Fai awoke slowly, lethargically, savoring the absolute warmth that was more of a feeling than a temperature—a sensation of well-being that surrounded him, even before he considered opening his eyes. Caught between the two extremes, his senses were captured in the middle, deep in the realm of sensation more than cognizant thought. It was a vaguely familiar feeling, a sense of awareness more than anything else, and in those moments, those fleeting breaths, everything in the world felt right . . .
And yet, the nagging undertone still crept over him: the whispering understanding that it was too perfect to last, too fleeing to capture, and that, with every moment that passed, it was slipping away faster than he could memorize it, capture it, claim it.
Eyes flashing open, Fai stifled a sigh. Huddled on his chest, Saori slept, her hair falling over him in glorious disarray. Ashy strands, tangled around him—around his hand, crossed over her back, holding her close—up and over his shoulder—surrounding him in her gentle scent that was as welcome as it was unsettling.
'I . . . I want to stay this way . . .'
Brow furrowing in a slight scowl that held more confusion than anything else, Fai breathed a little deeper, committed the scent of her to memory. What was it about her? He really couldn't figure it out, just what the compulsion really was. Easy to say that it was just the forced time they'd been together, but was it?
He had to wonder. If she hadn't knocked him out—if she hadn't loaded him into that van and took off with him . . . He really would have dismissed her, and he knew it. He was set to do that at the time. Ready to turn on his heel and walk away from her, and if he'd done that, then he never would have talked to her, never would have gotten to know her at all.
Or would he?
'I don't know, Fai. I mean, even at the time, there was something compelling about her. Maybe you wouldn't have gotten to know her then, but fate has a strange way of bringing people together, too, so maybe . . .'
He wrinkled his nose. 'And you're suddenly saying that meeting her—getting to know her—was fate?'
'Don't you think it could be?'
That was the trouble, wasn't it? He . . . He really didn't know, just what he believed . . .
'It's not that tough, Fai. If you think about it, you already know some of it, don't you? Or you're getting there, at least. Saori . . . You had her arrested because the thought of watching her, walk out of your life, wasn't one you could stand, and that has to mean something, don't you think? I think so, too, so it's all right. Keep her here. Keep her with us. We . . . We want her close.'
'I . . . I do . . .'
His youkai-voice chuckled. 'You make it sound like a fate worse than death, but you know, there's something about her . . .'
'Something about her . . .' he mused, smiling just a little as she snuggled closer, but didn't wake.
Somehow, he had the feeling that he could get entirely too used to her proximity, and, while the idea of it didn't frighten him exactly, he'd be lying if he didn't admit to himself that the knowledge that he kept cautiously at bay—knowledge that he refused to put a name on . . . It worried him, too.
'My life . . . It's not nearly as stable as it should be—not for someone like her . . .'
'Because of the challenges? The unrest? It's gotten better recently. Even so, there's nothing you can do about the fact that you're tai-youkai. It's not going to change. So, will you push her aside because of the idea that maybe someday, someone's going to step forward that you cannot defeat?'
His frown deepened as he considered his youkai's words. That wasn't what he'd thought, exactly—well, kind of . . . Even so . . .
'Are you going to be alone forever then? Just in case? You know, your father never lived like that, and he wouldn't want you to, anyway.'
Which, as far as he was concerned, wasn't really here nor there. He knew well enough that it wasn't something his father had wanted for him. But how fair would it be to her? Was he supposed to tell her when the challenges came? Was he supposed to just go and take care of it, relatively sure that he would still come back, yet knowing that all it really took was one moment of inattention, one second, one misstep . . .?
He sighed. 'Getting a little ahead of myself, aren't I? I don't even know what 'this' is . . . do I?'
'Well, okay, maybe it's too soon to put a real face on it,' his youkai relented. 'Right now, it's kind of more of a feeling than something I know for sure, but the thought's there, isn't it? I mean, you're thinking it, too . . .'
To tell the truth, Fai wasn't entirely certain, just what he was thinking. Fascination? Okay. Preoccupation? As much as he hated that, it was there, too. But more than that was hard to comprehend, especially for someone like him.
'I've only known her for what? A couple weeks? A little more? Kind of jumping the proverbial gun there, aren't you?'
His youkai snorted at his acerbic tone. 'If you're this jaded at this point in your life, I shudder to think how bad you'd be in another ten years or so. Maybe we should just be open to the idea? Then we can see where it goes . . .'
