"Spit it out, Maddy," Valerie Denning—soon to be Valerie Zelig—said as she glanced up from brushing her hair to meet the steady gaze of her best friend and maid of honor.
"Oh, please tell me you're not going to do it," Madison Cartham groaned, wrinkling her impish little nose melodramatically, shaking her mane of loose blonde curls in mock dismay.
"Of course I'm going to do it," Valerie scoffed. "I adore Evan—even when he's being a big, fat jerk."
Madison snorted indelicately, tugging the brush from Valerie's slack hand and dragging it through her glossy blonde locks. "As if I didn't know that."
Madison made a face. "You know what. You're not seriously going to try lay a guilt trip on me, are you?"
Valerie cleared her throat and blinked innocently. "A guilt trip? Over what?"
"Over the fact that I'm single, and happily so."
Valerie smiled and shrugged. "Would I do such a thing?"
The brush paused mid-stroke, and Madison heaved a sigh. "I believe you would; yes."
"Oh, ye of little faith."
"Come off it, V. It's a documented fact that people in love tend to make it their mission to hook up all their single friends, regardless of whether said-friends want it or not—and the happier and more disgustingly in love the couple is, the more likely they are to try to play Cupid."
"Disgustingly in love?" Valerie echoed with a little grin. "I'm disgustingly in love?"
"Absolutely disgusting," Madison agreed amiably. "The most disgusting-est I've ever seen."
"Well, I wouldn't do any such thing," Valerie protested, feigning a hurt expression that was completely ruined by the soft giggle that slipped from her. "Then again, would it be so bad? Just think about it—a steady man to do all those things for you that you hate doing, coming home to the same person every night—someone who knows you and adores you . . . worships the ground you walk on . . ."
Madison set the brush aside and picked up a rattail comb. "Oh, my God, it sounds even worse when you put it that way," she maintained, carefully dividing off a section of hair before jamming the comb between her teeth and reaching for a large rubber foam curler.
"It'd be nice to see you settled down and happy."
"You'wah foahgetting one fink," Madison grumbled around the comb.
"Oh? And what's that?"
Valerie snorted since she'd actually met said-father earlier in the week, and while Deke Cartham wasn't exactly the most talkative person she'd ever met, she had found him to be very polite, despite his rather gruff exterior. "Your father's a pushover."
Madison paused long enough to roll her eyes as she pulled the comb from her mouth and parted another section of hair. "Not with guys he isn't, or did you forget that he's got enough guns and ammunition to wage a small war?"
Valerie laughed as she leaned forward as carefully as she could to pull her notebook and pen from the table and idly tapped the pen's cap against her lips. "You make it sound like your father's stockpiling for a hostile takeover," she pointed out idly, then quickly shook her head, her thoughts redirecting at lightning speed. "Let's see . . . I double checked the caterers, called the florist to make sure everything was set, had the final fitting for my dress this morning . . . Did I forget anything?"
Madison blinked a few times as her brain struggled to redirect, and she slowly shook her head. "You know, Evan's probably sitting at Bas' house right now, trying to figure out a way to escape."
Valerie spared a moment to peer up at Madison's face to see whether or not her friend was being serious. "He can be good for one night," she remarked.
Madison giggled at the hint of foreboding in Valerie's tone. "And I'm going to go join a convent right after your wedding," she scoffed.
Tilting her head back, Valerie batted her eyes at Madison. "I'll miss you when you're gone."
Rolling her eyes, Madison snorted indelicately as she gently but firmly grasped Valerie's head and pushed it back into place once more. "Yup. I went in to have my habit fitted while you were stuffing yourself into that sausage casing you like to call a wedding dress."
Valerie choked on a giggle since she was the one who had aptly dubbed the dress she'd chosen as the sausage casing from hell. Skin tight to the hips where the skirt flared out around her in a billowing mass of silk and chiffon, she had grumbled more than once that she wasn't sure what she was thinking when she'd bought the dress just weeks before. Well, that wasn't exactly true. Her mother liked the dress, too, and that was the real reason she'd chosen it . . . "Figured I'd make Evan work for it."
"He's got claws, you know."
Valerie ducked her chin as a heated flush broke over her skin. "Oh, I know he does."
Madison laughed. "Anyway, what was the verdict about the piercings?"
