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Purity Oneshots

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-Enervate-

 

I am not certain when the change came about.  I’m not positive I ever understood how it all came to pass, those many years ago.  It is a curious thing, and if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is that one cannot trust anything that one cannot see, cannot hear, cannot taste or smell or touch.

I am a poet.  I am a minstrel.  I am a wanderer who skulks the earth, searching for the one true song, the one true poem, the secrets that men die for, that women pine for, that children grow up only to search for all of their lives.  I’ve seen them come into this world; I’ve seen them leave it.  I have worn many masks in my lifetime.  This disguise … it suits me well.

Time passes, and through it all, I’ve seen the best and worst in men.  I’ve seen civilizations crumble; I’ve seen mountains fall.  I’ve seen the terror of war and the pillage of man—and I stand apart from it.

They call this night Hoshi-MatsuriTanabata—the Star Festival.  This is not my story, but I am compelled to share it with you.

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

He was a young prince in this land.  Valiant and sure, trained in the ways of the samurai, he stood above all others in a bloodthirsty time when men were brave and women were meek.  Men did not fight for love or for beauty; they fought for possession, for might, for power.  They waged their hostilities and shed their blood, dying in the battles that were always someone else’s wars.  Historians would later name it Sengoku Jidai—the Warring States era.  How apropos.

Kaemon—as he came to be known—was born nine months after Tanabata.  Akina, his mother, called him her child of wonder.  Takeo, his father, called him his heir.  He had only one true friend in his youth.  Her name was Hoshikita, and she was a curious child.  Silver-white hair and pale blue eyes filled with a knowledge that belied her youth, the girl was his constant companion: his dearest friend.  Running through the fields of wildflowers, rolling through the summer grass, racing each other over the hills and through the vales, across the footbridge that spanned the Kurobe River, the two spent all their time together.

Inseparable, they were, and while Takeo worried that the children were too close, Akina simply laughed and insisted that they were just children; that Kaemon would grow up fast enough.  Was there really any harm in allowing him a few fleeting moments of youth?  Though Hoshikita was the daughter of a poor peasant farmer, Kaemon told his father that he would marry her one day.  His father ignored the claim, relegating it to little more than the fancy of a young boy.  ‘This childhood love, this fool’s dream,’ he thought, ‘it shall pass in time.

But the world was not a benevolent place.  War was rampant and brutal.  An uprising in one of the outlying villages lured Takeo away.  In his absence, a neighboring daimyo saw it as his opportunity to invade.  The infidels set the fields ablaze, burned down the homes of peasants.  Seven year-old Kaemon stood in the window beside his mother, eyes stinging from the prevalent smoke as he stubbornly watched for his father’s homecoming.  As the sun broke over the eastern horizon, he saw them.  The army had returned …

And his father descended on the invaders with a vengeance, showing no mercy, giving no quarter.  Takeo’s army fought the trespassers back, drove them into the Kurobe-gawa.   The clash of metal, the screams of agony, the rising stench of death colored the pungent air.  The frothing water of the mighty river carried the oily slick of battle as bodies fell into the mist, never to rise again.

By the time the sun reached its apex, the battle was over; the land stained black as the Kurobe River surged, awash with the crimson tint of blood.  Kaemon darted through the village, intent on one hut.  The chaos was disorienting.  The sobs of the old mingled with the cries of the young.  The acrid fetor of charred flesh and congealed blood hung thick in the air.  He found her in the smoldering remnants of the hut on the outskirts of the village—one of the first to be set on fire: the one she called her home.

He never left the funeral pyre as it burned well into the night.  Too many people had been lost to the incursion.  One little girl couldn’t be allowed special honors.  Kaemon blinked, stared through the wafting smoke as a ball of fire in the guise of a shooting star traversed the inky sky, as the weakened moon, pale and lonely, whispered his name in the night.  The whisper sounded like Hoshikita’s voice.

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

The gentleness that Akina treasured in Kaemon was tempered after that day.  Tainted by loss, changed forever by the age of wars in which he lived, his days of chasing butterflies in the fields while his mother gathered herbs to treat the sick and injured gave way to hours spent in rigid training.  The curiosity of a child was gradually subdued, leaving behind a pensive young man who lived through one battle after another yet still dared to dream of an elusive peace.  Hoshikita’s face faded in his memory.  Softened by the flow of time, only the sound of her voice still lingered.

He was a dreamer and a poet, but he learned how to fight, how to kill.  It was the way of the land, and Kaemon was ever the dutiful son.  He knew this to be true, and to that end, he was trained to be fierce, calculating, merciless, but sometimes in the stillness of the darkest nights, Kaemon would gaze into the moonless sky and wonder where she—the lady in the moon—had gone.

Takeo summoned his son one evening, told Kaemon that he need to marry, to uphold tradition.  He set out the next morning, vowing to find a woman that would make his family proud: a woman to bear his sons, to ensure his lineage.

Searching for a girl like the one he used to know, Kaemon traveled all over the country.  Staring at the moon in the stillness of the night, he smiled sadly, remembered silvery hair and pale blue eyes; eyes the color of the sky that ringed the full moon high above.  He hadn’t thought about Hoshikita in so long.  He wasn’t even certain why he thought of her now.  With the softened image of her face came the doleful ebb of memories of a childhood that ended much too soon.

The moon winked at him as the night breeze whispered his name.   The trees sang a soft melody as the river burbled incoherent words.

What is it you seek, Kaemon, son of Takeo?

He sat up slowly; cast his gaze about the clearing for the source of the gentle, sweet voice.  He was alone—entirely alone.  In the darkness of the night bathed in the light of the full moon suspended just out of his reach, Kaemon drew his knees up, hooked his arms around his legs.  “I would give anything,” he whispered, “if I could only find her: my one true love ... my princess ...”

No answer came to him; there was nothing at all.  Yet he sat up all night, waiting and wondering, hoping and pondering.

When the first rays of daylight broke over the horizon, Kaemon sighed and shook his head.  He was a fool; ten times a fool: waiting in the night for a voice to tell him what he should do.

But night after night, he dreamt of her, of the woman she might have become had she survived.  Every dream seemed so real, so vivid that he would awaken in the morning, expecting to find her there.  Bitter disappointment was a harsher reality when he realized that it had been only a dream.

For weeks and months he journeyed, searching for the elusive one.  He had almost given up hope when he stopped by a tiny village in the northern region.  A girl sat outside with the local children gathered around.  Telling a story, she smiled; she laughed.  Kaemon couldn’t believe his eyes.  Could it be her?  Was it possible?  She was the girl from his dreams, the friend he’d lost years before.  The same silvery hair, the same impossibly blue eyes, and when she sensed his perusal, she lifted her chin, leaned her head to the side, smiled at him in the way he’d seen so often in his dreams.

That evening he asked her to marry him.  The daughter of the village headman, she would make a good wife.  “We’ll be married right away, and then I’ll take you home ... Do you remember the village, Hoshikita?”

The girl seemed confused by his question.  She shook her head and frowned.  Her face was caught in the half-light of the torches and fires that lit up the village.  “Hoshikita?” she repeated.  “But my name is Kumi.”

Kaemon looked away as his dream crumbled apart.  “Kumi, of course.  Hoshikita … was my best friend,” he answered.  “She died years ago.  You remind me of her.”

“Is that why you wish to marry me?” Kumi asked.

“No,” he assured her.  “My father sent me to find a wife.  I have looked everywhere, and then I found you.”

She smiled and bowed, appeased by his answer.  Kaemon asked himself why he’d lied.  As he lay awake in the room he’d been offered, he stared out the open window at the moon.  He wasn’t close enough.  Slipping from the chamber and through the silent dwelling, Kaemon wandered into the night.  The moon hung lower in the sky, so close that might have been able to touch it, to brush it with the tips of his fingers.  It was just out of his grasp.

She’s not Hoshikita,’ he mused.  He’d known this, certainly … or had he?  Had he been searching for Hoshikita all along or had he really been hunting for something entirely different?  Gazing at the moon, Kaemon scowled at the deceptive beauty.  Maybe it wasn’t Hoshikita he was searching for at all.  Maybe what he’d been looking for was the woman in the moon; the quiet voice that whispered to him every night.  Maybe what he honestly wished for was simply to touch the moon...

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

The years flowed past, and the voice was dormant.  Kumi blessed him with many sons.  Kaemon took control of Takeo’s empire.  His word was law, and his law was brutal.  Anyone foolish enough to transgress against the daimyo was shown no leniency.  It was said that no blood ran through Kaemon’s veins.  As cold and biting as the harshest winter wind, the man who had once been a poet was changed.  The little boy who had played in the fields and had plucked flowers for his mother was gone, replaced by a ruthless leader, both respected and reviled, formidable and fearsome.

Seasons came and seasons passed.  The constant circle of life never ended.  He felt his body weakening, knew in his heart that the time was drawing ever nearer.  The life he knew was slipping away, and as spring moved into early summer, as the sakura trees’ blossoms withered, Kaemon lay in the quiet, alone in his room.  At odd moments, he would talk to the shadows; staring into the darkness at beings only he could see.

“Hoshikita … whispered to me,” he told Kumi, grasping her wrist with a surprisingly firm grip.

“Of course she did,” Kumi answered.  Gently pulling her arm away from him before slipping into the hall, Kumi shook her head, convinced that he was senile, that he was absolutely losing his mind.

His children stopped coming to see him.  They said it was too painful, to see their strong father suffer dementia.  They said it was for the best, that Kaemon wouldn’t want them to see him that way.  The pretty wording comforted them; allowed them to believe their own delusions.

Agitated late in the night, Kaemon woke from his slumber to the wail of men, the clash of metal meeting metal, the acrid odor of burning things.  Rising from his futon as he noted absently that his aches and pains had vanished, he staggered to the window.  A muffled cry—ragged and harsh—slipped from his lips as he stared in horror at the scene below; as a shocking sense of déjà vu swept through him.

The village was burning.

It was the same now as it had been so many years go.  The same screams, the same anguished groan from weapons that were locked in heated battle, the same funk of burning buildings and scorched flesh.

Hoshikita!

Lumbering toward the doorway, hobbling down the hallway, past servants who gawked at him as though they couldn’t believe their eyes, Kaemon nearly tumbled down the staircase.  The momentum of his body carried him to the door and out into the night.  The stars were obscured by rising smoke that lay over the village like a dense blanket.

Strange,’ he thought as he stumbled through the burning village.  The screams he’d heard from his window were silent.  The world was full of nothing but caustic smoke, gamboling flames, crackling wood: splintering, shattering as huts collapsed all around.  Still Kaemon kept moving toward the far edge of the village and the little hut where she was waiting for him.

And there she stood, in the center of the hut, hands clasped before her with a secretive grin on her face.  Seven year-old Hoshikita’s smile widened as Kaemon drew near.  “Come on, Kita!  I’ve got to get you out of here!”

“You came for me?” she asked, a disquieting hint of calm wonder in her soft voice.

“Yes, of course!  Of course I did!  Come on, Kita … You can’t stay here!”

She slipped her tiny hand into his, skipped along beside him as he hurried her out of the hut.  He stepped out of the doorway with her in tow as the hut collapsed with a shiver, a groan, a wave of heat and fire.

He had to get her to safety.  Glancing back the way he’d come, Kaemon winced and shook his head.  The path was engulfed in a wall of flames.

Across the river!’ he thought as he spared her a glance.  Hoshikita was gazing up at him, as serenely, as peacefully as she ever had.  ‘She’ll be safe across the river ... safe from fire ... safe from death ...’

Kaemon’s step faltered as a puzzled frown slipped over his face.  A whisper of a thought flitted through his mind, and he paused.  ‘But Hoshikita already died … she died long ago, didn’t she?

“Hurry, Kaemon … It’s coming for us!”

Shaking his head to dispel the sudden weariness that seeped into his body, Kaemon tightened his grip on the little girl’s hand and strode toward the bridge that would lead to safety from the fire.

The rough fabric of his haori burned against his back.  Wobbly legs carried him forward as he glanced over his shoulder.  He gasped at what he saw.  The wall of flames was closing in on him, impenetrable, unbreakable: a mass as solid as flowing lava bearing down on him.  The fire wanted to consume him, had gained a skewed sort of life all its own, and it was coming after him … or was it trying to get Hoshikita?

Letting go of the girl only to catch her around the waist and heft her off her feet, Kaemon broke into a sprint—as much of one as he could manage.  The bridge wasn’t much further—why did it seem to be moving away?

“You can do it, Kaemon.  You were always faster than me.”

They’d made it to the bridge.  The wall of fire couldn’t come this far.  It wouldn’t be able to cross the Kurobe-gawa.  He made it just in time, breaking over the embankment as the raging blaze swelled and hissed.  Angry that Kaemon had eluded its wrath, the flames shot high into the sky, as high as the tallest trees in the forest.  Spreading up and down the riverbank with an intensity that illuminated the area with the unnatural light as bright as the noon-day sky, the fire seemed to be waiting, albeit impatiently.  Kaemon kept running across the wizened wooden planks toward the other side—toward safety.

His toes caught between slats on the bridge, and he stumbled.  Hoshikita didn’t make a sound as she flew out of his grasp, landing on her bottom with nothing more than a short grunt.  Kaemon slowly pushed himself to his knees.  He choked out a hoarse laugh as tears stung his eyelids.  “I did it,” he gasped.  “I saved you, Kita …”

She stood up slowly and walked over to him, tugged his hand until he followed her.  “You didn’t save me,” she whispered, stopping in the middle of the bridge as her little face turned upward, as she stared at the star-washed sky above the filmy light of the undying fire.  “You couldn’t save me.  I died long ago.”

Kaemon shook his head, brow furrowing as he sank to his knees.  “You did, didn’t you?  I remember now …” Vision blurring as he struggled to understand, he reached out, touched Hoshikita’s baby-soft skin.  “I’m sorry, Kita.  I’m so sorry …”

Hoshikita smiled, leaned on his shoulder to press a kiss on his cheek.  “I came here tonight to save you; to remind you of the things you used to believe in.”

“I’m so tired.  I’m exhausted, and I’m old.”

“You spent your whole life searching for something you never found, didn’t you?”

“I ...”

“Kaemon?  Do you still want it?”

He stared at her, and she wiped an errant tear off his cheek with her pudgy little fingers.  “Want what?”

“Do you still want to touch the moon?”

Kaemon sank back against the grayed wooden railing and turned his gaze to the moon.  “I’m just an ordinary man, Kita.  Ordinary men can’t touch the moon.”

She smiled softly, gently, the expression in her eyes so much older than a seven year-old girl’s gaze ought to have been.  “You still don’t understand, do you?”

He shook his head.

“You can come with me,” she ventured.  “We can run and play, and you can be free.  That’s why I came here tonight.”

He stood up slowly, took her hand in his.  Hoshikita smiled.  “Don’t be afraid of the flames.  They won’t hurt you.”

Nodding in understanding, as though his life had led up to this one moment, Kaemon let Hoshikita lead him back the way they’d come: back into the intensity of the fire.

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

Kaemon’s sons found him lying at the threshold of the footbridge just after the sun rose over the pristine landscape.  Carrying his body home as peasants decorated the village square in preparation for the annual Tanabata celebration, none of his sons could understand how Kaemon had been able to get so far from the castle.  Old, frail, he hadn’t been able rise from his futon in weeks.   They were never certain how he died or why he was smiling, but I knew.

Perhaps an ordinary man cannot touch the moon, but then Kaemon was quite extraordinary...

My name is Hoshikita.  This is not my story, but I was compelled to share it with you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~The End~

Chapter Text

~~ A Purity One-Shot ~~

~The Most Formidable Foe~

 

 

-0-0-0-0-0-

 

Kagome crossed her arms over her chest and pressed her lips together in a thin line, reminding herself for the thousandth time that she needed to stay calm.  The stance was mirrored by ten-year-old Kichiro, who stood beside his mother with a thoughtful scowl that reminded her of a very small version of InuYasha.  “I don’t like the looks of this,” Kichiro commented gravely.

“Now, now . . . your father can do it,” Kagome reassured him though she couldn’t help but worry at her bottom lip as a rather vicious snarl erupted from low in InuYasha’s throat.

“The curvy thing goes on the other end,” Ryomaru, Kichiro’s twin brother, remarked from where he sat atop the boulder that jutted out over the pond in the Izayoi’s backyard.  His best friend—a girl named Deirdre who answered to the moniker of ‘Nezumi’—swatted Ryomaru’s hand away as he snatched single hairs on her head and yanked them free.

“You wanna do this?” InuYasha grumbled, turning the rear fender of the bicycle over in his hands and scowling at it as though he thought it was going to bite him.

“Nope.  You’re doing a awesome job,” Ryomaru assured him.

“‘An’ awesome job,” Kichiro corrected.

“What he said,” Ryomaru agreed, snatching yet another strand of Nezumi’s hair.

“Ryomaru, be nice,” Kagome chided automatically without taking her eyes off the hanyou she called her husband.  InuYasha’s scowl had darkened into a near mutinous glower, and he looked like he was ready to lose whatever was left of his short temper.  “We could take that one back and get the one that was already put together,” she suggested in what she hoped was a bright tone.

InuYasha shot her a withering glare.  “The other one was blue, wench.  You didn’t want blue.  You wanted pink.”

“Well, Gin loves pink . . .”

“That’s because she’s a girl,” Ryomaru said, leaning to the side to avoid Deirdre’s flying fist.

“I’m a girl, and I don’t like pink,” Nezumi ventured as she pulled her ponytail apart to tighten it against her head and knocking Ryomaru’s hand away at the same time.

“You’re not a natural girl,” Kichiro commented.  “I mean, look who you hang out with.”

“Oi!  She hangs out with you, too, baka,” Ryomaru reminded him.

Kagome rolled her eyes but smiled.  “All right, you two . . .” she began in a warning tone.

Kichiro snorted and darted off toward the trees.

“Oi!  Where are you going?” InuYasha called after his son.

Kichiro stopped long enough to peer back over his shoulder before running into the forest.  “I’m going to the shrine!”

“C’mon, Nez!  I just got that new racing game,” Ryomaru said, hopping down off the boulder and landing lightly on the ground.  “I’ll kick your ass!”

“Ryomaru, we don’t say that word,” Kagome reminded him.

InuYasha shorted.  “You might not say that word, but I say it often enough,” he mumbled, grasping the shining handle bars of the bicycle and tugging at them.

“And that’s no reason for my ten year old sons to be repeating it,” she grumbled.

“Keh!  Reason enough.  They’re boys, ain’t they?”

Kagome wrinkled her nose, staring after Ryomaru and Nezumi to make sure they closed the sliding door.  “They’re your boys,” she shot back.

“’Zactly!”  He grunted seconds before a very loud, very obnoxious snapping sound echoed through the clearing, and ever-so-slowly, Kagome swiveled around to assess the damage.  “Well, damn.  This one wasn’t very sturdy,” he remarked, frowning at the two pieces of handle bars he held in his hands.

“InuYasha . . .” Kagome began in a warning tone as she balled her fists at her sides and slowly started toward him.

InuYasha glanced up in time to see her approach, an odd look of alarm entering his bright golden eyes as he quickly leaned away from her.  “K-Kagome . . .?”

“What is it with you and bicycles?  Can’t you ever touch them without breaking them?  It’s your daughter’s fifth birthday, and all she wanted was a bicycle!  That’s all she’s wanted for the last six months: a pretty pink bicycle with streamers on the handlebars and a basket on the front, and you broke it!  What’s the matter with you?” she bellowed.

“Relax, Kagome!  I can fix this,” he assured her.

Osuwari!” Kagome yelled, her face reddening as her temper snapped.

InuYasha’s expression shifted into one of abject panic for a split second before he broke into a smug grin and crossed his arms over his chest.  “That don’t work anymore,” he goaded.

“Doesn’t hurt to try,” she grumbled.  He snorted loudly while she rolled her eyes and threw her hands up in inconsolable defeat.  “Come on, dog-boy,” she said, reaching for his arm and dragging him toward the house.

“And just where do you think you’re taking me?” he demanded.

“To the store,” she informed him without stopping.  “We’re buying one that’s already put together.  Now move it.”

“Keh!” InuYasha snorted, glowering back at the unassembled bicycle still littering the yard.  “I can do this.  It ain’t a big deal!  Besides, they didn’t have a pink one already put together, remember?”

Rubbing her forehead, Kagome winced.  “You could read the instructions,” she remarked.

He opened his mouth to argue with her but snapped it closed again when she narrowed her eyes at him.  “Yeah, all right . . .”

She heaved a sigh and nodded, relenting despite her better judgment.  “Fine . . . you work on that, and I’ll go see if I can buy just the handlebars . . .”

InuYasha snorted again, stomping back over to the pieces of bicycle to resume his task.

Please don’t let him mangle it,’ Kagome prayed as she stepped into the house to grab her purse with flashbacks of the bicycle he’d tried to help her ‘fix’ years ago firmly entrenched in her brain.  ‘Please . . .’

 

-0-0-0-0-0-

 

“Please?”

“No.”

Please?

“No.”

“. . . Please . . .?”

“. . . No.”

“Please?”

Inutaisho Toga heaved a heavy sigh and wrinkled his nose, striding across the perfectly manicured lawn on the family estate as he tried to shake off the stubborn child who wouldn’t let go of a singular idea.  “For the last time, Gin, I said no.”

“But—”

“No.”

“Just for a minute?”

“No.”

He didn’t have to glance back at her to know that she was probably pouting.  The girl was just too accustomed to getting her way, wasn’t she?  He was better off not looking.  He knew he was.  Still he made the oftentimes fatal mistake of peeking over his shoulder at her, only to grimace and stop short when he saw . . . it: the formidable flattening-of-the-hanyou-ears, and the kicker?  The girl had no idea just why everyone tended to give in to her . . . thank kami . . .

“Gin,” he began with a long-suffering sigh as he hunkered down before the child and grasped her shoulders.  “Look, you have to understand that I can’t go around transforming into dog form just because you want to see it.  Don’t you think that someone would notice a huge, black dog in the neighborhood?” he asked reasonably.

She nodded slowly though she didn’t look like she wanted to admit any such thing.  “I wish I could transform,” she muttered, her ears flattening just a little bit more and drawing a distinct grimace from her older cousin.

“What?  Are you kidding?” Toga teased, hoping that he could appease the child since he absolutely could not—could not—transform just to satisfy her curiosity.  “If you were full youkai, you wouldn’t have those cute ears of yours.”

“Aww, Gin, sweetie, come here,” Inutaisho Aiko said as she stepped off the patio onto the path behind them.  “Is Toga-chan being mean to you?”

Gin sniffled and shook her head, her ears twisting out to the sides like a puppy that had been caught chewing on her master’s slippers.  Toga snorted indelicately at the meticulously placed ‘chan’ Aiko had added to his name—an ‘endearment’ meant to irritate him, no doubt.  “No . . .” she said slowly.

Aiko didn’t even try to hide her amusement as she scooped Gin up and settled the girl against her shoulder, gazing over her head at him in such a way that he knew she was about to try to guilt him.  He opened his mouth to defend himself.  Aiko was faster.  “Inutaisho Toga, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!  Upsetting your baby cousin like this!  What would Uncle Inu say if he saw her with her ears all droopy like that?” she scolded.

Gin sniffled for good measure.

Toga grimaced.  “Forget it, Aiko; I’m not giving in,” he grumbled, spinning about on his heel to stomp away before his sister made him feel even worse.

“I’m sorry, Gin,” Aiko crooned as the girl sniffled, much to Toga’s dismay.  “Toga’s right.  He shouldn’t go around transforming for no reason at all.”

He stopped mid-stride and swung around, his eyebrows disappearing under the glossy black bangs that fringed his face.  “There, see?  Even Aiko doesn’t think it’s a good—”

“Then again,” Aiko went on, interrupting Toga without sparing him so much as a glance, “it is your birthday, isn’t it?  It’s not every day that you turn five whole years old . . .”

Snapping his mouth closed as indignant color surged just below the surface of his skin, Toga narrowed his eyes at his troublesome sibling and slowly shook his head.

Gin pulled the two fingers she’d been sucking on out of her mouth and spread her hand open wide.  “Five,” she said solemnly, wide golden eyes turning to stare sadly at Toga.  “I’m one hand old now.”

Aiko smiled sweetly at her brother and leaned in to speak to Gin once more.  “Gin . . . why don’t you tell Toga what you want for your birthday?  Your one and only wish?”

Gin thought it over and blinked as she considered her answer to that question before hesitantly lifting her gaze to Toga once more.  “I just want to see Toga-inu,” she said earnestly.

Toga heaved a sigh, staring at his cousin for a long moment before grumbling under his breath about demented siblings and puppy-ears as he brushed past the two and headed into the mansion to retrieve the Mokomoko-sama that he’d need in order to fully transform.

Aiko’s laughter floated on the spring breeze after him, and he gritted his teeth.  ‘It’s those ears,’ he thought with another loud snort—one that never failed to make his father wonder if he hadn’t been exposed to Uncle Yasha a bit too much over time.  Taking the steps on the wide staircase three at a time, Toga made a face but kept moving as Gin’s sing-song voice echoed in his ears.

I just want to see Toga-inu . . .”

“Keh!” he snorted but didn’t stop.

Down the stairs and around the hallway at the back of the Inutaisho mansion, Inutaisho Kagura narrowed her eyes suspiciously at the impossibly tall figure standing at the huge windows that overlooked the back yard of the estate.  He was watching their only son as he stomped toward the doors, and though he wasn’t smiling, Kagura could tell from his aura that he was hard pressed not to . . .

“This amuses you?” she asked, breaking the serenity of the quiet that Sesshoumaru welcomed.

Inutaisho Sesshoumaru turned to meet his mate’s gaze and blinked slowly.  “Should it?”

The narrowed magenta eyes narrowed just a little more as she crossed her arms over her chest and arched a delicate black brow.  “I don’t know . . . Tell me . . . did you send Gin out there to pester your son?”

A hint of a brightening behind his eyes, but nothing else in the way of a change in his expression . . . “This Sesshoumaru would not stoop to such deliberate trickery.”

“Oh, really . . .?”

He didn’t respond to that, simply shifting his gaze back outside once more.

“So you’re saying that I didn’t overhear her begging you to transform into your youkai-form.”

“And you believe I sent her to Toga to bother him about it instead of me?”

The barest hint of a smile quirked the corners of Kagura’s lips.  “Did you?”

“Absolutely not,” he assured her.  “I simply mentioned that as my son and a full-blooded youkai, Toga has the ability, as well . . . and I might have led her to believe that I could not do it anymore . . .”

She shook her head as her smile widened.  “You, Sesshoumaru, ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

“It would not do, for the populace of Tokyo to see a dog that is larger than most of the buildings in the city, do you not agree?”

“And Toga, of course, isn’t nearly so large.”

Sesshoumaru nodded.

“Admit it: you sent her to Toga because you were thinking about giving in to her, weren’t you?”

Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes at his mate though the glimmer behind his expression bespoke his amusement.  “Of course not,” he maintained.

Kagura couldn’t help the smile that spread over her features as she stared at Sesshoumaru’s back.  “Of course not,” she repeated.  “I’m sure . . .”

 

-0-0-0-0-0-

 

InuYasha scowled at the mangled mess of a bicycle and wondered just how angry Kagome was going to be over this . . .

Kami, she’s gonna kill me . . .’

He’d followed the directions, damn it.  All of them had said to tighten the bolts down until they couldn’t turn anymore.  He hadn’t thought about the idea that he could twist them more readily than a mere human could . . . He’d inadvertently tightened them all down to the point that the screws had stripped out, and that had irritated him enough that he’d ended up throwing what little bit of the contraption he’d gotten together across the yard and against a stout tree trunk only to have it pointed out seconds later by Kichiro that there was a good chance that Kagome wasn’t going to like the latest turn of events, especially since the handlebars she’d had to sweet-talk the sales boy at the bicycle shop out of were bent beyond all recognition now . . .

Ryomaru ran over to the heap of pink painted metal at the base of the gnarled old magnolia tree and dropped down beside it to assess the damage.  “Wo-o-o-ow,” he breathed almost reverently.  “You really broke it good, old man!”

Somewhere in the back of his mind, InuYasha realized that there was something inherently wrong with the high admiration that tinged his son’s voice, but he couldn’t help the smug little grin that tweaked the corners of his lips, either.

“Mama’ll re-curse those beads and ‘oswuari’ you into next century,” Kichiro predicted with a slow shake of his head.

“Let me worry about your mama,” InuYasha said in a rather arrogant way as he cracked his knuckles and tried not to be too proud of the results of his task.  He intercepted the almost dismayed expression on Kichiro’s face as his grin widened.

“Oi!  Nez!  Check this out!  The old man totally wrecked it!  You owe me twelve-hundred yen!” Ryomaru hollered.

Nezumi shuffled out of the house and stood on the porch at the head of the steps.  “You said he’d break it before your mother got back with the handle bars, baka,” Nezumi pointed out, “and he didn’t, so you owe me.”

“You bet on how long it’d take me to break the damn thing?” InuYasha demanded, eyebrow twitching as he stared incredulously at his eldest son.

“That’s true,” Kichiro added, completely ignoring his father’s obvious irritation.  “So that means you both owe me twelve-hundred yen.”

InuYasha snorted loudly and stomped over to get a good look at the damage he’d wrought.

Shit . . . ain’t no fixing this,’ he mused, the first twinges of remorse siphoning through his body.

“Don’t worry about it, old man,” Kichiro offered in a bright tone.  “I had faith in you.”

Against his better judgment, he shifted his gaze to the side to stare at Kichiro.  “Thought you said you won the damn bet.”

Kichiro shrugged.  “Yeah, but I said you’d make it till after Mama got back with the handle bars before you lost it.”

“Gee, thanks,” InuYasha grumbled.

“No problem!”

InuYasha snorted.  “Go get my cell phone,” he growled, ignoring his son’s misplaced humor.

Kichiro frowned thoughtfully.  “You’re not going to throw it at the tree, too, are you?”

Narrowing his eyes, InuYasha started to get to his feet.  Kichiro took off at a dead sprint back toward the house.  “And don’t let your mama come outside!” he hollered.

Kichiro didn’t answer as he opened the door and dashed inside.

“Oi, old man,” Ryomaru said, drawing InuYasha’s attention away from the sliding glass doors.  Nezumi was beside Ryomaru, and both were watching InuYasha rather closely.

“What?”

“Can I bum twelve-hundred yen?”

That earned him a loud snort, too, and he just managed to duck out of the way as InuYasha swung his hand to intercept him.  “No, damn it!  I ain’t paying off your gambling debt, especially when you bet against me, Ryomaru!”

“Oh,” Nezumi commented, lifting her hands to cover her mouth as her eyes widened in surprise.  “He said your full name,” she whispered.  “That can’t be good . . .”

“Yeah, he did,” Ryomaru sniggered.

“He looks pretty mad,” Nezumi went on.

“Nah . . . he always looks like that.”

I’m right here,” InuYasha snarled, making a face as he glanced at the wreckage once more.

“InuYasha, I—” Kagome cut herself short with a painfully loud gasp as she stepped outside.  Kichiro squeezed past her and darted over to his father’s side, grimacing slightly as InuYasha braced himself for Tropical Storm Kagome to make landfall.  Stuffing the cell phone in InuYasha’s hand, Kichiro mumbled something about double checking his homework and ran for the door once again.

Her hands were shaking as she lifted them to flutter over her lips, her eyes huge and wide, staring at the tangled mass of metal that used to be a little girl’s bicycle.  Her head swung to the side, those eyes narrowing dangerously, and InuYasha held up his hands in an effort to stave back the tirade that he knew was forthcoming.  “Wh . . . what did you . . .?  You said you would . . . InuYasha . . .” Kagome sputtered as she balled her hands into tight fists at her sides and took a menacing step toward her mate.

InuYasha stepped back in retreat and waved his hands in front of himself.  “It ain’t my fault,” he began.

“What do you mean, it wasn’t your fault?” she demanded.  “Who else is there to blame it on?”

He grimaced and snorted but conceded her logic.  “All right,” he allowed although completely grudgingly, “it was my fault, but I didn’t do it on purpose . . .”

That didn’t pacify her; not at all, and she kept stalking toward him with a very real air of menace surrounding her.  “I had to beg to talk them into letting me buy just the handlebars from the last pink bicycle they had in their store,” she gritted out, her cheeks mottled with indignant color.  “There isn’t another one, you know!  Now just what are we going to give our daughter when all she wanted was that—that—” Breaking off abruptly when she couldn’t find the right word to describe the mangled bicycle, Kagome waved her hand in a gesture meant to indicate the wreckage.  “That . . .”

“You could tell her it’s an abstract art sculpture,” Kichiro commented, poking his head out of the back door.

InuYasha snorted and shot his son a withering glower.  Kichiro’s ears flattened, but he didn’t duck back into the house.

“Relax, wench,” InuYasha said, forcing more bravado into his tone than he felt.  “I’ll just go find another pink bike; no biggie.”

Kagome heaved a deflated sigh and slowly rubbed her forehead.  “Okay,” she agreed at last, checking her watch.  “You’ve got four hours before Sesshoumaru and Kagura bring Gin home.”

He snorted indelicately, more from the mention of his irritating half-brother than because of the allusion that he wouldn’t be able to accomplish the simple mission of finding a pretty pink bicycle in four hours’ time.

“Come on, boys,” he said, grabbing Ryomaru by the ear and waving a hand in the direction of his other son.  “Let’s go find your sister’s birthday bike.”

Piece of cake,’ he thought as Kichiro darted out the door and down the steps.  Nezumi brought up the rear in the rag-tag group.  InuYasha didn’t comment.  He’d expected that she’d tag along.  She went everywhere Ryomaru and Kichiro did, after all.

Find a pink bicycle . . .

InuYasha scowled at the small white car parked in the driveway—Kagome’s car that he despised.  She’d insisted that he study for and get his driver’s license years ago even though he rarely drove.  Come to think of it, she didn’t drive often, either, though she’d had the vehicle for years.  It reminded him of the bicycle she used to tote all over Sengoku Jidai . . . only bigger and a lot more difficult to mangle . . . Shaking his head slowly, InuYasha dug the spare set of keys out of his pocket.  Normally he’d take the rooftop route through Tokyo, but with Nezumi, he couldn’t chance it since the girl had no idea that the Izayoi family wasn’t exactly human . . .

A pre-assembled pink bicycle . . .

How hard could that be?

 

-0-0-0-0-0-

 

“You know, old man, I don’t think that there is pink bike in all of Japan,” Ryomaru mused as he trudged out of the tenth bicycle shop in Tokyo.

“Sure there is . . . just not one that’s already put together,” Kichiro remarked.

InuYasha snorted and glanced at his watch.  They were down to an hour and a half, and they still hadn’t found the damned bicycle.  “Just keep moving, pup,” he grumbled.

“You’ll be in the dog house if you don’t find one,” Ryomaru pointed out unnecessarily.  Nezumi nudged him with her shoulder in a silent warning to shut up before InuYasha lost his temper completely.

InuYasha grimaced and slowly shook his head, loath to give up the search but knowing well enough that if he missed his daughter’s birthday party, there really would be hell to pay . . . Digging the cell phone out of his pocket, he made a face but hit the first number on speed dial.

“InuYasha?” Kagome’s voice came over the line.

He heaved a sigh.  “You win, wench.  I can’t find a fucking pink pre-assembled bike anywhere.”

She sighed, too, but she didn’t sound like she wanted to gloat.  “I didn’t figure,” she allowed.  “Well, maybe it won’t matter . . . I’m sure she’d be just as happy with any bicycle.  The color shouldn’t matter . . . Just hurry up so you’re here when she gets home, okay?”

“Yeah, all right,” he agreed then snapped the device closed.  Grunting at his sons, he turned on his heel and strode back into the shop.

“I’ll take this one,” InuYasha said without preamble as he lifted an electric blue bike off the display stand and strode over to the counter, digging his wallet out with one hand and pulling his credit card free with his teeth.

“That ain’t pink,” Ryomaru stated flatly, face shifting into an exaggerated show of utter disgust at the offending color.

“Keh!” InuYasha snorted.

“Maybe Gin won’t notice,” Kichiro remarked with a straight face.

“How could she not notice that?” Ryomaru demanded.

“I’m trying to be positive, here,” Kichiro pointed out, shaking his head at his brother and casting his father a meaningful glance.

InuYasha refrained from comment as he signed his name on the receipt and shoved the credit card back into his wallet.  “Come on, boys,” he said, picking up the bicycle and striding toward the door.  He distinctly heard the boy behind the counter chuckle, which figured.  He’d tried to avoid going back into the store where they’d bought the pink bicycle initially, and if it weren’t bad enough that the boy knew that he’d broken the first set of handle bars, now he knew that he’d managed to ruin the rest of the kami-forsaken contraption, too.

At least they weren’t far from the forest.  It only took ten minutes to drive back to the house, though being forced to listen to the twins and their staunch belief that Kagome wasn’t going to be happy with the bicycle he’d bought was enough to make those ten minutes seem like five hundred years . . .

By the time he stopped at the house he called home, he was ready to banish the boys from his sight for the next hundred years or so.  Ryomaru and Kichiro tumbled out of the car with Nezumi close on their heels, heading for the house, most likely to tell Kagome just how hideous the bicycle really was.

InuYasha sighed.  ‘All right . . . so smashing up the stupid thing was a really bad idea . . .’

‘. . . And refusing to read the directions until it was already too late . . .’

He snorted indelicately, jamming down on the trunk release button on the keychain as he stomped around the vehicle.

“Oh, wow . . . that is blue,” Kissune Shippou commented as he stepped onto the front porch with his hand raised to shield his eyes.  “Doesn’t look like a girl’s bike, InuYasha.”

“Shut up, Shippou,” he grumbled, carefully setting the bike on the asphalt and kicking the stand into place.

Kagome hurried outside, nearly colliding with the fully grown kitsune that she used to carry around on her shoulder so long ago.  Her eyes flared wide as she glanced at the bicycle, pressing her lips together in a tight line.

InuYasha grimaced, ears flattening, as Kagome pasted on a little smile.  “I’ve got to run and get the cake,” she said, hurrying over and leaning up to kiss InuYasha’s cheek.  “I’m sure that bike will be fine.”

Somehow, Kagome’s understanding just made him feel that much worse as visions of Gin’s little face clung to his mind and stabbed at his conscience.

So tell me, Gin.  What do you want for your birthday?” he’d asked her.

A bicycle!” she’d exclaimed, her bright golden eyes lighting happily.  “Pink with pretties and a basket for flowers!

He scowled after her, draping his hands on his hips as he watched Kagome climb into the car and start the engine.  Pausing in the driveway long enough to wave at him, she left him standing there as his gaze shifted to the bicycle—without streamers on the handlebars, and without the basket for Gin’s flowers . . . and he sighed.

“You could always paint it.”

Starting out of his reverie, InuYasha turned his head to meet Shippou’s gaze.  The kitsune was staring at the bicycle with one arm crossed over his stomach to support his elbow with his fingers curled thoughtfully over his lips.

“What?”

Shippou shook his head without taking his eyes off the bike.  “I said you could paint it.”

“. . . Paint it . . .?”

He nodded slowly.  “Yes.  Pink.  That’s what she wanted, right?  Did you break the handgrips and basket?”

InuYasha narrowed his eyes at the contraption and grunted.  “The grips were rubber, so no . . . and the basket?  I never got that far, damn it.”

“Then you can still use those . . . Of course, they’d look a little ridiculous on that blue bike, don’t you think?”

InuYasha turned on his heel and strode toward the house, hollering for the twins as he headed straight into the kitchen to rummage through the drawers until he found two rolls of masking tape that he thrust into his sons’ hands.  “Go tape off the parts if the bike that shouldn’t be painted,” he commanded.

Kichiro blinked and stared at his father as though he didn’t completely comprehend InuYasha’s demands.  “We’re going to paint it?”

“Pink,” InuYasha stated flatly.

The boys exchanged nervous glances—at least, Kichiro looked a little nervous.  Ryomaru’s expression was clearly excited.  “All right!” the boy exclaimed.  “Spray paint!  This rocks!

“Don’t get so excited, Picasso,” InuYasha grumbled under his breath.  “Make Shippou help you.  I’ll be back.”

InuYasha ran out the back door and across the yard, waiting until he was disguised under the cover of the forest before vaulting into the branches and heading toward Tokyo. Glancing at his watch, he grimaced and quickened his pace.  He didn’t have much time to make his daughter’s birthday wish come true . . .

 

-0-0-0-0-0-

 

Kagome frowned as she opened the car door and slowly stared around the familiar yard.  Pausing long enough to kill the engine but leaving the cake safely on the passenger side seat, she got out and wrinkled her nose.  The stench of paint was thick in the forest, and it took a moment for her incredulous mind to form a coherent reason for the reek.  When she did, she gasped, setting off at a sprint around the side of the house where she skidded to a halt, eyes widening at the sight that greeted her as she slapped a hand over her agape mouth and stared.

Kichiro and Ryomaru were sprawled face down in the grass on one side of the bicycle.  Shippou was lying flat on his back with an arm draped over his face nearby.  InuYasha was sitting up, albeit just barely, on the opposite side with his forearm covering his nose and his skin leeched of any healthy semblance of color, and every one of the males had cans of spray paint littering the ground around them.  Nezumi alone seemed unaffected.  She was carefully peeling masking tape off the bicycle, and if she thought that the guys’ behavior was odd, she didn’t remark on it . . .

If the men littering the yard didn’t faze Kagome, and the overwhelming stench of spray paint didn’t do her in, the sight of everything in the near vicinity of the bike tinted pink did.  It didn’t look like they’d aimed for the bike.  Instead it looked like InuYasha had gathered all the cans together and used Tetsusaiga to unleash one heck of an attack . . . and if Nezumi hadn’t been right there, she might well have thought that he had tried exactly that . . .

As it was, every last one of the hanyous as well as Shippou were suffering the effects of the smell, and even if the wind cleared the yard of the fumes, they were all wearing as much of the paint as the bike was.  If it weren’t so shocking, Kagome might have found it funny.  She heaved a sigh and walked over to Nezumi.  “Let me guess: InuYasha’s idea?”

Nezumi shrugged.  She never did like to be the one to rat someone out.

Kagome sighed again and retrieved the white wicker basket for the front of the bicycle.  “Is it dry enough to put this on yet?”

“I think so,” Nezumi replied.  She stood up, wiping her hands on the front of her bib overalls and darted over to retrieve the rubber handgrips, carefully shaking out the pink and white streamers.  They worked in comfortable silence: Kagome securing the basket to the front of the bike while Nezumi carefully worked the grips onto the handlebars.

InuYasha moaned and flopped onto his back.  Kagome nearly smiled at the once red, now pink tee-shirt and pink splattered jeans he wore.  It occurred to her that she ought to see about helping him inside and getting him showered and changed.  One glance at her twin sons still passed out in the grass stopped her.  “I’m going to take the boys in and get them cleaned up,” she told Nezumi with a smile.  “I hate to ask, but can you hide that?” she asked, waving her hand in the direction of the mangled bicycle still lying under the magnolia tree.

Nezumi nodded as Kagome brushed her hands off and hurried over to Ryomaru.  She turned him over and sighed.  He was completely unconscious.  Pulling him onto her lap, she gently patted his cheeks in an effort to get him to wake up.  He moaned rather pathetically and struggled to open his eyes.

Satisfied that he’d be coherent enough to make it into the house on his own steam in a minute or two, Kagome reached over to drag Kichiro to her, repeating the process to rouse him, as well.

“Oh!  Is that for me?”

Kagome grimaced and peered over her shoulder as Gin sped around the side of the house and skidded to a halt much further away from the bicycle than she wanted to be, but the fumes were still lingering, and the girl had enough sense to stay back though she didn’t seem to notice the strange pink grass or her pink painted father or brothers.  No, her gaze was fastened securely on the bicycle, and Kagome couldn’t help the gentle smile that surfaced on her face.

“Oh . . . my . . .” Kagura remarked, covering her nose with a delicate linen handkerchief.

Sesshoumaru stopped beside his wife and narrowed his gaze on the scene laid out before him.  “Why does this not surprise me?” he mused in an undertone that Kagome heard just the same.

“Looks like Uncle Yasha outdid himself,” Toga said, struggling to control his amusement and failing miserably.  Kagome noted the weariness lingering around the edges of her nephew’s eyes and in the slight drooping of his shoulders but didn’t remark on it.

InuYasha heard his name and struggled to sit up again.  Gin giggled happily and darted over to her father with her hands covering her nose.  “Papa!  Papa and twins are pink like me!” she exclaimed.

True enough . . . Because of the spray paint, both boys as well as InuYasha were covered with the pink paint, and Gin, dressed in a white blouse and a pink denim jumper dress, couldn’t be happier.

“Happy birthday, baby girl,” InuYasha managed to say though his words were slightly slurred and he was still having trouble focusing on her face.  He smiled wanly as a little more color leeched from his skin as she threw her little arms around his neck and hugged him tight.

“Oh, Shippou,” Rin chastised despite the smile on her pretty face as she knelt down beside her mate and slowly shook her head.  Shippou groaned in response and didn’t even try to sit up.  He was pink, too.  Toga rolled his eyes but ambled over to pull the kitsune to his feet and help him inside, away from the lingering fumes.

“Aiko, would you mind grabbing the cake out of the car while I get these two into the house?” Kagome asked over her shoulder.

Aiko nodded quite happily, obviously relieved to get away from the stench as she hurried back around the house once more.

Sesshoumaru quirked an eyebrow and stared at InuYasha for another long moment before striding over and nudging his half-brother with his toe.  “Get inside, baka, before you succumb to your own foolishness.”

InuYasha snorted and shot Sesshoumaru as withering a glower as he could muster before setting Gin on the ground and carefully pushing himself to his feet.  “Bastard,” he mumbled, grimacing as he bent over to pull Kichiro off the ground.

Kichiro staggered and nearly fell over.  InuYasha caught him and steadied him before he ended up flat on his back once more.

Shaking his head in an effort to loosen the effects of the paint fumes, he hefted his son over his shoulder and shuffled toward the house.  “Wish your sister a happy birthday,” InuYasha growled.

Kichiro uttered a ragged whine.  “Ha . . . day . . .” he mumbled.

Kagome followed behind InuYasha with Gin in her arms, leaving Sesshoumaru with Ryomaru and Kagura to bring up the rear.  Not exactly the start of a perfect birthday party, she supposed, but Gin seemed happy enough.  She was wiggling in her mother’s grasp, trying to get down, probably to run back outside to see her bicycle again.  “Wait until after you have your cake,” Kagome said.

Gin’s bottom lip jutted out in a marked pout as her ears flattened.  “Okay,” she reluctantly agreed seconds before her expression brightened.  “I got to see Toga-inu!” she suddenly exclaimed.

Kagome laughed and kissed Gin’s cheek before setting her down on the floor.  “You did?”

Gin nodded happily while Toga grimaced and blushed.  “He was big!  Bigger than our house!” she went on with a little giggle.

“Not that much bigger than your house,” Toga mumbled.

“I’ve got a cake,” Aiko called out from the kitchen.  “Where’s the birthday girl?”

InuYasha and the boys, who were shuffling off toward the bedrooms to change, groaned in unison.  Kagome’s lips twitched as she struggled not to smile.  She caught the vaguely amused glint in Sesshoumaru’s eyes as he put Ryomaru down and just before he turned away.  For once, she had to agree with him.  InuYasha really had outdone himself this time, hadn’t he?

 

-0-0-0-0-0-

 

InuYasha couldn’t help the little smile that quirked the corner of his lips as he carefully leaned down to kiss Gin’s forehead as she drowsed against his chest in the quiet of the Izayoi living room.  She half-smiled but didn’t open her eyes, her face, so very much like her mother’s despite her coloring that marked her as his daughter, glowing in the soft light of the fire burning on the hearth.

“Feeling any better?” Kagome asked, setting a cup of hot tea on the short table beside the sofa before leaning over the back to ruffle Gin’s hair with a loving hand.

“Yeah,” he mumbled without taking his eyes off his daughter.  Kagome came around the sofa and sat beside him, leaning against his arm and idly fingering Gin’s silvery hair.  InuYasha sighed.  “Sorry . . .” he said softly, and in the semi-darkness, he could feel his skin heating in an embarrassed flush.  “I almost ruined her birthday . . .”

“No, you didn’t,” Kagome chided with a shake of her head.  “You’re her hero, you know.  You couldn’t let her down if you tried.”

“Keh.”

“It’s true,” she went on with a soft little laugh.  “You still ate a piece of her cake, didn’t you?”

InuYasha made a face.  He hadn’t really wanted to be reminded of that, after all.  Sure, he’d eaten the huge piece of cake Gin had brought him, but as woozy as he was feeling at the time, he’d also had to sneak away to throw it all back up again, too.  Luckily for him, she hadn’t noticed that he’d disappeared.  Toga had her outside and was pushing her around on the kami-forsaken bicycle when he finally slunk back into the living room awhile later, and much to his amusement, neither of the twins had seemed overly rambunctious the rest of the evening, either . . . to the point that Kagome had taken Nezumi home.  Ordinarily, the boys opted to walk the few blocks to the apartment Nezumi shared with her father, but neither had been feeling up to it.  Go figure . . .

“You think she had a good birthday?” InuYasha finally asked.

Kagome sighed happily and snuggled closer against InuYasha’s side.  “I think so.”

“My hap . . . py birth . . . day . . .” Gin murmured though she didn’t open her eyes.

“Yeah,” InuYasha agreed quietly, “but you’re still my, baby girl . . .”

She snuggled closer against her father’s chest and let out a contented little sigh.

Kagome laughed and kissed InuYasha’s cheek.  “And just think, dog-boy . . . there’s always next year to look forward to.”

That comment earned her a definite scowl, and he opened his mouth to fire off a retort only to be brought up short by the wicked glint in Kagome’s eyes.  “Who knows?” she said with a curious smile.  “Maybe next year she’ll want a pony.”

 

-0-0-0-0-0-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~The End~

Chapter Text

 ~~Pure Desecration~~
~A Twisted Purity Oneshot~

 

:0:0:0:0:0:

 

Izayoi Kichiro drew one last, ragged breath, staring up at his brother with accusation in his gaze at his chest, ripped open by his brother’s own hand. Watching in horrified fascination as his blood dripped from Ryomaru’s claws, Kichiro gasped, wheezed, rasped out his final words as he waved a hand toward his brother’s leg. “You . . . killed me?”

Ryomaru snorted, flicking his hand, splattering blood on his brother’s face as he turned away with a fierce glower. “Keh! I told you, baka! Keep your damn hands off my bitch!”

“I’m not your bitch, dog breath!” Nezumi screamed as she pulled a revolver out of the kitchen drawer. Hands shaking as she pulled back the hammer, the click deafening in the silent room as the last of Kichiro’s ragged breaths faded away. “You killed him!” she shrieked, kicking Kichiro’s lifeless body with the toe of her scuffed work boot. “He was your brother, and you killed him! I don’t want to be your mate! You’re insane!”

The blinding flash of the gun rang out in the silent apartment. The flashes of white fire, the grotesque strobe light of the discharging weapon, skewed movement. Six rounds were fired from the old hand gun. All six ripped through Ryomaru’s chest, his heart, splattering blood in a fine spray on the white cabinets and walls, on the appliances and the floor.

He was dead when his body crumpled to the floor. Police would later say that it was a crime of passion. Nezumi called it ‘bakacide’ . . .

 

-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

 

InuYasha ran up to the scene as Nezumi was being led away in handcuffs.  Kagome slid off his back, staring from the body bags containing both her sons to the lost form of the girl in the baggy clothes—her would-be daughter-in-law.

Motherly instinct took over. The grief of losing her sons was too strong. Whipping the ancient sword from InuYasha’s waist band, she ran forward, her cries incoherent as she shoved men aside and buried the rusted old sword deep in the young woman’s chest.

InuYasha leapt into action. “Kagome! What the hell are you doing?” he bellowed, staring in shock, in absolute horror at the blood that soaked Kagome’s hands, the blood splattering her blouse.

“She killed my babies! She had to die!”

InuYasha saw it in Kagome’s eyes. The woman he loved had lost her mind. “Sankon-tetsusou!” he yelled, bringing his claws down on Kagome, watching as her blood dripped onto the lifeless body of his son’s mate.

“InuYasha? How could you?”

Wincing at what he had done, the hanyou stumbled forward as the eruption of a wave of clicks sounded: guns being readied to fire.

 

-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

 

“Uncle Yasha! What have you done?” Toga screamed as he clamored out of his car, having heard on the news of the mass destruction. He and his mate, Sierra had been on the way to have dinner with his parents. Unable to believe what the news reports were claiming, they’d altered their course to the modest apartment building where Ryomaru and Nezumi lived. “Aunt Gome!” he yelled as he lurched toward his uncle, pointing an accusing finger at the hanyou as Toga gaped in shock at the destruction behind InuYasha. “How could you? I told you before; you’d better not hurt her! She was my first love! Now you shall die!”

InuYasha wasn’t able to avoid the descending claws as the future tai-youkai shot forward, knuckles cracking in the night as the surrounding officers backed away. They didn’t know what was going on. They only understood that these beings were not human. Toga’s raven hair streamed behind him like a silken banner against the blacker sky as his eyes flashed from sherry gold to glowing crimson. With a high pitched howl his hand shot out in a blur of movement. The wet squish of tearing flesh was more grotesque against the backdrop of the perfect night.

Toga smiled grimly as he landed in a crouch, watched with unmasked appreciation as his uncle’s head flew through the air. It landed with a dull thump in Kagome’s waiting lap.

 

-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

 

Unfortunately, Sierra heard Toga’s confession. “I knew it!” the American-born woman hissed under her breath as she scrambled over the console that separated her seat from the driver’s side of the car. “He always talked about Kagome! ‘Aunt Gome’ this and ‘Aunt Gome’ that . . . the dirty dog!” Rage boiled up inside her - a seething, bitter thing.

Stomping hard on the accelerator, Sierra gripped the leather-bound steering wheel in one hand and slammed the brand new luxury car into ‘drive’. With a squeal of tires on asphalt, the car lurched forward, an unearthly screech rising with the acrid stench of melting rubber. Toga turned just in time to see the car barreling toward him. It slammed into him, sending him hurtling back.

Sierra smiled grimly as Toga’s body disintegrated in a flash of light and settling dust.

 

-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

 

A green flash streaked through the night, shattering the driver side window. “My son!” Sesshoumaru howled as the whip connected with the human flesh of his son’s murderer. The energy whip sucked back into his fingertips as a humorless smile surfaced on his cold countenance. “You were never good enough for This Sesshoumaru’s son! Die, worthless human!”

“Sesshoumaru! You killed Sierra! You bastard!” Kagura screamed, her fans flashing in the moonlight. The wind blades whipped by the tai-youkai, ripped his dinner jacket, shredded his shirt. He raised his hand, fingers glowing green. Kagura’s next volley of wind blades was dispelled by a flick of Sesshoumaru’s energy whip, but there was no escaping the two consecutive blasts she unleashed. With deadly accuracy, the blades sliced through skin, severed flesh as blood gushed and sprayed.

One last blast of Kagura’s fans sliced through the Inu no Taisho’s chest, cutting him deep. Blood jettisoned from the gaping wound as the golden eyes of the once-proud youkai dulled, dimmed, faded to a glassy blankness. The earth trembled, trees shook, wind howled in all directions, and in a brilliant flash of green light, Sesshoumaru’s body exploded, disintegrated, blew away in a cloud of soot and ash.

 

-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

 

A loud shriek split the night behind Kagura.

“Papa!” Rin hollered as she tried to run toward the last place where Sesshoumaru had been standing. “You killed him! I never liked you, you evil step-mother!” Wrenching a gun from the nearest police officer, the girl fired six shots into Kagura’s chest.

“Rin! How could you kill Mama?” Aiko screamed angrily. Rin only saw the flash of claws that shot out, impaled her, and her world blacked.

Grimacing at the bloody entrails that hung from her claws as she glowered derisively at the limp form of her stepsister suspended on her arm, Aiko uttered a low growl as the scent of her opposition came to her moments before he called out in open distress.

No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” Shippou bellowed, watching in shock as Aiko wrenched her arm free with the slurp of suction giving way, and unleashing another wave of blood. Rin’s body fell, as more blood sprayed out, covering Aiko’s silvery hair in a black mist. Shippou shot forward, cut off Aiko’s retreat, unleashed a blast of foxfire that illuminated the area like daylight. “Kitsune bi!

A piercing scream shattered the trace remnants of the peaceful night as the foxfire engulfed the last of the Inutaisho clan. As the glowing blue light faded, Aiko’s charred body fell, smoke still issuing from her burnt hair.

“Now!” the captain of the police called. The officers opened fire. Shippou’s body was tossed around carelessly for a minute, dancing to the macabre beat of the firearms. When the men lowered their weapons, the kitsune fell slowly to his knees and keeled forward. Before he hit the ground, his body burst, too, shattered into a million bits of light and dust.

 

-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

 

“Oh, kami! What’s going on here?” Izayoi Gin rasped in the cloying stench of death and of blood that was far too familiar as she pushed through the crowd, shocked gaze moving from one body to the next, her grief warring with a deeper emotion - a curious paradox.

“Who are you?” one of the officers demanded, eyeing her warily as the young woman gaped in horror at her dead mother who still cradled her father’s head in her lap.

“I . . . I’m Gin . . . I’m related to . . . all these people.”

A look of concern softened the old policeman’s expression, and he reached out to touch her arm. “Maybe you should come down to the station with us. This . . . this has to be difficult.”

Gin back up slowly, shook her head as she glanced around one last time. “No, I . . . I’ll be fine,” she muttered in a vague, shocked tone. “I . . . I’ve got to . . . go . . .” Staring around at the utter devastation, she stepped away slowly, slowly, lifting the back of her hand to cover her nose from the overwhelming reek of her fallen family. Concentrating on distancing herself from the massacre, Gin stumbled back again, shuffled her feet as she tried to make sense of the carnage. ‘How . . . ? What . . . ? No . . .’

Then she turned and ran.

Sprinting through the streets of Tokyo with all the speed she possessed, the young hanyou thought about her family, missed them with a savagery borne of her youkai-human blood. Ryomaru and Kichiro, her baka twin brothers who always hung out with Nezumi . . . They were always good for a laugh . . . or a fight . . .

Toga and Sierra . . . She loved her cousin, even if he did tend to forget that she wasn’t a weak little girl, and Sierra? She was a damn good friend . . .

Shippou and Rin . . . The fun relatives. Laid back enough to enjoy the simpler things in life, they had always been a part of Gin’s life . . .

Aiko . . . one of her childhood playmates until it had become ‘uncool’, allowing her cousin to hang around. In the last few years, they’d grown closer but they hadn’t regained the closeness they’d had as little girls . . .

Sesshoumaru and Kagura . . . As different from her own parents as night and day yet Aiko never doubted their affection . . .

Papa and Mama . . . To fall apart would be to dishonor their memories . . .

A strange sort of smile settled over her face. The girl named Gin suddenly laughed.

Guess that means I can date now,’ she thought as her strange little smile widened. ‘Papa and Mama would want me to go on, wouldn’t they? Yes . . . yes, they would . . . I wonder if I still have Akira’s phone number . . .’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~The End~

Chapter Text

~~Purity One-Shot~~
~Revolution~  

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

~19. August 1750~
~The Outskirts of Boston Colony~
~6:30 p.m.~
~Sebastian~

 

Sebastian Cavendish bit the inside of his cheek, trying hard not to crack even the smallest hint of a smile as four year-old Zelig scuffed the toes of his black leather boots against the smooth plank floor.  "Aye, son?"

Zelig scrunched up his little shoulders, his face registering his unmitigated disgust at having to fess up to what he had been doing.  Hooking his thumbs in his black suspenders, he shuffled his feet a little more and scowled at the floor.  "I was chasing Rufus, sir," he mumbled, cheeks pinking as his frown deepened.

The New Continent's tai-youkai—a dog-youkai—cleared his throat and raised his fist, covering his mouth to stifle a delicate cough—and his amusement.  "You . . . were chasing . . . the cat . . ." he reiterated, carefully keeping his expression completely blank.

Zelig nodded.  "Aye, sir," he admitted.

The wooden chair creaked as Sebastian shot to his feet and strode away to the window, presenting his back to his young son.  'Chasing cats . . .' he mused, indulging in a little smile before schooling his features once more.  "The fact of the matter is that you didn't simply chase the cat, Zelig, but you treed him, correct?"

Sebastian discerned the slight shift in Zelig's aura as the child nodded again.  "Aye, sir."

"I see."

Silence grew in the study, permeating the room with an invisible force.  Zelig waited for the verdict to fall while Sebastian gazed out over the land that was touched by the hand of descending night.  Sebastian sighed.  "You cannot bedevil the cats," he remarked slowly, carefully.

"Aye, sir," Zelig grumbled.

"The cats are helpful in the stable," Sebastian went on, "and in the fields.  If you chase them off, then you'll have to hunt down the vermin and do the cats' jobs in addition to your regular chores."

"I can hunt the vermin," Zelig replied stubbornly.

Sebastian shifted his gaze to the side, catching sight of his mate, Daniella lingering in the doorway.  She was smiling sweetly, her reddish-brown hair shining in the dim light cast by the oil lamps that adorned the room.  She caught his eye and arched a delicate brow before turning her attention to the boy in the center of the room.  "I'd wager your mother would rather that her son didn't spend his days tracking field mice and common rats."

"But I don't like cats," Zelig complained.

"Leave them alone or I'll find more tasks to occupy you," Sebastian insisted.  "Now wash up for dinner."

Zelig didn't argue, but his shuffling steps bespoke his belief that he was being unjustly targeted.  Daniella laughed softly and reached out, ruffling his bangs as he passed.  "Small wonder that he hates the cats," she mused after Zelig had disappeared from view.  "He is a puppy, after all."

Sebastian finally smiled as he slowly turned away from the window to meet his wife's gaze.  "Was there ever a time when I was afforded the luxury of chasing cats?" he asked with a sigh.

Daniella tilted her head to the side, her skirts whispering softly as she closed the distance between them.  "Is the situation truly so bad?"

"Bad, aye . . . unmanageable?  Nay . . ." He sighed, long, articulated fingers running through his golden-bronze hair.  "At least, not yet."

"Why now?"

"Always the same reason, koishii . . . the edict, of course."

She nodded.  "Sesshoumaru's edict?"

"Aye."

"The reasons are sound," she stated quietly, staring out the window into the softness of the night, crossing her arms over her stomach as the length of her billowing sleeves fell like wings in cascades of delicate lace.  "Surely they can see that it's for the greater good—for the future . . ." The worry marring her brow ebbed when the resounding crash of porcelain hitting the unforgiving wood floor echoed through the house.  She smiled despite the apparent loss of the wash basin that stood in the wide foyer where Zelig had been dispatched to clean up for supper.  "For the children."

Sebastian could sense his mate's distress; her fear over what was to come.  "Most can see that, aye," he allowed, resting his chin in the down of her hair as he drew her back against his chest.  "Those who cannot are short-sighted, full of arrogance and misplaced pride.  Hiding who we are—what we are . . . it's the only way we can possibly survive."

"I know," she agreed softly, wrapping her hands over his forearms and giving them a gentle squeeze.  Staring up at him for a long moment, she smiled suddenly as laughter bubbled up inside her, spilling over in the quiet.  Her laughter soothed him, pacified him, calmed the edges of his ragged psyche.  Giving in to a grudging smile, a soft chuckle escaped him.  "Shall I scold him?" she asked, arching an eyebrow as she smiled at her mate.

"As if you could," he countered, the reprieve in his tone tempered by the grin on his face.  "The pup is golden in your eyes."

"And in yours," she reminded him.

"I suppose the washbasin is replaceable," he allowed, his eyes bright as he gazed at his mate.

"I suppose it is," she agreed.  "He's a good boy."

"About as good as I am," he grumbled though his smile hadn't dissipated.

"He takes after you, Keijizen—or so Ben's said a thousand times."

Sebastian shook his head.  "How long as it been since you last uttered that name?" he mused.

"You shall forever be Keijizen to me, Sebastian Cavendish."

"And you shall forever be my Akinako."

She laughed.  "I rather like 'Daniella'.  It suits me, don't you think?"

"Akinako . . . Daniella . . . it doesn't matter so long as you remain the same."

"With you, aye?"

He nodded, his smile faded as he shifted his gaze out the window once more.  The shadows of the forest seemed inkier, blacker as the stars high above twinkled to life, one by one.  "I shall make them understand," he vowed.  "They shall hear me."

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~20. August 1750~
~3:30 p.m.~
~Sebastian~

 

"It's good to be home."

Sebastian continued his perusal of the land with a critical eye, sparing only a moment to glance at the speaker.  Inclining his head, he acknowledged the youkai general before turning his attention back to the dense forest once more.  "What news?"

Ben Rhodes strode up the low rise of the hill and stopped beside Sebastian.  "From Nippon?  Nothing, though Sesshoumaru sends his regards.  The last of the miscreants who were seeking to undermine him were flushed out and dealt with.  If we allow humans to forget . . ."

Sebastian nodded.  "True enough.  I don't envy Sesshoumaru his task.  It's one small thing I can be thankful for.  Those living here do not seem to have heard of us, so forgetting is a moot point."

Ben sighed, loathe to broach the subject that weighed heavily on his mind.  "I've heard whispers since my return."

"Go on."

"The dissidents grow unhappier with each passing day.  They blame you as their leader . . . they say that you cannot think for yourself; that you content yourself to be pulled along on Sesshoumaru's coattails, doing whatever he bids you to do."

"A wise man would," Sebastian acknowledged.

"But you know this is not true."

"To an extent, perhaps.  Sesshoumaru does not dictate general policy, but his edicts cannot be ignored, either."

Ben shook his head.  "Especially not when the edict makes sense."

"Aye," Sebastian intoned.  "This lot . . . they do not lend themselves toward violence."

Ben cast his gaze over the forest and nodded, conceding the truth in Sebastian's observation.  "I realize that the faction tends to be civil . . . still, I cannot trust them."

Sebastian nodded slowly, turning his full attention on the man he'd known since childhood.  Ben was a couple years younger than Sebastian.  Those years didn't seem to matter.  They were likeminded most of the time, and their goals were simple: to create a new place for youkai to be safe: safe to live, safe to raise their families.  The panther-youkai had chosen to accompany Sebastian and Daniella when Sesshoumaru had posed the question years ago.  Over two hundred years had passed since that fateful day.  The sakura trees had been in full blossom in the grove where Sesshoumaru had met with Sebastian, then known by his birth name: Keijizen.  "The new continent," Sesshoumaru had said as the white-pink petals had swirled in the breeze, "needs a strong leader.  You will do this."

"I will do this," Sebastian had agreed.  There never was any hesitation.

"Perhaps you should consider bringing in extra security," Ben suggested, his tone indicating his ambivalence to bring up the subject.

Sebastian shot him a quelling glance.  "I am not a coward, Benjiro.  I do not need more security."

"It isn't about being a coward, Keijizen," Ben remarked acerbically.  Sebastian's reaction wasn't unexpected.  Pride and a certain level of arrogance went hand in hand with his station, he supposed.  Still, it chafed him that Ben would so much as allude to the idea that Sebastian couldn't protect his own . . . "It's about the safety of your family.  Should something happen to you or Daniella—"

"I shall not allow anything to happen to Daniella," Sebastian cut in.  "Never."

Ben pursed his lips, his disgust at Sebastian's obstinacy quite obvious.  "Listen to reason, won't you?  I am not disagreeing that you have the ability to protect your family, but you must understand that things are different now.  Whenever there is dissention, desperation is born, and that desperation can lead to impetuousness.  It was not so long ago that we were running blindly, hiding from the gunfire that threatened to destroy us all."

"Youkai do not use guns," he countered.

"Nay . . . youkai are not supposed to use guns.  That doesn't mean that they don't."

Sebastian deliberated that and nodded.  Ben had a point, of course.  Still . . . "A challenge is forfeit if guns are employed," he reminded Ben.

"A challenge for your position, aye.  Do you think that less honorable youkai will care?  You are the threat, Sebastian.  You are the one who upholds the laws.  If they can remove you one way or the other, will it matter if they used a gun to do it?  They would not stand a chance in a real challenge; this they know.  That is what makes them dangerous."

"If I bring in more security in the guise of servants, those who seek to undermine me will believe that I am afraid."  Gaze narrowing fiercely, Sebastian glowered at the surroundings.  "I fear no one—youkai, hanyou, man . . . No one.  Let them come."

"And well you shouldn't," Ben agreed, "but your son—your heir—he is a child.  Should something happen to you or Daniella . . ."

"Then you will help to guide him."

Ben sighed.  "I will help to guide him," he allowed.

"This faction of dissidents . . . they've been peaceful in their unrest," Sebastian went on.  "I do not believe that they mean to force the issue even if they do not like it."

Ben shrugged.  "The unrest amongst the humans is growing, too.  Men are divided in their loyalties.  Some wish to remain faithful to their motherlands while others seem to want independence from those whom they deem tyrants.  I like it not . . . I would not be caught in the crossfire, and ultimately, I fear we will be."

Sebastian nodded, understanding Ben's concerns entirely too well.  The already precarious situation could easily blow up in their faces if the situation weren't nipped at the bud.  The youkai who were tired of hiding their true natures were watching, waiting for a reason to act.  The last thing that anyone needed was a careless action to exacerbate the simmering hostilities.  "Their leader . . . his name is Terfoure, isn't it?"

Ben's gaze traversed the horizon.  "Lucien Terfoure, aye."

Sebastian propped his foot on a tree stump and shot his friend a quick glance.  "Find him.  Bring him to me."

Ben sighed but inclined his head.  "Consider it done."

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~21. August 1750~
~2:00 p.m.~
~Daniella~

 

Daniella hid a little smile behind the huge quilting rack.  Zelig stood by the window, his little fingers curled over the base of the frame as he stared outside with a sad sort of longing in his expression.  Having been ordered to stay indoors since he just couldn't seem to remember to leave the cats alone, the boy looked absolutely inconsolable.  She bit her lip and tried to ignore the pangs of guilt that usually accompanied the punishment of the child in question.  She rarely had to discipline the boy, but Sebastian had an uncanny way of decreeing that the suitable punishment should be served under her guidance.  She'd have to have words with him later about that . . . He wasn't the one their son turned his pleading eyes on—eyes so very like his father's—and he wasn't the one who had to tell Zelig that he had to serve out his punishment, either . . .

"Tea is served, Mistress Cavendish."

Daniella didn't turn away from the frame to address the youkai maid.  "Thank you, Trinity."  The maid bobbed in a curtsey before backing out of the room once more.  Daniella stuck the long quilting needle through a small fabric swatch and carefully set it aside on the table.  "Come, Zelig," she said, rising to her feet and extending her hand to the child.

He turned away from the window reluctantly, his blue eyes somber, sad.  "I don't want tea, Mama," he said, his voice tinged with the barest hint of a pout.  "I want to go outside . . . I need to check on the family of squirrels I found yesterday."

"Was that before or after you chased Rufus up the tree again?" she countered gently.

Zelig fell in step beside her, feet scuffing against the wooden floor.  "Before," he grumbled, dropping the subject of being allowed outside.

She ruffled his hair as she led the way to the parlor.  Zelig slumped down on the smaller version of his father's wood chair but straightened up when Daniella touched his shoulder in passing.  Hers was the only cushioned seat.  Sebastian had made the piece especially for her while she was pregnant with Zelig.  Settling herself on the rich aubergine velvet, she carefully poured tea into the two bone china cups on the silver tray.  "Here," she said, offering the cup to her son.

Zelig took great care in handling the delicate cup.  Slowly, deliberately, he took his time sipping the hot brew without spilling a drop.  She smiled.  Sebastian loved to tease her about her insistence that Zelig be taught proper manners.

"Forgive my late arrival," Sebastian said as he strode through the door.  Moving straight to her side, he leaned down and kissed her gently before sitting in the huge wooden chair across from his son.  "I trust your morning has been uneventful?"

"Zelig and I worked a quilt," she replied.

Zelig grimaced at Daniella's claim.  Working a quilt was a woman's task in the child's mind—doubtless a terrible slight—the gravest of insults.

"Worked a quilt," Sebastian repeated.  "Good."

Daniella hid her smile behind the bone china cup in her hand as Trinity slipped into the parlor with one for Sebastian.  The maid exited the room as quietly as she'd arrived while Daniella filled the cup for her mate.  "I have it on the best of authority that Zelig would behave himself if he were allowed to go outside this afternoon," she remarked.

Sebastian arched a golden eyebrow before turning his attention back to his son.  "I believe the punishment was that he would remain inside all day; not simply until afternoon."

Daniella smiled indulgently as she glanced at her son.  He'd finished his tea and set the cup back on the tray and was concentrating on looking like the very image of innocence.  Trying not to look overly anxious, he squeezed his hands together between his knees and carefully kept himself from looking toward the window.  "As true as that may be, it is such a lovely day outside . . . Certainly one of the nicest of the season, and with winter coming . . ."

Sebastian chuckled softly, shaking his head as he drank his tea and sat back in his chair, crossing his ankles as he slowly relaxed.  Something was troubling him, she could tell.  They'd been together far too long for him to hide much of anything from her discerning eye.  "No more treeing the cats, Zelig," he admonished with a serious nod of his head.

Zelig nodded enthusiastically and hopped out of his chair.  "I won't," he promised.  "Thank you, Papa!"

"And mind not to ruin your clothes," he called as Zelig sped from the parlor.  Shaking his head in complete exasperation, Sebastian smiled despite himself.  "I'd wager he didn't hear that last part," he grumbled.

"I don't imagine he did," Daniella agreed with a demure laugh.  "He'll be filthy, I don't doubt . . . then he'll complain about being made to take a bath."

Sebastian sighed, nodding in agreement as his smile faded, and he rubbed his face in an infinitely weary sort of way.

Daniella stood up and slipped behind Sebastian's chair, rubbing his shoulders in an effort to reassure him.  "Is it really as bad as all that?"

Patting her hand, he heaved another sigh and leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees.  "Some of the youkai in the area are growing more restless . . . I've ordered Ben to bring their self-proclaimed leader in.  The peace is precarious, at best.  If anything should happen to upset the balance . . ."

"Understood," she agreed.  "Have faith, Sebastian. What is meant to be will be."

Grasping her hand, he tugged her around and pulled her into his lap.  Wrapping his arms around her, he leaned his cheek on her forehead.  "My senses tell me that something is coming," he admitted, "a hint of something dreadful in the air."

"Your intuition tells you many things, and you have learned to heed the signs," she allowed.  "It has made you a good man and an even better leader."

"It's one of the things that makes me feel older than I am," he admitted.

"Trust in yourself, Sebastian."

"How are you feeling?" he asked, effectively changing the subject as he carefully stroked her belly through the layers of her clothing.  She was used to that, too.  Sebastian hated to discuss anything at length that he thought might ultimately upset her.

"I feel fine," she assured him with a bright smile.  It would do no good to press the issue.  Sebastian was entirely too stubborn that way.

"And the pup?"

Daniella laughed as she reached out to lay her hand along his cheek.  "Also fine.  Do you think we should tell Zelig yet?"

Grasping her hand, he took his time, kissing each of her fingers, one by one.  "Aye," he said slowly.  "He'll figure it out soon enough, himself, otherwise.  That pup is much too quick."

"I'll leave it to your discretion," she decided.

Sebastian nodded, softly kissing her lips as she slipped her arms around his neck.  She sighed in a completely contented way, and he couldn't help the surge of satisfaction that rippled through him.  In her own quiet, gentle way, she was stronger than a thousand youkai, wasn't she?  "Care to distract me, Daniella?" he murmured.

Her laugh was shaky: husky and soft as she melted against him, as the fresh, clean scent of her deepened, darkened, called to him.  "I think I could do that . . ."

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

~22. August 1750~
~7:30, p.m.~
~Sebastian~

 

Sebastian stood at the window, gazing out at the falling shadows of night.  The forest whispered in the distance as a delicate breeze ruffled the foliage.  "I suppose I shall have to go find him," he commented with a shake of his head.

Daniella smiled as she set her embroidery aside and rose to her feet.  "It does seem that he loses track of time quite often," she agreed.

"The pup's a dreamer," Sebastian complained though his voice lacked any real irritation.

"Is that such a terrible thing?"

Taking a moment to straighten the bit of lace that peeped out from beneath the long sleeves of his surcoat, Sebastian shook his head and shot his mate a telling glance.  "Not terrible, no . . . not very practical, though."

"He sat at the table, watching the flame on the oil lamp for better than an hour last night," she mused.  "I almost thought he was going to fall asleep there."

Sebastian smiled, tugging the coat off and draping it over the back of a chair.  "Perhaps it is good that he sees the world in such a different light."

Daniella nodded, slipping her arms around his waist and resting her temple against his chest.  "Zelig is the future, isn't he?"

"He is."

Then she sighed.  "And that future is late for supper—again."

"I'll fetch him," Sebastian assured her.  "Likely watching that family of squirrels."

Letting her arms drop away from her mate, Daniella stepped back and nodded.  "Do not be too harsh with him, koishii."

He chuckled.  "When am I ever truly harsh with him?"

Her knowing smile lent her a certain glow in the half-light.  "Take care not to get lost, yourself."

Sebastian stopped for a moment, unsure why he felt the sudden desire to hold her.  Sparing a few seconds to hug her tight, he kissed her forehead and sighed.  "I'll bring him home, Daniella . . . Keep supper warm for me."

