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Purity Redux: Fruition

Chapter Text

 ~August 23, 2074~

~o~

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 . . ."

"Damn."

"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 . . .

 

 


 

 

"Inutaisho."

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."

"All right."

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.

"What's that?"

"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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Blinking in surprise as the rising sounds of unhappy babies seemed to echo in Ben's living room, he stopped short to watch as Cain Zelig unfastened one of the baby carriers as quickly as he could before moving onto the other one to repeat the process.  He shot Ben an apologetic sort of glance as he carefully lifted one of the babies and reached down to scoop up the other.  "They've been crying pretty non-stop since . . . Well, since we left the hospital, actually," he said, raising his voice enough to be heard over the din.  "I'm surprised we weren't kicked off the plane . . ."

"I thought you knew how to take care of babies," Ben remarked, crossing his arms over his chest and slowly shaking his head.

Cain snorted.  "Pfft!  I do.  I'm pretty sure that these two just don't like me . . . I've changed them, fed them, you name it.  They're just unhappy; that's all."

Rolling his eyes, Ben let his arms drop as he strode forward.  "Hey," he said softly, holding his hands out to take one of the babies.  "It's all right . . . Cain's just an ass, right?  I'd cry, too, if I were you . . ."

Cain's eyebrows lifted as the baby in Ben's arms hiccupped and suddenly stopped screaming.  Ben chuckled softly and shifted the infant to free up his right arm.  "Here," he said, waving his hand toward the other unhappy infant.

Cain carefully handed over the other baby, who also stopped crying as she stared at Ben's face.

"Well, I'll be damned," Cain mused, breathing a sigh of relief.  "How did you do that?"

Sparing a momentary glance at Cain, Ben chuckled.  "Maybe they were simply scared . . ."

Heaving a weary sigh, Cain dropped into the nearest chair, rolling his head back from side to side as he closed his eyes for a minute.  "Any luck finding potential adopters?"

Carefully settling onto the sofa without bobbling the babies, Ben shook his head.  "No, not yet.  Most of the families only want one baby, and the one that would consider it changed their minds when they heard the story."

Cain grunted.  "Ridiculous! They're babies, for God's sake!  They had nothing at all to do with it!"

Ben nodded as a smile broke over his features.  Gazing down at the two identical faces that stared back at him, he couldn't credit the strange sense of peace that settled on him with the warmth and familiarity that he hadn't really known in what felt like ages.  If he stopped and thought about it, he might be able to recall the time and place when he'd felt that way before, but for now, it was enough.  "They're . . . They're so small," Ben remarked, more to himself than to Cain.

Cain sighed.  "Their mother—Elizabeth—didn't want to leave the babies with Unker's relations," he stated quietly, his gaze clouding over as he turned his head to watch Ben holding the twins.  "She said that they were all pretty shady: petty crime, drugs, you name it.  She wanted them placed into a stable home away from all of that, and since she didn't have any family to speak of, she asked me to find a place for them."  Shaking his head in obvious irritation, he sighed.  "I don't want to split them up," he admitted.  "I don't know.  Maybe someone in Gin's family will take them, even if they have to go to Japan to do it."

"I already talked to Sesshoumaru," Ben murmured, careful not to raise his voice or startle the twins.  "He wasn't very optimistic."

"Yeah," Cain breathed, and he didn't look at all surprised.  "I promised Elizabeth, damn it."

"I'm surprised she didn't hate you," Ben remarked, finally shifting his gaze to meet Cain's.  "I mean, all things considered . . ."

"I was, too," Cain admitted.  "She said she knew that it'd come to this.  She was more angry, more bitter, toward Unker than she was to me.  Said she knew damn well what was going to happen.  She said that Helena—"

"The daughter that you had to issue the hunt for?"

He nodded.  "Yeah.   She said that everyone knew that Helena had committed those murders.  She was high at the time, I guess.  But Unker never stopped saying that it wasn't her fault, that the drugs made her do it, and maybe they did.  It doesn't mean that she should have been pardoned for it."  Cain sat up straight then hunched over, elbows on knees as he rubbed his face with his hands.  "Forfeited his own life and that of his wife, all because he couldn't accept that his daughter did something wrong . . ."

"Don't take it with you, Zelig," Ben warned.  "He made his choice, and you had to follow through.  It's your job."

That earned him a quelling look.  "I know what my job is, Ben," he growled.  "Better than anyone else, I think."

"You do," Ben agreed.  "But you're a decent man, and that decent part of you tends to hold onto things for far, far too long."

Cain grimaced at the gentle reminder of the things he'd done wrong over the years.  He'd learned his lessons well enough when he'd almost lost Gin years ago—at least, he thought he had.

"Sometimes, I wonder why I'm still tai-youkai," Cain said.  "Bas is more than ready to handle it all.  He's stronger than me, and I know it, but then, I think . . ." Trailing off with a heavy sigh, he made a face.  "Then I think that stepping down would be the single, most selfish thing I could ever do to him.  If he had been tai youkai now . . ."

"Bas will be a fine tai-youkai, whenever he's ready to take over," Ben assured him.  "Yes, I'm sure that he'll be challenged.  You can't be the tai-youkai and please everyone all the time—you know that.  Bas knows it, too, and whether it's now or five hundred years from now, he'll still have to face it himself one day."

Cain sighed.  "I know."

Ben shook his head.  "You did what you had to do, Zelig.  There's really nothing else to say."

"Yeah, well, I still don't know what to do about them," he admitted, lifting a limp hand to flick it in the direction of Ben and the infants he held.  "If I take those pups home with me, Gin will get attached, which would be fine, but right now, I'm not so sure that it'd be a good or even a feasible idea, but there's really not a choice . . ."

Cain's cell phone rang, and he fished it out of the pocket of his more-rumpled-than-usual khaki slacks.  "Uh, it's Gin," he said.  "Do you mind keeping an eye on them for a minute?"

"It's fine," Ben assured him, his smile returning as he watched one of the twins yawn wide.  Her eyelids started to droop as she drifted off to sleep.  The other twin was already dozing, and Ben shifted them slightly to cuddle them a little closer against his chest as Cain stood up and wandered toward the other side of the room to take the call.

'Cute, aren't they?'

Smile widening just a little as he breathed in that sweet baby-smell, he nodded absently.  Funny, it was.  He'd held babies before—he'd held each one of Zelig's children, after all.  Even so, there was something different about these babies, though . . .

'You know,' his youkai-voice said, 'what's going to happen if you can't find anyone willing to take them both?'

'Someone's going to want them . . . They just need to see a picture of them . . . How could they not?  Just look at them . . .'

'Okay, then suppose someone comes forward and wants to adopt them.  How will we know that they're going to be good parents?  I mean, there are people in the world who want babies but wouldn't be decent parents, even if they do seem entirely capable to the naked eye.'

That was true enough, Ben supposed.  Even so, it wasn't like they'd ever just handed a child over to anyone without thoroughly investigating them to make sure that everything was exactly as it should be.  That really was all they could do.

'But is that enough?' his youkai persisted.  'Look at how tiny they are; how helpless they are . . . Ben . . .'

'I . . . I know . . .'

'Objectively speaking, they've already been dealt a shitty hand, if you think about it . . . Lost their parents, carted across the States . . . and no one wants them simply because they cannot separate the sins of the father from them.  Aren't we . . .?  I mean, isn't it our job, Ben?  Protect the innocent, and what in the world could be more innocent than these two cubs?'

Ben didn't really know.  He'd already thought the same things, ever since it had become obvious that placing the twins was not going to be as simple as he might have hoped.  Staring down at the sleeping babies in his arms, he frowned as he pondered the questions his youkai-voice had raised, even as the softest voice whispered the in recesses of his mind.  Too bad he couldn't quite make out the words.

 

 


 

 

 

Leaning back in the thickly cushioned office chair as he frowned at the computer screen, Cain let out a deep breath as he hit 'send' on the email he'd spent the last hour drafting and glanced over at Ben, who was feeding a bottle to one of the twins.  "Let's hope I get a positive answer from St. George," he muttered.

"You honestly think that he'd have an easier time finding someone to place them with than we have?  Are you planning on asking MacDonnough or Covington?"

Cain snorted, which answered Ben's question nicely enough.  Considering that he wasn't exactly on the best of terms with either of those particular tai youkai, Ben ought to have known the answer to his question long before he'd ever gave voice to it.  Cain got along well enough with the South American tai-youkai, Eduardo St. George.  The same couldn't be said for Europe's Ian MacDonnough or Australia's Jude Covington.  MacDonnough was an ass and always had been, and Covington?  Well, it was safe to say that neither of them held much affection for the other, given the threats that Covington had made against Cain's son-in-law, Gavin . . .

"Maybe St. George will have more luck.  Anyway, it doesn't hurt to try," Cain replied in an almost sulky tone of voice.

"Maybe," he replied, though his tone held very little in the way of optimism.

Cain's frown darkened.  Gin had called awhile ago, simply to ask him if she should prepare a nursery for the twins since there really was nowhere else to take them.  Even so, the trepidation was riding high.  It wasn't that he didn't want to take the twins home with him, no, but he, better than anyone, knew Gin well enough to realize that she would get attached to them, and, while he couldn't say that was a bad thing, either, with their own twins due to be born in a few months, he was afraid that she'd end up spreading herself way too thin, too . . .

Which really wasn't here or there, as far as he was concerned, because if it came right down to it, Cain would consider keeping them.  Better than the alternative of watching them be split up—if they could even find willing families, that was.  Then again, knowing Gin's family as well as he did, Cain kind of thought that it might not come to that, after all.  Surely someone in the extended family would be willing to take them in, he had little doubt.  After all, Gin herself was a product of her environment, and as much as Cain might like to bluster and fuss about them collectively, he had to admit, at least to himself, that they really were a warm and accepting lot.  The woman he loved more than anything in the world . . . She was who she was because of the people who loved her from the start, long before Cain had ever crossed her path . . .

Ben shook his head as he set aside the bottle and carefully lifted the infant to his shoulder.  "You never said what their names are," he pointed out, effectively shattering Cain's pensive line of thought.

Cain blinked and stared at Ben for several seconds, as he tried to figure out just what Ben was talking about.

"The babies," Ben clarified.

"Oh.  Uh, they don't have names yet."

Barking out a terse laugh, Ben's eyebrows shot up in surprise.  "What do you mean, they don't have names yet?"

"I figured it was something that the parents would want to do, so it seemed a little ridiculous to just give them whatever names I could think up off the top of my head," he explained.

"They need names, Zelig," Ben stated.  "How did you even get them onto an airplane without them?"

"It was Sesshoumaru's plane," he muttered.

Ben shook his head and held up the infant to examine her face.  Blinking at him, she seemed content just to look at him, and Ben smiled.  "Emmeline," he stated flatly.  "She looks like an Emmeline."

"Emmeline?" Cain echoed in a rather incredulous tone.

Satisfied that the child now had a name, Ben brought her back against his shoulder as he glanced at Cain, only to do a double take at the raised-eyebrow-ed look he was getting.  "What?"

"That so . . . cute," Cain replied with a shake of his head.  "All right, we'll call her Emmeline for now.  What about her twin?"

After settling Emmeline in the empty carrier, Ben reached down and lifted the other baby, repeating the process of holding her up at eye-level to stare at her, too.  "She looks like a Nadia," he finally said without bothering to look at Cain again.

"Nadia . . . Also, err . . . precious," Cain replied with a shrug.

He didn't say anything as Ben dug another bottle out of the ridiculously pink diaper bag that Cain had gotten from the hospital, simply watching as the panther-youkai negotiated holding onto Nadia while he opened the sterile packed nipple and popped the sealed cap on the ready-to-drink formula.  It was rather impressive, Cain had to admit, at least to himself.  Ben managed to screw the nipple top onto the bottle with one hand—something that Cain was pretty sure he couldn't do.

Cradling the infant in one arm, he settled her against his chest to feed her.  Frowning thoughtfully as he watched the panther that he thought he knew well enough, Cain slowly shook his head.  'It's almost as if he . . .'

Cain cleared his throat.  "Uh, Ben . . ."

Ben didn't look up from his task as a little smile surfaced on his features.  "Hmm?"

"Do you . . .?  Do you want to . . . keep them?  Until we find a family to place them with?"

His question got Ben's attention quickly enough.  A few emotions seemed to flicker to life on his face, one right after another, shifting too quickly for Cain to accurately discern them all.  "Oh, uh . . . I . . . I don't know anything about babies," he muttered, cheeks pinking just slightly as his gaze fell back to the infant snuggled against him.

'Ben?  Blushing?  Re-e-eally . . .' Cain schooled his features and tamped down the urge to tease the panther.  "You're doing all right now," he pointed out.  "There's not that much more to it, you know, other than changing diapers . . . I mean, other than that, you just . . . You just hold them and that kind of thing. The, uh . . . The fun stuff."

Cain wasn't sure just what Ben was thinking.  Staring down at the infant in his arms—the one he'd named Nadia—he seemed to be mulling things over, but as the seconds ticked away, Cain wasn't entirely sure what to make of it.  True enough, he'd never actually seen Ben act quite like this, but . . .

In fact, he was starting to think that Ben wasn't going to answer him at all.  As the silence stretched and grew, Cain's amusement faded as a small frown—a thoughtful expression—surfaced, instead.  There was a foreign sort of peace surrounding Ben, wasn't there?  It was one of those feelings that Cain hadn't really noticed before since the Ben he knew so well was one that was nothing if not entirely self-assured, entirely comfortable in his own skin.  To be honest, it wasn't the kind of sense that Cain ever realized wasn't there, but seeing him now, holding the infant . . .

It was an emotion that Cain himself knew well enough.  How often had he felt that same kind of contentment as he'd sat there, holding one of his children?  It reminded Cain of the same sort of emotion, the same sense that had occurred to him when he'd watch his granddaughter's mate, Kurt when he'd showed up in Maine with a tiny hanyou girl in tow—now Kurt and Sami's daughter, Tanny . . .

It was the kind of emotion that Cain had felt, too, all those years ago when he'd met the strange youkai woman in the forest outside of his house, when she'd held a tiny infant in her arms and asked him—implored him—to find a family for her own infant daughter, and that daughter had grow up in the shelter of the Zelig family, hadn't she?  Cain's daughter, Jillian . . .

The thing was, he really couldn't force the issue, not at all.  It occurred to Cain that Ben might not even realize what he was doing, in the first place, and assuming the care of one child was hard enough.  Twins?  Cain grimaced inwardly.  Twins were a crazy amount of work for two people, but for one . . .?

Heaving a sigh, Cain stood up.  It was already nearly five in the evening, and he'd wanted to make it home tonight.  Rounding the desk, he moved to take the infant—Nadia—only to pull back when the baby erupted in a high-pitched screech about the second Cain touched her.  Ben shot him an entirely reproachful kind of look as he turned away just enough to keep Cain from being able to take her from him.  Cain rolled his eyes and stepped around to reach for her, only to have her wails intensify.  Only after he'd moved away with the baby calm down again.  Cain shook his head.

"Okay," Ben said, his voice soft in the relative silence.

Cain blinked and shook his head.  "Okay . . .?" he echoed, unsure exactly what Ben was talking about.

Clearing his throat, he shot Cain an almost bashful kind of grin—one that Cain had never seen before, not from this particular being, at least.  "I'll, uh . . . I'll keep them," he said. "I mean, it's pretty damn obvious that they don't like you, and . . . Well . . . I mean, I'll just keep them then, until we find them a permanent family . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The pervasively muggy air hung over the city for the tenth straight day, and as evening crept near,  it seemed to tuck in closer, like an invisible blanket that was almost stifling.  Stepping outside of the Elle Centrion Tower where she worked in a lab on the fiftieth floor, Charity Inutaisho drew a deep breath as her eyes scanned the area, as her hanyou ears, hidden by the concealment spell that kept them from the curious gaze of humans, flicked and turned, taking in the steady stream of sound that made up New York City.

Sensing nothing amiss, she stepped forward onto the sidewalk, debating momentarily, whether she ought to hail a taxi or walk the seven blocks to her apartment.  It wasn't a difficult choice.  After being cooped up in the lab all day, stretching her legs was very appealing despite the thick haze of heat that had gathered throughout the day, only to culminate in a massive pall.

The sound of the barking dog ringtone—Chelsea Inutaisho had programmed it in, just for her—interrupted Charity's thoughts, and, flipping back a long strand of raven black hair as she strode purposefully down the sidewalk, Charity fished the cell phone out of her shoulder bag and connected the call as she brought the device to her ear.  "Moshi moshi," she said in her native Japanese, her voice as soft and clear as the skies high above as evening descended over the city.  The night lights were flickering to life all around her, illuminating the boulevard.

Chelsea Inutaisho heaved a melodramatic sigh.  "I need a vacation," she stated flatly, foregoing the customary small talk and greetings that should have been forthcoming.

Rolling her eyes at her identical twin's penchant for the overwrought histrionics, Charity laughed.  "I thought you had that huge fundraiser tonight," she pointed out.  Chelsea was an event planner currently living in Los Angeles, though she spent quite a bit of time here, too.  In the background over the line, Charity could hear the ambient murmur, the dulcet tones of a string quartet.

"The fundraiser's going fine," Chelsea explained.  "I just need to get the hell away from Warren; that's all."

"I thought you said you dumped him," Charity countered, her gait slowing as she pondered her sister's claim.

Heaving a longsuffering sigh, Chelsea didn't answer right away.  "I . . . did," she explained, choosing her words carefully.

"You did."

"Uh huh."

"If you broke up with him, then why do you need to get away from him?"

Her twin heaved another sigh.  "Yeah, well, I broke up with him . . . and then I got horny."

Somehow, her sister's flip response just didn't surprise Charity in the least.  "So dump him again?" she suggested in what she hoped was a helpful tone.

Chelsea uttered a terse 'hrumph'.  "You just don't understand, Chare," she muttered.  "What that man can do with his dick and tongue?"  Another sigh—this one, laced with a very thick dose of absolute longing.  "See, he does this thing where he swivels his hips, and—"

"Information I don't really want or need," Charity broke in, fighting down a livid blush despite the fact that her twin couldn't see her face.

Chelsea relented with a giggle.  "Too bad he's about as bright as a moonless night . . ."

"You poor thing," Charity commiserated, her tone caught between consoling and entirely facetious.

Chelsea didn't miss it as she giggled once more.  "Anyway, I was thinking Barbados . . . What's your schedule look like a the end of September?"

Letting out a deep breath, Charity slowly shook her head.  "Can't," she replied with a thoughtful frown.  "There's no way I'll be done with my project by then."

Chelsea snorted.  "You've heard the phrase, 'all work and no play', right?"

"It's not my fault," Charity insisted.  "Oh, I didn't tell you!  I figured out that the vestulus pharosa is loosely related to the sirufalum genticala from north Africa, and—"

Chelsea's indelicate snort cut her off.  "You know, don't you, that you're the only one who thinks that plants are even remotely interesting, right?"

"Sorry," Charity muttered.  As close as the twins were, it was one of the few things that they just never had seen eye to eye on.  She had always been fascinated by living things—plants and flowers and the like—which had led her to get her PhD in botany while Chelsea felt that it was her divine calling to make the world better, one party at a time—her exact words.

"All right, all right," Chelsea relented.  "So, what are you doing now?"

Brushing off the twinge of guilt inspired by Chelsea's tone of voice, Charity bit her lip, adjusting the shoulder bag as she waited for the street light to change.  "Nothing much.  I was just walking home, actually."

"Oh, no!" Chelsea groaned.  "When's the last time you went out and had some fun, Chare?  Let me guess: the last time I was in town and made you go to Harbor with me, right?"

Charity remembered that last outing at the trendiest—and noisiest—new night club in the city, and she made a face.  She'd ended up with a headache that had lasted at least three days from the excursion, but Chelsea had loved it, of course.  Sometimes, being inu-hanyou held distinct disadvantages, and loud noises tended to be worse on some than it was on others.  Just like her father, Charity was one of the ones who seemed to have a lower than normal tolerance for too much noise.  None of her other sisters or her younger brother, Mamoruzen—Gunnar—seemed to have a problem with sound.  "I'll pass on that, thanks," she muttered.

Chelsea heaved a sigh.  "So what do you plan on doing then?"

"Well, I bought a new book," Charity said.  "The latest in the Fishers series."

"Kami, no," Chelsea grumped.  "Absolutely not!  You can't go home and hole yourself up with a book, Charity, not even the Fishers—not on a Friday night!  How are we even sisters?"

Breaking into a soft laugh, Charity hurried across the wide street.  "Bye, Chels," she said, raising her voice to be heard over her sister's continuing tirade about exactly how boring she thought Charity's social life really was.

Dropping the phone into the bag once more, she sighed.

'Okay, so Chelsea has a point,' she thought wryly.  Even though she tended to like quiet evenings at home with a good book or movie, it probably was a rather sad thing to do on a Friday night in New York City.  The thing was, Charity really just wasn't that good at the whole mix and mingle game.  She'd tried a few times, and she'd failed.

'So you don't like going clubbing.  Big deal,' her youkai-voice stated.  'Chelsea does have a point though.'

'Not you, too,' she thought with an inward snort.

'Come on, Cherry.  A book and a dried up TV dinner really doesn't sound all that appetizing, now does it?'

'It's one of those microwave pot pies,' she argued.  'Those aren't too bad, you know.'

'Yeah, well, they're not too good, either.'

She didn't bother to respond to that.

The cell phone interrupted whatever rebuttal she had been about to formulate, and with a frown, she dug the device out once more and connected the call.  "Did you butt-dial me?" she asked in lieu of the proper greeting.

Chelsea laughed.  "Nope," she replied.  "I did, however, make dinner plans for you, so you can put the book away for Monday night."

A trill of trepidation raced rampant up her spine, and, sparing a moment to brace herself mentally, Charity counted to twenty before she trusted herself to respond.  Given that Chelsea's idea of dinner plans and hers might well be as different as daylight and dark?  She sighed inwardly.  "What did you do to me?" she asked, her voice dropping in pitch as the very distinct apprehension that had already taken full root crumbled away into a pit of bottomless dread.

Chelsea's amusement rose in direct proportion to the foreboding that wrapped around Charity's gut.  "Well, he said that he can't really go out tonight—something about houseguests—but Ben said that you're welcome to come over and have dinner with him."

The air rushed out of Charity in one mighty 'whoosh', and she stopped abruptly, unmindful of the people behind her who might not have appreciated her sudden halt, eyes flaring wide, literally feeling the blood draining out of her face at her sister's cavalier statement.  "B . . . Ben?" she echoed dumbly.

Chelsea laughed.  "Yes, Ben.  Ben!"

"B-B-Ben?" she squeaked.  "As in, Ben Philips?  That Ben?  You . . . You called him?"

"He's expecting you within the hour."  Chelsea laughed again.  "Thank me later, Chare!"

The line went dead, and Charity groaned, lifting her hands to smash over her face with a low groan and ignoring the dull thump as the cell phone smacked deftly into her nose.

'Ah, Ben . . . Well, now, that's a name I haven't heard you mention lately.'

Face screwing up in a blatant pout, Charity made her feet move as she continued along the sidewalk once more.  'That's because there's nothing to talk about,' she reminded herself—reminded her youkai-voice.  'Never has been, never . . . never will be.'

'And just how do we know this?'

She sighed, feeling her shoulders slump as she bit her lip and frowned at the concrete beneath her feet.  'Because I'm not stupid,' she muttered.  'I've given him plenty of opportunity to notice me, haven't I?  And he hasn't, and since he hasn't, then it obviously means that he's just not . . . not interested.  He's interested in . . . in her . . .'

'That's what you assume, but you could very well be wrong.'

'I'm not wrong . . . I saw them, remember?  I saw them a few times . . .'

Her youkai-voice sighed, but didn't argue with her.  'So what are you going to do, then?'

Making a face, Charity sighed.  She ought to just bite the bullet and call Ben, explain to him that she had nothing at all to do with what Chelsea had planned and back out of it as gracefully as she could.  After all, he had houseguests, didn't he?  Just how brazen must he think she was to just insinuate herself into his plans, anyway . . .?

Her youkai sighed.  'I think we should go,' the voice prompted.  'It's just a dinner, right?  Besides, even if we're not interested in Ben anymore, you have to admit that he really is a nice man.  Who says you can't just be friends?'

'Just friends . . .' she echoed thoughtfully.

She supposed her youkai-voice had a valid point.  After all, as much as she might have liked for something to have developed, it wasn't really his fault if he wasn't attracted to her in the same way that she was.  So there wasn't a good reason to cancel, even if her initial reaction was to do exactly that.

With a deep breath that was almost a sigh, Charity stepped inside a small but nice wine store, deciding that she might as well pick up a bottle of something so that she wouldn't show up, empty-handed.

The best course of action, she figured, was to go to this dinner, and hopefully, she'd have the chance to let Ben know that she was sorry for the intrusion—and to throw her well-meaning but entirely irritating twin under the bus for it all.

 

 


 

 

Refreshing her grip on the bottle of wine, Charity descended the stone stairs of the understated but graceful Philips townhouse and bit her lip as she used her free hand to smooth the simple black dress that wasn't too fancy, but wasn't too casual—absolutely perfect for a laid-back dinner with friends—or so her youkai-voice had assured her.  She wasn't entirely convinced, but she hadn't bothered to change since she was running a little late for the hour timeframe that Chelsea had mentioned.  It'd have to do.

Stepping up to the curb, she lifted her hand to hail a taxi, murmuring the North American youkai general's address as she closed the door and settled back against the seat, wondering yet again, just why she was going through with this in the first place.

Damn Chelsea and her penchant for doing whatever occurred to her, and who cared about the consequences?  It wasn't the first time that the woman's impetuousness had landed Charity in a sticky situation, and she was sure that it wouldn't be the last, either.

She sighed, wondering exactly how much of a social faux pas it would be if she just told the taxi driver to turn around and drive her right back home.

The last time she had actually seen Ben had been at her second-cousin, Evan's wedding a couple weeks ago, but even then, she hadn't had occasion to speak to him then, either, and that was probably just as well.  The few times she had seen him, he'd been talking to other people with that easy grace, that ready smile that she . . .

'That you, what?'

'Nothing,' she insisted tightly.  'Nothing at all.'

'You know, it's pretty bad if you can't even admit things to yourself,' her youkai-voice pointed out.

Charity frowned.  'It's not a big deal,' she argued.  'Let it go.'

''Fess up: it bothered you to see that woman—Myrna.  You hated seeing her, hanging onto his arm.  You hated seeing him laugh at the things she was saying to him, and you really, really hated, watching him dance with her, too . . .'

Wincing inwardly at the deadly accuracy of her youkai's words, she pressed her lips together in a thin line and tightened her grip on the wine bottle in her hands.  Sure, she'd seen Ben a few times before that, but most of those times, he hadn't been alone, and a couple of the times, he had been with Myrna Loy having dinner or coffee, and in the end, she hadn't bothered to approach him then, either . . .

At those times, she'd tried to convince herself that she simply hadn't wanted to disturb them since they'd seemed to be deep in conversation.  She'd tried to tell herself that it wasn't surprising that the two of them were together, considering Myrna worked for Cain Zelig and so did Ben.  That's what she'd wanted to think, and a part of her might even have believed that.

Until the wedding, that was.  Seeing the two of them . . .

"Suppose you tell me why you're being so quiet?"

Blinking as she leaned away far enough to meet her grandfather's amber gaze, Charity smiled, unleashing the single dimple that was carved deeply into her right cheek.  "Am I?"

Sesshoumaru Inutaisho quirked an eyebrow without missing a step of the slow waltz on the dance floor that had been created just for the wedding reception.  "Between you and your twin, it wasn't often that we were able to get a word in edgewise, if I recall."

She laughed.  "We were pups then, ojii-san," she reminded him as she wrinkled her nose.  "I don't talk that much, do I?"

A slight quirking of his lips, a marked brightness in his gaze were the only outward signs of the Inu no Taisho's amusement, but the slight fluctuation in his youki attested to it, too.  "Not as much as your twin, no," he allowed.  "Coral doesn't speak enough.  Chelsea speaks all the time.  You and your sister, Cassidy are the happy mediums, I suppose."

Her smile widened as she closed her eyes for a moment, savoring the comfortable sense of well-being that her grandfather always inspired in her.  All too soon, though, the song ended, and he nodded, stepping back with a slight bow.

Charity giggled as another song started, as Chelsea grabbed Sesshoumaru's hands to dance.

Making her way over to the side, Charity's smile faltered as she caught sight of Ben, standing beside Cain.  His gaze rose to lock with hers, and he offered her a smile.  She was about to return the sentiment when Myrna Loy stepped up beside the youkai general and slipped her hand up under his forearm in a blatantly possessive kind of way.  She said something to him—Ben had to lean in to hear her—and his smile widened at whatever she'd had to say.

Charity frowned, accepting a glass of champagne from a passing waiter before slipping into a seat at an unoccupied table nearby. Gaze fixed on the two youkai, she felt herself sigh as Ben gestured then led Myrna toward the dance floor.

Shaking away the lingering memory, Charity shifted on the uncomfortable vinyl covered bench seat.

She really shouldn't have been surprised, should she?  After all, Myrna Loy really was a beautiful woman.  Tall, gorgeous, with the kind of looks that were often considered 'California Girl', she always looked like she could have easily stepped right out of the pages of Vogue.  Maybe it was her hawk lineage.  Maybe it was the way her light brown, almost golden, hair always seemed perfectly contrived into a mass of what could only be described as 'bed hair', the loose curls falling around her in a cascading stream of light.  Maybe it was the startling directness in the woman's golden eyes, eyes that weren't quite dark enough to be considered brown but weren't as startlingly golden as many of the Inu no Taisho's clan.  What did it matter, really, when Charity couldn't profess to having any of those traits herself.  Always a little more on the mousy side, a little less noticeable, she wasn't tall but she wasn't short.  She wasn't stick skinny, but she didn't possess the curves that men seemed to crave.  She wasn't any of those things, and, at best, Charity figured that the reality of the situation was that she was a little more forgettable overall, and Ben?

If she were to be completely honest with herself, she would have to admit that they looked perfect together, Myrna and Ben, like some kind of fairytale prince and princess, and that was the realization that had really struck Charity that day.  Despite the woman's sordid background, she'd managed to capture the upstanding general's full attention, and didn't that just figure?

'But you know, Ben's always been friendly to us, too,' her youkai pointed out gently.  'Maybe that's all there is to it . . . Maybe he's just being nice to Myrna, too.'

Charity shook her head.  'Of course he was,' she replied.  'He's a general and a really sweet man.  Why wouldn't he humor the daughter of the current Japanese tai-youkai?'

'And since when do you sit around, feeling sorry for yourself?  I raised you better than that.'

Breaking into the barest hint of a smile at the complete and utter censure in her youkai's voice, Charity sighed.  'I'm not . . . I'm just being realistic; that's all.  I'm not commanding like Coral or outgoing and friendly like Cass.  I'm not outrageous and fearless like Chelsea . . . I'm not any of those things, and that's okay.  I just wish . . .' Trailing off as the taxi pulled to a stop.  Leaning forward to hand the fare over the seat, she murmured her thanks before climbing out of the vehicle and straightening her skirt once more as she straightened her back, as she stared up at the imposing edifice: Ben Philips' townhouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"May I help you?"

Blinking in surprise at the older eagle youkai opened the door, Charity took a step back in retreat.  "Oh, sorry . . . I'm Charity Inutaisho . . . Is this . . .?  I mean, Ben . . . Ben Philips is expecting me . . .?"

The woman nodded as understanding dawned on her, and she opened the door wider, gesturing Charity inside.  "I'm Eddie, Ben's housekeeper.  He mentioned that he was expecting a dinner guest.  Come right in; come right in."

Stepping past the woman into the formal entry hall of the townhouse, Charity slowly glanced around as her footsteps echoed against the marble floors and wall panels as the foyer space stretched straight up, spanning three stories where it arched into a dramatic cathedral ceiling, complete with a dramatic and intricate crystal chandelier suspended overhead.  A gently winding staircase of the same sand-tone marble rose off to the right; a high arch edged in ornately carved marble shades darker than the paneling led to what looked to be the living room off to the left.  From her vantage point, she could see the warmth projected from that room, decorated in brushed golds, muted greens, and shining dark wood trim.  Thick, overstuffed furniture was arranged near a hulking  fireplace, but the room wasn't overly furnished, either, giving an airier feel to the space, despite the choice of darker hues.

Shifting her gaze again, she smiled at the huge bank of windows straight ahead through another generous arch that overlooked a private garden beyond.  She really wanted to head straight for that garden, but that would be rude, all things considered.  She had never actually been inside Ben's house before, and she had to admit, it was quite a revelation.

"Ben's upstairs . . . I don't think he'd mind if you go on up.  Is that for him?" Eddie asked, gesturing at the bottle of wine still clenched in Charity's hands.

She took the wine and hurried away through the arch with the wall of windows.  "I'll just let this breathe a bit," she called over her shoulder as she disappeared from view.  Left all alone, Charity drew a deep breath and slowly, hesitantly, headed for the stairs.

When she got to the top landing in the wide great room that overlooked the foyer below, she frowned, realizing too late that, other than the vague 'upstairs', she really had no idea just where Ben was, either.

"Ben?" she called, raising her voice just enough for it to carry.

Down a hallway she saw the light spilling from an open doorway, and she cautiously stepped forward as Ben's voice drifted back to her.  "In here."

Quickening her pace, she wasn't entirely sure what she expected to find.  If she had stopped to think about it, she might have actually wondered if entering the more private reaches of the townhouse was really a good idea.  She couldn't help but to feel as though she was intruding, even if Ben had invited her.  The same marble carried over up here, yet it didn't give a cold or formal kind of air.  Maybe it had something to do with the sparse paintings that adored a few of the walls or the few but fabulously luxurious area rugs: the large one in the middle of the great room and a matching one that ran the length of the hallway beyond.  She didn't stop to examine anything, but one of the paintings, she could tell as she passed, looked like one of Cain's distinctive works.  Drawing a deep breath—she wasn't sure why she felt as though she needed to steel her resolve—she stepped into the doorway and blinked, shaking her head at the strange sight that greeted her.

Sitting in the middle of the floor of the airy and spacious room with pieces of some kind of furniture spread around him, he looked entirely unlike the Ben she'd come to know, which might have been because of the clothes he wore—black sweat pants and no shirt.  Had she ever seen him wearing anything but the countless suits—impeccably tailored to fit, of course?  'N . . . No,' she mused as her eyes lingered on the bared expanse of very blatantly male skin he'd exposed.  No, she hadn't . . .

'Do you think he'll notice that we're staring?'

'Oh, uh, what . . .?'

'Cherry, he's going to if you keep it up.'

'Keep up . . .?'

Her youkai voice sighed.  'The staring; the staring.  I mean, I agree with you.  He's . . . hot, isn't he?  Is that even the right word?  I mean, just look at him . . . and just what in the world is he doing?'

'The . . . uh . . . oh!  Oh, yeah . . .' Blinking quickly, she forced her eyes to move, but when she noticed the two infants, sleeping in tiny bouncer seats on either side of him, the scene fell into place in her head.

'It's a . . .' she thought absently as she watched him scowl at the paper leaflet in one hand, a screwdriver held loosely in the other.  He didn't seem to notice her as she lingered in the doorway.  So busy, concentrating on the assembly instructions, he turned his head just enough to use his shoulder to nudge his glasses back up his nose.

"Ben . . .?" she said at last, breaking the silence while careful to keep her voice down, lest she wake up the babies.

He glanced up at her and smiled as the screwdriver fell from his grasp, thumping dully on the thick off-white area rug he was sitting on, and he dropped the booklet onto the floor.  "Charity, hi," he greeted, pushing himself to his feet and stepping around the pieces scattered on the floor with a cat-like dexterity.  "Sorry . . . I lost track of time," he admitted.  "They delivered the cribs a couple hours ago, but I didn't think to ask them if they came pre-assembled.  Guess I should have."

"Cribs?" she echoed, shaking her head in confusion as she stared in abject bemusement at the youkai's bared skin.  For a man who spent an awful lot of time, stuck behind a desk, he was in absolutely remarkable shape, and, while she'd seen other men without their shirts before, there was something entirely different about Ben, too: something wild and brilliant that he wore like a second skin, that he owned in such a way that it was almost an afterthought.  Strong, sinewy muscles that were a little bit larger than she would have thought, given that he was a panther-youkai, there was something almost overwhelming about his presence, even if she knew well enough that he wasn't trying to intimidate her in the least.  No, she never had seen a shirtless man quite like Ben, and of the ones she had seen in real life, she figured that it didn't count when most of the other men she had seen were related to her . . .

"And a changing table," he added for good measure, oblivious to her line of thought as he jerked his head toward a still-sealed box that was currently leaning against the far wall.

Shaking herself mentally as her cheeks heated slightly, dragging her eyes off Ben's chest, she raised an eyebrow in question.  "Why do you have babies?"

Sparing a glance over his shoulder at the still-sleeping infants, Ben shrugged.  "Zelig was challenged, and the man's mate gave birth to them shortly after.  She asked Zelig to find them a good home, so I'm keeping them."

"You're keeping them?" Somewhere in the back of her mind, she realized that she was sounding more and more stupid every time she repeated what he said.  Too bad her brain just wasn't up to making sense of anything at the moment.  Stepping around Ben, she carefully navigated the pieces of the unassembled crib to kneel beside the babies.  So tiny, so sweet, they slept as though there was nothing in the world that could hurt them.  Rosy cheeks, tiny fists with claws that were so tiny, so delicate, they were almost transparent, they were . . . they were . . . 'Beautiful . . .'

Ben made a face, but the smile returned almost immediately as he crossed his arms over his chest and pivoted on his heel to face Charity once more.  "Uh, yeah.  Well, until we're able to find a good home for them, anyway . . ."

She shook her head.  "So it's only temporary?"  Then she giggled and waved a hand dismissively.  "I don't know if I could do that," she allowed as she gently reached out, rubbed her index finger over a tiny, tiny fist.  "They're so sweet . . . I think I'd get too attached to give them up to someone else."

A sudden flicker of emotion surfaced on Ben's features, only to disappear as quickly as it had come.  She didn't see it since her gaze was still fixed on the infants.  "Y-Yeah," he agreed as the light of amusement faded slowly from his eyes.  "Only . . . temporarily . . ."

 

 


 

 

"I was surprised when Chelsea called," Ben remarked as he held out a chair for Charity, noting the ever-present scent of clean air, of wind that rippled through fields of wheat and that sun-baked brown that was as comforting to him as it was inviting.  She slipped into the seat, and he helped her move it into place at the heavy oak table as she shot him an uncertain little smile that he returned.  It struck him, not for the first time, exactly how beautiful the woman truly was.  Black hair as dark as the deepest part of the night when shadows could easily shift into something frightening, there was a calm about her that beckoned him, an easy familiarity that he'd noticed before.  But it was the heightened sparkle in those startling amber eyes of hers that lingered in his mind.  One of the first things he'd ever noticed about her was the way that every single thought she had, every emotion, was always there, shining through her eyes . . .

She cleared her throat almost nervously as she spared him another quick glance while he sat down in the chair next to her at the end of the table.  "Oh, uh, a-about that," she blurted, shaking her head as though she were trying to refute something.  "I didn't know she was going to do that.  I really didn't mean to intrude.  I'm so sorry . . ."

Ben chuckled as he shook out the linen napkin and slipped it onto his lap.  He'd ducked into his room long enough to pull on a shirt before scooping up the babies in their seats and escorting Charity to the dining room.

"It's fine," he assured her.  "I'm rather glad she did."

Charity blinked in surprise, pausing mid-bite to stare at him for a moment before resuming her task of chewing and swallowing before she responded.  "You are?"

He nodded.  "I . . . I enjoy spending time with you," he admitted.  Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could feel the slight heat of a blush slipping into his cheeks.

What was it about her that had the power to rattle him so much?  It wasn't the first time he'd realized such a thing, but it was unsettling, just the same.

She didn't respond right away as she carefully pushed the food around her plate with her fork.  He'd noticed her habit of doing that before.  It must have been a nervous kind of habit while she considered what she wanted to say.  "I do, too," she finally murmured without lifting her gaze from the plate.  "I, uh . . ."

The sudden fussing of a very unhappy cub interrupted Charity before she got a chance to get out whatever she was trying to say.  Ben started to get up, but she stopped him with a hand on his, and he shot her a cursory glance.  "I'll get her," she said as she stood up and whirled around to unfasten the infant and to carefully lift her from the bouncer seat.

Nadia stopped crying almost instantly as Charity cooed at her, slowly wandering back to the table while Ben stood and came around to help her sit down once more.  The infant seemed happy enough, just to be held for the moment, though Ben figured it wouldn't be long before she was ready for her next bottle, but he figured that it could wait for a little bit, anyway.

"She's just gorgeous," Charity commented quietly as she let the baby wrap her little fist around her index finger.  "Her eyes are just beautiful . . . Are they identical twins?"

"Yeah," Ben replied, setting back in his chair once more.  "I can hold her if you want to keep eating," he offered.

"Oh, no," she said, smiling down at the infant who blinked those large golden eyes at the hanyou woman.  "What's her name?"

Ben smiled.  "That's Nadia, and her sister is Emmeline."

"What pretty names," Charity mused, snuggling the baby close.  "So these are your houseguests, huh?"

Ben chuckled, fully enjoying the sight of Charity with Nadia in her arms.  "Yes," he allowed with an offhanded shrug.

'You know, she looks damn good with a cub in her arms, doesn't she?'

Ben smiled at his youkai-voice's casual assessment.  'She . . . She does . . .'

'Well, you know . . . She always looks damn good.'

'That, too . . .'

His youkai sighed.  'And just so you know?  Those old reasons that you used to rattle off about why you shouldn't make a more direct move to gain her attention?  They don't really work anymore.'

Ben made a face at the reminder.  How often had he said as much, at least, to himself, over the years, really since the first time he'd noticed her?  Too young, too naïve, too, well, everything . . . Those were the things he'd told himself back then, more than twenty years ago when he'd first met her at one of Gin Izayoi's benefit soirees.

Gin had re-introduced them since it was the first time he'd seen her since she was little more than a child, running around the Zelig estate with her hair up in pigtails as she chased her brother, Gunnar around the yard with the other children of that generation.  The young woman that was presented to him that night at the benefit was only nineteen years old—no longer a child—which had been shocking to him, and yet, she wasn't quite a mature woman, either.  Caught in that difficult and uncomfortable area somewhere between the two extremes, she had smiled shyly, had acquiesced easily as he'd danced with her, but it was the foreign and entirely welcome draw of her that had, at that time, forced him to take a step back, not because he wanted to do so, but for her sake.  A girl her age?  She should be out there in the world, he reasoned, starting to live her life, gaining the experiences that would mold her into the person she would one day be, and as fascinated as Ben was with her at that time, he also knew, didn't he, that he was much too old for it not to matter in the long run.  He'd had a chance to live, to succeed and to fail, to do all those things that had formed him into the man he was, but she . . . She hadn't, not back then . . . All in all, it had felt like the old saying, right person, wrong time.

And that's what he'd told himself about her over and over again . . .

"I'm just surprised . . ." Charity said, snapping Ben right back to the present.  She didn't seem to have taken note of his preoccupation, and that was just as well.  "I mean, I would have thought that oji-san would have taken them home with him," she clarified.

"He pinched them," Ben lied glibly.

Her mouth dropped open and she shot him a look.  "He did not!" she blurted as a giggle welled up in her and spilled out.

He laughed, too.  "Okay, no, he didn't.  But they were crying when he got here.  Said that they'd been crying since he'd left the hospital with them.  They cried the whole trip here from Chicago."

She frowned thoughtfully as she shifted Nadia to snuggle against her shoulder.  "Maybe they sense the disruption . . . Maybe they sensed that their mama wasn't there."

That thought had occurred to Ben, as well, but he wasn't versed enough in the actual physiology and mentality of youkai infants to make an educated guess.  Even so, he figured that it might have something to do with the underlying instincts—something that each youkai was born knowing.  They may not have perceived Zelig to be a threat, per se, but maybe there was simply something about the tai-youkai's demeanor, maybe the regret or sense of guilt that he might have felt, that had caused the infants to react to him in such a way.

Charity sighed and slowly shook her head as she reached for her fork and took another bite of the wonderfully grilled steak on her plate.  Taking her time while she chewed, she seemed to be considering something.  "But . . . But how will you ever give them up?" she asked at last, setting aside the fork in favor of gently rubbing Nadia's back.  Then she sighed.  "I'm sorry.  It's just that they're just so small and helpless and . . ."

Frowning thoughtfully, Ben pushed aside his plate and considered what she said.  It was what would be best for the twins, and that was what was important.  Youkai children did not grow up in a one parent environment.  It just didn't happen.  Given that it was impossible for one mate to survive if the other died, it was kind of an all-or-nothing situation.

Gaze shifting to the side, falling upon the still sleeping Emmeline, Ben's frown deepened as he got up and retrieved her from her seat before returning to the table once more.  She yawned and stretched, but didn't wake up.

Even if it was possible, Ben couldn't do it—couldn't just keep them.  He was busy most of the time, as it was.  Between handling his duties as Zelig's head general, not to mention the responsibilities of managing Zelig's art, he had a full-time gig: one that often led to him being away from home for days or weeks at a time.  Trying to fit the twins into that kind of schedule . . . It wouldn't be fair to them, now would it?

No, what the girls needed—deserved—was something that Ben didn't have to give them: stability and the full and undivided attention of two parents.

Glancing up long enough to catch Charity's shy smile, he returned the expression as he settled Emmeline against his shoulder.  "I can't get over how adorable they are," she said.

Ben chuckled.  "They won't be nearly as adorable if I don't get those cribs put together," he joked.  "Don't suppose you know anything about furniture assembly . . .?"

"Not really," she admitted.  Then she shrugged.  "I can read instructions, though."

Ben snorted.  "Good, then, because I'm pretty sure that the ones that came with it are written in Greek."

Her laugh was soft, gentle, soothing, and it sent a sudden and entirely pleasant ripple right up his spine.  "I'd be happy to help you . . . Uh, if . . . If you want, that is . . ."

"I'd love that," he assured her.

As if on cue, a sudden screech interrupted the conversation.  Nadia, apparently, had decided that she was tired of just being cuddled.  "Oh, are you hungry?" Charity crooned softly to the upset infant as she patted her back and stood up.  "It's okay!  We'll go find you a bottle, won't we?"

Before she had a chance to go far, though, Eddie breezed into the room with two bottles ready to go.  She handed one to Charity and set the other on the table beside Ben.

"Thanks," he called after her as she retreated toward the kitchen once more.

The housekeeper waved a hand over her shoulder and kept moving.  Charity settled down, and the crying was thwarted by the bottle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Why are you holding that baby?"

Ben blinked and looked up as Myrna Loy stepped into the bright and airy kitchen, only to stop short at the sight of him, sitting at the table like he did every morning, but this time, he was busy holding Emmeline and feeding her a bottle.  "Good morning, Myrna," he greeted pleasantly despite the wide yawn that abruptly cut him off.

"Cute baby," she allowed with a shake of her head.

"You say that like it's a bad thing," Ben pointed out, arching an eyebrow to emphasize his point.

"It's a baby," she stated, as though that was enough of a reason for her unabashed disdain.

Breaking into a wan smile at the unholy way Myrna uttered the word 'baby', he rolled his eyes.  "You make it sound like she's a highly contagious disease," he pointed out dryly.  "Not a baby-person, are you?"

Making a face, she dropped into the chair beside him after scooting it a little farther away.  "Not really, no," she stated.  "They do gross things, like puke and poo . . . If they came out potty trained and ready for boarding school, then it'd all be fine; just fine."

"Yes, well, I can do without the latter reminder, if you please," Ben replied ruefully.  Given that his first very experience with a diaper was one of those kinds, he had very nearly reached for his cell phone at the time to demand that Zelig come back.

Staring at him for a long moment, she looked entirely too thoughtful, too pensive.  "I can't decide if it disturbs me more to see you sitting there, feeding that baby or that you're doing it in that towel," she admitted at length.  "I'm pretty sure that things like that are against the law in at least forty-nine of the fifty states . . ."

Glancing down at his usual morning-wear, he chuckled.  Truthfully, he was in the middle of altering the habit by getting dressed before he came down for breakfast until the twins woke up hungry, demanding their own meal in a series of high pitched whines and pathetic little whimpers.  He had already fed and changed Nadia, who was currently sleeping in the portable crib nearby, and judging from the way Emmeline was struggling to keep her eyes open, she'd be joining her sister in short order.

Setting the almost-empty bottle aside, Ben got up and carefully deposited Emmeline beside her sister, but only after brushing a kiss on her downy head.  Then he sat back down and reached for his mug of coffee, draining it in a series of long swallows since it was already half-cold.  "So tell me what brings you by this morning, Myrna?" he asked, flipping his wrist outward to allow easier access for Eddie to refill the cup.

"Same thing that brings her by every morning, Ben," Eddie grouched.  "She's hoping you'll drop that towel."

Myrna laughed as Ben slowly shook his head.  "Well, there is that, too . . ." she drawled.  Sparing a moment to eye him up carefully, she chuckled.  "I'm right in assuming that you're doing the Scottish warrior under there?"

He felt the corners of his lips twitching as he struggled not to laugh outright.  Clearing his throat, he shook his head.  "Would you like to see, Myrna?"

"Not in front of those babies, Ben Philips," Eddie grouched as she slipped his breakfast onto the table.

"Sorry," he told Myrna, hiding his amusement behind the rim of his coffee mug.

Myrna rolled her eyes but winked.  "All right," she relented as she hefted her bag off the floor below the table to fish out a slim-file and hand it over with a flourish.  "I'm not sure if they'd be interested, but I was told that this couple was asking an associate of mine recently about adoption."

Ben set the mug aside and reached for the file, unable to reconcile the strange sense of reluctance, of foreboding that seemed to rattle through him.  "Thanks," he said, setting the plastic folder aside and turning his attention to his food.  "I'll look at it later."

Standing up, Myrna shouldered the bag and paused long enough to empty her coffee mug.  "No problem.  Anyway, I've got to go.  Gunnar called and said he wanted me to check into a few things, and you know how much that particular puppy hates to be kept waiting . . ."

Ben nodded as Myrna headed out of the room.  "Bye, Eddie!  Excellent coffee, as usual!"

"Hrmph," Eddie muttered.  "Why is she bringing over files of someone wanting to adopt those girls, I'd like to know," she went on, planting her fist on her waist as she pinned Ben with a no-nonsense scowl.  "They've got a home right here!"

"Well . . ." Ben drawled as the woman tossed a sponge into the sink and quickly washed her hands.  "It . . . It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision . . ."

"They're just what this house needed, I say!" she insisted as she hurried around the counter to check on the sleeping girls.  Carefully scooping them up, she caught Ben's amused stare and snorted indelicately.  "They were already awake," she insisted, swaying in place to quiet the whimpers at the sudden interruption of their morning nap.  "Anyway, you should tell that Myrna not to come over anymore."

"Why's that?"

Eddie rolled her eyes.  "No telling what kind of diseases she'd pass on to these two.  In case you hadn't noticed, that woman's nasty!"

Ben chuckled.  "Myrna's harmless, and she's a great help," he told her as he stood up and turned toward her.

He started to hold out his hands until Eddie strode across the room.  "You need to go get some clothes on, Ben," she chided.  "Then I'll think about letting you take them."

Shaking his head since he knew damn well that he was beaten, he paused to grab the slim-file off the table before striding out of the room, heading for the stairs.

'Good God, did we get any sleep last night at all?' his youkai-voice asked dryly.

'Very little.'

'Hmm . . .'

That was true enough, Ben thought as he took the steps, two at a time.  It had taken way too long to put together those cribs, but he'd also learned a valuable lesson, too.  Charity Inutaisho knew more about using a screwdriver than Ben ever would because in the end, she's the one who had actually managed to get the stupid things together while Ben leaned against the wall with both babies asleep on his chest.  In the end, he wasn’t entirely sure if he should have been completely impressed or utterly mortified . . .

Too bad the girls refused to use those cribs.  About the second he put them down just after Charity left, Nadia's crying commenced so loudly that the sound could have easily caused Mt Rushmore to crumble into dust if exposed to the deafening squalls for more than fifteen minutes, and, of course, Emmeline couldn't sleep, not with that ruckus, so she'd rivaled Nadia in both volume and pitch.  In the end, Ben had taken the girls with him into his room, laying them on his bed beside him where they'd finally, blessedly, gone to sleep.  For two hours.  Then they were hungry again and needed diaper changes.  And that was the story of his night . . .

Dropping the towel as he crossed the threshold of his bedroom, Ben tossed the slim-file onto the bed in passing as he strode over to the walk-in closet as he stretched his arms up over his head, leaning from side to side as he kept moving.  Surprisingly, he didn't have a lot on his plate for the day—a meeting with Moe Jamison in the early afternoon just to see what was going on with the researchers that he had been keeping tabs on in the years that had passed since Samantha Draven's unceremonious capture and subsequent torture.  It was fairly routine, but since Moe was in the area at a tech expo, he'd offered to stop by.

Grabbing the first pair of pants he laid hands on—a faded and well-worn pair of blue jeans that he couldn't remember buying, it'd been so long ago—and a nondescript white dress shirt that was slightly larger than his usual tailored ones, he tugged the garments on, sparing a moment to button the bottom three buttons before calling it good.  He stepped out of the closet, turning up the sleeves twice on each side as his gaze fell on the slim-file once more, and he frowned.

Settling on the edge of the bed, he lifted the file and pulled it open.  It took less than a minute to boot, and Ben frowned at the image of a very nice-looking couple.  He flipped his finger over the screen to get to the next page of the document and frowned as he read through the dossier.  'Jane Rightmore-Douglass and Denny Douglass,' he read.  'Married June 24, 2050, living in Pleasant Hill, Connecticut . . . a preschool teacher and a state trooper . . .'

Raking a hand through his hair, Ben let the file dangle from his fingertips as he considered the options.  He should give them a call, find out first and foremost if the couple was interested, and if they were, would they consider taking the twins.  He should call them.  He just didn't want to . . .

'Even if you call them, the chances that they're willing to consider twins isn't guaranteed, and you've seen for yourself just what those who would think of the idea that their father challenged Zelig.  Give them a call.  They're probably the same as everyone else.'

'Call them . . . Right . . .'

Before he could talk himself out of it, Ben grabbed his cell phone off the nightstand and keyed in the number in the file.  Snapping the file closed with one hand and connecting the call with the other, he stood up, paced the floor while he waited for someone to answer.

"Hello?"

Clearing his throat once, twice before his voice would work, Ben drew a deep breath.  "Hello, my name's Ben Philips.  I'm looking for either Jane or Denny Douglass?"

"I'm Jane," she said.  "Can I help you?"

Taking a second to gather his thoughts, Ben continued to pace.  "I'm calling on behalf of the tai-youkai's office . . . I've been told that you and your husband are interested in adopting a child?"

"Oh, yes!" she blurted, a breathlessness entering her tone.  "Do you have one?"

He sighed.  "That's what I wanted to discuss with you.  We have twins, actually: twin cougar youkai infants—girls.  They . . . They need fairly immediate placement."

"Twins?" she echoed, her voice taking on a slightly dazed sort of intonation.  "Wow, twins . . ."

"I understand if twins would be too much for you," he hurried to say, tamping down the misplaced feeling of instantaneous relief that shot through him.  "One baby is a lot of work, and two at the same time . . . Well, it's almost insanity."

The woman was silent for a moment.  Then she drew a deep breath and let it out—not a sigh, exactly—more of a brisk exhalation.  "My husband's at work right now, Mr. Philips . . . Can I talk it over with him this evening and call you back tomorrow?"

Ben's frown deepened.  "There is something else that I should tell you about them," he went on slowly.  "Their father . . .  He challenged the Zelig.  I just thought you should know."

"O-Oh . . ."

"In any case, take all the time you need to talk it over with your husband and give me a call when you've made a decision, one way or the other.  If you decide to consider it, then we'll discuss the next step."

"Right," she said.  "Thank you for calling."

"Have a good day, Mrs. Douglass."

Tapping the button to end the call, Ben scowled as he headed out of the bedroom once more.  Sure, Jane Douglass had sounded pleasant enough over the phone.  Jack the Ripper could sound pleasant over the phone, though.  It didn't mean anything, not really . . .

'Before you get all bent out of shape, Ben, wait to see if they call back, won't you?  Chances are they won't be as interested as they might have been otherwise.'

'I know; I know,' he told himself.

'If they call back, then we'll dig around and see if they're really serial killers, after all.'

The attempt at humor was lost on Ben as he ran down the steps and back toward the kitchen, but the sound of the doorbell brought him up short, and he spun around to answer it.

"H-Hi," Charity said, her cheeks pinking as she stepped back just a little.  She was holding a bunch of bags of varying sizes and shapes, and she held them up as her timid smile widened just a little.  "I should have called first, but, um . . ."  Holding up the bags, she gave them to him and stepped back once more.  "They're for the girls," she explained.  "I didn't know if you had any clothes, so . . ."

He chuckled.  "Would you like to come in?"

She looked surprised for a moment.  "Oh, well, I . . . Uh . . . I'm not imposing, am I?"

"You're never an imposition, Charity."

Her cheeks darkened to a very becoming shade of rose, but she nodded and stepped into the townhouse when Ben moved out of her way.

"How are the girls?"

He shot her a grin, shifting all the bag handles into one hand so that he could grab her hand and drag her through the townhouse and into the kitchen.

"Good morning, sunshine!" she greeted softly, pulling away to hurry over and take Emmeline from Eddie.  "How are the beautiful babies today?"

Ben chuckled at Charity's silly display as he set the bags on the table and dug into the first one.  Dresses.  Lots of dresses: frilly dresses, casual dresses, and the gamut in between.  None of them matched, either—a fact that wasn't lost on Ben.  She wasn't big on dressing twins the same, huh?  He had to wonder if that stemmed from her own childhood with Chelsea . . . Setting the dresses aside, he opened another bag, only to find a bunch of onesies and sleepers, socks of every conceivable color and design, bibs—lots of bibs . . .

"I'll put that stuff away after I wash it all," Eddie said, inclining her head at the growing stack of clothes on the table.  "I have to go to the store first, though . . . Are you hungry?  Do you want me to make you some breakfast?"

Ben blinked.  It took him a moment to figure out that Eddie wasn't talking to him.  Nope, she was talking to Charity . . . nicely.

'Eddie's not nice to anyone, ever . . . not even Zelig, and he's the only one she's even slightly respectful toward, too,' his youkai pointed out.

'I . . . I know . . .'

"Uh, me?" Charity said, but only after glancing around, as though she might be seeing if there was someone standing behind her.

Eddie nodded.

"Oh, no, thank you . . . I would hate to be a problem," she replied, offering the housekeeper an uncertain but sweet little smile.

"It's not a problem," Eddie insisted, handing Nadia to Ben.  "Can I at least get you some coffee?  Juice?  Anything?"

"I'm fine," she said with a slight bow.  "But thank you so much for offering."

Eddie looked like she wanted to argue, but she didn't.  "I put two bottles on the counter," she told Ben, resuming her usual brusque tone, which just figured.  "Will you be having guests for dinner tonight?"

Ben narrowed his eyes when Eddie shifted her eyes to the side in a very blatant gesture at Charity.  He snorted.  "Charity, would you like to have dinner with me again?"

She looked like she was going to decline on principle, most likely.  He smiled and slowly shook his head.  "I'd love for you to join me as long as you don't have previous plans."

"O-Oh . . . Okay, then," she said before turning her attention back to the infant in her arms.

Ben snorted softly, just loudly enough for Eddie to hear it.  "Yes, Eddie, Miss Inutaisho will be joining us for dinner, after all."

"All right," she said, turning on her heel and heading toward the other side of the kitchen and the doorway that led to the back of the townhouse where her rooms were located.  "I won't be long."

Ben watched her go, slowly shaking her head in abject disbelief.  "She likes you," he stated flatly.

Charity blinked and stared at Ben questioningly.  "Your housekeeper?  She's very nice."

He made a face.  "No, she's not," Ben argued.  "She's horrible.  She's terrible.  She has an awful temperament, actually.  She hates everyone—and I do mean everyone."  He shrugged.  "Well, everyone but you, apparently."

"But . . . she's your housekeeper," she said slowly.

Ben chuckled.  "She hates me most of all."

Charity looked entirely confused.  "But . . ."

"I pay her ridiculously well."

Charity slowly shook her head, but she did smile.  "Sometimes, you're a little strange, Ben," she remarked, which only served to heighten Ben's overall amusement.

Heaving a sigh as he stared at the clothing on the table, he shot Charity a calculating look.  "So . . ."

"So . . .?"

"Well, I can see that you've already been shopping this morning," he explained.  "You feel up to doing some more?"

"You need more things?"

He shrugged as he strode over to retrieve the bottles off the counter.  "I don't know, but I would assume so—like a stroller, perhaps?"

Charity giggled and took one of the bottles as she kicked a chair out so that she could sit down with Emmeline.  "I could do that," she allowed.  "Aside from the cribs and the changing table, what all do you have?"

Ben nodded at the bags that Charity had brought over.  "That's about it."  He sighed.  "Everything was rather spur of the moment.  To be honest, I wasn't planning on taking them at all, and I . . ." Trailing off for a moment, he shook his head slowly.  "I'm still not sure why I offered to take them . . . Anyway, Zelig didn't have anything other than the diaper bag for them when he stopped by here, so I'm guessing that I need to outfit an entire nursery for them."

"Wow," she breathed.  "I hope you have a lot of money, Ben.  Babies are expensive."

Ben chuckled and settled down to feed Nadia.  "It'll be fine," he assured her with a wink.

Somehow, it never occurred to him to tell her about the Douglasses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Stepping into the quiet apartment, Charity tossed her keys onto the table near the door and touched the wall panel to bring up the lights before shutting the door behind herself.

It had been a long day: a really enjoyable day, but still, a long day.

'We had a lot of fun, didn't we?'

'Yeah, we did . . .'

'Ben . . . He's quite charming, isn't he?'

She could feel the blush creep up her skin, and she bit her lip.  'Yeah . . . He is . . .'

The little smile that tugged at the corners of her lips widened, and Charity laughed softly.  Yes, she supposed she had enjoyed herself, maybe a little too much.  Watching Ben muddle his way through baby shopping had been highly amusing, but at least she was pretty sure that he had everything the babies needed and a heck of a lot of stuff that they probably didn't need at all.  There's a good chance that Ben would be feeling it later, once he added up the staggering amounts of money that he'd just forked out on baby things.  Then again, being Cain Zelig's business manager most likely meant that Ben wasn't hurting financially, anyway . . .

'And admit it, Cherry . . . You really didn't mind it when people said that you all made a lovely family, either.'

Charity grimaced though her amusement didn't fade.  If they'd heard it once, they'd heard it a number of times during the impromptu outing.  Cashiers or other customers, taking time out to positively gush over the twins, complete strangers telling them that they were a lovely family . . . After the third time of trying to clarify the misunderstanding, Ben had shrugged, and, in his customary good-natured style, had simply said, 'thank you'.

Casting Charity a sidelong glance as he pushed the newly acquired double stroller through the long and crowded corridor of the mall, he shrugged when he caught her look.  "It's easier to just go with it than it is to try to explain it every time," he said, as though it were the simplest thing in the world.

"All right," she allowed, telling herself that it was fine, that it didn't really mean anything.  They were all a bunch of strangers, right?  So who cared, what they thought . . . "I'm the working mom, and you're the stay-at-home dad, though."

He laughed.  "I'm okay with that.  Do I get an allowance?"

She considered that for a moment then wrinkled her nose.  "Only on weeks when you keep the house clean, too—and have my dinner on the table when I walk in the door."

He barked out a laugh.  "Good thing we have Eddie, then . . ."

Letting out a deep breath as the memory faded, she kicked off her shoes and turned them around neatly on the large mat in front of the door then shuffled through the living room and down the short hallway to the master bedroom.  No doubt about it, she really had to remember that she needed to keep her guard up around that man.  If she didn't . . .

Almost ten, according to the clock on the nightstand . . .

She made quick work of gathering her night clothes and a change of panties before heading for the bathroom.  Normally, she liked to sit and soak in the tub on the weekends, but, given how late it was, she figured a shower would just have to do.

Clicking the first button on the pre-programmed panel that controlled the settings for the shower, she stripped off her clothes and tossed them into the hamper.  By the time she was finished, the water was sending out tendrils of steam over the top of the glass doors that enclosed the shower stall.

The heat of the water was a welcome thing as she closed her eyes, flattening her hanyou ears as she lifted her face and let the spray hit her full-on.

It didn't take long to wash her hair and body.  Turning her head when a big yawn nearly made her jaw crack—figuratively speaking, of course—she rolled her neck a few times before hitting the button to shut off the shower and grabbed the towel she had slung over the glass doors.

'Do you think Ben will call soon?'

That particular question was enough to dim the good mood she'd carried home with her as she wrapped her hair in the towel and stepped out of the shower to reach for another one.  She hadn't actually planned on spending the day with him today.  She'd only gone over to his house to drop off the clothes she'd bought for the twins.  After all, she reasoned, it was only right and proper to give gifts to new babies, wasn't it?

Even so, it wasn't like it was a prearranged thing.  Ben just didn't have anything else to do—he'd said as much while they were shopping—other than a visit from one of Cain's hunters that he expected later on in the day.  Charity had spent the time during that meeting, feeding and changing the babies while he took care of business.  She'd just gotten them to sleep when Moe Jamison had left.  The rest of it, she figured, was casual, just because she happened to be there, she supposed.  'And because Eddie pushed the issue, to start with . . .'  It wasn't like he would have called her if she hadn't showed up there, in the first place, and she knew it.  No, getting all caught up in wishing and hoping would only lead to another round of disappointment, and Charity . . . Well, she wasn't about to subject herself to that again, either.

'It didn't seem like he felt that he was just humoring you because you were there,' her youkai-voice pointed out.  'He enjoyed our company, Cherry.  Trust me on this, okay?'

Grabbing the oversized tee-shirt she used as a nightshirt, she jerked it over her head and made a face when the rough action yanked on the towel on her head.  'He was just being nice,' she thought sourly as she re-wrapped her hair.  'That's what he does because that's who he is.'

Her youkai sighed but didn't argue with her.  Yanking on the cut off sweat shorts over the plain cotton panties, Charity stepped over to the vanity.  'Everything will go back to normal tomorrow,' she predicted as she applied a thin layer of lotion on her face.  'Everything will be the way it's meant to be.'

'Meant to be, huh . . .?'

'Y . . . Yes.'

Thankfully, her youkai-voice opted to let the discussion drop, and she was just towel drying her hair when her cell phone buzzed, announcing the receipt of a text message.  Swiping up the device and unlocking it, she frowned when she saw the alert.  She'd thought that it was Chelsea, sending her a picture of something weird since that was the most likely thing, but it wasn't.

Eyes flaring wide as she read the single word in the message, she gasped softly, dropping the towel and stumbling out of the bathroom as quickly as she could, unmindful that she hadn't even brushed the snarls out of her hair, unmindful that she was ready for bed and wasn't even wearing a bra.  Nope, the one word was enough to galvanize her into action, and her hands were shaking so badly that it took her five attempts before she was able to call for a taxi as she jammed her feet into her shoes once more and swiped up her keys and purse on her way out the door.

'Blood,' it had said.  Just that one word.

It was enough.

 

 


 

 

Ben threw the door open before Charity could even dart up the steps onto the porch, his expression more rattled than she could remember ever having seen on him before.  He wasn't even that rattled back when Charity's second cousin, Samantha was missing and abducted . . . Stepping back to allow her entrance, he rubbed the baby's back in an effort to soothe the sobbing infant.  "Blood?" she said, skipping the niceties as she brushed past him.

He led the way up the stairs, taking them two at a time in his haste.  In the distance, she could hear the other twin crying, too.  "I don't know," he admitted over the din of the crying babies.  Charity took the baby at the top of the landing.  He opened his mouth to say something else but decided against it as he whirled around on his heel and ran off to get the other baby, she supposed.

She followed him down the hallway and into the last room at the end, trying to comfort the infant with soft sounds as she cuddled Emmeline against her heart.

Ben heaved a sigh, sinking down on the foot of the bed.  "I was trying to give her a bath," he explained.  "Turns out she doesn't like them very much, but . . . I don't know if my claw snagged it or what, but the stump of her umbilical cord came off, and . . . and she started bleeding . . ."

Quickly sitting on the side of the bed, Charity lowered the infant onto her lap and unwrapped the towel he'd swaddled her in.  It only took a moment for her to assess the damage—there wasn't any, as far as she could see.  Maybe a trace bit of redness around the baby's belly button, but whatever bleeding there might have been wasn't there, and with a relieved sigh, she wrapped Emmeline up again and lifted her against her shoulder once more.  "She's fine," Charity said, raising her voice just enough to be heard.  "No worse than picking a scab."

The look of relief on Ben's face was immediate and intense.  A few moments later, the twin in his arms seemed to sense the calming of his emotions, and she wound down, too.  It took another minute to calm the other baby, but finally, blessedly, she relaxed.

Ben sighed.  "I've never been so scared in my life," he admitted.  "I didn't know if I should take her to the emergency room or what, but then, I was afraid that they wouldn’t be able to help her, considering . . ."

Charity laid the infant on the bed and unwrapped her again.  "Look, see?  She's fine now.  She's not bleeding at all," she said.

Ben leaned in to stare at the baby's tummy as the last traces of worry seemed to fall away.  "Thank God."

"You were trying to bathe them?"

He nodded, rolling slightly to stretch out on his side with Nadia tucked against his chest.  "Yeah, she didn't like it at all.  I didn't even try with Nadia yet, but I'm not really ready for a repeat of that."

She laughed softly.  "No, I don't imagine you would be . . ."

"I, uh . . . I'm sorry for worrying you," he muttered, his cheeks pinking as he scowled at the slate grey coverlet.  "I just . . . You were the first person that came to mind . . . I would have called, but you probably wouldn't have heard me over the two of them . . ."

She blinked in surprise as her heart skipped a beat before she could remind herself not to be silly, not to put too much emphasis on what he said.  Swallowing hard, she had to lick her lips since her mouth had suddenly gone bone dry.  "It's okay," she said.  "I . . . I don't mind."

He didn't seem at all comforted by her words.  If anything, his scowl darkened—as did the flush still high in his cheeks.  "I really thought I'd hurt her," he muttered.

She bit her lip while she considered what he'd said.  "No permanent damage, right?"

He snorted.

"You know," she said suddenly as a thought occurred to her.  "They're cougar-youkai, right?  Cats . . . and big cats are still cats.  Maybe they just don't like water."

That didn't please him, either, if the scowl he shot her meant anything at all.  "They have to have baths," he pointed out reasonably.

"I know," she agreed.  "Maybe you should try something else, like getting into the bath with them."

His eyebrows shot up at her suggestion.  Then he barked out a terse laugh that was more incredulous than amused.  "I'm a man, Charity," he said slowly in a tone of voice that suggested that she ought to know as much.

She rolled her eyes.  "And they're babies—frightened babies.  Mama or Papa used to take baths with us when we were babies: whoever wasn't busy at the time . . ."

"Your . . . father . . ."

"Sometimes Mama and Papa would."  She nodded.  "We didn't like baths back then, either."

"It doesn't seem right," he said thoughtfully.

She laughed.  "I'm Japanese, Ben.  There are a lot of public bath houses in Japan, and in those public baths, you're naked with strangers of all ages."

He shook his head, but he did manage a wan smile.  "But this is the USA.  They arrest men for bathing naked with small children here."

"Okay, point taken," she allowed.  "They're not going to arrest you for trying to show infants that they'll be okay in the bath."

He shook his head.  "It's not that I wouldn't do it," he explained.  "If it would make them more comfortable in the water, then it would be worth it."

She nodded.  "Do you . . .? Do you want me to try?"

"Try?"

"Yeah.  Do you want me to try taking a bath with Nadia?"

He considered that for a moment, then gave a slow nod.  "If you wouldn't mind . . ."

Leaning over to put Emmeline down beside him, she carefully scooped up Nadia and stood.  "Okay," she said, casting him a quick smile.  "Wish me luck."

 

 


 

 

 

'Ben . . .?'

'Hmm?'

'. . . You know, right . . .?'

Leaning down to rub his nose against Emmeline's downy cheek, Ben wasn't really paying that much attention to his youkai-voice.  'Know . . .?  Know, what?'

A long, melodramatic, drawn-out sigh . . . 'She's in there.'

Closing his eyes as he inhaled the sweet smell of the mercifully sleeping infant, Ben smiled.  'Okay.'

'. . . And she's naked.'

'Uh huh . . .'

'Ben . . .?'

'Huh?'

'. . . I wanna see 'naked' . . .'

Propping his head up with his hand, Ben frowned at his youkai-voice's near-whining statement.  'Wh—? Why would you want to see Nadia naked?' he sputtered indignantly.

'Fool,' his youkai retorted with a pronounced and highly indignant snort.  'Not the baby!  Charity!  Charity!  Charity Inutaisho, who is in there—naked—taking a bath with Nadia . . . Just what kind of pervert are we, anyway?'

Ben snorted.  'Speak for yourself!  I'm not the one sitting here, saying I want to see someone naked, and even if you didn't mean Nadia, it didn't sound that way, you realize.'

'There you go, totally missing the point!  Typical, Ben.  Really typical!'

'Oh, yeah? And what is the point, then, oh wise-and-ridiculous-youkai-voice?'

Another definitive snort.  'The point? The point?  The point is, oh idiot-of-a-glorified-pussy-cat, is that Charity is in our bathroom, and in that bathroom, she's naked.  And wet.  Don't forget wet—and we want to see that because I guarantee you, it'd be a truly spectacular sight, don't you think?  Stupid!'

Rolling his eyes, Ben opted to ignore the voice, despite the low whisper in the back of his mind that absolutely agreed on the point.  He carefully scooted off the bed without waking Emmeline and strode over to the walk-in closet to change.  Ordinarily, he would just strip naked since he had never been fond of the constrains of clothing of any kind while he slept, but since Charity was there and because the babies were probably going to end up sleeping on the bed with him again, he reached for a pair of sweat pants instead.  After a minute of silent debate, he heaved a sigh and dragged on a tee-shirt, too.

He was just stepping out of the walk-in closet when the bathroom door opened, carrying with it the soft waft of baby bath and lotion.  Charity emerged with a still-sniffling Nadia cradled in her arms, wrapped in a comfy thick towel.  "She didn't like it at all," Charity said, casting Ben an almost apologetic look.   "She calmed down a little bit, though, so it wasn't too bad.  The smell of the baby wash seemed to soothe her, a little bit, anyway."

A sudden sharp screech from Emmeline distracted Ben as he strode over to scoop up the unhappy infant, who was busy trying to shove her fist into her mouth without opening her eyes.  "I'll be right back," he said, casting Charity an apologetic sort of glance as he headed for the door.

'Maybe we should install a small kitchenette up here,' his youkai remarked as Ben hurried through the house to grab a couple bottles.  'If we did, then we wouldn't have to go so far at night . . .'

Ben sighed as he maneuvered one of the last two ready-to-feed bottles that Zelig had brought with the babies.  Using his teeth to grasp the sterile pack and rip it open, he shook the nipple out of it and carefully screwed it on before carefully tucking the bottle into Emmeline's waiting mouth and letting it rest on her bundled blankets so that he could grab the last bottle and nipple to take along with him as he turned to head back the way he'd come.

By the time he stepped into his bedroom once more, Charity was sitting on the bed with her back propped against the thick pillows as Nadia started to fuss all over again.  It didn't take long for him to repeat the process of readying the second bottle that he handed over to Charity before slipping onto the bed beside her with a heavy sigh.  "I'll get better at anticipating this sort of thing," Ben remarked, offering her a somewhat lopsided smile.

She laughed, her eyes sparkling in the weak light from the lamp on the nightstand.  "I think you're doing just fine," she replied with a little shrug as rolled toward him slightly, just far enough to lay Nadia beside her, nestled against her chest.  She propped herself up on her elbow and held the bottle with her free hand as the infant spared a moment to heave a tumultuous sigh before resuming her meal once more.

"I was thinking," she said, breaking the companionable silence that had fallen as the two watched the babies eat.

"Hmm?  What's that?"

She frowned thoughtfully at Nadia.  "Maybe the reason they have such a problem sleeping in those cribs is because they'd rather be together," she went on.  "I remember Mama said before that Chelsea and I wouldn't sleep unless we were in one crib."

Ben considered that and slowly nodded.  He hadn't thought of that last night, but he had to admit that it made sense.  "I'll try that," he said.  Then he made a face.  "Maybe not tonight, though . . . I think they've been through enough for one night . . ."

She didn't reply, but she lifted her gaze to meet his, her eyes taking on an inner glow, an incandescence that was entirely mesmerizing and entirely unsettling, too.

"Thanks again," he told her, realizing a little late that she must have dropped everything to run right over when she got that text.  Her clothing seemed like something she'd wear to sleep in, not that he minded, and her hair had been still damp from a shower when she got there.  Still in a bit of disarray, too, though she had, since then, brushed her hair out after the unplanned bath . . .

'You realize that she's not wearing anything under that shirt, either, don't you . . .?'

Ben blinked but didn't respond.  No, no, he hadn't realized that as he struggled to keep from looking to verify the information.

"I'm really sorry," he murmured with a shake of his head. "I didn't mean to frighten you."

"You . . . Well, you did, but it's okay."  Her smile started out slowly, spreading over her features like the unfurling of a summer day, unleashing that dimple in her cheek as the inherent sweetness of her reached out to him.  Without stopping to think about it, he reached out, grasped a soft lock of her hair that had fallen over her shoulder, and he gently pushed it back, smoothed it into place as she unconsciously leaned toward his touch.  He could feel her trembling beneath his hand, the slight fluttering in her, as though her emotions needed a viable, physical outlet . . . 'She's . . . beautiful,' he mused, savoring the feel of her skin as she leaned in just a little closer, as his fingertips brushed over her cheekbone, along the contour of her jaw.

The sound of an unhappy infant cut through the moment with the finesse of a chainsaw in a silent forest, and Ben chuckled ruefully, letting his hand fall away as he quickly readjusted his hold on Emmeline's bottle.  Inwardly, he heaved a sigh, tamping down the irrational surge of irritation that the moment had been so thoroughly interrupted.

He sighed inwardly as he set the empty bottle on the nightstand, and he sat up to lift Emmeline to his shoulder, patting her back to get her to burp.  Nadia whimpered in protest as Charity picked her up to do the same.

Humming a low song—one he didn't know the name of, if it even had a name at all, but that he'd had known for as long as he could remember—Ben gently rubbed Emmeline's back.  It struck him, just how much he enjoyed this kind of thing and the strange yet welcome emotions that welled up inside him.  Over seven hundred years old, and that he was suddenly experiencing things that he hadn't realized even existed was a humbling kind of realization.  Just how long had it been since he'd felt that wonder, that freshness, when facing a new day?

He'd grown up in Japan in a volatile time.  He had lived near Sebastian—the first North American tai-youkai as well as Cain Zelig's father—and Daniella, Cain's mother.  Even back then, the three of them had gotten into their fair share of trouble.  He supposed that was normal enough.  Back then, it wasn't uncommon to find him being lectured for one trespass or another—usually instigated by Sebastian, who, in their youth, tended to act first and think later.  His father had said often enough that Ben's penchant for getting in trouble was the sole reason why his parents had opted to wait nearly five hundred years to have another child.  That brother still lived in Japan, though, and by the time he was born, Ben had followed Sebastian to the New World to act as his general.  Maybe, had he still been in Japan or at least if they were born closer together, Ben might have realized the same emotions that he felt now . . .

Glancing over at Charity, the song died away in his throat as he smiled.

She'd fallen asleep with Nadia in her arms, curled on her side with the child nestled against her.  He watched her for several long heartbeats, enjoying the sight of her and the infant held so close to her heart . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The strangest sensation woke Charity, and in her sleep-hazy brain, it brought to mind a half-forgotten memory of her childhood, of spending the night with a school friend and being roused by her friend's new puppy as it waggled around and played in Charity's blanket . . .

The sound of whimpering registered to her as she slowly opened her eyes, her gaze falling on the infant girl as she rooted around instinctively, obviously looking for her breakfast.

She sat up with a giggle and picked up the baby for a quick snuggle as she started to swing her legs off the bed.  She didn't get far as Ben strode into the room with two bottles in one hand and the other infant in the crook of his arm.  "Morning," he said, still looking quite sleepy and adorably rumpled despite the smile on his face.  He handed her a bottle before slipping back onto the bed to feed Emmeline.  "I thought about waking you up, but you looked entirely too comfortable, so I didn't have the heart to do it . . . Did you sleep well?"

Tamping down a vivid blush inspired by his question, Charity concentrated on Nadia's face, not daring to meet Ben's gaze.  "I'm so sorry about that," she blurted quickly, praying that he couldn't see just how embarrassed she was and knowing that he probably did, anyway.  "I didn't mean to fall asleep . . ."

He chuckled.  "You can stay over as often as you'd like, Charity," he said.  "I didn't mind at all, and the girls liked it, too, I think . . . They only woke up once for bottles."

"They did?" she blurted.  She hadn't woken up, not even slightly . . .

Ben waved a hand as he broke into a yawn, smashing the same hand over his mouth. "Yeah, but I woke up before them, so I managed to get their bottles before they got going."

She smiled as the self-conscience discomfort faded.  Remembering the look on his face last night when he'd touched her . . . A very distinct and very unsettling shiver ran up her spine at the memory: the sudden brightness in his gaze, the warmth of his fingertips as he'd ran them down her face . . . Maybe . . .

'Stop that, Charity!' she chided herself.  'I was tired, he was tired . . . Don't read more into it than that . . .'

'I don't know, Cherry . . .'

'No, and . . . and it's okay.  Ben's just . . . just a friend . . .'

'Just a friend, huh?'

She heaved an inward sigh.  'Y-Yeah . . .'

He yawned again, and she laughed despite her depressing thoughts.  She couldn't help it.  He looked so disgruntled afterward, like the yawn had happened simply to irritate him.  "You know, if you're still tired, I'd be happy to keep an eye on them while you get some more sleep."

He waved a hand as the yawn loosened its grip on him.  "I'll be fine after a shower," he promised, quickly wiping the tears from the yawn from his eyes.  "But if  you'd watch them so I can take one, that would be great.  Just let me finish feeding her . . ."

Nadia finished her bottle, and Charity set it aside before lifting the baby and settling her against her shoulder.  She fussed a little, but settled in quickly enough.

"Do you have plans for the day?" Ben asked, patting Emmeline's back gently as he cuddled her close.

"Not really," she admitted.  "I mean, I usually don't do much of anything on Sundays except clean up my apartment, maybe do the laundry . . ."

He chuckled.  "I'd hate to keep you from your laundry," he teased, "but I could use some help in setting up their nursery."

"I . . . I could do that," she replied with a timid smile.

He opened his mouth to say something, but was cut off short when Emmeline burped and spit up all over him.  "A-Ah," he gasped then chuckled again.  "Good thing I haven't had that shower yet," he said ruefully as he leaned to the side to grab some tissues out of a box on the nightstand.  He wiped Emmeline's face off carefully and laid her on the bed before making a face as he glanced down at his shirt.  "I'll, uh, I'll hurry," he murmured, heading for the bathroom.  "Em's usually good after she burps once."

Charity giggled as the door closed behind him.  Laying Nadia beside her sister in the middle of the bed, Charity rolled off of it and hurried out of the room to grab some clothes for the babies.  She made a face as her stomach growled at the scent of freshly brewed coffee that had drifted up the stairs.  When she had first moved to the States, she hadn't liked it at all, but it had grown on her, and, given the choice between coffee or tea these days, she'd take the coffee, hands down.

Eddie had already washed and put all of the clothes away that she had bought yesterday, and Charity picked out two cute little casual dresses, two pairs of teeny booties, and a teddy bear printed burp cloth.  The diaper bag, she knew, was already in Ben's room, and she hurried back.

It didn't take long to change and dress both girls, and Charity smiled at the adorable babies.  Both were staring up at her, their golden brown eyes wide and serious, sparkling in the sunlight that filtered through the windows.  Rosy cheeked and looking entirely too sweet, they drew a laugh from her as she scooped them up and moved toward the door, wondering vaguely just how long it would be before they were too big to be carried at the same time.  Right now, they were both so tiny that it had taken Charity a bit of time, searching the internet to find shops that carried clothes small enough to fit them, and even the preemie clothes that she did buy were a little on the large size.

By the time she hit the landing, the smell of coffee had mingled with the scent of bacon and sausage.  Charity's stomach rumbled out a protest as she descended the staircase.

Eddie glanced at her as she stepped into the kitchen, only to do a classic double-take.  "Morning, Miss Charity," she said, hiding her amusement as she ducked her chin, but not before Charity saw the smile.   The housekeeper wiped her hands on a towel that she then tossed onto the counter as she hurried around it to take one of the babies.  A strange sort of expression flickered to life on the woman's features, almost as though something made sense, even though Charity wasn't entirely sure what that would be.  Suddenly, Eddie laughed as she put Nadia in the portable crib near the table, and when she turned back toward Charity to take Emmeline, the absolutely knowing look in her eyes made Charity blush clear down to her toes.  "Stay over, did you?"

"Uh," Charity choked out as her blush darkened.  "B-B-Ben had some trouble with Nadia last night, so I-I-I came over . . ."

"In your nightshirt?"

She blinked and glanced down quickly as Eddie turned away to put Emmeline down with her sister.  Realizing a little too late that she was wearing her pajamas, she smothered a low groan.  Given that the oversized tee-shirt she used as a nightshirt hung lower than the hem of her shorts, she had to admit exactly how damning the entire situation looked.  "I-I-I have shorts on," she heard herself saying.

Eddie laughed again and waved a hand in blatant dismissal as she hurried around the counter once more.  "You're both adults," she remarked.  "What the two of you do is your own business . . . Can I get you some coffee?  Tea?  Juice?"

Still unable to shake the feeling that she'd just gotten caught with her hand in the proverbial cookie jar, Charity stifled a sigh.  "Coffee would be wonderful," she said.  "I can get it myself . . ."

"Don't be silly," Eddie insisted as she opened a cupboard to retrieve a mug and the carafe.  "Now tell me, what would you like for breakfast?"

"Oh, uh, whatever you're cooking smells good," she replied as her discomfort at the teasing line of questions subsided just a little.  "I mean, if it's no trouble . . ."

Eddie set her cup down and filled it up along with the one that was already on the table—Ben's.  "No trouble at all!" she insisted with a nonchalant wave of her hand.  "Now let's hope that nasty hawk woman shows up," she said as she strode over to set the coffee pot down.  "Take her down a notch or two, I say!"

"Take who down a notch or two, you old harridan?" Ben drawled as he stepped into the kitchen.

Eddie snorted.  "That Myrna Loy," she grumbled.  "That's who."

Charity looked up from her cup of coffee as Ben paused to look in on the girls.  She choked on the swig she'd just taken, though.  It was Ben, all right—Ben wearing nothing but a thick, white towel tucked around his hips.  Shirtless-Ben had been a revelation.   Towel-Clad-Ben?  About fifty explosions shot off through her body as another ridiculous blush shot to the fore.

'Oh, kami . . . Cherry, do you see what I see?'

'Oh, I think I do . . .'

Ridiculous amounts of skin, actually, all bared for her perusal since the towel barely hugged the man's lean hips—if she could keep herself from fainting, dead away, that was . . . Somewhere in the back of her mind, a voice whispered that it was entirely impolite to stare, and yet she couldn't not do it, either.  Her face felt like it just might explode as the blood hammered in her head, as her heart beat out a near-painful cadence.

Choking on the coffee, she gasped and coughed, wiping her chin with the back of her hand as she tried to keep from spitting the contents of her mouth all over the table.

Ben hurried over and leaned down as he reached behind her to thump her on the back.  "Charity?  Are you okay?"

Eddie snorted again.  "It's because you don't have the damn decency to get dressed before coming down here," she growled, as if she believed that it should have been obvious to him.  "What the two of you do in the privacy of your bedroom is one thing, but—"

He blinked and glanced down at himself, then made a face and waved off Eddie's words.  "We didn't—" He grimaced as he thumped Charity's back a few more times for good measure.  "I'm sorry," he said loudly enough to cut off Eddie's tirade.  "I'll go get dressed."

Charity caught his wrist as she managed to draw in a deep breath without breaking into another bout of coughing.  Swallowing hard, she cleared her throat and shook her head.  "It's fine," she assured him quickly.  "I mean, it's your house, so . . ."

He looked a little startled for a moment.  Then he smiled.  "It's okay, Charity," he said.  "I didn't think about it.  I wasn't trying to make you uncomfortable.  Just give me a few minutes."

She tried not to look as he sauntered out of the room again.  She also had to squelch the sudden surge of disappointment since she could think of about a million worse things that being subjected to a very fine-looking man who was comfortable enough to walk around in nothing but a bath towel.  Damn her for choking, anyway . . .