Valerie sighed. "His father said that he had to take them out for the wedding since the generals are going to be there, but you know Evan . . . I wouldn't be surprised if he leaves at least one or two in, just to irritate Cain."
"Just make sure he keeps the tongue one in."
"That goes without saying."
"Like it, do you?"
Valerie grinned. "Just a little."
"So where is he taking you on your honeymoon?"
Her friend's smile faded, and Valerie grunted in response. "You mean he didn't tell you?" she asked, looking more than a little hopeful.
Madison shook her head. "Actually, no. He said I'd tell you."
Valerie's lips twitched though she didn't smile. "Well, you would."
Rolling her eyes, Madison didn't deny the claim. "Of course I would."
"Because you love me."
Madison giggled. "Damn right. Unfortunately, Evan knows that, too. So why did you think I'd know?" She shrugged, securing the last curler in place before dropping the comb onto the table top and brushing her hands together.
"Figured you'd have weaseled it out of him by now," Valerie admitted.
"Nope . . . He's being uncharacteristically stubborn about this." Madison stepped back, satisfied with the task of setting Valerie's hair. "I'll be over tomorrow to take those out and arrange your hair. Touch it and die, woman—understand?"
Valerie laughed and stood up, hurrying to hug Madison before she could take her leave. "You sure you won't stay here tonight?"
Madison laughed and kissed Valerie's cheek with an obscenely loud pop. "I'd love to stay and wax nostalgic with you, dear, but I promised I'd help Daddy clean his guns tonight."
Valerie stopped and shot her friend a quizzical glance. "You're not serious . . . Oh, my God, you are . . ."
Madison sighed, unsure whether it was more depressing that she really wasn't kidding or that she had actually agreed to it, in the first place.
"He hasn't gotten the baby a gun yet, has he?"
Madison grinned, mostly because baby that Valerie was referencing wasn't even born yet. Cartham hadn't said as much, but Kelly had remarked to her earlier that her father had been absolutely thrilled when he had found out that they were expecting a boy—Madison's as-yet unseen brother. "No, but I'm sure it's coming soon, even if Mom objects on principle."
It was something that most people really didn't understand, she supposed. Closing the bedroom door behind herself as she paused in the dim hallway long enough to allow her eyes time to adjust, Madison figured that for folks who didn't know Deke Cartham, it would be hard to explain. Her earliest memories were of standing by her father's knee while he slowly, methodically cleaned and oiled his guns. At least he'd waited until she could walk before taking her outside and lining up soda cans along the fence. He slipped earphones over her tiny head, pulled her into his arms, helped her steady the small pistol, and he'd taught her how to fire the weapon.
"Girls don't learn how to fight. Protection is a man's job," he'd told her. "But I'd be worthless, wouldn't I, if I didn't teach you how to survive. There's no being on earth that can outrun a bullet, Madison. Remember that."
She smiled as she hurried down the hallway, digging her car keys out of her purse without pausing in her stride. For her high school graduation gift, her father had given her a Colt .45, and not just any Colt .45 but the same one she'd first learned how to fire—her father's favorite gun.
So absorbed in her memories, so bemused by the impromptu if not slightly off-kilter trip down memory lane, that all the talk of weddings and stuff inspired in her, Madison wasn't paying attention as she rounded the corner and ran lightly toward the stairs.
A whoosh of breath, a grunt escaped her as she barreled into a solid chest. The scream that welled in her throat slipped out but was bit off as quickly as it had come as sinewy arms locked around her. She tumbled down the stairs with the stranger, buffered slightly by his body, unable to see more than a flash of silver, the blur of motion.
They smacked into the banister on the middle landing, and the unseen face of the man she'd run down finally came into focus. Madison grimaced as she pushed herself up on her elbows, curiously eyeing him, unable to stop her blatant perusal. Golden eyes . . . silver hair . . . little white hanyou ears . . . He was unmistakably Izayoi, and dizzily, headily, she felt her heart skip a beat, only to hammer hard against her ribcage like a wild thing trying to escape its confines moments later. The man had yet to let go of her, not that she really minded. Still, propriety reared its ugly head, and she blushed. "I'm so sorry," she blurted, trying to wiggle out of his grasp.
"N-No, it was m-my fault," he stammered as blood rushed into his cheeks in late response to the predicament they found themselves in. "G-Gomen nasai . . ."
