d told her that he didn’t think that it was a good idea. Already pushed to the very limits of his tolerance, the hanyou looked like he thought that the entire thing was in poor taste. Unfortunately, Cain could understand Bellaniece’s point of view, too. Desperately trying to cling to anything that she considered normal or status quo, she’d wanted—needed—the distraction to get her mind off the constant worry, the incessant questions. He could only hope that Kichiro would understand it, too.

To his credit, though, the irritation in his expression disappeared quickly enough, and he even managed a wan smile as he kissed his mate and daughters in turn. Ryomaru managed to sneak away, grasping Nezumi’s arm to lead her into the living room. Isabelle called out, making her way through the gathering with a very large sheet cake with the brothers’ names in blue icing.

Cain sighed and intercepted the strangely horrified look on Mikio’s face. He was certain that Mikio understood what was going on, but seeing it happening was just entirely too much for the young hanyou to bear witness to. “What the hell is this?” he muttered, casting Cain the same kind of look that he had when he was younger, when he hadn’t understood why Cain would ask him to do odd jobs during his visits: tasks that he never asked anyone else to tackle. Cain had understood back then, hadn’t he? He’d known the unspoken battle deep within Mikio because he simply didn’t want to be treated differently from his nephews or Gunnar.

“They—we—need something normal,” Cain replied quietly.

“Something normal,” Mikio repeated. “Y-yeah . . . I’m starting to forget what that means.”

Cain nodded. To be honest, he’d thought the same thing, himself . . . but he also knew damn well that, until Samantha came home, nothing would ever be normal again . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Alexandra fell back, skirting around the gathering that was smiling too widely, laughing too loudly. The entire thing was completely contrived, and no one played her part quite as well as her mother. Watching as though the entire thing were little more than a gross farce of a play—a tragic comedy, at best—Alexandra just couldn’t bring herself to try to laugh, to carry on.

She couldn’t understand exactly what they were doing; why they were doing it. It made no sense, did it? For all they knew, Samantha could be . . . Swallowing hard, she forced that thought away, unable to bear the idea of completing it, even if it were only in her head.

Still, with every day that passed, ever moment that ticked away, she couldn’t help the ugly voice in the back of her mind—the one that sounded cold, clinical—reasonable. Two months was just too long. If Samantha really were okay, she’d have tried to contact them by now, and Alexandra knew it.

She didn’t want to think about the idea that Samantha might not come home, but . . . but she was also just a little too pragmatic to keep up the fake pretenses, too. “If we only knew . . .”

Slipping through the living room unnoticed, she indulged herself in a moment of relief as managed to step outside unnoticed. The cold wind was a balm on her raw nerves, and she breathed deep despite the burn in her lungs.

“You’re going to freeze out here,” John said as he stepped outside. “Shouldn’t you be inside wishing your father a happy birthday?”

She opened her mouth to tell him exactly what she thought of the gross display. To her surprise, a high-pitched, incredulous laugh surged out of her. “It’s entirely insulting,” she rebuked. “Am I the only one who hasn’t lost her mind? Throwing a party like Samantha . . . like she doesn’t even exist, and . . .”

“And you don’t really think that’s what they’re doing, do you?” he chided quietly, slipping his arms around her in an entirely placating sort of way.

“I don’t . . . I don’t know,” she admitted quietly. “I just know that it doesn’t feel right. Mama says that Samantha would want us to do this—Can you imagine . . .?”

John exhaled out slowly, his breath condensing in a hazy cloud against the sober hues of the night. “And if you were the one missing, Lex? Would you want your father to have his birthday party?”

His question caught her off guard despite the idea that it should have been the most natural one in the world. She shook her head, tried to consider it, but couldn’t. “I . . . I don’t know.”

He smiled gently. “You told me before that your parents have always stood behind you, no matter what, right?”

“Of course.”

Reaching out with a gentle hand, he tucked her hair behind her ear and rubbed her cheek softly. “Well, then, maybe you should think of this party as your way of . . . of supporting them—of supporting your mother.”

She knew deep down that John really did think that she’d tell him that he was right; that she’d march back inside, plaster on a happy smile, and go along with the charade. She couldn’t. She really couldn’t, and if that made her a bad daughter, then so be it.

“I can’t do that,” she muttered, shaking her head as she pulled away from him. “It’s just not right. It’s not like Samantha was just sent off to summer camp or something. She’s missing. Someone took her. She’s been missing for two months, and all I can do is go in there and pretend like nothing in the world is happening? I can’t, John. I . . . I can’t . . .”

“Lex . . .”

“No!” She drew a deep breath, staring at him, long and hard. “No . . . and if that makes me a bitch, then so be it.”

He shook his head and smiled a little sadly. “It doesn’t. No one can make you feel any way that you don’t, just like you can’t make anyone else feel the same way you do.”

“I get the feeling that you’re lecturing me,” she pointed out with a sigh.

He shook his head and smiled just a little. “No, not lecturing.”

Alexandra turned to face the ocean, wondering absently why nothing in nature ever seemed to change, even when her entire family was being ripped apart . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Samantha sighed as she glanced at the clock and bit her lip, her ears flattening as she wondered just where he could be.

Nearly seven, and still no sign of him . . .

He’ll be here. Don’t worry.’

He would be there, wouldn’t he? Letting out a deep breath, she told herself not to look at the clock again just as her eyes shifted to the side to stare at it one more time.

Listen, dollbaby . . . he’ll be here, and maybe he’ll talk to us tonight. After all, his bad mood can’t really last much longer, can it?

Sighing again at the vague optimism in her youkai’s voice, she wrinkled her nose and huddled further into the corner of the cage.

He really had been in a weird mood lately—for nearly the last week, hadn’t he? The problem was, she had no idea why. He’d barely spoken to her—barely looked at her, actually. Yes, he fed her, and he’d open her cage shortly after he arrived, grunting and motioning that she should stick out her feet so he could shackle them, but then he’d pretty well left her alone, and no amount of talking had gotten him to speak, either. Still . . .

If I knew what was bothering him . . .’

You know something? I think maybe I was wrong about him. You know, I don’t think that he’s a bad person . . . I think that he simply needs to understand that you’re not really so different from he is . . . Maybe he’s just never met one of us who wasn’t a monster . . .’

A monster . . .’

She frowned and sat up a little straighter. She wasn’t sure when her youkai’s attitude had started to change. The normally pragmatic voice had been completely against the taijya from the start. Lately, though, it had taken to trying to encourage her, hadn’t it? Strange . . .

It made sense, what you thought before,’ her youkai pointed out. ‘If he thinks he has a reason to hate us . . . you know? I mean, remember how Griffin said that he hated humans for a long, long time for what they did to his family?

That did make sense, didn’t it? If only she had an idea of why he felt the way he did . . .

Making a face, she dug a handful of dog kibble out of the bowl and dropped them neatly down the drain. She knew well enough that the white-coats were just assuming that she had been eating the crap all along. It gave her a rather skewed feeling of accomplishment that she was able to fool them, though.

It was a little warped, wasn’t it? Feeling like she was actually doing something to fool them when the taijya had been feeding her every evening for a while now.

Heck, despite his obvious irritation of late, he still brought her food every night, didn’t he? That aside, she knew well enough that he wasn’t actually angry at her. She didn’t know why she knew that or how, but she did know . . . and wasn’t that enough?

The dull thud of footsteps coming down the hallway outside the holding area drew Samantha’s attention, and she couldn’t help the way she sat up just a little straighter, watching the doorway, knowing the familiarity of the taijya’s scent moments before he stepped into the room. His eyes were smudged with black shadows beneath, his face looked a little paler than it had even last night, but it was him.

Striding over to the desk to deposit his knapsack, he took his time removing the black leather jacket and gloves. She frowned. It wasn’t the first time that she’d wondered about those gloves. In the end, she’d figured that he wore them to help contain his spiritual energy, and while he did take them off, he did tend to wear them a lot, too . . .

He rubbed his face in a tired sort of way before striding over to release the door. He said nothing, rolling his wrist to indicate that she should stick her feet out. She did, and he wasted no time in securing her ankles with the shackles.

That accomplished, he turned around to double check the barrier that covered the door. It must have been activated already, because he checked the panel over then returned to the desk once more.

Samantha took her time washing out the water bowl and refilling it again. He seemed even more agitated than he had been the rest of the week. She only wished that she knew why . . .

Digging into his knapsack, he pulled out two sandwiches wrapped in plastic. He dropped one on the corner of the desk and unwrapped the other. Samantha figured that was his way of telling her that it was for her, so she wandered over to take it.

She blinked and almost smiled at the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she unwrapped. She hadn’t had one of those in years, she supposed, and it had always been a bit of a treat when she was a pup. Her grandfather, Cain would sometimes send care packages though Samantha had always suspected that they had come more from her grandmother than from her grandfather. Still, there were always at least a couple jars of peanut butter inside, and Samantha had always loved the sandwiches that her mother made for her on the soft, white bread that was always sent, too.

“Are you feeling all right?” she ventured though she really didn’t figure that he’d answer.

He didn’t, and she sighed, heading back toward the cage since he didn’t seem to welcome her company.

After a minute, he got up and strode over to the monitors, reading through her chart in silence.

She ate her sandwich quite happily despite the obvious tension.

“Blood testing?” he finally said, obviously referring to the chart.

She shrugged since she really hadn’t done much other than just sitting there while they’d drawn a few pints of her blood again. “I don’t know what they were doing,” she admitted, popping the last of the sandwich into her mouth.

He grunted and walked back to the desk again.

Samantha sighed and drank the water, pondering exactly how she could get him to talk to her again. “Don’t suppose I could read the comics?” she ventured at length, wrapping her hands around her ankles as she scrunched up her shoulders and tried to look as innocent as possible.

“What makes you think I brought a newspaper?” he countered evenly.

“You always bring the newspaper,” she pointed out. “Please?”

He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “Pain in the ass,” but didn’t reply to that otherwise, either.

Samantha smiled to herself since that was probably the most like a real response she’d gotten out of him in days.

“I don’t suppose you brought me two of those sandwiches,” she ventured.

That earned her a suspect frown. “You don’t need two of them,” he replied.

“But I love peanut butter and jelly,” she protested.

He shook his head. “What a pig . . . You should be saying ‘thank you’, not bugging me about having seconds,” he pointed out.

“Thank you for the first sandwich. I really appreciate it; it was delicious. I don’t suppose you brought me a second one so that I would be even more grateful, did you?”

That earned her a bout of eye rolling as he dug the newspaper out of his bag and set about ignoring her.

All in all, though, Samantha figured that it was all right. Even if he wasn’t interested in a more in-depth conversation, at least he didn’t seem to be as troubled as he had been.

So if she could just figure out how to get him to talk a little more, she’d be ahead of the game, right? Besides, she rather enjoyed his company, such as it was. The conversations that they’d had were interesting enough, and if she had to be stuck in a place like this, at least she’d found someone she could talk to.

Strange, though, really . . . He was the one who had captured her, yes, and he’d used his power against her when she’d freaked out upon seeing the cage, true. The thing was, he still treated her with a modicum of decency—decency that she didn’t get or expect from the white-coats. He wasn’t a bad person, she knew that. She could tell that he wasn’t, and while she couldn’t put it into words, she could feel it, couldn’t she?

Youkai and hanyou . . . they tended to be intuitive creatures. Many of their thoughts, their actions, were dictated by the things that they perceived, weren’t they? Their ideals, their beliefs . . . all governed by the things that went unseen . . .

The taijya . . . There was a certain understanding, wasn’t there? A part of her knew him, didn’t she? A part of her that she hadn’t realized was there for so long . . . Something about him spoke to her in quiet whispers and in breaths and murmurs, so subdued that she had to strain to hear it, and yet . . .

That was the reason that she’d never been scared of him, wasn’t it? That was the reason she was able to hold onto a semblance of her sanity. He was that reason . . . He was the one who reassured her that everything really would be all right, and even if he didn’t realize that he’d done it, he had, and no, it wasn’t something that she would ever be able to put a face on or words to, but she knew . . .

A wounded heart, scarred so deeply that he didn’t realize that he walked the earth in a constant shroud of pain . . . Samantha could sense it, could feel it, and she wanted to help him—to help him realize that it didn’t have to be that way—to help him understand those things that she couldn’t rightfully understand, herself. If she could just figure out what those dreams were that woke him in the night; if she could only discern those things that he hid behind those startling violet eyes . . . Those secrets that he held much too tightly . . . He was kept in a cage, too, wasn’t he? Trapped in one that he’d created for himself a long time ago—a cage that kept the rest of the world from touching him; a cage with invisible bars that was much, much smaller than hers was . . .

He needed her, didn’t he? He needed her even if he didn’t realize it, himself . . . He needed her because he couldn’t escape his cage by himself, and maybe he didn’t even know he existed inside one . . . He needed her, and she . . . she couldn’t turn away from someone else who was suffering as much as she was—maybe more . . . because if she could . . . if she could just help him . . .

If she could do that . . . she could be free, too.

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“You heading back tomorrow?”

Gunnar started and turned around to face Bas. Hands dug deep in the pockets of his formal slacks, he had lost the jacket of his tux a while ago, untying the bowtie at his throat and letting it hang open on either side of the crisp white collar flaps. Black hair hanging loose, free, blowing into his face at the capricious whim of the wind blowing off the Atlantic Ocean, he shook his head slowly as he shuffled his feet and shrugged. “No . . . Cain asked me to check into a potential sighting in Philadelphia.”

Bas nodded. “I’m being dispatched to Miami,” he admitted. “God, what a fucking mess.”

Gunnar turned around, his gaze shifting over the familiarity of the place. “How much longer are we going to do this?” he finally asked, his tone quiet, flat—hopeless. “Every time we think that we’re getting somewhere . . . We’re no closer to finding her than we were in the beginning, and maybe . . .”

“You want to give up?” Bas challenged just as quietly. “You want to, what? Throw her away? Say we’ve done all we can and just walk away?”

Gunnar sighed and shook his head. “That’s not what I’m saying at all.”

“Then what are you saying?” Bas demanded through clenched teeth. “Just what the fuck are you saying?”

Gunnar finally turned back, his eyes glowing in the dim light filtering out of the living room—squares of false brightness like a beacon . . . like hope. “How many cases are lying on your desk right now? How many other parents are waiting for their children to come home while we’re fixated on this one? Sure, Sam’s family, and yes, I want to find her, but damn it . . . At what cost, Bas? At whose cost?”

“Those cases on my desk have been languishing for years. A few more months isn’t going to help any of them.”

Gunnar uttered a terse chuckle: a sound devoid of any real humor. “Is that what you think?” he demanded. “Is that really what you believe? Some of these families have been waiting a lifetime to get some sense of closure—to know that the person who hurt them cannot ever hurt someone else again . . . But ask yourself this: if Samantha wasn’t related to us—if we didn’t know her personally—would we honestly be dropping every single thing to look for her?”

Bas stared at him for a long moment, his gaze fierce, angry. Gunnar could understand that; of course he could, and he didn’t think that they should give up, either.

But the youkai world had come to a screeching stand-still, and while he understood it, that didn’t mean that he couldn’t see the other side of it, too—the people who still waited by windows, jumped at the sound of the telephone . . .

“And if it were your child out there . . . Would you be saying the same thing now?” Bas growled, narrowing his eyes on his cousin.

Gunnar sighed, rubbed his forehead. “You’re misunderstanding me, Bas,” he said.

“No, I don’t think I am,” Bas countered. “Look . . . I—”

“You fucking bastard . . .!”

Gunnar didn’t blink and didn’t back down as Kichiro shoved the door open and strode outside. Heading straight for him, Gunnar knew damn well that Kichiro was about to punch him, and he didn’t try to avoid it, either. Head snapping to the side, shoulders jerking back at the force of the blow, he ignored the explosion of pain as he slowly turned his head to face his uncle once more.

Shrugging off Bas as the younger man grasped Kichiro’s arms and tried to pull him back, Kichiro shoved him away before rounding on Gunnar once more. “You think that this would be different if you were missing? You think that I wouldn’t drop every last damn thing to look for your miserable hide? Damn you, Mamoruzen! Damn you!

“That’s not what I meant, Uncle,” Gunnar explained slowly. “I want to find her as badly as you do. I just meant—”

“Come on, Kich,” Bas said, grasping Kichiro’s arm and dragging him back. “Infighting’s not going to help us, anyway.”

Gunnar said nothing as he watched the two go inside. Kichiro struggled for a few seconds, casting Gunnar a dirty look but finally seemed to decide that it wasn’t worth it. Jerking out of Bas’ grip, he stomped back inside. Gunnar heaved a sigh and shook his head.

“What was that all about?”

Turning slightly at the sound of his father’s voice, Gunnar shrugged. “I was trying to explain to Bas that I think that one of us should stay here and start looking at the files that just keep piling up.” Balling up his fist, he rapped his knuckles on the high stone railing. “I wasn’t trying to say that we should stop looking for Samantha. I just think . . . I just think that we owe it to the rest of the youkai not to lose sight of them, as well.”