It didn't work.

'Damn . . .'

Her youkai sighed, too.

 

 


 

 

"Ben Philips."

"Hi, Mr. Philips?  This is Jane.  Jane Douglass."

Leaning forward to set the papers he had been looking over aside, he sat up straight and frowned.  "Good morning," he greeted, tugging the glasses off his face and tossing them gently onto the coffee table.  "Mrs. Douglass . . . I trust you've talked to your husband regarding the twins?"

"That's why I called," she hurried on to say.  "We talked about it yesterday, and, well . . ." She drew a deep breath, as though she needed to fortify herself before she went on.  "We're interested," she said.  "We'd love to meet with you and discuss the next steps.  Denny can take a couple days off if you've got time in the next couple of days?"

"Oh, yes . . . Yes, that'd be fine.  Let me know when you'll be in the City, and I'll set up a meeting."

"All right.  We're looking forward to speaking with you in person," she assured him.  "I'll give you a call again after he talks to his boss."

"You do that," he said, clicking off the phone and tossing it onto the table with a heavy sigh.  Leaning forward, running his hands through his hair as Emmeline cooed beside him on the sofa.  Heaving a sigh, he turned his face just enough to see look at the twins.  Nadia was sleeping, and Emmeline was entirely content to simply be near him, and he smiled wanly despite the feeling of absolute dread that clung to him.

They . . . They wanted the twins . . .

Common logic told him that it was still far from a done deal.  Even that knowledge, however, did little to dispel the rising sense of foreboding, of dread that twisted his stomach in knots.

'Why do we have to give them up, anyway?' his youkai-voice demanded.

Heaving an inward sigh, Ben slowly shook his head.  'You know why,' he thought.  'It's not fair to them.'

'Says you.  Does it matter if it's just you?  I mean, really.  What really matters is how much you love them, right?  That's what's important . . .'

Ben started to reply but was cut off by curt trill of the cell phone as the display lit up.  'Zelig,' it read.

"Hello?"

"Ben, hi.  Just thought I'd call and check up on the twins.  Everything going all right?"

Deliberately willing away the darker thoughts in his head, he drew a deep breath.  "Yeah, just fine," he assured the tai-youkai.  "They're just fine—sleeping—well, at least Nadia is.  Emmeline's making weird fishy-faces."

Cain chuckled softly.  In the background, Ben could hear the sounds of passing traffic, and he had to wonder just what Cain was out doing.  "Listen, Sesshoumaru called.  Seems like they aren't having any luck in finding anyone interested in taking the twins, but he said he'd talk to the rest of the family and get back to me.  St. George called, and it was pretty much the same."

Making a face since Cain had brought it all right back to him again, Ben flopped back against the sofa and sighed.  "Myrna found a couple," he admitted.  "They're going to call and let me know when they'd like to meet with me."

"Really?  That's great!  And they know that their father—?"

"Yeah, they know."

"Good, good . . . Oh, and I forgot to get a picture of them for their file.  Could you send me one?"

"Uh, sure . . ."  Lowering the phone, Ben switched it over to speaker as he scrolled through the images stored in the memory and selected the best one—both of them, staring up at him from the double stroller, eyes wide, as though they were both had to open their eyes as wide as possible just to take in the world around them.  Wearing cute little dresses that Charity had bought for them with sweet little ribbon bows atop their heads, they looked just as sweet and precious as the tiny princesses that Ben knew them to be.  He sent the photo to Cain.  "There."

A moment later, Cain chuckled softly.  "That's . . . a really cute picture," he said.

"They're really cute babies," Ben countered mildly.

Cain sighed.  "Yeah, I'm just not sure I should show this to Gin.  She was already upset that I didn't bring them back with me."

"Had you done that, she would have wanted to keep them," Ben pointed out.

Cain sighed again.  "I know.  As it was, Bas and Sydnie were talking about taking them in, but . . ."

"But?" Ben prompted when Cain trailed off.

It took him a moment to speak again.  Maybe he was gathering his thoughts, Ben didn't know.  When he finally did reply, though, it was in a very thoughtful, almost sad, definitely pensive tone.  "Miss is dying."

"Miss . . .?  Evan's friend's mate . . ."

"Yeah," Cain said.  "We're not sure or anything.  Miss said her doctors told her that it's cancer and that it's spread—metastasized to most of her major organs.  Stage 4.  They say she's only got weeks.   Anyway, she asked Bas and Sydnie if they'd take Daniel since Dieter's family moved back to Germany . . . She didn't want Daniel to have to deal with the culture shock.  So they're going to take in Daniel, at least, for most of the time.  Bas said that if Dieter's parents wanted to have him over the summers or something, it'd be an option."

Ben frowned thoughtfully.  "Does Evan know?"

"Not yet.  I was going to wait to tell them when they got back . . . I hate for them to cut their honeymoon so short, but . . ."

'But there's no time to waste.'

That was what Zelig couldn't bring himself to say.

"I imagine that Evan would be more angry if you didn't tell him," Ben mused.

"I know," Cain said.  "Bas just told me all of this a few hours ago.  I guess Miss didn't want anyone to know until after Evan's wedding, so she just told them last night."  He sighed.  "I'd better call Evan then . . . Let me know how the meeting goes with the potential adopters.  I'll keep looking, just in case."

"All right," Ben replied.  Ending the call, he dropped the phone onto his lap and rubbed his face in a weary sort of way.

No one had known at the time, just what would happen to Miss after Dieter died.  Ben had been told that the young man had never marked his mate, and they'd been hopeful, given that she was human.  Cancer, strictly speaking, wasn't something a youkai or hanyou could ever get, but Ben had to wonder if it weren't something that happened as a direct result of Dieter's death . . .

A small cooing sound drew his attention, and he turned his head just enough to gaze down at Emmeline.  When she saw his eyes meet hers, she squeaked out an unintelligible sound and waved her hands.

Ben chuckled and picked her up.  She couldn't smile yet, but there was an added brightness in her eyes, and he cuddled her close as he laid his free hand on Nadia's tummy, savoring the welcome feeling that everything was all right in his little corner of the world . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Flicking his wrist to check his watch for the third time in the fifteen minutes that he'd been waiting in the small bistro not far from his townhouse, Ben stifled the urge to sigh as he willed away the impatience that lingered just below the surface of his otherwise perceived calm.

"Still waiting, huh?  Well, can I get you another drink?  An appetizer?"

Glancing up at the waitress, Ben slowly shook his head.  "No, thank you," he said, forcing a tight little smile that he was far from feeling..

She grinned and nodded just once before hurrying away again, weaving her way through the maze of tables in the bright and airy bistro.

He had left the twins with Eddie since bringing them with him wasn't really an option.  It wasn't sitting well with him, though.  After all, any number of terrible things could happen in the time he was away from home, and every last one of those horrible things had occurred to him in the twenty minutes since he'd stepped out the door . . .

To that end, he pulled out his cell phone to see if he'd gotten any messages.  He hadn't, so he supposed that was good.  Maybe.

'Or maybe Eddie didn't have time to call you.  Maybe she had to rush right out the door to get the babies to the closest emergency room . . .'

'You know what?  That's really not helpful at all,' he pointed out, grinding his teeth together so tightly that his jaw bulged from the exertion.

'I know, but if you're going to be a fatalist . . .'

'. . . Shut up.'

Glancing up when the door chime sounded, Ben narrowed his gaze as he stowed the phone away once more.  The Douglasses walked into the bistro—he recognized them from the photo in the dossier.  They looked around, and Ben stood to wave them over.

"Hi.  Sorry we're late.  This city's crazy!  I'm Denny Douglass, and this is my wife, Jane," the man said, extending a hand and giving Ben's a hearty shake before helping his wife sit down and slipping into the chair beside Ben.  Blonde hair, blue eyes, tall but not nearly as tall as Zelig, broad but not huge like Sebastian Zelig, Denny Douglass looked like the proverbial boy next door, and his wife?  Jane Rightmore-Douglass, with her bright green eyes and long, sun-bleached hair, her graceful height that was just a few inches shorter than her mate, looked more like a runway model than she did like a preschool teacher.

'The perfect couple, right?' his youkai-voice scoffed.

Yes, Ben supposed, the Douglasses absolutely fit that bill perfectly . . .

"That's quite all right," Ben assured him, brushing off the almost cynical sound of his youkai-voice's words, with a tight little smile as he sat down again, lifting a hand to summon the waitress.  She hurried back, handing over menus and tugging out the small green and white order pad from her apron.

"What would you folks like to drink?" she asked.

"Oh, uh, iced tea would be great," Denney said.

"Me, too, thanks."

"Okay, I'll bring those right away, and I'll give you a few minutes to look over the menu."

"Thank you," Denny called after the woman, who was already hurrying away.

He let out a deep breath as he turned his attention back to Ben once more.  "Twin girls, huh?"  He chuckled.  "I admit, we hadn't thought about that before, but . . . I think we'd be up to it."

Jane smiled happily when Denny glanced at her, one of those expressions reserved for one's significant other, Ben supposed.

"And you feel that you can adequately care for newborn twins?" Ben asked.

"I think we can," Jane replied, nodding at the waitress as she slipped their drinks onto the table.

"I have to ask why you wish to adopt.  I mean, strictly speaking, most of us don't even consider it, all things considered.

The couple exchanged meaningful glances—not really surprising, Ben figured.  He'd asked an intensely personal question, even if it did bear a certain significance to the matter at hand.

Jane sighed, offering Ben an almost apologetic sort of half-smile.  "A few years ago, I was in a car accident.  It wouldn't have been life-threatening, but I was hemorrhaging pretty severely, and the doctor had to remove my uterus to stop it.  He said that it was possible that it might grow back, but it could take time, even if it did—centuries . . ."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Ben replied as Denny reached over to pat his wife's hand, to squeeze her fingers in silent support.  "I wasn't trying to pry," he assured her.  "It's just something that I have to ask."

"No, I understand," she said, and her smile was genuine.  "I thought you'd ask, anyway."

"Would you care for something to eat?" Ben asked, changing the subject in an effort to alleviate the tension that had fallen over them since Jane's disclosure.  Over the years, he'd conducting more than one of these kinds of interviews.  This one had a different feel, though, if he were to be completely honest, he'd have to admit that it was his fault, not theirs.  Not for the first time, he had to wonder if he weren't entirely too close to the given situation to be wholly objective . . .

"Oh, um . . . a cheeseburger and fries?" Denny asked since he hadn't actually looked at his menu.

"Okay, and what do you want on that?"

"Just pickle and mustard, please."

The waitress nodded and scribbled on her pad before turning her attention to Jane.  "And what for you, hon?"

"Um, the chef salad, please . . . Ranch dressing on the side."

"What about you?"

Ben held up a hand.  "No, thank you."

The waitress hurried away once more, and Ben dug out the slim-file with the couple's information.  "You're a policeman?"

Denny nodded.  "For the last seven years, yes."

"How dangerous is your job?"

"Pleasant Hill isn't nearly as dangerous an area as a bigger city, if that's what you mean."

"Good."  He sighed.  "I'm just worried about family stability, you understand."

Denny nodded again, and he smiled.  "No, I get it completely.  My job's more dangerous than, say, someone who works in a factory or something, but not nearly as bad as it could be.  Most of my job is just routine traffic stops, busting up teenage parties on the weekend, that sort of thing."

Ben nodded, too.  "And you're a preschool teacher?"

Jane's smile was immediate and intense.  "Yes, I am."

"And if you adopt the girls?"

The smile faltered just a little as Jane bobbed her shoulders in an offhanded shrug.  "I don't understand what you're asking . . ."

"I mean, if you adopt the girls, are you going to continue to work?  I know that lots of people do, but we're talking about twins.  At least while they're still infants, how are you going to deal with your job and taking care of them?"

It was pretty apparent from her hesitation before answering that she either had not considered it or wasn't entirely sure just what Ben wanted to hear.  "Well, my daycare does have openings for babies, too, and then I can spend more time with them during breaks and while the other teacher is giving her lessons to the children . . ."

Ben took his time, sipping the coffee that was growing cold.  Ordinarily, whether the potential mother worked or not was not really much of an issue, but in this case, he couldn’t help but to feel as though it wasn't a good idea.  It was hard enough for adoptive parents to form the bonds necessary to ensure that the protection of the family as a whole would be as strong as it could be.  With twins, though, it'd be just that much harder.  "Would you consider leaving your employment for at least the first year?"

The couple exchanged glances, carrying on a conversation conveyed through expressions and gestures alone.  "I . . . I could," she finally decided.  "If it'd be better for them."

Ben forced a smile that he was far from feeling.  "It can be difficult for adopted children to properly bond.  I'm not saying that you would have trouble, but it would definitely be in your own best interest as a family to consider it."

Flipping to the base directory of the slim-file, Ben tapped to open a document—the information release pages.  He handed it over to Denny along with a digipen.  "These just give us permission to run background checks on the both of you," he explained.  "Standard stuff, really."

Denny scanned it quickly then signed his name before handing it over to Jane for her to sign, as well.

"Thanks," Ben said, taking the file back and closing it.  "Providing everything checks out, I'll contact you and set up a time when we can meet again.  I'd like to visit your house just to see it and to make sure that the girls will fit into your lives.  If that all goes well, then we can discuss some visits."

A familiar youki washed over him, and Ben's chin snapped up as Charity stepped into the bistro.  She didn't seem to notice him right away, but a moment later, she whipped around, her eyes registering her surprise even as a brilliant smile surfaced on her pretty face.

"Uh, just a moment, please," he said, standing up and excusing himself as he stepped over to intercept the woman who was heading toward him, her smile widening, eyes shining.  "Charity, hi.  I didn't expect to see you here."

She waved a hand as if it was of no real consequence.  "Are you kidding?  They have the best steak flatbread sandwiches.  I'm just on a lunch run."  Her smile dimmed slightly as she tilted her head to the side.  "Where are the twins?"

Casting a quick glance behind him at the table where he'd left the Douglasses, he was relieved to see that they were absorbed in the food that had been delivered when he'd stepped away from the table.  "They're with Eddie."

Charity leaned to the side to peer around Ben. A moment of surprise flickered to life, only to be replaced with one of utter suspicion as she slowly met Ben's eyes once more.  "Ben?  Are they . . .?"

Ben grimaced and leaned down to whisper in her ear.  "Why don't you come by after work, Charity?  I'll tell you everything then."

She didn’t look like she wanted to agree.  In the end, however, she nodded.  "Okay," she said slowly, carefully.  "I'll . . . I'll see you later, then."

He stuffed his hands into his pockets as he watched her turn and weave her way through the tables and over to the counter to pick up her order.  Stifling a sigh, he headed back to the table once more.  He just wanted this interview to end, damn it . . .

"Sorry about that," he said as he slipped into his chair once more.  "So . . . Do either of you have any questions?

Jane cleared her throat and seemed to be deliberating what she wanted to say.  Finally she smiled a little uncertainly.  "I don't suppose you have a picture of them?  The twins?"

Ben wasn't sure why her question caught him off guard.  Surely it was a normal enough thing to ask, wasn't it?

But why the hell was it so damn difficult to pull out his phone, to scroll through the images and open one of those babies . . .?  Why did something deep inside him feel as though . . . as though . . .?

'If you say it, you'll only make it more difficult, Ben.'

Drawing a deep breath to temper the rioting emotions within him, Ben stared at the image for a moment before handing the phone across the table.

"O-O-Oh," Jane breathed, turning the phone as Denny leaned to the side to see the image, too.  Blinking rapidly, the woman cleared her throat before she could speak.  "They're beautiful," she breathed.

"There are more," Ben heard himself saying.  "Just . . . Just scroll."

They did, punctuating the silence with soft laughs, with oohs and ahhs.  "What are their names?" Denny asked, his smile friendly and kind—and completely unwelcome, as far as Ben was concerned.

Swallowing down a strange lump that had grown thick in his throat, Ben shrugged.  "They, uh, don't really have names," he said.  "But we . . . We call them Emmeline and Nadia."

Jane giggled.  "Those are pretty," she allowed.  "But we were thinking of naming them after our mothers: Stephanie and Mary."

Gritting his teeth behind the tight smile on his face, he nodded.

"We'll have to put bracelets or something on them," Denny said to his wife.  "Otherwise, we'll never be able to tell them apart."

She laughed and nodded but didn't take her eyes off the images in front of her.

It was on the tip of Ben's tongue to tell them that he had no trouble in telling Emmeline from Nadia.  In the end, he bit his cheek instead, not trusting himself to open his mouth, all things considered.

 

 


 

 

 

Charity strode into the living room with a carefully blanked expression on her face, and she said nothing as she crossed the floor and held out a small bag.

"What's this?" Ben asked, raising a black eyebrow as he slowly reached out to take it.

She shrugged, trying for an air of nonchalance that she just wasn't feeling.  "I was thinking," she said, her voice calm, even.  "When Mamoruzen was a baby, I remember one week when Mama wasn't there—I think that was when one of her brothers died and she went to his funeral—so Papa had to get some formula, and Kichiro-oji-chan gave them a bottle of stuff that needed to be added to it.  I was pretty small then, so I don't know what that was all about, so I called Isabelle and asked her, and she said that youkai babies need more vitamins and stuff than human babies do, so she sent me that—express delivery.  It cost a lot."  She narrowed her eyes at him.  "A lot."

Ben blinked and stared at her for a long moment.  "I can pay you back," he said carefully, cautiously, very aware of the invisible alarm bells that were clanging in his head.

She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest as she turned her back on him. "You don't owe me," she informed him.  "You owe Isabelle.  Now, before I go spend some time with the twins, why don't you tell me who those people were at the bistro earlier?"

She heard him sigh.  "They want to adopt the girls," he admitted.

She winced.  He didn't see it.  She'd thought as much.  "I see."

"Do you?"

The carefully constructed façade that she'd carried into the townhouse with her crumbled.  "Of course I do, Ben," she said quietly as her shoulders slumped.  "Give me some credit, will you?"

"Look, Charity . . . If it were up to me, I'd . . . I'd keep them.  Don't you know?  But . . . But it's not about me, it's about them—what they need, what's best for them."  He sighed, and she knew he was struggling, and that knowledge only made her feel just a little worse.  "If the background checks come back clear, there's no reason why I shouldn't recommend them to Zelig."

It didn't really help her to know that he didn't want to do any such thing, and the hell of it was, she could understand his feelings, could fully comprehend the truth in what he said.  But she didn't like it.  "Okay," she said, blinking fast to disburse the moisture that had gathered in her eyes.  "You're right," she allowed quietly.

She heard him plop onto the sofa, and she peered over her shoulder.  Half sitting, half lying  with his head tilted back almost horizontal to the ceiling and his legs stretched out before him, the expression on his face said it all.  "I don't want to be right," he admitted.  Suddenly, he barked out a laugh that was entirely devoid of any real humor as he scowled at nothing at all.  "I've only had them a few days . . . So, why . . .?"

Letting out a deep breath, Charity spun around on her heel and strode over to him, sinking down beside him, grasping his hands in hers.  "You're a good man, Ben Philips," she said.  "But you know, it's okay to give away a few little pieces of yourself, you know."

He didn't move his head, but he shifted his eyes to the side, his gaze so intense, so dark that for a moment, she didn't recognize him.  "Do I ever get those pieces back, Charity?"

Letting go of his hands, she leaned her shoulder against the sofa, let her temple fall against it as she stared into his eyes.  "Maybe?  Someday . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

"Ben . . .?"

"Hmm?"

Charity bit her lip and crossed her arms over her chest as she stood beside him in the doorway of the twins' nursery.  "How long are we going to stand here?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

He shot her a quick glance and straightened his back as he crossed his arms over his chest, too.  "I'm just making sure that they're sleeping."

"But we've been watching them for almost an hour."

He waved a hand at her before tucking it into the crook of his elbow once more.  "Just a few more minutes."

Rolling her eyes since the twins were very, very deep in sleep, Charity grabbed Ben's hand and marched him away down the hall and toward the stairs.  Besides, he'd already set up the baby monitor—she'd stood there, holding both babies as he programmed the unit into the townhouse's central nav.  Then he'd taken both girls and asked her to go upstairs and make noise so that he could make sure it was working, so she'd spent ten minutes, yammering on about her research and the loose connection between the vestulus pharosa and the sirufalum genticala despite the knowledge that Ben probably had no idea just what she was talking about, anyway.  He'd finally declared the connection successful.

After that, they'd spent a good hour giving the girls a bath, which was only marginally better than the first try at doing so.  The bath had helped, though, because the girls had gone to sleep after having one last before-bed bottle.  They hadn't even stirred when Charity and Ben put them in one of the cribs, and if she didn't know better, she'd almost think that Ben was somewhat disappointed that they hadn't hollered bloody murder . . .

"Charity," Ben said as she dragged him down the stairs and into the living room again.

"If I let go, are you going to charge right back up there again?" she asked.

He snorted.  "No . . . Maybe."

"Thought so," she replied, pulling him around the sofa and letting go of his hand to push on his shoulders until he gave in and sat down.

"I just want to look in on them once more," he said as he started to rise again

Charity was faster, leaning all her weight on her hands on both of his shoulders until he acquiesced, albeit with a ration of ill-grace in the form of a very pronounced snort.

"You're kind of bossy," he muttered.

She wrinkled her nose, grabbing a slice of salami on a cracker with cheese that Eddie must have left there and shoved it into his mouth.  He sputtered indignantly as he chewed and slowly shook his head.  "If you keep going in there, you're going to wake them up," she told him.  "You'll hear them if they cry, right?  They're fine."

Heaving a sigh designed to let her know just how sorely put out he felt, Ben poured two glasses of wine and held one out to her.  "I read an article that said how important it was for babies to be held and cuddled as much as possible."

Hiding her smile behind the wine glass that she lifted to her lips, Charity very nearly laughed.  "It's also important to let them alone, too, so that they can develop the understanding that they can do certain things for themselves."

Ben snorted, reaching for another cracker.  "They're infants.  They can't do a thing for themselves yet."

She stared at him for a long moment, her gaze inscrutable, as though she were trying to see into his head.  "Did your parents hold you all the time?" she finally asked.

"When I was an infant?  Probably.  Hahaue, anyway."

"So you never got to go outside and play by yourself?  You didn't get to roam and explore and do things without your parents, hanging onto your hand?"

A small smile broke over his features, and he chuckled.  "Of course I did," he admitted.  "That was also over seven hundred years ago.  The world was a different place back then . . ."

Setting the glass aside, Charity pulled up her knees, wrapped her arms around them.  "Tell me about it."

"About what?"

She laughed.  "Your childhood!  Were you a troublemaker?"

Drawing in a deep breath, he looked like he wanted to deny it.  Then he chuckled and slowly shook his head.  "N-No," he drawled thoughtfully.  "Usually I just went along with whatever Keijizen—Sebastian—wanted to do to so that I could try to keep him out of trouble."

"Did it work?"

Ben chuckled once more.  "Sometimes.  Back then, he had a bad habit of not thinking things through.  If it occurred to him, then he just had to do it."

"He was reckless."

"Mmm," he intoned with a slow nod.  "He got better about that as we grew older, but when we were children, not so much."

She laughed, enjoying the mellowness in Ben that had been missing for most of the evening.  He was worried about the Douglasses, even if he wouldn’t admit as much, especially not to her—afraid that this couple was going to take the babies, and even though everything Ben had said about them was positive and good, she couldn't help but wonder if they really were, as Ben claimed, best for those girls in the long run . . .

"If he was so reckless, why on earth would you follow along with him?" she asked, ignoring the myriad of questions that swirled around her own head.

Green eyes taking on a more far-away expression, he set his glass aside and leaned back, rubbing his jaw thoughtfully.  "He always had this . . . this way about him," Ben explained.  "He was always a natural born leader.  He was always fearless, even if he knew he'd take a beating for his troubles.  It's just how he was."  Gaze taking on an amused light, he smiled just a little.  "First in for a fight, last standing in the end.  That was Keijizen."

"He was your best friend."

Ben's smile faltered, his eyes taking on a more somber richness in color.  "He was."

The sadness in his aura was a painful thing to feel.  It could have just happened yesterday, at least in his mind, because the spike in his youki was harsh, bitter, and so unlike the Ben that Charity knew.  It was an emotion that hurt her, though she'd be hard pressed to put into words, why that was . . .

Reaching over, she grasped his hand, squeezed his fingers gently, and when his eyes flew up to meet hers once more, she tried to smile.  "You still miss him."

Letting out a deep breath, he nodded, his fingers closing around hers as he gently but firmly drew her close to his side.  She didn't resist as he wrapped his arms around her, rested his cheek on her hair.  She could feel the thump of his heart, could feel the deep-seeded sorrow as it slowly ebbed away.  Idly twisting a lock of his hair around her finger, she tried not to think, struggled not to give voice to anything that could interrupt the welcome feeling of closeness, of a soul that understood hers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

With a sharp gasp, Charity's eyes flew open, her body contracting in a startled coil, and she struggled to sit up as she shook her head to clear her vision.

"Morning, sleepyhead!"

The voice registered in her fuzzy brain well before her other senses kicked in, and with a groan, she relaxed, flopping back as she rolled onto her back to bury her face in the pillow once more.  "Go 'way," she muttered, her voice muffled by the thick down.

Chelsea clucked her tongue.  "Is that any way to greet your twin?" she chided, tugging on Charity's shoulder in an effort to roll her over.

Charity grumbled something entirely unintelligible, much to Chelsea's unabashed amusement.  "Oh, now, since when are you such a grump in the morning?"

Heaving a tumultuous sigh since she knew well enough that there was no stopping Chelsea once she got going, Charity sat up and rubbed her sleep-gritty eyes.  Chelsea laughed and reached out to pull her twin into a tight hug.  "Aww," she crooned, sounding entirely sincere even if Charity knew well enough that she was anything but.  "Late night?"

Charity snorted and shoved at her.  Chelsea didn't let go.  "As a matter of fact, yes.  Yes, it was."

Chelsea went absolutely still at Charity's grouchy response as her arms dropped away, and she sat back on her heels to eye her twin in what could only be described as a devious kind of way.  "Is that so?  Well, do tell . . ."

Charity rubbed her face then slumped back against the padded off-white damask headboard.  "I was at Ben's till . . ." Glancing at the clock, she made a face, even though it was a little later than she usually got up.  'Six in the morning . . .?  Ugh . . .'  She was going to die, she just knew it.  ". . . about five hours ago."

"Ben's . . .?" Chelsea echoed.  She digested that for all of thirty seconds before she unleashed a squeal so high and shrill that Charity's ears flattened against her skull.  "Did you fuck him?  Tell me you fucked him!  Finally!"  She gasped suddenly, planting her hands on the coverlet as she leaned in close.  "Does he have a big dick?  Does he know how to use it?"

The rapid fire questions were enough to bring a livid flush to the fore as Charity quickly waved her hands to stop her overzealous twin.  "Chelsea!  No, we didn't," she insisted. "It's . . . It's not like that . . ."

Chelsea heaved a sigh as she slowly shook her head.  "Seriously?  See what happens if I leave you to your own devices?  At this rate, you two are never going to get anywhere . . ." Scooting off the bed, Chelsea started pacing the floor, the thin crinkled cotton long jacket she wore over the simple pants and blouse billowing behind her, drifting like a cloud as she moved.  "I've got it.  I'll take your place and get things moving for you!" she offered, spinning on her heel as the idea took root in her head.

"No, absolutely not," Charity insisted, flipping her legs off the bed and propelling herself off the surface as she stomped toward the bathroom.  "It's not like when we used to trade places to take tests in school.  I'm serious, Chels.  If you do that, I'll never, ever speak to you again."  She leaned out of the doorway to pin her sister with a fulminating glower.  "Ever!" she added for good measure.

Chelsea heaved a longsuffering sigh.  "All right," she relented.  She didn't sound as if she wanted to comply, though, but Charity also knew that if she gave her word, Chelsea wouldn't break it, either, which was, at least, a small relief.

She slapped the wall panel to start the shower and made quick work of stripping off her pajamas before ensconcing herself in the shower stall to savor the flow of hot water.

"Okay, you weren't over there getting your groove on with the old panther, so tell me why you were," Chelsea asked, raising her sing-song voice to be heard over the rushing water jets.

Letting out a deep breath as she reached for the shampoo bottle, Charity frowned.  To be honest, she really wasn't entirely sure what was going on.  It was easy enough to say that she was just helping him with the twins, but . . . But . . .

"O-O-Oh," Chelsea breathed.  Oh, my . . ."

Charity's frown darkened as Chelsea's words drifted to her.  "What are you doing?" she demanded mildly, wincing as some stray suds dripped into her eye.

"Oh, kami!" she exclaimed, ignoring Charity's question completely.  "Ben has babies?  Those are the cutest babies, ever!"

"Babies?" Charity echoed, shoving the shower door open far enough to peer out of it.  Chelsea was sitting on the closed toilet lid looking at Charity's phone.  "Why are you looking at that?"

"It beeped at me," she explained without taking her eyes off the device.  "He says good morning, by the way.  Thought that seeing the girls would be a great way for you to start  your day."

Face burning as she closed the sliding door again, Charity bit her lip.

"Now why does he have—? Aww!"

Hurrying through the rest of her shower, Charity smiled as Chelsea's appreciation of the adorable twins grew.  She'd apparently decided to scroll through the image library on the phone, which was quite all right with her.  It was Charity's decided opinion that those babies should be showed off, all the time.

Stepping out of the shower stall as she tucked the towel edge in between her breasts, Charity held out her hand.  "Hand it over," she demanded mildly.  "I want to see my morning picture."

Chelsea laughed and gave Charity the device.  "So is Ben really that hot under those stuffy suits he wears?" she asked, a devilish light aglow in her eyes.

Charity grunted and tried to fight back the flush that threatened at the mere memory of Ben in his towel.  Then she sighed as the image that he'd sent opened up—Ben, lying in bed, both girls lying in the crook of his arm, all three staring up at the camera with wide eyes, though Ben was smiling just a little.  She could feel the flush that she'd been fighting as it broke wide, engulfing her features in a blanket of heat as she bit her lip and saved the image to her library before firing off a quick message back to thank him for the picture.

"You know, I used to wonder just why you had that thing for him for years," Chelsea remarked casually.  "Now I know.  That man is stupid-hot!"

Charity didn't comment on that casual assessment as she towel dried her hair. Stopping long enough to scroll through her images, she found an exceptionally cute one of the girls sleeping and handed the phone back to her sister.  "They're undoubtedly the cutest babies, ever, right?"

Chelsea laughed.  "Of course they are," she agreed.  "Have you been spending a lot of time over there?"

"Well, two babies is a lot of work for one person," she muttered, squeezing the moisture from her hair with the towel once more.  "Emmeline almost smiled at me yesterday.  I know, they're still less than a week old, but I swear it was a smile."

"You're really attached to them, aren't you?"

Her movements stopped for a painful second, and Charity bit her lip.  She wasn't sure why Chelsea's candid question had startled her, but for some reason that she didn't want to dwell upon, she wasn't sure if she really ought to answer her, either.  "How long are you here for?" she asked instead,  hoping that Chelsea didn't notice the abrupt change in topic or that she'd at least just let it go.

Chelsea sighed.  "Not long, unfortunately.  It's just that . . . I don't know.  I got this weird feeling yesterday that you were upset, that I needed to come see you . . ." She shrugged simply.  "So I booked a flight."

For some reason, Chelsea's candid statement was enough to bring on the sting of tears that she stubbornly held back.

But it was true, she supposed.  As upset as she'd been after discovering Ben during his lunch meeting with the Douglasses, it shouldn't have surprised Charity that Chelsea would sense it and hop the first plane back.  It had always been that way.  They couldn't read each other's thoughts, no, but the invisible bond between the two of them had always been there, and there had been instances for the both of them when they'd just sensed the other's inner turmoil, if the emotion was strong enough, anyway . . .

"So what was wrong yesterday?" Chelsea asked in a nonchalant tone.  Too bad Charity knew better.

She made a face as she slipped the hair towel over the drying rack affixed to the wall and took her time straightening it out.  There really wasn't any way to avoid it, was there?  And even if she could . . .

"The twins' father challenged Cain-oji-san," she said in a matter-of-fact tone, "and his mate ended up in labor when she found out about her mate's loss.  She asked oji-san to find a family for them, so he brought them back.  Ben offered to keep them while they . . . While they find a family for them . . ."

"Wait, so Ben's not keeping them?"

Charity sighed, unable to keep the hint of irritation out of her tone.  "No, he's . . . He's not . . ."

"Why not?"

Grimacing at her sister's overly-sharp tone, Charity shook her head.  "Because he says the girls need to have a family that has two parents—stability and all that—and he's busy a lot.  I mean, he's one of oji-san's generals, and you know as well as I do that he tends to travel a lot, and when he's not doing that, he still handles oji-san's art, and—"

"Yeah, yeah, okay, you're going to defend him.  He's Ben, and you lo-o-o-ove him; I get that," Chelsea said, waving a hand to shut up her twin.  "I mean, okay, so he's not mated, he's a busy guy—whatever!  Why take them in if he's only going to give them away?"

Charity didn't respond to that, simply because, at the heart of it all, she agreed entirely.

Chelsea must have realized that she'd made her point, because she heaved a sigh and shook her head.  "Anyway, why don't you take the day off, and don't tell me you can't because you never, ever do . . . We'll go shopping, maybe get a massage, go out to eat at somewhere ridiculously decadent, and then you can introduce me to those precious babies!"

Biting her lip as she slipped on her bra and panties, Charity started to decline but stopped.  After all, it had been almost six months since she'd gotten to spend any time at all with her twin, and, to be honest, maybe, just maybe, she could use the break . . .

 

 


 

 

 

The door of the huge and impressive townhouse opened as Ben Philips blinked in surprise and stepped back.  "Charity . . . Chelsea.  I didn't realize you were in town," he greeted, stepping forward to welcome the young women to his home.

Chelsea stopped him with the back of  her hand in the center of his chest to move him aside.  "Out of my way, Ben Philips.  Where are those babies, anyway?"

He chuckled.  "The babies," he repeated, as though he should have figured as much.  He grasped Charity's hand and bent down to kiss her cheek.  "You look lovely today," he commented.

"Stuff your sweet talk, too—at least till I see those girls," Chelsea insisted.

Charity rolled her eyes, but smiled at Ben.

"They're in the living room, and I just got them to sleep, so . . ." Trailing off, he heaved a sigh as he caught Charity's eye and slowly shook his head despite the grin that threatened at the corners of his lips.  That was all Chelsea waited to hear, and when Ben and Charity followed her into the living room, it was to find Chelsea with a slightly fussing Nadia in her arms.

"What a gorgeous little lady!" she crooned, holding Nadia up at eye level to get a good look at her.  "Just darling!"  She sat on the sofa and cuddled the child close before turning her gaze back on Ben once more.  "Okay.  Now you may commence with the superfluous flattery."

He chuckled as Charity carefully scooped up Emmeline, who didn't stir at all and just uttered a happy little sigh.

"Chelsea, you look as troublesome as ever," Ben remarked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"That's nice of you to say," she remarked with a wink since she was wearing one of the borderline risqué dresses she'd bought at Hot 10, a boutique that Charity would normally never be caught dead in.  A black micro-mini that was nothing more than a very tiny tube of lycra with the barest hint of satin thrown in for good measure and a fairly opaque black blouse that didn't do much to cover the miniscule black lace bra she wore underneath.  Add to that a leopard print scarf slung around her neck and four inch patent leather stilettos that were held onto her ankles by little more than a configuration of straps and strings, and, well, 'trouble' seemed like a bit of an understatement, especially when Charity had opted to wear a cute little yellow gingham sundress and sensible flat white sandals.  "You look like your regular stuffy old self."

"Chelsea," Charity hissed, hoping that Ben wouldn't hear her but knowing that he couldn't possibly miss it.

"Sorry," he said, sounding anything but sorry, all things considered.  "I was actually just getting ready to step out for a bit."

"With the babies?" Charity asked.  "I don't think that's a good idea.  There's a smog warning in effect today.  The Air Quality Index is at almost ninety."

Ben shrugged and offered her an indulgent little grin.  "Actually, I was going to leave them with Eddie . . . Unless you want to keep an eye on them?"

Her smile was immediate.  "I can do that," she decided.  "Will you be gone long?"

Ben's smile dimmed.  "Uh, no," he said.  "I was just going to run past special crimes to pick up the background reports on the Douglasses."

"Douglasses?" Chelsea repeated with a raised eyebrow.  "Who are they?"

Charity shifted uncomfortably then bobbed her shoulders in a calculated show of nonchalance that didn't fool Chelsea, even for a second.  "They're the couple who wants to . . . to adopt the girls."

Narrowing her eyes on Ben, Chelsea sucked in a cheek as she considered Charity's words.  "And just what do you know about them?" she finally asked, leveling a no-nonsense look at the youkai general.

"He's a police officer, and she teaches preschool," Ben replied.

Chelsea wrinkled her nose, completely nonplussed by Ben's statement.  Absently noting just how quiet Charity had become, she grimaced inwardly when she sensed her twin's underlying turmoil that directly stemmed from the topic at hand.  "And how do you know that they're not secretly involved with some weird and twisted cult that eats babies during their satanic rituals?"

Ben barked out a laugh before he managed to tamp down his apparent amusement at Chelsea's dire—and ridiculous—scenario.  "I'm sure that it'd show up somewhere in the background check I ordered," he remarked dryly despite the heightened brilliance behind his green eyes.

"You realize that either one of them could potentially be a serial killer," Chelsea went on stubbornly.  "All it takes is one psychotic break, and it could happen."

"I seriously doubt that would."  Ben checked his watch and grimaced.  "If you're okay with watching them, Charity, I won't be long.  If you had other plans, just tell Eddie."

Charity fluttered a hand to indicate that she'd heard him.  He started to turn, but must have thought better of it, and he altered his path to kiss both of the babies on the head, letting his hand linger on each of them before he finally straightened up.  Then he did the same to Charity as Chelsea's mouth fell open in surprise.

He strode away, but stopped in the archway to turn back as he grabbed his jacket off a nearby chair and shrugged it on.  "If you ladies don't have other plans, I'd be happy to take you out to dinner."

"That'd be great," Charity said, her cheeks dusted with pink as she smiled at the man.

"I shouldn't be long," he said as he turned to go again.  "Let Eddie know if you need anything at all."

Charity sighed softly—a happy sound that Chelsea wondered if her sister even realized she'd uttered it.  Charity had always been as transparent as a window.  It was a trait that Chelsea both envied and hated.  On the one hand, it was Charity's gift, the way she was able to connect with people simply because of the emotion that she didn't try to hide.  On the other?  It had also gotten Charity hurt a number of times over the years, and Chelsea knew that, too.  The thing was, Charity herself . . . Well, she'd never actually realized just how easy it was to see right through her, either . . .

'That's . . . Interesting, wouldn't you say?'

'Very . . . It's almost like they're one of those cute little couples that have been together forever,' Chelsea's youkai-voice mused.

'Hmm . . . Dinner with the two of them, huh?  Should be interesting . . .'

Her youkai chuckled.  'Oh, absolutely . . . Absolutely . . .'

 

 


 

 

 

"You haven't said much about the background check," Charity commented in a carefully contrived tone that was neither contentious nor completely apathetic as she kept her gaze trained on the food before her.  Only the hint of color that rode high in her cheeks gave her away, at least, to Chelsea's discerning gaze, anyway.  She had no idea if Ben noticed or not, but given the overlying dusky quality of the lighting inside the historic restaurant the man had chosen, she rather figured that he couldn't tell.

Ben paused before taking the bite that he held in front of his mouth.  "It's fine," he said, his tone sounding overly bright to Chelsea's ears.  "Not even a speeding ticket on file for either one of them in over ten years."

"Which wouldn't be that hard to get off their records, given that he's a cop," Chelsea muttered, more to herself than to her dinner companions.

"I suppose," Ben ventured.  "Even if they did, that's not really that big a deal."  He sighed and set his fork against the edge of his plate.  "They're . . . They're perfect, at least, on paper."

"Nobody's perfect," Chelsea insisted, reaching for her glass of wine.

"As true as that may be, you can't really expect anyone to be able to meet that level of expectation, can you?" Ben countered mildly.

"Can't you?" Chelsea argued, raising an eyebrow as she pinned the panther with a probing stare.  "You're talking about the lives of two very tiny babies.  This isn't like trying to decide if they'd make good owners for your puppy or your kitten, Ben."

"You think I don't know that, Miss Inutaisho?" he shot back, eyes taking on an independent glow that was all the more stark in contrast to the controlled, almost bored, tone in his voice.  "I'm well aware of what hangs in the balance."

"Do you?' she went on in a pleasant enough tone.  She could feel Charity, stiffening beside her as her youki pulled in tightly around her.  She'd always hated confrontation, but at the moment, Chelsea didn't care.  "Isn't it your job to look out for those babies?  I mean, to take care of those who cannot do it for themselves?  Those twins—"

"—Are really none of your concern," he cut in.  Then he sighed, taking a moment to get his own feelings under control.  "I promise you, if the Douglasses are less than upstanding, I won't let them near the babies, but so far, there is no reason at all not to recommend their request as long as the home visit goes well, too."

"But you're missing the whole point, Ben," she gritted out, struggling to hold onto her calm and failing miserably.

"Then what is your point?" he challenged, his youki whipping around, flailing with his own rising irritation.

"I'm going . . . I'm going to the bathroom," Charity suddenly said, her chair making an obscenely loud sound as it scraped against the polished floor in her haste to stand up.  Grabbing her purse while Ben shot to his feet, she waved a hand, as though to tell him to sit back down again, and she hurried away from the table.

Counting to twenty for good measure—waiting until her twin was well out of earshot, Chelsea leaned across the table, pinning Ben with what could only be described as a 'Don't-Be-Stupid' kind of glare.  "The point, Ben Philips, is that you're giving away her babies!" she hissed.

Leaning back as he dropped into his chair, as though she'd reached out and struck him, he looked dumbfounded, absolutely shell-shocked.  "Wh . . . What?"

Rolling her eyes as she wondered if she'd been morbidly mistaken as to exactly how old Ben really was, she stifled the urge to sigh.  She couldn't figure out for the life of her how someone as old as Ben could be as clueless as he seemed to be, too.  It had become ridiculously apparent to her in just a morning spent shopping with Charity, just how attached she was to those girls already, and all in the course of a handful of days.  How often did she have to drag Charity away from this display or that rack of baby clothing as she babbled on about the girls and the things that they'd done that had amused her or things that had ultimately comprised normal, everyday, entirely mundane sort of things?  It was as if Chelsea had already met them long before she'd set eyes on them, and if that wasn't the mark of a woman who considered those babies to be hers, then there never would be, as far as Chelsea was concerned.

Drawing a deep breath as she struggled to get a grip on her own irritation, Chelsea forced herself to sit back, too.  "Let me ask you something," she finally said in the thick silence that had fallen.

Ben didn't look like he wanted to allow her to do any such thing, but in the end, he nodded once.  "All right," he agreed, sounding entirely wary of what was to come.

Chelsea glanced around again to make sure that Charity was still in the bathroom before turning her attention back to Ben once more.  "What is Charity to you?"

"I . . ." He looked confused by her question, which really made her want to lose what was left of her short temper.  She tamped it down with an admirable amount of disregard, all things considered.

"At the risk of pissing off Charity," she said, leveling a no-nonsense stare at him, "she likes you—a lot.  She always has.  If you like her, too, then great, but if you don't and this is all just some weird game to you?  If she's just convenient because she's 'there' or because you need her help with the girls?  If that's the case, then leave her alone, Ben, because if you don't?  If you don't, I promise you, there won't be a place on earth where you'll be safe from me."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Charity laughed softly as the twins waved their tiny hands, kicking their feet as they tried their hardest to 'talk' to her.  She'd spread out a thick blanket on the floor of Ben's living room where the three of them were having what she'd dubbed 'girl-time', while some silly nursery type show on the television added a whimsical and amusing bit of background noise.

"You're going to be talking before your sister, huh, Nadia?" Charity cooed at the rambunctious infant who was nowhere near ready for her afternoon nap.  "You're going to be more like Chelsea, aren't you?  I can tell . . . You're going to be a hell-raiser, through and through . . ."

Nadia waved and managed a few incoherent burbles in reply, which only made Charity laugh a little louder.  Emmeline seemed to understand that something had amused Charity, and she screwed up her tiny face in abject concentration and managed a little half-screech, half-coo, as well.

"And you're going to be the sweet one, aren't you, Em?  Sweet and funny . . . Just don't let Nadia drag you into too much mischief, okay?"

The babies kicked and waved their arms happily.

The trill of her cell phone interrupted the one-sided discussion, and she sat up to grab it off the coffee table, only to raise her eyebrows at the name that flashed across the screen.  "Papa!" she greeted after connecting the call.  "What a pleasant surprise!"

Toga's soft chuckle was like a balm on her soul, bringing a smile to her face despite the distance between them.  It didn't matter that she'd just seen him a few weeks ago at Evan and Valerie's wedding.  She supposed that she'd just never outgrow her need to talk to her father . . . "Just thought I should give you a call to see how you're doing," he said.

"Everything's going well," she assured him.  "How are you and Mama?"

"Fine, just fine," he replied.  She heard him sigh, and she raised an eyebrow that he couldn't see.  "It's just that I got a really strange call from your sister yesterday."

". . . Coral?" Charity hedged, knowing full-well, just which sister her father was talking about.

"No, not Coral," Toga said, his tone indulgent, even though he had to realize that she was stalling.

". . . Cass?"

He grunted.  "No, not Cassidy, either," he stated.

She sighed, too, giving up the ruse since it just wasn't working, anyway.  "What did Chelsea tell you?"

"To be honest, not a lot of what she said made much sense," he admitted.  "Something about Ben Philips and babies and . . ." Trailing off, he sighed again, and she could hear his chair creak as he adjusted his posture.  "Charity, just what the hell was your sister trying to say?"

Smiling to herself just a little sadly, mostly because of the duly befuddled hint in Toga's familiar voice, Charity drew a deep breath.  "There's . . . There's not much to tell," she lied—well, maybe not a lie, but definitely a vast understatement if there ever was one.  "I've just been helping Ben with the twins—You know about them, don't you?"

"Yeah, I do," he allowed.  Then he chuckled.  "Chelsea did say that they're the cutest babies she's ever seen."

"Of course, they are!  You want to see them?"

"Absolutely."

Her smile widened as she glanced over at the infants who were still waving and kicking their feet.  "Hold on," she said, lowering the phone so that she could switch the voice chat to video feed.  "This one's Emmeline," she said, laying down beside the babies so that she could move the phone to capture them for her father.  "And that's Nadia."

"Pretty cute," Toga remarked.

"I'll have you know that you interrupted girl-time," she chided.  "See him?  That's my papa," she explained to the infants.  "My daddy, just like Ben—"  Biting off her words abruptly, Charity cleared her throat, hating the sudden and sharp pang that dug at her from the inside out.  "I mean, like . . . like Denny Douglass wants to . . . to be . . ."

Clearing his throat, Toga seemed to sigh, which didn't really surprise Charity, though she had hoped that he'd missed the slip.  "Charity . . ."

"It's okay," she hurried to reassure her father, hoping—praying—that he couldn't see right through the forced brightness she inflicted into her tone.  "It's just, you know.  Being around them, sometimes it's easy to get carried away, is all.  In fact, that's where Ben is now . . . He's doing a home visit to make sure that the Douglasses are equipped to take on the twins . . ."

He didn't look like he was buying, and Charity winced inwardly.  "Ben's good with them?" he asked instead.

Charity nodded quickly.  "He really is," she insisted, switching hands holding the phone so she could run her knuckle against Emmeline's downy cheek.  The infant turned her head toward the touch, her mouth opening automatically, and Charity giggled.  "They . . . They really love him, too . . ."

"Why doesn't he want to keep them?"

She snorted indelicately, scowling down at the babies for a moment.  "He says they need a two-parent home.  I mean, I understand what he means.  That's how it is for our kind.  Sure, I get it . . ."

Toga considered that for several moments.  "I don't think that it's necessary to have two parents, per se," he said slowly, as though he were giving the discussion a lot of thought.  "I mean, look at Zelig-san.  He did very well, raising Bellaniece on his own.  Maybe it wasn't the perfect situation, but he managed it."

"Papa, you know how old-fashioned Ben can be about some things," she countered with a sad little shake of her head.  She could feel her ears droop, but there really wasn't anything she could do about that, either.  "It's just that he really is so good with them, and they . . . They love him.  He says that they need to have two parents—they deserve it."  A sudden sense of impotent anger surged through her—a rage so thick, so cloying that it frightened her.  "Don't they deserve to have the sense that they belong?  The security that comes with knowing that Papa and Mama aren't going to change?  Less than a week old, and they've already lost one set of parents that they never even got to meet, and Ben says . . . Papa, tell me, how is that fair?"

Toga seemed to be taken aback by Charity's impassioned speech, and he slowly shook his head, his gaze shifting to the side, to the babies, his expression taking on an almost sad kind of lilt, as though he were seeing things that she simply couldn't.  He spoke before she could question it, though.  "You don't have to sell me on it, Charity.  I'm on your side—whatever side that is."

Dashing the back of her hand over her eyes as she scowled furiously at the tears inspired by the righteous indignation, she slowly shook her head.  "I know, but . . ."

"Charity, let me tell you something you might not know."

Sniffling quietly, she dared a peek at the screen, at the concern evident on her father's face—and the unerring love.  "What's that?"

He smiled.  It was an encouraging kind of smile, the kind of smile she remembered seeing on his face when he'd helped her with school projects or tried to give her pep talks when she'd despaired that she'd ever actually finish grad school . . . "There are no set rules as to when one becomes a parent.  For most of us, it happens when we choose to make a child to share our lives with, but that's not always the case . . . Sometimes, very special people are chosen—chosen by kami or by necessity or simply by being at the right place at the right time.  The trick is to know when to fight for those children, especially when they're too small to fight for themselves.  Do you understand me?"

Frowning thoughtfully as she pondered his words, Charity slowly nodded.  "I . . . I think so," she said.

Toga chuckled.  "Good, then."  Then he sighed.  "I hate to cut this short, but I've got a meeting I can't get out of . . . Do me a favor, though?  Give your mama a call—soon."

She managed a weak little laugh.  "Hai, Papa," she said.

He nodded and blew her a kiss.  The connection ended as Charity let her phone drop onto the blanket beside herself as her father's words echoed through her head . . .

 

 


 

 

"At the risk of pissing off Charity, she likes you—a lot.  She always has.  If you like her, too, then great, but if you don't and this is all just some weird game to you?  If she's just convenient because she's 'there' or because you need her help with the girls?  If that's the case, then leave her alone, Ben, because if you don't?  If you don't, I promise you, there won't be a place on earth where you'll be safe from me."

Poking the button on the steering wheel to mute the radio, Ben let out a deep breath, wondering for the hundredth time if there really was any truth to what Chelsea had claimed in the restaurant.

'But I didn't . . . I haven't . . . Why in the hell would Chelsea think that I would have anything but the highest of regard for her sister?'

'I know that, and you know that . . . Of course, she isn't just 'there' . . . and it's not just because of the girls, either,' his youkai-voice fumed, also for the hundredth time.

Weird games . . .?  Just where in the hell had Chelsea gotten a stupid idea like that, anyway?  And why did he get the feeling that she thought it was something he'd done before?  Never mind that he wasn't at all answerable to Chelsea Inutaisho, anyway . . . He had clothes in his closet that were older than she was, damn it . . .

Tightening his grip on the steering wheel, Ben could feel his jaw ticking as another bout of abject irritation spun through him, as fresh and terrible as it had been that night in the restaurant.  Just what, exactly, did Chelsea take him for, anyway?  Did she honestly believe that he would use Charity for his own gain?  And if so, then how dare she misjudge him so quickly and so thoroughly . . .?

'We've taken down a number of youkai for less than that—for daring to impinge upon our honor.'

'That's not what she was trying to do,' Ben thought with a frown.  Angry and insulted or not, the truth of it was that Chelsea was still Charity's twin, and on some level, he had to respect, however grudgingly, the absolute desire to defend her sister.

"The point, Ben Philips, is that you're giving away her babies!"

'Yeah, but that whole thing about the girls?  I mean, sure, it makes sense that Charity's grown attached to them.  So have you.  So have I.  But Charity understands why keeping them was never an option.'

Did she?  Did she really?

Unfortunately, that was a question that only Charity could answer, and Charity . . .

"I don't want to talk about it, Ben . . . Your mind's made up, right?  So, it really doesn't matter.  As long as the girls are . . . are all right . . . It's not . . . It’s not about me, now is it?"

Gaze narrowing as he glared at the empty expanse of road before him, Ben sighed.

And yet, understanding something and dealing with the emotional toll of it all were two totally different things, weren't they?  He understood that only too well.  It was something he'd had to deal with a few times over the course of his life, and even if the circumstances were different, the end result had been the same.  How difficult had it been to reconcile himself to the understanding as he'd watched in silence as Sebastian Cavendish had carried young Zelig onto the ship, bound for the Old World?  And he'd known that he'd never see his friend again, but it hadn't been until years later when he'd stood on the same dock and watched as Zelig—who had somehow become a man in the passage of time between—walked down the gangplank: tall, proud, and most certainly Sebastian's flesh and blood . . .

Did Charity know how to deal with such a thing?  Ultimately, though, at least, in this, there was comfort in the idea that the girls would benefit from it all, even if it was a small consolation, at best.

The beep of his cell phone interrupted his convoluted thoughts, and Ben hit the buttons on the steering wheel that unmuted the radio and transferred the call to the car speakers instead.  "Ben Philips," he said.

"Hey, Ben, it's Cain . . . Are you done with the home study?"

"Oh, yeah," he said, stifling another sigh since it really wasn't something he wanted to talk about.

"How'd it go?"

"Fine, fine.  Large house, nice yard, good school district . . . They've already started looking into preschools in the area, too.  They showed me the room that they were going to convert into a nursery . . . Everything . . ."

Cain digested that for a long moment before responding.  "You don't sound pleased about that."

Ben winced.  It looked more like a grimace.  "No, I am . . . They're perfect for them."

"Good," Cain said.  "Did you set up a time for them to visit yet?"

If he didn't want to talk about everything else, he most certainly didn't want to talk about visitation.  Even so, he squelched the warring emotions.  "They are coming this weekend," he said.  "They can meet the twins, and we'll see how it goes from there."

"Then it sounds like it's all but settled," Cain concluded.  "Look, I know you've got a lot going on at the moment, but I need you to come up as soon as possible.  There are a few things that I wanted to go over with you.  Next week, maybe?  If things settle down, that is?"

"Okay," Ben agreed, rubbing his forehead as though to soothe a burgeoning headache.  "That shouldn't be a problem."

"All right, thanks," Cain said.  A moment later, the call ended and the speakers switched over to radio once more.

Just as Zelig had said, it was almost done, right?

'Right . . .'

So why didn't he feel better about it all . . .?

 

 


 

 

 

"Look at that silly dinosaur!" Charity said, her voice reaching pitches that should not really have been possible, and despite the funk that had clung tightly to him on the way home, he couldn't help the little smile that quirked the corners of his lips as he leaned against the archway and watched as the hanyou woman held both babies on her lap, their backs braced against her chest.  He didn't actually think they could see the television or the ridiculously bright dinosaurs dancing around on the screen, but he wasn't about to point that out to Charity, either . . .

'She looks damn good with those cubs,' his youkai mused quietly.

Ben nodded.  'She does.'

'You know, right?  She . . . She belongs here with us.'

Yeah, he knew that, too . . .

Shoving away from the arch, Ben wandered over to the sofa where the three of them were sitting.  The girls were both clean and fresh, dressed in cute little impossibly ruffled sleepers.  Charity gave him a brilliant smile as he sat down beside them and handed over Nadia.  "How was your girls-day?" he asked, lifting an eyebrow to emphasize the question.

Charity laughed.  "We had a fabulous time, of course!  Mud baths, champagne by the pool . . ."

He chuckled, wondering vaguely what it was about Charity's laughter, her smile, that could erase all the negative feelings he'd been suffering with since he woke up this morning and remembered just what it was he had to do . . . "Sounds like I missed a lot."

She smiled at him for another long heartbeat before heaving an industrious sigh as she glanced down at Emmeline, who was dozing against her.  With another soft laugh, she picked up the infant and carried her over to the portable crib set up nearby.

She didn't return to the sofa right away, though.  Taking her time as she roamed around the room, she seemed almost restless.  He knew damn well what was going through her mind, and he understood that she was trying to figure out the best way to broach the subject . . . If there was a good way to do it . . .

He let out a deep breath, struggling for a semblance of calm, trying to hide his own emotions when he knew well enough that Charity wouldn't be able to do the same.  "They're coming this weekend to meet the twins."

He didn't know how he honestly had expected her to react.  He supposed, if he had really thought about it, he'd have expected some sort of outburst, some kind of emotion.  When she did speak, however . . . "I . . . I see," she said softly—so softly he almost missed it.

Staring at the baby in his arms, Ben frowned.  Eyes so wide, so beautiful, as she took in the world around her, so calm and so content just to be held . . . and somewhere, deep inside, it felt as though something was crumbling, tearing, shredding apart, and he was entirely powerless to stop it . . . "If all goes well, they might take them overnight to their hotel . . ." Choking out a terse laugh that was thin, hollow, horrifying, he slowly shook his head.  "Maybe . . . Maybe they'll bond instantly."  When she didn't respond, he sighed as he stood up to put the now-drowsing Nadia in the crib with her sister.  "They, uh . . . They have a big house, a nice yard—a good place to raise children . . . Two rooms, but they're planning to remove the walls to make one large nursery-slash-playroom for them, and—"

"You don't have to sell me on them," Charity interrupted quietly.  "I don't doubt that they're good people, Ben."

"That's not what I . . . I'm not trying to sell you anything," he told her.

"Isn't that what you're trying to do?" she countered just as softly.  "Telling me all about their house and their yard and . . . and . . "

"Charity . . ."

"No, Ben," she cut in, her voice taking on a weary sort of edge that cut him through.  "If . . . If you really feel that it's best, then . . . Then there's really nothing I can say . . . right?"

Somehow, he felt that her softly uttered question was masking something else, something a little deeper, but probing for answers to that . . .? Ben was too mentally exhausted to try.  "I just thought it might make you feel better if I told you about them."

"I'm sorry if I don't assuage your conscience," she replied as a certain bitterness crept into her tone.  "This . . . This . . ."

"That's not what I'm trying to do," he insisted, crossing his arms over his chest as he frowned at her back.  Something about her stance made her appear smaller, even more fragile, as though she were trying to make herself disappear . . . and that thought . . . "I just . . . This isn't easy for me, either."

She whirled around, and Ben winced.  The tears that stood in her eyes didn't fall, and that was somehow far more appalling.  With a muttered curse, he crossed the floor in three long strides, grabbing Charity to pull her into his arms.  For a moment, she struggled, as though she had to put some distance between them.  Then she relaxed completely, as though she had simply lost the will to fight him.  Leaning against him, she still refused to cry, her fists tightening around fistfuls of his shirt, her fingers clenched so tightly that her knuckles leached white, and Ben closed his eyes, hating the feeling of her overwhelming misery, hating the circumstances that had complicated everything, hating the timing that felt so very wrong.

Hating himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Charity stared at the closed door for several minutes.  She'd lost count of how many times she'd raised her hand to ring the doorbell, only to stop, to hesitate.  A part of her wanted to turn around, to walk away because she feared what she'd see if she stepped inside Ben's townhouse.

The other part of her?

Squaring her shoulders, Charity raised her hand once more.  The door opened before she could, though, and she squeaked in surprise and jumped back a step as Eddie very nearly barreled right into her, her market bags slung over her arm.  "Oh, Miss Charity!  Did you just get here?"

"Uh, s-something like that," she muttered since she wasn't about to admit to having been standing there, on the front porch, for the last forty-five minutes.

Eddie nodded and stepped back to hold the door for her.  "Ben's upstairs dressing the babies—if he managed to finish their bath without maiming either of them, considering all the squalling I heard all the way in the living room while I was cleaning . . ."

"Thank you," Charity said as she stepped inside.  "Ben's not really doing anything mean.  The twins just really hate the water."

"I'm pretty positive that he's bent on dealing those girls mental trauma . . . Anyway, I'll be back shortly," Eddie called as she started to pull the door closed behind her.  "I made bottles.  They're in the cold sack on the counter."

"Okay," Charity replied as the door clicked shut.  She set her purse on the table by the door and rubbed her hands together as she stared at the staircase and the landing above.  Why did it feel as though she were trying to bolster her courage . . .?

'Because you are,' her youkai-voice remarked.  'You hate what's going on, and you know it.'

'Of course, I do . . . Those girls . . .'

'We could do it, you know . . . People do it all the time . . .'

'Humans do it all the time, sure,' she thought with an inward sigh.  'But . . .'

'They seemed like a perfectly nice couple—the Douglasses . . . The perfect, all-American dream . . .'

There was a very real viciousness underlying her youkai-voice's words that Charity completely understood.  She didn't want to think of those people as the twins' potential family.  The very thought was enough to make her want to run, to hide the girls, to secret them away from everyone—everyone but her.

'What do you want to do, then?  Do you have any ideas?  Anything that could stop the process?'

That was the problem, wasn't it?  There were no good ideas, nothing at all that wouldn't end up causing more harm than the good it might do, but as much as Charity wished it were otherwise, she couldn't help but think that her wishes really didn't factor into it, at all.

'Don't they?  Cherry . . .'

Biting her lip as the words of her youkai-voice trailed off, she crossed her arms, rubbing her upper arms as though she were cold when she really, really wasn't.

She didn't really know when it had occurred to her.  Maybe it was her talk with her father that had done it, had brought ideas creeping into her brain.

"I don't think that it's necessary to have two parents, per se . . . There are no set rules as to when one becomes a parent.  For most of us, it happens when we choose to make a child to share our lives with, but that's not always the case . . . Sometimes, very special people are chosen—chosen by kami or by necessity or simply by being at the right place at the right time.  The trick is to know when to fight for those children, especially when they're too small to fight for themselves . . ."

'When to fight . . .? But what did Papa mean . . .?'

For once, her youkai-voice remained conspicuously silent, and Charity sighed.

She didn't want to be here; didn't want to see the Douglasses meet the twins.  The last thing she wanted to do was to see some woman she'd never met touch those babies—a woman who wanted to be their mama . . .

The last three days had been brutal; there was no other way to describe them.  She'd felt compelled to come by after work every day, needed to be with those babies, even if they weren't going to be there long . . . As much as she hated it, there wasn't much she could do about it, either.  But leaving the babies alone was just a little more than she could do, no matter the reason.  Maybe it would make it easier on her in some respects, but every time she hesitated, the image of the two darling faces—faces that she had come to adore—flashed through her mind . . . and Ben . . .

There was a strange sense of separation there; one that was too thick, too wide, to be breached.  He was polite, yes.  He was attentive, of course.  But she saw it, didn't she?  The strain that lingered around his eyes, and for some reason, she had a feeling that it wasn't entirely the situation with the twins that caused it, either . . .

So why was she here, anyway?

Ben stepped out of the shadows of the great room at the top of the stairs with both babies in his arms.  He didn't notice her right away.  So busy paying attention to the twins, he was talking to them in quiet tones as they cooed happily at him, so when he stepped off the bottom step, he drew himself up short when his gaze finally lit on her.  "Charity," he said, offering her a tentative smile.  "I wasn't sure if you were coming over today or not."

Deliberately taking her time as she lifted Emmeline out of his arms, she didn't even try to force a smile.  "As if I'd miss a chance to cuddle with these girls," she murmured, kissing Emmeline's downy head.  Then she leaned to the side to repeat the kiss, this time on Nadia, who gurgled and waved her hands in response.

"I'm , uh . . ." Ben scratched his temple a little self-consciously.  "I'm glad you're here."

Forcing her gaze away from his face because she just didn't want to see the doubt, the panic that he was trying to hide, she turned to head into the living room.  "I'm not here for you, Ben," she said quietly.  "Don't . . . Don't thank me."

He looked like he wanted to say something to her as she settled herself in one of the oversized chairs by the sofa.  She didn't get to hear, it, however, because the doorbell sounded, clanging through Charity's head like a death knell.

"Here," he said, handing Nadia to her before he strode off to answer the door.

Drawing a deep breath that did nothing to quell the rising sense of foreboding that was thick enough to choke her, Charity closed her eyes for a moment, willing away the emotion before the girls sensed it and reacted to it.  In the distance, she could hear the voices, the couple's laughter.  It made her want to scream.

Ben strode into the room with the strangers that she'd seen at the bistro in tow.  The man looked nice enough, which really didn't do much to sway Charity's overall opinion, and the woman beside him kept leaning from one side to the other, making no attempt to hide her excitement, her curiosity as she caught sight of the babies in Charity's arms.  "The girls are in here with a friend of mine.  Charity, this is Jane and Denny Douglass . . . This is Charity Inutaisho."

Denny blinked and shot her a questioning glance.  "Inutaisho?"

"Toga's my father," she clarified.  "Pleased to meet you."

"So, your grandfather is Sesshoumaru . . ."

She nodded, tamping down the urge to tell the man that her family really wasn't any of his business, reminding herself that it was okay for someone to be curious.  After all, many of the youkai, especially here in the States, had never had occasion to actually meet Sesshoumaru or Toga, and, given that the family were, in essence, on part with royalty, the curiosity was a natural thing.

"Oh, they're so precious!" Jane gushed, bending down, hands on knees as she got a little closer than Charity was comfortable with.  Tamping down the urge to ask the woman to step back, she blinked in shock when Jane reached out and neatly lifted Emmeline right out of her arms.

About the second that Emmeline sensed that she'd changed hands and was now being held by someone she didn't know, her tiny little face screwed up in a terrible way as a frightened screech echoed off the walls.  Whether she'd sensed Charity's instant irritation or not shouldn't have mattered, though it occurred to her in a vague sort of way that the infant most likely had.  Nadia's face did a slower motion echo of her sister's expression, and, whether it was because of the ruckus from Emmeline or because she, too, sensed strangers near, she wailed as Charity lifted her to her shoulder, as she tried to comfort the infant as best as she could.

Casting Ben an imploring glance, Charity gasped softly when he deliberately turned his face away, but from where she sat, she could see the tension in every part of his body, too.  He was fighting, wasn't he?  Struggling to keep himself from stepping over, to keep himself from taking Emmeline back.  The knowledge did nothing to placate her, however, not when the sounds of their terrified wails filled her ears, made her feel as though she were losing her mind . . .

Jane clumsily held Emmeline against her shoulder, swaying to and fro as she tried to soothe the infant.  It wasn't working, and, if anything, the shrieking was growing steadily worse.  Jane tried humming, but it somehow seemed to make things that much worse as Emmeline's screeching escalated into a full-out bellow.

"Here, let me," Denny said, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the din.  Before Charity could protest, he pulled Nadia away from her, too, as though he honestly believed that he could better comfort Nadia than Charity could.

An insular thought took root in her head, as irrational as the infants' wails.  They were hurting the babies, weren't they?  Whether they meant to or not, snatching them away from the only real stability—the only real comfort—that they'd known in their short lives, the Douglasses weren't going to calm the twins; not now, not ever . . . It was that thought that brought Charity to her feet, that emotion that moved her forward.  She was taking those babies back, the Douglasses be damned.  Ben must have realized what she was doing because he grabbed her wrist gently but firmly, keeping her from trying to rescue the twins.

"Let them try," he muttered into her ear.

She shot him a murderous glare that he completely missed since he had not taken his eyes off the infants, either, and she tried to free herself without being too obvious about it.  It didn't work.  "Ben!" she hissed, giving her arm a good yank.

"Give them a minute to see if they calm down," he replied.

"They're terrified!" she insisted.

A sudden sound—a new sound—got both of their attentions, and at first, Charity wasn't entirely sure exactly what she was hearing.  Caught somewhere between the frightened wailing  and angry howling was another sound—a lower sound, almost like an infant growl.  Charity reacted to the noise as soon as she figure out that it was coming from the babies, and she wrenched her arm away, sending Ben's hand flying out to the side as she ran over and took back both babies, careful not to be too rough, but making no bones about her intentions.

Jane stared at Charity, absolute disbelief rife in her expression.  "You can't just—"

"What do you think you're—?"

Stepping back slowly, as though to ward off the couple, Charity glowered.  "If you think this is how a parent acts, you're sorely mistaken," she said, absently noting that the twins were still sniffling but had stopped shrieking when she'd taken them from the Douglasses, glaring from Jane to Denny then back again.  "Common sense should have told you that they don't know you, that they'd be scared, and yet you have the gall to waltz in here with barely any kind of proper introduction and scoop them right up without so much as a second thought about their well-being!  They are children, not rag dolls!  You cannot simply snatch them up and think that they'll be all right with that!  They don't know you, not at all, and if that's your idea of bonding with these two, then you're wrong!  You could have sat down with me!  You could have slowly let them become acquainted with you, but you couldn't contain your own excitement, right?  Because neither of you stopped just for a second and though that maybe you ought to put their needs before your wishes, and now . . . You know what?  I'll make it easy for you—keep your damn hands off of my babies!"

Ben tried to put his hands on her shoulders.  Maybe he thought that the action would calm her.  It didn't work.  If anything, it sent Charity's anger spiraling higher as the fierce need to protect the infants nearly overwhelmed her, even if it meant protecting them from Ben.  Yanking away from his touch, ignoring the aghast expressions on all three youkai's faces, she stomped away from the Douglasses and Ben, stalking out of the living room before she broke into a run up the stairs, deciding that she'd barricade herself in the nursery, if need be.

Once inside the sanctity of the nursery, Charity sank down in the rocking chair as she tried to brush aside her emotions—easier said than done—the the babies were still sniffling and whining.  It seemed like it took a lifetime to get them to settle down.  It was only a couple minutes, and when the cries finally died away, leaving behind only stuttering breaths and hiccups, punctuated by the occasional whine, she finally let out a deep breath, taking turns, kissing their heads, uttering nonsensical words in the high-pitched baby-talk that they loved.

It was only then that she realized that she, too, had tears coursing down her cheeks.  Uttering a frustrated growl of her own, she leaned to one side, lifting her shoulder to wipe the moisture away, then repeated the process on the other side, scowling at nothing in particular, disgusted at herself for allowing her emotions to run away with her when the girls were relying on her to put their world back to rights.

"I . . . I'm sorry, girls," she murmured, her voice breaking, quivering.   Shaking her head as she stared at the babies, she sniffled and tried to swallow the fist-sized lump, lodged in her throat.  "I'm sorry I let them . . . I'm . . . sorry . . ."

When she finally let her head fall back, resting against the high back of the rocking chair, she locked eyes with Ben, who stood in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, and an entirely inscrutable expression on his face.

"I sent them home," he finally said when he realized that she wasn't about to speak to him.  "I told them we could try again tomorrow—maybe a little slower."

"There won't be a 'tomorrow', Ben," she said, her voice no less forceful because of the diminished volume.  "They . . . They aren't taking these children."

"Charity—"

She shook her head slowly.  "I'm not letting you give them away," she stated flatly, her eyes igniting as her irritation shot to the fore again.  "They're mine, even if they're not yours."  She sat up a little straighter.  "You can either help me, or you can get the hell out of my way."

 

 


 

 

 

Dropping the telephone receiver into place, Ben heaved a sigh and slowly rubbed his temples as he stood up and wandered over to the wet bar to fix himself a drink.  Having just gotten off the phone with a very disappointed Denny Douglass, he figured that the worst of it was over, anyway.

He'd spent the last couple hours, just thinking about the fiasco of a visitation, and the truth of it was, he agreed with Charity completely.  Maybe he'd have handled it differently, but what did it matter when he'd been just as appalled as she was when the Douglasses had immediately tried to take the babies, when they didn't have the common sense to realize that the twins were crying far more than they should have been, and when they had broken into the little growls—a basic instinctive sound that meant that they thought they were truly in danger . . . A sound, he realized with a sigh, that the babies knew should bring their mother to defend them.

And it had.

The truth of it was that it all had been just a little more than Ben could stand, too, and, to be honest, had Charity not intervened, he would have himself.

'Face it, Ben . . . Be honest with yourself because you know that you completely agree with Charity . . . Right or wrong, those babies . . . They belong with us.  And they belong with her, too.'

Dumping a good bit more brandy into the crystal snifter than he normally would, he tossed it back in one gulp, ignoring the burn that seeped into his belly, before refilling it again for good measure.  'No one will approve it,' he thought with a grimace.  'Hell, I don't know that I would even recommend it, in good conscience . . .'

'Do you really think that's true?'

Clenching his jaw so tightly that he could feel the muscles bulging and ticking under the forced strain, Ben strode over to the bank of windows, stared at the mocking light of day . . .  'Of course, it's true . . . Zelig isn't about to hand over the lives of two tiny babies to me, not when he knows . . .'

'What he knows?' his youkai-voice parried.  'What Zelig knows is that he raised his own daughter alone, now didn't he?  She wasn't adopted, but it didn't matter.  He still managed it, and no one—not even you—said a thing against it, now did you?'

Scowl darkening—he really hadn't stopped to think of that—Ben sighed.  'But Em and Nadia . . . They deserve . . .'

'They deserve a father who loves them, Ben—one who has loved them from the very moment you clapped eyes on them.  That's what they deserve.'

He sighed.  How had it happened?  Just when had he so completely fallen in love with those babies . . .?

If he'd asked himself that once, he'd asked himself that a million times.  What he kept coming back to was the moment when he'd taken the babies from Cain, when he'd stared into their eyes.  He sighed again and lifted the snifter of brandy to his lips.  No, as far as he could see, the only real problem would be in convincing Zelig that Ben could take care of them, even if he didn't have a mate . . .

"I'm . . . I'm sorry I got so angry . . . I'm sorry I . . . I yelled at you."

Turning his head to peer at Charity as she slowly stepped into the living room, he could sense the hint of nerves that still were riding high.

"Don't apologize.  You were protecting them, and I . . . I should have, too," he said, setting the glass on the nearby table and turning to face her as he dug his hands into his pockets.  "I called the Douglasses and told them that it wasn't going to work."

She seemed surprised by his statement, and he managed a wan smile.  "I . . . I'm going to keep them," he said.  "Maybe I realized that before . . . Maybe I knew it all along.  It's just . . . I thought I should at least try . . ."

"I'll help you," she said.  "They're . . ."  She shrugged almost helplessly.  "They're  . . . mine."

"Yes, well, you're going to have to share because they're mine, too," Ben allowed.  "It's not going to do any good to try to be stubborn, not when there's no chance I'd be willing to give them up."  He sighed.  "Even if I tried to find another couple willing to adopt them . . ." Letting his head fall back, he stared at the ceiling without seeing a thing.  "They're not going to bond with anyone else," he said, his voice taking on a more pragmatic tone: the voice of the ageless general—the role Ben had been playing for centuries.  Letting his gaze shift to the side, meeting hers with a quiet sense of understanding, he stared at her.  "You know that, too, right?"

She sighed and nodded.  "Have you talked to oji-san yet?"

"No," he admitted.  "He needs me to come up to Maine for a few things, anyway, so I figured I'd just talk to him about it then."  Lowering his chin, he stared at Charity for a long moment.  "I don't suppose you could come along?  I'll be in meetings some of the time, and Eddie doesn't usually come with me unless I stay for an extended period of time.  I mean, I'm sure I wouldn't have trouble finding someone to watch the girls, but I'd feel better if they were with you."

"I do have some vacation time I haven't used, well, ever," she said.  "I'll call my boss and see.  When were you planning on leaving?"

"Whenever . . . Zelig didn't say, but the sooner, the better," he replied with a casual shrug.  "Are the girls sleeping?"

She nodded.  "They were pretty exhausted."  She winced.  "I think they cried themselves out."

Ben winced, too. Charity looked exhausted herself, and he stepped over to her, pulled her into a comforting hug.  "Why don't you give your boss a call?  We can discuss the trip arrangements over dinner."

"All right," she agreed, slipping her arms around his waist as she leaned against him.  "You should go look in on the girls.  They were still a little restless after I put them to bed.  I think . . . I think they could use your reassurance, too."

He held onto her for another minute before he sighed and stepped back.  "You . . . You were right, you know," he admitted, digging his hands into his pockets once more.  "I should have listened to you sooner."

Charity managed a wan smile.  "Maybe, and maybe I should have spoken up sooner," she countered, but her smile widened, and this time, it was closer to what a real smile should be.  "Listen to us . . . We're kind of sad, don't you think?"

He chuckled and shook his head.  "Is parenthood always going to be this difficult?"

"Well . . . We've got a few years before they discover boys, if that's what you mean."

Ben made a face and uttered a low groan.

She laughed, crossing her arms over her chest as she moved off to retrieve her cell phone.  "Now, go check on your girls.  I'll make that call."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"How are you feeling?"

Gin Zelig stood up, bracing the small of her back with one hand as she used the other to push herself to her feet, smiling at her mate as he lounged, arms crossed over his chest, in the archway.   It struck him, as it often did, just how little she'd changed over the years.  In fact, wearing the cute denim overall dress with the simple white tee-shirt, she could still have been the college co-ed with the love for art and the innate ability to say things that were both entirely innocent as well as highly provocative, even though she never had any idea of the latter option.  "We're just fine, Zelig-sensei," she said, shuffling over to wrap her arms around his waist as she leaned back to peer up into his face.  "Why do you look so thoughtful, anyway?"

"Do I?"  He smiled and kissed her forehead as he slipped his arms around her, lacing his fingers together to hold her to him.  One of the babies still residing in Gin's distended belly dealt him a good, solid kick, and he chuckled softly.  "Teach your pups to share, why don't you?"

She nodded.  "You do, and they're your pups, too."

"Yeah, but you have a much closer relationship at the moment," he pointed out with a sigh.  "Anyway, it's nothing really bad," he assured her.  "Oh, we're going to have guests soon.  Ben called to say that he was in Bevelle, and he brought along Charity and the twins."

Gin gasped as her eyes widened, as her aura spiked with the sudden anticipation that coursed through her.  "The babies?  That's so exciting!"  She squealed, and Cain flinched as she broke away, probably to go cook something.  "And he's bringing Charity?  Why is he bringing Charity?  Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, everything's fine.  She's been helping him with the girls, I guess . . . and don't forget that you're pregnant, Gin," he said, following behind her as she sped off toward the kitchen.  The reminder was enough to make her slow her gait, which was probably the biggest concession he was likely to get from her.  "You promised you'd take it easy, all things considered."

"Oh, Cain, I feel fine," she insisted, yanking open the refrigerator and stepping back as she gave the contents a critical eye.  "They'll stay for dinner, right?"

 "I can ask," Cain said, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his rumpled khaki cargo pants.  "He also said something else . . ."

"Hmm?  What's that?"

He rolled his eyes at her preoccupied tone.  "He said he wants to keep the twins."

She stopped and slowly turned her face toward him, and while she didn't look particularly alarmed, she did look surprised.  "He does?"

Cain nodded.  "He did . . . and he said that Charity feels that she is their mother."

Pulling out a hulking roast, she used her shoulder to close the door as she slowly moved over to the counter.  "Hmm . . .?" she intoned but offered nothing else.

"What are you thinking, baby girl?"

"Huh . . .?  Oh, what?"

Cain made a face since he knew well enough that Gin tended to be very one-track-minded, and he'd interrupted whatever she was pondering.  "I said, what are you thinking?"

She scrunched up her shoulders then let them drop as she broke into a soft giggle.  "I was just thinking that they make a really sweet couple, don't you think?"

He blinked and reached over her head when she rose on tip-toe to reach the giant roasting pan she kept in the cupboard over the stove.  "Who?"

"Silly!" she chided, placing a hand on his forearm to thank him for retrieving the pan for her.  "Ben and Charity!  I've always thought so . . ."

Frowning at Gin's strange statement, Cain turned around, slouching against the counter behind him as he crossed his arms over his chest and considered her claim. "Ben and Charity?  They're not a couple . . ."

Gin rolled her eyes as she tore open the butcher's paper and carefully unwrapped the roast.  "Well, not officially, no, but everyone knows that they're meant to be."

Picking up Gin's water glass off the counter, Cain made a deliberate show of sniffing the contents to see if she'd been spiking it.  It smelled like water, sure, but that didn't mean much, as far as he was concerned.  "How does everyone know that?" he argued.  "I don't know what you're talking about."

She shot him an incredulous glance.  "Of course you do," she insisted.  "Whenever we have a family function and they're both there?  Trust me, Zelig-sensei, it's a done deal, and if Charity agreed to come with Ben?  Those two are most definitely meant to be—like us!"

"I think being pregnant is affecting your brain," Cain retorted as Gin reached for the huge bowl she keep on the counter with fresh vegetables in it.

"You'll see, Cain Zelig," she said, poking a finger in the middle of his chest.  "I'm right!  Just ask anyone!"

"Ask anyone what?" Bas Zelig asked as he stepped into the kitchen with his son, Bailey dangling down his back.

"Hi, Grandma!" Bailey yelped in his excitement.

"Hi, sweetie!  And we were talking about Ben and Charity, Sebastian," Gin replied, hurrying over to kiss her grandson on the cheek.  She started to pull him down, but Cain stepped over to intercept her since Bailey was growing like crazy.  Bailey let go of his father's neck and started to slide.  Cain caught him with a soft grunt before he hit the floor.

"Ben and Charity?" Bas echoed.  "What about them?"

Gin wrinkled her nose and dug a cookie out of the container on the counter for Bailey, who took the cookie before struggling to get down out of Cain's arms.  About the second his feet touched the floor, he took off around the counter to climb on a stool so that he could grab another few cookies out of the jar, too.

Cain shot his son a look—the 'She-Doesn't-Know-What-She's-Talking-About Look.  "She says that Ben and Charity are 'meant to be'."

"They are," Sydnie stated flatly as she strolled into the kitchen with Olivia in her arms.  The cat-youkai set her daughter on her feet, fussing with the skirt of the pretty pink sundress Olivia wore, before standing up and slipping her hand up under Bas' elbow to rest on his forearm.

Both men turned to stare at her, as though they weren't entirely sure what she was saying.  "I guess you've seen it, too?" Bas asked dryly, arching a golden eyebrow at his mate.

"It's not my fault if you men are entirely too slow to see what's directly in front of your faces, is it, puppy?"

Bas wrinkled his nose and shook his head as he shot his father a knowing look.  "So they've danced together a few times," he said with a shrug, grabbing a few cookies out of the jar and stuffing a whole one into his mouth.  "Big deal."

Cain blinked.  "They did?"

Heaving a sigh, Bas slowly stared at his father.  "Really, Dad?  Really?"

"What?"

"Never mind," Bas said.  "Anyway, a few dances doesn't really mean that two people are destined to be mates."

"It's all there in their eyes," Gin insisted, scooping Olivia up for a quick cuddle.  The tiny girl giggled and grabbed Gin's face in her hands to return the favor.  "All you have to do is look at them to know."

Bas grunted and shoved another cookie into his mouth before offering the last one in his hand to Sydnie, who declined with an adorably wrinkled nose.  Bas shrugged and jammed that one in, too, before leaning over to nab a cup out of the cupboard and turning toward the fridge.  "So, why are we talking about Ben and Charity, anyway?" he asked, his voice muffled by the appliance as he pulled the earthenware container of farm-fresh milk out of the door to pour into the glass.

"Ben wants to keep the twins," Gin piped up, turning her body just enough to keep Olivia back while she seasoned the pot roast with her free hand.

"He does?  Can he do that?"

Intercepting Bas' questioning gaze, Cain shrugged.  "Don't see why not."

"Maybe, but those pups need two parents," Bas replied as he handed Sydnie the glass of milk.

"I did all right with your sister—I'd like to think so, anyway," Cain replied tightly.

Bas shook his head.  "It's not about that, Dad," he insisted.  "One baby?  Okay.  Two?  That's a lot of work."

Cain didn't respond right away.  In truth, he hadn't really thought about that.  It was true enough, that one child was a ridiculous amount of work for one parent—something that Cain knew, first hand, given that he'd raised his daughter, Bellaniece alone.  Could he have done the same thing if Bellaniece had a twin?  Probably, he decided, but it would have been ridiculously hard to do . . .

"So tell him that he can only adopt them if he and Charity want to . . . What's the word?  Oh!  Co-parent, since he said that she thinks of herself as their mama, anyway," Gin replied.

Cain opened his mouth to argue, but snapped it closed again as Gin's simplistic logic sank in.  "That's . . . a pretty good idea," he allowed after a moment of contemplation—and after swallowing the bite of his daily cake that he'd broken off during the discussion.  "I mean, it wouldn't be any different than a couple who get a divorce and who share custody or even those who don't get married at all . . . He's pretty busy a lot, so it'd be good for them to have her around, too, especially if she feels like she's their mama, anyway . . ."

"You're so smart, Zelig-sensei!"

Cain chuckled, mostly because the idea really was Gin's.

"Yep, which means that Dad's not nearly as smart as you, Mom," Bas pointed out.  "Not really very observant for a tai-youkai, either . . ."

"Thanks, son," Cain grumbled dryly.

"No problem, Dad," Bas replied pleasantly.

Gin giggled and hurried over to kiss her son's cheek.  "And when they become mates, then it'll be even better!"

Rolling his eyes at that since Cain still wasn't entirely sure that Gin's declaration that the two in question really were mates held water, he chuckled, anyway.

 

 


 

 

 

"I cannot get over just how beautiful they are!" Gin said with a happy giggle as she held Nadia.  "Such a gorgeous girl!  Yes, you are!"

Charity laughed at Gin's silly antics.

"It makes you want to have another one," Kagome remarked with a wistful sigh as she gazed down at a very content Emmeline.

"Keh!  I'll pretend I didn't hear that, wench!"

Kagome shot Charity a grin and a wink.  "Yeah, but you know that Takara's not really a baby anymore," she said.  "I mean, she's almost three . . ."

From his place near the floor to ceiling windows on the far side of the Zelig living room InuYasha grunted. "Keh!"  Sitting with his legs crossed and his arms crossed over his chest, they couldn't see his face, though Charity had a feeling that he probably was blushing by now.  She smiled as she took in the sight of Takara, sprawled on his back with her head resting on his shoulder—her preferred pose when taking a nap, even if it looked entirely uncomfortable.  "Your lips are flappin', but I can't hear you," he shot back at his mate.

"Wouldn't it be nice for Takara to have a sibling close to her own age?" Kagome tried again.

"Keh!"

Covering her mouth before she burst into laughter, Charity intercepted the devilish glint in Kagome's eyes.  The miko winked and smiled but didn't giggle out loud.

The girls were apparently happy enough to be held by anyone other than Cain.  He'd tried to take Nadia when they'd arrived, but that hadn't worked out well.  About the second that he'd lifted her out of Ben's arms, the infant had proceeded to howl bloody murder until Ben reclaimed her and shot Cain a reproachful look.  So Charity had been a little concerned, just how they'd react to Gin since she smelled a lot like Cain, but they must have sensed that she was a different person, because they hadn't repeated the crying, much to Charity's relief.

Nadia started to whine just a little, and Charity dug into the diaper bag for the bottles she'd already prepared and set it on the table before reaching out to take the infant.

Gin laughed and handed her over while Charity sat back and proceeded to feed the infant.

"When Ryomaru and Kichiro were babies, it always seemed like they wanted to eat at the same time, every time," Kagome remarked.

"Because they were born, trying to drive people nuts," InuYasha grumbled, hanyou ears flicking though he didn't move otherwise.

Gin giggled as Kagome rolled her eyes despite the smile on her face.  "Baka," Kagome muttered, shaking her head slowly.

"You're going to be a fine mother," Gin remarked as she watched Charity feed Nadia.  "But then, it won't be too difficult, not with these darlings!"

Charity cleared her throat and ducked her head almost nervously.  To be honest, she was still having trouble believing all of it, especially when it seemed like it was happening so fast.  The acknowledgement, however, was as welcome as it was unexpected, and she smiled despite the happy flush that heated her cheeks.

"Charity."  Glancing up as Ben stepped into the living room, Charity frowned at the seriousness in his tone.  "Zelig wants to know if you'd join us for a minute?"

"Oh, uh, okay," she said, carefully standing up without pulling the bottle away from Nadia.

She started to step around the coffee table, only to be waylaid by InuYasha when he stepped into her path and neatly lifted Nadia out of her arms.  "Take that pup in there, and she'll start crying all over again, not that I blame her," he pointed out.

Sparing a moment to kiss Nadia's cheek, she followed Ben out of the room and through the foyer to Cain's study.  "What's this about?" she asked before Ben could open the door.

He reached for the handle, but stopped.  "I don't really know," he admitted.  "He just asked if he could speak to both of us, so I imagine that it has something to do with the babies."

She digested that for a moment.  "Should I be worried?"

Ben chuckled.  "I doubt it."

