~Monday, April 25, 2070~
'Calm down . . . I can do this . . .'
'Of course, you can! Just present your case, and he'll listen. After all, it's a youkai facility, so, if it closes, then they'll have to find placement for all of those children, and if they do that, then it's much riskier than it should be.'
Nodding slowly at the very logical sound of her youkai-voice's words, Saori Senkuro refreshed her grip on the steering wheel of the very old cargo van that looked like it had seen much better days as it puttered along the tired, old road. It was the only vehicle that was available and not on the verge of breaking down, so, she hadn't had much of a choice, even though she hated driving something so large and so far. Against her better judgment, she'd squeezed what should have been a six day drive into just over three, having only stopped when she absolutely had to rest or eat. Grimacing as she jerked the steering wheel to the left in an attempt to avoid a really large pothole, she straightened the car back up and drew a deep, steadying breath.
She wasn't entirely sure how it had happened. She'd only been working at the St. Nicholas II Home for Children on the western outskirts of Bilibino in Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, for a few months as an advocate for a few of the children. Everything was going well, or so she'd thought, until one of the other advocates—a very sweet northern-fur-seal-youkai named Dmitri Yegsteric—inadvertently ratted her out to the powers-that-be. Of course, to be fair, she had to allow that Dmitri hadn't realized that no one else knew of her actual family background. It wasn't that she was trying to hide anything. It really just hadn't come up.
Yes, she was related to the Inu no Taisho—he was the man that she called, 'ojii-chan'. Her parents were Aiko Inutaisho-Senkuro and her mate, Seiji, and Aiko was Sesshoumaru and Kagura's daughter, which made InuYasha and Kagome her great-uncle and great-aunt, respectively. The thing was, while her brother, Rinji shared the legendary coloring of the Inu no Taisho and his family, Saori didn't. She took after Seiji in coloring, at least, though her father liked to say often enough that she had her mother's face. Saori had always taken that with a grain of salt, though. In her estimation, everything about her mother screamed refinement, classic beauty, and Saori? Well, her father was a handsome man, and if she were a man, she figured it might have carried over in that, but all she really saw when she looked in the mirror was her father, which, in her estimation, wasn't nearly as flattering in a woman than it was in a man . .
Even so, when Dmitri had tossed her heritage out there during a staff meeting since they were all kind of discussing where they'd come from while chatting before the meeting had actually started, Saori had realized quickly enough that many of her fellow employees did think it was a huge deal, even if she hadn't . . . Given that she didn't share the Inutaisho last name, it wasn't really any kind of subterfuge, even though Mikhail Bostoyev, the director of the orphanage, seemed to think it was.
So, because of her familial ties, when word came down that the home was set to be de-funded in the next quarter, Director Bostoyev had turned to look at her, gaze narrowing in an entirely calculating sort of way, and he'd suggested—which really meant that he'd stated quite plainly—that she would be coming out here today to talk the tai-youkai into rethinking his support of the orphanage. He'd also mentioned in a rather off-the-cuff sort of way that, should she fail to change his mind, that she was fired, but the thing about that was, she really wasn't entirely certain if he was joking or not . . .
'Don't be stupid!' she scolded herself, refreshing her grip on the steering wheel. 'Of course, he was joking! I mean, that'd be a pretty terrible reason to fire someone . . .'
'Well . . . That's true. Then again, the director isn't really the kind of person who makes jokes—ever,' her youkai-voice pointed out. 'I'd guess that he could easily figure out grounds on which to fire you . . .'
Scowling at that thought, she bit her lip, catching the length of her stormy gray hair—dark enough that it looked black in dimmer light. Gunmetal, her mother had so often called it: gray so deep, so rich, that it took on hints of blue in the light. 'So . . . You think he meant it? That either I figure out a way to convince the tai-youkai or . . .?'
Her youkai-voice sighed. 'I'm not saying he was serious, but . . . But he could have been . . .'
She sighed, too, propping her elbow on the chipped and faded window sill, leaning her temple against her balled-up fist, pale blue eyes shining gray in the weak and wan light of the early morning sky. It was something else that people often got wrong about her. Most everyone would have said that her eyes were a light, pale gray, and that wasn't true. She supposed it had something to do with the combination of her hair and milky skin, but her eyes were blue—the lightest blue. They just tended to look like more of a silver—maybe closer to pewter—than blue more often than not . . .
