:March 13, 2077:
He awoke with a start, grimacing when the tiny foot came dangerously close to nailing him in the balls and opened his eyes as he reached over to push the miscreant child over onto the other side of the bed. "Coulda sworn I put you in your own bed last night," he muttered, rolling over and pulling up the blankets as his eyes drifted closed again.
'Six a.m.? Ugh . . .'
And just like clockwork, the little dictator slowly came to life.
It started with a slow rumble as the mattress gave way under him—as he performed his customary couple of rolls before deciding that, since he was awake, everyone else might as well be, too. Very definitive thuds that echoed out around him like shockwaves as he got to his feet—never mind that he'd been told a number of times that a bed was not somewhere to stand . . . And then . . .
"Daddy, you 'wake?"
He had two options. He could ignore the little tyrant and pretend that he was still asleep, and considering he'd been up well into the wee hours of the morning last night, he rather liked that idea.
Too bad the tiny czar would never, ever go for it.
The second option?
Rolling over as fast as he could, he grabbed the two-year-old brat and proceeded to tickle him soundly, as the harsh squeals and manic laughter filled the silence that was now nothing but a memory until later tonight when he'd finally corral the child into his own bed, which, if he thought about it, was a kind of pointless thing to do. After all, Napoleon, Junior would be back in this bed long before dawn tomorrow, just like he was every night, kicking him in the nuts, farting in his face, or otherwise being a general menace.
"It's only six in the morning," he pointed out, arching an eyebrow at the rambunctious toddler. "Go back to sleep."
"But I'm not tired!"
Ashur Philips—formerly Kyouhei Muira—heaved a long-suffering sigh as he dragged a long-fingered hand through his golden brown hair and grimaced when he hit a particularly bad tangle. "Yeah, but I am," he pointed out reasonably, forgetting for the moment that one really couldn't reason with a two-year-old terror.
"You promised!" the cub whined. "Today is Sunday! You promised the zoo on Sunday!"
"Kells, you are the zoo—a walking, talking zoo that never, ever shuts up," he grumbled, grabbing the child around the waist and forcing him to lay back down again. "And the zoo isn't open at six in the morning, anyway."
"Then we can get pancakes?" Kells asked hopefully, wiggling out of Ashur's hold and squirming into a kneeling position, which might have been all right. And then he started to bounce. "We can get the pancakes wif Emmy an' Nadi!" he hollered, clapping his hands as he bounced harder.
"Emmy and Nadi hate you," Ashur muttered, trying in vain to bury his face into his pillow once more.
Kells giggled and changed tactics, trying instead to burrow right into Ashur's chest—and jacking him in the jaw with the top of his head in the process. "Snuggles, Daddy," he demanded.
Ashur sighed. Just what the hell could he do with that, anyway? As far as he was concerned, that was an entirely unfair tactic, completely underhanded. Too bad it worked. It always worked . . . So, he wrapped his arms around the child and held him close while Kells actually let him, at least, for a moment.
"My snuggles is full," Kells announced suddenly, hopping off the bed and bouncing on the balls of his feet like a youkai pogo-stick. "I sta-a-a-a-arving! I need Miss Eddie's cakes!"
Rolling his eyes at the child's histrionics, Ashur tossed the blankets aside and dragged himself off the bed. "You realize that your uncle isn't going to think it's cute when we show up before the crack of dawn because you want pancakes," he remarked.
Kells clapped his chubby little hands and ran into the bathroom to wait for the next adventure: their morning shower.
Heaving a sigh, Ashur stepped over to the long window and pulled the cord to retract the blinds as he scratched the back of his neck. One day, he'd get to sleep in again. It was just looking like it wouldn't be until Kells was an emo-teenager that wanted to hide in his room all day . . .
"Da-a-a-a-a-addy-y-y-y-y-y . . ."
Breaking into a wan smile, Ashur shook his head and shuffled off toward the adjoining bathroom. "Yes, your highness, I'm coming . . ."
