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Purity Redux: Metempsychosis

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:March 13, 2077:

~o~

 

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.'

"Daddy!"

"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!"

Ben chuckled.

"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 . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Tell me once more, Kells, what will you never, ever do again, should I ever, ever take you to the zoo again—which is not going to happen any time soon," Ashur stated as he set the child on his feet in the quiet foyer of the townhouse.

Kells heaved a sigh and latched onto Ashur's leg.  "But they wanted out!" the boy insisted, his distress very obvious in the heightened brightness of his blue eyes—eyes so much like Ashur's in color, but entirely unlike his in the darkness that tended to linger in his gaze.  "They said to let them out! They said they hated the walls!"

"Oh, yeah, that's not going to work," Ashur muttered, arching an eyebrow as Kells' bottom lip started to quiver, as an added luster entered his huge eyes, as the salt of tears hit Ashur full-on a moment later.  "They kicked us out of the zoo," he reminded the child, "and whether the cubs liked their confines or not, you may not—may not—release five cougar cubs into the city."

It was a holding display used to house baby animals before they were ready for life in the regular enclosures, and Ashur had been sidetracked for all of five minutes, fielding a phone call, when Kells had slipped around and unlocked the doors to the thick glass cell.  Within those five minutes, Ashur had turned around, only to find Kells, flat on his back with the five cougar cubs all over him: licking his face, playing with him as though he were one of their own.  It might have been cute on some level, had zoo keepers and zoo security not showed up seconds later, and the commotion that ensued had done more to upset the cubs than being let out of the enclosure had.

Luckily for them, however, one of the keepers was youkai, so he'd managed to talk the head of security down from his initial desire to have Ashur arrested, though he also told Ashur not to come back until Kells was old enough to understand that he must not ever unlock cages or try to breach the built-in security features of the various habitats . . .

He let out a deep breath, shaking his head as he picked up the boy, who settled his head on Ashur's shoulder with a tumultuous sigh and his fingers stuffed into his mouth—something he only did when he perceived that he had displeased Ashur in some way.

"Are you ready for a nap?"

Kells shoved his head up Ashur's chin.  "No," he whined.  "I wanna be wif you."

Ashur sighed.  Just what was he supposed to say to that, especially when things like that tended to trigger memories—memories that Ashur truly hated.  Memories of being left to his own devices, even when he was as small as Kells was now . . .

"Okaa-san!  Okaa-san!"

"Goodness, Kyouhei.  Why are you yelling?" Yukina asked, casting him a quelling glance before turning her attention to the ledger she was writing in.

He made a face, shuffling his bare feet against the tatami mat floor.

She sighed—an irritated sound—and she slowly, carefully set the brush aside and turned to face him once more.  "Yes, Kyouhei?"

"I found a family of birds," he said, his tone low, respectful, the way she always demanded that he spoke to her.

"Well, leave them where you found them.  Birds are dirty and disgusting—and make sure to wash thoroughly before you appear before me again.  You're filthy."

He nodded, the excitement of his discovery very rapidly dwindling as his mother turned away once more, dismissing him entirely.  Tiny shoulders drooping, he scowled as he gathered the waning edges of his bravado.  "O . . . Okaa-san . . .?"

That sigh again.  "What, child?"

He flinched, his chin dropping, and he slowly stepped back.  "Nothing . . ." he muttered, making a low bow before quietly slipping out of her room once more . . .

The memory faded, and Ashur winced, holding Kells just a little tighter, a little closer.  "All right," he relented, kissing the boy's downy head.  "But you'd better be on your best behavior . . ."

"I be good, Daddy!  I be good!"

"Don't make promises you won't keep," Ashur warned.  "How is it that you can hear the cougars talk, anyway?"

Kells blinked and pushed against Ashur's chest to lean away far enough to stare curiously up at him.  "I don't know!" he exclaimed, tossing his hands up to his sides, palms up, as he shrugged his tiny shoulders.  "I don't know!"

It was odd, that.  Ashur had assumed that Kells was the same as him—an earth-manipulating-youkai—since he bore such an uncanny resemblance to him, but maybe he was wrong.  After all, a panther, as their biological father was, was just a black big cat, really, so maybe Kells actually had inherited the ability to hear and to speak to the cougars from that . . . It was still a little too soon to tell, given that the boy was only two, almost three, years old . . .

The toll of the doorbell interrupted the moment, and Ashur heaved a sigh since he knew well enough who it was likely to be . . . Curse Charity and her adorable habit of trying to sway his opinion—and curse him for letting her do it . . . That phone call he'd gotten at the zoo . . .

"Hey, Ash," Charity greeted as Ashur glanced over to see what the little dictator was up to.  Peering at the babies inside the various holding cages, he was fine at the moment.

"Hello, Charity.  Is there something I can do for you?"

"Funny you should ask me that," she drawled.  "I was wondering . . . Are you really against the idea of letting Myrna's cousin stay with you for a little while?  At least, until things get straightened out?"

"Yes, I am," he stated flatly.

"But she could help you . . ."

"She's a child.  What would she possibly be able to help me with?"

"And you'd be helping her out at the same time," Charity concluded.

Rubbing his forehead, he snorted indelicately.  "Charity . . ."

"Then won't you do it as a favor for me?" she pleaded.  "She just lost her family . . . and you, better than anyone, can understand that, can't you?"

Heaving a sigh as he shook off the lingering memory, Ashur slowly shook his head.  That, as far as he was concerned, was a pretty low blow, especially coming from Charity.  It was also the reason he'd ultimately agreed to the arrangement.

Taking the couple strides to cross the floor to the front door, he opened it wide, only to come face to face with Myrna . . . and apparently, her cousin.

"Thanks a bunch, Ashur," Myrna remarked as she slipped past him and into the foyer.  "I owe you."

"It's fine," Ashur muttered, stepping back to allow the girl to enter as he frowned at her choice of attire.  Sure, it was a little overcast out and it was a little cool, especially for this time of year, but it wasn't freezing out, by any means, even though the girl seemed to think that it was well below freezing .  She wore a dull and scuffed black leather trench coat that looked like it had seen better days with the hood pulled over her head and a pair of huge sunglasses that covered half of her face, and the only bit of luggage that she had was a good-sized black leather knapsack that she had slung carelessly over one shoulder.  "Does she have more baggage?" he asked, glancing at Myrna as the girl slipped past him and wandered toward a small table against the far wall to examine the jade panther statue arranged on a crisp white cotton doily.

"That's all she's got," Myrna remarked as she flicked her wrist to check her watch.  "I've got to get to the airport, but here," she said, handing him a huge wad of cash.  "Can you take her shopping?  I would, but . . ."

He pinned her with a look designed to let her know exactly how put-upon he was feeling, but took the money and nodded.

"Thanks," she said again before turning her attention to her cousin once more.  "Oh, uh, Ashur, this is Jessamyn O'Shea.  Jessamyn, this is Ashur Philips.  He's going to be your guardian until we get things straightened out . . ."

If the girl heard what Myrna said, she gave no indication.  Myrna shot Ashur an apologetic look as she headed for the door. "I'll call to check on her once I get to Tokyo," she said.

Ashur nodded as Kells dug his hand out of his mouth long enough to wave bye-bye.

The silence that lingered long after Myrna stepped out of the house and closed the door was absolutely deafening, ringing in his ears like the knelling of an invisible bell.  The sadness that emanated from the girl in wave after cloying wave was terrible to behold and even worse to feel, crashing against his youki with a harshness, an abrasiveness, that couldn't be ignored or rebuffed.

'That girl . . . She's not okay; not even slightly,' he thought as he narrowed his gaze on her straight back.  She still stood there, running her index finger over the jade statue, but she retained her stony silence, drawing her youki in now and again like a protective blanket . . .

His sigh broke the quiet, and he purposefully shuffled his feet enough to split it, almost like a physical thing.  "This way," he said, heading for short hallway behind the kitchen that led to the maid's quarters.  Since he didn't have one, he figured that it'd be best to put her there so that she could retain a semblance of privacy—and so could he.  "I'll show you your room."

She said nothing as she ducked her chin, as she slowly turned to follow him, her face completely obstructed by the deep hood.  Kells squirmed, pushing himself up higher to see over Ashur's shoulder, peering curiously at the girl that trailed behind them.

He got to the end of the short hallway, and opened the door, gesturing at the short hallway beyond.  "This is the maid's quarters," he said, stepping back to allow her to pass.  "I don't have one, so you're welcome to stay here.  It's set up like a small apartment, and your bedroom and bathroom are up those stairs . . .  If you want to . . . to put your things away . . . Or you can take a look around.  I'll leave you alone, Jessamyn."

He started to walk away.  Her voice—whispering, cracking, soft, yet somehow sounding so very, very old—stopped him.  "Jessa," she said.   "My . . . My name's Jessa."

 


 

 

Ashur awoke with the strangest feeling, almost as though something were very, very off as he sat up and blinked away the last vestiges of grogginess that always seemed to cling to him for the first few minutes after waking up.

Glancing at the clock, he frowned.  Well after eight in the morning?  How was that possible when, every morning since Kells had learned how to escape the confines of his crib, the boy had crawled into bed with him?  And . . .

And just where was he now?

Tossing back the duvet, Ashur got out of bed to stride out of his room, intent on finding Kells . . .

He hadn't quite reached the doorway when Kells darted inside, skidding to a stop just before careening right into Ashur's legs.  "Daddy!" he greeted, sticking his arms straight up in the air as he hopped on the balls of his feet.  "Morning, Daddy!"

"And where have you been?" Ashur asked, arcing an eyebrow at the errant child as he turned and headed for the bathroom for their morning shower.

"I sweep wif Jessa," he said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.  "She was cryin'."

The slight irritation that had ignited when Kells said that he had slept with the girl who hadn't emerged from her room since he'd left her there yesterday afternoon died as quickly as it had shot to life.  "She was crying?" he asked, setting Kells on his feet inside the bathroom.

He nodded.  "She said she misses her daddy," Kells replied earnestly, frowning at the idea of having to miss one's father.  Suddenly, though, he perked up.  "You can be Jessa's daddy, too!"

Ashur grunted as he slapped the wall panel and tugged off his sleeping pants.  "Uh, it doesn't really work that way, Kells," he muttered.

Kells hopped into the shower behind Ashur.  "She's pretty, Daddy," Kells remarked as he squeezed his eyes closed and let Ashur wet down his hair.  "I love her!"

"Well, that didn't take long," Ashur mumbled, helping Kells lather his hair.  It occurred to him that he hadn't actually seen the girl, other than the vague form of her that was lost in the oversized trench coat and hood.  "You can't love someone you just met, you know.  It'd be more like . . . intense fascination—or morbid curiosity."

Kells laughed.  "I morbid curious her!"

Ashur barked out a terse laugh—something he didn't do very often.  "Something like that," he agreed, tilting back Kells' head to rinse the shampoo out of his hair.

"She said I can sleep wif her any time I wanna," Kells went on quite happily as Ashur handed him his washcloth and pointed at the body wash.

"It's good to know that you've got such a way with the ladies already," Ashur remarked, wetting down his head, too.  "I thought you liked sleeping with me."

"She smells nice," Kells replied, as though that were reason enough for his blatant defection.  "Is she gonna live wif us forever?"

"Uh, not forever," Ashur said, grimacing when he got a bit of the shampoo in his eye.  "Remember, we're moving soon, too—well, as soon as I find a house for us up there . . ."

"What about Ben and Cherry?  What about Nadi and Emmy?"

"They're moving to Maine, remember?  And we're going to be a few hours away from them . . . or more."

Kells digested that for a moment before turning solemn eyes up at Ashur.  "But we're family, and family belongs together, you said."

Ashur stifled a sigh, wondering how it was that Kells could possibly remember something he'd said months ago but couldn’t remember something as simple as picking up his Duplo blocks instead of leaving them all over his floor . . . "We'll still be together, and even if you don't see them every day, you can video chat with them whenever you want."

"But what about my birthday?"

"I'm sure we can work something out for that," he said, shutting off the tap and reaching for the towels, handing Kells his favorite Sonny Sunshine printed one.

Kells draped it over his head and yanked the ends back and forth while Ashur wrapped his towel around his waist and nabbed a pair of Sonny Sunshine underpants for Kells and tossed them to him.  He giggled and squirmed his way into them, making faces as he concentrated the whole time since he hadn't bothered to properly dry off first.

"Daddy, can we go to the zoo?"

"Fat chance, Kells, or did you forget what you did there yesterday?"

Kells' face scrunched up in a frown.  "But I'm sorry!" he exclaimed.

Ashur scooped him up and set him on the counter before grabbing his towel and scrubbing briskly at his head to dry him off.  "I know you're sorry, but we're not going back until everyone who works there who would remember us is dead or fired," Ashur vowed as he hung the towel on the rack to dry and reached for Kells' hairbrush.

"I can do it!" Kells insisted, reaching for the brush, only for Ashur to pull it out of his reach.

"Yep, but you never brush the back of it, now do you?  Besides, we've got a few things to do today, okay?"

"Like the zoo?" Kells asked hopefully, pinning Ashur with the big-eyes-look.

"Nice try," Ashur muttered, rolling his eyes as he finished brushing out the back of Kells' hair before handing the brush over so that he could do the front and sides himself.  "Besides, Charity will be here shortly to take Jessa to the store to get some clothes."

"Can I go, too?" he hollered, nearly toppling off the counter top in his excitement.

"We'll see," he said since it was usually easier than to give Kells a straight-out, 'no' even though he didn't figure that toting along the hyperactive tyrant would actually be conducive to shopping for clothes.

It was too late, though, and with a happy holler, Kells hopped down and bounced right on out of the bathroom.

Ashur heaved a sigh, slowly shaking his head as he watched the tow-headed cub disappear out of sight.

It didn't take him long to brush out his hair, to slap it back in a casual, albeit low hanging pony tail, nor did it take long for him to pull on a regular pair of black slacks and a billowing white cotton dress shirt—what he considered to be 'everyday' clothes.  Charity had commented before how he tended to dress like a pirate.  He'd ignored her, of course.

Striding out of his room, he headed toward the kitchen, taking the steps two at a time.  He wasn't surprised to see that Kells wasn't in the kitchen, either, and he shook his head when he noticed that the door to the maid's apartment was standing wide open.  After a moment of deliberation, he walked down that short hallway and up the stairs, not stopping until he was standing outside Jessa's door.  He couldn't hear any movement from inside, but he did sense the surge of her youki, so he knocked and stepped back to wait.  When it finally opened, however, he snapped his mouth closed on whatever he had started to say, arching an eyebrow when he noticed that she was still wearing the ungodly trench coat—and she still had the hood pulled up over her head.  "Are you cold?" he blurted, since it was the only actual question that came to mind.

The hood shifted as she shook her head.  "N-No," she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

He let it go, though, since it wouldn't make any sense to pick a fight over her choice of clothing.  "My sister-in-law will be over shortly to take you shopping," he said.  "You've probably got enough time to get something to eat.  There's fruit and stuff down in the kitchen."

"Morning, Jessa!" Kells hollered, dashing up the stairs and latching onto the girl's jeans-clad leg.  "Can I go shopping with you?"

"Come on, Kells," Ashur said, peeling his child off of Jessa's leg and tucking the boy under his arm, not unlike how a football player might carry the game ball.  "They'll get more shopping done without you than they would with you."

"But—"

"Nope," he said in a tone that left no room for discussion on the matter.  He turned and walked away, heading for the stairs and the kitchen beyond.

"Da-a-a-a-addy!" he whined.

Ashur covered Kells' mouth with his hand and continued along his path.

He was just about to deposit Kells onto his booster seat when the doorbell sounded.  Altering his course, he pulled the door open and jerked his head to invite Charity inside.

"What are you doing to that baby?" she asked rather dryly, reaching out to take Kells and leaving Ashur on door-duty.

"Shutting him up," Ashur replied evenly as he stepped past her and headed for the kitchen once more.

Kells giggled as Charity planted a very loud kiss on his cheek.  "Can I go shopping, too?" he asked, giving his aunt his, 'Best-Little-Boy-In-The-World' look.

"I already said no, so it doesn't matter if Charity says yes or not," Ashur said flatly.

Kells heaved an inconsolable sigh, jutting out his bottom lip in a vain effort to make Ashur feel bad.  It didn't work, but he supposed he could give Kells a few points for trying.

"You're in a mood, aren't you?" Charity asked, opting to use a pleasant tone despite the concern obvious in her gaze.

He shrugged.  "Same as every day," he replied.

She didn't look like she believed him.

"I'm fine," he told her to stave back any more obtrusive questions that he just didn't feel like answering.

"So, tell me about her?" Charity prompted, opting to let it go, much to his relief, depositing Kells on his booster seat and hurrying over to fill a sippy cup for him.

"Not much to tell," Ashur remarked, dropping a couple slices of bread into the toaster.  "She didn't come out after I showed her to her room last night."

"Well, it can't be easy," Charity said, her expression showing her absolute empathy.  "Myrna said her father only died a couple days ago, and when she called to report it, the powers-that-be showed up and made her leave the house, and they wouldn't let her pack much of anything, either . . . It's really appalling."

"It was careless, is what it was," Ashur said with a pronounced snort.  "The man knew he was going to die.  It's obvious, right?  He was a fool if he didn't have a will drawn up to protect her—his own damn fault, if you ask me."

"No one asked you," the small voice said icily, the lilt of the Irish accent, thick, almost lyrical, despite the outrage that spiked in her youki.  Ashur glanced back over his shoulder, stifling a sigh, since he hadn't actually thought that the girl would venture downstairs until she was forced to.  "You don't know anything—not a thing—so don't you dare say anything against my father."

Ashur, however, didn't back down.  "Any man who doesn't lift a finger to protect his own however he can is a fool," he stated flatly.  "He's the one who owes you an apology, not me."

"Ashur . . ." Charity murmured, laying a placating hand on his back.

He shot her a dark look but snapped his mouth closed.

The hanyou woman sighed.  "I'm Charity . . . I'm going to take you shopping as soon as you're ready," she said, inflicting a little more ebullience into her tone than was necessary.

Ashur snorted indelicately as the toast popped up, and he tossed them onto a plate and cut it up into small squares before retrieving the maple syrup out of the refrigerator and drizzling it over the haphazard pile.

"What is that?" Charity asked, shaking her head at the gloppy mess.

He spared her a cursory glance as he stepped past her with a red plastic fork to set the plate before Kells.  "It's French toast," he replied.

Her mouth dropped open, and she blinked for a moment before she managed to snap it closed again.  "That is so not French toast," she scoffed.  Then she held up her hands. "You know what?  Forget it."  Turning to the girl, she slipped an arm around her shoulders and maneuvered her back toward the door.  "We're going shopping," she said instead.

Ashur stood up and grabbed the money he'd left sitting on the counter the night before.  "Here," he said, striding over to give it to her.  "Myrna left this, but if you spend more, just let me know how much, and I'll reimburse you."

"Thanks," Charity said, stashing the cash in her pocket.  "Come on, Jessamyn, isn't it?"

The girl shook her head.  "Everyone calls me Jessa," she replied.

Charity smiled, sparing a moment to narrow her eyes at Ashur.  "That's a beautiful name!  Okay, Jessa.  Let's go get you some clothes—and let's also hope that someone finds their manners by the time we get back."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"I'm sorry that Ashur said those things to you."

Shrinking back, making herself just a little smaller in the seat of the late-model luxury car, Jessa lowered her head, ducked her chin, huddled a little closer to the door.

Charity sighed and gripped the steering wheel tighter.  "He's normally not like that," she went on, her tone more apologetic than Jessa figured it should be.  She hadn't said a damn thing, and she ought to not be apologizing for him, either . . . "It's just that he's been through kind of a lot himself the last few years . . . He . . . He really wasn't like this before . . ."

For some reason, the woman's gentle words were enough to irritate Jessa even more.

"It was careless, is what it was . . . The man knew he was going to die.  It's obvious, right?  He was a fool if he didn't have a will drawn up to protect her—his own damn fault, if you ask me . . .  Any man who doesn't lift a finger to protect his own however he can is a fool.  He's the one who owes you an apology, not me."

It was laughable, really, and she might have indulged in that, had it also not been so completely and overwhelmingly pathetic, too.  Maybe her father should have or could have done things differently in the weeks following her mother's death, but he'd been caught up in his own kind of hell, hadn't he?  And how, just how, could Jessa fault him for that . . .?

"When you get to know him a little, you'll see.  He really is a good person . . ." Charity sighed, turning into a parking garage across from a line of stores.  "He's just . . . forgotten a few things . . ."

Clenching her jaw so tightly that it ached, Jessa didn't trust herself to say a word.  Nice, wasn't it, to have someone who would or could stand up for you, to explain away the boorish behavior that was all right because he was damaged goods?  No one would do that for her, would they? Not that she'd want them to.  She had no one—nothing—but she'd be double damned if she handed over what was left of her pride, too . . .

"Jessa, lass . . . Hold your head high . . .  Put your shoulders back . . . There's not a being on earth—or at your ma's little party—that is better than you, you hear?  Don't you ever bow your head to anyone, lass.  That's my girl . . ."

Blinking as the sharp sting of tears prickled the backs of her eyelids, Jessa bit them back with a ruthlessness that would have made an army general proud.  Even the echo of her da's voice . . . It hurt . . .

"I'm . . . I'm really not trying to make excuses for him," Charity went on quietly as she maneuvered the car onto the third level of the parking garage.  "I'm sure it sounds like I am, but . . ." Trailing off, she shook her head and carefully pulled into an empty spot not far from the overpass that led to the shopping complex across the street.  "He really shouldn't have said what he said to you."

It bothered her even more, didn't it?  Myrna, her own cousin, had thought nothing about dumping her with some stranger, hadn't batted an eye in shelling out a fistful of money, and sure, they weren't close and really didn't know each other, either.  Even so, something about the whole thing had felt so . . . so clinical, and had left her feeling like little more than an imposition, a nuisance, and that was more than enough to spike her ire, too.  The idea of being beholden to anyone rankled on her so badly that it made her want to scream.

'At least if you must be beholden, he's not such a bad one to be beholden to.'

'Speak for yourself,' she growled back.  'That man . . . What he said about . . . about Da . . .'

'A shame, that is, don't you think?  Until he opened his mouth this morn, he was a right fair one . . .'

She snorted inwardly.  At the moment, admitting anything even remotely complimentary about that particular youkai was just not something she was willing or able to do, no matter how ridiculously attractive he was . . .

'So, you admit it!'

She gritted her teeth, ground them together hard.  Of course, she'd noticed.  She'd have to be dead not to notice exactly how handsome he was—Ashur.  He looked like an actor or a model, straight out of the biggest fashion magazines or the pages of People . . . Eyes that were bluer than they ought to be, golden brown hair that hung to his waist, shinier than it should be, and a body that was too fit, too well-muscled though not at all bulky, with a trim waist and long legs . . . His chest was hidden beneath the billowing shirt, not that it mattered.  Somehow, she knew . . .  Too bad his cold demeanor, his acerbic personality, ruined his looks entirely . . .

Sometime during the night, as she'd lay awake, staring at the ceiling, she'd decided.  The best thing she could do, given that she really had no idea how long it would take to sort out her parents' estate, would be to find a job—any job—and to get out on her own as fast as she could.  After all, she was only two weeks from being eighteen, and she'd read enough to know that eighteen was considered a legal adult in the USA . . .

Seeing no way around it, Jessa slowly got out of the car.  The last thing she wanted to do was to spend all day, traipsing around the stores, picking out clothing like there was nothing amiss in the world.  It felt so wrong, didn't it?  So shallow, so stupid, so useless . . .

Too bad she didn't really have a choice in it.  When the Gardai had arrived to tell her that her home was being locked up until everything was worked out, she'd barely been able to grab anything.  In the end, all that they'd let her pack into her backpack was an old photo album and a tiny lace handkerchief that her mother had made years ago because the Gardai had deemed the items of no monetary value, and the only reason that she'd gotten to take her father's coat?  She swallowed hard.  She hadn't meant to light the guard's sleeve on fire, no, but she wasn't exactly sorry for it, either.  It was during the ensuing commotion that she had managed to stuff the coat into her bag—no small feat, actually . . .

Charity paused, holding her door open as she regarded Jessa.  "Don't you want to take that off?  It's pretty warm today.  It's actually been warmer than usual this year so far . . ."

It was on the tip of her tongue to say no, that she wanted to keep the coat on because the scent of her father still clung to it, even if that scent was growing a little weaker every day.  Swallowing hard, angry at the sudden sting of tears that tingled in her nostrils, prickled her eyelids, she slipped the coat off and stuffed it onto the passenger seat, closing the door before she changed her mind.  To her relief, Charity locked the vehicle, so she was reasonably sure that it would be safe . . .

When she dragged her gaze off the coat through the car window, her eyes locked briefly with Charity's, and she frowned at the rather startled expression on the woman's face.  When she caught her staring, however, Charity blinked quickly and forced a smile.  "Let's see what we can do about getting you more clothes," she said brightly, leading the way to the skyway.

 

 


 

 

'You really shouldn't have said what you did about her father, you know.'

Scrolling through the compiled file that was basically an overview of the Canadian region that he'd been asked to oversee for the Zelig, Ashur tried to ignore the censure in his youkai's voice.  Given that Kells was taking a rare nap on the floor by the television—he'd fallen asleep, watching Sonny Sunshine—he figured he ought to take full advantage of the quiet.

'No matter how you slice it, you pretty well kicked the girl when she's already down.  I mean, you know she just lost her father, so hearing anything that derogatory about him?  You know, don't you, that it had to have hurt.'

'Too bad it was entirely accurate, too,' Ashur shot back mildly.  'No matter what he was going through, he should have taken the time to see to his daughter's needs, especially when he knew damn well that he wasn't going to be there to see to it himself.  She'll figure that much out eventually . . . or she won't.  I don't really care, one way or the other.'

'How did  you get like this?  This isn't like you.  It's never been like you.'

Heaving a sigh as he dropped the slim-file on the sofa beside him, Ashur stood up and stalked over to the window, scowling out at the mid-afternoon street.  "This is me," he muttered, his voice harsh in the quiet.  'It's . . . It's what's left of me . . .'

"Sometimes the cost of silence far outweighs the price of one's conscience . . . In this, there are no winners . . . There are only losers who must decide how much they can stand to sacrifice—and why."

He gritted his teeth as his own words came back to him in a whisper of irony . . . He'd said those things to Charity when she'd wanted to know why he'd go back and spy for the Inu no Taisho.  At that time, it had seemed so easy, hadn't it?  Back then, right and wrong were so black and white, and there were no shades of gray . . .

When did that all change?

He sighed.  No, he knew when that change had come, hadn't he?  Standing over his mother as her blood dripped out onto the floor, as her one remaining eye had stared at him with such animosity, so much hatred, and the only choice he'd had then was whether or not he'd save his unborn sibling . . .

And he'd stared at his claws, his hands, dripping with her blood, the crimson flow glowing black as the flash of wind and light took her away—as he'd held Kells to his chest, as he'd listened to the sobbing wails of a child, so tiny, so lost, so alone . . .

Something deep within him had broken that day, in that instant.  Something he'd never, ever get back, something that would never, ever heal . . . As InuYasha had held back Hana . . . And he couldn't even bring himself to look at her—his childhood friend.  She'd become someone he didn't know at all.  Yet he couldn’t hurt her, either: couldn't stand the idea of demanding the ultimate retribution from her for what she'd chosen to do . . .

So, he'd covered up her sin because a part of him could understand what had motivated her actions, but even that part of him could not forgive her—could not overlook the fact that she'd come so very close to killing Kells, too, when she'd taken it upon herself to demand justice for her mother.  In the end, he'd done the only thing he could think of to do.  He gave her money—enough money to live off of for the rest of her life somewhere far away—far away from Japan and the ugliness that lived there.  Far enough from him so that he'd never have to see her, ever again . . .

And then, he'd taken Kells, and he had walked away, too.

The sound of the doorbell drew him out of his reverie, and he sighed as he turned on his heel and strode to answer it.  He probably ought to see about adding Jessa to the security system or getting her a keycard, whichever.  He hadn't thought of it before, and he swung open the door to let Charity and Jessa inside.

Then he stopped.  Dead.  Unable to do anything other than to stare at the girl who stood there with Charity, unable to reconcile the sight of her with the hidden figure from yesterday and this morning . . . Hair that seemed like a dark, chocolate brown yet shot through with the brightest crimson streaks, highlighted by strings of copper that fell around her in a crazy disarray of loose curls, framing her alabaster skin, adding a vibrance to her eyes—eyes that were the exact color of the crimson streaks in her hair—almost brown, but not quite . . . The delicate features, the hint of a flush in her cheeks . . . and her incredibly willowy body with generous curves in all the right places . . .

The sun hanging midway in the sky seemed to add an unearthly glow to her, but the expression in her eyes—the darkest shadows that lingered deep down—added years to her age that shouldn't have been there as she stared at him in an entirely bored kind of way, as if he were of no more interest to her than a fly, buzzing around her in the summertime . . .

'Kami . . . What . . .?' his youkai-voice choked.

'How . . .?'

'She . . . kami . . .'

Charity handed him a couple of bags that he very nearly fumbled, but caught before they fell on the ground.  "Are you going to let us in?" she teased.

Ashur blinked, realizing a moment too late that he was, indeed, blocking the path, and he stepped aside with a frown.

She still wore that leather trench-coat, but she'd left the hood down.  It occurred to him that the coat didn't fit her at all, hanging off her shoulders like a sack, hiding the rumpled jeans that were smudged and needed a good washing and the tee-shirt she wore might have been pink . . . maybe . .  Maybe those things needed to be burned, not washed . . .

"This, uh, doesn't look like much," he said, gaze dropping to the bags in his hands and theirs.  All together, there were only about six of them, and they weren't very big, either.

"There's more in the car.  I think these are just her underthings," Charity said, handing the rest of her bags to Jessa.

Ashur very nearly dropped the bags.

'. . . I want to see these 'underthings' . . .'

'. . . Shut up.'

'Oh, right, and you're saying you don't want to see them, too?'

'. . . Shut . . . up . . .'

'Liar.'

Charity grabbed his arm.  "Would you mind helping me get the rest?"

"Sure," he said, setting the bags on the floor near the wall.  He glanced at Jessa again as he followed Charity out of the house, shaking his head as he tried to wrap his brain around exactly what was happening.

'How the hell did she hide all . . . that?'

'Go ahead, Kyou . . . You can say it.'

'It's 'Ashur, remember, and . . . I don't know what you're talking about.'

His youkai-voice heaved a sigh.  'Ba-a-a-aka . . . And it's not so bad to admit that you think someone looks damn good.'

'For the third time: shu-u-u-u-ut . . . u-u-u-u-up.'

"I was as shocked as you were," Charity said as they stepped off the porch and over to the car.  She sighed, then laughed.  "And I thought Myrna was gorgeous . . ."

"She's a child," Ashur stated.

"Age doesn't mean much," she argued.  "Not when she's been through more than she should have, no matter what her physical age is . . ."

He shot her a droll look and shook his head.  "The hell it doesn't," he countered.  "Isn't that why Ben left you alone for so long?"

She snorted.  "Ben's kind of stupid that way," she maintained.  "I don't know what I expected, but Jessa?  It just makes you wonder how many boys she's devastated so far in her seventeen years."

Ashur snorted and grabbed the rest of the bags.  "This still doesn't seem like very much clothing."

She shrugged and closed the trunk.  "Give her a break.  I'm pretty sure that she's still in shock, not that I blame her.  Let her have a bit of time to get her head on straight—and don't be rattling off any more of your nonsense like you did this morning.  Regardless of what you were thinking, you really did hurt her, I think."

"Are you done lecturing me, Charity?"

She made a face.  "Do you need it?"

He rolled his eyes and started back toward the townhouse again.  "Thank you," he called over, sounding a little less than truly sincere.  "Give Ben my regards."

She sighed again.  "Call me if you need anything else."

He lifted a hand to indicate that he'd heard her as he pressed his thumb against the identilock and waited for the lock to release.

His frown deepened when he stepped back inside.  Jessa was nowhere to be seen, and the bags he'd set down were gone, and, when he glanced into the living room, he wasn't surprised to see that Kells was gone, too, and he made a face.

"She's pretty!"  That's what he'd said this morning.

'Well, no, pretty isn't really right . . .' his youkai-voice mused.

'She isn't?'

'Nope . . . She's more along the lines of drop dead gorgeous, don't you think?'

Heading for the stairs to deliver the rest of the bags, Ashur grunted.  'She might be,' he allowed grudgingly, 'someday, anyway.'

His youkai sighed.

So did he.

 

 


 

 

Reading through the classified ads, Jessa frowned. She had thought that, in a place as large as New York City, that there would have to be something listed in there that she had the qualifications to do.  Apparently, she was very, very wrong, and she sighed.

There were lots of ads for things like receptionists—must have prior experience with Teletek systems—machine operators—must have prior experience with various shop tools and machines—tech support—must have prior experience with various computer systems and/or equipment—custodial positions—must have references—delivery drivers—must have own bike or clean driver's records—and the list went on and on.   Various other retail or fast food type ads, and those she could probably do, except that there was no way she'd ever be able to support herself on that kind of job, either, so applying for something like that was definitely out of the question . . .

Rubbing her forehead, she made a face.  That was the problem, wasn't it?  Raised as the only child and heir to the O'Shea dynasty that included a huge estate in Ireland, Dunborough, just outside of Belfast, which was where she called, 'home', along with a smaller but more prominent marquisate of Aumberlese, by which her great grandfather had been assigned the title of marquess, that had been passed down in each successive generation, as well as a slew of lesser-estates in and around Great Britain.  As the story went, her great-grandfather had thwarted an attempt on the life of the king at the time, and in his gratitude, he'd awarded him the title and lands.  All it meant to Jessa was that she was always introduced formally as 'Lady Jessamyn O'Shea' at events that she could not get out of, which she did, as often as she could, and often by feigning sour stomach or something of that nature.  For a very long time, she'd thought that she was clever, but her mother knew.  Of course, she knew.  It was Jessa's considered opinion that there wasn't much that her mother, Orlaith Daugherty O'Shea didn't know.

Too bad the peerage did nothing to ensure that she would be hireable for work, especially here.

"Jessa, I want up!"

Glancing over the side of the bed at the hopelessly adorable little boy, Jessa pushed the paper aside and grasped him under the arms to haul him up onto the bed beside her.  "Those are cute pajamas," she remarked, pointing at comical lion printed in the middle of the boy's shirt.

He leaned back and smacked his hands onto his tummy.  "My uncle is a panther," he stated importantly.  "I want to be a panther, too!"

For the first time in days, Jessa giggled softly.  "I don't think you've got the coloring to be a proper panther," she remarked. "Panthers are always dark."

He cocked his head to the side as he considered what she'd said.  "I can talk to cougars," he replied.  "I let 'em go in the zoo!"

"You did?  That sounds dangerous for the cougars . . . Did they manage to catch them?"

The boy looked positively inconsolable.  "Yeah," he muttered, his chubby cheeks pinking.  "They didn't get away."

"That's probably for the best," Jessa remarked.  "I imagine your da didn't like that very much."

Kells wrinkled up his nose.  "No . . . I gots in trouble," he admitted.

She bit her lip, loathe to laugh at the poor child.  "I'll tell you a secret—it's one my da told me once when I was about your age."

Kells' eyes light up at the idea of sharing a secret with her.  "Okay!"

"He said that the animals in the zoo like to live there.  They get fed, and they get to play, and they don't have to go out and hunt or do any of those things, especially when some of them are so hunted on the outside that they'd never exist if they didn't live there."

"O-O-Oh . . . The cubs just didn't like the cage," he concluded, then he sighed.  "Daddy says we can't go back until the people are dead or gone . . . But I like the zoo . . ."

She frowned.  "He said what?"

Kells shrugged, then hopped to his feet and jumped up and down a few times.  "Can you be my mommy?"

Jessa blinked and shot the boy a look.  "Wh-Wh-What?" she stammered, unable to help the blood that suddenly shot into her cheeks, making her feel a little feverish.  "Wh-Why would you ask me that?"

He giggled.  "'Cause you're pretty an' I wike you!"  Then he frowned.  "Everybody else has a mommy . . . Nadi and Emmy have a mommy . . . Cherry's their mommy . . ." His frown shifted into a confused sort of sadness.  "I don't know why I don't gots no mommy."

Jessa sucked in her cheek as she pondered that.  It was strange, come to think of it—strange and not really possible, either, was it?  How could it be that Kells seemed to think that he didn't have a mother?  He and his father smelled so much like one another that she hadn't thought to question it, but it was quite obvious to her, too, that there wasn't a woman in residence, either . . .

'It's not possible that he doesn't have a ma,' she mused, frowning to herself as the little one hopped enthusiastically.

'Maybe not, but he's not old enough to understand the why of it, either . . . I wonder if his da knows how he feels about it?'

'It . . . It isn't really any of my business—and given his disposition, he'd probably snap my head off if I were to ask, anyway.'

'Oh, he might not be that bad.  Maybe you just got off on the wrong foot . . .'

Eyes darkening as she scowled toward the windows on the far side of the room, Jessa snorted inwardly, flipping a clump of crazy-curly hair back over her shoulder.  'He insulted Da,' she maintained stubbornly.  'He had no right, and—"

'And you hate that he had a fair point . . . You know as well as I that your Da really should have done exactly what he said—and you know well enough that he hadn't meant for you to hear him, either.'

'Don't make excuses for him,' she countered.  'I don't . . . I don't care . . .'

Flopping back on the bed, she reached over to tug her father's coat over herself.  Kells apparently decided that he'd had enough hopping around, and he dropped down beside her.  "I can sleep here!" he announced happily.

It crossed her mind that maybe his father might not like it as she reached over, pulled him close against her, and he sighed happily, tangling his tiny hands in her hair.  But she was too tired to haggle over it tonight, in any case, and by the time that thought had occurred to her, it was too late: she was already almost fast asleep, and so was Kells.

She was asleep long before Ashur opened her door, frowned down at the sleeping forms in the bed.  A sad sort of expression softened the features of his face, a quiet melancholy that emanated him in waves.

He stood there for several minutes, staring at the two of them.  He fleetingly considered, picking up Kells and put him to bed in his room, but he discarded that idea just as quickly, and, in the end, he quietly pulled the door closed again and shuffled down the hallway toward the stairs.

Chapter Text

Ashur raised his knuckles to rap on the door before stepping back and tapping the plastic card against his palm.

He heard a slight rustling as Jessa opened the door, her expression guarded, distrustful, as she met his gaze.  Hair tumbling around her in the most jumbled, tousled way possible, she looked like she'd just rolled out of bed despite the pink sun dress she wore.

"Here," he said, holding out the card to her.

"What's this?" she asked, her sing-song voice taking on a wary lilt to accompany her Irish brogue, slowly taking the card, turning it over in her hand.

He shrugged.  "A keycard for the front door," he said in an aloof tone of voice since he figured it should have been quite obvious, what it was.

"Thank you," she replied, just as stiffly.   "And thank you for letting me stay here," she went on.  "I . . . I truly appreciate it."

Ashur shrugged and strode away toward the stairs.  "Don't thank me," he called over his shoulder.  Something about her tone . . . She didn't sound particularly thankful.  If anything, it had sounded entirely perfunctory, which was the reason why he'd brushed it off.  She'd actually sounded borderline hostile, if he were honest, and that, more than anything, rubbed him the wrong way.

'Admit it.  The real reason you're being so pissy is because you miss your little bed hog.'

That didn't deserve a response, as far as Ashur was concerned.

'At least you didn't have to worry about waking up with his feet or arse in your face.'

'I just don't want him getting too attached to her when she won't be around that long,'

'Is that your reason, too?'

'I don't need a reason, and I don't know what you're talking about.'

'Don't you?  Then tell me why you stood there so long last night, staring at them . . . and tell me why you were bent out of shape enough that you had to go out and tear down a couple trees . . .? Don't forget to call someone to come deal with that mess, by the way . . .'

'. . . Fuck off.'

Taking the steps, two at a time, he closed the door behind him without stopping and strode through the kitchen, only to heave a sigh when he spotted Kells, sitting on a short bench in the foyer as he tried to put his shoes on the wrong feet.  "If they don't fit, maybe you should try putting them on the other foot," he pointed out, leaning against the banister and ignoring the desire to go over and fix the problem himself.

Kells cocked his head to the side, frowning at his father as he considered what he'd said.  One could almost see the light bulb flash to life over the boy's head, though, and a moment later, he giggled as he stuck one foot behind the other and lifted them off the floor to point at Ashur.  "Now they're right!" he exclaimed.

Stifling a sigh, Ashur shook his head and stepped over to help the boy, anyway.  "Stick out your feet, Kells," he said, kneeling down and holding out his hands.

Kells did, and Ashur jerked back when Kells about nailed him right in the nose.  Of course, the little tyrant giggled madly when he got 'The Look' for it.  It figured.

He switched the shoes and shook his head when Kells insisted loudly that he, "can tie 'em, Daddy!  Daddy, I can do it!  Daddy, sto-o-o-op it!"

"Where we going?" Kells demanded as he hopped off the bench and stomped to make the soles of his shoes light up.

"I have to go meet with Bas, and you get to go play with Nadia and Emmeline while I do."

Kells stood up straight—he'd been bending over to inspect the flashing lights—and leveled a look at Ashur.  "I can stay here an' play wif Jessa!"

"Oh, no, you can't," Ashur grouched, herding the boy toward the door despite his stomping little protest.  "And we've got to talk about her, anyway, so move it."

Kells growled like a little lion as he stomped out the door and down the steps, stopping on the sidewalk even though his legs kept pistoning up and down, his hands balled into tiny fists as he kept growling angrily.

"That doesn't work on me," Ashur remarked mildly, slapping a hand on the boy's head and directing him forward as he ignored the odd looks Kells was garnering with his display of temper.  "Anyway, about Jessa—"

"I wanna go back!" Kells half-whined, half-growled.  "I wanna play wif Jessa!"

"She's not going to be staying with us long enough for you to get too attached to her," he pointed out.  "And we're moving, remember?"

"Jessa  can come wif us!" he insisted.  "She don't got nobody, she said!  We can be her nobodies!"

Ashur snorted, rotating his hand to get Kells to turn right.  "That would be 'somebodies', and no, we can't be."

"Why not?"

He was rapidly losing his patience, and he sighed.  "Because that's not how things go," he said.  "You don’t just pick up people and randomly add them to your family."

"Why not?"

"Because you just don't."

"But she's lonely!"

He rolled his eyes and shook his head.  "How do you know that?"

"Because she cwies at night."

And that statement stopped Ashur in his tracks.  Heaving a sigh, he glanced down at Kells, only to see the forlorn expression on the tiny face.  It wasn't the first time that he'd said as much, was it?  Ashur grimaced inwardly.  "She cries," he repeated.

Kells nodded sadly.  "Why does she do that, Daddy?"

Ashur scooped the boy up and settled him on his hip as he continued walking again.  "She . . . She lost her mama and papa," he said quietly, his gaze clouding over as memories flashed through his head, as fleeting as the spring breeze.  "They . . . They died . . . They left her alone."

Kells digested that for a moment before unconsciously snuggling closer.  "Daddy?"

"Hmm?"

"Are you gonna die?  Are you gonna leave me alone, too?"

For some reason, that question . . . Ashur flinched and turned his head, kissing the boy's downy hair.  "No, Kells.  I'm not going to leave you.  I'll never leave you."

Kells sighed.

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa heaved a sigh as she stepped back out onto the sidewalk, pausing long enough to cross out the ad on the classified page with a frown.

Two hours into her job search at the few places that had specified, 'no experience necessary', and she'd discovered something very valuable—something that she might have thought of earlier if she were thinking clearly, which, apparently, she was not.

She didn't have a work permit or a green card.

Dropping the paper into the trash can nearby, she hurried down the block to grab today's edition at the corner news stand, gritting her teeth as she dropped four of her last thirty dollars into the woman's hand—what was left after her shopping trip yesterday.  Reshouldering her purse as she dug through the paper for the Classified Ads, she blended into the moving bustle of people on the busy sidewalk as she flipped for the 'help wanted' ads.

She gasped and uttered a harsh little squeak as someone on roller blades zipped past her, neatly grabbing her purse and yanking hard, pushing people out of the way as he escaped with her purse.  "Help!" she hollered.  "He stole my purse!"  Not one person even looked in the direction she was waving her arms as the bulk of the newspaper fell onto the sidewalk.  Jessa broke into a pseudo-run, but the two-inch stack heels, along with the narrow sensible skirt she'd chosen to wear for her job search, hindered it, and she only made it a few paces, before she stopped, giving up since there was no way she could possibly catch him, dressed as she was.

"Here, sweetie, you dropped this."

Glancing over at the sound of the compassionate voice, Jessa sighed as she reached out and slowly took the jumbled newspaper back.  "Thanks," she muttered, scowling back in the direction that the man had disappeared.

The woman sighed, too.  "Happens all the time around here," she remarked.  "Did you have anything good in your purse?"

"Just twenty dollars," she muttered.  "My last twenty dollars . . ."

"Oh, God, that's terrible," she said, pushing back a errant lock of platinum blonde hair.  "You have somewhere to stay, though, right?"

"I-I do," she said, hating how pathetic she sounded.

The woman smiled, her bright blue eyes taking on a friendly glow.  "I'm Carol," she said, slipping an arm through Jessa's and steering her toward a small café.  "I was just on my way home, but come on.  I'll buy you a cup of coffee.  You look like you could use one.  What's your name?"

"Jessa," she replied.  It was on the tip of her tongue to decline, but she sighed.  What was the point?  No matter how long she looked, she wasn't going to find a job, now was she?  Not when she didn't have the required paperwork . . .

"Morning, Jake!  Two brews," Carol called to the barista with a jaunty wave as she dragged Jessa through the café and out to the open air patio, enclosed by an ornate iron fence.  "He's a sweetie . . . originally from Ohio," she said as she let go of Jessa's arm and flopped into a white wire chair.  "Your accent . . . Irish?"

Jessa nodded, slipping into the chair across the table.  "Yes."

Carol nodded as she dug into her bag and pulled out a small bottle of moisturizer.  "Hmm?" she intoned, holding it out to Jessa.  She shook her head and smiled.  Carol shrugged and squeezed some out onto her fingertips to apply to her pretty face.  "How long have you been here?"

"Just a day, so far," Jessa admitted.  "It was . . . kind of sudden . . ."

"Thanks, dollface," she said, winking at Jake as he dropped off two steaming mugs of coffee.  "Coffee cake—two of them," she said, handing the man a twenty-dollar-bill.

He winked at Carol and hurried away.  "I'd sleep with that if he weren't gay," she said with an exaggerated sigh.

"You can tell from looking at him?" Jessa blurted.

Carol laughed.  "No, he told me," she said.  "It's a shame, right?"

Jessa smiled the first genuine smile in a long time.  "I . . ."

Carol's laugh escalated as Jake returned with two slices of coffee cake and Carol's change.  "There you go, ladies."

"Thanks," Jessa said.  Carol nodded her thanks since she was still in the throes of her giggling.  Jake smiled and moved away again.

Winding down as she carefully dabbed laugh-tears from her eyes with a tissue, Carol reached for her fork.  "So, are you just here visiting relatives?"

"N-No," she confessed, her gaze falling on the disheveled newspaper.  "I'm supposed to be staying with my cousin, but she had to leave town, so she ditched me with a friend's brother . . ." Jenna grimaced, wondering exactly why she was telling Carol any of this.

"Wow, that sucks . . . Staying with someone you don't know?"  Sitting back, she toyed with her cake, but didn't eat any yet.  "I came here a couple years ago when I graduated from high school . . . Took all my grad cash and bought a bus ticket.  I wanted to get into acting, so . . . Anyway, I slept on a few benches until I was able to find a job that paid enough, then I moved in with one of the girls I worked with.  That was . . . almost two years ago."  She laughed.  "I haven't gotten my big break, but I've done a few local commercials . . ."

Jessa sighed as she sipped her coffee.  "I . . . I was trying to find a job," she admitted as she slowly shook her head.  "But I don't have a green card or a work permit, so I guess that's out . . ."

"You want a job?" Carol asked over her own coffee cup.

"Yeah, but—"

"Well, not sure if you'd like it, but the club where I work is always hiring."

"Club?  But I don't have—"

She waved a hand.  "Rule Number One: in New York City, there is always someplace that will hire you, even if you don't have the necessary documentation . . . but you won't find them in the classifieds," she added, flicking a well-manicured finger in the direction of the rumpled newspaper.  She made a face.  "I will warn you: it's not the nicest place to work, but if you smile at the customers, maybe let them see a little of the girls, they can tip pretty damn good."  She laughed as though she'd just made a joke, and she shook her head.  "Anyway, if you're interested, I'll take you there, introduce you to Stan."

"What kind of club?" Jessa asked slowly, unsure if she really ought to trust someone she'd just met.  It seemed just a little too good to be true, and the way her luck went, well . . .

Carol shrugged as she dug into her cake.  "Well, I'm not going to lie.  It's not the nicest place: kind of a dive bar, even though Stan calls it a club.  Some kindS of questionable stuff can go down in there, but we're just there to wait on the customers.  If you let them cop a feel every now and then, though, they tend to tip better, but no one says you have to do that.  Besides, most of the time, they're more interested in the dancers than they are in us waitresses . . . On a good night, I can pull a few hundred in tips, easy.  On a bad one, usually at least a hundred, and Stan doesn't make us share tips, so there's that, too."  She laughed.  "No benefits or anything, and the per-hour is practically non-existent, but there are free clinics all over the city, so that's not a big deal, either . . ."

"It's just waiting tables, then?"

"Yep . . . and I'd be there to watch out for you, too . . . I admit, there are a few regulars that I'd try to avoid if I were you . . . Big tippers, but they're also complete and utter bastards, so there are a few other girls who don't mind waiting on them when they come in.  One of the girls will fuck them to soak a couple hundred from them, but, well, I wouldn't do that . . ."

Jessa blushed at the vulgar term, and Carol giggled.  "I-I-I wouldn't do anything like that," Jessa admitted.

"No one would ask or expect you to.  Dottie's just a damn hussy, so she's the exception, not the rule."

Jessa bit her lip as she considered Carol's words.  On the one hand, she'd just met her, but on the other, she really did desperately want a job, especially if she could make good wages . . . Even so . . .

'I don't know, Jessa . . . It sounds a bit too good to be true, don't you think?'

'Maybe . . .'

'And you know your ma and da would have a fit if they knew what you were thinking!'

'They'd think that I have to have some way of making my own money,' she shot back icily. 'It's not like I have access to the accounts or anything . . .'

'Oh, and just who's being little Miss Bitch now?'

'I'm not being bitchy, I'm being pragmatic,' she argued.

"Jessa?  Are you okay?"

"I . . . I should like to meet this, 'Stan'," she said slowly, carefully.  "If . . . If it's not a problem . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

"Here you are," Jessa said as she slipped the three beer bottles onto the high table toward the back of the warehouse-turned-club known as The Jungle.  The three men at the table chuckled, eyeing her appreciatively as the nearest one reached over to touch the hair that had escaped from the high ponytail she'd carefully arranged just hours before.  Her gut reaction was to jerk her head to the side to avoid his touch.  She tamped it down and smiled at him instead.  "That'll be fifteen dollars."

The one across the table held out a twenty out to the side, folded lengthwise between his index and middle finger.

Taking up the unvoiced challenge, she stepped around the table and grasped the bill, only for him to let go, to close his hand over hers as he pulled her in closer.  "Keep the change, sweetness," he said.

"Thank you," she replied, managing to extricate her hand without incident as she turned to leave.

The one that had touched her hair caught her around the waist, tugging her back against him as she steeled her nerves and tried to squirm away.  "Don't go far, honey," he said in her ear, the stench of beer on his breath making her bite her cheek to keep from gagging.  "We're gonna want another round in a few minutes."

Pulling away from him, she pasted on a tepid smile and nodded as she slipped away from the table.  The flash of the strobe lights over the dance floor hurt her head as the reek of sweat and other scents convoluted, twisting around one another in a god-awful stench, and, not for the first time, Jessa had to wonder just what she'd gotten herself into . . .

"Hey!  Hon!"

Turning her head at the voice that had called out as she passed, she stopped next to a table about midway to the bar.  "Can I help you?" she asked, pasting on the fake smile once more.

"New here?"

She nodded.

The guy grinned.  "Damn . . . Cute, aren't you?"

She ignored his assessment and flopped the green and white order pad onto the tray that she braced against her stomach.  "What can I get for you?"

"Whiskey neet," he replied, handing her a twenty dollar bill. "Keep the change."

"All right," she said, taking the money and tucking it into the pocket of the short black apron she was handed at the beginning of her shift as she hurried away.

"Whiskey neet for table thirteen," she called out to the bartender.

She set the small tray on the bar and heaved a heavy sigh as Carol stepped up beside her with a bright and thoroughly encouraging smile.  "You doing okay?" she asked, raising her voice to be heard over the din of the dingy club.  Dark, dirty, with no windows and a totally grungy, industrial feel, right down to the rusty steel support beams, the black stained concrete floor, the cinderblock and perforated tin walls, the only real bright spots in the establishment were the neon blue lights overhanging the huge bar and the lines of neon lights that surrounded the black lacquered stage where different girls danced in various stages of undress as well as the aforementioned strobe lights that tore right through her brain.

True to her word, Carol had brought her to the club after they left the café, and it had only taken about five minutes after being introduced to Stan Brock, the overweight, middle-aged, balding owner, that he'd offered her a job at the minimum wage for waitresses, explained to her that there was no real dress code for them, but that if she liked tips to try to make sure she dressed to impress, and told her if she wanted the job to show up at ten, which she had done.

It rather disturbed her, just how easy it was to get out of Ashur's townhouse on East 64th Street after going through the few clothes she'd bought and realizing she didn't actually have anything that she suspected would be considered 'appropriate' for her new job.  In the end, she'd settled on a thin black satin blouse that was fit well and a pair of plain black, low-riding jeans, along with a pair of black suede ankle boots.  Then she had simply climbed out one of the small windows in the living room of the maid's quarters that conveniently was on the side of the house, out of view of the back yard or the street after locking the main door for the night, but not before having to deal with a crestfallen Kells, who had wanted to sleep in her room again.  In the end, she had told him that she was going to work, which he seemed to understand, but she'd asked him not to tell his da, which she wasn't entirely sure that he comprehended.  He did, however, understand what a secret was, and when she'd explained that it was a secret, he'd brightened up considerably . . . Even then, it's not like he would care what she was doing, except that he was supposed to be watching out for her . . .

Jessa nodded, pasting on a smile that she was far from feeling as her head throbbed to the pulsing beat of the overly-loud sound system.  "It's not bad," she replied.

Carol turned her head, nodded at the table where Jess had just dropped off drinks to the three lechers.  "How much they tip you?"

"Five," she said with a shrug.

"Five?  Cheap asses . . . Come on."  Rolling her eyes despite the smile on her face, Carol grabbed her arm and started to tug her away.  "Break," she yelled at Roger, the bartender, who waved a hand to indicate that he'd heard her.

"What are you doing?  Where are we going?" Jessa asked, leaning in close to be heard.

"I'm getting you better tips," Carol said as she dragged her through the grimy kitchen, dodging the scant cooking crew, and out the delivery doors in the back.  The doors closed heavily, and Jessa heaved a sigh of relief as the music was abruptly dulled.

Carol let go and took a step back, her brow furrowing as she slowly looked Jessa up and down.  "Here," she said, reaching out, unbuttoning the bottom few buttons on her black blouse.

"What are you doing?" Jessa choked out.

Carol didn't reply as she grasped both ends and tied them together just under her breasts, exposing a large amount of Jessa's belly in the process.  "Carol!"

"Almost . . ." Carol remarked.  She tugged open the top two buttons, leaving just the tie to hold it closed.  "There.  Now you'll get some better tips . . . Damn, you're hot, you know?"

"Carol!" she complained, her cheeks exploding in crimson color, starting to button the shirt once more.

Carol reached out and stopped her with a smile.  "Trust me, Jessa.  If you give them a little peak—not too much, but not too little—they'll throw money at you—especially you.  Just make sure you bend over so they get a good look . . . The hotter you are, the more likely they are to break into the old piggy bank, just to impress you, even if there's not a snowball's chance in hell that they'll ever get to touch . . ." She shook a cigarette out of the pack that was hidden behind an old sign leaning against the rough brick wall, she struck a match and lit it, tilting her head back as she slowly exhaled.

She cast Carol a scowl, but let her hands drop away again.  "If you're sure . . ."

Carol laughed.  "Have you seen the other bitches in there?  You look like a prude in comparison—not trying to be insulting, Jess, but it's true . . ." She sighed and shook her head, her eyes owlish and dark in the harsh and wan light from the naked bulb over the door.  "Though, to be honest?  If you let them occasionally cop a feel?  Then they're putty in your hands, as far as tipping goes . . ."

Shaking her head when offered the burning cigarette, Jessa sighed.  "I don't think that I'd want that . . ."

Carol didn't look surprised.  "If someone gets more handsy with you than you're comfortable with, just let Rock know—he's the bouncer—and he'll put them straight.  Stan might be a lot of things, but he'd never allow any of his girls to be treated in a way that they're not okay with."

Carol took another deep drag off the cigarette before letting go of it and dropping it on the ground to crush beneath her heel.  "Come on," she said with another sigh.  "Let's go get you some decent tips, okay?"

Jessa drew a deep breath, too, pressing her hand against her stomach to quell the strange intrusion of butterflies that had nothing at all to do with anticipation.  "Okay," she agreed.  "Oh . . . Okay . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"For the most part, the Canadian region tends to be fairly quiet, which is why Craig didn't actually stay up there most of the year," Ben remarked as he scanned through the quarterly reports dating back ten years.

"Why did he give up the position?" Ashur asked as he settled back in the easy chair caddy corner from the sofa.

Ben shrugged.  "Well, he never actually intended to keep the position that long.  He filled in more as a favor to Zelig, and he wanted to get back to his original occupation as an archaeologist, so it was good timing, really."

Ashur nodded slowly as he looked through the reports.  As far as he could tell, the Canadian region had been remarkably stable and had only really had one notorious moment, and that was on the part of the old general, Jared Brantley, who had been proven to be one of the most perfidious men that Ashur could credit.  He'd heard the story from Bas, first hand, and all he could say was that he agreed entirely with the outcome.

"I don't understand," he said slowly, thoughtfully.  "Tell me how a man like Jared Brantley managed to fool the Zelig into becoming one of his generals, in the first place?"

Ben sighed.  "His father held the position before him, and when he died, Cain just figured that Jared had been raised around it, so he understood . . . There never was any indication that he wasn't all he pretended to be until Sydnie came forward with her story."

Ashur nodded.  He supposed he could understand that.  People were damn good at hiding their not-so-innocent machinations, after all.  Just look at their father . . . If anyone had mastered that particular talent, Hidekea Muira had done that for years, and with flair . . .

"Daddy!"

Ashur shook off the reverie and glanced up as Kells dashed across the floor, heading straight for him.  "Where's the fire, Kells?" he asked dryly.  "And why are you wearing that?  It's too cold to go swimming yet."

"It's warm!" Kells insisted, hiking up his slightly oversized swimming trunks that he'd begged for less than a week ago.  "Please?  Ple-e-e-e-ease!  Can I have the key?"

Ben arched an eyebrow.  "The key?  For the pool gate?"

Kells nodded emphatically.

"You're not allowed to swim alone, not to mention that it's still only March," Ashur reminded him, "and I don't have time to go out there with you right now.  Maybe in a little while . . ."

Kells wrinkled his tiny nose, twisting the tie of his swimsuit around his fingers so tightly that the tips turned a hideous shade of crimson-blue.  Ashur reached over and cut through the string with his claw before Kells managed to cut off his circulation entirely.  "Jessa's gonna swim wif me!"

"I don't know that swimming—"

"Kells . . .?"

' . . . Ashur . . .?'

'What?'

'. . . You . . . You need to look . . .'

Turning his head to see just what his youkai was barking about, Ashur stopped, blinked, and stared.

It was her.  In a swimsuit.  Not just any swimsuit, though—kami, no.  She was wearing a ridiculously small black two-piece thing that might well have been a bikini on a two year old, and her lithe body, her generous curves, were entirely too amply on display, though that insanely red hair of hers fell over her shoulders, covering some of what he was staring at, but not nearly enough, oh, no . . .

Somewhere in the back of his mind, it registered that he was very blatantly staring, and yet, he couldn't seem to stop himself, either.  Perfect, wasn't she?  Absolutely perfect, from the top of her crazy-wild hair to the bottom of her delicately formed feet, he couldn't quite believe that she was real, that she was standing there in his living room, her gaze full of an understated wariness that lingered just below the surface . . . If Ben could see it, Ashur didn't know, and, at the moment, he didn't care, either.  Somehow, someway, this mysterious girl, this being that should have only existed in the confines of dreams or fantasies . . . There she stood, her chin raised just enough to give testimony to the unabashed defiance of a young woman who refused to be ashamed of who and what she was . . .

Ben coughed rather indelicately.  "You must be Jessamyn," he said, rising out of his chair to shake her hand.  "I'm Ben—Ash's brother."

"Just Jessa, is fine," she replied, those bewitching eyes of her, wide, unblinking.

She stepped forward and cautiously shook his hand.  Kells happily leaned on the arm of Ashur's chair and hopped up and down like a jackrabbit.  "Keys, Daddy!" he hollered again.

Heaving a sigh as he forced his attention off the girl, Ashur stood up to dig the key out of his pocket, but he didn't hand it over to the boy.  "Here," he said, extending the key ring to Jessa.  "Don't let him have it.  He loses everything."

"I don't lose stuff!" Kells argued.

"Thought you wanted to go swimming, brat," he muttered.

Kells giggled and grabbed Jessa's hand, dragging her toward the French doors and outside to the pool that Ashur had fenced in shortly after purchasing the townhouse since Kells had showed an abnormal interest in the pool from the beginning.

Ben cleared his throat, his gaze trained on the doors that the two had just stepped through.  "She . . . doesn't look a thing like Myrna, does she?"

"Just because they're related doesn't mean that they're twins," Ashur remarked rather acerbically.

He chuckled.  "True, but there's very little in the way of any family resemblance."

Rolling his eyes, he wandered over to the French doors, just in time to see Kells barrel into the water while Jessa set aside the towel in her hand, placing the keys carefully on the table near one of the lounge chairs.

"Are you worried that she won't keep an eye on Kells?"

Ashur shook his head, watching the two.  Jessa sat down on the edge of the pool with her feet dangling in the water.   Kells splashed her, and she squealed—he could vaguely hear her, even though the doors—and she kicked her feet, sending water at Kells in retaliation.

"Kells really seems to like her," Ben went on in an entirely too-casual tone of voice.

That comment only earned him a grunt as Ashur turned away from the doors and strode back over to the chair before  flopping back down again, burying his face in his paperwork and refusing—refusing—to glance back at the French doors again.

 

 


 

 

 

"Watch, Jessa!"

Jessa lifted a hand to shield her eyes as Kells half-ran, half-walked-really-fast toward the edge of the pool and jumped in.  She laughed and clapped as the boy came up, sputtering and wiping his eyes with a bright grin on his face.  "Excellent form, Kells," she told him.

He doggy-paddled over to her and grasped the side of the pool where she sat with her feet dangling in the water.  "Did you see?  I jumped!"

She laughed, reaching over to smooth his hair back out of his bright blue eyes.  They'd already been out here for a few hours, and her skin was starting to get a bit warm.  She never burned, of course.  Being a fire-based youkai had its advantages, especially when her skin was otherwise such a milky-white shade of nothing.  If it weren't for her natural tolerance to fire and sun, she never burned, but on the flip side, she never tanned, either, which just figured.  She'd even resorted to using self-tanning lotion before, and that almost always turned out badly, resulting in hideous orange skin that was normally ridiculously streaky and otherwise even more terrible looking.  All in all, she figured that she normally resembled a ghost with a weird wig on . . . "So you did," she agreed.  "Have you had enough swimming yet?"

He wrinkled his adorable little nose as he quickly shook his head.

"Not even if I promised to buy you some ice cream?" she prompted.

He blinked as he considered that offer, his long, spiky eyelashes dripping water off the tips.  "Daddy says I can't have sugar," he confessed, though he was unable to completely hide the hint of belligerence in his expression.

"Why's that?"

He heaved a sigh, jutting out his bottom lip in a very pronounced pout that was adorable on him, just the same.  She couldn't resist as she reached over and flipped his bottom lip a few times.  His pout disappeared as he giggled instead.  "Daddy says sugar makes me hyper . . .  er . . ."

She choked out a giggle.  "Hyperer?  Is that even a word?"

He shrugged.  "I don't know!  I'm only fwee!"

"You're only two, Kells.  You won't be three until May."

Her amusement died on her lips as her back stiffened, as she slowly turned her waist to peer up and behind at Ashur, who stood, hands in his pockets, an inscrutable look on his face.  The way the sun glinted off his hair—clubbed back in a low hanging ponytail—seemed to lend him a strange sort of glow, even as the warm afternoon sun cast his face in a study of dark and light, and it struck her, just how attractive that particular man really was.  He carried himself with an easy kind of grace, a dexterity that so many men tried to achieve, but in him, it was entirely effortless.  Maybe it was due to his background—he had to have some sort of cat in him, didn't he?  His brother was very obviously panther-youkai, and, though Ashur didn't have the typical hallmarks of a feline-youkai, that sense of dexterity was unforgettable, too . . .

He was tall—taller than her father, and he was one of the tallest men she had ever known—lanky yet not at all what she would consider wiry, either.  Broad shoulders, narrow waist, he was the kind of man that made women turn and stare whenever he walked by, wasn't he?  Entirely too pretty to credit, she supposed that maybe it had something to do with his bone structure in his face.  At last, that's what her mother would have said.  Her father would have just called him a good-looking man . . .

'He's . . . He's . . . beautiful,' she thought as she absently wondered why he would possess such deep, dark shadows in the depths of his gaze.  It was those shadows that seemed to add age to his otherwise youthful appearance, that brought out a far more unapproachable air to him, as though he'd rather level a death-glare at someone rather than to let them come anywhere near him . . . But . . . But why . . .?

Yet the seconds seemed to tick away as he just stared at her, neither of them speaking, neither of them seeming to realize just what they were doing, in the first place.  Kells kept splashing in the shallow end of the pool, babbling to himself as he played and entirely oblivious to the strange undercurrent passing between the Jessa and his father . . .

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she understood just how rude she was being, and yet, she couldn't quite help it, either.  Something about his gaze held her riveted—the way the blue of his eyes seemed to churn, reminding her of the Irish waters that she'd left behind, of standing on the cliffs on her father's estate, as she stared out over ever-frothing water of St. George's Channel . . . It was the same shade, that blue—the same cold that existed over the rougher tint of a turbulent shade . . . He almost seemed as though he were trying to ask her a question, but she couldn’t quite understand it, either.

He didn't move at all—not a shift in his stance, not a thing as the warm March air rippled over him, tossing the end of his long ponytail, blowing his bangs into his eyes.  The set of his jaw, the fullness of his lips . . . For some reason, a distinct shiver ran down her spine as her stomach flopped over, unleashing a certain languor that coursed through her body, but it wasn't exactly unpleasant, either; not in the least . . .

Suddenly, though, she gasped and smothered a harsh shriek as a small blur of a child smashed his cold, wet body against her back.  Kells had gotten out and decided he wanted to hug her, and she jerked involuntarily at the shock.  "K-Kells!" she exclaimed, swinging her legs out of the pool and hastily scrambling to her feet as she hurried over to retrieve his towel off the back of a deck chair.  She picked him up, but only after wrapping him in the cloth as he giggled, his teeth chattering as the cooler air hit his body.

"Oh," she said, carting around to hand Ashur back the gate key.  She stopped short at the strange glow alight in his gaze.  "A . . . Ashur . . .?"

He blinked at the sound of his name, shaking off whatever he had been thinking as he drew back slightly, forcing his gaze away.  "I, uh . . . I thought maybe you were hungry," he blurted, sounding a little more uncertain than he had since she'd met him.  "But if you leave it to him, it'll be somewhere like Chuck E. Cheese," he warned.

She shook her head.  "What's that?"

Ashur made a face.  "It's the bane of parental existence," he muttered.

She frowned. "What?"

Flicking his wrist, he turned back toward the house again.  "Never mind . . . Just . . . If you want to go, uh . . . you should probably get dressed . . ."  He sighed, turning back to take Kells from her.  "Come on, you little tyrant."

Kells huddled closer against his father's chest, obviously seeking warmth since the temperature was starting to drop just a little.  "I wanna go to Cheesy!"

Ashur sighed.  "I'll meet you in the living room in an hour," he called over his shoulder.

"Okay," she called after him as she stopped to lock the gate once more.  She frowned.  Whatever she thought she'd felt, thought that she'd seen in his eyes . . . She shook her head as she dismissed it, convinced that it was all in her head, and even if it wasn't, well . . . Well, she really didn't know exactly what it was, in the first place . . .

Even so, the idea of going out for dinner didn't sound so bad, after all . . . It beat the usual of a cold meat sandwich that was actually pretty disgusting, but seemed to be about the only thing in the refrigerator . . . A hot meal—any hot meal—would probably be better, wouldn't it?  Even though she still had no idea just what Chuck E. Cheese actually was . . .

 

 


 

 

 

He sat at a mushroom-shaped table in the sprawling play land known as Kid Zone, which was the result of a careful negotiation with Kells since the food here was fairly decent, provided one avoided anything listed as 'healthy', but still contained enough entertainment for a hyper two-almost-three year old tyrant to get his energy out in a relatively acceptable way.  Kells was busy, dragging Jessa from one activity to another, having abandoned Ashur about the moment that they'd walked through the door.  They'd already done the rock climb wall followed by a jaunt through the ball pit, and it was anybody's guess as to where, exactly, Kells was dragging the girl off to now, but she might well score some points with him if she could keep up with the child for more than another ten minutes . . .

'Which is all well and good, considering we get to sit here and watch her . . . Maybe we should buy her a few more bikinis . . .'

Ashur didn't deign to respond to that as he frowned at the mushroom and Swiss burger and fries arranged on the platter before him.  He hadn't touched it yet, even though it did look a far sight better than the congealed cheese-covered pizzas that were just a step above disgusting that were served at Chuck E. Cheese.

'Admit it, won't you?  Whatever you might think of her, she's dead damn gorgeous, don't you think?'

That also didn't deserve a response, as far as Ashur was concerned.  Heaving a small sigh as the boy struggled into a fuzzy coverall, he shook his head despite the trace smile that quirked the corners of his lips.  Kells finally allowed Jessa to help him zip up the bright green jumper, all but bouncing right out of the silly outfit as the girl held onto his arm while the attendant explained a few base rules to the child, who was well beyond actually listening.  Then he took off at a sprint toward the spring board that launched him toward the Velcro wall, and even from the distance, Ashur could hear Kells' pealing laughter as he stuck fast a good fifteen feet off the ground—probably a record, all things considered.

The poor attendant actually had to get a short ladder since Kells was stuck well enough that he couldn't peel himself away from the wall.  As it was, the kid had to yank on Kells' upper arm and leg, only to let go as gravity took over, and, in essence, rolled the boy down the wall that way until Jessa could reach him and yank him free, and the whole time, Kells howled in giddy joy as he wiggled out of the coveralls.

With crisis neatly averted, the young man who had rescued Kells from impending doom leaned down to whisper something in Jessa's ear.  She gave him a tepid little smile that was little more than a perfunctory gesture on her part.  Entirely undaunted, he grabbed her wrist just to stop her when she started to walk away with Kells in her arms, hurrying to scribble something on a tiny slip of paper that he tucked into her hand with a rather bashful little grin.

She stuffed it into the pocket of her low-rise black jeans before giving the bottom of the pristine white crinkle-cotton babydoll blouse a tug so that it floated back into place around her hips again.  Kells grabbed her hand, almost dragging her forward, and it was only as they neared the table that Ashur realized that he was growling.

Cutting it off with an inward snort, he sat back, blanked his expression, ignoring the little nudges that goaded at his rising irritation at the numerous male heads that turned, that watched the girl as she passed—appreciative stares, openly leering expressions from men, sitting with their families, for kami's sake . . .

'What do you expect?  Jessa's damn gorgeous.'

'And she's little more than a child herself,' he reminded his youkai.

'Apples and oranges, Kyouhei.  She's youkai, and that makes a huge difference.'

'Not really, it doesn't . . . and it's, 'Ashur'.'

'Suit yourself . . . for now.'

"Can we do it again after we eat?" Kells asked as he climbed up into his chair and grabbed a French fry to jam it into his mouth.

"It depends on your da," Jessa replied as she slipped into the next chair over, across from Ashur.  If she minded the burger he'd ordered for her, she didn't comment as she picked it up and bit into it.

The boy turned his attention on Ashur at last.  "Did you see me, Daddy?  Did you see me get stuck?"

"They should have left you up there," Ashur remarked dryly.

"But I was hungry!" he argued.

Ashur nodded.  "Good, then eat your dinner."  Arching an eyebrow when he noticed that Jessa had set her burger down and was lifting the top bun to inspect it, he shrugged.  "If you want something else, that's fine.  You two took off before I could ask what you might want."

"Oh, no, this is fine," she said, her cheeks pinking just a little under his close scrutiny.  "I was just trying to figure out what's on it," she explained.  "It's good.  I've just never had anything like it before."

"Just Swiss cheese and mushrooms," he said.

She nodded.  "We never had dairy," she said, replacing the bun and taking another bite.  "My ma was lactose intolerant, so it was just never in the house."

"A lactose intolerant youkai?"

She considered it for a moment, her eyes taking on a slightly perplexed hue.  "She said she was, but then, maybe she just didn't want the extra calories or something.  Who knows?"

"I see," he said.  "Are you?"

Jessa shrugged and bit down once more.  "I don't think so."

He shook his head.  "You'll know, one way or another, in about half an hour," he countered dryly.

She sat there for a long moment with a rather curious expression on her face, as though she were considering something, and finally, she blinked and frowned thoughtfully at him.  "Did you just tease me?" she asked at length.

Ashur paused with a fry halfway to his mouth as he considered her question.  "I suppose I did," he admitted.

She nodded slowly as a little smile quirked her lips, adding a sparkle to her eyes, a slight pinkness to her cheeks, as a little giggle slipped from her.  "Oh, then that's quite all right," she decided, nibbling on a French fry.

"You need kep-chup!" Kells blurted, rising up on his knees and waving his hand toward the bottle of ketchup in the middle of the table.

"Oh, no, you don't," Ashur said, grasping the back of Kells' shirt and tugging him back into place again.  He then retrieved the bottle and squirted a small pile on the boy's plate.  "There."

Kells wrinkled his nose.  "Not for me!  For Jessa!  And I need more, all over my fwies!"

"Your dinner plate does not need to look like a crime scene," Ashur replied, "and I daresay that Jessa wouldn't like that, either."

"Da-a-a-addy!"

Heaving a sigh, he handed over the ketchup bottle and shook his head as Kells proceeded to dump half the bottle all over his food before snapping the plastic lid closed as she smiled happily at the mess he'd made.  Then he turned and held the bottle out to Jessa.

"Uh, n-no, thanks," she said, taking the bottle and setting it back in the middle of the table once more.

"But it's good!" Kells insisted.

Jessa laughed and reached over to tousle Kells' hair.

Ashur watched the exchange, but remained silent as he bit into his half-cold burger, realizing absently that it was the first time he'd felt even slightly hungry in a long, long time . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa groaned as she rolled over in bed, yanking her pillow over her head as she sought to block out the noise coming from the traffic on the street below.  Not for the first time, she had to wonder why there wasn't some sort of law against blaring one's car horn at the bloody crack of dawn.

'It's not really the bloody crack of dawn,' her youkai-voice pointed out.  'And you're the one who forgot to close your window—again.'

'Quit talking.  I'm going back to sleep.'

Except, she realized after ten minutes of futile effort, she wasn't going to do that, at all.  So, she was in a pretty shoddy mood, all things considered, as she sat up straight, her blankets crumpling around her waist as she heaved a heavy sigh and slowly rubbed her face.  Glancing at the clock told her everything she didn't want to know: nine in the morning.  For some reason, that made her want to cry . . .

'Because you didn't get off work this morning till nearly four, and by the time you got back home, it was closer to five . . .'

She smothered a sigh.  After she'd finally gotten home, though, she'd had to take a shower to wash off the stench of the club, and then she'd been unable to go right to sleep, either.  When she'd looked at the clock, it was nearly a quarter after six . . .

She was slowly getting used to working at the club, though, so that was a bit of a relief.  At first, she hadn't actually believed that she ever really would.  Carol was quickly becoming a very good friend—the first real friend she'd had since primary school, actually.  Given that the girls who attended the Saint Finian School, an all girls' parochial boarding school, were all of the most wealthy, the most noble of families in Ireland if not the United Kingdom as a whole, the level of rivalry was high, and the more notable one's family was, the worse she was usually treated, and, given her father's name and the rumored wealth associated with it, Jessa hadn't actually made any friends there, and when she'd enrolled at the All Saints Secondary Academy in Dublin, she'd been too busy, studying for her Leaving Certificate, to be bothered.  She'd passed with flying colors a few months after she'd turned seventeen, making her one of the younger ones in her year, anyway—something she'd always felt but hadn't really cared about.

The truth of it was that Jessa had really never gotten along with other girls her age and hadn't since primary school, and it was something that she'd never really understood.  It always seemed like the other girls had singled her out for whatever reason, snubbing her, spreading rumors, or just flat-out trying to bully her.  She'd ignored them easily enough, at least until she'd closed the door of the private room that her father had paid an exorbitant amount of money for.  Only then had she ever cried, but her pride had only allowed that a handful of times, too.  No, her escape back then had always been in seeking out the nearest stable—not difficult since her parents made sure that the schools she attended had stables and that they let her bring her beloved Derry along—the gorgeous white and black Gypsy Cob horse her parents had given her for her twelfth birthday.  Back then, she had spent many nights in the stable, sleeping beside him in his stall, much to her parents' dismay.  When the trials of boarding school had gotten to be too much, she'd saddled up Derry and had gone for long, long runs through the countryside around Dublin . . .

'Who cares about all of that?' she thought stubbornly, deliberately trying to ignore the nagging ache that surged through her at the very thought of the horse she'd had to leave behind.  That, more than anything, had been horrible, really.  As it was, she could only hope that Kermit, the stable hand who had worked for her family forever, it seemed, was allowed to stay to care for Derry, along with the rest of the horses still on the grounds . . .

She sighed, letting her head fall back as she stared blankly up at the ceiling.  In the nearly two weeks since she'd started waitressing, she'd managed to accumulate almost three thousand dollars that she kept neatly in her underclothes drawer.  By the time she turned eighteen in a few days, maybe she'd have enough.  Carol had said that she had an extra room if Jessa was interested.

So, just why was it that the idea of moving out was not nearly as appealing as it was before . . .?

'You know why, silly girl,' her youkai scolded lightly.  'And you're right.  When he's not being a complete and utter ass, he can be quite personable, can't he?'

She snorted inwardly.  'Just because he's taken me out to dinner with Kells a few times does not mean that he's not still an arrogant ass,' she argued.

'And he's bought more food than that disgusting lunch meat, he called it . . .'

'A few fruits and some carrots and celery really aren't 'food'.'

Rolling her head slowly from one side to the other, she let out a deep breath.   She really ought to go back to sleep, but she knew she couldn’t.  She'd always had trouble going back to sleep once she was roused.  If she were lucky, maybe she'd be able to get in a nap before work tonight, but given the fact that Kells seemed to love to drag her around everywhere, she rather doubted that, too.

As long as there wasn't a repeat of last night, it'd be fine, wouldn't it?

She flopped back down, rolling over to bury her face in her pillow.  She really didn't want to think about that; not really . . .

"Jessie!  Can you grab that trash and take it out for me?  Kind of busy here," Roger, one of the bartenders for the night, hollered over the din of noise as Jessa set her tray on the counter to take her break.

"All right, sure," she said, hurrying around the bar to grab the bagged-up garbage.  She'd long since given up in correcting people who got her name wrong.  For some reason, everyone other than Carol seemed to think that her name was Jessie.  Maybe it was her accent . . .

Ignoring a table full of half-drunk late twenties men who hollered at her as she moved toward the baize doors that led to the kitchen with the trash in hand, she let out a deep breath as the greasy smell of too much fried everything stung her nostrils, and she rubbed her nose to stave off a sneeze.  She heard the doors to the front of the house swing open and closed behind her but thought nothing of it, fluttering her hand as a couple of the cooks called out to her in Spanish as she passed. They were nice enough, maybe.  Too bad she didn't understand a word of what they were saying.

The cooler air outside the delivery doors was welcome despite the myriad of dark and dank smells that lived there.  The sounds of the club still hadn't stopped ringing in her ears as she sniffled and strode over to the dumpster that sat just outside of the wan circle of tepid light, she tossed the bag over the high side and turned around.

She gasped, eyes widening as one of the men from that table grabbed her around the waist, shoved her back against the dumpster as he leaned down to kiss her.  She tried to push him away, but her arms were caught against her sides, and even though he was human, he was a very buff human, a good half a foot taller than she.  The beer on his breath was almost enough to choke her as she gagged and struggled to get away,  and when he tried to shove his tongue into her mouth, she bit down.  Hard.

"Bitch!" he shrieked, shoving her hard as he stumbled back a step.  Her head thumped against the unforgiving metal, and she grimaced, her breath whooshing out of her in a rush as his fist connected with her stomach, doubling her over as she fell to her knees . . .

The next thing she heard, though, was the man's crazy scream and the sound of heels clicking against the tired asphalt.  "Get the hell out of here, you bastard," Carol's voice registered.  "Come back again, and I'll let Rock beat on you until there's nothing left for your mama!"

"Fuckin' bitches . . ." the man muttered between grunts of pain as he lurched away down the alley.

Jessa pushed herself up, letting her temple fall against the cool dumpster as Carol watched him go before she dropped beside her, pushing her hair out of her face, cupping her cheeks in her hands as she examined her face.  "Are you okay?" she demanded, her voice unnaturally harsh.

Jessa nodded, still catching her breath as she winced.  "How . . .?  How did you—?"

Carol barked out a harsh laugh as she smoothed her hair back again and planted a kiss on her cheek.  "I kicked him in the balls," she said, as though Jessa ought to have known as much.  "I saw him follow you . . . Damned bastard . . ."

Rubbing her face with shaking hands, Jessa pushed herself to her feet, wincing as she sighed and brushed off her clothes, absently thankful that the short skirt was black so it didn't show dirt like the white halter top she wore did.

Carol stood up, too, reaching over to straighten the straps of the top that circled around the back of Jessa's neck with a frown on her pretty face.  "Here, your hair's all . . ." she sighed and shook her head, using her fingers to try to fix Jessa's hair.  "Are you okay?  I can cover your tables if you want to go on home for the night . . ."

Jessa cleared her throat, grimacing as the ache in her gut twinged.  She'd be all right by morning, she figured, but at the moment, it felt like someone had tried to twist her intestines into knots.  "I'm fine," she lied, forcing a wan smile solely for Carol's benefit.

Heaving a sigh as the memory faded, she winced.  That was entirely too close for comfort, wasn't it?  Carol had suggested that she get a small can of pepper spray, just in case, but Jessa scowled.  She didn't really need that, did she?  What she needed to do was to pay more attention.  Somehow, she'd gotten lax, which was a really dumb thing to do.  If she had been more alert, she'd never have been caught so off guard, and the perceived sense of weakness that she felt as sharply as she had at the time was enough to bring back the surge of ugly anger once more . . .

"Never," she muttered, tossing the blankets aside as she swung her legs off the bed.  Something like that would never, ever happen again.  She wouldn't let it.

 

 


 

 

 

"I . . . don't know that this is a good idea . . ."

Bas Zelig, the future North American tai-youkai shot Ashur a questioning glance, thick arms crossed over his even thicker chest as he shrugged.  "It'll be fine," he insisted, brushing off Ashur's very obvious concern.

"Putting a bokken in that one's hands is a disaster, just waiting to happen," Ashur predicted, pinching the bridge of his nose as he closed his eyes against the aforementioned disaster.

"Look, Daddy!  Look!" Kells exclaimed, waving the bokken wildly in the air as he hopped up and down like a demented bunny.

Bas whistled sharply.  His son, Bailey straightened his back and held his bokken at his side, as did Bas' foster son, Daniel.  Kells stopped, too, and slowly lowered the one in his hand.  "That's not a toy, Kells," Bas growled, intentionally inflicting enough sternness into his tone to get his message across.  "It's a sword—a weapon—and we do not play around with weapons.  Understand?"

Kells nodded rapidly.  "Sorry!"

"Don't let anyone catch you doing that again."

"Okay!"

"If we catch you swinging it around or otherwise disrespecting it, then you'll have to give it back until we decide you're old enough to have it," Bas warned.

Kells nodded quickly, casting a quick but anxious glance at Ashur, who was mirroring Bas' stern expression.  For a brief second, his lip quivered precariously, but he drew a deep breath and choked down his own upset.

Satisfied that he'd made his point, Bas nodded.  "Okay, boys.  Take turns teaching him now to block," he said to Daniel and Bailey.  "And Bailey?  For the love of all that's holy, take it easy on him.  It's his first lesson."

"Bas . . .?"

"Hmm?"

Ashur cleared his throat.  "Don't take this the wrong way, but . . . You should come live with me for a few weeks . . . Just long enough to get him to behave better . . ."

Bas chuckled.  "Oh, I don't know, Ky-Ash . . . He seems pretty damned well-behaved to me.  Just a little hyper—kind of like Evan, come to think of it."

"Oh, kami," Ashur sighed since he was more than a little familiar with that particular Zelig . . .

"So, Ben tells me that you're letting Myrna's cousin stay with you?  How's that going?"

Ashur never got a chance to answer as the French door behind him opened and the girl in question strolled outside in a thick gray sweater, a pair of black shorts, and a steaming mug of coffee clenched in her hands.  She looked adorably rumpled, her hair sticking up in wild disarray, and when she met his gaze, she nodded mumbling, "Morning," as she lifted the mug to her lips with both hands.

Bas blinked and shook his head, clearing his throat as he glanced at Ashur.  "Myrna's cousin, I take it?"

Jessa nodded.  "Jessa O'Shea," she supplied.

"I'm Bas," he replied with a curt nod.  "Pleased to meet you."

"Likewise," she said, her gaze shifting over to the boys.  Bailey was showing Kells how to properly hold the bokken.  "What are they doing?" she asked, inclining her head at the boys.

"They're learning how to fight," Ashur said.

"With swords?"

He shot her a glance, only to look back again at the complete and utter confusion on her face.  "Of course," he added.  "Didn't your father know how?"

She slowly shook her head then nodded.  Then shrugged.  "I . . . I don't know," she said.  "I never saw him do so, no . . ."

A strange suspicion crept up his spine, and he frowned.  "Don't you know how to fight?"

She uttered a curt laugh, as though what he'd said was absolutely ridiculous.  "Of course not!" she scoffed.  "That's . . . That's utterly barbaric, don't you think?"

"Actually, no," he replied.  "You mean to tell me that your father didn't even teach you basic self-defense?"  He could see on her face, the very second her mind shut down, closed him off, just as she had done the morning after her arrival when he'd inadvertently said something about her father then, as well.  "I'm not insulting your father," he pointed out.  "I just find it hard to believe that any father wouldn't teach his daughter at least some basic self-defense; that's all."

Bas cleared his throat.  "Well, technically, Dad didn't teach Belle, either . . ."

Ashur shot Bas a quizzical look.  "What?  Wait, what?"

Bas blinked at the odd look he was receiving and shrugged.  "It just never occurred to him to do it, and if Jessa's family weren't the kind that needed to know how to fight, it makes sense that he didn't think to teach her, either."

Ashur rolled his eyes and slowly shook his head as he slowly regarded her.  "I'll teach you," he stated with a marked frown.  "Maybe it was safer for you back in Ireland, but the city can be a fairly scary place.  People get mugged here every day or even attacked . . . Every woman—every person—should know how to defend themselves."

For a split second, he thought that she just might argue with him.  In the end, though, she just bit her lip and nodded.  "Okay," she agreed reluctantly.

 

 


 

 

 

"You're youkai, so, what can you do?"

Crossing her arms over her chest under the baggy folds of the gray sweatshirt that he'd tossed at her to train in, Jessa cocked her head to the side and slowly regarded him as she considered his question.  "What do you mean?" she finally asked with a shake of her head and a confused frown.

Ashur shrugged as he paced the stone patio under his bare feet.  "I mean," he said, planting his hands on his hips as he kept moving, "you're a fire-bearing-youkai, correct?  How much control do you have over it?"

"You mean, can I start fires?  That sort of thing?"

He nodded, but gave a little shrug.  "Yes, but what I really mean is, can you do it whenever you wish?  Or is it something that you can only do when you're emotionally agitated?"

She didn't look like she was entirely certain, and Ashur pivoted on his heel to point at the wrought iron fire pit nearby.  Striding over to it, he dug into the metal locker off to the side and pulled out a few small logs along with some smaller twigs to drop into the empty pit.  Then he stepped back and gestured at it.  "Can you set it on fire?"

Hooking her hair behind her ear, Jessa scowled at the wood in the pit.  For a minute, nothing happened, and Ashur frowned.  She didn't even know how to harness her own youki to create fire without having it sparked by pure emotion?

'Just what the hell was her father thinking?  The rest of it?  Okay, but this?  Holy damn . . .'

She let out her breath in a sudden whoosh, shaking her head as she furiously rubbed at her forehead.  "I . . . I can't . . ."  She sounded so angry, as though she thought that her failure was of her own making, and a lot of Ashur's initial irritation dissolved.

He sighed and stepped toward her, holding out his hand as he approached.  "Give me your hand," he said, twitching his fingers to encourage her.

She stared at his hand for a long moment before slowly, hesitantly, sticking hers out.  He took it and turned it over gently, palm-side up.  "There . . . Now, concentrate.  Stare at the center point of your hand and concentrate on extending your youki, gathering it there in your palm."

She licked her lips, her brow furrowing as she tried to do what he said.  He stepped behind her, leaned down to whisper in her ear.  "Your element is fire.  You can do this.  Focus on creating a spark.  It doesn't have to be a big one.  Even a small one will do . . . Just see it in your mind . . ."

He blinked as a few little sparks ignited in her hand, only to fizzle out faster than a second.  She tried for another minute before letting out her breath in another loud gasp, her hand dropping as her shoulders slumped slightly.  "I . . . I'll try again in a minute," she said, breathing hard as she shook her head and impatiently shoved an errant lock of hair back behind her ear.

"You're angry," he said softly, stepping around her, frowning at her as he read her aura.  Then he nodded.  "So, we're done."

She shot him a withering glance.  "Done?  But you said—"

"And you're angry," he stated again.  "You cannot learn to control your youki if you're angry."

She glowered at him in an entirely petulant sort of way, crossing her arms over her chest as she lowered her chin and peered up at him through the thick fringe of her eyelashes.  "I'm not angry, I'm frustrated," she grumbled.  "There's a difference."

"It's still a level of emotion that clouds your rational thought," he maintained, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared at her, his expression stony, impassive.  "The clearer your mind, the easier it will be for you to focus your youki and to use it."

The look on her face proclaimed her doubt, and with a loud sigh, Ashur unleashed a surge of youki straight into the ground below the stones where he stood.  A moment later, a sudden quake shook the patio, but not hard enough to disturb the pavement.  Her chin lifted as her eyes opened wide.  "You did that . . ."