"You look entirely too serious, Fai-sama . . . Why is that?"
Blinking as he met Saori's sleep-bleary gaze, he carefully blanked his expression and uttered a noncommittal grunt. "-Sama again, is it?"
She giggled, but the sound was stifled by a yawn. Adorable nose wrinkling as she fluttered a hand over her gaping mouth, she blinked quickly to dispel the moisture that sprang into her eyes. "It's proper," she told him, crossing her hands on his chest, resting her chin on top of them. "Oh, are you still going to take me to your distillery?"
Slowly shaking his head, Fai heaved a long-suffering sigh designed to let her know just how put out he felt over the whole thing. "You just woke up, and you're ready to run out the door?"
She smiled. "Yes! Well, after I get a shower and maybe something to eat . . ." Suddenly, she sat up, turning her head to stare at the little table near the window. "Hmm . . . Usually, someone's brought my breakfast by now . . ." she mused, more to herself than to him.
He snorted again. "Usually, I get up long before now," he grumbled, "and since you were laying on me, I haven't had a chance to go get your breakfast made."
She stopped, her back stiffening, as she slowly turned her head to peer over her shoulder at him. "You . . . make my breakfast every morning?" she asked quietly.
He grunted. "And lunch and dinner," he muttered, tossing his legs off the bed as he sat up and scooted closer to the edge.
He heard her gasp, but he didn't think much of it, planting his fists against the mattress to pushing himself to his feet. She caught his wrist. "Thank you," she said without letting go.
He opened his mouth to say something, but snapped it closed at the very definite warmth in her gaze when he looked at her. "You're . . . welcome," he mumbled instead. "Go take your shower. I'll find something for you to eat."
She giggled once more, tugging on his wrist as she clamored to her knees. The kiss she planted on his cheek was quick and fleeting, and moments later, she was off the bed and speeding toward the bathroom without even a backward glance as she closed the door behind herself, leaving Fai alone, standing where she'd left him, a wide-eyed and almost perplexed expression on his face.
He stared at the closed bathroom door, a thoughtful scowl on his face as he tried to make sense of it—of her. All he heard was the ticking of the clock on the mantle.
All he felt was the hammering of his heart against his ribcage.
Rinji slipped out the French doors that led to the vast and beautiful gardens behind the Inutaisho mansion on the outskirts of Tokyo. Scanning the area with a dark scowl, he draped his hands on his lean hips, black lawn shirt flattening against his broad chest, molding the fabric to his body as the spring breeze ruffled his hair with invisible fingers.
He spotted his grandparents as they wandered through an opening in the tall hedges, both of them ambling along in companionable step. Sesshoumaru leaned down slightly, inclining his head toward his mate, the ever-formidable matriarch of the Inutaisho clan, and Kagura murmured to him in hushed tones that didn't reach Rinji's ears.
Digging his hands into his pockets as Sesshoumaru spotted him on the patio, Rinji inclined his head in silent greeting and stood back to wait.
"Rinji!" Kagura greeted, breaking away from her mate's side to hurry up the stone steps, arms outstretched wide to hug her grandson. "And here, I thought you'd forgotten your old obaa-chan!"
Smiling indulgently at her not-so-gentle scolding, he gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek as she offered him a quick hug. She kissed him back then hesitated a moment, gently wiping lingering lipstick from his face like she used to wipe away a smudge of dirt when he was little more than a pup. "Let me go get you some tea," she said, hurrying toward the doors.
He nodded and chuckled, watching her hasty retreat, before turning back to face Sesshoumaru as he climbed the stairs. Smile fading, Rinji bowed low in greeting. "Ojii-sama," he said.
Waving off the formality that Rinji always used by didn't need to, Sesshoumaru led the way to a large marble table off to the side. "Kagura seems to think this is a social call, but since you addressed me so, then I take it that she's wrong."
Reining in the desire to wince, Rinji nodded once instead, settling into a chair as he pulled out his phone and dialed his father's number. "I just wanted to explain this one time," he said, gesturing at the phone as the sound of ringing filled the air.
"Rinji," Seiji said when the call connected, his voice loud and clear over the speaker connection.
"Otou-san . . . How is your trip going?"
Seiji sighed. "I really hate Great Britain," he remarked dryly. "Your mother, of course, is having a wonderful time. She's out, spending obscene amounts of money in London's best shops at the moment . . ."