Kells was already naked and hopping to try to hit the wall panel that would start the shower, golden brown hair bobbing around like mad as he grunted and tried again and again. Ashur hit the panel then mussed Kells' hair before stripping off the thin knit pants he'd worn to bed and tossing them in the nearby hamper.
"Gwah! It's cold!" Kells hollered, spinning away from the water flow, only to be sidetracked by the puddling water on the floor around the drain that he started to stomp in, sending droplets of water flying in every conceivable direction.
Ashur shook his head since he'd warned Kells a million times that it took a moment for the water to heat up to the proper temperature. Even so, every morning it was the same thing: Kells, freaking out under the cold water. Stepping into the shower, he planted a hand on Kells' head to steer him under the warmed flow. "Where's your shampoo?" he asked, reminding the boy just what he was supposed to do next. Kells giggled and squeezed about three times too much shampoo out of the little, shark-shaped bottle and proceeded to smash his hands on top of his head. He did a fairly good job of lathering, but Ashur still had to help him with the back while Kells repeated the process with body wash on his little Chuck the Chameleon wash cloth. "Make sure you get all your nooks and crannies," Ashur said, sticking his head under the tap to wet down his hair, too. "If you get crusty, part will start falling off . . ."
"Which parts, Daddy?"
Ashur grunted. "The most important ones . . ."
"Daddy! Can Nadi and Emmy come to the zoo, too?"
"We'll see," he promised, closing his eyes as he rinsed the shampoo out of his hair. "They might have plans already."
"Nadi and Emmy don't gots a penis."
Ashur's eyes flashed open as he leaned back to peer down at his son. "And . . . Just how to do you know that?" he asked, suddenly feeling as though he might be treading on very dangerous territory.
"'Cause they were naked!" he squawked, waving his arms like a little bird.
Ashur shook his head and uttered a terse snort. "Ben's failing in the Daddy Department, I see . . ."
'It's going to be one of those days, isn't it?' his youkai-voice mused.
'. . . Probably.'
"Huh?" he intoned, only paying attention halfway.
"How do they go pee if they don't gots the penis?"
He sighed. 'Definitely . . .'
Glancing up from his newspaper, Ben regarded his younger brother with a very rapt expression on his face as he folded the paper and set it aside. "Morning, Kyo—Ashur."
"Auntie Cherry!" Kells exclaimed, dashing over and throwing his tiny arms around his aunt. Charity laughed and scooped up the boy, smothering his face with kisses as he erupted in happy squeals and giggles.
"What? No love for me?" Ben asked.
"No," Ashur replied, nodding in thanks as Eddie, Ben and Charity's housekeeper, filled a coffee mug for him. "No, you get no love, Ben. Ask me why."
Ben chuckled. "Okay, I'll play. Why do I get no love, Ash?"
Ashur nodded slowly. "Kells, come here."
The boy wiggled to get free then darted over to his father's side.
"Tell Ben what you said this morning about Nadi and Emmy, please."
Kells cocked his head to the side as he pondered Ashur's question. Then he grinned and hopped up and down, hands in the air, balled into little fists. "I wanna be naked, too!"
Ashur snorted. "That is not what you said. Tell him what you asked me in the shower."
Kells' tiny face screwed up into an exaggerated look of utter concentration. Then he gasped and hopped up and down again. "Uncle Ben! How do they pee when they gots no penis?"
Ben opened his mouth then closed it again, sparing a moment to cast a quick glance at his wife, who was lifting an eyebrow in silent question of her own.
Ashur sighed. "Your daughters are corrupting him, Ben, and I don't appreciate it."
Ben chuckled. "They were only naked the one time while you were busy, talking to Zelig."
Ashur stared at Ben for a long moment, then let his gaze roam down slowly and right back up again. "Coming from the man, sitting at the table in a towel? I don't believe that it's an isolated incident, at all."
A minute later, two little girls ran into the kitchen, both of them in nothing more than cute little girl underpants, and Ashur raised an eyebrow at his brother. "I rest my case."
