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Purity Redux: Vivication

Chapter Text

~~Prologue~~
~Haze~

 

~Jaffna, Sri Lanka~
~Demyanov Summer Home

~July 26, 2054~

 

~o~

 

 

Surveying the burnt remains, the skeletal frame of the family's summer home, a scant few miles from Jaffna, Sri Lanka, along the coast of the picturesque island, Faine Demyanov narrowed his gaze, eyes burning, stinging, from the ash and debris that still lingered, suspended in the air.  The understated brilliance of the coastal property brought a deeper sense of horror, of unspeakable atrocity, to the already strange sense of understanding that was just settling over him as he put together the things he knew.

The early morning phone call that hadn't made much sense: the trill of the ringtone that cut through the silence, broke through his sleep as he blinked and pushed himself up on his elbow, eyes bleary, head sluggish and thick . . . He'd stayed up too late the night before, spending the evening, cramming for the final exam of the summer philosophy course at the university that was scheduled to start promptly at nine a.m. . . .

'What . . .?'

"H-Hello?" he mumbled, struggling for a semblance of coherence that he simply wasn't able to grasp as he clumsily, almost stupidly, fumbled with the cell phone and brought it to his ear.  Glancing at the clock on the nightstand in the small and rather barren room, he frowned.  'Two a.m. . . . What . . .?'

"Faine . . . This is your father," Alexei Demyanov's voice came through the connection.  Alexei was also the only person who actually used his given name.  Everyone else called him the shortened version, Fai.  There was something entirely clinical about his tone, something almost . . . "There's been an accident on the island . . ."

"An . . . accident . . .?  Mother . . .?"

Alexei grunted in answer.  "I've already booked a flight for you.  It leaves at four a.m. your time, so get to the airport now.  They're expecting you, so they'll rush you through security.  I . . . I cannot fly out until later this morning, so . . . So, do what you can when you get there—and see to your brother."

He bit back a sigh as the memory faded—the rushed trip to the airport—the irritation that no one seemed to know what was going on—the anger that every call to his mother ended up, redirected straight to voicemail . . .

The Sri Lankan consulate had been there to greet him when he stepped off the plane, but it wasn't until he'd stepped out of his rental car when he'd reached the place where the family's summer house had once been that he'd understood.

An accident, they'd called it . . .?

'It . . . It burned to the ground . . .'

The fire had burned itself out as dawn had broken over the horizon—over the beautiful sea—and now, hours later, smoke still issued from the decrepit timbers, the stone pillars, the metal supports that stood in silent defiance.  In some places, the flames had been so hot that the metal frame had melted, warped, bending into twisted and macabre shapes . . . They said that it was too soon to tell, just what had happened during the wee hours of the morning when the fire had broken out.  They weren't sure what had sparked the blaze, but it had ripped through the bright and airy structure at lightning-speed, with the devil's determination . . .

They couldn't find Faina Demyanova.  That's what they'd said.  When the firefighters had arrived on the scene, the structure was already completely engulfed in flames.  They'd found two-year-old Yerik, laying in the grass, face down, sobbing as he clung to his stuffed teddy bear, calling out piteously for his mama—a mama that they couldn't find.  A couple of the men had expressed the hope that she might have escaped the flames, that she was scared, maybe, hiding somewhere nearby.  "Maybe," one of the smudged and dirty and tired men had said, managing to garner the wherewithal to offer Fai a grimacing smile.  "I've seen it before . . . The brain can do strange things when faced with such a terrible . . ." Trailing off, his expression lost hold of the hope that he was trying so desperately to offer Fai, leaving behind the absolute truth in his unspoken belief—a belief that enraged Fai despite the blankness of his overall face.  They hoped that Faina had escaped the flames, too, but . . .

He knew better.  He knew his mother better than that.  No matter what, he knew that she never would have left Yerik alone, would she?  For some reason, she had remained inside the house, but she'd managed to get the toddler out.  She hadn't been able to escape the flames, and he knew it: knew it somewhere deep down—a realization that turned his stomach, that ripped and clawed at his very guts, trying to escape.  The fear—he could almost feel it—the overwhelming despair—and she'd known, hadn't she?  She'd . . . She'd known . . . Those last few moments of her life—a life given to gentleness and smiles and love . . . The flash of bright, golden hair, as fine as the silk of her many, many beautiful gowns, of warm hazel eyes—eyes like melted chocolate with flecks of gold and green that always sparkled when she smiled . . . They weren't going to find her because youkai . . .

'She didn't leave her body behind to be found . . .'

And even if he didn't want to believe that—to accept the hurtful knowledge that his own mother was gone—all the proof he needed . . .

Alexei Demyanov stood near the cliff, little more than a wizened form in the distance.  Whether he was staring at the remains of the once-picturesque home or out, over the water, Fai didn't know—couldn't tell.  Alexei had been called away to take care of something in Xi'an, China—a whisper of a potential challenge, or so he had been told.  He'd tried to get a flight back to Sri Lanka yesterday, but hadn't been able to find an available seat any earlier than today.  Even so, would it really have mattered?  Or would Alexei, like Faina, have ended up, nothing more than a victim, as well?

Yet, there was something about his father's stance that he understood—a finality that he could feel despite the distance between them . . . As much as some small part of him wished that he could believe that maybe, that somehow, Faina had managed to escape, he knew . . . He knew because . . . because his father knew it, too . . .

A quiet whimper broke him from his reverie.  Glancing down, he blinked, frowned as the tiny, chubby hand closed around a fistful of his slacks.  Fingers, dirty and smudged with soot, his little arm seeming all the smaller where it stuck out of the oversized adult, safety-orange windbreaker, Yerik heaved a tumultuous sigh, as though he realized, even at his young age, that it was shameful to cry.  Bright green eyes staring up at him, golden hair tousled in the acrid breeze, Yerik gazed at him, his eyes strangely blank, as though he simply didn't quite grasp, just what was happening, and, though the toddler didn't say anything, Fai understood.

Letting out a deep breath, he caught the boy under the arms, picked him up to settle against his hip.  "Mama . . .?" Yerik said, words burbled by the fist he chewed on.  "Mama . . ."

"Yerik, Mama . . ." Trailing off, Fai winced inwardly, gritted his teeth, ground them together so hard that his jaw ached.  "Mama's . . . gone . . ."

Yerik choked on a sob, but he bit it back admirably—horrifyingly.

Arms tightening a little more around the child, he felt the hand of someone in passing—a show of compassion, he supposed.  He didn't acknowledge it.  He didn't think he could, even if he wanted to.  The voices of many had blended together, creating little more than the annoying buzz, not unlike the sound of flies, lingering over a forgotten corpse.

Gaze lighting on the frangipani trees that still stood beside the now ruined edifice, he blinked.  The once-frosted, almost silvery looking bark of the delicate branches were charred on the side closest to the house, leaves withered and curled—singed, scarred . . .  Flowers that should have been a beautiful pink, a pristine white . . . They were half-browned, a strange juxtaposition between pristine blooms and shriveled and ruined blossoms . . . There was a sinister kind of poeticism about it that did not escape his notice, even as he felt the distinct shiver that raced down his spine, leaving behind a sense of cold that went bone-deep . . .

There was no solace to be had, not here.  There was nothing but death and destruction and ugly, ugly truth . . .

Fai Demyanov let his gaze sweep over the mass destruction for a last, long, lingering moment before turning away and striding toward the rental car, ignoring the looks, the voices that called out to him.  The dazed sense of emptiness that had carried him along the greatest portion of the day since that terrible phone call so early in the morning still held him, still buffered him, and yet, he could feel the first inevitable fractures, even as he glanced down at his brother to bolster his faltering sense of purpose.

"It'll be . . . be fine, Yerik," he heard himself say, his voice a little thinner, a little raspier than usual as he blinked his grainy, stinging eyes, as he held the child, who retained the lingering scent of Faina Demyanova, just a little closer.  "We . . . We'll be fine . . ."

He didn't have a car seat for Yerik, but, at the moment, he also didn't much care.  Neither he nor Yerik needed to remain here any longer, and no good would ever come of lingering here, anyway.  Too close to the loss, too devastating, too real . . . No, he figured that the best thing that he could do, both for himself as well as for his young brother, was to get the both of them out of Sri Lanka and back home as soon as he possibly could . . .

 


 

 

~Novosibirsk Oblast~
~Demyanov Estate~

~August 30, 2054~

 

 

It was late.  Fai didn't know how late it was, but as he stared up at the low-hanging stars that lingered above the Demyanov estate just outside of Novosibirsk in the oblast of the same name.  No one bothered him out here, not that any of the household servants would dare, and Yerik slept nearby in a net-covered, antique wooden daybed that had been occupied, at one time or another, by every Demyanov child ever born, even though the terrace was screened and had been well fumigated earlier.

Thirty-five days.

It had been thirty-five days since that early morning phone call that had changed everything, had proven yet again that life was not something that could be governed or reasoned, and Fai . . .

Raking a hand through his collar-length, chestnut brown hair, he glanced over at his sleeping brother with a quiet sigh.  He'd gotten into the habit of sleeping in the same room as the boy, who had a tendency to wake up, screaming, shrieking, haunted by demons that Fai couldn't see, but the child could and did, and whatever he saw or remembered terrified him, too . . .

Somehow, he didn't have the heart to leave the toddler alone to wrestle with those things that he so clearly did not understand.  Bad enough, the whimpering cries for a mother who could not comfort him any longer, there were moments when Fai had to leave the pup alone with his nanny—a new woman who had been hired after a few rushed interviews upon their arrival back home.  She was entirely unfamiliar to Yerik, and, as such, he had not adapted well to her presence, especially at moments when he wanted his mother.  Tonight, however, was a milder than normal night, not quite as hot, not nearly as muggy, and the fresh air was a welcome change from the silent castle that they called home, which was why they were out here, on the terrace, instead of in Yerik's room—or Fai's.

The official report that had arrived a few days ago had listed the cause of the fire as electrical in deviation.  One of the solar panels on the roof had been struck by lightning in just the right—or wrong—place, and the electricity had sparked, overloading the batteries that were already fully charged.  Something about a flaw in the design—a reaction that was a fluke, at best, and a tragedy by all other accounts.

The optic filament wires—a relatively new innovation that should have allowed more electric flow inside the house—were super-charged due to the batteries' need to release the overcharge, which had led to the explosion when a light switch was flipped on.  Somehow, they were able to tell that the fire itself had originated near Yerik's nursery.  Apparently the frame damage was worse in that area, the metal more warped and twisted than in other areas of the structure.  The general consensus was that Faina was able to breach the nursery, and she'd been able to drop the toddler out of the window onto a cloth awning that had then rolled Yerik into the springy moss under a cluster of small frangipani trees.  From there, however, there weren't any real answers, as to what had happened to Faina, though, according to best guess statements, the house had gone up in flames fast enough that it was entirely possible that she was either overcome by smoke inhalation or that she had just not had enough time to escape, too.  Official records stated that her body was incinerated in the uninhibited blaze by the time that the firemen had been able to get it under control.

And if there had been any kind of hope, lingering in Fai's heart, even after he'd seen the carnage from the fire, it was all but dead, given the steady, but obvious, decline in their father's health.  Though he said nothing, he didn't have to.  Every day, it seemed, Alexei was a little gaunter in the face, a little shakier in body.  In the course of thirty-five days, the strong, sturdy frame his father normally embodied had withered, wasted away.

Maybe things would be simpler if Alexei spoke at all.  He didn't.  He hadn't, as far as Fai knew—not since the phone call.  Holing himself up in his office for hours and hours on end, from early in the morning until late, late at night—sometimes he didn't come out at all—he didn't take meals, refused to allow any of the household staff into the room, either.  Even the few times Fai had knocked, he'd been summarily ignored, as well.  At times like that, he had to remind himself that it wasn't really that unusual.  Alexei had never really been a very warm person.  As far as Fai knew, the only person Alexei had ever really talked to, opened up to, was Faina.

The sliding glass doors behind him scraped quietly against the frame.  Fai didn't turn to look.  He didn't need to.  He knew the youki—such as it was, and he gritted his teeth at the thinness of it as it brushed over his.  He did sit up straight, however, leaning forward to grasp the thick crystal glass of Faina Crystal Label vodka off the metal and glass table.

"I am leaving," Alexei said without preamble as he drew up beside his son's chair.  His voice was already thin, reedy, more of a wheeze than an actual tone.  Fai winced inwardly.  Outwardly, he remained stoic, impassive.

Fai shot his father a questioning look, slowly standing up, turning to face him.  Alexei's normally bright green eyes were dull, almost faded, eyes sunken so deeply in their sockets that they had taken on a garish sort of glow that was nothing more than pinpoints of light—no sparkle, no life—as he pushed a scraggly strand of dulled chestnut hair out of his face, somehow drawing notice to the diminished cheeks, the too-prominent bones just below the slightly yellowed skin.

"Father?"

Alexei didn't respond right away.  Instead, he slowly lifted a spindly hand, shuffling forward a couple of steps to close the distance between them.  Then he took Fai's hand, palm up, and dropped his signet ring into it.  "This is yours now, Fai.  From this moment forward, you are the Asian tai-youkai.  Serve your people well."

"Father . . . Wait . . ." he blurted, an unreasonable sense of panic that was almost shameful, surging past his carefully controlled façade.  "Father, I . . ."

"I leave it all to you, Faine," he said.  For the briefest of moments, he tried to force a smile.  When it didn't work, he gave up and shook his head.

Staring at the ring in his hand—the thick and solid gold: the Demyanov family seal so delicately carved into the face of it, Fai clenched his jaw so tightly that it ached.  He'd known this moment was inevitable.  Even so . . .

"Will you . . .?" He cleared his throat, his words stopping Alexei when he started to turn away.  "Will you say goodbye to Yerik?"

A thousand emotions flickered over his father's face, but every one of them faded too quickly for Fai to discern.  His eyes shifted to the child, sleeping in the daybed, before returning to lock with Fai's once more, and this time, the expression was inscrutable, though, if Fai were forced to put a name to it, he might have said that Alexei almost looked . . . angry . . .?

"It's better if he doesn't remember me," Alexei murmured.  "Protect him, Faine.  Protect your brother."   If it weren't for his inu-youkai hearing, he might have missed the words entirely.  Then, he turned and walked away, and as much as Fai wanted to stop him—wanted to call him back—wanted to ask him just what he was supposed to do now—he didn't—couldn't . . .

'Father . . .'

'Remember this moment, Fai . . . Remember the last time you'll ever see him . . .'

He grimaced, but his father didn't see it, and for that alone, he was grateful.

Alexei stopped in the doorway, turned his head just enough to gaze back at Fai, who still stood beside the chair with the signet ring in one hand, a glass of vodka in the other, and he . . . He smiled, just a little.  Fai tried to return the sentiment, but the muscles in his face didn't want to cooperate, and, in the end, it probably looked more like a grimace than a smile.

Alexei's parting words drifted back to him, lingered in the air, long after Alexei himself disappeared from sight, long after the feel of his youki faded away to nothing.

"Be strong, my sons," Alexei had said.  "Live strong."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 1~~
~Demands~

 

~Demyanov Estate~
~Novosibirsk Oblast~

~Monday, April 25, 2070~

 

~o~

 

'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—"

"Miss Senkuro—"

"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.

"Pardon?"

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 . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 2~~
~Impetuous~

 

~o~

 

 

"Senkuro."

Gripping the cell phone so tightly in her hands that it groaned a little under the stress until she forced herself to loosen her fingers just a little, Saori heaved a sigh of relief  at the welcome sound of her brother's voice.  "Nii-chan?  Thank kami . . . Nii-chan, I need your help . . ."

"Saori?  Why do you sound like you're in a complete panic?"

"Well, I kind of am," she admitted with a grimace as she lifted her chin far enough to peer into the rear view mirror at the back of the van—not that she could actually see anything, given that it was pitch black outside, so the shadows inside were even darker and thicker than she could credit.  "I . . . I might have done something . . ."

There was a very long, very pregnant pause on Rinji's side of the connection.  Then he sighed.  "How bad of a something might you have done this time?" he asked rather dryly.

She winced.  "We-e-e-e-ell . . ."

She heard the squeak of his office chair.  "Is it as bad as the time you decided that you needed to take off to follow that stupid j-pop band to Hokkaido without telling kaa-san or tou-san?"

Making a face since she still remembered just how irritated her father was over that stunt, she shifted her lips to the side as she thought it over.  "Umm . . ."

Rinji grunted.  "Out with it, Saori."

She sighed.  "If someone kidnapped Toga-oji-chan, how bad would that be?"

He grunted.  "It'd probably fall somewhere between 'wish-you-were-dead' and 'instant-obliteration' . . . Why?"

Flinching at the possibilities that Rinji had presented, Saori bit her lip.  "Oh, that's . . . that's bad . . ."

"Why?  Is someone trying to kidnap oji-san?"

She heard the hint of teasing in his tone, but it did little to offer her any kind of comfort, actually.  "No," she allowed.

"Okay," he said, "then what's up?"

"I . . . I . . . I might have . . . kidnapped . . . the Asian tai-youkai . . ."

Dead silence for a long, long minute.  Then Rinji barked out an incredulous laugh.  "Sorry, I thought you said you might have kidnapped the Asian tai-youkai."

She squeezed her eyes closed for a moment.  "I did—well, I mean, I might have . . ."

"You . . . You did do it or you thought about doing it?"

"Umm . . . He's . . . He's kind of in . . . the back of the van . . ."

"You . . . He's . . . what?"

"It was an accident!" she blurted.

Rinji sighed.  "Saori, you can't accidentally kidnap someone . . . You kidnapped Demyanov-sama?"

"The hatch fell because it won't stay up by itself, and it must have hit him on the head, but there wasn't anyone else around, and, given that he was unconscious, I was afraid they'd think . . ." She winced.  "I panicked!"

Another sigh—this one, very long and drawn out.  "The hatch?  What the hell do you mean, the hatch?"

"The van door!" she hissed.  "Sometimes I wonder about your supposed-brilliance, nii-chan . . ."

He grunted.  "So, you . . . accidentally . . . knocked out Fai-sama, and then you, what?  Stuffed him in the van because you were too afraid to go ring his doorbell?"

She let out a deep breath.  "Wow, you really do understand!  His name is Fai?"

"For the love of—No, I don't understand, Saori," he snapped.  "Can you focus, please?  Go knock on the door and explain everything, and it'll be fine, but get the poor man out of the back of your van!"

"I can't."

"Why can't you?"

"Because we're about twelve hours from his castle."

"Hell's seven hounds—are you serious?"

"I did tell you I kidnapped him, didn't I?"

"And he's still not awake?"

"N . . . No . . ."

". . . Did you kill him?  Because if you did—"

"I didn't!" she swore.  "Anyway, I can't take him home—not until he meets the orphans, and—"

"Then why did you call me?"

"Well, it's just . . ." She winced.  "Do you think I should tie him up?"

Rinji sighed again.  "No, I really don't think that'd be a good idea, Saori.  In fact, stay where you are.  I'm going to call ojii-sama.  Maybe he can talk Fai-sama into not locking you up for the rest of your life . . ."

Saori gasped.  "Oh, no, don't call him!  Nii-chan!"

"Why not?"

"He'll tell me to take him home!"

"I told you to take him home!"

"But I don't want to take him home!"

"Saori—"

"Did you know?  He's . . . He's really good-looking, too . . . Do you think he's single?"

Rinji grunted indelicately.  "Even if he is, he's not going to want anything to do with a crazy nutjob that kidnapped him, don't you think?"

She made a face.  "Well, he might be able to look past all that."

"Somehow, I really doubt that, Saori . . ."

She snorted, too.  "You don't know that, nii-chan.  He could be a very forgiving sort."

"They will throw you in jail for this," Rinji pointed out—unnecessarily, in Saori's opinion.

"Yeah, well, okay, but if he doesn't see the orphans—meet them—he won't change his mind about defunding the home."

Rinji's sigh this time was different from the other ones.  This one was long, drawn out, almost defeated.  "So, there is a method to your madness."

Heaving an almost defeated kind of breath, Saori focused on the road ahead of her.  "He wants to send them all to live in other homes with humans, and if they're put in homes like that, then who's going to teach them all they need to know about being youkai or hanyou?"

"This is a horrible idea, you realize," Rinji pointed out.

"It's the only chance I've got.  These pups . . . They deserve to have a home—a stable home—a real home . . . People don't want to adopt them because they're not babies.  They hear 'abandoned children', or 'orphans', and they immediately think there's something wrong with them, and there isn't.  Sometimes, it's just pure, plain, dumb bad luck . . . They've already lost more than their fair share, you know?" she said.  "If I can change his mind, then being thrown in jail will be worth it."

 


 

 

"If I can change his mind, then being thrown in jail will be worth it."

Blinking into the darkness from his spot on the floor in the back of the rickety old van, Fai winced as the vehicle hit a bump in the road, as his already sore head bounced off the cold metal floor with a heavy thud.

'Which wouldn't even be an issue if you'd just pushed her aside and escaped when she'd checked on you after that phone call to . . . whoever she'd called . . .' his youkai-voice pointed out.  'But no, you go and pretend that you're still knocked out?  What was your logic in that, anyway?'

He frowned.  To be completely honest, he really didn't know.

'Or you do, and you just don't want to admit it.'

Reaching up, gingerly touching his temple where the van door had fallen and hit him, he winced.  He could feel dried blood, but he felt fine, he supposed, other than the slight throbbing that still lingered.

By rights, he ought to be furious, shouldn't he?  This unknown girl had tossed him into the back of her van and took off with him—basically, she'd kidnapped him—and common sense told him that he really ought to be madder than hell.

So, why wasn't he?

'Because . . . Because you didn't want to defund that orphanage, any more than she wants you to do it, and you know why . . .'

He sighed.  He supposed there was some truth to that.  After all . . .

"Alexei, the children need a place to go—a place that understands their specific needs.  It's worth it!  If you weren't tai-youkai—if something happened to us before Fai was old enough to take care of himself—I'd want him to be in a place that could help him to understand what he is.  Wouldn't you?"

"It's not that simple, you know.  There's only so much in the budget, and every year, there are more things that need to be addressed.  Just where are we going to come up with the money for this, Faina?  Answer me that, and I'll gladly see it done."

Faina considered that for several long moments.  Then she laughed, the sound of it like tiny silver bells.  "Give me a few days, and I'll figure it out!" she promised.  "I'll find a way that won't take anything away from the other allocations . . ."

'Mother,' Fai thought as the memory of that conversation faded away.  His father had funded that home because Faina had asked him to.  Stepping away from it was not something that Fai had ever wanted, but when there had been two large forest fires that had destroyed so much in the last couple years alone, along with some other natural disasters that had pushed against the already thin bottom line, there simply wasn't the cushion that had existed before, and that was the problem.  Last year had been bad enough.  He'd almost exhausted his own personal accounts because the money that stood in the family account simply wasn't quite enough, just to meet the demands, and this year?  Well, he couldn't do it again, not without delving into Yerik's trust fund, and he simply could not—would not—do that . . .

'You want her to take you there, don't you?' his youkai said.  'You want to see what it was that your mother loved about the place . . . You . . . You want her to convince you . . .'

'Don't be stupid.  I don't have the time to go on some weird road trip with a girl that I don't even know.  She kidnapped me, remember?  That's against the law, last I checked, and Yerik . . . Yerik is going to freak out when he figures it out . . .'

'Then why aren't we stopping her?  Why haven't you told her that you're awake?'

That was the question, wasn't it?  He wasn't entirely sure what was stopping him, what it was about her that made him hesitate.

His youkai-voice heaved a sigh.  'You missed your meetings today.  You've got a bunch of them tomorrow, too, not even to mention the rest of the week.  Just how long do you think it'll take for people to realize that you're missing?  And Yerik—'

'Yerik's at school, where he's going to stay, no matter what kind of crap he decides to spout.'

'You know, maybe you ought to consider what he said instead of just summarily dismissing it.  If you try to 'tai-youkai' him, you're going to chase him away.'

Fai sighed at the reminder . . .

The ticking of the clock, the dead silence in the room as Fai struggled to keep a tight rein on his rising temper . . .

"I've given it a lot of thought, you know.  I'm not just pulling all of this out of my ass, Fai."

Glaring across the room at his younger brother, he deliberately said nothing as he emptied the glass of vodka in his hand.  "You're not?  Because you could have fooled me.  That's nothing but idiocy, Yerik.  It's too dangerous, and you're—"

"I'm not stupid.  You do your job because you want to protect youkai.  That's what I want to do, too.  You're tai-youkai.  You need to focus on your responsibilities.  You shouldn't have to be the one, running off to hunt down this person or that one.  That shouldn't be your job.  No other tai-youkai—"

"Father did the same," Fai reminded Yerik coldly.  "This is not another jurisdiction.  This is my responsibility.  If I refuse to fight, then I don't deserve the office."

"It's not about what you deserve, Fai," Yerik replied, shaking his head slowly, almost sadly.  "It's about . . . It's because of what they say, isn't it?  Because they say you're not old enough to be tai-youkai . . ."

"Yerik—"

Standing abruptly, Yerik strode past Fai to grab a cup and dump vodka in it before tipping the bottle into Fai's empty glass, too.  "No, it is.  You think I haven't seen it, but I have.  You tried to shield me from all of it, and I . . . but you can't—couldn't.  You take it all on yourself because you don't want to give them any more ground."  Sipping the drink, he leveled a no-nonsense look on his older brother.  "You're tougher than anyone I know," Yerik went on quietly.  "You don't have to prove anything to anyone, and I . . . I want to help you.  I owe you that."

"You owe me nothing," Fai growled.  "All I want for you—all I've ever wanted for you—is for you to go to school, to become something—whatever  you want to be."

Yerik nodded, but he didn't look away from him, either: didn't back down, didn't give any ground.  "I want to be a hunter.  That's what I want."

'Can you really tell him that he cannot be a hunter if that's what he wants to be?' his youkai-voice asked, breaking into the memory, even as it slowly faded.

Fai scowled into the darkness, wincing again as the van hit yet another pothole in the road.  'Yerik's far too sensitive to be a hunter.  He writes poems and keeps a journal.  He's not meant to be a hunter, no matter what he thinks.'

'But it's really not your place to dictate what he can or cannot do, either.  You're his brother, yes, but you're not his father, and even then, do you  honestly think that your father would—?'

'Father would never have allowed it, either.'

'You really don't know that.'

'I know enough.'

His youkai sighed, but said no more, and for that, Fai was grateful.

 


 

 

Saori pulled over with a sigh, figuring that they were deep enough in the middle of nowhere that it would be safe to camp for the night as she shoved the door open and stumbled out of the van with a groan since her muscles were entirely tense and sore from having spent the majority of the day behind the steering wheel.  She'd thought about stopping at an old motel she'd seen, but, given that she really wasn't sure just how mad Fai-sama was going to be, she figured it'd be an all-around bad idea.

'Well, sure, he'll probably be a little out of sorts,' her youkai agreed rather thoughtfully as she made quick work of gathering kindling for a fire.  'But once you explain what happened, he might not be as angry . . .'

She frowned.  Somehow, she kind of doubted that any explanation was going to make things all right, as far as that went . . .

"I will give you five minutes to explain to me exactly why I shouldn't have you arrested right now for kidnapping."

Saori gasped and whipped around, very nearly whacking him with the armload of kindling wood she'd managed to gather.  "I . . . I didn't hear you get out of the van," she blurted when he leaned back to avoid the branches.

He grunted and yanked the wood away from her.  "Probably because you were too busy, whistling under your breath—entirely off key, might I add."

"I'm really sorry," she added quickly.  "It's just . . . I . . . I panicked . . ."

"You . . . panicked," he echoed rather dubiously, kicking the decaying leaves, the sparse grass, away in a good sized circle.  "Should I ask what happens when you don't . . . panic?"

Biting her lip as she tucked her hair behind her ear, she sighed.  "Well, I . . . I normally don't kidnap people," she quipped, breaking into a small smile.

Her answer did nothing to amuse him, and she sighed, dropping the feigned coquettishness as she ducked her chin.  "I was afraid that I'd be thrown into jail for assaulting you with the . . . the hatch," she hurried on to say.  "I didn't think that they'd listen when I tried to explain, and it wasn't on purpose—I mean, sort of.  I-I-I mean, it was an accident, but I knew that the hatch tends to fall if you don't hold onto it.  I was just so upset that it slipped my mind, and-and then, it slipped my hand, and—"

He held up a hand and slowly shook his head.  "You're making my headache worse with all your babbling," he growled, dropping the kindling into the cleared circle.  "I don't suppose you have any matches?"

Digging into her pocket, she produced a simple disposable lighter and handed it over.  "I . . . I did grab some food when I stopped to fill the van," she ventured, careful to keep her voice lowered since she had a feeling that she was already treading on very thin ice, as it were.  "It's probably not very good, but . . ."

He said nothing as he lit the fire, concentrating on his task, which she took as begrudging agreement, and she stifled another sigh as she hurried around the van to retrieve the plastic bags.  She'd managed to grab an assortment of pirozhki along with some other snacks and a few bottles of kvass, and when she returned to the fire, she grimaced when she spotted him, sitting on the ground and rubbing lightly at his temple.

"Let me look at that," she said, handing him the bags that he took and set aside.

"I think you've done quite enough for one day, don't you?" he muttered.

"I just want to make sure that you're all right," she replied.

"I'll live," he retorted dryly.  "You can take me home tomorrow, and I'll consider not having you arrested."

Wringing her hands as she sank down next to him, she sighed.  "I . . . I want you to come with me," she forced herself to say.  "I just want you to meet the children."

To her surprise, he sighed, too.  "I'm not heartless," he informed her, his tone indicating that he believed she thought as much.  "I know very well that these children have suffered losses and heartache that most adults don't begin to comprehend.  It's not my job to make judgments based on personal feelings.  I'm not afforded that luxury."

'You know, you're going about this in the wrong way,' her youkai pointed out.  'Think about it.  He's young, right—at least, young for a tai-youkai.  He's been tai-youkai for a little while, too, so . . . So he knows better than most, don't you think?  After all, he lost his parents, too, or he wouldn't be tai-youkai now . . .'

Pondering those words, she stared into the dancing flames that did little to dispel the chilly night air.  She hadn't thought of that, no, but maybe she should have.  Maybe if she appealed to that part of him—the part that had experienced the same kind of loss . . .

Blinking when he shoved a bottle of strawberry kvoss under her nose, she took it, absently noticing that he'd removed the cap for her, too.  "Thank you."

He grunted, but didn't really reply.

"How old were you when you became tai-youkai?" she ventured at length.

He narrowed his gaze on her momentarily before shifting his eyes back to the fire.  "I was twenty," he said.  "Does it matter?"

"Twenty?  But . . . How old are you now?"

He sighed.  "Thirty-six," he replied.  "Almost."

"Oh . . . I'm twenty-one," she told him.  Then she giggled.  "Well, almost."

"I didn't ask," he stated.

For some reason, his entirely dry statement only made her laugh.  "If you're trying to be rude, it's not working very well."

"Do you ever shut up?"

Her smile dimmed, but didn't disappear, and she shrugged.  "Sometimes," she said.  "My older brother says that I have serious impulse control issues."

Handing her a cheese pirozhok, he snorted indelicately.  "You do."

"You don't know that," she countered, taking the pastry and biting into it.

"Oh, I think I do," he retorted, jamming half of a potato pirozhok into his mouth.  "Case in point . . ."

"I told you," she shot back rather primly, "I panicked."

He grunted.  "At least Yerik doesn't have that problem."

"Yerik?"

"My brother."

"Oh!  You have a brother, too!  A younger brother, I gather . . ."

He made a face.  "Much younger."

She sighed.  "Are you scared to meet the children?"

"Scared?" he echoed, arching his eyebrows as though the very idea was absurd.

She nodded.  "Because you understand them, don't you?  You had to have lost your parents, didn't you?  So, you know . . ."

He let out a deep breath.  She felt it more than she'd heard it.  He tossed the paper wrapper from his pastry into the fire.  "I'm not scared, no," he told her, his tone a little pensive.  "Even if I do feel bad, though, there's nothing I can do about it.  Is it really a good idea, do you think, for me to go there, to meet these children, to make them hope that things would be different, only for them to be disappointed in the end?"

She sighed, blowing her bangs straight up in the air with the exhalation.  "Would it be so bad?  To give them hope?"  Shifting her eyes to the side, she caught his gaze and held it for a long moment.  "Maybe . . . Maybe you can't change your mind about the funding, but . . . But maybe you can show them that there are better things out there for them, too.  Somewhere, down the line . . . If they work hard?  If they . . . If they dream . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 3~~
~Comedy of Errors~

 

~o~

 

 

"Thank you, Vasili.  I'll call if I require anything else."

Clicking off the cell phone, he handed it over to Saori and watched through narrowed eyes as she carefully stowed it in her pocket once more.  She'd allowed him to borrow hers long enough to call his butler, to ask him to cancel all of his appointments for the next two weeks since it would take that long for them to travel to the orphanage and back again, although why he'd agreed was entirely beyond him.  Common sense told him that he was far too busy to humor this girl, and yet, he couldn't deny that a part of him really did want to see this place.  There were a hundred things that demanded his attention, and here he was, allowing a woman he'd just met—who had tossed him into the back of her van instead of knocking on the door to ask for help when she'd cold cocked him with the van door . . . All in all, a part of him had to wonder if he hadn't knocked something loose in his brain.

'Except that she's gorgeous,' his youkai-voice pointed out in an entirely pragmatic kind of way.

'Looks are overrated, especially when she doesn't have an ounce of common sense to back that up.'

'Hmm . . . Her eyes, Fai . . . Did you realize that they're blue?  I mean, they look gray, but if you stare at her awhile . . .'

He snorted inwardly.  'Which I am most certainly not going to do.'

'I don't suppose that you noticed her ass, have you?'

'What's wrong with you?'

His youkai sighed.  'I like her, Fai.  I like her a lot, and her ass?  Just look at it, will you?  Okay, so maybe she is a little too impetuous, but you know, there's something to be said for that, especially when you're the polar opposite.  You really don't have to overanalyze everything, to think every little thing through, to pick apart motive and reason, which is exactly what you do.  She cares about the children—about that orphanage—just like your mother did—and maybe that's not a bad thing, even if she did bruise your ego a little.'

"I'll . . . I'll buy you a new cell phone as soon as we get to a store," Saori remarked, biting her lip as she kept her eyes focused on the road ahead.

"No need," he replied a little tightly.  His had broken during the kidnapping.

'Or at some point—maybe when you got clobbered by the door . . .'

He snorted inwardly.  'Not helping.'

She didn't look convinced.  "Are you sure?  I mean, it was . . . was my fault in a round-about way, at least . . ."

"It's fine. That one was a few years old already, so I needed an excuse to replace it anyway."

She laughed.  It was an entirely pleasant sound, and still, it grated on his nerves, just the same.  "Can I ask you something?"

"Can I stop you?"

She glanced at him, but her smile widened.  "Well, you wouldn't have to answer me, I guess . . ."

Shifting slightly—there was a rather uncomfortable spring, sticking him in the back—he sighed.  "Go ahead."

"I just wondered . . . How much does it cost to fund the orphanage yearly?"

"A lot," he muttered, glaring out of the smudgy window. "It varies.  Between paying the staff, the regular bills, the costs for schooling, clothing—everything . . ."

She bit her lip, her gaze taking on a slightly clouded sort of expression.  "What about fundraisers?  Not the kind where the children do anything, but a real fundraiser?  The Zeligs—you know, the North American tai-youkai—they have a foundation that holds annual fundraisers to collect donations for their various charities, so . . ."

"I wouldn't know the first thing about arranging something like that, and even if I did, it takes money to make money—and there's no way I could possibly stretch that budget far enough to attract the attention it would require."

"My family is . . . is pretty good at arranging those sorts of things," she ventured.  "If I asked, I'll bet—"

"We don't need anyone's charity," he growled.  The idea of asking anyone for favors?  No, he wouldn't do that . . . The last thing he wanted or needed was for those who already opposed his ascension to the title of tai-youkai to catch wind of something like that.

"But—"

"I said no," he stated flatly, in a tone that left no room at all for debate.

She grimaced.  "I . . . I have money," she said.  "If it would help—"

"You don't have enough to keep the orphanage open," he informed her, struggling to keep a lid on his rising irritation.  "Anyway, it isn't your problem."

"If not mine, then whose?  It's everyone's problem, don't you think?  These children—"

"You can talk until you're blue in the face, and it's not really going to change facts," he told her brusquely.

She sighed, but she did finally let it drop.  He wasn't even slightly deluded into thinking that she was done; not by a long shot.  For now, at least, she was willing to let it go, and he couldn't help but be just a little thankful for that.

The silence that fell between them was deafening.

 


 

 

The click of stack heels on the tired stone floor resounded in the quiet, echoing in the cavernous hall.  She stopped outside the closed wooden door and tapped precisely two times in short order before taking one step back to wait.

"Come," the deep, gravelly voice called as a soft click and hiss announced the release of the airlock, and she gave the handle a curt twist before stepping into the office.  Glancing up from the opulent desk across the room, his gaze lingered on her for just a moment before summarily dismissing her, the scratch of the pen on paper almost as pronounced as the rhythmic tick of the clock on the prodigious mantle.  "I trust you have good news for me," he said, dispensing of any pleasantries and getting right to the heart of the matter, as it were.

She cleared her throat and strode over, depositing the slim-file on the desk before him.  "As requested: all accounts have been frozen.  Lord Gostoyev bid me tell you, however, that he cannot retain holds on them long—a month, at best."

"A month is enough," Evgeni Feodosiv rumbled.  "It will be enough to bring everything to a screeching halt."

A slight smile twisted her ruby red lips as Katja Petrova slowly nodded, crossing her arms over her chest, careful not to rumple the hopelessly expensive wool jacket.  "You'll ruin his credibility completely," she intoned, arching a delicate eyebrow.

Evgeni chuckled, letting the pen fall from his fingers as he sat back in the heavily upholstered chair.  "That's the plan, yes."

She laughed—a husky, breathy kind of sound.  "Is there anything else you require, my lord?"

Steepling his fingertips together, tapping them in time to the ticking of the clock, he looked rather thoughtful for a long moment.  "Send him word, if you will.  Tell him I want to see him at his earliest convenience."

Her expression gave nothing away of her thoughts, but he knew well enough that Katja despised Taras Stepanovich . . .

She nodded, bowing slightly at the waist as she took a step back without turning away from him.  "As you wish," she said.

Evgeni watched her go, careful to keep his expression completely blanked until she'd closed the door behind herself.  Only after the airlock re-engaged did he finally break into the barest hint of a smile—for him, little more than the slight lightening of his dark gaze.  Letting a long-fingered hand fall onto the smooth surface of the slim-file, he dragged his claws over it slowly, methodically.

He'd come close before—so close that he could taste it—only to have his meticulous plan fall apart because of one man's arrogance.  He'd known from the onset that Gregor's grandstanding could well work against them, and he was right.  That had ended badly, but at least Gregor had been good enough to take his secrets with him into the afterlife.  Evgeni had learned his lesson then—that if he wanted the whole thing to come together, that he'd do best to handle it himself.  But as easy as it could have been, simply to step forward, to voice his grievances and to let things ride in the natural order, he'd realized that the better course—the far more effective one—required a little more brains than brawn.

The plan was absolutely foolproof, and it was coming together much better than he'd dared hope.  Of course, a large amount of credit was due to Katja.  Thanks to her . . . very formidable skills, she'd managed to arrange things without Gostoyev ever suspecting a thing.  No doubt about it, he would have to pay her back for her dedication—her loyalty—just as soon as the dust settled, once and for all.

It was all falling into place, wasn't it?  After so long, after so many setbacks . . . The ruse that he so despised would end soon enough, and then . . .

'Just a little longer . . . a little more patience . . .'

 


 

 

Fai landed with a terse grunt as he gritted his teeth and rolled to his feet once more.

"Sorry!" Saori said for the umpteenth time in the last hour.  "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

He snorted.  "No, just as you didn't the last time—nor the time before that, nor the time before that."

She didn't look entirely convinced as she hitched her shoulders and readied her stance once more.  "If you're sure . . ."

"As if someone with your skills could actually hurt me," he scoffed darkly, ignoring the slight ache in his hip where he'd landed the first time she'd neatly tossed him.

Narrowing her eyes at his blatant taunts as indignant color blossomed in her cheeks, she pointed at him.  "I'm trying not to hurt you, you realize," she pointed out haughtily.  "I could be a lot tougher if I wasn't trying to hold back!"

He rolled his eyes.  "Oh, please.  I'm tai-youkai for a reason," he shot back.

She uttered what could only really be described as a terse little growl.  "Yeah—because your father was tai-youkai before you!"

He wasn't quite expecting it when she sprinted toward him, fists moving so fast that he could only block her on instinct, bringing up his forearm on one side, and then the other, pushing away her ankle when she spun around, kicking up and out.  She switched feet in a blur of motion, giving him just enough time to lift his arms, to prevent her from connecting with the side of his head, before she hopped back and raised her chin in stubborn defiance.  "Not bad," he admitted, letting his hands drop to his sides.  "Where'd you learn to fight like that?"

"My second-cousin's mate," she replied.  "She's more like an aunt, though, than a second-cousin."

"Is she a martial arts instructor?"

Saori shrugged.  "Nope.  She's a mechanic."

He stared at her for a long moment, trying to decide if she was being serious or not.  She didn't look like she was joking, and he slowly shook his head.  "She's a . . . mechanic . . ."

Giving a curt nod, Saori braced her hands against the small of her back and stretched.  "According to her mate, it's women's work."

Digesting that, he strode over to grab a bottle of water out of the back of the van.  "You have a strange family," he decided.

She didn't disagree. In fact, she laughed.  "They're not—Well, I guess some of them are, a little . . ."

"You have a large family?"

Taking the bottle of water that he offered her, she giggled as she broke the seal around the cap.  "I have a huge family," she corrected him.  "They're all over the place, too—Japan, North America, a couple in Europe . . . I've got a couple cousins in China, one in Australia . . ."

He slowly nodded.  "Do they go around, kidnapping people, too?"

"Of course not!  In fact I—" Cutting herself off abruptly, she whipped around to stare at him, her silvery-blue eyes shining.  "Are you teasing me?"

He snorted, draining half of his water bottle in short order.  "Absolutely not.  I'm making the best of a horrible situation," he replied dryly.  "Does your employer realize that you're a criminal?"

Snapping her mouth closed as her cheeks pinked prettily, she wrinkled her nose and uttered a little 'hrmph' sound.  Reaching for the black denim jacket she'd stripped off just before launching into an attack on him, she shrugged it back on before pulling her long ponytail from the collar and yanking out the scrunchie she'd pulled her hair into.

'What color do you call that, by the way?'

'Huh?'

'Her hair, stupid.  What color would you call that?'

As far as he was concerned, he didn't actually think that deserved an answer.  'Not only did she kidnap me, she attacked me, too,' he reminded his youkai-voice, wondering vaguely just why he would have to do any such thing.

'Stop being such a wuss, will you?  Okay, so maybe you didn't ask to go on this little adventure, but kidnapping is kind of a stretch, given that you could easily walk away from her whenever you want to, and she didn't attack you, per se.  She told you to look out.'

'Two seconds before she launched herself at me!  That's hardly fair warning!'

'Yeah, and about that . . . She's good, isn't she?  I mean, maybe she's not as good as you are, but for a woman?  She's got some skills.'

'And that was entirely sexist of you to say,' he shot back dryly, wandering off to gather kindling and fire wood for the night.  He'd prefer a hotel, but he highly doubted that they'd find anything nearby, and even if they did, he was pretty positive that it wouldn't be anything worth the money, either.  It wasn't that he minded camping, but he'd also rather that it be a planned outing and that they'd have at least had the foresight to pack a few basics—like blankets, for example . . .

'I wasn't trying to be sexist.  I was pointing out the obvious.  How many women do you know that are even remotely trained to fight?  Your mother wasn't even trained to defend herself, if you'll recall, which wasn't a huge deal, given that she was never far away from your father—until she was, anyway, but even your great and mighty father couldn't have done a thing to save her, considering what happened . . .'

'So, Saori's learned some martial arts somewhere along the line: a crazy aunt, she said.  It doesn't mean much.  It makes her dangerous, actually.  Someone who has learned a little bit, but not nearly enough to be effective in a real battle, becomes a liability because they don't realize that they'd be better off to stay back out of the way instead of putting everyone else in danger, trying to compensate for their lack of ability.'

'Well, that's a damn dickish thing to say, don't you think?'

'That's what they say whenever anyone points out the truth that they don't want to hear.'

'You're being awfully presumptuous there, though.  I mean, she told you that she just needed to get some exercise because she's not used to being trapped in a vehicle for so long, and whether you like it or not, you agree because you're not too keen on it, either.  Anyway, at least you got some exercise, even if it's not to the degree you're used to.'

Which was true enough, even if he hated to agree with his youkai-voice on anything.  He'd started training with his father and with Master Ling, the aged sword master that had come to live with them, when Fai had turned six.  He'd been trained in swordplay, hand to hand combat, harnessing and controlling his youki . . .

He'd never thought to question it, and by the time he'd become tai-youkai, he'd been grateful for it, too.  There were more than enough youkai in Asia that had not been pleased with his ascension to power, and his first official challenge had come less than a week after taking over—less than a week after his father had walked out of the family's home, never to be seen again.

The first ten years of his tenure had seen more challenges than any of the other tai-youkai in the world, he was sure—maybe ever.  In their regions, it was the exception, not the norm, but here, where the general tone was a little more savage, a little wilder, a little more volatile . . . Well, as far as he was concerned, he'd more than proven his ability to hold his title on his own.  After all, he was the last one standing, wasn't he?

 


 

 

"These are better than the ones from last night . . ."

Glancing up from the fire, Fai lowered the bottle of kvass, shaking his head slowly as Saori picked at the cheese pirozhki.  Tonight, she'd stuck the foil-wrapped turnovers near the fire enough to warm them through, which accounted for the better taste, she figured.  Fai hadn't said much of anything since the impromptu sparring match, but he didn't seem to be in as bad a mood as he had been thus far—at least, the feel of his youki was less abrasive, which seemed like a pretty good sign.

"They were better," he allowed after a moment.  "I've had better, though . . ."

"Oh, I'm sure!" she agreed.  "You've probably eaten in the best restaurants . . . Have you ever stayed at the Bertsche Hotel in Moscow?"

He blinked, looking somewhat confused by her abrupt change of topics.  "Uh, no, I haven't . . ."

She nodded slowly, thoughtfully, as she chewed a bite of the cheesy confection.  "But you could, couldn't you?  I mean, you're tai-youkai, right?  I went sightseeing in Moscow just before I took the job, and I just love the way that place looks on the outside.  I was going to go in, see if I couldn't look around a little, but I was running short of time, so I never got to . . ."

She sighed almost dreamily, remembering the awe that had swept over her as she'd stared at the gorgeous structure.  Even though it was built around 2020, it had been designed to blend in with some of the older Russian architecture.  The pamphlet she'd read—Moscow's Definitive Hotel Guide—had said that it was actually fashioned out of concrete and could withstand nearly any natural disaster known to man, but the façade was gorgeously ornate, and no expense at all had been spared in the design and building of the place.

"I'm not sure what being tai-youkai has to do with staying at the Bertsche Hotel . . ." he ventured at length.

Saori shrugged, crumpling the tin foil into a small ball that she stuck back into the paper bag once more.  "I love architecture," she admitted.  "I couldn't decide if I wanted to study that or child psychology in school."

"So, design buildings for children," he remarked in a rather tongue-in-cheek tone as he lifted the bottle of kvass to his lips once more.

She laughed.  "Like schools or something?  That'd be interesting . . . But the schools here are so much different from they are where I grew up . . ."

"Older?  More run-down?  Laughable?" he supplied almost defensively.

Saori shook her head.  "That's not what I meant," she corrected. "They feel so . . . institutional here; that's all."

"Because they are," he responded simply.  "It's why I was sent abroad for schooling."

"You were?"

He nodded, setting the empty bottle aside, leaning back on his hands and letting his head fall back as he stared up through the tree branches at the few stars that could be seen from beneath the cover.  "Italy," he replied.

"You mean, you lived there, all the time?"

The look he shot her was rather dry, as though he thought the idea of having attended a boarding school was normal.  "Yes.  I usually came home over the summers, though—well, here or to the beach house my parents owned in Sri Lanka—wherever they were."

"How exotic!" she breathed, her eyes taking on a glassy sort of sheen as instant images of the tropics came to mind.  Palm trees and beaches and crystal blue waters . . .

'Saori . . .'

'Hmm?'

'Maybe you should change the topic.'

'What do you think it'd be like, to vacation every year somewhere like Sri Lanka?'

'I don't know, but Fai-sama doesn't look too happy about this discussion . . .'

'What do you mean?'

Her youkai-voice sighed.  'Look at his face, Saori.'

She did.  Then she frowned.

He was still staring upward, but her youkai was right: the scowl on his face was impossible to miss, and it hadn't been there earlier.  It was even darker, more foreboding, than any of the others he had sported thus far, and she had to wonder why.

Biting her lip as she cautiously drew a deep breath, she shook her head.  For some reason, she just couldn't bring herself to ask him about it, could she?  Couldn't bring herself to question him about what was bothering him so much . . . It was . . . too personal, wasn't it?  Whatever caused him to look like that . . . and she most certainly didn't have the right to ask him about anything that intimate; not now.  "Does your brother go to boarding school, too?" she asked, hoping that it wasn't what had caused him to scowl like that.

Fai sighed, lowered his head once more as he gazed intently at the fire.  "He did.  He finished school last year.  Currently, he attends Novosibirsk State University.  Chose to live on campus . . ." He shrugged almost offhandedly.  "Probably tired of having to answer to me all the time . . ."

"But I thought you said that you get along all right . . .?" she prompted.

He shot her a quick glance, but at least that foreboding sense was gone from his expression, much to her relief.  "We do," he said.  "Well, we usually do.  Lately, not so much."

She considered that for a moment.  "Can I ask why?  If you don't want to answer, I understand.  It's just . . ."

"Surely you don't always see eye-to-eye with your brother," he countered, arching an eyebrow at her to emphasize his question.

She wrinkled her nose.  "Most of the time . . . But then, he's also a lot older than me, so I guess we never had the typical sibling rivalry.  Nii-chan is kind of like a second father, really.  Most of the time, I like having him there to give me advice or to help me if I need it.  Sometimes, though, it can be a little too much . . ."

Fai grunted.  "Then you understand perfectly," he said.

Saori frowned, but remained silent.  Sure, she might understand the idea of not always agreeing with Rinji all the time, but somehow, she felt like there was more to it—more that Fai hadn't explained . . . and maybe she didn't really understand, at all . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 4~~

~Backwoods~

 

~o~

 

 

"So, your brother . . . He's your much younger brother, you said?"

Without taking his eyes off the road, Fai grunted in response.  "Yes," he replied, stifling the urge to sigh since it was the first question Saori had asked all morning despite her endless line of babble that he'd endured since he'd offered to drive awhile.  He still wasn't sure why he'd offered, and was even less sure, why she'd let him, but at least it cut into the absolute boredom of having nothing at all to distract him since the old van's radio didn't work—along with most of the other luxuries that might have been installed when the vehicle was new.

She nodded.  He could feel her gaze on him, but didn't look to verify it.  Something about her eyes . . . "How much younger is he?  Yerik?  That's his name?"

Refreshing his grip on the steering wheel, he gritted his teeth when the van hit a rather nasty spot in the road.  "Yes, his name is Yerik, and he's eighteen—barely."

"Is he like you?"

"Meaning?"

She laughed softly, the scent of her hair coming to him on the breeze blowing through the open windows.  Something exotic, a flower or a tree?  He didn't know, but it was . . . pleasant . . . "Nothing bad," she assured him.  "Just . . . You're so serious—probably because you're tai-youkai, and that's such a heavy responsibility . . ."

"What would you know about any of that?"

"Is it hard to believe that I could understand how much rests on your shoulders?" she challenged instead.

He grunted.  "If you're aware of how much responsibility I have, then you wouldn't have kidnapped me," he parried.

She sighed.  "I did apologize for that," she reminded him.  "Besides, 'kidnap' has such a negative connotation, don't you think?  Can't we just say that I . . ." Trailing off, she tilted her head to the side and considered what she wanted to say.  Suddenly, though, she snapped her fingers and pointed at him.  "—That I appropriated you for awhile?"

"No, I don't think we can, and of course 'kidnap' has a negative connotation—there's no positive way to kidnap someone, Saori," he growled.

She made an exaggeratedly tortured face.  "I would still rather say that I appropriated you," she pointed out in a sulky tone.

He was saved from answering, however, when the van jerked, lurched, and with a muttered curse, he maneuvered it off of the road as billows of smoke started issuing from the hood of the beast.

"Did you break it?" she asked, almost accusingly, as she stumbled out of her door while he yanked on the hood release.

"Of course not!" he growled, slamming the driver's side door and stomping around the van, pushing her out of the way to unlatch the hood, only to jerk back when the steam rushed out.  "Damn it!"

"Let me see," she said, stepping forward, leaning over the steaming engine.  Waving a hand to disburse the smoke, she reached down, messing with a few tubes and wires.  He was about to scoff at her since he honestly didn't think she had a clue, any more than he did, but she sighed and stepped back, shaking her head as she reached up to pull the hood down.  "The hose that goes to the radiator has dry-rotted through, which is a simple enough fix if we were in town—and if the engine wasn't damaged by the high levels of heat.  That aside, it looks like it blew out all the oil, and that's a bad, bad sign . . ." Letting out a deep breath, she slowly shook her head.  "I think that the engine is probably locked up, and if that's the case . . ."

"Yes?" he prompted when she trailed off, scowling at the troubled expression that drew her eyebrows together.

She shot him a sober glance before letting her gaze shift back to the van once more.  "I think the engine's shot."

"How do you know that?"

She shrugged, rubbing her hands together to brush off whatever dirt she could.  "I used to like to hang out with Nezumi-oba-chan and help her work on cars," she explained, as though it was the simplest thing in the world.  "I'm not a mechanic, by any means, but I can usually tell what's wrong if it's pretty straightforward, like this is . . ."

He cocked an eyebrow at her, crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned back just far enough to pin her with a rather condescending look.  "Which means . . .?"

She sighed.  "Well, it means . . . I hope you like walking, Fai-sama."

He stared at her for another long moment before striding back the way they'd come.

"Where are you going?" she called, hurrying after him.

"Home," he said without breaking his stride.

She dashed around him, planting her hands in the center of his chest.  "What?  No!  You can't do that!  You've got to come meet the children!"

He snorted.  "Give me one good reason why I should do that, give that we're days away from there and now without transportation?"

She wrinkled her nose.  "Because you blew up the van," she pointed out.

His mouth dropped open, and he opened and closed it a few times.  "That wasn't my fault!" he growled, pointing back at the huge paperweight beside the road.  "I didn't do anything to it!  It was already on its last legs, so you can't blame me for that!"

"But you were driving, and it was fine, and then it stopped while you were still driving, and it won't run now, so I think the evidence is pretty clearly stacked against you, Fai-sama."

Narrowing his eyes on her, making a point of giving her hands a very significant look, he snorted indelicately.  "Entirely not my fault," he grumbled.

"Do you know that it was the only decent vehicle that the orphanage even had?" she challenged.

He rolled his eyes.  "Yet another reason why the place is too expensive to keep open," he shot back.

Crossing her arms over her chest, she looked positively exultant.  "And you blew it up."

"It's not working," he informed her brusquely, stepping around her and continuing along the side of the road.

"You're tai-youkai," she said.  "You know that this area's pretty dangerous, don't you?"

"You're tough.  You know martial arts.  You can handle it."

She rolled her eyes as she scuffed her feet against the asphalt—he could hear the scrape of her shoes.  "As tai-youkai, it's your job to look after those who cannot take care of themselves," she reminded him.

He hesitated in his gait, but ultimately kept moving.  "Are you saying you can't take care of yourself?" he parried.

"I meant the orphans," she muttered under her breath.

He didn't respond to that, but he did tighten his jaw.

"Would you really make me travel the rest of the way alone?" she called after him.

"Yes—because you kidnapped me."

"Appropriated!" she ground out.  "You'll feel bad if something happens to me!  What if I'm attacked by a wild animal?"

"Catch them a fish with your bare hands, then run."

She snorted.  "Or a stranger?"

"Anyone you encounter will definitely leave you alone."

"How would you know?"

"Because you never shut up, and they'll dump you back where they found you because you'll annoy the hell out of them."

"O-O-O-O-Oh!"

He lifted a hand to wave over his shoulder without looking back.

She sighed.  He heard her, but he had the distinct feeling that she hadn't actually meant for him to, and he frowned.

"I'm . . . I'm sorry I bothered you," she said, her quiet voice carrying back to him, just the same.

'Tell me you're not really going to just walk away from her.'

'Then don't ask.'

'. . . She's right, you know.  It is your job to watch out for those who are too weak to do that for themselves.'

'It's not that simple, and you know it.'

'And you know that the rest of what she said is true, too.  This area . . . It's not the safest.  The Bershetoyevs and the Kyranyovitch factions, people come under fire all the time around here, and yeah, they have that agreement right now, but all it takes is one slip-up to reignite the small-scale war that's been going on for years, and she's about to try walking through the thick of it . . .'

'And maybe she ought to have considered that before she decided to kidnap me.'

'Good God, are you still stuck on that?'

Heaving a sigh, Fai quickened his pace, opting instead to ignore his youkai-voice.  He'd humored her, hadn't he?  Sparing enough time to drive out to the orphanage was one thing.  Having to finish the trip on foot was quite another, and he'd wasted enough time, as it was.  If he were lucky, he'd be able to arrange transportation to get home back in the last town they'd passed through, even if he ended up, having to buy someone's car to do it . . .

 


 

 

Yerik Demyanov stepped into the castle with a long, drawn-out sigh, dropping the leather satchel on the floor as he raked a hand through his unruly golden hair, his emerald green eyes shifting quickly over the quiet grand entryway—across the marble floor, flickering over the two great pillars that flanked the wide stone staircase.

"Lord Demyanov," Vasili, the aged butler, greeted with a low bow.  "Will you be staying long?"

Yerik shifted his scowl onto the mink-youkai.  Though he seemed to be the absolute visage of patience, Yerik knew better.  Nothing ever happened under the Demyanov roof without that particular being knowing everything there was to know about it.  "I don't know," he replied curtly.  "Tell me why I haven't been able to reach my brother—why I keep getting sent straight to voicemail."

Vasili strode over and helped Yerik remove his leather jacket.  He shook it out, quickly flipping it back and forth to inspect for anything that might require his attention before hanging it quickly in the hall closet.  "His Grace is taking care of some business—he said."

Yerik's scowl deepened as he narrowed his gaze just a little more at the butler.  Entirely unflappable, of course, with every bit of his clothing in perfect array.  To the average bystander, there was nothing at all amiss in Vasili's stance or presentation.  Yerik knew better, though.  The slight hint of strain evident at the corners of his black gaze . . . a certain tightness around his mouth . . . There was something else that he wasn't saying, wasn't there?  But . . . "What aren't you saying?" he demanded.

Not surprisingly, Vasili slowly, pointedly, looked around.  There wasn't anyone else in the great hall, but Yerik nodded in silent understanding, turning on his heel and leading the way down the short corridor that led to his brother's office.  Only after the door had closed behind them—a thick, impossibly heavy wooden door that didn't allow much in the way of sound to permeate it—did Vasili let out a deep breath.  "He only called yesterday to ask me to cancel his appointments for the next two weeks," he admitted as he quietly glided across the floor to fill a glass with vodka for Yerik.  "He's been . . . missing . . . since Monday."

"Missing?" Yerik echoed incredulously, knowing that there wasn't any way that Vasili would just casually toss out a word like that.  "And why the hell am I just now hearing about this?" he growled, snatching the glass from the butler's hand and glowering at the man.  Then he snorted.  "Let me guess: His Grace instructed you not to tell me.  Am I right?"

Vasili had the decency to lower his gaze for a long moment.  "He wishes for you to continue with your schooling without interruption," he replied.

"Of course he does," Yerik snarled, slugging back the drink before slamming the empty glass on a nearby table.  "Do you have any idea where he is?  Why he took off?"

"He didn't say—and it's hardly my place to ask."

"Then why do you say that he was 'missing'?" Yerik challenged.

"His Grace would like for you to return to the university forthwith," Vasili insisted mildly, flicking an imaginary bit of dust off of the immaculate sleeve of his pristine white shirt.  In fact, Yerik couldn't remember having ever seen the youkai looking any less than perfectly turned out, and now was no exception.  Even his long, deep brown hair was neatly pulled back into a low-hanging ponytail, exactly in the center of the slate grey broadcloth vest.

Yerik narrowed his gaze on the butler, as though he were daring him to lie.  "Was he challenged again?"

This time, Vasili shook his head.  "Not to my knowledge," he allowed.  "All I know is that he was leaving to meet with Lord Chim regarding the Chinese sanctions, and he never showed up for it.  However, when he called, he said he was fine."

For some reason, the whole scenario just didn't strike Yerik as all right.  After all, he knew his brother better than anyone, didn't he?  It wasn't at all like Fai to blow off a meeting, especially one as important as the Chinese sanctions, without damn good reason . . .

'Unless . . .'

'Unless . . .?'

'Unless he's being monitored.  I mean, if that were the case, then he'd take care to make Vasili think that he's all right, now wouldn't he?'

Yerik wasn't entirely sure if he agreed with that.  Even if Fai tried to do that, Vasili was not stupid.  In fact, he was one of the most astute people that Yerik knew.  Whatever had happened, the butler didn't seem to believe that Fai was in any kind of danger, but if that were the case, then just what had happened . . .?

"Did Fai give any indication as to where he is now?" Yerik asked instead, hating that he had to ask, but any kind of lead was better than nothing . . .

"No," he replied with a thoughtful scowl.  "However . . ."

Gritting his teeth, willing himself not to light into the old butler, Yerik sighed and counted to twenty.  "However . . .?" he prompted.

Vasili stared at him for a long moment, as though he were trying to make up his mind about something.  In the end, he gave one curt nod.  "His Grace said that his phone was broken, so he was borrowing someone else's.  Assuming that this 'someone' is the person he left with, the zone code was that of Chukotka."

"Chukotka?  What the hell would he be doing from someone from there?  Did a name come up with the number?"

He shook his head.  "Just the number, and, given the situation, I felt it was best, not to try to delve too deeply into it."

Yerik nodded, raking his hands through his hair as he paced the length of the study and back again.  True enough, given the general unrest of the region, it was better not to give any indication that things might be happening.  That only made locating Fai that much more difficult, though . . .

"His Grace didn't take anything with him, either," Vasili relented.  "Just his wallet, but he didn't take any clothing—nothing that would indicate that his departure was planned in any way."

It didn't feel right, did it?  It wasn't at all like Fai to just take off with someone—anyone.  Too serious, too methodic—far too cautious . . . No, there wasn't any way that he'd have just decided to randomly up and leave.

The problem was, Fai didn't employ many hunters: only a handful of them, and they were all stationed outside of Russia, and even if Yerik knew how to get a hold of any of them, it would take them far too long to get here.  Telling anyone else about the situation wasn't even a consideration, either.  As far as Yerik could tell, there really was only one real solution.

"Did Fai leave his keys?" he asked, turning back to face the butler.

Vasili nodded and gestured at the wide desk on the far side of the room.  "I believe His Grace kept his spare fob in there."

Yerik nodded, altering his course to head toward the desk instead.  "Can you pack me a few changes of clothes?  I'll be leaving as soon as I can."

Vasili bowed.  "As you wish, my lord."

 


 

 

Wrapping her arms around her raised knees as she huddled against the rough stone overhang, Saori let out a deep breath as she gazed at the merrily dancing flames of the fire she'd built to cook the small rabbit she'd caught for dinner.  She'd already eaten what she could, and she really ought to toss away the rest of it before the smell of the cooked meat lured unwanted visitors to her makeshift camp, but the idea of wasting the food bothered her, too.

It wouldn't be so bad, she thought, if she didn't feel so completely alone.  She wasn't afraid, exactly, but she couldn't help but to feel the sense of isolation that had grown worse when she'd discovered that her cell phone was dead.  She supposed she'd always been a rather social person, so the idea of traveling entirely alone did bother her.

When she'd graduated from college last year, she'd opted to take a month, traveling all over Japan to visit shrines and to generally unwind and enjoy herself, and she'd gone alone, but she hadn't realized that she wasn't really alone, either.  She'd met people, participated in some small groups with others around her age who were doing the same thing.  The majority of them, however, were taking advantage in the short break between high school graduation and starting at the university or starting their careers.  Saori had skipped a few grades, though, so she had always been younger than anyone else in her classes.  This was different—entirely different.  Out here, there was no one else—not another soul—and the silence could be deafening . . .

She hadn't realized that before, either: the difference between the ambient sounds of the world and the sounds made by another intellectual being.  She supposed that, on some level, the songs of the birds and the whisper of the wind in the trees was comforting, but none of those things could talk to her, could distract her from the passage of minutes or hours.

'It's too bad that he refused to come with us,' her youkai-voice ventured.  It had also remained conspicuously quiet all day, too.

She stifled a sigh, letting her chin drop on her raised knees.  'I suppose it can't be helped,' she mused.  'I mean, I did kidnap—I mean, appropriate—him, to start with, and it's not like I could have dragged him off against his will anymore than I already did . . .'

'Maybe you should have cried a little.'

She snorted.  'Like I'd resort to that!' she scoffed.  'That'd be a really rotten thing to do!'

'Maybe, but it might have worked, too!  He seemed like a decent kind of person overall—well, if you discount the idea that he's set to leave a bunch of orphans high and dry, that is . . .'

'That's not his fault.  I mean, I don't like it, but if there's not enough money, then there's just not enough money . . .'

'You're defending him?'

She scowled at the fire, slowly shook her head.  'Hardly!  I'm simply being logical here—pragmatic, even.  That's all . . .'

'So . . . You wouldn't resort to tears to get your way, but you kidnapped the man?'

'Appropriated!'

'You can't put a nice face on a felony, Saori!'

'But that was your idea, not mine!'

'Yeah?  And you're the one in control of the body, and you went with it, so it's more your fault than mine.'

Snapping her mouth closed at the ridiculousness of the current discussion, Saori let out a deep breath.  Sometimes, she thought that her youkai-voice was out to get her.  After all, everyone else seemed to think that their voices were calm and even helpful.  Hers?

Hers tended to like to see just how much trouble it could get them into at any given moment, she was certain.

If she had a yen for every time her youkai voice prompted her to do something, only for her to figure out later that it might not have been the smartest thing in the world, she'd be rich already.  It seemed like it had been that way from the moment she could hear the voice and understand just what it was suggesting.

It figured.

'If I'm that bad, then maybe you should learn how to ignore me—or do the opposite of what I suggest,' the voice huffed.

'Maybe I should,' she allowed.

Her mother, for the most part, tended to find her antics amusing—even endearing.  Her father and brother?  Not nearly as much, she figured, because they were the ones who tended to bail her out of trouble—like the time her youkai-voice had suggested that she climb onto the top of the martial arts dome at school, which wouldn't have been nearly as bad had her great-uncle not been forced to rescue her when she realized just how far off the ground she was and that she was too scared to get down the same way she'd gotten up there, in the first place.  The entire school had ground to a stop to watch as Izayoi InuYasha had retrieved her, tossing her over his shoulder since he was more than a little irritated that she'd done it, in the first place.

That escapade had cost Senkuro Seiji a healthy donation to the martial arts department after all was said and done . . .

'The only reason oji-chan was mad was because that dome can be seen from some of the area office buildings—if they were looking at the time.  There never was a write up or anything in the newspapers, so it's a safe bet that no one noticed.'

She sighed.  Considering she still remembered the lecture she'd received when she got home that day well enough, she wasn't sure she'd look at it as, 'nothing much' . . .

Rubbing her upper arms as she huddled a little smaller against the ledge, she frowned.  The temperature had dropped a lot more than it had on the previous nights, and she bit her lip.  She hadn't realized that it was going to get so chilly or she'd have taken the time to find better shelter or build something.

'Might as well get moving for a little bit—at least, long enough to warm up some,' she thought as she pushed herself to her feet.  After all, it wasn't that late, and if it were already this chilly, it would only get worse, so she figured that gathering a bit more firewood would be a good plan.

In the distance, she could hear the sounds of wolves, but they weren't near enough to concern her.  Pausing long enough to tilt her head back, to stare up at the low-hanging stars that dotted the clear skies overhead, even through the network of tree branches, she couldn't help the little smile that touched her lips.  Funny how she hadn't realized, just how many stars she hadn't seen growing up.

When she was younger, the family had split its time between Hong Kong, where Taishosoft—the branch of Inutaisho Industries that Aiko and Seiji had been given as a wedding present years ago—was located and Tokyo.  Saori's uncle, Toga had taken over the bulk of the family business: the conglomerate that was comprised of a number of various enterprises, but all of them centered in the tech industry, but Aiko, with Seiji, had taken over the software development company.  It wasn't until later, when Saori was old enough to start school, that they'd opted to relocate their main office to Tokyo.  Seiji was the actual chairman of the board, but Aiko enjoyed her spot in research and development well enough.  Aiko had said often enough over the years that running the business side of things was boring, but tinkering with code?  That was her true niche, and she, along with her team, had been the masterminds behind the wildly successful office suite, Intelliface, which tended to be the program of choice these days . . .

Saori supposed that most people had just assumed that she'd follow right along in her parents' and even her brother's footsteps and take a job at Taishosoft.  She had opted to go her own way, though, since the idea of sitting in front of a computer all day was just not something she'd ever entertained.  Seiji loved the business side of it as much as Aiko thrived in her chosen role.  Rinji was her father's right-hand man, so to speak, though he, too, tended to dabble in research and development, as well.

Saori, though . . .

They said she was a child prodigy.  She, like Rinji, had excelled in school, but she'd never been interested in academics the way her brother was.  No, she tended to be more fascinated with people—with the psychology of them—which had led her here, she supposed.

There was just something highly fulfilling about working with children, in helping children find their own paths.  Seeing the way a child could blossom when given the right encouragement . . . It would never make her rich, and that was fine.  Thanks to the very healthy trust funds—one from her parents and another from her esteemed grandfather—she never really had to worry about stuff like that.  She, like many in her family, tended to just live off the interest that the funds generated, anyway, and with a money whiz in the family like her distant cousin by marriage, Gavin, she knew well enough that her already sizeable wealth had only grown in the last year or so . . .

Still, as much money as she had access to, she was pretty certain that it wouldn't be nearly enough to keep the orphanage running indefinitely.  But she did still have a few options, as much as she hated to do it.  Trying to convince Fai-sama to change his mind had only been the most preferable of them.  If she had to, though, she wasn't above going to her family and seeing if there was anyone who would be willing to help underwrite the facility.  Sesshoumaru and Kagura might, if only for her sake, and then, there were Gin and Cain Zelig and their foundation.  They usually only took on charities in North America, but maybe they would make an exception in this case.

She just didn't want to go to them if she could help it.  The chairman, like most Russians she'd come into contact with, tended to view foreigners with a healthy dose of distrust, and the staff tended to hold a generally unfavorable view of those whom they considered to be the upper echelon, especially those from North America, the land of excess, in their minds . . .

Too bad she didn't really have much of a choice in it anymore.  Hopefully, though, they would see her suggestion of looking for funding outside of the country as the best answer for the dilemma at hand.

She grimaced since it all kind of sounded to her like really wishful thinking.  Her only real hope was that she could make the chairman see past his general disdain and to get him to focus on the good of the children.

The immediate problem, however, was that she could get some sleep—maybe—or she could keep the fire going for some warmth, but she really couldn't do both.  She could, she supposed, empty out the sweatshirt she'd tied into a makeshift backpack to carry back the children's things that she'd brought along to help personalize the children for Fai-sama's sake, but she didn't really like the idea of scattering their precious belongings all over the ground, either, especially if it were to rain.  At the moment, she didn't think it would, but one never knew, this time of year . . .

And she'd left her suitcase behind, too, taking only the sweatshirt, an extra pair of panties, and an extra bra since there wasn't much room in the garment to stuff much else, but it was just her out here, so it wouldn't really matter if she stank or not . . .

Letting out a deep breath, she turned to head back to the fire, only to stop short, her eyes flaring wide at what she thought she saw.

'But . . . That can't . . . be . . .'

Hunkered down next to the fire, not bothering to look at her as he slowly, methodically, stripped meat off the cooked rabbit she'd left on a bed of clean leaves . . . He didn't look any worse for wear, and she wasn't entirely sure where he'd come from, either, since she hadn't sensed anyone following her during the day.  Then again, what did it matter, really?  It didn't, especially when her heart seemed to grind to a painful halt, only to hammer wildly against her ribcage a minute later as a strange and foreign sense of near-giddiness brought a smile to her lips as she stood there, watching him.

"Fai-sama . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 5~~
~Hubris~

 

~o~

 

 

"This area is dangerous."

Fai didn't move, didn't look up, as he continued to devour what was left of the rabbit.  Saori blinked and stepped forward.  "Is . . .? Is that why you came to find me?"

He finally glanced up at her, hazel eyes dark in the wan light.  "Yeah, let's go with that," he muttered, turning his attention back to the rabbit in his hands.  He seemed to be considering something for a long moment, and then he sighed.  "You want some?" he asked almost grudgingly, holding up the carcass in her direction.

She waved a hand and pressed her lips together to stave back the smile that threatened.  "I already ate," she told him.  "Help yourself."

He didn't argue with her as he bit into it once more.  "Needs a little salt," he said around a mouthful of meat.

"I'll get some if we come across a town," she assured him, stacking the wood she'd gathered carefully before arranging a couple of stout logs on the fire.  "Before I left the orphanage, the director warned me about this area.  Is there a reason?  Is it just tougher?"

He gave a little shrug.  "The Bershetoyevs and the Kyranyovitch factions," he replied, tossing a few bones into the fire.  "They've been at it for . . . Well, for longer than I've been alive, I guess.  They're two packs of wolf-youkai—the Bershetoyevs are tundra-wolf-youkai led by a woman named Tanja who claims that the region has always belonged to her pack, and the Kyranyovitch faction—Tibetian wolves that migrated north from China after their leader at the time took a grey wolf to mate, thus giving them rights to the same land—or so they claim.  They're led by a man named Bojing, who is not a people-person.  They tend to have flare ups now and then, then they'll fall silent for a time.  Given that it's been awhile since their last altercation, it's just a matter of time before it starts up again."

She considered that and nodded slowly.  "Why haven't you put a stop to it?"

The look he shot her told her quite plainly that she was being a little simplistic, at least, in his opinion.  "You work with children, right?"

She nodded.

So did he.  "Then you know that children pick at each other over and over again until someone snaps, right?  Consider these two groups to be like children who never learned how to play nicely with others."

She snorted.  "But you're tai-youkai.  Can't you—?"

"Can't I, what?  Slap their hands and send them all to time-out?  No, I can't.  So far, they've only actually hurt each other, and as long as they keep it that way, then I'm not inclined to bother with them.  They're not interested in getting along, anyway, so it wouldn't matter what I said to them, none of them will listen to me, no matter who I am or what title I might have."

Sinking down on the ground, she wrapped her arms around her raised knees and shrugged.  "Maybe if you sat them all down and talked to them . . ."

"They're beyond sitting down and talking," he assured her.  "It has been awhile since they've actually killed anyone, so at this point, I'll take what I can get."

"They kill each other?"

"Yes.  I mean, what do you think they do in a fight?  Play 'rock, paper, scissors'?"

"That's barbaric," she mumbled.

He sighed, giving the bones a last turn in his hand before tossing them into the fire with the others.   "Things here are not like they are in Japan or . . . or anywhere else you've probably been," he informed her, taking his time, licking the rabbit juice off his fingers.  "The fighting is fair enough.  They only engage in hand-to-hand combat."

She fell silent, biting her lip as she considered what he'd said.  To him, it had sounded so pragmatic, so matter-of-fact.  To her, it was . . . was horrifying on some level . . .

He sighed, making a face as he wiped his hands on his slacks.  "You've seen the numbers of orphans that we have here.  That should be enough to tell you that life here is a lot different.  They don't have orphanages for our kind in Japan or anywhere else, really—maybe in Africa . . . They're able to place their orphans easily enough.  It's not that simple here.  Most people barely have enough money to support themselves, never mind a child, and those who have the means?  They're not interested in someone else's children.  If it were up to me . . ."

"If it were up to you . . .?" she prompted when he trailed off.

He leaned forward slightly, balancing on the balls of his feet, shoulders hunched forward, hands dangling between his parted knees as he frowned thoughtfully at the dancing flames.  "If it were up to me, I'd find homes for them all so that there was no need for the orphanage, to begin with."  He gritted his teeth, shook his head.  "Again, it's not that simple."

"What about . . . What about approaching the other tai-youkai?  I mean, maybe they can help you find homes for them all?"

"We don't need their charity," he retorted stiffly.

She winced since she really wasn't trying to offend him.  "It wouldn't be charity.  It would be finding homes—real homes—for these children," she explained.

He didn't look convinced, and she stifled a sigh.

 


 

 

Shrugging off the brand new backpack, Fai let it fall onto the ground with a heavy thump.  Saori's bag landed next to his along with the makeshift pack she'd fashioned out of a sweatshirt that held the children's precious things, and she braced her hands against the small of her back so that she could stretch.  "This looks like a decent spot," she said to no one in particular as she slowly scanned the small clearing.

Fai grunted something entirely unintelligible as he started gathering kindling for a fire.  Given that he'd have rather stayed in the small village they'd found, he wasn't exactly in complete agreement, but they'd wandered into the town early this morning, and suggesting that they pack it in for the day just wasn't exactly feasible.

'And just why were all your account cards declined?' his youkai-voice prodded.

He frowned.  He didn't rightfully know, and it had grated on his nerves even more, given that everything they'd bought in the small store—the only store in the town—was paid for by Saori.  He'd pay her back later, he told himself stubbornly.  It irritated the crap out of him to be beholden to anyone, especially a female someone who had kidnapped him, to start with.

She'd even offered to see if she couldn't buy a car off one of the locals, which had only furthered his overall pique.  He wasn't sure if it was good or bad that they hadn't found anyone willing to part with their automobile, but at least, he supposed, it had spared his pride just a little.

The small department store hadn't had any tents, which figured.  They had bought a tarp, though, so he figured it would have to do, especially when the overcast skies still hadn't let loose yet, though he had little doubt that a good rain was on its way . . .

"There's a stream over that way," she said, breaking through the silence that had fallen.  "Do you want to go catch some fish for dinner?  I can work on building a shelter for the night . . ."

Draping his hands on his hips, he cocked an eyebrow at her.  "And just how will I do that when we didn't buy any fishing line or anything?" he countered.

She blinked and turned her head to stare at him, the plastic-wrapped tarp hanging from her hands.  The expression on her face said quite plainly that she was trying to decide if he were serious or not, and he narrowed his eyes.  "But you don't need anything to fish," she finally said.

"Of course, you do!" he scoffed.  "How else are you going to catch them?"

She looked genuinely confused by his claim, and she slowly shook her head.  "With your hands . . ."

Snapping his mouth closed on the retort he'd been forming in his head, Fai could only shake his head slowly.  "What?"

She shrugged, turning her attention back to her task as she yanked the plastic bag containing the tarp open.  "You just stand there, wait for the fish to come to you, and grab them," she said, as though it was the simplest thing in the world.

"And who told you that crap?"

She glanced at him before sticking the corner of the plastic pack into her mouth to tear it open.  "Oji-chan," she replied.

He grunted.  "Oji-chan is full of shit."

She giggled.  "Are you going to tell him that?"

"If he were here, I would."

For some reason, that amused her even more.  Her cheeks pinked as she waved a hand in front of her face, her giggles filling the air in a very pleasant kind of way that still grated on his nerves.  "If you ever do, I want to be there to see his reaction," she chortled.

He snorted.  "All right, if you're so smart.  You go fish, and I'll set up the shelter."

Her smile didn't diminish as she handed him the tarp and headed off toward the stream.

Heaving a sigh, he turned his attention to building a shelter.  They had bought a large ball of twine, so it didn't take him long to lash together two long, stout branches to an even longer third one that he let rest on the ground.  Then he lashed the tarp to the branches and secured the edges with a few bright yellow tent spikes.

All in all, he was pretty pleased with his efforts, and he spared a moment to survey it before using his feet to scrape away debris from a small circle for the fire not too far away.  A few minutes later, he had a decent fire going, too, and, all in all, he felt rather accomplished.

'I don't know, Fai . . . Maybe we should go see if we can't hunt down a rabbit or something because she's never, ever going to catch fish with nothing but her hands . . .'

He grunted, crossing his arms over his chest as he slowly shook his head.  'I just single-handedly set up camp.  Do I have to do everything?'

'It would depend upon just how hungry you are.'

He sighed.  'Point taken.'

It didn't take long for him to catch the scent of a rabbit, and tracking it down was no problem, either.  As he crouched in a thicket of brush, he narrowed his eyes as the fat ball of fluff emerged from a small den and slowly glanced around.  He was downwind, so she couldn't smell him, but she still hesitated before turning around slowly.

Fai braced himself, ready to launch himself at his prey, only to stop at the last moment when five little, tiny heads popped out of the den behind her, and he frowned.

'You . . . You don't want to go after her because of those babies?'

Making a face, he sat back as the tiny bunnies hopped around their mother.

'You're going soft!'

Ignoring the disbelief in his youkai's voice, he scooted away from the rabbits.  After all, there were other things around.  It would be fine.  All he had to do was find something else—something without babies—and it would all be good.

 


 

 

"Here."

Fai shot Saori a rather pointed look as he slowly reached out to take the staked fish from her without a word.

She stifled a sigh and sat back, having already eaten two of the five fish she'd caught, cleaned, and cooked over the open fire.  For reasons she didn't really understand, he hadn't said much more than a few words to her since he'd wandered back into camp.  At the time, she'd figured he was just off, answering nature's call or something like that.  Now, though . . . Well, she really didn't know what to make of his strange and almost angry behavior . . .

Digging a bottle of water out of her bag, she broke the seal and sipped it, casting Fai a sidelong look.  What unsettled her most about him was just how hard it was to read his expression.  The frown on his face seemed to be his general expression, and she bit her lip as she wondered just why it would be that someone like him should look like that most of the time.

'Are you kidding?  He's tai-youkai, and you know that this region isn't nearly as docile as Japan or even North America . . .'

That was true enough.  She'd heard whispers from time to time, hadn't she?  Though she hadn't really paid as much attention to the topic of tai-youkai business, she had been around it all of her life, especially when she spent time with her grandparents or even her great-uncle and great-aunt.  She supposed that it was normal, given who her family was, and, while she couldn't remember specifics, she did recall vaguely how Asia had been spoken of as a harder region to manage, to the point that she remembered one discussion in particular where her uncle, Toga had suggested breaking Asia into two regions to make it easier.  Sesshoumaru had nixed that idea, saying that he had every faith that the current tai-youkai could manage very well, even if he was a little young.  To her knowledge, that discussion had never been revisited, either . . .

Looking at Fai, however, she had to wonder what he'd think of such an idea . . .

"You bought fishing line and hid it, didn't you?" he finally asked, breaking the silence as he stripped fish off the bones.

Her mouth dropped open for a moment before she snapped it closed.  "You know I didn't," she reminded him since he'd been standing right there with her when she paid for the supplies.  "I caught them just like I said I would."

He grunted.  Then he heaved a longsuffering sigh.  "Thank you," he growled, sounding even more irritated by the second.

She sighed, stretching out her legs, leaning back on her hands.  "I guess in my family, we're used to fishing like that and stuff, so it didn't occur to me that we should buy fishing line," she explained.  "We liked to go camping when I was younger.  My whole family, really—well, maybe not all at the same time, but . . . But oji-chan taught us all to fish and so I grew up, thinking that his way is normal . . . Did you go camping and stuff as a pup, too?"

Tossing the carcass of his demolished fish into the fire, he shrugged.  "Not much," he confessed, but at least, he sounded a little less put-upon, so that was something.  "There wasn't much time for playing."

"You had to start training really early, didn't you?" she asked quietly.

"I guess.  Never really thought of it that way.  It's just how it was.  I'm not complaining."

"No, you didn't sound like you were," she agreed.  "It's a lot of responsibility, being tai-youkai."

He reached for the last fish, pausing just long enough to offer it to her.  She waved it away, and he bit into it.  "Yes, well, it's much easier now than it used to be.  Becoming tai-youkai at twenty . . . There were a number of people who didn't agree with my right to inherit my father's position."

She frowned as the gravity of his statement sank in.  "You mean, they challenged you?"

He nodded, scowling into the gamboling flames of the fire.  "Not as frequently these days, but back then . . ."

She flinched.  She wanted to ask him how often that had happened, wished that she knew him well enough to try to make him feel better about it, which was kind of a silly notion, given that it was all in the past.  In the end, however, she sighed, figured that maybe a slight change in topic was the best course of action.  "You said your brother's a lot younger than you?  How old was he when your parents . . .?"

