~August 23, 2074~
The steady tick of the old fashioned clock mounted on the wall was the only sound to be heard in the quiet of the office as the reaching fingers of watery, gray light spilled through the window behind the desk. Resting his temple on his fingertips as he leaned to the side and stared at the information he was reading on his computer screen, Ben Philips stifled a sigh slowly shook his head. 'They won't do, either,' he thought as he closed out the file and leaned back in his chair.
It was a problem, wasn't it?
Letting out a long breath as he scowled at the list of files left behind after he'd closed out the last one, Ben's frown deepened . . . He'd been checking into this all day, ever since Zelig's call this morning, and he had to admit, as much as he hated to, that he was no closer to finding an answer now than he was hours ago . . .
"Hey, Ben . . ."
"Zelig," Ben interrupted, a flash of relief shooting through him when the weary voice of the North American tai-youkai came through the video feed. The stubborn fool had insisted that he wanted to go alone when he'd called three days ago to inform Ben of the formal challenge he'd received from an irate cougar-youkai. Ben, of course, had tried his damndest to talk Zelig into letting Ben come along, but Cain hadn't wanted him to do any such thing . . . "Is it done?"
Cain heaved a heavy sigh, dragging his hand over his face. In the background, Ben could hear the faint page over the intercom, but it was distorted enough from the connection that he couldn't make it out, not that it mattered. People in white coats, in scrubs hurried past behind him. Zelig was in a hospital? But why . . .? "Yeah," he said. "It's done."
The weariness in the man's visage wasn't surprising to Ben. Zelig had only been formally challenged a handful of times in the over two hundred years of his tenure as tai-youkai, and he hadn't been challenged in almost a hundred years, for that matter. Taking a life was never something that sat well with Cain Zelig, either, and Ben knew that, too. That he had to in this case—a foolhardy thing, if one wanted Ben's considered opinion—was likely wearing pretty heavily on Cain, and for good reason. "Will you be home soon? Why the hell are you at a hospital?"
Face contorting into a very pronounced grimace, Cain heaved a sigh. "About that . . ." he hedged.
"What about that?" Ben countered. "Damn it, are you hurt?"
Scratching the back of his neck, Cain slowly shook his head. "No, no . . . I'm fine. It's just that Unker has pups," he explained. "I . . . I went to talk to his mate." Expression shifting into one full of irritation, almost anger, Cain shook his head again. "I wanted to tell her that I was sorry for . . . for everything . . . but . . ."
Schooling his features to give nothing away in his face, Ben considered that as he sat back, steepling his fingers together before him. "But . . .?" he prompted when Cain trailed off.
Another sigh. "I brought her to the hospital," Cain blurted with a wince. "She, uh . . . Hell, she's pregnant, and when I told her, it upset her, and she started having contractions . . ."
"Yeah." Scowling around at the almost clinical environment of the waiting room where he was pacing, Cain uttered a terse growl. "She, uh, said . . . She said she warned him that he was being stupid. She said she told him that he couldn't win, that he was . . . was going to kill them both, but he didn't want to listen . . ." Sinking down in a chair, Cain leaned forward, the video feed shaking slightly as he raked his free hand through his hair—hair that he usually kept clubbed back, and vaguely, Ben wondered if Cain had bothered to get cleaned up before he'd gone to see Unker's mate, in the first place. "Anyway, the doctor explained everything to me a little while ago. She hemorrhaged on the table just after she delivered, and she, uh, she bled out."
Ben grimaced. "And the babe? Relatives?"
"Babies," Cain corrected.
"Babies?" Ben echoed. "More than one, you mean?"
"Yes, identical twins, and yes, relatives—his relatives, anyway—but she didn't want them to have the babies, either." Cain shook his head. "She apparently told the doctors that she gave permission for me to take the babies, and luckily, she had youkai doctors, so . . . It's a long story. I'll tell you everything when I get back. Anyway, I, uh . . . I need you to look into the files, see if there's anyone looking to adopt these babies. I thought about it, but Gin . . ."
