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Purity 4: Justification

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He drew a deep breath before stepping out of the shadows on stage left in the stillness of the auditorium. He hadn't expected this magnitude of a turn out, and he had to admit that it was daunting. Quiet, introverted, he much preferred the tranquility of his house on the rocky shores of the Maine coast. Damn family friends and their penchant for laying on a guilt trip. If he hadn't answered the phone that day, he wouldn't be standing here now.

Clearing his throat as he approached the podium, situated center-stage in the wash of harsh lighting that made him feel wary, guarded, Cain had to wonder once more, just why he'd given in and come here. It smacked of stupidity, and it smacked of recklessness. Someone had left him a bottle of water. He wondered how bad it would look if he drained it before he even started to speak.

He could hear every hushed whisper, every body that shifted in the folding seats, every rustle of paper as the assembly waited patiently to hear his words of wisdom. 'The worst feeling isn't the complete vulnerability of being in the open,' he mused as he gripped the podium. 'It's not being able to see the enemy.'

Enemy?

Snorting inwardly at his own cryptic thoughts, he realized it had been just a little too long since he'd been the absolute center of attention. It was a conscious decision to leave it all behind. He hadn't made any sort of public appearance in years. She had been the one who loved the spotlight. He'd always preferred to stay behind the scenes, and in the end, he supposed it had added to his legend.

"Good afternoon," he began, his soft tones picked up and enhanced by the single microphone on the podium. "I'm Zelig Cain, and I want to thank you for inviting me to lecture."

Though it had been more years than he cared to think about since he had last used the Japanese language, he didn't falter as he launched into the prepared speech. Eyes adjusting to the blackened auditorium past the edge of the harshly lit stage, faces came into focus despite the lights that almost blinded him. Gaze roaming over the crowd of college students, seeing the blur of rapt expressions, he cleared his throat and continued with his lecture.

"The act of sculpting is, in and of itself, an act of love and devotion. If you believe in God, Buddha, Allah, or Kami, then you will find that taking the clay in your hands and forming it into something beautiful or grotesque, or even something between those two extremes, is like molding the universe, even if it is only a small portion of it."

His gaze continued to rove over the silent assembly. They looked so young, so full of possibilities that had yet to be explored. Shining youth, the hope of children who didn't realize that life could be cruel . . . Some humans held to that idyllic belief their whole life through, but he knew that wasn't so. He knew . . .

Something caught his eye; a flash of light in the darkness to the far left of the stage. The reflection of silver in the loathsome black . . . Cain narrowed his gaze but he did not falter in his speech. Pausing to sip the water, he breathed in, smelled her . . . Faint and mingled with the baser scent of the countless humans surrounding her, there was something about her that seemed familiar.

Squelching the irrational wash of impatience, Cain deliberately allowed himself another long drink of the water. He couldn't see her face but he could see her eyes—golden, glowing, curious and warm. Three rows back, she sat next to another woman but she, alone, captured his attention.

'Inu . . . hanyou? Who is she?'

Setting the water aside, Cain cleared his throat, sought to regain the composure she'd unwittingly taken from him. "In order to create art, you must reach deep inside yourself, extract the emotion in your soul—"

He could feel those golden eyes staring straight at him.

"—Apply it to the clay or the paint or whatever medium you choose—"

How old was she, to contain such intensity? He could feel her gaze; a palpable thing that lived and breathed.

His lecture rambled on. He's spent painstaking hours learning the words by heart. Forcing his eyes over the expanse of the auditorium, he tried to tell himself that he was being ridiculous. She was just some young girl, and by this time tomorrow, he'd be back in his seclusion half a world away . . .

 

 

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Izayoi Gin slipped into the vacant seat on the end of the third row in the drafty auditorium. She's almost missed the lecture, no thanks to her baka brother. Kichiro had promised to drop her off at the college since she hated having to rely upon public transportation that bothered her extremely sensitive sense of smell, and since their parents were taking a short vacation at the beach house. Kichiro had overslept, woke up grouchy, and then yelled at her for letting him sleep in. 'Baka. I should have taken the bus.'

Digging out a notebook and pen while Brekichi-sensei, the head of the Fine Arts department of the university, introduced the guest speaker, Gin rolled her shoulders and licked her lips in anticipation. Zelig Cain was arguably the most influential sculptor in the world, and he was here, at her university, giving a lecture . . . If she had missed this because of that idiot brother of hers, she would have made him pay, and dearly.

She knew that he had been called eccentric, reclusive. She'd never seen a photograph of the enigmatic man. He didn't attend any of his openings, never had been spotted at any of his gallery showings. Gin absorbed art publications like some people—her cousin Shippou came to mind—devoured pocky. Zelig Cain's paintings and his sculptures were astounding. How he managed to capture so much feeling with his work was something that baffled Gin's mind.

She wanted to do that, too.

After graduating from school, she had gone to work for her cousin, Toga as a receptionist while she tried to decide what she wanted to do with her life. The time she'd spent doing that had convinced her she would never, ever be able to deal with a nine-to-five job. She'd left Toga's company after a year to work at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, and in that time, she had discovered a love of fine art and had developed a fascination for Zelig-san's work during one of his temporary exhibits. Since then, she'd looked for any and all information she could find on the reclusive artist. She'd written him countless letters but had been too much of a coward to send even one. 'Kami . . . if Papa knew . . .'

Gin grimaced and shifted uncomfortably in her seat, flicking her long silver hair over her shoulder as she bit her bottom lip. Izayoi InuYasha hated cowards. Gin knew that. To admit to being afraid . . . that would be the greatest letdown. He had taught all of his children early on that fear was not something a hanyou should admit, not ever.

And, to that end, she supposed, he'd also gone out of his way to show his children his love and affection, even if it was never spoken, and even if it was, more often than not, the exact opposite of what he said. InuYasha might be the first one to point out to his children when they'd done something colossally stupid, but he was also the first one to stand up for his children, right or wrong. Truthfully, Gin was more of a Papa's girl than a Mama's girl. She always felt safe around her father, and while Kagome was kind and gentle, loving and doting, InuYasha had always been Gin's security.

In fact, the only thing they didn't agree on was the subject of Gin going on dates, which was completely stupid, really, since Gin was nearly twenty-five now. Maybe she shouldn't have taken those three years off before going to college. Then again, it might not have mattered. In his mind, Gin would always be his little girl, and she had a feeling that no man would ever quite measure up.

An expectant hush fell over the crowd. Normally these kinds of lectures only drew art students. This one was special. Television and radio stations had sent reporters. The auditorium held a near capacity-crowd today, and with the exception of the one empty seat beside her, Gin didn't think there were any other seats to be had. If it weren't for her hanyou senses, she might have had to stand at the back of the auditorium with the other late arrivals. Her sight was good, and her sense of smell was keen. It hadn't taken her long to figure out that there were two seats left vacant, and she hadn't questioned her luck that they were also very close to the stage.

"Gin-chan? Hi! Is that seat taken?"

Gin started out of her reverie and sat up straight to allow her cousin-in-law to scoot past her. Slipping into the one vacant seat, Inutaisho Sierra flipped back a lock of her strawberry blonde hair and dug out the small digital recorder.

Talk was cut short when the man stepped out of the darkness behind the curtains. Tall—very tall—possibly taller than her uncle, Sesshoumaru, the man shuffled toward the podium in somewhat nervous fashion. Hands jammed into the pockets of his baggy, rumpled khaki slacks, pushing up the sides of the shapeless black cotton shirt, he should have looked hapless, slovenly. He seemed more casual than careless, and the long bronze hair caught back in a ponytail at the nape of his neck flipped from side to side as he sauntered forward.

'He's . . . youkai . . .' Gin thought as her gaze narrowed. With the convolution of scents and the mass of people so close to her, it was too hard for her to discern what kind of youkai he was. She sat up straighter, clasped her notebook to her chest as she frowned in concentration.

"Good afternoon. I'm Zelig Cain, and I want to thank you for inviting me to lecture."

His voice was a low, soft rumble that rushed over her like a gentle breeze. The melodic quality of his timbre was soothing, mesmerizing. 'Stop it! Listen to what he's saying, Gin! You're acting . . . well, you're acting like . . . Kich . . . or Ryo . . .'

Why was it that the thought of her equally idiotic twin brothers was like a dousing of cold water on her senses?

Dropping her notebook onto her lap while she rubbed the gooseflesh off her arms, Gin frowned into the darkness. She didn't know anything about him except that his artwork was exquisite. She respected his work, the intricacy, the detail. He was youkai just like any youkai—just like any man. They were all fallible. They were all imperfect.

The notebook started to slip from her lap. Gin leaned forward to catch it. Zelig-san faltered in his speech, and for a brief, crazed moment as she sat back up and bit her lip, pushing back her slight discomfort; she had the strangest feeling that he was staring straight at her.

But he had only paused to sip the water that had been left on the podium for him. Continuing with his speech, he seemed to shed the obvious discomfort as he spoke. His voice took on a gentler cadence, a softer quality as his stance relaxed, and he grinned just a little.

Gin didn't realize her hand was moving against the tablet of paper, didn't pay attention to the bold lines of the black ink pen. Capturing the lines of the man's stance, his expression, she digested what he said as his likeness came to life on the paper.

Jumping when the polite applause broke out in the auditorium, Gin hurriedly shoved the notebook and pen into her bag as she stifled the sigh of disappointment that the lecture was over. Zelig-san bowed his head then raised his hand in a farewell gesture before shoving his hand into his pocket and shuffling back off the stage again.

"That was fantastic!" Sierra remarked as she gathered her things together and stood up, hitching her bag over her shoulder with a bright smile. "He really is something, isn't he?"

"Yeah," Gin agreed, wondering for a moment whether Sierra had seen the sketch that was now safe in her own backpack. She sighed. "Sierra, can I get a copy of the speech? If it isn't too much trouble . . ."

Sierra waved her hand. "Not a problem at all. I thought you were taking notes."

"Yeah . . . There were a few things I didn't quite catch," Gin explained, hoping she didn't sound nearly as lame as she thought she did.

Sierra's grin took on a smug edge. "I can do that . . . I can do something else, too, if you're interested . . ."

"What?"

"I don't know how, but I got an interview with Zelig-san. You want to meet him?"

"How? He doesn't give interviews . . . why you?"

Sierra shrugged. "Apparently Toga knows him . . . at least, knows of him. Toga said he's never really met him before. Anyway, you interested?"

'It's because Toga will be the next tai-youkai,' Gin realized with a start. She tended to forget that the Inutaisho and Izayoi names carried a lot of weight in certain circles since she had been raised around mostly humans. 'It's because Zelig-san is youkai . . .'

Gin winced. "I have a class . . ."

Sierra sighed. "All right, but you know, if I was given the chance to meet one of my real-life idols, I'd jump at it."

Gin slapped the back of one hand into her other palm, shifting her lips into a grimace as she tried to rationalize it in her head. Art appreciation was her next class, and it was nothing, really, but theory and bookwork that she could easily make up with minimal effort. Since it was a Friday, then she would have all weekend to do it, too, and the idea of actually getting to meet Zelig-san . . . It was too enticing to ignore.

"Are you sure it won't be a problem?" she asked, half-hoping that Sierra would rescind the offer, half-hoping that it wasn't just a joke at her expense.

Sierra laughed. "Come on, Gin-chan! You know you want to."

Gin finally broke into a smile, letting Sierra take her arm and drag her toward the stage through the wandering masses making their ways to the exits.

 

 

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"Zelig-san! Thank you again for agreeing to speak today," Mitsu Brekichi said with a low bow as Cain stepped into the shadows off the stage.

"You're very welcome," Cain assured him as he offered the man a small smile. "If you'll excuse me, I've an interview and then a plane to catch."

"If you could spare a moment? I'd like to offer you a job. Just one semester . . . one of our art professors is having serious health problems, and we would be honored if you could fill the position."

Cain shook his head slowly. "I don't think I can," he said, measuring his words carefully.

The little man looked positively crestfallen. "Should you change your mind, the offer stands."

That wouldn't be happening, as far as Cain was concerned. Still he pasted on a tolerant smile and strode away from the head of the art department, heading directly to the doors at the back of the building as he pulled the slightly rumpled pack of Marlboro Reds from his pants pocket.

With a sigh as he leaned against the brick wall outside, Cain shook out a cigarette and lit it. Until last week, he hadn't smoked in years. Stress, he discovered, had a way of making him reach for old vices, and the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment . . . He blew a smoke ring, watched it disintegrate into the air before drawing another deep drag off the cigarette. He'd smoked more than two cartons of the damn things since he'd agreed to this stupid lecture.

'Bellaniece is going to kill me, if she finds out.'

Narrowing his eyes as he stared at the parking lot reserved for faculty, brushing aside the feeling of déjà vu that returning to Tokyo always inspired, he tried not to think about how long it had been since he had last ventured away from his home in Maine, let alone to the other side of the world.

He was tired, weary. He'd seen enough, done enough, lived enough—lived longer than he should have. He should have died long ago, and had it not been for Bellaniece not to mention his responsibilities, he would have, but Bellaniece was just an infant back then. He couldn't have left her alone, and now . . .

The sudden flash of bright golden eyes made him pause—made him smile. He'd never know who she was. A flash of guilt, the harsh reminder that his life had been promised to another, accompanied the thought. He was living on her time, borrowed his moments while she waited.

The girl with the beautiful silvery hair . . .

Maybe it was better that he didn't know her name.

Dropping the cigarette onto the pavement, he ground the smoldering butt under his heel. With a deep breath, he strode toward the doors, yanked them open and headed down the hallway to the room where the interviewer was waiting.

 

 

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"You're making me nervous, Gin."

Shooting Sierra an apologetic look, Gin stalked around the classroom with the air of a caged animal. Nervous, edgy, she wiped her sweaty palms on her short blue skirt and stopped beside the sculpture on the table.

Sierra sucked in a quick breath and flinched. "Hey, I've got to run outside and throw some money into the parking meter . . . I'll be right back, okay?"

Gin nodded without answering as she stared at the sculpture. Sierra's shoes clicked against the linoleum floor as she hurried out of the room.

The sculpture seemed unfinished; a woman with flowing hair rising out of a nondescript block of white marble. Naked to the hips where she melded into the base of the sculpture, she seemed to be reaching for something that she couldn't quite grasp. Gin couldn't help but admire the beauty of the proportions, the absolute surreal quality of the intricate work. She'd seen pictures of it in books and magazines. It was one of the few sculptures that Zelig-san had never offered for sale. Because of that, the piece was worth more than most of his other sculptures. It seemed strange to her, that he would bring this all the way from his home in America when he was supposed to be returning soon enough. 'But why did he bring it with him?'

As if in a trance, she touched the cold stone, tilting her head to the side as she traced a claw down the curves of the work, the intricacies of the lines. She could almost feel the love that went into the carving of such a meticulous piece. The stone seemed to have absorbed the very essence of the artist.

"Don't touch that!"

Gin gasped and jumped as she jerked her hand away from the sculpture. She hadn't realized that she had been touching it, not really. She certainly hadn't meant any offense to the man who was now glaring at her as though she had been trying to break the piece. And why did she feel like she was a little girl all over again, like she'd just been caught trying to sneak a cookie before dinner?

"S-Sorry," she mumbled, bowing more to hide the hot flood of humiliated color that washed into her cheeks than as a show of respect. "It—I—uh—"

He sighed, dragging a hand over his face. "Are you the interviewer?"

His question caught her off-guard, and Gin blinked in confusion as she straightened her back. "Wha—? No . . . She had to put money into the parking meter."

He shook his head slowly, still eyeing Gin as though he thought she was going to reach over, nab the sculpture, and toss it onto the floor. She scooted farther away. That seemed to appease him just a little. "Who are you then?"

"I'm, uh, Gin. Izayoi Gin. Sierra-chan-is-my-cousin—Well-not-exactly-my-cousin—She-married-my-cousin-so-she's-my-cousin-by-marriage. She's-the-one-who-is-doing-the-interview-and—"

"Do you always talk so fast?"

"Just when I'm nervous."

"Why are you nervous?"

"B-Because you're—" she swallowed hard, "—glaring at me."

He seemed surprised at her statement, as though he didn't realize he was still glaring. Shaking his head, he suddenly uttered a terse laugh. Gin blinked in surprise as the scowl dissipated, as his sapphire blue eyes sparkled with the change in expression. "I apologize. That sculpture . . . No one else touches it."

"You . . . You're inu-youkai."

He nodded slowly, leaning back against the desk as he crossed his arms over his chest. "And you're inu-hanyou."

Gin smiled. "I am."

"Izayoi? Your father . . . ?"

Gin stifled a sigh and nodded. "My father is Izayoi InuYasha. You've heard of him, I take it?"

"Of course I have. And your uncle? How is he?"

"You know Sesshoumaru-oji-san, too? He's fine. They're all well."

"Good. It's been awhile. I never met your father, but your uncle and I go way back."

"Wait," Gin said slowly, gaze narrowing as she regarded the youkai before her. "You're the North American tai-youkai?"

He nodded again.

"But your name—?"

His chuckles cut her off. "One cannot endure centuries, Gin, without having different names to keep from drawing notice."

She shrugged. "I suppose," she agreed noncommittally. "I guess it would seem strange if your public image had been around for hundreds of years."

"Don't worry. Cain Zelig suits my purposes."

Gin hopped up on the worktable behind her, crossing her ankles and leaning forward as she swung her feet. "I'm so glad you lectured today. I'm a huge fan of your work. You're the reason I decided I wanted to study art. They had an exhibit at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, and . . ." She broke off with a nervous laugh, shaking her head with a sigh. "Sounds silly, doesn't it?"

"Not at all. You're a student here?"

"Yes. I took a few years off . . . figured out I don't cut it in the real world."

He seemed startled, as though something she'd said surprised him. Slowly he nodded, a vague look of recognition lighting his gaze. "Yeah."

"I'm sorry I'm late," Sierra said as she hurried back into the room. "The meters around here only allow up to an hour . . . Anyway, I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview. I'm Sierra Inutaisho."

Almost reluctantly, Cain dragged his eyes off Gin. Smiling tightly, he shook Sierra's hand before gesturing for her to have a seat.

Gin sat back; content to listen to the interview. Soft spoken yet forceful, something about Cain Zelig commanded quiet respect. His gaze drifted to her a few times. Once he almost smiled at her. Gin bit her lip, tried to keep from fidgeting. If Sierra noticed, she didn't comment. Maybe Gin was imagining things.

He was fascinating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Morning, Izayoi-sensei."

Izayoi Kichiro barely stopped long enough to glance at the receptionist as he strode through the office with a glower in place.

"Your first appointment is waiting for you in your—"

Slapping open the office door, Kichiro winced as the woman waiting inside jumped and whipped around. "D-Doctor Izayoi?"

Fighting back a consternated sigh, Kichiro strode forward to rip the cigarette from the young woman's fingers before snubbing it out in the decorative crystal ashtray on his desk. "This is a medical office," he remarked in brusque English for the woman's benefit. "We ask that you don't smoke in here. Sets a bad example."

She regained her composure quickly enough as she slowly, deliberately pulled another cigarette from her purse and lit it. "Surely you can make an exception for me, Dr. Izayoi?"

Two things were apparent to Kichiro as he reached over and plucked that cigarette away, too. Firstly, the girl was hanyou. Secondly, she was trying to push him, but why? "What can I do for you, Miss—?"

"Zelig," she supplied with a little grin. "But you can call me Belle, if you wish."

Kichiro nodded slowly, pushing his white lab coat aside as he jammed his hands into his pockets. "What can I do for you, Zelig-san?"

Her little grin widened, her lush red lips parting just enough to offer him a flash of her perfectly straight white teeth. "I need some work done," she answered as she slowly shrugged off her the black silk jacket that covered most of her tiny black dress. "I hear you're the best."

Kichiro narrowed his gaze, let it roam up and down her slender frame. He had a feeling that she was toying with him. He had a feeling there was more to this meeting than a girl wanting to schedule plastic surgery to fix some preconceived and oftentimes non-existent flaw. What was her game? "Surgery? So what do you want to have done?"

Pivoting on the balls of her feet, she presented him with her profile as she peeked over her shoulder at him, deep blue eyes widening in mock surprise. "Can't you tell, Dr. Izayoi? I've been told . . . I need bigger breasts."

Wrapping his arm over his stomach as he propped his other elbow and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, his grin was lazy. "Really."

She grinned back. "Do you need to see them?"

Kichiro shook his head. "All right. What do you really want?"

Turning back to face him, all the pretenses fell away. The girl leveled a look straight into his eyes, and this time when she smiled, it was natural—beautiful. "I have a friend. I'd like you to help her."

 

 

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He stood motionless as long seconds ticked off the clock, staring at her as though he were trying to see into her head, to see the thoughts that were spinning around. Bellaniece didn't blink, and she didn't offer any more information.

He sighed. "All right, I'll bite. What does your friend need, and why are you asking me to do it?"

Biting her lower lip, Bellaniece took her time answering. Having spent the greater portion of her seventeen years learning how to manipulate her father, her teachers, and basically every other male she came into contact with, she didn't figure Dr. Izayoi would be any more difficult to persuade than the quarterback of her high school football team had been. Batting her eyelashes a few times, she smiled and shrugged. "Nothing untoward . . . unless you've something interesting in mind?"

His smile was tolerant at best as he cocked his head to the side and flicked his wrist, checking his watch. "I'm running late this morning, so if you're just here to waste my time, then I think we're finished."

Bellaniece's clear blue eyes flared in surprise at the blatant dismissal. Covering her astonishment quickly, she sank down in the padded leather chair and sighed. "My friend was burned—severely burned—a year ago. The doctors told her that she needs plastic surgery to repair the damage . . . skin grafts and all that. She doesn't have the money to have it done, and she can't go to just any plastic surgeon, you understand."

The light of understanding glowed in his brilliant golden eyes, and Bellaniece relaxed just a little, cautious optimism blossoming in her chest. If he would just agree, if he would just hear her out . . .

"Your surname is Zelig, you said? Your father's rich. Why don't you ask him to pay for the surgery?"

"It's not like that," she countered.

"Don't tell me your father is immune to your tricks."

"That's mean."

He shook his head. "But accurate."

"Is that so?"

"Isn't it?"

"For your information, Kelly won't let me pay for the work. I've already offered many times."

"Kelly . . . ?"

She waved her hand, annoyed that he was ignoring the broader picture. "Hendricks."

"I don't take charity cases."

"Doesn't it bother you at all that someone might really need your help? Not just some superficial work that'll sag and have to be redone in a few years? Maybe that's what you're after. The more lifts and tucks you perform the more money you make, right?"

"Mind your manners, little girl."

Wondering just how she could have assessed him so erroneously, Bellaniece glared at the hanyou as she shot to her feet and snatched her silk jacket and stalked toward the door. She couldn't resist offering a parting barb before she left.   "You're just like every other stuffed-coat, Dr. Izayoi. You can't see past age . . . so stuck in your belief that youth means stupidity? That I'm shallow because you're—what? Ten years older than me, if that? Forget I asked."

Dr. Izayoi cleared his throat loudly, stopping her before she could storm from the office. Reining in the urge to march over and rant at him a little more, Bellaniece drew a deep breath as she slowly turned her head to look at him again. He was smiling indulgently. She gritted her teeth and waited.

"I said I don't take charity cases, but if your friend is that set against allowing you to pay for her surgeries, then I have no choice to demand payment in another way."

She couldn't restrain the hot color that instantly flooded her face as her temper soared. "You call me a little girl then you have the gall to—"

"Calm down, Zelig-san. For kami's sake, I have absolutely no interest in anything . . . untoward? That was your word, correct? I need another receptionist, that's all. If you care about your friend's reconstructive surgery so much, then maybe you'd like to take on the job to pay for it."

The surge of hope fizzled out, and Bellaniece swallowed hard as she tried to keep her disappointment from showing. Forcing a tight smile, she nodded at the doctor. "I can't do that."

Gaze narrowing as his grin widened, she could almost hear the gloating he was doing in his own mind. "I understand."

"No, you don't. I'm here with Daddy because he's giving a lecture. We're leaving, probably today. Thank you anyway—for nothing."

Stalking from the room with her back straight and proud, Bellaniece kept her composure until she stepped onto the sidewalk outside the medical office. She sighed, shoulders slumping as she shook her head slowly and blinked back angry tears. How cruel was it, to offer her a chance to help her friend and then to have that same chance taken away?

 

 

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Kichiro sighed as he rubbed a long-fingered hand over his face.

She was interesting, that girl. Zelig Bellaniece, only daughter of the North American tai-youkai . . .

She didn't look like a little girl; she didn't act like a little girl, and yet when she wasn't putting on that misplaced act, there had been a certain vulnerability about her, too.

He turned, staring out the window. 'If she'd taken you up on that offer to be your receptionist, she'd have driven you nuts.'

Kichiro snorted inwardly. 'Damn straight, she would have,' he agreed as he wrinkled his nose. 'There's something about her . . . She's trouble.'

And that was true. He had been in more than his fair share of trouble over the years. Much of it had been instigated by his rowdy, rotten twin, but Ryomaru had certainly not forced Kichiro to all the things that made him grimace, now that he thought back.

If he were completely honest with himself, he'd have to admit that he was bad—horrible, really. Ryomaru and he had discovered girls long ago and spent the majority of their teenage years into their early twenties being, as Ryomaru's mate was fond of saying, 'man-whores', and while Kichiro had never actually gone 'all the way' with any of the women he was with, he had certainly gone far enough.

Kichiro frowned as he sat on the ledge beside the window. He wasn't sure when he'd lost interest in those shallow relationships. He hadn't simply awoken one morning to the sudden realization that the casual flings just weren't enough for him anymore. Maybe, after seeing his cousin Toga, settle down with Sierra and witnessing the happiness they shared, then later Ryomaru and Nezumi . . .

Maybe that's when he first started to understand that there really was more, and that he didn't have it yet.

Strange, really. Growing up in his family with his parents, he'd seen first-hand, how happy they were. Izayoi InuYasha grumbled and complained, growled and groused at anyone in listening distance, but it was just as obvious that he adored Kagome. Maybe Kichiro had looked for things that never really were there, and maybe he'd gone along with Ryomaru's often inventive if not outright deviant plans so long that it had become second nature.

Or was there more to it than that?

Easy to say that he'd simply let Ryomaru talk him into things, but in reality, Kichiro was the one who normally was left cleaning up the messes his twin left behind. Maybe in some strange sort of way, Kichiro had acted more as Ryomaru's conscience, and maybe that was the real reason he'd always tagged along.

The irate flash of brilliant blue eyes cut through his musings as his thoughts returned to the girl, the hanyou. He'd seen other hanyous, and he knew that various ones exhibited varying traits of their youkai parents, or, as in his case, his hanyou parent. He'd never seen an inu-hanyou retain the youkai ears, but unless his sense of smell was affected—highly likely since the little girl thought she'd look older with that atrocious cigarette dangling from those slender fingers—then he knew she was, indeed, human. He could smell the human part of her, and unless his vision had been impaired—highly unlikely since he'd seen enough of her in that skimpy dress to know that she didn't look like the little girl he'd accused her of being—he hadn't seen anything else in her that would have labeled her as hanyou even if she weren't under a concealment.

Kichiro knew enough about the elusive North American tai-youkai to know that he, like Kichiro's uncle, Sesshoumaru, was inu-youkai. Dog youkai. Little else was known.

"You can't see past age . . . so stuck in your belief that youth means stupidity? That I'm shallow because you're—what? Ten years older than me, if that?"

Grimacing as her words echoed in his mind, Kichiro sighed again. He'd seen girls like her before; spoiled brats who got their way by smiling and batting their lashes a few times. Girls like that were a dime a dozen, weren't they, and he knew that better than anyone because he'd dated more than his fair share of them over the years.

"Izayoi-sensei, your next appointment is here," the receptionist said as she poked her head into Kichiro's office.

"Thank you," he said as he stood and turned to face the middle-aged woman. "Send them in."

Mai bowed and nodded before backing out of the room.

"Oh, Mai-san . . . I want you to get some information for me."

The secretary-receptionist stopped and waited for further instruction.

"See if you can find anything on an American girl named Hendricks Kelly. She was severely burned in a fire."

Mai looked confused but nodded anyway before she left the office.

Kichiro strode over to his desk, snatching the file off the neat surface and deliberately ignoring the question that was running through his head.

'Thought you didn't care, Kich . . .'

"Keh! I don't."

 

 

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Wiping a furious tear off her cheek as she poked the elevator button in the hotel lobby and ignoring the array of pitying glances she was receiving, Bellaniece made a face and whipped around to take the stairs instead.

She wasn't sure what she was expecting when he had slammed through the door in the lavish medical office. She supposed she'd expected someone older, someone who looked more professional. If he was thirty, she'd eat her purse. He looked like he'd be more at home in less professional setting, yet his bearing and demeanor was completely at ease.

She'd gotten his name from a friend of a friend. He was rumored to be the best youkai/hanyou plastic surgeon around. Touted for refining the marking process before he'd even finished medical school, they called him brilliant.

Kichiro Izayoi.

She'd walked into his office to wait—he was running late, much to the chagrin of his frazzled secretary. She'd never been this far from home, and more to the point, she'd sneaked out of the hotel while her father was getting dressed to give a lecture at the University of Tokyo.

Her nerves were shot, really. Torn between the anxiety of what her father would do if he found out she'd sneaked out of the hotel and the almost-obsessive desire to help a friend, it had taken every ounce of bravado she possessed to goad Bellaniece into tempting fate in this venture. Cain Zelig had an overprotective streak that bordered on the perverse, and it really didn't help that her daddy was also inu-youkai, which, in a nutshell, meant that she rarely got away with anything, ever.

Digging into her purse, she rummaged around for her compact but stopped as she pulled out the almost full pack of Marlboro reds. She'd taken the cigarettes off the coffee table before she'd left the hotel. She wasn't sure why her father had taken to smoking again. He hadn't done it in years. She'd grabbed them as she was sneaking toward the door so that he wouldn't smoke them. It didn't matter that she knew that if he really wanted them, he'd just go out and buy more. At least, in her mind, she had been keeping him from smoking the foul things. Pausing beside the polished silver trash can, Bellaniece wrinkled her nose in disgust as she tossed the pack into the garbage.

In a stupid effort to calm her rising anxiety while she waited for Dr. Izayoi to make his appearance, Bellaniece had actually tried to smoke the offensive things and had ended up nearly choking herself, instead. The second one had been a show of bravado, and she hadn't been surprised when Dr. Izayoi took that one, too. 'Daddy smokes when he's nervous.   No wonder they calm his nerves. He's too busy trying to keep from choking to be nervous!' She made a face and stalked toward the stairwell.

Sighing as the heavy metal door swung closed behind her, the sound echoing through the melancholy emptiness of the sterile white cinderblock cubicle that extended to the top of the fifty story hotel, Bellaniece's face contorted in a thoughtful frown as she slowly climbed the stone stairs. It didn't matter that she had gone to see the good doctor for the sake of a friend. She was a small town girl who hadn't been further away from home than the town forty miles away to go shopping when she could coax her father out of the house, and he had been just a little too smug, a little too complacent, and overall, a lot too much of an ass.

He was hanyou—she hadn't realized that. She could see through his concealment spell, though it was stronger than she had seen before in any other hanyou. Hers was strong too, because her father was the North American tai-youkai. 'Maybe it has something to do with his parents . . . the great hanyou and miko . . .' Younger than she expected, taller than she expected, more handsome than she expected, and apparently far angrier than she had expected, too, Dr. Izayoi looked surprised for all of ten seconds before he strode over to her, snatched the cigarette from her hand and smashed it out in the decorative ashtray on the desk.

The fuzzy little ears on his head twitched as though he were monitoring the area for signs of danger. Bellaniece bit her lip, hid her smile. She'd never seen anyone with ears like his before, either. Hanyou, she was, but her ears resembled her father's. His ears looked sinfully soft, and it had taken all of her common sense not to run right over and touch them.

She winced. No, that would have been a bad, bad thing. Kichiro Izayoi already thought she was nothing more than a stupid little girl—amend that: a stupid, spoiled little girl. The very last thing she needed was to add fuel to that fire, right?

Pushing through the door on the landing on the tenth floor, Bellaniece shook her head and squared her shoulders as she tried not to flinch. Her father was back. She could smell his scent lingering in the empty hallway as she quickened her pace. She didn't even try to kid herself into thinking that he didn't know she was gone. Maybe she could convince him she'd just gone down to the gift shop.

Of course, that would probably be easier to do if she had remembered to pick up some small trinket somewhere . . .

The door to their rented suite swung open as Bellaniece reached for the handle. Cain Zelig glowered down at his daughter seconds before grabbing her into a stiflingly tight hug. "Are you all right?" he demanded when he finally let go to drag her inside. "Have you been crying?"

Bellaniece forced a weak smile and shrugged. "Of course not, Daddy. Don't be silly. I got some dirt in my eye, that's all."

He didn't look like he believed her. Staring at her for long moments, Cain finally sighed and rubbed his face tiredly. "Where were you? I thought I told you not to leave the hotel."

Bellaniece rolled her eyes and leaned up on tip toe to kiss her father's cheek. "I just went for a short walk. It's a lovely day, you know."

He kissed her forehead and let go as he shuffled over to pour a glass of water. The ice in the pitcher clicked softly, and he drained the glass before turning back to face his daughter, sapphire eyes troubled, searching. "I know it's kind of sudden, but . . . would you mind if we stayed here awhile?"

Her surprise must have showed in her face as Bellaniece blinked and leaned against a small table. "You want to stay here? Why?"

He shrugged. "The university needed someone to fill in. Seemed a little rushed, so I figured why not?"

Bellaniece wasn't sure why her father was lying. She knew there was more to it than that. He guarded his privacy with the viciousness of a dictator. Still . . .

If she pointed that out, he'd probably drag her back home. If she didn't . . .

'I could do it, couldn't I? I could take that job, and Kelly could have the surgery, after all . . .'

She smiled instead. "Sounds great, Daddy . . . In fact, I was offered a job today."

"A job?"

Bellaniece nodded. "A receptionist in a doctor's office."

He looked skeptical. "Who?"

Bellaniece headed off to her room, anxious to be alone, to escape the critical eye of her ever-observant father. "Kichiro Izayoi—he's a surgeon."

She didn't see the look of surprise followed by the pensive frown as she left Cain in the living room.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"I want to have a baby."

The unnerving sound of claws rubbing against the blade of the legendary sword faltered moments before Izayoi InuYasha let Tetsusaiga drop to the floor with an obscenely loud thump. "Come again?"

Kagome flipped a page in her home and garden magazine but didn't look up. "I want to have a baby," she stated once more in much the same sort of tone she'd use when telling InuYasha that it was raining outside.

InuYasha's golden eyes narrowed as he stared in dumbfounded shock at his mate. "Keh! Well, nothing really important then . . . Wench, next time you say something that stupid, then you ought to at least put the magazine down."

That got her attention. Closing the publication, Kagome stood up and dropped the magazine on the coffee table before she wandered over to InuYasha's side and curled up next to him on the sofa. "Come on, InuYasha. Ryomaru's found his mate, Kichiro will soon, I'm sure . . . Gin's in college . . . It'd be nice to have another child."

"Have you lost your fucking mind or did you really enjoy all the shit Ryo and Kich got into? And Gin? Keh! She ain't that old! She ain't even been on a date!"

Arching one delicate black eyebrow, Kagome leveled a pointed look at the hanyou. "And just whose fault is that, I'd like to know? Between you and the boys, you've managed to chase off every single guy that's come over to try."

"Keh! I've said it before: if the bastard can't kick my ass, then he can't fucking date my pup."

Kagome rolled her eyes despite the tolerant smile on her face. "Maybe so, but you've got to admit, there aren't many who could do that."

His smile was downright gloating. "Yeah? Then I guess she ain't dating."

The front door opened and closed. Kagome leaned over to kiss InuYasha's cheek before standing up to greet their daughter while InuYasha retrieved the old sword and hung it above the fireplace again.

"Mama! You're back early!" Gin greeted as she hugged Kagome and stepped into the living room with her mother. "Papa!" Breaking away from Kagome, Gin ran over and threw herself into InuYasha's arms. "Did you have a good vacation? What'd you bring me?"

"Who says we brought you anything, runt?" he argued with a grin.

Gin wasn't buying. "You always bring me back something. Hand it over."

InuYasha snorted but dug into his pocket for the small but perfect seashell. Pressing it into Gin's waiting hand, he couldn't help but smile as she squealed happily and kissed his cheek. "Thank you! It's lovely!"

"Aren't you home early today?" Kagome asked as she sank down in the chair she'd vacated earlier.

Gin shrugged. "Yeah . . . My visual arts teacher has taken personal leave, so until they find a replacement, they suspended classes." She shook her head and sighed.

Kagome frowned. "What about your aide position?"

"Well, Brekichi-sensei said that I should still be able to do it," Gin remarked as she turned the shell over in her hand. "That is, if they get a replacement."

"I'm sure they will," Kagome assured her. "I could call Kagura later, if you'd like. Maybe she's heard something."

Gin waved a hand in dismissal and grinned at her mother. "Nah, it's fine. Let me go put this away, then I'll tell you about the guest lecturer today!"

InuYasha watched as Gin ran off to put the trinket away with the rest of the shells she'd collected over the years.

Kagome shook her head but grinned. "Such a papa's girl," she accused with a sigh.

"We talked about this. Those heathens you call sons are yours. Gin's mine."

"You know," Kagome remarked as she slipped her arms around her mate's neck and kissed his cheek, "we could have a daughter if we tried again . . ."

InuYasha kissed Kagome and wrinkled his nose. "Yeah . . . or we could have twin sons again."

Kagome giggled. "Come on, InuYasha . . . You know you want to."

InuYasha sighed. ". . . Damn it."

 

 

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Kichiro shuffled up the driveway with his hands buried in his pockets toward the small house in the middle of InuYasha's Forest. He could make out the sounds of someone—probably Nezumi—rummaging around in a toolbox. As he neared the opened garage, he had to hop back as his identical twin Ryomaru came barreling outside. Ryomaru ducked in time to avoid the wrench that came flying at his head as Nezumi's voice echoed in the confined space. "Hentai!"

Casting his brother a knowing grin, Kichiro chuckled and shook his head. "Oi, Nez! Killing's not good . . . Maiming would be okay though."

Nezumi stomped out of the garage and spared Kichiro a curt nod before glaring at Ryomaru again. "What's up, Kich?"

Kichiro shrugged. "No, no, I don't want to disrupt something that promises to be amusing."

Ryomaru snorted but his ears flattened when Nezumi narrowed her gaze on him. "I just thought Nez needed a break," he grumbled, cheeks pinking as he glowered at the ground.

"I'll break something, all right," Nezumi complained as she turned on her heel and stomped back into the garage.

"What'd I miss?" Kichiro asked without looking away from Nezumi's retreating form.

"Keh! Nothing . . . Anyway, why are you here?"

Kichiro chuckled and leaned back against the shining blue Harley—Nezumi's Harley. "Is that the way you greet your twin?"

Ryomaru shot him a pointed glower. "When I was trying to distract Nez? Yeah, yeah it is."

"What'd you break this time?"

"What makes you think I broke anything?"

Kichiro shook his head. "Because your mate is fixing your car, baka."

"I dunno . . . Nez said something about the transmission, but she just replaced that a few months ago . . ."

"Uh huh," Nezumi called, voice muffled by the hood of the car. "You blow those up when you don't keep fluid in them."

Ryomaru flattened his hanyou ears as he wrinkled his nose. "How was I supposed to know you didn't check the fluid?" he shot back.

Kichiro winced, figuring that was probably not a smart thing for Ryomaru to have said.

Nezumi's long, exaggerated sigh was audible. "When I said that you had to check your own fluids three months ago, I thought that was warning enough."

"Oh, hell! I don't even remember to feed the fucking cat, Nez! What makes you think that I'll remember to check the fluids in the car? By the way . . . you might want to check the oil . . ."

". . . Baka."

"Been by to see Mother and oyaji?" Ryomaru asked as he stifled a chuckle at his disgruntled mate.

"They're home?" Kichiro asked, eyebrows lifting in surprise. "Thought they weren't supposed to be back till Monday."

Ryomaru shrugged and headed toward the front door. "They weren't. Oyaji said that Mother was worried about Gin being left with a baka like you, but, well, you know him."

Kichiro grinned as he followed Ryomaru inside and headed for the refrigerator and a bottle of soda. "So in other words, he was afraid I'd let Gin slip out on a date, you mean?"

Ryomaru snorted. "Something like that."

Taking his time shoving the marble into the glass bottle, Kichiro shook his head. "It'll be a cold day in hell before that girl gets a date."

"You sound like it bothers you."

"Nope. Gin's too good for the lot of them, isn't she? Quite honestly, I doubt there's a man alive who deserves her. Too bad she doesn't realize that."

Ryomaru made a face as Kichiro drained the soda since he hated the stuff. Yukitora the cat hopped onto Ryomaru's shoulder. If Ryomaru noticed, he didn't comment. "She's too much like Mother. I don't think Gin has any idea what most men are like."

Kichiro snorted as he rinsed out the bottle and dropped it into the recycling bin. "With brothers like us? I think she knows."

Ryomaru grinned as he idly rubbed Yukitora's ears. Kichiro rolled his eyes. "Speak for yourself, Kich. I'm reformed."

Kichiro was about to retort to that comment when his cell phone rang. Ryomaru chuckled and headed out of the kitchen as Kichiro dug into his pocket for the device.   "Izayoi."

"Dr. Izayoi? Hi, this is Bellaniece . . . We met earlier in your office?"

Kichiro frowned, crossing his arms over his chest as he shook his head and stared at the phone before lifting it back into place against his head where his ear should have been—if he were human. "Belle-chan . . . is there something you wanted?"

"Chan?" she repeated with a giggle. "That sounds so . . . cute."

"Yes, well, it's the same thing I'd call my baby sister," he replied with a slight grin.

Bellaniece sighed. "You're still stuck on my age, are you?"

"How did you get my private number?"

"I have my ways," she nearly purred, and if Kichiro didn't know better, he'd have sworn she was cat-youkai. She had apparently reverted to playing the vixen.

Too bad Kichiro wasn't interested in the chase. "Is there something you wanted?" he repeated again.

"Actually, yes . . . You said you'd do my friend's surgery if I worked for you, right?"

The little alarm bells in his head escalated from a small chime to a four-alarm wail. ". . . So I did."

"Good! Daddy's had a change of plans, you see. When should I start?"

 

 

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'Why the hell did I agree to stay?'

Cain Zelig shook his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets as he stared out the window at the crowded, smoggy city of Tokyo. The crumpled cigarette pack lured him, and despite his resolve not to smoke near Bellaniece, he gave in with a sigh. Shaking out a cigarette with one hand, he retrieved a lighter from the other pocket and started the mental countdown, knowing that it wouldn't be long before his darling daughter emerged from the sanctity of her room to berate him about the dangers of smoking.

'Gin Izayoi.'

With a wince, Cain blew out a perfect smoke ring and stared at it thoughtfully as it dissipated in the air. Of course he knew who her father was. He knew her uncle too, for that matter. Damn that Sesshoumaru . . . It was his fault Cain had agreed to lecture.

The girl was sweet. There was something about her, something innocent and fresh, as though she hadn't been touched at all by the world around her. It was a rare thing. In a day and age when children learned much too early about the bad aspects of the world, Gin seemed unaffected.

He sighed. 'Why am I thinking about her?'

'You know why.'

'I didn't take the job because of her. That's . . . That's . . . I didn't.'

'If not for her, then why? She's an art student. There's a good chance she'd be in one of your classes, isn't there? What are you thinking, Cain?'

'I repeat: I didn't take the job for her.'

'Damn it. She's just a girl—a beautiful girl—a beautiful girl who can't be that much older than your own daughter. Don't be stupid.'

"Daddy," Bellaniece said as she stepped into the living room with her arms crossed over her chest and a disapproving frown on her pretty face. "I thought you promised not to smoke inside."

Cain glanced over his shoulder and grimaced but didn't move to put out the cigarette. "Where do you think you're going?" he demanded mildly as she adjusted her purse strap.

Bellaniece shrugged. "I told you, I got a job. Dr. Izayoi wants me to start tomorrow, so I need to get some appropriate clothes."

"Take it easy on my Visa, will you?"

She grinned and hurriedly kissed his cheek, wrinkling her nose as she forced a loud cough. "I'll leave you alone about smoking . . ."

"Spend as much as you want," he agreed. "Make sure you have your cell."

"I do," she assured him as she rolled her eyes and headed for the door. "I'll call you if someone even looks at me weird, okay?"

Cain snorted. "Don't be a smart ass, Bellaniece."

"I love you, Daddy."

He shook his head but grinned. "Best get moving before I change my mind."

"I'm history."

The soft click of the door closing behind her made his smile widen. 'Sometimes,' he thought as his smile turned a little sad, 'she's just like her mother.'

His gaze slipped over to lock on the marble statue—the one Gin had been touching. He didn't know if he would ever finish it. There was entirely too much finality in that. The statue had remained in that state for nearly eighteen years. It was the concrete reminder of the promise he had yet to keep.

'Isabelle.'

Cain wandered over, ran his knuckle along the cold marble. Bellaniece was almost of age. She'd find a mate soon, wouldn't she? She'd find a mate, bear a son, and then . . .

Then he'd be free, wouldn't he?

His smile faltered as he jerked his hand away from the statue. 'Free to join you, Isabelle . . .'

That thought should make him happy, shouldn't it? She was his mate, and she had died. He should have followed after her long ago. He should be pleased that the tasks that bound him to this world were nearly completed.

So why did he keep seeing glowing golden eyes instead?

 

 

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Gin hung up the telephone, biting her lower lip as she glanced out of the corner of her eye to see if her father had heard any of her subdued discussion. InuYasha was kneeling on the floor, staring outside at the falling night. The sun was sinking on the horizon, and the only thing that had saved Gin, she figured, was the impending new moon. She could feel her youkai blood receding, and her senses, like her father and brothers, were starting to dull. Turning around and leaning against the telephone stand, Gin watched as InuYasha's silvery hair slowly darkened, and when she looked down at her own locks, they were black, too.

"Was that Kyoko-chan?" Kagome asked as she glanced up from her magazine.

Gin forced a smile and rubbed her sweating hands on her skirt as she nodded. "Yeah.   She's all ready to leave, but there was a problem . . ."

Kagome frowned as she leaned forward to drop the magazine on the table. "Nothing serious, I hope . . ."

Gin perched on the edge of the sofa and shot InuYasha a nervous eye. "Well, the girl who was going to sublet Kyoko-chan's apartment fell through, and if Kyoko can't find someone else to take it, she won't be able to afford to go."

"Oh, that's too bad," Kagome murmured as she slowly shook her head. "She's always wanted to go to Julliard."

Gin twisted her fingers together in her lap and cleared her throat. "I was thinking . . . I could . . . I could lease it . . . her apartment . . ."

Kagome opened her mouth to reply then snapped it closed only to repeat the process a few more times. "I see . . . I take it you want to do this."

"It would be helping her out," Gin said, measuring her words carefully as she tried not to wince when she heard the rustle of clothes as InuYasha stood up and slowly prowled closer.

"I think it's—"

"The stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard!" InuYasha growled, cutting Kagome off as Gin cringed. "You don't need an apartment. You've got a perfectly good bedroom just down the damn hall!"

"InuYasha, calm down . . . At least hear Gin out, please."

Gin cast her mother a thankful look before straightening her back and slowly turning to meet her father's irritated gaze. "Papa, I love being here with you and Mama, but I'm twenty-four, and I'm not a baby anymore."

InuYasha snorted. "Keh! You're still a pup, Gin. You can move out the day I die."

"It's closer to the university, and—"

"And what part of 'over my dead fucking body' didn't you understand?"

"Papa, please, I—"

"No."

"But—"

"Fuck no."

Kagome stood up, shaking her head as she held up a hand. It was something she rarely did, but when she did it, InuYasha normally stopped to listen. This was one of those times. "I think we should let Gin make this decision."

"What?"

"Listen, InuYasha, Gin's a good girl. We raised her to think things through and to make the best choices for herself. She has to have her own life sometime. We can't shelter her forever."

"The hell we can't, wench!" InuYasha growled.

Gin tried to hide her smile. It wasn't often that her mother blatantly disagreed with her father, but once Kagome stated her opinion, her father always gave in, even if it did take him longer to reconcile himself to it.

"No, InuYasha, we really can't. Sooner or later, Gin has to make choices of her own. I trust she'll make the right ones for her."

InuYasha made a face and snorted. "Keh! There will be no dating, Gin, do you hear me? Not until you bring him here. If I find out—"

"For the love of kami," Kagome sighed loudly, "She knows how you feel about that!"

InuYasha shook his head. "Right, she knows how I feel. So did her brothers, and you know what happened there."

Kagome closed her eyes. "That was completely different."

"How do you figure?"

"Ryomaru inherited your baka gene, remember? Besides, that all worked out for the best, didn't it?"

"Oh, for the love of—" InuYasha turned on his heel as he tossed his hands in the air and stomped toward the glass doors, pausing only long enough to yank Tetsusaiga off the wall before slamming out of the house.

Kagome sighed again before leveling a look at her daughter. "If you want that apartment, Gin, you'd best call and tell Kyoko-chan now."

Gin tried to smile but couldn't help but feel a little guilty over her father's blustery departure. "Are you sure, Mama?"

Kagome finally smiled. "So long as you know that you can always come back home . . . and so long as you know that you're expected to come by to check in often. Your father loves you, Gin. He just doesn't always know how to show it."

"I know, Mama." Gin winced again. "Papa really isn't going to be happy, will he?"

"Your father will be fine."

Gin shook her head. "No, not about that . . . Tetsusaiga won't transform tonight."

Kagome giggled as she remembered that one little fact, too. In human form, Tetsusaiga would not have the ability to transform into the Sword of the Fang that InuYasha cherished. "He'll be fine, Gin."

Gin hugged her mother before running over to call her friend back. Kagome followed InuYasha outside. Only then did Gin break into a small grin. That was just a little easier than she had thought it'd be. She owed her mother, big time . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Gin hurried down the hallway, trying not to run as she mumbled under her breath and checked her watch again.

She'd overslept. Her first night in her new apartment, and she'd overslept.

Face contorting in a grimace, Gin rushed toward the classroom, hoping once more that no one had seen her traversing Tokyo's skyline. Her father would have a fit if she'd been spotted, never mind her brothers and InuYasha did it all the time . . .

'It's entirely hypocritical,' she thought as her frown deepened. 'Ryo-nii and Kichiro-nii-chan were terrible—horrible—and I'm the one who ends up under constant surveillance . . .'

She sighed as she slipped into the classroom just seconds before the wall clock marked time for class to start as students hurried to their worktables. Hoping that they'd gotten a suitable substitute professor, she dropped her bag onto the table and busied herself in pulling out her sketchbook and pencils as the students fell silent.

"Morning. I'm Zelig Cain, and I'll be teaching this class for the rest of the semester."

Gin's mind slowed to a crawl at the sound of the American's voice. The five sketching pencils she had in her hand flew out of her grip as if they were covered in grease just as the tablet she'd been holding to her chest slipped. They hit the floor with a dull thump followed by her bag that she managed to send flying when she whipped around to retrieve her pencils. Stifling a groan and wishing the floor would open up and swallow her, Gin felt her cheeks erupt in white-hot flames as she fumbled around for the items she'd dropped.

"Problems, Izayoi-san?"

Stifling a groan as Zelig-sensei closed in on her, Gin hurriedly grabbed the pencils in her reach and left the others as she shot to her feet—and straight into his chin since he was bending down to help her. "Oh, kami, I'm so sorry," she gasped, hands flying to cover her mouth as the items she'd just retrieved flew out of her arms once more.

Zelig-sensei winced and rubbed his chin then shook his head and slowly started to bend down again. When Gin moved to do the same, his hand shot up to stop her. She could feel the already painful flush darken as her classmates erupted in giggles and twitters around her.

"Thank you," she blurted as he stood up slowly and plopped her things onto the worktable. He smiled tightly and nodded once before turning on his heel and stalking back to the front of the room.

'I am such a baka!' she moaned as she sank onto the stool behind her.

'Look at it this way,' a little voice reasoned in her head, 'at least you can't embarrass yourself much worse, now can you?'

She scowled as she flopped open the sketch pad and tried to concentrate on the still-life sketch of a bowl of fruit.   If there was one thing that she had learned from her father, it was this: things could always be worse.

She sighed and tapped the end of her pencil against her chin as she pretended to scrutinize the sketch.

'Sure,' she thought dully as she darkened the outline of a perfect apple. 'Next time I could break the poor guy's nose or something. Maybe I should have stayed in bed today . . .'

He was her teacher.

Gin shook her head slowly as she tried to grasp the implications of it. Zelig Cain was such a prominent member of the artistic community that despite his reclusive tendencies, he was regularly named on the most influential artisans list, and that he was here in her classroom filling in for their normal teacher for the entire semester . . .

The butterfly brigade took hold of her stomach as Gin tried to concentrate on her sketch. Zelig-sensei's presence seemed to penetrate the room. As though his youki was a palpable thing, Gin felt the strong current glide over hers with a gentle strength that soothed her as much as it enticed her.

Peeking up through her thick fringe of silvery hair, Gin swallowed hard as she realized that he was staring at her, his darkened eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Biting her lower lip as she forced her gaze away from him, Gin's brow furrowed in concentration as she tried to force her attention back to her still-life sketch.

'He's got such presence, such stature . . .'

With a sigh, Gin set her pencil down and grabbed the kneaded eraser to undo the slightly lopsided contour of the orange she'd drawn. Though normally very meticulous with her work, she couldn't help but worry that the simple assignment wouldn't be quite up to scratch in Zelig-sensei's eyes.

'He's fascinating, really. I wonder if he avoids attention to perpetuate his legend . . .'

Wrinkling her nose at her thoughts, Gin dropped the eraser and groped around for the pencil as she plotted the contour of the fruit. She hated sketching inanimate objects. It seemed so pointless, so flat. She understood the point of the exercises. They were designed to hone the fundamental skills of perspective, proportion, and shading. That didn't make them more enjoyable. She sighed.

'He can't need this job,' she reasoned as she arced the pencil over the rough paper. 'He's rich . . . probably as rich as Sesshoumaru-oji-san, if not richer . . .'

Not that it really mattered; money didn't make anyone happy. It simply made the question of why Zelig-sensei had taken the position at the university that much more intriguing. Why would a man who shied away from the limelight for so long and with such tenacity suddenly decide that he wanted to take a low-level job at a public university when the press was going to notice him sooner or later?

'Why is he here? He said he was going back home, to the United States, didn't he?'

She smiled just a little as she flipped to the next page in her sketchpad and started drawing. 'Does it matter why he's here? I could learn so much from him . . . if he'll teach me . . .'

No, it didn't really matter, she supposed. Zelig-sensei's work was brilliant, and he was going to be her professor.

 

 

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Bellaniece sashayed into the opulent office and straightened the straps of the sleeveless pink dress before squaring her shoulders and striding purposefully toward the receptionist's desk. "Hi, I'm Bellaniece . . . I'm supposed to start work today."

The older woman behind the desk glanced up at her before offering her a tepid smile. "Izayoi-sensei said he'd found another secretary. Can you type?"

Bellaniece started to state that she could, of course. Her conscience pricked her before she could give voice to the lie. "Uh . . . no."

The woman's smile dropped a few degrees. "So you can't do billing. Can you file?"

"File?" Bellaniece echoed with a shake of her head.

"Answer the phone?"

"I could do that!" Bellaniece replied, the relief in her voice too thick to hide.

The receptionist slowly shook her head. "Most will be calling to make or reschedule appointments. Can you do that?"

"I . . . I think so . . ."

With a heavy sigh, the woman sat back and stared at Bellaniece incredulously. "Why don't you tell me what you can do?"

Wincing at the woman's cold demeanor, Bellaniece straightened her back proudly and lifted her chin. "I might not know how to do these things, but I can learn."

The woman wasn't impressed. Standing up with a heavy sigh, she stomped over to the coffee machine and took her time pouring a cup while muttering under her breath about useless girls and Izayoi-sensei's penchant for collecting pretty things. Bellaniece felt her cheeks explode with indignant color, and she had to grit her teeth to keep from responding to the derogatory assessment in kind since she was obviously not meant to hear it. If the woman knew that she worked for an inu-hanyou, Bellaniece didn't know, but in case the human did not, she wasn't about to let the cat out of the bag.

After deliberately making Bellaniece wait while she finished preparing her coffee and without bothering to offer Bellaniece a cup—not that she'd want any of the foul-smelling concoction—the woman finally turned to face her again, her tolerant smile back in place. "Look, we are very busy in this office. I don't really have time to train you in basic things that any secretary needs to know. Whatever you learn here will have to be picked up as you go. Are you sure you want to work here?"

"I'm a fast study," Bellaniece said smoothly despite her rising indignation. "Don't worry about me. I need this job."

The woman's eyes took in Bellaniece's dress and bearing. Finally she shrugged and returned to her desk. "I'll ask Izayoi-sensei what he wants you to do— If he decides to come in today."

"He doesn't come in every day?"

"He's supposed to come in every day. Izayoi-sensei will miss his own funeral one day, mark my words."

Bellaniece smiled cautiously, unsure why her listening to the complaints about Kichiro seemed to make the woman friendlier. "You speak English well," Bellaniece ventured.

"My name's Mai. My husband is from New York."

"I'm from Maine."

Mai's smile warmed. "Beautiful country up there."

"Yeah, it is," Bellaniece agreed.

"We honeymooned there at a little bed and breakfast on the ocean."

Bellaniece's smile widened. Her father's home was also on the ocean, and there were times she missed it viciously. Maybe she'd inherited a bit of her father's reclusive behavior, or maybe it was something she'd grown to appreciate. There was a simplicity in it that appealed to her. In that place was the freedom to be herself, to leave all the false façades on the shelf. She shook her head. She was here, and she had a mission. Kelly's surgery was the most important thing to her. She'd do whatever she had to do to make sure the surgery happened.

"I don't think that's a good idea, Kel . . ." Bellaniece said as she frowned at her best friend.

"Oh, come on, Belle! No one's going to know, least of all your daddy," the young ermine-youkai scoffed.

"I'm not afraid of Daddy," Bellaniece protested. "It's just not a smart thing to do!"

Kelly laughed, mousy light brown hair tumbling over her shoulders as she let her head fall back, her face outlined in the light of the setting sun filtering through the window. "You've got to try it! A little marijuana never hurt anyone!"

Bellaniece shook her head and stood up stiffly as Kelly lit the joint. "I'll see you, Kel."

"You're such a baby, Belle! Heaven forbid you piss off your dad, right? Whatever. See you."

Bellaniece didn't answer as she strode out of the house. Kelly had always been daring like that. Bellaniece was, too, in her own way. The difference was that Kelly's sort of rebellion tended to be more destructive while Bellaniece was more careful in choosing her battles. Contrary to Kelly's belief, Bellaniece didn't fear her father, the great tai-youkai, at all. Cain had a way of making Bellaniece feel as though she had completely let him down, and that, really, was something far worse than fear. He'd get a certain look on his face, a sadness in his gaze as he slowly shook his head, and though he rarely said anything about her perceived badness, that look was enough—more than enough.

That was the night though . . .

Bellaniece remembered all too well. The next morning, she'd headed to Kelly's house since the two of them ran to school together every morning. Kelly's house was burned black, the frame creaking and groaning in the early spring wind blowing off the ocean. Kelly was in the emergency trauma center nearly two hours away by car. They said a smoldering cigarette butt had caused the fire. Bellaniece knew in her heart it was something completely different.

And yet, Kelly had changed after that. Gone was the rebellious girl who would do anything on a dare, and in her place was the childhood friend that Bellaniece had grown to adore in her youth. The third degree burns that covered most of Kelly's body had been scary enough to see, and Bellaniece wondered more than once, if she had stayed, surely she would have made sure that whatever was burning was extinguished. Nothing would have happened if Bellaniece had just stayed . . .

Kelly was youkai, and Bellaniece stubbornly believed that, as such, Kelly would heal fast. That was true enough. Kelly's youkai blood did save her from the fire, and it did help her flesh heal. It couldn't prevent the scarring that covered most of Kelly's body, and though Kelly said that she deserved it, that she had been stupid, Bellaniece hadn't missed the sadness in her friend's eyes, and to that end, she'd started searching for someone who could help Kelly—and maybe if she could help Kelly, she wouldn't feel guilty anymore, either . . .

The door opened, jerking Bellaniece out of her reverie, and Kichiro strode in with a scowl on his face. He glanced at Bellaniece before his gaze returned. He didn't smile as he nodded curtly and headed past the women toward his office.

Mai rolled her eyes and shook her head before trailing after Kichiro, leaving Bellaniece alone in the quiet office.

She sighed. If it weren't for the surgery Kelly so desperately needed, Bellaniece wouldn't think twice about walking out of the office and never looking back.

 

 

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Cain rubbed his chin again as he leaned back on the desk and watched the college students bent over their fruit sketches. While he had never actually sketched fruit before and had to wonder just what benefit could possibly come from it, he was also thankful that he had a bit of time to take in the students and acquaint himself with them before he was barraged with questions.

Gaze sweeping over the art students, one in particular kept commanding his attention. Scrunched low on her stool, as though she was trying to take up as little space as possible, Gin Izayoi bit her lower lip as she scowled at her sketch pad.

'Damn, she's got a hard head,' he thought with a grimace as he shifted his jaw from side to side.

'Yeah . . . and what did you expect? You scared the crap out of her.'

'I didn't do any such thing . . . at least, not on purpose.'

Her expression shifted into a chagrined scowl, her nose wrinkling just a little as her eyebrows drew together. With a sigh, she set the pencil down, grabbed the kneaded eraser off the desk, and started blotting at the sketch. Something about that look on her face bothered him, and he refused to delve too deeply for the reason. With an inward snort at his capricious thoughts, Cain pushed himself to his feet and purposefully strode to the opposite side of the room, stopping beside the first student and studying the dull subject matter before muttering something both meaningless and perfunctory before moving on to the next.

The trouble was, as he soon found out, there were only fifteen students in the class, and not commenting on Gin's work was out of the question. He'd wandered around for nearly an hour without approaching her. Surely she'd calmed down enough by now that he wouldn't startle her again, right?

He snorted. 'Right.'

Still he hesitated before ambling over to her worktable, pausing only a moment to glance at her sketch before clearing his throat to announce his arrival before she threw her notebook at him or worse. "Looks good," he commented in what he hoped was a neutral tone.

Gin's pale cheeks reddened and she ducked her head, twisting the pencil in her hands around in a decidedly nervous manner. "Oh, thanks . . . I thought the orange was a little too . . . round . . ."

He leaned over her shoulder and narrowed his gaze on the sketch. "So it's a perfect orange, just like your perfect apple and perfect grapes. Huh."

She glanced at him quickly, an unspoken question lighting her golden eyes as she slowly shook her head. "Is that bad?"

His smile was enigmatic, almost sad, and he shrugged as he stuffed his hands into his pockets and stepped back. "Not bad . . . It just tells me that you don't view the world as flawed. You see it all as . . . perfect."

Again she bit her lower lip as her frown deepened. "That sounds bad."

"No . . . It just sounds idealistic. Perfection can be boring, Izayoi-san: tedious and dull. The world is full of imperfection, of unrealized potential because there isn't a being on earth that can attain such a goal. Remember that."

She swallowed hard and nodded wordlessly as he walked away.

The rest of the class period passed quickly enough. The students spent part of the time asking him questions about art and his exhibits. The only one who didn't ask anything was Gin. She sat at her worktable quietly, face buried in her sketchbook. He never really thought fruit could be that interesting, and for a moment he had to wonder if he shouldn't have been so tough in critiquing her sketch.

It was the truth, wasn't it? The world wasn't a nice place, and it didn't discriminate. It didn't matter if you were the strongest or the most powerful. It didn't care if you were the wisest or the most cunning. In the end, the world would take what it would take, and there wasn't a damn thing that anyone could do to stop it.

Maybe young Miss Izayoi had been cherished and protected all her life, and that was likely the reason that she had such a naïve outlook on life. Hadn't Cain tried to do that for his daughter, too?

He sighed, rubbing his temple with nimble fingertips. The trouble was that a girl like Gin Izayoi was a rare thing, and rare things were meant to be sheltered, cosseted away from the harsher realities that she would undoubtedly have to face.

When class ended and the other students filed out, Gin hurriedly packed up her things and started down the aisle between tables, heading for the door.

Cain frowned and called after her. " Izayoi-san."

She stopped and slowly turned to face him, her expression almost guilty, as though he caught her doing something wrong.

"Going somewhere?"

She blinked quickly and shook her head as color filtered into her cheeks for the third time since she'd walked into the classroom as slow understanding dawned on her.

"You're my teacher's aide, right?"

Wringing her hands, she shifted from one foot to the other while she forced a tight little smile and bit her lip—again. "I don't know what's wrong with me today," she blurted as her face reddened more. "I got up late, and the clumsiness, and then—"

His soft chuckle cut her off, and her little hanyou ears flattened against her head as her eyes brightened suspiciously. "It's all right, Izayoi-san. I have to check supplies. Nothing breakable."

It took a moment for her to realize he was teasing her. When she did, her face lit with a brilliant smile, and Cain was the one blinking in surprise as Gin dropped her bag on the nearest worktable and rubbed her hands together. "Okay, I'm all yours."

'Damn . . .'

Cain cleared his throat and gestured at the small supply room adjacent to the classroom. "Guess we should get started then," he said, hoping she didn't hear the slight catch in his voice.

Gin laughed and, with a nod, started down the aisle toward the supply room door as Cain slowly shook his head.

'She's just a pup,' he reminded himself. Gin flipped her hair back over her slender shoulder. Moments later the scent of trees and wind, of oceans breezes and spring rain assailed him. Her frame swayed elegantly with her movements, and even as diminutive as she was, she held a certain presence, a quiet grace, a radiant beauty. Cain ground his teeth together. 'Just a pup in a woman's body . . .'

 

 

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Kichiro dropped the pen on the desk blotter and let his forehead fall into his raised hand with a sigh. Most days he loved his job. Most days had their rewards, no matter how small. Today wasn't one of them.

In the few hours since he'd come into the office, he'd been inundated with nothing but nonsense. Outer beauty was the thing women strove to perfect. One of the women he'd seen was a regular. She'd joked that she ought to get a frequent patient discount. That had struck Kichiro as being infinitely sad. He didn't know how many times he'd wanted to tell patients that they didn't need his services at all. There was something intrinsically beautiful about every woman who walked through his office doors. If there weren't the ever-looming threat of sexual harassment charges, no matter how groundless, he'd say something. Trouble was, his patients weren't interested in therapy. They wanted a quick fix that they perceived would change misconception they had when, in reality, it changed nothing.

Plastic surgery was just a cover, anyway. His real interest was in perfecting the art of marking youkai mates, most notably the human ones. Though he had been able to prove his theory of simple blood replacement years ago when his cousin, Toga was having difficulty carrying out the needed marking, Kichiro had been trying to find less invasive ways to accomplish this, thus making the entire process much easier on both parties involved. Plastic surgery allowed him more free time as well as the ability to procure the office space needed to schedule markings.

His prophetic words came back to him, and he smiled sardonically. "Can't say I blame you. It's a nasty business. I was hoping I'd find another hanyou, so I wouldn't have to do it."

He'd said it to Toga when Toga was trying to come up with an alternate way to mark Sierra. It was still true. If he found a youkai or hanyou mate, the marking could be overlooked . . .

'That is, if I ever find anyone I want to be with . . . or anyone who wants to be with me . . .'

He winced as he dragged a hand over his face. 'Even Ryo found someone already, and as much of a baka as he is, I figured he'd still be looking long after I'd found someone.'

Shaking his head at his thoughts, Kichiro shot to his feet and strode over to the window. 'All right, that was harsh, but true enough. I guess I really did think that I'd be happily settled with a mate and a pup long before Ryo ever was.'

Then again, Ryomaru didn't have to go looking for his mate, did he? She'd been there under his nose all along, really. It was just that Ryomaru was also baka enough not to realize it right away, either.

'Maybe I should cut him some slack . . . I mean, his youkai chose Nezumi when we were still pups, ourselves, so it stands to reason that he didn't realize that the little voice in his head was his youkai, right?'

Kichiro grinned as he returned to his chair and flopped back in it. 'Nah . . . He really is a baka . . . Never thinks before he does stuff. Hasn't that always been Ryo's problem?'

'And maybe you think too much, Kich. Ever consider that?'

Kichiro made a face. 'Who asked you?'

His youkai laughed. 'That's the beautiful thing about it. You never have to ask. I like to give you my opinion.'

Kichiro shook his head and sighed. 'Shut up.'

"Dr. Izayoi, your last appointment for the day cancelled."

Kichiro glanced up and regarded the young hanyou in the doorway without changing expressions as she slipped into the office and sauntered toward him.

"You look angry . . . Did someone tweak your nose?" Bellaniece asked as she perched lightly on the desk.

'Balls, Kich . . . She's hot . . . and she's got a damn nice rack . . .'

'What? I thought I told you to shut up! And find another curse word. 'Balls' just isn't right.'

'Oh, balls . . . See? Works just fine . . . Anyway, did you notice? She smells nice, too . . .'

Bellaniece blinked and shook her head slowly, drawing away when Kichiro erupted in a low growl. "Now I know I didn't do anything to deserve that," she pouted.

"Is there something you wanted?" he asked pointedly, his tone drier than normal as he slumped back in his chair.

Bellaniece shrugged. "Not really . . . I just wanted to tell you about your appointment canceling. Why do you look so mad?"

"Why do you care?"

He'd offended her. He could tell in the way she sat up a little straighter, the way her nostrils flared the tiniest bit. Her youki constricted around her, as though she was trying to protect herself, and for some perverse reason, her reaction pleased him. "Are you always so grouchy?"

He shrugged. "I'm not grouchy. I'm thinking."

She grinned. "You need to lighten up a little. You're far too serious. You're not old enough to be that serious."

"Maybe your life is fun and games, Belle-chan, but mine isn't. I have responsibilities: things I have to do. It's called growing up. Perhaps you ought to look into it."

Those brilliant sapphire eyes snapped and blazed then narrowed as she stood up and leaned over the desk. "You don't really know a thing about me, Dr. Izayoi. How dare you make your assumptions without giving me a chance to prove you're wrong?"

"Girls like you walk into my office every day. I've seen you all. You toss your money around, and you expect the world to fall at your feet. So . . . how much did that little dress cost you? Or should I say, how much did it cost your father?"

"You're a jerk, you know that? A big one."

"Name calling? How . . . apropos."

"When the shoe fits . . ."

He narrowed his gaze on her. "You don't really want to get into a mudslinging match, do you? I think I'm better at those than you are."

She forced a tight little smile. "Since you already think so little of me, then why don't you just let me pay for Kelly's surgery and be done with me? You don't want me here, and I've got better things to do than to stand around waiting for your insults."

"So you can make the rules but you won't play the game?"

"Why then?"

He shrugged. "Maybe you need to learn a few things about how the world works. You can't bat your eyelashes and pout prettily and really think that you'll always get your way."

"And you can't sit behind that desk and judge everyone who walks into your office. Wait . . . I guess you can. Being a whole . . . what? Ten years older than me gives you that right, doesn't it?"

"Girls like you never, ever work for a damn thing in your lives. You're born, you live, and you'll die without ever having to earn a thing you're given, and the hell of it is, you think you deserve it."

"Why is that? Because men like you say so? You know nothing about me, so don't pretend you do."

Kichiro didn't respond as Bellaniece huffed to the door, a little smile tugging at the corners of his lips as he tried not to think about why her indignant bluster amused him so much.

'Why are you being such an ass, Kich?'

'Thought I told you to shut up.'

'Keh! Like I'll do that! You're just being nasty because she gets under your skin.'

'As if.'

'And you hate it when I'm right.'

'I think I'll ignore you now.'

'As if.'

"Belle," he called after her. She stopped, chin rising a notch as she slowly pivoted to level a glower at him. He schooled his features before he laughed outright. She looked so childish with her lips pursed in a tight little pucker and her arms crossed mulishly over her chest that she reminded him of a child version of Gin, throwing a tantrum to get her way. "Your friend . . . She can have the first surgery in a few weeks—maybe a month or two. Her skin needs a little more time to heal before I can do anything."

She looked surprised as he waved a hand at the file on his desk. She'd apparently missed it when she was mid-tirade.

An odd brightness lit her gaze, and she nodded quickly. "You mean, you've already checked into her situation?"

Kichiro shrugged. "A deal's a deal, isn't it?"

"Thanks," she murmured in a subdued tone before hurrying out of the office, leaving Kichiro alone once more.

'She's something, isn't she?'

Kichiro sighed and snorted in the empty room.

'No, really . . . You might not want to believe it, but she's not as bad as you want to think she is.'

'Again, who asked you?'

'You don't have to ask me, Kich, you baka. One of us has to be rational. Might as well be me.'

Kichiro rolled his eyes. 'Rational? You've got to be kidding. You sound a little too much like Ryo to be considered 'rational'.'

'Say what you want. At least I know a gorgeous woman when I see one . . . and I'm not afraid to say so, either.'

'Gorgeous, maybe,' Kichiro allowed as he rubbed his forehead. 'I'll argue the 'woman' part. She's still just a pup trying to pretend she's all grown up.'

'Yep . . . sure . . . keep talking. That'll make it true.'

'It is true. She's a spoiled little rich girl, and I don't feel like indulging her.'

'Oh, balls! Maybe you should be nicer to her.'

'What?'

'Well, you know, it's always a bad, bad thing to start out a long-term relationship in such turmoil.'

Kichiro's head snapped up as his eyes flared wide as he slowly shook his head. 'There isn't a 'long-term' thing about it . . . and I'm really going to ignore you now.'

His youkai just laughed at him.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'Oh, no!'

Gin winced, biting her lower lip as she frowned at the apartment door. She wasn't a believer in karma, but she really had to wonder if she had wronged someone in a past life since someone somewhere was getting a good laugh at her expense, she was sure.

'Almost late to class . . . humiliated in front of everyone by my own clumsiness . . . and now . . .'

Now she realized that in her haste to get to class on time, she'd forgotten her apartment keys, which meant she was locked out.

She had meant to make a spare to give to Kagome in case something like this happened, or in case there was an emergency. She hadn't had time to do it now, and even if she did, could she really explain to her parents that she had locked herself out? It would just prove, in her father's opinion, that he had been right, and that she wasn't responsible enough to take care of herself.

'Think, Gin! It's not so bad . . . People lock themselves out of their homes all the time, right? So what do they do? They . . . call the building superintendent!'

Rummaging through her bag until she located both her cell phone as well as the slightly bent card with the superintendent's number, Gin drew a deep breath as she poked the keypad and waited for an answer.

Stifling a soft whine as the answering machine stated that the man would be out of town all week, Gin winced and hung up the phone as the beginning threads of panic swirled around her head.

'Okay . . . he's gone . . . Surely there's someone else I can—A locksmith!'

Four calls to information assistance and four more answering machines later, Gin realized something else that she should have thought of already but hadn't. Calling a locksmith at eight o'clock wasn't going to help, since most of them were closed.

Panic closed in a little more, and Gin winced.

There really was no help for it. She was going to have to call her parents, and it wouldn't surprise her if InuYasha used that as a reason for her to move back home.

Trying to think of another solution but drawing a blank, Gin chewed on her index finger claw and sighed as she slumped back against the unforgiving door—her nemesis. 'If I could pick the lock . . . Bet Ryo-nii-chan could, but he'd tell Papa, if he didn't escort me home, himself, that is . . .'

A sudden thought occurred to her, and Gin held her hand up in front of her face a she considered this new idea. Her claws were long, tapered, but strong. 'I bet . . . I could pick the lock . . .'

Dropping her bag on the floor, she knelt down in front of the door and scowled as she jabbed the point of her claw into the lock. 'Come on . . . This has to work!'

She heard the scrape of the elevator doors open but didn't bother to look. She was so wrapped up in her task that she wasn't paying much attention at all—until the voice behind her startled her.

"Izayoi-san? What are you doing?"

With a strangled 'eep' sound, Gin shot to her feet and whipped around to face the one man she'd rather not have seen at the moment. The 'eep' shifted into a yelp of pain since she'd forgotten that she still had her claw stuck into the keyhole. Her movement jerked the tip free but not before the sharp sting of the claw coming away from her skin registered in her mind. "Ow!" she managed just before sticking the finger into her mouth in a vain effort to alleviate the pain.

Zelig-sensei stepped back; arms crossed over his chest as he stared curiously at her but didn't speak.

"I wockt eyefelf ou," she explained without pulling the finger out of her mouth as she tried to blink back tears that gathered in her eyes.

He winced and reached out to touch her shoulder but seemed to think better of it and jerked it back again. "Don't cry . . . Can't you call someone? The superintendent or—?"

Gin shook her head miserably. "E's awn," she muttered. "All week."

"Your parents? Someone?"

With a little pop, Gin let her hand drop as she shook her head again. "I can't call Mama . . . Papa didn't want me to move out, and he'll think . . . I can't believe I did that!"

He sighed and nodded, understanding her dilemma. "Did you leave any windows open?"

Gin sniffled and swiped the tears away with the back of her hand. "Windows? Yes, but—"

Zelig-sensei shrugged. "I can go unlock your door if you want."

She blinked and stared at him, trying to decide if he was serious or not. "But . . . we're on the twentieth floor . . ."

"And I'm youkai. Do you want me to let you in or not?"

". . . O-Okay."

He nodded, and Gin watched as he strode down the hall to the next door and let himself into the apartment next to hers.

'Youkai . . . that's right . . . Sesshoumaru-oji-san can take on an energy form . . . Is that what he's going to do?'

Sticking her finger into her mouth again, Gin retrieved her bag and stood back to wait.

 

 

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'You're crazy, you know it? Just why are you doing this?'

'She's locked out of her apartment. That's all.'

'That's the only reason? Sure, it is.'

'What other reason could there possibly be? Wait . . . don't answer that.'

Cain didn't miss a step as he strode through his apartment, even when his body disintegrated into the bright blue hue of his energy form. It only took seconds for him to sail out the window and around to hers. He was solid again before his feet touched the floor in her apartment.

'She was crying,' he thought defensively. 'And it wasn't just the crying, either. She was trying not to cry.' Which had only served to worsen the impact of it, as far as he was concerned. The delicate features of her face were too well defined, even in the dimly lit hallway. It had been bad enough, when the tears filled her eyes, brightening her golden gaze like beacons in the dark. Then her nostrils had started quivering just a little, and by the time her lips had started trembling; he had known that he had to fix it for her, if he possibly could.

'Damn, I'm just a sucker.'

'Yeah . . . so long as the girl doesn't figure that out, you'll be fine.'

'. . . Sure.'

With a sigh, he turned the lock and opened the door.

Gin blinked, as though she was amazed that he'd gotten her door open, but when her face lifted to look at him, the smile that surfaced made Cain step back. Those eyes positively glowed with gratitude, and before he could register exactly what was happening, she ran toward him and launched herself into his arms. It was instinct alone that made him catch her. The warmth of her body against his was shocking as the tendrils of her unmistakable scent tightened around him like iron bands wrapped in the softest velvet. She was so vibrant, so alive, so innocent in her exuberance. Cain swallowed hard and gently set her on her feet before stepping away to put a respectable distance between them again.

Gin didn't seem to notice. "Thank you so much! I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't come along . . ." She frowned suddenly, tilting her head to the side as she continued to stare at him. "I didn't know you live here."

"Uh, yeah . . . The university found it for me since it was such short notice and all that."

"That's so weird! What are the odds that we'd end up being neighbors? Guess that means I can't cut classes. You'd know, wouldn't you? I mean, I wouldn't cut class, but if I did, then you'd know I was . . ."

She was babbling though he wasn't at all sure whether she realized it or not. It was something that normally bothered him. With Gin Izayoi, there was something endearing about it. He smiled despite himself.

She blinked in surprise as her words died on her lips, and she smiled back shyly. "Thanks again. I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't come along. Do you make it a habit to rescue bakas who lock themselves out of their apartments?"

His smile faltered. Just why had he helped her? Wouldn't it have been easier, just to keep walking? 'Careful, Cain . . . She's dangerous, and you know it.'

He did know that, didn't he? Cain shrugged as if it were of no real consequence. "Just when the baka who locked herself out of her apartment threatens to cry."

Gin winced, lifting her hand to glance at her claw like she'd forgotten that she had nearly ripped it off. "Yeah . . . That was pretty stupid."

"I didn't mean to startle you."

"It was my own fault. I should have realized you were behind me."

Frowning, he held out his hand. "Let me see."

She waved away his concern. "No, it's fine, really. It'll be fine by morning, I'm sure."

He shook his head. "Don't give me that, Izayoi-san."

"Just Gin's fine. You did help me, after all."

"All right, Gin," he conceded as he nodded at her finger. "I can smell fresh blood. Now let me see it."

A hint of a blush crept into her cheeks as he stepped toward her, grasping her hand and turning it over to examine her injured finger. He winced at the bluish tint that was darkening around her claw, and tugging the cuff of his sleeve over the heel of his hand, he gently dabbed away the trace amount of blood. "You should bandage that. I can help you, if you have one."

"Sure," she agreed, her voice breathless, bemused. "I'll get it . . ."

Cain's frown deepened as he watched her hurry away. 'What the hell are you doing, Cain? Get out of here before she gets to you more than she already has!'

He nodded but didn't move. 'Absolutely. That girl . . . damn.'

'Yeah? So why aren't you beating feet?'

'I . . . promised I'd help her . . .'

'Help her? You're nuts! Isabelle, Cain! Remember Isabelle? Remember what you did to Isabelle?'

That snapped him out of his reverie with the subtleness of a dousing of icy water. Forcing his feet to move, he stalked toward the door only to be stopped by the melodic sound of Gin's soft voice. "Zelig-sensei? You're leaving?"

"Wha? Oh . . . no . . . I, uh . . . I was just going to go get a bandage in case you didn't have one after all."

Gin's smile was immediate and breathtaking as she held up a decently sized first aid kit. "One thing about my mother: she insists we all have a well-stocked kit," she joked.

He took the box from her and opened it up to dig for a bandage. Gin wasn't kidding at all. He'd never seen such a well-stocked first aid kit. "Okay," he said as he set the box aside and ripped open the sterilized bandage. "Hold out your finger."

"You're really gentle, you know?" she remarked as he carefully wrapped the covering over the injured claw. "Must be because you're an artist."

Praying that she didn't discern the trace amount of trembling in his hands, he forced a small smile and hurriedly finished his task. "There. Don't go sticking your claw in locks anymore."

She laughed as she snapped the first aid kit closed and shrugged. "I was desperate."

"Is your father that bad?"

"Bad? No . . . He just can't seem to understand that I'm not really a pup anymore, is all."

"Call it a father thing. I'm like that with my daughter, too."

"That's right . . . You have a daughter. How old is she?"

"Bellaniece is seventeen going on three hundred, or so she'd have me believe. She says I'm a little overprotective," he admitted.

"Just a little?"

"Just a little more than 'a little'. Can't seem to help it."

Gin smiled then frowned as she tilted her head to the side and bit her bottom lip. "So . . . can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

She took her time forming her question, and when she finally asked it, she was careful to avert her gaze. "What happened to your mate?"

Cain wasn't sure why Gin's question startled him. Of course she'd be curious since she ought to know that mates normally didn't live much longer when one died. Still it took him a moment to digest it as a fresh wave of guilt rolled through his stomach at the blatant reminder. "I need to go. I'll see you tomorrow."

Gin winced. "I'm sorry. I suppose I got more than my fair share of curiosity from Mama. At least, that's what my brothers have always said. I hope I didn't offend you."

"No," he assured her. "It's fine. Have a good evening."

This time he didn't stop moving until he had reached the inner sanctum of his apartment. Gin may not have realized that her question had unsettled him so badly. Then again, maybe she did. At least she wouldn't ask him that again, would she?

Cain sighed as he shook a cigarette out of the rumpled pack. 'Don't forget. Gin Izayoi really is just a pup. You'd do better to stay the hell away from her.'

Of course she was. He knew that, right?

Balancing the cigarette between his lips as he lit it and inhaled deeply, Cain closed his eyes as he willed away the memory of her impetuous hug. 'Now if I can just remember that when she's in the same room,' he thought with a grimace, 'I'll be one step ahead of the game . . .'

 

 

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Brow furrowing in concentration as she swirled the last of the off-white frosting on the cake, Gin had to admit that the cake wasn't exactly perfect. 'So it isn't the prettiest cake in the world,' she thought with an inward sigh. 'It'll do.'

She only hoped that Zelig-sensei didn't laugh in her face.

'And why would he do that?'

'He's an artist . . . I'm sure that to him, everything is a work of art, and this cake . . . well, it definitely isn't.'

'Are you sure that you're not just trying to show him that you don't try to do everything perfectly?'

She didn't answer that question. Even if she had wanted the cake to be perfect, she wouldn't have been able to do it. She could cook, and she could bake, but decorating cakes was something that had never, ever been something she could do. Besides that, she'd had to use one of her sauce pans to bake the cake in since she didn't have an actual cake pan. The results were interesting at best, and Gin could only hope that the cake tasted better than it looked.

Glancing at the clock, Gin nearly changed her mind about taking Zelig-sensei the cake. It was nearly eleven, and she really had no idea what time he normally went to bed.

'Well, I could knock softly. If he is in bed, he won't hear me, right?'

"Right," she murmured as she tossed the spatula into the sink and brushed her hands off. "Besides, I should do this. He was nice enough to help me. Mother always says I should return kindness. He was just being a good neighbor, and I should be one, too."

'Okay . . . then why has your blood pressure shot through the roof at the very idea of seeing him again?'

The butterflies in her belly escalated at the very idea of seeing him again. Gin pressed her hand to her stomach and drew a steadying breath.

'Don't be ridiculous! It's not because of him! I just . . . I hope he likes chocolate cake, that's all.'

Wincing at her half-hearted attempt at a lie, Gin shook her head and lifted the cake off the counter, balancing it carefully as she headed for the door.

She almost turned around in the hallway and returned to her apartment. Overcome by a mental image of just how stupid she probably looked and how Zelig-sensei would perceive her ridiculous attempt at baking him a cake, she nearly turned around to go back. Maybe the planets were aligned just right. Maybe it was the ultimate show of divine karma, and if that were the case, maybe she had offended some high entity by her very existence because his apartment door opened before she could make her escape. She squeaked in surprise as he stopped just in time to keep from running her down as he strode out of his apartment.

"Gin?"

Fighting back the furious blush that threatened to engulf her features, Gin forced a tight smile and held out the cake. "I, uh, made this for you . . . to thank you for unlocking my apartment . . ."

He seemed surprised by her gesture and leaned his head to the side as he stared thoughtfully at the slightly lopsided, entirely misshapen cake. "You made this?"

She nodded. 'This is stupid. I'm completely stupid. He's going to think I'm really, really stupid . . . I don't know what I was thinking . . . Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid!'

"For me?"

She nodded again as he slowly took the cake and turned it slowly, eyeing it critically. "It's not fancy or anything," she mumbled.

"No, it's great," he assured her with a bashful smile, little more than the vaguest twitching of the corners of his lips. "What kind is it?"

Gin shrugged as she crossed her arms over her chest and bit her bottom lip. "Chocolate with vanilla butter cream icing. . ."

"Nice," he agreed as he peered over the cake at Gin's blushing face. "Listen, I was just heading out for a run through the park. You up for it?"

The discomfort drained out of her as she stared back at him. "Isn't it kind of late for that?"

Zelig-sensei shrugged. "Are the youkai in the area troublesome?"

"Of course not! They make it a rule not to mess with the tai-youkai's family—Sesshoumaru-oji-san, I mean."

His smile widened at her little slip, and he raised his eyebrows and let out a deep breath. "Suit yourself, Gin. If I'm not in class tomorrow, it's because I got lost in this huge city, all by myself."

She could tell he was teasing, never mind she knew that inu-youkai did not get lost. Their senses of smell were too keen, too acute. Unless it was the middle of a windstorm, it was almost impossible for that to happen. Still she smiled and shrugged. "All right," she agreed. "Wouldn't want you to get lost, Zelig-sensei."

His smile faltered just a little before widening as he slowly shook his head. "Just Cain's fine, Gin."

"Okay . . . Cain, it is."

 

 

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Sprinting through the forest while he asked himself for the millionth time, just why he had invited Gin along with him, Cain scowled into the darkness. 'You really are asking for trouble, old man, you know it?'

'Psh. I'm not that old.'

'And you're missing the point. She's trouble, I tell you! A girl like her . . . She'll crawl under your skin and make herself at home. While your mind is all addled by her very proximity, you won't even see what's happening till it's too late. Just what the hell do you think you're doing?'

Wincing at the accuracy of his youkai voice, Cain picked up the pace to distance himself from the entirely too-inebriating scent of the woman-pup beside him. Whether she realized what he was doing or not, she increased her speed to match his, her footfalls as soft as a whisper on the forest floor.

He'd left Bellaniece a note, not that he expected her to emerge from her room till morning. She'd gone to bed early, citing a headache, and though Cain had sensed her preoccupation, he hadn't remarked on it. If Bellaniece hadn't told him something then it meant that she wasn't likely to, no matter how much cajoling he tried to use with her.

Trouble was his thoughts were in turmoil. Too restless to sit around in the small apartment with nothing to do but think, he'd decided to go for a jog to release some of his tension.

But Gin . . .

"Bellaniece is a pretty name. It's unusual. How'd you come up with that?"

Snapping out of his reverie at Gin's question, Cain shot her a quick glance but didn't slow his pace. "She was named after her mother."

"Her name was Bellaniece?"

"No . . . her name was Isabelle."

"Oh . . . That's lovely, too . . ."

He could sense Gin's unvoiced questions. She didn't ask them, but they were awash in the depths of her golden gaze. "Are you sure we won't get in trouble for running through this forest?" he asked to distract Gin before she gathered enough courage to ask the questions forming in her mind.

She laughed; an easy sound that tinkled in the air like a thousand silvery bells. The sound soothed him, comforted him, lent him a curious sense of strength that he couldn't quite credit. Ignoring the warmth that seeped through him, Cain concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other as he loped through the forest beside the mysterious girl. She didn't seem to notice Cain's sudden silence. Content to jog along, she lifted her face heavenward to gaze up at the overcast sky.

"This is Papa's forest—InuYasha's Forest. He would rather that I ran here than in the park, you know?"

Cain nodded. "I see." Dropping to a walk as they entered a clearing near a small spring, he couldn't help but smile as she let her head fall back, gazing quietly up at the stars.

"They're brighter here, you know?" she said quietly. "Mama told me that when she used to go to Papa's time, the stars were brighter there, too . . . millions of them, and on clear nights, she and Papa would just sit and stare at them."

"Your father's time," Cain echoed. Precious few knew the real story of the time traveling priestess from the modern world that went back time and again to help her friends defeat Naraku in the Warring States Era. He knew the story. Sesshoumaru had told him long ago. How had Gin known that? "That was a little before my time."

Gin straightened up and slowly turned to face him, resting her hands on her hips as she shuffled a foot in the grass. "Before your time? How old are you?"

"Two hundred and eighty-two years old. One of these days, I'm going to stop keeping track."

She grinned. "That's not so bad. Sesshoumaru-oji-san is well over seven hundred, probably closer to eight hundred . . . or more . . ."

"How old is your father?"

"Papa's nearly fifty. . . but if you count the years that he was pinned to Goshinboku and the years that passed when he came after Mama, then he'd be closer to six hundred."

Cain chuckled. "Do you count those years?"

Gin's smile turned impish, her fangs glinting in the moonlight. "No."

Her silvery hair shone blue, the angles of her face bathed in shadows, kissed with light. Her eyes were bright as she scanned the night sky; her smile was enigmatic as she flicked her little hanyou ears.

"You ready to head back?" he asked at last, breaking the silence that had fallen around them.

Gin blinked and glanced at him, as if she had forgotten that he was there. "Sure," she said as she rotated her shoulders and strode over to him.

"Good," he remarked as he broke into a slow jog. "You're going to help me eat that cake, right?"

Gin giggled as she fell into stride beside him. "Right."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bellaniece awoke to a throbbing temple and an unreasonable desire to rip someone's head off. Anyone would do, she supposed. She was about to roll over and go back to sleep when reality intruded in the form of her alarm clock.

'Oh . . . no . . . not again!'

She had to be a glutton for punishment. She had to be. There wasn't any other explanation for it. Only that could explain why she bothered to get up every morning and walk the four blocks to Dr. Izayoi's office only to endure his perpetual bad moods or worse, his snide commentary whenever she was unfortunate enough to be left alone with him.

The last thing she wanted to do was go into that office. She'd worked for him for a total of two weeks, and in those two weeks, she had realized something that she hadn't in the beginning. One person really could be in that foul a mood every single morning of every single day. At least it wasn't always horrible. Most of the time he simply glared, which was a far sight better than his less savory habit of sniffing in her direction and then contorting his face in the most ill-mannered show of disgust Bellaniece had ever received.

Sitting up with a heavy sigh, Bellaniece reached over and turned off the alarm. She didn't dare give in to the urge to quit the job, as much as she wanted to. She didn't need it. Her father was wealthy enough. If it weren't for Kelly, for the surgery that she needed, Bellaniece wouldn't think twice about quitting. It baffled her, just why Dr. Izayoi insisted she work for him. By all accounts, he couldn't stand her any more than she could stand him, which was a shame since he really was quite handsome . . .

'What? Handsome? Maybe I cracked my head in my sleep . . . As if I really need to think about Kichiro Izayoi . . . like that!'

Wrinkling her nose as she tossed the covers away and stumbled out of bed; Bellaniece arched her back and stretched her arms over her head. Shuffling toward the door, she rolled her head from side to side, wincing at the tightness between her shoulders.

'He's a complete and utter jerk. I've never seen anyone who is as much of a creep as he is! I swear he tries to go out of his way to be as offensive as he can be. Just what is his problem, anyway?'

Cain was in the kitchen, hunched over the counter with his attention focused on the newspaper. Clad in the loosely tied knit shorts he wore to bed, he obviously had just rolled out of bed, too, but since classes didn't start for another two hours, he was able to take his time getting ready. He had a hunk of chocolate cake in one hand and a mug of something in the other. He set the mug down to turn the page and retrieved it again without glancing up. "Morning," he mumbled. "Coffee's ready."

Bellaniece made a face and shook her head. It was habit for him, she supposed. He always told her that there was a pot of coffee ready even though she couldn't stand the smelly drink. As full youkai to her hanyou state, she didn't really understand how he could tolerate it. She rolled her eyes and ambled over, carefully unwrapping the remaining slice of chocolate cake.

"I bought bagels for you," Cain informed her without looking up from the paper. "You can't have cake for breakfast. It's bad for you."

She grinned and ignored his admonition as she dug a knife out of the drawer and cut a small slice for herself. There were moments when she wondered if her father really saw her at all. This was one of those times. He wasn't apathetic, but he did have a habit of being distracted. It was one of his quirks, and sometimes she had to wonder if he even realized that she wasn't a pup anymore. "You're one to talk," she pointed out, leaning on the counter beside him as she waved her slice of cake toward his.

"Do as I say, not as I do."

Bellaniece giggled and nibbled a bit of the chocolate frosting. "You know, Daddy, we've had a lot of cake around here lately. Going to tell me where they keep coming from?"

"You're going to be late for work," he said, sidestepping the cake question like he did every morning.

Bellaniece's grin turned sly. "Is she pretty?"

Cain stuffed nearly half of his slice of cake into his mouth to avoid answering but his cheeks reddened just a little.

'Interesting . . . When's the last time I saw Daddy blush?' Schooling her features to hide her amusement, Bellaniece sighed dramatically. "How about a nice, yellow cake today? I'm sure if you asked, the cake fairy would be happy to grant your wish . . ."

"Oh ayk oor owah," he mumbled as his cheeks darkened more.

"I took a shower last night," Bellaniece pointed out, "but you win." She giggled and sauntered away, nibbling at her cake as she headed for the bathroom.

'Maybe he really has met someone,' Bellaniece mused as she polished off the last of her slice of cake and rinsed the crumbs off her fingers. 'That'd be nice . . . too nice . . .'

She sighed as she turned on the shower taps and stripped off the oversized white button-down shirt she'd filched from Cain's closet that she wore as pajamas. Sticking her hand under the flow of water to check the temperature, Bellaniece bit her bottom lip and shook her head. 'That's almost too much to hope for, isn't it?'

She'd almost given up hope. It was something she didn't like to dwell on, but the truth was that Cain just bided his time. Though he never really said as much to her, Bellaniece knew the score. When a youkai's mate died, it was only a matter of time before the other would follow. Since her mother had died long ago, it hadn't taken much to figure out that Cain had only toughed it out because of her and because of his responsibilities as tai-youkai. He needed to make sure she survived, and he had to make sure he had an heir. Because she was a girl, she couldn't inherit the title and position. No, Cain needed a son . . . or a grandson . . .

Bellaniece stepped into the shower and closed her eyes as she let the torrent of water wash over her. She'd asked him once a long time ago, what would happen if he found another mate. He hadn't really answered her, and the look on his face was enough to dissuade her from ever broaching the subject again.

She had learned, from overhearing some visitors awhile later, that it was possible for a youkai to find another mate, if they could survive the initial shock of losing the first. It was to that end that Bellaniece had been trying to get her father to notice another woman—any woman. Truthfully, she wouldn't care if her would-be stepmother had purple punk hair cut in a Mohawk with enough tattoos and body piercings to put most bikers to shame. If Cain found a woman to make him happy again—to make him want to live again—then Bellaniece would consider herself grateful.

 

 

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Cain knocked on the door and tapped the plate lightly against his hip as he waited for Gin to answer.

"Who is it?" she called, her sing-song voice raised to permeate the thick door.

"Cain."

"Oh, Cain . . . O-Okay."

He stepped back with a frown as the rattle of the chain and snap of the deadbolt lock sounded moments before the door swung open. Blinking in surprise as she tugged on the belt of the thigh-length silk robe, he could smell the dampness of her skin, her hair. Retreating another step as the fierce desire to grab her shot through him, he shook his head, tried to look away. He couldn't. She'd obviously just gotten out of the shower, and Cain had to swallow a couple times before he could find his voice. "M-Morning."

Gin's smile was bright, golden eyes brilliant and glowing. "Morning, yourself! Want to come in?" she asked as she stepped back and let the door fall open a little more.

'Hell, no! Run, Cain! Get as far away from her as you possibly can!'

"Uh, all right," he agreed, feet heavy as lead as he forced them to move. "I was just . . . I wanted to return your plate."

She jerked back slightly when he shoved the plate under her nose. With a soft giggle, she took it and hurried over to put it down.

The robe was longer than the miniskirts she normally wore to class, he reasoned. Why, then, did it have such a profound effect on him?

'Don't answer that, you fool! I told you to run. You could have just given her the plate at the door and left, but no-o-o-o; you had to come in . . .'