For a long moment, she didn't think he was going to answer.  Taking his time as he stripped the rest of the meat off the bones, he tossed the carcass into the fire and dusted his hands together before digging a bottle of water out of his bag.  "He was two," he replied in almost a monotone.  "Two years, two months, and a few days old, to be exact . . ."

"And you've cared for him since then . . ."

Fai nodded.  "He had a nanny, of course, but he didn't like her.  He always wanted to be with me, so I let her go.  The doctor said that he thought it was due to the trauma of our parents' deaths—well, Mother's, anyway.  My father wasn't very hands-on, I guess you could say."

Her frown deepened.  "He didn't . . . didn't love you?"

Shaking his head, Fai drained half of his water before taking his time, replacing the cap once more.  "I wouldn't say that," he ventured.  "I mean, looking back, I know he cared.  He just . . ." Offering a little shrug, he seemed to be deep in thought for several moments before he sighed, gave a little shrug.  "A tai-youkai cannot afford to lean on anyone.  There isn't anyone else to do so.  I was in college when Yerik was born, so I don't know how he was with him, really, but . . . but he never wanted me to be coddled.  Mother would hug me, of course, hold me on her lap, but Father . . . He discouraged such things, but it wasn't because he didn't care.  He wanted me to learn to depend upon myself; that's all.  I mean, he was strict, but he was also the first one to tell me when I'd done well, too."

"Is that how your brother was raised?" she asked.

He seemed surprised by her question, and he shook his head.  "Not really.  Given what happened, it wasn't really possible.  Yerik . . . I don't know what he does or doesn't remember, and he's never said, but he had nightmares for a long time, and . . . and I couldn't leave him alone—not at that age.  That would have been . . . cruel . . . Once he reached a certain age, though, he didn't really need me like that anymore."

That she supposed she could understand.  Maybe her family was different in that respect, but Sesshoumaru tended to be a little like that—maybe not to the extent as Fai's father was.  Even so, she didn't doubt for a moment that there were moments that he'd stood back, allowed Toga to deal with things on his own to teach him to rely upon himself, too . . .

He let out a deep breath, his expression almost disgusted—almost.  "That's more than I think I've ever told anyone," he admitted.  "I have no idea why I told you any of it . . ."

She smiled a little sadly.  "It's lonely, isn't it?  Being tai-youkai . . ."

The look he shot her was surprised, almost taken aback, and she blinked as a hint of a blush rose in his cheeks, though, in the wan light of the fire, she couldn't help but wonder if she weren't seeing things, too.  "Yeah, it . . . It is . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 6~~
~Primitive~

 

~o~

 

 

He wasn't sure, what woke him.  He didn't know if it was a sound or a feeling, if it was a thought or a dream . . .

It wasn't as much a cognizant decision as it was the culmination of a natural instinct, maybe . . . or maybe . . .

Yawning wide, he turned in an unintentional gravitation toward the source of warmth that huddled beside him in the filmy and hazy light of dawn.  Somehow, the coarse, military-grade blankets did little to stave off the chill that permeated from the ground on which they rested, and he deliberately tried to ignore the intrusion of conscious thought as he slipped his arms around the immediate source of warmth, drawing her against him as the heat of her body offered him a semblance of peace, of comfort.

It reminded him of . . .

Well, he didn't know what, exactly, but if he woke up entirely, he probably could place it.  Too bad that the idea of doing that wasn't at all inviting.

'Damned if she isn't nice . . .' his youkai-voice mumbled sleepily.

'Mmmm . . .'

'Warm and soft and . . .'

'Shh . . .'

'And . . . nice . . .'

As if in response to his muddled thoughts, she seemed to scoot in a little closer, her sigh, soft, almost more of a breath than a real sound.  He could feel it in her, though: the subtle relaxing of her body, as though she had been tensed against the chill air—an almost liquid sense of lethargy that reached out from her to him as he balanced on the very edge between awake and asleep.

'We . . . could go back . . . to sleep . . .'

That wasn't a bad idea; not at all.

There was something entirely . . . familiar about her, wasn't there?  Something that he didn't quite understand, and yet, it was there, nonetheless.  Even in the cloudy and murky haze of his mind, he recognized it, even if it wasn't on a wholly coherent sort of level.  Her youki allowed itself to blend with his in a strangely heady sort of symbiosis.

Breathing out a half-sigh, half-moan, she rolled over onto her back, pushing herself up on her elbows as she blinked slowly, as though she were having trouble, clearing her mind.  "G'morn'ng," she mumbled, eyes drifting closed even though she was leaning up.

He grunted, and if she noticed the arms he drew back away from her, she didn't comment—and neither did he.  "Morning," he muttered, rolling away from her, dragging the blanket up over his shoulder, almost over his head.

She yawned loudly, and he could tell from the sound of it that she was stretching, too.  "I'm starving," she finally said, pushing herself up, hunching forward to wrap her arms around her raised knees.  "I guess I might still have one of those pirozhki left . . ."

He was torn.  On the one hand, he was hungry, too.  On the other?  It was damn chilly outside the blanket, and his bag was on the other side of the small shelter.

"I could go catch a few more fish, but we should probably get moving soon," she went on slowly, thoughtfully.

"The pirozhki is fine," he grumbled, tossing aside the blanket and pushing her aside so that he could lean over to snag his backpack.

'Oh, now, calm down . . . She was just offering to catch a few fish.  It's not her fault that you couldn't do it, even if your life depended upon it.'

'Shut up.'

She sighed and crawled out of the shelter to stir up the still smoldering embers of the fire to build it back up again.  Fai stifled a sigh of his own as he ate the priozhki in a few bites and busied himself with folding up the blankets and disassembling the shelter.

'I think you offended her,' his youkai pointed out after a few minutes of judicious silence.

'I didn't.  She doesn't have enough sense to be offended about anything.'

'Well, that wasn't nice, Fai.  Wake up on the wrong side of the bed, did you?'

'Absolutely not.  Dunno what you're talking about, anyway.'

'Unless you're still all bent out of shape over the whole hunting situation.  Just because she was able to catch fish without a line doesn't mean—'

'I’m not bent out of shape over anything.  Whoever heard of fishing without line? No one—other than her oji-chan, anyway . . .'

'You sound like you are . . . And you were last night when you came back to camp, empty-handed, only to find her already back with five stinking fish, cleaned and cooking.  Why was that, anyway?  I mean, you should have been glad—thankful, even—considering you couldn't manage to catch a damn thing . . .'

Fai uttered a terse grunt, but didn't bother to respond to that.

It was natural, wasn't it?  She deliberately took a stab at his ego, and who wouldn't be offended by that?

'Except she wasn't doing any such thing, you realize,' his youkai went on thoughtfully.

'Why are you taking her side?'

His youkai snorted.  'Because you're being kind of a jerk for no good reason.  Okay, so the two of you didn't exactly get off to the best start, but you know, she's not nearly as bad as you'd like to think she is.  In fact, she's kind of . . . compelling, don't you think?'

'Compelling?  Compelling, how?' he scoffed.

'You know, if you can't figure it out, then I don't know what to tell you.'

"I made some tea . . ."

Blinking away the lingering reverie, Fai finished belting the rolled up tarp and blanket and dropped his backpack on the ground.  Letting out a deep breath, he accepted the tin mug she offered him.  His fingertips brushed over hers, and his eyes flashed up to meet her gaze, just in time to see the slight pinking in her cheeks, the way her nostrils flared just a little.  Hair whipping around in the breeze, the flashes of silver that shone in the long strands, the steely gray of her gaze as a strange sort of warmth lit the depths of her eyes . . .

He had no idea just how long a time passed as he stared at her, as he struggled to understand on some level, just what it was that he felt.  Her deep pink, almost rosy, lips parted slightly, the warmth of her breath brushing over him in the gentlest ripple, setting off a chain reaction that shot through him in an instant—something the likes of which he'd never felt before.  He didn't know what it meant, didn't comprehend the surge of feelings that had lain dormant in him up till now . . .

The undercurrent that passed from him to her and back again was electric, almost like a jolt to his system, and he felt the heat suffusing his skin as the strangest urge to quickly look away shot through him.

It was the oddest feeling, the most uncanny sensation—almost like the ground had been yanked out from under him, and, while he didn't fully understand it, something about it almost frightened him . . .

Almost.

 


 

 

Peering around the small convenience store—the fourth one he'd stopped by in the last few hours—Yerik paused for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the weaker and duller light.

It was slow-going.  Basically traveling in a wide arc as he moved a little farther away from the estate, searching for any trace of Fai in any shop or store or even restaurant that he came across, he had to admit that the frustration was mounting at a rapid pace.  He'd always been fairly good at controlling his impatience.  Good thing, considering his resolve was being sorely tested this time . . .

'Relax a little . . . We'll find him.  Besides, there's a reason that Fai's tai-youkai.  You know better than anyone that he's fully capable of defending himself.  Wherever he is, you know he's fine.  He'll be fine.  Don't panic.'

'I'm not panicking.  I don't panic.  I just want to find him sooner rather than later.'

'You will.  Show him your skills, Yerik.  Maybe he'll listen a little better to you if you do.'

Scowling at the logical sound of his youkai's assertions, Yerik strode over to the counter, sizing up the scrawny man behind the counter.  Tall, lanky, hidden in the nondescript folds of the smudged and dingy blue denim shirt he wore, his dark golden hair a little dull and limp, the young man shot Yerik a cursory sort of glance out of his owlish eyes.

"Have you seen this man in the last couple days?" Yerik asked without preamble as he handed the kid his cell phone—the picture of Fai that he'd already pulled up.

The kid took the phone and scowled at the image thoughtfully.  "No, I . . . This is the first time I've worked this week.  Is he a friend of yours . . .?"

"You could say that," Yerik replied.  "Is there anyone else who had been here?"

"Oh, yeah," he replied.  Shuffling out from behind the counter, the young man glanced at him before heading down an aisle toward the back of the store.  Yerik followed.

"This man . . . Have you seen him?" the kid asked, handing the phone to a girl who was busy, stocking shelves.

The girl straightened up, shot Yerik a cursory glance, as she turned her attention to the picture on the cell phone.  "Oh . . . He was here . . . um . . . a couple days ago?  With a woman . . . They were in a white van.  It sounded terrible—the van, I mean."

"And did you see what direction they headed off in?" Yerik asked, taking back his phone and stowing it into the deep pocket of his thick leather coat.

She frowned, tucking a long strand of light brown hair behind her ear.  "She asked how far it was to Barsk."

"I see.  Thank you," Yerik said, turning on his heel and striding toward the door.  Barsk . . .

It was the best lead he'd had so far, and at least he knew the direction they were headed, even if he had no idea just where they might be going.  Barsk was a small town not too far from where he was currently, but if that was their destination, why?

'A white van . . . and a woman . . .?  Just what is Fai up to?' his youkai mused as he slipped back into his car and punched the ignition button.

His scowl darkened as he pulled onto the street, heading out of town in the direction of Barsk.  In all the time that he'd known Fai, he hadn't ever been anything less than utterly pragmatic, entirely too disciplined to just take off for any old reason and without saying anything, even if he'd just mentioned it to Vasili.

No, something about the whole thing just wasn't right.

'And you're sure you're not just overreacting and trying to take a minute to prove your point to your oh-so-esteemed brother?'

Snorting indelicately at the blatant barb of his youkai-voice's words, Yerik dragged a hand through his collar-length golden hair.  'Of course not!  And even so, he was wrong, and this just proves it.  He can't do everything on his own, no matter what he thinks.  There are too many people who depend upon him . . .'

'Including you.'

He grunted, but didn't really answer that.  There wasn't much to say about it, anyway.

The truth of it was that he didn't rightfully know exactly when he'd noticed it all.  He guessed he knew well enough, even early on, just how stressful the weight of everything was on Fai.  He never complained, of course.  He never gave voice to it, and yet, it was always there, too: the strain around his eyes, the tightness in his expression, the pensive looks on his face that Yerik had seen too many times to count over the years, even though that look always disappeared the minute that Fai realized that Yerik was near . . . He didn't know if Fai was trying to hide it from him, but he had a feeling that it was simply that Fai didn't want Yerik to worry about anything, including him . . .

He supposed that it was kind of a strange situation.  Yerik didn't actually remember their parents.  Whether his mind had blocked the memories or if he was simply too young to properly form them, to start with, he didn't know.  From the earliest times that he could recall, Fai had been both his father and his mother, all wrapped in the guise of a brother, and, even though it had to have been exhausting, entirely mentally overwhelming, Fai never, ever complained, either.  No, it was quite the opposite, actually.  Always ready with an encouraging nod, a faint smile, a word or even a gentle ruffling of his hair, Fai had been the one constant in his life . . .

And maybe that was the reason why, as Yerik had grown older, that he'd started to wonder just what he could do to lighten his brother's load.  It bothered him, didn't it?  For every single fond memory that Yerik held dear, he knew that so many of them were created by his brother, whether directly or indirectly.  As busy as he always was, as much stress and strain as he'd been under, Fai still went out of his way to ensure that Yerik's childhood was as close to normal as it could have possibly been.  From the times that he'd dropped everything to spend a few hours—maybe a full afternoon—playing with him in the perfect gardens of the estate, or the times that he'd put aside his work in order to give Yerik advice or just to listen to a recap of his day at school—later, boarding school—and the daily phone calls that Fai never missed, just to make sure that everything was all right . . .

And it wasn't like he'd ever tried to make Yerik feel as though he were interrupting or that he didn't have time, and that was something, too.

It was idyllic, really.

And then . . .

Yerik let out a deep sigh, allowing the spring breeze that filtered through the cracked window to ruffle his hair.  In hindsight, he supposed that it was inevitable.  It really wasn't until the first year at boarding school in Australia that he'd started to hear things—whispers.

He hadn't known that his brother had been challenged so much, so frequently, particularly early on in his tenure as tai-youkai.  So many people were unhappy to have such a young man in the office.  It was nothing against Fai, they'd said.  It was just the belief that someone so untried had no right to call themselves tai-youkai, regardless of his upbringing.

The home that he was raised in had been purposefully removed from the rest of the world, like a haven that Fai had created just for Yerik, worlds away from the strife and tension that made up life outside of the walls of the grand estate.  Yerik hadn't realized that the vast majority of his homeland was made up of poor and poorer, hadn't realized just how much of a charmed existence he actually lived.  Sure, he had been taught how to fight, how to protect himself, how to do all those things that Fai also knew.  But Fai had also opted instead to bring in private tutors for the majority of Yerik's early schooling, and those tutors hadn't ever done anything to really shed light on the rest of the world, either.  Yerik figured that was how Fai had wanted it, and, while Yerik could and did appreciate it, he couldn't help but to feel like he owed his brother so much, particularly as he'd grown older, as the mantle of innocence that Fai had so carefully wrapped him in slowly fell away.

Maybe that was where the idea had come from.  The first couple years, his roommate was the son of a fairly well-known hunter in Australia, and he didn't know when, exactly, the thought had occurred to him, but the more he'd considered things, the more he'd thought things over, the more convinced he'd become.  As far as he knew, Fai didn't have or didn't speak of hunters that he employed.  If he did have some, they weren't close by, and Yerik had realized that on some of those nights when Fai had slipped out of the castle without any real fanfare that he was likely doing the job himself, and for some reason, the idea of his great and noble brother, hunting down the very dregs of youkai society bothered him.

He could do it, couldn't he?  That was what he wanted.  He could do it, was trained for it, even if that wasn't what Fai's intention ever was.  What he hadn't expected was for his brother to be so damn set against the very idea.

Oh, but he was . . .

"Absolutely not.  I forbid it."

Following Fai into the study, Yerik caught the door before his brother could slam it in his face and hurried in after him.  "It's a good plan, Fai," he insisted.  "You're tai-youkai.  You shouldn't be out there, hunting down rogue youkai!"

"And you should?" Fai challenged with a shake of his head.  "I said no."

"You can't forbid me from doing something," Yerik pointed out.  "I'm eighteen, and—"

"Eighteen isn't nearly old enough to think you want to be a—Do you know what hunters do?  They kill people.  Dead.  And you think you could do that?"

"I could," Yerik said.  "I know what it means.  I'm fully aware.  I can do this.  More importantly, I want to do it!"

Fai shot his brother a quelling look, narrowing his eyes.  "You want to do it?  You want to hunt people down?  To kill them?  To have their bloodtheir family's blood—on your hands?  No, Yerik!  I won't have it!"

To his credit, Yerik didn't even flinch as Fai's fist slammed down on the wide desktop to punctuate each word.  Instead, he held up his hands in a placating sort of gesture that ultimately didn't work.  "Fai, you know, I did fine when I went out with Jesse's father on that hunt for the kangaroo-youkai, and—"

"You did . . . what?" Fai bellowed, his usually temperate tone all but forgotten as he exploded in an uncharacteristic rage.

Yerik rolled his eyes.  "During semester break," he explained.  "Brad Gillis offered to let me tag along on a hunt to get some experience.  He said I did very well—"

"The hell you say!" Fai growled, reaching for the phone.

"What are you doing?"

Fai grunted.  "What does it look like?  I'm calling that damned Covington, and I'm going to demand that hunter's head on a platter!  Taking you out there when you have no experience, no nothing but a stupid, ridiculous idea in your head!  Of all the incompetent—"

Reaching across the desk, Yerik grasped his brother's hand to stop him from dialing the phone.  "Fai!  No!  As you can see, everything's fine, and I thought it'd be good to see if it was something I could do before I approached you about it.  I did well, and I know I can do the job, so—"

Leaning back, crossing his arms over his chest stubbornly, Fai drew himself up to his full height.  Yerik gritted his teeth against the abrasive quality of his brother's youki as it spiked around him.  "No, Yerik. For starters, you're studying business management.  You're going to take over the distilleries because I don't have the time to do it.  Hunting?  It's too dangerous, and I'll be damned if I'll sit back and allow you to go out there and risk your life for no good reason.  Things like this would change you—harden you.  I promised Father that I would watch over you, not send you out there, to put your life in danger.   End of discussion."

Yerik sighed as the memory faded, as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel.  He'd let the discussion drop after that—for now, anyway.  Sure, he could understand Fai's feelings, and yes, he had known that his brother wasn't going to be very supportive, at least, at first, about what Yerik wanted to do.  Even so, he'd be lying if he didn't admit that the longer he thought about it, the more he felt that it was something he was compelled to do, as if every part of his life had led him to this decision.  It wasn't one he'd made lightly.  It was something that he felt down to his very bones.

More than that, he wanted—needed—to do it.  Keeping Fai safe, paying him back for a lifetime of dedication and devotion in the only way he could?  Wasn't that the least he could do . . .?

 


 

 

Trudging along the side of the river that would ultimately lead to the orphanage, Saori frowned as she stared at the ground under her feet.

They'd spent the majority of the day, traveling along in silence, and even though she'd started to speak a thousand times, the words got stuck, and the quiet had lingered.

She didn't understand it.

There was no better way to say it.  That curious moment when she'd handed Fai a cup of tea, and . . .

And even just the memory of it was enough to set off the strangest sort of sensation deep in her belly—a curious kind of churning that wasn't at all unpleasant—and yet, it was entirely frightening, just the same.  The closest thing she could liken it to was that giddy kind of flutter that always accompanied an unexpected drop, kind of like when she'd gone to a few amusement parks over the years.  Whenever the roller coasters plunged—that exhilarating, but almost scary feeling . . . It was a lot like that, but entirely different, too . . .

'It's because there's something about him,' her youkai-voice remarked.  'He's fascinating, don't you think?'

Frowning at the rather off-the-cuff remark, she bit her lip, willed her cheeks not to pink as she carefully adjusted the straps of her knapsack and kept walking.  'Well, he's . . . He's nice enough—when he's not irritated about something,' she ventured slowly, almost philosophically.  'And he's very handsome—again, when he's not scowling . . .'

Her youkai heaved a longsuffering sigh.  'This isn't about Kakashi-kun, is it?  Because he doesn't actually know you exist, and even if he did, he's named after a manga character . . . which is entirely lame, if you ask me . . .'

She made a face.  'He has no control over what his parents named him, and even if he did, he's cool enough to pull it off . . .'

'And like I just said, he doesn't know you exist, remember?'

Letting out a deep breath, Saori shook her head.  'It's not like I'd have a chance with a guy like him, anyway, and even then, I haven't seen him since we finished school.  Anyway, what does this have to do with that?'

Her youkai snorted indelicately. 'Well, ask yourself this: in the length of time since you first laid eyes on that boy, have you ever felt like that when you've thought about him?'

'Well . . . no . . .'

'So . . . Doesn't that mean something to you?'

'How would I know?  I don't even know what it was I felt . . .'

"All right," Fai said loudly, setting down his knapsack with a heavy thump.  "This looks like as good a place as any to make camp."

For some reason, she had trouble, making herself turn around to look at him.  She wasn't entirely sure why, but she did understand that it had everything to do with that moment earlier—the brush of fingers, the electricity that seemed to pass between them . . .

"If you'll gather wood for a fire, I'll set up a shelter, and then you can show me how to fish with my hands," he went on.

She thought she nodded, maybe.  She wasn't entirely certain.  But she shrugged off her knapsack and set it aside before wandering away to gather wood.  Glancing back over her shoulder, she spotted him easily enough as he hunted around for branches that would suit his task.  Broad shoulders that were concealed but not hidden under the smudged and rumpled light blue shirt that was pristine, crisply pressed, just a few days ago on that fateful morning.  The sunshine that filtered through the tangle of leaves and branches so high overhead caught on the tips of his chestnut hair, brightening his locks, adding a certain sheen to him, almost an unearthly glow.  He was scowling again, but this time, it was one of concentration, and that was all right, she figured.  'He . . . He really is an incredibly handsome man,' she thought to herself.  For some reason, that conclusion set off another round of the curious dropping in her stomach—not quite as severe as it had been that morning—but enough that she flinched and shifted her stance, wrapping an arm over her belly as she leaned her head to the side and continued to stare at the man in question.

And she continued to watch him as he erected the shelter, as he lashed the branches he found together, stretched the tarp carefully over the skeleton and staked it down with a few well-placed blows with a heavy rock.  Somewhere in the back of her mind, it occurred to her that she really should get moving on her own task, but something about the way he moved demanded her attention, and the notion of gathering firewood seemed so vague, so far away . . . There was a poetic sort of feel in his every movement, a commanding sort of grace that she'd only actually seen in the men of her family before now.

There was simply something about him that spoke to her in quiet whispers, in inane language that she really didn't understand, but somehow, that was all right, too, wasn't it?  She had a feeling that she would one day, and even though the thought of spending more time with him wasn't a sure thing, somehow, deep down, she had a feeling that maybe . . .

Pausing in his tasks long enough to raise his hands above his head, he slowly stretched, first to one side, then to the other, before slowly working his shoulders, eyes closing as he let his head fall back, as he rolled it from side to side . . .

A distinctive trill raced up her spine, an entirely pleasant sort of anticipation surging through her as she stared, speechless, enthralled . . .

'If he catches you, staring at him, he might well have a fit.'

She nodded slowly since there was a very good chance that her youkai-voice was entirely correct.  With a very long sigh, she shook her head, forced herself to look away, to start gathering the firewood for the night.

No, she really didn't know just why she felt the way she did.  She had no idea where the feelings had come from, and she didn't know what, exactly, to do about them, either.  There was only one thing that really did occur to her, and that thought was enough to bring the barest hint of a smile to her lips.

Fai Demyanov . . .

He was absolutely fascinating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 7~~
~Middle Ground~

 

~o~

 

 

Crossing his arms over his chest as he watched Saori wade out into the river, Fai scowled thoughtfully.  Sure, he knew that she'd caught fish last night with no real problem at all.  Even so, a part of him still believed that she had to have some fishing line hidden somewhere.  It just seemed so outrageous, the idea of just standing there and being able to catch fish with one's bare hands . . . And if it were possible, he really had to wonder about this 'oji-chan' of hers.  Who would have even thought of such a thing, in the first place?

'You know, about that . . . Have you noticed just how at home she seems to be out here?  She's not panicking or worried that we might be lost.  It's like she knows . . . Just how much time has she spent outdoors?'

That was a good question, he figured.  It was kind of interesting, considering he'd never actually met a woman who was so comfortable away from the conveniences of home.  Still . . .

"Did you spend a lot of time, camping and stuff when you were younger?" he asked a little grudgingly.

She stopped and turned to look back at him, the light bouncing off the water, reflecting in her eyes, adding a soft sort of glow as she pondered his question.  "Oh . . . I guess so," she admitted.  "Oji-chan owns a forest, and I loved being out there . . . It was peaceful, you know?  And there was no one else out there to judge me or that made me feel like I had to measure up to them . . ." Suddenly, she laughed, but she seemed almost embarrassed by it as she lifted a hand to hover over her lips.  "I really wasn't very good at things like makeup or flirting with boys . . . I mean, I tried, but I always felt so . . . so dumb in comparison.  I'm not a tomboy, per se, but . . . But I'd like to think I can hold my own out here . . ."

'Better than you can, Fai.'

'. . . Shut up.'

"Anyway," she went on, turning back, throwing her arms out to the sides as she waded a little deeper into the water, "oji-chan thought it was important for all of us to learn basic survival skills along with the rest of our training.  I did spend a lot of time during breaks in school, though, camping out with them, without them . . . It's . . . peaceful . . ."

Lifting his gaze, taking in the untouched beauty of the land, of the water, Fai nodded slowly to himself.  Yes, he supposed he could understand what she was saying, even if he hadn't really stopped to consider it for himself before.  "And that's why you're so good at hand fishing?"

"I guess so . . ."

And that made perfect sense, too.

"So, you find a good spot—near rocks and stuff are usually good because the current slows down a bit.  Then you just stand still—perfectly still.  Don't move at all.  Keep your hands in the water because if you have them out of the water and try to grab the fish that come up, they'll get away every time.  Then you just wait.  Just . . . like . . . this!" she said, standing up straight with a rather fat Siberian salmon—not a huge one, by any stretch of the imagination, but a very respectable catch.  It wasn't fully grown, looked like it might be around ten pounds, but most certainly nothing to scoff at, either.  She took a sharpened stick and jammed it through the fish, embedding it in the water to hold until they were done fishing.

Not to be outdone by the young Japanese woman, Fai unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it aside as he kicked off his shoes, then caught the back of his socks between his big toe and the others to tug them off of his feet, and rolled up his pants before striding into the very cold water to about knee-deep and hunkering down like she'd done, hands resting in the water.

She giggled when his first attempt to snag a fish failed.  He managed to grab it, but it squirmed right out of his hands.

So, there was a little more to it than she'd said, obviously, and he frowned as he concentrated, willing himself to calm, to remain perfectly still.  A fish swam in close.  It wasn't quite as big as the one that she'd caught, but it was decent sized, and he waited, thinking that maybe he'd simply moved too fast on the last one.  This one started to nibble at his toes, and he gritted his teeth to keep from wiggling the appendages.  Then he grabbed.

He managed to catch this one, but he grasped it too tightly, and he grimaced when the body of the poor thing crunched in his hands.

"Not bad," she said, grabbing her stake and wading over to get a look at his fish.  "Oh . . . That's . . . unfortunate," she said, peering over his arm at the fish still held in his hands.  He heaved a sigh and chucked it out toward the middle of the river where the other marine life could make use of the poor creature.  "I guess it's something that you learn by trial and error—how to grasp them without . . . without . . ."

"—Without mangling them.  Right," he grumbled, unable to staunch the blush that surfaced in his cheeks.  "I'll get one."

He could feel the fact that she wanted to say something, but she didn't, and he ignored it as he leaned over again, letting his hands dangle in the water to wait.

"When oji-chan taught me to fish, I was a child," she finally said.  "I remember one night, we were camping, and he told me that I'd have to catch my own dinner, and it took me awhile.  I kept losing them or they'd dart away just before I could get them.  I . . . I think I was ready to cry, I was so frustrated."  Suddenly, she laughed, but again, it seemed almost embarrassed, as though she hated to admit whatever was coming next, and she sighed.  "I was even . . . even mad at him because he could have easily caught my fish for me, but . . . Oji-chan told me to calm down; that they could feel my emotions.  And then, I caught my first fish . . ."

He didn't respond to that.  Instead, he tried to clear his mind, to will away the irritation that he hadn't been able to accomplish what should have been easy enough.  Another fish swam closer.  He couldn't be sure, but he thought that it might well be bigger than the one that she'd caught.  It didn't matter, really.  Even so, he grabbed the fish, grasped it in his hands, brought it up out of the water as it flailed and fought against him.  With a bark of incredulous laughter, he tightened his grip just enough to keep the creature from slithering out of his hands.

"Oh, wow!  That's a nice one!" she exclaimed quietly.  "Much better than the tiny ones I caught last night!"

Bolstered by the very real appreciation evident in her expression, he smiled, just a little.  "There was nothing wrong with those last night."

She laughed.  "No, there wasn't . . . but these?  It's good because I'm hungrier tonight!"

"I . . . I'll cook dinner," he offered, a little grudgingly, almost a little shyly.

She seemed surprised by his offer, but she nodded.  "You cook?"

"Some," he replied, reaching for her stake.  "It's a little rough out here, but I think I can do something . . ."

Her smile widened as she waded back to the shore with him.  "Well, if you're going to cook them, then I'll clean them," she said.

He let her take the fish.  The one on the stake was fine, but the other was still rather angry at having been caught, and she laughed as she smashed it against her chest to keep it from wiggling loose.

Blinking as he watched her, as she sank down in a grassy patch away from the edge of the water, he frowned.  Hair mussed, clothing smudged and faded, she pushed her sleeves up her arms to her elbows before grasping the still-wiggling fish and started to clean it.  There was no hesitation, no squeamish girliness: just an efficacy in movement as she swiftly and deftly cleaned the fish.

What was it about her? he wondered.  He didn't know that much about her, aside from what she'd told him, and yet, something about her made him feel like he knew her so much better than that, almost like he'd known her . . . forever . . . which was entirely stupid.  Someone like him . . . Well, he tended to be too pragmatic to think in those kinds of fanciful terms.

Even so . . .

Snatching up his shirt with a grimace—it stank horribly—he opted instead to wade back into the water, to try scrubbing out the garment with a handful of sandy dirt and small pebbles that were plentiful in the riverbed.  His pants could use a good washing, as well, but that wasn't actually something that was feasible, given that he had no other clothing to change into.

'Give it up, Fai.  You think she's as fascinating as I do.'

Grunting unintelligibly at his youkai-voice's words, Fai scrubbed a little harder at his shirt.

'Her hair . . . It's pretty amazing, don't you think?  I mean, she's just . . . She's different from the women you've met.  She's not fussy or prissy or so set on how she looks . . . Do you remember when Gar Metwin brought his daughters for you to meet?  Could you imagine any of those girls out here?  Can you imagine if they were forced to trek through the forest?  To camp out?  Or to fish?  You know, if that were the case, we'd be starving by now . . .'

Making a face since he did, indeed, remember that, he scowled.  'You don't really have to remind me of that,' he grumbled since the incident was still vivid enough in his mind.  Considering the three daughters were pretty well falling all over themselves in their efforts to curry his favor, leaving him feeling uncomfortable in the extreme, yes, he remembered it a little too well, and the idea of any of those girls, out here?  He grimaced.

It seemed to him that people were of one of two mindsets early on: either they wanted to challenge him to remove him from his office or they were overly excited by the idea that he was young and very eligible.

At least things had calmed down on both of those fronts more recently.  When he'd first stepped into the role of tai-youkai, both things had been common enough occurrences, to the point that, back then, he rather dreaded appointments and correspondence in general.  It wasn't that bad these days.  Most of the time, he was occupied in the things that were supposed to come part and parcel with his title, and those things, he was adept in dealing with.  It was a relief.  He hadn't been challenged in well over a year, and the women?  Well, he tried to discourage that as often as possible, but there were those who tried, anyway.  The fathers, however, seemed to be all right with the idea that there was just nothing at all there—no spark, no fascination—and they let it drop after the initial meetings, thankfully.

'Fai . . .'

'What?'

'I think . . . I think I feel that spark . . .'

Peering up without raising his head, Fai frowned as he watched the woman on the riverbank as she carefully cleaned the fish.  Hair catching the early evening sunlight that caught in the long locks, shining gently, lending her a bluish hint, she quickly tipped her head to the side, using her shoulder to push her hair back out of her face.  His frown deepened.  It wasn't black, that hair—almost, but not quite.  No, it was more of a dark, deep, glossy gray, kissed with those bluish highlights, incredibly long, ridiculously soft looking, perfectly paired with those silvery eyes, too.  Along with paleness of her skin, it gave her a dramatic kind of presence, and when she smiled, those same eyes of hers seemed to light up, sparkling like diamonds—like precious gems . . .

As if she sensed his blatant perusal, she glanced up at him, breaking into that smile that illuminated her eyes, that carved the most endearing dimples in both of her cheeks, as her skin took on a hint of pink, as her dusty rose lips parted.

Dropping his gaze almost instantly, his brows drawing together in a consternated frown as a certain warmth infiltrated his own cheeks, he concentrated instead on rinsing out his shirt.  Something about her completely flustered him, as much as he was loathe to admit it.  It was a rather unsettling sensation for someone who was used to being in charge, who tended to thrive upon it.

'I'd say it's a little novel, don't you think?  Being completely flummoxed by that slip of a girl?'

'No, I don't,' he countered dryly, 'and I'm not . . .'

'Uh huh . . .'

'I'm not.'

'Yep, keep telling yourself that, Fai, but you know, it's all right to be interested in a woman.  It's kind of surprising that you weren't already at least mildly interested in someone . . .'

'I've been . . . interested . . .'

His youkai-voice snorted.  'You've been  horny; that's what you've been, and once you got that out of your system, the interest waned just as quickly.'

He grunted, but he didn't argue it.  After all, what was the point when his youkai-voice was dead-on the mark.  Not often, but a few times, he'd had moments when he'd given in to lust, but it was always a fleeting emotion, gone about as soon as it had been quelled.  There was never any interest in any kind of long-term attachments, and that was fine with him, too . . . but . . .

That was always simply about the carnal act—just sex and nothing more.  The first time had been fairly horrifying.  He'd gone a weekend holiday with his roommate in boarding school when he was sixteen.  Back then, he was attending a very prestigious school in Italy, and he'd met a very cute girl from the nearby girls' academy.  He hadn't realized back then that she knew very well just who he was, and after they'd done the deed, she'd proceeded to tell all of her friends that she would be his mate, which was simply not the case.  The debacle that had unfolded after that was more than enough to quell his enthusiasm until he'd moved on to the University of Oxford in England.  While there, he had met and become friendly with a very sweet finch-youkai named Elizabeth, and they had slept together whenever the mood hit, but it wasn't like they were anything other than friends with certain benefits, and they were both quite all right with that.  They were still friendly now, though it had devolved more to texts and the occasional phone call, usually around a holiday or birthday . . .

And there were a couple others, but nothing at all that was noteworthy or anything special, and, he was somewhat ashamed to admit, there were even a few women that he didn't even know their names, but then, they probably didn't know his, either, and he supposed that it was all right with him, too . . .

Fai snorted.  Loudly.  'Shut up.'

His youkai laughed.  Loudly.  'Fine . . .'

 


 

 

"What are you doing?"

Glancing up from the makeshift bag she'd fashioned out of an old, ratty sweatshirt, Saori bit her lip as she let her gaze fall back down again, her thin shoulders rising and falling in a soundless sigh.  "I . . . I was considering taking a bath, but . . . But I really can't shove the children's precious things into this shirt . . ." she remarked, scowling down at her clothes.

Fai nodded slowly.  Given that the sweatshirt she was wearing was pretty dirty and a bit on the smelly side, to boot, he kind of figured that she was more concerned with soiling the items than she was in cleaning herself up.  "So, wash the one you're wearing," he remarked casually, turning his attention back to his task of prepping the fish filets for cooking.

"I only have this other sweatshirt," she pointed out rather primly.

"You came all the way to my home, and you only brought along a single change of clothing?"

He had a feeling that she was glowering at him, but he didn't turn to verify it.  "Of course, I brought other clothes," she scoffed.  "I didn't have room to pack more in this, not when I had to bring the children's things back, too.  Even if I managed to make it back to where I left the van, do you honestly think it'll still be there?  Because I don't."

He frowned.  She had a point.  Considering the area where the van had broken down was fairly poor, there was every chance that she was entirely right.  If anyone happened across it and realized that it was abandoned, they'd just tear it down and load it up for scrap—or they'd remove any decent part of it and sell it off, bit by bit, and anything left inside it?  Well, that would be fair game, too, as far as they were concerned.  "All right," he relented.  "But you could just wash their things when you got back to the orphanage—and you do kind of stink—and when I say, 'kind of', I'm being kind because I actually mean that you smell worse than I did before I washed my shirt."

She uttered a terse little 'hrumph'.  "I cannot wash a drawing pad," she pointed out haughtily, opting to ignore his commentary on the way she smelled.

He sighed.  "So, take your bath, wash your foul sweatshirt, wear the clean one until the other one dries overnight, and then you can pack everything back into the un-smelly one in the morning."

She blinked, sitting up a little straighter as she considered his suggestion.  "Oh, that's not a bad idea," she allowed, sounding almost bemused.  "It's nice to know that you're more than just a pretty face, Fai-sama."

For some reason, her candid and teasing statement still made him blush.  Luckily, though, he was faced away from her, so she didn't see it, and he snorted.  "The tai-youkai does not like to be teased," he grumbled.

She laughed softly.  He heard her rummaging around, but didn't turn to see what she was doing, either, but a few minutes later, she stood up.  "I'm going to go see about getting cleaned up," she told him.  "Can you keep an eye on the children's things?  I just don't want anything to happen to them . . ."

"And what's going to happen to them out here?"

She paused.  "A bear could come along and decide that the teddy bear's his kin," she offered.

He grunted.

"I'll be back as soon as I clean up," she said.

He grunted again, listening as she slipped away from the campsite, her feet making very little noise in the process.

Shaking his head as he stood up and moved in closer to the fire, he held his hand over the flattish rock he'd arranged in the center of the blazing flames.  Still not quite enough heat coming off of it to serve the purpose yet, and he straightened up, draping his hands on his hips as he slowly turned to survey the campsite.

It wasn't bad, he figured.  The shelter looked sturdy enough for the chill of the oncoming evening, and he'd made a makeshift stick rack that he'd stretched his shirt over to help it dry a little faster.  She'd already washed out and refilled the plastic water bottles that they'd emptied during the course of the day, and he sighed.  The water tasted fine, sure, but he made a mental note to get checked out by a doctor when he got back home because the last thing he wanted or needed was some weird stomach infection from drinking untreated water, in the first place.

Figuring that he might as well try to clean out the shelter a little since he wasn't fond of sleeping on decaying leaves, Fai started to move off, only to stop when his gaze caught on the ratty old teddy bear with one missing eye.  Hunkering down, he frowned as he slowly reached out, lifted the much-loved toy, turning it over in his hands.  What was it that she'd said . . .?

"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!"

The absolute conviction in her gaze at that moment had lent an added brilliance, a lustrous sheen to her already stunning eyes . . .

He could feel a few places along the seams where someone had so carefully stitched the bear back together at one time or another, and he sighed, grimaced.

Setting the bear aside, he reached for the sketchbook.  The thick cover was scratched and worn, nothing more than pressed cardboard—a very cheap book.  The corners were thickened, starting to separate, and the pictures inside were barely discernable for the most part.  Even so, the awkward crayon lines and scribbles held their own quaint charm, and he sighed, grimacing at one picture in particular: a small stick figure with crazy scribbles of red hair, a stick figure smile, between two taller stick figures: one wearing a misshapen triangle of a bright yellow dress, one a plain but tall stick man.  The three were smiling their red-crayon smiles, standing beside a blocky house with angry red flames, putrid gray smoke, shooting out of the windows . . .

An involuntary shiver ran up his spine, and Fai very quickly closed the book and set it aside once more.

A worn and tattered baseball mitt that looked like it had seen much better days . . . a yellow haired doll with a grimy face—the smudges looked pretty well set in . . . Her eyes should have closed when she was held horizontally, but only one did . . . A die cast car that used to be bright red but was so chipped and faded that it seemed almost a dark pink . . . It was missing a wheel, and the two back wheels were wired on . . . A thick storybook compilation of Grimm's fairy tales . . . A half-deflated American football . . .

And all of those things each belonged to a child—prized possessions, Saori had said.  They'd let her take their precious things, all in the hopes that she'd be able to change his mind.

He sighed.  That was the hell of it, wasn't it?

He'd never wanted to take away the funding for the orphanage.  That was the very last thing he'd ever wanted to do, but . . .

'Being tai-youkai isn't fun, Faine.  It never was meant to be.  You are the one who will have to make the tough decisions—decisions that might well mean that you're the one that people hate, that they blame, right or wrong.  It's a very harsh thing to have to do, but do it, you will because you must . . .'

Those were some of the words that Alexei had left him, all written in his neat hand in the pages of a thin journal that he'd found on his father's desk the first time he'd walked into the study after Alexei's disappearance.  That's what his father had been doing behind the closed doors for those thirty-five days after Faina's death.  He'd holed himself up in there, writing down all the things that he'd always meant to tell Fai, but hadn't gotten around to yet . . .

Now, that journal was locked in the fireproof safe, along with the rest of the valuable paperwork and things that made up the Demyanov empire.  One day, he'd let Yerik read it, too, but the opportunity hadn't presented itself yet. Besides, Yerik was still only eighteen.  He had some time before Yerik needed to read the words the journal contained . . .

As for the things, arranged so carefully on the fallen log?

Fai sighed.  It wasn't the first time that he had to wonder just how many more things he'd have to barter away, just to ensure the welfare of the majority . . .

 


 

 

Setting the wooden plank aside with a satisfied sigh, Saori rubbed her tummy as she uttered a small, almost rueful, laugh.  "I can't remember the last time I ate that much," she remarked.  "That was so good . . . How did you learn to cook like that?"

Offering a little shrug, Fai tossed his small plank into the fire and leaned back on his elbows.  Since they didn't have anything resembling a skillet, he'd made do by building the fire around a very large, flat rock that he'd then used to cook the fish.  "I was afraid it wouldn't work," he admitted.  "I've never tried cooking on a rock before."

She giggled, but the giggle shifted into a groan since she had eaten a lot more than she normally did.  "I've never thought to try cooking on one, either, but that was really, really good.  You know, if this whole tai-youkai gig falls through, I think you'd have a future in restaurant kitchens . . ."

"It was just a little salt and pepper," he maintained dryly, brushing off her lavish praise as though it were nothing at all.

She shook her head.  "You added something else.  I saw you," she said.

He chuckled.  "I found a little bit of basil," he relented.

She nodded and tried not to look at him since he was still very shirtless.  She'd seen men shirtless many times, but most of them were related to her, and the overall effect, she'd found, was vastly different, especially given that Fai was a very, very good-looking man . . . "I knew it!  But if you do it like that every night, I'll leave all the cooking to you."

"What?  Without a shirt, you mean?"

She blinked, couldn't help the blush that rushed into her cheeks.  Teasing, sure, but . . . Had he noticed that she had been blatantly staring?  'Kami, I hope not . . .'

'Well, if you're going to stare, then that's a really nice thing to stare at, don't you think?'

She stifled a groan.  'You're not helping at all . . .'

'Sure, I am!  Tell him you think he's damn fine looking, Saori.  He'll be flattered . . . I mean, wouldn't you be flattered if he said you looked good with your shirt off—Oh-h-h-h-h . . . Maybe you should take yours off, too!  I mean, fair's fair, right?  Besides, I happen to think we have a damn fine set of jugs, don't you?'

'They're not big enough to be 'damn fine',' she shot back.  Then she smashed her hands against her cheeks for a long moment, squeezing her eyes closed, willing herself not to blush more.  'You so did not just say that!' she half-groaned, half-squeaked.  'Oh, I didn't just say that . . .'

'Naked in the forest . . . What could possibly go wrong?'

She sighed, resolved not to say anything else on the subject.

"Are you all right?"

Blinking away the last of her reverie, Saori offered a silent word of thanks for the pervasive darkness that hid her embarrassment—she hoped.  "I just . . . I just meant that you cook so well, you should do it all the time, is all," she managed, proud of how normal she sounded, given the situation.

He sighed.  "I wish . . ."

"Oh?"

"Cooking is my hobby," he admitted.  "Well, kind of.  I don't have a lot of time to do it, though.  Too many other things . . ."

She considered that as her amusement waned.  Being who he was, what he was . . . No, it probably didn't leave a lot of time for him to pursue any other interests.  Something about that bothered her.  After all, she'd heard from time to time, as her mother and her aunt had talked over tea, just how often had her aunt complained about the same sort of thing with Toga?  That he was so busy so often that he, at times, missed things or had to cancel plans?  "You should never give up something that makes you happy," she finally said.  "Responsibilities are important, but if that's all you have, then what do you have to make you smile?"

"Smiling isn't in a tai-youkai's job description," he told her, but it wasn't mean or even condescending.  No, there was a matter-of-factness in his voice that bothered her, like he was resigned to it when maybe he shouldn't have been . . .

"And what makes you smile, Fai-sama?" she asked quietly.

Turning his head to look at her, he had such a serious expression on his face that it hurt her to see it on some level, but she refused to look away.  A second later, that unsettling sensation was back, like hurling down a ski slope at a hundred miles per hour, like the floor being dropped out from under her, like riding the elevator in the Inutaisho Industries complex . . . She had to smash her hand over her stomach to control the rioting, and she wondered vaguely if he could hear the blood, thundering through her veins . . .?

It was hard to read his expression in the flickering light of the fire with the darkened sky above, with the deep black of the moonless heavens.  Hazel eyes so veiled, he almost seemed like he was looking to her for an answer, but she didn't understand the question, either . . . "I . . . I don't think anything does," he confessed, sounding as confused as she felt.  "That . . . That sounds bad . . ."

"Nothing?" she prompted.

Letting out a deep breath, he shrugged, as though it were a foregone conclusion.  "It's not like tai-youkai are afforded the luxury of days off," he told her.  "It's not like I have the luxury of waking up and thinking that I can put it all aside for the day or anything like that."

"You're not being tai-youkai today," she reminded him.

He grunted.  "That's different.  You kidnapped me.  Meanwhile, Asia's probably going to hell in a handbasket.  That's the expression, isn't it?"

"I appropriated you, Fai-sama . . . Haven't we been through this already?"

"It doesn't change facts, Saori," he told her.

"Yes, well, what you said: that's an American-ism," she pointed out.  "I think, anyway . . ." She frowned.  "What about your brother?  Don't you get along with him?"

Pushing himself up, straightening his arms as they stuck out behind him, braced on the earth, Fai sighed.  "We're . . . not seeing eye to eye at the moment," he admitted.

She nodded slowly, sitting up, wrapping her arms around her ankles as she rested her chin on her raised knees.  "Well, I don't always get along with nii-chan," she said.  "Isn't that normal for siblings?"

"It's not like that," Fai replied.  "The last time Yerik came home, he said he wanted to be a hunter.  A hunter," he repeated, as though it would make a difference to her.  "Damn stupid, stubborn . . ." He sighed.  "Sometimes I think he comes up with these thoughts just to see what I'll say . . ."

"Is that really what you think?  I mean, being a hunter . . . It's more like a calling than something that you just choose out of the blue."

"And you know something of it?"

She shrugged.  "I know my fair share of hunters," she said.  "None of them chose to do what they do lightly."

"You may not take Yerik's side in this," he stated flatly.  "You haven't met him, don't know a thing about him, so your opinion doesn't count."

"Are you just saying this because you don't believe he can do it or because he really doesn't have the skills for the job?" she challenged mildly, almost philosophically.

"Both," he snapped, temper igniting since the subject was very obviously a sore spot.  Then he heaved a sigh, shook his head.  "Neither . . . I . . . I don't know."

"You do know," she challenged quietly, almost placatingly—like she was trying to coax an answer out of him.  Maybe she was . . . Strangely, though, her persistence didn't actually bother him like it usually would have if someone else had dared to speak to him in such a way, but he didn't stop to dwell upon that, either . . .

"He's been trained," Fai admitted.  "He's been thoroughly trained by the same master who trained me.  He's quick on his feet, he's skilled at disarming opponents . . . He's able to hold his own, even against me.  He's . . . He's very, very good.  It's not that I think he can't do it.  I know very well, just what he's capable of.  It's just . . ."

She bit her lip for a moment, considered what he'd said.  "Then what bothers you about the idea?" she finally asked.

Letting out a deep breath, not exactly a sigh, he shrugged.  "He's my brother," he slowly said.  "It's more than that.  I raised him from two years old.  I . . . I promised my father that I would make sure that he was safe.  Hunts . . . They're not pretty, and you end up, taking a life, and whether it's deserved or not, the bottom line is the same.  Yerik . . . I know he doesn't make rash decisions.  I've told him often over the years that it's better to think things through than to act on a gut feeling, but this time . . ."

"You don't believe that he's really thought it through?"

He made a face, hunching forward, drawing up his knees, wrapping his hands around them.  "No, I don't believe that, at all. He has, I'm sure.  Of course, he has.  Even so . . ." he admitted, lifting a hand, holding it up as though he were trying to emphasize his point for a long moment before letting it fall back once more.  "I just . . . The first time I was challenged, I was twenty—two years older than Yerik is now.  It was . . . days after I became tai-youkai, and I . . . I won, obviously, but . . . He was an old weasel-youkai.  I don't know how old, just . . . He was no real threat to me, and I didn't want to fight him.  I had to, of course.  The fight lasted maybe five minutes.  It felt like forever, just because . . . but . . . the emotions that came with it as I stood over the place where I cut him down?  Yerik . . ." Slowly, he shook his head, scowl darkening as he glowered at the fire.  "I don't want him to know that—to understand that . . ."

Saori didn't stop, didn't think, didn't do anything, but react as she scooted over, as she leaned her temple against his bicep.  Lifting a hand, gently rubbing his forearm, she sighed softly, wanting nothing more than to let Fai know that he wasn't alone.  For the briefest of seconds, he stiffened, and she felt his breath, stirring her hair.  Then he seemed to sigh though there was no sound, and a moment later, she felt the weight of his cheek against her head.

They sat that way for a long, long time, staring at the fire as the smoke rose in lazy, slow tendrils into the night sky . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 8~~
~Misting Dawn~

 

~o~

 

 

"He's so handsome!  Who is he?"

"I don't know . . . Isn't he an ermine-youkai?"

Sitting up a little straighter in her small desk in the far corner of the seventh grade classroom near the windows, Saori glanced up from the shoujo manga she was reading, only to blink and stare at the tall and lanky ermine-youkai who strode into the room and stood near Tomoko-sensei's desk in an almost casual kind of way.  All the girls in the room were whispering behind raised hands, behind raised books, the sound not unlike the twittering of small birds in the spring. The boys in the room seemed to fall silent as they took in the sight of the newcomer, and through her preoccupation, she could sense the hint of danger, as though the boys were sizing him up.  If the youth at the front of the room heard it, he made no indication as he casually flicked a bit of lint off the sleeve of the black training jacket he wore before reshouldering the black leather book bag slung almost carelessly over his shoulder.  The Tokyo Academy didn't adhere to dress codes, even though most of the girls wore cute little skirts and blouses while the boys, for the most part, usually wore dress pants and white shirts.

Running his nimble fingers through his lustrous brown hair, he shook his head slightly, unruly bangs falling into his eyes in a careless kind of way, sky blue eyes sweeping over the room without any sense that he might well be an outsider.  For a split second, Saori felt the boy's gaze light on her and linger, just for a moment, before slowly, casually, moving on again.

'I wonder who he is . . .?' she thought idly, letting the manga drop from her slack fingers as she made no bones about staring at the new kid.

'No idea, but it looks like Kentai-kun and Hoshisachi-kun might well be getting ideas . . .'

Reluctantly dragging her eyes off the boy, she shifted her gaze to the side and stifled a sigh.  Indeed, the two renowned troublemakers were staring at the new boy in a way that left very little doubt in her mind that they'd end up in oji-chan's office sooner or later over whatever it was they were planning . . .

Tomoko-sensei breezed into the room, sparing an easygoing smile at the gathering of students before heading for his desk.  He spoke with the new boy in hushed tones for a moment before shifting his gaze back over his class once more.  "Okay, okay," he called, waving a hand to gain their attention—entirely unnecessary since everyone was already staring at them both.  "Class, this is a new student.  His name is Yamato Kakashi—" a chorus of giggles broke over the room, "—Yes, Kakashi, just like in Naruto . . . Anyway, his father was transferred here for his work with the Dongoro Foundation.  Make him feel welcome, please—thank yo-o-ou."

That said, Tomoko-sensei gestured toward the back of the room—the only empty desk that just happened to be beside Saori . . .

"Hello," Yamato-kun murmured to her, catching her eye as he slipped into the empty chair.  "Yoroshiku . . ."

Saori gasped quietly, her head snapping forward as a bright flush burst under her skin.

It was probably the worst first introduction, ever, she suspected . . .

Awaking with a sigh, Saori didn't open her eyes as she savored the warmth of the body beside hers.  Wrapped around her might be a better way to put it, given that, at some point during the night, Fai had turned toward her, and whether she had melted against him or if he had pulled her over didn't really matter, not when the warmth of his body was so welcome in contrast to the brisk and almost cold, thin morning air.  Loathe to move enough to wake him, she did shrink back against him just a little closer.  After all, his shirt was still damp last night, and he hadn't put it back on before they'd gone to bed.  She might well have thought that the missing layer of clothing should have left them both, feeling just a little colder, but that wasn't the case at all.  No, if anything, the lack of his shirt seemed to intensify the heat, radiating off of him . . .

It occurred to her that she could go ahead and get up, could rebuild the fire to make some tea, maybe to find something for breakfast.  Too bad all of those things meant losing the warmth that beckoned her, that made her want to snuggle in, to go back to sleep . . .

'Nah, this is much, much nicer than dreaming about that first time you met Kakashi-kun,' her youkai-voice pointed out.

That was true enough, given that the first greeting was the only time, ever, that he'd spoken to her, never mind that they had been in the same class from then till graduation years later.

'Concentrate, Saori.  Who cares about him, anyway?  I mean, why are we even wasting our time and energy, thinking about him—dreaming about him—when Fai-sama's right here—and he's warm . . . and he's comfortable . . .'

Saori was inclined to agree.  Fai really was entirely too cozy to resist.  Letting her eyes slip closed, she let out a contented sigh, snuggling just a little closer to him, savoring the feeling of his arm, under her cheek.

She was almost asleep again when he rolled the lower half of his body toward her, pulling her against him a bit tighter, which would have been just fine, but it brought certain parts of him into contact with her—most especially, with her rear—a very, very hard something, pressed against her—and her eyes flashed open as a sharp gasp whooshed out of her before she could stop it.

'What is . . .?'  Eyes widening even more as late understanding dawned on her, she bit her lip, held her breath as her face exploded in embarrassed color.  'Oh, kami!  Kami, kami, kami, kami, kami!'

Her youkai laughed.  'Oh, now that's impressive . . .'

She started to retort, but her reply was cut off short as another squeak squeezed out of her when the warmth, the balm, of his lips sought out the tender flesh of the nape of her neck . . .

Her breath caught somewhere between her nose and lungs as her eyes slipped closed, as a sudden and intense surge of fire shot through her, an almost electric kind of connection.  Unprepared for the insane shock of it all, her body melted against him, even as her brain struggled to understand just what was happening.

She couldn't.

The scrape of his fangs, the haze of his breath, the scorch of his mouth against her skin obliterated thought, set off tremors that rattled through her in such a rapid succession that she had no idea, just where one ended and another one began.  The hand that had been rather casually tossed over her waist slipped up under the hem of her sweatshirt, trailing over her belly, and she gasped loudly when his palm closed over her breast, the heat of his hand permeating the flimsy cotton of her bra as her body jerked of its own accord . . .

"W . . .What . . .?" he mumbled, hand stilling almost instantly when he tugged on the arm she was using as a pillow to prop himself up on his elbow.  "Wh . . .?"

She froze, his voice enough to crash down on her like a bucket of icy water.  It occurred to her somewhere in the depths of her addled brain that he sounded just as confused as she was, but the embarrassment that followed was more than enough to galvanize her into action.

Tossing back the blanket, she scrambled away from him and onto her hands and knees, wincing inwardly when his claws momentarily tangled in her sweatshirt.  He yanked it free fast as she scooted toward the open side of the shelter, smashing her mouth closed as she tried to stifle a mortified whimper.

Stumbling to her feet, she staggered away from the shelter, veering away from the campsite as she blindly followed the sound of water . . .

 


 

 

'So, just how long are we going to follow along behind her in absolute silence?'

Fai didn't bother to respond to that as he scowled at the woman, carefully, but efficiently, picking her way through the underbrush.  She reshouldered her bags and kept moving, and he stifled a sigh.

Every time he'd tried to talk to her, she'd hurriedly changed the subject, twittering on as rapidly as she could about everything from the weather to the idea that they'd be reaching the orphanage soon enough.  It was almost as though she was afraid of what he would say to her, which seemed entirely ridiculous, given that he was the one who sincerely needed to apologize to her for his untoward reaction this morning.

And, to be honest, he really wasn't sure why he'd reacted the way he had.  Well, that wasn't entirely true.  He did know, didn't he?  'She was just . . . just a warm body, and I . . . I wasn't thinking.  That's all . . .'

His youkai-voice snorted indelicately.  'If you believe that, then you're really stupid, tai-youkai.'

'What other reason could there possibly be?  I . . . I barely know her!  It's not like I'd ever just do something like that randomly, out of the blue . . .'

'My point, exactly, but if you want to keep playing the fool, then by all means—however, when you say that to her and make her cry?  Make sure you let her know that I warned you that you're a damn idiot.'

'Make her cry?  How the hell would that make her cry?  All I said was—'

'I heard what you said, Fai.  You said that she was—and I quote—just a warm body, that's all.  So, how would you react if someone said that to you after nearly mauling you in your sleep?  Even if you barely know her—which is kind of untrue—you have to realize that saying something like that to anyone would be a serious blow to the ego, don't you think?  Don't be dumb.'

He snorted inwardly.  'It's not like I'd say it to her like that,' he huffed, unconsciously quickening his pace, as though he thought that he could put some distance between himself and his youkai-voice.  'I would simply rather that she doesn't feel that it's going to happen again because it isn't.  It was an accident.  It was just warm and . . . and really, really comfortable . . .'

'You know what?  You can't tell her something like that.  You just can't.'

'Why can't I?'

'Think about it, will you?  Do you honestly think that that girl is like the others you've known?  She isn't.  Surely you can sense her naiveté for yourself, can't you?  She's not one of those prim and polished ladies, and whatever you say to her is going to stick with her for a very, very long time, so, even if you don't know how you feel about her, think about what you're going to leave her with when it's all said and done because she is going to remember it, long after she's forgotten what you look like.'

'. . . And just why would she forget what I look like?'

His youkai heaved a long, loud sigh.  'You act like you don't care about her in the least—that's what you say, right?'

'I never said that.  I—'

'Incidentals, Fai.  You keep saying that the only reason you're here with her now is because you didn't want her to go traipsing off alone, which is complete crap, really, given that she's showed herself to be perfectly able to take care of herself out here.  So, either you like her or you don't, but if you do, then you can admit it to yourself.  It's not like there's anyone in your own head that is going to make fun of you for being intrigued by her—because I sure as hell am!'

'Why would I ever be intrigued by someone who's going to forget what I look like?' he grumbled.

His youkai grunted.  'If that idea bothers you so much, then make sure she has a reason to remember you.'

"So, uh . . . From what I can tell, we should reach the orphanage within the next hour or so," Saori remarked in a forced bright tone, unwittingly interrupting the heated conversation between Fai and his annoying youkai-voice.

Scowling at her back, Fai reached out without really considering his actions, grasping her wrist and pulling her around to face him.  "Okay," he allowed rather tightly.  "Then we need to talk before we get there."

She started to shake her head, her cheeks blossoming in a very becoming blush as she stared at his hand, wrapped around her wrist.  "Everything's fine, and—"

"You could slap me if you wanted to," he interrupted with all the finesse of a sledgehammer.  "What I did this morning . . ."

"Wh—? O-O-Oh, that . . .? Um, it was—"

He sighed, dragging her over to a fallen and decaying tree where he sat down, tugging her down beside him.  "I didn't mean to do that," he said.  "It was . . . entirely unseemly, and I apologize."

"Oh, I didn't—didn't think you—you meant anything by it.  It was just, um . . ."

Shaking his head, he let go of her wrist, hunching forward just enough to rest his forearms on his knees, steepling his fingertips together between his slightly spread knees.  "Don't make excuses for me, Saori," he told her.  "You don't have to.  You were . . . were warm, and I was comfortable—maybe more comfortable than I've been in a . . . long time . . ."

She blinked, her eyes flashing up to meet his as her flush darkened just a little.  "But . . . But we were on the ground . . . I mean, your bed has to be much more comfortable than that . . ."

Offering her a slight shrug, he sat up, let his head fall back as he stared up at the sky through the branches of the trees.  "I don't often sleep well," he admitted, unsure why he was telling her any such thing.  "Even when I'm exhausted, it's like my brain won't stop—constantly mulling over decisions, trying to think things through, to make the best choices, given my options."

She considered that for a long moment, absently listening to the sounds of the birds in the trees.  Their happy song that felt so at odds with the gravity of their discussion . . . Did she feel that, too? he wondered vaguely.

"And you slept really well last night . . ." she finally ventured.  It wasn't a question.  If anything, she sounded a bit incredulous.

"I did," he admitted.  "To be honest, I've slept better almost every night out here . . ."

"Oh . . ."

He uttered a terse laugh.  "You sound like you understand it," he replied.

"Maybe it's the fresh air," she said, digging a bottle of water out of her knapsack.  "They say that it helps to clear the mind."

"I get fresh air at home," he countered.  "That's not it, but if you know why, then feel free to let me in on it."

She shrugged, taking a long drink from the bottle before offering it to him.  He took it and did the same.  "Maybe it's all the walking?"

He considered that, then shrugged.  "Maybe."  But he didn't really think that was the reason, either.  No, the real reason that whispered to him . . . He wasn't entirely sure he was ready for that much truth, after all . . .

 


 

 

"My God, you smell awful."

Rolling her eyes, trying her hardest, not to blush, Saori spun around on her heel, only to come face to face with Dmitri Yegsteric, who casually leaned in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, legs crossed at the ankles, a playful little smile tugging at the corners of his lips.  Black hair pulled back in a low hanging ponytail that rested over his shoulder, his dark eyes sparkling with his misplaced amusement, he chuckled when she narrowed her gaze on him.  "You have no manners to speak of, do you?" she grumbled.

Dmitri chuckled.  "I must confess, of all the outcomes I imagined from your little sojourn, I never thought you'd drag the tai-youkai all the way out here."

She made a face as she turned away to dig through her drawers for a change of clothes.  "That was an accident," she muttered as the blush that she'd tried to stave off shot to the fore despite her efforts.

"Do tell."

She sighed, snatching a pair of plain white cotton panties out of the drawer along with a white cotton bra.  "I . . . might have . . . kidnapped him . . ."

Dead silence greeted her admission.  It lingered for a good ten seconds before he promptly burst into laughter.  "You did what?"

She sighed a second time, slamming that drawer closed and yanking open the next one down.  "It was an accident," she insisted hotly.  "I mean, after I knocked him out—"

"Dear God, you were just supposed to plead our case, not manhandle the poor man . . . You knocked him out?"

She snorted.  "No, the van did.  You know how the hatch won't stay up without holding it, and . . . and I forgot and I dropped the teddy bear, so when he bent down to pick it up, the hatch . . ." She couldn't stop the wince that contorted her features.  It sounded so much worse when she said it out loud, didn't it . . .?

Dmitri looked like he was ready to lose what was left of his composure as he shoved himself away from the door frame, digging his hands deep into his pockets as he wandered forward into her tiny room.  "Okay, so you've told me how you managed to brain the tai-youkai.  How about you tell me how you kidnapped him.

Rubbing her forehead for a moment before she retrieved a clean pair of jeans, she let out a deep breath.  "Well, from there, it was easy enough.  I just shoved him into the van and got out of there, of course."

Shaking his head, Dmitri chuckled again.  "But . . . why?"

Casting him a quelling kind of glance, she wrinkled her nose.  "Why else?  He needs to meet the children—needs to see how much they'll suffer if he really does take away the funding for the orphanage."

"I see," he replied, crossing an arm over his stomach, resting his elbow on his raised forearm so that he could scratch his chin thoughtfully.  "Well, I guess that does make sense—sort of—but kidnapping Faine Demyanov?  Was that really a good idea?"

She shrugged.  "He's here, isn't he?"

Dmitri slowly shook his head.  "I feel as though this is going to end badly, Saori," he pointed out.

She made a face, rolling her eyes as she shifted her clothing to one side and reached for her plastic caddy that held her bathing supplies.  "He's fine, and he had a pretty good time, actually," she replied.  "It's going to be all right.  You'll see!  He'll just get to know the children, and I'm sure he'll change his mind . . ."

Dmitri heaved a longsuffering sigh and slowly shook his head.  "You are being entirely too optimistic here, you realize," he pointed out.

She rolled her eyes again and blew him a kiss as she hurried out of her room and down the short hallway that led to the stairs.  At this time of day, the older children were all at school, but the younger ones were all in the main building, playing games and being monitored by the daytime team who tended to hate being referred to as 'babysitters'.

She'd left Fai with Director Bostoyev, who had looked entirely stunned when she'd walked into the compound with the Asian tai-youkai in tow.

'Surprised isn't really what he was,' her youkai-voice pointed out as she stepped outside, blinking momentarily as her eyes adjusted from the dimmer light inside to the brilliance of the afternoon sun.  'Shell-shocked might be a better way to describe the expression on his face.  Near panicked is another good one . . .'

'It wasn't that bad . . . Surely he has to see that having Fai-sama here is a far sight better than trying to convince him just by talking to him . . .'

Her voice sighed.  'Yeah, and about that . . . You can't really think he's going to change his mind about defunding the orphanage that easily, can you?'

Deliberately slowing her gait as she headed for the bath house-slash-restroom, Saori bit her lip.  'There's no way he'll be able to say no once he meets the children,' she insisted.  'They're so young, so innocent . . . They deserve the relative stability they get here.'

The deep sigh wasn't exactly encouraging, but she brushed that off, determined not to let negativity get the better of her.  She'd attended a seminar when she was at the university—the power of positivity—and the speaker, a young man who believed  that you could dictate and shape your future, simply by believing that good things would happen, and Saori had really latched onto the idea.  In her opinion, it worked, too.  Whenever she was faced with a tough decision, she reminded herself that if she simply thought positively—if she visualized the best outcome—then that's what she attracted.  It had worked thus far, hadn't it?  Of course, it would work this time, as well.  After all, Fai just had to change his mind.  The idea of him defunding the place for real?  It just wasn't something she could truly wrap her brain around . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 9~~
~Desperation~

 

~o~

 

 

Standing in the small, cramped office on the second floor of the dilapidated building, the two men stared at each other in silence, as though they were measuring the mettle of the other as the seconds ticked away on the very old mantle clock on the old wooden filing cabinet near the desk.

Mikhail Bostoyev, Director of the St. Nicholas II Home for Children, a very haggard-looking deer-youkai, pressed his already thin lips together in a straight line, scowling thoughtfully, his head cocked to the left, arms crossed over his chest over the worn and nubby cream colored open sweater, the dark blue and otherwise nondescript button down shirt, the rumpled but clean gray slacks.  "I confess," he began, slowly shaking his head, "I was . . . shocked when you walked in with Saori . . . I'm sorry we have no better accommodations for you, Your Grace . . ."

Waving off the director's concern since the room he'd been escorted to was one of the staff bedrooms—little more than a small box of a room, maybe six feet square—with a rickety metal twin size bed and one blanket, one pillow, and a small dresser that was little better than pressed cardboard, Fai dug his hands into the pockets of the slightly baggy and rather short pants that he'd borrowed from Bostoyev while his own clothing was washed and dried.  The shirt he'd been given belonged to one of the staffers, Dmitri, who was much taller in body than the director, whose shirts likely would have looked fairly ridiculous on Fai's lankier frame—probably akin to a belly shirt.  He'd been able to get a shower quickly enough, and the open communal shower had gone unnoticed since he hadn't really cared at the time.  The water smelled like minerals, like old iron, but he didn't mind that, either.  If he'd ever felt quite as clean before in his life, he couldn’t recall.  It was the magic of having lived in his own filth for over a week, he supposed . . . "I appreciate your hospitality," Fai assured him.  "I apologize for not giving you prior notice, but my cell got broken, and Saori's was dead."

The director uttered a terse, decidedly nervous, laugh.  "Well, you chose a good day—it's borsch day . . ." he joked.

"It's fine," Fai assured him.  Then he sighed.  The small talk felt so stilted, so unnecessary when the elephant in the room loomed so large.  "Director, do you mind if we skipped the banter?"

Bostoyev looked rather relieved at the frank offer.  "Of course; of course . . . I guess I should just say that I think closing this facility wouldn't benefit youkai as a whole.  Throwing these children in with human children?  It's a dangerous, maybe even a reckless, thing to do.  Parents know that it's their own responsibility to teach their children how to control their powers, how to deal with anger and those types of things.  If these children, during these formative years, do not get the full time support of other youkai, they run the risk of drawing the attention of those who would seek to destroy our kind.  I daresay you realized this already?"

Fai nodded slowly.  It was something he'd known.  The trouble was, whether he knew it or not, he wasn't entirely sure that there was anything he could do to stop it, either . . . unless . . .

"You need to cut some of the staff."

Blinking as he opened and closed his mouth a few times, Bostoyev crossed his arms over his chest and tried his hardest, not to look entirely put-upon by Fai's abrupt demand.  "I assure you, Your Grace, we really don't have any extraneous staff, and—"

"And how many advocates do you have?  Saori tells me that she is in charge of just a handful of children in that capacity?  Surely you could easily let a few of the advocates go and redistribute their workloads.  It would save a good deal off the annual budget.  And tell me, do you really need to employ separate house parents?  What I'm getting at is, if you can redistribute your workloads, cut down your staff by, say, a third, then I wouldn't have to defund this place as quickly as I would otherwise."

"Well," Bostoyev mused slowly, thoughtfully stroking the short salt-and-pepper beard.  "I suppose I could look into it.  I could let the most recently added staff go—and yes, we could easily have the older advocates pick up some of the children who would be displaced by letting go of them . . ."

A sudden thought made Fai scowl.  "And just where does Saori fall in this?"

Bostoyev shook his head.  "She's the newest one we've hired," he allowed.  "Fairest would be to let her go first . . ."

"Fairest?" Fai echoed.

Bostoyev sighed.  "I would rather not let any of the staff go," he pointed out in a tired, sad kind of way.  "I understand your position, and I see the necessity of what you've said.  I cannot keep her on and let someone else go, though.  She's only worked here for six months.  We have some children here who were babies when they came to us.  They're teenagers now, and they've worked with the same advocates for years.  They trust them.  They know them.  Should I dismiss those advocates just to keep Saori here?"

There really wasn't much he could say about that, was there?  It made perfect sense.  Even so, she wasn't going to be pleased with the outcome, even if keeping the orphanage open was what she had truly wanted.

Letting out a deep breath as he strode across the creaking floor to glance out the window, watching as about ten children ran around in the yard, playing on the sparse grass and dirt.  He frowned.  There were no toys, no swings or slides; no sports gear or other things that were notable for outdoor play.  There was nothing at all except a tired old lawn that was worn down to dirt . . . One little girl—maybe about four—scraped a hopscotch board into the ground with a stick.  It was shaky and wavering, but the others didn't seem to mind at all as they waited their turns to hop through it . . .

The smaller ones stayed close to the attendants—there were three of them—holding hands as they walked around the perimeter.  Fai's scowl deepened.  "They have no toys?" he heard himself asking, but even before he finished the question, he already knew the answer.  Of course, they didn't.  The place barely had enough funding to keep the doors open, let alone to be able to spend money on anything frivolous.  After all, they could exist without toys, even if it did make their lives just a little duller.

"We try every year, but every year, it seems like something more important arises," Bostoyev admitted with a sigh.  "We do the best we can.  Even our staff . . . Holidays, birthdays . . . Those are celebrated out of our pockets, and I don't mean to sound ungrateful.  I'm not.  It's just how it is, Your Grace."

Fai nodded slowly, but didn't take his eyes off the children in the yard.  Seeing them with so very little, and yet, he could also sense their pleasure, too, and something about that dug at him.  He could understand and appreciate what Bostoyev was saying.  The needs far outweighed the wish to indulge the children.  On some level, it was demoralizing.  Even though the staff realized that they were doing everything that they could, that they were fulfilling the emotional needs of the children in their care, how hard was it, to see those children's hopeful faces, only to have to tell them 'no' over and over again . . .?

"What sort of curriculum do you have, then, as far as structured activities?" Fai questioned, finally turning away from the window to level a stare at the man in question.

Director Bostoyev smiled, and this one seemed a little more genuine, or maybe the sense of nervousness had simply dissipated when he'd learned that Fai was going to let the orphanage keep operating, despite demands that they had to cut their staff.  "Well, we do teach the children defense skills, sparring skills—age appropriate, of course—along with tracking and such.  We do like to take them out to learn survival skills during camping adventures—they all seem to enjoy that.  In the winter time, we engage them in skills such as sewing and other needle crafts.  The older children usually get involved in turning the surrounding yards into networks of tunnels with dug out rooms and things . . . It's always very impressive.  Last year in particular, one rarely had to brave the winter wind outside.  They created passages to all of the outlying buildings, including the bath house.  During the summers, all of the children are required to help in the garden, raising food for winter, so they gain an appreciation of where the food on the table comes from . . ."

"And what do they do for fun?"

That question seemed to give the director pause, and he smiled a little sadly.  "They have time for fun, of course, but as with everything, it is a careful balance."

'A balance that children shouldn't have to understand—at least, not to this extent—should they?'

Frowning at the question posed by his youkai-voice, Fai nodded vaguely.  "And . . ."

"And . . .?" Bostoyev prompted when Fai trailed off.

Leveling a no-nonsense look at the man, Fai stared at him for a long moment—a tactic that his advisor had told him would help to add a sense of authority to Fai's stance—before he finally spoke.  "And we need to make more of an effort to find permanent families for these children."

Bostoyev heaved a sigh.  "Your Grace, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, I've tried.  I try all day, every day, looking for families that are interested in adopting, but the glaring truth of it is that this region . . . It's poor.  Most can barely afford the children they have, and taking in another . . ."

Fai shook his head.  "You misunderstand, Director.  Forgive me.  I didn't state that well enough.  When I get back home, I'm going to start contacting a few of the other tai-youkai.  I'm going to see if any of them have families that might be interested in adopting any of the children."

"Your Grace—" Bostoyev began, only to be cut off when Fai held up a hand.

"No matter how you look at it, these children deserve families.  What you're doing here is good, solid work, Director, but the best possible outcomes would be in finding families—real families—for as many of them as possible.  Having that sense of belonging, no matter where they live . . . Isn't that more important than our pride in this situation?"

The director didn't look at all pleased by Fai's decision.  To be honest, Fai wasn't entirely satisfied with it, either, but the truth he'd presented was and should be more important.  Seeing the children at play in the yard had solidified that thought in his mind.  As much as he loathed the idea of having to call anyone else for perceived help, the children and their futures . . .

They were more important, just like Saori had said.

 


 

 

"Demyanov residence.  How may I help you?"

"Vasili . . . Hello. Evgeni Feodosiv here.  I was going to be in the area tomorrow, and I wondered if His Grace was free at some point in the afternoon?  Maybe dinner?"

"I'm sorry, Lord Feodosiv.  His Grace is out of the area at the moment, and he isn't expected to return in time for your visit."

Scowling at the butler's smooth tone, Evgeni shook his head.  "Do you know when he will return?"

"Apologies, my lord.  His Grace is away on a personal matter."

"Personal?" Evgeni echoed, willing himself to check his tone, to insert a bit of harmless cajoling instead of the surly growl he was feeling.  "He tells me everything, Vasili.  You know this."

"His Grace's business is unknown to me.  He only tells me what I need to know to keep his household running smoothly.  You understand."

Gritting his teeth at the not-so-subtle chiding in the old butler's voice, Evgeni counted to twenty.  "Would you be so good as to tell me why his cell phone appears to be unreachable?"

"That, I do not know.  Perhaps he's simply out of area.  However, when he calls, I'll be more than happy to pass along your message that you'd like for him to call you.  Good day, my lord."

"Damn!" he growled, slapping the cell phone onto the wide desk when the connection abruptly cut off, Evgeni shot to his feet, paced the office floor with the finesse of a caged lion.

Where the hell was he?

Snatching up the cell phone again, Evgeni scrolled through the numbers and connected the call.

It rang three times—enough to irritate Evgeni just a little more—before the youkai finally answered it.  "Hello?"

"Stepanovich, I require your assistance," Evgeni stated, barely able to keep the anger from frothing over.

"What do you want?"

Evgeni grunted.  "I need you to find out the whereabouts of the tai-youkai," he replied tightly.

Taras Stepanovich didn't answer for a moment.  "Is he missing?  Are you sure he wasn't challenged—maybe defeated?"

"That was not the sense I got.  Find him quickly, and report back."

"Okay," Stepanovich agreed.

The connection ended, and Evgeni stomped around the desk to slosh vodka—Faina Crystal Label—into a glass.

Stepanovich wouldn't fail.  He never failed.  Taras had an uncanny ability to dig up information.

Even so, something about the situation didn't set well with him.  Something about it felt . . . unnatural.  Knowing Fai as well as he did, he knew damn well that the tai-youkai wasn't ever in the habit of just randomly disappearing.  He simply was too methodic for that, and that was one of the few things that Evgeni could appreciate on some level about him.

Put simply, it wasn't in Fai's nature to do anything off the cuff, so to speak, and he had a feeling that Vasili, the old bastard, knew much more than he was saying . . .

'Maybe . . . Maybe we should stop by anyway . . . Have a face to face chat with Vasili . . .'

Slowly, slowly, the corners of Evgeni's lips turned upward, but the smile held no humor at all in the expression.  No, it was cold and calculated . . . and angry . . .

 


 

 

"So, um, Saori . . ."

Glancing up from the book she was reading to a three-year-old girl named Galinia, she smiled up at Dmitri as he slipped onto the bench beside her.  "Hmm?"

Dmitri sighed.  "It's your . . . Well, the tai-youkai," he said slowly, carefully, almost methodically.

"Fai-sama?"

He nodded as he reached over to pluck Galinia out of Saori's arms, followed by the book.  "Yeah, you'd better go intervene.  He's going to make Ilia cry."

"What?"

Jerking his head in the general direction of the kitchen, Dmitri made a face.  "He told her that she didn't know what she was doing and to get out of there and go do something useful instead," he explained.

"Oh, my . . ."

Wasting no time, Saori hurriedly stood up and strode over to the opened doorway of the kitchen, spotting Fai, chopping cabbage on a cutting board with a dark scowl on his face as Ilia, the resident cook, stood by with a long wooden spoon in her hand, her arms crossed over her chest as she scowled at the tai-youkai.  "What's . . . going on here?" Saori asked, trying for a bright and, hopefully, neutral tone.

Ilia, seeing her as reinforcement, let her arms drop as she pivoted to look at her, pointing the spoon directly at Fai's chest in a stance that was not unlike the children when they had a dispute outside in the yard.  "He—He says—"

"Everyone knows that using marinated kelp in borscht is disgusting and wrong," Fai stated flatly and loudly.  "Utterly barbaric!  Cabbage!  Never kelp!  No wonder the children didn't look happy about having that for dinner tonight."

Saori's mouth fell open at the harsher than normal tone from the tai-youkai.

Ilia growled under her breath.  "They like it fine, and the kelp is delicious!  You're prejudiced!  Prejudiced against Lenten borscht!"

"Oh, I don't think he's—" Saori began in a placating tone, only to be cut off by a very loud, very decisive snort as Fai rolled his eyes.

"Prejudiced?  How can I be prejudiced against a soup?  Besides, everyone knows that traditional borscht is the best recipe!"

Ilia tried again.  "The clergy—"

"—Are used to eating plain foods—nasty food.  It's a part of their penance," Fai shot back.

Ilia waved the wooden spoon at him.  He jerked back when the utensil came very close to his nose.  "Have you even tried it with kelp instead of cabbage before?"

"Yes," Fai growled, grabbing the spoon and yanking it out of the woman's hand, "and it was disgusting.  You will not feed those children that slop—not if I have a say in it!  Consider it law!  Kelp does not belong in borscht, ever!"

"You can't decree something like that!  That's—"

"I just did, didn't I?  And I'm tai-youkai—tai-youkai—so that's that!"

"Okay," Saori interrupted, stepping forward to separate the two contenders—over borscht.  "Come on, Ilia.  Let's get the bread ready."

Ilia didn't look like she wanted to comply, but she grudgingly allowed Saori to drag her across the small kitchen to the other counter where the bread was ready to be formed into the loaves for dinner.  "This is my kitchen," she grumbled under her breath.  "Tai-youkai ought to pay more attention to the important affairs and leave the cooking to those who know how to do it!"

Saori grimaced since she knew well enough that Fai did take pride in his cooking abilities, and she hoped that maybe he'd missed the comment.  One glance back at the man, however, proved that he had, indeed, heard it, and she stifled a sigh.

"I've been cooking for years," he said loudly, succinctly.  "I know well enough, what I'm doing—better than someone who has the audacity to stick kelp in borscht, anyway."

Ilia started to retort, but Saori gave her arm a little yank, thrusting the large wooden bowl of the proofed black bread into her hands.

Satisfied that the argument was over—at least, at the moment—Saori stepped back since Ilia did not like to have interference while she was cooking.  She had the system down to a science, and Saori had learned long ago, not to interfere with the woman's process.  Instead, she wandered over to a still scowling Fai.  "She's a very good cook," Saori pointed out in what she hoped was a neutral tone.

Dumping the cabbage into the huge cauldron of soup on the ancient industrial stove, Fai snorted.  "I'm sure she is—just not this."

"You're being offensive, Your Grace," she pointed out, arching an eyebrow to emphasize her point.

"Honesty is never offensive," he shot back, slapping the lid on the pot and leveling a very dry scowl at her.

"Come meet some of the children," she coaxed, hoping against hope that she could get him out of the kitchen before he started another war of words with the embattled cook.

"In a minute.  Just let me have a look at the bread, and—"

"And the bread is fantastic—best I've ever had," Saori hurriedly said, grabbing his arm before he could spin away to inspect that, too.

He stopped dead still, taking a moment to stare, very pointedly, at her hand, still grasping him.  "The best you've ever had?" he echoed dubiously, managing somehow to look offended by the very idea.

She rolled her eyes and tugged until he had no choice but to follow her toward the doorway.  "Leave Ilia alone," she said.  "If you don't, she'll quit, and there's no one here who can do what she does for the amount she's paid."

Fai uttered a terse grunt, but allowed her to lead him out of the room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 10~~
~Lessons~

 

~o~

 

 

"What are you doing?"

Glancing up from the fire that he'd built around a large, flat rock, Fai blinked as he came face-to-face with a very small otter-youkai girl.  Light brown hair pulled back in a high ponytail, she shuffled her scuffed sneakers in the dirt as she smiled a little reluctantly at him.

He wasn't sure why, but he'd ignored the common-sense part of his brain this morning that had suggested that he borrow a phone and arrange transportation to get back home.  After all, he'd done what he came to do: he'd seen the home, had met the children, had made arrangements with Director Bostoyev . . . But instead of doing that, he'd seen Saori, rounding up the children in her charge for a weekend camping trip along with another of the advocates, Dmitri and his children, and he'd volunteered to go along.

'Only because you didn't like how close Dmitri was standing next to her,' his youkai-voice scoffed.

'That had nothing at all to do with it,' Fai insisted hotly, intentionally refusing to think about how intimate they had looked as Dmitri leaned down to speak to her while Saori rested a hand on the man's forearm.  Then she had laughed . . .

'For tai-youkai, you're really dense, Fai.'

'Shut up.'

"I'm getting this ready to cook on," he said, jerking his head toward the dancing flames as he reached out to take the pieces of wood she'd gathered.  To her, it was a very large armload.  To him?  It was a few moderately sized sticks.  "These are very nice," he told her.  "What's your name?"

"Galinia," she replied.  "What's your name?"

"Me?  I'm . . . I'm Fai," he said, foregoing his title for once.

"Fai?" she repeated thoughtfully, her round cheeks tinged with a healthy pink.  She really was a gorgeous child—one who deserved a home—a family—of her own.  "That's a funny name," she decided.

"I was named after my mother," he told her.  "Her name was Faina . . . My real name is Faine."

She considered that and shrugged.  "I don't have a mother," she said.

He frowned.  Of course, he knew that.  None of the children had parents, obviously.  Even so, hearing the girl, stating it so matter-of-factly?  It bothered him—a lot.  "Do you know what happened to your mother?" he asked gently.

