Saori closed the door with a sigh, tucking her hair behind her ear as she sat down on the raised floor to remove her shoes and pull on the house slippers. She’d just finished and stood up when Aiko stepped inside. “Well, I guess it’s just us tonight,” she said, kicking off her shoes and steadying herself on the short railing to aide her as she stepped into her own house shoes. “Do you want to watch a movie or something?”
“Um, whatever you want to do,” she agreed. “Where’s nii-chan?”
Grabbing the stack of mail off the table nearby, Aiko’s voice was a little distracted when she answered. “Mikio called. He said he had a few questions about a couple of contracts he’s working on, and since otou-san is out of town, Rinji went over there to talk him through them.”
Saori frowned. “Mikio-san? But he never has problems with any of the contracts.”
Catching her hair in one hand and pulling it over her shoulder, Aiko shrugged. “Oh, he does from time to time, especially when they have special addendums. I’m sure it’s all fine,” she replied, flipping through the small stack of envelopes in her hand. “Hmm, the Todai Initiative is holding another gala for their patrons . . .”
“Which means they want more donations for the university,” Saori concluded.
Aiko laughed. “That almost sounded cynical,” she pointed out, despite the amused smile on her face. “Hmm, looks like it’s the same weekend as the Intelliface symposium in Berlin, so . . .”
“That sounds boring,” Saori mused.
Aiko winked at her. “Your father’s the keynote speaker, and I, for one, enjoy watching him up there, delivering his words of wisdom.”
Saori wrinkled her nose. “Are you going to stand in the back and flash him again?”
Aiko giggled, but she didn’t deny it, either. “It was only the one time, and I was upstairs in a private box with no one else around to see it.”
Uttering a snort, Saori slowly shook her head. “Kaa-chan?”
Following her mother into the living room, Saori smiled. “When’s the last time you went on a proper vacation?”
Aiko set the rest of the mail on the coffee table as she sat down. “We go on vacations,” she insisted. “We always stay a few extra days when we travel to conferences and such so that we can enjoy the sights and all that.”
“Spending a few extra days during a business trip isn’t a vacation,” Saori pointed out, settling onto the sofa beside her mother. “You’re both workaholics. You’re as bad as Fai-sama.”
“Is that right? What do you mean?”
Flipping through the channels with the remote control, Saori made a face. “He said he’s never been on vacation since he became tai-youkai. I mean, I can understand that he’s busy—oji-chan is, too—but it always seems like he tries to do everything by himself, and Asia’s huge . . . It just feels like a lot.”
“You talked to him quite a bit, didn’t you? Go to know him pretty well?”
She shrugged. “Not really. He’s . . . He’s kind of hard to read sometimes, sort of like ojii-chan . . .”
“-Chan? I take it you’re done being irritated with him, then?”
“I wasn’t irritated with him,” she insisted. “I just think that they could have taken the time to ask instead of blasting down Fai-sama’s door . . .”
“At least it was an inside door,” Aiko said. Saori didn’t have to look at her mother to hear the hint of amusement in her tone.
Saori heaved a sigh. “It’s not nearly as funny as you seem to think. Ji-chan just blasted the office doors open—they exploded—exploded . . .”
“They were worried about you. You really can’t blame them for that.”
“And they say I have serious impulse control problems,” she grumbled.
“They love you, Saori.”
For some reason, her mother’s ability to discount something that truly bothered her about the entire situation bothered her, even though she wouldn’t ever really say that to her. Sure, she could understand their concerns, but to go in like that? Fai would have given them answers, had they just stopped long enough to talk to him, but no, handled like that? She grimaced. Even if he was interested in her on some level, and that was a huge, ‘if’, that interest would have died the very second her much-loved ji-chan knocked in his office doors . . .
A sudden and bone-deep weariness crashed over her, the likes of which she’d never felt before. Letting out a deep breath, she rubbed her forehead, dropping the remote onto the coffee table so that she could use both hands. It didn’t do any good.
Saori made a face, but nodded. “I’m going up to bed,” she said, pushing herself to her feet. “I’m just . . . just tired, I guess . . .”
“Okay,” Aiko agreed, frowning in concern as she watched her daughter shuffle toward the doorway. “Oyasumi nasai.”
“Oyasumi,” Saori replied.
It was mental exhaustion, she told herself as she headed up the stairs in the foyer. Weeks of asking herself questions, of reliving things in her head, over and over, wondering if there was anything she could have done differently to have ended up in a wholly different place . . . If she’d had a single thought once, she’d rehashed it over and over again, and nothing really led her to any different conclusions.
