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Purity 10: Anomaly

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"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."

"Then what?"

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?"

"My fafah."

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.

"My eyes?"

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.

Evan grimaced.

"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."

"How so?"

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.








Chapter Text

Madison sighed as she hurried up the wide stone steps onto the Zelig family's front porch.  If she had been thinking a little more clearly earlier, she would have remembered that she'd left her cell phone on Valerie's nightstand before she'd taken off, in the first place.  As it was, she'd been home in the middle of cleaning guns with her father when Shar, one of the girls at her main salon, had called her parents' house phone, grumbling about being out of a certain brand of conditioner, and just why wasn't Madison answering her cell?

 Her father hadn't done more than offer a distracted little grunt when she said that she'd left the device in Valerie's bedroom and that she was going to go over there to pick it up.

'Are you sure you're just not looking for a reason to go back?'

Wrinkling her nose at her youkai voice, Madison shook her head and squared her shoulders before raising her hand to knock.  'Don't be ridiculous.  What other reason could there possibly be?'

'Oh, I don't know . . . a mysterious stranger that you ran down on the stairs, maybe?'

Madison could feel her cheeks heat up as she shrugged.  'That's just ludicrous.  I don't even know him; at least, not really.'

'But that doesn't mean you can't get to know him, does it?'

'Ignoring you now,' she thought with an indelicate snort as she drew her hand back to knock.

She didn't get a chance to do it.  The door swung open, and she stepped back just in time to avoid colliding with a very angry looking Mikio Izayoi, who didn't seem to have noticed her standing there.  Realizing a little too late, he jerked back and pulled up short, using his hand on the door to steady himself.

Madison swallowed hard, ignoring the way her heart lurched in her chest as she smiled a little timidly and cleared her throat.  "Hi again."

He blinked once, twice, left ear twitching horribly, and for a moment, Madison wondered if he could really be that agitated.  "H-Hi," he stammered.

"I forgot my cell phone," she explained quietly.

Mikio didn't appear to have heard her.  The anger that flashed in his eyes dissipated, leaving behind a curious sense of wonder as he stared at her.

"Can I come in?"

"Excuse me?"

She giggled then sighed as she slowly shook her head since she had the distinct feeling that he really wasn't hearing her at all.  "Are you okay?"

He seemed taken aback at her question, and he blinked in relative confusion for a moment before opening and closing his mouth a few times, as though he were at a loss for words.  "What?  Oh . . . yeah . . . fine."

Biting her lip, Madison wondered if she hadn't overstepped her boundaries, if she weren't being just a bit too intrusive for his liking.  "I'm sorry.  You just looked a little . . . upset."

"It's nothing," he insisted, waving off her concern despite the hint of irritation that had resurfaced in his expression.

She wasn't entirely convinced, but she didn't push it, either.  Reminding herself that she really didn't know him well enough to ask such personal questions, Madison shrugged and nodded toward the doorway he was blocking.  "So . . . may I get my cell phone?"

Mikio's cheeks pinked as he realized that he was in her way, and he quickly stepped back.  Grimacing as his face lost much of its color, he caught hold of the doorframe again, so tightly that his knuckles turned white.  Madison didn't think.  Stepping toward him, steadying his elbow, it was her turn to blink in surprise when he shot her a weary, shy smile—wan at best, but so completely endearing that, for a moment, she couldn't think of  a single thing—not even her own name.

"You're not okay, are you?" she finally asked, her voice quiet, as though speaking in a normal tone might hurt him.

He grimaced and leaned heavily against the wall.  "Airplanes . . ." he managed, closing his eyes.  She saw him swallow hard a couple times, like he might well be sick otherwise.

It took her a moment to interpret his reply.  Then she recalled Evan mentioning before that Mikio tended to have more trouble than the rest of them in coping with the strains of air travel—something to do with the rapidly changing air pressure, and it made sense.  "The airplane?  Oh . . . I'm sorry . . ."

"I'm fine," he grumbled, cheeks finally pinking up again, and even though the color obviously stemmed from acute embarrassment, Madison couldn't help but feel relieved.

Even so, she also couldn't help but sympathize with him, too.  Of course he would want to be here for his nephew's wedding, but if traveling affected him so badly . . . Well, it had to be frustrating, to say the least . . . "Maybe you should go for a walk or something?  Fresh air . . . I could go find Gin . . . or your mother . . . she's here, right?"

Mikio grabbed her wrist as Madison whipped around to find Kagome.  "Not her," he hissed, his whisper imploring as his eyes met hers.  "Not Mama."  He grimaced and let go of Madison's wrist.  "Please."

Madison frowned in confusion but nodded.  "All right," she agreed slowly.  "If you're sure . . ."

Swallowing hard, he squeezed his eyes closed for a second before managing another weak smile.  "You're right.  Fresh air.  I think that'd help."

"Okay . . ."

He pushed himself away from the wall, his movements stilted, almost mechanical.  He took a few steps onto the porch but stopped suddenly and glanced over his shoulder.  "You . . . W-Would you come with me?"

Madison didn't think twice.  Pulling the door closed behind herself, she fell in step beside Mikio as the hanyou shuffled down the steps onto the flagstone sidewalk.

"Is that why you don't come here to visit as often as everyone else?  Because of the airplanes?"

Mikio shot her an inscrutable glance as he stuffed his hands deep in his pockets and shrugged.  "Sort of."

"I mean, I've been friends with Evan for . . . forever, I guess . . . and I don't remember seeing you, other than the couple times when I was still pretty young . . . and at Bas and Sydnie's wedding . . ."

"I hate flying," he remarked.  "That's all."

She wrinkled her nose.  "So do I," she allowed.

He shot her a quizzical glance, as though he were trying to decide whether she was simply humoring him or not.  What his conclusion was, she couldn't say, but he sighed softly and kept moving without responding, and that was all right, too.

"You're a lot quieter than your brothers," Madison mused, though the silence that had fallen was not uncomfortable at all.

He paused mid-stride for only a moment, his back stiffening almost imperceptibly, as though her question was more of an accusation than an observation.  "Is that bad?"

She laughed, remembering the outrageous things that she'd heard over the years; the stories about the older Izayoi twins.  According to lore, Ryomaru and Kichiro were their own brand of 'bad'—their generation's Evans, she supposed, and, though life spent, growing up with the reckless rock star was never boring, there was something to be said about the calmer, quieter Mikio, as well . . . "Not necessarily."

"I'm not really like them," he explained quietly.  "I'm not really like anyone, I guess."

Madison nodded as the pebbly ground beneath their feet gave way to the finer sand near the ocean.  "There's nothing wrong with that," she pointed out with a gentle smile.  "Granted, I don't have much room to talk, given that Evan is one of my best friends, but I have to admit that there are things I wish hadn't happened—and most of those were his idea.  I just went along for the ride."

"So Evan's the instigator," he replied with a curt nod, as though that made perfect sense.

"Well, maybe not entirely," Madison admitted.  "But the things that normally ended up badly for me usually were more his idea than mine."

"Sounds like what aniki and Kichiro-nii say about their exploits."

She smiled to herself at perceived cuteness in the way that Mikio referred to his brothers.  "Too bad those are some of the best stories," she went on to say.  "Don't tell Evan I said that, though."

"Understood," he said with a curt nod and an overly-serious expression.  Then he sighed and shook his head.  "I guess sometimes I wish . . . I wish I was more like them . . ." He uttered a short chuckle that was almost sad.  "Well, sometimes, anyway . . . I don't think I'd want to get into trouble like they did . . ."

Mikio took a few more steps before sinking down to stare at the sky over the water.  Something about him seemed so . . . almost melancholy that Madison bit her lip and frowned.  For some reason, she didn't really feel like she could ask him why he seemed so upset, so she figured that the next-best course of action would be to see if she could make him laugh, instead . . . "If it makes you feel any better, the first time Evan took me out on his motorcycle, I ended up puking off the Brooklyn Bridge."

He shot her a quizzical glance and then uttered a terse laugh.  "You did?"

She made a face as she sat, cross legged, beside him.  "Might have been because he insisted on seeing just how fast he could make the thing go.  I thought he was going to kill himself or me—maybe both.  He's sort of an ass that way.  He did apologize for it later, though.  Took me shoe shopping at Van Shalten's on Fifth and bought me the most delicious pair of otter-skin boots, ever . . ."

Her story had done the trick, and Mikio still looked amused when he asked, "How'd you meet him?"

She laughed as she considered that question.  Easy enough to say that she'd known Evan for so long that she didn't really remember not knowing him, but everything had to start somewhere, didn't it?  And she'd heard the stories often enough, even if she was a little young at the time and didn't rightfully remember it completely anymore.  "Mom brought me over.  I was three, I think . . . He threw my doll into a tree, and I started to cry—I apparently loved that doll, or so they've said—and he got stuck when he climbed up after it."

Mikio thought about that for a moment then shrugged off-handedly.  "Maybe you should have left him up there."

Madison grinned.  "That's what Cain said."

Mikio started to say something but stopped, as though something had just occurred to him, and he slowly shook his head.  "Wait . . . You're the one he was telling me about, right?  The one he set the dog loose with?"

Madison groaned.  In one of his moments of bored inspiration, Evan had rigged up a harness for his dog, Fugly, and he'd gotten Madison to sit on the little sled, strapped in so that she wouldn't fall out—safety precautions, of course—just before he'd set off a string of fire crackers to galvanize the animal into action.  It had taken almost an hour to get Fugly to stop running—and yipping—and to this day, Madison wasn't quite sure how Evan had ever talked her into that stunt . . .

"Yeah, that was me," she confessed.

"Evan bragged about that for a year," Mikio remarked with a slow shake of his head.

"Figures.  I'm not sure why I stayed friends with him."

"Looking into becoming a saint?"

Madison giggled at the teasing tone in his voice.   "A saint?  Oh, I don't think that'd ever happen . . ."

"Why not?"

She ducked her chin.  "Well, let's just say that I doubt I'd meet the requirements."

Taking his time as he slowly rolled up the cuffs of his long sleeved white dress shirt, Mikio didn't speak.  Madison smiled, noting the deliberateness of his movements, the almost lethargic sense that surrounded him.  Even the shadows that fell on him in the darkness of the night didn't quite seem to affect him in a normal way.  Maybe it was simply because, dressed in khaki slacks and the white shirt with his silvery hair and pale skin, he almost seemed to glow.

Snorting at her own whimsical thoughts, Madison shook her head and sighed.  'He's just a guy . . . just like every other guy, right?  He's wrapped up in a nice package, sure, but in the end, he's just the same, isn't he?'

'When did you get so cynical?'

'Am I?'

'Aren't you?'

Madison shifted her gaze out over the expanse of water in the moonlight.  'Maybe I am . . .'

"So do you live around here?"

Blinking as she cleared her mind and stole a glance back at Mikio only to find him staring off in the same direction she had been just moments before, Madison cleared her throat.  "My mom and dad do.  I normally live in New York City."

He grinned a little, lopsided, shy sort of grin.  "You strike me as a metropolitan girl."

"How so?"

He shrugged, his gaze shifting to meet hers though he didn't turn his head.  "Polished, I guess . . ." he explained then suddenly chuckled.  It was a deep, husky sound that sent a bout of shivers, straight up her spine.  "Do you even own a pair of jeans?"

Glancing down at the short black suede skirt and matching suede thigh high, stiletto heeled boots, Madison laughed.  "What are jeans?" she joked.

He chuckled again—that entirely pleasant sound.

"So what do you do for a living?" she asked, bending her knees and weaving her fingers together under her legs.

"Me?  I'm a lawyer," he replied.

"Oh, I'm so sorry."

He seemed genuinely confused by her apology.  "Sorry?"

She giggled.  "They say lawyers are boring, is all.  Then again, Valerie's a lawyer, and she's not boring . . . Of course, that might be because I make it my mission to save her from herself, but I'm not sure . . ."

He chuckled softly.  "I see."

"So are you?"

"Am I, what?"

"Are you boring?"

"Hopelessly, yes."

"You mean you don't have anyone to save you from yourself?"

"Nope," he chuckled.  "I turn them all boring, too."

She laughed.  "Somehow I doubt that."

"Well . . ."

Her laughter faded, but her smile didn't.  "Are you feeling better now?"

Madison could have kicked herself for having said that.  The easy laughter died away, and he cleared his throat as his gaze fell to the sand around his feet.  The random twitching in his ear hadn't gone away though it had diminished somewhat.  He checked his watch, holding down the little switch that made the front glow in a pleasant aqua color, and winced.  "It's nearly midnight," he told her.

Madison frowned as she stared at the hanyou.  "Why don't you have a concealment on?" she blurted before she could think about it.  True, when youkai gathered, concealments weren't necessary, but since the wedding would involve some humans—mostly Valerie's guests—everyone would have to remember to hide their youkai attributes before the guests arrived.

Mikio reached up, touched his ears, blushed as when he realized that she could see them.  "Oh, I, uh . . . I-It must have slipped.

"Yeah . . . sorry about that," Madison apologized again.  Tumbling down a staircase, she supposed, would be a big enough shock to loosen the concealment, and she'd seen his ears then, too.

"About what?"

"The stairs," she admitted as he stood up and brushed himself off before offering her a hand to help her to her feet.  Ordinarily she'd ignore such an archaic gesture of chivalry.  She slipped her hand into his and let him help her.

"Oh, that," he mumbled.  "Not the first time I've fallen down the stairs."

Something about his quiet admission made Madison stop for a moment.  He seemed almost angry . . . or was he more . . . resigned?  'Strange,' she thought.  'Strange, indeed . . .'

"So I guess you'll only be here till after the wedding?"

Mikio shrugged almost off-handedly, reaching up with his free hand to fiddle with his twitching ear.  Something about the gesture make Madison wonder if he even knew what he was doing, at all.  "Probably," he replied.  "I mean, Mama and Papa are staying here till after nee-chan has the baby, but . . ."

She wasn't sure exactly where he was going with that, but, recalling his insistence that she not fetch Kagome when he'd answered the door, she had to wonder, and if she knew him better, she might have asked him about it.  As it was, however, it really wasn't any of her business.

"Looks like Evan's at it again," Madison remarked as the two neared the mansion.

Mikio sighed then shook his head.  "He'll never learn."

"Of course not.  I told V there's no way he'd give up so easily.  She's probably upstairs laughing at him.  I would be . . ."

"He was here earlier," Mikio supplied, stopping to watch the entertainment.  Cain was standing on Valerie's balcony, leaning over the railing to watch as Bas and Gavin tackled Evan to keep him from trying to climb up.  Gunnar ran around the side of the house, hollering something about impatient grooms with Morio close on his heels.  Mikio laughed.

"That's just shameful," Madison remarked but laughed anyway.

"He ought to give up.  I think Cain-nii-san's going to sit outside Valerie's door all night."

"You think so?"

Mikio nodded.  "Papa says it's because Cain-nii-san was forced to sleep at Kichiro-nii's house before his wedding . . . If he had to suffer, so do his sons."

"You mean there's a method to the madness?"

"So it would seem."

Madison laughed and reluctantly made a face.  For reasons she didn't delve into too deeply, she really didn't want to end this particular conversation.  "Thanks for the walk, Mikio.  I think I'll check on Valerie, grab my phone, and head home.  I'll see you tomorrow, right?"

He blinked and shook his head.  "Tomorrow?"

She giggled, catching her hair when a sudden breeze tossed it into her face, hooking it behind her ear once more.  "Yes, tomorrow . . . the wedding?"

"Oh, yes, that . . . Okay."

Madison turned to leave, but stopped when the resistance in her arm brought her up short.  She was still holding Mikio's hand.  Letting go with a mumbled apology, she crossed her arms over her chest and hurried toward the mansion, willing herself not to blush as she stepped into the light spilling through the windows from the great glass doors.  Drawing a deep breath, she pushed the doors open and strolled into the house, unaware of the bright golden eyes that watched her hasty retreat.

"I almost feel sorry for Evan," Valerie commented without turning away from the window when Madison slipped into her room.  Staring down at the spectacle that resembled a football game, she was smiling as she shook her head and sighed.  "Almost."

"He's earned it," Madison agreed, grabbing her cell phone before wandering over to grimace at the pile of bodies wiggling around on the yard below.  "That just looks wrong."

"It does, doesn't it?  I figured you'd be back for your cell."

"Uh oh . . . looks like they've gotten caught," Madison mused as InuYasha, with Toga and Ryomaru in tow, stomped into view.  The hanyou reached down to yank someone to his feet.  He got pulled into the fray, too.  Minutes later, the mass of dogs in the pile had grown.  Madison caught sight of Cain on the balcony.  The youkai shook his head and sat back in a plastic lawn chair, kicking his feet up on the railing as he knotted his hands together behind his neck.  If she didn't know better, she'd swear he was grinning, though it was impossible to tell for certain.

"I've got to hear this," Valerie said, nimble fingers working the lock before she pushed the window open.

Madison wrinkled her nose at the hot air that invaded the air-conditioned room but she leaned forward to listen, too.

"Will you let go, damn it!" InuYasha snarled at someone.

"Oi, oyaji!  That's me!" Ryomaru growled back.

"Then get the hell outta my way!"

"All right, whoever's got their hand on my ass had better move it . . ." Morio growled.

"That's your ass?  Damn, it's fucking huge!" Evan scoffed.

"Baka, you're not going to make it to your own wedding if you don't move your kami-forsaken hand!"

"That has to be one of the strangest families I've ever met," Madison remarked as she pushed on the window sill, rising up to peer over Valerie's head toward the beach . . . toward the place where she'd left Mikio standing.  He was still there, hands in pockets, and while she couldn't see his face where he stood, she had the feeling that he, too, was laughing.

"I'm sure everyone thinks that about their future in-laws," Valerie replied.  "It'll be no different for you."

"Don't curse me," Madison said.

"Curse you?  So I didn't see you walking up from the beach with Evan's uncle?"

Madison snorted and turned around.  "Well, look!  I found my cell phone, and I think I'll be going now."

"You're such a chicken," Valerie pointed out.

"I am not.  You're just crazy.  I think your wedding dress is a little too tight.  It's been cutting off the oxygen supply to your brain."

"He's not really your type, is he?" Valerie pressed, giving up all pretenses about watching the scuffle in the yard below as she peeked over her shoulder.

"What do you mean?" Madison asked, unable to repress the hint of defensiveness in her tone as she slowly turned to face Valerie again.

Valerie waved a hand dismissively.  "Just not that flashy, you know?  He's like . . . the anti-rockstar."

"He's nice."

Tuning away from the window, Valerie crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the frame.  "So?"

"So, what?"

Eyes sparkling as she grinned at her friend, Valerie shrugged in a show of deliberate nonchalance.  "So was holding his hand nice, too?"

Madison whipped around before Valerie got a chance to see the heightened color in her skin.  "You've lost your mind," she grumbled.

"Details, Maddy!  Did you kiss him?"

"Night, V," she grumbled as she reached for the doorknob and gave it a rather vicious twist.

"Was it nice?"

"I wouldn't know because I didn't kiss him," Maddy shot back.


"It's not too late to find another maid of honor," she tossed over her shoulder as she closed the door behind her.  She could hear the muffled sound of Valerie's soft laughter and grimaced.

"He's not really your type, is he?"

Scowling as she strode down the hallway to the staircase, she sighed.  'No,' she agreed, smiling sadly at the memory of the way he'd looked, sitting on the beach in the moonlight.  'He's really not my type at all . . .'





"Kami, that was harsh."

Mikio chuckled as Morio flopped onto his back in the grass beside him.  "Evan finally give up?"

Morio shot him a dark look.  "Are you kidding?"

Mikio shrugged.  "You'd think he would."

"You'd think . . ."

Leaning up on his elbows, Morio let his head fall back to gaze up at the stars.  "So why are you out here instead of inside with everyone else?"

Mikio sighed and idly fingered his left ear.  "Just . . . quieter."

"So . . . I noticed you were talking to that girl . . . umm . . ." Morio asked, rolling his hand in an effort to remember the name in question then snapping his fingers when it apparently came to him.  "Madison, wasn't it?"

"Yeah," he agreed then grimaced, glancing around in a decidedly nervous sort of way.  "Did . . . anyone else notice?"

Morio nodded.  "Nope . . . Don't worry . . . In all the chaos, I'm pretty sure that no one else saw the two of you together.  They were kind of busy at the time."

Mikio nodded.  "Good."

"She's a sweet girl . . . a little wild, but nice enough."


Morio shrugged.  "Well, she is Evan's friend."

"I see."  He tugged a handful of grass and watched as the blades slipped through his fingers only to fall softly back to earth again.  "She's . . . pretty . . . don't you think?"

"Maddy?  Sure . . . Yeah . . ."

Mikio grimaced as the first rumble of faraway thunder rumbled in the air.  "You, uh . . . think . . . she and Evan . . .?"

Morio sat up, scratching the back of his neck as he considered Mikio's question.   "I don't know . . . Does it matter?"

Mikio wrinkled his nose as he fought down a furious blush and shook his head.  "No . . . No . . . I just wondered."

Morio sighed.  "You'd be hard-pressed to find a virgin in this day and age, especially amongst youkai.  Thank your brother for that, I guess . . ."

Scowling at the rapidly clouding sky, Mikio nodded.  "I know.  It's not . . . I'm not interested; I just . . ." He trailed off with a wince.  "Yeah."

He could feel Morio staring at him, even if he stubbornly refused to look for confirmation.  "Not interested, huh?"


Morio chuckled.  "Mikio, it's okay be interested.  Any single man with a pulse would be interested in a girl who looks like Cartham Madison."

That comment didn't actually comfort Mikio; not at all.  The first droplets of rain hit his face, his bared arms.  "It doesn't matter.  I'm going back home in a couple days, anyway."

Morio sighed and slowly got to his feet.  "'Course you are."

Mikio shrugged.  "And she . . . she'll go back to New York City.  That's where she said she lives."

Stuffing his hands into his pockets, Morio flicked his ears to shake off the descending moisture.  "Mhmm."

"So I won't see her again after the wedding."

"Probably not."

"Unless I went to the city, and why would I do that?"

Wisely stifling his amusement behind a well-placed cough, Morio shrugged.  "No need to convince me, Mikio."

"I-I know."

"Unless it isn't me you're trying to convince."

Mikio didn't answer as Morio shuffled back toward the mansion.  He was lost in contemplation of the girl with the violet eyes.







Chapter Text

"Please, please, please, please, please, please, please—"

Mikio rolled his eyes and tried not to smile as his niece, Jillian Jamison clasped her hands and held them up in front of her chest.  "I don't know . . . Doesn't his firm have a corporate attorney?"

Jillian wrinkled her nose and glanced at the milling crowd enjoying the wedding reception.  "Sure they do, but he's entirely lazy.  Spent too much time getting paid for doing nothing, and now that they actually need him, he's proving to be completely useless.  I'm starting to wonder if he went to law school at all, really . . ." She sighed, pale blue eyes widening as her lips turned down in a pretty moue.  "Gavin needs you . . . You can't let him get in trouble for something he didn't do!"

Smiling wanly as Jillian rested her hand on his forearm, he shook his head.  "Well, I'd have to ask Toga-san if he minds if I took a leave of absence."

Jillian finally relaxed, eyes sparkling as the million-dollar smile broke over her features.  "You have no idea how much this means to me!" she gushed, throwing her arms around Mikio's neck in her exuberance.

"Let me make sure it's all right before you arrange that parade in my honor," he warned.

"It'll be fine," she assured him, waving off his concern with a flutter of her hand.  "Uncle Toga loves Gavvie!  Everyone loves him; you know that!"

Mikio rolled his eyes, but grinned.   He doubted that Toga would have a problem with it, either, but he didn't like to make promises before he checked into the possibilities.  Maybe it was the lawyer ingrained in him.  "Let me go talk to him," he told her again.

Jillian pressed an extremely loud kiss on his cheek and grinned.  "You can stay with us, if you want.  We've got room to spare."

"Actually," Mikio said with a scowl, "if I stay to represent Jamison-san, then it's probably a good idea if I don't stay with you.  Conflict of interest, you know.  Anyway, I'm sure I can find a place of my own.  Don't worry about me."

"You have no idea how happy you've made me," Jillian went on with a giggle.  "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you . . . You get a thousand hero points for this!"

"You're still keeping score?" he asked since she'd been keeping hero point score for years.

She nodded.  "Of course I am, and right now, you're absolutely my biggest hero—my Gavvie notwithstanding, naturally."

He chuckled, stuffing his hands into his pockets as Jillian hurried away to find 'her Gavvie'.  Gazing over the assembled guests, Mikio shook his head.  Evan hadn't invited many of his rock star buddies since few of them knew who he really was, let alone what he really was, but he had invited a few: namely the head of his security team—a hulking buffalo-youkai with the unfortunate nickname of 'Bone'—his manager, Michael Murphy along with his mate and daughter, and Bugs, a very flamboyant and very gay rabbit-youkai who had spent the better part of the reception literally sobbing over the idea that Zel Roka, a.k.a. Evan Zelig, was officially off the market.  There were a couple others, milling in the crowd, but Mikio hadn't been properly introduced to them, and, to be honest, he wasn't entirely sure who they were.

It wouldn't have been so conspicuous, Mikio figured, if Bone weren't wearing a ragged t-shirt from Evan's last tour that proclaimed, "I did V with Zel Roka" on the back along with skin-tight leather pants.  Mike, at least, was dressed decently, but Bugs had opted to wear all black to 'celebrate' the occasion.  Mikio winced.  Bugs' eyeliner and mascara were smudged all over his eyes, and the streaks on his cheeks were quite noticeable, and that the waif-like Bugs was currently standing right next to Sesshoumaru Inutaisho, the current Inu no Taisho?  Mikio coughed and quickly hid his amusement as his uncle's golden gaze lit on him.  Nope, the irony in that was just not something that was lost on Mikio at all . . .

Looking away before he laughed outright at the decidedly irritated look on Sesshoumaru's face, Mikio frowned when he spotted his great-nephew sitting alone under a tree nearby.

Mikio wandered over, tugging on his slacks as he knelt before the three year-old child.  The boy tugged on the tie he had obviously been forced to wear.  "Something wrong, Bailey?"

"Mama said weddings are fun," he grumbled, nose wrinkling in obvious distaste.

"Sydnie-san said that?"

He nodded, his dejection growing by leaps and bounds in an instant.  "And they're not.  They're boring, and Daddy won't let me climb my tree."

Mikio grinned, still amused at the idea of Bas being a father.  "No, I don't suppose he would."

"Then he took away the bokuto jii-chan gave me," Bailey grumbled.

"Your father did?"

Bailey's frown darkened, and Mikio blinked in surprise.  Sometimes it amazed him, just how much Bailey looked like his father.  Maybe it was the scowl . . . "He said I would hit people.  I don't hit people, honest!  Not even Livvy, even when I wanna!"

"I don't imagine you would," Mikio agreed.  He sighed and slowly stood up.  "Come on, Bailey."

"Can you get my bokuto back from Daddy?" he asked hopefully, scrambling to his feet as his eyes grew wide.

"No . . . just thought maybe you'd like some cake—that is, if Cain-nii-san will let anyone touch it."

There actually was a chance he would.  Gin had enlisted the help of all the women other than the bride-to-be and Madison, since she was busy helping Valerie with last minute things, and Nezumi, who couldn't cook a single thing unless it came in a box and was stuck straight into the microwave oven, but Ryomaru had stepped in to help in her place, and together they had baked the groom's cake.  Rumor had it that Cain had helped Gin decorate it, and Mikio had to admit that he wouldn't have known the cake was homemade if he hadn't been shooed out of the kitchen when he'd gone in there to get a bottle of water while the assembled cooks were working.

Bailey sighed, too, but slipped his hand into Mikio's, following him through the crowd as they made their way to the refreshment table.  Kagome hurried over and took the cake plates from Mikio with a bright smile.  "Let me carry those for you," she said.

Mikio clenched his jaw, but didn't argue as Kagome led the way to a nearby table.  "Do you want something to drink, Bailey?"

Bailey nodded.  "Yes, ma'am."

Her eyes rose to meet Mikio's.  "No, thank you," he replied, brushing aside the rising irritation that never seemed too far away lately, especially when Kagome started mothering him in such a way.

Kagome nodded and tweaked Bailey's nose before hurrying away to get the boy something to drink.  "Where do babies come from?" Bailey suddenly asked, turning his questioning gaze on Mikio, who, unfortunately, had just taken a bite of cake.

Sucking in his breath and choking on a few crumbs, Mikio coughed harshly and swallowed.  "B-B-Babies?"

Bailey nodded.  "Daddy says Mama wants anudder baby 'cause I'm a big boy and 'cause Olivia is stinky."

"Sh-Shouldn't you . . . ask your . . . daddy?" Mikio wheezed out, clearing his throat and struggling to breathe between rounds of coughing.

He shook his head.  "Daddy says that babies come from Mama, but that don't make sense."

"Why's that?"

Bailey shot him a condescending glance.  "'Cause Mama's a girl!"

"That's true," he agreed slowly, trying to think of a way to distract the child.  "But she's your mama, and you're a boy . . ."

"Daddy makes the boys, and Mama makes the girls."

"Who told you that?"

Bailey shrugged as though it were the simplest thing in the world.  "I figured it out myself!" he announced proudly.  "I came from Daddy, and Olivia came from Mama—I remember."

Mikio cleared his throat and gratefully accepted the bottle of water Kagome offered him.  She poked a straw into the apple juice pouch she'd brought for Bailey and handed it over.  "Are you all right, Mikio?" she asked when he coughed once more.

"Just fine," he assured her, pushing the plate away lest Bailey should spout any more of his little pearls of wisdom.

"And Grandpa Cain says the world will end if Uncle Evan makes babies 'cause they'll wear his jeans," Bailey went on.

Kagome coughed, too, and hid a smile behind her hand.  "Oh?"

Bailey nodded.  "He says Uncle Evan and Aunt Valerie should . . ." he trailed off, face scrunching up as he concentrated on the word he wanted, ". . . adapt."

"Adapt?" Kagome echoed with a frown.

"Adopt," Mikio supplied, a smile twitching the corners of his lips.

"I see . . ." Kagome murmured, a small smile surfacing as she stared at Mikio for a moment.  "Come on, Bailey.  Let's go see what jii-chan is doing, shall we?"

Bailey stuffed the last of his cake into his mouth and hopped off the chair, grabbing Kagome's hand and literally dragging her away.  Mikio watched them go, unable to repress the relieved sigh that slipped from him.

Maybe staying in the States for awhile would be a good thing for him.  The time away from his parents' scrutiny couldn't be all bad, could it?  True enough, InuYasha never gave him grief, but his brand of concern was just as stifling as Kagome's, even if it was in an entirely different kind of way.  Where Kagome would hover over him all the time, Mikio couldn't help but feel that InuYasha was somehow disappointed in him; as though he thought that Mikio's shortcomings were his fault.  Morio told him regularly that he was imagining things.  InuYasha had never been disappointed in Mikio, and while he couldn't say that InuYasha had ever really acted as though he were, Mikio also knew how much stock his father put into physical strength and the ability to fight to protect those he loved.  Because of his balance problems, Mikio had never, ever been taught to fight.  The closest thing to actual training he'd had was learning how to shoot a bow and arrow, courtesy of his mother, because he could do that while standing still, and later, he'd learned how to shoot guns at his father's insistence.

"There ain't anyone alive—man or youkai—who can outrun a bullet," InuYasha informed him when he'd set the metal case containing a small pistol on the table in front of Mikio.

Mikio blinked, leaning back in his chair as he stared.  InuYasha unlocked the box and carefully pushed the lid back.  Mikio shook his head.  "Papa . . ."

"You'll learn how to fire that," InuYasha insisted.

Mikio sighed.  "I thought you said that guns were dishonorable."

"Keh!  Dishonorable would be if I let you grow up without having some way of defending yourself."

Mikio had wanted to argue with InuYasha, but the stubborn set of his father's jaw dissuaded him.  "A-A-All right," he agreed reluctantly.  "I will."