He let go of her and strode toward the forest, following the vague hint of Zelig's scent.  It had been hours since the pup had taken off on one of his day-long explorations of the forest.  Stopping at the line of trees that surrounded the quiet mansion, he glanced back over his shoulder in time to see Daniella lift her hand and wave.  He smiled and returned the gesture before stepping into the forest.

Venturing deeper into the trees, Sebastian trailed Zelig.  From what he could tell, the pup had apparently gone in search of the family of squirrels he'd been watching for the last couple of days, but he must have gotten sidetracked, which wasn't entirely surprising.  The child had a knack for watching things.  Sebastian didn't doubt for a moment that Zelig would be happiest if he didn't have to come home at all.  Staying out for hours on end as he followed a fox or watched a beaver build a dam, he always had that inherent look of disappointment on his features whenever Sebastian found him and brought him home.  During his lessons in the morning room, Zelig would sketch the animals on the expensive paper he'd been given instead of working the tasks that Daniella set for him.  The child was a hopeless dreamer, true enough, and Sebastian . . .

He sighed as he pulled the scrap of paper from the breast pocket of his vest.  Smiling almost sadly as he stopped in a small clearing bathed in the last remnants of daylight, he gazed at the sketch of a family of otter—Zelig's writing assignment from a few days ago.  Stuffing the slip of paper back into his pocket once more, Sebastian sniffed the air to locate Zelig's trail once more.  He hated the idea of curbing that in his son.

The trees grew denser the further he walked.  The trace amount of light that had filtered through the network of branches and leaves was gone, lingering in darker shadows under the deep blackness of the heart of the forest.  Zelig's scent passed under bushes and over rocks; navigated through ravines and up steep inclines.  Sebastian grinned as he followed his son's path.  Zelig was a rare child: Sebastian's hope for tomorrow . . .

Meandering over hills and through shallow valleys that mapped the forest floor, Sebastian could only shake his head in silent disbelief.  No matter how many times this particular scenario played out, it never ceased to amaze him, just how far Zelig could get on his four year-old legs in the course of a few hours.

A sudden shift in the breeze stopped him: a subtle warning that something was just not right.  The flash of smiling lavender eyes, the hint of laughter that was carried on the wind . . . the vague feeling that she was slipping away from him . . . but why?

"Daniella . . ." he murmured, scanning the forest with a critical eye, his intuition screaming at him.  Something was coming . . . something terrifying . . . Zelig was nowhere to be seen, and for the briefest of moments, he hesitated.  'Zelig . . . Daniella . . . damn it all!'

The crack of a rifle shattered the serenity, and without a second thought, Sebastian wheeled around on his heel and sprinted back the way he'd come . . .

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~22. August 1750~
~7:45 p.m.~
~Ben~

 

Ben walked through the familiar stretch of forest beside the badger-youkai known as Lucien Terfoure.  The tavern owner had come along willingly enough and seemed almost excited to have a chance to speak with Sebastian despite the initial sense of misgiving that Ben had first encountered.  He'd taken the more direct route through the forest to the Terfoure's property that was loosely adjacent to the tai-youkai's domain instead of walking the path that branched off in the forest to lead to Terfoure's home.

"It isn't in our natures to hide what we are," Lucien commented as the two strode through the trees.  "Youkai are powerful creatures . . . laws unto ourselves!  We do not need to be governed like a wayward gang of children.  Surely you can see this, Rhodes."

"You speak too freely," Ben argued dryly.  "You tout your ideals, your convictions, but you do so in the open.  We've been fortunate thus far.  The humans who have chanced to hear you haven't understood what you've been saying.  You know the edict, Terfoure, and you know you cannot go against it.  To do so is treason—not against Cavendish, but against the House of Sesshoumaru.  Will you dare incur his wrath?  Would you really be that foolish?"

Terfoure snorted indelicately, waving off Ben's dire warnings as little more than foppish drivel.  "It is an edict that is rooted in cowardice.  It is easier to ignore the problem and hide from it than to make it known that we shall not stand for such insolence."

"And you have figured out a way to move faster than a bullet, have you?" Ben countered.

"There is no reason for humans to fear us."

"Isn't there?  We're stronger, faster, we live longer . . . Humanity hates what they cannot comprehend—what they cannot control.  Perhaps you have no memory of those days, but I do.  You were born later—removed from the darkness; the hostility.  Families were destroyed because humans feared us.  They bore no kindness; they showed no mercy.  Women, children . . . they were all killed.  With those guns came a renegade sense of power, and the indiscriminate massacres that came . . . What good is showing our true faces if we die for the privilege?"

Laughing in a rather condescending way, the badger-youkai shook his head, his smile indulgent as though he believed that Ben was simply being obtuse.  "So you would have us cower in the shadows, relegated to the role of the pitiful observer while the world passes us by?  I thought as much."

"What I would have is irrelevant.  Sesshoumaru is the Inu no Taisho, and as such, his word is law.  You call him a coward; I call him wise.  He realizes what you do not in your short-sighted views.  In order to survive we must adapt."

Lucien waved his hands dismissively, discounting everything Ben was saying with the gesture as he went on.  "And I say we should stand up for who we are, come what may.  My father taught me to take pride in what I am.  He taught me to stand tall and to face the future with a strong resolve."

Nodding slowly, Ben sized up the youkai before narrowing his eyes.  "And your father was shot by humans, was he not?  The foolish end to a foolish life."

"My father was a great man," Lucien cut in icily.  "He died the same way he lived: standing up for what he believed in."

"And your mother?" Ben challenged ruthlessly.  "Tell me, Lucien . . . how did she die?"

"Mother was never a strong woman," Lucien bit out.  "She supported my father's decisions.  She was fine."

"A mother who is forced to leave her children because her mate was reckless is a strong woman," Ben argued, "and if she never voiced her unrest at leading a life cut short by ignorance, then she's a stronger woman still, for all of it."

"Spare me your sanctimonious drivel, Ben Rhodes.  Even if you agreed with me, it would hardly befit your station, would it?  You are little more than Sebastian Cavendish's pet, aren't you?  It would truly be a shame to lose that position . . . don't you agree?"

Stopping abruptly, Ben pivoted to pin the youkai with a fierce glower.  Eyes glowing in the night, he allowed Lucien to see something that was rarely showed to anyone: the complete anger that surged in him was palpable, crackling in the air like lightning in the void.  "If I disagreed with Sebastian, I would voice it, and he would listen, even if he ultimately disagreed.  You whine and grovel about hiding in shadows when shadows are all that your ilk deserves.  Take care not to slander yourself, Terfoure.  The visions of your tainted utopia fall upon deaf ears."

Lucien smiled—more of a grimace than a grin.  Bearing his fangs, he narrowed his gaze on Ben, his patience wearing thin as the carefully constructed calm of his façade started to crack.  "Tainted utopia?  Interesting . . ."

Ben opened his mouth to retort.  It was cut off by the single report of a rifle that echoed through the trees.

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~22. August 1750~
~8:00 p.m.~
~Daniella~

 

"Mistress, there are some gentlemen here . . ."

Daniella set the shirt she'd been sewing aside and slowly got to her feet.  "To see Sebastian, I take it?"

Trinity's brown eyes looked frightened as she forced herself to nod.  "Aye."

She hurried over to the window, scowling as she pushed the curtain aside to see the assembly of youkai—easily forty, perhaps more—approaching the mansion from the forest trail that led to Boston Colony.  The ragtag group seemed to ooze slowly, as though they weren't really certain of their final destination.  Shrouded in the dense shadows of the forest, they carried torches, and though she couldn't hear their voices, she knew they were talking to one other.  Stepping into the clearing, the singular entity split into branches that surged over the ground, creeping toward the mansion.  Systematically scanning the forest, she pressed her palm against her belly to reassure herself.  'What do they want?' she wondered absently.  Biting her lip, she turned away from the window and strode past the maid and down the corridor that led to the stairs.  The knock on the door rang through the mansion.

Trinity gasped behind her.  Daniella didn't stop moving, descending the stairs with her chin held high and her back straight, proud.  "Go to the kitchen, Trinity," Daniella ordered.  "Do not let supper burn."

"Mistress," the maid began.

"Do as I say."

". . . Yes, Mistress."

The knock came again, and Daniella paused long enough to peer over her shoulder to make certain that the maid was doing what she was told to do.  Blushing as she stopped on the threshold only to notice Daniella's quiet appraisal, she hurried toward the kitchen at the back of the house, disappearing through the doorway that was carved through the passage underneath the thick staircase.  Only then did Daniella reach for the porcelain doorknob.  "May I help you?" she asked evenly, her gaze slowly shifting from one face to the next.

"Good evening, Mistress Cavendish," the boar-youkai who had knocked stated, his voice loud enough to carry to the rest of his consorts.  He seemed to be the leader—the other youkai nodding in agreement to his claim.  "We're here for Lucien Terfoure."

"There is no one here by that name," she replied, her gaze flicking coolly over the assembly.  "I trust you shall be leaving?"

"Where is your mate?" he countered.

"He had business to attend," she said, "though I'd wager he'll be back presently."

The rumbling of the gathering echoed in her ears.  Though she was unable to discern more than a word here and there, she did comprehend that the youkai didn't believe her about the man they called Lucien Terfoure.  The man glanced over his shoulder, apparently sizing up his comrades' complaints.

A chorus of grumbles erupted in the crowd.  Daniella could sense their hostility simmering just below the surface.  A strange sort of glow delineated the men gathered on the broad porch of the mansion.  Glancing past them as best she could, she saw some of the youkai heading into the forest.  Their torches cast an eerie light as they waved them to and fro.  'Just what are they looking for?' she wondered.

"The forest is dry," she said quietly.  "The torches—"

"The forest is the least of our concern," someone intoned.  "Where's the tai-youkai?"

The question passed from one man to the next as the angry crowd drew in closer.  Squeezing her fist in the folds of her wide skirt, Daniella forced herself to remain where she was.

"We'll wait to speak with your mate, then," the boar-youkai finally remarked.  "He should be able to answer our inquiries."

"As you wish," she replied.  "If you'll excuse me . . ."

She tried to duck back into the house.  The boar-youkai smacked the door open wider and caught her wrist, dragging her out onto the porch.  "Stay with us, Mistress Cavendish," he growled in her ear.  "We rather enjoy your company."

She heard the rumble of laughter that erupted in the crowd, the underlying sense of unease as the confrontation teetered on the brink of a temerarious loss of reason.  "I'd love to," she agreed tightly, unwilling to say or do anything to upset the balance.  'Sebastian, where are you?  Hurry . . . please hurry . . .'

"If he's here, he's being hidden," a gruff voice intoned.  "Cavendish is hiding him."

"Where's Terfoure, Ma'am Cavendish?" someone else demanded.

Daniella didn't deign to reply to them.  Lifting her chin proudly, she pressed her lips together in a thin line and willed herself to remain calm.

"Cavendish'll see reason, all right, if we have his mate," a serpent-youkai near the front of the crowd insisted.

"Calm yourselves, boys," the boar-youkai said in a tone that was almost mocking.  "We're peaceful . . . that's what Terfoure wants."

"The barn's on fire!" someone in the back of the crowd yelled.

Daniella's head snapped up.  She wasn't certain how it had happened, but the man was right.  Rapidly spreading, the flames licked the perimeter of the building and started to climb the walls.  The cows and horses inside screeched in fear, and she tore her arm away from the boar-youkai, darting forward a few steps, only to be dragged back once more.  "What are you doing?  Are you mad?" she yelled, trying in vain to regain her freedom.  "The animals—"

The shrill neigh cut her off.  Bursting from the stable off to the left, the hulking form of Sebastian's horse rose high against the dim light coming from within.  The beast lunged forward as he brought his hooves down, bucking against the air for one dizzying moment before he plunged headlong into the night.  Galloping through the clearing, he disappeared down the singular path.  In the chaos of the youkai sent scattering to avoid the spooked horse, Daniella didn't miss the stable hands—Sebastian's guards—slipping out of the stable and around the dusky perimeter of the clearing.

A flash of light and a deafening shot echoed in the night.  She wasn't certain who fired the weapon, but she gasped as the crowd erupted.  Someone yelled, "Grab her!" as she whirled around to shut the door.  The boar-youkai grabbed her arms and forced her inside.  The surge of youkai pushed her deeper into the house.  She stumbled over her skirt and nearly fell, only to be yanked roughly back to her feet once more.

The boar-youkai let go, and she straightened her shoulders as she crossed the floor to the base of the stairs before slowly turning to face them.  "Who are you?  Why do you seek this man, 'Terfoure'?" she asked quietly.

"Terfoure's no man: he's youkai, and he's our leader," someone else said.  She couldn't see who had spoken in the ring of youkai that blocked the door.

"And why do you believe he would be here?" she continued calmly.  'Hurry, Sebastian . . . where are you?'

"Ben Rhodes took 'im," someone snarled over the rising din.  "Saw it, I did!"

"He is not here," Daniella said once more.

"Just because we can't smell him don't mean he ain't here," someone else spoke up.  "Let's have a look, what say?"

A few youkai broke away from the group, striding through the house and down the long corridor that ran the length of the main floor.  Smacking open doors and stopping long enough to peer inside, they were searching for their leader, weren't they?  She made herself look away, folding her hands together in front of her as she willed them not to shake.  The hostility in the air choked her; a cloying thing that wrapped around her; that refused to let her go.  The mob mentality was growing denser by the moment, and if Sebastian didn't come soon, she wasn't certain how much longer the gathered youkai would be able to hold themselves together.

 A tremendous howl rose above the rising din of youkai voices.  Daniella gasped, peering around bodies in time to see one of the intruders fly through the air as a brilliant burst of reddish light erupted from one of the guard's fingertips.  A blast of unnatural wind swept through the yard as blinding flashes like lightning illuminated the night.  Two—no, three youkai disintegrated in quick succession, and Daniella turned her face away, her hair coming dislodged from the neat chignon secured at the nape of her neck to blow into her eyes, her mouth as a sickened lurch of her stomach nearly brought her to her knees.  Pressing her knuckles to her mouth, she swallowed hard and flinched inwardly as the boar-youkai's hand jerked her upright once more.

"They killed Maroutte," another voice called out—louder, panicked . . . afraid.  The man was staring out the window beside the door, his back trembling as he muttered something that she couldn't catch.  Some of the men turned to seek the owner of the voice as the murmurs grew louder, harsher.  "And Nester . . . and Hodges . . . the tai-youkai's henchmen!  It's a trap!  A trap, I tell you!  He lured us here to kill us all!"

"He did no such thing!" Daniella insisted.  Her voice wouldn't carry over the angry mob.  "Please listen . . . Sebastian wouldn't have—"

Stifling a shriek as a strong hand snaked around her arm, she jerked her head to the side in time to see the head of Sebastian's security team—a polecat-youkai named Tarse Cartham.  The normally reserved man's gaze met her own, and she nodded once, understanding the urgency writ in his eyes.  He'd come in through the kitchen, and he tugged her along the expanse of wall that led to the archway—to escape.  Moving slowly to avoid drawing notice, she swallowed hard and scuffed her shoes as she willed herself not to run.  The men were arguing amongst themselves as the unity of the group fell apart before her eyes.  Some wanted to run; some wanted to stay, and in the rising din, they didn't seem to notice that Daniella was slipping away.  'Sebastian . . . Zelig . . . you're safe, aren't you?  You're safe . . .'

A youkai near the back of the crowd cuffed his comrade hard, sending the second man staggering back.  He hit the wall, the building shaking under the force of the impact seconds before the first youkai lunged forward, drawing his claws back.  Another youkai caught the aggressor, hauling him away from the still-dazed youkai.  In the confusion, Daniella slipped along the wall.  She was almost there; almost free . . .

"Get her!  She's getting away!" someone hollered over the din.

Tarse's grip tightened, and he jerked her toward the passage.  The wooden door that closed off the kitchen from the rest of the house wouldn't hold the youkai back for long, but maybe it would be long enough . . .

A mighty crack erupted behind her.  Daniella spared a moment to look over her shoulder.  "Akinako!" Sebastian bellowed, swinging his arms, cutting down youkai without a second thought, his eyes trained solely on hers.

"Keijizen!" she screamed.

The click of a pistol being cocked to fire was lost in the rampant swell of voices and motion, but the flash of the blackened metal and the thunder of the discharge were not . . .

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~22. August 1750~
~8:29 p.m.~
~Sebastian~

 

Breaking out of the smoldering trees, Sebastian noticed in a disjointed sort of way that the yard before the mansion was teeming with youkai.  The barn was ablaze, the charred skeleton of the building a macabre contrast to the glowing, dancing flames.  Two of the five guards he employed as stable hands were fighting: two had been cut down.  The blasts of air were coming fast as youkai fell in the fray.  He heard a muffled voice—angry yelling that he didn't deign to acknowledge.  One thing twisted in his mind as he drew his claws back, as he whipped around to meet the combatant who had stupidly stepped into his path.  He felt his fingertips slice through the youkai's neck; felt the tendons give way as a fountain of blood shot up in the air.  Bones scraped against his knuckles as liquid heat flowed over his fingers, thick and dark.  The youkai's body disintegrated seconds before his head touched the earth.

Sebastian kept moving, closing in on the house with a singular vision: Daniella, standing in the doorway, her skirts billowing around her as the gentlest breeze tossed her bangs.  Daniella, lifting her hand to wave goodbye . . . 'Daniella . . . Daniella!'

Catching a cougar-youkai by the throat, Sebastian tightened his fist, crushing the youkai's windpipe and shoving his body away as his claws dug into the interloper's jugular, the fine sheen of blood misting down on Sebastian's face, his chest, his hand as he sent the unfortunate youkai flying.  The youkai's torch sailed out of his hand, end over end across the yard.  It landed on a haystack near the stable, adding to the fierce glow.  The blast of purple light and surge of wind propelled Sebastian toward the front door, and he lowered his shoulder, smashing it open.

"Akinako!" he bellowed, scanning the room, the blur of muted color and dulled sound.  She was there, being tugged toward the kitchen doorway by Sebastian's head of security, Tarse Cartham.  Unleashing a ferocious growl, he slashed through the crowd.  Bodies fell around him, and in his haste to reach Daniella, he simply didn't care.

She stopped, face snapping to the side, her dark eyes wide as instantaneous relief surged in her aura.  Her absolute belief reached out to him; her conviction that he could save her.  "Keijizen!" she called out to him, stretching out her arm as Tarse continued to drag her toward the kitchen.

He heard the metallic clink of the pistol being readied to fire.  Somewhere in the mass before him, he could hear it even if he couldn't locate it.  Slashing wildly, he waded through the mob, cutting down anyone who was unfortunate enough to be standing between his mate and himself.

The pistol's report rang out in the air, silencing the din of voices.  Daniella saw the pistol, her eyes flaring wide in disbelief.  Wrenching her arm away from Tarse, she threw her weight against him, shoving him out of the way.  "No!" Sebastian screamed, lunging forward.  The bullet ripped through Daniella's chest, throwing her back against the wall.  She slumped to the floor in a pitiful heap, lying deathly still in the shocked quiet.  Carting around on his heel, Sebastian's eyes lit on the pallid face of the boar-youkai who was still holding the pistol in his trembling hands, as though his actions shocked him as much as it had the rest of the assembly.  The man didn't even think to try to reload the weapon, not that it would do any good.  With an outraged cry, Sebastian shot forward, his rage consuming him.  Eyes glowing fierce, crimson—the color of the blood pooling on the floor around Daniella—Sebastian slashed through the boar's body, ripping him open from sternum to groin.  Thrusting his hand into the open cavity, Sebastian jerked his entrails free, shoving him away as the dull light in the boar's eyes faded to black.

The remaining youkai in the room didn't even try to fight, or maybe Sebastian didn't notice.  Cutting them down, one right after another, he emptied the room as flashes of light; of fabricated wind rattled the windows and shook the walls.  The more blood he drew, the more his anger escalated.  'Akinako . . . Daniella . . . mate . . .' Those three words echoed in his head; the words of his salvation.  The rage that enveloped him didn't lessen.  Unable to discern friend from foe, he seized Tarse Cartham and heaved him away from Daniella.  The youkai hit the far wall, shattering the window beside the front door before he slumped to the floor.

"D . . . Daniella . . ." he murmured, blinking as the red haze that had tinged his vision waned.  Gently lifting her into his arms, he shook his head as a tiny whimper tumbled from his lips.  "Akinako . . ."

She grimaced, squeezing handfuls of his blood-soaked shirt in her fists.  Gasping sharply, she forced her eyes open.  She looked weary—so weary, and her teeth chattered as she swallowed hard and tried to speak.  "Keijizen . . ." she whispered.  "Zelig . . ."

"Zelig?" he echoed, shaking his head at the mention of the name that sounded familiar to him.  "Don't speak . . . you'll be fine," he said, his voice breaking and shattering like a thousand shards of glass on the floor.  Was he trying to convince her or himself?  "Akinako . . . don't . . ."

"Protect . . . Zelig . . ." she mumbled, her eyes slipping closed once more.

"Zelig," he repeated again as the vague image of a child's face solidified in his mind.  "My son . . . Daniella . . ."

Her hands dropped from his shirt as she went limp in his arms.  This flash of light—pale pinkish light—and the gust of wind that disintegrated her mortal body cut through Sebastian like a winter's chill.  The last thing he remembered was the peace that settled over her features, her hands dropping to cover her belly—their unborn child.  Throwing his head back, he howled—the sound of inu-youkai mourning—as the lingering remains of Daniella's body evaporated from his arms.

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~22. August 1750~
~8:38 p.m.~
~Zelig~

 

'The storm is coming, isn't it?'

Darting through the trees on the outskirts of the forest, Zelig stumbled over a root and slipped, catching himself with a hand on the dry forest floor, he pushed himself to his feet once more and ran. 

The thunder didn't make sense, did it?  There hadn't been a cloud in the sky all day, and even now, he could see the stars through the patches of leaves so high above.

'It's not thunder, Zelig,' a voice in his head whispered.  'You know that sound . . . remember?  Your father . . . he told you . . . it's gunfire.'

An orangey fog came into view.  It made no sense to him, either.  The forest was full of thick, acrid smoke, hazy on the ground and glowing with an unnatural light.  Coughing, eyes burning, he lifted his forearm to shield his face but kept moving.  He'd lost track of time, but the worry that he'd be confined to the house had dissipated when he'd heard the first crack of gunfire.  "Papa!" he called, his throat choked and raw.  Stopping long enough to glance around, he shook his head and forced himself to run deeper into the smoke.  Low hanging branches scratched at his face, whipping into his eyes as he batted at them with his arm.  Slipping on the decaying leaves that littered the forest floor, he whimpered at the sting in his palms as he skidded over the ground.  Pushing himself to his feet once more, he gingerly brushed off his hands, breaking into a sprint once more, peering over his shoulder as though he feared that the very hounds of hell were fast on his heels.

The trees lining the perimeter of the yard were engulfed in flames.  Diving through a narrow gap between trees—through the miserable blackness of empty space, he landed on his shoulder and rolled to his feet.  The stable was a configuration of blazing beams and supports.  The fire had spread to the wooden fence that surrounded the pen where the cattle exercised during the winter and ran along the length of railing.  It had almost reached the house.  Strange youkai—he knew they were youkai—fought in the center of the yard.  He recognized a couple of them—they worked in the stables and tended the animals.

"Find the boy!" a man yelled as he rounded the corner of the house.  Gripping his arm as blood stained the pale fabric of his shirt, the youkai fell to his knees and didn't try to rise again.  The front window beside the closed door shattered.  Zelig winced, stepping back once in retreat only to realize that the forest was still ablaze.  "Cavendish has gone mad!  Find the boy!  Find the boy!"

The fiercest howl drowned out all other sound.  Zelig shrank back, smashing his hands over his ears as his father's wail consumed the forest.  'Don't run, Zelig!' the voice in his head commanded.  'You cannot be afraid.  Find your father . . . he'll know what to do!'

'Papa . . . will know . . .'

His legs felt numb as he forced them to move, to carry him forward toward the house.  The chaos surrounding him was disorienting.  Darting around piles of burning hay, shielding his face from the harsh glow of the flames that reached heavenward, Zelig stumbled and ran.  'Papa . . . Mama . . . help me!'

The howl reverberating through the clearing—through the forest and through the trees—echoed in Zelig's head with unmerciful clarity.  It was his father, wasn't it?  The sound was unlike anything he'd ever heard before, cutting him deep, hurting him, and yet he couldn't understand why it was so.

Strong arms locked around him, hefting him off his feet and swinging him around in a compact circle.  "No!" a voice hissed in his ear.  "You cannot go in there!"

"Let go!  Let go!  Papa!  Help me!" Zelig cried, his raw throat as he reacted in the most primitive way.  The fierce little growl that welled up inside him spilled over as he dug his tiny claws into the man's hands.  Ripping, tearing, shredding flesh, he writhed and squirmed in a vain effort to gain his freedom.  The youkai smelled like pine trees and earth . . . Zelig renewed his struggle.  "Papa!"

"Stop it," the man—a youkai—hissed.  "Listen!  If they hear you—"

"Let—me—go!" Zelig yelled, slashing at the youkai's hands that were still locked around his chest.  His blood covered Zelig's fingers, and he kicked hard, fighting against the hold that was just too strong for him to break.  "Where's my papa?  Let go of me!"

Hauling him a few feet toward the forest once more, the youkai tightened his arm around Zelig's chest as he tried to hang onto the terrified child.  Smashing his hand over Zelig's mouth in an effort to quiet him, the youkai grunted as Zelig sank his teeth into the man's hand between his thumb and index finger.  Jerking his head from side to side, the boy tore a chunk of skin free.  The man gasped but didn't let go.  Zelig spit the skin out and grimaced as the coppery taste of blood that filled his mouth and gagged him.  "Into the forest, boy!  Run now!"

Zelig stumbled as the arms released him—shoved him, but he ran.  Peering over his shoulder as he sped toward the trees, Zelig caught a glimpse of the youkai.  Standing in the center of the burning yard, he watched Zelig's retreat.  The deafening crack of collapsing timber rang in his ears as sparks shot into the night skies from the falling stable.  The only thing Zelig could discern was the man's outline—black and solid against the dancing flames, trembling in the waves of heat that rose from the flames . . . and his eyes: fathomless, empty, haunted by the things he'd seen, yet glowing so brightly that they looked like pinpoints of light in the darkness . . .

Zelig turned and barreled into the trees . . .

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~22. August 1750~
~8:45 p.m.~
~Ben~

 

Ben broke through the tree line and skidded to a halt, taking a moment to stare at the desecration of the once-beautiful land.  "Kami," he muttered in disbelief.  Two of Cavendish's guards were trying to hold their own against four attacking youkai—members of Terfoure's regime.  They were doing well enough in the midst of the rollicking flames.

"Merde," Lucien breathed, shaking his head as he surveyed the carnage.  "Where is Cavendish?"

Ben scanned the area quickly, narrowing his gaze at the figure in the center of the yard.  Holding onto a wiggling bundle, the youkai was masked by the shifting flames, the image contorted by the waves of heat that radiated from the flaring land, and Ben's eyes widened as he realized just what the stranger was holding.

"Let—me—go!" Zelig screamed, his tiny growls coming to Ben over the expanse that separated them.  "Where's my papa?  Let go of me!"  The youkai stumbled a few feet before throwing his hand in the air.  Whether he had just struck Zelig or Zelig had hurt him, he couldn't tell, but the motion wasn't natural, and Ben's eyes flashed wide as fear gripped his stomach, and he breathed deep, trying to ascertain if the man had hurt the child.  He was too far away to tell.

"Zelig!" Ben hollered, running toward the flames, skirting the wall of fire as he tried to find a way through it.  The boy didn't hear him, and he kept struggling against the stronger hold.

The huge bear-youkai whispered something as he stooped down, shoving Zelig roughly.  The child faltered but caught himself as he darted toward the burning forest.

A resounding crash drew his attention, and Ben whirled around in time to see Cavendish charge out of the house, his eyes glowing fierce, red.  Blood stained his white shirt; his vest was ripped and ragged.  Lifting his head, he seemed to be trying to find something, and with a savage growl, he dashed forward.  Snarling as he reached the man who had just let Zelig go—Sebastian must have smelled his son's scent on the youkai—he paused for a moment, his growl surging and spiraling dangerously.  Moving so fast that it was hard to discern a singular motion, the tai-youkai caught the stranger by the throat, hefting him into the air.  With a swat of Sebastian's hand, the youkai was sent flying, blood arcing in the wake of his body as the irate tai-youkai lunged toward the combatants in the center of the yard.

Ben rushed forward.  Cavendish was half-crazed.  By the time he reached his friend, Sebastian had laid waste to the last of the men, including his own.  Unable to discern friend from foe, it seemed, Sebastian was dangerously close to losing the last of his control.  Ignoring the blasts of light and wind, Ben caught his arm and called out his name.  Sebastian whipped around to face him, raising his hand to strike.  "Don't do it, Keijizen!  Zelig needs you!" Ben yelled, and for one dizzying moment, he had to wonder if Sebastian could hear him at all.

The mention of his son's name stopped him.  The crimson staining his eyes flickered with his pulse then receded completely, leaving behind the haggard-looking eyes of the man Ben knew.  "Zel . . . ig . . ." he whispered uncertainly.  "Where is he?"

Ben glanced around and grimaced.  "He ran back into the forest," he replied, breaking into a fast stride as he scanned the area for Lucien Terfoure.  "Damn it!  Keiji . . . Terfoure was with me," he explained, grabbing Sebastian's arm and sprinting toward the trees where Zelig had fled, "and Zelig's alone."

"That bastard," Sebastian gritted out, passing Ben as he broke through the burning trees.  His sleeve caught fire, and he swatted at the flames without breaking his stride.  "This is entirely his doing!  Zelig!" he screamed.  "Zelig!"

Ben caught Zelig's scent and whistled.  Sebastian veered back on track, cutting down trees that stood in his path in his haste to find his son.

They broke into a small clearing next to a rippling stream.  Ben stopped short, grabbing at Sebastian's arm.  Sebastian shook him off and kept moving though he had slowed to a walk.  There, beside the water, was Terfoure, and in his arms was an unconscious Zelig.

"Stay back!" Terfoure intoned, his voice rising, cracking as he stepped back in retreat.  His eyes were wild, bright, like an animal that had been trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.  The squelch of his heel in the thick mud on the water's edge resounded in the clearing over the gentle ripple and the far away groan of the burning forest.

"You," Sebastian growled, his voice barely audible as he strode toward the youkai.  "Damn you."

Terfoure shifted Zelig in his arms, catching the boy around his chest and grasping his neck in one hand.  "Stay back," he demanded once more.  "Stay back if you value your son's life!"

Sebastian didn't stop stalking, the predatory shock in the air as thick as fog rolling off the ocean.  Sebastian's hatred was palpable—vile, choking.  Eyes flashing red in the night, he was still precariously close to losing his mind.  Ben forced himself not to act.  Sebastian wouldn't thank him for it, in any case.  It was his fight, his battle, and in the end, it was his, alone, to win or lose.  "You murdered my servants.  You murdered my mate.  You murdered me.  You shall not murder my son, too."

"Akinako . . ." Ben whispered, grimacing as Sebastian's words sank in.  In the commotion, he hadn't even stopped to wonder why Sebastian had left his mate alone.  "Daniella . . ."

"I'll do it!" Terfoure insisted, squeezing Zelig's neck, digging his claws in just enough to draw blood—fresh blood that lingered in the air and stopped Sebastian abruptly.  "Do not be a fool!"  Sparing a moment to glance at Ben, Terfoure seemed struck by a sudden inspiration.  "Leave him with me!" he blurted.  "I shall raise him—teach him the things you want him to know!  I'll protect him as though he were my own!  I . . . I'll do this for you . . . my liege."

Sebastian's growl started as a low rumble, as ominous thunder that cut through the air, gaining volume as it gained intensity.  The trees swayed, the world stilled, and all the land listened for the tai-youkai's command.  "You draw his blood and say you'll protect him?  Damn you, Terfoure . . . Your dreams die with you.  May you forever rot in hell."

Extending his hand before himself, Sebastian grimaced as the blue flame grew in the center of his palm, flaring higher, brighter.  The trees shook, the earth rumbled, and the water ceased to flow.  The flames that had spread through the trees crackled and sizzled and died away as a terrific crack of thunder split the starry heavens wide.  Heavy droplets of rain fell, unnatural rain that stifled the flames.  Terfoure glanced up at the sky, his grip on the child slackening.  Ben understood the youkai's reticence.  The power to invoke the rain . . . it was something that was awesome to behold.  It was Daniella's power.  Somehow Sebastian had managed to harness it, at least this one time . . . or maybe Daniella had done it?  The rain pelted down on them all—warm rain—soothing rain.  Sebastian flicked his wrist, unleashing the ball of energy that engulfed Terfoure's feet, growing larger, brighter as it encased his legs.  The youkai howled as pain invaded—the pain of burning from the inside out.  Rooted to the spot and powerless to stop the fire that raged under his skin, the youkai's face twisted in an agonized scream.  Steam rose from his body, and Ben understood.  The rain protected Zelig from being scorched by the dying youkai.

Sebastian strode forward, knocked Terfoure's hand away from Zelig's throat before taking the child and stepping away, his expression stoic, blank—his gaze, alone, betraying the animosity that he couldn't quite contain.

He turned away, cradling Zelig against his chest to protect him from the blast of light and wind blew the dust that was Terfoure to scatter on the breeze.  The rain died down and stopped completely as the ripple of the stream returned to life.  Ben bowed his head in deference to the stars so high above.

"I will take him to Sesshoumaru," Sebastian said in the silence that followed, his voice almost toneless; defeated . . . and weary.  All of his anger seemed to have dissolved—perhaps it had been washed away in Daniella's rain.

"Keijizen . . ."

He shook his head and started to trudge back into the trees, this time heading toward Boston Colony.  Turning his face to the side without faltering in his gait, he glanced at Ben out of the corner of his eye.  "Walk beside me, Benjiro . . . just this one last time."

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~23. August 1750~
~7:30 a.m.~
~Zelig~

 

He was moving . . . rather, his bed was moving.  His head throbbed unmercifully, and for reasons he didn't quite understand, he didn't want to open his eyes.  "M . . . Mama," Zelig murmured, whimpered, wincing as the sound of his own voice pounded in his skull.

A tired sigh that sounded entirely too masculine to be Daniella sounded seconds before a warm hand touched his forehead.  "I'm sorry, son . . . Mama's . . ." He cleared his throat.  "Mama's not here."

Forcing his eyes open, it took a minute to focus on his father's face.  Drawn, haggard, Sebastian's skin was pale, ashen, and Zelig blinked, scowling at the vision of the strong man that he knew to be his father.  For some reason, his papa seemed somehow diminished and infinitely sad.  The windowless cabin they occupied was illuminated by a single oil lamp that was bolted to the small table.  He was lying on the near side of a wide bed.  Sebastian sat beside him in a thick wooden chair, his shirt draped over another chair beside the table.  Scowling at the lacerations transecting his father's broad shoulder, Zelig tried to sit up only to be forced back gently albeit firmly by his father's shaking hands.  "Papa . . .?"

"It's all right, Zelig.  You need to rest."

Gingerly feeling the lump on Zelig's head, Sebastian grimaced when he whimpered.  "Smoke," Zelig murmured, turning his head, seeking to escape the examination.  "Fire . . ."

Sebastian grunted in response, letting his hand fall away from his son's forehead.  "Don't think about that; you hear me?  You're safe now . . . safe . . ."

"Mama's . . . gone?" Zelig asked, unable to grasp the implications of those words.

Sebastian sighed and nodded, his jaw ticking but his expression blank.  "Mama's gone . . ." he said softly, his voice rasping, hoarse.  "She's gone."

"And she can't come home?" Zelig whispered.

"No, she can't."  Blinking rapidly, Sebastian couldn't meet Zelig's confused gaze, and he had to clear his throat before he could speak again.  "I . . . I failed to protect her.  I'm sorry, Zelig . . . I'm sorry."

The hotness of tears prickled the back of his eyelids.  He wasn't sure exactly what his father meant, but he understood the gist of his words: Mama was gone; she couldn't come back.  He'd never see her again, would he?

'Stop, Zelig . . . don't cry.  You're too old to cry, remember?  Your father . . . He feels bad enough.  Don't add to his sorrow by crying . . .'

Zelig screwed his face up in a concerted effort not to cry.  Biting back the tears that pooled in his eyes with a viciousness that belied his age, he nodded slowly and opened his eyes, laying his hand atop his father's.  "It's all right, Papa."

Sebastian gazed at his son, his eyes suspiciously bright.  For a moment, he tried to smile—so sad, so broken, and in that moment, Zelig somehow knew the truth.  "You'll be fine, Zelig; I promise you."

Zelig nodded again as he let his eyes drift closed.  Sleep still lingered around the edges of his mind, and in the stillness, he could hear the waves slapping against the walls.  "Where are we going?" he mumbled, unable to sleep until he assuaged his curiosity.

"We're on a ship bound for France," he replied in a monotone.  "Then I'm taking you . . . I'm taking you home."

That didn't make sense in his clouded brain.  Home was in the forest, wasn't it?  Flames . . . Flames so big that they licked the heavens; so high that they touched the stars . . . burning things as far as he could see . . . and smoke so thick that it choked him . . . Zelig flinched and forced his eyes open once more.  Something terrible had happened, hadn't it?  That was the reason Mama wasn't with them . . . He opened his mouth to ask his father, but the single tear that slipped down Sebastian's cheek stopped him.  Leaning his head back against the wall, he was staring at the ceiling without seeing a thing, but that one tear . . . Zelig closed his eyes again.  Why did it hurt to see his father cry?

'It's because your mama's gone,' the voice in his head whispered gently.  'Your papa belongs with your mama, and she's gone . . . She's gone.'

'Papa . . . belongs with Mama?'

Unable to withstand the ache that those words inspired, Zelig rolled onto his side to face the wall, squeezing his eyes closed as his nose tingled, as his lip quivered . . . as two fat tears slipped from his eyes to course down his face in the silence.

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~30. June 1751~
~10:40 a.m.~
~Sebastian~

 

"You grew up there, Papa?  In Nippon?"

Sebastian coughed weakly, nodding vaguely as he gripped the ship's railing and willed the surge of nausea to pass.  "Aye, Zelig," he replied.  "Your mama and Ben and I did."

Zelig clamored up on the bottom rung of the railing and leaned into the wind.  Now, at five years of age, the boy had become a sober, quiet child.  In the nine months since they'd left Boston, it grew more and more difficult with every passing day to coax him into smiling, though Sebastian tried to do that despite his declining health.

He was barely hanging on, and he knew it.  He should have been dead long ago; should have followed Daniella to the next world.  The only thing keeping him going was the consuming need to see that Zelig was safe; that he'd be left in the most capable hands . . . with the one being that Sebastian knew could instill the knowledge and training that Zelig would need in the years—no, centuries—to come.  He hadn't realized how true it had been, the thought that his son would be the future.

Sebastian had stopped eating food long ago.  When it became apparent that anything he ate could and would be thrown back up, he'd given up on that.  Youkai didn't need food, after all.  Some survived for years without eating, but the result had been the marked loss of body mass.  So thin and frail-looking that he'd often caught humans staring at him in something akin to horror, he'd started to avoid going anywhere during the day since the darkness of night offered him a semblance of cover.  If it had been that, alone, he might have survived, but his physical body . . . it was decaying around him.  His senses were slowly dying out, one by one.  His sense of smell was nearly gone, and his eyesight was worsening by the day.  His body ached as though his bones were brittle with age, and even his emotions were dulled.  Sheer determination kept him moving, brought him out of bed in the morning when all he really wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep . . . but he couldn't sleep, either.  He'd found that out in the very beginning.  Sleep brought on the dreams—beautiful, terrible dreams.  Daniella was there in his dreams, and he . . . He never wanted to wake up from them, to face the reality and the pain that always seemed that much harsher in the thin light of the hazy mornings.  It was like losing her all over again, and that pain . . . It was the worst of all.  Unable to relinquish himself to the beckoning promise of seeing Daniella again, he could not let himself be dissuaded from his solitary purpose.  Zelig was relying on him, wasn't he, and Sebastian would be damned to an eternity of hellfire before he'd fail his son, as well.

They'd traveled across most of Europe and Asia via Sebastian's energy form with Zelig tucked carefully against his chest, but had to abandon that method when his stamina started to wane.  Luckily, they'd been able to find a ship heading to the Orient out of Bombay.  The last leg of their journey was taking its toll on him, too.  Unable to leave the cabin for days on end because he was just too weak to summon the strength necessary to climb the stairs to the deck above, it had taken much of Sebastian's waning strength and sheer determination when the child had reluctantly asked to go above.

"I can go alone, Papa," Zelig had insisted stubbornly.

Sebastian shook his head, unwilling to let his son out of his sight for any length of time.  "Bring my boots, Zelig," he'd finally said.

The pup had gazed upon his father with an expression full of dubious hope.  That was enough to goad Sebastian out of bed and up the stairs to watch as Zelig basked in the early summer sunshine.

If the child noticed his father's declining heath, he never remarked on it.  Spending hours upon hours sketching quietly in the thick book that Sebastian had bought for him in Bombay, Zelig chronicled their journey in images of the animals, mostly in families, and landscapes they'd seen.  Never did he sketch a face; not once did he draw a person.  Whether that was a conscious decision or just a coincidence, Sebastian wasn't certain.

"Did Sesshoumaru train you, Papa?"

Sebastian smiled wanly.  'Zelig is being extraordinarily talkative today . . .' he mused to himself.  "Nay, Zelig, he did not, but I believe he will do well with you.  Mind what he tells you and do your best."

"Aye, sir," Zelig answered seriously.

"You'll be fine," Sebastian assured him.

Zelig's blue eyes shone with the sunlight reflecting off the ocean.  "Then I'll go back to Boston?  I'll be the tai-youkai . . ."

Sebastian grimaced as memories nipped at his precarious calm.  The child didn't see it.  "You'll be the tai-youkai, but you need not return to Boston.  Pick another city, Zelig—wherever you want to be.  Ben will be waiting for you."

Zelig nodded slowly, his eyebrows drawing together in a marked scowl.  "Will I . . . Will I see you again, Papa?"

Sebastian sighed.  He'd seen that question in his son's eyes far too often over the last nine months.  The time had come, he supposed.  Keeping the truth from him; telling him a bald-faced lie . . . that wasn't going to help Zelig in the end.  He only wished he didn't have to teach his son this particular lesson.  "Not in your lifetime, son."

Zelig absorbed that statement in his own quiet way, shifting his gaze back over the water as the breeze blowing off the ocean ruffled his hair.  "Because Mama's alone, right?  Because Mama needs you."

Closing his eyes against the pragmatic tone in Zelig's young voice, Sebastian willed away the ache in his chest.  It was the first time since the morning when he'd had to tell Zelig that she was gone that the child had mentioned his mother, and Sebastian realized with a sharp pang that the boy knew far more than he had ever let on.  "Aye," he rasped out, clutching the collar of his shirt so tightly his knuckles turned white.  "Mama needs me."

"And I'll be all right because you're taking me to Sesshoumaru," Zelig went on as he bounced on the railing, "so you won't have to worry about me, Papa . . . I'll be as strong as you one day."

How was it that his young son could lend him strength when his own faltered?  Smiling sadly, Sebastian ruffled Zelig's golden bronze hair, turning his face up toward the heavens so that Zelig wouldn't discern the tell-tale brightness that was gathering in his eyes.  "You already are," he replied in a whisper.  "You already are."

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~30. July 1751~
~11:00 p.m.~
~Sebastian~

 

Sebastian sighed as he gripped the fountain pen in his trembling hand.  The oil lamp on the table burned low, and it was difficult to keep his eyes trained on the paper, but he didn't have much time left.  Too many things needed to be said; too many things needed to be explained, and time was of the essence now.  Time . . .

Hunching his shoulders, resting his forearms on the table, he refreshed his grip on the pen and tried to keep his fingers from shaking.  The questions kept tumbling over themselves in his head; the same questions he'd asked himself time and again.  Had he taught Zelig everything he wanted to teach him?  Had he imparted the knowledge so that his son would understand?  Would Zelig be able to find his place in the world without the mother and father that he deserved?  How could Zelig ever forgive Sebastian for leaving him completely alone . . .?

:::

'30. July 1751.'

'Benjiro,

'We have almost reached our destination.  While I have not seen the sky or the ocean for myself in days, I feel it coming closer: the land of our rising sun.  I wished to thank you, my friend.  Your years of devotion weigh heavily on my heart these last days, for I never got the chance to thank you.  There were so many times I should have said as much.  Forgive my oversight, I beg you.

'As the interim tai-youkai in this time and in that place, I know that you will endure where I have failed, and I know that you shall prepare the way for Zelig.  I have tried these last months, to instill the beliefs that he needs.  More often of late, I feel like a hypocrite, telling him to look to himself for strength—to trust in his own heart and in his own intuition for the guidance that I, myself, seem to have lost.  I've told him to keep his word when he makes it.  I've advised him never to give his word lightly.  I've taught him that fairness and compassion should stand firm against those things that would be simpler to achieve in less upstanding of ways.  I have implored him not to trust too freely, but to give trust freely when it is earned.  Yet I fear that in all my lessons, the one lesson I cannot impart him is the one that he truly needs to know: there is beauty in the misting skies of dawn, beauty in a child's smile.  There is beauty to be found in the eyes of those who look to you for strength, and there is beauty in the quiet rise of the moon.  I shall entrust you with this lesson, Benjiro, for I am now blinded to the vitality of color, and I cannot remember the swelling of hope that used to fill me when I observed the rising dawn.  Precious little emotion is afforded me of late, and the emotion I do possess is devoted entirely to Zelig.

'You must help to guide him, Ben.  I trust in your oath that you will never leave him.  Those words—your vow—they ring in my mind, offering me a semblance of strength to see my last task through.  You promised that you would aide him in whatever capacity he requires, and I trust you.  Aye, I trust you.'

:::

Pausing to refill the fountain pen from the inkwell weighted to the table, it took some minutes for Sebastian's clumsy fingers to complete the task as a fine sheen of sweat broke over his forehead.  A surge of nausea swept through him, vertigo so strong that he had to close his eyes to keep from slipping from his chair.  Digging his claws into the table's smooth surface, he swallowed hard, drawing a deep breath as he willed the cabin to stop spinning.

Clearing his throat, he opened his eyes, sparing a moment to glance at his son before pushing himself to his feet and shuffling across the tiny cabin to touch Zelig's bangs—hair so soft and so fine it reminded him of Daniella's whisper soft locks.  Huddled under the thin blanket on the bed with Sebastian's Mokomoko-sama wrapped around him, Zelig soundly slept.  Ben had the presence of mind to return to the house long enough to find both Zelig's as well as Sebastian's furs.  Sebastian had meant to head out before Ben returned, but in the end, he sat on a rock with Zelig nestled against his chest and waited for Ben in the darkness.  'Forgive me, Zelig,' he thought with a grimace.  'It wasn't . . . supposed to be this way . . .'

Stumbling back to the table, he shook his head to dispel the weariness—the dizziness—that never seemed very far away.  Dropping heavily into the chair once more, he flexed his fingers and slowly, carefully took up the pen once more.

:::

'Zelig still sees the world through the eyes of a child, yet I fear that his vision is tainted.  Though his nightmares come less frequently now, he does not comprehend that which he has seen.  If he has ever cried, I know it not.  To have never mourned the loss of his mother . . . for my sake.  I sought to tell him that it was not a sign of weakness.  I wanted him to know that Daniella loved him; that I love him still.  Looking into his serious eyes, I find that I cannot do it.  He does not remember much of that night.  He seems to have forgotten, and perchance that is for the best.  What good could come of that, I ask you?  Dwelling on things lost along the way . . . It is the path of the fool.

'If this is to be my final confession, then let it be known: I failed Daniella.  I failed Zelig.  I failed you, and I failed myself: the one vow I made that I could not keep: the oath I swore to protect her.  In my miscalculation, I cost Zelig not only his mother but his unborn sibling, as well.  They could have comforted one another, and Zelig wouldn't have been left alone in the end.  I damn myself for that.  I've damned myself for many things.  There is only one thing that keeps me going.  I must not fail Zelig in this.  He will live, and he will overcome, and I swear on all that is holy that he will not repeat my mistakes.  It is my singular resolve to see this through.  I leave it to you; in your capable hands.  You will not falter where I have failed, and Zelig will live to see a new day.  To look upon the rising sun with a smile . . . to see his own children thrive and flourish . . . that is my unspoken vow: to ensure that he carries on.

'The daylight faded long ago.  I sit in the darkness, afraid to sleep, afraid to dream.  There is no comfort in anything; not for me.  In rejoining Akinako, I shall be abandoning Zelig, and the irony of it all stands out in my mind.  Perhaps this is the real punishment for having failed her.  Perhaps this is the damnation that I truly deserve.  I grow infinitely weary, and like a coward, I look to my son to lend me strength.  When I open my eyes to face the new day, it is with the knowledge that my moments are limited.  Still I selfishly drink in every detail I can: memories of Zelig in this time that I have stolen.  Daniella might want to know, after all.  I owe her that much.  I owe her so much more.

'The cabin boy who brings our meals has told me that we shall be at our destination within the week.  It seems so short, and yet it seems like ages, too.  Thank you, my friend.  I owe you so much.  You have walked beside me so many times through the years.  The only thing I can leave you is my most precious achievement.  Guide him as his father would have had he not been such a foolish man.  Walk beside him as you have walked beside me.  Advise him when he asks your opinion; lead him when he falters.  Of all the things that have brought me shame, Zelig, alone, has not.

'I close this now with one last plea.  Do not let Zelig lose the qualities that make him shine.  The way he sees the world is remarkable, and perhaps a dreamer can endure where the more pragmatic man has failed.

'Keijizen.'

:::

Heaving a sigh as he dropped the fountain pen once more, Sebastian pulled the scrap of paper—Zelig's sketch—from his pocket before pulling the perforated tin cover from the oil lamp.  Carefully rolling the papers together, he held them in one hand as he melted a stick of sealing wax over the lamp's flame.  It only took a moment to smear the wax on the seam of paper.  He sealed it closed with his signet ring: the seal of the tai-youkai.  Slouching back, he frowned at the ring.  It didn't fit his finger any longer.  It hadn't fit his finger in months.  Slipping it into his pocket, he sighed, rubbing his temple with a trembling hand.  Zelig's seal would be slightly different.  He would have his own signet ring when the time came.  This one . . . he should return it to the one who had bestowed on him the blessing—and the curse.

Grimacing as another wave of vertigo threatened to consume him, he breathed slowly, willing it to pass.  His youki was diminishing fast.  He could scarcely hear the voice in his head anymore.  When it stopped whispering, it would all end.  When it stopped whispering, he could sleep . . .

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

 

~7. August 1751~
~6:00 p.m.~
~Sebastian~

 

Sebastian trudged along the dirt path that led through the forest on the outskirts of Edo.  Zelig had been curiously quiet since they'd arrived.  Maybe he sensed that everything that he had ever really known was changing.  Things had changed in the centuries since Sebastian had left his motherland—more people . . . new villages, and even Edo, itself—and yet the overall feel was familiar, welcoming him home with every whisper on the wind.

Sparing a glance at his five year-old son, Sebastian blinked back the moisture gathering in his eyes.  Zelig's hair had grown longer in the year since that fateful night.  The journey that had carried them both from one side of the world to the other was nearly completed, and the child knew, didn't he?

As though he sensed his father's turbulent thoughts, Zelig slipped his hand into Sebastian's . . . or maybe that wasn't really the reason, at all.  His little fingers trembled, his palm cold and clammy in Sebastian's dry grip.  He was frightened, wasn't he?  Afraid of being left alone . . . The surge of righteous indignation slammed through Sebastian: the strongest emotion he'd felt in weeks.  Zelig was too young to feel such fear; much too young to be made to understand that some things could not be changed, no matter how badly he wished they could be . . .

"I'll be good, and I'll work hard," Zelig finally said, his face grave, solemn.  "I'll be tai-youkai like you."

"You will, no doubt, be a better tai-youkai than I ever was," Sebastian intoned, careful to keep his tone even.  "You'll be stronger and fairer because you know what you are destined to be from the start."

"Will I be big like you when I grow up, Papa?"

Sebastian managed a thin smile.  "Bigger, I'll wager."

"No one is bigger than you," Zelig argued dubiously.

Sebastian chuckled, seeing the irony in his son's candid claim.  Perhaps he used to be big.  He'd wasted away, though, to a mere shadow of his former self, and not for the first time, he had to wonder if Sesshoumaru would recognize him on sight.  Worse yet was the underlying knowledge that Daniella's scent was fading from him.  Sometimes in the night when Zelig would start awake from his nightmares, he'd stare at Sebastian as though his father were a stranger, and even though Sebastian's sense of smell was nearly gone, he'd realized the truth from the look on Zelig's face as the pup struggled to understand that the skeleton of a man who tried his best to comfort him really was the same father he'd always known.

Veering off the path, Sebastian sank down on a fallen tree.  He needed a moment to regain his strength, and he drew a few shallow breaths—deeper ones always resulted in fits of coughing.  Zelig scrambled up to sit beside him, his shoulders slumping as he stared at his little hands.  Sebastian had paid a villager to deliver the scant luggage they had to Sesshoumaru's home.  They carried nothing with them, and maybe it was better that way.

'Just a little further,' he told himself.  'We're almost there . . . almost there . . .'

"Your mother grew up not far from here," Sebastian said quietly as he lifted his gaze to the trees.  "A little north . . . a little toward the west in a tiny village . . . I've . . . forgotten the name . . ."

A sad expression passed over Zelig's features.  He scrunched up his shoulders and let them drop.  "Do you think Rufus is all right?" he ventured at length to ask.

Sebastian blinked quickly, willing the surrounding forest to come into focus once more.  "Rufus?"

"He was just a stupid cat," Zelig grumbled just before his face contorted, just before the smallest of whimpers escaped him.  "Why didn't we bring him with us?"

"I'm certain Ben's taking care of Rufus," Sebastian mused rather absently, forcing himself back to his feet.  His strength was ebbing fast.  If he didn't get moving, he wouldn't be able to do it at all.  He had to get Zelig to Sesshoumaru.  "Come."

Zelig sighed but did as he was told, scuffing his shoes in the dirt as the two stepped back onto the path.  They walked on in silence for a time.  Sebastian reached down and took Zelig's hand again.  The boy shot him a curious glance but didn't speak.

He could feel his body shutting down.  As though it realized that the journey was nearly over, the struggle to draw breath made him slow his gait as a cold sweat broke over his forehead.  It took all his concentration to keep moving.  The trees slid in and out of focus before his eyes.  Zelig, alone, seemed bright, clear, and Sebastian stumbled slightly as a fierce need to hold the boy shot through him.  Without a second thought, he stooped down, scooping the child up in his arms.  Zelig, who always insisted that he was a big boy, didn't complain at all.  Letting his temple fall against his father's shoulder, he seemed to understand that he was somehow lending his father a measure of strength, deepening Sebastian's already unwavering resolve.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd kissed Zelig's cheek, couldn't remember the downy softness of his skin.  Pressing his lips to his son's forehead, Sebastian closed his eyes against the wash of moisture that clouded his vision for a precious moment before moving on once more.

The trees thinned around them, and he stepped into the hazy sunlight of the early evening sky.  The house—more of a castle, really—loomed before him, standing tall, majestic against the backdrop of trees.  The gates stood open wide, and he walked through.  The guards near the walls nodded as he passed.  He couldn't rightly make out any faces and wasn't certain he'd recognize anyone, anyway.  Garnering curious glances from the few youkai assembled in the yard, Sebastian ignored them all, shuffling toward the porch that ran around the perimeter of the edifice.

The doors slid open, and Sesshoumaru stepped outside.  Sebastian thought that he could see the Inu no Taisho's mate slip out to stand behind Sesshoumaru, but he couldn't be certain.  The hazy, dreamlike quality of his thoughts, of his actions precluded a deeper sense of reality as he tightened his hold on the boy in his arms.

Sesshoumaru's eyes lit with recognition even before the hint of shock entered his gaze.  Sebastian bowed his head slightly, refusing to relinquish his hold on his son.  When he lifted his chin, he saw the understanding in the depths of Sesshoumaru's stare.  "Leave us," Sesshoumaru called out, eyes sweeping over the grounds.  Sebastian smoothed Zelig's hair, ignoring the rustle of movement behind them.  Zelig didn't open his eyes.  "So it has come to this," he said at last, breaking the silence that rang in Sebastian's ears.

"I ask that you teach him the things he needs to know," Sebastian stated, clearing his throat, unable to keep his words from slurring the tiniest bit.

Sesshoumaru let his eyes fall to the child.  Zelig finally looked around, lifting his head from his father's shoulder.  Golden gaze narrowing as he assessed the boy, he nodded once as his eyes flicked back to meet Sebastian's.  "He knows all that he needs to know."

Sebastian swallowed hard.  "Then . . . then train him so that he can protect himself and what is rightfully his.  Do this for me."  Digging the signet ring out of his pocket, he dropped it into the Inu no Taisho's hand.  "Do this because I . . . cannot."

Sesshoumaru nodded once.  "You have my word, Keijizen."

Sebastian shook his head and quickly dashed a hand over his eyes.  The line of his vision was dimming too fast.  Fumbling for his pocket, he handed Sesshoumaru the scrolled papers—the letter he'd written to Ben.  "See that Ben gets this?"

Sesshoumaru nodded again, accepting the scroll with a steady hand.  "It shall be done."

Sebastian licked his lips, hugged Zelig tight, if only just for the moment.  Zelig clung to him, uttering a choked sob.  His little body stiffened, and he pushed his head under Sebastian's chin, seeking the comfort of his remaining parent in a primitive sort of way—the actions of a desperate child who didn't understand what he pretended to know.  Sebastian kissed Zelig's cheek, willing his son to know how very much he was loved.  The wind gathered in his ears; loud, wailing . . . a hundred-thousand voices of the ones who had gone before called to Sebastian, and he forced himself to let go.  Time was precious, wasn't it?  He had to hurry . . .

Setting the child back on his feet, he knelt down stiffly, lifting Zelig's chin with a spindly finger.  "Be strong, Zelig.  I am so very proud of you."

Zelig nodded, blue eyes sparkling like diamonds in the sun.  The unshed tears pooled in his eyes but didn't spill over.  "I'm proud of you, too, Papa," he said.

Sebastian choked back a sob, opting instead to force a smile.  Zelig returned the half-hearted expression.  Shifting his gaze over his son's head to Sesshoumaru, Sebastian nodded again.  "Thank you."

"Don't go, Papa . . . I'll be good," Zelig whimpered, throwing his arms around Sebastian's neck as a choked little sob slipped from him.  "I won't tree the cats, I promise!  I . . . promise . . ."

"Zelig . . ." Sebastian whispered as words failed him.

Two delicate hands gripped Zelig's shoulders.  The child jerked his body in an effort to dislodge the hands, and Sebastian lifted his gaze in a disjointed effort to see who was seeking to interfere.  Sesshoumaru's mate, Kagura frowned, her eyebrows furrowing as she shot Sebastian a helpless sort of look; a pathetic little shake of her head, and maybe in that moment, she felt as helpless as he did.  "Please, Papa," Zelig begged.

Gently pushing Zelig back, Sebastian cleared his throat gruffly.  His vision cleared for a moment as he stared at his son, drinking in all the details of the adult's eyes carefully masked in the disguise of a child's face.  "Your mother . . . she . . . loved you," he rasped out, cupping Zelig's cheeks in his hands, "and I . . . I do, as well."

Shoving himself to his feet, he turned on his heel and strode away.  He didn't dare look back.  Trusting that Sesshoumaru would keep Zelig from following him, he stumbled through the gates of the manor and along the path that led into the forest . . . Clouds still drifted high overhead; birds still sang in the trees, but his perception of his surroundings was disoriented, skewed.  Unable to reconcile himself to the idea that his journey really could come to an end, Sebastian scratched the side of his head in silent confusion . . .  In the long run, the passing of a solitary life would mean nothing, would it?  In the end, he would just . . . fade away.

Veering off the path and into the forest, he collapsed beneath an old magnolia tree.  Breathing harsh and labored, he managed to push himself up against the stout tree trunk.  His arms felt heavy, leaden, and the world around him dimmed.

He'd done it, hadn't he?  He'd delivered Zelig to Sesshoumaru.  Zelig would be safe, and he'd be strong, and above all, he would survive.  Mouth slackening as he struggled to breathe, he blinked rapidly in a vain effort to clear his vision.  A bright pinkish light sparked to life before him, slowly growing larger as wind whipped his hair into his face.  A slender hand reached out of the light, delicate fingers extending toward him.  A familiar scent surrounded him, and with the last of his waning strength, he reached out to her.

'Akinako,' he thought weakly, his fingertips slipping through the misty vision.  His fingers took on a hazy glow, and when he reached toward her for the second time, their fingers locked as the gentlest whisper of her laughter filled the aching void that had surrounded him for far too long.  A foreign sound filled his head.  It took a moment for him to recognize it.  He was laughing, wasn't he?  Laughing with her because she was laughing, too . . . 'Daniella . . . I'm . . . home . . .'

 

 

 

~The End~

 

 

:-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-:

~Postscript~

 

Sebastian hadn't noticed the solitary figure standing in the shadows of the falling night.  The youkai didn't blink as the wind ripped through the forest, and he didn't flinch at the blinding light that exploded under the branches of the ancient magnolia tree.  The dust that rose in the air seemed to swirl in place, hovering just above the ground.  In the midst of the unnatural wind, the vague outline of a silvery form seemed to rise to its feet to stand before another—this one gauzier, foggier.  The two forms joined hands; the smaller form rising up as the taller one leaned down.  The shape of the two lovers silhouetted in the vortex of the billowing wind—wind that sounded like laughter . . . Distorted by the whirling gale, the image dissolved beneath the cover of a flash of blinding light.

Bowing his head just slightly, acknowledging the life that had passed from this realm into the next, Sesshoumaru stood in silence for a long moment before slowly turning and walking toward the gates of his home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 5, 2006.
5:00 p.m.

Chapter Text

 ~A Purity Oneshot~
~A Very Purity Christmas

-O-O-O-O-O

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me … 

-O-O-O-O-O-

 

.:December 13, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

Sparing a moment to glance up at the gray clouds hanging thickly overhead, Inutaisho Toga narrowed his amber eyes as he wondered vaguely if the skies were considering dropping some snow.  With a sigh, he shook his head, turning back toward the clean porch.  He doubted it.  It simply didn’t snow very often in Tokyo, and even if it did, it was much too warm for it to stick around for more than a few hours, tops.  It would be nice, though.  His mate, Sierra had been born and raised in Chicago, Illinois in the United States, and it snowed a lot there . . .

As he reached for the door handle, he frowned.  It was a given that the two tiny faces of his four-and-a-half year-old twin daughters, Chelsea and Charity were normally plastered to the long, narrow windows on either side of the door to watch for him.  Their conspicuous absences were a bit depressing . . .

Brushing aside the vague sense of melancholy that assailed him over the slight, he pushed the door open and stepped into the house, a wan smile surfacing on his features as the scent of roasting chicken invaded his nostrils.  “I’m home,” he called, the smile dissipating almost as quickly as it had appeared as he slipped off his shoes and straightened them against the raised wood floor.  Something wasn’t right, was it?  The house was just a little too quiet.  With five children, three of whom were under the age of five, at home, it was never truly ‘quiet’, was it?

Sierra wasn’t in the kitchen, and Toga strode toward the living room, passing by the wall of framed pictures that Sierra had so carefully hung over the years since they’d been married.  Snapshots of her family, of his family, and of Toga and their children so meticulously matted and framed that he’d thought more than once that a professional couldn’t have done a better job at it, and while he knew that it always was a labor of love for his wife, he also knew that many of those same photographs hurt her when she stopped to look at them.

He sighed, leaning against the high arching doorway as he took in the sight of Sierra, curled up in a small recliner, dozing quietly with the book she’d been trying to read propped on the arm of the chair.  This year had been tough on her, and while she never really complained, he knew.  He always knew what she was feeling . . .

Her mother had died a few years ago, and she’d gone to the funeral.  It had been strained, though, since she hadn’t really changed since she’d married Toga nearly ten years before, and some of her relatives had looked at her strangely.  While they were polite, she hadn’t missed the curious glances, the whispers that she hadn’t been able to discern, and it had bothered her though she hadn’t said any such thing to him about it.

Earlier this year, however, she’d been saddened to learn that one of her brothers—Mike—had suffered a massive heart attack and had passed away before help could arrive, and though she’d wanted to attend the funeral, she was afraid that her presence would again be questioned, potentially overshadowing the reason that they were gathering.  It had been her decision, and Toga understood.  He’d tried to coax her into attending for her own peace of mind, but she’d adamantly refused.  Perhaps it had been inevitable, but he couldn’t help but blame himself for the ever-widening distance that she maintained with her remaining family.  Breaking her ties was something that she’d understood would one day have to happen because the questions just couldn’t really be answered without giving away too much of the secret that preserved the peace between humans and youkai, and while her brothers all knew of the circumstances—Toga had told them all just before he’d married Sierra—they may not have really understood the ramifications of it all; not really.

Still Sierra smiled and laughed, assuring Toga that she was ‘just fine’ with a shake of her head as she cuddled with him late in the night in the quiet of their bedroom.  She loved her children, and she was completely devoted to him, and he knew that, too.  That didn’t do a thing to alleviate the sense of overwhelming guilt that assailed him whenever he stopped to consider the idea that she had given up everything she’d known just to be with him, and that was why he was determined to give her the best Christmas ever, bar none—something entirely special that might not take away that ache in her heart whenever she thought about those she loved and had left behind, but maybe—just maybe—it would help.

As though she sensed his perusal, she moaned softly and sat up, blinking quickly to clear away the lingering sleepiness that remained.  Arching her back as she slowly stretched, she stifled a yawn with the back of her hand.  “I’m home,” he said quietly, unwilling to speak louder and interrupt the peacefulness of the moment.

The smile that lit on her face was languorous but genuine as she pushed herself out of the chair and shuffled toward him.  “Yes, you are,” she murmured, slipping her arms around his waist and leaning up to kiss his cheek.  “Have a good day?”

“Mm,” he intoned, savoring the feel of her body so close to his as he caught her chin and lifted it, kissing her sweetly before hugging her tight.  “What could be better than coming home to you?” he parried.  “Where are my pups?”

She rolled her eyes but laughed for a moment.  Her smile, however, slowly faded, and she shook her head as she let out a deep breath in a harsh gust.  “Your pups,” she repeated thoughtfully.  “Which pup are you missing?”

“Well, what about the twin ones—you know: the ones who always meet me at the front door?”

“Oh, that’s easy.  They’re probably in their room playing with the new dolls you bought them.”

Cocking an eyebrow since he didn’t recall buying any such thing in the last few days, Toga grinned.  “That I bought them?”

Sierra smiled again, letting her arms drop as she pulled away to straighten the cushions on the sofa.  “Yes, that you bought them,” she reiterated.

“Nice,” he replied mildly, stuffing his hands into his pockets and shuffling over to Sierra’s side.  “Was it a special occasion or was I just being extra generous today?”

She grinned at him over her shoulder as she bent over to pound on the side of the seat cushion to fluff it up.  “They were begging for them when we went to the store to get that you-know-what for you-know-who.”

Chuckling at Sierra’s not-so-subtle hint, he nodded.  “But it isn’t their birthday,” he pointed out reasonably.

“That’s what I said,” she agreed, straightening her back and dusting her hands together industriously.  “Then they said that they would ask their daddy, and since I know you, I figured I might as well save you the trip to the store.”

“I’m such a softy,” he commented with a sage nod.

“Yes, you are,” she allowed.  “They drink and they wet and they wear real diapers.”

“And here I thought that the twins were potty trained awhile ago,” he teased.

Sierra laughed and kissed his cheek again.  “The dolls, Toga—the dolls.”

He grinned in response as he scratched his chin thoughtfully.  “Hmm . . . did I buy anything else that I should know about?” he asked.

“Nope, just the dolls.”

“All right,” he said with a vague nod, “so where are the rest of my pups?”

Rubbing her forehead, she shrugged offhandedly, retrieving her book and straightening the magazines and books that stood on the coffee table.  “I’d imagine that Cassidy is hiding out in Coral’s room like always, and Gunnar . . .”

Frowning when she trailed off, Toga narrowed his eyes.  It wasn’t like Sierra to hedge, and, judging from the look on her face, she was trying to find a good way to say whatever it was that she had on her mind.  “Sierra?” he prodded gently.

Flopping onto the sofa as though her legs couldn’t hold her any longer, Sierra’s shoulders sagged just a little lower, and she rubbed her face in an exhausted sort of way.  “Gunnar kind of . . . bit . . . Coral.”

That gave him pause, leaving him silent for a few minutes.  “Mamoruzen bit her?” he repeated with a shake of his head, “as in, sank his teeth into her . . .?”

“Sounds about right,” she replied mildly.  Heaving a sigh, she looked entirely defeated for a moment before forcing a smile that he knew damn well was for his benefit.

He grimaced and leaned down to kiss her forehead.  “Okay, so where is he?”

That earned him a long look, as though she expected him to know where his son might well be hiding, and Toga grinned sheepishly since he had a good idea.  “Where do you suppose he is?” she drawled.

“Of course,” he agreed with an apologetic grimace since he should have realized where his son would be hiding.  “I’ll talk to him.”

She nodded then grabbed his hand when he started to move away.  “Toga . . .”

“Yeah?”

She winced.  “Don’t be too hard on him, okay?  Coral . . . well, she isn’t entirely innocent.  I don’t like that he bit her, but . . .”

Toga nodded slowly, sparing a moment to smile at his mate in an effort to reassure her that he wasn’t about to tear either his oldest or his youngest pup to shreds.  “Do you know what they were fighting about?”

She shook her head then shrugged.  “I’m not sure,” she admitted.  “I left her in charge while the twins and I went to the store, and . . . well . . . all hell was breaking loose when I got home, and you know Coral.  She said that he was being a pest, and he said that she was—and I quote—‘bad’.”

He digested that in silence for a second before nodding slowly.  “Kitchen?” he asked though he supposed he didn’t really need to do so.

Sierra nodded.

Well, I guess that answers your question as to why the house was so quiet,’ his youkai voice spoke up as he strode down the short hallway toward the bright and airy kitchen.

I suppose it does,’ he agreed with a slight frown.  Still, it wasn’t like Mamoruzen to be given to something as base as biting.  Even at two, nearly three, years old, the child tended to be more intellectual and didn’t resort to violence on a whole.  Truth be told, it made Toga more curious than upset.  After all, even though Mamoruzen was hanyou, therefore stronger than even adult humans, Coral was hanyou, as well, so the likelihood that he’d dealt her any real or lasting damage was slim at best, and while he wasn’t pleased that his son would do any such thing, he had to wonder exactly what Coral had done to instigate the biting.

There were no sounds of movement when Toga stepped into the kitchen; no fluttering of the pale yellow tablecloth that Sierra always put on the table after the family had eaten breakfast.  Though dinner was always eaten in the dining room, the kitchen was always the hub of the house, and for reasons that Toga had never really grasped, Mamoruzen had taken to hiding under that table any time he perceived that he was in trouble.

Stopping beside the oval shaped table, he paused for a moment before knocking on the solid oak surface and hunkering down to peer under the hem of the cloth.

He almost smiled at the sight of his youngest offspring.  Huddled into a tightly compacted albeit diminutive mass, he had his small arms wrapped around his shins, his bright golden eyes peering over the top of his knees.  Upon meeting his father’s gaze, the tiny hanyou ears atop his head flattened out to either side, and he looked like he was waiting for the gauntlet to fall, so to speak

Reining in the urge to smile, Toga gestured at the open area beside Mamoruzen.  “Can I come in?” he asked.

The little shoulders rose and fell as the boy ducked a little lower.  “You won’t fit,” he muttered defensively.

He almost laughed out loud.  “Oh, I don’t know,” he drawled slowly, taking a moment to eye the underside of the table.  “I could give it a try, don’t you think?”

“Don’t care,” Mamoruzen mumbled, burying his face deeper against his knees.

It took a minute for Toga to manage squeezing himself into the compacted area.  He supposed that it would appear a little ridiculous.  After all, at nearly seven feet tall, his lanky frame wasn’t exactly given to the less-than-ample size restrictions imposed by his son’s choice of hideaways.  “Mama tells me you’ve had a pretty rough day,” he said, hoping that he could coax Mamoruzen into telling him what happened.

Mamoruzen shot him a quick glance then shrugged again.  “No,” he replied quietly.  “Mama made me ramen.”

“For lunch, you mean?”

Mamoruzen nodded.  “Yeah.”

“Ah-h-h,” Toga commented with a smile.  “I’m jealous.  All I had for lunch was a banana milk.”

He wasn’t surprised to see his son wrinkle his nose at that.  “Ramen’s better,” he replied.

“Absolutely.”

With a sigh, Mamoruzen shifted his eyes to the side in a questioning sort of way.  “Mama could make ramen for you,” he offered tentatively.

Settling back against the solid leg of the table, Toga smiled as he draped his arm over his raised knee.  “I’ll bet Mama’s making something better than ramen for dinner.”

The look he received for that told him plainly that Mamoruzen didn’t rightfully believe that there was something better than ramen, and Toga chuckled.  “Uncle Yasha says ramen’s the best ninja food,” Mamoruzen pointed out simply.

“Possibly,” Toga allowed.  “But your mother and sisters aren’t ninjas.”

Wrinkling his nose again, Mamoruzen’s ears twitched as he lifted his chin a notch.  “Girls can’t be ninjas,” he decided with a shake of his head.  “Girls are wenches.”

“You’d better not let your mama hear you say that.”

“I’m not scared of Mama,” he challenged though his ears did flatten momentarily.

Toga chuckled.  “You’re not?”  The child shook his head adamantly.  Toga shrugged.  “That’s good because I am.”

“You’re scared of Mama?”

“One day, son,” Toga said as an enigmatic little smile broke over his features, “you’ll have a healthy fear of a woman’s wrath, too.”  Mamoruzen didn’t look like he quite understood that, and Toga chuckled again as he ruffled his son’s hair.  “So . . . you want to tell me why you bit your sister?”

The slightly relaxed posture disappeared, and Toga wasn’t surprised when Mamoruzen scooted away just a little, his ears flattening once more, his chin lowering though his eyes brightened in what Toga could only assume was a sense of righteous indignation.  “She’s a liar,” he stated in a rebellious tone.

“A liar?” he echoed with a raised eyebrow.  That simply hadn’t been the answer that he’d been expecting.

Mamoruzen nodded solemnly.  “Papa said that if you don’t keep your word, then you lie,” he pointed out, his chin lifting stubbornly.

“So I did,” Toga remarked.  “Mind telling me what she lied about, then?”

The child shrugged as though he were trying to convince Toga that it didn’t matter to him.  “She said she’d play with me,” Mamoruzen admitted with a consternated frown.

“When did she say that?”

“After breakfast,” he replied.  “She said she would play with my Kubrick, but she said that she was too busy.”

“I see,” Toga said slowly as he began to understand what had caused the trouble.  “So she gave you her word that she would play with you when she got home, but then she said she was too busy after school.  Is that right?”

Mamoruzen nodded unhappily, his ears drooping as he scrunched down a little lower.  “Yeah,” he said in a tiny voice.

“And that’s why you bit her?”

To his surprise, Mamoruzen shook his head almost vehemently as anger sparked once more behind his brightened eyes.  “No!” he exclaimed hotly, pinning Toga with a furious glower.  “I bited her because she said Mama was a liar.”

That gave Toga pause, and he blinked for a moment as he tried to make sense of his son’s claims.  “She called her mama a liar?”

Mamoruzen nodded insistently then suddenly made a face and shook his head.  “No . . .” he drawled as his scowl took on a more reflective air.  “Not ‘zactly . . .”

Toga wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Mamoruzen’s assertions.  “Okay,” he said, drawing the word out as though to encourage Mamoruzen to tell him exactly what he meant by that.  “What, exactly, did she say?”

“She said . . .” he trailed off and winced then bit his lip for a moment before continuing.  “She said there isn’t no Santa Claus . . . she said that you and Mama are Santa, but you and Mama aren’t fat, and the only one who wears red is Uncle Yasha . . .”

“I don’t think that’s exactly . . .” with a grimace, he trailed off then waved a hand to dispel the insane image that shot to the fore of Uncle Yasha in a Santa suit.  “Never mind . . . You’re right.  Your mama and I aren’t Santa Claus, and . . . and your uncle InuYasha isn’t, either.”

“See?” Mamoruzen blurted.  “Coral’s bad, just like I said, because Mama and Papa don’t lie!”

Toga couldn’t contain the grimace that shot to the fore.  Maybe telling their children that a character like Santa Claus was an untruth, but Sierra had always been so happy when she’d told them the white lie that Toga had always gone along with it, and with as hard as things had been for his mate lately, the very last thing he wanted was for anything to ruin the fragile sense of happiness that she was allowing herself this year.  “So you . . . bit her . . .” he concluded.

Mamoruzen blushed, his eyes gaining a defiant sort of light, but then he wilted, looking just a little too sad as the sting of tears filled Toga’s nostrils though Mamoruzen stubbornly refused to let the moisture fall.  “. . . Y-yeah . . .”

“Oh, Mamoruzen,” he sighed, shaking his head slowly.  The boy uttered a sharp little whine as his ears flattened against his skull with the perceived disappointment in his father’s eyes.  “That wasn’t very nice, was it?”