"Do you want a cup of tea?" Gin asked over her shoulder as she stood on tip toe to retrieve the ceramic mugs from the top shelf. The robe rose shockingly high, but if Gin noticed that at all, Cain couldn't say. He did, damn it, and try as he might, he couldn't look away.

'Snap out of it, Cain! You see your daughter in less than that, and you don't gape at her, do you?'

'Pfft! That's my daughter, you pervert! She,' he thought, inclining his head toward Gin's back, 'is definitely not.'

Seemingly unaware of the scrutiny she was under; Gin carefully poured two mugs of tea and brought them over to him. "Here . . . If you want sugar or anything . . . Oh, you know where I keep all that, right?" Setting her mug down on the table, she shot Cain one of the impish grins he was becoming a little too familiar with. "I'm going to go get dressed really quick. I can't drink my tea that hot, anyway."

He tried not to watch as she darted off toward the hallway that led to her bedroom. Peeking over his shoulder despite his resolve not to look, he sighed as she waved back at him before ducking into her room and closing the door.

'Why is it that whenever she's around you can't even see straight, Cain?'

Grimacing as he deliberately strode over to the cupboard where she kept the sugar, he tried to ignore the voice of his youkai.

'Good God! You know where she keeps stuff in her cupboards! This is bad, you know it? Really, really bad . . .'

'I have a good memory,' he thought with a mental shrug. 'She got the sugar out of here yesterday.'

'And the day before that, and the day before that . . . well you get the picture. You've had tea with her every morning for the last two weeks! You even rush Bellaniece out of the apartment so you can scurry over here to drool over Gin!'

'. . . I don't scurry.'

His youkai sighed.

"A penny for your thoughts?"

Cain snapped out of his reverie and glanced over at Gin, who was fully dressed in a green silk blouse and white skirt. She leaned on the counter and smiled when his eyes met hers. "Pardon?"

She made a face. "I said, 'a penny for your thoughts' . . . Isn't that one of the phrases you Americans use? I read it somewhere . . . a magazine or book . . ."

He smiled despite himself. It was nearly impossible not to smile at her, and with her this close, it was nearly impossible to resist the urge to tweak her little hanyou ears, too. Though she seemed calm enough, her ears pivoted like radar receivers. They fascinated him. Bellaniece's ears were pointed, like his, and she bore crests like he did. 'Does Gin have crests?' he wondered briefly.

'Don't even think about that,' his youkai snapped.

Luckily she stood up before he could reach for her ears, and she moved off to retrieve her tea. "So what are we drawing today?" Gin asked as she carefully sipped her tea.

Cain shrugged and turned around, leaning back on the counter as he stirred the cup. "Model," he told her. "Think you can do that?"

She grinned. "Sure! Does that mean we're finished doing still-lifes?"

"For now."

"Good. I don't mind them, but it's more interesting to draw actual living things."

Taking his time as he lifted the fragrant tea to his lips, Cain smiled slightly as Gin set her cup down, twisting it in circles as she leaned her head to the side and stared at the sloshing liquid.

'You know, Cain, today's model is a man.'

'. . . I don't care.'

'You don't? That's good, because he'll be naked. Gin's going to draw a naked man.'

'. . . Still don't care.'

'Think she's seen a naked man before?'

'Sure, she has,' he scoffed. 'She's twenty-four. It's impossible not to have seen a naked man or woman by that age, don't you think?'

His youkai laughed rather nastily. 'And you really don't care?'

'. . . Nope.'

'What if she likes this guy?'

'Like that'll happen.'

'It could happen. She'll see him naked.'

Cain grimaced inwardly. 'She won't even care about the model, and even if she does, it doesn't matter to me,' he insisted.

'Huh . . . If it doesn't matter to you, why are you squeezing the hell out of that mug? If you don't loosen your grip, you're going to—'

Gin yelped as the mug in Cain's hand cracked with a loud scrape. Lukewarm tea slipped over his hand and down his shirt, dripping onto his pants as a few droplets splattered on the floor. "Cain? Oh, my! Let me help you!" she insisted as she retrieved a snowy white dish towel and started blotting his hand and shirt.

"It's fine," he told her as he tried to push her away. She brushed his hand aside and shook her head as she soaked more tea into the stained cloth. "Gin, it's fine."

"You'd better get that shirt off," she told him, ignoring the disgruntlement in his tone. "It needs to soak or that stain is going to set . . . Here, let me help you."

Staring in dumbfounded disbelief as Gin's nimble fingers started unbuttoning his shirt, Cain blinked, feeling heat steal up his cheeks as he opened his mouth to form words that wouldn't come out.

'What are you doing? She's stripping you!'

"Gin!" he grumbled louder than he meant to as he brushed past her to drop the broken cup into the trash and shook his hand over the container. "It's not a big deal, all right?"

He grimaced. Did she have to look like he'd hurt her feelings? Dropping her gaze, she shrugged, wringing the towel in her hands as she bit her bottom lip. "I'm sorry about your shirt . . . I can get you a new one, if you want."

"Don't worry about it. I have more than enough shirts. It's not your fault, anyway."

She peeked up at him and quickly looked away again. Cain frowned. She looked even more upset than she had before. The frown contorted into a grimace as tears sprang to her eyes, and Cain stared, horrified, when she tried furiously to stave them back.

"G-G-Gin?"

She sniffled, lip quivering as she shook her head. "It's just . . . I mean . . . Oh, it's stupid."

"Stupid?" he echoed, taking a hesitant step toward her. "Gin, you're not making much sense."

She wiped a tear off her cheek. "Well, my ojii-san gave me that cup before he died."

"Oh, hell . . . I'm sorry . . ." he mumbled.

Gin waved a hand and sniffled. "It's okay. It's just a cup, right?" She drew a shaky breath and tried to smile which only served to make Cain feel even worse.

"Gin . . ."

She shook her head quickly. "Oh . . . Look at the time! You'd better hurry if you're going to change shirts before class!"

Cain didn't respond. Torn between the desire to comfort her for his mistake and the need to change out of the tea-stained shirt, he winced at Gin's overly-brilliant smile. "Hurry up or we'll miss the bus."

It was on the tip of his tongue to point out that they didn't really have to take the bus since they could both run faster than the vehicle. She was convinced to put on a happy face, though, and in the end, Cain didn't have the heart to do anything but nod as he strode toward the door.

'That was just awesome, Cain . . . So what're you going to do for an encore?'

Cain made a face as he jammed the key into his door. 'I thought you wanted me to stay away from her,' he thought as he smacked his palm against the door and stomped inside.

'Be that as it may, did you have to smash her cup? What the hell possessed you? You've only known her for a couple weeks, and even then, she's just a pup!'

'I know that!'

'Do you?'

'I'm not senile, damn it!' he fumed, jerking the shirt off and sending the last couple buttons that Gin didn't unfasten flying around the room. 'I wasn't possessed, either.'

'Oh yeah? What would you call it, then? You started thinking about the idea of her sketching a nude male model, and you lost your temper! Cain . . . don't be stupid!'

Shrugging on a clean shirt, Cain sighed and closed his eyes, pausing for a moment before tugging the hem down and dragging his hair out of his collar. The ponytail swished against his shoulders, and he deliberately took his time working the buttons. 'I . . . I don't know.'

'What do you mean, you don't know? You're letting her get under your skin. You can't even think straight when she's around. All it takes is one look from her, and you're a hopeless mess. Get a grip! Come on!'

That wasn't true, was it? He shook his head but couldn't really argue the claim. Gin was dangerous, wasn't she? Her sweetness, her naiveté, her absolute abandon, was impossible to ignore, inebriating, and entirely too welcome. In a world that had dimmed long ago, a life he now spent simply making the motions, she'd reminded him that beauty still existed. She called to him in a voice that he heard deep within; the stir of whispers he'd long since forgotten.

'And what'll you prove by dragging this on? What do you really think you'll achieve? Gin isn't yours. She's never been yours. She'll never be yours. You promised, remember? You made a vow, and that promise was sealed in blood.'

'Blood . . .'

Moving by rote, remembering things that were best left in the past, Cain stalked into the bathroom, jerked the handles to unleash the flow of water. His hands were shaking as he stuck them under the tap. Cold, clingy, the water gushed over him. In his mind, he saw crimson, saw his claws still smeared with blood—Isabelle's blood—and that blood wouldn't wash away. The painful memory raked at his soul: nose filled with the stench of death, ears throbbing with the harshness of her ragged breaths, Cain couldn't escape the filmy light that filled the room with a somber aura . . .

Over the years he'd tried to justify it to himself, tried to defend his actions. Too bad it was simpler to cast aspersions. Too bad it was easier to hate himself for his own weakness, his own lack of vision. Weren't mistakes more convenient to find when everything was confined to the ritualistic perfection of memories? It was natural to see where the errors were made in hindsight. It was easier to blame himself than it was to believe in the capricious nature of fate.

Golden eyes flashed through his mind, a hint of a smile, a blur of silver.

Cain jerked back, brought his hands up, turning them over as he grimaced. The blood had been washed away long ago, hadn't it? The only thing that lingered was recrimination.

Lifting his gaze to his reflection in the mirror, he winced at his haggard appearance. His eyes were veiled in troubled shadows, his skin pale and drawn. Shaking off the remnants of unreasonable fear, Cain dried his hands, tried not to ask himself why he'd seen Gin's eyes, Gin's smile, tried to ignore the significance behind it. "Isabelle, I . . ." he murmured. "What am I doing?"

The voice of his youkai blood remained conspicuously quiet.

 

 

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Kichiro sighed as he flicked his wrist to check his watch. 'Late again . . . you'd think that I'd be able to get to the office on time, just once.'

'Balls, Kich, just set your office hours back an hour, and you'll be on time every day.'

Snorting as he dropped into the alley beside the building, he shook his head. 'Your Ryomaru-esque logic astounds me,' he pointed out.

'Then don't bitch about being late all the time.'

Kichiro didn't answer as his gaze stuck on the blue Harley parked next to the curb. 'Ryomaru's here? Speak of the devil . . .'

Scowling as he glanced up at the overcast sky, Kichiro grabbed the door handle and yanked.

"Morning, Izayoi-sensei," Mai greeted without looking up from her work.

Kichiro's frown deepened as his eyes swept over Bellaniece's empty desk. "Where is Belle?"

Mai reached for the phone, pausing with her hand on the receiver. "She headed back to your office just after your brother arrived."

"What the fuck are you doing, bitch?"

Kichiro's eyes flared at Ryomaru's loud snarl. He didn't wait for further explanation, striding back toward his office.

Nezumi stood in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest. She glanced up at Kichiro, her expression blank though her bright blue eyes were lit with obvious amusement. Kichiro stopped behind her and raised his eyebrows in a silent question before shifting his gaze over her head. It only took a second to assess the situation, and he covered his mouth with a hand to stifle his amusement.

Ryomaru stood over by the desk, glaring mutinously at Bellaniece, who kept trying to grab Ryomaru's ears only to be thwarted when Ryomaru leaned from side to side. "Get your fucking hands away from me!" Ryomaru growled.

"Oh, come on, Dr. Izayoi! Don't be such a stiff!"

"Oh, my," Nezumi murmured.

"I ain't Dr. Izayoi!" Ryomaru shot back. "Now get the hell back!"

"I think I'd know if you weren't you," Bellaniece replied as she grabbed at his ears again.

"Yeah, you would!"

"So you left your hair down today, big deal. It looks better, anyway."

'Kich, get in there before Ryo loses his temper!'

Kichiro snorted. 'Keh! She needs to learn some manners, anyway.'

'Maybe but Ryo looks like he's ready to cut her down, damn it, and like it or not, Belle's your—'

'Finish that thought, and you'll regret it.'

'Then get in there!'

Kichiro rolled his eyes and loudly, deliberately cleared his throat.

Ryomaru finally noticed Kichiro standing behind Nezumi. "Balls, Kich, can you get this bitch off me?"

Bellaniece peeked over her shoulder to see who Ryomaru was talking to, and she froze, hands poised, ready to grab at the hanyou's ears again. The expression on her face was priceless. She stared at Kichiro with a mounting sense of bewilderment before slowly looking back at Ryomaru. Kichiro nearly laughed outright as she lifted her chin and sniffed. Moments later her cheeks blossomed in a bright flush, and she jerked her hands away and stumbled back. "There are two of you?" she squeaked incredulously.

"Sorry, Ryo. I'll pick up a leash for her later."

Bellaniece's cheeks darkened almost painfully as her embarrassment dissolved into righteous indignation. "Why, you—"

"How did you mistake him for me?" Kichiro cut in before she could finish her tirade.

She lifted her chin and shrugged. "You smell almost the same," she huffed. "I didn't know there were two of . . . you."

"It's called 'twins', little girl. Surely you've heard of them."

"Can you finish the lovers' spat later?" Ryomaru snarled as he shot her one last glower, Ryomaru stomped past her, muttering under his breath about insane secretaries.

"Lovers?" Bellaniece choked. "As if I would ever love anyone as irritating as him!"

Kichiro ignored the 'lovers' spat' comment since it annoyed Bellaniece so much that she tried to storm out of the office. He shifted his weight to his left leg, thus blocking the doorway and causing Bellaniece to stop short. "Excuse me," she bit out.

"You probably should apologize to my brother for being . . . you."

Bellaniece's face contorted angrily, and she shoved Kichiro aside before stomping out of the office.

"What the fuck is going on?" Ryomaru demanded, staring suspiciously at Kichiro as Bellaniece disappeared from view.

"So what brings you by?"

Ryomaru snorted. "Keh!"

Nezumi rolled her eyes. "He was complaining about his thumb hurting all last evening."

"Oh? Why's that? Where were you sticking it?"

Ryomaru's golden eyes narrowed menacingly. "My job, baka. Anyway, I told Nez it's fine now, but she won't listen."

"You can't be too careful," Nezumi contested.

Kichiro sighed but grabbed Ryomaru's hand. Taking his time examining the appendage, he pressed around the joint and wasn't surprised when his brother jerked his hand back with a sharp hiss of pain. "I think you just jammed it, but you might want me to get a couple of x-rays, just to be safe. You can move it, right?"

Ryomaru nodded. "Yeah, it'll be fine in a day or two."

Though Kichiro was inclined to agree, as a physician, he still felt compelled to say, "Okay, but if it's still bothering you after that, come back so I can do those x-rays."

Ryomaru didn't look like he was going to agree. Nezumi nudged him with her elbow, and the hanyou snorted. "Whatever. Let's go, Nez."

Kichiro lounged in the doorway as Nezumi and Ryomaru headed out of the office. He waited until he heard the door close before he sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Belle-chan!" he called, knowing that she would hear him. "I'd like a word."

He didn't wait to see if she would comply or not. Turning on his heel, he crossed the room to his desk and flopped down in his chair.

She had bravado, he gave her that. She swept into the office with her head held high and the barest hint of a blush still dusting her cheekbones. "You bellowed?"

'I could probably tolerate her better if she'd keep that pretty little mouth of hers closed,' Kichiro thought with a mental snort. "You and I both know I didn't bellow." Her expression stated clearly that she didn't agree, but he ignored that and gestured at the chair behind her. "Suppose you tell me what you were doing to my brother?"

Bellaniece looked like she wanted to argue with him but must have thought better of it because she sat down, too. "He came in with the same foul look on his face that you do every morning, and he looks just like you, so when he shot me one of your patented nasty looks, I followed him to see what had crawled up his butt and died."

"Thinking he was me, of course."

Bellaniece smiled insincerely. "Of course."

"So . . . it didn't occur to you that he doesn't smell like me?"

His question managed to remove a bit of wind from Bellaniece's sails, and she shifted uncomfortably. "He smells enough like you that it didn't occur to me that he wasn't you, no."

Despite the knowledge that what she said was accurate enough, Kichiro still had to twist the knife. "Ryomaru's mated, so even if he used to smell like me, then I would think that he doesn't smell enough like me for that to have actually been a mistake."

"And just what are you implying?"

He shrugged. "Your father's tai-youkai, right?"

"Yes."

"Dog youkai?"

"Yes."

"Which would make you dog hanyou?"

". . . Yes. Your point?"

Kichiro shrugged. "Dog youkai and hanyou have the best sense of smell among us. I doubt you didn't know that Ryomaru wasn't me."

"I don't think I like where you're going with this."

"And I don't think I really care."

"If you despise me as much as you seem to, then why in the world do you insist on making me work for you? Don't you have anyone else that I could work for, instead?"

That gave Kichiro pause, and he leaned back in his chair. "I'm one of the more tolerant members of my family," he lied. "You'd drive the rest of them insane. That's not really the point, anyway. You want me to do this surgery for your friend, then you need to do the work for me, not one of my relatives."

Bellaniece looked like she was going to yell at him. She smiled suddenly and stood up, sweeping around the desk and perching on the edge in front of him.

"What are you doing?" he asked in a dry tone.

Bellaniece reached out, grasped his closest ear, and rubbed gently.

Kichiro flicked his ear to escape her fingers. "Knock that off," he growled.

"Oh, now, don't be that way," she coaxed with a pout. "I was just comparing."

"Comparing what?"

Bellaniece giggled. "Your ears, silly! Yours are nice, but your brother's are softer . . . Must be whatever conditioner he uses."

Kichiro's mouth fell open as Bellaniece scooted off the desk and sashayed out of the office again.

'Hate to say it, Kich . . . You totally deserved that.'

'Who asked you?'

His youkai laughed.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The room was so silent that Gin could hear herself blink. Staring down at her open sketchpad, she studiously avoided looking around as she carefully sharpened her pencil and dug out the kneaded eraser. Small sounds infiltrated the quiet, and the lull that had fallen over the class since Cain's introduction of the model was finally losing its grip. She could hear the girls at the table behind her whispering.

"He's cute!"

"Shh! He's taking off his robe!"

Muffling their giggles with the backs of their hands, the girls stared at the young man who had been brought in to model for their sketches.

Gin made a face as she twitched her hidden ears. The soft rustle of fabric had subsided, so she figured he was done taking off his robe now. 'It's just a sketch, Gin, no different from the sketches you do all the time.'

She begged to differ. 'I sketch children in the park or sunsets over Papa's forest. I don't sketch nude models.'

'There's a first time for everything. Besides, it's no different, not really. Just pretend that his skin is nothing but a weird kind of clothing.'

'Ri-i-i-i-ight . . . I've seen that stuff before, you know. There's no way to mistake it for clothes.'

'Use your imagination, doll. Just sketch the parts of him that you're okay with. You can add that in later.'

Garnering her courage as she forced herself to peer up through her heavy fringe of silvery bangs, Gin scrunched up her shoulders and leaned over her sketchbook. 'Ugh . . . It isn't really that attractive, is it? I mean, it just sort of hangs there . . .'

'Men's bodies were made for function, Gin, not beauty.'

'Maybe . . .'

'Just pretend he's one of your brothers. You've seen them both naked before, remember?'

Gin snorted inwardly. 'As if I wanted to remember that,' she scoffed.

'The point is, you have seen those before. Focus on your assignment, and just do it, okay?'

She sighed.

Drawing the young man's shoulder and arm, Gin concentrated on her work even as her thoughts wandered. The unwelcome memory wouldn't go away, and as she worked, she couldn't help but think back . . .

"Promise me, Mama," fourteen year-old Gin begged as she followed Kagome into the laundry room. "You know they'll humiliate me if they can."

"I'm sure you're worried about nothing," Kagome assured her. "Your brothers are going over to Deirdre's house later since her father's out of town again."

Gin wasn't convinced. It seemed to her that her brothers—miscreants that they were—were certain to do something stupid to embarrass her.

"Remember, you promised your father that you'd keep the noise down, at least after we go to bed."

"Yes, Mama," she replied. "You promise you'll say something to them?"

Kagome laughed as she dropped towels into the washing machine. "Of course, Gin, but I'm telling you, your brothers will be good as gold."

And they had been—for awhile. Her friends had arrived shortly after that, and everyone had been excited about the slumber party. Ryomaru and Kichiro along with Toga, who was spending the afternoon with the family, were out in the converted garage being drilled by InuYasha. Citing that the twins were growing lazy since they hadn't been practicing nearly as often of late, their father had announced that they'd be spending the day beating on each other in a mock tournament. Ordinarily Gin would have joined the guys, but since she had promised to help Kagome clean and cook for the slumber party, she hadn't gotten to participate.

"Where are your brothers, Gin-chan?" one of the girls asked with a giggle.

Gin rolled her eyes. If she admitted that they were working out, she was pretty certain there'd be a mad rush for the garage. "They're around," she said evasively.

"Kichiro-sempai is such a doll!" another girl remarked with a dreamy sigh.

"Yeah, but Ryomaru-kun is definitely just hot."

"Gross!" Gin broke in. "They're my baka brothers!"

The commentary was interrupted when the glass doors slid open. Toga strode inside followed by the twins, and Gin cringed inwardly at the contented sighs escaping the small circle of girls sitting on the floor. Wearing low riding hakama designed for ease of movement in practice and without shirts, the three males didn't pay attention to their audience as they argued over who had won the practice matches.

"Fuck, Toga, I kicked your ass, and you know it!" Ryomaru claimed.

"The hell you did," Toga shot back. "This Toga does not lose to the pathetic likes of you."

"That Toga can kiss my ass!" Ryomaru goaded.

"That can be arranged," Kichiro agreed. Gin gasped as Kichiro leaned forward, caught the sides of Ryomaru's hakama, and whipped them down.

Ryomaru stumbled and tried to jerk up his pants with one hand as he swung his free arm toward his brother. "I should have killed you before we were born, you bastard!" Ryomaru snarled as the girls twittered to each other like birds.

Toga stopped and started to turn around to see what the commotion was all about. Kichiro dodged around Ryomaru to grab Toga's pants and repeat the process.

"Oi, damn it!" Toga growled as he jerked his pants back into place. Ryomaru had managed to pull up his, too, and the cousins stalked toward Kichiro, who was too busy laughing to realize that he ought to run.

"Bakas!" Gin bellowed as she shot to her feet and stomped over to the guys. By the time she reached them, Toga was holding onto Kichiro's arms while Ryomaru whipped his brother's pants completely off before striding over to the group of girls and dropping them in the midst of the gaping females.

Gin grimaced as the memory faded. In the end, Ryomaru and Toga had tied a naked Kichiro to a chair and left him sitting in the living room much to the giggling girls' delight. Gin had untied him and had chased him out of the room as he laughed like a fool. Those brothers of hers really didn't have any shame at all. When she'd complained to her parents, InuYasha had choked on the water he'd been drinking and had strode outside to laugh until he was nearly in tears. Kagome had pressed her lips together in a tight line, but Gin had seen the corners of her lips twitching just the same. Her friends hadn't stopped talking about the 'show', and they never missed an opportunity afterward to ask when she'd be hosting another slumber party . . .

With a sigh, Gin blinked and critically eyed the sketch. It was nearly complete aside from a very conspicuous blank spot where his genitals should have been. The proportions were good, she supposed, the lines clean and well-defined. Forcing herself to look in the final area of interest, Gin's brow furrowed as she tapped the end of her pencil against the sketchpad. She'd seen her brothers and cousin, for kami's sake. Parts were parts were parts, weren't they? 'Just draw it, Gin!' she told herself sternly.

"Wonder if he's dating anyone," one of the girls behind Gin whispered.

"No doubt," her friend replied dreamily.

"Ask him for his phone number."

"A guy like him? He's got to have a girlfriend already!"

The first girl sighed. "Why are all the good-looking guys taken?"

'You know,' Gin thought as her frown deepened. 'I have to say . . . He doesn't really do a thing for me.'

'Hmm . . . maybe you should picture someone else's head on his body?'

Gin wrinkled her nose and fiddled with the outline of his arm. 'Oh? Like who?'

The voice in her head giggled. 'What about . . . Cain?'

The pencil fell out of her hand and she gasped. 'What? No! No-o-o-o-o! Oh, no . . .'

'You're probably right . . . I'm pretty sure Zelig-sensei would be much more . . . impressive . . .'

Gin could feel her cheeks flaming as she sucked in a sharp breath. Her eyes felt like they were burning, and she concentrated on assuring herself that no one else could hear the voice that spoke so clearly in her mind. 'Come on, Gin . . . You can do this. It's just drawing another object . . . Don't think about what it is, and you'll do fine.'

'Don't think about what it is? It's a . . . a pi-chan!'

Her face grew warmer, and she stifled a groan.

'Just let this class end . . .'

 

 

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Cain glanced over his shoulder at the clock on the wall and sighed. 'Just let this class end,' he thought as he stared over the roomful of students. Everyone seemed to be concentrating on their sketches, and Cain leaned back against his desk, crossing his arms over his chest.

He'd been trying not to look at Gin. Deliberately ignoring the reason for his behavior, he tucked the long strands of his bangs behind his ear. Teaching art hadn't ever been something he'd considered before, and yet it seemed completely natural, too.

'You know, it has nothing at all to do with teaching, and it has everything to do with a certain girl.'

'Huh. I thought you didn't approve of her.'

'Approving and liking are two different things, Cain. I like her just fine. I like her as much as you do . . . maybe more. You know why I don't approve. You know why it's nothing more than a really pretty dream.'

Cain shifted guiltily, glanced over his shoulder at the clock once more. 'A pretty dream. That's what she is, isn't she?'

'Now that I think you might actually be listening, can I tell you again? You really need to stay away from her, Cain. Why do this to yourself? Why do this to her? You know better than anyone that you can't give her what a girl like her needs.'

'We're just friends.'

'Just friends? There's no such thing between a man and a woman as 'just friends'. Have you heard it? The call of her youkai blood? I have. Maybe you haven't because you just don't want to, and maybe she doesn't even realize it herself. She's young. She might not know it, but I've heard it.'

'That's ridiculous. I haven't known her long enough for that to be possible.'

'You can't let it go on, Cain. You've got to stop it, and you've got to do it now. She still believes in fairy tales and happy endings, and you . . .'

Cain sighed, wiping his eyes as he conceded the truth of the words. 'I can't give her those.'

Lifting his gaze, seeking out the girl that he'd been trying to ignore, Cain's frown deepened. She was staring at the model with a crimson flush engulfing her features that darkened just before she hunched over her sketchpad once more.

'What is going on?'

Pushing himself back to his feet, he ambled away from the desk, skirting the working students as he made his way toward Gin. He had to see that sketch. It wasn't really a conscious thought, and there really wasn't a reason behind it. Her discomfort was a viable thing, and he just had to know why.

'Wait . . . Didn't you hear what I just said?'

'She's embarrassed,' he defended himself.

'Well, if you're not going to listen to reason, at least make it look good, will you?'

Stopping beside the first desk and peering over the students' shoulders, Cain forced himself to slow down, to keep himself from singling Gin out. He gave a half-hearted critique of the sketches before moving down the line of desks until he reached her.

She was concentrating on her sketch and didn't appear to have sensed his approach. Resting his hand on the back of her chair, he leaned over her shoulder as he tried to ignore her entirely too-soothing scent. The sketch was good—very good. Attention to proportion coupled with Gin's distinctive style flowed effortlessly on the page, and Cain found himself smiling. The only imperfection, really, was the void in the middle of the sketch. "You're not actually going to leave him a eunuch, are you?"

Gin squeaked in surprise, her pencil slipping out of her fingers as she whipped around to face him. Her cheeks flooded with color as she slapped her hands down over the sketch to block it from Cain's view. "No," she choked out. "I mean . . ."

"Let's see what you do with it," he prompted as he retrieved her pencil and handed it to her. "I'll come back."

Still grinning as he moved away, Cain took his time with the rest of his circuit. Every time he glanced at Gin, she was bent over her sketch.

'Why doesn't it surprise me, that she can't bring herself to draw a penis?'

Cain snorted indelicately as he stuffed his hands into his pockets and ambled back toward Gin's desk. 'She can do it . . . She's got nerve, I know it. I can sense it.'

'It takes more than nerve to draw a penis. Come on, Cain . . . She's just a pup.'

'We'll see.'

This time Gin looked up at him, scooting her sketchpad over so he could see it. Schooling his features at the disproportionate image, Cain bit the inside of his cheek and nodded slowly. "Wow . . . you're harsh on the ego," he finally managed to say without laughing.

Gin made a face and sighed. "It was bigger," she explained in a low, sulky tone. Glancing over at the model for a moment, Gin cleared her throat and lowered her voice to barely above a whisper. "But that looked weird . . . Maybe he ought to be a eunuch."

He bit into his cheek a little harder as he struggled to keep from laughing. His fang broke the skin, and he grimaced as blood flowed into his mouth, but at least it was an effective diversion. He shook his head slowly and headed toward the front of the classroom once more.

"Time's almost up," he remarked, trying not to slur since his mouth was in such a state. "Montaro-kun will be back Wednesday, so if you didn't get your sketch done, you'll have that class period to do so."

The students started putting their things away while the model—Montaro—grabbed his robe and tugged it on before striding back to the supply room to finish dressing.

"Zelig-sensei?"

Cain glanced up as Gin wandered over to his desk, hands clasped behind her back and an engaging little smile on her face. She only called him 'Zelig-sensei' when students were around. He supposed she figured it was proper. "Yes, Izayoi-san?"

Her grin widened at the blatant barb in his address. "I just wondered if you needed me today? Mama had a couple things she wanted me to pick up for her since she's busy helping Grandma at the shrine this week . . ."

"No, that's fine," he assured her.

"You're sure?" she pressed, obviously taking her duties as his assistant seriously. She shrugged. "I'm sure I could do those errands really quickly afterward, if you do need me."

"It's fine, Gin. There isn't much to do today, anyway."

"If you're sure . . ."

Cain grinned and rolled his eyes. "Don't worry about it, okay?"

She nodded, relief lighting her gaze with a soft brilliance. She turned to walk away but stopped suddenly, whirling around to face him again as she snapped her fingers. "Oh, yeah . . . Do you want another chocolate cake? I can make a different kind, if you'd rather."

Leaning his head to the side, Cain regarded her for a moment and was struck by her naiveté yet again. If she had any idea what sort of emotions she could bring out in him, if she knew how easily she could overwhelm his senses . . . He stifled a sigh. Better not to arm her with knowledge like that. If she could devastate him without even trying, just how much damage could she inflict if she did? "You don't have to make a cake for me every night, Gin."

She shrugged. "I like to bake. It's relaxing."

Cain relented. "Well, in that case . . . Bellaniece wanted to know if the cake fairy makes yellow cake."

She drew back but smiled as she pondered his teasing request. "Cake fairy? I like that! Do I have wings?"

"Getting there," he agreed. "A few more cakes should do it."

"You're not just . . . You're not humoring me, are you? You really like my cakes?"

"Yes, Gin, I really like your cakes. In fact, I don't think that I'll ever be able to look at another cake without wishing that you'd made it."

"Okay, now I know you're humoring me."

"No, seriously. No one's ever made me cakes before."

She giggled despite the dubious narrowing of her eyes. "Okay, I'll make a yellow cake, just for Bellaniece."

He watched with a small smile as she whirled around and hurried back to her desk to put her things away. The students had thinned with only a few stragglers left behind. Cain grabbed the metal laser pointer off his desk and idly fiddled with it, waiting for the students to finish leaving.

Montaro emerged from the supply room in regular street clothes with his duffle bag in hand. He glanced around the room for a moment before striding over to Cain. "Can I ask you a question, Zelig-sensei?"

Cain blinked in surprise but nodded. "All right."

The young man smiled. "I, uh, noticed a girl in your class, and . . . I was wondering if I could ask you what her name is."

The question caught him off guard. Lifting his eyebrows, Cain slowly nodded again as Gin headed back to the supply room to put away a few things that the other students had left out. "Okay."

Letting out his breath in a loud whoosh, Montaro scratched his head and shifted his stance. "She's got white hair . . ."

"What?" Cain barked out, eyes flaring as he tried not to comprehend what Montaro had said since he only knew one girl that could meet that particular prerequisite. "Blonde, you mean?" he asked in a tone that was more menacing than he meant for it to be.

If Montaro sensed Cain's irritation, he didn't react to it. "No, more like silver, actually . . . and really light brown eyes—almost golden. You know who I'm talking about, right?"

'Hell, yes, I know who you're talking about, you little punk . . . Damn it, no, you can't have her name!'

'Calm down, Cain . . . The pup just wants her name, that's all.'

'Like hell it is! He wants—'

'Her name . . . just her name. Look at him! She won't want him, anyway, so telling him what her name is cannot possibly hurt. Besides . . . I thought you understood that she isn't really yours.'

'I know that.'

'Then tell him that her name is Gin.'

"Why do you want her name?" he asked instead.

Montaro shrugged. "She's cute. Thought I'd ask her out."

Squelching the desire to snap the young man in half, it was on the tip of his tongue to tell Montaro that Gin was unavailable.

'Knock it off, Cain! Are you listening to yourself?'

'This little bastard wants—'

'Wants a girl that does not belong to you!'

Wincing inwardly at the truth behind his youkai's harsh statement, Cain swallowed hard and tightened his grip on the laser pointer. "Gin," he forced himself to say. "Izayoi. Izayoi Gin."

Montaro grinned and bowed. "Thank you, Zelig-sensei!"

Cain was saved from answering when Gin re-emerged from the supply room. Montaro noticed and nodded his thanks once more before hurrying over to intercept the hanyou.

'Let it go, Cain.'

'Damn it.'

'. . . Besides, do you really think Gin would want to see a pathetic pretty boy like him?'

Cain didn't answer, but he did turn his head so he could hear the two better.

"Hello. I'm Hyoshi Montaro."

Gin slung the backpack over one shoulder and looked up at the human. "I'm Gin."

"That's a pretty name . . . It fits you." Montaro smiled uncertainly. "I was wondering . . . Would you like to get a cup of coffee with me? A soda? Tea?"

'She'll turn him down. Look at her. She doesn't want to go. I can tell by the way she's gnawing on her lower lip.'

"Oh, um . . . I was going to run a few errands for my mother," she said slowly, wringing her hands in a decidedly nervous fashion.

"We could get a drink then do your errands?" Montaro suggested.

Gin shot Cain a distressed glance. Cain snorted and looked away. Seconds later he could feel the impact of the upset reverberating in her youki, and he flinched. Montaro didn't sense it.

'Damn it, I hurt her . . .'

'Forget it. It's better this way.'

'But . . . not this way . . .'

'This way, that way . . . It doesn't matter, Cain. She's not yours. She's not meant to be yours. Let her go or you'll only hurt her worse.'

The truth of the statement did little to disburse the rampant guilt that washed over Cain. He shifted his gaze and winced inwardly. Those little hanyou ears of hers were flattened against her head, and though she had a weak smile on her face, he could smell her misery. It tinged her aura. It dug at him like a dagger.

"Oh, um . . . o-o-okay, I guess . . ." Gin said slowly, her voice subdued, her smile faltering. Cain snapped the metal laser pointer in his hands like it was little more than a brittle twig. "I'm ready, if you are . . ."

Cain couldn't stifle the growl that escaped as Montaro escorted her from the classroom. Unleashing his irritation as the two disappeared down the hallway; Cain slammed his fist down on the closest worktable. The splintering sound of cracking wood was nearly deafening and did little to assuage his still-mounting anger.

'That little bastard better keep his hands off her,' he fumed as he prowled around the decimated desk.

'Go home, Cain. Go home, and forget about Gin Izayoi.'

'Right . . . forget about her . . .'

The image of her, so lonely and sad, ears flattened against her skull as she tried her best to smile . . .

Stomping toward the door without bothering to grab his briefcase, Cain sniffed the air, located the lingering scent of her, and deliberately followed it.

'Forget to breathe while I'm at it,' he thought as he smacked the front doors open. 'If that pup tries anything, I'll make him a eunuch, see if I don't . . .'

'Cain, this is a really, really bad idea . . .'

Cain snorted as he scanned the crowded sidewalk for any signs of Gin's silver hair. 'Not really . . . the bad idea was letting her go with him . . . She doesn't belong with him.'

'Then who does she belong with?'

Cain grimaced but couldn't answer that question, either.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The late afternoon sunshine was warm, comforting. Shining through the canopy of leaves deep in the heart of InuYasha's Forest, the twin sons of the legendary hanyou ran side by side in companionable silence. Kichiro's purple hakama rustled in the breeze while Ryomaru hadn't bothered to change out of his jeans for the excursion.

"So you wanna tell me what's bugging you?"

Kichiro sped up and vaulted into the trees. Ryomaru was close on his heels as the two rose up to sail over the top of the forest. "Who said anything was bugging me?" Kichiro asked baldly.

Ryomaru wrinkled his nose. "Don't give me that. I know you better than just about anyone, remember? So what is it?"

"Not a damn thing."

"It's that wench, ain't it? The one in your office . . ."

Kichiro shot his brother a sidelong glance, but Ryomaru was scanning the horizon with a thoughtful frown. "Of course not. Why would she be bugging me?"

"I don't know. You tell me."

"You're out of your mind."

"Might be out of my mind, but there has to be something going on. I mean, she stormed into your office to give me hell for being such a . . . Oh, how did she put that? Ah, yes, 'an insufferable ass'."

"Insufferable ass, huh? Keh! The little girl doesn't know when to leave well enough alone."

"Little girl?" Ryomaru echoed, and Kichiro could feel his sibling's scrutiny intensify. "She ain't that young."

Kichiro grinned. "Maybe not, but she really hates to have her age—or lack thereof—pointed out."

Ryomaru groaned. "Why do I have the feeling you're doing all this on purpose?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

Ryomaru snorted.

"I'd just as soon throttle her than talk to her. She's a spoiled brat . . . Do you know, she really thought she could manipulate me?"

"Oh, so that's it. I knew there was a reason you were going out of your way to be nasty to her."

"Was I?"

"Balls, Kich! I mean, I don't like her either, but I have reason."

"Oh?"

Ryomaru snorted again. "Keh! She thought I was you, you baka! Ain't that reason enough?"

"Be that as it may, it's hardly a decent reason not to like someone."

"She called me a liar," he fumed. "That's reason enough."

Kichiro had to concede that logic. "I didn't tell her I have a twin," he remarked as the brothers lit on the ground and pushed off again.

Ryomaru shrugged. "That don't matter! I don't smell like you, or haven't you noticed? I smell like Nez . . . much nicer, if you ask me."

"Belle said she didn't notice. Probably too preoccupied with telling me she thinks I'm an insufferable ass to bother sniffing you."

Ryomaru rolled his eyes and shrugged. "Whatever. Fine thing, though."

"What is?"

"You're protecting her."

"I am not."

"The hell you're not. I say something about her, and you spring to her defense. Deny it if you want, Kich, but it's true."

Kichiro snorted and didn't answer.

'That's right, Kich. Ryo's got a point, and balls, you really hate that, don't you?'

'Who asked you?'

'That's the beautiful thing. You don't have to ask me. I'll give you my opinion anyway.'

'I'd rather that you didn't.'

'Of course you would, but if I left you to your own devices, we'd never find a mate, would we? You're doing a piss poor job on your own, so I figured I'd just give you a nudge.'

'A mate would be fine,' Kichiro agreed, 'just not her.'

'Think about it, baka! She's the perfect woman.'

Kichiro nearly choked. 'What?'

'Yeah, yeah . . . let's see . . . She's quick, she's got spirit, she's amusing, even if you don't want to admit as much . . . and balls, she's got an awesome rack.'

'I'm not taking a mate because of her rack, damn it, and she is absolutely not acceptable!"

'She's the daughter of the North American tai-youkai! How much more acceptable could she be?'

'That's hardly the point! She's got no viable manners, no common sense . . . nothing at all to recommend her other than her kami-forsaken rack!'

'Oh yeah? Then you tell me, Kich: why does she care so much about her friend? Why is she so desperate to make sure her friend gets this reconstructive surgery if she ain't got any saving graces?'

Kichiro sighed and scowled, ignoring the implications behind the question.

'Maybe there's more to her. Maybe she is what she is because that's how she was taught to be.'

'And maybe I don't have the time or inclination to reform her.'

'Maybe it ain't about reforming her. Maybe it's about reforming yourself.'

"Kich? You listening?'

Snapping out of his reverie, Kichiro shot his brother a guilty glance. "Sorry. What was that?"

Ryomaru shook his head. "I asked if you were ready to head back."

Kichiro frowned. "Since when are you ready to end these runs before me?" he demanded, suspicion creeping over him as he eyed his brother. "What's going on?"

To his surprise, Ryomaru actually blushed. "Nothing. I just have something to do, is all."

"Oh? And what's that?"

Ryomaru snorted. "Drop it, will you? It ain't important. I don't demand to know what you're doing all the fucking time."

Kichiro grinned. "That's because I don't hide anything I do, but if you don't want to tell me, that's fine. I'll ask Nez."

"Well, it ain't like I'm ashamed or anything," Ryomaru retorted. "I'm just learning how to cook."

"Come again? I thought you just said that you were learning how to cook."

"I did, baka."

Kichiro couldn't help but laugh. "Why?"

"There ain't nothing wrong with cooking," Ryomaru argued. "Oh, shut up, will you?"

Kichiro's laughter escalated. "Never mind. Do you wear a frilly little apron?"

"Go to hell, will you?"

Ryomaru veered off to the right and sprinted away, leaving Kichiro alone with his amusement. Watching Ryomaru disappear into the forest, Kichiro stopped and slowly shook his head. Ryomaru learning how to cook? That was something he wasn't sure he really wanted to see . . .

'You know, he had a point.'

'You again? I thought you were done badgering me for awhile.'

'Not hardly. Anyway, Ryo's right. You were protecting Belle.'

'I was not. I was—'

'Be stubborn if it makes you happy. The fact remains that there really is something there, whether you want to believe it or not.'

 

 

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"Izayoi . . . that name sounds familiar . . ."

Gin forced a tepid smile and sipped the tea with an inward sigh.

'This guy . . . is boring . . .'

'He's not that bad,' Gin thought as she stared into her cup and tried to concentrate on what Montaro was saying.

"Your father runs the Tokyo Academy, doesn't he?"

"What? Oh . . . Yeah, he does."

"I heard that was a tough school."

Gin nodded.

'Really, really boring.'

She sighed. 'All right, he is boring.'

'Get rid of him.'

'How?'

'Tell him you have a headache.'

Setting her cup aside, Gin cleared her throat nervously and flipped her hair over her shoulder. "I'm sorry. I think I need to go. I've had a headache all day . . ."

Montaro's dark eyebrows drew together in a concerned frown, and he stood up, holding out his hand to help Gin to her feet. She pretended not to see it as she rose, too. "I'll drive you home."

"You don't have to," she assured him as she stepped back when he reached for her elbow. "I did promise my mother that I'd run a few things over to her, after all, and—"

"That's fine. I don't have anything planned. I'll drive you."

Gin smiled weakly. "I hate to put you to the trouble."

"No trouble at all! In fact, I insist."

Seeing no way out of the predicament, Gin couldn't help but wish that Cain had gotten her unspoken plea for help before she'd agreed to go on this 'date'. "If you're sure," she replied.

"Absolutely sure."

"O-Okay."

She felt trapped, caught. She couldn't bring herself to tell him that she just didn't want to go anywhere with him. That was the reason she'd agreed to dates before, wasn't it? 'Too bad Papa or the twins aren't around now . . . They'd make sure it didn't happen, even if I did get mad at them.'

She frowned as she followed him out of the small café. 'Sort of catty of you, isn't it? You've always relied on them to keep you from having to go out on boring dates, and yet you always got angry, too.'

It was true enough, she supposed. She'd always known, somewhere in her mind, that it didn't really matter whether she accepted invitations to go on dates or not. Her father and her brothers made sure that she never went, and even though it made her angry at the time, she knew deep down that the reason wasn't because she wanted to go. It bothered her because they didn't think she had enough sense to make her own choices.

'And maybe you counted on it, didn't you? That they would stop you . . . that you could hide behind your outrage and not have to think about just why you didn't really like a single one of those young men, just as you don't really like Montaro-san, either.'

Ducking her head as she scooted into the passenger seat of Montaro's older model Honda Civic, Gin grimaced and sighed. 'That sounds really bad, doesn't it? Accurate, maybe, but really, really bad.'

'Not bad, doll. You're different, you know? You're not like all your human friends . . . They all flitted from one guy to the next without taking a breath and without missing a step. You're not like that, and you'll never be like that. You'll know it when you find him; the one you're meant to be with . . . You're hanyou, and that's what you'll do because that's the way of it.'

'Him . . .' she mused, rolling the word over and over in her head. 'I'll know it? How? How will I know when I find 'him' when I don't know what to look for?'

The voice of her youkai laughed softly. 'You really don't know, do you? It's not a feeling that you'll have. It's more of an inner knowledge. The one you're looking for . . . He'll make you smile when you think about him. He'll give you strength to fight for him, if you have to. His soul will speak to yours, and you will know.'

The four block drive to the small grocery store where her mother normally shopped for food was quiet. If Montaro spoke, Gin didn't hear him. Lost in her thoughts, she could have been a million miles away.

'What if I already met him and just didn't notice? What if he really was one of the guys Papa or the twins chased off? What if I didn't really get to know him because of that? I mean, if that happened, then would I just run into him again? Is there such a thing as fate? What if I already blew my one chance at finding my mate?'

'I think you'd have known, Gin. You haven't missed him. Those boys you brought home wouldn't have been able to deal with the idea that you weren't completely human. Calm down before you get yourself even more upset.'

She'd never really considered that, had she? A human man, in all likelihood, not be able to cope with her hanyou state. There was truth in that, wasn't there? As a hanyou, she was stronger than humans, even if she wasn't very big, and really, she realized with a grimace as she peered unhappily into the side mirror and watched the street fading in the distance, maybe she did want to feel secure, protected . . . the way her father made her mother feel . . .

'Still,' she reasoned, needing to put all lingering doubts aside, 'it is possible that I did already meet him, right? Look at Ryo-nii and Nezumi-chan . . . he chose her when he was still a pup . . .'

'That's not normal, I'll have you know. Ryomaru and Nezumi were the exception to the rule. It really isn't normal to find one's mate so early. Don't worry yourself over it, doll. You're far more perceptive than your brother.'

She supposed that might be true. 'I guess . . . Kich hasn't found a mate yet, either. Does he have to find a mate first?'

'If you wait for Kichiro to find a mate, you might be waiting awhile.'

Gin's gaze narrowed as she leaned forward, staring in the mirror at the dwindling sidewalks behind. A flash of bronze hair had stood out among the sea of black. It was gone before she could make sense of it, and Gin slowly shook her head. 'Cain . . .'

She got out of the car before Montaro could come around to help her when he finally stopped before the small grocery. 'It couldn't have been him, could it? Why would Cain follow me? He didn't care that I was going with Montaro-san. He'd turned away from me, didn't he?' She grimaced, tugging her bag onto her shoulder as she willed away the unwanted sadness, the hint of melancholy.   Why did she feel like he'd rejected her?

Yet the thought of him could make her smile. She closed her eyes and breathed in deep. For a moment she could feel the brush of his youki over her. He was there with her, wasn't he? Something about him lent her a sense of calm. He reminded her of a rock, of something solid that she only had to touch to steady herself, and he felt so very close . . .

'I'd rather be at the university helping Cain . . . going on an afternoon jog through Papa's forest . . . sitting beside one of the ponds while the sun sets over the trees . . . baking Cain a cake because I know it makes him smile . . . He's one of the few people I've ever seen whose eyes really do light up when he's happy, when he smiles . . .'

"Izayoi-san? Are you okay?"

Blinking as she shook off the lingering remains of her preoccupation, Gin glanced into Montaro's concerned face and forced a smile. "I'm fine," she lied, her expression faltering as she quickly looked away.

Montaro accepted her answer and slipped his hand under her elbow. Pulling away from him but trying not to be obvious about it, Gin quirked her ears and frowned. She could have sworn she'd heard a low growl but when she looked around, she didn't see anything.

 

 

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He had known it was a bad idea to follow Gin around Tokyo on her 'date'. It was stupid. It was pointless. It was reckless. It was completely unreasonable, not to mention highly indecorous. Still he couldn't help himself as he watched from the shadows of the thick bushes as Gin got into Montaro's car. Shrinking back to hide from her view as she looked out the window with a forlorn expression, Cain waited until they pulled into traffic before emerging from the shelter and leaping onto the nearest building to keep an eye on the girl.

'Have I told you just how stupid this is, Cain?' his youkai demanded as he crouched atop the small café where the couple had disappeared awhile ago. Leaning forward as he tried to peer into the café without either being seen by passers-by or falling on his head, he balanced precariously but was forced to give up when he realized that it wasn't working at all.

'Yeah . . . shut up if you're not going to help me figure out how to get her away from that little bastard.'

'Like I'll do that! Do you know how undignified this is? Do you have any idea at all? We're hiding on the roof like common thugs, Cain! We look like we're ready to waylay some hapless pedestrian, damned if we don't! If you want to be stupid, you might as well just run in there and snatch her up. That would end their 'date', wouldn't it?'

Cain pondered that for a few moments but discarded the idea since that would mean explaining to Gin just why he'd followed her, in the first place. 'That won't work . . . Suggest something feasible, damn it.'

'Feasible? Okay, how's this: let's get out of here, all right? She's fine, you know. She's hanyou. If that pup tries anything, she'd put him in his place. She doesn't need a guard dog. She doesn't need you.'

Wincing at the barb, Cain shook his head. 'Maybe she can take care of herself, but she shouldn't have to, should she? She's young, she's beautiful . . . She's too damn naïve for her own good sometimes.' How many times had she said things to him; things that weren't intended to be anything but innocent and despite that knowledge was the understanding that her words could be taken in so many ways? With her penchant for saying things of that nature, was it really any wonder that Cain had followed her?

'Oh, hell, now you're blaming her because you couldn't just let her go? Don't be stupid, Cain. You didn't follow her to protect her so much as you did to make sure that she doesn't develop a liking for the pup.'

And there was certainly that, too.

'What's gotten into you? Be honest. You've never acted like this, not even when you were chasing Isabelle.'

That observation was like a dousing of cold water, and Cain jerked back as a fresh wave of guilt assailed him. It was true, wasn't it? Even Isabelle hadn't fascinated him as much as this girl did. 'That's not true . . . that . . . That can't be true . . .'

Vague memories of Isabelle were painful, softened only by the passage of time in a corner of his mind that he tried to forget. It hurt to think about her, and yet . . . and yet the memories weren't as poignant as they once had been. He'd like to think that it was because he was nearing the end; he'd join her soon enough.

'You promised her, but you know . . . It's been such a long time, Cain.'

'But a promise is a promise, and I owe her this.'

'And Bellaniece? Do you owe her anything?'

Cain closed his eyes, struggled for a semblance of calm. 'I owe Bellaniece the pride that comes in knowing that her father did the honorable thing . . . that I kept my promise in the end.'

'You're talking about the kind of abstract consolation that really isn't a consolation at all.'

'You sound like you're trying to talk me out of it.'

'Of course not! You made a promise, right? You should keep it, absolutely. I never thought you shouldn't. In fact, it's one of the best ideas you've ever had, never mind that if you die, I die, too. By the way, Cain . . .'

'What?' he snarled, holding onto the roofing so tightly that the metal shingle buckled under his hand.

'Gin.'

'What about her?'

'She's gone.'

'. . . What?'

Streaking over rooftops as he kept an eye on the line of traffic and especially on the black Honda Civic, Cain followed them. Dropping to the ground in an alley between buildings since the next building was enclosed in a glass dome greenhouse, he purposefully slowed his step, tried to blend in with the people on the street.

'Of all the . . . Cain, you realize that we look like a complete idiot, right?'

'Feel free to shut up,' Cain tossed back casually as he glowered in the direction of Montaro's car. The pup was stopping outside a small grocery store. Gin emerged from the vehicle without waiting for Montaro's assistance. She turned to look around. He could feel her gaze sweep over him. For a dizzying second, he thought she'd seen him, but Cain ducked under a newsstand awning, and when he dared another glance around the canvas cover, she was looking the other way.

'No, no, no!'

'Just a little closer,' Cain thought absently as he strode toward the unaware couple.

'Pfft! You're going to get caught. I'm going to get caught. She's going to give us all sorts of hell, Cain, and you know, at least one of us will deserve that, too.'

Cain was about to reply when Montaro reached out, grasped Gin's elbow. Something about seeing the bastard with any part of his body touching her set off a rage deep inside, a primitive surge of absolute possessiveness. Two words replayed in his head—two words tumbled around, melded one into another: my Gin. Stopping in the shadows of a small café beside the grocery store, Cain resisted the nearly overwhelming need to separate the couple. Gin's acute unhappiness was impossible to deny, and in that moment, there was nothing he wouldn't have done to make that go away.

Absently he could feel the unfurling of his youki. As if he needed to comfort her, he could feel it stretching, wrapping around her. She calmed almost immediately, a small smile surfacing on her face as the panic loosed its grip on him. Ignorant to the strange, frightened looks he was garnering from the people around him, he could feel the edges of his self-control unraveling as Montaro opened the door and held it for Gin.

The chime of the bells hung over the door silenced as it fell closed behind the girl. The jarring effect startled Cain, and he blinked slowly, drawing back as he shook his head, as realization seeped into his consciousness. He'd been growling, hadn't he? He'd been growling, and he really had thought that Gin was . . . his?

'What are you thinking, Cain?' his youkai demanded. The caustic voice seemed worried, and Cain . . . He hated to admit as much but he was, too. 'She's not yours . . . You know that, right?'

'Of course I do,' he scoffed as he crept closer to the grocery store window. 'She's not . . . mine.'

 

 

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Bellaniece slammed into the apartment with a pouting glower and a heavy sigh.

'I hate him. I really hate him. I can't stand him . . . He's . . . He's . . . Oh, he's just insufferable!'

Why did Kichiro Izayoi have to be so cruel? The reason behind his nastiness escaped her. She really couldn't grasp why he felt the need to go so far out of his way just to belittle her.

'I don't care,' she assured herself as she dropped her keys on the counter. 'He can be just as nasty as he wants. I need that job. Kelly needs that surgery.' She could endure Kichiro's insufferable presence, couldn't she? "Absolutely," she muttered as she strode over to the refrigerator.

'The two of you got off on the wrong foot.'

'That's not completely my fault, is it?'

'Well, no, but you didn't help, did you? You have to admit, you didn't make the best first impression on him.'

Bellaniece snatched a bottle of water out of the refrigerator and made a face as she tried to ignore the gentle chiding of the youkai voice. 'He startled me . . . besides, he was really obnoxious. What was I supposed to do? Let him get away with it? I think not . . .'

'Maybe you should try a new approach: instead of going in there tomorrow ready for a fight, go in there and be yourself. Let down your defenses, and let him see that you're really not as bitchy as you seem to be sometimes.'

'Bitchy? Whose side are you on? You're my youkai, you know.'

'I'm your youkai; sure . . . I'm also objective enough to see that you really don't give him a chance to be nice to you. You're always ready for him to attack so you jump at the slightest provocation. You know you do it, Bellaniece.'

'That really wouldn't matter, now would it? He delights in being intolerably cruel. If I let my guard down around him, he'll just laugh in my face and call me a little girl . . . He's infuriating. I . . . I hate him.'

Her youkai laughed at the shrinking way she added the last part. Bellaniece winced. It hadn't sounded convincing at all, even to herself. She wandered over to the window, stared without seeing as tiny people scurried past on the street so far below. A vicious twinge twisted her stomach; the wish for things that had long faded away beckoned her memory, called to her with the bittersweet song of things she'd left forgotten, like stories of unicorns and rainbows, of princesses and fairies . . .

It hadn't seemed that long ago. The simplicity of living was a beautiful thing. It had been so much easier then, hadn't it? She ran through the countryside surrounding the Zelig estate without a care in the world, without anyone to impress . . . alone and free. She hadn't realized back then, how complex things really were. In those days, she thought that nothing would ever change. She hadn't understood that some things were set in stone. She hadn't known of promises made before she was born, of things that she was only starting to understand now.

It really was nothing more than a stupid game. All her life she'd been the little girl, hadn't she? Relegated to that role by her doting father, she figured there were some things that never would change. Cain still saw her as the same little girl, even now, didn't he? She saw it in his gaze whenever he smiled that indulgent smile . . . the one that was touched by sorrow and tempered by emotions that she didn't grasp, didn't understand. She thought he'd be there forever, hadn't she? Her daddy . . . her security . . .

And curiously, it was this disguise that she loved. So long as Cain continued to see her that way, he would remain. Her father was a man of honor, integrity. He lived by his word, believed in truth and justice. These things had made him the unrivaled leader. These things, however, were the very things that scared Bellaniece most.

'He'll keep his word, won't he? He'd never break his promise . . .'

She knew that he had things that he kept from her; clandestine liaisons that he hid under the shadows of night. Whispers of things that Cain tried to keep secret, and she understood that he was responsible for the darker aspects of the youkai. To her knowledge he hadn't left home, but she wasn't ignorant. She'd even been introduced to one of the youkai; a brooding skunk-youkai named Cartham. He was a hunter, and he worked for Cain. She hadn't had to ask her father to verify that. There was a certain air of danger around the youkai, and always—always—the lingering stench of blood . . .

Cain liked to shelter Bellaniece from the less pleasant aspects of life. Maybe he thought that if he could do that, she wouldn't find out about them. She loved him for that, and while she could comprehend why he would do such things, she couldn't help but feel as though he sheltered her a little too much.

A silver haired young woman drew Bellaniece's attention, and she narrowed her gaze. On the street below the woman waited, and despite the distance, Bellaniece could discern the trace outline of dog-hanyou ears. Hidden by a very strong concealment spell, the woman's ears wouldn't have been noticeable had Bellaniece not been the daughter of the North American tai-youkai.

'She looks . . . like Kichiro . . .'

Standing beside a tall human man, the woman looked around in a noticeably distracted way. The man touched her elbow, and the two proceeded to cross the street. Bellaniece watched until the couple disappeared from view in the shadow of the apartment building. Moments later, a hazy ball of blue light zipped past Bellaniece's face through the open window. Bellaniece jumped back with a strangled gasp as Cain solidified beside her, a disgusted scowl on his face and without any kind of explanation whatsoever.

He spared Bellaniece a curt glance before stalking over to the door. Bellaniece frowned and crossed her arms over her chest as she watched Cain lean down to put his eye to the tiny peephole.

"Daddy? What are you doing?" she asked, careful to keep her tone neutral.

She wasn't surprised when he didn't answer. She was surprised, however, when he suddenly broke into a low, angry growl. "Daddy?" He didn't seem to have heard her. Bellaniece cautiously walked over to him. "Daddy?" she repeated, touching his arm. Cain jerked away from the door, blinking at his daughter as though she was a stranger. "Is everything okay?"

"What? Oh . . . yeah . . . fine," he replied as he peeked into the hallway again. "Damn it," he mumbled. "That little whelp . . . I'll rip off his—"

"Who are you talking about?" Bellaniece asked, raising her voice to be heard over Cain's dire threats.

Cain snorted and grabbed the door handle. Bellaniece's hand shot out to stay his. "Daddy! What's going on? Who are you going to maim and why?"

"No one," Cain snarled but let his hand fall away from the door. Still agitated, he prowled the room, stopping now and again to glower at the door.

Bellaniece nodded slowly. "All right, if you're sure you're okay," she agreed. It was obvious that he wasn't going to tell her who or what was irritating him so badly. Giving up with a sigh, she headed back toward her bedroom to change into something more casual.   She stopped in the doorway and peeked around the corner. Cain was at the peephole again, muttering under his breath about idiot pups and cake fairies.

Shaking her head as she gave up trying to figure out her father's odd behavior, Bellaniece slipped into her room and quietly closed the door.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Grimacing as she stood on tiptoe and reached up as far as she could, Gin tapped her hand along the shelf to locate the baking powder despite her almost perverse resolve not to use a stepstool. The apartment was quiet other than the low hum of the box fan she had propped in the window. The occasional horn punctuated the stillness as she finally managed to extricate the final ingredient she needed for the yellow cake.

"Bellaniece wanted to know if the cake fairy makes yellow cake."

"Cake fairy? I like that! Do I have wings?"

"Getting there . . . A few more cakes should do it."

Smiling at the warmth inspired by those words, Gin giggled softly as she dumped butter and measured sugar into the bright yellow glass mixing bowl. 'A few more cakes for Cain . . . then I'll get my wings.'

The telephone rang, startling Gin out of her musings, and she grabbed it carelessly, ignoring the name on the caller ID. "Hello?"

"Gin, dear, it's Mama . . . I just wanted to tell you thanks for dropping off those groceries at your grandma's."

Hooking the receiver between her shoulder and cheek, Gin's smile widened as she absently mixed the cake batter. Her mother hadn't been at the shrine when Gin had stopped to drop off the groceries. Grandma had told her that Kagome had left to take InuYasha a file he'd forgotten, and since Gin was in a hurry to get rid of Montaro, she hadn't stuck around, either. "You're welcome. It wasn't a bother."

Kagome was silent a moment, and Gin braced herself for the question she knew was forthcoming. "Mama says you had a young man with you," Kagome remarked casually—too casually. Gin could picture her mother, standing in the kitchen and peering out the window to make sure InuYasha wasn't within earshot before asking that little gem.

"Oh, him? We went for tea after class, and he offered to take me to the grocery store. It was nothing."

"Really? So he's a boy from your class?"

Gin winced, knowing that the obvious relief in Kagome's voice was about to disappear. "Sort of . . . Not really . . . He was . . . today's model."

"Model?" Kagome echoed. "I see . . ."

"I didn't really like him, at least not that way . . . He was nice, but . . ." Gin sighed as she made a face and pushed the bowl away to butter and flour the small cake pan. "It seemed weird. I mean, I'd just seen him naked, and—"

"Naked?"

Gin blanched, dropping the metal cake pan with an obscenely loud clatter. "We had to sketch him, is all," she explained.

Kagome laughed. "I thought as much. Gin, you know, you really ought to consider how things sound before you say them. If you had said the same thing to your father . . ."

Biting her bottom lip, she winced. "I know . . . It didn't sound that bad in my head."

"Oh, I've got to go. Your father's home, and he doesn't look happy. He had that meeting with the board of directors, and he was worried that they wouldn't want to increase funding for the martial arts wing he wants to build onto the school . . ."

"Okay, Mama. Give Papa a kiss for me."

Kagome said she would and hung up. Gin dropped the receiver into the charging stand and carefully poured the cake batter into the prepared pan. After arranging the cake in the oven and setting the timer, Gin made quick work of washing the few dishes and wiping off the counter.

Settling down on the sofa with her sketchbook and a sharpened pencil, Gin stared thoughtfully at the model sketch. His proportions seemed right. The lines all flowed evenly. Still she couldn't help but feel that something was off. If she could figure out what it was, she might be able to fix it . . .

'There's no life in him, Gin. He's dull and flat; as two dimensional as the paper he's sketched on.'

Gin leaned her head to the side and bit her lip. 'He is, isn't he? How do I fix that?'

'You could ask Cain . . . He'd be able to tell you if it could be fixed, don't you think?'

Scrunching up her shoulders as she scooted deeper into the sofa cushions, Gin made a face and flipped to a clean page. 'That'd be wrong, wouldn't it? I mean, no one else in class lives next door to the sensei . . . I'll ask him tomorrow in class . . .'

'That's not the reason, doll. You don't want to go over there, do you?'

'Don't be absurd! Why wouldn't I want to go?'

The memory of Cain turning away from her flashed through her mind, and Gin winced.

'That'd be why. You're afraid he'll do that again, aren't you? Cain wouldn't close the door in your face, Gin. Chances are that he didn't even realize you were trying to get his help before.'

As much as she wanted to believe that, she didn't. No, the odd expression on his face . . . He had known, hadn't he? And he had deliberately turned away from her.

Why had it been, that she'd thought he was so close? At the café, she thought she'd felt him near. Outside the grocery, she could have sworn she felt his presence. As troubling to her now as it had been comforting to her then, she couldn't help but wonder just why she would have thought she'd sensed him.

'We saw him, doll. You know you did. You saw him on the street.'

Gin wrinkled her nose, dragging the pencil over the paper but not seeing exactly what she was drawing. 'That's not possible though. Unless he'd followed us, he wouldn't have known where we were.'

'Maybe he did.'

'Did what?'

'Follow you.'

'Why would he do that?'

'I don't know . . . the same reason he broke something after you left the classroom with Montaro?'

The pencil stopped moving as Gin slowly lifted her gaze. She'd heard the loud crash, certainly. She hadn't stopped to wonder what it had been, though . . .

'Maybe someone dropped something.'

'And you believe that? You know as well as I do; that sound was too loud to have been an accident, and you know as well as I do; that sound came from Cain's classroom.'

'He doesn't have a reason to do that,' she reasoned as she tossed the sketchpad onto the coffee table and dropped the pencil on it. Uncurling herself as she stood up, Gin shook her head as she shuffled back to the kitchen to whip up the frosting. 'I mean, I could understand if we were . . . whatever, but he's just my teacher. He'd have no reason to follow me.'

'I don't know . . . I hate to say it, but I'm pretty sure he was.'

'Why would he do that? It doesn't make sense.'

'Your father and brothers threaten to maim any guy who comes over to take you on a date, and you think that Cain following you makes no sense? Doesn't Cain have a daughter close to your age? Sure, maybe a little younger. Still . . .'

Gin wasn't sure which was worse: the idea that Cain might have followed her or the reason it made sense.

'No,' she thought as she pulled the cake out of the oven and turned off the buzzing timer. 'Cain wasn't following me . . . He couldn't have been.'

'I think he was, Gin.'

She swallowed hard as she set the cake in the refrigerator to cool. 'If he was, then he's really no different from everyone else, is he?'

Her youkai didn't answer.

 

 

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Kichiro leaned against the opened garage doorway, staring idly over the treetops as he watched the sun sinking. He'd brought his car over to have Nezumi change the oil since he, unlike his brother, saw the need to make sure such things were done. Though he rarely drove the car, he did like to make sure it was kept up, and even if he didn't, Nezumi tended to grumble at him till he did something about it.

He'd gotten back from his run through the forest in time to see Ryomaru say goodbye to Nezumi before he headed out to his cooking class—something that Kichiro wasn't likely to forget any time soon—but he'd been too struck by the rare show of tenderness from his brother that he hadn't had the heart to break up the mood with a smart-ass remark at the time. Ryomaru had hugged Nezumi and kissed her cheek, cuddling with her for a few moments before whispering something to her that Kichiro was probably better off not hearing since Nezumi's cheeks pinked but her smile brightened. Then with a smug grin in Kichiro's direction, Ryomaru had sprinted off into the forest, heading toward Tokyo with the careless assurance that he'd be home in a few hours.

'Be honest, Kich . . . you want something like that.'

Kichiro crossed his arms over his chest and let his gaze sweep over the horizon. 'Maybe.'

'Maybe? Keh! You want it so bad you can almost taste it. Ain't no use in trying to deny it. You know it's true. For once in your life you're jealous of Ryomaru.'

'That's ridiculous. I'm not jealous of Ryo . . . I'll find my mate eventually.'

'Yeah . . . and maybe you already have.'

Eyes narrowing dangerously, Kichiro stifled a growl. 'That's so far from being funny that it's almost funny . . . Almost. Completely inaccurate, of course, but almost amusing.'

'All right, so you two didn't have that great a first meeting, but hell, you haven't given her a chance since then, have you?'

'She is absolutely unacceptable in every single way . . . besides that, she likes Ryomaru's ears better. They're softer.'

'Oh ball, if you tell me you're all bent over that one comment . . .'

'Did you hear what she said? Did you?'

'Uh, yeah, I did, Kich. I was there, too, remember?'

'. . . Damn it.'

Nezumi propelled the creeper board out from under the car and watched him for a moment. He could feel her curious stare, could tell she wanted to say something. He didn't ask since he knew Nezumi well enough to know that it was probably a question he didn't particularly want to answer.

"You going to tell me what's on your mind or are you going to pull a Ryo and just stand there looking irritated all night?"

Kichiro shrugged and grinned. "Pull a Ryo? Are you kidding?"

Nezumi sat up on the creeper and hooked her arms around her raised knees. "Come on, Kich. All this brooding lately isn't really like you."

"It's nothing."

"If that were true, you'd have told me what the 'nothing' is. Give it up, Kich. I know you almost as well as I know Ryo."

Heaving a sigh, Kichiro had to concede that point. Nezumi did know him that well, didn't she? "It's not bothersome as much as it's irritating the hell out of me," he confessed.

Nezumi shook her head and pushed herself off the creeper. "All right, I'll bite. What's irritating you?"

"It's not a 'what', it's a 'her', and I believe you and Ryo have both met her already."

"Ah, the mad ear grabber? Yeah, Ryo isn't too fond of her."

"Nah, I didn't figure he would be," Kichiro agreed.

Nezumi took his hand and dragged him toward the door. "Come on. I'm thirsty."

Kichiro didn't argue as Nezumi led him into the house and dug two sodas out of the refrigerator and handed him one before digging into a bowl of rice crackers. With a mischievous grin, she tossed one at Kichiro and laughed when he caught it in his mouth despite the chagrined scowl on his face.

"You're going to torture your pups, aren't you?" Kichiro grumbled after he swallowed the cracker.

"Probably," she agreed, popping a cracker into her mouth. "Then again, you're assuming that we'll ever have pups. Now tell me, what is it about the mad ear grabber that's bugging you?"

"What do you mean, assuming you have pups?"

Nezumi made a face and took her time pushing the marble into the bottle of soda. "We're talking about you, not Ryo and me . . . So, answer my question."

Kichiro started to argue but thought better of it. Nezumi was standing much too close to the bowl of crackers for his comfort, and unless he wanted to end up playing cracker-catch for the next half hour, he'd do well to let that drop. "She annoys the hell out of me."

Nezumi frowned and took a long quaff of her soda. "So . . . that's it? She annoys the hell out of you? Then just don't think about her."

"Keh! You think I haven't tried that? I don't think you know how this works, Nez . . . I can't just stop thinking about someone when she annoys me. Nope, I have to stew over it and let it fester until it crawls under my skin and, for all intents and purposes, drives me mad."

"Okay, that's one of the stupidest things you've ever said to me, Kich. What'd she say that was so awful that you can't get it out of your head?"

Kichiro snorted. "She said Ryo's ears are softer."

"Excuse me?"

Kichiro made a face and snorted again. "She said Ryomaru's damn ears are softer than mine."

Nezumi coughed indelicately and set her soda on the counter. He could tell she was struggling not to laugh. His scowl darkened when she chuckled. "And that's why you're so irritated? Because you think Ryomaru's ears are softer than yours?"

"No!" he snarled then winced. "Yeah . . . Oh hell, it shouldn't even be a fucking issue, should it? Damn it, we're twins—identical twins! That'd be like saying his penis is—"

"Let's not go there, Kich," Nezumi cut in, her cheeks blossoming in embarrassed color.

"Well, it's true."

Nezumi sighed. "Come here."

"What?"

She rolled her eyes and waved her hand. "Let me feel your ears, Kich."

Kichiro hesitated a moment but reluctantly stepped forward, stooping down so Nezumi could easily reach his ears.

Her fingers were tentative at first, barely rubbing over the sensitive hairs. It tickled, and he twitched his ears. Nezumi giggled and brought up her free hand to rub his other ear, too.

"What the fuck are you doing?"

Nezumi's fingers stilled for a moment as she leaned to the side to peek around Kichiro as Ryomaru stomped into the kitchen. Kichiro straightened up quickly, wincing since Nezumi's fingers were mid-rub. "The mad ear grabber said your ears are softer," Nezumi explained.

Ryomaru's suspicious scowl shifted into one of grudging interest. "Oh, yeah? And?"

Nezumi wrinkled her nose. "Exactly the same. She was just trying to bug you, Kich, and you let her do it."

"I didn't care," Kichiro assured them both as Ryomaru and Nezumi exchanged knowing looks. "Like it matters! Keh!"

Ryomaru watched his brother storm out of the house and wisely hid his amusement until after he heard the door slam. "What was that all about?"

Nezumi grabbed the empty soda bottles and dumped them in the recycling bin. "She's gotten to him."

Ryomaru snorted. "I don't fucking like her, the grabby wench."

"Well, she did say your ears were softer," Nezumi reminded him.

Ryomaru almost smiled. "Ah, yeah, that . . ."

"Yeah, 'that'."

"So . . .?" he prompted.

"'So', what?"

"So, are they?"

Nezumi laughed as she turned off the kitchen light. "Of course they are," she agreed.

Ryomaru finally smiled as he followed his mate into the living room.

 

 

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Cain prowled around the apartment like a caged animal. He needed to get out, to do something, to rid himself of the pent-up frustration before he did something stupid. Alternating between irritation that he'd let Gin go with Montaro and disgust that he'd actually trailed her coupled with the suspicion that he cared just a little more than he ought to, he'd only managed to work himself into a mindset so volatile that just one word would likely send him careening off the proverbial edge.

'Face it, Cain. We're in serious trouble.'

Cain flexed his claws, cracked his knuckles, and continued pacing.

'I mean, you completely ignored my warnings, and look where it got us. I told you she was trouble, didn't I? I told you to keep the hell away from her. Now look at you! You're ready to tear that pup limb from limb, and why? Because he touched Gin's elbow!'

'Yeah, well, he had no business touching anything on her, now did he? Scrawny little bastard . . .'

'Have you changed your mind about keeping the promise you made Isabelle?'

Growling at the suggestion that it would have even occurred to him to do such a thing, Cain dug his cigarettes out of his pocket and lit one.

'What'll you do, Cain? Hunt down every pup who comes anywhere near her? Think, will you? You've got no right to interfere. She's not your daughter, she's not your lover, she's not your mate . . . She's nothing to you. She's just a pretty girl with a good heart who bakes cakes for you because you were nice to her one time.'

Damned if that sat well with him, either.

His youkai was quiet for a few minutes while Cain willed his temper to calm. Standing by the window staring out at the rising stars that were pathetically out of his reach, he'd almost gotten a handle on his emotions when his youkai spoke again. 'Would it be a terrible thing, you think?'

'Would what be a terrible thing?'

'Her . . . Gin . . . Would it be so terrible to want to be with her?'

Cain winced, smashing the cigarette out in the glass ashtray on the window sill. 'No, it wouldn't be . . . and yeah, it would.'

He almost missed the knock on the door. He couldn't mistake her presence. He wasn't sure when he had become so attuned to her, and yet he was struck once again by the familiarity of her as he strode over to open the door.

Gin stood in the hallway with a chocolate frosted cake and an inscrutable look on her face. He'd seen that same look just before she left the classroom with Montaro, and he was no closer to being able to read it now than he had been at the time. "How was your date?" he asked, unable to mask the disdain in his voice at the acknowledgement of the intimacy.

Golden eyes slowly rose to lock with his, a strange emotion flashing behind her gaze. "It was fine. He took me for tea, and I dropped some things off at Mama and Papa's house."

"They live at the shrine?" he asked before he realized just what he'd said.

Gin narrowed her gaze, and he recognized the emotion that had been so foreign to him moments before it spilled over. "I knew it! I knew it! I didn't want to believe it but . . . Damn it! You followed me, didn't you?"

"I didn't—I wouldn't—Hell yes, I did!" he growled.

The temper Cain hadn't realized Gin possessed exploded. "I expect that kind of thing from Papa or my baka brothers! I expect it from my uncle or my cousin, but you? You, Cain? Why you, too? Do you all think I'm stupid? Do you all think that I'm just some idiotic little girl who'll let myself be taken advantage of by the first baka who comes around and tries to sweet-talk me? I'm not a child! I'm not a pup, and I don't appreciate it; not from you!"

He opened his mouth to explain. Gin shook her head furiously, eyes glowing, burning him before he could answer. As if she needed to vent her frustration or die, she smashed the cake into Cain's chest with an irate growl and let the plate clatter on the floor. Cain stared, dumbfounded, as the sweet, gentle girl he thought he knew disappeared only to be replaced by a seething, angry woman whose voice was rising in pitch with every word she screamed at him.

'Oh, my God,' his youkai blustered. 'What the hell . . .?'

"Gin, calm down, I—"

She wasn't finished. "You what? You ignored me when I tried to get you to help me in the beginning, but you followed me anyway? Why? Why did you follow me?"

"Because!" he yelled back, temper careening out of control. "Because, damn it, that little bastard didn't deserve to be anywhere near you!"

"Oh, you sound just like my father and my stupid brothers! Do me a favor, Cain! The next time you think that poor little Gin-chan can't take care of herself, just call them will you? At least it's expected of them! They always act stupid, but at least they have a right to! Let me get their numbers for you. It'll make it that much easier!"

He stomped after her when she whipped around on her heel and barreled back toward her apartment. His youkai was babbling in the back of his mind, but his irritation was too strong, his control stretched too far, and he couldn't hear a word of it.

"Will you calm down and listen?" he bellowed, catching her door with the palm of his hand as she tried to slam it in his face. He swung it closed after him as Gin stomped over to grab the Rolodex beside the telephone.

"Listen to what?"

"Listen to me! It's not what you think."

"And just what do I think, Cain?"

"I wasn't following you because I thought you couldn't take care of yourself!"

"Then why?"

"Because you shouldn't have to, damn it!"

Gin glanced up, cell phone in her hands. The outrage slowly drained out of her expression, but what was left made him cringe inwardly, made him wish that she had stayed angry instead. He'd seen that look before, the one on her face. Eyes overly bright, nostrils quivering as her lips trembled, she slowly shook her head as her ears drooped. "I thought you were my friend, Cain."

He stepped toward her but stopped, wincing as her eyes glazed over with unshed tears. "Gin, I . . . Don't cry."

The tears spilled over, and she choked back a sob as she dropped the cell phone onto the table. "I ruined your shirt!" she whimpered, "two shirts in one d-d-day!"

'My shirt?' he thought as he closed the distance between them. Gently lifting her chin, he clumsily brushed tears off her cheeks which only made her cry harder. "No, Gin, it's fine! I . . . I hate this shirt, really! Was going to get rid of it anyway . . . Stop, okay? Please stop . . ."

She choked back another sob and whimpered as she tried to staunch the flow of tears. Cain winced again, babbling about how much he hated this particular shirt and really, she had done him a favor, after all. It did the trick, though, and Gin uttered a sound halfway between a laugh and a sob, but the hurt receded from her gaze, and that was enough for Cain.

"I . . . I'll make you another cake," she offered, swiping the back of her hand over her eyes as she hurried off to the kitchen. "I'm sorry . . . I don't know why I did that. I could buy you a new shirt, or—"

"It's fine, Gin. Don't worry about the cake."

"But it was a yellow cake, and I made it for Bellaniece . . ."

He could smell the tears rising again, and he quickly shook his head. "You know, she'd love that, if it's no trouble."

Gin managed a weak laugh, and then she hiccupped. "No tr-tr-trouble."

"Okay . . . I'm going to go change my shirt."

She stopped, a cloud of uncertainty darkening her features for a moment. "You want some tea? I could make some while the cake's baking."

Cain nodded and jerked the door open, offering Gin a little smile before he stepped back into the hallway and made a face at the cake mess.

'Cain?'

'What?'

' . . . I think . . . I think we're in trouble.'

Carefully stepping over the mess, Cain retrieved the broom and dustpan out of the utility closet in his kitchen. 'Yep,' he agreed slowly as he started cleaning up the cake. 'We're in trouble, all right . . .'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kichiro stared at the thick file and stifled the urge to sigh. Peeking up through the thick fringe of his bangs, he appraised the woman sitting patiently. The young American wife of a powerful business mogul, she was easily one of the prettier women he'd seen, and yet she wasn't satisfied. She'd already had breast augmentation, had her nose 'fixed', numerous silicone injections to make her lips fuller, and now she was here again, and Kichiro was almost afraid to ask her just what she wanted this time.

Letting the file drop from his fingers, Kichiro sat back with a sigh. "What brings you by today, Yamasi-san?"

Flashing her brilliant smile as she uncrossed her legs and re-crossed them again, she flipped her long blonde hair over her shoulder and winked at Kichiro playfully. "Come now, Izayoi-sensei . . . Shouldn't we be on a first name basis by now?"

Pasting on a tolerant smile, Kichiro shrugged. "It's my policy not to call my patients by their first names."

She pursed her lips in a pretty pout. "Does that mean I can't call you 'Kichiro'?"

"I'd rather keep this entirely professional," he responded mildly. "Now is there something you wanted?"

"I was thinking about having some liposuction done. My thighs are starting to get a little pudgy."

Kichiro nearly snorted at that. The woman was too skinny as it was. "I'd advise against it," he said with a shake of his head. "You don't really look like you need it, anyway."

Her smile turned coy. "Why Izayoi-sensei . . . Are you flirting with me?"

"I wouldn't dream of it," he answered. "My uncle has business dealings with your husband. It'd be a conflict of interest, wouldn't you say? As a surgeon, I feel it's my duty to tell you that it's never a good idea to have unnecessary procedures done."

"Then it's a good thing I don't pay for your advice," she retorted with a tight smile. "I've got a gala in six weeks, and I must look my best for it. Shall I go ahead and schedule this?"

"Be my guest," he replied, closing the file and pushing it away. Yamasi-san untangled her legs and stood up, winking at Kichiro before sauntering toward the door.

Kichiro shook his head, turned his gaze toward the window with a defeated sigh. The problem was that he'd seen women like her just a little too often. If he hadn't agreed to do the procedure, she'd have simply gone to another surgeon, and many surgeons, he'd come to realize, didn't really care whether something should be done or not. She'd have gotten her liposuction, sure, but if she wasn't careful, she'd have ended up with what she wanted even if it wasn't healthy.

'Balls, Kich, you can't always save people from themselves. I don't know why you even try.'

'I'm a doctor. It's my job.'

'You know it; I know it. With some of these women, it's an obsession. They're running around with more plastic in their bodies than your average Barbie doll, and for what?'

'I'm not a psychiatrist. I can't do anything but make sure they don't go to someone else who won't give a damn about their health, so long as they get paid.'

'Nice to be so idealistic. Do you really think you'll change a thing?'

'No, I . . . I really don't.'

"Oh, now don't you look angry?"

Shifting his gaze to the side, Kichiro regarded Bellaniece for a moment before letting his attention wander back out the window again.

"Do you ever smile?" she coaxed, her tone playful, light, teasing.

"Of course I do," he assured her. "Don't you have something better to do? Work, maybe?"

Perching on the corner of his desk, she turned to face him. Whether by accident or design, her pose drew attention to her breasts. Kichiro caught himself staring and quickly looked away. "We're all caught up. Everything's done. I just wondered if you needed anything before I go home."

"From you?" he scoffed, wrinkling his nose. "Not hardly."

Bellaniece heaved a sigh and shook her head as she leaned back and reached out to grab his ear. "You really do hate me, don't you? Why is that?"

"It's not hate," he countered, ducking away from her probing fingers. "Call it apathy. Hate implies a certain level of caring that you have yet to achieve with me."

Sapphire eyes narrowed on him. Kichiro nearly smiled. "You really do go out of your way to be nasty, don't you?" she mused, her tone much more mild than her expression was. Pale cheeks blossoming in an angry pink flush, Kichiro had to hide his amusement as she lifted her chin in a show of stubborn pride.

"You give yourself a little too much credit, Belle-chan. Are you really so vain that you honestly believe that I'd go out of my way for you?"

She sighed and shook her head, hiding the surge of emotion behind a mask of indifference. "Whatever, Dr. Izayoi, but for the record, your attitude doesn't suit you at all."

"What's that supposed to mean?" he growled.

Bellaniece shrugged as she leaned toward him to try to catch his ear again. "Nothing bad, goodness no! You just strike me as more of a playboy."

"Really, well, sorry to disappoint you," he retorted, flicking his ears to evade her grasp. "Knock that off, will you? If you want to mess with someone's ears, I suggest you call my brother. Let me get his number, though I'm not so sure Nezumi will put up with it long . . ."

"Did I strike a nerve?" she asked as her eyes lit up in obvious amusement.

"No, you didn't," he shot back, "and Nezumi said they're the same—exactly the same."

Bellaniece slid off the desk and turned to face him, leaning forward as a wicked grin rose to the surface. "She wouldn't be able to tell, would she? I mean, isn't she human?"

"So?" he snorted with grudging interest.

"So . . . humans have dulled senses, you know. Do you think she'd be able to tell the difference? Or maybe . . . Maybe she was sparing your feelings. Ever thought of that, big boy?"

It must have been evident in his expression that the thought hadn't crossed his mind until she'd pointed it out. Bellaniece giggled victoriously as she turned and fairly skipped out of the office.

'I . . . hate her,' he fumed, ears twitching at the thought of her blatant insult.

'For hating her, you sure admired her rack, didn't you?'

'I did not! I just couldn't believe she stuck it out there like that!'

'Uh huh.'

'Uh huh!'

'Face it, Kich . . . she really is something, even if you hate to admit it.'

'She's something, all right . . .'

'Just between us, admit it: Belle really ain't as bad as you want to believe she is. What you can't stand is that she can match you, insult for insult, and sometimes she actually gets the better of you.'

'Keh! She does not! Whose side are you on?'

His youkai laughed. 'That's easy enough. I'm on the side that'll get laid if you get your head out of your ass and admit that you like her.'

He could feel the furious blush steal up his cheeks as he shot to his feet and strode toward the door. 'That wench would drive me insane. A lifetime with her? You've got to be kidding! She doesn't even know when to shut up!'

'So find a way to keep her quiet. You'll be happy with her . . . trust me! Have I ever led you astray?'

Kichiro snorted figuring that his youkai's comment didn't even deserve an answer. He ignored Mai's wishes that he have a good evening as Bellaniece's laughter rang out behind him. "Keh!"

 

 

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Bellaniece fumbled with her keys as she tried to balance the bag of groceries—coffee for Cain and a few snack items for her—on her hip. Still quite pleased over her victory over Kichiro Izayoi, she figured nothing could really upset her as the keys slipped out of her fingers and clattered on the hardwood floor.

"Oh, let me help you!"

Bellaniece's head snapped to the side, and she blinked in surprise at the hanyou woman beside her. The same one she'd seen from her window the day her father had unceremoniously breezed in the same way, Bellaniece's gaze narrowed suspiciously. 'She smells a lot like Kichiro, too,' she mused as the girl bent down to retrieve the keys.

"I'm Gin," she remarked as Bellaniece stepped back.

"I'm Belle—well, Bellaniece."

Gin unlocked the door and pushed it open before moving out of the way with a friendly smile.

"Wait!" Bellaniece called over her shoulder as she hurriedly set the bag on the table. "You're not . . . an Izayoi, are you?"

Gin looked surprised but nodded. "Yeah . . . I am . . . How did you know?"

Bellaniece couldn't stave back the snort of disgust as her suspicions were confirmed. "Small world," she muttered.

Gin didn't seem to notice. She started to smile then suddenly wince as she carted around and skittered over to the apartment next door. "Oh no! My cake!"

'Cake?' Bellaniece echoed as something else flashed through her mind: Cain bent over, staring out the peephole muttering about idiot pups and cake fairies . . . 'Oh, my . . .' "Gin! Wait!" she called as she ran after the girl, pausing long enough to close the door behind her. Gin had left her own door open, and Bellaniece poked her head inside, looking around and smiling as Gin stood up, cake pan in mitt-covered hand.

Gin grinned happily and set the cake on the stove. "Your father says just a few more cakes, and then I'll get my wings!"

"Wings?" Bellaniece repeated, shaking her head in confusion.

Gin giggled as she tugged the oven mitt off her hand. "He said I'm the cake fairy."

"Wait . . . my father said you'd get your wings? Mine? Cain Zelig? That father?"

"Yeah. I'm in his art class at the university. I'm his teacher's aide."

"Really . . ."

Gin leaned on the counter and shrugged, frowning suddenly as she tilted her head to the side. "How did you know that I'm an Izayoi?"

Bellaniece couldn't keep the scowl off her face as she wrinkled her nose and crossed her arms over her chest. "I work for your brother."

"Really? You don't sound like you like him very much."

"He's not very nice," Bellaniece remarked. "I mean, at least not to me."

"Hmm . . . Well, he can be pretty harsh, especially when you first meet him. What do you do for him, anyway?"

"Answer the phone mostly," Bellaniece answered with a dismissive wave of her hand. "He makes me glad I was an only child."

"Papa taught me a trick or two. The twins don't mess with me very often."

"Your father taught you how to fight?"

Gin nodded as she pulled powdered sugar and cocoa powder from the cupboard. "Of course! Cain didn't teach you?"

"My father, teach me how to fight? Heavens, no!" Bellaniece laughed. "Daddy wants to be my hero . . . You call him by his first name?"

"Yeah," Gin remarked with an impish grin, dumping sugar and cocoa powder into a bowl. "As for my brother, just tell him that you'll tell Nezumi that he's not being very nice. That'll shut him up pretty fast."

Bellaniece leaned on the counter to watch Gin whip up the frosting. "Nezumi? Why?"

"She keeps him in line. He's been a lot better behaved since he married her."

"I thought she was Ryomaru's mate."

"She is."

Waving a hand in blatant dismissal as a terse laugh bubbled out, Bellaniece snorted. "Oh, no . . . I work for Kichiro."

Gin dropped the wooden spoon with a clatter and shook her head at Bellaniece. "Kichiro-nii-chan's the mean brother you work for?"

Bellaniece nodded slowly as Gin retrieved the spoon and dumped it into the sink before digging through the drawers for a clean one. "He's insufferable! I don't think he's ever said one single nice thing to me! Not once!"

"Are you sure?"

"Of course, I'm sure!"

Gin added a glug of milk and a teaspoon of vanilla and started stirring. "But he's the nice one. I don't understand . . ."

"Not to me, he isn't," Bellaniece remarked with a snort. "I can't decide if he's just naturally crabby or if I've somehow offended him in a past life . . ."

"That really doesn't sound like nii-chan," Gin said with a marked frown. "At least, not usually though he has a habit of being extra cranky in the morning."

"Cranky doesn't begin to cover it," Bellaniece scoffed. "He's arrogant, rude, condescending . . . Do you know, he calls me 'little girl' . . . and we mustn't forget, 'Belle-chan'."

"Oh . . . calling you –chan is just his way of being playful."

"Not when he says it like I'm a communicable disease."

"That really doesn't sound like nii-chan. I swear, he's the nice one . . . Do you want me to talk to him? I mean, you seem nice enough . . . I can't see why he wouldn't like you. It just doesn't make much sense, does it?"

"Don't do that," Bellaniece said as she waved her hand dismissively. "I'd much prefer that he thinks I don't care, because I don't . . . or at least, I shouldn't."

Gin frowned thoughtfully. The telephone rang, and Gin held up a finger as she scuttled over to answer it. Bellaniece straightened up and wandered around. The apartment looked nearly identical to her father's, and she plopped down on the sofa while Gin chatted away on the phone.

A sketch book lay forgotten on the coffee table. Bellaniece smiled as she picked it up and leafed through it. Children playing in the park . . . a pastel sunset over the thick trees of a forest . . . One picture gave her pause, and Bellaniece narrowed her gaze as she stared. 'I know this guy . . . Wait! Of course I do! Daddy? She sketches Daddy?' Flipping through the pages, Bellaniece grinned as she noticed that, aside from a few notable exceptions, Gin's sketchpad was filled with images of her father. 'She's really good,' Bellaniece thought absently. 'Bet Daddy has no idea, what's in this sketchbook . . . That's interesting . . . very interesting . . .'

Closing the book and setting it back on the table, Bellaniece could feel the roots of an unrealized plan forming. 'I think Gin really likes Daddy . . .' Mulling over Gin's claim that Cain had told her she was close to earning her fairy's wings, Bellaniece couldn't help but shake her head. 'That really doesn't sound like Daddy, does it? But then, she brings him cake all the time, too. Why would she do that, and why would Daddy let her? Unless . . .'

Gin hung up the telephone and grabbed two bottles of water from the refrigerator before hurrying back over and sitting beside Bellaniece. "Sorry . . . that was my mother," Gin apologized as she extended a bottle to Bellaniece.

"You know, Gin . . . Daddy was going to take me to dinner tonight. Why don't you come along?"

Gin grimaced as she popped open the water bottle, leaning forward as she scrunched up her shoulders and shrugged. "I don't want to intrude. If you two were having a daddy-daughter evening, I'd hate to interrupt. Cain didn't say anything about it, but—"

"Don't be silly!" Bellaniece laughed. "I'm sure he won't care! Your sketches are really well done."

Gin bit her lip as she blinked at the sketchpad. Her cheeks pinked as she slowly forced herself to look at Bellaniece. "You looked at my . . . sketches?" she choked out.

Bellaniece waved her hand dismissively. "Just the first couple. You should ask Daddy. I'm sure he'd be more than happy to give you some pointers, if you want them, that is . . ."

"You think so?" Gin asked, eyebrows drawing together as she pondered Bellaniece's words.

"Oh, sure! He lectured me once on the proper way to hold a pencil. I'm pretty certain he'd be happy to help you."

"Really? I wanted to ask him to teach me his techniques, but I've been a little afraid to ask . . ."

"Afraid of Daddy? Why?"

Gin grimaced, cheeks pinking prettily. "Well . . . I've ruined a couple of his shirts," she confessed.

"How did you do that?"

"One of my cups broke, and he spilled tea over one, then I . . ." She trailed off, grimacing as she slowly shook her head. "I . . . sort of . . . I smashed a cake all over him."

Bellaniece's mind blanked for a moment before she coughed to cover a rising giggle. The vision of Cain with cake smashed all over him was just one that Bellaniece couldn't quite comprehend. "Accidents happen," Bellaniece managed to say with a straight face.

Gin's ears flattened momentarily before poking back up and twitching nervously. "It wasn't an accident . . . I lost my temper."

Bellaniece couldn't contain her laughter at that. It was one thing to think that Gin had accidentally done such a thing. It was entirely different to know that it had been done intentionally. "That's too good!" Bellaniece gasped out, dabbing at her tearing eyes with her knuckle. "Did he deserve it?"

Gin blinked as though she hadn't considered that before. "Sort of . . . not really . . . He followed me the other day when I had tea with a guy . . ."

"My father followed you? Oh, my . . ."

Gin didn't appear to have noticed Bellaniece's awe. "Just like my brothers and father, really. Do you know, they've threatened every single guy I've ever tried to date?" She shrugged, her ears drooping slightly as she stared at her hands with a marked scowl. "Just protective, I guess."

"You just need to find someone who can hold their own against your family," Bellaniece encouraged. "Someone strong and brave and . . . heroic."

Gin finally smiled, and Bellaniece couldn't help the welling of hope that burgeoned inside her. 'She's really different, this girl . . .' Remembering the way Cain had growled as he peeked into the hallway . . . remembering the blush as he crammed half a slice of cake into his mouth to avoid answering Bellaniece's interrogation, Bellaniece couldn't help but to smile, too. 'Oh, Daddy . . . I don't think she really needs my help, but . . . Better to be safe than sorry, right?'

'Do you think your father will welcome your intrusion?'

'He will in the end. I like Gin, and more importantly, I think Daddy does, too . . .'

'Belle, don't get your hopes up. You know things aren't as simple as you want them to be.'

'That's not true at all. It's all elementary. If Daddy had a mate, he wouldn't die, would he? All Daddy really needs is a gentle shove in the right direction . . . her direction, or so it would seem . . .'

 

 

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Cain dropped the stack of junk mail in a careless heap on the counter and shifted his gaze around the empty apartment with a marked frown. Bellaniece had been here. He could sense her presence. He could also sense that she wasn't here now.

Emptying the grocery bag on the table, Cain shook his head at his daughter's idea of shopping. A canister of coffee and a few boxes of snacks—there was absolutely nothing substantial in the bag, and he sighed. 'I have really got to do something about the serious lack of food in this place,' he thought with a grimace as he stowed the few paltry groceries in the cupboard.

"Hi, Daddy!" Bellaniece greeted as she breezed through the door. Hurrying over to lean on his arm and rising up on her tiptoes, she kissed his cheek and grinned. "I was going to put that stuff away . . . How about you take me out to dinner tonight?"

"How about I take you out and teach you what real groceries are?" he countered.

"Yeah, about that," Bellaniece remarked as she let go of her father's arm and hopped up on the counter, swinging her feet with a careless air. "That would imply that one of us would have to cook the stuff," she pointed out, "and since neither of us knows anything about that . . ."

Cain sighed and shrugged. "Go get ready, then," he agreed.

Bellaniece dropped down and grinned. "Okay, I'll be ready in a few minutes . . . By the way, I met someone interesting today."

Cain picked up the pile of mail to sort. "Oh?" he mumbled as he dropped the junk into the trash one by one without opening them.

"Sure . . . Want to know who?"

"Uh-huh."

"The cake fairy."

The rest of the mail fell into the trash as Cain's brain froze. "Th-The cake f-fairy?" he sputtered.

"Yep, the cake fairy . . . You know what I think? She's cute—beyond cute, actually. Downright adorable, really. So . . . how many more cakes till she gets her wings?"

Praying that his face wasn't nearly as red as he suspected it was, Cain choked back a groan and tried to pretend like he had no idea what Bellaniece was saying. "Wings?"

Bellaniece's laughter was positively exultant. "It's fine, Daddy, I totally approve. Anyway, you'd better change. That shirt is all rumpled, and those pants look like you slept in them. You don't want Gin to think you can't dress yourself, do you?"

"Gin?" he barked out.

"Sure. I invited her to dinner, too.   Must be lonely, to eat all by herself . . . Now hurry up. I'm starving . . ."

"Bellaniece—"

She poked her head back into the hallway and winked at him. "You might not want to wear red, Daddy. It'd clash with your cheeks. Now hurry!"

Cain stifled a groan as he slapped his hands over his face. 'My daughter's turned against me! Oh, my God, she's met Gin . . .'

'Well, crap. If we weren't in trouble before, I'd say we are now.'

'You think?'

'Yeah, I think . . . At least Bellaniece is going with you. You won't be alone with Gin. Use Bellaniece as a buffer.'

'I can't use my daughter!'

'Hell, Cain, your daughter set you up . . . She's been trying to coerce you into finding another mate for years. Turn about is fair play.'

'Dinner doesn't bother me,' Cain argued. 'Dinner's fine. Everyone eats, right? Not a big deal.'

'It's not a big deal?'

'Nope.'

'Then why are your hands sweating?'

Cain blinked and loosened his fists, turning over his hands to stare at his damp palms. '. . . Shut up.'

Bellaniece stepped out of her bedroom and shook her head as she stared at her father who still hadn't moved from the spot where she'd left him. "Come on, Daddy . . . You can't go out to dinner in that. Even the tai-youkai has to adhere to some sort of propriety. You've got an image to uphold."

Cain followed Bellaniece without comment, brushing aside the feeling that he was walking into a trap—and not even a very well constructed trap, either.

Bellaniece opened his closet with a flourish but heaved a sigh and shook her head as she stared in dismay at the minimal selection. "Oh, Daddy, I'm going to have to do something about this."

"They're all clean," he remarked.

Bellaniece sighed again. Settling on a white cotton shirt that wasn't quite as wrinkled as the rest, she pulled it off the hanger and held it out to her father. He took it grudgingly as she shuffled through his slacks. Shaking her head, she snorted indelicately. "Daddy . . . no more khakis, okay? I mean it. . ."