'Maybe if you show him the things you brought along, maybe it'd be enough to change his mind,' her youkai pointed out in an overly reasonable tone— a tone that she knew to mean that her youkai-voice wasn't any more convinced that she'd be successful than she was. 'If you personalize the orphanage in his mind, then it'd be more difficult to deny them, don't you think?'
'Personalize it . . .'
'Yes . . . You know, put faces on these orphans instead of leaving them as a sort of abstract kind of thought for him . . .'
She nodded slowly, straightening her back, refreshing her grip on the steering wheel once more. To be honest, she wasn't entirely sure just what kind of man this tai-youkai was. To her knowledge, no one had really spoken about him much before—not entirely surprising. Maybe more political talk swirled around in her uncle, Toga's home or in her grandfather's, but in hers? Well, it rarely came up, actually. She thought that maybe she'd heard before that the Asian tai-youkai was younger, but that was a relative term, too, considering many in her family were quite a bit older, so if they were talking about young in terms of youkai, then it could mean anything from young adult to someone in their early hundreds or more. Other than that? She knew nothing . . .
'You could always call someone and ask what they know . . .'
She considered that, then made a face as the looming and almost imposing edifice appeared on the near horizon: the Demyanov palace . . .
Standing taller than the range of trees, towering over the fields of wildflowers that were just now settling in for spring, the gray stone spires rose high and proud, and Saori pressed her lips together in a grim sort of determination at the almost foreboding sense that she felt from the cold and formidable structure. Just what kind of man lived in such a place? she had to wonder.
She frowned. Even Sesshoumaru's mansion on the outskirts of Tokyo wasn't as imposing as that place. The couple of brass onion domes did little to detract from the strict exterior and, in fact, added a strange kind of opulence—an even more foreboding sense of unbroken order . . .
To her surprise, the guardhouse near the opened gates was empty as she drove through. There were a couple small mounted cameras up high on the thick stone pillars that lined the gates, but she had no idea if they were working or not. Thick trees lined the wide driveway for the first half mile or so, before giving way to a gently rolling lawn—already well manicured despite the earliness of the season—dotted with large flower gardens and gray stone paths, water fountains, stone walls . . .
It was beautiful, she had to admit, even if all of it only added to the overall feeling of rigidity, of absolute regulation, of an almost militaristic kind of formality. Something about it sent a shiver right down her spine: the cold splendor, the unrelenting sense of place and almost horrifying perfection, the pervasive feel that nothing would ever dare to be out of place, out of order . . .
Stopping the van on the far side of the huge and hulking water fountain in the center of cobblestone driveway, Saori killed the engine and drew a deep breath to gather her bravado—something that she'd lost some of when faced with the imposing castle—before yanking on the door handle and nearly stumbling out of the van that looked so entirely out of place against the splendor of the estate.
Slamming the door closed—it wouldn't hold if she didn't—she made a face as she leaned to the side, checking herself in the side mirror that was held on by a couple of industrial bolts that, she knew, were long enough to extend through the door where they were securely bolted into place.
Her hair could use a good brushing, she realized with a grimace since she'd have to dig through her suitcase to find the brush, but it had been unseasonably warm yesterday afternoon, so she'd had no choice but to lower the windows in the van since the air conditioner had stopped working years ago—they'd said—and she'd only pulled over beside the road to catch a couple hours' sleep instead of seeking out an actual hotel anywhere along the way.
Her faded pink sweatshirt was rumpled, her jeans wrinkled and a little yellowed by rusty water and age. Her tennis shoes were scuffed and smudged—hardly the vision of someone set to meet with someone as important as the Asian tai-youkai, and she sighed. The director would have been better off to have asked someone else to go on this little mission—someone with better planning skills or at least with the common sense to think beforehand that they ought to stop and make themselves presentable before rushing, headlong into the fray, as it were . . .
She winced as she dragged her fingers through her hair in an attempt to straighten it. It didn't really do much, other than catching on tangles and pulling a little too hard here and there. In fact, she was so intent on what she was doing, that the sound of blatant throat clearing behind her wrenched a strangled little gasp-squeak from her as she whipped around, barely able to catch herself on the door handle before she ended up, face down in the driveway. "Oh!"