“Coral wasn’t very nice!” he protested then whined again as he cast Toga a worried glance.  “Sorry, Papa,” he muttered at length.

“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to,” he pointed out reasonably.

Mamoruzen grimaced.  “But she was mean!” he insisted.

Toga shook his head.  “I wasn’t talking about your sister, either, though I think that’d be the nicer thing to do.”

He looked completely baffled, and Toga smiled wanly, patting his knee and holding out his other arm.

Mamoruzen scrambled off the floor and slipped onto his father’s lap though Toga could feel an underlying tension in the boy’s stance.  “I meant,” he began slowly, careful to keep a neutral tone, “maybe you should tell your mama that you’re sorry.  She doesn’t like it when you fight with your sisters, you know, and remember?  We’re trying to make Mama extra happy this year . . .”

Wincing outwardly, Mamoruzen was obviously distressed by the idea of having upset his mother, and Toga had to fight back the feeling that he was playing dirty.  “Mama’s mad at me?” he asked in a very tiny voice.

Toga let out a deep breath and rubbed Mamoruzen’s small back.  “No, she’s not,” he replied.  “Your mama never gets mad at you.”  Mamoruzen brightened up at that, casting Toga an anxious look before he had a chance to continue.  “But she is sad and a little upset,” he added for good measure.

Mamoruzen uttered another soft whine, and figuring that the boy had gotten the point, Toga relented.  “I think it’d make her feel a lot better if you went and gave her a hug.  Maybe even a kiss . . .”

Mamoruzen made a face at the blatant hint, but nodded slowly, scooting off his father’s lap and out from under the table.   He stopped mid-crawl and looked back at his father, his gaze clouding over as a serious frown surfaced.  “Papa?” he asked, his tiny voice reluctant yet earnest.

“Hmm?”

“Do you . . . do you believe in Santa?”

“I do,” Toga replied without batting an eyelash.

Mamoruzen considered that for a moment then grinned.  “Me, too!” he said.

Toga chuckled, struck by how simplistic a child’s system of belief truly was.  “Now go find your mama.”

The ebullience that had just been discovered seemed to abate in light of the daunting task of apologizing to his mama, and Mamoruzen’s ears drooped slightly as he slowly stood up, his feet shuffling in a sort of understated reticence as he padded off to find his mother.

Toga shifted and brought up his knees, looping his hands together around his ankles and letting a wan smile play on his lips as he watched his son’s departure.  ‘Coral,’ he thought with an inward sigh.  ‘What am I going to do with you?

The eldest of his brood was ten going on thirty, or so it would seem.  Sierra had said more than once that she wasn’t sure exactly who the girl had inherited her attitude from.  Not exactly what could be called the Inutaisho aloofness that Toga’s father, Sesshoumaru possessed in spades nor the fearsome and awe-inspiring temper that his mother, Kagura was known for, Coral’s attitude was something all her own.  She also didn’t ascribe to Toga’s laid back way of looking at things or even Sierra’s tendency to take things as they came.  Serious to a fault, she was, and Toga couldn’t rightfully recall a time when she’d ever really let go or been what he’d call ‘silly’.  She laughed a lot, certainly, but she’d simply not been as happy-go-lucky as most children were.

She wanted to be an overachiever, thrived under pressure and always—always—went above and beyond what was expected of her.  That was the problem, Toga supposed.  He had a good feeling that his daughter had prioritized her school work above her promise to her brother, and therein laid the problem.

Not that he could really find fault with her for her desire to excel.  Unfortunately, he could understand both of his children’s sides of the story—or at least, assuming that he’d gotten the situation straight in his head, that was . . .

Heaving a sigh as he crawled out from under the table, Toga shook his head.  It seemed to him that both Coral and Mamoruzen were just too much alike when it came down to it.  That was the real reason that things had turned out this way.  The two seemed to get along really well or really poorly, depending, and while Coral tended to be the best at exercising self-control, even she had her limits.

No, it was normal for Sierra to tell him that the twins and Mamoruzen had gotten into an argument, usually stemming from the girls’ insistence that they needed to share Mamoruzen’s toys.  Unfortunately, he tended to see his things as ‘boy’s toys’, therefore inappropriate for girls to play with.  More often than not, the twins wanted to play with his toys simply because they knew it would tweak his nose, and all Toga could say about that was that his son was getting a lot of practice in controlling his emotions, too.

Of course, he was damn good at it, all things considered.  The boy was almost three years old, and Toga honestly couldn’t remember Mamoruzen ever biting anyone, at least, not intentionally.  That he’d lost his temper and bit Coral spoke volumes, and while that wasn’t acceptable at all, Toga wasn’t naïve enough to think that Coral was guiltless in it, either.

Scratching his head as he headed out of the kitchen and through the living room, he wasn’t surprised to find his son sitting on the sofa beside his mother.  Sierra squeezed the boy’s shoulders then proceeded to kiss his cheek.  Mamoruzen didn’t look like he was enjoying the overabundance of attention, but he tolerated it remarkably well.

With a chuckle, Toga paused long enough to kiss Sierra’s forehead and ruffle his son’s hair before moving off toward the stairs.

He knocked on the first door at the top of the landing and draped his hands on his lean hips to wait.

“For the last time, go away, you pest!” Coral’s irritated voice came through the closed door.

Toga cocked an eyebrow and pushed the door aside to level a quizzical look at his eldest daughter.  “A pest, am I?” he challenged mildly.

Coral scowled at him, dropping the pen onto the textbook open on her desk. “Sorry, Papa,” she muttered, cheeks pinking slightly at the mistake.  “Mamoruzen smells just like you,” she pointed out.

“He doesn’t smell just like me,” Toga remarked, not surprised to find Cassidy lying on her stomach across the foot of Coral’s bed with her feet kicked up in the air and chewing thoughtfully on a pencil as she looked over her homework.  Frowning when he caught sight of the white bandage wrap that peeked out from under the rolled-up cuff of Coral’s right sleeve, Toga decided to ignore it for the time being while he worked on getting a more holistic overview of what had come to pass.  “Have you been hiding up here since you got home from school?”

“I’m not hiding,” Coral said with a shake of her head.  “I’m doing homework.  That’s completely different.”

Jamming his hands into his pockets, he leaned casually in the doorway.  “Cassidy, why don’t you go see if your mother needs help with dinner?” he suggested, smiling at his second-oldest daughter.

“Well, Coral was helping me with some of my math problems,” she hedged.

“You can ask her later if you need help . . . You could ask me, if you wanted to.  I’m not too bad at math.”

Cassidy bit her lip, her worried gaze slipping from him to Coral and back again.  “Okay, Papa,” she said as she stood up, gathering her books together and slipping past him.  Toga caught her before she could get away, giving her shoulder’s a quick squeeze before letting her go downstairs.

“Coral, would you mind putting that away until we’re done talking?”

She did as he asked though she didn’t look like she wanted to comply.  “Papa, I know what you’re going to say, and you’re absolutely right.  I shouldn’t have let Mamoruzen get to me, but honestly, he was being such a pain, and I have a ton of homework to d—”

“And what did you do to set him off so badly?” he cut in, raising his voice just enough to be heard over Coral.

“I didn’t do anything,” she replied calmly enough, and it struck Toga once again that even at ten years old, this particular daughter of his was a little scary.  A sudden vision of a grown-up Coral flashed through his mind, and he grimaced inwardly.  No doubt about it, she was going to intimidate the hell out of most men one day . . . “Mamoruzen has to learn that he can’t always have his way.”

“While I appreciate that you wish to help your brother on his road to enlightenment,” Toga began slowly, “I think that maybe you should leave that particular lesson to your mother and me.”

“Sorry, Papa,” she apologized again, “really, I am, but I have to get this paper done, and then I’ve got three more papers to write for tomorrow.  I’ll be up all night working on this stuff as it is, and—”

“Absolutely not,” Toga interrupted with a scowl and a shake of his head.  “School is very important, of course, but so is making sure that you get your rest.  Even then, I want to know exactly what happened between you and Mamoruzen.”

She stared at him blankly for a minute then shrugged.  “He started pestering me the minute I walked through the door,” she complained.

Toga nodded.  “Did you tell him that you’d play with him when you got home?”

Coral shot him a rare almost guilty glance.  “Yes, but I didn’t know that my teachers were all going to unload on me today.”

“But you gave him your word.”

She grimaced, pushing herself to her feet and stomping over to her small bookshelf.  “I don’t have time to play, Papa,” she replied flatly.  “If I don’t get decent grades, I won’t get into the high school that I want, and if I can’t get into the high school I want, then I won’t get into a good college.  If I don’t get into a good college, I’ll never be able to take over Inutaisho Industries—all because I have to drop everything to play Kubrick with Mamoruzen.”

“Don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?” Toga asked, unable to keep his lips from twitching though the smile that he felt deep down didn’t surface.  It wasn’t like her to over-exaggerate, after all . . . “You want to work for Inutaisho Industries?”

She spared him a droll look.  “I want to run Inutaisho Industries,” she corrected calmly, “but I won’t be able to if I can’t get into a good—”

“One thing at a time, Coral,” Toga said with a grimace.  “You really ought to take it easier on me.  You know, you could let me think that you’re still my little girl and all that?”

“Oh, Papa, you still think I’m a baby when I’m not,” she argued reasonably.  “Mama even bought me bras the other day, and—”

“Keh!  Kami, I think I feel an aneurism coming on,” Toga snorted, rubbing his temples at the mention of the word, ‘bras’.

“Having breasts is a natural part of a woman’s life,” she went on airily.  “Mama has breasts.”

“Yeah, I’m not discussing your—or  your mama’s—If you think that you’re going to sidetrack me from the issue of you and your brother, you’re sadly mistaken, Coral,” he growled irritably.

Coral sighed and shook her head, grabbing a book from the shelf and stomping back to her desk once more.  “There’s nothing else to tell,” she informed him.  “I came up here to study, and he kept barging in over and over, calling me a liar, telling me that I was bad, insisting that Santa Claus won’t give me anything for Christmas because I’m a liar, and that I’d just get a stocking full of coal on Christmas morning.”

Toga let out a deep breath since the rest of the story had pretty well fallen into place.  “So you told him that there’s no Santa Claus.”

“There isn’t,” she replied defensively.

“And it would hurt to let Mamoruzen believe that there is?” he asked quietly.

Coral made a face as she flopped down at her desk once more.  “Won’t he just be disappointed when he figures out that there isn’t a Santa Claus?”

Toga squinted, staring at his daughter as though he were trying to read her mind.  “You were disappointed when you figured out that your mother and I are Santa Claus?”

“A little,” she admitted with an offhanded shrug.  “Besides, Mamoruzen’s supposed to be the next tai-youkai, right?  So isn’t it a bad idea to fill his head with silly thoughts of fat men in red clothes?”

Rubbing his forehead, Toga sighed quietly.  He understood what she meant; of course, he did.  Maybe she’d overheard him saying one time too many that, as tai-youkai, he couldn’t afford the luxury of entertaining whimsical thoughts when it came to certain matters.  He’d said it to Sierra on the rare occasion when they’d disagree over something that Toga had to do.  It came part and parcel with his position, and as much as he disliked the decisions he sometimes had to make, he couldn’t shirk them off on someone else, either.  Fair or not didn’t really matter; not when he had to be the bottom line.  The problem was that Mamoruzen was a child, and regardless of the title that would one day be his, Toga tended to believe that Sierra was right: the boy was still just a little boy, and little boys should be allowed the time to be little boys: to believe in the same things that most little boys believed in.

Things like Santa Claus,’ he thought with an inward grimace.

“Did you believe in Santa Claus?” Coral asked suddenly, her brow furrowing as she shot her father a very direct stare.

Blinking away the lingering thoughts that whispered in his mind, Toga pressed his lips together and strode over to the chair beside her, tugging on his slacks as he sank down and leaned forward, tapping his fingertips together between his spread knees.  “No, I didn’t,” he admitted, then quickly added, “but my parents—your grandparents—aren’t American, either.”

“It still seems a bit silly to me,” she replied dubiously.

“Silly or not, it makes your mother happy,” Toga pointed out with a raised eyebrow.  “You remember, right?   This year’s been really tough on her, and I know that it’s a little hard for you to understand since you’ve never really gotten a chance to get to know your uncles, but your mother . . . She misses them.”

Coral’s cheeks pinked slightly at the gentle reminder.  “I know,” she muttered with a shake of her head.  “This is supposed to be Mama’s best Christmas, ever, and I’m sorry . . . I wouldn’t have said it, really I wouldn’t have, but Mamoruzen was just pestering and pestering and—”

“And he’s two years old,” Toga cut in.  “He likes you.  He thinks you’re fun.  Is it such a terrible thing that your brother wants you to play with him for a little while?”

With a grimace, Coral shook her head.  “No,” she allowed.

Toga finally relented with a small smile designed to let his daughter know that he wasn’t really upset with her.  “Good, now let me see your arm.”

“It’s fine, Papa,” she insisted, unconsciously covering the bandage on her arm with her hand.

“I’m sure it is,” he said, gently pushing her hand away and grasping her wrist.  “Now let me see it.”

“Cassidy already took care of it,” she pointed out though she didn’t try to pull away from him.

Toga chuckled as he carefully peeled back the white medical tape.  “I figured as much.”  Cassidy always took care of bandaging cuts and scrapes.  A regular little mama, he figured, even if she were only nine years old.  Rubbing the pad of his thumb over the small puncture wounds that were closing up nicely despite the mottled and bruised flesh that surrounded them, he sighed.  “Yeah, I think you’ll live,” he remarked mildly.

“I guess I sort of deserved it,” she admitted, carefully securing the bandage in place once more, likely to keep her mother from seeing the bruising than because she needed the coverage.

“Well, he knows better than to bite,” Toga said, bracing his weight on his knees and pushing himself to his feet.  “Anyway, do what you can with your homework, but you’re absolutely not staying up all night to finish it, either.”  He walked to the doorway then stopped long enough to look back at his daughter.  “I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”

“I’ll just grab a snack later,” she murmured, having already buried her nose in one of her books again.

“Absolutely not,” he informed her.  “Dinner with your family is non-negotiable.”

She heaved a sigh but didn’t argue, and satisfied that he’d made his point, Toga pulled the door closed behind himself as he stepped into the hallway again.

He sighed.  ‘Three down; two to go . . . speaking of ‘two’, where are those girls . . .?

Before he could make a move to find out, he grunted as a tiny body barreled into the back of his legs.  Catching himself on the door frame, he craned his neck to peer over his shoulder just in time to see a flurry of black hair as one of the two children who hadn’t been accounted for clawed her way up his back, locking her plump little arms around his neck as she dug her knees into his spine to haul herself up and kiss his cheek.  “Papa!” Chelsea yelled, forgetting for a moment that he was youkai, therefore blessed with very acute hearing and that she was, in effect, screaming in his ear.

He flinched and smiled, ferreting a hand under her arm to alleviate the choking.  “How’s my girl?” he asked with a smile.

Chelsea giggled and kissed him again.  “I missed Papa!” she insisted.

“I missed you, too,” he replied as little hands seized his free arm and tugged.  “And there’s my last girl,” he greeted, extending his arm to scoop up his oldest twin daughter.  “Good for Mama?”

Charity smiled.  “I’m a good girl!” she announced.

“Yes, you are,” he intoned, kissing her forehead and wrinkling his nose a few times when her ears twitched just enough to tickle him.  “Oh, are these the babies I bought you?”

Charity held up her new doll proudly.  “I named mine Yuki,” she informed him.

“Wow, she’s really pretty,” Toga agreed.  “I have excellent taste in dolls, ne?”

Charity giggled happily, and Toga jerked back when Chelsea shoved her doll in his face.  “This one’s Mai,” she said.

“How’d Mai get up there?” he asked with a chuckle.

“She was on my back,” Chelsea said.

“She’s very pretty, too,” he remarked.

Chelsea bounced up and down a few times.  “Yeah!  They’re twins like us!”

Laughing since she hadn’t quite realized that sisters couldn’t actually have a set of shared twins, Toga nodded in agreement.  “So does this make me a grandpa?” he asked instead.

Charity cuddled against his shoulder with her doll held firmly in her arms.  “Uh-huh.”

“Mai wants a kiss!” Chelsea insisted, bumping Toga’s nose with the plastic head as she jammed the doll in his face once more.

Toga made a show of kissing the toy as he carefully negotiated the staircase.  “Yuki, too!” Charity added.

The girls were satisfied with Toga’s doll-kissing endeavor by the time they reached the bottom of the staircase, and he smiled as he set Charity on her feet once more.  “Why don’t you girls go find Mama and see if she needs any help?” he told them.

Chelsea dropped to the floor, landing in a squat, and she shoved the doll into his arms before taking off at break-neck speed in the general direction of the kitchen.  “Okay, Papa!” Charity called over her shoulder as she ran after her twin.  After a moment, though, she darted back, holding out her doll for him to take.  “No babies in the kitchen when Mama’s cooking!” she reminded him before dashing off once more.

Toga smiled and shook his head, staring at the dolls in his hands.  “I guess that means Grandpa gets to babysit,” he said.

He couldn’t be certain, but he was almost sure that one of the dolls winked at him.

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 14, 2034:.
.:Bevelle, Maine:.

 

“You’ll be careful, right?”

Setting the last suitcase on the floor in the foyer of the Zelig mansion, Cain Zelig smiled at his mate as she worried on her bottom lip.  Smoothing her short tan miniskirt, she looked more like a school girl than the wife of the North American tai-youkai, and he wondered not for the first time, how he’d ever been lucky enough to deserve her, in the first place.  “You know I will be,” he said quietly, drawing her into his arms and kissing her forehead.

“I know,” Gin said then sighed.  “It’s just . . . I worry; that’s all.  I hate this—really hate it.”

He sighed, too.  She’d said that in such a tiny voice, attesting to the upset that was almost palpable in the air.  It was always a sore point whenever they traveled.  Because of the risk that something could happen, it was standard practice for a tai-youkai and his heir not to travel together even if they were going to the same place, and while Gin had wanted to make the trip to Japan to see her family sooner, it was difficult to find two complimentary flights that wouldn’t separate them for more than a few hours.  Cain’s flight would leave an hour after Gin and Bas’, but she would have a four hour layover in London since they’d both learned that it was best to give the child a chance to stretch his legs and work out some of his energy reserves.  Cain, however, would have to change planes in Madrid, but he would have to hurry to make sure that he caught his connecting flight.  It was a lot of trouble, and if he were entirely truthful, he wasn’t overly keen on the idea of traveling this way, either, but for reasons that he’d never completely comprehend, she actually seemed to like her father . . . “But you want to go, don’t you?” he prodded gently.

“Of course I do,” she replied when he gave her shoulders a little squeeze.  Then she drew a deep breath, pressing her hand against the soft angora sweater that hugged her curves so nicely—a Christmas present he’d gotten for her last year, one of her favorites.  She loved soft and cuddly things, after all . . . “It’s just a few hours,” she said with a decided nod.  “Less than a day . . .”

“I’ll wait for you at the airport,” he assured her.

Her smile was bright and beautiful.  “Besides, I’ll have Sebastian there to protect me.”

Cain chuckled since Sebastian had just turned three years old a few months ago.  Still, if it made her feel better, then who was he to argue with her?  “Everything will be just fine, baby girl.  Bas!”

“Yeah?”

He heard his son before he saw him.  The voice had drifted out of the living room where the boy was taking an inordinate amount of time in saying goodbye to his favorite companion, the family’s dog, Punkin.  When he did emerge, he had a thoughtful scowl on his little face, and he shuffled his feet in obvious reluctance.  “What about Punkin?” he asked slowly, his golden eyes so very much like his mother’s sober, solemn.

Cain knelt down and held out Bas’ coat.  “I told you.  Ben’s coming over later to pick him up.  They’ll spend Christmas together.”

Bas wasn’t convinced.  “But what about Punkin’s presents?

“Ben promised he’d take those with him,” Cain reminded him.  “Besides, you know that Punkin hates traveling.”

“He throws up in the car,” Bas remarked slowly as he stuck his right arm into the sleeve.  “Will he throw up in Ben’s car?”

“We can hope so,” Cain replied.  Gin smacked his shoulder, and he shot her an unrepentant grin.

Bas considered his father’s words.  “So he’d throw up on a plane?” he finally asked.

Gin uttered an uncomfortable sound at the unpleasant reminder, and Cain chuckled.  “Yeah, I think he would, probably all over the place.  Then he’d throw up all over your stuff, and that’d be a little nasty, don’t you think?” he added for good measure.

Bas nodded.  “Really nasty,” he agreed.  “The last time he throwed up, there was hair in it.  I think he ate a squirrel . . .”

“Okay,” Gin cut in suddenly, her tone falsely bright.  “Time to go or we’ll miss our planes.  You want to go see Grandma and Grandpa, don’t you?”

He must have forgotten about that part of the deal.  Nodding vigorously, he tugged the coat out of Cain’s hands. “I can do it, Daddy,” he insisted.

“Sure, you can,” Cain agreed, pushing himself to his feet once more.  Intercepting the vaguely disturbed expression on his wife’s face, he smiled as he retrieved the two large suitcases.  “Don’t worry, Gin,” he told her as he stepped onto the front porch and waited for her to lock the door behind her.  “I’m sure that the squirrel didn’t feel it.”

She wrinkled her nose but giggled—exactly the reaction he’d been fishing for.  “You’re horrible!” she chided.

“So you say, baby-girl.”

“It’ll be nice to spend the holiday with family, don’t you think?” she asked, dropping her keys into her purse as Bas ran down the steps and toward Cain’s truck.

“Of course,” he agreed, barely managing to hide a grimace since he could think of a host of things he’d rather do than spend any time at all with InuYasha Izayoi.  Cain forced a smile when Gin glanced over her shoulder at him.  He would, however, enjoy seeing his daughter and granddaughters, he had to admit.  Maybe the trip wouldn’t be that bad, after all . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 15, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“Mama?”

“Hmm?”

“Do I believe in Santa Claus?”

Pausing with her knife poised in the air over the vegetables she’d been slicing for the oden she was making for dinner, Izayoi Kagome blinked and glanced over her shoulder at her youngest son.  Frowning slightly as he chewed on the end of a crayon and idly fingered his ever-twitching ear.  “Here,” she said, grabbing a bowl of rice crackers off the counter and setting them on the table beside the half-done drawing he’d been working on.  “I’ll bet these tastes better than the crayon.”

Blinking as though to clear away a daydream, the child pulled the crayon away and stared at it with a rather blank expression.  “Sorry, Mama,” he muttered, his little cheeks pinking slightly.  Kagome stifled a sigh and ruffled his hair affectionately.  Mikio did so hate to disappoint his parents, and while she wasn’t upset with him, he probably viewed the gentle reminder that he wasn’t to chew on his crayons as the gravest of trespasses that he could commit.

Smiling gently, she turned back toward the counter once more, ignoring the blue streak that smeared the corner of Mikio’s mouth.  “Suppose you tell me why you’re asking whether or not you believe in Santa Claus,” she asked.

He didn’t answer right away, and she heard his little claws scrape against the wooden bowl; the slow and thorough chewing of the crackers.  “Mamoruzen said that Santa brings him presents on Christmas.”

“Well,” Kagome said as she resumed the cutting of the vegetables, “do you want to believe in Santa?”

“Would he bring me presents, too?”

Pressing her lips together as she struggled not to laugh out loud, Kagome cleared her throat as she glanced out the window over the sink.  InuYasha was nowhere to be seen, meaning that he was still in the dojo, training with Ryomaru, their eldest son.  “I would suppose so.”

She turned in time to see the happy smile surface on the five year-old’s face.  The smile was short lived, though.  It faltered, giving way to a look of acute distress.  “Mama?” he said, his voice rising in pitch in testimony of his anxiety.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, scooping up the veggies and dropping them into a bowl.

“Papa won’t kill him, will he?  Santa Claus?”

Biting her lip as the altogether disturbing image of InuYasha, Tetsusaiga in hand as he stood before the huge fireplace, waiting for the benevolent fat man to emerge from the chimney, came to mind.  “Oh, your papa wouldn’t do that,” she assured Mikio, proud of the evenness in her voice.

“What wouldn’t I do, wench?”

“Papa!” Mikio greeted enthusiastically, hopping up and darting over to his father.  Kagome sucked in a sharp breath but didn’t say anything as InuYasha’s quick reflexes managed to catch and steady Mikio when he tripped over his own feet.

“Thought Mama told you not to run in the house,” InuYasha reminded in an uncharacteristically gentle tone—the one he always used when reprimanding the youngest of their four children.  He, too, realized how sensitive Mikio was, and to that end, he tended to deal with his youngest son in a much different manner than he ever had with the older two.

Still, Mikio’s shoulders slumped at the sound of InuYasha’s words, his ears flattening, pointing straight out to either side as he stared at the floor and shuffled his feet.

InuYasha snorted and scooped up the child, sparing a moment to rub Mikio’s head—his silent reassurance that he wasn’t really angry at the boy, she supposed.  “So what wouldn’t I do?” he demanded once more as he leaned down to brush a quick kiss over Kagome’s lips.

“You wouldn’t kill Santa Claus, would you, Papa?” Mikio blurted before Kagome had a chance to answer.

“Santa Claus?” InuYasha echoed blankly.  “Have you been gnawing on your crayons again?”

Mikio squinted but nodded, his hand shooting up to fiddle with his twitching ear once more.  “I forgot,” he murmured.

“Didn’t you feed him?” InuYasha asked, his gaze shifting to his mate.

Kagome rolled her eyes as she filled the hotpot with the cut vegetables.  “Of course I did, dog-boy.”

“Keh!” he snorted loudly, “and no, I wouldn’t kill the old bastard, even though he shouldn’t be breaking into people’s houses.”

“InuYasha,” Kagome began in a warning tone.

InuYasha ignored her.

“But he brings presents, and that’s okay, right, Papa?” Mikio argued.

“Breaking in is breaking in, and—” Cutting himself off abruptly and rolling his eyes when he intercepted the darkened frown that Kagome was shooting him, InuYasha relented.  “Guess it ain’t like he’s stealing nothing,” he muttered though he still looked like he wasn’t entirely sure he liked the idea of Santa Claus.

“Mamoruzen says that he makes a list of things he wants from Santa,” Mikio went on, apparently satisfied that InuYasha wouldn’t be lying in wait to take down the jolly old elf.  “Should I make one?”

“Of course you should,” Kagome said brightly before InuYasha could answer as she plucked her son out of his father’s arms and set him on the floor.  The hanyou looked like he had some sort of comment that he’d like to make, and whatever it was, Kagome knew very well that it would probably not have been overly positive . . . “Sit down, InuYasha,” she commanded with a shake of her head when she caught sight of the small laceration on his arm.  It wasn’t deep, she could tell from a glance, but it had been enough to cut through the fire rat haori, and that was more than enough to agitate her.  The fire rat clothing was a gift from InuYasha’s parents—his father gave it to his mother, and his mother had passed it on to her son—and since it had been formed from the pelts of the fire rats, it held special powers that exceeded normal clothing.  Stronger than most armor—at least the armor that warriors had worn back in Sengoku Jidai—and resistant to fire, it had saved his life and hers more than once over the years, and while he didn’t wear them all the time like he used to, he did wear them whenever he was training, at Kagome’s insistence, of course.

“It’s ripped,” she said, casting him a meaningful look as she pushed the haori off his shoulder to better inspect his arm after he’d plopped into a chair at the table.

“It’ll fix itself, if you recall,” he reminded her in a tone that stated plainly that he thought she was simply fretting over nothing.

Kagome waited to comment until Mikio had gathered up his crayons and shuffled out of the room.  “I know it’ll fix itself,” she said, rummaging through the huge first aid kit she kept under the sink.

Making a show of rolling his eyes, InuYasha slowly shook his head.  “It’s just a scratch, Kagome—a scratch.”

“I realize that,” she replied tightly.  “You know, if you hadn’t had this on, you’d probably be missing an arm right now.”

“It wasn’t that bad, wench,” he grumbled though he didn’t sound completely convinced.  “Ryomaru got in a lucky hit, is all.”

“A lucky hit,” she repeated, gritting her teeth when he hissed in response to the iodine solution she was using to clean the wound.  “That’s what you said the last time.”

Heaving a sigh and probably cursing Kagome’s powers of memory, InuYasha scrunched his face up into what she normally referred to as, ‘The Pout’, glowering up at her without lifting his chin.  “I’m still alive, ain’t I?”

His belligerent answer had her hackles rising, and she took her time wiping the wound, which only served to add to InuYasha’s irritation.  It was still too fresh in her mind, though.  He and Ryomaru had been sparring in the yard last spring, and InuYasha had glanced over just in time to see Mikio nearly topple down the patio steps, and he’d reacted before he’d taken into consideration that he was already in the middle of a fight.  Unfortunately, Ryomaru had already been in mid-swing and hadn’t been able to stop his movements in time to avoid hitting InuYasha.  InuYasha had ended up with a lurid gash about five inches deep in his side just under his ribs.

That was why Kagome had insisted that he wear the fire rat clothing whenever he trained.  He’d been irritated at the time since he’d given her the clothes years ago before they were married, but she’d insisted.  It had just been too long since she’d had to worry about InuYasha getting hurt, she supposed, but the gut wrenching panic that had surged through her at the time was too bitter and too real to forget any time soon.

“Yes, dog-boy, you’re still alive,” she agreed rather acerbically.

He snorted but didn’t respond, turning his face to the side in a stubborn sort of way as she carefully taped a gauze pad over the cut.

“So why’s my pup asking about that ‘Santa Claus’?” he finally asked, breaking the stony silence that had fallen over the kitchen.

Snapping the first aid kit closed, Kagome tugged it off the table to put it away.  “He said Mamoruzen believes in Santa, and he wanted to know if it was all right if he believed in him, too.”

“Why would he want to do a damn thing like that?”

Leaning against the counter, Kagome crossed her arms over her stomach and finally smiled.  “Why do you think, InuYasha?”

“We’re Japanese,” he reminded her unnecessarily.

“Yeah, and he’s five,” she pointed out.

“So?”

Bracing her foot against the cupboard door, she pushed herself away from it and wandered over to the refrigerator.  “So . . .” she drawled, pulling a bottle of water from the chest and breaking the seal around the cap before sliding it across the table to her mate, “he’s thinking that he’ll get more presents if he believes in Santa Claus.”

InuYasha caught the bottle and grunted as he stood up, tugging the haori back into place again.  “That’s just stupid,” he grumbled as he headed for the doorway.  “He gets enough presents, and besides: what’s so great about some baka in a red suit with white hair?”

Kagome blinked as she stared at InuYasha, pressing her lips together so tightly that they hurt as she struggled to keep from laughing—or pointing out the irony of his words.  Neither of those options would be welcome, all things considered . . . Unfortunately, the longer she looked at him, the more difficult it became for her to keep from laughing outright, and he stopped short to peer back at her as her cheeks started puffing in and out in a vain effort to stave back the ill-placed humor.

“What’s so damn funny?” he demanded.

Kagome shook her head.  “A . . . baka in a  . . . red . . . suit . . . with white . . . hair,” she choked out.

He looked perplexed for a minute, but growled as he looked down at himself.  Clad in red from head to foot with his silver-white hair falling over his shoulders, he couldn’t miss the comparison, not really.

“That’s not—I don’t—You’re not—I’m not fucking fat!” he bellowed and stomped out of the kitchen.

She managed to refrain from dissolving in laughter—at least, she did until she heard the sliding glass door slam closed.

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 15, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“You know, this is nice.”

Glancing up from the photography magazine she’d been reading, Sierra couldn’t help but smile.  Stretched out on his side on the floor, Toga was letting their son beat him at Mega Puppy Power Racing, one of Gunnar’s favorite video games.

“What’s nice?” she asked, shaking her head when Toga lost again.

Gunnar yelled in celebration of his victory, and Toga flopped over onto his back, the amber eyes she knew so well illuminated with an amused sort of light.  He chuckled.  “This,” he replied, shifting his eyes around before returning his gaze to her once more.  “No curlers, no makeup, no nail polish, no hair ribbons . . .  Just video games with my boy.  You know: nice.”

“You love your daughters, and you know you do,” she pointed out since he had been subjected to all of those things at one time or another during the time since he’d become a father.  The twins—his girls—were the worst about it, but every one of their daughters had primped, painted, and otherwise tortured him at one time or another . . .

“I do love my daughters,” he agreed amiably.  “However, there’s something to be said about a man looking like a man, don’t you think?”

She looked as though it were on the tip of her tongue to tease him since she’d told him many, many times through the years that he could only be adequately described as ‘pretty’.  “Yes, dear,” she replied instead.

“Mamoruzen, why don’t we put the game up and play something else?” Toga suggested, sparing a moment to glance at the clock on the fireplace mantle.  The boy still had awhile before it would be time for bed, and as much as Toga enjoyed the games, Sierra was of the misguided impression that video games rotted one’s mind, and they’d already been playing for well over an hour.

“I’m hungry,” Mamoruzen said suddenly as he scooted toward the shelf where the video game console rested.

“Hmm, you want some cookies?” Sierra asked.

Mamoruzen nodded as he stashed the controllers away.  Sierra uncurled her legs and stood to see to the snack.

“So what do you want to play with now?” Toga asked, pushing himself up on his elbow.  Mamoruzen crawled over to his side and shrugged.

He looked like he had something on his mind, but he didn’t seem to know how to say whatever it was.  Twisting his hands in an uncharacteristically nervous sort of way, a thoughtful scowl wrinkled his brow as his ears flattened just the tiniest bit.

“Something wrong?” Toga asked mildly.

Mamoruzen shrugged again but didn’t look at his father.  “Coral was right,” he finally said in a very small voice.

“Is that so?  What was she right about?”

“There’s no Santa,” he muttered, his cheeks pinking in understated outrage, and the wizened look he shot his father was enough to make Toga grimace.  Eyes wide and sober, full of a sense of sadness that colored his youki and stung Toga, Mamoruzen looked completely betrayed.

“Why do you say that?” Toga asked gently, brushing aside the acute sense of guilt that he’d helped to add to his son’s disappointment.  “Did something happen?”

“Oh, that,” Sierra commented as she hurried back into the room with a bamboo tray laden with cookies and a small plastic tumbler full of milk.  “Belle and I took him and the girls to go see Santa today,” she went on as she set the tray on the floor beside her son and sat down.  “Remember?  I told you . . .”

Toga nodded.  A few of the larger and nicer hotels in Tokyo employed Santa Clauses as a courtesy for foreign guests and their children, and Sierra always took their children to see the Santa—at least, the children who still believed in him, that was.  “The hotel Santa, you mean?”

“Yeah.  Anyway, it was . . . well . . .”

Hefting his eyebrows at Sierra’s reluctant tone, Toga waited in silence for her to continue.

She sighed and shook her head, wincing at the memory of whatever had happened.

“His beard came off!” Mamoruzen blurted indignantly moments before jamming half a cookie into his mouth.

Toga pressed his lips together in a thin line, determined not to laugh at his son’s disgruntled face.  “His beard . . . came . . . off?”

Sierra nodded.  “Charity screamed.”

“That’s ‘cause she’s a girl,” Mamoruzen muttered, his obvious disdain growing even more apparent at the reminder.

“Oh . . . wow . . .” Casting Sierra a sympathetic sort of glance, he slowly shook his head.  “I don’t even know what to say to that,” he admitted.

Sierra let her forehead drop against Toga’s arm as she stifled a sigh.  “Well, the girl ahead of us in line was a little intimidated by Santa—not uncommon, I don’t think.  I was a little scared of the big guy when I was small, too.  Anyway, she flipped out when the elves were trying to help her get up on Santa’s lap, and during her struggle to get away from him, she sort of grabbed his beard, and . . .” Trailing off with a wince and a sigh, Sierra shook her head.  “It was very traumatic,” she told Toga.  “Charity refused to talk to him, and Chelsea . . .”

Almost afraid to hear what the most rambunctious of his brood had done, he squinted slightly and slipped an arm around Sierra’s waist.  “That bad, was it?”

Sierra nodded then buried her face in her hands.  “Chelsea ran right up to him and . . . and ripped the beard off for a second . . . time . . . So Charity started sobbing all over again; Bitty Belle didn’t look like she understood what was happening, but Alexandra started wailing because Charity was, and as you know, Alexandra never cries . . . it was a mess.”

Toga grimaced.  He’d figured it was something like that . . . “So what did you do?”

Spreading her fingers apart enough to peer at him without lowering her hands, Sierra blinked a couple times.  “What do you think I did?  I grabbed the kids and got the hell out of there.”

“Well,” he drawled, trying to figure out a way to convince her that what she thought was so terrible really wasn’t so bad, after all.

“If he was really Santa, then his beard wouldn’t have come off,” Mamoruzen decided with a sorrowful little shrug.

Sierra shot him a helpless sort of glance, and Toga sat up, racking his brain for any sort of explanation that might salvage the situation.  “You know, Mamoruzen,” he said slowly, “you don’t really think that one man—one Santa—can be in all the places like the hotels at once, do you?”

He appeared to consider that for a long moment, gnawing on his lower lip in an entirely thoughtful sort of way.  “No-o-o,” he replied at length.

“That’s right,” he went on as sudden inspiration took root.  “He can’t.  I mean, it’s much more important for him to stay at the North Pole to make all the toys he’s going to give away, right?”

Mamoruzen didn’t look entirely convinced, but he nodded slowly.

“The guy at the store—he wasn’t the real Santa.  He was just . . . one of Santa’s helpers, you see?  This time of year, Santa’s helpers are all over, and they go back and tell Santa what all the children tell them that they want.”

The sadness in the golden eyes abated as Mamoruzen hesitantly lifted his gaze to meet his father’s.  “R-really?” he asked in a breathless sort of tone.

Sierra kissed Toga’s cheek as he nodded.  “Absolutely,” Toga reassured him.  With a chuckle, he pulled the boy into his lap and leaned in close. “Normally we don’t tell children this sort of thing, but . . . well, I don’t think Santa will mind.”

“It’s a secret?” Mamoruzen asked, his eyes brightening at the idea of being told such a serious thing.

“Yes, a secret,” Toga agreed.  “So you can’t tell anyone, okay?”

“Okay!”

“What about your daughters?” Sierra interrupted, lifting an eyebrow as she smiled at her mate.

Toga chuckled.  “I suppose we should probably tell them, too,” he allowed.

“Mama, I didn’t get to talk to Santa’s helper!” Mamoruzen suddenly exclaimed.

Sierra laughed softly and leaned forward to kiss his cheek.  “I’ll take you to see him tomorrow; how’s that?”

He nodded then tilted his head back to look at Toga.  “I won’t pull his beard off,” he promised.

Toga groaned but smiled.  “Kami, I hope not.”

“All right; all right.  It’s time for little boys to go to bed,” Sierra said briskly.

“But I’m not tired,” Mamoruzen insisted just before a wide yawn interrupted him.

Toga pushed himself to his feet and scooped up his son.  “I know,” he said in commiserating tone.  “Your mama and I are, though, and we can’t go to bed until you do.”

“I’m almost three,” Mamoruzen pointed out as Toga headed for the stairs.

“So you are.”

“I can stay up when I’m three?”

“We’ll see,” Toga replied.  “We’ll see.”

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 15, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“So Santa’s beard came off, did it?” Izayoi Kichiro asked with the barest hint of a smile quirking the corners of his lips as he stared into the huge, round eyes of his oldest daughter.

She nodded emphatically, her little claws digging unconsciously into the sleeve of her father’s shirt.  “Why’d it do that, Papa?  Why?” she demanded in her tiny, sing-song voice.

“Well,” Kichiro drawled, scratching his chin as he considered her question.  “He’d get pretty warm under that beard, don’t you think?  I think it kind of makes sense that it comes off, don’t you?”

Isabelle’s little face scrunched up in a thoughtful scowl.  “Ooh,” she finally breathed.

“Yeah,” he said, kissing her forehead.  “So did you get to tell him what you want?”

“No,” she admitted with a sad shake of her head, “but Mama helped me write a letter.”

Kichiro chuckled.  “Then I’m sure you’ll get exactly what you asked for.”

“I asked for a new doll,” she said.  “One in a Christmas dress!”

“A red one or a green one?”

She giggled.  “A red one for me and a green one for Lexi!”

“Wow, that sounds really pretty,” he agreed.

She nodded happily and wiggled around on his lap until she managed to get up on her knees to kiss his cheek.  “I like pretty!”

He laughed as Bellaniece breezed into the room with their youngest daughter, Alexandra, peering out from under a pretty pink towel in her mama’s arms.  Holding an arm out for her, he took the squirming girl while Bellaniece scooped Isabelle up.  “Time for your bath, baby,” she half-sang as she cuddled with her daughter.

“Where’s my kiss, Belle-chan?” Kichiro asked pointedly.

“Of course, my lover,” she agreed with a giggle.  With a smile full of mischief, she leaned to the side, her lips warm and welcoming—much headier than a quick kiss ought to have been.

He heaved a sigh.  “You’re a wicked woman,” he informed her.

She winked at him, her deep blue eyes sparkling.  “I’ll show you how wicked I can be later,” she promised.

A delicious shiver raced up his spine, and he grinned.  “Oh, will you now?” he murmured in a husky tone.

Her laughter trailed in her wake as she sauntered out of the room with a babbling Isabelle nestled safely in her arms.  Kichiro watched her go as his smile widened lazily, and he chuckled softly when he turned his attention back to his one and a half year old daughter still wrapped comfortably in a thick pink towel.  When he looked at her, she smiled, her blue eyes sparkling as the dimple that dug deep into her left cheek emerged.  She was such a happy baby—he could only remember her truly crying once or twice in her short lifetime—that there wasn’t a doubt in Kichiro’s mind that she was absolutely, positively her mother’s child, after all.

“And what do you think you’re laughing at?” he drawled.

Alexandra gurgled happily.

Rubbing his cheek against the downy skin of her cheek, he stood, carefully cradling her against his chest, and slowly wandered over to the baby grand piano.  “You want to learn how to play?” he asked.

Alexandra nodded, poking one hand out of her towel and gingerly pressing on the keys.  She giggled out loud when the dulcet tones of the instrument sounded in the quiet.

Kichiro played the scale a few times.  Alexandra, like always, placed her hand on the back of his.  “You’re getting better,” he informed her.

She laughed, stuffing her free hand into her mouth as her cheeks pinked at the perceived praise.  She was more than happy to listen to him play, though, with her hand resting atop his.

The thump of little feet announced the arrival of his oldest daughter as she wiggled her way up onto the bench.  “Me, too, Papa!” Isabelle demanded, ducking under his arm so that she could crawl onto his lap beside her sister.

“Keh!  Your hair’s soaked,” he complained without any real conviction.  “Didn’t your mama dry you off?”

“Oh, please!” Bellaniece intoned.  “You think she’d stand still long enough for that when she heard you playing?”

Kichiro grinned and gave a curt shrug.  “Okay, girls.  You’ve been practicing, right?”

Isabelle nodded enthusiastically as she sat up a little straighter and plunked out a few incongruent notes.  Alexandra, watching her sister closely, followed suit while Kichiro concentrated on holding onto his girls so that they didn’t slip off his lap in their exuberance.

Bellaniece slipped her hands down his chest as she pressed her body against his back.  “Do you have any idea how much you turn me on when you play with your daughters?” she murmured into his ear.

“Is that so?” he challenged softly, peering over his shoulder at her.

She smiled.  “Yes, my lover.  It’s one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“Of course it is,” he agreed.  “Now be a good girl until they go to bed.”

Bellaniece heaved a melodramatic sigh and stepped away, only to lean on the edge of the piano, her eyes shining as she watched her family play.

“Okay, you two,” Kichiro finally said, giving both his daughters a little squeeze.  “It’s about bed time, so be good and get into your nightgowns, and I’ll play you a song.”

Belle laughed softly and pushed away from the piano, hurrying off to gather their clothes.  Isabelle swung around and hopped down, dancing in small circles in her pink towel.  Alexandra wiggled to get down, too, and she ran over to join her big sister.

It didn’t take long to dress the girls since they loved this time of the evening as much as their father did.  Clean and comfortable, they climbed into a thickly cushioned easy chair with their mother and settled back to listen while Kichiro serenaded them in the ambient light cast by the glimmering Christmas tree that stood in the corner of the living room.

There really was a special something in the air at this time of year, he had to admit.  Because Bellaniece was American by birth, she’d always demanded that they celebrate the season in much the same fashion as she had back home, and to that end, Kichiro had never complained when she’d dragged him from place in search of decorations and ornaments.  He tromped through the forest every year while Isabelle told him which bits of greenery she wanted.  Sometimes it took hours for her to hand select each and every bough that she wanted, and yet it always made her so very happy that he hadn’t even thought to complain.

She spent days arranging that greenery: tying boughs to the mantle over the fireplace with red velvet bows; hiding cinnamon sticks amongst the pieces all around the room.  For hours, she’d sit and stick cloves, one by one, into oranges because, she said, they smelled like Christmas, and they did, he supposed.  Christmas, she’d told him before, was a magical time: one of the few that she could remember hearing her father laugh—really laugh.  Kichiro supposed it made sense.  There was something entirely innocent and fresh about the season, and it was that awe as seen through the eyes of a child that had appealed to the artistic side of Cain Zelig.

He had to admit that he loved it, too.  The act of playing piano had always helped him to forget the stress of the day and coupled with the aromatic smells that held a strange sense of warmth and family, it really as something special—even more special than it was every other night that he performed for his family.  He made a point to do it, regardless of whatever else might be threatening to draw him away, and while his life tended to be much less hectic these days, it remained something that he did purely for pleasure.  There was something about the melodious tones that helped to lull his daughters, as well.  They were both sleeping midway through the second song though he was in no real hurry to stop playing.

After the song was over, he carefully lowered the cover over the keyboard and stood up.  Bellaniece’s smile was brilliant as he carefully picked up Isabelle to carry her off to bed.  She snuggled Alexandra close and followed.

They didn’t wake up when they were tucked in.  It never failed to amuse Kichiro.  Though they had enough rooms for the girls to have their own, Isabelle, who had been fascinated by her mother’s growing belly, had insisted that Alexandra share her room when they’d brought her home from the hospital.  He figured that they’d end up with their own domains eventually, but for now, both girls seemed content with being near one another, and while neither one usually came into her parents’ room at night, more often than not, Alexandra would crawl into Isabelle’s bed long before morning.

The long and short of it was that, in his eyes, the two were little angels.  He used to laugh when Bellaniece had talked about such fanciful things, but he really couldn’t think of a better way to describe his girls—all three of them.  Kissing each of his daughters in turn, he slipped an arm around Bellaniece’s waist as they watched them for a long minute.

“They look so much like you, it’s frightening,” Kichiro murmured as he leaned down to kiss his wife’s cheek.

Bellaniece smiled up at him and grabbed his hand to tug him out of the room.  “Frightening?  Why?”

Heaving an exaggerated sigh, he let her lead him down the darkened hallway toward their bedroom.  “Because, Belle-chan, I know damn well what I think every time I look at you, and I’d rather not think about some pup having those same thoughts when he’s looking at my little girls.”

“Oh?  Don’t tell me you’re going to be an overprotective father,” she teased as he pushed their door closed and started to unbutton his shirt.

“Kami, no,” he assured her.  “Doesn’t do any good, anyway.  All that would accomplish would be to make my girls feel as though they’d somehow let me down when they didn’t do any such thing.”

“You’re talking about your father and Gin,” she murmured.  It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah,” he allowed slowly then shook his head, “and no . . . That wasn’t really the old man’s intention.   He just wanted to protect and shelter her, after all.”  Dropping the shirt onto the floor in a careless heap, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and wandered over to the long windows.  “I don’t have a doubt in my mind that that’s why she ended up with a bastard like your—”

“Izayoi Kichiro, you’re not really calling my daddy a bastard, are you?” she interrupted with a raised eyebrow and her arms crossed over her chest.

He rolled his eyes and snorted indelicately.  “I believe I was, princess,” he parried.

“Fine then.  Get it all out of your system since he’ll be here tomorrow,” she reminded him.

That earned her a darkened scowl.  “I know,” he mumbled since his father had been griping about that very thing earlier in the day when he’d stopped by the dojo to say hello while InuYasha and Kichiro’s twin, Ryomaru were sparring.  “Maybe we’ll get lucky and his plane will go down somewhere over the Atlantic . . .”

Bellaniece gasped softly and shook her head.  “Keep it up, Izayoi,” she warned.  “Need I remind you that as your sister’s mate that should something happen to Daddy then the same would happen to her?”

Rolling his eyes since he was joking—or at least, he was mostly joking—he made a face and grunted.  “I just don’t like him,” he complained.

“You don’t have to,” she assured him.  “You’re married to me, not Daddy, remember?”

“Thank kami for that.”

She tossed a pillow at him as she crawled onto their bed, her bare skin glowing in a golden hue as she stretched languorously.  Kichiro nearly groaned out loud.  Laying on her side with one leg bent forward, her absolutely perfect breasts rising and falling with every breath she drew, he stood, transfixed, watching her as she rolled onto her belly, as she tucked her arms against her sides, elbows bent with her hands hidden under the thick pillow.  She was beautiful, and damned if she didn’t know it, too.  “Are you coming to bed, Kichiro?” she asked in the throaty tone that never failed to send shivers straight down his spine.

“You’re not tired from chasing your daughters around all day?” he couldn’t resist teasing.

“I’m never too tired for you, my lover.”

Grinning slightly as his slacks joined the shirt he’d discarded on the floor, he settled himself on the bed beside his mate.

“You know,” Bellaniece said as she reached out to run her fingertips down the center of his chest, “I was thinking . . .”

“Think ‘lower’, Belle-chan,” he said.

She giggled and rolled onto her side, tucking her hands together under her cheek.  “Would you mind if I asked to have Sebastian spend the night tomorrow?”

“That’s fine,” he agreed, pulling her into his arms, pressing his hips against hers.  She uttered a guttural moan, her eyes slipping closed for a moment before she forced them open again, the blaze of igniting passion adding a shocking brightness to the underlying sense of lethargy.

“Thank you,” she nearly purred.  “It’ll be a nice treat for Daddy and Gin, don’t you think?”

Sidetracked by the curve of her throat, Kichiro nibbled gently as Bellaniece’s pulse quickened.  “Treat?” he asked between kisses.

“Yeah,” she replied in a breathless sort of way.  “They’ll be separated for almost a whole day traveling over.  They’ll want to have some alone time, don’t you think?”

Warning bells chimed softly in the back of his mind.  Kichiro ignored them.  “I doubt that it’s going to make a difference whether or not Sebastian’s there.”

“That’s true,” she agreed with a contented little sigh as her fingertips glided over the smooth flesh of his back.  “It didn’t stop them when we walked in, did it?”

And that reminder was like a dousing of ice cold water, as far as Kichiro was concerned.  He’d had nightmares about that day, damn it.  After weeks of cajoling, Bellaniece had finally managed to talk him into taking her on vacation, and she’d chosen to go back to Maine for a visit.  Thing was, she wanted to surprise her father, and that had been the biggest mistake.  Kichiro had been exhausted from traveling, edgy from the ride from the airport to the Zelig mansion via taxi, and by the time they’d reached the place, he’d been ready to drop into bed to sleep for a week.

They hadn’t bothered to knock on the doors, however.  After all, it was Bellaniece’s childhood home, wasn’t it?  What he hadn’t expected to see was Cain Zelig’s ass as he defiled Kichiro’s sister right there in the foyer on the stairs in the middle of the day for anyone to see.

“Oh, that’s it,” he stated abruptly, letting go of his mate and flopping over onto his other side, effectively presenting Bellaniece with his back.  “That scarred me for life, you know.”

She laughed at him—he’d known she would.  “It did not,” she countered.

Heartless,’ he fumed, unable to repress the all-out grimace as the vision of that awful day assailed him once more.  “There are some things in this world that are not meant to be seen by living eyes,” he informed her brusquely, raising his voice to be heard over the escalating torrent of giggles that escaped her, “and your father’s naked ass is one of those things.”

“Your baby sister likes my daddy’s naked ass,” she quipped, rubbing his back in an effort to assuage his battered psyche.

“Yeah, that’s really not helping, Belle-chan.”

She laughed harder.  “Aww, well, let’s see if I can’t help you repress that memory again,” she offered, her hands slipping around his waist.

He pushed her hands back and snorted.  “Forget it, wench.  You sank my battleship.”

“I . . . what?” she exclaimed before dissolving in another round of giggles.

“Yeah, that’s right.  You heard me.  Sank.  Broken.  Done.  Finished.  I’m picking up my marbles, and I’m going home.”

“I love you,” Bellaniece said, placing a loud kiss on the back of his shoulder.

“You love to torment me,” he pouted.

She laughed again, her hands slipping around him once more though this time, he didn’t try to stop her.  “I’m sorry, lover,” she said though her apology was ruined when she laughed out loud again.  “Let me see if I can raise your battleship, shall I?”

He grunted at her choice of words but didn’t fight her when she tugged him onto his back and with a devilish little glint in her eyes and scooted toward the foot of the bed . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 21, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“Thanks.”

Kagome slipped into the chair across from Sierra and smiled.  “You look a bit frazzled,” she commented.

“That bad?” Sierra asked with a slight grimace.  There were times when she thought that the woman they called ‘miko’ was entirely too perceptive by far.  In fact, she’d been of two minds about stopping by to drop off the handwritten invitation to her son’s birthday-party-slash-Christmas-Eve-party that she’d neglected to deliver before.  That they already knew about the party and were planning on attending was arbitrary.  Sierra wasn’t sure why she felt as though she were so far behind on everything lately . . .

“No, not bad,” Kagome reiterated.  “Is something wrong?”

Heaving a sigh, Sierra peered over her shoulder to see where her children were.  The twins were crawling all over InuYasha while Gunnar and Mikio sat quietly on the floor playing with a toy truck.  Turning back to face Kagome once more, she couldn’t help the wry smile and shake of her head as a sigh slipped from her.  “It’s nothing, really . . .  just . . . Toga, you know?  He’s trying so hard to make this Christmas special for me, and I love him for that, but . . .”

“But . . .?” Kagome prompted gently when Sierra trailed off.

Sierra shrugged and sipped the tea.  “But the harder he tries, the worse I feel.”  With a sigh and a stubborn shake of her head, Sierra shot Kagome a belligerent look.  “It shouldn’t be that way, right?  I mean, we’ve always shared everything, and now it feels like . . . I-I don’t know . . . it feels like he’s decided that he has to make me happy, and that’s not how it should be.  We should be making each other happy, and . . . and he’s not letting me do that for him.”

Kagome considered that for a long moment and nodded, her deep brown eyes troubled as she pondered what Sierra had said.  “You’re right,” she said at length.  “That is how it should be.  He’s just trying to protect you, I think.  You’ve had a pretty rough year, after all, and I think he’s simply hoping that you have an extra happy holiday.”

“I know,” Sierra said then waved a hand in blatant dismissal as she tucked a strand of strawberry blonde hair behind her ear.  “Then, too, there’s this . . .” trailing off for a moment, Sierra glanced at her children before leaning toward Kagome to whisper, “. . . Santa business . . .”

“Oh?”

She nodded again and sat back with another heavy sigh.  “Gunnar’s already starting to question it.  He’s so little, you know?  And everyone expects so much of him . . . Sometimes I think that he’s going to grow up and miss his entire childhood because of everything that he’s going to be, and I . . .” with another tired sigh, she rubbed her temples and paused as though to gather her thoughts together.  “I just wanted him to think like a child, even if it is only about Santa Claus.  Do you know what he said to the Santa I took him to after the beard debacle?”

Kagome bit her lip, almost afraid to hear it.  “No, what?”

“He told him that he knew he wasn’t really Santa but if he should see the real one, that he’d like a Kubrick robot with red laser eyes.”

“Oh . . . my . . .”

Sierra shook her head and finished her tea.  “I don’t know . . . I mean, I know I can’t keep him little forever, but it just seems to me that he’s trying to grow up a lot faster than I’d like.”

“They do that, don’t they?” Kagome asked softly.

Sierra sighed, rubbing her forehead as a wave of sadness washed over her.  “Yeah . . . I just bought Coral her first bras the other day.  Toga was a little unnerved.”

“I’ll bet he was,” she agreed.  “I remember when I bought those for Gin.  InuYasha wouldn’t speak to me for a week.”

Sierra laughed—a good sign, in Kagome’s estimation.  “Why can I believe that?”

“Besides, Mamoruzen is becoming a really great young man.  You’ve got a lot to be proud of.”

Sierra opened her mouth to reply but was cut short by raised voices coming from the living room.  “No, Chelsea!  Go ‘way!”

“I just want to see it, ‘Moruzen!”

“You can see it fine!  You don’t have to touch it to see it!”

Chelsea wasn’t impressed.  “You have to share!”

“Not with you, baka!  Go play with your stupid dolls!”

Oi!”  The squabbling stopped at the sound of that particular voice.  Sierra wasn’t surprised.  The children weren’t really inclined to argue with InuYasha, after all.  “Let her see the truck, Mikio,” he went on.

“. . . Oka-a-ay . . .”

Sierra pressed her lips together and slowly shook her head.  “I should have InuYasha come by whenever Toga’s not home.  They listen to him.”

Kagome laughed.  Sierra would have if she hadn’t been serious.  Neither woman was surprised when two little boys trudged into the kitchen with varying degrees of disgust evident on their little faces.  “I want a truck that isn’t for girls,” Gunnar announced loudly as he plopped into a chair at the table, balling his hands into fists as he plunked his elbows on the table and smashed his cheeks into his fists.

“Me, too,” Mikio decided though he didn’t pout quite as much as Gunnar did.

“Uncle Yasha likes girls better than boys,” Gunnar went on.  Mikio’s ears flattened for a moment.

“I don’t like girls better,” InuYasha grumbled as he stomped into the kitchen.  “They just get hella loud when they don’t get their way.”

Sierra shook her head but smiled as she stood to take her cup to the sink.  “Did you boys drag a bunch of stuff out?” she asked pointedly.

“No-o-o,” Gunnar drawled.

“Are you sure?”

He pondered that for a moment then hopped down.  “C’mon, Mikio!  Let’s go see!”

The two ran off again, and Sierra shook her head.  “Thanks for the tea, Kagome,” she said, hurrying over to hug the miko.

Kagome smiled.  “Any time.”

“You will be at the party, then?”

“Absolutely.”

She hurried into the living room then, calling to the twins to put the toys away and get their coats on.

Kagome sat for a moment, her chin on her hand, her face taking on a thoughtful lilt.

“I don’t like that look, wench,” InuYasha commented dryly.

“Hmm?”

He narrowed his eyes as though he were trying to read her mind.  “That look,” he said again.  “It’s the one you get when you’re thinking about meddling.”

“I don’t meddle!” she exclaimed indignantly.

“Keh!  And I don’t breathe.”

She rolled her eyes and started to protest again, but two little girls wrapped in coats, scarves, and mittens, darted into the room to hug her.  “Bye!” Charity sang.

Kagome giggled and adjusted the girl’s hood.  “I’ll see you in a couple of days, won’t I?”

Charity smiled brightly as she threw her little arms around Kagome’s neck.  “For ‘Moruzen’s birthday?”

She nodded then choked as Chelsea joined the hug.

“InuYasha,” Sierra said as she hurried into the kitchen with Mikio in tow.  The boy had his head tilted back with a wad of tissue paper smashed under his nose.  “I don’t think it’s a huge deal, but . . .”

With a loud scrape of the chair, InuYasha stood and stalked over to his son.  “Let’s see,” he demanded in a gruff yet gentle tone as he pulled Mikio’s hands down to get a look at the injury.  “You fall?”

Mikio nodded with a sniffle as Kagome got to her feet.  “Yes, Papa,” he mumbled.  At the sight of the blood dripping from his nose, Charity broke into a loud wail, and Kagome put her hand on Chelsea’s shoulder to keep the girl from running over to poke Mikio’s injury. 

InuYasha pressed the tissue to his nose again.  “Hold this,” he commanded as he helped Mikio into the chair that he’d just vacated.

Sierra grabbed the girls’ hands and winced apologetically.  “I’ll get these two out of your hair.  Gunnar said that Mikio tripped and fell against the doorknob.”

With a flutter of her hand to let Sierra know that she’d heard her, Kagome dampened a cloth under the cold water tap and wrung it out before hurrying over to Mikio.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as she’d feared, thankfully.  The skin was a bit swollen and very red, but he didn’t seem to be bruising.  “Use this,” she said, taking the blood-stained tissues and tossing them into the trash can while Mikio took the cool cloth and dabbed at his nose.  “Do you need to go lie down awhile?”

InuYasha snorted indelicately.  “He’s tough,” he assured her.  “He’s hanyou, ain’t he?”

She shot him a quelling glance before ruffling Mikio’s hair.  “I know he’s tough,” she agreed with a wan smile directed at her son.  “Just be more careful next time, won’t you?”

Mikio nodded, blinking over the top of the cloth.  “Will we still go to Gunnar’s house?”

“Of course we will,” she assured him.  “You want to, right?”

He nodded again as his gaze skittered away to look at his father.  InuYasha grunted in response.  Only then did Mikio relax enough to smile back just a little bit.

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 22, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“Lie still or you’ll mess me up.”

The crinkle of wrapping paper resounded in the quiet, only to be reflected in the happy laughter that followed seconds later as Izayoi Ryomaru ripped a long strip of tape off the roll and slapped it onto the seam of the overlapping paper.

Morio giggled and peeked out of the folds, a mischievous glint illuminating his golden eyes.   “I’m not a present!” the three year-old declared.

“You don’t want to be Mama’s present?” Ryomaru asked.

Morio considered that.  “I’ll be Mama’s present!” he yelled.

“You won’t be if you don’t hold still,” Ryomaru warned, tugging another mammoth strip of tape. 

“It’s sticky to my toes!” Morio complained with a hoot of laughter.

Izayoi Deirdre, better known as Nezumi, sighed and shook her head, her lips pressed together in a thin line that bespoke her impatience with the task at hand.  She’d never been particularly skilled at things that were most commonly considered ‘women’s work’, and wrapping gifts, in her opinion, was definitely ‘women’s work’.  “You two are wasting that paper,” she pointed out dryly.

Ryomaru paused long enough to cast her a cheesy grin.  “Aren’t you done yet, Nez?”

“Baka,” she muttered, slapping the back of her hand against the center of her husband’s chest.

His grin widened.  “I love it when you beat me, you know,” he pointed out.

She snorted loudly but couldn’t staunch the flush that shot to the fore.  “Incorrigible baka,” she amended.

“I’m a baka, too!” Morio exclaimed suddenly, sitting up straight and effectively ruining his father’s wrapping job.

Ryomaru laughed, flopping onto his back as he bestowed his son with an inordinately proud grin.  “Abso-fucking-lutely,” he said.

Nezumi rolled her eyes and reached over to grab Ryomaru’s hand and smashed the tip of his index finger onto the ribbon crossed over the gift she’d been fighting with for the last twenty minutes.  “That’s not really something that he ought to be proud of, Ryo.”

Rolling onto his knees, he crawled closer and kissed her cheek.  “Says you,” he countered.

She paused long enough to eye him blankly.  “How old are you?  Three?

“Now that ain’t right, Nez,” he quipped with a very, very fake pout on his face.  “Oi!  Save the finger!” Ryomaru grouched when Nezumi yanked the ends of the ribbon tight.

“Kami, you’re such a baby,” she insisted.

“Papa’s not the baby!” Morio argued emphatically.  “I’m the baby!  Me!  Izza me—Morio!”

Pursing her lips as she struggled not to laugh, she shook her head at her husband, who was grinning from ear to ear.  “That’s one of the most messed up things you’ve ever taught that boy,” she remarked as the barest hint of a smile twitched on her lips.

Ryomaru laughed.  “Aww,  come on, Nez!  Who doesn’t love the Mario Brothers games?”

“I love games!” Morio insisted.  “We’re gonna play a game, Papa?”

Ryomaru’s laughter escalated.  “I ain’t finished wrapping you up yet.  Besides, you’re a present, right?  You’ll be under the tree for a few days.”

“But what if I gotta pee?”

“Dunno what to tell you, Morio.  Guess you’ll just have to hold it till Mama opens her present,” Ryomaru teased.

“I can’t hold it that long!” the child protested.

“I suppose you could just pee on the tree,” Ryomaru decided, scratching his chin thoughtfully.

Nezumi’s head jerked up, and she snapped her mouth closed as her cheeks pinked just a touch.  “Pee on your father,” she grumbled.  “Baka.”

“Okay!” Morio agreed, crawling out of the cocoon of wrapping paper and reaching for the dull silver snap of his jeans.

“Keh!  Fat fucking chance!” Ryomaru said, standing up and hefting his giggling child over his shoulder.  “I expect you to be finished when I get back!”

Nezumi tossed a preformed red bow at her husband’s head.  “You’re such a doofus.”

“Yeah, and you married me anyway, wench.  What does that say about you?”

He strode out of the room before she could retort, and with a shake of her head, she reached for the next box with a groan.  There was a good chance that the other parents weren’t necessarily going to thank them for the gifts her husband had chosen for the kids, and while Nezumi thought on the basest of levels that they looked like fun, as a mother, she supposed that she ought to protest them, herself.

Paintball guns,’ she thought with a wry grimace.  ‘We’re going to be banned from Christmas parties for the next hundred years or more . . .’

It was funny, really.  Both she and Ryomaru were Japanese, but Nezumi’s mother, Kate, was American, and while she’d died long ago, Nezumi could still remember the precious few Christmases her family had celebrated when her mother was still alive.  Kate Barber Matako had loved the holiday, and as a child, Nezumi had, too.  Maybe it wasn’t so odd that she’d want to celebrate such a happy memory with her own child and husband now.

Ryomaru had liked the idea from the start, and why wouldn’t he?  Christmas, to him, meant presents, and that was more than enough reason for him to be completely gung-ho about it.

Morio’s laughter announced his return long before he darted into the room.  “Is that for me?” he asked as he crawled into his mother’s lap.

“Silly.  Would I be wrapping your presents in front of you?” she challenged with a quirked eyebrow as she pushed the length of her long black ponytail over her shoulder.

“Yes?” Morio replied hopefully.

“Nope,” she countered, smiling as he pushed his head under her chin and wiggled his ears to tickle her.  “Sit still, will you?” she said with a laugh.

He leaned up to plant an obscenely loud kiss on her cheek as Ryomaru plopped down beside her.  “He loves his mama,” Ryomaru said with a wide grin.

“Of course he—Morio!” Nezumi exclaimed suddenly when the boy started wiggling around, only to stop suddenly, long enough to rip a loud fart right in her lap.

“Oi!  No farting on your mama!” Ryomaru insisted with a bark of laughter as he grabbed the insanely laughing boy and propelling him toward the doorway with a light tap on Morio’s bottom.

“You’re a hypocrite,” she mumbled, waving a hand in front of her face as she got up on her knees to move to the other side of the pile of presents that had yet to be wrapped.

“Keh!  Shows what you know,” he shot back.  “I never fart on my mama.”

“I’ll say it again,” she retorted, “baka.  Anyway, I did tell you that you put too much cabbage in that hotpot you made for dinner.”

“You dare criticize the chef du jour?

“Do you even know what ‘du jour’ means?”

“Nope.”

She rolled her eyes and grunted as she leaned forward to nab the last of the paintball guns.  “Figures.”

He laughed, stretching out on his side as his gaze took on a lazy glow.  “Do you know what it means?”

“Nope,” she stated flatly, “but I’m not the one tossing into sentences, either.”

“You know something?” he said suddenly, his voice dropping into a husky sort of drawl that always sent a tremor of altogether nice shivers down her spine.

“What?” she asked without daring a glance at him.  She never could quite figure out what set him off, anyway.  He seemed to get the strangest of ideas at the oddest of times.

“You’re sexy as hell.”

She couldn’t help the disbelieving look she cast him since she was still wearing the cut off sweat pants and rumpled, oversized tee-shirt that she’d worn all day while she cleaned the house.  “Have you been sniffing stuff in the medicine cabinet again?” she asked quizzically.

He moved faster than she could discern—something that never ceased to amaze her about him.  With a sharp gasp, she blinked in surprise as he rolled her over and leaned down to kiss her playfully.  “Sexy as hell, Deirdre,” he murmured.

“. . . Baka,” she whispered, bemused by the use of her given name.

“I see my presents!” Morio called from the doorway.

Arching her back as she craned her head back to look at the child, Nezumi pushed on Ryomaru’s shoulders to move him.  “Did you pick up your toys yet?” she asked pointedly.

Morio wasn’t daunted.  “No.”

Ryomaru sighed, figuring that he wasn’t going to be able to distract her as easily as he might have hoped.  “Come on, boy,” he said as he pushed himself to his feet.  “You know, Santa won’t bring you nothin’ if you don’t keep your other stuff put away.”

“Yuh-huh,” Morio countered as his mother shook her head and watched the two leave.

Heaving a sigh as she frowned at the mountain of presents that seemed to have gotten larger instead of smaller, she reached for another roll of paper . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 22, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“Do I have to?”

“Yes.”

“But—”

“This isn’t negotiable.”

“Father . . .”

Without looking up from his newspaper, Senkuro Seiji cleared his throat.  “You heard your mother,” he replied.

Rinji snorted.  “I’ll be bored,” he predicted darkly.

Aiko set her chopsticks aside and leveled a no-nonsense look at her son.  “You can hang out with Coral,” she pointed out reasonably.

Coral?” he echoed incredulously, his eyebrows disappearing under the thick fringe of silver hair that framed his face.  “That’s worse than being bored!”

Hiding a smile behind a cup of tea that she slowly sipped, Aiko schooled her features before answering.  “Aren’t you being a bit melodramatic?”

“No,” Rinji insisted with a shake of his head.  “She’s evil, I tell you!  And her friends are just as bent as she is.”

Seiji finally peered around the bent corner of the paper.  “Funny.  I always thought that Coral was pretty tall for her age.”

That earned his father a scowl.  “That’s what I mean!” he explained hotly.  “She’s taller than most of my friends—and she’s younger!  She’s a freak—a giant—an Amazon—a nightmare.”

And she’s your cousin,” Aiko reminded him gently.

He wasn’t impressed.  “Did you know that I got in trouble the other day because she came into my class to deliver a stupid note from one of her baka friends?  It was humiliating!  I don’t want to be anywhere near her!”

“She’s family,” Aiko stated.  “Besides, you know that this year is special.  Your uncle is very concerned that your aunt has been unhappy lately, and he thinks that having the entire family together for the holiday will help to cheer her up.”

Rinji made a face at what he believed to be the lowest of underhanded tactics on his mother’s part.  “I know,” he muttered, his cheeks pinking slightly.

Aiko wasn’t finished.  “So wouldn’t you feel bad if your aunt asked where you were, and I had to tell her that you’d rather stay home—alone—than spend time with your family?”

“I get it; I get it,” he grumbled.  “I’ll go.”

She smiled at the reluctance in his tone and stood up, ruffling his hair before she began clearing the table.  “I’m so glad you’ve changed your mind.”

She didn’t miss the indelicate snort that followed her into the kitchen, but she did manage to hide her amused smile until after the swinging door had closed behind her.  While she could appreciate his feelings on the matter, it didn’t mean that he would be able to get out of something as important as a family gathering.  He was the oldest of the latest generation of children, and while he didn’t complain often, she knew that it had to be lonely for him.  Even the little ones seemed to have bonded, becoming more friends than relatives, and it was a relationship that Rinji didn’t really have with anyone in their family.

With a sigh, she set the dishes in the sink and turned on the hot water tap.  Coral, Toga and Sierra’s oldest daughter, was the closest to Rinji in age, but she supposed that the two were simply too different to actually be on friendly terms.  Their personalities tended to clash too drastically.  Rinji was quiet—almost shy—with a laid back sort of demeanor that could, at times, be misconstrued as carelessness, especially when viewed by someone with a more disciplined outlook, like Coral.  That really wasn’t the case.  Like his father, Rinji tended to analyze everything, and he could sit for hours pondering the different angles of something before acting on the decision he’d made as to which approach would be best.  It was Aiko’s considered opinion that Coral might take things a bit too seriously.  In any case, those fundamental differences had been the root cause of a number of arguments between the children whenever they were left alone together.

It had amused Aiko more than once over the years.  For her brother, who always took everything in stride with a kind of calm and sense of humor that she’d always secretly admired, to have a daughter who was so vastly different must have taken some getting used to.  Of the two of them, Aiko had always thought that she was more serious than Toga, to the point that she’d often wondered if he really understood the idea that he would one day be the Japanese tai-youkai.  When they were younger, she had thought that it was a weakness—a deficit—in Toga’s character.  As she’d grown older, though, she’d come to appreciate that part of him.

He did understand things, she knew.  Maybe he understood things better than anyone else, and maybe that was the real reason why he’d smile and let so much roll off his shoulders.  If he made a big deal out of things then everyone else would, too.  Toga had a way of making situations seem less dire, alleviating undue worry or stress that wasn’t really needed in the first place.  It was a gift, she supposed, though she’d never, ever admit as much to him.  He was her brother, after all, and it was a sister’s job to knock her brother down a peg or two whenever it was warranted.

“Dinner was great,” Seiji said as he strolled into the kitchen with an empty wine glass in his hands.

“Oh?  I’m glad you liked it.  It was a new recipe.  I slaved all day . . .”

Quirking his eyebrows at the cardboard take-out boxes stamped with the logo from a nearby restaurant—one of their favorites—atop the trashcan, he smiled.  “I’ll bet you did,” he agreed with a grin.

“Well, I did have to lift the phone to call and order,” she teased.

He slipped his arms around her waist to pull her back against him.  “Let’s hope you didn’t work too hard on dinner,” he murmured, kissing her cheek.

She reached over her shoulder and tugged his hair playfully.  “Oh?  Did you have something else planned?”

“I thought about you every second I was away,” he murmured, his lips trailing butterfly kisses along the curve of her throat.

“You were only gone for three days,” she reminded him as her eyes fluttered closed.  The nearness of his body, the feel of his heartbeat soothed her.  It was a beautiful thing, she knew.  The bond of mates was so strong, so palpable . . .

He sighed, his youki brushing over hers in an invisible caress.  “The longest three days of my life.”

Giggling softly at his outrageous words, she let her head fall further to the side, allowing him more access.  “You could have told my father that you didn’t want to go.”

He chuckled in a completely condescending sort of way.  “One does not tell Inutaisho Sesshoumaru, ‘no’, do they?”

“Mm, he might if he’s sleeping with Inutaisho Sesshoumaru’s daughter . . .”

“Ungh!  Eww!  Don’t you have a better place to do that?” Rinji complained as he stomped into the kitchen with his dishes.

“Better place?” Seiji echoed thoughtfully.  “Where would you suggest?”

Rinji wrinkled his nose and shrugged.  “I don’t know . . . some place with a door, maybe?”

“There’s a door on the kitchen,” Seiji reminded him.

“This is a public room,” he said with a shake of his head.

Seiji smiled, tightening his arms around his mate.  “I’d hardly call anywhere in our home, ‘public’.”

Setting the plate on the counter, Rinji shot his father a chagrined look.  “It’s part of my domain,” he clarified.

“You’re eleven, Rinji,” Seiji said as his smile widened.  Aiko’s did, too, though the boy didn’t see it.  “You’re not old enough to have a domain.”

He crossed his arms over his chest and leveled a look at Seiji.  “You’ve got a bedroom for stuff like that, don’t you?”

Seiji chuckled, sparing a moment to nuzzle Aiko’s neck.  “Do you hear that, Aiko?  Our son thinks that we should take this to our bedroom . . .”

Smiling secretively as she leaned back to look up at her mate, Aiko nodded.  “Maybe we should . . .”

“Forget it,” Rinji grumbled, shaking his head as though he had expected better from his parents.  “I have homework, anyway.”

She couldn’t help but laugh at the dejected sort of air that fairly exuded from her son as he shuffled out of the kitchen again.  “What happened to our little boy?” she asked as her laughter wound down, and she sighed.  “You know, the one who always laughed at everything?”

“Was he ever little?”

That earned Seiji a sad little frown.  “Why didn’t we ever have another child?” she asked suddenly.

Seiji looked surprised by her question.   “I don’t know . . . do we want another one?”

Turning around so that she could slip her arms around his waist, she smiled.  “I wouldn’t mind having another.”

“We could,” he agreed slowly, an almost bashful sort of smile surfacing on his features as he chuckled softly.  “You were really cute, all round and chubby . . .”

Laying her temple against his shoulder, she laughed.  “I was, wasn’t I?”

“Yes,” he replied, tightening his arms around her.  “You absolutely were.”

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 24, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

Squinting at the yards of instructions spilling over the bed and onto the floor from the accordion-style folds, Toga carefully analyzed them.  Pushing his glasses up with a crooked index finger, he shifted his gaze from the written text to the assembly in his hand.  “Okay,” he concluded with a heavy exhalation, “this seems to be the guts of the thing.  I think this is the right side . . . maybe . . .”

Sierra glanced up from the parts of the baby carriage she had carefully spread out on the floor.  “I have every faith that you can do it, Toga,” she replied.

“Of course,” he quipped, hoping that he sounded a little more positive than he felt.  “Two thousand, five hundred eighteen pieces . . .  Are you sure that Mamoruzen actually asked Santa Claus for this?”

Sparing a moment to smile at him, she nodded.  “A Kubrick robot with red laser eyes,” she repeated.  “By the way, do you know?  They were almost sold out of those.  That was the last one, so it’s a good thing that I went to the store when I did, don’t you think?”