Cain dropped the shirt he'd been wearing and pulled the clean one on. "It's just dinner, Bellaniece . . . It is just dinner, right?"

"Of course, of course . . . I didn't sell you into her harem or anything," Bellaniece remarked as she rolled her eyes.

Cain clamped his mouth closed, unwilling to voice his opinion on the idea of Gin having a harem of men . . . "Women don't have harems," he pointed out.

"Gin could . . . She's cute enough, don't you think?"

'It is so important to our sanity that you just not answer that, Cain,' his youkai growled.

"Are you going to give me some pants or not?" he grouched instead.

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose and pulled the only pair of black pants out of Cain's closet. "Here. These will have to do. I'll go shopping for you this weekend. Your closet is just sad, Daddy, but don't worry. I'll make your closet happy again."

He heard the muffled knock, and Bellaniece clapped her hands and skittered off to let Gin inside, he supposed. 'Just why am I doing this?' he asked himself as he changed his pants.

'Because you're stupid, Cain, that's why. That girl—Gin—she needs to be surrounded by flashing yellow caution lights. You know it; I know it . . . She's an accident waiting to happen.'

'An accident waiting to happen? You make her sound like she's doing all this on purpose.'

'Pfft! Nope. That's why she's so damn dangerous, Cain. Gin's clueless about what a girl like her really can do to you. Tell Bellaniece you don't want to go. You're her father. She has to listen to you.'

Cain rolled his eyes as he tucked in the shirt. 'It's just dinner. That's not so bad.'

'You sound like you want to go,' his youkai grumbled suspiciously. 'You do, don't you? You're complaining because you should, but you really do want to go.'

'Of course I don't! I'm just hungry, that's all.'

'Just hungry, huh? You're in denial, you know . . . and you might as well redo your ponytail. Bellaniece will make you do that, anyway.'

'I thought you didn't want me to go,' Cain pointed out as he pulled the tie out of his hair and grabbed the brush off his dresser.

'I don't, but you'll go anyway. Might as well look presentable . . . By the way, Bellaniece is right. You do need some new clothes.'

"Pfft."

 

 

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Bellaniece waited until after the door closed behind her father to unleash the smile that she couldn't contain.

'Celebrate while you can, Belle. Your father is going to kill you when he gets home.'

'Nonsense! He'll have a great time!'

'Great time or not, you put him on the spot, and he knows it. The only one who doesn't know it is Gin, and I think that's only because she's so sweet she'd never think that you, of all people, had manipulated her.'

'Manipulate is such an ugly word . . . What about, giving them a gentle shove in the right direction?'

'Potatoes, potahtoes, it's all the same thing. Put a pretty face on it if you can, Belle. The truth is that your father really will be furious, and you know it.'

Bellaniece's brow furrowed as she wandered restlessly around the living room. 'Is it really wrong of me, to want Daddy to find someone to make him happy; someone to make him want to live? Sure, it might be a little selfish . . .'

'Maybe it isn't really that selfish, Belle. He's your father. It's understandable. Did you have to use such underhanded tactics, though?'

Bellaniece grimaced and flopped down on the sofa. 'Okay, so it was a little obvious, at least to him . . .'

Waiting until they were ready to leave, Bellaniece had grabbed her stomach and told Gin and her father that she was starting to get cramps. Since they were the only real ailment that Cain wouldn't touch, she figured it was safe enough. The look he'd shot her, though, was full of suspicion, and despite her efforts to look completely innocent, she knew he hadn't really believed her at all.

Gin's expression had immediately shifted into quiet concern, and she shot Cain a glance before saying, "I could cook dinner for you, if you don't want to leave her."

Cain had looked like he was going to accept Gin's hospitality. Bellaniece made a face. "Oh, no, you two go on ahead. I'll just lie down a bit. I'm not really hungry, anyway."

"Don't be ridiculous, Bellaniece. I can't leave you alone if you're sick," Cain commented, eyes glinting as he narrowed his stare. He knew what she was doing. He knew it, and he knew that she knew she'd been caught.

"Oh, Daddy, don't be silly! It's just cramps; that's all! Every female gets them, and every female deals with them. There's nothing you can do, so go on and . . . enjoy yourselves."

"Still," Gin said slowly, shaking her head.

"I insist," Bellaniece assured her, waving her hands toward the door. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."

"Are you sure?" Cain asked tightly. Bellaniece grimaced inside at the warning behind his feigned concern.

"Get him out of here," Bellaniece joked, turning to Gin. "Daddy rarely gets out anymore. I hate to ruin your evening. Do me a favor, will you? Make sure Daddy has a good time, despite himself."

Gin hesitated, shooting Cain a worried glance. Bellaniece bit her lip when her father intercepted the look and blushed just a little. To her amusement, Cain heaved a sigh and shrugged. "I suppose she'll be okay," he allowed, "if you still want to go?"

"If you're sure . . ." Gin agreed slowly.

Bellaniece nearly laughed. "Go on, I'm fine! Daddy has his cell phone. I'll call if I need anything."

Cain jerked his head in agreement and opened the door for Gin. The last look he'd cast her, however, promised mayhem when he got home. Bellaniece wiggled her fingers, entirely too pleased with herself to bother trying to hide it from Cain, and as he pulled the door closed behind them, she burst into a round of laughter.

Her laughter wound down, and she slumped back against the sofa. "This isn't good . . . I need to celebrate!"

'Celebration is fine, Belle, but you don't know anyone here.'

Expression shifting into a pout, Bellaniece heaved a sigh and toyed with the hem of her skirt. 'This is what I hate about being in Tokyo. All my friends are back home. Even if I called them, they probably wouldn't understand. The only one who is youkai is Kelly, and I really can't call her . . .'

There were definite drawbacks to being raised in secrecy. It was normal for youkai to hide their natures, and Bellaniece had attended school where she and Kelly were the only youkai and hanyou. Kelly would understand Bellaniece's small victory with Cain. Her human friends wouldn't. They didn't know the desperation Bellaniece felt when she thought about the years to come. They didn't know about youkai.

'I've got to share this with someone,' she thought as she stood up and wandered around restlessly. 'This is huge, really, just huge, and . . . and maybe there is someone I could call . . .'

Grabbing her cell phone off the counter, Bellaniece dialed the number before she could talk herself out of it. Ignoring the voice that told her she was setting herself up for ridicule, she waited impatiently for the call to connect.

"Izayoi."

"Hi, um . . . It's me, Belle. I was just wondering if you were busy."

Kichiro didn't answer right away. She imagined he was probably considering crushing his phone. "Is there something you wanted, little girl?" he finally asked.

Brushing aside the prick of irritation at his appalling nickname for her, Bellaniece wrinkled her nose. "I was just in a really good mood and wanted to share it with someone."

He sighed. "All right, I'll bite. Who did you manipulate into doing what you wanted this time?"

Wincing at the accuracy of his assessment, Bellaniece frowned, gripping the phone tighter. "It's not like that. You really don't think much of me, do you?" She shook her head. "Don't answer that. I really am in a good mood. It's my father . . . He's on a date."

"You set him up, didn't you? You just have to manipulate every single person around you, don't you?"

"It isn't like that, honestly! Forget it. It was a mistake to call you."

"Why did you call me?"

Bellaniece hesitated and made a face, wondering just why she was answering him at all. "Because . . . you're the only person I really know here."

"Pity me, then."

She sighed. "I'm trying to be nice, here. Do you have to be like that?"

"Sorry. Must be habit. I tend to get this way when people try to control everyone in a fifty kilometer radius."

"Would it matter that I had the very best of intentions? Daddy needs a mate. That's all I want . . ."

Kichiro was quiet a moment before answering, and when he did, he caught her off guard with the quiet respect in his voice—a tone she hadn't ever heard from him before. "You mean that, don't you?"

"You want to go get something to eat?" Bellaniece asked suddenly, unsure just why her cheeks felt hot as she pressed the palm of her free hand to her face.

"All right," he agreed. "Where do you live?"

She told him the address and twirled around in a small circle.

"Really? My sister lives there . . . You mind if we stop and see her? She might want to come along. Kami knows she doesn't get out much . . ."

Kichiro's commentary brought Bellaniece to an abrupt halt. "I've met your sister," she hedged. "I think she had plans tonight . . ."

"Really. Did she tell you what she was doing? She'd better not be trying to sneak around to see some worthless little bastard."

"I'm sure that she's not . . . with someone like that . . ."

Kichiro sighed. "Sorry. Guess I get carried away about Gin. I seriously doubt there's a man on earth, human or otherwise, who deserves her."

Bellaniece bit her lip and cleared her throat nervously. "So . . . about dinner . . ."

"Yeah, give me about a half hour."

"Okay," she agreed. Turning off the phone and setting it on the counter again, Bellaniece grimaced and tried not to feel guilty.

'If Kichiro figures out what you've done . . .'

'I didn't know he'd get that irritated over the idea that his sister was on a date.'

'Yeah, and not just any date, Belle! She's out with your father! How is that going to look?'

'That's different, too,' Bellaniece thought defensively. 'Daddy is tai-youkai—the most powerful youkai in North America. If Daddy's not worthy, then Kichiro's right: no one else ever would be.'

Her youkai voice didn't answer. After glancing at the clock, Bellaniece hurried off to get ready, trying not to ask herself just why she'd called Kichiro Izayoi, of all people.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kichiro held the chair for Bellaniece as she sat down at the small table of the traditional Japanese restaurant. She smiled at him as he stepped over to his chair and waited until he was seated before she spoke. "I'm surprised you agreed to come with me," she admitted. "Careful, or I'll start wondering whether or not you really do hate me."

"I never hated you, Belle-chan," he argued as he reached for a menu.

She giggled. "You have a strange way of showing your apathy then."

"I suppose," he agreed. "So tell me why you want to find your father a mate."

Bellaniece shrugged and nodded as the waiter set down a glass of water. "Because I'd like him to stick around."

Kichiro absorbed that for a moment. "When did your mother die?"

Bellaniece sighed and fixed her gaze on the sweat condensing on the outside of the glass. "She died after I was born. Daddy doesn't like to talk about it. I suppose that's natural, right?"

That did surprise Kichiro. After so many years, did the man really wish to die? It seemed a little melodramatic. He survived the shock of losing his mate. That, in and of itself, was amazing. "He doesn't have to die, does he? He's already beaten the odds, staying alive this long."

"He made a promise; he has to keep his word. Daddy's really big on vows. I think they're more important to him than anything."

Kichiro frowned at the rest of Bellaniece's rueful observation—the part she didn't put into words. 'More important to him than anything . . . including me.'

"Are you sure that you're not misinterpreting what he's told you?"

Bellaniece smiled sadly, running her fingertip around the rim of the glass. "I didn't misinterpret anything. I really wish I had."

"Do you think it's fair, to try to trick him into living?"

"Maybe not," she agreed lightly. "Then again, knowing that he won't be around to see my children and all that . . . Is that any fairer?"

He didn't answer as she deliberately lifted a menu to end the conversation. Kichiro took his time reading down the list of entrees but couldn't remember what he'd just read.

'That would suck. You know it would. If you knew that your father was biding his time so he could go join your mother in death . . .'

'But it is his choice.'

'Maybe, and maybe you're not willing to see her side of it, Kich. Balls, you know that if the situation were reversed, you'd try like hell to keep the old man around.'

'This isn't about me; it's about her and her penchant for trying to manipulate everything to suit her.'

'Oh? And just how did she manipulate you into coming here with her?'

'She didn't . . . That's the point. She isn't so bad when she's not trying to hide behind her façades and her manipulations.'

'Ooh, careful . . . I might start thinking you like her.'

'One thing at a time, okay?'

'Okay . . . and in case you didn't notice, that dress gives a great view of her rack . . .'

'. . . Hentai.'

'Just look!'

'All right,' he conceded with an inward snort. His youkai had a valid point. The low cut mauve dress she wore did provide a very nice glimpse of her breasts, and Kichiro indulged himself for a few moments in watching the rise and fall of her breathing.

'You're looking . . . and you like what you see, you dog. I'm so proud of you, Kich. I was starting to wonder . . .'

'Shut the hell up. Just because I looked doesn't mean anything.'

'So?'

''So', what?'

'So . . . what do you think?'

Kichiro stifled a sigh as he directed his attention back to his menu again. 'So . . . it'll do.'

"So what unsuspecting woman did you toss into your father's path?" Kichiro asked, mostly to distract himself from his current train of thought.

Bellaniece shot him a startled glance but smiled and carefully flipped her long bronze hair over her shoulder. "That's not really important, is it?"

"Maybe not," Kichiro agreed. "Where'd you meet her?"

"In my building. Actually, Daddy met her first. I think she fascinates him."

"Fascination is overrated. Just don't get your hopes up, Belle-chan. If your father made a promise, then I'd say you're fighting a losing battle."

He regretted those words almost immediately. Bellaniece's chin dropped and her shoulders slumped. Staring down at the table top, she seemed so sad, so alone . . . Kichiro grimaced, trying not to think about the reason why her sudden change in mood affected him. "Maybe you're right," he agreed slowly. "Maybe this girl can make him see his way past all that, but I'll tell you, this girl better be someone really special because that might take a lot of convincing."

Bellaniece peeked up at him, eyes dark, mysterious in the dimly lit restaurant. "I think she is," Bellaniece ventured. "I think . . . I think Daddy wants her to convince him."

"What makes you so sure?"

She smiled just a little and set her menu aside. "He wants to give her wings. He said so."

"Wings, huh. Sounds like your father is a dreamer."

"That's what's odd. I think he stopped dreaming after my mother died."

He considered her words as he placed their order. Bellaniece didn't comment though he could tell that she was happy with the meal he'd ordered for her, the same as what he'd ordered for himself. Out of habit he'd nearly ordered her the salad and diet soda that most girls tended to favor. She was hanyou, like him, and ordering just a salad would have likely gotten him in real trouble.

"Tell me about Kelly," he prompted as the waiter hurried away.

A vague shadow passed over Bellaniece's features. She masked it quickly and smiled. "Kelly . . ." Trailing off like she needed a moment to gather her thoughts, she considered what she wanted to say before beginning with a simple shrug. "We grew up together. She's the only other youkai I know. She was always trying to get me to do things, and sometimes I went along with her. Other times, I didn't . . ."

"Sounds like Ryomaru."

Bellaniece shrugged. "Maybe. Daddy says I'm too impulsive. He's probably right. I can't help it! I want to do things and see things . . . I want to live."

"So that's it? The reason you want your friend to have reconstructive surgery is because you want her to be like she was before?"

"No . . . not that. It's the world. They'll look at her and only see the scars, you know? I doubt there's anyone who would look at her and see the girl I used to know, and they would either be horrified or feel sorry for her, and Kelly . . . She'd hate both."

"How cynical of you."

Bellaniece sipped her water as a mysterious little smile surfaced in her eyes. "No more cynical than you, I'd guess. How long did it take for you to develop your skewed perceptions of the world?"

"I'm not that cynical."

"Aren't you? If you're not, then why do you hate it when I do the same things you do?"

"Like what?"

Bellaniece shrugged. "You don't really think I didn't notice you staring at my rack, did you?"

"Can't help but see something so obviously on display," he shot back without any real rancor.

"That's true," she agreed with giggle. "Anyway, Daddy says it best."

"What's that?"

"Beauty should be shared, and my rack is definitely beautiful."

"Listen, little girl—"

"You want to see them?"

"In the restaurant?" he challenged.

She waved a hand dismissively. "Here . . . there . . . wherever . . . What do you say, Dr. Izayoi? Maybe you'd stop calling me 'little girl' if I introduced you to . . . 'the girls'."

He could tell she was just teasing, and teasing he could tolerate. Kichiro was about to call her on her bluff when he stopped himself. 'What if it isn't really a bluff?'

'If it's a bluff, she'd back down. If it wasn't a bluff, we'd get to see the rack. Kich, I gotta say, there's not really a downside to it.'

Maybe not . . . except that he'd rather that the populace of the establishment didn't get to see the 'beautiful rack'.

"Leash the girls," Kichiro said mildly. "Now is neither the time nor the place for that."

"You're more anal than I thought, Kichiro."

"And you're a walking, talking, breathing scandal," he intoned despite the tug of a smile on his lips.

'You didn't say she wasn't beautiful.'

'That's because I'd be lying.'

'Gotta fear a girl who knows the power of her rack.'

'This Kichiro will never fear the Belle-chan's rack.'

'Yeah . . . maybe you should.'

'. . . Shut up.'

 

 

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"Do you think she's okay?" Gin asked quietly as she glanced up from the menu.

Cain didn't lift his gaze. "I'm pretty sure she's feeling just fine."

She frowned at his enigmatic tone and laid the menu aside. "Cain, are you all right? If you're worried about your daughter, we can go . . ."

"No . . . Bellaniece is probably eating something unhealthy and watching a movie."

Gin tilted her head to the side and stared at Cain with obvious concern. "If you're sure . . ."

"Do you know what you want?" he asked, ignoring her question as he poked at his menu.

Gin bit her lip and turned her attention back to her menu. He'd let her choose the restaurant, and she'd picked out a small Italian bistro since she wasn't sure what sort of food he was accustomed to. He seemed pleased enough with her choice even though she wasn't familiar with most of the offerings on the menu. Since her father tended to avoid spicier fare, it wasn't a place she had frequented with her family.

"Umm . . . I don't really know what most of this stuff is," she admitted.

Cain glanced up from his menu, blinking as her statement sank in. "Really?"

She shook her head. "Papa doesn't like spicy food, so we didn't really go out very often, and Mama is a good cook . . . Of course, Papa was happiest with ramen, even if Mama didn't like that . . ." She winced as she hunched her shoulders. "I'm babbling again, aren't I?"

Cain finally smiled. "Just a little."

She could feel her ears droop as she winced. "Sorry."

"No, it's fine . . . Do you want me to order for you?"

Gin brightened. "Would you?"

"Sure . . . Not too spicy, right?"

"I trust you."

Cain's smile dissipated quickly as a pink tinge crept into his cheeks, and he coughed. "Okay, sure."

"Who the hell is he?"

Gin gasped and jerked back, sitting up straight in her chair as her head swiveled around to stare in shock at the hanyou stomping toward their table with a hostile frown and a black-haired miko close behind. Kagome tried to grab InuYasha's arm to slow his approach. He shook her off gently but firmly as he closed in on Gin and Cain's table. Gin shot Cain a worried glance as she stood and pasted on an overly bright smile. "Papa!" she greeted, painfully aware of the other customers who were staring openly at the spectacle.

InuYasha let Gin hug him, but his attention was completely fixed on the tai-youkai who was slowly rising to his feet, too.

"Papa, what are you doing here? I thought you hated spicy foods."

"I convinced him to try something new," Kagome hurried to explain. "Small world, isn't it?"

"Answer my question," InuYasha demanded, ignoring the stilted, if not completely polite, conversation.

Gin made a face, seeing no way out of the introduction she was loath to make. "This is—"

"Oi, Gin, I didn't ask you," he growled. Gin grimaced and peeked around her father's protective arm to plead for Kagome's assistance.

Kagome rolled her eyes and grabbed InuYasha's hand. "InuYasha . . ." she began in her warning tone.

"And I didn't ask you, either, wench."

"I'm Cain Zelig," Cain stated in a tone that dripped with strained irritation. "I'm—"

"My teacher. Just my teacher. Only my teacher. At the university. That's all," Gin plunged in. "Really, Papa, I swear it, just my teacher, nothing else. My art teacher. Isn't that great?"

Kagome slapped a hand over her mouth. InuYasha's ears twitched. Cain's jaw started ticking, and Gin could feel the hot blush wash over her skin.

Several long seconds passed while InuYasha and Cain continued to glare at each other. Kagome reached over and gently pulled Gin to the side. "I wouldn't say another word, Gin," Kagome advised quietly.

Gin winced. "Did I overdo it?"

"Just a little."

"Oh, no . . ."

"Look, InuYasha, our table is ready," Kagome stated in a falsely bright tone.

"Changed my mind, wench. I think we'll join our pup for dinner," InuYasha growled without looking away from Cain.

"Be our guests," Cain returned in an equally unpleasant rumble.

"Papa—"

Kagome touched Gin's forearm. "Remember what I said about not saying anything else?"

Gin bit her lip but remained quiet.

"What the fuck are you doing here with my pup?" InuYasha demanded.

"Isn't it obvious? I'm teaching her," Cain bit out. Gin winced at the blatant barb directed at her.

InuYasha cracked his knuckles as Kagome hurriedly grabbed his arm. "InuYasha, I'm really, really hungry."

"This won't take long," InuYasha shot back.

"You can't hurt him, Papa! He's the North American tai-youkai, and my sensei!" Gin implored quietly, glancing around at the myriad of ogling customers as she tugged InuYasha's arm.

"Quiet, baby girl. This don't concern you!"

"But—"

"Yeah," Cain goaded. "Her teacher. Nothing but her teacher. Absolutely nothing going on. Just teaching, right, Izayoi-san? Swell, isn't it?"

"InuYasha!" Kagome hissed. "Come on!"

This time InuYasha allowed her to drag him away but he stopped beside the table next to Gin and Cain and sat down. "This table will be fine," he growled.

Kagome rolled her eyes and sighed. "Enjoy your dinner," she called back. "Nice meeting you!"

Gin grimaced as she slowly turned to peek at Cain, who was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, glowering at InuYasha, who was glaring right back. Gin flopped down in her chair and tried to make herself as invisible as possible.

"Sorry about that," Gin muttered as Cain finally sat down.

Cain snorted in response.

The waitress took their order and hurried away as Gin stole glances at Cain and tried to discern what had irritated him so much.

'I think he's mad about your insistence that he is nothing but your sensei,' her mind whispered.

'Maybe,' she agreed. 'But he isn't really anything else, is he? I mean, he is my sensei, and . . . Oh, and Papa would have had a fit if he even thought that there was more to it than that. There isn't, of course. I just didn't want Papa to think otherwise, and . . . and . . . And Cain's really mad at me, isn't he?'

'Are you sure there isn't more to it than that, doll? I mean, look at Cain. He's positively fuming!'

Following the advice of her youkai voice, she peeked up at Cain through her eyelashes. He was drumming his claws against the tabletop, glaring down at his fingers with a foreboding scowl. 'I didn't mean to do that,' she fretted, wringing her hands in her lap.

'What did you expect, Gin? You stung his pride. Regardless of how he feels about you, he is a male. Look at your father or your brothers. If you had said the same thing about them, how do you suppose they'd have reacted?'

Gin winced. "Cain?"

"Hmm?"

"Are you mad at me?"

"Why would I be mad at you?"

His answer didn't reassure her. Tight, clipped, almost angry, he refused to look at her as he drummed his fingers a little harder. She started to speak but a quick glance over her shoulder stopped her. InuYasha's ears were twitching, and when he caught her gaze, he narrowed his eyes in silent warning.

'Don't worry about Cain; worry about explaining this to your father. He didn't buy your explanation, and he looks like he's about ready to light into Cain.'

'There's nothing to explain to Papa. Cain is just my teacher . . . and my friend . . . Unless he hates me now, that is . . .'

Cain sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Let's just eat so we can get out of here," he mumbled, staring past Gin at InuYasha with an unreadable expression on his face.

Gin leaned back as the waitress set a steaming plate of food in front of her. "O-Okay," she agreed, swallowing hard as she slowly reached for her chopsticks. The appetite that had been prevalent was conspicuously gone. Still she stuck a small bit of pasta into her mouth.

Cain didn't speak again, concentrating instead on his food. Gin squelched a sigh. The food had no taste to her, and her stomach felt like it was tied in knots. After a few more bites, she gave up, setting her chopsticks aside and dabbing her lips on the napkin.

"Don't you like it?" Cain asked quietly, his anger either gone or contained, Gin wasn't sure which.

"It's fine," she replied, forcing a smile. "It's great. Thanks."

"If you don't like it, I can order something else for you," he offered.

Gin shook her head. "No, really, I'm just not hungry."

Cain didn't look like he believed her. Gin picked up her utensils again and resumed eating.

'You were babbling about starving on your way here, Gin. No wonder he doesn't believe you now.'

Gin wrinkled her nose and took another bite.

'You need to tell him you're sorry, at least after your parents are gone.'

'I will,' she thought, seeing no way around that. 'But if I do that . . . won't it seem strange?'

'As I see it, you have two choices. You can apologize for bruising his ego and be embarrassed for a few minutes, or you can leave it go and have him brooding indefinitely. No matter how he looks at you, doll, your adamant insistence wasn't a good thing. Even you have to know that, right?'

Gin sighed. 'I suppose.'

'Good girl. Now keep eating. He's still watching you—and so is your father.'

The mention of InuYasha was impetus enough to keep Gin from setting the chopsticks aside again. InuYasha knew as well as anyone that Gin had always had a healthy appetite. The more suspicious she acted, the more dubious InuYasha would be, and the last thing Gin wanted was another ugly confrontation between Cain and her father.

Cain finished his food and pushed his plate away. Gin hadn't even finished half of her entrée as Cain leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest again. He still looked peeved despite his otherwise bland expression. The table trembled just a little as he tapped his foot impatiently. "You look like your mother," Cain finally remarked.

Gin blinked in surprise and rested her forearm on the table. "I do?"

"Sure. You have your father's coloring, but you definitely look like her."

Gin smiled as some of the tightness in her stomach loosened its grip. "If you think I look like her now, you should see me on my human night."

Cain looked surprised at her statement. "Really? How so?"

Gin shrugged. "I have Mama's coloring then, too," she said. "Doesn't Bellaniece have human nights, too?"

"Sure but she doesn't look that much different. Human ears and no fangs but otherwise she looks the same. When is your night?"

Gin winced and peeked back at her parents once more. "I can't tell you," she muttered. "I'm not supposed to tell anyone."

Cain didn't remark on that as Gin stuffed another bite into her mouth. She didn't dare tell Cain about that, did she? If InuYasha wasn't furious already, he'd have to be scraped off the ceiling if he heard her telling Cain about that . . .

 

 

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Bellaniece stole a glance across the table at Kichiro. Speaking quietly into his cell phone, he intercepted her amused stare and winced in apology. She shrugged and shook her head before turning her attention to the restaurant.

It was really nice, she had to admit. Quiet, ambient, very, very sophisticated, the clientele were all well-dressed and polite. Though it had surprised her at first, Bellaniece realized that Kichiro would be more at home in a place like this than he would be in a noisy fast food establishment. She liked the change. Glad that she'd changed into a nicer dress before he'd arrived, Bellaniece was having a much better time than she'd thought she would. Kichiro was charming, pleasant, and the changes were definitely unsettling.

'You like him, don't you?'

Bellaniece shifted uncomfortably. 'He's nice enough.'

'Nice? Nice doesn't begin to cover it, Belle. He's all those indefinable things, the kind of man you could stand to be around for a long, long time.'

'Daddy would love that, wouldn't he?'

'Well, he'd be shocked, sure . . . You're still pretty young. Your father would probably be thrilled, once the surprise wore off.'

'Just because Kichiro is being nice one time out of two and a half weeks, I don't think it's time to be thinking of anything further in the future than dessert.'

'Oh, now who's being catty?'

'I'm not being catty.'

'And I'm not breathing.'

'Sorry to hear that.'

'Sure you are.'

Kichiro snapped his cell phone closed and stowed it back in his pocket before turning his attention back to Bellaniece once more. "Sorry about that."

Bellaniece shook her head. "It's fine. Patient of yours?"

Kichiro made a face. "Not hardly. It was Nezumi. Ryomaru got a gash on his forehead in a fight, and she was worried about it."

"You're not?"

"Nah. Ryomaru wouldn't miss a few brain cells, anyway."

The waiter interrupted the conversation as he slipped the plates onto the table and disappeared again.

Bellaniece stared at her plate for a moment, examining the food with a discerning eye. "This looks . . . good," she ventured as she flicked her napkin and spread it on her lap. "What did you call it?"

Kichiro took up his chopsticks and shrugged. "Teppanyaki—grilled steak. We were too late for the cooking display, if that's what you meant. Something wrong?"

"Um . . . it's . . . really rare," Bellaniece remarked as she stared at the barely cooked meat displayed on the plate. "Excuse me," she said as she caught the waiter's sleeve to stop him as he passed the table.

"Is there something I can do for you?"

"You speak English really well," Bellaniece commented with a bright smile, slipping her hand around to pat the young man's hand. The waiter blushed. "I hate to be a bother, but this meat, you see . . . I can't eat it this way . . ."

"I can take it back . . . cook it longer? Yes?"

"Oh, please, if it isn't any trouble," Bellaniece cooed as the waiter lifted her plate once more. "You're such a dear. Thank you!"

She watched the waiter hurry away with her food, smiling slightly before she looked back at Kichiro. He was staring at her with a disgusted frown. Tossing his napkin on his untouched food, he slowly shook his head and sat back. "That was nice. What're you doing for the encore?"

Bellaniece cocked her head to the side and frowned. "What?"

Kichiro snorted. "Come on, Belle. You could have just asked him to take it back and cook it more thoroughly, but no, you had to fawn all over him, didn't you? You had to try to manipulate the poor bastard into doing what you wanted him to do."

"I didn't—"

"You know what? Save it. I don't want to hear it. Damn!"

Bellaniece watched in shocked silence as Kich stood up and dug a wad of bills out of his pocket to drop on the table. After casting her one last withering glare, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the restaurant.

Bellaniece sat in shocked silence for almost five minutes after Kichiro's unceremonious exit. 'I didn't . . . What just happened?'

'What do you mean, what just happened? You happened, Belle! You did what you always do, and Kichiro didn't appreciate it.'

'I didn't do anything! I just asked the waiter to take the meat back and cook it a little more . . .'

'No, Kichiro was right. You draped yourself all over him, batted your eyelashes, and simpered all over the kid, just to get your way. You could have just asked. It's his job, after all.'

'That wasn't what I was trying to do! I didn't even realize I was doing it, for God's sake!'

'Yeah, convince yourself of that later, Belle. Right now we've got bigger fish to fry.'

'Like what?'

'Like the fact that every single person in this place is staring at you like you're an absolute abomination. Get us out of here, will you?'

Bellaniece stood up, trying to ignore the covert stares she was receiving, as she straightened her back and mustered as much dignity as she could before she strode out of the restaurant, too.

The air on the street was blessedly cool, almost chilly on the early May evening. Bellaniece glanced up and down the street with a sigh. She wasn't looking for Kichiro, not really . . . She knew he wouldn't have stuck around, not with as furious as he was. Still she had hoped . . .

'Hoped for what? He's too mad to listen to you. You really ticked him off.'

'I wanted to explain,' she thought weakly. 'It wasn't really what he thought. I didn't mean it that way . . .'

'Why do you care, Belle? He's mean to you most of the time. He's arrogant and rude . . . Why'd you even call him, of all people? And why does it bother you so much now?'

Bellaniece's feet felt heavy as she shuffled down the sidewalk. 'I don't care, exactly! I just don't understand him, that's all.'

'You don't care? That's interesting.'

The click of her heels on the concrete sidewalk sounded hollow, melancholy, entirely alone. The four block walk from the restaurant to the apartment building seemed like an impossible trek. With every step she took, she felt like she was being carried further and further from home, and for one brief, fleeting moment, she wished that she really was a little girl again.

Cain always made everything better for her, didn't he? He'd hold her whenever she fell and scraped her knees. He protected her against anything that threatened. How many times had he come to her in the middle of the night when she had nightmares? He'd crawl into her little bed and let her lie next to his heart, and he never complained about what had to be uncomfortable hours spent soothing a child in the darkness that was all too unkind to her. She was too old to seek that sort of comfort now. There were some things that even daddies couldn't fix.

'Grow up, Belle. Stop lying to yourself. You want to be a woman but you hide behind the guise of the little girl. You think you can take care of yourself, but in the end you can't even admit the truth.'

'What truth?'

'That you care about what Kichiro Izayoi thinks of you.'

'How do you figure?'

'You care. You wish you didn't, but you do. You've always been that way, haven't you? You do things first, without thinking about what it'll seem like, and then you realize a little too late that maybe you were a little too rash.'

Her pace quickened as the savage desire to lock herself away in the quiet of her bedroom seized her. 'That's not it. That's not it, at all!'

'Face it, Belle. You've been in trouble before, you know. It's easier to regret things when you're looking back but the thing you never realized was that it would be much simpler if you'd just learn to think first. You could avoid all the trouble if you did. You could stop having to say you're sorry.'

'I'm not sorry! I didn't do anything! I wasn't trying to flirt or manipulate! I wasn't trying to do anything but . . . but . . .'

'Then what? Did you just get a speck of dirt in your eyes?'

Bellaniece sniffled, dashing the back of her hand over her misting eyes. 'Yeah,' she thought miserably. 'That's what it is: dirt.'

 

 

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'Gin's father . . . We could take him . . .'

'Shut up, you.'

'We could. You know we could. Hanyou of Legend, our ass . . . The Angry Hanyou . . . Bet it wouldn't take much to get him to fight us, either.'

Cain jammed his hands into his pockets as he and Gin wandered through the dimly lit park. She was talking, but he wasn't listening.   Caught up in silent fretting and introspection, he just nodded and uttered a series of grunts, and Gin mistook it for his full attention. 'Dirty trickster. You used to use that on Bellaniece until she figured out what it was all about. Gin'll figure it out, you know. Then you'll be sorry.'

'Pfft! About as sorry as she is about the whole, 'he's my teacher' spiel.'

'Are you still brooding over that? Hell, Cain . . . She was telling the truth.'

'She was telling part of the truth,' he countered, clenching his jaws so tightly that the slow ticking commenced.

'Part? What do you mean, 'part'? What part did she leave out?'

'The part about her being my—friend.'

'Oh, my God . . . you . . . you almost said it! You almost said she was your cake fairy!'

'I did not!' he grumbled. 'That's just stupid! Ridiculous! Shut up, you!'

'This is bad, Cain, really bad. This is so far past bad . . . Ba-a-a-ad.'

'I thought I told you to shut the hell up.'

'Bad dog, Cain! Bad! Leave Gin alone! Down, boy!'

Cain's growling interrupted Gin's chatter. She stopped and turned to eye him suspiciously. "Cain? Are you okay?"

"Yep. Fine. Peachy. You were saying?"

Gin's frown lingered a few seconds longer before her impish little smile returned, and she clasped her hands behind her back and started strolling along the path again. "I asked if you can do it."

"Do . . . what?" he asked slowly, watching as Gin's little yellow skirt swayed around her hips.

'Dog.'

'Shut u-u-up.'

"If you can do it, will you show me? I've never seen one before . . . Well, not one that big, anyway . . ."

"That . . . big . . .?" he choked.

"Yeah! I mean, I figure you'd be huge, right? If you can do it, that is . . . Sesshoumaru-oji-san told me once that after you reached a certain age, you lose your ability to do it."

He wasn't sure if he was more alarmed by what Gin was saying or by the complete chagrin in her expression. Worse and worse, really, as she peeked over her shoulder, was the rapidly growing indignation that he, Cain, was too old do to . . . whatever 'it' was. "I'll have you know, baby girl, I'm not too old to do anything."

She giggled and spun around, leaning forward slightly as she pushed her hands up behind her back. "You were listening to my father. That's all right. I don't mind."

Cain snorted, still ruffled over the insinuation that he was too old.

"So, you can still do it? Really?" She stopped as her eyes widened, sparkled, and she ran back to his side to grasp his arm. "If you do it, can I touch it? I'll bet it's really soft and fluffy, and . . . Oh, Cain, I really want to feel it."

"Can you . . .? Gin . . . What the hell are you talking about?" Cain croaked.

"Toga showed me his once. He wasn't very big though . . . maybe because he wasn't very old . . ."

"Toga . . . showed . . . you . . .?"

"Mhmm . . . Please Cain? Please?"

'Oh . . . my . . . God . . .'

'Shut . . . the hell . . . up . . .'

"Gin, what are you talking about?" he demanded, voice louder than he intended, but necessary to cut through her endless chatter.

She blinked but stopped talking long enough to cast him a duly befuddled look. "Your youkai form . . . the giant dog . . . You can still do that, you said . . ."

"My youkai form?" he echoed incredulously. "All that . . . was about . . . that?"

"Well, yeah . . . What'd you think I was talking about?"

Cain snapped his mouth closed and fought back a flush. "Not a thing," he grumbled. "Come on."

"Oh, are you going to take me somewhere to show me?"

"No!"

Gin sighed and shook her head. Cain stopped and swung around to face her. Ears drooping, rubbing the toe of one shoe in the dirt, she looked crestfallen, and Cain winced. "You're still mad at me aren't you? About earlier? About Papa?"

"No," he admitted. "Well, maybe a little . . ."

'Shut up, Cain!'

'Hush, you!'

"I didn't want Papa to cause a scene . . . err, more of a scene than he already had, and . . . Cain? You're . . . my friend . . . right?"

Something about the vulnerability in her expression was a devastating thing. "Yeah, Gin . . . you're my friend."

The smile that lit up her face started small but grew brighter and more brilliant as she perked up her ears and clapped her hands. His breath hitched in his chest, and he swallowed hard, unable to do more than blink as he stared at her. She didn't notice his pause, and she hurried to catch up with him, grabbing his hand and dragging him along the park pathway. "You're really not mad?"

"No, Gin, I'm not."

"Good, because I'd probably cry if you were."

"Don't do that," he insisted. "Just . . . I'm not mad."

They walked along in silence awhile. Cain tried to keep his eyes off her, but her silvery hair kept drawing his gaze. She was so tiny, so little . . . She looked so fragile, yet he knew better than that. Her anger had been too real, too electrifying. If he never saw that temper again, he'd remember the one time forever.

"So your uncle said that he can't change anymore?" he asked to break the silence, to shift the direction of his thoughts away from her.

Gin shrugged. "Yeah, but I was sort of a pain. Mama told me that Papa cut off Sesshoumaru-oji-san's arm when they fought in jii-sama's tomb over Tetsusaiga, and all I wanted was to see him in his true youkai form. Maybe he told me that to shut me up. Then I started bugging Toga."

Cain laughed and shook his head, his amusement mingling with Gin's soft giggles. The sound was pleasant—too pleasant. It'd been a long time since he'd laughed with anyone . . .

'You miss it, don't you, Cain? I do, too.'

'Yeah,' Cain agreed with a sad little sigh. 'Yeah, I do . . .'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jamming his hands into his pockets as he scowled at the sidewalk and increased his pace, Kichiro slumped his shoulders and plodded on. He didn't really have a destination in mind. He didn't have a place to go or someone to meet. No, he'd just had to get out of the restaurant. He had to get away from her.

'You were a bit of a bastard, weren't you?'

Kichiro winced and snorted. 'Was I? Didn't notice.'

'Right, just like she didn't notice. Kich, you realize that what she did . . . It wasn't really that bad.'

He didn't answer. It wasn't the severity of her manipulation. What bothered him most was the ease in which she did it. Wasn't she too young to have mastered such behavior? And he . . .

How many times had he seen women walk through the doors of his office—the same women with different faces? Women who could afford his services, and they all wanted the same thing: the perfect bodies, the perfect everything, and in the end, all that really mattered to them was that they got the perfection they wanted. They thought that he was for sale, too, and that . . .

Kichiro sighed. He wasn't for sale, damn it. He wasn't one of their toys. He wasn't someone who could be manipulated and tricked by the flash of skin, by the empty promises that didn't mean a fucking thing to any of them.

Shouldering the door open, Kichiro slipped into the bar. He recognized the scent of the place despite the years since he'd last been there. He hadn't been in here since well before Ryomaru and Nezumi had mated, right? 'Damn . . . nearly six years . . .' Still the bar had retained the stench of liquor, the underlying reek of sweat, of secretions that were darker, baser. Those smells couldn't be masked by the harsh cleansers that humans used to disinfect. Human senses of smell couldn't discern such things, could they? Kichiro could, and the scent both repulsed him and compelled him, drew him into the darkness that had become a way of life for far too long, and horrified him as shadows of memories assailed him.

It had been easier to bend to the sway of things that were freely offered, wasn't it? It was so simple to be drawn into the false sense that if he just searched long enough, he'd find what he had been searching for. 'That's how it was, wasn't it? Just one more girl, Kich . . . just one more woman, and eventually, you'll find her . . .' He'd believed that, hadn't he? He'd thought he would find that elusive woman here in the squalor and the filth of a common bar.

Slipping into a quiet booth in the back of the establishment, Kichiro dug his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed his brother's number.

"Izayoi."

"Ryo, what are you doing?"

Ryomaru shifted the phone and cleared his throat. "Nothing . . . quiet night at home. Why?"

"Quiet night? You?"

"Sure. There's something to be said for that, don't you think?"

Kichiro's mouth twisted into a vague half-smile. "I suppose."

"Where are you?"

Kichiro shook his head. "The bar . . ."

"You wanna come over? Nez has her nose buried in a magazine again . . ."

Wincing, Kichiro sighed. "No . . . thanks . . . Say hi for me."

"Yep."

The line went dead, and Kichiro snapped his phone closed. Pushing aside the feeling that he was the fifth wheel, he gestured for the waitress and slumped back in the booth.

"Whiskey," Kichiro ordered tersely. The waitress nodded and hurried away.

Unlike Ryomaru, he hadn't had a friend there under his nose the entire time. He hadn't had the girl that he had just overlooked over the years. No, and truthfully, he had really expected Ryomaru to screw all that up, too. Ryomaru was too reactionary, too volatile, and wasn't the joke on Kichiro, after all? Ryomaru had found his mate, and while Kichiro was happy for his sibling, he couldn't help but feel in some small part of himself, the vicious bite of complete jealousy. Shouldn't that have been him? Shouldn't he have found his match sooner than his baka brother? Not that he'd ever wanted Nezumi in that way, but the relationship between Ryomaru and Nezumi . . . it had somehow become the perfect match that Kichiro couldn't help but envy.

'It's because they're equal. It's because they value each other, and they respect the other above anyone else. It's because they were friends before they were lovers, and you know that. Hard to watch, is it, Kich?'

'Maybe,' he allowed as the waitress set the scratched glass of whiskey beside him. He stayed her with a hand on her sleeve. "Bring the bottle."

The waitress looked surprised but she nodded before hurrying away again.

'You've got liquor at home, Kich.'

'I know.'

'Then why are we here?'

'Don't be stupid.'

'Oh? So lonely any woman will do? Is that it?'

'I don't want a woman.'

'Yeah . . . you want a 'little girl', don't you?'

Kichiro snorted as he drained his glass and tapped his foot under the table.

'Face it, Kich! You can't even stand to go home lately. Why is that?'

He shook his head as the waitress wordlessly set the full bottle of imported Jack Daniels beside him. 'I go home.'

'Yeah, you go home . . . You just hate it.'

True enough. The emptiness of his domain was a living, breathing thing. He'd paid someone to furnish and decorate the place shortly after it was built. Near Ryomaru and Nezumi, he had thought it was the perfect spot in the beginning. The interior designer he'd paid an exorbitant amount of money had assured him that the house was 'exactly' what Kichiro had in mind, and maybe it was. The trouble wasn't the house, itself; it was what should be there, and no interior designer, no matter how good they were, could fill that space.

Maybe he should have just bought a house instead of building one. There was an intangible quality, a lived-in feel of one that had once held a family. As though their laughter had permeated the very structure of the house, it would transform the dwelling from the empty feel of his house to the warmer atmosphere that it sorely lacked.

"Hello . . . You alone?"

Kichiro glanced up from emptying his third glass of whiskey.

"I'm Aneko."

Kichiro shook his head, pasted on his most tolerant smile that he normally reserved for his patients, and tried not to let his derision show. Painted and powdered, primped and polished, he'd seen her kind way too many times before. A beautiful face with nothing underneath; a girl who thought that her value as a person rested in the eyes of a man, and he . . . He was tired of that game.

"I'm waiting for someone," he responded tightly.

Aneko's smile faltered. "I see . . . Sorry to have bothered you."

Kichiro nodded as he dismissed her completely, downing another glass of whiskey, grimacing as the harsh liquor burned his throat as he poured another one.

It used to be that he and Ryomaru—and Toga, before Sierra came along—would prowl around on nights like this one. Though most of the time Toga was there to act more as the twins' common sense than to actually look for girls, Kichiro couldn't help but remember those times as golden. It had always amused him, just how embarrassed their cousin would be when he would be the one to garner attention from the women. Toga would blush and stammer and basically retreat into the arrogance of the tai-youkai that he could don at will.

In the end, though, he'd stopped accompanying them when Sierra came around, and while Ryomaru never really commented on it, he had known that, at the time, Ryomaru had felt the same sort of emptiness that Kichiro felt now, even if Ryomaru never experienced that same thing on the same level that Kichiro did. Then came that fateful night when Ryomaru had mated Nezumi . . .

Only a fool like Ryomaru could screw things up quite so badly only to end up with the embodiment of the perfect match in the end. In those days, Kichiro had felt sorry for his baka twin. He'd really thought that Ryomaru might never see the light of day again. He'd tried to help, in his own way. Talking to Nezumi and trying to make Ryomaru see what was right in front of him all along . . .

Kichiro's frown shifted into a cynical smile. That was his job, wasn't it? That's what he did. He fixed it all for his twin. It had always been that way. Over the years he'd cleaned up more of Ryomaru's messes than he cared to think about. Always talking them both out of trouble, even when he hadn't had a thing to do with it, Kichiro was the one who thought fast, who could talk their way out of punishment, especially with their mother.

Ryomaru was older by a few minutes, and it had always seemed to Kichiro that he'd spent the better portion of his life trying to catch up to his brother. The born fighter, the undisputed hunter, Ryomaru was everything that Kichiro had never been.

Though he never said as much, Izayoi InuYasha valued physical strength. He'd spent years fighting and protecting their mother, protecting the Shikon no Tama . . . protecting his friends and those he held dear . . . Ryomaru had followed in his footsteps, becoming the youkai hunter, fighting to protect their family, being the hero . . .

Maybe Kichiro wasn't really hero material. More likely to talk his way out of a fight than to actually throw a punch, more capable of finessing and sweet-talking instead of losing his temper, Kichiro had never been like his father or his brother in that sense. Then again, he'd never had to be, either. He was more soft-hearted than his volatile brother, he supposed . . .

Gin was crying. She'd fallen down and scraped her knee. Ryomaru was out with InuYasha, practicing tracking skills. Kagome was at the shrine helping their grandmother. Five year-old Gin had been roller-skating on the porch and had gotten a little too close to the stairs.

"What'd you do, baka?" nine-year old Kichiro asked as he knelt down in the grass beside his sister.

Gin sniffled and swatted the tears out of her eyes. "I fell."

Kichiro moved her hand away from her injured knee and snorted. "Keh! It isn't that bad, Gin. Stop crying, okay?"

Her golden eyes, still glassy with unshed tears, rose to meet his. Nostrils quivering, lip trembling, she blinked to force back her tears and nodded. "O-Okay."

"Stay here, and don't move."

She nodded again as he hopped up and ran in the house for the first aid kit. When he got back, Gin hadn't moved, not an inch. Kichiro shook his head. Gin took everything way too literally. Gently dabbing away the blood with a cleansing pad, Kichiro tried not to hurt her as Gin sniffled. "This might hurt," he said with an apologetic wince as he dug out the antiseptic spray.

Gin held her breath—she always did that when she was hurt.

"You're hanyou. You'll be healed by morning," he went on, wincing again when she jerked her leg. Whether it was because of the cold spray or because it stung, he didn't know. Either way, he hurriedly bandaged the scrape, and Gin finally let out the pent-up air with a whoosh. "There. All better?"

Gin nodded, drawing a deep, stunted breath. Kichiro made a face as he scanned the surrounding forest for any signs of his father or brother. With a sigh, he scooted over beside her and draped an arm over her shoulders. "It's okay, Gin. Everyone falls down sometime."

"Thanks, nii-chan," Gin muttered, leaning against him, trusting him because he took care of her. "It doesn't hurt so bad now."

They sat in silence for a few minutes before Kichiro repacked the first aid kit and helped Gin to her feet. "Come on. Let's see if Mama has ice cream in the house."

Gin's smile was brilliant. "Okay!" she agreed, standing up and letting Kichiro help her up the stairs onto the porch.

They'd eaten a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream that they'd blamed on the dog and had both gone to bed early with stomach aches, but that day . . .

Kichiro frowned as he swirled the contents of his glass idly. The amber liquid looked hazy in the scratched and worn glass. He smiled sadly. He was the hero for once, and he'd loved it.

His cell phone rang, and Kichiro checked the number. It was Ryomaru. He probably wanted to talk Kichiro into coming over. Kichiro stuffed the phone back into his pocket and waited for it to stop ringing. The trouble was he just didn't feel like sitting around his brother's house while Ryomaru and Nezumi laughed at things that only made sense to the two of them and whispered things that Kichiro didn't want to hear. His brother was the fortunate one, wasn't he? He'd been able to find his best friend and soul mate, all wrapped up in Nezumi.

The twins had grown up with her. Kichiro couldn't remember a time when she wasn't tagging along despite knowing that she'd moved to Tokyo at the start of their third grade year. She'd become a part of their jealously guarded group—back then, just the twins—and he'd accepted her, no questions asked, because Ryomaru had befriended her. Kichiro had never felt anything but friendship toward Nezumi, and yet she was still the one that he compared other women to, wasn't she? She didn't hide behind façades; she didn't feel the need to be anyone other than who she was. Nezumi wouldn't stoop to manipulation, wouldn't bat her eyelashes or flaunt her body with anyone other than her mate. In so many ways, she reminded Kichiro of his mother—not that Izayoi Kagome had ever been a tomboy, but she didn't do those things, either. True enough, Kagome might well cajole his father into bending to her will, but then Kichiro imagined that most women could do that.

Wasn't that what bothered him most? The manipulation, itself, wasn't his complaint. What he hated more than anything was that all those women wouldn't think twice about that fine line. Whether they were manipulating a waiter to take back their food and have it cooked a little more or they were trying to manipulate him . . .

'Ah, and we're back to Belle, are we?'

'Nope.'

'But you are. Can't quite get her out of your system, can you? Oh, well. She's not as bad as some others I could think of . . . at least she's got a mighty fine rack.'

Kichiro shook his head again. 'Lay off her, will you? I'm not interested.'

'Balls, Kich. You're not as irritated at what she did as you are that she had the nerve to tweak your pride.'

'She did no such thing because I don't care.'

'You do, you know. She completely irked you because she had the nerve to be nice to the waiter—nicer than she usually is to you. You're just ticked off because you were giving her a chance—which is more than you normally do lately—and she stepped on your toes.'

Two more glasses of whiskey disappeared before Kichiro trusted himself to reply to that. 'What's that supposed to mean?'

'You know what it means. You've become so jaded and cynical that you try to find reasons to exclude people before you give them a chance to show you that you just might be wrong.'

'That's bullshit. I don't do that. Belle's just a pretty girl who doesn't know what the hell she's doing; a little girl who thinks it's cute to try to get her way. Well, I'm not playing her game. I don't have time, and I don't care.'

"Here. Compliments of the girls over there."

Kichiro glanced up as the waitress set a glass of some frothy pink drink on the table in front of him. Following the direction the waitress had indicated, he sighed inwardly as two women at the bar wiggled their fingers at him. Kichiro pushed the glass away. "No, thanks."

The waitress nodded but left the glass, turning and quietly slipping back over to the bar again.

'What's really bugging you, Kich? I mean, she wasn't nearly as bad with the waiter as you'd like to believe. Sure, she touched his arm, and she fawned over him a little. That can't be all of it.'

'Too bad, because that's all there is,' he countered.

'You know that ain't true. What was that? You were starting to care, weren't you? Yeah, you didn't want to, and yeah, you'll deny it now, but you know . . . When she looked so sad about her father . . . you cared, didn't you? At least, for that moment, right?'

Kichiro sighed as the unwanted memory solidified in his mind. Bellaniece, in that pretty little mauve dress that looked like it was tailored to fit her, looking so alone as she stared at her water, as she ran a delicate claw around the rim of that glass . . . And that unsettling feeling that he knew how she felt because he'd felt the same way more and more often of late: completely alone, completely lost, and no one noticed, did they? Her bronze hair caught the glimmer of the ambient candle light from the centerpiece on the table, the golden sheen lending her a soft glow, an enigmatic aura, and her eyes—dark as midnight—with that haunted look that she tried to hide. In that moment, he'd thought that maybe they really weren't so different, hadn't he? He'd thought . . .

'She really seemed so different,' he confessed; a whisper in his mind. 'I thought maybe she was different . . .'

'But you don't want her to be different, Kich, because then you have to admit that you were wrong, and you just fucking hate that, don't you? You know it's true. You'd rather be miserable and alone and right than to admit that maybe you'd misjudged someone; that maybe—just maybe—you were wrong.'

That wasn't true, was it? Of course not. That would make him just as stupid and shallow as the women he condemned by the dozens every day in his mind. No, the problem with Bellaniece was that she really was just a spoiled brat who had just been handed the world and never really had to work for a damn thing, and somewhere along the line, she'd picked up the bad habit of using herself to get what she wanted. Dangerous, that combination; dangerous and stupid . . .

'Well, if she's so unsalvageable, why are you wasting your time and efforts? Why look at her every single day in your office if you can't stand her?'

Kichiro snorted. 'Keh. That's true. I can't save her from herself. I don't even care.'

'Right, you don't.'

Kichiro opened his cell phone and hit speed dial—conveniently ignoring his youkai, who was pointing out the fact that Kichiro had cared enough to put Bellaniece's number on his speed dial in the first place—and waited for her to answer her phone.

 

 

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The steady drum of hot water should have soothed away the lingering traces of upset that settled around Bellaniece like a storm cloud. It had been wishful thinking, to try to escape her upset by seeking refuge in the fabricated warmth that she'd learned to rely on long ago.

At least the tears had stopped.

'I wish it were raining.'

'You're too old to play in the rain, Belle, and even if you weren't, you're in the middle of Tokyo.'

'I know . . .'

With a sigh, she lifted her chin, let the water hit her full-on. 'It all used to be so much simpler, didn't it? How old was I, when I first realized that everything was . . . not that easy?'

'Haven't you always known somewhere in your heart that things weren't quite the way they were supposed to be?'

She sighed. Maybe she had. Cain was a good father, a loving father; doting, kind, fair . . . Still how often had she sensed it, that there was a part of him that she couldn't reach? He gave her everything she could have ever wanted, and he didn't ask for anything in return. Those things were irrelevant as she looked back. There were too many things that had gone unsaid, too many questions that she couldn't ask him.

Bellaniece squeezed her eyes closed, tried to ignore the bittersweet images that filled her head.

Four year-old Bellaniece, sitting in the studio, quiet in the corner with her dolls while Daddy worked on his latest sculpture . . . Opening her mouth to ask him in her timid little voice if he would play with her, something always seemed to stop her. Daddy wouldn't yell at her; he never yelled at her. He would smile at her in that vague sort of way, and he'd wash his hands and kneel beside her, kiss her dolls, ruffle her hair, and with a sigh, he'd stand back up and return to his work.

Five year-old Bellaniece, watching in silence from her little corner of the studio while her father's hands created beauty . . . He always had such a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were looking back through time or forward into a future that she couldn't comprehend. Every so often he would glance up at her, cast that sad little half-smile at her, and she would smile back; the dutiful child, even back then . . .

Six year-old Bellaniece, reading books in the studio while her father painted. Stumbling over a big word, she'd ask him to explain it to her, and he would—of course he would—but always with that sad little smile, those shadows in his gaze that she never understood . . .

Seven year-old Bellaniece, looking at old photo albums, asking questions that Cain always answered. All she knew of her mother were images caught on paper and stuck in a book . . . and Cain . . . How much had it hurt him, to hear Bellaniece's endless questions, to answer her in the same gentle tone . . . to never, ever lose patience with the little girl who didn't understand certain things about life, about death, and about promises?

She'd tried a few times to ask him. Careful to find just the right turn of phrase, unwilling to hurt her father even to appease her curiosity, Bellaniece had practiced in the forest, by the ocean, strove to find the right way to ask him the questions that she had to have answered. What happened to her mother? Why did Cain always seem so sad? Would he promise to be with her forever? Standing beside the doorway of his studio—the room she'd come to realize was his private hell—she wrung her hands, bit her lip, shuffled her feet, trying to force out the words she'd so carefully practiced. The words never came. The questions couldn't be asked. The many things she wanted to know fell by the wayside as he worked the clay or stone, as he created visions of beauty, even from the depths of his pain.

'Pain? Are we sure it was pain?'

Bellaniece sighed and closed her eyes. It was pain. With age had come the ability to read and understand the emotions others tried to suppress, and with her father, she'd realized what he'd tried so hard to hide from her. A sorrow so complete, self-loathing and doubt . . .

He hid these things from her, but hadn't she felt them all along? It hadn't taken her long to figure out that the reason for his sadness was her mother's death, and though she wished she could understand just what he wasn't telling her, she didn't have the heart to ask. To question him would bring him pain, but there was more to it, too. If she questioned him; if she asked him for answers, then he'd realize, wouldn't he? He'd realize that she wasn't the little girl he adored. He'd discern just a little too much.

So she chose instead to repress her questions, to live in the shadows of answers she didn't want; to live in the careful pretense of the little girl whose daddy could do no wrong; who never knew anything but happiness and the safety of a father's warm embrace.

'Daddy, can I go to the movies with some friends?'

'Daddy, can I go on a date?'

'Daddy, I'm going to the mall.'

'Daddy, I'll be back later . . .'

Bellaniece felt the tightness of tears constricting her throat, throbbing behind her eyes, prickling her nose. She felt those things, and yet the tears wouldn't come. 'Stop that, Belle! You're the daughter of the tai-youkai, and you don't cry. You don't cry over your father, and you won't cry over anyone else! You are your father's daughter, and Cain has never, ever cried! Don't you do it; don't you dare!'

'Don't cry . . .? Right . . .'

She winced as she turned off the water—now reduced to a tepid flow—almost cold. Stepping out of the shower as she grabbed the fluffy blue towel, she drew a deep breath and dried off slowly.

Caught in the middle between childhood and being an adult, Bellaniece had come to understand that her father would let her do just about anything, so long as she masked it in the words of the little girl. So long as she played along with his perception of his never-aging child. Clinging to the belief that Bellaniece was still a child was something that Cain needed, and yet he hadn't seemed upset when she first started dating, either. Of course, they were boys she'd known growing up, had gone to school with, and, in the end, had outgrown long ago. She had realized that Cain didn't like the thought of her dating anyone, and yet he also never really tried to stop her, either.

Kelly was the one who explained that to her. Kelly, in her brash, no-nonsense way, had told Bellaniece a lot of things that she hadn't wanted to understand.

"Daddy doesn't mind if I date. It's kind of weird. I mean, he won't let me walk from home to the gas station for a soda, but he doesn't care if a boy comes and picks me up for a date?"

Kelly let the stack of CD cases in her hands drop onto the bed in a clatter and rolled over onto her stomach in the middle of Bellaniece's huge pink ruffled bedspread. "Well, duh, Bellaniece. You think he'd care? He's waiting for you to get old enough to find a mate and all that. Isn't it obvious?"

Bellaniece shook her head as she rifled through her closet for a dress for her date later that evening. "What do you mean, obvious? Daddy's cool, that's all."

"Your mother died so long ago you don't even remember her, and he's had to stay behind to raise you. Do you think that he doesn't mean to die, too? Of course he does! He needs you mated, and he needs you to have a son so he can do that. Don't you get it?"

Bellaniece's shock and upset must have been apparent on her face because Kelly flinched. "Look, Bellaniece . . . I'm sorry . . . I wasn't trying to hurt you, but sometimes . . . You really do live in a dream world, don't you? Why don't you ask him? With as overprotective as he is, it's strange that he lets you date at all, don't you think?"

Yeah, she did think so. She just didn't want to face the truth of Kelly's statements. That was the last time Bellaniece had gone on a real date, too . . .

That had also marked the beginning of Bellaniece's obsession with finding a mate for Cain. Sure, she'd tried to do that before, when she was younger. She'd had a teacher who was young and single, and Bellaniece had been secretly hopeful because at the time—she was five—she had wanted a mother. Going to school had made her realize that there was someone that should have been in her life but wasn't. She'd found out then, that the other kids all had these women they called 'Mommy', and, well . . . She didn't.

'Telling, wasn't it? Your father never, ever mentioned your mother to you before that, did he?'

'No . . . No, he didn't.'

What Bellaniece knew of her mother was sketchy, at best. She knew her name was Isabelle; knew that Isabelle had been a budding Broadway star until she'd met and married Cain. Bellaniece knew that she was named after Isabelle, and she knew that Isabelle was a stunning woman—all information garnered from newspaper clippings and photographs. Very little was actually learned from Cain. He didn't like to talk about Isabelle, and he didn't like to hear Bellaniece's name shortened to 'Belle', either. In fact, the one time he had heard it, he'd come uncharacteristically close to losing his temper with a young man who had come to take his daughter on a date. Bellaniece had cautioned all her friends not to do that again, at least in front of her father.

Yet her childhood had been filled with things that others probably never really thought about, either. Bellaniece could remember wandering through her father's estate as night fell over the land, and Cain came to find her. She would give him the bouquets of wildflowers she'd picked, and he would bury his nose in them, just for her, sneeze a few times, and she'd laugh . . .

Packing picnics of peanut butter and jelly or marshmallow fluff sandwiches and dragging her father outside to bask in the sunshine, and if she were lucky, she could convince him to spend an hour or so playing hide and seek. Cain had always pretended that the peanut butter and jelly were better than the finest cuisine. He made her feel special; he made her feel loved, and he always—always—made her feel safe.

The first day of kindergarten had frightened Bellaniece. Clinging to Cain's pants, she'd buried her face against his legs. He had smiled apologetically at her teacher, knelt before his daughter as he'd gently pried her fingers away. He'd told her that he'd be back for her when school was over, and he'd told her that he loved her. His words had bolstered her courage, and she'd taken her teacher's hand. Slowly following along behind, Bellaniece had glanced back at her father. Cain stood there, hands jammed into his pockets, a vague sadness in his gaze as he slowly lifted his hand to wave, and at noon, he was there to pick her up. Every day he was there, and every day, he carried her home, even after Bellaniece had forgotten to be afraid.

She remembered playing in the rain until her hair was plastered to her head and her dress was ruined, her shiny white shoes scuffed and soggy, her feet squishing with every dancing step she took . . . Daddy always found her, and more often than not, he'd dance with her awhile, holding her in his arms while he twirled her around to music that only the two of them could hear.

Then he'd carry her into the house, build a fire, discard her ruined clothes, wrap her in his Mokomoko-sama, and they'd cuddle by the fire. Sometimes they'd toast marshmallows until she was nearly sick from the snack and drowsing in his arms. He'd carry her to bed, smile at the sticky baby kisses she pressed to his cheek, and tuck her in, leaving her little ballerina lamp on beside her, to keep her company through the night. Then he'd wind her little silver music box and blow her a kiss before he slipped out of the room . . .

'Always Daddy . . .'

He was the only real stability she'd ever known. She didn't have brothers or sisters; no aunts or uncles. There was no one else to be her hero; no one but Daddy, and when she contemplated the idea that even he would be gone one day soon . . .

'My happiness . . . every little girl's dream . . . Mine has a higher price, doesn't it? To be happy, I'd lose . . .'

Deliberately cutting off her train of thought, Bellaniece tugged on the shirt she wore as pajamas and took her time buttoning it. Shuffling out of the bathroom with a wave of moist air, Bellaniece shivered as the cooler air of the apartment hit her still-damp skin. She saw the light blinking on the telephone but didn't bother with it as she grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and headed back to her bedroom for the night.

A small part of her had been crestfallen that she'd returned to an empty apartment. For the most part, though, she'd been relieved. Able to escape her father's scrutiny, able to wash off the traces of her tears, she'd feel better in the morning. She'd be able to resume her ruse of being the happy-go-lucky daughter that Cain preferred.

Curling up on the window ledge, Bellaniece smiled sadly at the rising moon. Maybe she really was as much of an actor as her mother was, and maybe she was better at it than Isabelle had ever been.

She sighed as her eyes caught the mauve dress she had left in a careless heap on the floor. Normally she was more careful with her clothes, but she'd been in such a hurry to get into the shower before Daddy got home, before he could smell her tears and ask questions of his own . . .

Uncurling herself from her perch, Bellaniece slowly walked over and shook out the dress before hanging it back in her closet. Wincing as the vague scent of Kichiro Izayoi wafted to her sensitive nose, she yanked the dress back down and stomped out of her room and down the hallway to the small laundry room where she proceeded to shove the dress into the washer with a good dose of detergent and pushed the 'on' button.

'He's such a . . . jerk! Arrogant, mean, cynical . . .'

'If you're not careful, Belle, you're going to end up just as upset as you were, and it takes too long to recharge the water heater.'

She turned and flopped back against the washer, arms crossed over her chest stubbornly. 'Nope, now I'm just mad, that's all.'

'Maybe you should ask him why he reacted like that.'

'Maybe I'd rather eat dirt than talk to the likes of him again.'

'You know that's not really what is bugging you.'

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose. 'Yes, well, it'll do.'

'Face it, Belle . . . what bothers you most is that you let Kichiro see a part of you that you rarely show anyone, including your father, and he . . . Well, he could have slapped you across the face because it would have hurt a little less.'

Bellaniece blinked furiously, jamming her toes against the wooden floorboards. 'Maybe.'

'Maybe? Come off it, Belle . . . You hate being vulnerable. You can't stand the idea that someone is going to hurt that little girl you hide in there. You want to be a woman, but you can't let go of the past, and as long as your daddy insists on keeping his promise . . . But you know, before all that, when you were talking to Kichiro, you felt something, didn't you? He wanted you to be yourself, and then, when you were . . .'

Pushing herself away from the washing machine, Bellaniece ambled back toward her bedroom once more. 'Let's not talk about him, okay? I don't even want to think about . . . him. I wonder how Daddy's date is going . . .'

'Yeah, about that . . . Don't even try to delude yourself into thinking that your father won't kill you when he gets home. He was furious when he left, if you didn't notice . . .'

'As true as that may be, we both know that Daddy's just being stubborn. I can't put my finger on it, but the thing is, I know he likes her. He really likes her.'

'It isn't as easy as him liking her . . . Belle, this is dangerous. You're not just playing with your father, you know? What about Gin? What if your father can't be convinced? What about Gin?'

'Oh, Gin . . . She'll adore my daddy, if she doesn't already. I mean, how could she not? He's daddy!'

'Not that, Belle . . . what if Gin does fall for your father? What if her youkai blood recognizes your father as her mate . . . You're not just toying with him, Belle . . . You just might be putting Gin in very real danger, too.'

Bellaniece stopped abruptly and shook her head against the hint of doubt that she hadn't considered before. 'No . . . That wouldn't happen, right? I mean, they'd have to both recognize each other as their mates, if that were the case, and then there's no way Daddy would leave her . . .'

'Are you sure, Belle? Are you positive?'

'I . . . Yes, yes, I'm sure. Daddy wouldn't do that, especially not to Gin . . .'

Her youkai sighed. 'All right, Belle, but listen: if it seems like your father isn't going to cave in . . . You have to warn Gin. You have to.'

Bellaniece bit her lip as she sank back down on the window seat again. 'Yeah. I . . . I will.'

 

 

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'You sure you want to do this?'

'Shut up. I'm here, right?'

'For the record, I think this is a mistake.'

'Yeah? Please note: I didn't ask.'

Raising his fist to knock on the door, Kichiro ignored the voice of his youkai.

It took several minutes before he heard movement inside the apartment. Brushing aside the fleeting guilt that maybe she was sleeping, he snorted to himself and thumped the door once more.

Bellaniece opened the door, dark eyes flicking coolly over him as she made no move to unchain the latch. "Isn't it rather late for a house call, Dr. Izayoi?"

"Yeah, I tried calling. Those normally work better when one answers one's damn phone."

She turned her head, probably to glance over at the telephone. When she turned back, her expression was still as impassive as it was before. "Yes, well, one of us is in the habit of showering."

Kichiro snorted at Bellaniece's acidic answer. "Whatever . . . Look, the reason I came by . . . Forget the agreement. I'll do your friend's surgery, just . . . Don't bother coming in on Monday."

He'd expected her to be pleased, he guessed. He expected her to be thankful and even grateful that he'd released her from her obligation. She had a million other things—a million other men to manipulate—that she should have been grateful for his statement. What he didn't expect was for the door to close softly in his face followed moments later by the rattle of the chain coming undone before the door opened once more revealing an obviously irate hanyou, replete in her angry splendor . . . and nothing but a man's button-down shirt.

"You really are a bastard, aren't you, Dr. Izayoi? I mean, you really expect me to drop to my knees and kiss your feet because you have deemed me unworthy of working for the likes of you? Why? So you can sit back in your office and be all high and mighty because you were right? 'Belle-chan can't stand to do an honest day's work? I knew it! I just knew it! I'm so right about everything and everyone! Go, me!' Go to hell, Dr. Izayoi. I'll be there Monday morning—probably before you are."

"What?" he sputtered, backing up a step in the face of her ire. "What the hell are you talking about? I thought you'd be happy, damn it! I thought—"

She fluttered a hand dismissively and rolled her eyes. "You need to stop thinking. It might save you from looking like an ass once in awhile, don't you think?"

'She just . . . She didn't! She just called me a bastard and an ass?'

'Well, Kich . . . if the shoe fits . . . or shoes . . .'

'Shut the hell up, will you?'

'Then don't ask me!'

"Listen, little girl, I was trying to do you a favor."

She shook her head. "Well, don't. You already made your feelings crystal clear, and that's fine. I was stupid to think that there was more to you than just the jerk you were in the beginning, but that's okay because I learn from my mistakes, and calling you, in the first place, was the biggest mistake of them all. Now if you'll excuse me, I was just going to bed when you came knocking at my door."

Kichiro stuck his foot in the door before Bellaniece managed to close it in his face. His temper was strained well beyond its normal limits, and with a resounding thud, he smashed the door open with the palm of his hand. Bellaniece squeaked and retreated as Kichiro stomped into the apartment. "I don't understand you at all, do you know? You're absolutely unnatural, damn it, and—"

"I'm completely natural, I'll have you know," Bellaniece pointed out reasonably, her tone leaving little room for misinterpretation in Kichiro's mind as to just what she was referring to.

"That's not what I mean, wench, and I think you know that."

"Wench?" she echoed, arching one of her delicate light brown eyebrows. "Now, that's interesting . . ."

"Do you always answer the door in next to nothing?"

"Do you always go around knocking on people's doors at nearly midnight?"

"Answer my question first."

Bellaniece forced a tight little smile. "Don't be absurd. I knew it was you. Since I just got done washing your stink out of my dress, then I'd know, right?"

He could feel indignant color explode in his face, and struggling for every last bit of restraint he could muster, Kichiro uttered a fierce growl as he stalked toward Bellaniece, who apparently didn't have the common sense to run. No, she stood her ground, glaring right back at him, eyes snapping with anger as he closed in on her. Her cheeks were rosy, her lips dusted with deep, flushed color, and for some stupid reason, the idea of kissing her was suddenly much, much more appealing than the prior inclination to yell at her . . .

His hands shot out, wrapped around her upper arms, dragging her roughly against his chest, he heard her gasp. "You're going to learn someday that you really shouldn't provoke me . . ."

"Let go," she murmured as her cheeks pinked a little more. Staring into her eyes was a dangerous thing. The anger that had served to thwart her better judgment seemed to fade in an instant, and she blinked slowly as something else stole into her gaze; something warm and inviting . . . something dangerous and maybe even lethal . . .

"Belle . . ."

She swallowed hard. He could see her inner turmoil, and for a moment, she looked like she just might give in. Then she shook her head, closed her eyes, turned her face away. "I think you should leave, Dr. Izayoi. We've said quite enough to each other, don't you agree?"

It was the hardest thing he'd ever done, letting go of her then. He did it, stepping back as he jammed his hands into his pockets. "You still don't want out of the job?"

Bellaniece's hand rose to adjust the collar of the shirt. Her hand was shaking. "Of course not," she assured him with far more bravado than he could have managed.

"Keh. Fine. I won't offer again."

Bellaniece sighed. "No, I didn't think you would."

He reached for the door and jerked it open. "See you Monday, then."

Bellaniece didn't answer as Kichiro pulled the door closed in his wake. Storming toward the stairs, he tried not to think about what had happened in that apartment. The shift in his emotions was understandable, right? Anger was just another form of passion, wasn't it? It wasn't that he had wanted her, at all . . . Of course not . . .

'Balls, Kich, you really are dense, aren't you?'

'Oh, you again? Go away, will you?'

'Hate to tell you, but it don't matter what you try to tell yourself. The truth's there. In case you didn't notice, she wanted you. You just had to be an ass, as usual.'

Sprinting down the steps in the stairwell in record time, Kichiro darted for the exit. 'She's just a little girl . . . She doesn't have any idea what she wants . . . and I don't want her.'

'Yeah, yeah . . . I hear you. You can say that all you want, but you know . . . For not wanting her, you certainly responded to her, didn't you?'

Kichiro groaned as he vaulted to the top of the nearest building and ran through the night toward InuYasha's Forest. True enough, as much as he wanted to think otherwise, his body had responded to her . . .

'It's going to be a long night, Kich,' his youkai voice complained.

Kichiro flattened his ears as he leapt onto the next building. Unfortunately he had a feeling that the voice was right about that, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Aren't they pretty?"

Cain stifled a sigh as he pushed Gin again and stepped back. "What's that?"

She laughed softly, her face turned toward the sky as she leaned back in the swing, her legs stretched out in front of her, hair streaming out behind her. Etched against the background of forest trees and silhouetted by moonlight, her eyes glowed with a happy glimmer as her skirt fluttered like a butterfly beneath her legs.

"The stars," Gin supplied as Cain sat in the swing next to hers. "It's just . . . It's so large, and open . . . free . . . Mama used to tell me this story that jii-chan used to tell her about a mighty prince that set out to find his princess, but didn't know where to look . . ."

Cain smiled. "Really."

Gin nodded. "Uh huh . . . The prince believed he would know her because she would remind him of the comfort of his youth and a girl he used to know. He searched everywhere but never found her until one night, as he lay awake, he promised the moon that he would give anything, if he could only find his true love: his princess . . . . The moon watched over him, night after night he dreamed of this girl he used to know, his best childhood friend. When he came to this village, he saw a girl who looked like the one from his dreams, and he asked her to marry him. She said yes. He should have been happy, but he wasn't. That night, the young prince couldn't sleep, so he wandered outside to stare at the moon. It was then that he realized that he'd not been searching for the girl he'd asked to marry him. He'd been searching for the woman in the moon, the quiet voice that whispered to him every night. He wanted to touch the moon."

"Interesting story," he allowed, pushing himself idly as he stared at her profile. Young, maybe, but there was a light in her gaze that seemed so much older. Gin was a mystery to him. She was a complete paradox, an irrational being that made neither rhyme nor reason. Still young enough to believe in happy endings, but old enough . . . Did she realize that the world wasn't always a nice place to be?

Gin laughed. "I know; I know . . . I'm too old to believe in fairy tales, right?"

"I don't know . . . Bellaniece used to love them. She used to say I was her Prince Charming." He laughed at the memory of Bellaniece in her frilly little dresses, her cherubic face full of innocent wonder as she pronounced herself the princess and demanded that he come rescue her. Standing on one of his worktables in his studio, she would stomp her little foot and call out for help.

Her tone was as muted as the wan moonlight; silvery, beautiful. "You were her hero . . . She said so."

Cain shrugged. "Yeah . . . I guess I was."

"You aren't still?"

"Oh, probably not. I mean, she's not really a little girl anymore . . ."

Gin giggled softly. "Girls never stop thinking their fathers are perfect, Cain."

"Do you think yours is perfect?"

"Well, maybe not perfect . . . But he is still my hero."

Cain nodded. "All right, I can understand that."

"I used to believe that Papa could fix anything," Gin went on quietly.

"And now?"

Her smile returned but it was a wistful little thing. "Now I believe that Papa can make me feel better when he can't fix things for me."

"Isn't that what a father's supposed to do?"

Gin shrugged. "Sure, maybe . . . I had a friend in school whose father was a drunk, and he hit her a few times. Papa found out, and he went over there to talk to her father. I don't think that he ever struck my friend again. It might not have been the best solution, but at least she didn't have to hurt anymore."

Cain followed Gin's gaze skyward. The twinkling stars seemed so far away. When was the last time he'd looked at them? He couldn't really remember. "Do you ever stop dreaming, Gin?"

She laughed a little self-consciously, as though she'd perceived his question to be some kind of critique not unlike his observations about her still-life sketch of the fruit. "I guess not."

He shook his head. 'What is it about her?' he asked himself as he turned his head slightly, breathed in the scent of her. 'She . . . comforts me . . .'

'Be careful, Cain . . . Gin is . . . Gin's special.'

He grimaced inwardly as the breeze brought the scent of her to his nostrils. Fresh, clean, earthy, and somehow just beyond his grasp . . . He was compelled to be near her, wanted to be beside her. 'She makes me laugh.'

'She makes you want to think of things you'd given up, Cain. She makes you want to believe in beautiful things again.'

Cain sighed. 'Maybe . . . Or maybe she's just a reminder that those beautiful things still exist . . . At least, they do to a young woman whose father can still fix everything for her.'

A hint of a shadow passed over Gin's features, and he could feel her gaze on him. "Cain, can I ask you something?"

Despite the feeling that he didn't want to hear her question, Cain shrugged and nodded. "All right."

"How long ago did she die? Your mate?"

A surge of outrage rifled through him. Cain shot to his feet, sending the swing flying back as he stalked away from the playground equipment. The soft clank of chains made him grit his teeth. Moments later a tiny hand touched his arm. "You don't have to answer," Gin said quietly, her ears flattening against her skull as she slowly shook her head. "It's none of my business."

Cain sighed, feeling like a complete ogre for losing his temper with her. She wasn't trying to hurt him, and he knew it. Some things, though, were just too hard to say . . . "Isabelle died . . . when Bellaniece was an infant."

"Must have been tough on you. I'm sorry."

"It's all right," he lied, needing to reassure her and irritated that he would feel that way. "You, uh, play long enough?"

Gin blushed, biting her lower lip as she scrunched up her shoulders. "You wanted to get home and check on Bellaniece, didn't you? I forgot . . . Oh . . . you know, I've heard that warm compresses are good for cramps . . . We could stop and pick up a heating pad, if you don't have one. I might have one, but then, I might have left it at home, and I can't really go there! Papa would—"

Cain shook his head, pressing his index finger to Gin's lips to silence her. She blinked quickly, gaze lifting to meet his, cheeks pinking in the soft moonlight. "It's all right, Gin. I'm sure she's just fine."

Gin nodded in silence, blinking in the darkness, his finger still resting on her lips. A distinct shiver ran up her spine and into him from the connection.

'Earth to Cain . . . Earth to Cain . . . Come on, big guy, you're listening, right?'

Gin's lips were as deep red as wine in the dimness. Staring at him with those bright golden eyes, she seemed to see into his brain, like she understood what he desperately wanted . . . like she wanted the same thing . . .

'Damn, Cain, no! Well . . . maybe . . .'

Her lips parted under his fingertip, her breath misting his skin as a savage jolt thundered through him; dizzying, electrifying . . . and scary as hell . . .

'Isabelle, Cain! Isabelle!'

That reminder was like a dousing of cold water, and Cain winced as he jerked out of his Gin-induced stupor. He felt his face warm as he let his hand drop away. "You babble a lot," he muttered.

Gin sighed. "That bad, huh?"

He chuckled. "Not bad, just . . . different."

"Do you want to go home? Or we could walk around a little more . . . or . . ." she trailed off with a shrug, sighing softly as she shuffled her feet in the wood chips that covered the playground. "Or you could talk. I'll listen." She giggled suddenly as she grabbed Cain's hand and pulled him toward the path again. "I promise I won't babble any more tonight."

"You sure you want to make a promise you can't keep?" he countered with a little grin as he stared at the stark contrast of her little hand in his. Her skin was soft—baby soft. She was so tiny, so delicate . . . 'She's. . . She's my cake fairy.'

 

 

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Gin checked her watch as she leaned against the railing and waited for Cain to come back. It was nearly midnight, and she had to smile. 'Ice cream at midnight . . . This is really fun!'

'Doll . . . you're having a good time, aren't you?'

'Hmm, yeah . . .'

'Be careful, okay? Promise . . .'

'Careful? Of what? Cain's here . . . He won't let anything happen . . .'

'That's not what I mean . . . You've got to be careful.'

'Okay,' she agreed, more to silence the voice of her youkai than because she was heeding the warning the voice was trying to impart. 'I got it, I know . . . It's night, and there're dangers at night . . .'

Wandering around Tokyo at night was something she'd never really done before. She'd never been allowed to when she lived at home, and she'd never really wanted to after she'd moved out. With Cain, though, she felt safe, and even though she knew how to defend herself, being with him . . . Well, it was nice.

"Here," Cain said as he re-emerged from the small shop. She took the vanilla ice cream cone and hurriedly darted out her tongue to catch a dribble that had started to fall. A strange look passed over Cain's features but was gone before Gin could try to discern it: a fleeting glimpse of a deeper emotion, something frightening yet exciting, heady and primitive and . . . and stunning. He started walking, and Gin fell in step beside him, trying to make sense of things that she didn't understand but wanted to.

Ambling along the sidewalk as they ate the ice cream, Gin couldn't help but laugh as the beauty of the night enthralled her. "You know, this is the first time I've wandered around this late?" she ventured, peeking up at him as she licked her ice cream.

"Really? You don't get out much, do you?" he joked.

Gin smiled. "I guess not."

"You know, it's been awhile since I did, too."

"Now you're just humoring me."

"Absolutely not."

"Do you want to call and check on Belle?"

Cain stopped momentarily, back stiffening as his youki flared, laced with hostility. "Bellaniece," he corrected.

Gin frowned, shaking her head as she stared up at him. The streetlamp cast him in shades of yellow, and his eyes were lost in shadows. "Sorry," she apologized. "Do you want to call and check on Bellaniece?"

Cain sighed and shrugged, forcing a tight smile as he started walking again. "She's probably in bed," he allowed. "Anyway, it's probably about time to head back, don't you think?"

Confused by the strange undercurrent in his words, Gin nodded in reply but didn't speak.

'He . . . He really got angry when I called her 'Belle' . . .'

'You're right . . . That was strange . . .'

'I mean, you'd think that Belle would be an easy way to shorten her name. It's almost as though . . .' Gin's thought trailed off as she realized something else. "Cain? Was that her name? Belle?"

She felt him hesitate beside her but she kept her gaze on the sidewalk. 'I shouldn't have asked that . . . What was I thinking? That was really, really dumb . . . Oh, dear . . .'

"Yeah . . . Isabelle . . . I called her 'Belle'."

"And that's why you call your daughter by her full name. I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"It's okay, Gin. You didn't know, and I shouldn't have snapped at you." He smiled suddenly, inclining his head toward her hand. "You're dripping."

"Oh!" Gin squeaked as she hurried to eat her ice cream before it made an even bigger mess. The top was sliding off, and when she tried to push it back with her tongue, the top touched her nose. Cain laughed. Gin made a face and gave up, sighing as she dropped the leaky cone in a nearby trash can. "Ew, I'm a mess," she lamented, holding up her now-empty hand as she rummaged around in her purse for a napkin or tissue.

She didn't see Cain toss away the rest of his cone, too, but the warmth of his fingers under her chin as he lifted her face to dab at the ice cream with a handkerchief. "You remind me of Bellaniece. She used to make a mess of herself when I'd buy her ice cream, too."

Gin blushed, embarrassed at the reference to his daughter and unsure about the strange feeling in her stomach. It wasn't unpleasant, but it was unsettling. "C-Cain?"

"Hmm?" he intoned as he took her hand and started wiping it off, too.

"I . . . I feel . . . strange."

"Strange?" he echoed absently. "How so?"

She swallowed hard as the fluttering in her stomach increased. Pressing her free hand against her belly alleviated some of the sensation. She shook her head. "I'm not . . . sure . . ."

Cain stopped, glancing up at her without letting go of her hand. A foreign brightness sparked behind his gaze, and he blinked suddenly, dropping her hand as he stood up straight and stuffed the handkerchief into his pocket. "That'll do," he mumbled.

The unsettling feeling slowly subsided, and Gin tried to forget about it as they started walking again. "My fingers are still all sticky," she commented in the stilted silence.

Cain shrugged. "Well, I used to lick the handkerchief first, before I tried to wipe Bellaniece off. I didn't suppose you'd like that at all."

She stole a glance at him. Tall, proud, staring off into the distance with a discernible frown, his ponytail lay over his shoulder. There was something completely mysterious about him, and yet she felt like she knew a part of his soul.

Gin grimaced and shook her head to dispel that bit of nonsense. 'That's crazy . . . I don't know him that well . . .'

'Maybe not, but outside your family and the girls you grew up with, you probably do know him better than you know anyone else.'

'He's lonely.'

'Doll . . . remember when I told you before to be careful? I meant it. Cain isn't a stray puppy you can bring home. You know that, right?'

'Of course I do! He's just my friend; that's all.'

'Just your friend, huh? Keep that in mind, won't you? Cain is a great person, but he's got a lot of baggage—a lot of stuff that you don't know about.'

'Maybe he just needs a friend.'

'You're not listening. You can't save Cain . . . You can't find what's broken inside him and make it all better.'

Gin brushed that thought aside with a shake of her head. 'That's silly! I don't want to save him! I want to—"

'You want to do for him what your mother did for your father, right?'

'Is that wrong?'

Her youkai sighed. 'Not wrong, doll . . . But you're missing one crucial difference between your father and Cain: your father wanted to be saved.'

Gin frowned as she scuffed her feel along the sidewalk, as their feet fell in a steady cadence in the night. 'But maybe Cain really does want to be saved, too . . .'

 

 

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'That girl is nothing but trouble, Cain.'

Cain hitched his shoulders as he pushed away from the short wall and watched as Gin swished her hands in the lit fountain in the center of the plaza in front of the Inutaisho Industries building. Smiling idly as she shook the water off her hands, he ignored the warnings his youkai was spouting.

Hopping over the short stone step, she caught his gaze and grinned.

"Excuse me . . ."

Cain had noticed the woman but hadn't paid much attention to her. So caught up in watching Gin, it hadn't occurred to him that he was being approached she was standing before him. "Can I help you?" he asked automatically, peeking over the woman's shoulder as Gin picked her way through the flower garden that surrounded the fountain.

The woman smiled, casually flipping a long strand of brown hair over her shoulder, and touched Cain's arm. "I certainly hope so . . . My name's Eliza. You wouldn't happen to know where I can find the Tokyo Grande Hotel, would you?"

Cain's eyes dropped to the woman's hand on his arm and lingered. "Sorry. I'm new to the city, myself. I haven't heard of it."

Something about Eliza reminded Cain of a cat. Her stance, her movements, everything about her bespoke a feline grace, a predatory air. She was only a human. He could tell that from her scent. What he didn't like was the possessiveness of her hand on him, the arrogance with which she used her not-so-subtle ruse to try to win him over. Wealthy surely, used to getting her way, or so it would seem, she didn't give the impression of the kind of woman who liked to hear the word 'no'. Too bad Cain wasn't interested. He'd never been drawn to women like that. Eliza didn't seem to notice Cain's assessment. She smiled, tilting her head to the side as she flicked the top of her tongue out, touched her upper lip. "Oh, that's a shame . . . Maybe you wouldn't mind giving a lady some company while I look for it?"

Stifling the desire to shove her hand away, Cain slowly lifted his bored gaze as Gin stopped short behind the woman. "I can't," he replied. "Gin's from Tokyo. Maybe she knows where the Tokyo Grand Hotel is."

He could sense the woman's stance change, could feel the swell of irritation at the mention of Gin's name. She turned slowly, her condescending gaze traveling up and down Gin's diminutive frame. From where Cain stood, he didn't miss the slight narrowing of Eliza's eyes, the curl of her ruby red lips.

Cain shook her hand off and glanced at Gin. If Gin sensed Eliza's hostility, she didn't show it. Offering the woman a friendly smile, Gin bowed and greeted her. "I'm Izayoi Gin. Cain said you need help finding your hotel?"

Eliza smiled insincerely at Gin and uttered a terse little laugh. "How sweet! Your sister?" she asked, turning back to Cain.

Gin shook her head as a little frown pulled her eyebrows together. "Sister? No . . . Cain's my sensei."

"Oh, your sensei! Now, that makes sense!" She laughed, and the sound of it made Cain cinch his jaw tight. Gin just looked confused. "I almost thought you were together! Silly, silly me!" Turning back to Cain as she deliberately turned her back on Gin, Eliza touched his arm again, leaned in close—too close. "I could pay for your student to take a cab home, if you'd be willing to help me, Cain?"

Before Cain could push the audacious woman away again, Gin stepped back, a smile on her lips despite the hurt in her eyes. "That's okay . . . I have money," she assured them. "The Tokyo Grand is just around this corner and down about four blocks south."

She turned on her heel and walked away before Cain could stop her.

"What a sweet little girl," Eliza crooned, watching Gin hurry away.

"Gin!" Cain hollered, starting after her. Eliza caught his hand to stop him as Gin broke into a run and disappeared around the corner.

"How quaint! Now that you're done babysitting, how about you buy me a drink?" Eliza pressed as she linked her arm through Cain's and tugged him forward.

'What are you thinking? You need to catch Gin! It's late, she's alone . . . Cain!'

'Damn it! I can't just . . . Hell, why did she take off?'

Cain gritted his teeth and led the woman toward the street as he stuck his hand out to hail a cab. "Look, Miss, I don't know who you are, but I'm responsible for that girl," he growled as he jerked open the cab door. "The Tokyo Grande Hotel," he told the driver.

Eliza's expression took on a pinched, angry look, which only added to the cat-like appearance of her face. "Sorry to trouble you," Eliza remarked tightly. "Good night."

Cain didn't trust himself to answer her. Tossing a wad of bills through the cab driver's window, he stepped away from the curb and strode away in the direction Gin had disappeared.

 

 

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"Cain's my sensei," Gin muttered as she pulled the cake pan and her mixing bowl from the cupboard. "I mean, he is, right? Just my sensei, remember? It wasn't like we were on a date or anything . . . It was just dinner, and . . . stuff . . ."

She ran all the way home. Barely able to restrain herself as she walked away from Cain and that woman, Gin hadn't been able to brush off the animosity she'd felt, either. As if the woman hated her for reasons Gin didn't understand—how could she? She'd just met her—the woman had looked at Gin like there was something wrong with her.

'How could she hate me? I didn't do anything . . .'

'Oh . . . She was rude, wasn't she?'

Gin took her time measuring out the ingredients for her nightly cake. 'Maybe she was having a bad day or something . . . Maybe she wasn't really trying to be rude . . .'

'Doll, she jerked Cain right out from under your nose! That had nothing to do with having a bad day and everything to do with being a catty bi—"

'No . . . I mean, I'd never met her. She can't have had something against me if I'd never met her before.'

Her youkai sighed.

Gin finished mixing up the cake batter and greasing the pan when the soft knock sounded on her door. Pausing a moment to dump flour into the pan, she tapped it around as she strode over to answer. "Zelig-sensei . . ."

Cain stood in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, staring at her with an inscrutable look on his face, and for reasons she didn't completely understand, he seemed to grow even more irritated at her murmured greeting. Gin stepped back, and Cain brushed past her. She winced as she pushed the door closed. He was furious, and she had no idea why.

"What the hell was that, Gin?"

Gin frowned in confusion and hurried back to the counter, careful to give Cain a wide berth since he looked like he was going to commit some mayhem. "What was what?"

"Don't play innocent: your disappearing act, that's what."

Her hands were shaking as she scraped the batter into the pan. She drew a deep breath to steady her voice before she dared answer. "I didn't disappear. I came home."

"Oh, for the love of—Gin, Tokyo is huge! There's a reason your father never let you run around the city at night, or didn't you think of that?"

"But I—"

"Damn, Gin, don't you get it? The world isn't as beautiful and perfect and innocent as you want to believe! There are those out there who would hurt you—especially you—and you can't take stupid chances like that!"

"I know," she replied, staring at her hands, clasped together on the counter.

"I don't think you do. I don't think you get it at all." He sighed, cracking his knuckles before clenching his fists. He looked like he wanted to hit something. "Not everyone is like you. Not everyone looks at things and sees what you see."

"What do you see?"

Her soft question seemed to catch him off-guard. Shaking his head slowly, he glared at her. "What do I see?"

She shrugged and slipped the cake into the oven. Setting the timer, she turned around to face him again, but she couldn't meet his gaze. "When you . . . When you look at me, what do you see?"

Cain sighed. "This is about that woman, isn't it?"

Gin shifted her gaze to stare at the wall clock. Nearly one in the morning . . . "I don't understand why she hated me."

Cain's anger diminished, and he crossed the room to clumsily, hesitantly draw her into a hug. Gin stared at her hand, balled into a fist against his chest, and she closed her eyes against the memory of the sting of the woman's words and actions. "She didn't hate you," he said softly. "She just . . . I don't think anyone could ever really hate you."

Gin laughed weakly. "You're just saying that to make me feel better, but thanks anyway."

He wrinkled his nose. "I said it because it was the truth. I almost wish it weren't."

"Why?"

He smiled sadly and let go of her to drag a tired hand over his face. "No reason."

She knew there was more to Cain's answer than he gave her, but also understood that he wasn't going to tell her anything more. Stepping around him to gather the dirty dishes, she turned back to the sink and shrugged. "You know, for the record: if someone had tried to mug me or something, I could have taken 'em."

"Come again?"

Gin turned on the water to wash the mixing bowl and utensils. "You think my papa didn't teach me a few tricks? I can hold my own; thanks . . . Bet I could kick your rear, too."

"I beg to differ, baby girl," he argued. "Not that I would fight a woman, but . . . You wouldn't be able to do that."

Gin snorted. "I've beaten my brothers. I've beaten Toga . . . You don't look so tough. I could definitely take you."

Cain laughed incredulously. "You could not!"

"I could, too!"

"No 'baby girl' can possibly fight a tai-youkai."

"So you think you're tough? I'd like to see that."

"Pity there's no worthy adversaries around here."

Gin glanced over her shoulder at him. "I bet my papa could take you."

Cain snorted indelicately. "You tell your papa I'd be more than happy to wipe the floor with him."

Gin grinned. "Be careful what you ask for, Cain."

Cain chuckled. "I suppose you're right, Gin."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Cain rubbed the shallow vale in the center of his chest with his knuckles as he shuffled toward the kitchen. Stifling a wide yawn, he shook his head then blinked a few times to clear his vision, heading straight for the coffee pot and Gin's latest cake confection.

'I think she laces those cakes,' his youkai grumbled.

Cain dumped a few tablespoons of coffee into the filter and closed the contraption. 'Oh, you again? What do you want?'

'Nothing . . . Just wondered if you really were going to do it.'

Dumping in a carafe of water, he snapped the lid closed and flipped the 'on' button. 'Going to do what? You could try being a little more concise, you know.'

'How many cakes has she made you, Cain? Are you really going to give her wings?'

'Wings . . .'

"Morning, Daddy," Bellaniece greeted as she stumbled out of her bedroom. "Did you have a good time last night?"

Cain cut off a huge hunk of cake and leaned against the counter as Bellaniece stopped long enough to kiss his cheek before rummaging around in the refrigerator. "You were in bed when I got home," he commented evenly. "Anything wrong?"

Bellaniece emerged with a bottle of apple juice and shot her father an impish smile. "Nope, not a thing. I was tired, so I went to bed early."

She stared directly into his eyes. He knew the trick well. Whenever Bellaniece wanted him to believe her, whenever she wanted to avoid questions, she always reverted to this trick: lowering her chin, gazing at him in that slow, direct way . . . Maybe it was simple instinct. Cain didn't want to question it. Isabelle had used that same ploy, hadn't she? For just a moment, the fleeting pulse of a fluttering heartbeat, Bellaniece was Isabelle. Cain blinked, shook his head as he shook his head to dispel the imagery. Bellaniece smiled sweetly as she popped open the juice and took a long swallow. "Something wrong, Daddy?"

"What? Uh, no . . ."

He could tell from the look on her face that she didn't buy his miserable excuse for an answer. She chose to ignore it as she stood up and ambled over to cut herself a slice of cake, too. "How was dinner, by the way? Did you have a good time with your cake fairy?"

Cain wrinkled his nose as he swallowed a bite of cake. "It was fine," he hedged.

"Just 'fine'?"

"Yep, fine," he insisted. "So what are you doing today?"

Bellaniece laughed. "That was smooth, Daddy. You think I didn't know you were changing the topic?"

Cain shrugged as he polished off his cake and rinsed his hands before pulling a mug out of the cupboard for coffee.

"I figured I'd go shopping today," she relented.

"Didn't you just go shopping recently?"

"For you, of course! My closet is very happy. Yours is sadly lacking."

"There's nothing wrong with my clothes," Cain argued as he rinsed off the empty cake plate. "Anyway, you spend more than enough money for the both of us. I don't need more clothes."

"That's funny, Daddy; very, very funny! If you're going to be dating—"

"I'm not dating."

"—Then you need to dress to impress—"

"But I'm not dating."

"—Because if you don't—"

"Bellaniece, I'm not dating."

"—You'll never get past first base with Gin."

Cain slapped his hand over his eyes and shook his head. "You're grounded," he grumbled. "No more talk shows for you."

Bellaniece laughed. "You know I never watch talk shows. Not a big deal! So-o-o . . ." she continued, dragging her claws along the counter as she strolled to the other side and leaned on her elbows. "You were out really late last night, weren't you? I was up till a little after midnight, and you still weren't back. Don't tell me you and Gin got . . . lost . . .?"

"Not hardly. Anyway, I thought you said you were going shopping?" Cain prodded as he lifted the coffee to his lips.

Bellaniece shrugged innocently and winked at her father. "The master of evasion . . . Ah-ah, Daddy. Hiding from the truth will only prolong your agony."

"And teasing your father will do the same thing for you."

Bellaniece relented with a soft giggle as she pushed away from the counter and shuffled off toward the bathroom. "I'm thinking color, Daddy . . . lots of color. Be gone, drab shades of gray and brown! Be gone, boring whites and basic blacks! Color, Daddy! Think young! Think vibrant! Think—"

"Don't finish that," Cain warned, feeling heat stealing into his cheeks despite his efforts to contain it.

"—Cake fairies!"

Cain whipped the towel off the counter and threw it at his daughter. Bellaniece ducked into the bathroom in time to avoid the flying cloth but stuck her head back into the hallway a moment later to grin at her father and blow him a kiss.

Rolling his eyes, Cain finished his coffee and refilled the cup. Rolling his head from side to side to stretch out his muscles, he headed back toward the third bedroom; the one he used as a studio.