Toga let out a deep breath, wandering over to his son’s side. He held a steaming mug of tea. “Is that what you want to do?”

“I want to do all of it,” he admitted with a shake of his head. “But I cannot . . .”

“And you don’t think that Kichiro feels the same way?” Toga mused. “Wanting to be out there, looking for his daughter . . . feeling as though he should be here, watching over his mate . . . worrying about his clinic back home . . . Mamoruzen . . . this entire situation has us all on edge, but the last thing we want—the very last thing—is to give in to the anger and frustration . . . Surely you understand that.” Clapping him on the shoulder, Toga turned around and started back inside.

“Father . . .”

“Hmm?”

“I didn’t mean for it to sound as though I thought we should stop looking for her.”

Toga considered that and nodded. “I’m sure you didn’t, and I’m sure that Kichiro understands that, too, even if he is a little ticked off at the moment.”

Gunnar clenched his jaw.

He really hadn’t meant to irritate his uncle. He just wondered how they were supposed to go on from here? Two months of searching had availed them nothing. How much longer were they going to keep going on, ignoring all their other responsibilities in the process?

And how fair was it to the people who relied on them for answers? Everything—everything—had ground to a screeching halt, and while he understood and acknowledged that they had to find Samantha, he also understood far too well that there were others who needed them, too—others who had no way to help themselves.

So where did that leave anyone? Up in the air without any idea how or when they were supposed to remember those other obligations . . .?

Unfortunately, there were no answers . . . the reason he’d asked Bas wasn’t because he was suggesting that they call a stop to the search efforts, no . . .

It was in hopes that maybe Bas had a better understanding than Gunnar, himself, did.

“Damn it . . .”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

One hundred seventy-nine . . . one hundred eighty . . .’

“Please?”

One hundred eighty-one . . . one hundred eighty-two . . .’

“Pretty please?”

One hundred eighty-three . . .’

“Is there really something so wrong with wanting to read the comics?” the little demon demanded, crossing her arms over her chest with a pronounced huff.

Wrinkling his nose, he had to admit that it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore her. That might be because she was currently sitting on the edge of the desk since talking to him from the cage hadn’t worked at all. The chain that joined the shackles around her ankles clanked against the metal leg, grating on his nerves even more.

So give her the comics so she’ll shut the hell up already,’ his conscience prodded.

Pinning her with a longsuffering scowl that she completely missed since she was too busy looking around the room as she continued to kick her feet, he tugged out the page that she wanted and rattled it at her. “Take it,” he grumbled, hoping against hope that it shut her up, even if it were only for a few minutes.

She blinked and twisted around, staring at the newspaper page that he held out to her. “Really?”

“Now or never, little demon,” he growled.

He could only blink when she snatched the page and scooted off the desk, making a beeline to the cage as though she were afraid that he was going to snatch it right back from her.

Weird little creature,’ he thought to himself as he shook his head and folded up the rest of the paper.

Digging the notebook out of his knapsack, he thumbed through the pages until he found a blank one. ‘Says she can read,’ he scribbled with a scowl. Too bad he wasn’t entirely certain that she could read or if she was just saying that.

He sighed and rubbed his eyes. To be honest, he was still feeling a little out of sorts. That dream . . . he couldn’t stand it—that feeling of being completely helpless and afraid . . .

Standing abruptly, he snatched up the paper to drop it in the trash can but stopped when he glanced at the little demon. Hunched over in the cage with the page spread on the floor, she looked like she was tracing her claw over something, but what?

He watched her for a moment. She picked up something—he couldn’t make out what it was—and leaned back, pressing her hands over her chest as though she were cradling something dear . . .

What is she . . . doing . . .?

Frowning as he moved in closer, he hunkered down in front of the cage. “What do you have?” he demanded.

She shook her head, her eyes downcast. “N-nothing,” she whispered.

“Don’t give me that,” he grumbled, reaching into the cage and snagging the newspaper page. His frown deepened as he stared at the page. She’d cut the dateline off the page . . .? Why? “Why did you want the dateline?” he asked, his tone telling her plainly that he expected her to tell him.

“Is this . . . today’s paper . . .?”

Caught off guard by her softly uttered question, he blinked. “Today’s . . .? Uh, yeah . . . well, for another twenty minutes . . .”

“So . . . today is the thirtieth . . .?”

He nodded.

She shook her head. “December thirtieth?”

Scowling at the almost desperate tone in her voice, Kurt nodded. “Yeah, so?”

“. . . Oh . . .”

“What’s special about December thirtieth?”

A strange noise slipped from her—almost a sob but muffled. His ducked a little lower, trying to get a look at her face, and he drew back when he saw the huge, fat tears glossing over her gaze though they didn’t spill over.

“December thirtieth . . .”

“Little demon . . .?”

“Do you like parties?” she asked suddenly, her voice oddly strong despite the tears standing in her eyes. Her chin lifted defiantly, and she pressed her lips together as though she were struggling to keep herself from breaking down in tears.

“Parties?” he echoed absently, stupidly.

She nodded and drew a deep breath to steady herself. “Parties,” she repeated. “Like . . . like birthday parties . . . You know, with those silly hats and those things . . . You blow into them, and they stretch out . . . sometimes they make noise . . .”

He shook his head, unable to comprehend exactly where she was going with her random questions. “I, uh . . . I haven’t been to a . . . a birthday party . . . in a long time,” he admitted quietly.

She nodded slowly, as though whatever he’d said made perfect sense. “I made him a cake one year . . . it was . . . the saddest cake ever, I think . . .”

“Him?”

She nodded, her eyes glossing over, as though she were seeing a time and a place that Kurt couldn’t, and in that moment, she wasn’t really there, was she? Miles and miles away . . . with some elusive ‘him’ that Kurt couldn’t see. “I was so . . . proud,” she choked out with a soft laugh. “So proud . . . It was all undercooked and runny in the middle, and I guess I forgot to add flour, but . . . but he ate it all because I made it . . . because I stood beside him, watching him. And he just smiled and . . . and ate it . . .”

Kurt didn’t understand—didn’t want to understand. Something about the pain in her expression; something about the way she clutched that damned scrap of paper to her chest . . . Why . . .? Why did it hurt to watch her? Why did it hurt him to watch her struggling not to cry . . .?

She smiled sadly—a horrifying expression when coupled with the tears that still stood in her eyes. “They invite everyone every year . . . and I’ve never missed it—not once—till now.”

A strange sense of foreboding crept up his spine. He wanted to get away from her, didn’t he? And yet . . . and yet he couldn’t. “Whose . . . birthday?” he heard himself asking, his voice much thinner, weaker than normal.

If she noticed, she didn’t remark upon it. “It’s supposed to be a surprise,” she said with a quiet little laugh followed in short order by a sniffle. “It never is, but . . . but he always acts surprised.” Her gaze cleared, shifted to meet his. “Do you . . . do you think they’re having the party this year?”

He shook his head, unsure how to answer that; if he should answer it, at all. “Do you . . . do you want them to?”

She considered that then nodded. “I want them to be happy . . . I don’t want them to worry . . .” She suddenly laughed, as though she’d break down completely if she didn’t. “Warm and smiling and laughing . . . because they’ll . . . never find me, will they?”

“Looking . . . for you,” he muttered, his gaze dropping to the floor. He felt dizzy, nauseous . . . They were looking for her . . .?

“It’s okay,” she said quietly, lowering her hands, staring at the paper with a tiny smile on her face. “I hope they’re all . . . gathered around the piano, listening . . .”

Kurt winced, balling up his fist around the newspaper page in his hand. A vicious need shot through him. He had to know . . . and yet . . . “Little demon . . . whose birthday is it?”

Her smile faltered just a little as she bit her lip, and for one long moment, he thought that she was going to refuse to tell him. She swallowed hard, pressing a hand against her lips as though she were trying to contain her emotions—as though she were afraid of breaking down completely. “My papa,” she whispered, her voice shattering the silence. “Well, Papa and my uncle. They’re twins . . .”

“You have a . . . papa?”

She laughed a little sadly. “Doesn’t everyone?”

He flinched. The ache in his chest exploded as every single thing he’d believed flashed through his mind. Her papa? Her . . . papa . . . She had a papa . . .? ‘Shit . . .’

“Mama wears this tiara every year—Papa bought it for her just before they were married, and . . . and Papa always wears one of those goofy party hats because they make Mama laugh . . .”

Listening to her soft voice, the emotion that delineated her words . . .

“Then Papa would sit down and play the piano . . . When I was little, I’d sit beside him, just to listen . . .”

She . . . she had a . . .

“My sisters have missed Papa’s birthday, but I never have . . . At least, I never did . . . till now . . .”

A family . . .

“Sisters . . .” he interrupted quietly. “You . . . you have sisters . . .?”

She nodded slowly. “Isabelle and Alexandra—Lexi . . . They’re older than me . . .”

She’s the . . . n-no . . .’

“They’re both doctors, like Mama and Papa . . .” she sighed quietly, a marked frown filtering over her features. “R . . . researchers . . .”

Kurt cleared his throat, struggled to keep a hold on his emotions. “Do you . . . do you have a large family?”

“I guess you could say that,” she ventured. “Aunts and uncles and cousins. I’m the youngest, though . . .”

“The . . . the baby,” he muttered.

“I-I’m not a baby!” she insisted sharply.

He blinked, feeling the blood draining from his features, hearing another voice at a different time . . . “I’m not a baby!” Carrie had insisted . . .

“Besides,” she went on, a hint of haughtiness in her tone. “My cousin’s wife is pregnant, so their baby will be the baby, right?”

He grunted, unable to do much more than that. ‘She . . . she has a family . . .’ he kept thinking over and over again. ‘A family . . . that misses her . . .’

“What about you?” she asked, the directness in her gaze startling. “Do you have family?”

A flash of the old defensiveness, the anger shot through him. “No,” he stated a little loudly. Drawing a deep breath when she winced, he shook his head, ground his teeth together. “No,” he repeated a bit softer. “They, uh . . . they’re all . . . dead.”

She seemed to consider that for a moment. Kurt closed his eyes, turned his head. The very memory of his little sister was enough to draw fresh blood, wasn’t it? And she—the little demon . . .

She gasped softly, her hands fluttering at her lips as her eyes widened, as her face paled, as her eyes filled with tears again. “Oh . . . that’s why . . .” she whispered.

He blinked and shook his head, unable to grasp exactly what she was implying. His mind was reeling, his emotions in overload, unable to discern what he thought, what he believed, and what he knew . . .

“That’s why . . . you hate youkai,” she murmured, her hands shaking, her nostrils trebling precariously. “Youkai . . . because you . . . because you saw them . . .”

He opened his mouth to lash out at her; to tell her to mind her own business—to tell her to leave him alone. The words died on his tongue, though, and he stared in mute wonder, in silent horror, as a single tear slipped down her cheek. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “So sorry . . .”

And he couldn’t stand to look at her, couldn’t take seeing the pain in her eyes, couldn’t tolerate the innate knowledge that her upset was genuine, that somehow, in the midst of her own private hell, that she was able to be sorry for something that she hadn’t done . . . Turning around, he collapsed against the bars of the cage, his head falling back, his gaze searching the rafters so high above as he struggled, as he fought, as he tried to comprehend . . .

He had to clear his throat before he trusted himself to speak, his throat rough, raw, aching. “Why?” he countered softly. “Why . . . would you apologize?”

He felt her shift in the cage, felt the warmth of her back against his through the bars. “The youkai I was hunting,” she began quietly, as though she were afraid that her voice could break her resolve—or his. “He killed fifteen children in Paris . . . Fifteen families, destroyed, and all because he didn’t like humans, and I thought he . . . he deserved to die . . . I thought that I was helping, but . . .” she trailed off with a sigh, pausing for a long moment before she went on. “There are youkai who despise humans—youkai who blame humans because we have to hide, but we’re not all like that . . . I know you don’t believe me, and . . . and I can’t blame you for that. If anyone hurt my family, I think . . . I think I’d hate them, too.”

A strange sense of numbness settled over him, a hollowness that he hadn’t felt in years. He understood—he recognized it: his brain couldn’t deal with it all, could it? He couldn’t make sense of it . . . to believe what she’d said . . . to believe her . . .

A thousand moments of his life, the nights he’d spent in the dusty back rooms of the library . . . the time he’d hunted down those beasts, and . . . and the feeling that he was doing the right thing—believing wholeheartedly that he was somehow saving another family from the fate that his had suffered . . . But not once had he ever thought—never once believed or considered—that they’d have families of their own: families that weren’t necessarily as different as he wanted to think they were . . .

Everything he thought he knew; everything he’d told himself . . .

The laughing eyes of his baby sister . . . the silvery hair of a strange little demon . . . What was right? What was wrong? And what the hell was simple perception?

The silence in the room was deafening. The coldness that settled in his very bones had little to do with the temperature of the holding area and everything to do with the numbness.

He didn’t know how long he sat there thinking of nothing and everything, remembering moments that came in no viable order; a chain of memories that had little to do with rhyme or reason . . .

A slight pressure against his shoulder made him blink, and when he glanced down, he couldn’t help but stare. He hadn’t even noticed when the little demon had crawled out of the cage. How long she’d sat beside him, he didn’t know, but somewhere during those moments, she’d fallen asleep, her cheek resting on his shoulder as though she just needed to know that she wasn’t alone . . .

The oddest feeling crept over Kurt, gentle and soft and whispering. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt it, but it was familiar enough that he knew he had at some point in his lifetime . . . a gradual warmth, a foreign sense of comfort . . . It wasn’t unwelcome, but it was unsettling.

That feeling was nudged aside, though, as another darker thought intruded. If what she’d said was true—if what she claimed was right . . .

What the hell . . . does it . . . mean . . .?

There was no answer; just the steady tick of the clock.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

I don’t know what to believe . . .’

Holding the steaming mug of coffee as he stared out the window in the dingy little diner, Kurt let out a deep breath and wished for the thousandth time that he understood exactly what was going on.

He’d wandered in for a cup of coffee, having spent the better part of the day since leaving the facility just wandering around without a real destination. He’d stopped Harlan long enough to tell him that he was taking some time off. It hadn’t struck him at the time, why the bastard was more than willing to allow it. Kurt knew now, though, that Harlan just assumed that he was going to hunt down another demon—a male. That’s the only reason why the damned old fool would have grinned like a moron when Kurt said he was taking time off.

Honestly, though, Kurt didn’t give a damn, what the man thought. He just needed to think . . .

He’d spent his entire life hating those things, hadn’t he? He’d spent so much time believing that they were nothing but monsters . . . Having not one, but two families destroyed in front of him . . . He’d really thought that he was right . . . but now . . .

The absolute sadness on the little demon’s face . . . the tears that pooled in her eyes but would not fall . . . Tears for the family who would be worried sick about the youngest: the baby . . .

Then Papa would sit down and play the piano . . . When I was little, I’d sit beside him, just to listen . . .”

N . . . No,’ he thought, setting the mug down and digging his hands into his hair. ‘No . . . It’s . . . It’s a trick . . . It has to be a trick . . .’

He wanted to believe that, didn’t he? Wanted to believe it because . . . because admitting that he had been wrong . . .

Standing abruptly, he dropped two dollars onto the table and slipped out of the place. New Year’s Eve . . . the calm before the storm . . . People milling about, buying those last minute things that they’d need for their parties . . . Hurrying here or there as they muttered about waiting till the last minute . . .

And if he believed the little demon, then he knew that there was one family somewhere . . . one family that wasn’t watching fireworks or running all over town as they tried to find those items that had somehow slipped their minds . . . One family who was sitting near the telephone, hoping, wishing, praying it would ring . . . And if that were true . . . then it was his fault . . .

Damn it . . .’

But they were monsters, weren’t they? Monsters . . . beasts that killed and destroyed indiscriminately . . . They’d killed his family, and all because he could see them . . . and yet . . .

And yet, the little demon . . .

So where was the truth? Where was the understanding? How could he accept the idea that she wasn’t really so different from anyone else . . .? If that were true . . .

If that were true . . .

Hunching his shoulders against the wind that battered at him, he tugged on the black leather gloves and kept moving. If that were true . . . then who was the monster, really?

Everything that he’d ever thought; everything that he’d believed . . . was there any truth in it? Was there any real and true reason?

My sisters have missed Papa’s birthday, but I never have . . . At least, I never did . . . till now . . .”

Pressing onward, he kept moving through a sea of unknown faces, against those beliefs that had become so ingrained in him over time that he hadn’t thought to question them . . .

The door to a small shop crashed open, a little girl dashed outside. Crashing into Kurt’s legs, she stumbled and nearly fell. He reached out to steady her instinctively, blinking when she smiled up at him. Deep blue eyes in such a tiny little face . . . corn silk blonde hair that whipped in the wind . . . a little dimple in her cheek . . . Human, yes, but . . . but if she’d had those ears—those little white dog ears . . .