"I could have done much worse than that," he told her.  "But even doing that much is a lot more difficult if my emotions are out of my control . . . It’s the difference between one little tremor that cannot be felt five feet from me or wrecking the entire yard and bringing that townhouse down in the process."

She digested that for a moment, a thousand thoughts flitting through her brain as a myriad of emotions surfaced on her features, only to disappear before he could rightfully discern them all.  "Okay," she said, lifting her shoulders as she drew a deep breath and held out her hand again.  Closing her eyes, she breathed slowly, obviously concentrating, and Ashur nodded, his gaze lighting in silent approval, as a tiny spark flickered to life, burning brightly in the palm of her hand . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Here."

Jessa blinked but caught the device that Ashur tossed to her, turning it over in her hands as she frowned.  "A phone?"

He nodded.  "You don't have one, do you?  I assume you were made to leave yours behind."

She shot him a cursory glance, as though it surprised her that he'd realized as much.  "They didn't let me take anything," she admitted.  "I . . . I had to steal Da's coat . . ."

For some reason, he hadn't thought about that, but it made perfect sense.  Given what Myrna had told him, it wasn't surprising at all; not really.  "The one you were wearing when you got here," he mused.  "I see . . . Do you—your family—have an attorney?  Someone who's looking into all of this for you?"

She didn't look like she wanted to answer as she gathered up the orange peel from the fruit that had comprised her breakfast and hurried over to throw it away, but left the phone on the table.  "I don't know," she admitted.  "I'm sure that Da had one, but . . ."

He nodded slowly, watching her over the rim of his coffee cup as Kells stabbed at his French toast—Ashur's version of it—while making battle sounds the entire time.  "We can look into finding one for you.  As your parents' only child, you should have automatically been named sole heir.  I'll make a few calls, see what I can come up with if you want."

He could tell from the expression on her face that her stubborn pride was about to kick in, and he spoke again to forestall the argument that didn't need to happen.  "I have a bit of experience in this kind of thing," he admitted tightly.  "It's not a problem."

"I can—"

The cup thumped against the tabletop as he sat back and scowled at her.  "Stop that," he stated flatly.  She gathered her hair in one hand over her shoulder, wrapping her other arm over her stomach in a wholly protective kind of way.  "I'm not your enemy, Jessa . . ." He sighed.  "I apologize for what I said the morning after you arrived.  It was thoughtless of me, and I'm sorry that I disparaged your father, especially when you've so recently lost him."

She shot him a quick glance, her cheeks pinking slightly, though he had a feeling it had more to do with irritation than actual anger.  "But you're not sorry you thought it."

He didn't deny it.  "Truce?"

She nodded once, but made no move to come back to the table, which was good enough, as far as Ashur was concerned.  He stood up to refill his coffee cup, but Jessa was faster, grabbing the carafe and stepping around the counter to fill his cup and then hers.

"Me, too!" Kells garbled around a mouthful of food.

Intercepting the raised-eyebrow-ed look from the girl, Ashur rolled his eyes.  "Mostly milk," he said.  "I'll do it."

"I've got it," she insisted, grabbing Kells' sippy cup and hurrying over to the refrigerator to refill it.  Kells watched intently as she poured just a little coffee into the milk in the cup and snapped the lid back on.  "Here," she said, setting the cup on the table near the boy before ruffling his hair and sinking back into the chair she'd vacated earlier.

"Fank you," Kells said as he grabbed the cup and sucked half of it down in one gulp.  "Daddy!  Can we go to the zoo today?"

"Absolutely not, Kells," he replied.

"But I promise I won't let the cougars out of the cage no more."

"Any more, and no."

Kells made a face.

"I could take you to the park if you want," Jessa offered.  She hesitated with her cup of coffee about halfway to her lips.  "If it's all right with your da, that is . . ."

Ashur shrugged.  "You want to take him?"

Her response was pretty much the same.  "I don't mind," she said.  "I think I'd like to see some more of the city."

He frowned.  "Maybe, but just wandering alone or even with a small child in the city when you don't know the different areas is just begging for trouble.  If you'd like, however, I can show you around a little after I make a few phone calls."

"That's not necessary," she murmured, scowling at the table top directly in front of her.  "It's not that far from here . . ."

"Daddy has to come!" Kells argued.  "Daddy's got the monies for the ice creams, and Daddy buys the pellets for the duckies, and Daddy pushes the swings really high!"

He almost smiled at Kells' reasoning, but he didn't.  "Don't forget the guy with the balloons."

Kells gasped, turning wide eyes on Jessa—the pleading look that Ashur was a little too familiar with.  "And the bawoon guy!  So I can get a bawoon!  Oh, oh, oh!  And the picture wady that draws the pictures!"

She rolled her eyes but smiled, and Ashur blinked.  Deep, deep dimples, the added sparkle in her eyes . . . The heightened pinkness in her cheeks . . . "All right, you win," she said.  Her smile dimmed as she slowly, hesitantly shifted her gaze to meet his, biting her bottom lip , her teeth leeching the color from her lip, only to flood back twice as dark as it slipped between her teeth.  "If . . . If you really don't mind . . .?"

All he could do was give a shake of the head.  Maybe.  At least, he thought he did.  The weirdest sensation surged through him, almost like he was falling or riding a roller coaster or something like that . . . It was hard to explain.  It was even harder to make sense of, and in the end, he looked away, cleared his throat as he abruptly got to his feet.  "I'll make those calls now," he muttered.  "Kells, put something on that matches, will you?"

The boy laughed as though Ashur had made a great joke, and he hurried out of the room, frowning at his own odd reaction, he shook his head.

'Come on, Kyouhei, you know damn well what that was, don't you?'

He snorted and closed the office door behind himself.  'Indigestion.  That's what it was.'

'All right.  Be stubborn if you've a mind to . . . But don't say that I didn't warn you.'

'Warn me?  Go away, won't  you?'

The youkai-voice sighed.  'Yeah, sure . . . Fine, I'll leave you alone, if that's what you want, but one word of advice?'

'What?'

'If you stopped glaring at her all the time, maybe she wouldn't say no every time you offer to do something for her or to take her somewhere . . .'

'I don't glare—'

'And you don't breathe, either,' his youkai scoffed.  'You do.  You do it all the time, whether you realize it or not, and doing that?  To her?  Just . . . Just try not to, okay?'

 

 


 

 

 

"Higher, Daddy!" Kells screamed happily as he kicked his legs on the swing.  Ashur obliged him, and Jessa grimaced, hoping to God that the boy was holding on tight.  A voice deep down told her that surely Ashur wouldn't endanger his own son, but even so, it looked too scary for a child Kells' age . . .

The late March breeze was warm—warmer than usual, if Carol was to be believed.  She'd mentioned as much, as had Charity when she'd taken Jessa shopping.  It was warm enough that Jessa regretted wearing the light sweater she'd chosen for the day.  Carefully refolding the jacket that Kells had tossed at her before dashing off toward the swings, she couldn't help the trace worry that settled in the pit of her stomach as the boy's head rose up higher than the top bar of the swing set as Ashur stepped back, crossing his arms over his chest as he calmly watched his son.

"He wouldn't do anything mad, like try to jump off of that," she asked, wandering over to Ashur's side.

"He probably will," Ashur remarked, sounding just a little too calm about the entire affair.  "I give him another two—three minutes before he gets bored and drags me off to do something else."

"But that's so dangerous!" she insisted, frowning at his cavalier attitude.

"He's tougher than he looks," Ashur said, entirely missing the expression on her face as he watched his son, soaring back and forth.

"Ugh, he's going to break an arm or a leg—or his neck," she muttered.

"Nothing will happen to him," Ashur replied dryly.  "He's charmed."

"Charmed?" she echoed, shaking her head in confusion at the almost fanciful way that Ashur had said that.

He shrugged, letting his gaze drop as he unbuttoned the cuffs of the stark white dress shirt and rolled them up a couple of times.  "From the day he was born," he said.  "I knew that day . . ." Trailing off as he shook his head, she watched as the pensive expression on his face gave way to an almost calculated blankness.  "Nothing will ever hurt him," he stated once more, this time with far more conviction.

"Was it an arranged mating?" she asked, trying for a casual tone as she carefully kept her gaze on the boy, who, thankfully, was slowing down just a little.

"Wh-What?" Ashur stammered.  "Uh . . . N-No.  Nothing like that."

She grimaced, shot him an apologetic glance.  "Sorry," she said.  "I wasn't trying to pry.  I just wondered . . ." Suddenly, she shook her head, hating the flood of color that exploded in her cheeks.  "I guess I just . . . That was a really personal question, and I had no right to ask . . . I don't know what I was thinking.  Please forgive me."

He cleared his throat.  "No, it's, uh . . . It's fine.  It's just a . . . really long story . . ."

"Daddy!  Watch!" Kells hollered, drawing both of their attention.  Jessa gasped loudly when the boy launched himself out of the swing, only to land in a somersault in the pea gravel.  He landed on his bottom, legs kicked out straight, laughing like mad as he shook bits of gravel out of his hair and hopped up, grabbing the waistband of his jeans and yanking them up as he darted over to them again.  "I flew! Did you see, Jessa?  Did you?"

She was still trying to get her racing heart under control, the late fear that he was going to end up, hurting himself still far too close.  "You . . . You did," she murmured as he grabbed her hand.

"C'mon!" he insisted, giving her hand a good tug.  "Cotton candy, Daddy!"

"Good God, no," Ashur snorted as he fell into step beside her.  "Ice cream is pushing it, but a bag full of sugared air?  I don't think so."

"There's no bags, Daddy," Kells insisted.  "It's a stick!"

Ashur grunted.  "And you're totally missing the point, Kells."

Kells giggled, latching onto Ashur's little finger, content to hold onto the both of them.  "Can I paint my face?"

Ashur shot Jessa a longsuffering look over Kells' head as he tugged them toward the right—toward the girl who was set up to paint cute little designs on children's faces.  Jessa almost smiled.

"Daddy wants a happy face!" Kells told the girl, looking entirely too pleased with his own machinations.

Ashur blinked in surprise.  "I do?"

"Yeah!"

Ashur shook his head.  "I really  . . . don't . . ."

Jessa leaned toward him.  "It'd make him really happy, I think."

Ashur leaned toward her.  "He's happy enough, I think."

"Uh uh," she replied.

He made a face and turned back to the girl again.  "And she'd like a unicorn on hers."

"Yay!" Kells hollered, hopping up and down and pinning Jessa with the single most hopeful expression she'd ever seen on anyone's face, ever.

Narrowing her eyes just slightly at Ashur, she let Kells drag her forward and sat down on the small stool made for someone a whole lot shorter than she was.

It didn't take the girl long to paint a small unicorn's head on her left cheek, complete with a few sprinkles of adhesive glitter to add to the overall effect.  By the time she was done, Kells was hopping again, only this time, he dragged Ashur over and demanded that he sit down, too.

Jessa could only assume that Ashur looked at least marginally funnier than she did, trying to sit on that stool. Knees jammed up nearly to his chest, he sat still, with an entirely bored expression on his face as the girl painted the smiley face on his cheek, and she had to wonder just how often this particular scenario played out.  He went along with Kells' antics, which was probably one of the sweetest things she'd ever seen, and she couldn't help the little smile that quirked the corners of her lips as Ashur heaved a sigh and stood up so that Kells could get his face painted, too.

"Does he talk you into this kind of stuff all the time?" she asked quietly as the girl painted cougar spots all over Kells' little face.

He snorted.  "Actually, no," he confessed.  "But I figured I should be a good sport since you were humoring him, too."

She pressed her lips together in a thin line to keep from laughing outright at the entirely disgruntled look on his face.  "It's a very nice smiley face," she assured him.

"I'm going to find the nearest bathroom and wash this off," he muttered.

"He'd be sad if you do," she warned.

"It's not nearly as funny as you seem to think it is."

"Oh, but it is," she argued, digging out her new cell phone and quickly snapping a picture.

"Do me a favor and never, ever show that picture to my brother," he said.

Jessa nearly laughed.  "Tease you, will he?"

"Till the end of time."

"So . . . what else does Kells usually talk you into?"

He shrugged offhandedly, stuffing his hands into his pockets as the spring breeze lifted his bangs, tousled them like the gentle fingers of a lover.  "I made the mistake the last time of letting him have a candied apple.  That's one I won't ever repeat, not for all the tea in China."

"That bad, was it?"

He snorted again and handed the girl a fifty dollar bill as Kells checked himself out in a small hand mirror.  "Nope," he replied evenly.  "It was so much worse than you're imagining . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

"Jessie, come in here," Stan Brock called out to Jessa as she hurried into the back room to put her jacket in the tiny locker.  Leaning back in the rickety old chair he kept at his desk in the office, it groaned and creaked under his weight.

"Yes?" she said, stepping into the office after closing her locker and snapping the padlock in place.

Stan grinned.  "It's your lucky day, cookie," he told her.  "Shelly's gone, and she ain't coming back, so I need someone to replace her on Friday and Saturday nights."

She frowned and shook her head since Shelly was one of the more popular dancers.  "I'm not interested in dancing," she said.

Stan threw his head back, wheezing out a smoke-corrupted laugh.  "We're talkin' an easy K in one night alone if the miserable mutts like what they see," he said.  "You'd be rollin' in the dough, pretty girl like you—as long as you stay off the candy, that is."  Suddenly, he sighed, slowly shook his head.  "Too many o' you girls, get caught up in that shit," he said.  "Shelly . . . She was a lot like you when she first came in.  Shy, quiet—a good girl—but she got hooked up on coke by her fucktard dealer-boyfriend.  He finds out that the fuzz were planning a sting, and up and leaves Shel with the shit.  Now she's goin' down for a long, long time, and he's gettin' off, scot free . . ."

She rubbed her hands together and nodded.  "Thanks for the offer, but I really can't," she said.  "I'm fine with just waiting tables."

He shrugged.  "You sure?  Just think about it and let me know by Friday."

She pasted on a tepid smile and hurried out of the office before he could try to talk her into it.  She had absolutely no interest in doing any such thing.  It was all she could do, some nights, just to tolerate the regular clientele.  Adding the idea that most of them would have seen her naked up on that stage was something that she simply couldn't tolerate . . . If she could even wrap her head around the idea of parading about, stark naked . . .

"That old bastard offered you Shelly's weekend spots, didn't he?" Carol muttered as she fell into step beside Jessa.

"I told him no," she replied, tying the apron around her waist.

Carol made a face.  "You don't want to do it, do you?"

She shook her head, unable to repress the complete horror in her expression as she shot Carol a disgusted glance.  "God, no!"

Carol looked relieved.  "Good!  I mean, you're just not the type—not that it's a bad thing because it isn't."  She waved her hands, as though to refute her statement.  "If you wanted to, then that'd be one thing, and sure, the money's better . . ."

Something about Carol's tone of voice made Jessa stop, stare at her, frowning at her thoughtfully as she grasped Carol's arm to stop her.  "Did he ask you?"

Carol snorted.  "Of course, he did," she replied, pretty face scrunching up in an irritated kind of way.  "I didn't want it, either." Then she rolled her eyes and laughed.  "Fifty bucks says that Faye marches in there and demands Shelly's spot as soon as she gets in here," she said.

Jessa pulled her hair up and back, catching it in a black cloth-covered rubber band that she'd had around her wrist.  Considering Faye, the black haired beauty of Asian descent, tended to think that she was just that much above every other girl in the place?  "Yeah, you're probably right," she allowed.

Carol made a face.  "That'd be fine by me . . . Get her off of the floor, the hag . . ."

There was no love lost between the two: Carol and Faye.  Some of the other girls had maintained that they had no real idea just why Faye tended to openly despise Carol, and, by extension, Jessa, too.  Jessa, however, had met far too many girls like Faye over the years—usually at boarding school—those girls that hated her for no good reason . . .

"Get out of my way," Faye demanded as she strode down the hallway.

"Speak of the damn devil," Carol muttered, crossed her arms over her chest and refused to yield her position.  If anything, she stepped further into Faye's path.  "Where you going, Faye?" she asked, inflicting enough sweetness into her tone to choke a horse.

Faye smiled insincerely.  "I need to talk to Stan, so move out of my way, Carol."

"Why's that?  You want Shelly's spot, do you?" she countered.

"Maybe," Faye replied, narrowing her eyes on Carol.

"Of course, you want it," Carol went on, just as sweetly as before.  "It's still available.  Jessa and I already turned it down."

Faye's eyes flared at that, and she cast Jessa a condescending glower.  "You?  You can't even dance, Irish," she scoffed.

Carol laughed.  "Are you kidding?  She's taken dance classes for years, Faye.  Granted, probably not street grind crap like you do every night with whatever random John you take home with you, huh?"

Faye snorted, shoving Carol to the side, roughly bumping Jessa with her shoulder as she hurried past.

Carol pivoted on the heel of her patent leather boot to grin as she watched Faye's haughty departure.  "Ah, I love fucking with her . . ."

Jessa made a face.  "Ugh, if my ma knew that all those years of dance class could be used for something like this . . ." Then she giggled.

"It would almost be worth it to take Shelly's spot," Carol mused, "just to mess with her a little more . . ."

Jessa opened her mouth to reply, but the chime of her cell phone caught her attention, and she pulled it out of the apron pocket.  It was Myrna.  Apparently, Ashur had given her Jessa's number, and she was just checking in, she said, to see if things were going all right.  She fired back a quick message and started to drop the device into her pocket once more, but Carol grabbed it.

"I thought you didn't have a phone," she said, opening up the contacts menu to add her number to it.

"I just got it today," she admitted.

"Good!  When you get a minute, text me so I can add you to mine," she replied.  Clicking out of the menu, she fiddled around with it for another minute.  "Then I can . . . Oh . . . Oh, my . . . Who's the hottie?"

Glancing around Carol's arm, Jessa grimaced at the picture she had opened—the one she'd taken of Ashur with the smiley face on his cheek.  He wasn't smiling, but he did look somewhat amused, bright blue eyes sparkling in the early afternoon sunshine as his clubbed-back, sun-streaked blonde hair fell over his shoulder.

"He's a, uh, family friend," she muttered, hoping that it would be enough to get Carol to drop it.

"A family friend?  Have you fucked him?"

She grimaced inwardly.  "It's not like that," she grumbled, unable to staunch the flow of blood into her cheeks as she grabbed the phone back and shoved it into her pocket.

"It should be like that," Carol insisted.

"Get moving!" Rock hollered, leaning around the corner as he frowned at them.  "The other girls are complaining because you're taking your sweet time!"

"Yeah, yeah, okay, okay," Carol replied, shaking her head as she adjusted her breasts in her black push-up bra.  "You're not off the hook, you know.  You're going to tell me more about that guy," she insisted, grabbing Jessa's arm to hurry her down the hallway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"There!" Jessa exclaimed softly, proudly displaying the flame that was merrily dancing in the center of her palm.  "Fire."

Crossing his arms over his chest, Ashur nodded.  "Good," he said, sounding just a little condescending.  "Now that you can do that, can you throw it?"

She stared at him for a long moment before she drew her hand back and tried to toss the flame.  It sputtered out before it left her palm.  Then she turned to eye him once more.  "Are you joking?" she demanded, looking more and more skeptical by the second.  "Is that really possible?"

He frowned at her like he was trying to decide if she were being serious or not.  "If you were fighting with someone, wouldn't it benefit you more to be able to throw your fire at someone rather than to stand there and hold it till they got close enough for you to burn them?"

She started to tell him that he was being ridiculous, but stopped when a vague memory sparked to life in her head.  That day when the Gardai had showed up to escort her off her parents' property . . . That day, she'd set fire to the officer's cuff, and she wasn't touching him at the time, either . . .

"I . . . I lit a fire," she admitted quietly.  "I don't know how I did it, but I know I did . . ."

"When?"

She shook her head, crossing her arms over her stomach as she pondered it.  "The day they made me leave," she said.  "I set the officer's sleeve on fire so, and then I grabbed Da's coat . . ."

He considered that for a moment.  "But you were obviously upset, right?  And that's why you don't know how you did it."

She shot him a chagrined sort of scowl as a handful of dirt went flying past her face, and she blinked.

Kells giggled.  "Look, Daddy!  I frew earf!"

Ashur choked slightly then coughed.  "You promised you'd sit there quietly, Kells," he reminded the child.

Kells giggled some more, dusting off his tiny hands, but hopped back into the chair he'd vacated at the start of the lesson, picking up his handheld Kid-Tab 6000xz to play with the learning games stored on it.

Turning his attention back to her once more, Ashur frowned.  "Why don’t you try concentrating on setting fire to the wood in the pit?" he asked, nodding at the kindling.  "Just stretch your youki . . ."

She pivoted, stared at the wood in the fire pit, careful to keep her mind calm, serene, but it didn't help.  As hard as she tried, nothing happened, and she drew a deep breath, tried to focus on what she wanted to do, to no avail.

She was concentrating so hard that she didn't hear Ashur slip up behind her—didn't know he was there until he spoke in her ear.  "Let go, Jessa," he rumbled softly.  "Don't hold your youki so close to you.  If you let it flow around you, you'll be able to use it, like . . . like how copper can conduct electricity.  Your youki is an extension of you.  If you let it, it can become another sense, like touch or taste or feel . . . You'll sense the intentions of those around you as they come into contact with your youki, and you can use it to create the spark you need for your fire, too . . . Now, relax it . . . and then try . . ."

She did as she was told, trying her best to ignore the feeling of being absolutely vulnerable as her youki spread, haltingly at first, as though it was as reluctant to do so as she was.  Letting her eyes close for a moment, it was like she could feel exactly what he was talking about: the curious brush of his youki, the underlying excitement in Kells' . . . She could feel objects but not in a tactile sense.  No, it was more of an understanding of what and where things were.

Focusing her attention on the feel of the wood in the pit, she willed her youki to spark, concentrated on the idea of a full burn . . .

"Don't get frustrated," Ashur murmured in her ear.  "I can feel the tension rising in you.  Let go of it, Jessa . . . You've almost got it."

With a small gasp, her eyes flashed open just in time to see the kindling ignite in a small flame.  It wasn't big, it wasn't fancy, but it was there, and she smiled.  "Like that . . ." she said, more to herself than to Ashur.

He nodded, his gaze brightening as he watched the flame spread and grow.  "Exactly like that.  If you keep practicing, you'll learn to control the intensity of your fire with ease."

"How old were you when you started training?"

He shrugged and seemed a little surprised by her question.  "I was taught things from the beginning," he said.  "But my true training began when I was Kells' age."

"I . . . kind of remember . . . Da . . ." She frowned as the half-forgotten memory surfaced in her mind: her father and the ring of torches . . . "There was an area on the estate—a clearing in the forest—where he used to take me when I was small . . . There were torches . . . Lots of torches, and he would stand in the middle and close his eyes, and he'd light them, all at once . . . I thought it was like magic . . ."

Somewhere, deep down, she'd thought that he would laugh at her for saying such a fanciful thing.  He didn't, but he did seem a little amused.  "And he never taught you how to light them?"

She shook her head.  "I think that was around the time that I started taking dance lessons . . . piano lessons . . . dressage . . ."

He looked like he wanted to say something, but he shook his head slowly instead.  "Are you tired?" he asked.  "Take a break."

"I'm fine," she said.  "I can keep practicing."

"Not that, not right now," he told her.  "The longer you practice at a time, the more likely you'll either get frustrated or you'll exhaust yourself mentally.  Best to work on it just a little every day."

She nodded, even though she didn't quite agree.  "So, does that mean we're done?"

He shook his head.  "Nope.  It means that you're going to take a break, and then we'll work on your self-defense skills.  I'll meet you in the basement in a few minutes."

She made a face but headed toward the doors to get a bottle of water.  Kells hopped up to come with her.  "You can make fire!" the boy exclaimed.  "That's co-o-o-ol!"

"Do you think so?" she asked, smiling at the child.

Kells nodded happily.  "And now you get to frow Daddy around!"

She sighed, yanking open the refrigerator and retrieving a bottle of water.  Kells grabbed his juice cup before she closed the door.

That was the part she didn't like, if she were to be completely honest.  During the first few lessons, he'd taught her how to use an attacker's forward momentum to toss him, and if she'd done it once, she had to have done it a hundred times in the course of the last few days, and, while he didn't complain, she had to wonder just how okay he was with the idea that she kept tossing him around like a rag doll . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur landed flat on his back with a heavy grunt for the fourth time in about ten minutes and hopped back to his feet, ignoring the groaning in his muscles that protested the movement.  "Okay, I think you've got that," he said, ignoring the aches from the physical exertion.  "Let's try  something else."

"Daddy!  Can I try to frow you, too?"

Waving a hand at Kells, Ashur shook his head.  "I don't suppose you took any kind of martial arts in all those lessons you had."

Jessa shook her head.  "No . . ."

He nodded since he'd already figured as much.  "Okay, tossing someone coming at you is fine, and you've pretty well gotten that down perfectly, but not everyone's going to run at you, either.  In fact, most of them wouldn't unless they're trying to mug you.  The most important thing you need to learn is to always allow your youki to float around you.  Not only does it help in that you can potentially attack faster that way, but it also will help you sense the safety of your surroundings . . . For example, if someone is running up behind you, you'll sense them through your youki well before they reach you, but if you keep your youki close to you like you tend to do most of the time, then you'll have no warning."

A strange sort of expression crossed her face, but was gone before he could read it.  She nodded slowly, and a moment later, her youki brushed over his as she let it out, though it was pretty obvious to him that she didn't actually like doing so.

"Why do you keep it so close?" he asked before he could stop and think about it.

She frowned, pulling a long strand of hair over her shoulder, idly twisting it around her finger, over and over again.  "I feel . . . I-I don't know . . . Naked?"  Shaking her head, she made a face.

"Vulnerable," he concluded.  It made sense, he supposed.  "You're not, though, even if it does feel counterintuitive to you.  That's your first and best defense."

"All right," she replied.

"Anyway, if someone comes directly at you, you throw them, at which point you can and should just get the hell out of there because you won't know if they have a gun or something —humans especially are pretty bad about that.  Youkai usually don't stoop to using those, but there are exceptions, so if you don't know, then it's best to immobilize them and run."

Crossing her arms over her chest since he'd already told her this before, she shrugged.  "Do you run away?"

"I can't say that I ever have, no," he admitted.  "But then, I'm also fully trained, and I know how to fight."

"So, after you're done training me . . ."

"Absolutely not," he stated flatly.  "A young girl that looks like you?  Chances are good that someone who would attack you would be a man, and he'd probably not just be after your purse.  If someone attacks you, you need to run."

She snorted.  "That's entirely sexist."

He didn't look impressed by her sulky reply.  "It's also entirely true."

"I don't know," she mused, leaning her head to the side as she slowly regarded him.  "If that's your logic, then you'd be attacked all the time.  I mean, you're far prettier than I am . . ."

He grunted at her flip response.  "Moving on," he said when Kells giggled.  "The next thing you need to know is that if a man is trying to get too close to you, before he manages it, always remember that no man, human or youkai, is going to be able to chase you if you kick him between the legs."

"Isn't that considered dirty fighting?"

"I'd consider rape to be dirtier."

She snapped her mouth closed on whatever she was planning to say as her cheeks lit up in a becoming flush.

Satisfied that he'd made his point, he grunted.  "Anyway, if someone is trying to attack you, and he's near enough, kick him as hard as you can, and then you run.  If he's coming at you too fast to kick him—" Ashur dashed toward her.  She gasped but only raised her hands to cover her face, and he growled as he grabbed her wrists and forced them down.  "Do not do that," he scolded, letting go of her hands.  Then he sighed.  "Don't block your vision, no matter what.  If someone charges at you like I just did, you snap out your arm."

She looked thoroughly confused, and he rolled his eyes but demonstrated, snapping his arm straight out with his palm raised, fingers curled back.  Then he drew his arm back and tapped the heel of his hand with his fingers.  "This is what you hit with.  Don't try to punch him; you'll only hurt your knuckles.  Don't use your claws because that would leave too many unanswerable questions later on.  When you do this, remember: it's the speed with which you hit that makes it more powerful, and always, always aim for the heart.  Aim past your opponent and lock your elbow when you snap your arm out.  Show me."

She did, and he nodded.  "Now, as you do that, step forward.  Step into the motion.  Again."

She repeated the motion another couple times.

"Good.  Now draw your hand back, and twist your body so that you have more momentum going into the hit, and then snap it forward . . . Good."

"Like this, Daddy?"

Ashur glanced over and nodded as Kells demonstrated the move.  "Yes, Kells, just like that."

Kells grinned, but suddenly, he frowned.  "Daddy!  Do I kick men in between the legs, too?"

He pressed his lips together in a thin line as Jessa stopped, her arm outstretched, to raise her eyebrows at him.  "No, Kells, you wouldn't do that.  You will know how to fight—and when to fight, too."

She rolled her eyes and snorted.

"Okay," he said, taking a few steps back.  "Try to hit me."

"Wh-What?" she stammered as he ran toward her.  She barely had time to react, but she did manage to snap her arm straight out, whipping her face to the side as she squeezed her eyes closed and uttered a terse squeak.

Ashur frowned at her.  Her arm had bent as he moved forward, so her strike had been rendered completely useless.  "You have to keep your arm extended," he told her, "and don't look away."

She scowled at the perceived scolding, and Ashur shook his head.  "All right, it's too soon.  You can practice on that dummy over there," he said, waving his hand at one of the practice dummies on the other side of the room.  "Just practice till you're comfortable with it," he told her.  "You'll get it."

She still didn't look very pleased, but she nodded once, grasping the top of her ponytail and yanking her hair to tighten it.

"Me, too, Daddy?  Do I need to pwatise?"

Ashur rubbed the boy's hair affectionately and nodded.  "You, too," he said.

Kells ran off happily, following Jessa over to the dummies.

Ashur sighed and slowly shook his head.  Her form was good, and she tended to be light on her feet, no doubt from the years of dance lessons.  All she really needed was some practice and a little self-confidence, but he had a feeling that she'd be able to hold her own sooner rather than later . . .

 

 


 

 

 

"Two whiskey shots and two draft Bud Lights, please," Jessa said, leaning on the bar as she waited for the drinks.

Keith, the bartender closest to her, nodded and grabbed two smudgy shot glasses.  Carol and she were having a bet as to whether or not Keith was gay—Carol said he had to be since he tended to always look like he'd just stepped out of the pages of the latest, trendiest fashion magazines.  Jessa was almost positive that he wasn't, and, considering how often she caught him giving her the hard eye, she figured that Carol was going to have to pay up in the form of a new pair of brown suede ankle boots that they'd seen the other night in one of the storefront windows as they were walking home.  The price tag had said four-hundred-fifty bucks.  Jessa thought they were pretty damn hot . . .

"Heard you were offered Friday and Saturdays," he said, slipping the shots onto the tray for her before reaching for a couple of mugs out of the cooler.  "You taking it?"

She shook her head, leaning on her elbows.  "And miss out on being groped by all the drunks?  Are you kidding?"

He laughed.  She didn't miss the way the spiky blonde spared a moment to give her cleavage a good once-over.  At least it didn't make her want to run and hide anymore, so there was that . . . "You know, you've got Faye in quite a snit."

"What's new?" Jessa countered.  "She's always got issues with someone, doesn't she?"

He grinned, showing off the deep dimples in his cheeks.  The ladies that came in seemed to love him, and Jessa figured that it had something to do with that.  He slipped the first beer onto the tray and started filling the second.  "Yeah, well, to hear her tell it, you stole some of her regulars—a few of the bigger tippers, too.  If you slipped them a nip glimpse, bet they'd tip you even more."

"I did no such thing," she insisted despite the smile on her face as she winked at him and grabbed the tray.

Slipping between tables, she was thankful for her youkai vision since the already weak lights suddenly dropped by about half in the room as the colored spotlights flooded the stage, as a raunchy, slow, grinding song blared out over the PA system and one of the girls—Candy—strode out from behind the faded black curtains and started her nurse routine.  Jessa moved over to the table to drop off the drinks.  "Here you go," she said, setting the beers on the table.  "And your shots . . . Can I get you anything else?"

"How about your phone number?"

She smiled and shrugged.  "Sorry.  I don't have a phone," she lied.  It was a convenient enough excuse, especially when most of the regulars knew that the girls had no trouble giving out their digits on a regular basis.

"How about we buy you a drink, sweetie?" the other one said.

"Sorry," she said, her cheeks hurting from the fake smile she tended to use pretty much all night while she was working.  "Not allowed to drink on the clock."

"Well, that's no fun . . . When's your break?"

She shrugged.  "As busy as it is tonight?  I doubt I'll get one."  She stepped back.  "Holler if you need anything else."

She turned to go, heading toward another table of a guy that she recognized.  He usually didn't come in until Thursdays, so he was a little early in the week.  He was a nice enough guy: a little quiet, a little shy, but he was polite, which was refreshing in a place like this, and, even though he seemed a little more on the nerdy side than most of the guys who ventured in here, there was something kind of sweet about him, in a brotherly kind of way.  "Hey, Jimmy.  How's it going?"

"Jessie," he greeted with a grin.  "Just the girl I was hoping to see."

"You want your usual?" she asked.

"Well, I, uh . . ."

Her smile faded as she leaned an elbow on the table and frowned at him.  "Are you okay?"

"Y-Y-Yeah," he blurted, cheeks reddening enough that she could see it, even in the dimmed light of the bar.  "I . . . I have a question for you."

"For me?" she asked, eyebrows lifting in surprise.  "Okay."

He dug into the pocket of his cheap suit jacket—he'd obviously come in straight from the hopelessly boring job he had at a bank, he'd told her before.  She could only blink and stare, eyes wide, as he drew out a velvet ring box and opened it with trembling fingers.  "W-Will you marry me?" he blurted.

She stepped back in retreat as two things occurred to her.  The first thing?  "Oh, uh, I  . . . I can't . . . I mean, I'm sorry, but . . . No . . ."  The second?

Gasping out loud as a very strong hand closed around her forearm and yanked her around, she smothered a groan when she came face-to-face with the one person she really would rather not have run into here, of all places . . .

"Put that away, you little bastard," he growled at the poor man who looked like he was ready to cry before turning his attention on her once more.  "And tell me: just what the hell are you doing in a place like this dressed like that, Jessa?" Ashur demanded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"And tell me: just what the hell are you doing in a place like this dressed like that, Jessa?"

"A-Ashur . . ."

He must have gotten tired of waiting for a more prolific answer, because he said nothing as he dragged her through the bar and toward the front doors, and Jessa's resistance seemed to mean nothing to the stubborn man—if he even noticed at all.  'Curse him for being so ridiculously strong,' she fumed as she tried to yank herself free.

Rock stepped into their path, arms crossed over his chest, and, while he was enough of a mountain to make a human think twice, Ashur made to step around him, only stopping when  Rock moved over to block his way.  "Look, pal, I don't know who you are, but you'd better let go of her unless you want to tangle with me."

Ashur didn't blink and didn't let go of Jessa, either, his free hand flashing out in a blur of motion, connecting with Rock's jaw, sending the bouncer flying back into the wall as he dragged Jessa out onto the street.  "If you know what's good for you, you will not speak until we get home," he growled from between clenched teeth.

She wrenched her arm, jerked away from him, only to cross her arms over her chest as she glared up at him.  "Are you mad?" she blasted.  "Have you lost your mind?  You could have hurt him!"

He snorted, planting his hands on his hips as he glowered back at her.  "You're right.  I could have.  I didn't, but I could have."

She rubbed her forehead, struggling to get a grip on her own rising temper as she turned on her heel and started back toward the club.

He grabbed her arm again.  "Forget it.  You're not going back in there, ever again."

"I have to finish my shift!"

He stared at her for a moment, but he must have decided that he was done arguing with her because he dragged her into the alley beside the club, only to let go of her just long enough to pick her up with absolutely no effort despite the fact that she was struggling to get free.  Then he leapt onto the building and set off at a sprint across the rooftops so fast that she gasped and grabbed onto him, just in case he thought to drop her.

They reached Ashur's townhouse in ridiculously short order, but he refused to put her down until they were inside.  By the time he did, however, she was well beyond 'angry' and fast approaching 'beyond all reason' . . .

"Move," she said, crossing her arms over her chest as she scowled at him.

"You are not going back there," he growled, refusing to move away from the door.  "What the hell were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that I need a job!" she yelled back.  "Now, no thanks to you, I've probably been fired!"

"Good.  You don't need a job.  You need a warden!"

She was dangerously close to losing her temper entirely, and she strode over to him, poking him in the center of his chest to emphasize her words.  "Yes, well, you don't even want me here, so get out of my way!  I've almost got enough saved up to move out, and—"

He snorted indelicately.  "Why do you think I don't want you here?" he challenged.

"You made it pretty obvious from the beginning!" she yelled.

"That wasn't about you," he growled.  "I didn't—" Cutting himself off abruptly, he dragged his hands over his face and heaved a heavy sigh in an attempt to calm himself down.  "Never mind.  It's not important.  I don't mind having you here.  Just where do you think you'd find a place that you could afford on tips?"

She shook her head.  "A friend," she said, wondering why she was bothering to try to explain herself to him, in the first place.  "She told me that she has a spare room."

"A friend of yours?" he echoed as he narrowed his eyes on her, gaze flashing with an angry fire as he drew his own conclusions.  "From that bar."

"Does it matter?"

He snorted again.  "And just what the hell do you think Myrna would say if she found out that  her cousin is working at a strip club?"

"Don't pretend that she cares," she shot back.  "Don't presume to tell me anything!  What do you know?  You have money.  You have a home.  You have a family.  I don't have any of these things, and I'm stuck here, in a house where I’m not wanted, and I have no way of even buying myself the barest of necessities, so yes, I needed a job—any job—and I found one that pays well, and you have no right to judge me!"

"What do you mean, I have no right?  Do you even see what you're wearing?  Every last detail of your body is right there, on display, and if you don't care enough about yourself to cover up certain parts of you, then that is a problem!"

"It's none of your business!" she insisted.

"You're not going back there, ever," he growled.  "If you try, I'll turn that place in for hiring a minor."

She snorted.  "That's not a problem anymore."

"Since when?"

"Since midnight!"

For some reason, her admission seemed to bring him up short, and, while he still looked angry, there was something else there, too, and if she weren't so irritated, maybe she could interpret it.  As it was, though, she glared at him for another long moment before turning on her heel and stomping off toward the sanctity of her room.

 

 


 

 

 

He watched her go, frowning at her back—at the tiny slip of a skirt that barely covered her ass, at the three inch stiletto heels, at the black halter top that exposed too much of her belly, cut too low in front that he knew damn well that she wasn't wearing a bra.  Hell, the ties from the apron she was still wearing hung down past the hem of that skirt.  All in all, he figured that he had every reason to come unglued when he'd stepped into that kami-forsaken excuse for a club, only to find that foolish human proposing to her, of all things . . .

'You can at least admit that it bothered you, you know.'

Ignoring the wry statement from his youkai-voice, he made a face.  Just how long had she been working there, anyway?  Sneaking out a night when he'd thought that she'd gone to bed . . .?

And it was Kells who had inadvertently tipped him off.  He'd left one of his toys in Jessa's room, he'd said, but he couldn’t go get it because she always locked her door when she went to work.  It had taken Ashur about five minutes to ascertain that she was gone, and he'd known, hadn't he, that there weren't any decent jobs that she'd have to work overnight doing.  So, he'd dropped Kells off at Ben's for an impromptu sleep-over and had tracked her down . . .

'But you heard what she said, didn't you?  She didn't feel welcome here from the start, and if you were her, you'd want to get out, too.'

'That's ridiculous!  I gave her a place to stay, didn't I?  What was I supposed to do?  Throw her a welcome party?'

'No, but you could have tried a little harder.  She'd just lost her parents, remember?  And Kells told you—'

'That he loved her; yeah, sure . . .'

'Baka!  Think back!  Think about what Kells said that first morning.'

'What he said . . .?  How the hell am I supposed to remember?  Kells talks all the damn time!'

His youkai sighed.  'He said that she was crying.  Do you remember?'

"I sweep wif Jessa . . . She was cryin'."

"She was . . . crying . . ." he muttered to himself.

'Now, do you understand?  She had to leave everything she knew, everything she loved, only to come here and find out that her cousin didn't have time for her, either, and even if you weren't unkind to her, per se, you weren't nice to her, not at all.  You never even once asked her if she was okay.  Even if she lied to you and said that she was fine, it wouldn't matter, would it, because the point is that you still didn't bother to ask, and all that time, she's been alone . . . and you, better than anyone, know what that feels like, don't you?'

Rubbing his face with his hands, Ashur heaved a sigh into his palms.  Yeah, he supposed he did know—knew just how it felt to be entirely alone, to feel as though everyone in the world was watching and whispering and judging . . . The complete destruction of his family's honor was harsh enough, but those looks, those whispers . . . The ones that stopped the very second he walked into the room or when they saw him, walking down the street, and then, Kells . . .

'The two of you—Jessa and you—are far more alike than you know, and maybe she needs you in the same way that you needed Kells in the beginning . . .'

And that was true, too.  In those days following his parents' deaths, when the gravity of what he'd done had slowly taken hold of him, as he'd tried to deal with the shock and rage of what Hana had done, the only thing that had drawn him out of his self-imposed isolation was the crying of the tiny infant—the life he'd saved because he hadn't had a choice—Kells . . .

But Jessa . . .

Heaving a sigh, he pushed himself away from the door and frowned at the panel for a moment before pushing the button to lock everything down, including the windows since he wasn't entirely certain that Jessa wouldn't try to sneak out again.  For some reason, though, doing that bothered him more than he could credit.

'And just what did she mean, when she said that you couldn't report that place for employing an underage waitress?' his youkai pondered slowly.  'She said it wasn't a problem anymore . . .'

"Since . . . midnight . . .?"  He frowned.  "But that . . . would mean . . ."

Eyes flaring wide as slow realization dawned on him, Ashur strode through the house and tapped on the closed door that led to the maid's quarters.  She didn't answer.  He didn't expect that she would, but to his surprise, it was unlocked.

The first thing that he noticed when he opened the door was the soft, sad, vague smell of tears that hung in the air, and he grimaced.

'Just do us both a favor and take it easy on her,' his youkai warned him as he stepped into the hallway and headed for the stairs.  'Give her a reason not to want to run right back to that place.  We can't lock her into the house forever, especially now, but if we let her go, let her move in with her friend or whatever, you know as well as I do that that's a really bad idea . . .'

'I know,' he replied tersely as he stepped off the stairs onto the hallway landing.  Her bedroom door was open.  She had to know that he was there.  He heard her suddenly sniffle, as though she were trying to choke back her emotions, felt the way her youki constricted, withdrawing from the space as she pulled it in close.  "Happy birthday," he said, leaning against the doorframe, digging his hands into his pockets as he stared at her, bathed in the melancholy radiance that spilled over her where she sat in the window seat, her feet drawn up, her thin arms wrapped around her legs, her hands locked together around her ankles, her hair spilling around her like a fiery cloak of curls and tangles and moonlight and shadows.

She didn't answer him.  She didn't even acknowledge him.  He could sense her irritation, though he somehow understood that it was directed more at herself, at her inability to hold full control over her emotions, than it was at him, but the underlying sense of sadness, of a despair so deep and so cutting that it nearly made him wince, was far, far worse, far uglier than anything else in the world could be.

He sighed.  "You . . . You don't belong in a place like that," he told her.  "Your parents—"

"—Aren't here for me to ask," she interrupted quietly, her voice a little rough, a little ragged.

He nodded.  She didn't see it.  "I deserved that," he allowed.  "But you have to know that they wouldn't want you working in a dive like that."

"Stan asked me to take over one of the girl's shifts on Friday and Saturday nights," she told him.  "As a dancer."

She was baiting him; he could feel it.  It didn't stop him from scowling at her, though.  "I hope you had enough sense to tell him no," he remarked tightly.

"I'm not stupid," she muttered.  "Waiting tables is fine.  Taking my clothes off?  Can't say that it interests me—but then, at least your behavior could have been expected."

"I'm not going to apologize for getting you out of there."

She let out a deep breath.  "I didn't expect you would."  The silence grew, thicker and heavier as the seconds ticked away on the small clock on the nightstand.  "Of course, that just leaves me right back where I started: no job, no nothing . . . and no way to get one, considering I don't have a green card or a work permit here . . ."

He frowned since he hadn't actually considered just why she'd have chosen to get a job in that disgusting hole that called itself a night club.  No, he supposed she couldn't find a decent job, could she, not under those conditions . . . "If you . . . If you want a job, then I'd be happy to pay you to help me with Kells," he said.  "I have meetings and things that I cannot take him to, and he likes you."

"You mean, like a nanny?"

He considered that, wondering if there was something he was missing before he answered since she sounded like she was on the cusp of being very offended.  "Yes," he finally replied, carefully measuring his words, his tone.  "Exactly like that."

She didn't answer right away.  "Is this some sort of handout?"

"Handout?  No," he scoffed.  "My brother and Charity usually watch him, but they're getting ready to move to Maine, and even if they weren't, I need to move to Canada soon, so having someone I can trust with Kells is very important to me."

Something he'd said gave her pause, and for the first time since she'd retreated to her room, she slowly turned her head to look at him.  Her face was hidden in the deepest shadows, though, so he couldn’t actually make out her expression, but her youki seemed to quiet by degrees as the pinpoints of light that were her eyes flickered when she blinked.  "You . . . You trust me with Kells?" she asked, her voice almost a whisper.  "You . . . You do?"

He nodded.  "I do."  For some reason, she seemed to be stuck on the idea that he trusted her, but then, maybe that wasn't so surprising.  Trust, in Ashur's world, was a difficult thing to come by, after all . . . Maybe it was in hers, too . . .

"I . . . I like him, too," she replied at length.  "He's a very sweet little boy."

Ashur grunted.  "I assure you, it's not because of my influence."

"Well, no, I didn't think so," she said, and even though he couldn't see her face, he had a feeling that she might well be smiling just a little.  "All right," she agreed slowly, "but . . . can I ask you a question?"

"No, you're not going back to that club, no matter what reason you might try to give me."

She flicked her hand in blatant dismissal without lifting it from her ankle.  "It's not that.  It's just . . ."

"Just what?"

She swung her legs off the window seat, tilting her head to the side as she continued to stare at him.  "It's none of my business, of course, but . . . But what happened?  To Kells' mother . . .?"

Pushing away from the doorframe, Ashur slowly strode over, sat on the seat beside her, staring straight ahead at the opposite wall, at the painting of a single purple iris on a cream colored canvas.  "I . . . adopted him," he said simply.  "He's my . . . my brother."

"Oh . . . Then that's why . . ."

Ashur frowned, turning his head to face her while she kept her gaze deliberately trained on the floor under her feet.  "He doesn't know anything about it, and I prefer to keep it that way," he said.  "You understand."

She nodded.  "I-I'm sorry," she blurted.  "I was just curious.  I mean, there's no woman here, and . . . I wasn't trying to pry . . ."

"It's fine," he assured her.  "I just . . . I don’t usually tell anybody anything.  They can draw whatever conclusion they want, but I guess your question makes sense."

She sighed.  "I . . . I thought maybe it was an arranged thing—that you have a mate, but . . ."

He snorted.  "There are no such thing as arranged marriages anymore," he scoffed.  "That's archaic, and—"

"It's done sometimes," she ventured, sounding just a little too casual about the entire affair.  "Some youkai asked my father to arrange one for me and his son . . . Da said no, of course, but . . . but I heard him discussing it with my mother . . . Fancied himself to be the next Marquess of Aumberlese."

The bitterness in her tone surprised him.  "That's . . ."

"Barbaric," she supplied.  "That's what my ma said."

He shook his head.  "Your ma was right."

She looked at him, her eyes catching the faint moonlight, the reddish hue seeming to glow in the shadows.  She seemed surprised, a little disconcerted, almost as if she hadn't really expected him to understand the very real horror, the disgust, that a question like that had even been raised.  Yet, she didn't say anything, and neither did he.  Words weren't necessary—maybe even a little evil—as they stared at each other in the companionable darkness as the night around them lengthened and grew . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Daddy!"

"Shh," Ashur muttered, casting Kells a dark look as he slipped a balloon over the nozzle of the helium tank and turned it on.

Kells held up his finger to his lips.  "Why we whispering, Daddy?"

"I told you, Kells.  It's Jessa's birthday, and we're going to have a small party for her."

"Oh, a party!" he exclaimed at the absolute border between whispering and yelling.  "Wif Uncle Ben and Aunt Chaiwwy and Nadi and Emmy?"

He started to say, 'no', but stopped and considered it.  "Uh, yeah, I guess we can call and see if they're busy."

"But we can't tell Jessa or she won't have her birfday!"

He opened his mouth to correct the boy, but stopped and gave an inward shrug. "Yeah, sounds good," he agreed.

Kells ran over, grasping the sides of his pants to pull the legs up off the floor since the pair he'd chosen for the day were still a little too big for him.  He dug into Ashur's pocket for his cell phone and made quick work of unlocking it and locating Ben's number in the recent call list.  Shaking his head slowly and thinking yet again that Kells was just a little smarter than any two-nearly-three year old ought to be, Ashur tied the last balloon and let it go.  It floated up to the ceiling high above as he turned his attention to the child with the phone.

"Uncle Ben!" Kells whispered.  "We're havin' a party for Jessa, and you guys come, too."  He paused for a moment then giggled.  "It's her birfday!  I want a truck!"

Ashur hunkered down to whisper, "It's not your birthday, Kells."

"But when it was Nadi's birfday, we got a pwesent for Emmy," he pointed out.

For the third time, Ashur closed his mouth on his retort and shrugged.  Of course, he could point out that, since they were twins, Nadia and Emmeline's birthday were on the same day, but then, Ben could easily afford a present for Kells, too.  "Okay, but not that fire truck with the ungodly siren."

"Here, Daddy," Kells said, jamming the phone under Ashur's nose.  "Uncle Ben wants to talk to you.  It's time for Monster Rangers!"

Heaving a sigh as he pushed against his knee to stand up, Ashur held the phone to his ear and headed for the small office while Kells dashed into the living room to watch his favorite television show of the week.  "Not the fire truck?"

"If you buy that damned thing, I'll disown you forever," Ashur warned dryly.  "Anyway, if you can make it, that'd be nice—unless you bring a bloody fire truck for the little tyrant.  Then I'll be forced to kick your ass."

Ben chuckled.  "Uh . . . Any suggestions for the birthday girl?"

Ashur snorted.  "Cash," he muttered.

"Come again?"

This time, Ashur sighed again.  "I have no idea what to get an eighteen year old girl, no," he confessed.  "I don't even know if she'll like what we chose for her."

Ben grunted.  "Well, I'm sure Charity will have something in mind that she'd like.  Do you want me to get you a backup gift?  You know, in case she doesn't like what you got her.  What time do you want us to come over?"

Clearing his throat, he frowned at the desk.  "No . . . I mean, she's old enough to pretend she likes it, anyway, so there's that . . . Anyway, would you mind picking up a cake, too?"

"Anything else?" he asked.

Ashur raked a hand through his hair and made a face that Ben couldn't see.  "Give me a break.  I just found out last night that today's her birthday, so all of this is a little off the cuff, so to speak."

"Where is she now?"

"Right now?  As far as I know, she's in her room, reading a huge book with a picture of a couple locked into a ridiculously torrid embrace.  She picked it up on the store when we went to get a few groceries."  He snorted.  "She gave me 'The Look' and told me not to judge her."

"You mean, she's reading a romance novel."

"If that's what you want to call it," he muttered.

"Charity reads those from time to time, too, and then she asks me why I'm not a pirate and weird stuff like that."

"I'm pretty sure that I just don't want to hear this," Ashur replied, "and if you tell me that you've cosplayed as Jack Sparrow, I may never speak to you again."

Ben grunted.  "No, and don't you dare mention that to her, either."

"Anyway, come over whenever you get around to it," he said.  "I got some food, but it'll be fast."

"What did you get?" Ben asked, unable to staunch the wariness that crept into his tone.

". . . Frozen pizza."

Ben heaved a sigh.  "We'll pick up something."

The call ended, and Ashur dropped the device into his pocket again as he considered briefly whether or not to change the passcode to unlock it.  Unfortunately, Kells was entirely too fast on the uptake, and he'd just watch Ashur until he'd figured out the new one, too, which pretty much defeated the purpose of having a lock on it, to start with . . .

Letting out a deep breath, Ashur rounded the desk and sat down to reach for the drawer where he'd stashed the present he'd bought for Jessa.

He frowned.  He didn't know what he was thinking when he'd seen it.  At the time, he was trying to explain to Kells that Jessa really wouldn't think that a huge box of Lego was the best present, ever, and he'd noticed the music box in the window of a small little niche store that he'd never really paid attention to before.

The bell over the door chimed when they walked in.  The shop was empty except for the small, gray-haired man behind the counter.  He looked up as he pushed a pair of wire-rimmed glasses up his nose with a crooked finger, a broad smile crinkling the skin of his face as he hopped off his stool and hurried around the counter despite a noticeable limp in his gait.  "Welcome, welcome!" he greeted.  "Can I help you, sir?"

"It's Jessa's birfday!" Kells exclaimed happily.

"I'm looking for a birthday gift for a . . . a young girl," Ashur replied.

"A gift, a gift . . . Okay.  And how old is the young lady?"

"Today's her eighteenth birthday," Ashur said.

The small man clapped his hands.  "Ah, eighteen . . .!  That's such a magical time, I remember . . . Is there anything in particular that you were looking for?  We have many unique and interesting things, though most of them tend to be one-of-a-kind, so if you see something you like it's best to get it because most of our inventory goes pretty quickly."

Ashur nodded.  "I'd like to see that music box in the window."

The man seemed pleased, and when his smile, his wrinkles nearly obscured his eyes.  He hurried over, reached through the black brocade curtain to carefully retrieve the music box, pausing long enough to carefully wind it with a small, antique key.  "We got this at an estate auction a few months ago, but it's taken that long just to restore it.  The box was in pristine condition, but the mechanism inside had to be retooled by hand . . . We've dated this particular one back to about 1870.  It uses the metal disk system, which predated the use of the smaller cylinders, and this model actually comes with three other disks that are interchangeable . . ."

It was a simple thing, crafted out of pressed tin with holes punched into it in an intricate design of scrolls and swirls and flowers and darkly polished wood panels with jewels set into it to accentuate the design.  "This one was missing a few of the gems, so we had those replaced, as well.  The jewels alone appraised at three hundred seventy six dollars—I have the documentation from the jeweler . . . It's a wonderful piece."

It was a beautiful piece.  Ashur just didn't know whether or not Jessa would like it.

 

 


 

 

 

"Jessa!"

Glancing up from her book, Jessa smiled at Kells, who stood beside the bed, hopping up and down happily.  "Where have you been all day?" she asked the toddler.

Kells stopped hopping long enough to claw his way onto the bed.  "Planning with Daddy!" he exclaimed.  "C'mon, Jessa!  It's time for dinner!"

She couldn't quite stop herself as she made a face.  "Your da didn't try cooking again, did he?"

He laughed and hopped on his knees.  "No . . . Uncle Ben brought the food wif Aunt Chaiwwy and Nadi and Emmy!"

She giggled, swinging her legs off the bed as she stuffed an old receipt between the pages of her book and stood up.  Then she held her arms out, catching Kells when he launched himself at her. "Kells, why do you smell like cake?"

The boy pushed against her chest and shot her a decidedly nervous sort of glance.  "I didn't do nuffin!" he insisted, eyes growing large, round, as though he were trying to convince her of his innocence.

"You're not going to get in trouble for something, are you?" she asked warily.

He shook his head.  "No-o-o-o-o . . ."

She sighed and shook her head as she headed down the stairs and toward the kitchen.

"Surprise!"

Jessa stopped short, blinking in surprise at the assembled people—most of whom she barely knew—as Charity hurried over with a silly paper party hat and a quick hug.  "Happy birthday, Jessa!" she greeted, slipping the hat onto her head and carefully adjusting the thin bit of elastic under her chin.

"Uh, thank you," she said, letting Kells slip down her side so that he could run over to stare at the cake on the table with the twin girls: Nadia and Emmeline.  From where she stood, she could see the spot on the corner that looked like someone might have stuck his fingers into the frosting, and she cleared her throat and tried to hide her amusement.

Myrna sauntered over and kissed the air on either side of Jessa's face.  "Happy birthday, Jess," she greeted, slipping a glass of champagne into her hand.  "And since you're now officially an adult, then I guess I won't have to worry about being a bad influence on you anymore."

Jessa smiled politely as Myrna gave her another quick hug as she wondered just how much champagne her cousin had already imbibed.

"I'm actually leaving shortly.  Have to go to New Orleans to check into a couple things, but I wanted to stop and wish you a happy birthday . . . Let me give you your present," Myrna said, setting her glass aside as she dug into her blazer pocket for a nondescript envelope.  "Here you go.  It's not much, but I thought that you'd like it."

Jessa stared at her for a long moment before cautiously taking the envelope and ripping it open.  The first thing she pulled out was a Visa gift card, but she ignore that at the moment.  Frowning as she pulled the pictures out, she slowly flipped through them.  Images from the one visit years ago when Myrna she and her mother had gone to visit her in Paris . . . Jessa was maybe six at the time . . . Images of Jessa and her mother or Jessa and Myrna or just Jessa alone, sitting in cafes, shopping in tiny stores that they wouldn’t have found without Myrna's help . . . Even a picture of them on horseback when they'd rented horses to ride through parts of the city . . . She hadn't realized that Myrna had anything like that . . .

"Thank you," she said quietly, unable to tear her gaze away from one picture in particular: a picture of Jessa and her mother outside the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Her bright smile as she knelt behind her, holding her around the waist while her pale blonde hair whipped around them in the spring breeze, without a touch of makeup that day, so far removed from the polished and perfect Marchioness of Aumberlese that was Orlaith Daugherty-O'Shea . . . The one in the picture was a rare side of her that was rarely captured on film, and that was the mother that Jessa knew best.

"You're welcome.  I have copies of all of those, so these are the originals.  They didn't let you grab many of your things when you left, did they?"

Caught off guard by Myrna's thoughtfulness, Jessa nodded.

Myrna smiled.  "I've got to run if I want to catch my flight.  We'll do lunch when I get back, okay?"

"Okay," Jessa said as Myrna hugged her again.  Then she was gone, and Jessa bit her lip as her gaze fell to the picture once more.

"You look nothing at all like your mother," Ashur remarked, looking over her shoulder.

"I look like Da," she explained almost absently.  "He didn't go with us on this trip, though . . ."

A small tug on the leg of her jeans drew her attention, and she smiled at the tiny girl who was holding a very large gift bag and smiling up at her.  "Dis for your birfday!" she said, uttering a small grunt as she tried to heft the bag a little higher.

"Thank you," Jessa said, kneeling down to take the gift from the girl as her twin sister dashed over.  They were dressed entirely differently—one in pink, the other in yellow—but they were so identical that Jessa couldn’t rightfully tell one from the other.  "Are you Nadia or Emmeline?"

The girl in pink giggled.  "I'm Emmy!" she said.

"I'm Nadi!" the yellow one added.

"I don't know how to tell you apart," Jessa admitted.

"Surprisingly, it's never been an issue for us," Ben remarked, scooping up Emmeline and kissing her cheek.  "I'm not sure why . . ."

"Open your present!" Kells hollered, dashing over to wait impatiently.

"The food's going to get cold if she opens presents now," Ashur said, taking the gift from his niece to set it aside for later.  Then he glanced at her and shrugged.  "Don't worry.  I didn't cook."

"I thought you bought frozen pizzas," she murmured as she leaned toward him.

He snorted.  "Ben didn't think that was appropriate for a birthday party," he replied.

She smile just a little, just enough to make him blink, stare for a moment.  "I don't mind frozen pizza," she admitted.  His thoughtfulness . . . It touched her.  "Thank you for the party."

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa let out a deep breath as she gathered the silly, festively printed paper cake plates off the table and dropped them into a trash bag before slowly lifting her face, staring thoughtfully at the helium balloons that still hugged the ceiling.  A few of them had fallen over the course of the evening, but there were still the stubborn ones that had yet to come down.  But the ceiling in the dining room was easily fifteen feet high, so retrieving those wasn't going to be an easy task, either . . .

Ashur strode into the room, stopping short when he noticed the bag in her hand, and he frowned.  "I'll get that," he said.  "You shouldn't have to clean up after your own birthday party, should you?"

She shrugged but didn't lower her gaze.  "It's fine.  I don't mind," she replied.

He finally noticed what she was doing, and he turned his head to see just what had captured her interest.  "Oh, those," he intoned.  "They'll come down eventually."

"Maybe," she allowed, "but your house is entirely too formal for that not to look sorely out of place."

"You think this place is formal?" he countered.

She nodded.  "It reminds me of Aumberlese . . ."  She made a face.  "I hated that place."

"Did you?" he asked as he took the bag and picked up the discarded wrapping papers and empty boxes.  "Your father's formal estate?"

Reaching for the leftover cake, she nodded again.  "We didn't go there often," she admitted.  "Just when formality dictated."

He sighed.  "This probably wasn't what you're used to for your birthday," he ventured, sounding almost apologetic.  "If I'd had more notice . . ."

"I liked it," she assured him.  "It was very nice of you to go out of your way for me."

He didn't look like he believed her, but he nodded anyway.  "So, what did you do on your last birthday?"

She let out a deep breath, leaning against the table as she retrieved a balloon that had fallen, holding it between her hands and staring at it like it was the most fascinating thing in the world.  "Last year?  I argued with my parents and took off on my horse for a few hours . . ."

"Argued with your parents?"

She nodded, wincing as the memory surfaced despite her desire not to think about it at all . . . "My ma decided that it was time for my official debut," she explained hesitantly, haltingly.  "I didn't want it . . . It's archaic and stupid . . ." She shrugged.  "They invited everyone, decided that we had to have it at Aumberlese.  Ma thought that it was high time I started paying attention to would-be suitors like there had to be some kind of rush—like I had to be married by the time I turned twenty or I'd be an old spinster or something ridiculous like that—which is entirely out dated, isn't it?  I mean, I was about to turn seventeen, was finishing my exams . . . The last thing I wanted or needed was some irritating fop who didn't know when to just leave me alone . . ."

"How old was your mother when she married your father?"

She snorted indelicately, dropping the balloon so that she could catch her hair, dragging it over her shoulder as she twisted it around and around—something she always did when she was agitated.  "That's the really infuriating thing.  Ma was nearly a hundred when she met Da, and then, to hear him tell it, she led him on a merry chase for a good twenty years before she finally resigned herself to the married life."

He shook his head.  "So, why was she so set on seeing you married so young?"

That earned him a rather baleful look, as though she thought that he really ought to know the answer to that particular question.  "Once she became marquess, she became entirely absorbed in the whole thing—which is why I ended up taking every lesson known to man—so that I would be the perfect wife one day . . . I mean, I didn't hate the lessons," she hurried on to say.  "But that was why . . . Some days, I just wanted to take my horse and run, but Ma . . ." She trailed off with another sigh, then suddenly flicked her wrist, as though to dismiss whatever she was thinking.  "I probably should have been a little more sporting of it all.  It made her happy to do all these things, to plan it all, to throw those parties . . . Da begged me more than once to humor her, and I . . .  I should have . . ."

"But you weren't interested on being married that young," he concluded.

She made a face, shoving herself away from the table to slowly stalk around the room, her fingers still twisting her hair over and over again.  "It wasn't that," she admitted slowly.  "It was more the idea that it felt like I had no say in it . . . If I'd found the one who was my mate, then I would guess that it wouldn't have bothered me, but . . . But to feel as though you have no choice?  That it's your life, but you can only stand by and watch as it's planned out for you . . .? I can't explain it . . . It just . . ."

". . . Just feels as though you're trapped in a box, and you cannot breathe," he replied.

She stared at him.  Staring off into space with a thoughtful scowl, as though he were seeing something in his own past, something that had made him feel exactly as she had . . . She had to wonder if he even realized that he'd spoken out loud.  Somehow, it bothered her, didn't it?  That he should understand what she'd felt because maybe he'd felt it, too . . . And that feeling that she'd believed no one would ever understand . . .

It bothered her because it hurt, and for some reason, the idea that he'd hurt like that, too . . . That bothered her the most . . .

"Exactly like that," she murmured, lowering her voice, loathe to break him from his thoughts.

He blinked, shifted his gaze to meet hers.  She didn't know how long he stared at her, his eyes cloaked in something dark, an emotion that she didn't even begin to comprehend, and yet, there was a certain familiarity there—the same sense of familiarity that she'd felt the night before, in her room, in the quiet—as though he grasped those things about her that he couldn't possibly discern . . .

She knew it, and she understood it because she felt the same things about him, too . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"I can't believe that this is where you live."

Settling back on the lounge chair beside the pool while Kells splashed around in the shallow end, Jessa nodded.  "I can't believe that Ashur said it was okay to have you over," she admitted.

Which was true enough.  Ashur was in the house working on something or other in his office while Kells had begged and pleaded with her to bring him outside to swim, but she'd told him that she had to go out and meet Carol for coffee and to retrieve her things that she'd left in her locker at work.  Carol had gotten the couple items she'd left there since Ashur still stubbornly insisted that she wasn't allowed to step foot back in the club, ever again.  He'd overheard her and told her that it was fine if she wanted to have Carol come by, saying that if she swore that Carol could be trusted, he'd believe her.

Carol laughed and pulled a bottle of sunscreen from her purse.  "And your boss?  No wonder you quit the club!  That man is absolutely delicious . . . I thought that men that looked like him were all in Hollywood or something . . ."

Rolling her eyes and willing her cheeks not to pink at Carol's blunt assessment of Ashur, Jessa slowly shook her head.  "It's nothing like that," she insisted.  "I'm just watching Kells for him—and he's a friend of my cousin's, so that's it."

Carol heaved a melodramatic sigh.  "That's a damn shame," she lamented and leaned in closer.  "He's a mighty fine piece of ass, if you ask me."

"Carol!" she protested, waving a hand at her friend to shut her up.  "Hush!"

"Jessa!  Carol!  Watch me!"

The girls looked up, just in time to watch Kells as he dashed around the pool to get a running start before he launched himself out over the water, landing with a very nice crash for a child as small as he was.  He came up sputtering and laughing.  Jessa smiled.  "Good job, Kells," she said.  "But remember, you promised your da you wouldn't be running around the pool."

"I forgot!" he hollered back.

Jessa nodded and sat back again.

"Have you kissed him yet?"

Jessa blinked and shot Carol a quizzical glance.  "Kells? Well, sure . . ."

Carol heaved another melodramatic sigh and rolled her eyes in a rather theatrical way.  "Jess!  As sweet as he is, no, not Kells!  Kells' daddy," she said, her voice dropping for the last part of her delivery as she raised her eyebrows to emphasize her already emphasized, 'daddy'.

Jessa could feel the explosion of blood beneath the surface of her skin.  "Carol!  No!" she hissed in a very loud whisper.  "O-O-Of course not!"

One eyebrow dropped while the other remained highly arched.  "Why not?  He's hot—tell me you don't think he's incredibly hot."

She rolled her eyes, stubbornly averting her gaze.  "I'd hardly say that he's hot," she retorted under her breath.  "I mean, yes, he's a very good-looking man in a kind of brooding, sad sort of way, but that's hardly the point!  It's entirely inappropriate, given the circumstances, and—"

"Brooding?  Sad?  Are we talking about the same guy here?"  Carol shook her head as she considered Jessa's statement.  "Okay, brooding, maybe—I'll give you that one . . . He does seem a little more serious than he ought to be . . . I mean, he's, what?  Twenty-seven?  Twenty-nine?  Thirty's pushing it . . ."

She started to scoff that Ashur was much, much older than that, but she snapped her mouth closed before she did.  Sometimes, it was easy to forget that Carol was human, and this was one of those times . . . "Yeah, and . . . and a man his age wouldn't give a second thought to some girl who just turned eighteen," she muttered, more to herself than to Carol.

"Oh!  That reminds me!" Carol exclaimed, sitting up and reaching for her purse again.  She dug through it and pulled out a small box that wasn't wrapped but did have a pretty pink ribbon tied around it.  "Happy birthday!  I'm sorry it's late . . ."

She smiled and took the box with a soft giggle as she tugged the ribbon and let it fall away.  Inside the box was a pretty silver cross on a sparkling silver chain.  The cross itself was maybe half an inch from top to bottom and very prettily detailed.  "It's lovely!" Jessa said, carefully pulling it off of the backing pad.  "Thank you!"

She shrugged but smiled happily, obviously pleased that Jessa liked the gift.  "Well, you were saying the one night that you missed the cross your father gave you, right?  So, I thought that this would be okay until you can get your other one back."

"I love it," she insisted, leaning over to hug Carol.  "Thank you so much . . ."

"Me an' Daddy got Jessa a music box," Kells added, using his arms to hook himself onto the side of the pool.

Jessa smiled at the boy.  "You did," she agreed.  "It's beautiful."

Kells absolutely beamed at her.  Then he braced his feet against the wall of the pool and threw himself backward as he pushed off.

"A music box?" Carol echoed.  "Surely not one of those cheapie things from Target or something, right?"

Jessa frowned.  "No, I think it might be an antique," she admitted.  "It's really just gorgeous."

Carol's expression brightened.  "Oh, good, because if he'd gone the cheap route, I'd say you'd better make him work harder for that first kiss."

"There will be no kissing," Jessa insisted.  "Besides, he . . . He's not interested in me; not like that . . ."

Carol's smile faded, only to be replaced by a thoughtful sort of scowl as she leaned her head to the side and shifted her jaw to bite her lip, which she only did when she was considering something, Jessa had learned.  "So . . ."

Jessa glanced at her and shook her head.  "So . . .?" she repeated.

Carol straightened up and grinned.  "So, get him interested!"

Swinging her legs off of the chair, she grabbed Kells' towel and stepped toward the pool.  "I'll pretend I didn't hear you say that," she mumbled before raising her voice so that the child would hear her. "Kells!  Are you ready to get out?  You've been in there about an hour."

"Awww!  Do I have to?"

"I think it's a good idea," she said, shaking out the towel for him.  "How about a snack and a book?  And it's almost time for Monster Rangers . . ."

"Monster Rangers!" he hollered, happily splashing toward the side of the pool.  Once out, he grabbed the towel and tossed it over his shoulders like Superman's cape before speeding off toward the house.

Jessa, however, was a little slower as she gathered her towel and their water bottles.

Carol hopped up and grabbed her purse and towel, too.  "I want to see that music box," she insisted.

Jessa laughed and nodded.  "All right," she agreed.  "Let me get Kells' snack first."

"Do you suppose your boss would mind if we went and did a little shopping?  I've been meaning to get some new clothes . . . I just hate trying them all on and figuring out that I've gained a couple pounds since the last time I went . . ."

"Have you gained weight?"

Carol giggled.  "Maybe."  She struck a ridiculous representation of a classic sultry pose.  "But I still look damn fine, don't I?"

"Of course, you do," Jessa giggled as she locked the gate and led the way to the French doors.

When she stepped into the house, she stopped short at the sight of Ashur, who was busy, slapping together a couple peanut butter sandwiches.  "Oh, I was going to get his snack around," she blurted since, technically, it was her job now.

"The little tyrant couldn't wait," he replied rather dryly as he glanced up at her for a moment before resuming his task again.  "You sat in the sun for an hour or more, and you're still just as pale as you were when you went out there," he pointed out.

She wrinkled her nose.  "That wasn't at all tactful, Ashur," she pointed out.

He shrugged, slapping the lid onto the jar and grabbing both sandwiches.  The first one, he jammed half of it into his mouth and made a face.  "This stuff is disgusting," he muttered around a mouthful of peanut butter.

She rolled her eyes and dropped the empty bottles into the recycling bin before heading toward the maid's quarters.  "Oh, do you mind if I go shopping for a little while with Carol?"

Shaking his head as he waved the other peanut butter sandwich over his shoulder, he didn't stop as he headed out of the kitchen.

Jessa shot Carol an, 'I-Told-You-So' look before jerking her head for her friend to follow.

 

 


 

 

 

Scowling at the papers that had just been faxed over from the attorney's office who was working with the Irish Consulate in order to try to get a rush on resolving Jessa's parents' estate, the note with the report indicated that they were having a hard time getting Ian MacDonnough's office to sign off on the death certificates, which should have followed standard protocol, but for some reason, the European tai-youkai was apparently asking more questions than necessary and generally just dragging his feet.

According to Lachlan Dunbyrne, the youkai attorney handling the estate, there were questions regarding Orlaith Daugherty-O'Shea's death in a car accident that had ultimately led to her husband's death less than a year later, but the police reports on the incident had been clear enough: a faulty fuel line in the car had led to a freak explosion when the car she'd been driving had passed over an area in the road where there was a downed power line that hadn't yet been cordoned off.  Until those questions were answered, he said, he could not legally release any part of the estate to Jessa.

'It almost sounds like someone thinks she had something to do with that accident,' he thought as he re-read the reports.

'It can't be that . . . I mean, she wasn't in the car—obviously.'

'Maybe but why else wouldn't they be able to release the estate?  It doesn't make sense unless they do think that, which is entirely preposterous . . .'

'Should we ask her what she knows about all of it?'

He wasn't sure.  Somehow, questioning her about her mother's death just didn't seem like a good idea . . . Considering how loathe he was to talk about his own mother's death, he couldn’t imagine that she'd feel much differently on the subject . . .

"Daddy?" Kells burbled around a mouthful of sandwich.

"You're not supposed to talk with your mouth full," Ashur reminded him without looking up from the reports.

He swallowed his bite and dropped the sandwich onto the coffee table as he hopped to his feet and skittered over to the sofa to lean on the arm beside him.  "Daddy!"

"Yes?"

"Do you wanna kiss Jessa?"

Ashur's head snapped up, eyes flaring wide as he stared at the boy incredulously as the report fell out of his slack hands onto his lap.  "Wh-What?"

Kells frowned, pursing his little lips thoughtfully.  "Jessa said you weren't interested in her like that . . . What does she mean, Daddy?"

Clearing his throat a couple of times, he shook his head.  "What else did she say?" he asked cautiously.  Part of him wanted to know.  The other part?  Well . . .

Kells leaned on the sofa arm, kicking his feet against the side.  "She said that you're good-looking . . ." He blinked and tapped Ashur's arm.  "I wanna be good-lookin' too!"

Ashur snorted.  "You've got awhile before you have to worry about that, Kells," he pointed out.  "Did . . . Did she say anything else . . .?"

Kells looked up at the ceiling, tapping his chin thoughtfully.  "Carol said you were hot, but Jessa turned all red!  Daddy!  Do you gots a fever?"

He barked out a terse laugh and shook his head.  "No, Kells . . ."

Apparently not satisfied with Ashur's answer, he reached over and slapped a tiny hand against Ashur's forehead and the other hand on his own.  "You don't feel hot . . ."

Ashur pulled his hand down and pointed at the television.  "You're missing Monster Rangers," he pointed out.

"Oh!" Kells exclaimed, scooting back over to his spot and grabbing the rest of his sandwich.

'She . . . She turned red . . .?  Blushing?  But . . .'

'Maybe she wants you to kiss her . . .'

'Oh, I can think of a thousand reasons why that's a bad idea,' he thought with an inward snort.

'Is it, though?  Is it, really?'

'Of course, it is!  She's just staying here until she gets her estate settled . . . There's nothing more to it than that . . .'

'Is that right?'

'Isn't it?'

'I don't know, Ash . . . I mean, I've thought it before, but you know, I think a part of her actually understands you on some level—quite the feat, really, given that I don't understand you half of the time.  The other half, I just think you're stupid.'

'The last thing I need is to be preoccupied, worrying about her,' he insisted as he picked up the report and scanned for where he'd left off when Kells interrupted him.  'Granted, she's a gorgeous girl—I'd have to be dead not to notice her, but that doesn't mean that I'm . . . I'm interested in her.  That . . . That would just be ridiculous.  Besides, my life's complicated enough with adding unnecessary attachments to it . . .'

'It's really not, and you know that, too.  What you're really afraid of is that you'll start to care about her, just like you cared about Hana—Granted, she was never your mate, but the idea still scares you, right?  Someone you've cared about your whole life, and now . . .'

'Can we not talk about that?'

His youkai-voice sighed.  'It doesn't really make it any less true, but you know, right?  Simplifying Jessa . . . Trying to put her into the same box as Hana?  It's like comparing apples to oranges just because they're both fruit.  Jessa's nothing like Hana—and your interest in Jessa is about as different from the interest you had in Hana as daylight and dark.  You hate to admit as much, I know you do, but your mother did have a point.  Hana was a willing body, and there wasn't really much more to it than that.'

'Drop it.'

'All right, but just so you know: simply saying you're not interested doesn't really mean that you aren't.  The fascination's still there.  So is that sense of familiarly, isn't it?  But you don't understand what that means yet, do you?'  His youkai chuckled.  'Don't worry, baka.  You will.'

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa knocked on the doorframe, and Ashur looked up from his task of sorting through a number of listings in and around the Quebec City area.  "How was shopping?" he asked, letting his gaze return to the stacks of listings that he'd printed out.

"I brought you some real food," she said, stepping forward to set a nondescript white bag on the desk.

He shot her a questioning glance but dropped the papers to dig into the bag instead.  "Sushi?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow as he pulled a beautifully packaged box out of the bag.  It was from a small shop that he was familiar enough with since they had the best sushi in town, which said a lot, considering how vast New York City was.  Even so, that she'd found it was a little surprising.  "Why sushi?"

She shrugged.  "Everyone likes sushi, don't they?"

He slowly blinked at her as he pulled the chopsticks apart and shook his head.  "Awfully broad generalization," he told her.  "How'd you find Yamato Sushiworks?"

She shrugged and sat down on the chair facing the desk.  "Carol suggested it.  I brought some back for Kells, too . . . It's kind of early, but is he in bed?"

"No, he's spending the night at my brother's house.  They're leaving in the morning for Maine—and he actually doesn't like sushi."

She seemed surprised by that.  "Really?"

Ashur shrugged. "Nope, which is why I don't have it very often, either."

"What does he prefer?"

"Chicken nuggets . . . pizza . . . hamburgers . . . Crap," he concluded.

She made a face.  "When I was young, Da tried to get me to eat haggis . . . Our cook was from Scotland, and Da swore that her haggis was delicious, but the smell of it . . ." She affected a full-body shudder then ruined the effect by leaning in to snatch one of the sushi rolls out of the box.

"Go eat the ones you brought home for Kells and stay out of this," he muttered.

She laughed, covering her mouth with her hand.  It was an entirely pleasant sound, he decided—which didn't mean that he'd willingly share the food she'd brought home for him, either.  "Didn't you ever learn how to share?"

He snorted, stuffing another roll into his mouth.  "Nope.  Only child—sort of."

"You have a brother," she countered.

"And as you've seen, Ben's a lot older than I am."

"That still doesn't mean that you weren't taught how to share."

He rolled his eye.  "And were you taught that it was all right to snatch things off other people's plates?"

Her smile was angelic.  The sparkle in her eyes was not.  "You don't have a plate, Ashur."

"Same idea."

She stared at him for a long moment as he finished off his food and stashed it all back in the bag once more.  Her smile faded, only to be replaced by a thoughtfully little frown.  "Have you been in here all day?"

"Most of it," he admitted, resuming his perusal of Quebec City listings.  "This house looks nice," he remarked, almost more to himself than to her.  "Outskirts of the city with a good deal of open property with a stable that I could rent out if I wanted . . ."

"A stable?" she echoed, sitting up a little straighter.

"Mhmm," he intoned.  "The current owners have show horses, it says, so the stable is pretty much state-of-the-art—" He snorted.  "How state-of-the-art can a stable really be?"

"Ours has computers set to feed and water the horses at regular times, heat to make sure that they're comfortable in the winter, air to make sure that they're comfortable in the summer . . ."

He glanced up at her, only to look again, frowning at the wistful expression on her face.  "You miss your horses?"

She met his gaze for a moment, but looked away just as quickly, staring at her hands in a thoughtful kind of way.  "I miss my horse," she replied quietly.

"Your horse?  What kind of horse?"

Biting her lip, she slowly lifted her eyes to meet his, almost as though she were wary of what he might say.  Or was it something entirely different . . .?  "Derry . . . He's a gypsy cob I got for my twelfth birthday . . ."

He didn't look impressed, but then, he didn't know a thing about horses, either.  "Is that a breed?"

She nodded.  "I . . . I have a picture," she ventured, her tone almost guarded.

"Okay," he agreed.

She watched him for another moment before getting up and walking out of the office.  Ashur stared at the listing for another minute then set it aside to ask the realtor about.

The other listings all seemed to be a lot closer to the downtown area, which wasn't bad, exactly, but he had to admit that he missed having more open area.  This townhouse felt so close, so confining, even though he had one of the larger ones in the area—large enough for the pool, but there was no yard to speak of, either.  Ben had suggested that he consider something that he'd be happier with and then to rent office space in town where he could conduct meetings without having to allow various strange youkai into his home, and he figured that idea might be sound enough.

He felt Jessa's return rather than heard it.  Her youki brushed over his as he glanced up.  She held a small, leather-bound book in her hands—a photo album, he supposed, and she leafed through it, stopping on a certain page, and handed it across the desk.

He took it, blinking in surprise at the image of the running horse.  The background was blurred, but the horse was not.  A large black horse with white spots, glossy and shining in the light of day, with a long, flowing mane of black and white, tufts of hair around the hooves . . . Absolutely a gorgeous animal, even if he didn't really know a thing about them . . .

"This is your horse?"

She nodded, a certain sadness surrounding her, even if she did try to hide it.  "If they haven't sold him . . . If they are bothering to take care of him—of them . . ."

He slowly turned the pages, images of people that he didn't know, but she did.  "I, uh . . . I got a report from the consulate today," he told her, pausing at a picture of Jessa, decked out in what could only be described as someone's twisted idea of a fairy tale dress: yards and yards of delicate white satin with a bodice that was so tight that he had to wonder if the girl could even breathe, and cascading lace that spilled from the mid-length bell sleeves, peeked from under the skirt that had to be at least six feet in diameter . . . She was smiling in the picture, but she didn't look like she wanted to be, and that . . . It bothered him.

"A report?  On what?"

Blinking away his wayward thoughts, he shrugged.  "Basically, it's everything they've discovered about your parents and the accident that killed your mother," he replied.  "The gist of it is that Ian MacDonnough seems to be holding things up for whatever reason . . . He apparently has questions about the accident that killed your mother."  Letting out a deep breath, he pulled the report out from underneath the listings.  "If you want to read it . . ."

Her eyes flared wide as she caught sight of the official document, and she seemed to lean away just a little.  "Do I . . .?  Do I need to?"

"No," he admitted, tapping the bottoms of the pages against the desk.  "But if you want to, I won't stop you."

She shook her head quickly, forcing her gaze to the side.  "I . . . I don't think I can," she admitted softly.

He let out a deep breath.  If he were her, he'd probably feel the same way . . .

"Da thought that they killed her—murdered her," she said quietly, almost more to herself than to him.  "Da said . . ."

Ashur frowned, letting the report drop to the desk as he stood up and came around, leaning against the desk top as he crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at her.  "Who did?"

She shook her head.  "I don't know," she whispered, the anger in her tone directed at herself, maybe?  Because she didn't have the answers . . .?  "He . . . He just said that it was because . . . because he'd refused the marriage, but . . ." she swallowed hard.  "But he was pretty delirious by then . . . He died the next day . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"So, this is something you do for fun?" Ashur asked, making a face as the horse he rode—a brown beast who had the unfortunate name of Stomper—seemed to be delighting in his ill attempt to knock Ashur off onto his arse.

"All the time!"  Jessa laughed softly, carefully holding onto the reins of Penny, a pretty and apparently calm sorrel horse.  Kells giggled, too, as he held onto the reins just below Jessa's hands, content to believe that he was guiding the animal.

He'd taken them out of the city a little early.  They were on their way to Quebec City to look at a few properties, but Ashur had found a listing for a local stable outside of New York City where one could rent horses for anywhere from a day to a week, to ride their trails up to a small campground where they could stay, along with other various horse trails that ranged from easy to more advanced, but in order to take the more advanced routes, one had to pass a general dressage course.  Jessa, not surprisingly, had passed the course with ease.  Ashur hadn't even attempted it.  When one was done, one rode the horses back down and returned them, which he'd thought she might enjoy.  Somehow, it never really occurred to him that he might not, though . . .

He stifled a sigh.  It had only taken about twenty minutes to locate the campsite and to put their sparse gear in the small cabin.  Then she'd wanted to try out one of the beginner's trails, and, being the glutton for punishment that he was, he'd agreed . . . After the last hour and a half on the creature, Ashur was more than a little ready to call it good for the day, and he might have, too, if she weren't thoroughly enjoying herself . . .

"This is fantastic!" she called back to him, the smile in her voice clear and apparent.  "Do you need to take a break?"

"No," he replied, silently cursing his misplaced pride.

'I'm . . . going to be really sorry for this tomorrow . . .'

His youkai snorted.  'Probably.'

"Daddy, I want a horse of my own!" Kells hollered.

"God forbid," he muttered under his breath.

Jessa turned to look back at him, frowning thoughtfully as she slowly shook her head and clicked her tongue to stop the horse.  She swung down, but left Kells up there as she grasped the reins and led the horse along the path.  "It’s not nearly as bad if you could let him gallop," she said, raising her voice to carry to him as he slid off the beast to walk, too.  "Some horses just walk rougher than others.  We could trade if you want . . . Penny's pretty smooth."

Glancing at the much smaller horse, Ashur snorted.  "I'm fine," he lied, thankful to have his feet back on the ground again.

She slowed down, allowing him to catch up to her, to walk beside her.

"I'm  . . . I'm just not a horse person, I guess," he admitted.  "If you want to ride awhile, I can take Kells back to the cabin . . . Take him fishing or something . . ."

She shrugged.  "I think this trail just circles back to the cabin," she said.  "I . . . I've never fished before . . ."

He lifted his face, scanned the trees, the skies . . . From the position of the sun, he could tell that it wasn't quite noon yet, and that was fine.  He didn't really care how long they stayed out here.  "You don't really strike me as the fishing type," he allowed.  "Do you really want to touch fish?  You'd have to kill and skin them, too."

She wrinkled her nose, and he could feel her spirit rising to the perceived challenge.  "I could do that," she insisted a little too casually.

"I like fishing!" Kells exclaimed.  "Daddy?  Do I know how to fish?"

Ashur chuckled.  "No, you don't," he said.  "I can teach you though."

He heard Jessa's soft gasp, but didn't really think much of it until he glanced down at her, only to find her staring at him in a wholly strange kind of way, eyes wide, transfixed, the reddish hue seeming to flow, to undulate like molten lava, like shimmering scarlet pools, as a slow flush rose in her cheeks.  For a long moment, she didn't seem like she realized just what she was doing, but suddenly, she gasped again—this time, a little softer— as she quickly shifted her gaze away, as her already pink cheeks deepened into a dusky hue that almost matched her rosy lips.

"Jessa?  Are you all right?"

She cleared her throat, managed a husky laugh.  "That's the first time I ever saw you smile," she admitted quietly.

For some reason, her statement surprised him.  Was that true?  Really?  He supposed that he didn't really smile as much as he used to, but surely he'd smiled before around her . . .

Heaving an inward sigh, he shook his head.  No, maybe he hadn't . . .

"It's a nice smile," she concluded, tucking a few flyaway strands of her ridiculously fine hair behind her ear.  "You should wear it more often."

He smiled slightly despite himself.  "Should I?"

She nodded, her tongue darting out to moisten her lips before she smiled back.  "Ma always told me that a smile was the best accessory one could wear."

Forcing his eyes off of her and upward, toward the treetops so high overhead, Ashur frowned.  He'd thought it before, hadn't he?  'Smile so that no one sees your pain . . .'  He used to be fairly good at it, too.  Somewhere along the way, though, he'd forgotten how to do it, and he'd discovered that building a wall around himself might well be far more effective . . .

"Where are you from?" she asked, interrupting his thoughts.

"Where am I from?" he repeated with a thoughtful scowl.

She reached up with one hand, placing it against Kells' back to correct his posture.  "You have a slight accent," she said.  "I noticed before, but I kept forgetting to ask."

"Oh . . . Uh . . . Japan," he allowed.  "I just moved here shortly after Kells was born."

"Ah . . . So, that's why you're so good at using chopsticks," she concluded.  "It makes sense . . . Why'd you move here?"

He sighed, not really wanting to answer her questions, not really interested in playing the, 'get to know you' game.  Even so, he supposed he could understand her curiosity, even if it was sorely misplaced.  "I just thought it'd be nice to live closer to Ben and Charity," he said, hoping that it was enough to appease her.

The look she sent him told him that she wasn't completely convinced.  Even so, she didn't press him further, which suited him just fine.

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa squealed as she yanked the huge fish out of the water, holding onto it tightly as she hefted it high.  "That makes four!" she hollered triumphantly.

Ashur slowly shook his head as Kells hopped up and down in the shallows, clapping in his excitement.  "And there goes my manhood," he muttered to himself as he swung his arms wide, wading over to her as she turned that ridiculously brilliant smile on him.  "Is that enough for dinner?"

"Yes, it is," he said, taking the fish from her after retrieving the slatted fish trap he'd found inside the cabin.  He added the fresh catch to the trap along with the other three huge fish were still flopping around inside.  Counting the ones Ashur had caught, they had a grand total of four . . .

"Since I caught them all, does that mean you have to clean them?" she asked, bouncing along on the balls of her feet to keep up with him as he strode toward the shore.

"All right," he conceded, albeit, with ill grace.  "It was beginner's luck," he scoffed.

She rolled her eyes.  "It wasn't a contest," she pointed out reasonably.  "Of course, if it were, then I'd have won."

"Daddy's a loser!" Kells hollered happily.

"Thanks, son," Ashur grumbled, casting Kells a withering look that somehow made the boy giggle.

"You know, I taught you how to fish, so if you think about it that way, I'm kind of the winner."

"That . . . doesn't even make sense," she told him, shaking her head as she plopped down on the shore to watch him gut and clean the fish.

'You know damn well that the reason you didn't catch a single fish is that you were way too busy, staring at Jessa,' his youkai-voice pointed out a little too reasonably.

'I was not.'

The voice grunted.  'Don't worry.  I rather like that bathing suit myself, if it makes you feel any better.'

He didn't bother replying to that, but he did shift his gaze to the side—and was immediately sorry for it, too, given that the girl in question had stretched out her long legs, heels on the soft ground, knees bent slightly, as she leaned back on her hands, her head tilted back, eyes closed as she savored the heat from the late afternoon sun.  The length of her hair—fiery in the light—dragged in the dirt, but she either didn't notice or didn't care, as the rise of her breasts lifted and fell with every breath she drew, the barest scrap of black fabric covering them . . .

'That girl has damn fine nipples . . .'

'You . . . You need to be quiet.'

'But she's cold!  And that means that certain things—like her nipples—are very prominently on display there, Ash!'

He heaved an inward sigh, dragging his eyes off of the girl as he carefully scaled the first fish.

He had no business at all, looking at her, now did he?  Holy hell, eighteen years old . . . She was closer to Kells in age than she was to him, damn it, and that ought to mean something.  But it didn't, and how could it, when she was sitting entirely too close, wearing entirely too little . . .?

"The evening's going to be chilly," he said, hoping she didn't see right through what he was about to say.  "You might want to get dressed before the sun goes down."

"It'll be awhile before it does," she countered mildly.  "I've decided that I want to get a tan this year.  Ma always fussed about it before . . . Said it would be a shame to ruin my complexion . . ." Twisting her waist, she brought her far hand around to lean on the dirt, bringing her breasts to even more of an incredible vantage point that Ashur had to bite his cheek to ignore while she peered down at the fish as he cut it open, hoping that she didn't notice just how badly his hands were shaking.