The small worktable and a desktop easel were the only things in the room. All his supplies were stashed in the closet, and while the room was much tinier than his studio back home, he figured it would do. Western wall was a series of windows. Since Cain did most of his work in the afternoons or early evenings, it suited purposes much better.

Wandering over to the windows with his mug of steaming coffee, he stared out over the city, remembering a time when the city was young; remembering a time when he had been idealistic, too, and he had thought that the world was a beautiful place. It was a lifetime ago, wasn't it?

With a sigh, he lifted his coffee to his lips.

'Let's go back to bed, Cain. I'm still tired, and so are you.'

Cain made a face and swallowed the rest of his coffee.

'Oh, come on! It was after three when we finally went to bed . . . see what you get for visiting with Gin? My ass is dragging, and I don't even have an ass . . .'

'I wouldn't have cared if you'd have shut up last night when I told you to . . . numerous times.'

'Right, Cain . . . If I left you to your own devices, you'd have been all over that poor girl, and then where would we be?'

Cain wrinkled his nose. 'I'll pretend I didn't hear you say that.'

'Yep, and while you're at it, pretend you aren't thinking about the fact that you really had a good time, despite yourself.'

'. . . I never said I didn't.'

'Ri-i-i-i-i-ight.'

 

 

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Bellaniece stepped out of the apartment, adjusting her purse strap over her shoulder and balancing the empty cake plate in her other hand. She had a plan, and if it worked . . .

'Belle, we've been through this, right? You agreed to let them alone.'

'I never agreed to that . . . I agreed to warn Gin should Daddy pull that stubborn act of his . . .'

'And the chances of that happening are pretty high.'

Bellaniece made a face as she tapped on Gin's door. 'Maybe. I've still got to try, don't I?'

'No, you don't. If they're meant to be, they'll figure that out without your interference, don't you think?'

Bellaniece was saved from answering when Gin opened the door and smiled. "Bellaniece! Do you feel better? I hope your cramps weren't too severe . . ."

Bellaniece waved a hand dismissively and stepped into Gin's apartment. "Oh, I was fine . . . they didn't last long—never do. Did you have a good time with my father?"

Gin rubbed her eye and closed the door. Taking the plate from Bellaniece, she shuffled over to the counter to set it down. "Yeah . . . we goofed around on the playground, and he bought me ice cream."

"Really? Nice . . . Huh."

Gin shook her head, a slight frown surfacing on her face as she twitched her ears and shrugged. "Is that strange?"

"Not strange," Bellaniece said slowly, running a claw lightly along the countertop. "No, not strange, just . . ." Trailing off with a dreamy sigh, she giggled and ducked her head. "It's nice, you know? I mean, it's been a long time since . . . Well, Daddy's been different lately, and I'm glad."

"He's lonely, isn't he? I know he has you, but sometimes it seems like he's . . . I don't know . . . looking for something, maybe?"

"I want Daddy to be happy. I'd love to hear him laugh. He doesn't laugh very often."

"Yeah . . . laughing is good . . ." Gin tried to smile. Strained and sad, she looked like she was confused.

Bellaniece frowned. "Gin? Are you okay?"

"Me? I'm fine . . ."

Bellaniece wasn't buying. Gin was too open, too friendly, too easy to read. "Did something happen last night?" she asked, careful to keep her tone casual.

Gin wrapped a strand of hair around her finger, idly twisting the silvery lock into a tight ringlet. "I don't know," she admitted softly, staring at the hair wrapped around her finger. "Has anyone ever hated you just because? I mean, without any real reason, and without justification?"

Bellaniece snorted, gritting her teeth as she remembered Kichiro's derisive tone, his condescending demeanor . . . and the confusion of her own emotions that had kept her awake long into the night. "Some people think it's easier to dislike others than to try to find the good in them . . . that's what I think."

Gin grimaced. "Maybe. Thanks for returning my plate."

"It's not a problem. Daddy was cloistered in his makeshift studio . . ." Regarding Gin for a moment, Bellaniece smiled as she watched Gin put away the plate. "Say, Gin . . . I was going to go shopping for Daddy. He needs some new clothes, and I wondered . . . Do you know of any tall men's shops around here? I might have trouble finding clothes to fit him otherwise."

Considering the question as she tapped her index finger against her cheek, Gin nodded. "Yeah, I know of a few. I have a hard enough time finding clothes when I look for presents for my family. It seems like they're all taller or broader than most of the guys around here, on average . . ."

Bellaniece squinted apologetically. "Do you think you could come with me? I'd probably get lost trying to find my way around Tokyo alone, if it's not a problem . . ."

Gin brightened right away, a happy smile adding a sparkle to her eyes. "All right," she agreed. "I'm free today. Oh, I should pick up a shirt for Cain since I ruined two of his the other day. Let me brush my hair and grab my shoes."

Bellaniece grinned as Gin scurried away. 'Well, that was easy, wasn't it?'

'Of course it was, Belle. Gin's a nice girl, and you were counting on that, weren't you?'

'You make it sound so clandestine.'

'Everything is clandestine with you.'

'That's not true! I just think that if Gin is going to be spending time with Daddy that she ought to have a say in what he is wearing. It's only fair.'

'Speaking of fair . . .'

Stifling a groan since Bellaniece had a fair guess as to what was coming, she shook her head. 'I don't want to talk about that.'

'Fine, you don't have to; just listen.'

'I don't want to do that, either.'

'You were pretty rude to Kichiro last night.'

'I thought I said I didn't want to talk about that—or hear about it, either.'

'Be that as it may, you need to hear this. You shouldn't have been so mean to him.'

'Mean? You want to discuss 'mean'? What do you call his behavior if I was mean?'

'This isn't about him, Belle, it's about you. It doesn't matter how rude he is. You're the daughter of the tai-youkai. You should be above all that.'

Bellaniece made a face, stubbornly crossing her arms over her chest. 'He just makes me so mad! I didn't do a thing to him, and you'd think I'd single-handedly started World War Three!'

'He might make you mad, Belle, but you did want to kiss him.'

'I didn't.'

'Don't lie to me.'

'I'm not.'

'You are.'

'That's stupid! I did not want to kiss him! Why would I have wanted to kiss him? He's mean, arrogant, rude, infuriating—"

'Sure, he's all those things. He's also articulate, handsome, smart, charming . . . did I mention handsome?'

Bellaniece snorted. 'Yes, you did, and I don't care. The bad outweighs the good in his case.'

'Yeah, and maybe he thinks the same things about you.'

'. . . I don't care.'

'And you don't breathe, either.'

The flash of angry golden eyes made her flinch as a shiver ran up her spine. She'd been too close to him, and that look . . . For a moment, he'd held onto that anger. Caught somewhere between the desire to throttle her and just plain desire, he'd been dangerous, and Bellaniece . . .

'That doesn't make sense,' she thought with a shake of her head. 'He was angry . . . I was angry . . . One second we were arguing, and the next . . .'

'The next moment he almost kissed you, and you might have let him, had it not been for your misplaced pride.'

'Weren't you the one who pointed out that I am the daughter of the tai-youkai? Misplaced pride, indeed.'

'You're deliberately missing the point, Belle.'

'So what is it, since you know it all?'

'The point is that there's something between you two. Don't you think that it's worth looking into?'

'No,' Bellaniece thought with an inward sigh. 'No, I don't think it is.'

'You give a whole new meaning to the term 'stubborn'.'

'And I'd love for you to give a whole new meaning to the phrase 'seen but not heard'.'

Gin hurried back into the room with her hair brush in one hand and a pair of tan sandals in the other. Dropping the shoes on the floor, she slipped them on while dragging the brush through her hair. "Okay," she commented after a few strokes. "I'm ready."

Bellaniece smiled and led the way to the door while ignoring the voice of her youkai that just wouldn't shut up. It'd been awhile since she'd gone shopping with another female. It was bound to be fun, she figured.

 

 

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Kichiro sighed and pushed his glasses up his nose as he frowned at the notebook in his hand. Half of the reason he wore his hair back in a braid most of the time was to keep it out of the way and neat, especially in surgery. He also hated having it flying in his face every time he turned around, too. The other half of the reason was since he didn't have human ears or even youkai ears, his hair held his glasses in place. Luckily for him, he only needed the irritating things to avoid eyestrain when he was reading for prolonged periods of time or when he was working on the computer.

He'd been researching the physical changes that occurred in the mating of youkai and hanyou. He had a hypothesis that seemed sound enough, but since it wasn't really something easily proven, he wasn't sure if he would be able to get his uncle to underwrite the research.

This pet project was one that he'd started years ago, just before Ryomaru and Nezumi had accidentally mated. He and Ryomaru had been out carousing, and Ryomaru had mentioned that it was too bad they couldn't have sex without the repercussions of taking a mate. At the time Kichiro had laughed off his brother, but when he found himself with more and more free time and less and less family interaction, at least with Ryomaru, he'd started working on his preliminary hypothesis. The rest was, as they say, history.

In the cases he'd studied, one thing was clear: the mating, itself, wasn't the mitigating factor in the molecular changes in the youkai or hanyou. It seemed that it was the actual exchange of DNA that did it. Much like the blood transfusions that had replaced the actual marking ritual, if Kichiro could prove his theory . . .

'This is weird, Kich, just so you know.'

Kichiro dropped the notebook on his desk and opened the manila file, shuffling papers until he found the slide films he'd ordered up from the one couple who had agreed to let him test their DNA. Holding them up to the light as he squinted to examine them, he shook his head slowly and sighed.

'It isn't weird at all . . . This pretty much proves it, to me. There wasn't a change when they used a condom during sex. It all had to do with the mixing of DNA, or more precisely, the introduction of semen into the female's reproductive system . . .'

'Keh. So you're basically making it okay for youkai and hanyou to be as fickle as humans?'

'Not at all,' he argued absently. 'There's still the matter of choosing your mate. I'm just saying that it is possible . . . that's all.'

'Yeah, I'm not so sure Sesshoumaru's gonna like this.'

'Does that matter?'

'Not really. He was born with a stick up his ass, wasn't he? He don't like anything that goes against tradition.'

'He supported the blood transfusions.'

'Of course he did. Kami forbid Toga should mark his mate the old fashioned way.'

Kichiro sighed, letting the film slide out of his fingers onto the stack of papers on his desk. 'I can't say I blame Toga. That's a nasty business.'

'Speaking of 'nasty business', you going to apologize to Belle?'

'Of course not.'

'So you don't care that you were a real ass, and she called you on it?'

'Firstly, she's the one who was throwing herself at the waiter; I didn't pick her up and toss her at him. Secondly I was being nice by trying to let her out of her obligation, and she was completely unnatural! If she hates me so much, just why in hell would she want to keep working for me?'

'Maybe she has something to prove.'

'Or maybe she likes torturing me with her very presence.'

'Balls, Kich, you should have just kissed her when you had the chance, but no, you have to go all noble, and when you did, you gave her a chance to push you away, which she did. Self-inflicted torture, at best.'

Yanking off his glasses and wincing as the ear piece tangled in his hair, Kichiro jerked them free and tossed them down on the desk. 'That wasn't noble, I didn't want to kiss her, and I didn't mean it that way!'

'. . . Baka.'

Kichiro snorted. 'All right, so maybe I did think about it . . . but she definitely wanted me to kiss her more than I wanted to do it.'

'Must be nice to live in denial. Does the sun shine there?'

'Shut up.'

'Come on, Kich, 'fess up: you want her. She fascinates you.'

'Yep, about as much as a horde of rampant youkai fascinates me.'

'A horde of rampant youkai? At least you'd have guinea pigs for your case study.'

'That's funny, ha ha . . . Oh wait, you were serious, weren't you?'

'Make fun of me all you want, baka. We'll see who has the last laugh.'

'Sure we will because it'll be me.'

'Answer me one question and I'll leave you alone.'

'Forever?'

'For now.'

'Good enough.'

'Okay . . . Are you madder that she didn't like your offer or that she wouldn't kiss you?'

Kichiro considered the question. Sending his chair scooting back as he shot to his feet and strode toward the door, he wasn't sure which of those things bothered him more. It was a loaded question, no doubt about it.

His youkai snorted as he heard the office door latch behind him. 'Yeah . . . that's what I thought. The non-kiss was definitely worse, in my opinion, too.'

 

 

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"Gin, how do you like this?"

Gin peeked up from the rack of men's dress shirts to see what Bellaniece was showing her this time. Relieved to see it wasn't another lime green or hot pink concoction, Gin nodded at the cream colored, Henley style shirt. "Oh, that's nice! It looks soft!"

Bellaniece broke into an enigmatic little smile and shook her head but added the shirt to the small pile of them slung over one arm.

"I suppose I should buy Cain a white dress shirt, since that's what I ruined both times," Gin mused. "Linen or cotton?"

"How about silk?"

Gin giggled, smashing her hand over her mouth as she tried to stifle the sound. "Cain? In silk? He doesn't really strike me as a silk man . . ."

"You'd be surprised, I think . . . I'd be willing to bet that if you bought him a silk shirt, he'd wear it."

She wrinkled her nose. "Oh, I don't think I should buy him something that he would feel obligated to wear . . ."

Bellaniece's eyes danced with a conspiratorial twinkle. "You know, Gin . . . I dare you to buy Daddy a silk shirt."

Gin shook her head quickly. "No . . . I don't think that's a good idea."

"Come on, Gin! Prove my theory! Daddy . . . values your opinion . . ."

Gin's hand hesitated over the hangers on the rack. "Really?"

Bellaniece nodded. "Sure he does! You're the first real friend he's had . . . ever . . . or at least so long as I can remember . . ."

"That sounds so lonely . . . It's just the two of you, right?"

"Yeah but it's alright. At least I don't have anyone breathing down my neck or anything; just Daddy, and, well, there are times that he doesn't really notice, at all."

Gin frowned and digested Bellaniece's sad assessment as she slowly picked through the shirts.

'What are you thinking? You think you can change things just for him, don't you?'

'You make it sound like it's a bad thing.'

'Not bad, no, but be realistic . . . There are some things in life that we can't change.'

'I . . . I like him. I just want to help him . . . I want him to see that life is good, and . . . Is that so terrible?'

'You really like him, don't you? I do, too.'

'Well, sure I like him . . . He's funny and smart, strong and gentle, and his artwork is brilliant—just brilliant . . . There's so much I could learn from him!'

'There's more to it than that, isn't there, dollface? You don't have to answer because I don't think you understand. I don't even really understand . . .'

"Gin? Are you all right?"

Bellaniece's voice cut through Gin's thoughts, and Gin cleared her throat before turning her attention to the younger woman. "What? Oh, I'm fine."

Bellaniece held up a white silk shirt for Gin's approval. "So, I think this screams 'Cain Zelig', don't you?"

"It isn't very serviceable, is it?" Gin asked with a marked frown as she slowly reached out to touch the fabric.

Bellaniece fluttered a hand dismissively. "Serviceable doesn't matter all the time! He'll wear it for special occasions: going out with a friend or . . . stuff like that. Every man needs at least one really nice silk shirt, in my opinion. Even better when the shirt comes from someone else. Really, Gin, you'd be doing me a favor. If I bought it, Daddy wouldn't wear it because, you know, I'm just his daughter. You really should get it for him. I bet he'd figure out he likes it, after all."

"I'd think he'd like it more, coming from his daughter," Gin remarked, studying the shirt with a little frown. "Do you really think so? I'd hate to buy it for him and have him not like it . . ."

Bellaniece shrugged. "Yeah, but it's kind of nice, isn't it? Seeing someone wearing something special that you chose for them instead of not being able to tell if he's worn that shirt since he has so many of them, anyway?"

Gin's frown deepened. Cain did have a lot of plain white shirts, didn't he? 'Would he wear it though? It'd be such a waste if he didn't . . .'

'Get him the shirt, doll. I think Cain would love any shirt you bought him . . . even that nasty lime green one . . .'

Scrunching her face up at the thought of that shirt, Gin hesitantly reached out and took the hanger from Bellaniece. "Okay," she agreed slowly. "If you really think he'll wear it . . ."

Bellaniece giggled, looking quite satisfied with her accomplishment. "Of course he will, Gin. I'd lay a bet on it."

"I hope you're right."

"Trust me, Gin! I know Daddy. Anyway, you two were out pretty late last night, weren't you?"

"Yeah," Gin agreed as she followed Bellaniece toward the checkout counter. "I had a good time, but I think Cain was worried about you. He got pretty quiet . . ."

"Daddy's always quiet. I think he'd be perfectly happy, not talking at all, if it weren't for me bugging him."

"He says I babble too much," Gin confessed, cheeks pinking, shifting her weight from one foot to the other as they waited behind another customer. "I probably do."

Bellaniece laughed. "It doesn't bother him much, does it? I mean, he still likes you, right?"

Gin shrugged, cheeks reddening a little more at Bellaniece's obvious approval.

"I'm glad one of us had a nice time last night. God knows I didn't," Bellaniece grumbled.

"Oh, no . . . I was worried about that . . . I thought maybe Cain should have called to check on you. You're sure you're feeling better today?"

Bellaniece set the pile of clothes on the counter and shook her head. "Fine, fine . . ."

Gin blinked as Bellaniece's cheeks blossomed in color. For the first time, Bellaniece seemed genuinely uneasy, and Gin had to wonder why. "Belle?"

Forcing a smile, Bellaniece shook her head. "It's nothing, really."

"Are you sure? I . . . I can listen."

Bellaniece waited as Gin paid for the shirt and the two stepped out of the shop into the bright afternoon sunshine.   Staring at the sidewalk as they strolled down the street, Bellaniece sighed and adjusted the bags in her hands. "I like you, Gin. I can't believe you're actually related to that pig-headed, ill-tempered, narcissistic . . ." Drawing a deep breath as she cut herself off, Bellaniece wrinkled her nose and uttered a low growl. "Sorry . . . I know he's your brother, and I'm sure you love him, but honestly, I can't believe he had the nerve—never mind."

"Nerve?" Gin echoed. "I assume you mean Kichiro-nii-chan again, right? Did he do something else?"

Bellaniece stared at Gin for several seconds, expression chagrined, troubled. "Promise you won't tell Daddy?"

Gin nodded slowly as her youkai told her not to make a promise she wasn't sure she should keep. "Okay."

Satisfied that Gin would keep her word, Bellaniece shrugged and looked like she was trying to find a place to start. "I let him take me to dinner last night. I thought . . . I don't know what I was thinking."

Gin's eyebrows shot up as she stopped in her tracks to gape at Bellaniece. "You went to dinner with Kichiro-nii-chan? Oh, my . . ."

"It'll never happen again, I assure you."

Gin winced at Bellaniece's acerbic tone. "That bad?"

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "We just can't seem to come to terms. I decided on the way home that your brother is the lowest form of life there is: an amoeba—lower, even."

"I don't understand . . . I mean, he is so nice to everyone, other than Ryo-nii, but I think Ryo-nii likes that, too . . . Lower than an amoeba? Is there such a thing?"

"Sure there is, and his name is Dr. Izayoi. Anyway, on the way home, I thought it over, and I've decided that I'm just going to pretend that he doesn't exist. He did that well enough to me. It's only fair that I return the favor, don't you think?"

"What do you mean?" Gin asked, shaking her head slowly. "You don't mean . . .? He didn't . . . Did he make you walk home alone?"

Bellaniece snorted. "It was fine. I didn't want his company, the jerk."

"No, it wasn't fine! I can't believe he'd do that! They wouldn't even let me walk home from school alone though normally I just hung around until Papa was ready to leave . . . You're right! What a jerk! Just wait till I get my hands on him! I'll kick his stupid . . . heinie!"

Bellaniece blinked in shock as Gin's temper soared. "Gin?"

"The nerve! Sure, he might not have known that you can't fight, but that doesn't make it all right! I ought to tell Mama! She'd . . . She'd . . . She'd purify him!"

Bellaniece grabbed Gin by the shoulders and shook her head. "No, Gin, no! Promise me you won't say anything to Kichiro about this! I . . . I don't want him to know he got to me. I really, really don't. Please."

Gin scowled, obviously not wanting to make the promise Bellaniece was after. "Belle . . ."

"Gin, please. I'd be humiliated if he knew I said anything at all. Please, Gin, I'm begging you."

Gin sighed, shoulders slumping, ears twitching angrily. "All right," she agreed. "I won't say anything . . . and for the record, he hates being ignored, so if you can manage that . . ."

Bellaniece let her hands drop and heaved a sigh of relief.   "Good."

Gin didn't reply to that. 'That's just unbelievable! Someone needs to slap that baka senseless!'

'Yeah, but you gave Bellaniece your word.'

'I know . . . it's just wrong! Hypocritical jerk . . .'

'Don't worry about that, Gin . . . The question is: why did they go out to dinner together, in the first place?'

Gin stopped short, frowning as she pondered that particular question. Bellaniece was preoccupied, talking to a guy that Gin hadn't seen approach. He seemed harmless. Gin turned her attention back to the bigger question in her mind. 'That is interesting, isn't it? I mean, Bellaniece said yesterday that she couldn't stand Kichiro-nii-chan, so why would she have gone anywhere with him? Too bad he's such an idiot. They'd make a cute couple . . .'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Not everyone is like you. Not everyone looks at things and sees what you see."

"What do you see?"

"What do I see?"

"When you . . . When you look at me, what do you see?"

Cain rubbed his temple and heaved a heavy sigh. That was the question he hadn't wanted to answer, wasn't it? What did he see when he looked at Gin Izayoi?

'Careful, Cain. You're treading on dangerous ground.'

For once, Cain didn't disagree with his youkai voice.   'Yeah, I am.'

'You know, you don't make it easy. I'm supposed to remind you of your obligations, right? How can I do that when you can't figure out your priorities? Do you hear me? Gin . . .'

He nodded and stood, shuffling through the apartment, down the hallway and into his studio. There wasn't a trick to his art. The only real secret to it was closeting himself away, sometimes for days on end. Hiding behind the closed doors in the sanctity of his studio with nothing but his thoughts and sometimes his daughter. Losing himself in silent contemplation, it was easier to think while his hands were busy. 'Creating beauty while you contemplate the end of your life? That's . . . morbid . . .'

Ignoring his inner voice while he dug around in the closet, he wasn't sure what he was looking for. He wasn't certain why he felt compelled to do anything at all. Rough granite blocks stood lining the back of the closet. Buckets of clay were stacked in the corner. A few blank canvases on the top shelf were too stark, too white, too pure.

He was about to close the closet when something else caught his eye. Narrowing his eyes as he slowly reached for the large spool of thirty-gauge silver wire, Cain passed it from one hand to the other as he considered. More of a fleeting thought than a real idea, he stepped away, hooked the spindle on a peg mounted on his worktable, and pulled a length of the wire free with one hand as he tugged off his shirt with the other.

As his hands worked the wire, his mind wandered.

Gin, frowning in concentration as she tried to make sense of Cain's anger . . . He hadn't meant to take it out on her. He shouldn't have gotten so angry at her, but the rawness of the memory still had the power to hurt him even as Gin's softly uttered statement shocked him all over again.

"Cain? Was that her name? Belle?"

'Yeah . . . Yeah, her name was Belle . . . Isabelle . . .'

He could still remember that day so clearly. Dragged out of his house about two hundred miles from Miami to attend a visiting production of Les Miserables, Cain had been ready to make his excuses and leave when he first saw her in the role of Fantine—Isabelle.

After the show, he'd hung around, letting his friend use his influence to wrangle a meeting with her. Sesshoumaru Inutaisho had been in town on business, and while he wasn't a fan of the theatre, he did have an appreciation for the arts. Couple that with the fact that Kagura had accompanied him on that trip . . . Cain sighed. Men were forever yielding to the sway of a good woman . . .

'Bend the wire a little more, Cain. You're after delicate, right? You're after 'ethereal. You're after 'light' . . .'

Complying with the voice of his youkai, Cain bent the wire and kept working.

It seemed to him that she was always laughing. Sparkling aqua eyes always crinkled at the corners as she filled the house with sounds of happiness. He remembered touching her golden hair, remembered smelling the scent of her that lived on in their daughter. Isabelle was tall for a woman, but short in comparison to him. He stood six-feet-eight-inches tall, and Isabelle barely reached his shoulder. Everything about her was slender, graceful. She had the body of a ballerina—had been trained for years in classical ballet. In the end, she preferred the flash of the Broadway lights, but she'd left that all behind for Cain.

Fading into the obscure life with him, it was Isabelle who encouraged Cain to sculpt. She loved to pose for him, loved to sit for hours while he painted her, while he sculpted her. Every so often, he'd see her standing by the windows, gazing out at the ocean, and she seemed so sad. She always told him that he was being ridiculous. She always told him that it was enough for her, to be with him. She said he made her happy, and yet Cain couldn't help but wonder. That faraway look in her gaze . . . Had she been seeing those things she'd left behind? When he asked her, she would laugh at him. She would tell him he was being silly. She told him she was exactly where she wanted to be. Then she would do what she always did to distract him, to lure him out of his bleak thoughts that his mate might not be satisfied; she would take him by the hand and lead him into the bedroom . . .

'She . . . She said I was silly, and she said she was where she wanted to be . . . She never once said she was happy, did she? She never, ever said . . .'

'Does that matter now? You can't change it, and even then, Isabelle never told you. You'll never know what she really thought . . . Watch the angle of that wire . . . It needs to bend a little more, right there . . .'

Isabelle was a natural exhibitionist. From the start, she was more comfortable in front of a thousand pairs of eyes or more, happiest when she was basking in the limelight. Her propensity toward the more risqué spilled over from her acting into real life, and it didn't take long for Cain to realize that the angelic face of the woman he'd chosen was matched only by the wicked streak that Isabelle possessed in abundance. Time and place meant nothing to her. Her sense of propriety was skewed. Love was a beautiful thing, she said, and why should they hide something as beautiful as that? Isabelle didn't care where they were or if they'd be seen. Her lust was unbridled, and her drive to have him was merciless.

She was right, of course. It was a beautiful thing. Everything about her was beautiful. Impetuous, almost foolish, daring, yet gentle and kind, Isabelle had laughed at Cain's worries, had rolled her eyes, waved her hand, told him that he was concerned about nothing. They had all the time in the world, didn't they? He'd promised, and still . . .

She was mortal. She was human, and Cain had allowed her to assuage his reticence to do what was necessary to ensure she'd remain beside him. The thought of hurting her was sickening to him, and though he knew it was something that had to be done eventually, he had let her convince him that it didn't have to be done right away. Whether she feared it, herself, or if she simply sensed Cain's reluctance, he'd never know . . .

"Oh, Cain, you're always so quiet. Don't tell me you're thinking about that marking-thing again." Cain shrugged casually, watching as Isabelle rolled over in bed, as she arched her back to stretch. "Come back to bed, and stop worrying. What's meant to be will be, okay?"

"It needs to be done, Belle . . . It really can't wait too much longer."

"I know, I know . . . But you're not doing it right now, are you? I've got better plans for today . . ."

Closing his eyes as she pressed her body against his back, as she kissed his neck and reached over his shoulders to rub his chest, Cain forgot to think, didn't he? He forgot everything around Isabelle . . .

'Be careful of that wire. You don't want to scratch her, do you?'

Wrapping the ends together in the center of the frame, he covered it with white floral tape to blunt the sharp edges.

Isabelle loved the rain. All too often he'd emerge from his studio only to find her gone. The first few times, he'd panicked, and after finding her wandering around in the storm, he dragged her inside, yelled at her for her recklessness.   Didn't she know that storms were dangerous? Didn't she realize she could get sick from the damp? If she possessed a modicum of common sense, she didn't show it at times like that. Laughing—always laughing—she'd tell him he was worried about nothing. The rain was her friend. The rain set her free. Had she known then, what the future would bring? Cain shook his head. 'Don't be stupid.'

Setting the finished frame in the middle of the table, Cain returned to the closet for the tub of fast-setting silicone and six metal clips. Grabbing a tube of iridescent glitter powder as almost an afterthought, he closed the closet and strode back to the table once more.

In his mind, he could still hear Isabelle's laughter. He could hear her sighs, her breathing. He'd made a deal with her, in the end. He needed an heir, and Isabelle wanted her freedom. He hadn't realized back then, the price that it would cost him, and Isabelle hadn't, either. The end result had been the same. His lack of vision, his carelessness, but it had been simpler, to let himself believe that Isabelle might change her mind, or had he even cared? In the end . . . Well, he had agreed . . .

'Is this really doing you any good? Reliving all this history?'

Cain winced as he dragged his claws through the clear, wet silicone. 'It can't be much worse, can it?'

'Pfft! It can always be worse! Oh, wait, that's perfect. Leave it alone. Just mount the clips and you'll be done.'

Cain followed the advice of his youkai, carefully setting the edges of the metal clips in the rapidly solidifying silicone. Blinking in distaste as his vision cleared, he stared at his filthy claws and snorted. 'You're really good at making messes,' he pointed out as he pushed out of the room, careful not to touch anything as he shouldered open the bathroom door.

'Yeah, I know . . . just think, though . . . you really did it.'

Cain sat on the toilet and started picking the film of silicone off his hands. 'I did it, huh? What did I do?'

His youkai chuckled as Cain rubbed his hands together, sending strips of the film falling on the floor like clear snow. He was washing his hands when his youkai spoke again.

'You made her wings, Cain.'

Cain froze as his heart stopped for a moment before hammering out a painful pattern against his ribcage. 'I . . . No-o-o-o-o . . .'

His youkai laughed again.

 

 

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"Daddy, I'm home!" Bellaniece called as she pushed the door closed with her elbow. "Come see what I bought you . . . Daddy?"

Bellaniece frowned. She could sense him near, knew he was home, but he wasn't answering, and that was strange. Dropping the bags on the nearest chair, Bellaniece started down the hallway. 'In his studio, I suppose . . . How predictable!'

She reached for the door handle but paused when she heard her father inside, and the sound . . . 'Growling?'

Nudging the door open, Bellaniece smashed her hand over her mouth before she could interrupt him with her shocked gasp.

Cain stood by the worktable grasping a beautiful set of wings in his hands. Judging from the looks of him, he was ready to destroy them, but it was Cain's eyes that gave her pause. Flashing from crimson to deep blue, she'd never seen him in such a state before. She'd never seen him so furious, had never seen him that close to losing control. Why would he have created something so lovely and then be angry about it?

"Daddy?" she whispered, her voice barely discernible, though she had little doubt that he'd hear her.

He hesitated at the sound of her voice. Bellaniece carefully slipped into the room and closed the door behind her. "Daddy?" she repeated a little louder.

Cain's head jerked to the side, his wild gaze finally lighting on Bellaniece, and she shook her head. "What are you doing?"

The anger drained out of him so rapidly that it stunned Bellaniece. Slumping back against the wall as the emotion drained out of the air surrounding her father, he heaved a sigh—a sad, wavering sound that exactly matched the trembling in his hands. She winced. It hurt to see him that way, didn't it . . .?

"Bellaniece . . ."

"What's wrong?" she asked softly, gently.

He sighed, turning his gaze back on the wings still clutched in his hands. "I . . ."

"You're not . . . going to destroy that, are you?" Bellaniece asked carefully.

Cain's back stiffened, and she braced herself for another show of his anger. It didn't return, but the sadness that surrounded him, the confusion that enveloped him . . . Bellaniece grimaced. "I . . ." He flinched, smashing his free hand against his eye. "I-I-I don't know what I was thinking," he admitted. "Maybe I wasn't thinking at all."

Straightening her back, Bellaniece slowly walked over to Cain, rounded him to stand by his side as she reached out to gently turned his face toward hers. "Maybe you just wanted to do something nice for the girl next door who makes you cakes every night because she wants to. Does it have to be more than that?"

Cain seemed surprised by Bellaniece's words, but he nodded slowly, and he tried to smile. "No, it doesn't, does it? Gin . . . She's a really . . . She's . . ."

Bellaniece smiled. "Yes, Daddy, she is. She'll love those, I'm sure. They're . . . They're beautiful."

Cain sighed as he held up the wings for inspection. Narrowing his gaze critically, he tilted his head from side to side as he examined his work. "This isn't . . . completely stupid?"

Bellaniece rolled her eyes and leaned on her toes to kiss Cain's cheek. "Nope, not stupid in the least. Stupid would have been to tear them up. So . . . are you going to give them to her before or after I show you your new clothes?"

Cain groaned.

Bellaniece laughed as she watched her father stalk toward the door. "I thought as much . . . coward."

Cain waved over his shoulder without looking back or breaking his stride.

"Oh, I have a date."

That, however, stopped Cain dead in his tracks. Whipping around on his heel, he paused in the doorway and cocked an eyebrow at his daughter. "You have a . . .?"

"A date," Bellaniece said again, flashing her father her most winning smile. "He's a very nice young man . . . I met him today after Gin and I—"

"Gin?"

"Yes, Gin went with me since I'm not too familiar with Tokyo," Bellaniece went on, wisely not commenting on her father's choked tone of voice. "Anyway, he'll come by tomorrow, and he said he'd be happy to meet you before he takes me to dinner and a movie. His name is Raidon, and he's calling for me at five o'clock."

Cain looked like he wanted to demand that she cancel. In the end he snorted and shook his head. "So . . . did Gin . . . meet . . . anyone?" he asked at last, failing in his mission to keep his tone nonchalant.

Bellaniece grinned. "She sure did. He was big and broad and handsome . . . Oh, and he wants her to be his cake fairy, too."

Cain flushed about seven shades of red and snapped his mouth closed on whatever retort he'd formed before stomping down the hallway.  Moments later, Bellaniece heard the door slam shut, and she burst out laughing. "Oh, Daddy . . . You've got it bad, don't you? Don't forget your shirt."

'That was a dirty trick, Bellaniece . . . You'd better hope he didn't believe you, and the bit about the shirt would have been more welcome had he heard it.'

Bellaniece rolled her eyes as she skipped out of the studio. 'Maybe, but you know . . . I think Daddy was ignoring his brain for once and thinking with his heart, instead . . . and I think Gin will enjoy seeing Daddy's chest . . .'

'Still . . .'

'Oh, lighten up, you! You just hate to admit that maybe I'm really right this time! Gin is the best thing to happen to Daddy in . . . forever!'

'Yeah, and while we're on the subject of living in the state of denial—'

'We weren't.'

'Close enough . . . Why did you agree to the date with Raidon?'

Bellaniece's ebullient mood wavered. 'He seemed nice, didn't he?'

'Sure, he seemed nice. He seemed disgustingly nice. Boringly nice. Get the picture?'

Bellaniece let out a deep breath, sending her bangs flying straight up in the air. 'I know . . . Nice and boring . . . absolutely no one I'd ever consider to be my mate.'

'Ah, so he's safe, you mean?'

Bellaniece made a face as the remnants of her good mood popped like an over-inflated balloon. 'Yeah. Safe.'

 

 

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'I can think of a thousand reasons why this is just a really, really bad idea.'

'No one will know, right? I mean, I was just curious, is all . . .'

'Your curiosity will be the death of us both, you know that?'

Gin ignored the common sense of her youkai and stripped off the little blue sundress she was wearing. Dropping it in a careless heap on the floor, she bit her bottom lip and grabbed the white silk shirt she'd bought for Cain.

'At least put a bra on, Gin!'

Gin made a face as she pulled on the billowing shirt and buttoned it, leaving the top button undone despite the wide collar that went along with the large shirt. 'No one's going to know; I'll only have it this shirt on for a minute, and what's the sense of putting on a bra when I'll just take it off again to put that dress back on?'

'Which is hardly the point!'

'Kami, this thing is huge! I mean, I knew Cain was tall and everything, but I could swim in this!' Gin marveled as she held her arms up and stared at her reflection in the full-length mirror on the wall. 'I could fit ten of me in this! Wow!'

'Ten? Not hardly . . . maybe three.'

'Hmm, well, ten or three or something in between, the point is . . . Cain's really big, isn't he?'

'Gin—"

The telephone rang, and Gin pulled her hair out of the collar as she darted to the living room to answer.

"Gin? It's Kich. The old man wanted me to call to remind you that you're expected at home tonight."

Gin rolled her eyes. "Oh, you . . . I have a bone to pick with you, nii-chan . . ."

"With me? What's that?"

'Gin, you promised!' her youkai hissed.

She sighed, remembering the promise before she stuck her foot in it. "Never mind."

"Well, don't forget about going home, okay?"

"Like I'd forget. I'll be there, I'll be there. Are you going to be there?"

"Of course."

"Yeah, well, consider yourself challenged when I see you. I'm going to hurt you."

He laughed at her claim. "You and whose army, baby girl?"

"Oi, baka! Like I need an army to take you on, you pathetic excuse for a hanyou!"

"Kami, you sound like a female version of the old man—except tinier—and, well, entirely un-scary. You want me to come by and get you?"

Gin wrinkled her nose. "No, thanks," she replied haughtily. "I think I can manage finding my way home, baka."

"All right. Just be careful. See you."

"Bye."

She hung up the phone and crossed her arms over her chest as she gazed at the receiver. Even if she couldn't yell at Kichiro over his stupid behavior, she could try to beat on him, instead . . .

Sighing, Gin dropped her arms and started to shuffle back to her bedroom. It was starting to get late, and she really ought to leave soon . . .

A loud thump on her door startled her, and Gin squeaked out a tiny yip as she wheeled around and ran to see who was there. She didn't need to check the peephole to sense Cain's youki, and without a second thought, she opened the door. "Cain! Hi! What are you . . . doing . . . here . . .?" Trailing off as she stared, wide eyed, at Cain's bare chest, and more importantly, the teal stripes that wrapped around Cain's sides, Gin shook her head slowly. "Are those . . .?"

He made a face as he stared at the wall over her head. "Yeah, they're . . . uh . . . your wings."

"Wings?" she echoed with a perplexed shake of her head. "That's new . . . They're really . . . nice."

Cain shrugged, bracing his free hand on the base of his neck. "They are wings."

"Can I . . . I really want to touch them."

" . . . Okay."

Ignoring what he held out to her, Gin stepped closer, lifting her clawed index fingers to lightly trace over the tips of the stripes on Cain's abdomen. With a gasp, he jerked back. Gin jumped. "Sorry."

"What . . .? My . . . Here," he finished, thrusting the wings out toward her.

"But—"

"Your wings," he grumbled. Gin blinked slowly as she finally saw what he was trying to give her.

'Oh, I can't believe I did that . . .'

'Well . . . those crests of his are . . . nice.'

'Yeah, they are . . .'

'Doll, pay attention! He made you wings!'

Willing away the embarrassment over her overly-bold behavior, Gin took the construction very gingerly, as though she were afraid it would tear in her hands. The silver wire frame was sturdy but not heavy, and he'd filled the wings with a clear silicone streaked with iridescent glitter swirled into a pattern of veins. Six metal clips were fitted into the silicone to fasten to her dress, and Gin stared, speechless.

"It's stupid . . . You can throw them away, if you want," he told her as he turned to leave.

Her hand shot out to stay him, and he slowly turned back to face her. "No! Why would I . . .? Oh, Cain . . . they're . . . beautiful . . . You . . . You made me wings?"

"Yeah," he mumbled. "For the, uh, cake fairy . . ."

She smiled and giggled, lifting the back of her left hand to her lips to subdue the sound. "Will you . . .?"

Taking the wings from her as she turned around and held up her hair, Cain carefully clipped the wings to the back of the silk shirt for her.

Gin let her hair down and tried to turn from side to side to see the wings that kept moving with her efforts.

Cain cleared his throat, and chuckled. "You'd have more luck if you have a mirror, Gin," he pointed out.

She snapped her fingers and grabbed his hand, dragging him behind her as she led the way to her bedroom. "Silly me! I knew that! I have a mirror in here."

"Gin?"

"Hmm?" she asked as she smiled at her reflection in the mirror and completely missing the choked sound of Cain's voice.

"I'll wait out in the living room," he stated.

"What? Oh . . . it's fine! Just my bedroom, that's all. I don't mind."

"Yeah, about that—"

"And you really made these? Just for me? No one's ever made me wings before!"

He stared into the mirror, into her eyes. "You deserve wings, Gin . . ." He looked like he wanted to say something else, and Gin held her breath as that strange feeling rumbled through her stomach again. Cain dropped his gaze, his cheeks reddening just a little, and he stepped back. "Bellaniece said you met a . . . someone today."

Gin turned to face him, frowning as she slowly shook her head. "I didn't . . . She did. I just went with her to help her find shops, and—Oh! I bought you a shirt!" She winced inwardly as she realized where the shirt in question was. "Uh . . . this shirt, actually . . ."

Holding up her arms to show him the shirt, Gin tried not to blush as he slowly shook his head. "It's for . . . me?"

She nodded.

"But it's on . . . you."

She nodded again as her cheeks heated more.

"And you have it on because . . .?"

Gin bit her bottom lip and flattened her ears for a moment. "I just wondered how big it really was," she explained, hoping—praying—that it didn't sound nearly as lame to him as she suspected it did.

"And?" he prompted, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back as a tiny grin twitched at the corners of his lips, obviously enjoying her discomfort.

"And . . . it's . . . really big, but the silk is really nice! It's so soft! You want to feel it?" she asked, lifting the shirttail from her knee and extending it toward him.

Cain backed away, hands shooting up in surrender. "Nope, nope . . . I believe you. It looks . . . really . . . soft."

"It's longer than most of my skirts!" she mused as she leaned forward to reach around and unclasp the wings. Grimacing in her effort to unhook the wings without incident, Gin leaned over a little more.

Cain cleared his throat loudly and stepped toward her. "Let me get that, Gin, before you . . . hurt yourself."

"Thanks, Cain," she replied as she stood back up and waited patiently for him to unfasten the wings. "You're sort of my hero, too."

He stopped for a moment. Gin peeked up at him. He was staring at the clasps with a thoughtful frown, but his eyes were inordinately bright. "Cain?"

"There," he interrupted, stepping back, holding the wings. "I'd better go. Bellaniece said she wanted to show me what she bought."

"Hold on a minute, and I'll give you this shirt . . . if you'll wear it . . . If you don't want to, I can get you another one."

"That one's fine . . . Uh . . . just give it to me later, okay?"

"Are you sure? Bellaniece said—"

"It's okay. You didn't have to replace my shirt."

"It'll only take a minute to change," she assured him. "I can't believe you made me real wings!"

"Yeah," he mumbled. "It was just a thought."

"A beautiful thought! I love them!" Before she could stop to think about it, Gin tugged Cain's arm, rising up on her toes as he bent forward, and kissed his cheek. "Thank you!"

Cain looked a little dazed as color filtered into his cheeks again. He grimaced then buried his hands in his pockets, clearing his throat as he stared at his feet. "Gin . . ."

Gin smiled then grimaced as she caught sight of the clock on her nightstand. "Oh, no! I'm late! Cain, I'm sorry, but you have to go . . . I'm supposed to be over at my parents' house now . . . I don't think I'm going to make it . . ."

Cain blinked in surprise at Gin's abrupt dismissal. Without waiting for the question she could see forming in his mind, she grabbed his hand and dragged him back through the apartment, not stopping till she was holding open the door. "Night, Cain, I'll see you tomorrow."

"Is everything okay, Gin?"

"Yep, just fine! Absolutely great! I've got to hurry . . . Good night!"

Wincing as she closed the door gently but firmly in his face, Gin didn't have time to worry over that as she sprinted back toward her bedroom to change. Sparing another quick glance at the clock, Gin sighed. There wasn't any way she was going to make it, and, well . . .

'Papa's going to be furious.'

'Not just your papa, Gin . . . Ryo-nii and Kichiro-nii-chan will be, too, and your Mother will not be impressed, either, I'd wager.'

Tossing the silk shirt on the bed as she jerked her dress off the floor and yanked it up over her legs and hips, Gin let a small whine escape. 'I'm dead,' she decided. 'They'll kill me, all of them . . .'

'Don't worry about that, Gin! They'll understand if you call and explain it. After all, it's not every day you get your wings.'

That didn't reassure Gin. She groaned and sank down on the edge of her bed.   'And if I told them that, they'd kill Cain, no questions asked. Nope . . . I'm just dead.'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Daddy, you're making me nervous. Sit down and relax or something."

Cain shot his daughter a cursory glance and snorted. "There's something weird going on. Are you sure she didn't mention anything to you today?"

Bellaniece dropped her magazine on the coffee table and pulled her hair over her shoulder, flipping up the ends between her fingers to check for split ends. "If it bothers you so much, call her."

"She's not home. Her youki is gone, and she said she had to go somewhere."

Wisely opting to keep her opinion of her father's keen senses to herself, Bellaniece tossed her hair back and slowly shook her head.

He'd worked himself up into a bundle of raw nerves. From the moment he'd arrived at Gin's door, nothing went the way it should have. When she'd touched his crests, he'd nearly jumped out of his skin. In truth, he'd forgotten that he had taken off his shirt before he started working. That was normal. He couldn't believe he'd been stupid enough not to remember to put it back on. Her light touch had been electrifying, and as much as Cain hated to admit it, he'd welcomed it.

'Welcomed it? Talk about understatement of the year! You loved it, Cain. You hate yourself because you loved it, just like the wings.'

'The wings,' he thought with an inward wince. 'Damn . . . That was stupid . . . I should have destroyed them.'

'To what purpose, really? I might critique your art as you work, but you're the one who chooses what to make. On some level you knew what you were doing, and that's what bothers you most.'

He paced the floor again, shaking his head in silent argument. 'I don't choose, do I? When have I ever chosen? I select the medium but you're the one who chooses how I do it. Those wings . . . They were a mistake. Maybe Gin does deserve to have her own wings, but . . . I don't deserve to be the one to give them to her. I can't . . . I'll never . . .'

'She's your friend, Cain; just your friend. She hasn't asked you for anything else, has she? Do you really think she'd expect something from you that isn't yours to offer?'

'Isabelle . . . I owe her. I promised her . . . How can I think about Gin when Isabelle . . .?'

'Maybe you think about Gin because she isn't afraid to touch you. She's not afraid of your anger. She's not afraid of you.'

'Of course she isn't afraid of me. I don't think she knows there're things in this world she ought to fear.'

'And she kissed you.'

Cain sighed. 'And she kissed me.'

'It was nice, wasn't it? That kiss . . .'

Wincing inwardly, Cain had to concede that, too. 'It was . . . really nice.'

The image of Gin in that white silk shirt was painful. In those moments, he'd realized that as she stood in front of the windows, and as the late evening sunshine filtered in, it also showed every single line of Gin's silhouette; all the curves of the woman she really was that belied the diminutive height, and when she leaned over . . .

He'd caught the flash of creamy skin, the swell of her breasts peeking from the unbuttoned collar of the shirt. The sight had nearly brought him to his knees. Gin and silk was definitely a match forged in the fiery bowels of hell, and being in her bedroom, where her scent seemed far more concentrated, had taken its toll on his nerves. In the end, he'd barely been able to step away from her and her innocent smile, away from the woman-child who compelled him to entertain thoughts of things that he didn't—couldn't—wish for.

Bellaniece smothered a yawn with the back of her hand and peeked at her father through her thick fringe of sooty eyelashes. "She has a cell phone, right?"

Cain stopped pacing and stabbed Bellaniece with a narrow-eyed look. "Not a word, Bellaniece," he warned as he grabbed the phone and dug Gin's cell phone number out of his wallet.

Bellaniece rolled her eyes and stood up.

Cain stared at the phone.

'You know, if there's nothing wrong, you're going to look like a damn fool.'

'And if there is?'

'If there is you get to be the hero. Does the risk outweigh the reward?'

Cain made a face. 'It wasn't right, that's all. She was behaving strangely.'

'Then call her.'

He sighed. 'Or I could just be making a big deal out of nothing. Maybe it was one of her relatives' birthdays or something . . .'

'Then don't call her.'

'Then again, on the off chance that something happened to her on the way over there, would anyone know, and if they did, would anyone be able to go get her?'

'Then call her.'

'I'm going to end up looking like an idiot . . .'

'Then don't. Cain . . . Either call her or hang up the phone, damn it.'

'Pfft! Fine! Hell, you're really grouchy lately.'

'You did not just call me grouchy, did you, Cain?'

Cain punched in the number and held the phone to his ear. 'Yes, I did. Now hush. It's ringing.'

"Hello?"

Cain unconsciously gripped the phone tighter. Gin sounded a little frightened, almost as if she were scared of something. "Gin? You okay?"

"Cain? Cain! Oh, uh, yeah . . . I'm fine . . ."

Leaning his head to the side to hold the phone between his ear and his shoulder while he put the number back into his wallet, he frowned. "You don't sound fine."

She sighed. "It's nothing. It was too late to go to Mama and Papa's house, and Papa's a little mad at me . . ."

"Where are you?"

"Home."

"You're not home . . . I'd know if—"

'And you tell me to hush? Idiot.'

'Shut the hell up, you!'

'You're such a dog, Cain!'

'And you're a pain in my—'

'Woof!'

"I'm home," she stated again.

"Can't you go over to your parents' house now?"

". . . No."

He grabbed the phone and straightened his back as he frowned out the window at the blackened night sky. "Well . . . What if I went with you? You'd be safe then, wouldn't you?"

"Oh, it isn't . . . I can't . . . No . . . Papa said that I'm supposed to just stay here and not open the door for anyone."

"Gin, what's wrong?"

"Nothing really . . ."

He shook his head. "You want me to come over?"

"Oh, I'd like—Oh, no . . . I can't open the door for anyone, not even Papa, he said."

"You're not making much sense."

"I know," she replied miserably. "I'd better go. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Wait, Gin . . . Why can't you open the door?"

Gin sighed again.   ". . . Because Papa said . . ."

"Okay, other than that. What was your father's reasoning for you not opening your door?"

"Oh, that . . . It's nothing."

Cain smiled just a little as the edges of panic dulled despite the lingering concern that was tinged by a hint of intrigue. "You're a really bad liar."

Gin laughed weakly. "I just can't; that's all."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bellaniece grab her purse off the table by the door. "Hold on, Gin." Turning to face his daughter, Cain cleared his throat loudly. "And just where do you think you're going, Bellaniece?"

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "I was going down to get a new magazine, Daddy . . . Nothing earth shattering."

"Oh, no, you're not. You're not stepping foot out of this apartment till morning."

"Daddy—"

"No."

"Is tonight her human night, too?"

Cain's eyebrows shot up at Gin's question, and, more to the point, the very end of it. "Too?"

"Oh, um . . . I meant . . . W-W-Well . . . uh . . ."

"I see."

"Fine, then," Bellaniece stated loudly. "I'm going to bed. Might as well. Night, Daddy."

Cain ignored her very obvious irritation. "Night, Bellaniece."

Smiling as he watched his daughter's haughty retreat, he shook his head before turning his attention back to Gin, who had remained conspicuously silent since her blatant slip. "Gin . . ."

"Y-Yes?"

"Your window open?"

Gin hesitated. "Yes, but—"

"Okay."

He hung up the phone, cutting off whatever Gin was babbling, and strode over to lock and chain his door. Bellaniece was safe enough. On her human night, she didn't look any different, really, other than her ears were human for real, and her markings—the ones he'd insisted that she keep hidden at all times—were gone. She'd be safe enough. He was close by, should she need him. Hell, he wasn't going that far . . .

Gin's words ran through his mind as he dissolved into his energy form and flew out the window into the night.

"If you think I look like my mother now, you should see me on my human night."

Damn it, he wanted to see her—his silver and gold cake fairy—as a human.

 

 

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Gin set her sketchpad on the table and dropped the pencil on it as she scowled at the ringing telephone and crawled over to grab the receiver. The cool night breeze that blew in the window brought a wave of gooseflesh to the backs of her legs as she braced her feet against the sofa cushions and leaned over the back to reach the telephone. 'Would have been easier to get up and go over there,' she mused as she snatched the receiver by the short antenna. Hitting the 'talk' button as she turned to flop back on the sofa, she yelped instead as she realized she wasn't alone. "You! How did you—?"

"Baby girl? Who are you talking to?" Ryomaru demanded on the other end of the call.   "Who the hell is 'you', and what the fuck does 'you' smell like?"

Gin winced. "You?   I . . . uh … I . . . oh . . . um …. Television!" she blurted at last. Cain wasn't moving. Standing in the middle of her living room with his arms crossed over his chest—he'd put a shirt on, at least—with a narrow-eyed stare directed at her, he didn't acknowledge hearing her at all. His stance was wary, guarded, and he seemed like he was trying to figure out something. A distinct shiver ran up Gin's spine as goose bumps broke out on her skin. 'Why is he staring at me like that? It's like he . . . I don't know, but . . .' Brushing off the strange feelings that ebbed through her, Gin turned her attention to convincing Ryomaru that there was nothing going on, instead. "I'm watching television."

"Uh huh," Ryomaru agreed, obviously not buying her story.

"Did you need something?" Gin asked, hoping that her brother wouldn't find it odd that she was so obviously trying to rush him off the phone.

Ryomaru snorted. "The old man wanted me to call and make sure you were home and that you hadn't let anyone into your apartment."

"No," she hedged, twisting a lock of hair around her finger. "I didn't let anyone in . . ."

'Absolutely not. Cain flew in, by himself, through the window.'

'Yeah, and if your brothers or father find out . . .'

'I know . . .'

"Good," Ryomaru went on. "You sure you're okay?"

"Yeah," Gin lied, wishing Cain would move, blink—something.

"All right. The old man will probably call in an hour or so."

"No, it's fine, I'm just—"

With a sigh, Gin clicked off the phone. Ryomaru had hung up before she could get her sentence out. 'That figures . . . baka.'

'Don't worry about Ryo-nii,' her youkai growled. 'Worry about Cain. He still hasn't moved, not one inch.'

"Cain? What's . . . wrong . . .?"

Cain didn't answer. Slowly prowling in a wide circle around her, he kept his eyes on her as he stared, eyes incomprehensible, as he made the circuit around her living room. Gin drew her knees up, ducked her chin. In her human form, she couldn't smell very well, couldn't hear things that she normally could . . . She felt entirely vulnerable and almost afraid.

'Afraid? That . . . That's stupid!' she scoffed at her own thoughts. 'Afraid of Cain? No . . . I don't think I'd ever be afraid of Cain . . .'

Even still, there was something entirely unsettling about the way Cain was behaving. It was almost a morbid kind of fascination, wasn't there? Like she'd suddenly morphed into a weird kind of science experiment or something . . . Gin tried to figure out just what he was thinking, to no avail. Even if she could normally, which she really couldn't, she hadn't realized how much she relied on her other senses. The disadvantage left her with a knot in the pit of her stomach, an anxiety that rose thick in her chest despite her mental assurances that he was Cain, and she knew him.

"You're making me nervous," she finally blurted, unable to stand the mounting tension that hung in the air. Even in human form she could feel it. He needed to say something—anything—or she just might scream.

"You really look . . . different," he remarked without a change in facial expression. "Not like your mother, though . . . I can see her in you . . . just not as much as you led me to believe."

Gin wrapped her arms around her legs and rested her chin on her raised knees. "You probably shouldn't be here," she admitted, brushing aside the feeling that she would rather walk over a river of fire than to be left alone. "No one's supposed to know. Papa says it's dangerous."

Cain sank down on the sofa beside Gin and leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands dangling, and he shrugged. "Your secret's safe with me, but I don't see why you, of all people, would be in danger. Who would hurt you?"

"Why do you say that?" she couldn't help but ask.

Cain shrugged. "I can't see it . . . You're . . . They wouldn't. They couldn't."

His answer didn't really make sense. Gin sighed and scrunched her shoulders up. "It's not so much me, but . . . I suppose with Sesshoumaru-oji-san being tai-youkai here, and of course Papa being who he is . . . Ryomaru-nii's a hunter, and Kichiro-nii-chan . . . Well, he doesn't really make enemies, but he is well-known."

Cain nodded slowly but seemed surprised. "I see . . . Your brother is a hunter?"

"Yeah, and a few years ago he got into a pretty nasty confrontation with a gang of youkai . . . That didn't really help the situation. Papa's always been adamant that we hide our nights, but," she turned her head, resting her cheek on her knees as she stared in the general direction of the wall without really looking at it. "After that, Papa insisted that I stay in the house and near him in case something should happen. I mean, it's not like I was ever far from them on nights like tonight, anyway, but . . ."

"This is the first time you've been alone on your human night, isn't it?"

Gin nodded then shook her head as a little smile surfaced on her lips. "It was," she agreed, "but you're here now."

A startled expression momentarily passed over his features. "So I am."

 

 

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Cain was staring at Gin. He knew he was staring. He couldn't help it. He'd become so accustomed to seeing her with her long silver hair and golden eyes, with her easy smile and with those ears . . . Those little hanyou ears of hers had become mood indicators, and without those, she was far more mysterious. Her eyes were such a deep shade of brown that in the half-light of the living room, they looked black, and her silky silver hair had been replaced by glossy raven locks. The effect was astounding. Even as a human she'd possess the same allure that she did as a hanyou, and that was frightening enough. Darkness and light converged in her, and the contrast was amazing. More subdued, reluctant to move off the sofa, or so it seemed, the Gin he knew had been replaced for the night by this timid girl.

'She's scared, Cain. She's ready to jump at her own shadow. We might have come over here just to see what she looks like, but we really can't leave her, can we?'

'What do you expect? She's already said that she's never spent her human night alone. I might not like her father at all, but I have to respect a man who can protect his daughter the way InuYasha Izayoi has protected Gin.'

'Respect it? Sure . . . We can still take him . . .'

He shook his head and shot Gin a surreptitious glance. She was gazing at her human hands with a distinct frown, like she was willing them to be hanyou again. It had to be difficult, dealing with the complete change in perception and strengths when one was reduced to human state, even if it was only for a night. Bellaniece had trouble with nights like that, too. As an infant, she'd cried all night, and Cain could only try his best to comfort her despite the nagging feeling that he had somehow done that to her; that he was responsible for Bellaniece's upset. Child of a youkai and a human . . . hanyou . . .

There were always just enough days between those nights that she would forget the fear and the upset in the time between. Each month was another night like the month before, and Cain had gotten into the habit of being near her both before and after, making sure he was accessible to his daughter. Bellaniece would cry, and if Cain put her down, she'd scoot into a corner with her hands either covering her ears or tugging on her earlobes, staring at her surroundings with unmasked fear, complete dread, terror so deep that Cain could feel it, too.

'Come on, Cain . . . look at her! She looks . . . she looks like Bellaniece used to.'

'. . . I know.'

'We can't leave her like that, Cain . . . I mean, she's . . . she's scared.'

'I know that, too . . . What do you suggest, oh-ye-stupid-youkai?'

'I don't know . . . Make her smile, for God's sake! Hurry it up, will you? She just might cry . . .'

'How?'

'I don't know! You're the one in charge, here . . . Do something, and fast!'

"So what do you normally do at your parents' house on nights like tonight?" he asked, trying to cajole Gin out of her silence.

Gin looked confused. "Nothing . . . Mama normally looks at a magazine or something. Papa normally reads through school papers . . . Sometimes I sketched them, though. The twins are normally arguing . . . or trying to find new ways to annoy Papa . . ."

"Gin . . . are you okay?" he asked as he gently touched her arm.

Gin jumped and squeaked out a noise that resembled a yelp but didn't quite make it. "I'm fine!" she assured him, her smile too bright, too happy. "You, uh . . . You don't h-h-have to stay here . . ."

The phone rang again, and Cain winced as Gin repeated the process of nearly screaming. Scrambling for the telephone, she smashed her fist against her heart as she hit the 'talk' button with her free hand and lifted the phone to her human ear.

'Hear that, Cain? We can go . . . She doesn't need us . . . She said so.'

'She's lying. You know it, and I know it. Damn it, she's a rotten liar, isn't she?'

'Stop trying to be her hero! She doesn't need one; she has her papa . . . Unless you want to be her hero? Cain? Is that it?'

Cain snorted. 'Of course not. That's absurd.'

'Make up our mind, will you? I'm starting to get really confused.'

'I have made up my mind.'

'Maybe, but Gin—'

'Gin's a friend, and she's scared—that's all.'

'Fine, but just for the record? You might want to remember something else.'

'What?'

'You left Bellaniece home alone so you could come over here. You realize that, don't you?'

Cain didn't answer.

"I . . . um . . . err . . . uh . . . well . . . I-I-I don't know why Ryomaru would say that, Papa . . . I'm alone . . ." Gin insisted, wrapping a strand of hair around her fingers in a decidedly nervous manner. "No! No . . . I'm fine, really! You don't need to come over, and—"

Hiding his amusement behind a raised hand, Cain shook his head and wished he had a tablet and pens. The look on Gin's face was priceless, and he felt compelled to commit her image to paper. Her thin white cotton shorts billowed around her legs like one of the flirty little skirts she favored, and the light pink tank top didn't hide a thing.

When he had changed back from his energy form in the middle of the room only to see her contorted over the back of the sofa in that outfit that just didn't hide anything at all, he'd nearly stumbled. Coupled with the change in her appearance, and when she turned around . . . He hadn't realized what cooler air would do to her, but in that moment, staring at her in that flimsy, form-fitting shirt, he certainly learned fast. Wasn't it simpler to think that she was just too young from her demeanor and naiveté at times? The startling reminder that she wasn't nearly as much of a pup as he wanted to believe . . . It hadn't been kind to his equilibrium.

Huddled on the sofa with her legs drawn up to her chest as she leaned heavily against the back and rubbed her forehead in a defeated sort of way, Gin shot Cain a panicked glance, and he shrugged in helpless reply. Scrunching her toes up, she dug her feet into the cushions. Cain tamped down the perverse urge to grab her ankles and tickle the soles of her feet.

"No, Papa, it was the television," Gin insisted as she untangled her legs and stood up, heading toward the kitchen as she tried to placate her father. "I'm fine, I promise!"

His gaze fell on the coffee table. Her sketchpad lay open with a drafting pencil on top, and before he thought it over, he grabbed it and started to turn to a clean page.

'Wait, Cain . . . What's she drawing?'

Stopping at his youkai's question, Cain critically eyed the page. The sketch of a bare-chested man in baggy pants who didn't have a face yet despite the outline of the features and the soft graphite wisps of hair. 'Who . . .?'

His question trailed off as he narrowed his gaze. On the man's chest, wrapping around his sides over his abs, ending just past the concave of his ribs, the faint lines of definite stripes . . . 'Me?'

The knowledge that Gin had drawn him slammed straight through him, leaving him stunned as he slowly shook his head and tried to ignore the unmistakable wash of arrogant pride.

Gin set two bottles of water on the coffee table as she spoke into the phone, having not noticed that Cain was holding her sketchpad. "I'm fine, Papa, I swear . . . I'm just going to finish this sk-eee-etch . . ."

Cain jerked the tablet out of Gin's reach as the girl tried to grab it out of his hand. He glanced at her, eyebrows lifting as she blushed and swatted at the pad again and slowly, deliberately, got to his feet. "Give me that!" she hissed, hopping up and down as she tried to grab the sketchbook that he waved above her head. "What? No, Papa, nothing . . . I was, uh, err, umm, talking to the television—again."

"Forget it, baby girl," Cain teased in a whisper, lowering the book just enough to entice her before jerking it away.

She narrowed her gaze on him but refused to give up as she scampered onto the sofa and leaned toward him to grab the book. "Okay," she mumbled tilting her head to hold the phone and free both hands, "I know, 'don't let anyone into my apartment,' Papa.   Bye." Pausing long enough to disconnect the call before dropping the receiver into the sofa cushions beside her, Gin made a face as she grabbed at the notebook again. "Cain! Give me that!"

"You can have it if you can take it," he challenged, chuckling as Gin nearly lost her balance. She was maybe an inch or two taller than him, but her arms were too short to intercept the sketchpad.

"This isn't funny," she scolded. "Cain!"

"Something in here you don't want me to see?" he asked casually.

She wrinkled her nose as her cheeks reddened. "No!"

"Then why are you so anxious to get it back?"

"It's . . . mine!" she grunted as she hopped up and down again.

"You're going to fall if you're not careful," he told her.

Gin leaned on his shoulder and stretched for the book. "Cain! It's not very nice of you to take my sketchbook!"

"Yeah? And just what do you think you're going to do about it, baby girl?"

"You'll be sorry," she promised, pushing herself onto her tiptoes, leaning on his shoulder a little more, stretching her fingers out as she tried to grab the book again. "Cain, give it back!"

"Uh, err, um . . . well . . . no," he countered.

"Cain!"

"Beg me, Gin."

Her face contorted in an outraged frown. He laughed. "Please!"

"That wasn't begging," he remarked.

She growled in frustration, using his shoulder to launch herself a little higher as she bounced around to retrieve the book. "That's as close as you're going to get, mister!"

"Mister?" he choked.

"Yeah, mister! Give it back!"

"What'd you draw?"

"Nothing!"

"Tell me why I don't believe that."

"Because you're being stubborn and . . . mean!"

Cain twisted away from Gin, waving the sketchbook to further her irritation.

'She's right, Cain, you're really being mean.'

'At least she's not scared anymore.'

'Hmm . . . good point.'

'I thought so.'

"Ca-a-ain!" Gin whined, grabbing his arm and trying to pull it down.

"Give up! You can't bend my arm."

Gin let out a frustrated growl, catapulting herself onto his back when he started to step away.

'Good God, give it back, Cain! Give it back, now!'

"What are you—?" he rasped out as her arms tightened around his neck to keep herself from slipping off. Wrapping her legs around his waist as she clung to him, Cain winced and dropped the notebook onto the sofa. She made no move to let go. Cain gulped, trying to ignore the scent of her, trying to ignore the warmth of her body pressed so close to his. "Gin?"

"What?"

". . . I put your sketchpad down."

"I know."

"You going to get off my back now?"

"Nope."

He frowned. "Why not?"

She sighed. "If I let go, I'll fall," she admitted quietly.

He sighed, too. Lowering himself slowly onto the sofa so Gin could get down without falling, a million curses ran through his head. Every single movement created more movement, and by the time he'd sat down completely, his body was cursing him back.

Gin crawled away, retrieving her sketchbook off the sofa. With a pained grimace, he quickly looked away as she scampered to her feet and ran down the hallway to stash her precious sketchpad away.

"I, uh, better go check in on Bellaniece," Cain said when Gin re-emerged from the bedroom.

Gin tried to mask the momentary look of panic that flashed in her eyes as she crossed her arms over her chest. "O-Okay. I'll be fine. Thanks for . . . coming over . . ."

Cain flinched, her fear as real to him as it was to her. "I'll be right back," he assured her, lifting a hand to touch her then dropping it before he could.

"Oh, I'm fine," she lied, biting her lower lip so hard it turned white under her teeth.

"No, it's okay. Bellaniece is closer here than she ever was at home."

Gin shook her head.

He shrugged. "The mansion is pretty big."

"You're sure?"

He nodded, the need to break Gin out of her upset compelling him once more. "I, uh, err, um, well . . . Yeah, I'm sure."

She looked startled, her eyes slowly narrowing suspiciously. "You're teasing me, aren't you?"

Cain grinned just a little. "I, uh, err, um, well . . . Sure am."

She giggled. "Okay, then . . . I mean, if you're sure."

Cain nodded and stood, striding over to the window and transforming into his energy form again. Out the window and over to his own, he solidified in his living room. Bellaniece's door was still closed, and when he peeked inside, he could tell she was sleeping.

'Okay, I'd say that was kind of stupid,' his youkai pointed out in a wary tone.

'Yeah, yeah, it was.'

'It's probably advisable not to do that again . . .'

Cain nodded, stifling a groan. 'Yep.'

'. . . Unless she gets scared again, because we just can't let her do that, right?'

'Nope.'

His youkai was quiet a moment. Cain hoped it was finished talking. No such luck.

'Cain?'

'Huh?'

' . . . I really like that girl . . .'

Cain squeezed his eyes closed, deliberately trying not to think about the ramifications of what he was about to admit. '. . . So do I.'

 

 

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Gin held the throw pillow up to her face, cringing and groaning as the sounds of a particularly sickening death resounded in the quiet room.

"Put the pillow down and watch the movie," Cain remarked mildly.

"I don't want to," she mumbled, burying her face in the pillow again.

"You can't watch a scary movie but you can threaten to 'kick my butt?"

Giggling despite herself at the high pitched falsetto that he used for the last part of his question, Gin peeked at Cain over the top of the pillow. "They make it look really disgusting," she pointed out. "No one needs to see that."

His blue eyes glowed with a smile that he was feeling even though it didn't show. "Put the pillow down, Gin—it's fine."

She almost complied. Too bad another zombie on the movie decided to rip another hapless human in half—vertically. "Oh, no . . . Eww . . .!"

"Don't look at me," he complained as he settled back on the sofa. "You picked the movie."

"I didn't know it was going to be this gross," she shot back.

"Suck it up, baby girl. You're just trying to get me to feel sorry for you again."

She wrinkled her nose and opened her mouth to protest. The telephone trilled, and Gin rolled her eyes as she dug it out of the sofa cushions and clicked it on. "Hello?"

"Hi, Gin. Your father wanted me to call you to make sure you're still okay," Kagome said mildly.

"Yes, Mama, I'm fine," Gin answered, wincing again as another human bit the dust. Cain rolled his eyes. Gin shot him a narrow-eyed glare and rolled onto her knees, elbows propped on the arm of the sofa as she tapped her feet against the plush cushion. "How is everyone doing?"

Kagome sighed. "Same old stuff. Your father's been eyeing the door like he expects you to come in any minute, but he hasn't made a move to charge . . . yet."

"That bad?" Gin asked, gnawing on her lip as she tried to brush off the guilt that she really wasn't too sorry that she'd forgotten to go home in time. Idly pivoting her hips while her knees remained smashed into the sofa cushion, she tapped her claws on her free hand on the arm of the sofa as she pressed the phone a little tighter against her ear, unmindful of the way she just happened to be wiggling her rear, right in Cain's face. Cain shot to his feet and hurried toward the kitchen.

"Well, you know your father. He misses you, and he's worried about you."

"I miss him, too," Gin mumbled.

"InuYasha can come get you. He doesn't like to leave the house on the new moon, but—"

"Oh, I'm fine, Mama! He doesn't have to come over!" Gin hurried to say.

Kagome was silent a moment. "Really."

Gin winced. Fooling her father and brothers might be hard, but fooling her mother? That was darned near impossible on her best day . . .

"Gin, you're sure you're all right?"

"Uh-huh," she said, careful to keep her tone as normal as she could. "I was just going to go to bed when you called. Might as well since, you know, I can't go anywhere, and since no one would come over. Why would someone do that?"

"Hmm," Kagome agreed when Gin forced a weak laugh. "I see . . ."

"Anyway . . ."

"Gin," Kagome interrupted, her voice dropping to nearly a whisper. "You know I trust you, right? You know I believe that you've learned the lessons your father and I have taught you. Just be careful; promise me."

Gin nodded. "I promise."

"There's a good girl. I'm going to try to force your father to bed. Come by in the morning to let him see that you're safe, okay?"

"Okay," she agreed.

Kagome made a kissing sound. "Night, Gin. Behave."

Gin rolled her eyes but grinned. "Night, Mama. Give Papa a kiss for me." She hung up the phone with a sigh and a giggle as Cain held a bottle of water in front of her face. "Thanks," she said as she took it.

"Yeah," he agreed. His tight, clipped tone was harsh.

Gin glanced up at him with a confused frown. "Cain? Are you okay?"

"Yeah," he repeated, slumping back against the wall and glaring at the television with a deep scowl as he lifted his bottle of water to his lips.

Gin cocked her head to the side. "You don't sound okay . . ."

"Just fine," he assured her.

"But . . . why are you standing up?"

"Tired of sitting."

"Are you angry?"

"Nope."

"Are you sure?"

"Yep."

". . . O-Okay."

"Gin?"

"Hmm?"

"Would you do me a favor without questioning it?"

Gin shrugged. "Okay."

"Sit down."

"Sit down?"

"Yeah, sit down."

"Why would you—?"

"Without questioning it, remember?"

Gin snapped her mouth closed and sat back on her knees. "Now will you tell me why?"

Cain wrinkled his nose as he pushed away from the wall and hesitantly made his way over to the sofa. "Nope."

Gin shifted her legs to turn toward him as he sat down. "I thought you said you were tired of sitting."

He didn't answer.

She shook her head, shoulders slumping in defeat. "I thought you said you were okay."

He still didn't answer.

Her chin dropped against her chest as she stared at her hands. "I thought you said you weren't angry."

Cain sighed. "I'm not, Gin."

"You're sure?"

"You're missing the rest of the movie," he pointed out.

She made a face. "I don't like it, anyway."

He lifted his eyebrows as Gin yawned and wiped her eyes. "You should get some sleep. You told your mother you were going to bed."

Gin waved a hand dismissively. "I will . . ."

Cain stared at her for a moment before shaking his head once and holding out his hand. She blinked as she stared at it. He curled his fingers. "Come here, Gin."

"Cain?"

"Come here," he prodded.

Gin slowly slipped her hand into his. He pulled her toward him, settled her in the crook of his arm, against his chest. Gin sighed happily.

"Now go to sleep," he commanded gruffly but with a warmth that he couldn't hide.

"You'll stay till I'm asleep?"

A tender smile quirked the corners of his lips, lit the depths of his gaze with a certain softness. "Yeah," he murmured as he wrapped his arms around her. "I'll stay till you're asleep."

She smiled, letting her eyes drift closed as she nestled closer against him. "Okay."

She thought she heard him sigh, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Cain crossed his arms over his chest and glowered at the young man Bellaniece had introduced as Raidon just before she'd slipped off to finish getting ready for her date.

"Tell me, Raidon . . . just what do you think you're going to do with my daughter?" Cain demanded in an overly reasonable tone.

Raidon shifted from one foot to the other, hitching his shoulders and straightening the collar of his white dress shirt. "Dinner and a movie," he answered almost tentatively.

Cain nodded slowly. "And you'll have her home by eleven."

Raidon winced. "Well, the movie—"

Cain snorted. "Pfft. Eleven or you'll never see Bellaniece again."

"Eleven's fine, Zelig-san," Raidon agreed quickly.

Tapping his index finger against his lips, Cain regarded the young man for a moment before cracking his knuckles and adding, "And just so you know: if you try anything with my daughter, I'll rip it off."

He wasn't surprised to see the young man gulp, eyes wide, and when Bellaniece breezed around the corner from the hallway, Raidon didn't look at all relieved. Satisfied that he'd made his point quite clear, Cain pasted on a tepid smile and leaned down so that Bellaniece could kiss his cheek. "I'm ready . . . Sorry to keep you waiting," she said to Raidon. "I'll be home early, Daddy!"

"You bet you will," Cain muttered as Bellaniece wiggled her fingers in parting before slipping out of the apartment. Raidon gulped again and bowed before scurrying off after Bellaniece.

'Talk about a power play,' Cain's youkai scoffed.

'Nothing wrong with ensuring that my daughter's safe on her insignificant little dates.'

'Insignificant? What if that was her future mate you just scared the shit out of?'

'If that was her future mate, he'd have had the balls to stand up to me, damn it.'

'Balls, Cain? Really . . . I think Bellaniece's slang is starting to rub off on you.'

'And just when has my daughter said, 'balls'?'

'You know what I mean.'

Grimacing as he thought about Bellaniece's penchant for being way too blunt, Cain sighed. 'Too much like her mother . . .'

Striding toward the window to gaze down at the street below, Cain watched through narrowed eyes until Bellaniece and her date disappeared around the corner at the end of the block. Raidon kept a respectful distance from her, and Cain couldn't help the little smile.

'I thought you wanted her to find a mate.'

Cain wrinkled his nose, shook his head as he pulled a cigarette from the rumpled pack in his pocket and lit it. 'There's no rush,' he countered. 'She's only seventeen . . . She just finished high school.'

'She's almost eighteen, and you're not doing yourself any favors by prolonging everything.'

'I'm not prolonging anything. I'm being realistic. Bellaniece hasn't met her mate yet. That's all.'

'This doesn't really have anything to do with Bellaniece, does it?'

Cain drew a deep drag off his cigarette. 'I don't know what you mean.'

'Don't be stupid, Cain. This is about Gin, isn't it?'

'Not following.'

'Because you don't want to . . . Listen, I like her too, you know? I really like her. I might like her a little too much . . .'

Cain shook his head, tapping his cigarette in the empty ashtray on the window sill. 'That's impossible. She's just a nice girl—a friend.'

'And this morning? What was she then?'

Cain closed his eyes, willing himself not to remember, not to think about how it felt, to wake up on Gin's sofa with her cuddled against him, with her fingers twined in his hair . . . 'She was scared, remember?'

'Sure, she was scared. You got to be her hero, didn't you? You saved her from the ghosts and the monsters that only she can see, and only when she's human, right? The trouble is you've already said that you're going to keep your promise, so are you? Because Gin . . . She doesn't know about that, does she?'

'Of course she doesn't. She doesn't need to know. Gin and me . . . It's not serious. There's nothing more to it than . . . than . . .'

'Than what, Cain? You don't know, do you? You . . . You do still want to keep your promise, right?'

Cain winced, crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and turned away from the window. 'I've never wanted to keep that promise, but I have to. I owe her.'

'If that's the case, then do us both a favor and stay away from Gin Izayoi. She's . . . dangerous.'

'Gin's harmless.'

'Is she? Then tell me something . . . Why couldn't you leave her last night, and why are you wearing that shirt she bought you?'

It was easier to tell himself that he couldn't leave her while she was so frightened, wasn't it? She'd relaxed in his arms, had acquiesced so easily, as he held her close. She had the blind faith of a child, trusting him to make sure she was safe through the night, and he had done that for her—just for her. She hadn't even stirred when he'd moved her so that he could stretch out on the sofa, too. She sighed contentedly and tangled her fingers into his hair and had cuddled a little closer to him, her hand resting on his chest, over his heart.

He'd taken entirely too long, just staring at her. Her hair had spilled over him, the stark contrast between her black hair and her pale skin striking, remarkable. Her fragrance had lost some of the wilder, more untamed undertones, and the absolute sweetness of her was both terrifying and welcome. She called to him in the deepest part of her spirit; he could hear her, and he wanted to answer. He'd never encountered a woman like her before, and he knew he never would again.

Waking up in the middle of the night and finding himself still on Gin's sofa with her nestled as close as she could, he had tried to get up, to move her so that she wouldn't miss him. Whether it was because of the loss of warmth from his body or the subtle movement, she whimpered softly, her brow furrowing as she tightened her hand in his hair. Cain hadn't had the heart to wake her, and in the end, he'd fallen back to sleep, too.

He wasn't sure what woke him just before dawn. A cool breeze was filtering through the window, and Gin had nuzzled a little closer, seeking his body heat as she burrowed deeper against his side. The guilt of having stayed with her all night was tempered by the wonder of her as he watched the first rays of dawn filtering through the windows, hitting her hand; a sickly, pathetic attempt at a pale, watery gray light. The rising sun had been kind, however; creeping across her skin as the light changed from grayish to a warmer shade. He stroked her arm gently, buried his nose in her hair, inhaled the evolving scent of her, and when he slowly opened his eyes, he watched as the black hair faded, as wisps of silver infiltrated the darkness. For just a moment, her hair was both shades, and in the blink of an eye, the hanyou he knew best was lying in his arms where the timid human girl had been only seconds before.

Leaving her was the last thing that he wanted to do, but he also knew that Bellaniece would be waking up soon. Wincing as a guilty pang ripped through him, Cain sighed softly and sat up, lifting Gin in his arms without disturbing her sleep before he carried her back to her bedroom. She whined when he put her to bed. The cold sheets spurred a violent eruption of gooseflesh on her diminutive frame. He tucked the comforter under her chin and couldn't resist touching her hair again, the silky locks falling through his fingers like rain. She smiled dreamily as she snuggled deeper into her pillow, and Cain stared at her for another moment before he turned to go.

"Cain . . . shirt . . ." she murmured.

Cain saw the shirt draped over a chair. With a half-smile, he grabbed it, bringing it to his nose and inhaling the scent of her that had permeated the fabric. "Thanks, Gin."

"Hmm."

Bellaniece was still sleeping when he returned to his apartment. She probably hadn't missed him at all. Guilt that he'd forgotten about his own daughter warred with the sense of melancholy that she really wasn't the little girl he used to tuck in at night. Cain stood in Bellaniece's doorway for several minutes, watching over her as she slept before quietly pulling her door closed and heading for the bathroom.

The tepid water did little to dispel the conflicting thoughts that tumbled around his brain. He never should have gone over to Gin's apartment last night. There were a lot of things that he shouldn't have done. From the moment he'd met Gin, he'd known she was different. She could make him forget his resolve, could change his mind a hundred times with little more than a smile, could twist his emotions with a word or a touch. She was all the things he wasn't; she was everything he could never, ever have. If he could remember that last part whenever she was around, he'd be one step ahead of the game . . .

He pulled the shirt on after his shower. He hadn't stopped to question it. Gin's scent was too prevalent, too comforting. Cain breathed deep and sighed.

Gazing around the empty apartment, he slowly shook his head. His eyes lit on the statue he'd never finished, and he winced. It was a painful reminder: a bitter, hurtful thing. 'Isabelle . . .'

'Isabelle never did that, did she? She never held you like that . . .'

Cain walked over to the sculpture, frowned as he ran a claw down the silhouette. 'No, she never did. She let me hold her, but . . .'

'But it isn't the same, is it? Isabelle never needed a hero, did she? Isabelle never . . . but Gin . . .'

'Don't say it, okay?'

His youkai sighed. 'Okay.'

 

 

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"Go on; have fun! They'll be fine!" Kagome insisted as she propelled Sierra toward the door. Coral and Cassidy's laughter rang out from the living room as InuYasha followed them into the foyer with both girls hanging onto his back.

Sierra smiled at her daughters and shook her head. "Coral, Cass, be nice to Uncle Yasha, all right?"

Coral's tiny black puppy ears twitched as the nearly five year-old made a face. "Keh! Mama, I'm fine!"

"Yeah, fine!" three year-old Cassidy agreed. "Keh!"

InuYasha grinned at the girls' affectations of him. "Oi, you heard the pups."

Sierra rolled her eyes as Kichiro opened the door. "Come on, already. The movie will start whether we're there or not," he grouched but not unkindly.

"All right. Gin-chan, are you sure you don't want to come along?" Sierra asked, leaning to the side to peek around InuYasha at the girl in question.

Gin wrinkled her nose and waved her hand dismissively as she pulled Cassidy off InuYasha's back. I'd love to, but I have to sketch a tree for class tomorrow. Have fun for me, okay?"

Sierra nodded. "We'll be back soon."

Kichiro quickly kissed Kagome's cheek before following Sierra out of the house and closing the door. Ryomaru was in his car, revving the engine impatiently. "He's going to break it again," Sierra commented.

"Yeah . . . I think he does it on purpose nowadays," Kichiro agreed as he opened the car door for Sierra.

"I'd rather run," Ryomaru grumbled as Kichiro strode around the car to climb in.

"We can't," Nezumi pointed out reasonably. "Toga would flip if we didn't take the car."

"Well, Toga-chan ain't here, is he?" Ryomaru shot back.

Sierra tucked a strand of strawberry-blonde hair behind her ear and shrugged. "If Toga were here, I'd be in bed, not going to the movies. You'd think I was on death's door instead of just pregnant."

Kichiro grinned to himself since he knew that he was about to instigate a war. "Hmm, well . . . Ryomaru'll probably feel the same way when you're pregnant, Nez."

"Yet another reason not to have babies," Nezumi grumbled, her cheeks pinking as Kichiro tried not to laugh. She and Ryomaru been mated for five years, but Kichiro supposed some things would never change. Nezumi hadn't ever been comfortable discussing 'girly' things, and babies . . . Babies were very girly.

"Oi!" Ryomaru growled as he pulled out of the driveway and onto the tiny road that led to the city. "No one can be as bad as Toga . . ."

"So, you wouldn't try to tell me that I couldn't do my normal stuff?" Nezumi asked.

"Well . . . balls, no! Like you'd listen to me, anyway . . ."

"You're proud of yourself, aren't you?" Sierra accused as Kichiro watched the escalating argument.

"Who? Me? No . . ."

She wrinkled her nose. "You are . . . Anyway, I guess this means you're my date for the evening."

Kichiro grinned. "Sure . . . Does that mean I can put my arm around you?" he asked, snaking his hand along the top of the seat.

Sierra snorted and slapped his hand away but winked at him. "Just because Toga's out of town on business doesn't mean that I'm that kind of girl."

"Damn."

". . . You'll have to buy me dinner, at least—and maybe movie snacks, too."

Kichiro chuckled. "I could do that," he assured her with a conspiratorial wink.

She laughed. Ryomaru and Nezumi kept arguing. Kichiro sat back and turned his attention out the window. 'This . . . might be fun, after all . . .'

 

 

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Bellaniece waited patiently while Raidon bought tickets for the movie and tried not to wonder how rude it would be if she suddenly came down with a headache. Dinner had been a dismal affair. Raidon—she'd at least hoped he'd be a little more interesting than watching paint dry on a wall—had blushed and stammered when she smiled at him once. She hadn't been too put off by that until he gave her a strange look when she ordered a big, juicy hamburger that hadn't tasted at all like the ones she was accustomed to in the United States. Then he'd walked so quickly that she had to hurry to keep up with him once they left the restaurant. He barely spoke to her at all, and when he did, it was stilted conversation.   The entire date was a waste.

'Yep, this guy . . . Wow, Belle, he's just . . . ugh.'

Bellaniece frowned as she clasped her hands and absently studied the movie poster hanging in the waterproof display case. 'Yeah, he is,' she agreed listlessly. There wasn't any real point of trying to convince herself otherwise. 'It wasn't at all like dinner with Dr. Izayoi.   He was so smart, so articulated . . . At least, he was until he turned nasty, anyway . . .'

'So you do like him.'

Bellaniece sighed. 'Of course not. I was simply stating the obvious. Kichiro Izayoi isn't the man for me. I'm not that sadistic.'

'Face it, Belle: the only thing you don't like about him is that he makes you second-guess yourself. He makes you look at those parts of yourself that you don't want to see.'

'Maybe. Even then, there just isn't a middle ground with him, is there? Either he's entirely mean or he's way too charming . . .'

'What is it you're looking for? You're not going to find a perfect man, you know.'

Bellaniece glanced over her shoulder. Raidon was still in line. She caught his eye and offered him a tentative smile. He reddened a little and quickly looked away. 'I don't want perfect. I'd be happy with someone who lets me be me.'

'And how will you find him when you're always hiding behind fronts? Belle, do you even know who you really are?'

'It's a moot point now,' she insisted. 'I'm much too young to be mated. It's not that big a thing.'

'Oh, the little girl is back, isn't she?'

"Well . . . Isn't it past your curfew, Belle-chan?"

Bellaniece gasped and stiffened as the unfriendly sneer snapped her out of her musings. She'd been so deep in thought that she hadn't sensed anyone's approach, least of all his. Slowly pivoting to face him, Bellaniece carefully cleared her expression. Kichiro was glowering down at her like she was little more than dirt beneath his expensive shoes, and she smiled insincerely. "Ah, the ever-pleasant Dr. Izayoi. Fancy meeting you here."

Kichiro's grin was just as tight as hers. "So your father isn't wise enough to keep a leash on you at night?"

"I'm on a date," she replied, her gaze flicking coolly over the hanyou. Dressed as immaculately as ever, the only real difference was that he had his hair out of that God-awful braid he normally wore, and the effect, she had to admit, was remarkable. Lending him a dangerous air, the loose, thick strands lifted and flowed with the breeze. "I'll thank you not to criticize my father."

"So don't thank me," he countered. "You mean you found some baka willing to date you? Where is the poor fool?"

"It's really none of your business, is it?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

Kichiro smiled insincerely. "Not in the least. Just thought I'd warn him about your tricks."

"Oi, Kich . . . Oh, it's the grabby wench. What the hell is she doing here?" Ryomaru snorted as he and Nezumi along with a third woman that Bellaniece didn't know stopped behind Kichiro.

Bellaniece stifled a sigh. "Do you own this theater?"

Kichiro snorted. "Of course not."

"Then is there a reason that I can't be here?"

"I don't care if you're here or not," Kichiro replied. "Why would it matter to me?"

"I don't know. You tell me."

"It don't matter," Ryomaru cut in. "Come on, Kich."

"Where's your manners, baka?" Nezumi cut in as she elbowed her mate in the ribs. "I'm Nezumi."

"Keh! Whatever. I'm going to get the tickets."

"Pleased to meet you," Bellaniece answered with a nod as she turned her attention away from Kichiro and ignoring Ryomaru completely.

"And I'm Sierra," the second woman said with a friendly smile, "Kich's 'date' for the evening."

"Date?" Bellaniece echoed, ignoring the flare of irritation inspired by the claim.

"Yep, my date," Kichiro added.

'She smells vaguely familiar,' Bellaniece's youkai muttered. 'Not her, exactly, but like someone we've met before . . .'

'Yes, she does, but I have no idea why.'

"I'm Bellaniece."

"Oh, Kichiro's new secretary?"

Bellaniece nodded. "That's me."

"Hmm . . . Is it true? Are Ryo's ears really softer than Kich's?"

Bellaniece blinked in surprise, and she couldn't help but smile as she shifted her gaze back to Kichiro again. He was a little flushed though she couldn't tell if he was embarrassed or angry. Either would do, she figured. He deserved just a little comeuppance, didn't he? She didn't seek him out to start another round of their war. "Absolutely," Bellaniece stated. "Much softer . . . like comparing silk and sandpaper."

Kichiro couldn't contain his indignant growl. Bellaniece squelched her amusement as Sierra tried to grab his ear. "They're the same, little girl—the same!"

"To humans, maybe. I've told you, humans can't feel the difference," she pointed out in a sugary tone. "If you don't believe me . . ."

Sierra sighed. "I really want some fried chicken."

Bellaniece shook her head. "Fried chicken?"

"Yes . . . I don't mind pregnancy as much as I mind the odd cravings . . ."

"Pregnant?" Bellaniece repeated though it seemed obvious to her now. The woman was too slender for the slightly distended belly not to be the sign of pregnancy. Curse Kichiro Izayoi for not telling her that sooner. "You're dating a pregnant woman?"

Kichiro shrugged but didn't answer. Nezumi rolled her eyes. "She's married to his cousin," she explained. "Kich's being an ass."

"You're married to Toga, right? That's why you smell familiar . . ."

Sierra looked surprised but smiled. "Yep, I'm Toga's wife . . . mate . . . keeper . . ."

Bellaniece digested that for a moment before she smiled insincerely at Kichiro again. "That's so sad . . . You can't find a date of your own so you have to date your cousin's wife? No wonder you're always in such a bad mood."

"Toga's out of town," Kichiro snarled, "and Sierra wanted to see the movie. I'm nice like that."

Bellaniece's arched eyebrow left little doubt as to what she thought of his claim.

"You've met Toga before?" Sierra asked before Kichiro could muster more venom.

"No, but Daddy was fostered with parents. It's been a long time since we've seen them, though."

"So, your father's friends with Inutaisho-san?" Nezumi questioned. "Wait . . . Your father must be the North American tai-youkai. Ryo mentioned that he was coming here. Guess they were worried about security."

Kichiro snorted. "Yeah, that's enough small talk, isn't it? Are you sure you have a date, little girl? You wouldn't just be saying that so you don't look pathetic, would you?"

"Pathetic? Who's running around saying his cousin's wife is his date?" Bellaniece countered sweetly.

"At least I have a date," he shot back.

"Or maybe it isn't pathetic? Maybe . . ." Bellaniece trailed off, eyes widening as she pointed at Kichiro's chest. "Of course! I get it now! Oh, it was so obvious, how could I have missed that?"

His gaze narrowed as he crossed his arms over his chest. "What's that?"

"You're gay, aren't you?"

Nezumi laughed before smashing a hand to her mouth to stop it. Sierra choked and cleared her throat loudly. Kichiro looked like he was ready to lose what little control he had over his temper. Bellaniece waited patiently for the tirade.

"Who said—? I'm not—That's not—I'm not gay!"

"That would explain your wardrobe," Nezumi said reasonably despite the strain to keep her face from registering her amusement.

"That's true," Sierra agreed. "I mean, he has more clothes than most women . . . not to mention his always-perfect hair."

"Oi!" Kichiro growled. "I'm right here, and I repeat: I'm not gay."

"It's not healthy to live in denial, Dr. Izayoi," Bellaniece added.

"Don't forget his affinity for musicals," Nezumi remarked.

"This explains so much!" Sierra marveled.

"It does not, because I am not!" Kichiro argued.

"Are you anti-gay?" Bellaniece asked.

"No!"

"Then why are you so upset?"

He opened his mouth and snapped it closed a few times, unable to form words as he fought back the violent wash of color that infiltrated his skin. "Because, while I have nothing against gays, I am not one, got it?"

Bellaniece shook her head slowly, clucking her tongue as she did it. "You know, Dr. Izayoi, you're a little too vehement in your denial."

"Belle—"

"Bellaniece-san? Are you ready?"

Bellaniece smiled as Raidon hesitantly approached with movie tickets in hand. "It was so nice meeting you," she assured the women. "Bye, Dr. Izayoi."

Kichiro growled as Bellaniece grabbed Raidon's hand and led him into the theater. Her smile widened. She was sure he'd try to find a way to get her back for her statements. Then again, maybe he'd think twice before he sought her out to target with his nastiness in the future.

'That wasn't very nice, Belle,' her youkai spoke up.

Bellaniece scooted into an empty seat inside, adjusting her skirt. Raidon mumbled something about being right back and took off again. 'Well, Kichiro wasn't very nice, either. How much of his insulting behavior do you think I'll stand for?'

'You hit him right in the ego, you know.'

'Yes, well, that never stops him from doing the same thing to me, does it?'

'Belle, you're playing with fire.'

'Maybe. He is, too.'

Her youkai sighed. 'All right. Don't say I didn't warn you.'

 

 

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"Wow, Kich . . . she was something," Sierra commented as Kichiro growled at Bellaniece's retreating form.

"Hmm, yeah . . . If I didn't know you better, I'd say she had some pretty valid points," Nezumi said slowly.

"That isn't even remotely funny," Kichiro snarled.

"Of course it isn't," Sierra said soothingly. "We all know you're a man-whore."

"Oi!"

"Don't worry, Kich . . . Just because Ryo's ears are softer—" Nezumi began.

"The hell!" Kichiro grumbled, hot color flooding his features as he swung around and stomped away.

"Oh, no! You can't stand me up!" Sierra giggled.

"Keh!"

Nezumi laughed as the women watched the hanyou's angry retreat. "I can't say he didn't deserve that," she admitted.

"That's true . . . He was being rather obnoxious, wasn't he?" Sierra agreed.

"Yeah, he was . . . Weird."

Sierra's laughter died away as a calculating grin surfaced instead. "You know, Nez . . . Those two really hated each other, didn't they?"

Nezumi took a ticket from Ryomaru and shrugged. "Sure."

"Hmm . . ."

"What are you thinking?" Ryomaru demanded.

Sierra stared at her ticket for a few moments. "Well, you know what they say: it's a fine line between love and hate."

"Are you talking about that grabby wench?" Ryomaru grumbled. "Forget it. Kich can't stand her, or didn't you notice?"

"What I noticed was your brother who never, ever loses his cool, completely losing it over that girl."

Ryomaru made a face. "She called him gay . . . Kich might overlook a lot of things, but . . ."

"And he called me a lesbian," Nezumi pointed out. "Kich'll get over it."

Ryomaru snorted. "Lesbian, my ass."

Sierra rolled her eyes. "All right, don't believe me, but I'm telling you, there's something there . . ."

Nezumi shrugged as Ryomaru yanked the door open and held it. "Yak about it later, okay? We're gonna miss the movie."

Sierra trailed after the couple as they entered the theater. Bellaniece might have tweaked Kichiro's pride, but she hadn't been mistaken. Kichiro's reaction to Bellaniece's date hadn't been disguised at all. 'Interesting . . . very interesting . . . Kich is . . . jealous . . .'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kichiro unlocked the door and stepped into the dimly lit office, ignoring the voice in the back of his mind that told him just how petty and ridiculous he was being.

'She started it.'

'Oh, for kami's sake, Kich . . . You do hear yourself, right? Do you know how stupid you sound?'

Kichiro drew the blinds open and stared out the window for a few seconds before turning on the overhead light and stomping back toward his office. 'She did, or weren't you there?'

'Yeah, yeah, I was there. Thought you said you don't care what Belle thinks.'

'. . . I don't.'

'Uh-huh.'

'Oh, shut the hell up.'

'Now that's mature.'

'I'm past caring, you know. She started it. She always starts it—'

'Except when you do.'

'I do not!'

'No? Then you didn't blow an ass gasket and leave her sitting in the middle of a restaurant alone? So you didn't make her walk home at night by herself? Oh, yeah, and you sure as hell didn't seek her out at the movie theater last night just to get all bent because she wasn't jumping for joy to see you? Baka.'

'Whose youkai are you? Mine or hers?'

'Yours for the moment though I did ask for a change of host since you're an idiot.'

'Hmm, well until that transfer comes through for you, do me a favor and shut up, okay? Save me the trouble of hearing your inane babble.'

'. . . Sierra was your date . . . you know, Kich . . . can I ask you something?'

'. . . It depends.'

'. . . Are we gay?'

Kichiro's growling filled the empty office with a menacing air. Pondering how hard it would be, to filter the youkai blood out of his system, he refused to answer that particular question as he flopped into his desk chair and pulled the manila file toward him.

According to the records, it had been nearly nine months since Kelly Hendricks' accident. The latest lab reports and the skin analysis showed that she was almost ready for the first of the reconstructive surgeries. If everything continued to progress, she'd be ready in less than a month, which would mean that Kichiro would need to head over to the United States in a couple weeks. He'd already applied for the necessary work visa as well as the interim permit that would allow him to practice medicine in the States. As soon as those came through, he was good to go . . .

'Good . . . at least I'll get away from her, even though I have a sneaking suspicion that an ocean isn't nearly enough space for my comfort.'

'You know, Kich, there's something you've probably not considered.'

'You, again? Thought I told you to shut up.'

'Yeah, you did. Anyway, have you thought about the fact that Kelly is Belle's best friend?'

Kichiro snorted. 'Well, yeah, that was sort of obvious.'

'Was it? So you also realized that there's a damn good chance she'll want to be there for her friend's surgery.'

No, he hadn't really considered that even though he probably should have. It hadn't occurred to him at all, in fact, and that his youkai was so obviously willing to point this out to him . . .

Kichiro dropped his forehead into his hand and closed his eyes. 'There's no way in hell she's going with me,' he stated. 'I'd rather be dead . . . Her father wouldn't let her go with me, anyway. No father in his right mind would.'

'He would if he thinks you're gay—a very real possibility if Belle tells her father about your confrontation last night.'

'For the last fucking time, I'm not fucking gay, and if you say that again, I swear to kami, I'll hook us up to an IV and turn myself human—see if I don't . . .'

'As if you could! Balls, Kich, you're really touchy today . . .'

'You think?'

'Yeah . . . you need to get laid.'

Kichiro just groaned at that simplistic reply and shoved himself away from the desk as he shot to his feet and strode out of his office.