"Right," Ben agreed, understanding what Cain was saying. "I'll see what I can find out."
"Thanks," Cain remarked. "Uh, the doctor's heading this way again. I'll give you a call when I figure out when I'm going to be coming back."
Letting out another deep breath as the memory faded, Ben rubbed his face with both of his hands. It was easier said than done, really. Youkai on a whole weren't really as interested in adopting as many humans were, though there were a number of notable exceptions: Cain himself being one. He and his wife had adopted their daughter, Jillian years ago. It wasn't really surprising that Cain had entertained the idea, even though there was a good chance that he'd opted not to do so, given that his mate was currently pregnant with twins, too, and the idea of dealing with four infants that would be that close together in age was just not really something that could easily be accomplished, no matter how badly they might want to.
No, the trouble with youkai tended to be the strong sense of familial bonds that oftentimes seemed to form even before a child was born. Ben, of course, was no expert on it, but he knew enough to understand that, for a youkai, whose very existence was normally defined by those that he or she considered to be family, to try to forge a bond from nothing was far more difficult than most were willing to do, and it was even more difficult to accomplish with older children, too. These babies, though, would be slightly better off in that they wouldn't have developed the stronger bond, post-birth . . .
Even then . . . Even then, even if luck was with them, even if they found someone willing to try, the very real issue was that, as far as Ben could tell, not a single family represented in the files were interested in more than one child, regardless of the idea that these two should stay together, no matter what . . .
Stuffing his hands into his pockets as he slowly wandered around the comfortably appointed living room in the townhouse that he called 'home' whenever he was in New York City, Ben cleared his throat as the voice of the Inu no Taisho came to life over the house audio speaker. "Sesshoumaru-sama, I apologize if I've interrupted anything."
"Nothing important, Ben. This is about Zelig's challenge, I take it?"
"Kind of," Ben replied, moving off toward the wet bar on the far side of the room. "He won, of course, but that's not why I called."
The clink of the crystal decanter brushing against the snifter was the only sound in the room for a long moment as Ben poured himself a drink. "Unker's mate was pregnant, and the strain of it all sent her into labor. She died during the birth, and she asked Cain to bring the infants back with him and find them a home."
"Them?" Sesshoumaru replied, a hint of actual surprise in his voice. "There was more than one pup?"
"Two . . . twins," Ben clarified, his voice muffled by the glass as he raised it to his lips, as his deep emerald eyes flickered over the room. "I've checked the files—all the people we know that are looking to adopt a child—but no one seems to be interested in taking on more than one, and . . ."
Sesshoumaru considered that for a moment. "Not surprising," he allowed. "Raising one child is enough of a challenge. Two infants? That will be a difficult placement."
"I was wondering if you knew of anyone who would be willing to take on the responsibility."
Sesshoumaru let out a deep breath—an odd sound, coming from him. Ben couldn't rightfully recall having ever heard that particular being making it before. "I will talk with Toga, but I don't know that we'll have any better luck in finding anyone."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Ben acknowledged. "It would be easy if we could split them up, but . . ."
"But they're siblings—twins," Sesshoumaru concluded. "No, that would undoubtedly prove to be disastrous for them."
"In any case, I thank you for your time," Ben said, letting the glass hang from his fingertips as he shuffled over to the wall of windows that overlooked Central Park. "Let me know if you find anyone."
"Absolutely, Benjiro," Sesshoumaru said, using the name that Ben had left behind so long ago.
The connection ended with a soft click, and Ben shook his head as he stared out at the darkened shadows of the night.
'It can't be that hard to place a couple of newborns, can it?'
Frowning at the pragmatic sound of his youkai-voice, Ben lifted the snifter of brandy to his lips again, taking his time as he sipped the liquor, letting it roll over his tongue. 'Children being made to suffer for the mistakes of their father,' he thought.
He'd seen such things before, hadn't he? It wasn't often, no, but it was enough . . .