"Oh, that's so gross," she murmured, leaning in to get a better look.  "Oh, eww, eww, eww . . . Is that caviar?"

He shot her a raised-eyebrow-ed look and slowly shook his head.  "Looks like it," he replied.  "You want to try it?"

She shook her head quickly.  "Never did like that stuff," she admitted.  "That's really disgusting . . ."

He snorted.  "It's entrails.  It's supposed to be disgusting," he told her.

She made a face.  "I want to try doing that."

He blinked, hand stilling as he shot her a questioning glance.  "You want to scale and gut a fish?"

She nodded.

"All right," he said with a shrug.  "But if you start one, you have to finish it."

She rolled her eyes and retrieved a fish from the trap.  "Okay, I scale it first, right?" she asked, grabbing a short piece of wood that was relatively flat to use as a cutting board.

He tossed the first fish into an empty bucket and reached for another.  "Just carefully use your claws . . . Like this . . ."

She watched him for a moment before mimicking his motions.  She wasn't very good at it, but she did manage to remove the scales without mutilating the fish too badly.  "This would be okay if it didn't stink so much," she remarked.

"Yeah, and your hands might end up smelling fishy for a day or so," he told her.

"I'm washable," she quipped, flipping the fish over to scale the other side.

"It has been my experience that most females don't like doing stuff like this," he pointed out.

"Okay, so I don't want to do it every day," she admitted.  "But I like to cook, so it just seems right to learn the other stuff, too."

"You cook?"

She nodded, concentrating on getting the last of the scales off the fish.

"You could have told me that sooner."

She smiled at him.  "If I cook for you, will you pay me more?"

He shrugged.  "Depends on how good you are."

She sighed, pushing her hair out of her face with the back of her bent wrist.  "I could cook these," she offered.

"Okay," he agreed.  "Now, you just run your claw up the belly and take out everything that looks . . . disgusting."

She did it, impressing him just a little when she managed the task with minimal squeamishness.  Even so, he took pity on her, finishing up the fish he was working on and grabbing the last one before she finished the one she was gutting.

When he was done, she took the fish over to the water to give them a good washing before laying them out on a towel to dry as she gathered the things together to make dinner.  He'd brought along a few staples, but the website had boasted about the fish being the best in the area, and as the smell of frying fish over the open campfire filled the air, Ashur had to admit, however grudgingly, that she absolutely was surprising, that girl . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa awoke with a start, smashing her hand over her mouth as the nightmare she couldn't remember slowly loosened its hold on her.  The cabin was dark, quiet, and she pushed herself up as she blinked, trying to make out anything in the room.

She could tell by the sound of Kells' and Ashur's breathing that they were still sleeping.  Bringing up her knees, she wrapped her arms around her legs, letting her forehead fall against them as she struggled to steady her raging emotions.

Funny how something she couldn't even recall could have such a firm grip on her: funny and a little sad, too.  Yet, the walls felt like they were closing in on her, leaving her frightened and anxious . . .

Before she could stop to think about it, she tossed the blanket aside, stumbled to her feet, only to creep as quietly as she could across the bare plank floor of the single room cabin, letting herself outside into the night.

She had no idea what time it was as she wandered across the porch, down the two steps to the stone path that led to the pond.  The campfire was still smoldering, and she stopped, leaned her head to the side, let her youki stretch out around her.  The half-burned wood flared to brilliant light once more, and she spared a minute to toss another few logs onto the fire before stepping back to examine her handiwork.  It was probably easier since the fire hadn't completely died out.  Even so, she'd take the victory, she decided.

If only she could remember that dream . . .

She'd had it before in the time since her mother's death.  She never could remember it, though, and maybe it was for the best.  After all, what good could possibly come of it?  All she knew what that she invariably woke up feeling scared and lost and alone . . . She didn't know how she knew that it was always the same dream, but she did . . .

Letting out a deep breath, she turned, wandering down the path that led to the pond, not really paying too much attention to where she was going.  In the back of her mind, she heard the horses they'd rented, nickering softly.  She'd picketed them out in the fresh grass to enjoy the cool air until morning.

The moon over the water looked so lonely, so fragile: like just the right sound or the right word could shatter it.  She knew that feeling, didn't she?  It was so easy to fake during the daytime, easy to preoccupy herself with Kells, with . . . With Ashur—Ashur and his secrets that he held so stubbornly, guarded with a viciousness that she couldn’t understand—Ashur, with the eyes that were as warm as the summer sky, as cold as the winter's gale . . . and yet . . .

And yet, there was something about him, too: something she didn't really understand.  For all of his standoffishness, there was something that seemed almost vulnerable, even though he tried so desperately to hide it.  There was a certain melancholy, a level of sadness that dug so deep in him . . .

'Sadness?' her youkai-voice asked.

She nodded to herself a little vaguely.  Yes, it was sadness, though how she knew that, she wasn't certain.

'He's sad . . . and maybe a little lonely . . . and . . . and hurting . . . like . . . like me . . .'

And that thought brought everything so sharply, so vividly into focus . . . Her da's last words to her on that awful day . . .

The room was dark, somber, almost stifling in the pale and stunted light that seeped through the heavy, blue damask curtains.  Daylight was too bright; it hurt his eyes, he said, but she wondered how much of that was true and how much was that he just didn't want her to see his condition for what it was.  Bad enough, she supposed, to see the gauntness in his face, in his arms and hands, in the shadows—the owlish way his eyes seemed to be sunken into his skull, the way that the coverlet on the grand bed did not rise and fall the way that it used to as her father slowly and painfully wasted away . . .

Reaching out to her, grasping her hand, he had trouble focusing on her face.  His breathing was harsh, reaching, as though he couldn't properly do it, and she gritted her teeth, tried not to let him see the despair she felt deep inside.

"Jessa . . . My beautiful Jessa . . ."

Lifting his hand to cradle against her cheek, she stubbornly bit back the tears that she felt rising.  "Da?"

He tried to smile.  "My lass, don't cry.  I'll be with your ma soon enough, and you . . . you be strong."

"Save your strength, Da," she pleaded quietly.  "Please . . ."

He rasped out a couple more shallow breaths.  "I don't have . . . the luxury . . . of time . . . I need you to . . . to hear me now."

". . . Okay . . ."

"Watch out for . . . him . . ." he said.  "Pro . . . mise . . ."

"Da?  Watch out for who?" she asked.

His eyes slipped closed, and the one word he tried to say was lost in a flash of light, in a vortex of wind, as her hand closed on emptiness, as the first sob rattled out of her despite her father's wishes that she not shed tears . . .

The memory of that moment gave way to another one, a gauzier, more gossamer one of her father, of watching him as he stood alone amidst the ring of torches sparked to life in her mind.  At the time, she was so small that the memory itself was hazy, softened by the edges of passing time.  But she'd watched as he lifted his hands, as he closed his eyes for just a moment.  Focusing his youki?  She didn't know.

And all those torches flared around him, surrounding him in brilliant dancing flames . . .

"Jessa . . .?"

Her eyes flashed open, flaring wide at the sight of the flames—her flames—as they danced upon the water.  A moment later, she gasped as Ashur's arm closed around her wrist, turned her roughly, only to let go, to catch her as he pulled her toward him, crushed her body against his, as his lips fell on hers.

Pure fire.

That's what it was.  In the haze of her mind, the only thing that made sense was the absolute burn wherever their bodies met.  His kiss was rough yet tender, wild and controlled, a kiss meant to scorch her through and through as he grasped her hair, tugged her head back, his tongue burning like an inferno against her lips.  A trembling passion ignited, spread through her like a brushfire as his free hand caressed her back through the thin tee-shirt she'd worn to bed.

He groaned softly, the sound captured in her mouth as she sighed, and when he started to pull away, she reacted on instinct, lips pressing against that throbbing pulse of his throat as a ragged moan slipped from him, as he pulled her closer, letting go of her hair, grabbing her ass as he jerked her against him hard . . .

The shockwave that shot through her unleashed a series of tremors that rattled through her, straight to the core of her as a foreign surge of absolute desire rocked through her.  Her hands sank into his hair, holding onto him so tightly that she could feel every shattered breath he drew, every thump of his heart, beating in his chest.  The combustion of heat deep down was like standing too close to a raging fire, every touch of his hands resulting in a need so deep, so engulfing, that it left her reeling, spinning out of control as things she'd never felt before overwhelmed her, shocked her, frightened her, yet left her feeling as though she wanted—needed—more . . .

The stroke of his tongue was electrifying, the swirl that raged faster and faster, dizzying, inebriating.  The stir of his hand, sliding over the fabric of her shirt set off another set of rapid-fire explosions, like every single nerve in her body reacting on pure instinct.  Her mind shut down as pure sensation took over, as instinct pushed her, prodded her, as the sense of light and dark jumbled in her head, focusing instead on the silent demands of her body and of his.

"Damn," he murmured, his voice rough, thick, harsh.  "Jessa . . ."

"Ashur," she whispered, more of an exhalation than an actual sound.  He groaned again, let go of her, only to grasp her face in his hands, only this time, the kiss he gave her was infinitely sweet, heartbreakingly tender, and, with another stuttering breath, he sighed, kissing her forehead as he pulled her into a gentle hug.

It took a long moment before he trusted himself to speak, and before he did, he cleared his throat.  "You . . . You're not alone," he told her, his voice barely above a whisper.  "You'll never be alone again . . ."

"I . . ."

"Don't be afraid," he told her.  "I . . . I'll protect you . . ."

And something about his words touched her, held her, drove back that loneliness that she'd grown accustomed to during those cold and dark hours of the night.  She hugged him back, clung to him, as though she were afraid to let go, and it took her a minute to realize that the dampness under her cheek, against his skin . . .

It was her tears.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Staring out the opened windows at the beautiful mid-May morning, Ashur drew a deep breath and slowly sipped the mug of coffee in his hand, a half-smile tugging on his lips as he watched Jessa and Kells in the garden behind the house.  It kind of looked like they were dancing, but he wasn't entirely sure what they were doing, exactly.  It was keeping the boy entertained, which was saying something, in Ashur's estimation, considering that all he'd talked about for the last three days was the impending arrival of his aunt and uncle and cousins for his birthday  . . .

'Three years old . . . Three years ago today . . .'

That thought was enough to obliterate the good mood that Ashur had carried since he'd woken up this morning.

Lying on the stone floor, entirely helpless to do a thing but to watch as Hana literally tore his mother to shreds, and the horrifying realization that everything he thought he had left was being torn away with every slash of her claws . . . Watching as Hana closed her hands around Yukina's throat, squeezing so hard that he heard the sickening sound of her delicate bones as they crunched and snapped . . . And when the senbon that had held him, immobile, was removed, he hadn't had a choice, had he?  Hadn't had a thing left in the world, but the unborn child still inside his mother's stomach . . . And a dying mother that had watched him with hatred and loathing in her eyes as he'd done the only thing he could do—as he'd cut her open and pulled Kells free, even as her body disintegrated in a harsh wind and a bitter gust of dust and dirt . . .

Three years . . .

Heaving a sigh as the sound of the doorbell jerked him out of his reverie, Ashur turned on his heel, strode through the house and into the foyer to answer the door.

"Very nice," Ben said, stepping inside as he let Nadia down.  Charity walked in behind her mate and set Emmeline down, too.  It was their first trip up to visit, the first time they saw the house in person instead of a few snapshots that he'd sent.  "I must admit, I didn't picture you as someone who would buy an estate like this, but it's pretty impressive."

"Glad you approve," Ashur replied dryly, ruffling each of the girls' hair in passing.  "Kells is in the back yard with Jessa," he told them.  That's all they waited to hear, taking off at a speed only devised by the young and the reckless.  A moment later, the sound of the French doors slamming echoed through the house, and Ashur slowly shook his head.

"Here," Charity said, handing Ashur a small but beautiful potted plant that looked like a number of bamboo stalks, all growing together.  "Housewarming present.  It's a lucky bamboo, but it's actually a member of the Dracaena family.  It's good fortune," she told him.

He chuckled.  "Thank you," he said, leaning in to kiss her cheek before arching an eyebrow at his brother.  "Where's your present?" he asked, hefting an eyebrow to underline his question.

Ben laughed and clapped Ashur on the shoulder.  "For you?  I'll . . . I'll get you a gift card," he replied.

Charity rolled her eyes but slipped her arm under Ben's elbow.  "So, where's our birthday boy?"

"Jessa's teaching him how to dance . . . or something," he said.

Charity smiled and hurried past to go find the boy in question.  Ben started to follow, but Ashur stopped him.  "I wanted to talk to you," he said, figuring that now was as good a time as any.  "Did you find out anything?"

Ben made a face as he rubbed his forehead.  "Just because I'm familiar with the MacDonnough doesn't mean that he'd actually tell me anything, you know," he pointed out. "Even then, I can't really go around, accusing him of plotting someone's murder—if there even was a murder.  I mean, you said yourself that Jessa indicated that her father was pretty incoherent when he'd made those accusations, right?  So, it's entirely possible that he was rambling."

He sighed.  "Maybe," he drawled, wandering toward the French doors, frowning as his gaze lit on the girl in question.  "I don't know.  It's just a feeling . . ."

"What do you mean?"

He shook his head, raising his forearm to lean on the doorframe as he stared outside.  "Just . . . the whole thing seems weird . . . The timing . . ."

Ben scowled thoughtfully as he stuffed his hands into his pockets and stood beside his brother.  "Okay, you've officially lost me.  Care to elaborate?"

"Different things she's said," Ashur replied.  "A lot of things that . . . that feel . . . oddly connected, I guess."

"As in . . .?"

He nodded once.  "As in, she says that her father thought that her mother was killed intentionally—murdered . . . And she said that someone asked her father to arrange a marriage to his son, but that her father had declined because they weren't true mates . . ." His frown darkened as something else occurred to him . . . Something else she'd said . . .  "And then she said that last year on her birthday, her parents suddenly wanted to hold her official debut into society; that her mother seemed like she was in a rush to see her married off, but  . . ." He narrowed his eyes as he slowly turned his head just far enough to pin Ben with a suspicious glower.  "But she died less than a month after that . . ."

"Which could add some credence to her father's idea that someone had her killed," Ben concluded slowly.  His eyes flared wide.  "Manami . . ."

"Manami?"

He nodded.  "She mentioned something about a family—she didn't say who—whose daughter would be an heiress to a fortune if her parents were to suddenly die.  She said that MacDonnough wanted to see the girl married to one of his lackeys . . ."

"You don't think . . .?"

Ben nodded again.  "Could be wrong, but . . ."

Ashur's eyes darkened to a stormy blue as his gaze shifted out the window once more, as they lit on Jessa as the girl appeared to be teaching Charity and the children a few dance steps.  The memory of that kiss near the pond flashed through his head, the mad passion that had nearly spiraled out of his control; the expression in her eyes when he'd finally pulled away—and the promise that he'd made to her, that he'd protect her . . . "But if we're not, then something needs to be done about it."

 

 


 

 

 

"He really likes you."

Jessa blinked and turned to look at Charity as the woman sat down on the stone bench beside her.  "Oh, uh . . . He's a really sweet boy . . ."

"I love watching them play," she went on, nodding at the children as they chased each other through the raised-bed flower garden.

They'd had the cake and ice cream—made a royal mess of it, actually—leave it to a few toddlers who were left to have at it when given their treats, and Kells, who normally didn't get sugar because of his hyperactive tendencies, was currently running it off in grand style, playing with the Nerf guns that his uncle had thought to give him.  The twins had their own, and, as far as Jessa could tell, it was a miracle that they hadn't lost all of the Nerf bullets yet.  Then again, Ben had gotten them refills, too, so there was that . . .

"I felt bad when we moved," Charity went on.  "I'd thought about asking Ben if we could stay longer in the city, just because of Kells, but Ashur needs to be up here, so . . ."

 "Ashur . . . He said he's one of the Zelig's generals," Jessa remarked.  "What . . . What does that mean?"

Charity looked surprised.  "What does it mean . . .?  To be one of oji-san's generals?"  She nodded.  "That means that he's in charge of this region—basically, he's answerable only to oji-san—my uncle—uh, the Zelig."

"He's in charge of the youkai, you mean."

Charity smiled.  "Yes, exactly."

"Then he's pretty important."

"Well, something like that," Charity agreed.  "Basically, it'll be up to him to monitor the region, to settle minor disputes if necessary, but if anything comes up that requires a hunt order or anything, the he'd recommend that to oji-san . . ."

She frowned.  It sounded a lot more important than Ashur had let on.

Charity sighed, flipping her hair back over her shoulder, affecting a casual air that seemed a little too casual . . . "You two . . . You seem to be getting along better."

She didn't miss the overly cautious tone in Charity's voice.  "Do we?"

Nodding her head, her amber eyes shining gently in the late afternoon sun siphoning through the leaves above.   "I'm glad."

Jessa wasn't sure what to say about that.  To be honest, she wasn't entirely sure where she stood—or didn't stand, as the case may be.  Ever since that night—ever since that kiss . . .

Cautiously polite—maybe a little too polite . . . That was a good way to describe it.  A cautiously polite distance, a cautiously polite isolation . . . and a loneliness that was far worse than any she'd ever known before . . .

"You . . . You're not alone . . . You'll never be alone again . . ."

And the memory of those words . . . It cut her deep, left her raw and bleeding.

"I'll admit, I was hoping that the two of you would come to terms.  He could help you, and maybe you could help him, too . . ."

Biting her lip as she refrained from replying to Charity's statements, Jessa shifted uncomfortably, praying that the woman didn't notice her odd silence.  The forced distance, the backing away when she inadvertently came to close, the inscrutable looks when he thought that she wouldn't notice . . .

'But . . . But that kiss . . .'

Deliberately closing down those particular thoughts was tough, mostly because, to be honest, she didn't really want to, and yet, the stubborn lilt of her pride was just enough to nudge them aside, locking the door on the memory since it wouldn't lead to anything but confusion . . . and a good dose of anger.

"I don't need his help," she replied tightly.

It must have been a little more sharp than she'd intended because Charity slowly turned to look at her, a very frank expression of bewilderment on her beautiful features.  "You know, if you need someone to talk to," she finally said, carefully measuring, weighing, her words, "I'm a good listener . . . At least, that's what I've been told . . ."

Jessa shook her head, hooking an errant lock of hair behind her ear.  "It's nothing," she replied, forcing a smile that she wasn't really feeling.  The memory of just how fiercely Charity had defended Ashur just after her arrival was still too fresh in her head, too clear, and at the moment, the last thing she wanted or needed was to hear that particular man's virtues lauded.

Charity didn't look like she believed Jessa, but she did let the subject drop.  "Okay, but . . ."  She laughed softly, offered a little bounce of her shoulders.  "You seem like a really sweet young woman . . . I just hate to see you, looking so down."

Jessa watched as Charity stood, called to the girls and Kells to take them inside and wash them off since they were all pretty well covered with cake and icing and melted ice cream.  She gathered them up and shot Jessa a bright smile as she herded them toward the house.

Jessa let out a deep breath, shaking her head just a bit at the complete and utter devastation that was the once-clean outfit that she'd helped Kells pick out for his special day.  If it could be washed clean, she'd be amazed.  She started to step over, to clean up the wreckage left on the patio table, but her cell phone rang, and she glanced at it, only to smile slightly when the name appeared on the caller ID.  It took a second for the video feed to load.

"Hey, girlfriend!  How's Canada?"

Jessa rolled her eyes.  "In a word?  Boring," she replied.  "Boring . . . and stupid and insufferable and ridiculous and maddening and stupid and irritating and stupid—"

"Oh, my God!  That was three 'stupid's in one sentence," Carol interrupted with a raised eyebrow as she rolled over onto her back, suspending the phone over her face.  "For some reason, I don't think you're talking about Canada nearly as much as you might be talking about someone in Canada . . . Want to make me guess or should I already know?"

Jessa sighed, propping the phone against the umbrella pole in the middle of the table before plopping down, crossing her arms and letting her chin drop onto them.  "Sorry," she grumbled, her cheeks pinking as she made a face.  "You didn't call to hear me complain.  Canada's great, fantastic, just beautiful . . . So, how's the city?"

"The city's fine—a little less gorgeous since you're not here . . ." Carol sighed.  "All right, so tell me what he did to put you in such a mood."

Jessa shot Carol an imploring sort of look.  "I miss you," she admitted, unable to stop the quiver of her lips, her nostrils, at the quiet reply.  "Can't you just hop on a plane or . . . or rent a car and drive up here?  Just for a day or two?"

Carol's face shifted into an exaggerated pout.  "I wish I could . . . Daphne and Sondra quit, so I've been pulling doubles for the last couple weeks.  Hell, today's my first day off, and I had to threaten Stan to get it.  He said that he's looking for a couple new girls to take up the slack, but you know how he is . . ."

"I'm so sorry," Jessa murmured since her unexpected vacancy had also left them short-handed already.

Carol waved off her concern and smiled.  "It's okay.  The extra money's pretty damn nice.  Anyway, back to you . . . Tell me what Ashur's done?"

Jessa sighed, biting her lip as her gaze slipped to the side, as the color in her cheeks deepened, and she didn't have to look to see it.  "He . . . He kissed me," she said quietly.

"Really?" Carol squeaked, her voice rising about ten decibels. "Jessa!  I want details!  No, I need details!  Was it hot?  I mean, sure, of course it had to have been hot . . . Was it just a peck or was it a kiss kiss?"

She made a face.  "It was . . . It was . . ." Giving up with a tiny half-whimper, Jessa slowly shook her head.  "He's pretending that it never happened," she finally said.  "Like it was . . . was nothing . . ."

"Oh, ouch," Carol murmured.  "Is he around?  I have a few choice things I'd like to say to him."

Jessa choked out a laugh.  "No, no," she said.  "I mean, it's . . . It's not a big deal, right?  It was . . . It was just a kiss," she went on with a little more conviction than she actually felt.  "No big deal.  People kiss all the time, and it doesn't mean anything."

"Do you?" Carol challenged quietly.  "Somehow, I don't think you're that type—and I wonder if he is."

"Of course, he is," Jessa argued, her irritation rising when Carol tried to defend him.  "Otherwise . . ." She grimaced.  "You're supposed to be siding with me."

Carol laughed.  "I am, Jess!  I mean, think about it.  If he were a guy who just randomly and thoughtlessly kissed women whenever?  Do you think he'd be playing the stand-off game?"

Jessa snorted.  "Yes, actually, I think he would."

Shaking her head as she set her phone into a stand and reached for a bottle of dark purple nail polish, Carol shrugged.  "Are you kidding?  A guy like that would have done a hell of a lot more than just kiss you, and he'd be kissing you all the time, too, because he'd be trying to get to the fucking . . ."  She looked up from polishing her toenails.  "You didn't fuck him yet, did you?"

"No!" Jessa hissed, sitting up straight as she quickly glanced around, as her skin exploded in a brilliant shade of instant mortification.  "Carol!"

Carol laughed—an entirely pleasant sound, actually, even if Jessa couldn't rightfully appreciate it at the moment.  "See?  If you think about it, it makes perfect sense.  There's not a doubt in my mind that you'd have fucked him if he had pushed the issue.  The fact that he didn't just reinforces the idea that he isn't that type, either."

Rubbing her forehead, Jessa shot Carol a dark scowl. "Okay, then, if you're so smart, tell me why he's acting so . . . so bloody polite."

Carol's laughter died away, but her smile didn't.  "Maybe because he's supposed to be your guardian?  Even if you turned eighteen, that doesn't mean that he wouldn't feel like he's taking advantage of you."

She stopped, considered that since she hadn't thought of it quite like that before.  Was there some truth in that?  Could his behavior since that night been simply the product of, what?  A guilty conscience . . .?

"Do you want to kiss him again?"

Blinking as she shook off the train of thought that she'd been sidetracked on, Jessa cleared her throat.

"So, you do," Carol said, drawing her own conclusions from Jessa's non-reply.

She sighed, cupping her chin in her open palm, elbow resting on the table top.  "Well, that won't be happening," she muttered as her irritation sparked once more.  "He'll barely speak two words to me unless he has to, and he never comes near me if it can be helped."

Carol considered that then shrugged as she went back to painting her toenails.  "Nah, it's easy," she countered.

"Easy?  How so?"

"Oh, Jess . . . You have two options: you can either go up to him and start the kissing . . . or you can just do whatever it was you did before that made him want to kiss you, in the first place."

 

 


 

 

 

"Benjiro!  How nice to hear from you!" Manami greeted, her smile brilliant as she sat back on the white sofa in her living room and brought up her knees, curling them to the side as she reached for a cup of steaming hot tea.  "And Kyouhei—Oh, Ashur—sorry . . . You look well."

Ben chuckled.  "And you look beautiful, as always," he replied.

"And Ashur?  How are you?"

He nodded, willing himself to relax, unsure why the sense of foreboding had been building throughout the day.  "Fine, thanks," he replied, growing more impatient with the perfunctory pleasantries.

"So, to what do I owe the honor of receiving a phone call from the two most handsome men on the planet—and speaking of handsome men, where is that absolutely delicious Kells?"

"He's working off the sugar that was plied on him today," Ashur said.  "I have a question for you, Manami.  Ben tells me that you mentioned something to him before about a family in Europe?  The father didn't want his daughter to be married off to one of MacDonnough's men?"

She frowned thoughtfully, tilting her head to the side as she tried to remember.  "Oh, yes!  The marquess . . . I hear he died recently . . ."

"Actually, his wife was killed a little over a year ago," Ashur went on.  "At least, if it's the same family."

"Marquess Aumberlese?  Or rather, Niall O'Shea?"

Ashur shot Ben a narrow-eyed look, and Ben nodded.  "Didn't you say something about MacDonnough wanting you to kill them?" Ben asked.

"Him," she agreed.  "Potatoes, potahtoes . . . I mean, the end result would have been the same."

Ben frowned.  "She was killed in a random car accident—or maybe not so random, I'm starting to think."

Manami's frown darkened as she set her tea mug aside.  "Then you recall the other . . . problem . . . I told you about, Benjiro?"

"What, 'other problem'?" Ashur demanded.

Manami sighed.  "When Marquess Aumberlese and his wife made out their wills, they filed them with Ian MacDonnough, which means, he holds the only copy of it, and if Ian . . . lost it . . . then the heiress would be subject to the old laws, which means . . ."

Ben grimaced.  "Which means that her entire estate and title would lie in escrow until such time that she married."

"Which makes sense as to why her parents might have wanted to rush her into finding her mate—her parents knew.  That's why . . ." Ashur concluded.  "What a bastardly thing to do . . ."

Manami chuckled, but it was an empty kind of sound, far more ironic than humorous.  "Ian MacDonnough is a bastard," she pointed out.  "One of these days, he's going to overstep himself—and I, for one, cannot wait to see him get his comeuppance."  Her smile shifted into one that was far closer to her normal ebullience.  "Tell me, why the interest in this now?"

"She's staying with me," Ashur replied.  "She's Myrna's cousin."

"Myrna's cousin?  You don't say . . ."

Ashur wasn't nearly as amused as Manami seemed to be.  "The police removed her from her estate when she called to report her father's death," he said.  "She was barely allowed to take anything with her—not even a change of clothing."

"Hmm . . ." Manami drawled.  "Keep her hidden, then," she suggested.  "If Ian knows where she is currently, I have very little doubt that he'd send that oaf of his in to claim the girl, willing or not."

Ashur snorted.  "What oaf?"

She rolled her eyes, her distaste quite evident.  "I would assume it'd be the same buffoon that tried to set his son up with her in the beginning," she said.  "Duke Portsmouth—or most assuredly, his son, Hughbert."

Ashur nodded and slowly shifted his gaze to lock with his brother's.  "Ben, what can you find out about this guy . . . and how fast?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa grunted as she hopped forward, jabbing with her left, then her right, before dancing back out of the way as Ashur swung his mitt-covered hands.  She repeated it over and over, shaking her head to redirect the perspiration that ran down her face.  Hair that had escaped the braid she'd pulled it back into, sticking to her skin, expression a mask of concentration as she jabbed and moved, jabbed and moved.

"Good, good," Ashur coached, swinging at her as she backed out of the way.  "Keep it up."

She breathed, shallow and harsh, hitting again before ducking away.  She didn't know how long they'd been at it, and she didn't really care, either.  Given the weeks of frustrations that had been building up deep down, the physical exertion was a welcome distraction.

"Okay, that's enough," Ashur said a few minutes later, stepping away as he tugged off the mitts and set them aside.

"Look, Daddy!" Kells called.  He was busy, trying to punch the stuffing out of a huge teddy bear on the floor.  The thing was at least twice his size, so there really wasn’t any danger that he would hurt himself—or the bear, actually.

Jessa smiled just a little as she blotted her overheated face and neck with a dry towel.

"You're improving," he said, nodding at her solemnly.

"What about me, Daddy?"

Ashur glanced at Kells again and didn't quite smile, though his eyes brightened as he gazed at the boy.  "You, too, Kells."

Kells positively glowed at his father's praise.  Suddenly, he gasped, trying to work the small gloves off his hands as his father stepped over to help him out.  "Hurry, Daddy!  It's almost time for Chuck the Chameleon!"

He'd barely gotten the gloves off the child before Kells took off for the house.

Ashur slowly shook his head, crossing his arms over his chest with Kells' small boxing gloves dangling by the laces from his fingers.  "I'm pretty sure that he watches entire too much television," he muttered more to himself than to her.

Jessa dropped the towel and turned to scowl at the tiki torches that he'd set up at the edge of the patio.

It had become her routine every day, to stand here and to light those torches.  She'd gotten pretty good at lighting them, one at a time, but she hadn't been able to replicate anything even remotely close to what she'd done that night on the water.  Willing herself to be patient, she drew a few deep, calming breaths as the first torch shot to life, followed in quick order by the rest of them—all five.  Fast, but not all at the same time.  With a sigh, she waved a hand, and the flames all died out, one by one.

She repeated the process a few more times, always getting close but just not quite good enough.  By the end of her fifth try, though, Ashur stepped over.  "You're getting better," he told her.  "You should stop before your frustration rises too high."

"I'm not frustrated," she lied, turning away with a heavy sigh.

"I can sense it in your youki," he countered evenly.  "You won't get anywhere if—"

"If I lose control," she cut in.  "I got it, thanks."

She could feel his gaze on her, boring into the back of her skull, as she snatched up the towel once more and started to stalk off toward the house.

He caught her wrist, tugged her around, those blue eyes of his full of questions that he had yet to give voice to.  "Jessa, what's the matter?"

Narrowing her eyes on him, she tried to yank her wrist away, but he held on, not tightly enough to hurt her, but not loose enough for her to break the hold, either.  "Nothing," she ground out, unable to keep a grip on her rapidly escalating temper.  "Nothing at all, you odious man.  Now, let me go."

"Odious?" he repeated, eyebrows lifting in genuine surprise.  "You're mad at me?  Why?"

She snorted.  "Just think about it, will you?" she growled, wrenching herself out of his grasp and stomping off.  "If you concentrate long enough, maybe the answer will come to you."

Muttering under her breath about horrible men and stupid memories that she couldn't get out of her head, she slammed the back door, momentarily pleased at the racket that the action had caused.

She was halfway up the stairs when Ashur caught up with her.  Her scathing reply had apparently irked him, and when he grabbed her arm this time, he spun her around, nearly making her lose her footing as she crashed against him, as he caught her and held on.  "Explain yourself, Jessa," he growled, dealing her a hard shake.

Narrowing her eyes on him, she snorted loudly.  "I don't think so," she replied.  "Let go of me."

Blue eyes blazing with the light of utter exasperation, he echoed the sound she'd just made.  "Not until you tell me just what the hell has you so up in arms," he shot back.

"You!" she spat, stomping her foot as her irritation crested and exploded.  "You!  How dare you kiss me like that and then pretend like I don't even exist!  How dare you crawl into my mind, make me think about you, and then leave me like that!  You swore I wouldn't be alone, didn't  you?  And yet, I am!  Entirely alone!  If you don't want me, then that's fine, Ashur Philips, but if you don't, then don't kiss me, either!"

He blinked at her tirade only for a moment.  "That's . . . what you're mad about?" he blurted.  Then he sighed and let go of her.  "Look, Jessa . . . You have to understand.  I'm not supposed to kiss you," he told her.  "You're . . . You're barely a woman, and I'm a grown man.  What happened that night . . . It shouldn't have, and you should realize that, too . . ."

The crack of her hand against his cheek sounded like thunder in her ears.  "Go to hell," she bit out, whipping around, taking the stairs two at a time as she fled from him.  Somehow, his statements were just a little more than she could stand.  Slamming her door closed and locking it against him, she spun around, collapsed against the unforgiving wood, and as quickly as the anger had come, it abandoned her, leaving behind a sense of melancholy so deep, so overwhelming, that she groaned and sank to the floor . . .

 

 


 

 

 

'Well, that can't possibly have gone any worse.'

Heaving a sigh at the sound of his youkai-voice's overly-dry assessment, Ashur scowled at the empty stairway.

He hadn't meant to kiss her that night, no.  He'd awoken when she had slipped out of the cabin and had followed her just to see what she was doing.  To be completely honest, he wasn't sure why he had kissed her.  He certainly hadn't intended to do any such thing, but seeing her there, bathed in the moonlight, the sadness in her aura such a harsh and palpable thing, he couldn't help it, couldn't stop himself, drawn to her like a moth to a flame . . .

'Don't be stupid, Ash.  You kissed her because you did want to—you wanted to for days before that, and you want to even more now.'

He frowned.  He shouldn't want to kiss her, damn it.  That was entirely asinine.  He was old enough to be her grandfather a few times over, wasn't he?  A girl like her needed someone closer to her own age, someone who could find the same wonder at the things that they saw, not some old man who was too screwed up to even begin to make sense out of his own life, let alone to allow someone like her into it, too.

'Would it really be so bad?  I mean, think about it.  Before you go all, 'oh, I'm a terrible person; I took advantage of an innocent girl,' you should probably remember that she wanted that kiss as badly as you did.'

'She's too young to know what she wants.'

'You know, far too many men in this world have tried to use that excuse at one time or another, only to have their asses handed to them because the women tend to think that's a pretty damn condescending answer.'

He grunted.  'Oh?  And what do you suggest?  That I go up there and grab her and do the things that have been going through my head?'

'And if she wants that, too?  That girl—woman . . .'

'She's not old enough nor experienced enough to know what she wants, damn it.'

'And that's the problem, isn't it?'

'No, now shut up . . .'

'Fine, but you listen to me about one thing first.  Even if it wasn't your intention, you hurt her.  Maybe you should at least go try to explain yourself a little better, don't you think?  Because you didn't mean to do that.'

Letting out a deep breath, he almost turned and stomped back downstairs out of sheer stubbornness.  The memory of the stricken expression on her face, though, was enough to draw him forward, carried him down the hallway to her closed door.

It was locked—entirely not surprising—and he only deliberated it for a minute before jamming his claw into the hole to release it.

She wasn't in her room, but when he stepped inside, he could hear the shower running in the adjoining bathroom, and, with another sigh, he closed the door and strode over to the bed, sitting on the edge of it to wait for her.

The biggest problem, as far as he could tell, was that girl was entirely too desirable for her own good.  He could only truly be glad that she really didn't seem to realize as much because if she ever did figure it out, he'd be done like dinner, period.

Somehow, he'd stupidly thought that kissing her would have gotten all of it out of his system.  Nope, just the opposite, actually, which was why he was trying so hard to maintain the distance between them.  It perplexed him, damned if it didn't.  He'd slept with enough women over the years to realize that something about Jessa was . . . different . . . even if he had no idea why that was.  Being with those women had always been a physical thing, and once satiated, he didn't give it a second thought.  Something about Jessa . . .

'It scares you, doesn't it?'

'What?  Scared?  Of her?  How the hell could I possibly be scared of her? That would be like being scared of a . . . kitten . . . or a puppy . . .'

'Baka!  No, not scared of her.  You're scared of the things that she makes you feel—the things that she could make you feel—not just physically, but emotionally.  Tell me I'm not wrong.'

He never got a chance to answer.  The bathroom door suddenly swung open with a waft of moist air that smelled of water and of flowers, and Jessa stepped out in nothing but a bath sheet that she held loosely around herself.

She gasped as she stopped short, eyes flaring wide as color blossomed in her cheeks, hair weighed down by water that dripped from the ends, trailing down her shoulders, her chest, only to disappear in the gorgeous curve of her breasts.  Ashur opened and closed his mouth a few times, unable to do much more than stare as he slowly got to his feet, as he stumbled toward her.

She stared at him, crimson eyes darkening as she stood her ground.  Whether that was brave or incredibly naïve, he didn't know, and he didn't care as he grasped her arms, pulled her toward him as his lips fell on hers.  The instant wave of passion shot through him with the finesse of a bulldozer, crushing his defenses before he could even hope to raise them up, as every excuse he'd made came crashing down around him like hail.

The sound of her heartbeat—erratic and wild—throbbed in his ears.  The feel of her skin, still damp from the shower, was like a drug, an aphrodisiac, as he ran his hands up over her bared back, the ripples, the valleys, the gentle slopes, every plane, every hollow digging deep into his memory while the sweetness of her breath on her flushed lips silently beckoned him.

Whimpering softly against his mouth as the kiss grew, deepened, she let go of the towel, her arms encircling his neck, fingers digging into his hair as she gave as good as she got despite the slight sense of clumsiness, attesting to the fact that, other than that night by the pond, she really hadn't ever been kissed before.

And it was that understanding that broke through the haze, that made him pull away from her as he struggled to breathe.  She kissed his jaw, his throat, and he winced as he fought for some semblance of control over his raging need, but the touch of her lips on his skin was enough to drag a low moan from him.  "J . . . Jessa . . . "

She lifted her head to look at him, her eyes darkened, stained with passion, smoldering with need that she didn't try to hide.  The absolute lust in her gaze was nearly enough to break him as he swallowed hard, as he struggled to calm the blood raging inside him.

"I shouldn't . . . want you," he told her, his voice low, harsh in his own ears.  For a moment, he thought that she was going to hit him again as he quickly retrieved her towel, wrapped it around with her noticeably shaking hands.  "I shouldn't," he said again, "but I . . . I do . . ."

She ducked her chin for a moment, wrapping her arms over her stomach after tucking in the edge of the towel between her breasts.  "Because . . . Because you don't . . . don't want to," she murmured.

The sadness in her tone chafed at him, dug at him deep.  "You're eighteen years old," he said, wishing he could make her understand.

"And that makes me too childish to know how I might feel?" she challenged quietly.

"No, that's not what I'm saying . . ." Heaving a sigh, he turned away from her—away from the sight of her, of her bared shoulders, of the rise of her breasts . . . "Your life has changed so much in the last few months—the last year—and I . . . I understand that because three years ago, mine changed like that, too."

"When Kells was born," she said, a resignation rife in her voice, saturating her words, almost as though she'd just given up.

"I don't want to be your lifetime regret," he whispered as he forced his feet to carry him to the door.

Slipping out of her room, he let his head fall back, staring up at the ceiling without seeing it at all.

 

 


 

 

 

"I don't want to be your lifetime regret."

Sinking onto the edge of the bed, dropping her head into her cupped hands, Jessa heard the words, over and over again, as she struggled to make sense of them.  Her lifetime regret?

She sighed, the sounds echoing in her hands.  Okay, that much she could understand.  If things got carried away . . . But . . .

What was it about him that made her forget every bit of her own resolve?  There was a certain . . . electricity that she felt whenever he was near, as though every nerve in her body was attuned to him, just waiting for him to give one look, one indication . . .

Biting her lip, she glanced around the room—a room that was hers, and yet not hers at all.  Just a place where she slept, not one that she felt was her home, and yet, there was a strange sense of familiarity about it, too, though she had a feeling it had more to do with Kells and Ashur than it did the house itself.  It felt as though . . .

'Go on, Jessa . . . You can say it, you know.'

But she couldn't, could she?

'You could, you know.  It's okay to be afraid. I'm a little afraid, too, but if you can't admit it to yourself, then you have no business thinking about Ashur, at all.'

Pushing herself to her feet, she wandered over, tossing the towel back onto the bed as she tried not to think about that moment—that instant—when she'd stepped out of the bathroom, only to find him sitting there, staring at her, and the way he'd looked at her . . .

There was an intensity in his gaze that had stopped her in her tracks, had forced the air out of her lungs, as though her entire body was paralyzed.  All she'd known was that he had wanted her, and she . . . Swallowing hard as she yanked open the drawer where she kept her undergarments, she grabbed the first pair of panties she laid hands on.

She'd been completely unprepared for the shockwave that had rattled straight through her when he'd grabbed her, when he'd kissed her—unprepared for the desperation, the need in that insular touch of his lips on hers, unprepared for the insanity that spun her brain in so many different directions that she had to cling to him, that she'd had to let him hold her or she'd fall. 

"Your life has changed so much in the last few months—the last year—and I . . . I understand that because three years ago, mine changed like that, too."

Just what had he meant by that?  Again, she was struck by the underlying things—the things that he didn't say.  She didn't have to be brilliant to have realized awhile ago that there were things in Ashur's past—things that he didn't want to talk about.  She could understand that, too.  After all, she had things that she didn't particularly want to dwell upon herself.  For some reason, though, she couldn't help but think that maybe, just maybe, if she could get him to open up about those things, she might well understand him a lot more.

The thing was, she couldn't bring herself to ask him, either.  Those things, she could tell, hurt him deeply, maybe as deeply as she hurt when she thought about her parents too long, and for some reason, the very idea that she might cause him pain if she tried to delve too deeply into his past wasn't something she could bring herself to do.

She was fascinated by him, compelled to be near him, drawn to him in ways that she really hadn't realized were even possible—ways that were as frightening as they were exhilarating, as deep and dark as they were brilliant and breathtaking . . .

'And the problem is that you built up that wall, didn't you?  After your mother died, when you knew your father would follow her, you spent all that time, creating this inner wall, and I'm not saying it was right or wrong.  The only one who can decide that is you.  You built that wall to protect yourself, but you know, Jessa . . . If you want to take that step—if you truly want to—then you're going to have to find a way to bring those walls down again because, with that man, it's all or nothing.  There won't be any middle ground.'

"No middle ground . . ." she repeated out loud as she slowly worked the buttons on the white sundress she'd grabbed out of the closet.  It was the first thing she'd touched, so she wasn't really paying much attention to it.  'But how . . .?'

Her youkai-voice sighed.  'One thing at a time, Jessa.  That's how you built the wall, isn't it?  And that's the only way to take it down again—if that's what you want to do.'

Rubbing her arms as she wandered over to the windows that overlooked the stables and the paddocks beyond, Jessa blinked as the outline of her horse seemed to appear for only a moment before fading away again, as the emptiness that she'd grown so accustomed to opened up in the pit of her stomach once more, as a steady rain started to fall against the window panes.

Against her soul . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa sat under the overhang of a very old tree near the small pond on Ashur's estate, tucked away in one of the eastern corners with a book in her hand that had slipped closed over her thumb as she stared out over the water with a sad sort of expression on her face.

The late May breeze was crisp and fresh, carrying with it the scent of earth and green things.  Ashur had taken Kells to visit a preschool that was said to be one of the finest in the area, though Jessa had her doubts that the boy in question actually would want to go to school.  Given that Ashur tended to let him do as he wanted, for the most part, maybe curbing his impulses in a preschool setting might do Kells a little bit of good . . .

And she'd found out about the preschool visit from Kells, who had mentioned it this morning as he woke her up by bouncing on her bed.

Ashur . . .

Making a face as she rather roughly yanked her hair over her shoulder as she dropped the book on the sparse grass beside her, she twisted the locks around and around.

It figured, she supposed.  In the ten days since the second kiss, he hadn't spoken more than two words at a time to her.  She hadn't actually thought that it could be worse than before.  She was wrong—dead wrong.  He seemed to be entirely set on ignoring her existence in the most polite and maddening way possible.

She'd opted to get out of the house, to go for a walk, and she'd ended up here.  It was as good a place as any to finish her book in peace.  At least, somebody, somewhere was getting a happy ending, even if it was entirely fictional.

The chime of her cell phone announced an incoming text. It was from Myrna, asking how she liked Canada.  For a brief moment, she considered telling her cousin that she didn't want to be here.  Then she sighed.  Even if Myrna did come get her, what was the point when it was beyond obvious that she wasn't at all interested in having Jessa around?  She texted back the perfunctory, 'everything's good, fine, love it here', and dropped the phone onto the book.

She felt like she was going mad, and she felt like she had all the time in the world to do it, too.  Never in her life had she understood or even remotely grasped just why anyone would ever run away from home.  Thanks to Ashur and his ridiculous sense of propriety, she was starting to appreciate the idea.  If she had somewhere to run to, she would probably be thinking it over even more.  As it was, though, she didn't, and even if she did, she only had the money she'd made while working at the club and the added pittances that she'd made for watching Kells, too.

'Even if we could, would you really want to leave them?'

Snorting inwardly, she snatched the book off the ground and stubbornly buried her nose in whatever page she'd randomly opened.

'You can pretend to ignore me, if that is your wish, but you really can't ignore a voice in your own head, Jessa.'

'Maybe,' she answered in a clipped little tone.  'Why shouldn't I?  There's really no point in staying here.  Besides, it's not like he'd really care if I did leave, now would he?  Then he could keep up appearances—be a good, upstanding citizen . . . That's what he's the most concerned about, isn't it?'

'Is that what you really think?  That he's only concerned about his own image?'

'Isn't that what he said?' she snapped, clapping the book closed as she stuffed it back into the knapsack she'd brought along with a bottle of water and a few dry crackers.

'You know, I honestly think he was saying that about you, not him.  I think he was more concerned that you'd be somehow ruined . . .'

'And you know that I'm really starting to get sick and tired of you, defending him,' she countered.  'Stop trying to make me feel bad when he's the one who cannot make up his mind!'

That was the gist of it, wasn't it?  He was the one who couldn't control his urges; he's the one who had opted to kiss her.  She certainly hadn't asked him to do it either time.  That was all on him, which had led her to another odd thought during one of her more interesting mental tirades.  She had to admit that kissing him was entirely nice—at least, until he'd pulled away from her, that was.  But the truth of it was that she really didn't have a basis for comparison since she stubbornly refused to acknowledge any stolen kisses when she'd worked at the club.  Those were sloppy and reeked of alcohol.  Those were no different than kissing the back of her own hand.  Well, okay, so, kissing her own hand might well be more enjoyable than those were.

In any case, she had decided that kissing Ashur really couldn't be that much different.

'You don't honestly believe that, do you?'

'Yes,' she insisted, breaking the seal on the water  bottle with a deft twist.  'Yes, I do.'

If she had access to her parents' accounts, she could go home, where things made sense, where she felt like she belonged . . . Where there were no infuriating earth-youkai to muddle her thoughts and linger way too long in her mind.

Her frown turned thoughtful.  It had been over two months since her father had died.  Surely, they had to be making progress on the whole thing, and she didn't have a cell phone since they'd seized hers at the time, so they had no real way to reach her, either . . .

Letting out a deep breath that lifted the long bangs on her forehead, straight up in the air, Jessa frowned and dug a business card out of her bag.  She didn't remember exactly who had given it to her, but she'd been handed it along with her passport just before they'd dropped her off at the airport.

'Gregory Halsbeck, Irish Consulate,' it read, along with an email address and a couple of phone numbers.  Before she could talk herself out of it, she dialed one of them.

"Hello. You have reached the Irish Consulate.  If you know your party's extension, you may dial it now . . ."

She keyed in the four digit extension and made a face when she was sent straight to voicemail.  "Hello, Mr. Halsbeck? My name is Jessa—um, Jessamyn—O'Shea.  I was given a card with your name and number a couple months ago when I was forced to go stay with my cousin in the States while my parents' estate was ironed out.  I was wondering if you had any more information regarding the disbursement of my parents' estate?  I'd appreciate a return call.  My number is 555-555-5555.  Thank you . . ."

Letting the phone drop once more, she slumped back against the tree.  She felt stuck, didn't she?  Entirely stuck, and, as far as she could tell, there wasn't a single being on earth who really gave a damn about her, either.

 

 


 

 

 

"Ah, Mr. Philips.  I'm sorry to keep you waiting.  I'm Renee Thomas, the administrator here at the Kinder Center," the middle-aged woman said, striding into the very regal office with a smile on her face as she extended a hand, her two inch stack heels thumping against the thin Oriental carpet situated in the middle of the room.  "And you must be Kells!" she went on, letting go of Ashur's hand after a very curt shake.  "It's a pleasure to meet you, young man!"

Kells nodded, smiling widely as the woman ruffled his hair before waving them over to the sofa.

"Oh, will your mate be joining us?" she asked, setting down a manila file that contained Kells' application before she leaned forward to pour coffee into two bone china cups on the tea tray arranged on the shining coffee table.

"It's Mommy's day off!" Kells blurted before Ashur could disabuse the woman of the notion.

"Oh," she replied, looking a little perplexed.  "I see . . ."

"Uh . . ."

"Jessa's my mommy, and she's really pre-e-e-e-etty," Kells added.

Ashur wondered vaguely if the woman would find it odd if he clapped a hand over his child's overzealous mouth.  "Jessa's not his mother.  She's his nanny."

"Ah, that makes sense!" she replied, turning her attention to her paperwork as she gestured at the cup of coffee.  "I have to admit, this is a little unusual," Ms. Thomas said as she looked up from Kells' enrollment application.  "You understand, normally we have a rather long waiting list.  Right now, it stands at about eight months to a year, however, I got a call from Gin Zelig about a week ago, and she asked if there was any way to move you up in the waiting list."  She smiled pleasantly and gave a little bob of her shoulders.  "As you are undoubtedly aware, we are a specialized preschool, and we only take youkai children because we, unlike the others, work with our children to give them a solid foundation of how to harness and utilize their various potentials, focusing on their abilities to control their emotions, so, when you get a call from the wife of the tai-youkai, you pay attention."

Ashur nodded slowly.  He did know about the special qualities of the preschool, and it was one of the reasons that he'd opted to fill out the application.  Even so, some small things did worry him a little, and he wanted to have those things addressed before he shelled out the ungodly exorbitant price for admission.  "Elitism amongst the youkai isn't part of your curriculum, is it?"

Her smile didn't falter, didn't waver.  "You'll be happy to know that we do have a number of hanyou registered here, and they're all very happy—thriving, even."

"I meant against humans," he clarified.

"Oh, no, we absolutely do not condone any kind of that sort of behavior at all.  If we see it, even a hint of it, we take care to nip it at the bud, so to speak."

"Good."

She turned her gentle smile on Kells, who was staring at an arrangement of fake fruit rather intently, like he was trying to decide whether he thought they were real.  "Tell me, Kells . . . Do you know your ABCs yet?"

Kells nodded and proceeded to start singing the Alphabet Song.

"Very good!" she said, clapping her hands as she praised the boy.  "Can you count to twenty?"

Kells nodded again.  "I can count to a hundred!"

"That's very impressive," she replied.  "He seems very advanced for his age," she said, turning her attention back to Ashur once more.

"He also knows his colors, can tie his own shoes—"

"And I can swim, too!" Kells interrupted.

Ashur grunted.  "He also can't sit still for more than ten seconds, can't keep his mouth closed for more than fifteen seconds, and can't have sugar, ever, or you'll be very, very sorry."

"Daddy!" Kells blurted, tugging on Ashur's arm.  "Jessa loves chocolate.  Can we gets her some chocolate?"

Ashur's answer was a very long, very drawn-out sigh as he leveled a look at the administrator.

She laughed.  "I think we have a spot here for Kells," she said.  "Here's a list of the things that he'll need.  We don't have an opening till Tuesday, July 6.  A family is moving, and their son's spot will be available then.   Anyway, this list is just a few little things—facial tissues, a box of wet-naps, that kind of thing.  Here's a detailed list of our rules—nothing bad.  Just normal standards of behavior that we expect, even from small children . . . and here's a copy of our dress code.  I trust that won't be a problem?"

Glancing over the paperwork, Ashur slowly shook his head.  "No, it's fine," he said.  The sheet with the dress code actually contained lists of shops where the various things could be purchased, so that helped immensely.

Ms. Thomas nodded as her smile brightened as she stood to escort them to the door.  "We do ask that you bring him in a half-hour or so early on his first day so that you can meet his teacher and help to get him acquainted . . . If you'd like to stay for awhile to make sure that he adjusts well, then we encourage that, too—and we do offer parents tissues for their own separation anxieties."

He smiled slightly and shook her hand again. "Thank you," he replied.  If you email me the information about his tuition, I'll pay for it then."

"Absolutely," she agreed, opening the door for them.  "Bye, Kells.  It was wonderful to meet you!"

"Bye!" Kells half-hollered as he hopped on out of the door.

Ashur shook his head and shot the woman an apologetic glance before following Kells out of the office, wondering almost absently if he could make the tyrant behave long enough to get his school uniforms . . .

 

 


 

 

 

"Hello?  Miss?  Are you all right?"

Jessa awoke with a start, blinking fast as she struggled to dissipate the disorientation that clung to her brain.  She didn't remember falling asleep.

"Miss?"

She glanced around, stopping when she focused on the man before her.  He was hunkered down with one knee on the ground, his forearm resting on his other knee.  Staring at her with a slight frown, his dark blue eyes were candid, frank, his face lean, well-defined—almost too chiseled—too good looking—like Ashur, but in an entirely different way.  Ashur's face was a little softer, prettier, but this man . . . Not quite as pretty, per se, he looked more like a classic California surfer dude, she supposed.  His startlingly direct gaze seemed to take her in as the breeze tossed his collar-length, dark brown hair that was layered into wispy strands that seemed to catch the breeze and hold onto it.  He was youkai, she could tell, but she had no idea what type of youkai he was, either.

"Who are you?" he asked, his tone not really unfriendly, but not exactly welcoming, either.

"Who are you?" she countered, "and what are you doing here on Ashur's land?"

"Ashur's land?" he echoed, eyebrows raising to disappear under the shaggy fringe of bangs.  "Hmm . . . I thought this was mine . . ."

"Ashur said the pond's on his land," she replied cautiously.

"I suppose that's possible," he said.  "Technically speaking, I just bought my estate.  The closing on it was yesterday."  He smiled, an easy expression that added a sparkle to his eyes.  "I'm Dev—Devlin Broughton."

She frowned.  "You're British," she said.  "I'm Jessa O'Shea.  Pleased to meet you . . . maybe."

"And you're Irish," he countered with a chuckle.  "Well, if you're all right, then I'll not trouble you further," he said, pushing against his knees as he rose to his feet.

For some reason, she didn't want him to leave, not yet.  Maybe it was simply because he was the first person to have spoken to her—actually talked to her—in weeks.  Whatever the reason didn't matter.  She reached out, grasped his hand before he could stand.  "Wait," she blurted, unable to keep the slight note of panic out of her voice.  "I . . . I mean . . ." she sighed.

He stared at her for a long moment, his brow furrowing as he watched her.  She didn't rightfully know what he saw, but he slowly gave a nod as he settled back into his squat once more.  "Are you all right?" he asked again, only this time, his tone was softer, gentler.

She forced a small smile, flicked her hand in what she could only hope was a casual kind of way.  "Oh, yes . . . Right as rain," she lied.  "So, um . . . You just bought your property?  Does that mean you'll be here awhile?"

He shrugged, his expression a little on the tolerant side, as though he were humoring her, and, while it bothered her, she pushed that notion aside, feeling almost desperate, just to have someone—anyone—listen to her—talk to her.  "For awhile," he replied with an offhanded shrug.  "Seems like a nice area—a quiet area."

"A little boring, if you ask me," she said.

"There's something to be said for boring," he told her.  "Sometimes, it's preferable to  strife and contention."

"Seems like you know a bit about those things."

He ran his hand through his hair, and she watched as the strands all drifted back into their perfect semblance of messy disarray that seemed somehow perfect on him.  Broad but not bulky, lean but not skinny, hidden in the folds of a pair of jeans that were a little too big and a rumpled white v-neck tee-shirt that looked like he might have slept in it, and somehow, he seemed entirely approachable—maybe it had something to do with the quiet earnestness in his blue gaze . . . "When you grow up in London, you learn to appreciate the simple and unfussy things in life," he said.

She smiled, uttered an ironic sort of laugh.  "It's not reserved strictly for London."

He nodded slowly, smiled as he pushed himself to his feet again.  "Well, I was out for a ride, and spotted you . . . Thought that maybe you were a damsel in distress . . ."

"For a ride?" she repeated, her gaze shifting off of his face and lighting on the roan gelding tethered to a tree nearby.  "Oh . . ." she breathed as she slowly stood.  The animal was lovely, obviously well cared-for, a soft gray with black undertones . . . Without stopping to think about it, she stepped over to the creature, slowly reaching out to stroke his smooth and glossy side.  "He's beautiful," she breathed.

"I don't know him well yet," he admitted as she stopped beside her.  "He is the first one I made friends with, though."

She sighed as a sudden and savage jolt of wistfulness shot through her.  "I have a gypsy cob," she said.  "Back home, anyway . . ."

"You ride," he concluded.  "Do you have a horse here?"

She shook her head and gently stroked the animal's bulging jaw.  "No . . . There's a stable, but no horses . . . Pity . . ."

Tilting his head slightly as he looked at her, he seemed to be considering something.  She stepped back, letting her hand fall away as she smiled a little sadly.  "If you'd like to spend some time in my stable, you're welcome to do so," he offered.  "I'm just . . ." Pointing over his shoulder in a vague sort of way, he shrugged.  "Just next door, in a manner of speaking," he told her.  "Feel free to stop in."

"Thank you," she replied, breaking into a small smile.  "I . . . I will . . ."

He untied the horse swung himself up into the saddle, holding onto the reins as he smiled down at her.  "It was nice meeting you, Jessa O'Shea."

He clucked his tongue, gave the horse a small nudge in the ribs.  She watched him go and sighed.  "Devlin Broughton," she murmured to herself.  "Hmm . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Setting aside the cup of coffee that he'd brought into the office, Ashur sat down in the leather chair and tapped the desk panel to turn on the computer.  Deleting the emails that weren't important, he heaved a sigh.  An email from one of the men—a doctor—he'd met few months ago, wanting donations from the newest general of the region for a new hospital wing addition . . . One from Zelig, asking if things were going all right . . . The invoice for Kells' tuition—that one, he took the time to pay . . . One from Cain's hunter, Larry Rowland, letting him know that he would be in the area on a hunt . . .

His cell phone beeped, and Ashur grabbed it.  "Hello?"

"Hey, Ash.  Got a minute?"

"It depends on why you're calling."

Ben chuckled.  "I've got information for you.  I was going to just email it, but I didn't know how secure your network is at the moment.  That reminds me, Moe said he'd be up that way in a few weeks—some sort of electronics expo, I think.  He said to let you know he'd stop by and get you added to the secured network we use to transfer files to each other."

"So, you've finally managed to find out something about the damned duke?" Ashur demanded, ignoring everything else that Ben had said.  "Tell me."

Letting out a deep breath, Ben clucked his tongue.  "What happened to your legendary patience?" he asked.

"Not today, Ben," he countered.  "Just tell me what you know."

"All right, all right," Ben conceded.  "Carl Kingston, fourth Duke of Portsmouth—ring-tailed coati-youkai . . . owner of Kingston Pharmaceuticals.  He has a few lesser titles, but duke is the main one.  From what I can tell, he's a supporter of Ian MacDonnough but not really that active in the anti-Sesshoumaru faction, either, which means nothing over there.  They don't really go out and broadcast that kind of information.  Anyway, he originally approached the O'Sheas regarding an arranged marriage between their son and Jessa, which her father immediately declined.  Then he approached MacDonnough, ostensibly to see if the tai-youkai could force the issue—I assume that this is where Nami was asked to . . . arrange things . . ."

"Okay, and the son?"

Ben sighed.  "Hughbert Kingston, seventh Viscount of Knightsboro . . . Not much is known of the young man—he's only about thirty-five . . .  but as far as we could tell, we couldn't come up with even one picture of him.  It's assumed that he's also a ring-tailed coati-youkai, like his father, and we weren't able to find much information about his mother, either, other than someone saying at one point that he had pale hair and lighter colored eyes . . . From what they say, he doesn't attend social functions, tends to shy away from the public eye—kind of a feat, considering his father is a prominent member of the peerage . . . "

"So, basically, you're saying we don't have a thing to go on; not really," Ashur said, gritting his teeth as frustration kicked in.

"Not a lot," Ben concluded.  "My gut impression is, however, that the son didn't have much at all to do or say about the whole thing.  Seems like his father does most of the talking . . . Sounds a little familiar, if you ask me."

He made a face at the not-so-subtle allusion to their late father and his controlling ways.  Ben didn't talk about either of their parents often.  It was rather surprising that he was doing so now.  "Does this guy's father know the lengths that the MacDonnough would go to just to see that Jessa's fortune falls into their hands?" Ashur asked, entirely ignoring Ben's cryptic remarks.

"I really don't know.  I mean, there's a huge difference between asking MacDonnough to put in a good word and asking MacDonnough to have her parents killed to clear the way.  Even so, it's best to keep an eye on her, just in case . . . If MacDonnough is devious enough to have her mother killed, then he's devious enough to try to force the issue in other ways," Ben replied.  He was silent for a moment, almost thoughtful.  "Ashur . . ."

"What?" he asked curtly, somehow feeling as though he didn't want to know what his brother was considering.

"Jessa . . . She's . . . Well, she's a beautiful young woman."

"And?"

"Surely, you've noticed."

Ashur grunted, grimacing at the deadly accuracy of Ben's too-casual statement, he could only be thankful that he hadn't transferred the call to a video feed because that particular youkai was arguably one of the most observant beings on the face of the planet.  "I'd have to be dead not to have noticed that Jessa's quite beautiful," Ashur allowed dryly.

Ben chuckled.

"What's so funny?" he asked stiffly.

Ben's chuckling escalated slightly.  "Just making sure . . . I figured that, if you had opted to claim that you hadn't noticed, then you'd be trying to cover up something.  Glad to see you've got a clear conscience."

"Go to hell, Ben," Ashur grumbled.

"Oh!  Yeah, how did the meeting with the preschool go?"

"Kells starts there on July sixth," he replied, happy enough to let the current line of questioning go.

"Good, good . . . Charity wondered if you'd mind if we came and got him for a couple weeks.  The girls saw a commercial for Funtown, and she told them to ask Daddy—and you know how that goes . . ."

"It usually ends with you giving in because you're a sucker," Ashur said.

"Yes, that," Ben agreed readily enough. "Then she started in on me, saying that we might as well go for a vacation, of sorts—stop at all the local amusement parks, water parks, state reserves, points of interest, et cetera, et cetera all over New England.  Somehow, she managed to talk Sydnie and Bas into it, too, then Cain and Gin thought it'd be fun, and they told Kurt and Sami about it, so-o-o-o . . ."

Ashur snorted.  "Good God, that sounds horrifying," he blurted.

"Kind of," Ben allowed.  "Anyway, we thought Kells might enjoy it, too.  After all, the more, the merrier."

Shaking his head since Ben sounded anything but excited about this little venture, Ashur almost smiled.  "If you want to take him along, I'm sure he'd love to go.  Just do me a favor, and don't let him sucker you into letting him have all kinds of sugar.  I'd rather not have to detox  him when he gets home again, if you'd be so kind."

"Okay, fine," Ben agreed.  "So, was there anything else you need?  Charity's ready to go.  We're going to a cookout tonight at Bas' . . . You know, I'm starting to hate this version of, 'family togetherness' . . ."

"Move up this way," Ashur suggested.  "We can avoid each other, and it'll be just fine."

Ben chuckled again.  "I'll have Charity call you with the details: when we'll pick up Kells and all of that.  Call if you need anything."

"Will do," he replied and hit the button to end the call with a heavy sigh.

It was a fairly common occurrence for Ben and Charity to take Kells at different times during the year, but most often during the summer for extended visits.  Ashur hadn't wanted to do anything that would interfere with Ben's ability to spend time with Kells, even if it wasn't as brothers.  That he was volunteering to do it for a couple of weeks, however, was a new and interesting development, but, given that he had a number of meetings set up in the next few weeks—meetings that would keep him pretty busy as he was introduced to some of the more important youkai in his region—he couldn't rightfully say that having Kells go off with Ben was a bad idea.  Besides, that little tyrant would enjoy it, he was certain, and he'd probably end up, bringing home a bunch of crap that he didn't really need but desperately wanted to keep . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa sat on the cream colored, overstuffed sofa with her knees drawn up against her chest, her hands locked around her ankles, staring rather pensively at the fire she'd started on the hearth of the huge stone fireplace.   She didn't know what time it was, but the darkness had settled over the land awhile ago.  Ashur had taken Kells upstairs to put to bed.  She'd heard him come back downstairs and had heard the soft click of his office door closing, too.

A quiet supper of lamb stew and new potatoes, they'd had, and it had been a quiet affair since the only one really doing any talking at all was Kells, and he didn't seem to notice the surreptitious glances that Jessa had shot Ashur, only to find him, staring at Kells or off to the side—anywhere but at her.

In fact, the only thing Ashur had said the entire time was that Ben and Charity were going to be arriving on the weekend to pick up Kells since they were going on a family vacation for a couple weeks.  Kells had spent the rest of the meal, babbling on about the places that he wanted to see, most of which were nowhere near their destinations.  That's what Ashur had said, anyway.

She sighed.  She'd thought briefly about calling Carol, until she realized that Carol was probably at work.  She was trying not to think about the two weeks while Kells would be gone.  As it was, he kept her pretty entertained during the day, and she knew that she'd miss him terribly.

And then, the consulate did call her back earlier, only to tell her that they had absolutely nothing new to divulge.  All that Mr. Halsbeck had said was that they were waiting for the MacDonnough to issue the death certificates, and that they were still in process of trying to find the wills.

Oh, and that they'd sold her horse—all the horses.  They thought it better to sell the livestock instead of keeping on a master of the stables to care for them.

She winced.

They'd sold Derry . . .

Making a face as she uncurled her legs, as she stood up and shuffled across the floor, feeling restless, feeling anxious, feeling lost . . . Trying not to dwell upon the idea that her beloved Derry was gone forever, she angrily brushed aside a single tear that had escaped despite her stubborn resolve not to allow any such thing.

It was official, wasn't it?  Every last thing—person or animal—that she loved was gone, and the void she felt, deep down inside her chest, was a horrible thing—a frightening feeling . . .

Striding across the length of the floor and back, she felt strangely trapped by the walls of the house, by the stifling silence.  It didn't really matter if there were others in the place, not when they'd so effectively closed themselves off from her.  Hating the dreadful darkness outside the windows, hating the claustrophobic stillness . . . Hating everything—everything—and hating herself the most . . .

Without really thinking about it, she yanked open the majestic wood liquor cabinet that was built into the wall near the fireplace.  She grabbed the first bottle she touched, sloshing a good amount into an empty glass.  She didn't know what it was as she slugged back the first glass.  She didn't care.  As though driven by the need just to try to drown everything away, she dumped more into the glass and slammed it back, too.

She was pouring the third one when the soft voice sounded behind her.  She hadn't heard him come out of his office, and he sounded mildly amused when he spoke.  "Well, if you're pouring drinks, Jessa, make mine a double."

It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him to go to hell. She poured him a drink instead and whipped around to give it to him.

"Sake?" he said, arching an eyebrow as he gazed at her, his eyes so much darker in the light of the dancing fire.  "You're not messing around, are you?"

She wasn't entirely sure what he meant, but she shrugged as she drained the third glass in short order.  When she started to turn to refill it, though, she swayed a little.  He caught her arm, steadied her, reaching for her glass and easily plucking it out of her fingers.  "How much have you already had?" he asked.

She thought about that for a moment.  "Three . . . I think . . ."

He nodded slowly as he set the glass on the bar and reached around her to put the bottle away.  Considering how full his glass was?  Three was more than enough—probably too much—of that particular sake, actually . . . "Care to tell me what you're trying to forget?" he asked, taking her hand and leading her away from the wet bar, lest she should decide that another round of drinks was in order as he mentally told himself to call someone in the morning to put a lock on that cabinet.

She stumbled just a little, and she dropped onto the sofa with a whoosh of breath, half-sitting, half-lying, with her legs stretched out before her and a very petulant look on her pretty face.  "Who says I'm trying to forget anything?" she challenged.

"The way you were belting the drinks back, it's a reasonable assumption."

"Go to hell, Ashur," she slurred.

He chuckled.  There was just something ridiculously cute about the pout on her face, about the way her reddened bottom lip jutted out, the way she peered up at him through her thick fringe of eyelashes . . . "You realize that there's a good chance that you're going to feel like hell warmed over in the morning," he told her.

She snorted.  "Who cares?  You don't . . ." She narrowed her eyes on him as he sat down beside her, set his glass on the table.  "You probably think it's funny, don't you?  You probably told them to go ahead and do it!"

"Told who, what?"

She snorted again, rolling her eyes to the other side, stubbornly refusing to look at him any longer.  "Told those bastards to sell my horse," she growled.

She didn't see the frown that surfaced on his features.  "Did they?"

She nodded, a hurt expression nudging aside the pout in a mercurial shift of mood.  "Mr. Halsbeck said that the attorney—monster that he is—thought it would be easier to sell the horses than it would be to just keep paying the man who's taken care of them for years . . ."

"I'm  . . . really sorry . . ."

"Except you're not," she said, pushing herself up, nabbing his glass, and downing the rest of his sake before he could stop her.  Then she thumped the glass onto the table and flopped back once more.  "You don't care, Ashur.  You don't give a bloody damn about me."

"Of course, I do," he replied.

"You would have sold him, too," she accused, her voice cracking, breaking, slurring.

"No, I wouldn’t have," he told her.  "I know how much he meant to you."

She whimpered.  "I'll never see him again," she squeaked out. "Just like Ma and Da . . ."

He grimaced and sighed, reaching out to pull her against his shoulder.  She pushed him back, scuttled away from him.  "Jessa . . ."

"Don't touch me because it's all a lie," she railed, angrily swatting the tears off her cheeks.  "You said I'd never be alone again . . . but you lied . . ."

"Come here," he said, catching her wrist, drawing her firmly but gently over against him, locking his arms around her waist.  "You just don't realize what a girl like you can do to a man, do you?"

She pushed against him, but he held on.  "Let go, you bloody oaf!"

"Listen—"

"I don't want to listen!" she insisted, struggling against him a little more.  "I don't want anything from you!"

He sighed.  "I wasn't ignoring you," he told her.  "I just . . . I—"

"You don't want to be my lifetime regret," she said, using his words against him.  "Then let go of me!"

"Do you really want me to?" he asked quietly.

She glared at him, but the glare slowly melted away, and what was left behind was utterly devastating—a pain so raw, so unhidden, that it tore at him, dug at him, unleashing an ache somewhere deep down in a place that he'd thought had died . . . She looked as lost, as confused, as he felt, and this time, she let him pull her against his side, let him tuck her head under his chin, against his heart.

"I wasn't trying to make you feel alone," he told her quietly.  "I was trying to give you space . . . I was trying . . ." Heaving a sigh as he trailed off, he couldn't help the sense of frustration that assailed him.  He felt as though it was the wrong time, wrong place, wrong everything, and yet, if that were truly the case, why in the world did she feel so right in his arms . . .?

"Ashur?"

"Hmm?"

She sniffled but huddled a little closer.  "Why are you sad?"

He blinked, frowned.  "I'm . . . I'm not . . ."

"You're lying," she said, but her accusation held very little in the way of reproach.  "I see it . . . In your eyes . . ."

Letting out a deep breath as he pressed his lips against her forehead, he frowned over her head and at nothing in particular.  "Maybe I am," he mused.  "Maybe that's what happens when your whole life turns out to be someone else's sick idea of a joke."

She digested that in silence for a moment.  Then she sighed.  "It sounds like . . . like someone broke your heart."

"Yeah," he said slowly, thoughtfully.  "Yeah, I guess . . ."

She leaned back to stare at him, her eyes clear, burning with a slow glow like the embers on the hearth, maybe a little dazed from the drink, as she reached up, brushed his bangs out of his face.  Cheeks flushed from the booze, lips cherry red.  "You don't want to tell me about it, do you?"

He didn't respond, but he did have the grace to look away, though not before he saw it there, written in the depths of her gaze.  She wanted him to tell her, didn't she?  She wanted to know . . . and one day, he might—just not tonight . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa groaned as she rolled out of the bed she didn't remember getting into the night before.  It felt like someone was inside her head, smacking on her skull with a tiny silver hammer, and her tongue felt like someone had stuffed her mouth full of cotton at some point.

Soft chuckles drew her attention, and she turned her head a little too fast, which triggered another low moan.

Ashur leaned in the doorway, looking entirely fresh and neat, and that only made her grind her teeth together as she stifled the desire to snort out loud.  How dare he look so entirely unflappable when she woke up, feeling like utter hell on a stick?

"I just wanted to let you know that I'm taking Kells to town shortly.  We're ordering his uniforms for preschool and picking up a few things he'll need on his trip with Ben, so, if you'd like to come along, that's fine, but . . . Something tells me that you'd rather stay here and . . . enjoy the silence."

"I don't think I like you right now," she ground out, digging in the drawers for clothes since she figured that a shower might well be the best thing at the moment.

He chuckled again, blast him.  "A word of advice for the next time?  Liquor might help in the moment, but it's usually worse in the morning," he told her.

She grunted something entirely unintelligible under her breath.

"I suggest saltines, Tylenol, and a lot of water," he told her as he pushed away from the frame.  "And, for future reference, sake is not the best drink if you're trying to avoid a hangover."

"I thought you were going into town," she grumbled.

He lifted a hand as he turned away, waving at her over his shoulder as he disappeared from view.

She felt utterly repulsive.  With a heavy sigh as she gripped her temples between her hands, she stumbled into the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth, deciding that a full shower would probably kill her.

Groaning as she got a good look at herself in the mirror, she sighed.  Darkened smudges under her eyes, the overall gaunt sort of appearance to her face . . . Her skin was a rather sickly shade of yellowish, and she couldn't help the overall feeling that she looked almost as bad as she felt.

She washed her face and brushed her teeth, then spent a little time, applying moisturizer to her parched skin, before shuffling out of the bathroom, throwing on the first clean thing she laid hands on in her closet: an oversized, dark blue sweat shirt and a pair of black jeans.  Calling it good, she grabbed a black scrunchy off the top of her dresser, clubbing back her hair without bothering to brush it as she shuffled out of the room and down the hallway.

Ashur had left two Tylenol next to a glass of water on the kitchen counter with a note that read that she should drink at least three glasses to help alleviate the lingering headache from her overindulgence the night before.  She heaved a sigh, but downed the pills, along with the first glass of water, grimacing as they got stuck in her throat.

She stopped as she reached for the kitchen faucet to refill the glass when the chime of the doorbell echoed through the house.  With a wince since the sound of it clanged in her head, she set the glass aside and hurried to answer the door before whoever was on the other side thought to push the doorbell for a second time.

"Eh, morning," Devlin Broughton said as she opened the door.  He stood there with a bashful little grin on his face as he jerked his head toward two horses that he'd tethered to a nearby tree.  The one, she'd seen the first time she'd met him, and the other was a sorrel roan that was slightly smaller than the gray one.  Both were beautiful animals, obviously well cared for, and Jessa couldn't help the small gasp that slipped out of her as she stared at the two creatures.  "I was going out for my morning ride, and I thought maybe, if you weren't busy, you'd like to join me?"

"Oh, I'd love to!" she blurted quickly.  "Just let me get my shoes . . ."

He nodded and chuckled, loping down the steps and striding over to the horses.

She darted upstairs, hangover forgotten in the excitement of the moment.  It didn't take long for her to slip on the ankle boots, which were the closest to riding gear that she had.  Then she ran back downstairs and out the door, touching the keypad lock to secure the house before fairly skipping down the steps and over to the horses and Devlin.  "They're gorgeous," she said, her voice quiet, almost reverent, as she slowly reached out to touch the sorrel roan.

"This one's Fletch," he said, patting the neck of the gray roan.  "You've seen him already, of course . . . That one's Flicker.  Master of the stables assures me that she's gentle as a kitten, though I confess, I've not taken her out before."

"Hello, Flicker," she said, smiling at the horse as she took her time, making friends with her.  "Aren't you beautiful?"

"How good are you?" he asked as she untied the horse and stuck her foot in the stirrup.

"I'm all right," she mused, flashing him a smile as she settled herself in the saddle.  "Thank you so much . . . I've been dying to get out on a horse, ever since I got here . . ."

He chuckled and clucked his tongue to nudge Fletch into a slow trot, heading for the road.  "I thought it'd be better to backtrack to my land and go from there," he said as she fell into step beside him.  She could feel his gaze on her, assessing her skills, she figured.  That was all right.  She'd been riding longer than she could remember.  Breathing in deep, savoring the scent of the earth, the land, she could feel the strain of the last few weeks slowly draining away.  There was just something about the feeling of freedom afforded her when she was riding, and it was a sensation that she'd missed more than she could credit.  All in all, it felt as though her entire outlook just got a little bit better . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur sat in the uncomfortable wood and vinyl booth, watching as Kells devoured a hamburger and fries, his gaze shifting over and over  again to the play area in the small burger joint.  "Can I play when I finish?" he asked, blinking solemnly at his father.

"As long as you eat all of that sandwich," he allowed.

Kells started to stuff a huge bite into his mouth—until he caught the raised-eyebrow-ed look from Ashur, that was.   Then he giggled and took a more normal bite.  "Daddy, why didn't Jessa come wif us?"

He almost smiled at the innocent question.  "She wasn't feeling very well this morning," he replied, figuring that it was a good enough explanation for the inquisitive child.

"Then she should go to the doctor!" Kells decided, his eyes flaring wide, the expression in them a little alarmed.  "That's what they do on the TV when someone's sick!"

"It's, uh . . . not that kind of sick," Ashur replied.  "She'll be fine in a few hours, I promise."

Kells seemed to relax just a little as he thoughtfully chewed his bite of burger.  "Does that mean she's gonna have a baby?"

Choking on the sip of coffee he'd just taken, Ashur coughed and cleared his throat as he set the cup aside.  "What?"

"On TV, when Bingbong's mommy was sick, she had a baby," he said.  "Is Jessa gonna—?"

"No," Ashur insisted a little sharper than he intended.  He cleared his throat again.  "No," he repeated, only this time, in a much more controlled tone of voice.

Kells was off and running, though.  "If Jessa has a baby, would it be my brudder?"

Rubbing his forehead, Ashur closed his eyes.  "She's not going to—"

"Can I name him?"

"No—Kells, she's not having a baby . . ."

"I wanna name him Arfur!"

Ashur heaved a sigh.  "You've been watching too much Power Puppies," he grumbled.  "Apparently, so have I if I know their names . . ."

The trill of his cell phone sounded, and he dug it out of his pocket to connect the video chat.

"Hey, Ash," Ben greeted.

"Uncle Ben!" Kells hollered, hopping up and down on his knees until Ashur turned the phone so that Kells could see the screen.  "Uncle Ben!  Jessa's gonna have a brudder for me!  I'm gonna name him Arfur!"

Yanking the phone away from the little heathen, Ashur sighed and made a face.  "No, she isn't.  She drank too much sake last night, is all, and she's feeling a little under the weather because of it," he explained before Ben could say a word.

Ben looked more amused than he ought to, given the current conversation.  "That's a hell of a leap," he remarked with a chuckle.

Ashur shook his head and shooed Kells off to go play.  "Bingbong's mom had a baby after she was sick, so that's how he got there," he replied.

"Bingbong?  Oh, that annoying as hell caterpillar on the cartoon channel?"

"That's the one," Ashur replied.  "Someone ought to step on the little bastard—and his mother."

Ben barked out a laugh at that.  "We missed out," he said.  "They didn't have cartoons back then."

Ashur snorted.  "I'm assuming that you didn't call just to talk about the caterpillar bastard?"

"Nope, not really.  I was just wondering if it's possible for us to pick up Kells a little early—like today."

"Today?  Why the rush?"

Ben shrugged, downing his coffee before answering.  "Manami is in town between assignments, and she wanted to spend a little time with him—if you don't mind, that is."

It wasn't a new thing.  Manami seemed to enjoy being around Kells.  She was rather like their sister, in a sense, and Ashur was okay with that, too.  "It's not a problem," he replied.  "Well, provided I can get Kells out of the playground . . ."

"Okay.  We should be there sometime between four and five, then."

"Drive safely."

Ending the connection, Ashur spent a moment, watching Kells as the boy ferreted his way up through the bright yellow tube to the top of the huge ball pit and catapulted himself off the edge into the sea of multicolored balls, and he let out a deep breath.

'How the hell did that child jump from, 'Jessa doesn't feel well' to, 'Jessa's going to have a baby'?'

His youkai-voice laughed.  'Probably because he's Kells, and that's what Kells do best . . .'

'Yes, well, let's hope he forgets that idea sooner rather than later . . . The last thing I need is for him to go around, telling everyone that Jessa's pregnant . . .'

'We could talk to Jessa, see if she's interested in working on that . . .'

'You need to shut up.'

His youkai laughed harder.

He sighed.  After having spent a sleepless night, wondering just why her mercurial moods tended to affect him so much, he'd given up around dawn since he really wasn't any closer to figuring that out than he was when he'd gone to his room.

He'd put her to bed—she'd fallen asleep on the sofa—and had sat there, staring at her with a thoughtful frown for the better part of an hour as he'd tried to make sense of her mood, tried to figure out why she'd opted to drink herself into a stupor.

'Is it really that hard to understand, Kyouhei?  That girl . . . You know, don't you?  That horse was the very last thing she had—the last thing that tied her to her past, that gave her that little bit of security, even if he isn't here with her now.  To someone else—to us, even—maybe it's just a horse, but to her?  You're not foolish enough to believe that, are you?'

He frowned.  'It's just a horse . . .'

'Yeah, a horse she's had since she was twelve.  Think about it.  She grew up an only child on a vast estate in Ireland.  Even if she had friends—and she's never actually mentioned having any of those, either, mind you—she had to have gotten a lot of comfort from that animal.  Think about what she's said, too: that she'd go riding to soothe herself, right?  And now, that is gone, too, along with her parents and pretty much everything else she's ever known.  If you were her, just how do you think you'd feel . . .?'

He grimaced inwardly, mostly because the things his youkai voice had said made perfect sense.  On an impulse, he pulled out his phone, scrolled through the contacts till he found the one he wanted.

It rang three times before it was answered, and Ashur drummed his claws atop the Formica table impatiently.

"Greg Halsbeck," he answered.

"Hello, Mr. Halsbeck," Ashur greeted.  "This is Ashur Philips."

"Ah, Mr. Philips.  You're calling about the O'Shea estate, right?  We haven't gotten any more information since I sent the last report yet . . . Is there something I can do for you?"

"I hope so," he said.  "Jessa tells me that you said that her horse—a gypsy cob that she called, 'Derry'—was sold?  I was wondering if there's any way for me to locate the buyer?  I'd like to buy it from them—since no one bothered to inform her of the pending sale beforehand."

"Hmm, I understand . . . Generally, they aren't allowed to divulge that sort of information, but let me see what I can dig up.  Can I give you a call back?  Say, in an hour or two?"

"Absolutely," he said, catching Kells' attention and gesturing for the boy to come.  "If I'd been informed of this prior to the sale, I would have been happy to have bought him for her myself.  That animal is more than just a family pet to her.  You understand."

"Oh, of course.  Me wife has a dog—ugly as sin—but she loves it more than she loves me, I think . . . I get it.  Let me see what I can do."

"Thank you," Ashur said.

"Talk to you soon, Mr. Philips."

The connection ended, and Ashur dropped the device into his pocket once more as Kells pushed out of the play area and dashed over to him, ducking between tables and managing to avoid the other patrons in the establishment.  "Is it time to go home, Daddy?" he asked, almost plaintively.

"Your uncle said that he'd like to pick you up early—as in, today.  Do you want to go today?"

Kells started hopping as he latched onto Ashur's knee.  "Yeah!"

"Hmm, well, you have to promise to be good, and to control yourself . . . Aunt Manami wants to see you, too, and that's why you're going early."

"Aunt Nami?  I love Aunt Nami!"

"Yes, well, Aunt Nami isn't used to hyperactive little brats who bounce around all the time, so try to keep yourself calm, Kells.  Okay?"

Kells' maniacal laughter erupted as Ashur gathered together the remnants of his meal to throw away.  The boy grabbed the cheap plastic toy that came with his food, hopping impatiently as he waited for Ashur to throw away the trash.

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa sat beside the pond, smiling softly to herself as the horses nickered and seemed to be talking to each other nearby where they were tethered to a low-hanging, but stout tree branch.

"So, you're telling me that you're the Lady Jessamyn O'Shea—the one that all the ton talks about constantly . . . That's you?"

Wrinkling her nose, she rolled her eyes and tossed a flower that she'd been admiring at his head. "They do not!" she scoffed.

"On the contrary, they do," Devlin insisted, settling back against a rotting tree trunk near the edge of the water.  "Oh, have you seen that gel?  Gorgeous—simply gor-r-rgeous, m'lambs!"

Pressing her lips together at his high-pitched impersonation, she couldn't restrain the little giggle that slipped from her.  "Oh, my God!  That sounded just like Countess Orland!"

He touched his nose with his index finger then pointed at her.  "Not bad, right?"

"You spend time with that old hag?"

"No, actually . . ." He chuckled, showing off his deep dimples to a great advantage as he turned his face, stared out over the water.  Then he rolled his eyes and shot her a sidelong glance.  "Mum and I were eating at the London Astoria last fall, and she was there with her gaggle of ladies, comparing the season's debutantes.  You, apparently, were the one that they'd lay their bets on to have the greatest amount of suitors—if they were the betting sorts, that was.  Did you?"

"I don't know.  Ma died soon after my initial debut, so . . ."

His smirk faded, and he sighed.  "Right sorry I am about that," he muttered.  "I've never met your parents, but . . . That can't have been easy . . ."

She shook her head, forced a wan smile.  "They say things happen for a reason, right?  I'm just . . . just waiting to find out why."

He considered that, a thoughtful scowl on his face, eyebrows drawn together as he reached out, slowly plucked a sprig of small white flowers and handed it to her.  "For what it's worth, I'm glad to have met you," he said, his frown melting away as a lopsided little grin surfaced in its place.

She accepted the offering and smiled back at him.  "What about you?  Awfully far away from home, aren't you?  Here on some kind of business?"

He grimaced.  "No . . . It's more of a . . . vacation, I guess you could say.  Mum and I . . ."

"Your mother's here?  What about your father?"

He shrugged.  "Well, to be entirely honest, my father and I are having a difference of opinion at the moment, and my mum . . . She's not too pleased with him, either."

She narrowed her gaze on him.  Something about the slight tightness around his eyes . . . "Somehow, I feel like your, 'difference of opinions' is a little bigger than you're making it out to be."

He looked surprised for a second, only to sigh and grimace.  "Am I that transparent?"

"Kind of."

"Suffice it to say that we disagreed on the direction in which I wanted to go in my life," he admitted.  "He's . . . very old fashioned, and very set in his ways, so when he gets certain ideas in his head, he simply cannot let go of them, never mind that I'm thirty-five years old, so, one would think that I'd be able to make my own decisions."  Suddenly, he chuckled.  "Bloody hell, I'm starting to sound like a child, aren't I?"

"I don't think so," she allowed, hooking her hands around her ankles, locking her fingers together.  "I think that you sound like someone who deserves to live whatever life you want.  I mean, your father has gotten to go his own way, hasn't he?  You should be left do to what you will, too."

His chuckle was warm, friendly.  "So, you're telling me that I should just reach out and grab life by the bollocks?  Is that what you do?"

"No," she admitted, scrunching up her shoulders in an almost apologetic sort of way.  "Not . . . Not really . . ."

He turned to face her once more, eyebrows lifting in surprise.  "You don't?  Huh . . ."

"What?"

He smiled.  "You strike me as the kind of girl who would."

"I do?"

He nodded slowly, his smile taking on a teasing sort of lilt.  "Maybe it's the hair," he quipped.

She laughed as he got to his feet, offering her a hand up that she took.

"As much fun as I've had with you, Irish, I promised Mum I'd have tea with her," he said as he led the way back to the horses again.

"Thanks for bringing me along," she said, swinging her leg over the horse and settling into the saddle again.

"Any time," he replied, clicking at Fletch to get him moving.  "I mean, you know where I live now.  I meant it when I said that you're welcome to stop in whenever you want.  I'll leave word with the stable master that you're to be allowed to take Flicker out any time you wish."

"That's very kind of you," she said.  "I wouldn't want to be a bother . . ."

"You're not," he assured her as they headed along the path.  "Besides, I had a good time today, thank you very much."

She laughed again as she shot him a glance.  Even if she didn't know him very well, she had to thank him, didn't she.  He'd managed to pull her out of her funk, even if it was just for one day, and that had to account for something.  It was nice to be around someone that she didn't feel was watching her every movement, analyzing everything she said or did, and even though Ashur might well have good intentions, just being around someone who she didn't feel that she had to put up some strange front with was a very welcome change . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"All right. I'll see you on Thursday."

Heaving a sigh as he ended the phone call and dropped the device onto the sofa beside him, Ashur leaned forward, elbows on knees, letting his face drop into his open palms.  "Damn," he muttered, wondering if he needed to hire a secretary.  Ben had warned him that people would want to meet with the new Canadian general.  He hadn't expected all the attention, though.  This guy—Thurston Margreave—was a well-known patron of the arts in Quebec.  He owned the largest theater in the region and was probably looking to garner more support for it, which was fine, he supposed.  Just add another person to the growing list of weird and random visitors . . .

Kells dashed into the room, his little Sonny Sunshine backpack slung over his shoulders.  "I packed my stuffs, Daddy!" he exclaimed happily, skidding to a stop next to the sofa, planting his hands on the arm as he bounced up and down in his excitement.

Letting his hands drop away from his face, Ashur blinked as he met Kells' rapt expression.  "You packed," he said, sounding more than a little dubious.  Rolling his eyes, he held out a hand, wiggling his finger to hurry the boy along as Kells shrugged off the backpack and handed it over.

Toys and games and his handheld kid tablet . . . Not one shred of clothing, and no tooth or hairbrush, either . . . "Kells, you stink at packing," Ashur replied, handing the bag back to the boy as he pushed himself to his feet and headed out of the room.  "You don't have to go if you don't want to," he said as Kells skipped along beside him.  "You can stay here with Daddy, if you want."

Kells stopped suddenly, tilting his head to the side as he pondered Ashur's statement.  "You don't wan' me to go, Daddy?  You wan' me to stay home?"

Ashur forced a smile as he tousled the boy's hair.  "If you want to go, that's fine.  They'll have a lot of fun, you know.  I'm just saying that if you'd rather stay here with me, then that's okay, too.  Whatever you want to do, Kells."

His face scrunched up into a comical show of concentration, and he shrugged.  "I wanna go," he finally said, "but I wanna stay wif Daddy, too . . ." He smiled, throwing his little arms around Ashur's leg, almost making him stumble.  "I love Daddy!"

A very rare, very true smile quirked the corners of Ashur's lips as he scooped the boy up and continued up the stairs.  "I love you, too, Kells," he replied.

Kells ferreted his head under Ashur's chin, snuggling against him as he heaved a sigh.  "I need lots of cuddles for when I'm gone," he said.

"All right," Ashur agreed, stepping into Kells' room.  He had to admit, he loved these kinds of moments: quiet moments when the boy was content, just to be held, to be cuddled.  They didn't happen nearly as often these days as they used to, and he missed it—a lot.