And he did.  The head of Inutaisho Industries' security team had trained him, and while Mikio might not be a gunslinger, he was quite accurate.  Though his mentor, Yasuaki-sensei was youkai, Mikio had never been able to shake off the feeling that he wasn't quite as good as his brothers or even Gin, really.  They'd all been trained to fight, and despite his father's insistence that it was just a means to an end, he found the training to be quite embarrassing.  He'd heard it said more than once—never by his family once he had started his training: there was no honor in shooting someone, no matter what the provocation.  Add to that the weight of being the son of the hanyou of legend, and, well, Mikio couldn't help but feel as though he were a huge disappointment.  He'd tried not to let it bother him, and strangely, he wasn't teased by his nephews or Gunnar for it.

"Penny for your thoughts?"

Mikio sat up straight and glanced around slowly, stumbling to his feet when he finally saw Madison standing behind him.  She smiled, brushing off the ankle-length skirt of the pale lilac dress.  "C-Cartham-san . . . Hello."

She waved off his greeting with a flick of her wrist.  "Just Madison or Maddy's fine," she assured him.  "What should I call you?"

For some reason, her question triggered a blush.  "Oh, uh . . . M-Mikio's fine—Just Mikio . . ."

She seemed pleased by his answer, and her smile brightened a few more degrees, putting it on par with the afternoon sunshine in Mikio's estimation . . . "You looked like you were thinking about something pretty serious," she commented.  "Is something wrong?"

"Nope," he replied, brushing away the memory as he offered her a shy little grin.  "Just . . . having some cake.  Do you want some?  I could get it for you . . ."

"No, thank you," she said with a small smile.

"You're sure?  Don't you like cake?  I . . . I like cake . . . or, uh, maybe I could get you something to drink?  I'm drinking water . . ."

'Goo-o-ood . . . I sound like a damned baka . . . stupid, stupid, stupid!'

She shook her head and slipped into the chair Bailey had vacated.  "That's all right," she replied.  "I thought I'd make the rounds, you know?"

"The rounds?"

She wrinkled her nose, violet eyes glowing in the light reflecting off the white satin tablecloth.  "Well, since Valerie hasn't left the dance floor since the wedding, someone has to greet the guests, don't you think?"

Mikio shook his head.  "But—"

Her laughter was soft, gentle, and he blinked at the surge of warmth that shot through him.  "I'm teasing," she told him, her gaze flittering away as she spotted the couple in question.  "They look happy, all things considered."


Madison waved a hand.  "Valerie wasn't very happy when Evan decided to lop off his hair before the wedding."

Mikio nodded, scowling thoughtfully as he glanced from the couple to another pair close by.  Bas and Cain stood off to the side, both looking somewhat disgruntled.  Closely resembling freshly shorn sheep, Mikio didn't have to be brilliant to know that the obvious irritation was very likely due to the fact that neither man had chosen to have his hair cut off before the wedding, either.  "Evan's always liked to be different," Mikio mused quietly, "but why did Cain and Bas cut their hair?"

Madison giggled.  "Apparently Gin found out about their conversation with Valerie, and she decided that if Evan was going to cut his hair for the wedding, they could, too: a show of solidarity or something . . ."

Mikio grimaced.  He'd heard about 'The Talk' earlier.  Cain and Bas had sat Valerie down and told her about many of Evan's more colorful escapades to warn her about what she was getting into in agreeing to marry Evan.  Evan hadn't reacted well to the idea that his father and brother —all the men in the family, actually—were trying to meddle, but Mikio had to wonder if the entire affair hadn't been a more calculated effort to relive some of Evan's more interesting moments without having to admit out loud that they were amused and even a little proud of Evan's outrageous antics.  "Well, I'd heard about that," he admitted.  He hadn't sat in on the impromptu-conference, though.  No, he'd spent his time, lying in bed and blinking into the darkness, trying to put the image of Madison, bathed in moonlight, out of his mind . . .

Madison's lips twitched, and Mikio could tell she was trying not to laugh outright.  "Gin's word was 'bald', but I just couldn't bring myself to shave the tai-youkai's head . . ."

"It just looks . . . strange," Mikio allowed.

"Hmm, yes . . . and vastly disturbing."

"It'll grow back."

"That's true, but before the wedding, Valerie insisted that she didn't want any pictures of Evan without his hair."

Mikio grinned.  "No wedding pictures?"

"He does look really, really different, doesn't he?  Almost . . . respectable."

Mikio chuckled.  "Almost."

Madison laughed, too.  "Can you dance?"

Mikio's amusement died away, and he cleared his throat, fighting down the urge to blush.  "Dance?  Me?  I, uh . . . no . . ."

"Oh . . ." she said then gave a quick shrug.  "It's a slow song, though, really not much more than swaying."

"I don't want to . . . crush your toes or anything."

She smiled.  "That's okay.  It wouldn't be the first time."

Flushing slightly at the teasing in  her tone, Mikio heaved an inward sigh full of self-disgust.  "Sorry."

"Don't be."

Stifling another urge to sigh, Mikio scowled at the table and slowly shook his head.

'Wonderful, Mikio . . . You're losing points, you know . . . You're about to end up in the red if you're not careful, and then where will we be?'

'Better than tripping all over my own feet,' he thought with a grimace, 'or falling flat on my face . . .'

'Kami, she's beautiful,' his youkai pointed out with a dreamy little sigh.

'Yeah, she is,' he agreed unhappily.  'Gorgeous, actually . . . and way out of my league.'

'She doesn't seem to think you are, or haven't you noticed that yet?'

'She hasn't seen me lose my balance or anything stupid,' he shot back, 'and I'd rather that she doesn't, either.'

Madison sighed softly, glancing at Mikio, only to smile when she caught him staring at her.  "You know something?" she asked quietly, leaning toward Mikio as though she were about to tell him a great secret.

"Wh-What's that?"

She wrinkled her nose.  "I hate weddings."

He blinked in surprise and shook his head slightly.  "I thought all women liked them."

"No, we don't," she admitted with a careless flick of her wrist.  "In fact, I'd venture to say that most women don't—at least, until we've had one of our own, and even then . . . Take your sister-in-law Nezumi, for example," she went on, pointing across the way to the woman in question.  "I could be wrong, but she looks about as thrilled at the moment as I do whenever I have to do something like, I dunno, take out the trash or something like that . . ."

Mikio chuckled at Madison's candid assessment, mostly because the sister-in-law in question honestly did look like she'd rather be somewhere else—probably underneath a car with grease smeared all over her clothes and face—than sitting at a table, engaged in wedding-type-small-talk with someone that Mikio didn't know.

Madison sighed then giggled.  "I kind of feel bad for her, actually . . ."

Mikio nodded.  "I kind of do, too . . ."

She shot him a sidelong glance.  "Bad enough to go rescue her?"

Mikio considered that for a moment then laughed as he caught Madison's knowing look and tried not to blush.  "N . . . No . . . Not really . . ."

"Hey, Maddy.  Come dance with the Bone."

Maddy giggled as she peered up into the leader of Evan's security team's smiling face.  "What's that?  Slumming, are you?"

Bone snorted, rubbing his bald head and shifting his weight from one leg to the other in a lazy, yet calculated stance—one that Mikio couldn't even hope to accomplish.  "Hardly.  You're the classiest chick I've tried to pick up today."

"Meaning you haven't tried to pick up anyone else, right?"

Bone chuckled.  "Something like that.  How about it?  Want to dance with the ol' Bone?"

She started to stand up.   Mikio stood up, too.  Reacting on impulse, the only cognizant thought in his head was that he didn't want to see Madison dancing with anyone else, especially someone nicknamed for a state of constant sexual arousal . . . "I-I was going to dance with her," he blurted.

Bone blinked and stepped back, holding up his hands in a good-natured show of deference as the grin on his face widened.  "No worries, man.  I didn't realize you'd already asked her."

Madison didn't gainsay Mikio.  He avoided her gaze as he slipped his hand under her elbow and led the way to the center of the lawn that had been fitted with a portable wooden platform for the wedding reception.  She stepped into his arms, one hand resting on his shoulder as he grasped her free hand, mimicking the stance he'd seen in movies before.  Madison smiled up at him, and he could feel heat infusing his cheeks despite his best efforts to avoid that.  "So you do dance," she murmured quietly.

"Not really," he admitted.

"You're doing well enough," she said.

He grimaced.  "I doubt it, but thank you."

She sighed contentedly and shot him a little smile.

He stiffened as she moved in closer.  If she noticed, she didn't react.  Relaxing just the tiniest bit, he grinned self-consciously and inhaled the lightly floral scent of Madison's shampoo.  The baser scent of her was a little spicier, reminding Mikio of the little custom tea shop that he frequented back home in Tokyo.  The array of exotic blends always lent a certain sense of mystery, at least in his mind.  'Cinnamon and cloves . . . and a hint of something a little wilder . . .'

"Are those two as happy as they always seem to be?"

Snapping out of his reverie, Mikio blinked and slowly followed the direction of Madison's gaze.  Staring at his nephew, Morio and his mate Meara, Madison's smile turned a little wistful as Morio held Meara close and leaned down to whisper something in her ear.  Meara blushed prettily, but smiled at her mate, and the affection in Morio's expression was apparent to anyone who was looking.

"I think so," Mikio mumbled.  "As far as I know, they've never even had an argument."

She shot him an amused glance.  "The perfect couple?"

"Something like that."

"Didn't you guys grow up together?"

"For the most part.  Morio and I were a little closer, I guess, but yeah . . ."

"Sort of like Bas and Gunnar, you mean?"

Mikio shrugged.  "I suppose."

"And Evan?  Were you close to him?"

"Sort of."  He grinned.  "Evan used to run off and hide at Kichiro-nii's house instead of training whenever he came to Japan . . . Kichiro-nii taught him how to play the piano.  I mean, he learned what he needed to learn from Papa, but he never was a fighter like Bas always was."

Madison laughed.  "And you?  You're not a fighter, are you?"

Mikio's smile faded, and he sighed.  "Not really, no . . ."

She was quiet for a moment, like she realized and maybe understood his reticence when it came to the current topic of discussion.  "Mikio?"


"I think that's okay."

He swallowed hard as Madison rested her temple against his shoulder.  "Y-You . . . do?"

He felt her soft laughter rather than hearing it, but it wasn't unkind, either.  Moving in closer, she seemed to relax against him, content to let him lead her in their farce of a dance.  "Yes," she said quietly and at length, sounding completely sincere.  "I do."







Chapter Text

"You know, Mom, maybe you should go lie down for a bit . . ."

Kelly Cartham shot her daughter a droll glance before turning her attention back to the wall she was painting.  To Madison, it looked like she might have gotten more paint on herself than she had on the actual surface she was trying to cover, and she slowly shook her head.  "I'm fine.  I just wanted to finish this up, and even so, you shouldn't be worried about it.  That's your father's job, after all, and God only knows that he does it better than anyone else ever possibly could."

Madison wasn't entirely inclined to agree, but she kept her own counsel on the matter since she'd already been privy to a number of heated discussion over whether or not Kelly might be better off to be lying down, in the first place.  It was one of those discussion that was the reason that Cartham was currently closed up in the shooting range he'd built years ago . . .

"When are you planning on heading back to the city?"

Blinking to dispel the thoughts that had so easily sidetracked her, Madison glanced down at the clothes she'd changed into just after the impromptu photo shoot since Valerie had so adamantly refused to allow pictures until after Evan's hair had grown back—certainly not her best outfit, but still very nice—as she stepped over to retrieve the edge trim paddle that was arranged carefully atop the open gallon of satin-latex paint.  "I was going to leave tomorrow," she said, brushing excess paint off the brush before climbing up the stepladder to paint along the ceiling.  "You know, this room is starting to look like a Smurf threw up in here . . ."

Kelly wrinkled her nose but nodded slowly.  "It'll be fine once I paint the clouds over it," she predicted.  "Maybe not a Cain Zelig masterpiece, but it'll look good."

Madison laughed.  Kelly had decided she wanted to decorate the nursery for the soon-to-be addition to the family herself, and she'd chosen to outfit the entire room in balloons and kites and airplanes and other various things that little boys would be sure to love even though the great Cain Zelig actually did offer to paint the nursery for them months ago.  "I hope they're right about the baby being a boy," Madison couldn't help adding since it was a family joke that the doctors had told Cartham and Kelly that Madison was supposed to have been a boy, too.

Kelly snorted.  "Your father said the same thing last night," she allowed with a shrug.  "Said I better do this room up in sparkles and ponies and all those things that little girls love."

Madison smiled, having been told the story of how Cartham had demanded that the technician giving Kelly the ultrasound do it three or four more times, just to make sure that the parts she identified weren't something else, entirely, as had apparently been the case with Madison.  "He's really looking forward to having a son," she mused.  It didn't bother her in the least, though, that he was so excited, even if he refused to acknowledge any such thing.  Wasn't it every man's dream to have that son who could carry on the family name and all that stuff?

"Okay, I'm here to work!"

Madison blinked and turned to peer over her shoulder as Bellaniece Zelig Izayoi—Madison's godmother as well as Evan's sister—breezed into the room, complete in a not-very-old pink tee-shirt and cut off jean shorts  She had her bronze hair pulled up in a jaunty pony tail with a pretty pink kerchief tied over her head to complete the effect.  Sparing a moment to smile at Madison, she stooped to retrieve a small can of white trim paint and the brush that was carefully set atop it.

"Oh, Bella, you didn't have to come and help with this," Kelly insisted, setting her brush down to hurriedly and carefully hug her childhood best friend.

Bellaniece waved a dismissive hand.  "I'm in the area, you know," she pointed out.  "Anyway, the bride and groom just finished their late photos, the men are having another one of their infamous wars in the back yard, some of the women went to the store to do some baby shopping for Gin and Daddy, and Gin and Daddy are taking the happy couple to the airport."

"Hmm, did anyone ever find out where they're heading?" Kelly asked.

"Nope.  Evan still wouldn't say, but he did mention that they wouldn't be gone as long as he'd like," Madison said.

"Oh?  Why's that?"

Madison shrugged as she stepped over to reload the trim pad.  "Because V's pregnant," she replied simply.

"Is that right?" Bellaniece asked with a giggle. "The scamp.  He never mentioned that!"

"Well, V told me," Madison went on, carefully running the trim pad along the baseboard.  "Asked me to be the baby's godmother—which I accepted, of course, even though I have serious reservations that I'm a good person for that particular job."

"Oh, you'll be a fabulous godmother," Bellaniece insisted.  "Besides, it's not that hard.  Send lots of gifts to spoil your godchild properly—nothing ever remotely useful because useful is always boring—remember all birthdays and holidays as a par for course, and the rest of it is a piece of cake!"

Madison giggled since Bellaniece and her husband, Kichiro were damn good at doing exactly what she'd explained.  Considering one year, her parents had actually managed to forget her birthday while Bellaniece remembered?  Yeah, she was a good one to take lessons from, after all.  "Then I'm all set—as long as I don't forget, that is."

Bellaniece laughed since it was a well known fact that Madison did have a terrible habit of losing and generally forgetting things all the time.  "You'll be just fine, sweetie.  Just mark the days on the calendar, and don't forget to check it!"  Then she sighed and shook her head.  "You know, though, it just seems like everyone's having babies, and—Oh, my God!  Did you hear, Kel?  Seems like Daddy's gone and done it this time!"

"Why's that?" Kelly asked, leaning back, bracing her hand on the small of her back to stretch.

Bellaniece giggled.  "Gin's going to have twins."

Kelly sucked in a sharp breath and shook her head.  "Oh, poor Gin . . . Is he acting like a lunatic yet?"

Madison laughed as Bellaniece waved a hand.  "Surprisingly, he's not," she admitted.  "Which isn't to say he won't.  I don't think it's sank in yet, but when it does . . ."

"And you're sure that you're not having twins?" Madison said, casting a very wicked smile at her mother.  "I mean, you're pretty big . . ."

Kelly laughed, not taking any offense at all to the not-so-subtle teasing from her daughter.

"Shut your mouth, spawn," Cartham rumbled as he leaned in the doorway.  Madison giggled at the entirely horrified expression that surfaced on the youkai-hunter's face at the very thought of twin anythings.  "That's not even funny."

"Hmm, and are you finished, shooting at anything that moves?" Kelly asked rather dryly as she stooped to reload her paint roller.

"I was doing a maintenance check," he muttered.  "You said you'd lie down with me when I was done."

Madison stifled a sigh since it was pretty apparent that the two were still not pleased with one another.

"Did I?" Kelly replied in a vague sort of way.  "I don't remember.  Must be pregnancy-related.  They say your mind goes . . ."

Cartham snorted.  "Kel . . ."

She shot him a quelling look, and Madison bit her lip, waiting for the proverbial gauntlet to fall.  Even Bellaniece seemed to be at a loss as to what, exactly, she ought to do.

Setting the pad on the paint can once more, Madison stepped over to her godmother and offered her what was likely an overly bright smile.  "Let's go have a glass of iced tea, shall we?" she suggested, taking Bellaniece by the hand and literally dragging her out of the nursery.

Heaving a sigh in the hallway as the two headed for the stairs, Bellaniece made a face.  "I thought your mama knew how to sweet talk that old skunk," she said, careful to keep her voice lowered in case 'that old skunk' heard her.

"It seems that her patience is currently at an all-time low," Madison explained simply enough.

"Hmm," Bellaniece intoned, looking entirely too thoughtful about the entire situation.

"I can't really blame her, though," Madison went on as they headed for the kitchen.  "For some reason, Daddy's been particularly ridiculous about things.  I think he'd keep her in bed the whole time if he possibly could get away with it."

"But Isabelle's told him that everything's fine, hasn't she?" Bellaniece asked.  Isabelle Marin, her eldest daughter, was also Kelly's OB/GYN.

"She has, and it is," Madison allowed, pouring two glasses of freshly brewed ice tea.  "But you know how Daddy is: always the fatalist."  She sighed.  Truth be told, she had actually considered staying around here for awhile—at least, until the baby was born, which wouldn't be long, just to try to maintain the peace.  When she'd mentioned it, though, Cartham had leveled a look at her and had told her in no uncertain terms that she would be going right back to her own life as scheduled, and that just figured.

As if in answer to Madison's pensive thoughts, Bellaniece gave her shoulder a squeeze and smiled at her.  "Don't worry about your parents, Maddy.  Even the best ones have their moments.  It just means that they care more than the other one wants them to."






The curt knock on the door drew Toga's attention as he paced the floor of the guest bedroom while reading through a message sent by one of his generals back in Japan.  It was important, certainly, but not urgent enough to affect the plan to stay in the States for another couple weeks, which was a relief since Sierra really seemed to be enjoying the visit immensely.

Tugging his glasses off, he glanced toward the door as Izayoi Mikio reluctantly poked his head into the room.  "If you're busy, I can come back," Mikio remarked, taking in the sight of the paper held in Toga's hand.

"No, it's fine," Toga assured him, folding the paper and stuffing it into his pocket.  He needed to email the general back, but he could do that later.  "You're looking better."

Mikio nodded but didn't comment on that as he slipped into the room and closed the door behind himself.  His color was more normal than it had been since his arrival, and he didn't look like he was suffering any of the dizziness that tended to plague him for days if not weeks following air travel.  "Jillian asked me if I could stay here for a while," he said, skipping the pleasantries and jumping right into the thick of it.  "Gavin's facing an inquiry at work regarding apparent misappropriation of funds.  There's no direct proof that he's committed any wrongdoing, but it seems that there is some that his boss might have had something to do with it, so the whole department is being investigated, and Jillian's afraid that Gavin's going to end up implicated since the company's legal counsel is questionable, at best.  I don't know how long it'll take before they reach some conclusions, but Jillian asked, and . . . I would rather be here, just in case."

Toga sighed.  "Well, that was a mouthful, wasn't it?"

"I told her I'd ask you since I didn't want to say I would without checking with you first," he went on, reaching up, absently tweaking his twitching left ear.

Rubbing his forehead, Toga sighed again.  Having Mikio on any kind of extended leave could pose a problem, considering the hanyou was dead damn brilliant in his chosen profession of corporate law, but he couldn't really leave relatives out to dry, either.  Luckily, Mikio had already all but closed on what would likely be the biggest merger deal—at least, the legalities of it all—this year, if not for a number of years to come.  The other things that Mikio had on his plate weren't nearly as dire and could either be handled wherever he was or could easily be handed down to his subordinates, and, to be honest, Toga was considering offering him some time off, anyway, since it was his staunch belief that all work and no play tended to be very bad for the psyche.

There was no question in anyone's minds that Izayoi Mikio had damn well earned his position as the main legal counsel for Inutaisho Industries.  He'd started at the bottom and worked his way up at his own insistence, and he'd earned a hell of a lot of respect along the way, both inside the family as well as outside of it, too.  That Mikio had a tendency to be quite the workaholic was also a well-known fact, so maybe this idea, while perhaps not the best, timing wise, might just be what the young man needed.  After all, as far as Toga knew, he hadn't actually taken much in the way of time off since Samantha's unceremonious disappearance years before, and that could hardly have been classified as a vacation in any way, shape, or form.  Besides, having to deal with just one case here, and likely as a co-counsel, would definitely give Mikio some much-deserved time off, as well.

Then, too, there was also the added bonus of getting him away from his well meaning but rather stifling parents.  As much as Toga loved them, even he had noticed lately, just how thin Mikio's patience was starting to stretch, and with good reason.  Having grown children of his own, Toga could certainly appreciate his aunt and uncle's desire to watch out for Mikio.  But they hadn't really had any trouble, letting go of Mikio's older twin brothers when they grew up, and even Gin had managed to stand on her own, too.  Maybe it was a combination of Mikio's tendency to avoid controversy when it came to his parents as well as the idea that he'd never been quite like any of the other pups in that family, but in any case, InuYasha and Kagome had yet to loosen the parental reigns, so to speak.  Even so, Mikio had chosen to attend Todai—a highly respectable choice, certainly—mostly to appease his parents and their desire to see him remain closer to home, when he most certainly had the grades and the financial ability to attend school just about anywhere in the world he might have chosen.

But even Toga had to wonder, given the circumstances, if Mikio should have chosen to spread his wings a little sooner.  Maybe if he had, they might have learned to take that all-important step back already . . .

All of these thoughts flickered through Toga's head at lightning speed, and when he finally raised his gaze to meet Mikio's, he smiled.  "If Gavin needs you, then you should stay," he allowed.  "I'll have your assistant go through your files and figure out which ones can be given to the others.  Off the top of my head, only the STAFAR project and the Ransbad merger are important enough to bother you with, but I'm sure you can handle everything on those from New York, so take as long as you need."

Mikio blinked and stared at him for a long moment before breaking into a very small smile.  "It's not going to be a problem?" he asked again.

Toga chuckled.  "No, and besides, it's about time you got out and saw some of the world, don't you think?"  Then he frowned.  "Do you have a place to stay?  In New York City, I mean?"

The fiddling with his left ear increased, though there was a good chance that Mikio didn't even realize that he was doing it.  "I thought I'd just get a room at a hotel for now," he ventured thoughtfully.  "I'll find a place as soon as I can."

Toga considered that then shrugged.  "You know, tou-san's got a place not far from Zelig-san's townhouse.  I'll ask him if he minds if you use it while you're there."

"O-Oh, I don't want to impose," he insisted.

Toga waved off his concerns.  "You won't be.  Tou-san only uses it when he has business in New York, anyway, which isn't often—maybe once a year—and Mamoruzen used to stay there when he was in town, too, but he bought an apartment a few months ago, so it normally is empty otherwise.  I'm sure it won't be a problem."

Mikio didn't look like he quite agreed with that statement, but he nodded, anyway, offering Toga a curt bow before starting to leave the room.

"You haven't mentioned this to your parents yet, have you?"

Stopping short at Toga's softly uttered question, Mikio turned back once more.  "Uh, no, I haven't . . ."

Toga nodded slowly, but otherwise remained silent.  After all, there was a good chance that his mother wasn't going to like the idea of her baby boy being so far away from everyone.  At least in Tokyo, he was still  near enough to Sesshoumaru and Toga in case there was an issue since she and InuYasha were staying in Maine until after Gin's babies were born.  No, he had a feeling that Gome-oba-chan wasn't going to like the arrangement at all . . .






Glancing up from her tablet where she was browsing a few realtor listings that her agent had emailed earlier, Madison blinked as Cartham set a plate, loaded with a good five or six slices of oven heated frozen pizza on the small table beside her.  "You really need to cook something else, Daddy," she pointed out dryly, lifting a piece, only to make a face and let it drop back onto the plate once more.  Shifting her gaze back out over the open view of the yard that ran down to the beach and the ocean beyond, she crossed her ankles and settled a little deeper into the lounge chair on the deck that ran the entire length of the Cartham house.

He grunted, drawing her attention as he plopped heavily into a very small wire chair on the opposite side of the glass topped table.  He managed to demolish half a slice of pizza in one bite.  The ocean breeze lightly tossed his ragged mane of black-and-white hair, blowing it into his face, into the violet eyes that she knew so well.  Madison watched him without comment, an amused smile tilting the corners of her lips.  "Your mama likes pizza," he muttered.

"Are you sure that's considered pizza?"

"She ate hers before her nap, just so you know," he pointed out.

"Does that mean that the two of you are done fighting?" Madison asked, drawing in a deep breath of the crisp air blowing in off the ocean.

"We don't fight," he corrected, reaching for another slice.  "We just have disagreements—which all your girly magazines say is perfectly healthy."

"Girly magazines?" Madison echoed, suppressing a giggle that she was sure her father wouldn't appreciate.  "You know, Daddy, most guys call stuff like Playboy or Penthouse 'girly magazines'."

True to form, Cartham's cheeks darkened about five shades of red underneath the day's worth of accumulated stubble, and he shot her a dark look.  "And I better never hear tell of you posing in one of those things, either, spawn."

Madison rolled her eyes, but couldn’t repress the giggle that issued from her, either.  "As if I would!" she scoffed.  "Then again, I'm hot enough to be in them, right?"

Cartham grunted.  "I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that."

"You're so cute when you're all disgruntled," she pointed out.  "I don't think they look for hairdressers to pose for Playboy, anyway, so I guess you're safe."

"You'd think," he grumbled before shoving another huge bite into his mouth.  "'Course, there've been lots of things I've thought that you wouldn't do, but you have," he pointed out.

"Like Evan, you mean?" she couldn't resist adding, arching a golden eyebrow to emphasize her question.

"Evil spawn," Cartham muttered, "just like your mom."

Madison laughed.  "So if I ever pose for Playboy, just don't tell you about it, right?"

"Madison, there are a few things in this world that I would rather just not think about.  The last time I gave you a bath or changed your diaper, you were a baby.  I'd like to live out the rest of my days, safe in the knowledge that I don't have to worry that I might someday accidentally stumble across pictures of you, naked, past the age of two."

She laughed.  She couldn't help it since it was possibly the single longest speech he'd given in his life.

He didn't look impressed by her amusement, and for a moment, Madison had to wonder exactly what was on her father's mind.  "I, uh, I don't have to worry that that little shit, Zelig's got anything on film, do I?"

"Nothing worse than your video tape from you and Mom's honeymoon," Madison quipped.

The color that had just receded in her father's face shot to the fore once more.  "I didn't know she taped that," he grumbled—the same thing he'd maintained for years, ever since Madison and Evan had accidentally discovered it when they were trying to watch movies late one night.  Evan had thought that it was the funniest thing, ever.  She'd thought it was amusing, too, but in a wholly disturbing kind of way.  Besides, unlike Evan's parents, who didn't seem to mind if the whole world knew when they were getting down and dirty, Deke Cartham was entirely old-school, maintaining that things like that should remain strictly private between the couple.

"It's nice to know that you make Mom a very happy woman," Madison couldn't help adding.

The pizza in Cartham's hand dropped onto the plate with a dull thump.  "You're grounded," he grumbled, wiping his hands on his faded jeans.  "So do I need to break into that little shit's house or not?"

Rolling her eyes at her father's one-track mind, Madison waved a hand dismissively.  "There's nothing on film—that I know of."

He didn't look exactly placated by her answer.  In fact, he looked like he was seriously considering breaking into Evan's house, just to make sure.

Relenting before Cartham could make good on his threat, Madison sighed.  "No, Daddy, there are no pictures; I promise."

He still didn't necessarily look entirely pacified.  "I knew I should have broke his legs when you two first started messing around."

"You knew?"

He snorted.  "I'm your father.  I'm not stupid.  Of course I knew.  Your mother made me promise not to maim the little punk, though.  Thought I'd get fired if I did . . ."

The trill of the house phone interrupted Madison's retort, and she untangled her legs as she stood up to go answer it.  Cartham wouldn't if there was anyone else in the house, and even then, he didn't always do it.  No, the only phone he would consistently answer was his cell phone, and only then because of the good possibility that it was Cain Zelig with a job for the youkai hunter.  Given that Cartham was over three hundred years old, it wasn't surprising that he simply didn't like technology as much as the next guy.

"Cartham," she answered, grabbing the cordless receiver sitting on the kitchen counter.

"Hello, Madison?  It's Gin.  How are you?"

"Fine, just fine," Madison remarked, flicking her claws, inspecting her manicure.  "What can I do for you?  Did you want to speak to Mom?  She's lying down at the moment, but I can let her know you called as soon as she wakes up . . ."

"Oh, no, no!  Actually, you're the one I was hoping to catch."


"Yes . . . We were wondering when you were planning on driving back to the city?"

"Oh . . . I wasn't planning on heading back till tomorrow.  Is there something you need?"

"Well, nothing big," Gin insisted with a giggle.  "It seems that Mikio's going to stick around for a bit to help Gavin out with some trouble at work, so we were wondering if you'd mind if he rode along with you?  He'll be staying at my uncle's apartment, but it's not far from ours, and if memory serves, then it's actually really close to your apartment, too, so it's not really out of the way . . ."

"Uh, nee-chan?  Who . . .? Who are you talking to?" she heard Mikio ask in the background.

Madison heard the tell-tale rustle as Gin covered the phone with her hand.  "Mama asked me to call and see if Madison wouldn't mind giving you a ride to New York City," she heard despite the muffled quality.

"Ma—? Y-You didn't have to do that," he grumbled.  "I could have rented a car."

"I know, but driving in the city can be so frustrating if you're not used to it.  Besides, I'm sure that Maddy won't mind!"

Morio muttered something else, but Madison couldn't make it out.

"It is okay with you, isn't it, Maddy?  I'm not imposing . . .?" Gin continued, uncovering the receiver as she turned her attention back to the phone once more.

"Of course not.  I'd be happy to do it," she said, wondering if it really would be all right, given that Mikio hadn't sounded very pleased with the arrangement.

"That's wonderful," Gin insisted happily.  "Do you know what time you're planning on leaving?"

Madison made a face.  "Well, I'd like to leave around ten or so, which probably means closer to noon or two."

Gin giggled.  "Okay, he'll be ready when you are.  Bye, Maddy, and be safe!"

"Bye, Gin," she replied as the connection ended.

"Who was that?" Cartham asked as he stepped through the doorway and toward the kitchen sink.

"Gin," she replied, setting the receiver down and smiling at her father once more.  "I guess Mikio's going to be staying in New York City for a bit, so I'm going to give him a ride down with me."

Cartham shot her a look, straightening his back after slipping his plate into the dishwasher.  "Mikio?  That quiet one?"

She nodded.  "I guess you could say that," she allowed, glancing at her watch with a sigh.  "He'll be staying close to me, Gin says . . . Hmm, maybe he'd like to get together for dinner sometime—if he's not too busy, working on Gavin's case, that is . . ."

"Doesn't he have some kind of impairment?"

"No . . . I mean, not that I know of," Madison replied, only half listening as she grabbed the tablet of notepaper her mother always kept on the counter near the phone.  "Let's see, my charger, my phone . . . I did bring my phone home when I came back today, right?"