Even so, she wasn't entirely convinced, but she followed Ben into the office and slipped into the chair nearest to the door as Ben stepped over to take the other one.  Behind the desk, Cain waited, his chair bathed in the late summer sunlight that spilled through the windows behind him.  It lent him a strange, unearthly kind of glow that deepened the contrasting shadows of his face, that heightened the uncanny brilliance of his sapphire blue eyes.

Cain sat back and offered her the bashful little smile that she knew well enough.  For some reason, her stomach felt like it was twisted in knots.  After all, he might well be related to her, but in this office, she had the feeling that he was tai-youkai before he was anything else, and as tai-youkai, he had the final say regarding the permanent placement of the twins . . .

"Ben tells me that you've acknowledged the twins; that you'd like to be their mother."

"Yes," she said, unaware of how her claws were digging into the wooden arms of the chair.

A thoughtful expression surfaced on Cain's features as he slumped to the side, propping his elbow on the armrest as he slowly rubbed his chin.  "This is . . . a really unusual request," he admitted at length.  "Ben already knows all this stuff, so I'm actually speaking more to you, Charity . . . I understand that you've bonded with the twins, and that is the one thing that is the most important when it comes to this process . . . The thing is, we've never actually placed any child with a single parent before.  I'm not totally against the idea.  I mean, Ben's fully capable of caring for the babies."

Charity sat up a little straighter, her cheeks blossoming in indignant color at the strange undertone she detected in Cain's words.  "Ben's an excellent caregiver," she said, unable to repress the frostiness in her voice at the perceived slight.  "Those babies adore him."

Cain blinked, surprised at Charity's quiet outburst, and he shifted in his chair as he straightened up.  "I wasn't . . . I don't doubt that they do," he replied.

Ben reached over, put his hand on hers, instantly calming the rising defensiveness in her.

Narrowing his eyes just a little, Cain gave one curt not, as though something made sense to him, and he went on, "It's just not something that's ever come up before, that's all, and even though I've been told that both of you have bonded with the twins, it presents an interesting dilemma.  Ben's indicated that he wants to adopt them, but he's also acknowledged that he leads a very busy life.  There are many times that he's required to travel and to be away from home for days or weeks at a time, and, given the nature of his job, he's not going to be able to take the babies with him, either, considering secrecy is a big part of what he does.  If it weren't for that, I'd be more than happy to grant Ben's request to adopt the twins alone, even though he's not mated."

Pushing back the chair, Cain got to his feet, wandered over to the windows behind the desk as he dug his fists into his pockets and peered outside.  "I will allow the adoption on one condition, and this condition is why you're here, Charity."  Turning back to face them once more, he smiled, the gravity in the tai-youkai's expression giving way to the oji-san that Charity knew best.  "I'll grant it, so long as you want to co-adopt.  That way, they'll always be with one of their parents, so Ben's travels won't be an issue.  How the two of you wish to work things out is entirely up to you, of course.  If you wish to simply share custody, that's fine.  I'm not asking that either of you turn your life upside down.  You've both bonded with those babies, so I trust that you both can figure out what's best for them, too.  That means, Charity, that from here on out, Ben is their father, and you . . ." He chuckled.  "You're their mama.  Congratulations."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ben gazed out of the French doors, staring thoughtfully at the hanyou woman, sitting in the shade of a wide, tan umbrella she'd set up in the back yard of his Maine estate with the babies beside her, protected from the harsh, late afternoon sun.  The twins were sleeping, completely oblivious to everything around them while Charity worked on her project and checked her email.

The soft tick of the clock was the only sound to be heard in the companionable silence of the house, and he smiled to himself.  What was it about simply watching Charity and the girls that filled him with such an astounding and almost humbling sense of well-being, an inner calm that rivaled or maybe even surpassed any other sense of peace he'd ever known before?

He wasn't entirely sure what to think of the situation or how he was supposed to feel about any of it.  Numb, he guessed.  Maybe it was simply the sense that everything was moving so much faster than Ben was usually comfortable with.  He supposed that it was just in his nature to be more methodic, more likely to stop, to think, to consider the options, sometimes ad nauseam.  By the time he usually made some sort of decision, he'd already mapped out about a million possible outcomes, a thousand contingencies.  No, he just wasn't used to doing anything off the cuff, so to speak, which had been odd enough when he'd volunteered to keep the twins, to start with, and pretty much everything since then had felt quite foreign to him, too.

'Never would have thought that Zelig would insist that Charity and you adopt the twins together.'

His smile faltered slightly but didn't completely disappear.  On one hand, it was the most amazing of situations, given how much Ben liked having Charity around.  On the other hand, however, he wasn't entirely sure how it was supposed to work, and more, he had no idea what was really going through her mind about it all, either.

'Come, now, Ben.  Humans do things like this all the time, right?  Maybe it's not the perfect situation, but the bottom line is that the end result will be worth it, right?'

Rolling his eyes at his youkai-voice's commentary, Ben raised an arm, bent at the elbow, to lean on the door frame.  'We're not human, and that is exactly why this situation has never arisen before, I'd wager.'

'So there's a first time for everything, isn't there?  And there's Charity, too . . . That woman . . .'

Letting out a deep breath that hit the glass pane that was warmed from the outside by the summer sun yet cooled on the inside by the house's central air, he narrowed his bright green eyes as he continued to watch her—to watch them.  'That woman . . .'

The bright lights of the many chandeliers hanging so high above in the opulent hall of the New York Grande Hochfort Hotel cast a million glittering stars all over the crowd assembled at the annual Zelig Foundation gala as Ben struggled to comprehend the slip of a woman in his arms as he held her at a respectable distance and turned her around the highly polished dance floor to the swelling sound of the string quartet that Gin had hired for the festivities.

"Gin says you're enrolled in college here?" he said, latching on to something to say, painfully aware of exactly how rude it must have seemed to her when he hadn't spoken at all since they'd started to dance.

Charity nodded, casting him a shy, uncertain little smile.  "Hai . . . Um, yes," she corrected herself with a slight wince.  "I'm trying to get used to speaking in English all the time," she went on to explain.  "Chelsea and I wanted to get away from home, and what better way to do that than to attend college here?"

"The world's a big place," he agreed.  "You haven't seen much of it yet, have you?"

She shook her head, but her smile widened the tiniest bit as the myriad of lights all seemed to pool in her eyes in a million sparkles and shimmers, like stardust in the night sky—the kind of sky he hadn't seen in entirely too long a time . . . It brought to mind the past, before the world had grown and evolved into more of a dying shadow of the one he'd walked for the last seven hundred years.  Funny how the population had skyrocketed as the earth had slowly started to decline . . .

"You look . . . sad . . . Why is that?" she asked softly, gently, her smile faltering, floundering, disappearing, only to be replaced by a furrowed brow and a very real air of genuine concern.  Head leaning to the side, she regarded him with the kind of frankness that only the young ever possessed.  It was one of those things that was invariably lost or veiled as one grew older, as one learned the art of tact and even mild subterfuge.  This girl . . . She hadn't yet learned how to hide her emotions, how to shield them from those who would try to exploit them.  He figured it was only a matter of time before she mastered that skill.  It was a necessary one that he'd learned, as well, even though he wasn't quite as good as it as he supposed he ought to be.

"Do I?  It's nothing," he lied, brushing aside the melancholy feeling that had wormed its way into his brain with the realization that Charity Inutaisho was most definitely out of his reach despite the awful draw of her—a feeling he had never felt before.  'Such a baby . . . A beautiful baby, but still just a child . . . wrapped up so neatly in a woman's visage . . .'

Pushing away from the door as he brushed aside the memory, Ben strode toward the kitchen.  That was the first time, and it was in that moment, when he'd held Charity so close . . .

He sighed and moved over to the counter and the makeshift bottle station he'd set up shortly after their arrival in Maine.  It had been a couple hours since the twins had last eaten, so even if they were still sleeping now, chances were good that they wouldn't stay that way much longer.

It didn't take him long to measure out the powdered formula and mix it up before adding the mineral drops that Isabelle had sent.  Making a mental note to stop by Isabelle and Griffin's house before leaving Maine to pick up more of the drops, he closed the bottles and gave them a good shake.  He had considered making up a larger container of the formula before, but the twins seemed to like it best at room temperature—and they didn't like waiting for him to heat up the bottles under warm water, either.

'They didn't get their impatience from me . . . must have gotten it from Charity,' he mused.

His youkai snorted loudly but didn't respond to that.

Gathering the baby bottles in one hand and a couple of water bottles in the other, he headed outside.

It really was a beautiful afternoon, warm and sunny, but much cooler than it was in the city.  That might have been due, in part, to the fresh breeze that blew off the ocean not far away, and the pervasive mugginess that had blanketed New York City for days wasn't affecting the weather here.  Charity had asked that they stay here an extra day, even though they could have traveled back.  She wanted to give the girls a day of sunshine and fresh air, she'd said, and Ben couldn't really argue with that.

"Here," he said, offering her a bottle of water.

"Oh, thanks," Charity said, taking it and snapping the seal with a good twist of the cap.  She shot him an almost timid smile, and Ben chuckled as he sank down beside her.  "I love it here," she said, closing her laptop and setting it aside.  "It's so fresh and clean . . ." Her smile widened.  "It's not like this in Japan, even in InuYasha-ojii-chan's forest, and it's definitely not like this in New York City, either . . ."

"Their cheeks are rosier," he commented, nodding at the sleeping babies on the blanket between them.

Charity laughed softly—a sound that Ben found entirely soothing and wholly welcome.  "Fresh air is good for them," she remarked.

"I don't have anything pressing on my schedule if you'd like to stay here a week or two," he offered.

She smiled, but sighed.  "I wish I didn't," she admitted.  "I've got to get my report together on the vestulus pharosa, and the sooner, the better.  Dean thinks that they might be able to get funding for the further research of the plant if my presentation is compelling enough."

"Do you do the research, too?"

Taking her time as she swallowed a series of gulps of the water, she shook her head.  "No.  They'd be looking for ways to utilize it.  I just study the genetics and relationships of them—classifications, similarities as well as differences in the plant itself—that sort of thing."

He nodded.  "I see."

He could feel her gaze on him.  Something about the intensity of it, though, was entirely unsettling.  "You have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?" she finally asked.

Opening his mouth to argue with her, one glance at her face convinced him otherwise, and he snapped it closed and broke into a wan smile as he slowly shook his head.  "Okay, no, I don't," he confessed.

She laughed at him, catching her hair as the breeze caught hold of it.  "No one does," she assured him.  "Chelsea thought I was crazy when I declared my major."

"The two of you are as different as day and night," Ben remarked, his gaze shifting out over the freshly mowed grass.

"Twins usually are," she said. "There's a little truth in the idea that one is always the good twin and one is the evil one."

"And the evil one would be Chelsea?"

She giggled.  "I'd hardly call her evil . . . A little misguided sometimes, but her heart is always in the right place.  She's a lot like you said Sebastian was—too impetuous . . ."  She made a face but laughed, anyway.  "We got into so much trouble, and it was always Chelsea's fault . . ."

"She's a lot different from you," he said.  "I think . . . I think I prefer you—no offense intended toward your sister, of course."

"You do?"

He nodded.  "I like your sister just fine.  She's a nice girl," he said.  "Don't get me wrong.  But you . . ." Suddenly looking away, he wondered vaguely if she could see the slight heat in his cheeks that he could feel.  "You're . . . You're special . . ."

A sudden squeak interrupted Charity before she could reply, and she picked up Emmeline, kissing the infant's cheek before settling her in her lap.

"Here," Ben intoned, handing over one of the bottles that he'd brought outside.  "It never hurts to be prepared."

She laughed and set it aside since Emmeline wasn't quite ready for it yet.  Staring at the baby with a soft smile illuminating her features, Charity rubbed her finger over Emmeline's tiny fist.  "I . . . I still can't believe it," she admitted quietly.

"Can't believe what?"

Her smile twitched slightly, but didn't dissipate.  "I just can't believe they're ours," she said.

Stretching out on his side next to Nadia, who showed no signs of waking up anytime soon, Ben chuckled, too.  "I wouldn't want to share them with anyone other than you," he said.

Charity blinked, turning her face to stare at Ben, her golden eyes uncannily bright, and just for a moment, he thought that she really might cry.  She didn't, and the smile that she gave him made him forget to breath, just for a moment.  Slightly flushed cheeks, lips dusted in a rosy hue, and those eyes that could see so deeply into his soul . . . "I wouldn’t, either . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

"What's this?" Charity asked, eyes crossing as Ben dangled a card entirely too close to her nose.  She took it between her index and middle fingers, lowering it to inspect it more thoroughly.

"I called the security company, but they're booked solid for another couple weeks," he said as he sat down at the table in the New York City townhouse and reached for his coffee cup.  "Until they come out to get you added to the system, you can use that to let yourself into the house."

"It's a house key," she mused as she turned it over in her hands.  "You're going to trust me with this?"

Ben laughed.  "You're not really a guest here anymore," he told her in a tone that indicated that she ought to know as much already.  "You don't have to call or anything first, either," he went on after emptying the mug and flipping it to the side for a refill.

Eddie rolled her eyes and grunted something unintelligible, grabbing the carafe off out of the coffee maker and striding around the counter.

"All right," she agreed slowly, setting the card aside as a thoughtful frown creased her brow while she grasped her coffee cup and turned it idly in her hands.  Eddie reached over her shoulder to refill it before dumping more coffee into Ben's waiting mug.  "Thank you . . ."

"Not a problem," Eddie assured her.

"Thank you," Ben echoed.

"Drop dead."

He chuckled.  "Is something the matter?" he asked, ignoring his housekeeper's sensibilities and raising an eyebrow at Charity's pensive expression.

She started to look at him, opening her mouth to say something, then blinked as her cheeks blossomed in a very attractive shade of rosy pink. "Are you in that towel again?" she blurted before she stopped to think about it.

Ben blinked and glanced down, realizing a little too late that he was, indeed, wearing his customary morning attire—the towel he'd slung around his hips after his shower.  "No," he drawled, fighting down the blush that threatened and slightly irritated that he should feel the need to blush, in the first place.  "It's a totally different towel."

Her mouth dropped open at his flip response, but she snapped it closed as her flush darkened, though he had a feeling that chagrin might be the culprit now.  He still managed to keep his amusement in check, which was probably for the best.

She shook her head and sighed.  "Way to quibble the incidentals," she retorted dryly.

"Would you like for me to go get dressed?"

"No," she said with a wave of her hand.  "Like I said before, it's your house, after all."

Deciding that it was in his best interests just to let the subject drop, he took a drink of the coffee and waited for her to get around to saying whatever it was that she had on her mind.

"I came over this morning because I thought we should probably talk about . . . stuff," she finally said, avoiding his gaze as she fussed with the hem of her shirtsleeve.

"What stuff?"

Blowing an errant lock of hair back out of her eyes, she finally looked at him.  "You know," she muttered, her cheeks pinking up once more. "Living arrangements and stuff."

A sudden swell of foreboding washed through him, and he frowned.  "What do you mean?" he asked slowly, carefully, not really caring for the direction the conversation was moving in.

"I mean . . . I'm going to need a week or two to get the nursery set up, but I think it's fair to split time between my apartment and here. I don't know if you'd rather do every other day and see how that goes?  But then, that seems like it could be pretty unsettling for them, but a week at a time seems like a long time . . ."

"Wha-a-a-at's wrong with the current arrangement?" he drawled in what he hoped was a neutral tone of voice.

"Oji-san said 'shared custody'," she pointed out.

"Custody, yes, but that doesn't mean they have to physically live in both places, does it?"

"Yes.  Yes, I think it does," she said, her voice taking on a clipped, almost irritated, bite.  "They're my babies, too, aren't they?"

"Of course, they're your babies, too, Charity.  I just don't think there's anything wrong with the home they have here, and they need stability.  They don't need to be shuffled back and forth like a pack of playing cards—"

"So, what?  I just come over when I can because you're Daddy and you said so?" she countered quietly—dangerously.

"That's really not what I said," Ben countered.  "You can be here as much as you like, as often as you like, but upsetting their schedules by toting them back and forth?"

Rubbing her forehead, she seemed to be trying to get a grip on her rising irritation.  "That's not really what we'd be doing, Ben, and you know it.   There's nothing wrong with the idea of sharing the responsibilities, and you have to agree that it just makes the most sense instead of making it a pride-thing where you have to be right because you're the man and you make the rules, don't you think?"

Ben hesitated for a few seconds before responding, mostly to get control of his rioting sense of panic.  "That doesn't even make sense," he insisted, sounding a lot calmer than he was feeling.  "I just told you that you're welcome here whenever you want.  I really don't think—"

"Oh, for the love of God!" Eddie cut in, her tone rife with obvious disgust, having apparently heard enough of the escalating argument.  "You two are arguing about your babies—the children that you both love, right?  Then stop acting like bickering kindergarteners and figure it out!  Come up with something better—something that doesn't involve cutting your children in half, Solomon!"

Rolling his eyes at Eddie's judicious use of the Biblical story, he snorted, drumming his claws on the table top as his irritation spiked.  "I don't think anyone said anything about doing something so stupid."

"Oh, shut up!  You haven't got the sense to put clothes on in the morning instead of shaking what your mama gave you in front of God and sundry, so you don't get to make the rules!  Might as well have suggested cutting your babies in half," she grouched, pinning Ben with a formidable glower.  "The whole thing is entirely ridiculous!"

"Oh?  And just what do you suggest, Eddie?" Ben growled back.

"I don't know, but you'd think that the two of you could figure it out!  Miss Charity's a smart woman, even if you are duller than a box of bolts!  It's not that hard, you know!  Just ask Miss Charity to move in, and stop acting like a damn knuckle dragger!  Then you'll both be with the babies all the time, no need for visitation or split custody, and everyone's happy!  Think of those babies instead of yourself, you heathen exhibitionist!"

Dead silence fell over the kitchen as Eddie's words hung thick in the air.

It was a possibility that hadn't occurred to Ben, though it might have, had he thought for even a moment that Charity was considering something entirely different.  Daring a quick look at the woman in question, he took it as a good sign that she actually seemed like she was considering it, too.

Ben cleared his throat.  "I do have more than enough room," he offered.

She sat back, scrunched up her shoulders, chewed on a delicately tapered claw as her ears flicked in a decidedly nervous sort of way.  "I wouldn't be an imposition?  I mean, it would be best for the girls . . ."

Ben nodded.  "It would be," he agreed.  "We've been over that before, Charity.  You're never an imposition."  Breaking into an apologetic little smile, he shrugged.  "I'm sorry I overreacted."

"No, you didn't," she told him. Then she sighed, and when she did, her ears flattened out to the sides for a moment before popping up again, at least, partially, anyway.  "I wasn't trying to make you think that I was going to take them away or anything.  I just . . ." Trailing off with a grimace, she sat up a little straighter.  "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," he told her as he stood up to pick up the babies, who had been unceremoniously disturbed by the raised voices.  They weren't crying yet, but they weren't happy, either.  Ben figured they'd calm down quickly enough as soon as they figured out that everything was all right.  "When do you want to move in?"

Charity rose from her seat to take Nadia, cuddling the infant close and uttering soft words meant to quiet her while Ben sat down again with Emmeline held against his shoulder.

She sighed.  "If it were up to me, I'd do it as soon as possible, but I imagine I should figure out what to do with the apartment."

"Are you leasing or do you own it?"

"I own it, but . . ." She shrugged.  "Then again, Chelsea always stays there when she's in town, so it won't matter if I just leave it as-is."

Ben considered that.  He had a few calls to make today, but he could do those at any time, and none of them were of that much importance, anyway.  "If you'd like, I can go over there with you and help you get the things you need."

"Okay," she replied, finally breaking into a wan, but genuine, smile.

"All right, then.  Do you want me to empty a guest room for you?  You can have two of them if you need space for your own office."

"Would it be all right with you if I just left all my furniture and stuff?  That way it's all ready whenever Chelsea is in town."

"That's fine," he said.  "Whatever you want."

"Thank God," Eddie said, flipping the sausage links in the skillet.  "Now that you're both done acting foolish, I'll have your breakfast ready in a minute."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"I still think we should have called."

Waving a hand to hush her mate, Sierra Inutaisho rang the doorbell and stepped back to wait.  "If we'd done that, then it wouldn't be a surprise," she explained.

Toga rolled his eyes, but smiled since Sierra had wanted to hop on the first plane out eight weeks ago when Charity had called to announce that she and Ben were adopting the twins, and she would have, but she'd wanted to wait until Toga could go, too.  "Well, it was your idea to tell her that I couldn't get away."

"You couldn't, and you wouldn't have been able to if what's-his-name hadn't cancelled that meeting you were supposed to have . . ."

Wrinkling his nose since 'what's-his-name' was Jude Covington and there were easily a hundred-million things he'd rather be doing than spending any time at all in a meeting with the insufferable ass, Toga shrugged.  "He just wanted to know why we denied his request to send Ryomaru to help him out with his problem."

Sierra shook her head.  "Wasn't he the one who threw that fit about tai-youkai handling their own business back when Gavin was arrested for the whole Avis-thing?"

The look Toga shot her spoke volumes.

"Anyway, his loss is our gain.  You got a much-deserved week off, and I get to see my new grandbabies!" Sierra insisted with a giggle, the discussion of Jude Covington obviously discarded.  "Do I look like a grandma?" she asked, unleashing a dimpled grin as she held her hands out to the sides for Toga's approval.

He chuckled at the pale pink tee-shirt that proclaimed her 'World's Best Grandma' in glittery script lettering.  "No, you don't," he replied with a wink.

"Toga!" she complained as the door opened.  Sierra blinked at the woman who opened the door.   Certainly not old-looking, though if she were youkai, she might be, she regarded Sierra and Toga with a frank sense of curiosity.  Long dark brown hair streaked with highlights caught back in a low ponytail that fell over one shoulder, she eyed the Japanese tai-youkai and his mate with an uncannily bright gaze.

"May I help you?" she finally asked.

"We're looking for Charity Inutaisho," Sierra said.  "She gave us this address . . .?"

The woman's face lit up with a sense of understanding, and she stepped back, opening the door wide to allow them entrance.  "You're Miss Charity's parents, right?  The Japanese tai-youkai . . ."

"Toga," he replied, offering the woman a polite bow.  "And you are?"

She waved a hand.  "I'm Eddie, the housekeeper," she said.  "Miss Charity's getting the babies dressed.  I'll go get her for you."

"No hurry," Sierra said.  "In fact . . . Up there?" she asked, pointing at the floor above.

Eddie smiled.  "Go on up, but don't be surprised if some jackass is running around in a damn towel!"

Sierra blinked since the last part of that sentence was delivered in a very loud tone—loud enough to carry upstairs, she was sure.

Toga cleared his throat and cocked an eyebrow as he set their suitcases on the floor beside the wall since Sierra had been too impatient to go check in at a hotel first.  Normally, they'd use Sesshoumaru's penthouse, but since Mikio was currently staying there and renovations were still being finished up, and that effectively left the four bedroom place with only one that was usable, they'd figured that a hotel was the best option.  "I beg your pardon?"

Eddie shook her head and closed the door behind them.  "That old fool I work for," she said, as though that ought to explain it all.  "I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything.  I was just getting breakfast around.  Will you be joining them?"

"Oh, uh . . . It wouldn't be a problem, would it?  I mean, we were going to see if they wanted to go out for food . . ." Sierra said.

"Nonsense!" the housekeeper scoffed.  "Breakfast, it is!"

Sierra smiled as she watched Eddie disappear through the archway.  Toga slipped an arm around her and grunted.  "What the hell did she mean about Ben wearing just a towel?"

Sierra shook her head.  "I have no idea, Toga . . . Now sniff out your daughter, will you?  I want to see those babies!"

"You act like I'm nothing but a bloodhound," he grouched, lifting his face in the direction of the stairway.  "She's up there.  Come on," he said, taking her hand and leading her forward.  Sierra chuckled at the irony of the statement, but remained silent as they climbed the staircase.

The shriek of their daughter's laughter greeted them as they stepped onto the landing.  Toga and Sierra exchanged raised-eyebrow-ed looks and hurried forward, down the hallway, and into the second room on the left—obviously the nursery, if the pink everything was an indicator.

She was in the bathroom with the door open, and Sierra giggled when she heard the unmistakable sound of a baby's laugh.  Breaking away from Toga's side, she ran lightly through the room, only to skid to a halt in the doorway.

Charity was hunkered down beside the tub, trying to hold onto a soapy baby with one hand and fending off a towel-clad Ben with her other one as she laughed while the youkai-general held the other baby as he tried to dab a huge glob of suds onto Charity's nose.

"Oh . . . Well, that looks . . . compromising . . ." Toga remarked dryly, as he stopped beside Sierra in the doorway, drawing a gasp from Charity as her eyes widened in surprise that lasted all of ten seconds before she broke into a wide smile.

Ben, however, opened and closed his mouth a few times, as though he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  "Uh, h-hello," he said.  He started to get to his feet, only to stop when he remembered he was still holding a very slippery baby.  "Uh . . ."

"Nice towel, Ben," Toga said rather pointedly.

The youkai general glanced down, as though he'd completely forgotten what he was—or wasn't—wearing.  "Damn," he muttered, a rather comical flush exploding under his skin.  "I'm so . . . I'm sorry . . ."

"Mama!  Papa!" Charity exclaimed, completely ignoring Ben's state of undress, which made Toga wonder just how common this particular scenario was, all things considered.  "Come meet your granddaughters!"

Sierra cleared her throat a few times, her hand fluttering in front of her lips, as Ben got to his feet.  Toga shot her a quelling look that would have been much more effective if she'd deigned to notice it, but no, her gaze was fixed on the youkai general, and didn't that just figure?  Toga rolled his eyes.

"If you'd like to do this, Sierra, I'll . . . I'll go get dressed," Ben said, cheeks darkening despite the smile on his face.

Sierra finally seemed to realize that she was, indeed, staring, and she giggled as she stepped past Ben and knelt down to help steady the two-month-old baby inside the plastic seat that supported her.  The child blinked and stared up at Sierra with round, wide eyes and in complete fascination as happy tears prickled the back of Sierra's eyelids.  Of course she'd seen pictures, had video chatted with Charity nearly every day, but there was something about seeing the babies in person . . .

"That's Nadia," Charity said, leaning down to smile broadly at the baby, turning her head from side to side as she cooed in an effort to get Nadia to laugh.  It worked, eliciting a happy screech from the baby as Sierra giggled and sniffled at the same time.

"Papa, would you give me that towel, please?" she asked, nodding at the counter where she'd forgotten it.

Toga leaned over to nab the towel and shook it open, holding it up as Charity pulled Emmeline out of the bath and handed her over.  Emmeline stared at Toga, as though she wasn't entirely sure what to think of him.  He chuckled and tucked the towel in snuggly around her.  She didn't like it when he covered her head, and the loud squeak she managed made him chuckle as he pulled the towel down.

"They remind me of a couple other little girls I used to know," Toga remarked, sparing a moment to wink at his daughter.

She laughed and flipped the lever to let the water out of the tub while Toga shook out the second towel and handed it to Sierra.

"So tell me, daughter of mine," Toga said as he stepped out of the bathroom and into the nursery once more.  "Does Ben run around in his towel every morning?"

"Only when I'm not expecting a visit from the Japanese tai-youkai and his lovely mate, of course," Ben quipped pleasantly.  Toga shot Ben what could only be described as 'The Look'.  Charity remembered that particular expression, even though it wasn't usually directed at her.  It normally meant that someone had managed to displease him.  Too bad he wasn't nearly as intimidating as Charity's grandfather, Sesshoumaru . . . It didn't affect Ben, either, because he just chuckled and stepped past Toga to grab clothes out of the closet for the twins.

 

 


 

 

 

"You and Sierra are staying for a week?"

Toga didn't look up from the slim-file Ben had handed to him just after they'd retired to Ben's office after breakfast while Charity and Sierra took the girls out shopping for the morning.  "Hmm?  Oh, yes, a week . . . You're sure you don't mind if we stay with you?  I mean, we were planning on just going to a hotel, so it's not a problem at all . . ."

"I wouldn't hear of it," Ben insisted, settling back in his chair as Toga slowly paced the floor.  "I'll even put clothes on after my shower."

Snapping the file closed, Toga stopped mid-stride to pin Ben with a very even look.  "I'd just forgotten about that.  Thanks for the reminder," he remarked dryly.  "You might well be a very handsome man, Ben, but I'd rather not see it, if you wouldn't mind."

Ben's lips twitched, but he didn't smile.  "Or you could just wear a towel tomorrow morning, too."

Toga barked out an incredulous laugh that slid into a slower chuckle.  "I'll save my towel for my own room, I think."

"Fair enough."

Laughter dying away, Toga sighed as he waved the file in Ben's general direction, as a deadly kind of seriousness entered his expression, his every movement.  Easy to tell at the moment, that the man was the undisputed Japanese tai-youkai, in line to eventually inherit the title of Inu no Taisho . . . "Have you told Charity about any of this?"

"No, I haven't," Ben replied.  "I mean, it's just something that Zelig's heard, and there's not much to back it up yet.  I . . . I don't want to tell her unless there's something a little more concrete."

Toga considered that as he dropped into a chair nearby, slumping to the side, legs stretched out, as he slowly rubbed his temple.  "I trust someone's looking into all of this," Toga remarked.

Ben nodded.  "Right now, Gunnar is, actually.  Seems he took exception to the idea that anyone would try to interfere before the adoption is final."  He chuckled almost ruefully.  "He won't touch the twins, but . . ."

Toga didn't look particularly surprised.  "But he won't let anyone else touch them, either."

"He actually seemed rather offended, like the whole reason they were doing it was just to irritate him," Ben ventured.

"Yeah, well, he has a tendency to take any threat against his family personally," Toga replied.  "It's just how he is."

Letting out a deep breath as he idly rolled up his shirt sleeves, Ben figured that Toga had it right.  When he had stopped by the youkai special crimes office a couple weeks ago after Myrna had tipped Ben off to what she'd heard through the grapevine, Gunnar had seemed entirely agitated, which was a little unusual for the hanyou who absolutely hated to show when his feathers had been ruffled, so to speak.

"Hello, Gunnar," Ben greeted, leaning into the hanyou's office.  "Is Bas in?"

Glancing up from the paperwork that he was combing through, he dropped his pen on the desk and sat back to give Ben his full attention as he beckoned him closer with a couple crooked fingers. "Uh, no, he flew out to Virginia to see if that old mountain man knows more than what he's letting on."

"I thought you checked into that a couple months ago."

Gunnar shrugged.  "Just a feeling," he replied.  "Bas thinks he's hiding something.  I don't know what he thinks he'll get out of him unless he decides to beat on him until he talks . . ."

Ben chuckled, knowing well enough that Bas Zelig really wouldn’t do any such thing.  "Damn."

Settling back in his chair, Gunnar rested his elbows on the arm rests and tapped his fingertips together, his golden eyes so very much like Charity's though lacking the softer edge, probing, searching, as though he were trying to read Ben's mind, the intensity behind his simple gaze was almost unsettling.  "Something I can help you with?"

To be honest, Ben hadn't planned on telling Gunnar anything about it.  At least, that had been the initial plan.  It wasn't that he didn't think the future Japanese tai-youkai could handle it.  It was more the idea that he just wasn't sure how Gunnar would deal with it, especially when it involved his sister, at least, in a broad sense.  Even so, Gunnar Inutaisho really was second-to-none when it came to ferreting out information—much better than Ben ever was . . . "Myrna called this morning to tell me about a rumor she's heard," he explained.

A jet black eyebrow arched, but there was no other change in the hanyou's expression otherwise.  "A rumor?"

Ben nodded.  "She said one of her informants told her that he's heard that Jeet Unker—Hiram Unker's brother—is looking for the twins, which wouldn’t be a problem, but he's dangerous in his own right, and until the adoption is final . . ."

Letting his words hang in the air, Ben figured it wouldn't take long for Gunnar to fit the rest of the pieces together, which he did in short order.  "And since this guy can claim next-of-kin in a human court, all he'd really have to do is get his hands on them in any way he could . . ." Drumming his claws on the highly polished surface of his desk, Gunnar trailed off as he considered the situation.  "Let me look into it, Ben," he said, his tone leaving very little in the way of argument.  "Just don't let Charity or the twins out of your sight."

"Has Gunnar found out anything?" Toga asked, interrupting Ben's thoughts, drawing him back to the present.

"He found Jeet, yes, and Cain ordered Larry Rowland to shadow him—to make sure he stays put and doesn't make any suspicious moves."

Toga nodded slowly as he considered Ben's statement.  "Larry's the one that Cain mentioned is specialized in stealth operations?"

Ben sighed, hating that he couldn't quite shake the worry that had dogged him since that phone call from Myrna.   "Yes."

"Ben, you know, I trust you to take care of the twins . . . and Charity."  Lifting his gaze to lock with Ben's, Toga didn't raise his chin.  The intensity in his amber eyes enough to make most youkai back down. It was the same fierceness that his father possessed, too.

"Believe me when I say to you, I'll protect her—I'll protect them—with my life."

 

 


 

 

 

Tugging on the neckline of the tee-shirt he'd donned for bed, Ben made a face as he jammed his glasses back up his nose with a crooked finger without losing his place in the notes he was reading from the slim-file.  Just boring emails from the area generals, all reporting in that everything was quiet . . .

A soft throat-clearing drew his attention as Charity's youki filtered into his room, brushing over his as gently as the stroke of an early summer breeze.  Without looking up, he held out a hand.  She heaved a sigh as she sat down on the edge of his bed to push his hand away.  "If you're wanting your daughters, you're going to have to fight my parents for them," she said in a tone that could only be described as 'pouty'.

Letting the slim-file drop onto his lap, Ben raised an eyebrow as he turned to face the disgruntled hanyou woman.  "Your parents?"

She nodded, twisting to the side almost violently, throwing herself back on the pillows propped up against the headboard, crossing her arm over her chest, and her legs at the ankles as she thumped them down as hard as she could to make her point apparent.  "They stole the babies," she grumbled, ears twitching as a sure indication of her overall pique.  "Damn it, why did you have to be nice, anyway?"

Ben raised his eyebrows in surprise since he had never seen her quite like this before, and, while part of him found her to be highly amusing, especially given that she was wearing a silly pink tee-shirt with unicorns printed all over it and a pair of very loose pink shorts, he kind of figured that he'd be better off, not saying anything about that at the moment.  "Because . . . it's my fault that your parents have them?"

Charity shot him a droll look.  "Well, yeah!  If they were at a hotel right now instead of staying in the room down the hall, they wouldn't have the babies, now would they?"

Snapping his mouth closed since there really was nothing he could possibly say that would shift the blame off of himself with her skewed bit of logic, Ben heaved a sigh and set the slim-file on the nightstand before turning back to face her once more.  "Come here," he said, holding out an arm to beckon her toward him.

She wrinkled her nose and uttered a noise that sounded suspiciously like, 'keh'.  He sighed when she refused and leaned over to pull her over.  She didn't fight him, but she did glower.  "Oh, no, Ben Philips," she grumbled.  "Night time is cuddle time—you know this!  And just how am I supposed to get my cuddles when my parents—my parents—just stole my children?"

Tucking her head against his shoulder, he chuckled as he reached over to nab the remote off his nightstand.  Leaning up on her elbow, Charity shot him a questioning look.  "What are you doing?" she asked, still apparently unwilling to give up on her pout.

"Looking for a movie," he replied.  "I don't think I've gotten to watch one since I told Zelig I'd keep the twins."

She made a face.  "I'm having a maternal crisis here, and you're wanting to watch a movie?  Ben—"

Dropping the remote onto his stomach, Ben pulled her back down against his shoulder once more.  "Yes, I'm going to watch a movie with you, and if you haven't noticed, I'm cuddling with you.  I mean, I realize I'm not nearly as cute as the girls, but you can make do for one night, can't you?  After all, your parents live in Japan—over half a world away—and it's not like they'll be here forever.  Is it really so terrible that they want to bond with their grandchildren?"

Charity stiffened for a moment as she considered his words, and his smile widened slightly as she slowly relaxed against him.  "Yes," she retorted mulishly and then sighed.  "Oh, well, I . . . I guess you'll do," she muttered.  "Oh, stop!  The Brightness of the Dark!  I've been meaning to watch that."

Ben clicked on the listing and read the summary: two high school sweethearts torn apart by destiny find each other again when fate intervenes . . .

'Oh.  My.  God.  No-o-o-o . . .'

'Shut up,' Ben retorted as he pushed the play button.

'Ugh, she's neutering us!  And she's not even trying!  And you're letting her do it!  Just hand her the snips, Ben.  It'll be painless!'

'The movie won't be that bad,' he argued.  'Besides, even if it's not that interesting, you're missing the bigger picture.'

'Which is . . .?'

'We get to lay here and hold her for the next ninety-seven minutes.'

His youkai considered that for a moment then sighed.  'Okay, yeah . . . That's a win.'

"What if I fall asleep?" she asked, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand.

Stroking her hair with an idle hand, he chuckled.  "You won't."

"Yes, but what if I do?"

"I'll wake you up if you do," he promised, breathing in deep, savoring the comforting scent of her.

". . . What if you fall asleep?"

"Then I suppose it'll be the end of the world.  It'll make the morning news, be headlines all over the country.  Mountains will crumble, rivers will run dry, oceans will part—"

She giggled and smacked his chest.  "You're kind of a jerk, you know."

He kissed her forehead, and she snuggled against him once more.  "I know.  I'm sorry."

She snorted.  "You're not," she retorted mildly, her voice still tinged with the lilt of amusement.  "Why is your bed so much more comfortable than mine?"

"I don't know," he replied.  "Can't say I've ever slept in any of the guest rooms."

"I think you should let me have this room with this bed, and you can stay in mine across the hall."

"Or you could just stay in here with me."

"Now you're just being a tease," she accused, her tone taking on the sulky hint again.

He heaved a sigh since he really was only half-teasing.  The other half was dead-damn-serious . . . "You're missing your movie, Charity."

"All right; all right," she said, wiggling around to make herself more comfortable.  Her warmth, her calm seemed to envelop him, and he stifled a sigh as he wrapped his arms more securely around her.  If this was the trade-off for putting up with sappy, silly, lovey-dovey movies, then he supposed he could deal with that . . .

She gave a wistful sigh when the lovers in the movie finally found each other again better than three quarters of the way through the film.  "Why can't it be that way in real life?" she asked, though Ben had to wonder if she was asking him or not.

"What?  Slow motion running along a beach at sunset, straight into each other's arms?" he deadpanned.

She made a face, craning her neck to look up at him.  "You don't have a romantic bone in your body, do you?"

He chuckled.  "I do . . . I just don't care very much for romance movies."

"Okay, then," she said, resting her hands on his chest so she could better peer into his face.  "What do you think is 'romantic'?  What is romance to you?"

Letting his head fall back, he considered her questions, pursing his lips, shifting his jaw to the side.  "What do I think is romantic," he repeated.  Lowering his chin, staring into her eyes, he wondered vaguely if she could feel it, too: that invisible but undeniable connection.  "I think . . . I think that true romance is a person," he murmured, gaze dropping to her lips.  "It's easy to say that a walk in the rain is romantic, or that a roaring fire in the midst of a snowstorm is romantic.  It's simple to think that, sitting on the beach, watching the sunset is romantic, but the truth is, there is no romance if the person I'm with . . . If she isn't special to me . . ."

She stared at him for long heartbeats, her gaze clear, bright, swirling gold that seemed to shift in a riot of color.  Cheeks kissed with the barest tinge of dusty rose, lips parted as the sound of her shallow breathing echoed in his ears, as her heart beat created a cadence that spoke to him . . . Leaning up, bracing her hands on his chest, she brushed her lips over his with the softest exhalation, the sweetest explosion that fired off somewhere deep inside him.

Time fell away as the teasing kiss lingered, as the long dormant memories of something new, something wild and free tugged on the corners of half-forgotten daydreams.  The infinite tenderness of a simple touch, a solitary kiss left his mind reeling.  After so many years of wondering what it would be like to hold her, to kiss her, to simply allow himself to be near her, yet trying not to give thought to the persistent yearning, the tumble of sensation was inebriating and humbling, all at once.

She sighed against his lips, her arms slipping up around his neck, holding him close, sinking her fingers into his hair, as shivers ran up his spine.  A tightly contained control stretched and tensed as one hand held her to him, as the other hand stroked her cheek.

The gentleness of the kiss widened, deepened, rising and falling like the sea, giving way to the gale of emotion that surged through him.  Something about her spoke to him in whispers and with an innocence that had the power to set him free . . .

The overwhelming sense of innocent that radiated from her to him was an awe-inspiring thing.  It wasn't a clumsiness, no, but more of a sense of quiet wonder . . . As fresh and clean as the morning dew, she was, and it was that realization that snapped Ben out of his haze.  He wanted her, certainly, but he also wanted them to take their time, to know and to understand . . . and it was the hardest thing he'd ever done, to turn his face away, to draw in a series of stunted and ragged breaths as he held her close, as he ran the pad of his thumb over her jawline.

Opening his mouth to say something—in his Charity-induced stupor, he wasn't sure what—he could only blink and stare at her in something akin to awe when she did the one thing that he really hadn't expected.

She snuggled against him once more.

And she laughed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Funny.  I could have sworn that she said she had her own room."

"Well, she did, but she looks awfully comfortable, right there, don't you think?"

". . . No, I don't."

"Now, now, look at the bright side, Toga."

"There's a bright side?"

"Yes . . . It's not like she's still a baby anymore, and . . . and at least, they left the door open . . ."

A very loud sigh.

Charity opened her eyes and smothered a groan, mostly because of the absolute volume of her parents' voices.  Ben was still sleeping, which was just as well, all things considered.  It didn't look good, now did it . . .?

"Come on, Toga," Sierra said, grabbing his hand and giving it a good tug.  "Leave them alone.  Chances are good that they don't get to sleep in much these days, don't you think?  Besides, it just means that we get more time with the babies, right?"

"But—"

"No, now move it!"

Heaving an inward sigh of relief as she heard them retreat, Charity stubbornly refused to open her eyes since she rather figured that her father just might have a few more things to say.

"Are they gone yet?"

Smothering a gasp, Charity pushed against Ben's chest, leaning up on her elbows as she narrowed her eyes at the man who had yet to move.  "Ben!" she hissed.

He chuckled, his arms tightening around her waist just a little.  "Don't make too much noise or they'll realize we're awake," he warned.

"But they—"

Letting out a deep breath, Ben rolled to the side, eliciting a squeal from Charity as he pinned her beside him and tossed a leg over hers to keep her in place.  "You heard your mama, right?  She gets it.  We don't get near enough sleep."

Charity giggled, but tried to look stern.  "As if!  You're always up before the sun," she accused.

"Your parents don't know that," he argued.  "Besides, wouldn't it be nice for us to allow them to have as much time as they want with their granddaughters?  You want them to be close to your parents, right?"

Narrowing her eyes since she knew well enough that Ben wasn't being nearly as altruistic as he wanted her to believe, she couldn't help the soft giggle that slipped from her, either.  "You'd make a great used car salesman, Ben Philips," she said with a snort punctuated by another giggle that she hadn't been able to squelch.

"Is that right?" he asked with a chuckle of his own.  "Go back to sleep, Charity."

She heaved a sigh designed to let him know exactly what she thought of that.  Too bad his arms were way too warm and inviting—and he did have a point, too.  The girls really were in the very best hands, and it had been a long time since she had actually gotten to sleep in at all . . .

She almost did it. She was almost asleep again when Ben's hand moved, claws trailing lightly up her back, up her spine, the thin material of the tee-shirt blunting the sensation, but by no means dulling it.  An involuntary shiver rattled through her as he nuzzled against her neck, as he breathed in her scent.  He sighed softly, his breath stroking her skin, tickling her, as she uttered a soft whimper.  "I love the way you smell, Charity," he mumbled, lips brushing against her throat.

"B . . . Ben . . ."

His answer was the gentlest press of his lips on hers.  The fall of emotion was enough to take her breath away, stunning it its simplicity, humbling in its totality.  He didn't seek to obliterate her senses.  It was more of a coddling, a nurturing sense of creation, as though he were leading her.   It was a heady feeling—the brush of lips, of fangs juxtaposed against the precarious rise of burgeoning desire.  Reaching up to touch his cheek, to let her fingertips dance over his stubble-covered jaw, she reveled at the warmth of him that radiated into her, only to draw a shiver, a sigh, a soft breath.

He seemed to lean into her touch as he fluttered the lightest kisses on her cheeks, her nose, her eyes.  A laugh welled up inside her, only to be thwarted when his lips returned to hers once more, this time a little more urgently, yet still tempered by the tenderness that was both welcome and entirely maddening at the same time.

Catching her hand, he laced his fingers with hers, leaning back far enough to bring her hand up between them, taking his time as he kissed each of her fingertips.  "There's something to be said for this sleeping-in business," he mused.

Her laugh was quite husky to her own ears.  "Won't Eddie be mad if we missed breakfast?"

Ben flopped onto his back and tucked her in against his side.  "Even if she is, I pay her ridiculously well, so she'll be fine."

"And yet, it never stops her from saying whatever is on her mind," Charity pointed out.

"Are you saying you're ready to get up?"

"As nice as this is, I do miss the babies," she admitted.

Ben heaved a sigh, but finally sat up.  "You win, Charity," he said.  "I'll be down after my shower."

Watching as he rolled off the bed and wandered toward the bathroom, she stifled a sigh and scooted off the bed, too.  "Don't forget your clothes," she called after him.

His answer was a very loud sigh.

 

 


 

 

 

Biting her lip as she towel-dried her hair, Charity couldn't repress the soft giggle that escaped her as she tried not to flush.  It was rather silly, she supposed.  Here she was, a forty-five year old woman, completely alone in the bathroom, and yet she couldn't even think about Ben—about his kisses—without blushing like a teenage girl . . .

'Because those kisses were something that you've never felt before.'

Staring at herself in the sheet glass mirror over the sink in the bathroom adjoining the guest room—now her room—she sighed.  That was the absolute truth of it, wasn't it?  Sure, she'd had a couple of boyfriends and a few guys she'd seen on a casual level, and she'd kissed them, of course.  But even now, she had to wonder whether she'd kept those men at bay on purpose, which sounded entirely ridiculous, really.  And yet . . .

'Of course you did, Cherry,' her youkai-voice replied in a completely pragmatic sort of way.  'You've been hung up on Ben Philips since the first time you saw him, haven't you?  Even now . . .'

Bemusement fading, Charity frowned as the first threads of realization began to wrap around her brain.  She'd tried hard, hadn't she?  Tried to push him out of her mind, tried to hold onto that sense of melancholy, of disappointment that she'd felt time and again, only to realize a little too late that she hadn't done that at all, and what was left behind was only that deep-seeded understanding that she'd actually been hanging onto a wisp of hope, even if it was as transparent as glass, as thin as smoke, rising in tendrils, only to dissipate in the air.

And in the last couple months since she'd moved in, that fragile hope had grown, demolishing the very last bits of her resolve, leaving her as vulnerable and shameless as a child, waiting in the half-light for a scrap of attention, for the hint of acknowledgement that came from being spared just a moment of time before life moved on around her, leaving her there, alone and hoping and dreaming . . .

'I . . . I was past all that, wasn't I?  Didn't I realize a long time ago that what I wanted . . . that he had to want it, too?  And he . . . He didn't . . .'

'I don't know, Cherry.  I mean, it's not like we can read his mind any more than he can read yours.  He's always been kind and gracious, and—'

'Which is how he is with everyone,' she cut in, dropping the towel and  snatching up her brush, yanking it through her hair with all the viciousness of her thoughts.  'It's something I've always respected about him, and yet . . .'

'And yet, it has also always left you wondering, right?  Wondering where you stood with him.'

That wasn't entirely true, either.  No, she knew where she stood with Ben.  He'd made it painfully obvious over the years.  He might well smile with her and joke about things, dance with her at family gatherings that he'd always been a part of—at least, on the Zelig side of it—but it was entirely too easy for him to walk away from all them all without a backward glance, without a second thought.

And then, she wouldn't hear from him again until the next wedding, the next holiday gathering, the next one . . .

'But you also know Ben well enough to realize that he didn't kiss you last night or this morning simply because you just happened to be there, you know?  Because Ben isn't like that, either, and you recognize that, too.'

She sighed.  Of course, she did know that.  Even so, it confused her even more.  Common sense, understanding of the past . . . She really ought to keep her distance from him.  The problem was, every last bit of that train of thought pulled out of the proverbial station whenever that man was near.

'Yeah, but . . . Do we really want to remember all of that, Cherry?  I mean, I understand that you're trying to think in terms of self-preservation, but you realize that the core of what life is, is taking those chances, and yes, sometimes you'll fall flat, but sometimes, you'll win, too.  Those wins make it worth the hurt that comes with the failures, don't you think?  And Ben . . .'

'That's the real question, isn't it?  Do I dare risk that failure with Ben . . .?'

'Something like that, but you know, even if things were exactly what you believed them to be in the past, we're talking about now, and you have to be the first to admit that nothing is how you thought it would be.  You'd have to admit that if someone said at this time last year that you'd be here, that you'd have those gorgeous babies, that you'd be sharing them with Ben, you'd have thought they were mad.'

Pulling her hair out of the neckline of the oversized cream mohair sweater and faun colored, faux suede leggings she'd selected for the day, she sighed.  It was one thing, to think things through logically.  It was something else, entirely, to be able to truly let go of those things that she'd hung onto for so long.

'So if you're worried, why not ask him?  Instead of sitting here, over-thinking everything to death, can't you just sit down with him and talk to him?  He'd tell you.  You know he would.  Ben's a good person, and he isn't the type to just skirt the topic or to just tell you what he thinks you want to hear.'

That was the thing, though, wasn't it?  How on earth could she ever bring herself to ask him about it all?  It would require a kind of fearlessness that she wasn't sure she had or could muster up.

She stepped out of the bathroom and let out a deep breath.  Wandering over to stare outside, she took note of the gorgeous fall day that was just getting started.  There was a beautiful crispness in the air filtering through the open window, a certain scent that only accompanied the falling leaves in their amazing shades of yellows and reds and golds . . . It would be Halloween in a few days—Emmeline and Nadia's first Halloween—and Charity felt the hold of the deeper musings that had taken hold of her during her shower loosening.  It was hard to be pensive, wasn't it, when the world outside was so full of sunshine and promise.

It was that sense of vague excitement that pulled her away from the window as she hurried out of the room and down the hallway toward the stairs.  She heard the girls' laughter, and that made her smile, too, drawing her forward as she ran down the steps, hurrying toward the kitchen to greet the babies she hadn't seen since last night.

"Good morning," she greeted as she breezed into the room, making a beeline toward her parents—and her babies.  Emmeline squealed in delight as Charity leaned in to kiss her cheek, laughing when the infant inadvertently nailing her in the nose with a flying fist of joy.  Then she kissed Sierra's cheek before hurrying around the table to greet Nadia and her father.

Before she could kiss his cheek, however, Toga leaned in ridiculously close and sniffed loudly.  "Papa?  What are you doing?"

Toga snorted, straightening up in his chair and tilting his head to the side so Charity could kiss his cheek, too.  "Just making sure there isn't anything I need to know," he said.

Charity rolled her eyes with a giggle as she fought back the blush inspired by his not-so-subtle hint.

"Do you always sleep in Ben's room?" Toga went on, taking back Nadia as he pinned his daughter with a non-nonsense look.

"Papa," she said, crossing her arms over her chest as she lifted her chin a notch and tried not to smile.   "You know that I'm forty-five years old, don't you?"

"And you're still my little girl, Charity," he explained calmly.

She wrinkled her nose as she slipped into the chair beside him.  "You should take it up with Chelsea if you're worried about that kind of thing."

Toga heaved a sigh, reaching for his coffee mug and carefully keeping it out of the way of tiny, waving hands.  "If I spend too much time, thinking about what that sister of yours is up to, I'm pretty sure I'd end up having a nervous breakdown."

"I told him," Sierra stated with a shake of her head.  "What Ben and you do in the privacy of your own home is entirely up to you."

"Thank you, Mama," Charity said.

Sierra smiled, breaking off a piece of sausage and giggling when Emmeline's face lifted at the aroma of the cooked meat.  "Wait a couple more months," she told the baby, popping the bite into her mouth.  "Besides, if Ben looks as good out of his towel as he does in it, then you can't really blame her for that, can you, Toga?"

Toga choked on his coffee, as Charity gasped and quickly ducked her chin to hide her acute embarrassment—and her overall amusement at her mother's bald statement.  "Sie!" he complained, shaking his head at his wife.

Across the kitchen, Eddie heaved a longsuffering sigh.

"Morning," Ben said, striding into the room with the newspaper in his hand and fully dressed for once.  Long black hair still damp from his shower, he looked completely relaxed—and entirely kissable . . .

'Stop that!' she chided herself, grateful that no one could actually read her mind, even if the look on her mother's face was entirely suspect . . .

Nadia screeched when she saw her father, tiny fists flying in her excitement as she bounced wildly in Toga's arms.  Toga chuckled and handed her over.  Ben paused long enough to plant a ridiculously loud kiss on the child's cheek as he stepped around the table to retrieve Emmeline, too.  Nadia, satisfied with her attention from Daddy for the time being, kicked her feet, waved her hands, lunging toward Sierra and very nearly managed to topple right out of Ben's grip.  Sierra laughed and took her as Ben picked up Emmeline with his free hand.

"Good morning," he said, giving her a quick kiss and cuddle.  "I trust you and Toga had a good night  The girls weren't any trouble for you?"

"Well . . ." Toga drawled.

"Absolutely none," Sierra assured him, rolling her eyes at Toga.

Ben glanced from one to the other and back again as his eyebrow slowly lifted.  "Am I missing something?"

Charity coughed delicately but refused to meet his questioning gaze.

Eddie snorted as she dumped coffee into Ben's empty mug.  "You either need to learn how to leave Miss Charity alone at night, which is what her parents would prefer, or learn how to shut your damn door," she muttered.  "That's what."

"Uh . . ."  He cleared his throat, lifting his coffee and trying to avoid a tiny swinging fist at the same time.

"Oh, we were wondering," Sierra interrupted, changing the subject in an expert fashion.  "Has Cain said anything about how long it's going to take to finalize the adoption?"

"The last time I talked to him, he said that the judge that usually handles youkai adoptions is on a temporary leave of absence.  His father was killed last year in a car accident, and his mother isn't doing well.  He wanted to spend as much time as he could with her, so he won't be back until . . . Well, you understand," Ben explained.

Toga grimaced and pushed his plate away before holding out his hands for Emmeline, who was quite happy to be handed off again.  "I can't say I blame him for that," he muttered.

Ben nodded and flipped his coffee cup to the side for a refill.  "Zelig did manage to procure a temporary custody order, so that's good enough for the time being."  Eddie hurried over and took her time, filling everyone else's mugs before she finally topped off Ben's.  "Anyway, Toga, I was wondering if you'd like to accompany me today?  I've got to run past special crimes to talk to Gunnar."

"Oh, uh, sure," Toga remarked.  "And you ladies?  What kind of trouble are you going to be getting into?"

Sierra laughed, and Charity nodded her thanks as Eddie slipped a plate of eggs and sausage before her.  "I've got to stop and pick up the Halloween costumes I ordered for the girls and buy candy.  Sound okay, Mama?"

Sierra gasped.  "Oh, my God!  I can't believe I almost forgot about Halloween!"  Giving a happy little squeak, she leaned toward her daughter.  "We should all dress up, don't you think?  We'll have a little party of our own!  Two days is short notice, of course, but it's not that bad, is it?  Toga, see if Gunnar's got plans already when you go see him . . . I wonder who else is in the city . . .?"

Toga shot Ben a longsuffering look.  "The first time she talked me into dressing up, I had to be Dracula," he explained.  "The last time, she wanted to be the Lone Ranger and Tonto.  Guess who got to be Tonto."

Ben tried not to smile.  He really did, but something about the absolute chagrin on the tai-youkai's face was a rare sight, indeed.

"Did you want me to run around shirtless, Toga?" Sierra challenged mildly, lifting an eyebrow as she gazed at her mate, whose cheeks pinked at the bawdy question.  "He still looks pretty damn good without a shirt," she went on, turning her attention back to her daughter again.  "Your Aunt Belle thinks so, too.  Did I tell you that I gave her a poster sized print of your father's beefcake calendar shot for her birthday . . .?"

Pressing his lips together so that he didn't laugh outright, Ben quickly flipped the paper open with one and hid his face behind it.

Toga uttered a sigh that shifted into a very low groan.  "I'm never going to live that stupid picture down," he muttered under his breath.

Ben coughed but kept his commentary to himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Wow, I've managed to score the attention of the really big dogs . . . and one cat," Myrna Loy remarked with a wink at Ben as she walked into Gunnar Inutaisho's office in the youkai special crimes building.  Sensible stack heels echoing against the polished floor until she stepped onto the Oriental rug spread before the intricately carved antique desk, she moved with an easy dexterity, striking Ben not for the first time, just how fluid that particular woman seemed to be.  Whether it was a skill that she'd had to cultivate over time or something that she'd known instinctually, he didn't know, but it was somehow apropos, given her line of work.

She stopped, pivoted on her heel, only to cross her arms over her tailored tweed suit jacket that matched the skirt that hit precisely three inches above her knees.  "Good morning, gentlemen.  I take it that everyone here has been briefed?"

"They have," Ben said, settling back in his chair as he scowled.  In truth, he just wanted to get on with the impromptu meeting.  What had started out as a quick stop to see if Gunnar had found out anything about Jeet Unker had escalated into a full-out meeting when Zelig, with InuYasha, of all people, in tow, had shuffled into the office to say that Myrna was on her way with some new information.

Bas half-sat on the wide window sill directly behind Gunnar's desk, one leg bent at the knee, the other stretched out, braced against the floor.  Gunnar slouched back in his chair, elbows on the armrests with his fingertips pressed together in front of his face.  InuYasha was pacing the floor, as though he were too wound up to stay in one place.  Toga reclined in the chair beside Ben, while Cain stood at the other window, shoulders slumped forward just enough to give him that casual stance with his hands deep in his pockets, staring out at the street down below.

Myrna nodded, crossing her delicate ankles as she leaned against the desk.  "One of my informants told me last night that he observed Jeet Unker's mate buying baby things at a pawn shop, and since their youngest child is twelve, it's safe to say that the stuff wasn't for him.  When I told Cain about all this—" she nodded at the North American tai-youkai, "—he called Larry Rowland, and Larry said that Jeet's still there, but his oldest son hasn't been seen in a few days, either."

"Tell us about this oldest son," Toga prompted.  He didn't sound overly concerned, but he didn't sound like he was going to just brush it off, either.

Myrna gave a curt nod, pulling out her cell phone and scrolling through a few screens.  "Hecht Unker, twenty-seven years old, unmated—brown hair, brown eyes—average height and build with a rap sheet about twenty pages long, ranging from petty larceny to distribution of a controlled substance—cocaine, it looks like . . . He served five years of a ten year sentence for that, and he only just got a year ago, give or take a few months."  Lowering the phone, she leveled a no-nonsense look at Ben.  "And he's rumored to belong to the anti-Zelig faction in that area."

InuYasha stopped, mid-stride to pin Cain with an almost quizzical sort of expression.  "Anti-Zelig?  You don't fucking say . . ."

"It's the tai-youkai they don't like," Toga explained, "Not Zelig-san, per se."

"Kinda figured as much," InuYasha grumbled, ears flicking with his irritation.

"It's not really that's surprising," Ben cut in to stave off the ensuing argument, rubbing his forehead as he digested the information she'd just rattled off.  "And they don't know where he is now?"

She shook her head.  "No, but given what I've learned about that family in particular, it could very well be a significant problem.  They aren't exactly the type of people you can sit down and reason with, and it seems that they were highly agitated when Hiram Unker's wife gave the twins up to Cain to start with.  Damn near trashed the hospital waiting room when they were told that the babies were gone."

"Why do they even care?  Sounds like they have more than enough stuff on their plates without taking it upon themselves to worry about the twins, anyway," Bas said.

The smile that surfaced on Myrna's face was as devoid of humor as it was full of cynicism.  "From what I've gathered, they don't care so much about the babies: they just don't want Cain to have control of them."

"And who all knows that Ben and Charity have them?" Gunnar asked quietly.

"Just immediate family," Cain replied.  "Well, immediate family, and I did speak to Trent Felding about it."

"The judge," Toga concluded with a thoughtful nod.  "Even so . . ."

"It's simple," InuYasha growled.  "Just hunt the little bastard down and convince him that he'd be making a pretty damn big mistake if he thinks he's gonna try to take those pups."

"We can't do that without any provocation, InuYasha," Cain said with a sigh and a pointed look since InuYasha should have known as much already.  "Anything else, Myrna?"

The hawk-youkai nodded.  "I took it upon myself to talk to an old friend about this, and I managed to talk her into flying in to help us out, but she won't be here until tomorrow, and, given the circumstances, I rather thought it'd be best if she isn't seen in this kind of setting with all of you since she'll technically be undercover."

"Why?" Ben demanded, uncomfortable with the idea of widening the circle of those in the know.  "How do you know that she can be trusted?"

Myrna shook her head.  "I'd trust her with my life," she stated simply—high praise coming from that particular woman.  "As much as you might like to think otherwise, all your official hunters are entirely too well-known, especially to those who want to avoid them, and the rest of you are, too, for that matter.  She'll be able to infiltrate them and, hopefully, get the information we need to give us the upper hand."

Cain sighed, but nodded, conceding to Myrna's reasoning.  "All right . . . I'll send Grey over, just as a precaution in case Charity takes the children somewhere without you, Ben."

It was on the tip of Ben's tongue to tell Zelig that that wasn't at all necessary, but he nodded instead, tamping down the flash of irritation that felt kind of like a knee-jerk reaction.  Zelig wasn't saying that he thought Ben was incapable of protecting them, after all, but if he couldn't be with them all the time, it would certainly be better to make sure that she was being watched over, and he knew it.  But to send that particular hunter . . . "Grey, huh . . . Are you sure he can handle it?"

Cain made a face then shrugged.  "He's a little unorthodox, sure, but I trust him."

"That's putting a nice face on it," Ben remarked.  "He strikes me more of an InuYasha-type."

"Keh!  And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

Cain snorted.  "Grey's not quite that bad."

"Listen, you little—"

"He's got a bit of a reckless streak," Bas admitted, effectively cutting off his grandfather's burgeoning tirade at the quick.  "He's not exactly what I'd call a stealth-type . . ."

"At the moment, he's the best we've got.  Cartham's baby is due any time, and I'd rather keep Larry where he is in case Jeet thinks he'll make some kind of move," Cain continued.  "I'll talk to Grey, make sure he knows that he needs to exercise the utmost caution, given that Charity has no idea what's going on."  Pausing for a moment, long enough to stare at Ben, Cain gave a calculated shrug.  "Unless you plan on telling her?"

Ben frowned as he considered Cain's question.  To be completely honest, he wasn't sure if he ought to tell her or not.  Sure, she'd be more careful if she knew about it all, but it didn't seem right to put her on guard like that when the reality of it all was that, as damning as the information was, there still wasn't a bit of proof that the Unker family really would try to do something as stupid as to try to kidnap the twins . . .

He met Toga's gaze and slowly shook his head.  "What do you think, Toga?  What would you do if you were me?"

Toga sighed, tilting his head to the side and rubbing his eye in a tired sort of way.  "Charity is strong," he allowed slowly as he, too, pondered the options.  "But if this hunter—Grey—can keep an eye on her without alarming her, then maybe, for now, it might be the best option."

"I can keep an eye on her—on them," Gunnar said.

"You can't," Cain stated.  "You've already got your hands full with this place and the cases you've been working on."

Gunnar snorted.  "Grey Silvera is a little too fond of blowing things up.  He's flashier than he needs to be, and yeah, he's reckless.  If Hecht Unker shows up and tries to steal the twins, do you think Grey, of all people, can be trusted to handle the situation with the finesse he should?  Don't get me wrong.  If we were talking about him just going in and taking out someone you've issued a hunt for, then there's no one better, but for this . . ."

"Grey can do it," Bas spoke up. "I'll explain everything to him.  He's not as reactive as you seem to think."

"Just make sure that Charity doesn't see him or sense that she's being followed," Ben said, leveling a look at the future North American tai-youkai.

"Yeah, got it," Bas replied, pushing himself away from the window sill.  "Is there anything else?  If not, I'll go give Grey a call.  I assume you want him on it as soon as possible."

Ben nodded, and the younger man started to stride out of the office, only to be brought up abruptly when Myrna cleared her throat.  "Something else you might want to know."

"What's that?" Bas asked, turning back to face Myrna once more.

Tapping her tapered claw against her upper arm, she tilted her head to the side as she slowly regarded Bas.  "My informant also said that the Unkers have a lot of firearms—mostly illegal—at least, that's what he's heard."

"Guns," Bas muttered, shaking his head as an expression of absolute disdain slammed down on his features.  "Did Hecht have any illegal weapons charges on that mile-long rap sheet?"

Myrna nodded.  "Yeah, there were.

"Hell's bells," Bas growled as he stomped out of the office.

InuYasha strode off after his grandson, and Ben heaved a sigh.

He had a feeling that it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference, even if they were to try to rush the adoption through the courts.  Over the course of his life, he'd learned to listen to his instincts, to rely upon them, even if there were no perceived threats, looming just out of view.

And that was the problem, wasn't it?  Somewhere, deep down, he could feel it—the whispers in the shadows, unseen, maybe, but . . .

But they were closing in fast . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Charity made a face, trying not to let the twins' collective fussing get to her.  At least, this time, she was expecting it.  The last time it had happened, she hadn't been, so it had been shocking and beyond distressing when the infants she loved so much had suddenly cried and then continued to fuss most of the night until they finally fell into an emotionally exhausted slumber, all because Charity looked and smelled different for the night.  By the time they'd finally passed out, Charity had been beside herself, despite knowing that there really wasn't anything she could do.  In the end, she'd grabbed a couple of her sweaters that should still retain enough of her scent to offer the babies comfort, and she'd wrapped them up in them, hoping that the familiarity would help them to sleep, and it had.

Sierra patted Emmeline on the back, swaying from one foot to the other, and she smiled encouragingly at Charity as she rocked Nadia in her arms.  Toga gave her shoulders a quick squeeze.  "Why don't you let your mama and me take care of them tonight?" he suggested gently.

She opened her mouth to argue, but she sighed instead, forcing herself to give a quick nod since she knew deep down that it likely was for the best.  Besides, it was just one night, wasn't it?  By tomorrow morning, everything would go back to being normal again—at least, for another lunar cycle, anyway.

Heaving a sigh, she kissed Nadia on the cheek before letting Toga take her, and she paused long enough to give Emmeline a kiss, too, before she headed for the door.

'At least Ben's here this time,' her youkai-voice remarked.  True enough, that . . . Last time, he'd had to leave to oversee a small art show opening in San Francisco for a couple of Cain's paintings.  He was only away for a couple days, and by the time he'd returned, everything was back to normal.  She simply hadn't anticipated how upset the babies would be, and she should have.  After all, at this stage in their lives, they relied upon their senses of smell and sight to learn about their world, and, given how different Charity looked and probably smelled on her human night, it stood to reason that they'd be upset . . .

That didn't really make her feel any better about it, and Ben could easily take care of the girls tonight, but Charity wasn't entirely sure that they'd be any better about it if she were near enough to be considered a stranger . . .

'Maybe I should just go close myself in my room and not come out till morning . . .'

It sounded like a good idea despite the nagging accusation that she was just feeling sorry for herself.  'Of course, I am,' she thought with a mental snort.  'My own babies don't want anything to do with me because they can't tell that I'm their mama . . .'

Blinking quickly at the abrupt rise of tears prickled the back of her eyelids, Charity hurried down the stairs, instead.  She might as well fix bottles for the babies, and then she'd go hide . . .

It didn't take long for her to measure out the powdered formula and additive drops, and she was in the process of shaking them up with water when Ben strode into the kitchen, glasses perched on the end of his nose that he pushed up with one hand, a black slim-file held open in the other.

"Ah, Sierra, have you seen Charity?"

She blinked, her head swiveling to the side as an incredulous expression nudged aside the acute sense of self-pity.  "Have I seen—?  That's not even funny, Ben Philips!"

He glanced at her, only to do a classic double-take, his eyes narrowing for a moment before flaring wide as the slim-file slipped out of his hand, only to clatter angrily on the floor.  "Ch-Charity?"

She narrowed her gaze on him and uttered a terse, 'hrumph', before pivoting on her heel to stomp out of the kitchen without another word.  As if it wasn't bad enough that she was human for the night, that man just had to tease her about it, didn't he?  And of course, he could think it was as funny as he wanted, couldn't he?  Their babies didn't have any issues at all in knowing exactly who he was all the time, now did they?

"Charity, wait . . ." Ben said as he hurried to catch up with her.  Grabbing her arm gently but firmly, he tugged her around to face him.  "I'm sorry.  It's just that you look uncannily like your mother—and you smell just like her, too, so I just thought—"

"Shove a sock in it," she growled, pulling on her arm, to no avail.  "I know what I look like, damn it."

"What's the matter?" he persisted in his infuriatingly calm way.

To her horror, she couldn’t stop the tears that sprang to her eyes.  Whether it was because of the genuine concern in his voice or the already-heightened emotions from having the twins reject her for the night, she didn't know, but she choked out a sob as he sighed and pulled her into a hug.

"Come on, Charity," he murmured, stroking her hair, trying to soothe her like she was little more than a child herself.  "You're stronger than this . . . Tell me what all this is about."

She tried to stop crying; she really did.  All she actually managed to do was to squeak out a few high-pitched noises and a couple gasps.

He sighed and picked her up, not stopping until he'd carried her into the living room and sat down on the sofa with her cuddled on his lap.  "Want me to beat someone up for you?" he deadpanned.

For some reason, his question squeezed a choked laugh out of her.  Harsh and entirely out of place, it did the trick, though, and she sniffed and shook her head.  "I'm just having a bad day," she managed between sniffles and hiccups.

He shifted slightly, just enough to dig a pristine white cotton handkerchief out of his pocket that he proceeded to use to wipe her cheeks.  "Well, sometimes it's not as bad as you think.  Want to tell me about it?"

She sighed.  "The babies . . . They don't know me," she admitted.  Saying it out loud hurt a lot more than thinking it, though, and the tears returned with a vengeance.

"Because you're human," he mused.  "They'll understand as they get older," he promised.  "You know they love you . . . They smile and laugh for you a lot easier than they do for me."

"That's not true," she sniffled.  "And you could go in there, right now, and they'd be right as rain."

She felt the warmth of his lips against her temple.  "Charity . . ."

"I know," she blurted, taking the kerchief and dabbing at her eyes, disgusted at herself for her emotional outburst.  "I'm being stupid," she grumbled. Then she hiccupped.  Then she sighed.  "I'm just . . . feeling sorry for myself for no good reason."

"You have a good reason," he assured her, "and you're anything but stupid."

"Here," she said, holding out the fresh bottles she'd just prepared.  "You take them to Mama and Papa?  I . . . I don't want to upset the girls again."

He didn't answer her right way, and when she sat up straight to look at him, she could tell that he didn't really want to concede, either.  In the end, he let out a deep breath and nodded once.  "All right, I tell you what.  I'll take these up to them, and then we can watch another movie or . . . or play a game or whatever it takes to get your mind off of things for one night.  Fair?"

"You don't have to," she mumbled, cheeks pinking as she scowled at her hands.  "I was just going to take these upstairs and go read a book or something."

He considered that for a moment.  "You could bring your book and keep me company while I look over that file . . ." He chuckled.  "The one I think I dropped in the kitchen . . ."

"No . . . It's okay . . ."

"I could put my towel on," he offered.

She choked out a laugh.  "Yes, because Papa wouldn't completely flip out if he saw you wearing that in the morning if I accidentally fell asleep on your bed again."

Ben made a face.  "Considering I usually sleep naked, I would guess that the towel would be preferable."

She gasped, her cheeks shooting up in flames.  "You do not!"

Raising his eyebrows, he smiled at her.  "Actually, I do.  Well, I did, and I hope to do it again one day."

She rolled her eyes and scooted off his lap, holding out the bottles so he could deliver them.  "Keep your clothes on, Ben," she retorted, unable to staunch the blood that continued to heat her cheeks.

He took the bottles and chuckled.  "Go get your book, Charity, and I'll meet you in my room."

"All right," she allowed, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them.  He winked at her as he stood up to go.  He was almost to the archway when she stopped him. "Ben?"

Turning to face her, he was still smiling.  "Yes?"

"You were kidding about the naked-sleeping-thing, weren't you?"

He uttered a very low, very husky laugh as his gaze met hers and held it.  "No, Charity. I wasn't."

And then he walked away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Police were called to the 700 block of West Fourteenth Street at 10:43 pm to investigate reports of a domestic disturbance and possible gunshots fired.  Upon entering residence at 758 W. 14th St, they discovered the bodies of Melinda Winslow and her children: four minors: Travis, 13, Miley, 10, Stephan, 6, and Ferris, 14 months.  Police investigation reports are still pending, but the coroner has been quoted as saying that they were 'torn up' . . .

Heaving a sigh as he read through the first write up on the incident in question, dated July 18, 2029, Ben rubbed his forehead and scrolled through the attached images with his thumb. Bas had asked him to take a look at the file since he and Gunnar had both been combing through the assembled information for a couple months.  He'd thought that maybe Ben's fresh eyes might see a clue that the two of them had missed.

The images were horrific—worse than the ones he'd seen attached to Kurt Drevin's file all those years ago.

According to the official police reports, the family had been murdered with a 'sharp, heavy object, quite possibly an axe or shovel.  They, however, knew better—knew what claws could do, knew how fast another youkai could move.  Also not surprising, there were no eye witnesses, no one who had seen anyone coming or going from the residence except for one, and either he didn't remember or he just didn't want to say what he knew . . .

'Do you think the guy's lying about what he remembers?  Do you think that it's possible?  I mean, if you saw something on the night when all this happened, don't you think it'd make an impression on you, especially if you thought you'd heard gunshots?'

'Both Gunnar and Bas have been out there, have talked to the guy, and they got nothing.'

'Which might be true enough, but think about it.  You know, right?  Your gut's telling you that the old guy's hiding something, and another thing.'

'What's that?'

'If no one saw anything except for this guy, then who the hell called 911?'

'So, you think that either he or someone else called . . .'

'What I'm saying is, either he called 911 or there's another witness out there, and maybe that witness knows something . . .'

Ben sighed.  'Yeah, but if the actual recording is gone, then there's really no way to know.'

'Hand it back to Bas now.  At least, run the thought past him.'

Snapping the file closed, Ben glanced at the clock and made a face.  It was nearly midnight, but knowing the young man, he was pretty certain that Bas would still be awake.

"You're calling someone at this hour?" Charity asked when Ben reached for his phone.  "Isn't that a little rude?"

"Not really, no.  If Bas is sleeping, he won't answer, and besides, it's not a social call."

Charity didn't look impressed by Ben's bald answer, and he chuckled.

"Zelig."

"Hey, it's Ben . . . I just finished looking over the Winslow file."

Bas sighed.  "What did you think?"

"Is there any way to access the original 911 call?  Did they log the recordings back then?"

"Uh . . . I'm not sure . . . Maybe.  I can look into it.  Why?"

"I'm just wondering," Ben said.  "I mean, it says that there were no witnesses except the one you've already spoken to, so either he made the call, or . . ."

"Or there's another witness."  Bas let out his breath in a long whoosh.  "Damn!  I never thought about that!"

"Do you need me for anything else?" Ben asked.

"Oh, uh, no . . . Let's just hope they kept recordings."

"All right.  Give me a call if there's anything else I can do."

"Will do.  Thanks, Ben."

The call ended, and Ben dropped the phone onto the nightstand once more, scooting down to lay back and rubbing his face in an exhausted kind of way.

"Is the case bad?" Charity asked, slipping a bookmark between the pages and setting the book aside.

"Pretty awful," he admitted.  "I've seen some pretty depraved things over the centuries, but sometimes, something comes along that shocks even me."

She considered that for a long moment, idly drawing circles on the coverlet between them.  What was it about Ben?  Why did he, alone, seem to have the ability to remain so unaffected by a lifetime of experiences?  She'd met youkai before who weren't as old as Ben, and yet, they had always seemed so cynical, so jaded—like it was something that naturally and invariably just happened over the passage of centuries.  So, why didn't those same things affect Ben like that, too?  It was something she'd always noticed about him: something that she could truly appreciate. There was no underlying darkness in the depths of his gaze,  no misanthropic acrimony in his expression, no sense of disillusion that served to keep people at bay . . . It was, in fact, quite the opposite, and that, she supposed, was likely what had always compelled her to be near him.

"Why are you so quiet?" he asked softly, startling her when he reached over, when he tucked a long lock of hair behind her human ear with infinitely gentle hands.

Cheeks pinking as she met his gaze, she swallowed hard.  Those eyes of his seemed to glow in the half-light of the bedside lamps, adding a richness of shadows to his solemn expression.  Staring at her as though he were trying to read her mind, he didn't quite smile, but he didn't have to, either.  She could feel the emotion in his youki . . .

"You really do look so much like your mother, it's uncanny," he ventured.

"Papa says that, too," she replied.  "It's funny, though . . ."

"Hmm?"

She shrugged, drawing her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them.  "Chelsea and I are supposed to be identical twins.  Not many people can tell us apart—except on our human nights."

"Oh?"

She nodded.  "I have Mama's coloring, but Chelsea . . . She has jet black hair and dark brown eyes, just like InuYasha-oji-chan."

"She does?  That's . . . Really?"

She laughed, letting her cheek fall against her knees.  "Everyone else has Mama's coloring, though—You should see Mamoruzen.  He's ridiculously pretty."

She could tell from the expression on Ben's face that he was struggling not to laugh outright at that, not that she could blame him.  Considering how pompous Mamoruzen could be at times, it wasn't entirely surprising.  "I don't know . . . That might be fairly disturbing."

"He always hated it, too," she went on with a smile.  "When he was really small, Chelsea would hold him with her legs to keep him from running away while we curled or braided his hair."

"Did you help her?"

Schooling her features, she shook her head.  "Of course not," she assured him despite the impish grin that she failed to hide.  "Okay, maybe once or twice . . ."

He grimaced.  "Never thought I'd ever feel sorry for him," he admitted.  "Wow . . ."

"It wasn't that bad," she insisted, rolling her eyes as she stretched out her legs and rolled onto her side, facing Ben.  "It was only really terrible when Chelsea would get bored and put makeup on him."

". . . Makeup?"

She nodded.  "Chelsea thought it was funny to try to paint him up like a geisha."

Ben choked.  "Okay, now you have to stop," he complained in mock-disgust.  "Otherwise, I'll never be able to look him in the eye again."

". . . Papa used to let us make him up, too . . ."

"The geisha treatment?"

She shrugged.  "Or the J-pop, girl group treatment."

". . . And hair?"

She nodded again.  "And nails, too."

Ben heaved a melodramatic sigh.  "Thanks.  Now I'll never be able to look at Toga again without laughing, either."

Unable to hold back the giggles at the absolutely horrified expression on his face, Charity waved a hand as she struggled to control her amusement.  It took her a minute.  "He had four daughters," she reminded him.  "You know, Kagome-oba-chan has pictures of InuYasha-oji-chan and Ryomaru and Kichiro in makeup, courtesy of Gin . . ."

Ben cleared his throat, tried to pin Charity with a serious look.  "So, what you're saying is that my time is coming?"

She smiled.  "Something like that.  I mean, if the girls come to you and want to make you pretty, are you really going to say no to them?"

He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it almost immediately.  Then he sighed and slowly shook his head.  "No," he admitted.  "I probably wouldn't."

Her smile widened, and she giggled.  When she offered no explanation other than louder giggles as she waved her hand and smashed her face into her pillow, he snorted.  "Now what's so funny?" he demanded mildly.

It took a minute for Charity to regain a semblance of her composure enough to prop herself back up on her elbow again.  "I'm just picturing you, looking all pretty . . ."

He shot her a look designed to let her know exactly what he thought of her misplaced amusement, and when it sent her into another bout of laughter, he grunted, reaching over to drag her close to his side.  "Go to sleep, woman," he grumbled despite the trace amusement sparkling in the depths of his gaze.

She settled herself against him, resting her hand on his chest and her head against his shoulder.  "Ben?"

"That's not sleeping, Charity."

She giggled again.  ". . . Can I make you pretty?"

He answer was a longsuffering sigh and a hand over her mouth to shut her up.  It wasn't enough to staunch her laughter though . . .

 

 


 

 

 

"So, you're saying that the babies have trouble recognizing Charity when she's human for the night."

Toga sat up a little straighter against the headboard as he watched Nadia, who was trying her level best to roll over.  It wasn't working out so well for her just yet, but he figured it wouldn't be long before she managed it.  Beside her, Emmeline kicked her feet and tried to stuff both of her fists into her mouth as Sierra laughed softly and leaned down to kiss the child's very round cheek.  "Yeah, and I know that they'll eventually understand, but it's hard on her and them, both . . ."

Sesshoumaru sighed in the background—a rather strange sound, coming from him. "Well, you could do it, of course.  I would, if I were there . . . It's well within your power as the Japanese tai-youkai, and as Charity's father."

"That's what I figured," Toga replied.  "But I wondered if it might be better to see if they can't bring the babies to Japan—unless you're planning a trip stateside soon?"

"It will not matter whether it's you or me, Toga.  Do you believe they wouldn't fall under my protection, regardless?"

Breaking into a slight smile, Toga shook his head at the droll expression on his father's face as he adjusted his hold on the cell phone.  "Not at all, tou-san."

The vaguest hint of a smile surfaced on the Inu no Taisho's face as he watched the infants' antics over the video connection.  "It would help, though, if that's what you're worried about," Sesshoumaru remarked at length.  "Besides that, your  mother . . . Well, it's safe to say that she won't be able to travel abroad for a good . . . nine months, give or take."

Toga blinked, his body stilling completely for a moment as the ramifications of Sesshoumaru's statement took its sweet time in sinking in.

"Kagura's pregnant?" Sierra blurted.  "Oh, my God!  That's fantastic!  Congratulations!"

"Oh . . . wow . . ."

Narrowing his amber gaze at his son, Sesshoumaru regarded him for a long moment.  "Surely it is not that surprising, Toga," he chastised dryly.

"Nope, nope, not at all," Toga replied with a wolfish grin.  "Omedetou gozaimasu, tou-san, kaa-san . . ."

"Thank you, Toga, Sierra," Kagura's voice drifted to him, though she wasn't in the video feed's line of view.

"Nah, it's just the idea that you and kaa-san had sex . . ." Toga went on, his grin widening.

Sesshoumaru heaved a disgusted sigh and shook his head.  "Entirely too much time with that baka half-brother of mine," he muttered.  "Bye, Toga."

He chuckled as the connection ended, and Sierra reached over to smack his arm with the back of her hand.  "That was just wrong," she chastised.

Toga laughed.  "I know," he admitted, casting her an entirely unrepentant kind of grin.  "It kind of ruins the mood when you stop and realize that your parents just had sex . . ."

She shook her head but giggled.  "Stop it!"

"I mean, he stuck his—"

"Toga!" she hissed despite the laughter that escaped as she leaned over to smash her hands over Toga's overzealous mouth.

"Okay, okay," he relented, catching her hands, kissing her palms before letting go of her.  ". . . But he did . . . So, at least we know his antique balls still work, right?"

Rolling her eyes despite the pretty blush that stained her cheeks, Sierra smacked him upside the head with a throw pillow.  "That's really the last visual I wanted or needed, you know."

He winked at her then cleared his throat, switching gears mentally as he turned his attention onto the babies once more.  Gently lifting Nadia, he nuzzled her cheek for a moment before cradling her in his arm and touching his index finger to her forehead.  All amusement died away as he frowned in concentration, feeling the energy gathering in him as his fingertip erupted in a soft, white glow that extended outward, encompassing the infant's body in the same aura.  He could feel the resistance of Nadia's youki in a vague sort of way, and in another moment, he also felt it give, easily accepting the energy that passed from him and into her.  She uttered a happy shriek, as though she felt and understood what Toga had just done, and he smiled, sparing a moment to kiss her again before handing her over to Sierra and reaching for Emmeline to repeat the ritual.

"So . . . care to tell me what you just did?" Sierra asked when he'd finished.

Brushing away the hint of mental exhaustion that threatened around the edges, Toga managed a weary smile as he let her take Emmeline from him.

"I infused them with a little bit of my youki," he said, as if it were answer enough.

Sierra raised an eyebrow.  "Which means . . .?"

He yawned.  "Basically, it affords them the same protection as anyone else in our family," he replied.  "It should help to strengthen the bond between Charity and them since she's my daughter, but it'll also give me the ability to know if they are in trouble in a stronger way than anyone would normally."

She considered that, nodding slowly.  "So, everyone does this when they adopt a child?  Why didn't you just let Ben do it, then?"

Scooting down and propping himself up on his elbow, Toga blinked slowly as he stared at his mate.  "To be honest, as powerful as Ben is now, considering he has to be well over seven hundred years old, I don't know if he can do it.  Very few are able to—mostly just the Inu no Taisho and his bloodline—me—and even then, not everyone could do it in our family, either.  One day, Mamoruzen will be able to, I think, though I'm pretty sure he can't do it now.  Charity cannot, either . . . Yasha-oji-chan probably could, but only because he's uncannily strong, hanyou or not.  Zelig-san could, too, but it makes more sense for them to have my protection and not his . . ."

"Okay, but . . ."

"But?" he prompted when she trailed off.

Sierra shook her head, dangling a teething-ring above Emmeline's head.  The baby swung at it a few times but couldn’t quite grasp it, either.  "But what about other families that adopt?  They can't do that, right?"

"All I've really done is speed up the process of bonding the twins with Charity since she's my blood," he said.  "Other families bond, too.  It just takes a little longer, that's all.  I just thought that it should help so that they're not so reactive on Charity's human nights."  He chuckled, gently rubbing a hand over Nadia's downy head.  He was damn near exhausted, to tell the truth, but Sierra didn't need to know just how much it took out of him to do what he'd done.  "You probably can't tell, but they already smell a little more like Charity, too."

Sierra considered that and smiled.  "They do seem a lot more content."  Suddenly, though, she narrowed her eyes at him.  "Are you sure you didn't just do that so they'd like you better than they like me?"

He chuckled, forcing his eyes open to smile at his mate.  "No . . . Well, maybe . . ."

She  made a face, but laughed as Toga's eyes drifted closed.

 

 


 

 

 

'I can't get over how different she looks . . .'

Letting out a deep breath as the filmy darkness surrounded them in a transient blanket of serenity, Ben stroked Charity's fine, blonde hair, just kissed with the barest hint of red—her mother's hair, absolutely.  He wasn't entirely certain why he wasn't sleeping, though, if he were to stop and consider it, he had to wonder if it wasn't an instinctual thing: protecting her in her vulnerable state . . . protecting Charity . . . even if there wasn't a reason why he'd need to do any such thing; not here . . .

'I . . . I want to protect her . . . forever . . .'

There was something entirely too fragile, too precarious, too hard to define with mere words . . . something about her that spoke to him in such gentle whispers and sighs that it was hard to understand, and yet, there it was, wasn't it?  Right in front of him, as she had been for so very long.  This time, however, it felt completely different, completely right, as though time and fate had finally come to a logical conclusion, a culmination of everything he'd ever thought and ever hoped to feel.

The stingy illumination seemed drawn to her face, filtering through the window: the parsimonious light of the waxing quarter moon . . . It brushed against the rise of her cheek, kissed the tip of her nose in such a familiar way that it left him feeling just a little jealous, a little resentful of the perceived closeness that clung to her in such a way that Ben never could.  She possessed such a fragile beauty, an empyrean existence that was as necessary to him as the air he breathed.

'Fanciful thoughts, Benjiro,' his youkai remarked with a soft chuckle.  'The purest element of fire . . . of passion . . . That . . . That sounds about right . . .'

'How is it that she's here?  That she's with me . . .?  Did I . . .?  Have I ever done anything to deserve her . . .?'

'Is it about deserving her, Ben?  I don't think it is. It's just the way that it works, I think.  Just count yourself as lucky.  And don't screw it up, okay?'

Smiling at the warning, Ben pulled her a little closer, inhaled the blunted scent of her, content to do nothing, but to hold her close to his heart.

And he watched as the darkness started to fade, started to thin into a hazy half-shadow.  Her skin took on a grayish hue, like a faded old photograph in muted colors, wisps of burnished memories.  Fascinating, to watch as the light grew slowly bolder, retaining the watercolor feel of a Zelig masterpiece.  Still, the night stubbornly held onto her, as though loathe to leave her as the paradox of all that she was converged in an insular moment, in the blink of an eye.

Ben gasped softly as the shadows of darkness slowly seeped into her hair, as the pale locks gave way to the darkest black strands.  They wrapped around each other, the color deepening, siphoning into each strand like a light being flipped on, and he watched, spellbound, as the woman in his arms shifted into the being that he knew best.  The human ears seemed to shrink and then vanish as the adorable hanyou ears sprang back into place, as the tickle of her claws brushed against his chest when they sprang back out of her fingertips.