The man that stood before her blinked slowly, arms crossed over his chest as the late April breeze—brisk but not cold—gently lifted the strands of his chestnut-colored hair—hair that barely brushed the collar of his nondescript, light blue shirt, in an unruly kind of chaos. The ends curled slightly, sticking out here and there in a bit of disarray that still seemed entirely orderly on him. Ridiculously handsome, actually, and . . . 'He's . . . He's so young . . .' she thought as his bright hazel eyes regarded her in an almost lazy kind of way as he shifted the strong line of his jaw to the side as though he were assessing her—and finding her somewhat lacking. He wasn't as young as she was, no, but he certainly was nowhere near old enough to be tai-youkai, was he, and he neither smiled nor frowned as he waited patiently, as though he were simply pausing long enough for her to tell him just who she was and what she wanted.
"H-Hello," she said, bowing slightly in traditional Japanese style of greeting without really thinking about it. "I'm Saori, and . . . and I'm here to talk to the tai-youkai."
A slight brightening in his eyes was the only real indication that he'd heard her at all, but he finally offered her one curt nod. "Is that right? And just what is it that you want to speak to him about?"
Biting her lip at his perceived rudeness, she scrunched up her shoulders and let them drop as she pasted on a tepid little smile. "It's . . . It's important," she said, wondering who the man was, wondering just how much she ought to tell him. Was he an assistant or something? She didn't know, but the way he was staring at her was starting to make her feel more and more self-conscious by the second. It reminded her of the look that the family's housekeeper used to get on her face when she'd come in from school and set her books onto one of the tables that she'd just cleaned off for the hundredth time in a week.
"Everyone says their business is important," he replied, flicking his wrist in a rather abrupt kind of dismissal. "If you want to dance around with it, then I have more pressing matters to attend."
"Wait!" she called after him when he started to turn on his heel. "Are you—? Do you work for him? The tai-youkai?"
Her question seemed to surprise him, and he slowly pivoted to face her again, brow furrowing as he carefully regarded her yet again. "I guess you could say that," he finally said. "You realize that usually, one calls to request a formal appointment with the tai-youkai."
She grimaced. Of course, she knew that. She simply hadn't thought about it, was all . . . "Well, then, I'd . . . I'd like to request one," she said, straightening her back, trying not to let the man see just how uncomfortable she was at the moment. "Please."
He considered her statement for a long moment, and then, he sighed, letting his arms drop to his sides as he held up a hand, curled his fingers a few times, as though to hurry her along. "You've got my attention," he muttered in an almost resigned sort of tone. "Let me hear it."
She blinked, and the words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them: "You're the—? You can't be the tai-youkai! You're too young!"
He seemed to bristle under her shocked assessment, and he drew his back up proudly as he leveled a very condescending look at her. "Do you want to speak to me or not?" he demanded, albeit a little dryly.
She flinched, hoping against hope that she wasn't blushing as badly as she thought she probably was. "Oh, uh, yes! Yes, please," she added for good measure. Hurrying past him to the back of the van, she opened the hatch and scrambled for the box of things that had been thrust into her arms when she'd tossed her suitcase into the back of the vehicle. "I've been sent by the St. Nicholas II Home for Children—I'm a child advocate there, and—"
"St. Nicholas . . . St. Nicholas . . . The orphanage in Bilibino, right? I defunded that," he interrupted.
She grimaced. "Yes, you did," she agreed. "If you would—"
He shook his head. "I'm not interested in hearing your pitch," he told her in a no-nonsense tone. "That place isn't worth saving. The children can be assimilated into other area homes, and—"
"But this is the only one that services all youkai and hanyou children!" she insisted, her sense of desperation making her grasp his arm before he could move away. "Please, if you'll just humor me for a few moments, I swear, I'll—"
Sparing a moment to stare rather pointedly at her hand, still clutching the sleeve of his shirt, he snorted indelicately. "I've already humored you for a few moments, Miss . . .?"