She shrugged, throwing her tiny hands up to her sides.  "I don't know!" she exclaimed.  "I don't remember . . ."

"I'm . . . sorry to hear that . . ."

"Saori says everyone here's family," she went on, entirely unfazed by the topic of conversation.  "So, I have lots of brothers and sisters and everyone!"

"I suppose you do," he allowed, clearing his throat as he tried to smile and failed.

She giggled softly.  "I'm going to get more wood!" she promised, backing away from him.

He managed to smile, just a little.  "You did a great job," he told her.  "In fact, I think we have enough for awhile . . . Why don't you go play instead?"

She looked a little confused, but he nodded to encourage her, and she laughed again before speeding away toward the large tent that had been set up for the girls.

"She likes you."

Blinking as he shifted his gaze to meet Saori's, he shrugged and turned back to fuss with the fire.  "She's cute," he replied a little defensively, as though to explain the reason why he was caught, chatting with the child.  "Where's your, uh . . . Dmitri?"

"Dmitri?  He's fishing with the older kids," she explained.  "I came back to help the little ones gather wood."

"Does he have to use a line?"

Saori laughed.  "Dmitri fishes with his hands, just like I do . . ." Trailing off, she giggled once more, but the laughter died away slowly, and she sighed, instead.  "Anyway, Galinia . . . Her parents were killed in a car accident shortly after her first birthday," she explained.  "She's been here ever since."

Settling back on his haunches, resting his bent elbows on his knees, he tilted his head up to the sky.  "When I go home, I'm going to start calling around, see if any of the other tai-youkai have parents looking to adopt . . . You, uh . . . You're right.  My pride isn't nearly as important as these children are."

She seemed almost surprised by his easy acquiescence, but she didn't remark upon it.  "I'd love to see these children have real homes," she said instead.  "I'd miss them, but it's best for them.  I mean, everyone deserves a place to belong."  She sighed.  "Well, I'll miss them, anyway . . . The director told me that you agreed to keep funding the orphanage, but he has to cut staff, and as the newest one, I'm going to be let go . . . I mean, I'm okay with that as long as the orphanage stays open, so . . . so, thank you for that."

"What will you do?" he asked.

She shrugged, as though it were of no real consequence.  "Go home, I guess," she said.  She sounded pragmatic enough.  She also sounded just a little sad, too.  "I was offered a job there, but I thought maybe I could make more of a difference here . . . Even so, if the home can stay open, then maybe I did help some, anyway . . ."

For some reason, Saori's thoughtful, reflective tone did little to please Fai.  If anything, it made him a little angrier at the situation, even though he wasn't entirely sure, why that was.

'Because,' his youkai-voice mused, 'she really doesn't deserve to lose her job, and you know it.'

He frowned.  Yes, he supposed there was a great deal of truth to that.  Even so, it really couldn't be helped, and he had a feeling that this impromptu camping trip was her way of saying goodbye to the children she'd worked with, that she'd come to care for, and, while he had little doubt that the children would ultimately be all right, he could understand that there was likely to be at least a little unrest while things got evened out.

'There's something else, you know . . .'

'What's that?'

His youkai sighed.  It was a long, drawn out sigh— a weary sigh.  'Just think about it, Fai . . . You'll figure it out.'

'You're not going to tell me?'

'No, I'm not.  Some of these things . . . They're too important to just tell you.  Some things are better if you figure them out yourself.'

He snorted inwardly at the enigmatic answer.

"You know, if you'd rather go back—sleep in a real bed, relax—I understand.  It's fine," she told him, reading his expression and interpreting it to mean that he was unhappy about the camping, in general.

"No, it's fine," he assured her.  "We brought a lot of food, though, didn't we?"

She laughed, but to him, it sounded a little less exuberant than usual for her.  "Well, they're pups," she explained with a simple little shrug as she sank down on a fallen log that they'd pulled over to use as a bench.  "They get hungry faster, and it's easier to pack some food for them instead of having to hunt it all."

"But they should learn how to hunt, how to track . . . Those things are important."

"They are," she agreed amiably enough.  Then she giggled.  "Do you want to take them out?  Show them how to track?"

He crossed his arms over his chest, cocking an eyebrow at her thinly veiled challenge.  "I could," he said.  "That would be simple enough."

Her smile faded, but the sparkle remained in her eyes.  "Well, when I was taught, oji-chan used little bags of candy.  He hid them in the forest, and I had to find them all, and the better I got at it, the smaller the bags became, and then, he started timing me.  I'd have find ten bags in less than an hour—stuff like that.  If I found them all, then he would agree to take me camping.  If I couldn't, then I would have to clean his doujo, top to bottom."

He considered that thoughtfully.  "When I learned how to track, there were no candy bags," he said.  "I was told to locate animals in the grounds around the estate, and I was not allowed to return without the metal tags that they'd affixed to each of them."

"Did you get a reward?"

He grunted.  "No, but Father told me that I'd done well."

She laughed again, shaking her head as though something he said was funny.  When she noticed the questioning look on his face, she waved a hand for a moment, until her amusement died down.  "You say you weren't rewarded, but that sounds like a reward to me," she said.

He blinked, frowned.  He'd never actually thought about it in that sort of way, and yet, what she said rather made sense, didn't it?  He supposed that the pride he'd felt when his father had gazed upon him, the light of approval in his eyes . . . She had a point.  "I . . . well . . ." he allowed.  "I guess so . . ."

 

 


 

 

"What is he doing?"

Turning her head to glance up at Dmitri as she leaned against a gnarled old tree trunk with her arms crossed over her chest, and she smiled.  "He's teaching them how to track, tai-youkai style."

Dmitri looked on for a long moment before slowly nodding.  "I can see that," he murmured.  "Ivan and Yuri might understand the whole thing, but Galinia?  She has no idea what he's telling them to do."

Waving a hand, Saori wrinkled her nose as a soft giggle slipped from her.  "He knows.  He's just including the young ones to make them feel like the big pups."

"And when they fail?"

Biting her lip, she shook her head.  "I . . . I don't know, but . . . but he said he had an idea."

With a loud clatter, the older children took off into the trees.  Fai stood still, watching as the children disappeared, before turning to face the four younger ones.  He hunkered down and gestured them closer, and from where she stood, she couldn't hear what he said to them.  To her surprise, though, the children all leaned in toward each other, and if she wasn't mistaken, she thought they might well be sniffing each other—an idea that made her press her lips together in a tight line to keep from laughing out loud.

"What are they doing?" Dmitri murmured, more to himself than to her.

A moment later, the children darted away in the opposite direction as Fai pushed himself back to his feet once more.

"What did you tell them?" she asked, pushing herself away from the tree and slowly wandering forward.

Fai slowly turned to glance briefly at her before turning his attention back in the direction where he'd sent the little ones off.  "Three of them are hiding while Boris counts to twenty then goes to find them."

"Hide and Seek?" she mused.  She'd never actually  thought about using that children's game to teach the small ones how to track.  "Is that right?"

"Hide and Seek?" he echoed.  "What's that?"

She smiled.  "It's a game, though we usually considered it cheating if someone tried to sniff out everyone else."

"That would defeat the purpose, don't you think?" Fai echoed dryly.

"That's a really good idea, Your Grace," Dmitri remarked as he drew abreast of them.  "I think I'll go trail the older kids—see if any of them are having any luck."

Saori watched as her friend ambled off, and then she sighed.  "The children like you," she said.

Fai looked surprised for a moment before he gave an offhanded shrug.  "No one likes me.  They either fear me or they want me gone."

She frowned.  She didn't know whether it was worse that he obviously believed it, or, at least, if the almost pragmatic tone of his voice meant anything, he'd accepted the truth in what he thought a long time ago.  "Is that really what you think?"

"It's what I know," he stated, matter-of-factly.  "I've dealt with all of it since I took office."

"Well, I don't fear you, and I don't want you gone, either," she said.

He rolled his eyes.  "You're also not from Russia," he told her.  "You don't count."

"I don't?  Why don't I?"

"I just said why you don't," he retorted.

She wrinkled her nose.  "I count," she insisted.  "Besides, I happen to know that the children don't feel that way, either.  They're too young to care that you're tai-youkai.  All they understand is that you've taken time out to play with them—to teach them."

He uttered a terse little chuckle.  "You make everything sound so simple," he said.

Crossing her arms over her chest, she tilted her head to the side, biting her lip for a moment as she stared at him.  "I don't think so.  I think you . . . You've been alone for a long time, haven't you?"

"Alone?  I've spent the last sixteen years, raising my younger brother.  My home is fully staffed with servants.  I'm not alone . . ." He made a face.  "I haven't been alone in a very long time."

"There's a difference between being around people and having friends," she pointed out gently.  "Don't you have anyone you rely on?  I mean, raising your brother . . . You were kind of like his father, right?  Maybe not in name, but it's the same thing, isn't it?"

Blowing out a deep, heavy breath, he rubbed his forehead, raked his hand through his hair.  She could tell from the rigidity in his stance, from the expression on his face, that he wasn't comfortable in talking about anything so personal.  Still, she had a gut feeling that maybe he needed to do it . . . "I . . . I guess . . . I mean, he's not really a friend, per se.  He's more of an advisor, I guess.  But he was Father's friend—his only real friend . . . When Father disappeared, he . . . He helped me a lot."

She smiled.  "Sounds like a good man."

Nodding slowly, Fai stared at her, absently appreciating the way the spring breeze toyed with the long strands of her hair that had escaped the high ponytail that he'd most of her hair back.  Cheeks kissed with beautiful color, lips parted, revealing perfectly straight, white teeth, she reached out, squeezed his forearm.  It wasn't the first time she'd done so, and, just as before, he stared rather blankly at her delicate hand.  She didn't notice.  It probably didn't even occur to her that she was touching him, but Fai . . .

He couldn't remember the last time anyone had dared to actually do that.  Not even Yerik would have the audacity to do so.  Well, he hadn't since he'd grown up, anyway.  When Yerik was a child, he hadn't thought twice about doing so, but Fai had told himself back then that it was natural for a youngster to require some form of contact.

The staff never had touched him.  Even when serving food, it was always placed on the table, never directly handed to him.  The closest anyone ever came to it was Vasili, who would use a short, stiff bristled brush to swipe at his clothes before he stepped out, if necessary.

No, the only one who had touched him once he'd passed childhood was Faina, and she had no qualms in hugging him or tousling his hair . . . Even the women he'd spent time with hadn't been daring enough to touch him outside of the bedroom, which was just as well, anyway.

So, why didn't Saori realize when she was slipping well past the bounds of propriety?

But why didn't it bother him more . . .?

And why did he rather . . . like it . . .?

 


 

 

A strange sort of sensation woke Saori from a fitful sleep.  Situated at the threshold of the girls' tent, she leaned up on her elbow, trying to clear her foggy brain as she struggled to figure out just what had roused her.

Blinking as she pushed the tent flap aside, she narrowed her eyes against the brightened glare of the dancing fire.

'Fai-sama . . . He's still awake . . .?'

It seemed to her like it took longer than usual for her eyes to adjust, but she pushed the flap back a little more when she finally noticed the tow-headed girl slip around the log and approach the tai-youkai.  From where she lay, she couldn't hear what was being said—could only see Galinia's shoulders, her face as she stared earnestly up at Fai.  A moment later, Fai slipped his hands under the girl's arms, pulling her into his lap, his usually straight back, hunching forward just slightly as he settled Galinia against his chest.

A sudden, almost savage, urge to get closer gripped her, and without a second thought, Saori slipped out of the tent, moving in closer, though not near enough to disturb the two.  She just wanted to hear what he was saying to the child . . .

"And you had a bad dream?" Fai murmured, his low, rumbling tone so vastly different from the ones she'd heard from him before.

"Yeah," Galinia whispered.  "It was a big bear, and he wanted to . . . to eat me up!"

Fai sighed.  "That is scary," he agreed.  "But you know, don't you?  Nobody here will let anything like that happen to you."

"Because you're tai-youkai?" she asked, sounding hopeful—so hopeful.  Saori felt her hand close around the fabric of her shirt, right over her heart.

"That's . . . That's right," Fai agreed.  "It's my job to keep you safe."

Galinia sighed, and despite the distance, Saori could feel the child's youki relax, little by little.

Fai sat there for a long while, saying nothing at all.  Saori had to wonder if Galinia had fallen asleep again, and after a few minutes, she slowly shuffled forward.

"Is she asleep?" she asked, carefully stepping over the log.

Fai shot her a quick glance—almost a guilty sort of darkness flickering over his expression before he schooled it away.  "Yeah, she is."

Smiling down at the child, sleeping so securely in Fai's arms, Saori brushed her knuckles over Galinia's cherubic cheek.  "I'll put her back to bed.  I hope she didn't disturb you . . ."

"She's fine," he said.  Saori wondered if he even realized that his clasped hands tightened as though to stop Saori from taking her.  "She had a bad dream—a nightmare."

Saori nodded and sat down beside him.  "She does . . . It's not as often anymore.  I usually check on her in the night, just to make sure she doesn't have one."

Fai frowned as he stared down at the sleeping child.  "Yerik used to have nightmares," he ventured at length.  "I never knew if he remembered that night or if he just . . . just remembered being afraid . . ."

"That night?  When your parents . . .?"

"Mother," he corrected.  "The house in Sri Lanka caught fire.  Yerik was two at the time.  She . . . She managed to get him out of the house, but she was trapped inside . . ."

"Fai-sama . . ."

He shook his head, but whether he was trying to stop her or was simply trying to brush aside his own memories, she didn't know.  "I don't remember how long he had nightmares.  I . . . I don't know if he ever still does . . ."

"And you?" she asked quietly.

"Me?"

She nodded.

He sighed.  "I'm all right."

"But you're not," she countered softly as she stared at him.  Something about the pensive expression on his face, the sense of darkness in his gaze, as though he couldn't quite make sense of his own thoughts, his own emotions . . . Had he always felt that sort of confusion?  And he didn't understand it, either.  "You want to be, but you aren't.  It's okay, you know?  Did you . . .?  Did you ever really get to grieve for her?  For them?"

His head snapped to the side, his gaze, wild, almost . . . almost afraid.  The gold and green flecks in his eyes seemed as though they were illuminated by some inner spark, nostrils flaring as he opened and closed his mouth a couple times, suddenly, his cheeks exploded in a mottled hue as he stubbornly looked away from her.

She caught his chin, gently forced him to look at her once more, her brows drawing together in a concentrated scowl.  "You . . . You've had nightmares, too, haven't you?" she whispered, eyes searching his, as though daring him to lie.

He grimaced, his gaze slipping to the side for a moment before reluctantly returning to meet hers once more.  "I'm tai-youkai.  I—"

"You're allowed to have feelings, Fai-sama," she insisted.  "Even you don't have to be strong all the time."

"Don't I?" he challenged.  "If I . . . If I show any weakness—anything—"

"Emotions aren't weakness," she told him.  "Surely, you can't believe that.  Okay, you can't allow yourself to be caught off guard, and I understand that you bear a great responsibility, but—"

He shook his head, his scowl darkening.  "If I cannot stand alone, I cannot stand, at all," he said, the conviction behind his words adding a deepness to his voice, a thickness in his youki.  "I cannot afford to—to break down or to hesitate, simply because I feel . . ." Trailing off with a fleeting grimace, he drew a deep breath.  "I cannot let them see a thing.  I cannot show any of it; not to anyone who might try to use it against me—to exploit it."

"Then show it to me," Saori blurted, letting her hand fall away, but he caught her wrist, held it, and he didn't let go.

She could feel his conflicting emotions as easily as she could feel the blood, racing through her veins.  Those emotions, however, shifted so quickly, so fluidly, that she couldn't read them, couldn't interpret them, but the fire that ignited in the depths of his gaze was enough to make her catch her breath, to hold her, spellbound.

Slowly, his hazel eyes softened, dropped, settling on her lips, and it was enough to set off an ache, a quiver, down so deep that she could feel herself shaking . . . He uttered a strange little sound—not quite a growl, not quite a groan—so very softly that it seemed like he was making it just for her, which was a crazy thought.

A sudden dizziness swept over her as he leaned in closer—so close that she could feel his breath, ripple over her lips, igniting another round of tremors as her body felt as though her very bones were dissolving, one by one . . .

It was a wash of emotion she'd never, ever felt before—an awakening of feelings that she couldn't comprehend, that left her reeling, unsteady.  It was frightening and entirely exhilarating, all at once.

Closer, closer . . . ever so closer, the heat of his mouth, singeing her skin despite the breath of distance that separated them, the inebriating scent of him—of smoke and wilderness, of warmed comfort, an underlying sort of spiciness that tingled in her nose, and his eyes slowly drifting closed, long lashes fluttering down as his stunted breath echoed in her ears . . .

"I'm scared!"

"C'mon!  It'll be fine . . . and you're the one who said you needed to go!"

Letting out a deep sigh as Fai jerked back, head snapping forward despite the high color riding in his cheeks—Saori figured she probably looked about the same—he cleared his throat a few times, and when she finally dared to shift her eyes to look at him, she noticed that his hands were shaking, too.

"Saori . . ." he finally muttered.  "I—"

Saori bit her lip and forced herself to stand up.  Whatever he was about to say, she had a feeling that she didn't want to hear it.  "You know, I think she'll sleep fine now.  Thanks for comforting her," she blurted, reaching down to take Galinia from him, and this time, he let her do it.  "G-Goodnight, Fai-sama."

She heard him sigh as she hurried back toward the girls' tent.  "Goodnight, Saori . . ."

And even after she'd tucked Galinia back into her blankets, even after she'd rolled herself up in her own, she winced.  She could still feel her heart, pounding hard against her ribcage, like a wild thing, struggling to escape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 11~~
~Crossfire~

 

~o~

 

 

He didn't know what time it was.

Whether he'd been sitting there, lost in thought for a few minutes or a few hours, he honestly didn't know.  In fact, it really didn't occur to him.  The confusion that delineated his features was stark, heavy, and if he'd asked himself, 'why' once, he'd asked himself a thousand times.

And yet, there were no answers, no hidden truths, whispering to him, waiting for him to hear, waiting for his acknowledgement.

He could blame those blue-gray eyes.  They were just so fathomless, so full of a warmth that she never tried to hide . . . and he knew, didn't he?  He could lose himself in those eyes if he let himself be carried away . . .

He could blame those contours of her face.  Such an interesting study of softness and angles—just enough to gentle her; just enough to lend her an exotic sort of refinement . . . and it drove him to utter distraction, didn't it?  The idea that he had to touch her, to feel her skin, to know if she really was as soft as she looked . . .

He could blame those full, rosy lips.  Shades darker than pink, not quite red, either, ready to smile, to laugh . . . and a single thought was bounding through his head, over and over, wasn't it?  He desperately needed to know what she tasted like—heady like a glass of vodka?  Addictive like a drug . . .?

Frowning down at the metal mug of tea in his hands, Fai noticed in an absent kind of way as the darkened shadows of night started to pale.

He'd been sitting here all night, ever since Saori had made her hasty departure with Galinia.

He still didn't know what had happened.

Well, that wasn't entirely true.  He'd realized early on that the woman was beautiful, of course.  That wasn't it, though.  He'd seen enough beautiful women over the years, and not one of them had ever affected him in the way that she did.

'You really don't know why?'

Letting out a deep breath, Fai's frown deepened into an outright scowl.  'She's fascinating, but . . .'

'But there's more to it than simple fascination, you know.  There's something about her, and you feel it, too.'

For once, he didn't argue with his youkai-voice.  'It feels like . . . like I know her—really know her . . .'

'You know, your mother used to believe that souls did know each other and that certain souls were meant to be together.'

'I don't remember her saying anything like that.'

'She thought it all the time while she was carrying you.  You don't remember; pups never do, but I do.  Back then, the two of you were connected; her thoughts came to me like yours do now.  I couldn't talk to her, but I certainly could hear her . . . Once you were born, I couldn't hear her anymore—at least, not like that.  But you did hear her back then, too, even if you don't remember.  She would talk to you, and you would answer her by moving or flipping over . . . and she knew it.  Mothers do.'

'Mother . . .'

'Okay, so tell me, Fai . . . How are we going to keep her here?'

Frowning as he shook his head, Fai wasn't entirely sure just who his youkai was talking about.  'Who?'

His youkai sighed.  'Saori, Fai . . . Who else?'

He grunted.  'You were talking about Mother, weren't you?  And she's already gone, so . . . Stop changing subjects so quickly, and I won't have to ask questions, now will I?  As for Saori . . . I don't think there's any way to keep her here.  I mean, the home has to cut funding; there's no option, and—'

'Not here, as in the home!  Here!  Here, in Russia!'

'There's nothing I can do, short of confiscating her passport, and I can't do that, either.'

'Unacceptable, Fai.  She needs to be here with you—with us.  Find something!  Anything!  Just make sure you do it before it's too late.'

'Why the urgency?  I mean, I know why I'd like to keep her here, but you?  What does she matter to you?  None of the other women I've met ever mattered to you, and—'

'Oh, you're so damn stupid!  Well, you're smart, but you're stupid, too!  Fine, then, if you want to be obtuse.  She could be everything—everything—and you're willing to just step back, to watch her slip right out of our lives before we ever figure out just how much of 'everything' she really could be.'

Blinking slowly as he pondered his youkai's words, he sipped the tea without actually tasting it.  'Are you trying to say . . .?'

The voice sighed a long, draw out sigh, full of resignation, almost sadness.  'That's the point, Fai.  I don't know yet.  I don't know, but . . . but maybe . . .'

Setting the mug aside, Fai shifted his gaze upward.  The sky so far above the crosshatched branches was a watery gray, mere shades lighter than the wood.  Daylight was coming as the sounds of the morning birds started to rise.

Saori . . .

Contemplating the things his voice had said, Fai shook his head.  He understood what it had meant.  He didn't know just what to think of it, though—whether or not he ought to believe it.

He was still staring at the skies as the sun rose over the horizon.

 


 

 

"How's your shoulder?"

Letting his right hand fall away as he schooled his features, but he couldn't stop himself from giving his left arm a little shake.  "It's fine," he said gruffly, stubbornly refusing to look at his cousin.  He was hiding pain was something that was inborn, bred bone deep, as his mother was fond of saying.  Brushing that thought aside impatiently, he narrowed his eyes on his injured cousin, seeing right through his waning bravado, before glancing around once more.  He was sure that they weren't being followed, but he couldn't shake the sense of foreboding, either.  "Keep movin' . . . They could be following us," he insisted, his gait taking on a distinct lurch as he smashed a his hand over his shoulder once more.

Nikolai Bershetoyev shook his long and unkempt mane of dingy gray hair, murky dark eyes shifting to the side as his scowl deepened.  "Did you see 'em?  Was it one of those damn Kyranyovitch scum?"

"I don't know.  Didn't see 'em," he said, his voice almost a choked abbreviation, careening to the side, nearly crashing into the stout trunk of a Siberian Larch with an involuntary groan.  Struggling to draw a few deep breaths, Pavel Bershetoyev tried to lever himself away from the tree, but simply didn't have the strength at the moment.  "Just . . . a minute . . ." he rasped out.

Nikolai scowled at his younger cousin before knocking Pavel's hand away from his bleeding shoulder.

They'd been traveling north, heading to one of the family's hunting outposts, when the shot had rang out, the bullet, ripping through Pavel's shoulder.  From what he could see, Pavel's flesh was starting to mend itself.  Still, that kind of a wound was bound to hurt like the devil, and the very sight of it was enough to make Nikolai grind his teeth together as a harsh growl slipped from him.  "Bastards!  Guns!  Guns!" he gritted out, his voice thick with outraged disbelief, his fangs flashing in the mid afternoon sunshine that spilled through the boughs of the trees, so high overhead.

"I'm fine," Pavel insisted, his voice regaining some of his usual candor, sounding much more steady than he looked as he pushed himself away from the tree trunk.  "Let's go."

Scowling at the younger tundra-wolf-youkai, Nikolai slowly shook his head.  "Take it easy," he said, taking note of the almost grayish pallor in Pavel's face, the sweat, beading on his brow.

"Pav, stop . . . At least sit down a few minutes.  Regroup . . . Let me pack your wound."

"It doesn't hurt as much now," Pavel lied.

"You mother will kill me herself if I let you keep going," Nikolai warned.

Heaving a sigh that ended in a grimace, Pavel stopped, eased himself down on a rotting tree stump.  "That was a low blow," he pointed out.

Nikolai yanked off his tattered leather jacket, followed by the threadbare green tee-shirt that he promptly slit up both sides.  Then he took it, carefully wrapped it under Pavel's arm and up over his rent shoulder a few times before tying it off.  Satisfied with his efforts, he shrugged his jacket back on and dug into the inside pocket for a small silver flask that he uncapped and handed over.  "It worked, didn't it?  Drink some of this."

"Thanks," Pavel said, tipping the bottle to his lips.  "That's the worst vodka I've ever had," he complained, handing back the flask with an exaggerated grimace.  "Tastes like turpentine."

Nikolai grunted, mainly because they had actually drank once when they were desperate.  As stupid as that was, at least they'd watered it down.

They'd both been sick for a week.  Nikolai's father, who had found them both, puking their guts up, had lectured them for the entire week on just how stupid that escapade had been . . .

Pavel chuckled weakly, pushing himself back to his feet again.  "Come on . . . We can't stay here."

Nikolai snorted, mostly because he knew that Pavel was right.  If the Kyranyovitches didn't realize that they were here yet, they would soon.  Keeping moving was really the only available option, even if he didn't like it . . .

Pavel shook his head and brushed past Nikolai.  "Gotta get out of this forest," he insisted.  "They'll claim we're trespassing."

"Let them come," Nikolai growled.  Even so, he followed after Pavel.  "They've overstepped themselves this time.  If it's all-out war they want, then that's what they'll have."

 


 

 

Kneeling beside the flowing river, Saori let out a deep breath as she carefully scrubbed the tin plates they'd brought along for the children.  Satisfied that the one in her hand was clean, she dropped it with a loud clatter onto the stack beside her before reaching for the next dirty plate.

'Well, aren't you in a mood?  Let me guess: his name starts with, 'Fai', and ends with you, batting your eyelashes and hanging off of his every word like some silly little girl?'

Snorting loudly, Saori opted to ignore the voice that invariably got her into trouble, anyway, leaning to the side, using her shoulder to push her hair back out of her face.

'Ignore me?  Puh-leez!  As if you could!  Anyway, it's your own fault, you know.'

'How do you figure?'

'Considering every time he's come anywhere near you today, you've turned tail and ran away?  Yes, it's most definitely your own fault.'

'I most certainly did not!' Saori argued.  'The children needed me—that's all.  First it was Galinia, then it was Olga . . .'

'Coward.  Since when are you a coward?'

'I'm not being a coward!' she argued.  'They did need me.  I can't ignore them, you know, not even for Fai-sama, and—'

'And he wanted to talk to you.'

Saori made a face as the plate clattered against the stack.  She snatched up the next one, brows drawing together in  marked frown as she focused on scrubbing it clean.  'More like he wanted to make excuses for what . . . didn't happen . . .'

'Or maybe he wanted to pick up where you left off.  You'll never know, now, will you?  Silly goose, you just had to turn tail and run, so you can put a nice face on it if you want to, but there is something between the two of you, whether you believe it or not.'

"Saori."

With a strangled gasp, she shifted around, glanced over her shoulder, cheeks blossoming in embarrassed color as her gaze locked with Fai's.  Stepping out of the trees, he ambled toward her, a marked scowl marring his features, and she turned her back on him, trying to hurry in washing the dishes.  "Fai-sama . . ."

He stopped beside her, standing at a respectable distance, staring out, over the water.  "I get the feeling that you're avoiding me," he said without preamble.  "I'm . . . I'm sorry about . . . about last night.  I didn't . . . It wasn't my intention to—"

"I know," she blurted quickly, unable to staunch the flow of blood that saturated her skin as she stubbornly ducked her head, hoping, praying, that he couldn't see her face.  "It's okay.  It's . . . It's fine . . ."

"That's not—"

Hastily scooping up the clean dishes, Saori shot to her feet and hurried back toward the campsite.  "Really, Fai-sama, it's fine," she insisted, inflicting enough brightness into her tone to hide her acute discomfort—she hoped.  "The . . . The children wanted to play some games, so . . ."

She heard his frustrated sigh, but she kept up her brisk pace, barely able to control her urge to run away from him.  With a gasping squeak, she tightened her grip on the plates when he caught her arm and pulled her back, turned her around to face him—and his very formidable glower that did nothing at all to diminish just how good-looking he really was.

Eyes flashing, the gold flecks almost glowing, he scowled at her, his irritation bordering on outright anger, and she took an involuntary step back in retreat.  "Fai-sama?" she breathed, unsure just why he was so out of sorts.

He snorted.  Loudly.  "We're not done talking," he told her.  "What makes you think—?"

She made a face, quickly shook her head.  "You don't have to apologize," she said.  "I mean, nothing . . . nothing happened, so . . ."

Eyebrows shooting upward, he blinked at her for a moment.  "Nothing . . .?  You call that, 'nothing'?"

Frowning since she didn't really understand just why he sounded almost offended, she shrugged, tugging on her arm that he did not let go.  "It was nothing," she insisted, her gaze slipping away from his.  "Not really, anyway . . ."

Those eyes narrowed dangerously on her, his anger spiraling into something far more dangerous, and he erupted in a low growl.  "Not . . . really . . ." he repeated in an incredulous kind of tone.

"Saori!  Saori!"

Both of them turned to look at the youngster who was crashing through the trees, heading straight for them.  "Yuri?" she questioned as Fai let go of her arm.  "What's the matter?"

The boy shook his head, sparing a few moments to catch his breath.  "It's Sasha!  He fell out of a tree!  His leg looks strange!"

Saori didn't wait to hear more, taking off at a dead sprint as she headed back toward the campsite to retrieve her first aid kit.  No sooner had she dropped the plates back into the wooden box that they were kept in, than Dmitri hurried into camp with the eight year old in his arms.

Sasha was whimpering, but trying not to.  Dmitri sat on the log by the fire, talking in calm, quiet tones to the child.

Grabbing the bright red backpack that Saori kept stocked for emergencies, she ducked out of the girls' tent and hurried over.  "Let me see," she said, dropping to her knees before the child.

It took a few minutes for her to gently work off the boy's shoe and sock.  Sasha did his best, not to move and not to whimper, despite the few little gasps that escaped him.  Surveying the damage, and she grimaced.  Already swollen and bruising, the foot and ankle were straight, though.  "This might hurt a bit," she said, biting her lip as she gingerly took the foot, felt around to examine the bones.  To her relief, she didn't feel anything out of place.  "Can you move your toes?"

He did, his skin of his face, a little peaked, but otherwise okay.

Even so, she dug out her phone, snapped a few pictures from different angles, and sent it off to her second-cousin, who was actually more of an uncle.

A minute later, her phone rang, and she connected the call.   "Oji-chan?  You got those pictures?  It doesn't feel like anything's out of place or broken, but I wanted your opinion."

Kichiro Izayoi's warm voice came through the line.  "Hey, sweetness.  Well, it's impossible to know for sure without x-rays, but from what I can see in the images, it looks like just a really bad sprain.  One of the pups?"

"Yeah," she allowed.  "A sprain?"

"Can he move his toes?"

"Yes, but I don't think he can bear weight on it."

"Not surprising," Kichiro remarked.  "You should be all right in treating it as a sprain, at least for the rest of the day.  If he cannot bear weight on it in the morning or if the swelling gets worse, then I'd seek out a doctor.  Try to immobilize it so that his youkai-blood can heal it faster, but don't wrap it too tightly."

"Okay," she said.  "Thank you."

"Any time, Saori-chan."

The line went dead, and she dropped her phone on the ground as she smiled at the boy, who was eyeing her rather dubiously since he hadn't understood the conversation that she'd just had in Japanese.

Saori let out a deep breath of relief upon seeing the movement.  "Well, it doesn't seem to be broken," she said, reverting to Russian once more.  "If you can move your toes, it's a great sign.  It does look like it's sprained, though, but you should be back to normal in a day or two.  We'll look at it again in the morning, and if it looks worse or you can't stand on it, then we'll take you to a doctor, okay?"

"Okay," Sasha said slowly.  "I don't have to go back yet, do I?"

She laughed since Sasha made no bones about his reluctance to be made to go back home just yet.  Not surprising, given that the boy absolutely loved camping.  Digging out an ankle support and a long bandage, Saori shook her head.  "Not unless your ankle is worse in the morning," she assured him.  "Now, let's get this wrapped up, and you can take it easy for awhile."

It didn't take long to get Sasha's ankle braced and wrapped.  Settling back on her heels, Saori gave her handiwork a critical stare.  "Sasha, if the wrap starts getting uncomfortable, let us know so we can loosen it a little."

Dmitri sighed.  "Do you want to stay here or do you want to go back and watch everyone else?"

Sasha considered that, then craned his neck as he leaned back to look up at Dmitri.  "I want to watch the others!" he said.

Dmitri chuckled, shrugging as he intercepted Saori's amused expression.  "I figured," he said.

"Wait!" Saori exclaimed, digging into the first aid kit once more.  She pulled out a small bottle of ibuprofen and shook out a couple white tablets.  "Take these.  They should help the pain."

Sasha did as he was told, taking a long swallow from his canteen before making an exaggerated face.

Dmitri stood up, still holding on to Sasha.  "Thank you, Saori," he said as he started back toward the path that led a little deeper into the forest.

"Thank you!" Sasha called over Dmitri's shoulder.

"You're welcome," She replied, standing up and crossing her arms over her chest as she watched them disappear into the trees with Yuri on their heels.

"You're a nurse, too?"

Gasping softly as she spun around, only to come, face-to-face with the Asian tai-youkai, who was standing behind her, resting most of his weight on one foot, hands draped on his hips as he gazed at her with a hint of brightness in his eyes.  She blinked, stared.  He almost seemed . . . Amused . . .?

"I . . . I took first aid classes," she explained, shrugging her shoulders, ducking her chin almost nervously.  She wasn't sure why.  There was just something . . . different . . . in his expression . . . something she couldn't quite grasp . . .

He nodded, as though what she'd said made perfect sense.  "So, who did you call?" he asked.  He only sounded curious, which, she supposed, she could understand.

"Oji-chan . . . Well, one of them . . . He's a doctor.  I just figured he could tell me what he thought, and he agreed that it looked like a nasty sprain."  She grimaced.  "It's going to be sore today, but he should be okay in a couple days."

Fai slowly shook his head.  "You have way too many family members," he remarked dryly.

For some reason, that made her giggle.  "You say that like it's a bad thing," she pointed out.

He shrugged.  "I guess that depends on the family," he allowed.

She sighed, letting her arms drop in favor of picking up the first aid kit.  "Mine is pretty large," she admitted.  "Sometimes, it's hard to be a part of it, too . . ."

"How so?"

She forced a smile as she slung the strap over her shoulder.  "Oh, you know . . . Some of them just have left very large shoes to fill," she said.  "It's like . . . being born under the shadow of a great mountain, and no matter how far you reach out, you just can't step out of it and into the sunshine."

He considered that for a long moment responding. "You love your family," he pointed out slowly, almost carefully.

Pushing her hair back behind her ear, she shrugged again.  "I do," she agreed.  "I love them a lot.  It's just sometimes . . . and I feel like they're all so great that I'll never be more than just little Saori-chan . . ."

"You'll be fine," he assured her, his lips curving up in the barest hint of a smile.  "I have every faith that you'll shine brighter than any of them."

She stopped, let her heard fall to the side as she blinked, as she stared at him.  He seemed genuine enough, and maybe he was just trying to make her feel better, but something about the glimmer in his eyes . . .

"I'm going to go help Dmitri with the pups," Fai said as he headed toward the path.

"Okay," she called.  "I'll be right there as soon as I put this away."

She watched him go, a secretive little smile, toying with the corners of her lips.

'You know, I think he likes you.'

She couldn't contain the blush that shot into her skin.  'Don't be silly,' she chided, pausing long enough to zip the bag closed.  'He was . . . He was just being kind . . .'

'That was not being kind, Saori.  That was a man who truly believes what he said.'

'Yep, fascinating like a science experiment,' she thought darkly.  'Once he goes back home, he won't think about me, ever again, and . . . and he'll just be a really nice memory for me.'

'Is that what you think?  You're being uncharacteristically pessimistic.'

'It's not pessimism.  It's realism.  I mean, I may not be the ugliest girl out there, but it's not like I'm anything special, either, and Fai-sama . . . He's extraordinary . . .'

'Says you.  You know, you're just as pretty as anyone else—prettier, even—and besides, it's not like everyone bases that much stock in physical appearances.'

'Yeah, except there has to be a physical attraction there or it won't matter, anyway.'

'And you don't think there is?'

'For me, maybe.  For him?' she sighed.

'I think you're out of your—What's that?'

Head snapping up as her brain registered what her youkai had noticed, she narrowed her eyes as she slowly scanned the trees on the far side of the clearing.  The wind had shifted, blowing the stranger's scent straight to her, and she thought she saw a flicker of movement.   She started forward, only to stop when a young man—maybe a couple years older than she—a wolf-youkai—stepped out of the forest.

His gaze was wild, almost panicked, scanning the area quickly until he lit on her, and he stopped short.  "You . . . You can help me!"

Saori blinked as the man strode over to her and grabbed her by the wrist.  "Wait!  Who are—?"

"Move," he growled, dragging her into the trees.

She yanked on her arm, to no avail.  The wolf was stronger than he looked, and he held onto her with a death-grip.  Uttering a harsh scream, she choked when he let go of her, only to yank her toward him, catching her around the waist uncomfortably tightly, his free hand clamping over her mouth as he hefted her off her feet and started to run . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 12~~
~Plotting~

 

~o~

 

 

Fai skidded to a stop in the center of the camp near the fire pit, scowling as he scanned the area.

"Saori!" he yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth to amplify the sound.

She hadn't come to find them after putting up the first aid bag, as she said she was going to.  After waiting almost an hour, he'd come back to see what was holding her up, but she was nowhere to be seen . . .

'Damn it . . .'

Lifting his chin, sniffing the air, Fai's frown deepened.

'She's nowhere nearby,' his youkai-voice said.

Scowl darkening since he'd already figured out as much, he strode forward, drawing in lungfuls of breath as he struggled to find any lingering trace of her scent.

Where the hell was she?

"Did you find her?"

Glancing over his shoulder when Dmitri and the children wandered back into the camp, Fai shook his head.  "No."

Dmitri wandered over to him, draping his hands on his hips as he, too, slowly looked around.  "It's not like her to just disappear," he said as though Fai hadn't already realized as much.  Then he sighed.  "I'm sure she's around.  Maybe she just needed a little bit of time to herself."

Fai snorted loudly.  Even if that were the case, she'd been gone too long, hadn't she?  "It doesn't feel right," he insisted, slowly shaking his head.  "I can't sense her anywhere near."

"You can feel her presence?"

"Not now, I can't," Fai growled.  "Damn it . . ."

"Your Grace—"

A subtle shift in the wind made his eyes flare wide, made him stop where he stood for only a moment before dashing off in that direction.  "I'm going to go look for her," he called back over his shoulder.  "Take the pups back to the home!"

Dmitri hollered after him, but he didn't really hear or care as he bounded off toward the trees.

'Saori . . . Where are you . . .?'

Her scent led him into the trees, accompanied by the scent of a stranger—someone he didn't recognize.  Erupting in a low growl, he trailed them deeper into the forest, a sense of cloying urgency wrapping around his stomach as he tried to hurry without losing the trail.  He didn't know where she was, and he didn't know how long of a head start they had, but he knew—knew—that she wouldn't have just taken off, wouldn't have gone anywhere without telling someone.  If nothing else, she never would have been careless enough to just up and abandon the children in her care.

But why would someone have taken off with her?  The home was poor, the children didn't come from families of any real means.  It wouldn't be worth it for anyone to try to gain anything from kidnapping anyone associated with it . . .

'As if anyone would need a reason to grab her,' his youkai scoffed.  'She's smart, she's gorgeous, she's funny, she's quirky . . . What more reason do they need . . .?'

'I'll kill them,' he growled to himself.  'If they so much as touch a hair on her head, I'll—'

"Fai!"

Stopping dead in his tracks, Fai whipped around, eyes flaring wide as Yerik stepped out of the trees to the left.  The younger Demyanov looked almost as shocked as Fai was as he hurried over, throwing his arms around his brother.  "Y-Yerik?"

Yerik finally stepped back, giving Fai a very thorough once-over as he slowly shook his head.  "I've been looking for you!" Yerik exclaimed.  "Who took you?  Where is she?"

"She?  You know about her?" Fai asked, ignoring Yerik's question.

Yerik snorted.  "A couple of convenience stores I stopped in . . . Some of the staff remembered you and said you were with a woman.  So, who is she?"

Fai gritted his teeth at the reminder of what he had just been doing.  "We've got to find her," he said, turning on his heel, setting off after the stranger's scent—after Saori's scent—once more.

"Find who?" Yerik demanded, falling into step beside Fai.  "We've got to get you home.  You've been missing for—"

"They took Saori," Fai growled, quickening his pace.  "I don't know who, but when I figure it out, they're going to die . . ."

"Die?  They?  What are you talking about?" Yerik demanded.  "Who's Saori?"

"She's the one who kidnapped me," Fai snapped, veering off to the right.  "This way!  Move it, Yerik!"

"Okay, but if this Saori kidnapped you, then why do you want to save her?  How do you know she didn't take off willingly with whoever she's with?  What makes you think—?"

"She didn't really kidnap me," he corrected, the air of exasperation thick in his tone.  "More like . . . she appropriated me."

He could feel Yerik's probing gaze, but he didn't turn to verify it.  "She . . . what?"

Waving a hand, Fai kept moving.  "Never mind," he grumbled.  "Anyway, she'd never have taken off with anyone else without telling someone first, no matter who it was."

"Why are you defending some crazed woman who kidnap—Fai?"

"What?"

". . . How did she kidnap you?"

Fai grunted.  "It was a misunderstanding," he said.  "She knocked me out with the van door, and then—"

"Knocked you out?  And just how did she manage that?"

"Way to get stuck on the details," Fai grumbled.

Yerik snorted.  "Okay, so, you want to go in and rescue the same woman who kidnapped you—"

"Appropriated."

Yerik rolled his eyes.  "Kidnapped you, and then, what?"

That earned him a rather droll scowl, as though he ought to know the answer to that question.  "And then, I'll kill whoever thought to take her, in the first place."

"Fai . . ."

"Move it, Yerik!  More running, less talking," Fai blasted.

To his relief, his brother actually complied that time.  Weaving through the trees, Fai concentrated on Saori's scent.  'She'd better be all right when I get there,' he thought as he pushed himself faster.  'If she isn't . . .'

Scowl darkening as he ground his teeth together, his body a blur of motion, he couldn't control the rage that built, higher and thicker, inside.  If they'd hurt her . . .?

'I'll kill them,' he thought.  'Dead.'

 


 

 

"I think that'll do it," Saori said as she peeled off the rubber gloves and pushed her bangs back out of her face.

"And he'll be all right?" Nikolai asked, peering over her shoulder at his unconscious cousin.

She nodded.  "The problem was that a bit of the bullet had chipped off and lodged itself against the vein, so his body wasn't able to properly close the wound until it was cleaned out, so, that's why he was bleeding so much for so long.  I was able to remove it, so he should be fine now."

Nikolai didn't look entirely convinced, but he did appear to be a little more calm than he had been.

Rubbing her forehead, she sighed when her cell phone chimed.  She wasn't surprised to see the text from her uncle, asking her if everything was okay.  He had suggested looking for debris that was inhibiting the healing process—anything that didn't look like it belonged there.  Between video chatting, pictures, Kichiro-oji-chan's explanations, and a couple Google searches, she'd been able to clean the wound properly.  Now, it was up to Pavel's body to regenerate the blood he'd lost and to close the damaged flesh.

She took a minute to text him back, to let him know that it all looked good, before slipping the device into her pocket once more before changing out the gauze pad that she'd covered Pavel's shoulder with.  She hadn't taped it into place, though, since she wanted to allow the wound to drain a bit first . . .

Satisfied that he was set, at least for the moment, she turned to face Nikolai with a frown.  "Do you know who shot him?" she asked.  It was the first time she'd had a chance to do so since he'd explained everything and had brought her here to treat his cousin.

Nikolai dug a beaten-up silver flask from his pocket and downed a healthy swallow before offering it to her.  "Who else?  Those Kyranyovitch bastards; that's who.  Stooping to using guns . . ."

"The Kyranyovitches?  And you two are Bershetoyevs . . . "

Nikolai nodded.  "They will pay for this.  If they want an all-out war, then that's what they'll get."

She frowned since she distinctly remembered Fai mentioning that the two didn't use guns at all . . .

Nikolai jiggled the flask in her direction.

She started to raise a hand to wave him off, but thought better of it.  Tipping the flask, she choked and sputtered, shoving it back at him as she wiped her mouth with the back of her free hand.  "That's not good," she rasped out, slapping her hand against her chest a few times to chase the liquor down.

"Sorry," he said, though he didn't actually sound sorry, at all. 

Saori stared at him for several moments before reaching out, plucking the flask out of Nikolai's slack grip.  This time, however, she carefully poured a good shot of it into the wound, ignoring the wolf-youkai's protests.  Then she handed it back and frowned as she repacked the area.

"I thought that your feud never involved guns," she said, pushing herself back to her feet, dusting off her hands as she turned her attention to Nikolai once more.

"It never has before," he said, rubbing his hands over his face.  "Things have been worse lately, though, so maybe it was just a matter of time . . ."

"Worse?" she echoed, frowning as she crossed her arms over her chest.  "How so?"

He shot her a dark scowl.  "None of your business," he replied curtly.  "Thank you for helping Pavel, but you're an outsider."

She nodded.  She supposed she could understand that well enough.  Though her family tended to be pretty open with information, there were things—certain things—that no one really talked about.  It wasn't that they were forbidden, per se, just kind of avoided simply because of the subject matter.

Flipping her wrist to check her watch, she stifled a sigh as she looked around, scanning the area carefully.  They were near a tall rock cliff—sort of a makeshift shelter—where Nikolai had told her he'd left Pavel when the younger wolf couldn't go on.  Then he'd set out to try to find some help, but it was just plain, dumb luck that had led him to their campsite.  He'd seen her treat Sasha's ankle, and that was why he'd brought her here.

'Yeah, well, that aside, we need to think about getting out of here.  They're probably all looking for you now, and no one knows where you are or that you were abducted, in the first place.'

Saori made a face.  'I wasn't abducted, really . . . It's just that he didn't have time to stop and explain everything beforehand; that's all.'

'No, Saori, you were most certainly abducted or do you not remember him, hefting you off your feet, covering your mouth, and racing away with you?'

'He wasn't trying to harm me,' she argued evenly.  'He was just concerned about his cousin, and that's actually pretty admirable.'

Which was true.  He'd told her what he needed as he'd sped with her through the forest, but he must have thought that he could move faster than her because he didn't bother to set her down until they were back at the place where Pavel was resting.

Now that the immediate danger had passed, however, she had to get back, and soon—if they hadn't already realized she was missing, and that was a very good possibility.

"If I leave you with gauze and stuff, can you change out the dressing in a couple hours?  I really need to get back, and—"

"Can't you stay here till then?" Nikolai asked, turning his formidable scowl on her once more.  "What if he starts bleeding again?  What if—?"

"He's fine now," Saori said calmly.  He should wake up soon.  My uncle said that he's unconscious now to let his body heal, to let it regenerate itself.  When he wakes up, make sure he drinks water, maybe find something for him to eat."

She started to turn, to leave, but Nikolai caught her arm and yanked her back.  "You're not leaving until he wakes up—until I know that he's okay."

Saori bit her lip, stared at his hand, wrapped around her wrist, and she stifled a sigh.  Sure, she could probably get away from him without too much of a problem.  Too bad she understood completely, just how worried he was about his cousin.  Digging her phone out of her pocket once more, she fired a text off to Dmitri, explaining where she was and that she'd be back soon . . .

 


 

 

"The Bershetoyevs!" Fai growled, starting to shoot to his feet from where he and Yerik were hunkered down behind a hedge of bushes where they'd opted to observe the situation for a few minutes.  They were far enough away that they were avoiding drawing any notice thus far, and it appeared to be calm enough.  Even so, when the wolf-youkai reached out, yanked Saori back over to him again, it was all he could do to not bust right on in and knock the errant man right onto his ass for it.

'Entirely untrue, Fai.  You wanted to bust on in there, all guns blazing.  Yerik, however, seems to be in possession of far more brains than you are, at the moment.'

'. . . Shut up.'

His youkai snorted in answer.

Yerik grabbed Fai's arm and yanked him back down once more, pinning his brother with a darkened scowl.  "What are you doing?  You can't just go, charging in there yet.  We need to make sure there's no more of them first—need to be sure what we're up against."

"What do you mean?  It's a couple of those damned Bershetoyevs—that's who we're up against!" Fai hissed.

Yerik rolled his eyes, shook his head.  "Since when do you do anything this hastily?" he countered.  "Just what's gotten into you, Fai?"

Fai glowered at his brother, ready to snap at him.  "You know, Yerik, the only reason you're with me right now is—"

"Calm down," Yerik hissed, sparing a glance at the people they were trying to hide from.  Suddenly, though, he shook his head.  "I can't see how that little girl kidnapped you."

Rolling his eyes heavenward, Fai grunted.  "I told you, she walloped me with the van hatch, and when I was unconscious, she loaded me into the rickety old van and took off—Did you see the van on your way here?  A white one—a white one covered in rust."

"Can't say I did," Yerik replied.  "So, she smacked you with the van door?  Okay, but why are you still with her, then?  And she needs to be behind bars, not running around, scot-free, and certainly not being rescued by the tai-youkai . . ."

"She just wanted me to come here, to meet the children.  She wanted to convince me not to defund the orphanage."

"You're going to defund the orphanage?  Mother's orphanage?  Fai—"

"Not anymore, I'm not," Fai growled.  "They're going to reduce staff, and . . . and I'm going to look into trying to find placements for any of the children that I can.  Anyway, she was never intending to hurt me."

"So, as long as someone isn't intending harm, then it's all fine?" Yerik challenged.

"Leave it alone, Yerik," Fai stated.  "I'm going to go get her back."

"Wait!" Yerik hissed, yanking Fai back once more.  "Let's at least take a minute to check the perimeter—make sure there's no one else out here before we go in there."

Fai didn't look like he wanted to agree.  Finally, though, he rolled his eyes and nodded curtly.  "I'll go this way.  You go that way.  We'll meet up on that cliff," he said, pointing to indicate the rock formation behind Saori and the Bershetoyevs.

Skirting the central area, Fai ground his teeth together as he carefully vaulted into a high tree to better scan the area.

He sighed.  As far as he could tell—as far as he could sense, there were only the two Bershetoyevs and Saori.  From his vantage point, however, he could see the one, stretched out on the ground, apparently unconscious.  Beside him stood the huge red canvas bag—Saori's first aid kit.  The other Bershetoyev was stalking around restlessly, and even across the distance, he could sense the man's nerves, his upset.

And he could smell blood.

It wasn't fresh blood, and it wasn't Saori's.  It was, however, enough to give him pause as he narrowed his gaze, trying to make sense of just what was going on.

Launching himself to the next tree, he made himself keep moving.  The only real way that he was going to get any answers was to confront them . . .

It didn't take long to finish sweeping his half of the area, but even so, Yerik was already waiting for him at the base of the rock formation, and Fai grimaced as he dropped to the ground.  "Well?"

Yerik shrugged.  "No one.  I take it your side was the same?"

Fai grunted.  "Let's go."

"Wait," Yerik said, grabbing Fai's shoulder before the tai-youkai could make his way to the top of the cliff.

"What?"

Yerik frowned.  "Tell me why you're so anxious to rescue this woman."

"We don't have time to—"

"She's fine at the moment.  That guy doesn't seem at all interested in hurting her," Yerik pointed out calmly, crossing his arms over his chest to emphasize his point.  "We've got time for you to answer me."

Scowling at his brother in such a way that would usually dissuade pursuance of the topic at hand with anyone else, Fai stifled a frustrated growl.  Yerik was the only being alive who would dare to ask him something like that, and there was a good chance that the younger Demyanov knew it, too.  "I . . . I don't know," he admitted, raking his hands through his hair as he glowered at his sibling.

For some reason, Yerik didn't actually look surprised.  "I see."

"You see?  What do you see?" Fai challenged.

Yerik didn't smile, but he looked like he might be tempted, and he flicked a hand in blatant dismissal.  "Okay, Fai.  Let's go save your Saori."

"All right.  Now, I think—She's not 'my' anything," he growled, narrowing his glower on his brother.

Yerik did smile.  "I apologize, Fai."

Rolling his eyes since Yerik actually sounded like he was just humoring Fai, the tai-youkai ignored him as he scaled the rocks and scooted closer to the edge, peering down at the unsuspecting people below.

By the time Yerik edged in beside him, Fai had decided that the best course might well be to drop down between the pacing youkai and the one who still seemed to be unconscious.  "You drop over there," Fai said in a whisper as he leaned toward Yerik and pointed.  "I'll go there, and if that one attacks, you grab Saori and get back.  Understand?"

Yerik looked like he wanted to argue, but Fai wasn't waiting to debate the plan.  A moment later, both of them hopped down, lighting on the ground, moments before Saori's soft gasp echoed in the woods.

"Fai-sama?"

He shot her a look that really ought to have quelled her overall enthusiasm.  It didn't.  with a sharp yelp, she literally threw herself into his arms.

Bershetoyev growled and lunged at him.  Fai started to spin to the side, away from the wolf's outstretched claws, but Yerik was faster, shooting forward, grasping the youkai's arm, yanking him forward as his arm stretched out, snapping him in the center of the chest, sending the wolf's body flying back, only to smack hard into the base of a thick fir tree that shuddered and groaned.  The impact knocked out Bershetoyev, and he crumpled to the ground with a sudden whoosh of breath.

Saori gasped, her arms dropping away from Fai as she spun on her heel to run over to the fallen wolf.  Fai caught her hand and held her back as she spared him a chagrined sort of scowl.   "He hurt him!" she exclaimed indignantly.

"Yeah, and he meant to," Fai growled back, late fear, all the worry he'd felt in the last few hours, erupting in a menacing display.  "What the hell are you doing here, Saori?"

"His cousin was shot," she blasted back.  "He needed help!  That's all!  And now—"

"He was trying to attack the tai-youkai," Yerik stated.  "I don't think—"

"And just who are you?" she snarled, head snapping to the side as she pinned Yerik with a very fierce glower.

Yerik wasn't impressed.  "Yerik Demyanov," he said.  "You're the one who kidnapped my brother?"

"Appropriated," both she and Fai snapped in unison.  Saori's eyebrows shot up as she shifted her gaze back to Fai once more.  Fai, for the most part, just grunted and stared at the fallen wolf who still had yet to move.

Yerik rolled his eyes.  "Whatever you want to call it," he grumbled as he stomped past them to check on the wolf.

"He wanted me to help his cousin," she repeated with a sigh.  "He was shot, like I said.  He saw me treat Sasha, so he thought I could help."

"And you didn't have time to let me know this?" Fai growled.

"Well, it kind of happened pretty fast, and he didn't really ask so much as demand . . ."

"He kidnapped you?" Fai demanded.

Saori made a face.  "Not really," she said.  "I mean, he was just worried about his brother, and I would have helped, either way . . ."

"You really don't have any commons sense at all, do you?  I told you this area was dangerous.  I told you what was going on around here, and you just go, wandering off with some stranger that you don't even know from Adam, and then—"

"Well, I didn't actually know you from Adam to start with," she pointed out.

He wasn't in the mood for her flip answers, and the narrowed-eyed look he gave her should have told her as much.  The infuriating woman smiled at him instead.  "We're getting out of here.  Yerik!"

"Wait," she blurted, tugging against his hold when he started to stomp away.

"What for?"

She grimaced.  "Nikolai wanted me to change Pavel's bandaging," she said.  "Just let me—"

"Absolutely not," Fai growled, yanking her back when she tried to head toward the still-unconscious one—Pavel, he guessed.

"It'll just take a minute, and—"

"And I said no!" he thundered.

She gasped, her mouth snapping closed as her eyes flared wide, and just for a moment, she seemed almost—almost—frightened of him, and he gritted his teeth.  Hard.

"Just let me check him once more," she said, her tone losing much of the intensity that she'd had as she slowly shook her head, as she cast him what could only be described as an imploring kind of look.  "Please."

Against his better judgment, he let go of her, though he did follow her over to the fallen youkai.  She made quick work of changing his bandages, in cleaning the wound that looked like it was closing up well enough, and she nodded to herself as she cleaned and redressed it.  When she finished that, she took the bag, started to head past him to check on the other, he supposed.  He caught her hand and stopped her.  "He tried to attack me.  He can deal with the headache," Fai insisted.

She looked like she wanted to argue with him, but Yerik strode over before she could.  "He's fine.  He's breathing.  He'll wake up soon enough."

Fai intercepted Saori's look and shook his head.  "You heard him.  He'll be fine.  Now we're getting out of here, so move."

She uttered a sound that was caught somewhere between a growl and a sigh, but she fell into step beside him.

"How did you get out here?" Fai asked over her head.

Yerik dragged his questioning gaze off of Saori to meet his brother's eyes.  "I drove.  The car's not far from here."

"Good," Fai said.

They continued along in silence for awhile, each of them trying to look at one another without being blatantly obvious about it.  Fai intercepted a few rather confused looks from Yerik, but he narrowed his eyes to discourage whatever his brother wanted to say, and this time, it mercifully worked, too, since the very last thing he wanted was to be inundated by the questions that he knew would be forthcoming sooner or later.

"You . . . You came to rescue me . . .?" Saori murmured softly, without looking up at him, breaking the uncomfortable quiet that had fallen.  Fai still held onto her hand, but she didn't seem to notice any more than he did.

"Of course, I did," he said with a sigh.  "You didn't think I would?"

She shrugged.  "I didn't know," she admitted.  "I'm sorry to have put you to that trouble.  I would have come back when I was finished, though.  They . . . They weren't actually dangerous . . ."

"They could have been," Fai told her, but his tone had lost much of his prior irritation.  "You could have been in danger—especially you."

"Why me?"

Fai snorted, and just for a moment, he forgot that his brother was walking along beside them.  "You're a beautiful woman, Saori.  That's more than reason enough."

He heard her gasp, but thought nothing of it, increasing his gait as they made their way through the woods . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 13~~
~Goodbyes~

 

~o~

 

 

"You're a beautiful woman, Saori.  That's more than reason enough."

Lying in bed, staring at the cracked and discolored ceiling in the half-dark, Saori let out a deep breath as those words—Fai's words—tumbled around in her head.

What did he mean by that?

'Well, Saori-chan, I'd say that it's simple enough.  It means that he thinks you're beautiful.'

Her youkai-voice's observation made her scowl darken.  'But . . . But he said it so nonchalantly . . . like he was talking about the weather or . . . or something . . .'

'But he did say it, and that means something.  You don't just randomly say that about someone unless you actually think so.'

Saori wasn't so convinced.  After all, she'd spent a good hour, staring in a mirror after she'd taken a long shower.  She hadn't seen a thing that she would have put into the category of 'beautiful', anyway . . .

'That's just because you look at yourself every single day and have since you were old enough to realize that your reflection was your reflection.  You see what you see, and it's easy to think that it it's ordinary.  It'd be a little weird if you actually realized how you might look to someone else.'

'If that were true, then why didn't guys pay attention to me . . . well, ever . . .?' she challenged.

'Maybe they did, and you just never noticed, Saori.'

She made a face, yanking the thin blanket up under her chin.  'Oh, I think I would have noticed on all those Saturday nights, spent at home, doing nothing . . .'

Her youkai-voice snorted in a very unladylike manner.  'Except you weren't ever at home, alone, doing nothing on Saturday nights.  There was always something going on, and that's what you were doing.'

All right, so there was some truth in that.  Life was never really boring around her family, that was for sure.  Even so . . .

'Anyway, plenty of guys looked at you.  Thing was, none of them were worth your time, so it seemed kind of pointless to waste time on them.'

Saori heaved a sigh.  She wasn't entirely sure she agreed with her voice, after all.  Maybe if she'd had one or two boyfriends along the way, even if they weren't 'The One', then she wouldn't feel so awkward sometimes, would she?

The buzz of her cell phone, rattling against the nightstand, drew her attention, and she grabbed it before it worked itself onto the floor.  Seeing the name on the caller ID, she bit her lip, debated for all of a moment, whether or not she should answer it, but in the end, she connected the call and lifted the phone to her head.  "Nii-chan," she greeted, hoping he couldn't hear anything amiss in her tone of voice.  "Is everything okay?  It's a little late . . ."

Rinji grunted.  "I hadn't heard from you in a week?  More?  So, I figured I'd better find out if you were in jail or something . . ."

She grimaced.  "Nope, no jail," she told him.  "I will be coming home soon, though . . ."

"Oh?"

Saori sat up with a sigh, her attempt at light banter falling away in an instant.  "I'm losing my job," she finally admitted.  "Fai-sama is going to allow the home to stay open, but in order to do so, they have to cut some of the staff, and since I was the last one to be hired . . ."

"Is this some kind of retaliation for the kidnapping?"

"No, and I didn't kidnap him—I appropriated him," she insisted quickly, only to frown for a long moment.  "Well, I don't think so, anyway . . ."

"You . . .?  Just what the hell does that mean?" Rinji growled.

"It means that I suggested—strongly—that he come meet the children, is all," she said.  "Anyway, it has nothing to do with it—I don't think . . . No, if Fai-sama wanted me fired, he would have just said so.  He's too honorable to do something devious like that."

"And how would you know that, Saori?" Rinji challenged.  "You barely know him—hell, as far as I can tell, no one really knows him.  Gives ojii-sama a run for his money in the stoic department from what I hear."

"He's not like that at all," Saori argued.  "He's just . . . I mean, once you get to know him?  He's . . . He's very warm, very . . . Well, I don't think 'sweet' is a good way to describe him, but he's . . ."

Rinji didn't say anything for a minute, but he did heave a very long, very loud sigh.  "Saori . . ."

"I met his brother, too—well, not really."  She made a face.  "I met him, of course.  He showed up after I was kidnapped by this wolf-youkai to treat his cousin who was shot, and—"

"What?  Wait, what?"

"It wasn't exactly a kidnapping," Saori explained.  "He was just too worried about his cousin that he explained it after he grabbed me, is all . . ."

"He—? Really."

"Nii-san . . ."

Rinji grunted.  "All right; all right. You're okay, obviously, so . . ." He trailed off with a sigh.  "So, do you know when we should expect you home?"

She giggled suddenly, refusing to feel bad, or at least, refusing to let her brother see how bad she felt about the idea of being let go.  "Soon," she replied, inflicting enough happiness in her tone to keep Rinji from seeing right through it.  "Probably in the next week or so?  I guess, anyway."

"That quickly?"

Rubbing her forehead, she bit her lip.  "They need to keep their funding," she replied.  "It's a good thing—a great thing," she blurted, focusing on the silver lining.

Rinji blew out a deep breath, and she heard the clink of ice cubes in a glass.  "Give me a call and let me know when you're coming back then," he told her.  "And kaa-san says to give her a call soon.  She misses hearing your voice."

Saori grimaced since she hadn't called her mother in a few weeks.  It wasn't intentional, no, but she hadn't gotten a chance to since she'd gotten back from appropriating Fai . . . "I will," she promised.  "Tell kaa-chan and tou-chan that I miss them, too."

"Will do," he said.  "I'll tell them that you're coming home soon."

"Oh, no, don't!"

"Why not?"

She giggled again.  "I kind of want to surprise them."

He sighed.  "If that's what you want.  Talk to you later."

The line went dead, and Saori's smile faded.  She let the phone fall onto the coverlet beside her as she leaned forward, wrapped her arms around her raised knees.  Everything about this room was humble, just like the rest of the facility.  The floors creaked, the paint was chipped, the furnishings were cheap and falling apart, and yet, the warmth that permeated every inch of the place touched her—something she would miss like crazy . . . She might well get a better paying job, might work at a nicer place, but she had a feeling that she'd never experience the same sense, no matter where she ended up . . .

'It's more than that, Saori . . . What about Fai-sama?'

Brows drawing together as she pondered her youkai's question, she scrunched up her shoulders.  'Fai-sama . . .'

A strange sort of chill ran up her spine, and she rubbed her arms.

She didn't know why she felt that way . . . or did she . . .?

 


 

 

Fai stared at the flames, dancing on the hearth.  He'd lit it more out of the need to do something than anything else since it wasn't really cold tonight.  Settling on the end of the creaky bed, he frowned.

Why was he feeling so entirely unsettled?

'Don't answer that.'

'Why not?  Why don't you want to think about why you might feel that way?'

Fai's scowl darkened, the firelight pooling in his eyes, lending them a flash, a glow . . . 'What am I supposed to say when I have no idea?'

'Do you think Saori's sleeping?'

Glancing at the small travel clock on the nightstand, Fai let out a deep breath as he stood up, as he wandered over to the smudged window.  It wasn't dirty, no, but it was so old that the glass was starting to take on that milky sort of sheen around the edges—the kind that would never wash away, no matter how vigorously it was scrubbed.  'It's almost midnight . . . She's got to be sleeping already . . .'

'I don't know.  Maybe she's not.  Besides, I think Yerik was wanting to leave in the morning, so if that's the case . . .'

That thought was enough make him pivot on his heel, to stalk over to the door.  He was just reaching out to grab the knob when a curt knock drew him up short, and he made a face.  "Come," he called, sensing Yerik's youki through the thin wood, altering his course as he strode back to the end of the bed once more.

The door squeaked, groaned, as his brother slipped into the room and closed the door behind himself while Fai sank down again.  "The area seems secure.  I took the liberty of running it, just to make sure.  Everything should be fine, and I gave Director Bostoyev my cell number in case he cannot reach you . . . We can leave in the morning."

Fai leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, tapping his fingertips together slowly, methodically.

"Fai . . .?  Fai . . .?"

"What's that?" Fai said, blinking as he slowly turned his face, just far enough to peer up at Yerik.

Yerik's emerald green eyes narrowed as he gave his head a slight shake.  "Fai, what's gotten into you?  Ever since I found you, you've been acting . . . different."

"Different?  How so?"

"You tell me."

"Don't know what you're talking about," Fai grumbled, wishing for the world that he had a shot of vodka—anything—that might take the edge off of the unrest that was plaguing him.  Unfortunately, the only thing here was maybe kvass, and that didn't have enough alcoholic content to do a damn thing.

"Oh, don't you?  What is it about Saori that has gotten to you so badly?  You're sarcastic, grouchy, short-tempered, impatient . . . You're never like this."

Fai snorted.  "Nothing at all," he forced himself to say.

Yerik shook his head.  "Fai, you know, I—"

"You did well," Fai interrupted, partly to shut Yerik up, partly because it was the truth.

"I did?" Yerik echoed, golden eyebrows disappearing under the thick fringe of his bangs.

Fai nodded.  "You did," he allowed.  "You tracked me down without any real leads, found me in the forest . . . took care of the wolf-youkai . . . You did very well, actually."

For a moment, Yerik seemed surprised by the praise.  Then he broke into a somewhat embarrassed sort of lopsided smile.  "Thank you, Fai."

"You're welcome."

Yerik paced the floor a few times.  Fai could almost hear the gears, turning in his mind, and he braced himself for what he knew was coming, but he'd opened the door, so to speak . . . "Good enough to be a hunter?"

'And there it is, Fai . . .'

"We'll see," Fai replied entirely noncommittally.  "You're only eighteen, Yerik.  Finish the university first, then we'll talk about it."

Yerik stared at him.  "That's just your way of trying to put me off," he said.  "What's the point of finishing the university if I have no interest in anything but hunting?"

Fai sighed.  "It's something Father never would have wanted you to do."

"Yeah, well, Father's not here, and you aren't him.  I'm not saying that to be an ass, Fai.  It's just that you don't get to tell me what I am or am not qualified to do.  It’s my life, and I want to do this.  I . . . I need to do this."

“I just . . . Let me think about it,” Fai replied.

Yerik didn’t look at all pleased about it, but he gave one jerky, curt nod.  “I’m not a child, Fai,” he said quietly.  “I know that you worry, but if I didn’t think I could do it, I never would have brought it up.  It’s not something I just decided on a whim.  I’ve thought about it for years—years . . .”

“I know,” Fai admitted with a scowl, with a grumble.  “You’re not given to being impetuous.”

“No, I’m not.  It’s just this feeling—this . . . Well, I suppose you could say that it just feels like a compulsion.  I know it’s not a pleasant job or one that most would ever want.  You are Father’s son—born and raised to be tai-youkai.  I’m not, but I feel this . . . this need to help you protect the legacy that Father and his father before him created, and if I can do that—if I can make your burden just a little easier to bear . . .”

“But it’s not your problem, Yerik,” Fai insisted, knowing deep down that his brother’s mind was already made up.  “If I somehow gave you the impression that I expected you to do anything that you don’t want to do—”

“It wasn’t you,” Yerik said.  “I mean, I guess it was to an extent, but it really wasn’t anything you ever said or did.  It was . . . It was years of watching you as you took time out to entertain me, and the look on your face as you turned away—the burdens that I didn’t understand until later . . . I saw it, even when you didn’t want me to.  I saw it, and . . . and it isn’t all on you.  It never should have been.  This—being a hunter—this is what I can do.  This is what I want to do.”

Fai opened his mouth to argue with Yerik, but snapped it closed with a frustrated sigh.

Yerik strode over to the door, paused with his hand on the handle.  Fai could feel the agitation in Yerik's youki, but at the moment, he just wasn't ready to delve into it any further—not now, not tonight, and as much as he wished it were otherwise, Yerik’s words, his quiet conviction . . . He could understand it, too.  He’d seen it—sensed it—in their father.  He understood it all just a little too well.  "Anyway, we'll get going in the morning," Yerik said, his tone, tight, clipped.  "If we take turns driving, it won't take too long to get back home.  Then I can go back to the university, since that's where you are dying for me to be."

Fai nodded as his brother slipped out of the room once more, leaving him alone with his troubled thoughts and answers that he just couldn't grasp, not yet.

 


 

 

"I can't believe that they're letting you go," Dmitri commented with a frown as he watched Saori pack the canvas duffel bag she'd brought with her when she'd first arrived to take the job at the home.

"It's okay," she said, sparing a moment to smile brightly at her friend—a friend she would miss terribly.

He wasn't buying, and his expression darkened, his neck length black hair hanging into his eyes, as he crossed his arms over his chest.  "It's not okay," he retorted, arching a jet-black eyebrow, his lips curling into a cynical sort of sneer.  "The children love you, and you love them.  They're going to be heartbroken, you know."

Her smile faltered, but she held on.  "As long as the home stays open, I have no complaints," she said, brushing past him to gather more things from the dresser.  "Besides, I'm not the only one they have to let go."

"I know," Dmitri said.  "I barely avoided it."

Saori's smile waned as she leaned against the dresser for a minute.  "I'll miss you, though," she admitted.

Dmitri nodded and held out his arm.  She hesitated for only a moment before stepping over, accepting the hug he offered.  "So, what will you do now, Saori?" he asked, giving her shoulders a brisk squeeze.

She sighed, squeezing him back before turning to resume packing.  "Well, I was offered a position back home before I accepted this one.  I doubt it's still open, but I'm sure I can find something there.  I just . . . I liked the feeling that I was really needed here, I guess."

"And you won't feel like that somewhere else?"

"No, I'm sure I will," she replied.  "Maybe not as much, but I'll be fine . . ."

Dmitri looked like he wanted to argue with her, but he must have figured that there wasn't a point, other than making her feel worse.  Wandering over to the window, he leaned against the frame, staring down at the front of the facility.

"You'll keep me updated, won't you?  About the children?" she asked, bumping an empty drawer closed with her hip before stepping back over to the bed.

"Yeah, sure," he said, leaning down to peer out the window a little closer.  "Oh, is His Grace going to give you a ride to the airport?"

Frowning as she dropped the clothing on the bag, she hurried over and ducked under his arm to see what he was looking at.  Down in the cracked pavement below, Yerik and Fai were standing by the car that Yerik had driven, along with Director Bostoyev.  The car doors were open, waiting, and Saori slowly shook her head.  "No," she admitted.  "They're . . . They're leaving . . .?"

"Looks like it," Dmitri commented.

Saori didn't stop to think.  She wheeled around and took off at a sprint, reacting on instinct as a strange sense of trepidation surged through her.  She didn't stop to question it as she raced down the hallway, down the stairs, grimacing when she smacked into the front door since it didn't swing outward.

"Fai-sama!" she called, stepping outside, struggling to catch her breath as the men turned to look at her.

Something about the finality of seeing him, ready to get into that car, to drive away from her forever dislodged something deep inside her, and she very nearly choked as panic, so deep, so raw, exploded in her.

'Do something, Saori!  Do something before he leaves!  Once he gets into that car and drives away, he'll be gone—beyond your reach!  You're never going to see him again, you know?  At least . . . At least . . .'

And she didn't stop to think, didn't consider what, if any, ramifications might well accompany her actions.  Dashing across the short porch, down the two steps to the cracked and disheveled sidewalk, across the walk, the grass, the broken pavement of the driveway, she threw herself into Fai's arms—he barely had time to catch her—her arms snaking around his neck, pulling him down at the same time that she rose up on tip-toe, her lips smashing against his in a clumsy and awkward kiss that still shot straight through her, straight to the heart of her, with a sigh, a breath, a deluging brilliance.  Somewhere in the back of her mind, it registered that he hadn't fought her at all, that he had done nothing to warn her off, to push her back—had, in fact, wrapped his arms around her—and was holding her so tightly that she almost couldn't breathe . . . All of it, every last bit, she committed to memory, knowing deep down that an hour from now, a day from now, a year from now, ten years . . . It would all be gone, everything but this moment—this one insular breath of time—that would stay in her heart forever . . .

A blatant throat-clearing intruded, snapping her out of her bemusement, and she gasped, her face exploding in crimson color as she stumbled back a step, as her hands flew up to hover over her mouth when her eyes flared wide.  A strong hand caught her—she didn't know who and didn't look.  Fai's expression was entirely unreadable, as he stared at her, his brows furrowed slightly, as though he were trying to see into her head.

"I-I-I—" she began, only to be cut off when Fai held up a hand.

Then he turned his head, stared at his brother for several long moments.  "Hunter," he said, addressing Yerik, whose eyes widened at the word Fai used.  "As your first act as my hunter, I order you to place this woman under arrest."

Yerik blinked.  "For kissing you?"

That earned him a narrow-eyed look.  "No, for kidnapping the Asian tai-youkai.  Put her in the car."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 14~~
~Above the Law~

 

~o~

 

 

Stomping into the study, brushing off Vasili's very real umbrage, Fai started to close the door, only to be stopped when Yerik shoved his way into the room behind him.  The questions were rife in the air—Fai could feel them—but almost perversely, he opted to ignore them instead, heading straight to his desk to dig through the pile of correspondences that had accumulated during his absence and completely ignoring his sibling in the process.

Pushing aside the return call notes Vasili had stacked neatly atop the mail, Fai started to sort through it, dropping unimportant things into the trash without bothering to open them, frown darkening as he shifted through a number of 'past due' notices, he dropped the rest of the mail on the desk as he reached for the telephone.

Yerik leaned over, smashing his index finger down on the phone cradle hook, arching an eyebrow at Fai.

"It's hard to make a phone call when you're holding that down," he pointed out, cocking an eyebrow of his own at his younger brother.

Yerik stared at him for another long moment before giving in with an ungracious sigh.  "Okay, Fai.  We'll do this your way.  We always do.  So, we just made what should have been a five—six—day trip in just over two with barely a word spoken at any point during.  Saori kissed you.  There's obviously something there between the two of you, and you ordered me to arrest her?  What the hell is going on?"

"Regardless of what I think, of what I might . . . might feel . . . she broke the law, and if she got away with it, then the precedent that would set . . ." Fai dropped the receiver on the desk in favor of rubbing his forehead.  "I can't allow that."

"Because she kidnapped you."

"Appropriated me," Fai corrected.

Yerik rolled his eyes.  "Whatever, Fai.  How long are you going to keep her here?"

"Until I feel that she has been duly chastised for her actions," Fai replied.  "Oh, and while I'm thinking about it, go find wherever Vasili stuck her and take her cell phone.  She won't be needing it during her stay."

"Don't you think you're being a little—?"

"Don't you want to be a hunter?" Fai interrupted, pinning Yerik with a no-nonsense look.

Yerik looked like he wanted to argue, but in the end, he gave one curt nod before pushing away from the desk and striding over to the door.  "As you wish," he called over his shoulder as he slipped out of the office.

Fai watched him go, but only after the door closed did he finally release the breath he'd held, pent-up.

'You realize that Yerik can see right through you.'

'Don't know what you're talking about.'

'Don't you?  Then answer Yerik's questions, at least to me.  Why did you order her arrested, Fai?'

That question alone was enough to bring that memory back in full-force: of Saori, the urgency, the near panic, so rife in her youki, as she burst through the door, hesitating on the porch long enough to call out his name . . . The luxuriant ripple of her waist-length gunmetal hair, streaming out behind her as she flew down the steps, across the distance that separated them, only to throw herself into his arms, and her kiss . . .

Those rouged lips, the unnatural brightness in her eyes as her eyelids fluttered closed, the dusting of her sooty lashes against the paleness of her cheeks . . .

And the absolute shock of her lips under his—something he was entirely unprepared for—the moment of instant connection that slammed through him with the finesse of a sledgehammer as his brain froze, as tactile feel took over . . . He’d felt like he was dying, only to be reborn in her, with her, alongside her . . .

What was it about her?  From the moment she’d breezed into his life, something had changed, flip-flopped, set his entire world on its head, and he wasn’t entirely sure if the knowledge that things had veered so far from normal scared him worse, or if it was just the innate understanding that . . . that it was all right with him . . .

The unwelcome intrusion of reality was too fast, too soon, giving rise to an unreasonable rage that had little to do with Saori's perceived audacity and everything to do with the bitter disappointment as she pulled away from him—and that flash of realization that, as soon as he got into that car, it would be for the last time . . .

'And you didn't want to let her go, did you?  Didn't want to go home, knowing that she wasn't going to be with you—that you may never see her again . . .'

'Don't be ridiculous!  It had nothing to do with that . . . I just . . .'

'You just reacted.  It's all right.  Objectively speaking, sometimes you have to go with your heart instead of your brain.'

He snorted, snatching up the receiver and dropping it into the cradle of the telephone.  'That's not what I was doing,' he insisted stubbornly.  'Not even close!'

'Okay, okay, if you say so.'

Somehow, he had the feeling that his youkai was just humoring him, which was enough to make his temper soar just a little higher.  Stifling the urge to growl out of sheer irritation, he grabbed the receiver and shoved the entire infuriating discussion aside as he punched in the number for the banker.

"Sberbank.  Vladimir Gostoyev's office.  This is Natasha.  How may I help you?"

"This is Faine Alexandrov Demyanov.  I need to speak with Vladimir."

"Yes, let me see if he's busy.  One moment, please."

Drumming his claws on the thick wooden desk, Fai waited impatiently.

It didn't make any sense.  None of his cards were working—all of them had been declined—and the stack of past due notices?  That shouldn't have happened, either.  There was no way that his accounts were so low that any of it should be an issue, and he was going to get some answers, damn it . . .

"Ah, Your Grace!" Vladimir Gostoyev's booming voice greeted him over the line.  "What can I do for you?"

"For starters, you can tell me why all my cards are being declined and why I have a stack of past due notices here on my desk," Fai growled.

"Oh, well, let me check into it . . ."

He heard the clicking of a computer keyboard as the banker accessed Fai's accounts.  Stifling the desire to sigh, Fai focused on holding together what was left of his waning patience.

"Hmm, it looks like there was suspicious activity, and so your accounts were frozen since we could not reach you to verity the transactions.  There's one attempted purchase in Traska that looks like it triggered the shut down . . ."

"That was a valid charge," Fai muttered.  "Not now, though. It's been paid.  I trust you can release my accounts?"

"Well, it's not as simple as that, Your Grace . . . Because you didn't respond to our messages in a timely manner, it triggered an audit of your accounts—all of them—and it may take another week to gain the releases on them . . ."

"Unacceptable," Fai snapped.  "Release them now."

"I don't know if I can do that," Vladimir hedged.  "I really have no control over it, and there isn't a way to override it at this point."

"And meanwhile, services will come to a screeching halt," Fai growled.  "Absolutely not."

"I'll see what I can do, Your Grace.  I'll call you back as soon as I find out anything."

The line went dead, and Fai uttered a frustrated snarl as he dropped the phone back into the cradle once more.

It just figured, didn't it?  The situation overall was precarious enough.  If those who opposed his position caught wind of it, it could easily escalate into something very ugly, very quickly.

'Yet something else I could blame on Saori,' he thought as he strode over and sloshed vodka into a sparkling glass.  If she hadn't dragged him off that day, then none of this would have happened, either.

'You could,' his youkai agreed, 'but you won't.  After all, blaming her for it?  Do you think she meant to sabotage you?'

He sighed.  No, he supposed he really couldn't.  She didn't know that this would happen.  It was just a really crappy bonus.

Even so . . .

Dropping into the chair behind the expansive desk, Fai sighed and drained half of the glass in one swallow as he glared at the phone, willing it to ring . . .

 


 

 

'This is all your fault!'

Pacing the barren chamber where she'd been locked in, good and tight, Saori rubbed her arms against the chill coming off the stone walls of the ridiculously large and just as ridiculously empty room.  It could easily have been a master chamber or a spare bedroom—she didn't know, but there were also a number of other closed doors she'd been hurried past by that rather stoic and curt old butler that had escorted her here and left her.

She could see the sun starting to set through the small window that she couldn't open without breaking it, and she sighed.  No bed, no blankets, no anything . . . and the bathroom was little more than an ancient looking toilet and a tiny sink, ensconced in a tiny room that she could barely turn around in . . . All in all, she had to wonder just what this room was used for or if it had somehow become forgotten over time, which seemed like a rather melancholy kind of thought . . .

Nope, the only thing in the room that she could move at all were a few small rocks that had crumbled away from the window frame.  Tossing a stone into the air and catching it, over and over, she heaved a very frustrated growl, quickening her step as she continued her prowling.

'How is this my fault?' her youkai-voice demanded.

She snorted.  The sound echoed in the empty chamber.  'What do you mean, how?  If you hadn't freaked me out about Fai-sama leaving, I never would have kissed him, and if I hadn't done that, he wouldn't have—Well, he just wouldn't have!'

'That's not my fault!'

'How do you figure?'

'Easy!  I don't have lips, girlfriend!  They're yours—yours—and you're the one who just had to go plant one on him!'

'I didn't—! Keh!  That was totally your doing!  If it weren't for you, we'd be at the airport now, getting ready to fly home!'

'Think what you want, Saori, but that was entirely on you!'

'You're so full of—'

The sound of keys, banging against the wooden door, drew her attention as she whipped around, just in time to see the door creak open.  Yerik stuck his head inside, a dark scowl on his face, but he heaved a sigh and shook his head—and managed to duck a split second before the rock that was in Saori's hand just barely missed his head.  It smacked into the wall hard enough to send out a few sparks from the fissure where the stone connected, and Yerik arched an eyebrow at her as he slowly straightened up again.

"Well, I was going to take you to a different room," he said in an inordinately dry tone.  "Unless you're going to keep trying to knock my block off, that is . . ."

She snorted, crossing her arms over her chest since she still hadn't quite forgiven any of them just yet.  "A different room?" she echoed dubiously.  "Why?"

Yerik shrugged and pushed the door open a little wider.  "Because this wing of the castle isn't heated—or ever used, actually," he said.  "Oh, and I'll take your cell phone, if you will."

"My . . .?" she blurted, pulling the device out of her pocket and wrinkling her nose since she'd completely forgotten that she even had it, to start with.  "Why?"

Yerik stepped forward, plucked it out of her hand.  "Tai-youkai's orders.  I suggest you ask him if you want to get any answers."

"He's being awfully mean," she pointed out, though she didn't really expect that he'd agree with her at all.  "I mean, I told him I was sorry—that I panicked.  I didn't mean to . . . to . . ."

Yerik didn't look impressed with her claims of innocence.  "Come on," he said, jerking his head toward the door as he slowly pivoted on his heel to lead her out of the room.

She almost declined, simply on principle, but she swallowed what was left of her tattered pride and followed Yerik out of the bereft room and down the hallway.

There was nothing, literally, in this wing of the old castle.  She'd noticed that on her way up to the room, to start with, accompanied by the old and immaculate butler who Fai had called Vasili.  No paintings, no carpeting, no curtains, no adornments—nothing at all to break up the harsh and cold feel that sank in, bone deep, as she involuntarily rubbed her arms once more . . .