Bellaniece breezed through the door with a scowl on her face and sunglasses covering her eyes. She pulled them off and spared Kichiro a glance that seemed to miss him completely, scanning the waiting room with a discerning eye before she strolled over to her desk, tossed her sunglasses down, and stowed her purse on the floor before smoothing the skirt of her light yellow dress.

'Oh, hell, no . . . she's not going to ignore me, not after her line of shit last night,' he fumed as he summoned the brightest smile he could manage. Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he casually strolled over to her and sat on the corner of her desk. "Morning, Belle-chan. How was your date?"

"It was fine," she replied, her smile rivaling his in falseness. "Perfect . . . Couldn't have asked for a nicer date."

"Well, great," he assured her. "Just wonderful. I'm glad to hear it."

"Are you? Good . . . I'm sorry your . . . date . . . ended so abruptly."

"What, that? It was fine, just fine. Sierra had a good time, and I . . . Well, I found something to do."

She almost smiled. "Oh? Interesting . . ."

The door rattled as Mai hurried in. The older woman stopped short, stared from Kichiro to Bellaniece and back again. "Good morning, Mai-san," Kichiro greeted with a bright smile.

The secretary's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You're here early today, Izayoi-sensei . . . and you're . . . happy."

Bellaniece snorted. "Isn't he? It's so nice, isn't it? So upbeat and pleasant . . . makes me so glad I came to work today!"

Kichiro's smile widened. "Ah, always a ray of sunshine, aren't you, Belle-chan?"

"Well, I do try."

"Oh, absolutely," Kichiro agreed.

"Are you sure everything is all right?" Mai asked, shaking her head in confusion at the odd behavior coming at her from both Bellaniece and Kichiro.

"Couldn't be better," Kichiro assured her.

"Nothing wrong at all," Bellaniece granted.

"That's right. Now if you ladies will excuse me, I've got to get ready for my first appointment."

Kichiro stood up and headed out of the reception area.

'Balls, Kich . . . All that niceness was enough to choke me.'

'Tell me about it.'

'You know, Belle looks damn fine this morning.'

'Does she?'

'Don't tell me you didn't notice.'

Kich snorted as he grabbed the first file in the holder on his desk and sank down. 'All right, then . . . I won't tell you I didn't notice.'

'So you did notice!'

'No . . . I just said I wouldn't tell you that I didn't . . . but I didn't.'

'Lying to others is one thing; lying to yourself? That's just bad.'

'Yeah? Well, I don't remember asking your opinion.'

'Let's face it, shall we? You just don't like that Belle is just as good at your game of belittling as you are . . . Bad enough when she was picking at our ears—which are just as soft as Ryo's . . . probably . . . but—'

'What do you mean, 'probably'? We're twins—identical twins—remember?'

'Sure, but his could be softer . . .'

Kichiro grumbled as he dropped the file onto his desk and grabbed a pen. 'Do me a favor, will you? Shut the hell up already! Softer ears, my—'

'Okay, Kich, you win for now. I'll keep my opinions to myself if you'll admit one thing.'

'What?'

'Admit that you can't stand the idea that Belle's dating that weak little human.'

Kichiro snorted. 'Keh. I don't care who she dates or what she does. She's not my concern.'

'Maybe not, but somewhere deep inside, you wish she was.'

'About as much as I wish I were . . .' Kichiro trailed off, tossing the pen onto his desk as he heaved a disgusted sigh.

'Go on, say it . . . You were going to say 'gay', weren't you?'

'No!'

His youkai chuckled but finally left him alone.

 

 

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Gin flicked her ears as she concentrated on the sketch of the day's model. The girl looked bored, which was funny since she was nude and sitting in the middle of a room of art students, roughly half of which were boys.

Tapping the end of her pencil against the sketchpad in front of her, Gin frowned at her drawing as she made a face at the image. 'Something's off . . . The proportions are wrong.'

With a sigh, she erased the girl's torso—the part that had been giving her the most trouble—before setting to work again. Lifting her chin as she studied the model, Gin tilted her head to the side.

'That sketch isn't that bad, Gin. You're being too critical. Cain doesn't expect it to be perfect, otherwise this wouldn't be a class . . . Get it?'

Gin grimaced. 'Of course not, but there's nothing wrong with trying a little harder.'

'You know, I was thinking . . . Did it seem to you that your mother wanted to ask you something when you were over there yesterday?'

'I thought so, too . . .'

That was true. Kagome had looked at Gin, stared at her as though there were something that she wanted to ask, but didn't know how. She hadn't asked a thing, but Gin had sensed her unasked questions.

'Speaking of yesterday, that was nice.'

'What was?' Gin asked. She had a feeling she knew what her youkai was talking about, but . . .

'You know what: waking up with Cain there.'

Gin blushed as a little grin surfaced on her face, as her stomach turned over in a delightful tremor. She hadn't been awake enough to say much and had struggled to remind him to take his shirt, but it had occurred to her that he had stayed with her all night. He'd made sure that she was protected. He kept her irrational fears of being human at bay. It was a strange thing, really. Even in her father's house, even surrounded by her father and brothers and mother, she'd never been able to sleep on such nights, but having Cain there . . .

'I can't remember having slept so well,' she confessed.

'Me, either.'

'It was nice.'

'Yeah, it was . . . really, really nice.'

She couldn't go back to sleep after he left, so she got up and showered and was just drinking a cup of tea when the loud knock announced her parents' arrivals. InuYasha had stomped in and looked around slowly, as if he expected someone to jump out of the shadows inside the apartment.

"Morning, Papa! Morning, Mama! Would you like some tea?"

InuYasha strode deliberately toward the sofa. "Tell me why I smell that bastard here."

Gin grimaced as Kagome pulled a mug out of the cupboard. "What bas—?"

"Don't give me that, baby girl! That sensei of yours."

"Do you smell him? I hadn't noticed . . ."

InuYasha slowly turned his head to stare at his daughter before stomping over to her and sniffing. Gin tried not to wince. "Papa?"

He glowered at her another moment or two then nodded once. "Well, you don't smell like him . . . Are you sure you were alone last night?"

Gin nearly choked on her tea but managed to swallow without incident. "Yeah . . . Umm . . . Cain lives in this building, so maybe you're just—?"

"He what?"

"He . . . lives . . . in this building . . ."

"Pack your stuff, Gin . . . You're coming home right fucking now."

"InuYasha, calm down," Kagome broke in. "Gin's not stupid, and obviously, she's just fine. You trust her, don't you? After all, you can't control who lives here, and he is her teacher."

"It ain't her I don't trust," InuYasha growled, "it's him . . . Maybe I should hunt him down and give him a nice, friendly warning."

Kagome grimaced. "You'll do no such thing. It stands to reason that he's probably come over to visit. He's new to Tokyo and probably doesn't know many people around here . . . I'm sure that's all there is to it, right, Gin?"

"Uh, yeah," Gin agreed weakly.

InuYasha snorted and strode toward the hallway—toward Gin's bedroom. Gin grimaced. At least she'd left the windows open, and she could only be thankful for the fresh morning breeze that had hopefully dispelled any lingering scent of Cain in that room . . .

"So you call your teacher by his first name?" Kagome asked casually.

"Sure . . . I mean, yeah . . . Shouldn't I?"

Kagome didn't answer. She finished her tea and rinsed the cup as InuYasha stomped back into the room with a slightly mollified if not still irritated look on his face.

At least he hadn't insisted she move back home again. Gin sighed. She wasn't ashamed of her friendship with Cain. She just wished her father would understand . . .

"Having trouble, Izayoi-san?"

Gin gasped and jumped, whipping her head to the side to stare up at Cain. She'd been concentrating hard enough that she hadn't heard him approach.

He was leaning on the back of her stool, a lazy smile twitching the corners of his lips as his clear blue eyes sparkled with amusement. "Uh . . . err . . . I . . . um . . . N-Not really," she stammered, blushing as her stomach erupted in a million little flutters.

"You sure?" he asked, quirking a light brown eyebrow in question.

"Yes," she answered, dragging her gaze away. "You know, I've noticed something."

"What's that?"

She swallowed hard as she forced herself to concentrate on the task at hand again. "Females have prettier bodies, don't you think?"

"Prettier . . .?" Cain choked out.

Gin was too busy contemplating the model to notice his discomfort. "Well, you know . . . Females are curvy and sort of soft, not all . . . hard with . . . stuff . . . sticking out."

"Sticking out?" he echoed. "Gin—"

"Okay, not just sticking out, but you have to admit, it does sort of just . . . hang there . . . Not really aesthetically pleasing, wouldn't you say?"

"Does it really have to be aesthetically pleasing? Think function, all right?" he grumbled.

"It could have still been a little prettier and still function. Maybe it should have been inside the body and only pop out when necessary . . . like an antenna . . ."

"Gin," he said, grasping her shoulder so that she'd stop talking. "Let me see your sketch."

"Uh, no," she insisted as she smashed the sketchpad against her chest.

He waved his hand and rolled his eyes. "Come on, Gin, while I'm here, let me see it."

Gin shook her head and winced. "You know, you can do me later."

Cain froze for a moment before jerking back as the art students erupted in twitters and giggles.

Gin frowned as she glanced around before she looked up at Cain again. "Was it something I said?"

"I'll . . . You . . . Okay," he mumbled before striding to the next student as the laughter escalated.

Gin bit her lip and shrugged. 'What was that all about?'

'I'm not sure . . . We could ask Cain after class.'

Turning her attention back to her sketchpad again, she sighed. 'Yeah, all right. Why was he blushing?'

'Who knows? You know, doll . . . I think . . . I think he likes us.'

Gin made a face as she worked on sketching the model's shoulders. 'Well, of course he likes us. He's our friend.'

'I wonder . . .'

'Hmm?'

'Oh, nothing . . . Nothing at all . . .'

Focusing her concentration on the sketch, Gin didn't pay attention to her youkai's words.

 

 

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Bellaniece poked her head into Kichiro's office and cleared her throat to draw his attention. "Sorry to bother you," she said in a smooth, even tone, "but your mother's on line three . . . and you weren't answering your phone."

Kichiro waved a hand without looking up from the file he held on his lap. Legs kicked up, ankles crossed, he didn't acknowledge her as he flipped over a page and kept reading. Even in his relaxed state, there was a very real air of strength about him, and not for the first time Bellaniece had to wonder just how strong Kichiro really was.

"Dr. Izayoi? Would you like me to take a message for you?"

"Of course not," he scoffed as he leaned over to grab the phone without taking his eyes off the paper. "Didn't you say it is my mother?"

Bellaniece pursed her lips but didn't snap back. Kichiro picked up the receiver and hit the button to connect before bringing the phone up to his head. "Izayoi."

Slipping into the office and leaning against the door, Bellaniece crossed her arms over her chest since she still needed to tell him that his last appointment of the day had just called to reschedule before she headed back to her desk in the lobby.

"Of course I remember," he said as he broke into a little smile that Bellaniece hadn't seen before. The gentleness of his tone coupled with the almost bashful quality of that smile was devastating to her, and he wasn't even directing it at her. If he ever did that to her . . . Bellaniece shook her head and wrinkled her nose at her flighty thoughts as Kichiro continued to speak. "Sure, I can do that . . . Don't worry about it, Mama . . . Yes, I'm sure."

'Mama?' Bellaniece echoed as her eyes widened. 'He calls his mother, 'Mama'?'

'I think that's rather cute,' her youkai piped up.

'I think it's rather . . . childish,' Bellaniece shot back with an inward snort. 'And he has the nerve to call me 'little girl'? Oh, just wait till he's off that telephone . . .'

'You can't do that, you know.'

'Why not?'

'Because you said you were going to kill him with kindness, remember? Business only, Belle. Your rules, remember?'

'Oh, right. That bites. If the situation were reversed, he'd rub my nose in it. I'll just have to remember it for later.'

'You're really asking for trouble.'

'I'm not scared of him.'

'Maybe you should be.'

'I don't think so.'

'You know that phrase, 'playing with fire'?'

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose. 'Yeah.'

'Well, that's what you're doing. Kichiro Izayoi . . . He could chew you up and spit you out.'

'He's not so tough. He's a . . . a jerk. He's been nothing but a jerk to me.'

'He might be a jerk, Belle, but he's a sexy as hell jerk . . . and those types are the most dangerous.'

Bellaniece sighed. 'I know.'

Kichiro dropped the phone receiver back into the cradle and turned his attention back to the case file. Pushing his glasses up his nose before jotting a few notes in the margin of the document, he propped his elbow on the desk and braced his face with an index finger against his temple and his thumb perched under his chin with the remaining fingers curled against his lips. Ears twitching as he kept reading, Bellaniece had to restrain the desire to march right over there and latch onto his ears. "Is there something else you wanted, little girl?" he asked without looking up.

Bellaniece snorted inwardly, snapping herself out of her bemusement as she unfolded her arms and straightened her back. "Your last appointment of the day cancelled."

"Oh? I suppose you and Mai can go home."

"Good evening, then," she agreed in a pleasant enough tone.

"Belle-chan," he called after her as she turned to go.

"Yes?" she asked, pausing with her hand on the handle.

"Next time you might want to wipe the drool off your chin."

Bellaniece swung around to meet his challenge and stopped short at the entirely too amused glint that lit the depths of his golden gaze. "Excuse me?"

Kichiro chuckled nastily. "You don't think I didn't notice you ogling me, did you?"

Snapping her mouth closed as indignant color washed into her cheeks, Bellaniece didn't trust herself to speak as she jerked the door open and stalked out of the office with Kichiro's laughter trailing in her wake.

'I told you not to be so obvious about it,' her youkai chided.

'I wasn't ogling him! I do not ogle!'

'Oh, sure you do . . . at least you have good taste.'

'That isn't even funny,' she huffed as she flopped down in her chair, drawing a suspect glance from Mai, 'and even if I was ogling, his personality completely undermines the entire effect.'

'Who says you have to like his personality to appreciate the fact that he has a damn fine body?'

'I do.'

'Yeah, you do, and that's the problem, isn't it?'

Bellaniece sighed. 'Yeah, it is.'

 

 

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Cain refused to go anywhere near Gin for the rest of the class. The one time he started over that way, the students had started giggling all over again, and Cain thought better of it since Gin really didn't have a clue, just what she'd said that started the laughter, in the first place.

'No doubt about it, Cain: you've got to talk to her. You've got to explain to her that sometimes she says things . . .'

'It's not my place to tell her anything of the sort.'

'If not yours, then whose?'

'Her father's, maybe?'

'Obviously her beloved papa hasn't seen fit to say anything about it. She'll get herself into more trouble with her innocent words than it's worth . . . Gotta say, I still don't like him. You know, we really could take him, if we wanted to . . .'

'I'm not fighting Gin's father.'

'And why not? You don't seriously think he could beat us, do you?'

'Pfft! Don't be absurd.'

'Anyway, you've got to say something to her. Just . . . be nice.'

'Nice . . . right . . .'

Cain leaned against his desk as the students filed out of the classroom. Gin lingered as she stowed her sketchbook in her bag and carefully put the pencils away. Leaving the bag on her desk, she slowly wandered toward him, the fullness of her pink skirt swaying with her movements. Cain forced his eyes up to her face, and grimaced at the pensive look in her expression.

She stopped in front of the first desk and hopped up onto it, crossing her ankles as she swung her feet. "Did I say something strange?" she finally asked, twisting her fingers together in a decidedly nervous fashion.

Cain hesitated before answering, unsure how to explain it to her without embarrassing her. "Not strange," he finally said, measuring his words carefully. "Just . . ." he sighed, lifting his hand and letting it drop as he struggled to find a way to explain things to her. "Sometimes when you say things, you don't really realize how they sound."

She blinked quickly as she shook her head. "And that's why everyone was laughing?"

"Uh . . . yeah."

"But I didn't. All I said was that you could do . . . me . . . No-o-o-o . . ." she trailed off, fingers shooting up to fold together over her mouth as her eyes widened in shock. "Kami, that's not . . . I didn't . . ."

"I know you didn't mean it that way," he assured her, wincing as her cheeks darkened painfully, as her ears drooped and her chin fell. "Gin . . ."

"Oh, that's really embarrassing," she muttered, smashing her ears down flat against her head. "Do I . . . Do I say stuff like that . . . a lot?"

Cain sighed as he covered his eyes with his hand. "Yeah . . . Yeah, you do."

"I'm sorry . . . I don't mean to . . . I . . . oh, I . . . I'm stupid."

His hand dropped as he shook his head vehemently. "You're not stupid. Don't say that. Don't even think it. You're . . . You're . . ."

Cain closed his eyes for a moment, turned his head to the side. Gin was staring at him, waiting for him to finish his sentence. He just . . . He couldn't.

'Say it, Cain . . . just say it! You know what you're thinking; I know what you're thinking. Just say it. She deserves to hear it, doesn't she?'

"You're . . . special."

His youkai sighed. Cain ignored the truth that ate at him. 'Coward. Special? That's not what you wanted to say. You wanted to say that she's—"

'Shut up.'

'—Beautiful.'

He winced inwardly. Why was it that he could deal with being tai-youkai, he could create sculptures and paintings and not give a second thought to letting the pieces go, didn't care about critiques or public opinion, but when faced with the idea of saying one little word to the girl staring at him, he just couldn't do it?

"I'm special?" Gin repeated quietly as her face brightened with reluctant optimism. "I am?"

Cain tried to smile, but he just couldn't do it. "Yeah, you are."

Gin bit her lip, shrugging as she blushed all over again, but this time her ears remained straight, and she grinned. "Maybe you can tell me whenever I do that," she suggested. "Then I'll know what not to say."

Cain finally smiled, too. "You think you'll figure out how to tell for yourself?"

"I'll try." She slid off the desk and started gathering pencils and supplies that the other students had left behind. "Have I told you lately how glad I am you decided to stay here?"

"No. Are you?" he asked with a smile.

She nodded. "Uh-huh!" Pausing in her work, she frowned suddenly and shot him a quick glance. "Cain? Can I ask a favor of you?"

"Okay," Cain agreed as he tilted a sketch to critique it.

She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders as Cain glanced up from the sketch. "I wondered . . . I mean, would you teach me?"

He blinked in confusion. "Isn't that what I'm doing now?"

Gin shook her head and stuffed the pencils into a plastic bin before dusting off her hands and hurrying back toward him. "Yeah, sure, but that's not what I meant. I want you to teach me; really teach me."

"Teach you what?" he asked, intrigued by her request despite the voice in his head that told him that it might not be a good idea.

"Oh, everything! You . . . You're almost three hundred years old, right? You can teach me a lot, you know? About painting and sculpting, and . . . just everything! Please?"

Cain rubbed his eyes, stalling for time as he tried to figure out how to answer Gin's enthusiastic question. "Why me?"

"Why not you? I mean, you like me, right? And I like you, so . . . will you be my—what's the English word? Oh yes . . . will you be my master?"

'Dear God, she's done it again,' his youkai moaned.

'Shut up, will you? She didn't mean . . . Just shut up!'

'Are you considering it, Cain? You realize, right? Gin Izayoi is a walking, talking accident just waiting to happen. The girl needs to be surrounded by flashing yellow caution lights!'

Cain snorted and opened his mouth to say 'no'. She smiled, clasping her hands in front of her as she held her breath, waiting for his answer. Cain sighed. "All right, Gin . . . just . . . Uh, don't call me 'master', all right?"

She squealed and clapped her hands moments before she threw herself against him in a quick hug. Cain winced at the pitch of the noise as well as the momentary contact. Gin let go and stepped back, twirling around as she laughed. "Thank you, thank you, thank you! I'll work really hard, and I promise I'll do whatever you say! Thank you, Cain! You won't be sorry!"

Cain slowly shook his head. He was already sorry. Teaching Gin everything he knew? He wasn't going to walk away from this unscathed, he just knew it.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Cain knocked on Gin's apartment door and stepped back to wait.

She opened it and greeted him with a wide smile before jerking her head to invite him in, as she headed back to the basket of laundry sitting on the small dining table.

Closing the door, he followed her inside and slipped her cake platter on the counter. "Laundry day?"

Gin shrugged. "Sure . . . Not very exciting, but what can you do? Seems kind of sad, doesn't it? Friday night, and I'm home folding clothes."

"It isn't that sad," he assured her as he stuffed his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "I've spent my fair share of Friday nights doing stuff like that . . . Anyway, I bought your plate back."

"I'll start your cake in a little bit."

He didn't argue with her since he never won, anyway. Besides, he liked her cakes. A lot. "You . . . uh . . . want to get something to eat?"

Gin smiled. "Okay! Just let me finish folding this stuff or I'll leave it set until I forget whether it's clean or not." She shook out a little pair of white cotton bikini cut panties sprigged with tiny blue flowers, and Cain coughed quickly to cover his amusement. Gin glanced at him, eyes narrowing as she slowly shook her head. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing, nothing . . . just that those—" he gestured at the panties in her hand, "—remind me of the panties I used to buy for Bellaniece . . ."

"You used to buy her panties?"

Cain rolled his eyes. "Well, yeah, when she was, like . . . ten. Do those have the days of the week printed on the back?"

Gin wrinkled her nose and turned the panties, examining them like she hadn't bothered to check for herself before. "No."

He coughed again. "You sure?"

She snorted. "I think I'd know if my panties had days of the week printed on the . . . heinie."

Cain choked. "Heinie?"

She blushed. "Yes, heinie."

How he managed not to laugh was completely beyond him, but considering how irritated Gin looked, he wasn't about to press his luck. Searching wildly for something—anything—to divert his attention away from Gin's use of the word 'heinie', Cain's gaze fell on the nasty looking weapon lying on the table that seemed sorely out of place amongst the soft laundry that was neatly stacked around it. The shining blade of the scythe gleamed in the yellow light of the fluorescent bulb overhead, and the ivory handle was polished and bright. Hooked to the end of the six inch handle was a long, thick chain, and mounted to the other end of the chain was a mean-looking lead ball that would easily fit into one of Gin's hands. "What is that?" he asked, nodding at the weapon.

Gin glanced at him before following his gaze. "Oh, this?" she questioned, lifting the weapon and carelessly swinging the scythe by the chain. "It's my Kusarigama."

Cain frowned and caught the handle, shooting Gin a look that told her just what he thought of her playing with such a dangerous 'toy'. "Stop that before you hurt yourself," he scolded.

She rolled her eyes and held out her hand for the deadly-looking weapon. Cain grudgingly handed it over. "Hurt myself? With this? Oh, please!"

"You're not really going to try to tell me that you know how to use that, are you?"

She giggled. "Of course I do! Why else would I have it? It's really strong. It was forged from Papa and Uncle Sesshoumaru's fangs. It was one of the first weapons Master Bunza made. My brothers' weapons were forged by Master Totosai, but he died before he could forge mine, and Master Bunza and Papa go way back . . ."

"Totosai . . . I met him once. He repaired my sword. . . reinforced it, but only after pointing out that the Efu Tachi design was more flash than might." He shrugged. "I was showing off, anyway. I rarely used the damn thing . . ."

"He didn't forge your sword?" Gin asked, apparently surprised at the very idea that someone else might've made it.

Cain shook his head then shrugged. "Nope. My father asked an old swordsmith in North America to make it. I've never actually met him, though." Catching the look of confusion on her features, Cain flicking a hand in blatant dismissal. "It was my father's sword," he clarified.

"You can fight?" she asked dubiously then waved her hand at his raised-eyebrow look. "Well, I mean, I figured you could, being tai-youkai and all. . . and you have a sword?"

"Of course . . . It's back in Maine, though."

Gin sighed as she looped the chain around her hand and elbow. "I learned how to use a sword—mostly just bokuto since the real ones are pretty heavy. Papa showed me some of Tetsusaiga's techniques, but he said swords were too big for me to lug around." She made a face. "I think he was just afraid I'd be better at it than Ryo-nii . . . Anyway, that's why he taught me how to use that, instead."

Cain snorted. "You're really trying to convince me you know how to use that insignificant toy?"

Gin scowled and shook her head. "It's not a toy! I could . . . I could kick your . . . heinie with it."

Coughing furiously once more to cover his amusement, Cain made a face and crossed his arms over his chest. "Right, baby girl. Sure you can."

Eyes flaring wide in indignation before narrowing in what Cain recognized to be acute irritation, Gin quickly flipped the ball toward him. He reached out to grab it, only to find the chain wrapped securely around his forearm. Gin smiled grimly and tugged. "If that had been the sharp end, you'd be missing an arm—or part of one." With another jerking motion, the chain unwrapped as the iron ball whipped neatly back into her hand.

"Hmm, then I stand corrected," he agreed.

"Are you humoring me?" she demanded.

"God, no! Would I really do such a thing?"

"I don't know . . . I think you would," she accused.

Cain grinned. "Of course not! I absolutely believe you could kick my . . . heinie . . . with that . . ."

Gin sighed and slowly shook her head, ears flattening as she rewrapped the chain and laid the weapon on the table. "I thought you were different, but you're just like them."

Cain frowned at Gin's sudden mood swing and he shoved his hands into his pockets again. "What do you mean?"

The tiny hanyou ears flattened, her shoulders slumped in obvious defeat, and she wouldn't look at him as she folded the rest of her laundry. "You're just like Papa and my brothers. You're just like Sesshoumaru-oji-san and Toga-kun, too. You all think I'm still just a little girl; that I don't think, and I can't protect myself . . . It's not true, you know. It's not true, at all."

Cain winced and stepped toward her but stopped when she retreated. "Gin, I don't—"

"You do. You followed me on my date, remember? You scoffed at my weapon . . . You made fun of my panties . . . You think I'm just a pup, right? I'll have you know I'm not. I'm . . . I'm a big girl!"

Before he could think about whether or not he was about to make her even angrier, Cain barked out a terse chuckle. He wasn't sure why Gin's claim of being a 'big girl' caught him so far off guard, but it did, and before he could think about the ramifications of showing his amusement, he laughed.

Gin's expression clouded over, eyes igniting in unmasked outrage. "I think you should leave now," she said in a clipped, tight little voice.

"I'm sorry," he said between chuckles. "Really, I am . . . You're absolutely a—" he snorted as he tried to repress a chortle, "—big girl—" It didn't work, and he laughed even harder despite the mounting anger apparent on Gin's face.

Gin stomped toward him, placing her hands in the center of his chest, and pushed him back. The angrier she got, the harder he laughed, and in the end, she growled as she jerked open the door and shoved him out into the hallway. "Good night, Cain," she said brusquely, "and goodbye."

He finally managed to get his laughter under control as he stared at the closed door in mild shock.

'Nice, dog . . . She's really mad at you.'

Cain sighed but chuckled as he raised his fist to knock. 'Oh, shut up . . . it was . . . cute.'

'Cute, nothing! You did exactly what she accused you of doing. Now instead of finding a reason to spend time with her, we're stuck alone with what? A TV dinner? Ugh.'

Cain let his hand drop as he slowly shook his head and sighed as he trudged over to his apartment. 'Yeah, yeah . . . rub it in. I couldn't help it . . . She said 'heinie', for God's sake!'

'But you did scoff at her when she said she knew how to use that weapon of hers . . .'

'Okay,' Cain agreed as he flopped down on the sofa. 'That might have been a little stupid.'

'You're a moron, Cain; a complete and utter moron. Sometimes I swear I hate being your youkai.'

Cain sighed, wondering just how long Gin could carry a grudge as he glanced over at the refrigerator. 'No TV dinner . . . I didn't buy any,' he thought with a wry grimace. 'You think she'll still make me a cake?'

His youkai snorted but didn't answer.

 

 

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Bellaniece slipped out of the apartment and closed the door before dropping the keys into her purse and slipping on her sunglasses. When she'd asked Cain if she could go shopping, he had barely grunted in reply without looking up from the newspaper. She'd wisely kept her own council on the conspicuous lack of cake, but after the abysmal date she'd gone on the night before, she had to wonder if she really had had a worse time than her father, after all. Her curiosity was nearly killing her, but she couldn't bring herself to ask questions. He looked irritated enough, and she could tell from the dark circles under his eyes that he hadn't slept well, if at all.

'Maybe I should stop and see if something happened between Gin and him . . .'

'Why do you figure it has anything to do with Gin?'

Bellaniece made a face. 'No cake, remember? Gin always makes a cake for Daddy, but she didn't last night . . . No, something definitely happened . . .'

'Don't you dare,' her youkai warned. 'Your father would kill you. Best you stay out of it, don't you think?'

Bellaniece sighed and started down the hallway toward the stairwell at the other end. 'Okay, I will. Maybe Daddy will talk about it when I get back . . .'

She was almost past Gin's door when the rattle of a chain and the 'snick' of the turning deadbolt stopped her. Bellaniece slowly pulled off her sunglasses and frowned as Gin quickly pulled open the door and stuck her head through the narrow opening. "Psst! Belle!"

Bellaniece's eyes widened at Gin's hissed whisper, and she shifted her eyes back and forth to see if the two of them were being watched. "Why are we whispering?" she whispered back.

Gin waved her hand to invite Bellaniece inside, peering further into the hallway before closing the door and leaning against it. "I need your help," she stated bluntly, her features masked by a determined scowl.

After dropping her purse and glasses on the counter, Bellaniece rubbed her upper arms and nodded. "Okay . . . with what?"

With a heavy sigh, Gin pushed away from the door as she rubbed her forehead and paced the floor. "Cain and I . . . we . . . Well, I got sort of mad at him and . . . and I pushed him out of my apartment last night."

"Ah, so that's why there was no cake this morning."

Gin made a face. "Sorry about that. I was too irritated, and . . . I made a cake. I just . . . I ate the whole thing."

Bellaniece's eyebrows arched in surprise. "You ate a whole cake? By yourself?"

Gin winced. "Yes."

"Where did you put it?" she couldn't help but ask since she was staring at Gin's tiny form. Still wearing her nightclothes of a tiny mint green tank top and gray shorts, Bellaniece couldn't imagine her being able to eat much of anything, let alone an entire cake.

"I . . . When I am upset, I eat . . . a lot, and . . . Well, I was pretty upset with Cain last night."

"Can I ask . . . why?"

Biting her lower lip, Gin sighed again as her ears flattened momentarily before springing back into place. "He's just like everyone else, you know? He treats me like a pup, and I'm not a pup. He laughed at me, and he . . ." she trailed off, shaking her head as she made a disgusted face and shrugged. "Anyway, I want to be a big girl, and I can't really ask my sister-in-law because she's not really girly, and Sierra-chan . . . She might tell Toga-kkun, and he would feel obligated to tell Papa . . . Bellaniece, you have to help me!"

Bellaniece grimaced, pressing her lips together in a tight line until she trusted herself to speak. She had a good idea what had happened between her father and Gin, and . . . well . . . she couldn't really blame Cain for laughing if Gin had said the same things to him that she just had to her. "Gin, out of curiosity . . . Did you use the phrase, 'big girl'?"

Gin frowned. "Yeah."

Bellaniece cleared her throat and tried not to laugh since Gin looked like she was already on guard over it. "Uh . . . let's look at your closet," she prompted.

Gin clapped her hands and hopped up and down just a little before wheeling around and leading the way to her bedroom where she gestured at her closet before flopping across her bed and kicking her feet in the air.

'Oh, my . . .' Bellaniece thought as she slowly shuffled through Gin's clothes. Mostly all dresses, and very cute ones at that, she sighed inwardly before casting Gin a quick glance over her shoulder. "Gin, what, exactly, did you have in mind?"

Gin's brow furrowed as she propped her chin on her clasped hands. "Well, I don't know . . . I want to look like a big girl, not just a pup—I want to be . . . sexy."

Bellaniece nearly choked at that. 'Oh, lord, she just said 'big girl' and 'sexy' in one sentence . . . Oh, Daddy . . .'

'You realize your father can barely handle 'Cute Gin'. Do you really think he could handle 'Sexy Gin'?'

She sighed. 'Good point. Besides that, I think he likes 'Cute Gin'.'

'What are you going to do?'

Bellaniece pondered that as she pushed a few more dresses aside. Almost all of her dresses were white, pastel, or very, very light with a couple navy blue skirts but nothing really sophisticated. 'Well, maybe we can find something sort of between 'cute' and 'sexy' . . . something that suits Gin better.'

Bellaniece turned to face Gin with a bright smile but frowned when she noticed the pensive look on her face. "Gin? Is something else wrong?"

Gin shrugged. "Can I ask you something?"

"Okay . . ." Bellaniece agreed.

"What kind of panties do you wear?"

Bellaniece blinked. "Panties? Why?"

Gin sighed. "I was folding mine when Cain came over, and he said they looked like your panties when you were ten, so I was wondering what sort of panties you wear now."

Bellaniece grimaced. "That doesn't matter, Gin. Get dressed. I was just going shopping, anyway."

Gin rolled off the bed and took the dress Bellaniece shoved at her. Bellaniece sashayed back into the living room to wait.

'Interesting . . . very interesting . . . Daddy saw her panties? Wow . . . Wonder what he thought of that . . .?'

'You should have told Gin about your panties, Belle.'

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose and sighed. 'Oh, I don't think that's a good idea . . . Daddy might not notice that I don't wear them since I haven't worn them for years, but something tells me he'd absolutely notice if Gin didn't . . .'

'You mean you're actually being rational, Belle? Hmm . . . you feeling all right?'

'Of course I am! Besides, Daddy seems to really like Gin just the way she is. I don't think he'd be happy if I helped her change too drastically.'

'I'm impressed! You actually sound like a big girl.'

Bellaniece giggled. 'Oh, right . . . but I do need to make sure Gin stops saying that, don't you think? I mean, if I want to laugh over it, I'm pretty sure Daddy did, too . . .'

Bellaniece's youkai sighed then chuckled. 'Absolutely.'

 

 

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"Balls, Kich, are you still in bed?"

Kichiro groaned and rolled over, dragging the pillow over his head as he tried in vain to ignore his brother's droning voice.

Ryomaru stomped over and jerked the pillow away from Kichiro. "Get up, baka. You ain't staying in bed all day."

"What do you want?" Kichiro grumbled. Swinging his arm around in a futile attempt to regain the pillow, he growled furiously when Ryomaru tossed the blanket back, too.

"Kami, how can you stand those?" he demanded, wrinkling his nose at Kichiro's black silk boxer shorts.

"Go to hell, Ryo; it's Saturday, and I'm still tired."

"Just get up, will you? I'm fucking bored."

Kichiro grumbled something unintelligible and gave up with a disgusted sigh. "Sometimes I hate you," he remarked as he sat up and rolled out of bed.

Ryomaru chuckled as Kichiro stumbled to his feet and shuffled toward the kitchen. "Just sometimes?"

"Sure. The rest of the time I despise you. Why are you here at the crack of dawn, anyway?"

"It's well past the crack of dawn, baka."

"Incidentals," Kichiro scoffed as he grabbed a soda from the refrigerator popped it open. "What do you want?"

Ryomaru shrugged and wrinkled his nose. "I got home, and Nez was out with Sierra . . . Figured I'd come over and drag your lazy ass out of bed."

Kichiro digested that as he drank some soda. "Did you have to work?"

"Nah . . . I had class."

Blinking in surprise while the soda bottle paused in front of his mouth, Kichiro regarded his brother carefully. "Class? Wait . . . Are you still taking those cooking classes?"

"Yeah. So?"

Kichiro cleared his throat and tried not to laugh. "No reason . . . But why are you learning how to cook?"

"Because I wanted to," Ryomaru growled. "Ain't nothing else to it, you got that?"

"Whatever," Kichiro replied. "At least then, you can offer the ones you hunt a final meal before you kill them."

"I've told Mother and the old man many times: they should have left you under Goshinboku as a hanyou sacrifice to . . . hell, whoever wanted you."

"All right, fat ass," Kichiro shot back. "I hear you."

"You know, Kich, if I have a fat ass, you have a fat ass, too."

"Nope, yours is fatter . . . since you're all ass."

"Oh, you're funny, baka . . . really, really funny."

"Thanks, fat ass."

"I might be all ass, as you said, but at least my ears are softer." To emphasize his point, Ryomaru twitched the aforementioned ears.

Kichiro growled. "They are not. We're identical twins. Identical. That means identical ears."

"Identical ears," Ryomaru agreed. "They look the same. Mine are just softer."

"Bastard."

"Bastard with much softer ears."

Kichiro pushed past his brother and rolled his eyes as he headed for the living room. Pausing long enough to check the numbers on the caller ID and finding nothing important enough to warrant a return phone call, he grabbed the remote control and flipped on the television. "If they're softer—and I doubt they are—they're not softer by much."

"Well, since they're softer—Nezumi said so—then you're just jealous because that means I'm your older, faster, bigger, badder, tougher, awesomer brother . . . with much softer ears."

"'Awesomer' isn't a word, stupid . . . and Nezumi's human. Her sense of feel isn't nearly as refined as hanyou or youkai."

"Yeah, well . . . she feels just fine to me."

"Oh, kami . . ."

Ryomaru shook his head. "You need to loosen up, Kich. You need to have 'The Sex'."

Kichiro spit out the soda that he'd been trying to drink. Ryomaru made a face and jumped back to avoid the spray. "'The Sex'?"

"Yes, 'The Sex'."

"Oh, mother of—"

"Unless it's true, and you really are gay."

"I'm—not—fucking—gay."

"You're not fucking gay," Ryomaru echoed. "When's the last time you've gotten yourself—"

"Shut up, Ryo."

"All right, all right . . . For the record, though, Nez and I have 'The Sex' a lot, which is why I'm in such a great mood."

"You're in a great mood because you're an idiot."

"Hmm, an idiot who gets to have 'The Sex'."

Kichiro shook his head.

"And an idiot who has softer ears than his baka baby brother."

Kichiro pinned Ryomaru with a mutinous glower and growled yet again.

"Wanna feel 'em, Kich? See what I've got that you don't?" Ryomaru teased, flicking his ears to taunt Kichiro.

"Of course I . . ." Kichiro trailed off and snorted. "Yeah, hold still, baka."

"What? Fuck, no!" Ryomaru blustered when Kichiro stepped toward him.

"You offered," Kichiro pointed out as he set his soda on a table and swiped at his brother's ears.

"Balls, no, Kich! Get the hell away from me or I'll shred you!" Ryomaru growled as he knocked Kichiro's hand away.

"Just hold still! I swear it'll only take a minute!"

"You really are gay! Damn it, I said no!"

"Stop being a pussy!"

"No means no, baka! Ear rape!"

"Shut the fuck up and stand still, will you? I'm telling you, if you'd just stand still and take it like a man! Not like it'll hurt or anything—" Kichiro said as he tried to grab Ryomaru's ears again.

"Get the hell off me!"

"Just for a minute!"

Ryomaru heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes. "All right, damn it! If I let you, will you leave me the fuck alone?"

Kichiro nodded. "Yeah, whatever."

Ryomaru made a face. "Oh, balls . . . just do it fast, okay?"

Grasping one of his own ears in one hand and one of Ryomaru's ears in the other, Kichiro scowled as he tried to compare them. Ryomaru heaved another sigh and snorted before mimicking Kichiro's stance with one hand on his ear and Kichiro's free ear.

"I . . . don't feel any difference," Ryomaru finally said.

"You know . . . I don't, either," Kichiro agreed thoughtfully.

"Oh, for the love of kami," another voice choked out. "This is . . . Oh, this is goo-o-ood."

The twins both twisted their heads to stare at the intruder who was trying his hardest not to howl in laughter. Kichiro winced since Ryomaru hadn't let go of his ear. Toga sniggered as he lowered the digital camcorder and collapsed against the wall. "What the hell are you two doing?" he managed to ask between guffaws.

Kichiro was the first to jerk his hands down. Ryomaru grunted since Kichiro had tugged his ear, and he rounded on his cousin. "Tell me you don't fucking have tape in that thing," he growled.

"Okay," Toga chortled, "I don't have fucking tape in this thing."

"Thank—"

"It's digital."

"Oh, hell," Kichiro grumbled as he lunged at his cousin who neatly sidestepped the hanyou.

"Get him, damn it!" Ryomaru yelled as he stalked Toga, too.

Kichiro snorted. "Yeah, I'm trying, baka!"

"Not that I didn't wonder about the two of you before—always trying to pants each other," Toga remarked as he backed out of the room. "Do me a favor and stay away from Coral and Cassidy. The last thing they need is you two bakas trying to feel their ears, too."

Kichiro snarled as he leapt forward again. Toga was too quick. Jerking the door open and sprinting outside, his laughter lingered long after Toga had run off. Ryomaru smacked Kichiro on the back of the head as he chased after their cousin.

Kichiro shook his head and closed the door. He knew from experience that Toga was faster. The chances of Ryomaru catching up to him were slim to none.

Snorting in abject disgust, Kichiro closed the door. 'Damn, I need to put an anti-baka alarm on this house,' he thought as he strode away to take a shower.

'Sure, but look on the bright side.'

'There's a bright side? Toga's going to lord that damn video over my head; I just know it.'

'There's always a bright side, Kich.'

'All right, then, what is it?'

'At least you know that Belle was lying.'

'Keh! I don't even want to think about her! She's the one who caused all this trouble!'

'Sure, she said a few things, but you're the one who was stupid enough to let her get to you.'

'I did not let her get to me.'

'Uh huh . . . Denial again?'

'Shut up.'

'You going to tell her you checked?'

'No!'

'Yeah, I didn't think so . . .'

Kichiro groaned and slammed the bathroom door.

 

 

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Gin frowned as she eyed the dress that Bellaniece held up for her consideration. "Every girl needs at least one little black dress, Gin. What do you think?"

"I don't know . . . I like the design, I think . . ." she said as she shook her head. "It's just so . . . dark."

Bellaniece giggled. "It's black. It's supposed to be dark. It's nice, though. It's classy and sophisticated without being too showy, and the back is lovely . . . Why don't you try it on?"

Gin hesitantly took the hanger and glanced toward the changing rooms. "Do you think so? Wouldn't my hair cover that up?"

With a careless shrug, Bellaniece nodded. "Sure, but if you're wearing a dress like this, you should wear your hair up. It's not like you need to dress in something like this every day, but there are times when a girl needs one of these."

"For when, exactly?" Gin asked as she slipped into one of the small changing rooms to try on the dress.

Bellaniece's voice was muffled by the door. "Well . . . say you get invited to a cocktail party or some sort of semi-fancy thing like that."

"I see," Gin said as she slipped off her sundress and carefully pulled the black dress on.

"Hold on, Gin . . . I just saw something . . ."

"Okay," she answered as she zipped up the dress and turned to look over her shoulder. Pulling her hair out of the way, Gin winced at the amount of skin showing. Two thin straps crossed in the middle of her back to hold the dress in place but that was it, as far as actual coverage. The skirt touched her waist and fell to just below mid thigh, and while Gin felt completely vulnerable in the dress, she had to admit that the design was flattering.

'Oh, I don't know . . .' she thought as she slowly shook her head. 'Papa would have a fit about this dress . . .'

'Maybe, but your mother would think it's lovely.'

Gin bit her lip. 'You . . . You think so?'

'Well, if you don't want to be thought of as a little girl anymore, I suppose this dress might do that for you . . .'

'Yeah . . . I'd like it better if it weren't black.'

'Sure, you would, but it really is lovely.'

'. . . I suppose.'

'Belle has really good taste.'

Gin turned from side to side as she examined her reflection. 'She does, doesn't she? I really like her.'

Bellaniece knocked on the door. "Gin, I found something else for you to try on."

Gin opened the door and winced as she stepped back for Bellaniece to slip into the tiny room, too. Bellaniece sat on the little bench and twirled her finger. Gin turned around slowly. "What do you think?"

Bellaniece broke into a grin and giggled. "Wow, Gin . . . That dress is really nice."

"You think so? Do I look like a big girl?"

Bellaniece bit her lip and sighed. "Yeah . . . But do me a favor?"

"What's that?"

Bellaniece made a face. "Don't say 'big girl'."

"Why?"

"It doesn't sound right."

"Oh . . . Okay."

Bellaniece straightened up suddenly and held up the dress in her hands. "Here! Try this one!"

Gin titled her head as she stared at the thin gossamer dress. "You can . . . see through this," she said dubiously.

Bellaniece shrugged. "Just a little. Anyway, it reminded me of the wings Daddy made for you. I just thought maybe it'd be pretty. Besides, you could always wear a simple little dress under it, too, if you wanted. Just layer them."

"Where would I wear it?"

"You wouldn't have to wear it, if you didn't want to, Gin. You don't even have to buy it, really. I thought you'd look so good in it, though . . . Just . . . try it on?"

Gin eyed the dress another moment then sighed. "Okay."

She carefully slipped the black dress off and handed it to Bellaniece before stepping into the other dress. Bellaniece straightened the black dress on the hanger while Gin fussed with the billowing fabric of the gauzy dress. The cap sleeves spilled over her shoulders in soft waves as the simplistic lines melted together in an elegant yet flirty statement. Entirely feminine and delicate, Gin blinked as she stared at herself in the full length mirror. The dress barely rested on her shoulders and flared out around her without seeming bulky. It was loose and flowing, and Bellaniece sighed softly.

"That is beautiful," Bellaniece whispered. "It reminds me of the fairy princesses in the books that Daddy used to buy me."

"Fairy princesses?"

Bellaniece giggled. "Yeah . . . I figured you'd look good in that. You look like . . . You look like one of Daddy's paintings."

Gin wondered why Bellaniece seemed so sad but couldn't bring herself to ask. Biting her lip as she gazed at her reflection for another moment, Gin couldn't help but think about how the dress would look with Cain's wings.

"I sort of feel like a princess in this dress," she ventured, "but isn't it a waste of money to buy something I'll never wear in public?"

Bellaniece shrugged and pondered Gin's question. "Well, you could if you wear something under it. Still, it might be a waste of money, but isn't it worth it?"

"Isn't what worth it?"

"To feel like a princess, just for a moment?"

Gin pondered that as she turned to face her reflection once more. 'Belle's right . . . It is worth it, isn't it?'

Bellaniece's melancholy spoke to her. Gin wished she understood what troubled her new friend. Pretending to look at herself, she watched Bellaniece instead, frowning as Bellaniece stared at her hands, surrounded by sadness that only she truly understood.

"Bellaniece? Are you okay?" Gin asked cautiously.

Bellaniece blinked as her gaze cleared, and she smiled as her eyes met Gin's in the mirror. "Sure! I'm fine . . . maybe a little homesick."

"Aww . . . Is there anything I can do to help?"

Bellaniece shook her head. "It's not that . . . Just at home, I normally met up with my friends on Saturday nights, and we'd go dancing or just hang out . . . I miss it sometimes."

Gin shrugged. "I . . . I could do that with you. I mean, I don't know how to dance, but maybe I could learn . . .?"

"Really?"

Gin smiled tentatively. "Can you teach me?"

Bellaniece laughed, eyes sparkling again as the shadows receded. "Oh, sure! It's not hard! I bet you'd pick it up fast enough." Bellaniece's expression clouded over and she shook her head. "You sure? I mean, you weren't going to spend time with Daddy, were you? Because if you were—"

Gin wrinkled her nose. "I think it sounds like fun," she insisted. "Cain's probably mad at me for kicking him out last night, anyway."

"Well, I don't think he is," Bellaniece said slowly. "But if you're positive . . ."

Gin giggled as she took off the dress and pulled her sundress back on. "I'm positive. It sounds like fun, and I've always wanted to learn how to dance."

"Okay," Bellaniece agreed as she yanked the dressing room door open. "Come on! Let's find something for you to wear tonight!"

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bellaniece held onto Gin's hand as the two girls walked into the club. Gin might be older than Bellaniece, but it was amusing, just how excited she was. Bellaniece could feel Gin's nervous energy. Tempered by a sense of wonder and awe, Gin was almost trembling. Bellaniece smiled as she let go of Gin's hand and leaned toward her. "You sure you want to do this?" she asked, raising her voice to be heard over the din.

Gin nodded and smoothed the skirt of the red silk dress she'd bought for their night out dancing. "Are you sure this looks okay?" she questioned as she glanced down at herself.

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "Come on, Gin! You'll have fun, I promise!"

"How do I do this?" she demanded as she grabbed Bellaniece's hand and dragged her into the club and onto the edge of the dance floor.

Bellaniece laughed. "Just listen to the music and let it lead you . . . like this."

Gin stood back for a moment and watched as Bellaniece started to dance. She caught on quickly. Bellaniece laughed as Gin joined her. "I told you that you'd catch on fast!" Bellaniece commented.

"It's kind of like fighting only . . . not," Gin answered. "You know, Kichiro-nii-chan is a really good dancer."

Bellaniece snorted.

"No, really, he is! He used to do a lot of plays and stuff in school. I'm surprised he didn't become an actor."

"He's really good at something," Bellaniece grumbled then shook her head. "Let's not talk about your brother, okay?"

Gin winced. "Okay. I take it you're still mad at him."

"Actually, I think he might be madder at me . . . for once."

"Why?" Gin asked, her tone reluctant but curious.

Bellaniece grinned. "I asked if he was . . . gay . . ."

"Gay?" Gin echoed, eyebrows disappearing under her thick fringe of bangs. "Nii-chan? Oh, no . . . Nezumi said he and Ryo-nii both were real man-whores . . . Of course, that was a few years ago, but . . ."

"Oh, was he, now?"

Gin shrugged. "Yeah, but he's been pretty quiet since Ryo-nii and Nezumi-chan were mated. I don't think he's gay, though."

Bellaniece didn't trust herself to answer, and she concentrated on dancing, instead.

'Is it the idea of Kichiro being good at something more expressive like dancing or acting that bothers you . . . or is it that he was apparently known as a man-whore that does? If you ask me, I'd say it was the latter.'

'Hmm, I don't remember asking for your opinion.'

'Yes, and aren't you lucky? I love to give you my opinion, anyway.'

'I wouldn't say lucky . . . More like forced to endure it.'

'Oh, aren't we being the bitch tonight, Belle?'

'You haven't seen bitchy yet. Keep talking, and you will.'

'He's really not as bad as you make him out to be. You make him sound like he's worse than Satan.'

'Maybe not to everyone else. To me, he is Satan.'

'You've got a flair for the melodramatic, Bellaniece. Maybe it was inherited from your mother.'

'And you've got a knack for the annoying . . . I'm not sure where you got that.'

'Catty, catty . . . You positive you're dog-youkai?'

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose and tried to ignore the annoying voice.

'I think you should try to be nice to him, just once more. If he cuts you down again, then you'll at least be able to say you've tried.'

'You think I can't say that now? And no thanks. He's really horrible on my ego.'

'Okay, I'll make a deal with you.'

'. . . I'm listening.'

'You give him one more chance—let him see the real you—and if he hurts you, I swear I'll never defend him to you, ever again.'

'You swear?'

'Yes, yes, I swear.'

Bellaniece sighed. 'I'll think about it.'

Her youkai sighed, too. '. . . Fine.'

Gin giggled as she twirled around. "Come on, Belle! You're supposed to be having fun!"

Bellaniece laughed. Even her bleak thoughts couldn't distract her from enjoying the excursion. For the moment at least, she was free to laugh. For the moment, she could forget about the worries about her father and the thoughts that plagued her, like the ones that centered on Kichiro Izayoi.

 

 

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Gin leaned on the counter and asked the bartender for two bottles of water. The young man smiled as she dug into her purse for money. Bellaniece took the bottles and thanked him before turning around and leaning back. "So what do you think?" Bellaniece asked.

Gin took a long drink before she grinned happily. "It's so much fun!" she squealed. "I mean, it always sounded fun, but I never got to go with my friends. Papa said it was dangerous, but I don't understand . . . there are no dangers here, not really . . ." She grimaced but her smile widened. "Maybe the loud music . . ."

The club was really crowded, the electricity of the crowd and the pulse of the music swelling into a corporeal thing. Gin had always been hyper-sensitive to people's auras and emotions. She could feel herself feeding off the current of excitement that seemed to surround everyone. She couldn't remember feeling quite like this. It was frightening yet invigorating, and Gin was having a lot of fun.

'Your father will have a fit if he finds out you were here.'

Gin winced. 'Well, as long as nothing bad happens, he . . . he won't care.'

'You don't really believe that, do you?'

'I want to.'

'And Cain?'

'Cain?'

'What do you suppose Cain would say if he knew you were here?'

Gin shook her head and sipped her water. 'He does know I'm here . . . I mean, surely he knows Belle's here, and I did come with her . . . I don't think it matters to him. Why should it?'

'Doll, it would matter to him, and you know it. You saw how protective he is of you. He followed you around on your date with Montaro-kun, remember?'

'He doesn't need to worry. I can take care of myself. I'm not a pup anymore, and I'm really tired of everyone acting like I am. I'm a big girl, darn it! Cain can just . . . just . . . deal with that!'

'You promised Belle you wouldn't say 'big girl' anymore.'

Gin sighed. 'Oh, right; I did.'

Bellaniece suddenly gasped, and Gin glanced over at her. The younger girl was holding out her skirt as the woman beside her smirked. "Oh, sorry," the girl said, her voice almost hostile as she set her empty glass on the counter. "I didn't see you there."

Bellaniece forced a tight little smile and shrugged. "I'm sure," she replied in a cautious tone. "Gin, I'll be back. I'm going to go rinse this out."

"You want me to come with you?" Gin asked.

Bellaniece's smile widened and she shook her head. Gin frowned as Bellaniece shrugged carelessly. "No, it's fine. I just don't feel like smelling like a frat party gone bad."

Gin wrinkled her nose and nodded. She'd never cared for the smell of beer, and she could imagine that having it all over her dress would be enough to drive her insane . . . Gin sighed as she watched Bellaniece hurry away.

"Excuse me."

Blinking quickly, Gin looked up and smiled at the young man who had approached her. "Hello," she greeted. "I'm Gin."

The young man grinned shyly. "I'm Kaori," he answered with a respectful nod. "Are you new around here? I don't remember seeing you before."

"Oh, it's the first time I've been dancing," Gin explained with a shrug. "My friend brought me here to teach me."

Kaori seemed surprised. "You dance well, I noticed."

"Thank you."

"Would you like to dance with me?"

"Okay," she agreed, setting her water bottle on the counter behind her before she slipped her hand into his, letting him lead her toward the dance floor.

Kaori slipped an arm around her waist, and Gin jumped. "Wh-What are you doing?" she asked when he held onto her.

"Dancing." he said replied without loosening his grip.

"But the song's pretty fast," she said slowly. "I'd rather dance the other way."

Kaori laughed. "You'll like dancing like this," he replied, pulling her a little closer as he gyrated his hips against hers.

Gin gasped as embarrassed color filtered into her cheeks. Without thinking, she shoved Kaori away. He stumbled back with an expression on his face that was so shocked, so surprised, that it might have been amusing, had Gin not been so upset.

Kaori careened into another couple dancing nearby, nearly sending the girl sprawling to the floor. The girl's partner caught her and steadied her before whipping around to punch Kaori. Kaori's head snapped to the side, and he landed on his backside. People stopped dancing to watch as Kaori got back to his feet and barreled at the other man.

'Oh, no!' Gin thought with a wince as Kaori gave the man a hard shove.

'This isn't good,' Gin's youkai remarked as the man shoved Kaori back.

"What's going on?" Bellaniece asked as she touched Gin's arm.

Gin grimaced. "Um . . . I was dancing with him," she said, pointing at Kaori, "but he . . . did this weird thing, and I pushed him to make him let go . . ."

"I see," Bellaniece remarked. "Wow . . . This isn't good, is it?"

"I can't let them fight," Gin groaned as she started to dart forward to separate the two men.

Bellaniece caught her arm. "Gin, are you crazy? You can't get into that!"

"Oh, that's nothing! I used to break up fights between Ryo-nii and Kichiro-nii-chan all the time . . ."

"No, that's not what I mean! Look, guys . . . do stupid stuff like this. They won't really hurt each other. See? I think they're done now."

True enough, other than the two men in question still glaring at each other, everyone else was starting to dance again, and Gin heaved a sigh of relief—until Kaori turned back toward her and strode forward. He looked like he was contemplating mayhem, and Gin recoiled as Bellaniece suddenly stepped forward to intercept the young man.

"Hiya . . . I'm Belle. Wanna dance?"

Kaori slowly let his gaze travel up and down Bellaniece's frame. The girl smiled and shot Gin an indiscernible look as Kaori nodded. "All right."

'What's she doing?' Gin wondered as Bellaniece backed off enough to dance near Kaori but skillfully avoided being drawn into his arms.

'I think . . . I think she saved us,' her youkai answered, a hint of awe in the tone.

'Saved us? Because he was so angry?'

'Yeah, that sounds about right.'

"Hi, you want to dance?"

Gin glanced up into the eyes of another young man she didn't know. "Oh, uh . . . I . . . I think I'll sit this one out," she replied as she backed away from him, straight into someone else. "Excuse me!" she exclaimed as she spun around.

"No, no . . . I'm sorry, I can't do that."

Gin started to shake her head in confusion as the beginnings of a killer headache throbbed in the back of her head.

"I'll forgive you if you dance with me," he went on, ignoring Gin's confusion.

"Oi, I asked her to dance first," the other man stated.

"No, really, I think I need to sit down," she stated.

The men ignored her as they sized each other up. Gin rubbed her temples furiously as she caught sight of Bellaniece. Bellaniece caught the distressed look and mumbled something to Kaori before hurrying over to catch Gin's hand and pull her out from between the two men.

"Just dance," Bellaniece muttered.

Gin shook her head. "But—"

"It's all right. They're fine now. See?"

Glancing over her shoulder, Gin was relieved to see the two men, now standing side by side, watching as Bellaniece and Gin started dancing. The pain in her head receded.

"Relax, Gin, it's okay. I should have warned you before I went to the bathroom. Just don't dance with strangers. It's safer that way."

"Oh," Gin replied. It made sense. If she didn't dance with anyone but Bellaniece, there wouldn't be any trouble.

The two men stepped forward, dancing near the girls but not exactly with them. Gin tried to ignore them as she willed herself to relax. Bellaniece didn't seem to be bothered by the two, so Gin figured it was safe enough.

The song ended, and the next one began. It was a slow song, and Bellaniece grabbed Gin's hand to pull her off the dance floor. The men stopped them. "You're not leaving, are you?"

"No, just going to get a drink," Bellaniece replied lightly.

"I'll buy you whatever you want to drink as soon as this song's over," the other man remarked as he grabbed Gin's free hand and tugged.

"Oh, I—"

"Come on, Gin. These guys have fewer manners than common swine," Bellaniece remarked pleasantly.

"That sounds like a challenge."

"That sounds like a promise."

"That sounds like we're leaving," Bellaniece retorted.

Gin pulled her hand away from the man's grasp and let Bellaniece drag her away.

The guy grabbed Gin's hand again, and she shot Bellaniece a panicked look as a blur of movement flashed before her. Her hand was abruptly freed, and the young man went flying as the crack of bone meeting bone silenced the noisy club. Gin couldn't repress the dismayed moan as stared back into a pair of eyes she knew all too well.

"I can explain, nii-chan," she hurried to say.

"Save it," he growled as he grabbed her hand and dragged her out of the club and onto the street.

 

 

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Kichiro paced back and forth in front of Bellaniece and Gin for nearly ten minutes before he even dared look at either one of them. The two things he really wanted to do were to turn one over his knee and throttle the other. The trouble was that he wasn't sure if he wanted to turn Gin over his knee and throttle Bellaniece or vice versa . . .

His heart had nearly plummeted to his feet when he'd strolled into the dance club only to see Gin being dragged away by some bastard who obviously didn't have a whit of common sense. The baka likely had a broken nose, and he could count himself lucky for that. Had it been Ryomaru or InuYasha who had caught him, Kichiro didn't doubt for a moment that the idiot would be dead . . .

Stopping abruptly and swinging around to face them, Kichiro sighed and poked a finger at both girls before demanding, "Whose idiotic idea was this?"

Gin winced, ears flattening as she opened her mouth. Bellaniece blurted, "Mine."

Kichiro rolled his eyes. "Well, that's not really surprising. And you thought it'd be amusing to drag my sister along with you because . . .?"

"That's not fair, nii-chan! Belle—"

"Look, I wanted to go dancing, and Gin said you and your brother and your father would get bent over it. I thought she was kidding. I dragged her along, and that's that," Bellaniece cut in. "So if you want to be mad at someone, Dr. Izayoi, then be mad at me."

"Bellaniece . . ."

Bellaniece shot Gin a quelling glance.

"Yeah, I should have known it was something like that. Damn, Belle! Isn't it enough that you manipulate everyone and everything around you? Stay the hell away from my sister."

Gin sighed and shook her head. "That's not true! I wanted to come along. I wanted to learn how to dance. It's not Belle's fault."

"Forget it, Gin. He already thinks the worst of me. He can't really think much less, can you, Dr. Izayoi?"

Kichiro narrowed his gaze on Bellaniece. "No, I really can't. Come on. I'm taking you both home."

The girls followed along behind him as he led the way to his car.

The ride back to the apartment building was quiet and tense. Gin opted to sit in the back seat with Bellaniece instead of next to him, and Kichiro stifled a sigh. She didn't have any qualms about letting Kichiro know in her not-so-subtle way that she thought he was being completely unreasonable, as far as Bellaniece was concerned.

'What if she's telling the truth?'

Kichiro snorted. 'She isn't. Gin's just covering for Belle.'

'Yeah? Well, you're forgetting one very important thing.'

'And that would be . . .?'

'Gin can't lie for shit.'

'Maybe she's been practicing.'

'And maybe you just want to blame Belle.'

'And maybe you should keep your opinions to yourself.'

'And maybe you're just an ass.'

'Yeah, well, Belle needs to stay away from Gin. She's nothing like her. Gin's sweet and kind . . . completely the opposite of Belle.'

'Damn, Kich, you're being really hard on her, don't you think?'

'What I think is that she manipulated Gin into thinking that this was a good idea when Gin had no business ever being in a place like that!'

'You're not giving Gin enough credit. She ain't stupid.'

Kichiro parked his car outside the apartment building and rolled his eyes. 'It isn't about Gin being stupid. Gin's just sheltered. She doesn't have a clue, what could happen to a girl like her, and frankly, I'd rather that she doesn't have to find out, either.'

'And you're not just using Gin as another easy reason to convince yourself that you don't like Belle?'

That, in Kichiro's opinion, didn't even deserve an answer.

Gin didn't speak again until after she closed her apartment door.

"That was completely unfair," Gin said quietly before she turned to face him.

"I don't remember asking if you thought it was fair."

Gin shook her head, wrapping her arms over her stomach as she stepped away from the door. "Of course you didn't. No one ever asks me what I think is fair. No one bothers to think that maybe I'll be okay if I go somewhere with a friend."

"Find another friend, Gin. Belle . . . She's not good enough to be your friend."

"Why is that? Because you said so? Why are you being such a jerk? You've never been a jerk, and it doesn't really suit you."

"Think what you want, baby girl. You and I both know that if that had been Ryo or the old man—hell, even Toga—that pup would have gotten a lot worse than a broken nose."

Gin's cheeks flushed as her eyebrows drew together. "Nothing happened," she argued.

Kichiro snorted decisively. "You call that bastard trying to drag you onto the dance floor 'nothing'?"

"He didn't hurt me," she argued, "and even then, I'm not a pup anymore. I think I can defend myself well enough. Papa trained me, too."

Kichiro snorted. "That's not the point, Gin." Heaving a sigh as he rubbed his temple and tried to contain his rising irritation, he deliberately took his time before trying to explain the situation to his sister. "You don't see things the way the rest of us have to. What you saw as a chance to do something the old man wouldn't ever have let you do, and I—we—would have seen the danger you put yourself in . . . Those guys aren't nice, and they're going to take one look at you and think that they can take advantage of you."

"Why don't you worry less about me and more about Belle? She's the one who—" Gin stopped abruptly, clamping her mouth closed on whatever it was she had almost said. Waving her hand in dismissal, she shook her head.

"She's the one who . . . 'what'?" Kichiro pressed.

Gin shrugged. "Nothing . . . I just think you're being mean for no good reason."

Kichiro narrowed his gaze on Gin, positive that she wasn't telling him something. He also recognized the stubborn set of her jaw, the mulish pout on her lips. Whatever she had been about to say, she wasn't going to tell him if she had anything to say about it.

"Look, Gin, You really do think that people are just good; that there isn't anyone anywhere that would hurt you, but it's not true, and Belle . . . She doesn't think before she does stupid things. Just stay away from her. She's nothing but trouble."

"Sort of like you and Ryomaru, you mean?"

"What the hell does that mean?"

Gin wandered over to the window and stared into the darkness. "What do you think it means? You and Ryo-nii had Mama and Papa fooled into thinking you were so good, right? You're a hypocrite."

"This isn't about me."

"Of course it isn't. It's about Gin-chan, and Gin-chan's inability to make decisions on her own, right? Bellaniece didn't drag me out there. She was homesick, and I thought maybe she wouldn't feel so lonely if we went dancing."

"I know how Belle thinks, and I know what Belle does. She was using you."

"Belle's a sweet girl, and—"

"She's using you!"

"No, she isn't!"

"Don't be naïve, Gin! Girls like Belle—"

"Are no worse than you and Ryo-nii used to be!"

Kichiro shook his head and strode to the door. "I mean it, Gin. If I catch you out with Belle ever again, I'll do whatever I have to do, even if that means telling the old man."

"You'd really do that?"

He shifted his gaze to the side, glaring at the wall as he wished that Gin hadn't sounded quite so hurt by his threat. "Yeah, I would. If it meant you were safe, then damn it, yes, I would."

"Fine. Next time I'll make sure you don't catch me."

"Gin . . ." he warned.

Gin strode across the room and jerked the door open. "Good night."

He stared at her for a moment then nodded. "All right, be angry, but I'm not changing my mind."

Gin smiled sadly. "Yeah, neither am I."

Kichiro left her, pausing in the hallway to glare at Bellaniece's door. 'I should tell the old man, anyway . . . doubt he knows that Gin lives next to the Daughter of Darkness.'

'The Daughter of Darkness, Kich? You really think Belle's that bad?'

'Yeah, I do.'

'Oh, balls, she's no worse than you . . . and even if you don't like it, the fact remains that Gin went along with Belle; Belle didn't force her to go.'

'That's what Belle wants you to believe. She's evil like that.'

'Right . . . Well, if you're that concerned about it, why don't you talk to her father?'

'And say what? 'Oh, by the way, your daughter is evil incarnate and must be kept away from my innocent little sister'? Yeah, that'll work . . .'

'Ain't that what you think?'

Kichiro made a face. 'Damn straight.'

He reached Bellaniece's door in less than ten strides and pounded on it before he could think things through. Chances were that Bellaniece's father wasn't going to like what Kichiro had to say. 'Too bad,' he thought as he tapped his foot, waiting for someone to answer. 'He obviously can't control her. Probably doesn't even realize Belle's a holy terror . . .'

'Is it really your place to point that out?'

Kichiro snorted. 'Keh. Yes, it is.'

'Yeah, okay . . . when her father hands you your ass on the way out, don't say you weren't warned.'

'. . . I'm not scared of her father.'

'Her father is the North American tai-youkai, and sure, maybe he did inherit the title, but you know, somewhere along the way, he probably had to defend it, too. You might not get killed but you'll probably make the both of us uncomfortable for awhile.'

Kichiro's retort was cut off when the door swung open. Bellaniece raised her eyebrows in mock surprise and tilted her head to the side. "Lost? If you are, I'd be more than happy to tell you where to go."

"Cute, little girl. I want to talk to your father."

"Hmm, sorry. Daddy's too busy to talk to a petty hanyou like you."

"Aren't you hanyou, yourself?" he countered.

"The 'hanyou' part isn't the problem; it's the 'petty' part."

"If you say so, Belle-chan. Where is your father?"

Bellaniece crossed her arms over her chest and shrugged carelessly. "I told you, my father's busy."

Kichiro frowned as he sniffed then made a face. "Kami, wench, you smell like a brewery. Not enough that you had to drag my sister on one of your foolhardy escapades, but you were drinking, too?"

Bellaniece leaned back, glower dropping to her dress for a moment before glaring back at him as indignant color flooded her cheeks. 'She ought to be embarrassed. She ought to wash that stench off before her father smells her . . .'

"Yeah, I figured, you know, why not? How did you know that's exactly why I dragged Gin to the club—so I could get stinking drunk and land Gin in tons of trouble with her idiot brother. You figured me out, Dr. Izayoi. Now good night."

Kichiro's hand shot out, catching Bellaniece's wrist and jerking her closer in one fluid movement.

"Ouch," Bellaniece complained.

"Right, Belle . . . You and I both know that didn't hurt."

"If you're smart, you'll let go of me, right now," she ground out.

"And if you're smart, you'll stop provoking me, right now."

"Go to—"

"Don't finish that."

Bellaniece tugged her arm. Kichiro's grip tightened in silent warning. "What do you want?"

"I want you to promise you'll stay away from Gin; far away from Gin."

Bellaniece pressed her lips together as she drew a deep breath and slowly shook her head. "You're unbelievable; you know that? You're just . . . Do you practice being nasty or does it just come naturally?"

"Careful, Belle-chan," he warned, his gaze slipping to her lips as he pulled her just a little closer.

"Don't threaten me, Dr. Izayoi. I'd never be afraid of the likes of you."

"You should be," he growled.

"In what world?" she challenged, eyes flashing as she stubbornly refused to back down.

Kichiro opened his mouth to answer, but a low growl and a gruff voice behind Bellaniece interrupted first.

"Who are you, and what the hell are you doing with your hands on my daughter?"

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Are you going to answer me or am I going to rip your damn hands off?"

Kichiro glowered at Bellaniece for another moment before shifting his glare to the man poised behind Bellaniece. Standing in a protective stance with his hands on Bellaniece's shoulders, Kichiro didn't doubt for a moment that this man was definitely her father, and that he was hard pressed to keep from laying into him straight off. "Call off your dog, little girl," Kichiro growled.

Bellaniece's gaze narrowed. "It's fine, Daddy. He was just leaving."

"Not hardly," Kichiro assured her as he let go of Bellaniece's wrist without taking his eyes off her father. "Your daughter dragged my sister to a dance club tonight," Kichiro remarked. "I want her promise that she'll stay the fuck away from my baby sister."

"I assure you, I think I'd know if Bellaniece had—"

"Yeah, I'd think you'd know, too, but apparently you don't. Keep your hedonistic daughter away from her."

The formidable inu-youkai growled as his eyes darkened. "I don't think I like your implications, pup, and if you slight Bellaniece again, it'll be for the last time."

"Yeah? Too damn bad. Ask your daughter where I found them."

"Them?" Cain echoed.

Kichiro rolled his hand in an impatient gesture. "Your daughter dragged my sister to a dance club," he growled. "She was being carted around like the flavor of the month—no thanks to your damn daughter."

Cain crossed his arms over his chest as he glared from Kichiro to Bellaniece and back again. He seemed a lot more agitated, and Kichiro could only hope he was finally listening. "I will warn you once more: address my daughter properly or not at all . . . As for your sister . . . What makes you think that Bellaniece twisted her arm into going along?"

"If you knew my sister, you'd realize that Gin isn't the kind of girl who goes bar hopping," Kichiro bit out.

Cain's eyes flared in obvious surprise that he masked quickly enough but not before Kichiro noticed the odd spark. "Gin? That's your sister?"

"Yeah, that's my sister." Kichiro shifted his stance as he regarded the tai-youkai. "You sound like you know her."

"Well, yeah . . . She's my . . . student."

"Good, then you know that she's not stupid enough to go running around at all hours, and to bars, no less."

"I hate to tell you, pup, but no matter how persuasive Bellaniece can be, she hardly counts as someone who'd twist your sister's arm to make her go along with anything."

Kichiro snorted. "Keh! I know that your daughter's a spoiled brat who thought she could manipulate me into doing her friend's reconstructive surgery by paying me with your money and lying to her friend. Doesn't really speak very well for her; don't you think?"

Cain stalked toward Kichiro as he broke into a low growl meant as a warning. Bellaniece caught Cain's arm before he could reach Kichiro. "It's okay, Daddy . . . Dr. Izayoi was born in a bad mood."

Cain shook his daughter's hands off but stopped advancing. "I should have known. You're just as obnoxious as your father."

Kichiro was caught off guard by that admission. "You've met the old man?"

"In passing."

"And you're still standing? He's taken down better than you. You'll understand if I don't really think you'd care to cross him, should he find out that your daughter was dragging Gin all over hell's half-acre."

"Good, then you'll understand if I beat the living—"

"Daddy, it's fine!" Bellaniece insisted as she slipped between Kichiro and Cain once more. "I really think you should leave," she warned, backing up in hopes of forcing Cain to step away.

Kichiro crossed his arms over his chest and snorted. "I'm not leaving till you swear you'll stay the hell away from my sister," he growled.

"I don't turn my back on my friends, even if their brothers don't approve," Bellaniece ground out. "So you'll be waiting for that promise for a very long time."

"Will I?" Kichiro countered.

'You know, Kich, her father isn't looking too impressed with you.'

'Not now!'

'Oh, right, so you want me to be quiet so you can get both our asses kicked?'

'Yeah, yeah, that'd be good.'

'Keh! Fine . . . baka.'

"I think it'd be wise to leave now," Cain pointed out in a calm, controlled tone despite the absolute irritation evident in his darkened expression.

"I'll leave," Kichiro agreed. "For the record, though, it would be wise to keep your deviant daughter away from Gin . . . for her sake and yours."

"Yeah, and I don't take well to threats, pup. Best you remember that before I decide that you're beneath my time and trouble and kick your ass for fun."

"I've been threatened by better men than you . . . my old man, for example," Kichiro spouted back. Maybe it was stupid of him to do such a thing. Trouble was, he wasn't really thinking clearly. The desire to lay into the youkai was rapidly fraying the edges of Kichiro's better judgment. "Your damn daughter smells like a fucking brewery, if you didn't notice . . . You'd do well to leash her before she—"

Cain's movement was little more than a blur of color and a soft breeze of fabricated wind. Kichiro choked as the youkai slammed him against the wall, his claws closing around his throat. Kichiro still refused to back down. "Did I strike a nerve?"

"Daddy!" Bellaniece exclaimed as she tugged on Cain's arm. "Daddy, stop it!"

"Who the hell do you think you are? Regardless of what part my daughter played in this, she isn't the only one to blame, no matter what you think. Give me a reason to shred you."

"Daddy, please! He's going to do Kelly's surgery!" Bellaniece pleaded.

Cain's grip loosened a little. Kichiro knocked his hand away and glowered at Cain without sparing a glance at Bellaniece.

"Run your mouth off about Bellaniece again, and she'll not be able to stop me," Cain warned.

"If you really think you can," Kichiro shot back.

Cain erupted in a menacing growl. Bellaniece put a hand against her father's chest to stop him. "Good night, Dr. Izayoi," she said tightly as she pushed him back into the hallway and started to close the door. For a moment, Kichiro considered putting a hand out to stop her but shook his head. Even if he hadn't necessarily won that round, he had at least made his point.

Glaring at the closed door for another moment, Kichiro finally turned and strode toward the stairwell.

 

 

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Bellaniece lingered with her hand on the door handle, obviously waiting for whatever tirade Cain could muster.

"So tell me, pup, why do you reek of beer?" he finally asked as he crossed his arms over his chest.

She sighed, slowly turning to face him as she winced just a little. "Some girl spilled it on me. I tried to wash it out in the bathroom, but . . ."

Cain nodded thoughtfully. "All right, I'll buy that."

"I wasn't trying to sell you anything, Daddy."

"Hmm . . ."

Biting her bottom lip as she tried not to fidget, Bellaniece pressed her palms together and tried to look innocent.

"I seem to recall you saying that you and Gin were going to dinner."

Bellaniece grimaced. "They serve food at the club . . ."

"Bellaniece . . ."

"Daddy, I didn't ask her to go, I promise! We were shopping earlier, and I mentioned how I'd go dancing and stuff with friends back home, and she . . . She wanted to learn how to dance."

"And the part about Gin being dragged around?" he demanded.

Bellaniece shifted from one foot to the other. "We-e-ell . . ."

He narrowed his gaze and dropped his chin a notch.

"I was in the bathroom trying to wash the beer off of my skirt. When I came out, Gin was trying to get away from a guy . . . and she backed into another one or something . . . Nothing happened! Dr. Izayoi came in, lost his temper, decked the guy, and brought us home!"

"Why did he deck him?"

With a sigh, Bellaniece shook her head and tossed her hands up in obvious defeat. "Because he's a hot-head. Honestly, Daddy, Gin was fine! She's hanyou, and she knows how to protect herself . . . She shoved the first guy away pretty hard—hard enough to indirectly start a fight . . . sort of . . . Anyway, these other guys wanted her to dance with them, and—"

"How the hell many were there?" Cain choked out.

"Well, just those . . . three . . ."

"Oh, God . . ."

"I did tell her that she should only dance with people she knows, so I think that it'd help a lot, and she did have fun, I think—at least till her idiot brother came in . . ."

"Bellaniece, you're babbling," Cain remarked, rubbing his temples furiously as he heaved a heavy sigh, "and you're really not helping, either."

"I'm sorry, Daddy . . . Gin really did want to go, and . . . and honestly, I thought maybe she was joking about her family being so overprotective."

"Obviously not," Cain agreed with another sigh. "Stay here."

"Where are you going?"

Cain didn't stop walking. "Where do you think?"

The hallway was empty, and Cain hesitated before knocking on Gin's door. He didn't sense Kichiro Izayoi's presence—all things considered, a very good thing—and he slowly shook his head before he raised his fist to tap.

It took a minute for Gin to open the door, and when she did, Cain blinked in surprise. She'd managed to catch him completely off guard again. Greeting him in a thin-strapped crimson silk dress that showed a little too much leg and cleavage as far as he was concerned, and still smelled like the club, she nibbled a stick of chocolate pocky in much the same way that a rabbit would munch a lettuce leaf. She didn't say a word before turning around and heading back around the bar.

Cain repressed the vicious growl that welled up in his throat upon seeing her retreating form wrapped so nicely in the figure-hugging silk that clung to her in all the right places. The dress was sophisticated yet simple, and on a girl like Gin, it was absolutely devastating . . .

'She wore that to the dance club?'

Cain winced. 'Yeah, she did . . .'

'Damn, Cain . . . This isn't good.'

'Nope, it sure isn't.'

'. . . Want to go hunting?'

Imaging what the men at the club must have thought wasn't too difficult since Cain was probably thinking about the same thing. He blinked and flushed when he realized he was growling, and that Gin was warily watching him. 'Yep, I do.'

Two empty pocky boxes were tossed carelessly on the normally immaculate counter, and Gin didn't say anything as she fished another stick of the treat out of the foil packet.

"Bellaniece tells me you were out at a dance club," he finally remarked, struggling for a calm that he was far from feeling since he could smell the reek of those faceless men every time Gin moved.

"She didn't make me go," Gin answered, her tone belligerent, as if she expected Cain to condemn his daughter. "Don't be angry with her."

"I didn't think she did," he replied, "and I'm not angry with her."

'Liar.'

'I'm not angry with her . . . a little irritated, maybe, but not angry . . .'

"Good," Gin said with a sigh. Her ears flattened momentarily as she started in on another helpless pocky stick. "I had fun. I wanted to go. I've never gotten to do something like that before."

"Gin, go change," he growled, wrinkling his nose at the lingering stench. He couldn't think straight, let alone try to control his emotions while she smelled like . . . like . . .

'Like someone else?'

'. . . Yeah.'

"What?"

Cain shook his head. "Go change," he said again, much louder the second time.

Gin straightened her back and glanced down at her dress. "There's nothing wrong with this dress," she countered, her eyes narrowing as she met his glower with one of her own.

"There's a lot wrong with that dress, starting with the God-awful stink of it."

Gin opened her mouth and snapped it closed again as she gaped indignantly back at him. "I don't stink!" she informed him.

Cain snorted. "Pfft! That's not what I meant! You smell like . . . strangers."

Gin snorted, too. "I like this dress. I don't feel like changing . . . and you can't make me."

He had to count to twenty-five before he dared to try to reason with her. Gin finished off the package of pocky and grabbed bag of grape gummies out of the cupboard behind her. "You're still mad at me about last night?"

She made a face as she ripped open the bag and tore the first packet open. "Nope."

"If you're not, then why are you acting like you are?"

"Because I wasn't mad at you about last night anymore," she replied. "Now, I'm mad because you're trying to tell me what to do."

"Fine," he countered, leaning across the counter to sniff her again before turning on his heel and heading for the door.

"Where are you going?"

Cain grasped the handle and twisted. "To go find whoever thought they could rub their scent all over you."

Gin dropped the bag of gummies on the counter and skittered over to grab his arm. "Why?"

"Isn't it obvious? I'm going to kill him—or them . . ."

Gin didn't let go. "What? No! You can't do that! Cain!" she whined as he tried to shake her off.

"Then change clothes," he demanded.

Gin uttered a frustrated growl and glowered at him for a moment before heaving a sigh as she spun around and stomped off toward her bedroom.

'Congratulations, you've officially sunk to a new low,' his youkai remarked as he watched Gin huff away.

'Shut up. It worked, didn't it?'

'And if she had called your bluff? What then?'

Cain made a face. 'Who said it was a bluff? She changes or I kill whoever thought to rub his stench on her . . . Either way, it's a win-win situation . . .'

'You're such a dog, Cain.'

Cain smiled grimly and tapped his foot as he waited for Gin to come out of her room. 'Woof.'

 

 

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Bellaniece sighed as she watched her father close the door behind him. It was worse than him being angry at her. No, he'd given her 'The Look'—the one that meant that she'd disappointed him, and that somehow made her feel worst of all.

'Duh, Belle . . . you should have known that it was a bad idea, from the start.'

Wandering over to the windows, Bellaniece shook her head as she wrapped her arms over her stomach and stared at the night sky. 'How was I supposed to know that she was dead serious? I really thought she was . . . exaggerating . . .'

'Gin's too earnest to exaggerate. No, this was entirely your fault. Kichiro is really upset with her, and your father . . .'

Bellaniece frowned. 'They're more upset with me, and that's how it should be.'

'Really? Then you've done a fantastic job.'

'If you really thought I did all that on purpose—'

'That's the point, Belle! You didn't have to do it on purpose because you just didn't think at all! You never think, do you? Even if Kichiro hadn't been upset about it, didn't you think for a moment that your father would be? You know he cares about Gin! What if he's over there making an ass of himself because of you?'

Bellaniece winced. 'What was I supposed to say to Gin? That we couldn't go dancing because she'd upset the very sands of time by doing so? Oh, please! They're all overreacting! Gin's absolutely right. She isn't a pup anymore, and it's about time everyone figured that out. I'm not saying she needs to go crazy, but just going dancing? We didn't do anything wrong . . .'

'Maybe you didn't, but the ones who matter aren't going to listen to your reasoning, either. Do you really think Kichiro Izayoi is interested in hearing anything other than 'yes, you're right'? And your father . . . At least he has a reason for not wanting Gin out running around. It's a wonder he is fighting it so hard. He's all about her lately.'

Bellaniece finally smiled at that thought. 'He is, isn't he? He's so . . . He's been different lately; happier . . . He seems more content. Gin's good for him.'

'It does seem like it, but you might want to put a lid on your optimism. A lot of things can happen, you know?'

'I know,' Bellaniece agreed as she let her gaze fall to the street below. Cars crept past like a constantly moving string of Christmas lights under the abrasive fake warmth of the streetlamps. She noticed the late-model silver sedan still parked in front of the building and grimaced. 'Kichiro's still here? But why?'

She thought he'd left. She heard him walk away after she closed the door on him, but that was definitely his car. 'This can't be good,' she thought as she slowly shook her head. 'What if he didn't really leave? What if he goes back to Gin's apartment?" Bellaniece's eyes widened, and she stifled a moan. "On, no . . . Daddy!'

Bellaniece didn't stop to think as she wheeled around and ran for the door. Pausing outside Gin's door long enough to ascertain that her father was there but Kichiro wasn't, she glanced up and down the hallway as she dug her claws into the palms of her hands. 'Where is he?'

'Quick, Belle . . . maybe he's in the lobby or something . . . Just make sure he doesn't come back up here, or there's going to be more trouble than Cain shoving Kichiro against a wall, and you know it . . .'

'Yes, well, I'm not doing this to save Kichiro Izayoi,' she thought as she sprinted toward the stairs. 'Daddy doesn't need the stress . . . and neither does Gin.'

'Yeah, just move it, Bellaniece!'

He was down there. She could sense his youki. Stopping on the stairs just out of sight from the lobby area, Bellaniece sat down on a step and bit her index finger claw.

'Great, he's there. Now what?' her youkai asked.

'Now we just sit here and make sure he doesn't try going back upstairs,' she reasoned.

'Yeah, okay . . . One problem.'

'What?'

'What if he takes the elevator?'

'He wouldn't—" Bellaniece started then winced. 'Then again, he just might . . .'

'. . . I don't want to go down there.'

Bellaniece sighed softly, letting her head fall against the banister. 'Me, either.'

"What the hell do you want?"

Stifling a groan, Bellaniece stood up and lifted her chin before forcing herself to descent the last flight of stairs. Kichiro stood at the bottom, arms crossed over his chest, and ears flicking in absolute irritation. "What are you still doing here?"

Kichiro snorted. "I was thinking about taking Gin to the old man's house."

"You're really something, you know that? A real piece of work."

He grabbed her arm as she started to walk past him toward the mailboxes lining the wall near the entrance. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Take your hands off me," she warned.

"Answer my question."

Injecting as much ice as she could muster into her gaze as she glared pointedly at his hand, still wrapped around her arm, Bellaniece sighed. "None of your business. I'm not Gin. You can't make me do or say anything because you think you have the right."

"Damn, you have a sharp tongue."

"You ain't seen nothin' yet, Dr. Izayoi. Now if you'd please take your hands off me, because I assure you, my father does not make empty threats."

"Not until you tell me where you're going."

"What does it matter? You don't care, and even if you did, you don't have the right to ask me anything."

"That's where you're wrong," he countered, grasping her other arm and pulling her around to face him. "You don't have a damn bit of common sense in that beautiful head of yours, do you, Belle?"

Bellaniece's breath caught with a strangled gasp, and she swallowed hard. She tried to remember that she needed to breathe, but the air around them seemed to be hissing in her ears, buzzing in her head. She felt strangely dizzy, and for a long second, she thought she was going to fall. 'Beautiful? Did he . . . Did he just say . . .?'

"You still reek of beer," he growled, but his voice had taken on a huskier quality as his gaze settled on her lips. Slightly parted as she managed a few weak, stuttering breaths, she tried to speak as words formed and dissolved under the intensity of his stare. "Damn it, Belle, why do you have to be so . . .?"

"Let go," she whispered.

"Are you going to run?"

"I never run."

"Yeah, I didn't think you would."

His mouth on hers swallowed her gasp as he dragged her closer. She didn't think to fight him. She didn't think that they were in the middle of the lobby where anyone who happened to be coming or going would see them. She forgot to think at all. Kichiro's lips were soft, warm against hers. The initial crush of his mouth softened as she relented, letting her body collapse against his as he let go of her only to wrap his arms around her, instead.

All his abrasiveness faded, and in those moments, Bellaniece wasn't sure what she knew or what she really believed. She didn't have time to stop or to think. His lips were too insistent, too persuasive. Her arms were trapped against his chest, against the ripple of muscles that surged under her fingertips. He broke down her defenses before she had a chance to construct them, and when his teeth grazed over lips, she shivered as her knees gave way.

Very loud throat clearing broke through Bellaniece's idyll, but it still took a few seconds for the sound to make sense to her. Kichiro tensed under her hands, though, and with a mumbled curse, he shoved her back. She stumbled but caught herself on the banister, too dazed to even blush as the middle-aged couple on the stairs they were blocking squeezed past the two. Bellaniece stared at her hands as she tried to catch her breath, and she couldn't meet Kichiro's gaze.

"You really are stupid, aren't you?" he finally asked as the door closed behind the couple and made Bellaniece grit her teeth.

"I'm stupid?" she echoed, unable to mask the hurt in her tone. "You're the one who—"

"Yeah, and you're the one who was dumb enough to follow me. You got what you were after, didn't you? Go on and run back upstairs now."

She might have laughed if his words weren't so precisely honed to draw blood. The entire situation was ludicrous. Maybe she did follow him down, but not to kiss him. She'd only meant to make sure he didn't go back upstairs to Gin's apartment; that was all . . . "You think I came down here to kiss you? You arrogant, presumptuous bas—"

"Get over it, Belle. Why else did you come down here?"

Glancing over her shoulder as she told herself that she would not cry, Bellaniece saw the mailboxes again. "I came down to check the mail, if it's all the same to you."

Kichiro didn't say anything as she forced herself to walk over to the boxes. Her hand was shaking so badly she had to enter the combination four times before the little door swung open. Bellaniece jerked the mail from the box and closed it before making herself walk back to the stairs again. Kichiro moved to block her path before she could retreat. "I'll have that promise now."

"Promise?" she echoed with a slight shake of her head. "What promise?"

Kichiro's smile was dry, dull, lacking any real amusement. "I want to hear you say you'll stay the hell away from Gin."

"Is that why you kissed me? So you could coerce a promise out of me that I have no intention of making?"

"Why else would I do something as stupid as kiss you?"

Bellaniece could feel the rush of indignant color rise in her cheeks. "I see," she bit out as she pushed Kichiro out of the way and hurried up the stairs.

She heard the door slam again as she reached the landing between the second and third floors. Wincing as the sound echoed in her head, Bellaniece quickened her pace. If she could just get back into the apartment; if she could only reach the sanctity of the bathroom, of the shower . . . It was the one place where her father wouldn't smell her tears. It was the one place she dared to let herself go.

Vision blurring as she darted up the stairs, she stumbled but caught herself, and she ran faster. 'Daughter of the tai-youkai . . . You cannot cry . . . You must be strong . . .'

Dashing the back of her hand over her eyes as she sniffled and kept moving, Bellaniece clenched her jaw as she fought in vain to keep the tears from falling.

'And you'll never, ever cry over Kichiro Izayoi . . .'

 

 

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Gin stomped out of her bedroom with her arms crossed over her chest and a definite pout on her face. She stopped short when she reached the living room only to find Cain holding up a brand new pair of panties with a distinct scowl as he turned them slowly from side to side.

"They won't fit you," she commented mulishly. "You'd need much bigger panties than I wear."

"Just checking for the date," he grumbled, red-faced, as he dropped the panties onto the untidy pile on the sofa. "They're all different."

Gin wrinkled her nose. "Of course they are. I didn't know what kind would be most comfortable, so I bought different styles to try out so someone can't make fun of my panties anymore."

"I wasn't making fun of your panties," he argued. "I was . . . appreciating them."

"You belittled my panties," she retorted. "You . . . mocked my panties."

Cain tried to look contrite; she had to give him that. Shifting his mouth to the side as he pressed his lips in a line, he cleared his throat and shrugged. "Should I say I'm sorry . . . to your . . . panties?"

Gin rolled her eyes and stomped past him into the kitchen, heading straight for the one cupboard that contained nothing but candy.

"Good God, Gin! How much candy do you have stashed up there?"

"There's not that much in there," she argued as she slammed the door closed and ripped open a candy bar wrapper. "Sometimes I just want candy; that's all."

Cain reached around her to peek into the cupboard again. Gin slapped his hand away. "Stay out of my cupboards, Cain!"

He snorted. "I just want to see what all you've got stashed away."

She narrowed her eyes dangerously but had to swallow the candy in her mouth before she could answer. "Don't make me fight you."

"You'd fight me over candy?"

"Yes, I would."

"Why is that?"

Gin shrugged. "My mama wouldn't let me have much when I was a pup, so now that I'm living here, I get to eat as much as I want."

"Was there a valid reason for you not to have it?"

Gin blinked as she finished off the candy bar and grabbed another. "I don't know . . . She used to say that sugar made me hyper."

Cain seemed to be thinking that over. He held out his hand and cocked an eyebrow at her. "Put the candy down very slowly, and step away, Gin."

Gin shook her head.

Cain wiggled his fingers.

Gin narrowed her eyes and uttered a low growl.

Cain's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and he laughed. "You're threatening me over candy?"

"It's mine," she informed him. "Get your own."

"Now, Gin, be reasonable . . ."

"I'll bite you if you try to take it," she warned.

Cain chuckled. "You know, you're going to make yourself sick."

"That's an old wives' tale," she argued. "Candy can't make me sick. Papa said that hanyou don't get sick. Ever."

Cain heaved a sigh. "Fine, but don't say I didn't warn you."

Gin sighed, too, as her expression shifted into a very thoughtful scowl. "Have you ever been dancing, Cain?"

His amusement ended abruptly, and Gin winced. 'Uh oh . . . It was probably a bad idea to remind him, don't you think?'

Gin sighed. 'Probably . . .'

"A long time ago," he admitted. "Never much cared for the crowds."

"I had fun," she ventured slowly. "I mean, most of the time, I just danced with Bellaniece." Gin made a face as she dropped the empty candy wrappers into the garbage can. "I think it would have been more fun if Kaori hadn't done that . . . thing . . ."

"Who's Kaori?"

"The guy I started dancing with," Gin answered absently as she wiped the counter off with a damp cloth.

"What'd he do?"

Gin tossed the cloth into the sink and frowned up at Cain. "What'd who do?"

"The guy—Kaori . . . What 'thing' did he do?"

Gin wrinkled her nose and hopped up onto the counter, fiddling with the hem of her pink sundress. "I don't know how to describe it," she said. "He just sort of . . . bumped his hips against me."

"He what?"

She shrugged. "I pushed him kind of hard. I didn't mean to, but he shocked me, I guess . . ."

Cain looked like he was contemplating mayhem. Gin reached out and caught his hand. "Cain . . . would you ever go dancing with me? I mean, I know you don't like crowds and all that . . ."

He sighed. "It's been years since I've danced, Gin. I'd probably step all over your feet."

There was a strange sort of shadow in his eyes, the slight hint of an emotion that she couldn't quite grasp, but his sadness was so real to her that it made her heart ache for him. She tried to smile. "It's all right. It was sort of a stupid idea, anyway."

"It wasn't stupid," he assured her.

Cain was trying to hide his feelings for her sake, she could tell . . . It hurt her. "It's okay. I mean, you wouldn't really want to do that, would you? Go dancing with me? It was a bad idea, wasn't it?"

"No . . . It wasn't. It's just—"

"Really, it's fine. To you, I'm just a silly little girl with . . . ridiculous panties, and—"

"Gin, you don't get it," he cut in with an exasperated sigh. "I wish I did think of you as nothing but a silly little girl."

"I don't understand. What do you mean, you—?"

"Damn it!" Cain moved so fast that Gin gasped. Leaning on the counter with his hands planted beside her knees, he lowered his head to her, covered her lips with his.

Gin sat, frozen, her mind refusing to understand what was happening. Eyes wide open in shock, she couldn't seem to understand anything at all. It was a nice kiss—a really nice kiss. Cain's eyes were closed, and he gently moved his lips against hers as a foreign sense of wonder ebbed through her.

'Doll! What are you doing?'

'Huh?'

'Don't just sit there! Cain is kissing you!'

'Eh?'

'Kiss him back!'

Gin started to kiss him. He moaned softly and moved in toward her. She leaned back then squealed, tearing her mouth away as she slid off the counter. Cain grunted and jerked upright and winced as Gin accidentally ground her heel into his foot. "Oh, I'm so sorry!"

"No, it's okay," he told her.

Gin wrung her hands. "I'm such a klutz!"

"I think I'll live."

She sighed and stepped back, unsure what to say as the silence grew thicker, heavier. She frowned.

"Gin, I—"

"You want to see what I bought today?" Gin broke in, sure he was about to apologize for kissing her. She didn't want him to do that. Careening around and hurrying toward the living room, she forced herself to sound cheerful, teasing, as she added, "I mean, you already saw my panties . . ."

Cain sighed. "Okay, sure," he agreed as he followed her toward the sofa.

Gin held up the black dress and gazed expectantly at him. "What do you think? Sophisticated? Elegant? Sexy?" She giggled. "I think those were the words Bellaniece used . . . maybe not sexy though . . ."

For some reason, Cain looked slightly irritated. "What else did my daughter say?"

Gin's eyes widened, and she dropped the dress over the back of the sofa, giggling softly as she carefully lifted the gauzy white dress from the garment box. "I don't really think I'll wear this anywhere, but . . . It'd look really nice with the wings."

Cain stared at the dress for several seconds, a thoughtful light brightening his gaze.

Gin held it up to her shoulders. "Bellaniece said that the dress reminded her of a fairy princess from her story books."

"Yeah, I guess so . . . I painted one of her walls back home: a giant mural of a fairy kingdom, with Princess Bellaniece standing on the battlements of the Fairy King's castle . . . Her dress looked a lot like that one."

"Wow . . . You really love her."

"Sure. She's my daughter."

Gin nodded, staring down at the dress. "Some day I'll show you this dress with the wings."

Cain smiled. "I'd like that."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Why else would I do something as stupid as kiss you?"

Kichiro groaned as he let his head drop back against the rough tree bark and stared up at the unfurling leaves above him. His anger had dissipated about the time he stepped outside of the apartment building, and what he was left with was ugly, bitter—the gnawing ache of recrimination. 'I . . . Oh hell, I was an ass, wasn't I?'

'Just a little,' his youkai replied with a snort.

Yeah, so that was a bit of an understatement on his part. He'd been a huge ass. He hadn't meant to . . . He should have left right away, but no, he had to stop and think, and . . .

Stopping at the base of the stairwell and stalking the floor as he heaved a sigh and dug his hands into his pockets, Kichiro wanted to go back to Gin's apartment; wanted to take her home for the night since she'd been upset enough when he'd left her. Something about Gin could always make him feel like a complete jerk whenever he tried to tell her that she was going to get hurt. Maybe it was her eyes . . .

He'd been trying to figure out a way to ask Gin to go with him since she'd probably overact if he just said, 'Get your stuff, you're coming with me.' He hadn't meant it that way, anyway. Their father had called a tournament for the following afternoon, and since Gin would be going to that, Kichiro had just thought maybe she could use the calm of the forest to think things through.

But he couldn't shake that hot swell of rage that had gripped his insides when he'd walked into that club only to see the young man dragging his sister around. It had been drilled into his head over the years: protect Gin . . . watch out for Gin . . . be careful with Gin . . . It had become second nature.

Then Bellaniece . . .

He hadn't expected Bellaniece to come back downstairs. Why had it bothered him even more, that she would rather sit on the steps and pretend she wasn't there than to come down and face him? It wasn't like her. Bellaniece wasn't a coward; reckless, foolish even, but never a coward.

Then she'd stared at him, her gaze unfaltering as she refused to back down after he called her out. Her hair had caught the dim light of the electric bulbs, but the way she'd stared at him . . . Either it had simply been too damn long since he'd kissed anyone, or Bellaniece really was special. How he could have felt so much in that brief moment when he'd stopped fighting the need to kiss her and had let himself go perplexed him. He felt as if he had been as close to having everything he'd ever wanted, and then . . .

He shook his head and closed his eyes for a second.

And then he'd pushed her away.