Kurt stepped back as the knot in his stomach grew. She probably did look just like that when she was little, didn’t she? Hair a touch paler, eyes a hue darker . . . a little girl’s smile . . . a little girl who hadn’t realized that there were some monsters out there who were infinitely worse than the ones that she might believe hid under her bed at night . . .

The child’s mother ran outside, glancing curiously at Kurt before rushing her daughter back inside. He stared at the door for a long minute before forcing himself to move on.

The youkai I was hunting . . . He killed fifteen children in Paris . . . Fifteen families, destroyed, and all because he didn’t like humans, and I thought he . . . he deserved to die . . . I thought that I was helping, but . . . There are youkai who despise humans—youkai who blame humans because we have to hide, but we’re not all like that . . . I know you don’t believe me, and . . . and I can’t blame you for that. If anyone hurt my family, I think . . . I think I’d hate them, too.”

And yet he knew, didn’t he? After she’d tried to escape that first time, had she ever actually hurt anyone? Had she raised her claws to strike them down? True, there was the incident with Peterson, but . . . but even then, she’d only tried to shove him away, and while she had cut his cheek . . . Well, Kurt couldn’t say he blamed her for that. Still, when the guards had come, she hadn’t tried to fend them off . . . and somewhere deep down he understood, didn’t he? She’d let them kill her before she’d willfully bring them harm, no matter what they’d done to her . . .

And somehow, that just didn’t sit well with him, either, did it?

What kind of creature was she, to wield such power and yet to choose not to use it to help herself get out of there? He liked to think that he could control her, but if he were honest, he knew he couldn’t. If she’d been set to gain her freedom . . . Safety was an illusion that he’d created because it had suited him to do so, and the one to suffer for his arrogance . . .

I’m sorry . . . so sorry . . .”

With tears in her eyes, slipping down her cheeks—tears that she refused to let fall for herself, for her family . . . and yet she’d shed them for him . . .

For him . . .

Stopping on a strangely deserted street corner, Kurt lifted his head, stared at the gray skies that threatened snow that didn’t fall . . . ‘Like her . . . tears . . .’

It means . . . monk, basically . . . Are you a monk?

A harsh, bitter sound surged out of him. He might have thought that it was a laugh if he had harbored the capacity to make such a noise. Eyes narrowing as he stared at the skies, he shook his head. ‘If . . . If there is a God or something—anything . . . if there’s anything at all . . . Then show me, can’t you? Show me exactly what I’m supposed to . . . believe . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“I hate this place.”

“So you’ve said.”

Kichiro snorted and shot his twin a doleful glower. “Shut up, Ryomaru.”

Ryomaru sighed and shrugged offhandedly, leaning in closer to his brother as he avoided a woman who was hurrying along the sidewalk with an armload of shopping bags nestled in her arms. “Well, you know, baby brother, it really ain’t that bad . . .”

“Keh! I can’t believe that they still insisted on having that damned birthday party . . .”

“Yeah, but it made Grabby smile, so I figure it was for a good enough cause . . . ‘Sides, you see Zelig’s face when Gin gave us that cake? Looked like someone just dealt him the wedgie of the century . . . Good ‘nough, if you ask me.”

Kichiro shot his brother a completely frustrated look. “Good thing I’m not asking you, then, isn’t it?”

“C’mon, Kich . . . it wasn’t all bad, right?”

Kichiro shook his head. “You mean, before or after Baby-Belle and Lexi got into their shouting match?”

Ryomaru winced. “Yeah, okay, that was bad . . .”

Kichiro sighed, jamming his hands into his pockets. He’d known, hadn’t he, when Bellaniece had called to ask him hesitantly if he’d come home for his birthday . . . He’d known what they were planning, but he simply didn’t have the heart to deny her, either. Something quiet and strained in her voice . . . and he’d hopped onto the first flight he could get with Ryomaru in tow, and they’d flown back to Maine for the debacle of a birthday party, only to fly back into Chicago early this morning . . .

And maybe it was done with the best of intentions—a moment in time to remember the family he’d been neglecting of late, and he’d done his best to smile and to accept those well-wishes that sounded entirely too tight, too strained to be genuine.

But after his altercation with Mamoruzen—damn that pup and his pragmatic thinking . . . And the hell of it was that Kichiro did understand what the young man was trying to say. That didn’t mean that Kichiro liked it or that he’d ever give up and stop searching. No, it only served to add to the weight of it all that was bearing down on him, and every time he turned around, he was reminded of the things he couldn’t be.

Then his daughters . . .

Stepping into the kitchen, hoping for a brief reprieve from the unsettling notion that everyone was watching him, just waiting for him to flip his lid, Kichiro had stopped short when he heard the raised voices inside . . .

You know, I think that everyone is having a great time,” Isabelle said as she pulled a few bottles of champagne out of the refrigerator. “I wish Grandma and Grandpa were able to come . . .”

Alexandra slammed the water glass on the counter and slowly turned to face her sister. “It’s a joke, Bitty! Don’t you get that? A huge joke . . . not one of those people wants to be here, especially Papa and Uncle Ryomaru . . . You dragged them home just to have this farce of a party when they ought to be out there looking for—”

One night is not going to make or break anything,” Isabelle cut in curtly. “In fact, it might do them both some good! Papa’s running himself ragged, if you haven’t noticed, and Uncle’s not much better.”

Alexandra narrowed her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest as she glared at her sister. “You can’t even bring yourself to say her name, can you?

Don’t be silly! Of course I can!

Then say it,” Alexandra challenged. “Stop acting like there’s nothing wrong! Stop acting like a child! Samantha’s out there somewhere! For all we know, she could be—”

Don’t you say that! Don’t you dare!” Isabelle cut in coldly. “She’s fine—just fine! And you should feel that she’s fine, too!

“Yeah, well, I don’t!” Alexandra countered. “You might, and Mama might, but I don’t! And don’t say that it means that I don’t care, because I do! If I could bring her home right now, I would, but you . . . you live in this fantasy world, don’t you? Do you even grasp it? Do you understand it at all? Samantha is gone—gone! She’s been missing for two months! We don’t know who has her or what they want, and even if we did, would it matter? Wake up, damn it! Wake up and look at the facts! Grandpa and Uncle haven’t found her—the best of the best can’t locate her! What the hell do you think that means?

Isabelle strode over to her sister, glowering at her in a fierce sort of way that was entirely unlike her. “Don’t you dare talk like that, especially not in front of Mama, do you hear? If you do, so help me, Lexi . . . I’ll never forgive you. Never!”

Girls,” Kichiro said quietly as he strode into the room. “What are you doing?

They both had the grace to look entirely ashamed, and Kichiro heaved a sigh. “Sorry, Papa,” Alexandra muttered, hurrying over to kiss his cheek. He gave her a wan smile and a quick squeeze meant to reassure her though he doubted that it actually did.

Isabelle turned away, as though she needed a moment to compose herself, and maybe she did. Alexandra slipped out of the kitchen, and Kichiro sighed again.   “Baby . . .”

She held up a hand over her shoulder. “I know; I know,” she interjected quietly. “I’m the eldest; I should be an example, right? It’s just . . . I feel it, you know? I know that she’s out there, somewhere, and . . . and tonight, she’s thinking about us, too . . .”

Kichiro didn’t know what to say to that, either. In the end, he said nothing at all, simply wrapping his arms around his daughter, hoping that she understood the things that he just couldn’t say; the silent promise that he’d bring her sister home . . .

“Listen, Kich . . . we’ll find her, right? We’ll find her, and she’ll hug me and tell me that I’m the best, of course.”

Kichiro snorted, knowing damn well that his irritating brother was just trying to irk the hell out of him, and damned if it wasn’t working like a charm, too . . . “Shut up, baka.”

Ryomaru grinned just a little. “You worry too much. You’re just like Mother that way.”

“Yeah, and you never worry enough, do you?”

Ryomaru snorted. “I worry just fine, baby brother.”

Kichiro didn’t respond to that as the two of them continued along the street. Passing by buildings that they’d seen a hundred times if they’d seen them once, and it didn’t matter from what angle they saw them, it was the same: no Samantha.

“Well, you know, she’s always liked me better, anyway . . . not that I blame her. I’m hella fine, eh?”

Kichiro rolled his eyes. “If you’re so hella fine, why don’t you and Nez just have another one of your own instead of trying to steal mine?”

Ryomaru shrugged. “Been thinking about it.”

That got Kichiro’s attention quickly enough. After Nezumi had lost their baby a few years ago, Ryomaru hadn’t mentioned trying again. “Yeah?”

Ryomaru’s ears flattened for a moment then flickered back up once more. “Nez said that she . . . she wants to try again, but . . .”

Kichiro nodded. He could understand that, he supposed. Losing their baby had been hard on Ryomaru, even if he hadn’t said as much out loud. Kichiro knew. Kichiro always knew, didn’t he? “Well,” he joked half-heartedly, “maybe it’s better if you don’t. After all, weren’t you recently called a woman? A fairy woman?”

Ryomaru grunted and shot Kichiro a dark look. “A half-fairy woman, damn it,” he grumbled.

Kichiro shrugged. “Sounds about right.”

“Shut up . . . and I think that it’s time for me to remind you that we’re twins—identical twins—even though I’m better looking with softer ears—”

“And a bigger ass,” Kichiro added dryly.

“—so if I look like a woman half-fairy, then I suppose that means you do, too.”

Kichiro rolled his eyes. “Whatever, whatever . . . You know, maybe if you took some time off work . . . maybe it’d be better for Nez if you do decide to try again.”

Ryomaru let out a deep breath and nodded. “Yeah, I thought so, too . . .”

Kichiro suddenly chuckled.

“What’s so damn funny?”

Shaking his head, he turned the corner and kept walking. “Just struck me, you know . . .? We used to walk all over Tokyo, trying to figure out what girls we could pick up . . .”

Ryomaru chuckled, too. “We did, didn’t we?”

Kichiro let out a deep breath, his gaze roaming over the building fronts of the never-ending streets. “When did all that change?”

“Hell, I try not to think about it. Makes my head hurt.”

Kichiro rolled his eyes, wondering how many times he’d wandered this way, always searching, searching . . . and how many more times he’d have to keep doing the same. ‘As long as it takes,’ he thought with a sudden grimace, a tightening of his fists. ‘As many times as it takes . . .’

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

The combined aura drew his attention; a power that he sensed long before he saw the demons. Lowering his head, he scanned the streets, eyes widening when he spotted . . . them?

Two of them, both with the same silver hair as the little demon; both with the strange dog ears, too. The strangest sense of déjà vu settled over him as he stared, as he watched the two. Tall—easily over six feet tall . . . powerful, yet there was something about them, wasn’t there? A measure of . . . sadness . . . but it was more than that.

They could have been . . . ‘Twins,’ he thought with an inward grimace. Twins . . . ‘It’s . . . hopelessness, isn’t it . . . hopeless because they can’t . . . they can’t find . . . her . . .’

And even though he didn’t know which one her father was upon first glance, did it matter? Hanging back far enough to avoid drawing their notice, he followed at a distance, repulsed yet compelled . . . They looked entirely too similar not to be related, not to bear that close of a familial bond. A sharp, stabbing pain shot through Kurt’s chest as the two turned their heads, their ears twitching and pivoting to intercept any noise, any hint of something familiar.

The wind shifted slightly, blowing against Kurt’s face, carrying sound to him that he might not have otherwise heard: a conversation . . . the bits of a conversation . . .

“. . . We’ll find her, right? We’ll find her, and she’ll hug me and tell me that I’m the best, of course.”

“Shut up, baka.”

“. . . Just like Mother that way.”

“. . . never worry enough . . .”

“I worry just fine, baby brother.”

Damn it . . . they really are . . . her family . . .’

Digging his hands into his pockets, bracing himself against the bitter wind that the two demons didn’t seem to notice at all, he heard the voice in the back of his mind, telling him that what he was doing was stupid; foolish, that if he got caught, they’d kill him, not because of what he could see, but because of what he’d done to one of theirs . . .

But he couldn’t stop, either. Call it morbid curiosity or a sick sense of irony, Kurt trailed the two along the streets. If they had a real destination in mind, he couldn’t rightfully tell. It was all right, wasn’t it? After all, he didn’t really have anywhere he had to be . . .

The neater looking one—that was her father. Kurt wasn’t sure how he knew this. There was more of an urgency in his aura, more of a desperate quality, and while the other did seem concerned, his feelings were nowhere near as strong as the one. Long hair braided and hanging down the center of his back, clothes immaculate, worn easily, as though he took no notice of his appearance, and maybe he didn’t. Still, there was a quiet sense of frustration, an underlying anxiety, and Kurt understood that, too, didn’t he? He’d . . . he’d seen it before . . .

Kurt had been seven the spring when Caroline had slipped out of the yard. He’d said he’d play with her, but got sidetracked reading a comic book. The next thing he knew, his father was there, demanding to know where his sister was. It was then that Kurt had realized that the gate was opened just enough for her to slip out . . .

And they’d searched frantically all over the neighborhood. All the neighbors, the local police—everyone had come out to help look. The raw emotion on his father’s face . . . the tears that stood in his mother’s eyes . . . and the absolute relief when they finally found her.

The trill of a cell phone caught Kurt off guard. The two demons stopped while the one with the braid pulled out his phone and frowned at the display. A moment later, he opened the device and held it against his head where a human ear might have been. Kurt wasn’t close enough to hear the exchange.

A fleeting glimpse of raw hope flickered to life on his features. Kurt moved in closer to the store window beside him, pretending to be interested in the items on display. Long ago, he’d learned how to mask his power if he wanted. It was one of the few useful things that Old Granger had taught him, but he had to concentrate to do it. It came in handy now, though he didn’t doubt that those particular demons might find it odd if they caught him following them.

As fast as the hope had surfaced, though, it disappeared, only to be replaced but an unmasked air of complete and utter disappointment. “No,” he said, his voice taking on a raw quality, a harsh sound. “No, that . . . that isn’t her.”

The twin shook his head, his expression taking on a commiserating slant, a harshness that was disbursed by the concerned lines near the corners of his eyes. “No luck?”

The little demon’s father pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes for a moment as he struggled to regain a semblance of his composure. “They, uh, said they saw her on Halloween in Sacramento, California. Said that they remembered because she was dressed up like a devil . . . but . . .”

“But she was here on Halloween,” his brother muttered. “Damn it . . .”

The phone rang again. This time the father looked like he might consider smashing it instead of answering. Kurt grimaced as a crowd of kids who looked like they were on their way to some sort of party despite the early hour passed between the brothers and him. Weaving through the throng when the demons started to move again, he grimaced.

Everything she’d said . . . she’d told him the truth, hadn’t she? About the family that missed her; the father she loved . . . Everything, everything, and . . . and he’d taken her away from all of that, hadn’t he?

If Caroline had lived—if she were still there, that’s what he would have wanted for her, wasn’t it? A family who would search forever if they had to; search for the daughter that they couldn’t find, the sister who had disappeared, the niece that they only wanted to see again . . .

But demons were real, and he’d believed for so long; believed that they only killed and destroyed . . . believed that they were the basest of creatures . . .

He’d never met anyone like her, no matter what she was, no matter where she’d come from. He’d never met someone who cried for him . . . concerned enough to try to wake him from those nightmares . . .

And it was just by unfortunate circumstance that he’d happened upon her: the sad little demon with the deep blue eyes . . .

He’d never once stopped to think, never once considered, that she had people who loved and cherished her, people who would hurt when she didn’t come home. He hadn’t thought enough of her to believe that she was anything more than the monster that he’d built up in his mind so very long ago, and yet she smiled at him, didn’t she? She smiled, and she laughed, and she . . .

Kurt winced.

And she cried . . .

The ones that had killed his family—those were the monsters. They’d had no remorse, no shame, no pity. They’d done what they’d done because they could; because there was no one to stop them. That was their crime, wasn’t it? But the little demon? What had she done to warrant the disrespect of him and the researchers? What had she done that was so terrible that it warranted a lifetime inside a cold cage—a cage he’d constructed within barriers meant to protect humans . . .

A family who loved her, who missed her, who cried for her . . .

Kurt increased his pace, stepped up behind the two demons. Lifting his hand, reaching out to grasp him—her father . . . If he told him where she was . . .

They’ll kill her . . .’

Jerking his hand back as the uttered a harsh gasp, he stopped in his tracks as the realization sank in. If he told those demons . . . they would go after her; he didn’t doubt that. If they went after her . . . the guards had guns, and even the little demon couldn’t move faster than a bullet . . . If they went after her, how many humans would die? Would either of them make it out alive? And if it came to it, she . . .

She wouldn’t fight back, would she? She wouldn’t because she didn’t want to hurt humans . . . If the guards came for her with their guns, fearing for their lives . . . if they pulled those guns on her . . .

And she . . . She’d stand there and let them do it, wouldn’t she? She’d let them . . . she’d let them kill her before she would raise a hand against them . . .