"No run-ins with any of MacDonnough's people, I trust?" Sesshoumaru asked mildly.
Seiji snorted. "Nope. Actually, he did send us a bouquet of flowers, if you can feature that," he replied.
Rinji bit his lip, wondering just how much yelling he was about to hear, and he opened his mouth to interrupt the small talk, only to be cut off when the door smacked open and Izayoi InuYasha stomped outside.
"Oi, bastard! What the hell is this?" he demanded without preamble, waiving a piece of paper in front of Sesshoumaru's face.
Sesshoumaru quirked an eyebrow, casting his half-brother a very bland stare—one that Rinji recognized instantly as the one expression that was designed specifically to piss off the hanyou instantly. "Baka, can you not tell that I'm in the middle of something?"
InuYasha snorted, tossing down the paper on the table so that he could cross his arms stubbornly over his chest. "Keh! Just tell me what the fuck this is supposed to mean," he growled.
Taking his time, Sesshoumaru slowly, deliberately, lifted the paper and scanned it over. "It says that the grant for the martial arts department is being delayed by a few months due to an accounting error—which should be entirely self-explanatory. Can't you read?"
"How 'bout I take Tetsusaiga and shove it right up your—?"
"Hello, jiji," Seiji added rather dryly.
InuYasha snorted but raised an eyebrow at the phone. "Family pow-wow?" he demanded.
Rinji stifled another sigh. "I thought it best if I talked to you all at once," he cut in, rubbing his eyes with a weary hand. "I'm not going to try to beat around the bush with it. Saori's missing."
Dead silence greeted his words. For a very long and pregnant moment, no one said a thing.
"What?" Seiji growled.
"How do you know?" Sesshoumaru demanded.
"Where the fuck is she?" InuYasha snarled.
"She called last week; said that she was being let go from her job—downsizing, she said. She said she was flying back in a day or so, but she never called to tell me when, and when I've tried to call her, I keep getting sent straight to voicemail," Rinji explained.
"And why am I just now hearing about this, Rinji?" Seiji asked in a deadly quiet voice, which meant that his father was ready to rip him to shreds.
"Because I was trying to reach her," he explained. "Then yesterday, I got a text from her phone that said she wasn't allowed use of a phone and wouldn't be until she was released."
"Released? From where?" InuYasha bellowed.
Sesshoumaru rolled his eyes. "Tell us everything, Rinji," he prompted, kicking a chair out on the opposite side of the table and pinning InuYasha with a very pointed look. The hanyou snorted loudly, but stomped around the table and threw himself into the chair.
Rinji sighed. "She . . . She called me a few weeks ago," he admitted. "Said she . . ." He winced and sighed again since he figured the roof was about to blow completely off of Tokyo, if not all of Japan . . . "She . . . kidnapped . . . the Asian tai-youkai . . ."
"She . . . what?" Sesshoumaru blurted.
"He was going to defund the orphanage, so she went there to talk to him, and apparently, he ended up unconscious—the van door fell on him—so she thought it'd be best to load him into the van and take off with him to show him the orphanage before he actually made good on his threat," Rinji explained. "She called me to ask me what she ought to do, which I told her that she needed to let him go, but she had this idea in her head that she could convince him not to defund the home if she took him there . . ."
"Keh!" InuYasha grunted, his golden eyes suspiciously bright. "That's my girl!"
"Baka," Sesshoumaru growled, glaring at his half-brother yet again before turning that glower onto his grandson. "And why is this the first we're hearing about it?"
Rinji rolled his eyes. "She begged me not to tell you because she thought you'd tell her to take him back home."
Sesshoumaru let out a very loud, very long sigh as he dropped his forehead into a propped hand—a very strange sound, coming from that particular being. "Kami . . ."
"Where. Is. She. Now?" Seiji growled.
"I . . . I have reason to believe that Fai-sama has her," Rinji concluded. "I mean, it makes the most sense."
"I'm coming home," Seiji said.
"Stay where you are," Sesshoumaru interjected. "I'll take care of this."
"It's not something that the Inu no Taisho needs to concern himself with," Seiji argued.
Sesshoumaru lifted his chin, his amber eyes alit with a cold and calculating light. "One has nothing to do with the other," he said. "The Inu no Taisho isn't going. Ojii-chan is."
"And so is obaa-chan."