What had he really been after, when he asked her why she'd followed him? What did he really expect? He wasn't stupid enough to think that she was about to tell him that she'd chased him down in hopes that he really would kiss her, was he?

Maybe he was.

'So, she hurts your pride, so you have to crush her completely? Is that how it works?'

It hadn't taken him long to realize the magnitude of his mistake. The hurt in her eyes, the sudden wariness as she slowly backed away from him . . .

'I didn't mean to . . . Damn, I shouldn't have lashed out at her . . . Not for that kiss . . .'

'No, you really shouldn't have,' his youkai agreed. 'Not when you wanted it as much—if not more—than she did.'

Kichiro winced. The truth hurt.

Something about Bellaniece set him off every single time. She was beautiful and infuriating, gentle and tough, too. Everything about her was a paradox. She didn't have the sense to run when he tried to tell her to. She had too much courage for her own good, and the combination was lethal. A woman like her was nothing but trouble. She could twist a man inside out and never even realize how many victims she left in her wake.

'Interesting. She sounds a lot like you used to be.'

He really had been like that, hadn't he? All his escapades with Ryomaru had seemed so innocent at the time. How many girls had they left behind, wondering if they would call or hoping they'd see the twins again? Kichiro's ears flattened. Bellaniece didn't really have a thing on them. They had been worse than she could ever hope to be, because they'd known at the time what they were doing.

'You know, I think you're angrier that Belle was at that club than you are that Gin was with her.'

'That's crap,' Kichiro grumbled.

'Not at all. Gin might not belong there, but you know that she really can hold her own. You just don't want her to have to do that, which is fine, but Belle . . . Belle does stuff first, before she can think her actions through. She's too free spirited, and that's what bothers you the most.'

'Maybe.'

'Maybe? Admit it, Kich. You hate the idea that you might have been too late, not only to rescue Gin, but to rescue Belle, too.'

'Belle does nothing but irritate me. I think she tries to irritate me. I think she goes out of her way to irritate me.'

'And you don't do the same to her? Actually, I think you're nastier to her than she could ever be to you . . . and let's not forget that most of the time, you're the one who instigates it.'

'I don't do anything of the sort.'

'Don't bullshit me! You do. You always do.'

Kichiro sighed. He really did, didn't he? It wasn't enough, to leave it alone. He had to seek her out, had to make her feel just a little worse.

'Balls, you know, you nearly knocked her down because you kissed her, and then—'

'I don't need the rehash. I was there, remember?'

'I think you do. You hate the idea that you kissed her because you wanted to, and you hate the idea more that you just might have to admit to yourself that you don't despise her, after all.'

'I never said I despised her.'

'Not in those words, no . . . You've been so hell-bent on belittling everything about her to bother saying that you despise her.'

The night air was stagnant, vacant, and Kichiro let his unseeing gaze fall on the empty house he couldn't stand to enter. He'd noticed how lonely the place was. He didn't want to think about why it bothered him more lately than it ever had before.

'Anyway, it shouldn't matter, right? I mean, she's infuriating, insulting, temperamental, not to mention—'

'Beautiful, confident, intelligent, playful . . . and she's got a damn fine rack.'

Kichiro made a face, digging his claws into the thick branch below him. '. . . Yeah, there's that, too . . .'

'So you did notice!'

'Never said I didn't.'

'You really upset her, if it matters.'

He winced. 'It does.'

'Why should it? You don't like her, remember?'

'But I didn't mean to do that, either.'

'Which? Kiss her or upset her?'

'Upset her, of course! I was . . . I was . . . I don't know why I reacted like that.'

'You do. You just don't want to admit that, either.'

Kichiro didn't answer that.

 

 

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Gin sat on her knees in front of the coffee table with a scowl of intense concentration furrowing her brow as she worked the nondescript lump of clay. "I don't think I've got steady enough hands to do this," she remarked dubiously.

Cain shrugged and leaned over her shoulder to inspect her work. "You know, you could do this later . . . tomorrow . . . whenever your sugar rush wears off."

Gin waved her hand to shush him and giggled when she wiped clay on his nose on accident. "I feel really creative, though! You did say that I should work when the inspiration hit me."

Cain nodded, wishing he hadn't said that just before all the candy in Gin's system kicked in. The transformation had been startling. One minute, she was calm, ebullient little Gin, and the next she was practically bouncing off the walls. Launching into a discussion on inspirations and theory behind his artwork, Cain hadn't had to do much more than nod every now and then whenever Gin would pause to catch her breath.

'So . . . Gin and candy aren't exactly a great combination.'

Cain wiped the clay off his nose with the back of his hand and grinned. 'It could be worse. She's calmed down a little.'

'Yeah . . . It's nearly two in the morning. I hope she's calmed down.'

"What do you think?" Gin asked as she sat back, cocking her head from side to side as she gazed at the sorry-looking mound of clay.

Cain opened and closed his mouth a few times. "What . . . is it?"

"I don't know," she replied with a shrug. "I mean, I just did what you said: I just worked until it felt finished."

"And that's what you came up with?"

She narrowed her gaze and wrinkled her nose. "If you stare at it and tilt your head this way, it sort of starts looking like a bear . . . maybe . . ."

Leaning back on his hands, Cain tried to be objective.

Gin caught the expression on his face and shrugged. "Try squinting."

He followed her suggestion and slowly shook his head. "Okay . . . He looks a little . . . ticked off," he commented, poking a claw at what he assumed to be the bear's head.

"That's not his face," Gin told him. "That's his paw."

"Is it? Oh, I see . . ."

Gin snorted. "You don't really see it, do you?"

"Not so much, no."

She giggled. "Do you suppose I'll get better at this?"

"Sure, but maybe next time you should try it before you eat all the candy in a hundred mile radius."

Her ears twitched as she wrinkled her nose and carefully turned the sorry looking sculpture on the spinning pedestal. Quirking at the slightest sound, those appendages fascinated Cain. 'They look really soft, don't they?' he mused.

'Yeah, they do. Suppose they are?'

As if she heard his internal dialogue, her ears twisted almost completely backward, monitoring his movements. Without stopping to think it through, he sat up and reached for those fuzzy little ears.

Gin uttered a strangled gasp, hands decimating the lump of clay that had been her bear sculpture as her back stiffened, and she sat up straight. Cain barely had time to pull his hands away from her head and cover his face before part of the once-proud bear smashed against his hands. The clay thumped on the floor with a dull squish, and Cain laughed as Gin launched another hunk at him.

"What'd I do?" he asked between chuckles, lowering his hands to peek and managing to block another lump of flying clay.

"You touched my ears!" she retorted.

"I'm sorry; I'm sorry!" he assured her. "I take it you don't like that?"

Gin snorted and mashed clay on his hands. "Of course not!" she grumbled.

Cain scooped up some clay and tossed it at the disgruntled hanyou. She squealed and ducked but caught the clay on her shoulder. "Oi! You're not supposed to fight back!"

He snorted. "Pfft! Like I'm going to let you bombard me with clay," he scoffed. "Bring it on, baby girl."

"Oh, it's on, all right," Gin growled in mock anger and flung another handful of clay at him. Cain ducked and winced as it hit the wall, lingering for a second before it slowly slid down the white wall leaving a reddish-brown streak before it plopped onto the hardwood floor behind him.

"Damn, you're making one hell of a mess, Gin," he pointed out as he ducked more flying clay.

"Yeah, I think you should help me clean it up since you made me throw it," she shot back, leaning to the side to avoid his retaliatory attack.

"And I think you should do it yourself, since you're the one who can't stand to have her ears touched."

Gin made a face as she scooped up a handful of clay and whipped around. Cain covered his face, and Gin took advantage of the situation to tug his shirt and drop the clammy mess between the material and his skin. He tried to twist away from her. She mashed her hands against his chest, smearing the clay all over him in the process.

Gin pushed herself onto her hands and knees to crawl away as he broke into a low growl, but Cain grabbed her and pulled her back against his chest, one arm around her shoulders to hold her in place as she kicked her feet and giggled helplessly. "All right!" she gasped as she twisted from side to side and pushed at his arm in a futile effort to escape. "I'm sorry!"

"Too late," he told her as he daubed a line of clay down her forehead to the tip of her nose.

"Really sorry!" she giggled.

"You don't sound sorry," he remarked, mimicking the lines on her cheeks.

"Cain!"

"Say, 'I'll never smear clay on you again'," he ordered.

Gin laughed. "You'll never smear clay on me again."

He rolled his eyes but chuckled as she grabbed his wrist in both her hands and tried to hold him off. "Okay . . . 'Gin will never smear clay on Cain again'."

"Yeah, that," she agreed.

"No, I think you need to say it."

She squealed again when he drew a couple more lines on each cheek. "Fine, you bully!" she hollered. "Gin will never smear clay on Cain again!"

Satisfied that she'd keep her promise, Cain loosened his hold on her. "Good enough."

Gin giggled a little longer, clutching her stomach as she alternated between giggles and moans, but she didn't try to sit up. "My stomach hurts," she complained. More giggling ruined the effect of the mock pout on her face. "Oww . . ."

"Told you not to eat so much candy," he gloated.

She snorted.   "It wasn't the candy . . . It's just been awhile since I've laughed that hard."

"Really? I always thought you were happy enough."

"Sure," she agreed. "I am. It's just been awhile since I've laughed like that, is all."

"Hmm, when's the last time?" Cain asked as he grimaced and peeked down his shirt at the damage. 'Oh, hell . . . I can't see any skin.'

'Yeah, call it collateral damage. Look at the way her eyes are glowing.'

Cain peeked at her and caught his breath at the brightness of her gaze, the pleasant flush of her skin beneath the streaks of clay on her cheeks. He had to restrain the urge to kiss her again. 'Damn . . .'

Gin sighed and finally sat up, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her knees. "I don't really remember . . . I mean, I've laughed a lot, but . . ."

He managed a weak smile as he forced his gaze away from her. Did she have to look so damn cute despite the clay covering her face? Or was it because of that? Cain grimaced inwardly as Gin yawned. "Wow . . . I'm really tired."

'She's coming down off that sugar rush, Cain.'

'What? Oh, yeah . . .'

'Are you listening to me?'

Cain made a face. 'Of course I am. I sort of have to, don't I?'

'Like you've never ignored me before.'

Gin sighed again. "Ugh, I need another bath now," she grumbled. "I'd rather just crawl into bed . . ."

Cain chuckled then flinched as he surveyed the splattered clay all over the room. "Tell you what: you go get cleaned up, and I'll . . . I'll see what I can do about this mess."

"No, it's my fault.   I can get it . . . maybe in the morning."

"By morning this stuff will be permanently stuck. It's fine, Gin. Go on."

"You sure?"

Cain nodded. Gin smiled and leaned toward him, brushing a soft kiss over his clay-splattered face. He tried to hide his blush as she got up and stumbled off to the bathroom.

'She's really something.'

Cain took a deep breath and stood up to find the cleaning supplies. 'Yeah, she is.'

'You know . . . I really want to like her.'

He smiled almost sadly, remembering the sweetness of the kiss that never should have happened. Gin had been so stunned, she hadn't reacted, and when she finally had . . .

'That . . . isn't possible,' he told himself. 'Gin . . . Gin's a beautiful dream. That's all she can ever really be.'

 

 

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Bellaniece rested her forehead against the cool glass window as she stared at the hands of the clock on her nightstand.

She felt strangely numb, almost empty—as empty as the bedroom she sat in. A bed, a bureau, and a closet, but nothing personal, nothing that marked the room as being hers . . .

"Why decorate when we won't be here that long?" she'd asked Cain when he had suggested she buy some things for her room. "Only six months, right? That's not long enough to bother."

"True as that may be," he had agreed, rubbing his chin as he shrugged and leaned over the morning paper. "You've never really been away from home before. Just thought it'd help you adjust."

Bellaniece had laughed at him.

It had seemed like an adventure of sorts, back then. Sure, she knew that working for Kichiro wouldn't be easy since he had seemed to despise her at first sight, but . . .

'But I stupidly thought that maybe he'd change his mind, once he got to know me, or that he would at least stop being so nasty . . .'

She sighed, propping her elbow on her raised knee and cupping her forehead in her hand as she closed her eyes. They were puffy, feverish. She'd cried longer than she wanted to admit, even to herself, under the cover of the falling streams of water in the shower. She was all cried out now. 'Maybe I should have tried harder to convince Daddy to let me stay behind and start college.'

'Do you think that would have changed things, Belle?'

'You . . . You've been conspicuously quiet since . . . Why is that?'

'I didn't think you'd welcome my advice.'

Bellaniece snorted a harsh laugh. 'No, I don't think I would have.'

'You . . . We didn't really deserve that. What Kichiro said—"

'Don't talk about him, all right? Don't even think about him.'

'Belle—'

'No! Maybe I do deserve most of the blame for tonight at the club, but he . . . I don't want to talk about it anymore.'

'. . . Okay.'

The sudden wave of loneliness that shot through her made her wince, and Bellaniece uncurled herself from the window seat and shuffled to the door. It had been such a long time since she'd felt like this. Completely alone, lost, even a little afraid, she moved instinctively toward the one place where she'd always found a measure of comfort before. She lifted her hand to tap on her father's door but winced when she realized that he wasn't there. The apartment felt empty, void, and she didn't have to search to know that he was still with Gin.

She considered going over there for a moment before discarding that idea. Maybe it was better this way. She didn't want her father to see her like this, did she? She couldn't stand to let him see her upset. The irrational fear of adding to Cain's troubles welled up in her, and Bellaniece forced the emotion back with a brutality borne of sheer determination.

'We don't have to tell him, you know. Maybe if we just borrow something of his . . .?'

Before she could talk herself out of it, Bellaniece pushed the door open and stared around the darkened room.

Cain's scent was comforting to her, and she closed her eyes for a moment, letting her father's aura calm her.

'One of his shirts. That ought to do it. It'll smell like him, and that's enough, right?'

Bellaniece nodded and headed for his closet, intending to grab the first shirt she touched. Something else caught her attention, though, and she narrowed her gaze. The thin light of the wan night fell in an elongated line across the floor. Trapped in the slight pale, the shimmering fur that she knew so well: Cain's Mokomoko-sama.

He'd wrapped her up in it too many times to count, and remembering those times made her smile. Without another thought, she pulled it out of the closet and quietly stole back to her bedroom as she wrapped the thick fur around herself. The comfort it offered was immediate, heartening. Too bad it couldn't heal the abrasions that Kichiro's words had left on her pride—on her soul.

Bellaniece curled up on her bed, sighing as she blinked at the deep shadows dancing over the ceiling. 'Sometimes . . . Sometimes I wish Mother had lived.'

'Yeah . . .'

If she had lived, would Isabelle have been able to explain why Kichiro had said what he'd said? Would Bellaniece have felt comfortable enough to talk to her about it? Even if she could have explained, was there really an excuse for his behavior?

She sighed and snuggled in the familiar reassurance of the Mokomoko-sama. It didn't really do any good, to wish for things that were impossible. She'd learned that from her father. All his moments of pensive silence, all the times when his thoughts had seemed to take him to a time and place where Bellaniece wasn't allowed . . . She'd seen him staring off into space with a vacant sort of look, with a sadness in his gaze, and she had known somehow, even as a little girl, that he had been thinking about Isabelle. Whatever thoughts he had of her always made him sad, and his sadness had become hers over the years. His melancholy had reached her, scarred her. She couldn't remember a time when he wasn't there.

'But he isn't here tonight, and that's a good thing because he'd demand that you tell him what's made you so upset. He'd ask questions, and he'd want answers . . . and those answers . . . They wouldn't make him happy.'

Bellaniece squeezed her eyes closed and buried her face in the soft bronze colored fur. 'Kichiro Izayoi will never hurt me again,' she told herself, chanted in her mind, over and over again. 'He won't hurt me because I . . . I won't let him.'

'Will it be as simple as that?'

Bellaniece grimaced and tried to force him from her thoughts. 'Yes, it is.'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Cain poured himself a cup of coffee and yawned as he shook his head.

He'd stayed over at Gin's apartment way too late last night, but she'd been entirely too entertaining to resist.

It had taken much longer to clean her apartment than he had thought it would, and by the time he was finished, Gin was shuffling out of the bathroom with a huge yawn and a wave of damp air. She stopped in the hallway and stretched, hands balled into fists as she reached over her head and arched her back, hips shifting to the side as she rose up on her toes with a soft groan. The form-fitting pale pink tank top lifted with the movement, and Cain had stared, transfixed, as the smooth, creamy skin of her stomach peeked out at him.

Letting her arms drop with a sharp exhalation, Gin blinked a few times before grinning almost dreamily and stumbling into the living room to hug him. "G-Gin . . . you're going to get dirty again," he rasped out.

Gin giggled. "It's okay. You looked like you could use a hug."

He smiled and hesitantly wrapped his arms around her. "Did I?"

"Uh huh . . ."

She yawned again, and Cain chuckled. "Come on, baby girl. You're tired."

"Hmm, yeah," she agreed, "but you're comfortable."

He'd let her hold onto him another moment as he tried not to think about how natural holding her felt before stepping back with a sigh.

Gin hadn't complained when he took her hand to pull her down the hallway to her bedroom and stepped aside as he gestured for her to enter.

She padded over to her bed and lay down. He watched with a little grin as she arranged her covers and snuggled down in her pillow. "Cain?" she whispered as he turned to leave.

"Yes?"

"I'm glad you don't think of me . . . as a little girl . . ."

Cain winced. "Yeah," he agreed. "Good night, Gin."

"Night," she murmured.

The soft scuff of Bellaniece's soft footsteps drew him out of his memories, and Cain smiled at his daughter. "Morning, Bellaniece. You sleep all right?"

Bellaniece shrugged and stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. "Sure," she answered.

Cain frowned at the noticeable shadows under her eyes. "You okay?"

She grinned, and the shadows dissipated. "Of course, Daddy. Did you have a good time over at Gin's?"

Cain buried his face in the newspaper. "Uh, yeah, it was fine."

"You know, you're really cute when you blush," she pointed out as she cut a thick slice of cake and sat down at the table.

"Eat your breakfast," he grumbled.

Tapping on the door interrupted Bellaniece's reply, and Cain breathed a sigh of relief as he strode around the counter to answer it. He started to smile at the girl in the doorway, but Gin grabbed his hand and tugged as he shook his head in confusion. Dressed in the baggy pink shorts and light pink tank top that she'd slept in, with her hair mussed and tangled, she looked like she'd just rolled out of bed. "Cain, oh please, you have to help me!"

"Gin, what's wrong?" he asked, careful to keep his tone even despite her near-hysteria. "Calm down, okay?"

Gin winced and wrung her hands as she drew a deep breath. "I went out to get my paper—it's normally just outside my door, but it was a little further away, and I didn't think it would, but the door closed, and I'm locked out . . ." She uttered a soft little whine as her ears flattened against her head. "Can you help me? Please? I'll do anything! I'll get down on my knees and beg, if you want—anything—just please open my door!"

Bellaniece coughed suddenly as Cain choked. Gin whimpered. "It's just that we're having a tournament at Papa's house, my Kusarigama is in my apartment, and, well, I'm not really dressed to go over there . . ."

"Is your window open?" he asked, ignoring Bellaniece's near-wheezing behind him as his cheeks reddened a little more.

"Yeah."

Cain didn't wait for her to continue. Turning on his heel and striding over to the window, he didn't miss a step as his body dissolved into the energy form, and he flew out the window then around to Gin's apartment.

'You should have told her, Cain.'

'Told her what?' he thought as he solidified in mid-stride in her living room.

'You should have told her that she did it again—said something without thinking about how it sounded.'

'She was already upset,' he argued as he snapped the deadbolt lock and yanked the door open only to find himself stumbling back a few steps when Gin launched herself into his arms again.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!" she gushed, her body quaking against his though he couldn't tell if it was from the panic brought on by the idea that she'd locked herself out again or because of her absolute happiness that he'd 'rescued' her. He wanted to believe it was because of the latter reason . . .

"It's okay," he assured her.

"I'll bake you a really special cake later, I swear!" she promised. "A huge one!"

He laughed. "It's fine."

"No, it isn't! If you weren't here, I don't know what I'd have done! You . . . You're my hero!"

Cain's smile faltered, and he gently grasped Gin's arms, setting her back at arm's length. "I'm not a hero, Gin."

She shrugged and tugged on his arm to bend him down so she could kiss his cheek. "A real hero is the last one to know," she quipped. "Anyway, I'd better get ready, but . . . I'll make supper for you after the tournament. How's that?"

"Yeah, okay," he agreed.

He turned to go. Gin called after him. "Cain?"

"Hmm?"

She started to speak but made a face as she shifted from one foot to the other in a decidedly nervous manner. "Do you think . . .? Would it be all right if I asked Bellaniece to come with me? I know you didn't really get along with my brother last night, but I swear, he's not normally like that, and . . . and I'd like her to meet my family."

Cain shrugged and tried not to let his expression register the distaste he couldn't help but feel for Gin's family. Between her brother and her father, he was fairly sure he didn't want to meet the third male member of the Izayoi family, and he tried not to think about just why it was that he'd never, ever felt the desire to tear into anyone quite as strongly as he did both InuYasha and his equally annoying pup, Kichiro. "Who else will be there?"

Gin scrunched up her shoulders. "Well, my sister-in-law, Nezumi-chan . . . my cousin Toga-kun, and his wife—you met Sierra-chan already . . . Oba-san and oji-san might be there, if Papa's badgered him into fighting, and if Sesshoumaru-oji-san comes, then Rin-san and Shippou might, too . . . and of course, Mama and Papa . . ."

"Sesshoumaru, huh . . . All right," Cain agreed slowly. "I'll send Bellaniece over."

"You could . . . But you're probably busy, aren't you?"

Cain grimaced. He wasn't really busy, no, but given that he'd dearly love to have a go at InuYasha and Kichiro both, he figured it wasn't a good idea. "I was going to work today," he replied.

Gin nodded. "Yeah, okay. I just thought . . . Anyway, I promise Bellaniece will be perfectly safe."

Cain forced a chuckle, glancing over his shoulder as he pulled the door closed behind him. Gin waved. He smiled.

"Did you get Gin's door unlocked?" Bellaniece asked as she perused the opened newspaper on the counter.

"Yup," Cain answered as he ambled into the apartment.

Bellaniece nodded. "I see . . . So . . . Did she do it?"

"Do what?"

She cleared her throat. "Did she . . . get down on her knees to thank you?"

The flush that shot into Cain's cheeks was immediate and intense. "You're grounded," he grumbled as he jammed his hands into his pockets and headed for the hallway.

Bellaniece laughed. "Grounded from what?" she asked, trailing after him.

Cain shook his head. "No more soap operas," he growled.

"Oh, Daddy . . . I don't watch television, you know, and it was the natural question, given what Gin said."

"I'm not discussing anything of the sort with you, Bellaniece."

"Maybe you should have reminded her," Bellaniece added.

Cain rolled his eyes. "Gin wants to know if you want to go with her. Her family's having a tournament or something."

"Oh, that sounds intriguing . . . What sort of tournament?"

Cain shrugged. "Fighting, I suppose. Go ask her."

"Hmm . . . I have the feeling you're trying to get rid of me," Bellaniece mused.

"Would I do that?"

She snorted. "Yes, you would. I'll just go ask Gin—"

"Do it, and I swear I'll beat you."

Bellaniece kissed his cheek, ignoring his empty threat as her laughter lingered in her wake, and she finally, mercifully, left him alone.

'One of these days, Gin's going to be the ruin of us.'

The wonder in Gin's expression after their brief kiss ended was entirely too stark an image for him to ignore. Reaching out to steady himself against the wall, he closed his eyes as he willed the vision away.

Cain heaved a sigh as he yanked the supply closet door open and rummaged around for a new canvas and paints. 'Yeah,' he agreed almost wistfully. 'Yeah, she is.'

 

 

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"Something's bothering you," Kagome said quietly as she sat back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest.

Kichiro glared at the teacup in his hands and shrugged. "Not really."

Kagome shook her head. "Don't give me that! I'm your mother, remember? I can tell when there's something on your mind. You've got that sad sort of expression like you used to whenever you thought you weren't quite good enough at something you tried to do."

"It's not like that," he argued. "It's not a big deal."

"If it wasn't a big deal, you'd tell me."

Sighing when Kichiro remained silent, Kagome stood up and grabbed his hand. He shot her a questioning look. She tugged. "Come on. It's time for you and me to go for a walk."

He knew better than to argue with his mother. Kagome might be a gentle woman at heart, but if she thought that he wasn't being completely honest with her, he knew from experience that the same easy going mother he knew could also rant with the best of them, like his father, for example . . . Even the formidable inu-hanyou knew better than to argue with his mate . . .

The morning sky was lovely, vibrant, touched by the soft breeze that smelled of sakura blossoms. Kagome didn't speak right away, content to let Kichiro gather his thoughts before she pressed him for more information.

He'd been awake when Kagome had called this morning. Unable to sleep more than a few minutes between tossing and turning, between the sickening feeling that he was lower than pond scum and the irritation that he even cared at all, Kichiro had finally fallen asleep sometime during the wee hours of the morning only to wake again just before the sun rose. When Kagome called an hour later to invite him over for breakfast, he had known that she thought there was something bothering him.

"So are you going to tell me what's bothering you?" Kagome finally asked.

Kichiro shrugged as he straightened the collar of the dark purple practice haori. Fashioned after his father's old fire rat clothes, Kichiro and Ryomaru both had the outfits: Kichiro's was purple, and Ryomaru's was blue. Gin normally wore InuYasha's fire rat clothes despite the way they hung off her tiny frame, and the twins had learned long ago, not to tease their sister. As sweet as Gin usually was, she could fight with the best of them when she felt she had something to prove.

"I'm just fine," he assured her. "Nothing bothering me, at all."

"I see," Kagome said. Kichiro kept walking. "I miss the days when you used to tell me everything," she ventured. "Have things really changed so much?"

"Not really, but there are times when I can't go running to you, you know. Did you still go to Grandma when you were my age?"

Kagome giggled. "It might interest you to know that I still go to your grandmother for advice all the time."

"It's fine, Mama. I was just thinking; that's all. I do that sometimes . . . Maybe not as much as I should have been lately, but what can you do?"

"Oh, I get it . . . So, what's her name?"

"Who says it's a woman?"

Kagome laughed gently, laying her hand on Kichiro's arm as they strolled along the forest path. "Give me a little credit, will you? Now tell me her name. Do I know her?"

Kichiro sighed. "No, Mama, you don't know her."

"Is she pretty?"

His answer was another sigh, and Kagome clucked her tongue as she slowly shook her head. "That pretty, huh?"

"It's not that. It's not what you think. I don't really know what it is."

"Sounds like this girl has really gotten to you."

"Of course not."

"You're sure?"

"Yep."

"Okay."

Kichiro brushed the hair out of his face since he hadn't bothered to braid it. "You ever misjudge someone then figure out later that you made a mistake?"

Kagome sighed. "I wouldn't be human if I hadn't done that. It's not pleasant, but it happens. Then you apologize to the person you hurt, and with any luck, they'll forgive you, and that'll be that."

"Sounds pretty easy."

"It doesn't have to be difficult. You're still talking about this girl, aren't you?"

"I don't know why," Kichiro admitted. "The first time I met her, I thought . . . I thought she was the same as all the other women who come into my office. I thought she was going to be petty and shallow—"

"Hmm, doesn't sound good."

"She's conceited and impetuous, childish and temperamental . . . She doesn't think about anything at all; she just does whatever she pleases without any regard for propriety—"

"She's that bad?"

"She's all those things . . . but sometimes . . . sometimes . . ." He sighed and let his head fall back, staring at the swaying branches of the trees, looking for answers that eluded him. "Sometimes she looks so sad . . ."

"Does she have any good qualities?"

Kichiro's ears flattened for a moment, and he shrugged. "She's got a beautiful smile," he admitted. "When she smiles, she makes me want to smile, too."

"How old is she?"

He winced. "Seventeen."

"Oh . . . I see."

"See what?"

Kagome tilted her head and grinned. "Sometimes youth can be mistaken for a lot of the things you mentioned. Sometimes conceit is really nothing more than self-confidence. Maybe you need a little more impetuousness in your life, Kichiro. It seems to me that you've forgotten how you used to be."

"Mama—"

Kagome stopped abruptly, pressed her fingers to Kichiro's lips to silence him. "What happened to you? You didn't used to be this cynical and . . . jaded. You were the little boy who always brought me flowers and helped me arrange them in a vase. You used to believe in people. Has everything changed so much?"

Kichiro nodded as Kagome let her hand fall away. "Maybe I've changed."

"Maybe you have," she said with a sad shake of her head. "Or maybe you still want to believe, at least in this girl."

Kichiro's gaze fell away. He wasn't sure how to answer Kagome's questions. Bellaniece's face flashed through his mind, and he grimaced. The question haunted him. Was she worth it?

"You said she has a beautiful smile, right?"

"Yeah," he answered with a sigh.

"Maybe that's your answer. Maybe if you concentrated on making her smile that other stuff would seem a little less significant, don't you think?"

Kichiro digested that as Kagome took his hand and led him along the looping trail that ended in the Izayoi's back yard.

'Concentrate on making her smile, huh,' his youkai remarked.

'Okay, but . . . How do I do that?'

'It can't be that hard, Kich . . . you used to charm the pants off women all the time—literally.'

'That's not even funny,' he pointed out.

'It doesn't have to be funny. Just try to remember how you did that.'

Kichiro sighed. It sounded just a little too easy, but he supposed he could give it a try . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bellaniece shook her head slowly as she stared at Gin's anxious expression. "I'm not so sure that's a good idea," she ventured at last, carefully choosing her words.

"Oh, please! Mama and Papa will love you, I'm sure, and Kichiro-nii-chan . . . Well, he can get over himself! Besides, you have to meet my cousin, Toga-kun and his wife. They have two cute little girls, and Sierra-chan's pregnant again. Nezumi-chan'll like you, too!"

"Gin, seeing your brother is just asking for more trouble. He'll probably think I was there just to thwart him."

"Kichiro-nii-chan was being a jerk, that's all. I'm sorry about that . . . It was all my fault, and—"

"It's okay. He doesn't really like me anyway, so there's no real harm done."

Gin sighed and sank down on the sofa. "Did the beer wash out of your dress?"

"What, that old thing? It doesn't matter, even if it doesn't," she assured Gin.

Gin's face clouded over as she slowly shook her head and peeked at Bellaniece through her eyelashes. "That girl . . . She did it on purpose, didn't she? Spilled her drink on you . . ."

Bellaniece shrugged. "Maybe. Probably. It's okay."

"No, it wasn't. Why would she do that?"

"Sometimes girls are mean that way. I don't worry about it."

"But that doesn't make sense. Why would someone go out of their way to do that?"

"Maybe she was jealous or something. Maybe she was in a bad mood. It doesn't matter, does it? It's over and done with now. So tell me about this tournament," she asked, more to change the subject than because she really wanted to know. The pitying look on Gin's face . . . Bellaniece couldn't stand to be pitied.

Though she didn't look like she wanted to 'drop it', Gin looked like she did understand why Bellaniece might want to. She wiggled her shoulders and smiled. "Sometimes Papa gets irritated if he thinks the twins aren't keeping up with their training, so he'll call these tournaments to test them and see if they've been slacking off," Gin explained. "They're a lot of fun, even just watching . . . They don't always let me fight," she confessed.

Bellaniece nodded. It seemed rather strange, to call a fighting tournament for what amounted to no reason at all.

'Gin doesn't really understand certain things, does she?'

'No, she doesn't. She's too cute, too happy. Who'd have ever done to Gin what that girl did to me?'

Bellaniece was used to it, sort of. She was used to girls and their petty, vindictive ways. She'd been the recipient of that sort of behavior a lot over the years. Feeding off their insecurities and jealousies, other girls sought to put her down and make her the brunt of their jokes. She'd had a few girl friends growing up, but most of her friends were boys, and Bellaniece didn't mind that; not at all.

'Pay attention, Belle! Gin's waiting for an answer!'

Bellaniece snapped out of her reverie only to find Gin staring at her expectantly. "So, what do you think? Will you come with me?"

Bellaniece sighed. "Gin . . ."

"Please?"

"I doubt your brother—"

"My brother was totally over the edge last night, and he took it out on you. I really think you'll have fun! You don't even have to pay attention to Kichiro-nii-chan, and if he even looks at you, I'll make sure he's sorry . . ."

Bellaniece had to laugh at the sheer determination on Gin's face, and she just had to laugh. "I've never had a friend like you, Gin."

"Does that mean you'll come with me?"

Bellaniece bit her lip and sighed again. "Yeah, I'll go with you."

Gin squealed happily and lunged at Bellaniece, catching her in an exuberant hug. "We should teach you how to fight," Gin commented as she sat back and clapped her hands. "Then you can kick his heinie yourself."

Bellaniece giggled as Gin stood up and grabbed her hand, dragging her toward the door and only pausing to grab her backpack off the floor.

'Teach me how to fight?' Bellaniece thought with an inward giggle. 'Daddy would have a fit . . .'

 

 

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"Mama, this is Bellaniece. Belle, this is my mother, Kagome," Gin introduced as they stepped into the Izayoi house.

Kagome kissed Gin's cheek and offered Bellaniece a polite bow. "Belle-chan? What's your last name?"

"Zelig," Bellaniece supplied. "Actually, my father doesn't like for me to go by 'Belle'. My name's Bellaniece."

Kagome's eyes widened, and she looked like she finally understood something. "Your father is the North American tai-youkai . . . the artist?"

Bellaniece nodded as Gin tried not to fidget. "Yes, that's him."

Kichiro and Ryomaru slammed the door. Ryomaru was trying to grab Kichiro's nipple, and Kichiro was trying to shove Ryomaru away. Gin rolled her eyes and sighed. "Oi, Ryo! Knock it off, baka!"

"Get the hell off me!" Kichiro growled. "Damn it, I—Belle . . . ow!"

Ryomaru chortled as he let go of his sibling's nipple and stomped off toward the living room.

Bellaniece wedged her right thumbnail under the left index finger claw and worried on her lower lip, blushing slightly as she avoided Kichiro's gaze.

"What are you doing here?" Kichiro asked, ignoring both his sister as well as his mother, who were both watching with varying degrees of interest.

"I invited her," Gin spoke up with a warning scowl, "and she's staying."

Kichiro stiffened, and Gin wondered if he had forgotten that she was even there. "Of course you did, and I figured as much. If you'll excuse me."

Gin winced, and Bellaniece's blush darkened as Kichiro strode away.

Kagome cleared her throat loudly and sighed. "Bellaniece-chan, can I ask you something?"

Bellaniece nodded jerkily once.

Kagome smiled. "How old are you?"

She looked confused but slowly answered. "Seventeen."

"I see," Kagome remarked as she slipped an arm around Gin's shoulders and the other around Bellaniece's and propelled them both toward the kitchen. "Why don't you girls give me a hand? I figured I'd start some oden. Everyone'll be starving by the time the tournament's over, right?"

Gin leaned back, trying to get a glimpse of Bellaniece's face. She winced and stifled a sigh, hoping that she hadn't made things worse for her friend by begging her to come along.

 

 

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Kichiro leaned against the fireplace mantle, staring in the general direction of the kitchen.

"What's Grabby-chan doing here?" Ryomaru mumbled as he sidled up beside his brother.

Kichiro shrugged. "Gin-chan invited her. They're friends."

"Friends?" Ryomaru echoed, voice dripping with disgust.

"Belle lives in the apartment next door."

"Oh, balls . . ."

"What the fuck is that smell?" InuYasha growled as he slammed the back door and strode into the living room.

The twins both turned to stare at their father. "Smell?"

"Hell, yes, that smell . . . It reeks of that youkai bastard . . . Gin's sensei."

"Yeah, he said he's met you," Kichiro remarked, turning his attention back to the kitchen. Bellaniece was cutting up some vegetables, laughing at something Kagome had said. He swallowed hard and forced his gaze away again.

"You've met him?"

"Yeah," Kichiro remarked as he shifted his gaze to meet InuYasha's. "He's not too fond of you, either."

"Keh." InuYasha sniffed again. "So why do I smell him in this house?"

"His pup's here. She's Gin's friend, apparently," Ryomaru supplied, nodding his head toward the kitchen.

InuYasha leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest as he frowned thoughtfully. "She don't look as bad as her old man."

"She's grabby, that one," Ryomaru grumbled, flicking his ears indignantly.

"Gin's friend?" InuYasha repeated, cocking an eyebrow suspiciously.

"She grabbed my ears. She thought I was him."

Kichiro rolled his eyes since Ryomaru's tone left little in the way of abject disgust that anyone would be unable to tell the twins apart. "Yeah, that was stupid, you know: since we look exactly alike. Who'd have thought that?"

InuYasha's ears twitched. "An ear-grabber, huh?"

"Yep," Kichiro answered. Bellaniece's smile widened as she let her head fall back, laughing in earnest at something Gin had said. Sooty lashes fanning over her flushed cheeks, her hair spilled down her back in a golden brown wave that caught the sunlight and bathed her in a golden aura. She had dimples. He'd never noticed that before . . .

'Damn, Kich . . .'

Bellaniece turned her head, caught his gaze. He tried to smile, but her amusement faded, and that guarded expression crept into her eyes as she quickly looked away. Kichiro winced, feeling like something had just hit him hard, right in the middle of his chest, leaving him breathless, dizzy, aching. 'Yeah,' he agreed. 'Damn . . .'

 

 

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"So you grew up in Maine?" Kagome asked as Bellaniece dumped the chunks of carrots into the simmering hotpot.

"Yes, on the Atlantic Ocean."

"I'm surprised your father decided to stay here," Kagome went on. "I've heard of him. I always thought he was a bit reclusive."

"Yeah," Bellaniece agreed. "It was surprising, really."

"Maybe he wanted a change of scenery," Gin suggested.

"Something like that," Bellaniece mumbled.

"You're finished with school?" Kagome asked, either not hearing Bellaniece's comment or choosing not to remark on it.

Bellaniece nodded. "Yes. I was going to start college this fall . . . If we're back in time. I might just sit out a year, though. I'm not in a hurry."

"Oh, what do you want to study?" Gin chimed in.

"I'm not sure . . . There are so many things that interest me. Sometimes I think I want to do one thing, then I change my mind . . ."

"I sat out a few years because of that," Gin added. "It wasn't so bad."

"Is there a special guy in your life?" Kagome questioned, leaning around Bellaniece to grab a bowl of onions.

Bellaniece snorted. "Not hardly."

"You sound rather disappointed."

"Not at all," she answered in what she hoped was a calm tone. "I'm still young, right? I don't have to find someone right now."

"Oh, no, of course not," Kagome agreed.

Gin wrinkled her nose as she hopped up on the counter beside Bellaniece. "Be glad your father's not like Papa. If he were, you'd still be waiting to go on a date."

"Your father loves you, Gin, even if he is being completely pig-headed and anal about the whole idea of you dating," Kagome explained. "Besides that, if you really had wanted to date a young man, you would have fought harder to do it."

Gin just sighed and crunched on a raw carrot.

"Toga, I swear to God, if you don't back off, I'll neuter you, myself."

Kagome's eyes widened as Toga and Sierra with Coral and Cassidy in tow entered the house. Sierra waved her mate away and hurried around the divider into the kitchen as the girls' giggling echoed out of the living room. Toga and InuYasha followed Sierra into the kitchen, which could only mean that the twins were the ones causing the raucous laughter.

Bellaniece frowned. She didn't want to consider that Kichiro might be good with children. She didn't want to think about him, at all.

"You're being entirely unreasonable," Toga said in an overly-reasonable tone. "All I said was—"

"I heard what you said," Sierra growled. "My ears work fine, even if you think the rest of me doesn't."

"I warned you, pup, you'd be stupid to try to tell your mate that she can't do . . . whatever . . ." InuYasha remarked.

"I was trying to be helpful," Toga pointed out.

"Yeah, you were trying to be helpful," Sierra grumbled as she washed her hands to help the girls. "I can carry my purse, you know."

"I didn't want you to strain yourself," Toga argued.

"Keh. I'm siding with your mate on this one, pup," InuYasha snorted.

Kagome shrugged. "Yeah, I'd have to agree.

"Me, too," Gin said with a grimace.

Toga rolled his eyes but grinned. "All right, I get it. You sure you're okay to help Gome-oba-chan? I'm sure she wouldn't mind if you sat down . . ."

"Toga . . ."

The inu-youkai's hands shot up in mock self-defense, and he backed away.

Satisfied that she'd made her point, Sierra heaved a sigh of relief and turned, finally seeming to realize that Bellaniece was there. She smiled brightly. "Hello, Belle-chan. Nice to see you again!" Her smile faded just a little, and she shook her head slowly. "You're not here with Kichiro, are you?"

Bellaniece's back stiffened, and she shook her head. "Not at all. Gin asked me to come."

"Yeah, well, whatever," InuYasha mumbled as he grabbed a bottle of water and tossed it to Toga before retrieving another from the refrigerator. "Did you bring something else to wear?"

"No, Papa, she's not here to fight," Gin cut in. "I just thought she'd enjoy watching."

"What? You don't fight?" InuYasha demanded. Gin could tell from his slightly less gruff tone that he was joking. Bellaniece shook her head.

"Fight? Me?"

"Wait . . . Are you saying your old man didn't see fit to teach you how to defend yourself?" InuYasha asked, shaking his head in confusion.

"No."

"Why the hell not?"

Bellaniece shrugged. "I don't really know . . . I suppose he thought it wasn't necessary."

InuYasha still looked like he was suffering mild shock, but he shrugged and strode out of the kitchen with Toga close behind.

"Was it something I said?" Bellaniece asked, scowling at InuYasha's retreating form.

"Papa's like that," Gin answered. "He thinks that youkai and hanyou need to know how to protect themselves."

Bellaniece laughed. "But my father's the North American tai-youkai . . . No one would dare threaten me."

Kagome grimaced. "It isn't like that. InuYasha taught Gin how to fight because, even though he tries to make sure she's always safe, he also has the peace of mind of knowing that she can do it, if it ever came down to it."

Bellaniece nodded then shook her head. "I don't think Daddy would like it, if I learned how to fight." She wrinkled her nose. "I don't think I'd want to, anyway."

"Knowing how to defend yourself is important," Gin insisted. "Especially when bakas decide to leave you in the middle of the night instead of walking you home."

Bellaniece winced and shot Gin an almost panicked glance.

Kagome frowned at the interplay between the girls. "Someone left you to walk home alone?"

Gin stared at Bellaniece for a moment then sighed. "Belle said it wasn't a big deal."

"It wasn't a big deal, Gin. Everything was fine."

"Man . . . Good thing it didn't happen around these guys," Sierra commented as she jerked her head toward the living room. "They'd have beaten the tar out of anyone ignorant enough to leave a girl alone."

Gin snorted and opened her mouth. Bellaniece touched her arm, shook her head. Gin made a face but snapped her mouth closed with a pronounced snort.

The discussion was interrupted as Kagura breezed into the house with Rin and headed straight for the kitchen. Sesshoumaru peeked in long enough to nod in greeting before he was attacked by two overzealous granddaughters while Shippou laughed at the sight of the proud tai-youkai being dragged down by pups.

"Aiko-chan didn't come?" Gin asked. Nezumi ducked into the kitchen, too, but didn't try to help with dinner. Her cooking skills were matched only by those of her mate. Ryomaru couldn't cook, either. All things considered, Gin had to wonder if it wouldn't be cheaper for the two of them just to buy a restaurant. At least they'd get free meals, sort of . . .

Kagura hugged Sierra and rubbed her belly before turning to Gin. "Not this time. They already had a vacation planned."

"Oh, where'd they go?"

"Jamaica," Sierra answered.

"Aiko-chan's idea?" Nezumi asked.

Kagura chuckled. "Of course."

Gin grinned as Sesshoumaru strode through the living room. "Uncle Sesshoumaru brought Tenseiga?"

Kagura rolled her eyes. "Yes, because Sierra and Toga were arguing when they called; something about not wanting to be carried everywhere? He figured he might have to use it on his son."

Sierra blushed but smiled. "He's ridiculous."

Kagura smiled, too. "Perhaps, but it is only because he loves you."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kichiro laughed as he leaned to the side to avoid Ryomaru's punches. Ryomaru might be the better fighter, but Kichiro had always been faster. The older of the twins was growing more and more irritated, and Kichiro's laughter only served to fuel his rapidly rising temper.

"Quit dodging and fight back, baka!" Ryomaru grumbled.

"I could do this all day," Kichiro goaded.

Ryomaru growled. Barreling toward Kichiro as his claws raked through the air, Ryomaru growled in frustration when Kichiro sidestepped the attack.

"That all you've got, Ryo-chan?" Toga asked, leaning on his halberd. Standing off to the side between InuYasha and Sesshoumaru, he shook his head and sighed.

"Shut up," Ryomaru growled as he swung at his brother again. Kichiro laughed at him. InuYasha rolled his eyes. "I'll sic my cat on you."

"Oi!" Toga exclaimed. "Don't make me come over there to kick your ass."

"I think it's the cooking classes," Nezumi added. "They're slowing him down."

InuYasha snorted. "Keh!"

"Why is he taking those classes?" Sierra asked as she turned to stare at Nezumi.

"Well . . ."

"Wench!" Ryomaru hollered.

Nezumi shrugged.

The door opened, and Gin slipped in, dragging Bellaniece along behind her. Kichiro's head snapped to the side as her presence cut through his concentration. Ryomaru saw it as his opening, and with a well-placed and harder than necessary fist, he sent his brother flying back across the dojo and into a wall.

"Damn, Ryo," Kichiro grumbled as he sat up and shook his head.

Ryomaru crossed his arms over his chest and grinned. "Oi, I totally owned you, Kichi-Kichi-ku."

"The hell."

"Yeah, yeah, bitching is for weaklings."

"Will you stop fucking doing that?" InuYasha interrupted, crossing his arms over his chest as he stomped toward his sons. Ryomaru glanced down, fingers stilled as he grasped the diamond barbell nipple stud on his left nipple. He'd been pushing it from side to side—a habit that InuYasha despised—and Ryomaru jerked his hand down. "I hate that damn thing," he growled.

"Nez likes it. Take it up with her."

InuYasha turned his head to glare at his son's mate. Nezumi blushed and stared at her hands despite the secretive little smile on her lips.

"Your brother has a nipple stud?" Bellaniece whispered as she leaned toward Gin.

Gin giggled. "Yeah . . . Papa hates it."

"Oh, that's so . . . bad," Bellaniece mused.

"I told you; the twins were bad."

Bellaniece nodded, gazing around at the assembly of bare-chested Izayoi and Inutaisho men. She had to allow, however grudgingly, that they were very impressive; every last one of them. Ryomaru was interesting. The nipple stud added a certain amount of arrogant danger to his powerful presence. Toga seemed more aloof except when he smiled at Sierra. Sesshoumaru looked rather bored. InuYasha was too busy arguing with his oldest son over the nipple stud that Ryomaru was fiddling with again.

'There's one man you haven't looked at yet.'

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose and willed herself not to blush. 'And I'm not going to, either.'

'But Belle . . . you should.'

'Why would I do that? If I looked, and he saw me . . . I don't even want to think about the comments he'd make then.'

'Just for a second.'

Bellaniece grimaced. '. . . Fine, but only for a second.'

So she peeked. Shifting her gaze to the side without turning her head, Bellaniece meant to glance at him then to quickly look away just as fast. Her eyes didn't get the message, however, and when she located him, her eyes widened. His clothes hid a lot, she mused as her head turned without her realizing it. Like his twin, and like their father, Kichiro wasn't huge or bulky by any means, but he wasn't skinny, either.

With his hair down, it should have been nearly impossible to tell the twins apart. The difference was in their stances. Ryomaru was definitely more careless in his demeanor, more casual, while Kichiro held himself with a quieter but no less commanding air. Well-defined muscles moved with symmetry, in a cadence of combined grace and power. She'd foolishly thought that Kichiro, being a surgeon and more of a city-boy than his twin, would be a little less physically intimidating. That was hardly the case. Kichiro . . . He could certainly hold his own in that department . . .

Bellaniece's eyes widened as her lips parted, and she gaped at the one thing that captured and held her attention. 'His belly button . . . It . . . Wow . . .'

"Belle?" Gin said, tapping Bellaniece's arm.

Bellaniece couldn't drag her eyes off Kichiro. "He has an outie?"

"A what?"

"His belly button sticks out—an outie."

"Oh, yeah . . . You think that's neat?" Gin squeaked.

"Does he laugh if you poke it?"

"What?" Gin choked.

Bellaniece giggled. "Never mind . . . It just reminds me of the Pillsbury Dough Boy . . ."

"What's that?"

"American commercials . . . He's the mascot for a food company. Cake mixes. Right up your alley."

Gin shook her head in confusion. "I still don't get it . . ."

"That's interesting . . ." Bellaniece trailed off, unable to tear her gaze away from Kichiro's outie belly button.

'Earth to Belle . . . Are you listening?'

Kichiro rolled his head from side to side like his back was bothering him. Bellaniece pressed her hand over her heart. 'Hmm?'

'You know you're doing it, right?'

'What?'

'Fangirling him.'

Bellaniece blinked, the words of her youkai like a dousing of cold water. 'I am not.'

'Uh huh . . .'

The men were arguing about who was fighting next, it seemed. Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "Are they always like that?" she asked, leaning toward Gin.

"Kami, yes," Nezumi piped up, rolling her eyes as she nudged Sierra.

Sierra snorted. "Yeah, they are. Boys will be boys, I suppose."

"They're not so tough," Bellaniece remarked with a smile. "My father could beat them."

All the talking in the dojo ceased as the five men slowly turned to stare at her.

"What was that, little girl?" Kichiro asked, the first to break the silence.

Bellaniece smiled insincerely at the hanyou. "I said my father could beat you all."

"In what world?" he scoffed.

"Oh, please! You know he could! He almost—He could," she insisted again.

"I don't think—" Kichiro began.

"She has a point," Sesshoumaru finally cut in. "Zelig is the North American tai-youkai. He'd certainly be able to beat one of your ilk," he added, lowering his disdainful glare at his half-brother. "This Sesshoumaru, on the other hand, would not lose to him."

InuYasha snorted. "Bastard against bastard? Bring him on."

"Are you going to call him?" Gin asked in a whisper as she leaned toward Bellaniece.

Bellaniece grinned. "Should I?"

Gin scowled as she thought it over.   "Yeah, I think you should," she replied. "I mean, if he's really as tough as you said . . ."

"Of course he is!" Bellaniece assured Gin as she dug her cell phone out of her pocket. 'At least, I think he is . . .'

'You think he is? That's not a vote of confidence,' her youkai pointed out as Bellaniece dialed the phone number.

'Well, I haven't really seen Daddy fight, but he is tai-youkai . . . I'm sure he knows how.'

'And he did best Kichiro last night . . . easily, might I add.'

"Hello?"

"Daddy?"

Cain paused for a moment before answering. "Bellaniece? Is everything okay?"

She smiled. "Yes, fine . . . I just thought maybe you'd like to come over here because they didn't believe me."

"Who didn't?"

"Anyone . . . I said that you could take them all, and they don't believe me."

Cain sighed. "Bellaniece . . ."

"He's not coming?" Gin asked. "Is he afraid to fight my papa?"

"Not hardly!" Cain grumbled. "Afraid of her papa? Pfft!"

"Will you come over then?" Bellaniece asked.

Cain thought it over. "Yeah, fine."

Gin giggled as Bellaniece snapped her phone closed and dropped it back in her pocket again. "I think it bothered him, that you thought he was afraid of your father," Bellaniece commented.

"Papa's the best," she assured Bellaniece. "He defeated Naraku."

"Not alone, he didn't," Shippou scoffed.

"Well, no, but he still did it."

Bellaniece shook her head. "Naraku?"

Gin shrugged. "He's the one who tried to steal the Shikon no Tama and all that. He was evil."

Bellaniece nodded. She vaguely remembered hearing Cain talk about that old legend. She hadn't realized it was true. "Wow, then he really is good."

"Kagome-chan and Kikyou-sama killed Naraku," Shippou informed them. "InuYasha was just . . . there."

"Oi!" InuYasha bellowed.

Shippou held up his hands. "Was it something I said?"

"I could beat them," Gin remarked, nodding curly at the boys as Toga and Ryomaru—the current combatants—circled each other, tossing out taunts and generally making nuisances of themselves in the process.

"Why did he say that the nipple stud is yours?" Bellaniece asked Nezumi.

Nezumi grinned. "I told him to get it, thinking he wouldn't."

Bellaniece shook her head. "I don't follow."

Nezumi blushed. "We had an . . . unusual beginning."

Sierra sighed. "Took him long enough to figure everything out."

Gin wrinkled her nose. "Everyone tried to tell him. Kichiro-nii-chan tried to beat it into him . . . baka."

Ryomaru separated the two blades of his sword and swung them both in his hands. "He's such a show-off," Nezumi grumbled.

Toga demonstrated a few moves of his own. The spear end of his halberd whistled through the air as he tossed it up and caught it, leveling it at his cousin in one fluid movement.

"They're as bad about showing off as InuYasha," Shippou remarked with a shake of his head.

"I heard that, runt," InuYasha growled without turning away from the fight.

Shippou laughed as Rin shook her head.

Ryomaru flipped back out of striking range as Toga shot forward. The hanyou landed in a crouch and kicked a foot out, catching Toga's ankle. Toga fell back but rolled to his feet before Ryomaru could close in on him. Toga hooked the end of the halberd against the blade of the Teishu, and the sword clattered on the practice mat near his father's feet.

"I win," Toga declared as he thumped the end of the halberd against the floor.

"You didn't win," Ryomaru countered, swinging Seishu as he lunged for his cousin. The sword clanged against the halberd, and Toga's weapon flew out of his hand as Ryomaru strode over to retrieve the other half of his twin blade.

Toga snorted. "Keh! That was a cheap shot!" he scoffed.

"Get over it, Toga! You didn't completely disarm me," Ryomaru gloated as he fastened the smaller swords back together into the larger version known as Ryoteishuseishu—the double bladed sword forged from both his father and his uncle's fangs.

Kichiro turned to stare over his shoulder at Bellaniece, and she shifted but didn't move. She couldn't read his expression but he looked like he wanted to say something. She wasn't sure what he was trying to say, was even more uncertain how she knew that was what he was doing. Bellaniece crossed her arms over her chest and looked away for a moment. In the end, he turned away. Bellaniece bit her lip and sighed.

Gin tugged Bellaniece's arm. "My turn."

Bellaniece frowned and shook her head as Gin's look of grim determination dissuaded her from remarking as Gin headed toward the men.

 

 

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"Come on, nii-chan," Gin called as she rolled up the sleeves of her father's fire rat haori and pulled the Kusarigama from the holster slung around her hips. The strange undercurrent of the looks passing between Kichiro and Bellaniece had reminded her just a little too vividly of the unfairness in her brother's complete and systematic condemnation of the girl in question. There wasn't a doubt in Gin's mind that Kichiro had judged Bellaniece too harshly, and even if he didn't want to hear it, she just had to let him know what she thought of his absolutely boorish behavior. "I've still got a bone to pick with you."

Kichiro lowered his chin, eyes widening as he regarded his sister. "Oh, really . . ."

"Yeah, I can take you," she insisted.

"Bring it on, baby-chan," he retorted as he retrieved his sword and tossed the scabbard aside.

"Oi! Hurt your sister, and I'll have your ass," InuYasha hollered.

Kichiro adjusted his grip on Nishuto's hilt and wiggled his left hand. "Whatcha waitin' for? The Kich is too fast for the baby, huh?"

Gin whipped the lead ball of the Kusarigama over her head and stalked around her brother. "You'll think you're too fast, baka," Gin countered, whipping the ball toward Kichiro's head. He leaned back in time to avoid the flying metal.

"Aw, ish da bay-bee gool angwy?"

She erupted in a growl as her brother kept baby-talking her.  "You're such a jerk, nii-chan," she bit out.

"Ah, but I'm a fast jerk," he laughed as he avoided her again.

Gin growled and lunged at Kichiro. He jumped out of her reach. "Wait, you're really angry, aren't you?"

"Of course I am," Gin hissed quietly, careful to keep her voice down as she stalked her brother again. "I'm not a baby anymore."

"Yeah, you're not a baby anymore," Kichiro echoed as he blocked the ball again.

"And what you said . . . It wasn't fair. Bellaniece didn't make me do anything I didn't want to do, just so you know."

"You're mad at me? Over her?" Kichiro asked, eyes darting to the side—to Bellaniece—before he looked back at Gin again.

"What do you think?"

Kichiro ducked the flying ball once more. "Look, you don't—"

Gin screwed up her face in a determined scowl and spun around to send the ball flying at him once more. This time, though, he wasn't expecting it. Wrapping around his ankle before Gin gave the chain a good, solid tug, Kichiro grunted as his feet flew out from under him. His elbow hit the floor hard, and Nishuto flew out of his hand, clattering away. Before he could move, she planted her bare foot in the center of his chest and pressed down, her eyes glowing with unspent irritation.

"I win," Gin gritted out as she jerked the chain loose from Kichiro's foot and wrapped it around her arm.

"Hell," Kichiro groaned. "Damn, Gin . . ."

She lifted her chin and tossed him one last dark look before spinning around on her heel to stomp away. Cain stood beside Bellaniece, staring at her in unabashed amazement. Gin squared her shoulders and headed toward them as Toga and Ryomaru took turns teasing Kichiro about losing to a girl.

Bellaniece tried to hide her amusement but couldn't help the little smile that slipped out as she scrunched up her shoulders and grasped Gin's arm. "That was . . . cool," she murmured. Gin shrugged off the praise before peeking up at Cain, who still looked rather shocked.

"Hi," she said, trying to ignore the nervous fluttering in her stomach as she shifted from one foot to the other.

"So . . . The cake fairy can fight."

Gin broke into a timid little grin.. "I told you I could."

"Not bad."

"Zelig."

Gin jumped and looked back over her shoulder as Sesshoumaru strode over to them.

"Sesshoumaru, you look well."

Sesshoumaru inclined his head in acknowledgement. "And this is your little girl? Bellaniece."

Cain's eyes sparkled, and he nodded. "Yes."

"Care for some sport?"

Staring over Gin's head at the assembled combatants who were still busy needling Kichiro over his second defeat of the day, Cain shrugged carelessly. "Doesn't look like much competition," he remarked.

"There's my papa," Gin piped up. "He's competition."

Cain smiled tightly. "Oh, yeah . . . him . . ."

"You need not fight an ignorant baka like InuYasha," Sesshoumaru scoffed. "I'll challenge you."

The youkai seemed surprised. "Really . . . The last time you challenged me was . . ."

Sesshoumaru smiled. "When you broke your sword."

Cain nodded. "That's what I thought. All right . . ."

"Wait, Daddy!" Bellaniece said as she caught Cain's hand. "You should take off your shirt, too."

He narrowed his gaze on his daughter. "Why would I do that?"

Bellaniece shrugged. "Better mobility. You don't what them to have any advantages, do you?"

Cain rolled his eyes. Gin looked around wildly—everywhere but directly at Cain, trying to ignore the soft rustle of fabric as he unbuttoned his shirt.

"Oh, Cain! What a pleasant surprise," Kagura said as she and Kagome stepped through the door with Cassidy and Coral in tow. "Kagome, this is Bellaniece's father and an old friend of the family, Cain Zelig. Cain, this is Sesshoumaru's sister-in-law, Kagome."

"We've met, sort of," Kagome remarked with a bright smile.

"Not formally, I'm afraid," Cain commented.

"So you're the North American—stripes," Kagome murmured, eyes widening in mild shock. She gaped at the teal stripes that wrapped around his sides as he shrugged off his button down white shirt and handed it to Bellaniece.

"Kago-o-oh, my," Kagura trailed off as she finally saw where Kagome was staring. Sesshoumaru shot the women a scrutinizing look and muttered something Gin couldn't hear.

"Oi, wench!" InuYasha snarled as he stomped over to the gathering. "Just what do you think you're doing?" he demanded as he grabbed Kagome's hand and dragged her to the side.

Gin stared at her parents before slowly looking around. It wasn't just Kagome and Kagura who had noticed Cain's stripes. Both Nezumi and Sierra were gawking quite openly at the youkai while Rin fluttered a hand to shut Shippou up. Gin pushed aside a strange sense of irritation that the rest of the women had apparently noticed that Cain was, well, for lack of a better term, hot.

Gin frowned and dared a glance at Cain. He was talking to Sesshoumaru without seeming to notice that every female in the building was now quite shamelessly staring at his youkai crests with the exception of his daughter, who was trying her hardest not to look at Kichiro.

Ryomaru and Toga were too busy glowering at their respective mates to pay attention to Kichiro, who apparently hadn't learned his lesson from being knocked down twice. The miscreant twin reached around Toga and Ryomaru, grabbing nipples and twisting hard.

"Son of a—" Toga growled as he spun away from his cousin and knocked his hand away.

Ryomaru wasn't as fortunate. The nipple Kichiro had grabbed was the one that had the nipple stud. The hanyou howled in pain as he swung a fist in his brother's direction. Kichiro let go, stumbling away as he doubled over in laughter.

Toga stalked him on one side while Ryomaru closed in on the other. Kichiro altered his course and retreated to the relative safety of his mother, wrapping his arms around her and hugging her as he winked at his twin and his cousin.

"What are you doing, Kichiro?" Kagome asked as she patted his arms that were securely hooked around her neck.

"I just wanted to hug my mama . . ." he schmoozed. Gin rolled her eyes. Bellaniece looked stunned.

"Oi! You can't use Mother as a shield, you coward," Ryomaru grumbled as he stalked toward his brother.

InuYasha slapped a hand into his son's chest to stop him. "No rough housing around your mother," he growled.

Toga snorted. "He can't hide behind her forever," he told Ryomaru.

Kichiro twitched his ears, kissed Kagome's cheek loudly, and waved at his cousin and brother without making a move away from Kagome. Toga rolled his eyes. Ryomaru snorted.

The two tai-youkai prowled around one another. Cain was slightly taller than Sesshoumaru, but Sesshoumaru still moved with subtle dexterity. Sesshoumaru drew Tenseiga. Cain was using one of the many swords that InuYasha kept around for practice. Blunt-bladed to avoid serious injury, they were the ones that the children had all grown up using.

Sesshoumaru struck first, whipping around in a circle as he brought Tenseiga up. Cain easily blocked, sparks shooting from the fissure where the blades met, as Sesshoumaru pushed him. Sliding back a couple of feet, Cain grimaced as he lowered his sword to parry again.

Gin bit her lip, ears flattening as the screech of metal slipping against metal echoed through the dojo. She opened her mouth to cheer for Cain but snapped it closed before she could. She ought to root for her uncle, but she wanted to encourage Cain, too. The conflicting desires were unsettling, and in the end, she didn't say anything at all.

Cain spun around to launch a counterattack. Sesshoumaru grinned as he swung Tenseiga. Four consecutive crashes rang out as they battled each other back and forth. Bellaniece gasped softly as Sesshoumaru nearly knocked the sword from Cain's grip. Cain held on and flicked the sword in a small circle that might have disarmed a lesser opponent. Sesshoumaru let go only to catch Tenseiga in his left hand as he slowly shook his head and smiled a little wider.

The soft mewl of a cat drew Cain's attention. Swiveling his head to locate the animal, he stated in raised-eyebrow surprise as Yukitora strolled into the dojo. Sesshoumaru caught the practice sword with the tip of Tenseiga. Cain absently flicked the sword in a small circle to avoid being disarmed as he watched the cat run over to Ryomaru and leap onto the hanyou's shoulder. She pushed herself up on her hind legs, leaning on Ryomaru's head to steady herself. He flicked one ear to lure the cat's batting paw but continued shifting his glare from the battle to his twin brother and back again. When no one else reacted to the animal, Cain's surprise morphed into a look of befuddlement, but he finally shifted his attention back to his opponent.

'They're just playing with each other,' Gin thought as Sesshoumaru blocked Cain's attack. Sesshoumaru launched a series of short blows with Tenseiga that Cain repelled with remarkable ease. The two inu-youkai moved back and forth with an almost choreographed precision.

Movement caught Gin's gaze, and out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that Toga had retrieved his halberd. Kichiro had finally come out from behind Kagome to watch the fight, and while Ryomaru seemed to have forgotten that he owed Kichiro, Toga hadn't. He eyed his weapon for a few moments then spun it casually. The action caught the tie that held Kichiro's hakama up, and Gin slapped a hand over her eyes as her brother's pants fell.

"My . . ." Bellaniece murmured, fingers fluttering over her lips as she slowly shook her head.

"Oi, Toga!" Kichiro growled as he grabbed his hakama and held them up with one hand and swung blindly at their cousin with the other one.

Toga chortled as he leaned on the halberd. Ryomaru snorted. "Ni-i-i-i-ice."

"Oh, for the love of . . . You could have worn underwear," InuYasha grumbled as he glowered at Kichiro.

"Underwear's too binding for practice," Kichiro retorted, red-faced.

The battle was forgotten as Kichiro lurched after Toga as Ryomaru ran up behind his twin and ripped his pants down—again.

"Hey!" Cain hollered as he tossed the sword down and stomped toward the three. Kichiro growled, tying the short ends of the belt together to hold up his pants. "There are women present!"

Ryomaru took advantage of the situation to squeeze and twist Kichiro's nipple. "Ain't nothin' they haven't seen before," he insisted as he arched his back to avoid Kichiro's mad grab.

"I bet to differ," Cain stated. "My daughter is right there!"

Ryomaru grabbed again as Kichiro ducked out of the way. The North American tai-youkai growled as the older of the twins managed to grasp and twist his nipple instead. Hand streaking out in a blur of movement, Cain caught Ryomaru by one ear, Kichiro by his hair, and shook them both. Ryomaru started to laugh but howled instead when Yukitora bit into his ear and hung on. Kichiro tried to twist out of Cain's grasp but couldn't escape. Toga muttered a few choice words and hooked his arms under Cain's shoulders, trying to restrain him from actually hurting the baka twins.

InuYasha rolled his eyes and shook his head. Kagome buried her face in her hands. Sesshoumaru stared at the spectacle in something akin to amused disgust. Kagura heaved a sigh since she had seen this sort of display more than once. Sierra and Nezumi didn't look like they had any idea, just what to think of it all. Shippou's cheeks puffed out and sucked in as he struggled not to laugh. Rin pursed her lips and blinked helplessly. Bellaniece was blushing but looked rather entertained. Gin couldn't help but wish that the floor would open up and swallow her. Drat her embarrassing family, anyway . . .

'Look on the bright side, doll.'

'There is one?'

'Sure . . . you've gotten to ogle Cain all afternoon, and no one has been the wiser.'

Gin made a face. 'Of course not. They were all too busy ogling, too.'

'Oh-ho! Jealous, are we?'

'No!'

'Good. You shouldn't be. After all, Cain did kiss you, remember?'

Gin blushed and scuffed her toe on the floor. 'Yeah . . . he did, didn't he?'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"You know, I wish my idiot brothers hadn't interrupted your battle with Sesshoumaru-oji-san," Gin commented as she cleared the dishes off the table and shrugged off Cain's hand of assistance. She'd made good on her offer to cook a late dinner for Cain and Bellaniece, and as the hostess, she refused to let Cain help her clean up, too. "It would have been interesting, seeing who won."

Cain snorted. "Pfft! As if there was any doubt about that! I'd have won. I was just playing with him, anyway."

Gin raised her eyebrows and shrugged. "I don't know . . . Oji-san is pretty tough . . . He's about the only one who really gives Papa a run for his money."

"Isn't Sesshoumaru the one who trained you?" Bellaniece asked as she stood up and brought her plate over before rinsing out a sponge to wipe off the table.

"Incidentals."

"Really? Oji-san trained you?" Gin asked.

"Yeah. Pointless, really. Never had much use for a sword."

Gin paused with her hands buried in the sudsy dishwater and thoughtfully regarded Cain with a small grin. "Hmm . . . You're an interesting man, Zelig Cain."

The smallest hint of a smile touched the corners of his lips. "Am I?"

She nodded.

Bellaniece cleared her throat as she dropped the sponge into the sink and divided her attention between Gin and her father. "I was impressed with your skills, Gin."

Gin shrugged but blushed. "Kichiro-nii-chan had it coming."

"Her father taught her how to fight," Bellaniece pointed out, tugging on Cain's arm. "Why didn't you teach me?"

"Do you plan on going out and getting into a fight, Bellaniece?" he asked with a cocked eyebrow.

"Of course not!" she scoffed. "That doesn't mean that I might not need to know some stuff, don't you think?"

Cain slowly shook his head. "Nope, I don't think. All you need to know is that any man—human or youkai—will be on the ground if you kick him between the legs. Then you run."

Gin shook her head as she dried her hands on a towel and turned around to face him. "Why don't you want her to learn?"

"Isn't it obvious?"

"Not really."

Cain shrugged. "She doesn't need to because there will always be someone there to protect her."

Gin could sense that there was something else that he wasn't saying.

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "I know you want to think so, Daddy, but that's really not possible."

"Yeah, well, I keep telling you, you have to be careful, don't I?"

Gin idly dragged the towel through her hand. "It's because she's hanyou, isn't it? Because of what could happen if she fought or if her life were in danger . . ."

Cain grimaced. Bellaniece's playful smile faltered then faded altogether. "There's that, too," Cain finally admitted with a shake of his head. "Thing is, once you learn how to fight, it's easy to think you can just stand your ground instead of trying to get away."

"Papa has Tetsusaiga. It sealed his youkai blood for a long time, not that he needs it anymore. He learned to control it a long time ago," Gin mused.

"And the rest of you?" Cain asked, careful to keep his tone casual so as not to slight InuYasha.

Gin folded the towel and dropped it on the counter. "We don't transform. Oji-san said he thinks it's because Mama's a miko. He thinks her blood tempers Papa's."

Cain chuckled, shaking his head as Gin blinked and waited for him to explain just what he found so amusing. "The hanyou and the miko. Rather unlikely combination."

Bellaniece giggled. "I don't really want to fight, anyway," she remarked.

Gin turned back to finish washing the dishes. Cain reached over and flicked her left ear with the tip of his claw. She flattened the appendage. He chuckled and carefully pried it up. She twitched her ear away from his hands as he chuckled and grabbed for it again. Gin growled, flipping a handful of suds at him. Cain wiped them off his cheek with a deep, throaty laugh.

"I thought you said you wouldn't throw stuff at me anymore," he reminded her.

"You coerced me into promising I wouldn't throw clay at you anymore," she corrected, scooping up another handful of suds and dabbing them on his nose. Cain's eyes crossed as he stared at the melting bubbles before he blew out a gust of air, sending the bubbles flying into the air as Gin giggled. "You're like the Big, Bad Wolf."

"They're bubbles," he countered.

"Clay?" Bellaniece echoed.

Cain's back stiffened, and he shot his daughter an almost nervous glance. "Clay?" he repeated.

Bellaniece nodded. "Gin threw clay at you?"

Gin blushed. "Well . . . sort of . . ."

"Why did she do that, Daddy?" Bellaniece asked, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning against the refrigerator.

"I couldn't see her bear," he answered with a completely blank expression.

Gin rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Because he touched my ears," she said. "I couldn't even see the bear. How could you have seen the bear?"

"Bear?" Bellaniece asked.

"Her sculpture was an abstract bear—" Cain began.

"If you tilted your head to the side and squinted . . ." Gin finished.

Bellaniece nodded slowly as she kicked her toe against the hardwood floor. "Wow . . . Oh, Daddy . . ."

"What?" Cain demanded, a hint of defensiveness creeping into his tone.

Bellaniece laughed. "I'm really tired. I'm going to go on home. Thanks for inviting me today, Gin! It was a very interesting afternoon."

"Okay," Gin agreed. "Goodnight!"

Bellaniece stopped, half way out the door, to lean around and smile, wiggling her fingers in a cheerful farewell.

Cain sighed as the door closed behind his daughter. "Well, that was . . . uncomfortable."

Gin rinsed out the sinks and dried her hands again before turning to face Cain. "Uncomfortable because Bellaniece was here or uncomfortable because you were joking with me?"

"Maybe I shouldn't answer that."

Gin nodded and shuffled into the living room, tucking her foot under and grabbing a throw pillow to hold against her chest as she sat down on the sofa. Cain followed her and sat at the far end. She tucked her chin deep into the pillow and stared at him. Scowling at his hands, he seemed to be thinking about things that Gin wished she understood.   "Why do you look sad?" she finally asked.

"I'm fine," he lied.

"Can I do anything?"

He slowly shook his head. "You've done enough."

Gin bit her lip, hugged the pillow tighter. "That sounds like an accusation."

"No . . . It's not. It's just . . . It's not important."

"If it weren't important," she began quietly, "it wouldn't make you unhappy."

"You don't understand. You'll never understand. I . . . I don't want you to understand."

She swallowed hard past the growing lump that thickened in her throat and nodded. "I see."

"Gin . . ." Cain sighed and trailed off, letting his forehead drop heavily into his hand.

"We're friends, right?"

He seemed surprised by her question but nodded. "Yeah."

She shrugged and tried to smile. "Then that's enough, isn't it? That's not so hard to understand."

He stared at her for a moment then smiled, too. "No, it isn't hard, at all."

 

 

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Kichiro stared at the framed photograph and rubbed his temple as he slowly shook his head. A family picture taken long ago, it was one of the few that he kept on display in his home. InuYasha knelt beside Kagome who held Gin in her lap. The twins hadn't wanted to cooperate—there were butterflies thick in the yard—and in the end, InuYasha had to hold onto his sons on either side of Kagome to keep them there long enough for Rin to snap the picture. 'Time for another family picture?'

Kichiro winced. 'Yeah, in a few months, I suppose so.'

'Does it bother you?'

'Not really. I always wondered why Mama and the old man never had more pups after Gin.'

Then again, it had been a bit of a shock. After the tournament ended and everyone was gathered around the extended table, Kagome had said that she had an announcement. He wasn't sure what he was expecting. It certainly wasn't what she finally said.

"Your father and I wanted to tell you all at the same time. We've decided to have another baby."

Ryomaru had dropped his chopsticks.

Kichiro had wiped his mouth on a napkin and sat back to wait for their mother to elaborate.

Gin had looked surprised for all of a second before clapping and bobbing her shoulders in excitement.

Sesshoumaru had rolled his eyes. "Kami . . . more of your miscreants?"

InuYasha snorted as he pushed his plate away. "Yeah, well, I tried to tell her . . ."

Kagome poked InuYasha in the ribs. "Don't you have anything to say? Ryomaru? Kichiro? Gin?"

Gin hopped up and ran over to hug her mother. "I think it's wonderful," Gin assured Kagome.

"It's fine," Kichiro agreed.

"Ryomaru?" Kagome asked, tilting her head as she gazed at her oldest son.

"I ain't got a problem with it," he said slowly.

InuYasha didn't miss Ryomaru's reluctant statement. "If you ain't got a problem with it, then why do you sound like you do?"

Ryomaru sighed. "It ain't the pup; that's fine . . ."

"Then what is it?" InuYasha demanded.

"Well, it means that you'd have to have . . . sex . . ."

Cain had been lifting a glass of water. He set it down and coughed. Bellaniece curled her fingers under and pressed them to her lips. Kagura rolled her eyes and shook her head. Nezumi covered her eyes with her hand. Sierra stopped whispering to Toga. Toga choked out a laugh. Sesshoumaru sat back, crossing his arms over his chest with an 'I Rest My Case' sort of expression. Rin slapped Shippou's chest before he could make one of his legendary comments. Gin stopped mid-hug, eyes rounding in shock that her brother would voice that sort of opinion. Kagome moaned.

 

InuYasha looked fit to kill. "Keh! And just how do you suppose you were made? There ain't a hanyou fairy, baka."

"Yeah, but we didn't know about that back then . . . Ain't you two a little old to be doing that?"

Nezumi jabbed her elbow into her mate's ribs as InuYasha flushed and sputtered indignantly. "No, we ain't too old to be—"

"But there aren't any other objections to our having another baby?" Kagome broke in, laying her hand on InuYasha's arm to calm him.

"I think it's wonderful, Mama," Gin said, giving her mother another squeeze before leaning over to kiss InuYasha's cheek, "and I don't think you're too old to have sex."

InuYasha groaned. Kagome blushed.

"What's 'sex'?" Coral asked. Toga choked on his food and dropped his chopsticks in favor of slapping a hand over his daughter's overzealous mouth.

"I want a hanyou fairy!" Cassidy piped up.

"You could ask Gin if she knows the hanyou fairy," Bellaniece told the little girl. "She's got fairy connections."

Cain's coughing escalated into something akin to a mad hacking, and he grabbed the water and downed it fast.

Kichiro chuckled as the memory faded, and he set the photograph aside. No, he didn't mind the idea of his parents having more children. If that made them happy, then he was all for it, even if the blatant reminder of just how they'd create that child did disturb him on some level . . . Not that he didn't know how things like that worked, but the blatant reminder . . . Kichiro sighed.

The ticking clock chimed the hour, breaking the stillness that he knew too well. Standing up, wandering over to the black lacquered baby grand piano that stood next to the wall of windows flanking the sliding glass doors, Kichiro sat down and ran his fingertip over the keys.

Playing a song he knew by heart, he closed his eyes and let his fingers dance over the keys. When Ryomaru had been spending extra time in the forest, training and making sure he was the toughest of them all, Kichiro had begged Kagome to let him take piano lessons. He'd thought at the time, that his father wouldn't see the need for the indulgence, but Kagome had encouraged him to ask InuYasha. It had been the hardest thing he'd ever done, back then. Afraid that he'd seem weak or strange in his father's eyes, it had taken him weeks to build up the courage to ask InuYasha.

Sitting atop the boulder by the pond in the back yard, InuYasha had seemed almost unapproachable as seven year-old Kichiro had forced himself to come closer. "Papa . . . I wanted to ask you something," he began, scuffing the toe of his new tennis shoes in the dirt.

InuYasha didn't move, but his eyes shifted to the side as he waited for his son to speak.

"I wondered . . . I thought I'd . . . Can I have piano lessons?" he blurted, cheeks reddening. He knew his father was going to say 'no'. InuYasha was a fighter, and Kichiro, even at that age, knew he wasn't.

InuYasha jerked his head at the empty spot beside him, the one that Kagome normally occupied in the evenings. Kichiro climbed up and scrunched up his shoulders as he waited.

"So, you want to play the piano?" InuYasha finally asked.

Kichiro nodded, unable to discern InuYasha's thoughts from his tone of voice. "Yes."

"If you take them, what are you going to do with what you learn?"

Kichiro shook his head. "I don't understand."

"Well, you can't learn things just because. You have to use what you learn somehow, don't you?"

"I guess."

InuYasha shrugged. "You think it over, and let me know."

Kichiro scowled, running his claws in the deep welts InuYasha had dug there from long evenings spent staring over the pond. He was sure that his father wasn't going to let him take the lessons. Kichiro sighed.

"Might help your coordination some," InuYasha mused. "Not that you're clumsy, because you aren't."

"I like music," Kichiro muttered.

"Could be good for your concentration, too."

"Uh huh."

"I don't suppose they'd hurt. One thing: if you take these lessons, you can't quit, you got that?"

Kichiro grinned. "I won't quit!"

And he hadn't. By the time he'd finished school, he'd been through four teachers, all of whom had run out of things to teach him.

The song ended, and Kichiro smiled sadly.

'You know what's really bugging you.'

'I know.'

'So why don't you do something about it?'

Kichiro shook his head. 'Like what?'

'Call her.'

'Call her? And do what? She'd hang up on me.'

'Maybe, but you could still try.'

He stood up and reached for his phone, but stopped with his hand hovering over it. "What am I? Fifteen? I can't call her to tell her I was an ass . . ."

'Yeah, but going over there really might not be that great an idea . . .'

'By all means, feel free to shut up,' Kichiro thought as he snatched the cell phone and dropped it into his pocket while striding toward the door.

'All right, but don't say I didn't warn you when she slaps you a good one . . . and you kind of deserve that, too.'

Kichiro grimaced as he checked his watch. It was nearly nine-thirty. Hopefully he'd be able to talk to her without her father's interference . . . Or maybe . . .

 

 

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"I want chocolate."

Cain peeped over the top of the art book he was browsing and cocked an eyebrow at Gin. "Chocolate?"

She didn't look up from the magazine in her hands. Propped against the far end of the sofa with her knees raised and the magazine resting on her thighs, she seemed absorbed in the article she was reading—or the accompanying pictures . . . "Yeah, chocolate. Bowen Lara did this sculpture. It's an eighteen foot swan made entirely of chocolate."

Cain leaned forward to peek over the top of the magazine. 'An eighteen foot chocolate swan? Gin would be bouncing off the walls for days . . .'

"The swan's nice, but can you imagine? That's a lot of chocolate."

"I doubt anyone is going to eat it," he remarked dryly, flopping back against the other arm of the sofa. "Might be interesting to see them try . . ."

Gin flipped her legs off the sofa and dropped the magazine on the coffee table as she stood up and started toward the kitchen. Cain shook his head when she returned with a very large box of chocolate pocky. "You can't eat that," he pointed out reasonably.

"You want some?" she asked, shaking the open box at him, nibbling the first stick of the sweet treat.

"No, thanks," he answered.

"You know, I don't offer to share my chocolate with just anyone," she coaxed.

Cain grinned. "Nope, and you shouldn't even be eating it."

Gin rolled her eyes and dropped the box beside her. "I won't get hyper from a packet of pocky."

"That's not the reason. You're eating Men's Pocky."

"So?"

"So you're not a man, are you?"

Gin snorted. "That's the most sexist thing I think I've ever heard you say!" she mused. "I can eat this. Men's Pocky. Keh!"

"No, I'm pretty sure they put some sort of hormone thing in that . . . testosterone or something. Chocolate on steroids."

"You're just trying to keep me from enjoying my chocolate, but it won't work."

"Nah," he argued, turning his attention back to the book again, "I'm just trying to save you from ending up, you know, with man-parts . . . and body hair."

Gin stopped eating for a moment then pulled another stick of pocky from the packet. "Man-parts and body hair? Now I know you're just teasing."

"Maybe, but you had to think about it, didn't you?"

"Disgusting, Zelig-sensei, just disgusting."

Cain chuckled as he stood up and strode over to the cupboard. When he glanced over his shoulder, it was to find Gin leaning on the back of the sofa on her knees. "What are you doing?"

Wrinkling his nose as he stared at the entirely unacceptable selection of candy in Gin's cupboard, Cain shook his head. "Gin . . . You don't have any decent candy here."

"That's not true. It's all decent."

"It's all . . . pocky and gummies, and . . . koala bear cookies . . ."

"Those are good! They have chocolate filling."

Cain shook his head as he strode over, grabbed Gin's hands, and tugged. "Come on, baby girl. You need better candy."

"There's nothing wrong with my candy," she insisted but stood up.

"Sure, there is. You need . . . manly candy."

Gin giggled as she slipped her sandals on. "You mean like the Men's Pocky?"

"Exactly."

She shook her head, rolled her eyes, but grabbed her purse, and after checking to make sure she had her keys, she let him drag her out of the apartment toward the stairs.

 

 

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Bellaniece wrapped a thick towel around herself and tucked in the end before padding out of the bathroom toward the kitchen to grab a bottle of water before shutting herself away in her bedroom for the night.

The trill of the telephone cut through the quiet of the apartment, and Bellaniece winced as she shook her head and hurried over to answer. "Hello?"

"Hi."

She almost dropped the phone. "Dr. Izayoi?"

"Yeah . . . You know, after the other night, I'd say you can drop the formalities."

Bellaniece's hand tightened around the receiver. "I'd rather not, thank you."

"Yeah, all right. I was a little harsh, and—"

"Were you? I hadn't noticed."

"Belle . . ."

She sighed. "Look, it's late, and I'm tired, so if that's all you called for, then I'll say goodnight."

"Wait!"

Bellaniece held the phone away from her ear and stared at it for several seconds before closing her eyes and sighing. Grabbing her water off the table, she headed for her room "All right, what is it?"

"You . . . uh . . . you don't have to stay away from Gin."

"Really? Wow, you know, that's really magnanimous of you."

"And I might have misjudged you at the restaurant."

Bellaniece closed her door and moved over to the window, perching on the sill as she let her head fall against the cool glass. "Just at the restaurant?"

"Can you cut me some slack here? I'm not good at this."

"Sorry to hear that. I'd think that as often as you stick your foot in it, you'd have had a lot of practice by now."

"All right, I deserved that."

"Yeah, you did."

"Belle?"

"What?"

"Look out your window."

She lowered the phone against her chest and peeked outside. A flash of silver waved in the breeze from just beside the structure. Smothering a gasp, she dropped the phone as she groped the ledge to push the window open. "What are you doing?" she hissed, leaning her head outside to glare at the hanyou perched on the three foot wide ledge that ran the width of the building just under her window.

Kichiro snapped his cell phone closed and stood up. "I'm telling you that—"

"That you're crazy? Do you know how far off the ground you are? How did you get up here?"

"Are you worried, Belle?"

She snapped her mouth closed on whatever she had been about to say. "Of course not! Why would I be worried about you?"

"Admit it, wench: you like me."

"I will not because I do not," she grumbled.

"You do," he argued. "Nice towel, by the way. Do you always hang halfway out your window in nothing but a towel?"

Bellaniece gasped as she crossed her arms over her chest and glowered at Kichiro. "Do you always sit outside people's windows? That's rather stalker-ish, don't you think?"

"Is that a real word? 'Stalker-ish'?"

"It is now."

"And here I thought you'd be impressed at the lengths I've gone to, just for you."

"I'm not," she growled. "You'd better leave. I don't think my father—"

"You going to tell him?"

Bellaniece sighed. "I should."

Kichiro sat in the open window, feet on the ledge below. "You probably should."

"Daddy would kill you for coming over, especially after last night."

"He probably would."

"Not to mention that you're a complete jerk . . . You'd deserve the beating he'd give you if I told him."

"I probably do."

"Why did you come over here?"

Kichiro shrugged as he stared at the moon. "I shouldn't have reacted like that yesterday."

Bellaniece grimaced when the telephone beeped the 'off-the-hook' tone and clicked it off. "So you came over here to . . . assuage your guilty conscience? Did it work? Do you feel better now?"

"That's not what I meant," he grumbled. "I didn't think . . . I didn't mean to hurt you."

"I'd have to care for you to hurt me," she forced herself to say. She could even be thankful that her voice didn't falter at all. She didn't like the slight stiffening in his back, the slight flattening of his ears, and she didn't like the instant regret that made her want to take back the things she'd said. "Look, Dr. Izayoi, it's late, and I'm tired. I think you should go."

He slowly turned his head, regarding her in the stillness. He looked like he was considering his options. Bellaniece tucked the end of the towel in a little more. "I'll go. I just . . . Will you answer one question before I do?"

Bellaniece nodded once, held her breath, knowing she wasn't going to like whatever question he had in mind.

"Why did you let me kiss you? I mean, you said yourself, you don't care about me. If you don't care at all, then why?"

"Call it curiosity," she answered, turning her face away, hoping he wouldn't see what she was trying to hide. "It won't happen again."

"I see."

She waited for a moment, half of her hoping he'd leave, the other half wishing he'd stay while she told herself again and again that he was just trying to get to her, to prove he could. He'd made his feelings abundantly clear. He thought she was a spoiled brat; a child. Bellaniece closed her eyes, bit her lip, dug her claws into her palms to keep herself from screaming.

'This is silly. He can't hurt you. You said you wouldn't let him. Tell him to leave, Belle, and he'll go. You answered his question, and he'll go.'

Bellaniece drew a deep breath and opened her eyes, started to speak, but the words didn't come.

He'd been true to his word, hadn't he? In those moments . . .

Kichiro was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Cain slouched back in the thickly cushioned chair and stared across the wide desk as Sesshoumaru steepled his hands, tapping his fingertips together in a slow cadence. "It's been a long time, Zelig," Sesshoumaru finally said, breaking the amiable silence with his statement.

"Maybe."

"How are things in the States?"

Cain shrugged. "Quiet. Peaceful. I heard tell of your youkai uprising a few years ago. What was that all about?"

Sesshoumaru waved a hand as if it were of no real account. "That? Some lesser-youkai thought to band together. They were displeased that their kin were hunted, so they waited until Ryomaru was weakened and tried to attack."

"Hunted? I see . . ."

"They were the dregs of our kind; murderers, thieves . . ."

Cain nodded. He hadn't had trouble in years. Then again, North America was a huge place. Trouble was easier to take care of when he delegated much of the responsibility to others. Cain had installed men who acted as his agents in the further reaches of his jurisdiction. Despite the infrequent incursions of his hunters in his home, Cain himself hadn't had to go after any of the deviant youkai in a very long time.

Sesshoumaru gazed at Cain in the direct manner that he was familiar with. It normally meant that Sesshoumaru had something on his mind. It normally meant that Cain wasn't particularly going to like hearing it. "Kagura and I were sorry that we missed Isabelle's funeral."

Standing up and striding over to the wet bar, Cain took his time refilling his empty glass. "It's fine. The hurricane left everything a mess. I doubt your plane would have been able to land at Miami International."

"How do you like working at the university?"

Cain emptied the scotch and refilled the glass again. "It's not so bad. Some of the students show real promise."

He could feel Sesshoumaru's gaze on him, as though the Inu no Taisho were trying to delve into his mind. "Why did you decide to stay?"

"Thought it'd be good. A change of scenery . . . Bellaniece hasn't been this far from home before."

Sesshoumaru nodded. "Sounds like a solid reason. Suppose you tell me the real one."

"I thought you believed in the adage of 'Live and let live'."

"More like, "Live and let die,' but that hardly matters when you're trying to avoid my questions."

"Was I?" Cain sighed. "I don't really know why I stayed."

Sesshoumaru didn't look like he believed Cain, but he let the question drop. "Come," he said, standing up and heading toward the glass doors and the patio beyond. They walked through the garden in silence. Strange, really. Most of their relationship had been based on the silence. It was something Cain had come to respect and welcome.

"So," Cain ventured, stuffing his hands in his pockets as he shuffled along beside Sesshoumaru. "Too old to do it, are you?"

"What's that?" Sesshoumaru asked, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

Cain shrugged. "Gin said you told her you can't transform anymore. Something about being too old?"

Sesshoumaru nodded in slow understanding. "Ah, she remembers that . . ."

"Yes, she does. You lied to your niece?"

Sesshoumaru shrugged. "Lie is such a harsh term . . . I prefer to think of it as . . . avoiding undue attention. A dog as big as the Inutaisho corporate office complex would be noticed, don't you think?"

"Uh huh. So how old were you? You know, so I can expect to lose the ability then, too?" Cain needled.

Sesshoumaru chuckled. "Gin was an . . . inquisitive child. After her father told her about the fight in Chichiue's tomb, she was obsessed with the idea of seeing me transform. I finally told her that to make her stop. Didn't realize she'd cajole Toga into transforming for her."

"That bad?"

"Once Gin gets an idea in her head, she never lets it go. Anyway, it wasn't bad . . . until she wanted to take Toga home with her, in dog-form, of course."

"Really."

"I always found it odd . . ."

Cain stopped when Sesshoumaru paused at the base of a gnarled old magnolia tree. Staring up through the branches, he seemed to be looking for something, or maybe he was simply gathering his thoughts.

"Found what odd?" Cain prompted.

Sesshoumaru blinked and lowered his gaze to meet Cain's again. "I always found it odd that InuYasha's daughter could be so unlike her father."

"Maybe she takes after her mother," Cain mused, thinking of his own daughter; of Bellaniece's similarities to Isabelle.

"Possible," Sesshoumaru agreed. "Gin has always been . . . special to us, even to me."

It was strange to hear Sesshoumaru speaking at such length, especially about something as intensely personal as family. Cain wasn't sure what to say. He'd caught glimpses of the family bond. Even in the chaos of the tournament, he'd noticed how affectionate Gin was with everyone, and it hadn't been the first time he'd seen how cherished she was. Maybe that was part of the reason she was so different. She'd never had a reason to fear or to be sad. She'd been sheltered by all of that, hadn't she? Protected and adored, obviously the feelings had extended beyond those of her immediate family. He grimaced. Sesshoumaru's words . . . They sounded more like a warning.

"She has a way of . . . nudging her way into your heart, and the uncanny thing is how she doesn't even have to try."

Cain nodded. No, she didn't have to try; not at all.

They circled through the garden, ending up near the tall hedges that blocked the pool from view. Bellaniece had been thrilled by the idea of swimming, and Cain headed toward the opening to check on her. His daughter was splashing water at Sesshoumaru's granddaughters in the shallow end of the oblong pool. Giggling and playing, she looked happy, and Cain smiled.

"Bellaniece has grown into a beautiful young woman," Sesshoumaru commented.

"Yeah, she has."

"And she has yet to find her mate?"

Cain shrugged. "Not yet. There's no hurry."

"Of course not."

The sliding glass doors on the side of the house opened, and Cain did a double take as Gin stepped outside. The modest white one-piece bathing suit covered her completely, but there wasn't any way of hiding the blatantly feminine form of the young woman beneath. A stabbing ache shot through him—a longing that was both vicious and painful—and Cain grimaced as Gin draped the thick white towel she carried over the back of a chair. She giggled as the children called to her, and he watched her capture her hair in one hand over her shoulder, bending her knee and dipping her toes into the water to check the temperature before she sat down and lowered herself into the water with a little hiss of shock.

"She's . . . Oh, my God . . ." Cain whispered, forgetting for the moment that he wasn't alone.

Sesshoumaru chuckled. "Careful, Zelig. InuYasha's Tetsusaiga was forged from the fang of my father. It is not a toy."

Cain flushed and shook his head, blinking quickly as he forced his gaze away from Gin. "Should I fear him? InuYasha?"

Sesshoumaru's eyes narrowed. "Do you have need to fear him?"

Cain sighed as a thoughtful scowl slipped over his features; as his scrutiny returned to her. "I could take him if I had to."

"I should certainly hope so."

'You know, Cain . . . It's not InuYasha you should fear anyway,' his youkai spoke up.

Cain smiled vaguely as Gin and Bellaniece frolicked with the children. 'Oh?'

'Hell, no . . . Gin . . . Gin's the one you should fear . . .'

Cain sighed as Gin slowly turned, catching sight of him, smiling at him, and finally waving. 'Yeah. Yeah, I should . . .'

"Sesshoumaru," Kagura called as she stuck her head out the patio doors. "Your nephew is here."

Sesshoumaru nodded once and started away, but turned back to glance at Cain as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. "You're as transparent as glass, you realize."

Cain nodded vaguely. Sesshoumaru shook his head and strode away.

Gin swam the length of the pool and caught the ladder to hoist herself out of the water. "Are you going to swim?" she asked as she ran over to Cain.

'Gin . . . Wet . . . Cain?'

Cain cleared his throat and stepped back, needing more space between them as his breath caught in his lungs. Water clung to the tips of her eyelashes, ran down her cheek in tiny rivulets. Her body was covered in a blanket of goosebumps, and the plain white bathing suit hid absolutely nothing from his unwitting perusal. If she noticed his preoccupation, she didn't comment. Could she really be that unaware of just how devastating she was? 'Yeah,' he thought with an inward wince. 'Yeah, she probably is . . .'

"Cain?" she repeated.

"Uh . . . I . . . err . . . No."

Gin giggled. "You sure? The water's really nice!"

"I . . . uh . . . W-Water . . . No."

She tilted her head to the side and frowned. "Are you all right?"

"All right?" he echoed. "Yeah, yeah . . . fine."

She smiled. "Good," she said with a small shrug. "Maybe you should get something to drink. You look a little flushed."

Cain didn't move again until after Gin returned to the water.

'Oh . . . damn . . .'

He forced his feet to move toward the doors, forced his eyes away from Gin. 'Uh huh . . . Damn's a good word . . . Damn, damn, damn, damn . . .'

 

 

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'Oh, Daddy . . .'

Bellaniece bit her lip and tried not to be too conspicuous as she watched Gin haul herself out of the pool and stride over to Cain. Cain's eyes widened, and he retreated a step, and Bellaniece could only wish she could hear what they were saying. Coral and Cassidy were splashing too much for her to discern the conversation. Bellaniece had a feeling that her father was suffering from an acute anxiety attack. She probably ought to feel a little more sympathetic toward Cain than she actually was. Then again, maybe not . . .

'Your poor father,' Bellaniece's youkai lamented. 'Look at him! I don't think he has a clue, just what to make of Gin . . .'

'Daddy's fine,' Bellaniece retorted. 'Gin's good for him. It's his own fault. He's being stubborn for no good reason.'

'He's got good reason! What about your mother?'

Bellaniece's smile dimmed. 'Mother's dead. Mother's been dead a very long time. Daddy . . . He needs Gin. She's the one, I can tell.'

'Bellaniece . . .'

'No, really! He doesn't get all aloof around her because . . . I don't know why, but he doesn't. He plays with her; he laughs with her . . . I've never seen him like that, like he was last night . . . I want him to be that way. Gin makes him happy; I know she does.'

'But it really isn't that simple. If it were . . .'

'It can be! It can be that simple! He's just got to want it, and I think . . . I think he's starting to . . .'

'Just don't get your hopes up. I think you're wishing for something that might blow up in your face.'

'It's fate,' Bellaniece insisted. 'It has to be! I didn't know Gin was going to be here, and I'll bet Daddy didn't, either! It was an added bonus.'

"Bellaniece, do you think Cain looked strange?" Gin asked, standing up in the water after she swam the length of the pool.

Cassidy splashed Bellaniece and Gin. Gin giggled and tossed the brightly colored blow up ball to the little girls.

"Strange? How so?"

Gin shrugged. "He was kind of flushed."

Bellaniece grinned. "I think Daddy's just fine."

"You're sure?"

"Of course."

"You left early last night," Gin remarked as she caught the ball and tossed it back. "Were you feeling all right?"

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose. "Yeah, fine . . . I was just tired."

Cassidy lunged at Gin, catching her around the neck and splashing happily. Gin rolled her eyes but smiled and dove under the water to make the child let go.

'Last night . . .'

Bellaniece sighed. 'Don't remind me.'

'Think you were a little harsh on Kichiro?'

'Absolutely not.'

'Are you sure? I think he was trying to apologize.'

Bellaniece shook her head, pushing herself out of the pool to sit on the side with her legs hanging in the water. 'I don't want him to apologize. I just want him to stay away from me.'

'Do you really?'

Bellaniece swallowed hard, blinked rapidly to clear her suddenly blurring vision. 'Yes, I do.'

'He really was trying.'

'And you're taking his side? You know, it's fine, he can try, but the bottom line is that he . . . He was cruel, and he was mean, and he knew what he was doing. It's been the same all along, hasn't it? No, he's just . . .'

'Just what, Belle?'

'Just—'

"Hi."

Bellaniece froze, back stiffening, chin snapping up at the sound of the soft voice right behind her. Close enough that she could feel his breath on her cheek, close enough that she could feel the heat of him radiating to her . . . "What are you doing here?"

"You didn't come in today."

"Yeah, I . . . called in."