And wouldn’t it be worse for her? Should anyone she love get injured or killed just to save her? Knowing that your loved ones died . . . died for someone else’s reasons in someone else’s war . . . He knew what that felt like, damn it . . . He knew, and . . .

Caroline’s face flashed through his head—the day she’d gone missing. His father had told him that it wasn’t his fault, that they’d find her; they’d find her . . . And they had, hadn’t they? She’d gone down the road to the small park on the corner and had fallen asleep in the half buried tires the children could crawl through. The difference was that Caroline had come home, hadn’t she? Nestled against her father’s shoulder, he’d carried her home in his arms . . .

The little demon . . . Kurt swallowed hard, watching the two silver haired demons as they strode away on the sidewalk.

She . . . She needed to go home, too, didn’t she?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Samantha leaned back and sighed softly, her eyes dark in the shadows of the blanket she had pulled over her head a few hours ago when she’d first felt the gradual decline in her youkai blood. The guard—she didn’t know his name—was nodding off in the desk chair where the taijya normally sat.

Where is he?’ she wondered for the millionth time in the four nights since he’d last stayed with her. It worried her more than she cared to think about.

What if he’d decided to look for himself, to see if her family was out there somewhere, searching for her? What then? What if he ran into them?

That thought frightened her. Her family . . . if they figured out that he knew where she was . . .

Don’t be stupid, Samantha. How could they? They don’t know the taijya, and even if they met him, do you really think they’d be able to tell from first glance that he was the one who had taken you, in the first place? Don’t worry about him. He’s strong enough to take care of himself.’

That thought was enough to bolster her flagging spirits.

But where was he?

She missed him. Desperately. It wasn’t so much that she missed his companionship, per se, but she missed the familiarity, the innate understanding that, so long as he was there that she wasn’t alone. She’d noticed it before, hadn’t she? He had a way of making her feel as though everything really would be all right, even if her happy ending wasn’t the same as everyone else’s. Somehow, she felt as though her future were intertwined with his, and even if she didn’t know how that was, she knew—knew—that she was meant to be near him; that even had circumstances been different, she’d have had the same feeling, the same compulsion.

To help him, to show him . . . to make him understand that there were still things in the world worth seeing, still things worth fighting for . . . Why she wanted to do this, she wasn’t certain, and why she knew deep down that he would be back weren’t questions that she could answer, but she knew.

The incessant tick of the clock was the only sound in the silence. It was maddening.

Twisting a long lock of coal black hair around her index finger, she grimaced as she shot the guard another quick glance. She didn’t really have to do that, she figured. He was snoring loudly enough to wake the dead. She really hated the feeling of vulnerability that was way too hard to ignore in this place. It was just a matter of time, wasn’t it? One of these times, she wasn’t going to be able to hide her secret from them, and what then? It wasn’t like she really thought that they’d stop their research just because she was human once a month. There was something entirely cold and calculated about them, wasn’t there? They didn’t care, and whether she was hanyou or human, it wouldn’t matter, and she knew that, too.

But . . . would it matter to the taijya?

Letting out a deep, dejected breath, Samantha shook her head. He . . . He would feel bad, wouldn’t he? He’d hate that she was more like him than he’d first thought, and . . .

And he’d hate himself for it, wouldn’t he? He’d think that he’d done something unspeakable—that was, if he could come to accept that she really was half-human. She didn’t really have a reason to believe it, but that didn’t really matter. She knew it was true.

The last thing she wanted was to add to his list of regrets. He had enough of those already, didn’t he?

But how long could she keep it a secret? How long before he figured it out for himself?

Her youkai was right before when it had pointed out that she wasn’t trying very hard to escape. That was true enough, wasn’t it? It wouldn’t really be that difficult to push the guards away, especially in those moments when they freed her from her shackles so that they could bind her to the gurney, and they’d gotten a little more lax with her of late, as well. It wouldn’t take much to gain her freedom—if she could escape without getting herself shot—and while she told herself that she stayed because she didn’t want anyone else to go through what they were doing to her, there really was more to it, wasn’t there . . .?

She stayed because . . .

Gritting her teeth as a slow understanding ebbed through her, Samantha closed her eyes. Trying not to think about it wasn’t working, and really, if she did, would that actually help her at all? It wouldn’t, and she knew it, and it might even have been funny if she were in any position to see the humor in anything. She wasn’t.

I don’t know, Samantha . . . it’s different for everyone . . . I knew from the start that your mother was my mate—at least, my youkai blood did. It took me a while to catch up . . .”

That was what her father had said when she’d asked him how he’d known that Bellaniece was his mate. Her mother had insisted that it had been a more gradual process for her, but that Samantha should take care to listen to that voice because it was never wrong, but more importantly was something else that Bellaniece had said . . .

He’s the one who feels familiar . . . and you’ll want to protect him, even if you think that there’s no way you can . . . because mates protect each other. Your father protects my heart, and I protect his in return . . .”

Samantha heaved a sigh. She wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to admit something that monumental to herself, not yet, but . . .

But the taijya had been familiar to her from the start, hadn’t he . . .? She’d recognized something about him, something that had spoken to her, even when she knew nothing else about him at all.

Biting her lip as tears welled in her eyes, she let her forehead fall against the cold metal bars of the cage. Why did the understanding—the knowledge—hurt? The pain that swelled inside her was poignant, as bittersweet as the last days of summer, of realizing that one certain day, one special moment in time, could never, ever come again. As quickly as the arguments surfaced in her mind, they faded, gently but surely—as surely as she’d ever known anything else before. It really was hopeless, and she knew that, too. She couldn’t ask him to love her, not even a little; not when she knew what had happened to his family . . . not when she understood why he felt the way he did . . .

Even still . . . even if she couldn’t do more than show him that not all youkai and hanyou were the vile creatures that he believed them to be, that would be enough, wouldn’t it? To release him from the ghosts of the past . . .

Wrapping her arms a little tighter around herself, she smiled sadly into the darkness. Her grandmother, Gin had told her before that she couldn’t pick and choose the people whom she cared for; whom she loved. Samantha hadn’t understood that at the time, but now . . . She supposed that Gin had been right, after all.

And why did those truths make her feel even more alone than before . . .?

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“If you do it, you’ll be sorry.”

InuYasha snorted loudly and turned around to face his half-brother. “How the fuck did I get stuck with you, anyway?” he grumbled but pulled his hand away from the hilt of his sword. Okay, so he had been considering busting down the stone fence with Tetsusaiga, but only because he was feeling a little more frustrated than normal, at the moment.

Kagome rolled her eyes and tugged on InuYasha’s ear. “Don’t be starting a fight, InuYasha. We’re out here looking for Samantha, and Sesshoumaru is only trying to help.”

“Help drive me nuts,” InuYasha mumbled, inclining his head to alleviate the strain of Kagome’s pulling fingers despite the marked scowl on his face. “We got it under control,” he snapped. “Go the fuck away, why don’t you?”

Sesshoumaru didn’t even blink at the intended insult. “Miko, Toga tells me that you’ve already checked the areas closest to the hotel.”

Letting go of her mate’s ear, Kagome nodded. “We’re working out in a circle. It seemed like the most logical way to go.”

He nodded once, his eyes narrowing as he stared around at the dilapidated buildings rampant on this side of Chicago. They were tired, old; most of them wouldn’t pass a code inspection, yet it cost too much to rip them all down, so they stood, empty and forlorn—favorite spots for the less-than-savory members of society. Blocks away from the run down tenements and industries, the area was a bleak place, as unwelcoming as the wind blowing off Lake Michigan. “What an ignoble place,” he mused, more to himself than to InuYasha or Kagome.

Kagome pressed her lips together and let out a deep breath. “I hope that we don’t find her here,” she ventured quietly. “Not in a place like this . . .”

“This place, that place—what the hell does it matter? We just find her and bring her home—end of story!” InuYasha growled.

“We will,” Kagome added, her smile much thinner than she meant for it to be.

Sesshoumaru shot InuYasha a bored stare. “Do not make me regret talking the authorities into letting you keep that.”

“Keh! As if you coulda stopped me, bastard.”

“All right,” Kagome interjected before the two could get into one of their full-blown name-calling bonanzas. “Let’s just go, okay?”

InuYasha snorted again, but started walking, his hand resting on the ancient sword’s hilt as his eyes shifted from side the side, his ears twitching as he monitored the area for any signs of danger.

Kagome rubbed her forehead. She’d figured that it would be something like this when the men had split up for the day. She wasn’t entirely sure that it was a good idea to send those two anywhere together, but everyone else was already gone, so there wasn’t really any choice. If they managed to get along for the duration of their search, she’d be genuinely surprised.

She had to admit, though. InuYasha was actually holding it together much better than she’d have thought. He’d never had much in the way of patience, and they’d been searching for so long now . . . If anything, he seemed even more determined, even more focused. She smiled despite her glum thoughts. He always loved to surprise her, didn’t he?

“And you have sensed nothing, Miko?” Sesshoumaru asked at length. He knew the answer to that, she was sure, but just wanted to hear it for himself.

“Nothing,” Kagome admitted with a grimace.

InuYasha uttered a terse grunt. “Don’t worry about it, bastard! We got it under control.”

“Baka,” Sesshoumaru muttered under his breath.

His cell phone rang, and InuYasha rolled his eyes, tapping his foot impatiently as he waited for Sesshoumaru to answer it.

It didn’t take long, and there wasn’t much to discern from the actual side of the conversation that she heard. Sesshoumaru tended to answer in a series of ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘mmm’s, so it wasn’t surprising when he hang up quickly enough. “I must go,” he said, forestalling any contentious commentary from InuYasha.

“Go? Go, where?” InuYasha grumped.

“There is something that Zelig would like me to look into,” he replied smoothly. “I trust you shall keep him on a short leash, Miko?”

InuYasha started to growl low in his throat. Kagome elbowed him in the ribs to cut him off. “Have a safe trip,” she said instead.

The Inu no Taisho nodded once and turned to walk away.

“Keh! Why is it that he never does nothin’ but piss me off?” InuYasha muttered.

Kagome sighed and shook her head. “Come on, dog-boy. We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover.”

He snorted indelicately but fell into step beside her.

Kagome suddenly giggled and lifted a hand to flutter over her lips.

“What’s so funny, wench?”

She waved a hand dismissively. “I was just thinking . . . remembering . . .”

“’Bout what?” he asked dubiously.

Winding down to a gentle smile that somehow looked a little sad, she sighed. “Just remembering what it was like, traveling all over with Sango and Miroku.”

“Yeah,” InuYasha intoned in a surprisingly quiet tone. “Could have used his help right about now . . .”

“Sometimes I miss them so much that it seems like only yesterday that we last spoke,” Kagome admitted.

“I wonder if he ever stopped groping butts,” InuYasha went on. “He was pretty helpful for a human—more helpful than that damned kitsune . . .”

Kagome rolled her eyes. “Shippou was a child back then. What did you expect?”

“Even youkai children can do more than he ever did,” InuYasha argued.

Kagome sighed. It never did any good to argue with him, did it? “You know, you were always so hard on him.”

“That’s because he was a pain in my ass.”

Kagome reached out and grabbed the kotodama rosary that he still wore around his throat. “You know, I could put the spell back on these,” she warned.

“Yeah, but you won’t,” he goaded. “This is shit! Where the fuck is she?”

Kagome fell silent. She had no answers for that, either. In the time they’d been searching, they’d covered roughly a third of the inner Chicago streets. It was a slow process, but what other choice did they have?

“Why you so quiet, wench?” InuYasha broke through the silence that had fallen between them.

Kagome shook her head, pulling her coat closer around herself. “No reason,” she lied, pasting on a little smile that she only hoped would fool her mate.

He didn’t look like he bought it, but he nodded just the same. “Let’s go,” he finally said, increasing his stride. “Sami’s waiting for us.”

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

So they seem to travel in pairs . . . Makes sense . . . more than two would be conspicuous; less than two would be foolish . . .’

Lowering his binoculars, Kurt rubbed his eyes and drew back a little further into the shadows of the alley across from the Chicago Parisian Hotel. He’d followed the twin demons back here after he’d trailed them all over the city, figuring that he would be better off to figure out where they went and how they conducted the search for the little demon.

It also didn’t take him long to realize a few things. For starters, if he just walked up to one of them and told them that he knew where they could find her, he’d be killed, dead, not because of what they were but because of who they were in relation to her, and while the idea didn’t really bother him nearly as much as it should have, he’d come to some other conclusions, too. The biggest reason, however, was simple enough. If he died now, then he’d never be able to do what he planned after he got her out. He was going to systematically destroy the facility and all of the ones like it—destroy them so that they couldn’t do this sort of thing to any other little demons who had family waiting back home. If her family wanted to kill him after that, then he figured that was fine, too . . . and with any luck, he’d be able to find the ones who had destroyed his family before the demons caught up to him . . . And the other reasons . . .? Lips thinning in a definite show of resolve, he shook his head. Other reasons . . . like . . .

Like the idea that he couldn’t do anything that might jeopardize her life, and sending in her family to get her—after he took down the barrier outside the building, anyway—most certainly would. If the researchers panicked and killed her to get rid of the evidence . . . She’d been through enough because of him, because he hadn’t understood her or her kind to begin with. The last thing—the very last thing—he’d do was to put her in danger just to assuage his own guilty conscience.

Like the knowledge that he couldn’t let it go on; that he couldn’t just get her out if there were even the smallest possibility that the researchers could hunt her down again and recapture her. No, when he got her out of there, it had to be in such a way that would allow him some sort of head start, enough lead time for him to get her home without the researchers being able to find her again. He’d considered getting her out and leaving her where her family would find her—at the hotel or something—but the problem with that plan was that he would then have to rely upon them to see that she got home, to see that they got her out of Chicago before anyone came looking for her, and he didn’t even try to fool himself into believing that they wouldn’t try. He didn’t give a great goddamn what happened to the white-coats—that’s what she called them—but . . .

But if she refused to fight back against them now, then it stood to reason that she didn’t like the idea of hurting them, even if they didn’t feel nearly as benevolent toward her. If things went awry and there was bloodshed from either side of it, she’d blame herself, wouldn’t she? Not only that, but to potentially lead the researchers right back to her and her family, as well . . .? That would only serve to scar her even more deeply than she’d already been. He couldn’t do that. He just couldn’t.

No, the entire thing had to be done in such a way that it allowed the little demon as much peace of mind as she could have, and he didn’t even delude himself into thinking that it’d be easy. Hell, no . . .

Getting her out of there was going to be a task, in and of itself. Too many security cameras, too many potential risks . . . He needed to find out exactly how he could do it without causing too much suspicion until after he was out of there with her, and that might take some doing. As it stood, every inch of that place was monitored by security with the exception of Holding Area One, and that one was only unmonitored because he’d inadvertently taken out the camera with a power hose.

But before any of that, he needed to figure out the demons’ habits because the last thing he wanted or needed just now was to run into any of them inadvertently.

He wasn’t at all surprised, either, to see the same bronze haired demon coming out of the hotel earlier, though this time, he was with a black haired one who had the same kind of dog ears as the little demon. They’d headed downtown. A few minutes later, another silver haired one emerged. He’d had to look twice at that one. It had the same ears as the little demon but the eyes were gold like her father and his twin brother. He was followed in short order by a huge one with short, shaggy hair and a marked scowl on his features.

They were frighteningly large, the lot of them, which only made him wonder why it was that the little demon was so tiny. Were all female demons that small? He frowned. He’d yet to actually see a female one other than the one he was trying to set free.

Still . . .

Shaking his head, he narrowed his eyes as another demon walked down the street, heading for the hotel, or so it seemed. Another silver haired one, though this one didn’t have the dog ears. Lifting his binoculars, Kurt slowly adjusted them to get a better look.

What he saw, though, made him go dead still. Staring in mute fascination, he wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to believe what his eyes were telling him. The demon—definitely male—had the same coloring as the little one, right down to the dark blue eyes. As he observed, the demon pulled out a cell phone and spoke into it, and as he spoke, the worry marring his features seemed to deepen. Kurt wasn’t entirely sure what to make of that one, but he couldn’t help but wonder. The little demon hadn’t mentioned having a brother. Still, they looked too much alike not to be siblings, didn’t they?

The demon slapped the phone closed and stuffed it into the pocket of the black leather biker jacket that looked like it had seen better days before turning on his heel and striding into the hotel.

Kurt frowned. If only there was a way for him to get closer to them, for him to be able to eavesdrop on some of their conversations. It would make things infinitely easier, wouldn’t it?

It was strange, though, wasn’t it? He’d had more trouble coming to terms with the idea that the little demon wasn’t the monster that he’d initially thought than he had in making the decision to let her go. Maybe it was simply because once he faced the realization that she wasn’t at all like the monsters who had destroyed his family, the rest had been little more than common sense. Or maybe it was as easy as the knowledge that she really hadn’t done a thing to try to hurt him in the length of time since he’d found and captured her.