Madison blinked and tried not to let her blush darken. "No, really . . . It was mine . . . I wasn't watching where I was going, and I didn't realize you were coming upstairs . . ."
He blinked, too, pink tingeing his cheeks. Suddenly, however, he seemed to still completely as he blinked again in rapid succession. "Oh . . . I . . . Y-Your eyes . . ." he said quietly.
He winced as the pink darkened to a rosy red. "They're beautiful."
"Th-Thank you . . ."
"You're welcome . . ." He grimaced, casting her an almost apologetic sort of glance. "And y-you're . . . poking me . . ."
Gasping as she realized she was, indeed, digging her keys into his stomach since he still had his arms locked around her, effectively holding her arms in place. With a wince, she jerked her body to the side to free her hand as she bit her lip. "I'm sorry."
"Did I . . . hurt . . . you?" he asked, letting go of her at last and slowly sitting up as she sat back before climbing to his feet and offering his hand to help her up.
"I'm youkai; I'm tough," she said, her voice almost reedy as she offered him a wan smile.
He shrugged, rubbing the back of his neck self-consciously. "I-I'm Izayoi Mikio," he said with a low bow. "H-Hajimemashite douzo yoroshiku."
"Oh," she breathed with a little nod. "I know. I'm Madison—Madison Cartham . . . maid of honor, I suppose." She giggled suddenly, and Mikio's frown deepened. Waving her wrist, she covered her mouth with her free hand. "I met you before, a long, long time ago. I was just a child, though . . ."
He looked confused for a few seconds, then he shot her an uncertain little smile that was gone about as quickly as it had appeared. "Hmm, yeah . . . Evan's friend?"
She grinned at the quizzical look on his face. "And Valerie's."
"Understood." He cleared his throat as though he were nervous. "Are you staying here tonight?"
"Actually, I was just leaving," she replied, stepping back and nearly tumbling off the landing. Mikio's hand shot out to grab her wrist, and he let go as soon as she steadied herself with a hand on the banister.
His cheeks reddened a little more. "Oh . . . right . . ."
She shot him a contrite smile. "Sorry again . . . I wasn't really trying to maim you or anything."
Mikio grimaced. "I've taken worse falls than that."
"It was nice meeting you," she remarked with a smile.
He nodded and bowed again. "Likewise."
Madison turned and hurried down the stairs, heart thundering in her ears as she bit her bottom lip and made a beeline toward the doors, hoping absently that he couldn't hear how hard her heart was hammering in her chest.
'Mikio Izayoi . . .'
Crazy, wasn't it, how the world worked? Biting her lip as the barest hint of a smile surfaced on her features, Madison shifted her gaze to the side, only to see him, still standing in the same spot on the landing as she slipped out the front doors of the Zelig mansion.
'Mikio Izayoi . . .'
Heat lightning illuminated the cloudy skies as Madison strode to her car, giving the heavens a strobe-light-like-effect. Pausing with her hand poised on the door handle as she pulled it closed behind herself, she lifted her face up to the heavens and frowned. The past few days had been hideously hot, almost humid, and she hoped that it would rain. 'V's wedding needs to be perfect. Sweating on your big day is bad form, after all . . .'
As if in answer to her silent musings, a gust of wind blew off the ocean, and she could almost feel the rising humidity that bespoke a healthy rain to come.
She didn't let her gaze fall away from the sky as she ran lightly down the steps off the porch and stopped on the walkway leading up to the mansion. Slowly turning around in a circle, her gaze fixed on the impromptu light show firing off so high above her head in the hazy clouds that obscured the stars, she spared a moment to enjoy the beauty, the majesty, of the moment. Slowly letting her eyes lower, Madison gasped, her heart lurching wildly in her chest as she caught sight of the lone form in the second story window—the window she knew was at the end of the hallway. She wasn't sure if Mikio could see her staring back at him or not. Slowly, hesitantly, she waved. His silhouette straightened, and he lifted his hand to return the gesture.
"Y-Your eyes . . . They're beautiful . . ."
A sudden giggle bubbled up in her, spilled out into the night as she opened the car door and slid behind the steering wheel.
Mikio stared up at the starry, inky sky and heaved a sigh as his right ear flattened against his head. The left one twitched madly—the aftereffects of the dizzy spell that landed him flat on his back. He grimaced, willing the appendage to still. The twitch worsened.