Charity choked on her coffee and set the mug aside as she tried to intercept the girls. "And where are your night gowns?" she asked, laughing despite the stern expression she was failing at making.
The girls laughed and took off in opposite directions.
"You're contagious, Ben Philips," Eddie growled, shaking her head as she filled three sippy cups with apple juice.
Ben chuckled as he pulled both girls into his lap. "What do you say, girls?" he prompted, nodding at the much-embattled housekeeper.
"Juice, please, Miss Eddie," they both said. Charity covered her mouth with a hand to stifle her giggles while Ashur slowly shook his head.
Eddie sighed as she scooped up the three cups to deliver them. "Breakfast, young man?" she asked, raising an eyebrow as she handed Kells a yellow cup.
"Pancakes!" he hollered, buzzing around the counter to pull over the short footstool so he could watch the housekeeper mix up the batter for his beloved pancakes. "Then we're going to the zoo! Daddy promised!"
"The zoo, huh? You mean, these little heathens aren't enough of a zoo for you?"
"Morning, Myrna," Ben replied, kissing Emmeline on the cheek before letting her down and repeating the process with Nadia since the girls had decided that they, too, needed to watch Eddie.
Charity filled cups for Ashur and Myrna before refilling Ben's and her own. Ashur pulled out a chair for Myrna before sitting down on the other side of the table. "So, what brings you by this early on a Sunday?" Ben asked, casually sipping his coffee. "No hot date last night?"
Myrna shot him a droll look. "Well, it's like this, Ben: I need a favor—a big favor. A huge favor."
Ben blinked and sat back, crossing his arms over his chest as he slowly regarded the hawk youkai. "You hate asking for favors," he reminded her.
She made a face, flicked her hand in blatant dismissal. "I know. I do. I really, really do. This time, though . . . It's kind of an emergency."
"That's . . . got my interest," Ben remarked. "So, what's the problem?"
"I'd better not be seeing those dirty paws of yours in that batter, Kells," Ashur said as he shook out the newspaper and disappeared behind it.
"My paws are clean, Daddy!" he hollered. "Honest!"
Ashur snorted indelicately. "And you're totally missing the point. Don't stick your hands in raw batter."
Kells just giggled and proceeded to dunk his index finger in it, anyway.
Ben cleared his throat. "Ash, your son is sucking on my daughter's finger," he remarked.
Ashur didn't look up from the paper. "Good. He'll make some woman ridiculously happy one day."
"Oh, nope, now she's licking his fingers," Ben muttered.
"And now, they're learning to share. It's fine."
"All right, all right, about my favor, Ben?" Myrna interrupted with a melodramatic sigh. "And no matter how you try to spin that, they're cousins—or whatever you're calling it these days—so that—" she waved a hand at the children, who were currently covered in pancake batter, "—is just a little disturbing, if you ask me . . ."
Ben chuckled, mostly because of the relatively strange situation that had come about when Ashur had adopted Kells. Nowadays, it wasn't so strange, but back when Kells was nothing more than an infant? Ashur frowned as he turned the page. Back then, it took some getting used to.
After the fight between Ben and their father, he'd known that their mother didn't have long left to live, but in the craziness that followed, he hadn't anticipated that Hana, one of the family's long-time servants as well as Ashur's oldest and dearest friend, would overhear the truth of what happened to her mother so long ago. Something had snapped in her that day, and Ashur hadn't been able to stop her when she went after his very, very pregnant mother, and, while he could appreciate why Hana did what she did, he couldn't see past the idea that Hana hadn't cared that Yukina was carrying a child. InuYasha had managed to pull Hana away from Yukina, but not before the damage was done—she'd incapacitated Ashur with a senbon—and Ashur had barely had time to cut open Yukina's distended belly, to pull the baby to safety, before she died, her body disintegrating in a flash of light and wind . . .