"Okay," Kells finally said after a few minutes of cuddling.  "My cuddles is full 'gain!"

Ashur chuckled and kissed his forehead before setting him back on his feet.

It didn't take long for Ashur to fill a satchel with a good number of clothing changes along with the boy's swim suit, hair brush, a few towels, toothbrush, and bubble gum flavored toothpaste—the one with the dinosaurs on the tube.  After he considered it a moment, he also tossed in a couple sweat shirts and jeans, socks and underpants, and a couple nicer shirts in case they went somewhere and needed slightly more formal attire.  "Okay," he said, zipping up the bag.  He still needed shoes, but Ashur would grab those downstairs since they were kept in the closet by the front door.  "I think that's good enough."

"Oh . . . Packing?  I thought that they were picking him up this weekend," Jessa said as she stopped in the doorway.  Ashur blinked and shot her a second glance.  Cheeks flushed, eyes bright, she looked almost . . . happy . . .?

"Aunt Nami wants to see me!" Kells hollered, tossing his arms around Jessa's leg in his exuberance.

"Family friend," he supplied, crossing his arms over his chest as he slowly regarded her.  "So, they're coming to get him a little early."

"I see," she replied, smiling down at the boy.  "I'll bet you'll have so much fun!" she insisted.  "That's really exciting!"

"And just where were you?" Ashur interrupted, glancing at Kells as the boy darted over and hefted the satchel off the bed, struggling with it since it was almost as big as he was, as he shuffled over to the door.  Jessa stepped to the side, allowing Kells to pass, before she turned her attention back to Ashur once more.  "We got back, and you were gone—no note, no nothing."

She grimaced, then smiled at him, too, which was nearly enough to disarm him.  Something about the way her eyes lit up . . . "I'm sorry.  You're right; I should have left a note.  I will next time; I promise.  Our neighbor—Mr. Broughton—stopped by, offered to let me ride one of his horses . . ." She sighed happily—dreamily.  "It was . . . It was so nice . . ."

"Should you be out, running around with some random man you just met?"

She seemed genuinely surprised by his question.  "You're kind of a random man I just recently met," she reminded him.

He rolled his eyes.  "Your amusement is sorely misplaced, Jessa.  Anyone ever tell you that you're far too trusting of people?"

She snorted.  "I'm not," she insisted, flicking a hand in blatant dismissal.  "But the horses like him, and they tend to be better judges of character than you or I are in general."

He raised his eyebrows at her bald statement.  "So, you're trusting the reactions of . . . horses . . .?"

"Animals can sense if someone has bad intentions or not, so yes," she argued.  Then she sighed.  "I'm going to go start dinner.  You can grouch at me later, if you want."

"Jessa—"

The chime of the doorbell cut him off, and he uttered a terse grunt as he strode out of the room and followed her down the stairs.  This discussion wasn't over, not by a long shot, as far as he was concerned.  A girl that looked like her, without sparing a second thought, up and running off with some guy, just because he had a couple of horses?  Heaving a sigh as he reached for the doorknob, he tried to tamp down the irritation that wouldn't do a thing for him at the moment.  He'd talk to her later, absolutely, because he had to make sure she understood that she could easily be in danger from any number of things if she weren't careful.

 

 


 

 

 

"Is there anything I can help with?"

Jessa glanced up from the butter and olive oil, heating in the skillet, as Manami breezed into the kitchen with a brilliant smile on her movie-star-gorgeous face.  She wasn't entirely sure what she'd expected, but it certainly wasn't the radiant swan-youkai who stepped inside the foyer with a stunning smile and a huge hug for Kells and Ashur, both.  Then she went on to stand just a little too close to Ashur as they talked in hushed tones.  More than once, he'd had to lean in to hear what she was saying to him.

As they stood in the living room, drinking wine and generally playing a game of catching-up, Manami had touched Ashur's arm multiple times, letting her fingertips rest on his forearm, on his bicep, laughing a little too happily at whatever he was talking about, as he stared at her with a more indulgent, more contented, expression than Jessa had ever actually seen on his face before.

She'd watched as the two of them whispered to each other, as he listened intently to whatever she was telling him, while Ben and Charity had played with the children and had joined in the conversation here and there.

Jessa hadn't known what to make of it, the strange and almost mercurial change in Ashur's behavior.  He didn't tend to act that way around just Ben and Charity, either, and that was alarming enough, in her opinion.

'They act like . . . like lovers or something . . .'

Gritting her teeth at her youkai-voice, Jessa crossed her arms over her chest and turned on her heel, stomping off to the kitchen, not that Ashur noticed.  Why would he?  She snorted.

Her gut instinct was to rip the woman's platinum blonde hair out of her head, though she was a little shocked and not entirely sure why she felt that way at all—and she didn't really want to delve into it too deeply, either.

"Oh, I've got it," Jessa insisted with as much of a tight smile as she could muster.

Manami laughed, either not noticing or not bothering to comment on the expression, as she stepped around Jessa and reached for the onion on the cutting board.  "Oh, nonsense!  I love cooking!"

"Okay," Jessa agreed slowly.  They were staying for dinner, but Ben had said that they needed to get back tonight—something about Manami and Charity's plans to take Kells and the girls for a day of the zoo followed by toy shopping or something like that . . . "Are you going on vacation with them?" she asked, in lieu of something better to say.

"I'm not," she admitted with a sigh as she made quick work of the onion.  "I wish I were, but not this time, unfortunately."

Jessa frowned thoughtfully.  "Do you often go on vacations with them?"

Manami scraped the onions together with a spatula and dropped them carefully into the sizzling oil.  "Whenever I can," she admitted.

She didn't know what to make of that, so she said nothing, focusing on her task at hand instead.

Manami hummed quietly to herself for a few minutes, somehow giving Jessa a sense of ease, of relaxed comfort that she tried to ignore, but when the swan spoke again, she did so carefully, as though she were measuring her words.  "Ashur . . . He's different."

"What do you mean?"

Manami shook her head, gathered up the cutting board to wash it off in the sink.  "He's more . . . Well, I guess you could say, he's a little more like he used to be, back before . . ." Trailing off, she sighed, deliberately taking her time as she washed the board.  "Before everything . . ."

"Before everything . . .?" she repeated when Manami fell silent.

Manami sighed and shot her an apologetic little smile.  "I'm sorry, Jessa.  It's not my place to tell it.  I really can only say that he's . . . He's been through a lot . . ." Suddenly, she laughed.  "Then again, haven't we all in our own ways . . .?  I mean, I daresay that you've been through quite a bit, too, of late, haven't you?  Your parents . . . I'm so very, very sorry."

"I'm . . . I'm fine," Jessa lied, hating the twinge of sadness that shot through her—hating that the woman actually sounded genuinely sad, genuinely concerned, and sorry . . . It left her feeling vulnerable, weaker than she wanted to be, especially in the face of this particular woman.  She wasn't sure why she instantly viewed Manami as a threat on some level, but . . .

Manami didn't seem to pick up on it, though.  "Kells loves you, too," she went on, completely oblivious to Jessa's inner thoughts.  "That boy . . ." She laughed.  "We all think he's special, of course, but Ashur . . . Ashur adores him . . ."

Jessa cleared her throat.  "You . . . You seem like you're . . . close . . . to Ashur . . ." she said, hoping that she didn't sound as interested in her answer as she suspected that she did.

"Close?  I suppose . . . I would guess that would depend upon your definition of it," Manami allowed, digging plates out of the cupboard as Jessa checked the boiling pasta.  "I guess I'm probably about as close to Ashur as he'll ever let anyone be."  She paused, gaze clouding over as a calculating sort of expression surfaced, and suddenly, she laughed softly.

"Is something funny?" Jessa demanded, unable to restrain the clipped tone in her voice.

"I'm sorry," Manami said, waving a hand despite the laughter that still escaped her.  "I apologize."  Even so, she giggled a little longer before finally winding down to a very natural, very friendly smile.  "I feel like you're good for him, Jessa.  Maybe it's simply that you're so young . . ."

"I don't think . . . He doesn't feel that way," Jessa replied stiffly.

Manami laughed again.   "Oh, child!  If he doesn't, it wouldn't take much from you to change his mind!  Well, if you wanted to, that is . . ."

Snapping her mouth closed on the retort that had been forming, Jessa pulled the pot off the stove and took her time, draining it in the sink.  She really wasn't sure, what to make of that woman—not in the least . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Staring out at the blackened night outside the French doors that he'd left open, savoring the feel of the crisp evening air, smelling the scent of the impending rain as he searched the skies for stars that were hidden behind the gloom of the storm clouds that gathered in the dark, Ashur slowly sipped the snifter of brandy in his hand as he leaned in the doorway, one hand in his pocket, as he tried not to think about just how empty the house felt with Kells gone for the next nearly-three-weeks.  They'd left shortly after dinner, even though Ashur had been more than willing to lodge them for the night.  Ben had to get back, though.  Something about last minute things to finish up before their vacation started.

It wasn't the first time that Ben and Charity had taken Kells, though normally it was only for a few days, maybe a week, and it wouldn't be the last time, either, he was sure.  After all, Ashur had never wanted to keep Kells away from his uncle and, in fact, did everything he could to ensure that they got to spend as much time together as possible.  He owed both of them that, even if Kells didn't know and didn't understand why that was.

He sighed.  If he had his druthers, the boy would never know, would never, ever be told the truth of his origins, of how he came to be adopted . . .

The blood on the floor, on the walls . . . The stench of it, filling his nose, making him feel dizzy, sickened . . . The blood, staining his hands as he held the writhing newborn . . . It still lingered there, in the depths of his nightmares, and, though those nightmares had lessened over time, the ones he did have still held the power to keep him awake for nights on end . . .

That was a truth that Kells never needed to know, as far as he was concerned.  There was absolutely nothing good that could possibly come from telling him the truth, and maybe he was being foolish or selfish in hoping that it never became an issue . . .

"What did you send?  Why does that worry me?" Jessa said as she shuffled into the room.  He glanced over his shoulder, only to spot her near the archway, holding her phone to her ear.  She sighed.  "All right, Carol . . . I will . . . Okay, bye."

Ending the connection, she stopped abruptly when she noticed Ashur near the opened French doors.  "Oh, sorry.  I didn't know you were in here," she muttered, turning on her heel to leave.

"Jessa," he called after her, stopping her before she could escape.  He saw the way her back stiffened, the way her youki drew in close.  She was bracing herself, wasn't she?  But for what . . .?

She sighed, her shoulders slumping just a little under the draping fabric of the light sweater she wore.  "I'm tired, Ashur.  I . . . I'm going to bed."

He considered that, then discarded it.  She'd been acting strangely all evening—quiet, almost brooding . . . "All right," he agreed, "but before that, tell me why you were so quiet during dinner?  I mean, you were so happy after your ride earlier, so . . . did something happen?"

"No, nothing at all," she replied.

Frowning at the tightness in her answer, he pivoted on his heel, leaning back against the frame as he slowly sipped the brandy.  "Tell me why I don't believe that."

She stopped, turned, scowled at him for a minute, eyes darkening as she seemed to be considering . . . something . . . "I don't know," she said, quietly, evenly, as she took her time, moving across the floor, only to take the glass out of his hand and toss back the rest of the drink.  "Is Manami your lover?"

Eyebrows raising in surprise, Ashur blinked.  "My what?"

His question irritated her, he could see it in her gaze.  The storm clouds were gathering there in her eyes—dark, deep, just waiting for that one little crack, that one tiny fissure, before it broke wide open.  "Your.  Lover," she stated once more, slamming the snifter onto the nearby table.  "I'm not stupid, Ashur," she bit out, then quickly shook her head, uttering a terse laugh that held only a bitterness she really shouldn't have known, not at her age.  "Or maybe I am . . ."

"There's nothing—"

"You know what?  Save it," she blurted, cutting him off as her eyes narrowed dangerously.  "I don't care."

She turned to leave.  He caught her wrist, tugged her back, gently but firmly.  "I feel as though you're jumping to some odd conclusions in there," he said, tapping her forehead with his fingertips, his tone a little condescending, even though he hadn't meant for it to be.

"Go to hell," she shot back, yanking on her wrist, but unable to break his hold.

"Not until you tell me, just what's spinning around in that head of yours," he growled, his reaction being fed by her own.

"Just leave me alone!"

"Jessa—"

"Why the hell did you kiss me?" she hissed, yanking on her arm again.  "Why would you do that when you have her?  I am not your toy, damn it!"

"When I have—?  What the hell are you talking about?" he growled.

She jerked away, stumbled back a couple steps.  "Leave me alone!" she screamed again.

He started to grab her, but his cuff shot up in flames as she bolted past him, out into the night. With a muffled curse, he ripped the sleeve off before it managed to burn him, dropping it on the stone terrace as he took off after her.  The first flash of lightning, the first crack of thunder announced the storm as the rain started to fall.  He couldn't rightfully see much of anything between the strobes of lightning and the rain, hitting his face.

"Jessa!" he bellowed, his voice swallowed by another crack of thunder, as the skies opened up, as the rain fell in great sheets.  "Jessa!"

He slipped on the soaked ground, but caught himself with his fingertips and without breaking his stride.  Following only his intuition and the vague scent of her that was so distorted by the wind, by the rain, that he wasn't even sure if he was headed in the right direction, he muttered a curse under his breath.

Another flash of lightning illuminated the world around him, and he caught sight of her, only for a moment: dead ahead, moving as fast as she possibly could.  Uttering a terse growl, he sped up, closing the distance, and he launched himself at her, grabbing her in his arms, bearing her to the ground with a squelch of earth and mud, as she struggled against him, tried to fight him off, beating her fists against his shoulders, trying to use her body to toss him off.

Smashing his knee down between her legs to still her, he leaned away, far enough to glower at her in the stingy light. "Stop it," he rumbled, his scowl darkening fast.  It should have been enough to silence her.  It wasn't, and she took a swipe at his face with her claws.  With a frustrated growl, he caught her wrists in one hand and slammed them down in the wet and slippery grass above her head.  "Stop.  It," he hissed again.  "What the hell has gotten into you?" he demanded.

Uttering a frustrated growl of her own, she bucked her hips, trying to unseat him.  If anything, it simply served as a reminder of exactly how precarious their positions really were, and he sighed.  "Get off me!  You're squashing me!"

"I am not," he argued.  "Now, answer me . . . Why the hell are you acting insane?"

"No!  We'll see how much she likes you when your face isn't nearly as pretty anymore!" she yelled, yanking on her hands, trying to break free to carry out her threat of maiming him.

"Knock it off, or I swear on all that's holy, I'll turn you over my knee and beat some sense into your ass!"

"I'd like to see you try!"

"Don't test me, woman!"

"Ugh!  Get off me, you bloody Philistine!" she hollered, writhing beneath him as she tried yet again to shove him off.

"Jessa, what the—?"

"Why don't you go ask your swan, you bastard?"

"My . . .?  What?" he blurted, stilling long enough to give her a very chagrined, yet puzzled, glower.

"Your swan," she bit out.  "She was all over you, wasn't she?  As close to you as anyone could be—those were her words, damn you!  Now get off me!"

"My swa—?  Manami?  That's what you're mad about?  Manami?"

She started to rage at him once more, but he cut her off as he broke out in laughter—great gales of laughter—laughter like she'd never heard from him before.  Some part of her had to acknowledge that the sound of it would be rather pleasant under regular circumstances.  At the moment, however, the sound of his amusement was almost enough to make her want to rip his heart out of his chest and stomp on it for fun . . .

"Get off me!"

Winding down to a few light chuckles, he slowly shook his head.  "Manami's just a family friend," he told her, though he still sounded entirely too amused to credit.  He sighed.  "I'll let you up if you're done trying to flay me."

"Still considering it, thank you very much," she bit out, turning her head and averting her eyes as a sudden bout of sheepishness slammed down on her.  Had she jumped to conclusions that fast?  And if she had . . . why had it mattered to her . . .?

He chuckled at her petulant response, and he pushed himself off of her and to his feet, leaning down to catch her hands, to help her up.  They were both completely soaked, through and through, and the rain still showed no sign of letting up.  "Tell me why you thought that there was something between Manami and me?" he prompted, sounding much calmer than he ought to, especially since she wasn't entirely finished being angry with him.  "I mean, we did get drunk one night, and I kissed her, but it was weird, like kissing your sister or something like that, and nothing else ever happened.  Hell, that was . . . a couple years ago . . ."

She shot him a withering glower.  "Well, then, I guess that proves that," she muttered, stomping away from him.

"Proves what?" he yelled, hurrying to catch up with her.  "What are you babbling about now?"

"I don't babble, you odious debaucher!"

Heaving a sigh, he shook his head.  "Just tell me what the hell you're accusing me of," he demanded.

She spun on her heel, her feet squelching in the mud since she hadn't bothered to put on shoes. Jamming her finger within an inch of his nose, she glowered up at him, her eyes glowing like coals in the darkness.  "I'm not accusing you of anything!  I'm telling you that the next time you have a case of itchy lips, go find someone else to slobber all over because I'm done with you, Ashur Philips!  You and your fickle lips can go straight to hell!"

And then, she turned and strode away, back straight and proud, arms swinging to and fro with every step, her movements punctuated by the rolling thunder, by the strobes of lightning that tore the fabric of the skies, leaving a shocked and surprised Ashur in her wake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Knocking on the doorframe, Ashur cleared his throat when Jessa stubbornly refused to even glance at him.  He sighed, mostly because she'd refused to as much as speak to him since the night before—even if he still wasn't entirely sure why.  "Jessa, here's your mail," he said, setting the small yellow mailer on her nightstand.

She kept on reading her book, pretending that she didn't hear him, and he stifled a snort.

Okay, he got that she was somehow irritated about Manami, even if he wasn't entirely sure why.  It made no sense, actually.  Striding down the hallway and down the stairs, he checked his watch, but made a face as his cell phone rang.

'Halsbeck', the caller ID said.  Ashur connected the call as he stepped into his office and closed the door.

"Hello?"

"Ah, Mr. Philips.  This is Greg Halsbeck from the Irish Consulate's office.  I'm sorry I didn't get back to you yesterday.  Had a bit of difficulty in getting a hold of the horse's buyer."

"It's fine," he said, brushing aside the irritation that the man hadn't called back when he said he would.  At least he had a reason, he figured.  "Let me get a pen and paper . . ."

"Well, you won't need to," Halsbeck said.  "The buyer—Sam Guthrie, said that he took the horse out riding the day after he got him, and the horse got spooked by a snake, he thinks.  Anyway, the horse threw him, and took off, and when Mr. Guthrie managed to catch up with him, he was tangled five ways from Sunday in a barbed wire fence.  Unfortunately, between the lacerations from the fencing—some of them were quite deep, I'm told—he also suffered a broken leg and a broken rib, so they had no choice but to put him down."

"What?" Ashur growled with a wince.  "You're kidding."

"I wish I were.  I'm sorry I don't have better news."

Ashur sighed.  "Thank you for your trouble."

"Yes, well . . . I'm supposed to hear from Mr. Dunbyrne sometime in the next week," he said.  "Should I call you or would you rather that I call Lady O'Shea with the update?"

"You'd better call me," Ashur said.  "She's still not really ready to handle some of the details, but I was wondering . . . I'd like to see a copy of the official accident report," he said.  "Is that possible?"

Halsbeck sighed.  "I'll see what I can do . . . Is there a reason you want to see it?"

"I'd just like to verify a few things for Jessa.  You understand."

"I'll get that out to you as fast as I can," he promised.

"Okay, thank you."

"Let me know if there's anything else I can do for you."

"Absolutely," he said.  "Thank you."

The connection ended, and Ashur dropped the phone onto his desk as he let his face fall into his hands.  Her horse, dead . . .? Grimacing, he had to wonder just how he was supposed to tell her that—that, on top of everything else . . . She'd said it herself, hadn't she?  That horse was the last connection she had—the very last thing.

The sadness in her very aura, the absolute misery that she hadn't been able to hide . . . It was all there, all so raw, and he . . . "I'll never see him again . . . Just like Ma and Da . . ."

How bad was it for her, really?  He'd gotten glimpses, of course, but she tried to hide it all; he'd seen it before.  No parents, no siblings, no aunts or uncles or cousins . . . and now, no horse, and maybe to some, that horse was just a creature, but to her . . . Well, he knew better.  She had nothing left, did she?  A title?  An estate?  A vast amount of wealth?  And yet, what did that really account for when the people she cherished were gone?

It made no sense—no more than his unbidden desire to help her, to comfort her, even if there wasn't anything in it for him.  He didn't know if it was simply because he understood her on some level.  Maybe she hadn't been through the same things he had, and maybe the circumstances weren't the same.  True enough, he'd come out of it all with his older brother and Kells, so maybe, in that, he was a little more fortunate than she was . . . Even so . . .

Even so, her loss was so much worse, wasn't it?  Doting parents who loved her, who cherished her.  If he were honest—brutally honest—he'd have to admit that maybe he'd gained more than he'd lost when his parents died, but to do so . . . Just what kind of monster was he, anyway?

'Cut that out, Kyouhei . . . You're no more a monster than she is, you know.  Your parents—they were the monsters, if there were any—and you . . . All you did was to pick up the pieces, and you put them back together again, maybe in a different way than they were originally intended, but they fit together, just the same . . . And now, you want to help Jessa to do that, too, don't you?'

He snorted inwardly.  'Except that she's ten kinds of pissed off at me, and I don't know why.'

'Don't you?  Are you sure?  Because if you stopped and thought about it, it might make more sense to you.'

'More sense to—? How?  All she did was get all pissed off over Manami for no reason, and—'

'And?  Are you sure it was for, 'no reason'?'

Ashur snorted and started to argue, but the chime of the doorbell cut him off, and, with a loud and frustrated growl, he stood up and pushed out of his office.

The man on the porch smiled broadly at him, shoving a very stout, calloused hand out to shake.  "Thurston Margreave," he said, introducing himself as Ashur shook his hand.  "You must be Ashur Philips . . . Any relation to Ben?"

"He's my brother," Ashur admitted, stepping back to allow the man to enter.

Thurston laughed jovially.  The squat little man—a chinchilla-youkai—followed Ashur into the living room and waved a hand in dismissal when Ashur gestured at the wet bar.  "Oh, no, thanks," he said, settling on the sofa.  "I don't want to take up too much of your time.  I just wanted to welcome you to Canada."  Digging into the breast pocket of his well worn sports jacket, he pulled out a white envelope and handed it over.  "It's not much, but the new season's starting.  They're doing a twelve week run of Ghosts of Olde at Margreave Hall, and my wife and I . . . Well, we'd love to see you there.  Those are good for any time except for opening night, but if you'd rather have opening night tickets, I can arrange that, too."

"Uh, thank you," Ashur replied, setting the tickets on the coffee table as he sat down in a nearby chair.

"I saw your stables," Thurston went on.  "I'd love to see your stock.  My wife is obsessed with horses, and I do what I can to indulge her.  I've become a pretty good breeder, if I do say so myself."

Shaking his head, Ashur settled back in the chair.  "I don't have any yet," he admitted.  "I actually don't know a thing about them, really, but I've got a guest who does.  I was considering finding one for her."

"Oh!  If you're interested, feel free to stop by sometime.  We have mostly Arabians, and one of my prized mares just foaled a few months ago, but we've got one of hers that's close to a year and a half that we just finished breaking.  Gorgeous creature, that one . . . We've been looking for the right person to sell him to . . . Is your guest someone with a background in horses?"

"She's a very accomplished rider," he said.  "I'll bring her by sometime to see the horse, if that's all right."

Thurston dug a card out of his wallet and handed it over.  "Absolutely!  Just give me a call, and we'll arrange something!"

"Thank you," Ashur replied, stashing the card in his pocket.  "I certainly will . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa scowled in concentration as she stared hard at the tiki torches from where she stood on her balcony.  Narrowing her eyes as she gathered her energy to one point in the center of her hand, she drew a deep breath and let it go, let it fly, as it exploded from her, igniting the torches in one mighty gust of fire, just as she'd seen her father do before.

She smiled vaguely as she stared at the dancing flames.  Then she waved a hand, satisfied even more when they all sputtered out together.

She was getting better at it, she had to admit.  'At least, there's that . . .'

'Oh, don't be that way, Jessa.  It's your own fault, you know.  Jealousy's such an ugly emotion.'

'Jeal—I'm not jealous!' she blurted.  'I'm so . . . the opposite of jealous . . .!  I'm  . . . I'm just not!'

'It's okay,' her youkai-voice went on, ignoring her little outburst.  'It happens to the best of us, or so I've been told.  It's really not that big a deal, if  you stop and think about it.  I mean, all you really have to do is just make sure that Ashur doesn't have  a reason to think about Manami instead of you, right?'

Snorting indelicately since she wasn't about to dignify that with a response, Jessa turned around and flounced back into her room off the balcony.

'Fine, if you want to ignore me, but you should at least apologize for trying to set Ashur on fire last night.'

'As if!  He's lucky I didn't do worse than just send a few sparks at him!'

'A few sparks?  Bitch, please!  You damn near burned him to a crisp, and if he were human?  He would have been hottie flambé, for sure!'

She heaved a frustrated sigh, gaze sweeping over the room, only to stop when she spotted the mailer on the nightstand.  She'd forgotten that Ashur had brought it up to her room.  Striding over, she picked it up, turned it over in her hands.  Carol said last night on the phone that she'd sent Jessa a little something.  She hadn't said what it was, just that Jessa better use it.  Even so, she couldn’t help but feel just a little nervous about the contents of the package.

Drawing a deep breath, she tore it open, wincing as she held it open, as she looked inside.  "Oh, my God," she muttered, slapping the mailer back down on the nightstand as her cheeks blossomed in color.

Her phone rang, right on cue, and Jessa snatched it up and connected the call.  "Carol!" she hissed, pressing her hand against her forehead.

Carol laughed.  "It said online that the package was delivered," she said.  "So, did you get it?"

Jessa snorted.  "I'm going to kill you," she grumbled, pacing across the floor.  "You sent me condoms!"  The last word came out as a hiss of breath.

"You can thank me later," she replied happily.  "Oh, better yet?  Make some videos while you're using those.  A man that looks like that just has to be a damn good fuck."

She uttered a sound caught somewhere between a moan and a groan.  "I don't know why I'm friends with you," she complained.

Carol laughed again.  "Because you love me, sweetie . . . Now, get out there and use those condoms!"

She sighed as the call ended, dropping the phone onto the bed as she plopped down beside it, as she buried her face in her hands.

'Well, as misguided as she might be, Carol has a point.  I mean, at least now he wouldn't have to worry about him being your, 'lifetime regret', now would we?'

Groaning into her hands at the sarcasm in her youkai-voice's words, Jessa shifted her hands, rubbed furiously at her temples as a headache the likes of which she'd never experienced before surged through her.

'I don't want to do that with him . . . I don't even think I like him . . . Why should I, I'd like to know?  He's done nothing but play with me and lead me on from the get-go, hasn't he?  And all the while, he's got . . . got her . . . which means that I . . . I don't matter . . .'

'Is that really what you think?'

She stubbornly refused to answer that.

'But you know what you felt when you kissed him, Jessa.'

'What I felt . . .' Face screwing up in a belligerent scowl, she stood up and strode toward the door, not really thinking in terms of a destination.  She just wanted—needed—to get out of the house.  'No, actually, I don't know what I felt.'

'Don't you?  That was special, it was tremendous—it was magical.'

Snorting indelicately as she pushed out of the sliding kitchen doors onto the terrace, she broke into a sprint, running thoughtlessly, blindly, away from the house.

'I don't know a damn thing,' she argued.  'How would I when he's the only man I've ever . . . ever kissed before?'

'And you think that matters?  You wanted to kiss him—you still want to kiss him.  You—'

'For all I know, it doesn't matter,' she insisted.  'The who of it or the why of it . . . It's all the same.  Those feelings would be entirely the same, no matter who is doing the kissing.'

'You're not serious,' her youkai shot back, then suddenly sighed.  'Oh, wait, you are . . .' The voice sighed.  'All right, Miss Bitch.  If you really think so, but don't say I didn't warn you when you get yourself in over your head.  Foolish girl, anyway . . .'

Rolling her eyes as she blinked, as she dropped to a walk along the trail that led to the pond, Jessa sighed.  Biting her lip, she couldn't help but wonder, now that it had occurred to her.  It really was entirely one-sided to simply think that kissing Ashur was all that different from kissing, in general.  True, she had to admit, however grudgingly, that there was a certain attraction to him, but what did that matter, really?

Stepping out of the trees, she blinked when she saw him, sitting on the boulder by the water.  He wasn't paying attention, reading a book, she realized.  Fletch was tethered nearby.

Squaring her shoulders as an insular thought sprang to life in her head, she stepped forward, gathering her resolve.

"Fancy meeting you here," Devlin remarked, closing the book as he turned just enough to peer over his shoulder at her.

She didn't stop until she was standing beside him, her gaze alight with her stubborn determination.

"I realize that the pond's on your Mr. Philips' land, but I couldn't resist," he admitted.  His smile faltered when he finally noticed the steely glint of absolute determination in her eyes.  "Jessa?  Are you all right?"

Ducking her chin as she stared at him, she peered up at him through her eyelashes.  "Devlin, will you do me a favor?"

He looked a little leery, but he nodded.  "If I can," he allowed.

She nodded.  "Kiss me," she blurted, her cheeks pinking just a little.

He blinked, then finally choked out an incredulous laugh.  "I'm sorry.  I thought you just asked me to kiss you."

"I did."

"Oh, bloody hell, you did . . . May I ask why?"

She rolled her eyes.  "Will you do it or not?"

"What's the catch?" he asked, shifting his gaze from side to side, as though he were looking for the answer to his question.

She sighed.  "Forget it, then," she told him, turning on her heel to stomp away, cursing men in general under her breath.  "I'll just go find someone else who'll do it."

"Now, hold on," Devil insisted, hopping down off the boulder to grab her arm.  "I didn't say I wouldn't.  I just wanted to know why you'd want me to."

Crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly, Jessa refused to meet his gaze.  "I . . . I need to compare something," she muttered.

Rubbing his face thoughtfully, he seemed to be considering his options.  "If I refuse, you're just going to go snog some hapless chap, aren't you?"

When she didn't answer, he sighed.

Then he leaned down, and he kissed her.

 

 


 

 

 

Following her scent through down the path and through the trees, Ashur heaved a sigh.  One way or another, he wanted to get the girl to listen to him, to talk to him.  Maybe he just felt bad over what had happened to her horse.  Maybe just couldn't stop thinking about her absolute melancholy the night that he'd caught her, downing sake.

'Or maybe it's just that she was jealous as hell last night,' his youkai-voice piped up.

He wasn't sure when that little gem had struck him, but once it had, everything else about last night had made perfect sense.  Oh, he was certain that she'd rather bite her tongue off than admit as much, especially to him.  Still, he couldn't help but think that it did brighten his mood in some weird and rather twisted way.

Stepping out of the treeline, he stopped short, eyes flaring wide as he felt the breath rush right out of him.

There Jessa stood near the pond with some strange man, and they were . . .

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" Asher demanded as he shot forward, as he grabbed the man by the front of his shirt and gave him a good shake.  "Just who the hell are you?"

The man seemed surprised—he was youkai—but he held up his hands and shook his head.  "Devlin Broughton," he rasped out.

"Ashur!  Stop it!  Are you mad?" Jessa demanded, grabbing his wrist and tugging to try to make him let go of the stranger.

"Mad is a relative term, Jessa," Ashur bit out.  "I'm going to rip him to shreds."

"You won't!" she insisted.  "Ashur!"

Devlin grimaced.  "She wanted me to kiss her," he admitted.  "It was me or some random bloke—anyone would do, I think—and it was like kissing my sister—I imagine, anyway . . ."

That didn't appease Ashur in the least as he erupted in a low growl.

"If you don't let go of him, I'll set fire to you again," she warned.

Ashur narrowed his eyes at the flames dancing on her palm.  "Damn it—"

"Let him go!" she insisted once more.

Biting out a frustrated sigh, Ashur gave the man a solid shove, but let go.  Devlin spared a moment to frown at Jessa before hurriedly untying his horse and taking off.

Ashur didn't trust himself to speak to her.  Judging from the look on her face, she wasn't too pleased with him, either.  She started to open her mouth, probably to blister his ears, but good.  He narrowed his eyes at her, and she stopped, staring defiantly back at him for a long moment before her gaze dropped to the ground.

And yet, the longer he stood there, the angrier he grew.  The image of that man, kissing her, had burned itself into his mind.  What he wanted to do was to lash out, to rail and rage against her.  Some small part of him, however, didn't let him.  Before he could say something that he might end up regretting, though, he turned on his heel and stalked back toward the path—back toward the house . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"I could have told you that it was a stupid idea.  In fact, I think I tried to tell you that," Devlin remarked as he and Jessa rode along the southern edge of his estate.

Jessa scowled, casting Devlin a dark glower.

"I confess," he went on, as though they were discussing the weather, "I'm surprised that he let you out of the house today, much less allowed you to come riding with me . . ."

She snorted.  Loudly.  "Ashur Philips doesn't own me," she shot back, sitting up a little straighter in the saddle.  "And he doesn't tell me what I can and cannot do."

Devlin shot her a no-nonsense look.  "He doesn't have to own you to be thoroughly besotted by you."

"Wh-What?" she barked out, a little harsher than she should have.  "He—He's not—"

Devlin rolled his eyes, but chuckled.  "Honestly, Jessa, why did you want me to kiss you, anyway?  Some sort of exploration and discovery mission, was it?"

The high color in her cheeks must have convinced him that he was right, and he sighed and slowly shook his head.  "I should be properly offended, but I'm not—not really, anyway . . . So, did you figure it out?"

This time, her answer was a long, drawn out, irritated sigh.  "I . . . I thought it'd be the same," she admitted, more in a grumble than in a regular, conversational tone.  "I was . . . was hoping that it wouldn't matter, who did the kissing . . ."

He chuckled.  "But it does, doesn't it?"  He drew a deep breath.  "You could have just asked me.  I would have told you that much."

She snorted.  "And how would you know?  How many women have you been out kissing?"

"Enough to know that it certainly does matter," he shot back pleasantly.  "Anyway, now that we've established that little fact, I take it you have been kissing your Ashur, then."

"Just . . . Just twice," she replied, her tone haughtier than she meant for it to be, almost like she was daring Devlin to say something negative about it, "and he's not my anything."

"Twice, huh?"

She shrugged.  "It's fine, though, because it won't be happening again—not until he stops kissing other women, anyway . . ."

He nodded sagely, as though he understood something she didn't.  "A cad, is he?  Well, that's a shame . . . Although, from what I've seen, women seem to like that bastard type . . ."

She rolled her eyes.  "Can we talk about something else?" she asked pointedly, arching an eyebrow at him to emphasize her question.  Given that she hadn't felt brave enough to even leave her room until she knew that Ashur had stepped out for a bit was telling enough, and not something that she wished to admit, especially to Devlin, and, considering the current conversation, she just wanted to drop it.

"All right," he relented.  "So, what do you want to talk about instead?"

Glancing at him, frowning at his profile, she narrowed her eyes.  "How many women have you kissed?" she asked.

He chuckled and shot her a highly amused look.  "Me?  Oh, so many, I lost track, you know . . . The more, the merrier, I say . . ."

She laughed.  "So . . . less than five; is that what you're saying?"

He shrugged.  "Three.  Well, four, counting you."  He paused, considered that for a moment, then grinned.  "I don't think that I'll count you, though.  Nothing against you—you're a gorgeous little thing—but I wasn't kidding when I said it was like snogging with my sister, and that . . . Well, that's just weird, really . . ."

She stifled a sigh, mostly because his assessment was entirely accurate.  The kiss was nice, sure, pleasant—and entirely without the crazy-mad emotion that those kisses from Ashur had possessed . . .

"Granted, I'm still waiting for my own earth-shaker . . ."  Suddenly, he barked out a laugh—an entirely too amused laugh, actually.

"What's so damn funny?" she demanded when his amusement escalated.

It took a minute for him to wind down enough to speak, and even when he did, he still kept chuckling.  "Earth-shaker," he repeated.  "Your Ashur—he's an earth . . ."

And he dissolved into another round of laughter again.

"You know, you're kind of a jerk," Jessa intoned rather dryly as she nudged Flicker into a gallop.

He didn't stop laughing as he caught up with her, as she dropped Flicker to a steady trot.  "Okay, so, that was a bad joke.  I apologize," he said, sounding anything but contrite.

Jessa snorted.  "A huge jerk."

"I'm nothing if not consistent," he quipped, reining in Fletch.

She let out a deep breath as her gaze swept over the horizon.  Too many things, tumbling about in her head, and none of it really made any sense.  Between Ashur and his brooding hostility since he'd stumbled upon her while she was kissing Devlin and everything else that was always there, she felt as though she were slowly going mad.

'Brooding hostility?  Way to gild the lily . . . He's furious with you, you realize—with you.'

'It was just one little kiss, not a big deal—certainly nothing for him to get all upset over.  You saw how that woman kept touching him any time she was anywhere close to him.  He was probably off, kissing her while I was cooking or watching Kells . . . If he's that upset, then it's like the pot calling the kettle black, don't you think?'

Her youkai-voice sighed.  'You don't know that there's anything going on there,' it said.  'It could just be what you think is there when, in reality, there isn't.  Did you even try asking him?'

'Asking him?  Of course, I did!  You heard me!'

'I heard you screaming at him and railing at him.  I didn't hear you ask him anything; not really . . . because when you ask someone something, then you have to listen to what the answer is, and you didn't.'

She snorted inwardly.  'Because he laughed at me,' she admitted.

'And he hurt your pride.  You realize, don't you, that you have more than your fair share of that.  Letting go of some of it isn't really a bad thing.'

'Why should I do that, I'd like to know?  He doesn't . . . doesn't care about me!  He—'

'Doesn't he?  Do you really think that a man who doesn't care would get that upset over an insignificant little kiss?  Because he wouldn't.  If he didn't care, then he wouldn't have given a fig, either, who you kiss and don't kiss.  Maybe he doesn't even realize it himself yet any more than you do, but it's there, Jessa.  You know it is.  All you have to do is show him.'

'Show him what, exactly?'

'You silly girl . . . Show him what's in your heart, in your mind . . . Show him because if you do, maybe . . .'

'Maybe . . .?'

Her youkai-voice sighed—a weary kind of sound, a sad kind of sound.  'Maybe . . . Maybe we can belong with him, Jessa . . .'

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur nearly smiled as he gazed at the picture that Manami had sent him: Kells, hanging upside down from the huge arm of a monkey statue—one of the giant climbable sculptures outside the Bevelle Children's Museum.  Nadia and Emmeline were chasing each other around the monkey's spread legs while Bailey sat on one of the monkey's shoulders and Daniel sat on the other.  All in all, it was a very sweet image, and he stared at it for another long moment before sending it to the digital file where he kept all his pictures of Kells.

Then he sighed, letting his phone drop on the wide desk.  Looking over the contract that had been faxed in this morning from the attorney at Muira International, he frowned as he stuck it into a drawer.

It was the very last step, the very last thing that had connected him with his old life.  After much deliberation, he'd opted to sell it—at least, his shares in it.  Besides, with his new job as Canadian general, he was still plenty busy.  Even so, there were a few businesses that he'd been looking at, as well—things that he could buy out and try to build them up, too . . .

It was something that he enjoyed.  When he thought back to those years, especially the early ones with Muira International, it had given him something so much more valuable, a sense that he'd built something entirely on his own.  Sure, the first year or so was heavily subsidized by his father's money.  After that, though, he'd paid Hidekea back within two years and still managed to turn a healthy profit.  He wanted to do something like that again, didn't he?  Only this time, he wanted to build a legacy, something for Kells . . .

'And for Jessa . . .'

Uttering a terse sound not entirely unlike a grunt, Ashur didn't bother to respond to that.

'You're still mad that she was kissing that guy—your neighbor.  I get you.  To be honest, I'd be a little irritated about it, too, except . . .'

'Except, what?' Ashur growled back.

'Except that there wasn't anything to it.  You saw it yourself.  You saw her face; you saw his.  They kissed, but it wasn't anything spectacular—not like it was when you've kissed her . . .'

'The idea that she kissed him is more than enough,' he shot back.  'Damn it . . .'

'And that's just your bruised ego talking.  Besides, you know that she was already upset about the whole Manami thing, and—'

He snorted.  'There never was a Manami-thing!  It was the one time, and we were drunk, and it was just one kiss, so—'

'Yeah, except the two of you were going to sleep together—you know it, and I know it.  If there had been even a little spark to it, it would have happened, but you know, the thing is, neither you nor Jessa is perfect.  You've both been muddling through this thing—'

'There isn't a 'thing',' he argued.  'It's . . . It's . . .'

'It's a thing, stupid!  Of course, it's a thing!  It's a thing that might be the best . . . the best thing that ever happened to us if you'd let it be . . . If you wanted it to be.'

'And what's that supposed to mean?  She . . .'

His youkai sighed.  'She's stubborn and impulsive and infuriating . . . passionate and unpredictable and smart . . . and caring and nurturing and absolutely perfect with Kells, too . . .'

Making a face, he slid down, slumping over, letting his temple rest on his raised fingertips.  'And she's still little more than a child herself.'

'That's not the truth, and you know it.  Her age has nothing at all do to with it.  Okay, yeah, so she's only eighteen, but to our kind, that's not really that relevant.  Besides, you saw her in that damned bikini.  Ain't nothing, 'little girl' about that . . .'

The fleeting image of her, in that blasted black bikini, shot to life in his head.  There wasn't a part of her he hadn't seen in that, not one bit left to the imagination, and the lust that the very memory could inspire . . .? Entirely unfair, if you asked him . . .

The bottom line of it was that he was treading on very dangerous ground—ground he'd never stepped foot on before.  There was something about Jessa: something that could thrill him, even as it frightened him, too—something about the way she smiled, the brush of her youki over his . . . He could feel it, the overwhelming draw of her, the familiarity in her that belied her age in years, in numbers . . .

As much as he hated to admit it, he was certain that her losses, everything she'd loved that had fallen away, all of that had aged her soul, had driven her emotions well beyond the eighteen physical years of her body.  There was something about her soul that matched his, and whether it was that sense of yearning, that bone-deep sadness that permeated everything around them, he didn't know.

No, the one thing he did understand—understood it on a level that was harsh and frightening—was that he . . . He hated to see that part of her: hated to lay in bed at night, wondering if she were laying in hers, crying alone . . . That smile of hers that had the ability to take his breath away . . . He was willing to spend the rest of his life, caught up in this statis where he still lingered, long after the ghosts had stopped whispering in his ears, if he could hear her laughter, if he knew that it was real, genuine; if he could banish those shadows from her eyes . . .

Which really only left one question in his mind . . .

How . . .?

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa pulled herself through the water, ignoring the burning in her muscles as she kept moving, lulled by the rhythmic pattern.  She'd lost track of how many laps she'd already done in the pool, tried not to think about just how silly it was that she missed Kells so badly, especially when she was swimming . . .

If only she could shake off the sense of restlessness, which was the real reason she was out here, working off some nervous energy.  Flipping over, kicking off the wall, she glided through the water.

It was all his fault, damn it.  All of it had started with Ashur Philips, hadn't it?  If he wasn't incessantly so maddening, none of this would have happened.  If he'd just talk to her instead of hiding behind his half-statements and brooding looks, maybe she wouldn't be lost in such a quandary, and maybe she wouldn't have gone looking for answers, in the first place . . .

'And just why are you blaming your actions on him, Jessa?  Seriously, do you honestly believe that he makes you do things?  He's not God or something, you realize.  He's just a man—a man that you can't figure out, and you're doing what you always do when you can't figure something out: you're blaming your failure on him.'

'I am not!  If he'd just be more forthright, then I wouldn't have to question everything all the time!  It's his fault!  His!'

'No, it isn't.  Stop being a spoiled little bitch whose da fixes everything when you go crying to him because, like it or not, it's time to grow up.  You can't fall back on those old tricks.  Da's not around to be your repairman anymore.  I know, it's harsh for me to say that to you, but you know that I'm right.'

Jessa winced, taking another turn in the water.  'Time to grow up . . .'

Her youkai sighed.  'Yeah, and that means . . . You have to admit, whether you want to or not, that kissing Devlin really wasn't the smartest course of action.  You couldn't really have believed that it wouldn't matter, who you kissed.  Even you, with your limited knowledge, had to understand on some level that it does matter—it matters a lot . . . And you have to realize, too, that those kisses with Ashur?  They really are just as special as you thought.'

'But . . . But what does that mean . . .?'

'It means, silly goose, that you really should try talking to Ashur—leave your defenses out of it, leave your pride at the door.  Talk to him, Jessa . . . Maybe you'll get some answers that you need to hear.'

'Talk to him . . .'

She finished another few laps before letting her feet drop in the shallow end of the pool, heaving a sigh as she lifted her face, as she gauged the time by the position of the sun.  It was somewhere around five in the evening, she decided.  She ought to be starting dinner, but somehow, the idea of sitting down and eating alone just wasn't appealing.

Ashur hadn't bothered to eat last night.  He stayed in his office with the door shut, and she had no reason to think that he'd bother to show his face tonight, either.  That was all right, she figured.  She wasn't particularly hungry herself.

Even so, she waded over to the steps and out of the pool, grabbing the white towel she'd left, tossed over the back of a chair. She draped it around her hips and tucked it in to hold it in place and leaned to the side, pulling her hair together, running her hands down the length of it to squeeze out the excess water, making a face at the chlorine that she needed to wash out.  It was one of the things she hated about pools . . .

"Jessa."

Gasping softly as she whipped around to face the owner of that particular voice, Jessa's eyes flared wide, only to narrow as she met Ashur's inscrutable gaze.  Standing not far away with his hands in his pockets, his shirt caught up by the gentle breeze that ruffled his golden brown bangs, molding his clothing to his body in a wholly provocative sort of way.  Something about the way he stood there, the way he stared at her . . . She could sense the questions in his head, knew what he wanted to know as a strange sort of sensation broke loose somewhere deep inside her, making her limbs feel leaden, making her breath catch between her lips and lungs . . .

"A . . . Ashur . . ."

He sighed, shifting his gaze out over the landscape for a long heartbeat that throbbed in her ears.  "Why would you kiss him?" he asked quietly.  Under his words, she could feel his emotions—the deepening in his gaze, the pain that shifted the clear blue skies to a harsher indigo—and the added spark of unspent anger, of a rage that was thick, that held her back, kept her from approaching him . . .

"I . . . I just wanted to know," she whispered, her gaze dropping away as she crossed her arms over her chest in a protective sort of way.  "I needed to know . . . what's real . . . what's . . . illusion . . . What I . . ."

He nodded slowly, as though something she'd said made perfect sense to him.  "And did you get an answer?"

She didn't respond to that.  What could she say, anyway?  Turning away from him, she shook her head, tried to gather her waning bravado . . .

She couldn't.

Minutes passed that felt like hours.  Maybe they were seconds, she didn't know.  When she turned around again, though, he was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa stepped into the living room, her fingers wrapped over the long cuffs of her sweater, watching Ashur, who was sitting on the sofa, reading through some kind of file.

Shuffling over to the wetbar, she took her time, pouring him a drink—the cognac that he tended to favor—before taking the snifter and approaching him slowly, cautiously, unsure what to expect, exactly.

She held out the drink between his face and the papers.

He blinked and glanced up at her before accepting the glass.  "Thank you."

She nodded.  "What's that?" she asked, sitting down beside him, pushing her hair back off of her shoulder.

He sighed.  "It's the accident report on your mother's car," he said.

She frowned, face paling as she shot him a questioning look.  "Why?  I mean, it was . . . was an . . . accident . . . Isn't that what they said?"

"I was, uh . . . I just thought that maybe you'd have grounds to sue the manufacturer if it was mechanical failure," he replied, stashing the papers into a file and dropping it onto the coffee table.

Something about his tone . . . She let out a deep breath, rubbing her eyes in a weary sort of way.  "I just . . . I don't want to mess with that," she said.

"Okay," he allowed, sipping his drink.

"It was strange, though," she went on, her gaze clouding over as she brought up her knee, wrapped her arms around her leg.

"What was?"

She shrugged offhandedly.  "Well, Da just got Ma's car out of the shop a couple days before that.  Had a complete tune up and the mandatory vehicle inspection done, and everything was fine or they wouldn't have allowed it on the roads."

"Mm . . ."

"Is that right?"

She nodded.  "Don't they require that here, too?"

He seemed thoughtful.

Resting her cheek on her knee, she stared at him for a long moment.  The warm light from the lamp on the table beside the sofa cast a golden sheen over everything—over him.  The anger that she'd sensed from him earlier was gone, but there was a strange sense of foreboding in his expression, too, though, for some reason, she had a feeling that it wasn't directed at her . . .

"Can I ask you something?" she said quietly, softly.

He sat back, let out a deep breath.  "All right."

"That woman—Manami . . . You said you kissed her before."

He nodded slowly.  "I did."

"But you got mad when I kissed Devlin."

"That's different."

"How's it different?" she challenged.

"Because I kissed her two years ago—maybe more.  I don't remember, and it didn't mean anything to me."

"Then why was she all over you?  Why did she keep touching you and hugging you and . . . hanging off you?"

Snapping his mouth closed on whatever argument he'd been about to make, he heaved a sigh instead, leaning forward, dragging his fingers through his bangs.  "She's a very touchy person," he told her.  "I didn't notice that she was because that's just how she is.  It doesn't mean anything other than that she likes you as a person . . . Why?  Do you care?"  Narrowing his gaze for a moment, only to have them widen in surprise, he stared at her.  "You're jealous," he said, sounding almost gloating.

She felt her cheeks explode in embarrassed color.  "I am not!" she sputtered, sitting up straight.  "Jealous?  Ha!"

He looked entirely too amused, even though he wasn't smiling.  "Would it help if I admitted that I was dead damn jealous of your little weenie friend?"

"No, it wou—He's not a weenie!"

Ashur rolled his eyes as he drained his glass and set it aside.  "He's a weenie," he insisted.

She snorted, shooting to her feet as she headed out of the living room.  "This is what happens when I try to talk to you like an adult," she fumed, more to herself than to him.  "Delusional!  Positively delusional!  As if I'd be jealous of . . . of her!"

"Jessa," he called after her.

Against her better judgment, she stopped, turned to face him. "What?" she replied mulishly.

He stood up and shuffled over to her, corners of his lips quirked just slightly, though he didn't actually smile.  The blue of his eyes seemed to dance, to sparkle, as he hooked his index finger under her chin, lifting it to force her head back, to force her to look at him.  "If you admit you're jealous, I'll kiss you," he said.

She felt her mouth go bone-dry as conscious thought flew right out of her head.  Staring into his eyes was akin to being too close to a fire, liquefying her insides, sending out a slow burn . . .

Letting his hand drop away from her, he sighed and leaned back on his heels.  "Have it your way, Jessa," he said.  "For now, anyway . . ."

She stood there for a moment longer until her body finally caught up to her mind.  Then, with a frustrated little growl, she turned on her heel and stalked out of the living room and toward the stairs.

She thought she might have heard him chuckle.  She didn't go back to check.

 

 


 

 

 

He marched into the opulent office, stepping past the butler, who closed the door without a word.  The weak and vague light outside the twenty-foot-tall windows echoed his mood and had for the last few days.  The overcast weather had followed him around for the last few weeks, or so it seemed, ever since that morning when he'd come down stairs, only to find that they were gone—absconded without a trace.

"Have you managed to locate him?"

Grimacing inwardly at the no-nonsense question, Carl Kingston balled up his fist, tapping his knuckles against the corner of the looming desk.  "Not yet, but my man is working on it."

"Then, is this even necessary?" Ian MacDonnough asked, holding up an official document by the corner, his articulated claws flashing as they caught the light of the desk lamp that did little to disburse the murkiness of the room in general.

Kingston uttered a terse grunt as he stomped across the floor and back. "I don't understand how this all fell apart!" he grumbled.

"It's simple," Ian remarked, dropping the document onto the desk.  "You lack control over your household."

Blanching at the European tai-youkai's set-down, Carl shook his head.  "It'll be fine once I find him.  I'll bring him home, kicking and screaming if I have to . . . You know where the gel is, don't you?"

"My sources tell me she is staying with her cousin in the States."

Carl stopped, mid stride, to pin Ian with a dark look.  "What the bloody hell is she doing there?  That's the Zelig's territory!  He won't send her back, probably just to spite you."

"I am well aware of that, Your Grace," Ian replied calmly.  "It's of little consequence.  All you have to do is gain your son's compliance, and he can go . . . claim his bride."  Ian stood up, rounded the desk, crossed the floor to fill a glass with single malt scotch.  "What he does with her after the fact is entirely up to his discretion.  The Zelig will have no at all to say, one way or the other."  Taking his time, he sipped the liquor before flicking a hand in obvious dismissal.  "You may go.  I trust you'll have better news for me the next time you darken my doorstep?"

Carl nodded slowly.  "Absolutely," he said, inclining his head before turning to leave.

"Kingston," he said before Carl made it to the door.

"Yes?"

"If word gets out that your heir has turned on you, it could undermine your authority in the worst possible way."

He nodded again, gritting his teeth as the door swung open before he could reach for the handle.  The warning was there, rife in Ian's tone.  If he failed to find his son—if he couldn't convince the fool that this marriage was necessary, both for his own good as well for the overall reinforcement of the tai-youkai's power, not to mention the benefits for himself, personally.  The prophecy . . .

Well, he didn't really want to think about it.  After all, Ian had a way of making sure that things were done his way . . . or not at all . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur chuckled as Jessa made her haughty escape and considered going after her for a brief moment, if only to see if he couldn't tease her just a little more . . .

'That isn't a good habit to get into, Kyouhei . . . That girl can start fires, remember?  Tease her too much, and you're liable to end up toast.'

That thought only made him chuckle a little more.

'Yeah, well, instead of conjuring up ways to drive her batty—and to keep her at a distance, if that's what you're trying to do—maybe you should consider what she told you about her mom's car, instead.'

And that thought was enough to wipe the smile off his face, and the amusement right out of his head.

'Fine, fine . . . Now that you've ruined my mood, guess there's no time like the present . . .'

Seeing no way around it, Ashur dug out his cell phone and dialed the number.

"Zelig."

"Hi, it's Ashur."

"Oh, hey, how do you like Quebec?"

"Uh, it's fine," he said, rushing through the pleasantries.  "Myrna's cousin is staying with me—"

"Right, they mentioned that.  How is she doing?"

Rubbing his forehead, he made a face.  "She's fine—well, you know, as fine as she can be, given the circumstances.  Anyway, I asked the consulate for a copy of the accident report that killed her mom, and I was looking it over, but something Jessa said to me . . ."

"What's that?"

Ashur reached for the report, leafed through a few of the pages.  "Well, that's the strange part.  She said that her father had just had her mother's car serviced a few days before that, including the necessary vehicle inspection—mandatory by all European countries.  The thing is, there should have been a copy of that inspection here in the file to prove that an accident wasn't known mechanical failure—it's standard to have an attached copy of it, and this one doesn't have that."

"Really . . ."

"They deemed the accident, 'faulty fuel lines', saying that they failed by springing a leak, which led to the explosion over the gas main."

Cain sighed.  "But if the lines were just inspected, then they should have been replaced if they were found to be compromised," he finished.  "Can you send me a copy of that report?  It's, uh, not my jurisdiction, but I have a couple car experts who might be able to figure a few things out for me.  When was that accident?"

Ashur sighed, too.  "Over a year ago."

"Damn . . . Then, even if I can convince Sesshoumaru to order a new investigation, the car has probably already been disposed of . . ."

"That's what I thought, too."

"All right," Cain said.  "Send me that report, and I'll look it over, too.  Have you said anything to the girl about your suspicions?"

"No, but . . . I mean, I'm not keeping it from her, per se, but she said she didn't want to look at any of the reports so far, not that I can fault her for that . . . There's more to it, too."

"Oh?"

"I'll, uh . . . I'll send you the information Ben found for me.  I can't really talk about it all right now, but I'll send you what I know."

"Okay."

The call ended, and Ashur sighed again.  The parts of everything individually weren't that concerning.  It wasn't until he put them all together in his head that they became something more, and those things worried him more than he wanted to credit . . .

A strange little song interrupted the quiet, and Ashur frowned.  It took him a minute to locate the source: Jessa's cell phone.  It must have slipped out of her pocket when she was sitting with him.

Frowning at the caller ID, he shook his head.  'Carol', was all it said.   With a flick of his finger, he sent it to voicemail since he figured that she wouldn't really welcome his intrusion, especially if she'd already gone to bed.

The song started again before he could set the phone down, and he shook his head, sending the call to voicemail once more.

The third time it rang, he declined the call and opened the messaging menu, figuring he'd at least let her know that Jessa had gone to bed and would call her back tomorrow.  When it rang a fourth time, however, he sighed, and connected the call.

"Hello?"

"Je—You're not Jessa."

He almost smiled at the surprised woman's words.  "No, I'm Ashur," he said.  "She's in her room.  I think she might have already gone to bed.  I'll tell her that you called in the morning.  I'm sure she'll call you back."

"You're answering her phone now?" Carol asked.

Ashur snorted.  "Only when it rings four times in a row.  Is this an emergency?"

Carol sighed.  "No, I was just going to tell her that I managed to get a few days off work if she still wanted me to come up to visit—if it's okay with you, big guy."

"It depends," he said, settling back against the sofa. "You're not going to try to drag her out to get another illegal job at a hell hole strip club, are you?"

"Well, I wasn't planning on it, and you know, just for the record, she did pretty well for herself.  I mean, with the exception of that asshole that tried to attack her out back, she—"

"What?"

Carol sighed.  "It wasn't a big deal.  I kicked the guy in the nuts, and he left her alone after that."

"She was attacked?" he demanded sharply.

Carol hesitated before answering.  "She didn't tell you about that, I take it . . ."

"No, she didn't.  When did this happen?"

"Couple weeks into it," she said.  "Look, don't be mad at her.  No harm, no foul, right?  Besides, she was pretty shaken up over it at the time."

"What did the guy look like?  Better yet, what did he smell like?"

"Him?  He smelled like . . . like Heineken . . . That was a weird question."  She sighed.  "Listen, Ashur—can I call you that?"

"Yeah, it's fine," he bit out.

"Great . . . So, anyway, don't come down too hard on her about it.  I'm serious . . . I thought that she'd told you about it.  I mean, she said that you insisted that she learn some self-defense, so I just figured . . ."

"Right," he said, managing a bored tone that he was far from feeling.

Carol snorted.  "Don't make me regret trying to help you out."

"Oh?  And how did you do that?"

"That's for Jessa and me to know . . . and if you're nice to her, maybe you'll find out."

"You're not winning points," he informed her dryly.

She laughed.  "How about if I say that I told her that she ought to jump you?"

Snapping his mouth closed as his cheeks heated under his skin.  "Uh . . ."

Her laughter was entirely pleasant, even if it was sorely misplaced in his estimation.  "Relax, Ashur.  I'm on your side.  You and Jessa would make entirely sweet little babies."

"Babies?"

"Lots of babies."

Ashur grimaced.  "I'm hanging up now."

She laughed again.  "Bye, Ashur.  It was very interesting, talking to you."

He hung up the phone and scowled.  She was attacked at that God-forsaken place?  And she hadn't bothered to tell him about it, either . . .

Regardless of how long ago that it had happened, it bothered him more than he wanted to think about.

The thing was, he wasn't sure that starting the next war with Jessa would ultimately be worth it, and he had very little doubt that that's exactly what would happen if he went charging up there to confront her about it now.

'Just be thankful that she's fine, Ashur, because Carol's right.  It's a little too late to take issue over it now.'

'Maybe . . . Still . . .'

'Well, if you're going to say something to her about it, at least sleep on it, first.  Then you'll at least have a fighting chance of not saying something entirely stupid.'

He snorted, hauling himself off the couch and over to the wetbar to pour himself another drink.

Sleep on it?  "Right . . ."

Somehow, he didn't think he was going to feel any differently in the morning . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ashur frowned thoughtfully as he watched Thurston Margreave and his wife was they unloaded the horse, who was nervously prancing, pawing the ramp as they led him down off the trailer.

He was magnificent, that creature.  Given that Ashur knew next to nothing about horses in general, even he could tell that there was something special about this one, and he slowly nodded.  The stark white Arabian with the dark eyes was absolutely stunning, really—glistening like freshly fallen snow.  Every inch of him exuded such power: power that radiated with his unbridled spirit—a spirit that mirrored Jessa's.  From the moment that Thurston had opened the door on the trailer, Ashur had seen it: the same sort of longing in the depths of the horse's eyes.  In his own primitive way, he was searching, too, and Ashur had to wonder if Jessa could tame that horse, or if that horse would end up, taming her . . .

He'd called to arrange a visit to check out the stables, but Thurston had mentioned that he was getting ready to take his wife on a cruise—something that he'd promised her, he'd said, months ago for their anniversary—and that they'd be out of town for about a month.  Ashur had then asked if there was someone else that Thurston knew of who had a horse that they might be willing to sell, and the thespian had offered to let Ashur take this one on a trial basis.  He'd said that his stable hand who normally was in charge of him—Stardust was his name—would accompany the horse to oversee his care and to make sure that he was being properly treated since Thurston hadn't gotten a chance to observe Jessa's skills with horses himself, and since Ashur really couldn't say much other than that he knew she'd had a horse most of her life, that she'd taken dressage lessons for a long, long while . . .

"So, what do you think?" Thurston asked as the stable hand—a Peary Caribou-youkai named Laith McKenna—led the horse toward the stable.

"It's a beautiful animal," Ashur agreed.

Thurston nodded happily.  "And your girl—she used to have a horse of her own?"

"She was given a gypsy cob when she was twelve," he replied.  "I've seen pictures.  Dead gorgeous creature . . ."

Thurston nodded again, idly rubbing his slight potbelly.  "Gypsy cob, you say?  Beautiful horses, those are," he agreed.  "Not as common around here, though . . ."

"She's from Ireland," he explained.  "Let me go get her."

"Oh, absolutely, absolutely!" Thurston said as his mate stepped up beside him.  "You mind if we take a look around?  Make sure that it's all good in there?  Not that I don't trust you, of course.  Just want to make sure that it's all secure . . . Stardust is a valuable horse.  Probably could be trained to be a racer, if you had the inclination . . . His sire's Heartwind's Lovelorn Lost . . ." Chuckling softly at the blank expression on Ashur's face, he slowly shook his head.  "He won the Kentucky Derby a few years ago," he said.  "He also won the Canadian Triple Crown when he was younger, too.  Stardust, here . . . Well, he's fast—really fast.  He doesn't actually have the disposition for racing, though.  He rides the fine line between being a runner and being a runaway . . . Gentle enough if he likes you, though . . . He tends to be a little on the nervous side . . ."

"Go right ahead," Ashur said, waving a hand toward the stable.  "I'll be right back."

Striding away, he headed for the house, wondering if Jessa was awake yet.  It was entirely possible that she was still sleeping.  After all, he'd seen her light on under her door last night when he'd gone to bed.

After Carol's phone call, it was all he could do, not to march right into her room and demand to know what had happened.  Too bad his youkai was right.  If he had, he'd have just rekindled the fighting, and he wasn't sure that it would be worth it in the end.  Better to focus on the idea that she was safe now, that she was all right . . .

"Jessa," he said as he strode into her room.

She groaned and yanked the blankets up over her head, muttering something entirely unintelligible under her breath.

Shaking his head as he stepped over to the bed, he pulled the covers back.  "Jessa . . . Get up.  There's someone here you should meet."

With a frustrated little growl, she sat up, casting Ashur a very petulant little scowl.  "Who, and why can't they come back at a decent hour?"

"And what, pray tell, is a decent hour when it's already nearly ten in the morning?"  He almost chuckled.  "Come outside when you're dressed," he said, ignoring her outburst as he turned and walked out of her room once more.

'There's something ridiculously cute about that girl, first thing in the morning . . .'

He sighed as he descended the stairs.  Yeah, he had to agree, there really was. . . Maybe it was the crazy tousled hair of hers, or the sleepy-bleary quality in her eyes . . . In any case, if he didn't need to get her downstairs to meet Stardust and the Margreaves, he would have stood there longer, watching her while she slept . . .

'That's because she's entirely beautiful, even when she first wakes up, it seems . . .'

There was that, too . . .

"She'll be down in a minute," he said as he stopped near the open stable doors.

Thurston turned around, nodding appreciatively as he hurried over to Ashur.  "The stable is very good—very sound," he approved.  "Are you planning on hiring a master of stables?  If so, I'd be more than happy to suggest a few . . ."

"I'd appreciate that," he said.

"What's . . . going on?" Jessa asked, glancing around as she stopped beside Ashur.  She'd taken the time to toss on a pair of jeans and a cute little pink tee-shirt, and she still looked just as good as she would have, if she had taken more time and fussed over her appearance.

Ashur glanced down at her and then nodded toward the far end of the stable—the open doors that led to the paddock directly beyond.  "Go see."

She paused to give him a suspect frown before striding away.  Ashur fell into step behind her, close enough to hear her soft gasp as she stepped outside, as her gaze lit on Stardust.  "Oh . . ."

Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he stepped behind her and leaned down.  "Mr. Margreave, here, has offered to let us house Stardust for the next month," he said.  "If you like him—if the two of you get along well—then we can talk about a more permanent arrangement."

The expression on her face was well worth the effort—the bright smile, the wide-eyed wonder . . . She looked like she'd just been given the best surprise, ever, and in Ashur's estimation, that was well worth the effort.

"Mr. Philips tells me that you're well-versed in dressage," Thurston said, extending his hand to Jessa.  "I'm Thurston Margreave.   You must be Jessa."

She nodded and took his hand, managing to draw her gaze off Stardust for a moment to smile politely at the man.

No doubt about it, Ashur thought as Thurston and his wife tried to talk to Jessa, and she tried to reply without looking too disinterested, even though he could feel the excitement she was having trouble containing.  She was like Stardust, who was pawing the ground where he stood nearby, and if Ashur didn't know better, he'd swear that the beast was actually staring at Jessa, too.

She was smitten: entirely smitten.

With a horse.

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa stepped into the house with a happy sigh.  After having spent the vast majority of the day, getting to know Stardust, she was tired but content—a feeling she hadn't had in such a very long time.  The Margreaves had stayed long enough to put a saddle on Stardust, to watch her as she handled him a little—long enough for them to see that she had skill enough to be trusted with the horse.  The saddle didn't fit her very well, though, and she wanted to get a better one before she tried to take him out for a ride.

Pausing in the foyer, she stretched out her youki, let it fill the area on a careful search.

She smiled as the knowledge came to her.  Ashur was in his office, probably with his face buried in one thing or another.  It was her considered opinion that he took everything far too seriously.  In the length of time that she'd known him, she couldn't rightfully recall him ever doing anything for fun unless Kells was involved, and that was always more for the child than it ever was for him.

A vague frown settled over her features, and she bit her lip.  For some reason, that bothered her a lot, didn't it?  That he would go out of his way to do the things that Kells enjoyed, that he would bend over backward to give her a job, a place to live, and now to acquire Stardust?  He wasn't a horseman, and she knew damn well that he hadn't brought the animal here for himself.  No, Stardust was most certainly for her, but . . .

She took her time, removing her boots, wondering absently if she couldn't arrange a trip to the stores to buy more appropriate riding attire.  She had little doubt that he would take her, but the idea of imposing upon him really bothered her, too.  Even so, she needed a good saddle and tack before she could even think about trying to ride Stardust, so swallowing her pride and asking was really her only recourse.

'Well, you do have money, if you remember.  He's done something so nice for you, maybe you should offer to return the favor on some level.'

'Oh?  And how would that be?'

Her youkai laughed.  'Take him out to dinner or something.  Besides, it'd be nice to spend some time with him when you're not trying to analyze everything, don't you think?'

'Take him out?  Where . . .?'

'Come on, Jessa, it's not that difficult?  Just find out somewhere that has good food, and that should be fine.'

She nodded at her youkai's suggestion and drew a deep breath as she padded over to his office door and knocked.

"Come in."

The door didn't make a sound as she pushed it open, as she hovered in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest, leaning against the wooden frame.  He didn't look up from whatever held his attention, and she slowly shook her head.  "Have you been in here, working all day?" she asked in a tone that she hoped was casual enough.

"Some of us cannot afford the luxury of playing the day away," he said, and, while his words were harsh, his tone was not.  In fact, he sounded almost amused.

Pushing away from the doorframe, she wandered over, stepped behind him, rubbing his shoulders like she used to do for her father whenever he spent all day, working harder than he should have.  "I wondered if you would give me a ride into the city," she said, digging harder at a particularly tight spot at the base of his neck.

He groaned quietly.  She wasn't sure if he even realized he'd done it or not.  "And why do you want to go?" he asked.

"I wanted to look for a decent saddle," she replied.  "Maybe some boots and better pants for riding . . ."

"Hmm, can we do it tomorrow?  I'm a little busy here."

"Well, I was also going to offer to buy you dinner," she said.  "Are you really that busy?  Do you ever get to go out and do something just because you want to?  Just because it's fun?  What about sightseeing?  I mean, there have to be some places around here that are worth visiting, right?"

"Who says that I don't enjoy working?" he countered dryly.

"No one enjoys working," she argued with a grimace.  "It . . . Forget about it . . . It was a . . . a stupid thought . . ."

"Wait," he called as she headed for the door.  She stopped and slowly turned to face him again.  He hadn't dropped the paperwork in his hands, but he was looking at her, his gaze full of a certain curiosity.  "I'm interested in this idea of yours," he admitted.  "But surely you realize that a gentleman isn't supposed to allow a lady to take him out to dinner."

She shrugged.  "When's the last time you did anything that wasn't work, wasn't for Kells, or wasn't for . . ." She cleared her throat, ". . . for me . . .?"

Settling back in his chair, he crossed his arms over his chest, stared at her for a moment with a calculating look on his face.  She couldn't tell what he was thinking, but she had a feeling that he was considering exactly what to say to her.  "I like working," he finally admitted with an offhanded shrug.  "I like taking care of Kells . . . and you . . ."  Suddenly, he sighed, pushing away from the desk, getting to his feet to pace the floor.  "I never really learned how to  . . . to play, I guess," he admitted, and she had to wonder if he even realized what he was saying.  "My parents . . . They weren't exactly what you'd call playful or anything.  Everything was always some kind of lesson, had to have a proper goal . . ."

Wandering over to intercept him, Jessa grabbed his hands, held them firmly in hers.  "Come on, Ashur," she said quietly, gently.  "I'll give you half an hour to get changed or whatever it is you need to do.  Then we'll go find something . . . something fun to do—something without your proper goal."

"Something fun," he echoed, and even though he wasn't smiling, his eyes seemed to glow.

She nodded, letting go of his hands as she hurried out of the room and up the stairs to change.

 

 


 

 

 

Leaning against the smooth and polished railing of the Reine du Québec as they enjoyed the late-night dinner cruise down the St. Lawrence River, around the île d'Orléans, taking in the breathtaking sight of the city at night, Jessa sighed, but it was a contented sound—a pleased sound.  They'd finished dinner in one of the four three-Michelin-star rated restaurants on the ship, and they had decided to walk around the fourth-story deck.

It was a newer ship, a floating luxury hotel with around three hundred rooms, all touted as being state-of-the-art, and the multiple restaurants were all available for the lunch and early evening dinner cruises along the river.  The late night dinner, however, was another matter, entirely.  It was only open and available to those who were staying in the hotel portion of the ship, and those rooms tended to be booked for weeks or sometimes months in advance.

Ashur had asked the sales girls while Jessa was trying on riding pants for suggestions of things to do in and around the city, and one of them had suggested the cruise.  She said that it was beautiful, that people loved to propose there.  There was lore, she said, that couples who got engaged on it never, ever got divorced.  He wasn't sure what he thought of that, but it sounded like it might be all right, and Jessa had liked the idea of the dinner cruise well enough . . .

He'd found out about the lunch and early evening cruise services over the phone, and that's when he'd been told that he could only book reservations for dinner if he booked a room, as well, when he'd called to check availability for the night cruise.   Luckily for him, someone had called and canceled just minutes before, so there was a room available for the night, as well, and, since Jessa seemed to think that Ashur was anything but spontaneous, he'd booked the room and the cruise.  Then he'd dragged her to another couple stores in order to buy whatever they might need since they didn't have time to run back to the estate to pack an overnight bag.

Looking at her now, bathed in the dancing lights of the boat, the twinkling stars high above, the glow of the city that was as gentle as it was constant, he could only think that the positively ridiculous amount of money he'd shelled out for the room and to buy her something appropriate for dinner was well worth the cost, and the sight of her when she'd stepped out of the bedroom of the small suite, all dressed up and ready for their evening on the Reine du Québec?   The slate grey satin dress—just a few shades above black and Ashur's ceremonial color, which he knew she wasn't aware of, but couldn't help the misplaced pride that she'd chosen it, anyway—fit her perfectly, molded to her body, hugging her curves like a second skin to the hips, where the skirt flared just enough to give some wispy motion to the garment that just brushed mid-thigh, exposing a dizzying amount of her long, long legs, which were only emphasized by the dainty three-inch-heels with straps that wrapped around her slender ankles.  The pale, creamy skin of her throat, her upper chest, seemed to glow in the light, drawing extra attention to the absolutely perfection of her face, her sooty eyes, her rose-kissed cheeks and wine-red lips . . . Hair swept up and fastened with a barrette, only to cascade down her back in a riot of crimson curls, the girl was positively radiant, even as she'd stood there, as she'd offered him a rather nervous little smile that had faltered slightly as the seconds had ticked away, as he fought to recall that it was rude to stare, that he really ought to say or do something instead of simply standing there like a wax dummy at Madame Tussauds . . .

And, unfortunately, something else he'd realized over the course of the evening?  Other men seemed to be entirely too aware of Jessa, too, the bastards.  More than once so far, he'd caught himself, growling under his breath when he'd caught a head turned just a little too far, when eyes lingered just a little too long on her as they passed by.

'Which is nothing but solid jealousy, Kyouhei—utter jealousy that you just don't wear well, you know.'

He snorted.  'Nope, those bastards just need to stop looking.  I mean, it's pretty obvious that she's with me, isn't it?  And it's Ashur, remember?'

'Ashur—Kyouhei . . . Does it really matter?  It doesn't, so shut up . . . Anyway, relax.  They're just enjoying the proverbial view . . . The only thing you have to worry about is whether she likes any of them better than she likes you.'

"Ashur?  Are you . . . all right . . .?"

Blinking away his youkai-blood's irritating commentary, Ashur glanced at Jessa, who was frowning at him in obvious concern.  "Everything's fine," he muttered, raising his gaze as the first of the fireworks shot off into the sky. "Just arguing with myself."

He could feel her eyeing him, and suddenly, she laughed.  "You mean, I'm not the only one who does that?"

He snorted.  "I highly doubt it," he replied.  Suddenly, he chuckled, and it made her pause, hesitate as she stared back at him, too.  "I'll bet mine is more annoying than yours."

"You make it sound like this is some sort of contest.  It's not, but if it were, then I'd have to say that mine is by far worse than yours."

Another round of fireworks exploded.  Jessa gasped quietly as golds and reds showered down so slowly, so low that it was almost as though they could touch them.  "How is this on your scale of fun?" he asked, the teasing tone in his voice understated but present.

"This isn't bad at all," she said.  "I mean, I could have gone for pizza and a movie . . . but this is nice, too."

Slipping a hand onto the small of her back, he watched the fireworks in silence for another minute before looking back at her once more.  Eyes softly glowing, that small smile, tugging on her lips . . . She could have been a million miles away, and yet . . . Just what was she thinking?  And why did he know that, whatever it was, it made her sad, despite the little smile . . .?  "What are you thinking about?" he asked her.

She blinked, looked surprised for a moment as she quickly shook her head.  "It's . . . It's nothing . . . I was just . . ." Trailing off with a quiet sigh that was more of a lifting of her shoulders than an actual sound, she rubbed her arms as though she were cold.  He shrugged off his jacket—he'd bought it just for tonight—and dropped it over her shoulders.  As a fire-youkai, she was inherently more sensitive to the fluctuations in temperatures, and the breeze coming off the water was pretty chilly, even for mid-June.

She shot him a grateful smile, her hands reaching up to hold the lapels close to her.  "I was just thinking about Ma," she admitted.  "Sometimes I wish I hadn't been so . . . so stubborn with her."  She grimaced, slowly shaking her head again.  "I thought that she was such a nuisance sometimes—I mean, I loved her so much, but . . ."

"You were a child," he told her.  "Don't be too hard on yourself."

She didn't look like she was buying his words.  "The . . . The day of her accident, I . . ." she grimaced, then heaved a shaky sigh.  "She wanted to throw another ball—to capitalize on the first one, I guess.  She had this friend—well, frienemy?  Countess Thatcher . . . The countess had a granddaughter who was around the same age as me, and she was always trying to compare us—our grades, our lessons . . . All of it, and my ma, well, she hated whenever she thought that Lila—the countess' granddaughter—might have one up on me, so she'd do things to try to push me farther . . ." She wrinkled her nose. "It was kind of sick, actually . . ."

"Parental rivalry," he mused.  "Interesting."

She rolled her eyes, shot him a baleful look.  "Not especially.  Anyway, Ma was having one of her moments about it—Lila, she'd been told, had at least four men asking about her after her debut.  So, we argued about it, and I . . ." she flinched.  "I told her to get into her bloody car and go as far away as she could get."

He grimaced inwardly.  "And then, she didn't come home."

She nodded sadly, miserably.

"It's not your fault, you know," he said, drawing her into a hug.  "You couldn't have known what was going to happen, and even if you had, parents . . . Parents aren't always right."

She leaned back, her gaze so dark in the night as a million little flecks of light danced, sparkled.  "Your parents . . . They hurt you, didn't they?"

He couldn't answer her question, and he wasn't sure why.  As though he somehow felt as if he didn't have the authority to talk about it—as though he thought that his part in it all had negated his right to speak of it, ever.  "My parents . . . They . . . did the best that they could," he muttered, unable to look her in the eyes with the blatant lie spilling from his lips.

She could tell, couldn’t she?  She saw right through it.  Uttering a terse little sound, almost a whine, she reached up, drew him down, her lips finding his with a tenderness, a gentleness, as though she were trying to pull away the sadness that she could sense, even if she didn't understand it.

He tried to hold onto it, didn't want her to take it away, not because he wanted to keep it, but because . . . because maybe he deserved it, but the desperation in her reached out to him, held tight to him as he slipped his arms around her, as the balm of her lips opened under his, drawing him in deeper, reacting on instinct as she allowed her youki to wash over his, buffering the jagged edges of the sadness that he held on to so tightly.  He gave it up, allowed her to soothe him, took the comfort that she so willingly offered with the touch of her lips, with the stroke of her fingertips on the nape of his neck, as her heart beat louder, stuttering yet steady, as a sense of hope—something he'd lost so long ago—sparked to life with the incandescence of Jessa's flame . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ashur handed Jessa a glass of wine as she fiddled with the stereo panel on the nightstand.  "Just one," he said, cocking an eyebrow at her as he set his glass aside to roll up his sleeves.

"Don't want to get me drunk so you can try to take advantage of me?" she quipped, sipping the wine, settling on a jazz station and turning up the volume just enough to add background sound in the quiet room.

"Not even remotely amusing, Jessa O'Shea," he pointed out.  "I'm old enough to be your . . . great-great-great grandfather at least."

She smiled, leaning down to unbuckle her shoes.  "Are you one of those people who is stuck on ages?"

"A little," he confessed.  Then he sighed.  "Sometimes it's damn hard to remember how old you are—or aren't."

She snorted, reaching into one of the shopping bags for a change of clothes.  "Funny.  You weren't complaining when we were watching fireworks," she reminded him in an almost sullen tone of voice.

She didn't see the half-smile that quirked his lips.  "I was caught up in the moment," he replied.

The narrow-eyed look that he got for that comment was almost enough to make him laugh outright.  "There you go: ruining my almost favorable impression of you."

He sat on the end of the bed to kick off his shoes.  "And if I said that I have another surprise for you tomorrow?"

She paused with her hand on the bathroom doorknob.  "What kind of surprise?"

He made a face that she didn't catch.  "One that wasn't my idea at all," he said dryly.

Tapping her claws against the bathroom door, she sighed.  "You're not going to tell me what it is, are you?"

"Nope."

She heaved a very melodramatic sigh.  "That's what I thought."

He chuckled as she slipped into the bathroom to change—until he remembered that he hadn't actually bought a thing to wear for sleeping in, and that kind of figured.

Strange, how he felt somehow lighter since he'd kissed her under the light of the fireworks display.  It wasn't a carefree feeling, no, but he couldn't deny the slight lifting of his spirits that was hard to reconcile.

'Maybe she's magic,' his youkai-voice quipped.

Snorting indelicately, Ashur slowly shook his head.  'Maybe you're the dumbest youkai-voice, ever.'

The voice laughed.  'Okay, okay, there's no such thing as magic, but if there were, that girl . . . She'd have it.'

He almost smiled as he started to unbutton his shirt.  'She . . . She probably would.'

The bathroom door opened with a squeak, and he turned to glance over his shoulder at her, only to do a double take.  She'd let her hair down.  It spilled around her in a tangle of loose curls that caught the dull lamplight and held it, bathing her in a fiery glow like the sunset, framing her face, darkening her gaze . . .

She carefully shook out the dress, moving across the room, her feet whispering against the carpet, the dress rustling against the plastic garment bag as she hung it up, meticulously stowing it and the shoes inside.

That done, she retrieved her glass of wine and shuffled over to the bed, crawling up on it as the scooped neckline of the pink satin nightgown, barely brushing the tops of her knees and was little more than a bit of fabric held up by thin strands of ribbon, fell open just enough to allow him a momentary view that made him grind his teeth together hard as he turned his face away for his own salvation.

'Oh, damn . . . Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn . . .'

He nodded slightly.  He couldn't have said that better himself . . .

She flipped the television on with the remote and shut off the radio, shuffling through the channels, completely oblivious to what should have been his very obvious preoccupation.

"Do you want to watch a movie?" she asked, breaking the silence as she brought up the television menu.

"You . . . aren't tired yet?" he asked after clearing his throat a few times.

"Not really," she replied, sounding a bit distracted.  "Oh, we could watch Morning of the Demon Dead."

"That doesn't really sound like a very good movie," he pointed out, grabbing his wine glass and heading out of the room to refill it.

"That's what's fun about it," she called after him.  "You only watch movies like this so you can laugh about them and make off-color commentary during it."

He sloshed wine into his glass and turned to go back, but changed his mind and grabbed the bottle before striding back into the bedroom once more.  She was sitting on the white lace coverlet, her legs folded together and bent to the side demurely.  Still, he could see her curves well enough, and he sighed.  The next time he decided to be spontaneous, he could only hope that he'd have enough foresight to shop better—and to make sure that that girl had a bathrobe . . .

A blood-curdling scream made him jump slightly, and he shot her a bored sort of look as he slipped onto the bed beside her.

"Did that really scare you?" she scoffed, pinning him with a disbelieving look.

"No," he said.  "Unexpected screams, however, are enough to startle me."

She nodded slowly, but didn't look like she was entirely convinced.  "Those kids there decided to spend the night in that graveyard and pray to the headstones of two people, rumored to have been demons, but they had to do it exactly as the sun came up, and it should have bound the demons to the kids to do their bidding, but they were a few seconds late, so now the demons are free," she explained.

"They prayed?  To a headstone?" he echoed flatly.

She laughed.  "No . . . They prayed to two of them."

He slowly nodded.  "If they were rumored to have been demons, why are the buried in with the general population, and why would they have headstones, to begin with?  And—"

"Because they needed the headstones to pray to or the entire movie would have just not happened," she replied, eyes wide, glued on the television.

"Good God, you're enjoying this crap," he blurted.

She waved a hand at him to shut him up.  "Oh, that lad's toast," she predicted.  A minute later, the demons jumped out from behind a door—a damn door—and ripped the boy's head off.  "I was right!  Where's a pad of paper?  I need to keep score . . ."

"Score?"

She nodded, twisting to the side, opening the nightstand to look for a tablet of paper and a pen.  "Uh huh . . . You have to make predictions as you watch, and then you get a point for every prediction that comes true."

He chuckled despite himself.  "You have a very odd way to watch movies, Jessa."

She shrugged as she made two columns on the paper: one for him and one for her.

"That one's going to die next," she said, gesturing at the television with the pencil.

"She's not going to die.  She's the main character," he pointed out.

"They kill off main characters all the time," she scoffed.  "Don't you ever watch serials?"

"Not if I can help it," he muttered, sipping the wine as she handed him her glass without looking away from the television.  He rolled his eyes but refilled it for her before handing it back.

"Oh!  They're cuing the creepy music," she said, sitting up a little straighter.  "You know, I like her hair . . . I've always wondered how I'd look if I had blonde hair . . ."

Ashur snorted.  "What's wrong with your hair?  I mean, aside from the obvious, that you can't wear most shades of red . . ."

"I didn't choose my hair," she grumbled.  "If I could have, I'd have had Ma's hair—long, straight golden hair."

"At least you stand out in a crowd," he added for good measure.

She snorted.  "You're such an ass," she muttered.

He chuckled again when she tried to scoot farther away, catching her around the waist and pulling her over against his side.  "I happen to like your hair," he told her.  "I was just teasing you."

She pushed against him, but he only tightened his arm around her, enjoying the way the heat of her body permeated the fabric under his hand, resting on her hip.  "I'll just go sleep on the sofa so my offensive hair is as far away from you as it can be," she pouted.

He squeezed her hip, which effectively stilled her objections—and made her suck in her breath, too.  "Oh, look, the nerdy boy just got killed.  Why are they eating his brain?  They're not zombies . . ."

"Kind of like zombies," she countered, resting her cheek against his chest.  "I mean, they were raised from the dead . . ."

He snorted.  "So, they're not only demons, but they're zombies, too.  The writers of this one should have studied their supernatural lore better.  One or the other . . ."

She rolled her eyes.  "And why can't they be zombies, I ask you?"

"Because everyone knows that hell demons are spirits used to possess the living while zombies are dead bodies that have been re-animated, and that the zombies require brains in order to keep their own from decomposing to the point that they cannot function on the basest of levels."

She turned to scowl at him.  "You've studied this, I take it?"

He shrugged.  "Nope.  It's basic common sense.   So, you see?  There's no possible way to have a demon that is also a zombie, too."

"See, this is the problem with watching movies with someone who is too entirely based in reality," she complained.  He started to say something else, but she reached up, covering his mouth with her hand.  "Quiet!  It's getting to the good part."

He pulled her hand away when the demons rather grotesquely opted to gut someone from lips to navel.  "This is disgusting," he grumbled.

"What's the matter, Ashur?  Are you going to have nightmares?" she teased.

"I only have nightmares about real life," he said, frowning, hating the truth in his words.  He didn't have them often anymore, but three years ago, they'd been a frequent enough occurrence.  They were always the same, too: laying there on the floor, helpless, unable to do anything at all as he'd watched his mother being ripped to shreds . . .

"What kind of nightmares?" she asked, her tone a little too cautiously casual.

He sighed.  "Just . . . things," he remarked.  "Things that . . . that I know in my head that I couldn't do anything about, but . . . but I can't ever shake the feeling that I . . . I should have . . ."

She sat up, turned to face him, her hands still resting on his chest, on his shoulder.  "Sometimes I think that, if I'd have just gone with Ma . . . I mean, it doesn't make sense.  If I had been . . . well . . ." She shook her head.  "I suppose I just think that maybe it . . . it wouldn't have happened . . ."

"If you had been with her, it still would have happened," he told her.  "The only difference would be that I . . . I wouldn't have met you."

She winced.  "Does that mean that if she'd lived, I wouldn't have met you then?"

Her question dug at him with a harsh accuracy.  "Maybe I would have," he told her.  "If you're meant to meet someone, then you will, right?  That's the kind of thing they say, anyway . . ."

Shifting her gaze upward, she scrunched up her features thoughtfully, squeezing one eye closed a she considered his statement.  "Well, I do like Kells . . ." she allowed.

"Just Kells?"

She laughed.  "You're . . . tolerable."

He rolled his eyes and shot her a very chagrined look that she summarily ignored.  "I think I'll go to sleep now," he grumbled, scooting down on the bed and yanking his arm out from around her as he flopped over onto his side, set to ignore her for the duration.

'Good God, you're pouting . . .'

'I'm not pouting,' he argued.  'I'm tolerable.'

'You are pouting!  You realize just how pathetic you are, don't you?  I mean, she was joking.  You could tell from her tone that she was joking . . .'

Jessa giggled, grasping his arm and trying to tug him over onto his back.  "Okay," she relented, giving his arm yet another tug, "I like you, too—when you're not being a jerk, that is."

He heaved a longsuffering sigh designed to let her know exactly how put-upon he was as he rolled back over.  "Well, Kells is a lot cuter than I am, I guess," he allowed.

She nodded, her smile widening.  Suddenly, though, she sighed, too.  "I miss him," she admitted quietly.

"Kells?"

She nodded again.  "He rather grows on you . . ."

He shrugged.  "Kind of like a fungus, you mean?"

She gasped and quickly covered her mouth.  "No!" she insisted, casting him a chagrined sort of look.  "He's so sweet . . . and you're so mean."

Reaching out, catching a long lock of her hair, he idly twisted it around his finger.  "That's the problem," he remarked, watching as he wrapped the strand, only to let it spring back before repeating the process again.  "That child knows he's adorable, and he knows that most people let him get away with bloody murder because of it.  It's all just part of his diabolical plot to take over the world.  He's a little tyrant in training."

She rolled her eyes as she leaned over him to snag the bottle of wine off his nightstand.  "Ah, but he's your little tyrant . . . so, what does that make you?"

"It's my job to be immune to his trickery," he said, stifling a sigh and trying to fight off the bemusement caused by her leaning over him.  "He's been practicing his evil hoodoo since Day One, when he'd cry, just to sucker me into picking him up and holding him for hours at a time."

She giggled, setting the wine bottle aside as she brought her glass to her lips.  "Is that how they do it?"

He nodded.  "It's all a giant game of manipulation."  Sparing her a sidelong glance as another horror film queued on the television, he narrowed his eyes in silent speculation.  "You were probably worse than Kells, come to think of it."

"Me?" she echoed, eyebrows raising in surprise.  "Why me?"

He almost smiled—almost.  "Because you're much prettier than Kells will ever be, so I imagine that means that you must have been a fairly beautiful child, too—and that means that you probably got away with ridiculous amounts of manipulations, all levied against your unsuspecting parents . . . I'm right, aren't I?"

She snapped her mouth closed, rolled her eyes, but her giggle undermined the chagrined expression on her face.  Then she scooted off the bed, retrieving the leather knapsack that she'd arrived with.  Pulling out the photo album that she'd showed him before, she leafed through it until she found the image she wanted.  "There," she said, handing it over for his inspection.  "I was about Kells' age in that picture."

He leaned up on an elbow and studied the image.  Unmistakably her, he supposed—crazy-wild hair that spilled around her in those glossy, loose curls . . . The tiny girl with the frank and candid expression on her cherubic little face, skin as white and smooth as alabaster, Cupid's bow mouth a startlingly deep cherry red, and even that young, she already had those long, long eyelashes—eyelashes so lush, so thick and dark that it only added to the illusion that she was some kind of porcelain doll, somehow magically brought to life . . .

"Yep, nothing but trouble, even as a child," he muttered.

She laughed and stifled a yawn with the back of her hand, set her empty glass aside so that she could scoot down, curling up on her side, hands tucked beneath her cheek like a little girl.  "Ashur?"