He'd never seen a hanyou change before, and he had to smile to himself.  It was as extraordinary as Charity herself was.

And then, he finally closed his eyes as her scent filled his senses, as her youki melded with his.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Just look at your daddy, being all serious and completely forgetting that it's Halloween, and that he should be changing into his costume before everyone gets here for the party!"

Dropping his pen on the yellow legal tablet before him, Ben glanced up, only to stop before he could look away again as Charity stood in the archway of his office with the twins, which wasn't really surprising, but what they were all wearing . . .?  Leaning back in his chair, he crossed his arms over his chest, and he smiled.  "And who are you supposed to be?" he asked, raising an eyebrow as he took in the wide-skirted dress, complete with lace-trimmed petticoats, that kind of reminded him of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, but the pinafore was white, and the blouse underneath was a pale pink.  Her hair had been caught back into pigtails of soft ringlet curls, topped off with a little white lacy cap, tied with a ribbon under her chin.  If it bothered her ears, he wasn't sure, but he figured that she wouldn't be wearing the accessory if that were really the case.

She giggled.  "I'm Little Bo Peep," she told him, "and these—" she jostled the babies in her arms, both of whom were wearing cute, fuzzy, fleecy blanket sleepers with hoods pulled up over their heads, complete with adorable little round ears on top, even if neither of them looked exceptionally pleased by the addition of the headgear, "—are my sheep!"

"Very, very cute," he said, pushing back the chair and using the armrests to push himself to his feet.  "I am to assume that you have a costume for me?"

She nodded.   "It's laid out on your bed . . . I'll take the twins to Mama and Papa, and then I'll be in to help you get ready."

"Okay," he said, pausing long enough to kiss each of the babies before tilting Charity's chin with a crooked index finger to brush a quick, light kiss on her lips before heading out of the room.

'Ben?'

Taking the stairs, two at a time, Ben wasn't paying very much attention to his youkai-voice.

'What does she mean, help you get ready?'

He frowned as he pondered that, but kept moving.

Stepping into his bedroom, he cocked his head to the side when he spotted the costume, carefully laid out on the bed.  Well, he thought that it was the costume, anyway.  It actually just looked like an old-fashioned dinner suit.

He'd just finished changing slacks and was buttoning the small-spread collared white lawn shirt when Charity stepped into the room with a bright smile.  "Oh, good . . . I looked at some of your clothes, but even though you can buy the right size on paper, it doesn't mean that it'll fit properly," she said, her skirts whispering as she slowly circled around him, giving him the critical once-over as Ben took his time, buttoning the convertible cuffs.

"Do I need cufflinks?" he asked, only half-teasing.   "This doesn't really feel like a costume . . ."

Face screwing up in a thoughtful frown, she tapped her chin as she deliberated his question, only to finally shake her head as her smile resurfaced once more.  "I suppose if you wanted to, but I can't say that I recall him ever actually wearing cufflinks."

"Him?" Ben echoed, shaking his hands to adjust the sleeves of the dress shirt.  "'Him', who?"

She giggled.  "Count von Count!"

"Who?"

Picking up the black vest, she handed it to him to put on and reached for the crumpled black silk cravat.   "You know: the count."  He still looked rather confused.  Charity rolled her eyes but laughed.  "From Sesame Street!"

He paused as he set the vest aside and tucked in the shirt.  "Sesame Street?  That's who I'm supposed to be?"

She nodded happily.  "I even got purple makeup for you."

He snorted.  "You want me to be a . . . puppet . . .?"

Another nod and the double-damned flash of that dimple . . . "Yes."

Honestly, he could think of about five thousand reasons why he'd rather not dress up like a character from Sesame Street—and only one good reason to do it.  Unfortunately, that 'good reason' was smiling at him, damn it all . . . He sighed.  "Do I have to wear the makeup?" he asked pointedly.

She wrinkled her adorable nose at him, and that just figured.  "Well, no-o-o-o-o . . ." she drawled slowly as he absently thanked his lucky stars for the little cap that hid her ears from his view since he was relatively sure that those particular appendages were probably wilting with her perceived disappointment.

He heaved a sigh and pulled the vest on.  "Okay, I'll bite.  Why did you want me to be Count von Count?"

She smoothed her dress and carefully sat down on the edge of the bed, the cravat and her hands settling demurely in her lap.  "Well, you do have pointy ears, just like he does."

"Okay."

"And fangs."

"Okay."

"And you both have black hair."

"Okay."

"And you both look very nice in your suit."

". . . Okay."

She giggled, her cheeks pinking as she shifted a little uncomfortably.  "And when I was three, I wanted to marry Count von Count—because he was so smart that he could count past fifty."

Ben's lips twitched.  He felt it.  Clearing his throat, he held out his hand for the cravat.  "Okay, and that means you want to marry me, too?"

Mouth dropping open as her cheeks exploded in crimson color, Charity gasped in the quiet.  "I-I-I—Y-You . . ."

"Okay," he relented with a tumultuous sigh.  "I'm sorry.  I was teasing.  No purple face paint, though, deal?"

"Deal," she agreed as her smile widened despite the color that was still riding high in her cheeks.  "Be glad, Ben.  Chelsea suggested that I find a Little Boy Blue costume for you, instead."

He shot her a double-take to see if she was being serious.  She looked like she might be, which was even more distressing, come to think of it . . .

Still, he took the cravat and tied it around his throat under the tabs of his collar and fussed with it for a minute, turning to look at his reflection in the mirror as he rolled his eyes.  "I haven't worn one of these in more years than I care to think about," he informed her with a shake of his head.  "Hated them back then, too . . ."

"Oh, I think you look very nice," she said, holding out the jacket—with the silly cape attached at the shoulders and across the back.

He heaved a sigh and took it.  "The more clothes you add, the sillier I look," he pointed out mildly.

She giggled and handed him the pièce de résistance: a monocle.

"A monocle?  Seriously, a monocle?"

"Put it on!  Put it on!"

He spared her a last, long look before he did as she asked.  "I look like Mr. Peanut," he remarked with a sigh.

She giggled.  "You do not!" she insisted.  "You look very nice!"

"If I look so nice, why do you keep laughing?" he countered mildly.  "Or that stuffy old rabbit from that cartoon, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends . . . Mr. Harriman. . ."

". . . You watched cartoons?"

"Only when there was nothing else on."

She lifted a hand, pressed her fingertips against her lips to keep from laughing outright, so there was that, at least . . .

"If you draw a moustache on me, I could pass for The Penguin . . ."

"You'd have to stuff your shirt, then, because he's pretty chubby."

He shot her a, 'You're-Not-Helping' look, and it didn't matter that she was still covering her mouth because her eyes were still sparkling way too much.  "Or the mayor of Townsville."

She did giggle at that.  "I loved the Powerpuff Girls!"

He snorted.  "Or the guy from Monopoly."

"You're making it worse," she laughed.

"Or Allen Walker."

"D. Gray-man?"  She rolled her eyes.  "That wasn't a monocle, it was an anti-akuma weapon!"

He nodded once, conceding her point.  "That was a pretty good anime."

"Yes," she agreed, her smile widening. "Yes, it was."

He sighed again as he opened his mouth to say something, only to catch sight of the weird hairy thing in her hand.  "What's that?"

"Well, you need to at least wear the goatee if you're going to be Count von Count."

He stared at her for several moments to ascertain if she were being serious or not.

She was.  It just figured.

 

 


 

 

 

"Oh, she's so cute!" Gin gushed as she scooped up Nadia and cuddled her close  The baby blinked her huge eyes, staring at the diminutive woman, as though she were trying to make sense of the clown paint that hid Gin's face from view.

"Such a sweet clown!" Sierra squealed as she hurried into the room with Emmeline in her arms. "That's adorable, Gin!"

Gin wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "It's the only thing I could find that fit," she complained.  Then she glanced across the room where Cain was standing with Ben, and she giggled.

"And how hard was it to get Dad to put that on?" Bas asked as he slid an arm around his mother and gave her a quick squeeze.

Gin's giggle sounded a touch nervous, in Charity's estimation, which wasn't entirely surprising, given that Cain was a much taller and not nearly as round version of a clown, too.  "We-e-e-ell . . ." she hedged.

"Never mind," Bas grumbled, his cheeks pinking below the thick scruffy stubble that he hadn't bothered to shave off, probably in preparation for his 'costume' . . .

"What are you?" Charity asked, raising an articulated eyebrow at her first-cousin-once-removed.

Bas blinked, slowly sipping his beer.  "Me?  I'm a lumberjack."

She rolled her eyes and laughed, mostly because he didn't actually look much different.  A red and black plaid flannel shirt, a pair of faded jeans, and a pair of Brahma boots were his costume, and he grinned.  "Cheater," she said with a shake of her head.

Bas chuckled.  "Better a cheater than to end up looking like that," he replied, lifting his index finger from the beer bottle to point at his father.

"Oh, I think he looks adorable!" Gin intoned, placing a hand against her son's chest, as though to stop him from continuing on in his harsh assessment of his sire.

"Or . . . that . . ." Bas muttered, eyebrows lifting for a brief second before they pulled together in a marked scowl as he eyed his grandfather, who had just stomped into the room with his grandmother in tow.  "Oh . . . wow . . ."

Charity turned to look and gasped when she spotted InuYasha, and she leaned in closer to Bas without taking her eyes off of him.  "What . . . in the world . . . is he wearing . . .?"

Bas grunted, his expression a strange cross between complete horror and abject fear.  "I . . . Uh, think . . . He's supposed to be Tarzan . . .?"  He sighed.  "And I never, ever want to see that again . . ."

Intercepting the aghast expression on  Bas' face, Kagome laughed softly, adjusting the one shoulder strap of the brown faux fur dress she wore.  "We played poker last night," she admitted.  "InuYasha lost—Royal straight flush!"

"Wench!" InuYasha muttered, crossing his arms over his chest as his cheeks exploded in crimson flames.  "You cheated—I know you did!"

She laughed and kissed him on the cheek.

Toga stepped over to hug Charity, who shook her head when she got a good look at her father in his costume.  She wasn't sure where he and Sierra had managed to put theirs together at such short moment, but she had to admit, they looked pretty darn good.

"Alucard, huh?" she said as her smile widened.

"It was your mother's idea," he replied with a grin.  "She makes a damn fine Integra, doesn't she?"

"She does," Charity agreed.  "You actually look . . . pretty accurate."

"Better than Yasha-ji-chan?"

"I heard that, Toga!"

Toga chuckled again.

The chime of the doorbell rang through the house, and Toga glanced over her head to see who was arriving.  Charity looked down when someone tugged on her hand, and she smiled when she saw Olivia standing there, gazing up at her with her tiny hands clenched behind her back, as she pivoted from side to side without moving her feet.  All decked out in an excellent version of Belle's famous yellow ball gown, she held out the sides of the skirt for Charity's inspection.

"Well, hi, sweetie," she said, hunkering down to be closer to Olivia's level.  "Aren't you just beautiful?"

Olivia nodded slowly, her bashful smiling widening by degrees.  "Baiwee's da Beast," she said.

Charity laughed since she'd already seen Bailey, who actually looked beyond offended that he had to dress up to match his sister.  Daniel was wandering around, shadowing Bailey, but he hadn't actually said much of anything since they arrived.  Bas said before that the child was in shock, and it broke Charity's heart to watch him.  Entirely too serious, too morose . . . A boy that age shouldn't have to be made to understand the loss of not only one, but both of the parents he loved . . . Couple that with the Superman costume he was wearing, and, well . . . Charity sighed.

"Oh, kami . . . What the hell is he wearing . . .?"

Casting her father a questioning glance as she picked up Olivia and stood, she turned to follow the direction of Toga's scowl, and she could only blink.  And stare.  And slowly shake her head . . .

"Oh, that's kind of like a . . . train wreck," she murmured, unable to drag her eyes off the spectacle that was Evan Zelig, who apparently thought it'd be great fun to dress up like a ballerina, complete with the fluffy pink tutu and slippers—and tiara, as well . . .

Valerie was beside him, but she was dressed as a classic cat burglar, and when she met Charity's gaze, she slowly shook her head.

Olivia squirmed around in an effort to get down, and Charity sat her on her feet so that she could dash over to her  . . . uncle . . . with her hands up in the air.  He scooped her up and kissed her cheek, leaving behind a very lurid shade of red lipstick in the shape of his mouth on her baby fine skin, and she giggled.  "Uncle's pwetty!" she proclaimed.

Toga sighed.  "I can think of a few good words to describe him, and 'pretty' isn't one of them . . ." he muttered.

"Good God!" Evan blurted, eyebrows lifting as he spotted his father.  "What the fuck are you, Cain?"

Cain heaved a sigh and slowly shook his head.  "A non-cross-dressing clown, son."

Charity pressed her lips together to keep from laughing outright as Evan broke into a wolfish grin, and Valerie heaved a sigh.  "I told him he looked utterly ridiculous," Valerie explained in an infinitely weary tone of voice.  "And then, he decided to walk down Park Avenue—Just.  Like.  That."

Gin giggled.  "It kind of makes you realize exactly how pretty he would have been if he had been born a girl!"

Bas heaved a sigh.  "How is this my gene pool?" he grumbled as Gin's giggling escalated.

"All right, Cherry.  Where are those babies?" Evan asked, turning to face her.  He grinned as he pulled Valerie against his side.

"My mom and your mom," Charity replied with a rueful smile.  "And congratulations on your baby!  You didn't waste any time, now did you?"

Valerie blushed just a little but smiled, too.  "Temporary insanity," she said.  "It's wearing off now, though . . ."

Evan chuckled and kissed Valerie's cheek, looking ridiculously proud of the lip marks he left on her cheek, too.  "That's okay, baby. I'll be happy to drive you crazy tonight, all over again."

"Behave yourself," Valerie warned, smashing her hand in the middle of his face to push him back when he leaned down to nuzzle her throat.

"Ruin my best plans, why don't  you?" he complained despite the grin that was still plastered on his face.

"It's my job, Roka" she stated flatly.

"I want another kiss, too!" Olivia insisted, grasping Evan's face in her tiny hands and forcing him to look away from Valerie.

The doorbell rang once more, and Charity smiled, watching Evan kiss Olivia as he and Valerie headed over to meet the twins.

Turning as the brush of a foreign youki swept over her, she frowned when she spotted Myrna, dressed as a very voluptuous witch, standing just inside the living room next to Gunnar, who hadn't bothered to dress up at all.  He had stopped her and her friend: a pale blonde woman that Charity had never seen before.  She had an interesting aura, Charity noticed.  She wasn't entirely sure why, but it reminded her vaguely of her grandmother, Kagura, though Charity was hard-pressed to put her finger on why it was so.  A swan-youkai, she realized as a curious frown surfaced on her features.  Crossing her arms over her chest, she didn't even try to pretend that she wasn't openly staring.

The woman smiled at something Gunnar said, flicking open a hand fan that perfectly matched the old-fashioned kimono that she wore—a beautiful, blood red silk with iridescent threads spun into it.  Something about her bearing, her demeanor . . .  "Do you know her?"

Charity glanced up at her father then back at the stranger once more as she slowly shook her head.  "No, I've never seen her before in my life . . . Do you, Papa?"

Toga sighed.  "No, but it looks like he might . . ."

Peering up at him, she blinked at the strange expression on her father's face.  If she didn't know better, she'd almost think  he was angry about something, but . . .

Following the direction of his gaze, Charity's brow furrowed.  Ben still stood near the fireplace with Cain, but his attention was focused fully upon the new arrivals, and the look on his face—the way the color drained from his cheeks as his eyes widened, as his mouth dropped open just a little . . . Seconds ticked away as he inclined his head to one side just slightly, as though he were trying to come to grips with something, as an expression of absolute recognition slammed down on his face along with the barest hint of a smile as he took one step forward. "Manami . . .?"

The woman stopped, her head turning as her gaze swept over the room.  The spike in her youki was nearly a palpable thing as her fathomless, dark eyes flared wide, as the soft gasp that escaped her echoed in the suddenly silent room.  What little color she had in her porcelain-like skin seemed to vanish for a split second just before a wash of rosy color shot to the fore, giving her an even more cherubic-like visage.  "Benjiro . . .?"

The flash of recognition in Ben's eyes was hard for Charity to stomach, and yet, she couldn't quite make herself look away, either, when the woman lifted the slightly trailing hem of the kimono and ran straight toward Ben, straight into his arms as he caught her, and there was no hesitation when she rose up on her toes . . . And she pulled him down into a kiss . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Charity kissed Emmeline's downy head as she slowly shoved her feet against the floor in a controlled rocking of the chair as she watched her babies fall asleep in her arms, cosseted by the quiet of the nursery.  For once, her parents hadn't tried to take them to their room, and maybe they'd understood just how badly she needed to do this tonight—to concentrate on the twins because if she stopped, if she tried to think . . .

It wouldn't be long before they were too big for her to hold them both at the same time.  At their last checkup with the pediatrician that Isabelle had recommended—Dr. Beatrice Lancolm—Charity had been happy to learn that both of the girls had gained a good bit of weight and had managed to catch up with other babies in their age range.

"What the hell . . .?"

Wincing at the harsh undertone in her father's voice, Charity forced herself to look away, bit down on the soft side of her cheek until she drew blood as she struggled to blank her expression in the face of her family that were all staring at her.  She didn't have to look around to verify it, either.  No, she could feel their eyes and the questions in their gazes, and that was more than enough . . .

"Papa!" she hissed as she caught Toga's arm.  She didn't let go until he finally stopped trying to shake her off.  "Papa, what are you doing?"

"I'm going to ask a few questions, that's what," Toga growled, keeping his voice lowered for her benefit, she supposed.

"No," she stated, shaking her head for added emphasis as she frowned up at him.  "Please."

He opened his mouth to say something, only to be cut off when Sierra hurried over with Nadia and Emmeline.  "Charity, I think the twins are just exhausted," she said, her smile a little too bright, her gaze a little too strained.  "Why don't you go ahead and take them upstairs?  I . . . I think they've had more than enough excitement for one day, don't you, Toga?"

He snorted out a response, refusing to drag his eyes off the youkai general.

Sierra sighed as Charity took the babies.  "Come on, Toga," she said, taking his hand and giving him a little tug.

"Where are we going?" he demanded, not at all pleased that Sierra seemed to be trying to distract him from what he fully intended on doing.

Her smile brightened even more as Charity winced inwardly.  "We're going to go get the babies' bottles around," she explained.

He looked like he was going to argue with her.  In the end, however, he heaved a sigh and let Sierra drag him toward the archway.  Sierra glanced back at Charity and offered her an encouraging smile before she disappeared into the foyer with Toga in tow behind her.

Letting out a deep breath in the dimly lit nursery, Charity blinked a few times to drive the memory back.  "What . . . What am I suppose to do?" she asked quietly, not really expecting an answer as the babies drowsed in her arms.  Everything she thought that she knew; the things that she had believed . . . Unable to shake the image of the two, standing there, outlined by the dancing light of the flames on the hearth behind them, of them embracing one another and that damned kiss that she wished she'd never had to see . . . Just where did it leave her?

She winced.  That was a stupid question, wasn't it?  That woman—whoever she was—it was pretty obvious.  She knew Ben, and she knew him well.  Ben wasn't the kind to randomly go around, kissing women, and Charity knew that, too.

'But he kissed you, too . . .'

Ignoring the soft musing of her youkai-voice, Charity slowly shook her head as she carefully stood up to put the babies to bed.  There really wasn't anything she could think of that would turn what she had seen into some kind of misunderstanding.   Just what could be said, anyway?  That kiss . . . It wasn't a greeting of two people who hadn't seen each other in a long time.  There was nothing friendly in the atmosphere of the room.  No, it was almost more of an electric kind of anticipation, and she would have had to be stupid to have missed that.

Biting her lip as she felt her ears flatten against her skull, she tried to will away the fresh surge of emotion that washed over her in an unrelenting tide, leaving her feeling torn and bruised and bloodied in places that the eye could not see.  The overwhelming knowledge that she was just a little dumber than she'd ever realized brought a harsh pain to her chest that rivaled the thumping inside her head, and the understated knowledge that she really was a fool . . .

'And how could he help it?' she thought with a rueful smile, one that didn't begin to hold any real humor, full of irony and of the tiniest bit of self-pity.  'She . . . She's gorgeous . . . Like a model or an actress or . . .' She winced.  Tall, elegant, with a kind of grace and bearing that Charity would never even begin to possess . . . And Charity, as much as she hated to admit it, felt more like the ugly duckling in comparison.

Yet there was more to it, wasn't there?  More to the whole thing than Charity wanted to consider.  The familiarity between the two was too apparent, and did it matter if he'd never mentioned her before?  It didn't because Charity knew well enough that it was Ben's life, Ben's story, and if he chose not to tell her about it, then she had no right to ask, either.  After all, the truth of it was entirely obvious, as much as Charity hated that, too.

If that woman knew Ben well enough to waltz right into his house during a family gathering and kiss Ben like that?

'They've got a history,' she realized as she pulled a soft fleece blanket over the sleeping babies, 'and Ben and I . . . We don't . . .'

 

 


 

 

 

"I can't believe it's you . . . Ben Philips, now is it . . .?"

Ben handed Manami a glass of wine and sat down on the sofa beside her after seeing the last of the guests out.  Lifting his glass of brandy, he swallowed deeply before he shook his head and managed a wan smile at the swan-youkai.  "You look good, Nami," he remarked quietly, using the childhood abbreviation of her name, still not entirely certain that he actually could believe that she was there, sitting next to him. The last time he'd seen her . . .

She laughed softly, placing a gentle hand on his forearm for a moment before withdrawing once more.  "And to think, I was about to tell Myrna that I wasn't really in a Halloween-ish mood . . ."

"And how long have you known her?" he asked, raising an eyebrow to emphasize his question.

"How long . . .?" she repeated, her face taking on a thoughtful frown, lips puckering slightly as she considered her answer.  "It must have been around Christmas because I remember the festival outside the cathedral . . . Somewhere in the early 1800 . . . I lost track of the years, I guess . . . They all rather meld together after so long . . ."

"Sounds about right," he allowed with a smile.  "And that's when you met her?"

Her laughter flowed over him like water, and she shrugged.  "She was just a child then—a gorgeous child, mind you—I think she said she was seventeen, and she worked in this cabaret four nights a week, up on that stage, dancing with everything she had just to make the money to pay for the flat she'd gotten her brother to rent for her.  I used to stop in just to see her . . . Even back then, she had the moves."  She giggled again and waved a hand as though to dismiss her own wayward thoughts.   "One night, a particularly obnoxious fellow waited for her to leave, and he tried to force himself on her in the alley behind the club, and Myrna's tough—you know that, I'd guess.  But the man was huge—a boar-youkai, which was entirely apropos, if you think about it . . . Anyway, I couldn't let that happen to her, now could I?  And we've been friends ever since."

He couldn't help the surprised expression that filtered over his features, and he shook his head as he pulled the fake goatee off of his chin and dropped it on the coffee table.  There was still a residual stickiness that he needed to wash off, but that could wait.  "You?  You fought someone?"

Her laugh was entirely warm, almost indulgent.  "Things changed, Benjiro—or should I call you 'Ben' now?"

He shrugged and drew another fortifying quaff of the brandy.  "Either.  I don't mind."

She nodded, but the smile on her face didn't diminish.  "I learned how to fight."

"I don't know," he allowed, eyes clouding over as he considered the Manami he knew better: the timid girl with the brightest smile and the tears that always came when faced with violence or even the perception of it.  "Did you really change that much?"

"Everyone changes," she said simply.

"So why are you here now?" he asked, rising from the sofa to refill his glass.  "Didn't you say that the New World was utterly barbaric?"

She rolled her eyes as another soft chuckle issued from her, as she set the wine glass aside and toyed with the fan in her lap.  "That was ages ago.  It's since been domesticated, or so I hear.  But to answer  your question, Myrna asked me to come.  She has a job for me."

"A job?  Doing what?"

"Helping you, I suppose."

He stopped mid-pour and glanced over his shoulder at her to see if she was kidding or not.  She looked serious enough, despite the devastatingly pretty smile that he used to know so well.  Pushing an errant lock of platinum blonde hair out of her face with a delicate hand, she met his gaze and winked.  "Helping me?  How's that?"

"Myrna asked me to try to get information from the Unkers.  She thought I'd have more luck than a bunch of men."

Pivoting on his heel to face her once more, Ben sipped the brandy as he frowned at her.  "No," he stated in a tone that should have ended the subject, once and for all.  "Absolutely not.  It's too dangerous."

"I want to do it," she said simply.  Then she sighed, and the smile that she'd carried throughout the conversation thus far faltered just a little, only to be replaced by an enigmatic light in her gaze.  "You did so much for me back then: you and . . . and Keijizen . . . and . . . Akinako . . ."

Ben let out a deep breath but said nothing as he considered her words.  He didn't like the idea that she'd willingly put herself into a dangerous situation—not her . . .

"Even if it weren't for you, I'd still do it," she went on almost philosophically.  "And don't worry.  I can take care of myself."

"Manami . . ."

"You haven't asked me what I've been doing, you know," she remarked when he trailed off.

"Okay," he said, setting the snifter aside and crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned against the bar behind him.  "I'll bite.  What have you been up to since the last time I saw you?  How's your sister?"

She laughed again, but this time, there was a sad kind of lilt to the sound, a melancholy that only someone who had lived as long as they had could manage to attain.  "She died a few years after you'd left," she said simply, matter-of-factly, despite the sadness that tinged the edges of her youki.  "After that . . . After that, I thought maybe I'd come find you, but . . . But I found Paris, and I was comfortable there.  I met Elan Rainier—"

"One of the first MacDonnough's hunters?"

She nodded.  "He taught me his trade: how to fight, how to . . . to kill."

Ben's eyes flashed wide, and he straightened up as he narrowed his eyes on the woman sitting so demurely before him.  "You're M," he said, shaking his head in silent disbelief.  "You're the one MacDonnough calls, 'the assassin' . . ."

She nodded again.  "I am."

He snorted indelicately, leaning back once more and stuffing his hands into his pockets.  "I'm surprised he'd let you out of his sight," he said.  "It's not like he'd ever do a favor for Zelig, after all."

"The MacDonnough and I are not seeing eye-to-eye at the moment," she admitted with a shrug.  "You could say that I'm on an extended leave of absence."

"Is that right?"

She nodded.  "There has been a lot of unrest there of late," she explained.  "Ian wanted me to hunt a family simply because they disagreed with some of his policies—not the least of which was the standing order to kill Meara MacDonnough-Izayoi and her mate upon sight if they so much as step into European jurisdiction.

Ben made a face.  "Damn bastard," he muttered, snatching up the snifter and draining it in one large swallow.

She sighed, but it was more of a cleansing exhalation than a sound of exasperation.  "Enough about that!  Tell me about you!  Tell me about your babies!"

He chuckled and shook his head.  She'd always been quick to change subjects at the drop of a hat.  He supposed some things just never changed.  "I thought you knew about them already.  I mean, Myrna had to have told you enough for you to know what she wanted you to do . . ."

This time, she rolled her eyes and pinned Ben with a droll look, her eyes so dark blue that they looked nearly black in the half-light.  "Of course she did," she said, as though it was a foregone conclusion.  "What I want to know is, how?  Did you just feel as though the time was right?"

"Actually, no, the timing's not that great, but . . ." He broke into a slightly lopsided little smile.  "They belong with me."

She nodded as though she understood his reasoning.  "And this woman, this Charity . . . She is their mother, but not your mate?"

Letting out a deep breath, Ben's smile faded, and he slowly shook his head.  "No . . . She's . . . She's not."

Manami's eyes widened, and her lips parted, only to take on the form of an 'oh' for a moment before she pressed them together and gave a nod.  "But you want for her to be."

He sighed, mostly because it would be his rotten luck to have met up with the one being on earth that he'd never, ever been able to lie to.  Manami always had been far more perceptive than she ought to be.  "It's . . . complicated," he allowed.

'Even more complicated now, you moron,' his youkai-voice snorted.  'Shouldn't you be cutting the reunion short and go see how much damage control you need to do with Charity?'

"Love is complicated.  Life is complicated," she said.  "How can I help you?"

Rubbing a hand over his face, he grimaced.  "You could start by not kissing me like you did when you got here," he pointed out.

Manami winced, too.  "I'm so sorry . . . I didn't know, and when I saw you—Oh!  Where is she now?  I will go explain—"

"Oh, no," Ben said, shaking his head stubbornly.  "I really don't think—no, I know that 's not a good idea.  I'll . . . I'll talk to her."

She didn't look entirely convinced, but she grudgingly nodded once.  "You're not nearly as good at explaining things, Benjiro," she reminded him dubiously.  Then she sighed, her gaze taking on a somber sort of light.  "Tell me . . . When did you stop thinking about me?" she asked quietly.

Pulling off the jacket and cape, he dropped it over the back of a nearby chair and took his time as he worked the buttons on his cuffs.  "I think about you," he admitted.  "It's just . . ."

"Just that you think about her more," she finished when he trailed off.  "She's the one, though, isn't she?"

He rolled up the sleeves a couple times and stuffed his hands into his pockets as he wandered over to the bank of windows.  "From the first time that I saw her . . . Well, not the first time. I saw her a number of times as a child.  But . . ."

"Then why isn't she your mate already?"

He sighed.  "She was just a child," he said.  "Not a child, but . . . but not a grown woman, either . . . She was only nineteen . . ."

"So you waited."

He nodded.  "I've been waiting, yes."

"And now?  How old is she now?"

"Forty-five."

She pondered that for a moment.  "No longer a child, right?  So tell me why you're dragging your feet now."

"I was working on it, and I'd like to think it was going well—until you kissed me, that is."

She wrinkled her nose and blushed prettily.  "I've apologized for that," she reminded him.  "And I offered to make it right, but—"

"I know; I know."

"Then why are you beating around the bush with it?"

Leaning his forearm against the window sill above his head, he let his forehead drop against it as he stared out at the darkness of the night.  "It has to be right," he said quietly.  "I've waited this long, haven't I?  I can wait until . . ." He made a face.  "Until she loves me back."

"How do you not know?"

He started, straightening his back as he glanced over his shoulder at her.  He hadn't heard her approach . . . "I can't read her mind," he pointed out dryly.

She rolled her eyes as she stepped around him to pin him with a no-nonsense look.  "Have you kissed her?"

Ben opened and closed his mouth a few times, but couldn't help the hot wash of a blush that slammed into his cheeks, either.  "W—I—Sh—A . . . A couple times," he blustered.

She narrowed her gaze thoughtfully, but didn't look away from Ben's face.  Then she nodded.  "Then you know."

"I beg your pardon?"

Manami waved a hand in blatant dismissal.  "Women cannot hide their emotions, you realize.  If you've kissed her, then you should know."

He snorted.  "Not that easy when I—" Cutting himself off abruptly, he clamped his mouth closed and shifted his gaze out the window once more, stubbornly denying the blush that darkened in his cheeks.

"Go on."

He grunted, fully intending to ignore the woman for the duration.

She sighed.  "When you what, Benjiro?"

"When I cannot think when she touches me," he growled.

Manami laughed softly, placing a comforting hand on his arm.  "Is it the same?"

"What?"

She shrugged.  "I asked you if it is the same."

"Is what the same?"

"Oh, Benjiro," she chided.  "The feelings when you kissed me and when you kiss her.  Are they the same?"

"Hell, no, it's not the same," he snapped, shooting her a look designed to let her know just how stupid he thought that particular question really was.

"Describe it," she challenged.

Ben shook his head.  "What?  Why?  What do you mean, describe it?"

"Describe the difference," she replied patiently.  "Tell me what this, 'difference' is."

He uttered a half-growl, half-sigh.  "It's easy," he grumbled, letting his arm drop away from the window frame as he turned to face Minami.  "When I kissed you—When we . . ." he sighed again. "It was . . . It was a physical reaction."

"And you have no physical reaction to your Charity?"

"Of course, I do," he shot back, raking his hands through his hair as he paced the floor before her.  "It's just, with her . . . It's all these . . . these feelings, these emotions, and . . . and I can't think or . . ."

Minami laughed and clapped her hands.  "That's so beautiful!" she insisted, her eyes sparkling with her amusement as she let out a dreamy sigh.  "Your Charity . . . She's a lucky woman."

Ben shook his head.  "I still don't know what you're getting at, Nami," he grumbled.

"You are kissing her with your emotions, Ben, and that is a beautiful thing!  It is your heart, your soul, that speaks to her, and that only happens if she is your mate.  Is that not so?"

He sighed.  He hadn't actually thought of it that way, no, but . . . But it made perfect sense, too . . . "It . . . It is . . ."

She laughed again, her eyes sparkling just like they did when they were little more than children. "I should go," Minami said, sparing a moment to lean up, to kiss Ben on the cheek.  "I . . . I would like to see you again . . . Maybe dinner with your Charity, too, when all this is behind us?"

Ben made a face.  "If she's still talking to me," he sighed.  All the same, he followed her to the door and stepped outside with her.  The cool air hit her, and she shivered, but her smile was still just as bright, just as radiant.  "It is good, seeing you again."

She nodded and stepped back.  "It's a small world, Benjiro."

He chuckled.  "Do you want me to call you a cab?"

This time, she laughed.  "That won't be necessary," she assured him.  Then she glanced around, as though to make sure that she wouldn't be seen.  A moment later, gorgeous white wings sprang from her back, flipping gently, lazily a couple times.

"Ah, don't do that!" he said, knowing damn well she wouldn't listen to him.

Manami laughed again as her feet lifted off the ground.  "Give me a call, won't you?  Myrna has my number!"

Ben heaved a sigh, shaking his head as he watched the woman rise into the darkness and disappear faster than a human eye could have discerned her, in the first place.

Then he reached for the door, bracing himself for the confrontation that he was sure was brewing upstairs . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

A soft knock drew Ben's attention as he tugged a plain white v-neck tee-shirt over his head and flipped his hair free.  "Come in," he called, stepping out of the walk-in closet.  Toga strode into the room and closed the door behind himself while Ben stifled a sigh.  Somehow, he just didn't really think that the tai-youkai wanted to discuss business . . .

Crossing his arms over his chest, Toga regarded Ben for a few moments, amber eyes swirling in a wash of color that seemed to spill over itself, giving silent testimony to the unsettled thoughts that were running through his head. When he finally spoke, however, his tone was calm, even.  "I know it really isn't any of my business," he began, measuring his words carefully.  "I wanted to know, though, just who that . . . woman was?"

He'd kind of figured it was going to be something like that.  "She's an old friend—the oldest friend I have, actually," he replied.  "I haven't seen her in . . . centuries."

Toga sighed, running a hand through his hair, scratching at the nape of his neck almost nervously.  "I'm going to level with you, Ben, because I've always respected you, and I know damn well that my daughter isn't a pup anymore, but she is still my daughter, and when yours are older, you'll understand my feelings here."

"All right," Ben agreed cautiously.  He had a fairly good idea as to where Toga was going with this, but as a father, even as a new one, he could understand, so he waited.

"I don't know what your relationship is with your, uh, friend, but I know what I've seen since I've been here, and . . ." Toga rubbed his face as though he were tired.  When he finished, he scowled at the floor, draping his hands on his hips.  He'd changed out of his costume and into a pair of flannel pajama pants but still wore the white dress shirt that he'd unbuttoned somewhere along the way.  "Anyway, I'm just asking you not to play games with my daughter.  Charity . . . She's always been just a little more sensitive than any of her sisters, and because of that, I've always worried about her a little more, too."

"I never intended to do any such thing, Toga," Ben allowed.  "I'm not going to try to make excuses for what you saw tonight, but I can honestly say that it wasn't anything that I wanted or that I meant to happen."

Toga nodded, his expression still impassive.  "Okay," he said, finally meeting Ben's gaze, and the unhidden anger that still smoldered in the depths of his eyes was enough to make Ben grind his teeth together, enough to want to look away, though he did not.  "Thank you for your honesty.  Good night, Ben."

"Night," Ben replied, watching in silence as Toga opened the door and stepped out of the room.  Then he sighed.  If he were to be honest, he couldn't help but think that Charity really didn't need her father to confront him, and yet he knew damn well that she really had nothing to do with that, and even so, he couldn't really fault Toga for wanting to protect his child from being hurt, and, on some level, he had to respect that about the man, too.

Glancing at the clock, he frowned.  Almost two in the morning, and Charity had taken the twins upstairs hours ago.  Her door was closed, but somehow, he had the feeling that she wasn't sleeping, either, and before he could talk himself out of it, he headed out of his room and across the hall.

He tapped on the door without really thinking that she'd answer it.  She didn't, and after a minute, he turned the handle to let himself in.

She was sitting on the wide window sill, her feet drawn up, her arms wrapped around her legs with her cheek resting on her raised knees.  He couldn't see her face, but he did notice when she stiffened slightly under his perusal, though she didn't bother to look at him, either.

"Charity, can we talk?"

"Did your friend go home?  Manami . . . That's what  you said her name was, right?"

Scowling at the evenness in her tone, the absolutely unruffled air that she managed in her voice, Ben crossed the floor to stand beside her.  She still refused to look at him.  "Y . . . Yeah, her name is Manami," he replied.  "I've known her for a very long time."

"She's . . . She's very pretty," Charity remarked, the contrived pleasantness in her voice chafing him.  "Like . . . Like Vogue or Cosmopolitan  pretty.  She looks like a model, I think . . ."

"Sure, she, uh . . ." He made a face, flicked a hand as though to dismiss the conversation entirely.  "Listen, what you saw—"

"She seemed really ha-happy to see you," she plunged on, her voice hitching midway through, purposefully cutting him off before he could finish what he was trying to say.  The frenzied feel in her youki made no sense to him.  Did she think she needed to rush?  That she didn't dare hear him out?

He frowned at her back.  Damn it, all he wanted to do was to explain everything to her, to tell her that it was all just a big misunderstanding—an excuse that sounded entirely lame, even in the confines of his own mind.  Even so, it didn't seem like she was interested in hearing anything he had to say, and, while he knew deep down that he could understand her on some level, the irritation that rose inside him was a little too thick, a little too cloying, to ignore.  "Will you just listen to me?  It wasn't—"

"It's fine," she insisted in the same calm manner.

"It's not," he argued, struggling to keep his own voice under control.  "Manami . . . We . . . We met when we were just children.  We were . . . close . . ."

She glanced at him for the briefest moment before turning her face away once more.  "You don't have to explain anything to me, Ben," she said.  "I mean, it's not like we—You just don't."

Letting out a deep breath, Ben scowled at Charity.  He wanted to talk to her.  He wanted to tell her.  The problem was, she wasn't going to listen, and he knew that, too.  No matter what he said, in her present state of mind, she had managed to entirely close herself off, hidden back in the recesses of her own psyche, in a place where Ben . . . He couldn't touch her.

"I'm . . . I'm tired, Ben," she said, her voice thinning, cracking, wearied.  There were no tears, but there didn't have to be.  So attuned to her that he could feel the stubborn throb of her youki as it pulled in even closer, as it sought to protect her, and the understanding that he was the sole cause of her turmoil . . . It was killing him inside.

He bristled at the blatant dismissal, but there really wasn't a thing he could do about it, either.  He stared at her for a few moments before jerking his head once in a nod and turning on his heel to leave her.  Maybe if he gave her a little bit of space, a little bit of time, maybe she'd listen to him . . .

Maybe . . .

 

 


 

 

 

The gentle breeze that cut through the stark and draining heat was a welcome thing, a flickering respite that only lasted the briefest of moments before it sputtered out like a dying flame in the winter, and fifteen-year-old Benjiro lifted his face, closed his eyes, savoring the feel as his hair lifted, floated, then drifted back down once more.

"I want to go swimming."

Cracking an eye open as he turned his head just enough to cast a surreptitious glance at his best friend, Benjiro stifled a sigh when he saw it: the absolute stubbornness in Keijizen's expression: the set of his jaw, the heightened brightness in his sapphire blue eyes . . . And the dogged way that he was staring at the picturesque pond, stretched out before them.  "Dogs don't swim," Ben remarked, knowing that Keijizen—Keiji—really hated to be compared with a common mongrel.

"Cats don't, either," Keijizen shot back with a wide grin.

Heaving a sigh since he figured that there wasn't going to be any talking Keijizen out of it, he stared out over the water.  "Don't think I don't realize what you're really trying to do," Benjiro remarked as he shuffled toward the edge of the water, casually discarding clothing along the way.

Keijizen laughed and hurried to catch up as he yanked off his clothing, too.  He was a couple years older than Benjiro and a good foot taller with the mass that came with the height, but all that really meant was that Keijizen made a much bigger splash as he dove into the water from the top of a large rock.

Turning his head to avoid the splash, Ben laughed when Keijizen came up sputtering.  "Ba-a-aka!" he hollered, waving his arm, sending a spray of water straight into Keijizen's face.

"Oi!" he exclaimed, lunging after Ben in an attempt to dunk him.

Ben was faster, planting his feet on the muddy bottom, propelling him back, out of Keijizen's reach.  The dog-youkai laughed and tried to mimic the move unsuccessfully.

"It would serve you two right if chichiue found you out here and gave you another earful," the sing-song, haughty voice called out from the shore.

Both boys stopped, turning to look as Akinako perched prettily on the rock that Keijizen had just used to launch himself into the water.

"Akinako-chan," Keijizen said, abruptly forgetting that he and Ben were about to launch an all-out water war as he veered to the side to wade over to the base of the rock.  "Care to come swim with us?"

She narrowed her lavender eyes at him.  "Are you naked, Keiji-kun?" she demanded, crossing her arms over her chest, under the folds of the generous layers of the kimono she wore.

"How else am I supposed to go swimming?" he challenged.  Behind him, Ben rolled his eyes.  "The water's really nice today . . ."

"Lovely," she said, lifting her chin stubbornly despite the telling blush that dusted her cheeks.

"Skinny dipping with the lord's daughter?  That'll earn you more than just a simple lecture," Ben pointed out, raising his voice since he was relatively certain that Keijizen had ceased to remember that Ben even existed about the moment that Akinako had appeared.

Keijizen crossed his arms atop the edge of the rock, laying his cheek on his folded forearms as he peered up at her.  "Your father's off on one of his campaigns," he remarked calmly.  "Were you watching for me?"

She wrinkled her nose.  "Don't flatter yourself; I was simply taking some air," she scoffed.  "You're a little insufferable, you realize."

Keijizen chuckled.  "And you're beautiful when you're telling me off."

She heaved a sigh as she got to her feet.  "Get out of my pond," she said as she whipped around to leave.  "You're going to kill off all our fish."

His chuckle escalated into a laugh.  "Hime-sama!" he called after her, bracing himself on the rock to push himself out of the water.  "Wait!"

She did, pivoting to face him once more.  When she realized just what he was doing—and that he really was entirely naked—she stepped forward, raising her foot, planting it in the middle of his forehead and gave him a good push.

Turning his face in time to avoid the wave created when Keijizen hit the water, Ben slowly shook his head.  "Baka," he muttered under his breath.

Akinako paused long enough to savor her handiwork before her eyes flickered over to Ben and stopped.   Then she nodded as Ben quickly, clumsily bowed.  "Good day, Benjiro-kun," she called as she turned to leave once more.

Ben slowly shook his head as Keijizen resurfaced, choking and laughing and sputtering once more.  "At least she remembered my name today," he said when he intercepted Ben's censuring look.

"Hopeless," Ben muttered as Keijizen waded toward the shore.  "Oi!  Where are you going?"

"It's a lovely day for a walk, don't you think?" he tossed back over his shoulder as he hurriedly scooped up his clothes and ran off in the direction that Akinako had taken.

"Put your clothing on first, baka!" Ben hollered after him.

Keijizen either didn't hear him or didn't care to take his advice . . .

Ben heaved a sigh as Keijizen disappeared into the thicket of trees.  Entirely typical of him to goad Ben into swimming and then to take off and leave him there, too.  Of course, he'd be back soon enough—about the time that Akinako's guard showed up to drive him off, like they did every day . . .

"Who . . . are  you . . .?"

Shaking off the train of thought as he turned slowly to face the owner of that voice, Ben blinked in surprise at the youkai girl he'd never seen before.  Tall, slender, she stood near the edge of the water, wearing a dark red kimono that only served to emphasize the pale luminance of her alabaster skin, her dark eyes capturing the light reflected off the water's surface, long platinum blonde hair falling around her in the softest cloud of barely-there curls as she simply stood, waiting for him to answer.

"I'm Benjiro," he replied.  He took a couple steps toward shore, but stopped when he remembered that he was still very naked below the surface of the water.  "Who are you?"

She didn't smile, but she didn't have to.  A sudden flash of amusement lit the depths of her hypnotic gaze as she ducked her chin just enough to peer up at him through the screen of her deep, dark lashes.  "Hahaue told me not to give naked boys my name," she said.

Ben stared at her for a long moment, mesmerized by the sparkle in her eyes, at the way she pursed her blood red lips.  She regarded him, as though she were trying to make up her mind about something.  After a minute, she gave a barely perceptible nod.  "Goodbye, Benjiro," she said as she turned to go.

"W-Wait!" he called after her, gritting his teeth as he tamped down the desire to run after her.

She paused but did not look back at him.

He sighed.  "When can I have your name, then?" he asked.

He didn't think she was going to answer.  Stepping back on the trail that led deep into the forest, she had almost disappeared into the darkness when her voice drifted back to him.

"Meet me tomorrow," she said, "with your clothes on."

Heaving a sigh as he blinked into the darkness, Ben let go of the lingering edges of the memory, still as vivid in his mind as it had been at the time.  That was the day he'd met her: Manami . . .

He'd gone back the next day, bright and early: back to the pond, and sat alone on the rock that overhung the water for hours as he waited to see if she'd return.  She had as the sun was setting on the horizon, above the tree line of the surrounding forest, only this time, she wasn't alone.  She'd had her little sister, Setsuna with her . . .

'She . . . She died . . .?'

Frowning at the question posed by his youkai-voice, Ben sighed.  'Nami said as much, but she didn't say how, but even so . . . Setsuna never was that strong, back then . . .'

Setsuna was sweet, though.  The four year old child had splashed and played in the shallows near shore while Ben had talked with Manami.  She'd said that her parents had died when Setsuna was still a baby.  Their mother had been out gathering vegetation for dinner,  and she was attacked by a pack of wolf-youkai.  Their father had heard her screams, had gotten there in time to drive off the pack, but it was too late by then, and he'd died shortly after that, leaving Manami, at thirteen years old, to be both mother and father to Setsuna.

So Ben had introduced her to Keijizen and Akinako, who had taken pity upon Manami and her plight and had befriended her instantly and completely, even going so far as to ask her father to take the orphans in, which he had done for his daughter's sake.  It had helped Setsuna especially.  Since she was still so young, Akinako's mother pretty much adopted the child, and she really had flourished under the careful nurturing.

But for all the acceptance and companionship that she'd received, Ben had known, hadn't he?  There was still a part of Manami that no one could touch, that she guarded with a fierceness that belied the fragility of her outward appearance.  He was the only one who could even approach that part of her, even though he couldn't breech her inner defenses, either, and he had tried.  For a time, he'd thought that he had succeeded.

Until he had realized that he never could.  Even then, he'd known it.  It was the part of her that lay awake at night, that still heard her mother's screams; the part of her that had stared at the baby sister left behind, wondering what she was supposed to do, how she was supposed to protect the two of them when she was no more than a child herself . . .?  He'd known it.  He'd sensed it, and yes, he understood it.  But he could not overcome it . . .

Looking back, he realized that he'd tried back then—tried to step into the role that was left in the wake of her parents' passing.  Maybe that was the real reason why he'd asked her to come with him . . .

And maybe that was the real reason why she had declined, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"I never would have guessed that you already knew Nami," Myrna remarked as she sat down at the breakfast table in Ben's kitchen.

"I never would have guessed that you did, either," he remarked, setting the newspaper aside as he turned his attention on the hawk-youkai woman.  "So you used to be a dancer?"

"Don't remind me," Myrna grumbled with a flick of her wrist, as though to dismiss that topic entirely.

He smiled wanly.  "Envisioning you as a helpless young girl is kind of a stretch," he admitted.

Myrna shrugged, nodding in thanks as Eddie thumped a coffee cup down in front of her and proceeded to slosh the brew into it before refilling Ben's cup, too.  "It was a lifetime ago or more . . . Or are you telling me that you don't feel like you've had more than one, too?  You know, reinventing yourself every now and then, opting to go in an entirely different direction than you were before?"

There was entirely too much accuracy in what she said, wasn't there?  Maybe it wasn't something that he'd ever realized at the time, but it made sense, the way she'd said it.  He may not have altered his professional path, no, but his personal life . . . That was a different story entirely . . . "Once or twice, I suppose," he allowed, reaching for the still-steaming cup of coffee before him.

Myrna nodded slowly, crossing her arms over her chest as she settled back in the chair.  Usually it was business that brought her around every now and then.  This morning, however, Ben had to wonder, and, considering he hadn't gotten much, if any, sleep the night before, well . . . He wasn't really in the mood to play her usual game of cat-and-mouse to get around to why she was there now, either.

"Charity . . ." Myrna mused at length, her tone a little too careful.  "That woman . . . You know, don't you Ben?"

"Know, what?" he asked, his tone a lot sharper than he'd intended.  Given that the woman in question was already long gone when he'd gotten up an hour ago, he'd already moved well past acceptable mood and into dangerous territory well before Myrna had showed up . . .

Myrna lifted an articulated brow at his very obvious irritation, probably because he wasn't in the habit of holding his emotions so close to the surface.  He'd learned long ago how to let things roll off his back—made it an art form, really.  This time, though . . . "I saw her face last night, you know," she went on, still just as calmly, just as rationally, like she was discussing the weather and not another person.  "You didn't, I'm sure.  You were a little busy, weren't you?"

"I get your point, Myrna," he grumbled, draining the coffee mug and ignoring the harsh burn of the still-scalding liquid.  He winced as he slammed the empty mug on the table.  "Damn it."

"Do you, Ben?" she challenged quietly, her other eyebrow joining the first one in the lifted-pose.

"Myrna, it's really none of your business, and I don't think—"

"That's pretty obvious, Ben," she cut in, her words no less cutting despite the smoothness of her tone.  "I can't decide if you're really that stupid or just a complete and utter ass."  She sighed and shook her head, holding up a hand to stop him before he managed to get out anything at all.  "Look, I've known you for a long time now, and I've never seen you do something so . . ." She made a face, pinning him with an inscrutable kind of look, and she sighed.  "I'll be the first to admit that there are some women out there that thrive on that kind of bullshit.  They're the ones with the shitty boyfriends who treat them like dirt, and they bitch and complain and carry on just to get sympathy from their trashy girl friends, but yet they won't do a damn thing to get away from it, no matter how badly their 'men'—" she flew air quotes at him, "—treat them.  Charity Inutaisho?  She's not one of them, and you know, she really doesn't deserve that, especially not from you."

The chair slid back with a horrendous scrape as Ben shot to his feet and stomped out of the room before he said something he'd end up regretting.

'Except that you kind of deserved that.'

'Not from her, I don't,' he grumbled as he headed toward his office—the one room in the townhouse that he might have a fighting chance of escaping from everyone.

'You have to admit, Ben, it would have been one thing if only Charity had seen that kiss, but no, a whole hell of a lot of her family was there, and they all saw it—every last one of them—and if you thought Zelig's face was a couple steps beyond entirely stunned, then just consider how Charity actually had looked because you didn't think about that at all last night.'

Plopping down in his desk chair, Ben rubbed his face and then let his arms drop to his sides in favor of glowering at the ceiling instead.

'I know; I know . . . I fucked up.  I never should have let Manami kiss me, and I wouldn't have if I had known that's what she was going to do . . .'

'Yeah, well, there's no point in beating the proverbial dead horse . . . So, how are we going to get her to listen to us?  And just what the hell are you going to tell her?'

'What do you mean, what am I going to tell her?  I'm going to tell her the truth—that I had no intention of kissing anyone else but her . . . If I can ever get her to listen, anyway . . .'

'So you're not going to tell her about your past?  About Manami?'

'What is there to tell?'

'How about the idea that you thought she could have easily become your mate at one time?'

'And I'd say it's pretty damn obvious that she's not, wouldn't you?'

'Which doesn't mean that you knew that at the time.'

'But  you did.'

His youkai-voice sighed.  'I don't know, Ben.  I mean, it's obvious now, but back then, nothing was ever cut-and-dried.'

'And I should tell Charity all of that?  Just what good would that do?  Sometimes, you're kind of stupid.'

'All I'm saying is that if everything had been different, Manami might well have ended up being your mate.'

'She's not.  She never was.  Charity . . .'

'Okay, so you are against the idea of telling Cherry that you—'

'Cherry?' Ben interrupted, frowning at the strange nickname.

His youkai snorted.  'Yeah, she told me that's what she calls her.'

'Who told you?'

Another pronounced snort.  'Her youkai, Ben!  Now shut up and listen, won't you?'

'. . . You can do that?'

His youkai uttered an exasperated growl.  'Not all the time, no . . . Just when the two of you are really, really close . . . like when you're sleeping.  For the record, I've never talked to anyone else, not even Manami, just so you know.'

'Then why don't you talk to her for me?  If she won't listen to me . . .'

'Did you not just hear me when I said that I could only hear her when you're close, not to mention that I’m pretty sure that you both have to be asleep, and the odds of that happening at the moment are kind of slim and none, so no, I can't smooth things over for you, Ben.'

Ben heaved a sigh. 'Utterly useless, aren't you?'

'Bite me, Benjiro.'

He snorted in response.

"All right, I'm leaving, and I won't say anything else about Charity, but I needed to tell you.  Larry called early this morning.  Said he trailed Jeet Unker to the airport where he met up with Hecht.  He said Hecht boarded a flight bound for Maine.  I already briefed Toga in the kitchen, so . . ."

Letting his head turn to the side, Ben met Myrna's gaze with a scowl.  "He's going to confront Zelig," he concluded.

"Maybe," she allowed with a shrug.  "Or maybe he thinks he can find out without actually going to the source, so to speak.  I just wanted to caution you, not that I think you need it.  Just protect your babies, Ben.  I . . ." She winced: something she didn't often do.  "I have a bad feeling about this."

"Thanks," he said, watching her go.  His expression darkened as Toga stepped into the office and dropped into one of the chairs across from him.

"I was talking to Sierra," Toga began slowly, almost carefully.  "I'm going to call my father.  He can handle things back home for a little while."

"Is that a good idea?" Ben asked, pushing himself up straight.

Toga shrugged.  "Good idea or not, I can't go home, knowing what's going on here."

Ben shook his head, drumming his claws against the polished desktop. "And what will you tell Charity?  It's going to set her off if you prolong your visit.  She knows how busy you are."

"I'll come up with something," Toga assured him.

Ben rubbed his forehead as he considered the situation. Maybe it would be good for Toga to stay.  If it came right down to it, the more eyes that were watching out for trouble, the better off they'd be.  The real trouble was Charity, because if her parents did prolong their visit, she'd surely ask questions, and unless Ben was ready to answer—to tell her the real reason behind everything . . .

"Anyway, I'm leaving as soon as I can get a car rented," he went on.  "I'm going up to Maine since that's where Unker's headed.  Sierra's still trying to decide what she wants to do.  She hates the idea of leaving the twins, but she'd also like to be there when Gin goes into labor, too . . ."

Ben nodded.  "I understand.  Keep me posted, please."

Toga regarded him for several moments.  "I'm leaving my daughter to you, Ben," he finally said, the gravity in his expression unsettling.  "I don't . . . I don't know what's going on between the two of you, but I . . ." He trailed off, letting out a deep breath—an infinitely weary sound.  "I trust that you and she can figure it out—whatever 'it' is . . ."

"She'll be safe with me."

Toga nodded.  "I'll hold you to that, Ben."

Ben watched as the tai-youkai stood, pulling his phone out of his pocket, probably to call the closest car rental agency.  Protect Charity?  He snorted inwardly.  As if there was ever a question about that . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Charity laughed softly as Nadia cooed, her tiny mouth moving as she tested out the various sounds she could make.  Emmeline grunted as she rolled a little but didn't quite manage turning completely over onto her belly.  Funny how spending time with happy babies could so dramatically improve her overall mood.

She ought to be celebrating, she thought with an inward grimace.  The presentation she'd given on the vestulus pharosa had been a success, and her boss was certain that the research department would have no trouble at all in getting the funding to further study the plant.  Then she'd put in the paperwork necessary for her to take an extended leave of absence so that she could devote her full attention to the girls.  Her boss wasn't thrilled, but in the end, he understood.  She had more than enough money saved up, not to mention her very healthy trust fund that she never actually touched, other than to deposit the interest checks she received quarterly.  As it was, she didn't really have to work at all, but she chose to because she loved her job.

But she loved the girls far, far more, and they deserved to have a full-time mommy.

"Ah, what am I going to do when you girls decide to start running in opposite directions?" she asked.  Emmeline paused in her efforts long enough to gaze up at her, and Charity laughed.

"How did your presentation go?"

Back stiffening at the sound of that voice, Charity swallowed hard, but didn't turn to look at Ben.  "It was fine," she said in what she hoped was a neutral tone of voice.  "Better than 'fine', actually.  They're expecting to receive full research funding for it, so that's something."

"Good.  Uh, your parents decided to go up to Maine in case Gin needed more help with things."

"Papa called me," she said.  "But thanks for letting me know."

He sighed and stepped forward, settling himself on the floor beside them as he pulled Nadia into his lap.  "Can we talk now?" he asked quietly.

"I . . . I told you, Ben.  It's fine," she replied, pasting on a thin smile that she was far from feeling.

He frowned at her, his green eyes darkening as he slowly shook his head.  "Except that it's not," he challenged.  "Except that I'm not."

"Give me a little credit, will you?  I'm not . . . not a child."

"I don't think that," he chided.  "Let me explain—" The buzz of his cell phone cut him off, and he smothered the urge to growl in frustration as Charity studiously avoided his gaze, playing with the girls instead of sparing him so much as a glance.  Pausing only long enough to send the call to voicemail without bothering to check the caller ID, Ben dropped the phone onto the carpet and reached for Charity's hand to force her to look at him.  "I didn't want you to see that," he said, his voice quiet, harsh with the irritation, the emotion that he tried to hold in check.  "I was just . . . I hadn't seen her in so long, and . . . But you—"

She carefully tugged her hand away, ears flicking nervously when his phone buzzed again, both thankful for the reprieve, no matter how brief, and angry—angry that Ben would make her sit here and listen to his bumbled half-apology.  Sorry that she'd seen that kiss, was he?  'But . . . He isn't sorry that he kissed her . . .'

'You don't know that, Cherry . . . You don't know—'

'It's really not that difficult to say that he didn't mean to kiss her, which meant that he did . . . He's just sorry that I had to see it . . .'

'Cherry . . .'

'It's fine,' she insisted, wishing that the inner voice would just shut up and go away for once.  'At least, it'll be fine—just like it always is every time he lets me down . . .'

"You should answer that," she said, her tone giving away nothing as she nodded at his phone.

He shook his head.  "They'll leave a message," he grumbled, dragging a long-fingered hand through his hair in exasperation. "Charity—"

She reached out and grabbed his phone, raising an eyebrow at the name on that appeared on the screen.  "Kyouhei Muira?" she read, peering over the device at Ben's face.

His irritation was broken only by the trace curiosity that surfaced—a curious mix of emotions, really.  When he opened his mouth to speak without reaching for the phone, however, Charity slid her thumb over it and brought it up to the side of her head.  "Hello?"

"Uh . . . You're not Benjiro . . ." the very masculine voice on the other end of the line concluded with a chuckle.  "I'm trying to reach Ben Philips?  I thought this was his number . . .?"

"It is," she agreed pleasantly enough.  "He just didn't want to answer it, so I thought I'd be nice and do it for him."

". . . So . . . You're his secretary?"

"Good enough," she agreed as Ben leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest with a 'We-Are-Not-Amused' look on his face.

"If he's busy, would it be possible for him to call me back as soon as he has a moment?"

"Uh, I'll see if he's still busy," she said.  "Please hold."  She lowered the phone and hit the 'mute' button before extending it toward Ben, who narrowed his eyes and leaned back a little more.  "Take it," she hissed, forgetting for the moment that she'd actually muted the call.

"You heard him," he grumbled.  "I'll call him back when I have a moment."

"Don't be a jerk," she said, bouncing the device up and down in a vain effort to get the stubborn man to take it.

"Take a message, Charity.  We're not done here."

"What if it's important?" she demanded, trying again to shove the phone at him.

He snorted.  "He's my brother," he shot back.  "It can't possibly be that important."

She blinked, her retort dying instantly in light of what Ben had just said.  "Your brother?" she echoed, shaking her head just a little.  "You have a brother?"

Heaving a sigh, Ben nodded.  "You make it sound like I'd have a higher chance of dropping dead, Charity," he pointed out dryly.

She wrinkled her nose.  "I've known you—sort of—for years, Ben Philips, and you've never mentioned having a brother before."

"We're not close," Ben explained, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger as though he were willing away a headache.  "Just hang up.  I'll call him back when we're done talking."

She narrowed her gaze and tossed the phone into hip lap.  "We are done," she insisted, scooping up the babies and striding out of the room.

"No, we're not!  Damn it, I want to talk to you!"

"I think we've talked more than enough for one day," she called back without stopping as she headed for the stairs.

"The hell we have!" he growled.  "Charity, will you just—?"

The doorbell interrupted his diatribe before he could actually get started, and Charity veered to the left as she stepped off the bottom stair, carefully negotiating Emmeline so that she could open the door without dropping her.

Eyes widening as she took an involuntary step back in retreat, Charity blinked and stared at the very tall man, who dug his hands into his pockets and broke into a lazy, if not somewhat calculating, grin . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"H-Hello . . . Can I help you . . .?" Charity asked, staring the stranger up and down and back up again.  A little taller than Ben, a lot lankier than him, too, but by no means was he skinny . . . His build brought her brother, Mamoruzen to mind, and yet there was an understated electricity that seemed to envelop him as a very slow grin spread over his ridiculously pretty features.  She used to think that her younger brother was the prettiest male alive, but no, this one . . . This one most assuredly won that title, hands down, from the absolutely chiseled features of his face that were softened to keep the angles from being entirely too stark to the slight almond shape of his eyes, giving them an exotically sultry tilt, and the aura surrounding him was mesmerizing, given the almost lyrical way his body moved . . . Carelessly flipping a long strand of sun-streaked blonde hair over the shoulder of the impeccably tailored suit jacket he wore—Ador Miseanblas, if she was right about the designer—as he let his gaze roam up and over her, he chuckled softly—an entirely predatory sort of sound that unsettled her, even if she had no idea why.

"May I?" he asked, gesturing at the opened doorway.

She nodded—her voice somehow gone—and watched as he stepped over the threshold, taking in his surroundings in much the same way that a wild animal might peruse the area for any sign of threat before he ventured any further.  His eyes were more of a hazy blue color—bright blue with flecks of near-green that seemed to take on an independent light all their own, and when he finally shifted his gaze past Charity and toward the stairs, he chuckled.  "Ben," he greeted, his smile widening by degrees, yet retaining the air of a predatory nature.

Ben didn't look very pleased to see the man, though, and he nodded.  "Kyouhei," he replied tightly.  "What are you doing here?"

'Kyouhei?  Then he's Ben's brother, right . . .?  But he's not a panther-youkai . . .' Charity narrowed her gaze on Ben at his perceived rudeness.  He either missed the look or he chose to ignore it.

"Well, I was waiting for you to extend an invitation to visit," Kyouhei remarked in an entirely off-the-cuff kind of way.  "Then I realized you weren't going to offer one, so I decided to come, anyway."  Stuffing his hands into his pockets and leaning back on his heels, he stared at Ben for an inordinately long moment before finally nodding.  "Otou-san and okaa-san send their . . . highest regards."

"I'm sure they do," Ben replied tersely.  Charity frowned at the odd undertone in his words.

It felt more like a bizarre stand-off rather than a meeting between brothers, and no matter how Charity considered it, it just wasn't normal.  She had a feeling that whatever was bothering Ben about his brother's unexpected visit, he wasn't about to say it when she was standing right there, either.  "We're going for a walk," she said, needing to distance herself and the twins from the overwhelming tension that hung thick in the air between the two men.  The girls were already fussing just a little, likely because they could feel the discomfort and were reacting to it.  If she didn't get them out of there soon, they'd end up entirely discomfited, and that wasn't something Charity was willing to allow.

"Be careful," Ben called after her as she hurried around Kyouhei toward the door.  He waited until she was gone before turning his attention back to his brother once more.  "How long will you be staying?"

Giving an almost casual shrug, Kyouhei's smile lost a trace of the near-cynicism that he'd carried in with him.  "I don't know," he replied.  "I suppose that I'll stay until I feel the need to move on."

"Like you did the last time?" Ben countered mildly.

Kyouhei chuckled.  "Touché, Benjiro."

Ben sighed, slowly shaking his head.  Willing himself to let go of his irritation that really didn't have a thing to do with his younger brother's unceremonious appearance, he drew a deep breath and counted to twenty.  "How are they?"

"They're fine as ever," Kyouhei remarked, following as Ben stepped past him into the living room.  "Okaa-san just recently spoke of you, though—first time I can remember her doing that in . . . two?  Three hundred years . . .?"

"Can't imagine that she had anything good to say," Ben remarked, pouring a glass of brandy and handing it over.

Kyouhei took it but didn't drink, idly swirling the contents as he held it up to catch the light.  "She didn't curse the day you were born, if that's what you mean."

"Progress," Ben allowed as a wry grin surfaced.  "And chichiue?"

Not surprisingly, Kyouhei made a face.  "At the mention of your name, he went outside and decimated a few trees."

Sipping the brandy from his glass, Ben nodded slowly.  "As I thought."

"Do you know that I was nearly eighty before they even mentioned that even I had an older brother?"

Ben sloshed more brandy into his snifter as a sardonic half-smile quirked the corner of his lips.  "That doesn't surprise me, either," he admitted.

"Yes, well . . . It would have been nice to know that a little sooner," Kyouhei muttered.

"If it makes you feel any better, I didn't find out about you until Sesshoumaru mentioned that they'd had another son after I'd left," Ben remarked.

Kyouhei chuckled.  "Parents of the Century material, surely . . ."

"Water under the bridge," Ben maintained.  "I left all of that—them—behind a long time ago."

"I have to admit, I've never really understood any of that.   Of course, it doesn't help that they won't talk about it much, either."

Ben shook his head.  "Suffice it to say that it was a long time ago, and we didn't see eye to eye about . . . about a lot of things."

"So . . ." Kyouhei drawled, obviously deciding that a change in topic was in order.  "The woman and the cubs . . .?"

"They're . . . The twins . . . We're adopting them," Ben explained.  "Charity's a . . . a friend, and she bonded with them, too."

He looked surprised at that, which wasn't entirely surprising.  "But she is not your mate," he said.  "And yet, the two of you will . . . share custody?"

"Not exactly," Ben said.  "She lives here, too.  I'm away on business now and then, so we thought it would be best for the twins if she moved in."

Kyouhei nodded vaguely.  "Her coloring . . . She's the daughter of the tai-youkai, is she not?"

"She's one of them," Ben agreed.

"Even so, adopting a child with a woman who isn't your mate?  Isn't that an entirely human conception?" Kyouhei went on.

Ben shrugged.  "It doesn't matter as long as the girls are cared for," he insisted mildly.

"That's very neoteric of you," Kyouhei remarked.  "Though it may interest okaa-san, if you were to tell her about your babies.  Kami only knows just how many hints she's tossed my way these days . . ."

"Somehow, I doubt that telling her about the girls will do much for me to curry her favor," he said ruefully.

"Then again, if you tell her about the twins and nothing about having taken a mate, it might not go over well, either," Kyouhei went on.  "Sometimes, they're entirely too old-school, if you ask me."

Setting the snifter aside, Ben crossed his arms over his chest and leveled a no-nonsense look at his brother.  "How about you tell me why you're really here."

For once, Kyouhei didn't try to make a joke, didn't try to hide his emotions behind the devil-may-care façade he'd worked so hard to perfect.  He sighed.  "It's getting ugly."

"What's that?"

Shifting his head just enough to cast Ben a sidelong stare, Kyouhei didn't answer right away.  It was more like he was trying to decide exactly how much he wanted to divulge, and, in the end, he shook his head.  "You still work for the Zelig, yes?"

"Yes . . . Does it matter?"

"It might," Kyouhei allowed, shifting his gaze out the bank of windows overlooking the small but meticulously kept back yard.  "I doubt that the unrest would spread this far, but there is talk in the elder circles, a fell whisper on the winds that I've heard . . ."

A distinct sense of unease rose in Ben, a slow unfurling of near-dread . . . "And what are they saying?"

"Have you heard of Tetsuo?"

Ben nodded slowly.  "Tetsuo of the southern realm?  The one who fancies himself tai-youkai of that region?"

Kyouhei nodded, too.  "Delusional old bastard . . . I hear that he is drawing together his forces, that he is set to make a move against the Inu no Taisho."

"Sesshoumaru?  Why?"

Giving a little shrug, he finally lifted his glass to his lips, though he kept his gaze trained out the windows.  "They question his edicts—dislike taking a back-seat while the humans control the world . . . They question the idea that Sesshoumaru-sama would dare to acknowledge a hanyou as heir to the office of the tai-youkai—and potentially beyond."

Ben digested that for a moment.  If this rumor was true, Tetsuo was likely the only being on earth who stood a chance against Sesshoumaru in a battle of pure brute strength.  The one time the two had clashed centuries before was the stuff of legend, ending up with a mountain being shattered that eventually crumbled into the sea . . .

"Why didn't you take this to Sesshoumaru if you were so concerned?"

"I had my reasons.  Anyway, that is why I came to you now . . . I seek your counsel on the matter, Benjiro."

"I have nothing to do with Japanese politics," he pointed out.

"Politics in general, no, but . . . " Wandering over to the windows, Kyouhei leaned against the frame, and his answer was a long time in coming.  "Otou-san," he finally said.  "Otou-san is siding with Tetsuo."

 

 


 

 

 

"Otou-san is siding with Tetsuo."

Rubbing his forehead as he pondered Kyouhei's words, Ben let out a deep breath.  In truth, he wasn't at all sure what he ought to do.  Well, that wasn't entirely true.  He knew that he'd have to share the information that Kyouhei had given him.  But he hated to do that when the only thing he had to go on was hearsay, and as much as he'd like to trust his brother, the truth of it was that he really didn't know him well enough to simply take it all at face-value, either.

'Not really surprising, given that you've only seen him a couple of times in over three hundred years—closer to four hundred, actually . . .'

Letting out a deep breath, he stood up, wandered over to the swords hung on the wall.  He hadn't used them in a very long time—actually hadn't thought about them much, either.  Made as wakizashi—dual blades that were the mark of samurais and swordsmen—and forged from Ben's claws and his father's fangs, the weapons were more for show these days than for actual use, hanging on the wall in Ben's office as a silent reminder of the bygone days when he'd worn them daily as par for course . . .

"Ben?"

Turning his head to meet Charity's gaze, he forced a little smile when he spotted her, lingering in the archway with the babies in her arms.  "Is everything . . . okay?" she asked, carefully choosing her words.  He could see the questions awash in her gaze, but he stubbornly refused to answer them.  How could he give her answers, anyway, when he really had no idea just what was going on himself . . .?

"It's fine," he lied, knowing on some level that she wasn't going to buy it, but hoping that she'd let it go.  "How was your walk?"

"It was nice," she allowed, stepping toward him as the babies squirmed in an effort to get to him.

He chuckled and took them both, balancing them carefully as he stepped over to the chair and sat down.  "Are these new?" he asked, nodding at the pretty little dresses the girls were wearing.

Charity nodded.  "They're outgrowing their clothes faster than they can wear them," she commented.  "Maybe we should just let them run naked."

"I don't have a problem with that," he said, then shrugged.  "Well, until they're older and start developing . . . stuff . . ."

"Stuff?" she echoed, smiling despite herself.  "You mean, like breasts and things?"

He nodded.  "Yes.  Stuff."

Shaking her head, she rolled her eyes as her smile slowly faded, only to leave behind a pensive sort of expression, a serious brightness in her amber eyes.  "Your brother . . . He left?"

Ben sighed as Charity took Nadia and settled in the chair beside him.  "He went to go check out of the hotel.  I told him he could stay here."

"You don't seem very happy that he came," she said.

"It's . . . complicated," he remarked.  "I didn't even know I had a younger brother until a couple hundred years ago."

"But he's not a panther, is he?"

Ben shrugged, as though dismissing her observation.  "Kyoukei takes after hahaue: he is an earth element handler, just like her.   I've never seen him fight, but I remember when I was small.  Chichiue pissed her off, and she our hut and all the crop fields in a three mile radius . . ."

Charity nodded as she considered that.  "How old is he?  Your brother?"

"I . . . I don't know," Ben admitted.  "Over three hundred . . . Not quite four hundred, I don't think . . ."

She frowned and shook her head.  "I don't understand," she said at length.  "How could your parents not tell you?"

Ben sighed.  He didn't really want to get into the whole thing, but Charity ought to know.  "My parents were . . . not pleased when I decided to leave the Old World," he explained.  "They thought I was foolish.  They hated Keijizen.  They thought he was still the same irresponsible cub that I'd grown up with.  Chichiue said that he would lead me to my death, and hahaue . . ." He grimaced.  "She wanted me to take Manami as my mate and to settle down near them, but . . . I asked her to come with me.  She didn't want to leave her sister, and Setsuna didn't want to leave Japan . . . Nami never would have left her behind.  Even so . . ."  He shrugged.  "Hahaue never forgave me for that, I guess.  They both said . . . They said if I refused to listen to reason—if I insisted upon leaving with Keijizen, that they had no son."

"Your mother . . . She wanted you to . . .  to become Manami's mate . . ."

He could have kicked himself for reminding her of that kiss, even though it wasn't intentional.  "Charity—"

"Your . . . housekeeper . . ." Kyouhei said as he stepped into the room with a frown on his face as he gestured back the way he'd come.  "She's outside, yelling at some poor fool . . ."

Ben's eyebrows raised and he slowly stood up.  "What's she yelling?"

Kyouhei shook his head.  "I believe I heard the words 'old pervert', among other things . . ."

"Old pervert?" Charity replied as she rose, too.  Hurrying out of the office with Ben fast on her heels, she yanked the door open and stopped short, eyes widening as they spotted Eddie, standing on the steps, finger out and poking a middle aged man in the center of the chest.

"Quit stalking me, John Martin!  I'll have you arrested!  Now, give me that bag and go away!"

John Martin made a face, the poor man looking absolutely as confused as it was possible to look, but he handed over the shopping bag and took a step back in retreat.  "Does this mean you don't want to go get dinner sometime?" he asked.

Ben sighed as Eddie, who had turned to come inside, whipped around again.  "Of course, I don't, you old pervert!  Now, go away, and leave me alone before I call the police!"

The man still didn't quite take the hint, though.  "Eddie?"

"What?" she blasted as she hurried up the steps onto the porch.

"Are you going to the market tomorrow, too?"

Rolling her eyes, she growled low in her throat, but not before Ben saw the hint of a blush on her cheeks as she whipped her head to the side to yell at the man again.  "Don't I go every damn day?" she snarled.

Ben pressed his lips together as tightly as he possibly could to keep from laughing outright at the strange display unfolding before him.

"All right, then!  See you tomorrow, Eddie," he called after her.

Eddie snorted.  "Out of my way, Ben Philips," she grumbled.

Ben quickly stepped aside and lifted a hand when John Martin waved and ambled away, whistling a happy tune under his breath.

Charity shook her head as Eddie stomped past them.  "That . . . was the weirdest thing I've ever seen," she murmured.

"Yes," Ben agreed.  "Yes, it was . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"I think I've found my mate."

Glancing up from the paperwork he was reading through as he tried to balance Emmeline on his lap and to keep her flailing hands away from what he was working on, Ben shot his brother a questioning look.  "Oh?  Who's that?"

Kyouhei dropped into a chair opposite the wide desk and heaved a very contented sigh.  "Charity," he stated simply.  "She's . . . She's amazing."

The fountain pen in Ben's hand snapped in half, and he grimaced as the ink flowed out all over his hand.  "Damn . . ."

Kyouhei blinked and sat up a little straighter.  "Ben?  Are you all right?"

He ground his teeth together as he swiveled the chair to drop the broken pen into the trash can.  "Never better," he growled, scowling at the dark blue staining his hand and all the papers he had on his desk.  Emmeline saw it and lunged to try to touch his hand.  "Can you?" he asked, nodding at his daughter.

Kyouhei stood up and grabbed the squirrely baby.  "That's a hell of a mess."

"Yeah, that was my favorite pen," Ben remarked, digging through the desk drawers with one hand, searching for something to help him clean up the mess.

Kyouhei carefully settled Emmeline on his lap before turning his attention back to his brother once more.  Emmeline pitched forward, only to be caught securely by Kyouhei's hand, and he chuckled when she managed to bite down on his finger and half-chewed, half-suckled for all she was worth as she hummed out a silly baby symphony.

"Anyway," Ben went on with a sigh as he dug a kerchief out of his pocket to wipe his hand on instead, "why would you say something like that?  You've known her for, what?  Three days?"

"Do you really think that it would take that long?" Kyouhei mused.  "I mean, I always imagined that it'd be something you knew instantly, don't you think?"

"No," Ben grumbled, scowling at his hand.  "I don't."

"Smart, beautiful, kind . . . I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like her before," Kyouhei went on.  "She's just so . . . so warm, so . . . so sweet . . ."

"You should think about getting out more," Ben muttered.

Kyouhei blinked and frowned at Ben. "You don't think she's all those things?"

"She is," Ben allowed, tossing the kerchief down since it wasn't helping and was, in fact, just making the mess even bigger.  "She's not your mate."

"I'll admit, I was surprised, too," Kyouhei remarked.  "I asked her out to dinner, though, and she said she'd love to go."

"You what?" Ben demanded, inky hand forgotten.

He chuckled, kissing Emmeline on top of her head.  "I'd better go get ready," he said.  His smile faded slightly as he glanced at Ben and shook his head.  "I'll take her to her mama," he said, altering his course and heading for the archway instead.

Ben watched him go as a low growl issued from him.  'She's not his . . . There's no fucking way . . . Damn it!'

'Then why didn't you tell him?'

'What?  I did!  I told him that there's no way she's his mate, and—'

'Stupid.  Why didn't you just tell him that she's your mate?'

Shooting to his feet, he stalked off, refusing to answer that particular question and glaring at his ink-covered-hand.  Eddie glanced up from mopping the floor when he strode into the kitchen, only to do a double take as she straightened her back and slowly shook her head.  "Okay, where's the rest of that mess?" she demanded.

Ben grunted something entirely unintelligible as he yanked off his shirt—he'd gotten splatters of ink all over it, too—and tossed it in the general direction of the trash can.  "Office," he grumbled as he jerked on the water tap and reached for the soap.  "Don't worry about it.  I'll get it."

She snorted, completely ignoring what he said.  "What'd you do?  Break your pen on purpose?" she demanded, yanking open the long cupboard on the far side of the refrigerator where she kept the cleaning supplies.

"No," he snapped, cheeks pinking despite the irritation apparent on his face.

She stopped and leaned back, peering at him around the cupboard door.  "You still haven't made up with Miss Charity, have you?" she asked.

"I've been trying," he grumbled, scrubbing hard at the ink with the fingernail brush.  The bristled turned blue, but the color didn't budge from his skin.  "All she does is tells me that it's 'fine', that I don't owe her any explanations."

Eddie snorted indelicately.  "Then you're not trying hard enough," she maintained in an entirely accusatory tone.  "Stop being a dumbass, and go make her listen."

Sparing a moment to glower at the housekeeper, Ben narrowed his gaze menacingly.  "I could fire you, you know," he pointed out.

She rolled her eyes.  "No, you can't."

"What do you mean, I can't?  I can, and if you don't stop harassing me, I will . . ."

Another snort.  "You cannot.  You'll never find another housekeeper on earth who will put up with you and your sick towel fetish every damn day—That, and if you did fire me, I'd go draw unemployment, just to spite you."

Ben shut off the tap and gave his hands a quick shake before reaching for one of the pristine white kitchen towels.  "Instead of thinking up new and different ways to try to insult me, why don't  you tell me how to get her to listen to me, then?"

He could feel her gaze on him, and he didn't have to look to verify it.  "Have you tried just saying that you're sorry?"

"Of course, I did," he snapped.  "What?  Do you think I'm that stupid?"

"Kind of," Eddie shot back.  "And I don't mean, I'm sorry, followed by a bunch of bullshit that doesn't matter anyway.  I mean, have you said just those two words?"

He opened his mouth to retort, then snapped it closed again.  No, he hadn't done that, had he?  But it couldn't be that simple, and Ben wasn't fool enough to think it could be.

"Sometimes just hearing those two words goes a long way toward making people sit still long enough to hear the rest of it," she went on.  "Quit overanalyzing everything, and just try saying that you're sorry before you lose the best thing that's happened to you in . . . in centuries."

 

 


 

 

 

"Hey, sugar.  What can I get you?"

Blinking slowly as he glanced up at the tired old waitress, he shrugged.  "Beer," he said, slapping a wrinkled and rumpled five dollar bill down on the table.

"Aight," she said, grabbing the money as she sauntered away.  "Be right back."

The place reeked.  No worse, really, than the places back home, but the unsettling sense of unfamiliarity was enough to keep him on edge.  The whole area, he'd found, positively reeked of them—those dogs.  Made sense, he supposed, given that the lot of them tended to congregate here.  This was considered their domain, their stronghold.

Damn bastards, every last one of them.

The buzz of his cell phone nearly made him jump, and he dug it out of the inside pocket of the beat up leather jacket with a scowl.  "Yeah, what?" he answered, careful to keep his voice lowered despite the heavy growl that delineated his words.

"Have you found out anything yet?"

Hecht Unker grunted, completely ignoring the waitress as she slipped the beer onto the table and thumped down his change before hurrying away without a word.  "Just got here, damn it. If you were so fucking impatient, you shoulda come out here your-damn-self."

"Just do what we sent you out there to do.  You got that?"

"Yeah.  Right."

Clicking off the phone, he dropped it into his pocket once more and reached for the beer bottle.

He'd heard that they sometimes came in here when they were in town: at least, the younger ones did.  The Zelig, he'd heard, didn't actually leave his mansion very often, except for the quick trip to the store and whatnot, but that all right, too, given that he didn't really want to chance running into that particular youkai . . .

"You had no right!  She didn't do a thing!"

"You're wrong, you know," Zelig said, the wind whipping his ponytail into his face, swirling around him like a golden cloud, even in the moonlight.  "She did.  She killed people—humans—and you know as well as I do that I cannot ignore something like that."

"You didn't even know her!" Hiram Unker spat, eyes shining with a half-mad light. From where Hecht watched, hidden by the bank of bushes off to the left of the two who stood, mere feet separating them on the crest of the hill, Hecht dug his claws into the soft earth beneath his feet, absently thankful for the wind that carried his scent away.

"You don't want to do this, Unker," Zelig said, his voice calm, soft, yet powerful, carrying to Hecht with ease.  "You and I both know how this is going to end, so just be smart and take back your challenge.  I'll let it go if you do, no prejudice."

"The hell you will!  Don't you fucking look down on me!  You, who dare to look down on us all, bringing your damned hanyou of a son before us—You, who think that we won't care!  Then you think you can judge us?  Condemn us?  You don't know shit, Zelig!  Damn you!"

He dashed forward, claws outstretched, his anger nudging aside any reason that he had.  Zelig sidestepped him easily, not seeking to engage the irate cougar-youkai, but not discounting the threat he posed, either.

'He . . . He doesn't want to fight Hiram, at all,' Hecht thought as he gritted his teeth, as he watched his uncle lunge time and again—and miss, time and again, too.  It wasn't that Zelig was weak, no, he simply didn't want to fight . . .? And why?  Wasn't the tai-youkai supposed to be the toughest of them all?  And if he possessed that kind of strength, what would stop him from using it to ensure his victory?

This time, Hiram lunged, but Zelig made no move to avoid him as his arm flashed out, as he caught Hiram by the throat and shoved him so hard that Hiram fell back, rolled a good twenty feet before he stopped himself, before he slowly pushed himself upright again.  "Go home, Hiram," Zelig stated once more, his tone deathly quiet as a teal glow erupted around him, tossing his hair that had come dislodged from the low-hanging ponytail he'd worn.  "I won't ask you again.  Take back your challenge, and live to see another day."

The howl that stared low in his throat escalated as Hiram shot forward once more, his body pulsing, morphing, limbs starting to elongate as he closed the distance between himself and the tai-youkai.  Zelig heaved a sigh—Hecht had to wonder just how he could hear that—and he stretched out his arm, hand open wide, palm up, as a flicker of teal light sparkled and grew.  Then he threw it at Hiram's feet, and the light erupted as Hiram was caught, suspended in motion, as tendrils of smoke rose from his body.  A moment later, Hiram's body disintegrated, exploded in a flash of light and wind and dust, and, as the light died away, Zelig shook his head, let his arm drop to his side as he bowed his head and closed his eyes for a moment.

Hecht had run away then, refusing to stop until he'd reached home.  His father was waiting for word, and he'd told him what he'd seen.  Well, most of it, anyway.  There were parts of it that he hadn't been able to put into words, things about it—about the Zelig—that he just didn't comprehend—like why he'd bothered to give Hiram a chance to back out—not once, but twice.  It didn't make sense.

He'd been raised to believe that strength was everything—the only thing—that mattered.  If you had that strength, that power, then the world would bow to you.  To give it away?  To offer a compromise?  That was weakness, wasn't it?  And if that really was weakness, then why?  Why was the Zelig the one who walked away from it?

All he knew was that, as Hiram's kin, the Zelig had no right to take those babies.  His mother had said that she'd take them in, that she'd bring them up the right way, and she'd asked Hecht to come here, to find out just where the twins were.  They should be with their own kind, shouldn't they?  That really was the bottom line.

In order to take them home, though, he needed to find out just where they were.  He'd half-hoped that the Zelig still had them in his care, but he'd asked around enough to find out that the Zelig's mate was pregnant, and if that was the case, then surely he hadn't taken the babies home with him.

Too bad this area made him uneasy.  All he could really do was to hope that he could get the information he wanted sooner rather than later, because he couldn't help but to feel as though it was a bad idea to stick around longer than he needed to . . .

 

 


 

 

 

'So, tell me exactly why we're doing this . . .?'

'Because . . . He asked, and he's nice enough . . .'

'And that's our criteria these days?  Some random guy asks you out, and you say yes because he asked?  Are we really that bad off, Cherry?'

She sighed inwardly.  '. . . Kind of . . .'

Which was true enough, she figured.  Despite her initial reaction to Ben's younger brother, she had discovered to her welcome surprise that he had been nothing but pleasant and easy to get along with since—and, she had to admit—he was a pretty good distraction from everything else that she didn't want to think about, too.

Sparing a glance at the man walking along beside her, Charity pulled her jacket a little closer against the chill in the early November evening air.  He'd offered to hail a taxi for the ride home, but the restaurant they'd decided upon was only a couple blocks away, so it seemed kind of stupid to do that when it was just as simple to walk the distance.

They'd enjoyed a very nice dinner, and then they'd walked another block to the theater to see The Longing of the Ten, a romantic drama that Charity had been wanting to see.  The movie wasn't nearly what it was hyped to be, which was fairly disappointing over all.

Kyouhei sighed, though his expression was still congenial enough.  Hands deep in the pockets of his flawless evening suit, he had clubbed his golden brown hair back in a low pony tail that hung over his shoulder in a careless sort of way.  It struck Charity once more, just how pretty the man truly was, which amused her, considering she'd always believed that there wasn't really anyone on earth that could possibly rival her brother in that department, and, judging from the very appreciative looks he was garnering from random females in passing, she wasn't the only one who thought so . . .

"There's someone else on your mind, isn't there?" he asked as they drew to a stop at a crosswalk.  He didn't sound very upset by the idea, but he did look a little sad.

"Wh-What?" she stammered, grimacing inwardly at the apparent inability to hide her own feelings.

He chuckled softly as the light turned green and they started across the intersection.  "I must admit, I'm a little jealous," he said.  "Can't get your mind off the girls, can you?"

"The girls," she repeated, willing her heartbeat to slow down to a manageable level once more.  "Y-Yeah . . . I mean, I'm sure they're fine.  They're with Ben, after all . . ."

"I have to admit, I'm not very used to being around babies," Kyouhei admitted.

"But they seem to like you well enough," she pointed out.  "They haven't screamed at you or anything . . ."

He laughed.  "Have they screamed at other people?"

Charity made a face despite the smile that she couldn't suppress.  "Actually, yes. They didn't like Cain-oji-san very much . . . That was why Ben offered to take them in, to start with."