In the days that followed, he had shut himself away in solitude as he'd tried to come to grips with what had happened—all of it—leaving the infant boy that had no name and no parents left, even more alone, despite the careful efforts of Charity, who had thought to take the infant to live with her and Ben. In the end, Ashur had decided to keep him, to move with him to America, to change their names in the hopes that the child could be raised and exist away from the stigma that would otherwise taint him back in their homeland. He'd decided that it was in the boy's best interest to adopt him, too, and the only people who knew the truth were the higher ups in the youkai society—mostly Charity's family since they were of the ruling family. He'd talked to Ben about it, told him his reasons, why he thought it would be best. Some small part of him had worried that Ben wouldn't like the idea, and with good reason. He was, after all, as much Kells' brother as Ashur was, but Ben . . . They'd discussed it at length, and Ben opted to allow the adoption, to take on the role of uncle instead.
"Anyway," Myrna went on, "I don't have time to have a nice, long chit-chat . . . She's going to be knocking on my door in a few hours, and I've got to make arrangements before she does."
"Who?" Ben asked, arching an eyebrow at the hawk-youkai.
Myrna made a face. "My cousin," she said, as if it made perfect sense.
"You have a cousin?"
"Focus, Ben!" she insisted, rolling her eyes as she slugged back the coffee in her cup.
"What's . . . wrong with your cousin?" Charity asked.
"As far as I know? Nothing. I just can't have her living with me," she grumbled.
"May I ask why?" Ben intoned mildly.
Myrna made a face. "I'm going to be out of town indefinitely, to start with, and I can't take her with me, even if I wanted to, which, by the way, I don't."
"How old is she?" Ben questioned. "Why can't she stay by herself?"
"I don't know . . . Sixteen or seventeen, I think? Still a child, and I really, really don't like children."
"Why is she coming to live with you?" Charity asked, slowly shaking her head. "I mean, if you don't like children—although seventeen isn't really a child anymore . . ."
Myrna snorted. "Anyone under the age of thirty is a child to me," she insisted. "There's not really a choice. My aunt was killed in a car accident a few months ago, and her mate just died within the last week. There is no other next-of-kin, so I win the booby prize . . ." Myrna heaved a sigh, tapping her manicured claws on the table. "What was I supposed to do when they called? Tell them I didn't want her? Besides that, they're from Ireland, and with things the way they are over there right now . . ."
Ben sighed. He understood exactly what Myrna meant. The situation was entirely to volatile still, and, while Ben had managed to subdue one of the major players in the anti-Sesshoumaru faction, he hadn't quelled them all when he'd challenged his father and won. "I don't know what to tell you, Myrna. Charity and I were getting ready to move back up to Maine, so that isn't really a feasible option, either."
"Anyway, they tell me that she's done with high school," Myrna went on. "Smart chick—graduated early—and I guess she was thinking about enrolling at a university, but things are so messed up right now—her parents didn't have a will, and they were youkai, so there were no bodies, either, which makes it pretty damn difficult to get the necessary death certificates without having to deal with all the crap that goes along with it, and since they have to go through that damned MacDonnough to get those certificates then there's no telling how long that'll take. The representative said that they're working on it, but until they manage to get it all figured out and filed away, the girl cannot access any of the accounts that are due to come to her: no nothing, really—they won't even let her stay in her own home . . .You could put her to work or something . . . I mean, she could clean or stuff like that. How hard can that be?"
Eddie snorted indelicately when Ben shifted his gaze to her with a thoughtful frown.
"Well, Eddie's getting pretty old," he allowed.
"Bite me, Ben," the housekeeper shot back.
Charity cleared her throat. "You are not replacing Eddie, and she most certainly isn't old!"
"I wasn't asking you to replace your housekeeper," Myrna grumbled. "I just thought that it could be a way for her to earn a little spending cash since she has absolutely none."
"Not . . . really . . ." Ben remarked. "Even so, most people won't hire someone like that without prior references. "I assume that she's never done this kind of work before?"