"Sure, you did."

Kichiro sighed. Bellaniece shivered. "I came to talk to Sesshoumaru. What are you doing here?"

"I came with Daddy," she replied. "He's inside."

"Yeah, I know. I saw him. Pleasant, as always."

Kagura stuck her head outside. "Girls, your father's coming after you, so you need to come in now!"

Gin waved at her aunt. "I'll bring them in," she offered. Kagura waved back as Gin herded the girls out of the pool. "Hi, nii-chan," she greeted, pausing long enough to kiss her brother's cheek before grabbing her towel and wrangling the children toward the doors.

Bellaniece hopped off the edge of the pool and waded toward the stairs. She should have known that Kichiro would follow her.

"About last night . . ."

"I don't want to talk about last night," Bellaniece grumbled.

He grabbed her arm as she started to stomp away. "Belle, I—"

"Let go of me."

"Not until you listen."

"Let go of me, or I'll scream, and if I scream, my father will kill you."

He shook his head. "Look . . . Oh, kami . . . Where's your towel?"

Bellaniece arched an eyebrow as she tugged her arm away and stepped back. "What's the matter, Dr. Izayoi? Haven't you ever seen a girl in her bathing suit before?"

"Don't challenge me now, wench," he growled as he looked around for the missing cloth. "Where the hell is it?"

She waited, pursing her lips, hands on her hips, and foot tapping impatiently as he finally found her towel and draped it over her shoulders. His hands were shaking when he let go. Bellaniece snorted and jerked the towel off. "Just say what you wanted to say, you odious man," she bit out.

"Save it, Belle. I'm not arguing with you; not here—and put that towel on, will you?"

"No, I don't think I will," she countered.

"Listen, little girl—"

"Don't 'little girl', me. I think you can see that I'm anything but a little girl," she taunted, holding her hands out as she turned slowly from side to side.

"Damn it—"

"Get a good look, Dr. Izayoi, because it's all you're ever going to get from me."

Kichiro cracked his knuckles and shook his head, jaw twitching in obvious irritation as he struggled to remain calm in light of her show of defiance. "I needed to tell you that I'm leaving as soon as I can get it arranged. Kelly's seems to be ready for surgery, so you can take the next six weeks or so off."

Bellaniece's irritation dissolved as she dried her face on the towel. "Really? When are we leaving?"

"We?" Kichiro echoed.

"Well, yes, we . . . You don't think I'm staying here."

"Yeah, yeah, that's exactly what I thought."

Bellaniece narrowed her eyes as she shook her head. "I'm going."

"No, you're not."

"I am."

"I thought you hated me. Why the hell would you want to go?"

"Don't flatter yourself," she shot back. "I'm not going for you. I'm going for Kelly. She's my friend, and she needs me."

He looked like he was ready to scream at her. Eyes flashing, stance predatory, he looked like he was sorely pressed not to light into her. Something occurred to him, and he suddenly laughed. "We'll see, little girl. Your daddy will never agree to it."

"Sure he will. He knows how much my friends mean to me . . ."

"Friends or not, he won't let you go alone with me."

Bellaniece smiled insincerely. "Why wouldn't he? He knows you're beneath me." With that, she wrapped the towel around her waist and strode toward the doors.

"Belle."

Against her better judgment, she stopped and peeked over her shoulder, hand stilled on the brass handle. Kichiro stood in the sunlight reflected off the shimmering water, hands casually in his pockets. He didn't intimidate her at all, and yet something in his eyes . . .

"If I was beneath you, I assure you, you would not be complaining."

Bellaniece gasped at the implications of his claim. Whipping around red-cheeked, she jerked the door open and strode inside, leaving a smiling hanyou in her wake.

 

 

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Kichiro chuckled until Bellaniece was out of sight before the sound of amusement shifted into a groan of discomfort.

'Oh, damn, did I really say that?'

'Yeah, you did,' his youkai replied with a chortle. 'Good place for us, really . . .'

There wasn't any real excuse for his comments, really . . . aside from the debilitating vision of Bellaniece in the bikini from hell. The scant lavender material had barely covered a damn thing, and the v-shaped bottom had rose so high on her hips that her long legs had seemed just a little longer. The bikini top had contained 'the girls' well enough, but damned if it hadn't nearly brought Kichiro to his knees, seeing the tiny stream of water dripping down her cheek, down her throat, down her chest to disappear in the amply displayed cleft between her breasts.

'Da-a-amn . . .'

'As nice as it is to dream about that girl and her amazing rack, there're bigger fish to fry, you know.'

Kichiro grimaced, letting his head fall back as he squeezed his eyes closed and tried to forget that course of dripping water. 'Like what?'

'Like the fact that she's probably inside insisting that she gets to go to America, too.'

Grunting as he opened his eyes and started for the door. 'Oh, hell, no . . . There's no way . . . I can't be stuck alone with her for that long! She'd kill me!'

'Yeah, then you'd better get in there and try to stop her,' his youkai warned, 'but you know, she does have a point.'

Kichiro headed for the study. 'Yeah? What's that?'

'Kelly is her friend.'

'I know.'

To his surprise, Bellaniece wasn't in the study.   Sesshoumaru and Cain were, though, and Kichiro stifled another sigh as he knocked on the half-closed door and waited.

"Come in."

Ignoring the obvious distaste on Cain's face when he strolled into the room, Kichiro sank down in the other chair facing his uncle's desk and nodded at the North American tai-youkai before turning his attention back to his uncle. "Did you find out anything?" he asked.

Sesshoumaru sat back and pondered Kichiro's request. "Yes, the plane will be ready to go by Wednesday. Does that suit your needs?"

"Yes, thank you."

"Just you?" Sesshoumaru questioned.

"Y—"

"I would like to go, too."

Stifling a groan, Kichiro was the only one who didn't look at Bellaniece. Her father seemed surprised by her request.   "Bellaniece, I don't think—"

"Please, Daddy . . . Kelly needs me. I want to be there for her."

"I'm sorry, but . . ."

"I won't be alone," Bellaniece insisted, kneeling before her father and placing her hands on his arm. "Dr. Izayoi will be there . . ."

Cain shot Kichiro a menacing look. "Yeah, I realize that."

"Daddy . . ."

"No."

"I'm going there to do a surgery. I don't have time to baby-sit you," Kichiro growled.

Bellaniece telegraphed Kichiro a scathing glare. "You won't have to baby-sit me," she assured him. "I have no intention of getting in your way."

"Of course not," he agreed, "because you're not going."

"Daddy, you know I'm right," Bellaniece cajoled.

Cain shook his head. "Bellaniece, it's not about right or wrong. You can't go traveling half-way around the world with an unmated hanyou."

Bellaniece made a face. "Oh, him? He doesn't count. He's gay."

"I'm not—"

"He's what?" Sesshoumaru choked out.

Bellaniece blinked innocently, and Kichiro wondered just how much trouble he'd be in if he turned the belligerent girl over his knee. "He's—"

"I'm not—"

"Gay!" they both finished together.

"Interesting," Sesshoumaru commented as he reached for the telephone.

"I'm not gay," Kichiro grumbled.

"So you see? I'd be perfectly safe from him . . . He's not interested in me, at all," Bellaniece quipped happily.

"I'm not gay," Kichiro stated louder.

Cain shifted in his chair, scooting further away from Kichiro as he slowly shook his head at his daughter. "Still . . ."

"Am I interrupting?"

Kichiro smothered a low groan as Toga wandered into the study. "Yes," he growled.

"Quiet, dog," Toga said as he tapped a bit of plastic against his palm. "Mother said that you were here, Zelig-sama."

Cain glanced up before dropping his forehead back into his hand again as Bellaniece stood up.

"What do you want, baka?" Kichiro demanded. Something about his cousin's demeanor was far too smug for his liking. He didn't trust Toga; not at all.

Toga chuckled, a lazy grin breaking over his features as he dropped the plastic memory card on his father's desk.

"What's this?" Sesshoumaru asked.

Toga shrugged. "Just thought you'd find it as interesting as I did," he ventured.

Kichiro's eyes widened, and he lunged for the card. Sesshoumaru was faster, and Kichiro sank back down with a stifled groan as his uncle slipped the device into the card reader on the computer and waited.

He winced as his own voice broke the silence in the study, and he just couldn't look at what he knew he'd see.

"Of course I . . . Yeah, hold still, baka."

"What? Fuck, no!"

"You offered."

"Balls, no, Kich! Get the hell away from me or I'll shred you!"

"Just hold still! I swear it'll only take a minute!"

"You really are gay!  Damn it, I said no!"

"Stop being a pussy!"

"No means no, baka!  Ear rape!"

"Shut the fuck up and stand still, will you?  I'm telling you, if you'd just stand still and take it like a man!  Not like it'll hurt or anything—"

"Get the hell off me!"

"Just for a minute!"

"All right, damn it!  If I let you, will you leave me the fuck alone?"

"Yeah, whatever."

"Oh, balls . . . just do it fast, okay?"

"I . . . don't feel any difference."

"You know . . . I don't, either."

"Oh, for the love of kami! This is . . . oh this is goo-o-ood."

Sesshoumaru stopped the playback and frowned, though Kichiro just knew his uncle was struggling not to react to the footage.

"Wow," Bellaniece mused, her delight evident in her tone as she tried to keep from laughing.

Cain shook his head slowly. "All right . . . I didn't need to see that . . ."

"I found it amusing," Toga said with an indelicate cough.

"Toga," Kichiro choked out, seriously considering beating the future Japanese tai-youkai into oblivion.

"You made your point," Cain admitted with a sigh. "Can he protect my daughter?"

Sesshoumaru shrugged. "Certainly. His orientation might be . . . questionable . . . but his skills are not."

Kichiro groaned.

"Does this mean I can go?" Bellaniece asked cautiously.

Cain sighed again. "I guess so . . . But if anything happens to you—and I do mean anything—you'll have to find someone else to finish Kelly's surgeries."

Kichiro didn't trust himself to speak as Bellaniece yelped and hugged her father.

'You know, Kich . . . That was low.'

'Hell, yes, it was,' he agreed as he shot to his feet and strode toward the door.

Toga clapped a hand on Kichiro's shoulder. Kichiro shrugged him off. "What, Toga, you bastard?"

Toga chuckled. "Maybe I am, but you know, I did you a favor."

"How do you figure?"

"Think I'm stupid?"

"Well—"

"I'm not. You think I don't know that she—" he jerked his head back toward the study, "—is the first girl who's ever gotten under your skin?"

"Do me a favor next time: don't help me."

"Yeah, whatever. Think of it this way: you get to spend the next few weeks crawling under her skin, now don't you?"

Kichiro groaned. Toga laughed.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Cain stood in the doorway of his daughter's bedroom and sighed as he tried not to think about just how empty the apartment felt without Bellaniece's presence.

She hadn't been away from home before—away from him—for more than one night before, and even that was rare. She would be away for at least six weeks; long enough to do preliminary testing before Kelly's surgery, and then to make sure she was healing well before they came back . . .

She was safe enough with Kichiro Izayoi, wasn't she? Gin had insisted that her brother would look out for Bellaniece . . . of course, that was after Cain had been told that the miscreant hanyou was gay. If it hadn't been for that video footage, he might not have believed that. Kichiro didn't seem gay . . . Still, stranger things had been known to have happened before, and maybe there was some truth to the stories.

'That's really not the reason you let Bellaniece go. You might not like Kichiro, but you know that he really will make sure Bellaniece is safe enough.'

Cain sighed. That was true. Even if he didn't particularly care for Gin's family, he had to admit that they were trained well enough to make sure that she was always safe. It stood to reason that Kichiro could easily protect his daughter.

'And it helps,' he thought with a guilty grimace. 'The two genuinely seemed to despise one another, too . . .'

If he could get rid of the feeling that his daughter had slipped away from him, he'd be ahead of the game . . .

The telephone rang, and Cain spared one last long moment, staring around the room before pulling the door closed and striding over to answer the phone. "Hello?"

"Hi, Daddy."

"Is everything okay?"

She giggled but sounded tired. "Yeah, I'm fine. Maybe a little jet-lagged. I just wanted to call and let you know we got here all right."

Cain sighed. "Good."

Bellaniece yawned. "I'll call you when I get up."

"Okay. Be careful."

"Mm, I will. Bye, Daddy."

"Bye, Bellaniece."

Cain let out his breath in a gust as he hung up the phone and rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. She was so far away . . .

He sat down with a stack of sketches that he was supposed to look over for class the following morning. Shifting through them without actually inspecting them, he couldn't see anything but sparkling blue eyes that were always laughing, always happy. Bellaniece was such a beautiful baby; such a beautiful child . . . To know that she was so far away from him was a painful thing. From the first moment he'd held her in his arms, she'd become his sole reason for living.

In those first few days after Bellaniece was born, Cain had been a little afraid of her; this strange little person who had invaded his life. She didn't cry very often. Content to lie in a bassinet so long as she was near enough to see or smell him, Bellaniece only fussed when she was hungry or needed to be changed. In the time before the numbness set in, Cain would stare at Bellaniece for hours. In her eyes, he could will away the pain of loss, and in her eyes, he could find the strength to wake up in the morning because she needed him . . .

It hadn't taken Cain long to realize that he had to get himself and Bellaniece out of Florida. Memories were too prevalent, too painful, and after the investigation into Isabelle's death was over, he'd taken Bellaniece and moved, leaving everything behind only to have professional movers pack their things and deliver them. Most of Isabelle's effects were still in boxes, hidden away in one room in the mansion. It was too painful a thing. Cain could neither deal with sorting through it all nor come to terms with the idea of getting rid of it. Maine provided a haven, and that was the place Bellaniece called home.

He'd been with her when she first pushed herself onto her hands and knees and crawled around the grass under the white ash tree behind the mansion. He'd seen her take her first steps, praised her when she said her first word. Her voice had been like little silver bells, and her laughter . . . Her laughter had always made him smile.

A lifetime of memories that shouldn't have been his assailed him, and yet he couldn't be sorry for having them, either. Cain leaned forward, dropped the sketches on the table and buried his face in his hands. 'Be safe, Bellaniece . . . Daddy . . . Daddy loves you . . .'

The knock on the door was loud, jarring. Cain jerked upright and stood up.

"Cain! Cain! Are you in there?" Gin's voice was panicked, worried, and he hurried to the door, wincing as the upset in her youki burned him before he could even open the door.

"Hey, what's wrong?" he asked as she threw herself against him. He glanced over her shoulder but saw nothing; only the empty hallway as Gin's heart raced, as she struggled to breathe and squeezed him tighter, burying her face in his shirt. "Gin?"

"It's-a-rat-a-huge-rat-big-rat-huge—" she mumbled, her voice muffled by his body. "Big-big-big-rat-bi-i-ig-Cain!"

"Where?" he asked gently, leaning to the side to push the door closed. "Come on, Gin, you're tougher than that, aren't you?"

"In my apartment!" she blurted, burrowing her face deeper into the fabric of his shirt. "It was big, and it was hairy, and it glared at me, and it hissed my name: 'Gi-i-i-in!'"

Tamping down the urge to laugh, Cain gently pushed Gin away enough to tilt her chin up and look into her eyes. She was terrified, no doubt about that. "Do you want me to go look for it?" he asked reasonably as she quickly shook her head. "No?"

She shook her head again. "It'll eat you! I'm serious; it's huge!"

"How huge?"

Gin held her hands out, shoulder-width apart. "This big!"

"Really."

She nodded. "At least!"

"Are you sure? That'd be a . . . really big rat."

"Cain, I'm serious."

He tried not to smile. 'She's really afraid of a rat? But that's . . .' He scowled. "I know you are. You want me to go kill it?"

"Yes," she said then shook her head. "No."

He chuckled. "I can't do both."

She sighed. "I want you to catch it and take it far away from me, but I . . . Don't kill it."

Cain shook his head; scowl deepening as he leaned his head, trying to figure out if she was being serious. "You want me to catch it . . . and set it free again?"

"Yes, but not near the building."

He thought it over and shrugged. "Okay. You've got to let go of me then."

Her arms tightened. "Wait!"

With a defeated sigh, Cain wrapped his arms around Gin for a moment. "You've got to calm down. Your heart feels like it's trying to jump right out of your chest."

She whimpered.

"It's okay. It's just a rat. Stay here, and I'll take care of it."

"Okay."

This time, she let go of him, eyes nervously darting around his apartment as though she half-expected a rat to come barreling out from behind the furniture. With a little squeal, she ran toward the sofa, launching herself into the air about ten feet from it and landing neatly, feet tucked under her and hands twisting together in her lap.

Cain pressed his lips together and counted to ten before he dared to speak. "You stay there, and I'll be right back."

Gin nodded, ears flattening as her fingers knotted into a perverse-looking lump of wiggling flesh. "Cain, wait!"

"Yes?"

She dug her cell phone out of her pocket and punched in a number. Cain's phone rang, and he grabbed it off the table by the door. "Okay, Gin."

Gin nodded again. "All right. Be careful because it's really, really big."

Cain winced as Gin chewed her nail and tried to smile. Acting before he could think about it, he strode over and kissed her forehead. She tried to smile—it was more of a grimace—and Cain pressed the cell phone to his ear before heading out of the apartment.

Her apartment was exactly how he figured she left it. "Gin? You all right?"

"Yes," she squeaked.

Cain winced. "Where did you see the rat?" he asked.

Gin gripped the phone tight. He could hear the creak of the plastic device, and he only hoped that she wouldn't break it. "In the kitchen."

Cain sniffed the air and frowned. He smelled something, but it was faint; hardly enough to account for a rat, let alone a huge rat, as Gin had claimed.

"Have you found it?" she asked, her voice barely more than a whisper.

"Not yet," Cain answered. "I smell it, though . . . Gin?"

"Yes?"

"Are you sure it was a huge rat?"

"Yes."

He stifled a sigh and made a face. "Okay."

Cain listened closely, could hear the faint scratch of something coming from behind the stove. "Hold on," he told Gin before he set the phone on the counter. He could hear Gin's frightened whining but concentrated instead on pulling the oven away from the wall. A flash of movement caught his eye, a terrified squeak made him grimace. His hand moved in a blur, and he blinked as he stared at the tiny mouse dangling by its tail from his thumb and forefinger. 'This . . . is Gin's rat?'

He dug a plastic container out of the cupboard and shook his head as he dropped the frightened little beast into it for safekeeping and slapped the lid on before he pushed the oven back into place. "Okay, I caught it," he said as he picked up the phone and held up the container to eye the mouse.

"You did?" she asked breathlessly.

"Yeah . . . I think you should see it though . . . make sure this is the one."

"No!" she yelped. "Cain, no!"

Cain rolled his eyes as he shut off the lights and headed for the door. "It's fine, Gin. I've got it contained. It can't hurt you. Do you believe me?"

". . . Yes," she finally said. "But—"

Cain wedged the phone between his ear and his shoulder, freeing his hand to open the door. Gin's eyes widened as she caught sight of the container, and Cain winced as she unleashed an ungodly, blood-curdling howl into the silent apartment. Dropping her phone as she shot to her feet atop the sofa, her legs pistoning up and down, hands waving wildly as she nearly toppled over the high back; she looked even more terrified than she had when she'd first thrown herself into his arms. Cain hurriedly stuck the container in the hallway on the floor before turning back to Gin with a dumbfounded look on his face. "For the love of God, Gin! What the—?"

The tears running down her cheeks stopped him, and Cain winced, feeling like an ogre in one of Bellaniece's bedtime stories—the ogre that made the fairy princess cry. "I'm sorry . . . I'll get rid of it, right now."

"D-D-Don't k-k-kill it," she sobbed.

"Okay, I won't," he assured her. "Let me go get rid of it, okay?"

Gin sank down, bunching up her shoulders miserably as she sniffled and tried not to cry. "O-Okay."

Cain shook his head. That wasn't normal, not at all. Gin's reaction to seeing the mouse would have been more rational had the creature not been contained. The most important thing at the moment, however, was getting the mouse away from Gin because she wasn't calming down at all. Her fear had swelled into something far worse, and he grimaced as the girl in question peeked over the edge of the sofa, eyes scanning the perimeter of the room for any signs of movement. How could a girl like her be that terrified of something as insignificant as a tiny mouse that couldn't hurt her?

'Does that matter, Cain? Get the mouse out of here. Worry about Gin's phobia later.'

'Yeah, yeah . . . I'm going to. . .'

His youkai snorted. 'Pfft! Good thing she's not your mate. You scared the crap out of her with that little beast.'

Cain ignored the jab at his pride as he grasped the door handle. No, there was definitely more to it, if she would tell him what it was . . .

 

 

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Gin didn't feel safe. Despite the knowledge that she was being completely irrational, despite the knowledge that there really weren't any rats in Cain's apartment, she couldn't shake the idea that there were rodents prowling under furniture, little beasts hiding in the shadows just waiting to attack her.

The sofa wasn't high enough.

Peering over the edge of the plush tan suede cushion, Gin bit her bottom lip as her eyes darted back and forth. More than once, she thought she saw movement. More than once, she stifled a scream. She hated rats and everything she deemed to bear a close enough resemblance to rats; hated them. She also couldn't seem to convince herself that it was just a tiny thing, and that rats and mice couldn't hurt her.

Her cell phone rang, and Gin nearly shrieked again. She fumbled with it, hands shaking so badly she could barely turn it on.   When she finally did, Cain's voice was calm, soothing. "Gin? You okay?"

"Yes," she squeaked.

Cain sighed. "You don't sound okay."

"Where are you?" she asked as she pushed herself to her feet atop the sofa.

"I'm a couple blocks over. Just let the . . . rat go."

Gin grimaced, bending her knees as she prepared herself to leap onto the kitchen table. It was higher. She'd be safe there . . .

"What are you doing? Why did I hear a thump?"

"No reason," she assured him. "I wanted to be higher. I just can't stand rats," she whispered.

"Is there a reason for that?" he asked a little too casually. "Do you want your plastic container back?"

"The one the rat was in?" she squeaked. "No! No, Cain, no!"

"Okay," —she heard a dull clink-thump as Cain chucked the plastic container— "it's gone."

"Thank you," she muttered, ears flattening as she crouched in the middle of the table. "I'm stupid. I just . . . I really hate rats."

"You're not stupid. It's all right," he told her. "I'll be up in a minute. Just sit tight till I get there."

She was about to beg him not to hang up, but the phone went dead, and she whimpered.

'It's all my stupid brothers' faults,' she thought sourly, face shifting into a petulant scowl as she smashed her hands against the table between her feet.

'You're rational enough to know that it is just a fear, Gin. There aren't really giant rats like that, no matter what the baka boys told you.'

Gin sighed. She knew that, absolutely. It was another thing, however, to remember it when she was staring at a rat—or a mouse—or even a rabbit, and opossums? She shuddered. 'Forget about it . . .'

Cain opened the door and stepped into the apartment, gaze sweeping over the sofa where he'd left her and registering surprise just before he located her, sitting atop the dining table. He started to say something but barely had time to react as she launched herself off the table, straight into his arms. "Thank kami," she whimpered, burying her face in the crook of his neck as he stumbled back a step, hurrying to wrap his arms around her before he dropped her.

"Is it so bad?" he asked gently, clumsily patting her back as he strode over to the sofa and sat down with Gin on his lap.

"I hate them," she mumbled. "I hate them, I hate them, I hate them!"

"Suppose you tell me why you hate them so much," he prodded, cradling her in his elbow, nestled against his shoulder as he smoothed back her hair. "You're bigger than they are . . . Not by much, but you are."

Gin sighed and shook her head, self-disgust evident in the lines of her face. "When I was little, Ryomaru and Kichiro used to tell me that there were giant rats living in the forest, and that they were waiting to . . . to eat me. They said that the rats loved little girls, and that they'd already lost four sisters that way."

"How old were you?"

She made a face. "Three . . . four . . . I don't remember . . . Once they caught a rat and put it in my doll house." She uttered a little whimper. "I didn't know it was there, and it bit me. I had to have a tetanus shot for that . . . and a rabies shot, too. I mean, I'm not scared of those now—shots, I mean . . . but when I was little, those needles were . . . they were big . . ."

"Aww, they were just teasing you, weren't they? About the rats eating baby sisters?"

She sighed again. "I know; I know . . . I just . . . Ryomaru used to hide outside my room and hiss, 'Gi-i-i-i-in!' and swear it was the rats . . . and I've never liked them, not since that. They used to scratch on my door in the middle of the night. I was just sure that the rats were coming to eat me."

"Sounds like they needed their asses kicked. Didn't your papa do anything about that?"

Gin shrugged and sat up a little. "I never told Papa. He would have been furious." She drew a deep breath and let her temple fall against Cain's shoulder, her fingers toying idly with the length of his ponytail. "It's stupid, right? I mean, I know that they can't really hurt me . . ."

"Fear isn't normally rational, Gin. It's okay to be afraid sometimes."

She nodded, scowling as she watched herself wrap his hair around her finger. "Cain? Have you ever been afraid?"

A million images flashed through his head: Isabelle's strange smile as her life faded away . . . Blood on his claws, the sickening stench of blood filling his nose . . . The bleakness of a void of years he saw whenever he took his eyes off his infant daughter . . . Bellaniece's tears on the first day of kindergarten . . . Old fears that somehow were just as real to him as they were back then . . . and the newest fears he'd only recently discovered . . . "Yeah, I've been afraid."

She snuggled closer, hand resting over his heart. "Are you ever afraid now?"

Closing his eyes against the sight of her in his arms, Cain swallowed hard as a different sort of dread rose in him. "Sometimes," he admitted as he tightened his hold on her. "Sometimes I am."

"I don't want you to be afraid anymore," she said quietly.

Cain didn't answer as he let his cheek rest against her temple.

 

 

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Cain stared at the ceiling and stifled a sigh, smacking his head back against the lumpy pillow to try to get more comfortable on the stupidly small couch.

'You know, you've got a perfectly good bed in there.'

He snorted. 'Pfft! There's also a perfectly adorable Gin in that bed.'

'Incidentals. It's your bed.'

'I'll ignore that, thanks.'

'You're really a sucker, you know it? Gin would share with you . . . and I'm pretty sure she wouldn't bite, either.'

'Yes, well, that's not the problem.'

'You should have thought of that before you decided she could stay with us, don't you think?'

'Shut up, will you?'

The real problem wasn't sleeping on the sofa. It was trying to sleep and knowing that Gin was in his apartment, in his room, in his bed.

She'd been too frightened to go home. She tried to. She told him she'd be fine, and she left the apartment with every intention of going back to hers. It hadn't surprised him when, moments after she walked out, she knocked on his door, eyes bright with worry, teeth gnawing on her lower lip. "You want to stay here tonight?" he'd asked her, ignoring the voice of common sense; the one that said it was a mistake to let her sleep there.

"If I won't be in the way," she'd said, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, wringing her hands as she tried to look nonchalant.

"Come on, Gin. You can sleep in my room. I'll sleep on the sofa."

"Oh, no," she gasped, shaking her head as she took a step back in retreat.

"It's fine. I don't mind," he told her.

"If . . . If you're sure . . . I could sleep on the couch."

But he had insisted, hadn't he, and now Gin was lying in his bed, and that was the only thing that Cain could think about . . .

"Cain, are you sleeping?" Gin asked as she padded into the living room. Turning his head to look at her in the darkness, he blinked and rolled over, leaning up on his elbow. In the darkened room and shadowed in the thin light of the nearly full moon, she stood, hair shining silvery blue, wrapped in a pristine white sheet with a pillow tucked under one arm.

"I'm awake," he told her. "You hear another rat, did you?"

She shook her head and sighed, shuffling over to him. "No . . . I feel bad. I can sleep out here. Really, I don't mind."

"It's fine. I'll call the exterminator for you, first thing in the morning, okay? Go back to bed."

Gin dropped the pillow on the floor beside the sofa and started to lie down.

"What are you doing?"

"I can sleep here, if you're going to sleep there. It's sort of like a campout."

Cain shook his head. "Come here, Gin."

"What?"

"Come here," he repeated.

Gin looked a little reluctant but crawled over to him—no small feat, wrapped up as she was in the sheet. He caught her under the arms and pulled her up on the sofa beside him. She curled up against him and sighed happily. "Are you comfortable?" she asked as she wiggled around a little.

"Sure," Cain lied.

"Good . . ."

He sighed. "Night, Gin."

"Goodnight. If you want, I can make breakfast for you in the morning."

"You'll have to," he agreed. "You didn't make a cake for me."

Gin gasped and started to sit up. Cain caught her and trapped her against him, gently but firmly. "I was teasing, you know. Breakfast would be nice, thanks."

Gin relaxed, her fingers twining in his hair. "Okay."

She asleep within minutes. Cain was awake well into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"I could go alone," Bellaniece pointed out reasonably as she rinsed her juice glass and set it beside the sink, upside down, on a terrycloth dishtowel.

Kichiro snorted.

"Really, I do know where the hospital is. Heaven forbid you should walk into Kelly's room with that scowl on your face. She'd think you were going to rip her head off."

That earned her a sidelong glower as Kichiro downed a cup of black coffee.

Bellaniece sighed. "Have it your way, Dr. Demento. Don't say I didn't warn you."

Slipping on her sandals, Bellaniece held her hand out for Kichiro's mug. He stared at her fingers for a moment before slapping the cup into her waiting palm. "More," he grumbled.

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "That's not why I was waiting for the cup, but fine," she retorted, pouring the last of the coffee into the mug and praying that it somehow improved his mood.

Kichiro snatched the mug, slurped down the scalding liquid, grimaced, and thumped the cup onto the table before standing up and stomping out of the kitchen.

Bellaniece watched him go, shaking her head slowly, and washed out the mug.

"Move it, wench, or you can just stay here!" he hollered from the direction of the foyer.

'God save me from morons and irritated hanyou . . . Or give me wisdom to hide his body after I kill him . . .' she thought as she dried her hands and tossed the towel in the direction of the counter before wheeling around to run after him. With as bad as his mood was, she didn't doubt for a moment that he would make good on his threat.

He was already in the rental car, revving the engine when she slipped out of the mansion and checked the door to make sure it was locked. Apparently he didn't like that, either, because she jumped and whirled around when he literally laid on the horn. Deliberately slowing her pace as she descended the stairs and approached the waiting car, she didn't miss Kichiro's marked eye-rolling or his claws drumming impatiently on the steering wheel.

"Someone's testy today," she remarked in a bright tone as she slipped into the car. Kichiro gunned the engine and squealed the tires as Bellaniece yelped and scrambled to close the door before she fell out. "What's your problem?" she demanded, smashing her hand over her heart as she turned to glare at the hanyou.

"Nothing," he grumbled, reaching across her to yank her seatbelt over her. She jerked the buckle out of his hand and glared at him as she hooked it, herself.

"Really? Then you just thought I'd look better with a nice case of road rash?"

"Shut it, little girl," he growled. "I'm not in the mood for you."

"Fine, I will, just as soon as you tell me why you're being such an ever-loving ass today."

Kichiro slammed on the breaks at a country stop sign and glared at Bellaniece. "Never mind," he grumbled. "It doesn't matter."

"Oh, I think it does."

He sighed. "I didn't sleep for shit, okay?"

Bellaniece frowned. "Why's that? I slept like a baby."

"Of course you did," he snarled, peeling out as he munched the gas.

"Were you cold?"

"No."

"Hot?"

"No?"

"Lumpy mattress?"

"No."

"Too noisy?"

"No."

"Not noisy enough?"

"Fuck—"

"Then why not?"

"That place stinks," he yelled.

"Stinks?" she echoed. "It doesn't—"

"The hell it doesn't!" he bellowed. "It reeks of your old man, and that stinks!"

Bellaniece sighed. "It is his house, you know."

Kichiro made a face. "Yeah, well, we'll be finding a hotel, thanks."

"Fine," she retorted. "Unless you want a Motel 6, the closest nice one is in Eastport . . . forty miles away. Knock yourself out, but I'm staying at my house."

Kichiro sighed. "Damn it . . ."

Bellaniece gripped the door handle as Kichiro whipped around a very sharp turn. "Are you trying to kill me?"

"No," he growled.

"Then slow down, will you? I'd rather just visit the hospital."

"Keh!"

At least he slowed down, though, and Bellaniece felt reasonably safe enough to let go of the door handle. "You could have said something, you know."

"About what?"

She had to count to ten before she dared answer him. "About having trouble sleeping. I didn't know. I hadn't thought about that."

"Look, it's not your fault. I just . . ." he trailed off, tapping his palm against the steering wheel as if he were having trouble figuring out how to put his feelings into words. "It's a different place, is all. It always takes me awhile to adjust. Part of our training, I guess. We just have difficulty getting used to new places, at least for a few nights."

Bellaniece nodded. She'd had that trouble, too, just after she and Cain arrived in Japan. Maybe it was an inherited trait of youkai and hanyou. Never trust your surroundings . . . Add jetlag to that, and, well, it wasn't really any wonder just why Kichiro was so grouchy . . .

"We don't have to go to see Kelly today . . . I mean, if you're still tired . . ."

Kichiro snorted. "Keh! I have to order a few tests, and she needs to have the procedure explained to her."

Bellaniece gazed out the window at the passing scenery. She'd seen it all before, and yet there was something different about it now. She wasn't sure why she felt that way, but it seemed like she hadn't really seen it before. Maybe it had been too long since she was last here . . .

The rest of the twenty minute drive was quiet. Kichiro didn't turn on the radio, and considering his present mood, Bellaniece didn't try, either. By the time they pulled into the hospital parking garage, Bellaniece was ready to scream from the pervasive tension that seemed overwhelming in the confines of the vehicle. She stumbled out the door and breathed deep.

Kichiro muttered something about checking in at the chief of staff's office, and Bellaniece nodded as she hurried off to find Kelly's room.

She'd been moved out of critical care to one of the double occupancy rooms in the burn unit. Kelly didn't have a roommate at present, but Bellaniece lingered outside the door. As excited as she was to see her friend, she wasn't sure how Kelly would feel, and she didn't know how Kelly would look, either.

"I know you're there, Belle."

Grimacing as she realized a moment too late that Kelly was full youkai and could smell her even if she didn't see her, Bellaniece ducked her head and shuffled into the room. "Hey, Kel."

Kelly was sitting up facing the window in an oversized white terrycloth robe. Bellaniece couldn't see her face, but her long brown hair pooled around her, and just for a moment, Kelly hadn't changed, at all. "So where's this doctor you've convinced to take on a charity case like me?" Kelly joked.

Bellaniece winced at the underlying terseness in Kelly's teasing question. She wanted to hug Kelly, but she didn't know if she was healed enough for that not to hurt. "Who cares? He's kind of a jerk."

"A jerk? He can't be too much of a jerk if he's doing my surgery for free."

"Maybe you're a tax write off or something. I assure you, he really is a top-of-the-line, Grade-A jerk."

"You sound like you don't like him, at all."

She winced. She hadn't really meant to let her feelings toward Kichiro Izayoi show, and especially not to Kelly. "Yeah . . . Anyway, how have you been?"

Kelly slowly turned her head, stared up at Bellaniece with an indiscernible frown. "I've had better days," she replied. "You look good.

Bellaniece swallowed hard. Kelly's face looked much better than it had, but she had to admit to herself, it was difficult to look at her friend like that. "I'm okay . . . What about you?"

"I don't know . . . Some days I hate this place—I mean really hate this place. Others . . ." Kelly shrugged. "Other days I think maybe I'm safer here than anywhere. At least no one can gawk at me or point at me or . . ." she trailed off with a sigh and shrugged. "You know what it's like . . . or maybe you don't."

"Kelly . . ."

"It's okay, Belle. I'm glad you weren't there. I was stupid, and . . . and you were right."

A knock on the doorframe drew Bellaniece's attention. Kelly turned back to face the window again as Kichiro strode into the room. "Maybe you should wait in the hall, little girl, so the big people can talk."

Bellaniece narrowed her eyes at him and wrinkled her nose, unable to resist taking one parting shot at him before she left them alone. "Hey, Kel. This is Dr. Gaylord. Have fun."

"Dr. Gaylord? I thought your name was Iza—"

"It is," Kichiro growled, shooting Bellaniece a murderous scowl. "That's Belle-chan's idea of a cute joke."

"I'll be back later," Bellaniece told Kelly. "Don't choke on your own feet, doctor."

Kichiro mumbled something that Bellaniece was probably better off not hearing as she slipped out of the room and into the hallway.

She considered going after a soda or something that Kelly probably didn't get often, but discarded the idea when Kichiro started to speak in a tone that Bellaniece hadn't heard him use before. He spoke with a softness, a gentleness, and the sound of it touched Bellaniece. Curiosity got the better of her, and she pushed the door open a crack to listen.

"I've ordered a couple of tests to make sure you're ready for the surgery, but I wanted to stop in and see if you had any questions or concerns."

Kelly cleared her throat. "Does it hurt?"

"A little. Less than it did when you were first burned." He leaned against the window sill, tapping the clipboard holding a manila file against his thigh. "Kelly . . . about the surgery . . . There's been extensive damage, and I'm probably going to have to do this in a couple of operations, and maybe a third one to repair any structural damage that I don't see during the grafts. I need to warn you, you're not going to look exactly like you did before the surgery."

"I see."

"I'm a plastic surgeon. This is what I do. No worries, okay?"

Kelly nodded. "Okay."

"Any other questions?"

"Not right now. If you make me look normal again, you'll be my hero."

Kichiro dug a small white card out of his pocket and handed it to Kelly. "This is my cell number, and if you have any concerns at all, call me, even if it's the middle of the night. If you think of a question or just want something clarified . . . I mean it, okay?"

"Yeah," she agreed, ducking her head as she stared at the card in her hands.

Bellaniece swallowed the lump that thickened in her throat and slipped away from the door. Kichiro . . . he didn't make sense. For weeks now, he'd been nasty and mean, snide and rude to her, and here he was, moments after meeting Kelly . . .

'Did you want him to be rude to her?'

'Of course not!' Bellaniece scoffed as she strode over to the stairwell and ran lightly down the steps. 'Did he have to tell her that? Did he have to tell her that she'd never, ever look the same?'

'But that's what's bothering you, isn't it? That he's nice as can be to Kelly and rude as hell to you.'

'No, that's not it . . .'

'Oh, really? Then what is 'it'?'

'I'm glad he's being nice to Kelly. Saves me the trouble of yelling at him later.'

'Ah . . . I don't know why he's so mean to you, either.'

Bellaniece stopped on the landing between floors and rubbed her forehead, heaving a heavy sigh. 'I don't care . . .'

Her youkai sighed, too. '. . . I know you don't.'

 

 

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Kichiro awoke from a restless nap, gazing around in complete disorientation; the only thing making sense to him was the sound of his cell phone's ring. "Izayoi," he mumbled, stifling a sigh as he sat up and scowled at the unfamiliar surroundings of the Zelig guest bedroom he'd been installed in for the duration of his stay.

"Hello, Kichiro. I just wanted to make sure you made it all right, since you didn't call me to let me know . . ."

He grimaced. "Sorry, Mama. Jetlagged still, but the flight was okay. How's everything there?"

"Fine . . . Your brother's still up in arms over the idea of your father and me having another baby—or at least the how of it—other than that, though, it's all status quo . . . By the way, do you know why Ryomaru's taking cooking classes?"

Kichiro chuckled. "No idea. He won't tell me a damn thing."

"Hmm . . . I might have to do some investigating . . ."

"You mean snooping."

"I mean . . . Yeah, snooping works."

"You know, the old man hates it when you do that," Kichiro pointed out as he stood up and wandered over to the floor-to-ceiling windows running the length of the eastern wall facing the ocean.

"Speaking of snooping . . . How's Bellaniece's friend? Kelly's her name, right?"

"Yeah, Kelly . . . She seems to be ready, but I think another couple weeks would do her some good before the surgery. I think she'll be okay . . ."

"And Bellaniece?"

"What about Belle?"

"How is she?"

"Annoying."

"Kichiro . . ."

He sighed. "Never mind, she's fine."

"All right. Don't forget, your sister's birthday is next week. You'd better remember to call her."

"Yes, Mama."

"Love you."

"Love you, too."

He hung up the phone and dropped it in his breast pocket as he stared out the window. The scenery, he had to admit, was remarkable here. The beach below reminded him of a postcard or a painting. Simple yet beautiful, the ocean was so close but seemed almost tame. It reminded him of the Izayoi beach house back home. Simpler times, simpler emotions . . .

Lifting his gaze to the top of a rocky crag that balanced over the edge of the water, Kichiro scowled. Bronze hair whipping back in the breeze as the salty air molded the simple white cotton dress against Bellaniece's body; she stood alone, staring out over the ocean. Arms wrapped over her stomach, she was too far away for him to see her face, but for some crazy reason, he thought maybe she was crying.

'Don't be stupid, Kich. Belle don't cry.'

No, she didn't cry, did she? She'd been unusually quiet on the ride back to the mansion. She'd barely spoken two words to him before he'd gone to lie down. Still . . . Bellaniece wasn't the kind of girl who cried, he knew that. She could give as good as she got. She didn't have a problem telling him when he'd been a complete and utter ass, did she? "Keh! She doesn't cry . . ."

Kichiro snorted at his thoughts and turned away from the window. Even then, why would she cry? He hadn't done anything . . . Well, nothing he didn't normally do . . .

Without stopping to think about it, he strode over to his door, yanked it open, jogged down the hallway and through the mansion toward the back door.

She was still there when Kichiro reached her. Standing with her back to him, the scent of salt from the ocean hindering him from discerning whether or not she really was crying, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and carefully climbed up the sloping incline to reach her. "Belle?"

She didn't react to his voice at all, just stared far away, over the ocean, ignoring the hair that whipped into her face, ignoring Kichiro completely.

"You're not thinking about jumping, are you?" he tried to tease.

"You're not thinking about pushing me, are you?" she countered.

"Why would I do that?"

"Because you're a jerk face," she answered simply.

Kichiro winced. "All right, I deserved that. You . . . okay?"

"Never better."

"Really."

"It's windy out here . . . Are you cold?"

She laughed almost sadly, her gaze as deep and dark as the ocean. "No."

"You're mad at me."

Bellaniece shook her head. "I'm not."

"You're lying."

"No, I'm not." She turned to stare at him, lips turned in an ironic little smile. "Okay, maybe I am . . . Those things you said to Kelly . . . Why did you tell her that?"

Crossing his arms over his chest as the wind whipped his braid with a ruthless abandon, Kichiro shrugged and tried to figure out just what she was thinking.   "What things?"

"It was a little cruel, to tell her that she'd never look the same again, wasn't it?"

Kichiro shook his head. "You think that it'd be better for her to go into this with impossible expectations; that she'd be exactly the same when she came out of the reconstruction? She won't, Belle. It's not possible. She can accept that. Why can't you?"

"I can accept it," she argued. "I just thought it wasn't the nicest thing to tell her."

He sighed, rubbing his eyes with a weary hand. "And would it have been nicer to let her find out later instead of preparing her for it first?"

Bellaniece shook her head. "You don't get it, do you? It's about hope, and about the wish to be normal. Can you understand that?"

Kichiro kicked the rocks, shuffled his feet as he tried to find a way to explain things to Bellaniece in a way she'd comprehend. "You know . . . your father's an artist. He can see something in the world, not in the way we do, but in the way he wants to see it. He can alter things and make it better. He can shift colors and change textures and make things appear perfect. In the real world, that's not possible. It's petty and ugly and cruel, and sometimes the truths we deal with aren't things that can be glossed over or prettied up. I live in the real world. Kelly lives in the real world. You need to live in the real world, too."

"That's a pretty speech," Bellaniece said softly. "It's easy for you to say things like that, to hide under your mask of superiority. I'm not talking about ignoring facts. I'm talking about letting someone believe just a little longer that sometimes those ugly truths you're talking about can be fixed."

"And that would be kinder? You really believe that?" Kichiro shook his head and sighed. "I didn't tell her those things to be cruel. If you can't understand that, then maybe you need to ask yourself just why you picked me to be her savior. I'm just a surgeon. I'm not a hero."

Bellaniece turned back toward the ocean, lifted her face as she closed her eyes. The delicate contours of her features outlined against the hazy blue of the afternoon sun converged into an image that burned itself into his mind. She was soft and beautiful, wild and mysterious, and so far out of his reach that Kichiro had to step back, as though he didn't deserve to be near her . . . as if the culmination of heaven and earth had collided, had met, had gathered in this one woman.

"I never asked you to be her hero," she whispered without opening her eyes. "I never asked you to do anything but to give Kelly the surgery."

"No, Belle, that's exactly what you did. You didn't ask me to do her surgery. You asked me to perform a miracle."

"Yeah . . . Okay. Maybe I did. I read all the articles, and heard all the hype about this brilliant surgeon in Tokyo. I heard whispers that you'd figured out how to perform the traditional marking without the need for the brutality of it, and maybe I thought that you'd be able to fix Kelly, too."

Narrowing his gaze as he stared at her, something else occurred to him. "You think it's your fault that Kelly was burned, don't you?"

She masked her surprise well but not well enough to hide it from him. She shot him a quick look then hurriedly turned away. The flush in her cheeks, the startled light in her eyes . . . She did think she was to blame. Kichiro waited for her to speak.

"Does it matter?"

"Of course, it does."

Bellaniece shrugged, scrunching her shoulders as she wrapped her arms tighter around herself. "I might have been able to stop her. I got irritated and left her. I'll never know because . . . because I didn't stay. If I had, maybe . . . Maybe I could have kept it from happening."

Kichiro sighed. "Maybe. Then again, maybe you'd be lying in the bed beside her. Have you thought of that?"

"Of course I have. Does that make me a monster?"

"No more than my inability to completely restore her would make me a failure."

Bellaniece drew a deep breath, shook her head slowly. "If you don't mind, I'd like to be alone," she finally said.

Kichiro nodded as he turned away. The girl confounded him. If she ever said anything that he expected, he'd be amazed. She wasn't the same here. In this place that she called home, there was an intangible change in her that he didn't fully understand. She looked the same on the outside but there was a subtle difference in the girl; something pensive and sad; a part of her that seemed just beyond his grasp.

He'd like to think that he was simply noticing things about her for the first time, but he knew that wasn't really the case. Something about being here made her sad, and Kichiro . . . He didn't like that at all. Bellaniece had become a mystery to him: a beautiful girl with a look in her eyes that could wound him. He didn't want her to be unhappy. He didn't want to see those shadows behind her gaze: the lingering ghosts that haunted her.

She challenged him, irritated him, pushed him to his limits. There were things about her that drove him mad but those same things were the very reasons that he was compelled to be near her. She'd probably never make sense to him. He didn't doubt at all that she'd delight in trying his patience. Why did he feel like she'd be worth it; absolutely, unequivocally worth it? How was it that he just knew that Bellaniece was a girl—a woman—he wouldn't mind having around for a long, long time?

He didn't look back at her until he was on the porch. Bellaniece was sitting, legs folded neatly to the side, back straight and proud as she gazed off into the distance in silent contemplation.

'She's really something, ain't she?'

Kichiro leaned against the doorframe and sighed. 'Yeah, she is.'

Bellaniece caught her hair, pulled the length of it over her shoulder but didn't look back.

'You know, she's trouble . . . big trouble . . . but maybe she'd be worth the effort . . .?'

Kichiro grimaced. Trouble? Absolutely, but maybe she really was worth the effort . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Gin hitched her book bag over her shoulder and grinned as Nezumi and Sierra waved her over to the table at the small bistro. "Good afternoon!" she greeted as she dropped her bag beside the chair and sat down. "It's been awhile since we've done this! I'm so glad we could get together!"

Sierra sighed and wrinkled her nose as she handed Gin a menu. "Yeah, well, I've little doubt that I wouldn't have gotten out today had the keeper not been locked into a meeting." She rolled her eyes but laughed. "He's so weird when I'm pregnant. You'd think that he'd realize that they're not so bad after the first one."

Nezumi snorted. "Yeah, there's definitely a reason we're not having one anytime soon."

"Are you and Ryomaru ever going to have children?" Sierra asked.

Nezumi blushed. "We haven't talked about it."

"Really?"

"Nope."

"Well, I had an ultrasound yesterday," Sierra remarked casually.

"Oh?" Gin breathed, dropping the menu in lieu of Sierra's statement. "And?"

Sierra giggled. "And," she began, patting her belly proudly, "Toga seems to prefer girls."

"Oh, kami," Nezumi groaned. "Another girl?"

Sierra nodded. "Yep, another girl. Toga tried to act like he was disappointed that we weren't having his son yet, but, well, you know Toga."

Gin rolled her eyes. "That's ridiculous! What does it matter, girl or boy? It's silly! He adores his little girls."

Sierra shrugged and sipped her water. "Of course he does. His father, on the other hand . . . He seems to think that it's a matter of life and death, that we have a son quickly."

Gin grimaced. "I suppose it'd be different. I mean, he is responsible for making sure that the heritage of the tai-youkai will be continued." She frowned. "How does that work, anyway? Would that make your son the tai-hanyou?"

Sierra laughed. "I have no idea. Toga tried to explain it to me before, but it didn't really make sense."

Conversation stopped long enough for the girls to place their orders. Gin sat back and giggled. "How many more times are you going to try to have a son, then?"

Sierra's smile faded, and she slowly shook her head. "Honestly? I was kind of hoping that we'd be done for awhile. I'm happy with the children we've got, and this one . . . and I like Toga a lot more when he's not trying to make me rest."

Nezumi crunched a piece of ice. "I don't know . . . I think boys are the way to go. I don't think I'd know what to do with a girl."

"Oh, you'd be fine!" Sierra insisted. "Besides, boys are more rambunctious, from what I've been told."

"I want a houseful of pups!" Gin remarked. "Lots of them . . . seven or eight . . . Maybe more later."

"Seven or eight?" Nezumi echoed, unable to hide the sheer incredulity on her face. "You've got to be kidding . . ."

"It wouldn't be that bad!" she insisted. "Then again, I think I'd be perfectly happy, at home with the pups, and I know you two probably wouldn't be."

Nezumi made a face. "Ryo would be. I don't think he wants babies so much as he wants playmates, though."

Gin shook her head, felt her ears flatten as she stifled a sigh. "Is it weird, do you think? That I wouldn't mind staying home?"

"No, not weird," Sierra commented. "I have days when I think I'd like that more; the quiet life with just the girls and Toga . . . but I like my job, too . . ."

"If that's what you'd want, then it's not weird, at all," Nezumi agreed. "That's probably the main reason we haven't really thought about having them yet. Ryo might say he'd be better about not trying to tell me what I can and can't do, but I can't see him letting me work while I was pregnant, either."

"Maybe he'd be okay with it," Gin said though her tone lacked any real conviction.

Nezumi laughed. "See? You don't even think that it's possible, but thanks for trying to reassure me."

Sierra sighed as she rubbed her belly. "Four more months," she said. "That isn't really as long as it sounds, is it?"

Gin giggled and patted Sierra's hand as Nezumi winced and slowly shook her head in commiseration.

"Oh, well, enough about me . . . Tell me, Gin! How are your art classes coming along?" Sierra demanded, waving off the girls' concern.

"They're great!" Gin assured her. "I love them! You know, Cain knows so much about art and history . . . He's really remarkable, and . . ." she trailed off as she glanced from Sierra to Nezumi and back again. Sierra looked like she knew something and was dying to share it. Nezumi looked dubious. "What's going on?" she finally asked.

"You call your teacher by his first name?" Sierra remarked as the waitress set their plates down on the table.

"Oh, uh, well . . . I'm his aide, too, and he lives next door . . ."

"He does?" Nezumi asked, her chopsticks clattering against her plate as she stared at Gin. "Hmm . . ."

"But you still call him by his first name," Sierra went on.

"He said I could," Gin replied weakly. "I mean, I didn't just—"

Sierra giggled and waved Gin's concern away. "I was teasing, Gin-chan, I promise! Anyway, he seems like a rather shy man."

Gin picked at her food, pushing aside the vegetables on her plate to find a hunk of pork. "I guess so, when you first meet him. He's not really, though . . . He has a nice laugh. I like it a lot."

"Your father's still a little irritated at your mother over him," Nezumi pointed out as she lifted her chopsticks again and took a bite of broccoli.

"Ah, well, Toga was a little sore over that, too," Sierra admitted.

"You're telling me," Nezumi agreed. "Ryo's still pouting over it."

Gin fell silent, unsure why it bothered her that the others were discussing Cain in such a favorable light.

'You don't know why, Gin? Really?'

She chewed a bite and shook her head, staring at her plate as she tried to ignore the disgruntling feelings. 'No . . . Should I?'

'I think you're jealous.'

'Jealous?' Gin echoed, choking on the bite she was trying to swallow. 'I'm not jealous! They're all happily mated, and—'

'And that sick, twisted feeling in your stomach is jealousy. Ugly, isn't it?'

'I can't be jealous of them!' she argued. 'That would imply that there was something to be jealous of, and there isn't . . . and even if there were a reason, it's not like I have any real claim on him . . .'

'It has to mean something, doesn't it? He kissed you.'

'One time,' Gin countered. 'He kissed me one time, and . . . well, he hasn't really wanted to kiss me since, has he?'

"Gin-chan? Is something wrong?"

Shaking herself out of her reverie, Gin forced a smile as she met Sierra's questioning gaze. "It's nothing," she muttered as Nezumi set her chopsticks aside.

"Are you sure? We're fairly good listeners."

She sighed, ears drooping as she sat back in her chair and stared at the barely touched plate. "It's just . . ."

"Just what?" Nezumi prodded gently.

Gin shook her head. "Nothing. Forget it."

Nezumi and Sierra exchanged meaningful glances that Gin didn't see since she was frowning at her food. "You know . . . If this is about any certain guys . . . we wouldn't tell anyone, if you didn't want us to," Sierra finally ventured.

"It's not that," Gin said, her frown deepening. "It's . . . I don't know what it is . . ."

"Sounds serious," Nezumi added.

"How . . . How do you get your mates to kiss you?" she blurted, cheeks pinking as she felt both women sit up a little straighter.

"Kissing?" Sierra echoed.

"Oh, I'm so not telling Ryomaru about this," Nezumi mumbled with a wince.

"Who are you trying to get to kiss you?"

"No one!" Gin insisted. "I just meant . . . uh . . ."

"It's him, isn't it? The North American stripes?" Sierra teased.

"Ah, yes . . . Good choice," Nezumi agreed.

Gin grimaced. "Be serious! I need help!"

Sierra laughed. "I'm being serious, Gin! He's hot. Definitely kiss-worthy."

"Well, has he kissed you before?" Nezumi asked reasonably.

Gin didn't answer but her blush must have been enough because Nezumi 'ahh'ed' while Sierra giggled almost maniacally.

"Was it nice?" Sierra demanded.

"That nice, huh?" Nezumi mused when Gin's blush darkened.

"You know, if he already kissed you, you're perfectly allowed to instigate the next kiss," Sierra replied.

"Oh, I couldn't!" Gin exclaimed. "I . . . well, I . . . I didn't exactly kiss him back."

"What, exactly, did you do?" Nezumi countered.

Gin wrung her hands. "I . . . I just sort of . . . sat there."

"Hmm, then you definitely need another shot at that," Sierra decided, "and this time, kiss him back, Gin!"

Nezumi sighed. "I don't think I'm that much help on this one. Ryo . . . doesn't mind kissing."

Sierra waved that off and giggled. "Try a romantic movie," she suggested. "I know Toga gets all kissy . . . I think he gets bored with the movie and wants to distract me. Danged if it doesn't work, too . . ."

"Blame it on the movie," Nezumi scoffed. "Romantic movies? Ugh . . ."

"Hey, whatever works," Sierra retorted. "Has he tried to kiss you again?"

"But that's the thing," she forced herself to say. "He hasn't tried to kiss me since. Maybe he just thought I wasn't good at it. Maybe he thought it would be a waste of time."

"I doubt that," Sierra said with a shake of her head. "Think about it: he's youkai, and he didn't strike me as the type to go around kissing girls for the sake of it. No, if he kissed you, it was for a reason."

"What happened to his wife?" Nezumi asked suddenly.

Gin sighed. "I don't know, exactly. I know she died when Bellaniece was an infant, but I don't know much more than that."

Sierra scowled as she turned the water glass in her fingers. The soft clink of the melting ice cubes filled the silence before she spoke. "You know, Gin . . . You should be careful."

"Careful? Of what?" Nezumi asked.

"It's just . . . I remember, you know? When Sesshoumaru came to get me . . . Seeing Toga like that . . ." she shook her head and tried to smile. "We weren't even mated at the time. I know it's been years since Cain's mate died, but still . . . Can it be that simple to forget?"

Gin coughed and shrugged, fought to hide the worry Sierra's words caused her. She'd wondered that, herself. Hearing someone else say the same thing . . . "I don't know," she finally said. "It doesn't really matter. We're just friends, anyway." She nodded slowly, wishing she knew whether she was trying to convince herself or Sierra and Nezumi. "Just . . . good friends."

"Speaking from experience, Gin-chan," Nezumi stated flatly, "you don't kiss someone who is just a friend. I learned that the hard way."

 

 

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Bellaniece stood on tiptoe to peer over the shelves in the small convenience store. Spotting Kichiro four aisles over, she suppressed the urge to giggle as the hanyou glowered at the shelf he was supposedly browsing. He was really mad.

It had started innocently enough. They'd gotten into a discussion on ceremonial colors whereupon Kichiro had admitted that his was violet.

"Purple's pretty," Bellaniece remarked as she tossed the Styrofoam container that held the scrap remnants of her cheeseburger and french-fry meal.

"I didn't say it was purple," he grouched. "I said it was violet. Huge difference, wench. Huge."

"Violet . . . purple . . . violet purple . . . just plain purple . . . It's all good."

"It's not the same, and it's not 'all good'," he growled. "Violet is violet. Purple is for little girls."

"Hmm, are you implying that I'm a little girl again?" Bellaniece demanded, making a point of staring down at her lavender dress.

"If the shoe fits, Belle-chan . . ."

"Careful or you'll end up eating that shoe."

"Uh huh . . . like I'd be scared of you."

Bellaniece narrowed her gaze on the hanyou and slowly shook her head as she stalked off toward the stairs. "All right, Dr. Frankenstein. We'll see about that."

Kichiro had his nose buried behind his laptop computer when Bellaniece had come downstairs awhile later. She grabbed her purse off the table and headed for the door. "Where do you think you're going?" he asked without looking up from the computer monitor.

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "I'm going to meet some friends."

"Hmm," he drawled. "No, you're not."

"I'm not?" she echoed. "And why would I not?"

"You're not because I said you're not," he grumbled. "Can't you see I'm busy? I don't have time to go running all over hell's half-acre with you; not tonight, so you might as well turn your ass around right now and march back upstairs, because we're not going."

"Funny," Bellaniece bit out as she jerked the door open, "I don't recall asking you whether I could go or not, and I certainly don't recall asking you to come with me."

"Do it, and you'll regret it, Belle-chan," he remarked.

Bellaniece made a face. "Just who do you think you are? You can't tell me what I can and can't do! I'll have you know, my father—"

"Your father left me responsible for you, and as such, that makes me your guardian, and as said guardian, I'm telling you, you're not going!"

She winced as he snapped his laptop closed and tossed it aside on the sofa before shooting to his feet and crossing his arms over his chest. Regaining her composure, Bellaniece squared her shoulders and slowly turned to glare at the stubborn hanyou. "I'm not going far; just into town to meet up with my friends. You do know what friends are, right? Those things you don't have because you're, well . . . an ass."

"You walk out that door, and I swear on all that is holy, you'll regret it."

"The only thing I regret is being suck out here with you."

"Yeah, whatever. Close the door and get upstairs. Now."

Bellaniece didn't want to comply. The impassive expression on Kichiro's face convinced her not to argue. With what could only be described as a petulant glare, she slammed the door and tossed her purse onto the table before whipping around on her heel and stomping back toward the stairs. She didn't hear Kichiro sit back down till she hit the top of the landing . . .

And it probably would have ended there had Bellaniece not been so bored that she ended up rummaging through a forgotten box in the back of her closet. Filled with odds and ends, Bellaniece giggled softly as she stared at the items that reminded her of things she'd left behind long ago. Slumber parties with her few girl friends back in a time before petty jealously had driven them away, Cain had tolerated the incursions with a father's indulgence for his daughter. He'd taken her to a small drug store, had let her buy little girl makeup kits and nail polishes, pretty hair ribbons and clips made from molded plastic with sparkles. Then he had sat at his desk most of the night with his hand over his nose and mouth as the girls had made each other 'pretty', and he'd never, ever complained.

Sitting in the middle of her floor turning a bottle of hideous purple polish over and over in her hand, Bellaniece smiled just a little. She shook the bottle to mix the polish and pushed the box back into the closet. 'Violet, huh . . .'

Kichiro might not have been so irritated with her, had she stopped with just the painted claws. It was his own fault, wasn't it? He'd fallen asleep on the sofa—in no-man's land, as far as she was concerned. How she managed to keep from laughing as she painted his claws and then his toes was enough to boggle her mind. That just wasn't enough for her—oh, no—she had to add the finishing touch, and that finishing touch was what likely had Kichiro in the black mood he was in at the moment . . .

One year for Halloween, Bellaniece had wanted to be a vampire, and she'd used about ten packets of Kool-Aid to color her hair for the occasion. It washed out, sure . . . after about a week. Cain hadn't been amused, and it had been a long time before he'd bought the drink mix again.

Curse Kichiro's luck. There was grape Kool-Aid in the cupboard, and Bellaniece had used it, which meant that he also had pretty violet streaks shot through his silver hair—and tipping his ears. Bellaniece had been secretly amazed that he'd stayed asleep long enough for her to paint the tips of his ears with a Q-tip. The result was very nice, she had to admit. 'Maybe I should be a beautician . . .'

The topper, however, was the pictures she'd taken with her cell phone that she'd sent to Gin. Kichiro didn't know about those, which was probably for the best since he was really unimpressed when he'd woken up to find that Bellaniece had played beauty salon with him. So angry that he'd barely been able to speak, the only words he uttered as he pointed his pretty purple claw at the door, was, "Car . . . now . . . Get this off me . . ."

And that was the reason they were in the convenience store in the middle of the night. Nail polish remover would get rid of the paint, of course. Bellaniece tried not to think about just how angry he'd be when he figured out that the Kool-Aid color would last a little longer than just one washing . . .

"Hey, Dr. Izayoi? You want the regular nail polish remover, the stuff with aloe for your nails, or the one with keratin to strengthen?" she called out, loudly enough for everyone in the tiny store to overhear her. Kichiro could be thankful that there weren't many people, she figured.

His glowering gaze rose to lock with hers as his cheeks reddened just a little. "Whatever works, little girl," he snarled under his breath.

'He's going to kill you, you know it?'

Bellaniece grinned as she grabbed a small bottle of nail polish remover and a bag of cotton balls. 'Yeah, he'll try.'

'You girlified him, Belle!'

'Yeah, I did . . . isn't he pretty?'

'Yes, he is, but that's hardly the point! He's furious—absolutely furious—probably more furious than he's ever been with you . . .'

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose and deliberately took her time as she moved toward the cash register. 'It's just a little polish and stuff . . . he's been much nastier to me than I've ever been to him. He's a big boy. He'll get over it.'

Bellaniece set the items on the counter and grabbed a candy bar. She knew the girl behind the counter. She was one of the girls who used to come to Bellaniece's slumber parties, way back when. "Hi, Cindy," Bellaniece greeted with a cautious smile.

The girl didn't even try to return the pleasantry. "When'd you get back?" she asked instead, staring over Bellaniece's shoulder as she passed the items over the barcode scanner.

"A few days ago," Bellaniece answered. "I'll be going back soon, though."

"Hmm, what a shame," Cindy commented without even trying to hide the cattiness in her tone as her condescending gaze shifted to Bellaniece.

Bellaniece forced a smile and held out a ten dollar bill. Cindy took it, careful not to touch Bellaniece's hand . . . or maybe Bellaniece just imagined that . . .

"You about ready?"

Bellaniece bristled as Kichiro's youki brushed over hers. She hadn't heard him approach, so intent on trying to make small talk that she hadn't realized he was directly behind her.

"Friend of yours?" Cindy asked, her eyes flicking over Bellaniece to Kichiro and back again, dropping Bellaniece's change onto the counter.

"You could say that," Kichiro replied stiffly as Bellaniece stuffed the money into her purse.

Bellaniece took the plastic bag and nodded, not daring to look at Kichiro as she turned to leave.

"I'll see you around," Cindy called as Kichiro shouldered open the glass door.

"I wouldn't count on it," Kichiro growled as Bellaniece swept past him and hurried to the car.

'He's even angrier,' Bellaniece's youkai pointed out as Kichiro pulled out of the parking lot onto the street. Hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles were white and a menacing scowl on his face; he seemed a lot more foreboding in the dancing shadows of the streetlights they passed under on their way through the sleeping town.

'He's always angry,' Bellaniece thought with a scowl as she stared out the window at the darkened landscape.

'Be careful, Belle . . . you've pushed him enough for one night, don't you think?'

Bellaniece didn't answer. The silence in the car was almost stifling, and Bellaniece had to bite her cheek to keep from saying anything since he wouldn't welcome her commentary at the moment.

"Why'd you let her do that?" Kichiro finally demanded, his tone tight, clipped.

"Let who do what?"

He snorted. "Keh! That girl in the store . . . she was mean as hell to you. Why'd you let her do that?"

Bellaniece shrugged. "Girls are mean," she said simply, "and I'm used to it."

"Don't do that again," he growled as he parked the car in front of the mansion.

"Do what?"

"Don't let anyone talk to you like that. You don't deserve it." Kichiro made a face as he caught sight of his painted claws. "All right, maybe you deserve it, but not from the likes of her."

Bellaniece stopped abruptly, frowning at Kichiro's back as he let himself into the house as she slowly shook her head. 'He doesn't . . . He was angry . . . at Cindy?' She scuffed her toe in the gravel driveway. 'But . . . Why?'

 

 

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'I'm forgetting something; I know I am.'

Cain wiped his eye with the back of his wrist and stepped away to eye the sculpture he'd been working on. Crossing his arms over his chest with his hands turned out to keep the damp clay off himself; he cocked his head to the side and rubbed his chin against his bare shoulder.

'I don't think you forgot anything. Sculpture looks good so far.'

Shaking his head as he heaved a sigh, Cain carefully wrapped a damp towel around the unfinished sculpture before wrapping a sheet of plastic over it. He knew he was forgetting something, and he had a feeling that it didn't have anything at all to do with his work.

He stooped down to rinse his hands in the water bucket he kept close by whenever he was working, washing off most of the clay in there to keep it out of the sink before heading for the bathroom to wash with soap. Grimacing as he stared at his bare chest, he pulled the cloth covered rubber band from his hair, giving up on the idea that he wouldn't need a shower.

Actually he never wore a shirt when he worked, for that reason. In the beginning, long ago, he would forget from time to time, but he'd ruined too many clothes that way—shirts especially—that it was habit now, to take off his shirt before he started working. Bodies were washable. Clay was hell to get out of fabric though.

He turned on the shower and stripped off his pants before adjusting the water temperature and slipping into the tiny stall. Unsure why he couldn't quite shake the feeling that he really had forgotten something, Cain scowled as he made quick work of washing off the flecks of dried clay then shampooing his hair.

By the time he was finished, Cain was positive that he really was forgetting something. The nagging suspicion had grown, and when the muffled knock sounded on his door, Cain barely had time to grab a towel to drape around his hips on his way out of the bathroom.

"Hi, Cain, I—" Gin cut off abruptly when she got a good glimpse at what Cain was—or wasn't—wearing. Golden eyes widening as her face reddened though she didn't look away, the girl pressed her hands to her chest as her breath hissed out in a gust.

"Uh, oh, um . . . Hey," he said, tugging the towel up a little higher on his hips.

Gin opened and closed her mouth a few times without making a sound.

"I'll . . . get dressed," he mumbled, leaving the door open for her to let herself in. Wincing as he stalked into his bedroom to pull on the first pair of pants he laid hands on, Cain grabbed a button-down shirt and sighed, rubbing his face as he headed back for the living room again.

Gin seemed to have pulled herself together by the time he returned. Sitting on the sofa with a hint of a blush still staining her cheeks, she glanced at him cautiously. "I'm sorry," she blurted, cheeks pinking a bit more. "I didn't realize . . . um . . . so . . . You want to see what I did today?"

Cain nodded without really paying attention as he tugged his shirt on. "Sure."

Gin stood up and shot him an impish grin before turning around and pushing down the edge of her skirt just enough to reveal a tiny fairy tattoo just under her waistline.

"You—What—? Why—? Is—? No-o-o-o," he drawled as he stared, dry mouthed, at the tattoo.

Gin held the elastic edge for a few more moments then let go and sat back down. "It's one of the new ones—semi-permanent. It'll stay put for a couple of months, they said."

Cain shook his head as he tried to wrap his brain around both the tattoo as well as what Gin had just said. "Not . . . permanent?"

Gin made a face. "Are you kidding? Papa would kill me if I got a real tattoo . . . Nezumi-chan, Sierra-chan, and I went to the mall after lunch, and they'd just opened this shop, so we each got one."

Cain relaxed just a little. "What'd they get?"

"Nezumi-chan got a little bone on her ankle, and Sierra-chan got a 'Girl Power' one on her stomach . . . She found out they're having another girl, by the way."

Cain chuckled. "Another girl, huh? Bet Sesshoumaru loves that."

"They're happy with their girls," Gin remarked then suddenly snapped her fingers. "Did the exterminator come by?"

Cain paused as he buttoned the shirt and made a face. 'Damn, that's what I forgot . . .'

He'd assured her that he wouldn't mind letting the exterminator into her apartment so she could meet her family for lunch after class. When he'd gotten back to his apartment, though, he'd wanted to work, so instead of thinking about the promise he'd made her, he had put his mind on auto-pilot and had completely spaced the arrival of the exterminator. "Gin, I'm—I—well . . ." He grimaced. "I forgot."

"Oh . . . I-I-It's okay," she assured him. "I'll just call and make another appointment."

Cain stuffed his hands into his pockets, feeling like a complete and utter fool. "I'm sorry."

She waved her hand to dismiss his concern as she dug her cell phone out of her bag and flipped it open. "Hmm . . . I have a message from Bellaniece," she commented as she retrieved the call. "Oh, dear," she mumbled, holding the phone in one hand as she fluttered her fingertips over her lips with the other.

"Something wrong?" he asked, sinking down beside Gin and leaning over to peek at the phone. His eyes widened, too, then narrowed as he blinked at the picture on her cell phone. He was reasonably sure that the person sleeping on the sofa was Kichiro Izayoi . . . complete with blackish-purple streaks in his silver hair, violet tipped ears, and very, very purple claws . . . Gin hit a button to cycle to the next picture and choked as a very clear image of her brother's painted toenails encompassed the tiny LCD screen.

"Oh . . . Wow . . ." Gin squeaked, dialing a number and hitting the 'send images' button.

"What are you doing?" Cain asked.

Gin cleared her throat. "Nothing . . . Just thought that Nezumi-chan would get a kick out of those . . ."

"Ah, boy . . . Gin . . . Your brother . . . won't be mean to Bellaniece for all that . . . Will he?"

Gin shrugged, stifling a giggle. "I doubt it. I used to dress him and Ryo-nii up as girls all the time—mostly when they wanted me to take the blame for stuff they did, though . . ."

For some reason, that didn't really reassure Cain, not in the least . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bellaniece slowed her pace as she wandered along the path. The far off rumble of thunder didn't bother her. She rather hoped it would. It would better suit her mood.

She'd had that dream; the one that she couldn't ever remember but that terrified her just the same. Waking up in the middle of the night with her knuckles smashed against her lips almost painfully, she hadn't been able to sleep again. Tossing the covers aside as she dug her diary out from under her mattress, she had spent the rest of the night snuggled in her father's bed, writing in her journal. She wasn't sure why, but she felt safer there. She always had.

When the first rays of light had gathered on the horizon, Bellaniece had slipped back into her room, dressed for the day, and slipped out of the mansion with no one the wiser. Sure, she'd left a note on Kichiro's computer but she hadn't wanted to wake him up. After the fit he'd had over the nail polish remover, she didn't think she wanted to be around when he figured out that the Kool-Aid wouldn't wash out so easily . . .

'You realize, right? That was pretty infantile and . . . mean . . . and he's probably going to scream at you when he figures out about the Kool-Aid trick . . .'

'Yeah, he would find a reason to yell at me anyway,' she retorted. 'He's a big boy. He'll get over it.'

'Well, you have to admit, it does take away some of his more serious demeanor, and he does need it. He is a surgeon, after all. He'll probably say that you've tarnished his credibility . . .'

'He tarnishes his own credibility,' she argued. 'He didn't really need help in that department.'

'But he has been pretty decent to you.'

'When?'

'He was irritated with Cindy on your behalf.'

Wrinkling her nose despite the very real stir of discomfort brought on by her thoughts, Bellaniece mustered all the bravado she possessed. 'Oh, that? That hardly counts.'

'Why? Because you don't want it to?'

'Of course not! He's a jerk, remember?'

'Sure, he can be a jerk, just like you can be a real bitch. Your point?'

Bellaniece looked up at the sky as the first droplets of rain began to fall. 'I'd have to be stupid to let him get to me,' she assured herself. 'It'd be better to stay as far away from him as I possibly can.'

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Bellaniece gasped as Kichiro dropped onto the path before her from the treetops. She hadn't sensed his approach, and with the rising storm wind, she certainly hadn't heard him. She retreated a step but stopped herself, angry that he could shock her into fleeing. "I'm walking," she replied, forcing her tone to remain calm, impassive, ignoring the fluttering in her chest.

"It's getting ready to storm," he pointed out, ears flicking almost nervously—and still very, very violet.

"This little bit of rain isn't really going to hurt me," she stated, squaring her shoulders as she stood her ground.

"You don't have a bit of common sense, do you? Come on. We're going back to the mansion."

Bellaniece yanked her hand out of his and glowered up at him. "I will go back," she agreed, "as soon as I finish my walk."

He looked like he wanted to throttle her. He looked like he was itching to grab her and beat some sense into her. Her youkai screamed at her to run. Bellaniece didn't. "You're going back now, little girl, even if I have to carry you."

She narrowed her eyes and glowered at him. "You wouldn't dare."

"Wouldn't I?"

"If you want me to rake your eyes out, then feel free to try it."

"Why do you have to make everything so fucking difficult?" he bellowed, tossing his hands up as he turned away and drew a deep breath meant to calm him. "Why does it always have to be a damn war?"

"I don't make anything difficult," she stated quietly. "At least, no more difficult than you do."

"The hell you don't! I woke up, and you were gone, and—" He cut himself off, shaking his head as he whirled around to face her again. Bellaniece gasped as Kichiro shot forward, grabbed her upper arms, and shook her hard. "Don't you get it? You're my responsibility! Mine! You can't just take off! You can't!"

"Let go," she gritted out, restraining the urge to grind her heel into his foot. "Now."

"Damn it, Belle! I don't care how old you think you are, and I don't care if you think you can handle things or not! You're still just a little girl, and you're going to listen to me!"

Blinking streaming rain out of her eyes, Bellaniece fought to contain her soaring temper as Kichiro shook her once more. "Shake me again, and I'll make you regret the day you were born," she informed him as a bolt of lightning and a crash of thunder reverberated through the trees.

"Promise you won't take off again," he growled though his grip loosened. "Swear it."

"Or what? Or you'll kiss me again to get your way?"

That barb struck home. He winced, ears flattening as he had the grace to look ashamed. "That wasn't . . . I didn't . . ."

"Let go of me."

He released her, planting his hands on his hips, jaw ticking as he clenched his teeth together and glowered at the ground. "Let's just . . . go back. We're both soaked."

Bellaniece didn't argue with him. As much as he'd hurt her in the past, she couldn't help feeling guilty about her dig, and even if he did deserve it, she found that she didn't like saying hurtful things to him. It didn't make her feel better or give her back any of her bruised pride. It left her feeling like a monster . . . and a bitch.

Her hair and clothes were plastered to her skin, and she didn't have to look at him to know that he was in the same sorry condition. By the time they reached the mansion and stepped inside, Bellaniece was shivering, water streaming down her body to puddle on the marble floor.

Kichiro didn't say anything as he closed the door behind them and stalked off toward the stairs. Bellaniece watched him go but couldn't seem to make her feet move. He was almost to the top of the staircase when she blurted, "I could start a fire . . . I think we have some marshmallows and cocoa . . . I-If you want."

His expression was inscrutable as he gazed over his shoulder at her. He stared at her for several moments as the silence stretched out, enveloping every corner of the mansion as she shifted from one foot to the other, feet squishing in her sandals as droplets of moisture formed and fell from her hair onto the floor. "Never mind," she mumbled, feeling completely stupid for having thought, even for a moment, that Kichiro might accept her peace offering. "It was a dumb idea."

"I'll start a fire after I get dried off," he replied. "You should change, too."

Bellaniece nodded. "All right."

He stared at her for another minute before he finally turned and finished climbing the stairs.

'Thought you said you weren't going to let him get to you anymore,' her youkai pointed out as Bellaniece hurried to get out of her sodden dress.

'I'm not,' she argued as she quickened her pace.

'You like him, don't you? Sure he can be an ass, but you know, maybe he's really not that bad.'

She made a face as she closed her bedroom door and reached behind her for the zipper. 'Relax . . . it's just marshmallows and cocoa . . . hardly champagne and caviar . . .'

'Yeah, but there is something to be said for marshmallows and cocoa.'

Bellaniece winced as the electricity flickered then died with a particularly loud crack of thunder. The skies were as dark as dusk outside the windows, and the rain was coming down in a solid gray sheet. Wrapping up in a fuzzy lavender bath robe, she tied the belt and scooped up the wet dress before pushing out of her bedroom again to deposit the dress over the shower curtain rod and grab a couple towels. She didn't bother looking in the mirror before she ran out of the bathroom and back down the stairs.

 

 

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"Have you ever been kissed by a male other than your father?"

Bellaniece pulled the long metal skewer out of the fireplace and held the toasted marshmallow out to Kichiro. "What kind of kiss?"

He wrinkled his nose and waved it away. "Any kind. Now answer the question, wench."

"Any kind? Sure, of course. I've been kissed before."

"What? On the cheek?"

Bellaniece leveled a look at him and shrugged. "You had your turn. It's mine now. Truth or dare, Dr. Izayoi?"

Kichiro thought it over as Bellaniece carefully pulled the marshmallow off the skewer and bit into it, giggling when the gooey melted concoction stretched out, longer and longer before it finally snapped. The stringy end stuck to her chin, and she wiped it away. "Truth," he told her.

"Hmm," she considered as she chewed and swallowed. "Is it true that you used to be a man-whore?"

"Define 'man-whore'," he challenged.

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "Simple: a man who does what would be considered whore-like if a woman did the same thing. Do you sleep around a lot?"

"I . . . used to," he answered, watching her reaction with avid interest.

She slowly ate the rest of the marshmallow. "I'm surprised. You don't strike me as the kind to do that."

"Really? Why not?"

Bellaniece licked her fingers. "You're too anal."

"I'm what?"

She shrugged. "You are, you know, and you take everything way too seriously."

He snorted and made a face. "Whatever. Truth or dare, Belle."

"Truth."

Kichiro sighed. "Are you ever going to take 'dare'?"

She shot him a condescending look. "Of course not. I don't trust you."

"Ouch."

"You asked."

"Fair enough," he agreed. "What kind of kissing did you do with this guy you kissed?"

"You used your question."

"I did not," he argued.

"You did," she countered. "The, 'are you ever going to take 'dare'?' question."

"Funny, little girl. That wasn't my real question."

Bellaniece shrugged. "Fine, cheater, what was your real question then?"

Kichiro ignored her barb. "What kind of kissing did you do with this guy you kissed?" he repeated.

"Which one?"

"You've kissed more than one guy?"

Bellaniece giggled. "Of course I have."

"How many?"

"You've used your one question," she pointed out. "Truth or dare?"

He looked like he wanted to challenge her. "Truth."

"Do you really think I'm a spoiled brat?"

Kichiro chuckled. "No, I don't."

She seemed surprised. "Really?"

"Really. Truth or dare?"

Bellaniece made a face. "Truth."

"Figures. How many guys have you kissed?"

Biting her lip as she ticked off guys on her fingers without saying their names out loud, Kichiro arched his eyebrows as she finally looked up and smiled. "Five."

"Five?" he echoed.

"Yes, five."

"Holy damn, Belle! Five?"

"No matter how often you ask, the answer isn't going to change," she remarked sweetly. "Truth or dare."

Kichiro snorted. "Keh! Truth."

Bellaniece adjusted her bathrobe and regarded Kichiro for a moment. He had a feeling that he wasn't going to like her question. "How many women have you been with?"

'Oh, fuck . . . bad question,' his youkai mumbled.

Kichiro stretched out on his side, propping his head on his hand as he scowled at the rug under them. "I don't know," he grumbled. "A lot."

"How many is a lot?" she demanded.

"I don't know," he growled. "A lot is a lot."

"Ten?" she asked.

He shook his head. "A lot, Belle . . ."

She whipped a marshmallow at him. He caught it with a scowl and chewed the half-stale snack. Bellaniece didn't seem to have noticed the reaction, and for that he was thankful. "Twenty?"

"You asked your question," he grouched, cheeks growing hotter by the second.

"'A lot' is hardly an answer," she shot back. "More than twenty? Thirty?"

Kichiro sighed, ears flattening, and he couldn't make himself meet her suspicious gaze.

"What then? Fifty?"

He slowly lifted his gaze to meet hers, and Bellaniece's mouth dropped open in shock. "Good Lord, you were a man-whore! More than fifty? Are you serious?"

"I'm not exactly proud of this," he pointed out.

"Ugh. If you were human, you'd have to be tested. I'm almost positive that you'd have some communicable disease."

"Whatever, wench. Your turn."

Bellaniece shook her head. "Truth."

"What's the worst thing you've ever done with a guy?" he demanded.

"You mean stuff I wouldn't tell Daddy about?"

"Well, yeah."

A discernible blush filtered into her cheeks. Kichiro tapped his claws against the floor as he waited for her answer. "The worst thing? I've . . . been with . . . a few guys."

Kichiro blinked, sitting up as he leaned in closer to stare Bellaniece in the eyes. "You've been . . .? With a few? What do you mean, 'been with'?"

Bellaniece scowled and sat back. "I mean I've been with a few guys . . . doing the same sort of thing you've done with your 'lot'."

"Oh, kami," he exclaimed. "You've . . .? No . . ."

Bellaniece's blush darkened, and she rolled her eyes and sighed. "Oral sex, Dr. Izayoi. There, I said it. Are you happy now?"

"No!" he growled, cracking his knuckles as he glowered at Bellaniece. "How many is a few?"

"Much less than your 'lot'," she shot back. "Anyway, I've answered your question. Truth or dare?"

"Dare," he grumbled.

She thought it over for a moment as she impaled more marshmallows onto the skewer. "I dare you to see how many marshmallows you can fit into your mouth at one time."

He made a face. "Do you want me to be sick, wench?"

She snorted. "You don't have to eat them. I just want to know how big your mouth is."

"Uh-uh. Truth, then."

"You can't change the rules!" she complained.

Kichiro shrugged. "I can," he countered.

"Then I get two questions," she insisted.

Kichiro shook his head. "Fine. Let's go. Ask them."

"How old were you the first time you were with a girl?"

He could feel his ears flatten against his head and screwed his face up in a marked scowl. "Fourteen," he admitted. "Well, almost."

"Oh, my . . . you're lying!"

"I wouldn't lie about that," he growled.

"Can you name the women you've been with?"

He sighed. "No, Belle, I can't."

She looked irritated at his answer. Kichiro closed his eyes and tried to think of a way to make her understand. "Look, there isn't a good way to answer that. Anything I say will just make me look like more of an ass than I already do."

"How so?"

He flopped onto his back, staring at the ceiling, and waved a hand in the air. "If I don't remember their names, then I'm a bastard. If I did, then I'd be a dog for keeping track. Which one do you prefer, Belle? I'm not perfect. I was a stupid pup. It was all fun and games. It wasn't really a big deal."

Bellaniece curled her legs to the side, staring at her hands as she fiddled with the belt of her robe. "I guess you're right."

Kichiro tucked his hands behind his neck and glowered at the ceiling. How could Bellaniece make him feel like a disgusting monster when she was the one demanding answers? "Okay, little girl: truth or dare."

"Truth," she answered quietly.

He made a face. "How many is 'a few'?"

Bellaniece shot him a sidelong glance. "Three . . . and before you ask, yes, I can name them all."

"Three?" He couldn't contain the low growl that slipped out of him. "So do it, then."

Bellaniece shook her head. "No way."

"Why not?"

"Just because I can doesn't mean I will."

"Belle—"

"Why are you acting like it's a big deal? You said, yourself, that you've been with more than fifty women, so what are my measly three guys in comparison?"

"For starters," Kichiro grumbled, "you're seventeen—"

"Almost eighteen, if it matters."

"Yeah, it doesn't, and you're a girl."

"So it's okay for guys to be whores but a girl can't get some experience without being what? A tramp? A slut?"

Kichiro scowled. "Yeah, that sounds about right."

"Oh, for the love of—"

"Besides that, my future mate will benefit from what I've learned."

Bellaniece narrowed her gaze and snorted. "If you can remember her name."

"I'll remember her name, Bellaniece. Don't worry about that. Anyway, it's your turn."

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "Fine . . . Truth or dare."

"Dare."

She scowled in concentration as she tried to figure out what she wanted to slam him with. The scowl dissipated, and she smiled a calculated little grin. Kichiro didn't like that look; not at all. He waited for the verdict. "I dare you to let me touch your belly button."

"My . . .? Why?"

She shrugged. "It's an outie."

"A . . . No!"

"Why not?" she countered. "Are you chicken? Can't stand for Belle to touch the belly?"

"Oh, I can stand it, Belle-chan," he shot back. "I just don't see why you'd want to touch it."

"I don't know . . . It's interesting; that's all."

Kichiro rolled his eyes but heaved a sigh. "Fine. Make it fast, wench."

It didn't take any more prompting than that for Bellaniece to reach out and gently flick her index claw against his belly button. Kichiro couldn't control the involuntary jerk of his abdomen muscles. She breathed out a husky chuckle and flicked again, delighted with the reaction of his treacherous body to her ministrations. "All right," he growled after the fifth flick-jerk. "That's enough." Bellaniece scowled but pulled her hand back. "Truth or dare."

She thought it over and bit her lip but finally sighed and shrugged. "Dare."

Kichiro leaned up on his elbows and stared at her. He hadn't honestly expected her to take a dare. She seemed a lot more cautious in the game than she probably should have been. In any case, Kichiro wasn't about to miss his one chance, and he shrugged. "I dare you to kiss me."

Bellaniece's cheeks pinked as her body stiffened. He'd obviously surprised her, but he couldn't tell from her expression what she was thinking. "Think of something else," she said.

"Coward? Chicken? Can't take the heat?"

Bellaniece shook her head. "Why do you want me to do that? Why would I want to kiss you?"

Kichiro was caught off-guard by her softly uttered question. He wasn't sure what he'd expected her to say, but if were completely honest with himself, he hadn't expected her to turn him down flat. "Don't you want to?"

Bellaniece's cautious happiness shattered like a crystal glass on a marble floor. Stumbling to her feet, she hurried toward the door. Kichiro shot up to follow. "Where are you going?"

She shook her head, holding her hands out to warn him off. He stopped. "Why would I want to do that?" she murmured. "The last time you kissed me . . ."

"The last time . . .? Belle—"

"I'm not feeling very well," she said as she backed up a step and shrugged. "Too many marshmallows, I think . . ."

Kichiro started to call after her but stopped as she whirled around and raced up the stairs. 'Damn . . . what did I do . . .?'

Kichiro's youkai snorted. 'Keh! You do what you always do to her, Kich. You set her up.'

'How do you figure?'

'Don't be stupid! You put her in a situation where you knew she'd fail. You wanted to kiss her, so you did, and when she proved that she didn't mind that, you pushed her away—literally. Think she can trust you after something like that? Come on. You're really not that dense, or are you?'

He winced at the accuracy of his youkai's assessment. 'I wasn't trying to do anything of the sort.'

'Weren't you?'

He heaved a sigh. He wasn't, not really . . .

'You realize, too, that charming the pants off her . . . That ain't gonna work this time . . .'

He started up the stairs after her, a feeling of dread gnawing on his stomach. His youkai was right, and damned if he could stand that.

Why was it that he just knew—knew—that Bellaniece . . . Bellaniece just might be worth the fight?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Gin handed the movie she'd picked up after her girls' afternoon to Cain and flopped down on the sofa, grabbing the small throw pillow and hugging it to her chest. "It's a romance," she informed him as he scowled at the title.

"Romance, huh," he echoed as he tilted the box from side to side, reading the title through the cloudy plastic box. "You sure you want to watch this, Gin?"

"Yes," she said. "The back of the box sounded good."

Cain shot her an inscrutable look. "Did it?"

"Uh huh . . . You'll watch it with me, right?"

Cain made a face. "It's not that," he assured her. "Gin . . . This is a rather . . . artsy movie . . ."

She nodded slowly. "Oh, I get it . . . You're one of those guys who can't stand to watch romances, aren't you?"

He wrinkled his nose. "It's not that, really . . . I've heard of this movie, and . . . I just don't think you'll like it. Why don't we take this one back and get a different one?"

"I thought this one sounded good, and I like the actor," she argued.

Cain sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Were any of the following words in the description: torrid, tempestuous, sordid, or voluptuous?"

Gin scrunched up her shoulders, her face contorting in a thoughtful frown. "Yeah, all of them, I think . . . Why?" True enough, she hadn't really heard of the movie she'd chosen, but it did say it was a romance, and even if it had those words in the description, that didn't mean anything really. Since she normally picked out comedies or Disney movies—she was a sucker for those—she had just looked for something that she might like. The picture on the box had been the silhouettes of two people locked in an embrace as the rain poured down on them. That wasn't so bad, was it?

"Did you happen to see the rating this movie got?"

"You mean from the critics?"

He shook his head. "No, I mean the MPAA rating . . ."

She shrugged. "No."

"Yeah . . . This is rated 'NC-17' in the States."

"What does that mean?"

Cain made a face. "It means . . . This movie shows . . . stuff . . ."

"Stuff? Like what?"

"Like more graphic sexual situations," Cain explained. "More than what you would normally see in, say, an 'R' rated movie."

She stopped and stared at Cain for a moment, unable to tell if he was being truthful or not. He didn't look like he was joking. She bit her lip and shrugged. "Surely it's not that bad," she mumbled, hoping that Cain would agree.

He narrowed his gaze and heaved a sigh, slowly shaking his head as though he wasn't sure exactly what to say. "All right," he gave in despite the reluctance in his tone, "but I'm warning you, Gin . . . If you insist on watching this, then you've got to watch all of it."

"Of course!" she scoffed. "I mean, even if it shows some stuff, it still sounded interesting."

Cain got up and stepped around the coffee table to slip the video into the player. "You're sure?" he asked again before he closed the drawer.

Gin wrinkled her nose and laughed. "I think I'm old enough to watch it, don't you think?"

Cain didn't comment, but he did push the drawer closed.

He sat back down and glanced at Gin again. She curled up on the sofa, leaning her forehead against the high back and folding her knees with her legs tucked under her and the pillow clenched in her arms. Cain rubbed the back of his neck and sighed softly, lifting the remote control to start the movie.

'This isn't so bad,' Gin thought. The workaholic lawyer and his dysfunctional marriage were the highlights of the first ten minutes of the movie. She frowned. This was the main reason she didn't like most movies. They were always so . . . sad . . . People tended to get caught up in the trappings of the life they thought they'd wanted, not ever realizing that it wasn't really what they wanted, at all.

'I won't be like that,' she told herself as the lawyer—Tom—entered a bar. 'I want to live and be happy . . . and I want the people around me to be happy, too . . .'

'That sounds rather idealistic.'

'Maybe, but not impossible.'

'Not impossible, if you remember what it is you want.'

'What I want, huh . . .'

'Uh oh, doll . . . What are you thinking? I know that tone . . .'

'Hush, now.' Gin cleared her throat. "Cain?"

"Yes, Gin?"

"Thanks for letting me stay here."

He shrugged. "It's fine. It's my fault. I missed the exterminator."

She wrinkled her nose. "But he can't come again for another week . . . Are you sure it's not a problem?"

Cain finally smiled just a little. "You're hardly a problem, Gin. Now watch your movie, will you?"

"I am," she argued, guiltily glancing back at the television as she hoped Cain didn't notice that she hadn't actually been watching. A sex scene. A very graphic sex scene. Gin gasped and pulled the pillow up to cover most of her face, though she was still peeking over the top.

Cain chuckled. "Thought you said you wanted to watch this," he teased.

"I did—I do! I guess I wasn't paying that much attention . . . Who's that girl?" Gin admitted then shook her head. "Wow . . . She's . . . uh . . . She's really . . . flexible . . ."

He coughed and rubbed a hand over his eyes. "I don't know . . . He picked her up in that bar . . . and I've seen better flexibility."

"Better than that?" Gin quipped, lowering the pillow as she glanced from the television to Cain and back again. "She's all folded over, like a paperclip."

A vague blush stained his cheeks, and he refused to look at her. "Yeah, well, Isabelle was a dancer."

"Oh . . ."

"Don't ask it," he countered before Gin could get her question out.

She made a face and threw the pillow at him before uncurling herself and standing up to rummage around for something to snack on. "I wasn't going to ask a thing."

"You so were," he shot back.

"Yeah, you think you're so smart," Gin retorted as she retrieved a plastic container of rice crackers and dropped the lid on the counter before shuffling back to the sofa. "What was I going to ask?"

"I am so smart," he informed her, "and you're entirely too predictable. You were going to ask how flexible she was."

Gin held out the crackers. Cain waved them away. "So?"

"So, what?"

"So . . . How flexible was she?"

Cain rolled his eyes and didn't answer.

Gin concentrated on the rice crackers and tried not to look at the television too much. Loathe to ask him to stop the movie since it was her idea and since she really had insisted on watching it, she stifled a groan and sighed inwardly.

'Maybe you should have rented one of those Disney movies.'

'Yeah,' Gin thought as she flattened her ears for a moment. 'Maybe I should have . . .'

 

 

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'You know, Cain, in the realm of the stupidest ideas you've ever had, I'd have to say, this one ranks right up there.'

Cain shifted his gaze to the side as Gin stared, wide-eyed, at the television. She might have seen sex portrayed in 'R' rated movies, but he could tell she'd never, ever seen anything quite like this. Her expression was one of morbid curiosity, and he had to look away before he did something really, really bad . . . like laugh at her.

'She wanted to watch it,' he thought. 'I didn't make her.'

'No, but you didn't try too hard to stop her, did you? You'd have a fit if Bellaniece were to try to watch this movie, and you know it.'

'Hell, yes, I would,' he agreed readily enough. 'That's different, though. Bellaniece is my daughter. Gin . . . isn't . . .'

"Uh . . ." Gin gasped as she pointed at the television. "She's . . . oh, my . . ."

Cain blinked and focused his attention on the television. The woman was kneeling on the floor in front of the man, and while the camera angle didn't show what she was doing, the implication was loud and clear. "You okay?" he asked.

Gin shook her head as her hand dropped back into her lap. "I had a couple of friends who said they did that with their boyfriends," she commented idly, as though she wasn't aware she was talking out loud. "I . . . I don't get it. It doesn't look like that great a thing . . ."

He chuckled at her dubious tone. "You don't think so?"

Gin shrugged. "Not really . . . It'd just be like sucking your thumb, but . . . not . . ."

Cain nearly choked. "What?"

Suddenly realizing just what she was talking to him about, Gin slouched down and pulled the pillow up over her face a little. "Nothing," she mumbled, cheeks reddening as she stubbornly stared at the television.

'Oh, my God . . .'

'Mine, too . . .' Cain agreed.

'Did she just say it was like—?'

'Yes, she did, and don't repeat it, thanks.'

"Cain, can I ask you something?"

He nearly groaned, half of him dreading what she was going to ask. The other half way too curious to ignore. "All right."

Gin sat up a little straighter as her cheeks pinked even more.

'Yeah, I'm not sure we should encourage her questions . . .'

'Shut up, you.'

Cain's youkai sighed.

"Has that—Have you—Did you ever—?"

"Have I done that?" he asked.

Gin grimaced but nodded.

He sighed, too. "Well . . . uh . . . sure. Yeah."

"You have?"

Scratching the back of his neck as he willed himself not to blush, Cain took a deep breath. "Gin, I was married, remember?"

Gin thought that over and slowly shook her head as her expression shifted from confusion to something more akin to disbelief. "I don't think my parents do . . . that . . . and they're married."

Cain snorted. "Then I feel sorry for them."

"Cain!"

'Oh, hell . . . I just said that out loud, didn't I?'

'Pfft! Yeah. Yeah, you did.'

'. . . Crap.'

'Damn, Cain . . . you're on your own here. Try not to make us sound like a big pervert, okay?'

He sat up straighter and turned toward Gin, bending his knee and holding up his hands as he tried to figure out how best to explain things to her without leaving her with the impression that he was, well . . . a dog. "When people get married . . . certain things, like that—" he said, waving a hand at the television. "It's not bad."

Gin nodded slowly. "Maybe not. It still doesn't seem very . . . gratifying."

"I guess it depends. Some women enjoy that sort of thing."

Gin's already dubious expression darkened even more. "Did you like it when you had it done to you?"

Cain sighed. "Gin—"

She shrugged. "I don't have anyone else I can talk to about this," she told him. "I can't ask my parents, and my brothers? They'd kill me. Most of my friends are away at college or busy . . . I learned all this stuff in school, but . . ." she trailed off, shaking her head slowly as she nibbled a rice cracker. "I always just thought it was kind of . . . weird; like something girls just did because their boyfriends wanted them to."

He relented. She wasn't trying to make him uncomfortable, and he knew it. She was curious, and she was right. He didn't have to know her family any better than he already did to know that she was right. "Guys like it," he admitted slowly, "but no guy worth his salt would expect a girl to do anything that she wasn't comfortable with. Sex isn't supposed to be an ugly thing."

"No," she agreed quietly, deep in contemplation as she stared at her hands. "I guess I just never really thought about it that way. Maybe I never really thought about it at all." She peeked at the television again, ears twitching as she tilted her head to the side. "And that?" she asked, nodding at the screen.

Cain glanced over and shook his head. The couple had reversed positions. "That?" he echoed.

He could feel Gin's gaze without looking at her. "Have you done that?"

"I . . . Yes."

"And you liked that, too?"

Cain sighed. He was doing that a lot with her . . . "Yes."

Gin giggled. "My girlfriends never really talked about that."

"I don't suppose they did," he remarked ruefully.

"It looks . . . kind of . . . nice," Gin ventured.

'Oh, God . . .' he thought with an inward wince. "Uh, yeah . . ."

"This movie isn't so bad," she went on. "Not as bad as some of the movies I found once in Ryo-nii's room . . ."

"Do I want to know?"