"You were talking to him an awful lot at the wedding reception, weren't you?"

"Okay, yeah, I have it," Madison went on as though she didn't hear Cartham's question at all.  "Can't forget my kit, either!"


"Everything else isn't that important.  It's not like I won't be here again . . ." She laughed.


"Okay!" she exclaimed, ripping the sheet of paper off the pad with a flourish as she dropped the pen onto the counter.  "That should do it!"

"Madison Elizabeth Cartham!"

She blinked and lifted her gaze to meet her father's much more irritated one.  "Yes, Deke?"

He snorted at her use of his given name.  "I said, you were talking to that guy a lot at the wedding reception, weren't you?"

"Mikio?  Yeah, sure, I guess so . . . Why?"

He stared at her for another moment, arms crossed over his chest.  "No reason," he finally said.

Madison hurried around the counter, pausing just long enough to rise up on tiptoe to kiss her father's cheek before heading down the hallway and toward the stairs.  "I guess I should go pack then.  I'd rather get going early enough that I don't have to drive in the dark."

She didn't see the strange expression filter over her father's face as he watched her hurry out of the kitchen.







Chapter Text

"So how long are you going to be in New York City?"

Mikio blinked and shot Madison a quick glance.  They hadn't spoken much in the few hours since she'd stopped to pick him up at the Zelig mansion.  She'd said it would take about eight hours, give or take, to make the drive to the city, so they were probably about halfway there.

It wasn't that he didn't want to talk to her, no.  It was more like, everything he thought to say to her sounded stupid in his own mind, so he'd kept his mouth shut for the most part.

'But she hasn't thought you were stupid yet.'

He snorted inwardly.  'That's because I haven't said any of the things that I thought of.'

"I, uh . . . I'm not really sure," he heard himself answering.  "I mean, it kind of depends upon how long it takes to get this whole situation straightened out."

She nodded slowly.  "And you'll be staying at your uncle's place?"

"Yes," he replied, wondering vaguely if she was thinking about his family's overwhelming concern that she, unfortunately, had witnessed.

Gin hurried out of the mansion, leading the way for Cain, who held a huge box.   Intercepting Mikio's curious stare, the North American tai-youkai rolled his eyes.  "Food because they think you'll starve," he explained.

"Most of it can be microwaved," Gin explained, fiddling with the cold packs she's arranged on top of the rest of the box's contents.  "Those should keep everything nice and cold till you get to the city."

"Thank you," Mikio remarked, smiling at his sister and shaking his head slowly.

"Oh, Madison-san, you've lived in the city for awhile, haven't you?  Maybe you could spare some time to give Mikio a tour?" Kagome asked as InuYasha, despite Mikio's assertions that he really could get his own suitcase, loaded it into the trunk of Madison's cherry red Lasier convertible.

"That'd be fine," Madison said with a smile.  "I mean, if he'd like to, anyway."

The legendary miko bit her lip as she tried to hide the worry that drew her brows together.  "Mikio, you have your cell phone?  And your brother got these for you, just in case your motion sickness comes back . . ."

Mikio's smile was tolerant, at best, as Kagome handed him a small amber bottle of pills, as he tried to tamp down the irritation that the women's conversation about him wasn't directed at him.  "Thank you," he murmured, hoping that his impatience wasn't as obvious as he was afraid it was.  Casting Madison a surreptitious glance, he couldn't quite see her face, which was probably for the best since she couldn't possibly be missing the whole debacle.  All in all, he felt like he was little more than a pup all over again, and it was something that he sorely despised, considering he was nearly forty-five years old.

"Call me if you need anything at all," Kagome went on, forcing a too-bright smile as she smoothed Mikio's bangs out of his face.

"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, wench: stop hovering over him," InuYasha grumbled.  "Just do your mother a favor and let her know when you get there."

Mikio nodded as he stooped down to give his younger sister a hug.  Then InuYasha picked up Takara so that Mikio could get into the car . . .

"You know, it's only a couple blocks from my apartment," she went on casually—almost too casually—drawing him out of his reverie and leaving Mikio wondering if she weren't simply making conversation to fill the troublesome silence.  "I could show you around, if you'd like . . . Well, I do have a couple appointments this week, but my schedule's pretty flexible . . ."

He grimaced inwardly.  There was a nice, perfunctory sound to those words, wasn't there?

'Or maybe it's all in your head.'

'Don't be stupid,' he told his youkai-voice.  'A woman like her?  She'd never . . . Never want to hang out with me.  Sure, she said told Mama she would, but Mama kind of put her on the spot . . . and besides . . .' He made a face.  'It's not like I'm actually looking for . . . for a mate or anything even remotely close to that . . .'

His youkai-voice sighed softly.  After all, it wasn't a new discussion or anything.  Mikio . . . Well, he knew, didn't he?  No woman—human, hanyou, youkai—would want to have a mate whose family seemed to forget that he really was a fully grown adult, not to mention one who had distinct trouble, staying on his feet—a mate who couldn't rightfully protect his own, and besides that . . .

"It's all right," he forced himself to say, careful to keep his tone much more carefree than he was actually feeling.  "Y-You're busy, and . . . and it's not like you have any obligation to me."  He sighed.  "I . . . I'm sorry that Mama asked you to do that.  She shouldn't have put you on the spot . . ."

She giggled suddenly, as though something he'd said was amusing to her.  "I'd hardly call you an obligation, Mikio, and I would have offered, even if your mother hadn't asked me to," she chided, her laughter still evident in her tone.  "I wouldn't mind, at all.  In fact, I think it'd be fun!  I mean, I haven't done the whole 'tourist' thing in years, not since I first moved to the city and had Evan show me around, but it was pretty fun then.  There are some really awesome places in the area, too, but many of them are kind of small, kind of out of the way, so if you don't know where you're going, you could miss them completely, and that really would be a shame . . ."

A strange sense of warmth seemed to flicker to life somewhere deep down inside him, and Mikio couldn't help the thoughtful frown he shot her.  She didn't see it since she was paying attention to the highway.  Hair drawn up in a casual ponytail did little to detract from the overall polish of her outward façade.  He was pretty certain that she wasn't wearing makeup, either, not that he thought she'd need it at all.  No, her eyes were framed by the thickest, darkest, longest lashes he'd ever seen, and her flawless skin?  But it wasn't her outer beauty that he'd noticed from the start, either.  There was simply a radiance about her—a glow that came from somewhere deep inside her.  Those startling violet eyes of hers mirrored her emotions, and even now, hidden behind the shadows of the sunglasses she wore to reduce the early afternoon glare, he could feel the warmth of her gaze whenever she glanced at him . . . She was one of those women who simply didn't need the enhancements that others wore like a second skin.

The idea of spending any length of time with the gorgeous woman?  He'd be a liar if he tried to tell himself that he didn't want to, and yet, he could sense the hint of trouble that spoke to him in whispers and murmurs.  "Uh, m-maybe," he muttered, hesitant to commit himself to anything when he wasn't entirely sure that spending more time with Cartham Madison was such a good idea, after all.

"I'll give you my number when we get there," she offered, sparing a moment to cast him a brilliant smile—one that made him blink.

"Uh, oh . . . o-okay . . ."

"Then I'll look forward to your call," she assured him.  "So don't forget."







"I . . . I'm not really sure how to eat this . . ."

Madison stopped, her hand suspended above the pail of steamed crabs as she stared at Mikio for a moment.  She'd insisted that they stop at the run-down looking crab shack, insisting that they had the best seafood, bar none.  "Really?" she blurted, her cheeks pinking as she quickly shook her head.  "I mean, you're Japanese.  You eat seafood all the time, don't you?"

Mikio chuckled despite the blush that suffused his skin.  "Seafood, yes, and even crab sometimes, but Papa doesn't like it as much, so we don't get it very often."   He paused, brow furrowing, as though he were thinking about something serious.  "He likes more shellfish and regular fish.  Actually, he tends to like fish just roasted over an open flame.  Mama always said it was closer to the kind of thing he used to eat, you know, way back when."

She laughed softly as she pulled a crab out of the silver pail.  "Ah, yes, and he doesn't like anything spicy, either, right?"

Mikio laughed, too, since her observation was more of an understatement.  "No, no, he doesn't."

She nodded and made a show of holding up her crab.  "Well, it's like this.  I could show you how to use utensils to get into these, but if you ask me, it's kind of a waste of time, and no self-respecting New Englander would bother with those, anyway."

"Oh?" Mikio replied, letting the cracker drop with a dull thud as he reached for a crab, too.

"Nope.  Just your hands," she said.  Then she made a face.  "I hope that's not your best shirt."

He chuckled again.  "It's not," he assured her.

She nodded.  "Good, because sometimes, this can get pretty messy."

He watched in silence as she grasped the top of the crab's shell and wrapped her fingers down along the side.  Using her claws to pry the shell open, she grinned at him as she set it aside after dumping the suspect-looking brown goo into a small cup, completely oblivious to the juices that were quick to cover her hands.  "Okay, you don't want to eat all this stuff," she said, gesturing at the gills.  "Just tear those out, then pull out the mouth and the guts and anything else loose in here . . ."  He did as she instructed, and she waited for him to catch up before giving him a little wink and smile and flipping the body of the crab over.  "Now you want to get rid of this apron part of the shell, but lift it from the side because it's sharp . . . Tug it off, and that's pretty much it except for . . ."  She tore off the legs of the crab, then snapped the body in half before tearing a small hunk of meat out of the shell that she dunked into the goo before popping it into her mouth.  "Mmm," she moaned, her eyes drifting closed as she slowly chewed.

He wasn't quite as fast as she was, but he didn't do too badly, he had to admit, and the crab was absolutely delicious.  He wasn't entirely sure about the rather nasty looking goo, and Madison must have recognized his reluctance because she giggled.  "That's the crab butter," she explained.  "Looks kind of gross, but it's really good."

"I think that I'd prefer the regular yellow butter," he remarked, handing her the shell to add to the small bowl.

"Evan and I used to stop here every time we'd go home for a visit," she said, wiping her hands on a huge red and white checked napkin before reaching for her beer.  "I’m sure he still does.  In fact, Valerie mentioned it, so I know he's brought her here, too."

Mikio cracked a crab leg and carefully pulled out the long piece of meat.  "If all New Englanders crack these with their bare hands, why are there utensils on the table?" he asked as he dipped the strip of meat into the clarified butter.

"Well, they do get a lot of vacationers in this area," she allowed with an offhanded shrug.  "Of course, even most New Englanders have to use the mallet to crack the claws . . ."

He chuckled as she grasped the aforementioned claw and easily snapped hers with her hands and popped the meat into her mouth.  Sparing a moment to smile as she surveyed the mess on her hands, she seemed to give a mental shrug as she cracked another leg.

"Could I have another beer?" Madison asked a passing waitress, tilting her head to catch a drip of juice that ran down her hand.  "Oh, make that two . . ."

"Sure thing!" the girl said before hurrying away.

Letting out a deep breath as he tried to keep himself from staring at her—or more precisely, at her tongue that flicked out to catch the drip—he meticulously wiped his hands on the napkin before reaching for another crab leg, and he shrugged in what he hoped was a nonchalant kind of way.  Why was it that her innocent enough action sent his brain in an entirely different direction, anyway?

'Because,' his youkai-voice muttered in a rather distracted kind of way, 'there's something sexy about that.'

He could feel his cheeks warming at that thought, though she didn't seem to notice the flush, and for that, he was grateful enough.  'That's . . . entirely inappropriate,' he pointed out.

'Inappropriate or not, Mikio, it's also entirely true.'

Heaving an inward sigh, Mikio drained the rest of his beer just before the waitress returned with the next round.  'O . . . Okay, yeah . . . It's true . . .' he had to admit.

"Takara seemed like she was pretty unhappy when we left," Madison remarked, interrupting Mikio's inner dialogue.

"I guess she sees me more than anyone other than Mama and Papa," he admitted simply, taking a moment to redirect his wayward thoughts.  Somehow, talking about his baby sister was like the proverbial dousing with a bucket of cold water, which, he figured, was probably a good thing.  "And . . . she's pretty used to getting her way . . ."

"Not your fault, certainly," Madison said with a conspiratorial wink.

"Who?  Me?  I-I-I don't let her—" Cutting himself off abruptly, he couldn't help the nervous little smile that surfaced.  "Maybe a little."

Reaching for another crab, Madison took her time, popping off the top shell, and her gaze seemed to be studiously trained on her task.  "You seem like a good big brother," she murmured, and Mikio was surprised when he saw the hint of pink creep into her cheeks.

For some reason, the idea that she thought he would be a good big brother pleased him, though he couldn't really pinpoint why that might be.  "It's easy with her," he mumbled, feeling unaccountably flustered by her quiet assessment.

Her smile lingered, and she sighed.  "I admit, I'm kind of worried about what kind of sister I'm going to be," she confessed.  "I mean, I want to think that I'll be the most awesome sister, ever, but sometimes I wonder if I won't be too busy all the time . . . New York City's nice, but it's awfully far away from Maine."

"It's not that far," Mikio assured her.  "You care, so you'll make the time . . . That's what I think, anyway."

"You make it sound easy."

"Isn't life only as hard as you make it?"

She considered that for a long moment, as though the idea of it had never occurred to her before.  Then she smiled.  "You're right," she allowed at last, her smile warming a few degrees.  "You're absolutely right." 






"Here you go," Madison said, putting the last of the food away that Gin had hurriedly packed up for Mikio.  Crossing her arms over her chest as she let the refrigerator swing closed, she took a few meandering steps forward, gaze raised to slowly take in the room.  "Very nice, and hardly the apartment that Evan made it out to be.  It's definitely a penthouse suite," she mused, her eyes shining in obvious approval.  "I've never been in here before . . . Of course, Evan always said it was as stuffy and uptight as his uncle, but it's really not . . ."

Mikio's mouth fell open at her casual statement.  Then he snapped it closed as he barked out a chuckle despite himself.  "You . . . You think Sesshoumaru-oji-san is uptight?"

Finally lowering her gaze to meet his, he didn't miss the mischievous glint in her eyes.  "Don't you?"

"W—I—He—"  He grimaced.  "Okay, yes, he . . . He kind of is," he allowed, breaking into a very slight, if not entirely endearing kind of smile.  "Not many understand him," he went on with a shrug, "but he's really not as stern as he seems . . . He looks out for the family, even if we don't always realize that that's what he's doing."

"Oh?  Does he look out for you, too?"

The smile faded just a little as Mikio considered her question.  There were many times that he could recall when he'd felt as though Sesshoumaru might well have engineered things—nothing that would make that big of an impact or sway any kinds of opinions, but . . . "Yes," he admitted with a soft sigh, digging his hands into his pockets as he leaned back against the counter.

"Like what?"

"Like . . . Well, I don't know for sure, but I think . . . I think he might have given me reasons not to fly to Gavin and Jillian's wedding.  I mean, I wanted to go, but . . ."

"But flying's pretty hard on you," she finished when he trailed off.  Then she nodded.  "So he made up something that he needed you to do for him to save you from having to travel?"

He shook his head quickly.  "No, no . . . More like, he stressed the importance of a couple things I was working on at the time, and it's true that I might have been able to get them done, even if I had gone to the wedding, but then, maybe not. They really were important, though.  It wasn't like he lied or anything . . ."

She digested that in silence for a moment.  "How did you figure out that he'd done that?"

He shrugged.  "I just kind of knew," he admitted softly.  "No one told me.  It was just a feeling, and I'm sure that if I were to ask him, he'd deny it, but . . ."

She laughed.  "It was a lovely wedding," she told him with a wink.  "My first as a maid of honor, and obviously, not my last."

"But you did catch the bouquet this time," he reminded her.  Then he realized exactly what he'd just said—what he'd implied, and he couldn't repress the flush that rose to his face, either.  "I mean—"

Her laughter cut him off, and he blinked as he stared at her.  The amusement that lent her eyes a definite sparkle, the brightness that seemed to radiate from her—as brilliant as the sunshine—as clear as the noon-day sky . . . A curious sense of the earth shifting under his feet, though he didn't feel as though he was losing his balance at all . . . No, it was an infinitely pleasant sensation—and somehow, scary as hell, too . . .

Waving a hand as if to apologize for her amusement, she wound down slowly, though her smile remained.  "Sorry," she said, her cheeks still brushed with a pretty flush.  "I swear I wasn't laughing at you."

"I . . . I didn't think you were," he replied.

She sighed.  "I guess it's just funny, you know?  I mean, look at Evan and V, right?  If anyone had said that they'd be married now a year ago, who would have believed that?"

"Evan's always been a little wild," Mikio allowed.

She nodded, brushing an errant lock of hair back out of her face with the back of her hand.  "She was engaged to this little . . . man . . . at the time," she went on.  He didn't miss the almost derisive way she'd emphasized the word 'man', either.  "It never made sense to me, though, why someone like V was engaged to someone like Marvin Pinkle."

Mikio blinked and pressed his lips together for a moment before clearing his throat.  "Pinkle?"

Madison's look wasn't exactly amused, but it wasn't exactly not amused, either.  "His name fits him to a T," she assured him.  "If I were to borrow Gin's word, I'd say that he's a heinie."

"That bad?"

Again, she nodded as she turned away and stepped over to the refrigerator.  Other than the premade meals Gin had sent along, there wasn't much inside it, but there were a few bottles of spring water, and she grabbed two and offered one to Mikio.  "Yes, terrible . . . Not really," she admitted, breaking the seal on her bottle and slowly twisting it.  "He's a medical researcher, which is great, but he just never acted like she was more than a second thought to him.  Of course, V didn't really care, either, which speaks volumes about their relationship, so I guess, to be fair, I'd have to say that neither one of them cared enough, if that makes any sense.  I don't doubt at all that she cared about Marvin and probably still does.  But she never loved him—at least, not in the way that mattered."

"That's kind of sad," Mikio allowed, lifting the bottle of water to his lips.

She nodded.  "No, it's good, because if she did love Marvin in that way, she wouldn't have given Evan the time of day, and those two are so disgustingly in love that it's . . . well, it's actually pretty nauseating."

He barked out a laugh at her choice of words, not to mention the rather disturbed expression on her face.  "Don't tell me you share Gunnar's weird ideas about mates."

At that, she laughed.  "Oh, of course not," she insisted.  "How did he end up with such jaded views on the whole thing?"

Biting his lip, Mikio reached up to fiddle with his twitching left ear.  In truth, Gunnar's adamant insistence that he'd never end up with a true mate made a little more sense to him than he wanted to admit, but for entirely different reasons altogether, mostly because he himself had decided years ago that he wasn't interested in finding his, either.  "I don't know," he ventured at length, his gaze shifting to the window across the room where the hazy orangey glow of a safety light burned in the distance.  "I guess that some people just . . . aren't interested in all that."

"I guess," Madison concluded, oblivious to the darkened thoughts that were shifting around in Mikio's head. 






'Give me one good reason why you didn't take Madison up on her offer to go out to dinner.'

Rubbing his forehead as he pulled the new alarm clock out of the box, Mikio frowned.  'Not hungry,' he insisted.

'As if that would have mattered when we could have sat there and just watched her,' his youkai-voice scoffed.  'That woman is beyond hot . . .'

'She's . . . She's not my type.'

'She's not your—? What the hell do you mean, she's not your type?  Because she's sure as hell my type, baka.'

'I don't have a type,' Mikio insisted.  'Just forget about . . . about her.'

His youkai sighed.  'So we're back to that, are we?'

Leaning to the side, reaching down behind the nightstand to plug in the clock, Mikio made a face.  'Never moved away from it,' he countered evenly.

'Okay, maybe—and that's a big 'maybe'—you've got a point.  It makes sense, sure, but life isn't exactly about making points or even keeping to those points you've already made.  There's nothing really wrong with spending some time with her, now is there?'

Making a face as he accidentally scrolled past seven a.m. as he set the alarm, he wasn't entirely sure that his youkai-voice deserved a response for that.  'It's not like we're going to be here that long,' Mikio pointed out instead.

'That's not true.  It could take months to straighten out the mess that Gavin's in, you know.  So, what?  We're just going to sit here, day in and day out and avoid the rest of the world?'

'That's laying it on kind of thick, don't you think?'

'Only if it isn't true.'

'It's . . . It's better this way.  Besides, she owns her own business—a chain of them.  I'm sure she really is too busy for me to drag her all over the city, no matter what she says.'

'. . . You're scared of her, aren't you?'

Uttering a terse snort as he stretched out on top of the covers, Mikio shut off the lamp and scowled at the darkened ceiling.  'Scared?  Of Madison?'

'Yeah, scared of Madison.  You're afraid that you're just not going to measure up to the guys in her past, or maybe you'll discover that you like being with her, right?'

The guys in her past?  The guys like Evan . . .? Flashy guys who had never dealt with the kind of things that Mikio had to accept as par for course—things like moving too fast because that would often lead to dizziness and loss of balance, or the idea that he could and sometimes did trip over his own feet whenever the room started to sway around him . . . Evan and Madison . . . How often had Bas mentioned things over time?  Things that now, Mikio kind of wished he hadn't heard . . . And those things just served to remind Mikio all over again, didn't they?  Remind him of the things that he knew better than anyone—things he couldn't change, things that served to keep everything in perspective.

He'd thought about it a lot through the years, ever since he had started to realize that he really wasn't like anyone else.  Youkai and hanyou were supposed to be tougher, stronger, than any other beings on earth, but even as a child, Mikio wasn't like that.  A childhood punctuated by falls and missteps, it hadn't occurred to him that he was so different until the other boys of his generation had started getting instruction from InuYasha on sword skills and fighting techniques.  It just wasn't something that InuYasha had ever even tried to teach Mikio, but it wasn't until later that Mikio realized why that was.

They were all afraid, weren't they?  Afraid that Mikio, with his balance issues, just wasn't steady enough to handle a real weapon—a youkai weapon . . . Afraid that Mikio would end up hurting himself or someone else—not on purpose, of course, but it didn't have to be if the end result was injury . . . No one had actually said a thing to him about it, and that bothered him more than he'd like to admit.

He wasn't like the others, and he never would be.

The closest he came to being trained in any kind of true fighting skill—he didn't consider his firearms training as a real fighting skill—was when Kagome, in one of her more inspired moments, had decided that Mikio could and should learn how to use a bow and arrow.  Even so, that was hardly on par with the rest of them, and he knew that, too.  He'd agreed to learn, mostly to humor Kagome, after all.  Yet he could still remember the embarrassment that he'd had to tamp down, to hide, as he'd gone through the motions while his contemporaries had sparred nearby . . .

But he didn't really know when he'd made the decision that he didn't want to find his mate, if there even was one out there for someone like him.  Maybe it hadn't been a conscious decision, at all.  It was true that girls seemed interested in him from time to time, but the nagging thought always lingered in the back of his mind; the idea that no woman would really want to be with him once they figured out that he was clumsy to a fault, and it was that thought that kept him from ever pursuing anyone.

And it was all right, he told himself.  He had family, he had friends, and he had his work, too.  He wasn't just sitting back, feeling sorry for himself, feeling angry at his own limitations, and it wasn't really something that he thought about all that often, either.

So, why?  Why was he suddenly thinking about all of it now . . .?







Chapter Text

Mikio leafed through the stack of documents that Bill Winehouse, legal counsel for Morgan Tallerton Financial, had grudgingly given him copies of.  He'd requested that he get copies of all the information that they'd gathered thus far in their factfinding, but the ones that truly interested Mikio the most were, of course, the ones that might mention Gavin in some capacity.

From what he'd learned in his quick read-through, Gavin's office was the one that was the main focus so far, but Gavin himself was only the junior associate and he'd only worked for MT Financial for a couple years, which meant that he did have a direct boss in the company—Thurson Morgan, one of the co-founders.  If memory served, Mikio remembered that Gavin had changed jobs when MT Financial had approached him, offering him a much better position than he'd had at the time: more money, bigger benefits, more of a profit margin, which ultimately could also work against him if he took too big a risk anywhere that didn't pan out.

Still, Gavin was damn good when it came to handling money, almost uncannily so.  Mikio knew well enough that many of the Zeligs and even some of the Japanese relatives entrusted him with their finances, as well.  Gavin handled all of Jillian's money—no surprise there—as well as Evan's, and he recently had been asked to take over the investment of the Zelig Foundation's resources, too.  His clients also included Kichiro and Bellaniece as well as Ryomaru and Nezumi and a good portion of Sesshoumaru and Kagura's ridiculously large estate, and he'd recently started handling InuYasha and Kagome's finances, too.  Mikio hadn't yet asked Gavin to handle his, which turned out to be a good thing since it would have created a huge conflict of interests, but he had been considering it prior to finding out about the ongoing investigation into the alleged embezzlement.

The real problem was that the discrepancies in the bookkeeping seemed to have begun around the time when Gavin had started at the firm, which led Mikio to two conclusions.  Either Gavin really might be skimming off the top, or someone was trying to make it look like he was.  Mikio might not know Gavin as well as the others did, especially his North American relatives, but he knew him well enough to say that he highly doubted that it was the first of those options.

Which led to the second possibility and the question of who, exactly, had access to the files—who could have potentially altered them to make Gavin out to be the most obvious suspect?  And if that was the case, then was Gavin being deliberately and maliciously targeted or did he simply make an excellent scapegoat?

The soft beep of his cell phone drew him out of his musings, and Mikio glanced at the caller ID with a thoughtful frown.  "Izayoi."

"Hey, Mikio.  Jilli said you wanted me to give you a call?"

"Jamison-san," Mikio said, dropping the papers onto the coffee table as he got to his feet to wander over to the window.  "I was just looking over the reports."

Gavin sighed.  "They don't look good, right?" he asked, though in reality, it was less of a question and more of a statement.

Mikio grimaced.  "Uh, n-no . . . To be honest, the reports don't look good at all," he admitted.  "Most of the financial statements can be linked back to you—your accounts, your transactions."

"Just mine?"

He really didn't want to admit as much, especially to Gavin, but he sighed.  "Y . . .Yeah."

"I don't understand," Gavin grumbled.  "I mean, everything's audited monthly.  Every single report, every single transaction . . . It's all in those reports . . ."

"Do you still have copies of those reports?" Mikio asked.

"Sure . . . I always print them out and save them in hardcopy.  It's one of the first things I learned in college.  Computers can be altered easily enough."

Mikio nodded.   "Can I have copies of them?  And would anyone else have paper copies?"

"Uh, sure, no problem . . ." Then he snorted.  "I doubt if the auditor has paper copies, though.  I always email him the digitals . . ."

It'd be a lot easier if the auditing firm had paper copies since Gavin was right—paper copies were much harder to alter.  Too bad he was also right in his allowance that they likely never had printed out the documents that were emailed, too.  "Get me those copies as soon as you can, okay?  Hopefully I can figure out something when I look them over."

"Yeah, no problem.  I'll get those to you in a couple hours," Gavin agreed.  "So, uh . . . Do you think you can help me?"

"I'm going to try," Mikio replied, hating that it was the best answer he could give, but hating even more the idea of telling Gavin that there wasn't anything to worry about when they both knew that it was a lie.

Gavin didn't respond right away, not that Mikio could blame him.  There were serious charges hanging in the balance, and if Mikio couldn't figure out exactly what was going on, there was a good chance that Gavin was going to end up in court over it, and even if he were ultimately exonerated of all wrongdoing, the damage to his reputation might well end up being completely irreparable . . . "I swear to God, I didn't do anything like that," Gavin insisted quietly.  "I—"

"I don't think you did, either," Mikio interrupted calmly.  "Give me a little while to double check their evidence, Jamison-san.  If there's anything else that I can find, I will."

Gavin heaved a long, drawn out sigh.  "God, what a mess," he muttered, more to himself than to Mikio.

Rubbing his forehead as he stared at the sheets of falling rain outside the window, at the gray, overcast skies that he could barely discern beyond the forest of buildings, Mikio sighed, too.  "Don't worry," he said, knowing in his heart that his words were hollow, at best, and of no real assurance to the man in question.  "It's too soon to panic."

"Easy for you to say," Gavin remarked ruefully.  "It's not your reputation—your freedom—on the line."





Madison stepped out of the salon with a weary little sigh as she brushed an errant lock of hair back out of her face with the back of her hand.  Pausing under the storefront overhang and biting her lip as she frowned at the pouring rain, she grimaced.

'My life sucks,' she thought, rummaging around in the black leather tote on her arm, even though she knew—just knew—that she didn't have an umbrella in there, probably because every single one she'd ever bought ended up lost somewhere, never to be seen again.

As if in rebuttal to her silent assertion, the trill of her cell phone intervened.  It took another minute to locate that—it was in her pocket—but she smiled at the name that registered moments before connecting the call and lifting the device to her ear.  "Aren't you supposed to be enjoying your honeymoon?"

"Oh, I am," Valerie remarked.  "I just sent Evan down to find me something to eat that doesn't have a bazillion calories, though, so I figure he'll be gone awhile.  This hotel seems to specialize in fat, fat, and more fat . . . Fried fat, broiled fat.  The hotel bar even has a bacon fat rum shot.  Can you believe that?  Anyway, I thought I'd call you instead!  Miss me?"

Madison sighed and stepped back, figuring that maybe she could wait for a few minutes in hopes that the rain would die down a little.  "More than you know," she admitted with a wan smile.  "So tell me where you two are."

Valerie laughed, and Madison heard the distinct sound of a door being opened.  A moment later, the rattle of wind interrupted the call before Valerie turned to shield the device.  "Not where you'd think," she replied with a giggle.  "He brought me to Iceland—can you imagine that?"

"Iceland?" Madison echoed, unable to mask her surprise.  "Is that right?"

Valerie laughed.  "But it's absolutely gorgeous here . . . Mind, I've only managed to get Evan out of the hotel once to go sightseeing.  Maybe tomorrow, I'll try again."

"Tell him to keep it in his pants for a little while," Madison remarked with a giggle.  "It won't hurt him."

"I tried to tell him that," Valerie insisted.  "But he can be awfully persuasive when he wants to be  . . Anyway, enough about Roka.  Tell me what you've been doing since I've been gone?"

"Not a hell of a lot," Madison admitted, wrinkling her nose.  "Working mostly."

"Seriously?  Just working?"

Madison made a face since she wasn't any more thrilled with her lack of a social life in the week since she'd gotten back from the wedding than Valerie apparently was.  "Well, unless you consider drinks with Bugs a couple nights ago, 'something'," she admitted.

Valerie snorted.  "Was Bugs still pining over Evan?"

"Of course."

She laughed.  "Then no, that definitely doesn't count.  Oh, I know!" she suddenly exclaimed, apparently struck by genius inspiration.  "Why don't we fly you up here?  You can hang out with us for a while!"

"On your honeymoon?" Madison quipped, making a face that Valerie couldn't see.  "No, thank you."

"Are you sure?  We can make Evan wait on us, hand and foot?"

Giggling despite herself, Madison shook her head.  "As fun as that sounds, really, I think I'll still have to pass.  Maybe some other time—you know, after the horniness has worn off a little."

"If that's the case, then you'll never come hang out with me again," Valerie pouted.  "Evan swears that it's a permanent thing—a youkai thing."

"That could be," Madison allowed thoughtfully.  "Or it could just be an Evan-Zelig-thing."

"Probably.  You know, I—"

"Hey, woman!  What are you doing on the phone?"

Madison rolled her eyes at the sound of Evan's voice but giggled.  "Leave it to him to ruin perfectly good girl time," she scoffed.

"It's not just anyone, it's Maddy," Valerie insisted.  "Now be good and stop yakking while I'm talking to my Maddy!"

Evan laughed.  "Tell her I said hey," he replied.

"Hi, Evan," Madison said.  "Anyway, I'll let you go, then . . . Miss you!"

"Aww," Valerie grumbled.  "We'll go shoe shopping when I get back."

Madison laughed.  "Okay," she allowed.  "It's a date."

"Love you."

"You, too."

The phone connection ended, and Madison dropped it into her bag with a heavy sigh.