Or maybe . . .

He shook his head, pushed away the irritation that he was letting himself get sidetracked when he had a job to do. Whatever the reason, she wasn’t like those other ones, was she? She wasn’t cruel, and she wasn’t vindictive, and she wasn’t trying to kill him. She was just sad and lost and lonely, and those were things that he understood, too, and if she could go home to a family who loved and cherished her . . .

Then he’d make damn sure that she did.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“You hear about Doc?”

Samantha felt her ears twitch though she was careful to keep her eyes averted as the white-coats walked around the table.

“Doc? Did he quit or something? He hadn’t been in all week, has he?”

The one called Peterson laughed nastily. He was finally back to work though he still wore a butterfly bandage over the deepest part of the cut on his cheek. Samantha figured that she ought to feel worse about that than she actually did. Every time she thought about what he’d tried to do to her, it made her feel a little nauseous inside.

“No-o-o-o,” Peterson drawled. She intercepted the almost smug expression on his face and ground her teeth together. “He went out to catch another one of those,” he went on, flicking one of Samantha’s ears.

She flattened the appendage to elude his fingers.

“Another one? What for?”

“Don’t be an idiot, Warren. To breed them, of course.”

Samantha could feel the blood in her body run cold as those words sank in. It couldn’t be true, could it? Sure, he hadn’t been in over a week, and she’d been left to a different night guard, but . . . but surely he wouldn’t . . . would he?

“Nah,” Warren said after he considered the idea. “That’d just be stupid, wouldn’t it? I mean, if we bred our own, then we wouldn’t need him . . . He’s not stupid enough to shoot himself in the foot, is he?”

Peterson snorted indelicately, glancing around to make sure that no one else was within hearing distance before answering. “Hell, he’s no different from her, is he? Damn freak if there ever was one . . . ‘Sides, what does it matter? I hear he won’t be back till next week, anyway . . .”

Warren shook his head and tapped his pen against the clipboard in his hands. “No, thanks,” he muttered. “Not after what she did to you.”

Peterson rolled his eyes, shifting his gaze around once more before rather casually placing his hand on Samantha’s breast, pinching her nipple so hard that she had to struggle not to make a sound when pain shot through her. “Makes it that much more fun, if you ask me. By the time I’m done with her, she’ll be begging for more.”

“I don’t know. I think you’re just asking for trouble,” Warren replied dubiously.

Peterson chuckled, finally letting go of her nipple. “Old Harlan’s going to let the new demon have at her. Might as well get some use out of her before that happens, don’t you think?”

“And we’re going to watch all that? Watch them . . . do whatever it is they do?”

“I don’t know . . . might be a turn-on. Maybe they’ll tear each other up. Who knows? A little blood might be hot.”

“You’re kind of a sick bastard, aren’t you?”

Peterson shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

Samantha felt ill. Trying to ignore the two white-coats was nearly impossible. It wasn’t that she cared what Peterson said. He was scum, as far as she was concerned, and scum didn’t matter. What he did or wanted to do to her was entirely out of her grasp, anyway, and even if he did do something to her body, he would never, ever crush her mind. What did bother her, however, was the idea that the taijya was out there trying to find another ‘demon’, and why . . .

He . . . he wouldn’t . . . would he?

Her youkai voice didn’t answer right away—something else to frighten her.

He couldn’t . . . n-no . . .’

Of . . . of course he’s not, Samantha,’ her youkai finally piped up, but it didn’t sound too positive, in her estimation, either. ‘That would be . . . He wouldn’t do that . . .’

To . . . to breed them . . .?

Samantha bit the inside of her cheek, fighting not to think about what that awful white-coat had predicted. That couldn’t happen. Even if he did capture another, he wouldn’t be that stupid. Another youkai would know who she was, and he’d never, ever . . . and even if he did . . . A stubborn harness entered her gaze as she considered the ramifications. She wouldn’t let it happen, no matter what.

She paid no attention as the guards filed into the room, as she was shoved back into her smock, shackled for the short trip back to the holding area. Body numb, brain slow, she couldn’t wrap her mind around any of it.

True, the taijya had been gone for a few days, ever since the night that she’d broken down, that she’d told him about her family.

Had that been a mistake?

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard the door of the cage clang closed, the rattle of the outer cage coming out of the floor.

She hadn’t meant to tell him all of that. She hadn’t meant to tell him anything at all, but when she’d looked at the date on the page of the paper, she hadn’t been able to help herself, either. She missed them so badly, so desperately, that it hurt, and the blatant reminder . . . Well, it was difficult to reconcile.

Tamping down the bitter fear that she’d somehow given the taijya ideas about capturing her family, she ducked her chin and glared at the water pan. The guy who had been coming in to watch her wasn’t a bad sort, but he didn’t bother to get her fresh water, either, and the dog food she was staring at was not appealing in the least.

All in all, she’d been coping, though she hated to admit the worst of it, too. She missed him terribly, that taijya. She missed his wry sense of humor—the few times she’d seen it, anyway. She missed the feeling that she wasn’t alone, but as much as she wanted to think that he wasn’t out there hunting again, she couldn’t quite convince herself that it wasn’t true, either.

That’s what he did, wasn’t it? Hunter. He captured youkai, and . . . and he sold them to this place . . . What could possibly stop him? After all, he thought they were monsters, right? He thought . . .

And she couldn’t rightfully blame him for that, either. If his family had been killed by youkai, then she could understand his hatred, his malice. She’d hate, too, wouldn’t she? If she’d only seen that sort of thing . . . That was how real prejudice started, wasn’t it? By an insular moment of ugliness . . .

But even then . . . even if he came back . . .

Heaving a sigh, Samantha bit her lip. The night watchman strolled in, taking a moment to check the locks and make sure that she was secured before wandering through the barrier covering the doorway and down the hall for a cup of coffee.

Even if the taijya came back, she wasn’t entirely certain that she could actually help him, at all. As much as she wanted to, she had to admit that making him realize that not all youkai were bad was a daunting thing, at best, and if his family had been murdered, then how open was he to change, in the first place?

But if he were out there hunting for another one—a male . . .

A surge of panic rippled through her, so fierce, so abrupt that she closed her eyes against it. Her family was out there, weren’t they? They were out there looking for her; she knew it in her heart. What if he . . . what if he found one of them? She had little doubt in her mind that they’d be able to take care of themselves—that was, if they saw him coming. She hadn’t, had she? But then, she’d also allowed herself to be a preoccupied, too . . . and that had made all the difference . . .

Or had it?

What if the taijya caught one of them?

What if they hurt or killed the taijya?

For reasons that she didn’t want to consider, the very idea that he might be hurt, and by one of her family members, no less . . . ‘No . . .’

She . . . she didn’t want her family to hurt him, did she? Whether or not he came back, she couldn’t stand the idea that he’d be injured. She wanted to . . . to protect him from them, but she was helpless, wasn’t she?

But what if he really was out there looking for a youkai for those damned white-coats to breed her with? That sounded so vile, so foul . . . The last of her dignity, her pride . . . There was no way they’d be getting that, too.

Don’t worry, Samantha . . . he’s not like that.’

Grimacing at the soothing tone of her youkai voice, Samantha sighed. ‘How can you be sure?

I . . . I don’t know . . . I just know that he’s not. It’s there in his aura . . . He isn’t like the others, those white-coats.’

She nodded slowly though she didn’t feel entirely certain at all. She wanted to believe it; she really did, but she also wanted to believe that someday she’d be free again, too, and as the days dragged on, she couldn’t help but wonder, and every day, that dream seemed to fade a little more in her mind.

And that frightened her most of all. She wasn’t entirely certain exactly how long she could last here, and with the taijya gone . . .

Quiet laughter interrupted her silent musings, and Samantha narrowed her eyes at the one who stepped into the room. Her guard wasn’t there—she wasn’t sure where he was, really, but staring into the eyes of that damned white-coat, Peterson, she couldn’t help the knot of trepidation that grew deep down within her . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“So how’s it going?”

Evan Zelig made a face as he strode along the sidewalk on the north side of Chicago. “It’s going,” he muttered.

“Daddy says that they’re not having much luck with any of the leads that have been called in, either,” Madison Cartham, Evan’s long-time best friend replied.

“That’s an understatement,” he said, feeling the bitter sting of frustration once more. “We’ll find her, though. Don’t worry about that.”

Madison sighed. In the background, he could hear the sound of the workmen who were trying to get Madison’s new LA shop ready to open. “I wish there was something I could do,” she remarked. “I’ve been trying to think of something—anything—but you know, it all seems so . . . shallow . . .”

Smiling wanly despite his own ragged emotions, Evan shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Maddy. It’s enough that you’re thinking about her. ‘Sides, you have enough to do, don’t you? Gotta get that shop open, right?”

She heaved a sigh. “Easier said than done,” she confessed. “There are too many damned ordinances around here. Anyway, who cares about that, right? Are you making any progress at all?”

“Actually . . . no,” Evan admitted with a grimace as he turned the corner and kept moving. “If we could just find something, you know? Kich is going crazy; about seven people have called him in the last few days with leads that just turn out to be nothing. Grandma and the old man are still combing the city on foot, though, but it’s taking so fucking long that it seems pointless, too . . .”

“I doubt they believe that it’s pointless.”

He sighed and nodded. “Yeah, but hell . . . it’s been over two months . . .”

“You’re not about to give up, are you?” Madison demanded, a hint of censure in her tone.

“Hell, no,” he barked. “That’d be a hella stupid thing to do. Just frustrated; that’s all.”

“I know,” Madison added in a consoling tone. “Samantha’s strong. She’ll come home. I’ll bet she’s just biding her time, waiting for the right opportunity to get away from whoever has her.”

Evan tried to smile. It didn’t really work. He believed that she would eventually come home; of course he did. That didn’t really offer him as much consolation as he’d like, though. In fact, it seemed pretty damn hollow, really . . .

Stopping outside an old office building that seemed like it was vacant, Evan sighed and shook his head, glowering at the surroundings. A hundred streets or more that all looked pretty much the same . . . If only . . .

Narrowing his gaze as he stared at the corner of the building, he uttered a terse growl. “Hey, Maddikins, I’ll call you later,” he said, clicking off the device before she answered and dropping it into his pocket.

It was barely noticeable, wasn’t it? The old symbol etched into one of the bricks set into the corner of the building . . . If he hadn’t been staring straight at it, he probably wouldn’t have noticed it, at all. The shadows cast by the huge stone church beside the building didn’t help, either, but there was something entirely familiar about that symbol. Something that he felt like he should recognize . . .

There was something entirely unsettling about the place, wasn’t there? Striding up onto the small porch, Evan shook his head. He could feel it though it was harder for him to try to put the same feeling into words: something foreboding . . . like . . . like standing in a vacuum . . . as though parts of himself were being pulled away by some unseen force . . .

Backing off the porch, he stood back, trying to make sense of the strange sensation. It was obvious to him that it was a barrier of some sort though maybe not in the strictest sense of the word. It wasn’t set up to keep youkai out, per se . . . but he wasn’t entirely certain what it was intended to do otherwise.

His gut reaction was to bust the door in if he had to, but a quieter and much more logical voice told him that maybe he should just wait. If the person came by who owned the place, maybe he’d get some questions answered without having to resort to violence . . .

Digging his phone out of his pocket, he dialed. “Hey, Kich . . . I . . . I think I might’ve found something . . .”

It only took him a minute to give the rest of the address before he hung up the phone and stood back to wait . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

He had to get back to the facility soon, didn’t he?

Shaking his head as he tried to brush off the distracting thought, Kurt kept moving, keeping his gaze trained all the while on the silver haired demon across the street. It had occurred to him last night while he’d sat outside the hotel that the little demon was probably not eating or drinking again—a thought that bugged the hell out of him, really. Still, he really did need to do what he was doing, didn’t he? She was tough, he knew that well enough, too, and while he wasn’t overly pleased with the idea that she would probably be a little shaky when he went back, he assured himself that it would be better in the end, all things considered.

Watching the demons, memorizing their habits, figuring out how many there were, all totaled, was first and foremost in his mind now because it hadn’t taken him long to figure out that the worst thing that could happen would be for them to find him in possession of the little demon on the way out. He’d devise a way to get her out of there, yes, and he’d figure out the best way to send her home without giving himself up too soon, too, and in the end, he could only hope that she could understand even if she never actually forgave him.

Rounding the corner, Kurt frowned, unable to shake the complete unease that he’d felt all day while he trailed the blue-eyed demon. He seemed more agitated than he had in the last couple days since Kurt had started to follow him, and the demon was far too close to Kurt’s office, as well. Common sense assured him that there was no way that the demon could locate it, and even if he could, why would he? Still, when he stopped just outside the building, Kurt had to grit his teeth as he ducked into the alley across the street.

He was talking on his cell phone—he had been for the last block or so. Kurt hadn’t been close enough to overhear any of the conversation. The demon closed the device and stowed it in his pocket as he slowly examined the corner brickwork. Kurt grimaced. He’d etched the symbols he’d found in an old book that was said to have the power to contain demon auras when he’d rented the derelict building during his first trip to Chicago years ago. The demon stepped back slowly then strode up onto the small stoop, only to stop short when he realized that something was wrong.

Damn it,’ he thought, clenching his jaw as he watched the demon. He was trying to make up his mind, wasn’t he? Trying to decide whether or not he could or should remain where he was, Kurt supposed.

He hadn’t counted on them finding his office. That was going to complicate things a lot, wasn’t it? Should those demons get inside, they’d find his books, his gear and the few records that he kept—at least that wasn’t as much of a concern since Kurt wasn’t actually known for keeping those, anyway. Still, the gear would be questionable enough, wouldn’t it?

A nagging feeling kept tugging at him. He didn’t pay attention to it right away. The demon got his phone out again and made another quick call. Kurt had a feeling that he was calling in back up . . .

He needed to get out of there, didn’t he? Needed to put some distance between himself and that office before they found him. If they decided to bust in, there wasn’t much that Kurt could do about it. No, it’d be much, much worse if they caught him, wouldn’t it?

If they caught him, he wouldn’t be able to get the little demon out safely. That was the most important thing now, wasn’t it? Getting her out safely and without any violence . . . He’d have time to wreck the place afterward, providing he was able to come up with a reasonable plan . . .

But that would all be moot if he found him now, wouldn’t it?

A taxi slowed down and stopped in front of the office, and Kurt shook his head as the one twin—her father—got out. The two exchanged words as they stared at the building. Kurt backed farther into the cover of the alley. He needed to get some of his stuff out of there, but he didn’t dare do it while they were outside. Cursing his luck, he broke into a run as he took off down the alley, intent on putting as much distance as he could between himself and the demons, at least for the moment.

He’d almost reached the end of the alley, the opening that brought him out near the subway when a strange feeling crashed down on him hard—a sense of foreboding, a complete dread that he could neither place nor give name to, and yet . . .

“Little demon,” he whispered, his eyes flashing open wide. Glancing at his watch, he grimaced as he tugged the sleeve of his jacket back down over his wrist. It was nearly seven o’clock, and for some reason . . .

She . . . she needs me,’ he thought suddenly, eyes flashing open as the thought solidified in his mind. He didn’t know how he knew it; couldn’t say why he thought it was true, but somehow he just knew, didn’t he? The little demon . . .

Flagging down an approaching taxi, Kurt hopped inside and blurted the address of the facility to the driver. “Step on it,” he growled as he tapped his foot impatiently. The absolute urgency wasn’t something he questioned. He didn’t know how he knew or why, but it didn’t really matter. In his mind, he could see her, the expression on her face as she’d tried so hard to pull the stitches that had held her stomach closed . . .

The feeling that something terrible was happening . . . the irrepressible fear that shot through him . . . A gentle pleading in those dark blue eyes . . . Why was he seeing it? What did it mean? She was scared, wasn’t she? Scared yet angry . . . angry that she was feeling fear, in the first place . . .? But that’s what it was: fear . . . and a sorrow so deep that it cut him to the quick. Something was happening; that much he comprehended. Something that she couldn’t control and couldn’t escape . . . and if he didn’t hurry—if he didn’t get there . . .

“Can’t you move faster?” he yelled as unbridled desperation shot through him.

The driver muttered something in a language that Kurt didn’t understand, and he heaved a sigh. The man better get him to the right address or there’d be hell to pay, damn it . . .

The sense of foreboding was growing worse by the second, and Kurt grimaced, silently willing the taxi to move just a little faster . . . ‘Hold on, little demon . . . just hold on . . .’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kurt slammed through the service door at the facility at a dead run, breathing hard as he dashed toward the stairwell without bothering to mess with the elevator. The feeling was more than he could stand, and by the time that he broke out of the enclosed stairwell, he felt as though he were coming completely undone.

The hallway flashed past in a blur, his footsteps echoing around him. Catching himself on the corner of door jamb, he glanced around the holding area, seeing everything in a blur, in a second, in a moment.