"Why is this wing so barren?" she heard herself asking, her gaze slowly taking in the rising stones, the cold edifice.  Ten?  Twelve closed doors that all added another layer of darkness to the already filmy light.  There were no lamps at all, nothing, but even in the semi-haze, she could still make out the intricately carved patterns surrounding each of the doors, the graceful scrollwork, almost like vines, that ran along the base of the walls, etched deep into the stonework . . .

"The legend says that this wing stopped being used around my great-great grandfather's time," Yerik said, his voice a little quieter, but that might have been simply because of the enormity of the space that swallowed the sound.  "He had a very large family—seven sons, four daughters, and they all lived here for a long time—most of them stayed until he died.  One of them, though—the youngest daughter, Dominika . . . She was playing in the red room—that one," he said, pointing to a closed door they were fast approaching, but he didn't open it.  "That room was built as a play room for the children, and there's a balcony in there—it's beautiful, actually—but . . . Well, somehow, she climbed onto the railing and slipped.  It was never clear to me how it was possible, but she got her head stuck between the railings, and by the time they found her, it was too late.  After that, they moved out, one by one, but by the time my grandfather was born, his aunts and uncles had all died, too—many of them in sick and twisted ways . . . Some of the staff swore that they'd seen a ghost up here—Dominika's ghost, most likely—and many of them flat-out refused to even mount the stairs from the great hall, so, when Grandfather thought to renovate, he didn't bother with this wing.  He simply had the great doors closed, and it was forgotten."

"And that's why there's no electricity up here, either," she mused.

Yerik nodded.  "I used to play up here sometimes when I was small.  Fai told me not to, though.  He doesn't put much stock in silly superstition, but I guess that when it came to me, he wasn't given to taking any chances.  Then again, maybe he thought that I would slip, that I would end up, strangling myself like Dominika did.  Who knows?"

Something about Yerik's brief historical account of the castle was an interesting mix of fanciful and arcane, but it made sense in the end, as to why that area of the castle was basically forgotten.   "So . . . uh . . . sorry about the rock," Saori said, mostly to break the unnerving silence that made her want to scream.  "I . . . I lost my temper, was all, and . . . and I didn't even think about it . . ."

"Is that why you kidnapped my brother—err, the tai-youkai?" he asked almost conversationally—almost.  “Because you didn’t think about it?”

She wrinkled her nose.  "It wasn't kidnapping as much as it was—"

"—Appropriation.  I got that.  You know, though, it doesn't matter what you call it.  The end result was the same.  It could be considered treason—a crime that's punishable by death.  If you were Russian, there would be no room for argument on it, but since you’re not, then the, uh, tai-youkai might have a bit of wiggle-room, so to speak . . ."

She blinked since she hadn't actually considered the overall severity of her overall actions.  "Is . . . Fai-sama going to . . . execute me?"

“He might.”

She swallowed hard, wishing fervently that she could interpret whether or not Yerik was kidding.  He didn’t sound like he was, but she also couldn’t rightfully make out the expression on his face in the weak and waning light . . . “That sounds kind of extreme . . . I mean, I didn’t hurt him or anything . . .”

“You knocked him out,” Yerik reminded her in the same mild tone.

“That was accidental, and it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t made me cry . . .”

“Your powers of reasoning are astounding,” he replied dryly.

She sighed.  “Don’t you care about the orphanage?  Fai-sama said that it was something your mother felt strongly about . . .”

“I don’t remember her,” Yerik said.  There was no bitterness, no anger in his tone—just a sense of practicality that somehow dug at Saori’s heart.  “Before you ask, I don’t remember Father, either.”

“You . . . You don’t . . .?”

He glanced at her, probably because she hadn’t been able to keep the absolute horror out of her voice.  She grimaced inwardly, but he quickly looked away once more.  “I don’t.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad, to tell you the truth.  What I do remember is Fai—everything he’s done for me, everything he’s said to me . . . I assume that the things that he’s taught me are things that Father and Mother taught him, so I know they were good people, but to me?  They’re just that—people.  It’s not like I have any real emotional connection to them, but Fai?  So, when someone comes along and, say, kidnaps him?  I do have some fairly strong feelings about that.  You understand.”

“I . . . I would have asked him to come with me if he hadn’t been knocked out,” she grumbled, unable to staunch the flow of blood under her skin.  “I mean, he would have said, ‘no’, but . . . I never meant to hurt him or anything . . .”

“Why did you kiss him?”

That question stopped her dead in her tracks, and the blush that she’d tried to fight back positively exploded in vivid technicolor.  “Wh-Wh-Why . . .?”

He nodded.  “Why would you?  You don’t strike me as the kind of girl who just randomly chooses to kiss some guy out of the blue.  Are you?”

The last thing she actually wanted to do was to admit to Yerik, of all people, that she hadn’t actually kissed anyone prior to the other day when she’d thought she’d never see Fai again . . . It was information that he just did not need, as far as she was concerned.  “Of course, I don’t,” she mumbled, wishing he would drop it, yet feeling that he wasn’t going to.  “I . . . I don’t know why I did that . . .”

Yerik considered that for a moment before shrugging and offering a little nod, but opted to let the subject drop, much to Saori’s vast relief.  He paused long enough to yank the huge, hulking, impossibly heavy wooden doors closed on the hallway, before leading her down a couple flights of stairs to a wide landing that veered off to the left to the entryway of the great hall.  He ignored that, however, leading her up the stairs straight across the landing.

It was as different as night and day.  On this side, the hallway felt warmer, more inviting.  She’d seen it all, albeit it briefly in passing, but hadn’t gotten a chance to really examine it, either, given that she was being herded into that drafty old room at the time . . . Deep maroon and gold carpets extended down the long, darkened hallway, illuminated by wrought iron wall sconces that looked old and almost draconian, accented with thick and heavy polished wooden doors—a far cry from the dulled and tired looking doors in the defunct wing of the castle, but the intricate carving along the baseboards and up around each of the doorways was the same, and in this area, those same carvings were more pronounced, almost crisper—absolutely stunning.  The doors themselves were also the same, though these were highly polished, meticulously gleaming, and they also bore the intricate carvings in a larger scale like a mural . . .

There wasn't much in the way of actual adornment on the understated cream embossed wallpaper or anything other than the carvings, but it wasn't lacking, either—the kind of simple elegance that fine structure alone could provide . . .

"So, you don’t know why you kissed him?  Interesting . . ."

Saori grimaced at that reminder.  She’d hoped that he’d opted not to delve any deeper into it.  She should have known.  He didn't see her reaction, though, since he was slightly ahead of her, which, she figured, was better.  "I . . . I got a little carried away," she muttered, unable to keep the blood from flooding into her cheeks.

"Is that what you call it?  You know, don't you?  It's highly improper for anyone to touch the tai-youkai.  It's almost taboo."

She frowned, staring at his back, wondering if he were being completely serious or not.  She couldn't tell, and she sighed softly.

"Anyway, as you mentioned, Fai said you . . . appropriated him so that you could convince him to keep funding the orphanage," Yerik went on, as though his previous statement didn't mean anything.  "Thanks for that."

"For what?" she said, almost by rote since she was still pondering his prior observation.

"No one else would have been able to change his mind.  In fact, I could count on one hand, how many times anyone’s managed to do that," Yerik said.

"Oh . . . I don't think that it was me, exactly," she admitted.  "I mean, he said he didn't want to defund it—that it was something he had to do.  Lack of money . . ."

He sighed.  “When I said that I didn’t remember my parents, it wasn’t to say that I don’t care about the orphanage.  I do.  It’s a very worthwhile establishment, regardless of whether Mother championed it or not.  I could have ended up there, had it not been for Fai, so yes, I care.”

“You . . . You care about your brother a great deal,” she mused, more to herself than to him.  “It’s obvious . . . I think I’d feel the same way if something happened to nii-chan.  He’s a lot older than me, too, kind of like the two of you . . .”

“Nii-chan?  That means ‘brother’?”

She nodded.  “Well, yes, but it means ‘big brother’.  Strictly speaking, you can use it to refer to your older brother or you could use it when addressing any older male.  If you’re not related, though, it’s often better to use, ‘san’ instead of, ‘chan’ . . . It’s more correct.  ‘Chan’ infers a certain level of intimacy that ‘san’ does not.  Does that help?”

Yerik chuckled.  “It does.  So, if I were to address Fai using that, then I’d probably use ‘nii-san’ because it would be more respectful?”

She nodded again.  “Yes.”

“Understood.”

Yerik shrugged as he led her down the hallway on the third floor.  Stopping outside the room on the end on the left-hand side of the corridor, he gestured for her to enter.  She did, slowly shifting her gaze around the well-appointed room—the ornate, four poster bed that stood in the center of the room atop a raised stone dais amidst a network of off-white netting that hung, suspended from the ceiling in soft billows, all the way to the floor.  The lengths of it were tied to the tall bedposts, and, though it looked opulent, beautiful, she knew well enough that the netting was there for pragmatic reasons to guard against the rampant mosquitoes that plagued the entire country during the summer months.

That aside, the room itself was fairly sparsely furnished—a huge and heavy teak wardrobe against the far wall with a standing full-length mirror beside it, a small but comfortable looking easy chair near the window with a table where a silver dome sat next to a full glass of what looked to be kvass was waiting.  Even from where she stood, she could smell the food under that dome, and her stomach growled uncomfortably loudly.

"Your bathroom is there," Yerik said, gesturing at the solid door next to the closet doors.  He hadn't stepped into the room and only lingered in the doorway.  "I'll leave you alone now.  Good night, Saori."

He started to reach for the door.  She swung around to face him.  "Wait, Yerik?"

"Yes?"

"Do you . . .?  Do you know how long Fai-sama wants to keep me here?"

Yerik stared at her for a long moment, his expression unreadable, much like Fai had a tendency to make.  "I have no idea," he admitted.  "I'll check in on you in a little while."

“Thank you,” she said, offering him a bow of courtesy.

He chuckled, letting his head fall slightly to the side, the gentle light catching in the strands of his golden hair.  “You know, I like you, Saori,” he finally said.  “Just don’t make a habit of kidnapping the tai-youkai, please.”

She winced, but grinned. “I won’t . . . and I like you, too, Yerik.”

He chuckled again, and she watched as he pulled the door closed, her smile dying away as a frown replaced it when she heard his footsteps, dulled by the carpeting in the hallway, as he strode away.  He hadn't locked the door, but that didn't really matter.  Even if she did manage to get out of the room—out of the castle—there wasn't really anywhere she could go, and, because Yerik had hustled her right into the car, she also didn't have her clothes or her purse, either . . .

She was stuck, absolutely.

Shuffling over to the small table, to the food that had been left for her, Saori opted to brush aside the questions about her forced confinement—at least, for now.

A still-steaming bowl of borscht, a few thick, slices of black bread, a plate of stewed meat—beef? served along with roasted potatoes, sprinkled delicately with fresh herbs and what looked to be a thin buttery sauce . . .

Sure, she probably ought to be trying to figure out a way out of here or at least, a way to convince Fai that he ought to let her leave, but at the moment, she was just too hungry to care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 15~~
~Whispers~

 

~o~

 

 

Frowning at the closed door with his arms crossed over his chest, Fai pulled an arm free just enough to flick his hand, to look at his watch with a sigh.

Nearly two in the morning.

It was a lot later than he'd intended.  He'd actually meant to talk to Saori long before now.  Then he'd been waylaid by things that he'd neglected in the last couple weeks—things that he couldn't put off any longer, including a phone call to Evgeni Feodosiv, who had been both angry and relieved by turns.  That call had taken almost an hour and a half since Evgeni didn't actually buy Fai's story that he had just wanted to check into the orphanage, to see if there was anything he could do to keep it up and running.

He hadn't said a thing about Saori, but he wasn't sure why.  For some reason, though, the idea of telling anyone, even Evgeni, who had been like a surrogate father to Fai since he'd taken over as tai-youkai . . .

It bothered him.

'You just don't want to admit that a little girl managed to pull one over on you; is that it?'

Frown deepening at the sound of his youkai-voice's taunt, Fai snorted inwardly.  'No, that's not it,' he growled.

His youkai laughed.  'Yeah, I didn't really think so, either.  You hate the idea of saying anything to anyone that might paint her in a less than positive light.'

He sighed.  Somehow, he wasn't quite ready to admit that much, even to himself . . .

'You know, there's a good chance she's sleeping.'

Fai considered that, but shook his head.  No, he really didn't think she would be.  He could feel the gentle pulses of her youkai, even through the door, though he couldn't rightfully read her aura well enough to get a good handle on what sort of mood she might be in.

'Are you joking?  You'd better be prepared, Fai.  There's a good chance that she's going to want to rip your face off the second she sees you.  I mean, you had her arrested, after all . . .'

Raising his hand, hesitating for just a moment before tapping on the door, Fai waited.

She didn't answer.  In fact, he didn't hear any movement at all, coming from inside her room.  Propriety demanded that he turn and leave.  For some reason, though, the longer he waited, the more he felt like he needed to see her.

Ignoring that little voice in the back of his head—one that sounded entirely too much like his mother for his comfort—he turned the door knob and slowly pushed it open.

She wasn't in bed.  She wasn't at the small table.  Scanning the room, his frown darkened.  He could feel her, but he couldn't find her, and that was entirely disconcerting.  Moreover, her aura was entirely calm, wholly peaceful, and he wasn't expecting that.

But . . . Where was she . . .?

Stepping into the room, around the dais where the bed stood, past the huge hearth with a modest fire, burning brightly, a slight movement off to the right drew his attention, and he blinked.  The window near the wardrobe was open just enough to allow a stream of fresh air in, but that didn't concern him at all.

No, it was the rather diminutive form of the woman, curled up on the narrow window seat that interested him, and he shuffled closer, breaking into the barest hint of a smile as he stood, watching her sleep.  Knees drawn up, braced against the bottom of the window pane, she was slumped to the side, her temple resting against the cool glass, her arms tucked demurely into the narrow gap between her bent legs and her stomach.

He didn't disturb her, satisfied for the moment, just to look at her.  The full moon, shining through the window, seemed to caress her skin, bathing her in a whitish-blue haze that seemed to lend her an almost ethereal glow, a luster, a brilliance . . . The delicate structure of her features added a dramatic sort of play between the light and the shadows, enhancing the fullness of her lips, the richness of her eyelashes, of her eyebrows . . . Curiously, too, the light . . . It tangled in her hair, adding a paler shade of gray, only a few degrees darker than her skin.  If he didn't know better, he'd swear her hair wasn't nearly as deep in color as it was . . .

Something about her calmed him, didn't she?  Something about her made him forget just how stressful his day had been . . . As though all the things he'd had to deal with just faded away, and she did that, even if he had no idea, just how she'd managed it . . .

Raising his forearm, resting it against the window frame on the other side, he leaned his head against it, staring at her the whole while.  He had no idea, just how many minutes ticked away.  He wasn't entirely sure that it even mattered.  She uttered the softest sigh, and the vague smile on his lips widened just a touch.

'And that's why you shooed Olga out of the kitchen, too.  Just couldn't tolerate the idea of someone else, cooking for her, could you?'

'After all the traveling?  We all deserved a good, hot meal,' he argued.

His youkai wasn't buying.  'Except you only cooked food for her.  You and Yerik ate what Olga had already prepared, but not Saori . . .'

He could feel the tell-tale heat creeping into his cheeks, and he could only be grateful that Saori was sleeping and therefore didn't see it.  'It would have been entirely wasteful to throw out what she'd made.'

His youkai heaved a sigh, but remained silent otherwise—a good thing, considering . . . After all, she liked his cooking; she'd said as much, and that was as good a reason as any, wasn't it?  Besides, the slight distraction afforded him while he cooked her meal was enough to bolster his resolve as he'd returned to his office afterward.

Drawing a deep breath, Fai pushed himself upright once more.  Glancing at his watch, he made a face.  Nearly three in the morning, which meant that he'd been standing here, staring at her like he was some sort of crazy stalker-type for almost an hour.

So, he carefully scooped her up, trying his best not to disturb her sleep.  She whimpered softly, her brows drawing together slightly, but she didn't open her eyes as he shuffled over to the bed, laying her down gently, letting his fingertips linger on her cheek for a very long moment before he pulled the coverlet up over her.

Her clothing gave him pause, and he shook his head.  He hadn't stopped to consider it at the time, had he?  He should have given her time to gather her things, but, given the situation, he wasn't exactly thinking as clearly as he should have been, which meant he either had to send for her things or he'd have to figure out a way to get her some clothing since she had none.  There really was no getting around it, given that she'd also left her wallet there, too, and he wondered just what Yerik would say if Fai ordered him to go back to retrieve her effects . . .

Letting out a deep breath, he sank down beside her, resuming his task of watching her sleep.  He had a feeling that he wouldn't mind doing this for a long, long time—content, just to be near her, content just to . . . to be with her . . .

 


 

 

"I hear that Konstantin Korinovich has been spouting more of his pseudo-threats.  Not surprising, but something you may want to check into.  The longer you allow him to run his mouth, the less control it seems like you exert over the situation."

Staring out the window at the conspicuously empty spot in the driveway where Fai's car normally sat, he lifted the glass of vodka to his lips and sipped it slowly.  Yerik had taken Saori to buy some clothes a couple hours ago, and they still weren't back yet . . . But at least his accounts had been released, which was a small consolation.

"Fai?  Fai . . .? Your Grace?"

Yanking himself out of his own reverie, Fai cleared his throat, but didn't turn away from the window.  "What's that?"

Evgeni Feodosiv heaved a sigh, his chair creaking as he pushed himself to his feet.  "You haven't heard a word I've said in the last hour, have you?"  He didn't sound irritated as much as he seemed a little dubious.  Striding over to the sideboard to fill a glass with vodka, the griffon-vulture-youkai took his time.  "Care to tell me what's distracting you?"

"Nothing," Fai lied, forcing himself to turn away from the window.  "You were saying?"

Evgeni's golden-brown eyes narrowed.  "Somehow, I don't believe you," he mused.  "In fact, I get the feeling that you're hiding something."

"There's nothing to hide," Fai stated, pushing away from the window and striding back over to the desk once more.  "So, you were saying . . .?"

Evgeni slowly shook his head, his large frame slumping a little lower in the chair.  "I said that there's been rumor that Konstantin Korinovich has been trying to incite more trouble.  I'll speak candidly?"

Holding out a hand, Fai gave one curt nod.

Evgeni drained the glass of vodka and set it aside, tapping his fingertips together as he pondered the best way to say what it was he wanted to say.  "I know that you don't hold much stock in the idea, but perhaps, in this case, you ought to consider . . . nipping the problem at the bud, so to speak."

Fai scowled.  "You think I should bring him in?  That I should, what?  Kill him for running his mouth?"

Evgeni shrugged.  "He is inciting unrest against you, Fai.  I understand your feelings on the matter, but the fact remains that you are not your father—your position is quite a bit more precarious, like it or not, and—"

"—And I refuse to cut down someone simply for asserting his beliefs, right or wrong," Fai cut in coldly.

"Your sense of fairness is going to get you in trouble one day," Evgeni warned.

"I'm strong enough to hold my office on my own merit," Fai said.

"Dissidence spreads like infection," Evgeni went on, sounding rather philosophic.  "I just worry that doing nothing will lead to something you cannot even imagine."

"If it does, then it does," Fai argued mildly.  "If I went, chasing after every rumor, every whisper, that I heard of?  I'd be doing nothing at all but killing people who might just be having a bad day and who need to have someone to blame it all on."

"I can't say I feel this is in your best interests, Fai . . ."

"With all due respect, Evgeni, I am still tai-youkai, so unless or until someone comes forward to issue a formal challenge and possesses the skill to defeat me, then this is my law."

Evgeni stared at him for a long moment, his expression dark, almost calculating.  Finally, though, he smiled, albeit a little tightly, and he shrugged.  "As you will, Your Grace."

Fai sighed.  "And you, of all people, don't need to stand upon formality."

Evgeni nodded, gripping the thick wooden arms of the chair in preparation to haul himself to his feet.  "Well, I must be going, Fai.  Just do an old man a favor?  Think on what I said."

Rolling his eyes, Fai stood up.  "You're hardly old, and even if I think about it, I'm not going to change my stance."

The indulgent smile was so thin, Fai could see right through it.  Shrugging his jacket on, he took his time, straightening his sleeves, adjusting his collar and tie.  "Fai . . ."

"Yes?"

"You never did tell me where you were for . . . two weeks . . .?"

Stepping around the desk, Fai retrieved a bottle of water out of the small refrigerator in the wetbar.  "I did tell you.  I went to see the orphanage," he said.

"I thought you decided to close that."

"I did," he said.  "Then I realized that I could keep it open as long as I implemented a few changes—cutbacks in staffing, trying to see about getting some of the children placed . . ."

"And you think that'll work?"

"It has to.  It was Mother's project."

"Sentimentality doesn't suit you," he said.  "Don't make the mistake of letting your heart rule your mind."

Fai leveled a look at his advisor and friend.  "You're dangerously close to overstepping yourself, Evgeni," he said, refusing to allow his own personal feelings to dictate his actions.

Evgeni, for the most part, looked a little surprised at the set-down, but he managed a tight little smile, a curt nod.  "As you wish, Your Grace," he said, inclining his head in deference to Fai's station.  Then he turned and slipped out of the office, closing the door behind himself as Fai watched him go.

Of course, he could appreciate Evgeni's concerns.  To be honest, he figured it would be pretty unnatural for the griffon-vulture-youkai to do otherwise.  He wasn't known for keeping his own counsel, at least, not in matters such as these.  More and more often of late, however, his suggestions were leaning more toward the demanding side, though this was the first time he had given in to the desire to disabuse the old man of his more grandiose ideas.

True enough, he thought as he wandered over to the window once more, the idea of allowing someone such as Konstantin Korinovich to keep running his mouth could lead to more trouble in the long run, but as he'd said, he wasn't in the habit of challenging someone, just to quell the threat he may cause.  If it came back to bite him in the ass later?  Well, he'd deal with that, too . . .

Letting out a deep breath that lifted the long bangs that hung into his eyes, he deliberately refused to look back at his desk: at the mountain of work that required his attention.  Formal missives for more funding that he would have to summarily deny, a stack of requests to meet with him, face to face, for whatever reason, most of them a little frivolous, contracts for the distillery that needed looked over and signed . . .

Dragging his hands over his face, he slowly shook his head.

He'd turned over the day-to-day management of the distillery to an old badger-youkai who basically already ran the place, and he had told him, too, that he could take care of the contracts and such, as well, but Ivan Yasyovich was too old-school for that, so it was his habit of sending the contracts to Fai, along with notes attached that broke everything down so that he could get the gist of the contract in a few minutes instead of having to spend hours, pouring over each one.

The Demyanov Distillery was opened back in Fai's great-grandfather's time, specializing in vodka.  At present, they produced five different labels, but the most special one, in Fai's opinion, was the Faina Crystal Label that Alexei had created specifically for Fai's mother.  It was a little fruitier since just the barest hint of apple and peach were added to the mix—not enough to stand out, just enough to add a little sweetness, a hint of flavor that lingered in the nose without overwhelming the palate.  It was also the most popular of the labels.  One day, Fai wanted to expand the distillery, to give it more production capability, but that would take money, and right now, money was not as plentiful as he'd like . . .

At least, the whole debacle with his accounts had been cleared up, which was a good thing, given that Fai had sent Yerik and Saori into town to get her some clothing.

Forcing himself away from the window, Fai shuffled over to plop down at his desk once more.  If he could just get caught up a little . . .

'If you could, then you might be able to spend some time with Saori, you mean.'

Ignoring his youkai-voice, Fai reached for the stack of contracts.  Usually he read them over before signing them, but this time, he broke with tradition, simply pulling off the sticky notes where Ivan had scrawled the highlights and signed them.  After all, Ivan had never sent on a bad contract yet, and Fai didn't figure he'd start doing that now.  From the looks of them, anyway, they were just requests to supply to a few new markets, and that was fine.  So far, they only shipped as far as Poland, so, it would be nice to expand farther.

To be honest, he actually preferred the distillery business to that of being the tai-youkai.  He didn't have much choice in it, of course, but if he did, he'd have been more than happy to run the company for awhile before being forced into office.  Maybe, if things ever evened out, maybe he could work with the distillery a little more . . .

Of course, that was a long-term goal.  Right now, the important thing was just to keep his head above the proverbial water.

A discreet knock sounded on the door—precisely two taps, no more, no less.  "Come," Fai called out.

"Your Grace," Vasili said with a crisp bow.  "Lord Yerik is back with your . . . With the young lady."

"Good," Fai remarked, signing the next contract.  "Would you ask Yerik to come in here when he's got a minute?"

"Very well," Vasili said, backing out of the room again.

He'd just finished with the contracts when the door opened and Yerik slipped inside.  "She's mad at you," he said without preamble and without bothering to elaborate.

"Huh?" Fai muttered, reaching for the stack of letters that had already been opened and arranged in a neat pile.

"Saori.  She's mad at you."

Dropping his pen as he lifted his chin to glower at his brother, Fai slowly shook his head.  "Mad at me?  Why?"

Yerik shrugged almost casually.  "I believe her word was, 'baka—ba-a-a-a-a-aka' . . . I have no idea what it means, but she said it with an awful lot of conviction."

Fai frowned since he wasn't sure what it meant, either.  "If you don't know what it means, then how do you know that she's mad at me?"

Pausing as he sloshed vodka into a clean glass, Yerik glanced at him for a moment.  "Because I'd just said your name, and she made this sort of growling noise, then she said that, so whatever it means, I'm pretty sure it isn't complimentary."

Fai snorted, standing up, digging his hands deep into his pockets.  "Okay, but why would she be mad at me, in the first place?"

Yerik rolled his eyes over the glass of vodka.  "Oh, I don't know . . . because you had her arrested?  Because you embarrassed her in front of everyone at the orphanage?  Because you took her phone away?  Because you ordered her locked up—do you know that Vasili put her in the east wing?"

"The east wing?  There's nothing there . . ."

"Exactly.  I had a devil of a time, locating her.  I moved her to the west wing when I figured it out.  Mostly, though, I think she might be mad at you since you haven't bothered to say one word to her in the three days she's been here."

"I've been busy," Fai growled, stomping around the desk to fill a glass for himself, "and I have gone to see her every night.  It just so happens that she's sleeping by then . . ."

Yerik sighed.  "You kind of sound like a demented stalker," he pointed out dryly.

Fai snorted.  "Shut up.  I'm doing the best that I can, but I have to get this stuff caught up."

"What is she to you?"

That got Fai's attention quickly enough.  Head snapping to the side to pin his brother with a fulminating glower, he uttered a terse growl.

Yerik held up a hand to stop Fai's tirade before it started.  "I’m being serious, Fai.  I mean, I've never seen you this . . . this out of control, this . . . unlike yourself.  It's not a bad thing.  It's just, the Fai I know?  If anyone else had come up and kissed you like that?  You'd have been angry—livid—blustering about the impropriety of it all.  So, you know, if it matters to you at all, I like her.  I like her a lot.  She's smart and funny . . . She doesn't play games, and she isn't fake or trying to put on some act, just to impress you."

"You think I don't know that?" he shot back defensively.

Yerik shrugged again.  "I don't know what you do or don't know, Fai.  It's okay, though.  You realize that, right?"

"What is?"

Yerik chuckled, his bright green eyes shining mischievously.  "She's hot, Fai—damn hot.  I can see why you wouldn't want her to just walk out of your life.  I get that.  Maybe you ought to tell her that, though, instead of sneaking into her room in the dead of night while she's sleeping."

"Yerik . . ."

That said, Yerik chuckled, digging Fai's bank card out of his pocket, dropping it on the desk along with a handful of receipts, and ambled toward the door.  "Anyway, I just thought you should know.  That's all."  Then he slipped out, closing the door quietly behind him, leaving Fai to stew over the words he'd said . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 16~~
~Incarceration~

 

~o~

 

 

Saori could hear herself blink in the overwhelming silence.  Staring up at the wire rack that held the netting, suspended from the ceiling over the bed, she sighed softly.

A week.

It had been a whole week since Fai had ordered Yerik to arrest her—almost five days since they'd arrived here, and yes, she realized that she was being punished for her impetuous decision to kidnap him.  Even so, she had to admit—at least, when she wasn't mad enough to spit—she was lonely.

In the last few days, she'd explored the majority of the estate, wandering around for hours, taking in the beauty that existed beyond the carefully kempt gardens.  Like her original thought when she'd first driven onto the property, she'd realized that the landscaping around the castle itself was so meticulous, so rigid—almost militaristic in feel—that she couldn't help but to be uneasy within the confines of the too-perfect yard.

And there was no one to really tell her that she couldn't venture farther.  Following the gentle stream that coursed through the garden, she'd had to stop when she found the outer wall of the estate—a high and thick cobblestone wall.  The stream flowed through a duct in the base of it, but that duct was fitted with thick iron bars, so she'd followed that wall instead.  Maybe she could have scaled it, had she really wanted to, but a part of her had to acknowledge that she really deserve to be detained for what she’d done, even if she hadn’t really had any bad intentions.

There was a lot of wildlife on the estate.  She hadn't realized that, to start with.  Nothing dangerous, no, but plenty of rabbits and birds and smaller things.  Today, she'd watched a pack of stoats for a long time as they worked and played.  It was mating season, so she'd seen some of that behavior, too.  In the end, though, she had walked back to the castle, only to learn from Vasili that Fai was exactly where he was every day: locked into the study with the door closed, attending to tai-youkai business, and Yerik?  Well, she hadn't seen hide nor hair of him in the last couple days, either.

It baffled her, actually.  Vasili had been curt and even cold those first couple days, but he had warmed to her a little bit since then.  That wasn't really the trouble, anyway.  No, what really perplexed her was exactly why she was being detained here.  After all, if she were truly being punished for kidnapping Fai, to start with, why was she staying in his house, and why was she free to go wherever she pleased?  No one had tried to stop her when she ventured outside.  No one actually talked to her at all, to tell the truth, Vasili aside.  But she hadn't seen Fai, either, not since they'd arrived and she'd watched him lead off down the hallway that led to his office moments before she was taken to the east wing.

She just wasn't used to being alone this much.  She hadn't realized just how much of a social creature she actually was, and the idea that she couldn't even contact her family just made it a little bit harder to deal with.  Too used to her family’s sometimes microscopic attention, she supposed—too accustomed to the warm and welcome smiles of her family . . . The forced isolation was hell; it really, really was . . .

She was so deep in her thoughts that she almost missed the soft knock on the door.  So soft that it might well have gone unnoticed had she been human, she frowned as she tried to decide if she had actually heard it or if it had been some sort of strange figment of her imagination.  It took her a few seconds to comprehend the almost novel idea that she really had heard the sound, and she pushed herself up on her hands as the door slowly opened.

To her surprise, Fai stepped into the darkened room, lit only by the small fire that she'd built in the fireplace to chase off the spring chill in the night air.  Clad in his regular ensemble of dark slacks and nondescript light dress shirt—this one was white—he stood just inside the door, scowling as he eyes adjusted to the dusky twilight from the brightness of the hallway beyond.

"Fai-sama," she murmured, leaning forward, drawing up her knees under the coverlet, wrapping her arms around them.

His head snapped to the side, his gaze locking with hers.  Across the distance, she couldn't rightfully discern his expression, but she felt the slight flare in his youki when he pushed the door closed softly and turned to face her, hands digging deep into his pockets as silence fell between them.

"I . . . I didn't wake you, did I?" he finally asked, his voice softer than usual.

She shook her head.  "No . . . I wasn't asleep yet."

She couldn't tell if he believed her or not, but he nodded.  "You're usually asleep by now," he went on.  Then, he sighed.  "Every night, I try to get away from work to come up and see you, and then I lose track of time.  Are you all right?"

She frowned at the implication of what he'd so casually said.  "You . . . come up here every night?"

He shrugged and turned his head.  In the brief flash of light from the dancing flames, she saw his brow furrow as a consternated expression surfaced.  "Just checking on you.  That's all.  Anyway, you're fine, so . . ."

Narrowing her gaze as she watched him turn and reach for the door knob, she couldn't help the flare of irritation that forced her to toss aside the blanket and hop out of bed.  "Fine?" she squeaked indignantly.

He looked rather perplexed.  "You aren't fine?" he asked.

She snorted, crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly.  "If you call spending all day, every day alone, 'fine', then sure, I suppose," she gritted out.  Then she shook her hand, as though to take back what she'd just said.  "I'm sorry," she said, rubbing her forehead as she struggled to rein in her rioting anger.  "I guess I'm not here for a social visit, am I?"

"Welcome to my life," he grumbled, sounding almost—almost—apologetic.  "I didn't mean to leave you alone, however," he went on.  "I fell behind when someone thought I needed to go, running off to meet the orphans."

She made a face.  For some reason, what he'd said . . . It bothered her.  The idea that his entire life centered around work and nothing but . . .? But Fai, unlike her uncle, unlike her cousin's mate, didn't have anyone to help him—at least, that was the feeling she got from him . . .

Letting out a deep breath—it wasn't really a sigh, but it wasn't really not one, either—Fai shuffled toward her, nodding at the bed.  "Mind . . . Mind if I sit with you till you go to sleep?"

Surprised by his question, Saori slowly nodded and sank back down.  Fai pulled the blanket up over her before settling himself on the edge of the bed beside her.  "So . . . how long am I going to be punished for appropriating you?" she couldn't help asking as she snuggled against the fluffy pillows.

That earned her a rather calculating look.  "Until you prove that you're adequately sorry for what you did," he replied rather cryptically.

She stared at him, blinking slowly, studying his profile in the din half-light.  Hair hanging over his eyes, chestnut glimmers catching the glow in golds and deep umbers, his face was almost lost in shadows as he stared down at his hands, his eyes glimmering, shimmering in the vague dusk . . . "I am sorry for knocking you out," she allowed slowly, quietly.

He sighed.  "Somehow, I don't think you're even slightly sorry for the kidnapping," he pointed out dryly.

"How can I be when you changed your mind about defunding the orphanage?" she countered mildly.  "I suppose if I have to be detained for it, then your estate is, at the very least, a beautiful prison."

Turning his head just enough to pin her with a very droll look, Fai snorted indelicately.  "You could at least act a little contrite, don't you think?" he prompted.

"Kaa-chan always said that lying is the beginning of the end," she quipped.  "Besides, it's my policy not to lie, and if I said I was sorry, then it'd be a lie since the end result was what I was hoping for."

He slowly shook his head.  Then he laughed, which brought her up onto her elbow.  When he continued to chuckle, she leaned over, pressing her hand against his forehead.  "What are you doing?" he asked, still sounding amused while he grasped her wrist and tugged her hand down.

"Checking to see if you have a fever," she replied, tugging her hand free as she sat up, planting her hand on his forehead once more, taking her free hand to test her own forehead, too.  "You don't seem to have one . . ."

"I don't have a fever," he grouched, pulling her hand away once more, but this time, he didn't let go of her wrist.

"Then, what was so funny?" she asked, unable to contain the hint of breathlessness in her tone as she tried to ignore the curious sense of warmth that radiated straight through her from the contact.

Again, he shook his head.  "The way you see things," he told her simply.  "Right, wrong . . . entirely straight, right down the middle."

"And you don't?"

He shrugged.  "I can't."

"Have you ever seen things that way?"

"Not in a very long time," he admitted.  "Maybe never.  I was taught early on to look at things from different angles.  When you change your perspective, sometimes the lines between right and wrong can blur.  That's all."

She considered that for a moment.  She supposed that Fai had a point.  After all, being able to see a more comprehensive picture was a necessary skill for the job.  "So . . . because you're tai-youkai—because you were raised to be tai-youkai—this was part of the things you were taught . . .?"

"Something like that."

"Do you think I should work on that, too?  Try to see things a little more objectively?"

Narrowing his gaze on her for several long heartbeats, he shrugged, let go of her wrist so that he could reach up, tuck her hair back behind her ear.  "I kind of like the way you see things," he finally concluded.  Then he gave his head a little shake.  "Well, you may want to rethink your stance on kidnapping, though.  Not everyone is as lenient as I am."

"That was acquired appropriation, and I only do that when I'm desperate," she informed him haughtily, wondering vaguely if he could see the heightened color in her cheeks.

"You can try to pretty it up, Saori, but it is what it is."

"And it's my fault that you're still trying to catch up on your work, isn't it?"  She grimaced.  "I am sorry about that . . ."

"I'm caught up now," he told her.  "Tomorrow, though, I have to go to the distillery to look over a few things . . ." Trailing off for a minute, he stared at her.  "Would you like to come with me?  It's probably not very interesting for you, but . . ."

"A distillery?  What do you make there?"

"Vodka," he said.

"Your family business," she concluded.  "I'd love to see it."

He didn't look as convinced as she sounded.  "It'll probably be boring," he warned her.

She giggled and lay back down again, snuggling deep into the comfort of the thick down mattress pad, the fluffy soft pillows.  "I think it'll be interesting!"  Then she pushed herself up just a little, eyes flaring wide.  "Oh, I wanted to ask.  Did Yerik go back to school?"

"Uh, no," he said, shifting around, leaning back against the headboard and stretching out his legs, crossed at the ankles.  "I sent him on a hunt, actually."

"You did?"

He grimaced, almost as though he thought that what he'd done was a bad, bad thing.  "I still don't know if it's a good idea, but . . . but I can't really tell him what he can and cannot do . . . If I don't give him the job, then he might decide to go ask one of the other tai-youkai if they have an opening . . . At least, here, I can keep an eye on him . . ."

"I think he'll be fine," she replied.  "He's smart, and he's proved that he's more than capable.  I mean, he was able to locate you without much trouble, right?  So, that has to mean something."

Fai didn't look convinced.  "It should be an easy enough hunt.  Well, as far as hunts go, anyway.  This guy's an idiot, so it shouldn't be hard to locate him or to . . ." He grimaced.  "Sorry.  You don't want to hear about this."

"Oji-chan is a hunter," she ventured.   When he looked confused, she smiled.  "His wife is the mechanic."

"Weird," he muttered, shaking his head.  "Your family is an odd one . . . Guess it makes sense, why you'd think it was perfectly all right to kidnap me, in the first place."

She snorted, but not before she felt hot color flood into her cheeks.  "I'll have you know that no one else in my family has ever appropriated another person, ever."

He snorted, and even in the dim light, she thought she saw him smile just a little.  "So, it's just you."

She nodded.  "That's right . . . Did you really have a terrible time?"

He opened his mouth, then snapped it closed and slowly shook his head.  "Truthfully?  No.  No, I didn't have a bad time," he admitted.  "It's the closest I've had to any kind of vacation in . . . years . . ."

"That's a little sad," she told him.  Suddenly, she giggled.  "Maybe I ought to appropriate you again—take you on a real vacation, Your Grace."

He grimaced.  "Don't call me that," he grumbled.  "I don't want to hear that; not from you, anyway."

"You don't?"

He shook his head.  "No."

She frowned thoughtfully, unsure why he would say that.  After all, it was the proper way to address him here.  So, why did it bother him when she did it . . .?

"Anyway, I can't just pick up and leave, as much as I'd like to sometimes.  Too many people rely on me."

He sounded so . . . resigned, as though it were something he'd come to terms with a long time ago.  "You know, why do you have to do everything alone?" she asked, thinking about her family, about the ways in which the tai-youkai had delegated responsibilities so that they weren't spread too thin.  She wasn't sure why Asia was so different, especially when it was an even bigger area to deal with.  "I mean, why don't you have generals to assist you?"

"It's not that simple," he told her with a heavy breath.  "It's not that I couldn't do that as much as there's really no one that I trust enough to allow them to have that much power."

"Is it so bad?"

Fai shot her a dark look.  "Exactly one week after I took over as tai-youkai, I was challenged for the first time—by one of my father's trusted advisors who didn't think I was strong enough to be tai-youkai."

She shook her head.  "I thought that they supported you . . ."

He seemed surprised that she'd know that much, but he shook his head.  "They pretended to," he allowed.  "Most of them, I found out later, were plotting in secret if they didn't challenge me outright.  A couple of them approached another youkai who they thought could defeat me.  They were wrong, of course, but he told me before I finished him that they had sworn their allegiance to him . . ."

"That's terrible," she murmured, reaching out to touch his hand.  He blinked, almost startled, staring down at her hand on his.  "If you could find others you could trust, though . . ."

"That's a huge, 'if'," he told her.  "If I could, then yes, I could delegate some of the responsibilities."

He sounded almost wistful, didn't he?  Whether he realized it or not, he really did wish that he could loosen his hold.  The problem wasn't that he was set to do it all himself, she thought.  No, it was more that he really, honestly, had no idea, just who he could trust . . . and that . . . It was sad . . .

It occurred to her, staring at him, just how weary he seemed.  It was the same sort of expression she'd seen on his face in the very beginning, but, she realized now, that he had lost it as the days had gone on.  That it was back already . . .?

"Fai-sama?"

"Sama," he echoed with a rather sardonic sort of chuckle.  "You know, you don't have to use that for me, either."

She smiled wanly.  "Then, what would you prefer that I call you?"

He seemed a little surprised by her frank question.  Then he shrugged.  "Just, 'Fai' would be fine, Saori," he told her.  "Just my name; that's all."

"That seems a little . . . intimate," she muttered, wrinkling her nose, willing her cheeks not to redden any more.

"Yes, well, given that you've knocked me out, kidnapped me, dragged me off to the orphanage, and then kissed me?  I'd say that calling me by name alone isn't really that much of a stretch."

She giggled at his overly dry tone.  She couldn't help it, considering she also recognized the underlying teasing quality, too.  "Okay, um, Fai . . . But I'd prefer, 'appropriated'."

"I call 'em like I see 'em, Saori," he shot back, but the stern note in his voice was entirely undermined when he chuckled a moment later.

She sighed and let her hand drop away from his.  "Fai?"

"Hmm?" he intoned, rubbing his eyes in a tired kind of way.

"Would it be too forward for me to ask you to stay with me?  Just till I fall asleep?"

"Why's that?"

She shrugged and snuggled down deeper into the bed as her eyes drifted closed.  "Too quiet at night," she murmured, feeling the edges of sleep, creeping up on her.  "Too lonely . . ."

He didn't answer her right away, but the bed shifted as he scooted down, as he stretched out beside her.  The only sounds were the crackle of the fire, the soft ticking of the mantle clock as the seconds passed by.

In the stillness, she thought that she felt his arm slip around her, drawing her closer, thought maybe she felt him sigh, and maybe, just maybe, she thought that she felt the warmth of his lips, pressed against her forehead.

And she smiled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 17~~
~Playing Hooky~

 

~o~

 

 

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.

"Kagura—"

"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?"

He snorted.

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."

"You're not?"

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 18~~
~Disappearance~

 

~o~

 

 

Saori sat on the stone bench, staring without seeing as the almost hazy afternoon sun soaked into her skin.  It was a beautiful day, and yet, it was completely lost on her.  The call of the birds, the vivid colors and vibrant crispness in the air, the feeling of life that surrounded her completely bypassed her as an insular thought spun around her brain, unwilling to let go of her, it held her so tightly . . .

Letting out a deep breath that sent her bangs flying upward, she set aside the book she'd borrowed from the prodigious shelf in the expansive library.  She'd meant to come out here, to get some fresh air as she read, as she tried to distract herself from the questions that plagued her.

Just where was Fai?

She frowned.  She didn't remember much about the afternoon or evening after he'd taken her to visit the distillery.  To be honest, she hadn't realized that she could get that drunk.  It hadn't happened to her before—at least, not like that.  She’d gone out drinking many times with her college friends, with family at times, but that day?  She vaguely remembered Ivan, telling her that the vodka that she'd been sampling hadn't yet been processed.  Most of it, Ivan had said, was diluted to bring the proof down slightly before bottling.

She did, however, remember waking up somewhere around two in the morning and spending the next hour or so, bent over the toilet, puking, to the point that she actually was rather thankful that Fai wasn't there.

Then she'd spent the rest of the day yesterday, suffering a hangover that convinced her that she was never, ever drinking vodka again.  She'd fallen asleep, somewhere around nine last night, and when she'd woken up this morning, she was relieved to find that she felt almost normal again . . .

But that was when she'd realized that she hadn't seen Fai since he'd put her to bed, and she'd gathered the courage to ask Vasili where he was . . .

Is there something you require?” the old butler asked after Saori had followed him around for a few minutes.

Biding her time, wringing her hands, she had been trying to decide just how to state her question.  “Oh, um . . . I just wondered if you knew where Fai-sama is?

He stopped in the middle of his task of sorting through the day’s correspondence to quirk an eyebrow at her, and it seemed to her that it took him an inordinately long time to answer.  “I do not know, Miss.”  Then he turned his attention back to his task, summarily dismissing her entirely.

He . . . He didn’t mention anything to you?” she pressed.  “I mean, it’s just that—”

Staring at her through narrowed eyes for a long moment, he managed a very tolerant little smile that reminded her of the kind of expression one would get when dealing with an obstinate child.  “If His Grace wished for you to know, I imagine he would have told you,” he replied.

Saori wrinkled her nose, her expression darkening as she scanned the empty landscape once more.  She'd gotten no answers, but she could tell that Fai wasn't on the estate.

'Well, it isn't like you really have the right to know where he is all the time,' her youkai-voice pointed out slowly, reasonably.

She knew that.  Of course, she did.  The knowledge didn't really help her, though.  Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if Yerik were around at least, but . . .

And Yerik . . . He'd been gone over a week now, and that, too, bothered her.  It shouldn't, maybe, but it did.  Given that she had nothing at all to distract her, her often-times overactive imagination was working overtime on that front, as well.  Sure, Fai had admitted that Yerik was skilled enough to be a hunter.  That didn't mean that things couldn't happen, and, considering it was his first real hunt, any number of possibilities crept into her thoughts, too . . .

'Yerik will be fine, and even if he isn't, it really isn't your concern.'

Making a face at her youkai's blunt, if not entirely frank, supposition, Saori's frown darkened.  'He's a friend—well, kind of . . . and he's Fai-sama's brother, so . . .'

'Maybe, but don't forget, you're here to be punished.'

'I know . . .'

'Do you?  Anyway, he shouldn't be gone long.  At least, I hope not . . .'

Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that Fai just wasn't the type to take off without a word, either, and that, more than anything else, bothered her.

So, where was he . . .?

The sound of blatant throat-clearing drew her attention.  Vasili bowed just a little when she finally looked at him.  "Your meal is ready," he said, clenching his hands before himself.  "If you wish, I can see that you're served on the veranda."

"Oh, uh, thank you," she said, retrieving the book as she rose to her feet.  "That would be fine."

"Very well," he said, turning to go.

"Have you . . .?  Have you heard from His Grace?" she asked before she could stop herself.

Vasili stopped, turned halfway.  She couldn't rightfully interpret the expression on his face, in his eyes.  "I have not," he told her.  Then he nodded at her once more and started away again.

She sighed, falling into step behind the butler.  She didn't think he was lying.  She almost wished he were.  Then she'd have a reason to be mad at him, at least . . .

 


 

 

"So, you're the fearsome tai-youkai . . . Not much to you, is there?"

Fai said nothing as he slowly regarded the ragged-looking inu-youkai that stood across from him.  He was tired, having driven all night to reach the spot where Dominick Mastoyev had demanded that he meet him: an abandoned rock quarry near the Mongolian border.  "You issued me a challenge," Fai said, getting right to the point as he crossed his arms over his chest, absently feeling the weight of Kamennyy-Nozh, hanging from the ancient ash wood scabbard on his hip.

Dominick laughed heartily, mud brown hair tossed in the wind.  "I will be the tai-youkai," he predicted.  "Your experience is nothing compared to mine!"

He'd stood here before—maybe not in this exact spot—but on ground where the air was rife with the stagnant hatred, misplaced pride.  It was that same kind of misplaced pride that tended to weaken greater opponents, and Fai knew it well.  Standing straight and proud, he waited, his calm an absolute barrier against Dominick's unsettled youki that rippled and surged violently, almost wantonly, in the air around him.  "Don't ever let your mind get away from you, Faine.  A clear mind is your friend, your confidant.  Let it all roll off your back like water in the springtime and retain your calm, always . . ."

Sound advice, that was.  It had served Fai well in the years since he'd become tai-youkai.

He'd heard the rumors about this particular youkai.  He was strong, they said.  He thought that Fai was too young, too wet behind the ears to be an effective leader.  He didn't want to effectively bow and grovel before a pup younger than his own children, he'd said.  Maybe that was why Fai wasn't entirely surprised when Vasili had handed him the missive that had arrived while he was at the distillery with Saori.  It didn't really matter.  The end result would have to be the same.

"You think that the fact that you're older than me has any bearing on whether or not I'm a decent tai-youkai?  It doesn't," Fai remarked.  "It has nothing to do with it, at all."

Dominick snorted indelicately.  "You and your ilk!  You've all forgotten the old days!" he scoffed.  "The office of the tai-youkai was never meant to been a familial thing!  It bends to the mightiest!  You . . . You're simply caught in the crossfire.  It was your bad luck to be handed the title that should have gone to the strongest upon your father's demise.  Concede, and you can walk away: disgraced but alive.  It's your choice, Your Grace."

"Many others have made the mistake of underestimating me," Fai replied.  "Are you sure you want to join their ranks?  They're all dead now, you know."

Eyes flashing as the air surrounding him spiked with his rising ire, Dominick shot forward, flicking out his hand, unleashing a volley of wind blades from his claws that Fai neatly avoided by leaning to one side then the other before they could strike him.  His hair fluffed out, driven by the gusts of wind as they bypassed him entirely.  Uttering a derisive grunt, Dominick drew back, brought his claws down as Fai caught his wrist, spun him away in a fluid motion, knocking him back as Fai pushed away from him, lighting a few feet away.

"Give up, Dominick.  You cannot defeat me," Fai said.

"I'll see you dead!" the dog-youkai scoffed, launching himself at Fai once more, the flash of his sword little more than a blur of motion.

Fai drew his sword, grimaced when the blades met, the high-pitched groan ringing in his ears.  It was true that Fai wasn't going to win a battle of brute strength against Dominick, but he held his ground easily enough.  With a loud grunt, Dominick heaved against his sword, propelling himself back a few feet.  Then he spun around, bringing the blade up and forward.  Fai knocked it aside and righted his grip on the leather-wrapped hilt of Kamennyy-Nozh.

Unleashing a frustrated growl, Dominick sprang again, hammering down with a rain of blows in rapid succession.  Fai countered them all as the reverberations of each one rattled up his arm, straight to his brain, and he gritted his teeth in sheer concentration.

"Not bad, boy," Dominick gnashed out without relenting in the physical onslaught.  Eyes glowing with an almost insane kind of light, he laughed maniacally as the blows slammed down, harder and faster.

Smacking Dominick's wrist with the blunt side of his blade, Fai kicked up and out, straight into Dominick's chest, sending him staggering back.  Fai flicked his sword in a tight circle to loosen up his wrist.

Righting his stance, his outrage rife in the air, stagnating around him like a blackened pall, Dominick howled, smacking his sword against the earth, unleashing a fissure of fire and flying dirt, straight at him.  Fai echoed his movements, and the explosion where the two intercepted each other sent out a flash of light, a wave of dirt and debris as he raised his arms to shield his face.

Dominick shot through the gale.  Fai barely had time to react.  Spinning to the side to avoid the brunt of the blow, he grimaced when the youkai's claws scraped deep against his cheek.  Dominick's laugh echoed around him, an air of primitive gloating, thick and rancid.  "First blood!" he hollered, inordinately proud of himself.

Fai wiped his cheek against his shoulder.  "A few paltry scratches really aren't grounds for celebration," he pointed out mildly.

"I'm going to enjoy killing you," Dominick spat.

"If you think you can."

The older youkai sprang forward once more.  Fai gripped the hilt of his sword in both hands, bore down on it, burying the blade, deep in the earth.  The shockwave that reverberated out and away from it were akin to an earthquake as the ripples of his youki shot out of the embedded blade, surging through the ground.  Boulders on the rises of the perimeter of the old quarry shifted, tumbled, rolled down, faster and faster, a veritable landslide of pebbles and rock and stone.  Dominick barely had time to right his stance as he tried to avoid the projectiles.

He howled when a large boulder smacked into his arm, his shoulder.  Sword jarred right out of his grip, he stumbled back, directly into another boulder—not as large as the first—but traveling much faster, and he grunted when it smacked against his back.

Before he could roll over, before he could regain his footing, Fai strode over, turned him over with the toe of his shoe, stepped down hard on the youkai's chest, leveling his sword at his throat.  Something about the unfairness of it occurred to him in a vague sort of way.  Even so, it wouldn't matter in the end.

"Do you have anything you want to say to me before you die?" Fai asked, his voice calmer, entirely even and completely at odds with the sense of fairness that was eating at him.  Cutting someone down like this?  It wasn't sitting well with him . . .

Dominick half-groaned, half-laughed.  "You think you've won, do you?" he scoffed.  "Think again!"

Hopping back, doubling over, Fai shook his head as the handful of dirt flew into his face.  He couldn't open his eyes, couldn't see a thing as tears spilled over, as his body furiously worked to rid itself of the debris.

A white-hot pain ignited in his chest as he fell back with a gasp, a grunt.  Rolling to his feet, he reacted on instinct, springing out of the way mere breaths before the heavy metal thud of Dominick's sword echoed in the air where he had been.

Shaking his head, forcing his eyes open, Fai couldn't make out anything in the bleariness of his wavering vision.  Stretching out his youki, he dodged another round of attacks as blood soaked his shirt, dripped onto the ground.  He didn't know where his sword was, but he couldn't have used it, even if he wanted to.  All he could do was buy himself a few minutes in hopes that his vision would clear.

"You're a fool!" Dominick spat, his voice sounding entirely triumphant.  "Putting trust where you have no business believing . . . It'll be your end."

"What are you saying?" he demanded, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.  "What are you babbling about?"

Dominick's laugh was entirely facetious, as bitter as it was full of loathing.  "You're boring.  I just want you to die!"

Launching himself forward as he bellowed the rest of his words, Dominick closed in fast.  Fai couldn't see him, but he could feel him.  Focusing his youki, he drew back, knowing that this fight would end here, one way or the other.  A sudden flash—stormy grey eyes with just a hint of blue—wavered before him, and he steeled his resolve.  ‘Saori . . .’ One of them was not walking away, and he would be damned if that one would be him . . .

Something about the simple thought of her was enough to calm him, to restore the iron-clad conviction of his station.  He could feel Dominick's approach.  Springing forward, swinging his fist, he felt the flesh give way to his fingers, to his claws.  It was only a second, a blink, a breath, and yet, he could feel it all in exquisite and finite detail: the sinew of muscles, tearing under his assault, the squish of tissue, the scrape of shattering bone . . . He felt the crazy-mad thud of Dominick's heart as he wrapped his fist around it, as he squeezed it with everything he had, as the youkai's blood spiraled down his arm, flowed from his elbow in a river of macabre rain.  In the ring of his vision, he saw the dilation of Dominick's eyes, the slack-jawed shock as the light in his gaze faded.

He barely had time to close his eyes, to whip his head to the side as Dominick's body exploded in a violent gust of wind and dust and light . . .

Drawing a few labored breaths, Fai blinked as a dull silence fell over the old quarry.  The light breeze returned, and slowly, the sounds of birds picked up.  Blinking hard as he slowly shifted his gaze at the now-empty area, Fai swallowed hard, shook his arm, sending sprays of blood—mostly Dominick's—misting down.

"Putting trust where you have no business believing . . . It'll be your end."

'What did he . . .?  What did he mean . . .?'

There was no answer.  Even his youkai-voice remained silent.  Glancing down at his torn chest, Fai grimaced.  The cut was clean enough and wasn't actually deep, thank God.  Dominique's one chance to finish him off, and he'd failed magnificently.  His eyes actually hurt more than the paltry cut on his chest, and he let out a deep breath as he set out to locate his sword . . .

 


 

 

It was late.

Fai had no idea what time it was.  He didn't actually remember, driving home, for that matter.

By the time he stumbled through the front doors, greeted by Vasili, who informed him that he had a hot bath waiting for him in his chambers, Fai felt close to catatonic, grunting out some terse answer that really didn't mean anything as he followed the butler up the stairs and down the corridor that led to his room.

The fire had been lit on the hearth, his bed was already turned down, waiting for him, along with a glass of vodka on the nightstand.  Fai didn't really notice any of it except for the silver dome covered plate on the small table near the windows.  He said nothing, but he did grab a slice of black bread, realizing vaguely that he hadn't actually eaten a thing in over two days.

Sure enough, the antique, claw-footed tub situated in the center of Fai's bathroom was full, steam rising off the water in a wholly inviting kind of way.  Though he didn't use the bath that often, the soreness in his body welcomed the idea as he wolfed down the bread in two large bites.

"Do you require anything else, Your Grace?" Vasili asked from the doorway.

Glancing over his shoulder as he peeled off the shirt that was sticking to him, he shook his head.  "No, Vasili.  You're excused for the night."

The butler offered him a low bow before slipping out of the doorway and out of the bedroom beyond.

It didn't take long for Fai to scrub himself down in the shower.  With a grimace and an unsolicited groan, he sank into the still-hot water in the tub.  Vasili had added some oils and herbs to it, and he closed his eyes, head falling back, as he felt himself relax just a little for the first time in days.

He'd tried not to think too hard about the altercation on the way home.  There'd be time enough to hash it over tomorrow.  Tonight . . .?

"He ruined your face."

Blinking as he forced his eyes open in time to watch as Yerik wandered into the bathroom, settling on a short stool beside the tub, Fai shrugged.  "It'll heal," he muttered, taking the glass of vodka that his brother offered him.  "Your hunt?"

"Silenced," he replied.  "You should have waited for me."

"There was nothing you could have done, Yerik," Fai replied dryly.  "It was a formal challenge."

"Maybe not, but I could have gone with you.  You look like hell warmed over."

"It's fine," Fai insisted, draining the vodka and handing the glass back.  "It's done, so let it go."

Yerik nodded slowly, stretching out his long legs, crossing his ankles, his heels propped on the floor.  "Saori's a bit out of sorts," he ventured a little too casually.  "You didn't tell her where you were going."  It wasn't a question.

"She was drunk," Fai replied almost defensively.  "I took her to the distillery, and she sampled a few too many drinks.  Anyway, I didn't have time to wait till she sobered up to tell her, and even then, she didn't need to know."

"Except she isn't stupid.  She didn't say, but I guess she knows where you went—in a vague sense, anyway."

"I didn't have a choice, Yerik.  It's not like I can pick and choose when I get to be tai-youkai and when I don't."

Yerik nodded.  "I realize that," he said.  "She was worried—worried.  Worried enough that she didn't even ask me where I was or what I was doing."

"She knew where you were," Fai replied.  "I told her.  Maybe she just didn't care if you got hurt or not.  Did you think of that?"

"Well, now, that was mean," Yerik protested with a soft chuckle.  "Look, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.  I'll fill you in on the details of the hunt tomorrow.  Fair?"

"Okay," Fai agreed, closing his eyes again.

He felt his brother's retreat more than heard, and that was fine.  Letting out a deep breath, he concentrated instead on the feel of the oils and herbs as they soaked into his skin, as they melted away the tension and soreness that had set in during the drive back to the castle.

It occurred to him that he ought to get out of the tub, but he didn't.  Somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice that sounded entirely like his mother whispered to him, reminded him that he could very easily drown if he fell asleep in the tub.  Too bad it was calm, comfortable, soothing . . .

The feel of hands, rubbing the muscles of his shoulders near his neck, however, drew him out of the lull that he'd slipped into, and he opened his eyes, only to see Saori's face, hovering above him, a thoughtful frown drawing her brows together.  Her gaze was fixed on the cuts on his cheek, and he tried to smile for her benefit.  It didn't really work.

"Your muscles are really tight," she commented quietly, as though she were afraid of shattering the comfortable silence.

"A little," he allowed.  "That . . . feels good . . ."

"Have you cleaned those?" she asked, nodding at his face.

"In the shower," he told her.

She didn't look impressed with his claim.  "Do you have a first aid kit?  Where is it?  I'll clean those for you, and—"

"I don't have one," he told her to forestall the fussing tornado he could feel, gathering around the edges.  "It's fine."

"It's not fine," she insisted.  "I think I might have seen some little ears while I was exploring the grounds, and—"

"Little ears?" he interrupted.

She blinked and gave a little shrug.  "I don't know the proper name," she told him.  "I always called it that because it looked just like tiny ears . . ." Waving a hand, she shook her head.  "Anyway, if I can find it, I can create a poultice that'll draw out any infection, and—"

"And you're not going out there to find little ears right now.  It's the dead of night, and I swear, I'm fine," he told her.

She looked like she wanted to argue with him, but she heaved a sigh designed to let him know just how irritated she really was and kept rubbing his shoulders instead.  "He wasn't poison or anything, was he?"

"No, he wasn't," Fai told her, pulling himself up just enough to let her rub the back of his shoulders.

"Keh," she intoned.  "You know, I could have gone with you," she pointed out.  "I can fight, too . . ."

"It was a challenge, Saori.  You couldn't have interfered."

She bit her lip, shook her head.  "But you shouldn't have gone alone," she insisted quietly.  "What if you get a challenge, and they fight dirty?  It's happened before, you know . . . What if they bring along someone else, someone who tries to double team you?"

"Then they forfeit their lives," he responded a little too rationally.  "It's part of the job.  I cannot pick and choose."

She didn't look any happier about that.  "I know what it means," she told him.  "I know that you can't ignore a challenge.  I know that.  I just . . ."

"You don't like it," he finished for her.  "I'm sorry."

She blinked, her gaze lightening by degrees.  "You . . . are . . .?"

He nodded slowly.  "I didn't mean to worry you.

She digested that for a long moment, and then she nodded.  "Don't do it again, Fai-sama."

He chuckled then sighed when she found a particularly tight muscle.  "I won't, Saori."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 19~~
~Pensive~

 

~o~

 

 

Saori awoke with a smile on her face as she blinked and opened her eyes to the bright light of day.  It took all of ten seconds for her to realize a couple things: number one, she was cuddled up next to Fai, which was entirely too nice, and number two?

He was wearing nothing at all.

The towel that he'd wrapped around his waist after his bath had worked itself loose.  It was crumpled in a forgotten heap underneath them.  She'd thought about the idea that he really ought to put on something last night, but he'd been so tired, she hadn't had the heart to wake him.  After all, towels never worked themselves loose, now did they?  Oh, kami, no!  Not ever.  Except . . .

Except they apparently did.

Biting her lip, she tried to scoot a little farther away from him, only for his arms to tighten around her, locking her effectively into place.  Well, she probably would be able to gain her freedom, but not without waking him, and that . . .

'Quit blushing!  He's asleep, and it's not like you're looking at . . . anything . . . so, there's no reason at all to be embarrassed!' she scolded herself.  It had the exact opposite effect, though, and the trace heat in her cheeks blossomed into a raging inferno under her skin.

'I don't know, Saori.  I mean, would it really hurt anything if you took a quick peek?  He won't even know!'

'Shut up—shut up—shut up!'

'Yeah, but you remember that one morning while you were traveling to the orphanage, don’t you?  That was entirely impressive, right?  Don't you want to see what you felt then. . .?'

'No!  Absolutely not!  That would be taking complete advantage of the situation!  How would I feel if he peeked at me?  I mean, not that he would.  He wouldn't.  Why would he?  Anyway, no!  I'm not . . .' Glancing wildly around the room, trying to look anywhere but there, she gasped in the quiet.  Eyes flicking over him, only to dart right back again to that part of him that was so blatantly presented to her, she sucked in a sharp breath.  His body wasn't overly bulky like her cousin, Bas, but he was very well defined, very well proportioned.  Even in his relaxed state, his body held a certain kind of symmetry that the stillness couldn't touch.  The long cut across his chest was almost healed over, and even that wasn't enough to detract from his overall impact . . . 'O-O-Oh . . . He's . . . He's beautiful . . .'

Her youkai-voice chuckled.  'Yeah, he is!'

'Even so . . . I really shouldn't be staring at him like this . . . It's . . . It's wrong, isn't it?'

'And what's wrong with it?  You're not hurting anyone, and he's holding onto you, so it's not like you can just get up and move away, even if you wanted to.  It's kind of his own fault, don't you think?'

Somehow, that bit of logic really seemed messed up, in Saori's opinion.  Using her toes to latch onto the blanket that had gotten shoved to the bottom of the bed, she managed to tug it up over him with a little maneuvering, which really didn't do anything to quell the butterflies that were churning her belly in a wholly delicious kind of way, and she was appalled when she realized that her breathing was stunted, heavy.

"Saori?  Are you all right?"

Smothering a gasp when Fai's deep, but soft voice broke the stillness, she shot him a wild-eyed look as she very quickly shook her head.  "What?  Me?  Fine, fine . . . Did you sleep well, Fai-sama?"

He grunted, turning his face away and closing his eyes again.  "Till you added the, '-sama', yes."

Frowning when she caught sight of the scratches on his cheek, she wiggled around, pulling herself upward to examine them closer.  He grunted again, but didn't try to stop her.  "They're healing well," she allowed, albeit grudgingly.  "I'll look for some of the little ears today . . ."

"It's fine," he insisted mildly.

"It just takes a little infection, you know.  You fought valiantly, so the last thing you want is to be laid low by something as ridiculous as that, right?"

"I assure you, I'm fine, and—" Cutting himself off abruptly, he propped himself up on his elbows.  "Valiantly?" he echoed, cocking an eyebrow at her.

She nodded.  "In my head, you were very valiant," she assured him.

He snorted, flopping down once more.  "He put up a decent fight," Fai muttered.

"In my head, you rode in on your huge and hulking warhorse—a thick and broad black beast of a horse that allows no one near him but you—we'll call him, 'Odin'—"

"I don't have a horse," he told her.

She ignored him.  "—With the sun, reflecting off your shiny armor, blinding your opponent in all your glory—"

"Good God."

"—Hefting your sword—Fai-sama?  Do you have a sword?"

He sighed.  "Yes, the one factual part of your story."

She nodded, pleased with the idea of Fai with his sword held aloft.  "—Hefting your mighty sword, high in the air . . . 'Bow before me, infidel!'" she continued in as deep and booming a voice that she possibly could.

"Okay, I did not say that," he protested.

She nodded again.   "In my head, you did."

He snorted.  "You've been reading one too many of those tawdry, bodice-ripping romance novels, haven't you?"

She gave a little shrug as she giggled.  "Not one!"

Fai heaved another sigh.  "All right.  Go on with your fabrication since it seems to please you to do so."

Satisfied that he was finally listening, she scooted around to sit on her knees, clapping her hands happily as she considered the rest of her story.  "So, you charge in, Odin's mane and tail majestically blowing in the breeze, and you lower your sword to point at your opponent.  'I am your tai-youkai!  How dare you challenge me?' you demand, your eyes shooting fire as you sit, straight and proud in the saddle—"

"I really don't have a horse, Saori, and even if I did, I would never name him, 'Odin', for God's sake."

She ignored him.  "It was very noble of you to allow him to take a couple swings at you before you defeated him," she went on.

He rolled his eyes, slowly shook his head.  "Is that what you think?  I let him have at me a couple times?"

"Well, you're so strong and so brave and so talented that there's really no other way he could have hurt you, so, not only are you those things, but you're also very noble, too."

"Hardly," he scoffed, reaching out to brush her hair back out of her face.  "He threw a handful of dirt in my eyes, though . . ."

She wasn't able to hide the wince that flickered over her features.  She rather didn't need to know that, not really.  The scenarios that she'd already considered had been harsh enough . . .

He sighed.  "As you can see, I'm fine," he told her.  "He couldn’t defeat me, even though he tried to fight dirty."

"I . . . I know," she whispered, her gaze dropping to her hands, folded together neatly in her lap.  Then she lifted her chin, forced a bright smile that was for his benefit alone.  "I'm going to go get dressed . . . You've got work to do, don't you?"

He opened his mouth to say something, but Saori was faster.  Scooting off the bed, she darted over to the door and let herself out of his room.

Once in the hallway, she leaned back against the closed door for a minute, gnawing on her lip as she tried to force back the feeling that she was being silly, a coward . . .

And just why are you freaking out so badly right now?  You know, don’t you, that he was very, very naked last night in that tub,’ her youkai-voice reminded her.

She made a face.  Of course, she knew that, but Yerik had come to her room, told her that Fai was injured, that he might need her assistance, and that was what had made up her mind.  Oh, she’d known the very moment he’d stepped inside the castle.  So attuned she was to him that she’d simply known, and, while she didn’t stop to question why that would be, she also hadn’t thought twice about seeking Fai out once Yerik left her room again, either . . . ‘It’s . . . It’s . . . Oh, it’s everything,’ she said, unable to put into words, just what it was that bothered her.  ‘It wasn’t his lack of clothing that made me leave.  I just . . . I-I mean, he’s fine, sure, and . . . and I know that, but . . .

'Any tai-youkai is going to be challenged at one point or another,' her youkai-voice pointed out in an entirely philosophical tone.  'You, of all people, know that.'

She grimaced.  True, she did know that.  Toga had been challenged a few years ago, and she remembered it.  More to the point, she remembered Sierra-oba-chan's face—the fear that she tried to hide—the fear that everyone else pretended not to see while they'd waited for him to walk through the door . . . He hadn't been challenged since, but that one time was enough.

She did know, and at that time, she thought that she understood, that she empathized with her aunt's concerns.  She didn't, though.  She hadn't known a damn thing.

She was starting to now.

 


 

 

Heaving a sigh as he pushed aside Yerik's official report of the hunt, Fai rubbed his forehead and closed his eyes, slowly dragging his hand down his face.  It was well-done, and, judging from the overall report, he couldn't find any fault with his brother's first assignment, and, if he were to be completely honest, he'd have to admit that he had hoped on some level that he could find fault in the way Yerik had conducted the hunt and ultimately, the outcome of it.  At least then, he could have argued his case that Yerik was just not a hunter . . .

All of his work was done for the day.

Pushing himself out of his chair, he rounded the desk, ambled over to the window.  The last time he'd looked out, he'd spotted Yerik, sparring with Saori in the garden behind the castle, but that was a while ago, so it wasn't surprising that they weren't still at it.

Rubbing idly at the laceration on his chest, he made a face.  It itched, which meant that it was healing nicely, despite the really smelly and rather disgusting salve that Saori had made for him out of the little ears she'd found.  Or maybe because of it . . . Though he didn't want to admit any such thing to her, he had to admit that he was healing even faster than he usually did.  He hadn't actually seen the herb to know for sure what it was, and if she hadn't been standing right there, staring at him in a somewhat anxious kind of way, he might have just pretended to use the nasty stuff.  Too bad she'd stood there, watching him until he did use it, and then he was pretty grossed out.  Not only did it sting, but the smell had actually gotten worse—she said that it meant it was leaching out infection.  She'd made him leave it on for half an hour before she allowed him to take a shower to wash it away . . .

By the time he'd finished cleaning up, he'd been more than ready to hightail it into his office . . .

Of course, now that he was finished for the day, however, and since the trace irritation that had accompanied the smelly salve had worn off, he thought maybe he'd seek her out, see if she would be interested in walking the lands with him.  Given the hour, he could even pack up a late lunch for her, as well . . .

All in all, he had to admit that he was in a much better mood than he ought to be.  The last time he'd had to defeat a challenger, he'd spent days, brooding over it, and, while it still weighed heavily on his mind, it wasn't enough to send him into introspective silence for days, either.

Which bothered him on some level.  It was a grave thing, to have to take a life, even if he really didn't have a choice in it.  The last thing he wanted to do was to become desensitized to it—for it to become commonplace, to the point that it didn't get to him.

'You know, maybe you're looking at it wrong . . . It's not that you don't comprehend or give proper respect to your opponents.  It's just that she helped you, didn't she?  Maybe she didn't even realize that's what she was doing, but she understood, and that's enough . . .'

The sudden memory of her face, while she sat there, telling him that overblown and fanciful story of what she envisioned his challenge to be, flickered to life in his head, and he frowned.  She had known, hadn't she?  She'd understood on a level that she shouldn't have, and that was why she'd come up with that ridiculous tale: because she wanted to distract him, and she had . . . 'But . . . how would she know?  Youkai don't go around, challenging each other nowadays.  It's just not allowed anymore, outside of official sanctions . . . So . . .?'

'We could ask her, you know.  I get the feeling that there's more to the girl than we've given her credit for, don't you think?'

Fai wasn't entirely sure, just what to believe.  She'd been pretty open with him thus far—at least, he thought she was . . . If he asked her more about her family, what would she tell him?

'It's not like she's trying to hide things from you.  At least, that's what I sense from her.'

' I didn't think that she was.  She's been pretty forthcoming all along, hasn't she?  Well, other than knocking me out and tossing me into her van . . .'

'That's kind of funnier than anything else.  Okay, so you got behind on a little work, but it wasn't too bad, and really, I think that brief sojourn did us good.'

Fai wasn't entirely sure he was ready to say it quite like that, but he could see the logic in his youkai's words.  Still . . .

Turning around, he stepped back over to his desk once more, dropping into the heavy old chair with a deep exhalation.  Before he left the office for the day, he really needed to write down his report about the challenge.  It wasn't that it was required, but he'd gotten into the habit of doing so, just for his own recollection later, especially after the second challenge.

About a week after that brief and almost anticlimactic fight that had only lasted about five minutes, all totaled, the man's son showed up—a young man, maybe a couple years younger than Fai at the time—and he had wanted to know the sordid details.  What had struck Fai about the whole thing wasn't that the man's son had showed up, but the quiet sense of resignation in his every movement, the haunted darkness that veiled his eyes . . .

"I . . . I wondered if I could just . . . just ask you . . .?  My father . . . I mean, you met him, and you won . . . But he . . ." He trailed off, wincing as he stared at his thin hands, clasped in his lap as he frowned in concentration, as he sought to find the words that he wanted to say.  Thin of build like most blackbuck-youkai, he seemed almost nervous, bouncing one leg in rapid vibration.

"He's dead," Fai replied frankly, not unkindly, despite the abrupt words.

The young man—Anatoli—grimaced.  "I know," he replied quietly, shaking his head, and for a brief moment, Fai had to wonder if he wasn't about to break down in tears.  He didn't, but he did clear his throat a few times.  "We—Mother and I . . . We begged him not to do it: not to challenge you.  He . . . He was strong, but . . ."

Settling back in his chair as he regarded the blackbuck-youkai for a long moment, Fai nodded.  "He fought well," he said, hating the lie, even as it tumbled out of him, and he brushed aside the memory of the man, of his shocked expression when he'd dashed forward in such a haphazard kind of way that he'd all but impaled himself upon Fai's blade . . . "He . . . He died valiantly . . ."

Anatoli's head snapped up, his eyes flaring wide, his expression a strange mix of pride and sadness—one that Fai would never forget.  He stood abruptly, clutching his jacket in his hands as he twisted it unmercifully, over and over again.  "Thank you, Your Grace," he said, offering Fai a hasty bow.  "That's . . . That's all I wanted to know . . ."

Fai stood, watching in silence as Anatoli had left his office.

He'd promised himself when he'd taken over as tai-youkai that he would never, ever lie.  He hadn't understood at that time, though, had he?  He hadn't anticipated an encounter quite like that one.

He'd come to understand in the years that followed that a lie like that one was all right.  What good would it have done him to say that his father was sorely lacking?  At the very least, Anatoli was still able to hold his head high, not bearing the shame of some perceived fool's errand, and that was enough for Fai, too.

The truth of those encounters, however, he wrote down—all of it, from start to finish—just so that the reality existed somewhere.  He wrote the accounts down, filed them in the Demyanov vault, and no one would ever see them.  He supposed that it was his way of committing it all to memory, and maybe in doing so, he'd found that it made it easier for him to let go of it, to finally step away from it, so that he didn't have to carry the guilt around with him every day, all the time.

The scratch of his pen against the paper was the only sound, other than the ticking of the antique clock on the mantel.  He didn't know how long he sat there, writing down his account of the altercation.  Though he tried to retain a level of cold factuality, he knew somewhere deep down that his side of things was inherently biased.  Even so, it was the best he could do.

Minutes stretched into minutes, and those flowed on in a gush of silent words.  When he finally dropped the pen with a heavy sigh, his relatively good mood was all but entirely shattered.  Scooping up the papers—ten of them, front and back—he tapped the bottoms against the desk a few times before slipping them into the bottom drawer of the desk and securing the lock.  The vault was in the basement, and he didn't care to make the trek to go down there at the moment.  He'd put the account away the next time he had reason to do so.  Then he stood up, let his head fall back, rolling slowly from side to side, eyes drifting closed as he sought to gather his thoughts, to clear his mind once more . . .

He gasped, jumped, eyes flashing open as he turned his head, shielded his face with his raised forearms against the flash of brilliant yellow, like lightning—like an explosion—as the castle shook, as the thick and old double oak doors literally shattered, splinters showering the entire office as a loud bellow echoed in the air.

"Kaze no kizu!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 20~~
~Reunion~

 

~o~

 

 

"Baka!  Put that away before you hurt yourself, you ass."

"Keh!  You're such a bastard!  That old fucker wasn't about to let us in, and you, arguing with him, wasn't really doing a damn thing to help!"

"It's called diplomacy, worthless half-breed—something you, quite obviously, know nothing at all about.  What if you'd endangered her more than she already is with your refusal to use the brain you have?"

"Oh, for kami's sake, both of you!  Move!"  Deliberately shoving the two silver haired beings apart, a beautiful, raven-haired youkai woman—a wind-youkai?—strode past them and leveled a closed fan at Fai's chest.  "You.  You're Fai-sama?" she demanded.  The last part of it was spoken in English, and Fai had to wonder if he looked as confused as he felt, given that he hadn’t understood a word that was spoken before she’d addressed him.

He nodded once very slowly, ignoring, for the moment, the absolute wreckage that used to be his office.  "And you are?"

The woman's magenta eyes narrowed slightly.  "Where is Saori?"

"Saori?" Fai echoed, shaking his head.  Something about these people struck him as different, but he didn't really have time to process it, either, given that the woman had yet to lower the fans that he had a feeling weren't merely for show.  "She's in my custody for kidnapping me.  She's not going anywhere."

The racket of two swords—one being drawn and leveled at him while the other just shifted trajectory—made his frown deepen, mostly because he was at a very real disadvantage, given that he was unarmed.  The shorter man's sword was huge—ridiculously so—but it was the menace in the taller being's eyes—the rest of his expression was completely blanked—that set off warning bells somewhere in Fai's mind.

"Hand her over, bastard, or you die," the shorter one snarled in English, having obviously realized that Fai didn’t understand whatever language they were barking in, to start with.

"Is that a challenge?" Fai shot back mildly.

"It's a fucking promise!"

"I'd like to see you try, hanyou."

The other man rolled his eyes as the hanyou erupted in a menacing growl.  "Perish the thought of you becoming the next Asian tai-youkai, baka," he said before narrowing his gaze slightly on Fai.  "Perhaps I ought to introduce myself since I only met your father before you.  I am Sesshoumaru, and you will return Saori.  Now."

Wait . . . Did he just say . . .?

Sesshoumaru . . . Inutaisho . . . The Inu no Taisho . . .?

Yeah, but why is he here . . .?

Covering his surprise quickly enough, Fai didn't back down.  "And just why would I do that?  You understand the laws, Sesshoumaru.  You're Inu no Taisho.  You made most of them.  Since when does the Inu no Taisho trouble himself about incidents that should be left to the discretion of the tai-youkai?"

A very cold, very calculated smile that was entirely frightening, surfaced on the Inu no Taisho's lips as those golden eyes narrowed, as he neatly stepped around the woman.  "That is true, Faine.  Ordinarily, I would not interfere.  However, I'm not here as the Inu no Taisho.  I'm here as Saori's grandfather—and you will return her to me.  Now."

"Grandfather?" Fai choked out, positive that he had to have heard the man wrong.  Her grandfather was the Inu no Taisho?  How was that even possible?  But . . . "You're her—?"

"Ojii-sama!  Obaa-sama!  Ji-chan . . . Did you do this?"

All heads except for Sesshoumaru's swung to stare at the missing girl—Saori, who skidded to a halt just inside the office, eyes wide as she took in the sight of her relatives—and the desecration that the hanyou had initiated.  Then she squeaked out a little sound as the hotheaded ji-chan grabbed her into a tight, one-armed hug.  He snapped something in what must have been Japanese at Saori, who sighed and slowly shook her head.  When she tried to step away from him, however, her uncle held onto her, stubbornly refusing to let her anywhere near Fai, which only served to irritate Fai even more, and he stepped toward her.  “What do you think you’re doing?  Stop manhandling her, and let her go!” he growled.

“I’m all right,” she called, yanking against her uncle’s hold, to no avail, and he instantly felt a slight quelling of her emotions.  She must have realized on some level that he was reacting to her, but he didn’t stop to think that over too long, given the situation.  “Fai-sama—"

Reacting to the panic in her youki that she wasn’t able to mask from him, Fai started toward her again, only to stop abruptly when both swords started to rise once more.  Then the woman snapped her wrist, a ridiculously fast whiz of an air blade, unleashed from one of the fans in her hand that zipped past him with a whistle of motion, passing dangerously close to his face, and, had he not stopped, he was positive that she would have sliced him deep.  The wind blade hit the wall between the windows, causing the entire structure to groan as a rabble of stone broke free, clattering to the floor, leaving behind a healthy indent in the once-pristine edifice.

“Don’t move,” she warned, narrowing her gaze on Fai.  "Saori!" she then gasped, carting around on her heel to throw her arms around Saori instead.  They, too, had a rapid-fire discussion in Japanese before the woman planted herself stubbornly directly in front of Saori.

"They'll pay for the door," Saori called, trying in vain to lean around the woman—apparently her grandmother.  "Ji-chan!  Let go!"

"Not on your life, little girl," InuYasha growled.  "Sesshoumaru, get her out of here.  I'll deal with this . . ."

"The hell you will, baka," Sesshoumaru retorted mildly before shifting his gaze only to meet Fai’s glower.  "I already told you, you’d make a terrible tai-youkai.”  Then he turned to face Fai once more.  “She'll be returning to Japan with her grandmother and me—and her idiot uncle."

"InuYasha, take her out to the car, please," the woman commanded.

InuYasha?  As in . . . As in, the hanyou of legend . . .?

Oh, for fuck’s sake!  Is there anyone who she isn’t related to?

You know that they call him the Angry Hanyou, right?  Apparently, it’s for good reason . . .

. . . Shut up.

"Keh!" the hanyou growled, but he did escort a struggling Saori out of the room.

"Fai!  I'm . . . I'm sorry!" Saori called back, her voice growing quieter as she was moved away.

Fai started around the desk, only to be brought up short when Sesshoumaru flicked the tip of his sword under Fai's chin.  "If you value your life, you'll stay where you are," he warned.  Then he dug into his pocket and tossed a wad of bills onto the floor.  "That should be more than enough to cover my half-brother's damages."

"Wait!" Fai growled, starting after them as Sesshoumaru turned to leave.  "At least let me say goodbye to her!"

"I think that the two of you have said more than enough to one another," Sesshoumaru replied.  "Be glad that I am allowing you to live."  He started away again, but stopped in the still-crumbling doorway, turning his head just far enough to pin Fai with a blank stare.  “That child . . . She is our sun and our moon, you understand.”

“Sesshoumaru—”

“If that is not enough compensation for the damages, do contact me through the usual channels.”

Gritting his teeth as he stood by and watched their departure, he didn't realize he was growling until he heard the front door slam a minute later.

 


 

 

Settling back in the seat in the center of the office, Saori tried not to fidget as her father slumped back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest, looking far more serious than he normally did outside of the boardroom.  Rinji leaned against the floor-to-ceiling window behind the desk, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his impossibly expensive, tailored dress pants, while Aiko stood behind her mate.  She wasn't smiling, but she didn't look nearly as irritated as the men in the quiet room, and that, at least, offered Saori some measure of comfort.

It was late.  They'd just gotten in from the airport, and for the entirety of that flight, Saori had to endure being lectured and yelled at, by turns: lecturing from her sweet and darling grandmother, and the yelling, courtesy of her uncle.  Sesshoumaru, for the most part, hadn't said a whole lot, and that, in and of itself worried Saori a little more, given that the quieter he was, the more irritated he was likely to be . . .

But he still hadn't said much, even when they'd arrived at her parents' home.  They'd all disappeared into the study while she had gone to her room to wait while they had their discussions about her but not including her.  Then they’d sent Rinji up to fetch her, and now . . .  Well, now, they were all sitting on the other side of the room and hadn't breathed a word since they'd called her into the office for the formal condemnation of her actions . . .

"Saori, can you explain to us, just why you thought it would be a good idea to kidnap the Asian tai-youkai?" her father asked, his tone, a measured calm that belied the irritation she could feel, radiating off of him.

"It wasn't exactly kidnapping," she muttered.  "More like, I appropriated him—"

"Saori . . ."

She winced at the don't-goof-around tone in her father's voice.  "Sorry, tou-san."

He raised two fingers to dismiss her apology.  "Go on."

"Well, I mean, I didn't plan it . . . It's just that the van I had to drive was pretty old, and the hatch door wouldn't stay open without holding it, and I forgot for a moment and let go, so it . . . it hit him in the head and knocked him out."