She giggled and tossed a cracker at him. He caught it in his mouth without thinking. 'Why'd I do that?' he wondered as he crunched the cracker. Gin giggled more.

"His movies were really bad, I think. The women on the cover looked like they were doing that," she remarked, waving a hand at the television.

Cain made a face. "Oh . . . uh . . . those movies . . ."

Gin snorted. "The covers were enough for me. He lectured me for an hour about not watching such things, even though he did . . . My brother is a baka!"

"He's got a point," Cain agreed, "those movies aren't very . . . nice."

She shook her head. "Well, of course not! They're nothing but graphic sex filmed by perverts who exploit graphic sex just because they can."

Momentarily shocked by Gin's harsh but accurate assessment, Cain didn't comment right away. She surprised him all the time, didn't she? One minute she was shy and sweet—the Gin he knew best—and the next . . . The next she was spouting something that sounded almost cynical, especially coming from her. "Those movies aren't great examples of what sex should be," he told her.

She smiled. "I didn't really think so." Her gaze slipped to the side, and she stared at the screen with a thoughtful frown. "Why do people do that?"

Cain shook his head. "I don't know . . . Guys . . . think differently. We're simpler that way."

"No, not that," she remarked, waving her hand to stop him from continuing. "The tongue, and the kissing . . . I mean, I get the kissing, but the tongue? Eh . . ."

He chuckled. "It's not so bad."

The look she cast him bespoke her doubt on that score.

Cain's chuckle escalated. "No, it's really not."

"I'll take your word on that."

"Wait . . . Gin . . . The other night, when I . . . when I kissed you? Was that your first kiss?"

Her cheeks blossomed in color, and she cleared her throat, gnawing on her bottom lip as she refused to meet his questioning stare. "Well, it's kind of hard to kiss someone when you're not allowed to go on a date," she grumbled, her tone halfway between apologetic and embarrassed.

Deliberately trying not to think about why he was so pleased that he'd been the first—and thus far only—man to kiss Gin, Cain forced a smile. His stomach was tied in knots; his breathing was stilted, harsh. He swallowed hard and shook his head. "That's why you didn't kiss me back?"

"You surprised me," she insisted. "I wasn't expecting you to . . . I just thought maybe I was bad at it, you know? The kissing . . ."

"It wasn't so terrible."

Her laugh was sad. "I'll be twenty-five years old next week," she admitted. "A few of my friends are married. One has two children, and I just got my first kiss." She twisted a lock of hair around her finger. "I know; it's sad."

"No, it's not sad, at all."

"Hopefully I'll react better, the next time someone tries to kiss me."

Cain snatched her pillow away and slowly shook his head. "Your reaction was fine, Gin, and you're missing the end of your movie."

She grabbed at the pillow. He yanked it away. Gin wrinkled her nose and crawled over to settle herself against Cain's side, snuggling close to him as she sighed happily, her head resting on his shoulder. "You're nicer than the pillow, anyway."

He swallowed hard, tamping down the regret that ate away at him. In another time or in another place, he could see himself falling in love with her. Her sweetness, her innocence . . . her smile . . . If only . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'There's a fairly high chance that she's going to tell you to go straight to hell, you know . . .'

Kichiro made a face and snorted. 'You're supposed to be on my side, remember?'

'Yeah, I remember . . . I also remember how much of a bastard you were. You made her cry, Kich.'

He grimaced at that unnecessary reminder.

Against his better judgment, he'd followed Bellaniece up to her room, bent on making her listen while he tried to tell her that he was sorry for that night . . . for a lot of things . . . Thing was, he had paused outside her door, hand poised to knock, when a strange sort of sound filtered to him. It sounded . . .

It sounded like a muffled sob.

'That's ridiculous,' he thought with a scowl, hands draped on his hips as he stared at the door as though he were trying to see through it. 'Belle doesn't . . . Belle doesn't cry . . .'

The sound came again; softer this time, and Kichiro slowly reached out, pushed the door open a crack, wincing as the salt of her tears, the smell of her sadness, hit him square in the face. He could tell from the way she lay curled on the bed with her face buried in the fluffy pink pillows that she was trying not to cry. Something about the sadness surrounding her—the loneliness in her aura—it broke something inside him, and it didn't matter that she tried so hard to hide it. The idea that she was crying because he had hurt her . . .

He hadn't been able to go in there. He hadn't been able to face her. He wanted to comfort her, to tell her that he hadn't meant any of it. In the end, he hadn't been able to do much more than flatten his ears and leave her alone. Maybe that was best for her. Maybe he . . . Maybe he'd already done too much, said too much, and maybe some wounds ran a little too deep.

In the last two days, he'd done a lot of thinking, and he'd realized a few things about himself that he hadn't wanted to know. When had he become so cynical, so jaded? He'd been set to dislike Bellaniece from the start, and why? Because she made an appointment . . . because she'd come into his office . . . because she was beautiful . . .? Maybe he was just too used to the women who ventured through the doors. Bellaniece . . . he hadn't expected a girl—a woman—quite like Bellaniece . . .

He'd tried to use the excuse that she was just too young. That hadn't worked. Bellaniece might not be old, but she wasn't naïve. Intelligent, sophisticated, and sometimes playful, she was a contradiction in motion; an inexpressible spirit. Deliberately defying every single one of his beliefs, she reminded him of the simplicity of youth. Things were easier then. She challenged him; tied him in knots only to sort him out again.

'So that's what it's like,' he mused as he stared at the girl in question. Sitting under a gnarled old white ash tree in the sprawling back yard, Kichiro leaned his elbow in the doorframe, gazed out at Bellaniece in her pretty yellow dress, the breeze stirring her hair, head bent as she turned the pages of the book in her lap. 'She's the one?'

His youkai sighed. 'Yeah, baka. I've been telling you that, ain't I?'

He'd figured out something else, too; something he probably should have known from the start. Using the lines and the charm that had gotten him by with women before wasn't going to work with Bellaniece. For the first time in his life, he wasn't sure how to deal with a female. She was worth it, right? Kichiro smiled vaguely, pushing himself away from the door as he strode out into the sunlight. 'Yeah . . . I think she just might be . . .'

"I looked around the house for you," he commented as he stopped behind her.

Bellaniece's back stiffened, and she closed the book before lifting her chin and squaring her shoulders. "I didn't go anywhere," she replied, the hint of trepidation tainting her voice when she spoke. "You can't yell at me."

"I wasn't going to yell at you," he answered, crouching beside her. The breeze caught her hair, blew the scent of wildflowers to him. He closed his eyes and turned his face away. "What are you reading?"

Bellaniece sighed and shrugged, holding the book against her chest so tightly that Kichiro frowned. "Just a book," she told him. "A really, really old book . . ."

"Oh, yeah? Let me see."

She shook her head. "It's mine," she told him, her voice taking on a sharper edge.

"I won't take it from you," he assured her. "Just tell me the title."

"Why do you want to know?"

Kichiro shrugged. "Just want to see what you're reading. Is that bad?"

Bellaniece glanced down at the book and sighed, slowly letting her arms drop away. 'Les Miserables by Victor Hugo,' he read. "Interesting choice . . . why are you reading that?"

"I don't know. It's a good book: a classic."

He turned to face her again, reached out to brush her bangs out of her eyes. Bellaniece looked away before he could touch her. "It's Friday night," he said, tamping down the sigh that tried to escape. "You want to go do something? See your friends or . . . anything at all?"

Bellaniece shot him a wary glance as she smashed the book against her chest once more. "Why?" she asked, gaze clouded with suspicion. "Thought you didn't have time to do anything like that."

He grimaced, cursing Bellaniece's memory and the things he wished he hadn't said. "Do you want to go or not?" he grumbled, injecting just enough boredom into his tone to convince her that he didn't really care what answer she gave.

"Okay," she agreed though the suspicion in her expression didn't wane. "Unless this is some trick to get me to go so you can yell at me later for . . . whatever it is you're trying to trap me into."

"Let's make a deal," he told her. She narrowed her eyes but didn't argue. "Let's call a truce, just for tonight? I swear I'll be nice to you all night . . . and in return . . . you . . . won't say I'm gay."

If she never knew how much it cost him to add that last little bit to the bargain, Kichiro would consider himself lucky. It stung his pride to say it, even if he knew it wasn't true, but Bellaniece was trying not to smile, and for that, he'd say it again if he had to . . .

"Yeah, funny, wench. We got a deal?" he grumbled as heat filtered into his cheeks.

Bellaniece sighed as she considered the options. Even if she didn't trust him, he could tell she really wanted to go. "All right," she agreed slowly, licking her lips as she cautiously nodded. "If you're sure . . ."

Kichiro stood up and held out his hand. Bellaniece ignored it as she pushed herself off the ground. "You've got twenty minutes to get ready," he told her, making a show of checking his watch. "One minute later, and all bets are off."

"Let me get my shoes," she told him, breaking into the first real smile he'd seen on her since the day they'd spent by the fire. "I'll just be a moment."

He grinned as she ran back to the mansion, her hair flying behind her like a ribbons of gold. 'Don't screw it up, Kich,' his youkai warned. 'You might not get another chance, you know . . .'

Kichiro sighed as his smile faded. That was true, wasn't it, and even if it weren't, how many chances did he expect he'd get? 'One chance, Belle . . . you can give me that, right?'

Bellaniece ran back outside, pausing on the steps to tug on her sandals. She waved at Kichiro, and he drew a deep breath. Unable to shake the feeling that everything was riding on this night, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and slowly strode toward her.

 

 

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Gin clicked the cell phone off and snapped it closed with a thoughtful frown, tapping the phone against her chin.

"Something wrong?" Cain asked, dropping a Jolly Rancher candy into her lap as he popped one into his mouth. In their search for 'manly candy', they'd located an American grocer, and Gin had been introduced to the finer aspects of American foods, like Jolly Ranchers and Hershey bars.

Gin set the phone aside and slowly unwrapped the candy. "That was Mama," she remarked. "She wanted me to ask if you would like to come over Tuesday night for dinner."

"Why Tuesday?" he questioned as he flipped through a magazine, "and why your family?"

"Tuesday is my birthday," she said simply, "I always spend my birthday with my family."

Cain made a face and tossed the magazine onto the table. "I'd rather eat dirt than—"

"You're not going to be mean about my papa, are you?" she asked with a raised eyebrow. "You don't have to come along, you know. Mama just thought that since Bellaniece is gone that you might be lonely, but it's fine. Not like I only have one birthday a year."

Cain rolled his eyes and sighed. "Fine, Gin, fine . . . by the way, you stink at laying the guilt trips."

She grinned. "So will you come with me?"

"Seems a little personal, doesn't it?"

"Well, maybe . . . Just the family."

"Yeah, I think I'll pass."

Gin tried another tactic. "My uncle's going to come, and you know him, right? That wouldn't be so bad, would it?"

He opened his mouth to say 'no'. Gin's ears twitched, and as if she knew what he was going to say, the little triangles flattened against her head and she stared at her hands. Cain sighed, disgusted at himself for the perceived weakness. "All right," he agreed. "I'll go . . . but you owe me."

"What do I owe you?" she asked, arching an eyebrow as her ears perked up.

"I don't know . . . we'll have to see . . ." He grimaced as she crunched the hard candy. "Damn! I've told you, you're not supposed to crunch Jolly Ranchers."

"I can't help it!" she complained as Cain's phone rang. "They're nice and crunchy, and they stick to my teeth!"

"Suck, not bite," he told her again as he fished another candy out of his pocket and tossed it into her lap. "Hello?"

"Daddy? Is everything . . . okay?"

Cain grimaced. "Just fine, Bellaniece. How are you?"

"Good . . . care to tell me what's . . . not . . . being sucked?" she asked casually.

"It's personal preference," Gin argued as she chomped the second candy. "There's no right or wrong way to eat it!"

"Oh, lord," Bellaniece remarked.

"It's not what it sounds like," Cain assured her as he tried to turn away when Gin made a mad grab for his shirt pocket and the candy. "What are you? An octopus hanyou? Hands off, baby girl!"

"Share!" she demanded as she climbed up on the sofa and onto his back, reaching over his shoulder as she tried to sneak her hands into his pocket. "Cain!"

"Maybe I should let you go," Bellaniece commented.

"No, it's fine . . . just got a monkey on my back, is all . . ." Gin succeeded in her candy-seeking mission and dropped onto the sofa with a satisfied giggle. Cain rolled his eyes but grinned. "What are you doing?"

"Dr. Izayoi is taking me to see my friends," Bellaniece answered.

"You behaving?" he asked in a stern tone as Gin crunched candy number three.

"Of course I am!" Bellaniece insisted.

Cain snorted, unwrapping another candy as he caught the phone between his ear and shoulder and sat down. "Hmm . . . good."

"I want that," Gin burbled around her mouthful of candy pieces.

"Manly candy, Gin," he remarked. "Parts and hair."

"Right," she agreed, leaning forward and nipping the candy—and his fingers.

"Ouch! Hey! Leave some flesh, will you?"

Gin just laughed. Bellaniece coughed. "Okay, Daddy, now I know I need to go. Be good, all right?"

"Bellaniece—"

It was too late. She'd hung up the phone. Cain sighed and clicked it off before tossing it on the sofa and digging another candy out of his pocket. "I can't believe you bit me," he grumbled

"I only bit you because you weren't sharing," she countered.

"Need I remind you that you have fangs, baby girl?"

"Need I remind you that you ought not be stingy?"

"Thought you said you had to go shopping today," he pointed out as he popped the candy into his mouth.

She shrugged. "I do. Do you need anything?"

"Nope."

"Okay," she said as she stood up and smoothed her skirt. "May I have a piece of candy before I go?"

Cain snorted. "Why? So you can crunch it?"

Gin made a face. "I won't crunch it!" she replied, wiggling her fingers under Cain's nose.

"It's my candy," he told her. "You have candy at home—'course, the rats have probably rolled around in it . . ."

"Cain!" Gin gasped. "That's not funny!"

He chuckled but gave her the last piece of candy from his pocket and waved a hand toward the door. "You'll crunch that before you even get out of the apartment," he predicted. "Take my keys. I'm going to be working. Who knows if I'll hear you when you get back . . . but don't lose them!"

Gin stuck her tongue out at him as she unwrapped the candy and popped it into her mouth before grabbing her purse and his keys and heading for the door.

Cain chuckled again as the unmistakable crunch of the candy echoed back to him as she pulled the door closed behind her.

'You're getting a little too used to having her around, don't you think?'

Heading back toward the small workroom, Cain frowned and scratched the back of his neck. 'Dunno what you're talking about,' he argued.

'Ah, but you do! It's okay, you know. I like her, too.'

'She's scared of rats.'

'Of course she is, and you're scared of being alone. It's the perfect match.'

'. . . I'm not scared.'

'There's nothing wrong with what you're doing,' his youkai assured him. 'Sleeping with her every night . . . spending all your time with her . . .'

'Fine,' Cain growled as he unwrapped the sculpture and wet his hands in the bucket to work. 'You made your point. I'll . . . I'll send her home later.'

'Sure you will.'

'You don't think I will?'

'Nope, I know you won't. She's Gin. She'll bat those bright eyes of hers at you, and you'll be putty in her hands. It's fine. One thing though . . . that sofa is killing us. Gin can stay, but sleeping on that sofa . . . that just has to go.'

'That's ridiculous! Gin's just . . . It doesn't matter. She's just a friend . . . a really, really good friend.'

'Just a good friend? Okay . . . I hear you . . .'

Cain didn't believe himself, either.

 

 

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Bellaniece turned sideways to avoid touching Kichiro as she ducked under his arm and through the doorway of the small dance club—the only one in Bevelle, Maine. The music was loud and rather obnoxious. She glanced at Kichiro a little guiltily. He probably wasn't happy with her choice of hang outs, but this was where her friends were going to be, she was certain, and he did offer . . .

"Lively place," he said loudly, leaning toward her to be heard over the din.

"It's not as bad as usual," she hollered back.

"What?"

"I said it's not as bad as usual!"

"Oh . . . good!"

Smiling, Bellaniece led the way through the foyer and into the club as Kichiro helped her take off her jacket. A very large guy glanced over just before a wide smile surfaced on his face. With a little giggle, she squealed as the guy hefted her off the floor and twirled her around. "Belle-y Button!" he greeted with a loud kiss on the cheek as he set her back on her feet.

"Hi, Moose!" she laughed.

"When'd you get back?"

"Last week," she answered as a tiny girl slipped up beside Moose. He draped an arm over her shoulders and grinned.

"You look good, Belle! How've you been?" the girl nicknamed 'Squirrel' asked.

"Who's the runt with you?" Moose asked, nodding in the direction behind Bellaniece.

She turned to look and wrinkled her nose, hoping that Kichiro hadn't heard the slight. She couldn't tell from the look on his face whether or not he had. He looked a little bored, and it didn't help that his ears kept flicking nervously. The music was probably bothering him. Bellaniece bit her lip and faced her friends again. "Him? That's Dr. Izayoi. He's going to do Kelly's reconstructive surgery."

"Come on, Belle! Put your sweater down, and dance with us!" Squirrel said as she took Bellaniece's hand and dragged her back toward the tables in the back where the gang normally sat. The club owner had given up separating the three tables since the kids moved them back every night.

She stopped when another hand tugged her back. Glancing back, Bellaniece pulled away from Squirrel and waved the girl on as she turned around to face the hanyou. "Are you okay?"

He didn't look impressed. "Belle-y Button?"

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "Childhood nickname," she informed him. "Moose is just an old friend."

Kichiro snorted. "I'm not a runt," he pointed out.

Bellaniece pressed her lips together until the urge to giggle passed. "Of course you're not," she agreed since Kichiro did look remarkably small beside the Howitzer known as Moose. "The girl?" he questioned, nodding at Squirrel who was dragging a reluctant Moose onto the dance floor.

Bellaniece grinned. "She's been Moose's girlfriend forever, I think . . . It just seemed right, you know: Moose and Squirrel." She sighed at the blank expression on Kichiro's face. "Moose and Squirrel? Didn't you ever see The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle? The cartoon?" Bellaniece shook her head. "I guess you didn't."

"Is the food here . . . edible?" Kichiro asked somewhat dubiously as he gazed around the darkened club.

"It's the best!" she assured him. "Spanish cheese fries and a big, fat Ballpark with everything!"

"Ballpark?" he echoed.

"Hot dogs, doctor! Haven't you ever had a hot dog?"

He shook his head slowly.

Bellaniece's eyes widened. "Oh, my! You really aren't cultured at all, are you?" She held out her hand. "Give me some money."

"Pardon?"

She shook her hand. "Give me some money so I can get you a hot dog."

"I don't think—"

"It's not really dog, you know, now cough up the dough."

He stared at her another moment but complied at last. Bellaniece giggled and hurried away to order some food.

It didn't take long for her to place the order and return with a tacky orange plastic tray laden with hot dogs and four heaping orders of Spanish cheese fries. Kichiro was still standing where she'd left him. He stared at the food then back up to her face, crossed his arms over his chest and snorted. "Not on your life, Belle-chan," he remarked without preamble.

Bellaniece giggled. "It's better than it looks. Trust me!"

"It looks . . . disgusting," he retorted as he followed her to the tables in the back. Bellaniece set the tray down and grabbed a fry. Kichiro didn't even try to hide his revulsion as she popped the cheesy, gooey food into her mouth.

"Try one," she coaxed, holding out a fry. Kichiro retreated. Bellaniece persevered. "It's good, I swear."

He caught her wrist and held her hand away. "I'll take your word for it, thanks."

"How do you know you won't like it if you won't try it?" Bellaniece asked reasonably.

"I'm fairly certain I wouldn't like dying either, but I'd rather not try it to find out for sure."

Bellaniece rolled her eyes and leaned forward to eat the fry. "Suit yourself, but don't complain when you're starving later. I tried to feed you, and you didn't want it."

"Damn, Belle-y Button, do you ever stop eating?"

Bellaniece stood on tip toe to see over Kichiro's shoulder and tugged away from the doctor before running over to greet another of her friends. "David! How are you?" she asked as she hugged him tight. "I thought you were taking summer classes!"

"Not this year. Dad needed extra help on the boat," David shrugged, brown eyes crinkling at the corners as he stepped back and gave Bellaniece the once-over. His friendly smile dissipated as he regarded Kichiro, obviously assessing the doctor for a moment before he glanced back at Bellaniece. "Look at you! You look fantastic . . . then again, you always look fantastic, don't you?"

"Do you think so?" Bellaniece asked with a smile, praying that Kichiro didn't take offense to David's behavior.

"Absolutely. You want to dance?"

Bellaniece's smile widened. "I thought you'd never ask!"

He grasped her hand and led her out onto the dance floor. It felt good to be with her friends; with those who accepted her completely. She caught sight of Kichiro. He hadn't moved at all. The scowl on his face didn't seem threatening, but she couldn't help but wonder about the trace of inexplicable emotion. Remorse? Sorrow?

She shook her head, trying to concentrate on dancing with David. 'I have to be seeing things,' she reasoned with herself. 'Why would Kichiro feel like that?'

'You're with your friends,' her youkai chided. 'Think about them! You've missed them, remember?'

'Yeah,' she thought as she pushed the questions aside, 'I am.'

"I've missed you, you know," David remarked lightly, pulling Bellaniece close as a slower song started.

"I've missed you, too," Bellaniece assured him, deliberately ignoring the intimacy behind David's tone. "I've missed everyone! Tokyo's nice, but there's no place like home."

"You should have started at the university," he insisted. "That was the plan, wasn't it?"

"Plans change," she hedged with another bright smile.

"You're enrolling in the fall, right?" he pressed.

Bellaniece shrugged. "We'll see . . ."

David grinned. "Of course you are," he said, brushing off her reluctance. "You'll be the prettiest girl on campus—and you'll be my girl again."

Bellaniece didn't answer as her smile faltered. He seemed content to let the subject drop, and she ignored the pricking of her conscience for not telling David the truth.

'You don't want to be with him, Belle . . . You just used Tokyo as an excuse to break up with him before.'

'I didn't think he'd wait for me,' she argued, her gaze seeking out Kichiro once more. He caught her eye, his scowl diminishing, and he stuffed his hands into his pockets.

"Who's the guy you came with tonight?" David asked.

"Oh, him? He's . . . He's the doctor I work for, in Tokyo. He's going to do reconstructive surgery on Kelly."

David digested that for a moment before shrugging it off with an easy-going smile. "Good," he remarked as he pulled Bellaniece a little closer. "For a minute there, I thought maybe there was something going on between you two."

"Between us?" Bellaniece repeated, forcing a nervous laugh. "That's insane! We're not . . . not even friends, really . . ."

"Why are you working?" David questioned. "Your father's the richest man in New England."

"It's a long story," Bellaniece explained. "Anyway, I don't want to talk about that! Tell me about school! I want to know everything!"

David grinned at Bellaniece's exuberant interest. He launched into an animated recap of his first year of college, and all she had to do was smile and nod. If he noticed her preoccupation, he didn't remark on it.

Bellaniece stifled a sigh and peeked back at Kichiro again. He was talking to Moose and Squirrel and didn't seem to notice her attention at all . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kichiro stuffed his hands into his pockets as he tried not to glower at the young man dancing just a little too close to Bellaniece. He hadn't missed David's obvious assessment. He hadn't remarked on it since he had promised Bellaniece he'd be nice. Damned if that suited him, though.

'You know, Kich, you promised to be nice to Belle . . . You didn't say a damn thing about being nice to her friends.'

He sighed and shook his head, shuffling his feet as he intercepted Bellaniece's gaze. She seemed nervous, or maybe it was just his own feelings tainting the way he perceived her. He didn't know, but when she tried to smile at him, he nodded in acknowledgement. Bellaniece's smile brightened, and he quickly looked away.

"So you're the doctor Belle-y Button found to do Kelly's surgery?" Moose remarked as he stopped beside Kichiro, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared thoughtfully at the young woman. "Imported you, did she?"

Kichiro shrugged. "Something like that."

"She's a great girl," Moose said, nodding in Bellaniece's direction. "Didn't realize she was going to be here tonight, or I wouldn't have told Dave we'd be here."

"Why's that?" Kichiro asked, trying to sound casual about the entire affair.

Moose shrugged. "Belle-y Button hated to hurt him when she broke it off with him before she went to Tokyo. Nice enough guy, I guess. Just grew apart, maybe. Who knows? In school, those two were voted 'Most Likely to Get Married'."

"I see . . ."

'Don't do it, baka!'

'Shut up, you!'

"Oi, Belle-chan! Is that one of the three?"

Bellaniece's mouth dropped open as she stepped away from David, color rising in her cheeks as Kichiro strode forward.

"One of the three?" David asked with a confused shake of his head.

Bellaniece ignored the young man as she hurried to intercept Kichiro since the idea that he was considering neutering the pup must have been apparent on his expression. "You promised, you know!" she hissed as she tried to tug him away from David.

He shot her a mutinous glare but stopped. "Is he?" he demanded again.

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "Of all the stupid, idiotic, ridiculous—"

"Two seconds, wench."

"What?"

"You heard me. Two seconds to answer or I rip that little bastard apart."

"You can't rip into David!" she hissed.

"Give me one good reason not to, Belle."

"Because," she growled, "I don't want you to!"

"Not good enough, damn it."

She caught his arm as he started to stomp away. "Kichiro! No!"

He cut off mid-rant and stared at her. Why was it that hearing his name tumble from her lips was enough to stop him dead in his tracks? "Kiss me, Belle."

"Huh?"

"You heard me. You want to save that little bastard? Kiss me."

"I will not," she huffed, cheeks pinking as she stepped away from him. "You want me to kiss you so badly? Earn it, Dr. Izayoi."

"Earn it? How the fuck am I supposed to earn it? I've been trying to earn it, and you—"

"Are a jerk! Did you know that? A big, fat, stupid, mean, horrid jerk!"

Glaring deliberately at the index finger she poked his chest with to emphasize her words, Kichiro slowly shifted his gaze to meet hers. "You're pushing your luck, little girl."

She swallowed hard but stood her ground. "You promised you'd be nice," she mumbled, blue eyes darkening in the dimly lit club. "You promised. I should have known you'd lie. I really . . . I should have known."

Kichiro sighed and caught her arm, his anger draining in the face of her upset. "Belle, wait. Go dance with your little boy. You're right."

She shook her head. "I think this was a bad idea. We can't get along. I don't know why we're even trying."

"No, you're right," he grumbled, "I promised. I don't go back on my word."

Bellaniece crossed her arms over her chest and leveled a no-nonsense look at the hanyou. "You'll be good?"

Kichiro nearly rolled his eyes. He did growl. "Yeah, yeah, I'll be good."

Bellaniece stared at him for another moment but finally nodded. "Thank you."

"Not a problem," he snarled sarcastically as she turned on her heel and walked away—right back to that damn David, no less. Kichiro slowly shook his head.

'Well, that was a hella stupid promise.'

He stuffed his hands into his pockets and strode back over to the tables. 'Yeah, it was.'

'Making progress though . . . She did say thank you.'

Kichiro sighed and made a face at the gooey mess that she called food. 'Yeah . . . She did . . .'

 

 

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Gin poked the key into the lock, balancing the shopping bag against her hip as she opened the door and let herself into Cain's apartment.

"Cain?" she called as she bumped the door closed with her rear and dropped her purse and the keys on the side table.

He didn't answer. Gin frowned and sniffed. He was here; she could smell him. She trailed him back to his work room and tapped lightly on the closed door.

"Hmm?" he murmured inside. She pushed the door open and blinked in surprise.

'Oh, my, he's shirtless . . .'

'Yeah, he is . . . That's so nice . . .'

'Huh?'

'Look, doll! There are not many guys who have the kind of presence that one does . . .'

'No,' Gin supposed there weren't.

Cain knelt down to rinse his hands in the bucket on the floor, peeking over his shoulder as he smiled in greeting. "You get what you were after?"

Gin nodded.

Cain's smile dimmed and he sat back, hands dangling between his knees as he stared thoughtfully at her. "You okay? You look a little shell-shocked."

His crests wrapped completely around his back, and sitting where he was, the early afternoon sunshine filtering through the window caught the highlights in his hair, and Gin could only stare while he progressively looked a little more worried. "Gin?"

'Say something, doll, you're freaking him out!'

Gin shook her head slightly, the voice not making sense as she gaped at the youkai hunkered down on the floor.

His smile was gone, replaced by a marked frown, and he pivoted on his feet, cocking his head to the side as his eyebrows furrowed. "Earth to Gin . . ."

"Stuff!" she blurted, holding out the bag with both hands as her face shot up in hot flames. "I—stuff—see?"

He stood up slowly, rubbing his knuckles in the shallow vale in the center of his chest. Gin swallowed hard as he came closer. "What sort of stuff?"

"Stuff?" she echoed with a distracted shake of her head. "Stuff! Yeah . . . stuff! I . . . I bought . . . stuff . . ."

"Can I see your . . . stuff?"

Gin blinked and jerked her head in agreement. "O-Okay . . ."

He held out his hand for the bag. Gin let him take it, pressing one hand to her heart as her fingers rose to flutter over her lips.

"Finger paints?" Cain remarked as he dragged the box of primary colors out of the bag, along with the large paint pad that Gin had purchased. "You bought finger paints?"

"Sure," she answered, recovering enough to clear her addled mind. "You use your hands to paint with those."

"I know what they are," he assured her. "I used to buy them for Bellaniece."

"Oh? You can paint with me," she offered.

"Hmm, I said 'used to', Gin . . . when she was, like . . . four."

"Fine, then," she countered, taking the box of paints and the tablet. "I'll do it alone. It's fine. I don't need help. I can finger paint alone. Did I mention I can do it alone?"

Cain snorted and shook his head but his smile was back, even if it was overly indulgent. "Okay, you can paint in here, but you have to be quiet. I'm working on this: the adult project."

"You're implying that I'm a little girl again," she reminded him as she sat down on the floor and broke the seal on the cardboard box.

"I'm not doing anything of the sort," he rejoined. "I'm implying that you're a baby girl. There's a huge difference . . ."

"There's not an age limit on finger paints," she pointed out.

"Oh yeah? What does the box say?"

Gin turned the box over and scanned the writing. "Ages four and up," she read, "and I'm 'up'."

"What else does the box say?" he asked, hefting an eyebrow as he wet his hands again and turned back toward his sculpture.

"Says, 'Entertaining children—young and old—for years, our finger paints are carefully crafted to provide hours of fun as well as safety in storage. Hypo-allergenic and non-toxic—'" she paused and grinned at him, "—that means you could eat it, you know."

Cain paused with his finger poised to work on the sculpture. "You eat the paint?"

She rolled her eyes and giggled. "No, but it wouldn't hurt me if I did . . . Oh, good! This brand guarantees that it won't stain fabrics, either."

"Children wouldn't care if it did," Cain remarked.

"But I'm not a child, and I like this blouse," she retorted.

"You can wear one of my old ones, if you want," Cain offered almost absently as he started working on the sculpture again.

"That's okay," Gin assured him. "I'm not that messy."

She opened the tablet and yanked out a sheet of paper then squeezed globs of finger paints out of the tubes, careful to keep the colors separated before she pulled out another sheet for her masterpiece. Gin eyed the paper and made a face before rolling over onto her stomach, taking care to keep her skirt down as she hooked one foot behind the other, idly bending her legs and reached for the paint paper.

She glanced up to find Cain staring at her with a vague sort of frown that she didn't really understand. She grinned at him and pressed a finger to her lips. "Shh . . . Quiet, right?"

He finally smiled and shook his head before shifting his gaze back to his work in progress.

Gin frowned in concentration as she dipped the point of her claw in the yellow paint and set to work. The paints had been an impulse buy. Though she hadn't messed with that sort of thing in years, she remembered sitting around for hours with her papa, painting pictures while he watched, sometimes sharpening Tetsusaiga, sometimes looking over school papers, but sometimes—just sometimes—she would ask him nicely, and he'd sigh and shake his head . . . then he'd roll up his sleeves, stretch out on the floor, and he'd dip is fingers in the paint and proceed to ruin her picture. She'd loved it. In her old bedroom at home, she still had a stack of the pictures she'd painted with InuYasha's 'help', and she wondered if her mother had kept any of them . . .

 

 

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Bellaniece slipped out of the club and into the cooler night air with a disgusted sigh. 'I can't believe his nerve!' she fumed as she lifted her chin stubbornly and started down the street heading north.

If it weren't bad enough that he sat there for the greatest part of the night glowering at her and David, who had apparently thought he had become grafted to her hip, Kichiro hadn't hardly spoken at all to her friends, noticeably enough for Squirrel to comment on his perceived lack of viable manners to Bellaniece in the bathroom. She was already in a precarious mood because of that, and when she'd come back only to find him swamped in a gaggle of girls—girls who snubbed Bellaniece but were catty enough to be super-friendly when they figured out that Kichiro had accompanied her.

So that was just the icing on the proverbial cake, as far as Bellaniece was concerned. When he looked at her, cast her a subversive glance, then had turned away to chat with the girls . . . Well, that was the final straw. Bellaniece had headed straight for the nearest exit. She was going home.

'He's such a . . . a . . . dog!' she growled as she stomped down the sidewalk in front of the closed shops that lined the street. 'Man-whore, huh . . . Fits him a little too well.'

'Are you really that mad that he was paying attention to those girls?'

'Yes,' she insisted. 'Yes, that's exactly why.'

'Is it? Are you sure?'

'Why else would I be mad? He's the one who can't keep it in his pants for a few weeks while he's here . . . I don't care what he does when he's home, but he's in my father's house, and—'

'And you don't care at all that those girls were only being nice to you because of him?'

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose as indignant color rose in her cheeks. 'Of course not. Those girls . . . I don't care . . .'

She didn't care, not at all—at least, that's what she told herself as she increased her pace. Three blocks from the club, she sighed and stopped, slouching back against the brick building as she looked up at the stars. She didn't want to care. Those girls were petty and shallow. They were the popular ones who always were in the middle of everything, were always having parties and bragging about them at school the next day. Bellaniece had been popular enough, she supposed. Her circle of friends was diverse and eclectic, but they were her friends. Thing was, aside from Squirrel and Kelly, she didn't really have any girl friends. Those girls in the club had been her friends once upon a time. Bellaniece wasn't quite sure why those early bonds had been broken. She hadn't understood at the time, and it still didn't make any sense to her now.

'Don't you know, Belle? Think about it, will you?'

Bellaniece sighed again and shook her head. 'I don't care. It doesn't matter.'

'If it doesn't matter, then why are we standing here thinking about it?'

'They turned their backs on you because of who you are, Belle. You realize that, don't you? Because you're pretty and smart and you don't play their games . . . That's why they don't like you. You threaten them by being yourself, and if that's really how they feel, isn't that their loss?'

Bellaniece pushed away from the building and started walking again. 'Maybe it is,' she agreed slowly. 'Then again, they don't really have to be so mean, do they? And Kichiro . . .'

"Evening, Belle . . . Long time, no see."

Bellaniece gasped and whipped around, narrowing her eyes on the three young men stepping out of the alley. She recognized them from school, though they had all dropped out years ago. She hadn't sensed their presence. Wrapped up in her thoughts, she hadn't realized there was anyone around. She wasn't afraid of the boys, but she didn't like the sudden tension in the air that rose as they closed in around her.

"Hi," she said in a brusque tone meant to let them know that she wasn't welcoming their attentions.

"Hi, yourself," one of them said, a boy she thought was named Tim. The others were Bill and Mark, if she remembered correctly.

"Out alone, Belle?" Bill asked as he lifted a lock of her hair to his lips.

"I was just going home," she quipped, willing herself to remain calm. "I'd better be going now."

"Where's your daddy?" Tim questioned as he stepped closer.

"Daddy's still in Japan," Bellaniece answered, watching the third boy out of the corner of her eye.

"You don't really want to go home, do you?" Bill asked, his arm snaking around her waist as Bellaniece moved away from the two.

"I'm afraid I have to," she answered, forcing herself to smile and trying to contain the urge to run. If she ran, they'd chase her, wouldn't they? She swallowed hard, unwilling to test it.

"Keep us company awhile, Belle. We'll take you home . . . I promise."

Mark and Bill laughed at Tim's statement. Bellaniece didn't get the joke—she didn't want to. Biting her lip as she tried to step away from them, Bellaniece shrugged carelessly. "I'd love to stay and hang out awhile, but I've really got to go . . . Maybe the next time I see you?"

The men laughed and came closer. "We've got all the time in the world, Belle . . . and you're not going anywhere."

 

 

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'For all the work you're doing, you might as well give up and call it a day.'

Cain sighed and shook his head, trying to focus on the untouched sculpture in front of him. 'I was thinking; that's all.'

'Thinking about a certain little hanyou?'

Cain made a face. 'No . . . Yeah . . . So what if I was?'

'You're pathetic, you know it? The tai-youkai can't even resist a little hanyou like her . . . What's she doing, anyway?'

'Pfft! The tai-youkai's youkai can't ignore her, either.'

'Yeah . . . So, what's she doing?'

Cain shifted his gaze without moving his head. Gin was still lying on her stomach on the floor with her tiny feet kicked in the air and idly swinging back and forth as she scowled in a show of grim determination mixing paint in the corner of the paint paper. She glanced up at him but didn't notice his perusal before looking back at the paper once more.

'Hmm . . . I give up. No idea what she's trying to do.'

'You could ask.'

'I could,' Cain agreed, 'but she's rather cute . . . She's really concentrating on . . . whatever it is she's doing . . .'

He watched her for another moment before turning his attention back to the sculpture. Dampening his hands before trying to work, he could hear Gin moving but didn't look up to see what she was doing.

'You realize what you're doing, right? Just so you don't freak out again, like you did with the wings.'

Cain snorted. 'Shut up; I'm almost done.'

'You're sculpting her, you know.'

Cain sighed. 'Yeah, I know.'

Gin giggled suddenly, and Cain looked up to see why, stopping with his hands poised by the sculpture as his eyes widened. Gin was on her knees with her hands in the air and an impish grin on her face, but that wasn't what he was staring at. Oh, no . . . The girl had tied the bottom of her t-shirt to hold it out of the way and had painted very, very teal stripes around her bared stomach flanking her belly button, and he didn't have to think about where the inspiration for that came from. She had mimicked his crests . . . When she saw that he was looking at her, she giggled again. "Ta da!"

"Gin?"

She shook her head. "I'm not Gin; I'm the North American tai-youkai . . . Cain Zelig!"

He choked, trying not to laugh. "Oh . . ."

"I am," she insisted, slowly rising to her feet where she might reach his shoulder . . . if she were lucky . . .

"So . . . Cain . . . you . . . shrunk."

She quirked an eyebrow. "You dare mock me? The great North American tai-youkai, Cain Zelig?"

He coughed. "Nope."

"Good. It's not healthy to do that, you know. I've got . . ." she scowled and shook her head. "How many hunters do I have?"

Cain wrapped the sculpture in a damp cloth. "Three."

She nodded. "I've got three hunters I'll send after you if you mock me: the great and powerful North American tai-youkai."

"Powerful, huh?"

"Yes, powerful . . . Anyway, you don't sound like you're taking me seriously," she teased.

"Oh, no, I'm taking you quite seriously . . . baby girl."

"Pfft!" she scoffed, striding around the room with her hands on her hips. "This great and powerful, magnificent North American tai-youkai will send my three hunters after you if you continue to mock me . . . What are my hunter's names?"

Cain chuckled. "Can't tell you . . . Security breech."

She rolled her eyes. "Fine, then I'll just call them . . . Moe, Larry, and Curly."

Cain choked. "Make sure you tell them that, the next time you see them, oh great and powerful North American tai-youkai."

"You forgot 'magnificent'," she pointed out.

Cain rolled his eyes. "Sorry . . . Oh great and powerful, magnificent North American tai-youkai."

Gin heaved a sigh, stopping in her tracks to lower her chin and pin him with a rather bored stare. "You are mocking me. That's not good. On your knees, little . . . you."

"On my . . . what?"

"Yeah, you heard me, mister . . . This great and powerful, magnificent, awe-inspiring North America tai-youkai—Cain Zelig, has spoken."

"Damn, your title just keeps getting longer, Gin—err . . . Cain."

She grinned. "You know, you're supposed to be intimidated by me," she pointed out.

"Uh huh," he remarked, drying his hands off on a rag towel. "Oh, I am. Really. Absolutely."

She made a face. "You're not. I know; I'm not tall enough."

He watched as she glanced around and snapped her fingers before pointing at him in a 'Just You Wait' affectation. She climbed atop the stool he sometimes used and braced her hands on her hips again. "There! Now I'm tall, so bow!"

"Well . . . Your . . ." he coughed again, "High-ness . . . when did the great and powerful, magnificent, awe-inspiring North America tai-youkai grow . . . breasts?"

Gin gasped then snapped her mouth closed as her cheeks pinked and she shook her head. "Do you dare make light of me? You'll pay for that, you know! Larry, Moe, and Curly will hunt you down and skewer you to the wall."

"Yeah," Cain drawled, "sorry . . . You're just not very intimidating."

"I can be!"

"Uh huh."

"I can!"

"Su-u-ure, you can be."

Gin cracked her knuckles and grimaced. "Ra-a-a-a-awr!"

Cain laughed. "Yeah, also not intimidating."

Gin tapped her foot impatiently but smiled just the same. "Not even a little?"

Cain shook his head.

Gin sighed. "Still, you can't mock the great and powerful, magnificent, awe-inspiring, ferocious North America tai-youkai, Cain Zelig."

"You're right. I shouldn't mock . . . myself . . ."

"I'd make a great tai-youkai," she assured him.

"You would," he agreed, crossing his arms over his chest as he wandered toward her.

"I'd be brave and smart and powerful . . . You'd fear me."

"Absolutely."

"So why don't you?"

"Why don't I what?"

"Fear me?"

"Oh, I do . . . completely."

"Hmm, I don't believe you."

He shrugged. "I make it a rule not to fear anyone who has to stand on a chair to be taller than me."

"But you just said you did fear me."

"Yeah, I lied."

Her eyebrows shot up, disappearing under the thick fringe of her bangs. "You lied to me? You dare lie to the great and powerful, magnificent, awe-inspiring, ferocious and . . ." she trailed off, face scrunching up in concentration.

"Virile?" Cain suggested.

Gin grinned at him. "Yes, okay . . . The great and powerful, magnificent, awe-inspiring, ferocious, and virile North America tai-youkai, Cain Zelig." She stopped suddenly, cheeks pinking as she thought about the word he'd added. "Cain! I can't call you—me—that!"

"I think it sounds logical," he argued. "Cain Zelig, the great and powerful, magnificent, awe-inspiring, ferocious, and virile North America tai-youkai."

Her cheeks reddened a little more. "I don't think that's a nice word."

Cain leaned on the stool on either side of her feet, staring up at her as she blushed darker. "It's a great word; a fantastic word . . . a powerful word."

"You're bad," she mumbled with a shake of her head. "Just . . . bad . . ."

"You sure it's bad, Gin? I mean . . . bad can be . . . good . . ."

"C-Cain?" she stuttered, stepping back. She shrieked as she started to fall off the chair.

Cain caught her. "You're a damn clumsy tai-youkai," he ventured.

"W-Well, I . . . Put me down."

"You're all-powerful," he mumbled, staring into her eyes. "Make me."

"Uh . . . O-Okay . . ." She squirmed.

"Yeah, that's not going to get you put down."

"Please?" she squeaked.

"I'll think about it."

Gin bit her lip, peeking over and glancing at the floor. "Wow . . . You are tall . . ."

"That's not going to get you down, either."

"Wh-What will?"

He chuckled rather nastily. "Beg, baby girl . . . and apologize for trying to impersonate me."

"I was teasing!" she argued.

"Yeah, well, I can carry you around all night. It's your call."

"Okay . . . pretty please?" she asked, batting her eyelashes.

"Nope."

Gin kicked her feet. "Pretty, pretty please?"

"Uh uh."

She made a face. "Pretty, pretty please with . . . with me on top?"

Cain forced his gaze away. 'Oh, damn, she didn't . . .'

His youkai groaned. 'Oh, damn, she did . . .'

"Cain?"

"What?"

"I begged . . . Will you put me down now?"

Cain sighed. "You didn't . . . uh . . . apologize."

She snorted. "You know, I was being nice. I was just trying to make you laugh. You looked a little too serious."

"Yeah, and I'm just making you apologize," he countered.

Gin heaved a heavy sigh. "Fine, fine . . . I'm sorry you don't have a sense of humor, Cain Zelig."

"Who says I don't?" he grumbled.

"You don't! At least if I were the great and powerful, magnificent, awe-inspiring, ferocious North America tai-youkai, I'd have a sense of humor."

His lips twitched. "You forgot virile."

She buried her face against his shoulder. "I did not!"

"You're cute when you blush."

She stopped kicking and turned her head to the side, peering up at him through her lashes. "I . . . I am?"

He grinned. "Yeah, Gin, you are."

 

 

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'That girl has to be the most irritating wench ever created . . .'

'Yeah, worry about that later, Kich. Just find her.'

He'd had about enough for one night. Between watching Bellaniece dance too often and too close to David and the girls who had materialized out of nowhere to fawn all over him, Kichiro wasn't in the best of moods when he suddenly realized that the damn wench had slipped out the doors when he wasn't looking—when she had said that she was going to the ladies' room . . .

'I swear to kami, the next time she says she's going to the bathroom, I'm following her in, if she wants to play it like that . . .'

He started for the rental car then changed his mind. Bellaniece wasn't in it; he'd locked the doors. She was on foot somewhere, and he couldn't track her if he was choked up and smelling the exhaust fumes from the automobile.

She was close; he could feel her presence. Her youki was strong, and something about it . . . A sense of dread crept up his spine. Kichiro frowned and broke into a sprint, following the lure of her as he pushed aside the worry that loomed around the edges.

Three young men were huddled together. Kichiro slowed down as he drew closer. 'Belle . . .?' he thought as he moved in. She was there, but he couldn't see her . . .

"So why don't you just hang out with us?" one of the guys asked, his tone toying, menacing, and Bellaniece's fear spiked.

"I . . . I need to get going," Bellaniece said in a falsely bright tone. Another man chuckled. "Maybe some other time."

"You don't really want to leave yet, do you, Belle?" the third one questioned.

"That's awfully kind of you, to want me to stay, but I've just . . . I'm really tired, and—"

"And that's not very nice of you. Too snobbish for us commoners since your daddy's started jetting you around the world?"

"You heard her," Kichiro growled, cracking his knuckles as he crossed his arms over his chest, restraining the urge to reach over and grab Bellaniece out from their midst. "I suggest you let her go."

The trio gazed at Kichiro, obviously sizing him up. Taking in his tailored clothes, his immaculate shoes, his tidy hair, the obvious leader of the group laughed as he turned to face Kichiro. "This is between us and her," he pointed out with a tolerant smile.

"Is it, Belle?" Kichiro demanded, careful to keep his skyrocketing irritation from showing.

Bellaniece shook her head, eyes wide, afraid. Kichiro shrugged before slowly returning his gaze to the leader. "Call it a lover's spat."

"She says it isn't."

"What can I say? She's just a little pissed off at me."

Kichiro clucked his tongue and cocked his head to the side. "You're calling her a liar?"

"You calling me one?"

"I suppose I am."

"Your mistake then."

Avoiding the man's fist was as simple as leaning to the left. The second punch was just as easy to dodge, and Kichiro shook his head. "That's pretty pathetic," he goaded. "My sister could do better than you."

The man growled and threw another punch. Kichiro stepped out of his way. The man howled and shook his hand after his fist connected with the brick wall. Kichiro shot forward, grabbed the man by the front of his shirt and whirled around to slam him up against the same wall, ignoring the pained grimace and the echoing thud as the man's head snapped back. "I told you to leave her alone. Be glad you only broke your hand. Mess with her again, and I'll make sure you never attack another girl, ever again . . . In fact," he went on, slamming the man against the wall once more, "I'll make sure you never even think about another girl in that way. Hard to do it when you're missing . . . crucial parts . . . You get my meaning?"

The man nodded. Kichiro shoved him against the wall again for good measure. He slumped to the pavement when Kichiro let go, and when he turned around to glare at the other two, they quickly backed away from Bellaniece.

"Get him out of here," he ordered. Bellaniece swallowed hard as the two skirted around her and Kichiro, grabbing their friend's arms and pulling him to his feet. Sparing worried glances over their shoulders, the three hurried off in the opposite direction. Only after they'd turned the corner at the end of the block did Kichiro dare to look at Bellaniece again. "Just what the fuck did you think you were doing?" he demanded, his tone low, clipped, as tight as the restraint he had on his temper.

Bellaniece bit her bottom lip and glanced around: up, down, side to side . . . anywhere but directly at him. "I . . . I was going home," she replied.

"Didn't look like that to me," he growled.

"I was!" she argued then grimaced. "I meant to . . ."

"Do you have any idea what could have happened to you?" he asked, unable to mask the incredulity in his voice.

"It was fine," she assured him. "Just fine. They wouldn't have hurt me."

"Oh, for the love of—Belle, are you dense? I didn't think you were, but I'm starting to wonder. Are you completely stupid?"

"No, I'm not!" she yelled, voice cracking as her gaze sparked dangerously. "Of course I'm not stupid! Everything was fine; just fine! It would have been fine, even if you hadn't come along!"

The control he had over his temper snapped. Before he could think about what he was doing, Kichiro shot forward, grabbed Bellaniece by the arms, bore her back against the wall in the opening of the alley. She gasped and uttered a strangled cry; a sound that reminded him of Ryomaru's cat. She stared at him with fear-darkened eyes. Kichiro shook his head before she could speak. "Damn it, wench! You see how simple it was for me to pin you, and you think you could handle them? All three of them? You can't even handle me, little girl."

"Let go," she squeaked but didn't fight him.

Kichiro's lips curled up in a humorless grin. "You put yourself in danger. Why?" He sighed, closing his eyes for a moment when she didn't answer. "Why, Belle?"

"I wasn't . . ."

"Why didn't you fight them? You're hanyou. You're tough. Why didn't you?"

Bellaniece shook her head, nostrils flaring, mouth opening without a sound. Kichiro growled, thrusting his knee between her legs to pin her in place, grasping both of her slender wrists in one of his hands and deliberately raking his hand up her side. "You see now, Belle? Do you get it yet? You're safe with me; I won't do that to you, but they were going to—"

"I want to go home," she uttered in a tone akin to a child's whimper, tugging at his wrists, to no avail.

"And I want an answer," he countered.

'Kich?'

'What?'

'. . . There's something . . . strange . . . about Belle . . .'

'Strange?'

His youkai sighed. 'I don't think . . .'

'Don't think what?'

'. . . I don't think she's wearing . . . panties . . .'

Kichiro's eyes widened then narrowed as he glared at the girl in question. She was biting her lip again, looking past him at the empty street. He couldn't believe what his youkai had said. With a harsh curse, he grasped her hip through the thin cotton fabric. "Holy damn, Belle!" he exclaimed. "You aren't . . . Damn it!"

She winced but didn't answer.

With another vicious round of cursing, he let go of her, grabbed her wrist, and dragged her down the street to the waiting car.

She slipped into the automobile without saying a word. Kichiro wasn't sure what he could say; didn't trust himself to try to speak as he strode around and jerked open the door. He slammed it hard. Bellaniece flinched. "If you're smart, you won't say one damn thing to me until after we get back to the mansion," he growled.

Bellaniece sighed softly, resting her head against the window.

Kichiro sighed, too. He didn't know what to do about her. Remembering the fear that radiated from her . . . recalling the sense of dread that had frightened him . . .

He didn't know what to say to her, and for the first time in his life, he didn't know what to do, either.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kichiro didn't trust himself to speak to Bellaniece on the twenty minute drive back to the Zelig mansion. Caught between irritation that she would be so stupid as to think she would be safe to walk home, the fear of what might have happened if he had been a little later, and the mind-boggling realization that the impetuous girl wasn't even wearing panties . . .

By the time he stopped the car in the circular driveway in front of the mansion, Kichiro was no closer to having control of his soaring temper than he had been when they'd started home.

"Stop," he commanded as she hurried up the stairs onto the porch. Bellaniece did, mid-step, foot poised just above the top rise. She cautiously set her foot down but refused to face him. 'Just as well,' he figured, scowling at the asphalt as he kicked his toe against it. 'What the hell do I have to do? Beat some sense into her?'

Slowly, cautiously stepping toward her, hands buried in his pockets to keep him from grabbing and shaking her, Kichiro stopped at the base of the stairs and cleared his throat. "Down here," he growled.

Bellaniece grimaced. "I . . . I'm really tired," she mumbled. "I want to go to bed."

"Yeah, you can," he agreed. She started to retreat again, but stilled when he continued, "After you're done explaining yourself."

"Nothing happened," she whispered, shaking her head as she crossed her arms over her chest and shuffled her feet nervously. "I'm fine."

He sighed. "First, why did you leave the club?"

Bellaniece shrugged. "I didn't . . . I didn't think you'd notice. I just wanted to go home; that's all . . . You looked like you were having fun with your girlfriends . . ."

"My what?"

She scowled at him. "Your girlfriends."

"What are you talking about?"

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "The girls at the club," she bit out. "Kendra and Missy and Jasmine. They were all over you, and you . . . Whatever. Add to your nameless conquests. I don't care."

She whipped around to flee again. Kichiro caught her wrist and held her back. "What do you—? How could—? Those were your friends, not mine!"

"They weren't my friends!" she shot back, jerking her arm away though she stood her ground.

He snorted. "Yeah, well, they said they were."

"Then they lied, because they're not!"

Kichiro rolled his eyes. "Don't be stupid! They said they used to come to your slumber parties and stuff!"

"Sure, Dr. Izayoi! The key there being 'used to'. Do you remember Cindy at the convenience store? They were all just like her."

"I didn't know that, damn it, and that doesn't excuse the fact that you deliberately left! You put yourself in danger! What the hell were you thinking?"

She flinched at his gradually increasing volume. "I told you: I wanted to go home!"

"Do you have any idea what they were going to do to you? Do you? Why didn't you fight them?"

"Fight them? With what?"

"Damn it, Belle, with your claws!"

"I mean what I said, you jerk! How am I supposed to fight them?"

"Easy," he snarled. "You know how."

"No," she bit out icily, "I don't."

Kichiro started to scoff at that, but stopped, frown deepening into a suspicious glower. "You . . . don't? You're hanyou! What do you mean, you don't?"

"I don't fight," she pointed out in a tone that assured him that she thought he was being dense on purpose.

His mind slowed as he shook his head and held up a hand to emphasize his words. "You're telling me that your father never taught you how to defend yourself?"

"Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying."

"Why the fuck not?"

"I'm perfectly safe here. I grew up here."

"Belle, people are crappy.   Haven't you figured that out yet? They're not nice, they're not sweet, and there are some that would hurt you!"

"I don't want to talk about this," she insisted, stomping up the stairs and unlocking the door. Kichiro caught the handle before she could slam it in his face, and he followed her inside.

"You're going to talk about it!" he growled, striding around her to block the stairwell—and her retreat.

"What does it matter?" she yelled. "It didn't matter to you! It didn't matter to you at all when you—"

Kichiro shook his head when Bellaniece cut herself off. "When I what?"

Her cheeks reddened and she stubbornly refused to meet his eyes. "Forget it."

Kichiro heaved a sigh as he fought to retain some measure of control. "When I what?" he repeated.

"I've walked home alone lots of times," she pointed out. "Tokyo is much bigger than Bevelle, and you don't seem to have a problem with me walking home alone there, do you?"

"Pardon?"

Bellaniece snorted. "You've forgotten? You made me walk home alone the night you left me at the restaurant, didn't you? But I suppose that was okay since you were the one who walked out on me."

He shook his head. "I left you money for a taxi."

"You didn't."

"Oh, yes, I did! I left it on the table with the money for dinner."

"And I knew that?"

His retort died on his tongue. He hadn't told her that, had he? No, he hadn't, and she had every right to be angry at him for that, too . . .

'Hmm, Kich . . . You don't suppose . . . I mean, she had to be wearing panties then, didn't she?'

'What? What's that got to do with anything?'

His youkai sighed. 'Balls, she's reckless . . .'

Kichiro sighed, too. "Belle . . ." he began, steadying his tone as he narrowed his gaze on her. "Tell me something?"

"What?"

"Your lack of undergarments . . . Was that a onetime thing tonight? Please tell me it was . . ."

Bellaniece snorted. "Don't flatter yourself, doctor. I don't wear panties."

'Oh, damn . . .'

"What do you mean, you don't wear panties?"

The heathen girl didn't even have the grace to blush. "I would think that would be a fairly straightforward statement, don't you agree?"

"No . . . No, I don't think I do . . ."

"All right, then, I'll say it in simpler terms: I don't own panties. There. Did you catch that?"

"Kami, Belle! How stupid are you?"

"Oh, please! You act like it's a travesty!"

"It is!"

"It's not!"

"It's—"

"—Panties!"

"Damn it, it's more than that! At least panties provide a little protection!"

"Protection?" she echoed with a terse laugh. "Against what? And you're one to talk, Mr. I-Lost-My-Pants in the tournament!"

He snorted. "That's completely different!"

"How so?"

"Because, wench, I'm a male!"

Bellaniece shook her head and sucked in her cheek as she regarded him speculatively. "Spoken like a true butt munch."

"Listen, little girl—"

"No, you listen! I was fine! As much as you don't want to accept facts, nothing happened to me—nothing at all! I could have handled those boys! I've handled boys like those before. Do me a favor and leave me alone, all right? No one is going to do anything to me. There's no one out to get me or hurt me!"

"You're so sure?" Kichiro countered. "You don't think that they were a threat? Why is that, Belle? Why?"

"For the same reason no one would mess with your sister!"

"Your father has Tetsusaiga and a short fuse?"

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "Of course not! No one would be stupid enough to mess with me! My father is Cain Zelig, the North American tai-youkai, just like your uncle is the Japanese tai-youkai! No one wouldn't dare touch me!"

Kichiro dragged his hand over his face, his level of exasperation reaching fevered heights. "Oh, yeah? Well, I got news for you, princess. Your daddy isn't here to save you, and even the all-powerful North American tai-youkai wouldn't have gotten there fast enough to save you tonight. Now I'll ask you again: do you know what those guys would have done to you if I hadn't gotten there in time?"

Bellaniece paled as the implications of his words sank in. Hand shaking as she smoothed her dress, she spared him a momentary glance before she quickly looked away. "They . . . They said they'd take me home," she murmured.

He grimaced inwardly. He didn't want to scare her any more than she was already, but he couldn't let her endanger herself anymore, either. At least she was listening, even if it wasn't something she wanted to hear. "Belle . . . they wouldn't have bought you home, and by the time they were finished with you, getting home would have been the last of your worries. Do you understand me?"

She shook her head, as if to refute his claim. Biting her lip, she hugged herself tighter. "No, they said—"

"I know what they said. You couldn't fight me off, could you?"

She swallowed hard. "You're hanyou . . ." she muttered.

"Yeah, I'm hanyou, but there were three of them, and you said, yourself: you can't fight. All they'd have had to do was pin you down—maybe—and push up your skirt, and then there wouldn't have been a damn thing that I could have done to save you. What if even one of those guys had been youkai? What then?"

"They wouldn't . . ."

"Belle, you can't believe that, can you?"

She winced. "My daddy—"

He sighed, unwilling to listen to any more of her assurances when he knew in his heart that she was just grasping for straws. The entire situation sickened him, and he couldn't help but feel just a little sorry for her, too. "Look, just don't do it again, okay? Don't . . . Don't take off like that again, all right?"

She peeked up at him finally, eyes bright, shimmering, and he sighed. He wanted her to understand the danger she was in. He hadn't wanted to hurt her. "I . . . I need to go lie down," she told him. He stepped aside and watched as she ran past him up the stairs.

'That really sucked.'

Snapping the deadbolt lock on the front door, Kichiro shook his head. 'Yeah, it did . . . I had to tell her, right?'

'Sure you did. She was careless and impulsive. Reminds me of your brother and all the hell he raised.'

'Uh huh, and look how that turned out.'

'Yeah . . . that's true. If you'd have been a little later, it could have been Belle, and that would have been worse.'

'Damn . . . I can't fix this, can I?'

'You could try.'

Kichiro started up the stairs. 'How's that?'

'She said she needed to lie down. Do you really think she's sleeping?'

'I doubt it.'

'She was scared, Kich. You know she was. Remember when Gin was younger, and she'd get scared?'

Kichiro paused on the landing. His bedroom was down the hallway to the right. Bellaniece's was to the left. 'Gin used to try crawling in bed with anyone who would let her.'

'Yeah, she did.'

'I hardly think—'

'Not that, baka! Maybe she just needs you to hold her. Maybe that would be enough.'

Kichiro considered that for a moment, staring down the hallway at the darkened window on the far end. Bellaniece's expression, the late fear that had swelled around her as he explained to her, just what risks she was taking . . . He shook his head and strode down the empty corridor.

 

 

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'That wouldn't have happened!' Bellaniece told herself as she smashed her face into her pillow and squeezed her eyes closed. 'It wouldn't have! Things like that . . . They don't happen in Bevelle . . . maybe in Tokyo, but never in Bevelle . . .'

'He's right, you know. You were careless, and you were in over your head.'

Bellaniece sniffled and groaned softly. 'You would take his side. This is stupid . . . They wouldn't have . . . they wouldn't dare . . .'

'I'm not taking sides, Belle, and you know Kichiro was right. Your father would have a fit if he knew you'd deliberately left that club alone at night, and you know that, too.'

' . . . I don't want to talk to you. Leave me alone.'

'Why are you crying? You're fine, right? Kichiro got there in time to stop them. No use crying now, is there?'

She whimpered into her pillow and clenched her jaw so tightly that it ached.

"Belle?"

She stiffened at the sound of Kichiro's soft tone. "Your room's at the other end of the h-hall," she informed him without unburying her face, grimacing as her voice broke despite her resolve not to let it happen.

He sighed.   "Listen . . . I, uh . . . I wasn't trying to upset you. I just . . . I wasn't."

She hiccupped. "Go away."

The soft click of his shoes on the hardwood floor came nearer, and Bellaniece stubbornly fought to blink back her tears. "Don't cry . . ." he said quietly, his voice registering a hint of panic.

Bellaniece winced. "Just g-go away, Dr. Izayoi."

The bed lilted as he sank down beside her, and he cleared his throat. "I wish you were right, you know," he told her. "I wish the world was a perfect place where you'd never have to think of ugly things. It's not, and . . . and when I think about what might have happened if I'd been any later . . ."

"Why?" she rasped, throat aching from the tears she held back. "Why do you care? You don't . . . even like me, so why?"

"I . . . like . . . you," he grumbled. "Why would you think I don't?"

She choked out a hoarse, incredulous laugh. "Maybe because you're n-never nice to m-me. You've never liked m-me."

"Belle . . ."

She sat up, dashing the back of her hand across her eyes as she glowered at the hanyou. "I hate you!" she yelled, scooting away from him as she sniffled.

He winced at the venom in her tone. "What?"

She shook her head. "I hate you!" she blasted him again. "I never cry, you stupid man! I never, ever do, and y-you made me do it!"

He reached out to touch her face. She jerked away from him. He let his hand drop and sighed. "Yeah, I'm an ass, and you should hate me."

She blinked, shoulders slouching as she glared at her hands. "Yes, exactly."

"And I'm a jerk, too."

"Uh huh."

"Don't forget mean."

"There's that."

"And grouchy."

"That, too."

"You, uh . . . You want to hit me?"

Bellaniece's chin snapped up, shaking her head in confusion. "Why w-would I do that?"

He shrugged, not meeting her gaze as he stared at the wall with a concentrated frown. "It'll make you feel better to hit something."

She wrinkled her nose. "I can't hit you," she grumbled.

"Sure, you can . . . probably hit like a girl, though."

"I am a girl."

"You are?"

"Why, you—"

"Your . . . father . . . paint that?" he asked, nodding tersely at the mural on the wall.

She glanced over her shoulder. "Yeah, he did."

"Huh."

"What?" she demanded.

He shrugged. "Pretty big castle," he remarked as he stared at the mural.

She sighed. "It's my castle."

"Yours?"

"Yeah, mine. I'm the fairy princess. That's me, in the turret."

"You look pretty small there."

She rolled her eyes. "What do you expect? I was three when he painted it."

He digested that in silence then glanced at her. "Looks like you're waiting for something."

"Not something," she corrected as she wiggled around to face the mural. "Someone."

"Oh?"

"Mhmm . . . my prince: Prince Charming."

"Still waiting for him?"

She shook her head. "No . . . not really."

"So . . . You've found . . . him."

"Sure. He's my daddy."

Kichiro scowled. "Your daddy is your Prince Charming?"

"Of course. Who else would it be?"

A vaguely irritated look passed over the doctor's features. Bellaniece's eyebrows drew together as she watched him. "I don't know," he answered. "I'd think your future mate would be your Prince Charming."

"No, just Daddy."

"Why your father?"

Bellaniece drew her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, resting her chin on her knees. "He always rescued me. I'd climb up to the top of the castle—or a table, whichever was closest—to escape the fire-breathing dragons, and Daddy would come and save me. He always came to save me."

'Except tonight, he didn't. Tonight . . .'

Bellaniece grimaced, pushing the unpleasant reminder aside.

"You know, Belle, one day your daddy won't be there to save you."

"Daddy will always be there," she retorted before she could stop herself.

He seemed surprised by the vehemence in her tone. "You're kind of old for that kind of hero-worship, aren't you?"

She blushed and scowled at the ruffled pink bedspread. "It's not hero-worship; it's true. Nothing's going to happen to him. I won't let it."

"Belle—"

She shook her head furiously, pinning him with a dark glower to cut him off. "He's my daddy. I need him."

Kichiro sighed and hiked his leg up so that he could face her. "Sure, but you know, someday you'll find a mate, and then you'll rely on him to . . . save you from fire-breathing dragons, right?"

Bellaniece snorted. "No, I won't."

"I feel sorry for your future mate, then," he grumbled.

She shook her head again. "No, I mean, I'm not going to find a mate."

"What?"

"I . . . I don't want one, ever."

He was quiet for a moment, probably trying to decide if he thought she was being serious or not. "Why not?" he asked in a much-too-reasonable tone.

"I just don't."

She had a feeling that he knew better. She tamped down a blush and shifted her gaze away. "And you think you can stop it from happening?"

"I told you, he made a promise. Well, so did I. I promised myself I wouldn't let him die. He's not the only one who keeps his word."

Kichiro sighed, rubbing his temple. "I know it seems harsh, but you can't manipulate him into staying alive."

Bellaniece glared belligerently at him. "You're wrong!"

"Am I?"

"You're such a jerk, you know it?"

"I'm realistic, Belle, which is more than I can say for you, at the moment."

"You want realistic?" she countered. "When I was little, I used to think that I would grow up and find a mate, get married, have babies—all of that, but then I figured out that something was weird. See, whenever I told Daddy that I'd have a house full of pups, he'd get this strange look on his face. He'd smile and say that it sounded like a good plan, and for a long time I didn't understand. I do now. I'm not stupid. Dreams have prices, don't they? Well, the price of mine is my daddy, and he's all I've got."

Kichiro didn't respond to her speech right away. Frowning at his fist that he idly punched against the coverlet, he considered what she'd said.

Bellaniece wiped away a tear that had escaped, glaring at the offending moisture before she stubbornly shook her head again. "I don't have a mother or aunts and uncles. I don't have grandparents or siblings. I'm not like you, Dr. Izayoi. My daddy . . . Daddy's the only one I've ever had. Sorry if that sounds selfish."

Kichiro slowly raised his head, golden eyes glowing in the softly lit room. "It's not selfish, Belle. It's not selfish, at all. If it were my old man . . ." He sighed. "I'd feel the same way."

"You . . . You would?"

He smiled wanly and shrugged. "Yeah, I would."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Happy birthday, Gin," Kagome said as she set a strawberry cream cake on the coffee table in front of her daughter.

Gin smiled, scrunching up her shoulders as she waited for Ryomaru to light the stick candles.

"Yeah, just don't smash your paws in it like you did when you were a pup," InuYasha grumbled, pulling Kagome into his lap where he sat on the floor beside the glass doors that opened into InuYasha's Forest.

Gin giggled as a hint of pink washed into her cheeks, and she ducked her head. "I was little then," she pointed out.

"You're still little, baby girl," Ryomaru snorted.

"I think she just wanted all the cake for herself," Toga remarked, arms around Sierra as he bent down to rest his chin on her shoulder.

"I can't help it," Gin countered. "Mama's cakes are the best."

"The best?" Cain asked, catching Gin's gaze. He lifted his eyebrows in silent question. Gin giggled again and ducked her head a little lower.

"I have it on good authority that your cakes are quite good, Gin," Sesshoumaru remarked.

Gin shot her uncle a quick glance but quickly looked away again. He looked innocent enough. Then again, Sesshoumaru could probably play poker with the devil—and win.

"Do you remember the time Gin snuck into Ryomaru and Kichiro's cake?" Kagome asked with a little giggle.

InuYasha snorted despite the tolerant smile on his face. "Like I'd forget that."

"Keh! She ate the whole damn thing," Ryomaru grouched.

"Oh?" Nezumi queried.

"Yep," he began. "She knew Mother had made a cake and snuck into the kitchen, hopped onto the counter, and ate nearly all of it by the time oyaji found her.

Kagome laughed. "I only left her alone for a minute."

"I ain't never seen anyone eat so much cake in their lives," InuYasha mused.

Gin blushed. "Like I said, Mama makes good cakes."

"Hmm, wasn't that around the time when we had such trouble getting Gin to leave her clothes on?" Kagome asked, sitting up and turning to stare at her mate.

InuYasha thought that over. "Oh . . . Yeah, I think it was. Couldn't get her to leave her clothes on for nothing, especially right after her bath."

"Ma-ma!" Gin choked out.

Kagome laughed, ignoring her daughter's acute embarrassment as she shook her head and giggled. "She took off once, and you had to track her down."

InuYasha sniggered. "That's right . . ."

"Where did you find her that time?" Kagura asked.

"Standing under Goshinboku at the shrine."

Sierra giggled. "Naked under the God Tree, huh?"

Gin groaned. She didn't dare look at Cain, but she had a feeling that he was trying not to laugh.

"Wouldn't have been so bad, but Gin's obaa-chan was giving a tour at the time . . ." InuYasha added for good measure. "They seemed a little surprised to see her standing there . . . The look on your mother's face was worth it, though. The jiijii chased me around with a broom, like I'd sent Gin there like that on purpose. Called it the curse of the hanyou . . ."

"I'll bet," Kagome agreed. "Maybe we should just leash this one," she suggested, patting her still-flat tummy.

"Let that be a lesson to you, Toga . . . Hanyou love to be naked. Good luck with that," Ryomaru commented, jerking his head at Toga's daughters.

Toga snorted. "Keh! This Toga's daughters will remain fully clothed."

"All right," Gin cut in with a shake of her very red-cheeked head. "As much fun as it is to play 'Let's Humiliate the Birthday Girl', it's time to move on."

Kagura chuckled, ignoring Gin's plea to change the subject. "Oh, do you remember the recital, Kagome?"

Kagome groaned then laughed.

"Ah, the recital," Nezumi said slowly, tapping her chin with her index finger. "I remember hearing that one . . . sort of . . ."

InuYasha made a face. "She kept lifting up her dress."

Kagome rolled her eyes as Gin scrunched a little lower in her seat. "She was nervous!" Kagome pointed out.

"And she did it over and over and over and—"

"And she was four," Kagome interrupted.

"She was flashing everyone, wench!"

"Well, you made it worse, you know," she remarked, poking an accusing finger in InuYasha's chest.

"Oyaji marched up to the stage and demanded that she put her skirt down," Ryomaru told Nezumi, who at least tried not to laugh. Slapping her hand over her mouth, she turned red and coughed suddenly. Gin stifled a groan.

"She put her skirt down, didn't she?" InuYasha grumbled.

"And she never did go back to her dance lessons," Kagome said with a shake of her head.

"With as much trouble as she had keeping her clothes where they belonged, is there any question why I never let her go on dates?" InuYasha growled.

"Well, she did say she was probably going to die a virgin," Sierra quipped.

Gin groaned louder, her face painfully flushed as she pressed her hands to her cheeks and tried her best to sink through the chair and through the floor, straight into hell, where she was sure she'd be far more comfortable.

"Damn straight," InuYasha agreed.

"That's not . . . too bad . . ." Cain remarked in a far too-casual tone. "Did she do anything else, like suck her thumb?"

Gin sucked in a harsh breath at his seemingly-innocent question.

"No, she never did that," Kagome answered, seeing nothing amiss in his query.

The telephone rang, and Gin answered it, grateful for any distraction that it would provide. "Hello?"

"Happy birthday, Gin-chan."

"Nii-chan!" she exclaimed. "Thank you!"

"I figured you'd be there."

Gin pushed the button for the speaker phone. "Yeah . . ."

"Have cake yet?"

"Nope," Ryomaru remarked. "We were telling our favorite Gin stories. You got one?"

"Gin stories?" Kichiro chuckled. "Oi, oyaji . . . I ever tell you about her and that little friend of hers?"

"Nii-chan . . ." Gin choked out. 'Oh, no . . . he wouldn't . . .'

But he would.

"We were all sent to look for Gin because it was past dinner time, and she wasn't home," he explained to Nezumi. "Ryo went into the forest, the old man headed the opposite way, Mother started making phone calls, and I went to baa-chan's . . . She always had cookies, so I figured either I'd find Gin or I'd get cookies."

Nezumi rolled her eyes. "Figures."

"Did you find her?" Cain asked. Gin had almost forgotten that he was there—almost.

"This is a silly story, nii-chan," Gin insisted, unable to keep her face from reddening even more.

Kichiro's chuckle turned almost sinister. "Yeah, I did . . . She was behind the well house with that neighbor pup. Seems they were playing . . ."

"Playing?" Toga asked, since he'd not heard this particular story.

Gin wondered if it would be possible to kill her brother over the phone. "Nii-chan . . ."

"Sure. I think the game's called, 'Show Me Yours, and I'll Show You Mine' . . ."

InuYasha growled and cracked his knuckles. "I remember that pup," he remarked since this was the first he'd heard of it, too. "I remember what he smelled like . . ."

"Papa!" Gin nearly whimpered, plotting a thousand bloody and painful demises for her deranged sibling.

"Aw, she was, what? Five?" Ryomaru said in an effort to appease their father.

"I handled it. He never came around to play with her again, did he?" Kichiro pointed out.

"Nii-chan—purple—painted hair!" Gin choked out.

That ended Kichiro's amusement. Toga coughed. "Ah, yes . . . the paint . . ."

"Now, now," Sierra said, patting her mate's arm. "Kichiro looks really nice in . . . nail polish."

"Nail . . . what?" InuYasha growled, eyes flashing wide then narrowing as he glanced around the room.

"How did you—? I mean, I never—" Kichiro began.

"Bellaniece sent me pictures," Gin piped up, more than happy to pass on the embarrassed ridicule to someone else.

"She . . . what?"

Nezumi laughed. "Nothing to be ashamed of, Kich . . . it was a really nice shade . . . I'd never wear it, myself, but, well . . . It looked . . . great . . . on you."

"Balls, Kich, I thought you said you wasn't gay," Ryomaru grumbled.

"I'm not—damn it. I take it you shared whatever pictures you got your paws on, baby girl?"

Gin giggled, her flush subsiding with the passing of her position on the hot seat. "I only sent them to Nezumi-chan, and Zelig-sensei, of course."

"I showed them to Ryomaru," Nezumi admitted.

"I thought Toga'd get a kick out of them," Ryomaru put in.

Toga chuckled. "You ought to know by now, I tell Sierra everything . . . and I thought that the tai-youkai should be informed of your activities in the States."

"Well, hell . . ." Kichiro grumbled.

"It would have matched your ceremonial clothes nicely," Kagura added.

"This Sesshoumaru knew that a baka like InuYasha should not have spawned . . ."

"What pictures?" InuYasha demanded.

"I want to see them," Kagome chimed in.

"Oh, well, I've still got them on my cell," Shippou added helpfully, leaning forward to dig his cell phone out of his back pocket.

"That's okay, dear," Rin commented, holding up her cell phone. "I have them on mine, too." Seconds later, Rin handed the phone to Coral, who giggled and showed Cassidy before running over to hand the phone to Kagome.

"What a . . . lovely shade . . ." Kagome choked out.

InuYasha's ears and eyes twitched as he stared in horror at the device. "Kami . . . I . . . Oh, balls!" he growled, snapping the phone closed and tossing it away as if it were the carrier of the Plague.

"InuYasha! That's not a nice expression!" Kagome scolded, cheeks reddening.

"Yeah, well, I can't for the life of me figure out how he came out of mine, wench."

"Damn it," Kichiro cut in. "I hate you all."

The line went dead. Sierra and Nezumi were the first to break into giggles. Ryomaru snorted loudly. Toga sniggered while Shippou laughed outright. Cain looked distinctly like he was choking. Sesshoumaru rolled his eyes while Kagura covered her mouth. Kagome heaved a sigh and closed her eyes. InuYasha continued to glower at the gathering. Coral asked what everyone was laughing at. Cassidy climbed into Sesshoumaru's lap and whispered something in his ear that was lost in the chaotic din. Gin could only be thankful that she was no longer the center of attention.

 

 

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Kagome wandered back into the living room with a cream colored fine linen envelope in her hand. She dropped it into Gin's lap in passing. Gin glanced up at her mother and shook her head slightly. "Here, Mama. You dropped this."

Kagome laughed as she sank down in the chair beside her daughter. "I didn't."

"But it's addressed to you."

"It is, but we're not using it. I thought maybe you'd like to go."

Gin frowned and turned the envelope over in her hands. "The Tokyo Fine Arts Commission?"

InuYasha rolled his eyes. "Kami, not one of those again," he grumbled. "I don't care what you say, wench, I'm not going."

Kagome wrinkled her nose. "I know," she told him. "That's why I gave the invitation to Gin. That way the family's still represented."

Sesshoumaru nodded. "Good . . . That means I don't have to go, either."

"Arts Commission?" Nezumi asked.

"Don't even think about it, Nez. I'd be dead before you'd catch me there," Ryomaru growled.

"Toga and Sierra were going to go," Kagome explained, "but Sierra didn't feel like standing around for that long, not that I blame her."

"Oh, wow!" Gin exclaimed softly, staring at the embossed invitation. "I can go? Really?"

InuYasha snorted. "Yeah, it ain't all it's cracked up to be. Fucking stupid, if you ask me . . ."

"Who's exhibit?" Cain asked.

"L'amont Pierre," Gin read then gasped, waving the invitation around. "Oh! Really? Oh, I love his work! Really, really, Mama? I can have this?"

Kagome laughed. "Sure, you can. It seemed like something you'd enjoy." She cast Cain a speculative look. "Maybe you can talk your teacher into going with you?"

Cain shrugged. "Yeah, sure. I know him. He's a real . . . He's interesting."

InuYasha stomped over and snatched the invitation, scowling as he read it. "Yeah, not for me," he decided, handing it back to his daughter.

Gin squealed happily and hopped to her feet to hug her father. "This is so exciting! I've never been to one of these before, and L'amont-san is so good!"

"Didn't you write him a few letters, Gin?" Kagome asked as Gin sat back down.

"Yeah, but I never mailed them," she admitted. "Do you think I'll be able to talk to him?"

Kagome shrugged. "The artist normally attends, so maybe you will. You'll have to get a nice dress."

Gin shook her head. "I've got something that'd be perfect, I think . . . I can't believe I'm going to meet the L'amont Pierre!"

"When's the exhibit?" Cain asked, raising his voice to be heard over Gin's squealing.

"Friday night," Kagome told him. "Is something wrong, Zelig-san?"

Cain's irritated expression blanked, and he shook his head. "Nope, not a thing, and just 'Cain' is fine."

"I can think of a few more names that would be just peachy," InuYasha grumbled.

"InuYasha!" Kagome gasped.

"What'd I say?" InuYasha demanded.

"I can't wait!" Gin gushed. "A real art opening!"

InuYasha snorted. "I'm warning you, baby girl, those things are pointless and stupid . . . right up your uncle's alley."

Sesshoumaru stood up, rolling his eyes before casting InuYasha a bored stare. "Come, Kagura. I've suffered in the presence of ignorance long enough for one day."

Gin stood up and quickly kissed her mother and father since Sesshoumaru had offered to drive Cain and her back to their apartment building. "Bye, Mama; bye, Papa. Thanks for dinner!"

"Happy birthday, Gin," Kagome called after them.

Gin smiled as she hurried toward the door behind her aunt and uncle. Embarrassment aside, she had to admit that the surprise of the art opening made it all worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

'You made a few too many sandwiches, didn't you?'

Bellaniece blinked and stared at the cellophane covered plate of sandwiches and shrugged. 'Maybe.'

Sitting in the shade of the old white ash tree in the yard behind the mansion, she took out a peanut butter sandwich and carefully pulled the cellophane tight again. It had been years since she'd last sat under this tree with a plate of sandwiches she'd made in hopes of coaxing Cain into coming outside to have a picnic with her. She wasn't sure why she had the desire to do such a thing again.

'Do you suppose it might have something to do with what you were talking about the other night?'

She sighed, pulling a bite off her sandwich and popping it into her mouth. 'There's that . . .'

She hadn't meant to be so mean to Kichiro. She hadn't meant to say she hated him. She didn't hate him; not really. She was just upset, but maybe he'd known that, too.

Strange, really, and it wasn't something that Bellaniece could put her finger on, but something had changed that night. He was still grouchy and irritable in the morning until he had at least a pot and a half of coffee in his system, but overall, there was a gentler quality to him that she didn't fully understand. The change unsettled her, and that was something else she wasn't about to dwell on.

"Belle-chan . . ."

Bellaniece slowly lifted her gaze at the sound of the tight tone Kichiro used as he strode across the lawn.

"Something wrong, Dr. Izayoi?"

He stuffed his hands into his pockets and glowered at the landscape beyond. "Is there anything you failed to mention to me about the night you . . . painted my nails and . . . ruined my hair?"

Bellaniece swallowed another bite of her sandwich and shrugged. "No . . . Can't think of anything else, and the dye will wash out, you know . . . Why?"

Kichiro nodded slowly. "So you don't remember doing anything else? Nothing at all? No . . . taking pictures or . . . anything . . .?"

Bellaniece cleared her throat and willed herself not to laugh at the disgruntled hanyou. "Pictures?" she repeated in a bright tone. "Ah, yes . . . Now that you mention it, I . . . do . . . remember . . ."

Kichiro sighed and squatted beside her. "Do you? Well, I thought it'd interest you to know that Gin really enjoyed your sharing them with her."

"Did she? I'm glad she liked them."

He nodded. "As did Nezumi, who got them from Gin."

"Oh . . . Now see, I didn't know Gin was going to share them."

"And Ryomaru, who saw them on Nezumi's cell."

Bellaniece rubbed the back of her neck nervously, wondering why Kichiro wasn't screaming since he was obviously not seeing the humor in the given situation. "What did he think?"

"He liked them well enough to send them to Toga. Care to take a guess what Toga did with them?"

"I . . . don't think I should."

Kichiro nodded slowly. "You owe me. Big."

Bellaniece bit her bottom lip. "How . . . big?"

"Oh . . . huge, princess. Huge."

"We could just . . . call it even?"

"Kami, no."

"Did I mention? I didn't have siblings . . . So, I never got to play dress-up with anyone else?"

He shook his head. "Creative, but still no."

"I made sandwiches," she suggested, hoping to distract him since she wasn't at all sure about the strange glint in his eyes.

"Oh, don't do that," he told her.

She blinked and held up the plate. "Do what?"

"Don't give me that look."

"Look?"

"Yeah, that one."

"What look?"

"That, 'I'm The Nicest Girl in the Whole Wide World' look, because you're not getting out of this; not by a long shot."

"Okay . . . I'll . . . let you paint my nails and dye my hair and take pictures for Gin?"

"Hmm," he drawled as he sat down and leaned back on his hands. "That's a tough one . . . well . . . Let me think about it . . . Umm . . . No, not even close."

"Well, what are you going to do to me?" she asked, unable to keep the hint of trepidation out of her voice.

He sighed. "I haven't decided yet. I'm torn between the idea of feeding you to a fire breathing dragon and something far more feasible."

"Why do I have the feeling I'm not going to like you're more feasible idea?"

He grinned and stretched out in the grass, propping his cheek on his palm as he reached out to twist a lock of her hair around his finger. "Oh, I don't know . . . probably because you won't."

"And why won't I?"

His grin widened. She almost scampered to her feet to run away. "It's simple, Belle. You're going to let me teach you how to defend yourself."

Her mouth dropped open. She snapped it closed as color flooded her cheeks. "That's not a fair trade," she informed him.

"It is. One lesson for every eye that saw each of those pictures. That's twelve people—so twenty-four eyes times two pictures equals forty-eight lessons, princess."

"I choose the dragon," she countered.

He clucked his tongue. "Ah-ah-ah, it doesn't work that way. In the game of retribution, the person you wronged—that'd be me—gets to choose the punishment of the offender—in this case, you."

"You were a jerk to me!" she argued. "You were mean and snide and . . . mean . . ."

"Yeah, and you girlified me! I am the victim here! No complaining! You trespassed against me, and then you committed the ultimate treason by taking pictures of the heinous deed! In days of yore, people who did what you did would have been put in the stocks . . . or worse."

"They were not," she pointed out, lips twitching as she tried really hard not to smile. "They didn't have cell phones in the days of yore."

"Funny, wench . . . real cute."

"That's all well and good, you know, but you're forgetting something, Dr. Izayoi."

"What's that?"

"We're in the United States of America. You can't convict me without violating my right to due process."

"Hate to tell you, princess, but I'm your judge, your jury, and your hangman. Twenty-four out of twenty-four eyes agree: you're guilty. Defense lessons, it is."

"I have the right to an appeal."

Kichiro chuckled then shook his head. "Belle . . . learning how to defend yourself won't make you need your father any less."

Her laughter died, and she sighed.   "I know."

"Look, I know why you feel like you do, and I understand it. I also know how I felt when I found you with those bastards. I keep thinking: if I had been just a few minutes later . . . Can you understand that?"

As much as she hated to admit it, she could. Bellaniece pushed the plate of sandwiches closer to Kichiro and shrugged. "I don't have anything to wear."

He eyed the offering dubiously. "What do you mean, you don't have anything to wear? I've seen your closet, princess, and you've got more clothes than the queen of England."

She snorted. "No, I mean, I don't have anything to wear for you to train me in."

The incredulous look on his face might have been humorous any other time. Bellaniece blushed and turned her face away. "You don't have any shorts or sweat pants?"

"Of course not!"

Kichiro rolled his eyes at the absolute disbelief in her voice. "Fine, then. Come on. Let's go get you something to train in."

"Let me finish my sandwich."

Kichiro sighed but didn't argue. "Why'd you make so many?" he asked, waving at the heaping plate.

Bellaniece bobbed her shoulders. "Habit, I guess. I'd make this many when I was little; then I'd beg Daddy to come outside and have a picnic with me, right here. Daddy loves peanut butter."

Kichiro considered that for a moment before slowly reaching for a sandwich. "Peanut butter, huh? What's this other stuff?"

Bellaniece leaned toward him and looked since she'd made two kinds of sandwiches: the normal peanut butter and jelly as well as the kind he was holding in his hand. "That's marshmallow fluff. It's good."

He stared at the sandwich for a moment before hesitantly biting into it. Bellaniece watched him. He seemed surprised, but he slowly chewed and gulped a few times, very aware of her interest. He opened and closed his mouth a few times clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth like he was having trouble swallowing.

Bellaniece frowned. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," he mumbled, his voice slightly distorted. "It's stuck to the roof of my mouth."

Bellaniece handed him a bottle of water. "Do you like it?"

Kichiro wrinkled his nose as he drank half the bottle. "Sure, it's fine . . . sticky, but . . . fine." He ate another bite of his sandwich and nodded toward the plate. "How many of these does your father usually eat?"

Bellaniece giggled. "All of them! I told you; he loves peanut butter!"

He nodded slowly, staring at the plate with a wry smile. "I'll just bet he does."

 

 

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Cain tossed his keys on the counter as Gin closed the door and turned on the lamp. "This is so great!" she said for the fiftieth time. "I really get to meet the L'amont Pierre! I just can't believe it! He's like . . . one of my idols!"

"Is he?"

She giggled and plopped on the sofa with her hands tucked under her thighs as she bounced up and down in anticipation. "Absolutely! His paintings are so full of passion and life! I can't believe I get to meet him! I can't remember being this excited . . . Oh, ever!"

"Really."

She clapped her hands and grinned at him as he leaned against the counter, crossing his arms over his chest as he eyed her. "Yes, really! I mean, he's just . . . brilliant, you know? Oh, I can't believe I get to meet him!"

"Who else do you idolize?" he asked casually, crossing his ankles as he stared at the floor.

"Hmm," she considered, flopping back and tapping her chin with her index finger. "There's him, and the great artisans, but they're all dead so I don't suppose I'll ever meet them . . . Oh, and Bowen Lara . . ."

"Just because she sculpted a chocolate swan?"

"That was a big chocolate swan, Cain."

He rolled his eyes. "Anyone else?"

Gin slowly shook her head. "Not really . . ."

"I see . . ."

"Wait . . . No . . . That's it."

"Pfft."

She snapped her fingers and sat up straight. "You, of course!"

Cain snorted. "Yeah, that's like coming in fourth in the Olympics."

"Fourth is good."

He shot her a dark scowl.

"Well, it's just that I've met you. You're my teacher."

His scowl deepened. "Yeah, so I don't count?"

"You're mad at me."

"No, no . . . Not at all . . ." He winced. "All right, I'm . . . hurt."

"Why?"

"I ranked fourth behind a bunch of dead guys, Gin . . . That's not good . . . and for the record, Pierre has a tendency to be a real ass, just so you know."

She winced. "Can I do anything so you're not . . . hurt anymore?"

Cain shook his head then sighed. "Yeah, okay . . . there is one thing."

"Anything!" she assured him, scooting forward on the sofa. "Just name it."

He grinned. "You can . . . show me yours."

"Cain!" she gasped, cheeks exploding in a flush.

"Oh, come on, Gin . . . I'll . . . I'll show you mine if you show me yours."

"I—You—Cain!"

He laughed. "What's the matter, baby girl? You outgrow that game?"

"That is so humiliating!" she moaned, burying her face in her hands.

Cain chuckled again. "Okay, okay, I was teasing."

She peeked through her fingers. "Really?" she asked, voice muffled by her hands.

"Sure," he agreed. "But out of curiosity . . . What did you show him?"

"We were five!"

He pushed away from the counter and ambled over to kneel in front of Gin. Taking her hands and pulling them away from her face, he laughed softly at the blush staining her cheeks. "I was teasing, Gin . . . I thought it was a cute story. That's all."

"That's me," she agreed a little sadly, "cute little Gin; everyone's baby sister. Story of my life."

"Hey," he said, lifting her chin with his knuckle. "You're not supposed to be sad on your birthday. I'm sorry for embarrassing you."

"I'm not sad," she argued. "I'm used to it. Well, maybe a little sad . . ."

"I don't think of you as a baby sister."

"You don't?"

His gaze fell to her lips, and he brushed the pad of his thumb over them. Gin closed her eyes for a moment as a violent shiver ran down her spine. "No, I don't."

"I . . . can't . . . breathe . . ." she whispered.

Cain pushed her hair back with his free hand. She leaned into his touch. "You have to breathe, Gin," he murmured, transfixed by the sight of her: eyes closed, cheeks flushed, lips parted slightly as she struggled to draw breath. "If you don't breathe, I can't kiss you."

She forced her eyes open a crack, her golden eyes veiled behind a haze of longing. "Cain?"

He shook his head, brow furrowing as he stared at her. "I want to paint you."

"You . . . do?"

He nodded. "Yeah. I still owe you a real birthday present. Would you like that?"

She smiled vaguely, nodding as her fingers twined in his ponytail. "Cake fairy?"

"My cake fairy," he agreed, leaning toward her. Her ragged breath condensed on his lips, fanned emotion that he had forgotten so long ago.

"Cain, I . . ."

"Shh," he commanded. "Just let me . . ."

Her lips were soft, sweet, opening under his like the first rays of dawn. Perfect, simple, untainted by the darkness of the world, unaware of things that were best left in shadows, the beauty of her wrapped around him, made him forget the ugly things, too, even if it could only be for a moment.

Her kiss was reluctant, timid, reminding him that she hadn't been kissed like this before. Trembling as he nibbled on her lower lip, she sighed softly, breathing in shallow gasps as she slowly reached out, pressed her hand to his chest. He caught her fingers in his. They curled around his thumb as he pulled her close with his free hand, rubbed her back to soothe her. She held onto him, her heart hammering against her ribcage in a dizzying cadence that he could feel resonating in her aura.

The softest tendrils of her hair brushed over his fingertips; the sweetness of her mouth reminded him of a dream or a fairy tale. Something about her spoke to him, drew on him, pulled him closer than he could have thought possible. She was alive and addictive, strong and soft, vibrant and tempering. Whether she was responding to his kisses on instinct or driven by a base need, she sighed as his lips lingered against hers, her mouth opening and closing like a morning flower.

She whimpered quietly as he skimmed her lips with the tip of his tongue. Her body reacted with a wave of tremors, easing in his arms as deeper, headier, more convoluted scent pulsed around him, radiated from her, and with a harsh sigh, Cain pulled away. "Happy birthday, baby girl."

Gin's giggle was thready and uneven. She swallowed hard and opened her eyes. "I want to spend all my birthdays with you," she murmured.

He tried to smile but couldn't quite manage it. "Yeah," he agreed as his gaze fell to the side, as he tried not to feel guilty for what he'd just done. "I . . . I want that, too."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Hey, I've got an idea," Bellaniece said as she hurried into the living room with a magazine open in her hands. "Let's go rent a movie! I haven't watched any movies in a long, long time."

"Not tonight," Kichiro growled, making a face as he tried to concentrate on his research.

"Oh, come on," she coaxed, plopping down beside him as she closed the magazine and tossed it in the general direction of the coffee table. "Don't be such a—Uh?" she cut herself off and shot to her feet before whipping around to gape at Kichiro. "What—why—Your hair!"

Kichiro sighed and rolled his eyes, closing the file and dropping it onto his lap. "Yeah, my hair's black, Belle. I'm human. What of it?"

Bellaniece blinked and slowly shook her head. "You could have warned me," she pointed out reasonably. "I mean, you don't really look like you normally do . . ."

"Keh! Drive it into the dirt, wench," he muttered. "I know; I know . . . black hair, brown eyes . . . human. Damn."

"You're really grouchy when you're human," she remarked before she leaned over and grasped the bottom of his shirt and tugged.

"Oi! What do you think you're doing?"

Bellaniece rolled her eyes and giggled. "I want to see if that's all that changed."

"What?"

"Did your belly button suck in?"

He slapped her hand away and snorted again. "No, it didn't . . . if you're going to be a pain in my ass, go get me a soda."

"And who was your slave yesterday?" she countered, arching her eyebrows in silent challenge.

"You're hanyou; you're faster," he muttered, cheeks pinking just slightly, "and you're standing up."

Bellaniece started to say something but seemed to think better of it. She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "Get it yourself, Dr. Izayoi. Learn how to ask, and it might get you further."

"Yeah, yeah, stop flapping your jaws and just get my drink," he grumbled, opening the file as he tried to ignore her.

Bellaniece narrowed her eyes on the doctor and slowly shook her head before turning on her heel and stomping out of the living room, heading toward the kitchen.

Kichiro made a face. He couldn't help it. It always happened. Being human was something he'd always despised, more for the effects on his body than for any other reason. He felt like he was under water when he was human. The dulling of his senses reminded him of that sensation—probably the reason he'd never liked swimming . . .

Bellaniece sashayed back into the living room with an ice cold can of Coke. He raised his hand to take it. She slapped him away before popping the tab and guzzling the drink. Kichiro's eyebrows shot up as he watched her crush the can in her hands. Her smile was absolutely triumphant, and he opened his mouth to say something.

His commentary was cut off, however, when she unleashed the most unfeminine belch he'd ever heard. If he were hanyou, his ears would have flattened. She'd belched better than most men, for that matter . . .

"Holy damn, princess! What the fuck was that?"

"Don't hate me because I can burp," she informed him. "Hate me because I can burp louder than you."

"Oh, the hell!" he sputtered, pushing his research off his lap and standing up. "We'll just see about that . . ."

She followed him to the kitchen, grabbing a Coke before he could close the refrigerator door. He glared at her as he downed his soda. Bellaniece did the same. The cans hit each other as they sailed toward the trash container. Bellaniece shook her head and sighed. "Ok, doctor, let's hear it."

"Hold on a second," he growled.

Bellaniece rolled her eyes. "Would it help if I patted your back like a baby?"

"Hush, wench. You're distracting me."

She started to say something, but Kichiro's belch interrupted her. Bellaniece wrinkled her nose as the human-for-the-night hanyou crossed his arms over his chest and smiled with perverse pride.

"That's just sad," she countered.

"What do you mean, sad? That was a good—"

Bellaniece's unearthly roar ended his bragging. Kichiro stepped away from the girl as his face contorted in horrified fascination—almost admiration. "That's disgusting," he grumbled, shaking his head as Bellaniece giggled. "You're not inu-hanyou; you're pig, I know it . . ."

"Oh, stop being a spoiled sport! I won, fair and square."

"Not hardly," he grouched. "I swear you cheated."

"How could I have possibly cheated?" she demanded, arching a brow as she crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the counter. "You really hate to lose, and you hate to lose to a girl even more, don't you?"

"Keh! Damn, I need a drink . . ."

"You just had one," she pointed out reasonably enough.

He shot her a quelling glower. "I wasn't talking about soda, wench. I was talking about whiskey . . . or something like that."

"So go get some," she said as she braced her hands on the counter and pushed herself onto it. "There's a liquor store in Bevelle."

"I'd love to," he told her with a marked snort. "I can't."

Bellaniece shook her head. "Why can't you?"

"Because, princess, I'm human tonight. I don't go out when I'm human."

"Why's that?"

"The old man told us it's better that way."

"Do you always do what your old man says?"

"Do you?"

She grinned. "Sometimes."

He rolled his eyes. "I don't make a habit of ignoring him."

Bellaniece thought that over as she crossed her ankles and kicked her legs. "Daddy's got whiskey in the liquor cabinet . . ."

"Does he really."

She nodded. "Of course he does. Too bad he took his key with him. I'm pretty sure it was the only one . . ."

Kichiro crossed his arms over his chest and couldn't help asking her, "Oh, so your daddy doesn't trust you alone with the booze."

Bellaniece wrinkled her nose. "I have no desire to get drunk and get stupid, Dr. Izayoi." She stared at him for a moment. "Is that how you ended up in over fifty hapless women's beds?"

He snorted. "Not hardly. They were lined up down the street to get into my bed, didn't you know? I'm like . . . the Elvis of oral