"All right," Kyouhei allowed with another chuckle, the breeze lifting his bangs, tossing them around with invisible fingers.  "That explains how Ben came to have them.  Where do you fit into the story?"

She sighed, scuffling her feet against the pavement below, and for a moment, she watched in fascination as her shoes connected with the rhythmic rise and fall of the shadows beneath her: the misshapen silhouette that was forever just slightly askew . . . "I . . . I had dinner with Ben the night he took the twins," she said.  "I just . . . I couldn't leave them alone, I guess . . ."

"Dinner with my brother," he mused.  "Are you and Ben—?"

"Uh, no," she hurried on to say.  "It . . . It wasn't like that . . . It was just . . ." She winced, unsure why she was trying to explain anything, in the first place, and yet, she couldn't quite help herself, either.  "My sister . . . I mean, I guess I should say that I've known Ben for awhile—casually, you know?  Given that he works for oji-san, then I guess you could say that he's always been around.  Anyway, my sister got it into her head that I needed to get out, so she called Ben and set up the whole dinner . . . Which sounds so much more pathetic when I say it all out loud, doesn't it?"  She managed a wry little laugh, but gave up after a moment as a heavy sigh slipped out of her, too.  "That's really all there is to it.  We're . . . We're friends: just friends . . ."

Kyouhei sighed, too, and Charity glanced up at him, only to find him staring at her out of the corner of his eyes.  "Damn shame," he finally said when she shook her head in confusion.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because," he replied with a simple shrug.  "If it were anyone but my brother, I'd have to fight him for you."

She could feel the flush steal up her cheeks as she quickly looked away.  "N-No," she stammered.  "I mean, you're wrong, and—"

His laughter, soft and gentle and entirely friendly, cut her off.  "The heart wants what it wants, Charity," he told her.  "And for what it's worth?  Ben's a lucky, lucky bastard."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Charity leaned against the archway with her arms crossed over her chest, watching with a vague little smile as Ben paced the living room floor, reading through a slim-file with the sleeping babies tied to him in two bright pink wraps.  Biting her lip, she stifled a sigh.  Her original intent was to go in and cuddle the girls before putting them in bed for the night.  Somehow, standing there, watching the three of them, the idea wasn't nearly as appealing.

'They . . . Do they really need me?'

Why did the image of them together hurt?

'It does, doesn't it?' her youkai-voice spoke up.  Even in her mind, the voice sounded infinitely sad, infinitely weary, and she winced.

'I don't . . . I don't know what to do . . .'

'I . . . I don't know, either.'

That was the problem, wasn't it?  It would have been so much easier if there weren't babies involved, so much simpler to just cut her losses and walk away.  Of course, if it weren't for the babies, she wouldn't actually be here, in the first place, would she?  As much as it hurt to admit it, she knew deep down that the only reason she was here at all, was pure dumb luck.  If Chelsea hadn't called him that afternoon . . . If she had just called and canceled and apologized for her twin's idea of intervention . . . If she'd never laid eyes on the twins . . .

And yet, that thought was enough to bring a stinging behind her eyelids, a pain in her heart so vast, so deep, that she nearly gasped out loud as she closed her eyes for a moment and tried to gather her tattered composure.

'That's . . . I . . . I can't regret them,' she told herself.  'I don't!'

'No, not that,' her youkai agreed.  'But I don't know what to think of anything anymore, either.'

She had no idea what to do, and that was the most painful part, wasn't it?  Bad enough to feel as though she was little more than a foolish child, but the idea of having to stay, having to watch as Ben reconnected with his childhood friend?  A friend who, very obviously, didn't want to be just friends any longer . . .? A friend who was drop-dead gorgeous and who shared a history with Ben that Charity would never, ever have . . .?

'How am I going to do that?  How can I . . .?'

Swallowing down the rising edge of hysteria, she slowly shook her head, her ears flattening for a moment.  She'd find a way.  She'd have to, if only for the sake of the twins . . .

'Well, it's not like they'll be babies forever, you know?  Even if we are here, it'll all be okay.  They're worth it, right?  They're worth it . . .'

Yes, they were.

"How was your . . . date?" Ben asked quietly without breaking his stride and without looking up from the file in his hands.

Charity grimaced, thankful that he didn't see the expression, shouldering herself away from the archway as she made herself step forward into the room.  "It . . . It wasn't a date," she muttered, ears flicking at the defensiveness she could hear in her own voice.  "Just dinner and a movie, and it was fine."

"Isn't that the classic definition of a date?" he parried mildly.

Rubbing her forehead, she moved past him to retrieve a bottle of water out of the small refrigerator under the wet bar.  "I do that sort of thing with Chelsea, too, and I'd hardly call that a date, either."

Snapping the file closed, he set it aside in favor of turning to face her.  She couldn't read his expression past the very obvious irritation that furrowed his brow, that hardened the line of his mouth .  But why on earth would he be irritated, anyway . . .?

Brushing aside that weird question, Charity took her time, downing a good portion of the bottle.  "Why does it matter to you, who I do or don't date, anyway?"

Her question seemed to throw him for the proverbial loop, and he scowled back at her.  "Because," he replied evenly despite the harsh spiking of his youki, "I care about you, and—"

"And I'll say this to you one time, Ben: I don't owe  you any explanations about what I do or with whom I choose to spend time."

"All right," he ground out, and she could tell that it took him some effort to keep from shouting at her.  "Just not my brother."

She sighed, rubbing her temple as she shifted her gaze away from him, focusing instead on the painting that hung over the fireplace mantle.  "You gave up the right to say a thing to me when you kissed that woman.  I didn't question you about it, and—"

"And I told you that it was an accident," he growled, losing the battle to keep his emotions in check.

"I'm going to go to bed," she said abruptly, deciding that the last thing she wanted or needed was to have this discussion right now, and she screwed the cap back down on the bottle in her hand.  "Do you want me to take them up?"

"No," he growled, then shook his head with an exasperated sigh.  "I'll take put them to bed.  Just . . . Wait here . . . Please . . ."

Against her better judgment, she nodded tersely, settling down on the edge of the sofa as she watched him stride out of the living room.  No, what she ought to have done was to hightail it up to her room and shut the door.  She didn't know what he wanted to talk about, but she had the feeling that it wasn't anything she wanted to hear or deal with, not now . . .

Too bad she never had been one to run away from her problems.  Maybe that was a foolish notion, anyway, and even so, it really wasn't Ben's fault, was it?  It wasn't like she could force anyone to feel something that just wasn't there, and, to be honest, she'd known that from the start.  There had been way too many times over the years, way too many opportunities, and he'd made his feelings blatantly clear.  She was the one who never seemed to get the message.  Oh, she thought she had, sure, but she really didn't.

Now, she did.  The thing was, she simply wasn't ready to hear him apologize, to hear him say that he was sorry for what he did or didn't feel, and that was the crux of it.

'But . . . But why did he kiss me?  If he didn't care, then why . . .?'

Wincing at the capriciousness of her own thoughts, Charity rolled the bottle between her palms.  Caught up in the moment, maybe?  Maybe he was simply absorbed in the momentary dream—the idea of a family, and maybe . . .

Maybe she was the part that could easily be replaced in that dream.

 

 


 

 

 

"I don't suppose you have a minute for a brief bit of brotherly advice, nii-san?"

Ben turned around to face his brother.  Silhouetted by the brighter light in the hallway behind him, Kyouhei lounged in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, ankles crossed in a deceptively nonchalant sort of stance.  "I'm a little busy at the moment," he said, unsure exactly how long he had before Charity bolted to her room and locked the door, which had become commonplace in the days since the Halloween fiasco.  "Can it wait?"

Kyouhei shrugged.  "It won't take long.  Humor me."

Heaving a sigh as he rubbed his hands over his face, Ben pushed past his brother and headed toward his room.  "You have until I'm done getting ready for bed," Ben said in a tone that pulled no punches. "Start talking."

"Tell me, Ben . . . Just what is going on between you and Charity?"

"What do you mean?" Ben asked, dragging off his shirt and reaching for a tee-shirt.

"I mean that the other day, you gave me the impression that your arrangement with her was little more than convenience for the sake of the twins," Kyouhei remarked, digging his hands into his pockets and affecting the careful slouch he had mastered long ago as he leaned in the doorway of the walk-in closet.

Ben sighed.  "It's . . . It's complicated," he muttered.

"Nothing is complicated," Kyouhei scoffed.  "Things are only as complicated as you make them . . . At least, that's been my experience."

"Look, Kyouhei, things happened.  There's a lot of stuff you know nothing about, so I'd appreciate it if you'd keep your opinions to yourself."

"So, you don't want to know how our date went . . .?"

Ben snorted as he yanked on a pair of sleeping pants and gave the string tie a good, hard yank.  "She said it wasn't a date," he replied, painfully aware of the argument he'd used against her just minutes ago.

Kyouhei chuckled.  "Dinner and a movie?  I'd guess that would constitute a date."

Ben grunted, mostly because he'd said the same damn thing . . . "Did you kiss her?" he asked, unable to keep the sharpness, the hint of irritation, out of his voice.

"Would you care if I did?" he countered smoothly.

Grinding his teeth together before he erupted into a menacing growl since he knew damn well that Kyouhei was just baiting him, Ben stubbornly refused to answer.

"How long have you known her?"

"Why do you care?" Ben demanded, rapidly losing what little composure he had, at least, at the moment.  "What does any of it matter to you?"

Kyouhei met Ben's furious gaze, his expression entirely serious, a flicker of emotion darkening the blue of his eyes.  "Because I like her," he said quietly, evenly, as his youki spiked in harsh and jagged waves.  "I've never met a sweeter girl anywhere . . . Or one who is as miserable as she is.  I just want to know why—and I think you have the answer."

For some reason, Kyouhei's statement cut him deep, and Ben sat down hard on the edge of the bed.  Leaning forward, elbows on knees, he raked his hands through his hair and scowled at the floor.  "Manami showed up on Halloween," he admitted, unsure why he was saying as much to Kyouhei, of all people.

"Manami?  The one okaa-san's mentioned . . .?"

"Yeah," Ben muttered, shaking his head but not looking up .  "I was shocked to see her after so long, and before I knew what she was doing, she . . . She kissed me, and Charity . . ." He grimaced.

Kyouhei nodded slowly.  "Charity saw it."

"Something like that."

Slowly walking the length of the room and back, Kyouhei sighed.  "Tell me something, Ben, because my options will be dictated by your answer."

"How do you mean?" Ben demanded sharply.

Kyouhei rolled his eyes.  "Isn't it obvious?  If you don't hold any feelings for her, then I'd guess it wouldn't matter to you if I continued to pursue her, right?"

He gritted his teeth at the very idea of his brother chasing after Charity.  "What's that?" he asked, lifting his head though he didn't straighten his back.

"Is she your mate?"

He opened his mouth to tell Kyouhei to mind his own business, but snapped it closed and forced himself to draw a deep breath, instead.  Giving flip answers and refusing to own up to his part in the disagreement wasn't going to help him; not at all . . . He closed his eyes for several moments before finally jerking his head once in a nod.  "Y-Yeah," he said.  "Yeah, she . . . She is."

 

 


 

 

 

Ben strode back into the living room, and Charity frowned.  He'd asked her to wait here for him, but had taken the time to change clothes?  And just why that bothered her, she didn't know.

"Sorry it took me a little longer than I meant to," he said, crossing the floor and sitting down beside her—not right next to her, but close enough that, when he turned to the side, his knee was less than an inch from hers.  He sighed.  "I just wanted to tell you that I'm sorry."

"I told you, there's nothing to apologize for," she said, her voice barely above a whisper as she let her gaze slip to the side, staring at the floor, the table, the fireplace—anywhere but directly at him.

"I didn't mean to kiss her—I didn't want to kiss her," he blurted, as though he had to hurry and get it out before she cut him off.  "You're the only woman I've wanted to kiss in a very long time . . . I want you to believe that."

She stiffened at the sound of his words, her mind slowing to a crawl, her breath stilled somewhere between her lips and her lungs as she slowly shook her head, as her ability to comprehend just what he was saying ground to a complete standstill.  "But . . ."

He shook his head stubbornly, rubbing his chin with a slightly trembling hand.  "Charity . . . I'll tell you anything you want to know about . . ." he grimaced, ". . . about her and me . . . about us . . ."

She considered that as she sipped her water.  Did she?  Did she really want to know about the two of them?  And even if she did, would it matter?  There really was only one question that swirled around her brain, but the trouble was, even if he did answer her, just what could she hope to accomplish in getting answers?

'You'd at least know where you stand—really stand . . . That has to be worth something, right?'

"Were you . . .?  Were the two of you lovers?" she asked quietly, unable to look at him, unwilling to try to interpret whatever emotions surfaced.

Ben sighed.  "Y . . . Yes . . . At least, as far as things could . . . could go," he admitted.

Pressing her lips together in a thin line as she tried not to think too hard about that, she nodded slowly.  "And she's not your mate."

Again, it took him a long time to answer—seconds marked by the uncannily loud ticking of the clock and nothing else.  The absolute silence rang in her ears as she waited for his response.  "There was a time when I thought that she might have been, but . . . Well, it's obvious to me that she isn't.  Charity—"

Rising abruptly, Charity stepped past him without touching him and without looking at him, either.  "I . . . I'm going to bed, Ben," she said as she moved toward the archway.  "It's just . . . Just a lot to think about . . ."

He stood and watched her go, but he didn't try to stop her, either.  Charity didn't stop moving until she'd reached the sanctity of her bedroom and closed the door behind her, only to lean on the cool surface as she closed her eyes.

"You're the only woman I've wanted to kiss in a very long time . . . I want you to believe that."

Those words ought to have thrilled her, and they did.  Still . . .

Maybe . . . Maybe she shouldn't have asked those other questions, either . . .

 

 


 

 

 

'That . . . Didn't go very well, did it?'

'Shut up,' Ben thought with a long, loud sigh.

'Are we going to go after her?'

'And do what?  There's nothing we can possibly do to make the situation better—or worse, for that matter.  Maybe I shouldn't have told her . . .'

'Except that you and I both know that she deserves to be told everything so that it can't come back to bite us later.  Look at the bright side, though: at least you finally got her to listen, and okay, so she's not comfortable with the extent of your relationship with Manami, but that doesn't mean she won't understand that you can't do a thing to change the past.'

'Yeah, but I . . . I miss her . . .'

'Just give her some time to make sense of the things that you told her; a couple days to sort it all out.  You know yourself that she's most certainly a modern woman, but you also know that she has a tendency to be a hopeless romantic, too, so things like that are going to mean more to her than they would to someone else—and you love that about her, you know.'

He did know.  That didn't really make it any easier to deal with when it felt as though the distance between them was growing wider and broader with every passing day.  But there were no good answers, either, and that was the thing that he hated the most.  If he told her everything or if he told her only the barest parts, what did it matter when the real issue was that he simply didn't know how to fix things, to make them better for her . . .?

And that was the hell of it all, too.  There were no good answers, nothing that he could possibly say that could fix the damage that had already been done.

Yet the images that were still all too vivid in his head were the ones that really hurt: the memory of Charity, so sweet, so vibrant, and so very close . . . The feel of her lips against his, the intoxicating sound of her sighs, the acceptance of everything she thought that he was, and he . . .

He grimaced.  He'd ruined all of that, hadn't he?  In her mind, he wasn't the same man—hadn't been the same—since Halloween night, but damned if he had any idea what he could do to restore that feeling for her.

And who would have believed that things he'd done so long ago, back in a time and a place where the name, 'Charity' hadn't even been whispered on the breeze . . . Who would have believed that those things—seemingly insignificant now, even if they weren't back then—would have such a far-reaching impact on him now?

Even the idea that it was all out on the table now, so to speak, didn't do much to offer him any semblance of comfort; not really—not when the memory of her face—of the shock and the hurt that she tried so hard to hide from him—was so fresh in his mind, and he knew, didn't he? If he lived another thousand years, two thousand years—ten thousand years—he would never, ever forget that image, never forget those tears that stood in her eyes that she stubbornly refused to let fall, the darkness of the pain that deepened her eyes from that amber hue he knew so well to something far more clouded.

Would it even matter in the end?  Would a couple days be enough to soothe the edges of the pain enough for Ben to try to start repairing the damage that was already done?  He had told her everything, and now . . . Now, he realized with an inward grimace, it was entirely up to her, and whatever came next, one way or the other, was going to make or break them . . .

Striding out of the living room as though he were trying to put some measure of distance between the emotions that he just couldn't control and the painful truths that he'd given voice, he took the stairs, two at a time.  Maybe what he needed was a good night's sleep, though he rather doubted that it would happen.  As the old saying went, things always looked different in the bright light of day, and at this point, it had to, didn't it?

After all, things really couldn't possibly get much worse, now could they . . .?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Charity hung up the phone, scrolling through her text messages until she found the image her mother had just sent, and she laughed as she hurried out of the kitchen and into the living room to locate Ben, who was probably hibernating in his office.

"Mama just called," she said, drawing the man's attention away from the files he was looking through.

"Oh?" he said without shifting his gaze.

She wrinkled her nose.  "Yes . . . Gin-oba-chan had the babies this morning."

That got his attention quickly enough.  "She's not due for another four weeks or so, is she?" Ben asked.

Charity shrugged offhandedly.  "Yeah, but it's not uncommon for multiples to be born a little early, and Mama said that they're perfectly healthy.  A little on the tiny side, but nothing life-threatening."

"Is that right?" he asked, a smile surfacing on his face as he slowly stood up.  "Boys?  Girls?  Both?"

She made a face.  "Well . . . Two boys," she said as her grin widened.  "And a girl."

"Wha . . .? Triplets?"

She nodded happily, handing over the phone so that he could see the images of the newborns, too.  "Apparently, it was a surprise to everyone, including Isabelle, since she swore she only heard two heartbeats and only saw two babies in any of the ultrasounds.  Anyway, Mama said that Cain wanted you to call him . . ."

Ben handed the phone back and chuckled.  "Call Zelig," he said, settling back into his chair once more as he swiveled around to face the computer monitor.  It only rang twice when Cain picked up, and Charity hurried around to peer over Ben's shoulders, anxious to get another good look at the infants.

"Hey, Ben," Cain greeted, a tired but happy smile on his face.  He looked like he hadn't slept for the better portion of a month.  "Meet my babies."

He turned the phone, and it took a moment to focus, but the babies finally solidified on the screen, along with a very tired but happy Gin Zelig, who raised one hand just enough to wave but not enough to upset the sleeping infant cuddled to her chest.  "This is Hayden," she said, gently lifting a tiny baby fist to make him wave.  "And this is Connor."  Both of the boys had Zelig's bronze hair, reminding Ben of Bas as a newborn.

Cain chuckled and moved the camera to focus on the baby in his arms—an infant swaddled in a fluffy pink blanket. She yawned, then opened her eyes, and Ben blinked in surprise.  "We were going to name her Heather, but it doesn't sound just right," Cain went on with a soft laugh when the baby blinked slowly, staring at Ben on the phone with a frank sense of curiosity that seemed a bit advanced for a newborn.

"Where did she get that hair?" Evan asked, peering over his father's arm at his infant sister.  "And those eyes?  None of us have that . . . Unless Mama got it on with the milkman, that is . . ."

Cain heaved a sigh.  "Shut up, Evan," he grumbled.

Reddish brown hair, a little deeper than auburn, a little more vibrant than sorrel, and the palest lavender eyes, like lilacs blooming rampant in a summer field . . . Ben's breath hitched in his throat as another face, another time, flickered to life deep in the recess of his memory—a smile, a laugh, and the gentlest rain . . . Swallowing hard once, twice, swiping a finger over his eyes, Ben cleared his throat gruffly.  "She . . . She looks just like Daniella—Akinako—your . . . your mother, Zelig . . ."

"Daniella Akinako . . ." Gin repeated thoughtfully.  "I like that, Cain," she said.

Cain's voice was a little choked when he finally spoke again.  "D . . . Daniella," he rasped out.  "Yeah . . ."

"Hand her over, you giant lump of sad," InuYasha grumbled, taking the baby from Cain as the video feed bobbled and pointed at the floor.  "Blubbering all over her . . . What the fuck's the matter with you?  Birthing pups is supposed to be a good thing, baka."

"H-Hey!" Cain called after his father-in-law.  "Bring her back . . . Pfft!"

Gin giggled.  "He's just excited, Cain," she said.  "He just wants to show off his new grandbabies."

Cain heaved a sigh.  "What are the odds that he'll go home soon?  Like, tomorrow?"

Gin giggled again.

"Omedetou gozaimasu!" Charity exclaimed, waving at her gathered family.

"Thank you!  Oh, Charity!  Bring the twins up soon!" Gin exclaimed.  "We'll have a play date!"

"As nice as that sounds, wait awhile, will you?  Gin needs to recover before we're arranging play dates," Cain replied.

Ben smiled.  "In any case, you seem to have everything under control.  I'll call you later, Zelig."

"All right.  Thanks, Ben.  Bye, Charity," Cain said.  A moment later, the connection ended, and Ben chuckled as he slowly shook his head.

"Three babies . . . And I thought that two were a handful," he remarked.

"But entirely worth it," Charity reminded him.

"That goes without saying," he allowed with a smile.

"I was thinking," she said, turning her attention out the windows behind him.  "I was kind of wanting to go up to Maine for the holidays.  What do you think?  Could you get away from the city that long?"

She missed the frown inspired by her words as she stared up at the overcast skies.  Ben heaved a sigh.  "I'm not sure I can," he said slowly, cautiously.

"But you could try, couldn't you?"  She giggled.  "Just think, we can show the girls how to make snowmen and go crazy, decorating for Christmas . . . It'd be fun, don't you think?"

"Well, we can still do all that stuff here," he maintained.

"I know," she said, her happiness abating slightly in the face of his pessimistic response.  "It's just that Mama and Papa were saying that they might stick around until after the holidays, and even though I know they'd come here, too, I hate to ask them to split their time . . ."

"We'll see," he replied in an entirely noncommittal sort of tone.

She frowned.  He sounded more like he was simply trying to humor her and not really interested in considering it, at all.  Sure, she knew that he tended to be busy, but even so, she felt like he was completely dismissing her . . . Letting out a deep breath, she pasted on a little smile and headed out of the office.  "You looked busy when I interrupted . . . I'm sorry," she said without stopping.  "I'll . . . I'll leave you alone . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

Ben watched her go as his frown shifted into an outright scowl.

'She'll be okay . . . Even if we wanted to go along with her wishes, you know we can't.'

He snorted, shoving away from the desk and stalking over to the windows.  'That's why I said that,' he grumbled.  'If we knew where Hecht Unker was; what he's up to . . .'

That was the problem, wasn't it?  Despite having every available hunter assigned to the task of finding the man, no one had reported any luck, thus far.  They knew he was in Maine, and common logic would lead one to assume that he was somewhere in the vicinity of Bevelle, but as yet, not one of the seven hunters tasked with locating Unker had reported any luck at all.  It would be stupid to go there now, but Charity didn't know anything about it, and that, unfortunately, left Ben, having to assume the role of the bad guy, especially when her idea was a good one and entirely within the realm of feasibility at any other time.

The intrusion of Kyouhei's youki announced his brother's arrival before Ben actually heard him, distracting him from his musings, and he turned just in time to watch the younger man slip into one of the chairs by the desk.  Blue eyes clouded despite the otherwise blank expression on his face, he looked calm enough on the outside, anyway.

"He's gathered nearly a thousand," Kyouhei said without preamble.  "They're coming from all over, flocking to Tetsuo like they believe him to be the second coming of Christ on earth."

"Where'd you get the number?"

Kyouhei's sidelong glance spoke volumes—as full of irony as it was a fierce dread.  "Otou-san."

"Did he say where he got that number?" Ben asked.

Kyouhei stared at Ben long and hard, his gaze narrowing as he slowly licked his lips, as he seemed as though he were trying decide something.  He flinched, eyes deepening in color as he slowly shook his head—an almost imperceptible movement except for the glinting in his eyes that shifted with the motion.  "Otou-san . . . He's one of the coordinators behind the whole thing," he admitted.  "He's the one who has been trying to garner support from every jurisdiction there is."

And somehow, that just didn't surprise Ben, either, and he sighed.  "All right.  So, of that thousand, how many of them pose a real and credible threat?"

Kyouhei's chuckle was as devoid of humor as it was full of a darker emotion.  "They have sheer numbers on their side, Ben," he said with a shake of his head, his hair catching the gray light filtering through the windows.  "Otou-san seem to think that they would be best served to target those loyal to Sesshoumaru first," he went on with a shrug.  "It makes sense, strategy-wise, though I cannot guarantee exactly how well thought out the target list is."

"Do you know who's on that list?  Did chichiue say anything about that?"

Leaning to the side, curling his long fingers over his lips, Kyouhei gazed at his brother for a long moment.  "The hunters, of course.  The most notable one being Izayoi . . . Izayoi Ryomaru."

"Ryomaru," Ben repeated, gritting his teeth as a surge of anger shot through him.

"They say the easiest course is to make sure a hunt is issued for one of their numbers.  They can ambush him then, and, well . . ."

"That cannot happen," Ben growled.

Kyouhei shook his head.  "No," he agreed.  "It cannot."

 

 


 

 

 

"Hello?"

"Hey, Ben, can you talk?"

Ben swung his legs off the bed and got up to step over far enough to look across the hallway.  Charity's light was out, and her door was closed, but just to be safe, Ben closed his door, too, before returning to the bed once more.  It was late—almost midnight—which was a good enough reason to set off the alarm bells in Ben's head.  "Yeah.  What's up?"

Cain sighed: a long, drawn out sound that lasted for a good five seconds.  "I'm serious, Ben . . . There's no way that Charity is going to overhear this?"

"No . . . Hold on."

Veering off course, Ben strode over to the balcony doors and slipped outside, ignoring the chill winds that carried the vaguest scent of snow.  "Okay, I'm sure," he said, quietly closing the door behind himself.

"Myrna just called," he said without preamble.  "She heard from your, uh, friend—Manami?"

"Yeah, all right," Ben muttered.  "Has she found out anything?"

"She managed to make contact with Jeet Unker," Cain allowed.  Ben's scowl darkened at the foreboding in the tai-youkai's voice.  "During their talk, I guess the subject of the twins came up, and, according to Manami, he asked her how much she'd be willing to pay for them."

Ben stopped stone-still as his eyes flared wide.  ". . . What?"

Cain barked out an incredulous laugh—a harsh and grating sound that possessed absolutely no amusement at all.  "He's setting up a bidding war, of sorts: people who aren't interested in going through official channels for the privilege of adopting the twins."

"Yeah, well, that won't be happening," Ben growled, forcing himself to loosen his grip on the phone when it groaned out a warning at his too-tight hold.  "Damn it . . ."

"No, it won't be," Cain agreed.  "Listen, Ben, given that we've still had no luck in locating Hecht, Toga and I were talking, and we think maybe it'd be best if you take Charity and the babies and get out of the city.  I'm pretty sure that there's no way he'd know where the twins are, but just in case, it might be better to be safe rather than sorry—at least, until we find Hecht and detain him."

"What about Jeet?" Ben gritted out.  "Do you have probable cause to do anything about him?"

"Not yet," Cain replied, the irritation unmistakable in his tone.  "Right now, we thought it might be best to fund Manami so that she can put a bid in.  Maybe we can flush them out."

Drawing a deep breath to try to calm his rapidly fraying nerves, Ben dug his claws into the wooden railing that ran the perimeter of the balcony.  "So, where do you suggest I take Charity and the twins?"

"Can you get them out of the country?  It might slow them down, and I can get a rush in on passports for the girls."

Heaving a sigh, Ben rubbed his forehead, glaring up at the full moon, hanging so low in the night sky.  "All right," he agreed, hating the feeling that he was, in effect, running away, but understanding the base necessity of it all.

"What a damn mess," Cain muttered.  "I'll also see what I can do about getting a rush in on the adoption hearing, even if we have to change judges."

"Yeah," Ben agreed as a thin pounding in his head commenced.

"Give me a call tomorrow, and I'll see what I can arrange for you. Any destination in mind?"

"I've got a place in Mexico," Ben reminded him.  "That should be safe enough."

"Okay," Cain said.  "What are you going to tell Charity?"

"I'll think of something," Ben replied.  "But there's something else I need to tell you.  Is Toga there with you?"

"Uh, yeah, he is . . . Do you want to talk to him?"

Ben made a face.  "No, just make sure I'm on speaker.  It'll be easier that way."

A few moments of rustling around, and the sudden sense that the line had opened up, announcing the transfer of the call.  "Is something up?" Toga asked without preamble.

"I've, uh, heard some things, Toga," he said, considering his words carefully.  "Do you know anything about an inu-youkai named Tetsuo?"

"Tetsuo?  That crazy old mutt that calls himself tai-youkai?"

"Yeah, him."

Toga snorted.  "He's been a pain the ass for years, demanding meetings every few months, insisting that we keep him in the loop, even though he's been told a ridiculous number of times that we're not obligated to and won't tell him squat . . . Yeah, I know him."

"My brother showed up a few days ago, and he says that Tetsuo is plotting to overthrow Sesshoumaru."

Toga didn't answer right away, and then he choked out a terse laugh.  "I'm sorry.  I thought you just said that the old bastard thinks he can overthrow tou-san."

"I did," Ben stated.  "He's amassing support from other dissidents, and . . . At the moment, he's got roughly a thousand, ready to back him up, and there's reason to believe that their first target is Ryomaru."

"Ryomaru?" Toga echoed.  "The hell you say . . ."

"According to Kyouhei, they're planning on pulling some stunt to get someone on the hunted list so that you'll send Ryomaru, and they can ambush him."

Toga grunted.  "No offense intended, but just how reliable is your brother?  Can I talk to him?"

Ben sighed, pacing the length of the balcony and back.  "He's sleeping now, I think, but I can have him call you in the morning.  For the record, I believe him."

"Okay," Toga said.  "Damn . . ."

"Does he have any other information?" Cain asked.

Ben sped up his pace, grimacing as he forced himself to speak.  "One of the co-conspirators," he said.  "He's my . . . my father."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sitting in the shade of the short but thick palm tree, Charity smiled as the girls lay on the blanket beside her.  Their eyes were busy, taking in the new surroundings as their mother carefully slipped new silicone covers onto their tiny claws.  Emmeline's were pink, Nadia's were pale purple.  Charity had taken to using them just after she'd discovered that, as infants and therefore having very little control over tiny fists and fingers, they'd inadvertently scratch themselves, sometimes fairly badly.  It was true that she could easily have clipped the tips of them off, but she'd have to do it daily, and even then, the edges could still be fairly sharp.

"Here," Ben said, handing her a glass of iced tea before settling down on the other side of the babies.  "Are you tired?"

She shook her head and sipped the drink before setting it carefully in the sand.  "It's beautiful here," she said, her gaze roaming out over the Gulf of Mexico.  Then she giggled.  "Other than Evan, you're the only person I've ever met who owns an entire island."

He chuckled.  "It's not that big," he explained.  Only about a mile off the mainland shore, the island didn't really have a name, though locals tended to call it La Diminuta Isla—quite literally, the tiny island, which was wholly accurate, given that the island only measured about half a mile in pretty much any possible diameter.  He'd owned it for a very long time, but he only decided to build a small house here about forty years ago, and the entire thing was powered by the solar panels installed on the roof and a large backup generator hidden in a small outbuilding, though Ben couldn’t recall actually having need of it, ever.

The house itself, though, was designed to meld into the island as much as possible with a lot of windows and even rolling walls.  If he wanted, he could actually open up all the sides of the house to expose it all to the outdoors, and Charity had gasped softly when she saw it, her eyes glowing, giggling softly as she had held onto the rail of the speed boat that Ben kept docked in a small, private boathouse on the mainland shore.

In fact, the only real downside to the house was that there were only two bedrooms—something that they hadn't actually discussed yet.  He wasn't even sure if she realized that he'd set her suitcase in the master bedroom, but he hadn't gotten around to furnishing the second bedroom, anyway, mostly because he'd never actually thought to bring anyone here with him before.  Even so, it would make a beautiful nursery, and since he really didn't know how long they'd be staying here, he figured he could suggest a shopping trip later on to take care of the gross oversight.

'I can't believe she bought your line about needing to meet with Vasquez . . . and that kind of means that we should probably give him a call soon.'

'It worked, didn't it?  I'll call him tomorrow and set something up.'

'We could always go fishing.  Steve lives for that shit, you know.'

That was true enough, too.  Steve Vasquez, the general in charge of the Mexican region, loved all things out-of-doors and most especially anything that had to do with water—not surprising, given that Steve was also a Mexican axolotl-youkai.

'I was wondering something.'

Staring at the woman's profile as she leaned on her hands, arms stretched out behind her, and let her head fall back, eyes closed, content to breathe in the fresh, crisp air, Ben wasn't really paying a lot of attention to his youkai-voice.  'Hmm?'

'Aren't you the one who was all up in arms about telling Charity the truth about everything you've ever, ever done, ever?'

'Yeah . . . so . . .?'

His youkai grunted.  'So why aren't we telling her the truth about the Unkers?'

'She . . . Does she really need to know about that?  What should I tell her?  That the twins' so-called 'family' wants them back so they can auction them off to the highest bidder?  Besides, it's not going to happen, anyway, and we're safe enough out here until Zelig's able to find them and put a stop to their nonsense.  Right now, telling her wouldn't serve any purpose other than to freak her out and scare her.'

"Come on, Ben," Charity said, sitting up straight hopping up as she reached for one of the baby wraps and tied it on like a pro before lifting the closest baby—Nadia—and settling her securely in the sling.  "I feel like going for a walk."

He chuckled, shoving aside the darker thoughts, and got to his feet before picking up Emmeline, who screeched happily when he kissed her cheek, and she swatted her hands at her father's face.  "Oh, is that how it is?" he asked, arching an eyebrow at the giggly baby.  "Beating on your daddy?  Is that how it works?"

Charity laughed and stepped around Ben to tie the other wrap around him while he adjusted Emmeline carefully, then took the cotton and lace white baby bonnet Charity handed to him.  "There," he said, adjusting the bonnet after tying it under her chin.  "You know she hates the hat, don't you?"

Charity nodded.  "Of course, she does, but she needs the protection from the sun."

"She's youkai.  She's tough."

She shook her head.  "She's also an infant, and infants can still get a sunburn, youkai or not."

He opened his mouth to argue with her then snapped it closed again.  "Is that right?"

She laughed.  "Yes, Isabelle-chan said so."

Letting out a deep breath, he tugged the bonnet up a little further around the baby's face.  "I'm sorry about the lack of snow," Ben remarked as they ambled down to the water's edge.  Charity stepped into the path of the ebbing water, giggling softly as the gentle waves rolled over her toes, up to her ankles, only to wash back out to sea again.

"Well, this is pretty spectacular, I'm not going to lie," she admitted.

Closing his eyes for a moment as the crisp breeze rippled over her, carrying her scent to him, as warm and invited as the woman herself, and Ben smiled.  It was the most comfortable she'd been around him since the ill-fated party on Halloween night, and, while he didn't even try to convince himself that everything was back on track again, he couldn't help but to feel a little encouraged by the overall upswing.

"So, you have the house here, the one in New York City, and the one in Maine . . . Any others I should know about?" she asked as they wandered along the water's edge.

Ben shrugged.  "I have one in every region," he said.  "Guess I should hire people to outfit the other places with nurseries so it's not an issue if we have to travel more."

"Yeah, though we can't always go with you," she mused, shaking her head, leaning it to the side as she captured the bulk of it and held on to keep it from flying into her face.  "You know, though, I was wondering . . . Would you be interested in moving to one of your other homes?"  She sighed.  "I mean, I like the city.  It's just . . . I'd rather raise the girls in a less convoluted environment, somewhere where they have the space to explore and to grow . . ."  She shot him an almost bashful sort of smile, one that brought out the adorable dimple in her cheek and added that certain sparkle to her gaze.  Ears alert and shifting ever-so-slightly, taking in every single sound around her in such a way that Ben had to wonder if she weren't more attuned to their surroundings than he was.

"When I was small," she went on, oblivious to Ben's train of thought, "we were always free to run, to explore . . . We had oji-chan's forest . . . The forest behind ojii-san's mansion . . . And even though it was right on the outskirts of Tokyo, the air was cleaner, and there was this sense that we were the first ones to discover the area, even though we knew that it wasn't really true . . ."  She sighed at the memory, her gaze shifting out to sea once more.  "Mama wasn't afraid to let us wander, and Papa . . ." She giggled suddenly.  "Well, sometimes he'd come after us if we were out too late . . ."

"That's how it was," he agreed, adjusting Emmeline while she drowsed against him.  "Some of my earliest memories were exploring the forests around home: playing in streams, hiding in caves . . . Chasing down small animals—I always let them go again, of course . . ."

"And family?  Were you close to anyone?  Aunts, uncles, cousins . . .?"

Ben shook his head.  "I don't have any," he told her.  "Just me, and later, Keijizen."

"Must have been lonely," she ventured, her brow drawing into a marked frown.  "I was lucky, I guess—lots of pups around to play with, and Chelsea . . . I guess I never was that lonely.  I was just thinking, you know?  The twins . . . I'd like them to have that, too . . ."

"Somewhere closer to family, especially when they have other children around the same age?" Ben concluded with a nod.  It made perfect sense, of course.  It was definitely something they could and probably should do, at least, once everything was taken care of, anyway.

"Unless you have to be in the city," she allowed with an offhanded shrug.

"I don't; not really," he said.  "I mean, it's something I've considered, anyway, but," he made a face.  "It may take a few months or so to arrange things."

"I'm okay with that," she said with a laugh.  "But your house there is pretty far away from everyone else."

"We could look for something else," he allowed.  "Something in Bevelle, you mean?"

"Well, sure.  Maybe something close to oji-san's house?"

"Whatever you want, Charity," he told her.

She laughed.

"For now, though," he said with a sigh, "we'd better head back."  She shot him a questioning glance, and he smiled at her.  "We should probably head back to the mainland and see what we can find in the way of cribs or at least a playpen . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

"A beer, please."

Slipping into the booth opposite Gunnar in the small pub that that the two of them tended to favor, Bas shoved his jacket onto the bench beside him.  "How'd your trip go?"

Gunnar flicked a micro-corder across the table top in response.  "That's the call," he said without preamble.  "How's your mother?"

"Doing well," Bas replied, a small smile quirking his lips.  "It was a little shocking, though . . . Triplets," he explained when Gunnar raised an eyebrow.  "Two boys and a girl."

"Damn," Gunnar said with a grimace.  "That's a hell of a lot of babies."

Bas chuckled, not at all surprised by the show of horror evident on his cousin's face.  "Relax, Gun.  No one's going to ask you to babysit."  Accepting the beer from the waitress, Bas handed her a ten dollar bill.  "Thanks . . . Uh, keep the change . . ."

Gunnar snorted and shook his head as he lazily lifted the glass of whiskey to his lips.  "Did they name them yet?"

"Hayden and Connor," Bas supplied.  "And Daniella."

"Daniella?  I thought that they were considering Heather or something like that."

Bas shrugged.  "They were.  Then Ben saw her, and he said she looks just like Dad's mother, so they decided to name the baby after her."

"Is that right?"

"Tiny little things," Bas mused, tipping his beer and downing a good half of it in a series of long swallows.  "The boys seem identical—and identical to Dad.  Daniella, though . . . Red-brown hair and these, like, pale purple eyes . . ."  Bas shrugged.  "Wonder if she'll be water-elemental.  Dad said that his mother held command over the rain . . ."

"Rain?  Interesting . . . They can't tell if they're inu-youkai yet?"

"The boys appear to be," Bas said.  "Daniella . . . might be . . ." Then he chuckled.  "Cute as hell, though . . ."

Gunnar rolled his eyes but smiled.  "I'll take your word for it," he said.  "They all look weird to me."

"That's because you're an ass," Bas commented.

Gunnar didn't deny it.  "Anyway, the one who made the 911 call—it was a woman," he said, effectively changing the subject as he leaned back against the bench and crossed his arms over his chest.  "There's no mention anywhere in any of the reports of the woman, though, so we're kind of back to square one."

"Figures," Bas grumbled, all traces of his previous good mood fading fast.  "Between this and the Unker business . . ."

Gunnar nodded.  "Otou-san said that Cain's pulling us off our investigations until he's found."

Bas shrugged. "Then I don't have to brief you on that stuff.  Did Toga tell you anything else?"

Gunnar snorted—an unusual sound, coming from him.  "He did," he acknowledged.  "He also said that Ben took Charity and the twins to his place down in Mexico.  Is he sure that it's safe enough down there?"

"As safe as anywhere," Bas allowed.  "Probably safer than staying in the city at the moment."

"Did Grey follow them?"

Bas nodded, draining his beer and lifting the bottle to ask the waitress to bring him another.  "Not yet, and not sure if he's going to be sent.  From what I understand, it should be relatively safe.  Ben owns a small island down there, so if anyone comes out there, it's not like they'll be able to sneak up on them."

Gunnar considered that as he slowly shook his head.  "They need to put a rush on the adoption," he said.  "There's nothing that Unker can do once it's official."

"Yeah, well, he could still try," Bas insisted.  "It's not like they're too concerned about going against the tai-youkai—or the human authorities, for that matter."

"They won't touch Charity's pups," Gunnar replied, a steely glint entering his gaze.  "Not if I have anything to say about it, anyway . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

Charity frowned as she stepped out of the master bathroom and into the bright and airy bedroom that Ben had insisted that she use, even though she'd tried to argue with him.  Given that it was his house, it seemed wrong to take over the room, and yet, she couldn’t quite bring herself to tell him that he ought to at sleep there, too.  She'd offer to sleep on the sofa if she thought for even a moment that he'd agree to it.  He wouldn't, and she knew it.  He was too upstanding for it to be a viable option. 

'What do you want, Cherry?  Really?'

Biting her lip at her youkai's softly uttered question, she absently squeezed the ends of her hair in the towel.  'I don't know what you mean.'

'You do, too, and lying to yourself isn't really going to help anything, don't you think?'

'Just what am I supposed to say?  That I . . . What?'

'You can say it, you know.  It's not that bad, but if you can't admit to yourself what you really do want, how are you ever going to be able to fight for it?'

'Fight for what?' she shot back, glaring at nothing in particular as she tossed the towel toward the bathroom and dug her fingers into her hair to finger-comb the strands.  'There has to be something there to fight for, and there isn't . . .'

'Don't be silly!  Of course, there is . . . So, Minami's appearance was a brief distraction—'

'Brief distraction?' she echoed incredulously as she stalked over to the dresser and yanked up her hairbrush.  'Way to put a nice face on it . . .'

'And yet, Ben said that he didn't want to kiss her—he wants to kiss you—so you tell me, what does that mean to you?'

That was the problem, wasn't it?  She didn't know what it meant, not really . . .

Stepping out of the sliding glass doors onto the sandstone patio, she let out a deep breath and stared up at the moon, absently tugging the brush through her hair as she wandered off the patio and down toward the water's edge and sank down in the sand, feeling the slight chill of the night breeze coming off the water and ignoring it, just the same.

It looked so lonely, didn't it?  The moon, so high in the sky, that was faded just slightly on the one side . . . The stars weren't near enough to touch it, hanging there, glimmering, shining, beckoning,  yet so very far away . . . She understood that, didn't she?  That feeling of being so close, but not nearly close enough, knowing deep down that there really was no way that she could breach that distance, either . . .

It was painful—horribly painful—and she knew deep down that it was a pain that she'd taught herself how to cope with a long time ago, that somehow, it had become a part of her—that ache so deep, so vast, so unyielding, and always, always right there, below the surface . . .

From the first moment she saw him at the fundraising benefit soiree that Gin-oba-chan had hosted so long ago, she'd felt compelled to be near him.  That was it was, wasn't it?  A compulsion—something she just couldn't bring herself to ignore, and she'd hoped so wildly, so ridiculously back then?  Even when a part of her had realized at the time that she was little more than a silly child, had known that he probably thought that she was utterly stupid . . . And she hadn't been able to convince herself that her heart didn't need to start racing whenever she felt the brush of his youki, that she really didn't need to take that time, to look around in hopes that he'd miraculously show up, whenever she went out . . . That she didn't need to spend hours at a time, trying to come up with this reason or that one—reasons that might make sense for her to find him, to talk to him . . .

To just be near him . . .

The brush fell out of her slack hand as she wrapped her arms around her bent knees.

She was stupid, wasn't she?  Stupid, pathetic . . . 'Baka . . . baka, baka, baka . . .'

A single star streaked across the heavens, growing brighter with every passing moment until it flashed once then sputtered in the darkness: the last gasp of a dying star . . . The beauty, the sadness, was a palpable thing to her—that same swelling deep down, the same vain hope that she would burn brilliantly once again; that maybe, just maybe . . .

She felt a single tear slip down her cheek, felt the acute pain in the very core of her, so staggering, so encompassing, so helpless . . . The dying star . . . How long had it fought to stay?  How hard had it tried to retain the dignity and glory that it once held so easily . . .?  Losing that battle, it streaked across the heavens . . .  As horrifying as it was beautiful, as sad as it was poetic, and yet . . .

And yet, she understood, didn't she?

She knew how that star felt, too . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

She didn't know how long she'd been sitting there, staring up at the empty spot in the sky where the fallen star had been.  The moon had shifted, climbing just a little higher as the chill in the air grew.  Somewhere in the back of her mind, she thought that she ought to go back inside soon.  Still, she didn't move, just hugging her legs a little tighter, letting her chin sink a little lower on her raised knees . . .

The sudden yet gentle tug of her brush through her hair, however, made her sit up straight, and she glanced over her shoulder, her expression awash with a confusion that stemmed from somewhere deep down as Ben knelt behind her, carefully pulling that brush through her locks, and he didn't speak a word.

"B-Ben . . ."

He let out a deep breath, his face a study of highlights and shadows in the darkness.  Lips turning up in the barest hint of a smile, he slowed the drag of the brush just a little.  "Your hair is beautiful, did you know?"

She shook her head, forced herself to look forward once more, as the frown on her face shifted into an expression of profound confusion.

"I didn't want to disturb you," he admitted in the same soft, gentle tone.  "You looked so deep in thought, but I . . . I could feel it, you know?  I could feel you, slipping farther away from me."

Swallowing hard as she bit down on her lip, she didn't answer, couldn't respond as that pain so far down swelled and blossomed and grew, rising up in her, threatening to choke her.  It was ugly and hurtful . . . So why did she cling to it so desperately . . .?

"Tell me, Charity . . ."

She turned her face slightly, opened her mouth a time or two, before shaking her head sadly, before shifting her gaze back to the sea.

"How do I reach you?" he went on when she didn't answer.  The raspiness in his voice dug deep at her, made her forget to breathe for just a moment.  "How do I bring you back to me?"

"I'm right here," she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

He sighed, and the brush hesitated for a second before resuming the rhythmic tug that felt like the waves as they coursed toward the shore once more.  "You aren't," he said, his words sad, a sense of melancholy so deep that Charity could feel it.  "I wish . . . I wish I could explain things—make you understand, and if I were better with words . . ."

"What would you say, then?" she challenged quietly, her back stiffening though she didn't move at all.  "What would you explain?"

He didn't answer right away.  He didn't answer.  The brush stilled, and he set it aside as he scooted around to face her, his back to the ocean, his knees spread: one behind her, one beside her, and he stared at her for a few long heartbeats, his eyes veiled in the night shadows.  Charity wasn't sure what he was thinking, even less sure, just what he was doing, but he grasped her hands in his and leaned down, letting his forehead drop against hers as he closed his eyes, as hers drifted closed, too . . .

'Charity . . .?  Can you . . .?  Can you hear me . . .?'

Her gasp was audible in the quiet of the beach.  'B . . . Ben . . .?  How do I . . .?'

'Not Ben, exactly, no . . . But I'm not not Ben, either . . .'

'But . . . Why can I hear you?'

'Hmm . . . you know, I'm not sure.  You're the first person I've ever been able to talk to this way . . . But it may have something to do with Ben.  I mean, you get stronger as you age, as you learn to harness your youki to your full potential, and, while I'm not so sure that Ben is at the level of full mastery yet, that might be why I can talk to you.  As far as I know, though, you're the only one I can talk to, Ben notwithstanding . . .'

'But why me?'

His youkai-voice sighed.  'Come, now Cherry . . . You must know why.'

'I . . . I don't . . . I mean, it doesn't make sense; not really . . . Ben . . .'

'You're the first person, did you know?  The first person that we've let get this close in a very long time.  It's easy to be friendly and personable.  It allows for a certain level of detachment that no one actually realizes is even there.  Fooled into believing that they're close when, in reality, they aren't.'

'That's not true at all,' she thought with a frown.  'Ben's not—you're not—not like that . . .'

'We're not perfect.  The only way to survive as long as we have is to attain that space, that area no one is able to cross.  Especially when you're alone, you learn over time that everything is transient, that everything changes, and if you want to deal with those changes, you have to take that step back . . . or go crazy.  And Ben?  He's been alone—truly alone—for a very, very long time.'

Ben sighed.  'All right.  That's enough of the 'Let's-Make-Ben-Look-Bad' game, okay?'

His youkai snorted.  'You promised you'd shut up and let me do the talking, didn't you?'

'Then stop making me sound so pathetic, will you?'

'I wasn't, although, for the record?  You don't really need my help to make you look pathetic, Ben. Just sayin' . . . I was just explaining a few things to her, so now that it's all out of the way, I'll continue—if you'll shut up now.'

'By all means.'

'Good.'

Charity giggled despite herself.

Ben sighed again.

'Anyway, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted . . .?  Ah, yes . . . You're the closest person that Ben has, you know?  There isn't anyone else . . . Even Kyouhei, brother or not . . . It doesn't mean  very much when he's purposefully been kept out of his brother's life for . . . centuries, really . . .'

'Because I'm here,' she replied quietly, sadly.  'Because . . . Because of the babies . . .'

'No, not because of the babies.  It's because of you.  I hated all those years that we waited, being patient, being noble . . . But Ben thought you needed that time, and maybe you did, but that didn't make it any easier . . .'

'But . . . But Ben . . .' She grimaced.  The words, even in thought . . . They hurt.  'I . . . I don't understand . . .'

'I'm sorry, Cherry.  I really cannot explain any of that.  That's Ben's part to get right or to screw up.  I just wanted you to know . . . It's you—only you.'

Ben sighed as he pulled away from her, just enough to end the mental connection.  The breeze lifted his hair, blew it against her face, and she opened her eyes slowly, almost cautiously, only to find him staring at her.  He let go of her hands, only to brush the back of his knuckles against her cheek.  "I'm not asking you to forgive me, Charity," he said, his voice little more than a whisper.  "All I'm asking is that you don't shut me out."

She stared at him for a long moment.  Could she do that?  Did she dare?  To let him in without question, without reservation?  The uncertainties still whispered in the back of her mind, and yet, all he really was asking for was a chance, wasn't he?  A chance to prove to her that maybe, just maybe, she was wrong . . .

If she closed him out, she'd end up with nothing.  If she didn't, she still ran that risk, but what if . . .?

Heaving a tumultuous breath, she pursed her lips, shook her head just a little.  "Okay," she whispered, unable to trust her voice not to break.  "O-Okay . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

"There has been a rash of killings in and around the Fukuoka area," Sesshoumaru said via video feed, his expression giving away nothing  of his thoughts on the matter.

Toga frowned.  "Fukuoka," he repeated.  "Right in the midst of Tetsuo's stronghold."

"And just north of Muira's."

"Anything you know about them?" Cain asked.

Sesshoumaru's gaze narrowed just the tiniest bit.  "The perpetrator did very little to hide his identity.  In fact, he barely wore a concealment at all.  Wakashi Eikishi: komodo-dragon-youkai.  Four dead so far, no real reason behind the acts, all seemingly at random."

"So, it's a trap," Toga concluded.  "They want me to send Ryomaru in, just like Kyouhei-san said."

"That is the assumption," Sesshoumaru said.  "Too bad the damned baka overheard a discussion I was having with your mother about it all.  He's not very pleased with the order to stand down."

Toga grunted.  Nope, considering how reactive Ryomaru tended to be, that wasn't really surprising in the least . . . He sighed, slouching to the side as he propped his elbow on the arm of the chair and rubbed at his temple.  "I'll talk to him," he promised.

"I already did," Sesshoumaru replied.  "He will stay put until told otherwise."

"But how long can we let it slide?" Toga countered quietly.

Cain nodded slowly, knocking the ash off his cigarette in the crystal ashtray on his desk.  "If they're trying to lure out Ryomaru, they're going to keep on killing until he steps in," he stated.

InuYasha snorted.  "Keh!  I'll take care of it when I get back," he growled.

"And they would be even more pleased to kill you, baka," Sesshoumaru pointed out.  "They hate hanyou—you especially—almost as much as I do."

"Kiss my ass, you old bastard!  That old Tetsuo don't even have to do a damn thing.  I'll be more than happy to wipe you off the face of the earth!"

"If you think you can, InuYasha."

"I fucking know I can!"

Cain sighed and rolled his eyes.  Toga nodded at the North American tai-youkai in complete agreement.  "In any case," he said, raising his voice to be heard over the petty quibbling of the Brothers of the Fang, "I think it might be time to ask Kyouhei to join us . . . See if he knows anything else."

Sesshoumaru nodded.  "Contact me when you've made arrangements."

"I will," Toga said.

The video link ended, and InuYasha snorted indelicately as he headed for the door.

"Where are you going, Yasha-oji-chan?" Toga called after him.

"Keh!  Where do you think?  Gonna go get packing and call the airlines—see how hard it's gonna be to get Captain back to Japan . . ."

Toga heaved a sigh as InuYasha strode out of the office.  "He cannot just go charging in there, swinging Tetsusaiga, and blowing stuff to Kingdom Come."

Cain nodded, staring at the door thoughtfully, as though he expected the volatile hanyou to storm back into the room again.  "Sesshoumaru can talk him out of doing anything rash—I hope."

Toga made a face, mostly because Cain really didn't sound at all confident in his prediction.  "We need to devise another plan," he said.  "Something they won't expect."

"I'll call Ben," Cain said.  "He'll have Kyouhei's number."

 

 


 

 

 

"I don't like that suit."

Ben blinked and glanced down at himself for a moment before cocking an eyebrow at Charity and the very pronounced scowl on her pretty features.  "But you picked it out," he reminded her.

Waving a hand in blatant dismissal as she nodded quickly, she wrinkled her nose.  "I know," she said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world.  "That was before I realized that you're way overdressed.  That's all."

He frowned.  "But the girls are wearing velvet, and that's pretty fancy," he pointed out.

She nodded, shifting Emmeline to her other side as she stepped over to the closet once more to rifle through the selection of clothes he'd brought along for the trip.  "Yeah, but I'm not," she murmured, concentrating on his shirts.  "Besides, that looks too stuffy for Christmas."

Ben chuckled, stripping off the jacket and carefully dropping it over the back of a chair.  "Stuffy . . . Okay."

"Perfect!" she exclaimed, yanking an off-white ribbed turtleneck from the back of the closet with the rest of the things that he kept here but never actually wore.  Reigning in the desire to make a face at the garment, he started unbuttoning his shirt.  If it made her happy, he'd wear it, he supposed.  With any luck, it wouldn't take long to get the pictures she wanted since he was pretty sure that he was going to be ridiculously warm in that . . .

'Think of the benefits here, Ben.'

'And what would those benefits be?'

'Charity wants family pictures, stupid.  Family pictures with you . . .'

He supposed that it was a good enough reason to wear the turtleneck, and he tugged it over his head without complaint.  At least it was a thinner knit, though he really couldn’t remember where he'd gotten it, in the first place.  "Better?" he asked as he pulled his hair out of the ridiculous neckline.

"Ye—No," she said, pointing down at his slacks.  "Those really don't go . . ."

"I could put my towel on," he suggested.

She wrinkled her nose, but giggled.  "Do you have any jeans?"

Ben heaved a sigh and stepped over to the closet to retrieve a pair of jeans—actually, the only pair of jeans in there.  He hadn't worn those in a very long time, either . . . "Are my pants going to show in the picture?" he couldn't help asking.

"They might," she said.

"Okay," he replied, heading toward the bathroom to change.

It really didn't matter, what she suggested that they do.  He'd go along with it as long as it made her happy.  After the breakthrough he'd had with her last night, she could suggest that he dance naked on the beach with the entire populace of Mexico watching from the mainland with binoculars, and he'd do that, too—happily so.

'Face it, Ben. You're kind of pathetic.'

'Call it what you want.  Besides, aren't I supposed to go out of my way to make sure she's happy?'

'Ben . . . You're wearing . . . a fucking . . . turtleneck . . .'

Ben made a face.  'It's just for the pictures . . . and then I'll conveniently lose it.'

'. . . Good plan.  Oh!  Give it to the babies and accidentally on purpose lose the claw covers!'

'Are you suggesting that I use my daughters for nefarious deeds?'

'Nope, I'm suggesting that you let the tear that damn turtleneck to shreds because Cherry won't get mad at them for it.'

'No . . . I mean, if they were older so that I could tell them to do it, that'd be one thing, but with my luck, they'd just snuggle under it and go to sleep . . .'

His youkai-voice sighed as Ben fastened the jeans and grabbed the door handle.

"Great!" Charity exclaimed as he stepped out of the bathroom.  She handed Emmeline to him and picked up Nadia off the bed before grabbing his hand and pretty much dragging him toward the door.  Staring down at her hand in his, he couldn't help the smile that surfaced.

She led the way to the living room, where she'd already set up the new camera she'd purchased, hooking it into the television.  He started to reach for the remote control trigger, but she was faster, snatching it up and nodding toward the overstuffed tan sofa.

He obediently sat down, settling Emmeline on his lap and fussing with the full skirt of her green velvet Christmas dress and finger-combing her now-shoulder-length hair.  The baby, however, wasn't even slightly interested in having her picture taken as she latched onto Ben's hand and bit down on the length of his index finger, instead.

Charity giggled as she sat down beside him.  Nadia spotted the remote in her hand and squealed loudly as she tried to get to it.  "Smile, Ben," she said, moments before she snapped the first picture.  "That's not a smile!  You look like you're going to eat Em!" she complained.

"No, but she seems to be trying to eat me," he pointed out.

She rolled her eyes, despite the smile on her face, and she snapped a few more pictures.  Just before she took another, he reached over and tickled her side.  She yelped and laughed, and in her reaction, she also managed to press the trigger button.  Ben chuckled at the image that popped up on the television for ten seconds.

"That's terrible!" she complained despite the giggles that were still slipping from her.

"I think I like that one best," he countered.

She tried to look stern.  It didn't work.  The babies, however, upon hearing the laughter surrounding them, giggled and screeched in excitement.  They were still smiling, too, when Charity snapped another picture.

Ben's laughter died down as he stared at the shot on the television, but his smile lingered.  "That's the one," he said.  No one was looking at the camera, but they didn't have to be.  They were all looking at one another, and the joy on their faces was unmistakable.

Charity uttered a happy little sigh as she hit the pause button and set the remote on the table.  "Yeah," she agreed as she stared at the image.  "Yeah . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Damn."

Kyouhei sat back, nodding slowly as he waited for Ben to fully wrap his head around the information he'd just dropped on him.

It didn't take long.  "It's starting already," he muttered, scowling off to the side, his gaze coming to rest on Charity as the woman dug in the sandy dirt near the patio, half-hidden under the wide brim of the sun hat she'd bought a few days ago during one of the trips she'd talked Ben into.  She'd wanted to buy some plants to help stop the area around the patio from eroding.  The twins were near her in the shade of a festive yellow umbrella, confined in the safety of the travel play pen she'd set up so they could watch her.

"That's the gist of it," Kyouhei replied.  "InuYasha-sama and his mate flew back yesterday, so whether Sesshoumaru-sama can control his brother is anyone's guess.  I almost think that Tetsuo would be even more pleased to see him walk right into their trap instead of Ryomaru."

"And chichiue?  Have you heard from him?"

"Aside from asking when I plan on coming home, he hasn't had anything new to say," Kyouhei admitted.

Ben's gaze narrowed, and he slowly shook his head.  "Chichiue . . . He doesn't know you're here, does he?"

Kyouhei snapped his mouth closed on whatever he was going to say, shifting slightly in his chair as he leaned his head to the side and grimaced.  "He knows I'm in New York City . . ." he hedged.

Ben's frown deepened.  There was something strange about Kyouhei's demeanor.  If he were talking to him in person, he could probably get a better handle on it, but it was far more difficult to tell over the confines of the video feed.  "Why do I feel like there's a 'but' in there somewhere?" he asked instead.

Kyouhei managed a wan smile—an expression that touched his lips and went no further.  "Toga-sama has asked that I return home, too," he said, his gaze darkening with a foreboding so thick that Ben could see it.  "He . . . He wants me to join otou-san's faction."

"He wants you to spy for them."

Kyouhei nodded once. 

"What'll you do?"

Shaking his head slowly, his gaze shifting away from the camera of his laptop, Kyouhei let out a deep breath.  "In truth?  I don't know," he admitted.  "I know what they're doing is wrong, and I know that they cannot be allowed to gain strength . . . If they were to come to power, it could prove . . . catastrophic in many ways . . ." He sighed and grimaced.  "They want to return glory to the youkai—to stop hiding what we are, and in doing so . . ."

Ben nodded.  "In doing so, the humans will have to be subjugated."

Kyouhei grimaced.  " . . . Or annihilated—except for those who would swear to serve us, that is . . . ."

"That's madness," Ben murmured.  "Does he fully comprehend the absolute scope of something this . . . this . . .?"

"I don't know what he does or doesn't realize, honestly," Kyouhei admitted quietly, his gaze darkening as his own inner turmoil boiled high.  "I understand that what he's plotting is wrong—dead wrong.  I understand, but . . ."

"But he's your father," Ben finished for him, appreciating a little too well, just what was going through Kyouhei's mind.

"Yours, too," Kyouhei reminded him.

Ben shook his head, digging his hand into his hair, resting his elbow on the back of the sofa.  "I settled everything with him a long time ago," he said.  "We walked away from each other, and I don't think that he's ever looked back.  I know I haven't."

"Because you chose to follow Zelig-sama's father."

He couldn’t contain the trace of bitterness that tinged his voice when he spoke.  "Because he couldn’t control me, and that's never, ever sat well with him.  His affection has always come at a price: unquestioned loyalty to him and him alone . . . But you already knew that, didn't you?"

"It would be simpler if I could agree with what he's doing, what he's hoping to accomplish," Kyouhei said.  "He's wrong.  I know he's wrong.  I've told him that he's wrong, and still . . ."

Ben sighed, shook his head slowly, almost methodically.  "What you do from here is entirely up to you," he said, taking his time, measuring his words, painfully aware of the familial bond that simply didn't exist between himself and his younger brother—at least, not in the sense that should matter or that would make it easier for Ben to proffer advice in any kind of real older brother capacity.  That was the reason, after all, why Kyouhei never actually addressed Ben in such a way, either.  The only times he'd attached 'nii-san' to his words were during moments of sarcasm or even veiled hostility.  Despite all that, he still couldn’t help but to feel obligated to look out for Kyouhei, in whatever capacity that Kyouhei would allow . . . "If it's too difficult, you can always back away: let things happen and just observe.  Or you can bend to chichiue's demands and ignore what you feel in your heart is right . . . Or you can do what you can to stop this madness before it escalates into something far worse.  To be honest, I can understand all three of those options, and if I were you, I'm not entirely certain which way I'd go . . . But no matter what choice you make, just . . . make sure it's one you can live with, because the future is a very long time, and regrets are a hard thing to ever truly reconcile."

Kyouhei considered Ben's words, his expression giving nothing away.  Somewhere along the line, he'd gotten damn good at hiding those emotions that might give someone else the upper hand.  It was the same sort of ability that Sesshoumaru possessed in spades.  The only thing left for him was to learn how to blank his gaze.  Just now, however, his face was turned to the side, staring out the windows, Ben supposed.  Finally, though, Kyouhei drew a deep breath and shifted his eyes back to the camera again.  "There is one more consideration that I haven't told you yet," he admitted quietly, a strange sense of dread underlying his words.  "If everything were nothing more than a game of right and wrong, the choice would be easy, but it's not, and . . ." Trailing off, Kyouhei grimaced, and in that moment, he could have been as old as the sea, the earth, the wind, the very universe itself.  "It's . . . It's the real reason why I came to find you."

"All right," Ben said, trying to make sense of the undertone and failing miserably.

Kyouhei sighed, shook his head, as though he was having trouble, trying to figure out exactly what to say.  "I was going to go to Sesshoumaru," he said, gaze darkening to a more turbulent shade of grayish-blue—of steel or sleet or granite.  "Otou-san . . . You know as well as I, he will never, ever listen to reason.  He's spent centuries, nursing this animosity, this feeling that he's been so callously betrayed that it's become second nature to him.  He's filled with such hatred, such bitterness now, and . . ."  He grimaced, closing his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.  "I don't know if he realized that it was my intention to stop him, and so he sought to thwart me in the only way that he thought he could or . . ." Trailing off, he uttered a humorless laugh, an incredulous sound.  "There's nothing altruistic in what he's done—no love, no honor—nothing but a base desire to protect himself in whatever way he can."

Ben scowled at Kyouhei.  "What has he done?"

Kyouhei shrugged.  "Okaa-san . . . She's pregnant."

 

 


 

 

 

Hecht Unker slipped into the run-down house just as the sun was rising, narrowing his eyes at the filmy darkness that blanketed everything but never really faded out entirely.  Pressing his fingers against the panel beside the door to reset the alarm, he dropped the duffle bag on the floor and kicked it out of the way.  Off in the distance toward the back of the house, he could hear sounds coming from the kitchen, could smell the bitter tinge of coffee, the oily scent of bacon.  Grimacing as his stomach reminded him that he hadn't had a decent meal in days, he strode through the living room and into the hallway, the heels of his boots cracking like thunder against the old and creaky hardwood floor.

"Your daddy's sleeping.  Leave him be," Brenda Unker said when he stepped into the kitchen.  "You find those babies?"

"No, but I know where they are," he said then shrugged.  "Kind of, anyway."

Casting her son a no-nonsense glare, she impatiently pushed back a dirty strand of dull orangey-yellow hair that had escaped the careless ponytail that hung down her back.  "Kind of?" she repeated derisively as she turned the bacon in the pan.  "How do you, 'kind of' know where they are, boy?  Either you do or you don't."

Hecht grunted, dumping coffee into a dingy old mug.  "I overheard them talking," he replied.  "They said someone named Ben had them, that he'd taken them to his place in Mexico."

"Mexico?" she hissed, her bony elbows jutting out to her sides as she angrily shook the frying pan.  "Damn!  And how are we supposed to pay to get them back here from that far away, I'd like to know!"  She sighed suddenly, letting go of the pan, only to grip onto the counter on either side of the stove, shoulders rising as she slumped forward, dropping her head as she slowly shook it from side to side.  "Guess the askin' price just went up . . ."

Hecht drained half of the coffee in his mug, ignoring the scalding burn, as he took the few steps that separated him from his mother to reach around her to nab a piece of bacon from the platter she'd already been filling.  "Asking price of what?" he garbled around a mouthful of bacon.

His mother shot him a droll sort of look before resuming her task again. "Them babies, of course!"

He stopped mid-chew as a frown surfaced on his face.  "Thought you wanted them back so you could raise 'em," he said.

She snorted.  "Can't afford to feed the slobs I've got here now, not between you and your old man," she scoffed.  "Found a woman who wants 'em and is willing to pay a small fortune.  All we gotta do is bring them babies here, and it's a done deal."  She laughed suddenly, gray eyes shining, making her appear much, much younger than she usually looked.  "Call it an inheritance from your damn uncle."

Narrowing his eyes as he shoved another piece of bacon into his mouth, Hecht frowned.  It was one thing, wasn't it, to look for the twins when he thought that his parents wanted to do right by them, but . . .

'But . . .'

Brenda hurried over to the doorway that led to the back of the house.  "Jeet!  Jeet!  Get your old ass out of that bed and get out here!  Your boy's home, and he's got news!"

Hecht straightened up, hearing his father long before he saw him: the creaking old house quaking as Jeet Unker's feet smacked down against the aged and cracked tile floor.  Setting the empty coffee cup aside as he crossed his arms over his chest and waited, Hecht didn't try to hide the scowl on his face as his father finally lumbered into view.  "Where are them babies?" he demanded without preamble, his gaze shifting over the kitchen as though he expected the twins to be present and accounted for.

"Mexico," Hecht replied.

"Mexico?  Fucking Zelig sent them to Mexico?"

"Someone named Ben," Brenda added.  "Any idea who that might be?"

"Damnation!" Jeet thundered, glaring at his son in an entirely accusatory kind of way.  "Ben, y' say?  Hell, there could be a thousand Bens . . . Well, what are you waiting on, boy?  Go out there and find 'em!  We need those babies!"

"Why?" Hecht asked, crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned back against the counter.  "I mean, if all you're gonna do is give 'em to someone else, then why not just leave 'em where they are?"

Flashing across the floor in a blur of motion, Jeet grabbed Hecht by the front of his shirt, dragging him forward until their faces were separated by mere breaths.  "Are you arguing with me?"

Hecht didn't back down, shoving against Jeet's chest hard enough to make him stumble back.  Jeet didn't let go of Hecht, though, as his arm shot out, his fist balled up, connecting with Hecht's jaw, sending the younger man spinning back, crashing hard against the counter.

"Get outta here, boy," Jeet growled, shaking his hand like it was in pain.  "Get your ass down to Mexico, and find those babies, do you hear?  And don't you fucking dare show your damn face around here again without 'em or I'll kill you m'self!"

Straightening his back slowly as he held onto his chin and worked it back and forth, Hecht glared at his father.  "Yeah, fine," he muttered, yanking his arm away when Brenda tried to catch him, to make him stay.

Heading down the hallway toward the front door, Hecht spit out a mouthful of blood onto the rickety old floor, but didn't stop moving.

'Find those babies?' he thought with an inward snort as he squelched the rage that frothed, thick and ugly, deep down.  'All right . . . Sure . . .'

 

 


 

 

 

"What are you thinking about, Benjiro?"

Pulling Manami closer against his side, their bare flesh still damp from the fine sheen of sweat that they'd worked up, and Ben frowned in the dimmed half-light inside the small hut that she used to share with her sister.  Setsuna, however, tended to prefer life inside the castle, and she rarely ventured out here any longer.  "Keijizen . . . He's been asked to become tai-youkai of the New World."

"Oh," she said, leaning up on her elbow, tracing the outline of his lips with a delicately tapered claw.  "And you will miss him."

Turning his face far enough to stare out the small window at the falling night, Ben couldn’t bring himself to meet her gaze, stubbornly tried to hold onto the peaceful sense of absolute lethargy that coursed through him as he ran a hand along the curves of her side, her hip.  She shivered despite the pervasive mugginess that lingered in the air even with the approaching darkness, and her scent shifted, attesting to the fact that she wasn't cold in the least.  "I . . . won't miss him, actually," Ben said.

She stiffened against him for a moment before relaxing against him once more, her fingertips trailing down over his chest, over his stomach, maddeningly close, but not quite close enough . . . "You're going with him," she said simply: a foregone conclusion that didn't seem to surprise her, either.

"I'm . . . I'm going with him," Ben agreed.

Dark eyes that shone nearly black in the twilight, burning with an intensity that he knew well enough, she stared at him for a long moment, her aura touched by an unvoiced sorrow.  "When will you go?" she asked quietly.

Ben had to clear his throat before he managed to answer.  "Tomorrow," he said.  "Sesshoumaru-sama arranged for us to gain passage upon a ship bound for the mainland in the morning."

"And your parents?  Surely you spoke with them?"

He made a face at the mere mention of his parents.  Considering they were the last people he wanted to talk about, he sighed, dragging his free hand over his face in a weary sort of way.  "I . . . I no longer have a father . . . or a mother," he heard himself saying, his voice oddly detached from the situation at hand.  "That is what they said."

"Because you'd follow Keiji-kun?  Hidekea-sama, perhaps, but Yukina-sama . . .?  She's your mother!  She wouldn't—"

"You know better than anyone that she will go along with whatever he dictates, Nami," he growled, then sighed, willing his rising ire to stop.  After all, it wasn't Manami's fault, not in the least . . . "Chichiue . . . He said if I choose to follow Keiji that I am a fool, and he . . . Well, he will not suffer a fool in his household."  Closing his eyes, drawing a deep breath as he willed away the residual anger, he held to the emotion for a brief moment longer . . . And then, he let it go and opened his eyes, scowling at Manami, the burn in his gaze redirecting with a lightning fast intensity as he deliberately tightened his grip, yanking her hard against him.  "Distract me, can't you?"

The absolutely coquettish way she ducked her head, lifted her gaze to peer up through the tangle of her eyelashes at him . . . The smolder that ignited behind the velvet blue of her gaze . . .

Catching her chin with a crooked index finger, Ben tilted her face up, kissed her softly, gently, as she rolled on top of him, using her entire body, creating a stroke and rhythm that made him groan.  The sound, captured in her mouth, reverberated through him, culminated in an ache so deep, so intense . . . "Come with me . . ." he murmured as she scooted down, trailing scorching kisses along his jaw, down his throat.  "Nami . . . You and I . . ."

She didn't answer him, her actions gaining a clarity, an almost calculated cunning.  Her hand slipped lower, lower, wrapping around the thickness of him as he rasped out a roughened growl, as coherent thought shifted into a primal urging . . .

"What are you thinking about, Ben?"

Blinking quickly as the last lingering wisps of memory evaporated before his face as easily as a morning fog, Ben glanced over, only to find Charity, leaning in the doorway.  She'd spoken those same words, hadn't she?  The same ones he'd heard in the recesses of his dreams, spoken by a different woman at a different time, and yet . . .

She pushed away from the doorway when he met her gaze, arms still crossed over her chest as she ambled toward him, as she sat down on the sofa beside him.  "You looked about a million miles away," she said simply.  "Want to talk about it?"

He sighed, slumping forward, elbows on knees, as he held out his hands in a completely helpless sort of way.  Uttering a terse laugh that was as dry and brittle as the winter winds back home, he cut himself off abruptly as Charity slipped her hand into his.  "Ch . . . Cherry . . ." he muttered, casting her a sidelong glance.  "That's what your youkai calls you, right?"

She smiled.  "A couple of my cousins do, too—occasionally, Mamoruzen does, as well."

He chuckled, relieved to find that it sounded much closer to what it ought to be.  "It's cute," he said, still unable to get past the rasping harshness that lingered in his voice.

She sighed, but made a face.  "Yup, that's me," she said, her tone a little too bright, a little too happy.  "Cute little Charity . . . I guess some things never change."

"You don't like being cute?"

She shook her head.  "Oh, I don't mind it," she said with a shrug.  "Just once, though, I'd like to be something else: cool and aloof like Coral or reliable and nurturing like Cass . . . or even just plain crazy and sexy like Chelsea . . ."

"For the record, cool and aloof is overrated," Ben told her.  "As for those other things . . . I think you're all those things, too."

She didn't look like she believed him, but Ben figured that was all right.  He had a long time to show her otherwise, didn't he?  He sighed as he shifted his gaze away once more.  That was, if he could do something to clear the path ahead first . . .

She sighed, biting her bottom lip in a decidedly nervous sort of fashion.  "I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head as she gave his hand an encouraging squeeze.  "Talking about myself when you obviously have something on your mind . . .Tell me what it is?"

Ben frowned.  Just what did he dare tell her?  Wanting to protect her about the Unkers was one thing since nothing had really solidified as yet, but the threat against her grandfather?  That was something entirely different.  That threat . . .

"There's a movement growing back in the Old Country," he admitted.  "They, uh . . . They want to see your grandfather removed as Inu no Taisho."

She went still for a moment.  Then she snorted.  "That'll never happen," she replied, the strength of conviction backing her words—her unerring belief in Sesshoumaru's power.  "Youkai talk about such a thing a lot—I know this—but I know, too, that there isn't a being on earth who comes close to ojii-san, in terms of power."

"These ones are cunning," he went on, not wanting to frighten her, yet unable to allow her to think that it was just some fly-by-night rumor, either.  "I don't know why, but I . . . I can feel it coming.  There's going to be a war.  I just don't know what kind of scope it will have."

"You're really worried about this," she said, frowning at him in that slow, calm way of hers.  "No matter how hard they try, though, the house of the Inu no Taisho will not fall."

"I hope you're right," he allowed with a sigh.

"I know I'm right.  I'm not just saying this blindly or because he's my grandfather.  I know the strength he possesses.  He might mask his true power, might not be given to blatant displays of what he's truly capable of, but I've seen it . . . I've sensed it."

He nodded slowly but didn't answer, frowning thoughtfully at their clasped hands instead.

Biting her lip as she stared at him, she reached over, took his other hand in hers, as well.  "What are you not telling me?"

Ben sighed, unconsciously tightening his grip on Charity's hands.  Was he trying to keep her from running?  Or was he simply needing something to hold onto himself . . .?  Either way, he didn't know.  The one thing that was certain to him was Charity, and as long as she didn't let go, he wouldn’t, either.   "One of the dissidents in charge . . . He's the man I used to call 'father'."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"This . . . is a really weird game, Cherry."

Charity giggled and reached over to take Emmeline from her father then handed over Nadia.  "You've got Nadi, so it's your turn."

Rolling his eyes, he still chuckled.  "I promise I won't bug your phone to listen in on calls from boys—after you're twenty-one."

"Wo-o-o-ow, Ben," she drawled, shaking her head, "that one's sad—really sad."

Ben's smile didn't diminish.  "Your turn."

"Hmm," she said, shifting her face to the side as she pursed her lips and pondered her next promise.  "Em, I promise that I'll break your daddy's surveillance equipment—Are you really going to be that bad of an overprotective father, Ben?"

Ben raised his eyebrows and glanced around before leveling a look at Charity.  "Yeah.  I am."

She heaved a sigh and traded babies with Ben yet again.  The girls thought the whole thing was great, even if they didn't understand what was being said.  "Okay.  I promise that I'll let you have candy whenever you want it so you get nice and chubby.  Maybe that'll keep the little shits at bay."

Charity made a face.  "And I promise you that I'll get you and your sister lifetime memberships at the gym of your choice."

Ben snorted indelicately.  "You're ruining my promises," he informed her.

She wrinkled her nose.  "Then be serious!  You're not going to do any of that stuff, you know!  Do you want them to grow up, hating you?"  She waved a hand.  "All right, so they may not hate  you, but you know you won't ever be their favorite person, right?"

"Yes, well, as much as I respect Toga the tai-youkai, I have to question just what he was thinking while raising you and your sisters.  I think you all had a little more freedom than you should have.  Just look how Chelsea turned out."

Cocking an eyebrow, Charity narrowed her gaze on the man.  "That's my papa you're disparaging," she reminded him.

Ben snorted.  "No, the more I think about it, the more I think that InuYasha had it right with Gin . . ."

Charity snorted.  Loudly.  "And she almost died, Ben, so no, I don't think he had it right, either."

"All right, so he was a little extreme.  Even so, you have to admit that the world is not a nice place, and I'd rather keep them safe from it than to let them go out there and get hurt in the process."

Charity sat back, snuggling Emmeline in her lap as the baby leaned forward, yammering away at her twin.  She was pretty convinced that they could understand one another.  It wouldn't surprise her.  She'd didn't remember a time when she couldn’t talk to Chelsea on some level.  "And yet, you have to let go, too, Ben.  You can't protect them their whole lives or they don't learn how to live in the world, either.  Papa understood this, and, yes, he was pretty protective, but he wasn't overbearing, either.  At a certain point, you have to let go and trust that you've given them a solid enough foundation that they can make those choices, and if they fail?  Then you just be there for them.  That's what my papa and mama did for me."

Ben sighed.  "You're going to be a better mother than I am a father; I just know it."

"It's not a contest, Ben," she pointed out gently.

He snorted.  "I just . . ." He sighed.  "My parents weren't exactly the most hands-on people.  I was left to my own devices a lot.  My earliest memories weren't of them.  I remember exploring and searching and . . . and spending days upon days, just wandering.  I'm sure I went home, of course, but I can't say I remember a lot of it, and in a way, it was good.  I grew to be independent, and yet . . . Maybe it wasn't such a good thing, either."

"Do you really think that?  I mean, wasn't that the reason why you were able to leave with Keijizen?  Because you were allowed the freedom to understand what your limitations were?  Because you developed a sense of independence from the way you were raised?"

"Yes, well, I'm sure they regretted that later," he muttered ruefully.  "Makes me wonder exactly how they raised Kyouhei.  Did they give him that much freedom?  Or did they fear that it would lead him to follow a different path than the one they wanted him to travel?"

"They used guilt a lot, if you must know."

Ben blinked and sat up just enough to peer over Charity as Kyouhei stepped out of the house and onto the patio.  "How did you get here?  I didn't even sense you . . ."

Kyouhei chuckled as he strode over and picked up Emmeline, only to heft her high in the air, much to the child's delight.  "I flew."

Ben nodded and rolled his hand.  "Yeah, I gathered that much."

Kyouhei's grin widened.  "No, I mean, I used my energy form, ba-a-a-a-aka."

Ben opened his mouth to say something, then snapped it closed as he sat up straight, casting a suspect eye around.  "You . . . You didn't bring Eddie with you, did you?" he asked.

Kyouhei chuckled.  "Was I supposed to?"

Ben snorted.  "Not particularly … I don't think this house is big enough for both of us, in any case."

Offering a little chuckle as Emmeline bounced in his arms in an effort to get him to swing her around again, Kyouhei shrugged.  "Yeah, she said that, too."

"Figures."

"Oh, and Zelig-sama asked that you give him a call as soon as you can," Kyouhei went on.  "It sounded fairly urgent."

Ben heaved a sigh as he carefully swung his legs off of the huge hammock and managed to stand up without upsetting Charity or Nadia.  "I'll be right back," he said, striding across the patio and into the house to find the satellite phone.

Kyouhei watched him go as he sat down on one of the nearby chairs.  "You seem to be in a lot better spirits than you were before you left.  The beach is good for you," he remarked after Ben disappeared from view.

Charity smiled, swinging off the hammock in favor of moving over beside Kyouhei.  "It is nice out here," she allowed with a shrug.  "Why did you come down?"

His smile faded, though he tried to hang onto it.  Then he sighed.  "I'm going back to Japan," he said.  "I just thought I'd come and say goodbye."

She frowned as Ben's words came back to her.  "One of the dissidents in charge . . . He's the man I used to call 'father'."

"Kyouhei-san . . . Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," he said, gently bouncing Emmeline on his knee.  "You can also drop the 'san', if you'd like."

"Ben . . . He said that your father . . . That he . . ."

"That he's plotting against your grandfather," he supplied in a matter-of-fact tone.  "It's true."

Charity frowned.  "Then why in the world would you go back there?  You . . . You're not . . .?"  She winced.  "I know he's your father, that you must love him.  If it were my father . . ." she shook her head, struggling to find words for what she was trying to say.  "It's just . . . If there's a battle—if it came to that . . ."

"He is my father," Kyouhei said as he stood up, shuffling over the patio as he considered what he was going to say.  "I don't know what Ben's told you, and, in truth, I have no idea what kinds of memories he has of otou-san.  I only know the man I know—the one who raised me.  The problem is, for every good memory I have of him, I have ten that aren't nearly as pleasant or are apathetic, at best.  For years, they would tell me that I had to be loyal, that I could never question otou-san's authority . . . That I was nothing outside of the family."  A cynical sort of sneer surfaced on his face, and Charity blinked.  Had she realized that he was even capable of that kind of expression?  "I was nearly one hundred years old before they saw fit to tell me about Ben's existence," he went on quietly.  "They said he'd betrayed them.  They said . . ." He swallowed hard, turned to stare over his shoulder at her, his eyes dark, angry.  "They said he was dead to them, and for years, I fostered hatred toward my brother—a brother I had never met.  But I started to hear whispers of him—Ben Philips.  He had never in his life ever taken the name my father had chosen—yet the things that came to me bespoke a different kind of man than the one that otou-san had condemned."

"Ben's a good man," Charity said, unable to keep the indignation from her voice.  "He's one of the best men I've ever met.  He's got more decency, more integrity, more—"

He chuckled and offered her a bow of his head.  "You don't have to laud his praises to me," he assured her.  "I couldn’t tell you when or how or why it happened, but slowly, slowly, that hatred I'd carried toward Ben . . . It became more of a curiosity than anything, so I traveled here then, but he was busy, and I wasn't entirely certain what to think of him . . .That visit ended fairly abruptly, I confess.  When I returned home, however, I started questioning things—things I hadn't before.  The unerring loyalty, the insistence that I never gainsay them . . . It wasn't a conscious decision by any means, but the things that I started to understand . . . And the one thing that I know is this: Ben has never gone out of his way to badmouth our parents, and what he thinks of the entire thing . . . Well, I have no real idea about that, either.  All I know is that Otou-san blames Sesshoumaru-sama for Ben's defection, and over the centuries, it has festered and grown into an ugliness that is just now bearing its rotten fruit."

She digested that in silence, idly stroking Nadia's hair.  It was true, wasn't it, that the things Ben had said to her about his parents weren't unkind as much as they were simply fact, as he saw it.  If Kyouhei saw it, too, though . . . "But if you know all this, if you've come to the same conclusions as Ben has, then why?  Knowing what you know, why would you go back?"

Kyouhei sighed.  "Your father's asked me to go back, to get more information if I can," he admitted.  "I've decided to help the Inu no Taisho—the real Inu no Taisho."

"At what cost?" she asked quietly.

"Sometimes," he said, a thoughtful frown surfacing, "the cost of silence far outweighs the price of one's conscience."  Lifting his face as he closed his eyes for a moment, as the wind blew in off the ocean, Kyouhei tucked Emmeline's head against his shoulder as she let out a contented breath.  "In this, there are no winners," he stated softly, his voice carrying to her on the breeze. "There are only losers who must decide how much they can stand to sacrifice—and why."

 

 


 

 

 

"Hi, babies!  How are you today?  Oba-chan will be there to visit you soon!"

Charity giggled as Chelsea did her best to make the twins laugh.  They stared at the television with varying degrees of confusion, probably because her voice was coming out of the satellite phone instead.

"Are you coming down here?  You should . . . The beach, you know . . . Ben owns this island, so there's that, too."

Chelsea sighed.  "I would—if I could find my passport.  I hope I took it out of that overnight bag I had—the Marcus Mebius one?  The one I donated for the benefit auction at the soup kitchen . . ."

Charity wrinkled her nose.  "Only you would donate something without checking the pockets first."

"I'll just apply for a new one if that one's missing.  No idea how long it'll take to get it from Japan, though."  Leaning in closer to the camera, Chelsea closed one eye as she dabbed mascara onto her lashes.  "So where's Super-Ben, anyway?"

"Hey, Cherry, have you seen—?  Oh, sorry to interrupt.  Hello, Chelsea.  You're looking entirely troublesome, just like always."

Chelsea batted her eyes a few times to dry her lashes.  To Ben, however, she probably looked like she was flirting, and for some reason, the idea of Chelsea doing such a thing made Charity giggle.  "Here he comes to save the day," Chelsea drawled.  "I hope you're keeping in mind what we discussed the last time we saw one another, Ben."

Charity frowned at the for a moment.  "What did you two discuss?"

"Nothing important, Chare.  We just came to an understanding of sorts, didn't we, Ben?"

He cleared his throat and picked up the girls.  "I would suppose that we did," he allowed before turning his attention to Charity once more.  "I'm going to go get them changed," he said, making an exaggerated face as he raised his eyebrows to emphasize his point.

"Oh, wait," she called after him, opting to ignore her twin for a moment.  "Were you looking for something?"

"Uh, it can wait," he assured her as he strode out of the room with the babies.

"You two seem to be getting along well," Chelsea remarked.

Charity made a face and hoped that her twin would miss it.  "Everything's okay," she allowed.

Chelsea arched a delicate eyebrow.  "So what was that face for?"

She should have known that there was no way Chelsea wouldn't have seen it.  "Just . . . You know, between the babies and . . . and stuff . . ."

"That doesn't sound too positive," Chelsea replied, a hint of something foreboding entering her tone.  "Let me talk to Ben again . . . Where'd he go?"

"No, Chels," she stated flatly.  "It's fine.  Just . . ." She sighed.  "It'll be fine, anyway."

Chelsea didn't look like she was ready to let it go.  Charity started to open her mouth to insist once more that everything was all right, but Chelsea spoke first.  "Well, since you're convinced that you can't tell me whatever it is you're not telling me, then I guess that's fine, but I did get your Christmas card . . . That picture is one of the cutest things I've ever seen."

Breaking into a self-conscious little smile since the picture she was talking about was the same one that they'd taken a couple days after arriving, she giggled.  "It was a good one, huh?"

"Yes," Chelsea stated. "It was.  You should blow it up and frame it.  I'm serious."