Senkuro Seiji let out a deep breath, slowly shaking his head as he pondered her words.  "Okay, I'll buy that," he said.  "What I don't understand is how you made the leap from accidentally knocking him out to kidnapping him."

She grimaced.  It sounded so much worse, the way he'd put it, didn't it?  "I . . . I just thought that if he could . . . could see the orphanage—if he could meet the children, maybe spend some time with them—that he might change his mind about taking away the funding for it.  That's all . . ."

Seiji let out a deep breath, and his expression softened just a little, even though he continued to look concerned.  Then he shook his head.  "You've got to start thinking things through, Saori," he told her, but not unkindly.  "No matter what your intentions were, kidnapping, let alone, the Asian tai-youkai?"  Gaze shifting away from her—past her—his brows drew together in a wizened scowl.  "The international ramifications of this could potentially be catastrophic . . . Maybe she should have stayed there."

"And just what the hell does that mean?" InuYasha growled without preamble.

Seiji rubbed his forehead.  "I mean, he had a right to order her confined, and, from what you all said, she wasn't being mistreated.  She kidnapped him, and even though I don't want her to be locked up, you cannot say that he didn't have a legitimate complaint against her."

InuYasha snorted loudly.  "You want we should take her back?" he snarled.

"No," Seiji said with a sigh, just before shifting his formidable scowl back to her once more.  "I trust you've learned your lesson?" he went on, rather dubiously.

"Yes," she said, scuffing her toes against the rug-covered floor.  "You're right.  It was pretty . . . pretty dumb . . ."

"Come on," Aiko remarked, giving her husband a loving squeeze on the shoulder before stepping around the desk and waiting for Saori to follow.

She followed her mother out of her father's office in silence, eyes downcast as the stupidity of the whole situation hit her, hard.  Why wasn't it that she couldn't seem to grasp these kinds of things until well after the fact?  Time after time, she'd done ridiculous things—maybe not of this magnitude, but still—and she never, ever seemed to realize just how badly it could have turned out until afterward?

Aiko didn't say anything until she closed the door behind them, and then she hurried over, digging out a pair of pajamas from a zippered plastic bag tucked neatly in the dresser before pulling clean bedding from a plastic bag in the closet.  "Tell me about the children," she prompted.

Saori pulled off the travel-rumpled clothes and reached for the bedclothes.  "The children?”

“Yes, the children you were trying to protect,” she clarified.  “That’s ultimately what you were trying to do, wasn’t it?  Protect them?”

Even that didn’t make her feel any better, but Saori forced a wan smile, solely for her mother’s benefit.  “I guess so . . . I mean, the children . . . They're all so sweet . . . I wish they had families of their own, but finding placements for them is so difficult there.  It’s such a poor region, you know?  Most families barely have the money for their own children, let alone asking them to take in someone else’s, and the ones who could afford it just aren’t interested.  These kids fall through the cracks, and it isn’t fair . . . I had one little girl—Galinia—who was so precious . . . But Fai-sama promised to keep funding the orphanage, as long as they were able to cut some expenses, and he's a good man.  He'll keep his word."

Aiko nodded slowly, her gentle smile quirking her lips as she carefully made up the bed.  "He sounds very kind and from what they said, he seems to be more fair than he ought to be, maybe," she surmised, her golden gaze dropping to the bedding once more.  "But he had you arrested, didn't he?"

"Well, kind of . . . I mean, it was my own fault, but even then, I was staying in one of his guest rooms, and he did take me on a tour of his vodka distillery . . . It wasn't really like I was being punished, actually . . ." she admitted.

Settling on the bed, she waited while Aiko stepped over to retrieve her hair brush off the dresser.  It was something she always did, for as long as Saori could remember: every night, they'd talk, discuss everything that had happened that day—or since the last time they'd been together—and, all the while, her mother would slowly brush her hair . . .

"You spent a good amount of time with him, then," Aiko concluded, settling behind Saori as she started to gently pull the brush through her hair.

"It's just him and his brother," Saori continued, wrapping her arms around her bent knees and resting her cheek on them.  "He's kind of quiet, like ojii-sama, but he is kind—just a little too pragmatic."

"I'd suppose that he needs to be pragmatic," Aiko allowed.  "He's fairly young, isn't he?"

For some reason, her mother's question made her frown.  Anywhere else in the world, in any kind of profession, being in his thirties would be old enough to be considered competent, and yet, in the position of tai-youkai . . . "He . . . He gets challenged a lot," she admitted quietly, unsure why, exactly, saying it out loud made it sound much more terrifying.  "He was challenged while I was there—just got back from seeing it through the day before ojii-sama came."

Aiko was quiet for a long moment, and Saori had to blink and sit up a little straighter to keep herself from drifting off to sleep.  "The idea of Fai-sama being challenged bothers you, it seems," Aiko finally remarked.

Biting her lip, Saori tried to shrug it off.  Too bad that her mother was far more perceptive than just about any other being alive, with the only exception being her great-aunt, Kagome . . . "It's disturbing," she said, trying to measure her words carefully.  "It's not fair . . . Being challenged, simply because he's young?  Because they think he doesn't deserve to be handed the title of tai-youkai?  But it's not his fault.  I'm sure that, if he had his preference, his parents would still be alive, and he wouldn't have to be tai-youkai yet . . ."

Aiko chuckled, giving Saori's shoulders a quick squeeze before she resumed her task of brushing her daughter's hair again.  "Seems like he made quite an impression on you."

Heaving a sigh, Saori let her chin drop on her knees.  "I'm sure he's already forgotten me," she admitted, glad that her mother couldn't actually see the color, rising in her cheeks as unbidden memories of that one kiss shot to the fore in her mind.  "He ought to, shouldn't he?  I mean, I did . . . appropriate him . . ."

Aiko laughed, the sound of it, soothing and pleasant.  "If that's the case, then I daresay he probably hasn't forgotten you, Saori.  I don't think I'd ever forget someone who did that to me.  Even so, he must not have been too upset by it, given that he didn't really throw you in jail, don't you think?"

"He did order me arrested," she grumbled, rubbing her face on her knees until her forehead rested where her chin had been.  "I mean, if he didn't like it when I kissed him, he could have just told me so, but then, he ordered Yerik to arrest me instead, and—"

Aiko choked.  "You . . . kissed . . . Fai-sama?"

Saori could have kicked herself for mentioning that.  She hadn't meant to, and yet, there it was.  She winced.  "It wasn't . . . I mean, I didn't . . . I thought he was leaving—I thought I'd never see him again, and . . ." The wince shifted into an all-out grimace.  "I . . . I shouldn't have done that, either . . ." she admitted in a near-whisper.

"So?" Aiko asked rather casually at length.

"So?" she echoed, her voice muffled by her legs.

Aiko giggled.  "So, is Fai-sama a good kisser?"

Saori gasped, and the blood that had just disbursed from her cheeks shot right back to the fore again.  "Kaa-chan!" she choked out.

Aiko's giggle escalated.  "I take that to be a, 'yes', then," she concluded.  "Well, if that's the case, daughter-of-mine, then I'm sure Fai-sama hasn't forgotten about you, at all."  She scooted off the bed and set the brush back on the dresser once more.  "Don't worry, Saori.  Things have a way of working themselves out—things that are meant to be, that is."

Gnawing on her lip, Saori finally lifted her chin when her mother kissed her head.  Watching for a moment as Aiko headed for the door, Saori cleared her throat.  "Kaa-chan?"

She paused with her hand on the door handle.  "Hmm?"

"Please don't tell tou-chan and nii-chan . . . It's . . . It's embarrassing."

“You know that I would never divulge a woman’s secrets, Saori,” she chided gently.

Saori sighed.  “I . . . I know . . .”

Aiko smiled at her.  "Anyway, I won't tell them a thing about it," she promised.  "That's your business, Saori.  However, if and when you see Fai-sama again, I have a bit of advice for you."

"Okay."

Her smile widened.  "Make him work for you.  After all, my daughter is most certainly worth the effort."

A curt knock on the door interrupted the moment, and Aiko paused long enough to give Saori’s shoulder’s a little squeeze before scooting off the bed.

Saori grimaced inwardly when her uncle stepped into the room, his expression unreadable, but he nodded at her.  “Let me talk to the pup.”

Aiko smiled and kissed her uncle’s cheek before wiggling her fingers in farewell as she slipped out of the room.

“Where’s everyone else?” Saori final asked, watching without lifting her chin as InuYasha prowled around the room.

InuYasha grunted.  “Keh!  Where do you think?  Down there, listening to that old windbag of a grandfather of yours.”  Striding over to a shelf where Saori kept her childhood keepsakes, he kept moving.  It was how he had always been.  Even if he stood, stock-still, there was always a part of him that would move.  Many times, it was his dog-ears.  Those adorable little, furry triangles were constantly twitching, constantly monitoring the area.  She’d always been enchanted by them, even if it was rare that he allowed anyone to touch them.  Turned as he was, she couldn’t see his face, but those ears of his kept turning, twisting—listening.  “So, uh . . .”

“Hmm?”

InuYasha pivoted on his heel, planting his hands on his hips, his jeans faded and rumpled, his crimson tee-shirt looking a little worse for wear since he hadn’t bothered to bring extra clothing with him on the impromptu rescue mission.  He hadn’t gone home yet, either, but Saori figured that he was probably on his way out after he talked to her.  Whatever it was that he wanted to say, she wasn’t sure.

“Is he tough?”

Blinking at the unexpected question, Saori slowly shook her head.  “Tough?” she echoed.  “He’s tai-youkai, and he’s been challenged quite a bit.”

InuYasha nodded.  “Keh!  Looked like some kind of citified pretty-boy,” he grumbled.

She shrugged.  “Well, I did have to teach him how to fish,” she admitted.  “I mean, he said he could fish with a rod and line, but we didn’t have those.  The van broke down, so we ended up, having to travel the rest of the way on foot, and carrying around a pole just wasn’t really convenient . . .”

“That right?  Can’t handle real fishing?  What good is he?”

For the first time since she’d been rescued, Saori giggled just a little.  “It’s not his fault . . . He was busy learning other things.  Anyway, he got pretty good at fishing, and he’s a very good cook.”

InuYasha didn’t look impressed by her claim, but he nodded once.  “He didn’t have time to learn how to fish by hand, but he took the time to learn how to stake a few fish and roast ‘em over a fire?  Seems kind of backward, if you ask me.”

Rolling her eyes despite the smile on her face, she wrinkled her nose.  “I assure you, he’s a very talented person, ji-chan.”

He grunted.  “I’ll take your word for it,” he said.  “Anyway, oba-chan is hollering that she missed me or some such.  I just wanted to make sure you’re all right.”

She hugged him back when he strode over to give her a quick squeeze.  “Give her my love.”

“Do that yourself,” he told her.  “You got time, don’t you?  Come by and see her.”

“All right,” she agreed as he strode over to the door.  “Ji-chan?”

He stopped in the doorway.

She sighed.  “Next time you rescue someone, maybe you should try not to tear down their home in the process.”

He narrowed his golden eyes at her and snorted indelicately.  “Keh!  Next time you kidnap some stupid baka, don’t get caught!” he shot back as he stomped out of her room and slammed the door behind himself, leaving a giggling Saori in his wake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 21~~
~Upside Down~

 

~o~

 

 

"Fai?"

Staring out the window at the beautiful sunshine that felt completely at odds with the irritation very evident in Fai's expression, he stood abruptly, sending the chair clattering loudly as it scooted back a few feet across the slightly uneven flagstone veranda.  It careened, it tilted, but it didn’t fall over—quite a feat, really . . . Striding over to the low wall that surrounded the area, Fai's scowl darkened even more, his eyes darting quickly over the peaceful landscape: the garden behind the vast Demyanov castle.

"Fai?"

"I heard you the first time, Yerik," Fai growled.

He heard his brother's sigh.  "It's been almost a week," Yerik said, opting to ignore Fai's uncharacteristic gruffness.

"I realize that," he ground out.  "They promised they'd be finished today."

"They?" he echoed quizzically.

"The contractor," Fai clarified in a tone that indicated that Yerik ought to have realized that on his own.

"Yes, well, that, too, I suppose," Yerik replied.  "I wasn't talking about the damages, though—the Hanyou of Legend actually blasted the doors with Tetsusaiga?"

"I fail to see the humor of it," Fai snarled.

Yerik chuckled, letting Fai's irritation roll right off his back.  "Is it as impressive as they say?"

Fai snorted indelicately.  "What are you talking about?"

Yerik shrugged when Fai peered over his shoulder to level a scowl at him.  "Tetsusaiga, Fai.  They say it's massive."

Fai only grunted in answer as he turned away once more.

"I'm sorry I missed that," Yerik admitted.  "Who would have thought that little Saori would have relatives like that?  Talk about intimidating, and it probably didn't sit well with them that you'd arrested . . . Sesshoumaru's granddaughter?"

"You're five minutes from being told to fetch your sword, Yerik," Fai warned dryly.

"So, if you had gotten killed on accident, did Sesshoumaru bring Tenseiga to revive you?"

Fai's jaw ticked as he ground his teeth together.  "I think I saw it in the hall," he growled.

"Saw what in the hall?  Tenseiga?"

"Your sword, Yerik.  Go get it."

The younger Demyanov had the audacity to laugh outright at that.  His amusement wound down slowly, though, and he finally sighed instead.  "You know, Fai, if you miss her that much, you could go get her," he suggested.

Fai didn't bother to respond to that.  Turning on his heel, he stalked away, down the steps that led to the garden, striding along the cobblestone paths that meandered through the many flowerbeds.  He was dangerously close to losing what was left of his temper, and if he didn't get a handle on it, he'd be sorry for it later.

Go get her?

He snorted and quickened his pace.  'I don't . . . I don't need her!  She kidnapped me, for God's sake!  The last thing—the very last thing—I need is to bring her back!  She has serious impulse control problems—kidnapping me, the Asian tai-youkai . . . cuddling with men she barely knows . . . kissing random strangers . . .'

'You're not a random stranger, Fai—and you liked it, that kiss—and the cuddling, for that matter.  You're just coming up with excuses.'

'I'm not,' he argued.  'Why on earth would I want to bring her back?  She has a horrible lack of decorum, doesn't really think about the things she does until after she's done them, runs off with strange men she doesn't know . . . I could go on.'

'Her heart's in the right place, Fai, and that has to account for something.  Maybe if we called . . .'

Fai snorted.  'Sesshoumaru was very clear when he said to stay away from her.'

'And you're afraid of him?'

'There is a huge difference between being afraid—and I'm not—and possessing a healthy respect for someone's abilities—which I do.  That aside, they say things work out the way they're meant to, right?  So, if that's the case, she was meant to go home—to go back where she belongs.'

'Do you really believe that?'

'I have to.  It's done.'

Besides, he figured, he had bigger things to worry about.  After all, he was still dealing with budget restraints—he really wasn't sure just where his father came up with the money to fund all the ongoing services that were slowly chipping away at the bottom line—not to mention that he had yet to come up with a workable plan to keep the orphanage going, long-term.  The reality of it was that he really needed to find someone that he could trust, someone who could help him figure out a way to not only find placements for the children already in the home but to keep it above water, too . . .

His first thought was to talk to Evgeni, maybe ask him if he had any suggestions regarding the home.

'Except the last time you mentioned it to him, he laughed and told you to shut it down—and that's what you were going to do, wasn't it?  Do you think he'll say anything different this time?'

Fai rolled up his sleeves a few times as he kept walking, thinking over his youkai-voice's assertions.  It was true enough.  Evgeni had maintained that the children in that home wouldn't amount to much in the long run, too, and had suggested, albeit in a very droll sort of way, that maybe the children ought to be killed off, too—that it might well be somehow kinder than living the life of beggars in an orphanage that was too poor to adequately care for them . . .

'That was just a joke—a really horrible joke, but a joke . . .'

'Was it, Faine?  Was it, really?  You know, sure, he came to discuss things with your father often enough, but you know as well as I do that the only person your father ever really trusted was your mother.  Maybe they were friends, but how often did your father warn you not to trust anyone more than you trust yourself?  He had to have said that for a reason, don't you think?  So, is it okay to tell Evgeni as much as you have?'

'Point taken, but that doesn't help the situation at hand.  I've thought it over and over again, and I've tried to come up with way too many workarounds, but you know that all I'm really doing is biding time, and if I cannot rely on Evgeni, then who do you suggest?'

His youkai voice snorted indelicately.  'You already know the answer to that.  You're just too stubborn to get out your phone and to make that call . . . For the record, I don't think she'd decline your request if you asked her to help you, and you know her well enough to know that she doesn't have ulterior motives, either.  Besides, she wants to see that home stay open as much as you do.  Do you think she'd really turn you down?'

Digging his phone out of his pocket, Fai scowled at the numbers he kept programmed in it.  The only number he had was the Japanese tai-youkai's office—Toga—Saori's uncle . . .?  He wasn't entirely sure, but he did know that they had to be related.  He seemed to recall at one point, someone mentioning Toga's younger sister, which would explain why Saori's last name wasn't Inutaisho.  Now, if luck was on his side, he'd at least get a phone number where he could reach Saori . . .

"Inutaisho."

"Toga?  Hello, this is Fai Demyanov—"

"Demyanov-dono?  Well, this is a surprise," the tai-youkai said.  He didn't sound unkind, but he didn't sound friendly, exactly, either . . .

Fai licked his lips.  "Yes, I suppose it is," he allowed.  "I know you're busy, so I won't take up your time.  I need to reach Saori Senkuro and wondered if you had her phone number?"

"Yes, I do," Toga remarked slowly, almost thoughtfully.  "I assure you that we're very sorry for what she did, and we're taking care of the situation.  You really needn't worry yourself over anything.  We're so incredibly sorry about what happened.  Please be assured that she has been duly reprimanded.  She . . . She's a bit impetuous at times, not that it excuses her behavior because kidnapping anyone, let alone the Asian tai-youkai, is very, very serious."

"Ah, no, I—"

"Under the circumstances, I think it's best if you were to let us deal with her.  If you require monetary compensation for the inconvenience, I'll be happy to authorize whatever you demand, and I promise you, she won't ever be returning to your jurisdiction, so there won't be any more trouble."

"No, you don't understand.  I—"

"Let me know if there's anything we can do to for you, Demyanov-dono.  Thank you for calling."

Grimacing when the line went dead, Fai let out a deep, frustrated breath and slowly shook his head.  Not even letting him speak?  Didn't that just figure, and why was he being treated like he'd done something wrong when she was the one who had felt the need to . . . to appropriate him, in the first place . . .?

'The whole damn family is insane,' he thought sourly, resuming his stomp through the gardens that should have brought him a level of calm, but was absolutely not working at all.  Just how on earth was he supposed to talk to her, to ask her to help him, if her family was so dead-set against the idea of her even speaking to him?  He wanted to offer her a job, needed her help with the children—something that he knew damn well that she'd want.  After all, it was her concern for the children that had led to the rest of the whole debacle, to start with.  Sure, he could understand the reluctance to allow him to speak to her when he'd had her arrested for it, but he hadn't even gotten a chance to defend his reason for calling, in the first place.

The unsettling and unwelcome sense of melancholy that slowly closed in around him slowed his pace, a terrible feeling of desolation that he didn't fully understand . . .

None of it made sense, did it?  After everything that had happened since the moment he'd met her, and now . . .? He'd tried, and he'd failed, and somehow, Saori had slipped a little farther away from him . . .

 


 

 

Saori tapped on the door then pushed it open, only to blink and raise her eyebrows at the vision that greeted her.

"Saori-chan!" Izayoi Bellaniece greeted brightly from where she sat, directly in Inutaisho Toga's lap.  Across from him, her aunt—Toga's wife—was very comfortably nestled in Bellaniece's husband's lap.  "Come in; come in!"

"Oba-chan . . ." Saori greeted.  In truth, Bellaniece wasn't actually her aunt—was, in fact, more like a second-cousin—but she'd always called both her as well as Nezumi and Gin, 'oba-chan', anyway . . . "Am I interrupting?" she asked, smiling as she noticed the tell-tale blush on her uncle's face.

Toga cleared his throat, peering around Bellaniece and slowly shaking his head despite the good-natured smile on his face.  "Oh, uh, Saori . . ."

Saori checked the urge to giggle and cleared her throat instead.  "I dropped off the file like you asked, and then, I picked up these," she said, stepping over to hand a binder over to Sierra.  "The florist said to let her know what all you want for the Inutaisho gala, but if you want any of the specialty flowers, let them know soon since they'll have to be imported."

"Tou-san say anything about the file?" Toga asked.

Saori shrugged.  "He said he'd call you later, after he's had a chance to look the file over."

Toga nodded.  "Thank you," he replied.

"Anything else you need me to do?"

Toga chuckled.  "You could sidetrack Belle, here, if you wanted."

"But, Toga-chan!  I thought you liked me!" Bellaniece protested, twisting around to peer over her shoulder at him.

"I like you well enough," he agreed.  "Kich . . .?"

Kichiro chuckled, making a show of tightening his hold around Sierra's waist.  "I'm okay with this," he teased.  Sierra giggled while Bellaniece winked at her mate.

"I'm good with it, too," Sierra piped up.

Toga heaved a sigh.  "Figures . . . Thank you, Saori.  I'll call if I need anything else," he told her.

She nodded and let herself out of the office.  Only after the door closed behind her, did she let out a deep breath of her own.

In the week since she'd been so unceremoniously brought home, she'd done very little.  Sure, she'd submitted her résumé to a few agencies and a couple schools, but she hadn't heard anything yet, and all she'd been doing otherwise was sitting at home, fielding lectures from various family members about how reckless her actions were.  Then Toga had called and offered her a part time position as an aide of sorts—at least, until she was able to find a job in her chosen field.  At least it gave her something to do, and Toga, unlike most everyone else, hadn't said a thing at all to her about the kidnapping of the Asian tai-youkai.

Shaking her head as she headed toward the elevator, Saori bit her lip.  She was just reaching out to hit the call button when the soft chime sounded and the doors slid open.  Blinking as she took a step back, she broke into a small smile as her cousin stepped off the elevator, straightening the sleeves of his blazer as he quirked his black eyebrows and leveled an otherwise bland expression at her.  "Well, if it isn't my cousin, the felon," Inutaisho Mamoruzen—better known as 'Gunnar'—remarked.  "If you're here to kidnap tou-san, I'll have you thrown in a real jail," he warned.

She wrinkled her nose.  "I'm working for him," she corrected.  "It's bad form to kidnap one's boss, isn't it?  Anyway, I've gotten enough lectures already, thank you."

He snorted, which meant that he really didn't care, one way or the other.  "What were you thinking?"

She rolled her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest.  "If you're going to have your go at me, the least you could do is buy me a cup of tea," she informed him, brushing past him and into the elevator.

He checked his watch, then opted to follow her.  "I have a few minutes," he allowed, pressing the button for the first floor of the impressive Inutaisho Communications building.  "What the hell were you thinking?"

That he'd asked that question in a very mild tone wasn't surprising—neither was the very real censure in his expression.  Golden eyes, unnecessarily bright as he stared down at her, he seemed to be daring her to try to lie to him, and she sighed.  "It wasn't . . . I wasn't trying to kidnap him," she heard herself explain for what had to be the hundredth time since she'd arrived back in Tokyo.  "I just wanted him to meet the orphans before he cut off funding for the home, is all."

Gunnar snorted and held his hand over the sensor when the doors slid open to allow her to exit the box first.  "So, you kidnap Fai Demyanov, and —"

"I prefer 'appropriated'," she muttered.

"Appropriated?"

She wrinkled her nose and shrugged.  "'Kidnap' sounds so violent.  Appropriated is much more diplomatic."

He grunted.  "Only you, Saori-chan, could possibly try to make the whole thing sound like the weird and twisted plot to a misbegotten rom-com."

She stopped short, blinking as his choice of words sank in.  "Wh-Who said anything a-a-about romance?" she choked out.

Gunnar's already nonplussed expression seemed to blank even more.  Fighting down the livid blush that threatened, Saori sped past him out of the elevator and through the foyer of the impressive building, veering to the right, across from the huge, circular reception desk, toward the glass walls and door of the upscale tea room that was a very popular place for people to conduct casual meetings or to grab a bit of refreshment before heading up to the offices above.

Slipping into the nearest empty table, Saori hurriedly buried her face behind a plastic-encased menu, all before Gunnar could sit down across from her.  He didn't reach for a menu, though, and instead lifted a hand to bring a waitress scurrying over.

"You're acting weird," he pointed out under his breath.  Glancing up at the waitress, he didn't smile, but he didn't have to.  This cousin of hers had an uncanny way of making women practically fall at his feet, after all, and now was no exception.  Saori rolled her eyes as the waitress' cheeks pinked, her gaze skittering nervously to meet his, only to flick away, back and forth in an entirely ridiculous display of girlish angst.  "Two teas," he said.  "Would you like anything else, Saori-chan?"

Saori peeked over the top of her menu.  "No, thank you," she replied.

The waitress chirped out something that sounded like it was meant to be a giggle before hurrying away once more.

"What are you doing in Japan, anyway?" she demanded before he could elaborate on her 'weird' behavior.

Settling back in the chair, Gunnar slowly shook his head, his impeccable hair, shimmering in the hazy bluish light, floating around him in a ripple of kinetic flow.  "In a word?  Okaa-san."

"Reminded you how long it's been since she's seen your face?"

He nodded slowly.  "That, and tou-san wanted an update on a few cases that Bas and I have been working on."  Pausing long enough to nod at the waitress while she set the tea on the table, he waited until she was moving away before continuing.  "Don't think I don't know that you're trying to change the topic."

"What was the topic?" she quipped.

She should have known that her little attempts at distraction would never work on this particular cousin, anyway.  "Your strange behavior just now."

"I'm not acting strangely," she insisted, hoping that he couldn't see right through her as she took her time, closing the menu and setting it back in the wire rack.  "As for Fai-sama . . . It really wasn't as bad as everyone thinks."

"They said he arrested you," Gunnar pointed out indelicately.

She sighed, tucking a long strand of hair behind her ear as she frowned into her tea.  "That's what he said," she agreed slowly, "but . . . but he didn't actually treat me like I was under arrest.  All he did was take away my phone, and that wasn't really a big deal—or it wouldn't have been if nii-chan hadn't freaked out over it . . ."

"Rinji-san worries about you.  Everyone does.  You know that you're entirely too impulsive, don't you?"

That earned him a rather petulant little frown.  "You would have been, too, if you had spent any time around those pups.  I'll admit, I was desperate, but you know, if I hadn't done what I did, then he would have cut off the funding, so I can't be sorry for it.  I'm not sorry."

"I know you're not.  So does everyone else.  That's the whole problem," he pointed out.  "You have everyone in the family up in arms; all of them think that it's just a matter of time before Fai-sama tries to force the issue.  It doesn't matter what words you want to use to describe what you did, you still kidnapped a tai-youkai, and that is just not something that can be brushed off.  The only thing that saves you from being charged with treason is that you're not from his jurisdiction.  Can you understand that?"

"I'm not a child!  Of course, I understand.  He knows why I did what I did, and he doesn't hold it against me," she insisted, wishing for the life of her that she believed her own words as much as she wanted it to sound like she did.  "Besides, when the van broke down, he started to go back home, but then he followed me instead, so I really only appropriated him for a couple days.  After that, I guess you could say that he . . . He came along with me of his own volition.  Then Dmitri and I took some of the children camping, and he wanted to come along, which is probably for the best since those Bershetoyev cousins made me go with them—Well, Nikolai did.  Pavel was shot in the shoulder, and he needed me to give him first aid . . ."

"What are you talking about?"

Saori shrugged, sipping her tea as she considered those few frantic hours . . . "Fai-sama and his brother found me—rescued me, I guess you could say—even though I wasn't really in any danger, but I suppose they didn't realize that at the time."  Trailing off, Saori sighed inwardly as the memory faded.  Gunnar looked like he was ready to reach across the table and give her a good shake, and she sighed.  "Fai-sama . . . He's a very kind man.  I don't think he likes to show it.  He thinks he needs to be tougher than anyone else . . ."

He scowled at her for a long moment.  She didn't look at him, but she could feel his frown, boring into her skull.  Then he let out a deep breath—about as close to a sigh as he ever made, anyway.  "He's got a lot of enemies, Saori-chan," he finally said.  "That's what I hear, anyway.  You're better off here."

She didn't miss the rest of that sentence—the part he didn't say out loud, and she rubbed her arms to chase away the bumps that rose on her skin, even though she wasn't at all cold.

'Where it's safe.'

That was what he hadn't said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 22~~
~Sour~

 

~o~

 

 

Tapping the button to end the intercom connection of his cell phone, Inutaisho Sesshoumaru pushed away from the desk and stood up to wander over to the tall bank of windows that overlooked the garden behind the mansion situated on the outskirts of Tokyo.  It was a warm and sun-drenched, late spring day, and yet, he couldn’t quite shake the strange feeling that something was happening—something that he just couldn’t see . . . Just out of the range of his perception, it felt like something that was whispered on the wind more than an actual, concrete sense, and as normal as everything was, it was a foreboding that he simply could not shake . . .

There was nothing at all to suggest that anything was amiss, but over the years, Sesshoumaru had learned to give credence to this feeling.  It wasn’t something that happened often, but that didn’t matter, either.  The times when he’d felt it before, he’d always come to realize later that it was a warning.

But why?

It was that same feeling that had led him to call Cain, the North American tai-youkai, who had assured him that everything was fine on that side of things.  Then he’d placed calls to Australia, South America, Africa, and even Europe, despite knowing that there really was no way that MacDonnough was going to tell him much of anything, and he was right.  The only tai-youkai he hadn’t called, as a matter of fact . . .

Faine-san . . .

And will we call him . . .?

Frowning slightly at the question posed by his youkai-voice, Sesshoumaru didn’t move toward the desk, either, as his gaze swept over the rolling lawn outside.

“Tou-chan, are you busy?”

Brushing aside the unsettling thoughts for the moment, he didn’t turn to acknowledge his daughter’s intrusion.  “Aiko,” he said.  “I always have time for you.”

She laughed, and for a brief moment, the long-past chime of her childish giggles echoed in his head.  He’d always loved the sound, and he appreciated the more mature tone as she’d grown older, too.  Still, the memory was enough to bring a fleeing sense of moments long past.  “Kaa-chan asked me to see if there was anyone else you wanted to add to the guest list for the fundraiser before she finalizes it and submits the list to the printer.”

“Not that I can think of,” he allowed, finally turning away from the window, though he made no move to return to his desk.  “I’m sure Kagura’s list is fine.”

Peering down at the slim-file in her hands, she tucked a long strand of silver hair behind her ear before nudging her wire-rimmed glasses up her nose with a crooked finger.  “Okay . . . Oh, I know we normally don’t send invitations to our overseas relatives, but Gin-chan mentioned that Evan would be in Japan around that time on his world tour.  Should we send him one?”

Gritting his teeth, Sesshoumaru let out a deep breath.  “That one . . .”

Aiko laughed.  “He behaves himself very well when he’s representing family,” she reminded him.

Sesshoumaru’s expression said quite plainly that he wasn’t entirely in agreement with his daughter’s statement.  “I suppose it can’t be helped,” he allowed.

Aiko nodded, settling in a chair across from the desk to type in Evan’s name on the guest list.  “All right.”

Striding back to his desk once more, Sesshoumaru sank down, propping his elbows on the armrests, tapping the tips of his fingers together slowly, methodically.  “How is Saori?”

Aiko’s smile dimmed slightly, and she sighed as she met her father’s gaze.  “Well, she’s fine,” she began, very obviously choosing her words.

“Is she still upset with me?”

“She’s not upset with you . . .”

Sesshoumaru raised an eyebrow.  “So, she hasn’t been referring to me as ‘ojii-sama’?”

Aiko wrinkled her nose.  “Well, there’s that . . .” she admitted.

Sesshoumaru nodded.  “It makes no sense.  She was arrested—granted, Faine had every right to do that, given the situation.  She barely said two words to me, the whole trip home, and she hasn’t spoken to me since, even when delivering files for Toga.”

Aiko slowly shook her head.  “Maybe . . . Maybe she didn’t want to come home . . . Or maybe . . .” Aiko sighed.

“Maybe . . .?” he prompted when she trailed off.

Scrunching up her shoulders, she licked her lips.  “Maybe she . . . didn’t want to be . . . rescued.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Aiko.  She was arrested.”

“But she said that he never treated her like a prisoner,” Aiko pointed out.

Frown deepening as he considered his daughter’s words, Sesshoumaru nodded slowly.  “Toga said that Faine called him a few days ago—wanted Saori’s phone number.”

“Did he give it to him?”

“Of course not,” Sesshoumaru replied.  “No, I don’t like it.  There’s something strange going on.  I feel it.  I’m not sure, however, what to make of it.”

“Your feeling?”

He nodded once.

Aiko nodded, too.  “Well, it could be nothing at all,” she allowed rather philosophically.  “But then, I don’t think they were together long enough to really get a good grasp of the situation, either.  Maybe it’s as simple as a little unfinished business.”

Sesshoumaru stared at Aiko for a long moment. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” she replied.  “I just know that Saori . . .”

“Saori, what?”

Blinking away her reverie, Aiko forced a smile as she pushed herself out of the chair.  “Oh, nothing,” she replied brightly and held up the slim-file.  “I’ll leave this with kaa-chan.”

He watched her go, his frown deepening thoughtfully.  He wasn’t obtuse enough not to realize that Aiko was most certainly keeping part of it from him, but that wasn’t the issue; not really.  His children and grandchildren were entitled to their privacy, and if they wanted to tell him things, they would.  He knew this, and he allowed it, and whatever was going on in this situation should be handled in the same way, but . . .

But the idea of Saori, getting caught up in something that could potentially cost her her freedom?  Sesshoumaru wasn’t entirely sure that it was a price he was willing to sit back and watch her pay, either . . .

Even so . . .

 


 

 

“Why haven’t you closed the orphanage?”

Settling back in the comfortable chair as he stared into the glass of vodka in his hand, Fai didn’t move his head as he shifted his gaze to meet Evgeni’s, who was settled on the sofa across from him in the sparsely decorated receiving room.  “I found that I could keep it open,” he replied in a tone that should have indicated that the subject wasn’t open to debate.

Evgeni’s thoughtful frown darkened.  “For how long, Fai?” he asked, shaking his head.

“They cut their budget by a third.  It’ll be fine,” Fai insisted, “and it isn’t open to debate.”

Evgeni sighed at the set-down, but, true to form, he didn’t let it go.  To be honest, Fai would have been surprised if he had . . . “I know it was your dear mother’s pet project,” he said, his tone taking on a certain reverence that only colored his voice when he dared to bring up Fai’s late parents, especially his mother.  “You’re spreading yourself so thin, though . . . You can’t keep all these programs on the books and think that it’ll be all right.”

“I know my budget well enough,” Fai responded tightly.  “You don’t have to worry about it.  It’s my responsibility, not yours.”

Settling back, Evgeni stared at him for a long moment.  “What’s bothering you?” he finally asked.  “You seem so tense, so . . .”

“Everything’s fine,” Fai insisted once more, downing the vodka, willing his noticeably short fuse to even out.  “I just have things on my mind.  That’s all.”

“Like Yerik?  Are you sure that it’s a good idea, sending him out on hunts?”

“Yerik is capable, and it’s what he’s chosen to pursue,” Fai said.

“He’s so young . . .”

“I would not send him out if I didn’t have every confidence that he can handle it,” Fai remarked.  “He’s already gone on a couple hunts, and he’s done very well.”

Evgeni didn’t look entirely convinced.  “If you’re certain . . . I mean, at this point, he is your heir . . .”

“Are you questioning my decisions, Gen?”

Blinking quickly, the older man had the grace to flush at the very obvious set-down.  “Of course not, Fai.  I just worry what your father would have said . . .”

“I didn’t make the decision on a whim,” Fai went on.  Then he sighed, thumping the empty glass on the table with a heavy clatter to emphasize the closing of the topic.  “By the way, there was something I wanted you to look into for me.”

“Oh?  What’s that?”

“While I was . . . away . . . my accounts were frozen.  They said that it was because of a charge they’d questioned, which was fine, but they froze all of my accounts, not just my personal one.  I’d like you to see if there was something they weren’t telling me, given that you work at the bank . . .”

“Oh . . . All right,” he agreed.  “I’ll see what I can find out.”

Fai stood up when Evgeni did, stepping over to walk the older man to the door.  “I appreciate it,” he said.

Evgeni waved off Fai’s thanks.  “It’s my job, right?  Is there anything else you require of me?”

“No,” Fai said.

“I’ll call when I find anything out,” he offered.  Then he inclined his head before slipping out of the foyer.

The heavy thud of the closing door echoed in the quiet, and Fai let out a deep breath.  Luckily, the repairs on his office had been completed a few days ago, so he hadn’t had to explain that.

He frowned.  Just why was it that he was so reluctant to talk about Saori?  For some reason, there was such an intensely personal feeling whenever he thought about her that the idea of sharing her, even just in speech . . . It bothered him.

Because you want to keep her for yourself?

Scowling as he strode down the hallway that led to the office, Fai dug his phone out of his pocket, scrolled through the pictures in the memory to find the one of Saori that he hadn’t seen before she left.  Taken at the distillery during their visit, he hadn’t realized that she’d gotten a hold of his phone at some point, long enough to snap a silly picture of herself, complete with the white paper hairnet that everyone was required to wear in the facility.

She was smiling sweetly, her eyes uncannily bright—a little vague, slightly reddened since she was already quite drunk, but she was leaning against a thick wood table . . . He’d found the selfie quite by accident while looking for an image that Yerik sent him.

He didn’t want to share her picture with anyone, either.

It really wasn’t any kind of feeling that he wanted to keep her for himself, though.  No, it was more of a feeling that the more of her he gave away, the less of her would remain with him, if that made any sense . . .

Fai . . .

Closing the doors behind himself, he paused just for a moment before sending the image to the printer.  ‘Hmm?

His youkai-voice heaved a sigh.  ‘I miss her . . . I miss her a lot . . .

Fai didn’t respond to that.  He didn’t have to.  There wasn’t a point to it, anyway, was there?  He’d already tried everything he could, including pulling her number off her old phone.  Unfortunately, her number was changed—which didn’t honestly surprise him, but did frustrate him, just the same.  He’d even broken down and called Dmitri at the orphanage, but he said that he hadn’t heard from Saori since she was so unceremoniously arrested, and that just figured, too.

No, he thought with an inward sigh as he waited for the printer to finish.  There wasn’t any point to whining about what he simply couldn’t change . . .

And there really was no point at all in admitting that, yes . . . He missed her, too . . .

 


 

 

Tapping twice against the doorframe of the bright and airy office, Saori took a step back to wait.  This was her last errand of the day for Toga, and she sighed.

“Come in.”

She pushed against the door that was already open a crack before stepping inside the room she knew well enough.  “Oji-chan sent this over,” she said, striding forward, the soft soles of her house shoes whispering, scuffling against the polished wood floor.  “He said that there’s no rush, but that he would like your opinion on the matter.”

Sesshoumaru nodded slowly, his eyes narrowing just a little on her face.  “Arigatou gozaimashita,” he said, holding out an articulated hand to take the file from her.  She handed it over and bowed before she turned to go.

He was faster.  “Take a seat, Saori,” he said, his tone leaving no room for her to argue with him.  Seeing no way around it, she reluctantly sank into the nearest chair, crossing her ankles demurely, hands clasped in her lap as she waited for him to continue.  He regarded her with maddening meticulousness that made her want to fidget.  She didn’t.

Finally, he sat back, setting the file aside as he continued to regard her with that unsettling gaze that had made lesser men crumble.  “Talk to me, my grandchild.  Tell This Sesshoumaru what it is that you’re thinking.”

“Everything’s fine,” she blurted, gaze falling away as a surge of heat washed into her cheeks.

“Is that so?”

She jerked her head once in a nod.  “Yes . . .”

He considered that for a moment, nodding very slowly.  “Then tell me why you have been referring to me as, ‘-sama’.”

She made a face for a split second.   “You didn’t really have to tear Fai-sama’s home apart,” she grumbled, latching onto the most readily available excuse.

“And yet, that was not my doing, but your hot-headed jii-chan,” he pointed out reasonably.  “I trust you’ve seen the results of his wielding of Tetsusaiga to differentiate as much.  Truth, Saori.”

She sighed, scrunching up her shoulders in a rather pathetic shrug as she let go of all pretenses to the contrary and dug the toe of her slipper against the plush Persian rug under her feet.  “The only thing he did was to take away my cell phone,” she finally muttered, bringing her gaze up to meet Sesshoumaru’s, as though she were daring him to call her a liar.

“Is that so?”

She nodded again.  “Yes . . .”

He shifted his mouth sideways, considering what she said, and then he licked his lips before speaking, but his tone was more thoughtful, as though he were hearing—really hearing—what she was saying.  “Is there . . . something between the two of you?  Something you haven’t mentioned?”

Again, she could feel the blossom of heat under her skin as she quickly shook her head.  “Uh, n-n-no,” she blurted, her gaze skittering away, only to dart back and then slip to the side once more.  “I-I mean, he . . . he said I was . . . was beautiful, but it wasn’t like he . . . wasn’t like he really meant it in that kind of way . . .”

Eyebrows rising to disappear under the fringe of his parted bangs, Sesshoumaru lowered his chin slightly.  “Did he?”

She flinched.  “He was just warning me,” she admitted.

“Warning you about what?”

It took her a moment to gather her thoughts, and she sighed.  “It was just because of the wolves.  He thought that they’d taken me for . . . Well, I don’t know why, but he only wanted me to help his cousin who had been shot, so . . .” She made a face.  “Anyway, that’s why.”

“Wolves, Saori?”

It occurred to her that she was borderline-babbling, and she nodded.  “When we took the children camping—it was kind of my way of saying goodbye to them—a wolf-youkai showed up because he’d seen me give first aid to one of the children who twisted his ankle.  He grabbed me and dragged me off, but he just wanted me to help his cousin, was all . . . Fai-sama and his brother found me and, well, I guess you could say they rescued me, even though I didn’t need rescuing . . .”

Sesshoumaru stared hard at her for a long minute.  Then he choked out a terse laugh.  “I have no idea, just how you manage to find so much trouble, Saori,” he said, though he wasn’t unkind.  If anything, he sounded entirely amused.  “And that’s when Fai told you that you’re beautiful.”

She nodded.  “Yes.”

“But then, he had you arrested.”

She grimaced since there were just some things that she had no desire at all to tell her great and mighty grandfather, and the idea that she was forward enough to kiss Fai?  That was one of those things.  “Well, yes . . .”

“But there’s nothing going on between the two of you.”

“N-No . . .”

He still seemed rather amused, even though Saori had no idea why that might be.  In the end, however, he nodded.  Saori bit her lip.  Sure, she was still a little irritated at the way her family had chosen to intervene.  Even so, a part of her really could understand their reasoning, even if she didn’t like it, and her grandfather?  Sesshoumaru wasn’t the kind of person who was used to sitting around and doing nothing when it involved one of his own, and she supposed she could understand that, too . . . “Stop in and say hello to obaa-chan before you leave,” he told her.

She let out a deep breath, sensing that the worst of the impromptu interrogation was over.  “I will,” she promised, rising to her feet.  She moved toward the door, but stopped before letting herself out of the office.  “I’m going now . . . ojii-chan.”

He smiled just a little as she slipped out of the room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 23~~
~Slow Burn~

 

~o~

 

 

The tick of the clock echoed in the silence with a rhythm and unrelenting drumming that was enough to drive her insane.

It was like this every night.

Letting out a deep breath, Saori blinked as she stared up into the darkness, her arms crossed over her stomach on top of the duvet.  She could hear herself blink.

Almost three weeks.

It had been nearly three weeks since she’d returned home, back to the safety and familiarity of this place.  This room used to bring her such solace, especially when she was feeling particularly down, when she’d tried to figure out why boys never noticed her, when she had done poorly on an important exam or something like that.

Now?

Now it wasn’t nearly the same, and the trouble was, she didn’t know why.

Odd, too, was the conspicuous silence of her normally verbose youkai-voice.  She wasn’t entirely sure what it meant.

If you must know, I’ve been thinking.

Oh, there you are.  Thinking?  Thinking about what?

A quiet sigh punctuated the voice’s words.  ‘About a lot of things . . . About this weird sense of being entirely unsettled.  Surely you feel that, too?

Brows drawing together in the filmy dark, Saori rolled onto her side and forced herself to close her eyes.  ‘It feels like . . . like something’s missing, doesn’t it?

Yes, that feeling.  You know, it’s hard to breathe, isn’t it?

Her eyes slowly opened as she gnawed on her lower lip.  “Hard to breathe,” she echoed, her voice barely a whisper.

Not for real—not in the literal sense.  More like, it just feels . . . Remember when we went skiing and the lift took us way up to the top of the mountain?  How thin the air was, how you had to really breathe deep to get rid of that light-headedness?  That’s how it feels, don’t you think?

Saori nodded vaguely.

We miss him, you know?  A lot . . . So, I’ve been trying something, but it hasn’t worked—at least, I don’t think it has.  I’d hoped . . .

Tried what?

Again, her youkai sighed.  ‘I was trying to feel him—Fai-sama.  I thought that if I tried hard enough—stretched myself out far enough . . . But it didn’t work.  I guess we’re too far away—or . . . Or he just doesn’t care . . .

That thought was enough to make her wince.  Of course, she’d have to be stupid to think that it would matter to him.  Why should it?  Everyone had gone out of their ways to let her know just how foolish they thought she was, in the first place, and yes, she had to agree.  Kidnapping the Asian tai-youkai was a stupid, stupid idea, and she knew that, too: just another example of how her lack of foresight got her into trouble time after time after time . . .

Even so . . .

He’s probably glad to have his life back to normal,’ she thought, fighting through the deep and horrible pang that settled in her stomach.  ‘It was a nice idea, though . . .

Her youkai didn’t argue with her.  In fact, it sighed again.  ‘There’s no sense in dwelling on the past, right?  That’s what they say, anyway . . . Besides, that school in Morocco called to request an interview with you, so that’s something.

Morocco . . .’ she mused.  On the one hand, the idea of moving to Morocco wasn’t exactly appealing to her.  To be so far from her family again . . . and yet, that same thought was enough to make her seriously consider it, too.  At least there, she could move on without being constantly reminded that she had done something foolish—again.

Well, that wasn’t entirely fair.  No, it wasn’t like her family was still harping on it, but that didn’t really matter when she saw it in their expressions when they thought she wasn’t looking, that sense of befuddlement, like they just couldn’t grasp why she’d opted to do what she had done.

The truth of it was that over the course of her life, she’d always felt a little bit like the proverbial black sheep of her upstanding and highly respected family.  All of them excelled in their chosen professions, in their lives.  Even the one person that the entire family considered to be kind of a pariah was an internationally famous rock star, but Saori?

She was the one that everyone knew made decisions that didn’t always make sense.  She was the one who was always doing things that made them shake their heads, and yes, it was always with love and affection that they’d point out how silly some of her choices really were.  It didn’t really do much to alleviate the horrible feeling that she wasn’t much more than a huge disappointment . . .

Even her second-cousin, Samantha was excelling in her chosen field, despite the reservations that the rest of the family had about it since Samantha had opted to become a hunter—not exactly the best job for a woman.  She was about a year younger than Saori, though in truth, the two had never been that close.  Samantha was always so focused on training, on bettering her skills for her dream of becoming a hunter.  She tended to be a bit more serious overall, a little on the shy side.  Since Saori’s family had spent a good amount of her younger years, living in Hong Kong, the two hadn’t developed the kind of relationship that many of her other relatives had in their own age groups, and by the time the Senkuro family had finally moved back, Samantha already had her circle of friends.

The thing was, she’d never felt quite as isolated in her life, despite the proximity of those who loved her, as she did now.  There were things in her head—things she couldn’t really put into words—things that they wouldn’t understand, even if she could.  She felt so unsettled, as though some part of her was missing, and it wasn’t something she could really articulate, either.  Afraid that they would think she was even more flighty than they already did, and even the people she would normally feel that she could talk to about anything . . . She didn’t really feel that way now.

What is it that you want to do?

That was the big question, wasn’t it?  Too bad she really didn’t have an answer for it, either.

No, the only thing she did know was that, with every day that passed, with every morning that she opened her eyes, only to find that there really wasn’t anything magical, just waiting right around the corner, that there wasn’t anything other than the same old thing, dressed up in a slightly different way—just enough to keep her from going insane, not nearly enough for her to feel as though any of it held any real significance at all . . .

The flash of eyes—not quite brown—flecked in golds as brilliant as her grandfather’s, emerald flickers of light that sparkled and shone . . . She couldn’t discern the expression as they faded from her mind, and she winced.  In her head, she could hear his soft laughter—he hadn’t indulged the sound often, but the couple times she’d heard him . . . And she knew that she really had no right to dwell upon those memories.  They really didn’t belong to her, and, as much as she hated to admit it, even just to herself, she had to allow that she’d stolen those, too.

Those moments weren’t meant to be hers, and if she hadn’t forced the issue by tossing the unconscious man into that van, they never would have been.  But . . .

Maybe tomorrow . . .’ she thought as she closed her eyes once more.  ‘Maybe tomorrow, things will be different . . . Maybe, if I . . . if I could just hear his voice one more time . . .?  Maybe it’d be easier to let go of him . . .

Her youkai sighed softly: more of a breath than an actual sound.  ‘We don’t have his number, Saori, and anyone who does isn’t going to be very interested in handing it over to you.

Sometimes, she really hated that voice.  Sometimes she wished that it would just let her hang onto things just a little bit longer . . .

It’ll be okay, Saori . . . It will be.  Just . . . Just close your eyes, try to sleep.  Maybe we can figure something out tomorrow . . .

Maybe,’ Saori agreed half-heartedly, squeezing her eyes closed for a second before letting out a deep breath as she snuggled deeper under her duvet, into her pillow.

Too bad she didn’t really believe it.

 


 

 

Where . . . am I . . .?

Narrowing his eyes as he slowly shifted his gaze over the hazy and murky darkened landscape, Fai struggled to make out something—anything—in the eerie quiet.  There was nothing at all, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t even sense the divide between the earth and the skies.  He couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began, and the place where he stood was dry but felt so strangely soft, pliant, under his bare feet.

But where was he?

Glancing behind himself at the miring darkness, his frown deepened.  He wasn’t afraid.  There was no sense of anything dangerous or out of sorts, but he knew that he hadn’t ever been in this place before.

It felt like . . .

A vague scent came to him, one that entirely too thin for his liking—one that he knew as well as he knew his own.  Taking a slow step forward—strange how the cuffs of his trousers felt damp, but his feet were bone dry—he didn’t think, didn’t stop to consider it as an insular thought seemed to grow larger in his mind: he needed to follow that scent, had to find the source . . .

He stopped abruptly, almost as though he’d walked straight into an invisible wall.  Eyes flaring wide against the darkness that he couldn’t see through, he waited, breathless, half convinced that he was imagining things, half praying that he wasn’t . . . It came once more like a pulsebeat, like a flicker of an unfurling tide, so thin, so weak and thready that he couldn’t quite decide if he’d just wished it into being or if it really was true.  The stronger the compulsion grew to give chase, the more he held back, as though the idea that he might well be disappointed in the end could hurt him . . .

It felt like . . .

Blinking quickly when a soft glow erupted in the distance, Fai started walking again, only this time, as he placed one foot in front of the other, he could feel his pace quickening in time with the light that brightened by degrees.  He didn’t know what he’d find once he reached it, no, but he couldn’t stop the wild syncopation of his heart as it hammered against his ribcage: a wanton heartbeat that left him feeling light-headed, almost . . . almost giddy . . .?

He didn’t know how long he ran, how far he pushed himself as he chased after that elusive horizon.  He couldn’t tell if he was drawing closer or not or if he had simply been running all this time in one place.  All he knew was that, if he could just reach it, that light . . . If he could stand in the brilliance of it, maybe . . .

It felt like . . .

Skidding to a halt as he stepped into the circle of light, Fai blinked, dropped to his knees, reached out so slowly, hand shaking as Saori’s scent wrapped around him.  Just before he could touch her, though, he jerked his hand away, scowling at her straight back, her hair stirred by a breeze that didn’t touch him.  She was humming under her breath, but he couldn’t hear her voice.  No, he could feel it, couldn’t he?  Could feel the reverberations of the sound that didn’t cut through the silence . . .

Saori . . .?

His voice was swallowed up by the unearthly stillness, too.  She reached down, sank her fingers into the nothingness beneath her, and he watched, eyes narrowing, as a softness spread from her, radiated away from her, bringing with it the sprigs of spring grasses, of wildflowers and rolling hills that he knew so well.  As the grass spread, the light brightened, the skies seemed to soak colors from the ground as a hazy, lazy blue became the heavens above.

And she laughed.  “Fai-sama?  Is that you?

Saori . . .” he said again, only this time, his voice held sound despite the softness of his timbre.  “I . . .”

She scooted around to face him, her eyes as brilliant as he remembered, and he closed his eyes as the scent of her hit him, full-force, as he drank it in like a man lost in a desert, and she was his oasis.

I’m sorry that I . . . I appropriated you,” she finally said, her voice taking on a rueful sort of tone.  “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

You were thinking about the children,” he reminded her, slowly scooting in beside her, drawing up his legs, draping his arms casually around them.  “It’s okay.  I . . . I didn’t really mind . . .”

You . . . You didn’t . . .?” she echoed, eyes rounding wide as she stared up at him.

He reached over, caught her hair that flew into her face, only to gently tuck it behind her ear.  “Are you . . .? Are you happy where you are?  Tokyo?

Her gaze held onto his for a long moment, but suddenly, it skittered away, falling to the grass, as she gave a little shrug, as the smile on her lips trembled and quivered.  “It’s home,” she replied.  Something in her voice . . . “It’s the largest city on earth.  You could wander around it for days—weeks—and not see the same person twice, not see the same buildings twice.  It’s . . .”

But . . . are you happy, Saori?

She didn’t answer right away.  It seemed to Fai that she was gathering her bravado, although why that would be, he didn’t know.  Her entire family was there, weren’t they?  And family was important . . . “I’m happy,” she said, her smile brightening as her gaze took on a steadiness that was almost frightening, although he didn’t know why.

I’m glad,” he said, hoping she couldn’t hear the underlying emotion that echoed harshly in his own ears.

She sighed, letting her head fall back, her eyes closing as the sun poured down on them.  “This is nice,” she allowed at length, her voice taking on an almost lyrical quality.  “I haven’t slept very well since I got back, actually . . .”

You haven’t?” Fai echoed with a frown.  “Neither have I . . . Uh, not since you left . . .”

Really?

He shook his head, let out a deep breath as he flopped back onto the ground.  Curiously, the sky started to darken, but it wasn’t losing color, either.  No, it was more like time was speeding up, and as the evening shadows fell along with the reds and golds and the sounds of birds in the trees far away, he smiled.  “But you’re sleeping now, aren’t you?

Because we’re dreaming?” she mused, stretching out beside him, curled on her side, her hands tucked up under her cheek.

Fai craned his neck to gaze at her, and without another thought, he pulled her against him, let her use his shoulder as a pillow as a contented little sigh slipped from her, as her hand pressed gently against his chest.  “Aren’t we?

Fai-sama?

Hmm?

Do you think . . .?  I mean, if I hadn’t . . . hadn’t appropriated you, do you think . . .?

He frowned thoughtfully.  To be honest, he’d wondered the same thing himself.  If things hadn’t happened the way they did, would he have gone out of his way to get to know her at all?  In truth, it wasn’t something that had an easy answer; not really.  He’d like to say that he would have, but reality might not have supported that possibility, at all.  So wrapped up in my work, in the things he had to do, the deadlines he had to meet, everything he had to micromanage on a daily basis . . .

‘Not entirely true . . . You did notice at the very start, just how pretty she was.  She caught you off-guard because she really didn’t try to manipulate you or sway you with her appearance because that’s not who she is or what she is . . .’

Would I have gotten to know you the way I did?” he supplied since she’d trailed off.  “I . . . I don’t know,” he admitted.  “It wasn’t you.  I just . . . I barely took the time to notice anything.

She smiled just a little.  “Is it bad, then, that I’m really not sorry for it?  I mean, I am, but I’m not . . . That doesn’t make sense, I guess . . .”

No, actually, it does,” he told her, breathing in deep—so deep—letting the scent of her muddle his thoughts, preoccupy his brain . . . “That’s not to say you should do that kind of thing again.  I mean, I can forgive one time, but if you did it again . . .?

I won’t,” she promised.  “I learned my lesson . . .”

He sighed since he wasn’t entirely sure that he bought into that.  “Anyway, want to tell me how you managed to break into my dream?

She didn’t answer, but she did laugh softly as she snuggled just a little closer against him.  “I wanted to see you just one more time,” she ventured.  “I thought that it’d be easier to . . . to move on . . .”

He didn’t feel his arms tighten around her as his smile died away, as he scowled off into the distance.  “You . . . You want to move on . . .”

She sighed again, but it sounded almost tired, weary.  “I don’t have much of a choice,” she allowed.  “Everyone says that what I did was stupid, which it was . . . I think they’re afraid that you’ll come for me, want to throw me in prison or something, which is your right, isn’t it?  Because I kidnapped you . . .”

He grunted.  “The laws are a little more lenient for appropriation, Saori.  Don’t worry about that.”

I have an interview for a position at an academy in Morocco,” she said, her voice growing a little thicker, a little more slurred as sleepiness set in.  “It’d be a good place to make a new start.”

For some reason, the things she was saying hurt.  The idea of her, making a new start?  That she might well leave him in her past . . .? “Will you . . .? Will you take it if they offer it to you?

She uttered a half-yawn, half-sigh and burrowed just a little closer to him.  “I guess so,” she mumbled.  “Here or there . . . doesn’t really . . . matter . . .”

He pondered that as the sound of her breathing evened out, took on that heavier cadence that indicated that she was sleeping.

To be honest, he wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret the whole thing.  After all, he had to be sleeping himself, and he understood that he was dreaming, and yet, if that were the case, then why did Saori feel so real to him?  Why would she have said the things she’d said?  He certainly wouldn’t have come up with that on his own, but . . .

But the idea of her, taking a job in Morocco?  Of her, getting her fresh start, away from her family, but also away from him . . .?

That just wasn’t all right with him, not at all.

He sighed.  He’d figure it out in the morning.  Right now, however, he was done, wondering just how this was possible, how it was that she had managed to find her way into his dream like this, especially when he wasn’t really much of a dreamer normally.  For now, though, the warmth of her body so close to his, the sound of her steady breathing, the smell of her that lent him a measure of comfort that he didn’t question . . . It was enough, wasn’t it?

‘Yeah . . .’ he thought as his eyes drifted closed.  ‘It’s enough . . .’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 24~~
~Revelation~

 

~o~

 

 

The office was quiet, the stillness broken only by the steady tick of the clock—an old and beautiful piece fashioned out of a stout branch of the ancient magnolia tree, Bokusenou.  It was a gift given to Sesshoumaru when he was recognized as his father’s heir-apparent, the one to eventually inherit the title of Inu no Taisho years ago.  There were only three such working clocks in existence, the first of those being Sesshoumaru’s, of course.  Toga was gifted one upon his birth, and the third was presented to Sesshoumaru’s grandson—Toga’s son—Mamoruzen.  Even now, Sesshoumaru could remember with vivid clarity, the day he and Kagura had presented their infant son—Sesshoumaru’s heir—to the old tree-youkai, as his great and noble father had done with him, well before Sesshoumaru could remember.  Bokusenou had smiled upon him, had summoned the timeless winds to blow.  Those winds had granted Toga their favor, strengthened by his mother’s natural affinity, and to that end, Toga had grown, strong and proud: the steadfastness of the tree, the will of the wind, with the heart of the inu-youkai.

It was legend that those clocks would stop their time the very moment that the owners lost their lives.  Somewhere in the recesses of the mansion, closed into a darkened room that housed the things that Sesshoumaru considered to be family heirlooms, rested his father’s clock: the hands stilled at the very second when his father had died so long ago . . .

When it came time, Toga and his mate, the human, Sierra, had taken Mamoruzen to Bokusenou, too, had asked for his blessings upon the future Japanese tai-youkai—the future Inu no Taisho—and, for the first time ever, Bokusenou had bestowed that special blessing upon a hanyou.

It was interesting, how much had changed over time.

The blessing of the Inu no Taisho couldn’t be given to a younger son, however.  Even so, Bokusenou had bid the Inu no Taisho to bring his mate, Izayoi—heavy with their unborn child—and it was then that the wise old tree had given their father instead, the sheathes for the Legendary Swords of the Fang: Tetsusaiga, the Sword of Earth, and Tenseiga, the Sword of Heaven.  Then, though he was not compelled to do so, Bokusenou had summoned the earthen fires—the flames that lived so deep within the ground.  The lore stated that the sacred fire was delivered by a host of fire rats—hinezumi—and that those rats had transformed themselves into the fire-rat clothing that had come to InuYasha after his birth—the same clothes that protected InuYasha throughout his lifetime.

It was that fabled clock that chimed the hour as Sesshoumaru settled back in his chair, his gaze trained across the wide expanse of the cherry wood desk at his son-in-law.

“You think we should go there.  That’s what you’re saying,” Senkuro Seiji remarked, frowning thoughtfully as he considered all that his father-in-law had said—and some things that his mate, Aiko had said, too.  “Aiko believes that there might be more to it than either of them has said, but . . .” Brow furrowing as he leaned to the side far enough to rub his forehead in a slow and calculated kind of way, Seiji let out a deep breath.  “What if we’re wrong?  Opening up that door could be dangerous, don’t you think?  Saori . . .”

“She will not be accompanying us,” Sesshoumaru stated.  “I think it would be best not to tell her anything—at least, for now.  I think it best if we speak with Faine without her presence to complicate matters.  For the most part, I merely want reassurance that he will not seek further recompense from her for her impetuous actions.”

Seiji didn’t look like he wanted to agree, but he nodded once.  “How well do you know Demyanov Faine?”

Sesshoumaru was not surprised by Seiji’s candid question.  If anything, he’d rather expected that he would have asked that sooner, all things considered.  “In truth?  I don’t know him, at all.  The first time I met him was when we retrieved Saori.  However, I did know his father well enough.  If Fai is anything like him, he is a very competent, highly skilled young man.  I would say, though, that the fact that he detained her, but did not truly punish her as should be his right—maybe even his obligation—should speak volumes about his character.”

Seiji didn’t look very mollified by Sesshoumaru’s words.  “I’ve heard the rumors,” he said, his voice dropping in timbre and volume.  “They say that Russia is about as unsafe a region as there is—and if that’s true, then it’s a direct reflection on their tai-youkai.”

“He is young.  They will try him—they have been trying him—and he’s proved his mettle and then some.  If it came to that, I have little doubt in my mind that he could keep her safe—and do you discount your own daughter’s ability to defend herself?”

Seiji pinned Sesshoumaru with an entirely unamused scowl.  “Of course not, but Saori isn’t a fighter.  She’s gentle like her mother.”

“And in that situation, too, I have no doubt that Aiko could well defend herself.”

“I have no doubt, either,” Seiji allowed.  “This isn’t about Aiko.  It’s about Saori—my daughter—and . . . and him.  Those two . . . They’re not bonded.  Since she’s come home, Saori’s been a little distant, a little thoughtful lately, but physically, she’s fine.  They weren’t together long enough for that to happen . . . Maybe it would be better to just encourage her to move on.  She has an interview coming up for a job at a school in Morocco . . .”

“And you and I both know that what will be, will be.  No, Seiji, in this, I think it would behoove us to ascertain as much as we can and allow Saori herself to find her fate.”

“Her fate,” Seiji repeated with a wholly resigned sort of sigh.  It was difficult business, letting go of one’s child.  Sesshoumaru knew that as well as anyone because he’d fought against it harder than anyone, especially with Toga when it came time for him to look for his mate . . . Sesshoumaru knew very well, the thoughts and emotions at war in Seiji’s mind.  “I miss the days when I could tell her what to do, and she’d just do it,” he confessed with another heavy sigh as he leaned forward, as he buried his face in his hands for a long moment.  Letting his hands drop away to dangle between his spread knees, Seiji slowly shook his head.  “It’s the best I can do for her, isn’t it?”

Nodding very slowly, Sesshoumaru almost smiled—almost.  “Perhaps nothing will come of it,” he ventured, despite the doubt that he held on that front.  “I would still feel better once I speak with Faine—once I know that he isn’t still entertaining vengeful thoughts.”

“I . . . I agree . . .” Letting out a deep breath, Seiji sat back, stared at Sesshoumaru for a long moment.  Then he nodded.  “All right.  When should we go?”

 


 

 

“Good morning, kaa-chan!  Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

Glancing up from the e-reader where she was scanning the day’s headlines, Aiko smiled as Saori breezed into the kitchen and sank down at the table beside her.  “You’re in a good mood, Saori.  Did you sleep well?”

Uttering a little giggle as she helped herself to the food arranged in the middle of the table, Saori nodded her thanks, smiled brightly at the housekeeper-slash-cook that set a small bowl of rice beside her.  Then, like she had done since she was a child, she pressed her hands together, bowed her head, and uttered the customary, “Itadakimasu!

“And why are you so happy this morning?” her mother prompted.

“I slept insanely well!” she said, picking up her chopsticks and digging into her food with a gusto she hadn’t shown since her return to Japan.  “I had such a good dream . . .”

Aiko laughed softly, golden eyes shining warmly in the sunshine tumbling through the window.  “Oh?  It must have been a really nice dream, then.”

Saori nodded.  Suddenly, though, she stopped, mid-chew, her cheeks blossoming in a hint of embarrassed color as she ducked her head.  “It was just . . . umm, really, really nice . . .”

Aiko chuckled.  “All right; I won’t ask for details.  I’m glad, though, that you are in such a good mood . . . I’ve missed my girl’s smiling face.”

She wrinkled her nose.  “Have I been that bad?”

“Bad?  No . . . Just a little distracted, a little quiet . . .”

“Sorry,” Saori murmured.  “Where’s tou-chan?”

“He had an early meeting,” she replied, setting the tablet aside as she got to her feet.  “Speaking of meetings, I have to go, too . . . and nii-chan called.  He said that he needed you to stop by Kawagashi’s.  He ordered a new cell phone, and he doesn’t have time to pick it up.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, leaning into her mother when Aiko gave her shoulders a quick squeeze in passing.

“Have a good day, Saori!  Ittekimasu!” she called as she hurried into the hallway near the front door to slip on her shoes.

Itterasshai!” Saori called in response.  A few moments later, she heard the door open and close, and she let out a happy sigh.

Maybe it was foolish to feel so content over a silly little dream, but she couldn’t help it, either.  Seeing Fai, even in the confines of her sleep, was enough to bolster her flagging spirits, and falling asleep—crazy, given that she was already asleep—in Fai’s arms?

That was enough to make her blush all over again, and she giggled softly.

It had felt so real, and that was the thing.  So real, in fact, that she couldn’t help the trace disappointment when she’d opened her eyes, only to find herself in her own bed in her own room in her own house, and not in that warm and wonderful field, surrounded by the scent of wildflowers . . .

The warmth of his body was so fresh in her mind, the sound of his heartbeat under her cheek, the feel of his arms, and he hadn’t let her go . . .

She only wished that it had been real.

Maybe it was.

Pushing away from the table, Saori wrinkled her nose.  ‘I wish . . . I mean, it’s not possible.  Just a really perfect dream . . .

You don’t know that it’s not possible.  Just because it might not be a common thing doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.

She sighed as she hurried up the stairs, heading for her bathroom to brush her teeth.  ‘That would be entirely too easy, don’t you think?  Even then, if it was a real, well, whatever, I don’t think that it would have been just like that.  It was almost like he . . . like he missed me as much as I miss him . . .

Maybe he does.

She shook her head.  It was a lovely thought, sure, but she wasn’t delusional enough to think that there was even a chance that what her youkai-voice had said was possible.

Even so, it didn’t dampen her spirits, either.  Today, she wouldn’t allow it.  Today, she was going to savor that dream and cherish it for what it was—even if it wasn’t something that ever would really be . . .

 


 

 

“Here you go.”

Toga glanced up from the file he was looking over as Saori set the new phone, still in the box, on the desk.  “Thank you,” he said, leaning to the side to pull his old phone out.  “I’m a little busy here . . . Would you mind transferring my contacts?”

“Sure,” she said, slipping into a chair after taking both devices.  The new one was the latest model of the Viscue series, and the old one was at least three generations older.  For as much money that Toga had, he stubbornly refused to upgrade until his old phone was on its proverbial last legs, cracked screen and all.  “You know, this one has seen better days.  Why didn’t you get a new one sooner?”

Toga grunted without looking up from the file, his eyebrows drawn together in a thoughtful little scowl.  “I think Sie broke it,” he muttered.  “She says she didn’t, but it was fine the other night when I went to bed, but when I got up the next morning, it looked like that.”

Saori’s lips twitched at the almost sulky tone in her uncle’s voice.  “Are you sure it didn’t just fall off the nightstand?”

Toga snorted.  “It was laying on the charger where I put it.  The only difference was the broken screen.”

She had to clear her throat to keep from giggling.  “And you’re sure it was her?”

That earned her a quick but unimpressed glance.  “No one else comes into our bedroom, Saori, so yes, I’m sure it was her.  She’s devious.  I know you think she’s just sweet oba-chan, but I promise you, she’s got an evil streak that she’s really good at hiding.”

“I think you might be overexaggerating, oji-chan,” she chided, powering on the new phone.  “Even then, you can’t say it wasn’t about time to upgrade, anyway.”

Toga grunted.  “Oh, I’m not exaggerating a thing,” he assured her.  “When I showed the phone to her, she laughed—laughed.  Definitely guilty—and if it wasn’t broken, then there wasn’t a reason to upgrade.  Besides, I liked that phone.  I knew where everything was, I knew how to find all my important things . . . Now, I have to waste time, learning new stuff because they decided that this feature wasn’t accessible enough here or that one should be moved over there.”

“Oji-chan?”

“Hmm?”

“It’s just a new phone, and from what I’ve read, you’ll be very pleased with it, too—maybe even more than the old one.”

His snort stated that he doubted her words, turning his attention back to the file once more.

Hitting the buttons on the phones to tether them long enough to transfer all of his contacts, Saori frowned as names flashed over the new screen.  One of them in particular caught her attention, and she couldn’t quite contain the harshly indrawn breath as it disappeared in the transfer.  Something about just seeing his name was enough to set off a crazy, but not unpleasant, churning in her belly.  “You . . . You have Fai-sama’s phone number?” she asked, struggling to keep an air of neutrality in her tone.

“Hmm?  Fai?  Of course, I do.  I have all the tai-youkai’s numbers on there.”

She said nothing else as the phone finished transferring contacts.  Casting her uncle a surreptitious glance, only to find him, completely absorbed in his reading, she bit her lip and quickly scrolled through the contact list.  She told herself that she was just checking to make sure that everything was all right.  In truth, however, she was trying to find that number . . .

The device rang in her hands, and she squeaked out a choked little sound.  Sierra’s name popped up on the call screen, and Saori connected it via speaker phone.  “Hai, oba-chan,” she greeted.

“Saori?  You’re answering Toga’s phone now?”

Smiling a little self-consciously at her aunt’s teasing, Saori bit her lip.  “I just finished transferring his contacts to his new one,” she explained.  “Just a moment, please.” Holding out the phone, she waited until Toga took it.

“Sierra,” Toga said, leaving his mate on speaker phone.  “Hold on . . . Saori, go ahead and reset that one, and if you could drop it off at a recycling center?  And there wasn’t really anything else I needed done today, so you’re free to go—unless you want to hang out with your old oji-chan all day . . .”

“Oh, sure,” she said, seeing no way around it.  Ignoring the pang that shot through her, she did as he’d told her, commanding the old phone to reset.  Gathering her things, she stood up.  “I’ll be going, then,” she told him.  “Call me if you need anything else.”

“Thank you,” he called after her before returning his attention to his wife’s call once more.

Closing the door with a soft click, Saori let out a deep breath, wrinkling her nose as she frowned at the now-empty device.  If she’d only been able to get Fai’s number off his phone, she could call him, at least to hear his voice . . .

The good mood she’d carried around most of the day seemed to evaporate in the space of a heartbeat, and she sighed.  Somehow, she felt even more lost, even more alone, than she ever had before.

 


 

 

A deep grunt, the jarring clang of metal meeting metal as a shower of sparks shot out of the seam where the two blades met.  With a harsh shove against the weapon, Fai sent Yerik sliding back a few steps as he spun around, bringing the blade up and down in a blistering rain of fierce blows that Yerik managed to parry, just barely.

The strikes just kept coming.  Over and over again, Fai wasn’t holding back as he hammered at Yerik’s sword with his own.  Kamennyy-Nozh, Fai’s sword, seemed to utter a high-pitched kind of shriek that was undercut with every hit.  Yerik ground his teeth together and blocked—it was about all he could do at the moment.

“What’s gotten into you?” he ground out, blocking three more strikes in quick succession.

“Don’t lose focus, or I’ll hack you to bits,” Fai growled back.

“Seems like that’s what you’re already trying to do,” Yerik countered, taking advantage of a very brief lull to shove Fai back a few steps.  Grimacing yet again when Fai sprang toward him, swinging Kamennyy-Nozh once more, he managed to deflect the blade and hop back.  “Enough,” he called, sheathing his weapon as he glowered at his brother.

Fai scowled at his brother, but dropped his sword into the scabbard hanging from his hip.  In truth, he hadn’t spent nearly enough of his aggression.  Too bad that he’d probably end up causing some very real harm if he didn’t stop . . . “Your intensity is lacking,” he said instead, crossing his arms over his chest.  “A hunter cannot afford to slack off.”

“I wasn’t slacking off,” Yerik retorted.  “I, however, have no interest in usurping your title, Fai, so killing you off isn’t really an option.”

Fai snorted loudly.  “As if you could, Yerik.  Now, draw your sword again.”

“I won’t,” Yerik insisted, giving his head a stubborn shake to emphasize his words.  “Not unless you tell me what’s bothering you enough that you’re out for my blood.”

“No reason,” Fai said, “and I’m not.”

“Oh, really?” Yerik argued, holding out his arm and twisting it to examine the tear in his sleeve that hadn’t been there before.  His arm below it was fine, but Fai had managed to catch the sleeve with the tip of his sword.  “I liked this shirt, you realize.”

“Buy another one,” Fai grumbled.

Yerik sighed, letting his arm drop against his side once more.  “Is this about a certain dog-youkai?  A female?  Rather pretty?  One who is just a little more impulsive than she ought to be?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Fai growled.  “Drop it.”

“All right; sure, but you know, as much as you miss her, has it occurred to you that maybe she misses you, too?  I mean, she did kiss you, after all, and from where I stood, it looked like a pretty good one . . .”

Fai narrowed his eyes on Yerik, but held his silence.

Yerik relented, striding past Fai and heading toward the patio.  “Have it your way, Fai, but being stubborn just for the sake of the act is really not a good thing.”

Fai watched him go, a dark scowl still twisting his features.

Saori.

He sighed.  Just the thought of her was enough to set his teeth to grinding once more.  Truth be told, he was more irritated with himself than he was with anyone else, and all because he really hadn’t meant to fall asleep in that dream or whatever it was.  He’d tried to stay awake, wanted to savor the feel of her, there with him, and then to wake up this morning, entirely alone, without even the lingering comfort of her scent on the bedsheets?

But what was that?  How was that even possible?  It . . . It wasn’t a regular dream . . .

No, you’re right.  It wasn’t.

When his youkai-voice didn’t elaborate, Fai’s frown deepened, and he turned on his heel to stomp back inside.  ‘Then what the hell was it?’ he finally demanded, stepping into the castle as Vasili neatly whipped the door open to allow him to pass.  The aged servant bowed his head.  Fai nodded, dismissing him from his mind as quickly and effortlessly as that while he headed toward his office.

I don’t know for sure, but I think . . . I think that her youki and yours managed to connect.  Maybe it’s as simple as you both falling asleep at the same moment or something . . . Who knows?  But she was here with us . . . She should be here with us . . .

He didn’t know how to respond to that.  Even if he wanted to go find her, her family was never going to allow him anywhere near her, were they?  And, considering who her family was, the girl was likely to be guarded more securely than the Moscow Kremlin . . .

Yes, but you’re also forgetting.  You wanted to offer her the job of dealing with the orphanage, in helping to find placements for the children if possible.  Don’t you still want her help with that?

He flopped into the chair behind the stately desk, slumping to the side, rubbing his temple as the start of a blistering headache started to take hold.  ‘I do . . . but . . .

You realize, too, don’t you?  That dream last night—if she really was there with you—then you remember what she said, right?  She’s got an interview for a job in Morocco.  If they offer it to her, and she opts to go, that will complicate things a hell of a lot, don’t you think?

He sighed.  There was that, too . . .

The abrupt ringing of his telephone interrupted his thoughts, however, and, with another sigh, he reached over to grab the receiver.  “Demyanov.”

“Chang Laquan here, Your Grace.  I trust you’re well?”

Frowning at the warm tone from the Chinese ambassador and Chinese-egret-youkai, Fai sat back once more.  It wasn’t often that Laquan called, and it was never a social call.  Though he seemed to be willing enough to share information with Fai, Fai wasn’t entirely sure where the man’s loyalties really lay.  “Laquan, I am, and you?”

Laquan sighed.  “Fine, fine, thank you.  I’m sure you’re busy, so I’ll get right to the point.  I have it on good authority that Qiang Shui has been sighted in Moscow—Otradnoye.  I thought you would want to know.”

“Qiang . . . the rat-youkai . . .?”

“Yes.  He’s known to be responsible for more than twenty human deaths over the last fifteen years.”

“When was he spotted?”

“A little over an hour ago, my source tells me.  I have one of my men, keeping an eye on him so that he doesn’t manage to sneak away again.”

“Good.  I’ll send my hunter and have him call you when he arrives in case you find out anything else.”

“Absolutely.  I’m glad to be of service.  A beast like Qiang needs to be dealt with as soon as possible.”

“Thank you.”

“Any time, Your Grace.”

The line went dead, and Fai sighed.

It only took him a few minutes to pull the extensive file on the rat-youkai.  It was a better file than he often had, complete with a description and picture of Shui Qiang.  Letting out a deep breath, he sent the entire file to the printer, including he hunt order he’d issued years ago that had never been carried out since Qiang was very gifted in hiding.

Rising to his feet, he rounded the desk, pausing just long enough to snatch the papers from the printer before he strode out of the office and down the hallway, heading for the stairs.

He didn’t get far.  Yerik dropped a duffel bag on the floor as he turned to face Fai, a defiant kind of expression on his face.  “Where are you going?” Fai asked, cocking an eyebrow as he slowly and deliberately looked down at the bag.

“I’m going to find Saori,” Yerik replied.

“What?”

Yerik shrugged.  “Come on, Fai.  You’re unbearable—entirely insufferable—and you have been since she left.  If you’re too damned stubborn to go get her, then I will.  You can thank me later.”

“No, you’re not,” Fai growled, grabbing Yerik’s arm when the younger man reached down to retrieve his bag.

“Fai—”

“I need you to go to Moscow,” Fai cut in, thrusting the papers into Yerik’s hand.  “This is your target.  When you get there, call Laquan Chang at the Chinese embassy.  He currently has someone following Qiang, but his man doesn’t have the clearance to carry out the hunt.  You do.”

Yerik scowled at the documents.  “All right,” he finally said, rolling the papers in his fist, digging into the inner jacket pocket for his phone, which he fiddled with for a minute before Fai’s phone chimed to let him know that he’d received an email.  “I forwarded you the reservation for the flight to Tokyo—it’s in your name.  Be on it, and don’t come home without her.”

Pulling his phone out of his pocket, he frowned at the itinerary.  Sure enough, the reservations were all in his name . . . “How is it in my name?”

Rolling his eyes, Yerik slowly shook his head.  “You don’t really think that I am foolish enough not to realize that you’d never let me go do what you want to do, anyway . . .”

“I don’t have time to go to Tokyo,” he argued with a snort.

“Are you trying to say that you’ve gotten anything done since she left?  Because you haven’t; not really.”

Fai opened his mouth to argue, but Yerik quickly shook his head.  “Just do it, Fai.  You’re miserable without her, and I’ll bet she’s just as miserable without you.  Just don’t arrest her this time.”

“Why not?”

Yerik chuckled, shouldering his bag as he headed for the front doors.  “Surely, you’ve figured it out, haven’t you?  I mean, it’s poor form to handcuff your future mate, don’t you think?”

His chuckles lingered in the foyer long after the door closed behind him, leaving a scowling Fai, staring at the itinerary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 25~~
~Humble Pie~

 

~o~

 

 

Saori settled into a chair across from Rinji in the opulent restaurant that he’d chosen, nodding her thanks at the maître d’ who had held out her chair and scooted it in for her.

“I’ll send your waiter right over,” he said with a polite bow.  “Enjoy your meal.”

“Congratulations,” Rinji said as the maître d’ strode away.  “Kaa-san told me that you were offered a job.”

The temerarious smile that was already trembling on her lips faded before she could stop it.  “Oh, uh, yes,” she mumbled.  “It’s a really wonderful opportunity.”

“So, you’ve already accepted it?” Rinji went on, oblivious to Saori’s discomfort.  “She said it’s in Morocco, though . . . I’ll miss you, you know.”

“I don’t know if I’ll take it,” she replied quietly.  “It’s . . . It’s so far away . . .”

“Are you afraid?”

She didn’t miss the hint of teasing in her brother’s tone.  It was how he cajoled her out of her fears.  It had worked marvelously when she’d gotten the jitters about going to Russia.  This time, however . . .

“Sorry I’m late,” Aiko said as she was seated between the two of them.  “I got sidetracked on the project and lost track of time . . .”

“Can I get you anything to start with?” the waiter asked with a bright smile.

“A bottle of your best champagne,” Rinji ordered.

“Would you prefer a Clannar d’ Fleur or a Marcomme?”

“The Marcomme,” Rinji said.  “The ladies prefer the chardonnay.”

“Very good.”  The man’s smile widened as he offered them a low bow.  “I’ll be right back.”

“So, what are we discussing?” Aiko asked, shaking out a napkin and slipping it over her skirt.

“We were just talking about Saori’s job offer,” Rinji explained.  “Must be nice to be traveling all over the world at your age . . . Back then, I was already working for tou-san and kaa-san . . .”

“If you wanted to travel, you could have,” Aiko pointed out gently.  “You could now, for that matter.”

“And leave tou-san alone to handle everything?  That doesn’t seem quite fair, don’t you think?”

Aiko rolled her eyes.  “He was able to do it for years before you ever came to work with us,” she reminded him, “and he did perfectly fine on this own then.”

“I don’t know if I’ll take it or not,” Saori said, careful to keep her tone light.

“Why wouldn’t you?  It’s an excellent school—highly reputable . . . They say if you work there, you can pretty well write your own ticket anywhere after that . . . Morocco is a gorgeous country with warm people . . . I mean, is there something about it that you don’t like or that you’re not comfortable with?  They offered to pay you to relocate, didn’t they?”

“She just got home, Rinji.  Maybe she’s not as keen on the idea of moving away again so soon,” Aiko said.  “If it doesn’t feel like the right fit for you, then you shouldn’t take it, Saori.”

“If it pays well, then I’d say you’d be a fool not to take it,” Rinji insisted, ignoring his mother’s commentary.

Saori opened her mouth to comment, but snapped it closed when her mother was faster.  “It’s her decision.  Let her make it on her own,” she chided.  “Besides, I heard through the grapevine that the rep from Paris—Levoure-san?—was very interested in you, Rinji.”

To Saori’s surprise, Rinji actually blushed.  “She—N-No, that’s not . . .” He cleared his throat.  “She was being polite; that’s all, so she asked me out to dinner, yes, but it was all on the up-and-up—and I already had plans with you two.”

Saori leaned toward her mother, but didn’t take her eyes off her brother.  “Is this Levoure-san pretty?”

Aiko giggled.  “Very . . . She’s very, very French, too, and they say that Paris is the city of romance, don’t they?”

“French kissing . . .”

“The adorable accent . . .”

“All right; let’s move on,” Rinji grouched.

“Romantic walks at night with the Eiffel Tower, illuminated in the background . . .”

Aiko giggled.  “Singing Disney songs in the middle of the Notre Dame Cathedral . . .”

“You two need to be separated,” Rinji grumbled.

Luckily for him, the waiter returned with the champagne and crystal glasses, which effectively silenced the giggling women—at least, for the moment.  He took his time, presenting the champagne and pouring glasses for each of them.  “Are you ready to order or would you like a little more time?”

“Steak,” Rinji replied.  The restaurant he’d chosen was a new one that specialized in Western fare, more French than Asian—something he had a great affinity for, ever since he’d discovered that they served whole, huge steaks instead of smaller cuts.  They even set the tables with standard knives and forks, so it was kind of a novelty, at least, in Saori’s estimation.  However, she couldn’t really complain about it, either, given that she, like her mother, tended to like the steaks, too.  “Medium rare for all of us, please, with spring potatoes.”