It wasn't the first time that he'd thought that these children—the ones left behind because the family had suffered some kind of misfortune, whether by their own design or not—were the victims, left behind to try to survive as their entire world was turned upside down. A few years ago, three siblings had had to be split up because no one was willing to take in all three. A week after losing their parents in a house fire that had claimed their lives, those children had to say goodbye to each other, too, and it had bothered Ben then, as well. Knowing that they would have to learn how to deal, how to cope, by themselves without the basest comfort of having each other was a harsh thing: an ugly thing.
It wasn't the first time, either. Back when he had been interim tai-youkai, while Cain was being fostered with Sesshoumaru, Ben had been forced to deal with the children who had been orphaned as a result of the uprising that ultimately had killed Cain's parents, too. There were seventeen children of varying ages left without families that fateful night. Some of them had been almost old enough to be considered adults, anyway, but most of them were not. Back then, it was harder to locate youkai families, let alone youkai families that were willing to adopt those children. In the end, most of them had ended up, living on a small farm with an old human priest in an orphanage. It was the best that Ben could do . . .
No one had wanted those children, had they? Even the few willing families had backed out when they'd learned just what the parents had done. The children had nothing to do with the misfortune that befallen them, had nothing to do with the choices that their fathers had made, and yet the stigma of it was enough to make people turn their backs on them, too, and whether it was back then or now, Ben had to wonder if the same wouldn't ultimately happen to these twins. Even if they found a family that would consider taking them, would that family decide that it the infants were somehow undesirable, simply because their fool of a father had chosen to challenge Cain . . .? Would those babies, like the others that had come before, end up just stashed away somewhere, forgotten because it was simpler to let that happen than it would be to keep trying to find someone—anyone—who would take them? Or would they ultimately have no choice but the split the two up? And if that happened, just how hard would it be for them in the long run? Would they grow up, feeling deep down as though some part of them just wasn't there? Even if they were able to find families that could overlook the father's sins, would it really be all right?
'The world isn't fair, Ben,' his youkai-voice pointed out in a more pensive tone. 'The only thing you can do is hope for the best.'
'That seems awfully convenient, though,' he countered mildly, setting the snifter on the coffee table as he made his way toward the high archway and his study beyond. "Boot computer," he said as the central navigation unit of the house whirred softly.
'Convenient or not, it's really the best chance we have at the moment. So what are you going to do now?'
'Now?' He sighed. 'Now we call and see if anyone on this list is willing to consider taking both of those twins.'
'And if not? Then what? It doesn't seem right. I mean, those children . . . It's not their faults.'
'I know that,' Ben grumbled.
'Yeah, still . . . But then, aside from taking them in yourself, I guess there's nothing we could do about it.'
He didn't respond to his youkai-voice's tongue-in-cheek response as he sucked in a cheek thoughtfully. Maybe, if he were married, if he had a mate who agreed, that would have been an entirely viable option, wouldn't it? But only 'if' . . .
Sinking into the overstuffed office chair behind the prodigious slate desk, Ben narrowed his eyes at the computer monitor as he authorized the download of the files from the secured server where they were saved. It only took a minute for the files to appear, and he let out a deep breath as he tapped on the first file and double tapped the phone number listed . . .
The unwelcome trill of the alarm clock cut through the stillness with all the finesse of a sledgehammer. With a startled grunt, Ben sat up and smacked the clock on the nightstand before burying his face in his hands, long black hair spilling over his arms. With a muffled yawn, he wondered briefly if he shouldn't just lie back down, at least, for a little while. In the end, however, he heaved a sigh that morphed into another yawn as he tossed the blankets aside and swung his legs off the side of the bed.
Seven o'clock felt much earlier than usual, which was very likely the result of the long hours he'd spent last night, calling all the families in his files, trying in vain to find someone willing to take the twins that were less than a day old. One couple—Theresa and Hugh Kirkland—had seemed mildly interested—until Ben had explained why these children needed a home. As he'd suspected, the idea that their father had challenged Cain was more than enough to put an end to that interest, and it struck Ben yet again, just how unfair that really was.