He grunted something completely unintelligible and set the wiring mechanism aside.  “It’d be easier to wrap in the box,” he pointed out.

“Maybe,” she agreed as she scanned the much simpler diagram of the baby carriage and snapped one metal rod into the center of a white plastic wheel.  “Then again, don’t you think it’d be much more impressive if the robot were already assembled?  Besides, it’s an unwritten rule: Santa never delivers things that aren’t pre-assembled.”

“Keh!” he snorted but didn’t argue with her.  “Santa also has a legion of little green men, doesn’t he?”

“Who do you think he is?  The man from Mars?”

He shot her a grin then wrinkled his nose as he idly scanned the box.  “Did you buy batteries for this?”

“It didn’t come with batteries?”

He shook his head and snapped a few more bricks into place.  “Nope.”

“I’m sure we have some extra ones around here,” she said absently as she threaded the metal rod through the metal base of the carriage.

He glanced at her and grinned.  “You wouldn’t want to trade, would you?  I mean, I’d feel guilty as hell if you pinched your pretty little hands while you were putting that together.”

She shot him a knowing look and shook her head.  “Forget it, dog-face.  Kubricks are a manly toy, remember?”

“Fine, then,” he remarked.  “Forget that I said that I’d feel guilty, too.”

Sierra giggled as she turned the carriage upright and snapped the pink hubcaps over the industrial bolts that held the wheels in place.  “Done with the carriages,” she announced, rolling onto her knees and dusting her hands together.

Toga snapped two more bricks into place and held up his handiwork for her inspection.  “How does it look?”

Narrowing her eyes and tilting her head to the side, she bit her lip as she considered the piece.  “What . . . is that?” she finally asked.

“Tilt your head to the other side and stick out your tongue.  That might help,” he muttered almost indignantly.

Sierra laughed.  “Seriously, Toga . . . Is that the neck or something?”

“It’s a leg, Sierra,” he pointed out with a raised eyebrow.  “See the row of black ones on the bottom?  That’s his foot.”

“Of course, of course,” she agreed quickly.  “How dumb of me . . . I . . . I see it now . . . of course I do . . .”

He rolled his eyes.  “Wench,” he grumbled, dropping the leg and snatching up the instructions again while Sierra stowed the finished carriages in the walk-in closet.

“That just leaves Cassidy’s doll house,” she said as she emerged from the closet.  “But that’ll have to wait until tomorrow night.  Once it’s put together, I doubt it’ll fit in there.”

Frowning at the robot’s construction plans, Toga uttered a terse grunt to indicate that he’d heard his mate.

Sierra sighed and wandered over to the bed, flopping down across the foot of it and leaning on her elbows as she watched him carefully.  “You’ve been working on that for the last two hours,” she pointed out.

Toga didn’t glance up, and he didn’t bother to answer, either, since he had been working on it for two hours—and in those two hours, he’d taken it apart no less than four times.

Sierra wasn’t daunted.  “Why don’t you put that up and work on it again tomorrow night?”

That did earn her a look.  “The instructions are written in five languages, and I’m fluent in all of them, so you’d think that I could figure this out, wouldn’t you?”

She pressed her lips together and nodded slowly, scrunching up her shoulders under the copious folds of the plain green nightshirt that she’d nabbed from his drawer.  “Well, I suppose we could just leave it unassembled,” she began dubiously.

Toga snorted.  “Forget it, Sierra.  I can do this.”

“I’m sure you can,” she said in a tone that was far more indulgent than Toga liked.

“I.  Can.”

She laughed and sat up, peering over her shoulder in such a way that was far more provocative than it ought to have been, given that she was wearing something that could only be described as demure.  “It’s three a.m., and your mate is tired.”

“Tired,” he echoed with a wolfish grin.  “You can go to sleep.  I won’t bother you.”

“Is that so?” she countered as she scooted off the bed and leaned down, her hands resting on either side of his outstretched legs.  “Why don’t you put that aside and come to bed with me?”

Toga wasn’t entirely certain exactly what thoughts flashed through his head.  A million things, little more than whispers or half-formed ideas, maybe: a myriad of words that described her, and none of them were ever quite enough.  The same girl he’d met so long ago with the flash of a smile and an enduring sense of innocence had evolved and developed into something other and yet at her essence, she always remained the same: a beautiful girl with his heart held loosely in the warmth of her hands.

“I thought you said that Mamoruzen would like this better if it were completely assembled,” he reminded her with a sigh.

Sierra smiled.  “And I thought you said that you could do it, no problem.”

He grinned.  “I am Santa Clause,” he teased.

“A damn fine Santa Clause,” she added, her eyes sparkling.  With an exaggerated sigh, she paced the length of the room a few times as though she were considering something.  Toga tapped the instructions with a tapered claw and sucked in his cheeks as he considered what he’d done wrong this time.

“Toga . . .” she drawled, stopping at the foot of the bed once more and grasping the tall post that stood well taller than she did.

The rustle of fabric registered in his mind in a vague sort of way.  “Hmm?”

“Are you sure you won’t come to bed with me?” she asked again.

“In a bit. If I could just—” Cutting himself off abruptly, Toga leaned back as all thoughts of the toy disappeared when Sierra’s makeshift nightshirt fell over his hands.  “Oh . . . k-k-kami . . .” he murmured, eyes widening as he lifting his gaze to lock on his mate.

Clad in a pair of very pretty little pink cotton panties, she smiled as her cheeks colored just a touch.  “How about now?” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

Toga nodded, swallowing hard as his mouth went dry.  Everything about her seemed to call out to him, and he had to clear his throat a few times as a sense of light headedness stole over him.

She laughed softly as she moved the box of Kubrick blocks off the bed and let Toga drag her into his arms . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 24, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“What’s that?” Cain Zelig asked as he grasped Gin’s arm to stop her before she charged up the porch steps.

Gin blinked and shook her head.  “What’s what, Zelig-sensei?”

He narrowed his gaze on the festively decorated cake in her hands.  “That.”

“It’s a Christmas cake,” she replied with a bright smile.

Nodding slowly, Cain pursed his lips and cocked an eyebrow.  “I know that, baby girl,” he retorted dryly.  “What I’m asking is: what you think you’re doing with it.”

“Now, Cain,” she began in the soothing tone that meant he wasn’t exactly going to like whatever she was about to say.  “We can’t show up empty handed, now can we?  After all, Sierra’s probably been working all week on food and stuff, don’t you think?  That’d be rude!”

Cain snorted as Bas shuffled his feet on the porch.  “We’ve got presents,” he pointed out in a reasonable tone.

Gin wrinkled her nose.  “I told you last night while I was making this cake that it was for today.”

“You know what I thought,” he complained mildly.

The door opened, and Toga stepped back, rubbing Bas’ head as the child passed him.  “Gin!  Cain!  I trust your flight wasn’t too bad?”  With a smile, he jogged down the steps and took the cake from Gin’s hands before leaning down to kiss her cheek.  “Here.  Let me help you,” he said with a smile.

Cain opened his mouth to stop Toga.  Gin was faster, jabbing her elbow into Cain’s ribs to stave back his commentary.  “It was fine, Toga, and thanks,” she said sweetly.

Toga nodded and headed back toward the house once more.  Cain uttered a low growl that was lost on the wind.  “You’re giving away my cake,” he muttered, following as Gin led the way up the porch stairs and into the generous foyer.

“Christmas is the season for giving, Zelig-sensei,” she chided as she pulled her coat and scarf off.

“Oh, is it?” he challenged almost mildly—almost.

Gin shook her head.  “Yes, it is,” she said with a stout nod.

He set the bag of gifts on the floor and draped his hands on his hips for a long moment as he slowly regarded his wife.  She blinked when he finally nodded, as though he’d come to some sort of realization, and for reasons she didn’t examine too closely, she couldn’t help but feel a little worried, too.  “You’re right, Gin,” he agreed.

She didn’t entirely trust the almost clipped tone of his voice, but she nodded.  “I’ll make you another one when we go home,” she offered.

Again, he nodded.  “Bas,” he called without looking away from her.

The boy ran back into the foyer from the living room.  “Yeah?”

Cain hunkered down and curled his index and middle fingers to beckon Bas to him.  “Got something for you,” he said.

“For me?” Bas echoed with a confused shake of his head.

“Yep, for you.”

Gin’s eyes widened when Cain dug into the inside pocket of his coat only to produce the familiar plastic packaging that she knew only too well.  “There you go,” Cain said, handing his son a Reese’s peanut butter Christmas tree.

“Cain!” she gasped before she could stop herself and unable to control the completely stricken expression that surfaced.

Cain didn’t even bat an eyelash.  “You said, yourself, baby girl: Christmas is the season for giving, and I’m giving this to your son.”

Gin’s mouth dropped open as an indignant blush rose high in her cheeks.  Snapping her mouth closed, she swallowed hard and forced herself to nod as Bas frowned at the candy.  “But Mama likes these,” he said with a confused shake of his head.

Gin grimaced at the expression on her son’s face.  “Oh, i-i-it’s okay,” she stammered, pasting on a bright smile and giving Bas a quick hug.  “You eat it, sweetie.  Your papa’s right.  Christmas is the season for giving.”

Bas’ frown deepened, and he stared at the candy for a long minute.  Suddenly, though, his expression brightened, and he ripped the package open and broke the tree in half.  “Here, Mama,” he said, stuffing the bottom half into her hand.  “We can share.”

“Aww, you’re such a sweet boy!” Gin crooned, hugging her son again.  “But Papa gave it to you.”

Bas smiled and shook his head as he jammed his half of the treat into his mouth.  “I want to go play,” he said instead.

Gin let go of him and turned over the half of tree in her hand.  “He’s such a good boy!” she exclaimed softly.

Cain snorted.  “He’s a suck up,” he mumbled.

“He is not, and you could learn a thing or two from your son,” she countered.

“Pfft!  I’m still not sharing that cake.”

Gin rolled her eyes but didn’t comment as Sierra hurried into the foyer to hug her.

Cain sighed and hung his coat over one of the hooks on the wall before he levered his shoes off and followed Bas into the living room.  The women, it seemed, had forgotten that he was even there . . .

He was surprised to find his son standing just inside the doorway looking around with an almost timid sort of expression.  Gunnar and the girls were sitting near the television playing a video game, and judging from the looks of it, they were the first to have arrived for the party.  Bas could be quiet, sure, but bashful?  Cain smiled to himself and put a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “What’s the trouble?” he asked.

Bas glanced up at him then shrugged in what Cain figured was a show of mock bravado.  “Nothin’,” he muttered as he shuffled his feet.

“Why don’t you go over and play with Gunnar?”

Bas shrugged again.  “Do I know him?” he asked in a reluctant and almost irritated tone of voice.

Cain chuckled.  “Yeah, you do, but I guess it’s been awhile since you saw him last time.  You don’t remember him?”

The self-disgust on Bas’ face intensified.  “No,” he admitted.

“I suppose it has been awhile,” Toga remarked, having overheard the conversation.  “I doubt they remember one another.  Mamoruzen, come here.”

The boy’s hanyou ears flicked, and Cain could almost hear the thoughts churning in his head.  He probably wondered if he could get away with pretending that he hadn’t heard his father.  In the end, though, Gunnar paused the game and hopped up, telling his sisters in Japanese that they’d better leave his game alone before he ran over to Toga’s side.

Toga grinned and pushed Gunnar forward a step.  “Mamoruzen, this is your cousin, Sebastian,” he said in English.

Gunnar regarded Bas for several moments, as though he were trying to decide if he knew Bas or not.  He wasn’t much shorter than Bas which was a little surprising since most children his age were so much littler than Bas was, but he was quite a bit slimmer.  Gunnar wasn’t what Cain would have considered scrawny by any means, but he wasn’t nearly as broad of build as Bas, either.  Still, Gunnar paused to size up Bas though not in a threatening sort of way, and in the end, he bowed quickly, his ears flicking in an effort to hear and likely assess everything going on around him.  It was obvious to Cain that the boy didn’t seem to like lowering his head for anyone, and he had to wonder if that was an inborn trait or something that he’d developed over time, but he couldn’t help but grin a little when Bas reciprocated the gesture.  “Pleased to meet you,” Gunnar said formally.

“Hajimemashite,” Bas replied.

Gunnar looked surprised at the Japanese greeting, and Toga chuckled.  “His mother is Japanese,” Toga reminded his son.

Gunnar thought that over for a moment then seemed to perk up.  “My mama is American,” he told Bas.

“Really?  You like football?”

Gunnar looked a little confused by Bas’ question, and Cain chuckled.  “He’s obsessed, just like his mother,” he told Toga.

Toga grinned.  “Gin likes football?”

Cain nodded and sighed.  She’d stumbled across the sport shortly after they’d returned home after Bas’ birth, and she’d been enthralled, which just figured.  “Yes,” he replied mildly.

“What’s football?” Gunnar asked in a tone that stated quite plainly that he disliked having to ask what something was.

“It’s a game,” Bas clarified, looking a little baffled that someone might not know what football was.  “Daddy,” he said, turning to Cain and tugging on the hem of his untucked shirt.  “Can I give him the present?”

Cain smiled and nodded once, and Bas darted away toward the foyer to retrieve the present that he’d helped his mother pick out before they’d left the States.  There were other gifts, of course, but he knew which one Bas was talking about: the football that they’d brought especially for Gunnar’s birthday.  At the time, Cain had reminded Gin that if he were into a sport, it would likely be baseball, but Gin had waved him off and assured him that surely the boy would love football as soon as he understood it.  Cain wasn’t as sure, but Gin seemed convinced.

“Here!” Bas exclaimed as he darted back into the living room with an oblong shaped wrapped package in his hands.  “Happy birthday.”

Gunnar’s gaze brightened as he looked at the festive wrapping paper that Gin and Bas had finger painted.  He took the package and started to tear into the paper.   Toga cleared his throat.  “Mamoruzen . . .”

The boy shot his father a quick glance, his ears flattening momentarily before he faced Bas again.  “Thank you,” he said.

Bas grinned as Gunnar dug into the paper once more.  “What’s this?” he asked, frowning at the regulation size Nerf football.

“It’s a football,” Bas replied.

“It’s not round,” Gunnar said thoughtfully.  “Balls are round.”

“Footballs aren’t round,” Bas countered.  “Come on!  I’ll show you,” he offered.

Gunnar looked a little dubious, but he nodded.

“Outside,” Toga called as the two boys started to run off.

Cain laughed and shook his head when they both did a U-turn in the middle of the room to grab their coats, hats, and shoes in the foyer.

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 24, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“Can I play?”

Gunnar caught the football and paused to glance at Isabelle before passing it back to Bas again.  While he wasn’t entirely sure he liked this game, Bas seemed to, he figured that playing it was fine.  It was better now since Cain had come outside long enough to teach Gunnar the proper way to throw the ball.

Bas frowned at the girl and slowly shook his head.  “No,” he stated flatly.

Her face crumpled into a mix of a pout and a scowl as her bottom lip jutted out angrily.  “Why not?” she demanded, crossing her arms over her chest, holding her doll close.

“Because you’re a wench!” Morio said as he darted past, intercepting the pass intended for Bas.  He and Mikio had arrived a few minutes after Bas and Gunnar had gone outside to play.

“A really stinky wench,” Mikio added for good measure.

“I don’t stink!” Isabelle shot back, her cheeks pinking with her sense of indignation.

Morio guffawed.  “Stinky Bitty, stinky Bitty!” he crowed, underhanded tossing the ball to Bas.

“Shut up, Morio!” Isabelle yelled, stomping her foot to emphasize her words.

“Stinky, smelly Bitty-Belle-y!” he taunted.

Gunnar opened his mouth to tell Morio to stop it since he could see the suspect brightness in Isabelle’s eyes.  He didn’t get the chance.  In a blur of movement, Isabelle shot past, and with a loud growl, she shoved Morio hard, sending him sprawling face down across the deadened yard.

Bas blinked, lowering the ball as he stared at his cousin.  “Ni-i-ice,” he breathed appreciatively.

“Hrumph!” Isabelle snorted, tossing her head as she stomped over to plop down under a nearby tree.  “Stupid boys,” she muttered.  Moments later, though, the angry scowl dissipated, leaving behind a sense of melancholy that she couldn’t hide.

Gunnar frowned as he caught the ball and tossed it to Mikio.  Mikio bobbled it but managed to hang on.  It was nice to play with the boys, but he couldn’t help but feel a little bad for leaving Isabelle out.  After all, it wasn’t her fault that she was a girl . . .

Kichiro stepped outside and grinned at Mikio’s attempt to throw the football.  For a child who had never actually touched a real football before, he wasn’t too shabby.

His smile faded, though, when he spotted the lone figure sitting beneath the sakura tree.  Frowning as he started toward her, he had a good idea of what was bothering his daughter before he reached her side.  “What are you doing over here, baby?” he asked quietly as he knelt beside her.

She cast him a sad sort of look and shrugged.  “They won’t let me play,” she said.

“What?  Why not?”

“Because I’m a girl,” she replied quietly.

Kichiro considered that as he watched the boys.  He could understand that.  Every last one of those boys would play with Isabelle if they were left alone, but when they were all together, he supposed that they’d prefer to play with each other.  He and Ryomaru were the same way when Gin was little, weren’t they?  How many times had they tried to ditch her just because she was a girl?  “You want to play football?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.  He figured that it had less to do with any real desire to play football than it did that she simply wanted to hang out with the boys, and he smiled.

“They won’t let me,” she reminded him with a defeated shake of her head.

“Oh, I think I can talk them into it,” he said as his smile widened, and he stood.  “Come on.”

She didn’t look convinced, but she got to her feet and held her arms up for him.

Sparing a moment to kiss her cheek, he headed back toward the house to recruit players.

Ryomaru and Toga were sitting on the floor in front of the television playing Ryomaru’s new racing game that he’d brought over.  Kichiro purposefully stepped in front of them.

“Oi!” Ryomaru exclaimed, leaning to the side in a futile effort to see around his twin brother.

Toga paused the game.  “Something you wanted?”

“How about you two do me a favor?  Better yet, a favor for Baby-Belle.”

“What sort of favor?” Ryomaru asked, setting the controller aside.

Kichiro grinned.  “She wants to play football, but the boys won’t let her.”

“Oh, is that so?” Toga mused.

Kichiro nodded.  “So how ‘bout it?  Feel like a friendly game?”

Ryomaru grinned and got to his feet, and Toga quickly followed suit.  “Football’s not so bad,” Ryomaru ventured, “unless you’re playing with the old man.”

“Why’s that?” Toga asked.

Ryomaru shrugged.  “You mean you gotta ask?  He’d just as soon punch you in the face and take the ball than tackle you.”

Toga choked out a laugh then nodded.  “Yeah,” he decided, “that sounds about right . . .”

“Speaking of the old man,” Kichiro cut in with a scowl as his eyes shifted over the living room, “where’d he go?”

Ryomaru glanced around, too.  “Dunno,” he said.  “He was here earlier.”

Kichiro shook his head in dismissal as he bounced Isabelle in his arms.  “Let’s go find a few more guys, little girl.”

Isabelle nodded happily, and her brilliant smile was his reward.

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 24, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“You could go out there and join them,” Inutaisho Kagura said softly as she stood beside her mate and husband and rubbed his back.

Sesshoumaru shifted his gaze to her before returning it to the activity outside.  “I think I shall watch,” he replied.

Kagura smiled.  “Football,” she remarked with a raised eyebrow.  “Another excuse for grown men to act like children, if you ask me.”

He didn’t smile though his eyes brightened as a quiet sign of his amusement.  “My thoughts, exactly,” he allowed.  “Though I doubt that InuYasha’s brood would need encouragement such as that.”

“Hmm,” Kagura intoned.  “Is it really a good idea for them to be tackling those children?”

Before Sesshoumaru could respond, young Sebastian caught the ball and was taken down by Kichiro.  The boy hopped right back up, dusted himself off, and laughed.  “I don’t believe that they can hurt that one,” Sesshoumaru commented dryly.

She shook her head.  It had both amused and surprised her, how big Gin’s son was.  Of course, Cain wasn’t a small man, by any means, but Gin was about as delicate as they came.  The three year old child was large for his age, and Gin had said more than once that it was easy to forget just how young Sebastian really was since he wasn’t merely tall but also tended to be quite serious most of the time.

“What do you suppose those two are doing?”

Blinking quickly to dispel her quiet musings, Kagura frowned as Mamoruzen and Morio crept toward the house.  The two behaved as though they were attempting to keep from drawing undue notice, and Kagura narrowed her gaze.  “It doesn’t look good, does it?”

“I should have known that Ryomaru’s son would be as much of a miscreant as his sire,” Sesshoumaru replied.

The two boys crept into the house as Morio whispered something to Mamoruzen.  They glanced around as if they were trying to ascertain whether or not they were being watched and, satisfied that they weren’t, they scooted toward the huge tree standing in the corner of the room.  Sesshoumaru watched in silence as they nabbed two festively wrapped packages and ran back outside.

“You’re not going to stop them?” Kagura asked at length.

Sesshoumaru shot his mate a blank sort of look.  “Should I?”

“Do you think they’re going to make mischief?”

“They’re boys,” Sesshoumaru remarked dryly.  “They always make mischief.”

Kagura shook her head.  As true as that may be, she wasn’t entirely certain that whatever they had in mind would be a welcome diversion.  Still, it was with a heavy dose of amusement that she watched the two creep toward the edge of the patio, ducking down below the waist high stone banister with what looked to be guns of some sort in their little hands.  “What on earth . . .?” she murmured as the boys took careful aim.

Sesshoumaru didn’t speak when the first shots were fired.  One of the boys hit Toga in the center of his back as a splatter of orange dye marred the white shirt.  The other hit Seiji with a smear of lemon yellow.

“Paintball guns,” Kagura muttered, shaking her head.  “Who would be stupid enough to buy those children something like that?”

Sesshoumaru’s eyes narrowed as he watched Ryomaru double over with laughter.  “Him,” he stated flatly.

Kagura sighed.  “Well, that makes sense,” she allowed as the football game broke up.  Bas took off for the house, probably to claim his own paintball gun, and Ryomaru scooped up Mikio and set off at a sprint, too.

“Oh, my,” Sierra breathed as she stopped beside Kagura and took in the scene outside as though she were witnessing the combing of a murder crime scene.  “Those things have ‘Ryomaru’ written all over them . . .”

Sesshoumaru shook his head as he observed the anomaly that was full grown men as they degenerated into little boys once more. Toga managed to coax Mamoruzen’s paintball gun away from him, and he turned in time to blast Kichiro, who spun around, curling himself around his young daughter to shield her from Morio’s attempt to shoot her.  Bas ran back outside with his newly emancipated gun, and he shot Mamoruzen and Morio, both, in short order.

“What are the odds that they’ll run out of ammunition in the next half hour?” Sierra asked dubiously.

“Ryomaru bought refill packs, too,” Nezumi commented as she stepped up beside Sierra.  “Does that stuff come out of hair?”

Sierra made a face since Morio’s hair was streaked with color, and Ryomaru had a bright green streak running down from just below his ear.  “What a mess . . .”

“Well, they look like they’re having some fun,” Gin said, trying to come up with a positive side to the desecration that they were witnessing.

“Deplorable,” Sesshoumaru murmured.

“As long as they keep it out there,” Cain remarked wryly.  “Oh, that looked like it hurt.”

Sesshoumaru was inclined to agree.  Morio, the little devil, had just finished nailing his father right in the crotch with an electric blue paintball.

“They know better than to aim at anyone’s faces, don’t they?” Gin asked suddenly.

Kagura rubbed her face and shook her head.  “I have my doubts that it would hurt any of the men out there.”

Mikio shot Bas in the butt.  Bas grabbed the offending cheek and whipped around to retaliate as Mamoruzen aimed at his American cousin.

Sesshoumaru glanced quickly at Cain.  “Will you save your heir, Zelig?” he asked.

“Bas is pretty tough,” Cain mused.

“What a mess,” Aiko commented as she and Rin wandered over to watch.   She had a smile on her face as she watched her son battling with his father for possession of his paintball gun.  “And Rinji said that he wasn’t going to have fun today.”

Rin laughed and waved a hand.  “Where’s Shippou?” she asked suddenly.

Sesshoumaru narrowed his gaze as he stared around the yard and finally spotted the kitsune sitting in the low boughs of a tree close to where they had been playing football.  He seemed to be enjoying the fray below without actually participating.  “He is hiding, of course,” he said.

Rin laughed, tucking a lock of jet black hair behind her ear as she followed the direction of Sesshoumaru’s gaze to locate her spouse.  “That figures, the chicken,” she grumbled.

But it looked like the excitement might be winding down.  Judging from the look of it, it seemed like they might have run out of paintballs.  Sesshoumaru stepped away and strode toward the doors.  No sooner had he stepped outside, however, than a stinging ‘ping’ hit him dead center in the chest.  Taking a moment to examine the damage—and the bright red paint that marred his pristine white shirt—he slowly raised his head and looked to see exactly who had done the deed.

Toga stood with the gun in his hand and an oddly pinched expression on his face.  In his other arm was Mamoruzen who had his face buried against his father’s shoulder and stubbornly refused to look at his grandfather.  Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes.  “Am I to believe that this was your doing, Toga?” he asked in a bored tone of voice.

Toga coughed and forced a small grin.  “Uh, yes.   Yes, I did it,” he replied.

Sesshoumaru nodded but said nothing as he turned on his heel and strode back into the house once more.

Only then did Mamoruzen lift his chin and rather hesitantly peer over where his grandfather had been standing.  “Is he mad at me?” the boy asked anxiously.

Toga’s smile widened.  “I don’t think so,” he assured him.

Mamoruzen didn’t look completely convinced.

“Don’t worry.  He thinks I did it,” Toga went on glibly since he knew damn well that his father was fully aware as to who, exactly, had fired that shot.  “You’ve got pretty good aim,” he couldn’t resist adding.

“I was aiming for Bas!” Mamoruzen argued.

Toga laughed and set his son back on his feet once more.  “I know you were,” he said.  “Don’t worry about it. Your grandfather’s pretty tough.  I don’t think one little paintball is going to hurt him.”

“Really?” Mamoruzen asked dubiously.

Toga chuckled again and rubbed Mamoruzen’s head affectionately.  “Really.”

 

-O-O-O-O-O- 

.:December 24, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“I feel fucking stupid,” InuYasha grouched for the twentieth time in less than an hour since they’d left the house in the forest.

Kagome paused long enough to straighten the gray wig and smooth her bright red velvet dress.  “I don’t think Santa Claus swears,” she said mildly.

“Keh!  You look weird, too,” he pointed out.

“Don’t forget the sack of toys,” she reminded him.

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, stomping around the car as she pressed the button on the keychain to release the trunk.  “Tell me again: why am I doing this?”

“Because the children will love it,” she replied, hiding her smile at the unlikely Santa Claus.

He muttered something that Kagome was probably better off not hearing, and with a longsuffering sigh, he yanked the brown suede bag out of the trunk and hefted it over his shoulder and closed the trunk with a thud.  “I told you I didn’t trust that look,” he informed her as he scowled at her.  At least, she thought he was scowling at her.  She couldn’t tell for sure with his face hidden by the thick fake mustache and beard.  “Any time you get that look on your face, it means that you’re gonna torture me, wench.”

“Let’s hear your Santa laugh,” she prompted as they headed for the well lit porch.

“Ha-ha-ha,” he growled.

Kagome rolled her eyes.  “I think it’s ‘ho-ho-ho’.”

“What the hell ever,” he grumped.  “Fuck this shit.  I’m goin’ home.”

She caught his elbow before he could take off and swung him around toward the door again.  “You need to work on your ‘jolly’,” she said with a shake of her head as she peered over the wire rimmed spectacles.

“I’ll show you ‘jolly’, wench,” he grumbled.  “Let’s get this fucking over with.”

It was all she could do not to laugh outright at the absolute sense of indignation evident on his face as he stomped onto the porch and waited for Kagome to ring the bell.

To be honest, she never would have suggested it if she didn’t know full well that InuYasha might grumble and grouch, but he adored the children, and if it would make them happy, he’d do it.  She just couldn’t shake the image of Sierra’s forlorn expression when she’d said that she worried about Mamoruzen being forced into adulthood before he had a chance to be a child, and to that end, she’d started to form an idea . . .

Sierra opened the door and blinked in surprise, her mouth falling open as she blinked in surprise.  “Oh . . . my . . .” she whispered, her fingers fluttering over her lips as her expression shifted into a pinched sort of look and a distinct flush as she struggled not to laugh.  “S-Santa . . . and Mrs. Claus . . . Please, come in!”  She pushed the door open a little wider and headed back into the house.  “Children,” she called, pausing at the bottom of the staircase.  “There’s someone here to see you!”

Biting her lip to keep from laughing outright, Kagome followed Sierra into the house.  The distinct rumble of running feet resounded as the children tumbled down the stairs onto the bottom landing.  They stopped short, crowding close to the banister as they stared curiously at the new arrivals.   Rinji blinked and seemed as though he wasn’t quite certain what he should make of it.  Coral stared, her expression completely nonplussed.  Cassidy looked vaguely amused.  The twins had matching expressions of wide-eyed wonder.  Isabelle stood between Sebastian and Morio with a half-scared, half-bewildered frown while the boys looked like they couldn’t quite make sense of what they saw.  Mamoruzen stood behind Isabelle with a thoughtful scowl on his face, but Mikio . . . poor Mikio looked completely distressed, rubbing his twitching ear as he nervously danced from one foot to the other.  All of the younger children wore special Christmas pajamas—the girls in red, the boys in blue—the full-body fleece kind with the feet sewed in and the squares that buttoned over their bottoms.

“Well, get in the living room,” InuYasha grumbled when Kagome elbowed him in the side.  “They look like they think I’m gonna eat ‘em,” he mumbled under his breath as the children proceeded down the remaining steps, skirting wide around the couple as they backed into the other room.

“Maybe if you smiled, Santa,” she whispered back.  True enough, they did look freaked out.  It probably stemmed more from the fact that they likely felt as though they knew who he was even though Kagome had tried spritzing them both with winter berry scented spray to mask their scents a little.

“Keh!  Don’t push your luck, wench.”

The talking in the living room died away when they stepped through the doorway.  Greeted by varying degrees of amused looks, Kagome wasn’t surprised when Sesshoumaru trailed off in whatever he had been saying to Cain, his eyes flaring slightly as he slowly shook his head.

“I think Santa brought presents,” Kagome said, breaking the silence that had fallen over the assembly.

“Keh!” InuYasha snorted.  “Ho-ho-ho . . .”

Kagome figured that the half-snarled sound was about as good as she was going to get out of him, and she smiled a bit wider, reaching into the huge bag for the first gift.  “This one’s for Isabelle,” she read the name on the card.

Isabelle didn’t move until Sebastian leaned down and whispered something in her ear.  Kagome could only imagine what he might have said, because the girl’s expression took on a stubborn lilt, and she lifted her chin, reluctantly stepping away from the safety of her cousins to accept the gift that Kagome had stuck into InuYasha’s hands.

“Thank you, Santa,” she whispered, blue eyes wide though her bottom lip trembled slightly.

InuYasha handed her the gift and ruffled her hair.  Only then did she smile, and she threw her arms around InuYasha’s waist and hugged him tight before running over to her parents with the gift in her hands.

As they gave out the presents, the rest of the children seemed to relax.  Sebastian stared at InuYasha rather curiously, as though he knew who Santa really was but wasn’t entirely sure whether or not he ought to say something.  Morio grinned and yelled happily when he got his gift.  Charity, true to form, screamed for a minute before reluctantly accepting her present.  Chelsea, with memories of her run-in with the fake hotel Santa still fresh in her mind, started to reach for InuYasha’s fake beard.  He was quicker, though, sticking her gift into her hand and pulling back far enough that she couldn’t quite grasp the faux hair.  Cassidy giggled and gave them each a hug, and Rinji, who didn’t look at all sure about what, exactly, he was supposed to do, bowed in thanks but seemed very pleased with the new iPod he’d been given.  Coral hugged Kagome and whispered that her hair wasn’t straight before taking her present, and baby Alexandra just smiled, enchanted with the pink wrapping paper that covered her gift.

That left Mikio and Mamoruzen standing off to the side where they waited.  When Kagome read Mamoruzen’s name, the child shuffled forward in a rather calculated manner, tilting his head from side to side as he stared at InuYasha.

“Come here and get your present,” InuYasha said in the tone that Kagome knew meant that the hanyou was starting to relax just a little.

Mamoruzen didn’t move right away.  Suddenly, his eyes flared wide, and he shook his head quickly.  “You’re not Santa!” he exclaimed.  “You’re Uncle—ow-w-w-w!

Kagome’s mouth dropped open as InuYasha’s fist connected with the top of the child’s head.  Mamoruzen crouched down, gripping his head in his little hands.  “I look like fucking Santa, don’t I?” InuYasha growled.

“Inu—Santa!” Kagome hissed, pushing his hand back before he could take another swing at the boy.  “It’s Christmas Eve, remember?”

“Mm,” Ryomaru remarked from where he sat on the sofa.  “I remember those.  Damn, they hurt, too.”

Shippou rubbed his head in commiseration as he nodded his agreement with Ryomaru’s statement.

“Yeah,” Kichiro agreed since he’d been treated to the thumping on occasion, too.

Toga winced.  He’d only gotten that sort of punishment once, and he, too, remembered it well.

“Now take your present,” InuYasha mumbled, shoving the package at Mamoruzen.

The boy stood up slowly and accepted the gift, rubbing his head as he wandered over to his mother and father.

Kagome stifled a sigh and pulled the last of the presents out of the bag.  “Mikio,” she read and looked at her son.

Mikio’s eyes flared wide, and he quickly shook his head, backing up until he smacked into the wall.  When InuYasha started toward him with the package in his hand, the boy let out a terrified yelp and darted across the room to duck behind Sesshoumaru, who muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, ‘baka’.

“Don’t you want your present, Mikio?” Kagome asked, taking the gift from InuYasha and stepping toward her son.

Mikio shook his head adamantly and tucked himself away a little more.

InuYasha stomped over to Sesshoumaru, arms crossed over his chest stubbornly.  “Outta my way,” he growled.

Sesshoumaru shook his head and didn’t budge.  “Apparently my nephew does not care for Santa Claus,” he pointed out.

InuYasha snorted.  “And Santa don’t care for bastards,” he shot back.

“All right, you two,” Kagura cut in as she leveled a warning look at both of them.  “Must I remind you that it’s Christmas?  There will be no fighting, bloodshed, or mayhem of any kind.  Do you understand?”

Sesshoumaru didn’t change expression as he shifted his gaze from his half-brother to his mate.  “Wouldn’t dream of it, Kagura,” he replied smoothly.

InuYasha just snorted again, looking completely put out since his son still wouldn’t come out from behind Sesshoumaru.  “C’mon, wench,” he growled, whipping around on his heel and grabbing Kagome’s arm.

Kagome waved and let InuYasha drag her out of the living room.  “That went well,” he sneered sarcastically as he pulled the door closed behind them.

Kagome giggled suddenly as she tugged the Mrs. Claus wig off her head.  “It wasn’t so bad,” she said.

He didn’t stop until he’d reached the car, and Kagome shook her head as he made quick work of removing the Santa suit.  “Be careful,” she admonished, struggling to reach the zipper that ran down the back of her dress.  “I have to return those Monday, you know.”

“My own pup won’t have a damn thing to do with me,” he fumed, kicking off the black boots with a marked scowl.

Kagome shook her head, carefully brushing out the wrinkles in the dress before popping the trunk and arranging it inside.  “That’s because you beat on Mamoruzen—you know, you could have scarred him for life.”

He snorted, dumping the costume in the trunk in a careless heap.  “Fat fucking chance,” he told her.  “That pup’s made of stronger stuff than that.”

She smiled and slipped her arms around his waist.  “You’re right,” she agreed.  “He is, but I tell you, I think you’re the worst behaved Santa, ever.”

“Keh!” he scoffed, and in the wan light filtering from the porch, she could see his cheeks pink just a little.  “I gave them the presents, didn’t I?”

Kagome leaned up to kiss his cheek.  “Yes,” she said as she smiled despite the heavy sigh she let slip, “you certainly did.”

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 25, 2034:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

Toga glanced at the clock and tried not to grimace.  ‘Nearly five in the morning . . .’

And he’d been up all night trying to put the stupid Kubrick robot with red laser eyes together while Sierra had worked on the doll house.  She’d finished assembling the five-foot-tall structure about two hours ago, and despite Toga’s insistence that he’d carry it down ‘in a bit’, she’d done that, too.  No, it was all he could do to put together the stupid robot, damn it all.

Don’t tell me that it’s going to beat you,” Sierra quipped when she returned from taking the doll house downstairs only to find him disassembling part of what he’d just spent a few hours putting together.

He didn’t even look up at her.  “I forgot to put in the robot system,” he replied.

I could help you if you wanted,” she offered in a carefully neutral tone.

Thanks, Sierra, but I can do this.”

If you’re sure,” she went on.

He shot her a scowl before turning his attention back to the robot again. “I’m sure.”

“How are we doing?” she asked as she reached over to rub his knee.

“I think,” he said slowly, turning the robot from side to side to inspect it, “I might be finished . . .”

“Really?”

She sounded entirely too surprised, in his estimation.  “Yes.”

“Good,” she replied, flicking her arm to move the nightshirt sleeve off her watch.  “And just in time, too.”

He sighed and shook his head.  “Not too bad, don’t you think?” he asked, holding up the robot for her perusal.

She cocked her head to the side and considered it.  “Did you put the batteries in?”

Toga’s sense of accomplishment wavered.  “Damn it,” he muttered.

Sierra laughed.  “Better I tell you now than Gunnar wonder why it won’t work tomorrow, don’t you think?”

He heaved a sigh and shot her a longsuffering glance before prying some of the back blocks loose to uncover the battery box.  Luckily, it only took a few minutes to accomplish the task, and then he smiled triumphantly while Sierra tied a red ribbon around the robot’s neck, complete with a tag that read, ‘To Mamoruzen, From Santa.’  Toga spared another minute to enjoy his handiwork before holding it out to Sierra.

“Don’t you want to put it under the tree?” she asked as she sat up.

Toga shrugged.  “I was thinking more of trying to catch a few minutes’ sleep before the pups come barreling in here,” he said with a yawn.

Sierra rolled her eyes.  “Come on, Toga.  We can lie down on the sofa till they get up.”

“Sounds good,” he agreed as he followed her out of the room and down the darkened hallway.

There wasn’t a sound from any of the children’s bedrooms as they passed, and Toga grimaced when one of the steps groaned under his weight.  Still it seemed that luck was with them as they managed to get the robot under the tree without incident and without unexpected interruption.  Toga adjusted the robot a little, smiling as the red laser eyes flashed, and he stood up, pulling Sierra against his chest as the two took in the sight of the softly glowing tree.  “What are you thinking?” he asked quietly.

Sierra sighed and rubbed his forearms.  “That I’m lucky—really lucky,” she replied.  “Thank you, Toga.”

“For what?”

Tilting her head back, she kissed his cheek.  “For everything . . . for putting up with me, even when I’m being moody.”

“I hardly put up with you, Sierra,” he chided, tightening his arms around her and rubbing her shoulders in an idle sort of way.  “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

He smiled and kissed her temple before letting his arms drop.  Pulling her over to the sofa, he stretched out and tugged her down with him.  “What are the odds that they’ll sleep till six?” he pondered.

She laughed and snuggled against his chest.  “Slim to none,” she predicted.

“Yeah, that’s rather what I thought,” he admitted with a sigh.

Sierra laughed and tugged on a handful of Toga’s hair.  “This is nice, isn’t it?”

“Mm, nice,” he echoed, letting his eyes drift closed.

She kissed him softly, gently, no more than a tease of a kiss, a nibble on his lips.

“Careful, Sie, or we may have to go back upstairs, and if we do that, the pups might be a little upset, don’t you think?”

“Pups?  What pups?”

He chuckled and shifted slightly, enough to pin her between himself and the back of the sofa as he took control of the kiss.

“Toga?” she murmured between kisses.

“Hmm?”

She uttered an airy laugh as the dull thump of feet on the stairs interrupted the serenity of the moment.  “Your . . . pups . . .” she said.

Heaving a sigh, he leaned away just enough to smile at her.  “They have impeccable timing, don’t they?”

She laughed, her eyes glowing softly, her cheeks flushed as her lips trembled just the slightest bit with every breath she drew.

“Presents!” Charity exclaimed as she and Chelsea ran, hand in hand, into the room.  Cassidy hurried in after them with a tray of juice boxes and rice balls that she’d helped make the day before.  Coral was the last to arrive, and she carried a still-sleepy looking Mamoruzen in her arms.  “Santa came!  Santa came!”

Mamoruzen blinked and rubbed his eyes with a balled-up fist.  Coral leaned in close to his ear and whispered something as she pointed at the Kubrick robot with red laser eyes under the tree.

The boy struggled to get down and darted away the moment his feet touched the floor, and for once, Coral didn’t try to act grown up, skittering over and carefully moving presents aside as she searched for hers.

They watched in silence for awhile, enjoying the happy exclamations mingling with the sound of ripping paper as their children worked on demolishing hours of work spent wrapping those gifts.  Mamoruzen, however, seemed to be far more enthralled with the robot than he was with anything else.  Toga couldn’t help but grin as he watched his son return to the present time after time.

“You know,” Sierra said, leaning toward Toga and lowering her voice to just above a whisper, “I don’t think they even notice that we’re in here.”

“I doubt it, too,” he agreed then shot her a calculated grin.  “In fact, I bet we could sneak right out of here, and they’d never know it.”

“I don’t think I like what you’re implying,” she teased.

He chuckled and leaned down to nuzzle her neck.  “Call it revenge for distracting me last night,” he murmured.

She giggled.  “Did I do that?”

“I think you did.”

“Well, I suppose I do know everything that’s under the tree,” she mused at length.

Toga nodded and shot her a grin as he pulled her to her feet and pressed his index finger to his lips as he tugged her from the room.

She glanced over her shoulder and grimaced.  “I don’t know,” she began slowly, “this feels so sneaky . . .”

“I know,” he agreed.  “That’s what makes it fun, don’t you think?”

She rolled her eyes but laughed.  “What if—?”

Pulling her into his arms at the bottom of the staircase, Toga kissed her thoroughly: a kiss designed to weaken her resistance and persuade her that she wanted to follow him anywhere.  It worked, leaving her completely breathless, dazed, clinging to him in a limp sort of way with her gaze veiled by a haze of unspoken passion.  “Coral’s in there.  She’ll watch out for the others,” he said, lifting her right hand to his lips and grazing his lips over her knuckles.  “Besides that, we’re not going far, are we?”

“No,” she agreed absently, her gaze locked on his lips.  “No, we’re not . . .”

He grinned at her—the same lopsided, endearingly sweet sort of smile that she’d loved from the start, and, smashing her hand over her mouth, she laughed.  “You’d better be quiet or we’ll get caught,” he warned her.

“You’re terrible,” she accused but didn’t try to pull away.

Mamoruzen hollered from the living room where his sisters were apparently trying to get a good look at his robot.  “No!” he yelled.  “Go play with your girly dolls!”

“I just wanna play with it, ‘Moruzen!” Chelsea complained.  “I’ll let you see my baby.”

The boy uttered a warning growl.  “I said no!

Sierra started to turn back.  Toga grabbed her hand to stop her.  “They’ll be fine,” he assured her.

“But—”

Pressing his index finger against her lips, Toga chuckled and pulled her close to kiss her again.  “Come on, Inutaisho Sierra.  Let’s go find your Christmas spirit.”

Sierra laughed as Toga swept her into his arms since she had a fair guess as to where he had in mind to start looking.  “Oh, is that what you’re calling it now?” she parried as she slipped her hands around his neck when he started up the staircase.

“I’ll call it whatever you want me to call it,” he assured her with a bashful sort of grin, “but only for you, Sierra.  Only for you . . .”

 

 

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

 

 

 

 

 

 

~The End~

Chapter Text

~~Purity Oneshot~~
~The Lesson~

 

-=0=-

 

“There you are!” Inutaisho Coral called as seven year-old Mamoruzen filed out of the elementary school building.  He seemed to be walking a little slowly, almost hesitantly, but he lifted his chin and altered his path, heading toward his eldest sister who was already waiting with Cassidy and the twins, Chelsea and Charity.  Mikio, their cousin, sat on a bench absently fingering his left ear.  Morio, another cousin, leaned over, whispering something to Mikio who nodded slowly as Mamoruzen approached.  Izayoi Isabelle let go of her younger sister’s hand and shot him an anxious glance before tugging on Coral’s sleeve, and Mamoruzen stifled a low growl when his sister bent down to listen to whatever Isabelle had to say.

Let her talk,’ he thought angrily.  He didn’t care.  Really, he didn’t . . .

Coral straightened her back, her amber gaze narrowing into a thoughtful scowl as Mamoruzen approached the gathering, and he braced himself mentally, grimly anticipating the interrogation that he knew was coming.

She didn’t say anything, though, which was strange.  Sparing a moment to let her eyes pass over him from head to foot and then back again, she pressed her lips together into a thin line before nodding curtly.  “Okay, let’s go,” she said, turning on her heel and leading them toward the sidewalk and down the street.

Isabelle hung back as her younger sister, Lexi skipped ahead, slipping her hand into Cassidy’s and singing a song that she’d learned in music class.  Morio and Mikio followed the group of girls, leaving Mamoruzen behind to bring up the rear.  Gnawing on her bottom lip as the crisp spring breeze whipped her bronze hair into her face, Isabelle waited for Mamoruzen but said nothing as she fell into step beside him.

Kicking a rock that lay harmlessly on the side of the path, Mamoruzen refused to acknowledge her presence with an almost perverse resolve.

“Does it hurt much?” she finally asked, her soft voice lowered even more, as though she didn’t want anyone to overhear her question.

“Does what hurt?” he countered belligerently, adjusting the straps of his backpack in a blatant show of bravado.

She winced, her teeth scraping over her bottom lip, bleaching the skin a sickly shade of grayish pink before blood flooded back into her lip once more, darkening the light pink color to an angry shade of crimson time and again.  “Your eye . . .” she murmured as the anxiety in her aura spiked.

Mamoruzen shrugged offhandedly and tossed his head, lifting his chin as though he were daring the world to gainsay him.  “Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stated in a dull, flat tone.

“Oi, Mamoruzen, why don’t you come over and practice with me?” Morio called over his shoulder without breaking his stride.

He didn’t respond to that, either.  He didn’t want to.  ‘Stupid Kazuo,’ he thought, gritting his teeth together so hard that his jaw ached.  ‘He started it, running his mouth about . . . about . . .’

“Kazuo-kun didn’t have a right to say that about you,” Isabelle said suddenly, as though she could read his mind.

Mamoruzen scuffed his shoes against the pavement and shrugged again.  “I don’t care,” he lied, a bitter surge of rage boiling inside him—rage that he had been reduced to lying; rage that it was a lie in the first place.

“You could come home with me,” she offered suddenly, her golden eyes brightening with the sudden spark of inspiration.  “Papa will be home soon, and he could take a look at that.”

“I don’t need Uncle to look at it,” he bit out, his voice lowering to as fierce a growl as he could muster.  “I told you, didn’t I?  It doesn’t hurt, not one bit.”

“Mamoruzen!” Cassidy called as she ran back to meet him.  Digging a small plastic pouch out of her bag, she frowned as she fiddled with the contents of the packet, and he made a face.  “Here,” she said, carefully smashing the packet between her nimble fingers.  But she offered him a wan smile, pausing for a moment to ruffle his hair, to tweak the little black triangles that were his hanyou ears.  “Put this on your eye, ne?  It’ll help with the swelling until Mama can make a poultice for it.”

If it had been anyone other than Cassidy, he would have growled at her, insisting that he was fine.  Cassidy, though, was too much of a little mama for him to do that, and he grudgingly took the ice pack and pressed it against his face.  It took every ounce of willpower that he possessed to keep from whining in pain.  Cassidy didn’t look completely pacified, but she rewarded him with a genuine smile before handing both him and Isabelle a piece of candy and darting away to walk beside Coral once more.

Mikio stopped for a moment, glancing over his shoulder with a solemn sort of expression.  Idly fingering his left ear, he couldn’t mask the sympathy that lingered in the depths of his gaze.  Mamoruzen bristled inwardly.  He hated that more than anything; couldn’t tolerate it when people felt sorry for him.  Morio muttered something to Mikio, and the two started walking once more, and for reasons that Mamoruzen didn’t quite understand, he couldn’t staunch the hot color that flooded his skin, either.

“You look like it’s hurting,” Isabelle said as they passed the small candy store where they sometimes stopped after school.  “You . . . you want me to carry your bag?”

“Why?  Because of this?” he scoffed, yanking the ice pack away from his face and hurling it into an alley with more bravado than he was actually feeling.  “I told you, Izzy, I’m fine.”  Scuffing his shoes against the graying pavement, he snorted loudly and hitched his shoulders.  “I’m not a baby,” he grumbled, more to himself than to her.

She flinched, her golden eyes suspiciously bright, and she forced herself to nod, saying nothing more as they trudged along behind the rest of the group.  He could feel her eyes on him, though, and he lifted his chin in a show of defiance as something black, ugly roiled deep inside . . .

It seemed to take forever to reach the crossroad where the group would disburse.  The Inutaisho children always took the northern route toward their home while the others headed south toward InuYasha’s Forest.  Mamoruzen mumbled something that sounded like ‘see you later’ to his cousins, thankful to be rid of Isabelle’s concerned gaze.

The twins heard him sigh and slowed down to wait for him.  Only about a year and a half older than he was, their kind of concern wasn’t welcomed, either, and when Chelsea on the right side and Charity on the left reached up to tweak his ears, he flicked them back and bared his fangs at them in a warning meant to send them away.  It didn’t work.  It never worked . . .

“Don’t let it bother you,” Charity said with a falsely bright smile.

“Yeah,” Chelsea agreed, patiently chasing his ear with her fingers despite his resolve not to allow her to get her hands on it.  “Don’t worry, either.  You won’t get into too much trouble for fighting.”

Scowling as best as he could at his sister, he couldn’t contain the slight wince as his throbbing eye protested the exertion.  “I don’t care,” he gritted out, shoving Chelsea away with a shrug of his shoulder.  “It wasn’t my fault.”

The girls exchanged looks behind his back, and Mamoruzen increased his step to get away from them.  “Izzy wanted me to come over,” he said suddenly, raising his voice so that Coral would hear him.  “Tell Papa I’ll be home later!”

“Mamoruzen, wait!” Coral called, whipping around on her heel and planting a hand on her hip.

It was too late.  He was already gone.

 

-=0=-

 

Father says that it’s not possible!  He’s a hanyou, for kami’s sake!  A hanyou can’t be tai-youkai.  A hanyou is just a hanyou.”

The dull, rhythmic pounding of his feet on the asphalt synchronized with the blunted throbbing behind his eye as Mamoruzen ran along the seemingly endless sidewalk.  Anger roiled through him at the memory of those hateful words.  Odd how he’d never truly considered the differences between himself and his father before . . .

Hanyou’s are weaker than youkai.  Hanyous are inferior.  What’s the matter, Mamoruzen?  Are you going to cry?  Cry, cry, cry . . .”

No, he wasn’t going to cry, was he?   Of course he wasn’t going to cry.  That’d be stupid, and furthermore, it would give Kazuo the satisfaction of knowing that he’d succeeded in getting to him.

Oh, so sorry . . . Did you almost fall, Prince Mamoruzen?

Gritting his teeth at the idiotic nickname that Kazuo refused to let go, Mamoruzen pushed himself faster, veering to the right as he dashed down the narrow alley between rows of apartment houses.  Since the first day he’d met Kazuo, it seemed to Mamoruzen that he’d gone out of his way to pick on everything about him.  Kazuo had tried to trip him during martial arts training class, and for once, Mamoruzen hadn’t been able to brush him off . . .

Shut up, and stop calling me that,” Mamoruzen said quietly.

Kazuo grinned as his vile little cohorts laughed unpleasantly.  “That’s how it is, isn’t it?” he challenged, his tiny, rat-like teeth glinting in the harsh fluorescent lights overhead as he purposefully stepped into Mamoruzen’s path.

Get out of my way,” he warned without taking his eyes off Kazuo.

Are you going to go tell your father?  Better yet, are you going to run off to tell your uncle?

Clenching and unclenching his fists by turns, Mamoruzen told himself that Kazuo was just trying to start a fight and that he should ignore him.  “I don’t need to tell Uncle Yasha any such thing,” Mamoruzen gritted out.

Your family’s a joke,” Kazuo went on with a wave of his hand, his black eyes glowing with a malicious sort of light.  “My father says that the only reason your grandfather is Inu no Taisho is because your great-grandfather betrayed our kind.  Gave us up to the humans, didn’t he?

If he’s so tough, then why doesn’t your father challenge my grandfather?” he taunted.

The first slight flare of anger erupted behind Kazuo’s gaze, and he narrowed his eyes.  “He could,” he insisted.  “My father’s stronger than anyone, and if he wanted to, he could.”

He’s not strong,” Mamoruzen shot back.  “Only cowards talk big but never do anything about it.”

Take that back,” Kazuo growled, advancing slowly on Mamoruzen.

Mamoruzen refused to be cowed.  “No.

Take it back, Inutaisho,” Kazuo hissed again, dealing Mamoruzen a warning shove.

Mamoruzen’s shoulder snapped back though he didn’t move otherwise.  “No.”

The only reason my father hasn’t challenged your grandfather is because he doesn’t want to be tai-youkai,” he went on hostilely.  “He doesn’t need to flaunt his power, and he doesn’t need to tell lies to get attention, either.”

Who are you calling a liar?” Mamoruzen demanded, his anger igniting in a shocking tide.

Kazuo shoved him again.  “Your whole family,” he asserted.  “The lot of them!

Mamoruzen held onto his stance.   “And just what are they lying about?” he countered.

Kazuo rolled his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest in an entirely smug sort of way.  “Traveling through time?” he scoffed.  “It’s not possible!  And Naraku?  My father says that there never was a Naraku and that your uncle is mad . . .” Leaning toward Mamoruzen, he shot him a particularly nasty smile.  “They say all hanyous are mad, you know.”

My family does not lie,” Mamoruzen gnashed out.  “And if you think that Uncle Yasha is lying about all that, I dare you to go tell him so.”

Oh?  And I suppose you believe in fairies and all that, too?” Kazuo sneered.

No, but I believe your father’s a damn liar,” Mamoruzen stated flatly.

Kazuo’s eyes flared wide—so wide that Mamoruzen could discern the whites of them all the way around his irises.  “My father isn’t a liar!  He doesn’t have to lie.”

You’re right,” Mamoruzen shot back evenly.  “He isn’t a liar.  He’s just stupid, kind of like you.”

He couldn’t really say that he’d seen the hit coming.  Telling himself that arguing with a baka like Kazuo wouldn’t do any good, he’d started to brush past him when the felt the harsh jab of Kazuo’s fist.  Resorting to the coward’s way, he’d waited to take advantage of Mamoruzen’s inattention, and that was the only way he’d managed to land it, in the first place.

Too bad the teacher had arrived just then.  Mamoruzen had stubbornly refused to admit what happened when Hanai-sensei had questioned him because the very last thing that he’d wanted was to have to fess up to Uncle Yasha that Kazuo had called him a liar.  Uncle wasn’t exactly known for his patience, and while a small part of Mamoruzen did think that Kazuo might deserve whatever punishment his uncle, as the main administrator at the school, might dole out, Mamoruzen also felt that he should be capable enough to deal with Kazuo in his own way.

Unfortunately, Isabelle had nearly burst into tears when she’d seen Mamoruzen’s eye.  Unfortunately, too, she knew well enough that Kazuo had a thing for picking at Mamoruzen, and she didn’t have to be brilliant to figure out that something had happened between them.  By lunch time a few hours later, Morio and Mikio knew, as well, and Mikio had even suggested that Mamoruzen tell InuYasha about the altercation despite Mamoruzen’s insistence that he was fine.

Blinking suddenly as stopped and stared at the forest surrounding him, Mamoruzen frowned.  He hadn’t actually intended to venture into InuYasha’s Forest.  No, the idea had been simply to get away from the prying eyes of his family.  That was the trouble with girls, he figured.  They tended to become entirely too upset over something as stupid as an insignificant scuffle.

And it was insignificant, wasn’t it?  Scowling when an unexpected moisture washed into his gaze, Mamoruzen couldn’t help the little growl that slipped from him as he dashed the back of his hand over his eyes, nor the tiny yelp—bit off before it could rightfully manifest itself—at the pain that erupted behind the injured one.

Whimpering quietly as a myriad of memories shot to the fore, Mamoruzen stomped angrily as he pushed his way deeper into the forest.  He’d tried to forget about them, telling himself that they meant absolutely nothing to him.  From the first day he’d walked into a classroom away from the protection of his family, he’d started to realize that some of the things that he’d always been so proud of were nothing but reminders that he wasn’t what he should have been.

There was more to it than he’d understood.  His mother always smiled at him, didn’t she?  Loved to laugh and ruffle his hair, to rub the ears that she’d maintained were too cute to resist.  When he was younger, he’d loved them, hadn’t he?  And his father had always said that he wished he had ears like that, too . . .

Wandering aimlessly, meandering through the maze of trees, he couldn’t help but hear in a detached sort of way as voices that he’d tried to forget whispered to him.

He’s a hanyou . . . the future tai-youkai is a hanyou . . .?

But he can’t be tai-youkai if he’s not youkai, can he?

My papa says he can if he’s strong enough.”

How can a hanyou be stronger than a youkai?

Whispers that he wasn’t supposed to have heard, maybe . . . whispers that were little more than foreshadowing of things that he’d heard a million times since that day; hateful words that he’d only started to comprehend back then . . .

Maybe it’d be different if he went to a school where he was just another face.  Even then, he’d still bear the stigma of belonging to one of the wealthiest families in Japan, and that would be challenging enough.  As it was, he really didn’t consider anyone else his friends.  Mikio, Morio, and Isabelle—they were his friends.  Everyone else was either too frightened of his family to be anything but falsely friendly—overly so—disgustingly so—and those who weren’t tended to go out of their way to mock him, to challenge him: if not out in the open, with their catty words and constant assertions that he wasn’t good enough; that he’d never be good enough.

He hid it, though: all of it.  Unwilling to let anyone see just how badly their words bothered him, he hadn’t told anyone about it.  Sure, they, Isabelle especially since she tended to be in his class, knew about parts of it since different ones had witnessed different incidents, but as far as Mamoruzen could tell, no one else knew the extent of it, and that’s how he wanted it to stay.

Anger rose inside him, thick, hot, and contemptible.  His grandfather would be disgusted with him, wouldn’t he?  Disgusted that Mamoruzen wasn’t strong enough to discount the taunts.  He’d think that Mamoruzen was weak, wouldn’t he?  He’d be disappointed, and that, in Mamoruzen’s estimation, was far, far worse than anything that the other children might say.

Inutaisho Sesshoumaru was just too daunting, too frightening, and entirely too formidable.  To let him down really would be a fate worse than death.  To show weakness before a man who had none of his own was unacceptable, and his father?

Dropping to his knees beside the clean and peaceful stream that both soothed and unsettled him all at the same time, Mamoruzen shook his head.  He couldn’t tell his father, either, though for entirely different reasons.

He’d been proud, hadn’t he?  From the time when he was old enough to understand the differences, Mamoruzen had been inordinately proud to share the same sort of heritage as his uncle, InuYasha.  Inutaisho Toga had always said that InuYasha was stronger because of what he was—both human as well as youkai—the best of both, or so Toga had asserted.  Because of it, InuYasha could understand human feelings, and yet he could also ascertain the plight of the youkai in this day and age.  Compassionate yet strong enough to take care of those he considered his own . . . Toga had said that it would be one of Mamoruzen’s greatest assets one day, too, and while he couldn’t quite bring himself to call his father a liar, he knew now that those words were exactly that: words with a hollow meaning meant to cushion the barest of truths: that Mamoruzen, as a hanyou, was unperfected.  The youkai that he was supposed to lead would never truly accept him, would they?  And yet, he wasn’t human, either.

It’s isn’t fair!’ he thought suddenly, his golden gaze taking on an icy glow that belied his age—an expression that he never should have known, not at the age of seven years old.  To be one or the other—it was black and white, wasn’t it?  To be the future tai-youkai, would he have to make a choice between his humanity and his youkai side?  Was that even possible?  And if it were, what about his mother?  Did that mean that he needed to be ashamed of her; of the part of her that lived in him?

Yet even as the idea took form in his head, he grimaced.  His mother, with her kind smile and her soft laughter, the one who always smiled and told him that it was okay to play and to be a child . . . the mother he adored because she adored him . . .

When had he come to understand that what he was—this abomination caught between two beings who never should have crossed paths—wasn’t something that he could reconcile so easily?

The wince shifted into a dejected little whine as his ears flattened, as he buried his face against his raised knees.  The sense of absolute guilt surged over him: guilt that he could even consider that his mother—who she was; what she was—was any sort of liability to him: the one person who loved him no matter what, and he knew it.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” he whispered brokenly, wishing for one crazy moment that she was there to hold him, to tell him that he was never too big to be hugged or told that she loved him . . .

 

-=0=-

 

Isabelle sat, staring out the window beside her desk.  She’d said that she had homework to finish, but to be honest, she’d yet to crack a book open.  She sighed and bit her lower lip.  She simply couldn’t stop worrying about Mamoruzen.

She knew, didn’t she?  The things that he never would say, the anger and the pain that he felt so keenly at the unfairness of being criticized for something that he couldn’t control.  She’d wanted to tell her aunt and uncle what others were saying to him, but she couldn’t.  He’d be angry, and worse: he’d think that she’d betrayed him.  Still, hearing those things never failed to leave her feeling sickish, disgusted, and if she’d heard it so often, how many times had it been said to him?

I should’ve marched right over to Kazuo and punched him in the nose,’ she thought with a decisive snort as she shoved the untouched textbook away.  ‘Mamoruzen didn’t deserve it . . .’

But she hadn’t done that, either.  Knowing without asking that he would be even more furious if she’d interfered, she had kept her opinion quiet, slipping out of the classroom as quickly as she could after the final bell had sounded to find Coral and to tell her what had happened so that he wouldn’t have to.

With a sigh, she leaned down, dug her cell phone out of her book bag, and dialed Mamoruzen’s number.  He didn’t answer.

Pushing herself to her feet, she stuffed the phone into the pocket of her sweater and slipped out of her bedroom.

“Baby?  Is that you?” Izayoi Bellaniece called from the kitchen as she hurried toward the front door.

“Yes, Mama,” Isabelle called back.  “I’m going for a walk!”

“Hmm, okay.  Don’t go too far.  Your father’ll be home soon, and supper’s almost ready . . . Do you have your phone?”

“Yes, Mama,” she called again as she tugged her shoes on.  “I won’t go far.”

Pulling the door closed behind her, Isabelle let out a deep breath.  She wasn’t sure why she was feeling so restless.  She supposed that it had something to do with the impotent anger that had been impossible to ignore: outrage that Kazuo and his flunkies would go out of their way to harass Mamoruzen when, in her opinion, it all stemmed from stupid and petty jealousy.

She wandered into the forest, following the sounds of chirping birds.  It was warm for this time of year, she supposed . . .

With a heavy sigh, she plopped down on a rotting tree stump, scrunching up her shoulders as she lifted her gaze to the surrounding forest as she dug the toes of her shoes into the soft earth covered by decaying leaves.  She wanted to tell someone.  She wanted to tell someone because it simply wasn’t fair.  Mamoruzen didn’t deserve that.  In her estimation, he was a better person than any of those bullies were.  He rarely showed when their stupid opinions bothered him, but she knew.  It was there in the depths of his eyes, if you looked hard enough.  Emotion that only showed for an insular moment before he hid it away . . .

The trouble was, to tell would be to betray him, wouldn’t it?  Even if that weren’t the case, she had a feeling that he would just deny it if anyone questioned him.

Shaking her head, she stood.  It didn’t matter, not really.  Mamoruzen wanted to deal with this alone, didn’t he?  There wasn’t a thing that she could do for him; not really . . .

 

-=0=-

 

“What?”

“Uncle?  It’s Toga.  I was wondering . . . have you seen Mamoruzen?”

Izayoi InuYasha frowned as he stood and paced the length of the loft.  “No, should I have?”

Toga sighed.  “I thought . . . no, I suppose not.”

“Something wrong?”

“No . . . yes . . . I don’t know . . .”

“Keh!” InuYasha snorted indelicately.  “Makes a lot of sense, Toga.”

Again, Toga sighed.  “The girls said that he was going to Isabelle’s house, but Belle said that he wasn’t there.”

“Didn’t you give him a cell phone?”

“Sure.  He’s got it switched off or something.  Just . . . if you see him, would you send him home?  Coral said . . . Coral said that he was in a fight or something at school today.”

InuYasha’s eyes flared wide just before he shook his head.  “I didn’t hear nothin’ about it.”

“I gathered from what she said that he didn’t tell anyone about it, either.”

“You want me to go look for him?”

“Yeah,” Toga agreed.  “I’ll be there shortly, too.”

InuYasha grunted in reply and clicked off the phone.  Evening was starting to fall over the forest, and while he wasn’t particularly worried about the pup’s safety, he couldn’t help but scowl, anyway.

“Wench, I’m going out,” he called as he ran down the steps into the living room.

“Dinner’s almost ready,” Kagome replied from the kitchen.  “Can it wait?”

“It ain’t a big deal,” he assured her as he strode over to the fireplace and yanked down the legendary sword, Tetsusaiga.  “I’ll be back in awhile.”

“Okay,” she said though he didn’t miss the hint of confusion in her tone.  “Call me if you’re going to be gone longer than you think.”

The birds stopped chirping for a moment as he stepped outside only to resume their chatter.  It didn’t sit well with him.  Mamoruzen tended to be more responsible than a pup his age ought to be . . .

An unsettling sense of unease crept up his spine as he loped toward the trees, heading in the direction of his son’s house.  He’d known for awhile that Mamoruzen was having a tough time with some pups at school—ones who didn’t think that he should have the right to be the future tai-youkai—ones whose parents didn’t believe that he had that right.  Thing was, InuYasha hadn’t wanted to interfere.  That was the way of it, wasn’t it: allow the pup to figure things out for himself, even if it was a little painful, and while part of him wanted to protect the boy from the cruel things that others would say, he knew damn well that the only way to prove that it wasn’t true was to deal with it head-on.  It was the only way that he’d grow up to be a man worth the air he breathed.

Still, the question was, where should the line be drawn?  Should a seven year old be forced to deal with that sort of thing alone?  InuYasha had always thought that Mamoruzen would ask for help if he got to the point where it was just too much for him, but he was starting to wonder if he should have intervened in the beginning.

He knew from personal experience that the path ahead of Mamoruzen wasn’t going to be an easy one.  On the basest of levels, he had to prove himself worthy while existing in the looming shadows of his father and grandfather—no easy task, InuYasha knew.  Hadn’t his father been the great Inu no Taisho?  And he had to prove that he was worthy, too.  Times had been different, of course.  Mamoruzen didn’t face the same kind of alienation that InuYasha had, and for that reason, InuYasha had stood aside, letting the pup feel things out for himself.  InuYasha had grown up alone, alienated from his mother’s people and shunned by the youkai, too.  Mamoruzen had a host of people who cared for him, both human and youkai, and that should have made a world of difference.

But did it?  Did it really?

Catching the faint hint of the boy’s scent on the wind, InuYasha veered to the side, darting through the forest as the scent grew stronger, as the underlying sense that maybe InuYasha had been wrong after all grew stronger, too . . .

 

-=0=-

 

The wind was rising.

Mamoruzen didn’t really notice it as more than a passing thought; barely a conscious understanding.  More of a fleeting idea that went hand in hand with the inevitability of the falling evening, he knew with the same instinct that he ought to go home, and yet . . .

He couldn’t, could he?  Going home meant answering questions, and those questions weren’t really something that he wanted to face; not now.  Pretending that it was all inconsequential was beyond him, and the harder he tried to put everything to the back of his mind, the harder  it became to staunch it.  His father would see right through the front that he hid behind, wouldn’t he?  He’d see it, and he’d know that his son wasn’t nearly as strong as he tried to be—as he wanted to be.  Things that Kazuo and his cronies said—they shouldn’t bother Mamoruzen, should they?  What did it matter when Mamoruzen knew that he was what he was, and there wasn’t a thing he could do to change it?

And still the feeling was there, growing stronger by the minute: the consuming knowledge that he was somehow inferior to those around him; even those in his own family.  He’d known for a long time that he was expected to be different.  He’d realized that he was expected to excel, to be bigger, stronger, better.  Not so much a spoken thing, no—his parents had never tried to force him to do anything, and yet it was still there.

He hadn’t really understood what it would mean to be tai-youkai one day; hadn’t understood when his father would tell him from time to time that theirs was a destiny that few others could comprehend.  Whenever he’d talked about such things, there had always been a measure of sadness in Toga’s gaze—sadness that Mamoruzen was only beginning to discern and recognize, and while he still couldn’t exactly put his thoughts into words, the underlying knowledge was there, nonetheless.

He was beginning to realize now.  To be tai-youkai was to be strong: stronger than any other because that was how it had to be, like his grandfather, who rarely spoke what was on his mind but left little doubt as to what he thought or believed.  Sesshoumaru had never doubted himself, had he?  He’d never been questioned because of who or what he was, and why?

Had Toga ever been questioned in such a manner?  Had he ever been called a half-breed or been told that he didn’t deserve to be the next tai-youkai because he wasn’t a true youkai?  He hadn’t; of course not.  Toga was full youkai, just like Sesshoumaru, and Mamoruzen . . . he wasn’t.

It’s not fair!’ Mamoruzen thought suddenly, a bitter froth of rage shooting to the fore.  He hadn’t asked to be born in the line of the tai-youkai.  He hadn’t expected to be treated differently solely because of who or what he would one day be.

A voice in the back of his mind whispered accusingly, telling him that he was acting like a baby ranting about fair and unfair, and still it made no sense.  Grimacing as his gaze fell on the rippling, distorted reflection in the water beside him, Mamoruzen slammed his fist down in the water to disburse the hateful image.

If he looked like his father, he wouldn’t be ridiculed, would he?  If he didn’t have the all-too-obvious reminders of his mixed heritage, then the others would forget.  After all, no one said a thing to his cousin, Bas, who was to the be future tai-youkai of North America, did they?  No, they didn’t, because her ears looked like her mother’s ears despite the fact that he, too, was hanyou.  Bas’ mother was hanyou; his father, youkai, and technically, Bas was hanyou, too, even if he didn’t look like one in the least.  Only Mamoruzen did . . . It was his ears, wasn’t it?  They were the constant reminder that he was different, that he wasn’t full youkai like the others.  Those ears that his mother had told him made him special were the very things that held him apart—a weakness that simply wouldn’t go away.

A thousand moments flashed through his head in the space of a few seconds: his sisters tweaking his ears . . . his mother laughing when his ears drooped when she’d told him that he couldn’t eat cookies before dinner . . . his father smiling as he watched Mamoruzen’s ears turn to catch noise . . . his grandmother assuring him that no one could ever be angry at one with ears such as his . . . and then the more hurtful memories: having his ears flicked as the taunting echoed in his head . . . the time that Kazuo had purposefully closed one of them in the door when Mamoruzen had stood in the hall talking to his cousins during lunch . . . the whispers that he’d overheard about his ‘odd ears’ . . .

If I didn’t have them, I’d be just like everyone else!’ he fumed, scowling at his reflection once more.  No one could make fun of them or tease him because of them: no one could hurt him if they weren’t there . . .

He’s weaker than youkai . . .”

Weak . . .”

Weak . . .”

Weak . . .”

Squeezing his eyes closed to block out the sounds of those awful voices, forgetting for the time being that the voices were already embedded deep in his brain, he shook his head as though to refute them only to realize a moment too late that he couldn’t.

If I didn’t have them . . . if they were gone . . .’

It was more of a wisp of a thought than a conscious decision.  Blinding pain erupted deep within his head—pain as sharp and repugnant as the ache created by the echo of too many hateful words—as he sank his claws into the velvety soft flesh of his ears and yanked with all his might . . .

 

-=0=-

 

Breaking through the trees, he stopped short on the far side of the clearing, the sound of his approach disguised under the constant flow of the creek, his scent carried downwind, away from the diminutive form of a young boy hunkered down beside the water’s edge.  Two smells assailed InuYasha, and with a sickened feeling, he winced and retreated a step.

Blood . . .’ he thought as rage warred with a strange sense of sadness fought for dominance, ‘and . . . tears . . .’

Sitting beside the creek, the boy stared down at his hands, and while InuYasha couldn’t see his face, he knew damn well that the blood was Mamoruzen’s.

A soft sob caught his attention, and InuYasha blinked.  He hadn’t realized that anyone else was there.  So caught up in what Mamoruzen had done, he’d missed the presence that he knew well enough.  Huddled behind a thick tree trunk not far away sat his granddaughter, Isabelle.  Face buried in her raised knees, shoulders racked by sobs that could barely be discerned, she cried.

“Oi, pup,” he said, his voice thick, harsher than he’d intended as he jammed Tetsusaiga into the soft ground and knelt beside her.  “What are you doing out here?”

Choking on a sob, she slowly raised her little face as she shook her head miserably.  “Why’d he do that, Grandpa?” she whispered.

InuYasha didn’t answer as he drew the child into his arms.  “Don’t worry about him, you hear?  I’ll take care of him.  You . . . you go on home.”

“But—”

“Do as I say, Isabelle,” he commanded a little more gruffly than he’d intended.

Her bottom lip quivered precariously, but she dashed her hand over her eyes and nodded.  “You won’t leave him, Grandpa?”

InuYasha shook his head; gave his promise.

“Why?” she asked again, her eyes telling him that she just didn’t understand.

“Don’t worry,” he assured her.  “He’ll be fine.”

She didn’t look as though she believed him, but she nodded.

“Straight home.  Do as I say.”

She nodded again and sniffled, but she stood up, brushing off her skirt, and trudged away, disappearing in the trees again in the direction of her home.

Staring at Mamoruzen for several minutes, InuYasha shook his head and dug the cell phone out of his pocket.  Toga answered after the first ring.  “Uncle?  I’m on my way,” he said in lieu of greeting.

“Your pup’s gonna stay with me tonight,” InuYasha interrupted.  “Don’t worry about him.”

“You found him.”

Frowning at the obvious relief in Toga’s voice, InuYasha grunted.  “Yeah.”

Toga sighed.  “I don’t know, Uncle.  I think I should—”

“He’s fine,” InuYasha broke in.  “He’s strong.  I’ll send him home in the morning.”

There was a very long pause on the other end, as though Toga were trying to figure out if there was something that InuYasha hadn’t said.  “Is he okay?” Toga asked, unable to keep the shadow of suspicion out of his tone.

“Keh!” InuYasha snorted.  “I told you he’s fine, didn’t I?”

“You did . . .” Toga allowed slowly.  “A-all right,” he agreed though he didn’t sound like he wanted to let it go that easily.  In the end, though, he trusted InuYasha.  “I’ll tell Sierra that he’s with you.”

“Yeah.”

He hung up then called home, assuring her that he’d be home as soon as he could and that everything was fine.  After dropping the phone into his pocket, InuYasha grabbed his sword and hopped into the branches of the tree.

It wouldn’t do any good to let Toga see what had happened.  Though he hadn’t seen the actual doing, InuYasha knew well enough that the injuries to the pup’s ears were his own doing.  From his vantage point, he could discern the darkened blood staining the rough lacerations, could smell the blood drying on Mamoruzen’s hands.  Toga didn’t need to see it.  Adding guilt to the situation . . . what was the point?

There were some things that just couldn’t be explained.  The reality of the situation was that, as much as Toga cared about his pups, feeling guilty about something that wasn’t really his fault just wasn’t worth it.  No, no one could fix this for Mamoruzen, and while InuYasha wished it were otherwise, he knew that the only person who could help the boy was the boy, himself.  Somewhere deep inside himself, Mamoruzen needed to understand that his worth and value weren’t going to be determined by what he wasn’t or couldn’t be, but by what he was, and what he would one day become.  It was a hard lesson to reconcile, and InuYasha . . . well, he knew that better than anyone.  Toga would feel bad, and he’d blame himself on some level, believing that he should have done more to prepare the pup for the unkind things that people could say, but in the end, that still wouldn’t have helped Mamoruzen, and maybe, just maybe, it might have made things worse.

Repressing the urge to drop from the trees and confront the boy about what he’d done, InuYasha wrapped his arms around his sword and leaned back against the trunk.  As much as he’d like to fix things, he wouldn’t be doing the pup any favors that way.  Besides, he wasn’t that damn good with words, was he?

The sudden memory of another face and another time flitted through his mind, and he frowned.  How long had it been since he’d thought of Shiori, the little girl, half human, half bat-youkai—the keeper of the barrier that he’d had to break in order to strengthen Tetsusaiga so long ago.  She’d suffered too, hadn’t she, and even then he’d realized that talk was cheap; that the only thing he could teach her at that time had to be done by example: to show her that she would be whatever she wanted to be so long as she fought hard enough to accomplish it.  That was his way.  It was the only way for a hanyou, and while times were different, and hanyous weren’t reviled as they had been when he was a pup, there were still those who wouldn’t accept them, no matter who they were or what they did.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a damn thing that InuYasha could do for Mamoruzen, either.  The harshest truth was that the only person who could ultimately determine Mamoruzen’s worth as a person was Mamoruzen, himself, and this one moment was an important one—one that would make or break him.  With a sigh and a shake of the head, InuYasha settled more comfortably in the boughs of the tree.