Glancing over at the five-by-seven print she'd already framed and sat on the mantle of the oversized fireplace, she laughed.  "I already did."

"Good!  Oh!  I was going to ask you, are you guys going to be home by Thanksgiving?"

"Probably not . . . Ben said that the Mexican general asked him to stick around for a few weeks.  I guess he's having some trouble with some vagrants who keep popping up here and there, causing trouble and generally being a nuisance, but they have conflicting reports as to whether they're human or youkai—something like that.  He didn't actually explain a lot to me, but that was the gist.  Anyway, I'm hoping that we are able to go back by Christmas."

"Okay, good.  Keep me posted.  Gin-oba-chan asked me to plan the Zelig Foundation Christmas party this year, so I'll be around, and I can't wait to see those little darlings again!  It's amazing, just how much they've grown in just a couple months!"

"Right?" Charity said.  "They're not supposed to grow this quickly, are they?"

"You're asking the wrong person, Chare," Chelsea replied.  "Listen, I'm sorry to cut you off, but I've got an old friend in town . . ."

"Oh?  Anyone I'd know?"

Chelsea laughed.  "Maybe," she hedged, winking at her twin. "Give Ben my best!"

"I will," she said.  A moment later, the feed cut off, and Charity set the satellite phone aside.

Letting out a deep breath as she stood up and wandered toward the doors, she stepped outside and smiled to herself, catching her hair in one hand and dragging the strands over her left shoulder.  It was a little windier today than it had been so far.  Still, it was by no means cold: a breezy seventy-two degrees—a definite improvement over the nearly freezing temperatures back in the City.

Stepping off the patio, she wandered down to the water's edge, dipping her toes into the salty spray.  The wind was whipping up some fairly decent sized waves, but they seemed to be breaking up well before they reached the shore.  Even so, the brisk breeze lifted the sprays of water rising up out of the Gulf of Mexico, hitting Charity with a fine mist that brought a surge of gooseflesh to her arms and legs.

Turning her head, watching the sun as it sank lower on the horizon, she couldn't help the small smile that quirked her lips.  There was just something magical about this time of evening.  How often had she and her siblings stopped playing, long enough to watch as the sun descended?  How often had Toga and Sierra sat in silence as the children played, and yet, every last one of them would stop, would wait for that insular moment.  Mama had said once that if you made a wish at the very second that the sun finally disappeared for the night, your wish would come true.  Chelsea had always wished for funny things: a doll or candy or things like that. Charity never had.  No, she had always waited and waited, and in that moment, that magical second, she'd make her wish—a wish for happiness, that she would find the one thing that would make her happy forever—if that was even possible.

And she stopped, ankle deep in the ever-flowing water, her pale peach crinkled-cotton dress blowing around her in a flirt of motion, damped by the mist rising off the sea, waiting for that moment while the sun slowly dipped lower and lower.

"Charity . . ."

Whirling around at the sound of Ben's voice, Charity blinked, stared at him, her smile fading  when she saw the absolute brightness in his eyes, the strange sort of fierceness alight in his gaze.

"Ben . . .?" she murmured as he stalked toward her, an efficacy in his every movement, and he closed in on her fast.

She gasped when he reached out, as he dragged her toward him, crushing her against him with one arm around her waist, as his mouth fell on hers with a fierce growl, as his free hand sank into her hair.  All she could do was to slip her arms up around his neck and hold on as the absolute shock that rattled straight through her culminated in a white-hot explosion in the very core of her.  Her knees gave way, but he caught her, steadied her, his lips pushing against hers, gently nudging her mouth open as his tongue stroked hers, tasting her as his fangs grazed her lips, setting off another round of tremors so deep, so profound, and all she could do was cling to him.

Pulling away just enough to redirect his attention, Ben trailed kisses along her jaw, down the hollow of her throat.  She gasped softly when his fangs raked over her flesh, hard enough to draw another surge of passion, gentle enough to make her shiver as her head fell to the side just enough to allow him better access.  His tongue, his lips, his fangs, and they all combined into a gush of heat that shot through her with all the finesse of a raging wildfire gone out of control.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she could feel the tease of his claws, dragging against her leg through the thin cotton, the tickle of the fabric of her skirt against her thigh, and yet, it made no sense, either . . . Shoving her hands up under the hem of his shirt, he half-groaned, half-growled as she slowly, haltingly ran her fingers over the taut skin of his stomach.  She needed to be closer, didn't she?  Listening to the whispers and the hushed entreaties, the need to touch him was as fierce as it was beautiful; as compelling as it was entirely right . . .

Her breath caught somewhere between her lips and lungs when the all-consuming fire of his touch rattled through her.  His palm on her bared hip as he crushed her against him, as his mouth fell over hers once more in a kiss meant to possess her, meant to define her . . .

The whimper that slipped from her was harsh in her ears when Ben pulled back, his breathing harsh, his heart resounding like thunder in her ear as she pressed her head against his chest, still holding onto him as though she were afraid to let go.

"Damn it," Ben growled, his voice a little harsher, a little more irritated, than she could credit.

"Huh . . .?" she murmured, tilting her head to look up at him.

Ben was glowering past her, and it took her a moment to realize that, whatever he was looking at had made him stop the kiss.

A very definite throat clearing, and a soft chuckle.  "Hate to disturb you, nii-san," Kyouhei remarked rather dryly.

"What?" Ben bit out.

Kyouhei smiled and gave a little shrug.  "There's someone here to see you . . . Says his name is Steve Vasquez."

Ben heaved a sigh, and he finally looked down at her, meeting her rather dazed expression.  "He has terrible timing," he grumbled.

Charity managed a weak laugh as Ben let go of her with one hand but kept the other around her waist to lead her back toward the house once more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"So, nii-san . . ."

"What?"

"If I hadn't come out to get you . . ."

"What?"

"Would you have claimed your mate right there in the water?"

" . . . Shut up, Kyouhei."

Kyouhei chuckled, watching as Charity disappeared into the house ahead of them.  She'd mumbled something about checking on the girls before darting away as fast as she could go, very obviously embarrassed at having been caught kissing Ben like that, if the becoming blush that stained her skin had meant anything at all. "Nii-san?"

Ben didn't answer.  Instead, he peered over his shoulder at him.

Kyouhei still looked entirely too amused, and that just figured.  "You've waited over seven hundred years to find her, didn't you?"

Somehow, Ben had the feeling that he wasn't going to like whatever his brother was trying to say.  "Yes . . ."

He nodded, as though something made perfect sense to him.  "Then might I suggest that when you do get around to claiming her as your mate that you do it somewhere a little warmer than the Gulf of Mexico in the middle of November?  Wouldn't want shrinkage, now would you?"

Ben uttered a terse grunt and kept moving, praying that his irritating sibling couldn't see the trace redness in his cheeks.  "I thought you were only going to be here long enough to say goodbye, Kyouhei."

"My plane leaves tomorrow.  Is that soon enough for you?"

Stepping into the house, Ben scoffed.  "No."

"Ah, Ben!  Good to see you!" Steve Vasquez greeted, stepping forward to offer a warm handshake.  "Can't remember the last time you came down this way . . . It's been, what?  Twenty years?  More?  And, if memory serves, you were here on vacation because Zelig told you to go and not to come back until you'd unwound yourself, right?"

Ben snorted.  "I believe the term he used was, 'get the stick out of my ass', but yes."

The Mexican axolotl-youkai chuckled.  "Get me a drink while we talk shop, Ben," he said.

"Uh, I'll get them," Kyouhei offered, striding past Ben and over to the kitchen bar.

Steve scratched his head as he narrowed his gaze on Kyouhei.  "Friend of yours?"

"No, worse.  He's my brother," Ben muttered.

Steve blinked, shot Ben a questioning glance.  "I didn't know you had a brother."

"Yes, well, live and learn," Ben replied acerbically.

Crossing his arms over his chest as he blatantly stared at Kyouhei, Steve frowned.  "He's really . . .  pretty. . ."

"Kind of looks like a girl, don't you think?"

Steve nodded.  "Got any sisters?"

"Just that one."

Steve nodded again.  "That's a shame."

Ben nodded, too.  "It is."

"Don't suppose he'd be willing to have a sexual reassignment done?"

"Nope, but thanks for the offer," Kyouhei remarked without looking up from his task of pouring drinks.

Ben flicked a hand in dismissal.  "He's just playing hard to get."

"So . . . I should offer dinner first?  Is that what you're saying?"

Ben nodded again.  "Yes."

"Here you are," Kyouhei said, handing both Ben and Steve each a glass of scotch.  "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've an early flight out tomorrow.  In case I miss you in the morning, thank you for your hospitality, nii-san."

Rolling his eyes as Kyouhei offered him a low bow, Ben broke into a wan smile as he turned his attention to Steve once more.

Steve, however, was scowling at Ben in an entirely thoughtful, if not somewhat creepy, kind of way.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Ben demanded after a long moment.

Steve shook his head slowly.  "Just trying to figure out how you look like you and he looks like . . . her?"

Ben snorted, but broke into the vaguest of smiles as he sat on the sofa and lifted the drink to his lips.  "Because he looks like hahaue—exactly like hahaue."

"I see . . ."

"I look much more masculine.  Just lucky, I guess."

Steve made a face.  "No-o-o-o," he drawled slowly, stroking his chin as he considered Ben's words.  "No, you're definitely on the pretty side, too—more of a dark and brooding sort of pretty, though . . ."

Ben rolled his eyes again.  "Go to hell, Vasquez."

Steve chuckled and lifted his glass in silent salute.

 

 


 

 

 

Tightening his grip on the beat up old duffle bag, Hecht brushed aside the trace weariness as he stepped out of the shadows of the squat adobe buildings of the tired yet quaint little village.  He'd hitchhiked most of the way, flagging down a few truckers who had been happy to help him out.  When he'd gotten close to the border, though, he'd opted instead to use his youkai form.  At his age, he wasn't much larger than a regular cougar, so he'd managed to slip over the border undetected.

Now, the real problem would begin.  Truth be told, he didn't have a hell of a lot to go on, and even then, he didn't know much in the way of Spanish, either.  All in all, it had started to seem like it might well be impossible to figure out exactly where he needed to go—until he'd remembered Diego, a young jackal-youkai who came from Mexico and who used to hang out with Hecht and his crew until they'd gotten busted on a hot weapons charge.  After his stint in the federal lockup, Diego had been deported back to Mexico.  He lived here, in this village, and he ran batches of untraceable handguns through the country and up into the States in a small enough operation that he was successfully able to stay under the radar for the most part.

Checking the address scrawled on the back of a bar receipt, Hecht scowled at the numbers on the door and gave a curt knock as he stuffed the paper into his pocket once more.

A tiny woman answered after the third knock.  Raven black hair, coal black eyes, and a rich olive skin tone, she looked him over in a generally distrusting fashion.

"I'm looking for Diego," he said, hoping that the woman spoke at least that much English.

"Diego?" she repeated, her eyes lighting up with a sense of recognition.  "You . . . You Unker?"

Hecht nodded.  "Yeah, yeah . . ."

The woman nodded, too, stepping back to allow him inside.

The place was dark but not unwelcoming, exactly, and containing a bare minimum of very old furniture.  The woman caught a small child that ran through the house, shifting him onto her hip as she gestured for Hecht to follow her.  The child spoke in rapid Spanish, refusing to take his gaze off of Hecht.  She shushed him with a hand over his mouth, glancing over her shoulder at Hecht to see if he understood, he supposed.  "He says you look like . . . like scarecrow from Wizard of Oz," she said with a grimace.  "He only—" she held up two fingers.  "—This many.  Sorry."

Hecht didn't comment.  Being told that he looked like a scarecrow?  Well, he supposed there were worse things . . .

She stopped outside of the door at the end of a short and narrow hallway and stood back, waving her free hand to gesture Hecht inside.  With a curt nod of thanks, he slipped past her, spotting Diego sitting on the bed with his cell phone up to his ear and a half-burnt cigarette dangling from his lips.  He nodded at Hecht and held up a finger, speaking in Spanish in a no-nonsense tone of voice.  After a brief exchange, he hung up and dropped the phone onto the rumpled blankets beside him, then dropped the spent cigarette butt in the ashtray.  "Hecht!  Long time, no see!" he exclaimed, rising to his feet as he held his arms out.

Hecht hesitated for a moment but hugged the man quickly, patting him on the back before letting go and stepping away.  "Sorry about that," Hecht muttered since the last time he'd actually seen Diego in person was just after they were arrested years before.

Diego made a face and brushed off the apology as he flopped back down on the bed once more.  "You still runnin' shit for your ol' man?" he asked, shaking out another cigarette before tossing Hecht the crumpled pack.

He pulled one out and caught the lighter that Diego tossed to him.  "Thanks," he muttered, lighting the cigarette and scowling at the burning end.  "Not that shit, no," he said with a shrug, ducking his head, letting his shaggy hair fall to cover his face.  "Was wondering, though . . . You got connections here, right?"

Diego wiped his mouth on the neck of the white wife beater  he wore and nodded.  "Yeah, of course.  King of the information superhighway, south of the border style.  You looking for info?"

Hecht nodded.  "Hi's dead," he said in a completely flat tone of voice.  "Challenged the Zelig and lost."

"Damn," Diego muttered, shaking his head as he knocked the ash off his cigarette into a mud-brown earthenware dish.  "Man, that sucks . . . What was he doin', being so stupid?"

Hecht shrugged.  "Anyway, his old lady gave the babies—twins—to the Zelig, and he gave them up to some guy named Ben, and Ben brought them down here to Mexico—something about an island he owns?  Think you can hook me up with some leads?"

Scrubbing a hand against his shoulder-length yellow hair, Diego made a face.  "Why you want 'em back?  I mean, they're just cousins, right?  No biggie."

Steeling his voice, Hecht shrugged again.  "Jeet wants 'em back.  He's got some lady lined up to . . . to buy them."

"Youkai trafficking?" Suddenly, Diego uttered a sharp laugh that was full of derision and a little irony.  "Ol' Jeet's hitting the big time, huh?"

"They're kin," Hecht muttered, taking a long, deep drag off the cigarette and leaning back as he blew out a steady stream of acrid smoke.  "They . . . They should be raised by kin . . ."

Diego's charcoal gaze narrowed as he stared at Hecht.  "What are you planning?" he finally asked.

Hecht snorted.  "Can you help me out or not?" he asked, ignoring Diego's question.

Smashing the cigarette out in the bowl, Diego let out a slow stream of smoke.  "A guy named Ben that owns an island, you say?  Well, ain't that many of those—at least, ones that can be owned by one individual.  Lemme make a few calls, yeah?"  He stood up, waved a hand to indicate that Hecht should, too.  "Come on, kid," he said, grasping Hecht's shoulder and propelling him toward the door.  "You look like you ain't had a decent meal in a decade."

 

 


 

 

 

Ben dropped another log on the fire and turned to face Charity as a small, almost bashful smile quirked the corners of his lips.  "You want something to drink?" he asked when she met his gaze.

"Sure," she said, sitting on the floor but leaning against the sofa with her elbow propped on the seat and her temple resting against her balled-up fist while she stroked Nadia's golden-brown hair.  It was still wispy and a bit on the fly-away side, and the baby slept peacefully on the floor beside Charity.  Emmeline was sleeping, too, cuddled up beside Nadia with her knees drawn up under her and her butt up in the air.

Chuckling to himself as he hurried over to pour two glasses of wine, Ben glanced out of the open windows at the heavy curtain of night that had fallen.

All in all, he had to admit that he was feeling pretty damn mellow, as though a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders that had everything to do with the kiss he and Charity had shared.  Maybe things weren't completely back to where they were before the debacle of Halloween night, but it was a close thing.  The image of Charity, standing in the shallows as the sun set in front of her was a powerful thing, sneaking unbidden right back into his head.

He'd gone out there to tell her that Steve was on his way, but had forgotten about that completely as he'd stopped, as he'd stood there, watching her, seeing the absolutely breathtaking way that her little dress had floated around her, the flirt of a skirt lifting and floating around her on the breeze as the sun bathed her in a golden glow that had lent her an entirely ethereal kind of glow, lending her a fire that emblazoned itself upon his very soul.  As he'd watched her, the dress seemed to melt away, hadn't it?  The peach crinkled-cotton, as sheer as gossamer in the light had hidden absolutely nothing of her, not from him, and he'd reacted on a purely primitive level.  And he knew, didn't he?  It wouldn't matter how long he lived, wouldn't matter what he'd see in the future yet to come, that insular image of her would remain in his memory forever . . .

"Here," he said offering her a glass that she took before he sank down beside her.  Leaning on the sofa in much the same way that she was, he reached out, let his fingers sink into her hair as she flashed him a little smile.  "Your eyes are sparkling, Cherry," he mused.

She bit her lip as her cheeks pinked prettily.  "I was just . . . thinking . . ."

"About?" he prompted when she trailed off.

She laughed softly.  "It's been a good day," she said.

"Any particular reason?"

She gasped then giggled and shook her head as her pink cheeks deepened in color.  "None that I can think of," she quipped.

Ben sucked in a sharp breath and winced.  "That was harsh," he complained.  "Ouch . . ."

"I . . . I'm glad I'm here with you," she said.

"Oh, yeah?"

She stared at him for a long moment, then nodded as her timid little smile widened.  "I want to kiss you again," he admitted with a sigh, "and I would, I promise—if we didn't have babies between us."

As if on cue, Emmeline uttered a little half-whine, scooching around as she awoke with a start.  Ben picked her up before she could start fussing in earnest, and he sighed.  "Why is everyone trying to ruin my best ideas today?" he complained with a chuckle.

Charity giggled as she set the glass aside and stood up.  "I'll get their bottles.  It's about time for them, anyway . . ."

Ben watched her go and heaved a sigh, fully appreciating the turn of her ankles, the shape of her legs . . . She wasn't tall by any means, but damned if she wasn't entirely perfectly proportioned . . .

"All right, Em," he said, his voice barely above a whisper, as he dragged his attention off of Charity and picked up the baby, instead.  "We need to talk.  You want to help Daddy, don't you?"  She blinked, her bottom lip sticking out to attest to the fact that she still wasn't entirely happy with the given situation.  He took the blink as agreement.  "I'll make you a deal.  If you and your sister will give Daddy a chance to spend some, 'alone time' with Mommy, I'll see what I can do about making her a more permanent fixture in our lives.  Fair?"  Emmeline heaved a petulant sigh, and Ben chuckled, cuddling her against his chest to wait for her bottle.

"Here you go," Charity said, hurrying back over with two bottles and handing one to Ben.  He took it as Emmeline kicked her feet and reached out with swinging fists.  Charity giggled and scooped up Nadia, who was more than happy to start eating without bothering to open her eyes.

The sounds of greedily eating babies drowned out anything else, and Ben chuckled as Emmeline struggled against sleepiness.  "Oh, no," Ben said, setting the empty bottle aside and lifting Emmeline against his shoulder as he grabbed a burp cloth off the floor beside him and tucked it under her head.  "No sleeping until you burp."  He'd tried putting her to bed without forcing the burp out of her before, and it had ended up badly, he remembered as he gently patted her back.  Nadia didn't always burp, and she was fine, but Emmeline?  Unless Ben wanted to deal with washing babies and changing sheets in the middle of the night, then it wasn't a good idea to let Emmeline go.

It didn't take long, anyway, and Ben made a face when the child spit up enough to run right off the rag and soak into his shirt in a hot gush of formula.  "Eh, thanks," he grumbled as Charity giggled and tossed him another rag.  "Sometimes you're a little gross," he told Emmeline, wiping her face carefully.  Nadia burped, too, and she spit up, but not anything close to Emmeline's version of the Coming of the Great Flood, Part II.

Charity laughed as she took Emmeline and leaned over far enough for Ben to kiss the baby on the forehead before shifting herself so that he could repeat the process with Nadia.  "I'll put them to bed," she said, wrinkling her nose.  "You kind of stink, Ben," she pointed out.

He snorted.  "I swear you do that on purpose," he accused.

"Do what on purpose?"

He spared her a look. "You always end up, feeding Nadi because you know that she doesn't hurl every time she eats."

"Em doesn't hurl," Charity retorted despite the smile still on her face.  "It's spit-up, and all babies do it."

Ben grunted.  "I think you shake her up or something first . . ."

Charity's laughter trailed behind her as she headed out of the living room.

Making a face as he glanced down at the wreckage of a perfectly clean shirt, Ben made quick work of unbuttoning the garment and yanking it off.  Then he gathered up the rags and the shirt and strode into the kitchen, rinsing out the shirt and cloths and setting them on the side of the sink after wringing out as much water as he could.

"Out like little lights," Charity commented as she wandered back into the living room again.

Ben wiped his chest down with a dampened cloth and dropped it into the sink before turning on his heel and moving back into the living room once more.  "Till three or so," he allowed.

She laughed when he grabbed her hand and tugged her down onto the sofa beside him.  "When I talked to Mama earlier, she said that we can check with the pediatrician to see when we can start feeding them some cereal.  She said that when she gave it to us, that's when we finally started to sleep through the night."  She shrugged.  "It's probably going to sound dumb, but I kind of like it when they wake up, though . . . It's so nice to feed them and snuggle with them . . . There's something wonderful about the stillness at night, like . . ." She trailed off for a moment, trying to find the words she wanted to explain her feelings.  "Like there's nothing else on earth but us."

"You're probably the only parent who ever said something like that," he teased.  "But I see what you're saying, and I think I've appreciated the same things, although, I’m not going to lie.  Sleeping through the night would most definitely be a plus, in my opinion."

"Yes, but I'm trying to find the positives in the situation.  I read a book that said for every stage that babies pass, the parents often feel as though they gain some things and lose others, and it makes me a little sad to think that, in gaining the ability to sleep all night, I'll also lose those quiet moments.  That's all."

Something about the way she said things, the words she chose, never ceased to give him pause.  He understood, just from knowing her over the years, that she tended to be an optimist at heart, combined with an innate gentleness that spoke to him.  He supposed that was the thing that Toga had mentioned, the thing about Charity that made inspired such a level of protectiveness.  It wasn't at all that the woman was weak, no. It was more that she was something rare, something beautiful and precious, and it was that optimism in her that made people want to shelter her, to buffer her from the harshness that thrived in the darker corners of the world.

She stared at him as she quietly sipped the wine, a slow sense of pensiveness slowly creeping over her, making him wonder exactly what she was thinking, and would she tell him if he were to ask?

"What are you thinking?" he asked, reaching out, resting his palm on her cheek.

She leaned into his touch but sighed as the darkness in her eyes seemed to spread.  "Is it . . .?  Is it okay?  Sending Kyouhei-san back, just to spy on your father?  It doesn't seem like a fair position to ask him to put himself in.  If it were me . . ."

"He knows what he's doing.  He understands what is being asked of him.  It's . . ." Trailing off, Ben let out a deep breath and took Charity's empty glass to set it aside before tugging her over, tucking her against his side.  "We were raised in a completely different environment than you were, and that's a good thing.  The way you were brought up was the way that everyone should be.  We . . . Well, I—I guess I cannot speak for him—but I get the feeling that the way Kyouhei was raised was not that vastly different from how I was."

"And how were you raised?" she asked.

Ben sighed.  "I've told you, haven't I?  My parents very hands-off.  They allowed me a freedom to seek and discover my own answers."  He frowned, idly rubbing her shoulder, savoring the warmth of her skin, the vibrance of her youki.  "I was never treated like a child—not really that unusual back then, I think.  Often times, I would come home from a day or two of exploring, only to be asked what lessons I'd learned.  Chichiue did nothing to guide me, but he did nothing to hinder me, either.  The only real instruction I gleaned from him was in fighting, and even then, he pulled no punches; didn't take into consideration that I was, in fact, still a child.  But I learned my lessons well enough.  I could hold my own against him by the time I was a teenager."

"That's not so different," she remarked.  "We were taught basic skills early: tracking, hunting, self-defense . . . When we got older, we were taught how to fight, and some of us took it more seriously than others.  I can hold my own, even if I don't think I ever could fight someone for real."

"Your family taught you those things in the hopes that you would never have to use them," he concluded.  "Chichiue . . ." Ben sighed, and whether she understood the reluctance in his voice or if she simply knew that, on some level, he just didn't like to talk about it, he didn't know, but he felt it, didn't he?  The way her youki reached out to him, cloaking him with the same gentleness, the same understanding with which she lived her life . . . He cleared his throat, tamping down the uneven edges that were somehow ingrained with the memories.  "He taught me so that I could defend himhis life, his family, his ideals.  Ironic, isn't it?  Those things that he wished for me to learn were the things that compelled me to follow Zelig, and my parents . . . They never understood that where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do with my life, had nothing at all to do with them, and Kyouhei . . . He holds his own beliefs about what is right and what is ultimately worth fighting for."

"But he's still your father . . . Surely—"

"I am not innocent, Charity.  I've made mistakes, and I've hurt people, whether intentional or not, it really doesn't matter.  What my father believes—who he is today—is my fault.  He blames Sesshoumaru for taking me away from him, for compelling me to leave them all behind, which hadn't been my intention at all, even if the end result had been exactly that.  Over time, that anger grew, that resentment sparked the rage that resides within him now.  Because Sesshoumaru offered Keijizen the position of tai-youkai, because I chose to go with Keiji . . . To my father, it's one in the same.  I chose to turn my back on my family.  I chose to walk away.  I ended chichiue's dynasty before he had a chance to see it flourish."

She slowly shook her head, her brows drawn together, her gaze full of an awful sadness.  "That's . . ."

He shrugged.  "It's the way of it," he concluded.  "I may not have wanted for things to happen the way they did, but there's nothing that I can do about that, and, to be completely honest, I really cannot say that I regret my choices.  By the time I left Japan, I understood what was right in front of me, and I had already learned the things that were most important—the things that I would gladly fight for."

"And what things are those, Ben?  What is worth fighting for to you?"

"Back then, I'd fight for my friends, for those whom I loved.  Now . . .?  Now, I . . . I've discovered other things: things more precious to me than my own life."

"Nothing is more precious than your life," she countered with a marked scowl.

"You are," he said, his gaze dropping to meet hers, a ferocity in his eyes that he did not try to hide.  "You . . . our daughters . . . The things that ensure that their world will remain as steadfast as it has always been . . . You, them . . . You're more precious to me than anything is . . . or ever will be again."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Ow!"

Glancing up from the computer she was using to surf the internet to find ideas for Christmas presents for the twins, Charity raised an eyebrow at Ben, who was laying on the floor without a shirt on with the pair of now-three-month-old little squirmers, who were doing their level best to bedevil their father.  Emmeline was content to lean up, using her chubby arms to brace herself against his chest as she babbled and squawked while Ben held her in place with one arm.  Nadia, however, must have decided that her father looked quite yummy since she was sitting up in the crook of his arm, holding onto his hand and chomping down hard on his finger.

Catching Charity's amused stare, he grinned.  "I think she's starting to teethe," he remarked with a grimace as his hand jerked slightly when Nadia bit down hard again.  "Her fangs, anyway . . ."

She shook her head.  It wasn't surprising if Nadia was teething, or at least cutting her fangs.  Though typical development of youkai children tended to be fairly close to their human counterparts, even if just slightly accelerated, she'd also been told that youkai and hanyou children tended to cut their fang teeth a month or two before the regular teething really began.  "You'll be sorry for letting her do that when she starts breaking skin," she predicted.

"Listen, Nadi," he said, grasping the baby and rolling her up onto his chest next to her sister, "you can chew on me all you want, but don't do that to Mommy, okay?"

Charity broke into a smile, resting her chin on her balled-up fist as she turned in her chair to watch the three of them, instead.

Ben chuckled, his grin taking on a devilish light.  "After all, Mommy's just a hanyou, so she's not nearly as tough as we are, right?"

Charity snorted indelicately and swiveled back around again.  "Baka," she muttered, much to Ben's amusement.

"That's okay, girls.  We'll keep her around because she's awfully pretty, don't you think?"

She snorted again and clicked on a link for a baby bouncing indoor jungle gym.

A sudden hiss, however, drew her attention, and she turned her head just in time to see him deposit both girls on the floor before quickly sitting up to grasp his chest—and the rapidly pinking nipple.  "Wow . . . Did she bite you?" Charity managed to ask without laughing outright.

Ben made a face, giving up the inspection as he rubbed a hand over the abused body part.  "Yes," he said with a grimace.  "Yes, she did."

"Aw, it'll be fine," she scoffed, turning her head before she laughed right in his face.  "You're full youkai.  You're so much tougher than I am."

He snorted.  "I would feel terrible for you if Jaws-Of-Doom, here, bit your nipple," he pointed out a little too reasonably.

"First off, there would be no moment in time in which that would be possible, all things considered," she argued.  "Second off, if it did happen, you'd better feel sorry for me, considering women's nipples are by far more sensitive than men's!"

He grunted.  "That's one of the most sexist things I've ever heard, Cherry."

"It's not sexist if it's true," she scoffed.

He heaved a sigh, apparently deciding that she'd won that round, after all.

Charity made a face.  "You could come over here and help me look for Christmas presents, you know," she remarked.

He shook his head as Emmeline latched onto his pants and tugged herself forward.  "I'm already done shopping."

"What?" she blurted, turning around to pin him with an incredulous stare.  "You are not!"

He nodded.  "I did what I do every year."

Narrowing her gaze, Charity slowly blinked.  "And what's that?"

"Gift cards," he replied simply.  "Takes ten minutes, tops, and you're set."

Rolling her eyes, Charity got up and sat down next to them.  "You cannot give babies gift cards," she pointed out.

He grinned.  "Yeah, but you're shopping for them.  I'll just write, 'plus Daddy' on all the tags."

Shaking her head as she pulled Nadia into her lap, she sighed.  "Ben?"

"Hmm?" he drawled, grabbing Emmeline and turning her around to settle her on his leg.

"Did you get me a gift card?"

"Mmm, yes—a higher-dollar gift card than everyone else, though."

She wrinkled her nose.  He missed it.  "Ben?"

"Yes?"

"If you give me a gift card, I won't speak to you ever again."

"It's for Oceans Equitus," he pointed out, knowing well enough that Oceans Equitus was Charity's favorite bath and body store, ever.

She made a face.  "Good, then go into the store and spend that gift card because I want a present, Ben Philips!"

He sighed.  "I would, but there isn't one down here—at least, I've never seen one."

"You're such a jerk," she muttered, ruining the effect a moment later when she giggled.

Ben chuckled, grasping Emma's wrists and pressing her hands together.  "All right, Em, before you engage your opponent, you need to show them the proper respect."  She pitched forward just a little since she wasn't perfect with her balance just yet.  "Yes, just like that.  Now, put your hands in the ready stance . . ." He pulled one arm back and stuck the other one straight out in front of her while Emma leaned down in an effort to capture Ben's knuckle in her mouth.  "Okay, now you're ready to—"

Charity laughed helplessly.  "They aren't old enough to spar!" she giggled.

"Okay," he allowed, letting go of Emmeline's arms and grasping her upper legs instead.  "Kickboxing, though . . ." To illustrate his point, he made the baby kick out her leg—complete with ridiculous sound effects, too.

Charity's giggles escalated as she scooted away a little bit. "Quit it," she insisted between bouts of laughter.  "You're trying to turn them into underground cage fighters!"

Nadia, reacting to Charity's amusement, screeched out a happy laugh, too, clapping her hands and half-hopping, half-lurching forward as her mother's arms tightened around her to keep her from toppling over.

"See?  Nads wants to learn how to fight," Ben pointed out.

"She does not!" Charity argued, cuddling the baby close.  "You're a terrible influence."

Ben chuckled.  "Maybe, but hearing you laugh is well worth the effort."

Charity could feel the hint of a blush creeping into her skin as she dropped her gaze to the baby she held.  Nadia must have decided that it was nap time, because she leaned to the side, curling herself up in Charity's lap, resting her cheek on her mother's folded knee as she closed her eyes.  "Did you look over those listings I printed out for you?"

Glancing up from Emmeline, who was doing pretty much the same thing on her father's lap, Ben shrugged.  "I did," he allowed.  "I can't say I'm too thrilled with any of them."

Charity frowned.  It wasn't the first time in the last few weeks that he'd disregarded the home listings she'd found for places in and around Bevelle.  "If you don't want to move closer to oji-san . . ."

He chuckled.  "It's not that," he assured her.  "I was simply thinking that it might be better to have something built exactly as we'd like it.  Besides, I spoke with Zelig, and he offered to sell us the property he owns that lies on the other side of Bas and Sydnie's closer to the ocean front.  It's about fifteen acres, including a couple of small islets not far from the shore, as well."  He stood up, careful not to disturb Emmeline as he moved her off his lap and onto the play mat to finish her nap.  "Let me get my phone.  He sent me some pictures to show you."

"You want to build a house?" she asked, laying Nadia down with her sister.

Ben shrugged and handed her his phone.  "Well, if it's going to be our main residence, then it might as well be exactly what we both want, don't you think?"

Unable to repress the blush that rose at the allusion that there was and should be a more permanent bond between the two of them, Charity bit her lip as she scrolled through the images.  Most of them showed expanses of land, covered in snow, but the images of the beachfront were beautiful, despite the overlying gray that was fairly pervasive in Maine at this time of year.  "What . . .?  What do we both want, Ben?" she asked quietly as she stared at the pictures and wandered toward the windows.

"I hope you want the same things I do," he replied.

Charity opened her mouth to reply, but the phone in her hand buzzed.  She squeaked in surprise, nearly losing her grip on the device, and started to hand it over when the caller ID flashed on the screen.  'Kyouhei,' it read.  Charity's eyes flared wide as she slowly shifted her eyes to meet Ben as he strode over to take the phone.

"Kyouhei . . . Everything okay?"  Intercepting Charity's worried expression, Ben nodded and smiled.  "Good.  Glad to hear that," he said.

Letting out a deep breath as a wave of relief washed over her, Charity smiled.  "Tell him I send my regards," she said quietly, just loudly enough for Ben to hear her.  The satellite phone rang, too, and Charity giggled.  "I'll get that," she said, hurrying away to grab it off the desk.  Ben headed for the back doors since his phone tended to cut out whenever the satellite phone was in use since the regular cells didn't get the best reception out here.  Luckily, it was a fairly calm day, so reception seemed better than usual.

The caller ID on the satellite phone registered, 'unknown', and Charity frowned.   "Hello?" she said, connecting the call despite the trill of unreasonable trepidation that suddenly took hold of her.

"Hello," the blatantly feminine voice greeted her.  "This is Manami . . ."

"M-Manami," Charity said with a frown.  "You . . . Are you calling for Ben?"  She grimaced, irritated at the intense sense of overwhelming insecurity that crashed down on her upon hearing the one person that threatened everything that Charity had come to depend upon.  Forcing a hollow laugh, she bit her lip.  "Of—Of course you are," she muttered.  "He's on his phone right now . . . I . . . I'll have him call you back . . ."

Manami laughed—an entirely pleasant sound that grated on Charity's nerves just the same. "Actually, I wasn't calling him," she admitted.  "Is this Charity?  Benjiro's Charity?"

"Benjiro's—? Uh, Yes, I-I-I'm Charity . . ."

Manami sighed, but it sounded entirely pleasant.  "I wanted to call you before, but he asked me to let him explain . . . Did he do a decent job of it?  I hope he did because that was never his strong suit, well, ever . . ."

Unsure what to make of the unexpected phone call, Charity frowned as she slowly sank into the desk chair. "He . . . He said that you were his oldest friend," she replied slowly, carefully.  "He said that the two of you . . . That you were lovers."

"Oh, dear," Manami replied, sounding entirely distressed over Charity's admission.  "That couldn't have been easy for you to hear, was it?" she asked, her voice full of concern, maybe even some empathy.  "We were, but that was a long, long time ago, and I hope he told you that we were never, ever meant to be mates.  He was my first love, it's true, and maybe I was his, but . . . But I was never in love with him, nor was he with me.  It was more of a childish need, I think—funny to look at it like that when we were both a little over a hundred years old when we last parted ways, but maybe when you've lived this long, that ages really does seem like your childhood . . . Anyway, we were both searching for something to fill an emptiness—me with my lost parents, and him with the parents that treated him as little more than a possession: a possession and a weapon—and so we leaned on each other, used each other to negotiate that void, but only on a purely physical level . . ."

"You don't . . . Don't have to explain all of this to me," Charity forced herself to say as she rubbed furiously at her suddenly-throbbing temple.  "It's . . . It's really none of my business, and—"

"Please, Charity, believe me when I say that I am not trying to hurt you.  When I saw him at your party, I confess, I forgot myself.  If I had realized—if I had known about you, I certainly would not have kissed him."

Charity sighed, unable to ignore the very real distress in Manami's voice, as clear as daylight, even over the phone connection.  "Ben told me that he wanted you to go with him when he left Japan," she said.  "Can I ask you?  Why?  Why didn't you go with him?"

She laughed, but the sound was tinged with a hint of sadness, as though she regretted what might have been, at least, on some level.  Or maybe it was simply that the passage of time had worked its magic, shifting the memories into a different perspective that she just hadn't had back then . . . "When he told me that Keijizen had been offered the tai-youkai's office in the New World, I knew that Benjiro would go with him.  Those two . . . They were close—close in a way that I couldn't even hope to breach.  Even Akinako-chan could not, although I'm sure that she and Keijizen had their own special bond as mates . . . But Benjiro . . . He asked me to go, but I understood that what he really wanted was to bring me along as a friend, as part of our circle, but even if I wanted to go, I couldn't leave my sister behind.  She had grown to love Akinako-chan's mother as her own, which , I guess, wasn't surprising, given that she possessed very little in the way of memories of our real mother.  She never would have wanted to leave, and I . . ." Trailing off for a moment, she sighed, as though she were trying to find a better way to order her words, to offer an explanation that Charity wanted—no, needed.  "I almost did go with him," she admitted.  "I  . . . I followed them to the docks, watched them board the ship.  I'd be lying if I said I didn't almost call out to them numerous times, but in the end, I think I knew that it was a simple feeling of dependence up on the friends that I had come to love, and in the end, I realized that our paths all lie in very different directions . . ."

"And you never saw him again after that," Charity finished with a wince, hating the part of her that had condemned this woman in her mind for so long.  She'd always sought to be fair, to withhold judgment, and yet, in this case, she hadn't tried at all . . .

"Not until your party," she agreed, and Charity could hear the smile in Manami's voice.  "The last time I'd seen Benjiro was his birthday—his one hundred nineteenth birthday—the day they left for the New World."  She sighed. "I was living in Paris when I heard of Keiji-kun and Aki-chan's misfortune, but I heard nothing of Benjiro at the time.  It didn't occur to me that he'd changed his name by then, though, in hindsight, I should have realized that much . . . I suppose that, over time, I tried to stop wondering where he was, what he was doing . . . Whether or not he was even still alive . . . But I never stopped missing him—missing that innocence that we'd both left behind in the Old World . . . It was . . . a long, long time ago."

And just what could Charity say to that?  Manami had managed to put things into a context that Charity could understand, could empathize with.  How sad would it have been, to lose the one person who you'd learned to depend upon when the rest of the world had let you down?  "Manami-san . . ."

Manami laughed gently.  "No need to stand upon formality, Charity.  I just . . . I was calling because I wanted to ask you . . ."

"Ask me what?" Charity prompted when Manami trailed off.

The woman drew a deep breath, a fortifying breath.  "If Benjiro thinks that you're special, then you're someone that I feel is worth knowing, and . . . and if you cannot because of that stupid kiss, then I can understand that completely."  She sighed.  "If I could go back in time, I'd stop myself from acting so impulsively, Charity.   I'm so very sorry for that."

"I don't . . . I don't really know exactly where I stand with Ben," Charity admitted, hating the feeling of inadequacy that still lingered in the back of her mind.  "I'm really not all that special . . ."

Manami laughed.  "Oh, please!  Surely you know!  The Benjiro I knew was not one to play games, and unless he developed that truly deplorable habit over the years, which I sincerely doubt, then you must know, don't you?  I believe that Myrna once said that Ben was truly 'good'.  It's one of the things that always kept her from trying to pursue him in any capacity—she didn't wish to corrupt him."

"So . . . So Ben and Myrna never . . .?"

Her laughter escalated, but it was not unkind.  "Goodness, no!  I'm sure she would have tried, had he ever been anything but entirely upstanding, but he's Benjiro, and that is just not who he ever has been.  But you knew that already, no?"

Biting her lip, leaning her forehead on her raised fist, Charity sighed.  "Sometimes I don't think I know much of anything," she admitted.

"Ah, but you know that you have two absolutely gorgeous little girls," Manami pointed out.  "I must confess, sometimes I wonder what it would be like, to find my mate, to settle down and have babies . . ."

"It makes you really sleepy," Charity joked.

"I bet it does," she agreed with a laugh.  "Anyway, I should like to have lunch with you sometime when you're back from Mexico," she said.  "I could tell you all about Benjiro's bad habits—any of them that you're not already familiar with, that is."

"Oh, uh, okay," Charity agreed.  "I think . . . I think I'd like that."

"It was so nice to talk to you, Charity.  Thank you for listening."

"No, thank you for calling," she countered.  "I . . . I really needed it."

The connection ended, and Charity dropped the phone onto the desk as she let out a deep breath.  That Manami had taken the time and gone to the effort to call, to tell her everything, spoke volumes about the kind of person she was, in Charity's estimation.  Objectively speaking, she could fully appreciate just why Ben would hold Manami in such high regard.  If she took Manami's claim that it had all been a huge misunderstanding at face value, then Charity could see where the entire situation had spiraled out of control, and that, really, was no one's fault.

That cautious sense of optimism that Charity had been trying to ignore ever since that day when  he'd kissed her in the water surged forth, and suddenly, she felt like laughing, like dancing, like singing or shouting or maybe even crying.  There were still a few lingering doubts, and yet, for the first time in such a long time, she smiled to herself.  Maybe she could stop second-guessing herself, stop second-guessing Ben.  Maybe it was okay to think of fairy tales and happy endings, of rainbows and unicorns and the beauty of a new day.  Maybe it was all right to dare to think of a future where the blanks were filled in, where the man she wished she could see was the same as the one who stood before her, and maybe, just maybe it was her right to hope again . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"So . . . after we buy all this stuff, just what are we going to do with it?  Just leave it here or ship it all back?  I mean, it'll cost a small fortune to do that, which isn't a problem, but I don't come down here that often . . ."

Charity adjusted the brim of Nadia's little white bonnet and giggled as they wandered through the open air market near the small shopping plaza where they'd decided to go Christmas shopping.  "It's their first Christmas, Benjamin.  They need to be spoiled."

Emmeline heaved a sigh around the bottle nipple in her mouth before continuing her dinner.  "Cherry, do you remember your first Christmas?  Because I don't."

She snorted, replacing Nadia's bottle with a bright pink pacifier.  "You're originally Japanese.  You didn't celebrate Christmas."

"And you're Japanese, too, so tell me: why are we going to all the trouble of buying a bunch of presents that they're not going to remember and shouldn't, by rights, be getting, in the first place?"

"Because my mama is America, so we always celebrated Christmas—and are you really this big of a Grinch?  Besides, you're the top North American general, so Christmas is your holiday."

Ben grinned.  "We could just get gift cards for them to spend once we get back to the States—and once they're old enough to appreciate getting to pick out exactly what they want."

She heaved a sigh, stuffing the bottle back into the stroller that they were using to haul the diaper bag since the babies preferred the sling carriers.  "Speaking of money, I got the paperwork to sign for their trust funds," she said.  "I went ahead and had Valerie set it up in both our names so that it's no trouble for you to add funds to them if you want."

Ben stopped long enough to stow Emmeline's now-empty bottle.  "Did you put stipulations on them?"

Shrugging as she dug Emmeline's purple pacifier box out of her pocket, she shook her head.  "Not really.  My parents taught us to be financially responsible from early on, so by the time I was old enough to cash out the trust fund if I had wanted, it never was an issue.  I mean, why do that when it's making more money for me, long term, the way it is?  Even then, none of my siblings have ever touched theirs, either, as far as I know.  We just save or spend the interest checks.  I usually just save mine . . ."

Ben took Emmeline's pacifier and shoved it onto his finger like a really gaudy ring.  Emmeline wasn't nearly as fond of her pacifier as Nadia was, but she did want it from time to time, but she also tended to forget about it fairly quickly, so Ben had opted to keep hold of it the only way he could think of to prevent the isolated, but really ugly, meltdown.

"So," Charity said, stealing a sidelong glance at him.  He could feel her gaze as acutely as he'd ever felt anything before in his life.  He was ridiculously in tune with her, and as much as he loved it, there was a small part of him that couldn't help but to feel just a little afraid, too.  "How's Kyouhei-san?"

Letting out a deep breath as he forced a smile for her, he shrugged in what he hoped was an offhanded sort of way.  "Everything's fine, he said . . . It was nothing more than a status update, really."

She nodded slowly, carefully, leaning toward him just a little when a group of teenage boys wandered past.  Talking and laughing and generally goofing off, they paid no attention to their surroundings, most especially to a couple with two babies.  Ben reached out and steadied her with a gentle arm around her shoulders, but, where Ben couldn't help the brush of irritation at the boys' perceived lack of manners, Charity only smiled.  "I miss those days," she admitted as he let his arm drop away.  Her gaze took on a longing kind of expression as she heaved a sigh that only Ben could hear.  "Hanging out with friends, not having to worry about anything at all . . ."

"Yes, well, there's something to be said for having manners," he grumbled.

"It's fine," she assured him, laying a hand on his arm.  "But if Kyouhei-san was just calling to give you a status update, then tell me why you were so quiet last night?"

"Was I?" he hedged, wishing in a vague sort of way that Charity wasn't as observant as she always was.

She nodded.  "You were."

He gave up trying to keep it from her .  What was the point, when she already knew most of it, anyway?  "He said that a few youkai have arrived for a summit of sorts—Tetsuo, of course, and a handful of others said to be in the upper ranks of the faction.  Said he'd brief me afterward, but . . . But he said that it didn't sound good."  Heaving a sigh, he shook his head, scowling off in the distance.  "I should tell him to get away from there, to just get out . . ."

"Why don't you?"

"He . . . He can't."

"Why not?"

Ben shot her a dark glance.  "Because hahaue's pregnant, and he . . ." Shaking his head, tossing a hand up in the air, Ben sighed again. "He's trying to diffuse the situation before it reaches the point of no-return—for the cub's sake."

"Kami," Charity breathed, wincing as she bit her lip, as she glanced up at Ben and frowned.  "But that's . . . Why?"

"Who knows?  Maybe she thinks that if it came down to it, they would let chichiue off since any act against him would ultimately affect her, too.  I really don't know, to tell the truth."

"That's . . . That's . . ."

Ben grunted.  "That's how they are," he replied.

She sighed.  "And Kyouhei-san doesn't want to leave because of the baby," she muttered, her hanyou ears flicking with her obvious irritation.

"Yeah," Ben said, unable to brush off the mounting irritation.  "Yeah . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

Kyouhei sat, off to the left, behind the row of assembled dignitaries, with the rest of the trusted few who had accompanied their lords to the formal gathering.  The hour was late, and the oil in the old-fashioned braziers was burning low, which only meant that they would have to take a break for refreshment to allow them to be refilled discreetly.

"Why haven't they issued the hunt yet?" Heinreich Gustav demanded, refusing to stand upon formality.  The burly German boar-youkai slammed his meaty fist down on the tatami mat.  Inutaisho is always quick to mete out justice, isn't he?  Why is he hesitating now?"

"Patience is a virtue that our illustrious tai-youkai has learned," Tetsuo remarked, judiciously choosing to ignore Heinreich's faux pas.

"I have heard that Izayoi InuYasha has returned from his stay in the States," Jorges Mormount added, his snake-like visage attesting to his lineage.

"It is unacceptable!" Johnston Ray, a North American bison-youkai, grumbled.  "The Zelig mocks us almost as much as Sesshoumaru!  Hanyou are fine, but they don't belong in the houses of the tai-youkai, and he's one of the worst offenders!  There are others who think the same thing we do," he went on, sitting up a little straighter, his murky gaze slowly shifting around the assembly.  "I say we coordinate our efforts—reach out to more of those who share our ideals!  There is power in numbers!  They cannot ignore—"

"There is also weakness in numbers," Muira Hidekea spoke, his voice loud, strong, arrogant.  "The more you involve, the greater the threat that someone will turn against us."

"And isn't it your son who clamors around the Zelig as little more than the tai-youkai's lackey?" Ray sneered.

The irritation that flashed in Hidekea's gaze was hidden from everyone except for Kyouhei.  He knew his father a little too well to think that Ray hadn't just slighted Hidekea's honor in the absolute worst way.  "I have only one son, and he is sitting right there," Hidekea stated.  "Do not presume that you know my business, Johnston."

"A shame, that is," Tetsuo remarked thoughtfully, idly stroking his beard.  "He would make an excellent spy if he had not opted to side against us."

"It isn't a matter of taking sides.  That one is dead to me, and he has been for centuries."

"Back on topic," Eikishi Wakashi interrupted with a bow as a very nasty smile twisted his lips, "if we want them to send their very best hunter, then I guess perhaps it's time to up the ante."

Balthazar Antonio, a fruit-bat-youkai from Spain, held up his hand to gain the floor before speaking.  "Would it not be simpler just to kill the mates?  The end results would be the same.  The hunter Ryomaru has a human mate.  Kill the head, and the body will follow . . ."

"You forget InuYasha," Hidekea replied.  "One would be foolish to try to breach his forest, and as I hear it, he has an exceptional sense of smell—for a hanyou.  He would know almost instantly if there was an intruder in his domain."

"And his miko . . . She's the one who destroyed Naraku," Tetsuo added.  "She possesses the power to purify anyone she chooses."  The edge of his lip rose in a silent snarl, revealing a razor-sharp fang.  "I despise that family."

"Pardon, Hidekea-sama," Yoshi, the family's butler, interrupted with a low bow.  "Yukina-sama has bid me tell you that refreshment is available, should you wish to take a break."

A good number of the youkai stood up to follow Yoshi.  Sparing a covert glance at his father, Kyouhei wasn't surprised to see the absolute irritation on Hidekea's features at the abrupt interruption of the meeting.

Rising to his feet, Kyouhei started to follow until his father's voice called him back.  "Otou-san?" he asked as he stepped over to him.

Green eyes sparking, igniting in the faltering light, Hidekea's expression was entirely foreboding.  "Find out everything you can about that one— Johnston Ray," he commanded quietly.  "I will destroy him when this is all over."

Kyouhei nodded.  "As you wish."

Hidekea still didn't look pleased.  Then he narrowed his gaze on Kyouhei.  "What are you wearing?" he demanded.

Glancing down at himself, Kyouhei shrugged at the standard suit he wore.  Hidekea demanded that he dress appropriately in his presence, and that meant traditional Japanese garb, befitting of his station.  "I came straight here when you called," he replied.  "I didn't have time to change."

Hidekea scoffed.  "See that you rectify that before the meeting resumes," he stated in a tone that Kyouhei was all-too-familiar with—and that he despised.  Still, he bowed to his father.

He didn't follow their guests to the main room where all the refreshments were laid out, veering to the left instead as he stepped out onto the walkway that lined the entire back of the house.

His room was exactly how he'd left it when he'd moved out of his father's house centuries ago, and he sighed when he spotted his antiquated formal attire, already hanging over a screen.  Stripping off his jacket and shirt, he carefully shook them out, folding them neatly and setting them aside before reaching for his other outfit.

A soft knock on the door sounded in the quiet.  "Come," he called, folding his slacks and setting them aside, too, as he reached for the hakama.

The youkai woman who slipped into the room with a pitcher of water and a towel paused long enough to bow to him before setting the stuff on a nearby table.  "Welcome home, Kyouhei-sama," she said, bowing again as Kyouhei rolled his eyes.

"We're alone, Hana.  You can drop the formality."

Her cheeks pinked at the perceived reprimand, and she bowed for the third time.  "I cannot," she said, her voice dropping to a whisper.  "If Yukina-sama were to overhear . . ."

He made a face, waving her away when she stepped over with a dampened cloth to wipe him down.  "You've been my friend ever since I can remember," he reminded her.  "I think we're past the 'sama' stage, don't you?"

Biting her lip, she slowly shook her head.  Her mother had worked for the family as a servant for a long, long time, until such time that keeping servants was outlawed.  Her father was a freeman who farmed some of Hidekea's land nearby, but even after her mother was freed, she stayed on out of misplaced loyalty until the day she died.  Hana was seven at the time.  Kyouhei was eight.

It was one of the only things that Kyouhei had never told Hana.  She was closer to him than anyone and always had been, being the only other child on the premises, and the two of them had become the best of friends.  That day, Hana's mother, Saeko had stayed behind to help with dinner preparations and a thorough house cleaning while Hana had gone with the rest of the younger women to wash laundry in the nearby stream.  Hidekea was expecting a visit—Kyouhei didn't remember who it was, and it didn't really matter now.  Somehow, one of the family's priceless heirloom vases was knocked off of the pedestal it sat on, only to shatter on the floor, and for the slight, Kyouhei had watched in abject horror as Yukina had beaten Saeko to death in the middle of the formal receiving room in a fit of absolute rage.  When Hana had come back with the others, all she had been told was that her mother had died in an accident, and, as far as Kyouhei knew, no one had ever told her the truth, either, and when her father died a couple of months later . . . Yet, no one said a thing . . .

"Why do you stay here, Hana?" he asked, draping his hands on his hips as he turned to face her.

She shook her head, her confusion at his question obvious.  "They're . . . They're like family," she said simply.  "And you . . ."

Kyouhei gritted his teeth, reaching for the montsuki kimono instead.  As much as she might deserve to know the truth of the whole thing, Hana was entirely too sweet, too gentle, too naïve to think that she wouldn't be completely devastated if she ever found out what had really happened on that awful afternoon so long ago.  "You could come work for me," he offered.

For a moment, she seemed like she might well take him up on his offer, but in the end, she shook her head.  "I owe your parents so much," she said.  "They kept me here after okaa-san and otou-san died, and they didn't have to—gave me a place to stay, made sure I had things to eat . . . They're very good to me."

"Hana, you know, you really . . . Really don't owe them a damn thing . . ."

Reaching out with a sigh, he pulled her into his arms despite her token resistance.  Lowering his mouth to hers, she pushed at his shoulders for a few moments before relaxing against him with a quiet whimper, a trill of passion that thundered through his veins like fire . . .

"I . . . I'll be missed if I'm gone too long," she said, pulling back just enough to speak. "But later . . .?  If you stay tonight . . ."

He tamped down the rioting desire.  It was difficult.  "That's a given," he growled, stealing one more kiss before finally relenting and letting go of her.

She stepped back and smiled as she helped him finish dressing, as she moved around him to adjust his clothes and to pull his hair back into the ribbon tie that Hidekea preferred.  "Now you look respectable," she concluded as she stepped away to give him the critical eye.

He couldn't even summon up the will to smile back at her, but if she noticed, she didn't comment, and with another bow, she backed out of the room once more, leaving Kyouhei alone with nothing more than his thoughts again.

 

 


 

 

 

"This one drinks her bottle, cries when you put her down, and pees . . . And she's micro chipped so you can set a schedule via any online connection if you register her and create an account so she'll cry at random intervals, just like a real baby  . . ." Ben frowned as he set the doll back on the shelf again.  "Shouldn’t there be some kind of awe when it comes to this kind of thing?  It'll scare little girls away from wanting children of their own one day.  I mean, there's something to be said about trying to be too realistic."

Charity giggled and picked up a soft, tan colored, plush teddy bear to show it to Nadia.  The baby screeched happily, waving her hands in an effort to capture the animal.  "Well, they are still a little too small for those, anyway."

He picked up a soft-bodied cloth doll with felted yarn hair, clothes that were half-printed on and half loose.  The little sweater that covered the bright yellow pre-printed dress top below buttoned up, the skirt was a double-layered affair over white printed bloomers.  The stockings pulled up and down, the sewed-on vinyl shoes had Velcro on one of them and a small zipper on the other.  Clearly, the doll was created to help babies develop their fine motor skills, and he chuckled as he held it up for Emmeline to see.  She squealed in delight, reaching for the doll as she babbled sweetly.  Ben grabbed the pale purple dress version for Nadia and dropped them into the small cart.  Emmeline fussed at the perceived loss of the doll.

Charity peered over into the cart at the new additions, and smiled.  "Those are really cute," she said, turning that grin on him.

He chuckled.  "Yeah, but I think it was a bad idea to show her first," he said, wincing as Emmeline squalled angrily.  Pulling her out of the baby sling, he cuddled her against his shoulder.  She calmed down almost immediately, heaving a tumultuous sigh as she fussed to herself while Ben patted her back and twisted at the waist to soothe her.

Scowling thoughtfully at the overloaded cart, Ben shook his head.  "Cherry . . ."

"Hmm?" she intoned, carefully stooping down to retrieve a bright yellow block container with various shaped blocks that fit into specifically shaped holes in the top.

"How are we going to get all this crap back to the house?"

She paused and stood up, and, judging from the look on her face, she hadn't actually considered that, either.  "Um . . . Maybe they would be willing to deliver them if we pay them extra?" she pondered.

Ben wasn't as convinced.  Then again, there usually was someone around who would jump at the chance to make a little extra, so maybe it would be possible.  Even then, he supposed it was poor planning on his part, given that he knew that they were going Christmas shopping for the girls but hadn't brought along anything other than the stroller that was already crammed full with things that they'd purchased along the way.

Even so, Charity still balanced two of the block boxes on top of the toy mountain.  "I think we've done as much damage as we possibly can," she mused.

Ben followed her to the checkout line and carefully slipped Emmeline back into the sling once more.  Luckily for them, the cashier said that she was sure they had someone who would be willing to deliver the items, especially when he offered an extra two hundred US dollars to sweeten the deal, and he wrote down the directions to the island.  The cashier said she'd arrange for someone to deliver the stuff by the end of the week, which was good enough for Ben, and he handed over the money.

"Oh, wait," Charity exclaimed as they stepped outside of the store.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

She giggled as she dug out her phone.  "We need a picture, don't you think?  Something to commemorate our first Christmas shopping trip with the babies!"

She fiddled with the phone for a minute, then heaved a sigh.  "This isn't going to work," she said.  "I can't get Nadi in the picture if I try to hold the phone out like this . . . "

Ben took the device and moved in close to Charity, but the angle wasn't right for him, either, and Emmeline ended up being half-out of frame.  "I don't think it's possible," he told her, handing back the phone.

She wrinkled her nose and quickly looked around.  "Excuse me!" she called, hurrying down the sidewalk, chasing after two young men.  "I'm sorry to bother you.  I was wondering if one of you could help us?  We're trying to get a picture . . ."

Ben's gaze widened as the men approached with Charity.  "Just one picture, if it's no trouble.  Here's my phone . . ."

The men—those two . . . 'Youkai . . .?  And that one . . . He's a cougar?'  It was true. 

"I appreciate this so much!" Charity went on.  "It's their first Christmas," she said, gesturing at the twins as she handed over her phone.  "It's so nice of you to take time out to help us . . ."

"Y-Yeah," the cougar-youkai said, fiddling with the phone, holding it up and frowning at the display.  "Uh, can you scoot closer together?"

Ben slipped an arm around Charity's waist, brushing aside the strange sense of general distrust that had surged through him about the time he'd realized that one of them was a cougar-youkai.  They actually seemed to be far more interested in Charity's phone than they were in Ben or the babies, and even then, there were lots of cougar-youkai in the world.  There was nothing to indicate that the two were interested in causing any trouble, and even though Ben wasn't entirely sure what to think, his gut instinct told him that he might just be overreacting.

The one with the shorter, spiky blonde hair leaned in to peer over the cougar's shoulder as he lined up the shot.

"Turn the camera," the spiky one said, grasping the corner of the phone and rotating it.

"There," the cougar said after snapping a couple of pictures.  He held out the phone, and Charity smiled brightly as she took it back and dug into her purse for a few bills.

"Hold on," she called when the boys started to walk away.  "Let me give you something for your trouble . . ."

"Oh, uh, forget about it," the cougar told her.

"Yeah, yeah," the other added, peering back over his shoulder for a second.  "Merry Christmas."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"That . . . is just not a Christmas Tree."

Charity glanced over her shoulder at Ben, who was lounging in the doorway having just put the girls to bed.  "I'm making do," she insisted, turning back to face the makeshift tree and cocking her head to the left as she regarded it slowly.  "I can't believe we didn't think to look for a fake tree when we were in town earlier."

Ben nodded.  "Where are you going to put a star on that?  Or, more to the point, how are you going to do it?"

Charity sighed since he had a point.  Given that the only tree she could find that was small enough to bring inside was a palm, it looked pretty darned funny . . . "There really is no way to save this, is there?" she asked, her ears drooping slightly as she slowly shook her head.

Using his shoulder to lever himself away from the archway, Ben shuffled toward her, wrapping his arms around her and leaning in to rub her temple with his cheek.  "They won't remember it," he promised.

She shot him a droll look that was ruined seconds later when she giggled as she reached up to grasp his forearms in her hands.  "Maybe not, but they'd see pictures," she pointed out.

Ben chuckled.  "We've got another couple weeks," he reminded her.  "I'm sure we can figure out the tree before then."  Letting go of her and grasping her hand when she started to protest, he shook his head, leading her over to the opened windows and out into the night.  It was mild, almost borderline muggy, but the pleasant temperature in the high sixties kept it from being unpleasant.  On the breeze coming off the gulf, he could smell the hint of rain, but the skies above were clear, bright, highlighted by the myriad of stars that hung just out of reach.

"Do you want a fire?" he asked, nodding toward the unlit brazier.

"No," she replied, smiling up at him.  "It's nice out here."

"Come on," he said, giving her hand a gentle tug as he led the way to the hammock and carefully stretched out in it before pulling her down beside him and wrapping her in his arms.  "I'm sorry we couldn’t go home for Christmas," he said.  She hadn't complained when he'd told her that they would have to be there longer than he'd originally planned, but then, Charity wasn't really the type to throw a fit over such things, either.

"It's okay," she assured him.  "I'm here with the girls . . . and you . . ."

He didn't have to see her face to know that she was probably blushing, and he smiled.

Charity sighed but snuggled a little closer, one of her hands resting on his chest as she gazed up at the stars.  "I, uh . . . I talked to Manami yesterday," she ventured.  "She called the satellite phone while you were talking to Kyouhei-san."

"You did?" he asked, unable to fully quell the hint of trepidation that crept up his spine.  Charity didn't seem upset, though, so that was something.  Even so, the idea of the two of them talking?  He wasn't entirely sure what to think of that . . . "Anything you want to tell me about?"

She shrugged.  "She just said that what happened at the party was her fault . . . She said . . . She said that she was never your mate, but that she loved you, and that makes sense . . . I mean, you . . . You wouldn’t do . . . anything . . . with someone you didn't love."  She let out a deep breath, and he could feel the spark of sadness in her youki.  He grimaced and started to speak, but she was faster in her own quiet way.  "It's okay, you know," she told him, and despite the lingering melancholy, she really did sound all right.  "It's stupid, isn't it?  I mean, I wasn't even . . . Heck, Papa wasn't even born back then, so . . ." She sighed.  "It's not like I thought that you only existed in the time since I've met you—or maybe . . . Maybe that's exactly what I wanted to think . . ."

"Charity—"

She shook her head but moved in a little closer, her knee bending, resting atop his leg.  "I need to say this, Ben," she murmured.  "I was . . . I was hurt, and I was unfair to you, and that's really no excuse because, like I said, you really didn't owe me any explanations, and I . . . I was childish, and—"

He cut her off with an index finger on her lips as he rolled just enough so that he could see her face.  She blinked but remained silent, and he smiled at her.  "I did owe you, though," he said.  "After all, I'd think that it looks bad when one's mate kisses someone else . . ."

She grasped his wrist, pulled his hand down away from her mouth.  "One's . . .? Are you saying . . .?"

"Don't you know it?  Don't you feel it, too?"  He chuckled.  "Why else would my youkai be able to talk to you?"

"So, that's . . ." She trailed off, and he could feel the change in her youki, a slow shift as her gaze fell to the side.  "But . . ."

"But?" he echoed, unsure where the mercurial mood shift had come from or what he'd done to have caused it in the first place.  "But what?"

"I just . . ." she sighed.  "I don't understand . . ."

"Understand what?" he asked gently.

She shook her head, and she might have sat up if he didn't have his arms around her.  "But . . . I mean, we've known each other for a long time, right?  And you never . . . I didn't . . ."

He sighed, too, as it call came into focus, as the thought occurred to him that maybe he'd waited a little too long.  "I think a part of me knew it from the start," he admitted.  "From the first time I danced with you, the first time I held you."

Again, she shook her head, her confusion becoming a palpable thing.  Ben grimaced.  The last thing he'd ever intended to do was to hurt her, and maybe . . . Maybe he'd done just that every time he'd taken that step back, let her go . . .

"You were nineteen years old that night," he said, feeling her resistance, but stubbornly refusing to loosen his grip, "and all I could think was, I was so old—and no, age isn't supposed to matter, but it does, because when I looked at you back then, if I had pursued you the way I wanted to, you never would have had the chance to breathe—to grow—to experience things . . . And I wanted that for you.  I . . . I just never wanted you to ever look back and resent me when you realized the things I had kept you from doing."

"And you think I would have?"

Ben sighed.  "I don't know.  I was afraid that you would have, yes."  Reaching out, turning her chin gently to make her look at him, he willed her to see, willed her to understand.  "I was almost seven hundred years old back then, and I know how much I grew—how much I experienced—even from nineteen.  There are so many things that happen—things that shape you, change you—and you deserved that freedom, Charity.  I'm . . . I'm sorry if you didn't understand.  I'm sorry if I hurt you.  That was . . . That was the last thing I ever wanted to do."

"So, nineteen was too young?  And now?"

His answer was a slow kiss, a gentle flutter of emotion, of everything that he'd ever tried to tell himself.  Beyond the touch of his lips on hers, he laid everything bare, sought to convey through action, alone, just what he understood deep down: every silent moment of yearning, every promise he never dared to speak aloud, and an apology that needed no words.  Too many thoughts, too many feelings that he'd repressed for so very long, and everything that he wanted her to see, all tied up in the softest crush of lips, the whispered sighs when she slipped her arms around his neck.

Strange, how the sense of absolute perfection could be tempered by the surge of something far more tender, even as a wonder so complete, so inebriating that it brought a stinging to his closed eyes, a trembling to his hands that he could not control . . . Her sighs humbled him, yet lifted him higher at the same time, tempering his impatience as he held himself in check, giving her all of his heart in the space of a breath, in a delicate caress of his lips against hers . . .

Pulling back just far enough to reach up, to stroke her cheek, he kissed the corner of her lips, rubbed her nose with his, took his time as he kissed her face.  She sighed softly, relaxing against him at last, and he chuckled a little unevenly.  "You are my mate, Charity.  I've never wanted another woman the way I want you," he whispered.

She leaned up to kiss him as the salt of her tears hit him hard.  Wincing involuntarily, he lay back and gathered her close once more.  "Don't cry," he said, gently wiping her cheeks with his fingertips.

She choked out a half-laugh, half-sob.  "I'm ha-happy," she managed to say in a high pitched squeak.  "And I never, ever would have regretted being with you."

"That's what you say now," he teased.  "I am old, you know.  I'm pretty set in my ways . . ."

"Oh, I don't know about that," she countered, snuggling against his shoulder.  "You're adjusting to being a daddy pretty well, don't you think?"

"Yeah, but I meant my habits and stuff.  I mean, I hope you're not going to insist that I wear pajamas every night."

She snorted.  "Keep your clothes on, Ben," she warned.

"I don't know . . . You might like it.  In fact, maybe you should start sleeping naked, too."

She didn't reply, but she did giggle—and turned her face further against his chest.

"I'm just tossing that one out there," he said.  "Just so you know that I really wouldn’t mind."

'Neither would I,' his youkai-voice added.

'Not at all,' Ben supposed, unable to repress the smile that surfaced on his features.

 

 


 

 

 

Leaning in his elbow, Ben smiled as he stroked Charity's hair, as he breathed in the scent of her, reveled in the understanding that she wanted the same things that he did.  Reveling in the sense of well-being that he couldn't entirely credit, he chuckled.  Damned if she didn't make him feel good, even when she slept . . .

'Well, you know, not to rush anything, but when are you planning on claiming her?'

'One thing at a time,' he thought.  'Just . . . let me make sure that some of this stuff dies down a little.'

'Don't take too long, all right?  We've waited long enough.  She's waited long enough . . .'

It was true, what his youkai-voice said.  Though he still couldn't be entirely sorry that he'd waited so long, he had to admit that he was beyond relieved that the waiting game was finally over.

He had no idea, just what time it was.  It didn't really matter, anyway.  He was too wound up to sleep.  Besides, watching over her? Well, that wasn't really a chore or anything at all . . .

His cell phone vibrated on the nightstand, and for a brief moment, he considered ignoring it until morning.  Too bad he knew well enough that anyone who had his number wouldn't be calling this late unless it was important.  He reached over and grabbed the device, glancing at the caller ID before hurriedly connecting it.  "Kyouhei."

A loud car horn in the background was magnified by the video feed, Kyouhei heaved a sigh.  Ben frowned at the odd angle at which his brother held his head, almost like he was trying to hide part of his face.  "Can you talk?"

"Yeah, of course.  How was the summit?"

Stepping inside and closing the door to drown out the random traffic noises, the video feed shook precariously while his brother pressed a few buttons on the phone to send the call to the house's central-nav.  A moment later, Kyouhei came into view where he sat on an overstuffed, off-white sofa and wearing a very formal Japanese outfit.  "I'm glad it's over—at least, for now."

"Anything new to say?"

Kyouhei shook his head slightly.  "They want to try to infiltrate InuYasha's Forest," he said.

"That would be akin to having a death wish," Ben muttered, glancing over at Charity, who was sound asleep beside him.

Kyouhei grimaced.  "Yes, well, they're thinking it may well be simpler to get their hands on Inutaisho Sierra."

Ben sat up straight, eyes flaring wide.  "No."

"The general consensus seems to be that if they can get Toga-sama out of the way, Mamoruzen-sama would be easy to defeat since he's hanyou."

"Gunnar's not nearly the slouch that they seem to believe," Ben growled.  "Did you give your opinion?"

Turning his face to look at the camera full-on, Kyouhei's gaze went cold as Ben's eyes narrowed at the four long, deep claw-marks that traversed his brother's entire face from temple to jawline, barely missing his eye.  They were healing, but they were fresh enough that they had to have been incurred in the last few hours.  "What the hell . . .? Who did that to you?" Ben hissed.

The deathly cold in Kyouhei's gaze didn't diminish when he barked out a humorless laugh. "Who do you think, Benjiro?" he countered tightly.  "It seems that otou-san didn't care for my opinion."

"Get out of there, Kyouhei," Ben commanded.  "Get out of there now."

Kyouhei shook his head slowly.  "I cannot," he replied.

"And if he attacks you again?"

"I only allowed it because of the others in attendance," Kyouhei shot back. "It won't happen again."

"Damn straight, because you're not staying there," Ben growled.

"It's fine," he argued.  "Or would you rather sacrifice the tai-youkai?  I know what they're plotting, but I don't know when."

"They won't be home until after the holidays," Ben said.  "Even then, I'll tell Toga; get him to understand that they cannot go home yet."

"Where they are hardly matters, and keeping them there might well aide their plan.  They have operatives everywhere, nii-san, and Sierra-sama would be much easier to target there than she would be here."  Kyouhei dragged a hand through his hair, his expression darkening even more.  "Zelig-san is also on their list."

Ben grimaced.  "Because of Gin or because of Bas?"

Kyouhei sounded infinitely weary when he answered.   "Both.  Either.  Take your pick."

"Damn it."  Ben shook his head.  "They won't touch Zelig," he promised.

"What will you do?"

"Zelig is my tai-youkai," Ben stated.  "Bastards the likes of them will never touch him."

Kyouhei sighed.  "They want to coordinate an uprising the likes of which we've never seen," he said.  "They want to shake the very foundations of everything that we know, starting with hiding what we are.  If they manage to do this, the body count, both humans as well as youkai, will be high."

Ben rubbed his face as he considered Kyouhei's prediction.  If they were plotting such a thing, it would take some time, but he didn't doubt at all that his brother's dire prediction was entirely accurate.  "Damn Tetsuo and his delusions of grandeur . . ."

"Tetsuo is not the threat," Kyouhei stated flatly.  "At least, not the biggest one."

"Tetsuo is the threat," Ben countered.  "He, alone, could very well give Sesshoumaru a run for his money.  He's done it before."

"Perhaps," Kyouhei agreed.  "But he wants to be Inu no Taisho so desperately, he is not able to stop obsessing long enough to fully plan out or coordinate any of this.  He's got tunnel vision, and because of it, he cannot see the forest for the trees."

"Then who is the one masterminding it all?" Ben demanded.

Kyouhei sighed again, shaking his head, shifting his gaze back to the camera once more.  "Otou-san," he replied, "and if they succeed?  Tetsuo will name otou-san tai-youkai."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The sweetest brush of something soft, warm . . . A lingering sigh, a breath, a flicker of a stuttering thing that grew, pulsed, churned into an understated longing . . .

The swell of conscious thought gave way to an absolute sensation before it could draw together in any form of imagined coherence.  The caress of the familiar youki, the melded rhythm of two hearts that sought a perfect sympathy as sleep fell away.  Caught in a suspended grey between the two extremes of awake and asleep, she sighed softly, the sound captured by the lips pressed against hers, creating a cadence that she felt deep down . . .

The drag of claws trailing up her thigh, over her hip, up under the thin tee-shirt she'd worn to bed drew a gasp from her, a million sparks of fire and light, threatening the bemusement that so effectively held her, caught up somewhere between wonder and longing, colliding in a rush of flames and raw desire.  The insistent tug on her bottom lip as he drew upon it, suckling gently, demanding yet soft, tongue darting out to sooth the escalating burn . . .

"Ben," she whispered, giving herself up to sensation, to the deluge of rampant need that rose within her, burgeoning with a fierceness that both frightened and thrilled her as the layers built upon themselves, tumbled over each other, creating a surge of want that bounded away from her before she could even being to process it.

His answer was a low growl, all the more primitive because of the roughened, savage quiet.  His hand rubbed the skin of her belly, and she whimpered, grasping his wrist, though she neither sought to stop him nor tried to goad him further.  Hand tracing a slow, meandering path over her body, he touched her with a maddening lethargy.

She gasped, arching her back, dragging her mouth away from his as she uttered a harsh cry, as his hand closed over her breast.  The heat of his palm seemed to sear her flesh, and she cried out again when he shoved her shirt up, using his elbows push himself forward and down at the same time, as his mouth dropped over the swollen peak of her nipple, his other hand still squeezing gently, still teasing her other breast with the whisper of claws . . . and her world seemed to explode in a violent rush of tremors, of shivers, of sighs . . .

He wasn't finished.

Trailing his claws down her body as he kissed his way along a similar path, he groaned against her skin, the reverberations shooting straight through her.  She squirmed against him, unsure if she was trying to escape or willing him to continue.  He growled again, effectively stilling her, as he pressed wet kisses on her stomach, his tongue flicking out to create a balmy caress.

Sinking her hands deep into his hair, she struggled to breathe.  Body quaking as her nerves erupted, sending shockwave after shockwave coursing through her, she rasped out a harsh little half-sob as the tension, the consuming fire, broke her wide open.  In a vague sort of way, she felt the tug on her panties, but it didn't make sense.  No, the only thing she could even begin to comprehend was the touch of his hands, the maddening feel of his lips, of his tongue, of his fangs as he dragged them over her flesh.

And slowly—painfully slowly, he pushed himself back upward again, his body, his chest, his skin, creating the most delicious, bordering on painful, stroke, his knee planted firmly between her raised knees, and when he dropped his lips over hers once more, his tongue delving into her mouth to taste her, to claim her, he slipped a finger deep into her as she cried out again, only to have the sound captured within his mouth, as her body convulsed around him, as her world exploded with the brilliance of the noon-day sun . . .

It seemed to Charity that it took an inordinately long time for her scattered wits to return to a semblance of normal, and when she opened her eyes, she smiled.  Rubbing his cheek against her temple in a slow, idle sort of way, Ben seemed content to just hold her.  "Good morning," she murmured, lifting her chin, rising up to kiss him.

He sighed and gave her a quick little squeeze.  "I'd say I was worry for that, but I'm not," he replied.  "Besides, it was kind of your fault."

She leaned away, her mouth dropping open as her eyes widened.  "My—? How do you figure?"

He chuckled.  "You were all warm and snuggly and so close . . . Entirely your fault."

Snapping her mouth closed as her cheeks blossomed in indignant color, she uttered a terse grunt and tried to roll over to the other side of the bed.  Ben's chuckle didn't falter as he pulled her back against him once more.  The retort she'd been forming, however, died about the moment their bodies touched, mostly because, while she might feel entirely satisfied, Ben absolutely was not, and she could feel the direct result of that in a big way.

He sighed.  "I need a shower," he said, sparing another moment to hold her close before letting go and slipping out of the bed.

Burying her face in her pillow, Charity giggled as she yanked the blanket up over her head.

'We could have looked, you know . . . Doubt he would have minded at all.'

Wrinkling her nose at her youkai-voice's liberal sensibilities, she giggled again.  'Hentai.'

'Hentai, maybe, but you do have to admit, that was a hell of a way to start the day.'

Cautiously peering out from under the blanket to make sure that Ben had, in fact, retreated to the bathroom, Charity heaved a sigh and sat up.  'Yeah, but . . . But shouldn't I have done . . . something?' she wondered, frowning at the wash of color that slammed into her cheeks.

'Maybe, but you know Ben well enough to know that he wouldn't ever expect anything of the sort if you're not completely comfortable with it.  Are you comfortable with that?'

Making a face since she actually wasn't entirely sure that she was comfortable with it, Charity sighed.  Sure, Chelsea had delighted in telling her all about things—things like blow jobs and stuff like that.  It didn't mean that Charity was comfortable with it, though . . . If nothing else, just how would that be?  What if her nerves got the better of her and she ended up embarrassing herself, or worse?

'There's something worse than embarrassing yourself?'

Charity snorted.  'Sure.  I could accidentally hurt him or something . . . and that would most definitely be worse.'

'Okay, yeah, so oral sex is not something you're completely okay with. Gotcha.  But you know . . .'

She wrinkled her nose.  'What?'

'Well, I was just thinking . . . You could try to talk him into taking you to the mainland.'

'Why would I want to do that?'

Her youkai laughed.  'Condoms, Cherry.'

'O . . . Oh . . .'

 

 


 

 

 

"No."

Rolling her eyes, Charity giggled as Ben crossed his arms over his chest and adamantly shook his head.  "What's wrong with them?"

Eyes widening at her question, Ben snorted.  "What do you mean, what's wrong with them?  First off, they're babies.  They don't need to be wearing bikinis.  Second off, they're far too young to be objectified by the bathing suits they wear.  Third off—and most importantly—you put bonnets on them every time we take them out in the sun, which is great, so why are you putting them in those when they'll end up all lobstery and whiny because sunburns hurt?"

Charity shook her head, but her smile didn't fade.  "I thought you said you wanted to start teaching them how to swim since they've finally gotten over the screaming whenever they touch water thing, and there's nothing wrong with these.  I am not objectifying anyone, and if you want the truth, it's you men who do that, not us women."

He snorted again.  "They show off their belly buttons."

Charity barked out a laugh before she could stop herself.  "Go get your swim suit on, Ben," she commanded, shoving him back out of the living room.

"All right; all right," he grumbled, making no bones about the fact that he really didn't approve of the so-called swimming suits on his daughters.  "Where's yours, by the way?"

"I already put mine on," she said.

He blinked then narrowed his eyes at her.  "Oh?"

Glancing down to ascertain just why he was looking so skeptical, she sighed.  "Under my tee-shirt," she clarified.  "We're just waiting on you."

He heaved a very put-upon sigh but turned to stride down the hallway toward the master bedroom to change.

"Your daddy's a silly, silly man," Charity said, picking up Emmeline and giving her a kiss on the cheek.

Nadia rolled over onto her tummy and slapped at the floor.

A few minutes later, Ben stepped into the living room with a scowl on his face as he tugged on the suit jacket and fussed with the lapels.  "Sorry, Cherry," he said.  "Vasquez just called and asked me to meet with him.  Said it can't wait."

"Did he find out something?"

Ben shrugged as he hurried over to kiss the babies.  "Maybe.  He said that there's been a weird attack in an isolated village up in the mountains.  The locals are all stirred up, saying it's El Chupacabra."  He made a face. "Anyway, he asked me to come with him to check it out."

"Doesn't El Chupacabra attack goats?"

"And other livestock," he reminded her.

She raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms over her chest.  "So you're going to check out a livestock massacre?"

"No . . . Actually, there were a couple of human victims, too."

"Oh . . ."

He reached out, drew her into a quick hug, a very hurried kiss.  "It might take me a day or two.  It's pretty far out there.  Steve's got a helicopter, so we'll see how it goes.  Reception isn't good up there, either, so don't worry if you don't hear from me, okay?"

"Okay," she said, forcing a smile for his benefit.

He sighed again and let go of her before grabbing an overnight bag and striding toward the door.  He stopped and smiled back at her for a long moment.  Then he turned and walked out.

Charity drew a deep breath and turned to smile down at the girls.  "All right, babies . . . How about a girls' day?"

 

 


 

 

 

Charity awoke with a wide yawn and stretched before sitting up on the sofa and glancing down at the babies sleeping on the floor.  She'd played with them for a while after Ben's impromptu exit before feeding and changing them, and when they'd fallen asleep on the floor, she'd crawled up onto the sofa and fell asleep, too.  Glancing at the clock, she sighed when she realized that it had only been a couple hours.  Funny how the time seemed to drag on whenever Ben was gone . . .

Even so, she figured she might as well try to get some cleaning done while the girls were still out.  She needed to change all the bedding and get it washed and, if she were lucky, she might actually get the bedrooms thoroughly cleaned before the girls woke up . . .

It didn't take long to strip down and wipe off the crib and plastic covered mattress before slipping on a cute little teddy bear printed fitted sheet and gathering the blankets along with the hamper of their laundry.  Ten minutes later, she was back after stuffing the laundry in the washer, broom and dustpan in hand.

'How the heck does this place get so dirty when it's not like the girls do anything in here but sleep,' she thought to herself as she squatted down to sweep under the crib.  That only worked for a minute, though, before she gave up and just moved the crib out of the way.  The rest of the room was handled in pretty much the same fashion, and by the time she finished, she had to wipe a fine sheen of sweat off her brow.  The small area rug in the middle of the floor was going to have to be vacuumed, but she wasn't about to push her luck by trying to do that at the moment.

The master bedroom proved to be a bit trickier, mostly because Charity normally vacuumed the mattress whenever she changed the sheets.  Skipping that once, though, wouldn't really be the end of the world, she supposed.  She'd just do an extra-thorough cleaning the next time.  Still, she did spray the mattress down with the deodorizing antibacterial spray and let it dry while she cleaned the floors.  It was a little more troublesome since she didn't move the furniture to clean under it, but most of the pieces in the room were just too big and cumbersome to do that.

She'd just finished with the bedroom and was contemplating tackling the bathrooms when the doorbell sounded, and she frowned, hurrying through the house as quietly and quickly as she could to head off the visitor before they decided to ring the bell a second time.  Strange, to get visitors out here . . .

Brushing that thought away, she reached for the handle.  "Can I help you?  Oh!  It's you!" she exclaimed softly as she pulled the door open and blinked in surprise at the young man who had taken their picture during their Christmas shopping trip.

He scratched the side of his head and shrugged, gesturing at the huge stack of presents that he'd already brought up from the boat.  "I got your delivery stuff," he said.

"Oh, yes!" she blurted, remembering a moment too late that Ben had paid to have everything brought out.  "Can you just put it all over there?  And if it's no trouble, if you could please keep it down? The twins are taking their nap . . ."

She turned around to push the door open a little farther.  "Do you work for the store?"

He shook his head as he grabbed the first load of bags and boxes.  "Uh, no, but the guy who was supposed to deliver your stuff had an emergency, so I told him I'd bring it out for you."

"That's really nice of you," she said with a bright smile.  "I'll give you some extra for going out of your way to help us out!"

"I-It's fine," he muttered, bringing in more of the stuff.  "Those, uh, girls . . . They're not yours," he remarked as he brought in the rest of the delivery.

Charity's smile faltered for a second before flashing back to life once more.  "They're mine," she corrected.  "We're adopting them."

"Why would you want to raise someone else's cubs?"

"They're not someone else's," she insisted.  "They're mine, and I don't mind at all."

He finished setting everything down and dusted his hands together before sticking his hands into the pocket of his jacket.

Charity's smile faltered as she sniffed the air.  "Do you smell that?  It smells . . . weird."

He shook his head.  "It might be boat fuel," he said.  "I spilled a little when I was filing it up."

She nodded slowly.  It didn't really smell like gas, but she couldn't quite place what it was.  "Let me give you some more money," she insisted.  "Hold on; I'll get my purse."

She turned around to hurry over to the small table by the desk where she kept her purse.  As quickly and quietly as he could, though the young man stepped up behind her, smashed a foul-smelling bit of cloth over her nose and mouth.  Charity fought it for a few seconds, but her arms fell away as her eyes slid closed, as the world blacked out around her, and she crumpled to the floor . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Toga strode into Cain's office with a scowl on his face as he read through the emailed briefing that Kyouhei had sent.  "Did you read this?" he asked without preamble as he flopped down in a vacant chair.

"Depends on what, 'this' is," Cain replied evenly.

"The email from Kyouhei-san.  I forwarded it to you an hour ago."

Cain sighed.  "Yeah, I read it."

Toga snorted.  "Keh!  If they think I'll let them get away with threatening Sie?  I'll tear them apart," he growled.

"Ben called a little while ago," Cain remarked, patting his pockets for a pack of cigarettes.  "He said that they think it's best if you and Sierra go home soon.  He seems to think that it'd be harder to target you or her there, providing you keep your hunters close to home."

"Yeah, I already called and made reservations," he said.  "We're going to stay with tou-san for now since his mansion has better security than our house."  He heaved a sigh and dropped his forehead into his palm.  "Kami, what a mess . . ."

"And InuYasha's Forest?  How secure is that?"

Toga stood up and strode over to fill a cup with tea that Gin had left in the office.  "That's part of the reason why we're going to stay with Tou-san.  That way we can set more of the hunters to patrol in and around the forest."

Cain lit a cigarette before replying.  "So Nezumi should be safe enough."

Toga shrugged as he lifted the tea to his lips.  "Given that Ryo isn't really going to let her leave his sight?  She'll be fine."  Staring at Cain for a long moment, he sighed.  "You know they're targeting you, too."

Cain let out a deep breath, watching the smoke rise before his face.  "Of course.  Kind of figured it was coming."  He stood up, stepped around the desk to grab a bottle of water out of the small refrigerator in the wet bar.  "There's been grumbling, ever since Bas was born . . ."

"They'd be stupid to go after him," Toga concluded.  "That boy grew up to be downright scary, damned if he didn't."

Cain smiled despite his bleak thoughts.  "What about Gunnar?  Maybe it'd be best if he goes home with you and Sierra for now . . ."

Toga shook his head. "You tell him that.  He's not listening to me.  Says if they have a mind to come after him, then they can damn well bring it."  He made a face. "Baka . . ."

"He isn't a slouch."

Toga shot Cain a dark look.  "It doesn't matter how good Mamoruzen is.  If they send enough youkai after them . . ."

He didn't have to finish his statement.  Cain understood the situation well enough.  He had his own hunters out there, keeping a closer eye on the vicinity than was usual.  So far, they hadn't reported anything out of the ordinary.  Even so, Toga couldn't quite shake the feeling that it was simply the calm before the proverbial storm.

Cain scowled at the desk for a long moment, as though he were trying to make up his mind about something.  Finally, he heaved a sigh and slowly shook his head.  "Something else Ben said—something that wasn't in the email from his brother . . . One of the ones behind all of this is his father.  He's, uh . . . He's coordinating a lot of this stuff.  He's a lot more integral to this whole thing than we originally thought, and he's lining things up, trying to plan for all contingencies."

"Second in command?  And what do you mean, contingencies?"

"Their mother's pregnant," Cain admitted, taking a long swallow from the water bottle, draining nearly half of it before he lowered it again.  "Ben seems to think they did this so that he can plead leniency, should it come down to that, and then they can use the reprieve to run."

"There will be no leniency given; not in this."

"I didn't expect any differently."

Toga heaved a sigh, raking his hand through his glossy black hair.  It was hard to say when everything had gotten so out of hand.  He had a feeling, though, that it was something rooted heavily in the past.  The truth of it was that, until he could sit down and really discuss the situation with Sesshoumaru at length, he could only make educated guesses.

Setting the cup down on the tray, Toga opened his mouth to say something, but snapped it closed when the strangest sensation—an irrational sense of fear—shot straight through him, drawing him up short as his frown shifted into an all-out scowl.  Too vague to get a really good read on, it felt like an instinct—or a warning.