Which left him exactly where he started: right back at Square One with absolutely no prospects in sight . . .
"Shower," he muttered as he stepped into the bathroom, as the lights flickered to life when he passed the control panel. A moment later, the shower jets sprang to life. Ben didn't miss a step as he shuffled forward, straight into the open shower, not stopping until he squeezed his eyes closed against the healthy water jets that hit him on all sides.
He stood still for a minute, letting the flowing water wash over him like rain. Groping for the soap and stubbornly refusing to open his eyes to look for it, he took his time as he lathered his body, absently feeling the heavy suds run down his skin.
By the time he finally finished his shower, he felt a little more normal. "Shower," he said again, this time to shut off the flow while he reached for a thick white towel.
'So what's on the agenda for the day?'
Draping the towel around his hips and tucking in the end, he reached for a second towel to dry his hair, and he sighed. 'Same thing as yesterday,' he thought with a marked scowl.
'And you think you'll have any more luck than you did yesterday?'
'No,' Ben thought with an inward grimace. No, he really didn't think he would. Even so, that didn't mean he shouldn't try, right?
'Of course not,' his youkai agreed. 'I'm just saying, but you know, I don't see what the big deal is.'
'Meaning?' Ben parried as he dropped the hair towel on the counter and headed out of the bathroom and bedroom and toward the stairs.
'Meaning that it shouldn't matter that their Godforsaken father was fool enough to challenge Cain. What do they think? That because the father was obviously stupid that those babies are going to grow up with the all-consuming need to challenge him, too, all to bring shame upon their adopted families? How dumb can they be?'
Ben didn't respond to that since that was pretty much what he thought, anyway.
"Good morning, Be—Seriously? Do you honestly not know where your clothes are, Ben Philips? Every day, we go through this, and every day, you just laugh at me . . ."
Rolling his eyes despite the slight quirking at the corners of his lips as he reached for the morning paper off the counter and sat down at the table, Ben set the paper beside the already filled coffee cup as he settled back in the chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "Funny . . . I could have sworn that this is my house."
Eddie McCafferty, the old eagle youkai who had been Ben's live-in housekeeper for more years than Ben cared to think about, snorted indelicately and stopped in her task of scrambling eggs to point the spatula in her hand at him. "Your house, maybe, but you're the one who expects me to wait on you, hand and foot, so the least you could do is put some damn clothes on before you come downstairs. It's bad enough that you don't bother to wear anything to bed so I have to wash your sheets every day—"
"You really don't have to wash them every day if you don't want to," he pointed out reasonably. "I never asked you to do that."
She grunted indignantly. "And then you have to make a habit of coming down here in nothing but a towel? Didn't your mother teach you better? Civilized folk—"
Chuckling softly since it was the same lecture that Eddie indulged herself in every morning, Ben reached for the mug of steaming hot coffee as the doorbell cut off Eddie's rant. Sparing a moment to pin him with a longsuffering look, the housekeeper huffed off to answer the door while Ben reached for the paper once more and shook it open to look at the headlines.
"Morning, Benjamin," Myrna Loy greeted as she breezed into the kitchen, followed closely by the housekeeper, who shot Myrna a dark look before stepping over to resume her cooking duties. "Guess I'm not too late to enjoy the view."
"Myrna," he greeted without taking his eyes off the paper and ignoring her off-color commentary since it wasn't the first time she'd made comment over his choice of attire this early in the morning. A shooting across town, the latest results of the Presidential Summit in London . . . Absolutely nothing noteworthy, and Ben sighed and set the paper aside once more. "Would you like a cup of coffee? Some breakfast? I'm sure Eddie doesn't mind."
Eddie snorted loudly.
"Coffee would be wonderful, thanks," she allowed with a bright smile as she slipped into the chair beside him.