“Very good,” the waiter said, bowing slightly before he excused himself once more.

“A toast to Saori: may your new endeavors take you far, and may you always remember the path that leads you home,” Rinji said, raising a glass as the waiter walked away.   “Otsukaresama deshita!

The women responded in kind, lifting their glasses in response.  Saori wasn’t overly fond of champagne, but she drank it since Rinji had gone to the trouble of ordering it.  Even so, she couldn’t quite help the slight feeling that her brother was dismissing her own feelings that she may not take the job that was offered.  How was that a foregone conclusion? she wondered.

Rinji smiled, his silvery hair, like his mother’s, catching the ambient light, making the strands almost glow.  “Even if you don’t take that job, Saori-chan, I know you’ll be offered another one that might be more to your liking, and I must admit, if you did move to Morocco, I’d miss you terribly.”

“Would you?” she countered, her eyes sparkling with

 the teasing tone in her voice.  “You sounded like you wanted to be rid of me.”

He grunted, sipping his champagne.  “I did not,” he argued.  “I was trying to be encouraging, like a good nii-chan.”

She rolled her eyes.  “I’m not sure it’s the job for me,” she said, giving a small shrug.  “Something about it just doesn’t feel right . . .”

“If that’s so, then you shouldn’t accept,” Rinji went on, frowning as he considered the situation.  “Besides, oji-san seems to like having you work for him.”

“Maybe, but it isn’t like much thought goes into that,” Saori admitted.  “I just run errands.  It feels like an after-school kind of job . . .”

“You’re still helping him out quite a bit.  He’s said before that there just aren’t ever enough hours in the day, and I know that Sierra’s been saying lately that he’s had even less time since his old secretary quit to get married, so even if it doesn’t feel like much, it really is,” Aiko remarked.  “It’s even nicer for him, really, given that you’re family, so he can trust you with really sensitive information.”

She wasn’t sure if she bought into it.  To her, it sounded more like a pep talk from her mother and brother than anything else.  She stifled a sigh.  It wouldn’t be so bad, she supposed, if she felt as though she were really needed, but dropping off files?  Picking up dry cleaning?  Stopping at the market if Sierra forgot to pick up an ingredient for dinner?  No, it wasn’t important, at all . . .

“I told Seiji about your job offer earlier when he called,” Aiko went on, smiling at the waiter when he slipped a plate of food before her.  “He said to tell you congratulations, but I could tell from his voice that he wasn’t entirely pleased with the idea that you could be moving so far away.”

“Will he be home soon?”

A fleeting shadow passed over Aiko’s pretty features before she summoned a bright smile to cover it up.  “Apparently, the man they went to see wasn’t home, so they’re going to stay a little longer,” she said.

“Didn’t they have an appointment?  Who puts off Inutaisho Sesshoumaru?” she remarked, only half teasing.

Aiko laughed.  “Well, even then, sometimes things come up.  I’m sure they’ll handle it and be home as soon as they’re able.”

Saori wrinkled her nose as she cut into the fragrant steak, absently noting the way the juices glistened on the beautiful cut of beef.  “It seems rude to me,” she mumbled, lifting a bite to her lips.

“Contrary to popular belief, he isn’t kami,” Aiko laughed.  “Rinji, your father asked if you could take care of his meetings until he gets back.  He has one tomorrow with the rep from Denzien that he couldn’t reschedule.”

Rinji nodded.  “It’s not a problem.  I think they’re about ready to negotiate a contract.”

Tuning out the business talk that distracted her mother and brother, Saori concentrated on her food instead.

She’d spent a good couple hours today, trying to figure out a way to get a hold of Toga’s phone.  She’d considered asking him, straight out for Fai’s number, but she knew better.  Given their overall reactions to her antics in Russia, she highly doubted that anyone would be willing to hand that particular bit of information over to her.  It just figured; it really did.

In the end, she figured she’d just have to bide her time until she was able to get access to the phone.  She could be patient, even if she didn’t like the idea.  She had even considered, calling Zelig Cain to see if maybe he’d give her the number she wanted, but she had a sneaking suspicion that he’d be even less willing to hand it over, too, unless he hadn’t been apprized of the appropriation of the Asian tai-youkai—which she doubted.  Sometimes, it really stunk that her family was so close-knit . . .

Maybe if you called Gin-oba-chan—if you told her why you wanted it . . .

Biting her cheek, Saori fiddled with the food on her plate, her appetite conspicuously missing.  No, she couldn’t do that.  To put her feelings into words?  How could she do that without seeming even more naïve and stupid than she already did, especially when Saori herself wasn’t entirely sure what her real feelings were?  Even then, even if she could, that would put Gin in an awfully uncomfortable position, and Saori really couldn’t do that.

She heaved an inward sigh.  There really weren’t any options available to her at all, but maybe, if she was patient . . . Maybe . . .

Maybe.  And maybe I’d have better luck if I just ran away, back to Russia . . .

 


 

 

Tapping his foot impatiently as he waited for someone to answer the hulking door of the impressive Inutaisho mansion, Fai let out a deep breath, scowling at anything and everything in the near vicinity.

He wasn’t entirely sure that he’d get any help at all from Sesshoumaru—at least, not for what he wanted—but he was out of options, out of ideas, and pretty well fast approaching the end of his patience, too.

It was maddening, really.  For a family as prominent as theirs, one would think that someone would know where they lived, yet they didn’t.  Everywhere he’d asked, he’d gotten the same answer: no one knew.  It was entirely by luck that he’d managed to find this place.  Wandering around, he’d caught the vague yet slightly familiar scent of Sesshoumaru’s mate, and he’d trailed her here.  As for believing that Kagura would actually tell him what he wanted to know?  He rather doubted it.  Even so, he had to try.

The door opened, and he blinked at the waif-like woman who answered.  ‘A panda-youkai . . .’  Dressed in a serviceable black outfit, she pushed a long strand of light brown hair behind her ear.

She greeted him in Japanese, and Fai slowly shook his head.

“Pardon?”

The woman didn’t recognize Russian, either, it seemed, and Fai gritted his teeth.

“May I help you?” she asked in heavily accented English.

“I’m looking for Sesshoumaru or Kagura,” he replied, thankful that the impasse was averted.  “I’m Fai Demyanov.”

She didn’t appear to recognize his name, but she nodded, stepping back to allow him to enter the home.  “I will fetch Kagura-sama,” she said.  “Please wait here.”

He watched her go before turning his attention to the bright and airy foyer.  He stood on the tile entryway, but didn’t step up onto the raised floor.  All things considered, he wasn’t entirely sure whether or not he ought to take off his shoes since he wasn’t sure exactly how he was going to be received.  He was saved from his own debate, however, when Kagura stepped out of the high archway.

She didn’t smile or look all that welcoming even when she offered him a shallow bow.  He returned the gesture, figuring that it was the polite thing to do, given the situation.

Kagura crossed her arms over her chest.  “Demyanov-san, what brings you here?”

Fai made no move to step forward, but he couldn’t help the grudging sense of gratitude that Kagura had remembered and that she had spoken in English.  He figured that was fair enough, too.  “I . . . I don’t mean to intrude.  I just wondered if I could ask you for . . . for Saori’s address.”

“Saori,” she repeated, her eyes narrowing slightly.  “Why?”

The entirely rehearsed sound of his words was not lost on him, but there wasn’t much he could do about it.  After all, he’d practiced what he wanted to say the entire trip over here . . . “I want to offer her a job, and since Toga wouldn’t give me her phone number, I thought that it’d be best to come here instead.”

“A job?” she echoed, raising an artful eyebrow.  “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

Blinking at the abrupt change of topics, Fai saw no other choice, but to go along with it, even if the beating around the bush feeling wasn’t one that sat well with him.  “That would be nice,” he replied instead, slipping off his shoes and stepping into the pair of slippers that were obviously there for guests.  Then he stepped up onto the raised floor and followed Kagura through the archway and into a very well-appointed living room.

She gestured at the sofa and pressed a button on the wall panel beside the doorway.  Then she said something in Japanese before taking her time, wandering over to sit in the plush chair across from him.  “You want to offer Saori a job?  What kind of job would that be?”

“I need someone to help me try to find placements for some of the orphans, and I thought that she would be the best choice.  She understands the need, obviously has some connections that might come in useful, and she knows the children, so she’d be very helpful when it comes to matching up families, should it come to that.”

Kagura leveled a very no-nonsense look at him.  It reminded him of one of his first tutors and the way she was able to see right through Fai’s excuses if he’d been late for his lessons for any reason.  “Is this some kind of ploy to get her back to Russia so that you can have her arrested again?”

Fai’s mouth dropped open for a full minute before he snapped it closed again.  He could feel the blood, flowing to his cheeks, but it had more to do with his rising temper than it did anything else.  “I assure you, that’s not my intention,” he grumbled.  “If that were the case, I wouldn’t have to lie.  I would have every right to demand that you turn her over to me.”

Kagura didn’t reply as the same woman who had answered the door slipped into the room with a tray of very delicate tea cups and a hand-painted, porcelain teapot.  She poured the drinks before bowing and backing out of the room once more, leaving Fai, scowling at Kagura, who didn’t seem impressed at all with the idea that she had just insulted him.  In fact, she was the very epitome of calm, serene, as she picked up a cup and handed it across the coffee table to him.  “So, you have no intention of punishing her further for what she did?”

“No,” Fai replied, struggling to keep his tone even, flat.  “That was never my intention.”

“If it was never your intention, then why did you have her arrested, in the first place?”

He was about to tell her that it really was none of her business, but he stopped himself.  Given that she was at least hearing him out, he figured he ought not to push fate.  Still, he had to take a deep breath before he dared to try to answer.  Somehow, he had the feeling that whatever he said now would ultimately decide, whether or not he would get Saori’s address . . . “I . . . I was leaving the orphanage,” he heard himself saying, almost as though he had no control over his own words.  “I realized that she was leaving, too—soon, anyway—and that I wouldn’t see her again if she did, and I . . .”

“And it was better to arrest her than to ask her to . . . stay . . .?”

He detected the hint of censure in Kagura’s voice, and he grimaced inwardly.  “I’ve never met anyone like her before,” he admitted.  “I . . . I don’t know what it is, to be honest.  I just know . . . I know I’ll never meet anyone like her again—and I do need . . . help . . . with the children . . .”

Kagura sat back, very slowly sipping her tea, her magenta eyes locked on his face as she considered what he’d said.  It seemed to Fai that she took an inordinately long time in answering, and when she finally spoke again, she seemed almost . . . amused . . .? “You really hate asking anyone for help, don’t you, Demyanov-san?”

“Fai’s fine, and . . . and yes, I do.”

Kagura chuckled.  “Yet you’re willing to swallow your pride to ask her to work for you?”

“Yes.”

Kagura nodded slowly—very slowly.  “And did you enjoy kissing my granddaughter?”

He blinked, unable to staunch the sudden explosion of heat in his cheeks at the abrupt reminder.  “She . . . She told you that . . .?” he blurted before he could stop himself.

Kagura laughed.  “Actually, no, but she told her mother, and her mother told me.  Did you kiss my granddaughter?”

“We—I—She—Y-Yes,” he muttered.  Somehow, he couldn’t quite bring himself to tell this woman—Saori’s grandmother—that Saori was the one who had initiated it.  It almost felt like doing so would be akin to dishonoring her, although he wasn’t sure why he would think that.  “Yes, I did.”

“So, she didn’t kiss you.  I could have sworn that she told Aiko that she did the kissing . . .”

It occurred very slowly to him that maybe she was kidding.  Even so, he didn’t really know her well enough to think that it was a definite thing.  He shrugged.  “Does it matter?”

“And you didn’t mind it—might have even liked it?”

Fai sighed.  “I . . . I might have,” he grumbled.

No doubt about it, the woman was very obviously amused beyond all reason, and Fai made a face.  “She was already offered a job,” Kagura said instead, opting not to tease Fai further, which was fine with him.  “Morocco.”

“She only said she had an interview,” Fai said, frowning at the cup of tea in his hands.  “They offered her a job that fast?”

“How would you know that?” Kagura parried.  “She only found out about the interview a few days ago.”

Fai blinked, lifting his gaze to meet hers for a moment before offering her a little shrug and dropping his eyes to the cup once more.  “In a dream,” he said almost absently.  “She was there.  She told me.”

“In a dream,” Kagura repeated.  “Is that right?”

He nodded, only half-listening.  She was offered that job?  Of course, she would be.  She was entirely capable, and surely the person who had conducted the interview had sensed just what kind of woman she really was.  But Morocco?  Why did the thought of her taking that job make him want to crush something—like the cup in his hands?

Carefully setting the cup back on the tray before he gave into the urge to maim it, he glanced up, only to do a double take when he noticed that Kagura was writing something in a very fine leather-bound journal of sorts.

She tore the page out and leaned forward to hand it to him, and he slowly reached out to take it.  “That’s her address,” Kagura said.  “However, I think I should warn you that her father’s out of town, so that means that her brother is staying there while he’s away, and her brother has a tendency to be just as overprotective as her father is.  If you show up on their doorstep, there’s a good chance that Rinji might well take exception to your presence.”

Fai nodded.  That just figured, didn’t it?  So close, and yet, unless he wanted to beg an altercation with her beloved brother, how in the world was he going to get to talk to her?

Kagura chuckled again, the sound of it, rich and warm.  “You strike me as the resourceful type.  I think you can figure it out.”

Scowling as he read over the address on the paper, committed it to memory, Fai let out a deep breath.  Resourceful?  He’d have to be, wouldn’t he?  Somehow, he had the feeling that it wasn’t going to be nearly as simple as he’d like . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 26~~
~Clandestine~

 

~o~

 

 

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?”

“Hmm?”

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.”

Nothing.

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.

“Yes, but—”

“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 . . .”

“R-Really?”

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 27~~
~Sidetracked~

 

~o~

 

 

“I apologize for only being able to meet you this way, but I have a number of my men coming in for a meeting later today, so I’m a bit busier than usual,” Jude Covington said, foregoing a proper greeting, as he slipped into an open seat at the small table in the quiet bistro that overlooked Sydney Harbour.  Light green eyes flicking coolly over the already seated couple, he managed a tepid sort of smile that looked entirely perfunctory, flipping the long, low hanging, auburn ponytail over his shoulder as though it was little more than a nuisance to him.

Fai had already taken the liberty of ordering a rather vast assortment of breakfast platters, ranging from fruits and vegetables to eggs and various breakfast meats and breads.  Saori was busy, munching on a very tasty sausage link while Fai was simply drinking a cup of very strong coffee.

“It’s fine,” he said over the rim of the fine china cup.  “On the contrary, I apologize for the short notice.”

Jude waved off Fai’s apology, sparing a moment to pin Saori with a very candid look.  “Well, I know you,” he said to Fai, without taking his eyes off Saori, “but I can’t say that I know who you are.”

Saori blushed and quickly ducked her head as she hurriedly tried to swallow a bite of sausage.  “I’m sorry,” she said, holding her napkin before her mouth.  “I’m Saori Senkuro.”

“Senkuro,” he repeated thoughtfully.  “That name . . . Oh!  Seiji’s daughter?”

She nodded and lowered the napkin.  “Yes.”

“The reason I wished to meet with you is because I wondered if you have people in your jurisdiction who would be interested in adopting some of our orphans,” Fai cut in.  “Saori has better knowledge of our children and is helping me with their placements.  In fact, it would be better if you think of anyone, that you contact her.  She used to work at the orphanage, so she has a better grasp on their various situations.”

“How old are they?”

“There’s a wide range of ages,” Saori replied.  “I understand that the older children might prove harder to place, but the younger ones would do very well, even though it may take a little patience while they learn new customs and a new language.”

“When you say, ‘younger’, I will assume we aren’t talking about infants,” Jude said.

“We do have a few that are under four years of age, a number of them are between five and twelve, and then, of course, older children, too,” she told him.

“Russian children,” Jude remarked.  “We do have a few families who are looking to adopt, but I cannot say without looking into it if they’d be willing to accept older children.  I’ll be happy to have one of my people ask around, see if anyone is interested.  I know of one family who will likely be agreeable to taking even an older child—maybe not a teenager—but one in primary school.  I’ll be honest with you.  This couple consists of two gay men, so you can understand why they cannot simply have children of their own.”

“I have no issues with that, providing they are able to adequately care for the child, financially speaking,” Fai replied.

“Good, then,” Jude said.  “They may actually be interested in siblings, if you have anything like that.”

“I’ll give you my number,” Saori said.  “I’ll be more than happy to answer any questions regarding the children.  The older children have a basic grasp of common English, but the younger ones don’t.  However, I think that if we ask them to, the caretakers they’re currently with could work with them all on their English skills to make any transition a little easier.”

“Then I shall have my man get in touch with you,” he replied, slipping the business card that Saori had given to him into his pocket.  Then he turned his attention back to Fai once more.  “Will you be here long?”

Saori glanced at Fai, who gave nothing away in his unaffected demeanor.  “A few days,” he allowed.  “Saori has never been here, so I thought it would be nice for her to take in the city.”

Jude smiled.  “Well, I hope you won’t be disappointed,” he told her amiably.  “Where are you staying?”

“The Sydney Harbor Imperial,” he said.  “Suite 619.”

Jude jotted that down information with a very expensive looking ball-point pen before stowing the paper napkin and pen into the inside pocket of his suit jacket.  “And how are matters in Asia?” he asked, reaching for the coffee carafe.

“Everything’s fine,” Fai intoned.  For the vaguest moment, Saori thought that she’d seen a flicker of irritation in Fai’s expression, but it was gone almost instantly, leaving her wondering if she hadn’t imagined it.

If Jude had noticed anything amiss, he didn’t remark upon it, casually sipping his coffee as his gaze shifted over the café and back again.  “Very good.  I met your brother a couple years ago—Yerik.  How’s he?”

“He’s fine.  He’s opted to become a hunter, but you knew that already, didn’t you?”

Jude chuckled.  “I assure you, he was never in any danger.  The hunter he was with is very, very capable.  I never would have allowed it if he weren’t the very best.”

Fai didn’t look pacified.  “That’s very conscientious of you,” he muttered dryly.

“He was determined to do it, consent or not.  It was the least I could do, to make sure that he was with someone who was quite capable of keeping him safe,” Jude replied.  He didn’t laugh, but he did still look rather amused.

“Then I appreciate your concern,” Fai said.

Setting his cup aside with a soft clink, Jude stood, reached over to shake Fai’s hand, and then, Saori’s.  “I hate to cut this so short, but I really must be going.  Was there anything else I could do for you?”

For some reason, Jude’s question rankled him.  If he were to stop to think about it, he supposed that it might well just have to do with the idea that he hated to ask anyone for anything, to begin with.  “No.  I’m only here on behalf of the children.”

Jude nodded.  “Again, my sincerest apologies.  Please, do enjoy your time here, and if there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.  I’ve enjoyed meeting you, Ms. Senkuro.  Give my regards to your family.”

They watched Jude walk away, and Saori let out a deep breath.  “That went well,” she remarked, picking at her sausage as she frowned at the almost foreboding expression on Fai’s face.  “Are you okay?”

He blinked, then shot her a quick glance.  “I’m fine,” he replied, reaching for the carafe of coffee.  “I could have done this over the telephone, though.  It would have been much less of a hassle.”

Saori nodded.  True enough, she figured, but after her mother’s warning . . .

Here you go . . . It’s nothing fancy, but our cook went home hours ago . . .” Aiko said as she set a plate with a few onigiri on the kitchen table in front of the Asian tai-youkai when Saori had brought him down to the kitchen.

This is fine,” Fai assured her.  “Thank you.”

She poured tea and sat down while Saori fidgeted beside her.  “So, did the two of you discuss Fai-sama’s job offer?

I accepted it,” Saori replied.  Glancing at her mother’s face, she wasn’t surprised to see the gentle little smile that quirked her lips.

I thought as much,” Aiko admitted.  “In that case, I should warn you both: otou-san and Seiji are both in Russia right now.  It seemed that they wanted to speak with you, Fai-sama.  They wished for reassurance that you have no intention of trying to punish Saori further for her. . . lapse in judgement.”

That’s an interesting way to put a nice spin on someone appropriating someone else,” Fai muttered, biting into one of the rice balls.

Aiko cleared her throat, but for a moment, Saori had to wonder how close her mother was to laughing outright.  “Anyway, if you want to avoid an unpleasant encounter—I assume that Saori will be leaving with you—then you may want to stay away from your home for a few days,” she went on.  “I would imagine that if you show up with my daughter in tow before you manage to speak with them about it, they might well jump to conclusions.”

Does your entire family have these impulse control issues?” he parried.

Aiko laughed.  “Only the men—and Saori, at times.”

Saori made a face.

Aiko’s amusement died quickly enough, only to be replaced by a thoughtful frown.  “I really hate to rush you off, but I’m not entirely sure how long Rinji will be gone, and if you wish to avoid that unpleasant confrontation, then you’d best get going soon.”

Oh,” Saori gasped, understanding exactly what her mother meant as she shot to her feet.  “I should change then . . .”

Aiko stood up, too.  “I’ll help her pack her things,” she told Fai while Saori hurried out of the kitchen.  “It won’t take long . . . Fai-sama . . .”

Blinking away the lingering memory, Saori smiled.  “I know that it shouldn’t be, but it’s kind of exciting,” she said.  “Have you been here before?”

“Not in a long time.  I was too young to remember much of it.  My father had to come here to speak with Jude about some trade business, so he brought my mother and me along,” he replied.  “Your mother said she would text and let you know when we can go back to Russia, right?”

She nodded.  “Won’t Vasili tell them that you’re going to be out of town for a few days?”

Fai shrugged.  “He would have if I had told him.  As it was, I didn’t really tell him much of anything before I left to go to Tokyo.”

She slowly shook her head.  “That poor man is going to have a heart attack or something if you don’t stop disappearing on him, don’t you think?”

Fai shrugged it off.  “He’ll be fine.  I was planning on calling him later, having him fax any urgent business to me here since we’ll be staying a few days.  I’ll just tell him to let your grandfather know that I’m here on business, and that should be that.”

She nodded, but her mood turned a little pensive.  “I doubt that’ll be necessary, actually,” she admitted.  “In fact, I’m pretty sure that they’ll be heading back to Tokyo just as soon as nii-chan realizes that I’m gone . . .”

“Sounds like, ‘nii-chan’ needs a hobby,” Fai said as he lifted his cup of coffee to his lips.

Saori giggled.  “He’s always been a little overprotective,” she mused with a little bounce of her shoulders.  “It can’t be helped, I guess.  He’s a lot older than me, so I guess he’s always thought of me as more of a child than an adult.”

“Hm, well, your mother is nice enough.  So is your grandmother, come to think of it . . .”

“Obaa-chan?  When did you . . .?”

He set the coffee cup down and leaned forward, arms cross on the table.  “She gave me your address,” he told her.

Saori blinked, trying to digest the idea that her grandmother really had done such a thing.  Then again, maybe it wasn’t that surprising.  Kagura had always been a little slower to pass judgment, a little more willing to hear both sides of a story before she made up her mind, and, more often than not, she tended to be good at reading between the lines, in finding the truth that lie somewhere in between the two extremes . . .

“Are you done here?” he asked, lifting hand to gesture at the array of food.

“Did you have something else you wanted to do?” she challenged, grabbing a pancake and slowly nibbling off of it without bothering to cut it up or to put any syrup or fruit on it.

He smiled just a little, eyes brightening as he watched her antics.  “I thought I might as well take you sightseeing or something,” he replied.  “I mean, there’s not much else we can do at the moment, is there?”

She raised her eyebrows and let the pancake fall onto her plate.  “Sightseeing?  That sounds like fun!”  Hopping up out of her chair, she giggled.

Fai shook his head as he got to his feet, but he still retained the amused light in his gaze.  “All right, but I think it’s fair to warn you: I’m not very good at the whole, ‘tourist’ thing.”

Saori grabbed his hand and tugged him through the bistro.  “It’s not that hard,” she assured him.  “You just stop whenever you see something you want to explore, keep your eyes open for signs that say, ‘tour’, eat ridiculous amounts of strange street food, and take lots of silly snapshots of everything.”

“That sounds . . . awful, actually,” he grumbled but followed her out onto the sidewalk, lifting a hand to shield his eyes for a few minutes while they adjusted to the bright daylight.

She giggled again, tugging on his hand to get him moving once more.  “Come on, Fai-sama.  Let’s see what kind of trouble we can find to get into here.”

His answer was a very loud groan, but he let her lead the way.

 


 

 

Fai smiled slightly as he leaned on the railing, watching as Saori played with some children. They were playing a sort of kid-hacked version of kickball-meets-soccer in a small park that they had been wandering through.  One of the children had accidentally sent the ball, flying at them, and Saori had intercepted it, kicking it back in a flash of movement that was enough to impress the children into asking her to join them, and, while they’d asked Fai to join, too, he’d opted to watch, instead.  Somewhere during the game, they’d decided that trees on either side of their playing field were goals, and, from what he could tell, Saori’s team was winning.  Maybe.  Well, to be fair, he wasn’t entirely sure how they were keeping score, but he figured that the fun they were having overshadowed the need to break it down into winning or losing.

Saori had pulled her hair up into a quick but messy bun, secured in place by a couple of twigs she’d found.  It wasn’t staying in place well, though, as tendrils of her smoky hair flew around her, and she didn’t seem to care at all—something Fai found entirely endearing.

They’d spend the majority of the day, wandering wherever they just happened to go, admiring the eclectic array of varying architecture that seemed to comprise the majority of cityscape.  While it was easy to see the towering skyscrapers, it was an almost whimsical of juxtaposition of old versus new.  From classical design to Romanesque, Edwardian to Italiante to the more cutting edge and modern structure, the city was such an interesting mix, much like the denizens of Sydney itself.

Saori had made good on her word and had managed to snap more pictures of him in one day so far than had been taken of him over the course of the last ten-plus-years since he’d become tai-youkai despite his protests, and he, of course, had retaliated in kind, capturing a ridiculous number of images of her on his own phone.  Then she had decided to ask a few perfect strangers to capture a few pictures of the both of them, and he was sure that it was simply Saori’s endearing nature that had gained their cooperation in the end . . .

He’d even sent a couple of the images to her mother and grandmother—the two women who had helped him find and spirit her away—even as Aiko’s words still echoed in his ears: words that he didn’t think he’d ever forget . . .

Just after Saori had sped off to pack her bag, Aiko had lingered, had smiled at him, waiting till her daughter was out of earshot before she spoke in a quiet tone.  “Fai-sama . . . You told her you wanted her to work for you, and she accepted your offer.  Is that all there is to it?  Is that the only reason you would go to the trouble of sneaking in here in the middle of the night?

Fai wasn’t entirely sure, how to answer that.  Staring at her mother, however, he felt the same thing that he’d felt when he’d talked to Kagura earlier.

I apologize if it feels like I’m putting you on the spot.  That’s not my intention, at all,” she went on when he didn’t answer right away.  “She . . . She is my daughter—my baby—you see?  And I want to know that I am not being foolish in placing my faith in you.”

That . . . That wasn’t the only reason,” he admitted, “but I don’t . . .”

Aiko smiled.  “Well, it probably is a little early to try to define your feelings,” she said.  “I doubt that Saori could, either—not yet, anyway.  That’s okay.  I can understand that.  I know you’re strong.  You’re tai-youkai for a reason, and I have every faith that you can keep Saori safe.  That’s why . . . That’s why I entrust her to your care . . .” Then she winced, sighed, and still smiled.  “I’m not going to lie, though . . . Her father?  He’s going to raise the roof when he finds out that she’s gone off with you . . .”

The buzz of his cell phone broke him out of the memory, and Fai pulled it out of his pocket, frowning at the message that he’d received from Evgeni.

Update re: Konstantin Korinovich . . . Has been reported to me that he has been issuing challenge, if not formally yet, is just a matter of time.  Your immediate attention, required.

Korinovich . . . How foolish,’ his youkai-voice remarked.  ‘His family . . . the regency . . . Is he really that careless?

Fai stared at the message for a long moment before firing a text back: ‘Nothing can be done unless and until he issues formal challenge.

Dropping the phone back into his pocket, he drew a deep breath.  Yes, it would be entirely foolhardy for him to issue that challenge, which wasn’t really here nor there, was it?  More perplexing, really, was the fact that Konstantin’s father, Maxim was one of the Russian regents, tasked with governing over the youkai in their areas.  Fai was, of course, kept apprized of the larger issues, but for small disputes, the regents were more than adequate to ensure the peace.

Except that you’ve yet to make time to talk to any of them—at least, the ones who are left . . .

Fai frowned.  In the earliest years of his tenure, he’d been challenged by a number of the regents.  Their remaining kin had lost all rights to their regencies, and Fai had dealt with everything in those areas ever since.  Korinovich, however . . . Maxim was regent to Siberia, easily the largest regency in Russia—and also easily the most difficult to police, too, given the raw scope of it . . .

Besides, his father hadn’t really leaned very heavily upon those men, either.  He’d thought that the whole system was archaic and had considered abolishing the regencies for a long time, but he just never got around to it . . .

“Bye bye!” Saori called, waving at the children as she stepped backward, heading toward Fai.  She was laughing, her entire aura seemed to glow with happiness, and when she turned to face him, her already broad smile widened even more.  Strands of hair floating around her, she reached up, pulled the twigs out of her hair to let it spill down her back like a downy soft cloud.  “That was so much fun!” she said, letting the twigs fall from her fingers.  “I think we lost, though . . .”

“Oh, I don’t know.  A smile like that?  I’d say you won,” he told her as she hurried around the railing and back onto the packed cobblestone path.

She wrinkled her nose.  “You think so?  You should have played, too.”

“It’s all right,” he assured her as they started walking once more.  “Should we go find something to eat?”

She shrugged.  “All right . . . Let’s go back to the hotel first, though.  I’d like to take a shower.”

Aren’t you going to tell her about the threat Korinovitch poses?’ his youkai prompted.

Fai considered it, but discarded the idea almost as quickly.  ‘It’s just a rumor, and even then, she’d just worry.  What’s the point in that?

Do you think she’ll thank you later?

If and when it becomes an issue, then I’ll tell her . . . maybe.

His youkai sighed.  ‘You’re not forgetting, are you?

Forgetting?  Forgetting what?

The promise you made her.  You’re not forgetting, are you?

Scowling at the reminder, Fai wasn’t sure how to answer that.  Sure, he had promised that he wouldn’t worry her like he had when he’d taken off to see to that challenge before.  Still, it wasn’t exactly the same.  There wasn’t a formal challenge yet, anyway.

And if it comes down to it?  If there is one?

Fai sighed.  Saori didn’t seem to notice, nor did she seem to notice his silence as she chattered on about the children, the city, about everything.

If the challenge did come from it, then he’d tell her about it.  For now, however, there wasn’t much he could say or do that made sense.  If there was one thing he’d learned over the course of his short tenure as tai-youkai, it was that nothing was ever set in stone—at least, not until there was something concrete to back it up.

“Fai-sama?”

Blinking away the dark thoughts that plagued him, Fai glanced down at Saori, only to find her, peering up at him, all hints of her smile gone, her brows drawn together with a concerned sort of frown on her face.  “Uh, you were saying?”

She shook her head.  “What is it?” she asked instead.

He forced a wan smile, solely for her benefit.  “It’s nothing,” he told her, willing away the things that had yet to come to pass.

She didn’t look like she believed him, but she seemed to understand that he wasn’t about to tell her more than that, and she sighed softly.  “Okay . . . I . . . I’ve had fun today,” she said, but a measure of her usual ebullience was conspicuously gone.

“Me, too,” he said, and, looking down at her, he was vaguely surprised when he realized that he meant it.  “Me . . . too . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 28~~
~Slowing Down~

 

~o~

 

 

Wandering along the waterfront as she adjusted the thin, black irridescent satin shawl that she’d brought along to warn away the chill in the crisp evening air, Saori couldn’t help the contented little smile that turned up the edges of her lips as she shifted her gaze out over the water, as she bit her lip, her eyes taking in the glowing moon, so high overhead.  “That was . . . amazing,” she breathed, almost more to herself than to Fai.  “You know, after I’d heard that Covington-sama threatened to have my second-cousin’s mate hunted if he ever stepped foot in Australia again, I thought he was mean, but he isn’t, really . . . I’ll have to send him a thank you note in the morning . . .”

Fai didn’t quite chuckle, but she could sense his overall amusement.  It was quiet, subdued, but there, nonetheless, and she couldn’t help but to feel a certain happiness that she was here to share it with him.  “It was very nice of him,” he agreed.  “Why did he threaten to do that?”

Saori shrugged.  “Well, the man who had kidnapped my second-cousin, Jillian-san had been exiled from the United States, and Australia agreed to take him.  He knew Jillian-san’s biological parents, and when he went missing, her mate, Gavin-san came to see if he could figure out what was going on, only to break into the man’s apartment.  His people found Gavin-san there, and they arrested him while they tried to find out what connection, if any, they had to each other.  Anyway, when Zelig-sama went there to free Gavin-san, he and Covington-sama had an altercation that led to Covington-sama insisting that Gavin-san would be hunted if he ever stepped foot in Australia again.”

Fai thought that over for a long moment as they continued to wander along the path.  “So, basically, those two ended up in an international pissing war,” he concluded.  “I’ve heard the rumors before.  It’s best to be a little extra mindful of one’s manners when approaching Jude for any kind of favor in his jurisdiction.”

Saori nodded slowly.  “So, you’re suggesting that Zelig-sama wasn’t as diplomatic as he could have been?”

“His son-in-law, being detained on suspicion of murder?  I don’t imagine he was, no.”  Shaking his head to get his long bangs out of his eyes, Fai shrugged, as though the entire thing was simply par for course.  “I’ve dealt with Jude before, and he’s always been decent to me.  Actually, he tends to be very magnanimous with people who he doesn’t perceive to be stepping on his toes.”

They’d been surprised when they’d returned to the hotel from their day of exploring Sydney, only to be stopped by the concierge, who wanted to deliver a large bouquet of flowers, along with a thick envelope, all from Jude Covington.  The Australian tai-youkai had seen fit to arrange an entertainment package for them.  They’d just left the opera, having been privileged enough to attend opening night of la Traviata at the Sydnie Opera House.  Tomorrow, there was a private harbor cruise, followed by dinner with Jude and his generals with family, of course, and then there were a pair of tickets to see The Reckless Ones, a new and very popular musical that had been sold out, worldwide, since it had opened on Broadway a few years ago.  It seemed that Jude owned boxes at both the Sydnie Opera House, where they’d just seen la Traviata, as well as the People’s Theatre, where The Reckless Ones was being performed, so they were pretty much open-ended invitations.

Thinking about the opera they’d just seen, however, made Saori sigh, even as a melancholy sort of sadness returned.  As beautiful as the opera was, the story behind it was so tragic: Violetta, the courtesan who found love with the dashing Alfredo, leaving her life behind to start over again, only to be confronted by Alfredo’s father, who wants Violetta to leave his son alone, to the point that he breaks down her resistance, and she complies.  In the end, though, true love wins over all, and the two are united, only for Violetta to die in Alfredo’s arms as the stage faded to black . . . “Do you think that Violetta was truly happy?”

Fai considered Saori’s question for a second.  “At the end?  Yes . . . They say that . . . that true love can overcome everything.  In that moment, she was loved, and she knew it.  That’s not the real question, in my opinion.”

She blinked and turned her attention away from the water in favor of peering up at him in the glow of the gentle lamplights that lined the path and cast such stark shadows as it contrasted with the night.  “What is?”

Offering a nonchalant shrug as he dug his hands deep into the pockets of the tuxedo that he’d bought for the occasion, Fai’s gaze darted around them, as though unconsciously looking for any sign of a threat—a direct contradiction to the ease of his gait.  “Well, it makes me wonder just how miserable Alfredo was when she died—how long he mourned . . . if he ever found anyone else to make his existence worth anything . . .”

“If he were youkai . . .”

Fai nodded sagely.  “For us, there’s only one true love—one chance, one hope . . . For humans?”  Suddenly, he chuckled, shook his head.  “Who knows?”

“When you put it that way, it sounds so shallow,” she grumbled.  The pragmatic way he’d stated it had managed to shatter the overall romantic notions in Saori’s thoughts, even though she rather doubted that it was his intention to do so.  “Are you one of those who believes that humans are inferior?”

Fai grunted.  “No, not inferior,” he told her.  “Granted, I can’t say that I’ve been around too many humans, but the ones I knew in school . . . It always seemed to me that they were a little more focused on the here and now and less interested in the longer term.  It probably has something to do with the limited lifespan, but it always struck me as a little tragic, I guess . . .”

She considered that, her face contorting into a thoughtful scowl.  Had she ever considered anything like that?  No, she supposed she really hadn’t.  After all, she had been raised with human relatives, and they hadn’t quite fit into the same mold that Fai was describing, but, thinking back now, she could see the truth of what he’d said.  Of her friends she’d made at the university, she recognized the same thing.  It just hadn’t really been something that she put a finger on at the time.  Now, though?

“My human relatives aren’t like that,” she ventured instead.  “Maybe because they married into the youkai and hanyou lines . . . Maybe their ways of thinking were broadened from that.”

Fai shrugged.  “Because we live longer lives?  Maybe . . . That’s how it’s supposed to be, anyway.”

Something about the way he spoke, about the almost sad sort of lilt to his voice . . . She frowned.  “You’re thinking about your parents, aren’t you?” she asked quietly.

He shot her an almost surprised kind of look, and then he rasped out a short laugh. “I guess I am,” he admitted.  “They weren’t old when they died, but they weren’t young, either . . . I suppose it’s natural to wonder what things would have been like, had they lived longer.”

“Of course, it is,” she said.

Letting out a deep breath, he looked entirely irritated.  “I’m ruining the mood, aren’t I?” he mused.  “I don’t mean to.”

She quickly shook her head.  “You’re not,” she insisted gently, hooking a long strand of hair behind her ear that had escaped the careful chignon she’d arranged her hair into.  “I . . . I like hearing your thoughts, your feelings, even if they aren’t always happy.”

He snorted.  “Except that I sound entirely whiny,” he grumbled.

She laughed softly.  “You don’t.  Besides, I get the impression that you don’t talk much about your feelings . . . Am I wrong?”

“I . . . I don’t,” he admitted.  “To be honest, I’m not sure why I am now.”

“Would it make you feel better if I told you something that I’ve never told anyone else, ever?”

The look he shot her was almost suspicious.  He arched an eyebrow at her.  “I don’t know.  What kind of something?”

She sighed, stopped to lean on the railing, resting her forearms on the cool metal, her shoulders pushed up slightly as she shifted her gaze back out over the ever-moving water.  “Just something I’ve never talked about, either . . . something I wouldn’t talk about with anyone back home . . .”

Pondering that mystery of her words for a moment as he mirrored her stance.  “All right.”

She smiled faintly, a little sadly, savoring the feel of the slight breeze, stirring her hair, the freshness that seemed to seep into her pores as she gathered her thoughts.  “I . . . I never quite felt like I fit into my family,” she said quietly.  They’re all so accomplished—so . . . so, ‘together,’ that I . . . Well, I’m not like that.  All my life, I’ve been the one who never did things the way I was supposed to—not on purpose, but . . .” She sighed, slowly shook her head.  “They love me because I’m their daughter, sister, cousin . . . granddaughter . . . but . . . but I don’t think I’ve ever known if they love me . . .”

“Saori—”

“That sounds so dumb,” she blurted, thankful for the darkness that hid the painful blush on her face.  “Really, really dumb . . .”

“I don’t think it does,” he told her.  “But I think you’re wrong.”

“How?”

He let out a deep breath, an almost impatient kind of sigh, turning just enough to frown at her, leaning on one elbow atop the railing.  “They love you—of course, they do.  How could they help but to love you?  Someone like you . . . You’re different.  You’re special.  You’re nothing like anyone else I’ve ever met!  For you to think that they would feel some kind of perfunctory sense of . . . of whatever . . . is madness.  Your family loves you.  Hell, I—”

She blinked when he bit off his words abruptly, and when she dared to shift her gaze to the side, she could only stare when she realized that he was scowling out over the water once more, but it was the blush that stained his cheeks that made her heart jerk to a crazy halt, that stopped time, even if just for that moment.

Without stopping, without thinking, without questioning what she was doing, Saori shifted, reached out to cup his cheek in her hand, to turn his face toward hers as she rose on her toes—as she pressed her lips to his.

He stood still for a second, as though he wasn’t entirely sure how to react.  Suddenly, though, he reached out, pulled her close, his arms wrapping around her as the electric connection between them seemed to crackle in the air.  He uttered a terse sound, caught somewhere deep in his throat, and she answered in a breathy whimper as a violent shiver rattled through him—she felt it under her fingertips, resting against his chest.

The softness of his lips, the tenderness that he afforded her, shot straight through her, made her knees buckle, but Fai was there to catch her, to hold her, as his youki wrapped around her, cosseting her and buffering her, even as her hand curled around a fistful of his immaculate tuxedo jacket . . .

She could feel the emotion surging through him, and yet, his kiss remained gentle, almost teasing, yet filled with such yearning that she felt tears, stinging her closed eyelids . . .

“Saori?” he whispered, a hoarseness in his voice that she didn’t quite grasp as he broke the kiss, leaned back just enough so that he could see her face.  “Saori, are you crying?”

She shook her head quickly, choking out a half-laugh, half-sob, followed in quick order by a little sniffle.  “N-No,” she lied.

“Why . . .?”

She sighed, letting her temple fall against his chest.  He didn’t try to push her back.  If anything, his arms tightened around her just a little more.  “I . . . I can’t explain it,” she admitted.  “I don’t know why . . .”

He let out a deep breath.  It wasn’t a sigh, exactly, but it wasn’t not a sigh, either.  Then he shook his head.  “You confound me,” he muttered.

“I’m sorry,” she said, moments before she giggled.

He grunted, giving her a little squeeze in the process.  “Somehow, I don’t think you are,” he complained rather dryly.

She smiled to herself as she savored the feel of his arms around her.  No, she supposed, she wasn’t sorry; not really . . .

 


 

 

You could set it on fire.

Snorting indelicately as she scowled at the very nice bed in the very nice hotel room, Saori crossed her arms over her chest and made a face.  ‘Be reasonable, won’t you?  I can’t set the bed on fire, and if I did, then I probably would end up in jail for real, and I don’t think even ojii-chan could get me out of that kind of mess!

Her youkai-voice sighed.  ‘Well, it’d do the trick, you know.  Okay, so if we can’t do—you know what?  It could just be a small fire—purely an accident.  Just enough to make it so that you can’t sleep in here tonight.

Saori rolled her eyes.  ‘And this would be how I end up in trouble so often.

It’s not like you had any better ideas, you know!

How on earth did you think that setting anything on fire would be a good idea?’ she fumed.

You’re the one who wanted to come up with a reason why your room wouldn’t suit, just so you could go, crawling into Fai-sama’s bed!  I was just trying to help you come up with a good plan!  Besides, if you did set the bed on fire, then at least you would have a good reason not to return to your own room, at all . . . Did you think about that?

Except they’d throw us out if I did that—if I didn’t end up in jail for arson!

Her youkai-voice uttered an offended, ‘hrumph’.

A curt knock on her door drew her attention, and she turned to yank it open, pinning Fai with a rather mutinous scowl as he blinked and took a step back in retreat.  “Saori?”

She snorted.  “You’re tai-youkai.  Tell me something.”

He narrowed his eyes, but slowly nodded.  “Okay . . .”

Crossing her arms over her chest, she stomped across the room to wrench the window locks and throw it open.  “How is it that everyone else’s youkai-voices give them good ideas while mine seems to want to turn me into an international felon?”

“Huh?”

She snorted again, whipping around so fast that her oversized tee-shirt billowed out around her, only to jerk back and slowly float down around her once more.  “I was trying to figure out how to get you to let me sleep with you, so my youkai-voice suggested pouring water all over the bed—which would be fine for one night, but water dries out—so then, it decided that the best thing to do would be to set the bed on fire—fire—and now, it’s mad at me for pointing out that that would likely get me tossed into the clink for . . . Well, for a very long time.”

His expression, which had started out as guarded, at best, had slowly morphed into the strangest kind of incredulity that might have made her laugh—if she weren’t so agitated.  “. . . Pardon?”

It was only then that she realized just what she’d blurted out of irritation, and she gasped, hands flashing up to flutter over her lips as her eyes grew wide, as an explosion of embarrassed color detonated under her skin.  “Oh, kami, I . . . I said all that out loud . . .”

Fai stared at her for another long moment.  Then he burst out in laughter—great gales of laughter—laughter that ultimately doubled him over as he gasped for breath and wiped his eyes.

Saori didn’t really see it, though.  Too busy, covering her face with her cupped hands, she groaned softly, wondering how possible it would be for the floor to open under her and swallow her whole.

It took him a minute to wind down, to regain control of himself, even though he chuckled a few more times as he crossed his arms over his chest and cleared his throat.  “So . . . You’re trying to figure out ways to . . . be invited into my bed?” he said, managing a much more diplomatic tone than Saori might have thought possible, given the situation.  “Why don’t you just say that you’d rather sleep in my room?”

She blinked, daring to peer at him from between her fingers.  He looked like he might be serious—maybe.  He also looked like he was two steps from dissolving in laughter once more.  “I . . . I thought that was a little too . . . too forward . . .”

He shrugged.  “Maybe, but definitely better than setting your bed on fire.”

She groaned again, which made him laugh, and that made her blush even darker.  It was a vicious cycle, damned if it wasn’t.

In the end, though, Fai sighed and stepped toward her to take her hand, gently pulling it away from her face despite the token resistance she tried to offer.  He was persistent, though, and he shook his head, tugging her gently behind him as he headed for the doorway.

“What are you . . .?”

Sparing a quick glance over his shoulder at her, he arched his eyebrows, but didn’t stop moving, pulling her across the short hallway to the other bedroom of the hotel room suite.  “You wanted to sleep in my room, right?” he asked, his tone a little nonchalant.  “I sleep better with you near, anyway.”

She blinked, bit her lip, and finally dared to peer up at him.  He wasn’t looking at her, but the lazy sparkle in his eyes spoke volumes, as far as she was concerned.  “You do?”

He shook his head, letting go of her hand so that he could close the door and hit the light panel on the wall.  The lamps beside the bed brightened, but he lowered them a little bit, too.  Then he stepped over to the windows on the other side of the room, digging his hands, deep into his pockets—he was still clad in the tuxedo pants and white shirt, but he’d removed the jacket and bow tie.  Sleeves rolled up a couple of times, the white cotton fabric, accentuating the corded muscles of his forearms.  In the dimmed glow of the lamps, she appreciated the way the warm light played in the strands of his hair, the reddish sheen, the almost golden, but not quite, highlights . . .

He let out a deep breath.  It wasn’t a sigh, exactly, but he didn’t turn to face her as he stared out over the landscape of the city below.  “Vasili said that he told your father and grandfather that I was out of the country on business and that he wasn’t sure when I would return.  He said that they would be leaving,” he told her.

“Kaa-chan called and told me that nii-chan told them that I’ve left,” she said.  “I guess they’re going home . . .”

“Do they know you’re with me?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted, folding down the blankets on the bed and slipping between the sheets.  “I mean, kaa-chan said that she and baa-chan thought that it’d be better, not to say anything unless they were asked directly.  Apparently, nii-chan didn’t think to ask her if she knew where I’d gone.”

“Your mother’s not going to get caught in the middle of this, is she?”

That question made Saori sigh since she’d thought that, too.  “I . . . I really don’t know.”

Fai considered that for a long moment before digging his cell phone out of his pocket and staring at it for a long second.  She watched as he dialed a number and waited.  To her surprise, she could hear the call ringing.  He’d put it on speaker.

After the third ring, the call was answered.  “Inutaisho.  Faine.  Is there something I can do for you?”

Turning slightly, but not enough to face Saori, Fai frowned.  “Sesshoumaru, my butler says you were at the castle . . .”

The sound that Saori recognized as the soft squeak of the imposing desk chair in her grandfather’s office came through the line.  “We were,” he replied.  “Saori’s father and I wished to speak to you in regards to my granddaughter.  You wouldn’t happen to know where she is right now, would you?”

“I do,” Fai stated.  “I went there to offer her a job.  She has background knowledge of the children at the orphanage, having worked there, so I thought she would be an excellent choice to help me since I’m attempting to find placement for some of them, even if it means placing them in homes outside of my jurisdiction.”

There was a very long, very pregnant pause on the other end of the call.  He was likely considering Fai’s assessment before responding.  “And you’ve forgiven her for . . . kidnapping you . . .?”

“Given that I parted ways with her briefly when the van broke down and came back on my own, then I’d say the issue of her . . . appropriating me . . . wasn’t really a problem,” Fai said.

“You . . . left her and then went back?  I see . . .”

Fai sighed.  “Anyway, I didn’t want anyone to worry.  I had a meeting with Jude Covington about the orphans, so we’re currently here in Australia.”

“I shall ask Toga to look into couples, looking to adopt,” Sesshoumaru responded.  “I do not need to emphasize just how important Saori’s safety and well-being is to her family and to me, do I?”

Saori grimaced when Fai’s expression darkened.  “Oh, I think I understand perfectly well,” he said, sounding much more agreeable than the look on his face would suggest.

“Good, then.  I’ll be in touch.  Do tell Saori to behave herself.”

Rolling her eyes, she uttered a terse, ‘hmpf’.  Luckily for her, however, the phone call cut off, and she made a face.

“I assume you heard your grandfather?” Fai asked in a remarkably dry tone.

She made the sound again.  “It’d be much easier to behave if my youkai-voice didn’t suggest such outrageous things and then make them sound logical.”

“Blaming your youkai-voice isn’t really logical, either,” he pointed out, setting the phone on the dresser and slowly working the buttons on the front of his shirt.  “I’m going to take a quick shower.  You’re not going to set that bed on fire so you can come in the bathroom with me, are you?”

She blinked and wrinkled her nose at the teasing, even though she couldn’t quite staunch the blush that rose in her cheeks, either.  Then she lifted a hand, flicking her fingers to indicate that he should go on, opting not to respond to that, in any case.

His chuckles echoed in the room after he’d dropped his shirt over the back of a nearby chair and stepped into the bathroom and closed the door.

How embarrassing,’ she moaned to herself, shaking her head, wishing that she could go back in time and curb her overzealous mouth.

Okay . . . so, setting the bed on fire wasn’t my best idea, but you have to admit, the end result was worth it . . .

She snorted since she wasn’t really in the mood to concede anything to her annoying voice.  ‘The humiliation, you mean?  I could have done without that.

Not that . . . You heard him laugh, didn’t you?  And not just a little, cute laugh.  A huge laugh . . .

She considered that as a hint of a smile tugged at her lips.  Staring across the room at the closed bathroom door, she finally giggled, flopping down against the mattress.

Her amusement died away, though, when she drew a deep breath.  The bed didn’t smell like Fai.  It smelled more like detergents with an underlying hint of bleach, but not at all like him, which shouldn’t have been as jarring to her as it ultimately was.

Pushing herself up on her hands, she frowned.  What she really wanted was to surround herself with his scent, and the strange bed did nothing to offer her that.

Staring around the hotel room, she let out a long, deep breath, but when her eyes lit on the shirt he’d just left, hanging on the back of a chair, her frown turned thoughtful.

Before she could talk herself out of it, she hopped out of the bed, shedding the tee-shirt, scurrying across the room and yanking the abandoned shirt from the chair.  She couldn’t suppress the light giggle that slipped out of her as she pulled it on and buttoned it up, savoring the feel of the cotton cloth against her skin.  Flipping up the collar as she shuffled back to the bed, she buried her nose in it, breathed in Fai’s scent as she slipped back into the bed once more.

Funny how different the bed felt to her.  Comfortable and inviting, she held the collar against her face as she settled in, as she closed her eyes.  She’d just wait for him and endure whatever teasing he tossed her way for what she’d taken upon herself to do.  She didn’t care at the moment.  In fact, there was a good chance that Fai wasn’t going to get this shirt back, ever . . .

I’ll just . . . just relax till he’s done . . .’ she thought as a huge yawn brought tears to her eyes.

She was fast asleep when Fai stepped out of the bathroom a few minutes later.  Spotting her tee-shirt on the floor, he frowned and slowly looked over at her, only to blink, to smile when he saw her, curled up on her side in the bed, the collar of his shirt, pressed against her face as she slept.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 29~~
~Official Capacity~

 

~o~

 

 

It was a gorgeous day with a tangy breeze blowing off the water at the sprawling estate just outside of Sydney—Jude Covington’s estate.  He knew already that Jude only spent weekends and holidays here and tended to stay in an apartment downtown the rest of the week to be closer to his actual office.  It was probably less of a hassle, especially for a man like him, who tended to prize his privacy above all else—something else that Fai could truly appreciate about him.

That he was opening his home to them was remarkable enough.  He had heard the man’s generals remarking that it was a rare treat to be invited into his sanctuary, especially for a late luncheon.

Even so, he hadn’t quite decided whether or not he wanted to spend their last day in Sydney at Jude’s estate.  Given that Saori was having a lot of fun on her first visit to the city, it seemed a little anticlimactic to hole themselves away out here when they could spend more time, sightseeing, but when he’d mentioned that to her, she’d seemed almost appalled at the very idea that they might turn down Jude’s invitation.  He supposed she had a point since they’d spent the last couple days, taking full advantage of the entertainment package that he’d so thoughtfully given them . . .

Tonight, they were going to go see the other show that they hadn’t had time to see yet.  Yesterday, he’d taken her shopping to find something suitable for the event.  She’d refused to let him see the dress, however, telling him that it was a surprise.  He was all right with that, anyway.  The woman had impeccable taste in clothing, he’d realized.

They were seated around a very large table on the huge patio that overlooked the Tasman Sea as polite talk had swirled around them.  All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to spend the day, he had to admit as a ship blew its horn on the waters, interrupting the call of the birds that swooped into and out of view.

“Oh, Miss Senkuro . . . I wanted to let you know, we’ve spoken, and we think we have four families who might be interested in seeing the children’s files.  Do you have those yet, or . . .?” Jude asked, leaning forward, elbows on the table, fingers knitted together before him over his empty plate.

“I don’t have those compiled yet, but I will just as soon as we return to Russia . . .” she said.  “That won’t be a problem, will it?”

Jude chuckled.  “Not at all,” he assured her.  “One of the women is here, actually . . .” Jude nodded toward the woman who had been introduced as Ketta Nash, one of his generals: a koala-youkai.

The woman gave Saori a very bright smile, her deep brown eyes, shining engagingly.  “I’m looking for an older child, maybe around ten years old?  Someone who is old enough to enjoy the kinds of things I do—hiking, camping, mountain climbing . . . Things you can’t really do with a younger child . . .”

Fai frowned.  “Pardon me for asking, but you’re not mated . . .?”

She didn’t seem surprised by the personal nature of the question.  “I’m not, but I also don’t think that that should be a huge consideration.  I have a beautiful home that feels entirely empty.  Kind of depressing, really . . . I have a lot to offer a child, and if I do say so myself?  I will be an awesome mother, I promise you.”

Fai smiled.  “We’ll discuss it,” he allowed.  “I don’t see it being a problem, though.”

Ketta’s smile widened.

Jude nodded, obviously pleased that Ketta’s partner status would not be an issue.  He stood up, inclining his head toward his guests.  “Well, if the rest of you would like to enjoy my chef’s efforts at dessert, we should retire to my office, discuss a few more things before you all head back home . . . Fai, would you care to join us?  There’s nothing that we need to discuss that you can’t hear, after all . . .”

Fai nodded and stood, sparing a brief moment to meet Saori’s gaze, to give her a little nod when she smiled up at him.

Jude’s office had a door just off the patio, and he followed the others into the glass room.  Most of Jude’s house was actually little more than a configuration of windows—very thick windows.  Very modern, very contemporary—and a little unsettling since the only difference between the room dividers were the frosted glass used on the bathroom enclosure, he’d noticed.  Even the fireplaces were made of smoked, tempered glass . . . As interesting as the place was, Fai would be lying if he tried to say that he’d ever be comfortable, living in such an exposed place . . . Maybe it was simply because he’d always lived in Demyanov Castle . . .

A light hand on his forearm drew him out of his reverie, and he glanced down to find Ketta, smiling at him.  “Would you care for a drink, Your Grace?”

“Oh, I’m good,” he said, “but thank you.”

She slipped her hand up under his elbow, steering him toward one of the long, low sofas near the windows that overlooked the sea and didn’t move away when they sat down.  “I’ve heard so much about you,” she remarked, setting on the sofa, turning toward him, her knee touching his.  “I must confess, I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to meet you, though.  It’s absolutely a pleasure.”

“Thank you,” he replied, a little uncomfortable with her proximity, but not really seeing a way around it, either.

The others took seats on the other sofa or in one of the chairs that flanked them on the ends.  Jude sat in the chair on the end nearest to the desk with a glass of something; Fai couldn’t tell what.  “I think we’ve covered most everything else,” Jude remarked.  “I did want to ask, though, if anyone’s found out anything about Tim Marcon?”

One of the generals—a dingo-youkai named Lew—snorted.  “That little snake?  He’s hidden himself good, if he’s even still here on the continent.”

Drew Paulson, a kangaroo-youkai—grunted indelicately.  “Considering he has to know that he’s going to swing for what he did?  Not really surprising, is it?”

Pale green eyes taking on a heightened glow, Jude leveled a no-nonsense look at each of his generals in turn.  “Inexcusable.  He must be found.  I’ve sent all my hunters out to look for him.  It’s wasting my resources and making me look like a bumbling fool . . .”

Fai frowned.  “What did he do?”

Ketta sighed.  “Do you remember last winter?  The reports of someone detonating a bomb in the Livier Office Complex?  They planted explosives in a number of baby bags inside the nursery on the ground level?  Killed more than a seventy people—twenty-nine of them, babies under a year of age—and injured more than a hundred others?  That was Marcon’s work.”

“Damn,” Fai muttered.  He had indeed heard the reports.  They were all over the international news.  “Do you know why he did that?”

“We don’t know for sure,” Jude replied.  “But he is known to be very vocal on the anti-human front, so that’s what we’re assuming it was.”

“If he fled the country, if he headed to Europe, then there’s not a damn thing we can do to touch him.  MacDonnough will grant him amnesty, just by virtue of him being within his borders,” Lew remarked.

“I really don’t get why Sesshoumaru allows him to run amok like he does.  The MacDonnough’s as bad as the other extremists,” Drew added.

“It’s not his place to dictate our policies,” Fai stated.  “Whether he agrees or not, he won’t interfere—not unless there is no other choice.  I, for one, appreciate this about him, even if MacDonnough’s politics don’t reflect my own beliefs, either.”

“Spoken like a true tai-youkai,” Lew remarked with a chuckle.  Then he sighed.  “Just makes our work that much more difficult.”

Jude sighed.  “I’ll call him tomorrow; see if he has heard anything—if he’s in a good mood, maybe he’ll talk.”  His lip curled up in a derisive kind of sneer, exposing a flash of his fang.  “Though I kind of doubt he’ll be any help to me, at all.”

“I’ll keep an eye out in Asia,” Fai offered.  “Maybe you should call the others—give them the head’s up in case he surfaces somewhere outside of Europe.”

“Except you’re still on the outs with the Zelig, aren’t you?” Ketta asked, arching an eyebrow to emphasize her point.

Jude snorted, draining his glass in one long swallow.  “If Marcon shows up in his jurisdiction, then I’d suppose that it’d be his problem then.”

Drew rolled his eyes.  “Really, Jude?  Really?”

Jude shot him a dark look.  “Given that the Zelig’s mate is hanyou, and Marcon despises humans in general, North America is the last place he’d go.  Calling him wouldn’t be worth my time.”

The generals exchanged looks while Jude stood up to refill his drink.

“Sometimes I think he holds grudges just because he can,” Ketta murmured, leaning toward Fai, as though she were sharing a secret with him.  She reached out, carefully pulled a bit of lint off his jacket and dropped it on the floor before smoothing the spot a few times.

“I heard about that,” he replied just as quietly, opting to ignore her gesture.

She laughed.  It was a husky kind of sound, not at all unpleasant, but perhaps a little friendlier than he was comfortable with.  “The Zelig is a sore spot with him.  I imagine it will be for a while.  No one, and I do mean, no one, holds a grudge better than Jude . . .”

He opened his mouth to answer her, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw her: Saori, standing down on the beach by herself, staring out over the water.  Hair tossed in the breeze, her back straight, proud, and yet . . . Why did he have the feeling that she was upset?

No, not upset.  That wasn’t the right word.

But he wasn’t sure what, exactly, he meant, either . . .

 


 

 

Leaning against the balcony railing, Saori stared out over the city, shrugging her shoulders to adjust the cream colored shawl.  The early evening skies were deepening in color though the daylight had only just begun to soften.  She uttered a soft sigh, fiddling with the thin gold bracelet on her right wrist—one her father had given to her for her eighteenth birthday—just a simple chain.  The hem of the deep gold satin, spaghetti strap, slip dress barely brushed mid-thigh, flaring out around her hips just enough to add movement as it caught in the breeze, blowing out around her, only to drift back down again, over and over.  She’d chosen a color that was close to amber—a shade that reminded her of her mother’s eyes.

Fai was still changing for their planned evening to attend the People’s Theatre to see The Reckless Ones with a late dinner to follow.  Saori had considered, begging off, maybe telling Fai that she was just a little too tired, but in the end, she hadn’t done it.

Because you’re pouting.  That’s all it is.

I’m not,’ she argued, trying not to think about the thing that was really bothering her.  ‘I just . . . I mean, it’s not like . . . like he . . . he’s made any kind of promise or anything to me.  I . . . I don’t know why that bothered me so much . . .

You do know.  She was all over him, and you didn’t like that.  In fact, you really wanted to march in there and yank her off of that sofa . . .

She sighed, wincing at the deadly accuracy of her youkai’s words.  That really was her gut reaction to seeing Ketta Nash, almost sitting in Fai’s lap, watching her as she whispered in his ear, as she touched his chest . . .

And why wouldn’t she?  After all, Fai had introduced Saori as, ‘his assistant’ for the, ‘orphan placement project’ . . .

What did you want him to say?  That you sleep together at night, all curled up on him like some kind of weird parasite?  Come on, Saori . . .

She flinched inwardly.  ‘I . . . I know that’s what I am—his assistant.  And . . . And it’s not like he needs to say anything else, either.  I mean, if you look at Ketta next to me?  That’s . . . That’s like comparing apples to oranges.  She’s not just beautiful and accomplished, she’s got that same kind of confidence that women like kaa-chan or . . . or obaa-chan . . . or Kagome-oba-chan . . . That, well, all the women in the family have—but I don’t.  That’s . . . That’s fine, right?  Because everyone’s different, but . . .

Yeah, maybe you should call your mother.  This is about the time she’d give you one of your little pep-talks, and you’d feel all right again afterward . . .

Biting her bottom lip, Saori shook her head.  No, she didn’t think that it would do any good; not this time, anyway.  She was past the age where things like that worked.  At some point, she had to learn how to do that for herself.  It was just a little harder than she’d realized.

“Sorry it took so long,” Fai said as he stepped outside behind her.  “Yerik called before I could hop in the shower . . .”

She drew a deep, steadying breath before straightening her back, turning to face him.  “It’s fine,” she said, pasting on a bright smile as she stepped forward, past him, back into the common room.  “I’ll just grab my purse . . .”

Fai followed her inside and locked the door.  “Saori . . .”

“Hmm?” she murmured, checking the small purse for the things she might need: a little cash—enough for a cab, if it came to that—her lip gloss, a powder compact . . . a few tissues, a tiny bottle of hand lotion, a small tin of breath mints . . .

“You look . . . beautiful . . .”

She blinked, her chin snapping up, as though she were trying to make sure that he wasn’t teasing her.  The look on his face, the intensity in his gaze, convinced her that he wasn’t doing any such thing, and she couldn’t help the light blush that rose to her cheeks.

He sighed.  “All right.  Tell me what’s bothering you.”

She opened and closed her mouth a few times, quickly shook her head.  “N-Nothing,” she insisted, hoping that he’d drop it, that he wouldn’t press her for more.

He considered her answer, slowly nodded as he paced the floor, taking his time as he fiddled with his cufflinks, and as the silence stretched out between them, she couldn’t think of a thing to say to stop the awful degeneration.

“Do you remember what you said to me when you found out about that challenge?”

She blinked, shook her head.  She wasn’t sure where he was going with this . . . “Yes . . .”

“You told me not to worry you again.  Do you remember that?”

“Of course, I do, but—”

He stopped, met her gaze with a serious expression, a slight furrowing of his brows that drew his eyebrows in.  Unruly hair, hanging low over his forehead did nothing to hide the intensity in his eyes as he stared hard at her, as though he were daring her to lie.  “It goes both ways, you know.  You’re making me worry now, so whatever it is that’s bothering you, you need to tell me.  I can’t read your mind.”

“It’s nothing,” she insisted.  “It’s stupid, and . . . and I’m stupid for thinking about it.  It’s not like you . . . you owe me anything. You don’t, and I—”

“For starters, you’re not stupid, and I know that this has something to do with the whole thing at Jude’s estate . . .” he told her.  “You were fine before that.”

Wrapping her arms over her stomach, her purse smashed between her arms and her belly, Saori gave a little shrug.  “She’s . . . She’s very pretty,” she said, unable to speak much louder than a whisper—unable to look him in the eye.  “And she . . .” She winced.  “It was pretty obvious that she liked you, too . . .”

“Too?” he echoed, shaking his head, his surprise evident in his tone.  “Who?”

She couldn’t quite help the darkened scowl she shot him.  Just why he was making her spell it out was almost more than she could take.  “Nash-san,” she said in a much more even tone than she felt.

“Ketta?” he blurted before he could stop himself.  Then he barked out a terse laugh.  “I’m not interested in her.”

“She was practically on your lap,” she pointed out.

He snorted.  “What was I supposed to do?  Cause a scene by moving away from her?  Shove her over on the sofa?  I didn’t encourage her, if that’s what you mean.”

“I doubt you’d have to,” Saori grumbled.  “She was doing well enough without your help.”

He sighed.  “You have no reason to be jealous, you know.”

She narrowed her eyes on him, and he blinked.  “I’m not jealous, Your Grace.  I’m trying to be a good person—trying to encourage you to pursue her if you’re interested in her.”

He snorted again.  “Is that so?  Then I’d rather that you were jealous,” he growled back.  “And . . . and I forbid you to call me that, ever again.”

“Call you what?” she demanded.

He leveled a pointed look at her.  “Your Grace,” he bit out.

She rolled her eyes since that was, in fact, the proper way to address him, but she let that go, at least, for the moment.  “And why would you want me to be jealous?  Men hate jealous women!” she pointed out instead.

“Are you stereotyping me?”

“Maybe.”

“Well, you shouldn’t.  You also shouldn’t mistake politeness for anything else, either.”

“And you shouldn’t allow women you just met to practically sit on your lap, to touch your chest like they know you—Your Grace!” she ground out.

He grunted, but whether he was more agitated at the fact that she’d just used the form of address that he’d tried to forbid her from using or because of her words, she didn’t know.  “All right, I get your point.  It won’t happen again—And this whole discussion is another good reason why having a glass house is a colossally stupid idea.”

For some reason, his statement caught her off guard, and she giggled despite herself.

But her misplaced amusement seemed like a balm on him, and, while he didn’t laugh, he let out a deep breath—and smiled a little sheepishly.  “I’m not interested in her in the least,” he told her at length.  “I didn’t know how to get away from her without seeming rude—and when she asked if I’d meet with her for drinks, I told her that I couldn’t.”

Saori wrinkled her nose.  “She invited you out for drinks?”

Fai shook his head.  “She did, but, as I told you, I’m not even slightly interested in dating her.  Why would I when I . . . I mean, we . . .?” Letting out a deep breath, he shook his head.  “There’s something here . . . and I think you know it, too, don’t you?”

She blinked, her brain seeming to screech to a sudden stop right over a gully that extended down over a darkened pit that ended in nothingness, and the only thing that kept her, suspended over that chasm, was him—Fai . . . “Do . . . I?”

He stared at her for a long moment before closing the distance between them in a couple of steps.  Stopping before her, tilting her chin up with a crooked index finger, he arched an eyebrow as he gazed into her eyes.  “Yes,” he said, his voice dropping to a husky tone.  “I . . . I think you do . . .”

She grasped his wrist, but whether she was trying to push him back or hold him to her, she didn’t know—and didn’t care.  That electric sense of connection was magical, and somewhere in the back of her mind, a voice whispered, told her to remember this moment because that feeling was something she was lucky to have found, even as the tendrils of a heady sense of something wild and wanton unfurled deep inside her.  His eyes seemed to glow as he brought up his thumb, ran it over her lips with a feathery light touch.  His touch sent a shiver through her, and when he felt it, he smiled a gentle, sweet little smile, one that was enough to bring a stinging to her eyes, a tingling to her nose . . .

He let out a deep breath and let his hand fall away.  “We, um . . . We’d better get going if we’re going to make it to the theatre in time for the start of the show,” he said.  She heard the hint of regret in his voice, as though he had hated to end the moment as much as she’d hated for it to end, too.

But he stepped past her, held the door open for her.  She paused as she headed out of the room, long enough to reach up, to straighten his tie, and he chuckled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 30~~
~Russian Princess~

 

~o~

 

 

“Well, well, well . . . Welcome home, Saori.”

Breaking into a bright smile, Saori set her suitcase on the floor and darted over to hug Yerik, who was leaning against one of the ornate staircase newel post.  “Yerik-kun!  I missed you!”

The younger Demyanov chuckled.  “Yerik-kun?” he echoed, arching an eyebrow as he broke into a slight grin.  “That’s interesting . . . and I missed you, yes.  Not as much as Fai, but of course, I did.”

She giggled, pinking slightly as she managed to quell her exuberance.  Taking a step back, she scrunched up her shoulders in a little bob, giving him a happy little bow of her head as she remembered her manners a little late.  “Thank you!”

“Vasili, take Saori’s things to her room.  I’m sure she’d like to freshen up,” Fai commanded, striding past his brother, heading for his office.  “Yerik, brief me.”

Yerik rolled his eyes, but spared a moment to wink at Saori before heading off after his brother, leaving Saori to follow the stoic butler, who had already retrieved her suitcase.

“I can get that myself,” she said, hating the feeling that she was somehow inconveniencing the man.  To be honest, she wasn’t entirely sure, just what to make of Vasili, and she had to admit that she really wondered if he even liked her at all.  Somehow, she felt like maybe he didn’t, even though he didn’t really make any outward overtures to indicate as much.  Then again, maybe she was simply reading too much into it . . .

“It’s quite all right, my lady,” he replied.  His tone was brusque, but he didn’t seem entirely aloof, as he had before, either.

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble,” she insisted.  “Thank you.”

“No thanks necessary,” he assured her.  “On the contrary, it’s my job—my pride.”

She considered that and relaxed just a little.  “How long have you worked for Fai-sama?” she asked instead.  “I mean, you worked for his father, too, didn’t you?”

“And his grandfather,” Vasili said.  “My father worked for the family, all the way back to the days of the first Asian tai-youkai.  It’s been the honor of my family to care for the needs of the Demyanov family, and, God willing, we will continue to do so in the years to come.”

She sighed.  “I apologize if my family gave you any trouble,” she said, thinking back to the impromptu rescue party—and wondering if her grandfather and father had behaved themselves when they were here, too.

“I assure you, it was an experience I will never forget, meeting not only the Inu no Taisho as well as the hanyou of legend.”

She grimaced since she wasn’t entirely sure that his words could or should be taken at face value.  “Ji-chan tends to get a little impatient,” she admitted.

To her surprise, Vasili chuckled.  It was the first real crack she’d ever seen in his otherwise stony façade.  “Most people can only dream of having seen the legendary sword, Tetsusaiga.  I, on the other hand, can attest to having not only seen it, but to have seen it brandished in glorious form.”

Pressing her lips together so that she wouldn’t burst out in a giggle, Saori nodded, but she bit her lip when he opened the door that led to the antechamber.  She’d noticed before that this room setup was different than the other bedrooms in the castle.  It almost felt more like a hotel room suite—a good sized space with a comfortable sitting area in the center with a large television, mounted on a wall.  On the one side by the door that led to Fai’s room, there were a few massive bookshelves, some with books, some with various knickknacks and collectables arranged on the shelves.  On the other side of the room near another door exactly like Fai’s stood a huge stone fireplace.  Before that was a low, square table that almost reminded Saori of a kotatsu with a bunch of colorful pillows arranged around it.

Vasili, however, didn’t stop, leading the way to the other door, and he opened it and stepped back, allowing her to slip past the butler into a very pretty, very feminine room.  Decorated in varying shades of dusty rose, in miles of antique cream-colored lace, even the furnishings were far more delicate, daintier, than she’d seen anywhere else in the castle.

“This was her room,” he ventured.  “His Grace’s mother, Faina . . . Of course, Her Grace and His Grace Alexei had shared the master chamber, but this room was her sanctuary.  Oftentimes, when he was away on business, she would stay in this room instead . . . If it doesn’t please you, do let me know.  These were her favorite colors, but if you prefer otherwise, I’ll be more than happy to make certain that it suits you . . .”

She wasn’t sure why the idea that she was being given Fai’s mother’s room surprised her—and bothered her.  The assumption of intimacy was loud and clear, and for a girl who didn’t have that much experience with men in general, she couldn’t help the overwhelming sense of shyness that crashed down on her hard.

“Should I . . .?  Should I be in here?” she couldn’t help but ask, biting her bottom lip as she shifted uncomfortably.

The old butler looked surprised for a moment before he managed to mask the emotion behind the blank expression he tended to favor.  “When I spoke to His Grace on the phone, he asked me to see that this room was readied for you, so yes, this is where you should be—unless you wish otherwise?”

“He . . . He did?”

Vasili smiled.  The expression brightened his gaze, softened the edges of his rigid stance.  “If I may say so?  In all my time, serving His Grace, I have never seen him go out of his way for anyone, save Master Yerik—no one but you.  It is my honor to serve you, too.  Is there anything else you require?”

For some reason, Vasili’s statement made her unaccountably happy, and she finally relaxed.  “No . . . I . . . Vasili?  Thank you . . .”

He looked genuinely surprised, and he shook his head.  “My lady?”

She shrugged.  “For being kind to me,” she replied simply.

To her surprise, the man actually blushed the tiniest bit.  Then he made a low bow and let himself out of her room after telling her that he would send someone named Marta—a maid—up in short order he help her get settled in.

 


 

 

“Saori seems very happy,” Yerik remarked as he closed the office door behind them.  “Are you?”

Fai glanced at his brother, arching an eyebrow while Yerik wandered over to pour two glasses of vodka.  “I’m behind; that’s what I am,” he replied dryly, reaching for the stack of mail, arranged neatly on his desk.

“You’re not,” Yerik challenged mildly.  “Vasili sent you the important things that needed immediate attention.  You just hate the idea that you were able to take an impromptu vacation and Asia didn’t fall to pieces while you were gone.”

“Shut up, Yerik,” he grumbled, taking the drink his brother offered to him.

Yerik chuckled, tipping his glass to his lips.  “You had Saori installed in Mother’s room,” he mused.

“Is it a problem?”

Yerik shook his head, and his smile widened.  “Not at all.  I’m . . . I’m glad for you.”

“Except you don’t sound like you are,” Fai pointed out, draining his glass in one fluid gulp.

“No, I am,” he insisted.  “I was just thinking that it’s the first time I’ve ever known you to do anything, just for yourself.  That’s all.  You should do things like that more often.”

Fai grunted, setting the empty glass down with a heavy thud as he sank down in the chair behind the desk and leaned back.  “Your hunt?” he prompted, opting to ignore the subject at hand.

Yerik’s smile didn’t fade, but he nodded.  “Laquan was able to tell me where Qiang was staying.  It was simple, actually—a little anticlimactic, really.  For someone who was said to have bragged often about the number of humans he’d killed, he went down without much of a fight, which was a little disappointing.  I mean, I assume that’s why he targeted humans.  They were the only creatures on earth who were weaker than he was.”

Nodding slowly, processing the disgust in Yerik’s tone for what it was, Fai figured he could understand his brother’s sentiments well enough.  He’d often thought over the years that the youkai who targeted humans tended to be a cowardly lot, too—targeting beings who were weaker, just like Yerik had said.  It took a particular kind of despicable, in his opinion.

“Good job, hunter,” Fai said.

Yerik sighed as he settled into his chair a little deeper.  “There was something I wanted to talk to you about . . .”

“What’s that?”

Yerik shrugged in a rather offhanded kind of way.  “I heard rumors of a man in Japan named Togareshi,” he went on.  “Said to be an old sword master in the kendo style.  Would you be all right with me, inviting him here?”

“You trained under Master Ling, just like I did,” Fai reminded him.  Master Ling had taught them both the Taijijian martial arts as well as the sword arts that went with the training.  “He’s the best there is.”

Yerik nodded.  “He is, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to broaden my experience, either.”

Fai frowned.  “Did you have trouble you didn’t tell me about?”

“No,” Yerik replied.  “I just think it’s a good idea to keep progressing, to keep learning.  That’s all.”

Fai nodded slowly.  “If that’s what you want to do,” he allowed.

Yerik hauled himself to his feet, grabbing Fai’s empty glass before heading over to refill both of them again.  “You know, if I could, I’d ask Saori’s uncle to come here and give me a few lessons,” he ventured.  “I mean, he’s legendary . . .”

Fai grunted since he wasn’t nearly as impressed with the skills he’d seen as Yerik seemed to be.  “Spending weeks, repairing things around the castle, all because her uncle can’t be bothered to knock on a door?  No, thank you.”

Yerik chuckled.  “He was worried about Saori, that’s all.  You can’t fault him for that.”

Fai snorted loudly.  Given that the headache of the workmen that had invaded his home still loomed large in his mind, he could and he did fault him for it, even if he had to admit, at least to himself, that the damage that he’d single-handedly wrought was fairly impressive . . .

“Vasili said that it was a sight to behold,” he went on, entirely missing Fai’s obvious irritation.  “I wish I had seen it . . .”

“Keep wishing,” Fai grumbled.

“They say he defeated Naraku, almost single-handedly!  What kinds of stories has Saori told you?”

“None—not about him, anyway,” Fai said.  “If you want to know, why don’t you go find her and bug her about it?”

Yerik blinked, turning his head to stare at his brother for a long moment, before resuming his task of sloshing vodka into the glasses.  “You sound a little put upon, Fai . . . Why is that?”

“I’m not,” Fai lied.  “Any other business you need to fill me in on?”

Yerik chuckled.  “Not really, but then, I just got back last night myself.”

“I see.”

“Anyway, I’ll get my official report for you tomorrow, if that’s all right,” Yerik went on, setting the refilled glass on Fai’s desk before he sank into a chair across from him once more.  “It was a little sad, if you want the truth,” he went on, a pensive sort of frown drawing his brows together as he scowled at the glass in his hand.  “Kept saying, over and over, he had a mate, didn’t want her to die . . . and it made me wonder: did any of those humans he killed have families?  Did they beg for their lives, too?”

Fai grimaced.  He’d heard those things, too, hadn’t he?  Over time and often enough that he’d learned quickly to harden himself against those pleas . . . “Don’t dwell on it, Yerik.  He made his choices long ago . . . Even if we wanted to pick and choose, we cannot.”

“I know,” he replied quietly.  Something about the way he continued to stare at the cup in his hand, though . . . “I realize that it wasn’t more than a last effort to sway me, and I don’t feel sorry for what I did—what I had to do . . . Even so, I can’t say that I don’t feel sorry for his mate . . . I mean, it’s not my job as a hunter to go find her, to tell her that her mate is gone, right?  But . . . But I have to wonder if someone should do it.  How fair is it to her when, as far as we know, she hasn’t done anything to warrant our complete apathy . . .?”

“I’ve . . . I’ve wondered that, too . . .”

Fai scowled as he lifted his gaze, only to spot Saori, lingering in the doorway.  She seemed reluctant to enter, and yet, the expression on her face was troubled, thoughtful.  Without another word, she slipped into the office, closed the door quietly, before shuffling across the floor and slipping into the chair beside Yerik.  “Sometimes, I’ve overheard discussions—probably that I wasn’t meant to hear—where they were talking about hunts and stuff, and . . . and I’ve always wondered, just what happens to those mates that were left at home?”  Giving a little shrug, almost a helpless kind of shrug, she shook her head.  “I know what happens to them in the end, sure, but . . . but I wondered before, how would that feel?  To sit there, day after day, and you know in your heart that something’s not right, but you’d hope, wouldn’t you?  If it were me . . . I think I’d still sit there, right up until the end, and I’d hope, and I’d pray, and I’d wait . . .”

Fai sighed.  “What do you want me to do, Saori?  Go and find every potential mate for someone who has had to pay for crimes they’ve committed?  Should I make that a common thing, for a hunter to have to do that, too?”

“No, of course not,” she insisted quietly.  “I’m just saying that it seems a little . . . a little heartbreaking for the ones left behind—that unknowing, that feeling that will stay with them until the end . . .”

Yerik nodded.  “There are no good answers for it, I guess,” he admitted.  “On the one hand, it does feel unfair, and yet, on the other, there really is no one to blame but the one who committed the crimes.  After all, it’s not like you issue a hunt unless it’s warranted.”

But the hell of it was, Fai could understand and appreciate exactly what both Yerik and Saori were saying.  He’d even thought about those same things, too.  His thoughts, however, usually ended up in the realm of anger—anger and disgust that someone would put someone else in that precarious of a situation, having no regard for their lives, at all.  Where were their thoughts when they’d decided to do the things they’d done?  In his considered estimation, they’d made their choice—they’d opted to condemn those whom they professed to love—with their own actions, and as cruel and cold as that sounded, it was the honest truth, too.

“You’re thinking pragmatic thoughts again, aren’t you, Fai?” Yerik remarked dryly.

Blinking away the lingering things that he couldn’t quite put away, Fai rolled his eyes.  “I’m just thinking that the two of you can give it some thought and figure out if there’s a better way to go about it,” he said instead.  “If you want to be assigned the task of hunting down the next of kin for everyone you hunt, then do let me know, Yerik,” he said.

Yerik grimaced, not that Fai could blame him.  After all, the very idea of having to deal with an unpredictable mate after just having to hunt their loved one?  No, Fai didn’t figure that Yerik wanted any part of that, either.

Letting out a deep breath, Yerik stood up.  “I’m a hunter, not a grief counselor,” he grumbled under his breath.  “And I’m exhausted, so if you have no more need of me, I’m going to go get some much-needed rest.”

“You do that,” Fai called after him.  “Don’t forget your report.”

Yerik lifted a hand to indicate that he’d heard him without deviating from his path as he headed for the door.

“I understand why things are done the way they’re done,” Saori said into the quiet that lingered in the wake of Yerik’s departure.  “I . . . I shouldn’t have said anything . . .”

“You know, I want you to speak your mind,” Fai remarked.  “And for the record, I do understand what the two of you were getting at—and I agree with you, too, at least, in theory.  The thing is, I don’t really believe that doing things differently would make that much of a difference.  People react to things in a million ways, so for every one person who might welcome the knowledge, even if it’s bad, there are others who may not want to be confronted with that kind of truth.”

“I suppose,” she said, but she still sounded dubious.  Pulling her feet up in front of her, propping her heels on the edge of the seat, her toes, wiggling in the confines of the pink socks on her feet.  There was something overwhelmingly cute about the pink sweats she wore, the gray and pink oversized sweatshirt . . . She reminded him of a child, playing in her father’s oversized clothing . . . Folding her hands atop of her knees, she propped her chin on her fingers and sighed.  “It’s still just sad to me . . .”

“Because you grew up on the fringes of the tai-youkai’s circle,” he concluded.  “You have an interesting point of view on things that many others haven’t ever stopped to consider.”

“Maybe . . . but even if I do, I really haven’t talked about it much.  I mean, it was always stuff that the men discussed behind the closed office doors while the women visited and laughed and played with the children . . .”

“Sounds entirely sexist,” he remarked, arching an eyebrow in such a way that it made her laugh.

“Not really,” she said.  “I mean, maybe, sort of . . . but then, it wasn’t like any of the women really showed any interest in sitting in on those meetings, either . . .”

“It can get pretty unpleasant, depending on what you’re discussing,” he mused.  “Can’t say I blame them for wanting to spare you women from the gory details.”

She let out a deep breath, but she did finally smile at him.  “I suppose you’re working again?” she mused, nodding at the stack of correspondence on his desk that he had yet to touch.  “I took a shower, and I meant to lie down a bit, but after that, I got my second wind, I guess you could say . . . so, I was wondering if you had the numbers of the other tai-youkai offices so that I could go ahead and call them?  See if there’s any interest in any of our children?”

“Oh, uh, sure,” he replied, digging around in one of the drawers to find his phone book.  “Here you go.  Let me know what they tell you.”

“I will,” she replied, flashing him a brilliant smile as she untangled her legs and leaned forward to retrieve the leather-bound book.  “I’ll update you over dinner—would that be all right?”