Peterson had the little demon chained up to the apparatus where Kurt had first fastened her to give her a shower, her body naked and dripping from the water hose that hung limply in Peterson’s hands. Angry red welts covered most of her skin—the bastard had turned the power hose on her full force, hadn’t he—and a lone trickle of blood coursed from the left corner of her lips. The skin on her right thigh was already starting to discolor, taking on a nasty grayish purple hue, and yet she stood there, proud and unflinching, her expression completely blanked, her gaze clear and calm as a trickle of blood ran down the inside of each of her legs, spiraling around the limbs.

It was that blood that drew Kurt forward.

Peterson looked somewhat surprised to see him, his face contorting in a smug, stupid grin, as though he honestly believed that Kurt would think that what he was doing was all right. The smile didn’t last long when Kurt barreled forward, flattening the man with a fist in the middle of his face. He felt the cartilage snap and crumble beneath his knuckles just before Peterson fell back. Striding over to the fallen researcher, Kurt hauled him to his feet and flattened him again. “Get up, damn you!” he demanded.

Peterson blinked and started to shake his head.

Kurt yanked him upright again and sent him flying with a fist to his jaw. “Get up, you piece of shit!” Kurt bellowed as he stalked toward the fallen man. “Get—”

A small whine, the tiniest sound, stopped him dead in his tracks. The little demon, her eyes squeezed closed . . . she didn’t want him to hurt the damned bastard, did she?

“Get the fuck out of here,” he growled, flexing his fist, struggling to contain the absolute rate that demanded more retribution. “Get out now before I decide that you’d be better off dead.”

“Have you lost your mind, Doc?” Peterson muttered, his words much tougher than his tone of voice. Staggering to his feet, he spit out a mouthful of blood.

“What the hell part of research was that?” Kurt demanded quietly, stepping slowly toward Peterson who backed away toward the door. “You make me sick.”

Peterson opened his mouth to say something then snapped it closed again. Without another word, he covered his nose with both hands and stumbled out of the room.

Kurt didn’t move until the sound of the elevator door banging closed sounded in his ears. Breathing hard, he slowly shook his head, willing his heart to slow. The little demon uttered a sound, half way between a sigh of relief and a sob, and Kurt wheeled around, unleashing a string of curses under his breath as he ran over to unfasten the bindings that held her in place. No sooner did he have her arms unhooked than she threw them around him, clinging to him as though her life depended upon it as she shuddered and buried her face against his chest. Late concern stopped him, and for a long second, he just stood, immobile.

He’d never in his life ever tried to console someone, had he? Grimacing as the realization sank in, battling back his own still turbulent emotions, he started to put his arms around her, only to jerk them away when she squeaked and hissed out a harsh sound when he felt the momentary discharge of built up energy flow from his fingers into her. “Uh . . .” he gasped with a wince as she crumpled to her knees, her hair sticking to her, twisting around her like a silvery ropes. Shrugging off his coat, he draped it over her shoulders. “S-sorry,” he muttered, unsure if he was apologizing for the jolt or for not being there to stop the attack before it had begun.

In the end, he figured that it was a little bit of both. The little demon did nothing as he strode over to grab a clean smock and blanket out of the supply cabinet. “Here,” he said, his voice a little harsher than he’d intended.

She reached up for the items without lifting her chin, letting his coat fall away as she struggled into the smock. Unfolding the blanket a few times, he wrapped it around her before heaving a sigh as he hunkered down beside her. “What did he do to you?” he asked carefully, dreading her answer yet needing to know.

She shook her head, refused to meet his gaze, her hands trembling as she pulled the blanket closer around her shoulders.

“You need to tell me,” he prodded.

“Did you catch one?” she countered, her voice throaty, raw, much like it had been the first time she’d spoken to him after days and days of not using it.

Kurt shook his head, unsure what she was talking about. “Catch one, what?”

She swallowed hard, sniffled quietly. “Another demon,” she whispered. “A male.”

“A . . . what?”

“Isn’t that where you were?” she challenged. “Out . . . hunting for another?”

“No!” he growled with a shake of his head. He wasn’t entirely sure where she got those weird notions of hers, but he didn’t like them, not at all. “No . . .”

She finally looked at him, her gaze completely vulnerable yet full of a cautious sense of hope. “R-really?”

“Why would you think that I was?” he countered.

“But they said—”

“Who said?”

She let out a deep breath and shrugged. “The white-coats. They said you were going to hunt one so they could . . .” She suddenly shook her head like she didn’t want to think about whatever they’d alluded. Kurt wasn’t entirely sure that he could fault her for that.

Damn bastards . . .’ Rubbing a weary hand over his features, he sighed. “That’s not why I was gone. Now tell me . . . why are you bleeding?”

She blinked a few times, as though she wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but her mouth widened suddenly and she shook her head. “I’m all right,” she assured him. “He just hit me, was all.”

Gritting his teeth at the surge of anger that shot through him, Kurt was careful to keep his voice level. “He hit you,” he repeated.

She nodded but smiled. “I’ll be fine,” she stated once more.

“Let me check you over.”

Rolling her eyes, she pushed herself to her feet, but he didn’t miss the slight grimace that she hid quickly enough. “They check me over enough during the day,” she replied. “I’m okay now; I promise.”

He didn’t look like he totally believed her, but he figured that if she could move around well enough that she wasn’t so bad off. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, in any case, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she were healed up by morning, anyway. Still, he’d be sure to keep an eye on her, regardless . . .

“Don’t suppose you brought dinner for me,” she ventured in a contrived neutral tone.

Kurt grimaced. In his haste to get here, he hadn’t bothered, but then, he hadn’t actually planned on coming back tonight, either. She probably was damn hungry, too, all things considered. Glancing at her food bowl, only to see the regular kibbles of dog food, he sighed. “I figured I’d, uh, order a . . . a pizza,” he lied, unwilling to admit that he’d rushed in because he’d thought that she might need him.

Her ears twitched. “Pizza?”

“Yes, pizza,” he said as he dug through the supply cabinet for some sterile wipes her. “Come here.”

She did as he instructed, staring at him patiently as he carefully tore open a foil packet and opened up the moist towelette inside. “This might sting,” he murmured, his gaze trained on the small cut on her lip. It was already starting to heal up, and for that, he was thankful. She didn’t wince or flinch as he dabbed at the wound. “Good.”

She smiled just a little. “Careful, taijya, or I might start to think that you don’t hate me completely.”

“Of course I do,” he scoffed dryly, turning away quickly before she could discern the hint of redness that had filtered into his cheeks. “Here.”

She took the packets of towelettes that he waved at her. “What . . .?”

He grunted, jerking his head toward the bathroom as he continued to avoid her gaze. “I figured you’d want to clean up . . .”

“Oh . . . okay . . .”

He said nothing as she padded off toward the bathroom, his gaze darkening as he watched her, her back straight, proud—unbroken. If he’d been any later . . .

Grinding his teeth together as he purposefully refused to think about what might have happened, Kurt shook his head. If he didn’t stop thinking about it, he’d be hard pressed not to go after Peterson to make sure that the bastard never, ever tried anything like that again . . .

It struck him, too, and not for the first time, how very gentle the little demon really was, how much dignity she held so loosely—a quiet grace that should have been far more evident to him from the start. Then again, he hadn’t wanted to see it, had he? Hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the idea that she really wasn’t the monster that he’d wanted to think she was . . .

Yet he knew damn well that the ones who had killed his family . . . they were bad . . . even as her words came back to echo in his head. “There are youkai who despise humans—youkai who blame humans because we have to hide, but we’re not all like that . . .”

“Not all like that,” he murmured. Maybe she was right when she’d said that there were good and bad ones, just as there were good and bad humans . . . at any rate . . . maybe it was all right to believe that . . .

Maybe . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Cain heaved a sigh and sat back in the chair that groaned in protest of the sudden and harsh movement. Tossing the ink pen onto the desk, he let his head fall back, staring at the ceiling as he methodically deconstructed the information that Myrna had just given him.

The office building . . .

Ben Philips strode into the office, leafing through a few pictures that Cain had printed out earlier. “So these are . . . Christian symbols?”

“Catholic, Myrna thinks, though she admitted that she could be wrong,” Cain muttered without looking at the panther-youkai. “Some sort of symbol used during demon exorcisms back in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. The texts she looked over had symbols very similar listed for a handful of different religions. Hell, according to one of them, it was damn close to the inscription that was carved into the tree where Judas Iscariot hung himself.”

Ben nodded, dropping the pictures atop the blotter in the center of the desk. “So what are they doing on that building?”

“It’s not completely unheard of for different religions to etch symbols into their buildings as a preventive to ward off evil. That building used to be owned by the church beside it, and that church has belonged to several different religious factions over the years, but without a bit of study, figuring out exactly which church would have used that exact symbol, we can’t really tell.”

Ben considered that for a moment then shot Cain a troubled scowl. “But the one who put up the barrier around the area where Samantha disappeared used ofuda.”

“I know.”

“Any way you look at it, it’s hard to connect them, isn’t it? I mean, for one that uses ofuda to use another religion’s symbols . . . Why?”

Cain nodded slowly, sitting up and pulling the pictures over. The images were a little blurred but not bad. There were more coming, too, since Evan had mentioned that Kich had gone after a disposable camera. “I feel like I’m grasping at straws,” he admitted, unable to keep the trace hint of bitterness out of his tone.

Ben inclined his head in agreement. “It’s entirely possible for the barrier to have been there for years—decades . . . a century or better . . . Humans wouldn’t have sensed it, would they? And youkai . . .”

“Youkai might not have, either. Evan said he didn’t actually feel it until he went up on the stoop. All the same . . .”

“Hmm?”

Cain set the images aside and pulled out the paper where he’d jotted notes during Myrna’s phone call, and he scrawled the name onto a clean sheet of cream colored fine linen stationery. “Here’s the name of the person who’s currently renting the building. There’s no listing for a business at that address, though. Myrna’s working on getting more information, but I figured maybe you could find out something, too.”

Ben took the paper and frowned. “Ed Smith? Seems a little generic, if you ask me.”

Cain nodded then shrugged and sighed. “I thought so, too. Still, unless the owner of the building is a complete idiot, there’d have to be some record of ‘Ed Smith’, right?”

Ben agreed though he still looked rather dubious. “I’ll let you know what I find out,” he said as he folded the paper and stowed it in the inner breast pocket of his suit jacket.

“Thanks.”

Cain sat back again, watching in silence as Ben exited the study, feeling like he was chasing a ghost in the mist. This lead really didn’t seem any more promising than the others that they’d chased down in the more than two months since Samantha’s disappearance. One of these times, they had to get lucky, didn’t they? One of their leads had to go somewhere, so not following up on them simply wasn’t a viable option . . .

He could only pray that it was sooner rather than later . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Goddamn self-righteous, father-knows-best bullshit!” Evan snarled as he snapped the cell phone closed and glowered at his surroundings.

Kichiro sighed and slowly shook his head. “I don’t know, Evan,” he began slowly. “I hate to say this—and I do mean that I hate to say this—but he has a point.”

Evan snorted, planting his hands on his hips as he stomped the length of the building on the sidewalk and back again. “Fuck! You’re agreeing with Cain?”

Running a hand over his face, Kichiro jerked his head once in a nod. “It used to belong to that church . . . It could easily be that someone put the symbols there years ago . . . it could be that the barrier has absolutely nothing to do with this. I mean, the one was done by someone versed in the Japanese—he or she used ofuda. This one . . .” Shaking his head in a completely frustrated sort of way, Kichiro sighed again. “This one uses western symbols.”

Evan shrugged. “I’m going to wait for whoever rented this place to show up,” he muttered. “I want to know for sure that it has nothing to do with her before I give up completely.”

Kichiro stared at him for a long moment then finally nodded. “Okay,” he agreed. “Sure.”

Evan nodded brusquely and stepped back. Kichiro watched him without a word. The young man strode over to and leapt onto the building beside the office to get a better view of the area, Kichiro supposed. He could understand Evan’s reasoning: better to be sure than just to go on assumption, and at this point, all they had was conjecture of one kind or another.

Staring at the building for another few minutes, Kichiro slowly shook his head. He could understand Evan’s frustration—he knew that emotion just a little too well, himself—but he also wasn’t entirely sure that he could disagree with Cain’s reasoning, and this place . . . Wasn’t it just grasping at another straw?

Besides that, he had been asked to meet with Martin Sandstrom, one of Cain’s generals. He wanted to get more information on Samantha so that they could better search the west coast area where he had jurisdiction, and while Kichiro thought it was a long shot, he couldn’t say that he didn’t think that they ought to try, either. At this point . . . at this point, anything was worth a try, right?

Evan scowled as he watched Kichiro head off down the street, ignoring the sting as his hair was whipped into his eyes, his face. He didn’t care what the rest of them said; there was definitely something here; he could feel it. Something . . .

The problem was that Cain wasn’t here to feel it, himself, wasn’t able to make an accurate judgment because he was back in Maine, and even if Evan didn’t like that, he had to allow that he understood why that was, and as much as he’d like to think that his father was taking the coward’s way out, he knew better, didn’t he?

That didn’t mean that Evan agreed, and even if it were nothing more than wishful thinking on his part, he couldn’t help but think that there really was something to the barrier, and before he could just brush it off, he had to know—had to be sure. Samantha deserved that, didn’t she? Because Evan would be damned if he’d let it go if it had even the remotest chance that it was important . . . The little girl who had followed him around during his summers spent in Japan . . . the girl with the dark blue eyes . . . He owed her that, and come hell or high water, he’d make sure that she came home . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“Pizza! Pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza, piz—” Skidding to a stop, the little demon’s ears flattened as she drew away from him as he strode into the room with the freshly delivered pizza. “Eww . . . it has green stuff on it!” she grumbled.

Kurt shot her a quick glance but kept moving toward the desk. “What? Green peppers? Damn straight, it does.”

Wringing her hands, she slowly, cautiously, shuffled toward the table. “But I don’t like green stuff,” she whined.

Kurt blinked and stopped, turning just enough to stare at her over his shoulder. “Oh, Christ, did you just whine at me?”

She bit her lip then nodded. “M-maybe . . .”

“Does your family think you’re this big a pain in the ass?”

She thought that over then shook her head. “Probably.”

He stared at her for a long moment then let out a deep breath. “Probably . . .?”

She nodded. “They never actually said . . .”

Kurt snorted and turned his attention back to the pizza once more. “I offer you pizza when you haven’t had a thing to eat in days, and all you can say is that you don’t like green stuff?” he countered.

She shrugged. “I do have my standards,” she pointed out as she twisted her fingers together in a knot of writhing flesh. “I don’t like green stuff.”

“So pick them off,” he said, grabbing a piece and biting into it with gusto. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was, had he?

She stuck her tongue out as she scrunched up the right side of her face in a show of abject disgust. “But it’ll still taste like them . . . ruined a perfectly lovely pizza with those nasty bits . . .”

Kurt snorted. “Nasty bits?”

Nodding emphatically, she hunkered down beside the monitor station, wrapping her arms around her legs and burying her chin against her knees. “Yes,” she reiterated haughtily, “nasty bits.”

“You’re a strange little demon,” Kurt tossed back. “Anyway, beggars can’t be choosers, so either eat or shut up.”

She uttered a little ‘hurmph’ and continued to sulk. “No, thank you,” she muttered.

Kurt rolled his eyes, folding the rest of his slice in half like a sandwich. “Then don’t complain to me if you’re starving. I bought you food, and you rejected it.”

She was quiet for all of a minute, as though she were considering a new tactic. “You . . . you could order another one . . . one without the green stuff,” she ventured a little too innocently.

That earned her a long look as he slowly chewed and swallowed. “What? No way! It’s not my fault if you’re being picky for no good reason.”

“I have a perfectly good reason,” she huffed. “I don’t like green stuff!”

Kurt heaved a sigh and shook his head. ‘Of all the stubborn, crazy . . . I am not—not—ordering another damn pizza . . .’ Glancing at her again, he had to do a double take when he noticed that her ears were not only flattened but were also stuck out to the sides, as well. “Knock that off!” he growled incredulously, forcing his gaze away from the pesky little demon.

“Knock what off?” she replied.

He snorted loudly and shoved the rest of the slice of pizza into his mouth. “That . . . that ear thing,” he muttered around a mouthful of dough.

She forced them back up, but they drooped once more a moment later. “But I’m hungry,” she complained.

“Then eat the pizza I ordered,” he shot back, “because I’m really not ordering another one.”

“You know, just picking off the green stuff isn’t really going to make any difference.”

Those ears smashed down again, and Kurt heaved a sigh. ‘If she’s that hungry, she can damn well eat what I ordered, to start with,’ he growled to himself, nudging aside the misplaced feeling that he was being entirely mean, and for no good reason. She said earlier that she liked ‘everything’. She hadn’t mentioned possessing a general disdain for all things green, had she? She could deal with it one time, damn it, because he was not about to give in and order a second one, right?