Sometimes the hardest lessons in life were ones that had to be learned alone . . .

 

-=0=-

 

His eyes burned hot and dry, and while he could feel the sting of tears somewhere behind his eyes, they never came.

Staring at his blood-stained claws in abject horror, Mamoruzen wanted to look away but couldn’t.  The vehemence of his own actions frightened him—terrified him.  The rage he’d felt just before he’d torn his ears was still fresh in his mind—a looming shadow that he couldn’t quite reconcile as having been thoughts of his own.  All he could think at the time was that if he didn’t have those ears, he wouldn’t have been targeted, and yet . . . and yet that wasn’t true, was it?

Never be ashamed of what you are, Mamoruzen.  You are your father’s son—my grandson—and you will be strong because it is in your nature to be.”

Wincing at the memory of those words spoken by his grandfather, the great and powerful Sesshoumaru, Mamoruzen blinked as he stared at his hands.  ‘Strong . . .?’ he thought as he slowly shook his head.  ‘What is . . . strength . . .?

The whisper of the wind in the trees was his only reply, and Mamoruzen lifted his chin, squinting at the sun as it descended below the horizon of green.

Strength is . . . power,’ he reasoned.  ‘Power to protect . . . that’s what Uncle Yasha said . . . Strength is . . . control.  Control your emotions . . . that’s what Grandfather said . . . It’s understanding to understand what you have to protect and why it’s important . . . that’s what Papa said . . . but Mama said . . . Mama said that strength is all those things . . .’ Frown deepening as he tugged on tender blades of spring grass, he sighed.  ‘But how can one thing be all those other things, too?

It didn’t make sense, did it?

Uttering a sharp whine that he quickly bit off as he reached up to rub his aching ears, Mamoruzen grimaced at the fresh smears of blood on his fingers when he pulled his hands away.  His head pounded with a vicious tenacity, and he was beginning to feel the cold bite of the wind.  Drawing his knees up, he huddled into himself for warmth, but he never considered that he ought to get up and go home.

 

-=0=-

 

Mamoruzen didn’t know how long he sat there beside the creek as the evening shadows lengthened then flowed into one another, creating a pitch dark blanket of night that encompassed the forest and the earth.  Hour after hour, he sat and he pondered, struggling to make sense of the things he couldn’t comprehend.  He’d asked his father questions before, and sometimes, Toga would smile and ruffle his hair and tell Mamoruzen that he would understand one day.  Those answers had never made sense to him, either, and he’d started to think that it was just something that parents said when they didn’t particularly want to take the time to explain.

And he knew that the question that he was pondering now would have garnered the same answer from his father.  This time, though, he had a feeling that he kind of understood why his father said that sort of thing.  It wasn’t so much that Toga didn’t want to answer, but maybe . . .

Maybe he didn’t have a real answer.

Or maybe . . .

Maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t have a real answer.  Maybe it was just that the same question could have more than one answer, depending on who he asked, and maybe that had been what Toga had been telling him all along.

But if that were the case, then it meant that Mamoruzen would have to figure out for himself what ‘strength’ was.  If everyone in his family had a different definition, then maybe it’d be all right for Mamoruzen to have one of his own, too . . .

Strength,’ he thought again as a heavy sigh escaped him.  ‘Being strong is just not being weak, isn’t it?  It’s . . . it’s not letting anyone know that you have a weakness, right?

It sounded right.  It was the first thing that truly sounded right all day.  In order to be strong . . .

“Never let anyone see my weakness,” he whispered, his eyes flaring wide as the first grayish haze of dawn crept over the darkened earth.

A strange sense of understanding seemed to crystallize, and even as he struggled to come to terms with the knowledge, it grew clearer in his mind.  That’s what Kazuo and his friends had always preyed upon, wasn’t it?  He’d been so proud of his hanyou ears before, hadn’t he?  He’d believed that they were special because everyone had always told him that they were.  Somehow Kazuo and his clique had managed to find the one thing that would bother Mamoruzen—his weakness—and slowly over time, they’d chipped away at it until . . .

Unable to repress the disgusted growl that slipped from him, Mamoruzen ground his teeth together, ignoring the dull pain that erupted in his ears as he forced them to stand up straight.  He couldn’t change what he was, and even if he could, why should he?  Inutaisho Sierra was someone he ought to be proud of, human or otherwise, and as her son, he should be proud of that, too.

Looking around with a start, he couldn’t repress the bitter stab of guilt that ripped through him when he realized that he’d somehow managed to stay out all night, knowing deep down that his mother and father were probably worried sick.

Scooting over to the water’s edge, he carefully scrubbed his hands with a handful of mud to loosen the dried blood that had crusted over his claws.  He’d probably be grounded for a year or more, and he couldn’t rightfully say that he didn’t deserve that, either . . .

He didn’t hear InuYasha drop out of the tree, but he couldn’t miss the flash of red—InuYasha’s shirt—across the stream.  The hanyou didn’t say a word as he stared hard at Mamoruzen.  As though he were trying to decide something, he simply stood, and slowly Mamoruzen rose to his feet, too.  It registered in his mind his uncle had likely been there all night, and while he wondered why he hadn’t made his presence known sooner, he couldn’t help but feel grateful that InuYasha had left him alone.

After what felt like an eternity, InuYasha nodded once and motioned for Mamoruzen to join him.  It didn’t take much for him to jump over the stream and walk to InuYasha’s side.

“You need to get cleaned up before your mama sees you,” he said in his normal gruff tone.

Mamoruzen frowned at his hands.  They looked clean, didn’t they?

“I meant your ears,” InuYasha stated as Mamoruzen sniffed his claws.

“Oh,” he muttered.  He could tell that they were almost healed, and the pain around his eye was gone, too.

“Come on, Mamoruzen,” InuYasha went on as he started toward the line of trees.  “Kagome’s probably already got breakfast ready.”

Stopping abruptly, the boy lifted his chin to meet InuYasha with a steady gaze.  “Gunnar,” he said.

InuYasha stopped and blinked.  “Gunnar?” he repeated.

Gunnar nodded.  “Mama . . . Mama likes it better.  She says Mamoruzen’s too hard to pronounce.”

InuYasha stared at him for a long moment, his eyes brightening as though he understood what Gunnar hadn’t said.  “If that’s what you want,” he finally allowed.  “Gunnar, huh?”

“Yeah,” Gunnar said, hurrying to catch up when InuYasha increased his pace.

“All right, Gunnar,” he agreed slowly but grimaced since that name wasn’t exactly easy for him to pronounce.  “She thinks that’s easier?” he grouched then sighed.  “Think you can beat me back to the house?”

He opened his mouth to protest then shook his head.  “I know I can!”

“Not if you don’t get movin’.”  InuYasha smiled slightly as the pup took off at a dead sprint.  Normally he hated to lose, but he figured that maybe he could make an exception this once.  To be honest, he hadn’t been completely sure exactly what kind of conclusions the pup had come to, but he should have known.  Mamoruzen—Gunnar—had more inner strength than just about anyone, didn’t he?

Guess he’ll be fine,’ InuYasha thought as he darted after the boy.

Besides, InuYasha was looking forward to seeing the expression on Sesshoumaru’s face when the pup told him that he wanted to be called ‘Gunnar’ . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~The End~

Chapter Text

~Bevelle, Maine~
~5. June 2041~

 

~o~

"Finally sleeping, huh?  You want me to take him?"

Glancing up from the dozing infant in her arms, Gin smiled at her mate in an exhausted but infinitely happy way.  "No, he's fine," she told him, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand, her gaze falling onto the six-week-old baby she held against her shoulder, the tufts of silvery hair poking up over the edge of the fleece blanket in which she'd wrapped him.  "Where's Sebastian?"

Cain shrugged, pushing away from the banister and ambling toward the bed, hands dug deep into his pockets, shoulders slumped forward just a little as his low-hanging ponytail fell over his shoulder, his bronze bangs falling into his eyes.  "Where do you think?  He's down in the kitchen, eating us out of house and home."

Gin grimaced.  "He should have told me he was hungry.  I would have made something for him."

Chuckling softly, Cain shook his head.  "It's fine," he assured her.  "Bas is old enough to make a sandwich—or three . . ."

Gin didn't look entirely convinced.  Biting her lip, her smile faltered just a little, and she sighed.  "Do you . . .? Do you really think it's okay?"

Settling on the edge of the bed, reaching out to ruffle the infant's hair, Cain shot his mate a quick look and grimaced inwardly at the cute little silvery puppy ears, usually perked up and alert, that were currently flattened and sticking out on either side of her head.  "Sending him to Japan, you mean?  Sure, it's fine.  He's looking forward to it, actually . . ."

She didn't look comforted in the least.  If anything, she looked even more troubled by it, and that just figured.  "I know, but . . ."

"He's really not going to think that we're sending him away, Gin," Cain reminded her gently.  "Besides, you know he likes going.  He likes spending time with the other boys."

Biting her lip, pearly white teeth leeching the dusty rose color from it as she frowned thoughtfully, she nodded.  "I know, but it feels like we're just . . . just getting rid of him because of the new baby, and—"

"And we aren't.  Bas knows that, baby girl."

 She still wasn't buying.

"I'll be right back," Cain said, pushing himself to his feet and heading for the stairs that led to the studio below.

'It isn't really surprising,' he thought as he strode out of the studio and down the long hallway, footsteps blunted by the heavy rug under his feet.   Gin's emotions had been a little off-kilter since Evan's birth six weeks ago.  It was normal, Cain figured.  After all, she'd done the same thing for awhile after Sebastian was born.  Besides, Gin tended to be an emotional creature, anyway, so it wasn't really surprising that she would just be a little more emotional now . . .

Still . . .

'We hate seeing her, so out of sorts.  Of course, we do,' his youkai-voice replied.  'Be strange if it didn't bother us, don't you think?'

'What am I supposed to do?  Keep Bas home, when he's been looking forward to this for months?'

His youkai only sighed, and so did Cain.

Stopping short in the doorway of Bas' room, Cain smiled to himself as the nearly-ten-year-old boy stuffed clothes into his suitcase with one hand, pausing long enough to bite into the very large sandwich he held in the other.  At his age, his remarkable height—he was almost as tall as his mother—and rather broad build made him look a good three or four years older than he was, which, in Cain's opinion, was both a blessing as well as a curse.  "You about ready?" he asked, nodding at the suitcase as Bas glanced up at him.

"Yeah," he said, concentrating on the sandwich, managing a huge bite.  "Just gotta pack a few more things . . . Do you think I'll need my swim trunks?"

"Doesn't hurt to take them along," Cain remarked.

"Is it about time to go?"

"Not quite yet," Cain said.  "How many sandwiches did you eat?"

Bas blinked, glancing at what was left of the sandwich in his hand as though he couldn’t remember.  Then he shrugged.  "Three."

Cain nodded.  That's what he figured . . . "Come here for a second, will you?"

Bas looked a little dubious, but he followed Cain out of the room.  "Am I in trouble?"

Cain chuckled and ruffled his hair affectionately.  "Nope.  Your mom just wonders if you feel like we're pushing you aside for your brother."

Bas' expression was confused, at best.  "Are you?"

Cain snorted.  "Of course not, but if you think we are, then you don't have to go."

Bas considered that as his father reached for the studio door.  "I like going to Japan," he finally said.  "It's fun."

"So, you want to go?"

Bas nodded.  "Yeah.  I mean, Gunnar said that he'll be staying over at jiijii's house most of the time, and Morio doesn't live that far away, so he'll be there all the time, and Mikio—he lives there, after all . . ." Trailing off, the youth sighed, scowling up at his father in such a way that Cain knew that he was considering something.  "Does Mom want me to stay home?"

"I don't think so," Cain allowed slowly.  "I think she's just concerned that you might think she's pushing you out the door . . ."

Bas considered that, but finally shook his head.  "Oh . . . No, I want to go."

Which was entirely what Cain had figured.  "Then you should go," he decided.  "Just do me a favor, and tell your mom that you want to.  She feels guilty."

"Is she going to cry again?" Bas asked dubiously.

Cain grimaced.  "She . . . might."

Bas rolled his eyes but darted under his father's arm and into the studio, grabbing the newel post to swing himself around and onto the stairs without a pause in his gait.

"Oh, Sebastian!  Is it time to go already?" Gin exclaimed, her voice sounding just a little tired despite her efforts to mask it.

Cain stifled a sigh as he followed Bas up the steps.  Since Gin was breastfeeding, she was the one who had to get up whenever Evan woke, which was pretty often, considering.  The pup was a pig, probably following along in his older brother's footsteps—or maybe Evan was already trying to catch up with Bas.  Who knew?

"No," Bas said, sitting on the edge of the big bed.  "I want to go, though, Mom . . . Is that okay?"

Gin smiled, reaching over to finger a long lock of golden bronze hair that had fallen over his shoulder since he tended to wear his hair down most of the time except when he was training because it got in his face and was generally a pain to deal with during those sessions.  "Are you sure, sweetie?  I mean, with your brother, and—"

Bas shrugged.  He'd never been big on emotional displays.  They made him feel a little uncomfortable.  "I want to go," he said again.  "I mean, it's fun, and I'll be learning a lot . . ."

Gin didn't look entirely convinced, but in the end, she sighed.  "If . . . If you're sure, Sebastian . . . It's perfectly fine if you'd rather stay here this year—We could see if the boys would rather come here, and—"

Bas made a face.  "Mom, you're pretty tired," he said.  "You don't need all of us, running around.  I want to go.  It's okay."

And that was enough to bring tears to her eyes, and Cain grimaced.  "You're such a sweet boy, just like your father," she whimpered, leaning forward to draw her oldest son into a warm hug.  "I'm going to miss you so much . . ."

Bas sighed and hugged her back.  "I'll miss you, too, Mom," Bas muttered.

Cain scratched his chin.  "Why don't you stay here, get some rest?  I can drop him off at the airport."

"Oh, no!  I want to go," Gin insisted, pushing aside the blankets while balancing Evan in her arms.  "Just give me a few minutes . . ."

Seeing no way around it—Gin could be ridiculously stubborn when she wanted to be—Cain took the infant and said nothing, though he would rather that she stayed home and got some sleep.

"I'm going to go finish packing," Bas said, shuffling past his father and down the stairs.

 


 

 

~Bevelle, Maine~
~21. July 2041~

"That's the cliff, and it overlooks the sea.  If you look out over the water, it seems like it goes on forever, but . . . but it doesn't.  Guess that's kind of a dumb thing for me to say, huh?  But it's really pretty . . . For now, though, you'll need to stay away from it for awhile," Cain remarked, pointing off to the right, turning his body so that the alert infant could look around with those deep sapphire eyes—the same color as Cain's.

As if he were trying to answer him, Evan cooed softly, and Cain chuckled.

"Think so?"  Cain's smile widened as he adjusted the baby in his arms, breathing in his sweet baby-scent as a certain contentment washed over him—the kind that only a smell like that could inspire.  "If you go down this path, you'll find the pond, which  is off limits to you until we teach you how to swim . . . And over there is the trail that leads down to the beach—your mama likes it down there.  She says it's peaceful, and she likes it even more when she talks me into building her a fire so she can make s'mores—Evan, you need to know now that your mother is a chocolate fiend, and whatever you do, don't ever—ever—mess with your mama's Reese's peanut butter cups . . ."

Evan cooed again.

"Over that way is your sister, Bellaniece's tree.  It's a white ash . . . She used to make us picnic lunches, and we sat under it and ate peanut butter sandwiches . . . That's your brother's tree.  We planted it the year he was born . . . Yours is over there . . . See it?"

It was a beautiful summer afternoon, and Cain smiled to himself.  Gin had spent the majority of the night, up and down almost every hour, on the hour, to feed Evan, whose appetite had only grown steadily over the last few weeks.  She wasn't quite ready to try giving him a little cereal, and she was borderline exhausted, so Cain, in a last ditch effort to get her to rest, had offered to take Evan out for a walk while she got a much-needed nap.

Evan fussed a little, and Cain straightened the little bonnet that Gin had insisted that he wear when he left the mansion.  Worried that he would get too much sun—was there such a thing?—she had done the same with Bas, who hated the pictures in his photo album of him, wrapped in frilly blue blankets with his bonnet-covered head peeking out from the copious folds of cloth, flyaway strands of golden bronze hair that was just a little longer than an infant boy's hair ought to have been.  Evan might hate them, too, one day.  Right now?  Cain chuckled. Okay, so he kind of thought it was cute, especially when people told them that they had a beautiful baby girl, and even more so when Gin would turn her golden eyes on him, looking entirely perplexed as she asked him why anyone would mistake her sons for daughters . . .

Evan heaved a sigh as his head settled against Cain's shoulder, and he smiled, craning his neck, leaning back just enough to peer down at his son.  The tufts of silver hair that peeped out from under the bonnet, lifted by the gentle fingers of the breeze coming in off the water, brushing against his pinked cheeks, the tiny bump of his nose . . . He was a little more tired today than usual, probably because he'd experienced a human night last night.  He wasn't happy, and he hadn't liked it, but he hadn't cried as much as Cain expected that he would—a lot better than Bas used to.  Even so, the theory was that Bas and Evan might actually stop having human nights eventually, probably closer to puberty since they would cease having as much of Gin's youki sustaining them at that point.  At least, that's what Dr. Crotch-Nozzle—Bellaniece's mate and Gin's older brother—said . . .

Stopping suddenly, Cain whipped around, frown darkening as he sensed it: the brush of a very weak, almost thready, youki, weaving through the air, blown along by the summer breeze.  There was nothing at all threatening in it, no, but there was a subtle sense of urgency, of . . . 'Fear . . .?' he thought, scowl darkening as he hurried toward the mansion.

It didn't take him long to lope back to the house, up the steps that led to the stone patio, where he settled Evan into the outdoor playpen with a few toys and under a cloth canopy to protect him from the sun, and all the while, feeling the brush of the strange youki . . . There was something unfamiliar, yet entirely compelling about it, coming through despite the pervasive upset, and he strode back the way he'd come, veering off to the left: toward the outer reaches of the front of the estate that he called home.

He stepped into the dense trees that stood back from the long and winding driveway where grass didn't grow except in sparse and anemic blotches here and there, a sense of urgency seemed to reach out to him, wrapped around the thinning strands of youki, and he hastened his step, breaking into a slow jog as he crested a small rise and skidded to a stop.


There before him was a young woman: a ribbon-seal-youkai?  Huddled on the ground amidst the decaying leaves, the strong smell of earth, she keened softly, doubled over, as she struggled to push herself upright.  Turning her head, peering at him over her shoulder, her face ashen and drawn, a little too thin, a little too frail . . . Dark hair with an interesting stripe of white near the nape of the neck was stringy and dull . . . Deep, almost unfathomable eyes gazing at him with an almost blank kind of stare.  She seemed to be silently begging him, the vaguest hint of recognition awash in her eyes, and he stepped closer as she moaned quietly, as she collapsed onto her side, frail back straining, as though she trying to protect something—trying to hide something . . .

Eyes flaring wide, Cain stumbled forward, falling to his knees, reaching out to grasp her shoulder gently but firmly.  "You need a doctor," he blurted, unable to stave back the grimace that twisted his features at the unhidden bone under his fingertips—no fat, no muscle: nothing but skin on skeleton . . . "Here, let me—"

"No . . . time," she rasped out.  "You . . . You're the Zelig . . .?  Please . . ."

"Yes, I am, but—"

She sat up a little straighter as Cain winced, as understanding dawned on him, and he flinched.  The thin and reedy youki he felt . . . It wasn't the woman's, at all . . .

Hair so white it shone bluish, bright but pale blue eyes, wide, blinking as she stared up at him with a frank sense of curiosity . . . She couldn't be more than a day old, at best, and the woman who held her choked back a sob.  "Would you . . .?  Can you find her a good . . . home?"

Cain blinked, stared at her, unable to hide the horror in his expression.  The gaunt face, the dull eyes that were already fading—had already faded startlingly rapidly in the few minutes since he'd found her . . .

She held the infant close for another long moment, choking back a sob as she kissed her downy cheek, as she nuzzled her nose against her . . . "I love you," she murmured, closing her eyes for just a moment.  "I . . . I love you . . ."

"Wh-What's her name?" Cain asked gently, slowly reaching for the infant when the woman finally met his gaze.

She shook her head.  "I . . . I didn't think I should," she whispered, falling back on the ground when Cain took the baby.  "I thought . . ."

Cain nodded.  "Do you want to give her a name?  I'll . . . I'll make sure she keeps it . . ."

The woman smiled wanly, her gaze slowly fading, dulling, darkening.  "I . . . I wanted . . . to name her . . . Jillian . . ." she murmured.

Swallowing hard, Cain stared at the perfect baby girl—a water-youkai.  "Jillian, it is," he said, voice hollow, rasping, reaching.  "It's a beautiful name . . ."

"He . . ." Squeezing her eyes closed, two fat tears slipping from each one, she uttered a harsh whimper, like the air being forced out of a plastic bag.  "He . . . wanted . . ."

Wincing, satisfied only that she hadn't seen the expression, Cain nodded.  "Your . . . Your mate wanted to name her Jillian," he said.

She nodded, but the movement was stilted, jerking.  "Find her . . . love . . ."

Blinking fast, Cain glanced down at the infant—the perfect little, Cupid's bow of a mouth, the wide, crystalline eyes . . . Cheeks kissed with a hint of pink . . . Long fingers with perfectly shaped claws that wrapped around his finger . . . "I will," he promised her mother.  "Absolute . . . love . . ."

Mustering the last of her strength, she shifted her eyes to meet Cain's and smiled, a haunting sense of peace seeming to creep over her, slowly at first, as a melancholy sort of radiance added a momentary brilliance, a fleeting glimpse of the woman she used to be . . . An explosion of light, a sudden whip of the wind, and Cain hunkered forward, shielding the infant from the blast as her mother faded from this life and into the next.

 


 

~Bevelle, Maine~
~21. July 2041~

 

The quiet fussing of a baby woke Gin from her nap, and without opening her eyes, she rolled to the side, pushing her robe open with one hand as she pulled Evan against her.  He latched on almost instantly, and she laughed softly, opening her eyes slowly as she gazed at her son, as she ran her fingertip over his tiny fist, his deep blue eyes, so very much like his father's, staring at her, blinking slowly as he settled in for his meal.  "Aww, my baby!  Did you have a nice walk with your daddy?"

He sighed slightly but didn't relinquish his hold on her, and she laughed gently.  "I'm so sorry . . . Mama was just so tired . . ."

"Hey."

"Did you enjoy your Daddy-Evan time?" she asked without looking up when Cain shuffled into the room, her attention too intently focused on her son.

"It was cut a little short," Cain admitted.  "Uh, Gin . . ."

"He looks like he enjoyed his outing," she went on in a conversational tone.  "Did you show him the pond?"

"We, uh, didn't get that far," Cain said.  "Baby girl—"

Gin's ears quirked when the sound of another baby drew her attention, and she finally glanced up, only to do a double take when she saw the squirming bundle in Cain's arms.  Wrapped in one of Evan's blankets, the baby uttered a terse squall, and Cain winced, shooting Gin an almost panicked sort of look as he gently patted the infant's back.  The baby's youki seemed to be reaching out, seemed to be searching for something, and Gin frowned.  The pup was looking for his or her mother . . . And, though Cain was trying his best to comfort him or her, the infant was intuitive enough to know that Cain wasn't able to provide what was being sought out . . .  "She's . . . She's hungry, so I need to run to town and get her some formula . . ."

"Formula?" Gin echoed indignantly, cheeks blossoming in bright color, sitting up a little straighter, trying to see the what Cain was holding in his arms.  "That's not the best thing for her," she pointed out.

"Yeah, but—"

Sticking out a hand, rolling her wrist to hurry him along, Gin shook her head stubbornly.  "Give her," Gin demanded.

He stared at her for a long moment, but did as she instructed.  "Gin, I—"

"Oh, kami!" she breathed, eyes widening as she stared at the absolutely beautiful infant girl.  "Cain, could you . . .?"

He stepped over, tugged her robe open to expose her other breast, then helped her to adjust the baby who looked so much tinier than nearly-three-month-old Evan, grabbing a couple of pillows to prop under her arms on either side to help support the nursing babies . . . "I can't ask you to do this," he said, his tone almost and strangely apologetic.

"You're not," Gin said.  "She's beautiful . . ." Giggling quietly, she shifted her gaze from one baby to the other.  "They could be twins, Zelig-sensei."

She missed the troubled expression on her mate's face.  "They . . . They could," he slowly agreed.

"Where did she come from?" Gin asked quietly, staring in absolute awe at the infant girl, at her white hair, her sky blue eyes, the rounded cheeks, so rosy, the tiny, tiny hands . . . Her youki was thin, weak, not surprising, given that she didn't seem to be any older than a day or two, and Gin felt the edges of her own youki wrap around the child, lending her comfort as the child slowly, slowly relaxed against her.  For some reason, the feeling of her easy acquiescence was enough to bring tears to Gin's eyes, even though she managed to hold them back.  So tiny to have lost so much . . . And something about that stung Gin down deep, too . . .

Rubbing his eyes, Cain sighed.  "I don't know.  Her mother brought her here, and then she . . ." he grimaced.  "I found them in the woods. She . . . She was so weak, and then, she . . ."

Gin winced, ears flattening as she unconsciously held the babies just a little closer.  "So, she . . ."

He nodded slowly.  "I'll start looking into families who might be willing to adopt her," he said.  "I'll go get her some formula, too, if you're okay with them . . . Or I could take one of them with me . . ."

Biting her lip, Gin tried to understand, tried to rationalize just what Cain was saying, tried to ignore the sudden and almost violent surge of umbrage that shot through her.  On the one hand, she understood, of course.  They had an infant of their own.  Trying to care for two babies would be borderline insane.  It was one thing to have twins naturally.  It was something else entirely to choose that kind of chaos, wasn't it?  It was akin to madness . . . The only real option was to find a family who could take her in, who could devote all of their time and attention to the baby who had already lost entirely too much in the course of a couple days since her birth.  In that vein, she would have to be introduced to formula sooner or later, given that anyone who would adopt her wouldn't be able to feed her in this kind of way.  It made sense, of course.  That didn't mean that Gin liked it, though, and it did nothing at all to quell the misplaced anger, too . . . "Does she have a name?" she asked instead, deliberately trying to ignore the flash of guilt at the very idea of not nurturing this girl in the way she deserved to be.  It went against everything that Gin, as a mother, believed.

Cain sighed again.  "Jillian," he replied.  "Her mother . . . She wanted to name her Jillian."

Gin smiled a little sadly, cuddling both babies close as they ate.  "Jillian's too grown up," she decided, ducking her chin, blinking fast to hold back the tears that she hoped Cain couldn't smell.  Her voice, when she finally spoke again, was a lot steadier than she felt, and for that, she was grateful.  "We'll call her Jilli, for short."

 


 

 

~Bevelle, Maine~
~11. August 2041~

 

Leaning against the base of a tree, Cain glanced up from the sketchpad, a small smile quirking his lips as he took in the sight of Gin, curled up on her side on a fuzzy fleece blanket in the shade of a stout ash tree with both of the infants, curled up beside her: Evan, huddled on his stomach, knees draw up with his butt in the air, and Jillian, laying flat on her back, cheeks rosy, baby-fine hair lifting on the slight breeze as the sunlight that filtered through the patchwork of leaves kissed her hair, her face, her tiny hands . . .

It was an image worth capturing, he'd decided, and a welcome distraction from his task of trying to find a family suitable to adopt Jillian.

'Except that you don't want to do it, and you know you don't.'

Cain grunted, but didn't bother to deny it, either, the scratch of the pencil on the paper echoing in his ears.

Three weeks.

Three weeks, to the day, it had been since he'd encountered her mother in the woods, since he'd first laid eyes on Jillian.

'And you know damn well that, with every day that passes, you fall just a little more in love with that little girl—just as much as you love Bellaniece or Bas or Evan . . . As for Gin . . .'

Scowling at the paper as he sketched lines, as he deliberately tried not to think too much about everything, Cain sighed.  'I can't ask that of her,' he thought.  'One pup is enough work, and . . . and she gets so exhausted.  Getting up all night with Evan?  And now, with Jillian . . . It's too much, no matter how much I try to help her, there are certain things that I can't do.'

'But maybe there's a way.'

He shook his head, trying not to think about how much he enjoyed, holding the girl on his chest, over his heart, as she drifted off to sleep at night, how often she made him smile when he picked her up in the morning, as her eyes lit up, as she tried so hard to talk to him . . . 'There . . . There isn't.  I can't ask Gin to do that.  I . . . I can't.  It wouldn't be fair . . .'

His youkai-voice grunted.  'Then tell me, what was wrong with the Arunbachs?'

'They just became mates a few months ago.  Definitely not ready for an infant.'

'And the Bauers?'

'Their house is too small.'

'The Franklins?'

'He's a fisherman.  He's gone way too much.'

'The Adams?'

''They're creepy, and they're kooky . . . Mysterious and spooky . . .They're all together ooky . . . The Addams Family' . . .'

'. . . Did you really, really just say that . . .?'

Cain grunted, but didn't reply.

'You realize that you're going to have to pick someone if you're not willing to ask Gin to keep her.  It's really not fair for you to be dragging your feet on this, and by the way, you realize, don't you?  Gin's bonding with Jillian, as much as you are.  Don't you think it's going to be terrible to try to separate them now?'

Heaving a sigh, Cain let the sketchbook fall to the ground with the pencil bouncing off of it a few times before rolling off into the sparse grass.  Yes, he knew that well enough.  Of course, he did.  The thing was, it didn't really help when there was something, even something small, that just didn't sit right when he read through the potential parents' files . . .

Gin sat up with a sigh, smiling dreamily as she touched both sleeping infants.  He could hear the gentle laugh, could sense the absolute peace in her aura, and he smiled, too.  As though she could sense his perusal, she lifted her gaze, her smile widening as her eyes locked with his, as she lifted a finger to hush him, even though he had yet to say a word.

After assuring herself that the babies were sleeping soundly, she pushed herself to her feet, ambling over to him, sinking down beside him with the soft jingle of the buckles of her cute little pink overalls.  "They're so sweet," she said, nodding her head at the babies.

He nodded.  "They are."

She sighed happily and leaned in to inspect his sketch.  "That's really good," she commented, poking a finger at the sketchbook on the ground.

"Think so?"

She nodded.  "You could do this for a living," she teased.

He chuckled.  "Is that right?"

"Hmm," she intoned, leaning against his arm for a moment.  Breathing in deep, Cain savored the scent of her, his mate, allowed her very proximity to offer him a sense of calm, despite the turmoil that wasn't too far away.  "Cain?"

Slipping his arms around her, pulling her a little closer, Cain sighed.  "Yeah?"

She shot him a quick glance, a wan sort of smile gracing her lips as she turned her head to stare at the sleeping babies once more.  "They look like little angels, don't they?"

Cain smiled.  "They do," he agreed.

She stared at them for another long moment, eyes bright, clear.  "You know what?" she finally said, breaking the companionable silence that had fallen.

Reaching for the tablet and pencil, Cain frowned at the sketch.  "Hmm?"

"I think you deserve a slice of cake," she decided.

"I think I do, too," he allowed.

She giggled as she stood up once more, brushing off her shorts before turning to head back toward the mansion.  Pausing long enough to check on the babies, she made a face before carefully scooping Jillian up.  "She needs changed," she said.  "We'll be right back."

Cain nodded and smiled, relaxing against the tree long enough to watch his mate's retreat.  Evan, little miscreant, hadn't even budged, and Cain had to wonder if he was saving it all up for later on tonight.  The boy seemed to revel in keeping his mother awake, after all: a true night owl if there ever was one.

The buzz of his cell phone drew his attention, and Cain frowned as he dug it out of his pocket and read the caller ID.  "Zelig," he said, pushing himself to his feet and wandering a little farther away, lest he should wake up the pup.

"Ah, yes, just the guy I wanted to talk to.  Have you found a family for the baby?  Jillian?"

"Not yet," Cain replied, glancing back at the house to make sure Gin wasn't within earshot.  "Why?"

Ben Philips, the youkai general, chuckled.  "Well, I was contacted earlier by a couple looking for a child.  They've had some difficulty in carrying a child to term, and her doctor advised her that maybe adoption would be better."

"How's that?" Cain asked, referring to the idea that she would not be able to carry a child.

Ben sighed.  "She's human," he replied.  "She had some issues before she found her mate, and it's not something that youkai marking can fix—apparently.  They seem like decent people.  I talked to both on the phone—didn't mention Jillian.  I just asked some general questions.  Should I fax over their file?"

Biting his lip, Cain sighed.  "Y-Yeah . . ."

Ben was silent for a long moment.  "Unless . . . you and Gin were going to keep her . . .?"

Letting out a deep breath, Cain grimaced.  The old panther-youkai was entirely too perceptive, wasn't he?  "I can't ask her to do that," he muttered.  "It . . . It really wouldn't be fair.  I mean, she's got Evan needing constant attention, and, unless I can figure out how to nurse a baby, I really can't help much."

Ben grunted.  "If you master that, don't tell me about it, okay?"

"Shut up, Ben," Cain grumbled.

Ben chuckled.  "You know, if we only did what was convenient, we'd get nothing at all accomplished."

"If she wanted to do it, she'd say so," Cain maintained.  "I . . . I can't ask her.  I can't put that kind of pressure on her.  She's a good woman.  She'd say yes, even if she didn't think she could handle it."

"I don't know.  Maybe you're underestimating her."

Cain didn't reply to that.

"Well, just think about it because it'd be worse if you got someone's hopes up, only to dash them if you change your mind about keeping her."

"You're suddenly a baby expert?"

Ben chuckled.  "Nope.  I'm an expert in the field of common sense, though."

"Ri-i-i-i-ight," Cain drawled.

Amusement dying away, Ben let out a deep breath.  "All right, then.  I'll fax over their file, but listen.  It'd really be no worse than having twins.  I daresay you'd be keeping them both if you and Gin had given birth to more than one baby."

"Don't be dumb, Ben," Cain grumbled.  "That's a stupid thing to ask."

"It's not stupid," Ben countered mildly.  "It's truth.  Just think about it."

"The file?" Cain reminded him.

Ben sighed.  "I'm on it."

"Thanks," Cain replied.

The connection ended, and Cain dropped his phone into his pocket.  Of course, Ben had a point, even if he had made it in an entirely outlandish sort of way.   But it wasn't about Cain, not really. It was about Gin, and it was about Jillian, and he really had no right to ask something of that magnitude of her . . . Some things were just not meant to be, as hard as that was to accept, and Jillian . . .

Brushing those thoughts aside, he pivoted on his heel.

And stopped short.

Eyes flaring slightly as the surge of a strange youki hit him full-on, he muttered a curse under his breath.  'How the hell did he get that close?' Cain fumed, temper spiking when he caught sight of the weasel-youkai who stood next to the blanket—with Evan, dangling from his arms.

"Who the hell are you?" Cain growled, reining in the desire to dash over, to try to retrieve Evan before the stranger could hurt him.

"I'm nobody important," he scoffed, enjoying the game of cat and mouse just a little too much.

"How did you get this close to us?"

The weasel chuckled, tossing a small stone into the air, catching it on the way down a few times.  "Fuyoheki," he said in answer to Cain's unvoiced question.  "Amazing what these little things can do . . ."

"A Fuyoheki?  Where the hell did someone like you get your hands on something like that?"  Cain demanded, balling his hands into tight fists as he glowered at the weasel.  "Who are you?"

The youkai's smirk turned a little nastier.  "I told you, who I am isn't really important . . . As for the stone?  Wouldn’t you like to know?" he goaded before holding up Evan like he were little more than a rag doll.  "White haired baby with blue eyes . . . I've gotten what I came for, Zelig.  Thanks."

"Give me my son," Cain growled from between clenched teeth.  He started to move forward, only to stop when the weasel shifted Evan, cracked the claws of his free hand.  Evan whimpered as Cain ground his teeth together harder.  As long as the youkai had Evan in his clutches, there was nothing—literally nothing—that Cain could or would do, and the feeling of helplessness was absolutely debilitating . . . A white haired baby with blue eyes . . .? Just what the hell did the bastard think he was doing?

A sudden crack, high overhead, accompanied by an ominous rumble echoed around them as the first, fat droplets of rain started to fall.  Evan's upset escalated quickly, and Gin must have sensed it because the French doors slammed open as she darted outside, only to gasp, to skid to a halt when she, too, spotted the weasel holding her baby.

Cain didn't dare take his eyes off the weasel, not even to glance at Gin.  He could feel the rising panic in her youki, and it was almost enough to choke him as he forced himself to stand his ground.

The weasel chuckled nastily.  "Ah, don't worry.  You can always whelp another one, can't you?  Now, if you'll excuse us . . ."

He started to back up a few steps.  Cain couldn't contain the warning growl as Evan's whimpers shifted into full-out crying—panicked screeching that tore at him, as Gin's youki surged and stretched, her own terror, thick and cloying as it hung in the air.

"Damn it, damn it, damn it . . ."

Without thinking, without bothering to consider the ramifications of his actions, Cain leveled his weight against the ground, ready to spring, to leap.  If he could grab Evan at the same time that he cut through the weasel—

'Zelig, stop . . . Think!  You're better than that, aren't you?  Don't lose yourself to your emotions . . .'

'Damn it, he—'

'No!  If you give in, if you let your heart override your mind, your pup will die! No amount of recrimination will bring back a soul that's already been lost.  But then, you already know that, don't you?'

Blinking at the strange voice that echoed in his head, the deadly accuracy of the words, Cain scowled.  'Wha . . .?'

'See it, Zelig, in your mind.  That surge of your youki—Use it!'

Unsure of exactly what the voice wanted him to do, Cain raised his hand, willed away the rage, the sheer dread, and he stared through the rain while the weasel still slowly backed away, and he grinned at Cain, as though he realized that the tai-youkai wasn't entirely certain—as though he believed that he held the upper hand, and maybe he did . . . But . . .

'Engulf him.  Burn him.  Will him to feel the wrath of the tai-youkai for daring to touch one of yours.'

'But Evan—'

'It's a warm rain, Zelig.  You know this rain, just as you know me . . .'

Eyes flashing wide, Cain understood.  Somewhere in his brain, he did know it, even if he couldn't place it.  The warmth, the familiarity . . . If he could stop, if he could think, he might be able to understand it.  As it was, however, he didn't dare take that time . . .

He felt the surge in his youki as it flowed around the weasel, as it held him to the spot, stilling his body, his arms, his legs.  The weasel fought against it, grunting, straining, his grip tightening even more around Evan, who started to squall in earnest.  He calmed instantly, though, when Gin's youki flowed into Cain's, and whether it was their combined auras that calmed Evan, Cain didn't know, though he suspected it had more to do with his mother's touch than it had to do with Cain himself . . .

The spark that shot out of his fingertips landed in a flash at the weasel's feet, and as the immediate flare dimmed and sputtered out, Cain saw the smoke, slowly at first, issuing from the weasel in tendrils, in spurts, escalating rapidly, like the smoke escaping from an opened grill.

He tried to scream.  The sound wouldn't come.  Eyes rolling back into his sockets, face contorted in a frozen grimace, a macabre visage, he didn't move as his skin peeled off in ashy strips, only to be driven into the earth by the soothing rain . . .

With a hoarse cry, Gin flew past Cain, grabbing her son out of the weasel's grip, moments before his body exploded in a gust of wind and dust, leaving nothing behind but a smoldering pile of ash that quickly dissolved and faded away . . .

And as quickly as it had come, the rain sputtered and ended.  A sudden gust of warm, warm air brushed against his cheek, a strange but familiar sense of comfort flooding through him as the rain vanished, as the sun reappeared . . . Only then, did Cain let his arm drop as late relief made his knees feel weak . . .

"Who was that?" Gin asked, her voice shaking as she hurried to him with Evan in her arms.

He wrapped his arms around her, closing his eyes as he held them close.  "I . . . I don't know," Cain said.  "He was after Evan . . ."

"Why?"

Cain shook his head.  "I don't know . . ." he replied again.

Gin sniffled—he hadn't realized that she was crying—and snuggled Evan close, calming the child with her very proximity . . .

"Where's Jillian?" Cain asked, taking Evan from Gin.  He just needed to hold him, to reassure himself that Evan was all right . . .

"Oh!" she exclaimed, eyes flaring wide, hands flying up to cover her lips.  "I forgot!  I left her in the living room!"

She took off to get Jillian, and Cain heaved a sigh, gaze raking over the boy who burrowed his face against Cain's shoulder.

Cain swallowed hard, blinking fast as late tears washed into his eyes.  The echo of the voice in his mind . . .

'It sounded . . . familiar . . .' he thought, dashing a hand over his eyes as he kissed Evan's forehead, savored the feel of the baby in his arms.

His youkai-voice sighed.  'That's because it was familiar . . . You really don't remember your father's voice?'

"F . . . Father . . ." he murmured.

'And your mother's rain . . .'

"Mother . . ." Squeezing his eyes closed as late confusion warred with a sense of disbelief, Cain shook his head.  'That's not . . . They're . . . They can't . . . They're dead . . .'

'It's possible, you know.  Your father . . . Incinerating someone from the inside out?  That was his ability, and maybe you've had the innate skill all along, but you needed it now, didn't you?  So, maybe he was able to speak to you, to guide you . . .'

Considering that, Cain sighed.  Did he believe it?  Could he believe it?  Peering down at Evan, safe in his arms, he winced.  Whether it was possible or not . . . What did it matter when Evan . . . Because of that voice, Evan was safe . . .

 


 

 

~Bevelle, Maine~
~15. August 2041~

 

Gin leaned in the archway of the living room, a small smile quirking her lips as she stared at the children—Sebastian with Evan curled up beside him on the oversized chaise lounge chair—and Jillian, curled up on Sebastian's chest.  They were all sleeping—no small wonder, that.  Sebastian was still exhausted from traveling more than halfway around the world.  They'd just gotten home from the airport a few hours ago.

Her smile widened as the beauty of the moment touched her.  Something about seeing the three of them together just seemed so . . . right . . . Evan and Sebastian and Jillian . . .

'Because you want to keep her, doll,' her youkai-voice remarked.

Gin sighed.  'I . . . Oh, I do . . .'

'So, why don't you tell Cain?  Do you think he'd mind?  Really?'

She bit her lip.  That was the proverbial million-dollar-question, wasn't it?  'But . . . if he wanted to keep her, wouldn't he have said so . . .?'

'Do you honestly think you can give her up?  This child you've accepted as your own, that you've nursed and loved and protected?  Can you do that, Gin?  And don't you owe it to her to at least ask him how he feels?  Doesn't Jillian deserve that?  She's already lost one mother . . . If you don't . . .'

'But . . . But I'm not . . . not her mother . . .'

'If not you, then who?  You've held her, nursed her, kissed her fingers and toes, coddled and protected her . . . And maybe she wasn't born of your body, but that doesn't mean a thing, not really, not when you love her . . .'

Gin grimaced.  'But . . .'

'You can't give her up, doll.  You can't—and neither can I.'

"Baby girl . . ."

Turning at the sound of Cain's voice as he strode into the living room, he stopped and smiled at the children before turning a more serious gaze upon her, and he sighed.  "I've, uh . . . I've found a potential family for Jillian," he said.  "He's youkai, and she's human.  They can't have children, and they're looking for one.  I . . . I can't find a single reason not to try.  They sound . . . perfect on paper . . ."

 A violent surge of panic shot through her, not unlike the same emotion she'd felt when she'd spotted the strange youkai holding Evan . . ."B-B-But . . . But what if they're not the right ones?" she blurted, her tone rising as her panic grew despite her desire to tamp it down.

"They seem nice enough."

"You . . . You talked to them?  I mean, you didn't even tell me about these people before, and you've already talked to them?"

He frowned at her, slowly shaking his head.  "Well, I . . . I can go get the file if you'd like to look it over . . ."

She scowled up at him.  "This is a big deal, Cain!  You should have at least let me read through it before you called them, don't you think?  We're not talking about some random baby—we're talking about Jilli—our Jilli!"

"I know that," he snapped.  "You think I don't?"

Narrowing her eyes on him, she crossed her arms over her chest stubbornly.  "I don't know, Zelig-sensei.  Do you?"

"Gin, she's not ours—you know that, don't you?"

"She is right now," Gin shot back, her anger spiraling higher and higher, faster and faster.  "You don't know these people at all—haven't even met them—haven't bothered to tell me about them until right now, and  you want to hand my baby over to them?  No!  I won't have it, Cain Zelig!  I won't!"

For a moment, he looked like he just might snap back at her.  Then he sighed.  Rubbing the back of his neck, Cain grimaced.  "What do you want me to do, Gin?" he asked quietly.

Something about the tone of his voice calmed her, and she grimaced, ducking her chin before he could see the tears that were gathering in her eyes.  Just what kind of mate was she, anyway?  Cain was doing the best he could, and she knew that, and yet, she snapped at him?  Just who did that kind of thing?  Before she could answer, however, Sebastian sat up, looking entirely groggy—and rather irritated, too.  With a grunt, he scooped Evan up—he was already holding Jillian—and stomped past his parents, heading for the stairs.

"Sebastian?  Where are you going?" Gin called after him.

"We're going to bed," Sebastian grumbled.  "You two can fight if you want, but we're tired."

Gin blinked, staring after them as Sebastian toted the children up the stairs.

Cain sighed.  "If you . . . If you pumped your breasts, I could help feed them," he ventured quietly.

Gin's brain felt as though it suddenly slowed to a crawl.  "C . . . Cain?"

Cain grimaced.  "I know it's probably a bad idea.  I know it's a lot of work, and . . . and if you don't want to, I understand, but I . . ."

"I want to keep her," Gin blurted.  "She's a Zelig, as much as Sebastian and Evan and Bellaniece . . ."

Cain slowly lifted his gaze to meet hers, his eyes lit with an inner fire as he stared at her.  "I . . . I want to keep her, too," he said.  "Jillian Zelig . . ."

Gin broke into a sound that was half-laugh, half-sob as she launched herself into Cain's arms.  "You mean it?  We can keep her?"

He chuckled and held her tight.  "Yeah," he said.  "Only if that's what you want."

Gin grasped his face, tugged him down to kiss him.  "You're so wonderful, Cain," she murmured between kisses.  "I . . . I was afraid you'd think it was too much . . ."

He grinned, giving her a tight squeeze.  "I thought you'd be overwhelmed . . ."

"And you're sure?  It's not going to be a problem?"

Cain laughed.  "A problem for who?  I'm tai-youkai.  No one is going to argue with me."

"Oh, no, not ever!" Gin laughed through the tears still standing in her eyes.

"We'll figure it out.  I'll help you as much as I can."

"I love  you, Zelig-sensei."

He sighed, but it sounded content and not at all exasperated.  "I love you, too, baby girl."

She sniffled, but her smile was brilliant.  "Cain?"

"Yeah?"

She giggled, cheeks pinking as she slipped an arm around him and squeezed one of his butt cheeks.  "One."

Cain's eyebrows lifted as he stared at her with an amused lilt in his gaze.  "Oh, is that so?"

She bit her lip.  "Two."

Leaning back just far enough to cross his arms over his chest, he waited.

"Three—Aren't you going to run?"

"Thinking about it."

She giggled again.  "Four."

"Gin?"

"Hmm?"

His grin widened.  "Five."

"Cain!" she squeaked as he grabbed her, as he kissed her in a slow, soft, steady way that made her toes curl.  "I . . . was going to . . . punish . . . you," she said.

"So, do it, baby girl—fast before Evan wakes up because he's always hungry."

She laughed at the reminder of her son's insane appetite—laughed and tugged at the hem of Cain's shirt . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~The End~

 

 

Chapter Text

 ~A Purity Oneshot~
~The Christmas Cake

-O-O-O-O-O

I saw Mommy kissin' Santa Claus…” 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 24, 2073:.
.:Bevelle, Maine:.

 

The soft crackle of the fire dancing merrily on the hearth on the other side of the bedroom loft was the only sound to be heard in the silence as Cain Zelig stretched out in the huge bed, scowling slightly while he tried not to be concerned about his youngest son's 'girlfriend'.  What did it matter if Evan assured him a number of times that it was all an act for his mother's sake?  It didn't, did it?  At least, it didn't when Cain had the unsettling suspicion that Evan was biting off a little more than he could chew.  It wouldn't be the first time he'd done that, no, and Cain was certain that it wouldn't be the last, either.  Still . . .

Oh, he liked Valerie Denning well enough.  Beautiful, certainly, and that wasn’t surprising in the least, as far as Cain was concerned.  With that particular son, he had never actually considered that he’d find a woman any less than drop dead gorgeous, all things considered, and looks aside, she was a very smart woman—an attorney, no less—who had been representing Evan in the reckless driving case that he'd been fighting.  Once that was over, though, Cain had thought that Evan would revert back to his hedonistic ways.

 But there was something . . . different . . . about Evan's behavior when Valerie was around, and Cain couldn't rightfully say that it was a bad thing, either.  Yet there was something that belied the surface between those two, something that Cain couldn’t really put his finger on, but there, just the same.  That strange tension was the reason for his reticence, he supposed.  Of course, if Cain had his way, none of his children would have to deal with any of the ups and downs on their roads to finding their true mates.  Even then . . .

His musings were cut short, however, when Gin Zelig skittered up the steps with a bright smile on her pretty face and a huge burgundy leather covered photo album in her hands.  When she noticed her husband watching her, she giggled and held up the book.  Cain grinned, though the expression had more to do with the adorable little Santa hat perched jauntily on her head at a tilt so that it covered one of her little white puppy ears but left the other exposed.  Add the long, red robe trimmed in white faux fur, and, well, she looked just like a mini-Mrs.-Claus . . .

“I just felt like looking at some old pictures,” she explained in lieu of a proper greeting as she crawled onto the bed beside him.

Chuckling, Cain pushed himself into a sitting position and pulled Gin back against him as she  plopped the album on his lap.

“Oh, remember that?” Gin asked as he opened the cover, revealing the portrait that they'd had done in October just before their very first Christmas together as a married couple.  Her bright golden eyes were glowing so happily there, and while Cain could still see the hint of lingering gauntness in her face and arms, he knew that she wasn't nearly as bad in that image as she had been when he'd gone back to Japan to find her months before.  The endearingly silly girl had blossomed over the years into a  downright gorgeous woman, hadn't she . . .?

“Of course I do,” he replied, sparing a moment to kiss her temple before turning his attention back to the book once more.  “That was the year I wanted to give you a very special something, wasn't it?”

Gin's soft laughter warmed the air far better than the fire dancing on the hearth, and though the memory of the consuming fear still gripped him—the overwhelming sense that what Gin wanted and what he could lose was far too frightening to deal with.  But she was full of miracles, wasn't she?  Gin always had been . . .

“Sebastian was the single best Christmas present you've ever given me,” Gin said softly, reaching back over her shoulder to rub his cheek with her hand.

Cain chuckled again.  It was easier to do that now.  After all, Bas had a family of his own these days, and Gin had successfully delivered not just him but his younger brother, Evan, as well.  “Yeah, well, you have grandbabies to spoil now,” he remarked as he tightened his arms around her waist.  “Guess you don't need another Christmas present like that one.”

Gin sighed and giggled then bit her lip thoughtfully.

“Oh, God,” Cain groaned.  “Gin—”

“No, no, it isn't about that,” she insisted quickly, fluttering a hand to cut him off.  “It's just . . .”

“Just what?” Cain prompted despite the warning bells ringing in his head.

Wrinkling her nose, Gin tapped her lips in the way than she usually did when she was concentrating.  “I like Valerie,” she said at length, as though she hadn't been too sure before.

Cain blinked and shook his head slowly.  “You just now decided that?” he couldn't help asking.

She sighed again—this one, long and drawn out.  “N-no,” she muttered.  “I mean, I've liked her all along, but . . .”

“But?”

She smiled suddenly, a bright smile that was meant to reassure him, he supposed.  Then again, maybe she was trying to reassure herself . . . “Didn't it seem like they were more friends than boyfriend and girlfriend when they got here?”

“You think so?” Cain deadpanned.  To be completely honest, he was more than a little surprised that she'd have picked up on that.  Then again, she knew Evan probably better than just about anyone else so maybe it wasn't so shocking, after all . . .

Gin nodded, flipping pages in the album idly and without really looking at the images she was passing.  “I don't know.  I'd have said that maybe they weren't really together; that they were just pretending to be, but that's silly, isn't it?”  She giggled softly.  “Why on earth would they do that, right?”

“R-right,” Cain drawled.  “Baby girl—”

“Oh, I just figured it out!” she blurted, unmindful that she'd just interrupted him.

“You did?”

She nodded enthusiastically.  “She's just a little shy, you know?  Like Nezumi . . . She hates it when Ryomaru gets all touchy and stuff around other people.  Valerie must be just like that, too!”

Cain opened his mouth to scoff at that, but snapped it closed when he saw the very happy expression on her face.  She really wanted to believe that Evan and Valerie were seriously dating, didn't she?

He sighed inwardly, reaching behind his head to dislodge the hair tie that held his long bronze hair back out of the way.  Of course she did.  Gin, like any mother, just wanted her children to find the right one and settle down—and give her lots of grandbabies, he supposed, and woe betide anyone who dared to squash that dream, including himself.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, taking no notice of Cain's lack of commentary as she turned her attention back to the photo album.  “Isn't that the year you—?”

“We promised we'd never talk about that Christmas again, Gin.  Remember?” he reminded her tightly, as he winced inwardly.

 She frowned.  “But look at poor Evan,” she said, tapping a delicately tapered claw against the plastic covered page over a photo taken Christmas night—after the trip to the emergency room where the doctors had inspected Evan's broken arm and set it in a splint that they'd removed the next day after the bone had healed a little.  “He's smiling, though.  Such a little trooper . . .”

Cain snorted to let her know what he thought of her 'little trooper'.  “He was fine,” Cain mumbled, shifting uncomfortably at the blatant reminder.

“Of course he was,” she agreed.  “He's tough—like me!”

 That earned her a tight little smile that she missed completely.  “Yes, he is,” Cain allowed.  “Still, you promised that we wouldn't talk about that year—ever.”

“But—”

“Promised,” he stated flatly.

Gin heaved a sigh to let him know what she thought of that particular promise.  In a last ditch effort to put an end to that particular discussion, Cain reached over to retrieve a Reese's peanut butter cup tree out of the nightstand on his side of the bed.  Gin squealed loudly and snatched it out of Cain's hand as he winced at the sheer volume of her outburst.  “So what was your favorite Christmas, then?” she asked, her words garbled since she hadn't bothered to swallow the first huge bite of candy before uttering the question.

Cain's expression turned thoughtful as he settled back against the thick, fluffy pillows once more.

“This one,” he finally said, flipping back through the album to the year labeled 'Christmas 2042'.

Gin leaned forward, her candy still cradled carefully in her hand as she peered at the holiday images from the year in question.  “That one?” she echoed, shaking her head slowly.  “Really?”

“Yeah,” Cain said at length, a tender smile surfacing on his lips.  “Did you think it'd be a different one?”

Gin laughed softly as she polished off the candy and crawled over Cain to check the nightstand for another tree.  Coming up empty, she spared a moment to pout at him before flopping back onto the bed once more.  “Oof,” he grunted as she slumped against him once more.

“It wasn't Sebastian's first Christmas?  Or the first year that we had Evan and Jillian, too?  I mean, that was the first time our family was really complete,” she pointed out.

“No,” Cain replied.  “I think that one was my favorite.”

“Why?”

“It just was,” he insisted.

She smiled and leaned up to kiss his cheek before settling against him once more.  “What part of it made it your favorite?”

Wrapping his arms around her, he sighed.  “Well, baby girl, let's see . . .”

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 1, 2042:.
.:Bevelle, Maine:.

 

“What do you want for Christmas, Cain?”

Cain glanced up from the painting he was working on as Gin breezed into the room with a stack of laundry to put away and a bright smile on her pretty face.  “Christmas?” he echoed, shaking away the almost mindless stupor that he always seemed to fall into whenever he was working on his art.

“That's so cute,” Gin remarked as she peered around Cain at the work in progress: a moment frozen in time as Bas slept soundly with little Evan and tiny Jillian piled on top of him.  “You have a lot of talent, Zelig-sensei.”

“Just a little,” he deadpanned with a little smile as a hint of pink tinged his cheeks at the praise.

“Nope, a lot,” she insisted, leaning up to kiss him on the chin.  “Anyway, what do you want for Christmas?”

Sparing a moment to kiss her forehead before reaching for one of the paint cloths that littered the work table beside him, he frowned thoughtfully.  “I already have everything I need, baby girl,” he remarked as he wiped his fingers meticulously with the cloth.

Gin made a face and pushed against his chest playfully.  “It's the one time a year that you're allowed to be selfish,” she insisted with a stubborn shake of her head.  “There's got to be something you want.”

“Whatever you buy for me is good enough,” he assured her.  “Maybe a sexy little red lace teddy or something . . .”

Twittering in an almost embarrassed kind of way, Gin hid her face against him for a moment.  “You'd look really funny in one of those,” she pointed out.

“I figured you'd wear one for me,” he muttered, rolling his eyes at her bald statement.

“Then it wouldn't be for you,” she said.

“I beg to differ,” he retorted.  “It sure as hell had better be for me.”

Gin shook her head at his incorrigible statements and stepped away from him to put the laundry away up in the loft.

Frowning as he tried to critique the work in progress, Cain wrapped an arm over his stomach, resting his elbow on his clenched fist and curling his fingers over his lips as he surveyed it.  “So what do you want for Christmas?” he called after her.

“Hmm,” she drawled, her voice muffled by the closet  as she stacked a couple of clean sweaters on the shelf that she could barely reach, “I think I'd like for you to make something for me.”

Cain nodded to himself without paying a lot of attention to that.  It wasn't uncommon for her to make that kind of request, anyway.  Usually he did exactly that, anyway.  Last year it had been a marble sculpture of their dog, sprawled on his back in front of the fireplace in the living room.  The year before that, it was a painting of a very pregnant Gin, napping on the chaise lounge in the sun room . . . “I can do that.”

 She hurried down the stairs and skittered across the floor then pushed herself up onto the worktable.  “No, I mean something that doesn't involve paint or sculpting,” she reiterated.  “Something really special.”

That earned her a raised-eyebrow-ed look.  “You don't think that the things I've made for you are special?” he asked.

“No, of course Ido!” she insisted, waving a hand dismissively.  “Those things are all really great, but what about something that you're not used to doing or making?”

“And what kind of thing would that be?” he asked.

She frowned.  “I don't know . . . something like . . . hmm . . . cook me dinner or bake a cake for me or something.”

Cain blinked and slowly shook his head.  “Bake a cake for you?”

She giggled.  “Then you can be my cake fairy instead.”

He snorted since the idea of him making a cake was fairly far-fetched, as far as he was concerned.  “You want me to bake you a cake.”  It wasn't a question.

She nodded happily and clapped her hands—something that Evan did, too.  “Well, yeah . . . or something like that.”

Letting out a long gust of air, Cain slowly shook his head.  She made it sound so much easier than he figured it would be.  After all, his cooking skills were severely limited; just ask his oldest daughter, Bellaniece.  She'd spent her youth eating frozen meals that just had to be heated up, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, boxed macaroni and cheese dinners, and the occasional grilled cheese . . . Making a cake?  Somehow, he thought that it might well have 'disaster' written all over it . . .

“So if I'm supposed to make you something like that,” he remarked, deliberately keeping his eyes on the painting he'd been working on, “what are you going to do for me?”

Hooking her hands around her knees, Gin kicked her feet in an idle sort of way.  “I've got a couple ideas,” she ventured with a smile.

“And where'd you get this idea, anyway?” he had to ask.

“Oh, there was a really good movie on the Women's Network about a couple who decided to make their own gifts one year because they wanted to rekindle their marriage.”

“We need to rekindle our marriage?” he asked before he could stop himself.

Gin giggled.  “Of course not,” she insisted.  “But it made me think.  Didn't you say before that your favorite presents have been the ones that Sebastian made you in preschool?  That plaster cast of his hand or the seashell note card holder?  Oh, and that adorable macaroni ashtray?”

“Well, the macaroni ashtray wasn't the greatest idea, if you think about it.  Burning pasta kind of stinks,” Cain said.

“But it's still sitting on your desk, isn't it?” she parried.

 Cain chuckled.  “It is,” he agreed easily enough.  “That doesn't mean that I use it.”

Gin laughed, too, hopping off the table and pausing long enough to give Cain a quick squeeze before scurrying toward the doorway.  “Anyway, I have every confidence that you'll find the perfect thing to make for me that doesn't involve this studio.”

He watched her go before heaving a long-suffering sigh as he slowly turned to face the painting once more.  A homemade gift that didn't involve the utilization of his artistic talents, huh?

It was going to be a lot harder than it sounded, wasn't it . . .?

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 10, 2042:.
.:Airspace over the Pacific Ocean:.

 

“I fucking hate flying.”

Kagome Izayoi sighed and slowly shook her head.  If she'd heard that complaint once, she'd heard it twenty times in the last hour, which didn't bode well for the international flight that was only the first part of their itinerary.  “I know you do,” she replied reasonably—maybe a little too reasonably.  “But you do love your daughter.”

He snorted loudly but didn't argue that with her as his ears twitched a few times.  “If that bastard she married had any common sense at all, he'd have brought her home for Christmas,” InuYasha grumbled.  “He knows damn well that flying is hard on her brother.”

Sparing a moment to glance at the boy in question, Kagome frowned.  Mikio had actually fallen asleep shortly after take off, probably because of the anti-nausea medication that Kichiro had prescribed for him that was known to cause drowsiness.  Sparing a surreptitious glance at her mate, who looked like he was ready to sink his claws into the nearest target, she couldn't help but think that maybe Kichiro should have prescribed the same thing for his father, too . . .

“It's a shame that Kichiro and Bellaniece couldn't make the trip this year,” she mused instead, hoping to distract InuYasha from his current irritation.

“Eh, that little fucker could've made it,” Ryomaru, InuYasha and Kagome's oldest son, remarked.  “He just didn't want to.”

“Baka,” Nezumi, a.k.a. Deirdre, muttered.  “Isabelle has important exams coming up, and spending the next couple of weeks, beating down her cousins won't leave her enough time to study.”

“Exams are stupid,” Morio Izayoi piped up.  He was sitting across from InuYasha and Kagome between Mikio and Gunnar, the latter of whom was quietly listening to music on his cell phone and trying his level best to ignore Morio completely—or so Kagome thought.

“Almost as stupid as you are,” Gunnar shot back casually enough.

Morio broke into a wide grin.  “So you're listening to me, after all, Mamo-chan!”

“Shut up,” Gunnar retorted.

“You could take a hint from your cousin,” Nezumi remarked, effectively interrupting the escalation of the argument that she knew was forthcoming otherwise.  “Your marks aren't very good, Morio.”

“But it's the holidays, Mama,” he protested as his grin widened.  “'Don we now our gay apparel . . .'” He sang as his smile dimmed slightly and the sparkle in his eyes grew brighter.  “Why the hell would someone wear gay apparel unless they're gay to start with?”

“Are you stupid?” Gunnar muttered under his breath.

“Of course he is,” Mikio slurred in response to Gunnar's question, proving that he wasn't quite sleeping just yet though he didn't open his eyes, either.

Gunnar snorted indelicately but didn't comment as he retrieved a book out of his knapsack and proceeded to ignore Morio completely.

Morio sat up suddenly and smacked Gunnar in the middle of the chest with the back of his hand.  “Oh, yeah!  You haven’t laid your bet, Mamo-kun!”

Shifting his gaze to the side, he stared blankly at Morio for a long moment.  “Bet?” he echoed, clearly unsure as to what, exactly, Morio was talking about.

Morio chuckled and dug a small notepad out of his backpack before licking the end of his thumb and flipping through the pages.  “Mikio said ten, I said fifteen, and Izzy-chan said seven.”

“For what?” Gunnar asked again.

“For how many centimeters Bas has grown since last summer,” Mikio clarified drowsily.

Gunnar snorted again. “That's stupid,” he scoffed.  “It's only been a few months.  There's no way he's grown more than three, tops.”

Morio laughed and grabbed Gunnar's pen long enough to write it down in his book.

“If Bas finds out about that bet and beats on you, don't come crying to me,” Ryomaru remarked despite the grin on his face.  “Put me down for nine.”

Morio shot his father a cheesy grin and happily wrote that down, too.

“I can't wait to see Evan and Jillian,” Kagome remarked, ignoring the topic of conversation.  “I wish they lived closer . . .”

“Like I said,” InuYasha grumbled, “if Gin hadn't married that bastard—”

Kagome wrinkled her nose.  “You could learn a thing or two from Cain,” she pointed out indelicately.  “Gin said that he's going to do something special for her for Christmas.  They're making presents for each other this year!”

“Keh!  He makes shit for her every year,” InuYasha scoffed.  “Pictures he could've taken easier with a damn camera and lumps of stone he scratched at a little.”

 Rolling her eyes at InuYasha's unflattering assessment of Cain Zelig's artistic abilities, Kagome grasped the nearest ear and tugged.  “His art is world-famous, dog-boy, and this year, he's not making her anything like that. Gin said that they're both making things that they're not familiar with, and I think that's sweet and caring and thoughtful.  Don't you?”

“Ow, wench!” InuYasha complained, ignoring the menacing tone of his mate's normally soft voice.  “Just goes to show how hella dumb he is, if you ask me.”

Kagome sighed and let go of InuYasha's ear.  Even if he did think that the gesture was sweet, he'd never admit as much, not about something Cain was doing, anyway.

“If he wasn't so damn dumb, he'd just do what any other normal person does: march his ass into the nearest store and buy something that his mate will actually like.”

Kagome snorted—a noise that she rarely made even if InuYasha did it often enough for the both of them.  “You know, I think they have the right idea,” she insisted slowly, thoughtfully.  “In fact, I think they're right on the money.”

 She felt InuYasha's reluctant stare without having to look to verify it.  “I mean, if you did something for me instead of giving something to me, then you wouldn't gripe about having to tote it back to Japan, either, now would you?”

“Keh!  Ain't nothing you don't already got, wench,” InuYasha grumbled.

Kagome wasn't finished, and now she had the complete and utter attention of the rest of the travelers, too.  “You know what would make me really happy, InuYasha?”

Definitely nervous, if the twitching of his ears and the way his eyes kept shifting from side to side meant anything at all.  For a moment, she didn't think she was going to take the bait.  She ought to have known better.  He was nothing if not too curious for his own good.  “You said 9/4/15that being with me made you happy, Kagome,” he muttered almost accusingly, his cheeks pinking just a little.

“Being with you does make me happy,” she replied.  “But if you really wanted to give me something special for Christmas . . .”

“Don't fall for it, old man,” Ryomaru mumbled under his breath.

“Spit it out, wench,” InuYasha growled.

She smiled sweetly.  He nearly whined.  “It would be the best present, ever, if you would promise to be nice to your son-in-law for the entire visit—no matter what.”

Ryomaru choked.  Nezumi covered her mouth.  The three boys cast Kagome looks filled with varying degrees of admiration.

What?” InuYasha blurted, his expression registering his abject disbelief at her very simple request.

Kagome laughed.  “You heard me, dog-boy.  From the time they pick us up at the airport till they drop us off to go home, no fussing, no fighting, and no disparaging remarks.  How about it?”

“Keh!”

“It's not like I asked you to be nice to Sesshoumaru or anything,,” she pointed out.

He snorted again.  “Like that'd ever happen,” he growled.  “There ain't no way in hell that I'm going to agree to—”

“But it'd make Baa-chan so happy,” Morio chimed in.  If he had been sitting next to InuYasha, Kagome had little doubt that he'd have gotten himself clobbered for his commentary.  As it was, InuYasha snorted yet again—had to be some kind of record or another—looking like he'd sorely love to get his hands on the sword that she'd barely managed to talk him into packing instead of wearing.

“Keh!” InuYasha snorted yet again, crossing his arms over his chest and flopping back in his seat hard.  “Yeah, well, Baa-chan can just—”

“Check it out!  The old man's gonna end up spending Christmas Eve on the fucking sofa,” Ryomaru muttered to his wife.

“You could be nice and stop him before it comes to that,” she remarked philosophically.

“Are you kidding?  No damn way!  Sink or swim, Nez.  Sink or swim.”

“Now, now,” Kagome interjected with a bright smile before the low growl escaping InuYasha could escalate into anything worse.  “If your father doesn't want to do the one thing that could really, truly make me happy this year, that's his choice.  I wouldn't make him sleep on the sofa for it.  After all, Christmas is the season of giving—that's what Gin says—and if your father would rather not give me the peace of mind that would come with knowing that he's going to be on his best behavior, then it's fine.”

The growling bumped up a notch or two in intensity.  “I never fucking said I didn't want to give you whatever the hell you want, wench!  You're twisting my words around!”

“I'm doing nothing of the sort,” she insisted.

His loud snort stated that he believed otherwise.

“Even if you don't want to do it for me,” Kagome went on, completely ignoring InuYasha's outburst, “think about how happy you'd make Gin this year.  After all, she's been stuck in the middle between you and Cain since the beginning.”  She paused for dramatic impact then let out a long, deep sigh—a little melodramatic, sure, but drastic times called for drastic measures, right?  “I remember the sight of her, lying there, hooked up to all those tubes and wires . . . how frail she was; how diminished . . . I really thought that we might . . . might lose her . . . and you could barely get along with Cain then.”  She shook her head sadly.  “You've always said that you'd do anything for your children, but I guess that doesn't mean that you'd actually try to get along with someone they love, even if you don't.”

“Wow, she's so good at that,” Nezumi mumbled under her breath, an appreciative glimmer lighting the depths of her violet gaze as she watched InuYasha's face contort into the a mix of acute irritation and something nearer to grudging guilt.

“Hells, yes,” Ryomaru replied.

“Baa-chan rocks,” Morio breathed.

Gunnar grunted something unintelligible before grumbling, “Scary as hell.”

“Laying it on a little thick, ain'tcha, Kagome?” InuYasha gritted out despite his reddened cheeks.

“Not if it’s working,” she countered, batting her eyelashes for good measure.

“He's hosed,” Ryomaru muttered to Nezumi.

“Yeah, he is,” she murmured back.

Fuck!” InuYasha growled.

“Unless you don't want to give me the one thing that would make me happy this year,” Kagome went on, figuring that she was twisting the proverbial knife and enjoying it far more than she probably should.

“Fucking fine!” InuYasha bellowed, crossing his arms over his chest in a completely sullen kind of way.  “But if he starts it—”

“You'll be the bigger man and turn the other cheek, of course,” she cut in smoothly.  “This is going to be the best Christmas, ever!”

InuYasha snorted indelicately.  “Says you, wench.  Says you.”

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 10, 2042:.
.:Bevelle, Maine:.

 

Frowning in concentration as he read through the directions for the tenth time, Cain tapped his claws on the white marble counter top in the kitchen of the bright and airy Zelig mansion as the morning sun spilled through the huge windows over the breakfast nook.  “Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, add eggs alternately with the flour mixture . . .” he mumbled to himself.  “Doesn't sound too hard . . . cream, butter, sugar, eggs . . .” He scrawled those things down on the grocery list he'd been making.

“He's at the thirty . . . the twenty-five . . . the twenty . . . Can he do it, folks?  He's heading for the end zone!  At the fifteen . . . the ten . . . the five . . . Touchdown, New England!  Bas Zelig's a football god!

Cain blinked and turned his head to watch as eleven-year-old Bas ran into the room with his favorite football tucked under his arm.  He started to hiss like the din of a cheering crowd, only to stop short when he spotted his father staring at him.  “Uh, D-d-dad.  Didn't know you were in here,” he muttered, cheeks reddening with embarrassment as he slipped the football behind his back.

“Nice touchdown, football god,” Cain replied dryly despite the hint of a smile on his face.  “Better work on your victory dance, though.”

Bas made a face as his face darkened a little more, and he scowled at his father.  “I was wondering . . .”

“What's that?” Cain asked, turning his attention back to the recipe card in front of him once more.

“Do you . . .?” Bas sighed, as though he were trying to find a way to ask him about whatever he had on his mind.  “Do you think you could talk Mom out of going to see Coach tomorrow morning?”

“Your coach?  Why's she going to see him?”

Again, Bas sighed as he dropped onto the bar stool across the counter from Cain.  “I told her that I heard from Kyle Jackson that Coach was going to put me on the defensive line next year,” Bas explained with a grimace, “and, well, you know Mom . . .”

Cain grimaced, too, since he could figure out the rest on his own.  It wasn't really surprising that the coach would want to put Bas on defense.  Bas had always been large for his age, and along with the height came the weight, as well.  The thing was, Gin had always fancied Bas to be more of an offensive type player—his current position was quarterback—and moving him to the other side would be considered a bit of an insult, as far as she was concerned.  Knowing Bas, he didn't really care since he simply loved the game, but Gin?  She'd been the first one to buy her boy a football, and while Cain had played catch with Bas a number of times, more often than not, it was Gin who had spent hours in the yard, tossing the pigskin with her son.

“I'll talk to her,” Cain promised.

Only then did Bas finally smile though he did look a little dubious.  “So what are you doing, anyway?” he asked, nodding at the list on the counter.

“Your mom wants me to make her a cake for Christmas,” Cain muttered as he read through the recipe again.

“No way,” Bas remarked solemnly.

“Yup,” Cain replied.

“Pat-a-cake!  Pat-a-cake!” year-and-a-half old Evan insisted as he bounced into the kitchen, still wearing the footy-pajamas that he'd worn to bed the night before.  He skittered over to his father, and Cain scooped him up, sitting him on the counter beside the cookbook.  “Pat-a-cake, Daddy?  Pat-a-cake?”

“Anyway, I figured I'd make one of those spice cakes your mama likes so much,” Cain went on, holding up his hands so that Evan could smack his little palms against them as he babbled the nursery rhyme.

The dubiousness in Bas' expression increased about tenfold.  “I don't know, Dad . . .” he drawled.

Cain rolled his eyes.  “What's that supposed to mean?”

Bas wasn't cowed.  “You don't know the first thing about baking, do you?”

“That's what the recipe's for,” Cain clarified.

“Yeah, but that recipe is for people who know something about baking, to start with.  Maybe you ought to go to the bookstore.  See if they have Baking for Dummies or something like that . . .”

Cain scowled at Bas for a full minute before answering.  “Do you want to be an orphan, Bas?”

Bas snorted and hopped off the stool before stepping around the counter and picking up Evan.  “That’s what I'm afraid of,” he shot back as he hurried out of the kitchen with his little brother waving over his shoulder.  “C'mon, Evan.  Let's go watch Power Puppies while Dad tries to blow up the house.”

Cain shook his head at his son's show of support.

Okay, so it was true.  Cain really didn't know exactly how to bake a cake.  Still, after reading the recipe, it didn't seem that difficult.  Besides, he was going to practice a few times to make sure that the final product came out well, wasn't he?

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 10, 2042:.

 

Frowning in concentration, Gin scowled at the tangle of yarn dangling from the knitting needles.  It didn't quite look like a sweater yet, of course which didn't mean that it wouldn't when she was finished.  After all, people made sweaters and stuff every day, right?

“Right!” she reassured herself as she settled back to get to work once more.

“Hey, baby girl.  Have you seen my black coat?”

Smothering a tiny yelp, Gin shoved the yarn under the sofa cushion before whipping around to smile at her mate.  “The black one?  I took it to be dry cleaned,” she informed him.  “Your tan coat's in the hall closet, though.”

He nodded, searching around the desk in the studio for his keys.  “Okay.  I'm going to run to the store. Do you need anything?”

“Nope,” she replied then giggled.  “Well, maybe a Reese's peanut butter cup tree or two.”

Cain rolled his eyes but smiled as he tossed his keys into the air and caught them a few times.  “Oh, yeah, promise me something, okay?”

“Anything at all, Zelig-sensei,” Gin insisted, hurrying over to wrap her arms around his waist.

“Go-o-o-od,” he drawled.  “Promise me you won't go yell at Coach Mitchell.”

 She wrinkled her nose and tried to pull away from Cain.  He held on.  “I wasn't going to yell at him,” she insisted stubbornly.

“Bas thinks you're going to yell at him,” Cain pointed out reasonably.

Gin snorted.  “Moving Sebastian to defense?” she grumbled.  “Why in the world would they do that?  Sebastian's a quarterback, not a big lug of a defensive lineman.”

“And Bas doesn't care, one way or the other, you know.  He just loves to play football . . .” Cain said, deciding that he'd be better off not to remind Gin that Bas was, indeed, a pretty big 'lug'.

“He's only moving him to defense because Cal Jenkins got ran over last season,” she contested hotly.  Cal Jenkins was another eleven year old on the team and the largest one on the defensive side of the ball.  “Moving Sebastian could impact the rest of his football career, Cain, and—”

“And he's eleven years old, Gin.  I don't think that playing defense for a year or two in the pee-wee league is really going to ruin the rest of his—Wait, did you just say 'career'?”

“Yes, his career,” Gin grunted stubbornly, crossing her arms over her chest as she shot Cain a mulish sort of scowl.  “If he gets put on defense now, then he'll be stuck there once he gets to middle school next year, too, and if that happens, then he'll end up there through high school.  By the time he goes to college, the coaches won't even give him a chance to show that he's a good quarterback, and if he decided that he wanted to play professionally, then the entire country would be trying to knock my baby onto his heinie!”