He chuckled.  “That’ll be fine, Saori.”

She nodded as she stood up and hurried out of the room, too.

Fai smiled as he watched her go, but that smile faded shortly after the door closed behind her.  Glancing at the clock, he slowly shook his head.  It was only noon now, which meant that dinner was hours away, and, unfortunately, he couldn’t think of a single reason why he should put off the work that was waiting for his attention.

Sometimes, he really hated his job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 31~~
~Partners in Crime~

 

~o~

 

 

“Hello, my name is Saori Senkuro, and I’m calling on behalf of the Asian tai-youkai’s office.  We are looking to place some of our orphans, and I wondered if there was any interest in your jurisdiction?”

“The Demyanov bid you call?” Eduardo St. George asked, his voice a very deep rumble, the sound of his very lyrical accent, almost enough to distract her—almost.  She’d heard her mother refer to him as the sex-bomb of the tai-youkai, and Saori pressed her lips together to keep from giggling outright since she also remembered well enough that her father wasn’t nearly as amused by Aiko’s observation of the man in question.  “Is there a certain child he is looking to place?”

Clearing her throat, thinking to herself that she was certainly glad that he couldn’t see her face or read her mind, given her wayward thoughts, Saori forced herself to focus on the topic at hand.  “Well, we have a number of them, actually, of varying ages and both boys as well as girls.  We have some difficulty in placing them here, so for the good of the children, Fai-sama asked me to see if any of the other jurisdictions had anyone seeking to adopt.”

“Sama?  You’re Japanese . . . Oh, wait, are you Aiko Senkuro’s relation?”

“She’s my mother,” Saori said.

St. George chuckled.  It was soft, breathy, almost a caress of a laugh, and even over the phone, she could feel the warmth of it as well as if she would have, had she been standing right there, talking to him in person.  “Ah, I see . . . and you’re working for the Demyanov, I take it.”

“That’s right,” she replied brightly, pressing a cool hand against her forehead, bemused when she realized that her skin was much warmer than it ought to have been.

He didn’t notice her preoccupation—thank kami . . . “Hmm . . . As it happens, I do have a few couples, looking to adopt, but I know that at least one of them is looking for an infant—preferably one that is closer to the parents in deviation.  They’re both eel-youkai, so they’re hoping to find some sort of aquatic child.”

She considered that and bit her lip as she shifted through the pile of biographies laid out on the table before her.  The home did have one—a seven-month-old boy—a moray-eel-youkai . . . “We actually do have one little boy: seven months old, a moray-eel . . .”

“Is that right?” St. George said.  “Good, good . . . Can you send me information on this child?  I’ll check with the others that I know are looking.  There’s a chance they may be willing to take an older child . . . We don’t tend to have very many children available for adoption in this jurisdiction—few enough that the demand can outweigh the need.  Feel free to send me information on all your children, if you wish.  I would be more than happy to call around—see if there are more families who would be interested.”

“That would be wonderful,” she agreed.  “I’ll include my information so that you can contact me . . . I’d be happy to provide any information you need.”

“Absolutely.  I look forward to working with you,” he said.

The connection ended, and Saori flopped back against the high-backed chair with a heavy sigh.

Glancing up from his tasks, Fai arched an eyebrow at her.  “Why do you look like you just had a bomb dropped on you?” he asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

That man’s voice is something like melted butter . . .’ her youkai-voice remarked.

Oh . . . Oh, yes . . .

“Saori?”

“Hmm?”

Dropping the ink pen in his hand with a loud clatter, he sat back, folding his arms over his chest as he stared at her.  “Saori?”

“Y-Yes?” she stammered, unaccountably flustered as she sat up straight, tried to brush off the odd feelings of bemusement that lingered.

Fai snorted indelicately.  “You talked to St. George, didn’t you?”

“Wha—? Oh, um, uh-huh . . .”

Rolling his eyes, shaking his head, Fai looked even more irritated than he had before.  “Unbelievable.  I mean, in person, okay, but over the phone?”  He snorted again—louder this time.  “From now on, I’ll deal with him,” he stated.  “Don’t even think about—I’ll talk to him if he calls back.”

Saori’s mouth dropped open as she quickly shook her head.  “This is my job, Fai-sama,” she reminded him.  “You hired me for it, and—”

“—And Eduardo’s mother was rumored to be a siren, which I tend to think is true, given that I’ve seen what happens to entirely logical women—actually, men, too—around him, so if he calls back, don’t you dare answer your phone,” he commanded.

She burst into laughter, waving her hands as his expression grew darker.  “There’s no such thing as a siren!” she scoffed.  “That’s just a silly old tale!”

“Actually, it’s not,” he grumbled.  “Stop laughing; I’m serious.”

“But—But . . .”

Fai grunted.  “I’ve heard tale of it before.  There’s a group of youkai that live in the Pacific in one specific area.  Some call them mermaids.  Humans think they’re manatees.  They’re not.  They’re sirens, and they normally stay far, far away from everyone else.  Anyway, what I heard was that Eduardo’s father was on a ship that capsized, that she found him and, against her tribe’s wishes, bore him to land.  She fell in love with him and decided to live with him, but she rarely showed herself to anyone other than her mate, that she was afraid of what would happen if she tried to venture out in public.”

“Hmm . . .” Saori mused, “maybe I should go and look for more of them . . .”

“Don’t you dare,” he grumbled.

She blinked, stared at him for a long moment.  “Fai-sama?”

“What?” he growled, snatching up his pen once more, trying to focus on the papers he was looking over.

“Why are you upset?”

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

“Hardly.  Awfully fickle, aren’t you?  Go around, kissing me, saying you want to . . . to sleep in my bed, and then deciding you need to go looking for a siren, just because you talked to the son of one of them on the phone . . .”

She giggled.  “I was teasing,” she insisted, hopping up out of her chair and rounding the desk.  When she tried to hug him, he shrugged his shoulders to warn her off, and that only made her laugh more.  “Just call it morbid fascination.”

That didn’t pacify him in the least as he lifted his bent arm to hold her at a distance.  “Go back over there, will you?  I’m busy.”

She sat on the corner of the desk.  He smacked her knee with the back of his hand, which only made her giggle once more, and that, in turn, drew a deep sigh from the Asian tai-youkai.  “Do you have a picture of him?” she asked in a very neutral tone of voice—she thought.

She could feel his gaze on her, even though he hadn’t turned his head.  “Of Eduardo St. George?  No.  No, I don’t, and even if I did, I don’t think I’d show you.”

“He sounds like the tall, dark, and handsome type . . .”

“Why are you interested?” he challenged.

“I’m not interested—I’m curious, that’s all.”

He snorted yet again, shaking his head as he made a blatant show of trying to work.  “Curiosity killed the cat.”

“Then it’s a good thing that I’m a dog, huh?”

“I’m trying to work,” he told her.

Saori rolled her eyes and dug out her cell phone.

“What are you doing?”

“What?  Me?  What am I doing?  Nothing.”

Fai snorted, his hand flashing out to yank her phone out of her hand.  “You’re googling him!” he growled.  “Really?  You know, don’t you?  He’s married anyway.”

“Then there’s no harm in seeing what he looks like,” Saori insisted, reaching over to retrieve her phone.  Fai shot her a baleful look as he dropped the device into his pocket.  “Oh, come on!  Give that back!”

“Only if you swear you’re not going to try to google him,” Fai shot back.

She wrinkled her nose. “Kaa-chan said that he’s a sex-bomb.”

“Yep, not helping you get your phone back any time soon,” Fai maintained.

She tried to take a swipe at his pocket, but he turned his body to the side, neatly avoiding her grabby hand.  “But it’s my phone, and you told kaa-chan you wouldn’t try to keep me from talking to her—remember?”

His tone was a lot more tolerant than the expression on his face would otherwise suggest.  “I’m not keeping you from talking to her.  I’m keeping you from unnecessarily googling Eduardo St. George.”

“But—”

“Forget it, Saori.  You’re already the equivalent of the Russian princess of the bad ideas.  The last thing you need is any kind of encouragement.”

She smiled.  “I’m a Russian princess?”

“Nope, I said you’re the equivalent of.  Huge difference.  Huge.”

She giggled once more, swiping at his pocket again, and missing again, too.

“I’m, uh, not interrupting, am I?”

Glancing over her shoulder as Yerik leaned into the office, Saori wiggled her fingers pleasantly.

“Good,” Fai said, standing up so abruptly that his chair slid back a few feet.  Then he grabbed Saori’s hand and pretty much dragged her over to his brother before shoving her against Yerik’s chest.  “Distract her, will you?” he ordered.

Yerik blinked but grasped Saori’s shoulders.  “Okay . . . What am I distracting her from?”

Fai grunted as he turned on his heel and stalked back over to his desk once more.  “Herself.”

Saori giggled as Yerik slowly shook his head, but steered her out of the room.  “Dare I ask what you did to get Fai so out of sorts?” he asked in the hallway, letting his hands drop away from her shoulders.

Saori grinned up at him.  “I talked to St. George-sama, and Fai-sama mentioned that he’s part siren . . .”

“Siren?  I don’t think . . . Well, I guess it’s possible.  I mean, it would explain a few things . . .”

“Things like what?”

Yerik shrugged.  “He came to visit a couple years ago—wanted to buy some vodka, if I remember right . . . Fai mentioned that all the women in the castle were acting all weird, trying to be the one to do things for him, almost coming to blows over simple tasks, like straightening his room . . .”

Saori nodded.  “Probably because his voice is dripping with melted butter . . .”

Yerik chuckled.  “Interesting way to put it.”

“Anyway, I just wanted to know what he looks like, and Fai-sama didn’t want me to google him . . .”

“I’ll bet he didn’t.  That aside, I thought you liked Fai well enough.  I mean, you did kiss him,” Yerik replied.

The blush at that reminder was instant and excruciating as the blood rushed violently to her skin.  “I . . . I do like him,” she admitted, biting her lip, her gaze dropping to the floor.  “I don’t know why St. George-sama was so fascinating, not really . . .”

Yerik considered that, and then he nodded.  “I’ll buy that.  Even so, that had to be hell on his ego, don’t you think?”

She made a face.  “I wasn’t trying to do that . . . I was just surprised; that’s all.”  Turning to stare at the office door, she frowned.  “I should go apologize.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll live,” Yerik said.  “Besides, he told me to distract you.”

Saori sighed melodramatically.  “So, how are you going to do that?”

Before Yerik could answer, Vasili strode down the hallway toward them.  “My lord, pardon the interruption, but I wondered if you would be so kind as to hand over your bedroom key.”

Yerik stared at the butler for a moment before digging the key out of his pocket.  “You know, you really don’t have to straighten up my room.”

“It’s my job, my lord,” he replied.

“Except I can’t ever find things when you put them away,” Yerik countered.

“If I may say so, if you’d put your things away yourself, then it wouldn’t be an issue,” Vasili remarked.

Yerik rolled his eyes as the butler strode away.  Saori pinned Yerik with a questioning look, and Yerik made a face.  “He’s been like that since I was a child,” he said.  “Vasili has a very low tolerance for disorder.”

Her lips twitched.  “So, you lock him out of your room?”

To her amusement, Yerik blushed just a little.  “Sometimes,” he admitted.  “You know, I’ve often thought that he’d loosen up if he got laid.”

His bald statement was enough to make her blush, but she laughed.  “Well, if he had something else to distract him, then I guess he wouldn’t be as concerned with your room . . .”

“Nah, what he needs is for someone to jerk the stick out of his butt, if you ask me.”

Saori giggled.  “That sounds so wrong . . .”

Yerik shrugged.  “The truth usually is.”  Suddenly, he stopped, stared at her, a strange sort of expression brightening his gaze.  “Saori . . . How good are you at things like . . . practical jokes . . .?”

“Practical jokes?  I . . . I can’t say I’ve tried to pull them much,” she admitted.  “But if you tell me what to do, I could try to help . . .”

A rather calculating light filled Yerik’s eyes as he stared in the direction of the butler who had long since disappeared from view.  Then he chuckled, grabbing Saori’s hand and pulling her along behind him . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 32~~
~Quiet~

 

~o~

 

 

Saori yawned and opened her eyes, arching her back as she stretched her arms over her head, hands balled into fists as she savored the feeling of absolute comfort that cosseted her while she slowly climbed up through the gossamer layers of sleep that faded deliciously slowly.

She was alone in the bed, but still surrounded by Fai’s scent, and she smiled to herself as she rolled over, as she started to close her eyes, only to blink, to giggle softly when she spotted Fai, casually leaning against the tall, thick post at the foot of the bed, arms crossed over his chest, an inscrutable kind of expression on his face.  “Morning,” she breathed, moments before a wide yawn interrupted.

“Hmm,” he intoned.  “Sleep well, did you?”

“Mhmm,” she murmured, digging her arms up under her pillow, letting her eyes drift closed since the bed was far more comfortable than it ought to have been.

“Good, good,” he replied.  “Going back to sleep?”

“Mhmm . . .”

“Oh, then I suppose I shouldn’t disturb you, should I?”

She lifted a hand, fluttered her fingers rather vaguely in his general direction before stuffing them up under the pillow once more.

“Saori?”

“Hmm?”

“. . . What did you do yesterday afternoon with Yerik while I was working?”

That question was enough to make her eyes flash wide open, and she went still, biting her lip as she wondered if she pretended to be asleep, if he would buy into it.

He sighed.  “Saori, I know you’re not sleeping,” he pointed out.

Giving up with a heavy sigh, she rolled over and sat up, clasping her hands together in her lap as she waited for the proverbial gauntlet to fall.

Satisfied that he’d gained her full attention, Fai sighed and very deliberately shook his head.  “What did the two of you do to Vasili?”

“V-Vasili?” she echoed, trying her level best to look entirely innocent of whatever it was Fai seemed to suspect.

He wasn’t falling for it.  “Yes, Saori—Vasili.  What did you do to that old man?”

“Well, I didn’t actually do anything, Fai-sama,” she protested, straightening her back, lifting her chin a notch.

“Are you going to blame the whole thing on Yerik?” he countered, raising an eyebrow again as he slowly shook his head.

“He did say that Vasili needed to get laid,” she pointed out reasonably.

Fai’s nostrils flared, but to his credit, he didn’t burst out in laughter, either.  “Something I don’t even want to think about,” he muttered instead.  “Saori . . . Vasili is an old and very respected member of this household.  The two of you very nearly gave him a heart attack this morning, when he turned on the television, only to see Janette Jugs and Juan Hugejuan, going at it in brilliant technicolor.”

Her lips twitched.  “You . . . knew their names, Fai-sama?” she asked as innocently as she could.

He snorted.  Loudly.  Shouldering himself away from the bed post he looked like he was struggling to hold onto his composure.  “Vasili told me, and no, I didn’t ask him how he knew their names, either.”

“You know, I tried to watch it yesterday, but I couldn’t get through the first five minutes,” she admitted.  “I mean, I tried, but—”

“You’re hurting my brain, Saori,” he interrupted, rubbing at his temples as he paced the length of the floor and back again.

“Yerik said that Vasili might loosen up if he got laid, so we thought that maybe, you know, a little, um . . . self-gratification?  That maybe it’d do the trick for him . . .”

Fai sighed.  “Saori . . . Let me explain this to you.  Vasili is old—very old.  He’s so old, in fact, that he might well have a heart condition or something that I don’t know about, and if you harass him in such a way, there’s a good chance that he could keel over, dead, and then you’d feel bad about that, wouldn’t you?”

She wrinkled her nose.  “He’s not that old,” she insisted.  “Ojii-chan is older than Vasili, and I don’t think it’s possible for a youkai to have a heart issue, hidden or otherwise.”

“You never know,” Fai insisted.  “Anyway, I want your word that you won’t ever, ever do something like that to him again.”

Saori rolled her eyes.  Then she giggled.  “Okay,” she agreed easily enough.  “But . . . did he look surprised?”

“Surprised isn’t exactly how I’d describe it,” Fai grouched.  “No more porn on the house television network.”

“Okay,” she said, flopping back into the softness of the bed.  “You know, though . . .”

Satisfied that she wasn’t going to continue to try to give poor Vasili a heart attack after all, Fai let out a deep breath and slowly sat down on the edge of the bed beside her.  “What’s that?”

“They were fake, weren’t they?” she blurted, cheeks pinking despite her desire to ask the question on her mind.

“What were?”

She wrinkled her nose.  “Her . . . Her breasts,” she forced herself to say.  “I mean, they had to be, didn’t they?  It’s not normal for those to be that big . . .”

Fai didn’t answer right away.  Coughing delicately into his balled-up fist, he cleared his throat.  “They . . . They come in all shapes and sizes, so I’d guess that they could have . . . have been natural,” he mused.  “Then again, in her case?  I can’t say for sure, no . . .”

She snorted, trying to burrow her face a little deeper into the pillow, stubbornly keeping her eyes closed.  “Do . . . Do men . . . prefer . . . breasts that big . . .?”

“We—I—That is to say, I’m not—N-Not all men, no,” he finally said.

She cracked one eye open, only to blink when she saw the ruddiness in his cheeks, even though he was staring off to the side, his expression distinctly uncomfortable.  “And . . . you . . .?”

“Me?” he blurted.  “Oh, uh . . . I-I-I don’t think . . . I mean, I don’t really have a . . . a preference . . .”

“You don’t?”

He sighed.  “Saori, can we drop it?”

She giggled, which might have had a lot to do with his obvious discomfort with the present topic at hand.  “Sorry,” she said, sounding anything but.  “Fai-sama?”

She heard him stifle a groan.  “Yes?”

Biting her lip, she leaned up on her elbow.  “That guy in that video . . . He was . . . well, really big, you know, down there . . . Is that . . . normal?”

Shifting his gaze to the side—he didn’t turn his head—he looked like he was about to tell her that he didn’t want to talk about it.

She shrugged.  “I can’t help it.  I just . . . I can’t say I’ve seen many men like that . . . none, actually . . .”

He stared at her for a long second before slowly shaking his head.  “Like women, Saori . . . All . . . All different sizes.  Can’t say that I saw his penis, so . . .” He made a face.  “Anyway, I’m sure that he was neither the biggest guy, nor was he likely the smallest, either.”

He must have seen the wheels of her mind, turning, and he reached out with a sigh, covering her mouth with his hand as he deftly shook his head.  “Enough about that,” he told her.  “Now, either go back to sleep or get up, but we’re not talking about porn anymore.”  That said, he stood up and strode out of the room, and he didn’t look back at her, even when she erupted in a swell of giggles when the door closed behind him.

 


 

 

“Get your sword up, or I’ll hack you to bits,” Fai called, blocking Yerik’s attack with the side of his sword.  “What’s the matter?  Did you sleep in too late this morning?”

“Considering you were in my room, waking me up at the crack of dawn?  Hardly,” Yerik scoffed, flicking his wrist, spinning his blade with a deft motion.  “Is this your idea of punishment for the porn on the television this morning?”

“That would be entirely petty, don’t you think?” Fai countered, raining down a series of light taps that Yerik neatly blocked.  “By the way, Vasili wasn’t impressed.”

Yerik grinned.  “Saori made me do it.”

Fai rolled his eyes.  “Somehow, I doubt that,” he said, grimacing when Yerik caught the guard and very nearly succeeded in disarming him.  With a neat flick of his wrist, he unblocked the sword and caught it in his left hand without missing a beat.  “You’d really blame it all on her?”

“I figure you’d be more lenient with her,” he quipped.  “She’s cuter than I am, right?”

“Absolutely,” Fai shot back.  Dropping his sword into the scabbard on his hip, he caught a couple of the bow staffs on the nearby weapon rack and kicked them into the air.  He caught one in each hand and tossed one to his brother, who had just sheathed his own sword, too.  “She blamed you, by the way.”

Yerik chuckled.  “Did she?”

“And I’m inclined to believe her over you.  Leave that old man alone, Yerik.”

“All right; all right,” he relented despite the lingering amusement evident in his tone.  Then he cleared his throat.  “You know, they say that her uncle is the undisputed master of the halberd,” Yerik said as the two smacked the poles against each other, trying to disarm only.  “Honestly, I’d love to see her family’s skills, first hand.”

Fai gritted his teeth as Yerik managed to smash his fingers between the pole on a well-placed tap.  “I’ll ask if he gives seminars,” Fai said.

Yerik chuckled.  “If only it were that simple . . .”

“Oji-chan is very talented,” Saori remarked, using her hands to heft herself onto the wide stone fence nearby.  “He doesn’t really like fighting, but he can easily hold his own.”

“And your grandfather?” Yerik said, sounding a little distracted since the majority of his focus was on parrying Fai’s attacks.

Fai blocked neatly when Yerik tried to spin around, to catch him off-guard.  He’d learned long ago that, with poles, it was best to avoid any hits.  After all, even though the poles were blunt didn’t mean that being hit by one of them didn’t hurt—a lot . . .

“Ojii-chan?  What about him?”

“Is he really as tough as they say?” Yerik asked.

Saori laughed.  “Well, he is Inu no Taisho . . . What do you think?”

“I can’t decide who I’d rather see in action: Sesshoumaru or InuYasha . . .”

Fai rapped Yerik on the knuckles, drawing a sharp breath from the younger Demyanov—a reminder that he needed to pay attention, Fai figured.  “Talk later, Yerik.  You’re losing focus.”

Yerik shoved against the staff, the wooden weapons groaning under the pressure.  Using the pole, he pushed off, flipped backward, landing neatly on his feet in a crouch as he spun around, kicking out at the same time, the staff whistling in the air.  Fai managed to hop back, out of the way just in time to avoid the weapon that he knocked away.

It flew out of Yerik’s grip, end over end until it clattered harmlessly to the ground.  Yerik stood up slowly, grinning widely at Fai.  “You win,” he said, conceding the match.

“That’s it?  You’re giving up that fast?” Saori blurted, sounding irritated enough by it that Fai glanced at her, only to do a double take at the pronounced frown on her face.  “How can you possibly be a hunter if you’re giving up so easily?”

Yerik blinked, looking almost as surprised as Fai was.  Holding up his hands, he shook his head.  “We were sparring to disarm,” he told her.  “Fai did, so he won.”

Saori snorted.  “Yes, but you were careless.  That’s why he was able to do that.  You can’t just swing that staff and think that you’re going to be able to keep a hold of it if he were to counter you, which he did.  It’s your job to make sure you always know exactly where your opponent’s weapon is at all times!  If you had, then you would have been able to easily counter him instead of losing to a simple flick of the wrist!”

Covering his mouth as he controlled the urge to laugh outright at the absolute shock on Yerik’s face, Fai watched in silence as Saori hopped off the wall and stomped over to retrieve the lost staff.  “If you had paid attention to what he was doing—to where he was—while understanding exactly what his reach is with his staff, you could have easily flicked yours upward at the end, which would have blocked him.  If you had given yours a little turn—” She demonstrated.  “—you would have disarmed him, instead.”  Then she thrust the staff into Yerik’s hand and stomped back over to the fence once more.  “Try again, hunter.”

Blinking as he turned to face Fai, Yerik slowly shook his head.  “She’s tough,” he muttered under his breath.

Fai chuckled and readied his stance, nodding once at Yerik to indicate that he was ready.  “Apparently so,” he replied.  “Apparently so . . .”

 


 

 

“I’ll ask Ben to look into it, to see if there are any families he knows of who are looking to adopt children,” Cain Zelig said in his usual thoughtful tone.  “He keeps track of stuff like that a little better than I do . . . although, Gin might know of someone, too.  Women talk . . .”

“That would be wonderful!” Saori exclaimed, hoping against hope that she’d be able to find placement for a few more children.  “I know that it’s harder since we have a number of older children, but . . .”

“Oh, I don’t know.  I think that we might well be able to help you out there, but I wondered . . . Have you considered talking to your . . . to InuYasha?  His school is capable of accepting boarding students, aren’t they?  Gin mentioned that he was looking into getting funding for a dormitory, right?”

“I hadn’t thought of that!” she said.  “Thanks for the suggestion, Zelig-sama.”

He chuckled.  “Any time, Saori.  I’ll talk to Ben and Gin and see if they know of anyone.  You’ll send me some files so I have information for anyone who might be interested?”

“I’ll do that,” she insisted.  “Thank you.”

“Any time.”

The call ended, and Saori giggled to herself.  Sure, it wasn’t a definite thing yet, but so far, all the tai-youkai she’d talked to had seemed very receptive to the idea of placing some of the Russian children in homes in their areas.

It didn’t take long to attach the orphans’ files to an email to send to Cain, and she sighed happily.  With any luck, she’d be able to find placements for most of the children under five, at least, which would be enough to take a good amount of pressure off of the orphanage overall, and if she could make arrangements with InuYasha, then maybe she could even get some of the older children into the Tokyo Academy, too . . .

The trill of her cell phone interrupted her planning, though, and she smiled as the name flashed on her caller ID.  “Kaa-chan!” she exclaimed softly when she connected the call via video feed.  “I just got off the phone with Zelig-sama about placing some of the orphans in his jurisdiction.”

“Oh?  Does he think he might have someone who is interested?” Aiko asked with a bright smile.  She looked like she was sitting in her office.

“He’s going to check, but he said he thought maybe there was at least one family who would be interested.  Hopefully, there’s more.  So far, I’ve called all the tai-youkai—well, except for MacDonnough-sama . . .”

Aiko made a face, her amber eyes clouding slightly at the mention of that name.  “I don’t know if you should try to approach him, Saori . . . He isn’t the most pleasant person, and I’m not sure he’d be open to working with you on this . . .”

She nodded.  To be honest, she’d already thought as much herself.  “Still, if there’s a chance he’d have a family or two . . .”

Aiko sighed.  “Maybe ask Fai-sama what he thinks?  If he has a decent relationship with MacDonnough-sama . . .”

“I will,” she promised.  “Zelig-sama suggested something, though, that I hadn’t thought of.  Do you think jii-chan would be interested in boarding a few of the older children at the Tokyo Academy?”

“Oh . . . That’s a really good idea,” Aiko allowed.  “Would you like for me to talk to him about it?”

“I can do it,” Saori insisted.  “I mean, it’s my job.”

“I guess I don’t need to ask you how you’re doing.  You look and sound very happy . . .”

“I am,” she agreed.  “I do miss you, though . . . Tou-chan and nii-chan, too . . .”

Aiko made a face.  “Yes, well, it was all I could do to convince them that they didn’t need to go, drag you right back home,” she admitted.  “Suffice it to say that they were a little less than impressed.”

“Thank you,” she said, unable to squelch the pang of guilt at the idea that her dear, sweet mother had been forced into the middle.  “I’m sorry, kaa-chan . . .”

Aiko laughed.  “Don’t worry, Saori—and I’m not the one you should thank.”

“You’re not?”

“Nope . . . They weren’t really interested in listening to me.  It was actually your grandmother who told them to settle down and to leave you alone.”

“Obaa-chan did that?”

Aiko nodded slowly.  “She did.  She threatened your father with her fans, actually . . .”

Saori giggled as the image of that sprang to life in her mind.  “Tell her I said thank you—and that I love her.”

“I’ll do that,” she promised.  “I’ve got a meeting here in a few minutes.  I just wanted to hear your voice, to see your face.  Give your father a call soon, please.  He misses you, too.”

“I will,” she promised.

The call ended, and Saori sighed as she dropped the phone into her pocket.  She had to admit, she’d been rather avoiding both her brother as well as her father, almost as though she was afraid of one of them, demanding that she come home.  Common sense told her that they wouldn’t really be able to do any such thing.  After all, she was a grown woman, even if they did forget that from time to time.  Even so . . .

It’s just because they’re concerned about you.  Thank kami your mother and your grandmother understand . . .

That thought, however, was enough to make her frown.  They understood?  But what, exactly, did they understand?  How could they understand when Saori herself didn’t fully comprehend it all?  Sure, it was simple to say that she’d come with Fai, just because he needed her for the job, but that wasn’t all of it.  She knew it.  The trouble was, putting a face on the rest of it—the things that spoke to her in whispers that were as fleeting as the breeze—and, try as she might, she still couldn’t quite make out the words . . .

One thing at a time,’ she told herself brusquely.  Right now, the most important thing to her were the placements of the children.  It had to take precedence over everything else.  After that?  After that, she could try to figure things out . . .

Which, of course, led right back to the question regarding Ian MacDonnough.  She’d heard enough stories over time to know that there was a rather strained relationship between pretty much everyone and the European tai-youkai, and, having heard some of the stories about her second-cousin’s mate, Meara, who was MacDonnough’s daughter, Saori was pretty convinced that she didn’t want anything to do with the man, either.  Personal feelings aside, however, she couldn’t afford to be that picky, could she?  After all, the children’s needs had to come first, even if she had to admit that she felt more than a little reluctant about calling the man in question . . .

It was sound advice, though, from her mother.  She might as well go find Fai, ask him how his dealings were with MacDonnough.

Stepping out of the antechamber of the master suite that she had commandeered as her office for the duration, she hurried down the hallway, appreciating the understated elegance of the castle yet again.  It never escaped her, and she hoped it never would.

The place was silent, interrupted only by the tick of the grandfather clock in the foyer below.  The sound of it grew louder as she descended the stairs.  One of the maids that Saori hadn’t actually met smiled at her as she looked up from her task of dusting.  Saori smiled and ducked her head in passing as she headed down the hallway that led to Fai’s office.

The door was slightly ajar, but she still tapped on it.  From where she stood, she could feel the stranger’s youki, could hear his voice, though his words were slightly muffled . . .

“Come in,” Fai called.

She hesitated just a moment before pushing the door open wider, before stepping over the threshold, stopping just inside the room as the strange youkai slowly stood, slowly turned to face her.  He was some sort of bird youkai—a vulture, maybe?  She wasn’t sure, but the way he stared at her, the sudden flash of surprise in his golden-brown eyes, the hint of suspicion that she felt for only a moment before he carefully schooled it away . . . For some reason, he made her feel uncomfortable, though she couldn’t really say why that was.

Fai glanced at her before returning his attention to the stranger once more.  “Saori, this is Evgeni Feodosiv, an old family friend.  Evgeni, this is Saori Senkuro.  I hired her to help me find placements for some of the orphans.”

A slight narrowing of the eyes, a flare of an emotion that was gone before Saori could discern it . . . “Senkuro?  Is that Japanese?”

She nodded, her manners dictating that she offer the man a polite bow.  “That’s right,” she said, managing an uncertain little smile as she shot Fai a quick glance.

“The orphans,” Evgeni mused, sinking back down, summarily dismissing Saori, just like that.  “I see . . .”

Fai jerked his head to indicate that Saori should sit.  She slipped into the other chair, opposite the desk.  If he noticed anything amiss, she couldn’t tell.  Or maybe she’d simply misinterpreted the man’s aura . . .

“Is there something you needed, Saori?” Fai asked, holding up a finger to silence Evgeni as he turned his full attention to her.

She sat up a little straighter.  “I just . . . I wanted to ask you what kind of relationship if any you have with MacDonnough-sama?  He’s the only one I haven’t contacted yet, but I’ve heard that he’s a little . . . difficult to deal with at times,” she said.

Fai nodded.  “Well, that’s an understatement,” he muttered.  “What did the other tai-youkai say?”

“They all were receptive to the idea, and they offered to look into it, see if they had families looking to adopt.”

“Call him.  If he is willing to listen, then it’s fine.  If he’s not, then at least you tried.”

“All right,” she agreed, standing up once more.  Fai stood, too.  Evgeni didn’t.

“Aren’t you worried that reaching out for help in this might make you look like you cannot handle Asia’s problems?” Evgeni remarked rather casually.

“Actually, I don’t,” Fai replied.  “I’d hardly call, trying to place these children into homes of their own is showing any kind of weakness.”

“Your Grace—”

“It’s not your call, Evgeni,” Fai cut in.

Saori bit her lip.  “I’ll, um . . . I’ll go make that call then,” she said, pasting on a bright smile that she hoped was enough to convince them that she didn’t notice the sudden contention that hung thick in the air.

“Whatever you say, Fai,” Evgeni said.  “Nice to meet you, Saori.”

She nodded and hurried out of the office, her smile fading as she escaped into the hallway once more.  To be honest, Saori wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it; not really.  That sudden tension . . . Was it something that happened a lot between those two?  And if it did . . . But Fai said that Evgeni was an old family friend . . . Maybe she was reading too much into it, letting her imagination run away with her again.  After all, Fai wouldn’t allow anyone near him that couldn’t be trusted, now would he?

Even so, she reasoned, her family was tight-knit, and they had disagreements from time to time, too.  Maybe it wasn’t so strange . . .

Still, she hadn’t imagined that tension; she knew she hadn’t.  Just . . . Just what was it . . .?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 33~~
~Rainclouds~

 

~o~

 

 

“I have it on good authority that it’s simply a matter of time before Konstantin Korinovich issues a formal challenge.”

Fai nodded slowly and without looking up from the report he was reading through.  It was from his old master, Ling, who had been keeping an eye on a couple of snub-nose-monkey-youkai in China who were rumored to be behind a recent rash of killings in and around Beijing.  So far, they’d been keeping a low profile, and there hadn’t been any other attacks since Ling and his men had been watching.  He had ended the update just by saying that he would continue to monitor them.

“If he hasn’t issued a formal challenge, then it is of no interest to me,” Fai said in a rather flat tone of voice.

Evgeni sighed.  “I worry that your lack of concern is going to be your undoing, Fai.  Surely you must understand that allowing things like this to drag on only looks bad on you . . .”

Flicking his gaze up from the report, Fai slowly let the paper drop from his fingertips.  “I know well enough, how things reflect upon me,” he said.  “It really doesn’t matter, what I choose to do or not to do, people will think what they will think; they’ll say what they will say.  Those who wish to find fault with my tenure, will, and those who are content will be that, too.  Tell me, Evgeni, should I change the things that I was taught by the previous tai-youkai to accommodate the things that you think I should do instead?”

Evgeni had the grace to flush slightly at the very obvious set-down.  Shifting in his seat, he pasted on a very perfunctory little smile—the kind, practiced over years and years, to diffuse this kind of situation, Fai supposed.  “My only concern is that you will make things tougher for yourself than you need to,” he replied.  “I only want you to be seen as the great leader you are; nothing more, nothing less.”

“I will deal with him if and when he chooses to bring his complaints to me,” Fai reiterated.  “By the way, have you found out anything regarding the freeze that was placed on my accounts?”

Settling back in his seat, steepling his fingers together before him, Evgeni slowly shook his head.  “There didn’t appear to be anything amiss with it,” he said.  “Standard protocol when the account holder cannot be reached to verify a transaction.  In any case, there was a slight hiccup, owed to a random computer glitch, but it was resolved in a timely manner . . . Would you like me to open a formal inquest?  I doubt anything would come of it, but . . .”

Fai didn’t look entirely pleased with the news, but he shook his head.  “No . . . Can you just take care to make sure it doesn’t happen again?  Not being able to pay for common services does not reflect well upon the tai-youkai.”

“Of course,” Evgeni replied.  “Oh, I also meant to talk to you regarding the Kupala Night celebration.  You’ll attend, won’t you?”

“Kupala Night,” he repeated.  “Wouldn’t miss it.”

Pleased by Fai’s response, Evgeni’s smile broadened.  “And Lord Yerik?”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t miss it,” Fai said, knowing that there was a good chance he was going to have to browbeat his brother into compliance.  It wasn’t that Yerik objected to the holiday or the formal ball that was always thrown in the evening.  What he tended to hate was the way the younger women tended to leer at him, and rather shamelessly, at that.

“Good, good . . . And you’ll be arriving before the festivities, I gather?”

Fai nodded.  Given that Evgeni tended to stretch the affair into at least a couple of days before, it was always a fairly interesting event, at least.

“Friedrich Gottholt called me the other day to say that he’d be able to make it.  Said he’d be bringing his mate and daughter, as well—you know, the one they say is one of the most beautiful girls in the world?”

“If it’s not a problem, I’ll be bringing Saori with me,” Fai said, completely discounting Evgeni’s statement regarding the Gottholt daughter.

“Her?  You’re bringing along an employee?”

“She’s a little more than a simple employee,” Fai remarked.  “Anyway, I think she’d enjoy the festivities.  Unless it’s a problem?  If that’s the case, then I’ll have to decline the invitation.”

A thoughtful scowl drew Evgeni’s eyebrows together, his lips pursing as he considered his options.  “Well, it’s not that.  If you wish to bring her, then, by all means, do so.  It just surprised me; that’s all.”

“Then I’ll look forward to it.”

Evgeni’s smile resurfaced, and he hauled himself out of the chair.  “I’ll see you then—unless something comes up in the interim.”

Fai watched his advisor go before reaching for another report.

 


 

 

Jogging along the perimeter of the vast Demyanov estate, Yerik dropped to a slow walk as he neared the small stream and the thick trees.  He’d taken it upon himself to do this whenever he was home—to check the borders for any sign of something amiss.  So far, he’d never actually found anything, and he didn’t expect that it would be any different today.  When he was a child, maybe around ten, he’d thought up the border patrol, and even though it sounded silly now, thinking back, it was something small he felt he could do for his brother.

Of course, if he had found someone, skulking about in the shadows, there really wasn’t a thing he could have done about it back then.  That idea hadn’t occurred to him, though.  Years ago, he had thought that he was keeping Fai safe.  It was a silly notion, sure, but it had made him feel as though he was doing something for Fai, even if he really wasn’t.

Now, it was just a habit.  Even though there were some who felt as though Fai had no right to hold his office, it was telling that not one of them had ever tried to infiltrate Demyanov land, either.

Stepping into the cover of the thick trees, Yerik sighed, unsure why he felt so on edge.  To be honest, he’d felt that way all day, even if there wasn’t a real reason for it.  It was more of a feeling on the fringe of his consciousness that unsettled him, even if he couldn’t quite put his finger on why that was.

And strangely, that feeling slowly seemed to grow—a strange sense that something was just a little off—not a threat, per se.  He didn’t sense anything quite like that . . . But he wasn’t sure, what he was feeling, either, and that was enough to bring his hand up, resting casually on the hilt of his sword as he deliberately slowed his pace.

A dull ‘thump’ sounded behind him, and Yerik spun around, only to blink, eyes widening, as he came face to face with the being who had apparently dropped out of the trees.  Had he been up high enough to keep his youki from being discerned?  Yerik suspected that he’d done exactly that . . . Arms crossed over his chest, a foreboding scowl on his face as long, silvery hair blew around him in the breeze—a breeze that had carried the man’s scent away well before Yerik could discern it—and he didn’t blink as he slowly sized Yerik up, small, triangular hanyou ears, twitching and rotating like tiny radars atop his head . . . He narrowed his golden eyes as he let his gaze rake over Yerik, only to snort loudly and indelicately when he saw his hand, wrapped around the hilt of his sword.  “If I wanted to hack you up, I’d have done it by now, pup,” he growled in English.  “If you’re gonna draw, do it now.  Otherwise, get your damn hand away from that before you get yourself killed.”

Yerik shook his head, but let his hand drop away.  “. . . InuYasha?”

He snorted again.  “Yeah.  Who are you?  Well, aside from the poor bastard, what got bawled out by my niece earlier . . .”

“Ah . . .”  Snapping his mouth closed, he couldn’t help the grin that surfaced on his face.  “That was just sparring,” he replied.

“Keh!  Ain’t no such thing as, ‘just sparring’!  Don’t waste your fucking time if you’re not gonna take it fucking seriously.”

“Oh, c’mon, oyaji . . . He wasn’t that bad.”

Yerik blinked, his head tilting back when he spotted the second hanyou, high in the trees.  Very obviously one of InuYasha’s kin . . . “You’re . . . Ryomaru, the hunter . . .”

The one in the tree, leaning casually against the stout trunk, legs crossed at the ankles, arms crossed over his chest in much the same stance as his father on the ground, Ryomaru grinned.  “Oh, so you’ve heard of my prowess, have you?” he nearly gloated.

Yerik chuckled.  “Actually, I have,” he admitted.  “I’m Yerik Demyanov—Fai’s my brother, and I’m a hunter, too.”

InuYasha snorted.  “Keh!  Prowess, my ass!  Weren’t you the one who had to call me for backup the last time Toga sent you out?”

Ryomaru rolled his eyes, but his grin widened.  “What did you expect?  There were twenty of them!”

“Keh.”

Dropping out of the tree, Ryomaru chuckled.  “So, you’re a hunter, eh?  You any good?”

“I’m still alive,” Yerik remarked.

“That don’t mean much, depending on your targets,” Ryomaru pointed out.

Yerik sighed.  “I can hold my own.  Anyway, why are you here . . . and why are you skulking around the grounds?”

“Just making sure that your brother don’t get any weird ideas about locking Saori up again,” Ryomaru remarked when InuYasha scowled stubbornly and refused to answer.

Yerik frowned, shifting his gaze between the two hanyou.  “You know, you could stay in the castle . . .”

“Uh, no . . . jiji wanted us to stay out of it,” Ryomaru went on.  “Said not to let her know we’re here . . . He figured that if your brother was gonna try to put her on lockdown, he won’t do it if he knows we’re nearby, so if you’d be so good as to not tell ol’ Fai-sama . . .”

“You don’t want him or Saori to know you’re here,” Yerik repeated.  “Well, I guess that makes—Wait . . .”

Ryomaru blinked.  “Wait, what?”

Scratching his chin as he debated his options, Yerik finally grinned.  “Well, you know, I could try to keep your secret, sure, but sometimes things slip . . .”

InuYasha and Ryomaru exchanged suspect glances.  “Meaning, what, exactly?” Ryomaru demanded, the air around him shifting just as quickly as water, flowing around a boulder.

Yerik took a step back, realizing a second too late that he actually felt intimidated by the hanyou—by both of them.  “I just mean . . . Maybe if you both could . . . could teach me some things . . .”

The menace in Ryomaru’s youki dissipated as quickly as it had appeared, and Yerik grimaced inwardly.  “Oh, that?  I dunno . . . You think he can handle it, oyaji?”

InuYasha grunted.  “Keh!  After that bullshit earlier?  Damn well better teach him a thing or two . . .”

Yerik broke into a wide grin as InuYasha stalked off, deeper into the cover of the trees.

 


 

 

“MacDonnough.”

Biting her lip at the very brusque voice that answered the call after two rings, Saori drew a quick breath.  “Hello, MacDonnough-sama.  I apologize for the interruption; I know you’re a very busy man.  I’m Saori Senkuro, and I’m calling on behalf of Faine Demyanov, the Asian tai-youkai.  I am working with him to find international placement for some of our orphans and was wondering if you have anyone in your jurisdiction who would be interested in adopting any of our children?”

“You’re calling on behalf of Faine Demyanov?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me, am I not important enough to your tai-youkai for him to have made this call himself?”

Blinking at the understated hostility in the MacDonnough’s voice, Saori wasn’t sure what to say.  “Well, you see, he put me in charge of this, and—”

“And who are you to call me?  If Demyanov needs something from me, then he knows how to reach me.  As for your orphans?  Is he so inept that he cannot look after his own?”

“No, that’s—”

“As you pointed out, I’m a busy man.  I don’t have the time for this.  Tell your tai-youkai that we’re not interested in his cast-offs.  Good day.”

The line went dead, and Saori flopped down hard in the chair directly behind her.  Something about the unpleasantness of the man seemed to reach right through the connection, right into her, leaving her feeling weak in the knees with a decidedly nauseas feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she grimaced, swallowing hard to bite back the rise of bile in her throat.

He . . . He’s not very nice . . .

You knew that already.  Everyone’s said as much . . . Maybe he needs to get laid . . .

Wrinkling her nose at her youkai’s attempt at humor, Saori let out a deep breath.

It was hard to fathom, wasn’t it?  Having grown up, knowing and adoring Morio’s mate, Meara, she couldn’t quite understand just how Meara had grown up around such a venomous being.  She was sweet and kind and gentle—obviously traits she didn’t inherit from her father.  But then, Saori had heard the stories, too—the reasons why Morio and Meara had settled in Japan, why they never went back to her homeland . . .

It’s awful . . . No one else thought it was odd that I was calling for Fai-sama . . . It’s almost like he was looking for a reason to be nasty . . .

Her thoughts were interrupted when the door to the antechamber opened, and Fai stepped inside.  He started to smile at her, but stopped when he got a good look at her face, frowning instead as he approached her.  “What’s wrong?” he asked, touching her arm as he knelt before her.

She opened her mouth to tell him, but somehow, she couldn’t.  At least, she couldn’t bring herself to tell him all of it.  He already had so much to deal with, so many things that required his attention . . . Telling him how Ian MacDonnough had treated her?  Somehow, it felt akin to childish tattling . . . “It’s nothing,” she assured him, managing a very convincing smile.  “I called MacDonnough-sama.  He said that he didn’t think they had anyone interested in adopting.”

Fai nodded, his unruly chestnut hair, falling into his eyes.  “That’s not surprising,” he said.  “Hopefully, we’ll be able to place enough of them otherwise that it won’t matter.”  Letting his hand fall away from her, only to dangle between his spread knees, Fai stared at her.  It wasn’t exactly an amused expression on his face, no, but there was a certain brightness in his gaze, a distinct steadiness that held her, spellbound.  “You’re doing a good job so far,” he told her quietly, his voice sounding more like a caress than a statement.  “I appreciate your efforts.”

She couldn’t help the surge of shyness that coursed through her, causing her to duck her chin, to peer up at him through her lashes.  “I haven’t done much yet,” she corrected him.  “Just called the other jurisdictions . . . I hope that they call back soon . . .”

“They will,” he assured her.

A funny little feeling erupted in her belly—the kind of tremors that were as unsettling as they were enticing.  A strange kind of brightness ignited behind his gaze, his eyes narrowing as he gently reached out, lifted her chin with a crooked index finger.  For a long moment, she held her breath as he stared hard at her lips.  Suddenly, though, he cleared his throat, let his hand drop away as he turned his face to the side, and she stifled a sigh.  “Anyway, I came up here to ask you . . . You didn’t bring anything along that is appropriate for a formal ball, did you?”

She blinked and shook her head.  “Uh, no . . . I mean, I have some gowns at home, but—”

“That’s fine,” he told her.  “We’ve been invited to Evgeni’s Kupala Night ball.  It’s fairly formal, so if you need to find a dress, I wanted to allow you adequate notice.”  He sighed.  “Come to think of it, you may need one formal gown and a couple other nicer outfits, too.  The celebration usually lasts more than just one night, so . . .”

“It sounds like a big deal.”

He shrugged.  “Not really . . . Actually, my parents used to host something like it every year.  It never occurred to me to reinstate the tradition, I guess, and then, Evgeni decided to do it . . .”

The reminder of the strange youkai she’d met in Fai’s office made her frown.  He didn’t see it, which was just as well.  She couldn’t quite shake off the strange sort of vibes she’d gotten from him, but she tried to brush them off.  After all, he was one of Fai’s trusted friends, wasn’t he?  And Fai was shrewd enough, not to trust without reason.  Besides, she had only met the man for a few minutes, so really, she had nothing to base her feelings on, anyway . . .

“I can pay for your clothing,” Fai went on, oblivious to Saori’s thoughts.

“I have money,” she replied.  “It’ll be harder to figure out where to go shopping, I think . . .”

Fai shrugged.  “Ask Yerik.  He tends to know more about that sort of thing than I do.”

“Oh?  But where do you go shopping?”

Bracing his hands on his knees to push himself to his feet once more, Fai stepped over to check the thermostat.  “I try not to,” he admitted.  “When I need clothes, I call my tailor.  I doubt he knows much about women’s fashion, though.”

She nodded, reaching for the stack of files on each of the children, figuring she could at least put in a bit more work in making their information more complete.  Some of them only listed the bare minimum.  Adding notes, like hobbies and abilities could only help in the long run.  “I’m sure I can find something suitable.”

He watched her for a minute, but he didn’t say anything.  She glanced over at him, only to find him staring at her with a very thoughtful scowl on his face.  “Fai-sama?”

He rolled his eyes.  “I thought I told you, you can drop the, ‘-sama’.”

She smiled.  “It’s polite,” she told him.  “I can’t help it.”

He grunted, reaching for the door handle.  “I’m going to stop answering you when you use it,” he warned.

She giggled as he slipped out of the room, but his youki lingered in the air long after he’d closed the door . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 34~~
~Comprehension~

 

~o~

 

 

Saori tapped on the office door and waited until Fai invited her inside before turning the knob and crossing the threshold.  Leveling a no-nonsense frown at him, she crossed her arms over her chest and slowly shook her head.

Fai blinked and arched an eyebrow at her, setting aside the missive in his hand to give her his full attention.  “Something on your mind?” he asked.

She shrugged.  “I just wondered if you’d seen Yerik today.”

He shook his head.  “No.  He was still sleeping when I got up.  Why?”

Her frown deepened.  “He’s acting strange.”

“Strange?  How so?”

She wrinkled her nose, letting her arms drop to her sides as she sank down in a chair opposite him.  “Like he’s . . . hurting . . . or something, but when I asked him, he said he was fine.”  She leaned forward, her hands slapping down on the top of the desk.  “He’s not fine, Fai-sama . . . He’s shuffling around like . . . like an old man!”

Fai shook his head.  “Well, as much as I’d love to go check up on him, I can’t.”

She stared at him.  “You . . .? Why can’t you?”

Fai settled back in his chair.  “Because you called me, ‘-sama’.”

Snapping her mouth closed, Saori shot to her feet, scowled at the stubborn and incomprehensible man.  “Because . . .? Have you lost your mind?  He’s your brother!  Don’t you care?”

“If he were having that much trouble, he’d have told me,” Fai insisted.  “Even then, I’m sure he’ll be fine.  He’s youkai, just like us, remember?  Anyway, if you’re that worried about him, I could go find him, see what’s wrong, but . . .”

She rolled her eyes since she had a feeling that she knew where he was heading with this.  “Oh, for the love of kami . . . Fai, will you please go see if he’ll tell you what’s wrong?” she forced herself to ask in as nice of a tone as she could muster.

He chuckled, which just figured, but he did push himself to his feet and stride around the desk.  “Okay,” he told her.  “Stay here, and I’ll be right back.”

Stepping into the hallway, heading for the foyer and the stairs, he located Vasili and motioned him over.  “Do you know where Yerik is?” he asked without preamble.

The old butler gave a curt nod.  “I believe he retired to his room, Your Grace.”

Fai nodded and headed up the stairs.

He really wasn’t sure what he was expecting as he pushed Yerik’s door open and stepped inside.  Maybe Yerik, grasping furniture to propel himself around his room, if what Saori had said was to be believed.

Sucking in a sharp breath as his eyes lit on his brother—or, more to the point, his brother’s back—Fai uttered a harsh invective as he stomped over to yank the shirt that Yerik was trying to pull over his head, out of his hands.  “What the hell happened to you?” he demanded, glowering at the angry bruise that traversed the whole of Yerik’s back from shoulder blades to his waist and below.  He couldn’t see past Yerik’s waistline, but he didn’t have to.  The mottled flesh he could see was more than enough.

Grimacing as he turned at the waist to snatch his shirt back, Yerik grunted.  “I’m fine,” he insisted.  “Just . . . fell down.  No big thing.”

Fai crossed his arms over his chest and snorted.  “Fell down?  If you’re going to lie, at least make it believable, Yerik.  Truth.  Now.”

Yerik rolled his eyes, leveling a flat kind of look at his older brother, his “I told you, Fai.  It’s fine.  Well, it’ll be fine.  Don’t worry about it.”

“Maybe, except Saori’s concerned.  Do you think she’ll buy the, ‘I fell down,’ defense?”

Yanking his shirt down, Yerik sighed.  “Just tell her I’m fine,” he said, “because I am.  Anyway, don’t the two of you have better things to talk about than me?”

“Maybe, but she likes you, and since she likes you, she worries about you.  It’s perfectly natural, you know.  Anyway, you’re going to tell me what really happened.”

Digging at his scalp with both hands, Yerik tried to stomp over to the window, but his movements were hindered by the huge bruise on his back.  ‘Yep, definitely a little old man . . .’ Fai mused as he watched his amended gait.

“If you must know, I was sparring with someone, and I wasn’t fast enough in getting out of the way.  That’s all.”

“You weren’t?” Fai blurted before he could stop himself.  Yerik, on a whole, tended to be a little faster on his feet than he was, so it was surprising to him.

“Yes.  I told you, it’s no big thing.”

Fai grunted since he didn’t really buy into that, either.  “What did he hit you with?  A house?”

“It looks worse than it is.”

Fai shook his head.  “Who were you sparring with?”

“No one you know.  Anyway, I’m going to run into the village—buy some Epsom salts and stuff.  You need anything?”

Fai shook his head, frown deepening as he watched Yerik march past him.

Well, that was weird.

What?  That he took a hit or that he’s not interested in telling you about his mysterious sparring partner?

. . . Both.

His youkai-voice sighed.  ‘Yeah, but you also know well enough that if Yerik doesn’t want to tell you something, he won’t.

Pivoting on his heel, Fai headed for the door, too.  He wasn’t done interrogating Yerik by any means, but he supposed it could wait until after he got back from the village . . .

 


 

 

Tapping her pen against the tablet in her lap, Saori flipped through the website tabs that she’d opened to compare a few dresses that she’d found.  She’d almost chosen one of them, but then, her mother had called, and she’d suggested that Saori look up the holiday to make sure that whatever she chose fit the occasion.  Given that the holiday seemed to have overtones of religion, at least, in some regions, as well as the base sense of summer celebration and aquatic themes, she’d decided that the gown she’d originally favored—a black chiffon and silk creation—wasn’t really right for it.

Many of the rites related to this holiday are rooted within Slavic religious beliefs—the ancient Ivan Kupala rites—and are connected deeply to the role of water in fertility and ritual purification,’ she read before clicking on the next tab: a lovely light aqua blue gown that was floor length in the back, should just hit her legs above the knees in the front, with cascades of sheer organza over a closer fitting satin sheathe dress.  The bodice was a sweetheart neckline that would hug her upper body to just below the breasts in a modified empire waistline with spaghetti straps that attached to organza sleeves that belled out around the upper arms in a flowery kind of flow, and she’d found it on a website for a store less than an hour away.  There were a couple other gowns she liked, too, but this was the one she liked best, and she’d already called them to ask that they hold the dress in her size until she made it there to try it on . . .

Writing down the address and phone number of the store, she bit her lip and smiled to herself.  She’d tried to find a dress where the model looked roughly like her shape, so she was reasonably certain that the dress would look fine on her.  Even so, seeing a dress in an ad was one thing.  Seeing it in person and trying it on was oftentimes something entirely different.

The trill of her cell phone interrupted her musings, and she quickly set the laptop computer on the table before reaching for the device.  The number that appeared on her caller ID didn’t have a name listed, and she frowned as she connected the call.  “Senkuro,” she said, catching it between her ear and shoulder with her head tilted to the side so she could set aside the pad and pen before catching the phone in her hand as she rose to her feet.

“Ah, is this Senhorita Saori with the Russian orphans?”

“Oh, um, yes . . .”

He chuckled.  “This is Eduardo St. George . . . I wished to speak with you regarding the children.  It is a good time, no?”

“St. George-sama!  Yes, it’s an excellent time!” she blurted, dropping back into the chair and scrambling to grab her abandoned tablet off the table.  “I wasn’t expecting to hear back from you so soon . . .”

Again, that chuckle that seemed to glide right over her like a silk sheet against bare skin.  “Please, Saori—may I call you by your first name?”

“What?  Oh, y-y-y-yes . . .”

“Very good.  Saori, please, do me the honor of calling me simply, ‘Ed’ . . . ‘Eduardo’, if you must, but you need not stand upon formality with me.”

She giggled.  She couldn’t help it.  Fanning her face with the tablet of paper, she could only be glad that the man couldn’t see her face.  “Did you get a chance to ask around?”

“I did,” he replied.  “I talked to my generals, and I’ve talked with four families who are very interested.  I took the liberty of sending them information on children that met their descriptions of what they would like to have . . . I hope that I wasn’t too presumptuous . . .”

“Four?” she repeated.  “Wow, that’s wonderful!”

“I took the liberty of emailing you the files on the families, along with notes about the children they’re interested in opening their homes to.”

“That’s wonderful,” she said.  “I’ll go over them with Fai-sama, and then I’ll get back to you.”

“Very good,” he said.  “I look forward to hearing from you again.”

“M-Me, too,” she managed.  Then she hung up the phone with a high-pitched squeal of happiness.

It only took a few minutes to send the documents from her computer to a slim-file that she grabbed as soon as the files transferred.  With another giddy laugh, she scurried out of the door and down the hallway, taking the stairs two at a time and grabbing the newel post to swing herself around, catapulting herself down the short hallway to Fai’s office.

“Fai-sama!  Oh, it’s fabulous news!” she blurted as she burst through the doors, not stopping till she caught herself against Fai’s desk.

He looked up at her rather slowly, arching an articulate eyebrow in silent question as he set aside the paperwork he was looking over.  “It’d better be,” he warned dryly, leaning back in his chair.

She giggled and hurried around the desk to slip the slim-file into his hands.  “Eduardo-sama called.  He has four potential families who are interested in our children!”

“Eduardo-sama?” he echoed, ignoring the file as he narrowed his eyes on her.  Certainly, he called most everyone by their given names, but that was standard for Russians, on a whole.  It was actually considered rude to use one’s surname, but he also realized that Saori, having been raised in Japan, was used to using surnames as a show of respect.  “You call him by his first name?”

“Yes, he insisted.”

Fai snorted, eyes narrowing dangerously.  “Is that right?”

She blinked when he dropped the file on the desk and leaned forward to grab his phone.  “What are you doing?”

He spared her a rather dark look.  “What does it look like? I’m calling, ‘Eduardo-sama’.  I think he needs to be reminded that he’s very, very married.”

She shook her head.  “What?  But—But he didn’t—”

“And you . . .” He snorted.  Loudly.  “You don’t need to be so happy, just because he called you back.  Unless you’d rather go . . . appropriate him . . .”

A strange suspicion occurred to her, and she sat down on the edge of his desk, only to reach over and neatly pluck the phone out of his hand.  “Fai-sama?”

“What?”

Pressing her lips together to keep from laughing outright at the very surly tone in his voice, she cleared her throat.  “Are you . . .?  You’re not . . . That is to say, you almost sound . . . but that would be silly . . . If you were . . . jealous . . . Are you?”

He blushed.  He actually blushed.  As he opened his mouth and snapped it closed a few times, he blushed.  “What?  No!  No!  Jealous?  Ha!  Why the hell would I be jealous?  For starters, he’s married, which means he has a mate, which means that there’s nothing to be jealous of, and even if I were, which I’m not, then why on earth would I—?”

She giggled.  “You’re really, really cute when you’re blustering,” she told him.

He snapped his mouth closed once more, nostrils flaring slightly, pushing her hip until she slipped off the desk.  Then he stood up and stomped over to the wet bar to slosh vodka into a clean glass.  “I was not blustering,” he growled, his voice muffled slightly by the glass he’d tilted to his lips.

“Okay, you’re not,” she agreed.

He snorted again.  “I’m not.”

She nodded quickly and way too exuberantly.  “I know . . . Anyway, I thought you and I could go over the files he sent of the families that want to be evaluated for consideration.”

He grunted and dumped more vodka into the glass.  “Why not call him back and let him go over their applications with you?” he grumbled.

She sighed despite the amusement still evident on her face.  “You know, I don’t even know what he looks like—you wouldn’t let me google him.  Even then, I . . . I might like . . . someone else . . . a little more than him . . .”

“Anyone I know?” he half-growled.  “Let me guess: Yerik.”

She rolled her eyes and grabbed the slim-file before stalking over to grab Fai’s hand and drag him over to the sofa.  “Yerik-kun’s very cute in a little puppy kind of way,” she mused, tugging on his hand until he finally sat down with her.  Then she let go and opened the file.  “Oh, this is the couple who are interested in adopting the seven-month-old moray-eel-youkai, Viktor . . .”

“His parents died in a . . . a house fire, right?”

She nodded, tucking a long strand of hair behind her ear.  “Yes . . . The Santiago family wants him—they’re eel-youkai, too, so that would be a great fit . . . Mari is a medical researcher, and Luca works in the office of the tai-youkai—one of his generals, it seems.  According to this, they’re looking to adopt a child because Mari had some issues during her last pregnancy, so they don’t want to put her through that again . . .”

“A general?  I guess that would be suitable,” Fai muttered almost grudgingly.  “I thought I told you not to take Eduardo’s calls and to refer him to me.”

She wrinkled her nose, only paying a little attention to him since she was still skimming the dossier.  “His name didn’t show up on my caller ID, and it’s fine.  I enjoyed talking to him.”

Fai snorted.  “I know.”

Flipping the file page, she blinked, then smiled.  “This couple is interested in adopting Galinia!  They’re a lesbian couple—one of them is from Ukraine . . . A lawyer and a social worker . . . It says here that they were sent Galinia’s profile, and it was love at first sight . . .”

“A social worker and a lawyer?  Good, good . . . Saori, if possible, I’d like for these families who are interested to come here, to meet the children before any real decision is made.”

She nodded.  “I think that could be arranged.  I mean, the happiness of the children should be taken into account, and just because they look good on paper doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the right fit . . . Now, the next woman—Oh . . . She isn’t mated.  She just wants a child . . . Interesting . . .”

Fai sighed.  “Saori?”

“Do you think that’ll be an issue?  I mean, a two-parent family might be more stable, but—”

“Saori . . .”

“—Then again, maybe not.  I mean, on paper, maybe, but in reality, who’s to say that a child needs to have two parents to thrive?  If you think about it—”

“Saori.”

“—Maybe it’s not . . . Yes, Your Grace?” she asked, cutting herself off abruptly, as though she had just heard him speaking.

Letting out a long, deep breath, Fai reached over and plucked the slim-file out of her hand, dropping it on the table with a dull clatter.  Then he caught her chin with a crooked finger and turned her to face him.  Her breath caught, somewhere between her lips and her lungs, and, while she couldn’t rightfully read his expression, something about the spark in his gaze was enough to make her forget that she needed to draw air . . .

There was just something about the way in which the light hit his eyes, brushed the angles of his face with the gentlest shadows . . . Jaws bulging slight as he gritted his teeth, just for a moment, his lips parted slightly.  Unruly hair, falling into his face, he continued to stare at her, as though he were willing her to hear him, though he hadn’t spoken a word . . .

Her temple fell against the back of the sofa as his knuckles brushed over her cheek, setting off a delicious trill as every single bone in her body liquified, leaving behind a languor wrapped in a tension that she had never felt before—and interesting paradox—one she couldn’t quite grasp.  Caught up in a trance, in a bemusement so complete, she could only blink, could only stare back at him helplessly.  Every single thought failed her, leaving her in a suspended kind of reality, and the only thing that mattered was the surge of electricity that coursed from him into her.

It came without fanfare, without a tumultuous moment of indecision, of the teetering imbalance between the two extremes as he leaned in, his eyes fluttering closed, long and thick eyelashes, trembling almost nervously as his lips closed over hers.  As though she’d known—understood—that this was the inevitable conclusion, she welcomed his kiss, allowed him to lead her . . . His fingers stretched out, his palm gliding over her cheek as he slipped his hand into her hair, the pad of his thumb gently, idly, tracing the outline of her ear.  A violent shiver raced up and down her spine as his free hand slipped between her body and the back of the sofa, drawing her closer.

It was a sweet kiss, a tender kiss, a gentle affectation that did not possess the heady sense of desperation of their first one—didn’t contain the same sort of wanton abandon as the second one, either.  No, the softness of his lips brought on a slow sort of exploration as one kiss faded into the next and the next and the next . . . In those moments, she could feel it, couldn’t she?  The recollection of a time and a place when she had truly felt as though she were home, and, though the newness of discovery was there, beckoning her, that sense that she belonged . . . She clung to it.

He let out a deep breath as he leaned back just enough to break the kiss, but he let his forehead rest against hers, barking out a very terse laugh that was somehow more than just a sound.  “You . . . You belong here, don’t you?” he mused, but the question did not sound like a question, and the quiet wonder in his tone made her smile, even as the hot prickle of tears behind her still-closed eyelids made her nostrils burn.  “With me . . .”

“I . . . I want to,” she admitted, not trusting her voice as she whispered to him.  Leaning against him, letting her head fall against his shoulder, her smile trembled when his arms closed around her, not tightly, no, but most certainly unwilling to let her go just yet.  She didn’t mind.

He cleared his throat.  “Good . . . I—”

A tap on the door all but shattered the moment, and he sat up a little straighter, uttering a longsuffering sigh as Vasili stepped into the office.  Saori glanced up, only to do a double take as the butler held up a sealed scroll of paper.  If Vasili noticed the rather close proximity they shared, she didn’t know, although there really wasn’t any way he could miss it. Even so, Vasili said nothing about it as he approached in his usual no-nonsense gait.

A strange sense of foreboding crept up her spine as Fai frowned at the document for a long moment, staring at the wax seal that held it closed.

He stood abruptly, turning his back on her as he broke the seal and unrolled the paper.  Then he sighed.  “Vasili, fetch Yerik for me,” he commanded, striding out of the office with the scroll crushed in his fist.

Saori stumbled to her feet. “Vasili?  Was that . . .?”

The butler spared a moment to offer her a very perfunctory-looking smile.  “I’m not at liberty to say, my lady.”

She bit her lip as she frowned at the open doorway.  Whatever it was on that paper . . .

You don’t think . . .?

But . . .

He said it himself: it happens a lot . . . We’re not going to let him go alone, are we?

Wincing inwardly at her youkai-voice’s words, Saori followed the butler from the room, intent on finding Fai before he could slip out of the castle without her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 35~~
~Confusion~

 

~o~

 

 

This might not have been . . . the best idea . . .

Biting her lip as she sprang high into the air, Saori narrowed her eyes, careful to keep the car within her sight while trying to hide her presence at the same time.

Fai-sama!

Stopping with his hand, holding the car door open, he straightened up ang looked back at her as she dashed down the steps, skittering over the path that led to the driveway.  “Go back inside,” he called to her, his tone carrying a very real authority.  “I’ll handle this.  Don’t worry.”

She didn’t stop until she was standing beside him, breathless.  “I’m coming with you,” she said, shaking her head as she struggled to catch her breath.

He sighed.  “No, you’re staying here,” he informed her.  “The last thing I want or need is to be distracted by you or trying to protect you . . .”

She rolled her eyes, wrinkled her nose.  “You know, you don’t have to do that.  I am fully capable of defending myself.  You were challenged, weren’t you?

He’d already opened his mouth to argue with her.  At her point-blank question, however, he snapped it closed, his expression taking on a belligerence that reminded Saori of the children at the orphanage when they received their cleaning assignments for the weekend.  “It’s fine, Saori.  He’s no match for me.”

She shook her head, crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly.  “Then it won’t be a problem if I come with you.”

Shaking off the lingering memory, Saori made a face, her determination bolstered even more.  As far as she was concerned, Fai was going to explain, just why he’d felt the need to have Yerik come outside and all but strongarm her back into the castle, only to find herself, locked into her room from the outside.  Apparently, Yerik had thought that it would do the trick, but it didn’t.  All she’d had to do was exit through the balcony, and she’d been trailing Fai ever since . . .

When she caught up to him, she was going to give that man a piece of her mind; see if she didn’t . . . He was simply not allowed to kiss her the way he’d kissed her, say to her the things he’d said, and then try to take off without her to meet a challenger who wanted to see him dead . . .

This would be easier if you got a move on it . . . Just hop onto the car.  It’s not like he’s going to turn around and take you home now, don’t you think?

She snorted and made a face, shaking her hair back out of her eyes.  Except that really was what she thought . . . He was so set against bringing her along that she had very little doubt that he would, in fact, turn right around and take her back to the castle, never mind they’d been traveling for almost eight hours now.  She didn’t know what his ultimate destination was, but they were headed north, straight into the wilds of Siberia . . .

Far ahead, he signaled and turned off the main road.  She saw the car just as she dropped below the treeline.  Opting to close a bit of the distance, she sped through the trees, veering slightly to the right, relying on the vibrations in the earth to keep track of Fai’s car.  Night was falling, the evening shadows were stretching, reaching out to embrace the earth, and under the cover of the trees, the dusk was nearly complete.

Vaulting high, rising above the trees, Saori spotted the car.  It was slowing down, rolling forward, almost as though he were looking for a roadsign or some kind of marker.  Brushing aside her impatience as she hit the ground once more, she pushed off again.  This time, the car had pulled over as Saori lit in the high boughs of a tree to watch as he locked the vehicle and paused, long enough to fasten his sword around his hips.  Then he crossed the road, only to disappear into the trees on the far side.

She could feel it in the air, couldn’t she?  Banking on the idea that Fai would be focused more on the reason he was there and less on anything else, she altered her course, careful to remain downwind of the direction in which Fai had gone.

Once across the road, she dropped into the treetops.  Her beloved uncle had always told her that it was easier to mask her presence if she remained above the target.  Even if Fai wasn’t really looking to find her here, she figured it’d be best to try to maintain whatever advantage she could get.

Stopping at the edge of the tree line that opened around a pond, a beautiful little clearing, she frowned.  Fai stood, arms crossed, facing away from her, staring down a strange youkai—a Kamchatka-brown-bear-youkai—a huge and hulking youkai, easily twice as broad as Fai, though maybe not quite as tall . . . He was intimidating, even at a distance, and the malevolent way his youki flowed around him made her bite down on her bottom lip hard . . .

 


 

 

“Tell me, Konstantin.  Why did it come to this?” Fai demanded, standing impassively as he slowly regarded his would-be opponent.

The bear-youkai snorted in an almost incredulous kind of way.  “Don’t take me for an idiot, Your Grace,” he growled.  “I am no fool!  I know that you mean to put an end to the regency!”

“Put an end to it?  Why would I do that?  Granted, your father might well require a new heir after this day, but that was never something I intended to do.”

The bear growled, stalking slowly toward Fai, his gait, lumbering, almost clumsy, a little deceptive.  Fai didn’t buy into it.  “My father has served your house for centuries!” he rumbled, dark brown eyes lit with a rage that burned deep.  “Served your father—his father, too—and you?  You know nothing of the things he does, the steps he takes to ensure that Siberia is protected—for you!  For you!  And he has never asked a thing from you—nothing at all!  Only that you agree to meet with him, to offer him assurances that his loyalty is not misplaced!  Then this?  You have no honor!  You . . . You are not my tai-youkai!”

“And what have I done to make you believe in what you’re accusing me of?” Fai demanded, ducking aside when the bear swung at him.  “What is this that you’re talking about?”

Unleashing a fierce roar, Konstantin swung at him again and missed.  Fai leaned away to avoid the attack.  He had yet to draw his sword—had yet to accept the formal challenge.

“I have heard the rumors on the winds!  You mean to come, to remove my father’s position.  Whether you can no longer afford to pay his stipend or you simply disrespect his ability to oversee the lands that my kin have protected for centuries, it matters not when we have been nothing but loyal—nothing but loyal—even when those whispers come to us, that our tai-youkai is nothing more than a selfish child—a worthless and spoiled brat that has cheated and resorted to the lowest of tactics to defeat your enemies!”

Fai narrowed his eyes, his hand moving to rest upon the hilt of his sword.  “And you believe the rumors?  Do you really think that I would demean myself by stooping to the things that you’ve heard?  If I wanted your father out of his position of regent, I certainly wouldn’t skulk around like some vermin in the night.  As for my ability to protect my title . . . Are you certain that you want to find out if there’s any truth to the lies you’ve heard?”

Konstantin snorted indelicately—cynically.  “It’s too late for that, isn’t it?  You think I would issue a challenge without thinking it through?  I’m not nearly so foolish . . . but I fully intend to walk away from here, too.”

Fai frowned.  Something about the youkai’s eyes—something deep and . . . He . . . He didn’t really want this, did he?  Didn’t want to challenge Fai, and yet, the rumors that he’d heard had somehow convinced him that it was the only way . . . “I have not yet accepted your challenge,” Fai said.  “You have time to rescind it.  I . . . I will allow it.”

Konstantin’s eyes flared wide, and he stepped back, almost uncertainly, shaking his mane of brown hair as a suspicious glimmer narrowed his pupils to slits.  “Why?  Why would you allow that?”  Then he grunted.  “It’s a trick . . . A tai-youkai cannot offer that kind of leniency.”

Fai shrugged.  “I can,” he said.  “You’ve issued challenge based upon rumor and untruths.  I tell you now that I did not have nor do I have any plans to usurp your father—your family—in the Regency of Siberia.  If you can accept my word on this, then we can both walk away.  If you cannot, then it will be you that causes your father’s downfall, not me.”

Konstantin considered that, his conviction in his eyes, wavering despite the distrust evident in his wary stance.  “And the reprisals?”

Fai shook his head.  “There will be none—none, except that I would like to hear more about these rumors you’ve been hearing.”

Straightening his back, Konstantin slowly nodded.  “You . . . You are welcome to come to my home—to meet my father . . . I will . . . I will tell you what I’ve heard.”

Fai nodded once, ignoring the whisper of his youkai that insisted that it could be a trap.  Somehow, Fai didn’t think so.  No, there was something to this man—Konstantin—something honest he’d seen in his gaze.  He really had believed that he had no other choice, had fully bought into whatever he’d heard.  The man hadn’t wanted to issue challenge, but how Fai knew this—why he knew it . . . He didn’t know.

Konstantin stared at him for another long minute.  Then he slowly dropped to one knee, his gaze not faltering.  “I . . . I rescind my challenge,” he said.

“I accept,” Fai replied.

Konstantin didn’t stand up, but Fai could feel the slight release of the tension in the bear-youkai’s aura.  “I’ll go home,” he said, slowly pushing himself to his feet.  “I’ll tell my father that you’re coming.”

Fai nodded, noting the shift in the wind, the sudden scent that wafted to him, and he sighed.  “If it isn’t a problem, there will be two of us,” he said.

Konstantin nodded.  “That’s fine.  We will expect you soon.”

Fai waited until the bear had disappeared into the trees on the far side of the clearing, lifting his gaze to take in the majesty, the serenity of the starry sky above.  Satisfied that Konstantin was out of earshot, he sighed.  “Saori, you can come out now.”

He heard the dull thump as she dropped out of the trees, felt the surge of her youkai that she let unfurl.  She was a little wary.  He could feel it in her aura, and finally, he turned to face her, careful to keep his expression blanked.

“I . . . I escaped from the balcony,” she said in lieu of a greeting.

“I could have sworn I told you to stay behind,” he reminded her.

She clasped her hands before her, scrunched up her shoulders as she ducked her chin, staring at the ground beneath them.  “I’ve never been good at listening,” she admitted.

He sighed.  “And just what did you think you could do?” he asked, though his tone lacked any real rancor.  “If the challenge had come to pass, you aren’t allowed to interfere.  No one is.”

“I know that,” she said, giving her head a quick shake.  “You said yourself: I belong with you . . . right?”

He snorted.  “I meant you belong at the castle with me, not that you had to glue yourself to me every moment of every day.”

She suddenly giggled.  “Do they make glue like that?”

Fai shook his head again.  “You’re entirely missing the point, and I think you’re doing it on purpose.”

She sighed, but she took another step toward him.  “You . . . You let him take back his challenge,” she said, her voice, soft, gentle as the night breeze.

He grunted, shifting his gaze to the side.  It could easily be construed as a weakness, and he knew it . . . Allowing a challenger to walk away . . . Others could easily interpret it as fear on his part, and, while he knew that it wasn’t the case . . . “I wasn’t afraid of him,” he stated, unable to repress the hint of belligerence in his tone.

“I didn’t think you were,” she told him.  “I think . . . I think you were being decent . . . I think you knew that he was too slow, too lumbering to avoid your attacks.  I think . . . I think you knew the outcome the moment he stepped out of the trees . . . Knowing that and then offering him a way out of it . . . That’s decent, Fai . . . That isn’t fear.”

He blinked, his eyes shifting back to meet hers.  “You . . . You called me, ‘Fai’ . . .”

She blushed.  Even in the fluid navy light, he could see it, tinting her bluish cheeks in a hazy violet . . . “Gomen . . . I—”

He cut her words off with his lips, drawing her close against his chest as she sighed into his mouth, as she instantly melted against him.  Her lips were soft, quivering against his, like the petal of a bloom, struggling to hang on against a harsh spring wind, just before a storm . . .

Her hands slipped up around his neck, her fingers sinking, deep into his hair, her youki surrounding him with her own particular sweetness that lived somewhere deep inside her.  The tease of her lips, the warmth of her breath, condensing on his skin . . . A resonance that reached down into the depths of him, that echoed up to his brain in whispers that he heard but didn’t comprehend, even as understanding beckoned him.  She felt . . . perfect, didn’t she?  The way she fit in his arms, the flawless familiarity that was somehow more exciting, more inebriating, than anything he’d ever felt before . . .

And, just for the moment, he allowed himself to forget—to forget why he was there, to forget that he was entirely vulnerable, out in the open.  One time, maybe the only time, it was all right, wasn’t it? To feel . . . To revel . . . To be someone other than the stoic tai-youkai . . .

Saori sighed again, her lips gently parting, allowing, maybe beckoning, the kiss to deepen.  The contours of her lips, of her teeth, the overwhelming sweetness . . . There was an innate innocence in her that spoke to him, even as she almost clumsily accepted what he gave her.  The moment he touched his tongue to hers, she shuddered, her hands slipping down to his shoulders, her fingers wrapping around fistfuls of his shirt.  The elevation in her breathing held him in check, uttered such a soft reminder that she was Saori, that she was precious to him—that she was the fairy tale that he hadn’t realized that he’d even wanted—wrapped up in bright smiles and silly notions, in impetuous freedom of spirit . . .

The taste of her was almost enough to drive him mad, the reluctant flick of her tongue against his, and she held nothing back from him, laid at all bare.  One kiss melted into another as a moment stretched on a gossamer thread.  Kissing her slowly, savoring every sigh, ever shiver, every quiver, every quake, he winced inwardly when a pang so sharp, so deep shot through him: a bittersweet sense that he couldn’t recall he last time he’d felt so sheltered, so cherished, as he did in that moment, and that was all right, too, wasn’t it?  Saori . . .

He let out a deep breath, gathering her closer against him, holding her tight, resting his cheek on her forehead as she managed an uneven little laugh.  She snuggled against him, obviously in no hurry to break the contact, which was fine with him since he wasn’t feeling any particular rush to end it, either.

It took forever for his heart to calm, the erratic beat of his heart, hammering in her ear.  She laughed again—a little stronger but not nearly as normal as the usual sound of it.  “Fai-sama . . .”

He sighed and rolled his eyes.  She didn’t see it.  “After all that, you still add that to my name?” he grumbled.

She sighed, too, only hers was a completely contented kind of sound, and then, she cleared her throat.  “I’m sorry . . . Fai . . .”

“Good enough,” he relented.  “It’s like pulling teeth for you, isn’t it?”

She wrinkled her nose.  He flicked the tip of it with his fingertip, and she giggled again.  “Can I help it that I was raised to have impeccable manners?”

“Yes well . . .”

She leaned away but didn’t let go of him, her cheeks still flushed, her lips still dusty and slightly swollen, which really only made him want to kiss her all over again . . . “I still think that what you did—”

“He was misled,” he interrupted, defensiveness creeping into his tone, letting his arms drop from her as he quickly turned away.  “A man should not die simply because he believed in lies.”

“You don’t have to convince me,” she told him quietly, grasping his hand when he started to stomp away.  He stopped, but he didn’t turn to face her again.  “I heard what he said, but why do you seem to think that you’re going to be viewed as . . . as weak or something?”

He grunted.  “They’ll say I was afraid,” he predicted, gritting his teeth as an unreasonable surge of irritation.  “They’ll say—”

“The ones who matter will know that you did what you did because you’re a fair man—because you’re a good man.”

He didn’t believe her.  He wanted to.  Experience told him, though, that it wouldn’t really be as simple as that.

Maybe not, but if you cared that much, what they thought, then you wouldn’t have allowed him a chance to rescind, now would you?

Letting out a deep breath at the accuracy of his youkai’s words, he took a deep breath, willed the irritation away.  Worrying about it now wouldn’t help.  In his heart, he knew that he’d done the right thing.  If he could figure out where the rumors were coming from, maybe he could put a stop to that . . . maybe . . .

“Come on,” he said grasping her hand and giving her a little tug.  “The Korinovich estate isn’t far, and they’re going to be expecting us . . . I think it’ll be safe, but until we know for sure, just . . . just don’t venture too far from me, all right?”

“Okay,” she agreed, falling in step beside him.

He said nothing else as they continued on, back toward the trees—toward the road where the car waited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 36~~
~Unknown~

 

~o~

 

 

Sitting on a stool at the bar in the bright and airy kitchen of the cottegi as she helped Zenaida Korinova chop up vegetables for the hearty stew that was already starting to smell delicious on the stove top where she was braising the meat.  Fai sat at the heavy table near the fireplace on the other side of the large room with Konstantin and his father, who had introduced himself as Maxim, the Siberian regent.  That man was even bigger than Konstantin—also a Kamchatka-brown-bear-youkai—had a warm and friendly face and the best, deep, ringing belly laugh.  He was a little reticent when they’d first arrived, but once he realized that Fai really had no intention of usurping him, it didn’t take long for him to warm up.

They’d arrived at the cottegi this morning, having stopped at the local town to rent a room there last night, mostly to give Konstantin time to prepare for their visit and to allow Fai a chance to decompress, to regain his perspective before walking into a meeting that could easily go either way.  In fact, he’d tried to talk her into staying at the inn.  Saori, however, wouldn’t oblige him, and he’d given up fairly quickly.

Zenaida bit her lip as she scooped the chopped veggies into a bowl.  “I apologize.  The stew isn’t fancy . . . We didn’t realize . . . I mean, we thought . . .”

Saori grimaced, understanding what Zenaida meant, even though she was reluctant to say it.  “Fai-sama’s a very good man,” she said, offering the woman a reassuring smile.  “He said that he feels there’s more to it, that he wouldn’t want to carry out a challenge against someone who issued it because of baseless rumors.”

Zenaida sighed, glancing over at the men, but this time, she smiled.  It was a small smile, but Saori could see the affection in it as she watched her men and Fai.  “He . . . He wasn’t given a fair chance when he became tai-youkai . . . There were so many who questioned his ability, simply based upon his age, even those who professed to serve him.  The regents discussed it—banding together, asking him to step aside—or at least to appoint an interim while he continued to grow, to strengthen.  Maxim was of the opinion that he should do the latter, for his own good.  A twenty-year-old was young, and assuming that much responsibility at that age . . . It wasn’t really fair, but the others?  Most of them were of the opinion that a change in regime was in order.  They were dissatisfied with Alexei, you see?  It had little to do with His Grace . . .”

Frowning as she considered Zenaida’s commentary, Saori slowly shook her head.  “Why?”

Zenaida shrugged, smoothing back a long strand of her pale blonde hair as she stood to put the vegetables into the pot.  Giving it a little stir, taking the time to add salt and pepper, she gestured for Saori to follow her when she grabbed a basket and moved off toward the back door.  Saori scooted off the high stool and hurried over to get the door and hold it open for Zenaida, who had stopped to retrieve an old pair of scissors.

The warm sunshine was weak and watery as it filtered through the nearby trees.  She followed Zenaida over to the herb garden—an absolutely fabulous one, at that, breathing deep, savoring the earthy smells.  “Your garden is beautiful,” she remarked, gently touching the delicate leaves of a gorgeous parsley plant.

Zenaida laughed softly.  It was a very soothing sound, almost lyrical in its delivery.  “Thank you.”

“Oh, thank you for welcoming us in your home,” Saori hurried to say.  “It’s a beautiful place.”

“It is humble,” Zenaida insisted, brushing aside Saori’s praise.  “It’s been in Maxim’s family for generations, and each generation leaves its mark upon it.”  Raising her face, she pointed over toward a beautiful little arbor, surrounded by wildflowers, partially hiding the rustic old bench swing from view.  “Maxim built that for me when we were mated.  I’m originally from Greece, and I was so homesick . . . I grew up amid olive trees and mild temperatures with the sea breeze on my skin every morning, drenched in sunshine, and coming here was as different as daylight and darkness . . .”

“I’ll bet the culture shock was terrible,” Saori ventured as they moved slowly between the rows of herbs.

Zenaida let out a deep breath, nodding slowly, her long ponytail, blowing in the fresh breeze.  “Oh, it was . . . I knew it would be different, but I hadn’t realized just how different.  It felt like an entirely new and frightening planet . . . Does that make sense?”

Saori nodded, taking the basket so that Zenaida had an easier time, harvesting the herbs.  “I think so.  It’s a world apart from Tokyo, too.  It’s not bad, just very, very different.”

“I would like to go there one day—Tokyo . . .”

Saori smiled.  “It’s a nice place to grow up.  So many places to go, things to see . . . I was never bored . . . Now, tell me, how did you meet Maxim-san?”