"Senkuro," she supplied, forcing herself to let go of him. "Just, please, I—"
"This!" she exclaimed, grabbing a threadbare teddy bear out of the box and jamming it up under his nose. He jerked back with a scowl as she held it up high. "This belongs to one of our kids, and he loves it! He doesn't care that it's so ragged. He sees past that to the love that he feels instead! It's the same with all of our children! This!" she hurried on to say, flipping open a ratty old drawing tablet to show him one of the images inside, "Another of the children draws pictures of his old home, of his family—they died in an altercation between a couple gangs in Chirinda . . . So many of these children really need the individual attention that they get at the home—the counseling so that they can overcome their pasts, and . . . These little ones have already had so much instability in their short lives that the home is the only real sense of belonging that some of them have ever, ever felt, and—"
"And they'll adjust fine to new homes," he insisted. "Children are resilient that way."
"What if they can't?" she insisted stubbornly, crossing her arms over her chest. "These children—they're all youkai and hanyou. If you move them, they'll be alone—they'll lose that sense of being with others like them. Most of the other orphanages are full of children of human descent, and that might be important that they develop the understanding of humans in general, but it's far more important that they're able to adjust first—able to understand and acknowledge their own heritages. Splitting these children up? Placing them with children where they may well be the only one of their kind? This home was set up to work especially with youkai children, and for a youkai or hanyou child who isn't immediately recognized for what they are? They'll be ostracized at best—treated like some kind of freak or monster at worst . . . Do you know what it's like, to grow up in that kind of environment?"
"Do you?" he countered rather mildly, eyes taking on a rather bored kind of slant, as though she were talking gibberish.
"I do," she said quietly. "I mean, not personally, but . . . But I have a relative who grew up in just that way, and it . . . It had a profound effect on him throughout his lifetime."
"So, you really don't," he replied.
She winced inwardly. "It took years for him to find the acceptance and the understanding that these children are learning now," she stated once more. "These children need the kind of support they receive. You . . . You owe it to them . . ."
"I owe them?" he echoed rather harshly. "And just what, exactly, do I owe them?"
The fierceness in his eyes made her want to step back, made her want to retreat, and, for the first time since she'd met him, she could see the determination of the tai-youkai shining through. Even so, she forced herself to stand her ground, not to back down—not now—not with the lives of the children on the line, so to speak. "You're their tai-youkai," she replied quietly, her tone no less determined. "If you won't stand for them, then who ever will?"
The Asian tai-youkai heaved a sigh, slowly shaking his head as he shifted his gaze over and past her, down along the winding driveway that led back to the road. "Okay," he said.
She blinked, shook her head as confusion set in. "Okay?" she echoed.
He nodded. "Okay."
"What does that mean?"
He shrugged. "It means that you can have the funding to keep the home open. But."
The immediate sense of exultation abruptly disappeared. "But . . .?"
He didn't turn to face her as his eyes slipped back to meet hers once more. "But you have to tell me just whose funding you're going to take away then, because to keep the orphanage open, something else has to give up their money. Should it be the homeless shelter that services two thousand youkai a day, every day? Keeps them fed and healthy and warm in the winters—winters that are brutal here? Perhaps it should be taken from the youkai clinic? Maybe you'd rather—"
"I get your point," she grumbled, cutting him off before he could go on. "Surely there's something you can do, though . . ."
"The orphanage isn't something that I wanted to cut off," he explained, though he sounded more irritated than patient. "However, it does the least damage. Like it or not, these children can be taken in by other agencies, and, in doing so, it frees up their portion of the budget, so unless you'd rather defund one of the others, then there's just nothing I can do about it."
"What about fundraisers?" she blurted before she could stop herself.
Rubbing his face in an entirely exasperated kind of way, he shot her a disbelieving glower. "And just what kind of fundraiser are you talking about? Going door to door to sell cookies? Candy? Magazine subscriptions? And just how many of those do you think that those children could sell in order to make a dent in the funds that are needed to keep that facility open?"
"There . . . There has to be some way," she murmured, hating how weak, how pathetic, her response sounded in her own ears.
To her surprise, however, he sighed. "In a perfect world," he muttered, more to himself than to her.
He shook his head, waved a hand, as though to dismiss his own thoughts. "I'm sorry, Miss Senkuro," he told her, and, to his credit, he actually did sound like he meant it. "You're not from here, are you?"
She opened her mouth, but snapped it closed. "I'm not," she admitted. "I'm . . . I'm from Japan."