“Leave it alone, baby girl,” he insisted mildly.  “Let the boy play.”

She didn't look pleased, but she did grumble something that was as close to a 'yes' as Cain Zelig was likely to get from her.  His mind just didn't understand the intricacies of football, she decided.  After all, she knew she was right, but Cain was ever the artist, wasn't he?  Too dreamy, given to thinking in terms of what he wanted to happen, not necessarily what really did, and even then, Sebastian loved football.  He loved playing quarterback.

She sighed as Cain kissed her forehead and headed for the door.  “Don't forget,” she called after him, still not entirely forgiving him for making her promise not to go talk to the coach.  “Mama and Papa's flight gets in around six!”

“As if I could forget something like that,” he muttered without missing a step.  “I'm just running to the grocery store.  I'll be back.”

Gin heaved a sigh and shook her head as Cain disappeared out of the studio they shared.  She loved the holidays, and having her family here was just the icing on the cake, as far as she was concerned.  “It's going to be the best Christmas, ever!” she told herself with a giggle.

That was right, wasn't it?  All she had to do was finish the sweater she'd decided to make for her mate . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 11, 2042:.

 

Crossing his arms over his chest, Cain stood back and waited for the boys to try the slices of cake he'd set before them.  “Well?”

Mikio shifted uncomfortably, peering to his left and right respectively at the other boys.  Morio intercepted the look and grinned.  Gunnar stared straight down at the plate before him, his hanyou ears twitching a little nervously.  Bas bit his lip.  “It smells a little . . . burnt,” Bas remarked slowly, carefully.

“It's not burnt,” Cain grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest and staring at each of the boys in turn.  “Come on, Mikio.  You try it.”

Mikio shot him an almost terrified glance.  “I-I-I don't want to,” he nearly whined.

Cain rolled his eyes.

“Maybe if it had some . . . frosting or something,” Morio remarked, poking his piece with the fork.

“Frosting's nothing but sugar,” Gunnar pointed out, still staring down at his slice.  Even at eleven years old, Gunnar had already developed a dislike for anything that was overly sweet.  It wasn't surprising that he didn't want frosting on his piece of cake.

“I know, but at least then you wouldn't taste the cake, would you?” Morio muttered in an aside that Cain figured he wasn't supposed to hear.

 Gunnar blinked a few times, as though he was considering which would be worse: the overly sweet frosting or the taste of the actual cake.  “ That would take a hell of a lot of frosting.”

“You know, it's not too late to take your presents back to the store,” Cain growled as he stomped around the counter in the middle of the kitchen to grab a can of frosting that he'd bought at the store and chucking it in the general direction of the breakfast nook. The boys quite literally dove for it, and it wasn't surprising that Bas was the one to emerge victorious, given that he was quite a bit brawnier than any of his cousins or uncle.  He glopped damn near a fourth of the can onto his cake before passing it on to Gunnar, who followed Bas' example almost to the letter.

“Zat, Bubby?  Zat?”

Bas blinked and glanced down at Evan, who had wandered into the kitchen and was holding onto the edge of the cloth bench cushion with his tiny claws dug into the fabric as he tried to see onto the table.  “Uh, nothing you want, Evan,” Bas muttered, frowning at his little brother.

Evan wrinkled his nose and giggled.  “Stinky!”

Cain rolled his eyes.  “Thanks, Evan,” he grumbled, lifting a hand, indicating that the boys should hurry up and dig in.

“It's like a brick,” Morio remarked, jamming his fork into the frosting covered lump before him.  “Check it out!”

“It sounds like one, too,” Mikio allowed as Morio thumped the cake a few times.

“Knock that off before you break the plate,” Gunnar said as he grabbed Morio's hand to stop him from slapping the cake down once more.

“Oh, for God's sake,” Cain growled, snatching Bas' plate off the table and jamming the fork down hard.  Without stopping to think about what he was doing, he stuffed the bite into his mouth and chewed.

And then he turned on his heel and stalked over to the trashcan to spit out the burnt mass.

“Uh . . . can we go now, Dad?” Bas asked after a long moment of dead silence.

Cain didn't answer until he'd stalked over to the refrigerator and slugged back a few healthy swallows of milk without bothering with a glass.  “Get the hell out of here,” he muttered before tilting the jug to his lips again.

The boys had never moved faster.  Even Mikio fairly ran out of the kitchen.  Bas was the last one out since he stopped to scoop up Evan, lest Cain decide to try to get him to sample the cake, too.

Cain sighed and recapped the milk with a scowl.  Okay, so the first try was a bust.  It was a setback, sure, but he'd get it right before Christmas.  He still had two weeks to practice.

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 12, 2042:.

 

“So what do you think?”

Nezumi lowered the Popular Mechanics magazine she'd been reading to look at the very large, dark blue square of knitted yarn that Gin was holding up for her inspection.  “It's nice,” she said with a slow nod.  “Is that for Evan?”

“No, why would it be for him?” Gin asked with a frown as she turned her creation to stare thoughtfully at it.

“Isn't it a baby blanket?”

“A baby—?  Oh, no!  I'm making a sweater for Cain!” Gin replied with a bright grin.

 Nezumi blinked.  “That's for . . . Cain?

Gin's smile faltered as she eyed the piece critically.  “You don't think it's too small, do you?  It's the back of the sweater.”

“Uh, no,” Nezumi said quickly.  No, if anything, it looked like it might fit two of Cain—or more.

“Oh, that's a pretty blanket, Gin,” Kagome remarked as she strolled into the living room with a tray of tea and cookies.  “When did you take up knitting?”

Nezumi bit her lip and hurriedly lifted the magazine to cover her face before she burst out laughing.  Poor Gin looked genuinely perplexed as to why her mother would think that she was making a blanket.

“No, it's the sweater I'm making for Zelig-sensei,” Gin replied.

Kagome paused before setting the tray down .  “Is it some kind of new style?  A wraparound or something?”

Gin giggled.  “Of course not, Mama!  This is the back of the sweater!”

Kagome's mouth rounded in an 'oh' though no sound came out with it.  Nezumi figured that she was either trying to think of something kind to say or she was debating whether or not to tell her daughter that it was entirely too big for the intended recipient.  “It's . . . a bit large, don't you think, Gin?” she finally said.

Gin blinked.  “You think so?”

Kagome smiled and handed Gin a cup of tea.  “Maybe just a little.”

“But I used another of his sweaters as a pattern,” Gin replied with a shake of her head as she slowly lifted the tea to her lips.

“Well, you could always wash it in really hot water before you give it to him.  Maybe that'll shrink it some,” Nezumi offered as she set the magazine aside and pulled Jillian onto the sofa to sit between Gin and her.  Jillian giggled and pointed at the plate of cookies before casting Nezumi a rather bashful smile.  “Here you go,” she said, retrieving a snowman sprinkled with iridescent sanding sugar.

“Sanks!” Jillian said just before she nibbled a bit off the snowman's hat.

Nezumi grinned and tousled the girl's silvery hair.

“Seems to me like a sweater is a pretty difficult thing to knit for a beginner,” Kagome went on as she settled in a nearby chair.  “Maybe you should have started with a scarf or something like that.”

Gin sighed as she carefully folded up the back of the sweater and stowed it into the pretty purple knitting basket on the floor beside her.  “Oh, I'm sure that it'll be okay,” she decided.  “Besides, he's trying to make something special for me, too, so I have to try my best, don't I?”

Nezumi didn't miss the slightly anxious lilt to Kagome's gaze.  No doubt Mikio told her exactly what Morio had said earlier: that Cain's first attempt at baking hadn't turned out well.  Nezumi figured that she'd give Kagome a day, tops, before she ventured into the kitchen to help the poor man out.

“How the hell are you supposed to tell it's fucking Christmas around here if you ain't even put up a damn tree yet?” InuYasha growled as he stomped into the living room just behind Cain.

“We always go out on Christmas Eve to get the tree,” Cain said in what could only be described as a bored tone of voice.  Ryomaru strode in just behind the two, and when he spotted Nezumi, he shot her a cheesy grin.

“Every other fucking person in the state of Maine has their damn trees up already,” InuYasha went on stubbornly.

“Your daughter likes to wait till Christmas Eve,” Cain pointed out.  “I'd be more than happy to put the tree up whenever she wants to, and she likes Christmas Eve.  Besides, there's a tree in the foyer and one upstairs in the hallway, too, not to mention the one in the studio or the one in the kitchen.”

 InuYasha snorted.  “Those ain't trees.  Those are fucked-up pieces of plastic—and the one in the kitchen is white, for kami's sake!”

Cain stopped and turned long enough to pin InuYasha with a very thoughtful stare.  “If it bothers you so much, I'd be more than happy to go out and cut down a tree for you to have in the guest room,” he offered reasonably enough.

“Keh!  That's hardly the point,” InuYasha growled.  “You're—”

“InuYasha,” Kagome interrupted sweetly.  Nezumi almost laughed when the hanyou shot his wife a glower then took a step back in retreat.

InuYasha's cheeks pinked slightly as he crossed his arms over his chest, his ears twitching almost nervously atop his head.  “It's your house; put the fucking tree up whenever you want to,” he grumbled as he turned on his heel and stomped out of the room.  He stopped on the threshold but didn't look over his shoulder as he mumbled something that almost sounded like, “Thank you for inviting us,” before he continued on his way, leaving behind a rather surprised-looking Cain in his wake.

“Did I . . . miss something . . .?” Cain finally asked, still staring at the empty archway where InuYasha had taken his unceremonious departure.

“Oh, nothing,” Kagome demurred, innocently sipping her tea.

Cain nodded slowly though he still didn't look like he quite comprehended exactly what had happened.  In the end, he gave a curt shake of his head and continued on his way through the living room and toward the kitchen.

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 13, 2034:.

 

Straightening up after grabbing the two grocery bags out of the front seat of the SUV, Cain shouldered the door closed and shook his head.  There was a reason why he tended to hibernate in his mansion.  The brief trip to the grocery store had brought it all into focus very, very clearly.

He'd realized a long, long time ago that there were two kinds of people in the world at Christmastime.  There were the ones who could and did extend their good-will to everyone, including the little old woman with two heaping grocery carts—It'd be horrible, wouldn't it, to make the octogenarian stand in line to wait for her turn, just like everyone else?—and the ones who loathed good cheer and did their level best to ruin everyone else's moods within a thousand foot radius.  He'd run into both types: the woman who seemed to think that the world was going to end because Cain had first gotten into the express lane for fifteen items or less but had sixteen items, and the woman ahead of him in line who decided that the old woman with the two carts of groceries needed to go through the express lane.  In all actuality, though, the one person Cain really had felt sorry for was the kid behind the cash register who had to deal with both of those types all day, every day.

Well, with any luck at all, he wouldn't have to make another trip to the store before Christmas.  Because of his first failure in the kitchen, he'd run out of ingredients.  This time, however, he was a little wiser, and he'd bought enough to do a few trial runs of the cake, and with any luck at all, he would have enough to do the real cake on Christmas Eve, too.

He'd almost made it into the mansion when the sounds of laughter drew his attention.  Glancing over toward the side of the yard, Cain did a double take, his eyes widening as he spotted Bas, Morio, Mikio, and Gunnar, but it wasn't the boys that made him hurriedly set down the bags on the wide stone wall that wrapped around the porch, but the sight of his youngest son being chucked through the air that did it.

“Bas!  What the hell are you doing?” he demanded as he ran across the lawn.

Bas caught Evan—Morio had tossed him—and paused long enough to glance at his father before tossing Evan to Gunnar.  “He wanted to play catch,” Bas said simply, as though it were the most normal thing in the world.

Cain skidded to a stop and snapped his mouth closed as Evan's riotous giggling filled the air.  “Again, Gunnar!  Again!” he yelled between his bouts of laughter.

Gunnar actually looked mildly amused as he chucked Evan to Mikio, whose ear twitched nervously, but he seemed more steady than he had since they'd arrived.  He caught Evan easily enough and passed him on to Morio.

Letting out a deep breath, Cain gave a mental shrug.  “Just don't drop him,” he warned, “and if you do, don't leave a mark or your mother'll have your ass.”

“Okay,” Bas called after him as Cain turned to head back inside.

He stopped long enough to retrieve the bags he'd set down when he'd first seen the boys tossing Evan around before he let himself into the house.

“Is that for me?” Jillian asked, wrapping her hands up in her skirt and twisting her body from side to side in a bashful sort of way.

Cain chuckled and hunkered down to give her a kiss on the cheek as she tried to peek inside the bags.  “No, nosy.  You get your surprises on Christmas morning,” he reminded her.

She giggled and ran into the living room ahead of him, her little silvery piggy tails bouncing jauntily with each step she took.

“Welcome home, Zelig-sensei,” Gin said as she stepped off the stairs and hurried over to kiss him.  “How were the roads?”

“Not too bad if you're careful,” he told her with a smile.  “Planning on going somewhere?”

She wrinkled her nose and followed him toward the kitchen.  “Papa and Mama were going to, though.  They mailed their Christmas presents from Japan, and the mailman didn't bring the box out earlier.”

“Speaking of your papa,” Cain remarked as he set the bags on the counter.  “He's been acting a little strange, don't you think?”

She giggled and slipped her arms around his waist.  “He's fine,” she insisted.  “Maybe he's finally figured out just how wonderful you really are.”

“Yeah, don't hold your breath on that, baby girl,” he said with a decisive snort.  “Hell will freeze over before that happens.”

Gin rolled her eyes.  “It could happen,” she argued.  To Cain, however, she sounded dubious, too.  “Oh!  Ben called just after you left and wanted you to call him back.  He said it wasn't that important, though, so he didn't bother calling your cell.”

“All right,” he said as her arms dropped away.

“Don't forget to ask him if he's coming for Christmas dinner.”

“Like he'd miss a chance to have your cooking,” Cain stated as he grabbed a bottle of water out of the refrigerator.  “He's kind of a leech like that.”

“Be nice, Zelig-sensei.  It's the season to be jolly, remember?” she chided, her voice drifting back to him since she was already in the living room once more.

“Thought I was being nice,” he told her, following her into the room.

“Hmph,” she snorted as she straightened the cushions on the sofa.  “You haven't seen the boys, have you?  They've been a little quieter than normal . . .”

“Yeah,” Cain said rather absently as he scanned the stack of the day's mail.  “They're outside playing football with Evan.”

“Oh,” Gin said then giggled.  “That's so sweet of them.”

Cain grunted in response as he tore open a letter from the Maine Literary Society.  'Twas the season for donations, after all . . .

Kagome hurried into the room, adjusting a dark blue sweater over her slender hips.  “Are you sure that you don't mind if we borrow your car, Gin?” she asked.  “We won't be gone long.”

“Oh, no, of course not,” she replied.  “Take all the time you need.”

She laughed.  “Your father hates shopping, and he hates it even more here during this time of year.”

Cain wrinkled his nose, mostly because he'd just thought the same thing not too long ago.  Having anything in common with InuYasha Izayoi just didn't set well with him, after all.

 Kagome wandered over to the huge bay windows that overlooked the yard.  “Oh, there's Mikio . . . I was going to ask him if he wanted to g—Oh!” she exclaimed, leaning closer to the window.  “Gin?  The boys are outside tossing Evan around!”

“Tossing him around?” she echoed, obviously confused by her mother's statement.

Kagome nodded.  “Yes, as in, Sebastian caught him then . . . tossed him to Mamoruzen . . .”

 That got Gin's attention quickly enough.  Cain could feel the fabricated rise in the air when she darted past him to peer outside.  “Cain!” she exclaimed, hurrying away from the window to go stop the boys.  “I thought you said that they were playing!”

 Cain blinked and looked up from the solicitation letter in his hand.  “I said they were playing football with Evan,” he reminded her.

 Her mouth dropped open as color blossomed in her cheeks.  “Play—You didn't say that they were using him as the football!” she insisted.

“I did, too, and besides, he likes it,” Cain explained, sounding completely unimpressed with her obvious concern.  “Relax.  I told them not to drop him.”

“You told them not to—?  Cain Zelig!  That's dangerous!” she insisted.

Without another word, Cain watched as Gin, with Kagome close behind, hurried out of the living room and toward the foyer.

“What the hell was that all about?” InuYasha grumbled as he scowled at the slamming door.

“The boys are being a little rough with Evan, or so the women think,” Cain replied, turning his attention back to the mail in his slack hand.

InuYasha snorted, which, in Cain's opinion was pretty much all there was to say.  He rather agreed, even if he'd never admit as much out loud.  Gin had a habit of babying Evan, maybe a little too much, really.  Of course he couldn't blame her.  After all, Evan was her baby—or so she relished in telling Cain regularly.  Jillian was younger, and yes, Gin doted on her, too, but Evan?  'Pfft . . . And she thinks I hogged Bas . . .'

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 14, 2042:.

 

“Don't go anywhere, Bas.  I'll need you to sample this next cake,” Cain said as he stalked through the living room on his way to the kitchen.

Bas paused the video game he'd been playing with the three other boys, and all of them shot Cain what could only be described as horrified looks.  “You're still trying?”

Stopping abruptly to swing around and pin his son with a rather bored stare, Cain slowly blinked a few times before answering. “Of course I am,” he stated flatly.

Bas grimaced. “I've got one word of advice for you, Dad.”

“What's that?”

“Pillsbury,” the boy replied.

“Very funny,” Cain growled.

“Or two words,” Bas went on, obviously inspired.  “Betty Crocker.”

“Or a better word,” Morio chimed in, “bakery.”

“Shut the hell up, Bas,” Cain grumbled as he resumed his path toward the kitchen.  “Just don't go anywhere.”

And yet, it wasn't entirely surprising a few minutes later when he heard the mad scramble of pre-teen feet on the floor as they quickly hightailed it toward the front door of the mansion.   Cain sighed and shook his head as he grabbed the glass mixing bowl out of the cupboard beside the stove.

“Da-a-a-addy, whatcha doing?” Evan asked as he trotted into the kitchen.

“I'm making a cake, Evan,” he replied, his attention more on the ingredients he was gathering than it was on the child.

“I can make cakes!” he hollered, clapping his little hands happily.  “I get my stool!”

“Okay,” Cain agreed, only paying half-attention as he dug two cake pans out of the cupboard.

Evan scampered over to the two little footstools that Gin kept in a shallow nook nearby to grab the one that had his name painted on it in bright blue.  “Cakes, cakes, cakes!” Evan sang as he dragged it over.

“Ouch,” Cain said, yanking his left leg back when the boy inadvertently smacked the stool into his shin.

“I sowwy, Daddy; I sowwy!” Evan exclaimed, dropping the stool and wringing his hands nervously.

“It's okay,” Cain assured him, scooping him up and kissing his temple before settling the child against his hip while he continued to read the recipe.  “You're getting big, though, and you need to start watching what you're doing, right?”

Evan shoved his head deeper under Cain's chin.  “Right,” he agreed, his voice wavering and, Cain suspected, a little too close to tears.  Sometimes the boy was entirely too much like his mama.

He grinned and stopped long enough to pat Evan's back.  Of course, that wasn't an entirely bad thing, either, he supposed.  “All right, time to make the spice cake,” Cain finally said, giving Evan a little squeeze before setting him on the stool beside him.  “It's your mama's favorite.”

“Spice,” Evan repeated in his usual, ebullient manner despite the heightened brightness in his clear blue eyes.  “Cimamom, pepper, garlic . . .”

Cain winced.  “Yeah, I don't think that Mama would really like garlic in the cake,” he pointed out.

“Nuts!” Evan suddenly hollered, clapping his little hands again as he hopped up and down on the stool.

Cain put a hand on Evan's shoulder to stop the bouncing before the child took a header off the platform and landed on his head.  “What's the matter?”

“Mommy likes nuts!” Evan insisted.

“Yeah, she likes Daddy’s nuts, but we're not talking about that, Evan,” Cain muttered, mostly to himself as he turned his attention back to the recipe again.

“Yeah!” Evan giggled.  “Put Daddy’s nuts in the cake!”

Blinking, Cain shot his son a quick look.  “Uh . . . I think Daddy’s nuts are better off where they are.”

Evan’s little face screwed up in concentration.  “Where are Daddy’s nuts?”

Clearing his throat, Cain shook his head quickly.  “Never mind that, Evan.  You think I should add nuts?”

Evan clapped his hands, his wide grin back in place once more.  “Yeah!  Lots of nuts!”

Cain opened his mouth to gainsay the child but stopped as a thoughtful scowl surfaced on his features.  “Lots of nuts, huh . . .?  All right,” he finally agreed with a shrug.  “After all, how bad could that be?”

“And honey!” Evan hollered, gripping the edge of the counter and hopping up and down while Cain rifled through the cupboards for some pecans or something.  All he could find was half a large bag of walnut halves hidden away in the freezer, of all places.

Evan pulled himself onto the counter, tapping his feet against the cool marble, singing to himself as he watched Cain dump the butter, sugar, and a pint of heavy cream into the bowl.

“Zat, Daddy?” Evan asked, leaning in close as Cain turned on the hand-mixer.

“It's the cream, butter, and sugar,” Cain replied.  “Don't get your hair in there.”

Evan jerked his head up slightly.  “What's the cream?” he asked, his little face screwed up in a frown of concentration.

“The recipe says ‘cream, butter and sugar’,” Cain muttered, eyeing the gloppy mass in the bowl critically.  So far, it wasn't looking any better than his first attempt a few days ago, and it didn't make sense.  The butter wasn't doing much, and the mixer sounded like it was about to suffer a nervous breakdown . . .

Here we come a-waffling among the leaves so green  . . . Daddy?”

Cain turned off the mixer and grabbed a spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl.  “Hmm?”

“Why we eating waffles in the green?” Evan asked.

Cain blinked and glanced at his son then smiled just a little when what Evan had just sung registered in his brain.  “Waffling, huh?”

Evan giggled and clapped his chubby hands together.  “I like waffles!  Can you make waffles, Daddy?”

“Uh . . .” Then he shrugged, stepping over to the freezer and digging a couple frozen waffles out of the box.  Gin always spent her Sunday afternoons, baking up things to kept them on hand, since Bas tended to have a bottomless pit where his stomach should be.  Cain popped them into the toaster oven and set the timer.  “There,” he said with a grin at his young son, “you can have one in a few minutes.”

 Evan started singing again.  “Here we come a-waffling among the leaves so green . . . Here we come a-wand'rin' the fair to be seen . . . Daddy!  We're gonna have waffles at the Christmas Fair?”

Cain laughed outright at that.  Gin must've told the boy about Bevelle's annual Christmas Fair, complete with the hayrides, the silly kid games, the official opening of the open air skating rink in the center of town that was made over half of the parking lot at the civic building every year.  It would start tonight and last for the rest of the time leading up to Christmas with different events every night and culminating in the crowning of Miss Snowy Bevelle, but as far as Cain knew, there never had been waffles there, no . . .

“We'll see,” he replied with a good-natured shake of the head.  The timer went off, and Cain grabbed the toasted treats carefully, dumping a decent amount of maple syrup over them before cutting them up and handing Evan the fork.

Then he turned his attention back to the gloppy mess in the mixing bowl with a sigh.  Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if he could get rid of the lumps of what he suspected to be butter because it just didn't look like any of Gin's cake batters he'd ever seen . . .

“Maybe that's why they call it 'batter',” he muttered to himself.  “You've got to beat the hell out of it first . . .”

It was a little weird, though, wasn't it?  The stupid recipe gave measurements for everything but the cream.  Cain just figured that it was something that must have been standard, so he wasn't going to let it bother him too much.

“Mommy likes maple syrup,” Evan pointed out around a mouthful of waffle.  “We can put syrup in the cake, too!”

Casting the boy a quick glance, Cain gave a mental shrug.  It couldn't really turn out worse than the last attempt, now could it?  Besides that, adding just a little syrup wasn't going to do anything really horrible to it, right?  “Okay,” he agreed, uncorking the earthenware jug and dumping a good glug into the lumpy batter.

“More!” Evan goaded happily.

Cain poured a little more.

“Is there more words?” the boy asked as he pushed the empty plate away and thumped his feet on the counter.

“More words?” Cain echoed, raising his voice to be heard over the racket of the hand-mixer.

“To the waffling song!”

Cain laughed.  “Oh, uh . . . yeah . . .”

“Can you sing it, Daddy?”

 Cain considered that while he shut off the mixer and retrieved the necessary spices off the rack.  “Words, huh?  Let me think . . . Oh, yeah . . . 'Here we come a-waffling among the leaves so green, looking for the perfect tree to tap for sap within . . . to make syrup just for you and for your waffles, too . . . May God bless you and send you more waffles for New Year's, may God send you waffles for New Year's . . .'”

Evan exploded in a healthy round of giggles at his father's song.  “It's for waffles!” he crowed between bouts of laughter.

Cain caught him before he could topple off the counter.  “What do you think, Evan?  Look good to you?” he asked, tipping the bowl so that the boy could see into it better.

Evan's laughter slowly died down, and he leaned forward, hands on the counter, to peer into it.  “Whazzat?”

“It's the cake batter,” Cain told him.

Evan frowned in concentration.  “Nuh-uh!”

“Yuh-huh!” Cain argued.  “I even followed the recipe . . . sort of.”

Evan giggled again.  “No, that don't look like cake!”

Cain snorted.  “Pfft!  Like you'd know.  You're not even two yet.”

Which only made Evan laugh harder, of course.  “Dat looks like oatmeal!”

Snapping his mouth closed, Cain glared down at the contents of the mixing bowl once more.  Okay, so Evan had a point.  The little globs of butter kind of did give it the consistency of oatmeal, and with the spices and syrup added, it had a rather grayish sheen to it . . . “Maybe it'll taste better than it looks,” he muttered as he tipped the bowl to empty it into the cake pans.

 Dumping in half the bag of walnuts, Cain frowned and tipped his hand to empty the contents completely.  'Or maybe not . . .'

Jingle bells, Bubby smells, Jilli let a fart . . . Mommy laughed, Gramma gaffed, Grampa ripped the house apar—”

“Evan,” Cain interrupted before his young son could finish his other new song, “who taught you that?”

Evan blinked and stared at Cain for a moment then broke into a wide grin.  “Mowio.”

“Morio,” he repeated with a shake of his head.  He sighed.  Somehow, that just figured . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

 .:December 14, 2042:.

 

“Aw, man . . . my stomach hurts.”

Bas rolled his eyes and shot Morio a curt look as the four boys made their way along the thoroughfare.  “Serves you right for teaching Evan that stupid song of yours,” he retorted evenly.

Morio grinned then grimaced.  “I didn't know he was going to sing it to your dad,” he pointed out, clutching his stomach, and for a moment—only a moment—Bas almost felt sorry for him.  “Damn, I don't know what the hell he put in that cake-thing, but I don't think there was any cake in it.”

“Better you than us,” Gunnar muttered.

 Which was true enough.  They'd almost managed to get out the door after spending the entire afternoon outside in an effort to elude the cake-tasting.  Unfortunately, Morio had tripped against the table just inside the door, thereby alerting Cain to both their presence as well as their attempted departure again, and he'd caught them and ordered them into the kitchen.  Evan, though, was sitting on the counter, happily singing his newest Christmas carol—Morio's weird version of Jingle Bells—and Cain had figured that if Morio had time to make up stupid lyrics, then he had enough time to sample the latest Christmas cake, too.

It was gray, that cake.  Bas had never seen anything like it in his life, and didn't particularly want to know how his father had achieved that shade, either.

“I think it's food poisoning,” Morio groaned, gripping his stomach once more.

“Then go sit in the truck and rest,” Gunnar suggested.

“What if I throw up?”

“Then you'll probably have to hoof it home,” Bas grumbled under his breath.

“Hi, Sebastian.”

Bas blinked and turned, only to come face to face with one of the girls from his class, Brittany Englesworth, and her gaggle of friends.  Cute enough, with her dark brown eyes and curly brown hair, but one of her friends—Kaci—was the one who brought the slight reddish flush to his cheeks, instead.  “Uh, hi,” he replied, wondering if he sounded as stupid as he thought he did.

Her smile widened.  “Who're your friends?”

“Oh, uh, these are my cousins, Gunnar and Morio, and that's my, uh, uncle, Mikio.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Morio said with a broad grin that belied the stomach ache he'd just professed to suffering.

Gunnar inclined his head but said nothing.

H-h-hajimemashite douzo yoroshiku,” Mikio muttered with a slight bow, left ear twitching wildly, not that the girls could see it under the black bandana he'd tied over his head before they'd left the mansion.

The girls giggled at Mikio's very Japanese show of manners.  “What's that mean?” Marissa, one of the other girls, asked.

“It's a Japanese greeting,” Bas replied.  Mikio's cheeks reddened a little more.  He knew English well enough, sure, but he tended to get a little flustered, especially when directly approached by girls, so he'd likely forgotten to greet them in English.  It seemed to work well enough for him, though, if the expressions on the girls' faces meant anything at all.  Judging from the looks of them, they all seemed to think that Mikio was just adorable, including Kaci . . .

“Bas, you didn't tell me that American girls were so cute,” Morio remarked with a wolfish grin and without taking his eyes off the girls who started giggling and whispering to each other at the compliment.

“You never asked,” Bas muttered under his breath as he prayed that his cheeks weren't as red as he suspected that they might be.

“Aw, don't listen to him,” Morio went on with a conspiratorial wink.  “So which one of you is Bas' girlfriend?” he asked, raising his hand with the pinky finger up.

Mikio reached over and knocked Morio's hand down.  “Baka,” he grumbled, cheeks reddening on Bas' behalf, no doubt.

“Don't be stupid,” Bas hissed in Morio's ear, hoping that the girls hadn't heard him.  Their escalating giggles told him otherwise.

“Your hair . . . it's, like, white,” another of the girls—Traci Coltrane—remarked in a rather bemused sort of way.  “Did you bleach it?”

“One hundred percent natural,” Morio assured them, ignoring Bas' warning.  “Wanna touch it?”

On his other side, Bas heard Gunnar sigh.  “Bakayarou,” he mumbled under his breath.

To Bas' amazement, Morio's antics were actually working.  Even Kaci stepped forward to touch Morio's hair, though Mikio took a step back in retreat before any of the girls could get any weird ideas about him.

“Hey, Bas,” Jimmy Preston said as he swaggered over with a couple of sodas and handed one to his girlfriend, Marissa.  “Friends of yours?” he asked with a rather condescending nod toward the others.

Bas snorted and reminded himself that he was easily twice as big as Jimmy.  “Yeah,” Bas answered curtly, hoping that the guys—mostly Gunnar—didn't decide to take exception to Jimmy's tone.

“They're from Japan,” Marissa said with a giggle and a slight blush as she peeked over at Mikio once more.

Jimmy didn't miss the look, and Bas didn't miss the slight tightening  around Jimmy's mouth or the slight flare of irritation in his expression.  “Ahh . . . so soddy,” he said with a mocking bow as he glowered at Mikio.

“N-no problem,” Mikio replied without looking away from Jimmy.

Bas grimaced inwardly.  There was no way that the guys could possibly have missed that.  “Come on,” he said, turning to leave and tapping Morio on the sleeve.  The action must've made Jimmy think that he'd won whatever imaginary battle he had going on in his head, because he laughed.

“Don't be such a jerk,” Marissa growled, shaking off Jimmy's possessive arm.

“Aw, I was just having some fun,” Jimmy insisted.  “They knew it!”

“Right,” she shot back sarcastically.  “Why don't you go away?”

“Don't be such a crab,” Jimmy argued.  “Geez!  You're my girl, and—”

“And if a girl tells you to go away, then I suggest you do as she asks,” Gunnar remarked reasonably, a little too reasonably.  Bas stifled a groan.  Morio grinned.

“Who asked you, pretty boy?” Jimmy demanded, taking a moment to size Gunnar up and apparently coming to the misplaced conclusion that he could take him.

There was no change in Gunnar's expression, however, and, if anything, he might have even looked a little bored.  “I don't need to be asked about a question of common courtesy,” he replied.  “You, on the other hand, apparently do.  So, when someone tells you that you're being obnoxious, your options are to apologize or to excuse yourself .  Care to hear which one I suggest you choose?”

There was going to be a fight, one way or another.  Bas could feel it coming.  Unfortunately, he wasn't sure exactly how to avoid it, either.  It wasn’t that he was particularly scared of Jimmy.  Quite the contrary, really.  But the fact remained that Jimmy was also human, and if one thing had been drilled into his head over the years, it was that youkai and hanyou simply didn’t fight humans.  Jimmy stepped forward, hands balled into fists at his sides, his cheeks blotchy and red due to the embarrassment of having been so thoroughly called on the carpet.  Gunnar, however, wasn't one to back down, either, and while he wasn't one to go around picking fights, he was by no means a pansy, so if push did come to shove, Bas didn't doubt for a moment that Gunnar would do a little pushing back of his own.

“Will you stop it?” Marissa blasted as she stepped forward and planted herself between Jimmy and Gunnar.  “I swear, Jimmy, if you start a fight over something so stupid, I'll never, ever talk to you again, and I mean it!”

To Bas' surprise, Jimmy actually took a step back in retreat in the face of his girl's anger.  Marissa wasn't appeased, though, and a moment later, she spun around on her heel and stalked away.

Jimmy watched her for a long moment, an almost comical expression of disbelief contorting his features.  “Tch!” he grunted then took off after her, sparing just a moment to toss a fulminating glower over his shoulder at the boys before he sped up to catch her.

“Sorry about him,” Kaci murmured after a moment of silence following their hasty departure.  “Jimmy's always like that, but . . . but he really does like Marissa a lot.”

“It's fine,” Bas muttered, relieved that the fight he'd worried about wasn't actually going to happen, after all.

She smiled at him, and Bas tried to smile back.

“Hey, Bas!  Thought you were gonna meet us over by the rink,” Bas' best friend, Tom, grumbled as he strode over with another of their friends, Dave.

“Sorry about that,” Bas replied.  “Got sidetracked.”

“Oh?  Are you guys going skating, too?” Kaci asked.

“When they ever get around to opening the rink,” Dave remarked.

“That's what we were going to do, too,” she admitted with another smile, and for a moment, Bas had to wonder if she was actually smiling at just him.  “You guys mind if we tag along?”

“Oof,” Bas grunted before he could answer when a small but sturdy body barreled against his legs.

“Bubby!  I find you!”

Bas blinked and looked down, only to find Evan clinging to him, his little face upturned with a bright smile.  “Yeah, you did, runt,” he replied with a grin as he tweaked the bright yellow ball of yarn securely sewed to the top of his stocking cap.

“Oh, my God!  Is that your brother, Sebastian?” Brittany asked with a squeal.  “He's so cute!

“Uh,” Bas said with a shy little smile.  “Y-yeah, he is.”

Brittany knelt down on the balls of her feet.  “What's your name?” she asked.

Evan looked at her then up at Bas to make sure that she was all right.  He must've figured that she was, because he smiled a little bashfully.  “Evan,” he answered without letting go of Bas' legs.

“You're just a cutie pie, Evan,” she told him.

Evan giggled and hid his face against Bas' kneecap for a second.

“Evan, where's Mom and Dad?” Bas asked suddenly, frowning as he glanced around, scanning the crowd for his parents and unable to locate them right off.  Sure, he could feel them nearby, but . . .

“I want to find Bubby,” Evan replied.

“Good thing your father's tall,” Gunnar remarked.  Bas glanced at him, and Gunnar jerked his head toward the left.  Sure enough, there was Cain, hurrying through the crowd though he didn't seem overly concerned, and Bas figured that his mother was right there with him, even if he couldn't quite see her yet.

“Evan!  Sweetie!  You're not supposed to run away from your father and me like that!” Gin chided as she darted away from Cain and hurried over to Bas' side.

“I find Bubby,” Evan told her as she scooped him up to kiss his cheek.

“Bassie!” Jillian exclaimed as Cain drew up beside them.  She twisted herself in her father's arms and held out her arms toward her brother.  Bas took her and settled her on his hip without a second thought.  “Evan ran away!”

“He didn't run too far, Jilli,” Bas replied with a smile.

She giggled and settled her cheek against his shoulder.

“Aww, but you've got to come with us, remember?  Sebastian's going to go ice skating,” Gin reminded Evan.

Evan's smile faltered as he shot Bas a hopeful look.

“He can come skate with us,” Morio piped up suddenly and held out his arms toward the boy.  “Right, Evan?”

“He can?” Bas blurted before he could stop to think about it.  After all, it wasn't that the idea of toting Evan along bothered him as much as he figured it would have bothered his cousins and Mikio.  Well, not Mikio.  He wouldn't have cared, either, Bas figured.

“Girls love little pups,” Morio muttered, leaning in closer so that Bas could hear him.

Gin shot Bas a dubious glance.  “Oh, come on, Evan.  Leave the boys alone, okay?  We'll go get some peppermint candy!”

“Eh, let him hang out with the guys,” Morio insisted.

“Yeah!” Evan chimed in, “I wanna be a guy!”

Gin bit her lip and shot Bas another glance.  “Is it okay with you, Sebastian?”

Bas shrugged.  “Sure.  He's all right.”

“Me, too!” Jillian added, leaning away from Bas to give him her best smile.

He grinned.  “But you're not a guy,” he told her.

“Jilli tan be a guy,” she insisted.  “Pwease?”

“Okay,” Bas drawled.  “But you can't wear that bow in your hair.  Guys don't wear pink bows.”

No sooner had he said that than she yanked the bow loose and handed it to her mother.  “Jilli’s a guy!” she exclaimed happily.

Cain chuckled as Gin giggled and dug into her purse.  “Here, Sebastian.  In case you want to get some hot chocolate or something.”

Staring at the three twenty dollar bills that his mother had given him, Bas shook his head.  “We don't need that much,” he said.

“Don't be silly!” Gin insisted.  “What about all your friends here?”

“Come on, baby girl,” Cain said with a grin.  “Don't forget, Bas.  Meet us at the tree at nine, okay?”

Bas nodded as his father took his mother's hand and started to drag her away.  Gin waved over her shoulder as he tugged her back into the crowd once more.

Du-u-u-ude,” Tom breathed.

Bas glanced at him with a frown.  Tom looked like he'd just been knocked clean off his feet.  “What?”

“That was your mom?

“. . . Yeah,” he replied slowly.  “Why?”

Tom slowly shook his head.  “She's hot!

“Yeah, she is,” Dave added.

Bas snorted, deciding that particular comment didn't really deserve a response.  When he looked over at the girls, however, he blinked.  Every last one of them, Kaci included, was staring off in the direction that his parents had disappeared with the stupidest expressions on their faces.

“Oh, my God, he looked like a movie star or something!” Brittany murmured.

“W-wow,” Kaci breathed.

“Big wow,” Traci amended.

Huge  wow,” Shelly added.

Bas snorted in complete disgust.  So did Morio and Gunnar.  Mikio sighed.

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 16, 2042:.

 

 'If you found a bakery that would play along, I'll bet Gin would never notice if you bought a cake instead . . .'

Heaving an inward sigh as he headed toward the kitchen, Cain ignored that bit of unnecessary advice.  Besides, the latest trial run hadn't turned out too bad.  In fact, it had looked pretty good when he'd taken it out of the oven awhile ago just after Ben had arrived to discuss some tai-youkai crap.  In an effort to speed up the baking process, he'd turned the oven up, figuring that it'd be fine to bake it at a higher temperature and just take it out of the oven sooner.  Now he was just going to taste it to see if it was all right.

Stopping short when he rounded the corner, only to find Bas and Evan hunkered down on the floor, Cain crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow.  “What are you doing?”

Bas glanced up at him but didn't answer right away.  Evan, on the other hand, grinned at him and let out a round of giggles. “Bungles won't eat it, Daddy!” he announced happily.

Only then did Cain realize that the boys had cut a piece out of his cake, and it was in one of the dogs' dishes on the floor.  Bungles, the dog in question, was halfway across the room, cowering n the floor and whining softly, as though she was scared of something—probably the cake.

Cain snorted.  “Pfft!  Don't feed my cake to the dogs,” he grumbled, wondering vaguely if Bas hadn't had a talk with the animal to gain her cooperation in this little farce.

“Better the dogs than us,” Bas muttered, getting to his feet.  “C'mon, Evan.  Let's get out of here before Dad tries to poison us.”

“Poison makes you die!” Evan laughed.  “Daddy gonna make us die?”

“He's trying,” Bas replied, picking Evan up to expedite their hasty retreat.

“Get back here, Bas,” Cain called after him.  “We'll see whether or not it kills you.”

Bas mumbled something unintelligible as he hurried out of the room.

 Cain scowled at his retreating children as Evan waved over Bas' shoulder before turning back to stare at the dog bowl once more.  “It's not that bad,” he grumbled at Bungles.

Bungles whimpered in response and did a belly-crawl out of the room, too.

“Traitor,” Cain growled.

“Daddy, Jilli's hungry,” Jillian said as she skipped into the kitchen, her little piggy tails bouncing to and fro with every step.

“Oh?  You want a piece of cake?” he asked.

Jillian giggled and held up her arms to help her father in lifting her off the floor.  “Jilli likes cake!”

“Good,” Cain said, planting a loud kiss on her downy soft cheek and settling her on the counter.  “You want to try Daddy's . . .? Oh . . . well, that doesn't look good,” he mused as he stared at his once-nice looking cake.  The top that had been nicely rounded before was sunken in the middle.  Maybe there had been a tremor or something shortly after he'd gotten it out of the oven.  Did they have those in Maine . . .?

He sighed and frowned at the cake.  Bas had apparently dug some out of the middle for the dog, and underneath the top crusty part, the inner part had sort of seeped together.  All in all it looked pretty . . . “Gross,” he muttered, shaking his head with a sigh.  “Back to square one.”

Letting out another deep sigh, Cain turned around to gather more ingredients to start over again.

The sound of Jillian's crying, however, stopped Cain in his tracks.  True to form, it wasn't a loud sob; it never was.  It was more of a little squeak and the scent of tears.  “Hey, what's wrong?” he asked as he picked her up to cuddle her.

She sniffled and buried her face against his shoulder.  “Cake bad!” she whimpered between little sobs.

“Aww, Jilli, Daddy's sorry,” Cain said, patting her back and leaning to the side to grab one of Gin's pristine white dishcloths off the counter to wipe off Jillian's hand.  Bad, okay, but so bad that it would make his daughter cry?  He sighed yet again.  “Stop crying, and I'll throw it out; I promise.”

“It hurts Jilli's tongue,” she whined, sticking out said-tongue when Cain set her on the counter again and carefully wiped off her hands.

Cain grimaced and hurried over to grab a small slice out of the peppermint cake that Gin had made for him earlier.  Normally speaking, he didn't share his cake, not even with his children.  That he was giving a piece to Jillian spoke volumes about how bad he truly felt.   Slipping the piece onto a plate and grabbing a bright pink plastic fork, he set it beside her and rather clumsily wiped the tears off her little cheeks.  “Here you go, Jilli-bean.  Don't cry, okay?  And don't tell Evan or Bas that I gave you that, either.”

She smiled brightly at him—a disturbing contrast to the tears that still stood in her brilliant blue eyes.  For just a second, Cain couldn't help but remember the infant he'd held in his arms seventeen months ago—less than two years—as the warmth of the fabricated wind, both comforting and frightening at the same time—enveloped them both, as the woman who had struggled to give her life and ultimately to bring her to Cain for safekeeping, had smiled wearily and then disappeared, leaving him this precious gift, her daughter—a little girl that Cain now called his own.  He’d never known the woman’s name.  She’d carried nothing on her person, no identification at all.  But she’d brought Jillian to him just after her birth because she wanted to know that she would always be protected.

Of course, back then, Cain had been reluctant to ask Gin if they should keep her, and he’d actually started to look into potential parents for the infant girl.  Evan was only a few months old at the time, though, and Cain hadn’t thought that Gin would be willing to take on two infants at the same time.

He really shouldn’t underestimate that particular woman, however.  It was a lesson he’d thought he had learned years ago . . .

 Jillian, oblivious to her father’s sudden trip down memory lane, dug into the cake with gusto, and aside from an errant hiccup here and there, the trauma caused by sampling Cain's last cake effort seemed to have been forgotten.  Cain stood back and watched her for a moment before resuming his task of gathering ingredients—again.

It didn't make sense, did it?  After all, he'd followed the recipe each time, and for some reason, the cakes just never actually turned out well.  If he didn't know better, he'd swear that it was some kind of bizarre conspiracy or something . . .

And it still bothered him, didn’t it?  The directions said “cream butter and sugar”, but it didn’t give a measurement for the cream.  He felt like he was missing something.  Maybe one of Gin’s many cookbooks had something on it.  Maybe there was some universal measurement that he didn’t know about.

He’d just retrieved Gin’s red and white checked Better Homes and Gardens book off the shelf when Kagome strolled into the kitchen.  “Cain, have you seen InuYasha lately?” she asked without preamble.

Cain looked up from the cookbook and slowly shook his head.  “Uh, no . . . I just got out of a meeting with Ben a while ago.  Before that, I thought he was outside, sparring with Ryomaru.”

“Hm, okay.  Thanks,” she said with an easy smile—a smile that she’d passed on to her daughter.  The smile faltered, however, when she glanced down at the failed cake, only to do a classic double-take as she gingerly poked at the top with her index finger.  “Oh, that doesn’t look . . . I mean, it’s a little undercooked, isn’t it?”

Cain snorted.  “That was one of my better attempts,” he muttered, cheeks pinking slightly.

Kagome cleared her throat and slowly nodded.  “I . . . see . . .”

Making a face, Cain closed the book and shoved it aside before reaching for the butter and dropping the sticks in the bowl.  The sugar followed, and he was about to dump a pint container of cream in when Kagome’s voice stopped him.

“Your recipe calls for cream?” she asked.

Cain blinked and glanced at her.  “Yeah, but it doesn’t actually say how much.”

She looked a little confused.  “What do you mean?”

With a shrug, Cain nodded at the recipe card sitting on the counter.  “It says ‘cream, butter, and sugar’,” he replied.

Kagome stared at him for a long moment, her eyelashes fluttering slightly as she gazed at him, then down at the card and back again.  “Uh . . . O-o-o-oh . . . I see . . . Cain?”

“Yes?”

She cleared her throat.  “When a recipe says to cream the butter and sugar, what it means is that you’re supposed to beat the butter and sugar together until it’s light and fluffy.”

Setting the container of cream down, Cain frowned at Kagome.  “Then why doesn’t it just say to beat it?” he asked.

“Well, beating and creaming are two different things,” she mused with a gentle smile.

Letting out a deep breath, Cain nodded slowly.  “Thanks,” he said.

“Do you need help with anything else?” she asked, careful to keep her tone as neutral as she could.

“No, I think the rest of the recipe is pretty straightforward.”

She didn’t look entirely convinced, but she didn’t seem willing to press the issue, either, which was fine with Cain.  He felt rather stupid, never mind that logic told him that he really wasn’t.  It was an easy thing to have assumed since he’d never actually had to bake anything before.

“Look, Grandma!  Jilli gots cake!” Jillian announced proudly.  She was still working on the small piece that Cain had given her.

Kagome laughed and kissed Jillian’s head.  “Oh, that looks yummy,” she agreed.  “Do you want to come in the living room with me?”

Jillian shook her head.  “Jilli can help Daddy,” she decided.

“Okay,” Kagome relented with a smile.  “Cain, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”

He nodded as she left the room.  “Thanks,” he called after her.  “So what do you think, Jilli-bean?  You think that it’ll work out this time?”

Jillian nodded even though she likely had no idea what he was talking about.

Still, he couldn’t help but feel a little better.  Hopefully the cake would turn out better this time since he had that straightened out . . .

He took his time mixing the ingredients, and he had to admit that the batter looked a bit better than it had in the last few attempts.  It looked more like batter and less like glop, though he’d be lying if he said that he wasn’t a little worried about the whole thing.  He’d suffered way too many failures already not to.

Setting the mixer aside, he reached for a spatula to give the batter one last turn to make sure that he was satisfied with the result, only to blink when three raspberries flew over the side of the bowl and landed with a dull ‘plop’.

Jillian giggled.  “Raspberries!” she said.

“Oh, you think I should add some raspberries, I take it?” he asked with a little smile.

Jillian nodded.  “Jilli loves raspberries!”

“But this is a spice cake, not a berry cake,” he told her as he gave the batter a quick stir to coat the berries.

“More berries!” Jillian insisted, grabbing the white ceramic bowl on the counter that Gin kept the fruit in.

“I don’t know,” he drawled thoughtfully as Jillian tossed in a few more berries.

“Blueberries!” she suddenly exclaimed.

“There are no blueberries in that bowl,” he pointed out.

Jillian giggled.  “Mommy has blueberries in the freezer,” she replied, “for the muffins!”

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her that he didn’t think adding blueberries was a good idea.  Then again, they’d already added raspberries, hadn’t they?  What could a few blueberries hurt?

“Are you going to try this cake?” Cain asked, shaking out what amounted to a couple handfuls of blueberries.

Jillian carefully jabbed at the mixture with the spatula she’d confiscated while Cain was looking for blueberries.  “Yeah,” she said, concentrating on her self-directed task.

Cain chuckled and stashed the rest of the blueberries back in the freezer once more.  All in all, he felt rather good about this attempt.  Even if it didn’t turn out perfectly because of the added berries, it couldn’t possibly be worse than the others, now could it?

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 17, 2042:.

 

“Be quiet or you’ll wake him up!”

“You’re the one being loud.”

“You’re both going to wake him up, and even if you don’t, you’re not going to get an accurate measurement.”

“Don’t be so negative, Mamo-chan.  Have a little optimism, will you?”

“Just hurry up.”

It was too late.  With a grunt and sharply indrawn breath, Bas rolled over and sat up, blinking groggily as he frowned at Morio—or rather, at the tape measure in Morio’s hand.  “What are you doing?” he asked, the remnants of sleep still hanging onto him.

Morio broke into a goofy grin.  “Your dad,” he ad-libbed quickly.  “He wanted us to measure you to make sure that you’re not outgrowing your bed.”

Bas blinked again, his expression rather blank.  “What?” he finally demanded.

“Yeah!  See, he was worried that you were outgrowing it so he sent us up here to make sure that you’re not,” Morio went on.

Gunnar rolled his eyes.   Mikio heaved a sigh as he idly fingered his twitching left ear.

It had to be the lingering sleepiness that slowed Bas’ brain down enough that he actually looked like he was considering what Morio had claimed for about thirty seconds before scowling at his idiot cousin.  “What kind of crap is that?” he demanded.  “What are you really doing?”

Morio’s grin widened.  “Well, you know.  The truth is, we were going to measure your penis to see whose is bigger.”

He managed to hop back just quickly enough to barely avoid Bas’ swing.  Laughing like a lunatic, he stumbled when a well-placed hand in the center of his back made him step toward the bed—and right into Bas’ waiting fist.  “Ow-w-w-w,” he half-whined, have chortled.  “Damn, Bas!  Holy dogs!

“Get the hell out of my room, you little pervert,” Bas growled, flopping over and dragging the blankets over his head.

Mikio flicked a hand toward Bas.  Morio’s grin widened.  Carefully pulling the tape measure out of the plastic casing, he inched forward , figuring that it was now or never.  The trouble was, Bas had also bent his knees, so getting the actual measurement wasn’t going to be as simple as he’d thought, but he had money riding on that bet—and a new video game that he’d been itching to buy . . .

“All right,” Bas thundered, tossing aside the blankets and climbing out of bed faster than should have been possible, “what the hell’s going on?”

Morio laughed and stepped back, letting go of the end of the tape measure.  It retracted fast, the loose end snapping back and rapping him on the knuckles before it wound back into the case.  “Ow,” he hissed despite the idiotic grin on his face.  “It’s nothing!  I swear!  I just . . .”

One of Bas’ eyebrows arched as he crossed his arms over his chest.  “Just what?  Got a new tape measure and decided to measure everyone with it?”

Morio’s grin widened.  “Yeah, that sounds good!”

Bas eyed him for a long moment before snorting indelicately and stomping off toward the bathroom.

“That wasn’t nearly as bad as I figured it’d be,” Mikio ventured when the sound of the slamming door faded away.

“Told you it would never work,” Gunnar pointed out, pushing himself away from the wall where he’d been slouching.  “Baka.”

“Aww, I had to try,” Morio grumbled.  “Help me think of another way.”

Heading for the doorway, Gunnar shook his head.  “After breakfast,” he called back.  “I’m starving.”

“Mikio?”

“I’m hungry, too,” he said as he followed Gunnar out of the room.

Morio sighed, staring at the tape measure in his hand.  There had to be a way, right?  He was smart, wasn’t he?  He’d figure it out . . .

His thoughts were interrupted, however, but the very loud growling in the pit of his stomach that reminded him that he, too, was pretty hungry.

He caught up with Gunnar and Mikio in the living room.

“Ah, just the boys I was hoping to see,” Cain greeted them as they stepped into the brightly lit kitchen.

“Uh . . . Onii-san,” Mikio muttered, cheeks pinking as his discomfort spiked.

Cain grinned in his usual, friendly manner.  For some reason, however, it felt entirely ominous this morning . . . “Sit down; sit down.  Where’s Bas?”

“Taking a shower or something,” Morio said, shooting Gunnar a worried glance as the latter slid wordlessly into the breakfast nook.

“This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I said breakfast,” Mikio remarked as he frowned at the plate before him—and the hunk of cake that Cain had slapped onto a plate for him.

“Yeah,” Morio agreed, eyeing the ‘treat’ dubiously.  “I was thinking more along the lines of eggs and bacon or . . . or actual food . . .”

“I promise this one won’t be as bad as that one was,” Cain grumbled, cheeks pinking at the reminder that his first effort had been, well, horrible.

“Morning, Dad.  I—” Cutting himself off, Bas stopped short and started to backpedal when he saw the expressions on the other boys’ faces.

“Morning, Bas,” Cain greeted with a smile.  “Pull up a bench and try this for me.”

Bas looked cornered.  “Didn’t you make Jillian cry yesterday with your last one?” he asked rather dubiously.

Cain snorted and narrowed his eyes on his son.  “That one doesn’t count,” he grumbled.  “Besides, I figured out what was wrong with it, and this one looks good.”

Bas still didn’t look like he believed Cain entirely, but, seeing no way out of it, he heaved a sigh and shuffled over to the breakfast nook.  “Isn’t this like child abuse?”

“Shut up and try it,” Cain growled, thumping a plate onto the table in front of his son.

“I don’t know,” Mikio mumbled, staring at the piece in front of him.  “It still doesn’t look . . . right . . .”

Bas heaved a sigh but seemed surprised that the cake didn’t actually look, well, awful.  He seemed to debate it in his head for a minute, but in the end, he reached for the fork and stuck a piece into his mouth.

Cain jumped back a step when Bas bolted from the table.  Both hands over his mouth, he tore out of the kitchen as though the devil himself was hot on his heels.  Seeing Bas’ response to the cake, however, was more than enough for the other boys.  Before Cain could recover from his own surprise, the three of them made a break for it, leaving their cake on the table, untouched.

“What the fuck is wrong with them?” InuYasha grumbled as he stomped into the kitchen.

“No idea,” Cain replied, only paying attention about halfway.  He knew damn well that there shouldn’t be anything at all wrong with that cake.  He’d followed the instructions to the letter, hadn’t he?  He hadn’t even allowed any extra additions to it since the cake that he’d let Jillian toss berries into had turned out so mushy and all around gross that he hadn’t bothered to try it out on anyone.  But this one?

“Keh!  Why don’t you just give the hell up and make one of those damn paperweights for Gin, like you always do?” InuYasha went on as he scowled at the cake left sitting on the table.

“Because,” Cain said, stifling a sigh, “I made a promise to her.  She wants a cake.  I’m going to make her a cake.”

InuYasha snorted.  “If it don’t kill her,” he muttered.

“As if that’s what I’m trying to do,” Cain shot back.  “Anyway, I thought I had it this time . . .”

The last bit was directed more at himself than to InuYasha.  The latter must have thought that Cain was talking to him, though.  “It don’t . . .” he paused long enough to cross his arms over his chest, looking more irritated by the second.  “I guess it don’t look that awful,” he admitted grudgingly.

“Try it,” Cain said.

To be completely honest, he wasn’t entirely sure what he’d really expected.  In retrospect, he supposed that he’d figured that InuYasha would snort or growl or stomp out of the kitchen while letting everyone in the vicinity hear just how stupid he thought Cain really was.  To his utter shock, however, InuYasha stood there for a moment then made a face but grabbed Mikio’s untouched plate and fork, stabbing off a healthy sized bite and stuffing it into his mouth before he could think better of it.

And he chewed.

And chewed.

And chewed some more.

Whatever he really thought, though, was hard to tell.  The expression on his face remained a cross between irritation and a strange sort of blankness that Cain wasn’t used to seeing.  In fact, the only real change at all was the slight flaring of his nostrils, but that didn’t really tell Cain a thing, either.  After another minute of chewing, InuYasha swallowed once—twice—three times.  “Water,” he croaked before swallowing for the fourth time.

Cain strode over, grabbing a bottle of water out of the refrigerator and tossed it to him, wisely opting to remain silent until his father-in-law had drained the entire bottle and tossed it into the trash.  Jaws clenched so tightly that his cheeks bulged out slightly, InuYasha said nothing as he stomped toward the doorway.

“Well?” Cain finally asked, raising an eyebrow as he watched InuYasha’s hasty retreat.

The hanyou didn’t stop walking.  “Great,” he growled in his usual surly tone.  “Best fucking cake, ever.”

Cain stood there for a long minute, staring at the empty doorway, unable to make sense of InuYasha’s strange behavior.  “What . . . the hell . . . was that . . .?” he finally muttered to himself.  Come to think of it, InuYasha had been acting a little weird since they’d arrived, hadn’t he?  But this . . . This was just plain weird, if you asked Cain.  ‘Really, really weird . . .’

“Where’s the fire?” Ryomaru asked as he wandered into the kitchen.

Cain blinked and shook his head.  “Fire?”

“Hell, yeah.  The boys just took off out the front door like there was a fire or some shit,” Ryomaru explained as he yanked open the refrigerator and started rummaging around.

Cain snorted.  “Tried to get them to try my latest cake, and they acted like they were going to die,” he admitted.  “Don’t know why.  Your father said it was all right.”

Ryomaru stopped short and slowly peered over his shoulder at Cain.  “He did?”

Cain shrugged.  “I know.  Surprised me, too.  Figured he’d at least knock it, just because I made it.”

Ryomaru grunted and turned away from the refrigerator, letting it close on its own as he shuffled over to the counter.  “This it?”

“Yeah,” Cain said, pulling the plates off the table and moving over to the trash can to dump them.

Ryomaru frowned at the cake left in the pan for a moment then gave a little shrug as he dug a finger into the cake and took a bite.

And instantly spit it out again.  “Fuck!” he growled, tossing the bit into the trash before sticking his face under the water tap and sucking down a good gallon before he resurfaced for air.  “Balls, Zelig!  What the fuck did you do that for?”

“Do what?” Cain demanded, rolling his eyes.  Honestly, could it really be that bad?  Scowling at the last piece in his hand that he had yet to dump—Bas’ cake—Cain heaved a sigh and stuck a crumb into his mouth.  It was all he needed.  Instead of the cake taste that should have been there, it tasted like . . .

“What the hell did you do?  Dump an entire container of salt in there?” Ryomaru grumbled as he dried his face on one of Gin’s white towels.

Dumping that piece into the trash, too, Cain sighed.  Gin kept a container of salt on the counter right next to the sugar.  He must have grabbed the wrong one last night when he was mixing up the batter.  No wonder Bas had ended up running out of the kitchen . . .

“That aside,” Ryomaru went on.  “Guess it wasn’t too bad.  Texture was all right and all that.  Just get rid of the fucking salt.”

Heaving a sigh, Cain set the plates in the sink.  “Be easier if your sister had asked for a trip to the moon or something,” he grumbled.

Ryomaru chuckled and clapped Cain on the shoulder.  “Ain’t that bad,” he assured him.  “Give it another few years, and maybe you’ll have something edible.”

Cain watched Ryomaru walk out of the kitchen with a dark scowl on his face, wondering vaguely if Kagome would really miss that particular son, should he come up mysteriously missing.  Easy for him to laugh, wasn’t it?  He wasn’t the one staring down Christmas with no present for his mate . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O- 

.:December 20, 2042:.

 

“Mm,” Cain moaned, tightening his arms around Gin and refusing to open his eyes.

Gin sighed softly and snuggled closer.  “Nice, right?” she murmured, her voice muffled by Cain’s chest.

“Why don’t we just stay in bed all day?  Don’t think anyone would actually miss us . . .”

She giggled but made no move to get out of bed.  “Where’s Evan?” she asked since the boy was conspicuously missing.

“Are you kidding?  It’s Saturday morning.  He’s downstairs watching Power Puppies, I’m sure.”

“Oh, right!  I forgot that it’s Saturday!  Let’s see . . . Mama and I were going to make up the candies and stuff today and maybe bet a jump on the cookies . . . You don’t need the kitchen today, do you?” she asked, idly twisting her fingers in his hair.

Cain made a face.  She didn’t see it.  Five days till Christmas, and he’d yet to create an edible cake . . .

Bakery, Zelig.’

Shut the hell up.’  He sighed.  “No,” he replied.  “You know, I’m sure that your mom can handle that stuff alone . . . We could just hide out up here, and no one would be the wiser.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t feel right if I did that,” she mused.  “Besides, isn’t Ben coming over later?”

Heaving a sigh, Cain glanced at the clock.  He’d almost forgotten about that, and even then, he knew well enough that Ben’s visit wasn’t going to be pleasant.  Since he was coming over to discuss a case that had recently come to their attention and would likely end up in Cain’s having to issue a hunt order, it was a safe bet that the meeting was really the last thing that Cain wanted to deal with.

“Did you invite him over for Christmas dinner?” Gin asked, oblivious to Cain’s rapidly darkening mood.

“Uh, yeah,” he said, kissing her forehead.  “I did.”

“And?” she prompted when he provided no more information.

Cain rolled his eyes.  “He’ll be here, of course.  Did you think otherwise?”

“Hmm, maybe we should try to fix him up.  I met this really nice girl at the school the other day . . . She’s a new receptionist, and she said that she just moved here a few months ago.”

Cain snorted.  “Absolutely not, baby girl.  Don’t you dare try to set up Ben on a blind date.”

“Why not?” she asked, pushing herself up on her elbows so she could look him in the eye.

Cain leveled a knowing look at her.  “I’m sure that Ben’s perfectly capable of messing up his own love life, Gin.  No.”

She made a face, and for a moment, he thought she was going to argue with him.  In the end, though, she must’ve figured that it wouldn’t do any good—or she was trying to figure out how to do it without his knowledge.

“I mean it,” he warned for good measure.

Letting out a deep, dejected breath, Gin pulled away and scooted off the bed.  “You win, Zelig-sensei,” she grumbled, pushing open the closet and grabbing a cute little red and green plaid jumper dress.  “I would have thought that you, more than anyone, would want Ben to have the same kind of happiness that we have, but if you really don’t . . .”

He rolled his eyes but made no move to get out of bed.  “Give up, baby girl.  Ben would never come around here if you started trying to fix him up constantly.”  He considered that for a moment then chuckled.  “Then again, that might be a bonus.  Go ahead.  Knock yourself out.”

“You’re terrible!” she chided in as stern a voice as she could muster.

He chuckled.  “Hey, Gin?”

“Hmm?” she drawled, leaning on the bureau while she checked her reflection in the mirror that hung over it.

He frowned.  “Has your father been acting . . . weird . . . around you?”

That got her full attention.  Turning away from the mirror, she seemed surprised by his question.  “Papa?  No . . .”

“You’re sure?” he pressed.

Scrunching her face up in an exaggerated show of concentration, Gin tapped her chin thoughtfully.  “Now that you mention it, he almost complimented you yesterday.”

He quirked an eyebrow.  “He did?”

Almost,” she repeated then shrugged offhandedly.  “I mean, he said that maybe you weren’t as stupid as he thought you were.”

Cain snorted.  “I’d hardly call that a compliment,” he scoffed.

“You keep missing the ‘almost’ part of that,” she said with a giggle.  “And from papa?  That’s a pretty big thing, really.”

“Whatever,” he grumbled.  “Anyway, I’m starting to think that he’s either losing what’s left of his mind or your mother somehow managed to browbeat him into being nice.”

Gin rolled her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest.  “You make it sound like being nice is something terrible,” she pouted.

“From your father?  It’s creepy as hell, baby girl, no doubt about it.”

She sighed.  “Even if Mama did ask him to be nice to you, don’t you think that you should do the same?”

“You think I don’t?” he parried.

She didn’t look impressed.  “You like to pick on Papa just as much as Papa likes to pick back.”

“Well, there is that,” he agreed philosophically.

“Maybe you should get up and spend some time with Papa,” she suggested with a sudden burst of inspiration.  “I bet he’d like that!”

“About as much as I would,” Cain muttered under his breath.

“Oh, you could go for a walk or something with Papa before Ben gets here,” she suggested.

Cain pretended not to have heard her idea.  “Ben won’t be here for a while,” he pointed out instead.  “Don’t suppose you’d come back to bed, just for a little bit?”

“I’ll bring up a slice of cake for you,” she offered, ignoring his request.  “Do you want a nice, hot cup of coffee, too?”

“I’d rather have a nice, hot—”

“Behave yourself,” she cut in before he could finish his statement as a very vivid blush exploded just under the surface of her skin.

Cain heaved a longsuffering sigh as she hurried down the steps of the loft.  A few moments later, he heard the door close, and he sat up.

With any luck at all, he could get business finished quickly enough.  After that?

After that, you’d better try turning out a cake that doesn’t practically kill everyone who samples it.’

Thought I told you to shut up . . .’

Face it, Zelig.  You’ve got five days—five days—till Christmas.  If you don’t get that damned cake right . . .’

I know; I know,’ he thought with a scowl as he grabbed the first pair of pants he laid hands on in the closet.  ‘Merry fucking Christmas.’

That’s right . . . Merry fucking Christmas, indeed . . .’

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 22, 2042:.

 

“Aw, come on, Bas!”

“For the last time, no,” Bas growled as he stomped into the kitchen and plopped down on one of the barstools.

Cain closed the oven door and turned to eye the boys.  “What’s going on?” he asked.  Bas looked like he was ready to throttle his cousins—or at least one of them, anyway.

“You don’t even have to really do it,” Morio pressed.  “Just tell them you’re fifteen centimeters taller than you were last summer!  Easy!”

“And why would I do that?” Bas demanded.

Morio grinned.  “It’s for a good cause,” he insisted.

“Which is?”

The grin widened.  “Cafeteria Battle IV,” Morio said.

Bas rolled his eyes.  “That’s a stupid game,” he grumbled.  “Now for the last time, no.  Go play in traffic, Morio.”

“Bas,” Cain chastised, crossing his arms over his chest, “don’t tell him that.”

“Dad—”

“He’s the only one who might actually go do it,” Cain went on.

Morio laughed outright.  “Heck, there’s not enough traffic around here to bother.  Why don’t you guys move to Japan?  Tokyo’s a lot more fun than this place.”

Bas snorted indelicately and nabbed a cookie off the platter on the counter.  “Because, you idiot, Dad’s the North American tai-youkai, and he couldn’t be the North American tai-youkai if we lived in Japan.”

“Oh, yeah!  I never thought of that!”

Bas snorted.  “Go figure.”

“Aww, c’mon!  You’ve got to let me measure you!” Morio went on, much to Bas’ chagrin.  “O-ne-gai?” he added, drawing the word out as he smacked his hands together and bowed slightly.

“Not-on-your-life,” Bas responded in a fairly good imitation of his cousin.

Morio heaved a sigh, but he wasn’t quite ready to give up.  “Okay, well, you’re about that much taller than Mamo-kun—” he held up his hand, spreading his fingers and thumb apart to show a gap, “—and he’s probably grown about that much since the end of last summer, and back then, you were about this much taller than him, which means if I take Mamo-kun’s height now, minus his height back then plus the difference between your height now and your height then—”

“What the hell is he babbling about?” Gunnar asked baldly as he walked into the kitchen.

Bas snorted again but didn’t answer.  Cain shrugged.  “He lost me around the end of last summer,” he said.

Morio grinned.  “Let me measure you, Mamo-kun.”

Gunnar stuck out his arm, catching Morio by the forehead to hold him off.  “Forget it.”

Bas got up and headed toward the doorway.

“Oi!  Where are you going?”

“Outside,” Bas called back.  “Gunnar, do me a favor and kill him before you come out, will you?”

Gunnar grunted in response, shoving Morio back a step before following after Bas.

Cain watched the boys head outside with a shake of his head.  As much as Bas griped and complained, the boys were close—maybe closer than was healthy.  Then again, it was kind of nice, too.  Even though Bas didn’t live near them and didn’t get to see them as often as the others did, it was obvious that the four of them shared a very special bond, even if they wanted to maim Morio every now and then . . .

“So how tall is he?” Ryomaru asked as he got into the refrigerator for a bottle of apple juice.

Cain blinked and peered over his shoulder at his brother-in-law.  He hadn’t heard him come into the room . . . “Who?  Bas?  Don’t really know.  Why?”

Ryomaru paused in his downing of the juice to grin at Cain.  “I’m in on that bet, too.”

Cain stared at him for a few seconds before slowly shaking his head.  “Why doesn’t that surprise me?” he mumbled before another thought crossed his mind.  “Uh, hey . . . You wouldn’t happen to know why your father’s acting so . . . strange, would you?”

To his surprise, Ryomaru actually laughed.  “Noticed, did you?  Figured you would.”

“Yeah, so why?” Cain asked again.

Ryomaru set the container of juice down on the counter and reached for a cookie.  “Easy.  Mother wanted him to promise to be nice to you for their entire visit as a special Christmas present to her.”

Cain’s mouth dropped open as he gawped at Ryomaru.  InuYasha?  He’d promised that to Kagome . . .?  “Is that right?” he mused thoughtfully.

“She had to browbeat him into it, if that makes you feel better,” Ryomaru offered with a widening grin.

Cain snorted.  “Pfft!  And he thinks I’m stupid for promising to make Gin a cake . . . He’s a piece of work, that one . . .”

“Yeah, but it’s hella fun to watch him trying to control his mouth,” Ryomaru mused.

Cain finally grinned just a little.  “So did you promise Nezumi anything?”

“Keh!  Nez don’t need me to do anything like that,” he scoffed with an airy wave of his hand.  “I’m perfect, just the way I am!”

Snapping his mouth closed, Cain figured it’d be pointless to even try to remark upon that statement.

Ryomaru grabbed the bottle and shot Cain a wolfish grin before swaggering out of the kitchen once more, leaving Cain alone to ponder what he’d just found out.  ‘So . . . He has to be nice to me, does he . . .?  Interesting . . .’ Sucking in one cheek as he thought it over, he nodded slowly.  ‘Very, very interesting . . .’

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 22, 2042:.

 

Bas slowly sat up, ignoring the snow that had worked its way under the back of his coat.  Morio sat up beside him.  Gunnar was already sitting upright.  Mikio was the last one to push himself up, but at least he didn’t look like he was two steps from being ill anymore.

No one said anything about it.  The boys were used to it.  They all knew that there was something wrong with Mikio’s balance.  He’d had problems since they were little, so when Mikio had stumbled and ended up face down in the snow, the rest of them had followed suit, kind of making a game out of it.  “Damn,” Morio muttered despite the good-natured grin on his face, “it’s cold here.  No wonder you’re so big, Bas.  You’ve gotta be or you’d freeze to death.”

“Shut up, Morio,” Bas mumbled, cheeks pinking slightly.  He knew he was head and shoulders taller than everyone else his age or even a year or two older.  He really didn’t need to be reminded constantly.  Besides, if Morio hadn‘t tried to start the snowball fight that had distracted them from their task of building a giant snow fort, Mikio would have been fine—just fine.  “You okay, Mikio?”

Mikio nodded, and Bas was secretly relieved to see that Mikio’s normal color was returning.  Sometimes it was hard to remember that Mikio really wasn’t quite like the rest of them.  Other times, though?  Bas grimaced inwardly.  He’d been about to suggest that they stop for a breather when he’d noticed that Mikio was starting to look a little pale, a little grayish.  Before he’d been able to get his mouth open, though, Mikio had stumbled in the snow.

He intercepted the scowl on Gunnar’s face, the slight shake of his head.  Gunnar had mentioned earlier that Mikio had actually gotten angry enough to tell Morio to shut up when Morio had asked him if he was all right after one of his episodes.

“You know, I bet we could roll Evan into one big snowball,” Morio ventured at length.

Bas rolled his eyes, hooking his arms around his raised knees.  “Nah.  He squirms too much.”

“Or you could stand still so we can pack snow around you like a living snowman,” Gunnar suggested.

Morio grinned.  “You know, I told Mama and the old man that they should have a little brother for me,” he went on with a shrug.

“What’d they think of that?” Bas asked.

The stupid grin widened.  “The old man thought it was a great idea.  Mama sent me to my room.”

Bas blinked in surprise.  “I thought your mom liked kids.”

Gunnar snorted.  “He suggested it right after he got in trouble for ditching school to hang out with some girl.”

“It wasn’t just some girl!” Morio insisted.  “She’s an older woman!”

Mikio glanced at Bas and shook his head.  “She was twelve—hardly an older woman.”

Morio flopped back in the snow with a happy sigh.  “Ah, the lovely Keiko-chan . . .”

Gunnar snorted again.  “She dumped him the next day.  Guess she got in trouble for ditching school, too.”

“What’d you do all day?” Bas asked.

Pushing himself up so that he was leaning back on his hands, Morio laughed.  “What else?  We went to the movies and then to the arcade.”

“A real Cassanova,” Bas scoffed, pushing himself to his feet and stomping across the yard toward the snow fort they’d been building before Morio had started whipping snowballs at them.

Morio heaved a sigh.  “We’re never gonna get his height,” he mumbled under his breath after Bas was a safe distance away.

Mikio slowly stood up, too.  “If you hadn’t made such a fuss over it, you could’ve,” he pointed out reasonably.

Gunnar grabbed Morio’s sleeve when he started to rise.  “Give me the tape measure,” he said.

Breaking into a grin, Morio laughed.  “Oh, you think you can get it?” he challenged.

Gunnar didn’t bother arguing with him.  “Just give it to me,” he stated once more.

Morio shrugged and dug the tape measure out of his pocket.  “Good luck, Mamo-chan,” he said before running off to help with the snow fort once more.

Gunnar was the last to get up, and when he did, he almost smiled—almost.  Morio’s problem was that he tried to be sneaky in a direct sort of way when he ought to have known that there was no way in the world Bas would ever fall for it.  Gunnar, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly so stupid.

Pulling the end of the measuring tape out, Gunnar stepped over to the very large crater in the snow that was the exact size and shape of one Sebastian Zelig.

 

-O-O-O-O-O -

.:December 23, 2042:.

 

Yanking on the bowtie at his throat as he wandered into the kitchen for a bottle of water, Cain stopped short and frowned at the counter.  It was late—almost midnight—and as much as he hated to admit it, he was tired.  Something about being in public, even one of Gin’s Zelig Foundation events, was exhausting.  Every year, he tried to talk her into having the soiree a little earlier in the month.  It never seemed to work out though . . .

Evan shuffled into the kitchen, a doleful expression on his little face.  Cain blinked and stuffed his hands into his pockets, leaning back against the counter as he watched his young son struggle with the refrigerator door.  “Want some help?” he asked in a carefully casual tone of voice.

He shook his head, his shoulders drooping a little more as he scuffed the plastic bottoms of his dark blue footy-pajamas on the floor.

“You want to tell me what’s the matter?” Cain tried again.  “Were the boys mean to you or something?”

“No,” Evan whispered, his voice barely audible.  “Bubby played cars with me.”

Nodding slowly, Cain tried not to smile.  Sometimes the boy was so much like his mother that it was absolutely uncanny, and when he was pouting about something?  ‘Dead on,’ he thought to himself.  “You know, I can’t help you if you won’t tell me what’s bothering you.”

Evan finally turned to face him, a very solemn expression on his tiny face.  “I wanted to go,” he muttered almost sullenly.  “I gots a bow tie.”

Letting out a deep breath, Cain chuckled softly.  “Trust me, Evan.  You didn’t miss a damn thing,” he assured the child.

It didn’t do a thing to assuage him, though.  “But Mama looked beautiful,” he went on, shuffling his feet a little faster.

Cain’s smile widened at Evan’s choice of words.  “Beautiful, huh?  She was, wasn’t she?”

Unhappily, Evan nodded.  “I wanted to dance wif Mama,” he whispered.

Cain stared at Evan for a long moment, then finally pushed himself away from the counter, pulling his hands out of his pockets and holding them out to his son. “You want to dance with Mama,” he repeated.  “Come here, Evan.”

Evan reluctantly held up his arms, allowing Cain to scoop him up.  “Let’s go see if Mama still has her party dress on.”

Settling himself against Cain’s shoulder, Evan tucked his head under Cain’s chin as the two moved through the mansion.

Gin was heading for the stairs,  her hands working the clasp of the delicate white gold necklace she’d worn just for the evening.

“Baby girl,” he called after her.

She stopped and turned, her face immediately brightening as a warm smile surfaced.  “Well, there’s my big boy!” she crooned, leaning up on tip-toe to kiss Evan’s cheek.  “Are you about ready to go to bed?”

“Yeah, about that,” Cain went on.  “Would you mind leaving that dress on a while longer?”

Gin blinked, surprised by Cain’s request, and she glanced down at herself before giggling and reaching up to refasten the necklace once more.  “Okay,” she agreed.