He snorted, jaw tightening as stubborn resolve set it. ‘Right.’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kurt rubbed his arms and pulled his coat a little tighter as he leaned against the side of the building, waiting for the gaudy green pizza delivery car to arrive.

Damn it . . .’

He still wasn’t entirely certain why he’d given in, though he had a sneaking suspicion that it had something to do with those dog ears of hers. Something about the drooping appendages was just incredibly hard to ignore, and worse, how she’d managed to make him feel like a complete and utter ogre for having ordered a pizza with ‘green stuff’ on it . . . well . . .

And that wasn’t even the half of it; not by a long shot . . .

When she’d figured out that he was calling to order another one, she’d done this strange little half-shuffle, half-scoot thing that completely reminded him of an excited puppy that he’d almost—almost—smiled. But she’d made such a racket while he was trying to order that pizza that she’d nearly driven him nuts, too . . .

Yes, one deep dish meat lovers, small—”

Large,” she corrected, leaning over his shoulder where he sat in the chair behind the desk. He covered the mouthpiece and pinned her with a bored stared. “I’m hungry,” she hissed in a stage whisper.

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Large,” he amended.

With extra meat.”

The bored stare turned a little darker. “You don’t need extra meat,” he pointed out. “It’s meat lovers . . . that’s a hell of a lot of meat, to start with.”

But I like meat, and by the time they get here, I’ll need it since I’ve been smelling your pizza, and it’s making me hungrier . . .”

Pressing his lips together when her ears did that hideous droopy-thing again, he heaved a sigh. “With extra meat,” he muttered.

Well, sir, you realize that’ll be an extra five bucks per meat you double . . .” the kid on the other end of the phone said.

I know,” Kurt stated, wondering if he ought to have stopped by an ATM before he came in. “It’s fine.”

Okay, so that’s one large deep meat lover’s with extra meat, right?

Yeah.”

That’ll be . . . fifty-three twenty-nine,” the kid said.

Kurt grimaced. Five bucks times seven meats plus the base price for the pizza, to start with . . . yeah, that sounded about right . . . “Fine.”

Okay, we’ll be there in thirty minutes or less.”

Snapping the phone closed, he turned to face the little demon, only to stop short when he saw the flattened ears again. “Wh-what?” he blurted, eyes widening at the obvious attempt on her part to make him feel bad.

You forgot the extra cheese,” she said in a really quiet tone.

He stared at her for almost a minute before yanking open the phone once more.

Mario’s Pizza. We deliver everywhere,” the same kid answered.

Kurt grimaced. “Yeah, hi . . . I just ordered a large pizza with extra meat . . .?

Oh, yeah! Right.”

Could you add extra cheese to that, too?

Hold on.” Covering the receiver, he heard the kid’s muffled voice call out. “Hey! That pie with the boatload of meat? Add extra cheese, too!

Thanks,” Kurt muttered.

Not a problem, dude. Anything else?

Oh, I think that’s more than enough,” Kurt remarked.

The kid laughed. “All right. They’re getting ready to bake your pizza now, so we’ll be there shortly.”

Great,” Kurt replied. The line went dead, and Kurt snapped the phone closed.

The little demon cleared her throat.

What now?” he demanded, almost afraid of what her answer was going to be.

Well . . . you need soda when you have pizza,” she pointed out a little too reasonably.

Soda . . . There’s a machine for those just down the hall,” he reminded her.

But the white-coats said that it’s been broken since the night that you were snowed in here. They say you broke it. Did you? You realize, don’t you, that some people make their livings off machines like those, and if you go around breaking them—”

I only broke the snack machine and only because a particular little demon kept whining about being hungry.”

The ears flattened just slightly as she scrunched up her shoulders and forced a tight little smile. “That’s okay . . . I don’t need a drink, too . . .”

Heaving a sigh, shaking his head, a part of him seriously having trouble believing that he was having this particular conversation with the demon, Kurt shot her what should have been a quelling glance—if she had been looking at him. She wasn’t. Hitting redial on the phone, he could only grimace when the kid who answered asked him if he’d remembered something else. “Soda,” Kurt said. “A two-liter of Coke.

Umm . . .”

What now?” he demanded as he closed the phone.

The little demon winced and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Well . . . I like orange soda better,” she confessed.

Shaking his head—he should have known—he didn’t say a word as he opened the device and dialed the number yet again. “Orange soda,” he said when the kid answered the phone again.

The kid laughed and hung up. Kurt wasn’t going to call again, damn it, no matter what the little demon thought of next . . .

“Wait, wait, wait . . .”

Kurt shot her a look as he snapped the phone closed. “Now what?” he demanded, almost afraid to ask.

She shot him a sheepish grin and shrugged. “I . . . I wanted some bread sticks, too.”

Absolutely not,” he insisted.

Those damned ears flattened again. “But I haven’t had anything to eat in days,” she reminded him.

Kurt snapped his mouth closed and made a face as he flipped open the phone once more, wondering absently if it wouldn’t be easier to put the pizza place on speed dial. “Add an order of breadsticks, please?

The kid chuckled. “Sure thing . . . cheese or marinara sauce?

Gritting his teeth, he started to ask the demon then thought better of it. “Can you just bring extra of both?

No problem . . . We’ll be there soon.

A candy bar would have been nice,” she ventured at length as he closed the phone yet again.

He snorted. “Don’t push your luck, little demon,” he warned.

She heaved a sigh that he supposed was meant to make him feel bad. It didn’t work, considering how much her stinking pizza was costing him . . .

As luck would have it, though, he didn’t have to call back. Oh, no, the kid figured that he should call Kurt before the delivery guy left, to make sure that they didn’t need anything else. Kurt grunted as the little demon yanked on his wrist to bring the phone down to her level. “Bring me a Hershey bar, please!

And now, he was standing outside, freezing as he waited for the delivery. The watchman who was sitting in the monitor room had laughed and asked him if he were extra hungry or something.

At least it gave him some time to consider what to do about the silver haired demon who had found his office. That was going to be trouble—more trouble than he’d anticipated. Still, maybe he would give up if Kurt laid low for a while. After all, he didn’t use that office unless he’d captured a demon, so it wasn’t like he had to go back there. He had books there, yes, and some of his equipment, but there wasn’t actually anything there that would lead them directly to him, as far as he could tell. That didn’t really offer him much in the way of reassurance, though . . .

It wasn’t that he was trying to hide her now, exactly, but . . . but there were too many things that he really needed to get straightened out before he set her free—things to ensure that she wasn’t captured again. When he had sat down earlier to make a list of things that he had to make sure of before he tried to get her out of there, he’d realized one glaring thing that he needed to have verified before he ever tried to move her. Harlan had told him once that they’d gotten in a few of the very newest tracking devices; ones that could easily be inserted just below the skin—one that was so tiny that regular sensors wouldn’t pick it up: about the size of the head of a needle. Rich husbands put them on their bored wives sometimes to make sure that those wives weren’t cheating on them. It had all been a joke to Harlan at the time, and Kurt, as usual, had only been listening halfway since nothing that Harlan had to say was of much interest, as far as he was concerned.

Now he wished that he’d paid just a little more attention. He didn’t rightfully know whether or not Harlan had put something like that in the little demon, but he’d be a damn idiot if he didn’t make sure that there wasn’t one before he got her out of there. If the little demon knew, he could ask her. The trouble was that it could have easily been injected into her without her even realizing it, and once implanted, those things could transmit back the target’s location via satellite network, right down to a street address anywhere in the world . . .

There was the security footage, of course. He’d be able to tell from watching those, whether or not they’d put something like that in her. Still, that was a hell of a lot of footage, wasn’t it? But he didn’t really have a choice in the matter, either . . . If he didn’t check into it—if he got her out of there without bothering to make sure . . . a device like that wouldn’t just put her in danger, it would also mean that her family was at risk, too, since he was going to make sure that she went straight home . . .

That aside, the other very real problem was that they came in every day, seven days a week. If they’d take weekends off or even just Sunday, he’d be able to get her out and allow at least a twenty-four hour lead time before they realized that she was missing. As it was, he’d be lucky if he could get a twelve hour head start, and that wasn’t nearly enough to reassure him.

There were some very real drawbacks to his rough plan, and as much as he hated the idea of keeping her here, he wasn’t entirely sure that he dared to try to get her out of there before he verified whether or not a tracker had been injected into her . . . She’d never forgive him, would she?

He sighed. Not that she was likely to forgive him now, that was . . . and with good reason, of course.

The headlights of a car slowed down on the street and pulled into the alley. Kurt pushed himself away from the wall and dug his wallet out.

“Seventy-five twenty-nine,” the kid who got out of the car said.

Kurt blinked at the total as the kid’s grin widened. Shaking his head slowly, he dug money out of his wallet and handed it over, muttering for him to keep the change. The kid laughed again as he handed it over. “Sorry, man . . . the pizza was too tall for the box, so we sort of had to fake it . . . Have a good one!”

Letting out a deep breath as he grasped the paper sack that contained the soda, breadsticks, and probably her candy bar, Kurt shook his head and pushed the after hours clearance button beside the door with his elbow. A moment later, the buzz sounded that signaled the lock release, and he leaned against the door to let himself inside.

She’d better appreciate this,’ he thought as he headed toward the elevator. He never should have ordered a large pizza, damn it . . . she’d never be able to finish it . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

“I can’t believe you ate the whole thing . . .”

Samantha made a face as her stomach protested movement but managed to turn far enough to face the taijya, who was standing there with his arms crossed over his chest and a really weird look on his face. Caught somewhere between complete and utter shock and absolute horrified fascination, the end result was amusing at best—or would have been if laughing wouldn’t have been so blasted uncomfortable. “It was really delicious. Thank you.”

He shook his head and let out a deep breath. “You’re going to be sick; I just know it,” he predicted darkly.

“No, I won’t!” she argued with a flutter of her limp wrist. “Ohh, my stomach hurts . . .”

Shaking his head, he leaned back in the desk chair and stared at her for a long moment. “Tell me something,” he finally said.

Samantha drew her feet up where she was perched atop the desk. “Tell you what?”

“Your family,” he said in a carefully casual tone. “How big is it?”

Samantha’s pleasant mood faltered. “My family? Why?”

He shrugged, as though her answer really didn’t interest him that much. “Just asking.”

She considered his answer, and while she didn’t entirely buy into his reasoning, she figured that it was a good enough one to have asked. “Well, my immediate family isn’t that big, not really . . . Just my sisters and my parents and me . . .”

She didn’t see his scowl as he stared at her since she was frowning at her feet. “No . . . no brothers?” he asked.

She almost smiled, but the reminder of her family was a harsh one. “No, no brothers. Lots of cousins, though . . . and aunts and uncles and . . . well, you know: family.”

“Just sisters . . .”

She nodded then sighed. “My sisters . . . they both look like Mama . . . really pretty . . .”

“They’re pretty?”

“Mhmm . . . Mama . . . she’s taller than me with this . . . gorgeous long bronze hair—not quite golden but not brown, either . . . Papa always says she’s the prettiest woman anywhere, and he’d probably right. I mean, I don’t think there’s anyone prettier than her, either. My sisters both look like her—Well, Isabelle has golden eyes like Papa, but Lexi looks exactly like Mama . . .”

His frown deepened. “So . . . you look like your . . . your papa.”

She smiled a little sadly, her ears drooping just a little as the image of her father’s face flashed through her mind. “Mhmm . . . I mean, Papa’s a good-looking man, but . . . but I’m a girl, and . . .” She trailed off, biting her lip, hating to admit to her own insecurities. She supposed that it was natural enough. Having grown up in a home full of beautiful women, she figured it was normal to feel a little like the ugly duckling living amongst swans.

He was quiet for a moment. “Bronze hair . . . golden eyes . . . Is there a . . . a male demon . . . who looks like that . . .?”

She blinked at his question then glanced at him. He was staring at his boot—he was sitting sideways with his right ankle crossed on his left knee. “Sure . . . my cousin—err, uncle.”

He did a double take. “Your . . . what?”

“Well, he’s my uncle, but he’s also my cousin,” she reiterated. “See, my papa and my grandma are brother and sister—well, technically Grandma’s my step-grandma, but I call her grandma, anyway . . .”

He stared at her for a long moment. “You’re . . .”

“No!” she insisted, cheeks pinking since she knew what he was going to say. “Not at all. My grandpa was married before, and he and his first wife had my mama, but she died just after Mama was born. Then he later met and married my papa’s sister. There’s none of that involved.”

He narrowed his gaze, leaning back a little more and crossing his arms over his chest. “You know, that explains a lot,” he remarked.

Her mouth dropped open and she snorted loudly. “That’s not even funny, taijya,” she countered as she turned around and started to scoot off the desk. “I think I’m going to bed now.”

“Wait.”

She stopped and, against her better judgment, she spared a moment to look at him.

Without a word, he reached over and grabbed her wrist to tug her across the desk. “You’re not bleeding anymore, right?”

She felt her cheeks heat at the indelicate reminder. “I’m fine,” she replied quietly, lifting her chin defiantly.

“I’d feel better if you’d let me look,” he said.

She shook her head and carefully pulled her wrist away. “I’m fine,” she repeated.

He didn’t look like he believed her entirely, but he also didn’t look like he was going to argue with her, either. “Here,” he blurted, suddenly grabbing his knapsack and rooting around inside. He pulled out a small cardboard rectangle and stared at it for a moment before hesitantly holding it out to her. “I . . . I bought this a while back . . . It’s not much . . .”

Samantha slowly reached out and took it, gasping quietly as her eyes widened, as she stared at the postcard. “Oh . . .” she breathed, blinking quickly as a suspect moisture glossed over her vision. “The . . . the sky . . .”

And it was. A picturesque image of the afternoon sky over an empty field with a tree and a steadily flowing creek . . .

“I saw it at the newsstand when I stopped to buy the paper,” he explained, as though he had to explain why he’d purchased it, to start with.

“The sky’s so blue,” she murmured, unable to tear her eyes off the image. “Do you know where this field is?”

“W-I . . . no,” he admitted. “No . . .”

She giggled then sniffled. “That doesn’t matter, does it? So pretty . . . so pretty . . .”

“You . . . you like it,” he asked quietly.

She nodded rapidly, a brilliant smile breaking over her features as she finally lifted her gaze to meet his. “You brought me the sky . . .”

For some reason, he looked pained. “It’s . . . it’s just a postcard,” he muttered weakly.

“Absolutely not,” she insisted. “I really wanted to see it again, even if it could only be a picture.”

He didn’t look like he knew what to say to that, and maybe he really didn’t. In the end, all he could do was nod. “Well, it’s, um . . . yours.”

She started to giggle but stopped abruptly, and she shot him an almost nervous sort of glance. Slowly, hesitantly, she stared at the post card one last time then held it out to him. “Could you . . . would you . . . keep it for me? If they took it . . . the white-coats . . .”

He nodded, understanding her worry, taking the post card and staring at it for a long minute before he suddenly stood up and walked toward the cage. “Here,” he said, digging a pocket knife out and carefully slicing through the top layer of plastic that covered the ofuda he’d plastered all over the top of the cage. He worked them aside carefully slipped the post card under the ofuda then straightened the layer over them and smoothed down the plastic again. “How’s that?”

She stared at him for a long moment then slowly crawled into the cage. With a happy little squeal, she reached up, touching layer of plastic over the postcard through the bars of the cage. “It’s like a window,” she finally said, her smile still firmly in place. “The bars are kind of like a frame . . .”

His voice sounded oddly strained when he answered, but she couldn’t see his face; she could only see his legs. “Y-yeah . . . a window . . .”

She tugged her blanket over herself and giggled. “I can fall asleep, looking at this,” she said. “Thank you.”

He didn’t reply as he moved away. She noticed that he didn’t go back to the desk, but instead sat at the table where the row of monitors were set up. That wasn’t nearly interesting enough to hold her attention, though; not when she had a makeshift window to stare at . . .

He brought me the sky,’ she mused, reaching up, touching the picture once more. The plastic was cool against her fingertips, smooth like a pane of glass.

And pizza,’ her youkai added.

Samantha’s smile widened seconds before a yawn interrupted her. ‘He really is nice, isn’t he?

Her youkai laughed softly. ‘We missed him, didn’t we? And he . . . he knew to come back . . . he knew that we needed him . . .’

Samantha pulled the blanket a little closer as her eyes drifted closed. ‘Of course he knew,’ she thought drowsily. ‘He’s our . . .’

He is . . .’ her youkai admitted with a sigh. ‘Yes, he is.’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kurt stifled a yawn with the back of his hand and shook his head, groping for his coffee mug with his free hand as he tried to keep himself awake. Glancing at the clock on the wall, he sighed. It was almost time to go in, and he’d only been able to get through two of the surveillance videos that he’d stolen out of the facility. At the rate he was going, it was going to take him two months just to watch them all, not to mention that they were ongoing.