'So why didn't you tell her that Mikio stuck around?' her youkai asked without any kind of finesse.

Madison made a face.  'Maybe because he hasn't called me?' she replied, unable to restrain the hint of defensiveness in her tone.

'Yeah, and you could always call him.'

True enough, she supposed.

Then she sighed and shook her head.  No, she couldn’t, could she?  Oh, maybe she could have if he hadn't had that weird expression on his face when she'd mentioned going to grab some dinner the night she'd dropped him off.  But he had looked strangely reluctant, hadn't he, even if she really had no idea why.

She'd gotten the feeling that Mikio had been uncomfortable when Kagome had asked her to show him around, and he'd seemed as though he thought that Madison would only agree to do such a thing because Kagome had asked her, in the first place.  She'd told him that it wasn't true, that she'd love to do that, hadn't she?

'You know, I get the impression that it was more of the idea that Kagome asked than anything else,' her youkai pointed out.  'If you didn't notice, he doesn't seem to appreciate her overwhelming concern when it comes to him and his well-being.'

That was true, too.  She'd have to be stupid not to have realized as much for herself the night they'd gone for a walk on the beach.  It seemed like he almost resented his mother's concern, and maybe she could understand that, given that, from what she could tell, it felt like Kagome was laying it on pretty thick, and if she could sense that much of it, then how bad was it for Mikio . . .?

She wrinkled her nose and slowly shook her head.  Even so, if she called him, and he turned her down . . .?

'You don't think he would, do you?'

Heaving a sigh as she stepped out from under the overhang and into the pouring rain, Madison slowly shook her head again since there was little to no chance that she'd be able to hail a cab, not at this time of day, anyway.  'I . . . I don't know,' she admitted to herself.

That was the problem, wasn't it?  She really, truly had no idea whether he would decline her invitation, if she offered one, but if he did . . .?

'Then that would be . . . the end of the dream, wouldn't it?'

'Something like that.'

'I don't know . . . He just seems a little shy, which is good for you, you know.  If he weren't, do you honestly think a guy like him wouldn't already have a mate or at least a serious girlfriend?'

It was true, she had to allow.  She hadn't really stopped to consider it, but now that she did, it really was surprising that he didn't already have someone . . .

'Let's not look a gift horse in the mouth,' her youkai went on, apparently ready to give her a pep talk of sorts.  'Maybe you should give him a call, anyway.  I mean, it's not like he knows very many people here—only you and Gavin and Jillian—and he can't hang out with Gavin and Jillian at the moment.  He's bound to be bored, don't you think?'

'Oh, so my company would be better than none at all?  Somehow, that doesn't sound very reassuring.'

'I didn't say that,' her youkai scolded.  'I just meant that he'd be more inclined to accept your invitation, especially if he's been holed up alone all week.'

She didn't answer that right away.  'I don't know . . .'

'Hmm, unless you're scared.'

Wincing inwardly at the deadly accuracy of her youkai-voice, she hastened her step, wishing that she had opted to drive today instead of walking the three blocks to her flagship salon.  Somehow, the overcast skies this morning hadn't actually registered in her head, though, so the thought of rain was a million miles away, too.  Nope, if she wanted to be entirely truthful, at least to herself, she'd have to admit that the only thing on her mind this morning was that, if she walked, she'd go right past the apartment where Mikio was staying, and maybe, if she were lucky, maybe . . .

"That's your problem, Maddikins.  You don't think ahead about this kind of thing," the words of her best friend growing up echoed in her head.  "At least, not in the way that should matter.  Your brain just kind of skips over the other stuff and focuses on the parts that you want to think about."

"Shut up, Zelig.  As if you're any better."

His laughter still echoed in her mind, and Madison had to stifle yet another sigh.  He wasn't any better, not that it mattered.  She couldn't rightfully recall exactly when they'd had that particular conversation, but it was well before he'd left home to seek his future in the big city, which meant it was in the early years of high school . . .

But even Evan hadn't known because she'd never told him.  It was one of the few things that he didn't know about her.  Looking back, she had to admit that she was glad that she hadn't.  It wasn't like Evan would have made fun of her.  He wasn't like that, after all.  No, the problem would have been more along the lines of Evan, going out of his way to make things happen for her because, in the end, that was what Evan tried to do for anyone he loved—anyone he considered his own—and Madison, as his very best friend for the longest time, was most definitely one of the lucky ones.

How sad was it, really?  Having a hopeless crush on a man who was nearly thirteen years older than she was?  Madison could still recall the first time that she'd met Mikio Izayoi.  She was four or five at the time—she didn't rightfully remember exactly how old she was—and he was there with his family for Christmas.   Maine had been in the midst of one of the worst blizzards in decades, they'd said, and the Izayoi family had just made it in when the blizzard hit.  Kelly Cartham and she were there at the mansion that day though Madison didn't remember why, and they'd gotten snowed in with the rest of them.  For the most part, Madison had played with Jillian and Evan, but she remembered . . .

They were playing hide and seek, and she was it.  Ordinarily, it wasn't too difficult a game since, as the youngest, they allowed her to sniff them out, but there were so many people in the mansion at that time that it was proving difficult for her to do.  She'd ended up, slipping into the living room where Mikio was sitting, watching Bas and Morio play some video game.  He'd spotted her and smiled, and she had ducked quickly out of the room.  She'd spent the rest of that afternoon, peering around the edge of the doorway, but whenever he glanced at her, she'd run away again.

Of course, she was way too pragmatic to be like Jillian, who had decided early on that Gavin Jamison was her mate and that no one else would do.  Madison supposed her brain just didn't work that way.  There was most certainly a level of unhealthy preoccupation when it came to Mikio Izayoi, at least, on her side of it.  She supposed she'd always paid a little more attention whenever he was mentioned, and it had always been like that.  But she would also be the first to admit that she simply didn't know him well enough to truly believe any of that stuff.

That didn't stop her from letting Mikio be the inspiration for one of her more serious life goals—one that she liked to think she'd managed to accomplish on some level—maybe, anyway.  She'd vowed that she would learn how to give the best blow job, bar none, so that if she ever did manage to get him alone, he'd never, ever forget her.  She'd even told Evan about it, though she had left out the part about doing it so that she could one day use the acquired skill on his uncle.  Evan's interest had been in allowing her to practice on him, and that was fine.  After all, he didn't really need to know about the rest of it, did he?  She laughed.

Even so, there was just something about him, wasn't there?  Something that spoke to her in whispers and sighs, and maybe if she listened hard enough, maybe she could understand . . .

People hurried past her, rushing to get in out of the rain.  Quickening her step, she lifted her bag, wrapped her arms securely around it, hunching her shoulders forward, as though she were attempting to shield it.  It was entirely silly, that notion.  She had very little doubt that it was as thoroughly soaked as she was.  No doubt about it, the first thing she needed when she reached her apartment was going to be a nice cup of mulled wine—and a hot bath—in that order.

Some guy bumped into her, almost making her lose her balance as her bag tumbled out of her grasp and onto the sidewalk.  He didn't bother to stop to steady her or to see if she was all right, either, which figured.   Catching herself before she ended up, face down on the concrete, Madison glowered after the man before sinking down to retrieve the things that had scattered.

Wasn't that the trouble with men these days?  Most of them had forgotten what true manners were, and, while Madison didn't expect the guy to stop and help her, he could have at least excused himself.  She sighed as she straightened up once more and continued on her way.

Mikio had actually held the door for her, and he'd pulled out her chair in the crab shack where they'd stopped for lunch, too.  He also tended to say 'please' and 'thank you', as well, though that might well have been from his Japanese upbringing.  On a whole, she'd noticed before that they tended to have much better manners, even to the point of being overly polite, though some of Evan's Japanese relatives were worse in that regard than others.  At least they would have apologized for nearly running her down, though . . .

The ominous rumble of thunder made her glance up for a brief second, and she winced as the torrential rain began to fall harder, faster.  She started to increase her pace, but slowed a moment later.  What was the point, anyway?  She was already soaked to the skin—there was a good chance that the violet silk blouse she'd opted to wear was ruined—and if any of those she considered to be friends were to see her now, she figured she'd never hear the end of it.  Though she couldn't look to verify it, she was relatively certain that her makeup had to be running down her face, too, if it hadn't already washed off completely.  All in all, she figured that it wasn't every day that Madison Cartham ended up looking like a drowned river rat instead of the highly polished city girl she tended to resemble most often, now was it?

"You strike me as a metropolitan girl . . ."

The thought of Mikio's softly uttered statement made her laugh.  Suddenly, inexplicably, she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk as people continued to run past her, veering around her, in their rush to get out of the rain.  She wasn't entirely sure why it was, but she couldn’t really help herself, either.  Tossing her head back, her hair tumbling from the careful twist she'd arranged this morning to cascade down her back, she gave in to the amusement that welled up deep inside her.  The rain had somehow changed from something she wished to escape to something she welcomed, though she had no real idea as to why that may be true.

"M-Madison . . .?"

Her laughter died at the sound of that voice, the soft and reluctant way that he'd uttered her name.  Lowering her head as she slowly pivoted to face him, her smile widened as she came face to face with him.  "Hi, Mikio," she said as he took a step toward her.  "Fancy meeting you here . . ."







Chapter Text


Madison blinked and let go of the fluffy white towel she was using to squeeze the water out of her hair in favor of taking the steaming mug Mikio offered her instead.  The lovely scent of very strong tea wafted to her, and she cautiously tasted it, taking care not to burn her tongue.  "Mmm, this is good," she said, smiling at him as he hunkered down beside her and carefully sipped from his mug.  After he'd grabbed one of his shirts to wear until her clothing dried, he had changed his shirt, as well, since he was almost as wet as she was.  The plain white dress shirt he'd given her fit him well, but on her, it seemed so much bigger—surprising since she really wasn't a tiny woman at all.

"Thanks," he said, blushing slightly at her compliment as he forced his gaze away from the long expanse of her legs, just now tucked demurely to the side.  If he kept staring at her, he was going to end up making a complete and utter fool of himself, and he knew it.  Even so, he had to clear his throat as he struggled to refocus his thoughts before he spoke again.  "It's a special blend . . . Souta-oji-chan showed me how to make it.  He said that Mama's grandfather used to make it, too . . ."

"And you were able to find the right kinds of teas here?"

He shrugged.  "Not exactly. Close, though.  Oji-chan's tea is a little more on the sweet side—almost more floral—so I added a little honey to offset the extra bitterness in this."  Then he frowned.  "He, uh . . . He died a couple years ago.  Mama took it pretty hard."

"Oh, I hadn't heard about that," Madison said.  "No, I take that back.  Evan did mention it to me."  She sighed and shook her head.  "Actually, I remember now.  He wanted to blow off a few shows so he'd have time to fly to Japan, but Kagome told him that it wasn't a good idea . . ."

"Everyone else at the funeral was human," Mikio went on simply.  "Mama went, of course, but had to wear a thick black veil.  Papa didn't go, either.  He wanted to, but . . . but we had a small memorial service later, too."

A strange look, almost a darkness, stole over her features for a moment, but she managed to cover it before Mikio could really discern it. He grimaced.  Talking about someone dying?  'Not exactly the best topic of conversation, now is it?  Baka . . . Baka, baka, baka . . .'


Mikio shot her a quick glance and stifled a sigh.  "I guess that's not very good light banter, is it?" he muttered apologetically.  "I'm sorry."

"No, you're fine," she insisted, laying a hand on his forearm as he started to get to his feet.  "I mean, I don't mind.  It's sad, but I like to hear about your family."

He contain his surprise at her statement, but he smiled a little shyly since she sounded perfectly sincere.  "Well, I guess you know almost everyone, right?"

"Almost," she admitted.  "For example, I've seen your cousin, Aiko, but I can't say I've ever been truly introduced to her—or Shippou and Rin's daughters, either."

"Truthfully, I don't know them very well myself," he mused.  "Aiko-san and her husband live in Hong Kong since he is in charge of that division of Inutaisho Industries, and Toshie and Nori . . ." He trailed off then shrugged.  "They're a lot older than me.  We used to play with Toshie-san's daughter, Yuka-chan until they moved to Nagano."

"You and Morio?"

He nodded.  "And Gunnar and Bitty."  Chuckling at the raised-eyebrow-ed expression she cast him, he nodded.  "We were just pups . . . I think I might have been about three, so the others were around one, and I doubt they remember it.  Toshie-san used to come by the house to visit with Mama and Papa a lot.  I guess that was before we figured out that girls were yucky."

Madison dissolved in a fit of giggles at his choice of words.  "Yucky?" she repeated, attempting to sound offended but failing pretty miserably.  "Do you still think girls are yucky?"

He chuckled, too.  There was just something about her that made him want to laugh.  "Only the ones I'm related to."

"I guess that makes sense," she allowed.  "I never had cousins to play with or anything—just Evan and Jilli . . . and Gavin in the summers.  Usually, though, Jillian would run off with Gavin, so really, it was more just Evan and me.  Then it was Evan and Bone and me—and then it was Evan, Bone, Dieter, and me . . ."

He frowned as her smile faltered then faded away, as her violet eyes took on a darkened kind of light, and for a moment, she looked like she'd slipped about a million miles away.  He'd heard about Dieter, and he didn't have to be brilliant to realize that the mention of his name was more than enough to quell her ebullience.  "I'm sorry about him," he ventured softly.  "I . . . I heard about the shooting . . ."

She tried to smile, he'd give her that.  The expression didn't quite reach her eyes, not that he could blame her.  "Thank you," she murmured, dashing her nimble fingers across her cheek, and Mikio winced inwardly as the salt of her tears registered in his mind.  "You know, it still doesn't make any sense.  I guess it never will."

He could've kicked himself for being the reason why her mood had suddenly changed.  He'd been horrified enough when he'd heard what had happened, but to be that close to someone and lose him like that in such a senseless and stupid way?  No, he figured he wouldn't understand it, either.  "I didn't mean to dredge up bad memories for you."

She shook her head and managed a weak smile, but it was closer to a real one than her previous attempt, at least.  "They're not all bad memories," she remarked with a sigh.  "The four of us did some pretty crazy stuff over the years.  I tell myself that it's best to focus on the good instead of the end."  She shrugged a little helplessly.  "Sometimes I manage to do it, too."

Mikio nodded.  "He . . . He had a mate and a child, right?  How are they doing?"

"Miss?  She seems okay.  She was a little pale, a little skinnier, but she's doing better than we'd thought.  Daniel . . . He's so young, it's hard for him to understand, but he seems to be catching on.  It's just a shitty lesson to learn, though . . ."  Letting out a deep breath, she stared into her mug for a moment before swallowing the rest of it and setting it on the floor.  Wrapping her arms around her ankles, she rested her cheek on her raised knees and stared at him for a minute, her darkened gaze staring at him like she was trying to read his mind.  "Bas is keeping an eye on her," she finally said, her voice low, barely above a whisper.  "Deet never marked her, you know?  So we're hoping . . ."

She didn't finish her statement.  She didn't have to.  Mikio nodded, and he started to reach out, to touch her—maybe to hug her—but he stopped with an inward grimace when he realized that he really didn't know her well enough to offer her that kind of comfort.  Clearing his throat, he picked up her empty cup instead.  "Uh, do you . . .? Would you like some more tea?"

"That would be great," she replied.  If she noticed his momentary slip, she didn't remark upon it, and that was just as well.  True enough, he had never liked to see anyone upset over anything, but it seemed worse when it was Madison—Madison, who smiled and laughed in the pouring rain, who went out of her way to go on walks on the beach with men she'd just met—men who ran her down on staircases, no less . . . Madison, who danced slowly, who never mentioned the stilted motions of her dance partner when she really had to have noticed . . . Madison, the girl who looked like she belonged in the pages of fashion magazines and who could just as easily crack a crab without a second thought about getting anything on her clothing . . .

It bothered him more that she was the one who was upset.  It bothered him the most that he really had no idea at all, just how to make her smile again.





She watched him head out of the room, willing away the sadness that had come over her as she'd thought about Dieter, about Miss, and ultimately, about Daniel, as she idly squeezed the ends of her hair in the towel once more.  It amused her that he hadn't bothered to tuck in his shirt, though he had rolled up the sleeves a couple times.

She hadn't actually realized that she was near the Inutaisho penthouse when her laughter took over, but she couldn't say she was unhappy with the outcome, either.  Call it dumb luck that Mikio just happened to be coming back home at the time—at least he had been wise enough to take an umbrella though it hadn't actually helped that much.  He had been looking at her like he wasn't entirely sure if she had lost her mind or not, which had only served to further her amusement, given the situation.

When she finally got a good look at herself in the bathroom mirror, she wasn't entirely sure if she should laugh some more or be completely and utterly mortified.  Hair plastered to her head like she'd just gotten out of the shower, blouse ruined and plastered to her like a second skin, makeup streaked and smudged, she looked absolutely horrendous, and yet . . .

And yet, there was a certain radiance underneath it all, too, that even she could see, but she couldn’t help but to wonder if Mikio had seen it, too . . .

She'd quickly showered to wash away the hair products that were already beginning to dry in a crunchy, sticky mass, washed off all the ruined makeup and the rest of the polish that she hid behind on a daily basis, and for reasons that she didn't stop to consider, the idea of letting Mikio see behind all of that really didn't bother her at all . . .

"So, are you like Jillian?"

Madison blinked away the memory and shot Mikio a quizzical glance as he handed her the refilled tea mug.  She hadn't actually heard him return since she was so lost in her own thoughts at the time.  "Like Jillian?"

He nodded and sank back down beside her.  "Well, she always liked to take walks in the rain, right?"

She laughed.  "Oh, no . . . I mean, it wasn't raining this morning, so I thought I'd walk, but then, I didn't think to take an umbrella with me, never mind that the sky was pretty overcast.  It just didn't occur to me, I guess, so . . ."

"That makes sense, then," he allowed.  "I was a little surprised to see you there."  Suddenly, he shrugged.  "Or a lot surprised, actually."

"Why were you out in that?" she asked, casually sipping her tea.

"I . . . I bought a few things to make dinner," he said haltingly, nervously.  "I was just coming back from the grocery store when I . . . when I saw you . . . Are you . . .? You aren't . . .?  I don't suppose you're hungry, are you?"

Staring at him for a long moment, her smile widened as she bit her lip.  "You know, I think I am," she admitted.

He blinked and seemed like he hadn't heard her right away.  Then he chuckled.  "It's nothing fancy or anything.  I just got some vegetables and meat.  Thought I'd make a hotpot or something."

"That sounds wonderful," she insisted.  "I mean, if you bought enough . . .?"

That slightly shy smile resurfaced, and he reached up to fiddle with his twitching left ear.  "There's plenty," he assured her.  "I'm not as good a cook as Mama or my brother, but I'm . . ." He gave another little shrug as his smile widened just a little.  "I eat my cooking pretty often, and I'm still alive, so I guess it's all right."

"Then you're one step ahead of me.  Microwaving frozen dinners or heating a pizza is about the extent of my culinary skills.  It wasn't so bad before.  I mean, Evan cooked for me whenever I wanted something different or didn't feel like going to a restaurant."  She laughed.  "Came in handy when I didn't feel like fussing with how I looked just to go get something to eat."

"You don't really look like you need that much fussing, to begin with."

Caught off guard by the understated compliment, Madison felt her cheeks pink. Good thing he wasn't looking at her right then, anyway.  "In my business, it would be bad to be caught out without all the paint and polish," she mused.

"I . . . I think you look better without all of that," he ventured, his gaze faltering, dropping away as heat stole into his face, too.  "I mean, you look nice with it.  It's just . . ."

"Thank you," she said when he trailed off.  Leaning forward, reaching out to gently lift his chin, she smiled at him, and after a moment, he smiled, too—shy, unsteady, but still a smile—one that took her breath away.  "Uh, dinner . . . I . . . I could help you," she finally offered, mentally shaking off the fluster that threatened just around the edges as her hand rather listlessly fell away.  "I mean, I can't cook, but I can cut things up or something . . ." She wasn't entirely sure, what to think, not really.  Was it too much to hope that he felt those things, too—felt that electric sort of shock that seemed to have run from him, straight into her fingertips . . .?

"O-O-Oh, sure," Mikio replied, pushing himself to his feet once more.  Then he held out a hand to help her up, too.





"Okay, so how do we do this?"

Mikio set down the tray where he'd arranged plates of the vegetables and thinly sliced meat.  Dropping some of the veggies into the lightly simmering liquid, he caught Madison's rapt attention as she leaned forward and stared down into the pot and chuckled.  "It all cooks pretty quickly," he told her, handing her a small bowl of rice before adding more veggies and settling back to wait a few minutes for them to cook.  Her stomach growled, and he blinked then laughed.  "I guess you are hungry."

She giggled.  "Just a little," she agreed, drawing a deep breath of the rising steam.  "That smells wonderful."

He shrugged.  "Not as good as Mama's since the grocery store didn't carry fish flakes or stock, but I think it'll be okay without it.  I hope . . . I guess I'll have to find a Japanese grocery if they have one around here."

"Oh, there is.  It's just a few blocks away.  Evan goes there all the time when he feels like having something Japanese . . . I'll show you tomorrow.  I have an appointment in the morning, but I'll be free after that if you are."

"Yeah, okay," he agreed, breaking into a rather nervous little smile that also triggered the twitching in his left ear to pick up.  "If, uh, if you're busy, though, you could just give me directions . . ."

"I like spending time with you," she admitted.

The look he shot her was surprised, almost comically so.  "You . . . do?"

Slowly, she nodded.  "I do."

For a moment, he didn't seem to know what to say, but in the end, he chuckled despite the tinge of pinkness in his cheeks.  "I'm not nearly as exciting as Evan," he ventured quietly.

Madison wrinkled her nose.  "His kind of excitement isn't for everyone," she told him thoughtfully.  "Don't get me wrong, I really adore him, but he's kind of like the Energizer bunny."  She sighed.  "Keeping up with him . . .? V's got her work cut out for her—and I don't really envy her in that."

He considered that as he carefully dropped in some slices of meat.  Ordinarily speaking, his family didn't eat steak very often, but the cuts had looked so good that Mikio had opted to buy it instead of shrimp or even crab legs.  Besides, if he was going to alter the hotpot anyway, he might as well try something entirely different, he figured.  "Morio and I went to one of Evan's concerts in Tokyo a couple years ago," he ventured without taking his eyes off the cooking pot as he dished out a serving.  "He gave us those cards so we could go backstage, and it was completely insane—utter bedlam.  I can't imagine living with that every night."

She nodded, taking the bowl he offered her.  "I haven't been out on the road with him in awhile," she admitted.  "I mean, I'd fly out and sometimes and hang with him, but not nearly as often in the last couple years as I used to.  It was pretty crazy back then, and it's only gotten worse.  Everyone wants a piece of him, you know?  It's almost . . ."

"Frightening?" he supplied when she trailed off.

Nodding slowly as she reached for a fork, she smiled.  He'd gotten out chopsticks for himself, but he'd brought both out for her, and, while she could use chopsticks a little bit, she had no desire whatsoever to embarrass herself in front of a native Japanese man, trying to use them now.  "Sometimes his life is a lot like a three ring circus," she concluded.  "But V can handle it."

"I hope so," he replied, settling back with his food and a pair of chopsticks.





"You didn't have to help me with the dishes," Mikio remarked, drying his hands on a crisp white dishcloth.

"It's the least I could do," she insisted, wiping off the wooden cutting board.  "That was really good.  Thank you."

"Oh, uh, sure," he mumbled, digging his hands into his pockets as he turned to lean against the counter.  "It was nothing."

"Are you kidding?  I love a man who can cook."

'Quit blushing, Mikio.  If you blush every time she says something to you, she's going to start thinking that your parents have every reason to worry about you, don't you think?'

Which was easier said than done, he thought with an inward sigh.

"Have you managed to look over the evidence they have against Gavin yet?"  Then she grimaced.  "You probably can't talk about it, can you?  I'm not trying to be nosy," she hurried on to say.  "I have no idea what kind of proof they think they might have, but Gavin's one of the most honest people I know.  There's no way he'd ever do anything dishonest, let alone to people who trust him with their money."

Letting out a deep breath as he slowly rubbed his forehead, Mikio glanced at Madison, only to find the woman standing there, arms crossed over her stomach, worrying at her lower lip.  "I really shouldn't talk about it, no."

"Sorry," she said.  "I just don't want to see him get in trouble when he didn't do anything wrong."

"I don't, either," he assured her.  "Let me worry about it."

She didn't look like she was quite ready to let the subject drop, but with a sigh, she did.  "You're good at what you do, right?"

He shrugged.  "I'm not a criminal defense lawyer, if that's what you mean," he said, "but a lot of this stuff does fall into corporate law, so I'm not completely out of my element."

"But you can do it?  You can make sure that the right person is charged, can't you?"

He frowned at the hopefulness in her tone, in her stance, as she tilted her head to the side, as she gazed up at him through her eyelashes, and it struck him: she truly did believe that he could do it, didn't she?  "I'll . . . I'll do my best," he promised her.

Only then did she smile, but that smile was instant and brilliant, igniting an incandescence behind her eyes, carving a dimple in her left cheek.  That smile was enough to make him forget that he needed to breathe, only to remember it a moment later with a sudden and sharp, indrawn breath . . .

"You'll be Jillian's hero if you can get Gavin out of this with his reputation still intact," she pointed out, that teasing quality back in her tone.

"She said as much," he replied.  "I just want to keep him out of prison."

Her smiled faltered then faded, and Mikio scowled at himself for stating something that'd he'd so far only thought in his own head.  "It really is bad, then, isn't it?"

She wasn't really asking him for information, he could tell.  She'd simply interpreted his words for what they were, and he grimaced.  "Looks that way," he admitted quietly.

"Is there anything at all that I can do?"

Shaking his head, he tried to smile.  He must have failed, though, because Madison winced.   "It's still too soon to worry," he told her despite his concern that lingered just beneath his superficial calm.

She didn't look like she was buying into his attempts to reassure her, but she let out a deep breath and managed a wan smile.  "It's almost ten . . . I guess I should change and get going.  That appointment I mentioned . . ." Madison rolled her eyes as her smile widened.  "Who in the world schedules a meeting at eight in the morning, I ask you?"

He chuckled.  "Not your idea?"

"If I could stay in bed till noon every day, I would," she informed him.  "The guy I'm meeting has to fly out to LA tomorrow afternoon, though, so it was early or postpone for a few weeks till he gets back.  On the plus side, it means that I can show you around tomorrow afternoon."

"That . . . That sounds good."

She laughed and winked at him before moving toward the doorway to go change back into her clothes.  "Then it's a date, Mikio."

He watched her go, his smile faltering, though it didn't disappear completely.  Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could hear the very distinct sound of warning bells, very much like alarms that sounded just before the trains docked at their station platforms, the ones that were always heard long before you could ever see the train coming, that he summarily ignored.  "A . . . date," he whispered into the quiet that had fallen in her wake.

Then he pushed himself away from the counter to wait for her in the living room so that he could walk her home.







Chapter Text

"This is . . . disgusting . . ."

Madison giggled, taking another bite of her Coney dog, watching intently as Mikio slowly chewed and swallowed before pushing away the paper hot dog tray.  "Not your thing?"

He shook his head, casting her an apologetic little half-smile.  "Not really," he admitted.  "You don't eat this kind of stuff all the time, do you?"

"Nope," she admitted, though her amusement hadn't waned.  "Not very often, to be honest.  But every now and then, I just have to come down here and have one.  Call it a guilty pleasure, I guess."

They'd already explored most of the boardwalk, until Madison, in one of her more inspired moments, had decided that Mikio just had to try a real, honest-to-God Coney dog, and there was no place better to get one of those than at Nathan's.  It didn't really surprise her that Mikio didn't care for it.  She had yet to met a Japanese person who actually did, though Evan said that his mother had grown to like them, to a point.

"One time, Kichiro-nii told me about this kind of thing," he went on rather thoughtfully.  "He said Bellaniece-nee-chan made him try it, too, the first time they'd gone to Maine for your mother's first surgery."  Then he chuckled.  "He said they were one of the most disgusting things he's ever tried."  Mikio made a face.  "He lied.  They're worse."

That assessment only made Madison giggle more, but it didn't stop her from taking another bite, either.  He eyed her with an expression that was an interesting mix of horrified fascination and the slight green of nausea, and that amused her to the point that she had to hurriedly reach for a napkin, lest she end up, spraying food everywhere.  "They're not that bad," she protested after she finally managed to swallow her food.  "I'm pretty sure we could find worse for you, if you want."

He held up a hand and leaned back in his chair.  "No, thank you.  I don't know if my body could take anything worse than that."

There was simply something about the way that the gentle breeze blowing off the ocean played with Mikio's hair, as the silvery strands were lifted, held, then let go, taken by the air, as it slowly drifted down once more.  That same breeze brought the scent of him close, filling the space around her with a comfort that she couldn't quite comprehend, unlike anything she'd ever really felt before.  There was an understated presence to him, one she'd noticed before, almost a regal kind of presence, and maybe he didn't sense it himself.  After all, it was hardest to truly see what you looked upon every day, wasn't it?  And just why did it bother her that he didn't seem to notice, just like he didn't seem to notice the women who stopped, turned, stared at him in passing, their gazes full of the same kind of quiet appreciation that Madison understood because she felt it, too?

'He's really something special, isn't he?'

She sighed.  'Yeah . . . Yeah, he is . . .'

"You . . . You're suddenly quiet," Mikio remarked, his gaze shifting to lock with hers.

She felt the warmth rising in her cheeks, but she didn't look away as she broke into a little smile.  "I was just . . . thinking . . ." she mused.

"About something in particular?"

Giving a small shrug, she laughed softly.  "Someone," she admitted, tilting her head to the side, shifting her gaze toward the slightly overcast sky—not nearly cloudy enough to be unpleasant, but enough to keep the sun from beating down on the city in an overly harsh, almost abrasive kind of way.  Savoring the feel of the breeze on her skin, silently thankful for the near-perfect afternoon after the cleansing rain from the day before, she wondered fleetingly if she'd ever feel such a deep and profound sense of peace again.  "So, I've taken you to see the Statue of Liberty and Coney Island today.  Anywhere you want to go next?"

He considered her question, his cheeks tinged with the barest hint of pink, though whether it was because of her statement or because of the breeze, she didn't know.  Then he chuckled, and the sound of it was warm, pleasant, despite the hint of self-deprecation.  "Maybe somewhere that has, uh, decent food," he ventured.  "Where do you like to go when you've got free time?"

"Me? Oh, that's easy," she said with a flick of her wrist.  "I go shoe shopping."

Her answer must have caught him off guard because he blinked then barked out a laugh.  "Shoe shopping?"

She sighed and made an exaggerated show of rolling her eyes.  "All right, so I'll admit it: I have a deep and arguably unhealthy preoccupation with shoes, but I figure that it's better than some other things I could potentially be obsessing over."

"You mean, like Evan?" he asked, arching an eyebrow in silent question.

She shook her head.  "Not him, no.  I mean, he has vices, sure, but nothing really bad or dangerous, and even then, I'm pretty sure  that his obsessions have changed in the last year or so, too."

"Then . . . who?"

Giving a small sigh as she fiddled with her paper cup of tea, she shrugged in a deliberately off-handed kind of way.  "I guess you could say that I've seen it all, but not necessarily from just hanging out with Evan.  Well, maybe not all of it, but I've seen more than I'd ever really realized was out there, especially considering that nothing like that goes on around Bevelle."  She made a face, but laughed softly as she slowly shook her head.  "One of my first really high end clients flew me out to LA back when I used to work for Hubert Georges.  She was one of Hollywood's 'leading ladies', and she was going to the Oscars—her comeback, she said—and she wanted me to do her hair and makeup.  So I'm, like, twenty, just finished getting my certification, had only been working for Hubert for, maybe six months or so, and I walk in while she's sitting there in a white styling chair, wearing nothing but this gossamer dressing gown while five people—one girl and four guys—were laying around on a huge bearskin rug, smoking things, popping pills, downing wine, screwing like bunnies . . . I mean, the air reeked so badly that I thought for sure that I was going to choke or pass out—I definitely ended up with a contact high, and it wasn't until halfway through arranging her hair that she tells me that she 'owned' those people.  They were her living art.  I mean, she paid these people to come in every day, get drunk and stoned and fuck each other right there in her living room because she thought it was art, of all things . . ."