The unsettled feeling that she couldn’t shake had only grown exponentially, and that was bad enough. It was almost enough to drive her crazy, and she couldn’t help but think that something really had to give. The problem was, she wasn’t entirely sure, what . . .
Sighing as she closed her bedroom door, as she slipped out of the midnight blue dress and hung it back in the closet, she tugged an oversized tee-shirt over her head—she’d commandeered it from her second-cousin, Bas’s suitcase when he was visiting a few years ago. He was easily the biggest man she knew, and she’d figured that the shirt would be extra comfortable, which it was. She might not have tried it had his mate, Sydnie been with him. She hadn’t come along that time since she was working a case back home and thought that she was close to cracking it. Come to think of it, Saori still wasn’t sure if Sydnie knew about the tee-shirt, and, given the cat-youkai’s penchant for unpleasant jealously, she didn’t think that it was something that she would ever actually tell Sydnie . . .
It didn’t take long for her to brush her teeth and wash her face—something she tended to do before bed or she just wouldn’t be able to sleep—before opening the balcony door, just enough to allow some fresh air in. Seiji didn’t like her habit of doing that, having said many times that if someone wanted to break in, the first thing they’d do was to look for open windows. Saori, however, figured that anyone who was dumb enough to do something like that would find out soon enough, just what a bad idea that really was.
Lingering in the doorway, she leaned against the frame, tilting her head to the side as she gazed up at the hazy half-moon that hung low in the skies. The majesty of it was diminished in the glow of the city, and only a handful of stars were visible at all. It was something she’d loved about Russia—the natural beauty of it all, especially the night skies. She remembered seeing the vibrance of stars when they visited Maine in the United States a few times, but, either her memory had faded over time, which was entirely possible, or the stars in the Russian night skies were just that much brighter. It was entirely possible that they might have been, simply because Russia, as a whole, was a lot less populated than the United States were, even Maine.
‘Do you think that Fai-sama is looking at the moon right now, too?’
Her youkai sighed. ‘Maybe. I . . . I hope so . . .’
Staring up at the moon, she almost smiled as the light breeze stirred her bangs, her hair brushing against her cheeks. The beauty was marred only by the lingering wistfulness that dug deep into her soul, a sense of longing, of urgency, of hopelessness that she didn’t know what to do with.
Fai sat in the rented car, staring out the window at the quiet house after checking the address for the hundredth time since he’d found it about an hour ago. His first thought was to march right up to the door and to demand to see Saori, but that idea was quashed fast enough with the memory of the warning that Kagura had given him, that Saori’s older and very overprotective brother was likely to be there, too.
It wasn’t that he was afraid of him, of course, but even he had to admit that starting a fight with any of her family members really wasn’t a wise thing to do in the given situation.
Too bad he had a feeling that the vast majority of her family was already prepared to write him off as a villain, which was entirely unfair, really, given that not one of them had been properly introduced to him, in the first place. Then again . . .
‘Does it matter, what her family thinks of you?’
Scowling at the question presented by his youkai-voice, Fai snorted. Loudly. ‘I’d really rather that they don’t hate me, if that’s what you mean.’
‘And since when do you care, how anyone else feels about you?’
‘I don’t care,’ he grumbled. ‘But it’s her family, and I’m pretty sure that she might well care if they like me or not.’
‘Well, why do you care if your employee’s family likes you or not? That’s just weird, if you ask me. A mate, on the other hand . . .’
He snorted again. ‘You’re jumping the gun there, just a little, don’t you think?’
‘Do you think so? I mean, if you want to discuss it, then Yerik seems to think that she’s your mate, too . . .’
‘Yerik was just trying to annoy me.’
‘All right; all right, but if that’s the case, then tell me why we bothered to fly all the way over here, just to offer her a job that her family probably won’t let her take, in the first place—insane lot of overbearing ruffians that they are . . .’
‘. . . Are you going to tell her that her family is a bunch of overbearing ruffians?’
His youkai thought it over. ‘I might.’
Fai rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah, because that’ll go over like a lead balloon . . .’
His youkai grunted. ‘And why are we just sitting here, waiting?’
Scooting down in his seat just enough to make himself a little more comfortable, Fai shrugged. ‘I’m waiting till everyone goes to bed,’ he explained.
Even as he thought that, the light in the living room suddenly turned off. The action set off a curious kind of flutter, deep in his belly, and Fai sat up straight. Common sense told him to wait just a little longer, but his impatience was wearing him down. Staring hard at the digital clock on the car’s dashboard, he willed the minutes to pass. It took forever.
Two minutes later, a bedroom light on the upstairs floor turned on—a softer, rather ambient light that irritated him, just the same. He tried to tell himself that a few more minutes was fine, that it wouldn’t matter. It wasn’t much in the way of consolation.