"Holy damn, Mikio," Evan Zelig said as he leaned over, hands on knees, peering down at Mikio's face. "That was a hell of a fall."
"I didn't . . . notice," Mikio lied, wincing as he tried to ignore his twitching ear.
"Didn't notice?" Evan echoed incredulously as he sank down on the grass beside his uncle. "If you say so . . ."
Mikio made a face. "You can stay out of her room for one night, can't you?" he asked, waving his limp hand in the vague direction of the third story balcony that Evan had been trying to reach.
Evan grinned unrepentantly. "You're assuming that she wants me to stay out."
"Nee-chan said it's bad luck for you to see Denning-san before the wedding."
The grin widened. "The hell you say! Bad luck would be me, standing at the altar with a boner. I think the neighbors would gossip about that . . ."
Mikio rolled his eyes and started to sit up only to flop back when the stars started spinning overhead. He sighed, willing the dizziness to pass. "You don't possess even a modicum of shame, do you?"
"There you are. Come on, you little ass."
Mikio shifted his eyes to the side, catching sight of Evan's older brother as Sebastian rounded the corner of the mansion. Spotting Mikio lying on the ground, Bas stopped for a moment and shook his head before loping over to them and slapping Evan across the back of the head. Then he sank down between Evan and Mikio as though it were the most normal thing in the world—a gesture that Mikio was both thankful for as well as irritated by. "Trying to sneak in Valerie's window, were you?"
Evan laughed, rubbing his head as he shrugged. "Like you thought I wouldn't?"
Bas snorted. "Pfft! I knew you would. I just didn't think you'd sabotage me. You've reached new lows, Evan."
"Dunno what you're talking about, Bubby . . ."
"You mean Evan has even lower lows?" Gunnar Inutaisho drawled as he and Gavin Jamison slipped out of the shadows on the other side of the assembled men. Gunnar sat down, too, completely wrecking the designer brushed silk slacks he wore in the cool, damp grass, and Gavin knelt, leaning his weight on his forearms placed on his knees.
Mikio managed to push himself up and hooked his hands around his legs, letting his forehead drop against his knees for a minute as he regained his composure.
"What'd you do this time?" Gavin asked in an almost foreboding tone of voice.
Bas crossed his arms over his chest and snorted again as he frowned at his sibling.
Evan scratched his head. "You should be glad, you know. You got to benefit from it, after all."
Bas rolled his eyes. "That's hardly the point."
Evan grinned once more. "So I don't see the problem."
"What did you do?" Gavin asked calmly.
"Nothing . . ." Bas grumbled, making a face as his cheeks took on a pinkish hue. "He just slipped Sydnie some catnip."
Gunnar whistled. "Yep, that's low, all right," he agreed. "Low enough that I'd slap you across the back of the head if I were Bas."
"He already did that," Evan grumbled, taking a step away from his brother for good measure as he idly rubbed his head.
"If we beat the hell out of him tonight, do you think that he'd make it to his wedding tomorrow?" Gunnar mused. "After all, it's not like he hasn't already had sex, so it wouldn't really be anything new to him . . ."
"Speak for yourself, asshole," Evan grouched.
"Tell me again: how did you trick a level-headed girl like Valerie into marry you?"
He grinned unrepentantly. "See, she likes my tongue ring . . ."
"Oh, hell, you walked right into that," Gavin said with a wince as he slapped Gunnar's shoulder amicably.
"Yeah, he did," Evan gloated.
"Definitely asking for a beating," Gunnar contended.
Evan rolled his eyes as Bas turned thoughtful. "You know, that's not a bad idea . . ." Bas mused slowly, scratching his chin as he stared at his sibling.
"Thinking about getting a piercing, Bubby? I can give you some recommendations, if you want," Evan quipped.
"I was thinking more along the lines of beating on you, Evan," Bas pointed out dryly.
"There will be no beating on your brother, Bas," Cain stated as he stepped out of the glass doors from the living room and glanced over his shoulder to ascertain exactly where his mate was. She must have been well out of earshot for his next comment, though. "But if you do, don't leave any marks where your mother might see them."
"Fork it over, old man," Morio Izayoi remarked, holding out his hand and wiggling his fingers as Cain grimaced but reached into his pocket for his wallet.
"I said an hour," Cain grouched as he fished out a fifty dollar bill and slapped it into Morio's waiting palm.