She laughed, her gaze taking on that faraway kind of sheen, as though she were looking back through the years . . . “My Maxim . . . I met him at a party that I didn’t want to attend.  It was for old people, I told Papa—a lot of dignitaries from exotic lands . . . It bored me, silly little thing that I was . . . But Papa said that I had to go, that it would look bad upon my family if I didn’t, and, being the dutiful daughter that I was, I went along, and I was right—terribly right.  It was the worst experience . . . Even more really old and really stuffy youkai, all with their families who spent more time, comparing themselves to each other in silence, than they did, trying to mingle and meet one another.  You could tell who thought that they were better than you.  They wouldn’t deign to speak to you, you know?  But those who felt as though they didn’t quite measure up?  They were worse: sitting there, whispering and pointing and staring . . . Just awful!”

“Well, but you met your mate there,” Saori pointed out.  “It can’t have been all bad . . .”

Zenaida ducked her chin, her cheeks pinking prettily.  “I did,” she agreed.

“Was it like one of those storybook meetings?  You see each other across the room . . . Your eyes meet, and there’re fireworks . . .?”

Zenaida grimaced, but smiled at the same time.  Then she laughed.  “Not exactly . . . I was outside, taking some air, wishing that I was anywhere but there—out with my friends or watching a movie at the cinema—all those things that a seventeen-year-old girl would rather be doing.  I didn’t see him out there.  He was sitting on a bench in the shadows, and the next thing I know, he grabs my arms and kisses me—this stranger.  I was stunned—and angry.  How dare this man do that when I don’t know him, not even his name!  So, I . . . I slapped him—hard.  He laughed, which only fueled my rage, and he said that he was my mate . . .”

Saori blinked.  “That fast?  Is that even possible?  Well, I mean, I guess it is . . .”

Zenaida chuckled.  “He pursued me for five years.  Every time I thought I was rid of him, he’d show up again.  I finally agreed to go on a date with him just to get him to leave me alone.  He promised that he’d go away if I didn’t like him, but . . . But he was kind and gentle and sweet . . . and he said he didn’t know why he kissed me that night.  He just felt that it was the most natural thing to do . . . It wasn’t love at first sight, no . . . But he did make quite an impact on me.”

Saori cleared her throat.  “If . . . If it makes you feel better, I . . . I appropriated . . . Fai-sama the first time I met him . . . Well, I guess you could say I, um . . . kidnapped him . . .”

Zenaida blinked.  “You . . .?  Excuse me?”

She grimaced.  “I wanted him to meet the orphans . . . I was working at the St. Nicholas II Home for Children at the time as an advocate, and he had sent word that he was going to end funding, so they sent me to try to talk him out of it, and . . .” She made a face.  “Do you know, like, when every single thing you can think of just starts to go wrong, but it happens so fast that you can’t really control it or stop it . . .?”  She sighed.  “That’s kind of what happened . . .”

“Oh, my . . .”

Saori slowly shook her head.  “But he did meet the children, and he decided that he could keep it open, so now I’m working with him, looking for placement for some of them, even if they go to homes outside of Asia . . .”

She pondered that for a long moment and then nodded slowly.  “It’s a good solution,” she said.  “All children deserve a family of their own, even if it means they have to be sent to a whole new world . . .”

“I think so, too,” Saori allowed.  Still, she couldn’t help but to remember what Zenaida had said before they’d come outside—the things about Fai’s father . . . “But . . . But I wondered . . . I mean, about Fai-sama’s father . . .?  What did you mean when you said the regents were dissatisfied with him?”

Considering the abrupt change in topic, Zenaida slowly shook her head before she spoke.  “Alexei—He was a good tai-youkai, please believe me.  But he was a very proud man, and he held little value in the regents’ opinions.  They are here to assist the tai-youkai—to help him govern this region.  It is not an easy place.  It is so vast, the people so diverse . . . It is the reason that the regents were established, and they all have served with unmatched pride and loyalty, but Alexei . . .” Shaking her head, she made an exaggerated frown.  “Somehow, he was convinced that a strong leader needed to stand on his own, that he needed to trust himself above all others, and he was not wrong, but he failed to recognize that it was also not weak to listen to the wisdom of others, especially when it was their jobs to assist him in those things.”

Saori bit her lip.  Sure, she could understand the underlying sentiment, especially in a place as large as Asia.  Even so . . . “They are the undisputed law,” she said.  “You may not agree with what they do, but they’re in office for a reason . . .”

“I agree,” she replied.  “However, he ought to know—to understand—that it is the pride of the regents, too.  Maxim—those like him?  They want to do their jobs, too.  They want to offer that insight into the area that he may not have since he doesn’t live here . . . Maxim disagrees with those who resorted to challenging His Grace.  He thought they would make more of an impact if they had stood together to voice their opinions . . . and then, the rumors . . .”

“The rumors?”

“Every day, there are new ones, and every day, the sense that Maxim’s position is being threatened has grown, and the troubling thing to him is that, through this, His Grace has never reached out directly to him, one way or the other.  Well, until now . . .”

Saori bit her lip, wondering really, if she ought to say anything, given that it wasn’t really her place, but then, maybe she didn’t have to.  Her gut instinct was to rush to Fai’s defense, but somehow, she had a sneaking suspicion that Fai . . . He wouldn’t appreciate it, would he?

It’d be weird, don’t you think, if you didn’t want to defend your mate.

Blinking, eyes widening at the matter-of-fact revelation just dropped on her by her youkai-voice, Saori’s universe froze.  Zenaida was speaking, but the words were lost to her.  The only thing that kept repeating in her mind, over and over again?

My . . . mate . . .?

 


 

 

Pushing his plate away on the table, Fai let out a deep breath as he reached for the glass of kvass.  As much as everyone had eaten, the serving bowls and platters that covered every inch of the table were still piled high with all kinds of food.

Maxim and Konstantin were still eating.  Saori was watching them with a little smile on her face.  She intercepted his gaze, her cheeks pinking prettily as she quickly looked away, leaving Fai to ponder her rather strange reaction for a moment.

Come to think of it, she’s done that every time she’s caught you looking at her today,’ his youkai-voice remarked.

Yeah, but why . . .?

Maybe she’s thinking about that kiss yesterday . . . God only knows you stayed up late enough, thinking about it . . .

He sighed inwardly, mostly because his youkai was right: he was awake almost all night, thinking about that kiss, that moment, about just how perfect it had felt to him . . . The question that had plagued him?  Did she feel it, too?  Those emotions that he’d felt?  Part of him thought that maybe she had, but he couldn’t quite shake the lingering sense of doubt . . .

You could always ask her . . .

Snorting indelicately, Fai set the glass down.  ‘No, I really can’t.

Some things, he supposed, just couldn’t be rushed, even if he wanted to . . .

“We are honored that you took the time to come to our home,” Maxim said, leaning back in his chair with a satisfied sigh.  “You are welcome here any time, Your Grace—and you, Saori.”

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Fai remarked.  “We cannot stay too much longer, though.  It’s a long drive back home.”

“Of course!  Of course!” Maxim said.  “What we spoke of earlier—rest assured, we will get to the bottom of it.”

Fai nodded.  He wasn’t entirely sure, what to make of any of the things that Maxim and Konstantin had told him.  So many rumors—some specifically targeted toward the regent—while others were far vaguer, and yet, some of them held at least a small token of truth.  That’s what bothered him most . . .

Those rumors hadn’t been what drove Konstantin to challenge him.  They had only served to deepen their overall suspicion, painting a picture of Fai that was wholly inept and almost megalomaniacally dangerous.  Rumors that the treasury was almost empty—that he’d managed to squander it completely—that he turned an apathetic eye upon those in need . . . Even that he was closing the orphanage and turning those children all out onto the street . . . and more.  Those, he supposed, were the highlights . . .

Maxim and Konstantin had promised to try to find the source of those rumors, but there were no guarantees.  Rumors, he knew, tended to take on a life of their own, even if the one who had propagated those rumors bordered upon committing outright treason . . .

Zenaida stood up, hurried over to the kitchen to retrieve a beautiful silver tray, piled high with baklava.  She set it on the one empty basket that had held slices and slices of black bread.  Though he wasn’t really a big dessert eater, he took one.  He had to admit, it was the best baklava he’d ever had . . .

Maxim laughed heartily, popping a piece of the confection into his mouth.  “And this Saori . . . She is your . . . personal assistant . . .?”

Fai didn’t miss the bawdy teasing in the man’s tone, and, glancing at Saori, he figured that she hadn’t, either.  Her cheeks pinked sweetly, and she ducked her head when Zenaida reached over and smacked her mate with the back of her hand.  “Stop that!” she scolded, despite the sparkle in her eyes, which only made Maxim laugh harder.  “And it’s none of your business, you know!”

“Something like that,” Fai allowed after clearing his throat.  “Saori . . . Are you ready?”

“Oh, but . . .” Biting her lip as she surveyed the mountains of dishes still on the table, she looked like she was torn between the idea that they really ought to get moving and the perceived carnage left in their wakes.

“No, no!  His Grace is right,” Zenaida insisted, rising from her chair and shooing Saori away from the table.  “You two have a safe trip home.”

“Dinner was delicious,” Saori said, offering the woman a polite Japanese bow.  “Thank you so much!”

Fai stood, too.  Both of the men rose, as well, to shake hands after Fai stepped around the table.  “Your hospitality is greatly appreciated,” he told them.

Maxim nodded, his dark eyes suspiciously bright.  “No, Your Grace . . .  Thank you . . . Thank you for allowing Kostya to rescind his challenge—for listening to his words.  I am in your debt, and should you ever, ever have need of me, I will be there.”

Nodding slowly, Fai grasped the man’s hand tightly.  “I may take you up on that,” he said a little ruefully.

“God be with you,” Maxim said.

“You, too.”

 


 

 

I will leave tomorrow, search out the ones who I’d heard talking before,” Konstantin said as he walked Fai and Saori out to the car.  “I . . . I’m so sorry, Your Grace . . . That I believed the things that I was told . . .”

Don’t worry about it,” Fai said.

Konstantin didn’t look any less guilty, despite Fai’s attempt to brush it off.  “Konstantin—”

Kostya,” he interrupted.  “You . . . You can call me Kostya.”

All right,” Fai agreed.  “You don’t need to address me so formally, either.”

The bear-youkai looked rather horrified—almost enough to make Fai laugh.  “Oh, uh . . . I-I-I can’t do that . . .”

If you find out anything, don’t hesitate to let me know.  Maybe it’s nothing, but . . .”

Konstantin slowly shook his head.  “No, you’re right,” he said, scratching at his bearded chin thoughtfully.  “It feels . . . It feels like there was a method to it—like someone might have wanted these things to reach me.”  The expression on his face hardened.  “I don’t like it.  If someone was trying to manipulate me . . .”

Let me know what you find out,” Fai reiterated.  “Stop in if you’re near the castle.”

“Fai-sama?”

Blinking away the lingering memory, Fai glanced over at Saori.  She yawned and stretched as well as she could, given the confines of the car.  She’d fallen asleep about ten minutes into the long drive and had been asleep for the last couple hours.  “You’re awake.”

She smiled a little vaguely.  “I can drive if you want to take a nap,” she offered.

He grunted.  “Knowing you, you’d take off for the orphanage again if I let you.”

She giggled.  “I wouldn’t!  Then again, it wouldn’t hurt to get more pictures of the children . . . Some of the files only have one or two of each of them, and some of those are pretty blurry . . .”

Fai shook his head.  “I thought you wanted to go to Evgeni’s Kupala Night celebration?”

She gasped, eyes flashing wide.  “Oh, I do!  I mean, I’ve heard stories, but it sounds so intriguing . . . We don’t have anything like that in Japan . . .”

Fai rolled his eyes.  “I can’t say that I’ve ever particularly enjoyed it, but . . . maybe this year will be different . . .”

Biting her lips, Saori smiled even as her cheeks pinked.

He sighed, propping his elbow on the window frame, resting his temple against his curled fist as he trained his eyes on the road before them.  The sun was starting to sink on the horizon, and they were still a good few hours from home.  If they had any camping gear, he’d seriously consider, just stopping, but it was probably better that they just went home.

“Oh!” Saori exclaimed, twisting around in her seat to retrieve the basket that Zenaida had packed for them.  Given that it was such a long drive, she’d insisted that they take some food.  She pulled a couple pirojki out of the basket and handed one to Fai before biting into hers.  “Mmm . . . this one’s beef!”

Leaning back slightly to eye the one in his hand, he snorted very loudly and gave it to her before grabbing the one out of her hand.

“Hey!” she protested with a little laugh.

“That one’s potato, and you did that on purpose,” he accused, shoving the entire pirojki into his mouth at once.

“But I wanted the beef one!” she complained.

“You got a bite of it,” he told her.  “Now be good and eat your pirojki.”

She giggled and bit into hers.  “Baka,” she grumbled around the food in her mouth.

“What does that mean?  Baka?” he asked.

She shot him a sidelong look, then smiled sweetly.  “It means that you’re lucky I like you, Your Grace.”

He snorted and shook his head as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 37~~
~Intrigue~

 

~o~

 

 

“What’s going on with you?”

Saori made a face as she settled down on the sofa in the antechamber of the bedroom suite.  At least Rinji looked more perplexed than angry, she thought.  “I was offered a job, helping Fai-sama find homes for the orphans,” she told him.

“Yes, that’s what kaa-san said,” he replied.  Brows furrowing together, he slowly shook his head, silvery hair spilling over his broad shoulders, golden eyes, bright, almost glowing.  There were so many moments when she was struck by how very much Rinji looked like their grandfather—pretty much exactly like him, actually—except when Rinji smiled, of course.  A bright, open, engaging smile that was lightyears away from the vague little half-smiles of their esteemed grandparent . . . Now, as he sat back in his office chair in the pristine and perfectly pressed white dress shirt—hopelessly neat, immaculately tailored—was one of those times.  “He’s not trying to lock you up again, is he?”

She giggled.  She couldn’t help herself, but the sound of her amusement only served to darken Rinji’s expression, which, in turn, just added to his Sesshoumaru-like appearance.  “No, he isn’t,” she said.  “It’s all right, nii-chan.  He’s a really good man.  You’re going to like him.”

“Oh, I will, will I?” he half-grumbled.  “Somehow, I highly doubt that.”

“You don’t think you’ll like him?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever meet him,” he clarified.  “Unless that’s your way of saying you need me to come rescue you.  Are you speaking in code, Saori-chan?”

“No, I’m not,” she insisted.  “I think you will though . . . Well, eventually . . .”

He didn’t look like he believed her, but he shrugged.  “You realize that your disappearance shaved a good thousand years off of otou-san’s life.  Mine, too, come to think of it . . .”

“I’m sure kaa-chan told him—told you—where I was . . .That I wanted to go.”

Rinji sighed.  “Actually, she didn’t at first.  Refused, actually.  Forbid me from trying to track you down, too, which just figured, but she said you were safe . . . Tou-san and kaa-chan, though . . . They had a good, old-fashioned fight about it.”

She grimaced.  “They did?”

He nodded, slumping to the side in his office chair, propping his elbow on the armrest, resting his temple on his index finger and thumb, spread into the shape of the letter, ‘L’.  “I guess he hadn’t taken the time to explain why he went to go find Demyanov-sama, just that that’s where they were going—he and ojii-san.  Anyway, ojii-san called to say that Fai-sama had called him, so . . .”

She didn’t know what to say to that.  The last thing—the very last thing—she’d ever wanted to do was to cause an argument between her parents . . .

Rinji sighed.  “Saori, you always take everything so personally.  Kaa-san was thinking of you when she refused to tell him anything.  It wasn’t until tou-san said that he and ojii-san went to go talk to Demyanov-sama, to ask him if he was done, trying to punish you for . . . Well, for that . . . Anyway, once he explained that, then she was more than happy to tell him that you’d taken Demyanov-sama up on his offer of a job.”

“. . . But they’re not fighting anymore, right?”

Her brother smiled.  It was the indulgent little smile that she knew so well, full of affection and even a little amusement.  It lent his amber gaze a certain glow, deepened the color to more of a tawny, a sherry . . . It was the smile that Saori loved.  “No, Saori-chan, they’re not fighting any more . . . But speaking of your new job, obaa-san said to tell you that she’s still looking into potential adopters . . . She said she has a few who might be interested, and jiji said that he’s been talking to some of the wealthier families in the area to see if any of them would be willing to house some of the older children while they attend Tokyo Gakuen.  He says that so far, there is quite a bit of interest, so if you could compile a list of the children that you’d like to send here, then it’d give him a better idea, how many families he’d need.”

“I’ll do that,” she promised.  “I’m sure Fai-sama will agree to that.  It would take a huge burden off the orphanage, too . . .”  Suddenly, she giggled.  “Fai-sama’s taking me to a traditional Kupala celebration!  His . . . well, I guess he’s his friend . . . He’s throwing a huge party—a couple days of festivities and a formal ball afterward.  I have to admit, I’m pretty excited . . . I bought my dress earlier today.”

“And he’s just your boss . . .?” he challenged rather dubiously, arching an eyebrow in silent challenge.

“Yes, of course . . . I admit, I thought about wearing the dress I bought in Australia when he took me to the opera, but I didn’t think it was quite formal enough, and Kupala is a celebration of summer, so I thought something lighter would be better . . .”

“Is that right?”  Tilting his head to the side, he stared at her for several seconds, a thoughtful expression on his beloved face.  When she was younger, the few sleepovers she’d had, she’d discovered that her friends had loved it whenever Rinji just happened to stop by . . . Objectively speaking, she had to admit, he was one of the better-looking men she knew, even if he was her brother . . . There was just something about him, she supposed, even if Rinji himself never actually seemed to notice the uncanny effect he tended to have on the female population, in general . . .

“Nii-chan?”

He blinked, as though he hadn’t realized that he was staring off into space.  Then he chuckled.  “Sorry.  I was just remembering when you’d get that look on your face when you’d talk to me instead of when you’re talking about Demyanov-sama.”

“Look?  What look?”

He shook his head, but his smile didn’t fade.  In fact, it turned a little bashful—entirely sweet and entirely endearing, too.  “That look, like I was the one you liked best in the world.  I think I’ve been replaced . . .”  He shrugged.  “So, are you going to tell me what’s really going on over there?”

“I . . .” She wrinkled her nose.  “There’s nothing going on.  I swear.”

“Nothing you want to tell onii-chan about, anyway . . .”

She giggled.  “And you tell me everything?  Because I won’t believe you if you say you do.”

“I’m much older than you, Saori, and—”

“Twenty-six years isn’t that big of a difference,” she interrupted.

He rolled his eyes.  “It kind of is.”

“To humans, sure, but we’re youkai.  If you think about it that way, twenty-six years is a pretty short time, really . . .”

Her logic amused him, and he chuckled.  “The fact remains that I’m old enough to be your father, which is why I am absolutely allowed to keep certain things from you.”

Saori frowned at him.  “Nii-chan . . .”

“Hmm?”

“It occurred to me . . .”

“Hmm?”

She rolled her eyes since he had slipped into the, ‘I’m-going-to-humor-you,’ tone of voice.  “You’re almost fifty—”

“I’m forty-six.”

“—which is still almost fifty.  When are you going to find your mate?”

“For your information, Little Miss Nosy, I’m not in that big a hurry to find one.  If it happens, it happens.  If it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t.  You can’t really rush that kind of thing, anyway, and it’s not like I don’t have quite enough on my plate as it is.”

She wrinkled her nose.  “You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” she pointed out.  “Why is that?  Too busy, playing the field?”

He grunted.  “I’ll talk to you later,” he said, leaning forward, hand reaching toward the camera—toward the computer.  “Bye.”

She laughed when he abruptly ended the call.  She missed Rinji, no doubt about it.

The computer chimed, letting her know that she’d received an email, and she leaned in to tap it.  It was from Sabra Kouri, the African tai-youkai.

.

 

Dear Miss Saori

I have talked to my advisors, and they have informed me of three families who are interested in providing permanent homes for some of your orphans.  Attached are the files of each family, along with the children that they are interested in meeting.  Please advise as to whether or not this is acceptable to you or if you require more information before meeting the potential adopters.’ 

Very truly yours,
Sabra.’

 

.

Biting her lip as she clicked to download the attachments, she scanned the first one, long enough to ascertain that the files on the families were very detailed, including lists of personal references, financial reports, everything she could possibly need.  Even better, she noticed as she scanned through the other documents, none of the families had asked for children that were already set to meet other families.  She’d done her best to apprise the different tai-youkai that some of the children had already been tentatively paired up with families from other jurisdictions, but she’d worried that maybe she’d been a little preoccupied, that she might have forgotten to send some of the memos on . . .

Grabbing the slim-file she’d transferred the information to, she stood up and hurried to the door, ready to find Fai and to tell him about the most recent developments—not just the email from Sabra-sama, but also the information that her brother had given her, too.

 


 

 

Yerik grimaced as he accepted the outstretched hand, offered to help him to his feet.  He was stiff he was sore, and yet, he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“You still breathing, pup?” InuYasha asked in a rather bored tone of voice, dropping Tetsusaiga into the scabbard on his hip as he crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at Yerik.

“I’m ready,” he said, adjusting his grip on his sword.

InuYasha didn’t look convinced and waved a hand.  “Take a break,” he growled.

“It’s fine,” Yerik insisted, struggling just a little to keep from breathing too heavily.

“Take a break,” InuYasha growled a second time.  “Anyway, you’re not doing too bad.  Not like I think you’re gonna die if you get sent out again.”

Ryomaru chuckled.  “High praise coming from him.”

Dropping the sword into the scabbard on his hip, Yerik headed over to the clear stream, taking his time as he scooped up some water in his hands and drank it down.

They were a bit away from the castle since InuYasha and Ryomaru didn’t want to let Saori know that they were there.  Yerik was of the opinion that she wouldn’t mind, not really, but they seemed to think that she might well freak out if she found out that they were assigned to watch out for her.  At this point, they were both pretty sure that Fai had no intention of locking her up again, but they weren’t quite ready to call it quits, either, and that was fine with Yerik.  After all, he was ultimately benefitting from their presence in Russia, even if his body wasn’t as convinced as his mind was . . .

It was pretty brutal, actually.  Neither InuYasha nor Ryomaru ever pulled their punches.  It wasn’t as bad as the first couple days, though, when they were doing little more than sparring with him, just to assess his level of skill.  Yerik had thought that he was very well trained.  He was wrong.  Those two moved ridiculously fast, and having even just one of them as an opponent was tough enough.

He’d started out, sparring with Ryomaru, and he’d thought that was bad.  He’d soon learned that there was a reason that history had named InuYasha the Hanyou of Legend.  He was intuitive enough to avoid most every attack, and on the occasion when Yerik was able to land a hit, it was always countered with ridiculous speed.

Right now, he was learning how to see the collision of youki, to find the fissure where they met.  InuYasha had told him that his kaze no kizu wouldn’t be as powerful as one performed with Tetsusaiga, but that he should be able to use it once he learned it, however, he probably wouldn’t be able to infuse his own youki into the blade to use it without an actual conflict, as InuYasha could do, simply because of the way the sword was made.  If it had been created to absorb Yerik’s youki, then it could have.  It wasn’t, though, since he had no real use of elemental properties . . .

“You’re doing a hell of a job.  Can’t say I’ve seen anyone with your drive, really . . . Well, not since Bas, and he’s a law unto himself . . .” Ryomaru remarked, hunkering down beside the stream to get a drink of water.  “If that one’s coming straight at you, you’d do better to just get the fuck outta the way . . .”

“Bas?”

Ryomaru grinned.  “Oh, Sebastian . . .  next North American tai-youkai.  That one’s built like a brick shithouse, and it’s one-hundred-percent scary-as-hell . . .”

“Are you scared of him?”

Ryomaru snorted.  “Me?  Keh!  I eat pups like him for dinner!”

Yerik rolled his eyes, but grinned.

“Ow!” Ryomaru growled when InuYasha balled up his fist and thumped him on the head.  “What’d you do that for, oyaji?”

“Quit your smack-talking, baka, and get back on task—both of you.”

Ryomaru stood up slowly, rubbing at his head despite the goofy grin that had surfaced on his features.  “C’mon, Yerik.  Let’s see if you can get it right this time.”

Yerik was a little slower in getting to his feet, but he stood up and followed the hanyou back over to the clearing to resume his practice.

 


 

 

Fai strode into Saori’s room, a marked scowl, darkening his gaze.  Spotting her all cozy under the thin duvet as she turned the page of the book she was reading, he arched an eyebrow and stomped over to the bed.

“Did something displease you?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.  He wasn’t wearing a shirt or slacks, decked out instead in a pair of gray cotton sleeping pants, and he slowly shook his head when she didn’t even bother to raise her head.

“Nothing’s wrong,” she told him a little absently.  “I didn’t know how long you were going to be locked in your office, and I was sleepy.  That’s all.”

He grunted.  “You could sleep—or read, actually—in my bed.”

She gave a very vague little nod.  “I could, but this one looked comfortable, and I haven’t slept in it yet . . .” Lifting her chin to frown at him, she shook her head.  “Besides, don’t you think the maid wonders about that when she comes in here to make my bed every day?”

“I think I pay her well enough not to care where you sleep at night, Saori.”

She didn’t look like she believed him.  In fact, she wiggled around, making herself more comfortable against the mountain of pillows, propped behind her.

“All right,” he grumbled, stomping around the bed.  “You win.”

She blinked, biting her lip as a tiny smile twisted the corners of her lips when he crawled into bed next to her.  “Don’t hog the blankets.”

She rolled her eyes when he gave the duvet a good yank, holding it to his chest as he rolled over to face away from her, very nearly uncovering her in the process.  “Hey!”

“My blankets are bigger because my bed is bigger,” he pointed out.  “Night, Saori.”

She giggled, setting the book aside so that she could cuddle against his back.  He shrugged his shoulder in a show of trying to shake her off, which only made her laugh harder.  “Oyasumi,” she said between giggled.

Fai heaved a longsuffering sigh, but rolled over to pull her against his chest.  “Go to sleep,” he told her gruffly.

She leaned up, kissed his cheek, before snuggling against him once more as she closed her eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 38~~
~Evgeni~

 

~o~

 

 

The expansive estate wasn’t quite as big as Demyanov Castle, but the opulence, the grandeur, seemed to fairly drip from every visible orifice.  Completely adorned with garlands of flowers in a riot of colors that snaked their ways up and around the tallest pillars that flanked the great porch, that draped across the overhang in a very welcoming display.  The ivy that climbed impossibly high on the outer walls were dotted with more flowers, adding a gaiety to what could have been a rather imposing structure.

Two majestic fountains rose high on either side of the long and winding driveway, in the midst of the well-manicured gardens, and Saori could see, even from the distance, that the driveway was already lined with a number of vehicles.

“They’re not all staying here,” Fai said, following the direction of Saori’s stare.  “Most of them take rooms at the local inns and just drive here for the festivities.”

“And is there a reason you had to drag me along?” Yerik complained from the back seat of the car.  “You’re the Demyanov that they want to see, not me.”

“You normally love the Ivan Kupala celebrations,” Fai pointed out.

Yerik snorted.  “Sure, when I was ten and all I had to do was run around like a little banshee and drive all the adults crazy . . .”

Fai chuckled.  “It’ll be fine,” he assured him.  Saori covered her mouth to hide her amusement since his tone made it sound like more of a threat than a reassurance.

“Does Feodosiv-san have a mate?  Children?” she asked, figuring that it might be for the best to change the current topic.

Fai shrugged.  “A mate, yes.  Children?  No.  Evgeni isn’t exactly fond of them.”

She nodded.  Yes, she supposed she could see that.  He didn’t seem like the warm and personable type, not really . . . “And you, Fai-sama?” she ventured.  “Do you want children?”

“Well, whether I want them or not, it’s kind of part and parcel with the title,” he remarked.

His answer caught her off-guard.  She wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret it.  He’d said it in such a dry tone . . . She’d never stopped to consider, whether or not she’d find a mate who didn’t really relish the idea of starting a family, had she?  And certainly, Fai would have to have at least one child since he’d need an heir to his title, but something about that bothered her, too . . .

Come on, Saori . . . Maybe you’re reading too much into it . . .

But she didn’t think so; not really.  If Fai didn’t really want them, what would that mean for any children they’d have, since it really was necessary?

But he is your mate, you know.  There’s really no going back on that now.  Besides, you know he liked the children at the orphanage well enough . . .

They . . . They weren’t his, though, and that makes a huge difference . . .

Well, try to look on the bright side.  Either way, you’re guaranteed at least one pup, right?

Biting her lip as the car came to a stop before the impressive edifice that was the Feodosiv cottegi, she managed a very wan smile when Fai came around to open her door, took her hand to help her out of it.

As true as that may be, if he didn’t want any, then the child would know it, and if that were the case, just how fair would it be?  Maybe Fai’s upbringing was a lot stricter than Saori’s ever was, but having children, simply because one had to?  It wouldn’t be fair, not at all, not to any children born into a family like that . . . She simply hadn’t thought that Fai would feel that way—or she simply hadn’t really considered it.

And if he didn’t want children, could she really be all right with that?  Certainly, it wasn’t his fault.  He hadn’t decided such a thing just to spite her.  Even so . . .

It was a question that really required a lot more time and thought to truly figure out.  That it had come up now, just before the midsummer festival was simply rotten timing, but somehow, she didn’t think she’d really be able to brush it aside, not when it really was such a huge thing to her . . .

A couple of servants stepped outside, hurried over to retrieve their luggage from the trunk.  Evgeni emerged, waiting on the porch to greet them.  It all passed Saori by in a haze, even as they were led upstairs to their rooms.

It wasn’t until the door closed behind the servant with her bags that Saori blinked and looked around.

She was entirely alone.

 


 

 

“Why do you look like you’re a million miles from here?”

Blinking, forcing a little smile as Yerik stopped beside her, golden hair shining softly, bright green eyes sparkling, decked out in a very nice, very conservative suit that wasn’t quite a tux but wasn’t exactly something one would wear to the office, either, Saori gave what she hoped was a casual shrug.  “Just thinking, I guess,” she replied, careful to keep her tone light despite the darker thoughts that were still swirling around her brain.  “Who’s that woman over there, staring at Fai-sama like he hung the moon?”

Yerik chuckled, the sound of it muffled by the glass of vodka hovering at his lips as he followed the direction of her gaze.  Fai, wearing a plain white dress shirt and black slacks, tie hanging loosely below the first undone button at his neck . . . If he weren’t the Asian tai-youkai, he probably wouldn’t have turned up in such a casual way.  “Honestly?  I have no idea.  It happens all the times at gatherings like this.  To be honest, I have no idea if they’re interested in him or if they’re just trying to get a piece of the tai-youkai . . .”

She frowned.  It was pretty obvious to her that Fai was not exactly encouraging the attention.  Standing with one hand, holding a drink and with his other hand dug deep in his pocket, he was listening politely despite the body language that was definitely gracious, even if unmistakably aloof.  Not for the first time, his gaze shifted to meet hers, and again, she managed a wan smile.  He offered her the tiniest nod before returning his attention to the woman before him.

They were in the midst of a small—that was Evgeni’s word for it; Saori would have called it rather large—cocktail party—a party she’d wanted to skip.  Too bad she figured that it would have drawn way too much attention, at least, from Fai . . . Truth be told, she’d much rather be left alone to think, to try to make sense of the feelings of trepidation inspired by Fai’s candid words in the car, but after the huge dinner in the grand hall, Fai had reminded her that she might wish to change before the party started . . .

“Come with me.”

She blinked when Yerik grabbed her hand, led her over to the doors that opened out onto the stern brick patio behind the cottegi.  He stopped just outside the doors, letting go of her, and grinned at her as she stepped forward, her face upturned as she stared in wonder at the illuminated gardens, slightly aglow with a matrix of fairy lights, all in varying shades of white.  Some of them were set to blink, giving the illusion of a million little fireflies in the darkness.  The beautifully tended flowerbeds, hedges, bushes, small trees . . . the flawlessly cut grass . . . All of it was lit by those twinkling bulbs, and, for the first time since their arrival, she giggled softly.  “Beautiful,” she breathed.

Yerik chuckled.  “Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet,” he remarked, beckoning her to follow him as he led the way down the steps and onto the flagstone path.  “Good thing that I’ve done this before,” he quipped as he veered to the right when the path split.  “I’ve seen all this many times already.

She smiled.  It was a real one this time.  It was rather impossible to maintain such a pensive mood when she was surrounded by such understated wonder . . .

“You’ve been quiet since we arrived,” he said when she remained silent.  “It’s kind of unlike you.”

Sighing inwardly, she shook her head.  “I’m fine,” she told him, hoping that he wouldn’t see right through her lie.  “Just a little tired.”

Yerik nodded slowly, eyes carefully trained straight ahead of them.  “You know, you could always sneak over to Fai’s room,” he told her.  “I don’t really think he’d mind, and, to be honest, I don’t think anyone else would notice, either.”

“W—I-I . . . No, it’s fine,” she muttered.  “I mean, it would be entirely improper, wouldn’t it?  And it’s only for a couple days . . .”

Yerik chuckled as they rounded a bend in the path, stepping through an opening in a six-foot hedge that ran in a circle, enclosing a large court.  The other side of the split path must have circled around the same way but in the opposite direction, because there was another opening directly across the circle, and Saori’s eyes widened.

In the center of the courtyard stood a beautiful little pond that almost reminded Saori of the koi ponds back home.  The entire thing was aglow with the tiniest net of lights, spread over the bottom under the water.  Those lights were all a single shade of the palest blue, and she couldn’t help the small giggle that slipped from her as she knelt beside the water’s edge, letting her fingertips dangle in it.

Yerik sighed, standing back, hands deep in the pockets of his slacks, but sometime since they’d stepped outside, he’d ditched his jacket, lost his tie, unbuttoned the top two buttons of his dress shirt, and rolled up his sleeves a couple of times for good measure.  “If I thought that I could get away with it, I’d take you for a run,” he said.  “That’s what I do when I’m . . . fine . . .”

She felt her back stiffen, and she winced.  He didn’t see it since she was facing the pond.  “I told you—”

“It’s okay, you know,” he interrupted gently and in the same conversational tone.  “If you don’t want to tell me, I get it.  Now, my guess is that it has something to do with Fai . . . I just thought that maybe some fresh air, some quiet, might be good for you.”

She stood up, flicking her fingers, sending droplets of water, flying from her hand.  Caught in the dancing network of lights, they sparkled and shimmered as they shot out over the pond and dropped back into the water once more.  “Will you walk with me a little longer?” she asked as she turned to face him again.

“Sure,” he replied, offering her a lopsided grin.  This time, he headed in the opposite direction from the cottegi.  She hadn’t noticed the opening in the hedges on this side, and little wonder why.  The path led to a less ordered, but still beautiful part of the garden—less formal and more freeform, and this one was simply accented with the occasional garden lamp, most of them masked by clumps of greenery, of small and less articulated trees . . . Clumps of wildflowers that meandered wherever they wanted, a few benches tucked away here and there—the perfect spot for quiet reflection, for reading a book, or for simply being alone . . .

“Can I ask you something?”

Yerik blinked, shot her a quick glance, almost as though he were surprised by her question.  “Okay,” he told her, veering toward a bench that stood in a cove between two small trees.

She sat down with him, taking a moment to gather her thoughts before speaking, savoring the crisp evening air to drift over her cheeks, tossing the strands of her hair that had escaped the twist she’d pulled it up into before the party as she fussed with the hem of the short black dress she’d packed, ‘just in case’.  “Fai-sama . . . He raised you, right?”

He nodded.  “He did.”

“I know both of you said that,” she hurried on to say.  “It’s just . . . I wondered . . . What . . .? What kind of parent was he to you?”

“Parent?” he echoed, a sense of confusion, knitting his brows together.  Then he barked out a terse laugh, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, hands dangling between them.  “Well, I guess he kind of was, wasn’t he?  I just never really thought of it quite like that, I guess . . .”  He sighed, pondering her question more fully.  “He, um . . . He . . . rarely said, ‘no’ to me.  I mean, he did if it was something really stupid, but I’d ask him if he’d play with me, for example, and . . . and he always did.  I know, that seems like a dumb thing, but looking back now?  How busy was he?  How many times did I ask him to basically drop everything, and he always did . . . Never made me feel like a pest or a nuisance, and he really had to have thought it, at least, once in a while, right?  I guess, if I had to say, one way or the other . . . He was . . . He was a good one—a, uh . . . a parent, I mean.”

She frowned.  Somehow, Yerik’s answer confused her even more . . .

Yerik sighed.  “You know, Saori . . . I know that it’s really none of my business.  After all, I think I’d be a little offended if my younger brother tried to meddle in my, uh, affairs.  But . . . But there were a lot of times as I grew older that I’d realize things—things that I’m sure Fai had tried to hide from me.  Of course, he would, right?  I was just a pup, so I didn’t understand at the time . . . Anyway, as I grew older, I started to get it.  Fai . . . Fai dropped out of college to take care of me.  Between raising me and being tai-youkai, I wonder sometimes, how he found it in himself to do it all, and he did it alone.  I can’t remember ever having a nanny or anything, and I don’t remember Fai ever being far away from me, either . . .”

Trailing off, he shook his head, as though he were trying to figure out exactly how to say what it was on his mind.  In the end, he shot her an almost apologetic kind of smile, all lopsided and bashful and entirely endearing . . . “Fai never brought home women.  If he met with anyone on a regular basis, I never heard of it.  It’s not surprising, I guess, given that he’s always taken his station very seriously . . . but in the length of time that I’ve known you, I’ve heard my brother laugh—really laugh—more often than I can remember the whole time, growing up, and that has to mean something.  You . . . You have to mean something.”  Shaking his head, he chuckled softly.  “Anyway, I, uh . . . Thank you for that.”  Slipping an arm around her shoulders to give them a gentle squeeze, he kissed her temple before turning his attention upward again.  “Just . . . thanks . . .”

 


 

 

Fai surreptitiously flicked his wrist, tried to glance down at his watch without being too obvious about it as he sat in Evgeni’s office, along with a few other people that he didn’t know, but that Evgeni had introduced as business associates.  They were currently discussing the stock market, and Fai was actively considering sneaking away.

He’d seen Yerik pull Saori out into the gardens behind the cottegi, and he’d seen when they’d slipped back inside once more an hour later.  Saori had seemed a lot more relaxed, too, which only made Fai wonder if he hadn’t imagined the subtle sense that something was bothering her before . . .

In any case, he really did want to go find her, to talk to her, to make sure that she was all right, and he’d been ready to do that a couple hours ago, only to be intercepted by Evgeni, who said that he had some associates he wanted Fai to meet.

A woman slipped into the room—Evgeni had introduced her as Katja Petrova.  She said nothing, striding straight over to Evgeni to whisper something in his ear.  Evgeni’s usual stern expression seemed to draw together in a thoughtful scowl, and he held up a hand for silence as his gaze locked with Fai’s.  “Your Grace, did Konstantin Korinovich issue you a challenge?”

Fai’s expression gave away nothing, despite the internal surprise that Evgeni had hears about that at all.  “He rescinded,” Fai replied evenly, almost carelessly.

Evgeni’s scowl darkened even more.  “You let him out of it?  Why would you do that?  What if he comes back later?  What if he spreads rumors about the entire affair?  Your reputation—”

“—Is just fine and will remain just fine,” Fai cut in.  “Turns out, he was fed a bunch of rumors.  I have since reassured him that his place—his father’s place—as regent is as secure now as it has ever been—not that I really need to explain my actions to you.  Last time I checked, I am not answerable to anyone—anyone but the Inu no Taisho, anyway.”

“Fai, surely you understand—”

“What else did she just tell you?” Fai cut in, flicking his gaze to the woman—Katja—for a mere second before meeting Evgeni’s once more.

Evgeni uttered a small chuckle.  “She’s got an uncanny ability to come by information; that’s all,” Then he sighed.  “I’m not trying to question your motives, but surely you can see just how questionable that could be.  Korinovich could well prove to be dangerous if left unchecked.  Siberia’s never been an easy region to govern—many of those who call it home are also the ones who seek to avoid undue notice.”

“Thank you for your concern,” Fai replied a little tightly.  “It’s entirely unnecessary.”

Evgeni nodded.  “Good, then . . . Oh, but I was wondering, how are the orphans’ placements going?  Has Saori been able to make any headway with that?”

“She’s looking through the list of potential adopters.  I imagine she’ll start making arrangements to have them come here to meet the children as soon as we go home.”

Evgeni’s eyebrows lifted in very obvious surprise.  “You’re leaving her in charge of the entire process?”

Fai shrugged, rising from his chair, moving off toward the wet bar to refill his glass.  “Of course, I am.  That’s why I hired her.”

Not the only reason, Fai.

Not now,’ Fai told his youkai-voice.

The voice snorted indelicately.

“But she’s so young . . . That’s a lot of responsibility for one who is little more than a child herself.”

“And yet, I hired her anyway,” he retorted dryly.

Another man in the room—Fai had already forgotten his name—laughed.  “Oh, come now, Geni . . . if I were His Grace, I’d have hired her, too.  By the way, is she single?”

Loosening his grip on the glass mere moments before it shattered in his hand, Fai had to tamp down the instant and violent surge of anger inspired by the man’s misplaced question.  “I hired her because she is quite capable of doing the task I asked her to do,” he replied without turning away from the wet bar.

“Well, I did notice that your younger brother seemed to have taken an interest in her,” the last man remarked.  “Maybe not single for long, eh?”

Gritting his teeth, Fai turned around, deliberately taking his time as he sipped the vodka.  “Surely there’s something more interesting to discuss other than the young lady I hired?” he asked, pinning Evgeni with a very pointed stare.  “If not, then I will retire for the night.”

Evgeni nodded slowly.  “Well, if you want my opinion on the subject of the regents . . . You’ve already lost a few of them.  Do you really need to have them at all?  Your father never had use for them.  You’re strong enough without their backing.  Get rid of them, I say.”

“I have no intention of usurping the regents,” Fai said, turning far enough to set the empty glass on the sideboard.  “I’m tired, Evgeni.  Thank you for an enjoyable evening.”

That said, he started out of the room with every intention of finding Saori, to at least speak to her, even if he wasn’t at all sure that he ought to try to tempt fate by sleeping in the same room as her.

Evgeni fell into step beside him in the hallway, heading back toward the great hall once more.  “I understand your feelings regarding the regents,” he said as the headed for the grand staircase.  “But how do you know you can trust them—especially the likes of Konstantin Korinovich and his father?”

“It’s not open to discussion, Geni,” he warned in a tone that should have left no room for debate.

The griffon-vulture-youkai looked about as frustrated as it was possible for him to look, eyes narrowing as he puffed up his chest, but he let the subject drop, only to bring up another one entirely.  “I was told the other day that Ian MacDonnough might be willing to buy the rights to the area on his side of the continent.”

Fai stopped in his tracks for a second before striding down the hallway toward the bedroom he’d been given for his stay.  “No.”

“Be reasonable, Fai . . . He’s offering what you desperately need: money—a lot of it, and all he wants is the European side of Russia—the western Slavic nations . . . It’s not that big of an area, and really, it would give you that much less to have to worry about.”

“I said no,” Fai stated once more, stepping over the threshold of the bedroom, starting to close the door.

Evgeni grabbed it before Fai could close it completely.  “Just think about it, please.  If things keep on the way they are now . . .”

“I am well aware of my finances,” he said.  “Now, I’m tired, and you’ve got that hunt planned early tomorrow, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed.”

Evgeni didn’t look entirely pleased, but he nodded.  “Then I bid you sleep well, Your Grace.”

Finally, blessedly, Fai closed the door.  Hand over part of his jurisdiction?  No, that wouldn’t be happening, and he didn’t rightfully care if the money would help or not.  Sell off parts of his jurisdiction?  The idea unleased a rage in him that erupted in a low, vicious growl.

Auctioning off pieces of his father’s empire?  “Never,” he hissed under his breath.

Pacing the length of the room and back, he struggled to get a tight grip on his anger.  It didn’t really work.  The longer he thought about it, the angrier he grew, and the angrier he grew, the more he needed to rip something to shreds . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 39~~
~Ivan Kupala~

 

~o~

 

 

Saori bit her lip, shot Yerik a nervous glance as they knelt on the balcony, overlooking the gardens below where people milled about, enjoying the Kupala Eve celebrations.  The holiday—a long-standing pagan tradition, celebrating the god of fertility and purity always held on the summer solstice—the longest day of the year—had become the celebration of John the Baptist, also known as Ivan Kupala, after Christianity had spread into the region centuries ago.  It still retained many of the old traditions, however, with an emphasis on purity and fertility, focusing largely on the use and imagery of water and the purifying properties of it.  This day, however, was Tvorila night—the night of good humor and mischief—and Yerik, still caught up between being a pup and becoming an adult, had roused Saori out of bed just before the crack of dawn with a bucket of used bathwater in an effort to get her to go swim with him since it was a well-known fact that the most purifying swims should always be taken at dawn . . .

And since that shocking wake up call, here they’d been, hiding on the balcony, waiting for unwitting targets that they could pour water on, hence making them participate in the purifying swimming in the nearby lake . . .

“I suppose we ought to be a little sorry for this,” Yerik remarked in a hushed tone as he scanned the area below.

“You don’t sound sorry at all—and why didn’t you douse your brother instead of me?” she demanded, also careful to keep her voice low.

Yerik chuckled.  “Are you kidding?  They already left for their hunt well before dawn,” he explained.  “Asked me if I wanted to go, but . . . spending hours with Evgeni and his band of peacocks?  I’ll pass.”

“You . . . You don’t like him?” she asked, rising up, carefully taking aim with her bucket as the woman who had been fawning all over Fai at the party last night stopped conveniently under the balcony.

Yerik shrugged, standing up, helping her to steady the cumbersome wooden bucket.  “It’s more that he’s just . . . boring,” he explained.  “Oh, look!  There!  One . . . two . . . three . . .”

And they tipped the bucket in one fluid motion before dropping back down once more, hands over mouths to stifle the giggles as the woman shrieked in surprise when the water struck true.  Saori collapsed against Yerik’s shoulder, her face turning an unsightly shade of red with her efforts to contain her overall amusement since she could hear the woman’s rapid and outraged words, and she didn’t dare lean toward the railing, lest she could be discerned.

Yerik chuckled.  “Maybe we should go down, see what the locals are up to,” he suggested.  It was the one time of year, he’d told her, that Evgeni opened his estate to the people in the local village, and they flocked here in droves, some of them, handing out flower and herb garlands along with garlands for the young ladies to set adrift, while others were gathered around bonfires, singing songs and visiting as boys competed against one another to see who could jump the highest over the burning fires . . .

It was a time of revelry and celebration, of merriment and hope.  It wasn’t unusual for people to bring shirts of their ailing loved ones, too, to cast them into the flames in the hopes that it would purge the sickness from the afflicted ones, and, though it may not really help, having faith was a precious thing, too . . .

Setting the bucket aside, Yerik gestured for Saori to follow him as he squat-scooted toward the balcony doors, just in case the woman wasn’t done berating them.  She crawled after him, both of them laughing in low tones until they closed the doors.  Saori collapsed, laughing so hard that her stomach hurt and her eyes watered while Yerik rolled onto his back, unleashing a deep belly laugh. They stayed that way for a few minutes, and it might have ended sooner, but every time one of them managed to stop, the other one would burst into another round of laughter, dragging each other along.

By the time they finally managed to wind down, they were both gasping for breath, wiping their eyes.  Yerik was the first to speak.  “I don’t remember the last time I laughed that hard,” he admitted, shaking his head slowly, as though he didn’t believe what he was saying.

“Me, either,” she said, wrapping her arms over her stomach with a low groan.  “Oh, I hurt . . .”

Yerik chuckled and stood up, extending a hand to help her to her feet.  “Come on.  You need one of those wreaths, right?”

“Do I?” she asked, allowing him to pull her up.

He shrugged, letting go of her hand as he poked his head into the hallway, as though he were making sure that they weren’t about to be waylaid.  The coast was clear, so he pushed the door open and stepped back to allow Saori to pass him.

“Sure, you do.  You’re not married or anything . . . Of course, you’re going to want to set your garland adrift.  Maybe . . . Maybe some young man will manage to snare it before it sinks, and then you’ll have to marry him.”

She rolled her eyes despite the sparkle still in her eyes.  “You don’t have to marry the one who does that,” she countered.

He chuckled.  “That’s true, but you’ll break his heart if you don’t . . .”

“Do you really think there’s any truth to all of that?”

Yerik shrugged.  “You never know, do you?  I mean, it’s entirely possible that there is some.  Let’s go see if there are any fortune tellers down there.  There’s usually one or two at these things, anyway.  We’ll see if they can’t make any predictions about you.”

She wrinkled her nose as they descended the staircase.  “Only if you do it, too,” she said.

“Okay,” he agreed.  “Not that I’m going to find my mate or that I’m even remotely interested in looking for one at this point, but maybe they’ll know where I can go later when I’m ready.”

Saori nodded.  She supposed she could understand that.  After all, Yerik was still only eighteen years old.  There was plenty of time for him to worry about something like that, especially when he didn’t really need or want the distraction of a woman in his life at this point while he was out on a hunt . . .

Venturing through the opulent great hall, lined with various statues, pedestals with beautiful antique vases . . . Very old paintings, bathed in softened spotlights—even a couple Cain Zelig pieces that Saori recognized simply by the style of the paintings . . . Evgeni was not shy about showing his wealth . . .

“Oh, Master Yerik!  Saori!  Good morning,” Arrida Feodosova greeted as she hurried forward to intercept the two of them.  The golden-fox-youkai smiled warmly, her pretty face, bright and eager as she grasped Saori’s hands and gave them a welcoming squeeze.  She wasn’t a kitsune; those did not exist outside of Japan without direct lineage.  It struck Saori again, just how vastly different the woman was from her mate, Evgeni.  Impossibly friendly, warm, she had been genuinely pleased and had taken the time to chat with Saori awhile last night when she and Yerik had returned from their sojourn in the gardens.  Then she’d gone out of her way to introduce Saori to most of the women in attendance, as well.  She was as sweet and kind as Evgeni was brusque and even a little foreboding, but she brushed that thought aside as she returned Arrida’s smile.  “I trust you slept well?” she asked, including both of them in her question.

“Absolutely,” Yerik replied with very welcoming smile.

“Thank you,” Saori replied.  “I did.”  That was a lie, but that had nothing at all to do with her room and everything to do with the idea that Fai . . . He hadn’t even stopped in to say good night . . .

Arrida seemed entirely pleased by their answers, however, her bright green eyes sparkling even more as her giggled.  “You know, the ladies and I were getting ready to have some tea in the solar,” she remarked. “Would you like to join us?”

“Oh,” Saori exclaimed, casting Yerik a quick glance.  “I would love to, but, umm . . . I was going to go outside with Yerik-kun . . . Take a look around . . .”

“If you’d rather, that’s fine,” Yerik told her.

Arrida seemed to believe that the entire thing was settled, and she grasped Saori’s arm and started to lead her away.  “The men should be back from the hunt soon,” she called over her shoulder.  “I will assume you’re not interested in sitting around with a bunch of gossiping women, after all.”

 Yerik’s soft chuckle sounded behind them, and Saori frowned.  She hadn’t bothered to get dressed in anything special, really—just a pair of tan slacks and a pale pink blouse.  Arrida, however, was turned out in a rather proper day dress befitting the festive occasion.

“Should I go change?” Saori blurted before they could cross the threshold into the bright and airy sun room that Arrida had called the solar.

Arrida blinked, pausing long enough to give Saori a quick once-over.  “You’re fine,” she assured her, her smile returning.  “Lovely, in fact!  To tell you the truth, I was looking for you, you know.”

Saori blinked.  “You were?”

Arrida nodded enthusiastically.  “Well, my dear friend, Ekaterina has a son who couldn’t seem to keep his eyes off you last night, so she wanted to get to know you better . . .”

“Oh, uh—”

If Arrida noticed her sudden reluctance, she ignored it.  “Now, come on!  Besides, Ekaterina’s son?  He’s a very accomplished man, even if he isn’t very old . . .”

She tried to think of a reason to back out of the invitation to attend tea.  It was too late, however, as Arrida herded her toward the women, milling around the solar, chatting in small groups.  At least some of them weren’t dressed any fancier than Saori was, and that was a small relief.  Even so . . .

A huge knot formed deep in her belly, and Saori could only wish that she’d opted to go wandering with Yerik instead . . .

 


 

 

“How was hunting?”

Sparing a moment to pin his younger brother with an entirely longsuffering kind of stare, Fai tried to weave through the milling crowd in his effort to get back to the cottegi—and to find Saori.

He’d been too irritated to go to her last night.  It had taken everything in him to keep his temper in check.  The idea that Evgeni would even propose the idea that Fai might consider selling a part of his jurisdiction, especially to the likes of Ian MacDonnough?

Even thinking about it now was enough to send his temper soaring, all over again.

“That bad?” Yerik deadpanned when Fai didn’t answer him.

Fai leaned to the side to avoid a bunch of children who were running along the same path.  “It was fine,” he replied, figuring that it wasn’t worth repeating.  Given that Evgeni had studiously avoided any so-called, ‘shop talk’ during the hunt was but a small reprieve in his estimation, anyway . . .

You know, Evgeni’s grown more vocal with his . . . concerns . . . of late . . .’ his youkai remarked thoughtfully.  ‘Perhaps you should remind him where his place is in the grand scheme of things?  Friend or not, he openly criticized your policies last night in front of the others in the room . . . You’re letting him be a little too complacent, don’t you think?

He sighed inwardly.  Yes, his youkai had a very valid point.  Of course, he understood that Evgeni tended to be passionate in his views, and Fai didn’t begrudge him that.  Arguing with him in front of others, however . . . That was very, very different.

“You haven’t heard a thing I’ve said, have you?”

Blinking away the thoughts that had so thoroughly preoccupied him, Fai shot Yerik a quick glance, only to find his brother, frowning at him.  “I beg your pardon.  You were saying?”

Yerik wasn’t at all impressed with Fai’s question.  “I was telling you not to bother going to find Saori.  Arrida has her ensconced in some boring as hell tea party with the rest of the womenfolk, so the odds that you can get to her without raising a lot of eyebrows—female eyebrows, at that—are slim and none.”

And didn’t that just figure, too?  Here he was, in a hurry to go and find her, to possibly steal a few minutes alone with her, but no, because if he did go marching in there, demanding to see her, those women would start talking, and, while he didn’t much care what they said, there was a logical order to things . . .

Because you’re trying to be a gentleman or because you’re tai-youkai?  You know, if it’s because you’re tai-youkai, that’s one thing, but the gentleman thing?  You realize that this is the twenty-first century.  You’re not going to besmirch her character just because you want to talk to her.  At worst, they’ll think you’re a spoiled brat who has to have Saori’s undivided attention, and some of the ladies will probably think that’s terribly sweet—romantic, even.  Some of the others will probably think that you’re entirely needy or have some unresolved mommy issues, Oedipus . . .

You’re . . . really not even slightly amusing.  You know that, right?  And I meant as the tai-youkai.

His youkai laughed.  ‘I don’t need to be . . . So, what are you protecting her from, exactly?

What do you think?  Whispers . . . Rumors . . . Threats . . .

Threats . . . Hmm, okay, I’ll give you that one.  No better way to get to the tai-youkai than to get to his mate, right?

Fai’s eyes flashed open wide, and he stopped abruptly, like he’d just walked into an invisible wall.  ‘My . . .?

Oh, come on, Fai!  You can’t tell me you didn’t already realize it on some level.  That woman . . . She completes you . . . But yes, I can understand entirely, what you mean . . . You’ve got way too many enemies—enemies that you don’t even know of yet, and if they found out about Saori, or worse, if they find out who her family is?

He gritted his teeth and started walking again as his youkai-voice’s words tumbled over and over in his head.  Sometimes, he really hated being tai-youkai.  This was definitely one of those times . . .

 


 

 

“Fai, you have got to help me.”

Looking up from his reflection in the standing mirror as he tugged on the shirt that he’d set out after his shower, Fai blinked as Yerik slammed into his room and slumped back against the door.  Green eyes wide, almost . . . scared . . .? he looked like he might well have seen the devil himself.  He hadn’t seen that look on Yerik’s face since he was eight and had gotten angry enough to kick Vasili in the shin when the butler reminded him that he needed to straighten his room since the staff had been forbidden to do it for him, and if that weren’t enough, the unmistakable throb in Yerik’s youki was enough to make Fai turn on his heel to offer his brother his undivided attention.

“Well, I know Vasili’s not here, so you can’t have kicked him again.  Why do you look like that?”

Yerik grimaced as he pushed himself away from the door and cleared his throat.  “Do you remember Liliya Herzikova?”

Shifting his eyes as he lifted his gaze heavenward, Fai tried to place the familiar-sounding name.  “No, I . . . Oh, wait . . . Isn’t she the little girl that you asked to marry you when you were, like, five?”

Yerik nodded.  “That’s her.”

Fai shook his head.  “What about her.”

Yerik sighed.  It was a long, drawn out, almost defeated kind of sound.  “She’s here.”

“So?”

Yerik snorted.  “So . . . She thinks we’re engaged, and she’s . . . You know, she might have a lovely personality, Fai, but . . . but . . .”

It took everything within Fai to keep from laughing outright at his brother’s horrified expression.  In the end, he had to clear his throat to keep from doing so before he spoke again.  “How the devil does she even remember that?  You were, what?  Five?”

Yerik snorted again. “She’s a woman; that’s how!”

Fai sighed, crossing his arms over his chest as he slowly shook his head.  “Well, then, there’s no helping it, Yerik.”

“What do you mean?”

Fai shot his brother a rather bald look.  “I mean, you proposed.  You’re going to have to marry her.”

“. . . What?” he barked.

Fai shrugged.  “You can’t go around, breaking girls’ hearts.  It’s bad form.  I’m sure she’s a perfectly lovely—”

Yerik erupted in a menacing growl, grabbing Fai by the shirt and dragging him over to the door that he inched open just far enough to allow them both to see outside into the hallway—Yerik hunkering down so that Fai could see over his head.

Fai blinked, watching as a rather . . . robust young woman, all decked out in a lot of white tulle, paced nearby.  When she started to turn, to look toward the door, Yerik slammed the door closed once more as Fai jerked back to keep his nose from being caught in the sudden slam.  That done, Yerik stood up straight, using one arm to yank a gesture at the closed door as he raised his eyebrows and pinned Fai with another pleading look.

“So . . . you’re saying she’s . . . too much woman for you . . .?”

Draping his hands on his hips, Yerik glowered at Fai.  “You’re being a jackass,” he pointed out.

Fai rolled his eyes, heaved a sigh.  “Relax, Yerik.  You were five.  No one in their right mind would hold you to a proposal you made when you were five.”

Yerik snorted.  “Her mother hugged me to welcome me to the family.”

“Wow . . . She involved her mother?”

Yerik nodded glumly.

“And her father?”

Yerik’s jaw was ticking.  “Her father wants me to take her name so that I can take over the family business.”

“What kind of family business?”

“Beets,” Yerik replied.  “They own . . . a beet farm—no, a beet empire, according to her father.”

Fai shook his head.  “So . . . You’re going to be . . . King of Beets?”

“Fai . . .”

Fai held up his hands to placate his brother.  “It could have at least been potatoes,” he said. “That’s all I’m saying . . . Free supply for the distillery . . .”

Yerik grunted.  “I would charge you double,” he grumbled.  “Now, seriously, how do I get out of it?”

“I am being serious!  Just tell her that you were five; you didn’t mean it—and to be frank, they’re a little looney if they honestly think you did.”

Yerik grimaced.  “I . . . might have said that she was my . . . mate . . .”

“Now or when you were five?”

“Fai!”

“It’s the logical question!  Why would you even say that?  How did you come up with that back then?”

Yerik sighed.  “I . . . I wanted her to kiss me,” he admitted.  “And even then, it wasn’t that good—just a peck on the cheek.”

“And that’s why you sold your soul to the King of Beets?  Damn, Yerik . . .”

“A kiss on the cheek was a pretty big deal in my mind back then . . .”

“I think I should have beaten you more as a child,” Fai remarked.  “Did you at least get to see her panties?”

Yerik narrowed his eyes.  “It didn’t occur to me at the time, no.”

Fai stared at his brother for a long moment.  Then he sighed and jerked his head toward the door.  “All right. Come on.  Let’s go end your engagement.”

Yerik finally let out a deep breath and followed Fai to the door.

He started to open it, but stopped, craning his neck to peer over his shoulder at him.  “Yerik . . .”

“Hmm?”

“Are there any other engagements that I should be aware of?”

Yerik rolled his eyes, reaching up to rub the back of his neck in a decidedly nervous kind of way.  “Well, maybe a few more,” he admitted.  Then he grinned.  “Hopefully they’re smart enough to realize that I didn’t actually mean it . . .”

Fai grunted.  “Okay, but promise me you’ll stop using offers of marriage to get what you want from women?  It’s frowned upon, you know.”

Yerik’s grin turned a little wolfish.  “I haven’t done it since I was . . . ten . . . Damn shame, though, because it worked . . .”

Fai narrowed his eyes.  “Do you want out of this, Yerik?”

Yerik nodded quickly.  “Yes, I do.  So sorry.  I promise.  I swear.”

Fai heaved a deep breath, but yanked the door open and stepped into the hallway . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 40~~
~Fern Flower~

 

~o~

 

 

Saori smiled to herself as she watched the young people, assembling near the forest, up and down the line of trees.  It was a sight to see, she thought: girls, all turned out in their pretty dresses . . . young men with bright eyes and bashful smiles . . . To her, they rather resembled the storybook pictures of fairies or nymphs, playing in the darkened night . . . Torches driven deep in the ground illuminated the night in regular intervals as moths and other night bugs flitted around the dancing flames . . .

It was almost time for the search for the elusive fern flower—a flower of lore that was said to bloom only once a year: at midnight on the night of Ivan Kupala.  It was said that anyone who saw the flower would get their wish—anything they wished—that it was a symbol of prosperity, luck, the ability to know right from wrong, and power.  Legend said that the flower would point to a hidden treasure, a gift of whatever the heart desired . . .

Traditionally, the search was left to the young, the unmarried maidens with wreathes of flowers in their hair, and the young men who were looking for love.  The maidens would be the first to enter the forest, and the men would follow.  They’d forage together, and if they were lucky, they’d find the fern flower, and if they were luckier still, they might find true love in their search, too . . .

“Aren’t you going in?”

Blinking as she turned to smile at Yerik, she shrugged.  “I . . . I don’t think so,” she said, biting her lip, trying not to sound or look disappointed.  “Did you get un-engaged?”

“Fai’s talking to her father now,” he said.  “He . . . wasn’t too happy about ending it.  Seems that he was banking on the idea that she was going to marry the tai-youkai’s brother . . .”

“Well, I hope you learned your lesson,” she said, shaking her head sternly, crossing her arms over her chest as she tried not to smile since it really was a rather amusing thing . . . Still, on some level, she felt sorry for the girl.  Of course, common logic might have dictated that, really, a proposal offered when they were just children couldn’t actually hold any kind of weight.  Even so, she couldn’t entirely discount it.  After all, that was the kind of thing that little girls’ dreams were made of, wasn’t it?

“Lesson learned, absolutely,” he said with a wolfish grin and an incorrigible wink.

“Okay, you’re off the hook, Yerik.  When fiancees: two through five show up, you’re on your own,” Fai growled, striding over to cast his brother a very put-upon scowl.  “Saori . . . You look . . . wonderful . . .”

She ducked her chin, held out the skirt of the rather simple, but pretty white dress.  The skirt was a full concoction of white organza kerchiefs sewn together in such a way that it wasn’t at all sheer or see-through but maintained a hazy solid color and still moved so gracefully, so perpetually, that it seemed as though it were flowing.  The bodice was fitted well, and the small cap sleeves were made in the same design as the skirt, albeit with much smaller kerchiefs, and the overall effect was pretty stunning, even if she did say so herself . . .

“Excuse us, Yerik.  Don’t propose to anyone while we’re gone,” Fai said, taking Saori’s hand to lead her toward the forest.

“Wait . . . You’re going into the forest?” Yerik asked, sounding rather incredulous.

“Yes, Yerik, I am,” he said, giving Saori’s hand a little tug to get her moving.

“Oh, I . . . I don’t have a wreath,” she protested weakly, unsure if she wanted to go along with this or not.

He stopped, held up a beautiful wreath of ivy and salt-and-pepper baby’s breath and sweet little white rosebuds that she hadn’t noticed before.  Gently, he placed it on her head, fussed with it for a minute.  “You have one now,” he remarked.  “You don’t want to miss this, do you?”

She gnawed on her lower lip, slowly shook her head.  On the one hand, this was one of the parts of Ivan Kupala that she had looked forward to the most.  On the other?  Those questions that had plagued her since their arrival . . . She still didn’t know what to make of them, what to think . . . And . . .

But . . . But Fai . . . He looked almost . . .

Almost . . . what . . .?

He seems almost . . . excited, doesn’t he?  Like . . .

Like . . . Like he wants to do this . . .

He reached up, fussed with the circlet of flowers once more, fiddling with her hair, arranging her bangs, tucking her hair behind her right ear . . . Then he smiled a very small smile, but one that stunted her breathing, left her tinging where his fingertips had lingered against her skin . . .

“Go on,” he coaxed gently, jerking his head toward the forest.

She turned, watched as the other girls stepped into the trees.  She glanced over her shoulder at him: he was standing in the same place, hands tucked into his pockets.  He nodded once, and she turned back, drawing a deep breath as she followed the others into the wayward darkness.

The forest itself had been lit for the occasion, too: more of those tiny fairy lights, large LED lanterns fashioned to look like they’d been there forever on stone pedestals that lit the area here and there . . . Around the large lanterns were some smaller ones—ones that could easily be lifted and carried to light the way.  Saori didn’t take one as she ventured past the first pedestal.

Something about the forest felt magical, alive.  Maybe it was just the auras of the others—the underlying sense of excitement as they searched for a flower that did not really exist.  It couldn’t, actually.  Ferns were spore-reproducing plants.  Biologically speaking, they could not flower.  Even so, the lore was so precious, and, on a night like this one, it was enough to make one want to forget the science of it, even as a silly little hope spurred her on.

Well, whether I want them or not, it’s kind of part and parcel with the title . . .”

Those words, whispered in her head, were enough to stop her in her tracks.  The excitement she’d felt mere moments before seemed to evaporate before her eyes.  Rubbing her forearms—the falling night temperatures were suddenly very apparent—she shuffled forward a few more steps.

Ask yourself this then: is this a deal-breaker for you?  Supposing he really doesn’t want children or more than one child . . . Is that enough for you to want to walk away from him?’ her youkai asked in a gentle tone, almost as though it were trying to buffer her on some level.

She sighed, arms dropping to her sides as she wandered deeper into the trees.  She couldn’t sense anyone near her, and that was fine, too.  It was the most solitude she’d been afforded since arriving, really—a perfect time to think . . .

It wasn’t so much that she had to have a houseful of children, she supposed.  In a perfect world, she wouldn’t mind having a large family, but she really didn’t want more than one or two at a time.  She wanted them to be her focus, and the more children she had at one time, the less of her attention she’d be able to devote to each one.  Fai would have to have at least one child, and that wasn’t the issue; not really.  The real issue was . . . if he didn’t really want children, then just what kind of father would he be . . .?

She . . . She just didn’t know, and that was the part that was so hard to deal with.  If he didn’t want children, would he at least try to humor her and the child?  Or would he be the kind of father who closed himself away in his office all day, content to leave the raising of said-child to her discretion?  Certainly, he wouldn’t be cruel or anything like that, but wasn’t apathy just as hard to deal with in the end?  Children, after all, weren’t stupid creatures.  They’d sense it—they’d know—whether or not they were wanted . . .

And the real question she had to ask herself was if she could deal with any of those scenarios, and regardless of how she felt about Fai . . .

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

She gasped, whipped around, only to come, face to face with Fai as he stepped out of the trees behind her.  He had grabbed one of the small lanterns that cast a bluish-tinted glow, bathing everything in an ethereal kind of light.  He stepped toward her, held up his free hand.  She stared at it for a moment before slipping hers into it.

“You’re awfully quiet,” he said as he led her deeper into the trees with no real destination in mind.  “Why are you so pensive?”

She didn’t know how to answer that, and she couldn’t quite bring herself to talk about it, either: to ask him the one question that was driving her insane.  It wasn’t okay, was it?  To demand answers about something like that . . . She had no right to ask because she had no right to try to negotiate if his answer was one she didn’t care to hear because if the tables were turned, if she felt that strongly about something, then she’d resent it if he tried to reason with her, tried to change her mind because it wasn’t something he believed or wanted, too . . .

Fai sighed.  “This is the first time I’ve done this,” he admitted quietly.

She blinked.  “The first time?  Why?”

He shrugged.  “Never met anyone I wanted to follow into the forest before . . .”

“But you’re supposed to look for the fern flower . . . It’s supposed to grant you luck and clarity and . . .”

He sighed.  “It’s a little different, I guess, when you’re tai-youkai—or will be one day.  You’re always . . . hyper-aware of everything—of how things appear, of how you’re perceived . . . Father told me that I should hold back, that things like this could lead to rumors, to innuendo that you’ll have to deal with later . . . So, it was easier, just to avoid it . . .”

She considered that, unsure, exactly, what he was trying to say or if he was trying to say anything in particular.  “But you . . . You wanted to this year . . .?”

“Well, I . . . I mean, you . . . It’s your first Ivan Kupala,” he replied, downplaying his part in it.  “Besides, I’ve barely seen you today, so . . .”

“And . . . And you wanted to spend time with me?”

He didn’t answer her, but he did give her fingers a little squeeze.

They wandered a little farther, the lantern casting misshapen shadows upon the dense foliage.  The fairy lights still lit some of the tree trunks, and she had to admit that the overall effect was entirely sweet, mesmerizing . . .

“There was one year,” he said, his voice soft, “Yerik was small—maybe seven?  And he was so excited, he ran into the trees before I could stop him.  I ran to find him, only to discover that one of the maidens had caught him and was leading him around . . . What are the odds that he didn’t propose to her, too?”

She laughed, despite her own troubled thoughts.  Somehow, in her head, she could see Yerik doing that . . . “So, what did you do?”

A strange kind of expression settled over his features: an amusement that was somehow tinged with a sense of sadness, too.  “What could I do?  I let him stay with the girl.  She didn’t seem to mind, anyway.  Yerik swore that he saw the fern flower—that it was this great, glowing red flower that rose higher and higher, that it burst open with sparks and flames and all of that . . . Of course, he was seven, and . . . and ferns don’t flower.  Even so, I always thought that whatever he saw . . . I kind of hoped that it was real . . .”

He laughed suddenly, an almost embarrassed kind of sound, shaking his head, shrugging his shoulders in an almost offhanded way.  “That . . . really seems rather stupid, doesn’t it?  But I always thought that my own children—that I would find a way to make it happen—to make it so that they would always see the fern flower . . . I mean, I’m tai-youkai, right?  Nature bends to my will, so if that’s the case, then . . . Then can’t I make it be so?  Just for one night?”

She stopped in her tracks, her heart slamming hard against her ribcage.  The question that had plagued her for the last couple days, and he . . . His own children . . .? He . . . He wanted to ensure that they . . . that they could believe in magic because . . .? It almost sounded as if . . . “Fai?”

“Hmm?”

She swallowed hard, placed a hand over her heart in an effort to calm her racing pulse.  “You . . . You do want children, don’t you?”

He shot her a quick, questioning glance, but he shrugged.  “Well, yes . . . One day, anyway.  Right now, everything’s so . . .”

That made sense to her.  Given how volatile things really were in Asia as a whole, she really couldn’t fault him for feeling as though he wanted to wait to start a real family . . . But he did want that family eventually, and that . . . That was enough for her.

The pall that had settled over her seemed to evaporate, and even the air in the forest felt lighter, freer . . . warmer and far more inviting . . . Suddenly, she wanted to laugh—really laugh—to throw her head back and dance and laugh and maybe even sing . . . She didn’t do any of those things, but she did hold onto Fai’s hand just a little tighter, a little more securely . . .

He sighed.  “I realized when I was raising Yerik that children . . . They believe things. They don’t need proof.  If you tell them something, they just believe it.  It sounds stupid, doesn’t it?  But . . . But it’s a reminder of everything that is possible, even when you know that it’s simply all illusion.  I . . . I sometimes wish that my father had allowed me to believe things just a little longer.  I understand why he didn’t.  Reality is powerful—just as powerful as belief.  Mother . . . She tried to get Father to bend on it, but he said that fairy tales would not help me lead the youkai.  He was right, sure . . . Still . . .”

“And you don’t agree with that?”

The look on his face bespoke his conflicted feelings on the matter.  She supposed she could understand that.  “I can appreciate my father’s thoughts, but . . . But I don’t think I agree.”  He grimaced.  “I don’t think he was a bad parent.  I just . . . I . . . I don’t know.  I guess, having watched Yerik grow up, I see it from a different perspective.  I wasn’t his father, but I . . .”

“I don’t know,” she ventured.  “Maybe not officially, but do you think he remembers being raised by anyone else?  He said . . . He said he doesn’t remember them—your parents.  What he remembers is you, Fai . . .”

He blinked, his brows knitting together as he pondered what she’d said.  “He never . . . He’s never told me that before—that he doesn’t remember our parents.  I thought as much, but never asked, and . . .” He winced.  “That hurts.  It’s not his fault, and I don’t blame him.  He was just a . . . a toddler back then . . . but . . .”  He sighed, shook his head, and in that moment, he allowed her to feel it: his sadness, his pain—pain he’d carried around for years, that he held onto so selfishly, not because he was afraid or ashamed or anything, but because the last thing he wanted was for his own grief to burden anyone else . . . “They loved him,” he whispered.  “They loved him . . .”

She stopped, pulled her hand away from him as she turned to look at him.  Reaching out, touching his face, hating the idea that there wasn’t really anything she could do for him, she did the only thing that she could think of: she slipped her arms around him, wishing that there was something more—something better—anything at all . . .

He wrapped his arm around her, still holding onto the lantern with the other, but he accepted the comfort she afforded him with a sigh, with a grimace, with an easy acquiescence that she could feel.

“Stay with me, Saori,” he murmured, burying his lips in her hair.  “Never leave me?”

“I won’t,” she promised, her voice muffled by his shirt, by his body, as she held him tight.  “Fai?”

“Hmm?”

She leaned away, far enough that she could look up into his eyes.  The colors seemed to sparkle, to flow, one into another in the hazy, bluish-white light of the lamp.  There were so many things, all there in his gaze . . . A part of her understood those unspoken things.  A part of her didn’t need words, anyway.  “I . . . I want my children to believe, too,” she said.  “Even if it’s something as silly as a fern flower, I want them to believe . . .”

He didn’t smile, but his eyes seemed to brighten.  Then he dropped his arm away, reached behind himself to pull her hand free.  “Come on.  You . . . You’ll like this.”

She followed him, her gaze falling to her hand, clasped in his.  It wasn’t a normal gesture for the Japanese, no, and wasn’t exactly a normal one for the Russians, come to think of it.  For some reason, though, as long as it was Fai, she was all right with it, as he led her deeper into the forest.

They stepped out of a particular dense patch of foliage, and Saori blinked, slowly turning, taking it all in.  They were still in the forest, but the area was more of a small clearing, but not quite.  In the center of it stood a thick cluster of ferns—easily the largest plants she’d ever seen, and Fai set the lantern on a tallish tree stump before slipping his arms around her, gently pulling her back against his chest.  “I always imagined that, if the flower did appear, it would do so here,” he said to her, his voice barely audible, even though he spoke directly into her ear.  “It seems like the most appropriate place . . .”

“And it would appear . . . right there,” she said, pointing at the tallest growth in the middle of the cluster.

“I’d think so,” he said, letting go of her long enough to bring his arm up, checking the time.  “If it’s going to appear, it’ll be in about five minutes . . .”

She turned her head, leaned to the side to see his face.  “I thought you said you’ve never done this before.  How did you know about this place?”

He shrugged.  “I haven’t done this before,” he reiterated.  “I’ve been in this forest lots of times, though.”

Turning her gaze back to the ferns once more, she figured that it made sense, though the idea that Fai had actually been considering it when he saw this area?  Somehow, that was beyond adorable, in her estimation . . .

“Do you think we’ll see it?” she whispered, almost afraid to raise her voice as the sounds of the forest surrounded them.  It was so peaceful, so magical . . . and she wasn’t entirely sure, but she had a feeling that it had everything to do with Fai’s presence . . .

He sighed, his breath, stirring her hair that had escaped the intricate braid that Arrida’s stylist had arranged.  The warmth sent a shiver down her spine, and he wrapped his arms a little tighter around her.  “Well, if we believe science, then no.  But . . .”

She watched in silence as he held out his hand, palm up.  After a moment, she slipped one of her hands onto his, also palm up, and she gasped as a quiet hum erupted in her ears.  A moment later, a wispy tendril, then two, rose from their hands above her palm: one of them, a hazy burnished gold, the other, an iridescent, pearly white—Saori’s ceremonial color.  “Is that . . .?”

Fai nodded.  “My color, yes.”

She gasped as the thin wisps thickened, twisted around each other, undulating as the colors started to mix: an opalescent gold that swelled and surged.  It looked like a bud, didn’t it?  She shook her head, unsure if she believed what she was seeing.

And then, the petals of the flower burst open, unleashing a sparkling shower of glittering dust as the blossom burned bright, slowly turning above their hands like a hologram . . . Thick, long, pointed petals that curled back, revealing a lush ring of smaller petals as the delicate, glowing bloom shed more sprinkles, like diamond dust in the dark . . .

“That’s our flower, Saori,” he whispered in her ear.

She laughed softly, her eyes glowing in the light of the blossom.  “Our fern flower . . .”

He laughed, too.  “Yes.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter 41~~
~Water Flowers~

 

~o~

 

 

Wrinkling her nose at the dusty and spicy smell of the small tent that had been setup near the gardens behind the Feodosiv cottegi, Saori sat on the small hassock at the squat, rough wood table across from the aged fortune teller, a human woman named Izolda.  She reached out with trembling fingers, palm up, as she smiled.  “Give me your hand, child,” she said, her voice as thin as paper.

She did as requested, letting the woman take her hand.  Leaning in close, she idly traced the lines of her palm before turning it over to inspect the back in much the same way.  Then she let go and leaned over, rummaging around beside her for a small wooden cup that rattled mysteriously as she set it on the table.  “Shake that, then dump them on the table,” she said.

Saori did that, too.  The five stones had no markings on them at all, and the old woman held up her hand, as though to stop Saori from touching them as she studied them slowly, a wizened smile spreading over her wrinkled features.  So wrinkly, she was, that her eyes seemed to be deeply recessed under folds of skin, lending her an owlish appearance that could have been a little daunting if the woman herself wasn’t so gentle.

She inspected the stones for a little while longer before sitting back, folding her hands on the table top.  “You . . . You come from great power.  Your people hold the reins of the world, don’t they?  Yet, you are not touched by this.  You do not live your life, looking for what the world will do for you.  Instead, you seek to find a place where you can flourish apart from them . . .” she said.  As she’d spoken, her voice had gained some strength, her gaze, a little fire, and her smile—that endearing, almost caved in smile—had widened, too.  “You are surrounded by love, child, and love is the emotion that drives you, and in the trials to come, hold to that love, and it will guide you.”

Saori frowned.  “Trials?”

The old woman nodded, her expression growing more somber.  “They come in the night, and they come from places that you would not seek to find them, and the greatest one of all . . . It will threaten that which you desire most.  Be vigilant.  Only you can flush the poison that has already been allowed to flourish.”

“But . . . What does that mean . . .?”

Izolda sighed, offered Saori a compassionate little smile.  “I can only tell you that which I’ve seen, child.  The poison has yet to touch you, so I cannot see it . . . but I can feel it in the air around you.  Someone you hold dear is tainted—will be tainted.  ‘And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.’”

Why did the sound of those words send a distinct shiver right up her spine?  None of it made any sense to her, almost sounded more like nonsense than anything she really needed to concern herself with.  Even so, there was a certain level of warning, a heavy undertone of something almost frightening . . .

Saori shook her head, opened her mouth to question the woman further as the tent flap opened, as Yerik stuck his head inside.  “Saori, are you finished?”

The old woman chuckled, entirely dismissing Saori’s feelings of trepidation—if she sensed them, anyway.  “That’s all I can tell you, child.  Go with God.”

She wanted to say more, but Yerik took her hand, pulled her out of the tent and back into the bright light of day.  He seemed excited, and he didn’t seem to notice the frown on Saori’s face as he led her through the milling crowds and down toward the far side of the garden where the generous stream flowed near the cottegi.  “It’s almost time for the maidens to set their wreaths afloat.  Fai said that you’d probably want to do that, right?”

“Oh, uh . . . Yes, I . . . I guess . . .” she said, trying to brush off the things that the old fortune teller and said.  She’d think it over later, see if there was anything in it that she could make sense of . . .

Yerik followed the crowd as they made their ways along the paths that led to the water’s edge beyond.  Here, as in the rest of the immense gardens, were strings of lights, bright garlands of flowers.  The lights were dormant at the moment, given that it was still mid-day, and along the way, they stopped at a collection of long tables that were strewn with various herbs, flowers, vines, small candles, ribbons of raffia in bright and brilliant colors that were offered for the fashioning of the wreaths that the girls would release on the water.

She took her time as she twisted together a handful of stiff vines, took her time in selecting the right greens, the perfect flowers, even as she skipped the candles.  Yerik chuckled, helping her to manage the wreath while she wrapped bright yellow raffia ribbon around it, tying the ends together to hold it in place.

“. . . The poison has yet to touch you, so I cannot see it . . . but I can feel it in the air around you.  Someone you hold dear is tainted—will be tainted . . .”

But . . . What does that mean . . .?

Her youkai-voice didn’t answer.  She didn’t know what to make of that.  Yerik was talking on about something, but Saori wasn’t listening.  He didn’t seem to notice her preoccupation, though, and she supposed that was for the best.  Holding up the wreath, she gave it a half-hearted once-over, but the excitement she’d felt before her visit with the fortune teller was conspicuously missing, and she sighed.

“You’re thinking about something,” Yerik said, drawing her out of her reverie.  “Something the fortune teller said?”

Sparing him an almost nervous kind of glance, Saori tried to shrug off her concerns.  “Kind of,” she admitted, slowly shaking her head.  “I think most of it was good . . . but she did mention some trials or something?  I’m just not sure . . .”

He considered that for a minute.  Then he shrugged.  “It’s just an old fortune teller, Saori.  They can’t just say everything’s great or why would you bother going to see one again?”

He had a valid point.  “So . . . So, what she said . . . It might not mean anything at all,” she said, almost more to herself than to Yerik.

“What did she say?”

Saori fiddled with the wreath in her hands, hesitating as she tried to decide if she wanted to say it out loud.  Even though Yerik seemed to think that there was no real truth to the woman’s words, she couldn’t help but feel like saying it out loud would somehow give the whole thing just a little more power . . . “You’re right,” she said, forcing a smile, brushing the words away.  “I’m just overanalyzing.  Besides, the rest of it was really nice.  She said . . . She said that I’m driven by love . . .” That thought made her giggle.  “I like that.”

Yerik stared at her for a moment, narrowing his eyes as he slowly nodded.  “Love, huh?  Yeah, I can see that . . .”

She felt her cheeks heat under his scrutiny, but he chuckled, taking her hand to drag her down to the water.

 


 

 

“I guess congratulations are in order.”

Evgeni blinked, arching an eyebrow as he peered over the rim of his tea cup at Fai, who was staring out of the bank of windows in the solar.  “Congratulations?  What for?”

Fai shrugged, lifting a hand, gesturing outside at the overflowing crowds, all of whom seemed to be have a very good time.  “This,” he replied, reaching for his tea cup.  “You’ve outdone yourself.”

Evgeni grunted.  “You mean, Arrida has,” he said.  “It seems like every year, she wants it to be bigger, more fun, more everything . . . which, to me, means more noise, more interference, more strangers, traipsing into and out of my home . . .”

“But you allow her to do it,” Fai pointed out.

“It pleases her,” he replied.  “If it pleases her, then she pleases me.”

Fai rolled his eyes, breaking into the smallest of smiles.  “It would be something like that.”

Evgeni chuckled.  “It could be worse, Fai.  Find yourself a beautiful mate, do what it takes to ensure her happiness.”

“You make it sound simple,” he said.

“It is,” he stated.  “So, tell me . . . your assistant . . . Did I . . . see the two of you, walk out of the forest together last night?”

“When have you known me to go hunting for nonexistent flowers?” Fai countered.  He still wasn’t sure why he was so reluctant to talk about Saori to anyone, even Evgeni . . . Maybe it was just the newness of it.  After all, he was still trying to get used to the idea for himself . . .

Evgeni nodded slowly, setting his cup aside in favor of turning his full attention on Fai.  “I assume you thoroughly checked into her background before you hired her.  Where is she from?”

“I know everything I need to know, yes,” Fai replied evenly.  “Besides, she used to work for the orphanage, so she already had all the clearance she required.”

“That would be a good reason to hire her to help with that . . . issue . . .” Evgeni allowed.  “I only hope that your subjects don’t see the farming out of the Russian orphans as some sort of indication that you cannot take care of your obligatio