He looked properly horrified, though, to his credit, he tried not to.  Clearing his throat, he shook his head, like he was having trouble, wrapping his brain around it.  "That sounds . . ."

She smiled.  "Horrifying, right?" she supplied when he trailed off.  "It was."  Suddenly, she laughed.  "Okay, so it was a little funny in a completely absurd kind of way," she admitted.  "So, I figure that collecting shoes isn't nearly so bad."

"No," he agreed at length.  "No, most certainly not."

"Granted, there's nothing at all wrong with sex," she went on, her voice taking on a philosophical lilt, "but you shouldn't get paid for it."

Maybe it was the tongue-in-cheek way she'd said it, or maybe it was simply the outrageous statement itself, but Mikio laughed despite the darkened flush that had surfaced in his cheeks at the given subject.  "Well, I guess there's that, too . . ."

His cell phone rang, and he frowned as he glanced at it.

"Do you need to take that?" she asked, nodding at the device that he held in his hand, his expression rather undecided as he stared at the caller ID.

"It's, uh, Mama," he muttered.  "I can just call her back later . . ."

"Oh, no, it's fine," Madison said.  "Maybe it's important."

He looked like he didn't really believe her, but he let out a deep breath and connected the call, anyway.  "Moshi moshi . . . Mama . . . Yes, I know.  I sent you a text . . ."

Wiping her hands on a thin paper napkin, Madison scooped up Mikio's barely touched Coney dog along with her empty cardboard and wandered over to throw them away.

Biting her lip at the rather pinched expression on the hanyou's face, she took her time, mostly to give him a moment alone.  Even from the distance as she very slowly headed back to the small table, she could feel it, couldn’t she?  The tension—not quite hostility, no, but something else—something a little deeper than that—that had gathered around him . . . But why . . .?

Mikio grabbed her wrist as Madison whipped around to find Kagome.  "Not her," he hissed, his whisper imploring as his eyes met hers.  "Not Mama."  He grimaced and let go of Madison's wrist.  "Please."

Frowning as the memory faded away, Madison slowly shook her head.  'He's . . . He's not very happy she called, but . . . but she's his mother . . .'

'Come on, Maddy.  You had to have noticed it yourself, didn't you?' her youkai prodded.  'The way she fusses over him all the time—all the time?'

'She's his mom.  She's supposed to do that.  My mom does that to me, you know.'

'Maybe, but not like that, she doesn't.  Kagome loves him, certainly, but still . . . He's also a grown adult, and he has been for quite some time, and maybe he's getting a little tired of it.'

That made sense, sure, depending on just how overwhelming that motherly concern was.  Madison didn't rightfully know, but she had seen a little bit of it. Then again, she had to wonder.  If she'd seen that much of it in just a very short time—enough that she'd noticed it— then just how bad was it, really . . .?





Mikio sat back in his chair, trying not to look as out of place as he felt in the strange little bar that Madison had dragged him into.  She swore that it was a fun place, and he'd gone along with her, though he knew damn well that it wasn't anywhere he'd ever have chosen on his own.  It might well have been the luridly pink—hot pink—baize doors that had greeted the passers-by on the street, or the name of the place: Luscious.  Maybe it was the flashing neon depictions, the alternating flicker of the proclamation, 'Naked Ladyboys'—something that he'd become familiar with at Evan's bachelor party—and not exactly something that Mikio had really wanted to explore any further.  Even so, she had laughed, hadn't she?  She'd smiled that smile of hers, and she'd rolled her eyes with a soft giggle, telling him that it really wasn't as bad as it looked, she promised.

And he'd followed her inside.

'All right, it isn't really as bad as you thought it'd be,' his youkai-voice prodded.  'Well, if you can ignore the topless guy—some with very fake but very nicely bouncy boobs—running around . . .'

Considering he'd expected much, much worse, then no, it wasn't as bad as he'd thought it was going to be.  That didn't necessarily mean it was good, though, either . . .

Shiny, heavily lacquered wood in shades of cherry and mahogany, rich earth-toned fabrics, ambient lighting that was easy on the eyes without becoming oppressively dark, despite the black marble floors lined with soft running lights that created a path between tables . . . The music filtering from the house speakers was understated, almost soothing.  There was, he noticed, a jukebox over near the stage—just now, darkened and vacant—but no one had programmed in anything, so it stood, silent, waiting.  The stage, however, was shaped like a 'u', the sides jutting out with tables between, but seated back where they were, there was a semblance of privacy, too, since those tables were sectioned off from one another with divider walls of thick, smoked glass blocks, open only on the sides facing the stage, yet separated from the general seating area further up by gauzy curtains that were tied back to allow an unobstructed view.

All in all, Luscious wasn't exactly what he'd expected when they were standing outside, when Madison had asked him if he wanted to go inside.  Somehow, the interior of the place seemed completely at odds with the almost garish outward appearance.  As though Madison understood the gist of Mikio's thoughts, she laughed softly.  "The outside is kind of a joke, since it's technically a strip club, and all strip clubs should look like one, you know.  The owner of this place has a wicked sense of humor," she said, eyes shining in the almost hazy light, lending those violet eyes a mysterious sort of glow.  "At least, that's how it always seemed to me."

One of those topless girls hurried over with a bright smile that was painted a ghastly shade of deep red and more makeup on her face than a street mime, carrying a small black plastic tray and possessing entirely too much jiggle in her chest.  "My, my, my!  If it isn't Madison Cartham!  It's been forever, honey!" she pouted, lips turning down at the corners in an exaggerated moue.  "I thought you'd abandoned us!"

"As if I'd do that," Madison scoffed, leaning on the table, resting her elbow casually on the surface as she flicked her wrist in a dismissive kind of way.  "And you haven't been in for a treatment lately," she went on, reaching up to snag a handful of hair that she proceeded to tug until she bent to the side so she could give the ends a thorough inspection.  "Oh, my God!  You've been cheating on me!"

The waitress laughed, but didn't deny Madison's accusation.  She let go with an exaggerated sigh as she flicked her hair back over her shoulder.  "All right, so I did have a date with a box of Miss Clairol," she admitted.  "But I swear to you, it was just a one night stand."

Madison laughed and shook her head.  "Yeah, well, schedule an appointment and get that fixed," she insisted, waving a hand at the waitress' hair.  "All those split ends . . . It hurts me to see it, Jazz.  Oh, ask for Stephan.  I'll bet he's just your type."

"Stephan, Stephan . . . Okay, I got it."  Jazz giggled as her gaze finally shifted to Mikio, and her smile widened, but she leaned toward Madison and spoke in a very pronounced stage whisper without taking her eyes off the hanyou.  "Oh, now, he's just delicious . . . Yours?"

To Mikio's surprise, she blushed a little, though her smile didn't wane.  "Not in the way you're thinking, Jazz."

"Oh?" That one syllable was drawn out and covered about three octaves as her gaze grew more appraising.  "Is that so?"

"Back off, harlot," Madison quipped.  "And aren't you supposed to be asking us what we want to drink?"

Jazz rolled his eyes, but laughed.  "Fine, fine, you want a white wine spritzer," she said quickly and rather perfunctorily before smiling at Mikio once more.  "You, however, don't look like a white wine spritzer type of man, so what kind of man are you?"

Clearing his throat, Mikio glanced at Madison, only to find her smiling at him in such a way that told him quite plainly that she knew that he was trying his damndest not to blush at the very blatant flirting coming from the one that she had called 'Jazz'.  Even so, he wasn't a huge drinker and never had been—after all, he had enough trouble, staying on his feet, stone cold sober.  "Just a, uh, beer," he said, figuring it was probably the safest option.

"Oh, so you're a rough and tough, no muss, no fuss, football-loving, toss-her-on-the-bed-and-fuck-the-hell-out-of-her kind of man—just how I like 'em," Jazz said with a nod and a wink before hurrying away.  Mikio's mouth dropped open as the blush he was trying to hide shot straight to the surface of his skin as he watched Jazz go.

"Wh-What just . . .? What just happened?" Mikio asked slowly.

Madison giggled and reached across the table to pat his hand.  "Ignore her," she said between rounds of giggles.  "She's just teasing you."

He smiled at her and slowly shook his head.  "Is that what that was?"

She nodded.  "Jazz is a real sweetie, even if she does have a really evil sense of humor."

His smile faded as a thoughtful frown surfaced.  "You keep saying 'she', but . . ."

Madison nodded again.  "Technically speaking, Jazz is still a male," she said, as though she understood what was going through his mind.  "I met her maybe five or six years ago at the Bunny Hole.  At the time, she was still Jeff—no hormones or anything.  I mean, she hadn't started to transition yet.  Anyway, she was waiting for Bugs—he had some kind of emergency, which, to Bugs could have been little more than a broken fingernail—or another letter from Ed McMahon.  So Jazz and I split a bottle of wine, had a few shots of whiskey, and by the time Bugs came around to tell her that he'd just be another hour or so, I was in the middle of getting Jazz's very drunken life story, complete with her secret desire to be a woman."  Settling back with a deep breath, Madison's gaze seemed fixed, as though she were looking back in time and seeing it very clearly before her.  "They broke up a few weeks later since Bugs tends to get bored too easily, but Jazz . . . I liked her, so I kept her."

Mikio smiled, too.  "Is, uh, she friends with Evan, too?"

Gaze darkening as she considered his question, she shrugged.  "Actually, no, they haven't met.  Guess she's just never been around when Evan is, which is a shame because they'd probably get along pretty well."

"You'd better not be giving away all my secrets," Jazz remarked as she set the drinks on the table and pinned Madison with a marked frown.  The stern expression was ruined a moment later when she laughed.

"Nothing too damning," Madison assured her.

She rolled her eyes then sighed.  "I'd much rather stay here and chat, but I'd better not.  Let me know if you need anything else."

"Thanks, sweetie," Madison replied.  Jazz waved a hand to indicate that she'd heard her as she rushed off to another table.

"Are all your friends this interesting?" Mikio asked as he dared another look around the place.  He had to admit that it really wasn't that bad after one got over the initial shock of it all—and the idea that all the waitresses were topless.

"You could say that I know a lot of very different people, yes," she mused.  "The woman who owns this place—Sindy, but she likes it better when you call her 'Sin'—opened it up when she was fired from the strip club where she used to work.  She'd already had a sex change operation by then, but when the owner of the club found out about her reassignment, he said that he thought it was bad for business.  He was afraid of what his regulars would think if they ever found out that 'she' used to be a 'he'.  She sued the club for wrongful termination and sexual discrimination and won.  Then she used the money to buy Luscious."

"That's pretty sad."

"What they did to her, you mean?" she asked.  He nodded.  "Maybe, but if they hadn't, then she would have opened this place, and everyone she employs is transgender.  She turned it into a successful business, though."

"I would say so," he agreed.  The whole place was pretty busy, especially since it was only a Wednesday night.  It seemed like the tables were being filled about as quickly as they were vacated with a very diverse range of clientele, from what he could see.

She laughed.  "You think it's busy now?  This is nothing.  Through the week, they do evening shows, but it's not total nude—just down to the pretty little panties.  In fact, they should be getting ready to do a show in a little bit.  On the weekends, though . . .? Now that's a show.  Full-on nude.  It's quite the spectacle.  I imagine most come here the first time just out of fascination or maybe morbid curiosity, but there's something strangely erotic about them, if you want my honest opinion."

He wasn't entirely sure what to say about that.  Madison, however, had a strange sort of expression on her face: one that was almost sad, but not quite, just as it was almost amused, but not exactly, either, and Mikio really didn't know how to interpret it.

"Jazz told me once that all her life, she felt like she was pretending, trying to be everything that everyone else around her wanted her to be, and that everything she thought of herself was always pushed down, always swept under the rug because she was afraid of what those people might say if she were to even hint at the idea that she didn't feel the way they thought she should.  She said that her parents were ridiculously rich, that she was afraid that they'd be embarrassed by her if she told them how she truly felt—what she truly wanted.  She said that they could handle the idea that he was gay, but transgender?"  Trailing off with a sad little sigh, she shook her head.  "I couldn't imagine that, you know?  My parents . . . I'm not saying that they'd be happy if I had ever wanted to tell them something like that, but I'd know deep down that they still loved me."

"She hasn't told her parents?"

"No, she told them a couple years ago."  She winced.  "I . . . I told her that she should.  I thought that she could use the support going into that surgery, right?  I honestly believed that she was worried about nothing, and I . . ." she grimaced.  "I discounted her concerns because I just couldn't fathom the idea that parents would be anything but completely supportive of their child, no matter what, but . . . But I . . . I was wrong."


The expression in her gaze took on an angry sort of glint, almost a certain level of  bitterness.  "They no longer have a child," she said quietly.  "That's what they told her when they cut off her trust fund and took away all their financial support, and she hasn't seen them since."

"Maybe they were just, uh, shocked?"  But even to his own ears, he sounded like he was simply grasping at straws.

She snorted.  "Two years, Mikio.  How does a parent go for two years without calling their child?   Without at least wanting to make sure that they're safe?  I'm an adult, and my parents don't let me go a week without contacting me, you know?  And yours obviously don't, either, right?"

"That's true," he admitted with an inward wince.  His parents didn't like for him to go a day without calling, but then, they were also a little overly concerned, as far as Mikio could tell.

"I mean, I realize that I don't have children, so maybe I'm completely off, but . . . but a parent is supposed to love their children, no matter what, and even if they don't like something that the child does, they are still supposed to love them, period, right?  I just can't . . . Can't understand it, you know?"

Mikio grimaced.  No, he couldn't quite grasp that, either.  "That's . . ."

She tried to smile.  It didn't really work, but she'd tried.  "It's disgusting."

He nodded.  Disgusting was a damn good word for it . . .





"Thank you for showing me around."

Madison shot Mikio a quick glance as the two wandered down the street toward her apartment building.  "You're welcome," she replied, wondering if he'd notice if she slowed down, if she tried to prolong their time together.  "I had more fun this afternoon than I've had in awhile."

"Y-Yeah?" he asked, sounding genuinely surprised.  "I did, too."

She sighed, but it was more of a contented sound.  "There's, um . . . There's still a lot of city to explore—if you want to, that is."

"I'd . . . I'd like that," he replied.

The breath that Madison hadn't realized she'd been holding escaped her in a rush, leaving her feeling somewhat light headed, a little giddy.  "We can skip the transgender bars next time," she offered with a soft laugh.

He chuckled, too.  "That . . .  wasn't too bad," he allowed with a shrug.  "I mean, maybe not an every night kind of thing . . ."

They stopped in front of her building, and she turned to face him, offering him a rather shy smile.  "Would you . . . Would you like to come up for a bit?  Have a drink or something?"

"Oh, I, uh . . ." He made a face.  "I'd like to, but I really need to go over the files Jamison-san sent over.  I'm supposed to meet with the company's lawyer tomorrow, and I want to make sure I've gone through those first."

"Sure, I understand," Madison said, casting him a bright smile that faltered when he reached up, tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.  His fingertips brushed her ear, and she shivered despite the warmth of the late summer night.  "Maybe next time . . .?"

He didn't seem to hear her, at least, not right away.  Gaze transfixed on hers, he blinked once, twice, then slowly nodded, even as a sudden brightness entered his eyes.  Then he nodded, clearing his throat as he took a step back, almost more of a shuffling of his feet than an actual step.  The sound of the soles against the concrete sidewalk echoed in her ears.  "G-Goodnight, Madison," he said softly, his own smile shy, reluctant, and completely breathtaking, just the same.

Slowly, he turned, stuffing his right hand into his pocket, his left hand reaching up, fiddling with his twitching ear, though she supposed that to a human, it might just look like he were scratching his head.  As she turned to head up the steps onto the stoop, he stopped, glanced back over his shoulder, his smile widening as he waved before moving further away into the night.







Chapter Text

"Officials are issuing a warning tonight regarding the string of robberies in and around Lenox Hills.  According to Captain Ross McFadden of the 19th Precinct, there is evidence that the robberies are being orchestrated by a high-tech group, although they are not yet clear on exactly how organized this group really is . . ."

Frowning at the televised report on the news, Mikio flicked off the TV and dropped the remote on the coffee table.  Sesshoumaru had already arranged for some renovations to be done to the guest bathrooms—the master suite's bathroom had been finished earlier, well before Mikio had taken up residence, but there had been some difficulty in the custom fixtures that had delayed the work on the guest ones.  His uncle had offered to put off the work, but Mikio had insisted that it wasn't a problem.  The workmen weren't overly loud, and he'd been told that it should only take another week, tops.  They had been leaving around three or so in the afternoons, but they'd stayed later today—something about tiles having to be laid before the delivery of some of the cabinetry in the morning.  So, the contractor had left around nine with his sparse work crew, and Mikio had tried to lie down for a bit.  Trouble was, despite the fact that it was nearly midnight, he wasn't tired in the least.

He stood, shuffled over to the bank of windows that ran the length of the penthouse apartment, staring down at the lights of the city without really paying much attention to the view.  He simply had way too much on his mind, and he'd found over the years that he tended to do his best thinking at night, too.  Looking over the files and reports was tedious, at best, but he was starting to see definite patterns—things that could be easily overlooked, given that the emailed reports that Gavin filed were kept on the corporate server.  They were password protected, of course, which, really didn't mean much.  Gavin's passwords seemed to be secure enough, but if someone wanted to alter the files badly enough, and if the person had knowledge of how to crack a password protected file—or even just the basic skill of using Google—then there was always a loophole.

The files on the server were changed, there was no doubt about that.  The hardcopy reports were noticeably different from the ones that had been submitted.  Gavin's files were fine, even the ones he kept on his computer.  The ones that were in the possession of the accountant?  Those were not.

So the real trouble was going to be figuring out who had the opportunity to change those reports.  In a deposition, the two people who handled Gavin's files both admitted that they often didn't get around to looking at his reports for a week or two, sometimes a month, after they were submitted, so the window of opportunity was pretty broad.

Which, of course, just made Mikio's task that much more difficult.  He needed to know just who had access to the server, and that might prove to be harder information to obtain, given that the higher-ups at Morgan Tallerton Financial weren't entirely sure whether they trusted Mikio or not.  They seemed to think that he was on some kind of witch hunt, like he was trying to bring down the whole firm.  It wasn't entirely surprising.  Maybe they'd taken offense to the idea that Gavin had retained his own counsel, or maybe the general distrust he'd sensed from Bill Winehouse had rubbed off on them.  Either way, it just made Mikio's task a little more difficult.

'That all sounds good, Mikio, but you know damn well that you've been thinking more about a certain someone than you have about Jamison-san's case.'

'That's not necessarily a good thing,' he mused with a marked frown.  Gavin's case deserved more attention than that.  Considering that the man's life teetered in the balance, then distraction was really not something that Mikio could afford.

'You know, we could call her—maybe not now, considering the time, but tomorrow.  Ask her to dinner or something . . .?'

'Or we could concentrate on finding a way to prove that Jamison-san is innocent,' he remarked dryly.

'Aw, c'mon, Miki-chan . . . That woman is . . . Well, she's everything!  Smart, savvy, fun . . . and she's got a damn fine rack, don't you think?'

Stifling the urge to blush at his youkai-voice's overzealous analytical skills, Mikio scowled out the window.  The trouble with Madison Cartham, he figured, was that he had a feeling that she could very easily crawl right under his skin without him even realizing it, and that was entirely too dangerous to credit.

'And you make that sound like a fate worse than death.'

Turning on his heel as he started away from the window, he stopped abruptly when a wave of dizziness washed over him.  So strong that he reached out to steady himself on the back of a nearby chair, he closed his eyes and willed the feeling to pass.

It brought it all right back into focus, didn't it?  Unexplainable dizzy spells, clumsiness that really couldn't just be growing pains or something stupid, like his family had tried to tell him for years—at least, until it had become painfully obvious that it really wasn't anything like that, at all.

And he'd thought that it was all right, hadn't he?  Thought that his own physical limitations were something that he could deal with because he had done it all his life, and that was all right.  Or, at least, it had been all right until recently—until he'd met the girl with the violet eyes, that was . . .

'But . . . But maybe she won't care . . .' his youkai remarked almost timidly.

'As it that matters,' Mikio scoffed.  Of course, she'd care, and he knew that, too, but even if she didn't, he did, damn it.  A woman like her?  She was used to guys like Evan Zelig, guys who could do the things that Mikio himself would never be able to do.  Guys who could move without a second thought as to whether or not he'd manage to stay on his feet, who didn't have to worry that he'd end up, flat on his back, looking like a complete and utter fool.  It was demoralizing, debilitating, entirely humiliating, really, and for reasons that Mikio didn't want to consider, the idea of allowing Madison to see him like that?  It was just a little more than he could stand . . .

It seemed to him that it took longer than normal for the room to stop spinning as he stepped cautiously around the chair and lowered himself into it.  Swallowing hard to force down the rising bile that normally accompanied the worst of his dizzy spells, Mikio rubbed his forehead and forced himself to take a few long, deep breaths.

He felt shaky, but the dizziness slowly receded, much to Mikio's relief—and overall disgust.  Over time, he'd really come to hate those moments, those times when something inside him veered off-kilter.  Trouble was, he never quite knew when one of those spells was going to hit him, either.  It wasn't like there was any kind of warning beforehand, which irritated him, too.  At least if he knew what kind of thing might trigger it, then he could take steps to avoid or prepare, but there weren't.

When he was just a pup, his parents had taken him in to have him tested.  Kichiro had surmised that maybe there was something wrong with Mikio's inner ear, maybe some kind of defect that caused his balance to be adversely affected.  But when they'd tried to get him into the scanner to test him, he'd gotten scared, and InuYasha had very nearly busted down the door to 'save' him.  Of course, he wasn't very old at the time, so it wasn't entirely surprising that he'd freaked out.  Even so, no one had ever suggested that he get the test done later, and, while Mikio had wondered why that was, he'd also heard the whispers, too, and he'd realized that his parents had ended up arguing about it . . .

That memory was enough to bring Mikio abruptly to his feet once more, and without stopping to think about the time, without bothering to consider that it was late, that he probably should try going back to bed, he strode toward the door, ignoring the residual if not dull throbbing in his head.  Somehow, the very walls of the penthouse suite seemed to be closing in on him, and the only thought in his head was that he needed to escape, even if he really wasn't entirely sure why he felt that way.

Swinging open the door, he stopped short, moments before barreling straight into Cartham Madison, who stood just outside, her hand raised, ready to knock.  "M-Madison," he stammered, as much from the surprise of finding her there as from the wholly unsettling and entirely welcome feeling of warmth that rushed through him in that instant.  The scent of her wafted to him, enveloping him in a haze of her as he swallowed hard and made himself take a step back.  Dressed as she was in a white cotton blouse and faun suede skirt, she didn't look like she'd been out for the evening, no.  If anything, she looked like she might have just left her shop . . .

"Hi, Mikio."  She made a face, squeezing one eye closed as she shot him a rather nervous kind of smile.  "Sorry to come over so late," she apologized.  "It's stupid, really, but . . . Um, can I use your phone?"

"My . . .? Oh, uh, sure," he said, stepping to the side to allow her to enter.  "Is everything all right?"

She heaved a sigh, the three inch taupe heels clicking lightly against the hardwood floor as she stepped inside.  "Depends on what you consider 'all right'," she muttered, looking decidedly irritated about something.

"That sounds rather dubious."

Pausing long enough to pin him with an entirely inscrutable look, she slowly shook her head.  "I’m a moron, Mikio.  I don't know if you knew that already, but I am."

He blinked at her harsh self-assessment.  "I-I don't think you are," he allowed.  "Why would you say that?"

This time, she snorted indelicately, launching herself into a brisk pace as she strode away from him, only to pivot on her heel once she reached the window and started back toward him once more.  "I'm an entirely lost cause—pathetic, really.  Honestly pathetic!"

Crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned back against the door he'd just closed Mikio remained silent, figuring he'd be better off to wait until she'd calmed down enough to tell him what had happened or at least, why she seemed to think that she'd done something terrible, anyway.

"And you'd think that Evan, knowing me, would realize that there was a good chance that I might need to be able to get into his house while he's gone on his honeymoon, wouldn't you?  I mean, he's known me forever, so he should have known that I, being me, would need the spare keys he keeps there for me, which would ordinarily be fine since the security team knows me—or at least, they know where to look on the security clearance list so I could get into his house to get my spare keys."  Her already agitated expression shifted into one of near mutiny as she continued to pace the length of the room, and for a moment, Mikio wondered if she wasn't about to completely lose what little bit of sanity she was struggling to hold on to.  She didn't seem to be too far away from a bout of hysteria—he could smell it rolling off her in waves.  But she must have realized that freaking out really wasn't going to help her, and she drew a few deep breaths to calm herself.  Then she sighed yet again.

He cleared his throat since she seemed to have forgotten that she was actually speaking to him.  She started, pivoting on her heel again as her gaze lit on him once more.  "You lost your keys?"

"No, I didn't lose my—" Another sigh, this one a lot more defeated than the others.  "I'll tell you what I've told Evan before: my keys are exactly where I set them down . . . I just don't happen to remember where that was."

Pressing his lips together in a thin line, lest he do something entirely stupid, like give in to the urge to laugh, he slowly nodded.  "And Evan's got your spare keys in his house."

She stopped, mid-stride, and stared at him.  "Yes," she finally said.  "Did I mention that he's given his security team the time off while he's gone?  Everything's locked up tighter than Alcatraz, but even then, I'm not sure if he'd have the keys at his Zel Roka mansion or in the townhouse they bought recently.  There's just one rent-a-cop guarding the mansion with the explicit orders, 'No one, under any circumstances, allowed in, period'."  Shaking her head, she stomped around the sofa, only to flop down on it to bury her face in her hands.  "Bas might have access to both of those, but who knows if he's in the city at the moment, either . . ."

"So you wanted to call Bas," Mikio concluded with a curt nod.  Then he frowned.  "Why didn't you just use your cell phone?"

"Because," she admitted, her voice muffled, "it's in my apartment—my locked apartment.  I apparently forgot it this morning, too."  Letting her hands drop away from her face, she heaved a sigh as her shoulders slumped, as she cast him an entirely pathetic kind of look.  "Can I just use your phone to call a hotel?  I'll figure the rest of it out tomorrow—call a locksmith or something."

"Well, you could, but," Mikio began as he glanced around, as his frown darkened slightly.  "You don't have your purse?"

Sitting up quickly, she patted the sofa on both sides, leaning slightly to sweep her hands underneath herself before she shot him what should have been a quelling glance, but somehow wasn't.

He nodded.  "You forgot that at home, too?"

She shook her head.  "No, I probably left it in my office," she admitted.  "Good, since I really don't want to have to call my credit card company and bank and all that—again—and have to explain—again—that I've lost my cards—again.  Bad, because . . ." Trailing off as she dropped her face into her hands once more, she groaned.

"Why don't you just stay here tonight?" he offered, wondering in the back of his mind if he wasn't signing his own death warrant in the process but brushing aside the thought just as quickly.  "We can call Bas in the morning."

"Oh, I don't want to be any trouble," Madison insisted as she slowly got to her feet.  "I know the concierge at the Riesman-Criss.  I'm pretty sure that he'll work with me."

Glancing at the clock, Mikio shook his head.  "Madison, it's one in the morning," he told her gently.  "You're welcome to stay."

She thought about it for a long moment, biting her lip as she considered his offer.  "Are you sure?" she finally asked.  "If it's a problem, I really can go to the hotel."

He shook his head again.  "You're hardly a problem, Madison," he pointed out.

She didn't look like she entirely believed him, but she nodded.  "If you're sure . . ."

Only then did Mikio break into a small grin as he pushed himself away from the door.  "I'm sure," he said.

And then, she smiled.





'Baka, baka, baka, baka, baka . . .'

'I don't know if you're the most brilliant being on earth or if you're absolutely the stupidest.'

'Stupidest.  Definitely the stupidest.'

'Is 'stupidest' even a word?'

'. . . You're really not helping.'

His youkai-voice sighed.  'I know, but damn, this is nice . . .'

He winced and shifted slightly, just enough to try to put a breath of space between Madison and himself.  It wasn't that he didn't like her very close proximity, no . . . Quite the opposite, actually.  That was, unfortunately, also becoming a pretty big problem, too . . .

'I don't know if I'd say 'nice',' he muttered to himself as he stubbornly fought to keep from glancing at the bedside clock.   'It's more like torture—slow death . . .'

'Stop being a melodramatic baka,' his youkai reprimanded sharply.  'I mean, concentrate on the positives here, why not?'

The wince shifted into a grimace as the woman in question shifted in her sleep, drawing up her knee, draping it over his legs, entirely too close to the part of him that he was desperately trying to ignore at the moment.  'No . . . positives . . .' he choked out.

'Are you kidding me?  That woman—the hottest woman you've ever clapped eyes on—is here, in our bed, sleeping with you, and she obviously feels no qualms in snuggling right up to you, now does she?'

No, she didn't, and therein lay the problem, as far as Mikio could tell.

He really wasn't sure, exactly how it had happened, in the first place.

He'd asked her if she wanted to stay with him, which was kind of the beginning of the end, in retrospect.  But he'd managed to forget at the time that the guest bedrooms weren't accessible, given the work still going on in the bathrooms, which also meant general disarray in the guest rooms, and when he had realized that, he'd decided that she could use his room, and he could just sleep on the sofa, but Madison hadn't liked that idea, and when he'd insisted, she'd stated that she'd just go to a hotel because putting Mikio out of his own bed was just not an option.

"Are you kidding?  You're too tall for that sofa," she pointed out with a slow shake of her head.  "You'll end up sore and . . ." She shook her head again.  "I'll call the hotel, but thanks."

Grabbing her hand as she started to stride past him, Mikio tugged her back.  "Absolutely not," he insisted.  "The sofa is fine."

"No, it's not," she stated once more, crossing her arms over her chest as she frowned at him.  "I can sleep on it, though."

That earned her a raised-eyebrow.  "It's not okay for me, but it's okay for you?  Why's that?"

She smiled.  "I'm a lot shorter than you," she pointed out, "and I'm the idiot who misplaced her keys, so the couch is good enough for me."

"You're not an idiot, and I couldn't possibly ask you to sleep on that," he argued.  "You take the bed, please."

She opened her mouth to argue with him.  He held up a hand meant to silence her.  Instead, however, she stared at him for a long moment, then grabbed his hand and marched him off toward the bedroom in question.

And she'd insisted that they were both adults, after all, and that the bed was big enough for the both of them to share, which, in theory, it really was.  Given that Sesshoumaru was tall himself, the bed had been custom made to fit his height and was easily as wide as it was long, and Mikio, who was only an inch or two shorter than the inu no taisho, really didn't have any grounds to complain about Madison's idea about their sleeping arrangement.

So she'd borrowed one of his shirts to sleep in and had taken a nice, long shower while Mikio had tried to convince himself that it was all okay, that there really wasn't any need to panic.  Still, he'd pulled on a pair of sweatpants—not something he normally wore to bed—but was glad he'd bought since he hadn't thought to pack any hakama which he tended to wear when he took to the archery range.  He'd yet to seek out the one he'd located via an internet search of the area, but the sweatpants were a far cry better than his usual option of sleeping naked, anyway . . .

'Do you think she'd have minded if you had gone to bed naked?'

'Again, not helping,' Mikio grumbled to himself as he squeezed his eyes closed and tried not to think about the proximity of her body against his.

'Well, she is a pretty forward girl . . . Do you think she usually sleeps naked, too?'

He very nearly whined out loud, though he managed to bite back the sound before it actually slipped out.  'I . . . I don't want to know.'