Glancing over his shoulder, Rinji sighed when he spotted his grandmother, standing in the doorway, her aura crackling around her as she flicked open her fans and stared defiantly at her mate.
"Are you really going to stand there and argue with me? You'll lose, by the way . . . Or are you going to call and get the plane ready?"
Sesshoumaru opened his mouth to argue with her, but he snapped it closed again a moment later when she arched a midnight brow at him. With a muttered curse, he dug his phone out of his pocket and scrolled through the numbers instead . . .
'In the realm of your best ideas, this was not one of them.'
Stifling a sigh as Fai carried Saori into the castle and past a very puzzled-looking butler, he said nothing as the woman giggled, clinging to him as she leaned away unsteadily and giggled some more. "You're so strong, Fai-sama!" she slurred. He leaned to the side, jostling her upright once more before she toppled right out of his arms. "Ivan-san's such a lovely man! I love him!" she gushed.
"You can love him from afar," Fai growled, taking the stairs, two at a time in his haste to get her to her room. "And you know, you really need to learn not to kiss every man you meet."
"Who did I kiss?" she asked quizzically, her head lolling back as she stared up at him.
He grunted. "Ivan," he reminded her. "Three times."
"Oh-h-h-h-h," she breathed. "I did, didn't I?"
Oh, it had started out innocently enough. After breakfast, he'd taken her to the distillery, and Ivan Yasyovich, the manager of the place, absolutely mesmerized by Saori, and why not, had been more than happy to give her the grand tour while Fai sat down in the office, going over the projections that were the reason he'd gone, in the first place. What he hadn't anticipated was that Ivan would also be more than willing to give her samples of the different vodkas, and, more to the point, he hadn't bothered to tell Saori that she should just swish them around her mouth then spit them out. Nope, and by the time Fai had found them? Saori was drunk. Beyond drunk. As a skunk, as the old phrase went . . .
"I really like your vodka," she slurred as he set her on her feet in her room. She held onto him, her arms still locked around his neck in an entirely boneless kind of way. "Oishii-i-i-i . . ." She gasped. "Do you have some here? That fruity one?"
"Yeah, you're not getting more of that right now," he muttered, reaching around to grasp her wrists and gently tug them apart. "I think you'd do better to sleep it off."
"Hmm, is Ivan-san married?"
Fai stopped dead, narrowing his eyes on her. "Why? Why do you want to know that?"
She shrugged moments before literally falling onto the bed. Staring up at him through half-closed eyes, she giggled again. "He's a lovely man! Just lovely! Don't you think he’s lovely?"
"No, I don't," Fai growled. "Anyway, he's too damn old for the likes of you."
She wrinkled her nose. "You're being kind of grouchy, Your Grace," she pointed out in a haughty tone. "Besides, I didn't think he'd marry me."
"Then why do you want to know?"
She shrugged, letting her bent arms fall by her sides against the mattress. He frowned at her, trying not to notice how low the scooped neckline of the simple blouse she wore had managed to slip down a little lower, exposing the very pretty edging of white lace of her bra. "I have a friend who would like him," she said. "Guys don't notice me. They never have . . ."
"Is that right?" he countered, leaning against the bed post, arms crossed over his chest. "I doubt that."
She blinked slowly, gray eyes taking on a slightly darker hue. "The guy I liked in school never did," she maintained. "He never knew I was even alive . . ."
"I find that hard to believe," Fai said, "and if he didn't, then that's his own loss, isn't it?"
She smiled, but the smile seemed a little sad, in his estimation. "You're sweet, Fai-sama . . . I'm sorry I kidnapped you, after all . . ."
He chuckled. "Appropriated," he corrected her. "I'm . . . I'm not sorry that you did."
He shook his head. "No. I . . . I had a better time, hiking through the forest with you, than I've had in quite awhile."
She snorted, and as she blinked, her eyelids seemed to get heavier and heavier. "Now I know you're lying," she countered. "It's sweet of you to say, though . . ."
Letting out a deep breath, he pushed away from the post and reached for the blanket to pull them up over her. "Go to sleep, Saori," he said quietly.
"You're not going to lay down?"
For a brief moment, he wished that he could. But it was still early enough that he could easily get a few hours' work in before he was ready to go to sleep. "I'm going to go down to my office," he told her. "I'll . . . I'll check in on you later."
"O . . . kay," she murmured, already well on her way to a peaceful slumber.
He watched her for another long minute before he forced himself to leave her.