"And I said 'less'."
"You were betting on me?" Evan demanded, alternating his incredulous stare between his father and his cousin.
"Yes," Cain said evenly, stuffing his wallet back into his pocket once more, "and you just cost me fifty bucks."
"We should have gotten in on that one," Gunnar muttered to Gavin. Gavin nodded sagely.
Morio chuckled, stowing the money into his pocket as he reached down to help Mikio to his feet. "You all right?"
Mikio nodded, clenching his jaw and ignoring Morio's offer of assistance as he slowly stood, grimacing at the stiff soreness in his shoulders. Slipping away from the gathering since they could keep Evan from scaling the mansion in order to sneak into the bride-to-be's room, he trudged toward the doors, blinking as the brighter light blinded him momentarily. Two falls in one day? 'Must be some kind of record . . .' he thought ruefully.
He appreciated their understated show of support, of course. Ever since he could remember, they'd all sat down whenever he'd ended up flat on his back, and they usually sat down, too, whenever they thought that Mikio could use a break. Lately, however, it had begun to grate on his nerves. They shouldn't have had to do such a thing, should they? Mikio sighed. Best not to think about it, he decided. 'Damn it . . .'
Cain watched him leave before slowly turning back to eye his sons. "What happened?" he asked.
"He caught you trying to sneak in Valerie's window, right?" Gavin guessed.
"Somethin' like that," Evan grumbled. "He leapt up after me and lost his balance . . ."
Cain rubbed his eyes and shook his head. "Another dizzy spell?"
"It wasn't my fau—Yes, sir," Evan replied, catching the darkening in his father's gaze.
"Mikio's fine," Gunnar cut in, stuffing his hands deep in his pockets as he slouched against the solid trunk of a very old white ash tree.
"Getting dizzy and falling over constantly isn't really fine," Cain remarked mildly, digging a cigarette out of a rumpled pack he carried in his breast pocket.
"Yeah, well, he mentioned something before," Gunnar went on, turning his gaze skyward. "Said that Gome-oba-chan and Yasha-jiji used to argue about that a lot. I think he just stopped talking about it to keep them from fighting."
"They fought over his dizzy spells?" Cain asked.
Gunnar shrugged. "Sure. I vaguely remember my parents talking about it. Gome-oba-chan thought that Mikio had problems with his inner ear."
"And InuYasha didn't?" Gavin put in.
"Not exactly. I don't remember . . . I wasn't very old then, myself. I remember that Gome-oba-chan brought Mikio over, and we were playing with Kubrick while she talked to Mother . . . He had some sort of testing done, and Yasha-jiji made them stop when Mikio got scared, or so I seem to recall hearing . . . I was about three, I think, so Mikio was about five, I guess . . ."
"Oh, yeah . . . I remember that," Morio added as he stared up at the stars high overhead. "Mama and oyaji used to talk about that some. Guess everyone was disagreeing about it at the time."
"Ryomaru agreed with InuYasha," Cain supposed.
Morio shrugged. "Actually, no. Oyaji said that baa-chan was right. It'd be better to see if something could be done while Mikio was still young."
"Didn't they do some sort of testing?" Bas questioned, grabbing Evan's arm and yanking him back when the latter tried to sneak away.
"The MRI," Cain agreed absently. Kagome had called to talk to Gin about the entire ordeal. He remembered the sadness on Gin's face as she recounted the tale for him later. Mikio hadn't reacted well when faced with the machine that he was supposed to lie in for an hour or more while the doctors got a good look at his ears, and InuYasha, who had never been fond of anyone messing with his ears, had apparently broken the door down in his haste to get to his son, to save Mikio from the evil machine . . .
Cain sighed. He didn't blame InuYasha, actually. Had it been one of his pups, he probably would have done the same thing. The instinct to protect was a fierce thing; a difficult thing to ignore, and with InuYasha's background of fighting, of being an outcast, it wasn't surprising that the desire to protect his own was so strong.
Of course, it would be a cold day in hell before Cain ever admitted that he respected his father-in-law in that . . .
"Come on, Evan. You might as well spend the night at my house," Gunnar said with a sigh, pushing himself away from the tree.
Evan looked like he was going to protest until he caught his father's scrutinizing gaze. "Can I at least say good night to her?" he complained.