His youkai sighed.  'But I do.'

That statement didn't deserve a response, as far as Mikio was concerned.  Besides, trying to imagine the woman in even less than the oversized white tee-shirt she'd grabbed out of his closet was just not something that he could do—at least, not if he wanted to keep any semblance of his self-control, at the moment.  After all, the shirt might well reach mid-thigh on her, but the soft material did absolutely nothing to hide her generous curves, clinging to her in all the right places as she snuggled just a little closer against his side, her head tucked neatly under his cheek, resting on his shoulder.  The warmth of her seemed to radiate straight from her and right into him, and she'd kicked down the sheer sheet that had covered her to the waist some time ago, too, leaving the long and gorgeous expanse of her bared legs open to his ardent perusal.

Outside the window, Mikio could discern the vague light of a weak and tepid dawn, and he sighed.  His entire body ached in a crazy-mad sort of way, as though the strain of the last few hours had, indeed, taken its toll on him.  Maybe he would have been better off, to have insisted that he sleep on the sofa, after all, and yet . . .

And yet, there was simply something about her, wasn't there? Something that quelled the tinge of panic that had gathered around the edges.  There was a certain something there, hidden just below the surface—something that he dared not to consider too deeply, something that spoke in whispers and murmurs.

Slowly sliding his foot up the mattress, propping up his knee as he carefully shifted, he finally dared to lean away just far enough so that he could look at her face.  Relaxed in the throes of a peaceful slumber with the barest hint of a smile quirking her lips, she really couldn't know just what she was doing to him.   His youkai-voice wasn't wrong when it had remarked upon the fact that she really was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.  She was, absolutely, and he knew, didn't he, that it wouldn't matter how long he lived, he'd never, ever meet a more beautiful woman, ever, in his lifetime . . .

It was hard to reconcile it in his mind, though—the child she was when he'd first encountered her and the woman she'd grown to become.  That bright, golden hair, caught back in a cute little pony tail that fell in a cascade of loose curls and those dark, deep violet eyes as she'd wrapped her hands up in the hem of the deep red dress, as she'd shuffled her almost chubby little legs, digging the toes of her black slippers against the wood floor . . . The first time he'd seen her, she was little more than a baby, sure, but a very pretty baby, even when she'd stared at him, only to duck out of the room and run away when he'd smiled at her . . .

And yet, she'd grown into the woman lying beside him—a woman who could so easily make him forget a lifetime of things that he thought he believed, and even though he knew that some things were best left alone, why was it that she, alone, could weaken that resolve he'd spent so long building, in the first place . . .?



'I . . . I could get used to this . . .'

His thoughtful frown dissipated as he slowly let his head fall back against the pillow once more, as he hesitantly, carefully lifted his arms, as he reluctantly wrapped them around her.  'Y . . . Yeah,' he admitted with an inward wince, as the half-formed ideas of what he should and shouldn't allow slipped away.  'Yeah . . .'







Chapter Text

The most unpleasant buzzing sound tore through Madison's slumber like a sledgehammer, shattering the silence that had enveloped the room only seconds before with all the finesse of a chainsaw in a forest, and she whimpered quietly, instinctively turning her head, trying to bury herself before the bliss of sleep faded entirely.

Beside her, Mikio jumped and grunted, and even if she had been able to ignore the alarm, there was no way in the world she could ignore the unexpected 'crack' and thud as the hanyou brought his fist down on the offending device.  With a startled yelp, Madison jerked back, blinking in surprise as bits of plastic shot out from under his hand, as more of it crumbled harmlessly and helplessly amid the abrupt silence that followed the feeble whine of the interrupted sound as it faltered then faded away.

She lifted a hand to flutter her fingertips over her lips as she watched him sit up with a disgusted sigh, only to roll to the side so that he could reach the plug and jerk it from the wall.  "Damn," he muttered, sparing a moment to survey the carnage that used to be a perfectly good alarm clock before he swung his legs off the bed and scooped the junk together to drop in a nearby trash can.

Something about the entire situation amused her.  Maybe it was just that Mikio had always seemed so calm, so careful, that the almost impetuous reaction caught her off guard.  That amusement only grew, however, when he strode over to the dresser to yank open a drawer.  Even from where she was still sitting on the bed, she could see, though, the array of meticulously stacked boxes inside: at least fifteen of them?  Maybe more?  Brand new alarm clocks that suggested that what she'd just witnessed was not simply an isolated occurrence . . .

Tamping down her amusement since she really wasn't sure how well he'd take that, given the situation, she cleared her throat, wrapping her hands around her ankles as she rested her chin on her raised knees.  "I take it you're not a morning person?"

He started then shot her a quizzical glance over his shoulder, like he hadn't realized that she was still there, and maybe he hadn't.  The blush that shot to his cheeks wasn't unexpected despite the entirely endearing quality of it, and he shrugged.  "Not really," he admitted with a sheepish kind of grin.  "Sorry about that . . ."

She refrained from further comment as she watched him slip the new clock out of the box and unravel the cord, letting the packaging fall to the floor as he concentrated on his task.  He didn't need the instructions as he programmed the time and alarm—something that didn't go unnoticed by Madison, either.

'Gotta love a man who is well versed in setting a clock,' her youkai-voice remarked rather wryly.

The statement amused Madison, all the same.  'He's got that down to a science, doesn't he?'

'And yet . . . it's kind of . . . hot, don't you think . . .?'

Breaking into the vaguest smile, Madison lifted a hand to hide her little smile, lest Mikio look at her.  'In a weird kind of way . . . yes,' she allowed.

Oblivious to her errant thoughts, Mikio sighed and pushed the new clock onto the nightstand and made quick work of plugging it in before slowly turning to glace over his shoulder at her.  "I, uh . . . I didn't mean to wake you up like that," he ventured.

Letting her hand fall away, Madison braced herself on the mattress and scooted forward, untangling her legs as she uttered a soft laugh.  "No harm done," she assured him.  "I'm going to go start a pot of coffee—if you want to share it, that is?"

"Okay," he allowed.  "Sounds good."

She headed out of the room, all too aware of a certain man's eyes following her until she'd stepped into the hallway.

'Should we make breakfast for him?  After all, he was kind enough to allow us to stay here last night . . .'

Wrinkling her nose as she descended the stairs and headed for the kitchen, Madison snorted inwardly.  'Sure,' she allowed, pausing long enough to brace her hands against the small of her back so that she could stretch.  'If I knew how to cook, anyway.'

'Eh, we're smart enough to cook a couple eggs,' her youkai-voice insisted.  'We've seen Evan do it often enough, haven't we?  You crack the eggs and drop them in a hot skillet.  Nothing to it.'

Madison wasn't nearly as inclined to agree, however, and busied herself in measuring coffee into the ridiculously fancy coffee maker on the counter.  Besides, she liked Mikio.  She liked him a lot.  Giving the poor man food poisoning or something else on that level?  No, she figured that wouldn't bode well for her campaign.  It'd be better to stay inside her comfort zone, and for her, the extent of her cooking ability was making coffee, and that, she'd only learned because necessity dictated it.

As it was, she still couldn't quite credit, just how well she'd slept the night before.  She wasn't one of those who had trouble sleeping—quite the contrary—but the level of contentment that she'd felt—after he'd startled her awake, anyway—was almost crazy.

It was absolutely surprising, actually.  Madison wasn't exactly fond of sleeping with people, after all.  She usually made it a point not to allow anyone into her bed for extended stays.  It wasn't that she had any weird hang-ups about mates or any strange preconceived ideas, though.  Madison simply preferred not to have to deal with someone else's snoring or blanket-hogging, middle of the night kicking, being knocked upside the head when someone else turned over . . .

Mikio, however . . .

'It's too bad that we can't just stay here indefinitely, huh?'

Heaving a little sigh, Madison hit the 'start' button and leaned against the counter to wait.  'Yeah,' she allowed almost wistfully.  'Yeah, it is . . .'





"'Police responded to yet another home invasion last night.  According to police, the apartment on the eighteenth floor of the Reindouge Skyplex—a building well known for its state of the art security system—was broken into around four a.m. when they responded to a 911 call from the apartment next door.  The invaders managed to disengage the building's security systems, and when the officers arrived, they found the homeowners dead from gunshot wounds . . .'"

Sipping the fragrant coffee as a thoughtful scowl surfaced on his features, Mikio reached for the remote control to turn up the television.

'The Reindouge Skyplex?' he mused, glancing around to see if Madison had slipped into the kitchen.  She hadn't and was very likely still in the shower, which was fine, as far as Mikio was concerned.  'That's not far from here . . .'

'It's about a block away, isn't it?  About mid-way between this place and Madison's apartment . . .' his youkai-voice supplied.

Mikio set the remote aside as his frown deepened into a scowl.  'That's . . . too close for comfort.'

'True, but she lives in a pretty secure building.'

'And the Reindouge Skyplex was, too, or so they said.  Just how secure is 'secure', anyway?'

'Well, I guess that nothing in the world is really impenetrable, if you want to think of it that way.  Want to call oji-san and ask him about the security here?'

'I'm not concerned about me,' he countered.  'But Madison . . .'

'Madison's youkai—and she's smart.'

'Yeah, which doesn't mean much, either, not really.  She's also a beautiful woman.  If someone saw her, followed her . . .'

'Okay, point taken.  So what do you want to do about it?'

Idly fiddling with his twitching left ear, Mikio sighed.  'I just . . . I'm just concerned, is all.'

His youkai-voice was quiet for a moment, as though it was considering Mikio's quiet assertion.  'Do you want to be her hero or something?'

Pushing himself to his feet, Mikio grunted in reply as he shuffled over to the counter.  'Keh!  I'm hardly hero material,' he argued.  'I'm . . . I just wonder how safe her apartment really is.  It sounds like whoever's behind these break-ins are stepping it up, right?  It's the first time they've killed anyone, that they know of, anyway.  It's . . . It's dangerous.'

'And that's the only reason . . .?'

'What other reason could there be?'

'Dunno, Mikio.  You tell me.'

That didn't deserve an answer, as far as Mikio was concerned.  Taking his time as he poured himself another cup of coffee, he sighed.

"Thanks again for letting me stay over," Madison said, oblivious to Mikio's conflicted thoughts as she slipped into the kitchen, toweling her hair dry.  She'd dressed in the clothes that she'd worn last night, and Mikio had to wonder in a preoccupied sort of way if that wasn't some kind of faux pas in her line of work.

"Oh, uh, you don't have to thank me," he mumbled, feeling his cheeks warming when she smiled brightly at him.

She giggled and shook her head.  "You'll have to let me take you out to dinner.  There's a great little place a couple blocks away that has the best crème brulee," she insisted.  "Anyway, I'll call Bas today and see if he's got access to Evan's place."  Flicking her arm to glance at her watch, she sighed.  "Crap, I'm late," she muttered, shaking her head as she turned on her heel to head back to the bathroom.  "I've got a ten o'clock with Jenny O'Malley, which I would skip if I possibly could, but she's sent so many of her people in and she plugged the spa on the Today Show that it would seem wrong to do that . . ."

Mikio followed her, leaning in the bathroom doorway while Madison fussed with her hair.  "I could call Bas if you want," he suggested.  "I mean, I was going to, anyway."

She shot him a quick glance.  "Are you sure?  I can, but . . ."

He waved off her concern and smiled.  "Sounds like you've got your hands full already," he said.  "It's not a big deal.  He mentioned at the wedding that he was going to be spending a little time in the city, so I was going to see when and if he's here."

"I appreciate it," she assured him, her smile widening.  "Now, what are the odds that you have a blow dryer around here?"






Letting the accounting reports drop from his fingers onto the table top where he'd been looking them over, Mikio cleared his throat.  "Bas, hi," he greeted.  "It's Mikio."

"Mikio, hey.  How's the case going?"

"It's slow.  There's a lot of paperwork involved," he admitted.  "Actually, I'm calling for Madison.  She was wondering if you had access to Evan's house?  She locked herself out of her apartment, and he's got her spare key?"

Bas let out a deep breath then chuckled.  "That's not surprising," he allowed.  "I do, but I won't be in the city till next week.  I could call, but I don't think he's got any security detail out there right now . . ."

"She mentioned something about that.  Evan gave his security team some time off while he's on his honeymoon."

Bas sighed.  "I guess I could see if I can't make it down sooner," he said slowly, as though he were considering it as he spoke.  "I'm not sure, though.  I mean, Sydnie's got an appointment with that preschool for Bailey later this week, and she said they would like to meet us both.  I don't know why she wants him to go to such a snobby place, anyway—did I tell you that they require uniforms?  For preschoolers?  Seriously?"

Mikio chuckled and shook his head.  It amused him to hear Bas, of all people, grumbling about things like that.  "She can stay with me," he said, struggling for a nonchalant tone of voice that he hoped Bas didn't see right through.  "I-I mean, you don't have to change your plans or anything . . ."

"Yeah?  Well, let me know if you need me to change things around some," Bas said.

Mikio nodded, not that Bas could see it.  "No, it should be fine . . . but I was wondering . . ."


"Do you know anything about the security in Madison's building?  There's been a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood, and they've apparently been able to bypass security in the Reindouge Skyplex.  Killed a couple people."

"The Reindouge?  The owners were bragging that it was harder to breach than Fort Knox," Bas muttered.  "Damn."

"That's what I thought," Mikio allowed, fingering his ear as he slowly, aimlessly, wandered around the living room.

"The Reindouge is . . . really close to Maddy's apartment building.  What about the other robberies?  You said that there's been a rash of them, right?"

"I don't know for sure," Mikio said.  "The reports on TV didn't give a hard number, but I know there have been at least four since I've been here."

"And all there in Lenox Hill?"


Bas sighed again.  "You haven't asked Madison about her building?"

Mikio made a face.  "I didn't want her to worry too much, so no . . ."

"Yeah, I get that," Bas agreed.  "Let me make a few calls.  I'll see what I can find out about it, and I'll call you back."

"Okay," Mikio said.  The connection ended, and he made a face as he slipped the phone into his pocket.  On the one hand, he hoped that he was worrying for no reason.  On the other, the more he thought about it, the more he disliked the idea of Madison being alone if someone decided that they needed to get into her apartment.  True, she was youkai, and yes, her father was one of Cain's best hunters.  That didn't mean much when it came right down to it, either.  After all, even if someone tried to break in, Cartham was in Maine, too . . .

Heaving a sigh, he scowled at his own thoughts.  Something about the situation just didn't really sit well with him, but damned if he knew why that was.  Crimes happened every day, sure.  He was from Tokyo, and it was larger than New York City, and, along with that size came the crimes, too.  If he were to turn on the news now, there would be more reports of other crimes in the area, so why did this string of incidences bother him more than the others?

The trill of his cell phone interrupted his thoughts, and he dug it out, sparing just a moment to see that it was Bas.  "Moshimoshi?"

"According to the databases, Maddy's building ranks as a level five for security," Bas said, foregoing the pleasantries.

"A five?" Mikio echoed, a surge of relief washing over him as he paced across the floor.  "So, it's good, then."

Bas grunted.  "A five out of ten," he reiterated.

Mikio stopped in his tracks.  "That . . . bad . . .?"

"It was renovated shortly before Maddy moved into her apartment," Bas went on.  "When it was, the outdated surveillance equipment was replaced and updated in all the common areas—hallways, entrances, exits, exterior, but the owner opted not to implement per-unit security because . . . Well, you probably didn't hear about it, but there was a criminal thing that came up, an apartment manager that used the building's security cameras to spy on and record the residents.  It wasn't Maddy's building, but it freaked a lot of people out.  Anyway, I don't know what Maddy's actual security set up is, though with a dad like Cartham, it's safe to assume that she's got something in place."

Somehow, Bas' off-the-cuff statement didn't really offer Mikio the peace of mind he'd like.  "But you don't know."

"Nope . . . Don't worry about it, though.  I'll give her a call and—"

"I-I-I'll do it," Mikio cut in.  "Thanks, Bas."

Bas was silent for a long moment, then he sighed.  "So, uh . . . You seem really concerned about her—Maddy, I mean."

"Don't . . . Don't know what you're talking about," Mikio muttered.

"Eh, but she is a family friend, right?  And it's perfectly normal to worry about someone like that."

Mikio didn't miss the entirely too-casual tone in Bas' voice.  "Y-Yeah.  She's shown me around a little, and when she locked herself out . . ."

"Uh huh.  That's pretty much what I figured," Bas went on.  "Anyway, let me know if you need me to try to rearrange things . . ." he paused for a second.  "Then again, I guess she'll be safe enough if she's staying with you."

"I'd better go," Mikio said suddenly.  "I need to finish looking through these reports Jamison-san sent over."

"All right.  Call you when I get there next week."

Mikio muttered something completely unintelligible and ended the call before letting out a deep breath as his thoughtful scowl deepened.  Bas' commentary didn't bother him nearly as much as the things that Bas had found out about the place that Madison called 'home', and for reasons that Mikio didn't dare delve into, the idea of her, going back to a place that was not nearly as safe as it ought to be . . .

That was completely unacceptable.







Chapter Text

Adjusting the garment bag over her arm and the shopping bags in her free hand, Madison raised her elbow to thump against the closed door.  A minute later, it opened, and Mikio stepped forward, clumsily taking the garment bag, before retreating to allow her to enter the penthouse.

"Thank God for dry cleaners," she quipped as she brushed past him.  "And thank God for forgetting to pick up my stuff for a couple weeks, too . . . You're sure you don't mind having me underfoot till Bas gets here?"

He chuckled and closed the door.  "I don't mind at all," he assured her.  "He said he could, uh, come sooner, but they had some kind of appointment with a preschool or something?"

"Oh, I think I remember Sydnie mentioning that.  It's that snooty one that has the ridiculously long waiting list?"

"And uniforms," Mikio supplied.

Madison laughed, setting the bags on the coffee table and reaching into the nearest one.  True enough, she'd had a few outfits ready at the dry cleaner, but she'd stopped at Nightingale, a new and ultra-high-end lingerie store, as well since she didn't have any extra undergarments.  "You know, the sad thing is," she began as she pulled a pair of very tiny black silk g-string panties out of the bag, "I'll bet that Evan and V start looking into preschools, just as soon as they're back from their honeymoon.  I mean, Evan would be just as happy to send his pups to any one of them as long as it had good reviews, but V?  Somehow, I think she just might be the same as Sydnie on that subject . . ." Trailing off as a decidedly thoughtful frown surfaced on her face and dangling said-panties from her index finger like an afterthought, Madison pursed her lips then sighed.  "Come to think about it, it kind of disturbs me, how similar V and Sydnie can be sometimes."

"A-Are they . . .?" he replied, his voice a little distracted.

Madison missed it since she was still considering the idea that Valerie and Sydnie were entirely too similar.  "V and Sydnie?  They are.  Frighteningly so, to be honest . . . Of course, I don't think V would use someone as a scratching post just for looking at Evan the way Sydnie would if she caught someone eyeing her man, but still . . ." Waving her hand as she shook her head, as though the action could dismiss her thoughts, Madison shrugged.  "Anyway, I know I've asked you about a thousand times, but you're sure that I'm not inconveniencing you by staying here?"

Glancing at Mikio, only to frown at the flush on his face and the strange, almost choked expression that stated quite plainly that he hadn't actually heard a word of what she'd been saying, Madison cautiously stepped toward him.  "Mikio?  Are you all right?"

It took him a few seconds to register her question, and the rather vivid flush that rushed to the fore was somehow endearing, just the same.  "P-P-Panties," he choked out, waving a hand in the direction of the undergarment that still dangled from her fingertips as the livid blush brightened to almost painful proportions.

Madison blinked and looked down, only to utter a soft little giggle as she realized what had caused the hanyou's very obvious discomfort.  "Sorry," she said despite the smile that still graced her features.  Dropping the panties back into the bag once more, she schooled her features so that she didn't prolong Mikio's discomfort.

He waved a hand, as though to dismiss her apology, even though the heightened color in his cheeks had yet to diminish.  "Do you want me to help you put that stuff away?"

Another giggle escaped her as the fleeting image of Mikio, holding her panties before slipping them into a drawer, flickered to life in her mind.  "I can get it," she assured him as she grabbed the bags and held out her hand for the garment bag.  Mikio ignored the gesture and headed toward the stairs.

Smiling as she followed after him, she carefully stepped over a small bit of trim board that the workmen had left off to the side in the hall.

He didn't say anything as he dropped the garment bag on the bed and carefully unzipped it, but Madison didn't miss the thoughtful scowl on his face, either.   He looked like he was lost in contemplation.

"Mikio . . ." she said, her voice low.  Biting her lip, she hesitated before emptying the contents of the bags into the empty drawer.


Sparing a glance over her shoulder, she shook her head as she stifled a sigh.  "I'm imposing, aren't I?" she concluded.  The last thing—the very last thing—she had wanted to do was to impose upon him, and she was, wasn't she?

Mikio blinked and shot her a quick look.  "What?  Oh, no!  Not at all!" he hurried to assure her.

She wasn't entirely sure she was buying it, though.  "No, seriously, Mikio.  You don't have to worry about hurting my feelings, you know," she told him with a wan little shrug.

"Uh, no.  No, that's not it," he insisted when she stepped forward and reached down to zip the garment bag closed.

Mikio grimaced and gently put his hand over hers to stop her.  "I mean it, Madison," he insisted gently.  "Really, you're not imposing at all."

Setting the bags aside, Madison straightened up and crossed her arms over her chest as she carefully, slowly regarded the hanyou.  He was still scowling, fiddling with his left ear as it twitched.  "I like you, Mikio," she said in the slightly stale silence that had fallen.  "I like you a lot . . ." uttering a soft giggle as she sank down on the side of the bed, she shrugged almost listlessly, as though it was the only thing she could do.  "The last thing I want to do is to make you uncomfortable in your own space."

Mikio blinked, stared at her for a long moment, before he shook his head and reached for the garment bag again.  "I, uh . . . I like you, too, Madison," he replied as he pulled a few items out of the bag.  "You're not making me uncomfortable at all."

She regarded him as he carefully stepped into the huge walk-in closet to hang them up, watched him as he returned to the bed and pulled the rest of them out, too.  Taking a moment to carefully shake each one before hanging striding into the closet once more, he didn't speak again until he'd finished his task, leaning against the doorway, crossing his arms over his chest.

"So . . . are you hungry?"

His abrupt change of topics, coupled by the almost belligerent air of his stance, brought a wan smile to her lips, and she nodded.  "Okay," she relented as she stood up, as she brushed off her skirt to smooth it down.  "Why don't you let me pay for dinner then?  Call it rent if you want."






Eyes widening as he stared down at the huge steak sizzling on the oblong cast iron pan, Mikio opened his mouth, then snapped it closed once more, shaking his head in disbelief as the waitress slipped a huge platter of roasted vegetables onto the middle of the huge butcher-block table beside a generous twig basket piled with fluffy, crusty rolls surrounding a small crock of whipped butter that was melting from the warmth of the bread.  A second waitress slipped a frothy pitcher of beer onto the table and winked at them while the first waitress hurried away without a word.

"Can I bring you anything else?" she asked.

"We're good, thanks," Madison said with a bright smile.

"This is enough to feed my entire family," Mikio remarked as the waitress moved away.

Madison laughed.  "I can't usually finish it, either."

Shaking his head, Mikio reached for one of the giant spoons on the roasted vegetable platters.  He managed to scoop some onto Madison's pan without incident before adding some to his own.  It didn't actually look like any had been taken, though . . .

"Thanks," she said, sparing a moment to smile at him before she reached for her knife and fork.

"Mikio.  Madison."

Mikio blinked and sat back as Gunnar stopped beside the table.

"Gunnar . . . out slumming, are you?" Madison teased.

Gunnar chuckled.  "Something like that," he allowed with a quick wink at the female youkai.  "Mind if I join you?"

Mikio shook his head and gestured at the empty chair before him before glancing around to catch the waitress' eye to wave her over.  "You want half of this?" he asked, pointing at his food and only partially kidding.

Gunnar laughed and wasted no time in ordering his food before asking for a list of their imported beers before turning his attention back to Madison and Mikio once more.  "You're as gorgeous as ever, Madison," he remarked with a wink at the woman in question.

Mikio frowned as Madison uttered a low giggle.  "And you're the absolute epitome of perfection, of course," she replied.

He rolled his eyes at her blatant teasing.  "I doubt that.  I just got back in town an hour or so ago," he said.  "To be honest, I haven't even made it back to my apartment yet, but airplane food?"  Affecting a full-body shudder, Gunnar looked duly put-upon, not that Mikio blamed him.  It'd been his experience, too, that airline food was not really food, after all . . . "For the record, if you're ever planning a vacation?  Don't go to Hackinack, Virginia, no matter how 'scenic' they say it is.  No decent hotels, no decent places to eat, no . . . No anything, come to think of it . . ."

"Was that where you were?" Madison asked as she cut into her huge steak.  "Business, I'm sure."

Gunnar grunted his agreement.  Taking the beer list from the waitress who had quietly returned, he ordered a drink and handed it back before dismissing the woman entirely.  "Had to interview this old mountain man about a fifty year old case.  Turns out, he didn't remember a damn thing—at least, nothing that mattered—so . . ."

"I thought Bas was the one who normally went to do that sort of thing," Madison mused, tucking an errant lock of warm blonde hair behind her ear.

"He would have," Gunnar allowed, "but Cain wanted him to stay closer to home since he had to fly out to Chicago."

"Why would he do that?  He didn't mention anything like that, and he hates to leave nee-chan's side when she's pregnant, doesn't he?" Mikio asked.

Gunnar made a face as the waitress set his beer down without interrupting them and quietly slipped away again.  "It was kind of sudden.  He was challenged."

"Wh—What?" Mikio demanded as Madison gasped softly.

This time, Gunnar shrugged, a strange sense of foreboding crossing his features as he leaned slightly to one side to allow the waitress to set down his food.  Again, he waited until the woman was gone before he spoke again.  "Hiram Unker—father of a woman that Cain had to order a hunt for last year . . . He couldn't understand why his darling daughter was 'targeted', never mind that she was directly responsible for the killing of four people a few years ago while Sami was missing.  Anyway, the baka issued formal challenge, Cain couldn’t possibly ignore it."

Letting out a deep breath, Mikio slowly shook his head.  "That's unfortunate," he murmured, scowling at his food as he tried to make sense of it.

"Dad's the one who hunted her . . . I remember hearing him, talking on the phone with Cain about it," Madison mused.  "He hates having to hunt women, but . . ."

Gunnar chewed a bite of his steak slowly, thoughtfully.  "Ben told me earlier that Cain was fine, that he defeated Unker easily enough, but that he felt obligated to check into something before he heads back home."

"What kind of 'something'?" Mikio countered, his frown deepening.  "He needs to be home with nee-chan, not out there, doing kami knows what . . ."

Letting out a deep breath, Gunnar shrugged once more, and this time, he raised his gaze to lock with Mikio's.  "Apparently, Unker's got a couple other children at home, and his wife is going to die, so he just wants to make sure that the pups have somewhere to go."

Mikio considered that for a minute.  "Bet Papa's pleased about that," he muttered dryly since he knew damn well that InuYasha likely had a few choice things to say regarding the idea of Cain leaving Gin while she was pregnant for any reason.  Even if he could see the logic and necessity of it all, InuYasha would never admit as much, anyway, and Mikio knew it.

"Yeah, well, it was stupid on Unker's part," Gunnar stated flatly.  "He has two pups at home, and he knowingly endangered his entire family, all for revenge, so instead of just losing one daughter who had committed a number of crimes, he's destroyed his entire family, instead."  Shaking his head in obvious disgust, Gunnar looked entirely put upon.  "Damn fool."

Put that way, Mikio had to agree.  After all, in a formal challenge to a tai-youkai, there was no way for more than one person to walk away from it, period.  That the man had a family that he hadn't even considered was as sad as it was short-sighted.

"What'll happen if those children don't have another relative willing to take them in?" Madison asked softly.

Shaking his head slowly, Gunnar looked even more irritated, and, considering that Mikio knew well enough that Gunnar, in particular, wasn't entirely keen on showing much if any emotion, it stated volumes, as far as Mikio was concerned.  "Worst case?  Cain might well end up having to bring them back with him," he mused.  "I'm not sure how much interest there's been lately by anyone looking to adopt, but maybe he knows of a family . . ."

"Gin would probably want to keep them herself if she weren't already pregnant," Madison agreed.  "With twins on the way . . ."

"Well, it's all fine to speculate over it, but until something happens, one way or another, it's kind out of anyone's hands."  Gunnar sighed and reached for the pitcher of beer to refill Madison's glass.  "Anyway, enough of that . . . How's Gavin's case coming along?"

It took a moment for Mikio's brain to change gears, and he grimaced since the news on that front wasn't very good, either.  "His reports were altered sometime between when he submitted them and when they were audited, but figuring out who did it or even just who might have had access to the files is proving to be tricky."

Gunnar considered that as he set the pitcher down and retrieved his silverware.  "That shouldn't be too difficult," he countered.  "On any server, there are levels of access, so it should be simple for them to give you the names of the ones who are allowed."

"Sure, if they were of the mind to cooperate with me.  They're not."


"I'm going to have to petition for a subpoena . . . I didn't really want to.  I was hoping to avoid it, but I don't think it'll be possible."

Gunnar nodded slowly.  "Any way we can help?"

Letting out a deep breath that lifted his bangs straight up in the air, Mikio shook his head.  "Not that I can think of.  I mean, aside from hacking their server, there's really no way to do it, and even if you did do that, nothing we found would be admissible in court—if it came down to that, anyway."

Gunnar stared at Mikio in that lazy sort of way that usually meant that the future Japanese tai-youkai was considering something very seriously.  "Or you could just use the information so that you knew where to concentrate your investigation . . . There's no one in the company who would be willing to talk?"

"Not that I know of," Mikio allowed.  "They haven't been very pleased that I'm looking into it, to start with."

The scowl that deepened on Gunnar's face bespoke his belief that the company was simply being short-sighted, which Mikio agreed with completely.  "Yeah, well, let me know if there's anything I can do to help out."

Mikio nodded.  Discussing the case with Gunnar, however, only served to bring the entire situation back into focus once more, as well as the overall sense of frustration that seemed to linger over every aspect of it, too.

Glancing up at Madison, Mikio couldn't help but to smile back when her lips turned up at the corners in a secretive sort of expression, and he noticed once more, just how her smiles always seemed to add another sparkle, a heightened brightness, to her eyes—to her entire being.  If she was bored with the topics of conversation, she didn't show it, and he blinked in surprise when her cheeks flushed just a little under his scrutiny.

"Have you heard from Evan?" Gunnar cut in, oblivious to the undertones passing between Madison and Mikio.

Madison stared at Mikio for another long moment before rather slowly shifting her gaze to Gunnar once more.  "V called long enough to say that Evan took her to Iceland," she remarked, casting Mikio another quick glance.

For some reason, the secretive little smile that still twitched her lips brought a certain heat to Mikio's cheeks as he dropped his eyes, as he concentrated on the steak on the pan before him.  What was it about her? he wondered absently.  It wasn't something that felt contrived or anything, no . . . More like she was telling him something that he simply didn't understand, even if he felt like he ought to . . .

"Iceland?  Seems like a weird choice for him, but then, I guess Evan's a little weird, anyway," Gunnar mused.

"V said it was beautiful, even if she's only managed to talk him into leaving the hotel once so far."

Gunnar grunted and rolled his eyes despite the hint of amusement that lingered in the depths of his golden gaze.  "Somehow, that doesn't really surprise me, either . . ."







Chapter Text

"You're a life saver, Bas, did you know?"

Bas Zelig shot Madison a cursory glance, pausing long enough to roll his bright golden eyes despite the smile on his face as he swiped the keycard in the slot beside the door.  A soft beep and the unmistakable sound of the lock releasing greeted her ears as the future North American tai-youkai grasped the door knob and gave it a curt turn.  "Yeah, well, I'll drop off a copy in a little while.  I'm assuming you'd rather leave this one with Evan, right?"