"Toga?  Something wrong?"

Toga didn't respond right away, his gaze shifting to the wall of windows behind Cain's desk.  What was it?  'Why . . .?'

And slowly, the vague sense of fear grew larger, hotter, infinitely more desperate.  'Fear . . .? What do I . . .?'

"Something's wrong," Toga said slowly, shaking his head in confusion as he dragged his gaze off the windows, shifted his eyes to meet Cain's.  "But I don't know what . . ."

Cain frowned and shook his head. "Wrong?  What do you mean?"

Heaving a sigh, Toga paced the floor, struggling to get a grip on what he was feeling.  "It's . . . It's like . . . emotion," Toga said, wishing he could understand a little better than he did.  It didn't make any sense, and yet . . .

The sudden vision of his granddaughters flashed through his head, bringing him up short as he eyes flared wide.  "Damn!" he hissed, digging his phone out of his pocket, fumbling with the device as he tried to hurry through the call list.

"Toga?"

"It's the twins," Toga said, unsure why he knew it, but he did.  Whatever was going on, those babies . . . "They're scared," he said, more to himself than to Cain.  "Damn it!" he bellowed when he fumbled the phone for the second time.

Cain reached over, took the device, scrolled through it to select the recipient and handed it back again.

Charity didn't answer.  The call routed to voicemail after four rings, and Toga ended the call with a vicious growl as he dialed the satellite phone instead.  She didn't answer that, either, and Toga erupted into another savage growl.

"Why do you know this?" Cain asked, holding his phone to his head as he waited for whomever he'd called to answer.  "Yeah, Ben, hold on."

"I bonded with them," Toga muttered, grabbing the phone out of Cain's hand and lifting it to his ear.  "Ben, where are you?  What's going on?"

"Toga?  Hi, uh . . . I don't know . . . Why?  Is something going on?"

"What do you mean, you don't know?  They're your family—your daughters—and my daughter!  Where the fuck is my daughter?" he yelled.

"Uh . . . She's—they're—at home.  I'm with Steve, checking into an incident . . . What the hell's going on?" Ben demanded.

"Fucking—"  Shoving the phone at Cain, Toga turned to storm out of the office.  Cain caught his arm and shook his head.  "What do you think you're going to do?"

Toga shook his head stubbornly, yanking his arm away from Cain's grasp.  "What do you think I'm doing?" he countered.  "That's my daughter—my grandchildren.  I'm going."

"Are you crazy?  You know how far that is!  If you do make it down there, you're not going to be of much use, and—"

"And if it were your granddaughters?" Toga demanded, gaze glowing dangerously.  When Cain sighed and nodded, Toga turned away.  "That's what I figured," he said, striding out of the office.  He barely got the front door open before his body disintegrated into his energy form, as the small flash of dark green light flew off into the sky.

Cain paused for only a moment before lifting the phone to his ear once more.

"—Better tell me what's going on!  What the hell are you trying to say?"

"I don't know," Cain replied, rubbing his forehead as he stepped over to close the front door.  "Toga just suddenly got this feeling—he said they're afraid—the twins."

"What?" Ben growled.  "What?"

"Toga bonded them to his youki," Cain explained calmly.  "So, he can feel them—their emotions.  They're afraid, and we don't know what's going on, but Charity's not answering the phones, either."

"Charity . . . Goddamn it . . ."

The call ended abruptly, and Cain dropped the phone into his pocket with a heavy sigh.  It would have been simpler, maybe, if the twins were old enough to have more than a primal reaction to things, but they weren't, which resulted in the ominous sense of fear that Toga had felt, and the stronger that emotion was in the two, the more magnified it would be to the one person they'd been bonded to: Toga.  The only other person who would feel that as acutely as Toga was bound to be Charity as their mother . . .

  But where, exactly, was she . . .?

 

 


 

 

 

Charity groaned and slowly opened her eyes, lifting her hands to cover her face as the unwelcome intrusion of afternoon sunlight pooled on the floor where she lay.  Her head thumped with an entirely unwelcome beat, and through the haze of her muddled mind, she struggled to latch onto any kind of conscious thought.

"What . . .? What . . . happened . . .?" she muttered, wincing at the absolute volume of her own whispered words.

'Cherry?  Kami, Cherry, you're finally awake!'

She groaned and half-whimpered as her youkai's voice boomed in her throbbing head.

'Move it, woman!  You can whine about that later!  Right now, you've got bigger fish to fry!  That pup's getting away with your babies!'

She gasped, sitting straight up as a wash of memories crashed down on her, like floodgates being released all at once.  Stubbornly ignoring the awful pain that triggered a horrendous nausea, Charity forced herself to her feet and staggered toward the door as far as she could.

'That guy . . . He took them,' she thought, yanking at the door, growling viscously as she struggled to get it opened. It finally, mercifully opened, and she ran outside, not at all sure-footed, but determination alone carried her forward.

There was no boat waiting at the dock.  Ben had taken the one this morning when he'd left to go see Steve Vasquez . . . Charity didn't hesitate as she dashed into the water, ignored the chilling bite as she dove in, as she swam for all she was worth, as the sense of urgency rose to choke her.  Where ever they were, the babies were afraid.  She didn't know how, but she could feel it as well as she could sense her own emotions.  Choking down a suspicious lump that threatened to overwhelm her, she forced herself to drag her body through the water toward the shore.

By the time her feet hit the sand on the other side of the bay, Charity nearly swooned, but caught herself before she fell.  Whatever the boy had used to knock her out—chloroform, maybe?—was still stuck in her head, condensing around her brain like an insidious fog.

Stumbling onto the shore, she shook her head, trying in vain to shake off the lingering fuzziness as she gripped her temples and tried to remember on the training she'd gotten so long ago.

"Find your target's scent and memorize it," InuYasha-oji-chan had said, arms crossed over his chest as he leaned back, as he pinned each one of them—Charity and her sisters—with a fierce glower.  "And above all, don't get freaked out. If you do, you won't be able to concentrate, and if you can't concentrate, you might as well give the fuck up."

"Concentrate . . . Right . . ." she muttered, giving her head another good shake before dropping to her hands and knees in the sand, tamping down the sense that she was wasting valuable moments, as she struggled to find the scent of her children, of the one who had taken them . . .

"I . . . I can't smell," she murmured, smashing her hands over her face after the harsh realization sank in.  All she smelled with every breath was the lingering odor of that nasty liquid . . . "Damn it . . . Damn it!"

'Get a hold of yourself, Cherry!' her youkai-voice commanded.  'You're not going to be any of any use to anyone if you let yourself fall apart now!  Those babies need you—need you to not panic, need you to get to them!  Now, stop and think, will you?  You don't need to track them by smell; not really.  You're their mama!  So concentrate on them, not on their scents!'

Biting back the surge of panic that tried to grab hold of her, Charity pushed herself to her feet, forced herself to close her eyes, concentrating instead on the visual of her babies' sweet faces, their smiles . . . And she gasped as a small cry slipped from her, as her eyes flashed open a moment later, as her head snapped to the side, to the west.

And she took off at a dead sprint.

 

 


 

 

 

Grimacing in the semi-darkness of the abandoned house on the cliff, Hecht stepped over to the window that was covered in a rotting sheet of plywood, peering around the broken edge at the area as he waited impatiently for any sign of Diego.

He sighed, raking a hand through his hair rather nervously.  At least, the babies had finally fallen asleep—had cried themselves to sleep, as a matter of fact—over in the corner on a few blankets that he'd managed to scrounge up in the debris left behind in the decaying old house.

It was all going according to plan, he figured.  Now was the hard part—the part he hadn't figured out yet.  He'd thought before that he'd be okay, taking the babies back to his parents as they'd wanted him to do, but . . .

But he couldn't help the nagging feeling that everything was wrong.  If he took them back, if he allowed his parents to basically sell the girls to the highest bidder?  Just what good would come of that?  And true, he'd told himself a few times that it'd be okay.  After all, if the people had enough money to buy the twins, then they'd be taken care of, right?  Which was a far sight more than what he could say for himself, but even so . . .

It was a fluke, Diego had said, when he'd inadvertently figured out who the 'Ben' was who had the babies, to start with.  One of his men had mentioned that the Zelig's closest friend as well as highest ranking general was a panther-youkai named Ben Philips, and, with a bit more checking, they'd discovered that he did, in fact, own a tiny islet, too.

Then Diego, swearing that he had nothing better to do, had decided to come along with Hecht, to scope out the people who had the twins, to try to figure out exactly how to go about, getting them back.  After about a week of surveying the island, using state-of-the-art cameras and stuff—Hecht didn't want to know where Diego had gotten his hands on the devices—Diego had announced rather blandly that the make-shift family was so upstanding that they were, in fact, boring as hell.

But Hecht . . .

Turning away from the window, he shuffled over to the rickety old table in the middle of the room and plopped down in an equally rickety old chair.

He hadn't thought that, at all, had he?  Watching as they'd brought the babies outside to play in the sand or to dangle their toes in the ebbing surface of the Gulf waters . . . Observing as the man—Ben—climbed onto the roof of the house just to hang strings of Christmas lights from the eaves while the woman had sat in the sand with the babies, calling encouragement to him as he laughed and smiled and cracked bad jokes . . .

He'd started to understand, hadn't he?  He'd started to realize that maybe that was what being a family was supposed to be like.  Children weren't supposed to cower whenever their father came near, afraid that he was going to backhand them for whatever reason set him off on a given day . . . Children weren't meant to suck it up and keep it to themselves when their mothers disparaged them for the things they weren't or could never be, shouldn't be made to feel smaller than they were when their mothers mocked and belittled them . . .

And maybe he hadn't realized that such a thing really could exist: the kind of families never seen outside of the confines of TV sit-coms where every bad situation was solved and neatly tied up with a pretty ribbon by the end of the episode . . .

He wasn't entirely sure when the idea had first occurred to him.  Maybe it was during those long days, spent hiding in the makeshift shelter they'd built to look like a pile of brushwood where they sat inside, spying on the couple with the children.  Somewhere along the line, the thought had come to him, that maybe he ought to run away, to keep the girls and raise them himself—to show them the kind of life that he'd never had.  He could figure things out.  He wasn't stupid, anyway.  Maybe he could find steady work somewhere, and the only real question was, where could he go? Where could he take them?  Where could they live so that he wouldn't have to keep looking over his shoulder for his parents or worse . . .?

He frowned, tapping his claws on the table top.  No, he'd have to die, or at least, he'd have to make them think he was dead.  He already knew well enough that his family, such as it was, needed him to do their dirty work.  If he tried to tell them that he just didn't want any of it anymore, there'd be hell to pay, and even if he did manage to walk away, they'd never stop, and he knew that, too.  It wasn't that they loved him, and really, he had to wonder if they even understood what that even meant.  Nope, it was all a matter of supply and demand, and that was all it was.  They demanded that he do things, and he supplied them with whatever they were asking for, no questions asked . . .

"You took the rap, didn't you?  For the guns and shit?  For the drugs your ol' man was trafficking," Diego remarked one day when there was even less movement in the house on the island than usual.

Hecht shot his friend a look.  "How did you know?"

Diego shrugged.  "Man, give me some credit," he complained.  "The way your old man bragged that he had you under his thumb?  Why you do it?  Why you let him treat you like that?  I mean, if you're gonna go down to the big house, might as well be for your own gain, don't you think?"

Hecht grunted, reaching for a half-empty bottle of tepid water.  "They're family," he replied in almost a monotone.  "Family protects each other."

"Yeah?  Is that what they told you, man?  'Cause I don't see a damn one of them motherfuckers out there, protecting your ass.  Do you?"

And those were the words that hung in Hecht's mind, that he couldn't shake off.  It was true, wasn't it?  Even when he was small, he could remember . . . They'd gone to the small convenience store near their home one day.  They needed milk and some other stuff, his mother had said.  He was just a cub then, maybe three or so, and he remembered vaguely that his mother had hidden behind some shelves in the only corner that could not be recorded by the store surveillance cameras, and she'd shoved stuff under his baggy sweat shirt, into the pockets of his jeans, and when they'd gotten caught on the way out of the store with the pilfered goods, he'd stood there, crying as his mother brought down the wrath of God on his head for stealing.

He was simply a means to an end for them, and he knew it, and after watching Ben with the children and the woman?  He'd realized, hadn't he?  That kind of family . . . That was what he wanted . . .

A strange sort of sound registered in his ears, and he stood up slowly, turning to face the door as a strange kind of light erupted around the ill-fitting edges, as the surge of youki so angry, so tinged with rage, that he unconsciously stepped back in retreat as it filtered into the room.  With a groaning creak, a ridiculous crash, the door literally exploded, blasting into the small area in a dust of splintered wood, of misshapen hunks that fell to the floor like rain.

As the dust cleared, as the setting sun outside illuminated the silhouette standing in the now-empty doorway, he blinked then narrowed his eyes at the diminutive form of the woman whose eyes glowed somewhere between golden and crimson and back again . . .

"Give me back my daughters," she said, her voice little more than a menacing growl in the hazy dark.  "Give them back or I swear to kami, I'll kill you."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"What . . . the hell . . .?"

Scowling at the area as he slowly shook his head, Ben rubbed his forehead as he tried to make sense of what his nose was telling him.  It was easy enough to locate the babies' trail, along with the scent of a strange youkai.  His scowl darkened.  'That guy . . . The one that took the pictures . . .? But he . . . Unker?  Damn it!'

The problem wasn't that.  The problem was that Charity's scent—far stronger than that of the twins and the cougar-youkai—indicated that she'd taken off not too long ago, but in the opposite direction.

'Which one . . .?'

'Don't be stupid, Ben!  The babies!  Get after them!  They're the ones in trouble, and Charity . . . She'd want you to go after them, right?'

"Damn it!" he growled, breaking into a sprint in the direction that the twins had been taken.  Cursing his oversight, he gritted his teeth.  He'd have been there so much sooner if they hadn't had to fly to the other side of the country and damn near to the Pacific Ocean on the other side of Guadalajara . . . But it was entirely careless, wasn't it?  Taking off, going that far away from them when he knew of the threat that the Unker family posed . . .

'Beat yourself up about that later, Ben.  Right now, they need you—your family needs you.'

'Right . . .'

Pushing himself faster, goading himself to move quicker, he uttered a fierce growl.  He should have known, he should have figured . . . How they figured out who had the twins was anyone's guess, and not even the point.  He ought to have been more careful, and maybe . . .

Maybe he should have warned Charity, too . . .

Ducking as he broke into the edge of the rain forest, he slashed at the branches that tried to thwart him as he zipped through the trees.  The scents were far more convoluted now, making it much harder to track the twins and Unker.

Dropping to the ground to locate the path again, Ben stifled the desire to decimate something.  He was losing precious time, damn it, and he had very little doubt in his mind that the bastard had done it on purpose, too . . .

'Hold on, girls,' he thought as he located their scents once more.  When he caught up to Unker, he was going to rip him to shreds . . .

 

 


 

  

Stalking into the darkened house, Charity shook her hand to dispel the tingling in the limb that lingered after the release of her sankon tetsusou that she'd used to blow up the door, and cracked her knuckles, staring down the cougar-youkai without blinking as she unfurled her youki, allowing it to locate the fussing babies over in the corner and mercifully out of harm's way.  The brush of her aura soothed them instantly, and only then did she turn her full attention back to the fool who had dared to touch her children.  "Why did you take them?" she demanded, her words coming from between clenched teeth.   "Just who the hell are you?"

The youkai's eyes glowed though he had yet to move at all.  Staring at her in such an inscrutable way, he seemed to be thinking about something.  For some reason, his demeanor only served to piss her off a little more, and she stalked forward, careful to keep herself between the babies and him.  "Answer me or I'll kill you," she stated flatly, struggling for a calm that she just wasn't feeling.  After all the worry, all the choking fear that she'd felt while she searched for them, she had the feeling that the anger that she carried just might be the only thing still holding her together . . .

"I don't owe you any explanations," he growled, glowing eyes disappearing only for an instant as he blinked.  Suddenly, he shot forward.  Charity braced herself to push him back, but he veered to the side at the last moment, his body a blur of motion as he latched onto Emmeline and held her up in front of him.

"Put her down!" Charity yelped, starting forward, only to stop when the man scooped up Nadia and held them both tight.  The girls whimpered and squeaked as the fresh assault of tears filled Charity's nose, her senses, as their fear slammed into her, hit her hard, almost brought her to her knees.  "No!" she blurted, holding out a hand.  "Don't hurt them!"

He didn't move at all, but Charity almost thought he had when the squeals and whimpers escalated into full-out sobbing, as the babies she loved so much flailed their arms, kicked their legs, reaching out to her, leaving her powerless, desperate.

"Please . . ."

A flicker of emotion that was gone too fast to discern crossed his features.  Charity bit down hard on the inside of her cheek, fought back the bile that rose in her throat as the tang of her own blood hit her hard.  "What do you want?  Money?  I . . . I have some.  I-I-I have a lot . . . You can have it.  You can have it all, just . . .  Just please . . . Give me back my daughters . . ." To her horror, she felt the bitter sting of tears welling in her eyes, couldn't stop them as they spilled over, as they trailed down her cheeks.  "You . . . You can do what you want to me; I don't care, just please don't hurt them . . . Don't hurt them!"

He stared at her for another long moment; stared at her with an unfathomable expression on his face as she continued to babble, as she tried to fight back the sense of fear that tore at her, as she tried to soothe be babies as best as she could without touching them.  "My—My parents are rich, too—and they'll give you whatever you want—whatever you need . . . Anything—anything . . . Please, please, please . . . Kami, please!  Just give them back, and I'll . . . We'll walk away, and no one will ever know; I promise . . . I won't tell a soul, I swear . . . Please . . ."

He sighed softly, shook his head—or maybe Charity just thought he did, but he finally spoke.  "Hecht," he said, his eyes following her every movement.  "My name's Hecht Unker . . . Their daddy was my uncle."

Charity's eyes flared at the admission before narrowing once more when stubbornness kicked back in.  He was their cousin?  She frowned.  Ben had told her that the twins' mother didn't want her mate's side of the family to get custody of the twins, and if that's how she felt, then Charity wasn't about to hand them over, anyway, even if she were so inclined, which she wasn't.  "Your aunt didn't want your side of the family to have them," she said quietly, and, though her anxiety didn't wane at all, she could feel the rampant fear subside just a little.  "Would you . . .?  Tell me why?"

Hecht cleared his throat because of the dust that was slow in settling.  Again, it took him a minute to answer, but this time, she had the feeling that he was trying to figure out exactly what she might want to know.  "My old man . . . He wants them back," he said, jostling the twins just enough to show her who he was talking about.  Charity winced when the motion drew another round of sniffles and sobs from the twins.  Hecht sighed.  "He wants to sell 'em," he admitted.  "Has a lady lined up, I guess, willing to pay for 'em."

"They have a mama," she blurted, scowling at the things that Hecht had said.  "I'm their mama . . . Please . . . They're going to make themselves sick from crying . . ."

He seemed surprised by her words, but Charity held her breath when he took a cautious step toward her—not close enough for her to take her babies, but closer.  "You . . . You love them, don't you?" Hecht asked quietly.  Something about the look on his face horrified Charity, and yet, she would have been hard-pressed to say why that was.

Charity choked out a sob of her own. "More than anything," she whispered, swatting away a tear that escaped to run unbidden down her cheek.  "They're my babies . . ."

He nodded suddenly, his sunken cheeks pinking slightly as he took another step forward, as he allowed her to reach out, to take the babies from him as she broke down in sobs, holding the twins as close as she could as she suddenly collapsed into one of the rickety chairs.  Burying her face in their hair, covering their little faces with a myriad of kisses, she babbled quietly to the girls, and they . . . They stopped crying, content in the arms of their mother . . .

"I was . . . Was gonna take them," Hecht admitted quietly, dropping into another of the chairs.  "I . . . I wasn’t gonna take them home, though.  I just thought . . ." Shaking his head in a kind of pathetic way, he sighed again.  "I thought they should be with family—kin . . . But I guess they already are . . ."

"Thank you," Charity rasped out, her voice harsh, weary.

He shrugged.  "I watched you—all of you.  Is that . . .?  Is that how a family's supposed to be?"

She frowned at him as the girls sniffled, hiccupped, and ultimately closed their eyes.  "Yours isn't," she said.  It wasn't a question.

He jerked his head once, barked out a terse and humorless laugh.  "No."

"I'm sorry," she said.  "Children shouldn't be treated badly, ever—especially by the people who should love them the most . . ."

"Uh, w-I . . ." He made a face, scowling at the floor.  "I don't need your sympathy.  Just 'cause they weren't great don't mean . . ."

Charity frowned, wishing that it wasn't so dark.  If she could better see his face, maybe she could begin to comprehend just why he'd tried to steal the babies . . . She sighed and stood up.  "It's getting late, and I need to get them home," she said.  "I . . . I'm guessing you don't have any diapers or formula here for them?"

"Oh, uh . . ." he grimaced.  "No, I  . . . I don't . . ."

Letting out a deep breath, she let her head fall to the side, staring at him as he sat in the last waning daylight filtering through the open doorway.  Something about his aura seemed so isolated, so withdrawn, and she couldn't help the sadness that welled up inside her.  True, she didn't know much about him, but somehow, she could tell . . . He wasn't a bad person.  She didn't know how she knew that, but it was there, wasn't it?  No, he was just . . . just lost . . . and a part of her could understand that a little too well, too . . .

"Hecht-san—Can I call you that?"

He blinked and slowly lifted his gaze to meet hers.  "What's that?  Uh, the 'san' part?"

"It's polite where I'm from originally," she said.

He shrugged.  "Just Hecht's fine."

She nodded.  "You . . . You never were going to hurt the girls, were you?"

He looked entirely alarmed at the idea that she'd presented.  "N-No!" he blurted vehemently.  "I . . . I wouldn’t have . . ."

"Why don't you come home with me?  Let us help you."

"Wh—?  Uh, no!  I-I-I mean—"

"Do you want to go back home?  To your family?"

He made a face.  "If I go home now, they'll . . . My old man . . . He'll probably kill me," he replied, and the overwhelming sense of finality in his words dug at her.  "I mean, I'm costing them . . . a hell of a lot of money . . ."

"They're not going to kill you," she stated flatly.  "Come on."  He didn't move, and she lifted an eyebrow.  "Come on," she said, a little more forcefully this time.

"But—"

She shook her head.  "You owe me," she insisted, "for the chloroform."

He grimaced, his cheeks reddening a little more.  "Sorry about that."

"You should be," she told him.  "Now, move—before the girls start hollering because they're hungry."

She didn't think he'd comply.  In the end, though, he got to his feet and followed her toward the door.

 

 


  

 

"Do you have any good memories of your childhood?"

Pausing as adjusted the boat rudder, he shot her a look.  "Well, yeah . . . I mean, doesn't everyone?"

She smiled.  "Well, I was starting to wonder . . ."

"You warm enough?" he asked suddenly.  "I mean, I could slow it down, but . . ."

"It's fine," she assured him.  He'd told her it would be faster just to use the boat to get back to the island.

And that only solidified her prior thought that Hecht really hadn't wanted to hurt the babies, and might have even banked on the idea that Charity would come after them, because he hadn't used the boat to take them to that lonely old house, which would have made tracking them pretty much impossible.  Somewhere in the back of his mind, he'd meant to leave the trail for her, even if he hadn't realized that she'd be able to find them without use of her tracking skills . . .

"Your, uh . . . Well, that guy—Ben?  He's not going to be too happy that you're bringing me back," Hecht pointed out, turning up the throttle as the boat sped up, too.

"I'll talk to him," she promised.  "It'll be okay.  So . . . Tell me one of your good memories?  From your childhood?"

He sighed.  "When I was a cub, I used to sneak into the local theater. Watched all kinds of movies with a couple buddies of mine . . . We only got caught once . . ."

She rolled her eyes.  "Breaking the law was your good memory?"

"Well, it was with my friends . . ."

She shook her head but laughed.  "What do you want to do with your life?"

He shrugged.  "Not much I can do," he admitted.  "Haven't been able to land a job since I got out of prison . . ."

"You were in prison?"

He grimaced, but nodded.  "Drugs possession and weapons charge," he said.  "It was my old man's deal, and he made me deliver for him one day, and the cops nailed me.  It was a sting, and I was there . . . I was told later that he heard that it was coming down.  That's why he made me go . . ."

"That's terrible," she said softly, shaking her head as she stared at him.

"That's my dad," he said, as though that explained everything.

She didn't know what to say to that.  What kind of parent would do that?  'And that's why the twins' mom didn't want them left with her mate's family . . .'

"A parent shouldn't ever do something like that, let alone to their child," she replied.  "Can I ask you something?"

He shrugged.

She adjusted her hold on the snoozing babies in her arms, wondering just what would have happened if their father hadn't challenged Cain-oji-san . . . What kind of lives would they have led . . .? "Why do you stay there?" she asked gently.  "Why on earth would you ever go back?"

His answer was as sad as it was full of an awful kind of truth. "Ain't got nowhere else to go," he replied, as if it were the simplest thing in the world, and for some reason, that broke Charity's heart just a little bit more . . .

 

 


 

  

Charity shuffled back into the living room as she heaved a heavy sigh, rubbing her still-throbbing forehead.  She'd just finished feeding and changing the babies, and they were out cold by the time she'd slipped them into their crib.  Hecht sat out on the edge of the deck, his shoulders slumped as he stared up at the overcast sky—where he'd been since they'd entered the house on the beach over an hour ago.

It was unconscionable, wasn't it?  What his family had done to him over the years . . . And, to be honest, it was something that Charity really didn't comprehend, and maybe that was because her mother and father had been so vastly different, but how fair was it, really?  Did it matter how old Hecht was when all she saw when she looked at him was a sad, lost, lonely little boy?

'Maybe Ben will have an idea,' her youkai-voice said.  'He's smart—and from what he's said, maybe he'd even understand Hecht on some level . . .'

'Ben . . .' she thought, wincing when she realized that she hadn't bothered to call him since she'd gotten back—hadn't even bothered to check to see if he had called during her absence . . .

She started to reach for her phone, but stopped when voices outside drew her attention.

"What the fuck are you doing here?"

"Ben . . ." Charity murmured, swinging around and dashing over to intercept Ben before he reached Hecht, who was slowly starting to rise.  "Ben!"

"Answer me, damn you!  What are you doing here, Unker?"

Hecht lowered his head, reminding Charity of a dog that had just given up.  "Ben!  No!  Stop!" she yelled as she skittered to a halt beside him, grabbing his arm and yanking as Ben started to reach out, to grab Hecht.

"It's okay," Hecht muttered without looking at her.  "I . . . I kidnapped your babies," he muttered, "and I . . . I knocked her out."

Ben shook off Charity's hands, arm flashing out as he grabbed the front of Hecht's shirt and yanked him forward.  "You dared to lay hands on them?  I'll—"

Charity grabbed his wrist again and tugged as hard as she could.  "It's fine, Ben!" she insisted.  "Let go!  We're fine!  We're all fine!"

"No!" Ben growled, refusing to take his eyes off the young man that wasn't trying to fight back at all.  "I'm sick of worrying and wondering if they were going to try something stupid, and they did, so—"

Charity's eyes widened then narrowed.  "Wait . . . You knew that they were threatening to come after the girls?  You knew?"

His answer was forestalled when Hecht cleared his throat, when he spoke again.  "Kill me," he said, his voice giving nothing away in emotion.  "Just . . .do it."

 

 


 

  

"You . . . You want me to kill you," Ben asked, shaking his head as he tightened his grip on Unker's shirt.  "Are you stupid?  Do you think it's some weird kind of penance or something?"

"Ben, let go!" Charity insisted, tugging harder on his wrist.  "I mean it!  He didn't hurt the girls or me—he never was going to!  Now stop it!"

"I attacked your . . . your family," Hecht muttered.  "It's your job, isn't it?"

"Don't you tell me what my 'job' is," Ben gritted out as he dealt Hecht a good, solid shake, unable to get a grip on the overwhelming ire—the late worry that had festered all day until frothed and roiled into what it was now: a sense of impotent rage: unspent anger at the base inability to protect his mate and his children . . . He'd followed the trail until he's realized that it had circled around past the beach and exactly in the direction that Charity's scent had gone.  By the time he'd reached the desolate little house on the crag, he'd been well beyond reason, and then to find them gone?  Crackling his knuckles, drawing his free hand back as a spark of golden fire erupted in his palm, he uttered a terse growl.

"Ben!  Stop it!" Charity screamed.

Another hand pushed Charity away as Ben jerked and let go of Hecht, sending the young man sprawling back as the youkai-flame shot off Ben's hand, straight up into the air, only to explode in a bright wash of color, like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Ben grunted, yanked against the arms that locked under his arms and up over his shoulders.  "Ben!  Calm down!" Toga growled, giving the panther another hard shake for good measure, adjusting his grip, lest Ben decide he wanted to break free.

It took a moment for Toga's voice to register in Ben's head.  Slowly, the edge of the anger faded, enough that Ben stopped struggling.  Satisfied that he was calming down, the Japanese tai-youkai heaved a sigh and finally let go.

He didn't spare Toga or Charity a glance as he stomped over to the still-prone body of Hecht Unker.  Draping his hands on his hips, he glowered down at the  younger man.  "Why do you want to die?" he demanded in a no-nonsense tone.

Hecht sat up slowly, shook his head.  "You . . . Them . . . It doesn't matter.  I'm dead, either way."

Charity pushed against Ben's chest until he stepped back.  "They wanted him to bring them back," she said, holding out a hand to help Hecht to his feet.  He ignored the gesture and stayed on the sand.  "They want to sell the babies, and . . ." Chin snapping up, she slowly rounded on Ben, eyes blazing with an inner fire—an anger—a rage.  "But you knew that already, didn't you, Ben?"  She glowered at him for another long moment before that gaze flicked to her father.  "Did you, Papa?  Did you know it, too?"

Toga didn't answer, but he had the grace to look away.  Charity drew her own conclusions from that.  "And no one thought to tell me about this?"

"Charity—" Toga began, only to be cut off by his daughter's loud snort.

"Who else knew?" she demanded quietly, then she shook her head.  "Everyone with a penis, am I right?"

Toga sighed.  "No one wanted to worry you when there really wasn't any real proof," he explained.  "No one wanted you to be afraid . . ."

"Those are my children, Papa," she gritted out.  "I had a right to know!"

"It was my call, Charity," Ben said.  "Don't be mad at your father."

Her temper snapped as she stomped over to him, as she glowered up at him, as she slowly, slowly shook her head.  "Your call?  Just like everything—everything—is always your call!  Everything about our relationship, our history, our—You know something?  You seem to forget that this is all a two-way street, Ben Philips—and you do not always get the final say!  You had no right to keep this from me!  No right at all!  I would have been on guard if I'd known!  I would have known to look for signs of danger, but you didn't!  And just because everything turned out all right this time doesn't mean it would the next time!  And if there is a next time, you'd better never keep something like this from me, ever again!"

Turning on her heel, she started to stomp away, only to stop as she swung around to pin him with a formidable glower once more.  "That was your call, was it?  Well, here's mine.  You are not to hurt him!  You will not!  What you're going to do is help him because no one else ever has!  Now, I'm going inside.  I'm calling the airport, and I'm taking my babies home, and you . . . You can stay here and do whatever you want, but don't you dare come back until you're ready to deal with the fact that you were dead damn wrong, and I'll think about whether or not I'll accept your apology!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ben sat on the sofa, frowning as he slowly leafed through some of the sample sketches that the architect he'd hired had sent over.  They all looked decent, as far as he could tell, and the samples of the sketched out basic floor plans were all right, even if they weren't yet to-scale or anything, but it didn't really matter what he thought, either, since he figured that Charity really ought to have the final say in it all.  After all, it was her house, too, and he wasn't nearly as picky about it as she might well be.

'Yep . . . If she'll ever talk to us again, that is . . .'

Heaving a sigh, Ben's frown deepened as he dropped the sketches onto the coffee table.

One whole week.

One week since that fateful night in Mexico, and if it wasn't something direly important, the woman actually hadn't said one damn thing to him since, either.  If someone had told him before, just how stubborn Charity Inutaisho could be, he might not have believed them, but there it was.  She could hold onto a grudge better than any man he'd ever met, and, at least at the moment, they were still not really speaking . . .

'Maybe you should try to apologize without adding a quantifier to it,' his youkai-voice intoned.

Ben snorted, striding over to the portable playpen where the twins were currently napping.  Charity was out Christmas shopping, and then she was planning on taking the babies over to Zelig's house for 'a play date', though how babies that were only about a month or two old could play with the twins, he wasn't sure.  He hadn't been invited, actually, mostly because all the women in the family?  Yep, they all sided against the men and with Charity, which basically meant that all the men of the family were plenty pissed at Ben, too . . .

Apparently, it was a common belief in the women's camp, anyway, that the men of the family—and Ben had somehow gotten rolled into that one—were just a little too overprotective a little too often, and this time had apparently been the straw that had broken the proverbial camel's back . . .

The phone rang, and Ben sighed as he dug the device out of his pocket.  "Hello?" he answered without bothering to look at the caller ID.

"Good morning, nii-san . . . It is morning there, right?"

"Yes," Ben replied.  "For the moment, anyway . . . What's going on?"

"Do I have to have a reason to call you?" Kyouhei countered mildly.  "Can't I just call you because you're family, and I simply want to hear your voice?"

Ben snorted.  "No," he stated flatly. "No, you cannot."

Kyouhei chuckled.  "I take it your better half still won't speak to you?"

"Is there a reason you called?" Ben asked pointedly, completely ignoring Kyouhei's question as he stalked over to the fireplace, reaching out to straighten his swords that hung crossed above the mantle.  He'd stopped by the townhouse in the city long enough to grab his important papers and things like that, including his weapons since they were going to be staying in Maine, and Eddie would be coming there, too, as soon as her holiday was over.

"They're getting ready to move."

"What do you mean?"

Kyouhei heaved a sigh.  "I can't give you details right now, but I'll be in the States next week to take care of a few things for otou-san.  I'll tell you then."

"Next week is Christmas," Ben replied.  "Will you be here for the holiday?"

"A few days," he said.  "Now, more than ever, I cannot afford to be seen too close to you.  You understand."

"Yeah," Ben said, knowing that what Kyouhei said was entirely because of the whole situation, but hating it, just the same.  "All right," he muttered.  "Give me a call when you get here."

"I will," Kyouhei promised.  "And nii-san?"

"Huh?"

Letting out a deep breath, Kyouhei didn't answer right away.  When he did, though, his tone was strangely dark.  "Keep your head down, okay?"

". . . Okay," he agreed.

The connection ended, and Ben scowled at the phone.  There was something ominous in his brother's parting words, aside from what could potentially be taken as a warning of sorts . . . It would be easy to say that he was simply being overly cautious, but somehow, Ben had a feeling that there was much more to it—something that Kyouhei wasn't at liberty to say.  If their father had realized that Kyouhei was feeding information back to them, then it could put him in a fairly bad spot . . .

Except . . .

A knock on the door interrupted Ben's thoughts, and he brushed the conversation away as he strode through the living room and into the foyer to answer it.

"Ben Philips?"

Ben nodded at the delivery man, who held out a sealed shipping envelope.  "Sign here, please."

Ben complied and took the package.  "Thanks."

"Merry Christmas!"

He nodded and watched the guy lope down the steps and over to the delivery truck before stepping back into the house and closing the door once more.

Ripping open the mailer, he smiled when he pulled out the large, manila envelope inside, stamped with the official seal of the adoption court.  From there, he pulled out the court decree—the papers that officially named him and Charity as the girls' parents forever.

"Ugh . . . Court papers," Hecht remarked as he stepped off the stairs, staring in obvious distaste at the papers in Ben's hand.

Ben chuckled.  He'd come to terms with the young man in the days that followed the altercation on the beach.  It had taken awhile for him to calm down enough to really listen to what Hecht had to say, but when he finally did, he understood exactly where Charity was coming from.  Damned by being born into a family that just didn't care, and yet, there was something decent about him, too.  After discussing what would be best for him, the general consensus was that he needed to 'die'—at least, as far as his family was concerned.

Hecht had insisted that his friend, Diego would help him, and to that end, he'd explained what needed to happen.  Diego had agreed to act as liaison, informing the Unker's of their son's untimely demise when his attempt to kidnap the girls had backfired.  Ben was officially taking the blame for that because it made the most sense, and to his surprise, Toga had offered to take Hecht back to Japan with him when they left after New Year's, but in the end, they'd decided that he needed to be gone as soon as possible, so he was leaving on an early flight in the morning where InuYasha and Kagome had offered to pick him up and let him stay with them until Toga and Sierra returned.  He'd arrange for Hecht to be issued a whole new identity, giving him a clean slate, and after that, they'd figure out just what Hecht could do or could be trained to do . . .

Until then, however, Ben had offered to let Hecht stay with them, but he'd cautioned Hecht, too, that it'd be best if he stayed here, that he didn't try to leave just in case.  After all, Ben wasn't entirely convinced that the Unkers would be content, just to let things go, which was also why Charity was even more irritated at him of late: he'd requested that she always be accompanied by a some kind of security detail if she wanted to step out without him, at least, until they were certain that there wasn't going to be any kind of action forthcoming from the Unker camp . . .

Today, that dubious honor had fallen upon Grey Silvera, one of Cain's newer hunters—and Charity couldn't have been more irritated about it, either . . .

"This?" Ben asked, waving the papers at Hecht.  "These are good court papers—the adoption decree."

Hecht's expression perked up as the reluctance drained away.  "Oh, yeah?  So they're officially your daughters for real, then?  Nice!"

As if on cue, the sudden and shrill screech signaled the end of nap time, and Ben chuckled, heading back into the living room once more before the happy sounds shifted into something far more ominous . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Charity breezed into the house with a gust of frigid air that smelled like the trees, like the land, like snow though the skies had yet to drop any of that today.  The news on the radio had reported a very good chance of a decent winter storm by nightfall, so she'd called to cancel the play date, figuring that Ben would have a fit if she tried to drive all the way up to Bevelle with a storm coming in.

Setting her bags next to the small table near the door, she dropped her purse on the stand and leaned on the wall to kick off her hiking boots.

The sounds of happy babies drew her toward the living room, and she paused in the doorway, just long enough to watch for a moment as Ben and Hecht sat on the sofa, watching a football game with the girls on each of their laps.  Ben wasn't really that into sports, but Hecht seemed to be.  One of the players fumbled the ball, and seven grown men dove for it.  "Oh!  No!  Can't you hold onto anything?  Bastard!" Hecht yelled.

Emmeline, who was on his lap, blinked and craned her neck to stare up at him.

Shaking her head despite the smile on her face as she shoved herself out of the doorway and wandered forward to retrieve her daughter before Hecht forgot that she was on his lap, in the first place, she caught sight of the papers on the coffee table and bent over to retrieve them.

"Oh, you're home.  Were the roads okay?" Ben asked.

"Fine," she replied primly, flipping the pages as she looked over the document.  "Did this come today?"

He nodded.  "It's all official—Mommy."

"Good," she said.  "I'll put these on your desk."  Then she narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. "You're not going to drop her, are you, Hecht?"

"Wha—?  Uh, no, of course not!" he scoffed without looking at her.

She rolled her eyes but smiled as she headed out of the room again and around the corner into Ben's office.

She could feel him following her, though she didn't look back to confirm it.  Ordinarily, she might well have wanted to something special to mark the occasion, but the irritation over the whole idea that he and the other men had known about the danger to her babies and hadn't felt like telling her had yet to actually go away.  And it was more than that, too.  Ben really had been doing all of that from the start: playing puppet master or whatever he thought, however he tried to explain everything away.  He'd done it for so long that it had become second nature to him, and even though a small part of her could understand his reasoning for why he'd put her off for as long as he had, it didn't make her feel any better about the years when he'd left her to wonder and worry and believe that she simply wasn't good enough . . . No, if they had a future together, then the rules had to change because Charity would be damned if she'd be a bystander in the most important decisions of her life . . .

Ben sighed behind her as she carefully set the papers on the desk.  "I really am sorry," he said, his tone soft, gentle, coaxing.  "I swear that I'll never, ever keep something like that from you again . . . Will you please forgive me?"

She made a face, crossing her arms over her chest as she slowly regarded him.  "Did you practice that?"

He rolled his eyes and sighed.  "No, I didn't," he told her.  "Can we at least have a truce for the holidays?"

"You go Christmas shopping with Grey following you around, who, by the way, is about as noticeable as a bull in a China shop, and we'll talk about 'truces'.  I can take care of myself, you know.  I'm not a baby, and if anyone tried to attack me, I assure you, I can most certainly hold my own."

"And I just don't want you to have to do any such thing, Charity," he countered.  "Just because you can do something doesn't meant that I want you to."  He sighed, dragging a hand through his hair, his bangs falling through his fingers, only to drift back into place in such a slow, mesmerizing way.  "I wasn't trying to discount your feelings. That was never, ever my intention.  I know the girls are perfectly safe with you . . . I just didn't want you to have to be all concerned when there wasn't any proof in the beginning that the Unkers really were that big a threat . . ."

She leaned back against the desk, crossing her ankles as she slowly regarded him.  "And the next time something happens?"

"I swear, I won't keep anything like this from you ever again."

She sighed.  "I forgive you, Ben.  I forgave you days ago . . . What I can't do is to make it okay for you to do this kind of thing again.  I want to be with you, but I need to know that my opinion matters to you, too.  For years, I didn't know why you pushed me away, and maybe you didn't think you had, but that's what it felt like to me . . . I understand your reasons, and on some level, I am grateful, too, because you were right: I did grow and change during those years, but . . . But there were so many times when I felt like I just wasn't good enough, and you have no idea what that feels like—I don't want you to know what that feels like . . . I  . . . I need to know that I matter, that's all."

Ben heaved a sigh, his gaze falling to the side as a hint of a blush crept into his cheeks, and he stepped toward her, drew her into a hug.  "I'm sorry," he said again.  "If I had realized . . . If I had known . . . I . . . I'm just sorry."

She sighed, too, resisting for only a moment before she gave in and leaned against him.  "All you men seem to think that we women will just fall to pieces if you tell us things," she remarked, but her voice lacked any of the irritation that should have been there.  "We won't, you know—and we probably could even help.  We're pretty smart."

He snorted, resting his cheek against her head.  "Probably a lot smarter than we are," he allowed.  "Give me a break, though . . . I was born over seven hundred years ago, and back then, it was called chivalry."

"Oh, is that what they called it?"

He nodded.  "Hecht told me that you managed to blast the door into bits," he remarked.  "Wish I could have seen that . . ."

She finally giggled.  "It was badass," she said.

He chuckled, giving her a little squeeze.  "Hecht said that, too."

 

 


 

 

 

"Any of them you like?"

Charity glanced up at Ben and shrugged as she turned her attention back to the house sketches once more.  "A few of them," she said.  Then she sighed, settling back against the fluffy, thick pillows on the huge bed.  "There are things I like about each of them—and things I'm not too keen on, too."

"Make a list of the things that you like and the things that you don't, and I'll take it to the architects—or we can do it together."

"I was thinking . . . I like the idea of having split bedrooms for the girls.  I mean, right now, they want to be together, and if they're like Chelsea and me, we stayed in the same room until we were teenagers, so it'd be nice to have a set-up where the nursery is adjacent to their bedrooms with their individual bathrooms—we never would share the bathroom, either—so when they get older, they can have a common room between to hang out and stuff . . ."

He grinned.  "So, you're saying that their rooms are going to be more extensive than the master bedroom," he teased.

She smiled, too. "Probably."

"And how many bedrooms do we need?" he asked, reaching for the remote to turn on the television.  "I'm not implying that we, you know, would have cubs right away or anything, but it doesn't hurt to think ahead, does it?"

She bit her lip.  "You . . . want more . . . babies . . .?"

He flicked through the channels, totally missing the careful  neutrality in her voice.  "I like babies," he replied.  "I don't know for sure, but I'm pretty positive that I won't mind making those babies, either," he added.

"Ben!" she gasped as she dissolved into a fit of giggles, her cheeks pinking very prettily as she smashed her hands over her face.

"All right, I'm sorry," he relented despite the grin still on his face.  "I wasn't trying to embarrass you.  Seriously, though, how many babies do you think you want?"

She cleared her throat, her cheeks still red, and shook her head.  "I don't know . . . I mean, at least one or two more, but I . . . I'm not in a hurry . . ."

Ben shrugged.  "Me, either," he agreed.  "With my luck, you'd end up having twins, then we'd have four babies, all in diapers, and I just don’t think I'd want to do that . . ."

"No, I don't think I'd want that, either," she admitted with another laugh.  "But what if we had a couple more, and they were girls, too?  Would you want to keep trying for a son?  Most men do, I think . . ."

"I don't know," he said slowly, "I hadn't really thought about that."

She held out one of the drawings and leaned in so that she could point something out to him.  "See how this one is set up with the open area up here?  I like that . . . It's rather dramatic, don't you think?"

"To tell the truth, I'm not really that picky," he admitted.  "Whatever you want is fine with me."

"Hmm . . . and what kind of price range are we looking at here?  I mean, I have money, too—"

"Keep your money, Cherry," he said.  "I have more than enough to cover whatever kind of house you might want."

She wrinkled her nose.  "You know, back in the olden days, people maintained separate bedrooms for the lord and lady of the manor, and they only shared a room long enough to make an heir.  Maybe we should do that."

Ben snorted, dropping the remote on the bed between them.  "Yeah, no."

She giggled as he reached over to tug her against his side, as the sketches fell over the side of the bed, scattering into a careless heap on the floor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"I'm surprised you're here, all things considered."

Ben sipped from a glass of champagne and nodded at Zelig as he slid up beside him, frowning at his wife, who was dancing with one of the many humans that had been crowding her all evening—an occurrence that Ben figured Zelig should be used to by now.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Ben remarked dryly.  "She wanted to come," he relented, nodding his head at Charity.  As if she sensed Ben's casual perusal, she turned her head, smiled at him, until her father turned in their dance, effectively blocking her from view.  "You still in the—" he gave a discreet cough, "—doghouse?"

"Nope," Cain replied.  "Barely . . . Next time you decide to fight with her, leave us out of it, won't you?"

Ben broke into a vague grin.  "She does have a point.  You do tend to shelter them far too much."

"And you don't?" Cain countered mildly, arching an eyebrow as he dug his hands into the pockets of his trousers.

"Just the one time," he said.

Cain snorted.  "So, how long have you been interested in her?" he asked.

Ben shot Cain a quizzical look before his gaze sought out Charity once more.  She wasn't hard to find in the shimmering pewter silk dress she wore—one that showed a very nice amount of cleavage that had left Ben gaping in unabashed surprise since it wasn't the kind of dress he'd ever seen on her before, and the flirt of a skirt that barely brushed mid-thigh . . . Hair caught up, only to spill down her bared back in a riot of loose and glossy black curls, she didn't look anything like the Charity he knew, and, while he could say that he preferred the every-day version well enough, he couldn't complain about the difference, either . . .

"Interested in Charity?" he repeated, sipping the champagne once more.  "A very long time, Zelig," he admitted.  "Longer than I probably should have been . . ."

"Hmm," Cain intoned with an offhanded shrug.  "Maybe you shouldn't let Toga hear you say that."

"Not that long, you pervert," Ben grumbled, slowly shaking his head.

Cain chuckled, but the sound cut off abruptly when the man Gin was dancing with tried to pull her a little closer.  "Excuse me, Ben," he muttered, striding away and making no bones about exactly where he was ultimately headed.

Ben considered intercepting Zelig before the latter caused a scene.  About as quickly as the idea occurred to him, however, he dismissed it entirely.  Zelig was normally pretty good about keeping a lid on his emotions—and if he didn't, then at least there would be some unscheduled fireworks.  Either way, Ben figured it was a win-win situation . . .

A slight flicker of movement off to the side drew his attention, and he frowned as he shifted his gaze far enough to stare at the tall window on the far side of the hall that had been rented for the occasion.  A moment later, he saw it again, only this time, the flicker had a shape, and he stepped away, skirting around the crowd of arranged tables that circled the dance floor, making his way to the sparkling French doors that led to the terrace.

The night was crisp, cold, threatening a snow that had yet to fall.  Ben drew a deep breath, enjoying the fresh air, especially after having been in the hall for the last couple hours, where the scents of fresh winter flowers had mingled with the smells of every being in attendance, creating a rather overwhelming wash of smells that were almost a little too much for his senses to handle.

"You could have stepped inside," Ben remarked, keeping his gaze trained on the sky so high above.

Kyouhei slipped out of the shadows but didn't approach just in case he needed to disappear again, Ben supposed.  "I have something for you," he said, foregoing any sort of pleasantries.

A moment later, Kyouhei tossed him a silver flash drive.  Ben caught it and stuffed it into his pocket.  "What's on here?"

"It's a list of all the dissidents.  It's a couple weeks old, though, and there are more now, but it should help, to start with."

"How'd you get it?"

Kyouhei sighed.  "Don't ask me."

Ben nodded slowly.  "Chichiue doesn't suspect anything, does he?"

"No," his brother responded.  "You think I'd still be here if he did?"

Gritting his teeth, Ben finally turned to face Kyouhei.  Veiled in the shadows of the night, it was hard to make out his features, but his eyes glowed in the darkness.  Ben only wished that he could read them.  "I've been thinking, Kyouhei . . . Maybe you should stop.  Just get the hell out of there. If they figure out that you're spying . . ."

"It's too late for that, nii-san.  If I backed out—if I step away?  Do you honestly think that they'd just stand back and watch me leave?"

"They wouldn't—"

Kyouhei sighed.  "They would.  I've known this for a very long time.  They are not the same parents you knew; not anymore.  Unlike you, I have never been anything more than an extension of otou-san's power . . . There has never been another way out for me.  I don't have the luxury of simply walking away."

"You will walk away from them, Kyouhei," Ben said quietly, roughly, his words powered by emotion, by conviction.  "When this is all over, you'll walk away from them, and you'll never have to look back.  Nii-san . . . yakusoku suru."

 

 


 

 

 

"I'm surprised you were able to leave the twins for this little soiree."

Charity laughed as Mamoruzen danced her around the floor.  It wasn't a common occurrence, for him to go out of his way to dance with her, given that she was, in his opinion, one of his annoying sisters.  Even so, she was enjoying herself, despite the underlying knowledge that Mamoruzen never did anything just for effect, that he likely had a very real reason for asking her to dance.  "Are you kidding?  They're having a great time with Valerie and Evan and Madison . . ." She frowned, mostly because Valerie had seemed pretty tired, which was the reason that they'd opted to skip the festivities—though it was anyone's guess as to whether or not she was getting any rest at all since they'd kept Gin and Cain's triplets as well as the twins for the evening . . .

"I take it you've forgiven Ben?"

"We've come to an understanding."

He grunted.  "You know, don't you?  He was only looking out for you—as all of us were."

"I never asked for that," she pointed out.  "You know, I get that you guys all seem to think that we women need to be sheltered and protected, but you, better than anyone, know that it isn't true.  If you guys had done that to nee-san?  She would have killed you all."

"Onee-san's the exception, not the rule," Mamoruzen countered mildly.  "Your problem is that you've never thought with your brain, Charity.  You've always allowed your heart to guide you.  It makes you careless."

"You don't get to criticize me," she pointed out, leaning away far enough to pin him with a level look.  "You're the one who only ever thinks with his head, aren't you?  You're like . . . the Grinch of youkai . . . You need someone who makes your teeny, tiny little heart grow three sizes—maybe four."

"Using children's literary references?  You've definitely adapted to motherhood well enough," he joked.  "Have you spoken to Cassidy?"

Charity picked a bit of lint off of Mamoruzen's otherwise immaculate tuxedo jacket lapel.  "She says that she is planning on flying in during the summer when school is out.  She can't wait to meet the girls, though I'm sure she'll have more than enough time to visit with you, as well."

"I am the next Japanese tai-youkai," he scoffed.  "I do not have the time to entertain my sisters—even Cassidy."

"You'll make the time," she countered mildly.  "She's your favorite, after all."

"This Mamoruzen has no favorites."

Charity laughed as the song ended, as Mamoruzen led her away from the dance floor with his hand on the small of her back.  "A word of advice," he said as he stepped back from her.

"Shouldn't I be the one who is offering you advice?  I'm older than you, you know."

He snorted again.  "Keh!  You played with dolls and other girly crap—I never played.  I constructed things with Kubrick and honed my mental processes with video games."

"You're so full of crap," she scoffed, but her giggle gave her away.

He chuckled.  "Anyway, my advice to you is this: make that old bastard work for it, Charity.  Men don't appreciate anything that is served up on a silver platter, so to speak.  Make him squirm, make him grovel . . ." Mamoruzen trailed off with a rather nasty chuckle.  "Make him beg.  That way, you'll know that he truly appreciates you."

"That's a little messed up," she commented with a shake of her head.

"Men are stupid, Charity—present company excluded.  If you want him to truly appreciate you, then you have to operate on his level."

"Oh, is that what you're telling me to do?  Is that how you operate, Mamoruzen?"  She laughed and shook her head.  "Hmm, and my advice to you?  This is the . . . third?  Fourth? Time you've brought Stephanie with you to a family function.  You'd better be careful or people are going to talk . . ." she retorted sweetly, nodding at the woman who was currently living with her brother, although the extent of her relationship with him was anyone's guess.  All Charity knew was that Stephanie might live with Mamoruzen, but she didn't sleep in his bedroom, and the real living agreement between the two was not something that she professed to understand.

"This is a benefit gala," he scoffed.  "She had no plans, and I didn't particularly feel like making other arrangements.  It's as simple as that."

"Ever the romantic, aren't you?"

He rolled his eyes.  Given that she knew well enough that he held no stock in things like love and romance, it wasn't surprising at all.  "When I take a mate, it'll be more like a business arrangement," he said.  "Mutually beneficial to us both without the messy entanglements of love and commitment."

"That actually sounds kind of sad," she said, shaking her head as her smile died away.  "I hope you're wrong for your own sake."

He shrugged, snagging two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter.  He handed one to Charity and stuffed his hand into his pocket as he slouched back against the empty table behind them and gave her a careless glance.  "It's what I want," he stated flatly.  "My life has enough complications.  My mate shouldn't ever be one of them."

 

 


 

 

 

Ben slipped back into the hall, pausing long enough for his vision to adjust to the sudden light after being outside in the darkness.  The place really was very lovely—Chelsea Inutaisho knew her business, he concluded.  After all, she was the one who had planned this year's little soiree, or so Charity had told him.

"There has never been another way out for me.  I don't have the luxury of simply walking away."

Kyouhei's words lingered in Ben's head, and he frowned.  The ominous undertone was there, and, while Ben didn't want to believe what he'd claimed, he also couldn't say that he knew enough about his parents anymore, and yet, he could believe it, too.  After he'd walked away so long ago, had it tainted how they'd raised his brother?

Yes, he supposed it could have, and it probably really did.  To have convinced Kyouhei that there really was no way out . . .?  Just what kind of mental damage could that really have done?

'They won't hurt him,' Ben thought, his expression darkening by degrees.  'I will not allow it.'

'Okay, but how do we stop it?  Stop them?  Kyouhei's a grown man, and if he can't see a way out of it, then what can you do, nii-san?'

He didn't know, not really.  Even so, even if he had to go there, if he had to confront their father, to let him know that Kyouhei wasn't going to exist like that . . . Kyouhei might well be a grown man, but that didn't actually mean anything when Ben had also gotten glimpses of the underlying gentleness that Kyouhei tried to hide.  Maybe no one else could see it, but Ben could, even if he didn't know why that was . . . The thing was, Ben also had a feeling that, if it came down to a fight for his own life, Kyouhei wouldn't, not against their father.  It wasn't weakness, no, it was something far nobler than anything Ben possessed within himself . . .

"You look like you want to rip someone's head off, Ben . . . Why is that?"

Blinking away the lingering thoughts that plagued him, Ben shifted his gaze to meet Chelsea's very acute stare.  "Wonderful job, planning Gin's little party," he said, ignoring her commentary as he forced a very wan smile.

"Thank you," she replied, pasting on a smile that matched his own as she slipped a hand up under his arm.  "Dance with me, will you?"

Seeing no way around it, he led her toward the dance floor.  Charity was over, chatting with her aunt and mother, and when she intercepted his look, she smiled.

"Charity said the adoption's final.  Congratulations."

"Thanks," he replied, drawing her into his arms at a respectable distance as the music started up once more.  She'd hired a very nice string quartet for the occasion.

Chelsea sighed.  "Listen, I wanted to apologize for threatening you the last time I saw you," she said quietly.  "I was just . . ."

"Just looking out for your sister," he concluded.  "It's fine."

"It's just, you know . . . I mean, you have to know, right?  She's always been so . . . so naive, and you?  Well, you're her biggest weakness . . . Have been since you danced with her at that party when we were . . . what?  Nineteen?  Twenty?"

"Have I?" he couldn't help asking, inordinately amused by the idea that they'd connected so well that long ago.

Chelsea smiled.  "Just make her happy, okay?"

Ben chuckled.  "I think I can do that."

She laughed and offered him a coquettish wink.  "So, tell me—I swear, I won't tell her—have you given any thought as to how you'll propose?  I mean, I assume that's part of your plan?"

Ben stumbled slightly.  Considering he hadn't actually given it that much thought, the question was a little more surprising than it should have been.  "Oh, uh . . ."

Stopping, mid-dance, Chelsea crossed her arms over her chest and arched a raven eyebrow at him.  "You're not going to propose?"

He grasped her hand and drew her back into the motion before anyone else noticed.  "I hadn't gotten that far yet, no," he commented, fighting back the redness that he could feel creeping into his cheeks.  "I mean, there's been a lot going on lately, but I'm getting there . . . "

She shook her head.  "You know that she's always dreamed of her wedding day," Chelsea went on.  "Even when we were little, she'd always make Papa pretend that he was walking her down the aisle.  Of course, back then, she tended to use her baby blanket as a wedding veil, but you get the idea . . ."

"All right," he grumbled.  "I get your point."

Chelsea nodded.  "I wasn't kidding about her pretend weddings.  She used to do it all the time—at least, until Mamoruzen got big enough to realize what we were playing, anyway . . ."

Ben's lips twitched, though he managed to retain the blank expression on his face.  "She used to marry . . . her brother . . .?"

"It didn't seem nearly as weird back then," she remarked, her eyes twinkling as the barest hint of a smile broke over her features.  "Papa thought it was cute."

"I am learning fast that your father is a little twisted," Ben muttered.

"Excuse me . . . I think I'd like to cut in . . ."

Ben smiled as Chelsea stepped back, giving him a wink as she leaned in quickly to kiss Charity's cheek.  "I'm going to go make Papa dance with me," she said.  "Think about what we talked about, Ben!"

"What you two talked about?" she echoed, lifting her eyebrows as she watched her twin retreat.  "Do I want to know what you two were talking about?"

Pulling her into his arms, he sighed as he breathed in her entirely welcome scent.  "Nothing important," he replied.  "Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?"

She gasped softly and quickly shook her head.

"You are," he insisted, tucking her hand against his heart as he slowly turned her around in his arms.  "I mean, you are every day.  You need to know that.  Tonight, though, you're beautiful in an entirely different way."  He sighed as he leaned down, as he let his lips brush against her forehead.  "I think I prefer how you look every day, though," he mused slowly, thoughtfully.  "As gorgeous as you are tonight, you seem . . . harder for me to reach . . ."

"I'm right here," she whispered, craning her neck to peer up at him, the gold of her eyes taking on a sherry glow, a luminance that came from somewhere deep down inside.

He stared at her for a long heartbeat, memorizing everything about her in the space of an instant.  The soft curves of her face, the gentle hollows . . . The dusty rose of her lips, touched with just a hint of rose gloss . . . The impossibly long eyelashes that fanned down over her cheeks when she blinked . . . The perfection of her small hand, folded securely in his as the warmth of her youki wrapped around him, mingled with his in a perfectly stunning resonance, a radiant light that banished the shadows from his mind . . .

He didn't think twice as he leaned down, as he brushed his lips over hers, as time stopped, stilled, only for them, and only for the moment . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"You've been quiet since we got home last night," Charity remarked, leaning in the doorway as Ben shuffled through papers on his desk.  "Is there anything I need to know?"

He shot her a quick glance before turning his attention back to the paperwork once more.  "Kyouhei was at the party last night," he said, shaking his head, a foreboding scowl on his face.  "Gave me a list of all the dissidents, complete with their affiliations, their home jurisdictions . . . And it's all a damn fucking mess."

"Is there any way to put them under surveillance?"

He shook his head.  "If we ignore the nearly five hundred of them that are operating out of Europe under the direct protection of Ian MacDonnough, that still leaves nearly five hundred more, so putting them all on watch would prove pretty near impossible."

"But the ones that are the biggest threats?"

"I can ask Kyouhei, but . . ."

She winced.  "But you don't want to worsen his position even more."

"Something like that."

Pushing herself away from the doorframe, she wandered over, slipped her arms around him over the back of his chair.  "It's Christmas Eve, Ben . . . This stuff . . . It'll all be here the day after tomorrow, right?"

Dragging his wire-rimmed glasses off his face, he tossed them onto the paperwork with a heavy sigh.  "I feel . . ." He grimaced.  "I feel like I'm racing against the clock," he admitted.  "I feel like, should I fail, should something manage to slip past me, that the price might well be more than any of us are willing to pay."  Heaving a sigh, he turned his chair just enough to catch her around the waist, to pull her into his lap.  "It's your family, Cherry," he reminded her gently.  "I can't shake the feeling that something's coming . . . Something none of us bargained for . . ."

"Okay," she agreed slowly, quietly, toying with a lock of his hair that had fallen over his shoulder.  "I understand, but . . . Well, the girls aren't quite ready for bed yet, so I thought maybe you could at least take a short break?  Spend some time with us until they're tired?"

He managed a wan smile.  "Let me forward all of this to your father and to Zelig, and I'll call it good for the night."

She leaned up to kiss him on the cheek before standing up again.  "They're having a Christmas special marathon on TV . . . Should we introduce the girls to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?"

He chuckled, and the shadows didn't leave his gaze, but he seemed a little more at peace, and that was something . . . "Give me five minutes," he promised.

Charity detoured through the kitchen to grab a small tray of Christmas cookies and homemade eggnog that Gin had sent home with her earlier when she'd run out there to drop off presents so that they wouldn't have to remember everything in the morning.  Then she grabbed the babies' bottles that she'd prepared before hunting Ben down, and she carried everything into the living room.

The girls were right where she'd left them, lying in the middle of the wide play mat.  Emmeline was chewing on one of the teething rings that was connected to the mat while Nadia occupied herself by rolling over onto her tummy then back again, and every time she managed it, she'd squeal happily and kick her little feet, wave her chubby arms . . .

Charity giggled and set the tray on the coffee table before joining the girls on the floor.  "Look at my big girls!" she said in a high-pitched, crooning tone of voice.  "You're such a big girl!  Look at my Nadi!  Did you roll over?  You did!"  Nadia shrieked happily.

"Rudolph, huh?" Ben remarked as he ambled into the room with sleepers for the girls draped casually over one arm.  He dropped the on the floor beside Charity and picked up the remote to turn on the television.  The girls stopped at the new sound, and both of them turned their heads to stare.  Ben set the remote aside and sank down beside Charity, slipping an arm around her as she settled back against him.

"Do you want a cookie and some eggnog?" she asked, resting a hand lightly on his chest.

"Does it mean I have to move?"

She laughed.  "I'd be happy to get it for you," she told him.

"But then, you'd move," he said.

"Probably."

He pulled her closer against his side.  "Then, no."

"I like this, too," she replied, savoring the contentment that seemed to well up from somewhere deep inside.  "Ben?"

"Hmm?"

Frowning at the almost sidetracked undertone in his voice, she leaned back to peer up at him.  He seemed to be looking at the television, but his was frowning, and she bit her lip.

'Still thinking about all of that stuff,' she thought.

'Ben's too used to having to worry about everyone and everything.  He's done it for so long that it's become second nature.  I mean, sure, he has reason to be worried about the threat of an uprising, but we both know that he's underestimating your grandfather.  Sesshoumaru did not get to be Inu no Taisho for no reason.  He's more than capable of dealing with the likes of those who think they could usurp him . . .'

For some reason, staring at him, she had the feeling that there was something else, something darker, something a little more sinister . . .

She sat up straighter, rested one hand on his shoulder, used the other to gently turn his face toward hers.  "Tell me what's making you frown like that," she urged.

For a split second, he looked like he was going to brush off her concern.  Then he sighed, eyes clouding over as he slowly shook his head.  "It's just something Kyouhei said . . . It doesn't involve your grandfather or anything.  It's just . . ." With a grimace as he trailed off, he let his head fall back and just stared at her.

"Just, what?"

"I tried to talk Kyouhei into walking away from it," he said.  "It's too dangerous, too . . ."

She nodded.  "Good.  It's not fair to ask him to do such a thing, not when it's your father, and—"

"He thinks that chichiue would rather kill him than to let him go."

She stopped, stared at him for a long moment as she slowly shook her head . . . "N-No . . . I mean, he's your father . . . A father wouldn't—"

"After everything I've told you about him, you doubt he would?"

She flinched, her gaze falling away as she struggled to comprehend just what he was saying.  "You . . . You believe it . . ."

"I . . . I do . . ." Ben admitted quietly.  "And Kyouhei . . . He does, too . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

"You realize that they're probably not going to open any of these," Ben said, holding his finger in the middle of the ribbon that Charity was tying around one of the gazillion gifts they'd bought for the girls.

She laughed and carefully tied the bow.  "You're probably right, but it is Christmas . . . We can't just shove unwrapped presents under the tree."

Ben rolled his eyes but grinned. "They're cats.  They're just going to want the boxes."

"They're your daughters, you know!" she scolded despite the smile on her face.

"I know. That's why I know they're just going to want the boxes."

"You're terrible," she insisted, leaning forward to grab the last present as she stifled a yawn with the back of her hand.  "What time is it?"

He paused as he gathered up gifts to take downstairs to the tree to glance at the clock on the nightstand.  "Nearly midnight," he replied.

She made a face.  "Good thing they're babies . . . They won't mind sleeping in tomorrow . . ."

"Well, they are babies, so they probably will mind," Ben countered dryly.  "Besides, aren't we supposed to go to Zelig's?"

"Oh, and that," she allowed with a shrug as she carefully measured the paper and cut it with the claw of her index finger.

Ben leaned back against the side of the bed and smiled as he watched her.  She'd piled her hair atop her head in a messy but adorable bun to keep it out of the way while she worked, with little wisps and odd tufts sticking out here and there, and wearing the oversized tee-shirt she always donned for bed and the tiny pair of pink shorts . . . Atop her head, her cute little hanyou ears twitched and turned, forever monitoring their environment, which made her even better at hearing the girls when they stirred.  At least they had stopped waking up in the middle of the night since they had started them on a thin cereal just before bedtime.  Isabelle had been of the opinion that they were only waking up because they were hungry, and she was right . . .

Reaching up to shove an errant lock of hair out of her eyes with the back of her limp wrist, Charity frowned as she concentrated on wrapping the last of the gifts.  Turned as she was, she'd presented him with a nice view of her profile, and he stared thoughtfully at the back of her neck, the delicate arch, the gentle curve . . . It wasn't the first time that he'd felt drawn to that particular spot on her, and before he could stop to consider it, he scooted forward, slipped his arms around her tiny waist to draw her back against his chest between his spread knees, his lips dropping to the graceful hollow, as she gasped softly, as her head fell to the side . . .

He was content to nuzzle against her, to breath in the scent of her—that breathtaking shifting of smell that convoluted and twisted and rolled upon itself, only to somehow manage to smell even more like her.  "Cherry . . ."

She sighed, her body seeming to melt against him, reaching up over her shoulder, twining her fingers into the hair that slipped over his shoulder, and she turned her head, captured his lips with hers, in a long, slow kiss that rocked him to the very core.  It wasn't designed to be rampant or overwhelming, and yet, it somehow managed to be exactly that.  He uttered a low growl, slipping an arm under her knees, picking her up to settle her on his lap as her kiss deepened, swelled, surged through him, settling into a burn, an ache, a seething sense of longing . . .

With every beat of her heart, with every quiet whimper, every slow sigh, her youki seemed to synchronize more fully with his, drawing her closer, so close, and yet, not nearly close enough.  She grew more daring, her lips parting, issuing him a silent invitation as her hands slipped up around his neck, her fingertips dancing over him, only to sink deep into his hair, claws grazing over his scalp as a riot of shivers ran straight down his spine, and those tremors created a cadence that exactly matched the throb of her youki.  The tenderness of her every movement, held in check by an innate sweetness that delineated everything she did, everything that she was, she hid nothing from him as he lapped at her mouth, as he tasted her deep while the burn of the kiss scattered and swelled and blossomed.

The ache that ignited under his skin was tempered by the desire to love her, to show her just how much she meant to him in a way that words would fail.  She held his emotions in the palm of her hand, and in return, she gave herself up to him, trusting him implicitly, her kiss as slow, as deep as the overwhelming sense of absolute transcendence crashed down on him, leaving him reeling, leaving him breathless, leaving him humbled, even as she lifted him, raised him, as she bolstered him with everything in her . . .

The chime of the massive grandfather clock in the foyer broke through the idyll, and Charity laughed softly, almost gruffly, when he leaned back just enough to look at her.  Cheeks beautifully flushed, eyes unnaturally bright, she let her fingers trail over his face with an infinite tenderness that brought a smile to his lips.  "Merry Christmas," she said as the clock tolled out the final strike.

He chuckled.  "Merry Christmas, Charity," he replied, leaning down, letting his nose tweak hers.  "I'll take these down and be right back."

"Okay," she murmured, starting to pull together all the scraps of unused paper and stuffing it into a large shopping bag.

Striding out of the room and down the hallway, Ben headed for the stairs as quietly as he could, just in case the babies weren't as deeply asleep as he hoped.  Negotiating the stairs, however, was a little trickier, given that he was weighted down and couldn't rightfully see around the mountain of oddly shaped packages he carried.

He stuck the rest of the boxes under the tree and fussed with them for a minute before deciding that it was good enough.  Considering it was the fourth trip downstairs with wrapped gifts, he figured that it was about as good as it was going to get, he thought as he stood up and patted his pockets for his phone.  He figured he should get a few shots of the tree since Charity seemed to be big on capturing every moment, and he frowned.  He must have left the device upstairs since he'd already changed into a pair of sweatpants for bed.

He started out of the living room but stopped short as he neared the front door as his scowl darkened.  A strange trill of foreboding shot up his spine.  He could sense the creeping malignance of a strange youki coming closer.  It was more of a reaction than a conscious thought as he strode into his office and yanked the swords down off the wall.

In all the years he'd lived, he'd had this same feeling only a handful of times, and each time, there had been good reason for it.  Glancing up at the stairwell as he strode back toward the front door, he frowned.  He hesitated as he reached for the door handle.  Charity started down the stairs with a bag of trash in one hand and his phone in the other.  "Ben?"

He shook his head as her eyes widened at the sight of the swords.

"What are you . . .?" Trailing off, she gasped softly, her eyes flashing wide as her head turned toward the door.  She must have felt it, too, and she dashed down the steps, dropping the bag of trash in her haste to grab his arm.  "Ben!  No!" she blurted.  "You don't know—"

He shook her off gently but firmly.  "You stay here.  Lock all the doors," he commanded quietly.

"Who—?"

"I don't know, but I'm going to find out."

"I'm coming with you.  I'm—"

"No," he stated once more.  "Stay here with the girls."

"But—"

He turned to face her once more, his gaze serious, stony.  "Trust me, Cherry.  Stay.  Here."

She didn't want to agree.  It was there in the depths of her eyes.  Finally, though, she nodded curtly as she quickly threw her arms around him, giving him a quick hug before she stepped back.  "Okay," she said.  "Just . . . be careful."

He nodded, and then he grasped the handle and turned.

 

 


 

 

 

Charity waited until the door closed behind him to slap the lockdown panel beside the door, grimacing as the sounds of every lock in the house resounded in the quiet: doors, windows, everything, and she shoved aside the curtain to look out the window.

'This isn't good, Cherry . . . We don't know who it is, but there's more than one of them.  You sensed it, too . . .'

Gritting her teeth, she winced when Ben stepped off the porch, the darkness of the overcast night closing around him entirely too fast.  She saw the glint of his swords as he moved, but she couldn't make out anything else—not Ben, and not the youkai who were out there waiting . . .

'The phone!  Cherry, didn't Ben say that Kyouhei-san was there last night at the party?  Maybe . . .'

Swallowing down the panic that twisted around her stomach, she bobbled with the phone.  When the display flashed to life, she growled as she dismissed the missed call screen, her hands trembling as she located Kyouhei's number and hit, 'dial'.

"Nii-san?  Kind of late for a social call, isn't it?"

"Kyouhei!" she squeaked, a sudden and vicious surge of relief rattling through her.  "It's me . . . Where are you?"

"Charity-san?  What's wrong?"

She smothered a sob as she spotted a flash of Ben's sword, still held by his side.  "There's someone here," she blurted.  "More than one, and Ben—"

"Where is nii-san?"

"He's outside . . . He's looking for—"

A sudden boom like a crack of thunder rattled the windows as an unearthly flash split the night like a macabre strobe.  Charity screamed, dropping the phone as she yanked on the doorknob.  It wouldn't budge as Kyouhei's alarmed voice came from the forgotten device lying on the floor.  "Damn it!" she growled, yanking again on the knob.  It wouldn't give, and she nearly screamed again as she slapped her hand against the panel once more to release the lock.

Throwing the door open wide, she didn't think as she dashed out into the night, as she half-slid, half ran across the porch, down the steps to reach Ben where he'd fallen—Where blood soaked the front of his chest, as it pooled on the ground below him, drenching the snow in a nightmarish shade of black in the darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Ben!  Oh, kami, Ben!" Charity rasped out, smashing her hands down over the rent flesh of his chest.  It was too dark, there was too much blood, and she couldn’t tell how bad the injury was . . . The sickening smell of his blood blotted out everything else from her mind, everything but the base need to protect Ben, to get him help . . .

'Calm down, Cherry!  He's not dead, and they're still here . . .'

Uttering a sharp gasp as her youkai-voice's words sank in, Charity forced herself to grab the swords that lay at Ben's sides, and she slowly got to her feet.  'I . . . I can't see anything . . .'

"You can't panic, no matter what.  It don't matter if you can see your enemy or not.  You're hanyou.  Use your senses.  You can smell 'em, and you can hear 'em, but don't lose your head, no matter what . . ."

The echo of InuYasha-oji-chan's words came back to her, and something about them forced her to bite back the panic that threatened to overwhelm her.  In her half-trance, she heard her youkai's voice, reminding her in a soft drone that Ben was still alive, still breathing—desperately hurt, but still alive . . .

Ears rotating slowly, twitching to intercept any sound at all, they flipped back, flattened out when the sound of a gun being cocked echoed in her head.  Reacting on pure instinct, she raised the katana as the shots were fired.  Grimacing as the bullets were deflected by the blade, she uttered a sharp growl as she pushed off of the snow-covered ground, bringing the two swords back and swinging them hard as she landed exactly where the shots had originated.  The tip of the katana met its mark with a hiss of breath, the rending tear of flesh, but she hadn't hit him deep enough to do any real damage, and she sprang back before he could come after her, landing in a crouch, smashing herself into the fluffy snow, lest the intruder fire the stupid gun again.

"Shit!" the voice hissed a second before the sound of metal impacting on the ground broke the silence.  A couple of thumps—footsteps?—and the scrape of the gun being kicked away.

A moment later, a gloved hand landed on her shoulder, and Charity erupted in a menacing snarl as she was pulled to her feet in an efficient but not unkind manner.  "Charity?"

"Manami-san," she breathed as a flash of relief brought tears to her eyes.  She stubbornly blinked them back.  "Who—?"

"Jeet Unker and his mate," she muttered, her voice barely above a whisper.  "I disarmed him, but he's still dangerous. I'll—"

"No," Charity hissed, her eyes flaring wide as understanding dawned on her.  "They're after my daughters, and Ben—"

"You need to get Ben out of here," Manami insisted.

"It's my fight," Charity countered.  "My family—my fight."  She swallowed hard.  "Help . . . Help Ben . . . please . . ."

She felt Manami sigh more than she heard her, but the woman sprang back out of the way as Charity refreshed her grip on the swords.  Straining to hear any sign of movement, she shot forward when another slight crunch of snow resounded in her ears.  Jeet barely managed to avoid her, but she lunged again, gritting her teeth as he raised his arms to block her, as the blade sliced cleanly through his forearm.

He sprang back with a hiss of pain, gripping the laceration through the thickness of the dingy leather jacket that had spared him from losing the limb entirely.  Charity didn't waste any time as she leapt forward again, as the clouds that had occluded the skies all night suddenly broke apart, as the near-quarter moon's light shone down.  It wasn't much, but, given the alternative, it was enough, and for the first time, Charity could make out the man she was fighting.

"Oh, no, you don't!" a female voice screeched, and Charity leapt back as a flash of unfocused energy erupted from the woman's hand.  It missed Charity completely and exploded behind her.

'She's aiming for . . . for Ben . . .?'

Unleashing a menacing growl, Charity rushed forward to intercept the woman, who was gathering energy in her palm.  "Leave him alone!" Charity bellowed, pushing off the ground, aiming both swords down as she bore down on the woman.

She dove to the side a second too late, and she screeched as the smaller sword impaled her leg, as it sank deep into the snow and into the frozen ground, stopping only when the hilt of the weapon could delve no deeper, blocked by the woman's flesh.  Charity let go of the smaller sword and pushed herself back, satisfied, at least for the moment, that she wouldn't be interfering again.

Rounding on the woman's mate, she leveled a glower at him.  "You dare to come here, to threaten my family?" she growled as the wind whipped her hair out of the last vestiges of the bun she'd worn while wrapping presents.  It blew around her, into her face.  She ignored it as she raised the sword and pointed it at Jeet Unker's chest.

"You are nothing but a worthless hanyou!" Jeet spat, cracking his knuckles as his other arm dangled limply by his side, his blood dripping from his fingertips like a gruesome rain.  "I want his life!" he bellowed, jerking his head in Ben's direction.  "He killed my boy!"

"I am the daughter of the Japanese tai-youkai," she ground out, "and you—You're the one who killed Hecht by sending him after my children!"

"Don't you fucking say his name!" Jeet shrieked, dashing toward her as his youki roiled around him in a violent haze.  She sidestepped him easily, bringing the blunt side of the sword down across his back, and he sprawled, face down in the snow.  Rolling to his feet, he lunged toward her again, his claws digging into her arm, sending her careening back as she hissed in pain and fought against the urge to drop the sword to grip the limb.  He closed in on her, and she kicked out, spinning in a tight circle with her leg extended, catching his ankles as he crashed in the snow beside her.

She let go of the sword long enough to grab Unker's arm as she snaked her legs around it, wrenching it hard.  It gave with a pop at the elbow, as the crunching of bone against bone reverberated up his arm and into her hands, and she kicked him away, flipping up onto her feet once more.

He screamed, both arms rendered useless, and she stood over him, glowered down at him as a heavy thump sounded behind her.  "I guess you've got this entirely under control."

"Kyouhei-san," she breathed, sparing just a moment to glance at him as she retrieved Ben's sword again.  "Ben—He needs help.  You need to get him to the hospital."

"Charity!"

Kyouhei shook his head stubbornly, reached for the sword, but stopped when she erupted in a menacing growl.  "Take nii-san and go," he said, jerking his head the other way.  "I'll finish up here."

"You've done well, Charity," Manami said as she lit beside Kyouhei.  Charity grimaced, smothered a low whine at the mind-numbing scent of Ben's blood on the woman's hands.  "You've got no time—You must get Ben out of here," she said.  "You can take him, yes?" she asked, casting Kyouhei a questioning glance.

Kyouhei nodded, though he didn't look like he wanted to agree.  "But—"

"This is my job," Manami remarked.  "I am a hunter.  Now, go."

"Come on, Charity," Kyouhei said, slipping an arm around her shoulders to lead her away.

"The girls—"

"I'll watch them," Manami said, turning her attention back to the Unkers once more.  Brenda was trying in vain to yank the shorter sword free, but Jeet . . .

A sudden crackling drew her attention, and she gasped.  "Manami-san!  He's trying to transform!"

"Come on," Kyouhei insisted, dragging Charity toward Ben.  "He . . . He isn't good . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

Manami flipped open the small pack she wore around her waist, drawing out the four throwing stars that she unleashed with a quick flick of her wrist.  The stars connected, driving Unker to the ground, pinning each of his limbs through his clothing for a moment while she pulled out the small half-circle blade and whipped it at him, too.  It struck true, the inner, blunted side circling the front of his neck as the ends embedded themselves in the earth.  A moment later, Brenda was trapped in the same way as Manami strode forward, resting her boot on the half-circle, and she purposefully pushed down as she stared down into Brenda Unker's terrified face.  "You attacked the top North American general," Manami stated flatly as Kyouhei and Charity sprinted away with Ben, "as well as the daughter of the Japanese tai-youkai, and both of those acts amount to treason."

"He . . . He killed our boy!" Brenda wheezed, trying in vain to shove her hands under the band that was slowly growing smaller, slowly cutting off her air.  "And you . . . You're on their side . . .?"

"You wanted to sell those babies," Manami pointed out with a delicately arched brow.  "You have no right to talk like an outraged mother now."  Then she pushed down with her foot, and Brenda's body disintegrated in a gust and a flash of light and a vile, black dust.

"Let me out of this!" Jeet shrieked, struggling against the shuriken, gurgling out a wheezing breath as the circle around his neck tightened.  "You bitch!  You lying bitch!"

"The only way you're getting out of that is when you're dead," she replied evenly, sauntering over, deliberately stepping on each of Jeet's forearms as he grunted and choked in pain.  She straddled the man's body as she leaned down, bracing herself on her knees, digging her the soles of her shoes into his arms just a little bit more.  "That circlet is my youkai-weapon," she said quietly, her voice nearly a purr.  "Once it connects with your jugular, it will tighten, and eventually, you will die.  Now, I'll admit, it's a sad way to go, so I rarely let it last that long, but you . . . Ben is my friend: my oldest friend—one of the few friends that I hold dear, and for what you did to him?  Well . . ."

Straightening her back, she stepped away from Jeet, only to turn back, crossing her arms over her chest as the barest hint of a smile twisted her lips.  "I'm going to stand here, and I'm going to watch you die . . . I'm going to watch as your limbs go numb—they already are, aren't they?"  She stepped forward, ground her heel into Unker's arm.  He half-shrieked, half-burbled as the limb under her foot exploded in a wash of light and wind and dust.  Then she repeated the process with his legs and remaining arm.  By the time she was finished, Jeet was sobbing in earnest, his face mottling purple, even in the wan and stingy light.  "You have roughly a minute left," she said, squatting beside his head.  "Pray to whatever gods you believe in because the only mercy you're going to get is from them."

And she stared directly into his eyes as the life slowly leaked out of him, as his body disintegrated with one last, long exhalation . . .

 

 


 

 

 

"Here."

Charity blinked and glanced up at the cup of coffee Kyouhei offered her.  "Thanks," she said as she took the paper cup and wrapped her shaking hands around it.

He reached down, tugged the blanket that a nurse had given her up closer over her shoulders.  "How's your arm?"

"Fine," she replied stonily.

"Will you let someone look at it?"

She shook her head, her gaze shifting toward the clear glass window that enclosed the private waiting room and the nurses' station beyond, as though she were willing someone to come give her an update.  "I told you, I'm fine."

He let out a deep breath and sank down into the chair beside her.  "I had no idea you could fight like that," he remarked.  "I'm impressed."

"We all were trained," she said, her voice little more than a monotone.  "The boys' training lasted longer, but . . . But we can hold our own . . ."

"I'd say so," he agreed.  "He'll be fine," he told her, giving her icy fingers a reassuring squeeze.  "Who were they?"

"The girls' biological aunt and uncle," she replied, draining the coffee cup, ignoring the scalding burn of the piping hot liquid.

"Damn."

"I got here as fast as I could," Manami said as she hurried into the waiting room with the girls in their car seats and their diaper bag slung over her shoulder.  "Any news?"

Charity unsnapped the nearest baby—Emmeline—and cuddled her close.  "Not yet," she said.  "As near as they could tell upon first assessment, the bullet barely missed his heart, though . . ."

"Can they do anything?"

Kyouhei slowly shook his head, unfastening Nadia to pick her up.  "It all depends on how fast his body can heal itself," he replied.  "He was lucky, though.  It seemed to have missed the major blood vessels, too."

"The Unkers?" Charity asked, needing to know exactly where they were, needed to know that there was no way they'd bust into the hospital to try to finish the job they hadn't yet completed.

Manami nodded slowly, understanding why Charity needed to know.  "They're dead," she said quietly.

Charity stared at the woman for a long moment, then suddenly collapsed into the chair behind her as her knees gave way.

Manami sat down beside her, reaching over to rub her back in an entirely comforting kind of way.  "You did well, you know?" she said in a soothing kind of tone, almost a croon.  "You protected your children, you protected your mate . . . You should be proud."

She slowly turned her face, her vision slightly blurring as she struggled to find words for what she was feeling.  If she saw it once, she'd seen it a million times: the flashes of fire, and Ben, falling,  such a weird and disjointed way, caught in the strobe light effect . . .

There was so much anger, so much rage, so much hatred, and Charity shivered.  She hadn't realized that she could feel so strongly, hadn't known that she could possess that much loathing . . . and it frightened her, too.

Kyouhei stood up, heaved a sigh as he handed Nadia to Manami.  She shot him a questioning glance, and he shrugged.  "I'm, uh . . . I'm going to see if there's any updates," he said as he strode out of the room.

Veering into a small alcove, half-hidden by a huge panel that was made of frosted glass, Kyouhei pulled out his cell phone and dialed.

"M-Moshimoshi," Toga answered, his voice bleary with sleep.  Given that it was closing in on three in the morning, it wasn't that surprising.  "Uh, Kyouhei-san?  Is something wrong?"

"Sorry for waking you," he replied.  "We're, uh, at the hospital."

All traces of grogginess disappeared.  "What?  Why?" he demanded.  In the background, he could hear the squeaking of a bed as Toga got up.

"Toga?"  What's wrong?" his mate asked.

"I don't know," he replied.  "What happened?  Did something happen to Charity?"

"No," he said quickly.  "Ben was shot."

"What?  Ben?  How is he?  Is he . . .?"

"He's alive . . . Jeet Unker and his mate showed up, and he shot Ben.  He's alive, but . . ." Kyouhei grimaced.  "But it's pretty bad . . . We don't know much yet."

"Oh, kami," Toga breathed.  "What hospital?  How are Charity and the girls?"

"Charity fought them," Kyouhei went on.

"Charity did?"

"She didn't have a choice.  When I got there, there was another woman—she said she's a hunter—but Charity was fighting, and she was holding her own."

"Is she all right?"

"We're at Heilman General in Bangor . . . She took a hit to the arm, and she's refused to let them look at it.  I don’t think it's bad, but—"

"I'll be right there," Toga said.  The connection ended, and Kyouhei grimaced.  At this point, he wasn't entirely sure that calling the tai-youkai was a good idea, but Charity needed someone—someone who knew her better than he did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The pitch black night seemed to close in around him, the darkness groping at him, tugging at him, trying to pull him in a thousand directions . . . Relying on his senses, he could feel the malignant youki—the same feel from two different beings.  They were close, probably lurking in the shadows near the ten-feet-high, two-feet-thick stone wall that surrounded the property near the road . . . If he could just see them . . .

Stepping off of the porch, he moved in silence along the perimeter of the house, trying to stick to the deepest shadows, just in case the clouds decided to clear as he drew in his youki, trying to conceal his location, even though they had to know that he was outside . . .

And yet, he was completely unprepared when he heard it: the distinct 'snick-snick' of the gun being cocked to fire.  Abandoning his tactic, he tried to break into a sprint, but the white-hot flashes of fire ripped through his chest before he could get out of the way.  Struggling to hold onto the last bits of coherence, despite the blinding pain, he gasped when the second bullet struck in the same area as the first, and that one ripped away the light as his body sank into darkness . . .

He felt as though he were swimming, coming up to breathe after a long time under water.  Uttering a low, long moan, he struggled to hold onto the sleep that had cosseted him.  His chest hurt when he sought to draw air—felt like something was trying to tear him apart from the inside, and he tried to raise his hand, only to be stopped by a bunch of wires that seemed to be connected to way too many locations on his body.

"Nii-san!" Kyouhei exclaimed softly.

Ben groaned again as he slowly, carefully, opened his eyes.  "Where . . .?  Where am I?" he managed, wrinkling his nose to try to dislodge the oxygen line hooked to his nose.  Kyouhei's face swam into and out of focus.

"You were shot," Kyouhei explained calmly, almost soothingly.  "You're in the hospital."