"Hmm?" he intoned without looking away from the picture.

"Thank you," she said.

He glanced at her with a confused little frown.  "What for?"

She smiled slowly, her eyelids drooping as sleep closed in on her.  "Today was one of the best days of my life," she told him.

He leaned in, kissed her forehead.  "Go to sleep, Jessa . . . and you're welcome."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"So, who's that guy in the super-secret-stealth-club meeting with Ashur?" Carol asked as she and Jessa wandered along the borders of the estate, leading the horses along.  She'd called Devlin just after they'd picked up Carol from the airport to ask if she could borrow Flicker for a nice, long ride, and did he want to come along.  Unfortunately, he'd told her that he had taken his mother shopping for the day, but that they were welcome to take the horse.  Then he'd called his master of stables so he could get Flicker ready, and then he'd even brought her over for the day . . .

Carol, it seemed, was familiar with basic riding.  She said that one of her neighbors back home had horses, and, as a child, she'd often gone over there to see them.  That neighbor had taught her the basics, and for a casual individual, it was good enough.

It had been a complete and utter surprise to her when they'd gone to the airport after checking out of the hotel.  She'd just figured that they were picking up someone to see him, so when they'd pulled up to the pickup area, she'd nearly shrieked when she spotted Carol.

Jessa shrugged as Stardust bumped her shoulder with his nose, asking for a snack, she supposed, and she dug a bit of carrot out of her hip bag and broke it in half, handing the other half to Carol.  "I have no idea," she admitted.

Carol glanced at her as Flicker ate the carrot out of her hand.  "He looked a little shady . . . Does he always have these weird guys wandering into and out of the house?"

She shook her head.  "No . . . Actually, he's the first one I've seen, other than Mr. Margreave, who's the one that brought Stardust over yesterday . . ."

Carol nodded slowly.  "Okay, then," she allowed.  "As long as he's not in the habit of parading strange men around all the time because that would be a little bizarre, don't you think?"

Jessa bit her lip.  Considering Ashur's job, it wasn't surprising to have people who wanted to meet with him, but she couldn't rightfully explain that to Carol, either, given that Carol was human and, therefore, knew nothing of youkai.

Luckily for her, Carol's mind had already shifted off into another direction entirely.  "Oh, but tell me about that stable guy of yours," she prompted.  "Do you know anything about him?"

"I don't," Jessa admitted.  "I mean, he just arrived yesterday with Stardust.  He's actually in Mr. Margreave's employ.  He's only here to see to Stardust while we keep him for Mr. Margreave . . . But I do know that his name is Laith."

Slapping the reins against her thigh absently, Carol nodded.  "Laith?  Hmm, I like that . . ."

Jessa laughed.  "Are you going to go get to know him?"

Carol sighed, tucking her long blonde hair behind her ear.  "Well, I'm here visiting you, so that'd be in pretty poor taste," she said.  "A damn shame, though, if you ask me."

"Hmm, I don't think I'd mind if you wanted to spend a bit of time in the stables," Jessa admitted.  "I mean, he is pretty good-looking . . . Then again, if you're after, 'good-looking', you really need to meet Devlin.  He's prettier than Ashur—maybe."

"Is that even possible?" Carol countered.

Jessa laughed.  "Oh, it's possible . . . I'll have to see what he's doing tomorrow.  Maybe he can join us on a ride . . ."

"Ashur doesn't ride?"

"Uh . . . Not really," she admitted.  "We stopped and rented horses on the way up here to look at properties," she said.  "I told you about that, didn't I?"

"Oh, yeah . . . And he hated it.  I remember . . . That was the first time you kissed him, right?"

She cleared her throat, unable to staunch the color that flowed under her skin. "Oh, uh . . . That . . . Yes, well . . ."

Carol snorted but giggled.  "All right, so spill it.  What exactly is going on with you and Ashur?"

Jessa shrugged, tried to affect a nonchalant air.  "Nothing," she replied.  "I mean, not really . . ."

She could feel Carol's gaze on her, but she didn't turn to look.  "Nothing really?" she repeated.  "You're lying, Jessa . . . I mean, you already kissed the guy a few times, right?  So, truth!"

"There's . . . There's not," she insisted.  "Just because we've kissed doesn't mean anything, and . . ." She grimaced.  "And he's so stuck on my age that I doubt anything will happen."

"No . . . I've seen the way that man looks at you, Jessa.  There's something there.  You just have to convince him that age doesn't matter, that's all."

She snorted and shook her head.  "Easy for you to say," she muttered.  "I'm not good at the whole, 'simpering girl' act.  It'd never work."

Carol considered that for a moment then reached over, giving Jessa's arm a reassuring little squeeze.  "You like him, don't you?"

It was on the tip of her tongue to deny it, but it wouldn't do any good.  Carol was nothing if not entirely too perceptive, and besides, maybe having someone else's opinion on the matter would help some . . . "I . . . guess . . ."

"You guess?" she echoed.  "You do, right?  I mean, I don't want to push you to do something if he's just a casual interest to you."

She made a face, lifting a hand in an almost futile sort of gesture.  "Okay, I  . . . I do," she admitted, unable to staunch the blush that rose in her cheeks.

Carol laughed.  "Well, you've got excellent taste, Jess, just so you know."

She rubbed her forehead.  "Like I said, though, we've only kissed a few times, and then he reminds me how old I'm not . . ." She sighed.  "Even last night when we rented that room for the dinner cruise . . ."

"What room?  Like a hotel?"

She nodded.  "But that was kind of my fault.  I mean, I sort of teased him into it—do something fun and all that—and in order to take the dinner cruise, you had to book a room because it was an overnight thing . . ."

"And you guys stayed in the same room?"

Jessa made a face, shifting her lips to the side as she shrugged.  "Yes."

"And . . .?"

"And we watched a movie, then fell asleep."

Carol sighed.  "Seriously?  Wow . . ."

"I . . . I don't know how to . . . to quirk his interest," she admitted quietly, almost angrily, as she scowled at the path below her feet.  It was the God's honest truth, though.  She'd never given it much thought before, never really considered it.  Somehow, all those men she'd met at the parties and the dinners hadn't done a thing to make any kind of impression on her, one way or another.  It was an odd thing, really, something she hadn't really bothered to ponder until now.  What was it about Ashur that made him so different?  She really wasn't sure . . . "I've never tried before . . ."

Carol laughed.  "No, I'd guess you haven't had to," she murmured.  She seemed to be considering Jessa's dilemma.  "What were you doing before when he kissed you?  Do you remember anything specific?  I mean, if he kissed you spontaneously before, then I'd say just do whatever it was that sparked his interest the first time."

Jessa made a face.  "The first time, I don't know.  The second, I was coming out of the bathroom after my shower . . . in a towel . . ."

Carol barked out a guffaw of laughter.  "Well, that would do it, then!" she agreed.  "Just run around in a towel, and—"

"Carol!" she grumbled.

"Okay, okay!" Carol relented, despite the very wide smile still on her face.  "It really shouldn't be that hard, Jessa.  I mean, look at you . . ."

She snorted.  "And what is that supposed to mean?"

"Now, now," Carol said.  "Nothing bad, you know.  It's just that you're . . . well, you're gorgeous!  Just flirt with him . . . Touch him when you're near him.  Make sure you always make eye contact . . . Maybe we should make a recording of your voice and stick it under his pillow, so when he's sleeping—"

"Be serious!" Jessa laughed.

Carol giggled, too.  "Okay," she agreed.  "Seriously, though, it's not that difficult.  All you have to do is to make sure that he sees you all the time—really sees you—sees you as a woman and not as a little girl."

"Sees me as a woman," Jessa echoed thoughtfully.  "I . . . I think I can do that . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

Stepping out of the house onto the terrace as he breathed deep, savoring the freshness in the air, Ashur closed his eyes, let the crisp breeze soothe him.  After having spent the bulk of the afternoon since they'd arrived home, closed in his office with one of the stuffiest youkai he'd ever met—worse than many of Hidekea's associates on their best days, actually, who wanted nothing more than to ramble on and on about the good old days, ad nauseam.

The old loon, Heath Dreyfuss had offered to hold a ball to welcome Canada's newest general, which wasn't exactly something that had interested Ashur—until Dreyfuss had gone on to explain that it might be a good way to get all those introductions out of the way in one fell swoop.  As it stood, he'd said he'd consider it, though he really wasn't at all sure that it was something he wanted to do, either.  Drawing that much public attention to himself?  No, he wasn't entirely certain that it was a good idea, at all . . .

It only took one of the dissidents that had sought to align themselves with Hidekea against Sesshoumaru  to see him, and they'd know exactly who he was, and, while he wasn't afraid of them, he'd like to keep his anonymity, too, and Jessa . . . Well, he didn't know for certain whether or not that Kingston guy still harbored thoughts of getting Jessa to marry his son, but something like a ball would most certainly draw a little more attention than either of them really needed . . .

'Speaking of Jessa . . .'

His youkai-voice snorted.  'Check the pool, Kyouhei.'

Shifting his gaze over toward the pool, Ashur stopped, blinked, stared when he spotted Jessa and Carol, standing on the pavement near the pool in their swimsuits and doing what appeared to be yoga . . . 'Good God . . .'

His youkai heaved a sigh as the red-headed girl, on her hands and knees on the bright yellow mat, arched her back up, held it, then let it down—all in that damned black bikini . . . 'Understatement of the year.'

'I need to destroy that thing . . . Buy her one of those old fashioned ones that looks like full-body-armor. . .'

'There aren't any old bathing suits that look like full-body-armor, and even if there were, no.'

Carol looked up from her yoga pose—whatever it was—and stood up.  "Ashur!" she called, running over to intercept him in her hot pink bikini that was vying for the title of skimpiest swimsuit against Jessa's.  "Just the man I wanted to see!"

Little alarm bells started clanging in his head, but against his better judgment, he slowly nodded instead of turning on his heel and walking away.  "Why?"

She laughed.  Sure, she was cute in a very American girl kind of way.  In fact, he might well have given her a second or third look if he hadn't met Jessa.  Too bad the Irish girl was entirely too striking . . . and too bewitching to credit . . . "Jessa and I were wondering if it'd be okay to borrow your car."

"Borrow my car?  Can she even drive?"

Carol rolled her eyes.  "I don't know; she didn't say.  I, however, am a fully licensed driver with a perfect driving record."

He snorted.  "You're also from New York City where most people don't have cars."

She didn't refute his logic.  "Anyway, how 'bout it?"

"And just why do you want to borrow it?  What are you plotting?"

Carol laughed again.  "You're so suspicious!  Why is that?"

"Answer the question."

She heaved a sigh.  "Laith was telling us about this really fantastic dance club, and he offered to take us there, but he doesn't have a car since you're just borrowing him, and we need a way to get there."

Ashur frowned.  "Who's Laith?"

Carol stared at him for a long moment.  "You don't know who's in your stable?"

"Oh, him . . . You're going to a dance club with him?"  He chuckled.  "Yeah, no, you're not."

"We're not?"

Ashur rolled his eyes.  "Well, you can, but Jessa can't."

"What do you mean, she can't?"

"I would think that what I said was pretty straightforward," he replied.  "She's not going to a pub with some guy she barely knows.  No."

"She'll be with me," Carol argued.

He shook his head.  "Aren't you the same one who thought it would be a good idea for her to work in a strip club?"

"You'd have a valid point if she had stripped, which she never did, so your argument doesn't hold up, sorry."  She sighed when he arched and eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest.  "Well, then, you could come along if it would make you feel better."  She mirrored his stance, affected an exaggerated scowl.  "Does it bother you that much?"

"Does what bother me?"

She shrugged and smiled, but her smile greatly resembled that of Disney's version of the Cheshire Cat.  "That Jessa wants to go dancing?"

He snorted.  "I don't know what you're talking about, she-devil."

Carol's grin widened.  "Does it bother you that she wants to go dancing, or that she might end up dancing with a man that isn't you. . .?"

He wasn't impressed with her suggestions.

Carol heaved a longsuffering sigh, tossing her long blonde hair over her shoulder as she leveled a deadly serious look at him.  "You know, Ashur, she might listen if you told her that  you didn't want her to dance with some random guy—especially if you told her why you don't want her to."

"And why don't I want her to?"

"Tell me you're not attracted to her," she challenged quietly.

"Is that really any of your business?" he parried.

She shrugged again.  "She's my friend, so . . .yeah, it is."

Ashur stared at her for a long moment before turning on his heel to head back into the house.

"So, about the car?" she called after him.

He gritted his teeth, but didn't stop walking.  "Be ready in an hour or forget it," he tossed over his shoulder.  On one level, he was somewhat glad that Jessa had a friend who wanted to be that protective of her.  On the other?

'Look on the bright side.  It's just dancing.  I mean, how bad could it possibly be?'

He didn't trust himself to answer that.  Somehow, he just couldn't quite shake the feeling that the entire situation had 'disaster' written all over it.

In all capital letters.  In bold print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

It was loud.  It was obnoxiously loud.  It was hideously, obnoxiously loud.

Lifting his gaze without moving his head, Ashur peered over at Jessa as she danced with Carol and Laith near the edge of the dance floor.  She'd been garnering appreciative looks all night, which just figured, but, given the tiny black mini-skirt that barely brushed mid-thigh and the dark purple cotton blouse that kept falling off of one shoulder or the other, it wasn't entirely surprising, even if it was ridiculously annoying, too . . . Carol was receiving her fair share of attention, as well, but to be brutally honest, Ashur really didn't care about that.  As far as he was concerned, the she-devil was on her own.

"Here you go."

Ashur blinked and glanced up at the waitress as she set a glass of whiskey on the table before him.  "I didn't order this," he said, pushing it toward her again.

The woman laughed.  "You didn't," she agreed easily enough.  Then she pointed at a table off to the right where a couple of ladies sat.  When they saw him look their direction, they wiggled their fingers in a jaunty wave.  He nodded once before turning his attention back to the waitress once more.  "Thanks, but I'll pass," he said, pasting on what he hoped was an indulgent smile and not a grimace that might look more like he was considering the eating of someone's spleen . . .

"Don't worry about it," she told him.  "Happens all the time, and we'd just have to dump it back there, anyway.  Might as well enjoy it," she said with a quick wink as she hurried away.

Ashur heaved a sigh.

"Hi . . . I hope you don't think I was being too forward," one of the ladies—a petite but lovely brunette—from the table that had sent over the drink said as she offered him a rather shy smile.  She was pretty, sure . . . She simply wasn't Jessa . . .

"Oh, uh . . . Thanks, but I'm the designated driver," he said, which was true enough, as far as he was concerned.

She grimaced.  "I'm so sorry . . . I thought you were here alone . . ."

"It's fine," he assured her.

She stared at him for a long moment, her dark eyes catching the strobe lights over the dance floor: first pink, then red, then as the colors cycled, rendering everything fairly garish hues.  "I'm Sonya," she said, sticking out her hand in greeting.

He took it and gave a brief shake before letting go once more.  "Ashur," he replied, leaning slightly to the side as he glanced over at the dancing trio once more.

"Are you new to the area?"

"Yes, I suppose I am," he allowed, affecting another tepid smile.

She nodded.  "I moved here a few years ago and love it . . . There's really no place like it, anywhere else.  Do you know your way around?  I mean, when I first got here, I spent weeks, just seeking out all those awesome little places that they don't mark on tour maps.  If you're ever wanting someone to show you around . . ."

Stifling the desire to sigh, Ashur shook his head.  "I'm sorry, Sonya," he said, hoping that his own impatience wasn't evident in his tone.  "That's very kind of you, but I think I'm pretty good."

She looked very obviously crestfallen, and he winced inwardly when the poor woman blushed crimson.  "Oh, I . . . I wasn't trying to come on to you or . . . Well, maybe a little," she confessed.

"I'm flattered," he told her, managing a wry smile for her benefit.  "I really am, but, uh . . ."

Following the direction of his gaze, she breathed out a tiny, 'oh' when she spotted Jessa's crazy-wild hair.  She stared at the girl for a long moment before turning back to face Ashur once more.  "I'm so sorry," she muttered, pasting on a bright smile despite the lingering tightness around the corners of her eyes.  "It was nice meeting you, Ashur."

He nodded and stood.  "Likewise," he replied.  The woman hurried away, and he sat back down, wondering vaguely what the odds were that he could convince the girls that they were ready to go home now . . .

The pounding song finally ended, much to Ashur's relief.  The next one was just as obnoxious, but in a wholly different way, fully of high pitched instrumental squeals and otherwise ear-piercing rhetoric.

Jessa stepped away from Carol and Laith and sauntered over toward him, ignoring the men who tried to call out to her—whether she could hear them or not over the general din of the club was irrelevant.  Watching as that little flirt of a skirt swayed provocatively with every step she took, he ground his teeth together at the bitter and almost violent surge of misplaced possessiveness crashed over him.

"Are you just going to sit there all night, scowling at everyone who looks in your general direction?" she asked, raising an eyebrow as she leaned against the high table, smiling in a teasing kind of way.

"Thinking about it," he replied, only half-joking.  "You had your fill of dancing?  If you can even call it that," he grumbled, jerking his head at a couple on the floor that looked more like they were ready to have at it, never mind that they were completely surrounded by perfect strangers.

She stared at him for another long moment before reaching out, gently rubbing away the scowl lines between his brows.  "Won't you dance with me?" she asked.

He snorted.  "I'll pass, thanks."

She sighed, grabbing the glass of whiskey and downing it fast, only to make a face as the liquor burned its way into her belly.  "Can't dance, huh?"

Again, he snorted.  "I could if I had a mind to," he assured her.  "Like I said, when they actually start dancing, then I might consider it."

Rolling her eyes, she straightened up, tugged on his hand.  "Come on," she coaxed, pulling on his hand until he finally stood.  "That's better . . . I can't dance with them anymore," she explained as she dragged him away from the table and toward the smoky tiled dance floor.  "Carol likes him—a lot."

"Poor bastard," Ashur muttered.

She shot him a chagrined look, interrupted only by her smile.  "I like her," she informed him, slipping her arms up around his neck as her body swayed in time with the music—a slower song with a heavy, thick beat.  "She's the first real friend I've ever had," she admitted.

"Is that right?" he asked, unsure if he was more surprised or irritated that she didn't have any other actual friends.

"On the whole, girls are horrible beings," she went on, almost philosophically.  "The girls at my boarding school were terrible little hags . . . They were only friends with other girls who were as mean and nasty as they were . . . Always picking, always belittling . . . and I never really understood why."

It made perfect sense to Ashur.  Considering just how stunning the girl was?  And he'd seen pictures enough to know that it wasn't a recent development, either.  Females, he'd found over time, had a tendency to show their insecurities in themselves by projecting them onto someone else, and a girl like her?  She was likely the personification of everything that most of them would never be, so they'd done what came naturally: they tried to break her down . . . "Because you're a beautiful woman, Jessa—dead damn gorgeous, actually.  They were jealous.  It happens."

She froze, mid step, and stared up at him, her eyes wide, solemn, as she gazed at him without blinking.  He wasn't sure if the color in her cheeks was due to the whiskey or what he'd said.  "You . . . You think . . .?"

He rolled his eyes but chuckled.  "I'd have to be blind not to have noticed," he told her.  "Tell me you didn't know just how beautiful you are . . ."

She giggled almost nervously.  "It doesn't count when it's your da saying so," she allowed.  Suddenly, she bit her lip and tilted her head to the side.  "Do you want to get out of here for a bit?  Go for a walk or something?"

He stared at her for a second, then nodded.  She finally smiled and stepped away, grasping his hand in hers again as she wove her way through the crowded dance floor to find Carol.

 

 


 

 

 

The night was mild, almost balmy, but not quite warm enough for that.  Jessa could feel the moisture in the air, condensing on her skin.  Ashur strolled along beside her, hands in his pockets, a thoughtful scowl on his face.  She had to wonder if he had always worn that sort of expression.  Somehow, he didn't really seem the type to wallow in his own thoughts or musings, though.  Again, it struck her, as it had before, that there was something underneath it all, but he held onto it so tightly . . .

"So," she said, breaking the silence that had prevailed since they'd told Carol that they were going for a walk and slipped out of the club, "you don't like dancing . . . Tell me what you do enjoy doing?"

He sighed.  "Nothing, actually."

"Nothing?" she repeated, crossing her arms over her chest as she slowly shook her head.  "Nothing at all?  Camping?  Fishing?  Collecting stamps?"

Chuckling softly, he pulled a hand free to stop her.  "No, I meant, I enjoy doing nothing."

"How do you do nothing?" she countered.

He shrugged.  "Well, for starters, you wake up in the morning without a three year old kicking you in the face—or other areas."

"As nice as that sounds," she said, "surely you have other interests."

"Not really," he replied with an nonchalant shrug.  "I wasn't really brought up to have hobbies."

She frowned at his admission.  "What do you mean?  When you were a child, you had to have things that you enjoyed doing?"

"It was a vastly different world back then," he told her.  "I spent my childhood training and working on whatever tasks my father set for me, and when I wasn't doing those things, I found other ways to try to live up to their mighty expectations."

Something about his tone, his words . . . There was a sadness there, but there was also a quiet level of bitterness, too.  "Didn't you ever do anything that you enjoyed?  What about your family?  Did you do things with them?"

He chuckled, but the sound was dry, devoid of humor and full of a certain irony.  "No, I didn't."

His answers made her sad, didn't they?  When she thought back about her own childhood, there were so many memories, so many moments of happiness, that it was hard to imagine that he didn't have even one of those, and yet, it wasn't so much what he said or didn't say, it was the look on his face, the expression in his eyes . . . He really, honestly, didn't have those at all . . . "It sounds like they let you down," she said, frowning at him.

"If you live long enough, everyone lets you down eventually."

"That is an entirely pessimistic outlook on things," Jessa replied softly.

He shrugged, stopping, leaning against the railing as he stared out over the ever-moving water—black in the darkness of the night despite the reflections of a myriad of city lights, dancing on the lazy waves.  "Maybe.  It's also entirely true."

She turned around, leaned back against the railing, bent arms sticking out behind her, forearms propped on the rail.  "And you really think that everyone is destined to disappoint you?  Do you . . .?  Do you think I will, too?"

He shifted his gaze, stared at her out of the corner of his eyes.  Silhouetted in the moonlight, the cold, blue-white haze that touched the contours of him lent him a mystery, a seemingly unreachable distance, even though he was standing right beside her.  In those moments, a sudden, vicious stab of loneliness shot through her.  It was a melancholy desperation, an isolation that hurt, deep down in places that no one would ever see, that no one but she would ever feel . . .

And yet, she wanted to know those things about him, wanted to know why he had that look in his eyes, that lingering sense of darkness.  She wanted to know everything about him, to the point of distraction.  Too bad she knew that he wasn't going to give up those secrets, not without a fight . . .

He sighed, gaze slipping back to the water once more, reflecting the twinkling lights of the city as the brightness pooled in his eyes, making the shadows just a little deeper, a little darker, a little farther away . . . "You have to understand," he began quietly, almost a whisper that she might have missed were she human and not youkai.  "It's not that I think you'd . . ." Trailing off, he grimaced, grasping the rail tight in his hands, arms straight, muscles taut, shoulders raised slightly, chin hanging a little lower . . . "But I . . . I didn't think she'd ever . . . But she did, and . . ."

Frowning at Ashur's half-answer, at the questions that his words brought to mind, Jessa bit her lip, leaned back slightly to get a better look at his face, at the strange sense of foreboding that lingered in his eyes, in his stance.  "Who is she?"

"Hana," he replied, as though it were the simplest and somehow the most complicated thing in the world, and maybe to him, it was.  "She . . . She was my best friend since childhood, I guess.  But she . . . and I . . ."  He shook his head.  "I can't forgive her . . . What she did . . . It . . . It killed a part of me, I guess . . ."

"The part of you that wants to trust someone else," she murmured.

He nodded slowly.  "Something like that."

"Was she really much of a friend if she hurt you that badly?" she asked, careful to keep her tone as neutral as she could.

"It wasn't like that.  I mean, it wasn't her intention, and I can understand that, but  . . ." Trailing off with a frustrated sigh, he suddenly shook his head.  "It's in the past, and that's where it should stay," he finally said.  "Suffice it to say that I . . . probably . . . have some trust issues."

A strange sense of anger shot to life in the pit of her stomach—anger at this unknown woman who had hurt him so profoundly.  It irritated her—and it made her sad, too.  His kind of answers only served to bring more questions to mind, and she knew deep down that if she pressed him for more, he'd pull just that much farther away from her, too.

She sighed, figuring she ought to simply change the topic before she ended up, alienating him entirely . . . "You know, toward the end, I was always so angry at my ma," she confessed.  "It was her sudden fixation on having me find my mate, I guess . . . or not even that.  More than once, she said that I should find someone, 'who would suit', like it didn't matter if I loved him or not . . . Looking back on it, I wonder, though . . . I mean, some people say that their loved ones would suddenly become fixated on certain things, like . . . like they knew that they wouldn't be around much longer, and they feel this unconscious desire to see everything settled before they . . . they die . . ."  Swallowing hard to choke down the rising lump in her throat, Jessa shrugged a little pathetically, gaze dropping to her crossed arms.  "I wonder if that's why . . ."

"Maybe she simply wanted you to be happy."

She dragged the length of her hair over her shoulder, idly twisting it around and around and around.  "If I could speak to her one last time, I'd . . . I'd tell her that I was sorry I fought with her so much . . . that I . . . that I love her . . ."

He sighed as she sniffled, as she struggled to fight back the tears that stung her eyelids, that tingled in her nose, pulling her over against his chest, the sound of his heartbeat, steady and strong and entirely comforting.  "It's okay to cry for someone you miss," he told her gently.

She shook her head, squeezed her eyes closed, even as two fat tears escaped, slipping down her cheeks as she leaned back, smashed her hands over her face.  "I hate crying," she muttered, her voice muffled by her hands.  "It's so . . . so weak and pathetic and—"

"It isn't," he countered, hugging her tight again.  "My father said that before, too . . . but he said a lot of things that weren't true . . . You're not a weak woman, Jessa, and crying won't make you one, either."

Pushing against his chest, she looked up at him, and just for a moment, she didn't try to mask the emotions that she usually tried so hard to keep buried.  All the pain, all the misery, all the loneliness—even the fear that she despised . . . and she laid it bare for him to see, willing him to understand.

He lifted a hand, brushed the back of his knuckles over her cheek, wiping away the tears that had fallen despite her efforts to stop them.  Then he sighed, pulling her close again, kissing her forehead as he stared over her head at the moon . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Good morning!"

Hanging the hammer on the railing, Laith reached out to accept the steaming cup of coffee that Carol held out to him as she wandered through the dew-covered grass.  "Thanks."

She smiled at him, leaning in close, looking over his handiwork.  "Put you to work, did they?"

"Nah," he replied as he sipped the coffee.  "Figured while I was here, I'd inspect the fences and stuff . . . Either that or sit around, being bored as hell."

She laughed, tucking a long strand of blonde hair behind her ear.  "I like a man who stays busy," she said, offering him a thick sausage patty with a fried egg tucked into a huge croissant.  "There's fruit and stuff in there, too, if you want some.  I figured a strapping guy like you would prefer meat for breakfast . . ."

"Thanks," he said as he took the sandwich, too.  "I had a stale doughnut and about a pot of really bad coffee already."

She made a face.  "Don't they feed you?"

He shrugged, chewing up about a third of the sandwich in one bite.  "I haven't been here long enough for that to be an issue.  Just got here the day before you did, as a matter of fact.  Figured I'd go find a grocery sometime later on today."

"Do you have a car?"

"The truck," he said, waving his hand toward the stables, indicating the truck hooked to the horse trailer as he polished off the sandwich and grabbed the hammer again.  For the most part, the fencing was good, solid.  He was just reinforcing any of the beams that felt a little more wobbly than he liked.

She nodded slowly.  "Are you from around here?"

"Right now, I work for the Margreaves, and they live up close to Pont-Rouge.  Before that?  Here and there, I guess . . ."

"Okay . . . but where are you originally from?  Where did you grow up?"

He grinned, misty green eyes—a strange kind of color that wasn't quite green and wasn't quite gray, either—sparkling with his amusement.  "Oh, come on, can't some things about me remain a mystery?"

"You mean, you don't want to tell me?" she pouted despite the smile on her face.

He heaved a sigh to let her know just what he thought of her overall impatience.  His chuckle ruined the illusion, though.  "Originally, I'm from a little further down south."

She nodded, smiling as she turned to lean on the fence, staring out over the estate in a slow, sweeping kind of way.  " . . . What on earth are those two doing . . .?"

Straightening up from his task of checking the fencing that enclosed the southern paddock, Laith glanced at Carol, who was watching Jessa and Ashur, who appeared to be having some sort of weird fight going on.

"Uh," he drawled, tipping back his Stetson as he narrowed his gaze at the two.  "Looks like they're training," he replied in a tone that indicated that Carol ought to have known that well enough.

"Training?" she echoed, glancing quickly at him before turning her attention back on Jessa and Ashur once more.  She grimaced as Jessa caught Ashur by the hand and managed to flip him  over.  He landed hard on his back, but rolled to his feet, just out of her reach.  "Do they do this kind of thing a lot?"

Laith shrugged off-handedly.  "Dunno," he replied.  "It kind of looks like it, though."

Carol digested that in silence.  "There's something there, though, don't you think?"

He didn't smile, but it was a close thing.  "Where?  Between those two?"

She nodded.  "Yeah . . . I mean, there is, right?  I'm not just imagining it?"

He shrugged again, leaning against the fence beside her.  "I make it my business to stay out of other people's business," he told her.  "Maybe you should, too."

She wrinkled her nose at him and rolled her eyes.  "Are you kidding?  That girl's so . . . so sheltered that she doesn't have a clue, and if I leave her up to her own devices, she'll never, ever get that man into her bed."

Unfortunately, Laith had just taken a huge swig of the coffee, and he choked on it, sputtering out a few sprays as he tried to swallow and not die.  "Definitely need to mind your own business, girly," he muttered, wiping his chin with the back of his hand.

She laughed.  "Oh, please!  She's a virgin—I mean, she didn't tell me that, but I can tell—and her first time needs to be memorable.  I have a feeling that that man could definitely make it memorable for her."

"You're just a little too preoccupied with Jessa's sex life," he told her.  "Ain't gonna lie, it's a little creepy . . ."

Carol laughed again.  "It's how women's minds work," she countered, waving off his cryptic commentary with a flick of her wrist.  "It's for her own good.  You'll see."

His answer was a very skeptical grunt.

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa poked her head into Ashur's office, biting her lip as she watched him read through something on the computer.  She couldn't see the screen, but she could easily see the scowl on his face as he clicked the mouse a few times.  Ponytail falling over his shoulder, bangs hiding part of his face, he leaned back in his chair, resting his elbow on the desk and propping his head on his hand.

She'd taken a long, hot shower after training since Carol had run into Quebec City with Laith.  Carol had insisted that she needed to pick up a few things, and she'd asked Jessa to come along.  Jessa, however, had opted not to go since she thought that maybe it'd be nice to allow Carol to have some impromptu alone time with the stable hand, especially since she was leaving to go back to New York City in the morning.

The shower had done the trick, though, relaxing her more than she'd been in quite some time.  Then she'd put on a yellow cotton sundress in the hopes that it would reinforce her good mood, too.

"So, how long are you planning on just standing there, staring at me?" Ashur asked, his tone inordinately dry, without looking up from whatever he was reading.

She laughed softly.  "Does it bother you?"

"Not really.  I'm used to it.  Kells loves to do it, too."

"Speaking of Kells," she said, shoving her shoulder against the door frame as she slipped into the office and settled on the edge of one of the chairs facing him, "I miss him."

That made him look up, and he seemed a little surprised by her admission.  "You do?"

She nodded.  "Of course, I do . . . I don't suppose you've gotten any more cute pictures of him . . .?"

"Uh, yes, I did," he said, reaching for his phone.  He fiddled with it for a few seconds, and a moment later, her phone chimed.

There were five pictures that he'd forwarded.  The first one was of Kells, sleeping on Ben's lap, curled against his shoulder.  The boy looked so angelic that it was hard to reconcile him as the same child that bounced off the walls quite literally most of the time.  The other four were various action shots: Kells fishing with Bas and Ben and some other men she hadn't met, Kells sparring with Bailey with his little wooden sword, Kells roasting marshmallows over the fire with Nadia and Emmeline on either side of him, Kells, hanging upside down from a low tree branch . . .

Jessa laughed and scrolled through the pictures a few times, even though the sight of him set off a dull ache deep inside.  She missed that child more than she'd thought possible, and she sighed.

"Sighing?  Surely you can't miss the little tyrant that much," Ashur teased.

To her absolute horror, her eyes misted over, and she furiously tried to blink away the misplaced tears.  After all, he'd be home in a couple weeks . . .

"Uh . . . Do you want me to call Ben and have him bring him back?"

"No," Jessa muttered, clearing her throat a few times  as she quickly shook her head.  "I mean, he's having so much fun, and he'll be home soon enough . . ."  She choked out a harsh laugh as she dashed a hand over her eyes.  "I don't even know why I'm crying, anyway . . ."

"Hmm . . . You do realize that the day you were hung over, he got it into his head that you're pregnant."

"Wh . . . What?"

Ashur rolled his eyes.  "Blame it on that bastard caterpillar," he replied.

She didn't quite understand just what he meant, but she slowly shook her head, willing her cheeks not to redden.  A sudden thought occurred to her, and she groaned, long and low.  "Oh . . . He's not out there, telling them all that I'm pregnant, is he?"

Ashur grimaced.  "God, let's hope not," he replied.  "Let's hope that his ridiculously short attention span has knocked that idea out of his head."

Fiddling with the hem of her dress, she shrugged.  "I . . . don't think I miss him anymore."

Ashur laughed.  "I did explain to him that you're not pregnant," he assured her.  Somehow, though, it wasn't reassuring at all, not really.  "Of course, Kells doesn't always listen, so there's that . . . I figure that the odds that he's not going around, telling everyone you're pregnant is about . . . sixty-forty."

She heaved another sigh and yanked the scrunchie out of her hair to throw at him.  "You're terrible!"

He didn't deny it.  In fact, the odious cur laughed a little harder at that.

She stood up to stomp out of the study, but he called her back before she could make her haughty escape.  "Jessa . . ."

"What?" she snapped, stopping, but not turning to face him.

"I've been told that there's a very nice Irish pub in Quebec City if you'd like to go there for dinner.  The guy that told me about it said that they have dance performances every night, too."

The offer was enough to take the edge off of Jessa's temper.  "That . . . sounds nice . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

"So, you really asked Devlin, here, to kiss you just so you could compare it to Ashur's?" Carol began as the two of them sat on the boulder near the pond.  They'd gone out riding and had come across Devlin while he was out, doing the same.  The horses were currently tethered nearby, enjoying the picture-perfect afternoon.  He was duly impressed with Stardust, which was not at all surprising.  That horse was gorgeous in every single way, absolutely champion material, if she had a mind to show him.  She didn't, but he was most certainly a show-stopper.

Devlin, who was laying down in the grass, half-under the canopy of summer foliage, snorted loudly but didn't otherwise comment.

Jessa narrowed her eyes on her friend.  "I never should have told you about that . . ." she muttered, shaking her head and praying that the furious blush that she could feel wasn't nearly as noticeable on her skin as she figured it probably was.

Carol laughed.  "Relax, Jessa.  That's what girlfriends do!  Anyway, he is pretty nice-looking in an entirely feminine kind of way."

That earned her another loud snort from the subject of her statement, but he leaned up on his elbows to level an entirely bored look at the two of them.  "I do not look, 'feminine'," he stated flatly.

Carol slowly shook her head.  "Well, I hate to say it, Dev, but you kind of do—and by, 'kind of', I mean that you totally do."  She cleared her throat and held up her hands.  "Sorry."

He sighed.  "I don't think I like your friend that much, Irish," he told Jessa, but despite the dryness of his tone, there was a heightened glint in his eyes that bespoke his very obvious amusement.  "And just for the record, I have very little control over my genetics."

"Does that mean you have a really pretty mom or a ridiculously pretty dad?" Carol went on.

"Actually, I look like Mum, or so I've been told," he replied, frowning at a small grass stain on the sleeve of his light blue shirt.

"Oh, I need to see your mom, then," Carol quipped.

Devlin rolled his eyes, but chuckled as he rolled slightly to the side, far enough to dig out his cell phone before flopping back into his original position once more: knees bent, feet resting flat on the ground, leaning on one elbow while he used his other hand to scroll through the pictures stored on the device.  "There," he said, holding out the phone.  "That's my mum."

Carol got up and ran over to grab it.  "Oh, my God," she breathed, dark blue eyes flaring wide.  "She's hot!  How old was she in this?"

"That's one of the dresses she insisted that she simply had to have yesterday," he replied.

Jessa leaned over Carol's shoulder to look.  Not surprising, the woman didn't look any older than maybe her late twenties, so Carol's reaction wasn't at all unusual—and also not surprising, she was . . . Well, she was, as Carol had so blithely put it, she was hot.  Rich, brown hair like Devlin's—not a flat or mousy brown at all, no, one with a million different tones and highlights shot through it, just like his.  The same sapphire blue eyes . . . Even the shape of her face—her high cheekbones, her smooth jaw and full lips—all of it was reflected in her son's countenance, too.

"There's no way your mother looks like this!" she scoffed, shifting the phone to the side to narrow her gaze on Devlin.

He chuckled.  "Can't control her genetics, either," he replied very congenially.  Letting out a deep breath, he stood, taking back his phone as he smiled at them.  "I hate to cut this short, and it was very nice meeting you, Carol, but I have some things I have to do . . . I'll come 'round for the horse tomorrow."

Carol giggled as she watched Devlin untie his horse and set off through the trees.  "It's the accent," she decided with a very definite nod.  "Definitely the accent."

"Hmm, and I thought you had a certain fascination for Laith," Jessa teased.

She winked at Jessa and wandered over to untie Flicker.  "I do like him—a lot," Carol admitted with a heavy sigh.  "I hate the idea of having to go back home tomorrow . . ."

"Move up here."

She blinked and turned to stare at Jessa, narrowing her eyes when she realized that she was entirely serious.  "I don't have a job or anything up here," she said.  "I mean, I have nowhere to stay, and—"

"I'll ask Ashur," she replied.  "Maybe he wouldn't mind if you stayed here long enough to find a good job and rent a nice place."

"Jessa . . ."

"Just let me ask him.  What could it hurt?  If he says yes . . .?"

Carol slowly shook her head.  "I don't know, Jessa . . . I mean, I don't want to take advantage of him or you, and—"

"Let me ask him," she repeated.  "The worst he'd say is no, and I don't know if he would do that, even."

She wrinkled her nose as she swung onto Flicker.  "He doesn't really strike me as the benevolent type," she said.  "Besides, just because he's good enough to take you in doesn't mean he wants to do a repeat with me."

Jessa laughed as she mounted Stardust and nudged him to get him moving.  True, she really didn't have any idea, just what Ashur might say.  Even so, she still had to try, didn't she?

 

 


 

 

 

Settling back in the semi-private booth in the cozy little Irish pub appropriately named O'Shaunessea's Ireland, Ashur wasn't entirely sure if it was a good thing that he'd asked Laith to come along or not.  After all, it wasn't really a business dinner, and, given that he was working in the stable, but not on Ashur's payroll, he figured that it wasn't a conflict of interest or anything. Besides, he had to admit he rather liked the man's no-nonsense attitude and solid work ethic.  Things like that, he could totally respect.

"Can you dance like that, Jessa?" Carol asked as they watched the Irish step dancers.

"Among others, yes," she replied.  "Should I teach you?"

Carol laughed.  "Not sure about that one," she admitted.  "That one looks . . . way too controlled for me."

They clapped when the performance ended, and the house lights came up while the dancers curtsied and moved off the stage.  The stereo system gradually raised in volume once more, though it did not overpower the pub.

Laith stood up and winked at Carol.  "Come on," he said, taking her hand and dragging her out of the booth and over toward the couple pool tables.

"Do you play pool?" Jessa asked, noticing that Ashur was watching the two.

"Can't say I ever have," he replied, waving at the waitress to bring another round of beers.

"Hmm . . . Kells and a pool table?  Probably a horrible combination, really," she decided.

He groaned.  For some reason, those two nouns in the same sentence was almost enough to send shivers of abject fear, right down his spine as very loud, very obnoxious alarm bells rang in his mind.

She laughed, biting her lip, looking entirely too thoughtful, given that they'd just had a very nice dinner.  And very good beer.

"All right," he said, frowning at her silence.  "What's on your mind, Jessa?"

She blinked and shot him a quick, almost nervous glance, and he arched an eyebrow in silent question.

"I was . . . just wondering something," she finally said, pulling her hair over her shoulder and twisting it with a vengeance.  He wanted to reach over and stop her.  He didn't.

"Okay?"

Licking her lips, she tried to smile, but didn't quite manage.  "Well, I was thinking . . . Carol mentioned something about moving up here, but if she did, she'd need a place to stay while she found a decent job and apartment . . ."

The Kells-inspired-alarm-bells tolled louder in his head.  "Hmm, why do I think I won't like where you're going with this?"

She laughed—an entirely pleasant sound that grated against his nerves, just the same, since he had a very good feeling as to where, exactly, she was headed with this particular conversation.

"Would it be possible for her to stay with us?  Just till she finds a job and an apartment?" she reiterated.

It was on the tip of his tongue to say no, but when he got a good look at the entirely too-hopeful expression on her face, he sighed instead.   "Can she stay in the stable house?" he asked, only half-joking.  The stable house was behind the stables and was where live-in stable hands would be housed.  In actuality, it was more like five little apartments, and they were all fully furnished and very nice, if not on the small side.

Jessa's expression brightened even more.  "Oh, that might be perfect," she allowed.  "I mean, she wouldn't be imposing if she had a small place of her own, now would she?  And then, she could just rent one of those, couldn't she?"

He opened his mouth to tell her that he was just joking, but snapped it closed before he could say as much.  Given that she really didn't have anyone else in her life aside from Kells and him, could he really deny her that?

'You could, but that might well make you the world's biggest ass, too . . .'

Glancing over at the girl in question, Ashur slowly shook his head.  It wasn't that he didn't like Carol.  He thought that she was nice enough, even if she did have an overzealous mouth at times, but then, he couldn't really fault her for being protective of Jessa, either.  He tended to be that way, too, didn't he?  More, everyone she'd ever cared about had been taken from her already, and to deny her the only real friend she'd said she'd ever had?

He reached for the beer that the waitress had dropped off and stifled a sigh.

No, he didn't think he could do that; not to Jessa . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa watched in silence as Carol slowly looked around, arms crossed over her chest as she pondered the possibilities that she'd presented to her last night after they'd returned from the pub.

"And you're sure that Ashur's okay with this?" she asked for the twentieth time since Jessa had suggested that Carol look over the bunkhouse apartments.

Rolling her eyes since the answer to that question hadn't changed, Jessa nodded.  "Yes, he's fine with it," she assured her.  "He said that if you liked the apartment, you could stay here as long as you wanted to."

"I'd just pay him rent, then . . ." Carol concluded.   She opened and closed a few of the kitchen cabinets, nodding to herself in silent approval.  The apartments weren't big by any means, but they were definitely larger than Carol's apartment back in New York City.  They were all single bedroom units with a kitchen, living room, and a bathroom.  All were decent sized, just right for a single person or even a couple without children.

"Yes," Jessa replied, unable to hide the little smile that touched her lips.  "What do you think?"

Carol laughed, waving a delicate hand as she slowly turned around in a circle, taking in the sight of the apartment.  "I think I might like it here," she remarked.  "Providing I can find a decent job . . ."

"I'm sure you can," Jessa insisted.  "Besides, maybe you can get to know a certain stable hand a little bit better, too . . ."

"Ladies, it's time to get to the airport," Ashur said, stopping in the open doorway, casually tossing his keys into the air, only to catch them on the way down.

Carol sighed and reached for her purse that she'd left laying on the counter.  "You're sure you don't mind me staying here, Ashur?" she asked, leveling a no-nonsense look at him.

He shrugged.  "It's fine," he told her.  "Does that mean you've decided?"

She nodded slowly, sparing a moment to grin at Jessa.  "I think so," she allowed.  "I mean, I think I'll work a few more weeks, long enough to get some money saved back, but it shouldn't be hard to find someone willing to sublet my apartment."  She frowned thoughtfully.  "Maybe I should just sell most of my stuff.  I mean, it'll be kind of a pain to try to move everything."

Ashur stepped back to allow the girls to pass him before closing the door and securing the keypad lock.

"You could always mail some of your things," Jessa suggested as they headed for the car.  "That way,  you wouldn't have to worry about moving a lot of stuff."

"Good idea," Carol said.  "Oh, just a minute!  I wanted to say bye to Laith!"

She dashed away toward the stable.  Jessa laughed.  "Thank you," she said, casting Ashur a little smile.

He snorted indelicately.  "Let's just say that you owe me," he grumbled.

Her smile widened as she leaned a little closer to him.  "Oh?  And what do I owe you, Ashur?"

He narrowed his eyes a little as the barest hint of a smile quirked the corners of his lips, as the summer breeze tossed his bangs almost lovingly.  "I'll think of something," he assured her.

Something about the glow in his gaze, the lazy, almost caressing tone in his voice, was enough to send a very distinct, very delicious little tremor right through her, and she pressed a hand against her stomach to quell the racing butterflies that had fluttered to life.

"Jessa . . .?"

"Hmm?"

He chuckled very softly, very low in his throat as he leaned down to whisper in her ear, bringing the very scent of him close.  "You're blushing," he murmured.

She swallowed hard, turned her head to look at him.  "A-Am I . . .?"

He nodded, his gaze dropping to her lips for a painfully long moment before flicking up to meet her eyes, glowing with an intensity that he didn't try to hide.  "You are," he said.

For one long, dizzying second, she thought that he might kiss her as every synapse in her body coiled, tightened, anticipated, his lips hovering so very close to hers: close enough to feel the warmth of his breath ripple over her, feeling the balm, the heat that brought a weakness to her knees, a stuttering, stammering beat to the rhythm of her heart . . .

He was deliberately baiting her, teasing her, so very near, and yet . . . With a maddeningly slow sense of suspended reality, he reached up, stroke her cheek with the back of his knuckles, only to grasp her chin as he dragged the pad of his thumb lightly, gently, over her lips, barely touching her as the riot of shivers shot through her again . . .

"I'm ready," Carol said, darting over to intercept them.  She cleared her throat and giggled.  "Sorry for interrupting," she added.

"Right," Ashur murmured, dragging his eyes off of Jessa before taking a step back and straightening up once more.  "Let's go."

Jessa cleared her throat as her gaze fell to the ground beneath her feet as Carol grasped her arm and gave it a little squeeze.  "I'm totally sorry I messed up your moment," she whispered as the two of them fell into step behind Ashur.  "That was . . . hot . . ."

Jessa made a face and waved a hand at her friend, who just giggled as they headed for the car.

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa wandered through the house without an actual destination in mind, stopping to stare at paintings she'd already seen, to examine statues she'd already touched . . . As though she just couldn't quite find a way to occupy herself, she brushed aside the melancholy that had set in about the time they'd driven away from the airport terminal where they'd dropped off Carol for her return flight back to the city.

It was as if she simply couldn’t settle down, couldn't bring herself to do any of those things that she might normally do to relax.  Even the idea of taking Stardust out for a jaunt wasn't appealing, but she had no idea why.

She couldn't get her mind off that near-kiss from this morning.

It lingered in her head, no matter how many times she tried to shake it, to ignore it, and for some reason, the memory just grew stronger, a little more potent, every time she tried to cast it away . . . It was rather perverse, actually, if she stopped to think about that.

What was it about that man that could reduce her to nothing more than a puddle of raw nerves, anyway?  It wasn't right, not in the least.  It shouldn't be possible for him to be able to do what he did with a simple look, now should it?  Besides that, shouldn't she be able to affect him, too?

'Is that what's got you all up in a snit?'

'Oh, it's you.  And just what do you want?' Jessa shot back dryly.

Her youkai-voice laughed.  'You know, maybe it's a good thing that he can get to you.  I mean, it'd be a damn shame if he couldn't, don't you think?'

She wasn't sure that deserved a reply, and she snorted.  'I don't think so.   Shouldn't he be at least slightly disconcerted?  It's not right, I tell you . . .'

'And who's to say that he isn't?  You can't read his mind, you realize.'

'Like I'd need to be able to read his mind to know!' she scoffed.  'I don't!  It's quite apparent.  He's in full control of his faculties all the time, blast him.'

Her youkai sighed.  'Sometimes, you're such a child, Jessa.  I mean, really.  He's complex, you know.  He's not going to act like your average Joe, and that's why you like him, isn't it?'

She heaved a sigh as she wandered into the sun room—a room that no one used much, since it was back beyond the kitchen and tucked away into a calm little alcove of the house.  The entire space was little more than a construction of windows—so many that Jessa had to wonder just how warm it was in the winter time.  There were a couple of antique-looking settees off to the side, along with a few sparse plants arranged near the windows, and it struck her that it would probably be a fantastic place to sit and read.

She felt like she was existing in a state of limbo, never knowing from one day to the next, exactly where she stood in anything.  All in all, it was an ugly feeling, reminding her a little too well, just how precarious her entire situation really was.  She was entirely reliant upon Ashur, and, while he was nice enough to her, it didn't really offer her any true reassurance.  That savage feeling that she simply wasn't sure, where she stood in the grand scheme of things was frightening at best, downright terrifying at worst.

She hated times like this most of all, though: times when she really didn't know anything, aside from the unbidden feeling that she liked being here, liked being near Ashur and Kells.  But just how quickly could that all be taken away?

If she had access to her parents' accounts, that would change everything, she supposed.  Knowing that she was where she wanted to be as opposed to being where she had to would make a world of difference.  But then, if her inheritance did suddenly get worked out, just what would that truly mean for her?  Once it was all said and done, would Ashur just send her back to Ireland, no questions asked?

And then, that upheaval would come, all over again, and for some reason, Jessa couldn't help the feeling that this time . . . This time would be so much more difficult . . .

The sound of her cell phone cut into her musings, and she sighed as she dug it out of the pocket of her jean shorts.  It was a number she didn't know, but she bit her lip as she connected the call anyway.  "Hello?"

"Jessa!"

She laughed as her bleak mood suddenly snapped wide open.  "Kells!  How's your vacation?"

He sighed melodramatically.  "It's fun," he told her, sounding anything but overjoyed at the moment.  "I miss you and Daddy."

"Aww, I miss you, too, my lad," she replied.  "Tell me what you've been up to, you scamp?"

He giggled.  "We went to Funtown," he told her excitedly.  "Tomorrow, we're going to King's Island, but Uncle Ben said there weren't any kings, so it doesn't make sense."

She laughed, wishing that she could reach through the phone, wished that she could touch the child, to hold him and hug him and cuddle him . . . "Because Kings Island should have kings," she replied.  "I see.  But I'll bet it'll be fun.  Is it another amusement park?"

"Yeah!" Kells exclaimed.  "Uncle Ben said the woller coaster will make me puke!"

She made a face at Kells' statement, but giggled, just the same.  "Is that right?  That sounds like . . . um . . . fun?"

Kells laughed histerically, like something she'd said was highly humorous to him.  "Yeah!  'Cause puking's fun!"

Entirely gross.  And entirely amusing on some weird level, too . . . "You'll be fine, won't you?" she asked instead.

"Yeah . . . I gots to go now.  It's time for s'mores!"

"Okay, Kells.  Have fun, and I miss you."

"I miss you, too, Jessa," he said.  "And I miss Daddy . . ."

"I'll let him know," she assured him.

The connection cut off abruptly, and Jessa sighed.  She wasn't entirely sure what a, 's'more' was, but Kells seemed to be excited about them.

Sinking down on the edge of the nearest settee, Jessa stared at the phone in her hands.  Talking to Kells only served to remind her of just how much she missed him, and she sighed.

"There you are.  I was looking for you."

She glanced up as Ashur strode into the room with a marked frown on his face.  "Kells called," she said.  "He wanted me to tell you that he misses you."

He nodded.  "Kells called you?"

"Yes, why?"

He frowned.  "He didn't call me."

"Well, you could call him back, but he said that they were getting ready to have s'mores—whatever those are."

Ashur heaved a sigh.  "Oh, God . . . graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallows, all melted together and . . . and kind of gross, actually . . ." He grimaced.  "I told them not to give him sugar . . ." Then he shrugged.  "Guess they'll figure it out in about an hour, give or take . . ."

She almost smiled, although, she herself was a bit intrigued by the description of the s'more.  "You were looking for me . . .?" she reminded him gently.

He blinked for a moment, as though he had completely forgotten whatever it was that he wanted to tell her.  Then he sighed, and the frown that he'd worn into the room resurfaced once more.  "Did you ever meet anyone by the name of Kingston?  Maybe at one of your parties or something?"

She considered that, then slowly shook her head.  "Not that I recall . . . but then, there were a lot of people at those functions, so it's hard to say.  I mean, I could have, I suppose, but if I did, I don't remember them now . . ."

His frown deepened.  "Carl Kingston, Duke of Portsmouth."

Her eyes widened.  "Oh, the Duke Portsmouth," she repeated.  "I believe I have met him a time or two, but nothing in particular; just formal greetings, that sort of thing.  Why?"

Ashur stood, one arm over his stomach, the other elbow propped on his fist while the propped hand, curled fingers against his lips.  He flicked that hand once, as though he were waving off her question.  "You ever meet his son?"

"Hmm," she murmured as she considered it.  "I don't recall that, no," she finally said.  Something about the entirely too-dark look on his face, though—the way his eyes seemed to be lost in shadows, the lines that furrowed his brow a little too deeply . . . "Why?" she asked again, this time, a little more forcefully.

He sighed, glancing at her briefly, a foreboding sort of expression on his face.  For a moment, she thought that he wasn't going to answer her or that, if he did, he was devising some sort of lie at worst or a half-truth at best, enough to satisfy her curiosity.  Then he sighed again.  "I just talked to the Zelig," he said, very obviously measuring his words carefully.  "There are no reports from the mechanics about the recent vehicle safety inspection you spoke of, but the mechanic remembers doing it and filing the paperwork as was required by law, and it was as we figured: because the accident was well over a year ago and the investigation into it has been closed, the car itself was destroyed, too, which means that we can't send someone else in to check it over . . . but that all indications are that there was something else going on in that car, something that caused the accident."

"Like Da said . . ." she murmured, absently glad that she was already sitting because her knees felt like jelly all of a sudden.

He nodded slowly.  "And . . . you need to know.  Kingston is the one who was trying to get your father to agree to betroth you to his son—and the MacDonnough was aware of it—and had actually suggested it.  There's reason to believe that he may be looking for you now to, uh . . . force the issue, and I'm . . ." He grimaced and sat down beside her.  "I'm telling you this because I need you to be very, very careful about strange men who might approach you when I'm not around—who may come looking for you.  For now . . ." He made a face, shook his head.  "For now, I ask that you not go anywhere alone—not until we can figure out exactly where Kingston's son is."

"What do you mean, where his son is?" she demanded, her voice a little harsh.

"No one knows where he is," Ashur replied.  "I'm not trying to scare you, but . . . But you have to know because it'd be more dangerous for you if you didn't.  Okay?"

"Because he might try to force the issue?  You mean that he could . . .?"

He nodded, his scowl darkening.  "That's exactly what I mean," he replied.

She stared at him for a long moment as the gravity of his statement slowly sank in.  On the one hand, the idea was absolutely preposterous, wasn't it?  And yet . . . And yet, it wasn't, either, was it?  No, because she knew Ashur—knew him well enough to realize that he wouldn't tell her any such thing just for effect or even to scare her.  He told her because . . . because something about it . . . It scared him, too . . .

She finally nodded.  "Okay."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ashur paced the foyer floor, waiting for Jessa to make her appearance.  He'd offered to take her into the city to see Ghosts of Olde at Margreave Hall, mostly to distract her since she'd been uncharacteristically quiet since he'd told her about everything.

He sighed, rubbing his forehead as he slowly shook his head.  He still wasn't sure that telling her was a good idea, but, in his mind, the pros had outweighed the cons in this situation.  After all, she needed to know why she should be on alert.  Still,  Cain had offered to talk to the MacDonnough, see if he couldn't put some weight on the European tai-youkai without giving away Jessa's current location.  Ashur had called the consulate as well as the O'Shea family lawyer in Ireland to explain to them both why there was a need to keep Jessa's whereabouts as quiet as possible.

He supposed he could use the distraction of the theatre, too.  After all the phone calls, all the haggling, explaining everything over and over again . . . He felt emotionally drained, which was worse than anything else, really.

So, he'd suggested the theatre in hopes that they could both forget about everything, at least, for a little while.   He'd even opted to wear a full suit for the occasion—something he rarely ever did.

He turned around at the sound of her footsteps on the stairs, only to do a double take as she slowly descended, eyes shining, an air of excitement surrounding her. Her hair was pulled up and back into a very smooth twist.  It was all neatly pulled back with just enough poof on top to soften it around her face, but what held him captive was the sight of her long, long legs left exposed by the tiny bit of skirt that only extended down to her upper thighs, of the black velvet dress that fit her ridiculously well.  The low dip of the sweetheart neckline displayed her cleavage in an absolutely sinful kind of way, the cap sleeve just barely hugging her thin shoulders . . .  All in all, he wasn't sure if he wanted to order her to go back upstairs and change into something that provided a little more coverage, or if he just wanted to drag her into his arms and kiss her silly . . .

"You look very nice," she said as she stepped off the last stair and hurried over to him, taking her time as she straightened his tie that he hadn't realized needed straightening at all.  "There . . ."

"Thank you," he said, noting that she was actually wearing a hint of makeup—something she normally didn't do, mostly because she honestly didn't need it.  "Shouldn't I be the one to compliment you?  And you look . . . beautiful."

She bit her lip but smiled almost timidly as a slight blush rose in her cheeks, as the smile added a heightened brightness to her crimson-brown gaze.  Peering up through her gorgeously long and thick eyelashes at him, she reached up, idly fingering the cross necklace that Carol had given her for her birthday.  "Thank you," she replied.  Her smile flickered and faded, though, as her expression took on a more serious shift.  "Are . . . Are you sure that it's a good idea?  Going out in public like this?"

He grimaced inwardly, hating the seriousness that had nudged aside the excitement that he'd initially felt from her.  Even knowing that she really did need to know didn't help much, either.  It was a pretty sad bit of consolation, especially when he'd wanted to get her mind off of it for a little while.  "You're safe enough with me, Jessa," he told her, grasping her hand and leading her toward the front door.  "And no one else really knows where you are, exactly, and the attorney as well as the consulate's office understand that they cannot give your location to anyone else, should Kingston try to get information."

"It feels like a small consolation," she murmured, waiting for him as he locked the door.  He turned around in time to see her, looking around carefully, cautiously—almost nervously, and he drew a deep breath before putting a hand on the small of her back and escorting her off the porch and toward the car.

He didn't say anything until they'd gotten into the car and were pulling down the long driveway.  "Try to put it out of your mind for tonight," he told her.  "I'll protect you.  Do you trust me?"

She didn't answer, and he frowned.  The silence in the car, heavy, despite the low hum of the radio, grew and thickened, and in that silence, Ashur tried to remind himself that he really hadn't known her that long, that he really had no grounds on which to ask her to trust him, especially in something as important as this.

It didn't really help, though, and the irritation, the unintentional hurt that grew, only seemed to multiply in his head . . .

In his heart.

 

 


 

 

 

Margreave Hall was a beautiful, opulent theatre, built not far from the Parc du Bastion-de-la-Reine, easily rivaling some of the most classic and beautiful theatres in Europe.  From the marble floors, stairs, columns, the rich fabrics that were demure yet elegant, old framed show posters dating back to the opening of the theatre, the ambience of the place surrounded them from the moment they'd walked in the doors, held open by two very stately looking doormen who had smiled and nodded at each patron in passing.

"I'll protect you.  Do you trust me?"

That was the one thing that rattled through Jessa's mind throughout the show, making it hard for her to think, to concentrate on anything at all except what had to be the million dollar question . . .

She hadn't answered him when he'd asked her that question.  In truth, she wasn't entirely sure how to answer it.  It was true, he'd done a lot of things for her since she'd moved in with him and after their rocky start, but she couldn't say that she trusted him yet, either.  If she discounted the first couple weeks of her residence, when they hadn't gotten along very well and had subsisted on simply being cautiously polite, she'd only really gotten to know him a little better in the last three months, and even then, if she really thought about it, just how much did she actually know about him?

'Nothing; not really . . .'

And therein lay the problem, didn't it?

'Aren't you being a little harsh?'

Jessa frowned at the accusing tone in her youkai-voice.  'Am I?  I don't know a thing about him, other than he loves Kells beyond all reason and that he is Kells' brother biologically.'

'And those are pretty good things, you know.  It means that he loves that lad, and that he'd do anything for him, don't you think?  I mean, strictly speaking, you can learn a lot about someone, just by seeing how they treat children.'

'Yeah, but it's odd, isn't it?'

'What's odd?'

'Well, think about it.  Why would he have adopted Kells?  Siblings raise each other all the time, sure, but to adopt his brother? Why would he have found that to be necessary?'

'Who knows?  If it bothers you so much, why don't you ask him?  It's been awhile since you asked about it the last time.  Maybe he'll give you more answers now.'

She sighed, slipping her eyes to the side to glance at Ashur without his knowledge.  He was sitting up, ramrod straight, staring dead ahead at the stage, countenance utterly blanked.  He could be staring at a wall, watching paint dry, for all the emotion on his face, and she grimaced inwardly.  She'd also have to be completely stupid to not sense the tension in him.  Maybe he was trying to hide it.  She didn't know, but if he were, then he was failing miserably.

No, she rather doubted that he would be giving her any more answers, any time soon, if the expression on his face meant anything at all . . .

'You need to talk to him,' her youkai said.  'I think . . . I think he's angry that you didn't give him any kind of answer.'

She sighed inwardly.  The answer would have been worse, wouldn't it?  Even so, there was some truth to her youkai-voice's statement.  She did need to talk to him, to at least explain why she couldn't answer that question yet, but . . . But she wanted to, didn't she?  And maybe that was the most surprising part of it.  After feeling so isolated and alone for so long, even before her father had died, well before her mother had, too: it was a feeling, that had stretched back well into her childhood—her lack of friends, her sense of always being alone—and back then, it was okay because she had her horse, Derry to keep her company.  She'd learned not to depend upon anyone but herself, not even her beloved father, since she'd reached that age where Da couldn't fix everything, and she'd come to understand that he had enough things to deal with on his own. Boarding school had seemed so far away, too, that she felt like she couldn't lay her problems at his feet, anyway.  That was when she'd learned to solve things for herself, and if she couldn't, she'd always been able to simply ignore the people and the issues that troubled her.  Somehow, along the way, it had become so ingrained in her that she'd forgotten how to lean on anyone, and the idea of trusting someone else—of becoming dependent upon another person . . . It was difficult, but . . . She . . . She wanted to trust him.  She didn't know why.  There wasn't an easy way to explain her feelings.

That was the real problem, wasn't it?  Just how in the world could she possibly make him understand something that she didn't, not really . . .?

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur closed the door behind himself with a stifled sigh as he reached over and touched the panel to lock everything up for the night.  Dropping his keys on the nearby table, he strode past the living room and down the short hallway to his office as he yanked off his tie and dropped it carelessly over the back of one of the chairs facing the desk, followed in short order by the formal jacket.

He let out a breath in a heavy gust, rolling up his sleeves a couple times as he rounded the desk and flopped down in the chair, figuring he might as well catch up on his correspondences since he was entirely too agitated to even think about going to bed any time soon.

He couldn't honestly tell anyone just what the show was about.  He'd spent the entire time, thinking and thinking and growing more and more irritated by the second, to the point that the smallest thing likely could set him off in a blind rage now if he didn't find some way to refocus his energy.

Rubbing a hand over his face in an infinitely weary sort of way, he waited impatiently for the computer to boot and opened his email first: a good thirty messages from various people who wanted to introduce themselves or just wanted to welcome him to the region.  He had drafted a form thank you letter a week ago or more, which made it much simpler to reply to these emails . . .

"Ashur?"

He couldn't help the way he sat up a little straighter, how his back stiffened at the sound of her voice.  Gritting his teeth, he thought about ignoring her for a moment, but he sighed when he realized that he really couldn't do that, not to her, no matter how bruised his ego might be.

"Yes?" he asked without looking away from the computer monitor.

Her sigh was soft, quiet.  "I . . . I wanted to thank you for taking me to the theatre," she said.

His sigh was much, much louder.  "It was nothing," he told her, still refusing to look at her.

She didn't speak for a few moments, as though she were trying to get a read on Ashur's mood.  Deliberately tamping down his emotions, he stubbornly refused to say anything else, waiting instead for her to either walk away or to say whatever was really on her mind.  "A-About your question," she finally said.  "It's . . . It's not that I don't trust you.  It's just that—"

Standing up so abruptly that his chair flew back until it bumped into the wall, Ashur strode around the desk and brushed past her, and he kept moving until he was standing in the living room with a glass of brandy in his hands.  He started to turn away, but thought better of it, slamming back the drink and sloshing more into the snifter before pacing across the floor.

"I wasn't trying to hurt you," she said quietly, her feet making no sound as she stepped toward him.  She hadn't changed clothes yet, but she had removed her shoes.

"You didn't," he stated flatly, emptying the glass for the second time before thumping it down on a side table hard.

"But you seem—"

"I'd have to care for it to hurt me," he blurted before he could stop himself, as his temper snapped—as he regretted the words as they left his lips.

She drew back, as though he had physically slapped her, her gaze igniting in indignant fire as she drew herself up, straight and proud, all traces of her almost meek and apologetic demeanor fading fast.  "I see," she said, mustering as much dignity as she possibly could, turning on her heel to stride out of the room.  "Rot in hell, Ashur Philips!  You bloody arse!"

"An arse, am I?" he growled as he strode after her, berating himself for his inability to control his temper, even as her words hung in the air as she dashed up the stairs.  He caught her as she tried to slam the door of her bedroom in his face.  "Jessa, stop!" he commanded, not really surprised when she ignored him, throwing her weight against the door to try to close it on him.

He gave the door a good shove, sending her stumbling back, but he caught her before she fell, yanked her hard against his chest.  "You don't trust me," he ground out, his body redirecting the passion of their altercation into another direction entirely, "but you want me."

She gasped, her eyes flaring wide at what he'd said, and she tried to push against him as his mouth fell on hers, shocking her senses with the taste of cognac and something far headier, decimating her anger as a wave of absolute desire shot through her.  It was unlike anything she'd ever felt before—a purely reactionary wave of unadulterated heat—exploding deep inside her with an unrelenting power, a force that encompassed all that she was, obliterating her objections before they had a chance to form.  The crush of his lips, the hunger that he didn't try to hide from her only fueled the surging emotion, like a wildfire, swept out of control by a capricious wind.

Drawing her up against him with one arm, the other hand sinking into her hair, loosening the bobby pins that held it secured as it fell around her: a tangle of curls.  He groaned roughly against her lips, the sound reverberating from him to her, muffled by her mouth as it opened to his demands—the flick of his tongue against hers as her knees threatened to buckle under her—shocking yet beautiful, wild and free . . .

She heard the sound of her zipper being lowered, but it was vague and distant, even as the cooler air, hitting her bared back, registered in her mind in a gauzy way, like trying to see through the fog.  The desire to touch him was far too strong to ignore, and yet, her fingers didn't want to comply as she clumsily fumbled with the buttons of his shirt.  Impatience won out, and she growled as she dug her claws into the fabric, rending it in one deft yank as he jerked her against him again with a growl that could have been a warning, but it was lost in a dizzying wave of need so strong, so inebriating, that anything less was gone in an instant, in a heartbeat.  Fingers slipping over the broad expanse of his chest, of his shoulders, she reveled in the absolute heat that radiated off of his body in waves as muscles rippled under her touch, as she felt the shiver race through him.

Pushing the sleeves of the dress down off of her shoulders, he stepped back, broke the kiss, shaking hands on her arms, pushing the dress down until she pulled her arms free of the garment.  He uttered a  roughened gasp as her breasts sprang free, dropped to his knees as he shoved the dress lower, down her sides, over her hips, catching the sides of her panties, setting off trails of gooseflesh everywhere he touched as the heat of his hands shot through her, converged in the raging fire that threatened to engulf her, and he stood up, quickly discarding his clothing before he lifted her out of the dress that lay forgotten on the floor, kissing her again with such a fervor, a barely contained brutality, shattering what was left of her conscious thought as he laid her on the bed.

Hands on her breasts, kneading them, tugging on them, squeezing and releasing as she writhed and moaned.  His mouth fell over one of them, the burn of his tongue nearly her undoing as she arched her back off the bed with a sharply indrawn breath, as a strangled sort of cry escaped her.  He was relentless, suckling at her, drawing her in deep, flicking his tongue over her swollen nipple until she thought she would go mad as the ache at the core of her condensed and thickened, beating with a steady throb, a near-painful need, the likes of which she'd never, ever felt before.

Tugging on his shoulders as she writhed beneath him, as she tried to make him understand, she could only hold onto him, could only trust that he knew where they were going, how they were going to get there, that he would lead her where her body demanded.

He rose up against her, his body dragging over hers as another round of shockwaves ricocheted through her.  She felt that part of him—that stunning, beautiful part of him—as it pulsed against her thigh.  Shifting her hips, unable to control herself as the painful ache spiraled thicker and hotter in her, she gasped as the very tip of him brushed against the part of her that called to him, needed him, so close and yet, not nearly close enough, as she spread her knees a little wider, instinctively inviting him, and he groaned.

His mouth broke away from hers, and she whimpered softly.  "Damn it," he growled, letting his forehead drop against hers as he struggled to regain a semblance of his control.  She turned her face, recaptured his lips, but he groaned and pulled back again.  "We can't . . . I don't have . . . Jessa," he murmured between kisses.

She opened her eyes, unable to make sense of his half-sentences, of his new irritation.  He caught her confused look and slowly shook his head.  "I don't have any condoms," he told her, eyes darkening even more as he stared at her.

She shook her head, vaguely waved a hand at her nightstand.  "Carol . . . there," Jessa replied, unable to piece together a better explanation since her brain was screaming at her to reach for him once more.

He leaned to the side, yanked open the nightstand drawer, pushed himself up into a kneeling position as he grabbed a condom and yanked it open, hands shaking, as she watched him through heavily-lidded eyes.  Somewhere in the back of her mind, she thought that she shouldn't be watching him so brazenly, and yet, she didn't try to look away, either, as he tossed the empty packet to the side and rolled the condom down on himself.

She reached over, grasped him firmly in her hand.  He sucked in a harsh breath, yanked her hand away roughly, as he rose up, crashed down on her, pinning her hand beside her head, a savage brightness in his gaze as he reached down with his free hand, positioned himself.  Her eyes slipped closed, only to flash open wide when he slammed his hips against hers.  She arched up, cried out, unable to stop the manic tremors that shot through her as the ache inside her burst wide open, as a million explosions culminated in a burst of the sweetest pleasure—pleasure that was only magnified by the hard and rapid thrusts as he rocked his body against hers.  Deeper, faster, as that borderline painful tightening in her wound up again with every push.  He groaned out her name as he stroked her deeply, with a barely contained brutality that she welcomed.  With one last hard thrust, he threw his head back, uttered a terse, choked cry as she rose off the bed once more, only to be slammed back down again, as the tightening in her core gave way again, as the crazy-mad bliss held her, suspended in wave upon earth-shattering wave . . .

She didn't know how long it took her to regain any of her senses.  Gradually, though, she felt him, holding her close against his side, one hand gently holding her shoulder, his thumb idly rubbing circles, the other hand smoothing her hair back off of her face.  He'd rolled over onto his back, and he'd removed the used condom, too, but he didn't seem as though he were in any great hurry to get up, and she was all right with that, too.

Savoring the absolute feeling of closeness, she wondered vaguely, just how long this moment could last.

He sighed.  "That was pathetic," he muttered, sounding duly disgusted.  "Seriously sad . . ."

Her bubble of contentment burst, and she started to roll off of him, ready to seek sanctuary in the bathroom.  He caught her and held her tightly.  "Where do you think you're going?" he asked, sounding a little lethargic, almost bemused.

"Let me go," she whispered, hating the thickness that choked her as she blinked stubbornly and tried to push his arms away.

"Jessa?"

She shook her head, nearing all-out panic as, to her horror, the prickle of tears stung the back of her eyelids.  He let go of her, and she nearly stumbled as she rolled off the bed and hurried to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur leaned on his elbows, frowning at the closed bathroom door as he tried to make sense of Jessa's mercurial mood swing.  It didn't make sense, did it?  'She . . . She wanted that, too . . . didn't she . . .?'

Heaving a sigh since his body was still on high alert, he swung his legs off the bed and sat up, willing himself to calm down since it was pretty obvious that she wasn't interested in a repeat at the moment.  But just what was bothering her . . .?

'What do you mean, what's bothering her?  Are you stupid, Kyouhei?  Seriously?  Or did you forget what you said just after you finished having mind-blowing sex with her?'

He snorted.  'I wasn't talking about the sex.  I was talking about me . . .'

'Yeah, but you didn't say that, and think about how it must have sounded to her, of all people . . .'

"Damn it . . ."

'Yeah, well, you should probably go explain yourself because she was ready to cry, if you didn't notice . . .'

It only took five strides to reach the bathroom door.  He almost expected to find it locked, which wouldn't matter since it was his house, so if he broke the door, he'd just replace it, but it wasn't, and he made a face at the smell of her tears, prevalent, even over the scent of the soap she was using in the shower.

Without stopping to think about it, he slipped into the shower as she gasped, as she whipped around to hide herself from him.  He sighed and reached over, pulling the wash cloth from her as he gently pushed her drenched hair over her shoulder and started soaping up her back.  "I'm sorry," he said, hating the way she stood, entirely tense, ready to bolt.  "When I said it was pathetic, I meant me."

She didn't pull away from him, and he figured that was a good sign, but she didn't speak, either, which was probably not.

"I can't remember the last time I lost control like that," he went on.  "I didn't . . . I didn't hurt you . . . did I?"

He didn't miss the way she quickly glanced over her shoulder at him.  "N-No," she said quietly.  "No . . ."

"Good . . . That was the last thing I wanted to do, but you know . . . It really shouldn't have been so rushed, either," he remarked.  "I just . . . I couldn't . . . I couldn't control myself . . ." He sighed and leaned down, kissing the nape of her neck.  She shivered.  "You drive me crazy, you know."

She sniffled.  "Do I?"

Pulling her back against him, wrapping his arms over her stomach, he nodded.  "You do."

"You . . . You don't . . . regret it . . .?"

"No, I don't," he told her.  "Do you?"

She shook her head, finally relaxed against him.  "No."

"Good," he said, letting go of her to reach for her bottle of body wash.

"Are you going to wash me?" she asked, turning her head to peer up at him.

He nodded.  "Yes.  Yes, I am."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

It was late as Jessa lay awake, nestled comfortably against Ashur, her head on his shoulder, hand resting lightly on his chest while he idly stroked her hair, his other hand rubbing her arm.  They hadn't said much of anything since he'd led her into his room after their shower.  His bed was bigger, he'd said, more comfortable, which she supposed it was.

As companionable as the silence was, though, she frowned.  She still wanted to explain to him.  She wanted him to understand.  It wasn't that she felt like she owed him any explanations, no.  It was more of an understanding that she wanted him to know . . . Given how angry he was about it, though, she wasn't entirely sure that bringing it up again was a good idea . . . and she was really savoring the closeness that she felt at the moment.  Listening to the sound of his heartbeat, reveling in the warmth of his body against hers . . . She hadn't realized that this sort of feeling even existed . . . or maybe she'd just felt so alone for so very long that she felt it more acutely than she ever had before . . .

He sighed.  "What are you thinking about?" he asked, his voice a low rumble, as though he were afraid to break the silence.

She swallowed hard, almost afraid of giving voice to her thoughts, yet still needing to say it—compelled to say it.  "I want you to know," she said.  "I . . . It's not that I don’t trust you.  I just don't . . . I don't trust anyone, not really."  Closing her eyes for a moment, she unconsciously huddled a little closer to him.  "I don't even know if I trust myself . . ."

"I . . . I get that," he told her, pulling her more solidly against him.  "I have trouble with that, too," he admitted.  "I shouldn't have gotten so angry."

"I just didn't know how to answer you then," she went on.  "I . . . I still don't."

"You don't have to," he told her.  "It was unfair of me to ask you to trust me."  Uttering a terse little laugh that didn't have much real amusement in it, he shrugged.  "The only person who has never let me down in my life is Ben," he went on.  "Well, Kells, but how could he?  He's a child, and . . . and I don't think he could ever really disappoint me . . ." He shook his head and waved a hand in dismissal.  "It's neither here nor there.  It's just . . . When I think about everyone in my life that I've relied upon, that I've spent years, trying to justify their actions on some level when there really is no good excuse for anything they've done . . . And then, I look at you, Jessa, and I . . ." He cleared his throat, and she could sense it, couldn't she?  The vulnerability that he was trying so hard to hide . . . He . . . He was . . .

'He's frightened, isn't he?  But . . . Frightened of what . . .?'

Without thinking about it, she propped herself up on her elbows, kissed him on the cheek.  "You're lonely, too, aren't you?"

He looked surprised at her perceptiveness.  Even in the weak and fickle light that filtered through the French doors that led to the balcony beyond, she didn't miss the heightened brightness in his gaze, the fleeting glimpse of a fear that he squelched with admirable ruthlessness.  "Am I?"

She leaned down, kissed him softly, digging her fingers deep into his hair as she shifted her body, as he wrapped his arms around her, running his claws lightly, teasingly up and down her spine.  Gentle kisses, as soft as the flutter of a butterfly's wings, and she moaned as his lips trailed down to her neck, concentrating on the stuttering pulse, fangs grazing over silken skin.  Running her hands over the smooth, unyielding flesh of his chest, reveling in the way his muscles jerked under her perusal, breaking off the kiss as she sat up, as she stared down at him in complete and utter fascination, she scooted down his body, forcing a ragged groan out of him as her fingertips trailed over the rises and hollows of his abdomen . . . She giggled as his muscles twitched, unable to hide her complete fascination with his body.

She glanced at him, only to see that he'd closed his eyes, a frown furrowing his brow as he swallowed hard—she could see his Adam's apple bob with the motion—and before she could stop to think about it, she reached down, grasped him in both of her hands, and squeezed.  He gasped again, half-exhalation, half-her-name, as he jerked in her grip, as she stared at that part of him in absolute thrall.  She wanted to know him—all of him—the part of him that had given her such pleasure before . . .

Before she could think about it, she leaned down, opened her lips as she drew him deep, tasting the bitter, almost metallic pre-cum that had oozed out of him, her own saliva dripping down over her fingers as she rather clumsily drew back before sucking him in deep again.  He rasped out a harsh cry, a ragged entreaty to kami, sinking his hands into her hair, helping her to create a rhythm as he shuddered and shook.

Stroking him with her tongue, with the heat of her mouth, she couldn't help the giggle that swelled in her throat as he moaned and groaned, jerking wildly as she worked him up and down, marveling at his reactions, at the idea that she was able to reduce him to this.

The muscles in his arms strained, bulged, veins popping out in stark relief, buffed by the gloss of the moonlight . . . Uttering a terse, choked groan, his body quivering as she slowly gained confidence, as she lengthened, cultivated the visceral kiss, cheeks collapsing as she drew him in as deeply as she could, as she slipped her lips over her teeth, only to squeeze him just a little tighter in her jaws . . .

A roughened, almost primitive growl, issued from him as his fists wrapped around handfuls of the duvet under him.  She heard the slight tearing of fabric, felt the tremors erupting throughout his body as a heady pleasure shot through her—the innate understanding that she ultimately held that much sway over him, at least, in those moments . . .

"J . . . Jes . . . sa . . ." he gasped out, grasping her shoulders as he thickened between her lips.  "You . . ."

He started to push her back.  She tightened her grasp on him, his hips pistoning up off of the mattress, and she sucked him in harder, unwilling to let him draw away from her.  He growled out a hoarse, gruff, almost strangled, sound as a hot, bitter gush filled her mouth, almost gagged her, as she stubbornly held on, swallowing fast as his orgasm exploded twice, three times . . .

He collapsed against the bed, breathing harsh in the quiet as she slowly, carefully, sucked him clean then released him with a loud 'pop' as the suction broke.  Smiling slightly as she sat back on her heels, she wiped the her lips with the back of her hand, watching him as he struggled to breathe, eyes closed, looking more vulnerable than she could credit . . .

It took a couple minutes for him to manage to force his eyes open.  She couldn't help the tender little smile that formed on her lips, in her eyes, as she watched him.  But he reached out to her, pulled her down when she slid back up his body, kissed her deep as he sank a finger into her.  She gasped into his mouth, her body feeling as though it was liquefying, and he chuckled, slowly pumping her with his finger as he echoed the strokes with his tongue.

She writhed against him, bracing her knees against the bed, rocking herself against him as that incessant ache coiled and multiplied.  Whimpering softly, frustrated at the building need, the spreading flames inside her, she uttered a plaintive little whine when he wrapped his free arm over her waist, slowing her down, driving her mad . . .

"Ashur," she complained, almost pouting, as she leaned away, eyes burning with the passion he'd ignited and had yet to quell.

He chuckled softly, his finger slipping out of her as she closed her eyes and shuddered at the loss of him, at the desolate emptiness that he'd left her with.  He reached over and snagged one of the condoms he'd confiscated from her nightstand and held it out to her.  "Go ahead," he prompted when she finally opened her eyes again, as he smiled at the pouting expression on her face.  "You're curious, right?  So, you do it."

She spared a moment to frown at him for a moment before snatching the condom and ripping it open.  He helped her just a little as she tried to roll the condom onto him.  After he got it started for her, he laid back, tucking his hands together behind his neck, content to watch her as she rolled it down, as she bit her lip and stared at him.

"Go ahead," he told her once more, nodding at himself, daring her to continue.

She started to shake her head, unsure exactly what he was telling her to do.

He sighed and reached out, slipping his hands under her buttocks, pulling her up and forward, before letting go with one hand, only to grasp himself, gently nudging her open, slipping just the head of his cock into her before letting go, leaving her poised, her thighs, already slick with her own fluids, as he tucked his hands behind his neck once more.

She gasped, moaned as she slowly let herself sink down on him, sitting impossibly still as she savored the feeling of him, so deep inside her.  The fullness was incredible, and she couldn't help the contraction of her muscles as he twitched and jerked in her.

He groaned, long and low, grasped her hips in his hands as he pulled her up until just the tip of him was in her before slowly lowering her on him once more.  She gasped again, pitching forward against his chest, kissing him with an urgency that she couldn't suppress, and all the while, he lifted her, lowered her, his body creating a pulse, a rhythm.  The feeling was maddening, both wonderful and frustrating, all at once, as her need grew, the slow lethargy wasn't nearly enough . . .

"Ashur," she murmured, silently begging him for what she knew he could give her, struggling against his hold as he pushed into her so slowly that she felt like she might lose her mind.  "Please . . ."

"Not fast enough?" he asked her, his whisper echoing in her head.

She shook her head, tried to push against him.  He chuckled.   "All right," he relented, letting his hands fall to her knees.  "Do what you want."

It took her a moment to understand just what he was saying.  Bracing her hands on his chest, she shifted her hips, heard his low groan as her need wound tighter.  Rising on her knees, she whimpered as he slid out of her, only to gasp as she let her body fall on his, as the throb that surrounded the core of her reverberated with the harshness of the action.  The faster that she moved, the more painful the ache deep in her grew.  Concentrating on the absolute sensation that coursed through her with every thrust, she felt his hands, grasping her breasts, squeezing, kneading, tugging, and she whimpered, whined as the crazy-wild ache deepened.  Grinding her hips against his, she gasped, cried out as the ache inside her broke free, as she reared back, her hands catching on his thighs, as she ground down on him harder, her body convulsing around his as her mind blanked, oblivious to everything except the gush of pleasure that coursed through her.  Somewhere in the back of her mind, she felt his hands as he grasped her hips again, as he lifted his pelvis off the bed as he yanked her hard against him.  He thrust into her with a wanton, borderline vicious, abandon, then drove up into her as he jerked her down one last time, as his cry mingled with her, shattering the silence in a livid rush . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur awoke slowly, a half-smile on his lips as he opened his eyes, blinking at the bright sunlight that filtered through the windows of the French doors.  Glancing down at Jessa, still sprawled on his chest where she'd fallen asleep just after they'd finished making love, his smile widened, even as he grimaced, realizing too late that he'd fallen asleep just after her—and soon enough that he hadn't removed the condom—and that he was still very much inside her—and still very, very hard.

'So . . . pick up where you left off, Kyouhei . . . I really don't think she'd mind at all . . .'

'Hmm . . . I think I will . . .'

Moving his hips, just enough to test the waters, he groaned softly when he realized that she was still very, very receptive.  Even in sleep, her body undulated around him, allowing him free movement to attest to the fact that she really was just as ready for a morning go-round as he was . . .

She sighed as he slowly thrust in her, taking his time, savoring the feel of her as he pushed into her.  Her legs were still tucked around his hips, her feet against his thighs, it was simple to just gently lift her hips, to slowly lower her onto him.  Content to slowly savor her, at least, until she woke up, he closed his eyes, concentrated on the feel of her, of her body as she reacted to him . . .

She awoke with a moan, her gaze bleary as she opened her eyes, as she peered at him, even as a flush broke over her skin, as she tightened around him.  He shivered in reaction.  "Morning," he said, pulling her down on him once more.

She gasped and kissed him, her body constricting around him again.  Suddenly, though, she sat up, grinding her hips against his, apparently unsatisfied with the slowness that he was indulging.

He started to chuckle, but groaned instead, taking in the absolutely gorgeous sight of those breasts, so perfectly round, thrust upward, nipples hardened into dusty rose peaks that begged for his touch, at her flat stomach, the muscles that were visible beneath the softness of her skin . . . Torn between the need to touch her breasts and the desire to grasp that tiny waist of hers, to help her as she rode him, he leaned up on his elbows, captured the peak of one breast between his lips, between his teeth, biting down just hard enough to make her gasp again as a tremor shot through her, the vibrations nearly shattering what was left of his control as she rocked against him, harder, faster . . .

"Ashur . . . Oh, God," she moaned, slamming against him, over and over, the dark and wet sounds of their movements driving him to the very brink.

He grabbed her around the waist, flipped them over as he plunged into her, as she screamed.  Grasping her legs, flipping her feet up over his shoulders, he pounded into her as hard as he could.  She writhed and panted, body convulsing as her pleasure took over, he smiled vaguely at the wash of wholly male pride—a primitive pride of a man who was pleasing his woman—as he licked his thumb, slipped it between the folds to find that little nub, sending her careening into pleasure so intense that she tightened around him, almost painfully.

He could feel the tingling deep in him, the rising burn as his orgasm approached.  Gritting his teeth, willing it back, he kept going, driving her to pleasure again and again.  She was nearly whining softly, punctuated by her stunted breathing, her body well beyond her own control.  She reached up, grasping her own breasts, tugging on her nipples, her skin flushed and glowing, her body demanding, opening and closing around him like delicate blossom.  He could feel the tell-tale tremors racing through her yet again, and this time, he let go, slamming into her as hard as he could, feeling the rush in his balls as his orgasm took over.  Another thrust—two of them—ended with an explosion, as both of them cried out, their voices mingling, echoing, reverberating around them, and he pumped her another time or two as the last of his orgasm surged.

He collapsed onto her, unable to do much more than to shift slightly to the side to keep from crushing her.  She half-cried, half-laughed, her hands pushing at his hair, babbling nonsense as she kissed his face gently, tenderly, while he struggled to come back down to earth.

It took a long time for his breathing to slow, for his body to move when he willed it to.  Leaning on his elbow, he smiled down at her.  She still looked somewhat sleepy, but her cheeks were still flushed, and before he could say anything, she lifted her hips against his, reminding him that he was still inside her, and not really wanting to pull himself out, either . . .

"Jessa . . ."

She pressed a finger to his lips.  "You're not going to say something pragmatic, are you?  Like, we have to get up, blah blah blah?"

He chuckled and caught her hand, bringing the back of her fingers to his lips.  "Well, it is—" he glanced at the clock and snorted, "—nearly noon."

"But I'm really comfortable," she complained, undulating her hips to tell him exactly what she meant.

He groaned.  "You're going to kill me, aren't you?" he complained.  Drawing a deep breath as she giggled, he slowly pulled out of her, ignoring her whines of protest.

Then he made a face and heaved a sigh since the condom was ridiculously full and therefore messy as hell as he carefully pulled it off.  "Ugh . . . I guess using one of these twice is a bad idea," he muttered as he got up to throw it away.  "I need a shower."

She uttered a tiny but frustrated growl as she scooted off the bed to follow him.  He raised an eyebrow at her when she stepped into the bathroom after him.  "You want to shower with me?" he asked.

"Well, you did help me last night," she intoned, slipping into the space beside him and reaching for his body wash.  "I think I should return the favor . . ."

"Oh, do you?"

She smiled up at him—a smile that made his breath catch somewhere between his lips and lungs—and if that smile did that to him every time, he'd be okay with that, too.  "Yes," she said, leaning up to kiss him softly, tenderly.  "I really, really do."

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur leaned back in his chair, dropping the report he had been trying to read for the last two hours.  It wasn't anything overly important, just an update on the Alberta province, but he still needed to read over it.

Too bad he had other things on his mind—things like a naked Jessa O'Shea, for one . . . She was out riding, which was good since he'd be sorely tempted to get her naked again if she was anywhere within reach.  She'd said that Devlin was going to go with her, and he figured that was safe enough.  Given that the man said that kissing her was like kissing a sister, Ashur wasn't overly concerned about him.

He really never should have slept with her because now that he had, the images that flashed through his mind were all-too-real—and all too inviting . . .

He sighed as the memory of her, astride him, her body encompassing him completely, flickered to glaring life before his eyes: her beautifully rounded breasts, rosy nipples that were the same shade as her lips, so proud, so gorgeous . . . head tilted to the side, eyes half closed as her gaze burned into his, her lips slightly parted, cheeks dusted with a flush of pure passion . . .

'You're really not going to get a damn thing done if you keep thinking about her,' his youkai-voice remarked dryly.

'I know it.  She's ruined me . . .'

'Stop being melodramatic, will you?  Now, as I see it, you've got two options: you can go find her and fuck her again—I'd be okay with this—or you can put her out of your mind for a few hours in hopes that you can actually get some work done.  Your call, big man.  Guess which of those I want to do . . .'

He snorted since his youkai was being particularly unhelpful at the moment.

'I can't believe she gave you head,' the annoying voice went on.  'Hana wouldn't even do that . . . Well, not after you were able to actually fuck her, that is, and you know that she really didn't like doing it much, even though you went down on her plenty . . .'

And that thought was like a dousing of ice cold water, as far as Ashur was concerned.  Reaching for the report once more, he figured he'd at least be able to concentrate for the moment, so maybe he should be thankful for that on some level, even if the statement was a little more than he could tolerate.

'I know; I know.  You hate to even think about Hana, but, like it or not, she was a huge part of our past, and you know that a small part of you really does miss her, too.'

That didn't deserve a response, either, as far as he was concerned.  Despite the fact that, yes, a part of him did miss Hana, every time he thought about her, it always ended up in the same place: of him, remembering how he'd held Kells for the first time, as their mother had died, that Hana had nearly cost him Kells' life, and all because of that . . .