She made a face at the blatant barb, but smiled despite herself.  "I suppose that would be best, yes," she agreed with an embarrassed sigh.  "Oh, I meant to ask, how's your father?"

Stepping into the apartment after Madison, Bas grimaced, scratching the back of his golden bronze head and gave a little shrug.  "Not bad, I guess," he said.  "I mean, he's been pretty quiet ever since he got back from Chicago, Mom says.  I didn't really get to talk to him too much since we had to get moving right after he arrived.  You know how he is, though.  Taking a life in that kind of way just . . . Well, it's never easy for him."

She nodded, dropping her purse onto the small table behind the sofa.  Having known Cain Zelig since she was just a toddler, she understood just what Bas was saying.  Cain was a gentle soul, and killing for any reason never, ever sat well with him.  "I figured as much."

Taking his time as he inspected the panel beside the door, Bas grunted almost distractedly.  "Is this the only security you've got?" he asked, glancing over his shoulder at her.

Shifting through the accumulated mail that she'd forgotten to pick up since she'd been staying with Mikio, Madison had to look to see what he was talking about.  "What, that?  Oh, yes . . . I meant to upgrade it at some point, but then I kept getting sidetracked with stuff . . ."

He shook his head as he strode over to the long windows on the far wall.  There were only a few feet between her building and the one next to it—just enough for a joint fire escape that was attached to both.  "There isn't an alarm on these windows," he stated brusquely.  "Maddy—"


Bas glanced back toward the door as Mikio stepped inside, idly scratching the side of his head before latching onto his twitching left ear.  "There's a door alarm, but there's nothing on these windows, and, considering the fire escape is connected to both of these buildings, it's not really the safest setup I've ever seen . . ." Pivoting on his heel, he shot Madison a no-nonsense look.  "Why hasn't your father insisted upon better security?  Cartham, better than anyone, would understand why this isn't acceptable.  I can't see him being that cavalier about it."

Mikio shook his head.  "It's not safe."

Bas shrugged, but still looked entirely irritated.  "Maybe, if she lived out in the middle of nowhere," he grumbled.  "Here, in the city?  Not hardly.  That security system is entirely outdated.  I wouldn't trust it on my garage, let alone on my apartment in the middle of New York City.  She ought to have known better.  Her father's a hunter, for God's sake, and—"

She wrinkled her nose, crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly.  "And she is right here, gentlemen," she cut in curtly.  "It's really not that big a deal.  I travel a lot, anyway, and, in case you both forgot, I am youkai.  I can damn well handle my own business, thanks."

'Um, Madison . . .'

'The nerve of them!  Stupid men!  Just why do they have to—"


'—act like I don't have a damn brain in my head?  If they think—"

'Ma . . . di . . . so-o-o-o-on . . .!'

'Hmm?  Oh, what?' she growled at her youkai-voice since it had the audacity to interrupt a perfectly good tirade.

The voice sighed.  'You could get a new system installed . . .'

'Sure, I could, but even if I did, they don't have the right to—'

'And if you did, you'd need somewhere to stay while they're putting it in, wouldn't you . . .?'

'Well, of course I would! That's a dumb question, and—'

'Oh, good God, Madison!  You can stay with Mikio, you know!  In his penthouse?  In his bed?  A bed that is ridiculously comfortable, if you'll recall . . .?'

'Stay with . . .?' Trailing off, her eyes flared wide, not that either of the men noticed since they were busy, searching the web on their phones for reputable security companies.  'Oh-h-h-h-h . . .'

"That's all fine if you two are making my decisions now, but you know, right?  I don't have anywhere to stay while they're working here," she pointed out.

Bas blinked and glanced up from his phone before looking right back again.  "Not a problem, Maddy," he said in a very bland monotone.  "You can stay at the townhouse.  Sydnie won't mind, and—"

"Sydnie might mind," Madison pointed out since it was a well-enough documented fact that Sydnie was entirely ridiculously possessive of her mate, and even though she was all right with Madison, she wasn't at all certain that the cat-youkai would be all right with her, staying under the same roof as Bas, either.

"Nah, she thinks of you like a sister," Bas insisted.  "It's not a—"

"M-Maddy's going to stay with me," Mikio said in a quiet tone that was no less authoritative.

Bas glanced at him, then nodded.  "Oh, okay," he said.

Mikio met Madison's gaze, and he blushed just a little.  "Uh, that is, if you . . . if you want to . . ."

'Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!'

'Shut up for a minute, will you?'

'Hmph . . .'

"Are you sure it's not a problem?" she asked instead.

"No, it's fine," he told her, visibly relaxing somewhat as he checked the phone.  "It's after five, so most of these places are probably closed.  I'll call and make the arrangements tomorrow," he told her.  "Is there anything you need to bring with you?"

Bas' cell phone rang, and he stepped away into the kitchen to answer it.

"Are you sure this is okay?" she asked Mikio as she took a tentative step toward him.  "I mean, I really could make other arrangements."

He shook his head.  "Stop thinking that you're being an inconvenience," he told her gently.  "I, uh . . ." With a chuckle, he shrugged despite the tell-tale pinking of his cheeks again.  "I really don't mind having you underfoot."

She smiled slightly, biting her lip as a strange and foreign sense of nervousness crept over her.  "If . . . If  you're sure . . . I mean, it's not like having me stay with you all the time is what you were banking on . . ."

His returned-smile was just a little self-conscious, just a little shy . . . "W-Well, you're a lot . . . prettier . . . than any other houseguest I could have . . ."

"Sorry about that," Bas said, dropping the phone into his pocket as he strode back into the living room.  "I have to go." Pausing as he stared at Madison for a long moment, he seemed like he was trying to make up his mind about something.  "That was Miss.  I didn't know she was here in the city . . . Have you seen her, Maddy?"

"Miss?  No, I didn't know that, either."

Bas nodded and let out a deep breath and headed for the door.  "All right.  I'll drop off a copy of the key tomorrow, Mikio."

"Tell Miss to give me a call," Madison called after him.

He lifted a hand to indicate that he'd heard her, but didn't stop as he stepped out of the apartment and closed the door behind himself.






"French, Italian, pizza—I guess that'd be Italian, too . . . Chinese that isn't really Chinese—more like a sad sort of loose resemblance to Chinese . . ."  Madison giggled as Mikio leafed through a stack of take-out menus from local eateries.  "One of us should learn how to cook," he ventured.

"The last time I tried to cook, it didn't turn out well," she pointed out.  "You?"

He grunted, dropping the menus and fiddling with his twitching ear.  "Mama thought it would be a problem since I'm . . . clumsy . . ." he muttered.  "Hot pot is about the extent of my cooking ability . . ."

"You don't seem that clumsy to me," she pointed out.  "We could always go for burgers and fries."

He made a face, mostly because he wasn't that keen on that much fried, fatty food, but ignored her comment about his clumsiness.  "Or we could go to the store and see if anything looks good . . . I mean, in the deli or something . . ."

She tapped a tapered claw against her lips thoughtfully.  "What do Bas and Sydnie do when they're here?  I mean, back home, Gin normally cooks their food, and they just heat it up . . ."

"Kind of like a delivery service?" Mikio asked.  "Then again, I doubt they pay her, and . . . and that's kind of like food extortion or something, isn't it?"

Madison laughed as she sat on the sofa and retrieved the stack of take-out menus off of the coffee table.  "More like they just benefit from the idea that Gin can't stand the idea that one of her babies might have to go without a meal or two . . ."

Mikio nodded and sat beside her, leaning in to peer at the menus once more.  "Mexican?  Is that all spicy?"

"Well, no, not if you don't want it to be," she said.  "We could always order out and then put it on plates and pretend that one of us cooked it."

His gaze shifted to her, though he didn't move his head.  "I'd feel bad and dirty if you complimented my ability to cook, and it was based on a lie," he told her.

"Bad and dirty is kind of my thing," she teased, giggling softly when his cheeks pinked just a little, when his gaze skittered back to the menu she held.

He cleared his throat.  "Somehow, I don't think you're talking about that," he said, poking a claw at the paper in her hands.

She just laughed, but didn't correct him.  "Well . . . I really don't care what we eat . . . I'm not that picky.  Maybe pizza and a movie?"

He considered that for a moment, then shrugged.  "I don't care what kind of pizza, but please don't make me sit through one of those comedies that tries to be funny but isn't."

"You mean, like stupid humor type movies?"

He nodded.  "Just . . . Not really my thing, I guess."

"Not really mine, either . . . So, what kinds of movies do you like?"

He thought it over, then shrugged offhandedly. "I don't really care, as long as it isn't stupid humor," he replied.  "Ryo-nii always teases me because I like to watch more serious movies—ones with really good plots.  Like he's one to talk, though.  He likes chick-flicks . . ."

Madison covered a smile with her hand.  "Does he really?"

Mikio rolled his eyes.  "Kami, yes . . . He's always watching stuff like that . . . and he always blames it on Nez . . ."

Madison giggled, settling back against the sofa, leaning her elbow against it, propping her temple on her balled up fist.  "Those two are the strangest couple . . ."

Mikio snorted.  "And now, you know what happened to Morio."

"You like your nephew," she pointed out.  "Isn't he your best friend?"

Mikio snorted, reaching for the television remote to scroll through the on-demand movie rentals.  "Only when I can't shake him off," he replied dryly.  "Oh, Stillwater . . . I didn't know it was streaming yet . . ."

She stifled a sigh and reached for her phone.  "What's that about?"

"This guy wakes up with amnesia in the middle of a war, and it slowly comes out that he's actually the reincarnation of an ancient demigod who was single handedly responsible for sinking Pompeii . . . It sounds really stupid, actually, but I hear it's pretty good . . ."

"Is the guy at least hot?"

Mikio blinked.  "W . . . Well, I wouldn't know . . . Can't say I've ever thought about it, but . . . It's Curtis Malone, and all the websites seem to indicate that he's a real heartthrob . . ."

She laughed at his rather philosophical assessment.  "Okay, sure," she replied.  "I'll order a pizza . . . What do you want on it?"

"I don't mind any of the regular toppings," he said.  "Uh . . . Madison . . .?"

"Hmm?" she intoned, only paying about half attention as she dialed the number for the nearest pizza place.

He cleared his throat.  "Do . . . Do you think he's . . . hot . . .?"

"Malone?  Sure, he's good-looking in the 'I-will-crush-you-like-a-bug' kind of way . . . Kind of like Bas, come to think of it . . ."

". . . You . . . think Bas is . . . hot . . .?"

"Sure, but don't tell Sydnie I ever said that.  She'd kill me, that one . . . Oh, hi, I want to place a delivery order?"

Mikio frowned as he stood up to retrieve a couple bottles of water from the kitchen.  It bothered him, didn't it?  The idea that Madison might well be attracted to men like that: the huge guys—the ones that might easily fall into the meathead category.  Bas wasn't one of those, but that wasn't the point.  If that was the kind of guy that Madison was drawn to . . .

'Does it matter, Mikio?  I mean, really, does it matter to you?'

Scratching the side of his head, Mikio's frown deepened.  'N . . . No . . . It . . . It shouldn't, should it? It's not like I . . . like I'm . . . interested or anything.  Just . . .'

'But you know, it's okay if you were interested.  Hell, it'd probably be weird if you weren't, don't you think?'

He sighed, yanking open the refrigerator door and nabbing a couple of bottles.  'It . . . It really doesn't matter.  It's not like she'd ever be interested in me, in the first place, but even if she were, I'm just not . . . not the kind of guy a woman like her would ever be looking for . . .'

"They'll deliver in half an hour or less," she said, accepting the bottle from him as he sat back down again.

"Okay," he replied, setting his bottle on the table.

She glanced at him, but frowned as she leaned her head to the side, as she stared at him.  "Mikio? Is something wrong?"

He blinked, hating that he really didn't have a great poker face, as far as that went.  He never really had.  About the only time he could manage a reasonable facsimile of one was when he was in the courtroom, but it was always different, so much simpler, when it was someone else's drama being played out . . . "Uh, nothing," he murmured, knowing she could see right through him, hoping that maybe she'd let it go.

She sighed, smiling at him in a profoundly sad sort of way, and she shrugged.  "You know, when I was growing up, I only had a few friends—real friends, anyway.  I mean, I got along with everyone.  Lots of birthday parties and sleepovers—all of that, but only Evan really got me, really understood me.  Most of the time, I felt like I was playing different roles: party girl, cheerleader, Evan's little friend . . . find a career that I didn't have to think about too much . . . Don't get me wrong, I love what I do, but when you're a kid—when you feel just a little different from everyone else?  It's hard . . . and you  . . . you know about that, too, don't you?"  She sat back, stared at him—stared at him in such a way that he knew that she saw right through him—through the things that he couldn't say, through the things that he was a little afraid to admit, even to himself.

That sad little smile on her face faded, shaking her head just a little as she stood up, as she grabbed her purse off the table next to the door. She had it open before the young man with the pizza box could even knock.  She conversed with him for a minute in low tones—words that didn't carry to Mikio.  Then she smiled, laughed softly, taking the box and handing him some money.

"Hope you're hungry," she said, setting the box on the coffee table before hurrying out of the room, probably for plates and napkins.

He watched her go, his brow furrowing in concentration, as he tried to make sense of the mystery of her.  All those smiles of her, all those laughs and giggles . . . Just how much of it was real?  And how much of it was nothing more than a role—the girl she perceived that he might want to see . . .?







Chapter Text

"So, you think that they're going to make you get a court order to access those files?  Doesn't that seem a little suspicious?  You'd think that they'd want you to prove that there wasn't anything going on, wouldn't you?" Gunnar remarked, leaning back in his office chair in the stark but spotless office in the youkai special crimes division.

Mikio adjusted the computer on the table in front of him.  "Yeah, basically," he replied, rubbing his forehead as the throbbing that had been lingering in the back of his head all day slowly escalated by degrees.  "I just wondered if you had any ideas—you know, given that you're known for being fairly ass-tastic . . ."

Gunnar uttered a soft chuckle.  "I'll take that as a compliment, Mikio.  You could try intimidation.  It usually works, especially if it's a fat-around-the-middle, receding-hairlined-bureaucrat that you're trying to put the hurt on . . ."

"I'm not really good at that, either," Mikio said.  "I'll give Cain-nii-san a call—see if he has any judges that might owe him a favor."

Gunnar grunted, tapping his claws on the desk.  "Could send Bas-the-bulldozer over . . . He could put the fear of kami into the old man, if you'd like . . ."

Mikio made a face, uttered a wry chuckle of his own.  "And give the man a heart attack?  I think that'd work against me, actually."

"What the hell are you volunteering me to do now, Gunsie?" Bas growled.  Mikio heard the groan of a chair as the big man sat down, but he didn't enter the video frame until Gunnar turned the monitor.  "Oh, hey, Mikio . . . I was about ready to fax over a list of some good security firms that you can call to get quotes for Maddy's place."

"What's wrong with Maddy's place?" Gunnar asked, arching an eyebrow at Bas.

Bas snorted indelicately.  "She's got an alarm on her door, sure, but that's about it.  No autolocks on the windows, nothing, and her fire escape is attached to the building across the way."

"Are you kidding?  Huh . . . Can't say I noticed any of that . . ."

"When were you over there?"

Gunnar flicked a hand dismissively.  "It was awhile back, Bas.  Not a big deal."

Bas snorted.  "You brought it up . . ."

Mikio rolled his eyes, shot the monitor what should have been a rather impressive scowl, if either of them had bothered to notice it.  They didn't.  It figured.  "I'll call nii-san," Mikio said, interrupting Bas and Gunnar's discussion.  "Send me that list, Bas, thanks . . ."

"Okay," Gunnar replied.  "Give me a call if you need anything else."

The connection ended, and Mikio sighed.  Leave it to those two to let themselves get completely sidetracked, anyway . . . Put together, it was a miracle that they got anything done at all, he figured.  'Completely useless, the both of them . . .'

It didn't take long to call Cain.  He didn't answer, so Mikio left him a message, dropping the phone onto the array of papers littering the coffee table with a sigh.  He slipped his hands up behind his neck, digging the pads of his thumbs in hard—usually it helped.

It wasn't helping this time.

The door opened, closed, as the feel of Madison's youki swept over him.  He heard the sound of her purse and keys, thumping onto the table by the door, the soft click-thud of her shoes as she kicked them off.  "Mikio, hey . . . Are you all right?"

He sat up, let his hands drop to the sides, forcing a smile strictly for her benefit as she pulled off a couple of bangle-type gold bracelets and let them clatter onto the stand next to her purse.  "Fine," he said.  "How was work?"

She waved a hand dismissively, bracing her hands against the small of her back as she arched backward to stretch.  "It was great," she said, sounding a little distracted.  "Met with my interior design team, discussed the feel that I'm going for in the new spa . . . Boring."

"What kind of feel are you going for?" he asked.

She laughed.  "Aspen cool," she replied as she headed for the stairs.  "I'm going to go change out of this . . . Do you want to go grab some dinner?"

"I just ate some leftover pizza, so I'm good.  I mean, we can if you want to . . ."

Her voice was muffled.  "Did you save me a slice?"


"Good enough."

He chuckled, reaching for the papers scattered on the table to straighten them all back up again.

She ran back down the stairs a couple minutes later wearing a pair of tiny shorts and a rather baggy Zel Roka tee-shirt, and she paused long enough to smile at him before striding past him on her way to the kitchen.

His cell phone rang, and he reached for it with a sigh, trying to keep his head turned far enough to watch Madison's retreat.  "Izayoi," he said, answering the call without bothering to check the caller ID.

"Mikio, I got your  message.  You said you needed a favor?"

Letting out a sigh that had as much to do with having lost track of Madison as it did with the phone call itself, Mikio grabbed a pen off the coffee table, drumming it idly as he considered the question.  "Yes," he said.  "I'm having some trouble, getting them to agree to let me have access to the server files, and I need them because whatever changes were made to the documents that Gavin turned in happened while they were on the company's server.  It's looking like I'm going to need a court order to get them to comply.  I can file a petition myself, but you know how long that kind of thing can take . . . Can you help me out?"

"Wow, that is a favor," Cain allowed.  "You obviously need one issued in New York City, right?"


"Okay," Cain said.  "I'll see what I can do. Give me a day or two, though.  That one's a pretty tall request.  I'm sure I can arrange it, but it may take some doing."

Mikio chuckled.  "You mean, there aren't youkai, lining up around the block to do a favor for the tai-youkai?"

"Maybe," Cain replied with a laugh.  "You'd be amazed just how many of those I've burned through with Evan over the years, though . . ."  He heaved a very weary sounding sigh.  "That would be a lot funnier if it weren't so damn true, too . . ."

"Well, Evan's always been a little . . . different."

"Which is a lot more diplomatic than most people would say," Cain added.

Mikio couldn't help the small smile that played on his lips.  "Anyway, I appreciate your help in this."

Cain grunted.  "Given that he's my daughter's mate?  I'd like to see Gavin cleared as soon as possible, too.  Now, assuming I can get you what you need, you think that'll be enough to clear him?"

"If I can find the proof I need on the server files, yes," Mikio said.  "I . . . O-O-Oh . . ."


He couldn't help the small sigh that slipped from him as Madison's fingers pressed against his temples, working in slow circles and alleviating the dull throbbing of the headache that had plagued him for most of the day.  Her touch was so soothing, so calming . . . The immediate effect was nearly overwhelming—almost enough to send him right off to sleep . . .

"Mikio?" Cain repeated, a little louder, a hint of alarm, in his tone.

"Oh, uh, huh?" he muttered, blinking rapidly, trying to shake off the effects of her ministrations.

"Mikio, are you all right?"

"Uh, y-yeah," he stammered.  "Just, um,  a . . . a headache."

Cain grunted.  "If you're sure . . ."

"Yeah, I'm good," he sighed, eyes drifting closed for the second time.

There was a very pregnant pause before Cain heaved a sigh.  "I'll get a hold of you after I make a few calls, work something out.  You need a subpoena to gain access to any and all private servers used by the company, right?"


"Okay.  Not a problem."

The line went dead, and Mikio dropped the device on the table before flopping against the back of the sofa with a heavy sigh, letting himself enjoy Madison's undivided attention.

"A headache, huh?" she murmured, alternating between small circles and very steady strokes.  "You poor thing . . . Do you get these kinds of headaches often?"

"No, not often," he replied, struggling to make himself speak.  "Just, when I do . . ."

"They're severe," she finished when he trailed off.


He didn't see the frown that surfaced on her face, didn't catch the worried glint that lit in her gaze as she continued to massage his temples, the sides of his face, all the way down along his jaw and into his neck, and even though those areas weren't affected by the headache, the attention she paid to those areas helped, too—helped more than anything he'd ever tried for relief before.

"Where did you learn to do this?" he asked—at least, he thought he did . . . He wasn't entirely sure, caught as he was, somewhere between the awake and the haze of early slumber.

She laughed softly.  "I took classes while I was in beauty school—Evan paid for them, actually . . ."

Mikio snorted, shaking off the lingering bout of sleepiness.  "Why doesn't that surprise me?" he muttered.

"Is that a bad thing?"

"I think you're a little too close to that little pervert," Mikio admitted.

She choked out another round of laughter.  "He's not a—Well, okay, you're right . . . He is . . ."

He grunted, not entirely pleased her with ready agreement, either . . . "Mmm," he half sighed.

"Would you like me to light a few aromatherapy candles?  They really do help," she offered.

"No, this is good . . ."

She laughed.  "You're sure?"

He nodded.  Maybe.  He tried to, anyway . . . But her gentle touch was entirely too soothing, entirely too nice to credit . . .

The last thing that he could remember as he drifted off to sleep was the a soft sigh, almost more of an insular breath.

It sounded entirely content.







"Hi, Maddy . . . How are you?"

Smiling at the sound of her mother's slightly husky but very happy voice, Madison braced her feet against the mattress and pushed herself up on her elbow as she flipped onto her side, careful not to disturb Mikio, who was still sleeping like the dead.

"Fine, just fine . . . and how are you?  How's my little brother?  Oh, I took a peek in the name jar at the shop, and someone suggested, 'Andreas,' which would be fantastic—if we were Greek.  Does Dad have some mixed Greek in his bloodlines anywhere?"

Kelly laughed.  "No, and don't suggest that to him, please.  We spent an hour yesterday, debating the name, 'William'.   I like it, but he's convinced that everyone will start calling him, 'Willy', and you know how your father is . . ."

"Afraid someone'll make jokes about Willie's willie?" Madison asked sweetly.

Kelly choked, coughed, gagged a little.  "Thanks," she said after she finally wound down from a pretty severe coughing fit.  "Teach me to drink my milk when I'm on the phone with you . . . I think some of that came out my nose . . ." She sniffled.

"Sorry, Mom," she said, sounding anything but sorry, at all.  "I've got an idea.  Why don't you have Dad bring you down here, and we'll do a massive shopping trip for Willie?"

Kelly heaved a chagrined sigh that was completely compromised when she giggled a moment later.  "We are not naming him, 'Willie'," she insisted.  "Your father won't allow it.  You know, that's exactly what he said: 'Kelly, I won't allow it'," she said in a deep, almost dumb tone that she only ever used when describing something silly that Cartham had said to her.  "Maybe I should suggest, 'Patrick'."

Madison wrinkled her nose.  "You don't like that name, Mother."

"Maybe, but seeing Cartham's face when I tell him that I'll call him, 'Tricky' for short?  That should be well worth it . . ."

"You're an evil woman, Mom," she said with a laugh.  "So, about coming down here . . .?"

Kelly sighed.  "I would, baby, really, but Cartham's out on a job—not a hunt, actually . . . I guess Cain's heard rumors about a Honshu-wolf-youkai, so he sent your dad to find out if there's any truth to it."

"What's so special about that?"

"Well, the Honshu wolves were declared extinct in 1905, so if there actually is one of their kind, it'd be pretty significant . . ."

"Hmm," Madison intoned.  "Dad on recon?  Is that really a good idea?  I mean, he's not exactly a people-person . . ."

Kelly snorted.  "None of the hunters are people-people," she corrected.  "It just so happened that your dad wasn't busy at the time—and I might have mentioned to Cain that an assignment might do your father some good . . ."

"Meaning that you told Cain that if he didn't give Dad an assignment, you were going to kill him, right?"

Kelly didn't deny it.  In fact, she laughed.  "You wouldn’t believe how peaceful and quiet it's been here since I dropped him off at the airport . . ."

Madison heaved a sigh, but giggled, just the same.

"I love your father very much," Kelly explained.  "I love him to the moon and back—and if I could send him to the moon regularly, I'd love him even more—especially when I'm pregnant.  This is why you've been an only child for so long, Maddy.  He drives me absolutely crazy with his overbearing, 'concern'."

"It's only because he loves you," Madison pointed out.

"I know," she agreed.  "I love him, too.  Anyway, I have to run.  I've got my monthly checkup, so I have to get moving.  I'll text you later and tell you how it went."

"Okay," Madison said.  "Love you."

"You, too, sweetie."

The connection ended, and Madison smiled as she set the phone aside.

"Your mother wouldn't really name a child something just to get at your father, would she?"

She laughed and rolled over to look at Mikio, who still hadn't opened his eyes.  "I'd like to say she wouldn't, but knowing her and knowing how crazy Dad's been making her, I don't know if I would put it past her, either . . ."

"That's so wrong," he said, stifling a yawn with the back of his hand.

Leaning on her elbow, she stared at him, enjoying the way the morning light played with the angles and planes of his face, got caught in the wispy strands of his hair . . . She'd noticed the same thing about Evan's hair before.  It wasn't really silvery, no, but more like all the colors of the rainbow, all melded together in every strand in shades that were washed out yet still present, like looking through a kaleidoscope . . . With his eyes closed, it was easier to see the unsettling difference in his appearance.  Given who his father was, he actually looked a little more like Sesshoumaru than InuYasha.  He held more of the finer bone structure, a more aristocratic kind of face . . . If Gunnar were silver haired instead of black, they might well have looked like brothers, to be honest . . .

"Are you sure that InuYasha is your dad?" she asked, only half-teasing.

He cracked an eye open, and the expression on his face was most definitely an InuYasha-sort of look.  "What?"

She laughed.  "You look a lot like your uncle, you know."

He snorted.  "Keh."

Which only made her laugh harder.

"Everyone's said that at one time or another—well, except for Papa," he muttered.  "Pisses him off something fierce."

"I'll bet it does.  Their feuding is legendary."

"They don't feud nearly as much these days," Mikio pointed out.  "Well, at least, not physically . . ."

"It would make for far more interesting family dinners," she mused.  "Anyway, how's your headache today?  Better?"

"Gone," he told her, managing a very small smile.  "Thanks for that.  I'll get you a fruit basket or something to thank you properly."

Her lips twitched at his wry humor.  "A fruit basket?  Really?"

"Something else you'd rather have?"

She rolled her eyes but grinned at him.  "I don't need anything.  Besides, you're the one kind enough to let me stay here with you while my security's being updated."

He sighed.  "Yeah, about that . . . The guy I spoke to said that they were pretty backlogged—I guess people are updating their systems because of the stuff on the news lately.  Anyway, he said it would be a week or so before they could get around to coming over to even look at yours . . . I can call around if you want, though, see if anyone else can look into it sooner, but Bas said this company was the best."

She nodded.  "If Bas said they're the best, then that's who I want doing the job," she assured him.  "As long as you don't mind having me underfoot."

"Not at all," he told her.  "I, uh . . . I-I-I like having you around."

"You do?" she blurted, sounding a little breathless in her own ears.

He nodded, sitting up and turning away, but not before she saw the adorable little blush that rose to stain his cheeks.  "Y-Yeah," he said.  "I . . . I do . . ."







Chapter Text

Madison breezed into Evan's new townhouse that wasn't too far from his mansion out on Long Island, pausing long enough to hug Bone since she hadn't seen the big man since Evan and Valerie's wedding, before hurrying past him and into the living room with a happy squeal as she ran over to hug Valerie tight.  "How was the honeymoon?" she asked, sitting down beside her on the beautiful cream suede couch—obviously something of Valerie's choosing.  "And how's the bun?" she went on, leaning in to rub Valerie's still-relatively-flat belly.

"My Maddy!  Everything's fine, fine . . . Oh, I missed you!" Valerie breathed, almost near tears, if the expression on her face meant anything.  She sniffled and waved a hand dismissively.  "Ignore me.  I've been crying over everything the last few days.  It's awful, and if this is what I'm going to be like for the next few months . . . ugh."

"Hey, sexy," Evan remarked as he breezed into the room, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans that were so frayed and torn that it was surprising that he could still wear them at all.

Madison hugged him without standing up.  "You're the richest man on the planet.  Go buy some new jeans," she commented.

He chuckled.  "Now you sound just like V," he remarked, grabbing a beer from the wetbar and holding it up to ask Madison if she wanted one, too.  She waved him away as she turned her full attention on Valerie once more.  "Boy or girl?" she asked without preamble.

Valerie laughed.  "I don’t care as long as—"

"—the baby's healthy, right?" Madison interrupted with a giggle.

Valerie rolled her eyes and reached for the glass of milk on the coffee table.  "I was going to say as long as he or she is nothing like him," she retorted, jerking her head toward her mate with no finesse, whatsoever.

Madison's laughter escalated.  "That, too," she replied.

"I'm not that bad," Evan protested with a cheeky grin.  "I just get bored easily."

Valerie sighed, catching a lock of her honey blonde hair and hooking it behind her ear.  "You're not allowed to say that word, Roka," she reminded him.  "Ever."

Evan chuckled, picking of Valerie as though she were little more than a rag doll and sitting down with her in his lap as she shot Madison a 'So-What-Can-You-Do' kind of look.  "Five chairs, not counting the sofa, and he has to sit here," Valerie stated.  "Really, Evan?"

He kissed her cheek.  "Always gotta be near my baby," he quipped.

Valerie blinked.  "That's . . . almost sweet of you," she ventured.

"You put out more when I say shit like that," he replied.

Planting her hand in the center of his face when he leaned in for a kiss, Valerie snorted.  "Pig."

"I prefer dog," he said, voice muffled by her hand.

Madison slowly shook her head, catching her long, blonde hair in one hand and smoothing it over her shoulder.  "You two are . . . kind of disgusting," she muttered.

Valerie laughed.  "Sorry," she said, sounding anything but apologetic.  "So, what have you been doing all alone?  Anything noteworthy?  Or . . . anyone . . .?"

Madison shrugged.  "Nothing really," she said, careful to keep her tone entirely flat.

"Gin mentioned that her brother stayed in town to help Gavin with that embezzlement investigation?  She said you drove him down here with you after the wedding . . ."

Shifting slightly since she knew very well that Valerie was aware of her interest in Mikio, she gave the attorney a look that she hoped Evan didn't see, but that Valerie would interpret easily enough.

Luck was with her when Valerie raised an eyebrow and quickly turned toward Evan.  "Evan, baby . . ."

The rockstar's grin widened.  "Damn, I love it when you call me that," he said, affecting a full-body shiver that may or may not have been embellished.

Valerie smiled, leaning away just far enough to run her fingertips lightly down the center of his chest.  "You know, the baby and I were really craving some ice cream . . . I don't suppose—"

"Say no more, babycakes," Evan said, gathering her up so that he could stand before carefully setting her back on her feet again.  "Low fat artisan vanilla, right?"

Valerie laughed and kissed him on the cheek.  "That would be amazing, Roka."

He chuckled.  "Don’t suppose you'll call me baby again?"

"I'll call you daddy tonight if you bring me ice cream now," she said.

"Be right back, V," he hollered over his shoulder, grabbing a button down Hawaiian print shirt off the back of a nearby chair.  "You ladies have fun, and if you do, make sure the security camera's filming, will you?"

"Be careful, Evan," Valerie called after him, ignoring his perverted commentary.