Cain smiled.  “Just wait in the living room,” he told her as he stepped past her to head upstairs.

Gin’s soft giggle lingered behind them, but Cain didn’t stop until he’d stepped into Evan’s bedroom and set the boy back on his feet.

It only took him a minute to locate the burgundy garment bag in the back of the closet that protected Evan’s little tuxedo.  When Evan saw it, he hastily unzipped the onesy and shrugged it off.

The door opened, and Jillian shuffled into the room, yawning wide, rubbing her sleepy eyes.  Cain figured she was after her goodnight kiss,   When she spotted Evan, she blinked a few times.  “Oh!” she suddenly exclaimed, her eyes opening wide.  “Jilli, too!” she insisted, turning on her heel and darting out of the room again.

Cain stood back, letting Evan dress himself.  Sure, he’d have managed to do it faster with help, but Evan was at the age where he just wanted to do everything on his own.  Cain stifled a sigh.  Why did it seem like just yesterday that they were bringing the squirming little bundle of boy home from the hospital?

Evan did let Cain help him tuck in his shirt, though, and tie his shoes.  When he reached out to help him with the bow tie, however, Evan jerked sideways.  “I can do it,” he insisted.

Cain chuckled.  “Okay,” he agreed.  “Do you have your present for your date?”

Evan stopped, his fingers tangled in the ends of the bow tie, and stared at Cain for a moment.  “I get a present?”

“No, a gentleman gives a lady a present when he picks her up for a date, though,” Cain explained.  “Usually a flower or something.”

“But I want a present,” Evan said.

“You’ve got to wait till Christmas for your presents,” Cain told him.

Evan wrinkled his nose.  “I don’t gots a present for Mama.”

“All right,” Cain drawled.  “I’ll go see if I can find something you can give her while you finish tying that.”

Evan nodded.

It only took Cain a few minutes to run down the hall to the studio, and even less time to find what he was after.  By the time he got back, Evan had managed to tie the tie—sort of.  Cain handed him the ‘present’ then straightened out the tie.

“Reese’s peanut butter cup tree!” Evan exclaimed.  “Mama likes these!”

Cain chuckled and grabbed the soft brush off Evan’s bureau to run it through the boy’s hair.  “She does, doesn’t she?”

Evan nodded happily while Cain buttoned the top button of Evan’s tuxedo jacket.  “And Mama’s my date?”

“I’m sure she’ll be happy to be your date,” Cain assured him as he straightened up.  “You ready?”

“Yeah!”

Evan fairly ran out of the room but slowed down in the hallway. He seemed to like the sound of his shoes on the thin carpet, and he kept bending over slightly to watch his feet.

Smiling to himself as he followed along behind his son, Cain wondered why it was that he didn’t feel tired anymore.  Odd thing, really.  After all, he’d spent hours, smiling at everyone and making sure that Gin wasn’t too stressed out at the party.  It never ceased to amaze and disgust him, just how many men thought it was all right to put their hands on his mate, anyway.  Gin never seemed to notice, of course—a hand that lingered a little longer than it ought to in greeting or a chuckle that was a little warmer than it needed to be . . . Cain noticed; of course he did.  Luckily, most men tended to get the message when Cain would slip an arm around his wife, pull her a little closer against his side. Those that didn’t?  It irked him, sure, but he also knew damn well that Gin had absolutely no interest in someone else, and while a part of him would dearly love to smack those guys around, he also knew that he simply couldn’t, no matter how badly he wanted to.

Evan waited for Cain at the head of the staircase.  Cain hid his amusement at the slight anxiety on the boy’s face as he stared down those carpeted steps.  If he were barefoot, he wouldn’t have thought twice about tearing up or down them, but the shoes he was wearing made it a little slippery, and Evan had the sense to know it.  Glancing up at his father, he looked a little indecisive.  Cain supposed that on one hand, he wanted to ask Cain to carry him.  On the other?  That went directly against Evan’s belief that he was a ‘big boy’.

In the end, Cain held out a hand.  “Come on, Evan,” he said gently, taking the child’s left hand.  “Make sure you hold onto the banister,” he admonished.

This solution seemed to appease Evan, and, holding onto Cain’s hand on one side and the safety rail on the other, he descended the stairs.

Gin was sitting on the sofa in the living room between Bas and Gunnar with a video game controller held firmly in her hands and an expression of stark concentration on her face.  She was fighting Bas—and getting her ass kicked, judging from the looks of it.  “Oh!  No fair!” she cried as the announcer on the game proclaimed Gin’s character ‘K.O.’ed’.  “I’ll practice some more, and then you’ll see!” she warned, handing the controller to Gunnar.  He wasn’t exactly a video game freak, but he would play with his cousins when they pestered him.  Just now, however, he passed the controller over to Morio before turning his attention back to the book he’d been reading.

“All right, guys,” Cain said, stepping over to turn off the television.  “Go play that up in Bas’ room if you want.  Go ahead, Evan.”

Evan paused long enough to grin up at his father before dashing over to stand before his mother.  Gin giggled—she always did whenever she saw Evan in his little tuxedo.  “Oh, don’t you look handsome?” she crooned.

Evan pulled the candy out of his pocket and held it out to his mother.  “You can be my date!” he announced.

“Oh, did you get that for me?” she asked, gently taking the candy bar from him.  “Of course I’ll be your date, sweetie.”

“Evan was upset,” Cain explained over his head.  “He wanted to dance with his beautiful mama.”

Gin blinked seconds before breaking into a brilliant smile.  “Is that right?  Aw, I’d love to dance with you, Evan!”

“Aww, that so sweet,” Morio said with a goofy grin and a melodramatic sigh.  “So sweet I think I might vomit.”

Bas rolled his eyes and reached for the Sports Illustrated he’d abandoned when his cousins suggested playing video games.

Gunnar glanced up from his book, staring at Gin and Evan as Cain turned on the radio and found a station that was playing something soft and boring.  “I don’t think the man should be held like that while dancing,” he muttered since Gin had, in fact, picked Evan up to dance with him.

“It’d look weirder if she had to get down on her knees to dance with him, don’t you think?” Mikio added thoughtfully.

Cain just watched, hands in his pockets, a vague smile quirking the corners of his lips as he remembered that day so long ago, the day he’d danced with her in his arms, held against his heart as she tried so hard not to look tired.  Her hair was down back then, long and flowing around her like the breeze, and she’d been so much thinner—painfully so, in his opinion—and not nearly ready for the wedding she’d so wanted, but unwilling to wait another day, too . . . The same woman, the same smile, and the same feeling that he was wholly undeserving of such a rare creature yet grateful and humbled that someone, somewhere, thought that maybe he was . . .

A little tug drew him out of his reverie, and Cain looked down, only to find Jillian standing beside him, a shy little smile on her face as she let go of his leg and held out the pretty red velvet dress she’d put on all by herself.  The front of the dress was a little puckered and drawn, indicating that she’d had trouble with the buttons on the back, but Cain smiled, anyway.  “Don’t you look pretty?”

Jillian’s cheeks took on a rosy flush, and she giggled.  “Jilli can dance, too!” she said, her voice soft, melodic, just like her mama’s, even if Gin wasn’t her biological mother.

“You want to dance,” he said, unfolding his sleeves that he’d tucked up just after their arrival back at the mansion.  “All right.”

She waited patiently while he retied the bow tie and reached for the jacket he’d dropped over the back of a chair, and when he was finished, she held up her little arms, and Cain picked her up, settling her against his shoulder to dance with her.

“Let’s get out of here before we end up being forced to do that, too,” Morio muttered under his breath.  The boys stood up to leave, scooting out of the living room before they could be asked to join in.

Over Evan’s head—he was drifting off to sleep—Gin caught Cain’s gaze and smiled, her eyes suspiciously bright—almost as bright as the smile on her face.  He smiled back, hoping that she could see, that she’d know, just how much she meant to him . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 24, 2042:.

 

“It’s snowing bad out there,” Ryomaru remarked as he peeked out of the window beside the front door.

Cain peeked over his shoulder with a thoughtful frown.  “It’s not that bad—at least, not yet.”

“I don’t know, Dad,” Bas said with a shake of his head.  “It said on the news that we’re going to get a good foot dumped on us by noon.”

“Then it’ll be a good chance for you to practice your tracking skills,” Ryomaru replied.  “We ready yet?”

InuYasha snorted.  “If you’d have just gotten the fucking tree a few days ago,” he muttered, “we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

“It wasn’t Christmas Eve a few days ago,” Cain said, “and Gin likes to put our Christmas tree up on Christmas Eve.”

InuYasha muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, ‘damned baka’.  Cain rolled his eyes but didn’t comment on it.

“Oh, good!  I’m glad you haven’t left yet,” Gin said as she hurried into the foyer with a knapsack in her hands.  “Here, Sebastian.  You take this.”

He took the bag and frowned at it.  “What’s in it?”

She smiled.  “A couple thermoses of coffee and some cold roast beef sandwiches.”

InuYasha cocked an eyebrow, crossing his arms over his chest.  “What the hell do you think we’re doing?  Going camping?”

She giggled and kissed her father’s cheek.  “No, but sometimes it takes awhile to find the perfect tree,” she explained, “and it’s cold out there.”

He snorted.  “It’s a fucking tree,” he grumbled.  “How hard can it possibly be?”

“Daddy!”

Cain blinked and turned just in time to see Evan wobbling out of the living room.  His shoulder collided with the doorway, propelling him back a few steps, but he shook it off and tried to hurry into the foyer before the men left without him.  He’d managed to put on his snow pants and coat, and he’d yanked his hat down on his head—kind of.  It was a little lopsided.  “Wow, Evan,” Cain remarked with a grin.  “Your shoes are on the wrong feet, though.”

Evan stopped and slowly looked down at his feet.  He seemed to consider it for a moment, then he crossed his left leg behind his right.  “Now they’re on the right side!” he claimed.

Cain chuckled and shook his head.  “Okay, Evan.  If you say so.”

Bas sighed as he stared at his baby brother.  “Shouldn’t you be worried?”

“About what?”

Bas leveled a look at him.  “He just ran into the wall, Dad,” he pointed out, “and it’s not the first time he’s done that.”

Cain rolled his eyes and smacked his gloves against his left hand.  “He’s a year and a half old, Bas.  He’s fine.”

Gin called Evan’s name, and the boy turned quickly—too quickly—and he slammed right into the bottom of the banister.  Momentarily stunned, or so it would seem, he stood there for a moment then shook himself before throwing his arms around his mama’s legs with a happy little shriek of laughter.

“That’s not fine,” Bas maintained stubbornly.

“You know, he’s not the only child to run into something,” Cain remarked.

Bas tilted his head, his expression growing more dubious by the moment.

“If memory serves, you ran into the glass door before,” Cain went on, “and you were seven.”

Bas snorted.  “I wasn’t seven,” he grumbled.

Cain made a face.  “All right, you were almost seven.  Better?”

“That was Mom’s fault,” he maintained stubbornly.  “She’d just cleaned that door. I didn’t realize it was closed.”

Gin pressed her lips together, a flash of instant and acute guilt flickering over her features.  “Well, I did say that I was sorry for that,” she murmured.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” InuYasha growled.  “Can we just go do this or do you really have to stand around having a family pow-wow first?”

Cain sighed and wondered if anyone would notice if InuYasha came up missing during the tree search.  Kagome might.  Everyone else?  Probably not . . .

“Daddy!  I wanna go, too!” Evan hollered, squirming to get out of his mother’s arms.

Cain frowned, mostly because Gin had already told him that she’d rather that he didn’t take Evan with him, maintaining that it was part and parcel with the deal.  After all, Cain had ‘hogged’ Bas, or so she’d said, so it was only right that Evan should stay home and bake cookies with her.  Still, he also couldn’t help but think that Gin did have Jillian here with her, and he’d always told Bas that picking out the Christmas tree was totally a ‘guy thing’, and true, Evan was still very little, but so was Bas the first year they’d gone out to find a tree . . . “Well . . .” he drawled, casting Gin a contemplative look.

“Baby piggy,” she whispered to him.

Cain sighed.  There was just no winning against that particular argument, was there?  “Uh, buddy, why don’t you stay home with Mama?  She’s going to make cookies, and you love cookies.”

Evan thought it over.  “Gingerbread mans?” he asked.

Gin giggled and kissed Evan’s cheek.  “Yes, gingerbread men and chocolate crinkles and peppermint thumbprint cookies and peanut butter bites . . .”

Evan’s eyes grew large and round.  “Lots of cookies!” he breathed almost reverently.  “I make cookies with Mama and Gramma!” he decided, yanking the hat off his head.

Gin positively beamed.  “Be careful out there, boys,” she warned despite the smile on her face.  “It’s cold, and if the snow picks up, you  could get lost . . . Cain?”

“Hmm?” he asked as he tugged on his coat and reached for his scarf.

“If it gets too bad out there, don’t worry about the tree,” Gin said.  “We’ll figure something else out if we have to.”

He nodded and smiled, having no intention to come back without her Christmas tree.  All the same, he kissed her cheek, tousled Evan’s hair, and headed out.

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 24, 2042:.

 

“What about this one?” Morio asked for the millionth time since the men had set out hours ago to find the ’perfect tree’.

Bas stopped and eyed the tree critically.  “Too short,” he finally said, turning to move on.

Morio snorted.  “It’s not that short,” he argued.

“It’s a fucking tree,” InuYasha grumbled, stomping ahead of them all.  “Ain’t no one gonna notice much about it, anyway, once you stick all your crap on it.”

“Bas is right,” Cain insisted.  “That one was too short.”

“There!” InuYasha said, stopping in front of a slightly taller, much narrower evergreen.  “It’s tall, and it’s green, and it’s a fucking tree.”

Walking around it to inspect it from all sides, Cain refrained from comment until he’d finished his perusal.  “And it’s flat on that side.  Come on.”

“Who the hell cares?” InuYasha demanded, stomping to keep up with Cain.  “So you turn that side toward the wall!  Like anyone is gonna notice that one side is flat!”

“Gin will notice,” Cain maintained.  Glancing at his father-in-law, he let out a long sigh.  “Anyway, InuYasha, of all people, I’d have thought that you’d understand.”

“Understand what?” he growled, crossing his arms over his chest and looking rather miserable since he’d refused to wear a hat and had to keep flicking snow off his hanyou ears.

Cain shrugged.  He wasn’t entirely sure that he believed Ryomaru’s claim that InuYasha had promised to be nice to him during his visit.  ‘Maybe I should test that out . . .’ he mused.  “Understand how it is to do something like this.  It’s . . . it’s about more than just picking out a tree, right?  It’s about doing whatever I can do to make sure that Gin’s Christmas is the best one yet . . . about creating good memories that she—we—can cherish forever.  It’s about the love and devotion that comes with the goodwill and cheer of the holiday season . . . It’s about—”

“It’s about sounding like a Hallmark card,” Bas muttered, staring at Cain in a rather nervous sort of way.

Cain ignored Bas’ commentary and figured he’d twist the knife a little more.  “It’s about making promises to the one you love—the one you live for.”  He shrugged and slipped an arm around his father-in-law’s shoulders for good measure.  “It’s not just about the tree, you know?  It’s about the family that . . . that gathers together to embrace the spirit of Christmas.  That’s really the most important thing, don’t you agree, InuYasha?”

InuYasha stared at him for a long minute.  If his expression meant anything at all, he was trying desperately to quell the rapidly escalating desire to tell Cain just what he thought of his over-the-top mushy speech.  Either he’d forget his promise to be nice and therefore break the Christmas promise he’d made to Kagome, or he’d have to bite off his own tongue to keep from saying whatever he had on his mind.  Either way, Cain figured it’d be good for at least a chuckle or two . . .

In the end, InuYasha snorted.  Loudly.  Then he shrugged off Cain’s arm.  “Keh!  Just pick a fucking tree, will you?  It’s damn cold out here!”

Nice,” Ryomaru murmured as InuYasha stomped on ahead of them.  “Didn’t think you had it in you, Zelig, but I gotta admit, I’m impressed.”

Cain shot his brother-in-law a quick look before quickening his pace.  “Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said as the barest hint of a grin twitched on his lips.

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 24, 2042:.

 

“For you.”

Gunnar blinked and looked up from his book, only to find Jillian standing before him, holding out a large piece of paper with a bunch of scribbles on it.  “What’s that?” he asked, nodding at the paper.

Jillian smiled.  “Jilli draw you a picture,” she said.

“Oh,” he replied, taking the paper from her.  “Thanks.”

She giggled quietly then ran off.  Gunnar sat still for a moment then set the picture aside.

“Hmm, must means she likes you,” Bas remarked, nodding at the paper Gunnar had put on the coffee table.

“She’s all right.  At least she’s not as hyper as Evan,” he said.

“No one’s as hyper as him,” Bas countered as Gin hurried into the living room with a tray of cookies and eggnog and chattering away, about a mile a minute at Cain.  “Well, maybe she is . . .” he added, nodding in the direction of his mother.

Gunnar grunted.   “Just how much sugar did she eat?”

Bas shrugged as Evan streaked through the living room with his little plastic Power Puppy guitar—and no clothing, whatsoever.  “Not as much as he did.”

Watching the child out of the corner of his eye, Gunnar didn’t look impressed.  “That is why I’m glad my parents stopped after having me.”

“Never say never,” Bas replied with a grin.

Gunnar’s response was cut short by the beep of his cell phone.  “Aren’t you supposed to be studying?” he asked when he answered without bothering with pleasantries.

“You’d think that you’d miss me enough to at least say hello first,” Isabelle pouted.  “Anyway, I just called to say Merry Christmas to you guys.”

“Merry Christmas,” he echoed.  “Nice try, though.  So why did you really call?”

She laughed.  In the background, he could hear the click of computer keys.  He wasn’t nearly as good at talking on the phone and typing, but it wasn’t surprising to him that Isabelle was.  After all, she had perfected the art of multitasking long ago.  Honestly, he’d seen her carry on a conversation with one person while texting someone else while she was riding her bicycle.  She might even be able to chew gum and walk at the same time, too . . .

“That was the reason I called,” she chided.  “But since you’re on the phone, did you guys ever manage to get Bastian’s height?”

He rolled his eyes since he’d figured that it was something like that.  “Of course,” he replied, glancing at Bas to see if he’d overheard her question.  He didn’t seem to have.

“And?” she prompted when it became obvious that he wasn’t going to volunteer any more information.

Gunnar snorted since Isabelle’s guess was actually the closest.  “And you lost,” he lied.  He could wait till he got back to Japan to hear her gloat, anyway.

She heaved a sigh.  “I suppose you won, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” he replied simply.  “Yes, I did, and I already spent the money.”

“Figures,” she pouted.  “I suppose you guys are having a blast without me?”

“Don’t we always?” he parried.

Isabelle giggled.  “All right, then,” she said.  “See you when you get back.”

“Bye,” he replied, lowering the phone and closing the connection.

“Bitty?” Bas asked.

Gunnar nodded as he set his phone on the coffee table.  “She said to tell you Merry Christmas.”

Bas nodded.

Evan darted over and threw himself on the sofa with a hyper giggle.  Bas rolled his eyes and pushed him back off onto the floor.  “Go put some clothes on, Evan,” he warned.

Evan laughed harder.  “I’m naked!” he announced.

Shaking his head, Bas made a face.  “I know.  Now go put your pajamas on or Santa won’t come tonight.”

That got Evan’s attention quickly enough.  “Really?” he squeaked, his eyes growing wide.  “Really, Bubby?  No Santa?”

Bas nodded.  “That’s right, and if he gets here while you’re still naked, he’ll only leave you coal.”

Those wide eyes started sparkling in an entirely suspect way, and a moment later, the scent of tears assailed Bas’ nostrils.  “But I’m a good boy!” he wailed as the first tears started to fall.  “Mama said!”

“Then you’d better go get your pajamas on before Santa gets here, huh?” Bas continued.

Evan nodded and shot off the sofa and out of the living room.

Gunnar snorted.  “You’re going to go to hell for that,” he stated flatly.

“Pfft.  As if you wanted to see Evan’s ass,” he shot back.

He opened his mouth to say something, but he stopped abruptly when another thought occurred to him.  “Why didn’t your parents tell him to go get dressed?”

This time, Bas heaved a sigh.  “Mom thinks it’s cute when Evan starts streaking.  Dad doesn’t always seem to notice.”

That earned him a scowl.  “What’s that mean?  How can you not notice a naked runt, high on sugar, tearing through your house?”

Bas shrugged offhandedly and reached for a cookie.  “You’ve met Dad, right?”

Gunnar snorted.

“What about your dad?” Cain asked, leaning over the back of the sofa and nabbing the cookie out of Bas’ hand before he could stick it into his mouth.

“You could get your own,” Bas pointed out, reaching for the cookie and missing when Cain lifted his hand out of reach.

“You’re closer,” Cain maintained, biting the leg off the gingerbread man.

Bas rolled his eyes but reached for another cookie.  “Anyway, don’t you think you ought to do something about your little streaker?”

Cain blinked and shook his head, as though he couldn’t quite grasp what Bas was talking about.  “What streaker?”

“Evan,” he garbled around a mouthful of cookie.  Bungles grabbed the rest of the cookie out of Bas’ hand and took off before he could do anything about it.

“Oh . . . Was your brother naked again?”

Bas didn’t respond to that, but he did shoot Gunnar an ‘I Told You So’ look.  “Is Mom okay with the tree now?” he asked, grabbing a third cookie off the plate.

Stuffing the rest of the cookie into his mouth, Cain grimaced.  “She keeps trying not to look at the flat side,” he said after he’d swallowed, “and she’s failing miserably.”

Bas nodded.  He’d figured it’d come down to something like that.  After all, Gin tended to be very, very particular about the things that she allowed into the house, so it stood to reason that she’d notice that right off.  Cain had barely gotten the tree set in the stand when Gin had seen it, and if one were to ask Bas, he’d swear that his father was near smiling when he calmly explained that InuYasha had chosen the tree.

Which was a bit of a stretch.  A couple hours after the Hallmark card speech, InuYasha had apparently had enough, and when Cain had pointed out that one side of the tree was flat, he’d snorted loudly and cut it down anyway with his claws, completely ignoring the saw that Cain had brought along.  Bas was of the opinion that they should keep looking.  Cain, however, had insisted that cutting down two trees would be too much of a waste.

Evan ran back into the room, clad in fuzzy red footy-pajamas, but he still looked anxious, almost beside himself, and he barreled straight into Bas’ knees.  “I’m good now, Bubby, right?  Santa won’t bring me coal now, right?” he babbled.

Cain blinked and frowned.  “Huh?”

“Bas was terrorizing Evan,” Gunnar explained.

“How so?”

Bas shot his father a look.  “He was naked, remember?”

“Don’t terrorize your brother, Sebastian—at least, not on Christmas Eve.”

“Will you quit shaking the presents?” InuYasha growled.  Bas glanced over, expecting to see Morio nosing around since he’d been trying to get a good look at the largest present toward the back all evening.  It wasn’t Morio.

“Aww, lighten up, old man,” Ryomaru said.  “I wasn’t shaking the presents.  I was just making sure that none of them was a bomb or something.”

“A bomb?” InuYasha repeated.  “Are you stupid?”

Ryomaru grinned.  “You never know.  I mean, Zelig is the North American tai-youkai.  Maybe someone wants to off him.  What better way than to send him a bomb disguised as a Christmas present?”

“Twisted little monkey,” Cain muttered under his breath.

“You’re as bad as your pup,” InuYasha scoffed.

“For the last time, Ryo, that big present isn’t for you, anyway,” Nezumi remarked with an exasperated shake of her head.  “You’re not as bad as Morio; you’re worse.”

“Thank you, Mama,” Morio grinned.

She spotted her son, skulking around the back of the tree.  “But not by much,” she amended.

“You know, there’re a lot of gifts under there,” Mikio said slowly and without taking his eyes off the sprawling mountain of gifts.  “If we opened one apiece tonight, would it really matter tomorrow morning?”

“Oh, I know that trick,” Bas said.  “They’ll give you one to open, all right, but it’s always pajamas or something like that.”

“Or worse,” Gunnar added in a bored tone of voice.  “It’ll be one of those awful Christmas sweaters.”

Ryomaru snorted.  “Well, that’s just mean,” he huffed.  “Come here, Morio.  You can open this one.”

Morio ran around the tree and grabbed the package out of his father’s hand but stopped and shot him an droll sort of look.  “It’s for you, old man,” he said.

Ryomaru’s grin widened.

“No one’s opening anything tonight,” InuYasha grumbled, getting up off the chair near the fire and snatching the gift out of Morio’s hands.  “Baka.”

“Aww, come on, old man!” Ryomaru complained, trying in vain to retrieve the present that InuYasha had confiscated.

“Just wait till tomorrow, baka,” InuYasha growled.

“But it’s Christmas!”

“Not till tomorrow!”

Across the room, Kagome sighed.

“Gin will kick your asses if you break anything,” Cain raised his voice to be heard over the squabbling hanyou.

“Gin’ll have to get in line,” Nezumi muttered, crossing her arms over her chest as she frowned at her mate.

“This is getting kind of ugly,” Morio remarked with a stupid grin.

Bas nodded and slowly shook his head.  Gunnar watched the debacle with a rather bored expression on his face.  “This deserves popcorn,” Bas decided.

Gunnar glanced at him and nodded.  “Make a bag for me while you’re at it.”

 

-O-O-O-O-O- 

.:December 25, 2042:.

 

Cain yawned and stretched.  He could tell without opening his eyes that it was early.  The room was still dark, which was probably why the boys weren’t beating down the door to wake everyone up to open presents.

Opening his eyes long enough to glance at the clock, he sighed.  Nearly six-thirty in the morning?  It didn’t seem that late . . .

For a moment, he considered closing his eyes and going back to sleep.  Unfortunately, he’d been up way too late the night before, waiting until the boys finally passed out so that he could sneak the special ‘Santa’ presents downstairs.  He’d found them all in the living room.  Gunnar was sprawled out on the sofa while Bas, Morio, and Mikio were camped out with Evan and Jillian in front of the tree.  By the time he was finished with that, he’d remembered that he had to get Gin’s cake made, so he hadn’t actually gotten into bed until about three in the morning.

It was a little unfair, really.  The one night in over a year when Evan wasn’t in his bed, and he couldn’t savor it because he had stuff he had to do.

He’d left the cake on the counter to cool and figured he’d frost it before he gave it to Gin, and as much as he’d love to roll back over and go to sleep again, he knew that there was no way he could.

Carefully extracting himself from the warmth of Gin’s body curled around him, Cain slipped out of bed and pulled on the first things he found in the closet, and, after pausing to smile at his sleeping wife, he trotted down the steps of the loft and out of the studio.

The mansion was almost eerily silent as he moved on down the hallway toward the stairs—a far cry from how it had been for the last couple weeks.  He supposed it wasn’t often that he was awake before everyone else in the house, yet there was something altogether comforting about it, too.  Maybe it was the subtle feeling of warmth that only came when there were other people living in a place, and the more people who gathered under one roof, the stronger the sense of warmth.  It was a Christmas-y kind of feeling, he decided as he loped down the steps, his bare feet making hardly any sound at all.

He stopped short when he entered the living room, smiling vaguely at the mass of children sleeping on the floor.  At some point during the night, Gunnar had vacated the sofa and was lying on the floor near Bas, who still held the remote for the digital camcorder in his slackened grip.  The camera itself was set up and pointed directly at the huge fireplace nearby, the red light flashing lazily, indicating that it was still in the process of recording.  Evan slept, huddled against Bas on one side while Jillian cuddled against Bas’ other side.  Morio had his legs slung over Mikio, and all of them had blankets that someone had covered them up with at some point after Cain had gone to bed.

It didn’t take Cain long to erase a few hours of the footage—the first three hours of the recording.  It wouldn’t do, he supposed, to have them watch it and to see him sticking those presents from Santa under the tree.  He hadn’t realized last night that Bas was trying to catch the big guy, red handed.  He should have, though.  He had a feeling that Bas might not still buy into the whole Santa-thing, but he hadn’t asked, and even then, Cain figured that it was likely more Evan than Bas who had wanted to see Santa for himself.

That done, however, Cain lit the logs that were already arranged on the hearth then carefully stepped over bodies on his way to the kitchen.

He took a few minutes to start the coffee pot and to put on some water for Gin’s morning tea.  He’d just turned on the stove when the phone on the counter rang.

“Hello?” he said, grabbing the phone as quickly as he could so that it didn’t wake everyone in the house.

“Merry Christmas, Daddy,” Bellaniece’s voice greeted him.  “You sound more awake than I figured you’d be.  It’s what?  About seven there?”

“Yeah,” he agreed, a gentle smile on his face at the very sound of his eldest child’s voice.  “Wish you were here.”

He heard her sigh.  “Me, too,” she admitted.  “Kichiro already promised that we’d come next year.”

“Hmm,” Cain drawled, tapping his claws on the countertop.  “You get anything good this year?”

“Fantastic sex,” she quipped then giggled when Cain snorted loudly.  “Oh, did you mean presents?”

“There are some things your father still doesn’t want to know,” Cain remarked with a frown as a pair of slender arms slipped around his waist to give him a quick squeeze.

“It’s a natural part of life, Daddy,” she chided.  He could hear the amusement in her voice.  “After all, I’m sure you got some Christmas booty this year, too.”

“We’re not talking about me, and even if we were, there are certain things that Daddies don’t tell their daughters, either.”

She laughed.  “Okay,” she relented.  “Tell everyone I said Merry Christmas.”

“I will,” he promised.  “Love you, my lady.”

“You, too, Daddy.  Give the babies hugs from me.”

“The same,” he told her.  With a sigh, he hung up the phone.  When she said ‘babies’, he knew well enough that she meant all of her younger siblings—even if a certain one wasn’t exactly what he’d call a baby anymore . . .

“Mmm, this is so good, Zelig-sensei!” Gin said.

Cain turned in time to watch her take a bite of the cake she’d cut while he was on the phone, and he frowned.  It was already frosted?  Huh?

“Wow, you did a really great job!” she insisted as she stuck another huge bite into her mouth.  “Did you fib about not knowing how to bake?”

“Uh, well . . .”

“And the coconut gives it such an interesting texture!” she went on.

Cain blinked.  ‘Coconut . . .?

“Oh!” she exclaimed softly, setting the plate on the counter.  “I want to give you my present, then!  It might not be as wonderful as this cake, but maybe it’ll be all right!”

With that, she hurried out of the kitchen, leaving Cain alone.  He stared for a long moment then strode over to the counter where the cake was sitting, but it didn’t take him long to realize that it wasn’t the one he’d baked last night.

But . . . where was the one he had baked?

It wasn’t in the trash can, and it wasn’t in the refrigerator.  It wasn’t on one of the cake stands that Gin kept on the counter for the cakes she made for him, either.  It wasn’t anywhere, as far as Cain could tell.

Darting back into the kitchen with a large box in her hands, Gin giggled and handed it over to Cain before reaching for her plate once more.  “Go ahead,” she said before stuffing another bite into her mouth.  “Open it!”

He stared at her for a long moment, trying to decide whether or not to tell her that the cake she was eating wasn’t his gift to her.  The happiness in her expression, however, stopped him, and he carefully ran a claw under the tape on the back of the paper to open it, instead.

Wa-a-a-ait . . . You’re not going to tell her that you didn’t make that cake?’ his youkai voice demanded.

Let me open this first,’ he argued.

Well, you’ve got to tell her,’ the voice went on.  ‘You can’t mislead your mate like that!

I’ll tell her,’ he insisted, ‘eventually.’

‘. . . I don’t even think I know you anymore, Zelig.’

Okay, stranger.  Then shut up, will you?

Pfft.’

He set the paper aside—Gin had decorated it with her own fingerprints—and he carefully opened the box.  “Oh . . . Did you make this?” he asked as he carefully lifted the dark blue sweater out of the box.

Gin shuffled her feet, nervously watching him as he turned the sweater to look at the front and back.  “D-do you like it?” she asked a little breathlessly.

“Wow,” he said, setting it on the counter so he could pull off his shirt.  “It looks like one you bought at the store.”

“Y-you think so?” she asked with a giggle.  “It was nothing, but this cake . . .! You’re my cake fairy! Cain, I love you.”

He’d barely gotten the sweater tugged over his head when she threw her arms around him.  He sighed.  He really ought to tell her the truth, that the cake she thought he’d made wasn‘t the one he’d baked, at all . . . “Y-yeah, about that, Gin . . .”

“Mama!  Daddy!  Santa came!  Santa came!” Evan hollered as he barreled into the kitchen and straight into his parents’ legs.

Gin giggled and kissed Cain’s cheek before scooping up her son.  “Did he?  Wow!  We’d better go see what he brought you, huh?”

“Can Jilli open presents, Daddy?” Jillian asked, tugging on Cain’s pant leg.

He sighed but smiled as he picked her up.  “I don’t know,” he said slowly.  “Is Bas up yet?”

Jillian giggled and snuggled against his chest as he followed Gin into the living room.

A huge bang echoed through the room.  Cain blinked when he spotted Ryomaru standing over an armload of firewood that he’d brought in from outside.  The ruckus he’d created when he dropped the wood was enough to rouse the boys.  “What?  You guys haven’t even started opening presents yet?” he exclaimed with a goofy grin.

InuYasha stomped into the living room and clouted his son a good one.  “You scared your mother,” he growled as Ryomaru rubbed his head but laughed.

“Merry Christmas, Papa,” Gin said as she hurried over to hug InuYasha.  “Cain made me the best cake!  Do you want to try it?”

InuYasha snorted.  “I’d rather—”

“Merry Christmas to you, too, Gin,” Kagome interrupted as she hurried into the room and hugged her daughter.  “Did you finish that sweater for Cain?”

Gin didn’t answer, but she did turn to smile at Cain.  Kagome noticed the sweater and smiled, too.

“Oi, Nez!  This one’s for you,” Ryomaru said as he plopped a present onto his wife’s lap.

Nezumi rolled her eyes but smiled as she tore into the wrapping paper.

Cain set Jillian on her feet and chuckled as she ran off toward the tree.  Evan was already down and gone, and Gin slipped her arms around his waist.  He hadn’t noticed that she’d come back over to him again.  “They just keep getting better, don’t they?” she murmured as the sounds of ripping paper filled the air.

“What do?”

She giggled.  “Christmases.”

Cain smiled down at her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.  “They do,” he agreed, shoving the idea of telling her about the cake aside for the time being.  After all, he could tell her later, right?

 

-O-O-O-O-O- 

.:December 24, 2073:.
.:Bevelle, Maine:.

 

“That was your favorite Christmas?” Gin asked, leaning up to stare at Cain with a bemused smile on her face.  “Because of that sweater?”

He shrugged.  “You worked hard on it,” he reminded her.  “I mean, you made it for me.”

Her smile faltered, and Gin bit her lip, her ears twitching almost nervously.  “Y-yeah, about that sweater . . .”

“What about it?” he asked.  “I think I’ll wear that in the morning.  It’s in the closet, right?”

“Uh, Cain . . .”

“Hmm?”

She gave a half-hearted giggle and cleared her throat.  “I should tell you . . . I didn’t make that sweater, Cain,” she blurted, twisting her hands together in her lap.

That got his attention.  “What?”

She winced.  “I bought it . . .”

“Gin!”

“Well . . . I tried to make a sweater for you,” she hurried on to explain, cheeks bright red in acute embarrassment.  “I really did, but . . . But it was really hard, and I just couldn’t get it right, so the one that I made ended up looking like it’d fit about five of you at the same time, so I . . .” She bit her lip.  “I went to the store and found that one and . . . And I cut out the tags . . .”

Cain’s mouth dropped open at Gin’s admission.  “You . . . bought it . . .” he reiterated.

Her ears flattened, and she nodded.  “I’m sorry, Cain . . . I didn’t realize you put so much value in it . . .”

Cain frowned.  “I worked for weeks, trying to figure out how to make a decent cake,” he told her.  “And you’re the one who asked me to do it, and now you’re telling me that you bought that sweater?”

“I-I-I’ll make you another one,” she hurried on to say.  “I promise!”

He sighed but finally chuckled softly.  “It’s all right, Gin.  You tried, and that’s good enough for me.”

She finally dared to peek up at him through her thick fringe of bangs since she still refused to raise her head.  “You forgive me for lying to you?”

He smiled.  “Come here,” he said, pulling her back against his chest.  “It’s not the present that matters as much as the thought that went into it.”

Gin smiled, too, as she slipped her arms around his waist.  “You’re right, Zelig-sensei.  You’re so smart!”

Cain chuckled and kissed her forehead.  “Speaking of cake, I think I’m going to go down and get a slice of mine,” he said.  “You want anything while I’m in the kitchen?”

Gin shrugged.  “I don’t need anything, but if you wanted to get me a cup of tea, I wouldn’t say no to that.”

He nodded and headed for the stairs.

Gin sighed as she watched him go.  She really hadn’t realized that the sweater meant that much to him, had she?  At the time, she’d felt bad enough, but Nezumi had convinced her that it’d be all right.  After all, she had made the sweater for Cain, even if it had turned out badly.  But she hadn’t thought that he’d have said it was his best Christmas, ever . . .

The trill of her cell phone interrupted her thoughts, and Gin sighed once more as she reached for the device off her nightstand.  “Hello?”

“Hey, baby girl.  Just figured I’d call and wish you a Merry Christmas,” Ryomaru’s voice sounded on the other end of the connection.

“Thanks, Ryomaru,” she replied with a weak smile.  “How are things in Tokyo?”

“Aww, you know, same ol’, same ol’.  Zelig get you anything decent this year?”

“We haven’t opened presents yet.  In fact, it’s still Christmas Eve here.”

“That right?  Well, as long as you didn’t ask him to bake you another cake or something,” he scoffed.

“Cain did a great job on that cake!” Gin insisted with a frown.

Ryomaru snorted.  “Yeah, your dog thought so, too.”

She frowned.  “What’s that mean?”

Ryomaru chuckled.  “Went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and your dog was on the stool, eating that cake,” he explained.  “I guess that one at least wasn’t so bad, but the others he’d made?  They were nasty.”

Gin’s mouth dropped open, and she slowly shook her head.  “That can’t be,” she said.  “He gave me the cake in the morning.”

“Keh!  He gave you the cake I made in the morning,” he corrected.  “Felt bad for him—don’t tell him I said that.  He really did try, I guess, and it wasn’t his fault that the dog was hungry.  Anyway, it was late, and you guys were already in bed, so I baked up that coconut cream cake and left it for him.”

“Uh . . . Really?”

“Anyway, Morio got me the newest Turbo Fighter game, and he’s beating on me while I’m talking to you, so I’ve gotta go.  Merry Christmas, baby girl.”

“Merry Christmas,” she replied.

I worked for weeks, trying to figure out how to make a decent cake, and you’re the one who asked me to do it, and now you’re telling me that you bought that sweater?

She snorted indelicately as her frown deepened.  “Is that right, Zelig-sensei?” she mused to herself.  He’d made her feel terrible about having bought that sweater, and he’d given her a cake that he hadn’t made . . .?

I’m sure he has his reasons, dollface,’ her youkai voice chided.  ‘Just ask him.’

Gin wrinkled her nose.  ‘I’m sure he does,’ she allowed as she heard the door of the studio below open and close.  ‘I think I will.’

“We’re out of honey, so I put sugar in your tea,” Cain said as he climbed the steps.

Gin straightened her back and cocked her head to one side as Cain set her tea on the nightstand.

“I thought I heard you talking,” he said as he took a bite of cake.  “Were you on the phone?”

“Yes,” she said, squaring her shoulders as she lifted her chin a notch.  “I was talking to Ryomaru.  He called to wish us a merry Christmas.”

“Oh, yeah?  That was nice of him.”

She nodded.  “Tell me something, Zelig-sensei.”

“What’s that?” he asked, completely oblivious to the bomb she was about to drop on him.

“About that cake . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

~The End~

 

Chapter Text

~~Purity Oneshot~~
~Guerrilla Warfare~

 

-=0=-

 

“I heard she jogs through the park every afternoon.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

Thirteen year-old Sebastian Zelig—better known as ‘Bas’ to his friends and family—nodded slowly and turned his gaze out the window at the clear blue skies over the Maine coastline.  “The park.”

“I like the park!” Evan Zelig—the three year-old terror—piped up as he grabbed a hold of Bas’ arm and clawed his way up his brother’s back.

“Ouch, Evan . . . careful,” Bas grumbled but made no move to stop the youngster.

“Park, park, park . . .” Evan chanted in a sing-song voice.

Tom, Bas’ best friend, idly tossed a football into the air and caught it, rolling his eyes at Evan’s unrelenting chatter.  “Anyway, I gotta motor.”  Setting the ball on the counter, he shuffled toward the door but stopped short, casting Bas a calculated glance over his shoulder.  “Your, uh, mom isn’t around, is she?”

“Lay off my mom,” Bas grumbled, cheeks pinking with irritation since it was his considered opinion that Tom had an unhealthy preoccupation with his mother, Gin Izayoi Zelig.

“But I have to lay on her before I can lay off her, don’t I?” Tom complained.

Bas narrowed his golden eyes, and Tom relented, holding up his hands in mock surrender.  “Okay, okay!  You’re way too uptight about that, though . . .”

“Whatever,” Bas grumbled.  Tom took off.  Moments later, the front door slammed, and Bas heaved a disgruntled sigh.

Holly Bessemore.

Bas scratched his chest and pulled the refrigerator door open, grabbing the jug of apple juice off the top shelf.  He held it up, silently offering Evan a drink.  Evan ignored him, preferring to continue with his enthusiastic, “Park, park, park!”

Shaking his head, Bas shrugged and sucked down half the bottle before a light pinch on his side made him jerk away, nearly spilling the juice down his chest as he spun away from his mother’s probing fingers.  “Mo-om,” he complained, screwing the cap onto the juice once more.  “You’d have felt bad if I dropped Evan, wouldn’t you?”

“No drinking out of the bottle, Sebastian,” Gin chided, taking the bottle and sticking it back into the refrigerator again.  “Use a glass—and you wouldn’t drop your brother.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bas grumbled.  “But I could have . . .”

“Park, park, park!” Evan hollered, bouncing up and down to punctuate his words.

“Stop choking me, you little brat,” Bas gasped out, carefully digging his hands under Evan’s arm to loosen his brother’s death grip around his neck.

“Oh, maybe I’ll take you to the park this afternoon,” Gin said absently as she dug through the freezer trying to decide what to get out to thaw for dinner.

“Bubby take me to the park!” Evan insisted.  “Bubby, Bubby, Bubby!”

Bas made a face, pulling Evan’s arms apart to set him back on his feet again.

“Jilli likes the park, too,” three year-old Jillian Zelig said as she slipped into the kitchen and climbed onto one of the high barstools.  Hair pulled back into high piggy tails on either side of her head, she looked fresh and neat in a crisp, pale blue jumper dress.

Bas sighed, shaking his head slightly as he cracked a little grin.  “You want to go to the park, Jilli?” he mumbled, glancing at his mother to make sure she wasn’t looking before retrieving the bottle of apple juice from the refrigerator once more.

“Yeah!” she exclaimed quietly, pale blue eyes bright as a brilliant smile surfaced on her little face.

“Me, too?  Me, too?  Me, too?” Evan demanded, yanking on Bas’ hand.

“Yeah, yeah.  You, too,” he agreed.

“We can play football?” Evan asked cautiously.

Bas chuckled.  “Yeah, all right.  Go get your Nerf ball.”

Evan’s little face shifted into a concentrated scowl.  “You’ll play wif me?”

“Yes, I’ll play with you,” Bas agreed.

“You promise?  Just you ‘n’ me?”

Bas rolled his eyes but nodded.  “I promise—just you ‘n’ me.”

Like pals?”

“Yeah, yeah, exactly like pals . . . just go get your Nerf ball, will you?”

Evan’s smile was instantaneous and brilliant.  “Okay!”

“That’s so sweet of you, Sebastian,” Gin approved warmly, reaching up to pat her son’s cheek with a tender hand.  “Doesn’t mean you can drink out of the container, but it is awfully sweet.”

Bas grinned as Gin took the juice from him and poured it into a glass.  “Here, let me give you some money, but don’t go overboard with the ice cream . . . if they don’t eat supper tonight, I’ll know why.”

“Okay, Mom,” he agreed.  Jillian got to her knees and leaned over the counter as far as she could, snagging the glass out of Bas’ grip and wrapping both of her dimpled hands around it, draining the juice before Bas could protest.  “Care if I take the golf cart?”

Gin shot him a sidelong glance.  He could feel the lecture forming.  “Okay, but you know the rules: Evan and Jillian have to be buckled in, and you be careful!  I mean it!”

Bas nodded.  “Yeah, I know . . . I could always take your car . . .”

“Very funny, young man!” she scolded as she turned to face him, hands on hips as she slowly shook her head.  “You might not look like a thirteen year-old, but you are, and best you remember that!”

“You know, I doubt I’d get in much trouble if I did take your car,” he pointed out.  “I know how to drive.”

Gin rolled her eyes.  “Just because your father lets you drive doesn’t mean your mother will.  You’re not allowed to—not legally—until you’re sixteen—”

“I can get my permit when I’m fifteen,” Bas pointed out reasonably.

Gin wrinkled her nose.  “Which won’t be for another couple years—”

“Year and a half, tops.”

“Close enough.”

“At least you won’t have to run me to and from football practice,” he pointed out.

Gin giggled.  “I love taking you to practice.”

Bas stifled a groan since she normally did take him to practice—then she sat there and watched said-practice, yelling her head off whenever she disagreed with the coach.  Brought up in Japan, one would think that Gin Izayoi Zelig wouldn’t be as great a football fan as she was, but no . . . something about the bone crunching tackles and the general roughness of the game seemed to inspire her . . . Maybe it reminded her of the old man—InuYasha—as well as Uncle Ryomaru and Uncle Kichiro, two of her three brothers . . .

Evan sprinted back into the kitchen with his blue and white University of Maine football tucked under one arm with a clean, white U of M tee-shirt and shorts and matching baseball cap smashed down on his little head.  Jillian squeaked upon seeing Evan, all decked out in his U of M clothes, and she hopped off the stool, skittering from the room as quickly as her little legs would carry her.

“What are the odds that she’s not changing clothes?” Bas grumbled, planting his hands on his hips as he scowled at the ruckus of his sister on the staircase.

Gin laughed, rubbing Bas’ back in a consoling way.  “It’s so sweet of you to take them to the park,” she said once more.

“Who’s going to the park?” Cain Zelig asked as he shuffled into the kitchen.

Bas rolled his eyes as his father headed straight for the carrot cake with cream cheese frosting that stood on the raised cake stand in the middle of the counter.  “I want a piece of that,” he said, gesturing at the cake and knowing what the answer was going to be before he bothered to say it.

“Hmmm, I’ll think about it.  Ask me when this one’s gone,” Cain replied.

Bas grinned.  He didn’t really want a piece of the cake anyway, but teasing his father . . . that was always worth a chuckle or two . . .

“Cake, cake, cake!” Evan hollered, hopping up and down as he raised his arms to his mother, dropping the football on the floor in lieu of the forbidden treat.

“Maybe just a little slice,” Gin mused.

“Pfft!” Cain snorted, stuffing a huge bite of cake into his mouth.  “No.”

“But Cain!”

“Ith mine,” he pointed out around the huge mouthful.

Gin wrinkled her nose.  “It’s just a little bit,” she pointed out.

Cain shot her a raised-eyebrow-ed look.  “Sure it is . . . a little bit for Evan, a little bit for Bas, and then Jillian’ll come in here, see them having some, and she’ll want a little bit, too.  Before you know it, they’ve eaten all of my cake, leaving me with nothing . . . Forget it, baby girl.  There are some things in this world that can and should remain sacred.”

“But they’re your children, and you adore your children,” Gin pointed out reasonably.

“Sure, and yes . . . not enough to share my cake, though . . .” Cain muttered as he pulled the refrigerator open, grabbed the carton of milk, and proceeded to down it straight out of the container.

Gin rolled her eyes and gave up since the subject of sharing his cake just never made much of a difference to the North American tai-youkai.  “That’s where Sebastian gets it,” she pointed out solemnly—or at least as solemnly as Gin ever was able to manage.  “Use a glass, Zelig-sensei.

Cain snorted and kept chugging.  He only drank milk when he ate cake, and even then, he was the only one in the house including Gin who would willingly touch the stuff.  All the same, Gin always made sure that there was some in the house, though Bas figured that was because she sometimes needed it for cooking.

Bas rolled his eyes when Jillian skipped back into the kitchen once more, and she had changed clothes into the little cheerleading dress that Gin had bought for her birthday about a week ago.  “Jilli can go now,” she informed him, smiling sweetly as she held her dress out and turned from side to side for his inspection.

“All right,” Bas agreed, rinsing his glass out and setting it upside down on the clean white towel beside the sink.  “But you have to listen to me, you got that?”

Jillian nodded once—a grand gesture of acquiescence. “Jilli listens to Bassie,” she stated, her pale blue eyes wide and serious.

“You, too, Evan . . . When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.”

Evan didn’t answer, and Bas sighed.

“He’ll listen,” Gin assured him.   “Won’t you, my little angel baby?”

Evan smiled up at his mother before darting over to climb Cain’s back.  Slinging his arms around his father’s neck, he hung there, bracing his knees against Cain’s lower back and bouncing quite happily.  “Park, park, park!” he hollered.

“Gah!  You’re choking me,” Cain rasped out, pulling Evan’s little hands apart and holding onto his wrists.  “Little ape.”

Gin giggled, leaning on Cain’s shoulder to kiss Evan’s cheek.  “Be a good boy for your brother, Evan, and watch out for Jillian, okay?”

“Jilli, Jilli, Jilli!” Evan sang.

Bas rolled his eyes again and grabbed Evan around the waist, pulling him off his father’s back.  “Come on, if you want to go to the park,” he said, “before I change my mind . . .”

“Race, race, race!” Evan hollered, lightly slapping Jillian’s arm before taking off at break-neck speed in his haste to beat his younger sister to the golf cart parked in front of the Zelig mansion.

Cain tossed Bas the keys and leveled a look at him.  “Keep them out of trouble, Bas.”

Bas nodded, catching the ring in his teeth and spitting it out into his hand.  “Yes, sir.”

Gin smiled, leaning against the counter as she watched Bas stride out of the kitchen.  “He’s a good big brother, isn’t he?” she mused.

Cain shrugged.  “Sure.”

“Oh, the house is so quiet when they go,” she went on with a wistful sigh.

Cain stole a glance at his mate as the barest hint of a smile touched his lips.  “Quiet, huh?” he drawled as he crossed his arms over his chest, his smile taking on a more devious light.

Gin didn’t notice as she slowly shook her head.  “I don’t even want to think about what this place will be like in twenty years.”

“You know, baby girl,” Cain began slowly, grasping her elbow and turning her to face him.

“Hmm?”

“There’s still the matter of you trying to give my cake away.”

Gin rolled her eyes.  “Oh, Cain!  They’re your children!  They should be allowed to have some cake, too.”

“Maybe,” he said in a tone that bespoke his disagreement with that particular notion.  “Still, you make those cakes for me, remember?”

She giggled, leaning into him as she wrapped her arms around his waist.  “And the children are a part of you.”

He snorted.  “Pfft!  You’re my cake fairy, or did you forget?  Anyway, if it’s all the same, I think you should be punished for that . . .”

“P-punished?” she echoed, her breath catching as her eyes lit up at the challenge in his words.

Cain nodded slowly, letting his arms drop as he draped his hands on his lean hips.  “One.”

Gin’s eyes flared wide, and she held up her hands but didn’t try to run.  “But—”

“Two.”

“This is hardly fair, don’t you think?  I mean, come on, Zelig-sensei . . .”

“Three.”

She retreated a step and shook her head.  “Cain!”

“Four.”

With a tiny squeak, she carted around and dashed out of the room as Cain’s grin widened.  Shuffling after her, he took his time, figuring that maybe this once, he’d let her get to the bedroom before he caught her.

“Five.”

 

-=0=-

 

“Bubby’s too slow!” Evan goaded as he waved the football in the air between his chubby hands and wiggled his butt in a mocking dance.

Bas quirked an eyebrow and almost smiled at Evan’s antics—at least he’d stopped repeating one word over and over . . . “Better run, Evan,” he said as he sauntered over to intercept his sibling.

“Run, Jilli!   I frow it!  I frow it!” Evan yelled.

Glancing over his shoulder in time to see Jillian skip away, Bas chuckled.  Jillian wouldn’t catch the ball.  She never did.  Evan grunted as he hefted the ball heavenward, and Bas stopped, crossing his arms over his chest as he watched the ball sail over his head.  Jillian squealed, throwing her arms up to cover her head but stopped when the ball thumped onto the ground before scooping it up and skipping toward their ‘end zone’—in this case, the monkey bars.

Two long strides was all it took to intercept Jillian.  Scooping her off the ground, Bas tossed her over his head.  She screamed but laughed as he caught her, ticking her sides with his carefully curled knuckles as she kicked and shrieked helplessly.

“Tickle me, Bubby!” Evan hollered, latching onto Bas’ leg and tugging.

“Oh, yeah, you little runt?” Bas growled, setting Jillian on her feet before nabbing Evan as the child tried to dash away.  Evan growled but the effect was undermined completely when he screamed in laughter as Bas started tickling him, instead.  “Say ‘uncle’,” Bas insisted.

Evan giggled insanely.  “No-o-o!” he yelled.

Bas tickled more.  “You gotta say ‘uncle’.”

“Aunt!” Evan gasped out.

“Nope,” Bas replied with a chuckle.

Evan squirmed to gain his freedom to no avail as Jillian ran a few feet away to pick flowers.

“Whoa!” Bas exclaimed when the wiry child nearly slipped out of his grasp.  Evan dug his claws into Bas’ shoulder.  “Ouch!  Watch the claws!” Bas grimaced.

“Sorry, Bubby,” Evan said, the amusement dying on his features as his fine eyebrows drew together in a consternated scowl.  “Did you bleedin’?”

“‘Are’,” Bas corrected as he set Evan back on the ground and pulled the neckline of his tee-shirt to assess the damage.  Four little red welts but no broken skin . . . Bas smacked the bill of Evan’s baseball cap.  “Nope, no blood,” he said.

Evan didn’t look entirely placated, but he scrunched up his shoulders and shrugged.  “You wanna play catch now, Bubby?”

“Okay,” Bas said.  Evan let out a sound akin to a war whoop and ran off to retrieve the football again.  An insistent tug on his hand made him look down, and Bas shook his head as Jillian stuffed a sorry-looking bouquet of wilting dandelions into his fist before skipping off toward the sand box to play with some other little girls.

“Nice flowers.”

Whipping around as color infiltrated his cheeks, Bas smiled bashfully as Holly Bessemore stopped just behind him.  The light blue sweat suit she wore complimented her sparkling eyes, and she smiled back at him as she wiped her brow with the pushed up sleeve of the jacket.

“H-hi,” he stammered, crossing his arms over his chest and realizing too late that he still had a handful of dying flowers clasped in his fist.  “Uh . . . my sister,” he explained, holding up the bright yellow blooms with a slight grimace marring his features.

Holly giggled and waved her hand.  “That’s okay,” she said.  “I didn’t think I’d see you here.”

“Yeah, well . . . my brother and sister wanted me to bring them.”

Her smile widened.  “Your brother and sister?  That’s so sweet!”

“Bubby!” Evan said, a plaintive note creeping into his tone as he shuffled over with the Nerf football.  “You gonna play catch now?”

Bas shot him a cursory glance.  “Yeah, in a second, okay?”

Evan frowned, glancing from Bas to Holly and back again.  Tilting his head to the side, he scuffed his shoes in the dirt as he ambled toward Holly.  “I’m Evan,” he said matter-of-factly.  “Who are you?”

She spared a moment to smile at Bas before kneeling down, hands on knees.  “I’m Holly . . . I’m a friend of Bas’.”

“You’re a girl,” Evan stated.

Bas peeked back at Jillian.  She had her back toward him, and he dropped the flowers before turning to face Holly and Evan.

“And you’re a boy . . . a really cute boy,” Holly quipped.

Evan digested that for a moment then nodded.  “You wanna play football with Bubby and me?  You and me and Jilli because Bubby is bigger.”

Bas rolled his eyes but smiled, scratching his temple a little self-consciously as he caught Holly’s amused look and shrugged.  “I don’t know, Evan . . .” he began.

“I can play football,” Holly interjected.

“Yeah?”

She pushed herself to her feet and nodded.  “Of course I can!”

“Jilli!  Come on!” Evan yelled, tapping his foot impatiently.

Jillian stood up, brushing off her dress before skipping over and skidding to a stop as she blinked up at Holly before ducking behind Bas’ legs.

He chuckled.  “Come on, Jilli . . . this is Holly . . . she’s nice.”

Jillian peeked around Bas’ legs as though she were sizing Holly up.  She must have decided that Holly was okay, because she shuffled out from behind him and clasped her hands behind her back, twisting her body from side to side without moving her feet.  “I’m Jilli,” she said.

Holly giggled.  “That’s a really pretty name.”

“Can we play ball now?” Evan asked.

“Okay, okay,” Bas agreed.  “I promised I’d play with him,” he offered apologetically as Evan grabbed Jillian’s hand and darted off toward the open area in the center of the park.

She smiled.  “No, it’s fine . . . it’s nice to see such a dedicated big brother.”

“Yeah?”

She nodded as her smile took on a more timid air.  “Yeah.”

The game was a farce.  He’d figured it was going to be.  He also figured out that while Holly was a cheerleader and did attend every football game, she didn’t really have a very good grasp on the sport that he adored.  Still, did that matter when he’d had a crush on her for the last year?

No,’ he supposed as he shuffled after Evan to ‘tackle’ him.  ‘No, it really doesn’t . . .’

Running over between plays to drop her warm-up jacket over the back of a nearby bench, Holly dashed back with a jaunty wave at a gaping Bas.  She was wearing what amounted to a sports bra that barely covered her breasts, and as she waited for Evan to figure out just what he was going to do with the football, she rolled the waistband of her sweats down a couple times, revealing even more of her torso and leaving Bas with a drop-mouthed, rather stupid expression on his face.

She wasn’t well-developed, no, but by a thirteen year-old’s standards, she was fairly well-rounded, and it took Bas a moment to figure out that Evan had dashed past him with the football and was hollering from his place between the ends of the monkey bars.

“Bubby!” Evan complained as he stomped back over and stuffed the football into Bas’ slack hands.  Holly giggled, and Bas blushed, realizing a moment too late that she’d caught him staring.

Bas cleared his throat and forced his gaze away as Evan scrambled up his back, smacking him hard on top of the head and announcing in a very loud voice that Bas was officially tackled.  Bas shook his head as Evan dropped to the ground and swaggered over to Holly.  “I tackle him!” he stated proudly.  “I tackle Bubby!”

Holly giggled and shuffled her feet.  “Better luck next time, Bubby,” she quipped.

Bas chuckled and tossed Evan the ball.  Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jillian.  She was sitting in the middle of a patch of dandelions with an expression of the utmost concentration on her face as she tried to decide which one was the best choice to pick.

Evan tossed the ball to Holly, who managed to catch the ball for once.  Bas ran after her as Evan zipped past, heading over toward the monkey bars, waving his arms over his head.  “Frow it, Holly!” he hollered.

Holly stopped and looked as though she might well be considering it, but she squeaked and started running again when she saw Bas closing in fast.

He grabbed her, slipping his arms around her waist, his strength bearing her down into the grass, managing to roll just in time to take the brunt of the fall, and grimacing when Holly’s knee smashed into the ground uncomfortably close to his groin.  “Looks like you caught me,” she said, her voice breathless as her cheeks pinked.

“Yeah, I . . . I guess I did,” he agreed.

“I . . . don’t mind . . .” she admitted softly as the color in her skin intensified and the sparkle in her deep blue eyes brightened.

“You don’t . . .?”

She giggled, slipping her hands between them, bracing herself to lean back; to stare at him.  “N-no . . .”

“Bu-u-u-ubby,” Evan complained, scuffing the toe of his shoe in the dirt.  “Pla-a-ay.”

Holly’s eyebrows lifted as her smile turned a little teasing.  “Your brother wants some attention, or so it seems,” she pointed out.

Bas felt the blood wash into his cheeks, and he swallowed hard as he stared at the girl who wasn’t even trying to move away from him.  “Y-yeah,” he stammered as his face reddened even more.  “He’s like that . . .”

Levering herself off of Bas’ chest, Holly hopped to her feet and dusted her hands off briskly.  “Too bad . . . I was sort of hoping we could spend some time together.”

Bas was slower to rise.  “Hey, Evan . . . why don’t you go swing awhile?” Bas called without looking away from the cheerleader.

“I don’t wanna swing,” Evan grumbled, stomping his foot hard enough to raise a cloud of dust.  “I wanna play football!  You promised!

“That’s okay, Bas.  I should probably get going, anyway,” Holly remarked, striding over to retrieve her warm-up jacket off the bench.

“Good!” Evan chirped, lifting his hand to wave in a deceptively sweet way.  “Bye-bye, girl!”

Holly laughed.

Casting his gaze around wildly, desperate to keep Holly from leaving without breaking the promise he’d made to Evan in the process, Bas’ eyes widened when the music box trill of the ice cream truck’s PA drifted to him on the breeze.  “Want ice cream, Evan?” he asked, praying the boy could be sidetracked.  “Holly, wait . . . D-do you . . .  you wouldn’t . . . I could b-buy you some ice cream . . .”

She pondered his offer as she slowly slipped her arm into the sleeve of the warm-up jacket.  “I like ice cream,” she allowed slowly, her smile finally returning.

“Yeah?  Okay,” Bas said, unable to keep the absolute relief out of his tone and hoping that she didn’t hear it and interpret it as desperation.

“Jilli can have ice cream, too?” Jillian asked, tugging Bas’ hand as a wide smile illuminated her pale blue eyes.

“Yes, you can have ice cream, too,” Bas allowed, smiling at the endearing way Jillian always referred to herself.

“I want Marvin the Martian!” Evan hollered, dashing around Bas and Jillian in a wide circle.  “I want to bite his head off!”

Bas rolled his eyes but chuckled.  It was always the same with Evan: he always wanted a Marvin the Martian shaped ice cream bar, and he always wanted to bite his head off.  Come to think of it, Evan had actually gotten into a fist fight with a boy in his preschool class named Marvin, as well.  ‘Must be something about guys named Marvin,’ Bas mused to himself as he picked Jillian up and headed toward the parking area where the ice cream truck always stopped.

Evan hopped around on one foot, waiting impatiently in line while Jillian rested her cheek against Bas’ shoulder with her index and middle fingers stuck in her mouth.  Leaning back far enough to glance down at Jillian’s face, he chuckled softly when he saw that she was staring at Holly in a bashful sort of way.  “It’s not nice to stare, Jilli,” Bas muttered under his breath.

Jillian giggled and nestled her head deeper under Bas’ chin.

“Can I help you?” the man inside the gaudily painted bright orange truck asked, leaning on the little counter with his head sticking out of the window.

“Marvin!  Marvin!  Marvin!” Evan hollered.

Bas waved a hand at his brother.  “One Marvin the Martian ice cream bar . . . what do you want, Jilli?”

“Cup of white,” Jillian replied.

“One vanilla cup,” Bas went on.  “Holly?”

“Oh . . . um . . . a Drumstick?”

The man nodded.

“That’s it,” Bas said.

The man disappeared from the window to retrieve the ice cream.  Bas set Jillian on the ground and dug a twenty dollar bill out of his pocket, handing it to the man and taking the items from him in exchange.  “Here, Evan,” he said, tossing the unwrapped treat to the boy.  Evan caught it and took off running.  He liked to sit under the dome-shaped climbing apparatus when he ate his ice cream.  Holly took hers, and Bas held the ice cream cup out of Jillian’s reach while he took the change from the vendor and stuffed it into his pocket without bothering to count it.  “Hold on, Jilli.  I have to open it first.”

Jillian hopped after him as he strode over to the nearest trash can and pulled the paper cover off the little plastic cup.  “Here,” he said, handing her both the ice cream as well as the little wooden paddle.  She’d keep that paddle, Bas knew.  She had a gazillion of them in a box in her bedroom, and despite the fact that it had to be completely unsanitary, Gin Zelig never seemed to complain about her daughter’s odd habit of collecting the silly little things.

“You don’t like ice cream?” Holly asked, dropping the wrapper from her Drumstick into the trash.

“I like ice cream,” he remarked as he watched Jillian carefully set her ice cream on a picnic table and climb onto the bench.  “I just didn’t want any.”

Holly smiled, flicking out the tip of her tongue to lick the ice cream after nibbling away the waffle cone.  “You know . . . I’ve been watching you for awhile now,” she admitted, ducking her chin as a secretive little smile broke over her features.

“Y-yeah?” he asked, unable to keep the hint of a blush off his face at her softly uttered words.

“Yeah . . . You’re kind of different from other guys, aren’t you?”

Bas shrugged in what he hoped was a nonchalant manner.  “Not so different,” he countered, scuffing his shoes in the dirt.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said with a slow shake of her head.  “Most of the other guys are more interested in scoring with girls than anything else . . . You’re not like that.”

He almost grimaced at that since there was a very real reason why he wasn’t as forward when it came to girls: the embarrassing green crests that were painfully obvious on certain parts of his anatomy, for starters.  Add to that the incessant teasing he’d had to endure for the last couple of years when his body had started to change, and, well . . . Bas made a face.  No, as much as he liked Holly, he wasn’t at all certain that he was ready for anything very serious . . .

“Anyway, your brother and sister are just adorable,” she went on, not commenting on Bas’ sudden silence.  Whether she realized his discomfort or not was debatable, though he couldn’t help but be grateful for the sudden change in topic.

“Yeah, they’re not so bad,” Bas allowed with a self-conscious grin as he craned his neck to glance back at Evan, who had already managed to decapitate Marvin the Martian.

“I always wanted a brother or sister,” Holly went on with a slight shrug.  “Mom bought me dolls instead.”

“Jilli likes dolls!” Jillian announced happily, scooping the last of her ice cream out of the cup and popping it into her mouth.

“Jilli likes everything,” Bas countered.

Jillian giggled but didn’t argue his statement as she climbed down from the picnic table and leaned on the bench, rising onto her tiptoes so she could grasp the empty cup and the little wooden paddle.  She stuck the paddle into Bas’ pocket in passing before tossing away the trash and skipping off toward the nearby swings.

“So your brother has long hair, too?”

Bas stuffed his hands into his pockets and followed Holly toward a bench swing close to Jillian.  “Yep . . . My family’s kind of weird that way, I suppose.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen your dad before.”  She laughed, bracing her feet against the ground and pushing back.  “It’s amazing, just how much you look like him.”

“You think so?”

She nodded.  “Yes.”

“I guess so.”

Holly’s laughter died away slowly though the heightened brightness in her gaze didn’t diminish.  Staring out over the serene park, she looked like she was anticipating something.

He cleared his throat.  “So, um . . . you . . . do you like movies?” he asked quickly, unable to keep his face from reddening.  It registered in the back of his mind that the way he’d stated the question hadn’t sounded entirely intelligent, and he grimaced.

“I love movies,” she blurted as she shot him a quick glance.

Bas blinked and shook his head, positive he was hearing things, after all.  “Y-yeah?  I do, too.”

Holly giggled.

Bas sighed.  “I mean, if you like movies, and I like movies . . . maybe we could go see one . . . you know—together.”

“I’d like that,” she said quietly.  “I’d really like that . . .”

“Bubby play football!” Evan demanded, striding over to stand in front of Bas and Holly with a rather confused look on his face.

“Did you throw your stick away, Evan?” Bas asked, wondering how it was that his brother could inadvertently manage to interrupt at just the wrong time every time.

Evan jerked his head once in a nod.  “Trash goes in the trash, not in the grass,” he recited the words their mother quoted often, puffing himself up in a righteous stance as though he were imparting the gravest of secrets.

“Good.”

“Catch!” Evan insisted, chucking the ball at the center of Bas’ chest.

Bas caught it more out of reflex than anything else, and Evan giggled, hopping up and down while waving his arms in the air.  “Frow it to me!” he insisted.

Bas shot Holly an apologetic glance before tossing the football half-way across the park.

Evan hollered happily and took off after the ball, leaving Holly and Bas alone, at least for the moment.  “Maybe that’ll keep him busy awhile,” Bas mumbled.

Holly grinned.  “You think so?”

“In a word?  No.  Evan’s a little hyper.  It shouldn’t take him long to—oh, see?  There he is.”

Holly followed the direction of Bas’ gaze and laughed when she saw the pup running back with the football tucked neatly under his arm.  “I gots it, Bubby!” Evan hollered with a wide grin.

“Yeah, you did,” Bas agreed evenly.  “Toss it here.”

Evan did, and Bas had to lean forward to catch it.  “Here,” he said, hurling the football away once more.

“Okay!” Evan yelled as he careened around to chase it.

“I can’t believe how adorable your brother and sister are,” Holly stated once more as she watched Evan.  “They don’t really look like you at all, though.”

Bas shrugged offhandedly.  “I guess I look more like Dad,” he allowed.

“Oh, right . . . I saw your father at one of the meet the teacher nights . . . Fourth grade, if I remember right . . .” She shrugged simply.  “Guess I don’t remember seeing your mom.”

“Mom?  She’s always at the games and practices . . . Really short with long silver hair . . .”

Holly looked surprised.  “That’s your mom?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh . . . I just thought she was an upper-classman . . .”

“Ha . . . nope.  That’s my mom.”

“Wow.”

Bas blinked and shook his head, preferring to let the subject of his unnaturally young-looking parents drop.

You think that’s tough?  What do you think she’d do if you told her that your father’s nearly four-hundred years old?’ his youkai blood commented.

Shut up,’ Bas grumbled in his head.

Yeah, yeah . . .’

Wracking his brain for a change of topic, Bas latched onto the first thing that crossed his mind, hoping that Holly wouldn’t notice the abruptness.  “You remember that far back?  To the fourth grade?”

Holly nodded, her cheeks pinking as her gaze skittered away to stare at the ground.  “Yeah . . . that was the first year I noticed you . . .”

“Uh . . . oh?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

She giggled a little self-consciously.  “Anyway, I’m glad I saw you today . . . and I’d love to go to the movies with you sometime.”

“I-I-I’d like that, too,” Bas blurted, feeling his face warm under her close scrutiny.

If Holly noticed his discomfort, she didn’t remark on it, and Bas could only watch with his mouth hanging agape as she slowly, hesitantly reached out, placing her hand over his.  Her palm was warm and dry—a stark contrast to his since he’d broken out into a nervous sort of sweat when he’d first broached the subject of going on a potential date with Holly.

“Bubby, play, play, play!” Evan demanded, stomping over with the football tucked neatly under his arm.  Scowling at the two of them, he looked like was about ready to launch into a fit or worse.

Bas sighed.   “Evan, why don’t you go play with Jilli?”

The child wrinkled his nose as his expression turned mulish.  “I don’t wanna play wif Jilli!  You promised you’d play wif me!  You promised!

“I can play with you,” Holly offered, leaning forward, shoulders scrunched up with her elbows on her knees.

Evan shot her a suspect glance then smiled suddenly, trotting over and climbing onto the bench beside her then nudging her back with his head as he ferreted his way onto her lap.  “You can be my girlfriend!” he announced proudly.

Holly laughed.  “Can I?”

Evan nodded proudly as Bas narrowed his gaze on his demon-spawn sibling.  “Holly can come live wif me and make cake for me!”

Bas snorted.  “Yeah . . . Mom and Dad would love having someone else sleeping with them all the time,” he muttered since Evan, at three years-old, had still not outgrown that particular habit.

“Holly’s my girlfriend,” Evan stated loudly, resting his cheek against Holly’s shoulder, much to Bas’ irritation.  “Bubby go ‘way!”

“Aww, I like having him here,” Holly ventured, obviously enjoying the attention she was receiving from both Evan and Bas despite Bas’ wish that the ground would open up and swallow Evan whole.

“Bubby lied,” Evan stated solemnly.  “Bubby said he would play wif me, and he won’t.  That’s a lie, Mama said.  If you say you’ll do something and don’t do it, then that’s a big—fat—lie.”

“All right, come on,” Bas said, pushing himself to his feet and gesturing for Evan to follow him.

Evan thought it over for a moment, his little face scrunching up as he considered his options.  He must have decided that playing with Bas had more potential for enjoyment, and after leaning up to smack a loud kiss on Holly’s cheek, he wriggled off her lap and darted over to his brother.  “We can play hide and seek!” Evan hollered, waving his hands in the air in his excitement.  “Jilli!  Hide and seek, Jilli!”

Jillian looked up from her task of picking dandelions and dropped the handful she’d collected before skipping over to join the game, little silvery pigtails bouncing up and down as she trotted along.  “Bassie, it!” she proclaimed, tapping his hand as she darted past him.

“No peekin’!” Evan insisted as he grabbed Jillian’s hand and took off with her.

“Not so fast!  You’ll make her fall!” Bas called after Evan who slowed his pace so that he wasn’t dragging his sister along after him.  Bas shook his head and glanced over at Holly before slowly ambling back over to the bench swing and sitting down once more.

“Shouldn’t you be counting?” she asked.

Bas shrugged.  “Nah . . . I won’t have any trouble finding them.”

“Awfully confident,” she countered with a little grin.

Bas smiled, too.  He knew better than to try to explain it to Holly, after all, and Evan normally complained whenever they played hide and seek since Bas could and did use his nose to sniff out his siblings without any real effort.  Call it a perk from being born a dog-hanyou, at least, technically speaking.  Holly was a human, though, and Bas had been taught from early on that he could not go around arbitrarily telling humans about the youkai and hanyous in the world.  “It could be dangerous,” was all Cain had ever really said.  It had been enough of an explanation for Bas.

Holly scooted closer to him, casting him a somewhat calculated sidelong glance.  “Are you sure you didn’t send them off to hide just so you could have me all to yourself?” she teased.

Bas cleared his throat, tapping his right foot nervously as he hunched forward, staring at the packed gravel under his feet.  “W—I—uh—no!” he stammered.

“Oh . . . that’s a shame,” she went on lightly.  “I would have been rather flattered if you had.”

“Y-yeah?”

She nodded, sticking out her bottom lip and exhaling.  Bas grinned, watching as her bangs shot straight up in the air with the force of her breath before drifting back into place a moment later.  “Uh-huh.”

“Well . . . I . . . I kind of did,” he admitted.

Holly laughed.  “You’re a funny guy, Bas Zelig.”

He chuckled a little self-consciously.  “You have no idea . . .”

“I don’t know . . . I like funny guys.”

She leaned in closer—close enough that Bas could feel the heat radiating off her skin.  Her tongue darted out to dampen her lips as though her mouth had suddenly gone dry.  His had, for that matter, just moments after the natural ability to breathe disappeared . . . Closer and closer . . . his heartbeat sped up, hammering hard, erratically against his ribcage. 

“Bassie,” Jillian’s sing-song voice interjected.

Bas stifled a sigh and cleared his throat as he dragged his eyes away to look at his baby sister.  Standing before him with her fists curled around handfuls of her pleated cheerleader’s skirt, she twisted from side to side with a bashful smile on her cherubic little face and a light blush tinting her cheeks a dusty pink.  “What?” he demanded though not unkindly.

Jillian shuffled closer, casting Holly quick glances.  Bas couldn’t help the small smile that surfaced.  It wasn’t that Jillian was shy, exactly, but she tended to be a little reluctant when she first met people . . . “Evan’s hiding,” she said, leaning up on her tiptoes and cupping her hand around her mouth to whisper in Bas’ ear.

“Sure, he is,” Bas replied with a shake of his head.  “We’re playing hide and seek, aren’t we?”

Jillian shook her head, smacking Bas in the face with one of her jaunty pig-tails.  “No . . . he’s stuck,” she reiterated.

“Stuck?”

She nodded, her pale blue eyes wide and solemn.  “Stuck!”

“Stuck, where?”

“There,” she said, twisting her body as she lifted her arm to point at the branches of a very tall, very stout ash tree.  The closest limb was easily fifteen feet off the ground, and Bas stifled a groan as Holly shot to her feet, covering her mouth with both hands as her eyes flashed open wide, as her harsh gasp whistled in the air.

“I’ll get him,” Bas grumbled, pushing himself to his feet and starting toward the tree, wondering how many witnesses besides Holly there was going to be should he decide to maim his brother after he talked Evan down.

“Maybe you should call the fire department,” Holly fretted, wringing her hands in a decidedly nervous fashion.

“Uh, no . . . I can get him,” Bas grumbled.  ‘It’d serve the little shit right,’ he thought with a grimace, ‘if I called Dad to come get the little miscreant . . . after all, Mom and Dad were the ones who thought having Evan was a good idea . . .’

Sure, except your mother will be all upset that her ‘angel baby’ is stuck up in a tree, and you really hate to upset your mother.’

Bas snorted as he stomped around the trunk, trying to figure out if there was any way he could get the brat without making it seem obvious that he could do things that normal humans weren’t supposed to be able to do . . . ‘Shuddup.’

Evan cautiously leaned to the side, peering down from the branch where he was sprawled with his arms and legs wrapped securely around the limb and a completely freaked out look on his tiny little face.  “Bubby!  Help me!  I stuck!” he called down, his expression an almost comical mix of acute embarrassment and fear that might have made Bas laugh—if he weren’t so irritated with the boy.

“Evan!  Damn it!  Get down here!” Bas growled.

Evan’s arms and legs tightened around the branch, and he stubbornly shook his head.  “Help me!” he whined.