Raking his hands through his hair, he leaned forward and closed his eyes for a moment. It was taking too long, damn it. He hadn’t realized that it was going to be so hard for him to leave her there when he’d gotten up this morning. Staring at her sleeping form huddled in the cage, she’d looked so tiny—so very tiny. Why hadn’t he ever noticed that about her before . . .?

How was it that she could smile and laugh when she was trapped like a rat in a cage? Why could she seem so happy about something as stupid as a simple postcard? Her laughter was both welcome and . . . and frightening, awakening long dormant memories that were best left in the past . . . weren’t they?

Slugging down the tepid coffee in the mug, he made a face and turned off the archive video. At least those were small enough that he was able to sneak over a week’s worth of cards out of the security room without detection. The cards were only about half an inch long by a quarter of an inch wide and roughly the thickness of a credit card, and they played just fine in the media palmtop he’d bought expressly for the purpose of checking them over.

That was something else he’d quickly decided as he’d scanned through the first few minutes of tape. Those things were dangerous, and he was going to get rid of them before it was all over, too. The plan was to wreck the place so that viable research would never be possible there again, but those tapes . . . They were going to be the first things to go, damn it . . .

He hadn’t known before, hadn’t seen what those damn bastards called ‘research’ . . . or maybe the other demons he’d taken in there simply hadn’t lasted long enough for any of their witchery . . . In any case, the things that he’d seen thus far . . . Was that even really ‘research’?

Even then, he had to admit that he’d never cared to know exactly what was going on there, was he? He’d never given it a second thought, and the little demon . . .

Glancing at the clock, Kurt sighed. It was still a little early, but they’d mentioned something about testing her sense of smell today, and that hadn’t sounded too great to him, either. Standing up so abruptly that the chair that he’d been sitting on skidded back on the barren floor, Kurt grabbed his coat and knapsack and headed for the door.

He knew damn well that her sense of smell was light years beyond his. She could smell a chocolate bar wrapped in foil and stuffed into his knapsack without any real effort. He’d heard her make commentary more than once regarding food or things of that nature. When he’d first realized that, he’d grimaced, worrying that those demons he’d seen at the hotel had somehow managed to get a good scent of him, and while he didn’t think they had or they’d have confronted him, wouldn’t they, he couldn’t help but worry about it, just the same.

So he’d considered taking one of those so-called scent-tabs that he’d found in her pocket, but he wasn’t entirely certain that it’d work on him, and even still, he probably should see if she’d tell him more about them before he went off and swallowed one.

Those things aside, though, he took the subway—something that he normally tried to avoid since he hated it—but since it brought him out at a station less than a block from the facility at the longest end of the commute, he figured it was a necessary evil. Besides, if he were lucky, he’d be early enough to do a little bit of poking around without anyone being the wiser. He really needed to get into the monitoring room alone, though, so that he could get an accurate count on the number of cameras hidden through the lower levels up to the ground floor, and he wanted to make certain that they were all the old Nantech 8000 series. If they were, then it’d be a simple thing to put them on a timed tape loop so that they thought they were running through the security cycles when they really weren’t. If they were the newer Nantech 9000 series, though, he’d have to figure something else out . . .

Still, though, the most daunting part of the entire process was figuring out if they had put one of those tracking devices into the little demon, and even if they had, the problem was in removing it since those things had no real way of doing that. When the devices were first introduced less than a year ago, they were touted as, of all things, mother’s little helper—track your children should they get lost or abducted, and a lot of parents jumped at the idea, thinking that they were one of the best inventions, ever, and while they weren’t a bad idea, there were always those who would take advantage of such technology, too, and Harlan and his gang of bastard thugs, otherwise known as ‘scientists’ were some of those . . .

The subway ride across Chicago—or under it, as the case were—took almost forty-five minutes, but that was still shorter than walking. Still, by the time Kurt climbed the steps that led back to the sidewalk, he couldn’t help the slight anxiety that churned inside him. He didn’t know why he felt that way. It wasn’t nearly the same as yesterday’s strange feeling that something was not right, but it was there, nonetheless.

Stopping long enough to pick up some cheeseburgers and fries before heading toward the facility, Kurt couldn’t quite make sense of the strange emotion that grew heavier with every step he took. It was vaguely familiar to him, as though he’d felt it before, even if he didn’t completely recognize it. It was almost as though . . .

His step faltered, and he blinked suddenly as it dawned on him. The strange emotion . . . the feeling . . . it was the same one he’d had when his father had told him that they would be going to Disney World during summer vacation, wasn’t it? Had it really been that long since he’d felt that sort of thing? And now . . . he was looking forward to seeing the little demon . . .?

But that really was it, wasn’t it? The anticipation of seeing her, of hearing her laughter . . . Her eyes really did sparkle when she laughed, didn’t they? He hadn’t actually thought that anyone’s eyes could do that; he’d believed that it was something only written in sappy books that he had no use for . . .

It had bothered him, just how excited, how pleased she’d been by that simple postcard. There was something entirely too . . . final . . . in her reaction, as though she knew somewhere deep down that she’d never be free to see those things again—as though she knew it, and she’d accepted it, too . . .

And that bothered Kurt more than anything could . . .

Grasping the doors and yanking hard, Kurt stomped into the building as the black clouds of abject irritation rose inside him. How dare she give up, damn it! How in the hell could she think that it would be all right if she never got out of there? It wasn’t right, and he wouldn’t accept it . . . and he’d be damned if he’d let her accept it, too . . .

“Hey . . . you’re early, Doc!” one of the security guards—Mazer, Kurt thought his name was—called out as he passed.

Kurt waved a hand but didn’t stop as he moved toward the stairs. The building was emptier than normal, too, which was just as well with him. By the time he reached the lowest level, he had to restrain the desire to break into a full-out run.

She wasn’t in the holding area—not really surprising since he was about two hours early. They weren’t on this level, either, which surprised him. In any case, though, it was as good a time as any to start checking the cameras stationed in the hallway. Digging a handful of change out of his pocket, he figured that pretending to use the vending machines would work just fine. Staring at the cameras he passed—they were stationed about every twenty-five feet—he recognized them easily enough as the 8000 series. At least that was good . . . Tinkering with those wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Feeding money into the coffee machine—it was the only one that wasn’t broken—Kurt was still waiting for the coffee when the doors to the freight elevator off to the right slid open. Six guards strode out, two of them supporting the little demon on either side. Her head was bent forward, sort of just lolling rather listlessly, and Kurt frowned. “What’d they do to it?” he demanded, careful to keep his tone a little flat.

One of the guards shot him a look and shrugged. “I think they were testing her sense of smell,” he replied. “She passed out a few hours ago, and they were hoping she’d wake up again, but, well . . .”

Kurt nodded slowly and turned away. The guards dragged her down the hallway toward the holding area as Kurt’s gaze slipped to the side to watch them without turning his head. ‘Testing her sense of smell, huh . . .?

He supposed that those idiots had tested her sense of smell about the same way that they’d tested her hearing before, though this time, at least, she didn’t seem to be throwing up from it. It struck him again, exactly how warped he thought the entire situation really was. Were those bastards the kind of children who had to deconstruct every toy they were given, just because they could? The little demon wasn’t a toy, but the principle was the same. Worse, though, was the innate knowledge that it was his fault that they were able to do such things to her, in the first place, all because he hadn’t realized that some demons weren’t really as awful as he wanted to believe . . .

Pulling the cup out of the machine, he followed the guards down the hallway and stood back as they filed out of the room again. They uttered things that he figured were little more than perfunctory niceties as they passed, and Kurt just nodded.

He wasn’t surprised to find her in her cage, and it seemed to him that the guards had pretty much just tossed her in there before closing the door. His initial instinct was to pull her out and check her over to make sure that she was all right, but he stopped himself. He’d do that just as soon as he was sure that the researchers had left for the night, and he could tell she was breathing. Reaching for her wrist, he stared at the clock. Her pulse was strong if not a little erratic, and that was enough to reassure him for the moment.

He’d just stood up and turned away from the cage when Harlan strode into the room with one of his patented smiles that reminded Kurt of a coffin-maker scoping out the morgue. Kurt ignored him, figuring that he could damn well speak first. “Evening, Doc,” Harlan said in a loud, booming, very falsely bright tone.

“Evening, Dopey,” he muttered under his breath, not particularly caring whether or not Harlan actually heard him.

He didn’t, which just figured. “I guess she doesn’t like some smells,” Harlan went on without an ounce of remorse.

“Hmm,” Kurt intoned. “Just like she has better hearing and probably better vision and better . . . well, everything. Big deal. You should have realized that a long time ago.”

Harlan laughed as he strode over and settled himself on the edge of the desk. “So . . . I take it you didn’t have any luck in finding a male demon for us?”

It took everything Kurt had to keep himself from decking the old bastard. “I don’t think I ever said that’s what I was doing,” he remarked blandly.

“I thought we’d talked about this. I assumed—”

“And maybe you shouldn’t make assumptions,” Kurt cut in. “I thought that you wanted to get rid of those things; not perpetuate them,” he reminded him, playing the part, and playing it well, he figured.

Harlan’s smile widened, as though he actually believed that Kurt was buying all of it. “It’s all one in the same, Doc! All one in the same!”

Kurt didn’t respond to that. There wasn’t a point, really. All he was doing was humoring the damn doctor, anyway.

Harlan said some other things, none of which was of interest to Kurt, and he finally left.

He sighed, rubbing his eye in a distracted sort of way as his gaze shifted to the huddled form of the little demon in the cage. It was still something that he was trying to reconcile himself to this whole thing, this . . .

It was simple to think that he wanted to let her go; it was easy to believe that the gentle creature that he’d come to know deserved to be free, but . . .

But would that freedom have a cost? She said that they didn’t hate humans; that they fought to protect them, and he . . . he wanted to believe that . . . or was something else—something he was only beginning to grasp—clouding his judgment when it came to her?

She . . . she’d never do that sort of thing to anyone . . . what those demons did to my family . . .’

But how had he known that? And he had known that, didn’t he? How was it that he had known without question and without hesitation that she . . .?

Letting out a deep breath, Kurt cut himself off abruptly. For some reason, those questions . . .

Reaching for the newspaper he’d bought earlier in the day, he slowly shook his head. He wasn’t entirely certain that he wanted to know the answers . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Bellaniece sat that the table in the breakfast nook in the kitchen with a cup of tea that was gradually growing cold and an untouched peach muffin on a sparkling white china plate as she stared out the window at the fluffy blanket of snow that steadily fell from the slate gray skies.

She’d been awake for hours even though she’d only come downstairs about forty-five minutes ago. Gin had smiled encouragingly as she stepped into the kitchen, and within moments, she was seated here with a cup of tea and a still-warm muffin.

She’d had the strangest dream, hadn’t she? It wasn’t anything that she understood, and she wasn’t even sure exactly why she’d have dreamt anything even remotely like that, in the first place, but . . . but it had bothered her, and more to the point, it bothered her more because she couldn’t remember much of it, and she felt that she should, that it was important . . .

All she could remember was a picture: a field with a tree and a small creek . . . and impossibly blue skies high overhead . . . and bars . . .

“Morning, Belle . . . Sleep okay?” Sierra asked as she slipped into the nook across from her.

Bellaniece shook herself and smiled automatically—the same sort of smile that Gin had given her earlier. “Not so bad,” she lied. Okay, not completely lied . . . dream aside, she had slept well, hadn’t she? Better than she had in a long while, anyway.

Sierra gazed out the window, too, her eyes cloudy with the concern that hadn’t completely left her gaze in the time since she’d arrived in Maine. “No word?” she asked quietly.

Bellaniece shook her head. “Nothing.”

“Maybe today,” Sierra replied as she reached over to squeeze Bellaniece’s hands. It was the same thing that she said every morning. Funny thing was that it sounded just as genuine today as it had every day before it.

“Morning, Belle-y!” Kelly Cartham greeted brightly as she strode into the kitchen. She had a huge cardboard box of . . . something . . . and a bright smile on her face.

Bellaniece stood up and hugged her longtime friend. Kelly had taken it upon herself to bring the strangest things over in the hopes that they would get Bellaniece’s mind off things, at least for a little while, and normally, they worked. “What have you got there?” she demanded, poking the box with an articulated claw.

Kelly grinned then hurriedly greeted Sierra with a quick squeeze, too. “Oh, you’ll love this,” she insisted as she dug into the box and dragged out a gaudy, garish, hot pink feather boa. With a giggle, she wrapped it around Bellaniece’s neck and tossed the end over her shoulder. “What do you think? Remember when we were little, and we used your dad’s Mokomoko-sama like this? Didn’t we tell him we were going to join the Rockettes or something like that? Poor ol’ Cain . . . I don’t think he ever quite got over that . . .”

Bellaniece smiled wanly at the memory. They really had told Cain that they were practicing to join the Rockettes, and he’d just smiled and said that he was sure that they’d both make it despite the hint of worry in his eyes as the girls tugged and yanked on the Mokomoko-sama . . .

“I guess we forgot to go audition,” Kelly said with a wink.

Bellaniece nodded then hugged her friend. “Thanks.”

Kelly sighed and shook her head as she reached for the end of the boa. “Don’t mention it . . . it’s the least I can do, isn’t it?”

“Is Cartham back from New Mexico yet?” Sierra asked as she sipped a mug of tea.

“Hmm, no, but he called this morning to say that he’d be back around noon unless his flight’s delayed.”

“Morning,” Nezumi mumbled as she stumbled into the kitchen with a wide yawn. “Ugh, I need coffee . . .”

Bellaniece fell silent as she sank back down at the breakfast nook. Gin hurried over and took her cup to refresh it, pausing long enough to give her a gentle squeeze on the shoulder before she turned away.

Meara wandered in, smiling just a little as she stared at her cell phone. The women asked her what flower Morio had sent her for the day as Bellaniece’s attention shifted back to the window again.

She felt as though she were slowly going crazy, and while she loved her friends and family, she couldn’t help but wish that, maybe just for today, they’d leave her to her thoughts. Their support meant the world to her, and every last one of them loved Samantha almost as much as she and Kichiro did, but . . .

A stream . . . and a tree . . .’ she mused to herself. Why did she feel as though it had some significance? If she could remember her dream, maybe she’d understand that, too . . .

 

 

-OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

 

 

Samantha groaned and slowly opened her eyes, her head thick and dull as she tried in vain to shake off the lingering stench that seemed to be clinging to her nasal passages.

“You all right?”

Blinking at the taijya, she nodded and forced a smile that she was far from feeling. “I’m okay,” she lied. Well, it wasn’t a complete lie—more of a fib, really. “Guess I didn’t cooperate with their testing today, did I?”

Shaking his head at her rueful assessment, he rubbed his face as he pushed himself to his feet to walk away.

Samantha groaned quietly as she rolled onto her side, realizing a little late that she wasn’t in her cage. No, she was . . . on his cot, wasn’t she? He must have put her there, didn’t he? He turned around quickly when she started to sit up. “Lay back,” he commanded as he strode over to her once more.

Letting out a deep breath, she did as she was told, though mostly because she simply didn’t have the strength to argue with him. Besides, the cot was comfortable enough, wasn’t it? “I’ll be all right in a little bit,” she assured him.

He grunted and stared at her for a long moment before he moved away again. “So . . . you . . . your kind . . . you have strong senses of smell, I take it?”

“Mhmm,” she murmured, “we can identify people by scent . . .”

“And that’s why you use those pills.”

“Yeah . . . as a hunter, if someone wanted to get revenge for what we have to do, it can get dangerous. It’s a safeguard . . .” she admitted.

“Do those pills just work on demons?”

She blinked slowly. “Why? Would they work on humans, you mean?”

“Sure.”

She thought that over as she pushed herself upright. “I suppose,” she ventured at length. “Yes, I’m sure they’d work . . .” Staring at his back for a moment, she smiled suddenly. “Are you going to take one?”

He shot her a quick glance. “Maybe.”

“Why? I like the way you smell.”

He started to grunt something but stopped suddenly and turned to face her as he crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head to the side. “What do I smell like?”

She stared up at the ceiling as she considered it, then shrugged. “You smell like . . . sandalwood . . . and ocean water that washes up on the shore first thing in the morning.”

He looked vaguely amused by her assessment. “Sandalwood . . .”

She nodded then shook her head. “Why would you want to change the way you smell? It’s like a fingerprint; did you know? You can smell similar to someone else, but there are never two people who smell exactly alike—even twins.”

“Is that so?” he countered, leaning against the desk and crossing his ankles casually.

“Well, take my father and uncle, for example. They’re identical twins, and they smell similar—enough so that people who just meet them for the first time don’t always realize it.”

“Okay . . . well, assuming that I believe you about those pills . . . how long would the effects of one last?”

She raised an eyebrow at the dubious quality in his tone. “Why wouldn’t you believe me? And it lasts about seven days, give or take . . . You’re not really going to take, are you?”

He shrugged and pulled the bottle out of his pocket, idly tossing it into the air and catching it again. “Because y