The trill of his cell phone broke through his musings, and Ashur connected the call without bothering to check the caller ID, figuring any distraction was a good distraction at this point.

"Hello?"

"Ah, Ashur!  It's Thurston Margreave!  Just thought I'd check in, see how the lady likes Stardust?"

"Mr. Margreave, hi . . ."

The man laughed jovially.  "Thurston's fine, Ashur!"

"Uh, yes, okay," he replied.  "She loves him . . . I'll be happy to buy him from you, if the offer still stands."

"Absolutely!  We'll talk price when I get home, but since it's you, I'll cut you a deal."

"You don't have to," Ashur said.  "He's a very fine horse; even I can tell that, and I don't know much about them, so I’m more than happy to pay what he's worth."

"No worries!  We can discuss it when I get back . . . How's Laith working out for you?"

"Laith?  I like him.  He's done a lot of work around here—stuff that I haven't asked of him.  Says he likes to keep busy."

"He does, he does," Thurston replied.  "You know, if you're needing a master of stables, I'd be happy to recommend him.  Mine's been working for me for a long, long time, but Laith's quite capable.  Besides, he deserves the job, and he'd do well for you."

"You . . . You wouldn't mind?  I confess, I considered it, but I wasn't going to ask him since he's your employee."

Thurston laughed.  "I tell you honestly, he's probably the best man for the job.  He's worked for me for a few years now, and I've never had any problems with him.  He's a good, hard worker, and if he's interested, then I've got no complaints about letting him go.  Now, if it were someone else, maybe . . ."

Ashur chuckled.  "Thanks . . . I'll talk to him."

"All right!  Well, the little woman's wanting to drag me off to play bridge.  Let me know if Laith's interested!"

"I will," Ashur assured him.

The phone connection ended, and Ashur set it aside, his expression taking on a more serious look as he considered the idea of offering Laith the job.  It wasn't that he was against it, of course.  He just wondered if it was really all right to offer it to him when he already worked for Margreave.  Then again, Thurston did sound genuine when he said he wouldn't mind . . .

Maybe he'd ask Jessa.  After all, she knew more about the workings of the stable than he did, and, as far as he was concerned, the stables were her area, not his, anyway . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa grunted as she caught Ashur's arm and neatly flipped him over.  He landed with a heavy exhalation and stared up at her.  "Had enough for the day?" he asked without bothering to get back to his feet.

She laughed and shook her head.  "I'm rather enjoying myself," she quipped.  "Are you just going to lie there all day?"

"Thinking about it," he replied, holding up a hand to her.

"What the matter?  Getting tired of being thrown around by a girl?" she teased.

He chuckled and waved his hand at her.  She reached down to help him to his feet, but he yanked, catching her as she fell on him.  "You're supposed to fight back, Jessa," he murmured, his tone, soft, almost sing-song, as he held her tight against his body.

"Oh . . . okay . . ." she agreed, making no move at all to distance herself from him.  "How should I fight you?" she asked, smoothing his bangs off of his face with one hand while the other traced the outline of his lips with infinitely gentle fingers.

His chuckle took on a rather wicked lilt as he caught her hands and rolled, pinning her against the ground as his knee slipped between her legs.  She gave a half-hearted attempt to throw him off, bucking her body under his, and he groaned.  "That's not really convincing me to get off of you," he rumbled in her ear.

"Outside?  Here?" she murmured breathlessly.

"Here . . . there . . . wherever . . ." he replied, his lips falling to the pulse in her throat as her eyes drifted closed, and she sighed.  Somewhere in the back of her mind, common sense told her that she ought to stop him before anything went too far, before she completely lost herself in him.  Common sense, however, was a little too far away, especially against him, and she sighed again as pure sensation nudged aside the more pragmatic sound of the words of chiding that sounded entirely too much like her youkai-voice . . .

Ashur nuzzled against her, breathed in the scent of her, before he sighed, too, and finally leaned away for a moment before shoving himself off of her and back to his feet once more.  Then he scowled at her as he caught her hands and pulled her up.

"What's that look for?" she asked, arching her eyebrows high as she blinked at the absolute chagrin on his face.

"Horrible, what you've reduced me to," he complained, shaking his head for added emphasis.  "I feel no better than a cub who just discovered his own penis and what it can be used for," he grumbled.

She pressed her lips together in a thin line before she gave into the urge to laugh at him.  "Is that so?" she challenged mildly, turning away so that he couldn't discern her smile.

He snorted indelicately.  "It's not nearly as funny as you seem to think it is," he informed her.

She did manage not to laugh out loud.  It didn't help, though, when her shoulders were shaking uncontrollably.  "You're right.  It's not," she choked out.

Grabbing her from behind, he wrapped his arms around her, deliberately allowing one of his hands to brush over her breast, which effectively killed her amusement as she gasped and leaned against him, just that simply.  "So . . . what else can it be used for?" she asked, eyes drifting closed as he very deliberately closed a hand on her breast and gave it a good squeeze.

He sighed again, letting his hand fall to her waist.  "As much as I'd love to show you, Jessa, I'm expecting someone soon—unfortunately."

It took her a moment to get a handle on her rioting senses, wondering absently just how it was that he could set her blood to singeing in her veins with a simple look, a simple touch . . . "Who?" she asked, trying to convince herself that what her body wanted was not going to happen—easier said than done.

Her frustration must have come through in her voice, because he chuckled and leaned down to kiss her cheek.  "Later, Jessa, I promise," he told her.

She tried to shrug him off.  It didn't work, and he just chuckled some more.  "I think I'll go to bed early tonight—alone—with a good book . . ."

He took her pouting for what it was and laughed as he let his arms fall away from her and headed back toward the terrace.  "We'll see about that," he tossed over his shoulder.

If she had something in her hands, she might well have thrown it at him.  She didn't, unfortunately, so she uttered a very loud growl of frustration that also lit the torches lining the terrace.

Ashur glanced back and slowly shook his head, but his laughter did linger in the air well after he'd disappeared inside again.

'You'd do well to learn a wee bit of patience, Jessa,' her youkai-voice chided.

She wrinkled her nose, waving a hand to put out the torches.  'Patience  . . . Right . . .'

That was a lot easier said than done, given that there was something entirely addictive about Ashur Philips.  Besides, the last few days since they'd ended up in bed together had been absolutely magical in her estimation.  Making love until the wee hours of the morning, falling asleep in his arms, held against his heart, always with him, still deep inside her, always waking up to him, making love to her again . . . She savored those moments, those feelings of being in complete syncopation with him, and it was during those precious minutes that she'd felt like she wasn't entirely alone . . .

'Which you know is not really a good reason to sleep with someone,' her youkai-blood indelicately pointed out.

'And I don't hear you complaining at the time, either,' she retorted.

'Are you kidding?  That man . . . What he does with his penis?  Nope, no complaints, at all . . .'

Jessa snorted.  'See?'

Her youkai sighed.  'It's entirely beside the point, though.  For our kind, you know that sex was never intended just to be a sport, something you do when you're feeling lost and alone.  Jessa . . .'

'So, what?  I should just . . . just, what?  Lock myself in my bedroom, don't come out till morning?  Give up the first thing that's made me feel . . .'

'Go on, lass.  You can say it, you know.  It's still there, and it's still true, and you can't run from it, even if it comforts you for a little while.  Sooner or later, you're going to have to deal with it, and letting yourself rely on him, just for those few moments of comfort isn't going to help you in the end.'

'It's not like . . . like that,' she argued, wrapping her arms over her stomach as she turned, as she glared out over the horizon, over the fields and the paddocks and the great, wide expanse of emptiness.  'Ashur . . .'

'You cannot truly be with someone when you cannot face your own feelings, Jessa.'

Frowning at the truth in that statement, she sighed.  As much as she hated to admit, she could understand what the voice was telling her.  She didn't want to think about it, didn't want to drag it all back up to the surface, to face the rawness, the scars that hadn't yet truly healed at all . . . To be with someone—anyone—meant that she had to work through her own issues, didn't it?  Because if she didn't, just what would she really have to offer someone else, and Ashur . . .?

She flinched, knowing deep down, loathing the melancholy that surged through her as the realization came to her, creeping into her like a spreading virus, like something that you couldn't see until it was too late—until one was looking over the devastation that was left behind the silent assault.

Ashur . . . deserved more than that, didn't he?  Deserved someone who was whole, complete, and not broken beyond repair . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Trotting along beside Devlin as they skirted the edges of Ashur's property, Jessa frowned as she concentrated on the ground under Stardust's hooves.  There was a hint of rain in the air—a wild sort of feeling that only came just before a storm, and it occurred to her that they ought to head back, but she had the feeling that it wouldn't matter, that they wouldn't make it back before the clouds broke.  Besides, there was a certain electricity in it all, one that she could feel as a current of restless excitement surged through her.  Stardust felt it, too—she could feel him fairly quivering under her.  He was itching to run, but she held him back since she wasn't as sure about the landscape in this area as she wanted to be before allowing him to have his way.

"Are you going to melt if it starts to rain, Lady O'Shea?" Devlin asked, his tone a little drier than normal.

She snorted but grinned at him.  "Why?  Are you afraid of a little water, Dev?"

"Yes," he deadpanned.  "Took me all morning to do my hair, don't you know?  It'll be utterly ruined, and then I won't be able to do a thing with it."

She rolled her eyes.  "Are you gay?  I mean, I don't care if you are . . ."

He grunted, casting her a very dull look.  "No, I'm not," he muttered, kicking his horse a little faster.  "I mean, I am quite fond of my own man parts, but touching someone else's man parts just doesn't really appeal to me . . ."  He brightened suddenly, shot her a wicked grin.  "If I were, though, I might well be quite attracted to your Ashur . . ."

The mention of that name was enough to bring a wash of color to her cheeks as she ducked her chin and hoped that he didn't notice.

She should have known better.  "Oh, a blush?  Does that mean there's been more snogging?"

Her blush deepened as she quickly whipped her face to the side.

Devlin laughed, the ass, and then, he coughed indelicately.  "More than just, uh, snogging, perhaps?"

"Shut up," she muttered, willing her cheeks to cool.  It didn't work.

"Oh, come now, Jessa.  You can tell me," he cajoled.

She snorted.  "I'll set you on fire," she warned.

That threat only made him chuckle.  "And why would you do that when I'm so dead damn funny?"

"Because you're not," she growled.  "Anyway, I don't want to talk about . . . that . . . so, can we move on, please?"

His eyebrows lifted, disappearing beneath the thick fringe of his bangs.  "Oh, my God, there has been more than just snogging!"  Then he laughed, only to hold up his hands in defeat when she leveled a withering glower at him.  "All right; I get it.  No teasing.  Okay.  Just one question?"

She heaved a sigh, mostly because she figured that it wouldn't matter if she said no or not.  "What?"

He chuckled.  "Well, I figure that when you called to ask me to go riding with you that you had something on your mind, and since you've been up to doing more than snogging your Ashur, then I guess you've some kind of question about him, so I'll just cut to the chase and ask you what it is you're wanting my advice about?"

She flinched at the deadly accuracy of his roundabout question and sighed as the horses continued along the slight trail that had been tamped down a few times since Jessa had gotten Stardust.  "I just wondered, you know . . . I . . . I don't understand it.  It's like I cannot think clearly around him, and yet, I don't really know anything about him, either, so it can't be . . . be more . . . I feel like I don't really know him at all . . ."

"Do you have to know everything about him in order for him to be your mate?"  He blinked, smile fading at the confusion that surfaced on Jessa's face.  "He is your mate, isn't he?  I mean, I just assumed . . ."

"I . . . I don't know what he is to me."  She sighed again, brow furrowing as she shook her head, hair falling over the side of her face, hiding her from Devlin's view.  "I don't know what I am to him, either . . . I . . . I don't know anything . . ."

"Maybe," he agreed slowly, sounding just a little too casual in his reply.  "You don't strike me as the kind of woman to simply jump into the sack with just anybody."

She pushed her hair back over her shoulder as the first sprinkles of rain started to fall.  "Did your ma or da ever say what it was like, when they found each other?  My ma only ever really said that I'd know, that I wouldn't be able to help it, and—I'm not saying that Ashur . . . I mean to say, I don't know if . . ." She grimaced.  "There has to be something more to it, right?  Just having a . . . a physical attraction doesn't necessarily mean anything, does it . . .?"

He sighed.  "You're kind of asking the wrong person," he admitted, slowly shaking his head.  "My parents' marriage was arranged.   They've never been true mates in that sense.  Don't get me wrong.  They were very comfortable with one another—at least, until recently . . ."

"Really?"

He shrugged.  "Yeah, but they got married a long, long time ago, and arranged marriages were all the rage back then, or so I've been told . . ."

She detected the slight bitterness in his tone but didn't remark on it.  Too busy, pondering her own situation, she didn't give it much credence.  "I should have asked Ma more about it," she said.  "Whenever she started talking about it, I always told her that I didn't want the sordid details of her and Da's courtship . . ."

"And beating yourself up about it now isn't really going to help," Devlin pointed out gently.  "Listen, Jess, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, right?  And there's really nothing you can do about it now.  All you'll really accomplish is making yourself feel worse about the whole situation.  Your parents, unfortunately, are gone, and there's no way that you can make up for feeling as though you didn't take time to listen to them.  But dwelling on it wouldn't have made them happy, would it?  They'd hate to see you, wasting your time, wallowing in regret, don't you think?  Because they loved you, and when you love someone, you don't want to see them sad or upset or trying to live in the past . . ."

She sighed, pushing her rapidly dampening bangs out of her eyes as the rain fell a little harder, as a rumble of thunder echoed in the air.  "You're right," she allowed, however grudgingly.  "Sometimes I forget that . . ."

He chuckled.  "I'd make a damn fine big brother, wouldn't I?"

She started to laugh, but a sudden movement off to the right drew her up abruptly.  Stardust complained about the sudden stop as she swung off the horse and tossed the reins to Devlin.  She wasn't sure what it was, but she had to look.

"Jessa?" he called, swinging down off his horse, too.  He paused long enough to pat the animal before turning to see exactly what she was investigating.

As she cautiously stepped through the dense grass, she gasped as the movement came again, so rapid, so sudden, that it was hard to discern.  Devlin uttered a low sound, not exactly a gasp, almost more of a bird-type noise, carefully stepping past her as he quickly unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged it off.

It was a bird—a very large bird—but it wouldn't hold still long enough for Jessa to get a good look at it.  From the way it was floundering around, though, she could tell that it was injured.

Devlin crept up to it, managing not to spook it too much, and carefully dropped his shirt over it before carefully scooping it up, taking extra time to avoid the flailing talons.

"Poor thing," Jessa murmured, hunkering down beside him as he adjusted the shirt to get a better look at the bird's wing.  "What kind is it, do you know?"

He sighed.  "It's a golden eagle," he told her.  "And it's wing is mangled . . ."

She grimaced.  "Mangled?  It . . . It can't be fixed . . .?"

"I don't know," he said.  Adjusting the bird in his arms, he slowly stood.  "I'm going to take it home with me, see if I can help it," he said.  He managed to mount his horse while holding onto the bird, which was no small feat.  "Will you be all right?"

She nodded as she grasped Stardust's reins.  "I'll be fine," she told him.  "Let me know how it's doing!" she called after him as he kicked his horse into a gallop and waved over his shoulder.

 

 


 

 

 

Staring out the windows at the darkening sky, at the rain that fell in heavy sheets from the skies.  Nearly five in the evening, and Jessa still hadn't returned from her ride . . . She'd mentioned to him that she was taking Devlin along with her, so he'd figured that she was safe enough.  That was a few hours ago, though, and he was used to her ability to lose track of time while she was out on one of her jaunts, but with the rain coming down so heavily, he couldn't help the gnawing worry that ate at him.

Turning on his heel, he stalked through the living room, pausing just long enough to grab a jacket out of the walk-in closet in the foyer before striding over to the door and yanking it open.  Scowling at the skies as he stepped off the porch and tried to locate her scent, he heaved a heavy sigh in abject frustration.  The wind was blowing just a little too hard to make her scent discernable, and the rain that pelted down seemed to be coming from every conceivable direction.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he willed away the grim emotion that clouded rational thought, concentrated on the vision of her, of her face, extending his youki . . .

Eyes snapping open, he broke into a sprint, heading toward the western boundary of the estate without stopping to question it, without wondering how it was that he knew.

Rounding a thickly overgrown hedge that stood a good twelve feet tall, he slid to a stop when his eyes lit on her.  She held onto Stardust's reins, simply wandering along as though it weren't raining at all.   She was soaked to the skin, her clothing molded to her body—check that.  The dark grey riding breeches already fit her like a second skin above the knee-high leather boots, but the white cotton knit shirt was plastered to her, and if it weren't for her bra, it would have been almost entirely translucent . . .

"Jessa, where the hell have you been?" he demanded, striding over to her, planting himself directly in her path as she stopped.

The look she gave him was impossible to interpret, almost a cross of belligerence with a hint of wariness tossed into the mix.  Whatever it was, it lent her gaze an incandescent glow, a dazzling wash of crimson over midnight as she blinked slowly.  "I was riding," she told him in a tone that indicated that he should have known the answer to that particular question already.

He snorted.  "Yeah? And didn't you say that you were going with that friend of yours?  Devlin?"

She waved a hand, as though the entire discussion were moot.  "We found an injured bird—an eagle, he said—and he took it home to try to help it."  She sighed and stared at him.  "I was on my way home, Ashur, and—"

"Walking?"

She made a face.  "I can't ride him in this.  Mud's dangerous, you realize.  If he were to hurt himself because I was in a rush to get in out of the rain, I'd never forgive myself."

Snapping his mouth closed as he tried to grind down the swell of irritation, he heaved a sigh and stepped aside to allow her to keep walking.  "I don't want you out by yourself, even here," he reminded her.

"I know, and I'm sorry," she told him.  She didn't say anything as they headed back the way he'd come.  Slowly, his irritation was ebbing away.  Glancing at Jessa, he shook his head when he noticed just how wet she actually was.  Hair, plastered to her scalp, hanging in drenched clumps, she pretty well seemed like she did right after she'd stepped out of the shower, only fully clothed, and yet, she'd never seemed quite as beautiful, quite as radiant, as she did at that moment, either.

'She's something, isn't she?  But you know, Kyouhei, you've got to be careful.  Something as rare, as precious, as she is . . . It'd be way too easy to let her slip through your fingers . . .'

Scowling at the strange undercurrent, the warning, in his youkai's words, he shrugged off his jacket and dropped it over her shoulders.  She turned her head, peered up at him, and suddenly, she laughed.

"Something funny?" he asked when she kept giggling.

She waved a hand, fighting back her amusement.  It took another minute for her to get herself under control enough to speak.  "It's just that I'm already drenched to the bone, and you're being chivalrous, giving me your thoroughly drenched jacket," she giggled.

He rolled his eyes, taking the reins of the horse as he gestured at the house.  "Go get dried off.  I'll take him to the stable."

She didn't argue with him, and her laughter lingered in the air as she walked away.

Stardust stomped the ground, danced around almost nervously, feeling the electric crackle in the air seconds before a rumble of thunder, a flash of lightning.  "Easy, easy," Ashur said, stopping long enough to give the beast a reassuring pat before leading him toward the stable.  He was doing a good job, holding it together, even though Ashur could easily feel Stardust's raw nerves.  By the time he reached the stables, Stardust was pawing the ground, tossing his head, basically seeming entirely agitated as Laith hurried over to take him.

"There now," he said in a very soothing tone.  "Come on, let's get you settled down . . ."

"Thanks," Ashur remarked, letting out a deep breath.  "He was fine until I sent Jessa in the house to dry off . . ."

Laith nodded.  "Not surprising," he remarked.  "He's really taken a liking to her."

That didn't really surprise Ashur, either.  He had a feeling that she simply had a way with those horses, didn't she?

"Oh, uh . . . I've been meaning to talk to you.  I wondered if you'd be interested in being master of stables here?  I'm sure Jessa will want more horses, and Thurston said he'd recommend you for the job."

Laith seemed taken aback as he took his time, putting Stardust in his stall before wiping him down with clean, dry towels.  "He did?"

"Said he'd be happy to let you go if you wanted to take a job here.  He said that you're more than qualified to take the position if you want it."  Ashur turned to go, stopping just before he stepped out into the rain once more.  "Think about it and let me know."

"Okay," Laith said, dropping the wet towel and reaching for another.  "I'd like that . . . Might be fun to help grow your stable."

Ashur smiled just a little, and he stepped back out, into the rain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The soft clink of crystal echoed in the quiet living room.  Placing the stopper back into the brandy decanter, Ashur let out a deep breath, a heavy sigh, as his clothing, his hair—pretty much everything—dripped water all over the expensive Turkish rug.

He felt Jessa's aura as she slipped into the living room behind him.  He didn't turn to look at her as he casually sipped the drink.  Common sense told him that he needed to get out of his wet clothing, but he wasn't in a hurry, despite the rather unpleasant way it clung to him.

She said nothing as she slipped past him, pausing long enough to raise a fire on the hearth with little more than a wave of her hand.  The nonchalance with which she accomplished the task brought a vague smile to his lips as he drained the snifter and set it down while she shook out a towel and held it up to the flames, warming it, he supposed, as she slowly turned it from front to back a few times.

She'd changed into a thick, fluffy white robe that almost brushed the floor, her hair still damp but a lot drier than it had been, and when she turned back to face him, he caught himself staring, watching intently as her knees broke through the long slit up the front, baring a demure show of her legs with every step she took.  The somewhat bulky top was crossed over, held closed by the belt at her waist, and even so, the neckline slipped to the side, giving him a very welcome glimpse of her smooth shoulder, of the delicately pronounced collar bones, of the swell of her breasts . . .

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized that he was watching her with the same sort of youthful desperation that he'd thought he'd left behind a lifetime or longer ago, and yet, he couldn’t quite stop himself, either.  About the only saving grace of the entire situation was that Jessa herself didn't seem to notice.  So intent she was, as she shook out the towel again, too focused on her own intentions as she slipped behind him, as she tossed the towel over his head, as she grasped the length of his hair in her hands, using the towel to dry the water from it with her gentle ministrations.  She reached up under the towel, using her claw to cut through the band that held his hair in the low hanging ponytail that he usually wore.

She said nothing as she dried his hair, as she gently pulled back the collar of his sodden shirt to pat his neck with the now-dampened towel.  Then she stepped around him, paying him no real attention as she set to work, unbuttoning the shirt, her darkened gaze fixed upon her self-appointed task.  It was on the tip of his tongue, to tell her that he could manage, but the expression on her face stopped him, stilled him.  The vague little hint of a smile that touched the tenderness of her lips, the way her eyes took on a warmth that had very little to do with the dancing fire . . . It was as though some part of her was relishing the base task of seeing to his needs, and something about that warmed him, far more than the fire could . . .

'When's the last time that anyone has bothered . . .?' he wondered.  'How long has it been since someone's wanted to . . . to take care of . . . me . . .?'

She gently pushed his shirt off of his shoulders, stepping around to tug the clingy garment off of him.  Then she smiled just slightly as she hurried out of the room again, probably to discard his shirt in the laundry room.  She returned a few minutes later with his robe slung over her arm—he had forgotten that he had one since he never actually wore it—and a small tray with cheese and a crusty loaf of bread, neatly cut and arranged in a small basket.  She left the tray on the coffee table before shaking out his robe, repeating the process of warming it, front and back.

He let her help him put it on, simply stood still as she pulled it closed, tied the belt around him.  Then she frowned thoughtfully, as though she couldn't quite make up her mind.  Finally, though, she reached through the folds of the robe and unfastened his pants, her hands warm, almost comforting, highly enthralling, as she slipped them down over his hips, down his legs, managing only a slight flush as she waited for him to step out of them and for his soggy socks before hurrying out of the room with those, too.

He chuckled softly, watching her exit, wondering in a rather distracted kind of way if she was as naked under her robe as he was . . .

Heaving a sigh—this one, a lot more indulgent than the earlier one had been—he retrieved a bottle of wine from the cooler in the wetbar and uncorked it, letting it breathe for a minute as he grabbed a couple of wine goblets and headed over to the sofa.

She padded back into the living room, slipping around the sofa to finish toweling his hair dry, her fingers massaging his scalp in an entirely welcome sort of way.  She took her time, obviously enjoying the idea that her care was something he allowed, even savored . . .

 

"'Down by the salley gardens,
'My love and I did meet;
'She passed the salley gardens,
'With little snow-white feet.
'She bid me take love easy,
'As the leaves grow on the tree;
'But I, being young and foolish,
'with her did not agree

"'In a field by the river,
'My love and I did stand,
'And on my leaning shoulder,
'She laid her snow-white hand.
'She bid me take life easy,
'As the grass grows on the weirs;
'But I was young and foolish,
'And now am full of tears …'"

 

As her song ended, Ashur turned, caught her hand as he pulled away the towel and dropped it on the floor.  "You sing to me?" he said quietly, tugging her into his lap, tucking her against his shoulder, stroking her hair with a gentle hand.

She didn't laugh, but the sound that she uttered was close.  "My da used to sing that to me every night before bed," she told him, her voice soft, a little sad, mostly amused.  "Didn't your ma and da sing to you?"

"N . . . No," he said, watching her hand as she reached up, as she twirled a strand of his hair around her finger.  "They didn't . . ." He shrugged, as though it were of no real consequence.  "My parents . . . were nothing like yours," he admitted.

She digested that for a minute, her brow furrowed as she contemplated what he'd said.  In a way, he regretted saying as much as he had, and yet, somehow, it felt right that he would tell her that much.  "You don't talk about them," she ventured, inflicting just enough nonchalance that he knew that she was trying to not dig too deeply, and, while he appreciated it, he also had to wonder if he didn't owe her some small explanation.  "Is that why you adopted Kells?"

Gritting his teeth as the inevitable tableaux played through his head at warp speed, he reminded himself that it was Jessa, that she really didn't know, that maybe . . . Even so, he had to clear his throat, had to literally tamp down the surge of irrational anger, and he sighed.  "Otou-san died before Kells was born.  Okaa-san died just . . . just after . . ."

She frowned at the terms she didn't understand.  "Otou-san?  Okaa-san?"

"Uh, Father," he said.  "He died first.  Okaa-san—Mother—she died after Kells was born."

"I'm so sorry," she breathed, snuggling closer to him, as though she were trying to comfort him, which was entirely laughable, if he stopped to think about it.  Comfort him . . .?  When he'd played at least a part in the whole thing?  Maybe he wasn't directly responsible, but the truth was that he certainly shared in the guilt when there was more than enough to spread around . . .

And maybe it was that lingering guilt that prompted him to sigh, to slowly shake his head.  "They . . . They weren't nice people, Jessa," he told her quietly, the unmistakable hostility in his tone tempered by an underlying regret—regret that things had ultimately ended up the way they had—regret that he hadn't been able to do a thing, but watch the debacle as it had unfolded . . . "They're . . . They're dead because of . . . of me," he went on.

She leaned away, frowned up at him, shaking her head as she searched his face for some hint of what he was trying to say.  "Is that what you think?" she asked, the incredulity in her tone, unmistakable.

He shook his head, his gaze falling away as he gently, firmly pulled her hands down, as he set her aside and stood up.  "It's the truth," he said, turning away, unable to look her in the eye, to see her expression turn to one of abject disgust—or worse: one of blind faith, even compassion—as though he really merited her compassion.  He didn't want it.  He didn't deserve it, and Jessa . . .

"I haven't known you very long," she said.  From the sound of her voice, he could tell that she was still on the sofa, and that was fine.  "But I've known you long enough to understand that you're a good man—a decent man, Ashur Philips . . . and whatever it was that happened . . . Are you sure that it really belongs to you?"

He sighed.  "Can we . . .?  Can we drop it?" he asked.  He didn't want to hear her assessment, didn't want her to praise him when all he could see in the scope of his head was the blood, the hateful, horrifying blood, and all he could hear was the echo of a crying infant . . .

"All right," she allowed with a soft sigh of her own.  When he finally glanced over his shoulder at her, it was to see her, sitting with her knees drawn up, poking out of the confines of her robe as she stared absently at the floor, as she twisted her hair over and over again.

Closing his eyes, he made himself draw a few deep breaths, willing away the dark emotions that always surfaced when he delved too deeply into that particular part of his life.  She was curious, and he could understand that, he supposed, even if he wished that she'd just leave that alone.  After taking a few minutes to compose himself a little more, he wandered back over, took his time, pouring wine into the glasses before handing one to her and cutting off a small slice of cheese to offer her.

 

 


 

 

 

It was late.

He didn't know how late; he hadn't looked at the clock in awhile.  He just knew that it was one of those nights when he couldn't sleep.  There was no real reason for it, no real meaning behind it.  It just happened every once in awhile, that he would lie there in bed, listening to her sleep, watching her with a vague smile on his face as the silent house seemed to exist in perfect harmony with her, and it was in those moments that he realized, as he had so many times, and would again, he was sure, just what a lucky bastard he truly was—something he'd known for years—something he never wanted to forget.

Even so, as the minutes dragged into hours, as the house around him settled into the same welcome cadence that he loved, he'd decided to get up, to retire to his office because if he stayed with her in bed, he'd end up waking her, which would be entirely selfish, given that the triplets had been up way too late the night before, and he knew damn well that she was exhausted . . .

Letting out a deep breath as he read through a hunt recommendation, Cain rubbed his temple, hesitating, just like always, before reaching for his stamp—his official seal—that would formally approve the request.

The sudden and shattering sound of the telephone startled Cain, and he jumped as he grabbed the handset before it could ring a second time.  This particular line wouldn't ring anywhere else in the house, but the overly harsh sound of it in the quiet was enough to make him grit his teeth as he lifted the receiver to his ear.  "Zelig," he said, his tone a bit harsher than usual.

"I'm returning your call."

It took a moment for Cain to place the voice, but the very thick Scottish brogue helped.  "MacDonnough, good of you to call me back, given that I called you . . . over a week ago?"

"I'm a busy man, Zelig.  Unlike some tai-youkai, I do not rely upon others to take care of my jurisdiction . . . What do you want?"

Cain grunted, ignoring the intentional slight.  "It was brought to my attention that the accident report regarding Orlaith Daugherty-O'Shea is incomplete, so I thought I'd ask you about it."

"O'Shea," MacDonnough repeated.  "She's no concern of yours."

"She is when her daughter is in my jurisdiction.  She is when I'm approving her request for amnesty."

"Her daughter has petitioned you for amnesty?"

"No, she hasn't.  Her cousin did, though, and her cousin has the right, given that she arrived before her eighteenth birthday—and given that you've dragged your feet in releasing her estate from escrow.  Since both her parents died, the entirety of the estate should have been released to her weeks ago.  Tell me what the holdup is."

He could tell from the pregnant silence that MacDonnough was very likely close to snapping.  Cain didn't really care.  "Her father left no will," MacDonnough replied in a very clipped done of voice.  "Her estate will remain in escrow until such time that she marries, and then the entirely of it will be released to her husband."

"But I hear that there is a will," Cain replied just as smoothly, "and I hear that you have it."

"You heard wrong."

"Did I?"

"What could I possibly have to gain by lying about it?" MacDonnough scoffed.

Cain chuckled rather nastily.  "What, indeed, Ian?  Unless you wanted to hand her over like a sacrificial lamb to one of your men?  Maybe someone you think is loyal to you and you alone?  Sound about right?"

Ian chuckled just as nastily in rebuttal.  "Delusional, as always, Zelig," he replied dryly.  "Do not presume to tell me how to do things in my jurisdiction.  In fact, why don't you have the girl give my office a call so we can discuss the matter directly."

"I don't think so," Cain replied.  "She's given me permission to speak to you on her behalf.  There's reason to believe that you're a little too interested in where, exactly, she is.  In any case, why don't you tell me where the results are of the vehicle safety check are since Orlaith O'Shea had that done less than a week before her . . . accident . . .?"

"I have no control over what is or isn't in the report, Zelig.  Surely you know this."

"Actually, the only thing I know is that those safety reports must be filed every six months, and failure to file one results in suspension of the car's registration, and since there was no registration violation on file with the authorities, it means that the report was filed.  I also know it's standard practice to include a copy of that report in any accident report, too, which means that this one is missing.  I want to know where it is, and I want to see it as soon as possible."

Ian grunted.  "You're overstepping yourself, Zelig.  Best you back off."

"Release her estate, and I will," Cain replied just as easily.

He was backed into a corner, and he knew it.  Unfortunately, Ian MacDonnough never was one for stepping away from a blatant challenge.  "I owe you nothing in the way of explanation," he growled.  "And if that's all you wanted, then you've wasted your time."

He hung up, and Cain sighed as he dropped the receiver into the cradle and sat back.

"Okay," he muttered, reaching for the phone again.  Knowing that ass, he thought that he'd had the last word, but Cain would be damned if he was ready to let it go, all things considered.  A young woman's life was quite literally on the line, and there was no way he was going to let her down . . . "Time to call your bluff . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

"They're . . . They're dead because of . . . of me . . ."

Jessa frowned, staring at the same page of the book she'd been looking at for the last hour while Ashur went over some paperwork that he said couldn't wait.  Leaning against the arm of the sofa with her feet up, she peered over the top of the book without lifting her head, trying to make sense of what he'd said.

It didn't make any sense.  Ashur . . . He was a lot of things, and she was slowly coming to understand some of the aspects of his nature that she hadn't really been able to before, but it seemed like she had a thousand more questions for every one answer she received . . .

Yet she knew, didn't she?  No matter what he thought, she did know.  He was decent, and he was kind.  He certainly wasn't the type of person who could have or would have done anything to hurt his family, at least, not intentionally . . .

'You don't really know that, do you?  I mean, there are so many things that could have happened—things you know nothing about, Jessa.  There could be something to what he's saying.  He believes it, and that's the most important thing.'

'No, he wouldn't . . . Ashur wouldn't . . .'

Her youkai chuckled.  'An awful lot of faith you have in him, don't you?  Not that that's a bad thing.  It isn't.  The question is . . . what are you going to do for him now?'

'Do for him . . . now . . .?'

'You saw for yourself, just how much your questions bothered him.  He answered them, for the most part, but you don't honestly think that he's okay now, do you?'

Scowling as he read through some sort of report, Ashur leaned forward, grabbed his wine goblet without looking up, but he didn't lift it to his lips right away, and Jessa sat up, let the book drop to the floor as she scooted over to him, took the glass from his hand.

He turned his head slightly, raising an eyebrow as he watched her lift the glass to her lips, as she took a deep drink and set the glass on the table before reaching out, taking his paperwork, letting it fall on the floor, too.

"What are you doing?" he asked, sounding a little more indulgent than irritated, turning slightly when she crawled onto his lap. 

She smiled just a little as she pulled him down for a kiss, as she rose up on her knees, grasping his face in her hands.  He opened his lips under hers, and she sighed, letting the wine in her mouth flow into his.  He groaned softly.  She could feel him swallow just before the crush of his kiss deepened, as his tongue flicked against her lips . . .

He tugged at the belt of her robe, and it fell open.  He pushed it off her shoulders, down her arms, baring her skin for his touch: the drag of his fingers on her shoulders, on her back, the gentle scrape of his claws over the rises and hollows of her flesh.  She leaned against him, whimpering softly at way his robe chafed against her overly sensitive nipples.  Her flesh felt as though it were on fire—or that he was the fire, and she was just a little too close, and yet, not nearly close enough . . . He slipped his hands under her bottom, pulling her flush against him, lifting her slightly as her head fell back, as his mouth fell on her throat, savoring the taste of her: suckling, nuzzling, breathing her in deep . . .

Squeezing her ass, he took his time, massaging her flesh in slow circles as she slipped her hands beneath his robe, as she held onto his shoulders, as though she'd disintegrate if she let go.  Every nerve in her body centered on him, on his touch, on the things that he made her feel, and if she could just get closer—just a little closer . . .

He shifted slightly, wrapped his arms around her, lowered her down onto the sofa, kissing her collarbones, her throat, the rise of her breasts, moving his body against hers, creating a friction, a heat that shot through her, straight to the part of her that ached for him, for the sense of utter completion that she knew he'd give her.  Lavishing kisses on her breasts, sucking her nipples in deep as his tongue smoothed over her, teasing her body as she arched her back, as she struggled to breathe, he slipped a finger deep into quivering body, chuckling against her as she gasped, as she writhed, as she opened herself completely to him . . .

He arched up away from her, long enough to untie his robe, to shrug it off.  It fell onto the floor, held on by only the one arm, but he pulled his finger out of her, eliciting a whine of protest from her, shaking off the robe before turning his attention back to her again.  "Did you bring down a condom?" he asked her.

She blinked a few times, struggling to clear her head despite the lust that ran rampant through her body.  As though in a daze, she nodded.  "In my robe . . ." she replied breathlessly.

He reached over to snag her robe, fumbling around until he located the condoms she'd slipped into the pocket.  Dropping them on the table, he let his gaze rake over her.  Her skin flushed under his very blatant perusal, and she brought her knees together in an almost embarrassed sort of way.

He chuckled again as he slipped his hands under her knees and gently tugged them apart, and she couldn't help the way her breath hitched as he stared at her in utter fascination.  "Damn," he breathed,  his voice as unsteady as she felt inside.  He reached out slowly, dragged one finger up through the pulsing divide, set off an explosion inside her as she reared up, as she uttered a guttural moan, as she shivered and shook . . .

The spasms of pleasure that rocked through her lengthened, intensified.  Something warm, something wet, plunged into her, lapped at her, shoved her over that precarious precipice once more as she half-cried, half moaned again and again.  So concentrated, so close to pleasure that it bordered on pain as she opened her eyes long enough to understand that he was kneeling there, between her legs, tasting her in long, deep strokes of his tongue.  The intensity wrung his name from her lips as she tossed and writhed, unsure if she were trying to move closer or if she were trying to get away, and he was relentless, unfazed by her sweet torment, as she begged him over and over again . . .

Closing his lips over the part of her that triggered her passion, he kissed her deeply, flicking his tongue, faster and faster as she screamed, as she jerked, as the world exploded around her one more time, just once more . . .

And she was still reeling from the intensity of her release, heard the crinkle of the condom packet in a dazed and distant sort of way, dizzy from the waves of pleasure that still coursed through her when he plunged into her, when he slammed himself in so deep, so hard, that she screamed again as the pleasure overcame her once more.  He slipped his arms under her, lifted her up as he fell back, leaving her straddling him as she furiously ground her body against his, time and again, as that heat, as that friction built once more.  He groaned under her, he moaned harshly between his own stunted breaths, his hands closing on her hips, driving her down hard, over and over again.  She fell back, caught herself on her hands, braced on his thighs, rising and falling as he lifted his hips, meeting her thrusts with his body.  Yanking her down hard, time after time, she could feel the pressure building, could feel the thickening of his cock so deep inside her, and with one last thrust, one last crack of her body meeting his, he lifted his hips once more, jerked her down against him, calling out her name as he twitched and pulsed in her, as she careened over the edge into the vale of bliss, convulsing around him, with him, for him . . .

She fell forward against his chest, and he caught her, wrapping her tightly in his arms.  The wild and unsteady beats of their hearts in perfect symmetry with each other.  He kissed her forehead, groaning softly, as they both slowly drifted back down to earth . . .

"Ashur?" she whispered, eyes closed as she reveled in the feeling of being so very near him, listening to the sound of his beating heart.

"Hmm?"

She sighed, snuggling against him, wishing in vain that it could would stay like this forever.  "Don't . . . Don't let me go . . ."

He sighed softly, gently, stirring her bangs as he tightened his hold on her.  "I won't," he said, his voice thick, sleepy.  "I . . . I won't . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ashur yawned, leaning on his elbow, head propped on his fist, smiling slightly as he watched Jessa sleep.  Hair in a tangle, falling around her like a fiery cloud, skin glowing in the hazy and thin light of the burgeoning dawn that spilled through the window, she shivered just a little, and he pulled the blanket up over her shoulder as she huddled closer to him, burying her face against his chest.

Just what the hell was he doing?

Letting out a deep breath as his smile shifted into a thoughtful frown, he heard the voice in the back of his head: the one that told him he really needed to stop giving in, to stop taking advantage of what she readily offered.  It was a dangerous territory he was treading, and he knew it.  The thing was, he simply couldn't stop himself, not when she was within kissing distance . . .

Still, he couldn’t quite shake the thought that plagued him when she wasn't right in front of him: the base knowledge that he really wasn't good for her, not in the way that she needed.  She was rare, special, beautiful, and he . . .

He had a terrible habit of ruining people, didn't he?

'If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, Kyouhei: what happened with your parents . . . That was inevitable, you realize.  They were wrong—dead wrong—and what happened was a direct result of their choices, not yours.  You did what you felt was right, and you know that if you had to do it all over again, you wouldn't change any of that . . . And Hana?  How would you ever have thought that she'd do what she did?  None of that is on you.  Why do you insist upon keeping it?'

He grimaced.  He'd wondered that so many times, hadn't he?  Wondered . . . Had he not gone to Ben, had he kept what he knew to himself . . . But then, if he hadn't spoken up, if he hadn't stepped forward when he did, who knew what the ultimate cost would have been, and, in the end, he'd have been just as guilty as his parents, and he knew that, too.

It didn't really help him to sleep at night, though.

Staring at Jessa's face for another minute, he leaned down, kissed her temple, and slipped out of bed, careful not to let too much air under the blankets.  She stirred  just a little, a tiny scowl surfacing at the loss of his warmth, he figured.  Still, he smiled—no more than a slight upturn to his lips—and headed into the bathroom for a shower.

'So, what do you think you're going to do?  It's a little too late to try to step away from her now, anyway, and if you tried, you know you'd hurt her.  Even if you tried to say that it was for her own good, she'd never understand that . . . Besides, you're missing the bigger picture here.'

Snorting indelicately as he stepped under the shower flow, Ashur shook his head as he closed his eyes to wet down his hair.  'What bigger picture?'

His youkai chuckled rather nastily.  'If you tried to back away from her now, do you honestly think you could stand to see someone else step in to take your place?'

'That won't happen.'

'The hell it wouldn't.  If you let go of her, you think that it wouldn't just be a matter of time before she found someone else?  Someone who'd be more than willing to do what you do for her?'

'That's ridiculous.'

'So you say.  Tell me why you're growling then.'

Ashur blinked as the growl that he didn't know he was making cut off abruptly, and he sighed as a pair of arms snaked around his waist, as a warm body pressed against his back.  "Did I wake you?"

Jessa shook her head as she let her arms drop away, then shrugged.  "No . . . Maybe . . . I guess so . . ."

He chuckled at her sleepy reply, stepping back to allow her to stand under the warmth of the flowing tap.  "This might be a bad idea . . . You're not going to drown, are you?"

She waved him off, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand.  "I'm awake," she told him, sounding anything but.  Then she slipped her arms around his waist again, content to close her eyes as she snuggled against his chest.

"This is kind of awkward," he pointed out after kissing her forehead.

"Mm . . . Why are you up so early?" she asked, ignoring his hint.

"I couldn’t sleep," he said.

"Oh?  You could have woke me up, if you were still wanting to do that . . ."

He chuckled.  "I have trouble falling asleep when you're snoring," he told her.

Her arms dropped away almost instantly as she leaned back and shot him a quelling look.  "I don't snore!"

He nodded.  "You do.  Don't worry.  Most nights, it's just a low snore, but when you drink wine?  It's a lot louder."

She looked entirely chagrined.  "I don't snore!" she insisted again.

He shrugged and shot her an apologetic kind of look as he reached for the shampoo and squeezed a glob into his hand.  "Okay," he said, in what could only be described as an entirely indulgent tone of voice, "you don't snore."

She snorted.

"You just breathe really loudly . . . through your nose."

Her adorable face wrinkled up into a very irritated scowl as she smacked him in the chest with a sopping wet washcloth.  He laughed.  She snorted again.

"It's only bad when you drink wine, I swear," he told her.

She started to step out of the shower.  He caught her with a soapy hand and tugged her back, taking his time as he lathered her hair.  She uttered a terse little, 'hrmph', but allowed him to wash her hair.  He'd figured out in the last couple weeks that she really seemed to enjoy it when he did this for her, and, given that he had a weird fixation on her hair, he didn't mind it, either.

"Kells will be home in a couple days," she mused.

"He will," Ashur agreed.  Truth be told, he missed the child terribly.

"What . . . What will we do when he's back?"

He stopped for a second as he considered her question.  He hadn't actually thought about that.  "I could just . . . come visit you at night," he mused.  "I mean, Kells normally doesn't get into bed with me until nearly morning . . ."

He could tell by the way her back stiffened, by the way her youki suddenly pulled in tight around her that she hadn't liked his answer.  "Y . . .Yeah," she said.  "I guess . . . I mean, he's too young to . . . to understand . . ."

Taking his time as he rinsed her hair, he frowned, hating the idea that he'd upset her, even if she did understand the logic in it.  "Jessa, you know that I wouldn't . . . I wouldn't ask that of you if Kells—"

"I know," she interrupted.  "You're right . . . Kells is more important.  He's just a little boy . . ."

He grimaced inwardly at the smile she gave him.  It was bright enough to fool most people, maybe . . . But he was looking into her eyes, wasn't he?  And he didn't miss the flash of pain that she'd tried to hide.  Sure, she understood.  That didn't mean that it didn't sting . . .

He sighed.  He'd just have to find a way to make it up to her, he supposed—find a way to make her see just how special she was to him . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Bas Zelig stood in the beautiful but very cold foyer of the ancient castle, bracing himself for the altercation that he was positive would be anything but cordial.  After the phone call he'd gotten from his father just a few days ago to catch him up on the situation, he couldn't help but wonder just how well he was going to be received.  He was sure that it wasn't going to be pleasant, but the fact that Cain had sent him was telling.  It only meant that Cain was almost past his tolerance level—something that rarely happened, ever.

A very pronounced throat-clearing drew his attention, and Bas turned on his heel to face the old weasel-youkai butler.  "Lord MacDonnough will see you now," he said, managing to look entirely offended by Bas' very presence as he bowed in a mocking show of deference to the future North American tai-youkai.

Seeing no way around it, Bas followed the man down the long hallway.  As they passed a room with glass doors that were closed, he caught a fleeting glimpse of a young girl—no more than perhaps seventeen or eighteen—sitting at a piano, playing a somewhat haunting melody.  He didn't see her face, but he saw the long, chestnut brown hair, the girl's profile.  It was her—Meara's sister—had to be, but he didn't have time to think about it too much as the door almost directly across the hallway swung open, as the butler gestured for Bas to enter.

MacDonnough stepped out of the door on the far side of the opulent office, chestnut brown hair catching the miserly light that siphoned through the bank of windows off to the side.  Cold gray eyes rose to lock with his, an understated loathing—not surprising, considering how well-documented the idea that MacDonnough hated hanyou, humans, and Bas in particular, he figured . . . "What do you want, son of the Zelig?" MacDonnough demanded without preamble and without offering Bas even a semblance of pleasantries that should have been forthcoming.

Bas crossed his arms over his chest, ignoring the heavy drag of Triumvirate on his hip.  "The North American tai-youkai sent me to retrieve the report that is missing from the accident file—and to secure the release of Jessamyn O'Shea's estate."

Ian's chuckle was downright nasty, fully of utter contempt, of barely contained loathing.  "I shall tell you what I told him: everything in that report is everything I was given.  As for the girl's estate?  She is one of my natives.  He has no right to demand a thing."

Bas nodded slowly, refusing to stoop to the level of showing the man his own derision for what he was, for what he stood for.  "I'm sure that you were made aware that she is being granted amnesty—and I'm sure you're well aware that, as a condition of that, you are required by our laws to relinquish your hold on her estate.  Since the Zelig assume responsibility for her from  here on out, all things that are currently in dispute fall to him to make any ultimate judgment calls at her behest."  Letting his arms drop, he cocked his head to the side, leveled a no-nonsense look at the European tai-youkai.  "The game's up, MacDonnough.  I'll take all records of her holdings, all statements as to her accounts being held in escrow . . ."

MacDonnough looked angry enough to lash out, but he managed to keep his temper in check.  "She is betrothed to one of my men," he bit out.  "It's a contract almost as binding as blood already.  The actual mating is a mere formality, and since the girl's father left no will, no directives, then her estate is not hers any longer—it belongs to her future husband and mate.  The Zelig cannot touch it, and I suggest that you tell me where you're hiding her."

"The only betrothal that she was offered, her father declined it on her behalf," Bas reminded Ian in a calm, even tone of voice.

"Incidentals—not that it's any of your concern.  The girl will marry Duke Portsmouth's son, and that's that."  He shot Bas a very nasty, very insincere grin.  "In this region, my people do not ignore my edicts.  It's the right of the tai-youkai."

"You can shove your rights right up your ass, MacDonnough.  Should your man set foot in North America—should he come anywhere near Jessamyn O'Shea?  Then he'd be taking his life into his own hands.  We will not force a girl into a mating she doesn't want—not for you, not for your office, and not in our jurisdiction."

"You have no right to stop it," he growled.

Bas snorted indelicately.  "I'll say it once more, you old bastard.  Your stance doesn't hold water, MacDonnough, and should you think to send your man over, to have him find her and force the issue?  Rape is not something that we will tolerate.  You understand, don't you . . .?  After all, we live in the twenty-first century over there . . ."

Ian snorted, stalking past Bas, and over to the wetbar where he sloshed a good amount of gin and tonic water into a glass, entirely ignoring Bas as he slugged it down and slammed the glass onto the counter once more.  "No, you are the one who doesn't understand.  This is my jurisdiction!  In this place, my word is the beginning and the end.  Your threats don't concern me.  Now, get out of here before I am forced to make an example of you."

"I'd like to see you try," Bas scoffed, his voice dropping in volume as he gritted his teeth together and glowered at the youkai.  "I'm not leaving your jurisdiction until I get what I came for."

"Then might I suggest that you make yourself right at home?  Because I will not turn over her holdings—not to your father or to anyone else—except her future mate."

"Do you think that's wise?  Would you really make this big of a fuss over a girl's inheritance?  What's in it for you?"

"There is nothing in it for me," MacDonnough scoffed.

"Is that right?  So, you're not just trying to strengthen your position in any way  you see fit, even if it goes against everything that youkai are taught—everything that we believe?"

"You are no youkai," MacDonnough spit out, narrowing his cold gaze on Bas, making no bones about his absolute loathing of everything that Bas was—and everything he was not.  "You dare to try to lecture me?"

"No, I don't," Bas replied in kind.  "And you're right: I'm nothing at all like you.  I wouldn't ever presume to try to dictate people's lives for my own gain.  That's something only someone like you would try to do."

"You know nothing," Ian growled.  "Now, be gone from here.  We have nothing further to discuss."

"Then we're at an impasse . . ." Bas nodded slowly.  "All right . . ." He headed for the door, stopped with his hand, resting on the handle.  "You have my cell number.  You'll be all right with me, conducting my own inquest into Orlaith O'Shea's death.  Oh, and I believe that the girl in question told the Zelig the exact name of the auto mechanic who signed off on the vehicle safety report—the one that isn't in the accident file.  I'm going to start my inquiry there."

He slipped out of the office and didn't bother waiting for the butler to show him out.

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur sat back in his chair in the opulent restaurant.  He hadn't chosen it, had left it up to Jessa, and she'd decided that she wanted to try out this place.  Understated yet elegant, not quite as stuffy as most French restaurants tended to be, it combined a lot of Quebec's quaint air with the more refined feel of some of the European places that Ashur had visited before, too.

At least this one, Le Petit Québec, had a more relaxed atmosphere, which is why they hadn't had to get dressed to the nines—and might have been why he hadn't had to call to secure a reservation, either.  The food, however, was absolutely excellent, even though Jessa had spent the majority of the time, simply picking at her food and not actually eating very much . . .

But she'd been rather quiet all day, ever since their shower this morning.  He had no idea, just what was on her mind, either, and when he asked, she smiled, told him that everything was, 'fine, just fine' . . .

Hair swept up at the sides into a cascade of rioting fiery curls that tumbled down her back, softened by the tendrils that she'd left hanging to frame her alabaster skin, she still looked dead damn gorgeous in the simple crimson dress that fell from her shoulders in a whisper of gossamer layers, drifting around her body in a wholly sinful kind of way . . . The simple sheathe dress with spaghetti straps underneath was a lustrous burgundy, with the overlay of yards of flowing sheer fabric, of billowing sleeves that brushed her upper arms just above her elbows, almost like an old fashioned dressing gown, but far, far more provocative . . .

Or maybe it was simply Jessa herself that added that to the overall feel . . . He'd realized it before—would have had to be daft not to—just how sensuous everything about her tended to be.  Whether she intended to give that impression or not, there it was . . .

He cleared his throat, drew her attention as she gave up the pretext of eating and set her silverware aside.  "Did I buy you that dress?" he asked, raising an eyebrow as a hint of a smile quirked his lips.

She glanced down and shrugged.  "No . . . I bought it when I was out with Carol in the city . . ."

"New York?"

"Yes . . . why?"

He nodded slowly.  "Money well spent.  Feel free to buy as many as you want.  Have them bill me."

She rolled her eyes, but smiled.  "You're a strange man, Ashur Philips . . ."

Shaking his head, he shrugged offhandedly.  "I just appreciate a beautiful woman," he told her, hiding his amusement at the instant and vivid blush that rose to stain her cheeks at his compliment.  "So, what would you like to do next, Jessa?"

She frowned at his question, as though she wasn't entirely certain of what he meant.

He sighed.  "I told you, didn't I?  We'd do whatever you wanted tonight," he told her.  "We could walk around, see the sights . . . I've been told that Old Quebec is most definitely worth seeing . . . Laith mentioned that there are a number of clubs down in this area—a few cabaret clubs like in the old days, even a dance hall or two dedicated to the more formal dances that you're quite familiar with, aren't you?"

A strange sort of air filtered over her face, settled into a darkness in her gaze, one that he couldn't rightfully interpret, and though she smiled at him, it was almost as though that guarded expression—the one he hadn't seen in her gaze in months—was back, and with a vengeance.  "W-Whatever you'd like to do is fine," she said, her tone taking on a far more prim, far more proper tone than he could credit.

He opened his mouth to ask her, just what was bothering her, but the sudden intrusion of an entirely too-familiar youki drew him up straight, snapped up his chin as he scanned the restaurant, as his gaze lit on her—as his brain slowed to a crawl.  'N . . . No . . .'

"Ashur?"

He heard Jessa's voice, but it seemed so far away, and in that moment, he couldn't quite drag his gaze off the one person—the one woman—he'd never wanted to see again.

As though she sensed his proximity—she probably did—she slowly looked up, those dark eyes of hers seeking his out as the color drained from her face, as her eyes flared wide in silent recognition.  Sitting across the restaurant with some man that he didn't recognize, he saw her—as his entire world erupted in a haze of red—of blood and rage and hateful sorrow . . .

He wanted to get up, to walk out of the restaurant—needed to put more space between himself and her—but his body wouldn't move, rooted to the spot, unable to do a thing as he watched her stand up, slipping between the tables, the expression on her face one of carefully composed nothingness, and only her eyes bespoke the anxiety that he could feel in her youki.  The one woman he'd never wanted to see again . . .

"H . . . Hana . . ." he murmured as she stopped beside him.

"Kyouhei-sama . . ." she greeted, bowing slightly at the waist, her tone well-polished, just a hint of her emotion punctuating her words.  "How . . . How are you?" she asked in her native Japanese.

"What are you doing here, Hana?" he demanded, his voice clipped, obdurately quiet.

She flinched just slightly, but managed to cover it up just as quickly.  "I'm here with a . . . a friend," she said.  "He's here on business . . . I didn't know . . ."

"I was clear, wasn't I?" he gritted out.  "Do you think I was joking about not wanting to see you?"

She cleared her throat, took an involuntary step back.  "You . . . You look well," she said, flicking a hand as though she were ready to make her excuses to leave.  "How . . . How's the . . . the baby?  Your brother . . .?"

"You have no right to ask that," he told her.  "Walk away, Hana.  Do it now."

She somehow managed a wry little smile, nodded quickly at Jessa, who was staring at them both in very real confusion, probably because she didn't understand a word of the exchange that had passed between them.  Hana still tried to smile at Ashur, who made no move to even attempt any kind of pleasantry.  Before he could think twice about it, though, he stood up, dropped a handful of money on the table as he turned on his heel to leave.  The only thing that registered in his head was that he had to get out of there, had to distance himself from her—from Hana—had to escape the unspent emotion that thundered in his head—in his brain . . .

The harsh streetlights against the mild summer evening made him blink as he stepped outside the restaurant, as he struggled for a semblance of calm that he simply didn't have.  A gentle hand touched his elbow, and he whipped around, raising a hand, ready to strike down whoever it was that dared to touch him in that moment, only to stop, to blink, when he met Jessa's concerned gaze.  She gasped softly, stepped back away from him, eyes wide, almost frightened . . .

Drawing a deep breath, he forced himself to look at her, allowed the sight of her to calm the frayed edges of his nerves, and before he could stop to think about it, he dragged her into his arms, held her tight, willing her to soothe him.  It occurred to him that, on some level, he was being entirely selfish, and yet, the balm of her aura was enough, gradually pulling him back into himself.  She didn't know, didn't understand, and, at least, at the moment, it was entirely beyond him to offer her any kind of explanation—not when the emotions were too high, too sharp, too prevalent . . .

But she wrapped her arms around him, asked him nothing as he held onto her.  His ragged breathing slowly returned to normal as he ignored the curious glances of the people that passed by them.

It felt like forever before he trusted himself to loosen his grip on her, but he leaned back, gently smoothed the hair out of her face, managed a very thin smile as she gazed up at him through a veil of concern.  "Sorry," he said, leaning down, kissing her forehead.  "Do you . . .?  Do you want to go for a walk?"

She stared at him for another long moment, the questions awash in her eyes, but she said nothing and nodded instead, letting him take her hand, letting him lead her away from the restaurant.

 

 


 

 

 

It was late.  She knew that without having to look at the clock, judging from the elongated shadows that made up the night that filtered through the French doors, the windows that lined the wall.  The layers of darkness combined, casting an insular pall over the familiarity of Ashur's bedroom as she lay perfectly still, afraid to allow the comfort of being so near to him permeate the thoughts that swirled around in her head—fearing the isolation that never felt very far away . . . feeling as though she were existing on someone else's time and knowing that this feeling was entirely too fleeting, too precarious, and not really meant to be hers . . .

Stupid, wasn't it?  Allowing herself to be taken like this, letting herself give in so many times, and yet knowing in the back of her mind that Ashur . . .

But that woman in the restaurant . . . Just who was she?  Gorgeous, she was, in such an exotic way—her hair so black that it shone blue in the ambient light of the electric candles, of the crystal chandeliers, her eyes so dark, so mysterious—and so full of pain that even Jessa could feel it.  In those moments, she'd ceased to exist as the obvious connection between the two of them precluded Jessa and everything else around them, and she really hadn't had to understand their conversation to know that somehow . . . Somehow, that woman . . . She'd hurt him badly . . .

So why was it that Jessa simply hadn't been able to ask him, didn't have it in her to question him when she knew deep down that it would cause him more anguish?  As they'd wandered around Old Quebec, as he'd tried to act like he was fine . . .

And they'd barely made it through the front door of the house when he'd grabbed her, kissed her, unleashed all his emotion in a physical act that had left her breathless and clinging—as some small part of her reveled in it . . .

As some small part of her had felt as though she were dying just a little . . .

And she hated that, didn't she?  Hated the unwelcome thought that she were little more than an object to him: something he could use to exorcise the demons that haunted his mind because . . . because that wasn't who he was, and if she thought that way, if she really believed that . . .

Blinking fast, willing away the unbidden tears that stung her eyelids, she swallowed hard, struggled to keep her breathing even, unwilling to disturb his sleep . . . Unwilling to allow him to see the pain that she was fighting to keep at bay . . .

Something about his very proximity, something about how close she was to him . . . It comforted her as it dug at her, too, tore at her in places that she didn't know existed deep down, even if she wasn't sure why, and yet . . .

It was too much, wasn't it?  Too much, too close, too . . .

Before she could think about it, before she could discern too much, she slipped out of his arms, off of the bed, not really thinking as she pulled the sheet from the bed and padded over to the balcony doors.

The night was still, that unearthly silence that only came just before the first rays of dawn.  Wrapping the sheet around herself, sinking down on the cold stone railing, she lifted her gaze, stared at the moon—the sad, sad moon . . .

What was it about that altercation?  What was it about the two of them . . .?

'You know what it is,' her youkai said gently, sadly, almost apologetically.  'You know because you understand it . . . That someone cannot hurt you unless . . .'

Jessa blinked slowly as the outline of the moon grew a little fuzzy, as it wavered slightly before her eyes.  "Someone cannot hurt you unless . . ." she murmured, her voice little more than a whisper in the deep.  "They . . . can't hurt you . . . unless . . . unless you . . . love them . . ."

And all at once, it made sense, didn't it?  The ugly, harsh truth of it, and . . . and her truth . . .

That profound agony on Ashur's face as he'd looked upon that woman . . . He . . . He loved her, didn't he . . .?  And . . .

And the reason that she . . . that she hurt so badly, so desperately . . . why she couldn't seem to say no, to turn away from him, even when she knew that she ought to . . .?  Knowing that giving herself to him was destroying her, just a little bit at a time, and still unable to stop herself . . . And she hated it, didn't she?  That feeling that she was all right, in accepting the scraps of whatever it was that he had within him to give her, of letting it all be okay because a little bit of beautiful was better than a lifetime of nothing . . .

It was the same, wasn't it?  The reason why the very thought of him, of her, of them . . . The hopeless ache, the desolate confusion . . . It was because she . . .

'I . . . love him . . .?'

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"And I rode the roller coaster until I puked!"

Ashur made a face and slowly shook his head as Kells bounced around, telling him all about his trip to the many amusement parks in and around New England.  "Puked, huh?"

Kells nodded happily.  "But Bailey puked more!"

Ashur grimaced.  Manami giggled.  "That is truly the way to measure how good a time they had," she mused.

Ashur wasn't inclined to agree, but he shrugged, digging his hands into his pockets as he retained his silence on the matter.

"Where's Jessa?" the boy demanded.  Ashur pressed his lips together since they'd actually slept longer than he'd intended, and the woman in question was very likely finishing up her shower at the moment.  Given just how late he'd kept her up last night, though, it wasn't really surprising.  Of course, if left to his own devices, he wouldn't have let her sleep at all, but she'd fallen into an exhausted slumber just after their fourth round of lovemaking, and he hadn't had the heart to wake her . . .

"She'll be down in a bit," he assured the boy.  "Why don't you get the rest of your things and put them away?"

Kells wrinkled his nose, but darted off toward the front door.

Manami laughed as she watched him go.  "I hope you don't mind that I volunteered to bring him home," she said.  "Ben was sidetracked by some sort of message from Steve Vasquez, so Charity was going to bring him, but her twin had an urgent issue—that's what Charity said—and I wasn't busy, so . . ."

"It's fine," he told her, managing a vague smile.  "Will you be staying for a day or two?"

Manami sighed.  "Hmm . . . if you're sure I won't be an imposition . . ."

"You're never an imposition, Nami," he assured her.

She laughed, leaning over to kiss his cheek.  "Then I'd love to!"

Kells burst through the front door with his little suitcase and a bigger plastic bag that looked to be packed with stuffed animals and other toys, and he headed for the stairs.  "Good God," Ashur muttered, shaking his head as he stared at the bag.

Manami giggled.  "That's just the bag from me," she pointed out.

He heaved a sigh.  "I should have known."

She nodded.  "So . . . Tell me, how's the girl?  Jessa?"

"What do you mean?"

She linked her arm through his as he started toward the door to get the rest of Kells' things out of her car.  "Have you had any success in getting Ian to release her holdings?"

Ashur snorted.  "Nope, but Cain said that he sent Bas over to . . . have a talk with him."

Manami nodded.  "I knew about that . . . I don't know how much good it will do, though . . . Ian is nothing if not adamant that those of . . . mixed heritage . . . are not worth his time or trouble . . ."

"Yes, well, if he follows protocol, he'll have to relinquish his hold on her estate since she's being granted amnesty here."

"And about her mother?  Or is she willing to let it go as long as she gains control of her estate?"

"She might be willing," Ashur allowed.  "I'm not, though.  If he's behind her mother's death, then it's entirely unconscionable . . ."

"There's nothing anyone can do about it, short of Sesshoumaru issuing a directive on it, and you know that he won't, not over something like this."

Ashur nodded.  He hated the truth of her words, but there it was.

"Oh, Jesus," Ashur groaned when Manami popped the trunk of her car.  "Is all this for Kells?"

Manami laughed.  "Yes, it is.  I mean, he had to get souvenirs from everywhere they went, didn't he?"

"No," Ashur snorted indelicately.  "He didn't . . ."

Her laughter escalated as he shook his head and grabbed the nearest bags.

Jessa appeared in the doorway, her braided hair pulled over her shoulder and secured by a pretty white ribbon where it ended in a long, curling tail.  Kells was cuddled against her shoulder, eyes closed, looking like he was about as close to heaven as he could possibly get, and, given that Ashur tended to feel much the same when he snuggled with that particular woman?  He couldn't rightfully blame the boy; not in the least.  "Kells, come here and get some of this crap, will you?" he called.

Kells popped an eye open to pin his father with a very sad look.  "But Daddy, I'm filling my cuddles wif Jessa!" he complained.

Ashur heaved a sigh since he really couldn’t argue with that.  "All right, but once it's full, you're taking all this junk up to your room—right?"

Kells giggled, burrowing closer against Jessa's shoulder.  She, however, hurried over to the car to grab a bag in one hand while she held Kells with her other.  "Hey, Kells, tell me something. . . "

"Hmm?"  His voice was muffled by her neck.

"Do I snore?"

The boy giggled and sat up straight.  "Yeah!  Like a piggy!"

Snapping her mouth closed, her cheeks pinking in a very becoming blush, she let out a deep sigh and pinned Ashur with a foreboding look when he started to chuckle.

He reached over and plucked Kells out of her arms.  "Never tell a woman that she snores, Kells," he warned, "even when it's true."

"But she does!" Kells insisted, blue eyes wide, innocent, which really wouldn't save him from Jessa's wrath, much to Ashur's undisguised amusement.

Jessa uttered a terse grunt, narrowing her gaze on the two of them.

Ashur shrugged.  "Come on, Kells.  Let's go pick up your school uniforms."

 

 


 

 

 

"What is it you want, Jessa?"

Breathing harsh, shallow, staring up at him through heavily-lidded eyes, she couldn't breathe, couldn't think, could only whimper as he leaned away, as he stared at her with such intensity that she couldn't even remember her own name . . . "You," she whispered, reaching out, slipping her arms around his neck as he leaned down to kiss her, as he slid into her in such a maddeningly slow way that it made her want to scream . . .

"Thank you for agreeing to go running with me," Manami said as they jogged down the road, away from Ashur's estate.

Blinking away the rest of the memory of the night before, she managed a wan smile as she concentrated on planting one foot in front of the other.  "It's fine," she insisted, telling herself she really didn't need to blush, that there was no way that the swan-youkai could really read her mind . . .

"Do you want to slow down a little?" Manami asked, casting Jessa a questioning glance.  "Your face is all red . . ."

"Uh, no, I-I'm good," she insisted, refusing to meet Manami's gaze as she sped up just a little.

"If you're sure . . ."

She nodded.

"Ashur says you like horses," Manami continued, thankfully letting the subject drop.

Jessa nodded.  "Yes . . ."

"Have you given any thought as to what you'd like to do once your estate is settled?"

For some reason, that question was like a dousing of cold water, and Jessa stumbled over her own feet, very nearly falling on the pavement, but she managed to right herself again as Manami stopped abruptly and reached out to catch her arm.

"Are you all right?"

"Fine," Jessa gritted out, gently but firmly pulling her arm away from Manami.  "Just a little clumsy this morning, I guess . . ."

Manami didn't look convinced.  "We could walk, if you'd rather . . ."

"It's fine," she insisted again, stubbornly breaking into a jog once more.

She hadn't thought about that, had she?  Once her estate was settled . . .

She grimaced inwardly as Manami fell into step beside her again.

Once her estate was settled, then there'd be no need for her to remain here with Ashur and Kells . . . That thought was enough to make her chest constrict painfully, to send a white-hot surge of sheer panic through her—just the thought of returning home, of being there in that place alone . . . the childhood memories of wandering the land, of exploring high and low until she knew the area like the back of her hand, and it was always a comforting memory, wasn't it?  The isolation, the ability to be who she wanted to be and not to be forced to conform to the constraints of her station, of her title . . . So, why didn't those same memories offer her the comfort that they once had?

And a moment later, the thought of Kells' laughing face—so sweet, so trusting and innocent . . . the thought of Ashur, of the hours she'd spent, lost in his arms, that feeling that nothing in the world could hurt her, could touch her . . .

"I met your parents a time or two," Manami went on, oblivious to Jessa's dark thoughts, "lovely people, they were . . . I'm so sorry about what happened . . ."

"Thank you," she murmured.  "It's . . . It's kind of you to say so . . ."

Manami laughed.  "You and Ashur seem to be getting along well, though, which is wonderful.  He can be a bit prickly sometimes, as I'm sure you've noticed . . . But he's a good man.  I'm glad."   She made a face.  "I confess, I was a little afraid that he was going to scare you off to start with . . . But, after everything he's had to deal with . . ." She sighed and shook her head, trailing off, much to Jessa's chagrin.

She didn't know what to say to that, so she said nothing at all, biting her lip as she wondered, not for the first time, just where she fit into the equation of Ashur's world, of his life, and yet, the thought that answered her was harsh and not at all something that she wanted to dwell upon . . . The whispers in her head told her that she was little more than a convenience for him, and that . . . that stung . . .

Drawing near to Devlin's estate, she stared at Fletch and Flicker as the horses ran the length of the paddock as they passed.  Calling to her, they seemed to fall into stride with her.  She smiled at the thought, despite the bleakness of her own musings.

"Would you mind if we stopped here for a minute?" Jessa asked as they neared the long and winding driveway.  "He's a friend, and he found an injured eagle a few days ago . . . I wanted to see how it's doing . . ."

"Sure," Manami agreed, falling in beside Jessa as the two turned down the driveway.  "Is he one of Ashur's friends?"

"Uh, not really," she allowed.  "I met him one day when I was reading by the pond . . ."

Manami nodded, as though what she said made perfect sense, but she smiled brightly at Jessa.  "What was wrong with the eagle?"

Jessa shrugged, brushing aside an errant lock of hair that had escaped her braid.  "I think it had a broken wing," she remarked as she dropped to a brisk walk.  "He texted me yesterday with a picture.  He set it and hopes that it'll heal . . ."

"Wings are hard to repair," she remarked, a certain darkness entering her gaze.  "Maybe he'll be lucky . . ."

Jessa waved at one of the stable hands that she recognized.  "Hello!" she called, stopping the man in his tracks.  He was heading toward the stable, but he smiled when he saw Jessa.  "Good morning . . . Is Devlin in?"

The man—Mark, his name was—nodded at her and Manami.  "Yeah, I think he's around back . . . Set up a cage for that bird he brought home."

"Thank you," Jessa replied.  She led the way around the huge house and spotted what Mark must have been talking about: it was a little more than a simple cage, more like a shed, complete with a metal roof, but instead of walls, it was enclosed in metal screening.  "How is it?" she called as they approached.

Devlin looked up from the bird as he gently checked the wing, only to do a double take, eyes wide, staring past Jessa with an almost shell-shocked expression on his face.  "Uh, Irish . . ." he said.  "Hi . . ."

"Oh, this is one of Ashur's friends, Manami.  Manami, this is Devlin Broughton."

"Hello," she said as they stopped just outside the cage.  "Nice to meet you."  She laughed.  "I'd shake your hand, but you're a bit busy at the moment, aren't you?  What a gorgeous eagle . . ."

Jessa frowned when Devlin just stood there for a long moment, nodding slowly, mouth hanging slightly agape.  "Dev?  Are you all right?" she asked slowly, cautiously, wondering exactly what had gotten into him.

"What?  Oh!" he exclaimed, cheeks reddening as he quickly stepped over and unlatched the door from the inside.  "Would you . . .?  You want to see him?  Uh, the eagle, I mean."

Manami giggled and pulled the door open, stepping inside the cage.  "He's beautiful," she said.

"He?" Jessa asked, raising her eyebrows as she pulled the cage door closed behind her and latched it.

Manami nodded.  "The males are a bit smaller than the females of the species, and since he's obviously an adult, then that's that."

"You know your birds," Devlin remarked with an almost shy, lopsided kind of grin that made Jessa narrow her eyes suspiciously.

"Just a few," she replied, smiling at the Englishman.  "How's his wing?"

Jessa had to clear her throat to snap Devlin out of his momentary idle.  He uttered a terse chuckle and carefully stretched out the bird's wing.  "It's doing a lot better," he said.  "Almost healed."

Jessa frowned since it was a lot more healed than she'd have thought he should be, given his condition when they'd found him.

"I can probably release him in a couple days, as long as he doesn't injure it again between now and then . . ."

"Are you a veterinarian?" Manami asked without taking her eyes off the magnificent animal.

"Oh, uh, no," he replied.  "Just, um . . . I-I like birds . . ."

Crossing her arms over her chest, she leaned against the closed door and arched an eyebrow at Devlin, who intercepted the expression and reddened just a little more before he quickly looked away from her.

"It's too bad I can't stay to see that," Manami mused.

Devlin cleared his throat.  "Well, if you . . . I mean, if you gave me your . . . your number, I could  record it for you . . . If you wanted to see me release him, that is . . ."

Manami nodded.  "I'd love to see that," she said.

Jessa rolled her eyes since the woman had yet to actually look away from the bird—and Devlin had yet to look away from Manami . . .

Manami laughed softly.  "Can I touch him?"

"Touch . . .?  Oh, um, sure, just . . . just don't make any sudden movements, and watch his beak . . . He tends to nip at people . . ." He uttered a strangely strangled and almost nervous laugh.  "I mean, he . . . He could probably take your finger off if you're not careful . . ."

Manami reached out slowly, let the bird see her hand as she carefully touched the back of his head.  "He's lovely . . ." she said.  "Is it just eagles or do you like all birds?" she asked, finally looking up at him as she pulled her hand away.

He opened and closed his mouth a few times.  "I, uh . . . I like them all," he said.  "I . . . I really like swans . . ."

Even that was a little too much for Jessa, and she covered her forehead and eyes with her hand, slowly shaking her head.  It was painful to watch, wasn't it?  Kind of like a slow motion train derailment . . .

Manami laughed.  "I'm a swan!" she exclaimed.

He laughed.  Jessa sighed.  "Y-You are," he agreed.

'Oh, he won't . . .' Jessa thought.

"I-I guess that means I like you, too . . ."

'Oh, he did . . .'  She heaved a sigh and reached for Manami's arm.  "Well, we should probably be getting back now," she said before Devlin could make it any worse.

"Oh, right," Manami agreed as Jessa pretty well dragged her out of the cage again.  "I'll have Jessa give you my number.  It was wonderful, meeting you!" she called, hurrying to catch up since Jessa had already broken into a sprint to rush the woman away from Devlin before he managed to completely self-destruct.

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa sat on the edge of the sofa cushion, rubbing her temples with her fingertips as she uttered a low groan.  "It was awful," she lamented, making a face since she'd just finished recounting the God-awful meeting between Devlin and Manami.

Ashur chuckled.  "So, your friend's a moron," he concluded.  "Did Manami laugh in his face?"

"No," she said, letting her hands drop between her knees.  "I don't know how she kept from doing that, though . . . It was a bloody nightmare . . ."

"Oh, it wasn't that bad . . . He was rather cute, actually," Manami said as she breezed into the living room.  "Did he like those pictures you sent him, Jessa?"

Jessa didn't laugh, but she did smile since they'd decided to go swimming when they got back, and Jessa had decided to be 'nice' and send Devlin a few pictures of, what she called, 'Swan in the Natural Habitat' . . . "He didn't actually say," she admitted.  "He did send a few emoticons, though . . ."

Manami laughed, taking a glass of wine that Ashur had poured for her.  "He's very adorable," she concluded.

"Sounds like an idiot," Ashur replied.  Manami smacked him lightly with the back of her hand against his chest.  He chuckled and stepped over to hand Jessa a glass of wine, too.

Kells ran into the room, bypassing his father entirely, and squirmed his way onto Jessa's lap.  He'd just finished taking a shower to clean off all the chlorine from the pool, and he smelled fresh, like baby shampoo, as he snuggled against her in his clean pajamas, obviously content just to be held and cuddled, which was fine, in her estimation.  "I missed you so much, Jessa!" he exclaimed, voice muffled by the front of the light sweater she'd put on after her own shower.  Then he sighed happily.

"I missed you, too, Kells," she assured him, settling back against the sofa, adjusting him so that he was more comfortable.

"Didn't miss Daddy at all, I see," Ashur muttered, slowly shaking his head.

Kells waved a hand at Ashur as his eyes drifted closed.  Ashur smiled just a little.

Manami sat down next to Jessa, slowly sipping the wine.  "So, tell me.  How do you like Canada so far?"

"It's fine," he replied.  He'd skipped over the wine and went straight for the brandy.  "Seems fairly quiet for now, anyway."

"Quiet is good," Manami decided.  "I could do with some quiet myself . . ."

"I thought you liked your job?"

"'Like,' is a bit of a stretch," Manami replied.  "It's necessary, and I enjoy the peace of mind in knowing that those people cannot harm anyone, ever again."

"What do you do?" Jessa asked, idly smoothing Kells' hair.

She shot Ashur a meaningful look before pasting on a tepid smile for Jessa's benefit.  "I'm a hunter," she said in an entirely matter-of-fact tone.

Jessa blinked, her hand stilling mid-stroke.  "A hunter?  As in . . .?"

Manami slowly nodded.  "Mhmm . . . I take care of those things that go bump in the night," she quipped with an underlying seriousness.  "It's not a glamorous job, but . . . but I have the satisfaction of knowing that there are a few less nightmares in the world."

Jessa frowned, gaze falling on Kells' adorable face, looking so sweet, so angelic, as he slept.  The sense of well-being, as fleeting as it could be, wasn't wasted on her as she held the toddler close.  Maybe it wasn't meant to be something that would be hers for always, but for now, just for now, she savored it, reveled in the feel of his little body, so trustingly snuggled against her.  From the first night when he'd crept into her room, when she'd held him close, even as she'd cried over the family she'd lost, something about the child had comforted her far more than she could credit . . .

Ashur and Manami's discussion turned toward youkai politics—something that Jessa had very little interest in, but that was fine, in her estimation.  She was still pondering what Manami had said . . . A few less nightmares in the world?  That's how Manami looked at her job?  She supposed that it made sense.  Even so, it seemed like a lonely kind of thing . . . Lonely, and a little sad . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Ashur, hi.  It's Bas."

Leaning back in his chair, Ashur frowned.  "Bas . . . Did you meet with the MacDonnough?"

He heard the heavy sigh as his frown darkened.  "Yeah, I met with him," Bas allowed.  "Damned old bastard, anyway . . . He refuses to discharge Jessa's estate, and he insists that the accident report is exactly how he got it . . ."

"Then get a hold of the mechanic, can't you?"

Bas grunted.  "That's what I've been trying to do for the last four days.  The guy's fallen off the face of the earth or something.  Shop's gone and everything.  No records, no nothing."

"That sounds awfully suspicious."

"Doesn't it?

Dropping his pen on the desk, he slowly rubbed his forehead.  "So, what now?"

"Well, Dad is willing to go through the channels to get her estate released to him since she's being given amnesty, but it's going to be awhile because the only way to do it is to formally petition Sesshoumaru, and I have no doubt that he'll rule in her favor, but you know how much of a hassle the process is.  We have to build a case against her estate remaining under the blanket of the European tai-youkai, prove that it's in her best interest to have jurisdiction transferred to Dad, et cetera, et cetera . . . We can do it.  It'll just take time . . ."

"How long are we talking?  Ballpark?"

Letting out a deep breath, Bas drummed his claws on the table—Ashur could hear it all, as plain as day.  "Six months?  A year . . .?"

"But no one can touch it, right?"

"No, they can't touch it.  No one can.  The entirety of her estate is just sitting in escrow.  About the only bonus is that, until a rightful heir is named, whether it's her or her future mate, no one can do a thing.  Well, they could sell things off but the proceeds all have to go to the estate, so basically, it can be added to, but it cannot be taken from—at least, not in her case."  Bas suddenly chuckled, but it wasn't an entirely amused sound.  No, it was a little more ironic than that.  "Be easier if she'd just find her mate.  If she did, that old bastard would have to release her estate, one way or another."

Ashur grunted.  "That's what I'm afraid of . . ."

"You mean, this supposed betrothed of hers?"

"Is that what MacDonnough's calling it?"

Bas cleared his throat.  "Yep . . . Look, I've been checking into the duke's son, too . . . From what I've found out, though, he's not here."

Ashur grimaced.  "That's what we kind of thought."

"As far as I can tell, no one knows exactly where she is, though, so there's that.  Just keep an eye on her."

"I already knew that," he said, unable to keep the clipped tone out of his voice.

Bas sighed again.  "I'm going to hang around here awhile longer, see if I can't overstay my welcome . . . I'm going to try to dig up something on the mechanic, although indications seem to be that he's either dead or just vanished . . ."

"Killing someone outright?  That doesn't exactly sound like MacDonnough's MO—unless he sent one of his hunters after him . . ."

Bas snorted.  "I'm sure he didn't do a damn thing to dirty his own hands.  Anyway, I've got to go.  I'm meeting Cassidy for dinner.  She has a few connections that she said she'd check into for me."

"Cassidy?"

"Inutaisho—Gunnar's sister.  Much nicer than he is, though . . . Almost as pretty, too . . ."

"That's messed up," Ashur muttered.

Bas laughed.  "I'll give you a call if I find out anything else."

"All right. Thanks."

The call ended, and Ashur sighed as he dropped the phone onto the desk.

To be honest, he hadn't actually thought that Bas would make any more headway than they already had, but he'd hoped . . . He should have known better . . .

A soft knock interrupted his musings, but he didn't have to look up to recognize the familiar youki that slipped over him.  Breaking into a small smile, he glanced up anyway, rising to his feet as he held out a hand to her.

She stared at it for a long moment before slowly stepping toward him as he rounded the desk, as he pulled her into a tight hug and sighed.  "I've wanted to do this for the last two days," he murmured, kissing Jessa's forehead as she melded herself against him.

"Where's Kells?"

"Manami took him into the city to see a movie," he said.  "You were out riding, so he pouted that he didn't get to say bye before he left."

She nodded.  "So . . . they'll be gone awhile?"

"Well, a couple hours, probably . . ."

"Are you . . . busy . . .?"

He chuckled.  "Nothing I couldn't put off for a bit . . ." Bringing her hand up, he kissed the back of her knuckles.  "Did you have something in mind, Jessa?"

Her cheeks reddened prettily as she slowly shook her head, as she lifted her other hand, toying with a condom packet, slipping it around her nimble fingers.  "Do you?"

Taking it from her, he leaned down to kiss her, savoring her quiet sigh as she slipped her arms around his neck, her fingers twisting around the length of his ponytail.  The taste of her lips, as soft as the morning dew, was enough to wrench a groan from him, and he pulled her against him, hands running over her back, her waist, her hips, as she opened to him, as her tongue flicked against his . . .

"Daddy!" Kells hollered, seconds after the slam of the door jerked him right out of the moment.  Jessa gasped and hopped away from him, smashing the back of her hand over her lips as the boy tore into the office at break-neck speed.  "Jessa!  You can come to the movie, too!" he yelped, hopping up and down in his excitement.

"I forgot my phone," Manami said, poking her head into the office, wiggling the device back and forth.  Her smile widened as she glanced from Ashur to Jessa and back again.  "Uh . . . Kells . . . We're going to be late if we don't hurry."

Jamming the condom into his pocket, thankful that he'd been holding it in his hand, Ashur intercepted the heightened brightness of Manami's gaze and stifled a low groan.

"Daddy!  Can you and Jessa come, too?" Kells asked, looking entirely too excited at the prospect of them all going to the movies together.

"Oh, don't you think it'd be fun?  Just the two of us?" Manami interjected before Ashur could answer.

"But I want Jessa an' Daddy to come, too . . ." Kells grumbled, his disappointment very, very obvious.

Jessa shot Ashur a quick glance before tucking her hair behind her ear and stepping forward.  "That sounds like fun, Kells," she said, reaching for his hand as she smiled down at the boy.

Ashur smothered a sigh.  "You just want me to buy you popcorn," he muttered.

"Can I have a soda, too?"

"No," Ashur replied, grabbing his phone and following the others out of the office, cursing under his breath at his rotten luck—and his son's impeccable sense of timing . . .

 

 


 

 

 

"You weren't kidding at all, were you?"

Jessa glanced up at Ashur and made a face before turning her attention back to the poor fool who sat beside Manami at the fire pit as the crackle of the flames reached into the darkened sky.

"Is that why you invited him over?" Jessa asked, leaning against the railing, casually sipping her drink.

Ashur didn't deny it.  "He almost spilled that drink on her," he remarked.

"I don't think I've ever seen him as rattled as he is around her . . ."

"Daddy!  Look!" Kells exclaimed, holding up a glass jar that he was using to collect fireflies.  Jessa had popped holes into the lid for him, and he'd spent the majority of the evening, running around the yard, catching the poor, hapless insects.

"Are you going to let them go before you go inside?"

Kells nodded.  "Yeah, or they'll die," he replied before taking off again.

Ashur heaved a sigh.

"You know, they'd make a cute couple—if he could stop acting so goofy around her," Jessa said.

"She'd kill him," Ashur predicted.

Jessa rolled her eyes, but giggled.

Ashur shook his head as she stepped away, watching her slip into a chair at the fire pit beside Devlin.  It was the first time he'd actually spoken much to the Englishman, but he seemed all right—when Manami wasn't right there, anyway.  Something about Manami turned the man into a fumbling mess, as far as Ashur could tell.  It was a little odd, really, but Jessa found it amusing as hell . . .

"I want a hot dog!" Kells exclaimed, setting the jar on the nearby table and hopping over to Jessa's side.

She laughed and ruffled the boy's hair, standing up to shove a hot dog on a stick for him.  Then she knelt behind him, helping him to steady the skewer as he held the hot dog over the flames.

'She's damn good with him, isn't she?'

He slowly nodded.  'She is.'

'She'll make a damn good mama one day, don't you think?'

He snorted.  'She's eighteen—nowhere near ready for a baby . . .'

'Well, no, not right now, this second.  Eventually, though . . . I mean, she wants a family . . .'

'And just how would you know that?'

His youkai sighed.  'It stands to reason, baka . . . Besides, don't you want them?  More babies?'

Glancing over at Kells, Ashur narrowed his eyes, considered all the sleepless nights, all the midnight feedings, the diaper changes, the temper tantrums . . .

'And the contented sighs and the smiles that you know were just for you . . . The pride when he learned something new, the knowledge that he was truly happy . . .'

Yeah, so those things were nice, he had to admit.  Even so, he hadn't really thought about it, had he?  The idea of really starting a family, to add to the one that Kells had now . . .?

He wasn't sure why the idea seemed so foreign.  He supposed that after everything that had happened that he simply had stopped considering a future that was so uncertain to him, or maybe . . . maybe he just never had thought about it.  Given his family, the way they operated, he'd never really wanted to bring anyone into that, hadn't wanted anyone to actually see exactly what was going on in that house . . .

And somehow, that sounded just a little more pathetic, didn't it . . .?

'And it didn't help, did it?  Seeing Hana . . .'

Grimacing inwardly at that blatant reminder, Ashur turned on his heel, wandered away—away from Jessa and Kells and Manami, somehow needing the space to think, to breathe . . .

It was the first time since that evening that he'd allowed himself to think about it.  After three years, it hadn't taken him more than ten seconds to realize that he still wasn't ready to deal with her—wasn't sure he ever would be.  The anger was still there—the rage that he felt that had managed to lay waste to the centuries of friendship they'd shared . . . It still felt like the ultimate betrayal, and it was still too fresh, even after three years: too fresh, too raw, and entirely too close . . .

And yet, some small part of him knew, didn't he?  Knew that he would have to deal with it, at least on some level.  Maybe he wouldn't have to face Hana again, but Jessa . . . The confusion on her face, the questions that she hadn't had the heart to raise . . . But he'd seen them awash in her gaze, even if she had realized that he just couldn't tell her . . .

Because telling her about Hana would open up too many doors, would raise more questions in her head that he wasn't sure if he could answer.  Even now, as he'd gained perspective, as he'd managed to separate himself from the past on some level . . . There were days when he had trouble reconciling the things he knew, the things he'd grown up with, and the more time he spent with Kells, the more surreal it all seemed.

What he'd discovered over the course of the last three years was that, for every one of those things that he cherished: the smiles, the laughter, the tears, the triumphs, and even the failures, with every one of those things had also come love—a love that he hadn't understood on that day, when he'd stood there with a crying newborn in his hands.  He hadn't understood because he'd never felt it before.  He'd had to learn it, and it had started with Kells.

Jessa . . . She knew that love, didn't she?  Understood it because it had been given to her freely, and maybe that was the reason why she could, in turn, give the same to Kells, regardless of whether or not Kells was her own.  Somehow, Kells had managed to breach her defenses, and if there was nothing else that she could do to earn his unerring devotion, she'd found his one weakness, hadn't she?

Everything, everything, revolved around Kells.  Whether by accident or design, he'd burned bridges because of Kells, had turned his back on Hana because of what she'd done, because of what she'd nearly cost him . . . and maybe it was Kells who had forged that bridge that had led him to Jessa, too . . . and just how ironic was that, really . . .?

"Ashur?"

He stopped at the sound of that voice, slowly turned to face her as Jessa wandered toward him, one arm crossed over her stomach, the other holding onto the length of her hair.  Skin glowing, eyes shining, she stopped beside him, leaning her head to the side as she slowly regarded him, searched his face in the waning light, in the thickening shadows. 

"Are you all right?" she asked quietly.

"Fine," he replied, forcing a thin smile solely for her, willing her to believe, to accept his lie for truth.  "Everything's good."

She didn't believe him.  He knew she didn't.  Still, she sighed, smiled just a little.  "I'm . . . I'm going to put Kells to bed," she told him.  "Then I guess I'll . . . I'll go to bed, too . . ."

He caught her hand as she started away.  "Leave you balcony doors unlocked," he said.  "I just . . . I just want to hold you . . ."

She stared at him for a long moment, but finally she nodded.

He sighed as she walked away—wondering not for the first time, just what the hell he thought he was doing.

 

 


 

 

 

"Something good?"

Ashur blinked and glanced up, taking the snifter of brandy that Manami offered him as she sank down on the sofa beside him, leaning forward to look at the report he had been trying—and failing—to read.

"Ontario?  Anything interesting?" she asked, settling back with her knees drawn up beside him.

"Not really," he replied, dropping the stack of papers on the coffee table with a heavy sigh.  "They didn't mention that being a general could be one of the most boring things in the world."

She laughed quietly, softly, reaching out, brushing his bangs out of his face with her gentle fingers, with her feathery touches.  "I'm leaving in the morning," she said.  "Cain called.  He has a job for me."

"Do you honestly like hunting, Nami?" he asked.

She shrugged.  "No, not really," she replied.  "Someone's got to do it, though, right?  And . . . And I promised."

"Oh?  What promise?"

She smiled, but it seemed a little sad.  "When I wanted to learn how to fight . . . The one who trained me made me promise that if agreed to do so, that I'd use what he taught me to make sure that what happened to him wouldn't happen to anyone else . . ."

"What happened to him?"