Myrna reached for the carafe to refill her coffee cup. "From what I remember, she's a princess," she remarked. "Her crazy mother had her signed up for all that crap: dance—jazz, tap, ballroom, hell, even that weird Irish dancing stuff—piano, equestrian lessons—you name it. If it was pretentious and snobbish, she was in it." Shaking her head slowly, she let out a deep breath that blew her blonde bangs straight up off her forehead. "Mind you, the only time I met her was when she was six and they were in the area for a visit. That was more than enough, if you ask me . . . And then to top it all off, Cain asked me to do a little . . . research, and considering the nature of it . . . It's not exactly something I can drag her along on . . ."
Eddie carried three plastic plates of pancakes over to the table as the girls climbed into their booster seats at the table and Kells clawed his way onto Ashur's lap. He hissed when one of the boy's claws dug a little too deep, and Kells' usual ebullient manner melted as his huge blue eyes widened even more, as his bottom lip quivered. "Sorry, Daddy, sorry!" he exclaimed.
Ashur ruffled his hair and set the paper aside to help him up. "It's fine, Kells," he told him. "Do you want me to cut your pancake?"
Satisfied that he hadn't inflicted any long-term damage, Kells shook his head and grabbed his fork, wrapping his hand around it, caveman style. "I can do it!" he insisted.
Ashur grasped the toddler's hand and fixed the positioning of his grip before letting the boy have at it.
Myrna sighed and shifted her gaze around the table, only to light on Ashur and stop. "You . . . You don't have a housekeeper, do you?"
Ashur blinked and slowly met the woman's eyes. "No, I don't," he admitted. "That doesn't mean I was looking for one, either—especially one with no background in doing such things."
"Okay, then, how about just letting her stay with you? At least until we can get her squared away financially."
"I have enough to deal with at the moment," he remarked, nodding at the boy in his lap, happily making a mess of his pancake.
Myrna snorted. "I didn't want to have to do this to you boys, but you're forcing my hand."
"And how do you figure that?" Ben asked mildly, digging into the eggs and sausage that Eddie had set before him.
"Because it's your faults that Cain asked me to go on reconnaissance, in the first place. If you would have just stayed in Japan, doing your spying and just reporting in like a good boy, then there wouldn't have been any need for this, but no, the two of you had to go in, all guns blazing in your botched attempt to thwart the coup, and I wouldn't have been called in, which would have totally negated my need for a babysitter for my cousin!"
Ben scowled at her, his usual calm, even pleasant demeanor, gone. "You know why we did what we did," he muttered, casting Charity a sidelong glance. She heard the conversation, of course, and she knew ultimately that the target was her grandfather, the great and powerful Sesshoumaru, but she was holding her emotions in check very admirably. "Drop it."
Myrna scoffed. "I'll drop it, but you've got to help me here—that's all I ask.
Ben sighed. "I'm sorry, Myrna. I would, I swear, but we're leaving in few days ourselves, and, given how busy I'll be, well . . ."
She held up a hand in blatant dismissal. "What about you, Kyouhei?"
"Ashur, if you please," he reminded her.
"Okay, Ashur . . . please."
Frowning at the dribbles of syrup staining the cuff of his white shirt, Ashur shook his head. "As much as I'd love to, Myrna—" He didn't really sound like he wanted to, "—I cannot. I've just taken over the Canadian region, which means that we'll be relocating soon, too, and even if it were possible, I can't help but to think that you haven't painted a very good picture of this cousin of yours, anyway. So, yeah . . . No."
Myrna opened her mouth to plead her case some more, but Charity reached over, laid her hand on his hand to stop his tirade. "Now, Ashur, think about that. I mean, Myrna did say she only met her briefly one time when the girl was six. That was, what? Ten? Eleven? Years ago, and it's not like it'd be for that long, either, right? I mean, there's only a year or two until she's of legal age here, and even then, I'm sure they'll have worked out the terms of her inheritance long before then. Why don't you just let her stay with you until she can get enrolled in a university?"
Kyouhei heaved a sigh and shook his head once more.
No, there really was no way he was going to cave on this, all things considered, no matter how much they argued with him . . .