His expression didn't change as he gazed at her, but he did nod slowly, as though something in her statement made perfect sense to him. "Japan is a world apart from here," he told her. "We don't have the funds to take care of everything we'd like—not here. Here, there is more need and far less money, and painful choices have to be made. Your orphanage is not the only one to suffer for the imbalances."
And just what could she say to that? She sighed. "If you could just meet these children . . ."
He slowly shook his head. "It wouldn't change anything," he told her. "Now, if you're finished, I have a meeting that I need to get to, and—"
"Would you . . .? Would just please just think about it a little longer?" she asked, fiddling with the teddy bear still in her hand as she held up the hatch that sometimes fell closed by itself with the other. "Just . . . Maybe there's some way . . .?"
He looked like he wanted to tell her to forget it. He sighed and gave one curt nod, instead. "I'll think about it," he told her. "I don't see the decision being reversed, though."
She had a feeling that it was the best she was going to get, and she nodded, too, hating the feeling that she really hadn't accomplished anything at all, yet understanding his situation a little too well, too. "Thank you for your time."
He really didn't seem happy at all with the discussion, and for a moment, he almost seemed like he might want to say something else. In the end, though, he nodded and started to step back.
It simply wasn't fair, was it? These children . . . None of them had asked to be brought into a situation like this, and yet, all of them seemed to understand that they'd found a place to belong. Some of them were starting to make real strides forward, and now, it was all going to be taken away from them. Blinking fast as her gaze blurred over, she bit down hard on her cheek, trying to stave the tears back. He already felt bad, didn't he? Bad for having to make that kind of decision, in the first place, and the last thing—the very last thing—he needed or deserved was the guilt of making her cry on top of everything else . . .
And yet, the harder she tried to staunch the rising tears, the thicker they rose. To her horror, she choked out a rough little breath, smashing her hands over her face in a last-ditch effort to keep them in check.
She heard his muttered curse as he swiftly bent to retrieve the teddy bear she'd dropped. A moment later, however, something hit her leg as the echo of the hatch falling closed echoed in her ears, and she blinked rapidly, dashing a hand over her eyes as her gaze widened in shock, as she stared at the unconscious body of the Asia tai-youkai, laying at her feet.
"Oh . . . Oh, kami," she hissed, fingers flying up to hover over her lips as she felt the blood drain out of her face. "Oh . . . Oh, that's not good . . ."
'Kami! Did you just kill him?'
She squeaked, her gaze feverishly sweeping the grounds as she tried to figure out just what had happened and just what she ought to do. As luck would have it, though, there wasn't another soul in sight, and she grimaced. 'He . . . He can't be dead, right? I mean, if he were dead, his body . . .'
'Not necessarily. I mean, you weren't fighting him, so . . . Anyway, forget about that! Is he breathing?'
Making a face, she quickly knelt down, her fingers shaking as she gingerly touched his throat. He had a pulse, and that was good enough, wasn't it? Satisfied that he was still alive—at least, for the moment—she stood up, started to step over his prone body.
'W . . . Wait . . .'
'What do you think will happen if you go up there and ring the bell? You knocked out their tai-youkai!'
'Not on purpose, I didn't! I'm sure that if I explain what happened—'
'This is Russia, Saori! The laws here are nothing at all like the laws back home, and if you think about it, whether you meant to or not, what happened could easily be construed as assault on the tai-youkai, don't you think?'
'But I didn't—'
'No, just . . . Just think about it . . . And besides, you . . . you wanted him to see the children, didn't you? So . . .'
Eyes flaring wide as her youkai-voice's words started to come clear in her mind, she bit her lip. 'But . . .'
'Come on, Saori . . . He can see the orphanage for himself, and you can make sure he's all right, too. If you go marching up to that castle, they're going to arrest you first and ask questions later, don't you think?'
Staring at the foreboding structure, she winced . . . A castle as old as this one probably did have a network of dungeons below ground—at least, that's what she figured, given her limited knowledge of such places. Even so, she was the one who had taken her hand off the hatch despite knowing that it had a tendency to close on its own, so, she supposed, in a roundabout way, it really was her fault that he'd been knocked out cold. She'd just orchestrated an attack on the tai-youkai, hadn't she? Intentionally or not, that was very serious business . . .
She covered her face with her hands for a long moment, whimpering quietly as she tried to figure out, exactly what to do . . .