"Ch-Charity . . ."

Kyouhei's chair screeched against the floor as he shot to his feet to gently push Ben back when he tried to sit up.  "Charity's here," he said.  "She's having a cup of coffee with her father.  You need to lay back down . . . She'll be back shortly."

Ben grimaced, fighting against the grogginess that beckoned him.  Maybe it was some kind of medicine that was making him feel so off-kilter, he didn't know . . . "Who . . .?"

"The Unkers," Kyouhei replied.  "Charity-san fought them back . . . She defeated one of them on her own and almost had the other one down, too, but Manami-san finished them off."

"Charity . . . did?"

Nodding slowly, Kyouhei broke into a tired and wan smile.  "She's a lot tougher than anyone gives her credit for," he admitted, "myself included . . ."

"I don't . . . want her . . . to have to be . . ." Ben grunted, grimacing again as another sharp pain erupted in his chest.  "Damn guns . . ."

"Yes, but at least you should be reassured that she won't easily let anyone mess with her or any of hers, if it came down to that again."

"Kyou-chan . . . Your . . .  jokes . . . suck . . ."

Kyouhei chuckled softly.  "I'll work on that.  Go on back to sleep for now.  You lost a hell of a lot of blood."

He sighed, his eyes closing on their own accord.  His final thoughts as sleep beckoned him was of Charity and of the warmth of her smile . . .

 

 


 

 

 

"Thank you," Charity murmured as Toga slipped a cup of coffee into her still-trembling hands.  The girls were safe enough with Sierra, who had taken them home, but only after she'd hugged her daughter tight, kissing her on her face more often than Charity could count.

The doctor came in just after her parents had arrived to let her know that they'd finished cleaning Ben's wounds, which was about all they could do, given that Ben was a youkai, meaning his body could not be stitched.  All they could do was to monitor the heaviest bleeders, but they'd sealed themselves, thank kami, so they were cautiously optimistic that he was out of the danger zone.

They'd seen Sierra off, and then Toga had decided that they could both use some coffee, so, he'd ignored Charity's laundry list of reasons why she needed to be there when Ben woke up, and he dragged her down to the cafeteria, anyway.  Just now, however, they were seated outside in a small alcove out of the wind on a cold stone bench in a garden that would be gorgeous, come spring, but just now was dormant and almost tragic.

Toga sighed, taking his time as he sipped his steaming cup of coffee, his amber gaze slowly shifting over their surroundings, up to the sky . . . "Kyouhei-san said you did well, daughter of mine," he said at last, breaking the maddening silence.  "I'm proud of you."

For some reason, her father's words cut her deep, opened up an ache far, far down as she grimaced and couldn't meet his eyes.  "I . . . I didn't," she rasped out, furiously shaking her head as the cup in her hand quaked precariously.  If it weren't for the flimsy plastic lid, she'd have spilled it all over herself . . . "Papa . . ."

Toga set his up aside, then reached for hers to do the same.  Then he drew her into his arms, against his chest, and the sense of familiarity broke her, she could feel it, as a deluge of tears rattled out of her despite her resolve not to give in to any such thing.  "Shh," he murmured, holding her close, stroking her hair back off of her face, cuddling her in the same way that he had when she was little more than a child, awakened in the night by a bad dream.  "Charity, sweetie . . . It's okay . . . Ben's going to be okay . . . You fought well . . . I'm . . . I'm sorry Papa wasn't there to fight for you . . ."

"No-o-o," she whimpered, choking on her sobs as she vehemently shook her head, and yet, the words would not come, and the misery—the consuming misery—rose higher and higher, spiraling out of control, and the harder she fought to rein it in, the more it festered and spread . . .

She didn't know how long she cried, didn't recall Toga pulling her into his lap—entirely ridiculous, given that she was a forty-five year old woman—but as the tears slowly ebbed away, she huddled against his chest, breathing stunted, punctuated by hiccups, as he carefully dabbed at her cheeks with a tear-dampened tissue.  She felt oddly empty, entirely void of emotion—numb—clumsy—lost . . .

"Fighting isn't easy," he said as he gently kissed her forehead.  "We always thought it was better to train you and then hope that you never needed to use what you learned . . . So I am proud of you—really, really proud."

She winced.  He didn't see it.  "Don't be," she whispered, squeezing her eyes closed in silent rebuttal.  His quiet proclamation only served to make her feel that much worse.  "You shouldn't be pr-roud . . . I . . ."

"You did what you had to do, Charity.  If not for you . . ."

She shook her head a little more vehemently, leaning away from her father and still unable to meet his compassionate gaze.  "I wanted to . . . to kill them," she admitted.  "I-I was so . . . so angry, and . . . and this hatred . . ."

She felt his sigh instead of hearing it, and he pulled her gently against his shoulder once more.  "And you're afraid," he concluded.  Why did it sound so logical coming from him . . .? "You frightened yourself, didn't you?  It's okay, you know . . . We've all felt that way, and it's ugly, and it's scary, and it's . . . It's also very, very normal.  They hurt your mate, and you knew it, didn't you?  That's what Ben is to you, right?"

She gave a grudging nod, but still refused to look at him.

"That's your youkai, Charity.  You protected Ben because you had to.  You didn't do anything wrong."

"But—"

"Not . . . one . . . thing."

She heaved a sigh and shook her head, but she didn't know if she was arguing with her father or agreeing with him . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Ben groaned, long and low, as he slowly opened his eyes and blinked in an entirely disoriented sort of way.

"Ah, nice to see you alive and kicking."

He blinked slowly, dully staring at Toga.  "You're not Charity," he muttered, closing his eyes once more.

Toga chuckled.  "I sent her home to clean up and get dressed . . . She was wearing her pajamas . . ."

"So, you got your ass kicked, did you?"

Ben sighed and grimaced when he tried to readjust himself.  "Shut up, Zelig," he grumbled.

"And by some lesser-cats, no less."

Ben snorted.  "That's not shutting up," he pointed out.

"Panthers are supposed to be tough, aren't they?" Cain added.  Then he chuckled.  "Guess you have something in common with Toga now . . . Both of you, brought low by glorified kitty-cats . . ."

"Oi," Toga muttered at the low-blow.

"They were cougars, and they had guns . . . Toga's the only one who was brought down by housecats, thanks," Ben grumbled.

"That was entirely unnecessary, and I defeated them just fine—I just got a cut that got infected, is all," Toga replied haughtily.

"That's not how I heard it," Cain said.  "I heard that you went out there, ready to die as you fought the good fight, all because you thought Sierra didn't want you."

Toga snorted and rolled his eyes.  "Who told you that?"

Cain shrugged.  "Gin's father."

This time, Toga sighed and rubbed his forehead.  "Figures."

"You two yak more than women," Ben complained.  "Tell the nurse I need something to knock me out until you both leave . . ."

"Yeah, well, I'm glad to see that you're going to make it, Ben," Cain remarked.  "Since you are going to live, I'm going to get out of here.  Everyone sends their best wishes for a speedy recovery, except for Gin, who said to give you a kiss for her, which I absolutely am not doing.  You understand."

Ben grunted and flicked a hand to move Cain along.  "Get out of here, Zelig . . . Go enjoy your Christmas—Well, what's left of it, anyway . . ."

Cain nodded and shuffled toward the door, but stopped on the threshold, only to look back over his shoulder at Ben once more.  "Take it easy, all right?"  He grimaced.  "I should have issued a hunt for Jeet Unker before it came to this."

"You didn't know, Zelig.  Leave it behind."

He stared at Ben for a long moment, but finally nodded.  "I'll call in a few days.  Hopefully you'll be back home by then."

Ben nodded as he carefully shifted, wincing when his back stuck to the sterile pad beneath him.  "How's Charity?" he asked after Cain walked away.

Toga sighed and rubbed his eyes.  He looked tired, no doubt about it . . . "She's . . . I'm not going to lie.  She's pretty upset."

"At me?"

The tai-youkai shook his head.  "Of course not.  She's just never had to fight before, and it shook her pretty badly."

Ben frowned.  "Kyouhei said she did well . . . He seemed really impressed with her fighting skills, actually . . ."

Toga shook his head.  "No, it's not about that.  From all accounts, she held her own and then some . . . She's, um . . ."

"What?" he prompted when Toga trailed off, brushing aside the trace irritation that rose with the perceived hesitation.

Toga's frown was entirely thoughtful, more like he was trying to figure out exactly how to explain what was in his head.  "She's scared," he said simply, which seemed rather anticlimactic, all things considered.

"Of what?" Ben asked with a shake of his head, unsure if the inability to comprehend just what Toga was talking about was because of his meds or just due to the complexities of a woman, period.

Standing up, Toga wandered over to the windows, staring outside at the gently falling snow.  "Of her own anger—the rage she felt when she fought them . . . The fear she felt for you . . . All of it."  He grimaced as he turned away from the window to frown at Ben.  "They don't know it, but . . . But we all sat down, talked about it . . . We didn't know," he admitted, shaking his head slowly.  "I mean, we all agreed that the girls all needed to know how to defend themselves, but we . . . We didn't know if we should teach them how to fight.  You know—you understand—the world of difference between the two.  In the end, we decided that, given who I was as well as how notorious the rest of the extended family was . . . We thought that it was something they should know, even if their training wasn't as extensive as that of the boys.  Kichiro's girls, with the exception of Samantha because she wanted to continue . . . Well, they stopped training when they were about fourteen.  My daughters trained until they were almost eighteen . . ."

"Okay . . ."

Toga sighed, raking his hands through his hair, his gaze taking on a wearied edge.  "We taught her how to fight, and we taught her how to move and how to  . . ." he sighed again, and this time, he looked like he might well be close to tears.  "We—I—never told her what kinds of emotions she might have if she ever had to use her skills, and how to deal with those . . ."

Ben shook his head.  "That's not something you can explain to someone, Toga.  It's only something you learn to understand after the fact."

That didn't seem to comfort him in the least, and he didn't even try to smile when he looked at Ben once more, his eyes suspiciously bright.  "I think she might also be a little afraid of what you might think of her," he said.

Ben grimaced.

He kind of thought it might be something like that . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Charity listened to the steady hum of the machines that were monitoring Ben's vitals.   It was almost enough to make her want to scream.  She stood up, wrapping her sweater-clad arms over her stomach in a wholly protective kind of way, stepping forward to look at his sleeping face.  Despite the smudges of black under his eyes, the way his cheeks seemed a little more sunken-in, the growth of stubble on his face, his coloring didn't look terrible—a sure sign that he was healing, she supposed . . . She started to reach out, to brush his long bangs back, but she stopped, hesitated, and finally, pulled her hand back in a tight fist.

Did she even have a right to touch him now?

Licking her lips, pressing them together in a tight, thin line, she forced herself to turn away, busied herself in fussing with the flower arrangement she'd brought back with her after she'd gone home to shower and change.

'You're beating yourself up over nothing, you know.'

'Nothing?  You call all of that, 'nothing'?'

Her youkai-voice sighed.  'You wouldn't even go in and hold your babies, even just for a moment, Cherry.'

She grimaced.  No, she hadn't.  She'd leaned in the doorway, watching as her mother put them down for a nap, but she couldn’t bring herself to step forward, to touch the girls.  How could she when . . .?

"Charity . . ."

She smothered a gasp as she whipped around, only to find Ben staring at her through heavy-lidded eyes.  The doctor had told her that they were keeping him fairly heavily sedated to allow his body to mend itself.  He'd also said that Ben was healing remarkably quickly, given the massive amount of damage that was done.

He held up a hand toward her.  "I hear you saved my life," he said.  She could tell he was trying to make a joke.  For some reason, it brought tears to her eyes instead, though she bit them back rather admirably, all things considered.  Still, she hesitated before stepping over to him, wincing inwardly as the crazy-mad rage that anyone would dare to be so dishonorable as to use a gun in a youkai fight, that they would dare to try to ambush Ben at all, surged through her, shocking her—frightening her—all over again, and she quickly shook her head.

He grasped the safety rails and tried to pull himself up.  She choked out a half-whine and skittered over to him, gently pressing against his shoulders to get him to lay back down again.  "What are you doing?  You're going to hurt yourself more!" she scolded, frowning at him as she fussed with the plain gray hospital gown.  "You should be resting."

"I can't rest when you won't even come near me," he replied, catching her hand, lest she try to step back again.  "Why are you scared?"

She blinked quickly, shaking her head again as she tugged on her hand, but he held on tight. "Ben . . ."

"Fighting . . . Fighting is hard.  Dealing with that much anger, that much hate, is hard," he said.  "I'm sorry I put you in that kind of a position, but . . . But I'm glad you fought for me—for us."  He managed a wan smile.  "For our girls."

"But I . . ."

He gave her hand a little squeeze.  "Would you think less of me had I been the one to fight them?"

"Of course not!"

"Then why would I think less of you?"

She blinked, stared at him, opening and closing her mouth a few times as a slow sense of understanding dawned on her.  His question had seemed silly, hadn't it?  And her answer was absolutely understood, and yet . . . "I was . . . so angry," she admitted quietly, her gaze falling away from his.  "I was . . ."

"You were a person, just like everyone else," he told her gently.  "Do you think that you shouldn't ever feel those kinds of emotions?  Because it's normal.  Even if you hadn't fought, you still would have felt that way, wouldn't you?  You can't just turn your feelings off and on, Cherry."

"You don't understand," she blurted, tugging her hand away as she stepped back and crossed her arms over her stomach once more.  "I . . . I wanted to . . . to hurt them—maybe even kill them . . . I . . . I wanted . . ." Smashing her hands over her face, she drew a few deep breaths to keep herself from falling apart completely.

"If you're trying to convince me to think less of you, it's not working," he told her.  "I know who you are: you're the same woman you were yesterday . . ." He sighed.  "You did what you needed to do because you had to.  You don't have to make excuses, especially for me.  Just be the Charity you are because that's the Charity that I . . ." Trailing off for a moment, he smiled again, and despite the weariness, it was a genuine thing.  "The Charity that I love."

She gasped, her eyes flashing up to meet his as she went stone still and stared at him.  "You . . . You love . . . me?"

He started to laugh, but it turned rapidly into a groan and a grimace.  "Of course, I do," he mumbled, his words starting to slur together as sleepiness kicked in once more.  "I don't suppose you'd crawl up here and take a nap with me . . .?

She shook her head since that would not be advisable, given his wounds.  But she did pull over the chair before lowering the safety rail.  Then she sat down, leaning on the side of the bed as she grasped his hand in hers.  "I . . ." She swallowed hard, forcing down the lump that suddenly rose in her throat to choke her.  "I love you, too . . ."

He smiled vaguely as he let his eyes drift closed again.  Charity let go of him, slipping her hand up under his arm, carefully avoiding the IV line, content to touch him as she slowly lowered her head onto her upper arm, as her eyes slipped shut, too, and this time, the repetitive sounds of the various monitors were comforting.

They reminded her of his heartbeat, and that was enough for her . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ben scowled at the foot of the bed where he'd been summarily ordered to be for the last week and a half since he'd been released from the hospital.  For the briefest of moments, he considered getting up, at least to stretch his legs.  His chest wounds were all closed for the most part within a couple days, and the doctor had allowed him to go home with the instruction that he get plenty of rest for the next week or two.  Unfortunately for him, Charity had heard that order and had taken it upon herself to make sure that he did exactly that—much to his everlasting chagrin.

'At least she seems to be over that bout of self-loathing, don't you think?  So, she's redirected her attention onto you and your well-being.  That's okay, right?'

Ben snorted.  'Nope, not really,' he retorted dryly.  'Can't she focus on the girls or—or—or—?'

'It's because she loves you, and she wants you to be healthy again, and she's worried about your old ticker, and—'

'I get your point.  Shut up, will you?  Or wait, don't!  You can talk to her, right?  Tell her that I’m fine and that walking down to my office isn't going to hurt me, after all.'

'You're on your own, Ben.  It's not going to hurt you to take it easy for another . . . week?  Week and a half?'

'. . . Fuck off.'

His youkai-voice laughed.  Ben made a face and tossed the blankets aside as he sat up slowly and started to shift his legs off of the side of the bed.

"Ben Philips, you'd better not be thinking about getting out of that bed!" Charity's voice echoed over the house intercom system.

Heaving a sigh as he dropped back against the mountain of pillows she's fluffed up, just for him, he made a face as he yanked the blankets back into place again.  "Wouldn't dream of it," he muttered, beyond irritated that she'd actually thought that he'd completely disregard her order—even though that was exactly what he was doing.

"I'll be up in a few minutes with your pain killer," she said.

He sighed again since it didn't matter how often he told her that he really didn't need those little white pills, either.  He felt pretty good, all things considered.  Okay, so his chest still ached a little, and if he moved the wrong way, he'd often suffer a sharp twinge here and there, but as long as he was mindful of it, it wasn't an issue.

'She's worse than a general,' he thought with an inward snort.  'I mean, seriously . . . I'm the head general, and I'm not as bad as she is . . .'

'Get over it, Ben.  She's fine, and you realize, right, that this is just the beginning.'

'What's that supposed to mean?'

'It means that, as your mate, you might as well get used to it.  Women always have the upper hand, and you might as well learn that now.'

'And just how does that work?' Ben scoffed.

'Because they have boobs, Ben, and because we like to see those boobs as often as possible.  Simple as that.'

He rolled his eyes and reached for the television remote.  Okay, so his youkai-voice had a point.  It figured.

"Okay," Charity said, oblivious to Ben's thoughts as she breezed into the room with a tray of bland and dull food and his morning pill.  She set the tray on the nightstand before carefully helping him sit up, which earned her a very dry look that she completely missed since she was busy, re-fluffing the pillows and meticulously arranging them behind him again.  Then she reached for the tray, carefully balancing it on her lap.  "Take your pill, then I'll help you with your pudding."

"Pudding?" he echoed, making a face at the gloppy, yellowish stuff in the bowl.  "I don't like pudding."

"Oh, would you rather have more Jell-o?"

He snorted, pointedly ignoring the pill as he crossed his arms over his chest and tried not to look like a five-year-old.  "I want eggs and bacon and sausage, Charity," he pointed out calmly—maybe a little too calmly.  "I'm never going to recover if you don't give me real food."

She wrinkled her nose and picked up the pill to hold against his bottom lip.  "You've also been through a major trauma," she pointed out gently, "so your body's still healing.  The last thing you need is a bunch of harder to process stuff."

"Says who?" he demanded, careful to avoid actually opening his mouth far enough for her to slip the pill through.

"Kichiro-oji-chan," she replied smoothly.  "Now, open up and take your pill."

He grunted, but stubbornly refused to cooperate.

"Kichiro-oji-chan can go to—"

"Morning, Ben.  Charity said your injury looks a little inflamed, so I figured I'd take a look at it while I'm in town," Kichiro-oji-chan said as he swaggered into the room.

"What are you doing here?" Ben blurted, cursing his rotten luck that seemed to have everyone who could possibly bedevil him a little more, wandering into and out of his home.  In the course of a couple weeks, he'd lost complete control, hadn't he?

"Belle-chan wanted to do some shopping before we fly home," the hanyou doctor said as he stepped around the bed.  Charity stood up and handed the pill to her uncle.  "It's for pain," she explained.  "Can you get him to take it?"

Kichiro stared at the pill and shrugged.  "Well, he may not need it.  It's really up to him, Charity."

She wrinkled her nose and set the tray on his nightstand instead.  "I'm going to go say hi to Belle-oba-chan while you look at him."

"Coffee," Ben called after her as she headed out of the room.

"You have some herbal tea there on your tray," she called back.

Ben heaved a sigh and scowled at Kichiro as he pulled up his shirt and waited.

Kichiro frowned thoughtfully as he gently prodded at the wound after removing the dressing that Charity had taped over his chest.  He didn't comment when Ben flinched as he pushed a little too hard on a particularly tender spot.  After what seemed like hours but was probably only seconds, he replaced the covering and gestured for Ben to sit up a little more so he could check the healing exit wounds on his back.

"They look good," Kichiro finally said as Ben flopped back against the pillows once more.  "I imagine they'll be sore for a while longer, but overall, I'd say you're good to go, as long as you take it easy."

"Tell that to the little general," Ben grumbled, reaching for the mug of tea that he really didn't want.

Kichiro chuckled.  "She's just concerned, of course, but yeah, I'll talk to her."

Ben sighed.  "I'm not used to all this lying around," he muttered, as though he felt like he needed to explain himself to the doctor.

Kichiro shrugged as he eyed the food, too.  "I'll, uh, talk to her about that, too," he said, flicking a claw at the tray.  "That just looks . . . disgusting."

"It is," Ben grumbled, making a face at the despised tea.

"I take it you don't really need these anymore, either," Kichiro went on, holding out the pill in the palm of his hand.

"I haven't needed those for days," he replied.

Kichiro nodded.  "Well, I'd say you should be able to resume your regular activities within reason.  I mean, it's not like you're going to go out and get into another fight or anything, are you?"

Shoving the blankets aside, Ben slowly got to his feet and snorted.  "Wasn't planning on it, no . . ."

Kichiro chuckled and strode into the bathroom to flush the pill down the toilet.  "Don't worry, Ben.  You get used to it."

Sparing Kichiro a questioning glance as he tugged his trousers on and worked the fastenings, he shook his head.  "Get used to what?"

"You'll get used to being babied, even if you don't want any such thing," he went on to explain.  "Besides, it has fringe benefits, so there's that, too."

Ben made a face as he pulled on a white cotton dress shirt.  "I know, and I appreciate her efforts.  I'm just tired of being in that bed and doing nothing all day."

Shouldering himself away from the bathroom doorway, Kichiro chuckled again as he started for the hall.  "I'll talk to her, Ben."

Letting out a deep breath as he watched the hanyou's retreat, Ben wondered how much resistance he'd face if he ventured down to the kitchen to find something more substantial than pudding . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Charity knocked lightly against the archway that led to Ben's office.  He glanced up shot her an almost wary kind of look as he sat back in the thickly cushioned chair.

"The architect sent over the blueprints for approval," she said, stepping over to the desk to hand him the large cardboard tube.  "He said to look them over and see if we agree with everything and to let him know because he'd like to break ground on the first."

"All right," he said, cutting through the tape to pop off the plastic lid.  "Come look these over with me."

"I can look at them when you're finished," she said, biting her lip as she stepped back away from the desk.

He frowned as he glanced up at her, only to sigh as he pulled off his glasses and set them on the blueprints that he hadn't quite gotten out of the tube yet.  "Charity, is this about me being out of bed?" he asked.

She shook her head and made a face, her hands twisting together in a decidedly nervous fashion.  "No," she said.  "I . . . I wasn't trying to be a pain," she admitted quietly.  "I just . . . Just wanted to make sure you healed properly . . ."

"You did," he insisted, rising from the chair and stepping around the desk.  He went to reach for her, but she stepped back again.  Staring at her for a long moment, he seemed to be trying to figure something out, and finally, he nodded vaguely, as though something made perfect sense to him as he leaned back against the desk and stuffed his hands into his pockets.  "All right," he relented with a deep breath.  "I'll go back to bed if that's what you want, but I'm taking some of this stuff with me," he said, jerking his head to indicate the accumulated files littering his desk.

She grimaced, scowling at the floor as she wrapped her arms around herself.  "That's . . . It's not that," she said, wishing for the world that she could put her thoughts into words.  Maybe it was simply the awful sense that, if she could just nurse him back to health, then that ugly feeling that she just wasn't the person that he thought she was might go away—the horrifying thought that he was going to wake up and realize that she . . .

"Then suppose you tell me what's bothering you?"

Forcing a bright smile, she quickly shook her head.  "It's nothing," she assured him.  "I-I don't want to bother you . . . I'm going to take the girls shopping.  They need a few things, and—"

He caught her wrist when she spun around to flee, tugging her gently back to him as he wrapped his arms around her and sighed.  "Talk to me, Cherry.  You were upset—rightfully so—when I kept things from you, right?  So don't do that to me.  Tell me what's bothering you?"

She shook her head stubbornly, pushed against him until he relented and let go.  "We won't be gone that long," she said with another smile.  "We can . . . can talk later, all right?"

"All right," he agreed slowly.  "Be careful."

She nodded as she hurried out of his office, rounding the corner before her smile faded, disappeared.  She rubbed her forehead, pausing in the foyer before opening the closet and retrieving the stroller and the girls' winter coats.

What Ben had said . . . But it was different, wasn't it?  This wasn't some kind of threat or anything like that.  This was her feelings—things that she had just come to realize recently—and those things?

There really wasn't a thing she could say to make those demons disappear . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Ben set the cell phone on the nightstand reached for the remote to watch the nightly news.  He'd just gotten off the phone with Kyouhei, who had called to give him an update.  There wasn't any new information, but he'd said that they were expecting a special envoy from some youkai rumored to be in tight with Ian MacDonnough, so he'd call again after that.

'That's bad . . . If the MacDonnough is getting involved . . .'

Ben rolled his eyes.  'The MacDonnough?  As if he ever would do anything so obvious.  He's the type that manipulates others into doing his dirty work.'

Even so, the idea that Ian MacDonnough would toss his lot in with the rebel faction might not be surprising, but it was telling, overall.  He wasn't the type to act without a good amount of deliberation, and God only knew what he'd been told already . . .

And yet, Sesshoumaru had adopted more of a sit back and wait mentality that Ben really did have to question.  It was a delicate balance, and he understood that.  As Inu no Taisho, Sesshoumaru really couldn't just rashly act without considering the consequences of that, too, but just how much longer was he willing to sit on his hands and do nothing?  Toga, too, had opted to follow his father's lead on the matter, which meant that the death toll around Hidekea's stronghold was growing steadily, but the idea of giving in and sending Ryomaru was just not a wise one, either, given the circumstances.

But still, Ben had to wonder, just how long they could afford to look the other way, because if they weren't careful, then the faction would have to realize that Sesshoumaru had found out about their little plot, and then . . .

'Kyouhei . . .'

Ben nodded slowly.  If something weren't done soon, just how long would Kyouhei be able to remain under the radar, so to speak?

"In world news, a rash of murders in and around the cities of Kitakyushu and Fukuoka in southern Japan has authorities stumped.  The cities, located a mere seventy-one-point-two miles from one another, have become a hotspot of fear as police are encouraging people not to travel anywhere alone, and locals are fearing the rise of a serial killer  . . ."

Ben shut off the television and set the remote aside before reaching over to carefully draw Charity into his arms.  She didn't stir, but she did huddle against him in her sleep, and he sighed as his inner turmoil slowly ebbed away.  There was just something about her, wasn't there?  Something that calmed him, soothed him . . .

'Maybe, but you know, right?  She completely avoided that conversation you wanted to have with her, even after they got home from shopping . . .'

 'I know.'

It made no sense, though, did it?  He'd thought about it all day, but he really wasn't any closer to having an actual answer than he did earlier.  Something really was bothering her, but he had a feeling that she really didn't intend to tell him, either . . . But why?

'It'd be so much simpler if I could just read her mind,' Ben thought with a sigh, frowning as he gently smoothed her hair back off of her face.  He had no idea just how to get her to tell him, and yet, he had a feeling that it was something big, at least, in her mind . . .

His youkai-voice sighed, too.  'It's probably a bad idea, really . . .'

'What?'

'Let me try . . . She hasn't replied to me in awhile, though, so I'm not sure she will . . . She hasn't answered me since the night you were shot, so . . .'

Ben's frown deepened.  A sudden trill of fear raced through him, and he pulled Charity a little closer.  She hadn't rejected him, this he could tell, but . . .

'Charity?  You can hear me; I know you can . . .'

A very weary sigh, almost more of a breath than a sound, came to him.

'Talk to me, can't you?  Just what's going on?  Why won't you answer?'

'I shouldn't, you know,' said the voice, and to Ben, it sounded like Charity, and yet, it didn't at the same time.  'It's something she needs to work through, and she's trying . . .'

'Okay, but let us help . . . There's a distance there, and it's . . .'

The voice sighed again.  'She's just afraid, and it's true that Ben really did help her when he said that he loved her, but somewhere deep down, she's afraid that he . . . That he won't . . . That he'll realize that she's some kind of monster, and—'

'That's ridiculous!' his youkai scoffed.  'She's no more a monster than I am!'

'I know that, and you know that, but she . . . You don't understand, do you?  Charity . . . She's never, ever in her life felt so much anger, so much hatred as she did that night, and she . . . She wanted to kill them, you know?  I'm not just saying that as a figure of speech—she really, truly wanted them to die in that moment . . .'

'And that's why she's scared,' his youkai concluded.  'Because she's never had a reason to feel like she had to kill in order to live . . . and she . . .'

'Can't you understand?  She'll be okay eventually, but right now . . .'

'How can I help her?' Ben interrupted.  'How can I make her see that she's not a monster—not anything but a woman who wanted to protect her family?'

'Oh, Ben . . . I don't know.  I don't know if you told her if she'd believe you or not.  She . . . She wants to, just like she wanted to believe her father when he told her the same thing, but sometimes, your mind can do far worse things to you than any other being could ever do.  She just needs to be reminded.  She just needs to believe . . .'

Ben sighed.  'Well, I'm open to suggestions on that.'

Her youkai didn't respond right away, and for a moment, Ben almost thought that it wasn't going to.  Finally, though, she sighed for the third time.  'I don't really know, either, but I almost wonder . . . If you took her back—back to where it all began for her—maybe she'd really hear you . . . maybe.'

'Where it all began?  What do you . . .?' Trailing off as a slow sense of understanding dawned on him, Ben nodded.  'You mean . . . You think I should take her back to see the one who trained her.  That's what you're saying?'

'He could reach her, I think.  After all, it was his words that helped her that night . . .'

'Take her . . . back to where it all began for her . . . To . . . To InuYasha . . .'

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The chime of the cell phone interrupted Ben's train of thought as he reached for the device without taking his eyes off the file he'd been reading through.  Cain had sent him a list of hunt recommendations for Ben to go over since it was his job to verify facts and information on each one before Cain signed off on any of them.

Rubbing his temple as he shifted his gaze to the phone, he slowly shook his head as he clicked on the message reminder and waited for it to load.

'How about a flash mob?  You could even learn a choreographed dance or something to show off your moves, and we can film the whole thing to upload on Youtube!  You could go viral!'

He chuckled despite the fact that it wouldn't be happening, and Ben fired a message back to Chelsea.  'Keep trying.'

She'd been sending him suggestions on how to pop the big question to Charity ever since the Zelig Foundation Christmas Fundraiser, and they'd ranged from, 'beyond-stupid' to, 'never-in-a-million-years'.

'Never mind that her agreement is not a guaranteed thing, at this point,' his youkai-voice pointed out glumly.  'She might well say no just because she doesn't feel worthy of being with you—entirely stupid, but, well, so is the thought that we'd ever think less of her just because she got a little pissed off.'

Standing abruptly, Ben turned around to stride out of the office, but the sight of his swords, hung behind the desk, stopped him.  She'd used them, Kyouhei had said, and for the first time, he wondered if he ought to take them down, to put them away somewhere that would still be handy enough but wouldn't be constant visual reminders to her, either.

Even so, in the week that had passed since the night that Ben had talked to Charity's youkai, he was no closer to convincing her that her fears were completely groundless, but he'd called InuYasha the next morning, had told him what was going on and asked him to please call Charity, which, for some reason, he still hadn't done.  Of course, Ben realized that InuYasha was a busy man.  Between running his school and the continuing threat of the youkai uprising, not to mention the service dog that he'd taken back to Japan with him, Ben was sure that his time was precious.  Still . . .

'Maybe he's just busy . . . We could try calling him again . . .'

Heaving a sigh as he dug his hands into his hair in an entirely frustrated kind of way.  He'd pack them all up and fly them to Japan if his doctor would allow it.  As it was, he'd maintained that it was still too soon to put that kind of strain on his system, given how close to his heart the gunshots were.  Youkai systems were far too sensitive to air travel, and adding that kind of stress on top of the injuries was too dangerous.

'We could just book a flight for her,' his youkai suggested.  'Let her go alone . . .'

He'd already considered that, too, but with the turmoil and general unrest going on over there, Ben wasn't too keen on that idea, either.  It wasn't that he thought that she wouldn't be well enough protected, no, but there were a number of things that could happen to her from the time she left to the time she arrived at her family's home, and should anyone find out that Sesshoumaru's granddaughter was traveling alone?  It just wasn't a chance he was willing to take.

There were no easy answers, damn it . . .

The cell phone buzzed, and Ben glanced at it, his frown darkening as he read the name on the display.  He sat back down and routing the call to the house system.  The video connection took a moment to buffer, and Manami smiled in greeting.  "Morning, Ben!" she greeted happily.  "You're looking good . . . How are you feeling?"

Raising an eyebrow at the black mock-turtleneck knit sweater that looked like it was skin-tight and the black knit slouch cap that she had her hair tucked up under, Ben slowly shook his head.  "You look like a cat burglar," he pointed out dryly, "and I'm fine; thanks for asking."

She laughed.  "I just got back from my morning run, if you must know," she told him.  "How's Charity?"

"She's good," he lied, unsure why he was unwilling to tell Manami about any of it.  "So, is this a social call?"

Manami shrugged.  "Yes . . . and no."

"Well, that's cryptic."

She laughed.  "I was offered a job."

"A job?" he echoed, steepling his fingers in front of his chin.  "I thought you worked for the MacDonnough."

"Hmm . . . I quit. He made it quite plain that if I wished to continue my association with him that I had to take the job that I declined in the first place.  I refuse to do so, so we've come to that inevitable crossroad and have decided to part ways."

"It's a hunter's job to hunt, not to judge the orders handed down," he pointed out.

She stared at Ben for a long moment.  "Even if the man in question has done nothing wrong?"

"Hunt orders aren't issued for people who haven't broken our laws," Ben remarked.

"It wasn't an official hunt order," she told him, holding her hand out to the side as she carefully examined her perfectly manicured claws.  "And at first, it was more of a  . . . suggestion, I suppose you could say."

"He suggested that you kill someone? Why?"

"I don't know," she said simply.  "What I heard, though, was that Ian had approached the man about a marriage between the man's daughter and one of Ian's pets, and the man refused.  I mean, an arranged marriage?  Those went out of style with hoop skirts and corsets."

"An arranged marriage? Does that even happen anymore?"

Manami uttered a terse grunt—a sound that was wholly unlike her.  "It does if the daughter is the would-be heiress to a small dynasty that rivals Ian's in its own right . . . and because the man is a sworn supporter of Sesshoumaru-sama.  If and when he dies, the entire thing goes to the girl—or her husband, by proxy."

"But it would still be hers."

"Maybe.  Maybe not.  We're talking about the peerage, Benjiro.  They do things a little differently, and, should her parents die without making out a will, then the entirety of her estate would go to her future husband upon the date of her marriage, which wouldn't be a problem, given that I happen to know that they both have wills—very binding wills that leaves everything, including his title, to his daughter.  Unfortunately . . . "

"Unfortunately?" Ben prompted when she trailed off.

Manami uttered a dry little chuckle, as devoid of humor as it was full of irony.  "As is common custom in the case of the European youkai, guess who holds those wills in his keep?"

"Son of a bitch."

"Hmm . . . quite so."

"He can't do that," Ben maintained, knowing deep down that Ian MacDonnough was both capable and ruthless enough to do exactly what she claimed, and, unless she'd changed entirely in the years since he'd known her, Manami wasn't given to lying, either.  "That's . . ."

"Despicable?" she supplied helpfully.  She laughed, but it was a brittle sound.  "Surely it cannot surprise you.  How many of our own have we sent to Zelig-sama's jurisdiction  in recent years?"

"Most of those have been accused of treason, even though there's never been any real proof to back up that claim.  Political asylum . . ."

She shrugged.  "All of them were warned before action could be taken," she said simply—maybe too simply.

"You mean, you tipped them off."

"Of course not, Benjiro.  That would go against my oath to Ian, wouldn't it?"

He didn't miss the irony in her voice, the sarcasm that belied her words.  "You've saved a lot of people, then."

"I don't believe that speaking out against reprehensible actions is cause to kill someone; that's all.  Most of those were people who questioned the hunt order issued for Meara MacDonnough and her mate."

Ben nodded slowly.  "That's pretty much what Cain figured."

She sat up a little straighter, smiled a real smile at him.  "Anyway, I was just calling to say goodbye—at least, for now."

"Goodbye?  You mean, Cain didn't offer you a job?"

"Well, he did," she allowed, "but after I complete this assignment."

"And what assignment is that?"

She paused for a moment before answering.  "I've been tasked by the Japanese tai-youkai to hunt down those responsible for the rash of murders in and around Kitakyushu and Fukuoka and to silence them."

"What?  No!" Ben exclaimed as he sat up straight, ignoring the slight twinge brought on by the abrupt movement.  "No, Nami, you can't."

"It's a perfect solution, and you know it, too," she went on, completely ignoring Ben's outburst.  "They want Ryomaru to be sent in—you know their plan.  I'll just slip in, take out the threats, and get out again."

"What if they see you?  Catch you?  Chichiue knows you!  Do you think he'd hesitate to kill you?"

"I appreciate your concern," she said, her voice completely unruffled, unaffected.  "I am very good at what I do.  You don't have to worry."

"Nami—"

She sighed.  "I hate to cut this short, Benjiro, but I must get to the airport.  I'll call you when I get back . . . Take care of yourself, and give your Charity a hug and kiss from me."

"No, Nami!  Nam—" Cutting himself off with a vicious growl as the connection ended, Ben hit the button to call her back, but wasn't at all surprised when he was directed straight to voicemail.

Hitting the button to call Kyouhei, Ben sat back with a disgusted grunt.

"I can't talk too much right now," Kyouhei remarked in lieu of a proper greeting.  "What's up?"

"I need a favor."

"Okay."

Letting out a deep breath as he rubbed his eyes, Ben counted to ten before he could continue.  "Manami . . . She's being brought in to hunt the ones who have been murdering people to draw out Ryomaru."

"You're sure?"

"She just told me . . . but chichiue knows her, and if she's caught . . . He'll kill her."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Stop her."

Kyouhei sighed.  "It wouldn't be that way if the capability wasn't there."

"I realize that, but if something goes wrong . . ."

"I can try . . . but that's about all I can promise.  You understand."

"I do.  Thanks."

"Business negotiations are always tricky.  I'll do what I can, but understand that, at a certain point, my hands are tied, too."

"I know.  Watch your back, Kyouhei."

"Absolutely."

The call ended, and Ben sighed.  Just what was Toga thinking?  All it took was one slip-up—one unknown variable to switch—and Manami . . .

Leaning forward, Ben dropped his face into his hands.  Just when had things spiraled so far out of control, anyway . . .?

 

 


 

 

 

Sipping the fragrant coffee from the oversized, earthenware mug, Charity didn't look away from the laptop as she surfed the web, looking for things that would be good for the girls' nursery in the new house.  The blueprints had looked really great, incorporating everything that Ben and she had envisioned, so he'd given the architect the green light, so to speak.  At the moment, she was just searching for anything that looked cute for the twins, but ultimately, she would have to hunt some of the stuff down to see what they reacted most to.

Eddie slipped into the room, broom in one hand and her caddy of cleaning supplies in the other.  When she noticed Charity, sitting on the sofa, she stopped.  "I was going to clean in here," she said, "but if you're busy, I can do it later."

"Oh, no, it's fine," Charity insisted.  "Do you need some help?"

Eddie shot her a look, like she was trying to decide whether or not Charity was joking.  "It's my job," she said with a shrug.  "I don't mind."

"I know, but I feel lazy when I just sit here and watch you," Charity said.

Eddie laughed.  "Don't be silly!  Besides, you look busy."

"I'm just looking for decoration ideas for the girls' room," she insisted.  As she watched Eddie, she frowned.  She'd thought about it before, but with the craziness of the last few weeks and everything that had happened, she'd forgotten that she had meant to ask Ben if he thought that Eddie might deserve a raise.  After all, there was a huge difference between keeping house and cooking for one person and having to do the same for three more, not to mention the extra laundry and cleaning that had to be done when two of them were babies . . .

Eddie was humming under her breath—something that Charity had never heard the woman do before, and she raised her eyebrows as the half-forgotten memory of the poor man who had helped to carry Eddie's shopping bags home resurfaced in her mind.  "Eddie . . .?"

"Hmm?" Eddie intoned before resuming the humming once more.

"So . . . While Ben and I were in Mexico, did you go on a vacation?"

"'Course not," she replied without looking up from the coffee table that she was cleaning.  "Only between Christmas and New Year, like I do every year."

Charity nodded, setting the laptop aside and drawing up her knees.  "So . . . Did you see John Martin while we were gone?"

The maid stopped cold for a moment, and to Charity's surprise, her cheeks blossomed in a rosy hue, as well.  "That old pervert?  Ha!  No!"

She pressed her lips together into a thin line just in case Eddie were to glance at her.  "Really?  But he seemed like such a sweet little old man," she added.

Eddie snorted.  "I don't have time for the likes of John Martin, and a good thing, too, since you're moving here."

"That's a shame," Charity mused, hiding her amusement behind her coffee mug.  "He seemed like a sweet man."

Eddie's retort was cut off by the sudden and heavy pounding on the door.  Charity stood up, waving a hand at the maid.  "I'll get it," she said as she strode toward the doorway despite the sense of disapproval coming off of Eddie in waves.

She slowed as she got closer, as she sensed the youki on the other side.  She knew that feeling, knew that youki . . .

"InuYasha-oji-chan!" she exclaimed softly as she jerked the door open wide.  "What are  you doing here?"

He snorted, arms crossed over his chest, long, silver hair blowing in the winter wind.  "Keh!  Gonna make me stand out here all day, pup?" he growled.

She hurriedly stepped back to allow him entrance, and he stepped past her with a blast of frigid air as she quickly closed the door before hugging her beloved great-uncle tight.  "You went back to Japan," she said, shaking her head in confusion as she took a step back.

"Yeah, that old-assed cat called me," he said, leaning against the closed door to brace himself as he worked his boots off with the other hand and scowled at the bits of snow that fell from the shoes, only to melt and puddle on the floor.  "Said you were upset over that fight with the cougars."

Letting her gaze drop to the floor, she wrung her hands in a decidedly nervous fashion as heat blossomed under her skin while she slowly shook her head.  "Oh . . . That . . ."

He snorted again.  "I just got off that kami-forsaken bucket of bolts your jiijii calls a plane, pup.  Got any tea or anything?"

She grimaced as she glanced up, only to see Eddie wave a hand as she hurried out of the living room.  "Eddie went to get some," she said, brushing past her uncle and over to the row of windows that looked out over the back yard.  "I-Is Kagome-oba-chan with you?"

"Not gonna be here that long, so no, she stayed behind to keep an eye on Captain."

"Captain?"

He shrugged.  "The dog I took home.  A little skittish.  Don't much like being left alone, either."

She nodded, remembering that her mother had mentioned something about her uncle having saved a dog from being put down while he was here.  She just hadn't gotten the dog's name . . .

"He was a tracking dog—bomb sniffer, I guess.  Managed to save his human, even though he was injured pretty bad . . ." Trailing off as he stopped beside her, mirroring her stance as he stared out of the windows, he seemed thoughtful.  "Thought he killed his pack when all he really did was protect 'em . . . And he don't wanna listen when he's told that he did exactly what he should have done in that situation."

She rubbed her forehead, stared at InuYasha's pensive expression in the pane of glass.  "He . . . He's afraid," she whispered, unsure if she was talking about the dog or . . .

InuYasha shrugged.  "Maybe.  Don't have a reason to be."

She shook her head.  "Maybe . . . Maybe he thinks he does."

The slight rattle of glassware sounded behind them, and Charity turned to shuffle over, to pour tea for InuYasha.  Eddie strode out of the room once more.

She took her time, pouring the tea into a glass for him, and all the while, his words seemed to sink deeper and deeper into her mind. 

"And he don't wanna listen when he's told that he did exactly what he should have done in that situation."

But . . .

"Thanks," InuYasha said, taking the cup from her and sitting on the edge of the sofa cushion.

She sat down, too.  "What did . . . did Ben tell you?"

InuYasha sighed—a strange sort of sound, coming from him.  "He said I should be proud, that you fought . . . with honor."

She flinched at the assessment.

InuYasha slowly blinked at her as he drank the tea.  "You disagree?"

"I . . . I remembered what you said, but I . . ."

He grunted, setting the cup on the tray again.  "Refresh my memory, will you?  What, exactly, did I say?"

She sighed.  "You said . . . said not to lose my head—not ever . . . You said . . ."

"Is that what you did?  Lost your damn head?"

"I . . . I don't know," she murmured, hating the sense of sadness that surged through her, the guilt—the feeling that she'd somehow let them all down . . . "I was so . . . so angry, and I . . ." Swallowing hard, she squeezed her eyes closed, hating the truth of her own emotions—hated having to admit them to him, of all people.  "I . . . I wanted . . . to kill . . ." she whispered.

InuYasha didn't respond right away.  Drawing a deep breath, he seemed to be considering just what he wanted to say.  Trying to steel herself against the reprimand that she knew was coming, she wrapped her arms over her stomach, clenched her teeth together so hard that her jaw hurt.  She deserved whatever he was going to say, she reminded herself as she brushed aside the feeling that he was little more than a pup who had failed at a tracking lesson or something . . .

"I killed a bunch of humans," he said, his voice low, gravely—sad.  "Back in Sengoku Jidai, I . . . I lost control—lost Tetsusaiga—when we were captured by a band of thugs.  The boss was a moth-youkai.  Wrapped Miroku and me in this poisonous cocoon, and my youkai-blood took over."  Lowering his gaze to meet hers, she couldn't look away from the ugly truth in his eyes.  "In my youkai state, I destroyed the cocoon—saved that damned monk and me, but then I cut them down—one after another, and I . . . I enjoyed it," he admitted with a grimace full of self-disgust, even now, even centuries later . . . "I laughed about it as they . . . as they begged for mercy."

She shook her head stubbornly.  "But you . . . You wouldn’t have, had it not been for your blood," she insisted.  "That's not who you are, and—"

"And that's not who you are, either."

She flinched.

"Does that make me unworthy of being with your oba-chan?  Does it make me some kind of monster that don't deserve to live and breathe?  You tell me, Charity.  'Cause I never had an answer for that."

"You're not a monster.  You were protecting your friends!"

"And you were protecting your family, am I right?"

"It's not the same!  I was so angry—so ugly—and—"

"Of course, you were angry, and maybe you even wanted to kill them.  It'd be odd if you didn't feel that way . . . But don't keep it.  It ain't yours, and you don't need to own it."

"But . . . But how can I . . .?"

InuYasha snorted.  "Keh!  If they had won, do you think you'd be sitting here now?  Do you think that panther of yours would be alive?  'Cause you wouldn't be, and then . . . And then, that'd have left the rest of us to go after them, to get revenge, and maybe we would have, and maybe we wouldn't have, but you ended it.  You did what you had to do, and that's right.  That was the important thing, and for the record as your sensei?  I'm damn fucking proud of you, pup."

Something about his words . . . The wash of tears that rose inside her was vicious and unrelenting.  With a soft sigh, InuYasha drew her against his chest, against his shoulder—against his heart.  "I'll, uh . . . I'll let you cry this once," he said, smoothing back her hair, holding her close as she sobbed.  "But no more after this . . . because you're not a monster, not any more than I am . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'So, you can always take her skydiving and propose to her in the air as you're freefalling!  That would be entirely romantic, you know!  Just make sure you do it before you have to pull the cord on your parachute . . . I'll even buy you a helmet cam!'

Scowling at the latest text from Chelsea, Ben slowly shook his head.  'Panthers cannot fly,' he texted back before dropping his phone into his pocket once more.

'Her suggestions are getting more and more bizarre,' his youkai-voice pointed out.

'Nope.  Chelsea's a strange one,' he replied.  'Pretty much normal, coming from her.'

His youkai sighed, and Ben nodded in silent agreement.

Charity hurried into the living room, trying to lean back and look down as she fastened a thin gold necklace around her throat.  "I can't wait to see it!" she exclaimed, letting her hands drop away as she skittered over to his side.  She giggled.  "This is really exciting!"

He still didn't know exactly what InuYasha had said to her during his impromptu visit.  He was gone before Ben had stuck his head into the living room a couple hours after InuYasha's arrival.  Whatever it was, though, had done the trick, and, while he still caught the tell-tale shadows in Charity's gaze from time to time, she seemed to be back to her old self for the most part, and for that, Ben supposed, he owed InuYasha a great deal, even if he hadn't actually thought that the hanyou would jump on a plane to talk to her, but then, maybe he'd figured it was something he ought to do in person . . .

Ben chuckled, slipping his arms around her and kissing her forehead.   "Okay . . . Did you check the diaper bag?"

She nodded and gave him a little squeeze around the waist before letting her arms drop away.  "I feel like a bad mom," she admitted, wrinkling her adorable little nose.

"Nonsense," he argued.  "I mean, it's not like we leave them with a sitter very often, and I think we're allowed one afternoon, don't you think?"

Her expression stated quite plainly that she wasn't entirely on board with his plan.

Ben's phone chimed, and he dug it out of his pocket, rolling his eyes as he read Chelsea's response.  'Okay, you old pooh . . . What about rock climbing?  Propose atop Mt. Everest!'

His response was quick and easy.  'No.'

"Is that important?" she asked, gesturing at his phone.

"Nope, not at all," he said, slipping it into his pocket once more as he grabbed both babies in their car seats and followed Charity toward the door.

"I don't know, Ben," she said, taking Emmeline from him so that he could hit the button on the keychain to remote start the car.  "Do you really think that it's wise to leave them with oji-san and oba-chan?  I mean, they're absolutely wonderful with children normally, but with the triplets, don't you think it might be a bit too much?  Five babies?"

"Uhh, six," Ben replied absently as he settled Nadia into the base of the car seat.

"Six?" she repeated.  "How, six?"

"Cartham was there when I called.  Apparently, he wanted to take Kelly out to this restaurant she wanted to go to.  Madison called to cancel, though.  There were some surgical complications, so she couldn't make it, after all, so Gin overheard the discussion, and she volunteered to take care of Noah so they didn't have to change their plans, too."

"Oh . . ." Charity breathed.  Ben shut the car door and hurried around to open Charity's as she finished fastening Emmeline into the other seat.  "Okay, yeah, we can't leave the girls there!  Six babies against two adults?  Even if it's them, there's no way that the two of them can take care of all six of them by themselves!  That'd be utter madness!"

Ben chuckled.  "Relax, Cherry.  Zelig's tai-youkai, remember?"

She snorted.  "That doesn't make him president of the babysitter's club."

He raised an eyebrow.  "Is there really such a thing?"

She shook her head and made a 'v' out of her index and middle fingers, pointing them at his eyes and flipping them around toward her own.  "Focus, Ben," she replied.

"And if they manage to defeat him . . .?  I guess we'll have a new tai-youkai."

She heaved a very loud sigh, but slipped into the passenger seat.  "And what if he still makes the girls cry?" she added when he got in.

His lips twitched as he fastened his seat belt and put the car in gear, reaching over to brace himself against her seat as he turned to make sure there was nothing behind them before checking the dashboard display as he slowly  backed out of the driveway.  "Then I guess the next tai-youkai will be a cougar—a female cougar."

"Ben!" she scolded moments before she dissolved in helpless laughter.  "You're terrible."

He shrugged.  "Is it wrong that I kind of wish I could plant a camera in the living room to see the whole thing in glorious Technicolor?"

"Yes," she said, trying to look stern despite the smile on her face.  "Yes, it is."

 

 


 

 

 

"Cherry?"

"Hmm?"

"If you have that phone out again, texting Gin to check on the girls, I'll take it away from you," Ben warned.

Charity made a face and quickly slipped the phone into her coat pocket as she quickened her pace to catch up with Ben.  He didn't glance down at her, but he did hold out his hand.  "Forget it," she told him, slapping his hand away.

"You've texted her ten times in the last half an hour," he pointed out.

"I have not!" she argued, making a face when she felt the blood rush to her cheeks.  "It's only been . . ." Digging out her phone, she bit her lip as she counted through the messages.  ". . . Seven."

"Close enough."

"But they weren't all to check on them," she insisted.  "I mean, I wanted to let her know that Em tends to spit up more than her sister . . ."

"So, hand her to Zelig and let the fountain of youth flow."

She rolled her eyes.  "And I thought they should know that Nadia likes her teddy bear when she takes a nap . . ."

"They'll just dogpile on the floor.  It'll be fine."

She wrinkled her nose.  "And Em's afraid of that talking fire hydrant on Power Puppies, if they wanted to let them watch some television."

"I'm kind of scared of that talking fire hydrant."

She snorted but giggled.  "You are not!"

"It is a little creepy."

She laughed and slipped her hand into his as they strolled over the barren ground toward the wooden and concrete framed structure at the top of a small hill.  "So, what do you think?" he asked, waving his free hand at the skeleton of what would eventually be their new house.

She blinked and slowly studied it.  "It's going to be really big," she said.

"Yeah, well, you know.  Figured it'd be a good idea in case we ever want to take a turn, watching six cubs all roughly the same age . . ."

"You'd do that?' she couldn't help asking, casting him an amused sidelong glance.

"Not while they're all still in diapers," he replied darkly.  "I'm not nearly as stupid as Zelig."

She smacked him with the back of her hand against his arm, and he chuckled.

"You want to get a closer look?  I'll give you the grand tour," he said, giving her hand a little tug.

Falling into step beside him, she let him lead her up the dirt path to the area that had already been cleared and leveled for the front porch and up the cinderblock steps that were set as a temporary staircase since the base of the first floor was a good five feet off the ground.  "Watch your step," he warned, scooting some fresh snow off the makeshift steps.  It had snowed earlier in the day, but it wasn't much more than a dusting, and that was fine.

"This is your foyer," he said in his best tour-guide-tone.  "And if you'll turn your attention straight ahead, this will be the formal dining room—a room that I find completely unnecessary, but you seemed to like it, so there's that . . ."  Pulling her along behind him, he stepped through a high archway and into a larger area.  "This is going to be our office—"

"Ours?" she interrupted with a raised eyebrow.

He shrugged.  "Well, I figured if you ever decided to go back to work, you might want to have an area, too, so this one's large enough to accommodate us both."

"You mean, you don't mind sharing office space with me?"

"Not particularly . . . Am I supposed to?"

She smiled since she hadn't actually thought about it too much.  "What's this little room?" she asked, venturing away from Ben's side and through another high arch into a small area that she didn't remember on the blue prints.  It almost seemed like a short hallway with another opening on the far end, but it was a little wider than necessary, if that were the case.

"It was added on after the fact," he said.  "Bill said that it'd be the perfect area to put a small sun room for you, which would be good if you wanted to grow some indoor plants or just to have an area to escape for a few minutes or so . . . It's for you."

She smiled.  "For me?"

He nodded.  "I thought you might like it . . ."

"I do . . . Well, I will . . ."

He stared at her for a long moment, and Charity couldn't help the way her belly lurched under his scrutiny.  It was an entirely pleasant kind of sensation, she decided, but he finally sighed and took her hand to lead her back into the foyer once more and into another part of the main level.  "This is going to be the living room—the fireplace goes over there.  Back there is the overhang patio that opens in the summer, but will be fully enclosed in the winter . . . Powder room over there . . . and this," he said, pulling her in the opposite direction, he waved a hand at the empty space.  "Here's your kitchen . . . And  that pretty much covers the ground floor."

She laughed and nodded in agreement.  "Very nice," she said.  "I like it."

Ben chuckled and slipped an arm around her waist.  "Good, because it's all for you, you know."

"Is it?"

He nodded as he tucked her a little closer against his side.  "Of course, it is."

She shook her head.  "No, Ben . . . It's all for us."

 

 


 

 

 

"Can I open my eyes now?"

"No," Ben said as he carefully led her along the short path behind the house—that much, she knew.

"Where are you taking me?"

He chuckled.  "Watch your step—there's a bit of a dip here, so don't trip over it."

She managed to get past it without incident, and she wrinkled her nose.  All she could smell was wind, dirt . . . She could hear the ocean, the rustle of trees like a thin whisper since so many of them were stripped of their foliage . . . "Can you tell me where you're taking me yet?"

"That would be rather anticlimactic, don't you think?"

"Hrumph."

He chuckled again, and he finally stopped, letting go of her hand as he stepped behind her, placed his hands on her shoulders.  "Open your eyes," he said, the warmth of his breath against her cheek, his lips brushing gently against her ear with every word he spoke, sending a shiver down her spine and out to her arms and legs as her knees suddenly felt as though they just might buckle under her.

Opening her eyes slowly, she blinked, frowned at the building, easily a good twenty feet across, though, from where she stood, she couldn't quite tell exactly how far back it extended, either.  "A greenhouse?" she murmured, reaching for the burnished pewter door handle.  "Did you have this built for me?"

Ben shrugged, but his cheeks pinked just a little.  "Happy Valentine's Day, Cherry," he said.

She laughed softly, opening the door to step inside and gasped.  "You gave me a greenhouse instead of flowers?  Oh . . ."

The first thing she noticed was the pretty little waterfall built into one of the corners.  The water fell into a tiny pond, lined with rocks and small plants that would grow easily into the space, and she giggled as Ben stepped over, scooping some feed out of a small jar on a shelf near the fountain.  He dropped the feed into the water as five good-sized koi rushed the surface as Charity knelt beside the water to watch the fish.

"It's beautiful," she murmured.

Ben shook his head as he hunkered down beside her.  "They're fish," he corrected.  "You're beautiful."

Her smile didn't falter as she shifted her gaze to the side to meet his.  "You amaze me, Ben."

He let out a deep breath, raking a hand through his hair as he shook his head slightly.  "Well, we'll see if you still think so after lunch."

She raised her eyebrows.  "You made lunch for me?"

"Nope," he said with a lopsided grin.  "Gin did."

"Is that right?  Then I'll have to thank her."

He took her hand and led her back to the middle of the greenhouse, casting her another grin as he strode over, shrugging off his coat and leaving it on the work bench before retrieving the basket that had been left underneath.  Charity took hers off, too, and laid it aside.  As cold as it was outside, in here, it wasn't, at all. 

There was a pretty red-and-white gingham cloth on top of the food, and he spread it on the cobblestone floor for her.  Charity knelt on it and reached for the basket.  "Oh . . . fried chicken, potato salad . . . biscuits . . ."  She laughed and handed Ben the container of chicken and dug out the other containers.  "I love her," she said, giving him a very serious look.

Ben was already biting into a piece of chicken, and he nodded.  "Me, too," he mumbled around the crispy leg.  "This is ridiculously good."

Charity was inclined to agree, and they ate in silence for awhile, completely ignoring the plates that Gin had packed in the basket.  As far as she was concerned, it was about the best Valentine's dinner she'd ever had . . . And the company was nice, too, she had to admit . . .

Looking around at the pretty little greenhouse, she smiled as she picked bits off a biscuit to nibble on.  There were more than enough benches, racks for plants, along with a very large bin in the back for ready-to-use compost, though it was a lot smaller than the huge ones outside that were ready start filling.  An array of gardening tools were arranged over the workbench where the basket had been stowed, along with a bright red wheelbarrow, while rakes and shovels and hoes were hung from hooks on the wall nearby, but the sweetest thing, aside from the little koi pond, was the sitting area where she could relax and watch the pond—natural wicker furniture with pretty white cushions and an old-fashioned looking oil lamp suspended from a standing hook to provide ambient light . . .

There were even two small work benches, complete with pink plastic tools set up, too—very obviously for the girls when they got a little older.  All in all, it was absolutely perfect, and the absolute care that had gone into it was so obvious, so touching, that it brought a sheen of moisture to her gaze.

Ben wiped his hands on a linen napkin and frowned as he looked at her.  "Cherry?  You're not . . . Why are you . . .? Why?"

She sniffled and shook her head as she choked out a sound caught somewhere between a sob and a laugh as she launched herself at him, flinging her arms around his neck as she buried her face against his chest and babbled a bunch of sounds that didn't really make any sense.

He sighed, wrapping his arms around her and helplessly, a little pathetically, patted her back.  "It was supposed to make you happy," he said with a wince.  "I wasn't trying to make you cry . . ."

"It does!" she blurted, shaking her head as she struggled to find the words to say that could make him understand her feelings.  "I . . . I love it," she assured him.  "I . . . I -I love you."

And just as suddenly as she'd grabbed onto him, she let go, only to rise up on her knees as her mouth pressed against his.  He groaned softly, drawing her closer, pulling her onto his lap, her legs on either side of him, her hands holding his face, thumbs gliding against his skin as she sighed into his mouth, as she melted against him.

His hands rubbed against her back, claws snagging against her sweater, setting off round after round of delicious shivers as he coaxed her lips apart, as he flicked out his tongue to taste her, leaving her breathless.  She trembled, her hands slipping down, rubbing his shoulders, his upper chest, his skin hot enough to scorch her through the thin fabric of his shirt.  Entirely too close, and yet, not nearly close enough as the shock of his fangs scraped against her lips, as his tongue teased her with slow, deliberate strokes, the rising swell of the sweetest inebriation as he invaded the recess of her mind, of her soul . . . With every breath, every sigh, every harsh moan, she couldn't think, couldn't breathe, could only hold on as he fanned those flames with an fierce gentleness, a deliberate exploration . . .

She rose against him, dragging her mouth away as her head fell back, as the incessant burn exploded into a sense of urgency that nudged all other thoughts aside.  His mouth pressed against her throat—sweltering kisses, slow, almost methodical, that obliterated her will, merging it with his own.  The hunger grew as she tugged at his shirt in a vague sort of way, fumbling with buttons as though her fingers were cast of lead, all dexterity lost to her, as if her hand were moving on instinct, seeking the velvet of his skin.  When she slipped her hands beneath the fabric, pushed the garment off his shoulders, down his arms, he sucked in a sharp breath, uttered a low growl that sent reverberations down her spine in an electric flash of unfettered passion.

Somewhere in her addled mind, she understood the impact that a thing as simple, as wanton as her touch, could unravel him as devastatingly as he could do to her, and that knowledge was heady.  There was something innately profound in that, in the intrinsic need to touch and be touched, and he understood it, too, didn't he?  The whispering feather of the lightest brushes, the sensation of just feeling the smoothness of his skin under her fingertips . . . He pulled her hard against him with one arm, using the other hand to cradle her head, to tilt her head back up, only to lay claim to her mouth once more . . .

Letting her hands slip lower, brushing over the hardness of him that was entirely too obvious, he groaned harshly, his breath rasping in the air like the rumble of thunder in the summertime, and she grasped him firmly through the unyielding fabric of his slacks as he bucked in her hands.

Pulling away from her long enough to drag the sweater up over her head, he tossed it aside, reclaiming her lips as he reached behind her, as he released her bra with a deft flick of his fingers.  She uttered a guttural moan as he breasts bounced free, as he pushed aside the picnic basket and lowered Charity to the floor . . .

She started to reach up, to cross her arms over her chest, but he stopped her with a fierce little sound.  Caught somewhere between a yowl and a hiss, it was an instinctive sound of the panthers, she realized in the back of her Ben-hazed mind.  Leaning back, staring down at her, he slowly shifted his weight to the side, freeing up his hand so that he could grasp her breast.  She whimpered, her back arching up off the cloth, rising to meet his touch as he flicked the pad of his thumb over the already distended nipple.

The lure of his perusal was inebriating, almost painful, as he took his time, touching her, kissing her, kneading the flesh he'd discovered under the sweater.  He sat up long enough to unfasten her jeans, to slide them down her hips, her thighs, grasping her panties and shoving them both down. It took a moment or two longer for him to remove her boots, but he heaved a ragged breath as he stared down at her, her body entirely bared for his inspection.  "You're . . . beautiful . . ." he whispered, making her wonder if he even realized he'd spoken out loud.  She didn't have long to ponder that, though, as he fell on her with a growl, his mouth voracious as he kissed her hard, as he unleashed the passion that had been smoldering as it ignited into a full-out blaze.

"Ben," she breathed, tugging at the waist of his slacks.  She fumbled with the button that held them closed, managed the zipper with little trouble from her shaking hands.  Shoving them down over his hips, over his ass, she touched the skin she'd revealed as he gnashed out a harsh groan, his entire body going rigid as he fought for a semblance of control.

He slid down her body, kissing the rises, the vales, letting his fangs scrape over her nipples, over her belly, his hands stroking her sides, her hips, fingertips drifting up over her hip bone, down through the tangle of curls between her legs.  Every touch shot through her, every invisible trail left behind in his maddeningly thorough exploration erupted deep inside her, culminating in an ache so harsh, so consuming, that she felt as though she were going mad.

The frenetic energy that savaged her, the welcome yet taunting lick of desire so strong that it left her mind reeling . . . He slipped over her, using his body to entice her, to drive her to the absolute brink of her control . . . Raising her higher, he settled between her legs, flicked out the tip of his tongue against the core of her as her world shattered into a million fragments, as she called out his name.  He chuckled as she shook, tasting her, delving his tongue as deeply into her as he possibly could.  She cried out again, her body quaking around him as he slipped a finger into her, as he closed his mouth over the part of her that throbbed the most . . .

Her fingers dug into his hair, and she wasn't sure if she was trying to hold him there or to push him away.  The sensations were too strong, too harsh, and yet, entirely welcome, all the same.  She couldn't tell where one wave of pleasure began or ended, lost herself in a realm of sensation as a new instinct kicked in, a new wonder, a new fascination . . .

Body rioting as he pressed one last, long, slow kiss against her, Charity struggled to breath as he dragged his body over hers once more, as he nuzzled against her throat, caressing her body gently, softly.  But the feelings wouldn't let go, the curiosity that surged through her supplanting the satiation of the flesh.  Pushing against his shoulders, she straddled him, and the look of surprise, of wonder on his face vanished in an instant, eyes closing, mouth slackening, entire body tensing as she wrapped her hands around him and slowly squeezed and released him time and again.

"God," he rasped out, hands grasping her legs.  "Ch . . . Char . . . it . . . y . . ."

Staring at that part of him, she couldn't help the way her eyes rounded, the curiosity that shot through her as she slowly pumped him up and down.  He jerked in her hands, throbbed in her grip, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do as she bent over, as she lowered her mouth onto him.

He hissed out a sharp breath, unable to stop himself as he grasped her head, as he slowly pushed her down, only to let up again, aiding the jerky motions as she continued to pump him with her hands.  Focused not on what she was doing, and more upon the silent understanding that she was pleasing him, Charity sucked him in as deeply as she could, was rewarded with his ragged groan as her motions smoothed out, as she created a rhythm, a cadence, a dance.

The twitching in his body grew harsher, more erratic as she increased the tempo, her hands opening and closing around him as she worked him up and down, as she drew him in and released him over and over again.  His breathing was rasping and shallow, punctuated by moans, by groans, by inept attempts to say her name.

Suddenly, though, he pushed her aside, his entire body tensing as he grabbed himself, as a strong arc of his orgasm shot out of him, rained down on his stomach, on his thighs.  "D-Damn," he muttered, half-laughing, half-sighing.  "Damn . . ."

She giggled a little roughly, wiping her lips with the back of her hand as she stared at him, as a late blush brought on by her own brazenness suffused her skin.

"Come here," he said, lifting a hand as though it were cast of lead, curling his fingers to bid her come closer.

"Let me look . . ." she said, pulling over the picnic basket and locating a napkin to wipe him off.  She tossed it aside and curled up beside him, only for him to drag her closer, kissing her forehead, her cheeks, her nose, her lips . . .

"You're beautiful, Charity," he murmured, his eyes drifting closed.

"You are, too, you know," she replied, snuggling against him, savoring the feeling of closeness, of satiation as he idly traced circles on her shoulder.

The chime of her cell phone cut through the idyll with a fierce brutality.  She blinked when he heaved a sigh, leaning back just enough to break the moment, to shatter it like a rain of glass that left her bleeding and raw somewhere deep down.

"You'd better check that," he said with a sigh.  "It might be about the girls."

It took her a few seconds for his words to make sense to her, and when they finally did, she uttered a shaky laugh and slipped out of his arms to retrieve her coat for the cell phone in her pocket.  Laughing softly, she held the phone out to Ben.  Gin had sent a picture of all six babies, all laying in a rounded play mat on the floor, staring intently at a stuffed dog in Bas' hand that he was entertaining them with.

Ben reached over, catching her around the waist to drag her back against him, resting his chin on her shoulder as another picture came through.  She leaned against his still-bare body since he hadn't bothered to reach for his clothing.  Savoring the feel of his strength that radiated to her in a completely nondescript sort of way, she heaved a contented sigh and smiled.

"They look happy, don't they?" she said, giggling as the next North American tai-youkai lay on the floor with the twins both laying on his chest.  Emmeline was leaning up on her hands, staring at Bas with an entirely cute kind of wide-eyed expression, and Nadia was entirely flat, reaching up to grab at Bas' face.

"He was always good with pups," she remarked as she texted Gin back to thank her for the pictures.  "He was a lot nicer to his siblings than Coral was . . ."

"Was she mean?"

Charity shrugged.  "Not mean, no . . . She simply didn't like to take the time to humor us when she had so many other things do to, like school work."

"You're not close to her?" he asked, rubbing his cheek against hers.

She sighed.  "Not really," she admitted.  "I mean, as close as anyone can be to her, anyway . . . Cassidy's a lot closer to her than Chelsea and I ever have been.  Maybe it was the age difference . . . I think she's just always thought of us as babies and never quite got past it."

He chuckled, taking her phone to get a better look at the picture of the girls and Bas.  "Does she still think of Gunnar as a baby?" he couldn't resist asking.

Charity made a face, reaching over her shoulder to grasp a handful of his hair and give it a little tug.  "Nope, just Chelsea and me—probably more me than Chelsea, actually . . ." She frowned thoughtfully.  "Come to think of it, pretty much everyone does that, including Mamoruzen, which is even more irritating, considering he's younger than us, too."

"You could always beat him up."

She rolled her eyes, but giggled.  "You're kind of a jerk, Ben Philips."

"You'd probably do better against him than I would . . . I think I need to see you fight."

She snorted.  "No, you don't," she grumbled, trying to pull away from him.  He tightened his arms just enough to keep her there.  "Baka . . ."

He laughed.  "So, Cherry, what did you get for me for Valentine's Day?"

She opened her mouth to speak, but snapped it closed again as a little laugh welled up inside her, and she turned her head just enough to give him an evil little smile, instead.  "Oh, you know, I just got you what I figured would be the most fitting for a man like you."

He cocked an eyebrow.  "What's that?"

She controlled the urge to giggle and leaned against him once more.  "A gift card, of course."

He rolled his eyes, but chuckled again.

She laughed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Anyway, we were wondering if you wouldn't mind, taking a trip out to Hackinack, Virginia to talk to Prentice Eastborn?  Bas and I have both been there, but he won't talk to us—just keeps spouting crap about 'whippersnappers' and 'young'uns' . . . Maybe you could get him to talk to you since you're . . . not."

Ben frowned as he stood at the window behind Gunnar's desk and stared outside at the late February skies.  It was snowing again—a fairly thick downfall—and the meteorologist on the news this morning had forecast at least a foot in and around the area throughout the day and into the night.

"Ben?  Are you listening?"

Ben shook himself and glanced over his shoulder at the young man, who was sitting back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest, staring back at him with an inscrutable expression on his face.  "I'm sorry.  You were saying?"

Gunnar shook his head and heaved a melodramatic sigh as he propped his cheek on his thumb and his forehead on his index and middle fingers.  "If you tell me you were thinking about my sister's breasts, I think I'll throw up," he grumbled dryly.

Ben cleared his throat and turned back to the window once more.  "No, but, uh . . . They feel quite nice."

Gunnar sighed again.  "Disgusting—and I'll take your word for it.  Never, ever say it again, though."

"Well, strictly speaking, you brought it up."

Gunnar snorted.  "And I'm sorry that I did . . . So, I guess I should ask since I'm the only other person here . . . Is something bothering you, Ben?  And if you're having woman problems, then you can consider that to be a rhetorical question."

Uttering a half-hearted chuckle, he pushed away from the wall and strode around the desk, only to drop into one of the chairs facing the hanyou.  "Have you heard anything about the hunt near Fukuoka?"

Gunnar blinked at the abrupt change of subjects.  "Fukuoka?  You mean, the ones that were trying to lure out Ryomaru . . . No, I haven't.  I talked to tou-san last night, and he said that they're still waiting for Manami-san to check in."

Ben's frown darkened.  "How long has it been since the last time she has?"

Shaking his head, Gunnar waved a hand dismissively.  "Uh . . . Just a few days.  Nothing to worry about."

"Okay . . . Good."

"You know, right?  Yasha-jiijii and Ryomaru tested her in just about everything they could possibly test her on when she arrived in Japan before ojii-sama would agree to send her out on her own," Gunnar remarked, idly tapping his claws on the desktop.  "Given that he couldn't just ask MacDonnough about her skills, that is . . ."

Ben sighed.  "I just . . . I have a bad feeling about it; that's all."

"You mean, like a gut feeling?"

Ben grimaced but nodded.  "Something like that."

Gunnar shook his head.  "She's good at this kind of thing," he reminded Ben. "Damn good at it . . . There's a reason that they called her The Assassin, you know?  No one in the general population knows her name—nothing about her.  She's quick, she's efficient, and she's able to disappear without leaving a trace behind."

"High words of praise coming from you."

Gunnar shrugged.  "Not if they're warranted.  She's done this for a century?  Two?  And she's very, very adept at it.  She doesn't need my recommendation."

"You don't understand," Ben persisted, shifting his gaze to the side, staring out the window in an entirely sidetracked kind of way.  "I grew up with her."

"And maybe that's clouding your judgment when it comes to her.  Ben—"

"I grew up with her, which means that my parents met her many times.  If either of them sees her . . ."

Gunnar's eyes flared, and he tilted his head slightly to the side.  "But she's the best chance we have, Ben—unless you're suggesting we send Ryomaru in, regardless of the dangers."

"Of course not," Ben growled, shooting to his feet and striding toward the door.  "That's not what I'm saying, at all."  He made a face.  "Just let me know when she checks in.  The sooner she's done and out of there, the better."

"Will do," Gunnar called after him.

That was his biggest concern, wasn't it?  That somehow, someway, the wrong person would spot Manami and realize just what was going on . . .

'Maybe not, Ben . . . I mean, they don't know that she's a hunter, so even if they do see her . . .'

'You're forgetting.  We're talking about chichiue, and he is suspicious of his own shadow these days, according to Kyouhei.'

'Yeah, and about him . . . How long has it been since we've heard from him, and how long before we start worrying on that front?'

Ben winced as he stepped into the elevator and waited for the doors to slip closed.  'He'll . . . He'll be fine.  Maybe he just hasn't had the opportunity to call yet, but he will.'

That was the problem, wasn't it?  Never in his life had he felt so useless, as though he'd been relegated to little more than a bystander while his brother and Manami put themselves directly into the path of danger . . .

'Worry about the things that we can do something about, and focus on that . . . Otherwise, you're going to drive yourself crazy . . .'

'Crazy, huh . . .?'  He dragged a weary hand over his face and punched the button for the first floor.  'Y-Yeah . . .'

 

 


 

 

 

Slipping down the alley of the eerily quiet city, he stuck to the shadows, the heels of his boots crackling like gunfire in his ears against the tired asphalt, echoing off the debilitated brick walls that stretched up above him, easily twenty stories on either side.  Slowing his gait, dropping to a squat, he breathed in deep, eyes scanning the darkness ahead—gradients of dark and darker as shadows hid within shadows, and in the distance, a stray dog howled.

'She's close,' he thought, biting the side of his lip as he cautiously stretched out his youki, probing, searching . . .

She'd passed through here not long ago—just another nameless face in the wash of nameless faces that comprised the city of Fukuoka.  It was simple to blend into the masses of them, wasn't it?  And that was the trick, too—disappearing in plain sight.

A business trip was his excuse.  Telling his father that he needed to check on a couple contracts that were still in negotiations had worked well enough.  Since Hidekea had nothing to do with the shipping company, he had no idea of the day-to-day operations, and, while the contracts were important, they weren't nearly as dire as Kyouhei had led his father to believe, particularly since the Muiras pretty well held a monopoly over most of the shipping lines that ported into or out of Fukuoka and most of the ports in and around the coast of Japan and beyond.  It was enough that Hidekea hadn't thought to question Kyouhei on his departure from the family compound, especially during the ongoing meetings held in secrecy and behind closed and guarded doors.

But he'd promised Ben, and that was something he could not—would not—go back on.

The rumble of cars passing the alley precluded his ability to listen, leaving him dependent upon his other senses, which was fine, even if a little annoying.  Moving a little faster, he slipped further into the darkness, eyes flicking from side to side, brushing aside the impatience that licked at him since he'd been trying to track her for the better portion of the night, well after the streets had emptied, as everyone breathed a sigh of relief at having avoided the serial killer they believed to be on the loose.

A sudden sound drew his attention, and as he whipped around, he stopped abruptly, eyes flaring for a split second as the glint of a very wicked-looking knife flashed under his nose.  "Who are you, and why are you following me?"

Outlined in the dark by a slightly lighter dark, he couldn't see her face; could only make out the lithe body encased in skin-tight leggings and an equally tight shirt that looked more like a leotard than a fashion statement.  "Ben sent me," he said without giving her his name.

She took a deliberate step closer, the blade flashing once more.  "How do I know that?"

"You'll have to take my word for it," he muttered, hand flashing out, latching onto her wrist before plucking the knife out of her hand and stashing it into the inner breast pocket of his coat.  "It's not safe here," he growled, grasping her upper arm to hurry her deeper into the alley.

Satisfied that they were far enough from the point of contact, Kyouhei yanked on her arm, enough to throw her off balance as he grabbed her around the waist and leapt onto the building.  He stopped, let go of her, only to catch her wrist when she swung at him.  "I'm sorry for that," he said, releasing her hand as he stepped back.  "Ben's my brother," he admitted, but only after checking the area to make sure that they wouldn't be overheard or observed.

Her darkened gaze brightened at the sudden realization.  "So, you're Kyouhei-san."

He nodded.  "I don't have much time," he told her, glancing around again.  "Ben wants you to go home."

"Of course, he does," she agreed.  "I was hired to do a job.  I'll go home after I complete my assignment."

"I know you're fully capable," he responded, melting back into the darker shadows of small storage units on the roof, gesturing for her to follow him.  "Ben's worried that otou-san will catch wind of you: that he'll figure out who you are, and why you're here.  If he sees you, he'll know you—"

She nodded slowly, carefully.  He could tell from the resonance of her youki that she didn't fully believe or trust him, and he had the feeling that the only reason he was able to get her this far was because she had allowed him to do so.  "I'm good at my job," she said softly, her voice no less forceful for the diminished tone.  "Ben doesn't need to worry—and neither do you."

He made a face.  "It's not going to do any good," he replied.  "Even if  you manage to acquire the target, they'll just reassign someone else, and if they figure out what's going on, we run the risk that they'll figure out that Sesshoumaru-sama has caught wind of the plan."

"All of this has already been considered," she pointed out calmly.  "There are no better options.  Need I remind you that your people caused this?  Maybe, if it's war they want, they'd be better served to just come out and say it."

"I don't want a war," Kyouhei growled quietly.  "Nor does Ben nor anyone else on that side of it.  You should realize that we're trying to quell the situation before it sparks something far more terrible than you can imagine.  Now, please, listen to me.  Go home because your presence here is not going to go unnoticed."

The brightness in her gaze flashed, creating pinpoints of light.  There was no anger in her aura, but he could see it there, alight in her eyes as she deliberately took the step that separated them.  Her hand flashed out, neatly retrieving her knife from his inner pocket before she casually stepped away, flipping the blade over in her nimble fingers.  "Your people started this," she countered.  "Your people with their stubborn insistence that their way is better—with their intolerance and their bigotry.  I was hired to do a job, and I do not back down from my responsibilities.  You can trust me to do what I was asked to do or you can't.  It doesn't change the fact that I am not leaving here until my target is silenced."

She turned and sauntered away, dropping off the side of the building without a second glance.

Kyouhei watched her go, scowling at her in the darkness.  He hadn't actually expected that she would simply stand down, but he'd promised Ben that he'd try to convince her.  Even so, he couldn't quite shake the feeling, either.

There was something much bigger, much more sinister, lingering just out of the field of view, and he had a feeling that when it came to pass, no one was ever going to be the same again . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Charity stepped off the bottom step in the wide-open basement of the Bangor house and stopped with her hand on the newel post as her eyes lit on Ben and stuck.  Dressed in a pair of plain black hakama in the same modified design as her uncle and grandfather—she didn't even realize that he owned any—and nothing else with his hair drawn up in a high ponytail, exposing the gray-blue crest, like three parallel claw marks, on the back of his neck, he was behind the Plexiglas wall, dodging the tennis balls that he'd set to launch at different angles and different elevations from the twenty machines set up near the far wall.  He'd told her before that that's what he used that room for, but she had thought that he was joking.  Obviously not.

He moved with incredible dexterity, able to sense and dodge well faster than should have been possible, given that he had the machines set on maximum velocity, as well as avoiding the myriad of balls that littered the floor.

In fact, the entire basement was one large gym, of sorts, with some weight equipment near the stairs, and even a heavy boxing punching bag, and over by the other end of the room were huge mats for sparring, she supposed, if the racks with various bokken was any real indication.  Nearby were dummies, obviously used for throwing practice, and she figured that the entire setup just might even impress InuYasha-oji-chan, who had converted his garage into a makeshift doujo where everyone had taken their lumps over the years during training.

The cycle ended, and Ben let out a deep breath, draping his hands on his hips for a moment before he started gathering the balls, tossing them back into the bin that fed the machines.

Pushing away from the newel post, Charity wandered over to help him.  He paused just long enough to smile at her, but it struck her that there was a certain darkness in his gaze that lingered.  "You've been down her awhile," she ventured, chucking four tennis balls in rapid succession before retrieving a few more.  "Trying to get something out of your system?"

"Something like that," he replied, sparing her a quick glance before resuming his clean up duty.  "Just . . . trying not to worry about Manami . . . about Kyouhei . . ." He sighed.  "About everything . . ."

She frowned since he'd told her as much already.  "You know that neither ojii-san nor Papa would ever have sent her in there if they weren't reasonably certain that she'd be okay," she pointed out gently.

Ben nodded.  "And she would do fine," he allowed, repeating the same argument he'd used before.  "But if she's seen . . ."

"You can't protect everyone, Ben, even if you want to, and Manami-san is good at her job—Isn't that what you said before?"

He sighed, his scowl darkening as he led the way around the Plexiglas partition and stopped to retrieve the watch that Charity had given him for Valentine's Day off the small table nearby—her threat of giving him a gift card was her joke.  "If chichiue sees her . . . or hahaue . . . They'd both know her . . ."

Charity shook her head.  "But they don't know that she's a hunter, and she's from Japan, right?  So, she'd have every reason to be there.  She could be just visiting or maybe she just had the desire to go back, to see what's changed in the years she's been away . . ."

"They're far too suspicious to think anything other than what's directly before them, Cherry.  She'd no sooner go back for a random visit than I would, and they'd know that, too."

She reached out, turned his face with infinitely gentle fingers as she smiled, just for him, as she caressed his cheek.  "Have a little faith, Ben . . . Manami-san's strong, right?  So, just believe that everything will go according to plan."

He scowled at her, reaching up, his hand wrapping around her wrist, though he didn't push her away.  "That's easier said than done, you know," he murmured with a resigned sigh.  "I . . . I'll try . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Charity, where do you want this box?  It says: babies and bathroom?" Griffin Marin asked, scowling at Charity in his regular growly-kind of way.

"Where else?" Isabelle, his wife, said with a cheeky grin as she patted Griffin on the rear.  "In the girls' bathroom."

He grunted, his cheeks blossoming in indignant color as he scowled at his wife.  "Knock that off, Jezabel."

She giggled as Griffin lumbered away with the box.

"Kitchen shit!  Coming through!" Evan Zelig announced as he strode through the door with two very large boxes that he couldn't possibly see around.  "Hope to God there's nothing breakable in these . . ."

Valerie slowly shook her head, bracing her hands against the small of her back.  At a little over seven months pregnant, she wasn't huge, but, given that she was so slender to start with, the added weight was messing with her.  For the most part, she was helping Charity to direct traffic and helping to corral the girls, as well.  "If he breaks anything, bill him," Valerie muttered.  "He's got more money than God, anyway."

"Move it, Evan," Bas grumbled, carrying one of the huge living room chairs inside and having to stop abruptly before he mowed his brother down.  "You're not moving again anytime soon, are you, Charity?"

She laughed and waved him into the living room.

"I get why you'd draft Bas into helping—he's as big as a damn bulldozer—but why me?" Gunnar demanded darkly as he followed Bas with the other chair.

"Because she's your sister, and you love her," Sydnie purred, leaning up on tiptoe to lick Gunnar's cheek.

Gunnar chuckled.  "If you say so, puss."

"Hell, I'm human.  I shouldn't have to help with this crap," Kurt Drevin complained as he and Cain waited for Gunnar to move since they were carrying the sofa.  "I'm too old for this."  He grunted when his daughter, six year old Tanny, climbed onto the sofa and started bouncing up and down, doubtless hyper from the Laffy Taffy Charity had fed her a little while ago.  "Uh, Sam!"

Samantha Drevin peeked around the corner from the formal dining room where she was in charge of unpacking.  "Yes, taijya?"

"A little help here?" he requested, nodding at their rambunctious child.  Samantha giggled and hurried over to pick up Tanny.

"Charity, where do you want these?" Gunnar called from the living room.

"In there, I take it?" Cain asked, jerking his head toward the sound of Gunnar's voice.

"Yes, please."

They'd just gotten the sofa through the high archway when Gavin wandered in, carrying the very large, very heavy coffee table.  He caught Charity's gaze and jerked his head, too.

"It's such a turn-on, watching him carrying around stuff like that, like it was nothing at all," Jillian Jamison remarked, smiling appreciatively as she watched her mate negotiate the table.

"Jill-i!" he groaned, face reddening fast as he caught and interpreted her expression.

Jillian blinked innocently and hurried past Charity to Gavin's side.  "What?"

"There are too many Zeligs in this house," Ben remarked, crossing his arms over his chest as he watched the men in the living room.

She smacked him gently with the back of her hand.  "Be nice," she insisted with a laugh.

"Charity, get in here, and tell us where you want your crap," Gunnar hollered.

She shook her head but started toward the archway, only to be stopped by Bailey and Daniel, both of whom had small totes of toys.  "Where you want these, Chawwy?" the nearly four year old asked solemnly.

She knelt down to look Bailey in the eye.  "Those go up in the girls' room . . . Do you know where that is?"

He thought about it, then nodded.  "Okay . . . C'mon, Danny."

A very loud, 'thud' made her whip her head to the side, just in time to see her brother drop the chair on the floor with a very marked scowl on his face.  "Good 'nough," he stated.  "If you want it moved, make that old panther do it."

Charity turned her head to peer up at Ben, who was watching the entire debacle with a trace smile on his face.  "Why aren't you helping?" she asked suspiciously.

He chuckled.  "It might put undue stress on my heart, don't you think?"

She rolled her eyes and stood up to push him into the living room.  "Baka," she muttered.  Then she laughed, which completely ruined the stern expression she was trying for.

"Okay," Ben called over his shoulder as he ambled toward the group of men, "if I drop dead, you'll be sorry."

And that only made her giggle a little more as she turned around once more to hurry outside to the moving truck.  Crossing her arms over her chest as she stepped around the wide open doors, she cocked an eyebrow at her twin, who was sitting in the van on one of the dining chairs, carefully filing her claws.  "What do you think you're doing?" she asked, slowly shaking her head as she heaved herself into the truck to grab the next box.

"Charity, when I agreed to help you move?"

"Ye-e-e-es?"

"I thought you were joking."

Her mouth dropped open for a moment, and then she snapped it closed as she rolled her eyes at her twin.  "Grab a box and come on," she said.

Chelsea heaved a put-upon sigh, but took the box that Charity handed to her.  Charity grabbed the travel playpen and hopped out of the truck again, barely avoiding Griffin.  "Oh, sorry!" she exclaimed.

He reached out, steadied her, before quickly dropping his hands from her arms.  "No harm done," he muttered.  "Not like you're as big as Isabelle, anyway."

Charity laughed and hurried around him.  She'd been wanting to locate the playpen, to help keep the girls occupied since they were currently sharing one with the triplets, so it was pretty crowded.

At least most of the big things were already moved.  They'd only had to pack up a few things that hadn't fit into the movers' truck yesterday.  In return for helping them move, Ben had promised them a cookout—and booze.

'Look at the bright side.'

She giggled.  'Is there one?'

Her youkai laughed.  'At least you won't be moving again, any time soon.'

Yeah, she supposed.  There was that . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Leaning against the railing as she watched the unfolding drama, Charity heaved a sigh and slowly shook her head as Gunnar swung his sword in a tight circle, apparently loosening up his grip as he leveled it at Bas' chest and stood in ready.  "All right, big man.  Bring it if you can."

Bas snorted at Gunnar's obvious barb, jabbing the tip of his sword int