His laughter was cut off by the closing of the front door.  Only then, did Valerie giggle. "He's such a pervert.  Do you know, he nearly got us thrown out of the hotel?  All because he wanted to run down to the ice machine at the end of the hallway naked.  The hotel staff weren't impressed in the least . . ."

"Yeah, that sounds about right," Madison allowed.  “He really just doesn’t think twice about doing whatever occurs to him, whenever it occurs to him . . .”

Valerie shook her head.  "Okay, he's gone.  What?"

Letting out a deep breath, Madison bit her lip, cast Valerie an almost shy sort of smile.  "It's nothing big," she said, shaking her head.  "Seriously, just . . . I mean, I lost my apartment key—well, didn't really lose it.  I just forgot it when I went to work, and Mikio was kind enough to let me stay with him, is all, and then, when Bas came down to unlock it for me, he was checking my security, and it's apparently a little lacking, so he's made arrangements for it to be upgraded.  They should be done soon . . ." She made a face.  "And then I'm free to go back home . . ."

Valerie considered everything she'd said, slowly nodding as she tapped her index finger against her chin in a steady, thoughtful way.  "From the tone of your voice, I'm assuming that you don't want to go home . . .?" she finally ventured.

Madison sighed.  "Is it that obvious?"

Valerie laughed softly.  "You really like him, don’t you?  I mean, I can see why you would.  He's really cute . . ."

This time, her sigh was a lot longer, a lot more of what a sigh should be.  "It's . . . It's more than that," she admitted.  "I mean . . . You can't tell Evan—you can't.  V, I know you're mates, and mates are supposed to tell each other everything, but . . . please promise me.  If Evan knew . . ."

"I promise, but . . . Well, you know Evan.  He wouldn't tease you—much, anyway . . ."

Madison shook her head quickly.  "It's not that.  If Evan knew . . ." Trailing off as she made a face, Madison stood up, paced the floor.  "If Evan knew, he'd . . . He'd try to hurry things along or something.  You know how he is."

"Because you're his friend," Valerie concluded with a sage nod.  Given the trouble that he’d nearly gone to jail for with Dieter—the incident that had brought him and Valerie together, in the first place?  She, more than anyone else, would understand this part of him, even if she didn’t like it all of the time.  "Yeah, I know what you mean.  Sometimes he's a little too concerned about his friends."

"This is too important, V," Madison admitted.  "So, seriously, you really can't tell him anything."

"Okay, okay, I swear, I won't tell him anything—besides, that mates-thing, that only applies to secrets about each other, right?  And you're not us, so . . ." Snapping her mouth closed, she made a twisting motion with her fingers in front of her lips, then tossed the pretend key over her shoulder.  "Sealed."

Satisfied that Valerie really would keep her promise, Madison relaxed just a little and sat back down again.  "I've liked him forever—since the first time I saw him.  Of course, I was just a kid then—maybe two?  Three?  But he was fascinating, even back then.  And then, he'd show up every so often—holidays, weddings . . . You know . . . and it just . . . It just never went away.  There's just something about him . . . I can't explain it.  I just . . . I noticed things—little things—just . . . everything . . . Like . . . Did you know that when he smiles, he always wrinkles his nose, just this tiny bit, or when he's reading something, he squints a little . . .?" Letting out a deep breath, she scrunched up her shoulders.  "When he's talking to me, he looks at me, like . . . Like whatever I'm saying is the most interesting thing in the world, even if I know it's not . . ."

"Is he your . . . mate?"

For some reason, that question caught her off-guard.  "I-I-I . . . I want him to be."

Valerie leaned forward, elbows on her knees, hands over her mouth.  "Really?"

"He's not.  I mean, not yet, but even if . . ." She grimaced.  "It's too soon, and I . . . V, they're finishing up the work on my apartment today—right now—probably.  When they finish, then I have to go back home.  I don't have any other reason to stay with him, but if I don’t . . .You don't understand.  He's so shy, and once I go home, then either I have to become the creepy chick who is basically stalking him or . . . Or he doesn't call, doesn't . . . Doesn't come by, doesn't text . . ."

Valerie's face—her expression . . . Madison winced inwardly.  "Maddy?  If . . . If a guy doesn't . . ."

"It’s not like that, V, I swear," Madison hurried on to say.  "I think . . . I think he is interested, but . . ." She sighed, rubbing her forehead.  "It's just hard to explain . . ."

Settling back, crossing her arms over her chest, Valerie waited patiently, and Madison sighed again.  "Evan said once that Mikio wasn't like the rest of the guys, you know?  Well, you probably saw, didn't you?  His balance . . . I'm not sure why . . . He just . . . has these spells, I guess?  I mean, not lately, but . . . Anyway, Evan went on to say that he doubted Mikio would ever look for his mate because he never . . . never learned how to fight or any of that, which is dumb.  What does fighting have to do with mating?"  She made a face and waved her hands.  "That came out totally wrong, didn't it?  I think—I know—he feels . . . something.  I just don't know how much or . . . or what . . ."

"So, he could be your mate," Valerie concluded.  "That's what you're saying?"

Madison grimaced.  "Maybe."

Valerie nodded slowly before hauling herself off of the sofa and heading for the kitchen with her empty milk glass.  "Well, that's easy, then.  We'll have to find another reason for you not to go home yet."

"Oh?  I'm open to suggestions."

"Well," she went on, refilling her glass and putting the milk away again.  "I'm assuming you don't want to go the direct route and just tell him you don't want to go home, and that he'll just have to deal with it . . .?"

Madison shook her head quickly, catching the bottle of water that Valerie tossed to her.  "Oh, God, I can't do that . . ."

Valerie nodded.  "Didn't think so.  So, we'll go over there and figure out how to break . . . well, something . . ."

Madison thought that over.  "There have been a rash of break-ins . . . Maybe if it looked like someone tried to break into my condo . . ."

"That could work," Valerie agreed around her glass, poking her index finger at Madison.  "Let me finish this and grab my keys."

"What about Evan?"

She shrugged.  "He's got to go back to the studio shortly anyway.  I'll just leave him a note that I'm with you, and he'll be fine."

Madison snapped the seal around the cap of the water bottle and drank down a good bit of it while Valerie swallowed the rest of her milk and rinsed the glass before reaching for the notepad and pen on the counter.

Find another way to prolong her stay with Mikio?  She could do that, couldn’t she?  After all, if she was around him long enough, he'd have to realize, wouldn’t he?

'Yes,' she thought, her determination adding an extra brightness to her gaze.  Then it would just be a matter of time . . .




Mikio knocked on the thick wood frame and waited for Bas to look up from whatever he was scowling at.  Safe to assume it was some kind of case, but he seemed to be a little more agitated than usual.  Letting out a deep breath as he finally glanced up, only to break into a very tight near-smile, the big man held up a hand, curled and uncurled his index and middle fingers to invite Mikio into his office.

"What's up?" he asked, plopping back in his chair, dropping the slim-file on the desk, rubbing his eyes in a rather weary sort of way.  The chair creaked and groaned under Bas' weight, and for a moment, Mikio had to wonder if it wasn't going to break . . .

Mikio closed the door and shuffled over to sit in one of the chairs facing the prodigious cherry desk.  Unlike Gunnar's desk, Bas' was thick, heavy, kind of like Bas himself—almost more rustic, definitely leaning toward the idea of function over form, there was very little in the way of embellishment.  The beauty of the piece was actually in the wood that was used—gorgeous graining that had been well oiled but not stained, sealed with a low gloss varnish.  It was made by Isabelle's mate, Griffin and stood a little taller than most standard desks—tailored to fit Bas, it seemed . . .

Scratching his temple, careful to keep his claws turned in, Mikio shrugged in what he hoped was a nonchalant sort of way. "I, uh, I . . . I thought I'd stop by, say thanks for your recommendations."

"For Maddy?  Sure . . . Is it all taken care of?"

Mikio nodded.  "They're finishing up today . . ."

"Good, then," Bas replied with an easy smile.  "You want to go get some lunch?  It's a little late, but I wasn't thinking . . ."

"Uh, well, not if you're busy . . ."

Reaching for the slim-file, Bas started to turn, to stand.  "Nah, I'll just drop this file off with Gunnar—Could see if he's eaten yet . . ."

"Well, i-i-it's just . . . before that . . ."

Settling back in his chair once more, Bas nodded.  "Okay, sure."

Mikio grimaced, fiddling with his rapidly twitching left ear.  "It's just . . . uh, Maddy . . . She'll . . . She'll go home when they're, uh, finished, and . . ."

Bas' brow furrowed as he considered what Mikio was trying to say.  "And . . . You don't want her to go home, I take it?"

"W—I-I-It's—I mean, she'll be alone, you know?  And I . . . It may not be safe.  She's a . . . beautiful . . . woman, and  . . ."

"And . . . You want advice on how to convince her that she'd be . . . safer . . . with . . . you . . .?"

"For her own good," Mikio blurted quickly, unable to staunch the flow of blood that exploded in his cheeks.

"Yeah, gotcha," Bas allowed.  "Well, that's kind of a tough one.  Maddy's a pretty independent woman."

"Y-Yeah," Mikio muttered, scowling at his hands.  "She . . . She'd be fine, right?  I mean, I'm . . . I'm probably just worried about . . . about nothing . . ."

Bas was staring at him.  He could feel the man's gaze as it drilled into his skull even though he refused to verify it.  "Then again," Bas went on, his tone taking on a philosophical lilt, "how safe is anyone, really?  She could get mugged on her way home by some random fool—I'm not saying it would happen, but it's possible—and you're right: she's very pretty."  He grimaced, squeezing his eyes closed for a second before popping one open again.  "Don't tell Sydnie I said that or she'll skin me . . ."

"Then . . . do you have any ideas?"

Scratching his chin, Bas thought it over for a minute.  "Well, you could just tell her you'd feel better if she stayed with you until the guys are caught—the ones breaking into apartments in your neighborhood."

"That . . . won't sound a little too forward or anything?"

"It's a legitimate concern."

"Y-Yeah . . ."

Bas nodded slowly.  "Anything else?"

Shaking his head, Mikio hauled himself out of the chair.  "No, that's . . . Uh, thanks."

"No problem," Bas replied as he stood up and strode toward the door.

"Hey, Bas?"


He couldn't help the grimace that furrowed his brow.  "Could you, uh . . ."

"Not tell Nutsack?"

Mikio nodded.

"That goes without saying," Bas muttered, yanking open his door and heading down the hallway and into the reception area.  "Nutsack!  You eat yet?"

"If you're talking to me, Bas-tard," Gunnar drawled without looking up from his computer monitor, "no, I haven't."

Bas grunted.  "Well, come on, then.  Besides, we need someone to pay for it."

Gunnar heaved a sigh, but stood up slowly.  "I'll pay for his, but you eat like the Jolly Green Giant," he retorted.  "Oh, wait, that's because you are . . ."

Mikio shook his head as he followed the two out of the office.  Gunnar stopped long enough to tell his secretary that she was free to leave for the day, without missing a beat as he traded insults with Bas.




"Okay, give it a good whack!"

"Why are we doing this on the fire escape?"

"Well, because that's where someone would logically break in, and it needs to look authentic, doesn’t it?"

"I suppose . . ." Valerie swung her bent arms to and fro, stretching out her muscles before tightening her grip on the baseball bat in her hands.  Clad all in black—skin-tight black, at that, with the tiniest little baby-bump sticking out in front.  She'd even smudged eye black on her cheeks, and, along with the cute little black slouch cap with her hair tucked up under it, she was, quite possibly, the cutest cat-burglar in history.

Readying her stance, she gave herself a few warm up swings before moving a little closer to the window.

She started to swing the bat, but stopped a fraction of an inch from the glass and heaved a sigh as she straightened up and shook her head at Madison.  "I can't," she said, yanking off the cap and frowning at Madison.

"Oh, why not?  It's such a great plan!"

Valerie sighed and jerked her head.  Madison turned to look at what Valerie was pointing out, only to see a security camera affixed to the wall of the building across the way.  "Oh . . . I didn't see that there . . ."

Valerie made a face.  "Yes, well, I don't want to be on Prison Moms," she replied dryly.

Madison laughed since Valerie was talking about a sleazy so-called reality show about incarcerated women and their apparent struggles to give birth to babies whole in maximum security cells.

"We should go inside," Valerie went on, peering over the edge of the railing.  "That's a long way down . . ."

Madison pushed the window open and grabbed Valerie, who was a little too close to the railing, in her opinion.  "Come on, Inmate 4566325.  You're going to topple right off of here if you're not careful."

Valerie crawled back inside and flopped down on the sofa.  "We should have waited until Evan got back with my ice cream," she said.

Madison rolled her eyes and started to retort, but the sound of the buzzer interrupted her.

Touching the panel by the door to activate the camera in the hallway, Madison smiled when Jillian Zelig-Jamison smiled up at the lens and nudged her mate, Gavin in the ribs.  "Jilli!" she greeted after she opened the door.  "How are you?"

Jillian hugged Madison before stepping past her.  "We were in the neighborhood and thought we'd stop by to see if you've got dinner plans," she explained.  "V!"

"Hey, big boy.  How's your bacon?"

Gavin grunted, pulling a small tablet out of his pocket.  "Still in the fat, unfortunately."

He sat down in one of the occasional chairs and promptly started fiddling on the tablet.

"What about you, V?  Do you and Evvie have plans for dinner?"

Valerie shrugged.  "I don't, but Evan will probably end up, back at the studio.  He told Mikey we came back early, and the two of them figured they might as well get a jump on the new record."

Jillian frowned, her natural ebullience faltering as she slowly shook her head.  "It's because of Miss, right?  What Bassie said about her . . .?"

"Yeah," Valerie allowed.  "We stopped in to see her first thing.  She's . . . She's not looking well."

"I only met her a few times," Jillian went on, "poor Daniel.  But you all will be helping Bassie, right?  I mean, I know that he and Sydnie volunteered to take him in . . ."

"I'm sure we will," Valerie said.  "After the baby's born, anyway.  That, and Bas mentioned that Dieter's family asked about maybe keeping him during the summers, too.  They don't want to take him out of the States, especially for schooling, so he'll stay here most of the year . . . Have you gotten to see her yet, Maddy?"

"I did the other day," Madison replied, settling on the arm of the sofa beside Jillian.  "I set her hair and helped her with that . . . She wanted to look pretty when Bas brought Daniel by to visit . . ."

Jillian sighed, but finally gave Valerie's hands a little squeeze.  "Even so, I'm glad you and Evvie are home—Well, I guess Maine's going to be your home after he's done doing his rockstar thing here . . ."  Cocking her head to the side, Jillian frowned at Valerie.  "Why do you have eye-black on?" she asked.

Valerie blinked, like she'd forgotten all about that for a moment.  Then she laughed.  "I was going to break into Maddy's condo," she said as though it was the most normal thing in the world.

"You . . . But Maddy's right there . . ."

"I know," Valerie replied.  "But she needs a reason to—oops!  Maddy!  I'm sorry!"

"Jillian's okay," she said with a smile.  "She won't tell Evan, right?"

Jillian shook her head.  "Tell Evvie what?"

Madison wrinkled her nose.  "To find a reason why I can't stay here," she explained.

"You don't want to stay in your own apartment?"

Valerie cleared her throat as she stood up to find something to drink.  "She was staying in a much nicer place," she teased.

"Yeah, but weren't you staying with—O-O-Oh . . ."

Madison sighed.  "That stupid security firm that he called to tighten the security here finished up today," she said.  "So . . . No reason to stay there anymore."

"And you were going to have Valerie pretend to break in so you could stay over there longer, huh?"

"That sounds about right," Valerie said, strolling back into the living room around the island counter with a beer for Gavin, wine coolers for Jillian and Madison, and a bottle of water for herself.

Gavin grunted his thanks without looking up from the digital edition of some geek magazine.  Madison took one of the coolers and twisted off the cap.  "V saw security cameras on the building across the way, though, so we can't do that—unfortunately."

Jillian thought about it as she sipped her wine cooler.

"We'll just have to think of something else," Valerie insisted.

"Well . . . if it's a security system, Gavvie might be able to mess it up . . ." Jillian ventured.  "Right, Gavvie?"

The last part of her spiel was delivered louder.  "Uh?  Oh, uh, love you, too, Jilli," he murmured.

She rolled her eyes, but giggled.

"You think he could?" Madison asked, without taking her eyes off the man in question.

"Are you kidding?  My Gavvie's the biggest geek on the planet!  Of course, he could!"

"Maybe, but do you think he would?" Valerie questioned, also staring thoughtfully at Gavin.

Jillian laughed and stood up, carefully slipping past Madison to kneel beside Gavin's chair.  "Gavvie . . ."


She reached over and tapped the button to put the tablet to sleep.

"Jilli?  Oh, are we ready to go?"

"Not just yet," she told him.  "The girls and I were wondering if you'd do something for Maddy . . ."

Glancing around almost nervously when he realized that both Madison as well as Valerie were both eyeing him very intently, he shifted his gaze back to his mate once more.  "Wha-a-a-at?" he drawled reluctantly, aqua eyes taking on a very suspicious air.

Jillian giggled.  "Nothing bad—Well, nothing too bad . . ."

"Wha-a-a-at?" he repeated.

"We need you to break her security system."

His eyebrows shot up, disappearing under the thick fringe of his bangs as he quickly shook his head.  "No.  Oh, no.  No!"

Jillian leaned in closer.  "Please, Gavvie?  It'd mean the world to her!  Please?  Please, please, please,

please, please, please, please, please, plea—"

"No way, Jilli!" he interrupted firmly.  "You can go to jail for something like that, and—"

"Girls?" Jillian said, peering over her shoulder at them, meaning clear.

"Please?  Please, please, please, please, please, please, please—" all three of them begged.

Gavin blanched, then quickly shook his head.  "It's illegal! V, don't you know this already?  You're an attorney after all . . ."

Valerie shook her head and laughed.  "Yeah, but this is for a good cause!  We're trying to get Maddy laid!"

"Maddy would like that very much," Madison agreed.  "Well, we might not have to break it . . . I mean, is there a way to disarm the system for awhile?  Say, a month or two?"

Gavin snorted.  "You want me to go to jail so you can do a booty call?  What's stopped you before?"

"This is totally on the up-and-up," Madison argued.

"Oh, come on!  This could mean the difference between Madison getting her mate or having to live a lifetime as an old spinster, unable to see even the smallest joys in life, and all because you cared more about your freedom than you did about helping a friend in need, and I think—"

"Damn, Valerie . . . Did you just go all criminal defense lawyer on me?" Gavin demanded.

"I don't know.  Is it working?"

He heaved a sigh and stood up, handing Jillian his untouched beer.  "All right, I'll look at it, but no promises.  Maybe I can do something to without . . . without having to resort to breaking about fifty laws . . ."







Chapter Text

“You know, Mikio, you ought to consider moving here.”

Peering over at Gunnar, who was idly turning a copita of Palo Cortado sherry in his hand, he wasn’t entirely sure if Gunnar was being serious or not.  He looked serious enough, which really didn’t mean much.  Gunnar usually did.  Even so, it was hard to say with that particular cousin . . .

“Because Sesshoumaru and Toga would love that,” Bas commented dryly, lifting a full bottle of beer to his lips and draining half of it in one long gulp.

“They’d just have to hire another . . . few . . . lawyers to take his place,” Gunnar replied.  “Not a huge deal . . .”

“I like Japan,” Mikio remarked, thoughtfully twiddling his ear.  “I’d miss it a lot.”

Gunnar shrugged, settling back in his chair in the quiet little eatery not far from the youkai special crimes office.  “Maybe.  Then again, it’s so much easier to find willing women here.”

Mikio chuckled.  “Is that why you like New York City?” he asked.  “Makes sense, I guess . . .”

He had noticed that, over all, the women here tended to be a lot less hung up on the process of finding someone that interested them.  Americans in general just seemed on a whole to be a little more spontaneous, which was both good and bad, as far as Mikio could tell.  The women back home tended to be a lot more pragmatic when it came to dating.  If there wasn’t really a good potential for a future, then they weren’t interested, and a lot of them took things into consideration beyond the scope of simply looking for attraction.  It was good and bad, he supposed, just like anything in life, really.  On the one hand, maybe there was more to building a life with someone other than just lust.  On the other?  It severely handicapped a lot of people, right off the bat.  Mikio wasn’t one, at least, financially speaking.  Even so . . . The more relaxed atmosphere of the States was what had produced a woman like Madison, after all, and that was, in his opinion, anyway, a very good thing . . .

He was still trying to figure out, exactly how to go about doing what Bas had suggested.  It was one thing to think it was a sound idea.  It was another thing, entirely, to go about, implementing said-idea.

Yeah, except . . . you’re kind of playing with fire, don’t you think?  I mean, you’re the one who always says—

I know what I say,’ Mikio cut in almost coldly.  ‘And isn’t that kind of a jump?   Just . . . Just because I . . . I like being around her doesn’t mean . . .

And just what, Mikio, do you think it means, then?

I don’t know, but . . . but I can enjoy her company for now, can’t I?

Sure, you can.  Of course, you can . . .

“You know, you look like you’re either concentrating a little too hard or you’re arguing with your youkai,” Bas remarked, reaching for his beer.  “Guess which one I think it is . . .”

Mikio blinked and quickly shook his head.  “Oh, it’s, uh . . . It’s nothing.”

“Come now, Mikio.  You can tell us anything,” Gunnar said.  “We’d probably give you better advice than your youkai-voice, anyway.”

“No . . . No, he really can’t because you really can’t,” Bas mused, casting Gunnar a calculating look.  “You’re an ass, remember?”

“I’m not—Okay, I am,” Gunnar admitted.  “But I’m not usually an ass to Mikio—just to Morio, and he’s a baka.”

Mikio opened his mouth to argue with Gunnar, but snapped it closed after he considered it for a moment.  “He . . . kind of is . . .” he allowed.

Gunnar nodded.  “I rest my case.”

“Well, Morio’s idiocy aside,” Bas said, “you’re kind of a assrag to everyone—but at least, you’re an equal opportunity assrag . . .”

“It’s not my fault if I feel that it is my responsibility to point it out when someone is being stupid.”

“I guess that’s one way to put it,” Bas commented dryly.

Gunnar arched an artful eyebrow at Bas.  “Assrag?  Is that a new one?”

Bas shrugged.  “Not really.  You’ve been practicing the ancient and annoying art of assraggery for . . . Well, for as long as I’ve known you.”

Gunnar slowly shook his head.  “And you, Bas-tard, have mastered the art of, ‘big and stupid’.  Congratulations.”

Bas chuckled and got to his feet.  “Anyway, I suppose it’s about time to go back to work.”

The chime of Mikio’s cell phone drew his attention, and he glanced at it, figuring that it was probably nothing really important.  The preview screen, however, made him frown.  ‘I’m sorry to bug you, but there was a . . .’ was all it said.  It was from Madison . . .

Draining his glass, Gunnar stood up.  “Catch you later, Mikio,” he said, waiting for Bas to finish off his beer.

“Give me a call if you need anything,” Bas said, dropping a few rumpled bills on the table.

Mikio nodded, waiting until the two stepped out of the restaurant before unlocking his phone to read the message . . .




“So?” Jillian Jamison asked.

Gavin frowned as he looked over the keypad next to the door.  Impatiently brushing his rich brown bangs out of his face, he rubbed his chin with one hand, using the other to tap the keyboard on his phone.  “Okay, this is a Quasarlink model, so that makes things easy enough,” he told Madison, Jillian, and Valerie as they stood around him, waiting to see what he was going to do.

“Really?” Madison asked.

He nodded.  “Yep.  The standard way to trip the keypad is to enter the wrong code at least five times in less than two minutes. When the keypad locks itself, the only way to unlock it is for the company to send someone out to manually reset it again, so that should buy you at least a few days . . .”

“Well, what are you waiting for, Gavvie?  Lock her out!” Jillian exclaimed.

“Wait!” Madison blurted before Gavin could do it.  “I need to grab a few things first . . .”

“Like what?” Valerie demanded, grabbing Madison’s arm before she could go back inside since the door was still open.

Madison blinked.  “Like my Tony Estorias!”

Valerie’s eyes widened.  “Oh, the camel suede slingbacks?”

Waving a hand, Madison laughed.  “No, the fawn colored, patent leather stilettos.”

Mouth rounding in a thoughtful, ‘oh,’ Valerie slowly nodded. “Hmm, those!  Yeah, you should grab those . . . Wait!”

“What now?”

Valerie made a face.  “Well, wouldn’t it be weird if you’ve locked yourself out, but you grabbed your shoes first?”

Madison’s smile dimmed at that.  “Oh, that’s true . . .”

Jillian giggled while Gavin heaved a sigh and shook his head.  “You could change into them,” she suggested.  “Then it’ll make perfect sense, and you’ll have them!”

Madison squealed and hugged Jillian.  “You’re so smart!” she exclaimed.

Gavin grunted.  “Whatever, but you know, your neighbors are going to start looking at us weird if we don’t do something.”

“Okay, okay.  Just give me a minute, then,” Madison quipped as she hurriedly ducked back into the apartment, firing off a text to Mikio to let him know that she was locked out.  He replied that he’d be over as quickly as he could to check it out, and she smiled, shoving aside the trace feeling of guilt over what she was doing.  ‘It’s all for the greater good,’ she told herself, dropping the phone into her bag once more.

It didn’t take long for her to change shoes and to grab a few things that she needed.  Those things were slipped into her bag, and she hurried back out of the apartment once more.  “All right, Gavin.  Do your worst.”

With a series of soft beeps and a few long and unhappy ones, he entered random codes until the keypad blinked red a few times.  The backlight then shut off completely—apparently completely dead—mission accomplished.

“There,” Gavin said, taking a step back as he lifted a hand to gesture at the keypad.  “Locked out, good and proper.”

“Excellent,” Jillian yelped, hoisting herself against Gavin’s shoulder to plant a loud kiss on his cheek.  Madison leaned in from the other side, effectively catching the shy dog-youkai in the middle of a smoochie-sandwich as a vastly amused Valerie looked on, idly rubbing her belly through the skin-tight black sweater.

“Okay, okay,” Gavin grumbled, trying to extricate himself from the midst of the impromptu show of gratitude.  “Shouldn’t we get moving, then?”

“Huh?  Why?” Jillian asked.

Wiping Madison’s lipstick off his cheek with a blushing frown, he shook his head.  “Well, won’t Mikio be here soon?  Don’t you think he’ll think it’s weird if we’re all hanging out here, waiting for him?”

“That’s true,” Madison said, biting her lip as she considered it.  “Anyway, thank you for your help, Gavin.  You’re the best!”

“I don’t know about that,” he replied in a grumble as his blush darkened.

Jillian giggled and grabbed her mate’s hand, preparing to drag him over to the elevator, but she jerked back when he suddenly stopped and tugged her back.  “Damn, that was fast,” he grumbled.

Jillian spun him around and hustled him down the hallway in the opposite direction, stopping just long enough to grab Valerie’s arm in passing.  The three of them had just ducked through the stairwell door when the soft chime of the elevator sounded, the doors sliding open, and Mikio stepped out of it, spotting Madison immediately as he purposefully strode toward her.

“Maddy?  You locked yourself out?” he said, frowning at her, though not unkindly.  No, he seemed more concerned than anything.

She grimaced, suffering a late surge of guilt since he was the one who had paid for the security system, in the first place.  “I . . . I couldn’t remember the code,” she said, which was at least partially true.  She didn’t remember it, no, but she still had it written down on a slip of paper in her pocket.  “I guess it locks you out if you enter the code wrong too many times . . .”

“O-Oh,” he replied, turning to inspect the darkened, dead keypad.  He tried pushing a few buttons, but it remained well and truly locked out.  After a few more tries, though, he finally dug his cell phone out and called the security company on speaker.

“Yes, I’m calling about Madison Cartham’s system.  She accidentally locked herself out, and the keypad isn’t responding.”

“Hello, sir.  May I ask to whom I’m speaking?”

“My name is Izayoi.  I’m the one who ordered the system.  They just finished it up today . . .”

“I see . . . I’m sorry, Mr. Izayoi.  I can’t give details on that account without Ms. Cartham’s authorization.”

“It’s fine,” Madison piped up.  “I’m right here.”

The customer service rep verified Madison’s identity while Mikio frowned at the keypad.

“Okay, well, it looks like you’ve managed to trigger the default shut-down of the system, and when that happens, we have to send someone out to replace the door lock.  It’s the latest model, and when someone’s unable to enter the correct code that often in less than two minutes, then the keypad is programmed to kill the lock mechanism entirely.  It’s an extra deterrent, so if someone tries to force the door once the keypad is broken, we’re automatically alerted, and we notify the local authorities.  Unfortunately, because of this safety feature, it will take us a couple weeks to get out there to change it since we have to reprogram a new keypad unit for you.  Now, if it’s an emergency, then we can arrange for a hotel for you at a discount while we try to get a specialist out there as soon as we possibly can, but the rush is pretty expensive.”

“A couple weeks . . .” Mikio echoed.  “Uh, no, no rush.  I mean, she can stay with me, so . . .”

“All right, then.  I’m truly sorry for any inconvenience.  We’ll call in a few days to arrange a time that works for you.”

“Thank you,” he said and disconnected the call.

“I’m so sorry.  You must think I’m pathetic,” Madison said with a sigh.

Mikio shrugged and stowed the phone in his pocket.  “Not really,” he assured her.  “I-I mean . . . Well, that is to say, I . . . I-I-I don’t . . . don’t mind, having you around . . .”

She finally smiled.  “How about I buy you dinner later on?”

He smiled, too—that shy, bashful smile that was slightly lopsided and entirely endearing—as he cocked his head to the side and fiddled with his twitching ear.  “I just had lunch, but . . . but, uh, sure . . .”



“That . . . That’s one of the cutest things I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Jillian breathed in a whisper as the three of them peered out of the smallest crack between the door and the frame.

“I don’t get it,” Gavin remarked.

Valerie rolled her eyes but smiled.  “It really is,” she agreed.  “But how does he not realize that we’re here?”

“Hmm, maybe he’s too busy, paying attention to Maddy to realize,” Jillian said.

“I guess,” Valerie allowed thoughtfully.  Still, she knew Evan’s sense of smell well enough, and whether he thought about it or not, on some level, Mikio would have to realize that they were there, wouldn’t he?  “But even so, aren’t we pushing our luck a little bit?”

“Oh, I suppose,” Jillian replied, but she sounded disappointed.

“I still don’t get it,” Gavin said, stepping back after the women and allowing the door to click closed.

Jillian giggled and grabbed Gavin’s hand to lead him down the stairs.  “She likes him, Gavvie,” she explained in a tone that implied that he ought to have already realized as much.

“Maddy?” he blurted, shaking his head, looking entirely confused.  “But—”

Valerie laughed and slipped her arm under Gavin’s free elbow.  “I wish Evan was as clueless as you sometimes, Gavin,” she said.

Gavin snorted indelicately.  “I’m not clueless.  I just—”

“You’re just the sweetest thing, ever!” she exclaimed.

“Hmm, well, if you two aren’t doing anything, why don’t you come over for dinner?  Evan’s grilling—I think,” Valerie said, letting go of Gavin in favor of digging out a face wipe and her phone to clean off the black lines she’d painted under each of her eyes.

Gavin grunted, likely still a little put-out by the inference that he was clueless.

“Evan got that new game, too—Fight Storm IV—said something about it being one that you were both waiting for?” she added to sweeten the deal.

That got his attention quickly enough.  “Fight Storm IV?  How the hell did he get it so quick?  It’s sold out everywhere and the digital won’t be available for another week!”

“I don’t know,” Valerie replied.  “You know Evan.  He sweet-talks everyone.”

“Asshole,” Gavin muttered as Jillian peeked out of the door to make sure they weren’t about to run into Mikio and Madison.  “All right,” he decided.  “He hasn’t been practicing already, has he?”

“Just got it today,” Valerie said.  “If we hurry . . .”

That’s all Gavin waited to hear.  Slipping an arm around both of the women, he hurried them across the foyer and out onto the street . . .