Cain rolled his eyes and pushed Evan's shoulder, sending his son stumbling after his cousin. Gunnar chuckled and grabbed Evan's arm when the groom-to-be tried to veer off toward the mansion again.
Gavin shook his head. "You know, I don't think he's going to give up that easily."
Bas nodded. "Hell, no . . . He'll be back."
Cain chuckled, breathing in a last drag off his cigarette before he tossed it away. "As if you didn't sneak into Sydnie's room."
Bas grinned and rubbed the back of his neck as he ducked his head shyly. "That was completely different, Dad."
He shrugged. "She was already my mate."
"Mama says you're still having those dizzy spells," Gin commented a little too casually as she scrubbed the white marble counter by the kitchen sink.
"Did she?" Mikio muttered, trying not to fidget under his sister's scrutiny.
Gin nodded as she rinsed the sponge and wrung it out. "She said that you won't talk to her about them, though."
"They're not that bad."
"'Bad' is a matter of perception, Mikio. Mama just worries about you."
He grimaced and dug around in the refrigerator for a bottle of water. "It's nothing," he grumbled.
Gin dropped the sponge into the sink and turned around, leaning against the counter as she crossed her arms over her chest and regarded him with her entirely too-discerning gaze. "I know you hated that Mama and Papa disagreed about it when you were a pup, but they both want what's best for you—you know that, right?"
Ear twitching as he made slow work of swallowing a few gulps of water, Mikio couldn't quite meet Gin's pointed stare, either. "With all due respect, I hardly think that it's really that important. I'm not a pup anymore."
"And if you think that Mama and Papa stop worrying about their children just because we're not pups anymore, then you're wrong," she remarked.
"They worry a little too much."
"It's only because we love you," Kagome remarked as she breezed into the kitchen, making a beeline toward her youngest son. Mikio winced as Kagome hugged him and kissed his cheek.
"Mama . . ." he protested, suddenly feeling like a child getting ready for his first day of school. 'Come to think of it,' he thought with an inward sigh, 'I sort of sound like one, too . . .'
"Will you get off it, wench? The last thing the pup needs is you hanging all over him," InuYasha grumbled as he stomped into the kitchen with the youngest of the Izayoi brood, Takara hanging down his back with her little arms locked securely around his neck. He repeated the process that Kagome had just done, but his target was his eldest daughter instead. Gin giggled softly and kissed her father's cheek then leaned to the side to kiss Takara, as well.
"I'm not hanging all over him," Kagome shot back before turning her deep brown eyes on Mikio once more. Her expression registered obvious concern, and Mikio braced himself for whatever his mother had on her mind. "You look peaked, Mikio. Maybe you should go on to bed."
"I'm fine," he replied, striving to keep the hint of irritation out of his tone—the same irritation that was becoming harder and harder to hide.
"I'm sure that everyone will understand. You really hated the airplane ride, didn't you?" Kagome went on, fussing idly with Mikio's bangs.
InuYasha snorted. "Kami, wench, I think Mikio's old enough to decide if and when he should go to bed, don't you?"
"I'm just worried, dog-boy!" she shot back.
Mikio shook his head as the argument escalated. Flattening his ears against his skull, he slipped out of the kitchen and strode toward the front door as quickly and quietly as he could.
He couldn't remember a time when it wasn't like that. It seemed to him that his mother and father spent far too much time at odds with each other over him than they did getting along. Gin had always maintained that InuYasha and Kagome seemed to enjoy arguing. Still, Mikio couldn't quite shake the feeling that the raised voices, the tension . . . it was completely his fault. If Mikio sneezed, Kagome was convinced that he needed to be lying in bed with a mountain of blankets and lots of soup. InuYasha, on the other hand, would tell his wife to stop being a mother hen and to let Mikio have room to breathe, and it always—always—ended up in one of those arguments.
Grabbing the door handle and giving it a vicious yank, Mikio nearly barreled straight into the woman who was standing in the doorway with her hand poised to knock. Brilliant violet eyes locked with his, questions awash in her gaze, and she looked rather surprised, though whether that was because he was so obviously irritated or because of his sudden appearance before she could knock, he wasn't certain.
As quickly as his irritation had come, it was gone. The woman smiled—eyes shining like the stars he'd been staring at earlier after trying to keep Evan from scaling the mansion walls—and for just a moment, Mikio forgot to breathe.
"Hi again," Madison said, her voice soft yet sure.