Ten minutes later, Fai was ready to tear something to shreds. Trying to ignore the voice that kept reminding him that he was finally going to get to her, he dug his claws into the armrest, realizing that the rental car agency was going to charge him for it, and yet, not really caring much, either.
It took another five minutes before the upstairs light finally shut off. Satisfied that everyone in the house was in bed for the night, Fai sighed. He wasn’t sure how long it would take before the occupant of that bedroom fell asleep, but he figured that another fifteen minutes might do the trick.
Those fifteen minutes felt like an eternity, and when Fai finally got out of the car, he paused for a minute as he examined the house before approaching it. The twenty-foot wall wasn’t a concern unless it had security cameras. He didn’t think there were any, aside from the one over the wide iron gate, so that was a plus. If luck was with him, he’d be able to find a cracked window or door—or her room where he could hopefully get her attention without waking up anyone else in the house . . .
‘And what are we going to do? Climb over the wall, and then what?’
‘I’m not climbing anything,’ he countered absently. ‘Be quiet. I need to concentrate.’
Which was true enough. Stepping across the road, careful to hide under the cover of the deep shadows cast by the streetlamps, Fai closed his eyes, focused his youki—it was tougher since he’d only learned how to do this a few years ago, and it was taxing, even on his best days. It was the strangest sensation that coursed through him as he felt his body dissolve, as the concentration of his youki changed the way he could perceive things.
It was a far more instinctive, intuitive. It was also harder to form cognizant thought. Led more by instinct than logical cognition, he zoomed up and around the house, searching for an open window, anything he could use to infiltrate the structure.
He found a door that stood ajar, and as he solidified his body once more, he blinked as the scent of her filled his nostrils, as the rich and vibrant stroke of her youki reached him where he stood. He was on a small balcony outside an open door—Saori’s bedroom. From where he stood, he could tell that she was sleeping by the rhythmic pulse of her youki, and he closed his eyes, just for a moment, allowed himself to be completely lost in her, drawing from her, a level of calm that he hadn’t felt in far too long—not since she’d been yanked out of his life . . .
He slipped into her room, careful not to make a sound, noting, even in the weary light that wasn’t quite black, that the room held her very aura. Pausing beside her bed, he frowned down at her. Hair fanned out over the pristine white pillow, her body hidden under the cover of a thick duvet, she breathed evenly, softly. Fingers trembling, he reached out, let his fingertips linger on her cheek, brow furrowing even more as a sudden and intense swelling in his chest made it difficult to breathe.
She turned her face toward her hand though she didn’t stir otherwise, a soft sigh—almost a breath—misting over his fingers as reluctantly pulled away. “Saori,” he said, his voice barely audible, yet echoing in his ears like the crack of gunfire. “Saori . . . Wake up . . .”
She groaned softly, but didn’t stir.
He made a face. “Saori.”
Dragging his hands over his face, Fai shook stifled the urge to growl. Here he was, after going through so much trouble, just to find her, and she didn’t even have the decency to wake up? “Hm,” he snorted quietly, carefully kneeling on the edge of the bed. “Saori,” he said once more, leaning down, this time, speaking into her ear.
She awoke with a loud gasp, her fist flying out wildly, as though to warn him off. He didn’t lean away quickly enough, and he grunted when that fist connected with his temple, unable to steady himself as he crashed off of the bed and onto the floor with a ridiculously loud, ‘thump’. “Damn,” he groaned, wincing at the pain that exploded in the back of his skull more than the paltry smack she’d dealt him.
“Oh, kami!” she gasped, rising on her hands and knees, peering over the side of the bed at the man, laying on the floor. “F-F-F-Fai-sama?” she squeaked.
“Assault? That’s your newest thing?” he growled, pushing himself up, rubbing the back of his head to dispel the pain. “I think I prefer kidnapping.”
She quite literally flung herself off the bed, straight into his lap. He wasn’t prepared for it, and, with a slightly louder groan when his head hit the floor for the second time in as many minutes, he let his arms fall to the sides and gave up for the moment.
“Sorry! I’m so sorry!” she blurted, her panic rising thick in the air.
Fai winced. Considering what happened the last time she’d panicked, he figured he’d do better to get her calmed down as quickly as possible instead. “It’s fine. I’m fine,” he told her. It was only a slight lie since he knew well enough that he’d be fine by the morning. “Really, it’s okay . . .”
“I hurt you,” she whimpered, and he grimaced again when he smelled the salt of her tears.
“Don’t cry,” he said a little more gruffly than he’d intended. “Saori, I—”
“Saori! What—? Oh . . . Oh, my . . .”