She shrugged, as though her tale was of no real consequence—or maybe she simply didn't want it to be.  "When he was small, his parents were killed—killed because of what they were."

"Which was . . .?" he prompted when she trailed off.

The look she leveled at him was dark, mysterious.  "They were jigoku," she said.

His eyebrows lifted.  "Hell-youkai?  But those are just a . . . a myth—a legend . . ."

"So I thought," she agreed.  "I was wrong.  He was one, too—the last one, to my knowledge.  His parents were killed by someone who wanted to harness their powers.  Their bodies disintegrated before he could, but even so . . . Shishou was old when I met him—old and lonely . . . He refused to search for his mate, never tried.  He was afraid of passing on his heritage, but he taught me all I needed to know about the art of assassination, and the day that he said that I had mastered everything he could teach me, he . . . He walked away, and I never saw him again.  A year later, I received his ring—his father's ring—and when I saw it, I knew he was dead."  Taking a long drink from her snifter, she uttered a shaky laugh.  "I've never told anyone all of that," she admitted.  "I thought that it'd hurt a lot more than it does . . ."

Ashur sighed, staring at the amber liquid, slowly swirling it around.  "I . . . I saw Hana the other night," he said.  "I'd taken Jessa to dinner, and . . . and there she was . . ."

"I can't imagine that was good."

He shook his head.  "She asked me about him—about Kells . . ."

"Have you told Jessa anything?  About Hana?"

"No."

"But the two of you . . . There's something there."  Holding up a hand to silence his protests before he could start making them, she smiled.  "Give me some credit, Ashur.  I'm not stupid . . . So, just how serious are you?"

"I . . . I don't know . . ."

"Don't know or just don't want to think about it?"

That earned her a darkened scowl.  "I can't . . . get her out of my head," he confessed.  "I just . . . When I'm near her, I . . ." He grimaced, heaved a sigh.  "If I . . . If I tell her about . . . about Hana—about everything . . ."

"That girl's been through hell the past year," she told him quietly, gently.  "She's been through more than many adults do in their entire lifetimes, and if you honestly think she won't understand, then you're wrong.  I'd bet my life on that . . . It's in her eyes, if you stop, if you look.  She's older than some centuries-old youkai in some ways—in the ways that should matter."

He shook his head.  "How can I ask her to understand a lifetime that I don't even understand?  For the last three years, everything I have, I've given to Kells, and I . . ."

She reached over, placed her hand on his cheek.  "So, what are you doing with her, then?  Ashur, I've seen the way she looks at you when you're not paying attention, when she thinks that no one can see.  She's wearing her heart on her sleeve, and you . . . You need to see it—see her . . . and maybe . . . Maybe you're the only one who can truly appreciate just how much she's had to deal with because you've done the same thing—dealt with the same stuff—for the last three years, too."

He didn't answer her, said nothing as he continued to stare at the glass in his hand.

She yawned and uncurled her legs, pushing herself to her feet.  "I'm going to bed.  I have to get an early start in the morning, but before I do, I'll tell you one last thing, and you can take it or leave it, it's entirely up to you."

He sighed.  "What's that?"

She smiled.  "I've been all over the world a number of times.  I've traveled from Japan to France to Asia and here.  I've seen so many faces come and go, but I tell you this: I've never, ever met another woman quite like Jessa O'Shea, and I know that I never will again.  If she's your one?  You grab onto her and don't let her go, Ashur, because she's rare, and she's beautiful, and if you let her go, you'll never find another like her again."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa sat under the tree, legs drawn up, fingers locked around her ankles, chin resting on her knees as she stared over the pond without really seeing a thing.  She'd lost track of time in the guise of reading, but she'd given up that hopeless farce awhile ago.  The book lay in the grass beside her, forgotten, as the wind stirred her hair, carrying with it the breath of the warm summer sun, the brilliance of a cloudless sky, and it was all lost on her.

He hadn't come to her.

She'd slipped out of the house just after dawn, had taken Stardust and rode, hell-bent for leather, all over the estate, given the animal his head, let him lead her wherever he wanted, and somehow, they'd ended up here.  He was tethered to a nearby tree in the shade, close enough to the water to drink between grazing on the tender grass along the bank of the pond.  Part of her wanted to get back on Stardust, to ride to the ends of the earth.  The other part of her . . . She couldn't deal with the idea of never seeing Kells and Ashur again, and that part of her . . .

"A little early to find you here, isn't it, Irish?"

She blinked, glanced up at Devlin as he tethered Fletch to a tree branch, then looked away again.  "Back to normal, are you?" she asked, not really in the mood for company, but hating the thought of being alone again.

"Wasn't I?"

She snorted.  "No, you weren't.  Not around Manami, anyway . . ."

"Manami," he repeated, raking his hands through his hair.  "I just . . . I don't know what it is!  Ever since I saw her once in London, I just . . ." he sighed.  "She's . . . She's perfect . . ."

"No one's perfect," Jessa argued.  "I guess it's cute, though, the way you keep tripping all over yourself around her . . ."

He dug an apple out of his pocket and tossed it to her before producing another from the other side.  "Speaking of perfection . . . You're in a perfectly awful mood, aren't you?" he mused.  "Have a falling out with dear Ashur?"

"I hate men," she muttered, refusing to acknowledge the half-truth in his guess.  "You're all stupid and boorish and . . . and you don't keep promises . . . Liars, the lot of you . . ."

"Ouch," he drawled.  She could feel him staring at her, and he scooted over beside her, pulled her against his shoulder, letting his hand rest on her back.  "All right," he said in his typical English drawl.  "You're about two curses from crying.  Let's have it."

She shoved against him, but he wrapped his arm a little more securely around her, and she sighed, letting her head fall against his chest, but her eyes remained hot, dry.  "It's stupid," she mumbled.  "Just . . ."

"And I say, if it's got you this far into a snit, then it's not stupid; it's something.  So, tell Big Brother what's bothering you."

"My big brother would be Irish," she scoffed.

"I can't do accents," he told her.

She rolled her eyes, breaking into a half-smile.  "Idiot."

He chuckled.  "You'll feel better if you talk about it."

She sighed, relaxing against him, idly rubbing the apple in the hem of her shirt.  "I just . . . I wish I knew where I stand—If I stand at all . . ."

"Have you tried talking to him?  I mean, strictly speaking, you are right about one thing: men are a little dull at times, and, as a rule, we cannot read your minds.  Sometimes we'd like to, but sadly . . . Well, you get the gist of it."

"It's not that simple," she told him.  "The other night, we went to dinner, and there was this . . . this woman, and if you had seen her . . ." She flinched.  "She was stunning—absolutely gorgeous—and . . . He knew her.  She came over, and they . . ." She shook her head, made a face.  "I think it was an argument.  I don't know . . ." She sighed, burying her face against her knees for a moment as she tried to make sense of what she'd seen.

"What do you mean, you don't know?  An argument is a pretty easy thing to recognize."

"They were speaking a different language," she said.  "Japanese, maybe, I didn't understand it, but their voices, and he . . . She wasn't angry, but he was—beyond angry, really.  Closer to livid, I guess . . . But you don't get that upset, do you?  Not unless there's something else, something . . . deeper . . ." Turning her face to the side, she stared at Devlin, frowned at the thoughtful scowl on his face.  "The more you care about someone, the worse they can hurt you, right?  And he . . . He was hurting, and I just couldn't ask him . . ."

"He didn't tell you anything about her?"

She shook her head again.  Then she choked out a humorless laugh, so full of derision, of a bitterness that it sounded more like a screech in her own ears.  "If you saw her, Dev . . . She was so . . . so refined, so graceful, with these . . . these eyes so dark that they were nearly black, this gorgeous, shiny black hair, and just the way she moved, like she was gliding across the floor . . . and she looked at him like . . . like she knew him—really knew him.  I . . . I can't compete with that . . ."

"Do you think it's a competition?" he asked, taking a bite from his apple.  "It's not, you know.  Even people who were once thick as thieves have their falling-outs."

She shook her head again, uttered a long, drawn-out sigh.  "I'm really nothing more than a stupid, stupid little girl," she muttered.

"All right," he said, waving his apple to emphasize his point.  "That'll be enough of that.  Since when do you sit around, feeling sorry for yourself?  And just what good will it do you, anyway, I'd like to know!"

She opened her mouth to argue with him.  His index finger shot straight out under her nose.  "No," he commanded.  "Not unless you're going to drop the whole, 'feel sorry for me crock'.  It's not you, Irish, and you cannot pull it off."

"I'm not," she grumbled, pinning him with a fulminating glower.  "I'm just saying—"

"—Crap," he cut in.  "Utter hogwash.  First off, you're just as beautiful, just as stunning, as any black haired vamp from Ashur's sordid past.  Second off, you, m'dear, are hardly a little girl.  Third off, if you're not going to demand answers from the man, then you have no business, sitting out here, under a tree, moping about the unfairness of it all, and fourth off?  Eat that apple because I know bloody damn well that you didn't bother to eat anything before you took off this morning—and does Ashur even know where you are?"

She wrinkled her nose, glowered at him, but she bit into the apple without a word, cheeks pinked by the set-down he'd dealt her.  Satisfied that she'd at least eat, he bit into his apple, too, as he flopped onto his back.

"You're hell on a girl's ego," she told him as she took another huge bite of the fruit.

He grunted something entirely unintelligible.

"It's really none of my business, though," she pointed out in what she hoped was a reasonable tone of voice.  "I mean, if you  . . . If you were him, and I asked you, what would you say?"

He sighed, tossing the apple core over to his horse.  Fletch retrieved it quite happily and munched it.  "I don't know, Irish.  That is to say, I don't presume to guess exactly what your relationship with Ashur really is, so anything I'd say would be entirely arbitrary."

She stood up, stalked over to feed the rest of the apple to Stardust.  "You're not much help, are you, Devlin?  Kind of useless, if you ask me . . ."

He chuckled.  "I'm sorry," he said, sounding anything but apologetic.  "You know, though, how wrong you are, don't you?"

"About what?" she asked, sitting back down beside him again.

"You don't need to be like anyone else—not this woman from his past, not anyone—and I'd venture to guess that Ashur wouldn't want you to be, anyway.  I mean, I don't know for sure, but . . . " He trailed off and shook his head before pushing himself off the ground to untether Fletch.  "And if I'm wrong—if he really does expect you to be someone you aren't?  The he wouldn't deserve you, anyway, Irish."

She watched as he mounted his horse, as he turned him around before reining him in.  "Where are you going?"

He sighed.  "My darling mother has an appointment today, and since she refuses to learn how to drive . . ."

"I'll text you later," she called after him.  He raised a hand to indicate that he'd heard her just before he rounded the bend in the path that led back to his estate.

Jessa watched him go and sighed.  Sure, the things he'd said made perfect sense.  That didn't really matter, though, when she had too many questions and no real answers—no way of getting any of those answers when the one person who could tell her was the same person she dared not ask . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur sprinted through the trees, ignoring the dampness underfoot, the dew that soaked the hem of his slacks, he gritted his teeth and concentrated on the feel of her.

He should have known.  After his talk with Manami the night before, he'd sat on the sofa, mulling over everything, trying to make sense where sense did not exist, and somewhere along the line, he'd fallen asleep.  When he'd woken up with Kells, jamming his fingers into his eyes, he'd gone to check on Jessa, to apologize for not coming to her as he'd planned, but she was long gone by then, which really just figured.

Manami had told him to go find her, to talk to her, that she'd hold off on leaving until he got back to keep an eye on Kells.  "Take your time, Ashur . . . I think the two of you need to talk . . ."

He had shot her a darkened scowl and ran out the door, discarding the thought of putting on shoes as he set out at a dead sprint toward the trees . . .

It was unbelievable, wasn't it?  Just how many times did he have to warn her not to take off by herself?  But no, whether she forgot or if it just hadn't occurred to her . . . Maybe she just thought that she'd ignore his warning . . .

And even as that thought flashed through his head, he discarded it.  No, as impetuous and naïve as she was, Jessa wasn't the kind to willfully disregard a warning, either, and he knew that . . . Too bad his irritation was fast overriding his common sense, and, as he broke through the trees near the pond, skidded to a stop in the damp grass, spotted the wild disarray of her stunning hair, he felt his temper snap.

Striding over to her, he grabbed her arms, yanked her up off the ground, ignoring the sharp gasp as her eyes flared wide, as he gave her a solid shake.  "Where the hell have you been?" he thundered, unable to rein in the need to yell.  "I told you—I warned you!  Just what the hell do you think you're doing?"

Suddenly, though, he let go of her, stared in almost a disengaged sort of way as the sleeve of his shirt exploded in flame.  Before he could panic or anything else, though, the knowledge that her fire didn't actually hurt registered in his mind.

"Shake me again, Ashur Philips, and I'll burn you for real," she warned, narrowing her gaze at him as she rubbed her arms, as she stepped away.

Struggling to tamp down the rampant irritation that still flicked at the edges of his self-imposed calm—a temerarious calm, at best—he said nothing, planting his hands on his hips as the fabric of the shirt burned away.  "Cute, Jessa," he growled, unwilling to take a step toward her, knowing that the hold he had on his temper wouldn't last if he did.  "Did I not warn you that you could easily be a target if you're out on your own?"

"I needed the air," she shot back, crossing her arms over her chest as she kept rubbing her forearms.

He snorted.  "Is this how it's always going to be?  I tell you something, and you deliberately ignore me because you . . . need air . . .?"

She stared at him for a long moment, gaze narrowed, as though she were trying to see inside his head.  She must have drawn some sort of conclusion because she nodded once, turning on her heel to stomp over to the horse.  Ashur strode over, caught her arm to swing her back around.  "No."

"No?"

He shook his head.  "You're not walking away from me," he said.  "What the hell is the matter with you?"

"Nothing," she said, and if it weren't for the way her eyes sparked dangerously, he might well have believed her.

He snorted.  "Is this about last night?  I fell asleep on the sofa—I'm sorry."

For some reason, his apology sparked her temper; he could see it in the flare of her eyes.  Ducking seconds before she shot a ball of fire off her palm, he uttered a loud curse as he snatched her up, as he strode out into the water, holding onto her despite her flailing attempts to regain her freedom, and when he reached about mid-thigh, he dropped her.

She screamed as she hit the water, came up sputtering, wiping moisture from her eyes with balled-up fists.  He stood back, arms crossed over his chest as she flung water at him, as she screamed every swear she knew and every one she could make up.  Something about the act of dunking her had completely quelled his own irritation, and he almost smiled—almost—when she finally stood up, hip-deep in the pool, glaring daggers at him while her hair stuck to her face, her neck, as she stomped her foot in unspent temper—and yet, in his eyes, she'd never been quite as glorious as she was in that moment, either . . .

"I hate you!" she screamed, smacking her fists into the water with every word.  "You're such a—"

"You're beautiful," he replied as the smile he'd been holding back finally managed to surface.

She stopped as his words sank in, her gaze slowly rising to meet his.  From the short distance, he could see the way her lips trembled, the slight quiver of her nostrils, the reflected light awash in her eyes as a sudden sheen of unshed tears added a luster, a brilliance, and she slowly shook her head.

He took the few steps that separated them, pulled her into his arms without much of a fight.  She stood, stiff, resistant, for a moment, but as quickly as her anger had come, it dissolved with a sigh, with a tiny whimper when he leaned down, when he kissed her . . .

Her arms reached out, encircling his neck, the soggy sleeves of her sweater dripping down him like rain as he ignored the unpleasant chill of her wet clothing, concentrating instead on the feel of her, of her fire, of her passion.  Everything about her spoke to him in whispers and murmurs and the thunder of the blood running through his veins.

He leaned down, lifted her up, carried her back to the shore under the shade of the trees.  Lowering her to the grass, he didn't break the kiss: a thousand little playful nips, the scrape of her fangs on his lips, the flick of her tongue, the warmth of her sighs . . . Her claws, dragging over his chest, not enough to draw blood, hard enough to send a shockwave rattling right through him . . .

She rose against him, the call of her body a nearly palpable thing—impossible for him to ignore . . . The effort was wasted before it was ever expended.  It occurred to him in some vague sort of way, through the haze and the burgeoning desire that threatened to engulf him in her flames . . . Something about them was inevitable, and the notion of fighting it . . .

Her hands slid down his chest his stomach, gliding over the muscles that jerked at her touch.  She moaned softly, the sound lost in the kiss, reaching for the button, the zipper on his rumpled and soaked pants as he leaned on his elbows, fingertips tracing the gentle swell of her cheekbones, of her jaw, pushing himself lower, tasting the saltiness of her skin, kissing a trail down along her collarbone, savoring the taste of her on his lips, on this tongue . . .

She shoved at the back of his pants, pushed them down over his hips as he raised his pelvis just enough to help her, not nearly enough to break the contact of their bodies.  It was enough to placate her for the moment, and he gasped, harsh and loud, as her hands encircled the thickness of him, as she squeezed him tight, only to release the tension as she slowly stroked him.  He growled as he rolled off of her, gritted his teeth as he slipped out of her grip, as he yanked the clinging pants off, half-inside out.

He started to toss them aside, but stopped as the half-forgotten memory of yesterday, of the condom he'd stuck in his pocket, flashed through his head.  It was still there—thank God—and he started to turn, to grab Jessa once more, only to freeze for a moment when he realized that she'd managed to discard her own clothes while he was wrestling with his pants.  Stretched out in the grass on her side, propped up on her elbow, the fire that was banked in her eyes could have incinerated him where he sat.  Cheeks flushed, lips darkened to a smudged rouge, swollen from their kisses, slightly parted as she breathed, perfectly rounded breasts, rising and falling, rosy nipples, darkening, hardening under his unabashed perusal, one leg bent, hiding that part of her that beckoned him in silent and brilliant invitation . . .

She pushed herself up, her other hand coming down on the grass as she rose onto her knees, as she crawled toward him, her gaze locked with his, and he couldn’t look away.  She pushed his shoulders until he fell back, leaned over him as her hair fell over her shoulders, as the moisture that still clung to her locks tickled his skin, as she kissed him long, slow . . . as her hands wrapped around him again, her tongue stroking his as the circle of her fingers pumped him in the same rhythm . . .

And slowly, she kissed her way down his body, leaving him unable to do anything as she systematically destroyed his defenses, laid waste to any misgivings, drove every single thought out of his head . . . The velvet of her tongue, the primordial heat of her breath, the silken fire of her mouth closed over him, drew him deep, wrung a moan from him as it stilled his lungs, singed the blood that ripped through his veins, setting off every nerve, every synapse in his body, in his brain.  Digging his fingers deep into the downy tangle of her hair, he jerked, he gasped, lifting his hips to plunge himself deeper into her, into the wicked vortex, the suction of heat and fire and light . . .

She pumped him hard, squeezing, releasing, lips wrapped carefully over teeth and fangs, the slickness of her saliva both cold and so very, very hot, the beauty that was her leaving an indelible imprint upon his soul . . .

Reaching out with clumsy hands, grasping her legs, he tugged her over, let her knees fall on either side of his head, pulling her closer, opening her wide, burying his lips, his tongue in the depths of her, forcing a half-moan, half-scream from her that reverberated through him in a violent shockwave of pleasure.

She shivered, shook, seemed to pulsate around him, her body so vibrant, so alive, and so damned inviting.  Every taste of her left him wanting more, every stroke of his tongue bringing on another wave of moans that shot straight through him, tightening the precarious balance between the thinnest control and the beckoning wash of tortuous pleasure, and the more he savored her, the closer she slipped toward her own oblivion, the more visceral she grew, taking him deeper, the suction of her mouth bordering on painful as one of her hands dropped away, only to squeeze his balls, and, with a ragged cry—one that echoed through her body—he felt himself thicken, felt the tremors, the quivers, the all-consuming tightening that ached, that throbbed, that suddenly released as his body jerked upward, convulsed, erupted in a white-hot gush, enough to choke her as she fought to swallow, enough to leak from her lips, down over him as he gasped and moaned and struggled to breathe.  She broke the suction, only to lick him clean.  Somewhere in the haze of his brain, he tried to tell her no, to stop, but he couldn’t form the words . . .

It took only a moment for him to gather his wits.  Shifting his hold on her, plunging his finger deep inside her, he flicked the tip of his tongue over her.  She rose on her knees, her head falling back as she cried out, her body shaking, quaking around his finger as she rocked her hips against him.

She crumpled to the side, staring at him in a dazed sort of way, eyes darkened to nearly black as he groped for the condom that had fallen from his hand.  Pushing himself up, he tore the packet open, rolled the condom into place as he leaned down to kiss her.  She uttered a little cry, almost a sob, as she kissed him back, her lips opening to him as the taste of their bodies mingled together on their tongues.  Reaching down, he carefully pulled her up onto her knees, scooted in behind her, breaking the kiss as he reached under her, as he grasped her breasts in his hands, as he slammed into her hard.

She screamed, her head rearing back as her body arched down, as she brought her ass up high, meeting the thrust of his body with a crazy-mad force of her own.  "My name," he growled as he drove into her.  "Say it . . ."

"A . . . Ash . . ." she squeaked.  "Oh, God . . ."

He uttered a territorial kind of laugh that turned into a long, drawn out groan as he felt that familiar tightening all over again.  She was so wet, so tight, so incredibly hot, he couldn't control it, couldn't stop himself.  Straightening up, grasping her hips, he gave up the attempt to prolong it, bearing into her as hard and as fast as he could as her body convulsed around him again, as his name tumbled from her lips, as hers did from his . . .

And he couldn't stop, either, despite the gush, the flow.  Jessa slid forward, her breathing so shallow, so labored . . . He leaned forward, catching himself on his hands before letting himself fall to the side as he pulled her close, kissed her cheek, rocking his hips against her ass, kissing her throat as she whined and whimpered and whispered his name, over and over again . . . Reaching down, grasping her knee, he lifted her leg, shifted his knee between them.  She instinctively ground herself against him, their bodies moving together, creating a beautiful rhythm, a breathtaking flow . . .

"You're mine, Jessa," he whispered in her ear, nipped at her earlobe.  "Only mine . . . My Amaterasu . . ."

"Y . . . Yes," she murmured, eyes closed, one hand grasping his hip, the other wrapped over his arm that held her close.  "Yes . . ."

She cried out again, grinding herself against his knee as a surge of male pride shot through him, but he didn't have time to savor it.  Her orgasm was harsh, intense, constricting the muscles in her body around him, painfully—inebriating and dark, and he grunted, growled, couldn't hold on as his own release followed fast on hers, leaving him reeling, leaving him reaching . . .

Leaving him breathless . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'We should probably get back to the house soon . . .'

Ashur ignored the musings of his youkai-voice, pulling Jessa a little closer, savoring the feel of her body, still holding his so tightly.

'Yeah, and we should probably pull out, too . . . I mean, you're pushing it, coming twice in those things, but three times?  You can't do it . . . It won't hold.'

'Shut up and let me savor this just a little longer,' he retorted.

His youkai voice heaved a disapproving sigh that he summarily ignored.

Jessa giggled suddenly.  He grimaced as the chain reaction shot straight to his cock.  "You're so clever, Ashur Philips," she murmured, her eyes still closed, her cheeks still flushed from their lovemaking.

He smiled rather vaguely, flicking the pad of his thumb over her still-swollen nipple, unleashing a riot of gooseflesh on her.  "You think so?"

"Mmm . . ."

He kissed her cheek.

She sighed, but it was a contented sound.  "What's that mean?" she asked suddenly, turning her shoulders in an effort to see his face, but she didn't move from the waist down—she never did, come to think of it, not if it meant that he would slip out of her . . .

He arched an eyebrow.  "What does what mean?"

"What you called me," she said, her already rosy cheeks darkening just a little.  "Amarat—something?"

"Amaterasu," he repeated.  "She is the Japanese goddess of the sun."

"Amaterasu . . ." She considered that for a moment, then smiled.  "I like that . . ."

"Mmm . . ." He tucked her a little closer, sheltered her as near to him as he could, allowing himself this lazy idyll, savoring the feeling of being so very close to her.

"So, if I'm your Amaterasu, what are you?" she asked.

"Me?  I'm nothing," he replied.  He felt her back stiffen slightly, and he tightened his grip before she could try to move away.  "I don't mean it like that," he said.  "I'm just not a god or a deity . . . But I can be whatever you want me to be for you."

She relaxed against him.  "Whatever I want . . .?"

"Yeah."

She let her head fall against his forearm again, snuggling against him a little more, savoring the warmth of his body, he supposed.  "Then . . . can I ask you something?"

"Sure," he replied, reaching up to stroke her hair, mesmerized by the rich color of the single strands, the way they lent her a feeling of shadows and light . . .

Jessa cleared her throat, seemed to be deliberating something for a moment.  "That woman in the restaurant," she finally said.  "Who . . .? Who is she?"

And just like that, the moment shattered.  Grimacing as he heaved a sigh, Ashur carefully withdrew from her, sat up with a scowl as he carefully pulled off the spent condom.

He didn't answer as he dug a hole and buried it, said nothing as he got up and strode into the water to wash himself off.  Turning his head just far enough to see her, he grimaced when she sat up, brought up her knees, wrapping her arms around her legs as her hair fell over her.

Even so, he took his time as he rinsed off before finally striding out of the water once more, before returning to her to sit down, to give her the answer she deserved, even if he really wasn't sure just how much of it he could stand to tell her . . .

"Her name is . . . is Hana.  She was my oldest friend—my best friend—for a very long time . . ."

Jessa didn't seem at all surprised by his admission.  "But she . . . She's not anymore . . .?"

He shook his head.  "No, she's not.  Things happened, and . . ." Dragging his hands through his hair, he shrugged.  "Things I can't forgive her for, and I can't . . . I can't help the way I feel . . ."  He flinched, sighed.  "She—"

Jessa's hand on his arm cut him off, and when he glanced up, he saw the sadness in her gaze, felt it in her aura.  "She hurt you," she murmured.  "I'm sorry I asked . . ."

He let out a deep breath, stretched out on his side and pulled her down next to him.  "Don't be sorry," he told her.  "It's just a long, messed up story, and I . . . I wouldn't even know where to begin or how to explain it to you."

She nodded, tangling her fingers in his hair.  "Maybe you'll tell me someday," she said, managing a small smile that he knew was solely for his own benefit.

He didn't reply, but he kissed her: a gentle, sweet thing that she accepted for what it was, even as he heard the whispers in the back of his mind, the understanding that he was being a coward, that he was entirely selfish in accepting her acquiescence because it was easier than laying the truth out at her feet . . .

 

 


 

 

 

As they neared the edge of the tree line, Jessa stopped, tugging on Ashur's hand to draw his attention.  He turned to raise an eyebrow at her.  "Something wrong?"

She made a face, glancing down at her clothes—or lack thereof since she'd put her bra and panties back on, along with the sweater since it hung to mid-thigh, but she hadn't put the riding pants on again—they were still way too damp to even attempt it. Ashur wasn't much better, given that he no longer had a shirt since she'd burned it, and his pants were horribly rumpled and wet and basically . . . Add to that, the disheveled hair—if his looked entirely unkempt, she didn't even want to think about the state of hers, and . . . She grimaced.  Well, they looked entirely suspect.

She shook her head.  "I can't take Stardust back to the stable—not when I look like this!" she grumbled.

He chuckled.  "What you look like?  Well, to be honest, you look like you've been well and truly fu—"

"Don't finish that!" she cut in, unable to staunch the blush that shot to the fore as she smashed her hand over his mouth.

He chuckled and pulled her hand down, kissing her fingers before letting go.  "Well, you do."

She groaned, and he relented, taking the reins from her.  "Can you sneak in through your balcony?"

She considered that and then nodded.  "But what about you?"

He shrugged.  "I'll tell them the truth.  You burned my shirt off, got me soaking wet, then had your way with me."

She gasped, but narrowed her eyes when she realized that he was joking.  "You're impossible," she grumbled as she started to stomp away.

He pulled her back, kissed her soundly, then swatted her gently on the rear.  "The coast is clear.  You'd better run now."

She spared a moment to cast him an entirely coy sort of look before breaking into a sprint, directly toward the balcony of her room.

She didn't breathe until she'd reached the relative sanctuary of her room, but one glance in the mirror over her bureau made her groan out loud.  She still had bits of grass tangled in her hair, and her face . . . There was a wild sort of look in her eyes, a few smudges of dirt still staining her skin.  Dropping her clothes on the floor to deal with later, she hurried into the bathroom to shower.

The steaming hot water felt good, especially after the comparatively cold water of the pond.  Being a fire youkai, she supposed, she felt those variances in temperature far more acutely than most others did.  In any case, she leaned back, let the hot water flow over her as she let out a deep breath, a quiet moan.

Just the memory of Ashur, of his hands, of his body, was nearly her undoing.  Running her hands up over her skin, she grimaced, willing away the thoughts before she ended up, trying to find another reason to closet herself away with him . . .

She sighed, reaching for the shampoo as she shook her head.  Just what was that man doing to her, anyway?  She was a lady, wasn't she?  Ladies weren't supposed to have sex on the brain like she did . . .

"He's ruining me," she muttered, but giggled a moment later.  'Well, if I'm going to be ruined, that's a bloody good way to go . . .'

'Your darling ma would be turning over in her grave if she could hear you now, Jessamyn O'Shea,' her youkai lamented.

'Hmm . . . That's Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, to you.'

Her youkai heaved a long-suffering sigh, and by the time Jessa had finished her shower and brushed her teeth, she was feeling much more like her old self again.

Since she felt like going out and training a little, she grabbed a pair of shorts and a slightly oversized tee-shirt, but grimaced when she tried to run a brush through her hair. Somehow, she'd managed to get a few more tangles in it than usual, and the resulting mess of it was more than she wanted to deal with.  Rifling through her drawers for a pair of scissors that she didn't have, she heaved a sigh, dragging it all over her shoulder as she headed for the door.

She could hear the television in the living room, blaring out some cartoon or another, and she poked her head around the corner, smiling to herself when she spotted Kells, sitting on the sofa with a box of Chex cereal.  Not exactly the best meal, but she hadn't thought to make breakfast this morning before she'd taken off on Stardust.

But she had seen a pair of shears in the kitchen, so that's where she headed next.

She had just gathered her hair together and was ready to lop the length of it off, when a very loud curse made her turn as a pair of large hands yanked the scissors out of her grasp.  "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Ashur growled as he tossed the scissors on top of the cabinets that lined the wall.

She wrinkled her nose.  "My hair's all tangled.  I was going to cut it off."

"The hell you will!" he retorted, looking like she'd just said the craziest thing that he could think of.

She rolled her eyes.  "It'll be back by tomorrow morning," she pointed out.  "It's easier to cut it off than to get a brush through it."

He snorted, crossing his arms over his chest—he still hadn't changed his clothes yet.  "Where's your brush?"

"In my room."

He grunted.  "Go get it.  I'll brush it out."

She made a face.  "Oh, that's insane.  Just give me the scissors."

"No."

"It'll take way too long," she pointed out.

He wasn't impressed.  "I'm going to go take my shower, and then I'll brush your hair out for you, but you are not—not—to cut it off.  If you do, I'll beat you."

"It's hair," she snapped.

"It's mine," he snapped back.

"Ugh," she groaned, rolling her eyes again as she crossed her arms over her chest and collapsed back against the counter.  He spared her a long, narrow-eyed look before turning on his heel and stomping out of the kitchen once more.

"What . . . the hell . . . was that?" she muttered to herself.

A very feminine laugh behind her drew her attention.  "He loves your hair, Jessa," Manami said with a shrug.  "I do, too, as a matter of fact, but not quite like he does."  She set her bag on the table and started rummaging through it.  "Go get your brush.  I think  have something that'll help . . ."

Against her better judgment, she did.  After all, she'd had her hair all of her life, and no matter what kind of serums or treatments her mother had bought or that she'd tried, she'd never actually found anything that truly helped if it got this tangled.  It always ended up the same way: with a huge knot of hair lying on the floor and a new mass of untangled hair in the morning . . .

Still, she was willing to try, she supposed, if it would appease Ashur . . . even if the end result was her getting to say, 'I told you so' . . .

By the time she reached the kitchen, hairbrush in hand, Manami was standing, rubbing her hands together as she gestured for Jessa to come closer.  "What's that?" she asked as she sank down in a chair.

Manami gathered her hair back and gently worked the concoction into the length of it.  "It's an herbal hair mask, specially formulated for youkai hair," she said.  "One of Zelig's family friends makes it—Madison, her name is.  She has a chain of salons and spas.  It works miracles, I tell you . . ."

Jessa wasn't entirely sure she believed that, but she handed Manami the brush and blinked as the woman quickly managed to work the tangles out of her hair.  "Wow . . . I may have to get some of that," she allowed, picking up the jar and looking it over.

Manami laughed.  "It works on human hair, too, but it works best on ours . . . I've got another jar at home, if you want to keep that one."

"Are you sure?"

She nodded, handing the brush back to Jessa.  "Absolutely.  It'll look a little shiny for an hour or so, but once it dries up, you won't even feel it."

Pulling her hair over her shoulder, Jessa slowly shook her head.  "I can't believe it . . ."

Manami winked as she hurried over to wash her hands.  "I don't think there's a Madison's up here, so I'll send you a couple jars the next time I go in to have my hair done," she offered.

"Oh, how much are they?"

Manami waved a hand as she stepped away and retrieved her bag.  "I'll bill Ashur," she replied with a wink.  Slinging the strap of the bag over her shoulder, she started out of the kitchen, only to stop on the threshold to turn back once more.  "Jessa . . ."

"Hmm?" she said, reading over the ingredients.

Manami smiled.  "You're really good for him," she said.

Jessa blinked and bit her lip, unsure exactly what she ought to say about that.  Manami laughed and blew her a kiss.  "Tell Ashur thanks for his hospitality, but I really must get going.  Bye!"

A minute later, the sound of the front door closing drifted back to her, and Jessa sighed.

"Manami just leave?" Ashur asked, striding back into the room with a towel draped around his neck and a fresh pair of jeans though he'd skipped the shirt for the moment.

"You have jeans?" she blurted before she could stop to think about it.  It was the first time she'd seen him wear something like that, and to be honest, she hadn't actually realized that he owned any.

He glanced down at himself then shrugged.  "It's Saturday," he told her, "and I've decided that I'm not working today."

She snorted.  "Can you do that?" she challenged quietly since she happened to know that the man tended to work himself to distraction more often than not.

"And it's Kells' last weekend before preschool starts, so I thought we should do something with him."

"So, it's not going to be an, 'every Saturday thing'," she concluded.

He strode over, pulled her hair back, letting it run through his fingers.  "I have fantasies about this hair," he said, ignoring her statement as he brought a handful of her hair to his nose.

She turned far enough to peer up at him, her gaze narrowing suspiciously.  "What kind of fantasies?" she asked slowly.

He chuckled.  "Get your shoes on," he told her, again ignoring her as he let go of her hair and stepped back, grabbing the towel around his neck and holding onto both ends.  "Kells!"

The boy dashed into the kitchen, bypassing his father as he threw himself onto Jessa's lap.

Ashur rolled his eyes.  "You want to go pick out a pony?"

Kells gasped and let go of Jessa in favor of hopping over to his father.  "A pony?  I can have a pony?"

Ashur nodded.  "I'm going to grab a shirt, and  you're going to wash your hands and face and put your shoes on, right?"

"Yeah!" Kells hollered as he took off out of the kitchen to thunder up the stairs.

She stood up and smiled at him.  "Are you going to get a pony?" she asked.

He shrugged.  "I may.  I don't know how often I'll ride it, but . . ."

"I could teach you," she ventured.

He made a face.  "I'm never going to be an equestrian," he told her.  "But it might be all right every now and then."

Her smile widened as he strode out of the room, probably to find a shirt, and she followed him.  For a day that had started out so badly, she really had nothing that she could complain about, did she . . .?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa knocked on the door frame before stepping inside the apartment.  Carol glanced up and grinned as she set the suitcase down and hurried over to hug her.  "I can't believe you're here to stay!" Jessa exclaimed, giving her friend a squeeze.  "I'm so glad you decided to come early."

Carol laughed.  "Well, I was talking to this guy—William McKay.  He comes in from time to time—very polite, not the usual type, you know?  He stands out like a sore thumb, actually.  Expensive suits, very clean . . . Anyway, the last time he came in, I was making small talk, asked him what he does, and he said that he has a club up here, that he comes down from time to time to visit suppliers and stuff like that.  So, I told him that I was planning on moving up here, and he gives me his number, tells me to call him when he's back home, that he'd love to run a background check on me and if it came back clear, he'd offer me a job: full benefits, better pay, not a strip joint.  He calls it a gentlemen's club, but I checked into it, and there's nothing shady going on there.  They even have a dress code: black skirts no shorter than three inches above the knee, white blouses, no heels over two inches, so no more teetering around on ho-heels . . . I start Monday."  She gave Jessa another quick hug.  "I was thinking about saving up some money, taking some classes at the university—restaurant management or something like that."

"And Laith?" Jessa countered, lowering her voice in case the man in question happened to be nearby—not likely at this time of day, but she still wasn't taking any chances.

Carol tucked her hair behind her ear and smiled a little secretively.  "Well, we did talk quite a bit during my visit—I told you about all of that.  He's . . . He's very nice—a little quiet, but there's nothing wrong with that . . . I just . . . I just don't want to come on too strong with him."  She sighed.  "He seems like the type that might get spooked pretty easily."

"Well, he does ask me about you now and then . . . Didn't  you give him your phone number?"

"I did," she confessed.  "We've been talking . . . texting . . ."

"Good," Jessa concluded.

Carol giggled, then raised an eyebrow.  "Enough about me . . . How are things going with Ashur?"

She couldn't help the blush that stained her cheeks, couldn't help the smile, either . . . Given that they'd spent most of the night before—as well as most of the nights in the last two weeks since the argument by the pond—exploring each other's bodies?  And she'd ended up so dead exausted this morning that he hadn't been able to wake her, which was why Ashur had picked Carol up at the airport alone . . .

"That good, huh?  Did my, uh . . . present . . . come in handy?"  The blush darkened as Carol laughed.  "Is that right?"  Carol hurried over, closed the door, before tugging Jessa over to the sofa.  "Are you going to give me details?"

Jessa grimaced.  "Carol, I can't," she insisted.  "I mean . . ."

Carol's smile dimmed just a little as her mouth dropped open.  "Are you in love?"

Jessa opened and closed her mouth, unable to answer that question out loud.  The answer was plain enough, and yet, some part of her . . .

She nodded slowly.  "Is . . . Is  he in love . . .?"

Biting her lip, Jessa shook her head.  "I . . . I don't know," she replied quietly.

Carol made a face and sighed, slipping an arm around Jessa's shoulders, giving her a reassuring squeeze.  "Ah, that wonderful but awkward time in every relationship, huh . . .?  Does he . . .? Doesn't he . . .?  Do I . . .? Don't I . . . ? Well, Jess, I wouldn't worry too much.  I mean, as gorgeous as you are?  If he doesn't love you yet, he will soon enough."  She kissed Jessa's temple then stood up.  "I think I'll see if Laith would mind taking me into town so I can pick a few things up at the store: soap, toothpaste . . . stuff like that.  Want to come?"

Jessa stood up, too and followed Carol outside.  "I'd love to, but Ashur's got someone stopping by soon, so I need to watch Kells."

"All right," Carol agreed.  "I'll come up to the house when I get back."

Jessa nodded and watched as Carol headed for the stables, her smile fading slowly as she stifled a sigh.

"Is . . . Is he in love . . .?"

She . . . She knew the answer to that question, didn't she?  Knew it and . . . and hated it . . . Sex was one thing.  She knew that he had a healthy preoccupation with her body, but she wasn't nearly dumb enough to equate the two, either . . . He cared about her; she didn't doubt that in the least.  But he didn't . . . didn't love her . . . and she wasn't fool enough to try to convince herself otherwise.

 

 


 

 

 

Bas strode into the office, tossing a manila envelope on the desk as Ashur jerked back and shot the future North American tai-youkai a quelling look.  "Who let you in?" he asked dryly.

Bas chuckled and flopped down in one of the chairs facing Ashur's desk with a heavy sigh as he slumped to the side and rubbed his forehead with a weary hand.  "Jessa did," he said.  "Oh, yeah, I have this for you, too . . ."  Digging into the inner pocket of his leather jacket, he flicked very fine linen envelope onto the packet he'd already handed over.  "Mom was going to mail it, but when I mentioned that I was coming up here today, she asked me to hand deliver it, so . . . done."

"What is it?" he asked, reaching for the envelope, turning it over in his hands. "The Zelig Foundation?" he read on the back flap.

Bas nodded.  "It's just an invitation to the annual benefit gala held in New York City every summer-slash-fall, depending.  I think she mentioned having a pre-gala dinner for the generals and all the other big wig youkai that are flying in for the event this year, though—something about wanting to introduce  you properly . . ." He grimaced.  "Ten thousand bucks a seat for everyone but you since you're kind of the guest of honor, but it's all for charity, so . . ."

"The generals," Ashur repeated.  "Isn't that kind of like extortion?"

Bas chuckled.  "Yeah, but would you really say that to my mom?"

Ashur shrugged.  "Your father?  Yes.  Your mother?  Not in this lifetime."  He frowned, thoughtfully scratching his chin.  "How did your father end up with your mother?  She's so . . . sweet . . . and he's . . . not."

Bas barked out a hoot of laughter.  "He got lucky at some point, I guess," he said.  "I suppose we all do, come to think of it . . ."

"Ah, your Sydnie . . . A cat and a dog . . . How ironic . . ."

"So I've been told."  Bas nodded slowly.  "Anyway, the Zelig Foundation is a very worthwhile charity, which I can say since I don't really do much but write checks to it every now and then.  I mean, sure, if we have a project we find out about that is something we care about, we can usually push for funding.  It's funded a lot of very necessary research for children and some for further understanding of youkai genetics, but for the most part, it's really Mom's busywork . . . I have to go this year because of this dinner—thanks for that, Ashur.  Ordinarily, I avoid it if at all possible since the last time I agreed to go, she auctioned me off."

"She what?" Ashur asked, letting the envelope drop from his fingertips.

Bas sighed.  "There's always a bachelor auction," he explained.  "Usually one of the highlights of the evening—as long as you're not one of the eligible bachelors, anyway . . ."

"Yeah, I think I'll pass on that," Ashur muttered.

"The auction or the gala?"

He grunted.

Bas chuckled again.  "Don't worry.  She already has a full list of poor fools that she's talked into offering their time—and the gala's usually not that bad—dancing, schmoozing, hobnobbing with some hopelessly snobbish people overall, but not terrible.  You really should go.  Besides, it's something that you really should attend at least once.  Then you can make your excuses every year after that."

Ashur nodded.  "I'll think about it," he replied.

"Good . . . I'll tell Mom that you're good for the dinner and that you'll let her know about the gala.  Fair?"

Seeing no way around it, Ashur nodded again.  After all, if the tai-youkai's wife wanted to throw a formal dinner to introduce you to the others of the upper echelons, he figured that it wasn't really something he could back out of.  "I guess I could spare one evening for your mother," he allowed.

Bas nodded slowly, his grin stating plainly enough that he'd figured that would be Ashur's reply.  "Anyway, that's all of Jessa's documentation, including her formal approval for amnesty.  Found out that since she's technically got UK citizenship because of her father, she can get dual US citizenship, too, if she's interested.  It's a lot of red tape, but if she got it, it might light a fire under MacDonnough's ass in regards to settling her estate.  I'm sorry it took so long to get all that for her."

Ashur frowned thoughtfully.  Birth certificate, second level education Leaving Certificate, driver's license . . . There were a few other papers in there, too, but he didn't read through them before shoving everything back in the envelope once more and setting it aside.  "Did you find out anything else?"

He nodded slowly.  "It took awhile, but I managed to track down the mechanic that did the inspection of her mom's car.  He wasn't very helpful, though . . . He seemed a tad nervous."

"What'd he say?"

"He admitted that there wasn't anything wrong with the car when he inspected it.  He said that they always pay extra attention to things like fuel lines, make sure that everything is well maintained and solid . . . Said he didn't know what happened to the files from that shop.  It closed down just after Jessa's mom's accident.  Judging from the nervous way he kept looking around when I was talking to him, I'd say that he was just a little worried."

Ashur stared at Bas.  There was something in the depths of the man's gaze, something troubled, something he wasn't saying . . . "Can we bring him over?  Get him out of MacDonnough's jurisdiction?"

Bas made a face, pursed his lips as he slowly shook his head.  "I already tried that," he admitted.  "The guy said he wasn't really interested in jumping ship.  Still . . ."

"Still?" Ashur prompted when Bas trailed off.

Bas sighed, scratching the back of his neck as he straightened up in his chair.  "He was jumpy as hell.  He was scared of something—or someone.  Getting him out of there . . . Not sure we can do it, especially if he's got family there, too."

Standing up, Ashur shoved his hands into his pockets as he rounded the desk.  "Come on," he said, letting the subject drop for the moment.  "You look like you could use a beer."

Bas stood up, too, following Ashur out of the office.  "Yeah, sounds good," he agreed.  "Just one, though, then I've got to get going.  Promised Sydnie I'd take her out tonight, and if there's one thing I've figured out?  You never, ever stand that woman up . . ."

Ashur chuckled.  "Sharpen her claws on you, will she?"

Bas shook his head as Ashur retrieved a couple bottles of beer from the fridge in the wetbar.  "Nope, but she has these killer stilettos . . . and trust me, they hurt . . ."

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa trailed behind Kells as the boy dragged her into his room, tugging on her hand to hurry her along.  After having spent the afternoon, teaching him some of the basics of horse handling, he was dusty and dirty and positively glowing—so much so that she'd had to talk him into taking a shower since he insisted that he only had to take one in the morning, 'wif Daddy'.  She'd won that round, though, and he'd emerged a few minutes ago, fresh and clean and smelling of baby shampoo and bubble gum flavored tooth paste . . .

"I want to hear the dinosaur story!" Kells insisted as he let go of her hand and hopped onto the bed, pointing at the bright blue shelf where he kept his favorite books.

She laughed softly and retrieved the story while he scooted around to make room for her beside him on the tiny bed.  "All right," she said as she stretched out beside him, slipping an arm around him and opening the book so that they could both see it.  "I'm not as good at the voices as your da, though," she reminded him, "and just the one story.  You've preschool in the morning."

He scrunched up his face, likely trying to figure out if there was a way to negotiate a longer story time.  Last night, it was the, 'I need to catch up on stories 'cause I was gone 'way,' attempt.  The night before that, it was the, 'Will you read until I'm done with my water?' defense.  To be honest, she had to give him points for creativity, even if she hadn't given in on the issue—yet.

"But it isn't dark outside yet, Jessa," he said, lowering his chin, gazing up at her through the heavy fringe of impossibly thick, dark eyelashes that were so like his father's that, for a moment, Jessa blinked, stared.

Forcing a laugh as she brushed aside the hesitation at the entirely too-uncanny resemblance between the two, she slowly shook her head.  "That's so, but I seem to recall a certain young lad who kept nodding off over his dinner," she reminded him.

Stifling a yawn with both of his hands, smashed over his mouth, he blinked to dispel the rising moisture brought on by the action.  "But I'm not really tired, and Daddy's still not home . . ."

She sighed, letting go of the book as she lifted a hand to gently ruffle his hair, pulled him in close to kiss his head.  "He will be soon," she promised.  He'd had to go meet someone for dinner—just another of his eager denizens, he'd told her.  But he'd left hours ago, and the last thing he'd said before he walked out the door was that it wouldn't take long . . .

Biting back the urge to sigh, Jessa turned the page.  "'There once was a dino named Jake who lived in the Valley of the Big Sun.  All day long, he stretched his neck to eat the leaves that grew high above the forest floor, but the most tender leaves were too low for him to reach . . .'"

"Why can't he reach them, Jessa?" Kells asked, leaning away to peer up at her.  "He could just lay down, and then he'd be smaller . . ."

She smiled.  "Maybe he's too big to lie down," she said.  "Horses can't lie down for too long, either.  They can hurt themselves if they do, and a dinosaur is much bigger than a horse, right?"

He considered that for a long moment, then he nodded.  "Do they die if they lie down?"

"Well, no," she said.  "But if they're down for too long, they can cause themselves some very serious problems.  Anyway, I think that's why Jake can't lie down to eat."

"What kind of problems?" Kells persisted.

"It's called reperfusion, which is a big word that means that the animal cannot get the right blood flow to certain parts of their bodies, so when the weight is taken off, and the blood starts flowing again, it can cause a lot of problems for them.  They're so big that their weight can crush things inside them if they lie down too long."

"'Cause they're fat?"

She laughed, giving him a little squeeze.  "Not . . . exactly . . . They're just large animals.  That's all.  It's kind of like how your hand feels if you lean on it too long."

His eyes flared wide, his mouth rounded in an 'o'.  "When it's tingly!"

"Yes, just like that," she said.

"Oh, is that what happens?"

"Daddy!" Kells hollered, hopping out of bed and dashing over to his father.

Ashur chuckled and scooped him up, cuddling him on his shoulder for a minute before walking over to set him down on the bed.  "It's past your bed time," he pointed out, even though he didn't sound at all irritated.  "Were you waiting up for me?"

Kells nodded happily.  "You can read wif us, Daddy," he said.

Ashur ruffled his hair.  "There's no room," he told Kells, frowning in mock concentration at Kells' tiny bed.  Even then, he still hunkered down beside it, leaning in so that he could see the book, too.

Jessa smiled, read Kells another few pages, only to stop when Ashur reached over and gently pulled the book away.  She glanced at him, and he shook his head before jerking it in Kells' direction. The boy was sound asleep with the vaguest smile on his adorable little face, one hand tangled in Jessa's hair, the other with a tight grip on the end of Ashur's ponytail.

She didn't get up right away, sparing a few minutes, just to watch over him as he slept.  Ashur did, too, but finally, he carefully pulled his hair out of Kells' fist and pushed himself to his feet.

Jessa untangled her hair from his tiny fingers, pulled his blanket up to his chin before blowing him a kiss and following Ashur out of the room.

"How was your dinner?" she asked as he quietly closed the door, then headed for the stairs.

His gait faltered for just a moment, more of a breath than a real hesitation, and he shrugged.  "It was fine," he said, his tone almost clipped, as he tugged off his tie with a deft yank and dropped it over the newel post.  Somewhere between the time that he'd entered the house and when he'd appeared in Kells' doorway, he'd discarded the suit jacket, too.  Stepping into the office, he flicked on the light before stopping abruptly, turning on his heel, leaning against the door jamb, hands dug deep in his pockets, to stare at her, his gaze darkened, his brow knitted together in a thoughtful scowl.  "I lied," he said with a grimace.  "Dinner . . . was pretty bad, actually."

She stopped, leaned on the newel post, unsure exactly what he was saying.  "The food wasn't to your liking?" she drawled.

He made a face, lip curling up in a rather cynical sneer.  "The food was fine," he countered mildly.  "The old bastard wanted to introduce me to his daughters—his three very single daughters."

"Oh," she said, pressing her lips together in a tight line since she had a feeling that her laughter might well set him right off.  "I take it you weren't interested?"

That comment earned her a very significant scowl.  "I ought to beat you," he muttered, stomping out of the office and down the short hallway, rounding the corner and making a beeline directly through the living room and straight to the wetbar.  "I need a fucking drink."

"Was there something wrong with them?" she asked, following him into the living room.

He sighed, tapping his forehead between the eyes with his fingertips before flipping his wrist, flicking his palm up in an entirely dismissive sort of gesture.  "They were fine.  They were very lovely girls—ladies.  They weren't my type—and I can probably tell you everything about them, because it seemed like their father was trying to sell them off, one by one."

"Oh . . . Oh, dear," she mumbled, her fingers hovering at her lips as she bit down on the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing outright.

He sloshed more brandy into his snifter than he usually did, turning on his heel, leaning back against the cabinet, ankles crossed on the floor as he sucked in one cheek and cocked his head to the side.  "It's not nearly as funny as you seem to think," he told her flatly.

"Mm," she intoned, wrapping an arm over her stomach, resting her elbow on her hand, covering her mouth with her raised fist.  "A little," she allowed.

He shook his head, narrowing his gaze on her as he drained half of the contents of the snifter in one fortifying gulp.  "You're not even slightly jealous, are you?"

She shrugged.  "Do I need to be?"

He snorted and quaffed the rest of the brandy.  "Not really."

She shrugged again.  "Then, no."

He made a show of rolling his eyes as he turned away to refill the snifter.  "Every time I tried to make my excuses, he'd start lauding more of their collective accolades."  He shook his head.  "I don't get it.  I mean, objectively speaking, they really were very nice girls—well mannered, very polished, very self-confident . . . I'm not sure why he had to employ the strong-arm tactics . . ."

Wrinkling her nose, Jessa made a face that he missed entirely.  "Probably for the same reason that my ma would start doing the same sort of thing to me . . ."

He snorted, stepping away from the wetbar, wandering over to stare out of the falling night outside.  "Glad there weren't any takers," he muttered.  "Besides, you hardly need a list of recommendations . . . Just how is it that you weren't snatched up, right off the bat, anyway?"

"I'm hardly a bit of chattel," she complained, her amusement dying away at the implication of what he'd said.

He sighed.  "And just how is it, that after all of that, I'm the one who ends up feeling dirty, anyway?"

"Do you?"

He swung around to face her, his eyes taking on a certain glow—one that was all-too familiar to her.  Staring very deliberately at her in such a way that made her feel entirely naked, entirely vulnerable, that weakened her knees and made her heart race, he slowly drained the snifter again and set it aside.

"Why don't you come here and make me feel a little dirtier?" he rumbled, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

For the space of an instant, she fleetingly considered telling him that she was tired.  The half-smile on his face, however, drew her forward, and she gasped softly when he grabbed her, when he dragged her against him, when he lowered his lips to hers—a kiss of seduction and promise and secrets . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa awoke slowly, swimming up through layers of sleep as she slowly, groggily, opened her eyes, blinking a few times to clear her vision.  Pushing herself up on her elbow as she rubbed her face and tried to focus on the clock beside the bed, she realized with a low groan that it was almost nine, and she'd missed making Kells' breakfast yet again.

'Oh, he's going to be so mad at me . . . or worse, he's going to pout at me . . . bat those eyes of his, make me feel like the evil step-mother in the fairy tales . . .'

Flopping back onto her pillow, burying her face in the downy softness, she heaved a sigh.  The sound of it was lost, effectively ruining her melodramatics.  It was all Ashur's fault, anyway.  If he hadn't come, sneaking into her room at nearly midnight—if he hadn't kept her awake well into the night—she would have gotten up in time to make Kells' breakfast and would have gotten him ready for preschool . . .

She was almost asleep again when the warmth of Ashur's lips on the back of her neck woke her again, drew a soft sigh from her as he slid into the bed with her, pulling the duvet up over them both as he slipped his arms around her, pulled her back against his chest.  "Are you going to sleep?" she murmured, eyes still closed as she savored the warmth of his body, as he molded himself around her, his leg draping over hers, the other, knee bent, nestled snuggly into the bend behind hers.

"Mhmm," he intoned, burying his face in her hair with a soft sigh—more of a breath, an exhalation.  "I want to," he said, hands gently brushing over her belly, fluttering over her breasts. "God, you're so warm, so soft . . ."

"Don't you have meetings or something today?" she asked, unable to control the breathlessness in her husky tone.

"No, worse," he muttered with a heavy sigh.  "Ben called while I was taking Kells to preschool.  Apparently, they're on their way up for a prolonged visit . . ."

"How long will they be staying?" she asked.  There was something odd about the resigned tone of his voice . . .

"He said something about 'a few weeks or so', which could mean anything from a couple weeks to a month or more.  His perception of time is somewhat skewed . . ."

She frowned.  "But isn't it bad form to just show up at one's house on such short notice?  I mean, brother or not, that seems awfully presumptuous . . ."

Ashur leaned up on his elbow, took his time, twirling a long lock of her hair around his finger as she rolled over onto her back and stared up at him.  "It's for Kells' sake," he said.  "Ben just wants to be close to him, given that he didn't know about me, nor I about him until I was . . . eighty or so, give or take a few years . . ."

The shock in her expression had to be obvious, and Ashur smiled a little sadly, but there was a trace of something else, too, something almost like . . . anger . . . "My parents were not the most forthcoming of people."

"But . . . to not tell you about your brother . . .?  For that long . . .?" she blurted.

He shrugged as though it were of little importance.  "Water under the bridge, Jessa.  Just let it flow."

She frowned at him, but he either missed it or simply decided that he didn't want to answer any more questions as he leaned down, nuzzled against her cheek.  The ticking of the clock resounded in her head like gunfire, and she sighed, giving up, at least for the moment, so that she could simply savor the closeness, the proximity of him.

"Damn, I'm going to miss this when Ben's here," he murmured, almost as an afterthought, almost more to himself than to her.

Those words, however, held absolute sway, shattering the fragile sense of serenity that she'd begun to savor over the past couple weeks.  Somehow, she couldn't seem to find her voice, couldn't meld together the words that she wanted . . . Couldn't bring herself to question, exactly what he meant . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Stepping into the lavish office, Carl Kingston inclined his head in deference to the European tai-youkai.

Ian MacDonnough gave a curt nod as he slowly turned to face the Englishman, taking his time, flicking a bit of lint from the otherwise immaculate sleeve of his impeccably tailored suit jacket.  "Have you located your son yet?" he asked, foregoing any pleasantries that should have been forthcoming.

"Not yet," Kingston admitted.  "He's not touched his accounts, has not left any kind of paper trail."

MacDonnough stared at him, his expression entirely inscrutable.  "Disgraceful," he concluded.  "As I thought."

"I will find him, my lord," he insisted, grinding his teeth together so hard that they groaned in his mouth.  "You have my word."

Ian slowly shook his head.  "My patience is wearing thin, Kingston," he warned.  "I went to a lot of trouble in securing this for you.  Keep me waiting for results much longer, and I may decide to endorse someone else's bid for your . . . prize . . ."

The less-than-subtle threat was not lost on him, and Kingston couldn't help the glower he shot the tai-youkai.  "My men are searching everywhere," he assured him.  "Might I remind you that acquiring her is of sovereign importance, not only to me, but the future benefits for you will be well worth your trouble."

"So you've said," MacDonnough replied dryly.  "I've had enough of your innuendo and your cleverly boorish little attempts at intrigue.  I expect results from a man of your station.  Your asinine family drama has dragged on long enough.  The next time I summon you, you will have answers—or I will withdraw my support in this entire venture."

Kingston managed a tight smile, a curt nod, as he backed toward the door, recognizing that MacDonnough had well and truly dismissed him.  It was far more difficult to hide his impatience as the old butler escorted him to the doors of the great castle.

No, it was simply unacceptable, the lack of headway that his agents were making.  None of them had reported as much as a potential sighting of the boy, and that rankled more than anything.

Slipping into his car, he tapped the window to alert the driver as he settled back in the luxurious vehicle.  It wasn't until the vehicle started to move that he reached over, hit the button on the console.  "Call Weaver," he said.

"Calling Weaver," the mechanical female voice replied, the beeps of the number being dialed crackling to life over the speakers.

"Hello?"

"This is Duke Portsmouth," he barked, slapping his gloves against his thigh.  "Have you found my son?"

Verne Weaver hesitated before answering—enough of a response, as far as he was concerned.  "Entirely incompetent," he growled.  "How bloody hard is it to locate a thirty-five year old wastrel?"

"With all due respect, Your Grace, I daresay the world is a very large area to be searching, and, without knowing what name he might be using, without knowing how he's managing to get by without the use of his accounts . . . But we're searching, I promise you!"

"I don't want your excuses, I want you to find my son!" he bellowed.  Hitting the button to end the call, Kingston heaved a heavy sigh.  Curse Ian MacDonnough and his arrogance.  It would serve him right if he managed to locate that ungrateful brat—and the girl, too.

She was the key to it all, wasn't she?  The ultimate prize that he sought: the only thing that his son could possible do right—if he could be found, that was . . .

But it was all so close, so very, very close to bearing fruit . . . All the years of systematically locating any traces of the lore that existed, of systematically destroying it, all in the hopes that the old legends were left as nothing more than whispers in the dark, half forgotten by time and by generations who had lost sight of the true purpose, innumerable children who had grown up believing that blending into the shadows was the way, that cowering in the dark and hiding their natures was the only way to survive . . . The moment was nearly at hand—all he had to do was to bring the pieces together, and the result . . . The ancient prophecies . . .

'And she shall rise from fire, fall to ash, and rise in flame; the burning of the sacred feather will smite the earth and rend the heavens . . .'

As the words rang in his head, he smiled just a little, but the sentiment did not touch his eyes . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Ben relaxed on the sofa, idly swirling the contents of the brandy snifter in his hand as Kells and Emmeline drowsed, half on his lap, half on the middle seat cushion, side by side in the first real moment of quiet that they'd enjoyed since Kells got home from preschool.  Nadia was already out like a light, cuddled in the crook of Ashur's arm.

"So, there's been no suspicious activity to speak of around here?" Ben asked, emerald green eyes flicking up to meet Ashur's.

Ashur shook his head, looking back at the report in his free hand.  "Nope, not a thing.  Then again, I'm a general.  Would I really hear much about it if there were . . .?"

Ben nodded, long fingers tracing a ring around the rim of the glass in an idle sort of way as he considered what Ashur had said.  "Well, you know what they say: no news is good news . . . Maybe . . ."

Scowling as he let the report fall from his fingers onto his lap, Ashur shifted Nadia as he adjusted himself in the overstuffed easy chair.  "I don't know, Ben.  It's just . . . It feels too quiet," he said, flicking a finger at the situation report that Ben had brought along with him.  "Nothing at all is moving over there?  Not a thing?  After everything that's happened . . . I don't know."

Ben sipped the cognac, stroked Kells' hair idly, broke into a wan smile as he stared at the boy.  "I think the report might well be vastly different if we were able to gather anything from the European jurisdiction."

Ashur snorted, leveling a dark look at his brother.  "That goes without saying," he muttered.  "Speaking of . . . Have you heard anything else on the whereabouts of the missing lord?"

"Nope," Ben said.  "Bas said he came up, filled you in on everything he found out?"

"Wasn't much," Ashur replied.  "At least, he was able to get Jessa's documentation released, so that's something."

Ben nodded, setting the snifter on the table beside the sofa.  "Considering it's MacDonnough we're talking about?  More of a minor miracle, if you ask me."

"All right, it's well past bed time," Charity said as she and Jessa hurried into the room.  She paused long enough to snap a picture before carefully taking Nadia from Ashur while Jessa scooped up Kells.  Luckily for him, it was Friday night, so he didn't have school in the morning.  She stopped beside Ashur, let him kiss the sleeping boy's cheek, before she headed out of the room once more.   "I'll be back to get her in a minute," Charity said, nodding at Emmeline.

Ben watched his wife go, a little smile quirking his lips.  Ashur slowly shook his head.  "Not that I mind that you're visiting," he began, hauling himself out of his chair and grabbing Ben's snifter to refill it, "but you actually brought Eddie along?"

Ben shrugged.  "She's got some family up here, so yeah.  Besides, she misses Kells, too."

He could believe that.  The housekeeper always had possessed a bit of a soft spot for the children, and when he and Kells had stayed with Charity and Ben while he looked for a place in New York City, she was constantly caught, carrying the boy around . . . "Well, make sure she knows that I don't expect her to work while she's here," he said.

Ben chuckled.  "As if you could stop her . . . She complains a lot, but she's not happy unless she's taking care of someone . . ."

"Which is why you should absolutely give her another raise," Charity remarked, hurrying back in to retrieve Emmeline.  "The woman's a saint to put up with you, Ben, the way you harass her sometimes."

"Me?" he grumbled incredulously.  "Have you heard the way she talks to me, Cherry?"

Charity rolled her eyes, cradling Emmeline in her arms.  "And you always deserve it, you know."

He snorted in rebuttal and slowly shook his head.  "I am so misunderstood . . ."

"Like hell," Ashur retorted, handing Ben his refilled snifter.

 

 


 

 

 

The soft knock on the doorframe drew Jessa's attention as she stood at the French doors, staring out into the night.  She turned, only to find Charity, standing there with a friendly smile on her pretty face.  "May I come in?" she asked, gesturing at the room.

Jessa nodded, smiled a little shyly.  "I was just looking at the moon," she said, pulling open the doors and shuffling out onto the stone balcony.  Charity followed her, perching herself on the thick stone railing.  "You're looking well," she commented, golden eyes glowing in the wan light filtering out of the bedroom.  "I've been meaning to talk to you, ask you how you're doing . . ." She shrugged.  "I know we've texted some, but it's just not really the same, is it?"

"I-I don't mind," Jessa replied.

"Ashur seems like he's a little more relaxed, too.  I'm glad.  I mean, he's been through a lot, you know?"  Charity sighed, gave a little shrug.  "I mean, I guess we all did, but he . . . Sometimes I think it was hardest on him.  Between his parents and Hana, and . . ." She trailed off, shaking her head, and Jessa wondered if Charity thought that she might know more than she actually did.

Jessa bit her lip, rubbed her arms though she wasn't cold.  "He doesn't talk about . . . about any of that," she admitted.  "All he's ever really said was just that his parents weren't like mine . . . that Hana was a lifelong friend . . . until she wasn't . . ."

Charity frowned, seeming almost uncomfortable.  "He . . . He hasn't told you . . . any of it . . .?"

She shook her head, feeling just a little smaller, a little more pathetic.  "We saw her," she admitted, unsure exactly why she was saying it at all.  "Hana . . . at a restaurant . . ."

"You did?  Ashur told her . . ." Waving a hand, she quickly shook her head.  "It doesn't matter, not really.  It's just . . ." Rubbing her forehead, she sighed.  "It's really not my story to tell," Charity finally said, and the look she gave Jessa was apologetic.  "I was there for a lot of it, but . . . but the actual story really belongs to Ashur . . . and to Ben . . ."

Jessa pulled her hair over her shoulder, idly twisted it around and around and around . . . "He said that his parents didn't tell him about Ben until he was nearly eighty," she ventured.  "That seems so . . ."

Charity nodded.  "I know.  It was hard for me to grasp, too, when Ben told me about it.  He found out from ojii-san—my grandfather . . . Their parents . . . They disowned Ben when he left home, when he came here with Sebastian—the first North American tai-youkai.  They had Ashur after that . . ."

"Why would they do that?  Why would they disown Ben?"

There was a certain sadness in Charity's gaze.  It added a brighter gold, a darker amber, to her eyes.  "Because they couldn't control him—because he didn't want to live the life they'd chosen for him, and instead of learning their lesson then, they did much the same thing to Ashur, too, only with him, they did it longer, maybe worse than they treated Ben.  At least, Ben was raised in apathy, more or less, but Ashur . . . Some of the things that they did to him were downright cruel . . ."  Shaking her head sadly, she turned, stared up at the somber moon. "I only know the things that Ashur himself has told me, and he hasn't ever really said much . . . Just enough to know that his childhood was . . . was sad and lonely . . . and the people who should have loved and cherished him . . . They didn't . . ."

Jessa sighed, mind rolling back, back to the earliest memories she had—the ones that were insular moments in time: static like pictures and not the full moving reel.  Those first memories . . . a smiling Ma, a doting Da . . . the echo of laughter, of hugs and kisses, songs and dancing . . . Over time, as she'd aged, those still images progressed, like the earliest version of film: choppy, grainy, carrying with them a dated sort of feel that she'd learned to appreciate as she'd grown older, even if they'd seemed so juvenile, so easy to be abandoned at the time, only to be dragged back up at a later moment, only to be seen for the cherished images that they were . . .

And always, in the cinema of her head, her parents were the constants: the love, the support, the security that they so selflessly gave to her.  It was true, she didn't always have the best relationship with her mother, but maybe that was normal, too.  After all, despite whatever disagreements they might have had, she knew deep down that her mother loved her, that she only ever wanted what was best for her, even if some of the things she'd said were a little harsh, even a little cold . . . But Ashur . . . He didn't have that, did he?  Didn't possess those base memories: the ones that would lay the foundation for everything he'd live, everything he'd love, everything he'd ever dream . . .

Charity suddenly laughed: a soft laugh, a gentle balm.  "He's relaxed more," she murmured, still gazing up at the moon, her hands wrapped around the legs she'd drawn up when she'd turned on the wide railing, sitting as quietly as the creeping dark.  "I see traces of the man I'd first met, you know?  That's something you've given back to him, Jessa, whether you know it or not . . . I wanted to thank you for that, because Ben and I . . ." she sighed, flinched slightly, but her smile did not fade.  "Ben and I couldn't do that—couldn't give that back to him.  We tried, you know?  But . . . But there's only so much we could do . . ."

Jessa's gaze skittered away—away to the tree line, denoted only by the deepening shadows, the gasping and almost imperceptible lightening that she had to look for in order to see.  She didn't deserve Charity's quiet thanks, did she?  Because the truth of it was, she couldn't change Ashur, didn't have the ability, the capacity, to reach him, even though she wanted to—desperately wanted to.  No, the only person who could do that was Ashur himself, and Ashur . . .

He clung to those things, didn't he?  Those dark things, those vile memories . . . He held to them with a fierceness, as though he were afraid that if he let them go, he would have nothing at all left inside, and it didn't matter if it were a conscious choice or not, did it?  Because Ashur . . .

She slowly shook her head.

Because Ashur . . . He didn't want her help, and he never really had . . .

 

 


 

 

 

He trudged up the stairs, letting the air whoosh out of his lungs as he rubbed the back of his neck with a weary hand.  It was late—early—whatever, and he was exhausted, and yet, he wasn't.  Restless, he figured, was a good word for it; for the unrest, the unsettled part of him that he knew would keep him awake until dawn.  If it weren't for Ben and Charity's presences in his home, he knew damn well where he'd have ended up.  Curse his luck for bringing that particular being into this close of a proximity, because if there was one thing he understood more than anything else, it was that hiding things from Ben was damn near impossible . . .

Hell if he didn't need her, though.  The unwelcome understanding that she was entirely too close was paramount to physical torture.  Pausing outside her door, his hand resting against the thick, unyielding surface, he stifled a sigh, closed his eyes, willed away the need, just to touch her, to hold her, to take the comfort she would so readily give him . . .

He stepped away from her room, grinding his teeth together as he forced himself to continue down the hallway.  True enough, Ben and Charity were carefully shut away in one of the guest rooms on the third floor.  It didn't really matter, though, not with Ben.  No, about the second that Ben caught any kind of hint that there was anything at all going on between Jessa and him, he'd pounce on it, either teasing Ashur forever or worse: deciding it was time to turn all big-brother on him, lecturing him on just what he thought he was doing with a girl so young, warning him that he was ultimately playing with fire, quite literally . . .

And the crux of it was that Ashur already knew all of those things.  He was well aware of the precarious and volatile relationship between himself and Jessa.  Knew it, and he couldn't stop it.  To be brutally honest, he didn't rightfully know if he even wanted to, which was scary as hell, if he really stopped to think about it.  Even so, it was a little daunting, maybe even a little frightening, wasn't it?  That initial fascination he'd felt, that instant and maybe even inevitable pull, hadn't dissipated, despite how many times they'd ended up in bed together.  No, if anything, it had grown, blossomed, somehow transmuted into a necessity, like water, like air . . . like fire . . .

He paused outside Kells' room, quietly opening the door, staring at the tiny form, lost in the folds of the brightly colored Power Puppies comforter.  A vague smile flickered to life on his face.  The child that had saved him so long ago . . . He had no idea—none at all—and, God willing, he never would.  It was Kells who had pieced Ashur together back then, Kells who had given Ashur the focus that he so desperately had needed.  Kells, who had taught Ashur that it was okay to go on, that it was okay to want something different than the life he'd led up until that moment . . .

And yet, that same understanding . . .

Pushing away from the door frame, silently closing it behind him, he let out another long, deep breath, shuffling down the rest of the corridor, stepping into his room.

He sensed her presence as he closed the door, as she stepped up behind him, her arms slipped around his waist, the warmth of her body pressed against his back.

He turned, held her just for a moment before giving her a little squeeze and taking a step back.  "What are you doing in here?" he asked, not unkindly, his gaze meeting hers as he reached up to work the buttons of his shirt.

She shrugged, pushing his hands away, nimble fingers taking over his task as he reminded himself that he dared not allow her much more.  "I couldn't sleep," she said, her voice just a little husky as she kept her eyes trained on her mission.

He sighed, stepping away from her, turning his back on her, shoving his hands into his pockets as he wandered over to open his balcony doors, letting his eyes drift closed for a moment as the breeze of the summer night—balmy, sultry, punctuated by the smell of earth and trees and darker things—came to him.  "Jessa, you need to go to your own room," he said, mind rebelling against those words, even as they issued from his lips.

She ignored him for the moment, stepping around him, leaning against the frame of the opened doorway.  Pulling her hair over her shoulder, twisting it around and around in her hands, she frowned thoughtfully, eyes downcast.  "Charity said . . . Said that your parents . . . Well, she implied that they weren't .  . good . . . people . . ." she said, carefully choosing her words, carefully keeping her tone light, conversational.

"They, uh . . . They weren't," he admitted.  "I don't think they knew how to be parents.  I don't think they understood, and maybe it wasn't entirely their faults.  They were raised in another time and place, and . . . and maybe that's how it was for them, too . . ."

"You're making excuses for them?  When they treated you badly?" she challenged, her eyes raising to lock with his, the flicker of fire in her gaze completely at odds with the gentleness in her tone.  "What . . . What did they do to you, Ashur?"

He wasn't sure why he was so taken aback by her question.  It was a logical one, given what she'd been told.  Even so, that didn't make it an easy one to answer, either . . . "It was a long time ago, Jessa," he told her.  "Can we leave it at that?"

"Are you afraid of telling me, that I'll think badly of you if you answer me? Because that would be stupid . . . Or are you scared of the answers yourself . . .?"

He sighed.  "Most of the time, it was just . . . nothing," he said, unsure just why he was even bothering to try to explain it—to explain something that he didn't understand himself.  "No reason, no guidance, no subtle maneuvering to teach me anything . . . Otou-san only deigned to notice when I stepped out of bounds, when I erred in my judgment, and he wasn't above using brute force to guide me back to his way of thinking . . ."

"He . . . He beat you?" she asked, the crimson in her eyes igniting.  "That's barbaric!"

He shook his head.  "It wasn't that," he clarified.  "I mean, he was never out of control.  Just . . ." He grimaced.  "It wasn't, not really."

"Would you ever do that to Kells?" she challenged.

"Of course not," he growled.  Then he sighed.  "No," he said, squelching the bitterness that still lived somewhere deep inside him.  "No, but I swore that Kells would have a different kind of childhood," he admitted.  "A better one than I had . . ."

The outrage in her gaze slowly shifted as she pushed herself away from the doorframe, when she slipped her hand up to his cheek, her fingers infinitely gentle was she tenderly ran the pad of her thumb over his cheekbone.  "They broke you, didn't they?  Broke your spirit . . ."

He grasped her wrist in her hand, but didn't have the strength to push her away, could only stare deep into her eyes as he slowly shook his head.  To his horror, he could only watch, his voice stilled as though by a power stronger than his own, as a single tear slipped down her cheek.

Heaving a sigh, he forced his gaze away from hers, breaking the hold with which she held him.  Turning away from her, he moved away, struggled to lock the door in his head that she'd inadvertently thrown wide open.  "It was a long time ago, Jessa," he heard himself saying.  "Just . . . Just go on back to your room.  I . . . I want . . . No, I . . . I need to be alone . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ashur strode out of the bathroom and straight to the closet, unable to shake the thundering black clouds that had broken over him about the second he'd opened his eyes after the scant hour of sleep he'd finally managed to get after sending Jessa back to her room and spending the rest of the night, feeling guilty and unsettled after so much talk about his parents.

She'd opened up the floodgates on the tiny room in his head where he'd banished all those memories, hadn't she?  With her questions, even her outrage on his behalf . . . The few isolated instances that had managed to creep out of that room from time to time had been bad enough, and now?

He sighed, yanking on a pair of jeans—the first thing he'd laid hands on, and honestly, he didn't much care, anyway.

Those God forsaken memories had waylaid him, one right after another, though with no real reason or rhyme . . . Over and over again, just different moments, some of which he had no idea were trapped inside him.  Hours of instances that were better left forgotten, and the worst one of them all—the one he tried so hard to repress because, really, just what good could come of it?  The one insular memory that had the power to break him . . .

"What have you told them?"

Standing in the middle of the platform in the tiny cell below the house proper, Ashur stared straight ahead in stony silence, ignoring the pain, the burn, in his shoulders, in his back, from the hours of being confined, wrists bound by a thick iron chain over his head.  Threaded through the beams high above, affixed to a thick rope that extended down, only to be fastened tight around a lower iron bar, it held him fast, and he, fool that he was, had allowed Hidekea's trusted manservant, Tanaka to truss him up.  At the time, he'd thought that if he went along with it, that Hidekea would have his moment, but would ultimately let him go after he felt that Ashur was well and truly chastised . . .

He was wrong—horribly wrong.  As Hidekea paced the floor, Ashur didn't have to look at him to feel the rage rife in his youki. It was thick, cloying, festering, and dark.  Yukina swept into the room, her layers of clothing, rustling against the metal floor.  She handed Hidekea something.  Ashur didn't see what it was, and a part of him didn't really care, either.

She glided across the floor, her feet making no sound, arms folded together, hidden in the copious sleeves of the layers of her kimonos.  Drawing herself proudly, she stood before him, her blue eyes, cold, flat, yet as she gazed upon him, he saw it: the bitterness, the scorn—the animosity and contempt that she held for him.  Face snapping to the side when she slapped him as hard as she could, he slowly straightened his head, ignoring the blood that pooled in his mouth, closing his eyes just in time to avoid the mouthful of spit she heaved at him.  "You bastard child!" she hissed.  "How dare you betray your kin!"

"I betrayed you?" he said, his gaze narrowing, brows drawing together as he tried to understand, tried to comprehend, that this . . . This was his mother—a woman he'd known, almost revered, had so desperately wanted nothing more than a simple smile from her, his entire life . . .

"You are no son of mine, no child of my blood . . . You are nothing—nothing!  And you never, ever were!"  She lunged at him, her claws digging deep into the flesh of his chest.  The pain exploded in a white-hot burn, ricocheted to his brain as he bit it back, ignoring the sickening gush of blood that dripped from him, trailing down the hollows of his abdomen, soaking into the haori, the undershirt that hung from his waist . . .

"Yukina," Hidekea barked tersely.  "That is enough."

She didn't look like she agreed, glowering at Ashur for a painfully long minute before turning on her heel with a flourish, gliding out of the chamber as quietly as she had come, and the silence that fell was thick, rancid, interrupted only by the sound of his own breathing, and the harder he fought to will away the pain, to ignore the harsh throbbing of his rent flesh, the more ragged, the harsher it grew, punctuated only by the plop, plop of the blood mixed with his own saliva that dripped from his lip.

"Disappointing," Hidekea said, his footfalls scraping against the metal.  "My . . . son . . . taking the side of that haughty bastard, allying himself against his own family . . .?  No better than that fool of a brother of yours.  Do you do it on purpose, Kyouhei?  Was the draw so significant to follow in his footsteps that you would forsake your own family?  Did he brainwash you into doing his bidding?"

"Ben?" Ashur blurted, unable to repress the incredulity in his tone.

The mere mention of that name, however, was enough to crack the legendary calm as Hidekea shot forward—two long strides to close the distance—grasping Ashur's low-hanging ponytail, viciously yanking, snapping Ashur's head back, only to glower into his eyes.  "Say that name in my presence ever again, and I will gut you from neck to navel, and I will watch as your entrails drag the floor, as you stumble over them in your vain attempt to save yourself.  I will exult as I watch the breath leave  your body, the light fade from your eyes, and you will grovel—you will curse the day you were born, as we do every single day," he growled  "And then, I will gather your remains and ship them off to your precious brother so that he can see what he caused—so that he can live with the guilt and the shame for the rest of his miserable life."  Then he let go, giving Ashur a hard shove, his head snapping forward before he could catch himself.

The first lash came a heartbeat later, drawing him up straight as he arched his back away from the burn, the fire, the mind-numbing agony.  Far worse pain than anything that he'd ever felt before . . . By the third lash, he prayed for oblivion, except that when it finally came to him, Hidekea's rage wasn't satiated, and he brought him around again by ordering Tanaka to rub salts into his back as his father used the blunt handle of the cat-o-nine-tails to beat his torso, his face . . . More lashes—too many to count, more salt, more beatings . . . And Ashur had no conception of time or space, lost the ability to speak, much less to think, and the only retreat he'd had against anything was to pull himself in, to will his mind away from the consuming pain, wishing that he'd die a thousand times—a million times—but death did not come . . .

Smashing his hands over his face, he bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, forcing that memory back again, back into that tiny corner of his mind to lock it away before it managed to thoroughly destroy him.  It wasn't really surprising, when he thought back to those days . . . He'd been on precarious ground already, and then the altercation between Yukina and Hana . . . It was the final straw, wasn't it?  And, in the end, he'd retreated into his own head, just as he had during those hours, stuck in the basement, only this time, he wasn't able to break out himself—trapped in an endless loop, and whether his mind was trying to repair itself—that's what Charity had believed—or not, the only thing that had saved him was the insular sobbing of an infant—Kells . . .

He didn't want those memories.  Jessa had been trying to reach him, hadn't she?  And yet, the end result was so much worse . . .

Stomping out of the closet and out of the bedroom into the hallway, Ashur willed those things away.  Funny how much easier it was to do that in the bright light of day . . .

Down the hall and down the stairs, he thumped into the bright kitchen, only to stop short at the sight of his brother and Charity, sitting that the table with the twins and a yapping Kells while Eddie hurried around, making breakfast, but it was what Ben wasn't wearing that drew a heavy sigh from Ashur as he slowly shook his head.

"Morning, Ash," Ben remarked without looking up from the newspaper, flipping his empty coffee mug to the side as Eddie hurried around the counter to fill a cup for Ashur and do a round of refills.

"Where are your pants, Ben?" Ashur demanded, ignoring Ben's pleasantries as he reached for the steaming coffee mug and slapped it back, ignoring the scorching burn.  Eddie arched an eyebrow at him but refilled his mug without a word before slipping the carafe onto the table and marching back over to work on the pancakes.

"I took a shower," Ben replied, as though it explained everything.

Ashur snorted.  "I have absolutely no desire to see your junk first thing in the morning," he pointed out.

"Daddy!  Do I gots junk, too?" Kells demanded, rising up on his chair, hands planted on the table as he hopped up and down.

Ashur heaved a sigh as he leveled a glower at his brother, catching Kells around the waist and sitting him back down again.

Charity cleared her throat meaningfully before Ashur could respond, telegraphing Ben a narrow-eyed look before glancing from Nadia to Emmeline and back to Ben once more.

Ben, true to form, chuckled.  "Oh, you've got junk, all right, Kells," Ben remarked.

Charity heaved a sigh and rolled her eyes, slowly shaking her head in defeat.  "You know, Ben, you should think about putting on some pants before Jessa—"

"Good morning, Ashur.  It's a fine day outside, and—uh . . ."

Ashur glanced up in time to see Jessa, with Devlin in tow, as the two of them stepped into the kitchen.  Devlin was the one who had spoken, and when he spotted Ben and his deplorable lack of clothing, he quickly stopped, reaching around Jessa, only to slap his hands over her eyes.

"What are you doing?" Jessa demanded, tugging on Devlin's hands, to no avail.

"Pardon me for saying so.  I mean, I realize that it's your house, Ash, but isn't that entirely inappropriate?" he asked, nodding at Ben.

Eddie snorted loudly.  "Been telling the old jackass that for years," she muttered.

Charity sighed and dropped her forehead into her hand.  Nadia and Emmeline just looked on, wide-eyed while Kells giggled and stood up on his chair again.

"It's not like I'm nude," Ben pointed out dryly.

"Might as well be," Ashur grumbled, swatting Kells' backside to remind him that it needed to be flat on the chair.  The boy made a face but dropped onto the chair once more.

"If you all didn't bring attention to it, no one would even notice," Ben maintained.

"That's one of the dumbest things you've ever said," Ashur growled.  "Did you bump your head this morning?"

Ben grinned at him.

"Do you always eat breakfast in a towel?" Jessa asked, finally managing to shake off Devlin's hands.

"He does," Ashur replied darkly. "He's kind of an ass that way.  Can't you at least buy a robe or something?"

Ben shrugged offhandedly.  "I have one."

"Did you bring it with you?"

"They're too hot," Ben replied.

Jessa shook her head and grabbed a blueberry muffin out of the basket on the counter.  "Come on, Dev," she said, turning on her heel to stride out of the kitchen once more.  "This is all just a little too weird for me . . . We're going riding."

"I wanna ride!" Kells hollered.

"Then you'd better hurry and eat," Jessa called over her shoulder.

"Be careful," Ashur called after her.

She ignored him and kept moving.

Devlin stared at them for another minute before shaking his head and following Jessa out of the room.

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa leaned against the fence beside Carol as the two watched Laith and Devlin, who were instructing Kells, Nadia, and Emmeline in the basics of riding.  Kells was a little farther along since Jessa had already been working with him, but the girls were catching on quickly.  Unfortunately, though, they only had one pony, and the other horses were too large for the girls' first attempts at riding.  Laith, holding onto Nadia, was atop Buttercup, one of the horses that Ashur had purchased the same day he'd bought Humpty Dumpty, Kells' Shetland pony, while Devlin had Emmeline situated with him astride Fletch, and the men were allowing the girls to hold onto the reins.  Kells was showing off, cantering around them both, but he was careful not to venture too near the larger horses.

"Those girls are absolute dolls," Carol remarked as she watched the children.  "They almost make me want to have kids some day . . ."

"You don't want them?" Jessa asked.

Carol shrugged.  "I like kids, sure," she said, "but I tend to like them more when I can play with them awhile and send them back home."

"I did not know that," Jessa mused.  "You really don't want children . . .?"

"I'm not going to say I'll never have them because who know?  Maybe I'll change my mind, but honestly, I don't think I will."  She thought it over and made a face.  "I mean, I want to do things, you know?  Travel and see things . . . Go places . . . It's harder to do all that with kids, and then, when they finally grow up and move out on their own, you're in the middle of menopause, and going off to do your own thing may not sound like nearly as much fun as it did before . . . Does that sound selfish?"

Jessa shook her head.  "No.  I mean, people should have children because they want them, not because they think that they have to . . ."

"What about you?"

"Me?"

Carol nodded.  "I can see you with a houseful of kids, and then I can be the gorgeous and mysterious Auntie Carol who shows up with bags of goodies for them from my latest adventures . . ."

Jessa laughed.  "I don't know about a houseful," she remarked.  "What if your mate wants babies?"

Carol giggled.  "Mate?  You Irish are a funny people," she teased.  "But I would assume that my mate would be all right with it, too.  I mean, if he loves me and wants to be with me, then he'll understand.  It's not like it'd be a secret or anything.  If a guy thinks that having children is a deal-breaker, then I'd rather know that from the start so I don't waste his or my time."

Jessa nodded.  "Well, if you never have children, then I can understand.  They're a lot of work, and I'm just a nanny . . ."

"Is that . . . safe . . .?" Charity asked as she stepped up on Jessa's other side.

"Yes, of course . . . They won't let anything happen to the girls, and those horses are quite well trained, so it's very safe," Jessa assured her.

Charity waved a hand. "I wasn't as concerned about them," she admitted.  "I meant Kells . . ."

Jessa sighed since she could understand Charity's concern.  Kells tended to be just a little too hyper most of the time.  When it came to the pony, however, he was showing remarkable restraint since she'd explained to him that horses tended to do better with calm people, especially if the horse was given to being skittish.  Humpty Dumpty, however, was quite possibly the most laid back animal she'd ever seen, and that was definitely a plus.

Carol laughed, chatting with Charity while Jessa was content to simply watch the children.  They seemed to be having the time of their lives, and that was well worth the effort.

Ben wandered over—fully dressed, thankfully—slipping an arm around his mate.  "The girls are going to pester them all day long," he predicted, a vague little smile quirking his lips.  Then he chuckled.  "Poor bastards."

"What are the odds that they're not going to start asking for ponies?" Charity remarked.

Ben sighed.  "Except we don't know the first thing about caring for horses," he told her.

"You can always find a reputable stable where you can house your horses or you could hire someone to take care of them," Jessa said.

Ben shot her a raised-eyebrow-ed look, but smiled.  "You're really not helping, you realize."

She shrugged.  "Shouldn't all little girls have their own ponies?"

"She has a point, Ben," Charity concluded.  "I'll bet my papa would have gotten me a pony if I'd wanted one . . ."

"That was entirely unfair," Ben pointed out, tightening his grip on Charity and leaning in to kiss her cheek.

She laughed and kissed him back.

Somehow, watching the two of them, so happy, so free . . .

Jessa frowned as she focused her attention on Kells once more.

Watching Ben and Charity: their closeness, their bond . . . It hurt . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Letting out a deep breath as she wandered around the room, Jessa couldn't stand the restlessness.

The house was quiet—so quiet.  Everyone had gone to bed awhile ago.  Glancing at the clock on her nightstand, she grimaced.  Almost one in the morning . . .

She'd tried to sleep.  She'd made her excuses, not long after putting Kells to bed.  He was so exhausted from playing all day that he hadn't lasted more than a page into the book he chose, and she'd sat there with him, stroking his hair, breathing in the smell of him, and for those precious minutes, everything felt all right.  Kind of . . .

'Except you keep pretending, Jessa. More and more often of late, you do it—pretend that he's your child—so much so that it bothers you when he doesn't call you, 'Ma' . . .'

Frowning in the darkness, she shook her head, lifted her hand to touch the cool glass window pane.  'I don't . . . That's . . . That's stupid . . .'

'Except you do, just like when he fell off that pony today, and he cried, and you ran to him.  You scooped him up, you held him close, and a part of you loved how he hugged you, how he clung to you.'

Wincing at the deadly accuracy of her youkai-voice's words, she pressed her lips in a tight line, hating the part of her that knew the truth.  It was wrong, and it was horrible, and yes, if she were truly honest with herself, she would have to admit that a part of her did revel in those moments when that child needed comforting, and he had turned away from everyone else who had tried to take him away from her, Ashur included . . .

She'd held him close, and she'd dried his tears, and she'd told him that it was okay to fall.  She'd kissed his cheek, ruffled his hair, and she'd gotten him back into the saddle, too . . . And he'd smiled at her through the tears that still stood in his eyes, asked her to watch him while he cantered around the paddock . . . She'd restored his will to try again, and she'd loved that, too . . .

It was the highlight of her otherwise rather bleak day, actually.  Ashur had barely spoken more than a handful of words to her the entire day, had taken care not to be left anywhere alone with her.  Even during dinner, he'd pretty well ignored her, and if that wasn't telling enough, then there was still last night, when he'd sent her away, his message crystal clear; there were others in the house—others that he didn't want to know anything, but it was the question of why that bothered her most.

'Don't jump to conclusions . . . You know that he's just a very private man.  Maybe that's all there really is to it . . .'

She might well believe that if she didn't also remember his objections to her age, or lack thereof . . .

"You're . . . You're barely a woman, and I'm a grown man.  What happened that night . . . It shouldn't have, and you should realize that, too . . . I don't want to be your lifetime regret . . ."

Those words echoed in her brain, only now, she understood them just a little bit more.  It was his game, wasn't it?  His game, his rules, and she'd been naïve enough to fall for it . . .

The stagnant air of the bedroom choked her, stung her.  Fingers fumbling as she released the lock on the French doors, she threw them open, stumbled outside, lifted her gaze to the sky where the moon should have been.  It wasn't. The sky was as empty and void as she was.  The stars weren't shining as brightly, the air was silent and lonely.  Everything about it felt like nothing, and for a moment, Jessa wished that she could feel that way, too . . .