Ben didn't miss the little 'humph' from the housekeeper as she retrieved a clean mug and filled it up. "I take it you got my message?"
Letting out a deep breath as she shot the maid a smile of thanks, Myrna raised her eyebrows as she slowly shook her head. "You know how to pick the favors, don't you?" she countered with a rueful chuckle. "I checked around all afternoon and all night, and I didn't really come up with much. Placing twin infants isn't an easy task."
"I know," he allowed.
"Unless Zelig's willing to separate them, and even if he would, which I'm certain that he wouldn't, that isn't something that I'd think was a good idea," she went on, lifting the fragrant mug of coffee to her lips. "Not even I'd be cruel enough to do that unless I had to."
"You're not really a cruel person, Myrna," he pointed out, hiding his amusement at her audacious claim behind his own cup. She liked to come off as a pretty unyielding person, but Ben didn't honestly believe it, either.
Eddie slipped the plate of eggs and sausage in front of Ben and shuffled away without a word.
"Not so loud," Myrna complained. "You never know when someone will hear you."
He chuckled. "Your secret's safe with me."
She laughed then slowly shook her head as her amusement faded. "Do you want me to keep looking for you? I don't know how much good it will do, but I can try . . ."
Ben sighed. "I'm sure you've got enough on your plate, but thanks," he said. "I called Sesshoumaru last night, anyway, and he's going to see if there's any interest."
"In Japan? Well, at least they're not old enough to suffer from culture shock." Standing abruptly, Myrna winked at Ben as she broke into another bright smile. "I'll see you, Ben. A pity you didn't lose your towel this morning . . ."
"Bye, Myrna," he called after her as the smile resurfaced on his features.
Her laughter drifted back to him, echoing in the quiet house even after she'd closed the door behind her.
"I don't like that woman," Eddie remarked as she washed out the skillet. "She's just waiting to pounce on you, you know."
Ben chuckled. "Myrna's harmless," he insisted, digging into the eggs.
Eddie snorted indelicately. "You know why she shows up here every morning, don't you?"
"She doesn't show up every morning," Ben countered though his amusement hadn't quite waned.
"More often than not," Eddie shot back. "Shameless hussy; that's what she is."
Ben didn't bother to argue with that. Eddie kept muttering under her breath.
"Tell me something, Eddie," Ben cut in as the maid wiped off the stovetop.
"Why didn't you ever find your mate? Have a family?"
She made a face as she glanced up from her task, only to roll her eyes before looking back at the stove. "You're kidding, right? If I'm going to spend my life, cleaning up after some ungrateful man who never appreciates the work I do to make sure he's got a respectable home, I'm damn well going to get paid for it."
Ben chuckled as he stood up and picked up his dishes to take to the sink. "I absolutely appreciate you," he assured her as he deposited them and stepped behind the maid, only to lean over her shoulder to kiss her cheek. She almost laughed but managed to contain it as she swatted Ben with a towel to get him to back off. "Why don't you take the day off and go pamper yourself? Get a massage or something," he suggested, heading for the stairs again. "Just tell them to bill me."
He heard her incredulous 'ha' drift up the steps behind him, which wasn't surprising at all, given that he'd tried to talk her into doing that same thing at least once a week for the last ten years, to no avail.
His amusement was short lived, though, as he strode into his bedroom to get dressed. The cell phone he'd left on his nightstand buzzed, and he veered to the side to retrieve it. Frowning at the image that greeted him when he opened the message from Cain, Ben sank down on the edge of the bed and grimaced.
Two tiny babies with tiny pink caps and tiny pink sleepers and tiny little hands, huddled together in one hospital bassinet . . . Sweet pink cheeks, so perfectly round despite the diminutive size of them . . . Luminous golden eyes—almost orange, really—looking so somber . . . and they looked so alone, didn't they? So helpless and so, so lost . . . Babies less than a day old who had already lost more than some people lost in their entire lives . . .
Ben sat there and stared at the image for a very long time.