Blinking fast when the bright overhead light flipped on moments after the door crashed open, as a silver haired inu-youkai woman rushed into the room.
Saori blinked and shot the woman a quick glance before scrambling off of Fai. She said something in rapid Japanese that Fai couldn’t hope to understand, but the woman in the doorway seemed to calm just a little, and she nodded before peering past Saori at Fai, who was still sprawled on the floor. “Demyanov-sama?” she said, though her tone held more question than statement.
Fai heaved a sigh and pushed himself to his feet, concentrating on not swaying since he felt a little dizzy, all things considered. “H-Hajimemashite,” he managed, exhausting his grasp on the Japanese language in that one word.
Saori shot him an apologetic sort of look. “Fai-sama, this is my mother, Senkuro Aiko. Kaa-chan, this is Fai-sama, the Asian tai-youkai.” She’d spoken in English, which, he supposed, was for her mother’s benefit since he knew well enough that she was quite fluent in Russian.
“Pleased to met you, Demyanov-sama,” Aiko said, bowing politely as she tightened the belt of her pink silk robe.
Fai sighed. “Fai’s fine,” he told her. “I’m, uh . . . I’m sorry for the intrusion . . .”
She nodded slowly as she eyed him for a long moment before her gaze shifted to the open balcony door. “Can I ask why you’re here?”
“I . . . I wanted to offer Saori a job, working with me to find placement for as many of the orphans as we can,” he blurted, painfully aware of just how ridiculous that sounded, given the situation.
He didn’t dare look at Saori, but he gritted his teeth when he felt the turbulence that had suddenly spiked in her youki.
“And you couldn’t do that in the bright light of day?” Aiko persisted.
“I called Toga and asked for her phone number,” he went on. “He wouldn’t give it to me, so I didn’t think that anyone would allow her to see me.”
“Nii-chan didn’t mention that to me,” Aiko admitted. “They’re afraid that you’ll show up here to arrest my daughter again. But you aren’t doing that, are you? And you’re not kidnapping her, are you? What’s that phrase? Tit for tat?”
“Uh, no,” he insisted. “No, that wasn’t my intention . . .”
Aiko nodded slowly. Then she sighed. “Well, you two should discuss this job offer, I think. I’m going to make some tea. Are you hungry, Demyanov-sama?”
He opened his mouth to decline her offer, but blushed when his stomach rumbled loudly, attesting to the idea that he hadn’t actually eaten anything since leaving Russia.
Aiko finally smiled and offered him another bow. “I’ll see what I can find. Saori? Why don’t you show Demyanov-sama down to the kitchen?”
The silence that fell seemed thick and heavy. Saori shuffled over, retrieving a thin, powder blue terrycloth robe out of her closet. He hadn’t noticed before what she was—or wasn’t—wearing. As she tied the robe closed over the long tee-shirt, he tried not to stare at the long expanse of her legs that were so prettily presented.
“I . . . I missed you,” he heard himself saying.
She bit her lip, stubbornly refused to look at him. “You wanted to offer me a job?” she asked, ignoring what he’d said.
“I-I-I was offered a job already,” she said, averting her eyes, staring at the floor as she crossed her arms over her chest.
“That one in Morocco, right . . . but you’re not going to take it, are you?”
She blinked and slowly lifted her gaze, eyes darkening slightly as a sense of confusion settled over her. “How do you know about that?”
He snorted, rubbing the back of his head, absently wondering if he didn’t have some sort of mild concussion . . . “You told me about the interview,” he mumbled in a rather distracted kind of way.
“I . . . I didn’t,” she countered quietly.
“You did,” he argued. “When I saw you that night . . .”
He heard her sharply indrawn breath, but didn’t think much of it until she spoke again. “But . . . that was just a dream, wasn’t it?”
He sighed, draping his hands on his hips as he stared at her. “It didn’t feel real to you?”
“It did . . . I . . .”
Shaking his head, he let out a deep breath. “It was the only decent night’s sleep I’ve gotten since . . .”
He smiled just a little at her airy, breathless tone. “Yeah,” he admitted.
“Me, too . . .”
Fai snorted. “Oh, yeah? Seemed like you were sleeping pretty well just now.”
She grimaced. “I’m really sorry about that,” she insisted.
He rolled his eyes but chuckled. “It’s okay,” he assured her again. “I’m just . . . I’m glad to see you again.”
She giggled. “I . . . I want the job,” she said.
“We haven’t discussed your pay,” he reminded her.
She shook her head, her smile growing brighter with every passing moment, illuminating her eyes, adding a pinkness to her cheeks. “That’s okay,” she told him. “I . . . I know you’ll be fair.”