Closing her eyes, leaning on the railing, she breathed deep, willing the night air to offer her a semblance of calm, of solace, of the comfort she'd found in Ashur, only to have it ripped away from her.  That was the part that tore her open, left her bleeding, left her raw.  Somehow, she'd come to rely upon him, even after she'd sworn to herself that it would never happen—that she didn't need anyone—didn't want anyone . . .

A soft rustle, a quiet thud . . . For a moment, she thought maybe . . . But that couldn't be, could it?  Ashur . . . He wouldn't . . .

"Jessa . . ."

Eyes flashing open, she whipped to the side, and she started to step forward, starting to bring up her hands to touch him, but she stepped back instead, retreating as she forced her arms down, crossing them over her chest, turning her face away, because if she looked at him . . . If she looked at him . . .

"Come on," he said, taking the step toward her that she hadn't been able to take.

She shook her head, scrunched up her shoulders, as though the action would be enough to keep him at bay.

He sighed, reached out, pulled her into his arms without any real struggle.  Then he scooped her up, cradled her against his chest, vaulted the railing, landing on the grass below as he set off at a sprint.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked, huddling a little closer against him despite her stubborn resolve not to slip her arms around his neck.

"I can't stand not being near you," he admitted, and when she peered up into his face, it was to find him staring down at her, his gaze lit with an inner fierceness, a quiet sense of defiance.

His answer confused her, even as she felt her heart lurch in her chest, slamming hard against her ribcage in a pattern of butterfly flutters in the dark as the thoughts that had plagued her mere minutes before completely faded from her mind . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

". . . It's a . . . car . . ."

Ashur nodded,  handing her the keys.  "For you."

"You . . . bought . . . me a car . . .?"

He shrugged.  "There are times when you need one to take Kells places," he replied.  "You don't want to be cooped up out here all the time, either, do you?"

His reasons were logical, even if they sounded a little rehearsed to Jessa.  For some reason, though, the sight of the cute little candy-apple-red Terra Beinfore SUV, complete with sun roof, top of the line safety features, and fully capable 4-wheel drive that would be perfect for Canadian winters—probably better than Ashur's hopelessly expensive and equally boring Vestron Illusion, which was built for luxury but wasn't exactly known for its ability to plow through a Canadian blizzard, either.

"I don't want you to buy me things," she said, turning on her heel and shoving the key against his chest as she struggled to keep her tone even.

He looked down rather pointedly at her hand and pushed it back. "Don't worry about it, Jessa," he told her.  "You're Kells' nanny, after all."

For some reason, that statement only served to irritate her just a little bit more, and this time, she shoved the keys and him and dropped them.  He caught them, barely.  "Oh, is that so?"

He would have had to be stupid to miss her rising anger.  He glanced around, probably to make sure that there was no one else within earshot.  "It's not a big deal," he told her, lowering his voice just a little.  "If it bothers you that much, just . . . pay me back when your estate is settled, but you don't have to."  He took her hand, dropped the keys into it, then let go just as quickly and turned away, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he headed for the front door.  "Take it out for a test drive.  You'll change your mind about it."

She watched him go, her frown darkening with every step he took, and she had to tamp down the anger that she couldn't quite shake.  With a muffled growl of frustration, she opened the driver side door, tossed the keys into it, and slammed it closed again before striding off in the opposite direction, trying to put as much space between herself and that man as she possibly could.

It was unbelievable, wasn't it?  And it wouldn't have been so bad if it were the first time this had happened.  Granted, the car was a new twist, but . . .

She drew a few deep breaths meant to calm her down.  It didn't work as she kicked a rock as hard as she could and kept striding forward, heading for the path that she'd created when she'd first gotten Stardust but had managed to wear down to a proper trail in the last two weeks since Ben and Charity's arrival.

It was simply intolerable, wasn't it?  All but ignoring the fact that she lived and breathed if there was even the most remote chance that someone might walk in that someone might see him, standing just a little too close to her, talking to her, even breathing the same air as she was . . . Day after day, it was always the same, and she'd go to her room, feeling sad and lonely.  Most nights, she'd end up, falling into a fitful sleep, if she slept at all.  Every few days, though, he would come, always waiting until everyone was asleep, always taking her somewhere else—usually, to the pond—where he'd keep her awake until the sun rose, making love to her, holding her close, reassuring her that it was just for awhile, just until Ben and Charity went home, and every time they went back, as she sneaked into her own room as the sun broke over the distant horizon, she wondered why.  Why didn't he want them to know?  Why did it seem like he wasn't at all interested in telling his own brother?  There was never any kind of reasoning with it, no, 'I just wanted to tell him about us first,' or anything even remotely close to that.  No, it was just the idea that he didn't want anyone to know . . .

It somehow turned something that Jessa had thought was beautiful into something that felt cheap and ugly and shameful, and then . . .

The first morning after he'd come to her, just after he'd sent her from his room, they'd walked back in the morning dew, hand in hand, and she'd thought that maybe everything would be all right, that her feelings before had to just have been overreaction on her part.  But then, he'd pretty well ignored her through breakfast, hadn't said a thing to her all day, either.  When she'd gone to bed that night, though, it was to find a box on her pillow—a beautiful pair of diamond stud earrings—each one easily a couple carats . . .

But he hadn't come to her that night or the night after that, either.  And that was how it had been since.  She could pretty well bank on finding something on her pillow the night after he coaxed her into going with him—always somewhere far enough away from the house that there was no danger of anyone discovering their dirty little secret, she supposed.  The last time, it was a five hundred dollar gift card for a store she'd mentioned liking once upon a time, and if that wasn't a blatant expression of exactly what their stolen moments meant to him, then she really didn't know what was . . .

She'd sworn to herself last night that she wouldn't go with him if he came to her.  That resolution had lasted about thirty seconds, even as she hated herself for her weakness—even if she wondered just how long it would take before she started to hate him, as well . . .

And now, the car.

'Maybe he just likes to buy things for you, Jessa.  Ever stop to think about that?'

'There's a name for what he's doing—for what I'm doing . . . and it isn't very nice.  In fact, women who do things like . . . like me?  They're usually dragged through the figurative mud or . . . or made to wear giant, red, 'A's on their clothes . . .'

'You can't really believe that.  I don't think—'

'If you're going to stand up for him, then just keep it to yourself.  I don't need you to make excuses for him . . . I . . . I'm done with him!  I . . .'

'And you've been saying you're done with him for a week now, yet every time he turns up, you're following him wherever he wants you to go and doing whatever it is that he wants you to do—not that I'm complaining.  That man has very formidable talents . . .'

Letting out a deep breath, Jessa plopped down on a broken log, leaning her elbows on her knees, dropping her face into her cupped hands with a low groan.  'I just . . . I don't know how much more of this I can take . . .'

And that was the crux of her problem, really.  If she had any idea just where she stood, maybe  she'd be able to find the courage to confront him, to tell him how bad she felt—how bad he made her feel . . . As it was, she was merely settling for whatever he could give her because it was better than nothing, wasn't it?

The sound of laughing children drifted to her, and Jessa drew a deep breath, managed to steel herself before Charity and the girls rounded the curve in the path.  "Oh, Jessa!  I didn't know you were out here!" she greeted as the girls darted over, gathering wildflowers that grew thick in the grass along the trail.

Charity sat down beside her, burying her nose in the very large bouquet in her hands.  "This property is absolutely fantastic," she said, gazing around in a very happy way.  "The diversity of native flora here is just incredible!  I told Ben we should rent a cabin up this way.  I'd love to spend some time, just documenting all of it . . ."

"The . . . plants . . .?" Jessa asked, shaking her head in confusion.

Charity laughed.  "I'm a botanist," she said.  "I guess I forgot to mention that, and yes, I do tend to get a little goofy when it comes to things like this . . ."

Jessa frowned.  "How . . .? How much longer are you staying?  I mean, I don't think Ashur really said . . ."

"Oh, thank you," Charity replied, accepting a couple more fistfuls of flowers before the girls took off again in a chorus of giggles and tiny shrieks of laughter.  "Not too much longer," she said.  "Just until Ashur's birthday."

"Ashur's . . . birthday?"

"Hmm, yeah.  It's the twenty-seventh . . . Oh, he probably didn't tell you, did he?"  She suddenly waved a hand.  "Don't worry, he doesn't usually say anything about it to anyone.  The only reason I know is because I saw his birth certificate when that was issued.  Ben said that his parents never made a big deal out of birthdays when he was growing up, so that's probably why Ashur doesn't, either.  But birthdays were always a big thing in my family, so I've kind of always taken it upon myself to make sure that they do now, too . . . I mean, they both make a big deal out of the children's birthdays, but theirs?  They'd just let them pass like any other day, if I didn't make a fuss over it."

Jessa thought that over.  It made sense, though.  Given the little bit she knew about Ashur's childhood, she supposed she could understand why he wouldn't make a fuss over his own birthday.  Even so, she had to admit that it did bother her just a little, especially when he'd gone to such lengths to celebrate hers . . .

She sighed.  Maybe she was just being a little too sensitive about everything—or at least, about his birthday.  He really had tried to make hers special, and he really didn't have to.  She supposed she ought to try to do something for him, too, shouldn't she . . .?

 

 


 

 

 

"This would have been so much easier if you'd have just come with me," Jessa muttered as she wandered through Lohman Stanton, a high-end, if not rather boring, men's clothing store in the heart of Old Quebec.

Devlin chuckled.  "I told you, Mum needed my help for a bit.  She decided that she needed to build a table out of reclaimed wood because she said it looked simple enough.  It wasn't.  It's a wreck.  It's terrible.  She thinks it's grand.  I really should forbid her from watching HGTV . . ."

Laughing despite herself, Jessa slowly shook her head as she looked around.  "You know, nothing in here looks like anything he'd wear . . ."

"Lohman Stanton?"  He snorted.  "That's because it's all hopelessly boring, old man clothes, and, while your Ashur might well be old in human terms, he's really not that old in youkai terms . . . So, is there a slightly trendier place near?  Ugh . . . I can't believe I actually said the word, 'trendy' . . ."

She sighed.  "This is hopeless . . . I have no idea what he likes, no idea what his hobbies are—if he even has any, and I've been living with him for months, you know . . . I have never met anyone before in my life who has no hobbies, does nothing for fun, basically lives and breathes for his work—well, and for Kells . . ."

Devlin considered that for a moment.  "Work, huh?  Well, what about a stationery or office store?  Surely you could find something for him in one of those?  You could buy him something for his office . . . What about a planner or a datebook or something?  I know, they're terribly old fashioned, but . . . He's a little old-fashioned, too, don't you think?"

She made a face as she pushed out of the store and headed for her car—the Terra Beinfore.  She'd volunteered to take Kells to preschool since her original plan had been to take the boy with her as she shopped for Ashur's birthday present, but Charity had told her last night that Kells had already bought a present for his father while they were on vacation.

It just figured.  She'd even asked Kells on the way to preschool if he knew of anything that Ashur might like.  Kells' answer, of course, was that his father would love to have the Mega Power Puppies Playhouse, so that was completely useless . . .

Keying the search into the SUV's onboard computer, she clicked on the one that was listed as 'closest'.  "There's a place called Masterson's Fine Things, specializing in personalized stationery and other special gifts that are perfect for the home or the office—at least, that's what the blurb says."

"Hmm, I've not heard of them," he said.  "You could check it out."

"I suppose," she allowed.  "I haven't anything better in mind."

"Okay, well, give me a call back if you need further assistance," he said.  "As for me, I think I need to talk to Mum.  She just came through with a power sander, so that cannot possibly be good . . ."

She laughed and started the car.  "Good luck with that," she said.

"I'm probably going to need it," he muttered.  "Bye."

The phone call ended, and Jessa sighed again.  At least this place was close, and it only took about five minutes to get there.  The store was situated on the second floor of one of the older buildings in the area: stately and understated, but very reminiscent of Europe, of the cobbled streets and the quaint little shops that could be found in the little nooks and crannies, in the backstreets where the more modern gloss hadn't yet been applied . . .

Slipping inside to the quant toll of the bells over the door, she smiled slightly as a spicy yet warm scent filled her nose, reminding her of one of the little tea shops near the boarding school campus where she'd spent her teenage years . . .

"Welcome!  I'm Georgina Moss.  Can I help you?"

Glancing up at the very friendly looking middle-aged woman who straightened up from her task of arranging a shelf display, Jessa smiled.  "I'm looking for a birthday present," she said.  "I'd just like to look around."

The woman's smile widened.  "Sure, of course!  We carry a very large selection of excellent quality gift ideas!  Let me know if I can be of assistance!"

Jessa nodded as the woman returned to her task.

It really was an interesting shop.  Stationery, sure, and lots of it made out of homemade paper with beautiful texture and the kind of feel that only came from the workmanship that went into crafting it . . .

Desk plaques of every style and design, which were all very pretty, but somehow felt entirely impersonal . . . Gorgeous crystal inkwells, some with gold accents, some with marble . . . Beautifully bottled inks and fountain pens . . .

Over toward the side of the store near the front desk, there were bottles of fine liquors, packages of stunning crystal decanters, snifters, goblets, tumblers . . . Given that he had quite an affinity for the drink and usually had at least one glass every evening, she figured that would be something that he'd appreciate.

"We only specialize in the top of the line liquors here—nothing you could  find at any old liquor store, but then, a lot of our customers come in just for the cognacs and armagnacs we carry.

"He . . . He likes it," Jessa admitted.  "Tell me, what do you recommend?"

"Is there a particular brand the gentleman prefers?" Georgina asked.

Jessa winced since she couldn’t rightfully say.   "He usually decants it," she said.  "I haven't seen any actual bottles."

Georgina nodded, as though something she'd said made perfect sense.  "Well, if he's a connoisseur, then I'd imagine he'd like something a little more high end . . . We currently have a really lovely Francis Darroze Bas-Armagnac Chateau de Lasserrade, vintage 2001, and it's pricey, but definitely worth the money.  Would you care to try a sample?  That is, assuming you're eighteen . . ."

"Sure," Jessa replied, digging her driver's license out of her purse and handing it over for Georgina's inspection..

Georgina handed it back and stepped behind the short counter and poured just a little into a fine crystal snifter.  "It really is a beautiful vintage."

It smelled a little different from the one cognac that Ashur normally drank—a little fruitier, a little more floral and less earthy.  The liquor was still strong, but not quite as harsh on her tongue and throat.  Beautiful, really.  She only hoped that Ashur would agree . . .

"What do you think?" Georgina asked.

Jessa nodded.  "I like that," she said.  "It's a bit different from what he normally drinks, but I think he'll appreicate it . . ."

"Does he normally drink cognac?"

"Yes," she replied.  "How much is this?"

"Well, this one is a little shy of fifteen hundred dollars."

Jessa smiled.  "Okay.  I'll take one bottle.  He has snifters, but maybe I should get him a special one?"

Georgina nodded, setting an unopened box on the counter before hurrying around to help her with the selection of crystal.  "Does he have the tulip or balloon?"

"The ones he uses everyday are the tulip snifters."

"Not surprising.  Most aficionados prefer them to the balloon type . . . However, I do have some wobble glasses, and they're very nice.  Many think that the design of the glass actually helps to concentrate the bouquet of the cognac.  Here. . ." she said, handing Jessa a glass that looked like the balloon snifter but without the wide base and stem.  It rested on the side with a small bump on the bottom to balance it.  "Everyone has their own preferences, but I have a few regulars who swear by these."

"I like this," she said, enjoying the weight of the crystal orb glass.

"These come in boxes of two.  Is that all right?"

"That's fine," she agreed.  "Would it be all right if I looked around a bit more?"

Georgina smiled.  "Go on, dear . . . I'll take these over to the register!  If I can help you with anything else, let me know!"

Jessa nodded and wandered over to the stationery once more.  In a glass display case, there were a number of hand-tooled leather binders: some plain, some edged with beautiful details.  There was one, a plain leather—slate gray with such beautiful graining in the leather that it really didn't need embellishment anyway.  It came with your choice of insert pages: address pages, calendar pages, even blank or lined pages, all of the home made stock that she'd admired before.  Along with the binders, though, were an array of pens, and, curiously, it was a slate gray fountain pen with a white gold nib.  Streamlined and sleek, it was the old fashioned kind that did not use a cartridge.

"I'd like to see one of the binders and a pen, if that's all right," Jessa said as Georgina hurried over, rattling keys on the coiled keychain that hung from her wrist.  "The gray one, please, and that fountain pen just there . . ."

Georgina unlocked the display and pulled up the binder.  "This one's lovely," she said.  "The man who makes these said that he only had this one, too.  Calfskin . . . Said that he was so impressed with the leather that he hated to tool it . . ."

"It's gorgeous," she said, lightly running her fingers over it as the bell over the door announced another arrival to the small shop.

"This pen's not the most expensive one we carry, but the Pilots tend to have a more brush-like feel in the hand than many of the more expensive ones.  There's a bit more elegance to them."

"I'll take these, as well," she said.

"What kind of inserts would you like with the binder?"

"Address, calendar—do you have weekly?"

"We certainly do!"

Jessa nodded.  "And some lined blank pages?"

"That's just fine!  I'll get this ready, and in the mean time, why won't you go pick out a bottle of ink?  I'll throw it in, free of charge."

"Thank you," she replied, turning to head back to find the inks.  The store was such a quaint place, so reminiscent of the European shops that it was entirely too easy to forget that she was halfway around the word, and, just for a moment, the ambience, the feel, was enough to take her back to another place and time . . .

"H . . . Hello . . . You are . . . Kyouhei-sama's friend, uh, yes?"

Drawing up abruptly, Jessa blinked, stared into the face of the woman—the one from the restaurant just before Charity and Ben's arrival . . . She seemed nervous despite the refinement of her outward appearance, and her English was broken and just a little awkward.  Still, she smiled tentatively and offered Jessa a quick bow.

Hana . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The café was small, quaint, tucked just off the main thoroughfare that traversed Old Quebec.  It was busy, but not as busy as it might have been if it had been more exposed to the heavy foot traffic of the sightseers and visitors to the historic district.  The two had walked here from the stationery store just around the corner when Hana asked if she could spare a moment after picking up an order that she'd come in for, to start with.  Jessa had paid for her things and put them in her car before hesitantly agreeing to have tea with the woman.  Settling in at a table in a quiet corner of the honey wood and shining glass establishment, Jessa made herself order a cup of tea from the waitress that smiled and hovered near to take their orders.

Hana echoed Jessa's order, and the waitress hurried away.

"I thank you for meeting me," Hana said, shaking her head, as though she wasn't exactly sure, just where she ought to start.

"Are you in Canada alone?"

Her question seemed to confuse Hana, who pondered the question carefully.  "Yes, I am . . . alone . . ." she replied.  "Watakana-san is in . . . meeting."

Waving a hand, Jessa licked her lips.  "No, I meant . . . Are you, um . . . visiting Canada alone?"

"Oh!" she exclaimed, dark eyes flaring wide.  "Oh, I am with Watakana-san.  He has business with men . . . I fetch gift from store for man's wife . . ."

"I see," Jessa said.  The woman was obviously having trouble with English, and that only served to heighten her curiosity as to what, exactly, Hana would want to talk to her about, in the first place . . .  "So, you're just visiting?"

"I did not know he is here," she replied sadly.  "I try speak to him.  He cannot."

"And, what?  You want me to ask him to talk to you?"

"You are . . . You are close?  With Kyouhei-sama?" Hana asked quietly, her eyebrows drawing together in a thoughtful frown.

"Kyouhei-sama?" she repeated, shaking her head in confusion.

Hana grimaced.  "Umm . . . The . . . The man?  At the restaurant . . .?"

"Oh . . . Ashur . . . I'm  . . . I'm staying with him," Jessa admitted, unsure exactly what she really ought to say.

"Ashur," Hana repeated.  "Yes, he is . . . I know him . . . Kyouhei-sama.  I . . . I work for his family. . . long time."  She made a face.  "Can you speak Japanese?"

"Uh, no," Jessa admitted with a frown.  Ashur hadn't actually said anything about Hana having worked for his family.  All he'd said was that they were, 'friends' . . . "Kyouhei-sama?  Is that his . . . his real name?"

Hana seemed confused by her question, but she slowly nodded.  "Muira Kyouhei—umm, Kyouhei Muira.  He owned, um . . . boat place? Muira International . . ."

"Muira International . . ." Jessa repeated.  She'd heard of that company, hadn't she?  Maybe her father had done some sort of business with them at one point or another.  Even so . . .

Hana sighed, nodding at the waitress as she quietly delivered the tea and slipped away again.  "Kyouhei-sama . . . He is good?  He is fine?"

"Yes, I . . . I suppose," Jessa said.  "But you already asked him how he is, didn't you?"

Hana grimaced, quickly ducking her head for a moment.  "He sent me away . . . He was . . . How do you say?  He was my, uh, one love?  But he cannot . . ." Shaking her head as she lifted a hand to try to nudge her memory, she sighed.  "—Cannot . . . forget me?"

The delicate cup of tea in Jessa's hand smacked precariously down on the saucer, and she forced herself to let go of it before it ended up, shattered into a million bits and pieces.  It felt as though someone had punched her, square in the chest, as the air whooshed out of her lungs, as she felt the earth spinning out of her control.  Everything she'd thought, everything she'd suspected . . . It was true . . .?  And he . . . he was only biding his time with her, wasn't he?  Messing around with her because she was there, she was willing . . . She was convenient . . . "Your . . . one . . ."

The dark haired woman nodded adamantly, apparently pleased that she'd finally managed to make Jessa understand.  "Yes, yes, he was boy-friend."

Wincing inwardly, Jessa shook her head, wishing that she could just stand up and leave, that she could just get as far away from Hana—from it all—as she possibly could.  "I . . . I don't understand what you . . . what you want from me . . ."

Hana sighed, frowning in consternation, as though she were having trouble getting what she wanted to say across.  "You are with him?  You . . . You give him joy?"

And she really had no idea just how to respond to that.  A savage ache opened up somewhere deep inside her, and for one horrifying second, she thought that she might just cry.  Biting back the sting of tears, the thickness in her throat with a viciousness that she hadn't realized she possessed, Jessa slowly shook her head.  "I don't . . ."

"You take what you're given, Jessa!  It's your place to accept it—don't question it—and don't ask for more . . ."

Those words . . . Her mother's chiding words . . .

Hana went on, though, as if she hadn't heard Jessa start to speak.  "Yukina-sama kill my mother, so I kill her, but the baby is there, and Kyouhei-sama cannot forget me, and I am sorry . . ."

Jessa wasn't entirely sure, just what Hana was trying to say.  None of it made any sense.  What was she supposed to do, to say?  She had no idea who Hana was talking about—no idea who Yukina-sama was, none of it . . . Everything she thought she'd known turned inside out in her brain, everything she'd been told, seemed like little more than band-aid cures that covered the superficial scratches while completely ignoring the festering cesspool underneath.  The worst of it all?  The nagging ache, the feeling that her heart was going to explode, the hateful sense of an entire world that had spun out of her control, had frazzled and frayed and come completely undone . . .

And worse, she had no real idea, just who Ashur really was, either . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Kells hopped out of the car and took off at a dead run to put his things away and change into play clothes.  The girls were already in the paddock near the barn with Laith, taking turns, riding Humpty Dumpty around in a large circle while Laith held onto the lead.

Jessa gathered her bags and followed the boy to the front door.  "You're gonna come to the parents' night, aren't you, Jessa?" he asked as he waited for her to open the door.  He'd mentioned it last week, but she'd forgotten about it until he'd started talking about it again today.

"Oh, uh, sure.  If you want me to," she said, ruffling his hair before pushing the door wide open.  He'd been talking about it ever since she'd picked him up from preschool.  He'd even made special drawings to show off with the rest of the class for the occasion.

He bounced off, probably to go find his father to remind him of the meet and greet later on.  He disappeared down the short hallway that led to Ashur's study, and Jessa's wan smile faded as she moved off to the stairs to put the bags away in her closet since Ashur's birthday wasn't until tomorrow, anyway . . .

Even so, she really didn't know what to make of the entire situation, had no more of an idea, just what to think of the things that Hana had said than she did when she left the café hours ago.  Then she'd spent the rest of the time before picking up Kells, wandering around Old Quebec, drifting into and out of shop after shop, trying to get her mind off of the impromptu meeting without any real luck.

She sighed, closing her closet door and collapsing against it.  The parent-teacher thing started at seven, so she ought to get dinner started before trying to round up Kells to get him cleaned up before then.

Stopping in the boy's room long enough to lay out clean clothes on the bed, she hurried down the stairs and toward the kitchen.

Eddie had left a lasagna in the refrigerator, along with very detailed instructions on how to reheat it for dinner.  She was spending the last couple days with her cousin in Montreal, but not before she'd made a few days' worth of food and labeled them accordingly.

Jessa smiled vaguely as she turned the oven on and slipped the lasagna in to heat.  According to the instructions, there were also a few crusty loaves of bread in the freezer that would have to be heated during the last ten minutes or so.

That done, she ventured outside to spend a little time with Carol before it was time for her to go to work.

"Oh, hello, Jessamyn!  I take it you're not in your happy place?" Carol asked, sticking her head out of the short hallway before ducking back down it again.  "Did you spend all day looking for a present?  Tell me you found something!"

"I did," she said, following Carol down the hallway to her bedroom where she was changing clothes for work.  "I found Hana . . ."

"Hana . . . Oh, you mean the chick from the restaurant that one time?"

Jessa nodded, crossing her arms over her chest.  "Yes, that's right."

Carol grimaced, pausing as she buttoned the white dress shirt.  "You just randomly ran into her in the store?"

"Something like that," Jessa replied.  "She wanted to go get tea, so I did . . . and now, I rather wished I hadn't . . ."

Biting her lip, Carol shook her head.  "Do you want me to call in?  I can, you know . . . no big deal . . . I mean, if you need me—"

Jessa sighed and quickly flicked a hand.  "No, it's fine," she lied.  "Besides, Kells has parent-teacher night, and he asked me to come along."

"You really love that kid," she said, giving Jessa what could only be described as a commiserating smile.  "If you're sure . . . I'm off tomorrow night—just in time for Ashur's party . . . You can tell me everything then, right?"

"She said that she and Ashur . . . She said he was her . . . 'one love' . . . That he'd never forget her . . ."

Carol snorted.  "That's utter nonsense, Jessa.  If she were so damn unforgettable, why isn't she here with him?  You're the one he's buying presents for—the one he obviously is fixated on.  It's just a case of sour grapes.  Some chicks just don't know when to move on."

"It's not that," she heard herself saying, hating that she was even admitting it out loud.  Clearing her throat, she tried to inject enough bravado into her tone to cover up the hurt that seethed inside.  "It's just . . . I mean, he only gives me things after we . . . when we . . ."  She flinched.  Why did it sound so much worse when she said it out loud . . .?  "Like he's paying for . . . for it . . ."

"Oh, honey, I'm sure that's not what he's thinking . . ."

She shook her head, pulling her hair over her shoulder, twisting it around and around and around.  "I'm nothing more than a willing body," she said, her voice dropping to a whisper.  "I'm convenient . . ."

"Jessa . . ." Carol sighed.  "I don't understand," she said, her voice taking on a hard edge.  "I just . . .  That's crazy, you know?  You're beautiful—gorgeous, even!  Hell, I'd sell my soul to Satan if I could look like you, and . . . Are you sure?  I mean, are you really, really sure?"

Jessa waved her hand, turned around to steady herself, blinking fast when the prickle of tears stung her eyelids.  "It's fine, Carol," she said.  "Ashur isn't worth crying over, now is he?"

Carol didn't answer that, but she did step forward and squeezed Jessa's shoulders.  "Tomorrow night, you and me.  We'll have a girls' night, and we'll put hexes on men, get drunk, act stupid . . . Sound good?"

Jessa managed a wan smile as she dropped her hair to grasp Carol's hands and gave them a squeeze.  "Sounds good to me—after Ashur's party, anyway . . ."

"Oh, yeah, there's that . . ."

Letting her hands drop away, Carol grabbed her purse and headed for the door.  "You sure you don't mind if I borrow your swag mobile?  Laith said he doesn't mind taking me, but . . ."

"It's fine," Jessa said, handing over the keys.  "Wreck it if you want to.  Ashur's paying for it, anyway . . . But if you do, don't hurt yourself."

Carol laughed as the two stepped out of her apartment and headed around the paddock.

"Come on, girls!  Time to get cleaned up for dinner!  After that, we're going to go see Kells' school!" Charity called, her voice carrying to Jessa as she veered off toward the house to check on dinner and see if it was ready.

"Later, Jess!" Carol called.

Jessa waved over her shoulder.

She'd just finished, sticking the bread in the oven to heat and putting on a some green beans that Eddie had already cleaned and prepped when Kells burst into the room, throwing his wet little arms around Jessa.  He loved to help her, and she didn't mind having him underfoot.  He let go and dragged over his tiny stool before slapping his hands on the counter.  "What can I do, Jessa?" he asked.

She tossed a clove of garlic into the food chopper and tore some chives to go in with it.  "Here," she said, slipping the plastic cover on that covered the blade.  "Do you want to chop?"

He nodded happily and started smashing his hand against the ball on the end of the plunger while Jessa emptied the stick of butter into a small bowl.  Then she emptied the garlic and chives into the butter and handed Kells a large wooden spoon.

By the time he was done mixing it all together, she'd carried the lasagna to the table and sliced the bread.  "Go tell your da that dinner's ready," she said, draining the green beans.

He hopped down and scooted his stool into the small nook again before tearing out of the kitchen to alert everyone that dinner was done.

Dinner was a quiet affair, at least, for Jessa.  She couldn't quite bring herself to look at Ashur, and if anyone noticed her silence, they didn't remark upon it.  Ben and Ashur were talking about youkai affairs that Jessa didn't really understand, and Charity was sidetracked with the girls and Kells, who was busy telling his aunt about his day at school.

Jessa excused herself and started cleaning up, and by the time she was done, she grimaced as she realized that she had to get changed fast.

She made quick work of brushing her teeth, of putting on a nice sweater and skirt with sensible black shoes, before piling her hair up in a twist that would look a little more sophisticated than her usual crazy-wild hair.  Biting her lip as she stared at the box—the diamond earrings Ashur had given her, she finally reached for them, putting them in as she slipped out of the room and down the hallway.

"Daddy, we gotta wait for Jessa!" Kells' voice drifted up the stairs.

"It's fine, Kells," Ashur replied.  She heard the sound of the front door opening.  "Let's go.  Ben and Charity are already in their car, see . . .?"

"But Jessa—"

"Oh, she doesn't want to come," Ashur told him as Jessa stopped at the top of the stairs.  "Nannies normally don't go to these types of things, anyway."

Kells heaved a heavy sigh, but stomped past Ashur out of the house.

The click of the closing door rang in her ears, and the tears that Jessa had been holding back all day finally burst loose as she sank to the floor, leaning against the wall, and cried.

 

 


 

 

 

Jessa sighed as she sat atop the wide stone railing of her balcony, her back against the solid wall behind her, knees drawn up before her, feet flat on the cold marble beneath them.  She'd taken off the skirt and pulled on a pair of shorts, yanked down her hair without bothering to pull the pins—she'd probably be sorry for that later—and the earrings?  Those she held in her hand.  She'd started to throw them  at least twenty times, but she couldn't bring herself to do it.  As hurtful as his little trinkets were, she . . . She grimaced.  A part of her cherished them, too . . . Arms wrapped over her stomach, she gazed up at the skies, listened to the night birds as they called to one another . . .

They'd arrived home a little while ago.  Jessa had heard them—the closing of car doors, the indistinct murmur of tiny voices . . . She considered going to tuck Kells into bed, but she didn't dare.  The tears that she'd cried were staunched for now, but she didn't even try to delude herself into thinking that they were done, and if she looked at Kells now . . .

A crisp knock sounded on the bedroom door, but she ignored it, hoping that whoever it was had the decency to go away when she didn't answer.

Her luck was really at an all-time low, however, and she felt Charity's proximity without having to look.

"It's a beautiful night, isn't it?" the older woman said as she stepped out onto the balcony.

In the weeks since they'd arrived, Jessa had spent a few evenings out here with her, chatting and getting to know her.  Jessa liked her—liked her a lot—and yet, a part of her couldn't quite bring herself to divulge too much, either.  Maybe it was the simple memory of that first morning, of the way Charity had instantly and blindly sought to defend Ashur.  The thing was, if Jessa wanted any kind of answers, maybe she could get them from Charity because she'd tried, hadn't she?  Tried to ask Ashur so many times, and he'd refused to answer her, giving her only bits and pieces of nothing . . .

"It is," Jessa allowed, her voice as thin as the control she had over her emotions.

"Kells seemed a little quiet all evening, but his teacher said that he's so bright, so happy . . ." Charity laughed softly.  "She said that he talks about you all the time, every day, nonstop—talks about you more than he does about his own father . . ."

Jessa didn't respond to that.  What was there to say, and even then, what Charity said?  It hurt, didn't it . . .?

Charity hopped up on the rail and faced her, leaning back against the thicker post behind her as she hooked her hands around her knees.  "Did you have a nice, quiet evening?"  She laughed again.  "I'll bet you don't get too many of those with Kells running around . . ."

"Who is Kyouhei Muira?" she blurted.  It slipped out before she could stop herself.

"Kyou . . . hei . . ." Charity repeated, the joy in her voice fading fast, only to be replaced by a quiet sense of pensiveness.  She sighed.  "Did he tell you—?"

"Hana did," she interrupted.  "Hana . . ."

"Hana?  You . . . You spoke to Hana . . .?"

Jessa nodded.  "I ran into her at the store," she said.  "She asked if we could have tea."

Charity's breath released in a long, slow, steady stream.  "It makes sense . . . I mean, she probably never knew that he'd changed his name . . . When everything happened . . . In a way, it was so harsh when he sent her away.  I mean, as far as we could tell, those two were close—maybe his only real friend, really . . . but after what she did . . ."

It occurred to Jessa that Charity was defending Hana now, whether by accident or design, and she bit down hard on the inside of her cheek.

Charity grimaced.  "You know, I don't know how much of this I really should tell you.  I mean, it's not that you don't have a right to know, but . . . I was there, sure, but the story really is Ben's and Ashur's . . ." Trailing off, she stared at Jessa.  She could feel the woman's gaze on her, as though she were trying to see into her head.  "Jessa . . . can I ask you something?  And it's really none of my business, but . . . Is there . . . Is there something going between with you and Ashur?"

"I'm . . . I'm nothing," she whispered.

Charity didn't respond right away, though what she'd gleaned from Jessa's response was anyone's guess.  She sighed, though, pulled her knees up tighter, stared at Jessa in the filmy darkness.  "I don't think that anyone believes that," she said softly, quietly.  "There are moments when he . . ." Waving a hand, she sighed once more.  "A couple years ago, there was an uprising back home, back in Japan.  It was shortly after Ben got custody of the girls, and I was there a lot, helping him with them.  Ashur—Kyouhei back then—showed up, which was weird.  They weren't close at the time.  I think Ben said that he'd only seen Kyouhei once before, and it was years ago.  Kyouhei told him that there were whispers of a youkai uprising, that their parents were helping to plan it.  He went back home, spied for my grandfather—for the Inu no Taisho—but when their father and mother captured Manami—she was there hunting at the time—they . . ." Charity bit her lip, shook her head as a sadness bled into her aura.  "They tortured her—poisoned her.  Kyouhei got her out of there, but he was caught.  Hana came to us, told us that he was in trouble, and Ben . . . Ben challenged his father.  He didn't have a choice.  We found Kyouhei in the basement, tied up, beaten."  She closed her eyes.  "It was . . . It was horrible . . ."

"By who?"

Charity laughed, but it was bitter, sad.  "Their father, the great and mighty Hidekea . . . That's why Ashur changed his name.  That's why he hated the reminder . . . That, and there are probably people who blame him for what happened—people who might seek him out if they knew where he is.  Now, most of those dissidents are in Europe because the tai-youkai allows it.  Ashur never lied to you, I'm sure.  It's just . . . It's painful for him, those memories . . ."

Jessa slowly shook her head, her brain having trouble in reconciling the information she'd just been told.  It answered a few of her questions, but didn't come close to touching the ones that bothered her most: the ones that revolved around Hana . . .

And even so, something about the way Charity described things . . . Jessa just couldn't bring herself to ask the things she wanted to know most of all, didn't want to hear the biased answers, didn't want to hear the things that she knew intuitively, really couldn't help her at all . . .

"You know," Charity said, her voice, even and clear, "what I can tell you is that Ashur . . . I've seen him smile more in the past few weeks than I have in the last three years, and . . . and I have a feeling that it has something to do with you.  I could be wrong, but I . . ." She sighed.  "There's something about the way he looks at you when he thinks no one else is watching, and I think . . . I think if you talked to him, he might tell you everything.  I mean, he trusts you with Kells, and that is huge.  There's not many he does.  He loves that boy more than he loves himself, you see?"

Jessa didn't know what to make of the impromptu pep-talk.  In truth, she didn't know what to make of anything at all.  In her brain, Hana's words kept repeating, over and over again, like a taunt, like a death knell . . .

"He was . . . How do you say?  He was my, uh, one love?  But he cannot . . . cannot . . . forget me?"

Charity frowned.  "Jessa, are you okay?"

Blinking away those words, Jessa forced herself to nod.  "I'm fine," she said, hoping, praying, that Charity wouldn't see right through her.  "You know, if you don't mind, I'm . . . I'm really tired . . ."

"Oh, uh, yeah, I'm sorry . . ."

"No, it's okay," she insisted, wondering absently why it was that no one could actually see just what all the half-answers, the half-truths, were doing to her.

Charity stared at her for another moment.  Then she stood up, slipping off the railing, and she reached over to pat her arm.  "Okay, then," she said.  "If you need someone to talk to . . ."

She slipped quietly out of Jessa's room, the frown on her face deepening as she headed down the hallway toward the stairs.  Ashur was still sitting in Kells' room, reading him a bedtime story. Scowling slightly, she moved on.

Ben looked up from his phone—he'd been in the middle of texting someone—probably Cain.  He started to smile, but the expression faded when he got a good look at his mate's face.  "Something the matter?"

She shook her head, sank down beside him.  "I'm going to talk to Ashur," she said as the memory of the look on the young Irish woman's face flashed through her mind once more: the sadness, that sense of being utterly lost . . . Lost in a world of answers that she didn't have, questions that she couldn't answer . . .

"About what?"

She sighed, turning to stare at Ben.  "Have you noticed anything about him?  Anything at all about his mood?"

"Umm . . . n-n-n-o-o-o-o . . . Should I have?"

Narrowing her eyes, she slowly shook her head. "So, you haven't noticed how he watches Jessa all the time, how he looks up whenever her name's mentioned?"

"No," Ben drawled, arching an eyebrow at her, "but I'm guessing you have?"

She sighed once more.  "Oh, Ben, honestly . . . For being such a steadfast and reliable general, you really, really suck at observation sometimes . . .The thing is, she has so many questions, and, really, it's no one else's place to answer those except for him.  She ran into Hana today, and, apparently, Hana wanted to have tea with her, so she did, and . . . And I don't know exactly what Hana said, but . . ." Trailing off, she shook her head stubbornly, her shoulders squaring as though she were readying herself for battle.  "Anyway, I'm going to talk to him, and—"

"No, you're not," Ben stated flatly.

She snorted and rolled her eyes.  "Okay, then, when you talk to him, make sure you ask him—"

"Oh, yeah, I'm not, either," Ben said.

"Why not?  Someone needs to."

"No, we don't.  Cherry, look . . . He's a grown man, and it isn't up to us to fix things for him.  To be completely candid, I don't think he'd welcome our intrusion, anyway.  He'll get it—they'll get it.  As much as you want to help, this time, neither one of them would benefit from it, so leave it alone."

"But—"

"Uh uh," he said, silencing her with a finger to her lips.  Then he sighed and stood up, grabbing Charity's hand and tugging her out of the room.

"Where are we going?" she demanded.

Ben shot her a look.  "To bed."

"Ben!"

"Charity, no . . . He's not a cub, and you can't fix it for him."

She uttered a frustrated half-sigh, half-groan, but she didn't argue with him as he herded her up the stairs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Gin Zelig caught Jessa's arm as she started out of the kitchen with the gorgeous white coconut cake on the pretty crystal stand.  "If anyone asks, tell them you made that," she said, whispering in Jessa's ear.

Jessa blinked and shook her head.  "But you made it . . ."

Gin shook her head, too, very, very adamantly.  "If you say I made it, Zelig-sensei won't share it," she said.  "So, whatever you say, I didn't make it!"

Jessa wasn't entirely sure that it made any sense.  Even so, she nodded.

Ben strode into the dining room with a rather suspicious looking paper bag.

Charity raised an eyebrow.  "What's that?"

Ben chuckled as he dumped the bag onto the table—as innumerable boxes of candles spilled out all over.

"Oh . . . my God . . ." Cain Zelig remarked as he strode into the room with his young boys in his arms.  Most of the children were outside, running around in the yard, playing tag and hide and seek.  "There's no way in hell they're going to fit on . . ." Trailing off, he narrowed his gaze as he turned his head to stare at his wife.  "Gin?  Why does that cake look like one of yours?"

"Nope," she replied, batting her eyelashes in an entirely innocent kind of way.  "I just gave Jessa my recipe; that's all.  I swear!"  Suddenly, she gasped.  "Zelig-sensei!  Did you know?  Jessa's a real, live lady!  A real one!"

Cain nodded but didn't take his gaze off the cake.  " Yes, she is," he allowed.  "Are you sure you didn't make that?"

"Make what?" she asked, her lips twitching just a little.

"How old is he, anyway?" Bas Zelig interrupted, as he let go of the streamer he'd just finished hanging to forestall the altercation he felt brewing.

"I don't know," Ben replied with a shrug.  "I just bought all the candles I could find—in five stores."

Charity heaved a sigh, but laughed when Gunnar Inutaisho strolled into the room with Daniella, Cain and Gin's young daughter, dangling off his arm.  "I believe this is yours, Zelig," he remarked, lifting his curled arm. Daniella giggled.

"Sorry, my hands are already full," Cain remarked.

Gunnar heaved a sigh and shot Charity a quelling look.  She giggled and intercepted the girl, who was till staring at the future Japanese tai-youkai with an expression of near-hero-worship.

Jessa stared at the party hats, the noisemakers—Charity's idea—and shook her head.  If anyone actually could get Ashur to put one of those on, she'd be amazed . . .

Carol slipped into the room and gave Jessa's shoulders a quick squeeze while Gin and Charity hurried into the kitchen to grab the platters of food that Jessa had spent all afternoon preparing.  "How are you holding up?"

Jessa smiled.  "I'm good," she assured her.

Carol didn't look entirely convinced, but she nodded and let it go and followed the other women into the kitchen to help with the food.

It had helped that Ashur had a long meeting-slash-lunch about some business that he was considering putting a bid on, and then he'd said he'd just pick up Kells on the way home.  Jessa had woken up this morning after a fitful night's sleep, thinking that maybe she was overreacting.  After a long talk with her youkai-voice that had reminded her of Hana's very obvious trouble with English, she'd concluded that maybe the things that she'd said were just misunderstood, that maybe she ought to at least try to talk to Ashur about it all—if he'd give her any real answers, anyway . . . As for the whole nanny episode?  Well, that still stung—she'd be lying if she tried to say that it didn't.  The truth of it was, however, that nannies really didn't attend meet the teacher nights, and she knew that logically, even if she didn't like it . . .

So, she'd spent the day cooking, baking, creating some very fancy hors d'oeuvres since she'd figured that his birthday might well be easier to keep casual.  She'd run into the city and picked up about ten bottles of champagne, too, along with sparkling juice for the little ones.

Still, she'd debated for a long while about giving Ashur the presents she'd bought for him.  In the end, she knew that he'd like them well enough, so she'd packaged them up and added them to the ridiculous pile on the side table.

The doorbell rang, announcing the last of the arrivals.  "I'll get it," Manami called, turning on her heel and hurrying to answer it.

"Oh, crowded house," Devlin remarked as he stepped over to deposit his gift on the table.  "Jessa, everyone, this is my mother, Cris.  Mum, this is Jessa, whom you have heard so much about."

"Pleased to meet you—finally," Cris said, grasping Jessa's hand in hers and giving it a little squeeze.

Jessa blinked, stared.  If she'd thought that Devlin fell into the 'pretty' category, his mother was absolutely stunning.  The same merry blue eyes as Devlin, the same brown hair, the same rich color with slight reddish highlights . . . The tiny slip of a woman was smaller even than Gin Zelig, but her smile was absolutely dazzling, and for some reason, she reminded Jessa of the old fairy tales that her parents used to tell her: folklore about the fairies of the glen . . .

"Cain Zelig," Cain introduced himself, setting his boys down so that he could shake Devlin's hand.  "My wife, Gin's around here somewhere . . ."

"Bas," the big man said, also shaking Devlin's hand as his mother stared up at him with very, very wide eyes.

"He's a titan!" she exclaimed softly, her hand fluttering over her chest like she might well pass out.

"Oh, he's just a puppy!" Bas' wife, Sydnie said.

Gunnar snorted, inclining his head in customary fashion.  "I'm Gunnar," he said, popping a tiny, bite sized egg roll into his mouth.  "Hajimemashite douzo yoroshiku."

Devlin laughed and inclined his head, as well.  "Pleased to meet you, as well."

A slight smile quirked the rather intimidating man's lips, and he nodded pleasantly.

"So, where's the birthday bo—My God!" Devlin exclaimed, eyeing the mountain of candle boxes.  "How the hell ancient is he, anyway?"

Ben chuckled.  "As near as I can tell, I think this is his three-hundred-sixty-fourth birthday."

Devlin snorted.  "And why hasn't he bloody well stopped counting?"

Cris tapped Devlin in the center of his chest with the back of her knuckles.  "Mind your language, Dev," she chided.

Devlin shot Jessa a rather cheeky grin.  "Quite so . . . I apologize."

Satisfied that he'd been properly chastised, she stepped toward Jessa.  "You're not the swan, are you?"

Blinking since the only swan that Jessa knew of was Manami, she shook her head, casting the woman in question a quick glance.  "Oh, no, that's her, over there," she replied, nodding at Manami, who was speaking in hushed tones with Sydnie.

"Oh, she's stunning, Dev!"

"Mum . . ."

"Oh, my God . . . What is this?"

Kells giggled happily, hopping up and down and clapping his hands.  "It's your birfday, Daddy!"

Ashur shook his head, looking slightly uncomfortable as Charity hurried over to grab his arm before he could escape.   "Happy birthday, Ashur!"

"Uh, thank you . . . I think . . ."

He looked a little shocked as the crowd converged on him, everyone wanting to shake his hand, to offer him congratulations . . . Through the gathering, Ashur caught Jessa's eye.  He didn't smile, but he did nod just a little.

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur leaned down, snagged the gift bag that he'd stowed under the table when no one was paying much attention.  It was the one from Jessa, and, while he didn't think there was anything untoward in it, he also didn't care for the idea of opening it in front of everyone, either.  He'd much rather wait and open it with just her, somewhere quiet and special, just the two of them.

Everyone else was preoccupied.  The men were in the living room having drinks, while the women were out back, enjoying the cool night air and probably also drinking around the fire pit while Jessa had mentioned something about hanging out with Carol—at least, that's what Manami said on her way out the back doors . . .

In any case, Ashur took a moment to put the gift in his room before checking in on Kells, who was soundly sleeping with Bailey, Connor, and Hayden, all having a makeshift camp out in sleeping bags on the floor of his bedroom.  He wasn't sure if the girls were all sharing a bedroom upstairs, but he figured it was likely since all eight of the bedrooms were likely taken, and a couple of the couples were actually staying in the bunkhouse.

The men were, of course, talking shop when he walked into the living room.  Bas and Gunnar were discussing one of the cases that they were working on, and when they spotted Ashur, they stopped for a moment, both of them turning a speculative eye on him.  "What?" he asked, giving them both a rather suspicious look.

Bas cleared his throat and glanced at Gunnar.  "Well, we were just wondering . . . I mean, you're between business ventures right now, so we thought maybe you'd consider opening up another branch of the youkai special crimes office?  There are still a ton of cases to go through—some of them originated from up this way . . . If you're not interested, that's fine, but you have a good head for this kind of thing . . ."

"Another office?" Ashur echoed.  He hadn't actually considered anything of the sort.

Bas nodded.  "All office expenses would go through the tai-youkai's office—some of them actually get underwritten by the Inu no Taisho since there are a good number of cases that are international in nature.  All travel expenses, all of it . . . And you'd get a monthly stipend, too.  If you don't have anyone you can think of to pull in as a partner or assistant, we'd be happy to make some suggestions, too."

Ashur crossed his arms over his chest.  "Would that make you my boss for a second time?"

Bas chuckled.  "Nope.  They'd be sister offices, but they'd also be fully independent.  I've got my hands full enough as it is without having to do something stupid like oversee your office, too."  He shrugged.  "Give it some thought, and let me know."

Cain sighed.  "If you can take it, that is.  Some of the cases can be a little grisly . . . Not something that a lot of people would want to take on."

"Youkai special crimes . . . I've heard of you lot," Devlin remarked, idly swirling his snifter of brandy.  "Sounds dead depressing, if you ask me."

"Not always," Gunnar remarked.  "When you solve a case that's been open for fifty years or more?  That can feel pretty damned good . . . Had one a few years ago . . . Seventy-eight years, it sat.  Took the better part of two years, but we were finally able to put a face on the killer—and we were able to hunt him down.  Then we got to go inform the families of the five youkai infants that he murdered, and that . . . It was worth it."

Bas nodded.  "Just the look on their faces, like they finally got some closure . . ."

"Speaking of families," Cain remarked, "have you heard anything else from MacDonnough about Jessa's estate?"

Bas snorted.  "He won't even return my calls, Dad," he muttered.  "Damned old bastard, anyway . . ."

Ashur strode over, took his time pouring cognac into the snifter as he considered Bas' offer.  He'd gone to see a man who was interested in selling his biotech business.  He'd started it ten years ago, and it did well enough, though not nearly as well as it probably could do.  Ashur had thought that maybe it would be okay, but the downside of it was that taking over that business would cut into his free time significantly, and with Kells still being so young, he wasn't entirely sure that he wanted to commit to something like that right now.

Turning back to face the gathering, he frowned.  "How much time is necessary to put into something like the youkai special crimes unit?"

Bas shrugged.  "It really would depend on if you have someone in there you can trust.  If you do, then you split stuff, so really, it's no worse than any other job.  I mean, the cases are already cold.  Taking weekends off or walking away at five o'clock isn't going to make or break any of them."

"Speak for yourself, Bas," Gunnar muttered.

"Yeah, well, not everyone is a workaholic like you, Gun."

Gunnar smiled at that.  "I take that as a compliment."

Bas rolled his eyes.  "You would."

 

 


 

 

 

"He's a jerk—a big, fat jerk!"

Carol nodded in complete commiseration as she tipped the bottle of sake to her lips—one of the two that Jessa had stolen when she'd slipped out of the party just after watching Ashur, take her present and slip it under the table.  Then she'd grabbed not only the booze, but also Carol and had fled to Carol's apartment.

"I can't believe he thought that Eddie cooked all that food!" Carol slurred.  "What a dick!"

Jessa wrinkled her nose.  "I know!  Eddie hasn't been here all week, and he's been in the fridge . . . He should know that that stuff wasn't in there!  It just—poof!"

"All right," Laith said, neatly nabbing the bottle that Carol tried to hand Jessa.  "I'm pretty sure  you've both had more than enough."

Carol rolled her eyes.  "And you haven't had nearly enough," she accused.

"Someone has to make sure the two of you don't get into any trouble," he told her, grinning just a little.

Jessa pushed herself onto her hands and knees and crawled over to Laith, her gaze trained on his face as she leaned to the side just enough to balance while she lifted her hand, poked his cheek with her index finger.  "You've got dimples!  They're so cute!"

Laith chuckled as Carol flopped down next to her and shoved her with her shoulder.  "Back off, hussy!  This one's mine!  Yours is in the big house, being a dick with all the other stiffs . . ." Suddenly, she giggled.  "A dick with the stiffs!"

Jessa giggled, too, leaning against Carol as the two fell over each other, laughing rather maniacally.

"Oh!  You know what he can do?"

"Carol . . ."

She waved a hand to shut him up.  "He can get it up and keep it up—three times in a row! That's gotta be some kind of record, don't you think?"

Jessa snorted, pressing her hand against her nose as she laughed some more. "That's nothing!  Ashur's fallen asleep with his still in me, and then he does it again, first thing in the morning!  I mean, it's a helluva way to wake up!"

"Dear God, details I really don't think I wanted," Laith muttered as he tipped the bottle to his lips.  "Now I need to get sloshed, just to get that image out of my head . . ."

"Are you kidding?" Carol demanded before rounding on Laith again.  "Can you do that?"

He shot her a sidelong look and downed more of the sake.

Jessa giggled so hard that she snorted, which only make her giggle more.  "He's blushing!" she howled.

"Hello?  Irish?  Hello-o-o-o . . ."

She sat up straight, glanced around wildly.  "Why do I hear Dev?" she demanded.

Carol, who had crawled onto Laith's lap, peered over her shoulder at her friend as she hung onto Laith.  "I hear him, too . . . Maybe he's dead . . . Maybe he's talking to us from beyond . . ."

Devlin snorted.  "I am not dead . . . Are you two drunk?"

"I'm not drunk," Jessa huffed indignantly, "and where are you?"

Devlin sighed.  "I'm at home, Irish, in my bed . . . You're the one that called me . . ."

"I did . . .?  Where the hell is my phone . . .?"

"There it is!" Carol said, waving a hand at Jessa.  "You must've boob dialed him when you were crawling around . . ."

Jessa made a face.  "I have very talented boobs, you know.  Just ask Ashur . . . the bastard . . ."  Tapping a finger against her lips, she shrugged.  "Maybe I should go see if he wants me . . . I could use some cash . . . Spent wa-a-a-ay too much on his birthday, and he didn't even want the damn gift!"

Devlin cleared his throat.  "Ashur pays you for . . .?"

"Fucking him," Jessa stated matter-of-factly.  Unfortunately, Laith had just taken a healthy swig of sake, and he choked, sputtering the liquor in a fine spray.

"Eww," Carol squealed.  "You spit on me!"

He chuckled.  "Yeah?  You don't complain about that in bed . . ."

Carol giggled.  "You're right, I don't . . . Why don't you take me to bed now, Laith?"

Jessa stuck out her tongue, grabbing her phone as she got up and staggered to the door.  Considering Carol already had her hands up his shirt, she figured it was time to get out of there, anyway . . . "Bye," she muttered, yanking open the door on the third try before stumbling outside.  Whether either of them heard her was anybody's guess, and Jessa sighed.

" Irish?"

She blinked, having forgotten for a moment that Devlin was still on the phone.  "Oh, hi!  When did you call?" she asked, smashing the phone in the vicinity of her ear.

Devlin sighed.  "You called me, Irish, remember?"

"I did?" she asked, scratching her head as she frowned and stumbled forward.  "Oh, I did . . ."

He sighed again. "You're entirely foxed, aren't you?"

"No . . .Yes."

"Tell me something?"

"Hmm?" she muttered as she concentrated on not falling on her ass.

"Do I need to kill your Ashur?"

She snorted.  "Firstly, he's not mine; he's Hana's—Isn't that a pretty name?  Hana?  So pretty I want to set her hair on fire . . ."

"No fire-starting, Irish.  Ashur isn't really paying you for  . . . for favors, is he?"

She sighed, reaching out holding onto the fence as she shuffled past it.  "Sure . . . the first time, it was diamond earrings.  Then it was a gift card  . . . There was something else, too . . . Oh!  And the car—mustn't forget the car . . ."

"Those weren't just gifts?"

"Yes, gifts that he gave to me after I let him fuck me," she slurred, staggering across the yard, heading around the back of the house.  "Next time I should ask for an island . . ."

"You asked for those things?"

"Of course not," she muttered.  "It's just what he figured I was worth, I guess."

"Love, I get the feeling that he is giving you gifts because you've bewitched him, not because he's . . . paying you . . ." He let out a deep breath when she grunted in reply.  "Okay, so about this, 'Hana' . . . She's the chit from the restaurant, right?"

"He said she was his friend, but she wasn't his friend.  She said she was his one love—his one love . . ."

"Irish?"

"Hmm?"

"Promise me something."

"What?"

"Promise me you're going straight to bed, that you won't go try to confront him until you're not so . . . foxed . . ."

"Yeah, yeah, okay," she muttered just before clicking off the phone and stuffing it into the pocket of her shorts.

Staring up at the balcony, she was still trying to decide if she ought to jump or not when a quiet thud sounded in her ears as she gasped and fell back, only to be caught by a pair of very strong arms.  He didn't let go of her as he jumped back up onto his balcony once more and set her down on her feet.  "Are you drunk?"

She snorted.  "Drunk is such an ugly word, Ashur—Kyouhei—whoever you are.  I prefer foxed or pissed or—"

"Who told you my name?"

She rolled her eyes since he was entirely missing the point.  "Hana did when she told me everything else you didn't think was important," she grumbled.  "Anyway, as I was saying, if you're asking, then yes, I might have drank—drunk—drinked—" she snorted.  "Is, 'drinked' even a word?"  She waved a hand before he could answer.  "I imbibed a bit of sake."

He caught her arm and held onto it when she started to turn away.  "When did you talk to Hana?"

She sighed, head lolling back as she slowly met his gaze.  "What does it matter?  I'm so stupid, you know?  Even after everything she told me, I still . . ." Trailing off as she turned to face him, as she grabbed his shoulders to steady herself, she stared at him, eyes so sad in the moonlight as she blinked at him, slowly, almost enough to mesmerize him . . . "You love her, but you'll use me . . . Do you want me, Ashur?" she asked, her voice dropping to a husky caress as her hands rubbed his chest, his shoulders, as her gaze took on that slow, tilted heaviness—the same look she got when they made love . . .

Shaking himself just enough to break the trance that she inspired in him, he shook his head.  "What are you talking about?  I don't love—"

"I know," she said, her bottom lip quivering precariously.  "I know you don't . . . It's all right, though . . . Just don't . . . don't push me away . . ."

Closing his eyes as she pressed her lips against his, he couldn't help the low groan at the spark, at the fire, at the overwhelming contact of her body against his.  Her kiss was desperate—too desperate, and he hesitated for only a moment before he leaned away.  "Jessa . . . you're drunk—really, really drunk . . . and I want to know what Hana said to you."

"I don't want to talk about her," she insisted.  "I just . . ."

He sighed, gently grasping her hands, pulling them away.  "You need to sleep it off.  We'll talk . . . later."

He scooped her up, held her close, spared a moment to kiss her forehead before jumping over to her balcony, but he didn't stop there as he strode into her room, as he settled her on her bed and drew the duvet up to her chin.  For a brief moment, he considered leaving her there, but discarded the idea, realizing that she'd just follow him back—and probably fall and hurt herself in the process.  Settling on the edge of the bed, he reached out, stroked her hair, winced as the salt of her tears stung him.

She didn't cry, though, more than a couple of tears.  Whether it was just because she was too exhausted to do so or because she simply refused to cry in front of him, he didn't know. He wanted answers, but he wasn't going to get them—not tonight.  Still, the sadness in her eyes—the same sadness that cloaked her youki . . .

"I'm not in love with Hana," he said quietly.  "I've never been in love with her.  We . . . We were close, yes, and for a long time, she was my best friend, and I suppose that on some level, I did . . . love her . . . but not . . ." he sighed, slowly shook his head as the sound of her light snoring broke the night stillness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Jessa!"

Uttering a sound, caught up somewhere between a whimper and a groan, Jessa squeaked out a sigh as Kells jettisoned himself from somewhere across the room, only to land directly on her, splayed out like a flying monkey from the old Wizard of Oz movie . . .

"Oh, Kells . . . ugh . . ." she muttered, wishing that she could go right back to sleep since she felt pretty well like hell warmed over.

"What's the matter, Jessa?" Kells asked, ferreting his way up under her chin, snuggling as close to her as he possibly could.  "Are you gonna have a baby now?"

"Wh-What?" she rasped out, struggling to clear her groggy mind since the effects of her sake-binge was still entirely too heavy to shake off.  "What?"

"That means I'm gonna be the brudder!" Kells exclaimed happily  as he squirreled his way off the bed, feet thumping heavily on the floor as Jessa winced.  "An' Daddy can be the daddy, and you can be the mommy!  An' I can name him Blinker Trotsky, but we can call him, 'Trots' instead!"

That decided, he darted out of her room before she could stop him to disabuse him of that insane notion.  For all of a second, she considered, tossing the duvet aside and chasing after the overzealous child.  Then she groaned again and opted instead to bury herself under the comforter once more . . .

She really should have learned her lesson the last time she'd thought that drinking sake was a good idea, but no . . . It was, however, the easiest thing to grab out of the liquor cabinet at the time . . .

"So . . . Kells tells me that you're . . . expecting . . ."

She groaned, but the sound was completely ineffectual, trapped as it was in the pillow she'd smashed her face into, and then, she flew him the bird.

He chuckled.  "Do you need some Tylenol?"

Again, something entire unintelligible . . .

The bed sagged beside her, and she scooted a little farther away.  "Come on, Jessa.  You can't sleep all day.  Everyone's already left, and they said to tell you goodbye."

A half-whine, half-growl as she tried in vain to block out the sound of his voice since it was just a little too loud at the moment.

"Besides, you haven't heard the most fascinating thing yet."

She heaved a sigh and rolled her head just far enough to glower at him.  "Go away, Ashur."

"You might be interested to know that your friend, Carol and Laith both smell a little . . . different today . . ."

Rubbing her forehead, she didn't quite catch onto his meaning since she was too busy, feeling like she'd be much better off if she just chopped off her own head . . . "That's nice . . ."

He grunted.  "Nice? That's nice?  Your friend and Laith become mates, and you think that's just 'nice'?"

She frowned.  "Wait.  What?"

He rolled his eyes but chuckled.  "Mates, Jessa.  Mates."

"O . . . Oh . . ."

He shrugged and peered over his shoulder at her.  "I'd like to open my present now, if you'll come out of hiding . . ."

She sat up, glaring daggers at him as she gripped her temples in her fingertips and furiously massaged.  "Why didn't you open it last night—you know: on your birthday?" she grumbled.

The look he shot her told her quite plainly that he thought that she was simply being disagreeable.  "Because I wanted to open it alone with you, without everyone else watching.  Is that so bad?"

She wrinkled her nose.  "You made it look like I didn't give you anything," she muttered, stubbornly refusing to meet his gaze.

He sighed, but pulled out a wad of blue tissue paper, letting it drop on the floor before pulling out the wrapped box—the big one: the Bas-Armagnac.  Reaching over, she neatly plucked it out of his hands and set the box on her other side.  He shot her a quizzical glance, but said nothing as he reached for the next one: the snifters that she also whipped out of his grasp and gestured at the bag once more.  "Those first," she said when he set the bag aside and crossed his arms over his chest.

He didn't smile, but he did look rather amused as he retrieved the gift bag once more and pulled out the small boxes.  "A fountain pen?  I haven't seen one of these in years," he remarked, tugging off the cap and giving the pen a good once-over.  "I like it.  Thank you."

She shrugged and poked a finger at the other small box: the ink in a beautiful crystal inkwell.  "Oh . . . Very nice . . ." he said, looking a little surprised.

She kicked at the bag with her duvet-covered-foot, and he chuckled as he retrieved the last present out of it and let the bag fall onto the floor.  Digging into the wrapping paper, he pulled out the leather journal and blinked, slowly running his fingers over the velvety surface.  "This is . . . Thank you . . ."

She frowned.  "Do you like it?"

He nodded.  "I, uh . . . Yes, I . . . I do . . ."

Her frown darkened.  "You don't sound like you do."

He glanced at her and smiled just a little.  "I used to have one of these—not exactly like this one—not nearly as fine  . . . I always meant to get another, but I just didn't . . . It's perfect."

Biting her lip, satisfied that he wasn't just pretending to like her gifts, she handed him the snifters.

"More drinking glasses?" he asked with a wry chuckle.  "After last night, I'm assuming you won't want to be drinking with me for awhile . . ."

She wrinkled her nose and rolled her eyes but handed over the last present.

"Uh . . . Oh . . . I haven't tried this before," he said, carefully pulling the bottle out of the box.  "It's a little early in the day for tasting, I guess, but I'll have to sample it later."

"I tried it in the store," she said.  "It was a lot smoother than your usual."

He smiled as he gathered the gifts up and slipped them back into the bag.  "Thank you, Jessa."  Stretching out beside her, leaning on his elbow, he stared at her for a long minute, his expression a little foreboding, though he reached out, ran his fingertips down the length of her cheek.  "We need to talk."

Somehow, she didn't particularly like the tone of his voice, the gentle but assertive quality of his tone.  "Can we do this later, Ashur?  I don't—"

He sighed.  "No, we can't," he said.  "When did you talk to Hana, and what, exactly, did she say to you?"

And just like that, the slightly less guarded feeling that he'd fostered while opening his birthday presents vanished as Jessa leaned away, drew up her knees, tight against her chest.  "I ran into her when I was shopping for your gifts," she mumbled.  "She wanted to have tea, so I did."

"And what did she say?"

"Does it matter?"

"I think it does," he replied.

Shoving aside the duvet, Jessa stumbled out of bed, scowling at the rumpled clothes that she'd worn yesterday, as she strode around and toward the bathroom.

He sighed.  "Jessa, I want to know."

"Drop it," she stated flatly as she closed and locked the bathroom door before he got any ideas.

Heaving frustrated grunt, she considered simply hanging out in here, maybe for the rest of the summer. Given that the man was demanding answers that she wasn't entirely willing to share . . .

'And just why should I, I'd like to know?  He knows the truth of their relationship more than I do, so why in hell would I have to tell him?  To humiliate me?  To prove, once and for all, what a stupid, idiotic girl I am?'

Her youkai-voice sighed. 'Oh, honestly, do you really think that's what he's saying?  Didn't you hear what he was trying to say to you last night?'

She wrinkled her nose, stripping off her clothes and slapping the wall panel to launch the shower.  'Of course I did.  He said he didn't love . . . me . . .'

'He did not say that, Jessamyn!  You cut him off before he could finish!'

'Because I didn't need to hear him say it, damn it!'

'Oh, quit being such a baby, won't you?  Here's a novel idea, Miss Bitch.  Why don't you let the poor man talk and listen to him for once?'

'Because he doesn't want to talk,' she shot back, scrubbing at her scalp with a vengeance.  'He wants to listen to me talk—about Hana, and I'm not talking about Hana!  I can't even think about everything she said without—without—'

Her youkai sighed—a long, drawn-out, weary sound.  'I know, Jessa . . . I . . . I know . . .'

 

 


 

 

 

Scowling at the closed bathroom door, Ashur got up, strode over to it, kneeling down to pick the lock since he'd heard it very distinctly.

'You realize that that may not be the best course of action right now,' his youkai-voice pointed out.

'Yeah?  And why would that be?'

'Because, you ass, she's already upset with you.  You're just going to make it worse if you barge in there and start demanding answers from her—answers that very obviously hurt her, don't you think?  Or weren't you there last night?  You saw it, didn't you?  The pain in her eyes—the hurt at whatever Hana told her . . .'

'Hana . . .'

The last thing—the very last thing—he wanted to do was to talk to her for any reason, whatsoever, but Jessa . . .

The sadness in her expression, the uncanny brightness in her gaze . . . and her gentle pleading for him to just not push her away dug at him, rubbed him raw.  Even the simple memory of it was enough to make him grimace.  Just what had Hana said to her . . .?

'You know, though . . . Hana doesn't know much English, if she knows any at all, and you know as well as I do, just how some things translate . . . or don't, as the case may be . . .'

He sighed and made a face, forcing himself back to his feet.  He grabbed the gift bag off the floor and headed out of the bedroom and down the hallway, toward the stairs and his office beyond.  No, he really needed to find out just what was said, and there were only two people who could really answer that.  One would rather set him on fire than to tell him—or at least, that was the impression he'd gotten.  The other one was Hana . . .

It didn't take long to run a check of all the hotels in Quebec City for Hana's name—one of the perks that came with being a general, he guessed.  Because of his position, he was able to access the secured server as well as a program that one of the hunters, Moe Jamison had written that had the capability to hack any websites that utilized online reservation features.  Ashur didn't know how he'd done it or if it was even legal, but the point was, it worked, and he dialed the hotel's phone number and waited.

"Gran Mal Skyplex Hotel," a very smooth-voiced woman greeted him.  "How may I help you today?"

"Yes, can you put me through to room 706?  Thank you."

"Room 706 is currently unoccupied," she said.  "Can you tell me the guest's name?"

"Hana . . . Hana Satou."

He heard the click of keyboard keys for a few moments before she spoke again.  "I'm sorry sir.  Ms. Satou and her companion checked out early this morning."

Stifling a frustrated growl as he gritted his teeth for a second, Ashur rubbed his forehead.  "All right.  Thank you."

Ending the call, he sighed.  He didn't have her phone number—hadn't wanted it—and he didn't know where she lived now—nothing.

"Damn . . ."

Rubbing his face, he slowly shook his head.  'I swear to kami, the entire universe is conspiring against me . . .'

'Kind of feels that way sometimes, doesn't it?'

'Just . . . one thing . . . Can't one thing be simple, easy?'

Turning in his chair to get to his feet, he nudged the gift bag with his foot and frowned.  He reached down, retrieved the journal, the pen, and the inkwell and set them on the desk, but the journal was what interested him the most.

He hadn't lied about the one he used to have, but he hadn't been entirely honest, either.  Hana had given him one years ago, but after everything that had happened, he'd thrown it away.  He simply didn't want the reminders of her, of the friendship that had been lost.  Some things weren't meant to be forgiven.  He'd realized that.  Some things really couldn’t be fixed, couldn't be smoothed away with a simple, 'I'm sorry' . . . He'd learned first-hand that sometimes, a lifetime of friendship really meant nothing in the face of what she'd ultimately done . . .

That Jessa had thought to buy this for him . . .?  Just what did that mean . . .?

The computer beeped at him, announcing the delivery of an email.

He sighed, hand still resting atop the fine leather, as he clicked on the notification and waited for it to load.

He didn't recognize the address, which didn't mean much; not really.  There was an attachment—a picture file—but he ignored that for the moment and frowned as he read the message.

'The old Laughner estate, 2 p.m.  Be there or I may have to pay the hot red-head a visit.  Let's talk,' it said . . .

"Hot red-head," Ashur muttered, clicking on the attachment and narrowing his gaze.  The image opened up as he erupted into a low growl.  It was taken by the pond: him, flat on his back, Jessa straddling him, her head bent back, eyes closed, cheeks flushed, mouth slack, and very, very naked . . .

Closing out the email with a click of the mouse and a harsh growl, a muttered curse, Ashur couldn't help the absolute rage that shot through him.  Whoever it was . . . And he hadn't sensed a damn thing, had he?  Nope, too busy, too caught up in her that he hadn't paid a bit of attention to anyone or anything in the area . . .

A sickened feeling opened up in the pit of his stomach.  Threatening him, he could stand.  That was fine.  Threatening Jessa . . .?

Glancing at the clock, he shot to his feet, chair sliding across the floor, only to smack into the wall.  He didn't know where the old Laughner estate was, but it was already well after one o'clock.

Striding out of the office, he paused at the base of the stairs.  "Jessa!  I've got to go.  Keep an eye on Kells!" he hollered.

She stepped into the hallway, hairbrush in hand.  "Okay," she said.  "Will you be out long?"

"I . . . I don't think so," he replied.

She nodded and went back into her room.

He yanked his shoes on and grabbed his sword out of the hall closet before striding toward the door and out into the sunshine.

 

 


 

 

 

Striding past the ruins of an old French-style mansion, Ashur willed himself to be calm, to maintain his composure, even as the need to tear something to bits tried to overwhelm him.  Every time he thought about that picture, he grew a little hotter, a little angrier.  Whoever had dared to intrude on his land, to watch them during a time that should have remained a beautiful moment . . . That he had dared to look at Jessa at a moment like that . . . Well, there was a good chance that whoever it was, was going to die . . .

It was a beautiful space—he'd have enjoyed just wandering through it—if circumstances were different.  He couldn't sense anyone near yet, which wasn't entirely surprising.  Whoever it was had ample time to set up things to his advantage, didn't he . . .?

Sparing a moment to adjust the sword on his hip, Ashur stopped beside a low stone fence that was crumbling and breaking down.  The sword, a combination of Hidekea's claw and Ashur's fang, was different from most youkai blades.  Because he was an earth elemental youkai, Ashur's sword reacted to and could be used to channel earth and, to a lesser extent, other elements, as well.

Hidekea had always told him, however, that he wasn't nearly as strong with the weapon as he should have been, and Ashur supposed that there was truth in that.  The thing was, he tended to be equally adept at every weapon he'd trained with in an effort to find the one that suited him best, so maybe he wouldn't be considered a master swordsman, but it didn't hinder him that much, either, and with the added ability to channel elements, the sword had served him well over the centuries.

The wind picked up, lifting his golden brown bangs, tossing them haphazardly.  The shifting of the breeze carried the unseen youkai's scent easily enough, and Ashur crossed his arms as he waited.

Ray Johnston, a bison-youkai, stepped out of a grove of trees.  Ashur recognized him easily enough.  He had been present at a couple of the meetings at the Muira compound back in Japan during the ill-fated youkai uprising three years ago.  Mud brown eyes set back in the deep recesses of his eye sockets, overshadowed by the shaggy, frizzy black hair that stuck up in crazy tufts all over his head, he was huge, almost as big as Bas Zelig, and he puffed out his chest in a move of subtle intimidation.  The tactic was completely lost on Ashur.

"So, you did come," Johnston said, his tone, mocking, belligerent as he swaggered toward him, hands on his thick hips, a condescending smile on his wide face.  "I was hoping you wouldn't.  Kind of hoped you'd be stupid enough not to—give me a chance to get to know that hot little number—the red-head . . . See if she ain't as fiery with me as she was with you . . ."

He was deliberately goading Ashur, and he knew it.  That didn't really make the rage that rose in him any easier to control.  "You'll never find out," Ashur growled.

Johnston kicked his foot in the tall grass, his grin turning just a little nastier.  "I'll rip her pussy wide open and make her scream for more.  Show her what it's like to fuck a real man."

"Suppose you just tell me what you want so we can get on with this," Ashur growled, unable to keep the irritation out of his tone.

"Well, that depends," Johnston drawled, "Suppose you tell me just what happened?  I know your damned brother butted his nose in where it didn't belong, but you . . .? How is it that you were able to walk away from all of it?  Why were you the only one out of everyone who lived?  Shouldn't you have died, too?  I mean, you said you were with us, didn't you, Kyouhei-sama?"

"I owe you no explanations," Ashur replied in an entirely flat tone of voice, ignoring the blatant barb he'd inserted with the use of the honorific.  "I don't owe you a damn thing."

"Now, see, that's where you're wrong.  Allen Yates was a friend of mine, and he was caught up in that little tussle.  He's dead now, thanks to that no-good hunter, Ryomaru."

"That's where you're wrong," Ashur said, his voice dropping to a low rumble.  "Every single person makes their own choices.  No one made him fool enough to get involved in something that could and did blow up in their faces.  No one asked  you to trespass on my land, to take pictures of something that was not meant for you to see—for anyone else to see . . . and no one asked me to end you, either—but I will."

Johnston threw his head back and laughed, as though the very idea that Ashur could and would fight him was little more than a joke to him.  "Even if you could beat me—you can't, but it is what it is—there are a hundred more people out there who want answers, and now that you're demeaning yourself by working for the Zelig?  You're easy pickings . . . You, that bitch, the brat . . . Tell me something, Kyouhei-sama . . . Just who is that kid?  Want to hear my guess?"

Narrowing his gaze as the air around his youki seemed to crackle in the otherwise brilliant afternoon, Ashur squelched the rising anger that Johnston or anyone would have the nerve to make threats against people who had nothing at all to do with the situation.  "You and your kind can threaten me all you want.  I'm not afraid of any of you, and I never will be, but you and those like you will stay the hell away from her and from him.  You have something against me?  Fine, but if anyone—anyone—threatens them?  I'll knock you down."   

"That kid . . . He's your baby brother . . ."

"Actually . . ." Ashur drawled, purposefully allowing his youki to soak into the earth under his feet, "he's my son."

"Your son, is he?  With all the hallmarks of a true Muira . . ." Johnston goaded.  "Is that right?"

"I have walked away from that life," Ashur replied.  "Ordinarily, I'd suggest that you do the same, but, well . . ." Trailing off as he cracked his knuckles by simply flexing his fingers, he smiled just a little—a bitter smile, as full of irony, of grim satisfaction.  "You already dug your grave, Johnston."

"Cute," he laughed, throwing his tree-trunk-like arms out wide, only to bring them forward fast, back and forth, like a prize fighter warming up before the title match.  "If you think you can . . ."

He shot forward in a blur of motion—admirably fast for such a large youkai.  Ashur flipped out of the way as the bison's fist smacked hard into the dirt where he had been standing, a groaning tremor at the point of impact, a rain of dirt and grass blowing up, showering down in a wide arc.  "Fast little shit, aren't you?" he said, sounding more amused than he ought to.  Then again, Ashur had the distinct feeling that the bison really believed that he held the upper hand.

Sprinting toward him once more, Johnston let out a bellow, almost a war-cry, leaping  high into the air, legs bent, fist drawn back, as a ball of light formed on the opened and outstretched palm of his forehand.  He released it, and Ashur jumped, but he wasn't anticipating the volley of smaller energy spheres that Johnston fired off within moments of the first one: spheres that expanded at a horrifying speed as they hurled toward him.

He eluded the largest of them, hissing in pain as three of the smaller ones struck him in the leg, in the arm, in the side of his chest.  He felt his flesh tearing, could smell the stench of burning muscle.  Flung back from the impact of the exploding spheres, Ashur caught himself as he slid over the ground, as he raised a dirt wall behind him to stop the slide.

The dirt wall crumbled seconds later when Johnston's fist smacked into it.  Ashur rolled out of the way, coming up with a grimace as the electric pulses from the energy blasts continued to reverberate throughout his body, wreaking havoc on his nerves as he struggled to make himself move.

Johnston lunged at him again, but this time, Ashur stomped the ground, sending an explosion of earth directly at him, a furrow that grew and expanded, opening up wider as it shot away from him, a gully, a fissure, that the bison couldn't avoid.  Failing wildly, arms up, waving, feet that lost their footing, pistoning in a crazy dance before he plunged into the gash that was easily ten feet deep and twice as wide.  The sounds of the man's screams echoed in the air as Ashur raised his hands, slammed his palms together.  The earth groaned and grunted as he locked his hands together, and with a final creak, the crevice snapped closed, silencing Johnston forever as a subterranean blast, almost like a tremor, reverberated up through the earth as the buried youkai exploded.

Letting out a deep breath as the final rumbles slowed then quieted, Ashur glanced down, only to grimace at the crimson stain that was slowly spreading on the pristine white shirt.  For some reason, that fight felt a little anticlimactic.  Given the bison's tough talk, he should have put forth more effort than he did, but then, Ashur had learned over time that the bigger, brawnier opponents usually leaned a little too heavily on brute strength alone.

With a grimace, a grunt, he sat down hard on the crumbling stone wall to yank open his shirt to inspect the damage.  The wound was clean enough, he supposed, though the energy ball had burned into him before exploding just below the surface.  He didn't pull up the leg of his pants to look at it, but he figured it was the same, which was probably why his nerves had gone haywire for a moment, too.  The dampness of his blood was pooling in his sock in an entirely unpleasant kind of way, but he ignored that, giving his arm a little shake, sending droplets of blood flying.

He was a mess, wasn't he?  And yet, the idea of going home wasn't nearly as appealing as it ought to have been, either . . . He didn't have to be brilliant to realize that Jessa would likely freak out, and he never wanted Kells to see such things, either, and he sighed.

Lifting his gaze, he waved his hand then let it drop heavily onto his thigh, releasing the remnants of the earth wall he'd brought up.  It crumbled slowly, and when it was done, the entire field looked exactly as it had before the fight began.  There were no marks, not a blade of grass disturbed, even where he'd opened up the gash in the earth that had become Johnston's final resting place.

He grimaced.  It was one of those things, wasn't it?  One of the many things that Hidekea had scoffed at over the years—all throughout his training, whenever he'd stood there afterward, frowning at the destruction of the earth that was invariably left behind, it had come as second nature to him, to fix it, to smooth it away once more.

"What do you think you're doing?" Hidekea demanded, crossing his arms over his chest as he glowered down at twelve-year-old Kyouhei.

"It was ruined," he replied, resisting the urge to shuffle his feet nervously, painfully aware of the censure in Hidekea's voice.

"It's a mark that a battle took place here," Hidekea stated.  "You bow not to the earth; the earth shall bow to you."

". . . Hai, otou-san . . ."

Hidekea snorted indelicately as he turned on his heel to stride away.  "Too damn soft. That one will never be anything but a failure," he muttered under his breath, and whether he intended for Ashur to hear him or not, he had . . .

As the ugly memory faded, Ashur pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the twinging nerves that nearly hobbled him, the twitching spasms that still ricocheted through his arm, his leg, his chest as he slowly turned and walked away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jessa sat, arms crossed over her chest, a rather dumbfounded expression on her face as she watched Carol get ready for work.  After a nice, long, hot shower, the woman looked a little more like herself, but she still retained the darkened smudges under her eyes that bespoke their overindulgence the night before.

The perplexing thing, though, was that, other than saying that she drank too much sake, she hadn't said anything else about being mated or, well, Laith in general . . .

"So, Carol . . . Did anything . . . interesting happen after I left last night . . .?"

Carol paused with her brush halfway down her hair to glance at Jessa.  "No . . . Not really . . ."

"And you're . . . Sure . . .?  You and Laith didn't have any kind of talk . . .?"

Carol giggled as she resumed her task of fixing her hair.  "Well, not talk, exactly," she said.  "At least, not out loud . . ."

Jessa shook her head.  "But you had sex!" she blurted.

Carol's giggles escalated.  "Well, yeah . . . There's nothing in the world better than slightly drunk sex—too drunk and the ol' weenie heads south, you know . . . so, just enough booze to loosen you up . . ."

She waved her hands to interrupt.  "Without a condom!"

Carol had to pause and think about that, tapping her index finger against her lips as she scowled up at the ceiling, and then gasped, eyes widening, mouth dropping open into a gaping 'oh'.  Jessa nodded emphatically.  "Oh, God, we did . . ."

"Yes!" Jessa hissed. Heaving a tumultuous sigh, she leaned forward, satisfied that she'd gotten her point across.

"Oh, no," Carol groaned, dropping onto the chair behind her, gripping her forehead in her hands. "Oh, my God!" she whined again, voice muffled by her hands.  "Oh, damn, I need to get to the pharmacy . . ."

"What?  Why?" Jessa demanded, shooting to her feet just in time to grab Carol by the arms before the woman had a chance to flee.

"I've got to get a morning after pill," she insisted.  "Sorry, dollface, but I gotta run . . ."

Jessa watched Carol's hasty retreat with a gap-mouthed expression as she slowly shook her head.

Just what in the world was going on . . .? And just what in the world was a 'morning after pill' . . .?

Well, she was going to get some answers, damn it . . .

Stomping out of Carol's apartment, she headed toward the stable, stepping inside just in time to hear Kells' sweet voice, and the words . . . "Is Carol gonna have a baby, too?  Jessa's gonna have one!"

Laith stopped what he was doing and turned abruptly to stare at Kells.  "Wh-What?"

"No, I'm not," Jessa grumbled, hoping she wasn't as red-faced as she thought she might be.  "Kells, just because I didn't feel very well this morning really doesn't mean I'm . . ." Trailing off with a wince, she made a face and yelled,  "I'm pregnant . . ."

"Hmm, now, that was just not what I was expecting to hear," Devlin drawled as he stepped into the stable, leading Fletch by the reins.

"Heaven help me," she muttered, turning to glower at her friend.  "I'm not pregnant," she hissed.

Devlin blinked and stared at her, his eyes narrowing a little more with every passing second.  "I should hope not," he drawled.  "You don't even smell mated, so it'd be kind of a long-shot . . ."

"Jessa can be my mate!" Kells exclaimed, speeding over to throw his arms around Jessa's knees.  "You can be my mommy, too!"

She heaved a sigh and tousled the boy's hair.  "Oh, Kells, it doesn't work exactly like that . . ."

Devlin chuckled.  "One or the other, young'un, but not both—not ever."

"Here," Laith said, handing Kells the lead that he'd just attached to Humpty Dumpty's bridle.

"Thanks!" Kells hollered, taking a moment to calm himself before taking the lead and walking the pony out of the stable and into the paddock.

"Oh, hmm . . . Now, you, on the other hand . . . You smell quite different," Devlin remarked, frowning thoughtfully at Laith, who scratched the back of his neck and looked a little sheepish overall.

"You know, it's not really of either of your businesses," he grumbled, stomping over to retrieve a pitchfork to muck out Humpty Dumpty's stall.

"Maybe, except Carol doesn't seem to be aware of anything," Jessa pointed out, crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly.

"She doesn't?" Devlin blurted, rounded eyes shifting to stare at Laith.

Laith sighed.  "I'm going to tell her," he muttered.  "She was a little hung over this morning, though, so I figured I'd wait till she was in a better mood to explain everything."

 She still wasn't entirely pacified.  "Why on earth would you do something like that without talking to her?"

Laith snorted.  "It's not like I did it on purpose," he admitted.  "It just . . . happened . . . and my youkai thought it was a good idea, so . . . I went with it."

Jessa rolled her eyes and slowly shook her head.  "It would serve you right if she decided that you're insane and that she never wanted to speak to you again."  Then she grimaced when Laith's gaze dropped to the floor, and she sighed.  "Okay, I'm sorry.  That was mean.  Honestly, though, how could you think that making her your mate without her knowledge—she doesn't even know about us, you know!"

"Well, I was a little drunk," he grumbled, scuffing his boots against the scratched wooden floor.  "Besides, she's your best friend, isn't she?  I'd have thought you'd be thrilled about this."

She opened her mouth to gainsay him, but Devlin shot her a look frowning at her as he jerked his head to the side, and she rolled her eyes.  "I'm going inside," she muttered casting Devlin a telling glower for his efforts.  "I need to start dinner, anyway . . ."

It just figured, didn't it?  Jessa had no idea, just what Carol would say about the whole thing.  It made her whole situation seem a lot less bleak, though, didn't it?  After all, at least she knew where she stood, even if she didn't like it . . . Carol knew nothing, and honestly, trying to explain to her that Laith had taken it upon himself to make everything permanent?  She sighed.

Maybe she ought to have Ashur talk to him.  If he could talk some sense into Laith, that was . . .

 

 


 

 

 

"Johnston."

A heavy sigh on the other end of the phone call greeted him, and he frowned, glancing up from the pile of contracts that he still had yet to go through.  "Vince?  It's me . . ."

He frowned as the sound of his sister-in-law's usually upbeat voice greeted him.  "Tess?  Hey, what's up?"

She sighed again, although this one sounded more like a very deep breath than an actual sigh.  "It's Ray," she said.  "He left a few hours ago—wouldn't say where he was going, just that it was something he had to take care of.  Anyway, I was trying to call him to see when he'd be home, but it all keeps going straight to voicemail . . . Have you seen him?"

Dropping the pen from his fingers, he rubbed his temple, squeezing his eyes closed.  "Uh, not for a couple days, actually . . . Not since he mentioned that he'd found Muira."

She cleared her throat, and he heard the water tap turn on in the background—not surprising.  Whenever Tess got upset, she tended to do one of two things: clean or bake.  He was guessing that it was likely the former of those two options.  "You . . . You don't think he'd . . .?"

"What?  Go after him?  No . . . It'd be stupid for him to go alone . . ." Vince replied, inflicting enough bravado into his tone to comfort the woman, or so he hoped.

Tess clicked her tongue—another nervous habit of hers.  He might not be able to see her, but he wouldn't be surprised if she were tugging at her earlobe, too . . . "I . . . I don't understand," she said quietly.  "I don't see why we can't just live and let live . . . I-I-I mean, I agree, there shouldn't be any hanyou in line to be tai-youkai—nothing but pure youkai should ever hold that title, but really, is it such a big deal?"

Drumming his claws against the glass top of the desk, Vince grunted.  "That's what we think, too," he allowed.  "Thing is, if we just go with it, we're no better than the ones who think it's great, awesome, fantastic . . ."

"I . . . I suppose," she said, but she didn't sound entirely convinced, either.  "If, uh . . . If Ray calls, will you let me know?  We . . . We had a little argument before he left.  The girls had asked me to meet them for lunch, and I wanted him to watch Cade, but he said he had a meeting, so . . . So, I called him selfish . . ."

"I'll tell him," Vince replied.  "Don't worry about it.  He is a selfish son of a bitch, and he knows it."

She tried to laugh, he'd give her that much.  It was a pretty abysmal failure, but she'd tried.  "Thanks," she said.  "Speaking of Cade, I think he's awake.  I've got to go."

"No problem.  Give him a hug for me."

"I will.  Thanks, Vince.  Come by when you can."

"Absolutely," he replied.  Clicking off the phone, he dropped it onto the piles of documents and heaved a sigh of his own.

Damn that idiot brother of his, anyway—always going off, doing things half-cocked, never stopping to think about anything in the tunnel vision of his mind.  He'd always been like that, ever since they were little.

Even so, he reached for the phone and dialed Ray's number, frowning, but not surprised when the call went instantly to voicemail.

'Eh, who knows?  Maybe the fool's out somewhere, trying to make Tess feel bad for having the gall to ask him to watch his own kid for one day . . .'

Reaching for the contract he'd been looking over, he sighed again, pushing his brother out of his mind.  After all, the contracts were due, some of them as early as tomorrow, and it was up to him to figure out which ones were lucrative enough to bother with.  He'd worry about Ray when the idiot bothered to come by to get his next batch of unlucky targets . . .

 

 


 

 

 

Ashur sighed and grimaced, straightening the cuffs of the billowing white shirt he'd put on after his shower as he sat on the sofa and tried to focus on the reports he'd just gotten from Ontario regarding a few youkai who had gone missing in the last couple years.  The incidents didn't seem connected, at least, on the surface, but even so, it was something that required a little attention to figure out if there was something going on or not.

'You know, you might want to report that altercation to Cain.  You know, just in case some kind of report happens to make it to him—a missing bison-youkai . . .'

He frowned since he hadn't actually thought of that, either.

'You were well within your rights to defend yourself.  The Zelig will agree, too.'

He snorted.  'Like that matters.  He deserved what he got after invading my land like that . . . for threatening Jessa and Kells . . .'

'And you knew that it really was just a matter of time before they found you—before someone demanded answers, even if they have no right to ask.  You heard the whispers, the innuendo, the guessing. That's why you moved here, to start with—in the hopes that you could distance yourself and Kells from all of it, but knowing deep down that you couldn't . . .'

'I did.  I heard it all,' he agreed.  'Kells, however . . . He never deserved that . . . Maybe I should have thought twice before accepting the position of general . . .'

'Maybe, but you know, general or not, it was bound to happen sooner or later, and it'll probably happen again.  But you are being stupid, trying to hide it from Jessa, at the very least.  Do you honestly think that she won't notice?  Because if you think that  you can go another night without her, you're sadly mistaken.'

Ashur snorted.  'Horny bastard.<