Bas could hear the tears thickening in Evan’s voice, and he sighed, raking a hand through his bangs.  “Okay, then jump,” he called up.  “I’ll catch you.”

The head-shaking grew more emphatic, and Bas had to tamp down the desire to growl in abject frustration.   That desire was exacerbated moments later when the salty smell of fresh tears infiltrated his nose.  “I swear I’ll catch you,” Bas said, hoping that he sounded calmer than he felt.  “I promise.”

Evan sniffled loudly, refusing to let go of the branch.  “You never keep promises,” Evan wailed miserably.  “You’ll drop me for positive!

“Damn it, you little ass monkey!  Just fucking drop already, will you?” Bas snarled, lifting his arms as Evan’s howling escalated.

“No-o-o-o!” Evan cried.

“Here,” Holly cut in, touching Bas’ arm in an entirely placating sort of way.  “I’ll call the fire department.”

Grimacing as the horrific thought of the screaming sirens of the local fire trucks as well as the absolute spectacle the entire situation would create, Bas shook his head again and drew a deep breath, willing away his rampant frustration—no small task, that . . . “Come on, Evan.  I’ll catch you, I swear—” ‘If I didn’t, Mom would kill me . . . she likes him for some ungodly reason . . .’  “—then we can go home . . . Mom’s probably about finished with dinner . . .”

“I want my mommy!” Evan bawled.

Bas could have kicked himself for bringing up their mother.  Shaking his head at Evan’s contorted expression, he heaved another sigh and dug into his pocket for his cell phone.  “Hold on, Evan.  I’ll call Mom and Dad . . . of course, they’ll decide that you’re too big a baby to go to the park anymore,” Bas went on under his breath as he wondered if that wasn’t really such a bad thing . . . Jillian was much easier to manage, after all.  Glancing out of the corner of his eye, he sighed again.  Jillian was pacing around under the tree, wringing her little hands as she stared up at the spectacle Evan was making.

Evan’s sniffling stopped abruptly, and Bas grimaced again when Evan sniffled loud.  “I . . . I can jump,” he blurted, obviously having heard Bas’ dire assessment.  “I jump,” he stated once more.

Holly’s hand tightened around the handful of Bas’ sleeve.  “Is that really a good idea?” she whispered, her face pale, her eyes frightened.

Bas shrugged.  “I can catch him,” he grumbled, brushing off the stab of irritation that she doubted his ability to take care of his sibling.

Holly winced.  “Yeah, but you’re used to throwing things, not catching them,” she pointed out.

Bas snorted, figuring that her comment didn’t even dignify a response.  Lifting his face, he pursed his lips together for a moment before shaking off Holly’s hand and holding up his arms.  “All right, brat.  Let go.”

Evan looked like he was going to chicken out.  Squeezing his eyes closed, scrunching up his face, his arms tightened a little bit before he forced himself to let go, slipping off the branch and plunging toward the ground.

Bas lunged forward, hitting his knees in the dirt beneath the branch, but he caught Evan easily enough.  The late realization that he was safe and close enough to being on the ground resulted in a fresh wash of sobs as Evan threw his arms around Bas’ neck and wailed, burying his face against Bas’ chest as his little body shook.  “It’s all right, Evan,” Bas grumbled, hating the spectacle that his brother was creating.  Strangers were stopping to stare, and every time Bas tried to pry Evan’s arms from around his throat, the boy’s sobs grew louder.  Bas rubbed Evan’s back rather clumsily while Jillian made soothing noises—a fair imitation of their mother.

“It’s okay, Evvie,” Jillian said, squatting down beside the brothers and shooting Bas an imploring look before frowning solemnly at Evan.  “Bassie caught you!  It’s okay!”

It seemed like it took forever before Evan’s wails trailed off into hiccups and stunted breathing, and with a tumultuous sigh that wracked his little body, he wiped his face on Bas’ chest and leaned away.

Grimacing at the mess of his once-clean shirt, Bas set Evan on his feet and slowly stood up.  “You better now?” he asked though not unkindly.

Evan wiped his eyes with balled-up fists and nodded.  “I’m okay,” he whimpered.

“Good.  No more trees, all right?”

Evan sniffled and made a face when Jillian threw her arms around him.  “You can play wif Jilli!” she announced matter-of-factly.  “Evvie and Jilli pick fwowers!”

“Football . . .?” Evan asked cautiously, peering up through the thick fringe of tear-spiky eyelashes to meet Bas’ gaze.

Bas sighed and nodded, deciding that in his current frame of mind that there was too good a chance that Evan would flip out again if he said no.  “All right,” he agreed, casting Holly an almost scared glance.  “You, uh . . . you want to hang out a little longer?”

Holly thought it over, her gaze darting to the side—toward home, Bas figured—before answering.  “For awhile longer,” she allowed, a timid smile brightening her eyes when she finally looked at him once more.

It was only then that Bas released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.  His arms and legs felt oddly wobbly as late relief surged through him.  Evan was hanyou—at least technically—of course, but . . .

But he was also a child, and fifteen feet would have been a hell of a fall if he’d hit the ground.  Then, too, Bas couldn’t help but be a little thankful that Holly hadn’t thought to wonder just how Evan had gotten up on that branch, to start with.  With any luck, the question wouldn’t occur to her, either . . .

He sighed.  All he wanted was a little time alone to talk to Holly.  Maybe he could find another way to distract his brother . . . Maybe . . .

 

-=0=-

 

The distraction didn’t last nearly long enough.  In fact, it hadn’t lasted more than five minutes, much to Bas’ chagrin.  It took him a few minutes to talk Evan into resuming the game of hide and seek, and after the first couple rounds, Bas let himself be ‘found’, giving him yet another opportunity to speak with Holly, one on one.

Evan gave up after five minutes when it occurred to him that Bas had dropped out of the game.  Then he’d crept up behind the bench where Bas and Holly were talking and started plucking hairs off Bas’ head.

“Knock that off, Evan,” Bas growled, reaching over the back of the bench to grab at his brother.

Evan was quicker, darting away before Bas caught him.  Holding his hands up on either side of his head, he stuck his thumbs in his ears, popped out his tongue, and, wiggling his fingers around, announced, “Nah, nah!  Bubby’s gots a big ol’ butt!”

“You little—”

Holly’s laughter cut him off, and Bas narrowed his eyes at Evan in silent warning before turning his attention back to Holly again.  “Maybe I should be glad I don’t have a little brother,” Holly teased with a wink.

Bas grunted, cheeks pinking as he checked his watch and stifled a sigh.  “Yeah . . . he can be a regular pest.”

“Bubby play football with me!” Evan stated loudly, stomping his feet in the grass.  “Football, football, football . . .”

Holly giggled and stood up.  “Anyway, I’d better get going . . . maybe you can give me a call sometime?”

“I can call you!” Evan interjected, dashing over to grab Holly’s hand and tugging on her arm.

“Knock it off, you pest,” Bas grumbled, reaching for Evan’s arm.  “We’ve got to get going, too.”

Evan’s face shifted into an angry scowl, and he shook his head before jerking away from Bas.  “We didn’t get to play football,” he protested.

“Yes, we did,” Bas reminded him.  “We played football for awhile.  It’s time to go now.  Come on.”

“No!” Evan shouted, retreating even further.  “Not until we play football!”

What are the odds that I could convince Mom and Dad that they just thought they had another son?’ Bas wondered, unable to staunch the frustrated growl that welled up in his throat as Evan turned on his heel and darted away toward the hulking wooden jungle gym in the middle of the park.

“Uh, would you mind keeping an eye on Jilli for a minute?” Bas asked, making a mental list of ways he could potentially get rid of Evan permanently without having to suffer the consequences.

Holly nodded.  “O-okay,” she agreed, raising her voice since Bas hadn’t really waited for an answer before taking off after his errant brother.

Evan glanced over his shoulder in time to see Bas giving chase, and like a streak, he climbed the steps onto the platform high overhead.  He could take the fireman’s pole down to the ground or the sturdy plastic pipe that led to another turret, and if he made it that far, he’d likely take the covered slide into the covered pit filled with brightly colored plastic balls.

Muttering dire curses under his breath since Bas knew—just knew—that he was going to end up looking completely foolish, he grabbed the handrail and ran up the steps after Evan, who was on his hands and knees at the opening of the five-foot pipe that joined the two sides of the structure.  Spotting Bas, or more likely, the irritated, pinched look on Bas’ face, Evan yelped and scooted into the pipe—and stopped.

Heaving a sigh, Bas hunkered down by the opening and grasped the pipe, bending down to peer inside.  “Come on, damn it!  Get your ass out of there.  Now.”

A high-pitched whine escaped the child, and from his vantage point, Bas could see Evan shake his head.  “Uh-uh,” he stated.

“Why the hell not?” Bas snarled.

Evan flinched.  “You’re gonna beat me!” he hollered.

“I’m not going to beat you,” Bas bit out, reaching into the tube and grimacing as he struggled to intercept his brother, “much.”

Evan heard the added quantifier and let out a panicked shriek.  Bas’ fingertips brushed against Evan’s arm moments before a frightened growl echoed through the air; seconds before Bas jerked his hand back with a startled gasp.  He didn’t have to look to know that he was bleeding; that his devil-spawn of a brother had clawed him but good.  The scent of his blood only served to heighten his escalating irritation, and with a loud grunt, Bas swung his hand, latching onto Evan’s arm, and jerked the boy out of the tube despite Evan’s ear-piercing shrieks.

“Shut the hell up, you little fucker!” Bas growled low in Evan’s ear.

“You scratched me!” Evan blubbered, swinging his little fists at Bas as the latter dragged him roughly toward the steps and down to the ground.

Bas slapped Evan’s punches away, grasping his shoulder and shoving him in the general direction of the golf cart. “I’m going to do worse than scratch you if you don’t move—your—ass—right—now,” Bas snarled, shaking his hand and grimacing as a few droplets of blood arced through the air.

Evan whimpered and uttered a tiny growl—the sounds being completely at odds with one another—but kept moving.  “I don’t wanna go home wif you!” Evan pouted, stomping his feet but walking just the same.

“Feeling’s mutual, brat,” Bas growled, shaking his hand again to alleviate the sting from the lacerations.

“It’s too high,” Evan grumbled, scuffing the toes of his shoes in the gravel beside the golf cart.

Bas rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh, yanking Evan rather roughly off the ground and thumping him down in the back seat.  “Put your seat belt on or I will beat you,” he snarled, pausing long enough to get a good look at his damaged hand.  The cuts weren’t deep, but they did ache.  At least he hadn’t hit any veins . . .

“Bas!” Holly’s voice intruded, snapping Bas out of his irritated funk.  His head snapped up, and he blinked at the absolute outrage on the girl’s pretty features.  She held Jillian in her arms, and when Bas reached for his sister, Holly turned sideways; far enough to keep him at bay.  “Weren’t you a little rough with him?” she demanded, her gaze skittering around as though she was trying to keep from making a spectacle of them.

Bas snorted, stepping toward Holly and neatly plucking a teary-eyed Jillian away before striding around the golf cart and setting the girl down a little heavily.  “Buckle up, Jilli,” Bas growled, still too irked to modulate his tone as he stomped back around to the driver’s side once more.  “As for your question?  No, I don’t think I was ‘too rough’ with the little shit.  He knows better.  He’s just being a pain in my ass to be a pain in my ass.”

“Still, he’s just a little boy; not a sack of potatoes to be hauled around like that,” Holly maintained.

“It’s none of your business,” Bas grouched, draping his hands on his hips.

 Holly scowled up at him, crossing her arms over her chest and slowly shaking her head.  “I thought you were cool.  I thought you were different.  I thought you were a nice guy.  I guess I was wrong, after all.”

“No, Holly, it’s just—”

“How could you be so mean to your brother?  And your sister’s crying because she’s so upset!” Holly insisted.

Bas glanced around, grimacing inwardly when he realized just how many people were staring rather unabashedly at him, his siblings, and the girl who was busy lambasting him.  “Hell, he’s lucky I brought him along with me,” Bas shot back, his exasperation reaching an apex.  “I should have just left him home.  Jilli would have been just fine, but no-o-o . . .”

“Then why’d you bring him if you didn’t want to?” she challenged.

“Because,” Bas bit out before he could stop himself, “Tom said you jog through the park every day, and I didn’t want to miss you!”

Holly’s mouth dropped open, and she shook her head.  “You know, I think maybe I was wrong about you,” she said, her tone tight, even, as though she were dangerously close to . . . well, something.  “You’re such a jerk!  Using your brother and sister like that!  I thought you were different!  I thought . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I never want to talk to you again!”

It was Bas’ mouth that dropped open, hanging agape as he watched in silence as Holly spun around and ran away.  He wasn’t sure what she was so angry about, and it didn’t help that everyone and their uncle was staring at him.  As the frustration subsided only to be nudged aside by acute humiliation, Bas heaved a disgusted sigh and climbed into the golf cart.  Evan was sniffling in the back seat—Bas didn’t bother to check whether or not the little miscreant had his seatbelt fastened or not—and Jillian was whimpering quietly.  She hated it when anyone was angry at someone else in the family, and Bas didn’t have to look to know that she was precariously close to tears, herself.

Turning the cart onto the road that ran parallel to the highway, Bas scanned the horizon and tightened his grip on the steering wheel, grimacing when the thin scab forming on his hand pulled open once more.  Concentrating on the road, he let out a deep breath and slowly shook his head.

He should have known that taking Evan to the park was a bad idea.  All he’d really wanted was a few minutes alone with Holly, and of course he couldn’t get that, not with the little brat constantly underfoot, reminding Bas that he’d ‘promised’ to play football with him.  He scowled.  He had played football with Evan, damn it.  He’d played with him the entire time he was waiting for Holly to jog through the park . . .

Anyway, it just figured that the day had been a complete wash.  Holly would never speak to him again, and worse, she’d probably tell all of her friends about it, too.  No doubt about it, whatever reputation he had was ruined, he was certain.  He’d be lucky if he ever dated anyone, ever . . .

“Does it hurt?” Jillian murmured, drawing Bas’ attention.  He opened his mouth to answer, peeking back over his shoulder only to do a double-take when he realized that she hadn’t been talking to him.  Flinching as he quickly pulled the golf cart over on the side of the road, Bas sighed yet again.

In the midst of his own frustration and too preoccupied by the scent of his own blood, he hadn’t realized that somewhere along the line, he’d cut Evan’s cheek with one of his claws.

Hopping out of the cart, Bas rummaged under the driver’s seat for the small but well-stocked first aid kit that Gin had installed before allowing anyone to ride in the cart.  Though Cain and Bas had teased her about it, she had been adamant.  Her mother, Kagome had instilled in her children that they should always have a first aid kit in the ready.  It was likely a residual habit from her time spent in Sengoku Jidai with InuYasha, now Bas’ grandfather.

Tearing open a tiny packet containing an antibacterial wet-nap, Bas let the foil wrapper fall on the ground as he turned to face his still-sniffling brother.  “Let me see,” Bas said, his voice much softer.  Something about the sight of Evan’s blood coupled with the deep-rooted knowledge that Bas had hurt the child . . . he swallowed hard and carefully turned Evan’s face to get a better look.  Evan resisted, but Bas was insistent, and with a shaking inhalation, Evan finally gave in.

Dried blood streaked his pale cheek, and a few stray strands of hair had gotten stuck to the slight ooze that was scabbing over fast.  Bas grimaced, seeing no help for it as he carefully pulled the hair loose.  Evan flinched but didn’t holler, and somehow, Bas felt all the worse for it.  Wiping Evan’s cheek as gently as he could, he slowly inspected the wound.  “Sorry, Evan,” Bas muttered.  “I didn’t mean to cut you.”

Evan didn’t reply, but he did jerk his head once in a rather sullen nod.  Bas stuffed the wet-nap in his pocket and retrieved a gauze pad.  “Here.  Blot your cheek with that, okay?” he said, sticking the pad in Evan’s hand.

Evan sniffled and nodded as Jillian scooted closer to Evan, slipping an arm around his shoulders.  “It’s okay, Evvie,” she said as tears washed into her eyes.  Bas could sense her absolute relief.  As much as she’d hated the anger that she hadn’t understood, she knew intuitively that it had passed, and that was the reason she was ready to cry.  “Bassie’s not mad no more,” she said, her tone taking on a placating calm, much like the tone their mother used whenever one of them fell down and scraped a knee.  If she could have, she would have kissed Evan’s cheek, Bas supposed.  Sometimes the girl was so much like Gin that it was frightening.

Bas dropped back into the driver’s seat and grabbed a travel size packet of tissues from the small compartment on the dashboard.  “Dry your eyes, Jilli,” he said, almost in a monotone, sticking the packet into Jillian’s hand.

Pulling back onto the road once more, Bas heaved another sigh.  One of the things that his father had always told him, had constantly reminded him was that, as a hanyou, he was stronger than a human, and as such, Bas had to take care to remember that he could easily hurt someone who was weaker, and in the midst of his irritation, he’d been careless.  It didn’t matter if Evan scratched Bas first, and it wouldn’t matter that Bas hadn’t meant to do any such thing.  The bottom line was the same: he’d inadvertently hurt Evan because he’d lost his temper.

No doubt about it,’ he thought ruefully as a man waved as he drove past.  ‘Mom and Dad are going to kill me . . . and maybe . . .’ Bas trailed off with a wince as he rehashed the afternoon in his mind.  Evan really had been very good, hadn’t he?  At least, he had been until Bas brushed him off for Holly . . . ‘Maybe . . . I guess I deserve it . . .’

 

-=0=-

 

Cain shook his head and sat back in his chair, staring at his son long and hard as the seconds slipped away, punctuated by the soft tick from the antique clock on the mantle over the fireplace.  To be completely honest, he wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the situation.  Bas wasn’t being very forthcoming with information, and strangely, neither was Evan.  The boy normally told Gin everything, and suddenly, there he’d been with his face smashed against his brother’s shoulder while Bas had struggled to carry both him and Jillian into the oceanfront mansion after their afternoon excursion to the park.

No, it wasn’t the trip that bothered Cain. It was the heavy scent of blood that did it.  Bas’ injury was easy enough to spot.  The bright red welts on his hand that were freshly scabbed over spoke volumes, but it had taken less than a second for him to discern the other scent: Evan’s blood.

And that had led to over an hour of pleading and cajoling on Gin’s part to get the child to let anyone see his cheek.  The wound wasn’t deep, but Cain hadn’t missed the guilty expression on Bas’ face, either, and he didn’t suppose he was far off in assuming that something had happened between the two that had resulted in Bas’ hand wounds and Evan’s scraped cheek.

As it was, he’d just managed to talk Gin into spending some time with Jillian.  The girl had been uncharacteristically sober since she’d gotten home, and Gin . . . well, she needed the diversion.  Besides, Cain wasn’t entirely certain he could get answers out of Bas if his mother were sitting there, listening.

“So tell me what happened,” Cain finally said, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had fallen in the room after Gin’s reluctant departure.

Evan sniffled and rubbed his eyes, nestled close against his brother’s shoulder.

Bas sighed.  “It was nothing,” he mumbled but couldn’t meet Cain’s gaze.

“Nothing?” Cain repeated, careful to keep his tone even.  “You’re sure?”

Bas jerked his head once in a nod, scowling at the carpet beneath his feet.  “Yes, sir.”

Cain nodded slowly, unable to make sense out of the situation.  So far as he knew, Bas had never lied to him.  That he was doing so now didn’t sit well with Cain; not at all.  “Am I right in assuming that the two of you caused each other’s injuries?”

He didn’t miss the startled glance Bas shot him, and he didn’t miss the slight flinch that crossed his eldest son’s features, either.  “No, sir,” Bas blurted.  “I . . . they were my fault.”

“Oh?”

“I . . . I lost my temper with him,” Bas admitted, an embarrassed flush rising in his cheeks as he cleared his throat and went on.  “I scared him . . . he wasn’t trying to hurt me, and—”

“I was bad,” Evan interrupted, sitting up on his brother’s knee, his tiny face scrunched up in a self-disgusted scowl.  “Bubby didn’t play football wif me, and I was mad . . .”

That made Bas grimace even more, and Cain simply shifted his gaze back to Bas once more and remained silent.

“I told him it was time to go, and he ran off, but . . . but he’s right.  I promised him, and I . . . well, I . . . I kind of . . .” Bas winced, shrugging as though it were the only thing he really could do.  “I lost my temper and scratched him as I was trying to drag him off the playground.”

Cain digested that in silence.  Though he didn’t doubt for a moment that the entire thing could well have been accidental, he also couldn’t let it go, either, all things considered.  Heaving a heavy sigh, he patted his pockets for a pack of cigarettes, realizing with a grimace that he’d told Gin that he’d stop smoking.  “Tell me, Bas: what is it that I’ve always said?”

Bas cleared his throat and swallowed hard before answering.  “That there is no such thing as an accident, and that it’s my responsibility to look out for those who are weaker than I am.”

“Mmm.  Bas, Evan’s a lot smaller than you—a lot weaker than you.  You cannot—cannot—lose your cool with him.  You can’t.”

“Yes, sir.”

Cain paused, pinning his son with a doleful look; with an expression full of sadness and maybe a little disappointment.  Bas winced and clenched his jaw so tightly that Cain could see it ticking.  Evan whimpered and squeezed his eyes closed, burying his face against Bas’ shoulder once more.

“I . . . I’m sorry,” Bas muttered, his voice low, thick with emotion.

Cain nodded but didn’t respond to that right away.  Standing up, he dug his hands deep into his pockets, letting out a deep breath as he shuffled over to the windows to stare at the moonlight reflecting off the ocean.  “I know you are,” he finally said without turning away from the placid scene; the rising waves and the dancing ripples touched by a hint of silvery highlights, shimmering hues in the darkness.  “Bas, you’ve always been bigger than everyone else, your age or otherwise.  There cannot be mistakes; not when they involve you, and not when they involve your brother.  Your mother . . . She loves you both.  Think about what your ‘accident’ has done to her, will you?”

Bas forced himself to nod again.  “Yes, sir,” he whispered.

Cain slowly shook his head as he turned back to face his sons.  “And you, Evan . . . you never—never—raise your hand against someone in your own family . . . not like that.  Sparring . . . practicing . . . that’s different.  The thing is that you never strike anyone out of anger.  Do you understand?”

Evan choked back a whimper, his deep blue eyes filling with tears that he stubbornly refused to let fall.  “Okay,” he choked out.

Cain sighed.  Either he was getting old and going senile, or girls were just simpler because he really couldn’t recall having had this sort of trouble when he was raising Bellaniece, at all.  Being the ‘big heavy’ just wasn’t really his cup of tea, at least when it came to his children, but if he’d left the lecturing up to Gin . . . well . . . No, it was his responsibility, after all, even if he did loath it.  “Come here,” he said not unkindly, gesturing for Evan to come to him.  “Let me see your cheek.”

Evan hesitated but scooted off Bas’ lap, dragging his feet as he shuffled over to face his father as Cain knelt down and carefully lifted his son’s chin with a gentle hand.  “Good.  It should be healed up by morning,” he decided, letting his hand fall away before standing back up again.  “Go get cleaned up.  Your mother’s had dinner done for quite awhile.”

Sensing that the worst was over, Evan scooted out of the study as quickly as his little legs would carry him.  Bas stood up, too, but paused before following his brother.  “I’m sorry, Dad,” he said once more, refusing to look Cain in the eye.

“I know,” Cain told him.  “Just . . . just don’t let it happen again.”

Bas nodded and walked out of the study.  Cain rubbed his forehead and sighed.  ‘Boys,’ he thought as he headed for the door to go find Gin so that she could stop worrying.  ‘Should have had more girls.  They’re easier to deal with . . .’

Yeah, sure . . . too bad you don’t really mean that.’

Cain smiled slightly, spotting Gin sitting on the floor with Jillian in her lap.  They were reading a book together; the absolute image of calm.  ‘Yeah,’ he agreed, pausing just a moment before ambling over to his mate and youngest daughter.  ‘I suppose not . . .’

“Is everything all right?” Gin asked, turning her anxious gaze on at Cain as he approached.  Jillian’s eyelids were drooping, and she was struggling to stay awake.

“It’s fine,” Cain told her.  “I think maybe they stayed at the park just a little too long, is all.”

She frowned but nodded, her shoulders slumping suddenly.  “And they’ll both be more careful?”

“I think they will,” Cain assured her.

Gin sighed.  “Good.”

Cain bent down and plucked Jillian off Gin’s lap, kissing her cheek soundly before holding out his hand to help his mate to her feet.  She let him help her up, leaning on his arm for just a moment as the turbulence in her youki slowly settled.  Cain hugged her for a moment, finally feeling his own tension loosening its grip.  Kissing her forehead, he shot her a little smile.  “Anyway, where’s dinner?  I’m starving . . .”

The reminder startled Gin, and her eyes flashed open wide moments before she darted away from him, heading for the kitchen.  “Oh, I hope it isn’t ruined!” she called back to him.

Jillian lifted her head and stared at Cain, her eyes troubled and bleary with sleepiness.  “Bassie and Evvie aren’t mad no more?” she questioned.

Cain gave her a little squeeze and shook his head.  The entire situation must have frightened her.  She never had liked conflict very much . . . “They’re fine now, Jilli.  Just fine . . .”

 

-=0=-

 

“. . . Are you mad at me?”

Lying on his bed, flat on his back with his hands tucked neatly behind his head, Bas turned his head and blinked as Evan poked his head into the room.  Twisting his hand around and around in the hem of his Power Puppies pajama shirt, he looked a little frightened but completely determined, just the same.  “Mad at you?  No . . . are you . . . mad . . . at me?”

Evan shook his head quickly, digging his toes into the carpet under his feet.  “No . . .”

“Good . . .”

Evan wrinkled his nose and scrunched up his shoulders.  “Bubby . . .?”

“Hmm?”

“I . . . can I lay down wif you?”

Bas’ eyebrows shot up at Evan’s softly uttered question.  He normally slept with their parents while Jillian ended up sleeping with Bas more often than not.  Cain had tried to talk Evan into sleeping with Bas a few times, and it never worked before.  That he was asking to now . . . Bas sat up slowly and nodded.  “All right,” he agreed, inflicting just enough resignation into his tone to let Evan know that it wouldn’t be an every-night thing.  “If you stick your feet in my face, though, I’ll kick you out of my bed.”

Evan giggled suddenly.  It was the first time he’d laughed since they’d left the park.  For some reason, the sound of it offered Bas a very real sense of relief as Evan scampered over and hopped up beside Bas.  Bas’ puppy, Badd, lifted his head and glanced from Bas to Evan then back again as if he were asking just what the runt of the litter was doing in the bed.

Evan flopped down with a happy sigh, burying his face in one of Bas’ pillows and sticking his butt in the air.

Bas rolled his eyes but couldn’t help the little smile that surfaced as he swatted Evan’s rear end and flopped back.

Evan giggled louder and pushed the top of his head against Bas’ shoulder.

“Ouch,” Bas said though it didn’t really hurt at all, and his admonishment lacked any real irritation.  “Lie still or you can sleep on the floor.”

“Floor, floor, floor . . .” Evan sang as he rooted around for another minute to make himself comfortable.

“This is why Dad keeps trying to get you out of his bed,” Bas pointed out when Evan nudged him with his butt in his continuing efforts to find the ‘perfect’ sleeping position.

“Daddy, daddy, daddy . . .”

Bas snorted as Evan finally settled down.  Pulling the blanket up over his brother, Bas stared at him for a moment.  Silver hair shining in the dim light of the lamp that Jillian insisted Bas leave on to ward off the boogeyman, Evan was almost asleep that quickly.  “Hey,” Bas said as he tucked the blanket under Evan’s chin.

“Y-yeah?” Evan drawled, yawning but not opening his eyes.

Bas chuckled and lay back, tucking his hands behind his neck once more.  “Tomorrow . . . we can play football all day, if you want.”

“. . . Promise . . .?”

Pulling his hand out from behind his head, Bas stared thoughtfully at the thin red lines that were quickly disappearing.  They’d be gone by morning . . . “I promise.”

“And I can make . . . cookies with Mama,” Evan slurred.  “I share with you . . . promise . . .”

Bas smiled, draping his arm over his eyes as a wide yawn reminded him of just how tired he was, too.  “‘Kay,” Bas murmured, or at least, he thought he did . . . He fell asleep too quickly to know for sure . . .

“Well, will you look at that . . .?”

Gin held her index finger up to her lips to shush Cain, lest he should wake up the two sleeping boys.  “Let them sleep,” she whispered.

Cain rolled his eyes but smiled.  “I don’t think anything could wake those two up right now.”

“Maybe,” Gin agreed though she didn’t look completely convinced.  Stepping away from Cain’s side, she pulled a thick fleece New England Patriots blanket off the closet shelf and carefully spread it over Bas before gently kissing her sons’ cheeks.

“Now for you, little girl,” Cain said, shifting Jillian to lay her down beside her brother in her usual spot.

Jillian slowly shook her head, pinning her father with a look that stated quite plainly that she was having none of that.  “Evan sleep wif Bassie; Jilli sleep wif Mommy an’ Daddy!” she announced.

“W—?  But—” Cain began.

Gin giggled and reached out to take Jillian from Cain’s arms.  “Of course you can sleep with Mama and Papa,” Gin crooned, turning on her heel and heading for the door since she was satisfied that the boys were fine for the night.

“Uh . . . wait!  I mean—” Cain protested, heading off after his mate and daughter.

“Now, Cain, Evan’s in Sebastian's bed, and it’s only fair if Jillian sleep with us tonight, instead.  Besides, our bed would feel so empty without the babies, don’t you think?”

Cain snorted loudly but gave in.  At the rate they were going, they’d never be sleeping alone, ever again . . .

Pausing in the doorway, he glanced back at his sons and narrowed his eyes for a moment before shaking his head and carefully pulling the door closed.

It figured.  It really did.  As if it weren’t bad enough that Jillian had decided she needed to take Evan’s place in their bed . . . Damned if Bas hadn’t been smiling in his sleep, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The End

Chapter Text

~A Purity Oneshot~
~My Blue Christmas~

 

-December 1, 2046-

 

“Daddy!”

“Yes, Evan?”

“Da-a-a-addy!”

“Yes, Evan?”

“Da-a-a-a-add-dy-y-y-y-y!

“. . . Yes, Evan?”

“Daddy-Daddy-Daddy-Daddy-Dadd—”

Dropping the paint brush that he’d been cleaning, Cain Zelig reached for the rag cloth to wipe his hands.  “I’m right here, Evan,” he stated loudly enough to be heard over Evan’s nearly-six-year-old chatter.  “So what do you want?”

Scampering across the floor as he tried to run and hike up his jeans at the same time, Evan nearly fell flat on his face.  Cain barely had time to drop the cloth and grab his son when the child launched himself at his father.  With a grunt, Cain caught him and sat him on the work table.  “I need a word!” Evan announced very matter-of-factly.

Cain blinked and stared at his son for a moment before slowly shaking his head.  “A word . . .?” he repeated.  Sure, he was used to weird and sometimes outrageous requests from this particular spawn of his.  This one, however, was a little more bizarre than usual, mostly because the lad hadn’t shut up since he’d learned to talk long ago.  “What . . . What kind of word . . .?”

Evan crossed his wiry little arms over his chest and pinned his father with a ‘duh’ kind of look.  “A word that rhymes with ‘hajimemashite’.”

He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but that one was something new.  “Hajimemashite?” he echoed.  “Why do you need a word that rhymes with that?”

Kicking his legs to and fro, the boy was constantly in motion, and Cain had to step back to avoid Evan’s feet since the table he was sitting upon was thigh-high.  “I’m writing Mama a Christmas song, and every other line is in Japanese,” he explained simply.

“Ah,” Cain intoned, giving a curt nod.  “I see.”  Drawing a deep breath, he rubbed his forehead as he considered Evan’s help request.  “It’s hard enough to rhyme in one language, don’t you think?” he pointed out.

Evan giggled.  “I can do it!” he insisted.

“Okay, but I’m not sure how much help I can be,” Cain remarked.

“But you’ll help me?”

Breaking into a wan little smile, Cain nodded.  “All right, Evan,” he allowed.  “I’ll help.”

 

-December 24, 2075-

 

“That was how it started.”

Valerie Denning Zelig blinked and accepted the mug of steamy hot cocoa from Evan just before he plopped down on the sofa beside her.  “Because you wanted to write a Christmas song for your mother?”

Evan’s grin widened as one of his triplet siblings—Hayden—crawled into his lap with a plastic Mickey Mouse guitar in his hands.  Valerie held the mug out of her reaching son’s grasp and tried to sip from it at the same time.  Cain Jackson Zelig—Jack—uttered an irritated sound and stretched upward in an effort to snag the drink.  “It’s hot, sweetie,” she informed eight-month-old child.

“Want!” Jack insisted.  It was his newest word, and one that Valerie had told Evan more than once she could have waited to hear.

“Mama said ‘no’,” Evan informed his son seconds before turning his attention back to his brother once more.  “Ouch!”

Valerie set the mug on the coffee table and tried to preoccupy Jack with a stuffed reindeer.  “Problems?”

Evan chuckled and pulled his knuckle out of Hayden’s mouth.  “Hayden thought I was a chew toy.  It’s fine,” he remarked.

Valerie leaned toward him to get a look at the injury.  A tiny droplet of blood was forming on the surface, but Evan had been bitten much worse by Jack just last week, and he’d laughed that off, too.  Haden and his triplet siblings, Daniella and Connor, were a few months older than Jack and had therefore outgrown the biting phase a few months ago, but for reasons that no one quite understood, Hayden seemed to like to gnaw on Evan in particular . . . “I think you’ll live,” Valerie pointed out dryly.

That earned her a goofy grin.  “Yeah, I know.”

She shook her head since Evan rarely took anything seriously these days.  Deliriously happy, or so everyone said, ever since they’d gotten married.  Valerie just figured that it was normal for him.  He was born goofy and hadn’t outgrown it—and she doubted he ever would.  “So you’re saying that you decided to write a song for your mother for Christmas when you were five?”

“Yep.  Actually, I was almost six,” he went on.  “It was the birth of Zel Roka.”

Raising an eyebrow, Valerie broke into a little smile.  “You called yourself Zel Roka back then?”

He laughed.  “Well, no, but I did record the song and made a video for it.”

“Is that right?”

He leaned forward to snag a cookie off the tiered stand in the middle of the coffee table.  It never made it to his mouth, though.  Hayden spotted it and took it before Evan could even get a bite.  “Yeah . . . You want to see it?”

“Of course I do,” Valerie said as Jack wiggled off her lap and toddled off to locate the source of the voice he heard in the distance—Uncle Bas, the boy’s favorite walking, talking jungle gym.  Hayden must have decided that he’d rather follow Jack than hang out with Evan, and he quickly followed suit.

“Okay, okay.  First, though, I think I should get Mama.  She doesn’t like it when we watch the video without her.”

“Watch what?” Gin Zelig asked as she waltzed into the room with Daniella, fresh from her bath and snuggled in a thick, fluffy pink towel, in her arms.  The instant Daniella clapped eyes on Evan, however, she pushed against her mother and struggled to get down, reaching out with her free hand toward her older brother.

Evan chuckled and intercepted the girl before she toppled right out of Gin’s arms.  “The song I wrote you for Christmas, Mama,” Evan explained after pausing long enough to plant a very loud kiss on Daniella’s cheek.

The smile on Gin’s face positively glowed, and she veered off toward the entertainment center to queue the video in question on the home movie interface.  “Oh!  Let me go get everyone,” she said, clapping her hands in sheer anticipation.  “They’ll all enjoy it; I’m sure!”

Evan laughed as Gin hurried out of the room to round up the masses.

“Is that wishful thinking on her part?” Valerie asked as she watched her mother-in-law hurry out of the living room.

“Actually, they all do like it,” Evan told her.

“Even your brother?”

Daniella reached out and grasped a handful of Valerie’s hair before heaving a sigh and snuggling closer against Evan’s chest.  Evan kissed his baby sister on the forehead before grinning at his wife once more.  “Well, yeah . . . I mean, he did help me out.”

Valerie rather enjoyed hearing stories from way back when the brothers actually got along, and the expression on her face said as much, so with a soft chuckle, Evan shifted slightly, facing Valerie more fully.  “Like I said, that’s where it all started . . .”

 

- December 15, 2046-

 

“Okay, Evan.  Whenever you’re ready.”

Cain settled back in the utilitarian office chair and waited while Gus MacCready, the professor in charge of the performance arts department at the University of Maine, fiddled with a few of the sliders on the mixing board.  After promising a healthy donation to said-university, he’d been able to talk Gus into letting them bring Evan in to record the song the boy had written for Gin, and then he’d paid a few students to come in to help out with the drums and guitar, though Evan himself had managed a pretty good play-through on the harmonica and that ass-monkey of a brother of Gin’s had agreed to tag along to provide piano tracks.  It was rather funny, really.  Evan had listened to the makeshift session musicians very critically and had then proceeded to tell them what he did and didn’t like about their rendition of his song.  In the end, though, Evan seemed happy enough with the background track, and in Cain’s opinion, that’s all that really mattered.

Now Evan was sitting on a high stool in front of the microphone in the small adjacent room with a pair of oversized earphones on his head and looking surprisingly focused upon what he was doing.  Beside him sat Jillian on another stool, also with a pair of headphones on.  Evan said she could sing the song with him, but Cain figured that wasn’t likely to happen.

Evan reached up to press one side of the headphone more firmly against his ear, pointing a finger at the sound booth to indicate that he was ready, and Cain chuckled to himself.

Gus hit the button to begin the background track and to record Evan’s vocals, then he shot Cain a knowing look.  “That kid’s a natural if I’ve ever seen one,” Gus remarked candidly.  “He’s, what?  Six?”

“Almost,” Cain replied.  “Well, he’ll be six in April.”

Slowly, Gus shook his head and whistled low.  “You ever had him in a studio before?”

“Nope,” Cain admitted.  “First time.”

“And he wrote this song himself?”

“Yes, he did.”

Gus didn’t comment on that, but he did look duly impressed.

“Let me have that!”

“Shut up, Morio,” Bas grumbled as he slowly shifted the hand-held camera around the room.  Cain had talked the boys into coming along to get some video of the process.  It wasn’t that difficult.  Bas rather enjoyed messing around with the camera, and the cousins tended to hang out, and it didn’t seem to matter to any of them where they were, so Morio and Mikio had agreed readily enough.  No, the hardest to convince had been Gunnar, and that was only because his father, Toga was holed up in Cain’s office with Sesshoumaru, talking shop.  At fifteen, Gunnar was a little too concerned about tai-youkai business.  After all, he had years to look forward to that kind of thing later on down the road.  For now, Cain figured that he ought to be more concerned with girls or video games or something like that.  Even so, Gunnar had finally agreed to come along, too, so the long and short of it was that the small recording studio area was pretty damn crowded at the moment . . .

“Aww, c’mon, Bas,” Morio prodded.

Kichiro slipped back into the room with a steaming Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand.  “Forget it, Morio.  You just want to sneak out and film the college girls.”

Morio didn’t deny the charge.  In fact, he grinned unrepentantly at his uncle.

“There’s something wrong with you,” Gunnar muttered, crossing his arms over his chest as he scowled at Evan through the window.

“Yeah, well, just keep him out of there, if you know what’s good for you,” Mikio remarked mildly as he sat off to the side, fiddling idly with his twitching ear.  “Nee-chan won’t be impressed if you let him in there to sing.”

“What?  I sing good!” Morio insisted haughtily.  His cousins all turned to give him their versions of ‘The Look’.

“No, you don’t,” Bas muttered, dismissing Morio’s claims quickly enough.

“You really don’t,” Gunnar agreed.

“Be glad he’s never dragged you off to do karaoke,” Mikio said, unable to keep from making a face to show his general disgust.  “It hurts.”

Morio laughed good-naturedly.  “I’m not that bad, am I?”

Kichiro snorted.  “Almost as bad as your old man,” he stated.  Then he shifted his gaze back to the boy in the sound booth.  “That one . . .” he said, nodding at the window.  “That one’s pretty damn good.”

 

- December 20, 2046-

 

“Here.  I’m pretty sure that this is yours.”

Cain glanced up from the cup of coffee in his hand, only to blink when Bas strode across the kitchen to deposit Evan onto the floor.  He was carrying the boy under his arm like a football, and when he let go of Evan, the child plopped with a dull thud and a giggle.  “Nope, I’m pretty sure that’s your mom’s,” Cain replied dryly as Evan scampered to his feet, hiking up his jeans yet again.

“Yeah, well, he woke me up by trying to gouge out my eye.  Maybe you should trim his claws.”

“What?  Did the caps come off?” Cain asked, his gaze shifting to Evan’s little hand.  From where he stood, he couldn’t quite tell whether or not the little clear rubber claw caps were still there or not.

“They’re still pokey, even if they were still there—which they aren’t,” Bas pointed out.

“I had to take ‘em off to pick your lock, Bubby,” Evan said.

Bas snorted and rolled his eyes. “Ever think it might have been locked for a reason, Evan?”

Evan looked duly befuddled by this idea.  It had obviously not occurred to him that Bas might have actually wanted to keep him out of his room . . .

“Daddy said you’d help me make a music video,” Evan insisted, darting around Bas and ferreting his way between his brother and the refrigerator.

“I will?” Bas asked, turning his head to address his father.

Cain chuckled.  “Sure.  Why not?  Take him out and shoot his video for him.”

Bas stared at him for a long moment before reaching for the bottle of orange juice and effectively ignoring Evan’s interference.  “Why can’t you do it?”

“Because I’m going to be busy designing the cover for his CD,” Cain replied simply.

Bas rolled his eyes but smiled at his father.  “All right; all right.”

“Daddy!” Evan suddenly exclaimed, pushing past Bas in favor of skittering over to stand in front of Cain instead.

“What?”

“I need rockstar clothes!” Evan insisted.

Bas snorted.  The sound was muffled by the bottle of juice since he hadn’t bothered to get a glass out of the cupboard.  “Five year old rockstar clothes?”

Cain considered that then shrugged as he dug a credit card out of his wallet.  “Here,” he said, handing it over Evan’s head to Bas. “Take him to the store and let him get his rockstar clothes.”

Bas’ expression stated quite plainly that he thought Cain might well have lost his mind.  “You’re not serious, right?”

Shrugging again, Cain emptied his coffee cup in one long swallow.  “Sure.  Why not?  In for a penny, in for a pound, right?  Take the snow mobiles.  I’m sure you boys won’t mind.”

No, they wouldn’t mind taking the snow mobiles out for a ride, but what they would mind was dragging Evan along with them.  ‘Why couldn’t Evan be normal and want to get Mom a scarf or something?’ Bas wondered as he slipped the card into his wallet without complaint.  After all, he was trying to talk his dad into buying him a car as soon as he turned sixteen, so going along with this whole thing was only going to help him in the long run . . .

It took about an hour to get his cousins and Mikio up and moving, and by then, the whole venture was looking worse by the moment.  Evan’s best buddy, Madison had arrived with her parents—her mother was there to visit Bellaniece, and her father was in the study with Cain, probably talking shop.  Evan had decided that Madison needed to come along to help him pick out his ‘rockstar clothes’.  Not only that, but Isabelle insisted on coming along.  About the only good luck they’d had was that Lexi was helping Gin in the kitchen, and Jillian was preoccupied since Gavin and his mother were spending the holiday here, too.

So Bas rode to town with Evan on the back of his snow mobile while Madison rode with Mikio and Isabelle rode with Gunnar.  No one thought that letting Morio tote anyone was a good idea in general, but they made it with little incident—if one discounted Evan hollering when he accidentally dropped the candy cane he’d pilfered off the tree in the hallway.

Isabelle seemed to be enjoying helping Evan pick out suitable clothes, and somewhere along the line, Evan had decided that he needed Isabelle, Jillian, and Madison to be his ‘rockstar hunnies’, so they were also looking for clothes.  Bas figured it was a good thing that Isabelle had come along since he had no frigging idea what size anything Jillian might wear.  All in all, Bas and the other boys were content to stand back and let the three of them have at it.

Whatever Evan wanted, that’s what Cain had said, so Bas didn’t even blink when Evan proclaimed that he needed a black leather jacket because, “all rockstars had those!”  Then Isabelle had talked Evan into getting a pair of black shit-kicker boots to complete the ensemble.  Luckily for them all, Evan had decided that he’d rather wear black jeans than leather pants—did they even make leather pants that small?

It wasn’t all bad, though.  They’d taken a break for lunch at the food court, and Bas had seen a number of his school friends.  Morio had spent a good hour trying to get a phone number from the girl manning the cash register at the Chick-fil-A.  Gunnar had gotten hit on by a few of the girls from Bas’ trig class, much to Gunnar’s absolute irritation.  Mikio had just sat back and watched it all with a rather bemused smile on his face—until those girls noticed him, anyway.  For some reason, girls always just seemed to think that Mikio was the cutest thing since puppies.

“I’ll rip ‘em up when I get home!” Evan announced happily as Bas struggled to fit the bags and packages into the small compartments on the snow mobiles.  He had a feeling that ripping up a brand new pair of jeans wasn’t going to sit well with their parents, but Cain did say, ‘whatever Evan wanted’ . . .

Bas nodded and forced the compartment closed.  He’d had to ditch the box that the boots had come in to get them to fit.  “Yeah, well, you realize that your video’s going to have to wait till tomorrow, right?”

Evan blinked and stared at Bas for a moment. “Why?”

“Because it’s already getting late,” Bas pointed out reasonably.  “We’ll film your video tomorrow, okay?”

Evan didn’t look entirely pleased, but he nodded.  “Oka-a-a-a-ay,” he drawled.  If he’d had hanyou ears, they’d be flattened, Bas figured.

 

- December 21, 2046-

 

“What about here?”

Evan crossed his arms over his chest and surveyed the area with a critical eye as he considered Bas’ question.  “Okay, but can we film down by the pond, too?” he asked hesitantly.

Bas shrugged as he set the camera’s tripod up.  “All right,” he allowed.  “But you know, we’ve already recorded your performance about fifty times.”

“Yeah, and it’s not like it’s fucking freezing out here or anything,” Morio pointed out, opening and closing his hand around the drumsticks.  He looked pretty silly—they all did.  Evan had decided that he needed to have his backup band in the video, so he’d managed to cajole Morio, Mikio, and Gavin into helping him out.  Gavin had only agreed when Evan had promised that he’d leave him alone and let him play video games for the rest of his visit.  Mikio looked pretty goofy since the guitar in his hands had a picture of Perry the Power Puppy painted on it.  Gavin had an Evan-sized, electric blue keyboard that he was pretending to play in the video, and Morio?  Well, he’d claimed the snare drum from Evan’s drum kit he’d gotten last year for his birthday—the dumbest present ever, if one asked Bas . . .

And they had been at it for hours already.  Evan had decided he wanted to have some footage taken while the sun came up, which might have been all right had the sun actually been visible.  True to form, however, it was overcast and pretty gloomy-looking, but at least it hadn’t started snowing.  Yet.

Isabelle, Lexi, Jillian, and Madison huddled together just off center.  At least they were being good sports about the whole thing, even if they were freezing.

“Here,” Gunnar said, shrugging off the backpack that Gin had given them earlier in the kitchen.  She’d made sure to pack a couple huge thermos jugs of warmed apple cider along with some heat-packed caramel buns.  He filled a plastic mug with cider and handed it to Isabelle then repeated the process for the other girls, too.  “Hurry it up, Evan, before the girls freeze,” he growled.

Evan looked rather put out by the interruption, but he spent the down-time scoping out the area, trying to decide which angle would be best for his video.  Bas poured himself some cider and rolled his eyes as he watched his younger brother.  It surprised him that Evan was so into the whole thing.  Oh, sure, it didn’t surprise him that Evan was gung-ho about recording a song.  He’d been singing since he had learned how to talk.  But he tended to be very easily distracted, so his level of concentration was almost commendable.

“How ‘bout over here, Bubby?” Evan finally said, gesturing at the crumbling wall that disappeared under the snow after the first twenty feet or so.  To Bas, it looked pretty much the same as every other area they’d shot today, but he would be the last one to burst Evan’s proverbial bubble.

“Looks good to me,” Bas allowed.

Evan shot him an almost timid sort of glance, only to break into a smile when he decided that Bas wasn’t simply humoring him, after all.  Then he ran over to Bas and kind of hopped up and down.  “You think Mama will like it?”

Bas snorted and handed Evan the rest of his cup of cider.  “Mom likes everything you do, Evan,” he pointed out.  “She’ll love it—and we’ll never hear the end of it, I’m sure.”

Evan giggled and sucked down the rest of the cider.  “Okay!” he hollered, clapping his Power Puppy mitten-covered hands—very ‘rock’, absolutely.  “Come on, people! Back to work!”

Rolling his eyes again, Bas fiddled with the camera tripod while Evan herded everyone else back into their assigned places.

“What a little tyrant,” Gunnar remarked as he stowed the rest of the cider and the empty mugs into the backpack again.

“You have any idea how funny that statement is, coming from you?” Bas countered mildly.

Gunnar sighed—well, sort of sighed.  It was about as close to a sigh as Gunnar ever uttered.  “I hope he’s had enough after this take,” Gunnar went on, ignoring Bas’ bald statement.  “The girls are freezing.”

Bas was inclined to agree with Gunnar, mostly because said-girls were wearing their ‘rock hunny’ clothes, and their coats just didn’t fit into the arrangement.  Still, they were all youkai—or half, at least, and they’d be just fine.  “Okay,” he said after pressing the ‘record’ button on the camera, nodding at the Gunnar to begin the audio so that Evan could get this take done.  “Evan, this is going to have to be the last take.  We’re almost out of memory.”

 

- December 21, 2046-

 

“Well, what do you think?”

Evan scrunched up his face and tilted his head to the side as he regarded the picture with a critical eye.  Cartoon-ish Santa holding a very buxom cartoon-ish Gin on his lap.  She’d taken his hat and perched it atop her head, not that the old guy seemed to mind.  All in all, Cain figured it was as cutesy as he could manage and not at all even remotely close to anything that he usually did.  But it was for a good cause, and if he were to admit as much, he’d have to say that it wasn’t bad . . .

“Mommy’s got a big head!” Evan said, evidently pleased by Cain’s drawing.

“You said you wanted her to look cute,” Cain reminded him.

Evan nodded.  “I like it!” he decided.  “Evan Zelig . . . My Blue Christmas,” he read.  Then he shot Cain a rather anxious look.  “Mama will like it, right?”

Sparing a moment to ruffle Evan’s hair before he leaned down to put the blank-surface CD into the ink screener, Cain chuckled.  “She’ll love it, of course,” he assured the boy.  Gus MacCready had given him five copies of the CD, but they weren’t printed, which was fine since Cain hadn’t done the art at that time.  He’d gone out of his way, though, to make sure that it was all done as well as the professional releases, right down to the musical credits inside the cover folder.  Besides, he really ought to send a copy of the song to the copyright office . . .

Bas stuck his head into the studio and glanced around.  When he spotted Cain and Evan over by the desk, he stepped into the room.  “Here,” he said as he crossed the floor and held out a small memory card.

“What’s this?”

Bas shrugged.  “It’s all the video footage,” Bas explained as though Cain ought to have known.  “I don’t do editing.  Oh, and Evan, Mom’s looking for you.  She said it’s time for your bath.”

Cain chuckled and took the card while Evan wiggled off his father’s lap and scampered toward the door.

“Good luck with that,” Bas said as he headed out after his brother.

“What do you mean?”

Bas shook his head.  “That card’s full,” he explained simply.

“Oh . . . wow . . .”

It took a while for Cain to scan through the various location shots, and he chuckled at the child’s idea of ‘rock n’ roll’.  He wasn’t sure which was more amusing: the actual video shots or the sight of the older boys, holding toy instruments, though he suspected that it might be the latter.  He’d dragged the girls out to the video shoot, too, and Cain shook his head slowly.  Those poor girls were probably frozen, solid though they all seemed to be I good spirits when they’d finally filed back into the house hours ago.  At least Evan had worn a jacket, which was more than could be said for his female posse.

Add to that, the footage that Bas had gotten in the recording studio, and Cain figured that there had to be at least eighteen-plus-hours of video.

He was by no means a specialist in this kind of thing, and he might well be in over his head . . .

A curt knock on the studio door drew his attention, and Cain glanced up from the computer long enough to nod as Moe Jamison strode into the room.  “Gin said you were up here,” he said, skipping over the pleasantries.  He’d been out on a job to hunt down a renegade thunder youkai who was wanted for a string of murders that spanned over fifty years.  Cain was relieved that Moe was back, and in time for Christmas, too.  The thunder youkai had proved elusive in the past, which was why they’d invited Moe’s family to Maine for the holiday this year.

“All taken care of?” Cain asked.

Moe grunted and nodded.  He wasn’t exactly a huge talker—none of Cain’s top three hunters really were.

“Thanks.”

Moe nodded as he dropped heavily into the chair across from the desk.  “What’s that?” he questioned, nodding once at the crystalex television that spanned the wall.

Cain sighed.  “Evan wanted to write a song for Gin for Christmas,” he explained.  “That’s the footage Bas shot for the video.”

“What?  You’re making a music video?”

“Something like that.  I don’t even know where to start though.”

Scratching his chin thoughtfully, Moe gave a little shrug.  “I can do that for you if you want,” he offered at length.  “Wouldn’t be too hard to do.”

“Really?” Cain asked.  The offer surprised him though it probably shouldn’t have.  After all, Moe had an affinity for anything electronic in origin.  “You wouldn’t mind doing it?”

Moe shook his head and frowned for a second.  “Nope, not at all.  Send me the files, and I’ll get the video back to you tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Cain said, sending the video files and the audio track to the secured network that he usually only sent digital files to the hunters through.  But he couldn’t be sure that Gin wouldn’t accidentally find it if he put it up on the shared house network, so . . .

Hauling himself out of the chair, Moe stretched and stifled a yawn.  “I’ll get right on it . . . Well, maybe after a quick nap . . .”

Cain chuckled, lifting a hand and nodded as Moe slipped out of the studio.  He got ready to close out the video editor.  Then he stopped with a frown.  It seemed like a waste, didn’t it?  There was so much footage that cutting it all down to two and a half minutes would be kind of silly.  Clicking on the video files from the recording studio, Cain leaned forward and scanned through the first ten minutes.  He’d just put together a making-of video.  Rockstars did that, right . . .?

He heard the door open and close again, but he didn’t look away from the video.

“Are you working on my video, Daddy?”

Cain reached down and scooped Evan into his lap without looking away from the television.  “Moe’s going to do that for you, Evan.”

Evan considered that for a moment but must have decided that it was all right with him.  Tucking his head a little closer under Cain’s chin, he pointed at the television.  “What are you doing, Daddy?”

“Well, I was going to make a documentary of the making of your song and video,” Cain admitted.  “What do you think?  That’s a pretty good shot of you in the studio, huh?”

Scrunching his face up in a thoughtful scowl, Evan slowly nodded.  “Yeah!” he agreed.  “I look busy!”

Cain chuckled and backed up the feed to select a length of the video.  “You can give it to your mama, too.”

“Because she’ll love it!”

“Of course she will,” Cain agreed.

“Don’t forget Bubby!” Evan insisted, sitting up quickly and jacking Cain right in the jaw.

“Ow,” Cain groaned, shifting his jaw back and forth.

“Sorry, Daddy, sorry!” Evan exclaimed, rubbing the top of his head where he’d collided with his father.  “You okay, Daddy?  You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Cain said, sparing a moment to ruffle Evan’s hair.  “Help me pick out your favorite stuff, okay?”

Satisfied that he hadn’t caused his father any serious damage, Evan settled back against his chest and sighed.  “All right,” he said, tugging the blanket he’d dragged into the studio with him—his Power Puppy blanket that had been washed so often that the red puppy was starting to look a little pink instead, and the yellow puppy had faded to white about fifty washes ago . . . But he loved that blanket.  It matched his Power Puppy footy-pajamas, he said.

There were precious few moments, Cain thought, when Evan willingly chose to be with him instead of hanging around his mother.  No matter how much he’d spent on studio time, not to mention the new wardrobe and things like that, this whole song-thing . . .

It was definitely worth it.

 

- December 24, 2075-

 

“And that’s how I came to record my first song,” Evan concluded.

Valerie laughed and settled closer against his side with Jack in her lap once more, and just in time, too.  Gin set a tray of cheese and crackers on the table and settled down on Cain’s knee, which was about the only place left.  Gavin and Jillian were sitting on the floor with Hayden and Connor.  Daniella was still resting comfortably against Evan’s chest.  Bas and Sydnie were sharing one of the oversized chairs.  Bailey, Olivia, Tanny, and Takara were still upstairs playing, though Valerie figured that it was almost time for the four of them to sneak back in the room for another round of cookies and milk, especially since Tanny had already stripped the tree in the upstairs hallway off all the candy canes.

InuYasha and Kagome were also settled on the floor.  It never ceased to amuse Valerie, just how dog-like InuYasha tended to be.  Evan had his moments, sure, but InuYasha?  No contest.  Not even close.

Isabelle and her husband, Griffin sat on the other sofa with Samantha and Kurt, who hadn’t spoken more than a few sentences the entire weekend since their arrival.  She knew damn well that he was friendly enough, just really quiet, though Evan had told her earlier that it was probably because of Kichiro’s presence.  They had a cautious understanding that they’d be civil to one another when they were in the same place, but that was about the extent of it.  Of course, knowing the story behind the tension, Valerie could understand just why Kichiro wasn’t too gung-ho about his youngest daughter’s husband.

Kichiro wasn’t in the room at the moment, however.  According to Kagome, he, Ryomaru, and Toga, and their wives were all out together doing some last-minute shopping since none of them had brought along gifts.  They’d bought gift cards for the adults, but children didn’t exactly appreciate that kind of thing.

“Should we watch the video first or the documentary?” Gin asked.

“The video, Mama,” Evan replied, pulling Valerie a little closer against his side.

Gin giggled and held up the remote control to start the play back.

It was cute.  There was no other way to describe it.  Alternating between ‘location’ shots from all over the Zelig estate and with some studio footage thrown in, Valerie had to admit that the best parts were the other kids, ‘playing’ along with him.  Morio was hamming it up—he and his wife weren’t able to make the trip this year, which was a shame.  Valerie rather liked Meara a lot.

 

“‘If only I hadn’t buried Maddy up to her chin
And tried to feed her in the dogs’ food bowl
I wouldn’t be worried about this Christmas
If I hadn’t kicked Bubby in the shin
I’d get Christmas presents instead of coal …’”

 

By the end of the song, everyone was laughing.  It seemed the entire song revolved around everything bad that Evan had done during that year, all leading up to why Evan was expecting ‘My Blue Christmas’.

“Did you really do all of that stuff in one year?” Valerie had to ask when the video ended.

Evan grinned unrepentantly.  “There was more, but the song wouldn’t have ended if I’d added them all.”

Bas snorted as Gunnar handed him a beer and moved off to slouch against the wall.  “Oh, there was definitely more, but those were the highlights.”

Valerie shook her head but couldn’t contain the giggles that welled up and out of her.  “You were really a rotten kid, weren’t you?”

“Oh, I thought that the song was so sweet!” Gin argued as the making-of video started.

“In a kind of twisted way,” Valerie allowed.

“And you married him willingly,” Cain reminded her.

Valerie heaved a sigh but leaned up to kiss Evan on the cheek.  “Yes, I did.”

“Aww, look!  You were so sweet!” Jillian piped up, pointing at the screen as she positively beamed at her mate.

Valerie blinked and shook her head in confusion as she turned her attention back to the video.  It was Jillian, all right, in the recording studio where she was sitting beside a small boy no bigger than she was.  Well, maybe slightly bigger, but not by much, if any.  He looked vaguely familiar-ish.  “Who’s that?” she asked without turning to face Van with her question.

Evan laughed.  “That little squirt?  That’s Gavvie!”

“Wh—What?” Valerie blurted before she could stop herself.  Now that he mentioned it, okay, Valerie could see the resemblance, but it just didn’t make sense.  Gavin Jamison was easily almost as big as Bas, very nearly as wide if not slightly broader in the shoulders.  “No way . . .”

Gavin heaved a sigh, his cheeks pinking slightly.  “Yeah, that’s me,” he muttered.

Valerie still wasn’t entirely sure she could believe that, but no one admitted that it was some kind of strange joke, either.

The scene cut to what must have been a planning session for the video.  All the kids were sitting around while Evan drew out the ideas on a huge tablet of paper with a bright green marker.  One in particular caught Valerie’s attention, and she leaned toward Evan.  “Whose girlfriend is that?”

Evan turned to face her with a marked frown.  “Girlfriend?”

Valerie nodded. “Yeah, the pretty black-haired girl.”

Evan blinked once, twice, then shifted his gaze back to the television again.  Then he choked.  And coughed.  And choked again.  “That . . . That’s not a girl,” he said.  “That’s Gunnar.”

Valerie gasped and smashed a hand over her mouth.  “No!” she hissed, trying not to look at the man in question.

“Yeah,” Evan replied.

Gunnar snorted from across the room but remained silent.

“But he’s so pretty!” Valerie protested.  “I mean—”

“Don’t worry about it, V,” Evan laughed.  “From what I understand, you’re not the first to have mistaken him for a girl when he was a teenager.”

“Shut up, Evan,” Gunnar remarked, still looking entirely bored despite the hint of irritation in his voice.

“Just think, Valerie, you’ve got all that to look forward to,” Bas pointed out, nodding at a dozing Jack in her arms.

Valerie laughed and kissed her baby on the head.  Jack yawned but snuggled closer against his mother.

“Merry Christmas, V,” Evan murmured, giving her quick squeeze.

“Merry Christmas,” she replied.  “And sorry about the girl comment, Gunnar.”

Gunnar didn’t answer.  Instead, he uttered a terse grunt and pushed himself away from the wall to stalk out of the room with laughter trailing after him in his wake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~The End~

Chapter Text

~~Golden~~
~A Purity Oneshot~

~__~

 

“Oh-h-h-h, ka-a-a-a-ami!  It’s ho-o-o-o-ot . . .”

Bas Zelig shot me a darkened glance as we wandered along the old dirt road that meandered through the countryside.  His meaning was clear enough, though.  Bas was considering thumping our cousin, Morio a good one if he didn’t quit whining, which he had been doing for the better portion of the day.  Sure, it was hot: sweltering really.  We were all sweating in the stifling heat, but Morio had also thought it’d be funny to get into a water fight last night with Mikio, Bas and Morio’s uncle, and as a result, we hadn’t had anything to drink all day, either, since the idiot had used what little water we’d had left in the canteens we’d toted along.

“Shut up, Morio,” I said in a half-hearted effort to stave off the beating that the baka so richly deserved.  “You’re whining like a girl.”

Morio heaved a sigh, his little white hanyou ears flattening against his skull for a moment as he slowly shook his head. “Who the hell came up with this half-baked idea, anyway?” he grumbled.

“You did,” the three of us growled.

The moron grinned.  “Oh, yeah . . . I did, didn’t I?”

Bas let out a deep breath: the kind that traveled straight up, lifting the sweat-matted bangs that were plastered to his forehead.  He’d clubbed his long hair back about an hour ago—something that he rarely did, probably because it made him look even more like his father than he already did.  “It wouldn’t be so bad if we had some water,” he mused.

Mikio shrugged, head leaned forward as he fiddled with his rapidly twitching ear.  “Morio, you kind of stink,” he pointed out.

Morio grinned. “I can’t help it,” he said, “and you don’t exactly smell like a bed of roses or anything.”

“Yeah,” Mikio agreed calmly, “but I don’t stink.”

I opened my mouth to tell the two of them to shut it since complaining wasn’t really going to help them out all that much, but sighed when my stomach growled almost painfully, reminding me that my attempt to cook last night had been abysmal, at best.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true.  I was doing well enough, cooking the fish that Bas had caught.  I mean, how hard was it, really?  Jam a sharpened stick through them and roast them over the fire, right?  And anyone could do that.  No, it wasn’t until Morio had gotten the ‘great idea’ that we ought to shove some herbs into the hollows where their guts had been that the trouble had started.  The pathetic greens he’d found were half dead, so dried and brown from the sultry days and they’d caught fire almost instantly, thus charring our dinner . . .

 Bas shot me a quizzical glance and grinned, swinging his pack off his back and somehow managing to rummage through it as we walked.  “I’ve got some beef jerky,” he said, holding out the plastic bag with the last few pieces of jerky he’d brought from home.

I started to reach for it then stopped.  No, that’d just make me thirstier.  “No, thanks,” I muttered, hating the fact that my ears started twitching as a sure sign of my irritation.  I’d grown fairly good at controlling that sort of thing over the years, but sometimes . . .

Bas shrugged and stuffed the bag back into his pack before slinging it over his shoulder once more.  “Eh, it’s not all bad,” he ventured at length.  “At least I don’t have Evan and Jilli crawling all over me at night out here.”

“Thought Evan slept with your mom and dad,” Morio remarked.

Bas snorted.  “That little snotbag got himself ousted from their room, and of course he came crawling into mine, instead.”

Mikio laughed.  “It’s kind of nice that your brother and sister love you like that,” he added almost cautiously.  “Anyway, I don’t mind it out here.  It’s probably the last time we’ll all be together in the summer, right . . .?”

No one responded to that.  Mikio had said it: the one thing that we’d all thought at different times since the summer had started.  After all, Mikio was seventeen, almost eighteen, and next summer, he’d be studying for the university entrance exams and taking those exams, too.  He hadn’t really said as much, at least, not to us, but we all knew that there was a good chance that he’d opt to attend a university a little further away from home than the one in Tokyo, unless his parents had a say in it, that was . . .

And maybe that was the real reason that we’d come out here.  I mean, we were supposed to be training: that’s why Bas had come to Japan for the summer.  We all knew that there was a very good chance that we’d catch seven kinds of hell once we went back home, but . . .

We wanted to spend the summer our way.  At least, that was my reason.  Everything would change, and that was something that I could accept.  That didn’t mean that we couldn’t try to hold onto the way things were for just a little while longer, right?  In a very real sense, it was our way of proving what we were, what we’d learned, both to ourselves as well as to the powers-that-be back home.  Bas and I had started our training early on since both of us were in line to be tai-youkai one day, Bas in North America, and me, here in Japan.  Morio had also taken up lessons early.  Impossible not to when his father was easily the undisputed best hunter in all the world.  Mikio, though . . .

Mikio had never been just like us, not in any sense of it.  Mikio had a problem—I hesitated to call it a handicap, because not one of us thought of him in that way.  His balance had always been an issue.  For reasons that no one really understood, he sometimes stumbled or fell without warning, and sometimes without any reason at all.  Uncle Kichiro had told us once that he thought that Mikio might have a problem with his inner ear, but since it tended to lead to arguments between Mikio’s parents, which in turn tended to upset Mikio, who had never been keen on that kind of familial turmoil, none of us really talked about it, either.

Bas stopped abruptly, his chin shooting up as he shifted his gaze around the area in a completely predatory sort of way.

“What’s the . . .?” Morio began, but trailed off as his eyes widened, too.  I heard it then, as well: the unmistakable sound of flowing water somewhere off to the left.

With a whoop and a frenetic sort of scrambling, all four of us sprinted toward the trees that lined the dirt path, plunging ahead blindly, following the sound of the rambling water . . .

So the four of us crashed through the forest, intent upon locating the flowing water; each of us growing thirstier and thirstier by the moment.  It was absolute torture.  So close—so close that we could absolutely taste it, and yet, each step seemed to carry us further away.  Morio tripped over a tree root.  Bas barreled forward like a mecha from a demented anime.  I just kept moving.

We broke out of the trees and stopped short, blinking in absolute disbelief.  It was water, all right: fresh, clean, pure water.  Cascading from a steep fall some twenty feet over our heads, it crashed into the pool at our feet, frothing and roiling in a crazy-mad bliss.

Morio let out a wild yawp and started to charge forward.  Bas caught him by the back of his shirt and jerked hard.  “Let us drink first before you jump in there with your clothes on, dumbass,” he growled.

Morio grinned unrepentantly as Mikio and I fell to our knees and started to drink.  Bas let go of Morio and followed suit while Morio grinned like a nut and assumed the position.  Sure, we all noticed the strong mineral taste and scent of the water, the slight bitterness that lingered on the tongue, but we were too thirsty to care.

 

~__~

 

“U-u-u-urgh . . .”

I lifted my head and blinked, peering over at Bas, who was leaning over a boulder, retching his guts up.  Morio was doing pretty much the same, and Mikio wasn’t any better off, either.  Me? Well, I’d already puked up everything, and to be completely honest, I didn’t really think I had anything left inside.

Bas groaned, leaning against the rock and sliding down to the ground.  “Oh, God . . .”

“Whazzamatta, big guy?  You’re looking a little peaked,” Morio commented.  Bas made a halfhearted attempt at swatting at him but gave up when he missed the first time.  Morio groaned.  “Ma-a-a-an, I hate being sick . . .”

“You’ve never been sick otherwise, Morio,” Mikio pointed out, lying flat on his back with his arm draped over his eyes.  “Must’ve been contamination in the water . . .”

I started to say something—I really don’t remember what—but stopped short when a pang shot through my guts.  This one wasn’t like the vomiting ones, though; oh, no . . . it was much, much worse, and much, much lower . . . In fact, it felt as though someone were taking a hold of my entrails and squeezing the living, breathing piss out of them, and I couldn’t restrain the low, pained groan that slipped from me, either, as I doubled over and wrapped my arms around my stomach.

“Does anyone else feel . . . weird . . .?” Bas suddenly asked.  Judging by the look on his face, he was starting to suffer the same sort of cramps as I was . . . In fact, it almost felt as though . . .

Springing off the ground, I crashed through the trees without watching where I was going with my arms outstretched and a driven by a blind panic.  I could hear my cousins behind me.  “Aww, man!  Not the shits, too!” Morio complained.

I think it fair to edit the rest of this part of the story, though.  I really don’t see how it could be of any real importance.  Suffice it to say that we ran out of our meager supply of toilet paper very quickly and spent the rest of the afternoon chafing our asses with whatever leaves we could get our hands on . . .

And you’d think that all of this was the worst of it, right?

Yeah, it wasn’t.  It really wasn’t . . .

 

~__~

 

“My ass itches.”

“Shut up, Morio.”

“But it really itches.”

“Shut up, Morio.”

“Like there’s something in my asshole crawling around or something.”

Shut up, Morio.”

“Does yours itch, too?”

Shut up, Morio!

I closed my eyes and rolled onto my side.  We were trying to sleep, but Morio just wouldn’t shut up; not at all.  It wouldn’t have surprised me if Morio had used some weed to wipe with that he shouldn’t have, but there really wasn’t anything we could do about it, and after the day we’d had, we just didn’t want to do anything but sleep, anyway.

If Morio would shut up, that was . . .

“If we called home, d’ya think they’d come get us?” Morio asked quietly.

Bas heaved a sigh.  “Probably,” he replied.  “Too bad we can’t.”

Which was also, unfortunately, true enough.  Sure, our fifteen year-old minds—Mikio notwithstanding since he was seventeen—had fully contemplated the idea that our respective parents would have the proverbial cow if we went off without our phones.  Hell, we’d even brought our chargers along for good measure.  Somehow, though, not one of us had bothered to think about the idea that we were going to be out in the wild without electricity, thereby having nowhere to plug the damn things in . . .

Youth is stupid, right?

But Morio kept whining, and eventually, we all just ignored him and ended up falling asleep, anyway, only to be roused in the middle of the night by an incredibly loud crack of thunder that signaled the start of a torrential rain.  It wasn’t just a light sprinkle, either.  Kami, no.  It was a full on, in your face, coming from every conceivable direction, throwing debris around in the air storm.  The four of us managed to stagger to our feet and crawl into a nearby alcove—not quite a cave, and, in turn, also not quite dry, but drier than out there.  Bas and I ran back out to grab some wood—I did mention that youth is stupid, right?  Well, it’s entirely true, and another thing?  Write this down, guys, because it’s fairly important: wet wood does not burn.

And we figured that out, too, though in all honesty, it’d be hard to say whether or not the wood really would have burned since Mikio’s backpack had been open just enough to allow rain to get into it and soak the matches.  The package had said ‘waterpoof’.  They weren’t.

“Maybe we should sue them,” Mikio remarked as we all sort of cowered near the far wall in a vain effort to avoid the rain and wind.  “False advertising or something . . .”

Bas sighed.  “Damn . . . could you imagine if we’d brought Bitty with us?”

We all rather snorted at that since Isabelle had, in fact, wanted to come with us and had pouted when we told her she was absolutely not invited.  It was simple though: she was a girl, and we didn’t want girls along on our adventure.  Besides, even if we did want her to come along, we knew damn well that those powers-that-be would have come after us, just to make sure that she was all right.

“This kind of sucks,” Morio said, squinting as he lifted his head, as he blinked away the rain that dripped onto his face.

No one else said anything.  Maybe we figured that ‘sucked’ didn’t quite cover it.  Or maybe . . .

 

~__~

 

We awoke the next morning, cold, miserable, exhausted.  We were almost defeated, wondering if it would be better, just to turn around and go back home.  We considered sharing what was left of Bas’ beef jerky, but in the end, none of us were hungry, so we gathered our soggy things and headed out again.

Mikio still looked quite sick.  I had to wonder whether or not he was able to keep his concealment in place.  We all knew what he looked like in his true form, so it was difficult to tell if he was hiding it or not.  Skin leeched of healthy color, he staggered slightly as he moved on.  Bas trudged along with a somewhat grim expression on his face, and even he seemed a little stoic, overall.

Even Morio’s normally annoyingly chipper façade was dimmed, and me?  Hell, all I could think about was a hot bath, a good meal, and a warm bed, and in that order, too.  Of course, we were down, but we weren’t out; not by a long shot, and it’d be all right.  At least, that was what I kept telling myself.

“You know,” Morio commented at length.  We’d been trudging along the road for a good hour or so.  “What are the odds we’ll find a village or something by this evening?”

Bas shrugged.  “I’d be nice,” he remarked though he sounded dubious, at best.

I shook my head.  “Yeah, but you’re the one who said we should go out this way since there aren’t as many villages out here,” I pointed out.

Morio opened his mouth then snapped it closed.  “It was my idea, huh?”

Mikio plopped down on a boulder near the path and let his backpack fall onto the ground with a heavy thump.  We all cast him quizzical sort of looks, but no one said anything.  Mikio hated to have the reminders that he was a little different from us, and so we all sat down, figuring that it would be better to take a break than to point out the obvious.

It wasn’t that Mikio was weak or anything.  I guess I should state that now.  He wasn’t.  He just had a tendency to have dizzy spells, and the extremes in our conditions were likely taking a toll on him.  With a frown, he fiddled with his ear and shrugged.  “Well, this does beat training all summer,” he allowed slowly.

“If we were back home right now, we’d probably be getting smacked around by the old man’s insanely large sword,” Bas added.

Morio grinned.  “Yeah . . . laziness holds some advantages.”

I heaved a sigh and leaned back, letting the weak and watery sun shine down on me.  The sky was a little overcast, and it looked like it was trying to rain again, but for the moment, it was holding off.  I grimaced.  My clothes were sticking to me unpleasantly, still damp and clingy from the night before, but I figured that it was all right.  I mean, there really wasn’t any sense in complaining about it.

“Come on,” Mikio said, pushing himself to his feet once more as he reached for his backpack.

The rest of us got up, too, determined to tough it out . . .

 

~__~

 

By late afternoon, we were all feeling it, and while none of us actually came out and said it, all of us were starting to wonder if we ought to just pack it in, find a phone, and make the call to beg for mercy.  The day that had started out comfortably cool enough had somehow managed to morph into a muggy, sweltering mess.  It was nasty.  Bas stank badly.  Morio stank worse.  Even Mikio reeked, and me?  Well, I could smell myself a little, which, in translation, means that I smelled just as bad as the lot of them.  After all, if your stench is bad enough that you can smell yourself, then you know it’s bad, right?  Add to that the idea that our clothing really hadn’t properly dried out, and . . . Yeah, we were a pretty sad sight.

I don’t know about the rest of them.  Along around noon, we’d stopped talking much, and were, in fact, walking fairly far apart, though whether it was to keep from being overwhelmed by everyone else’s stench or a vain effort to keep our own from being overly noticeable, I wasn’t sure and didn’t much care.

So when he drew to a stop at the top of a steep hill, all of us stood and blinked.

Bas swallowed hard.  “Is that . . .?”

“. . . A mirage?” Morio breathed.

“It’s an . . .” Mikio murmured.

“Inn . . .” I said.

The four of us exchanged looks and ran—ran—down the hill toward that place, our flagging spirits soaring once more.  ‘A bed . . . a bath . . . food . . .’ I thought.  It ran through my head like a chant.

“G-guys . . .” Mikio called out as we sped past a posted sign.  He’d stopped to read it.

I snorted impatiently but jogged back.  “What?”

He gestured at the sign and slowly shook his head.  “It’s . . . it’s a couples’ retreat,” he said.  “Couples only.”

We all stopped dead in our tracks, the visions of a proper bed and bath and food paling quickly as the vastness of the implication set in.  “N . . . no way . . .” Bas breathed, looking like he was ready to rip something to shreds, and even at fifteen years old, he was most definitely big enough to do a massive amount of damage if he were so inclined.

“We-e-ell . . .” Morio drawled, idly scratching at a patch of something dry and flaky on his cheek, “so-o-o that’s easy.  We go find some women and pretend to be couples for the duration.”

Which wasn’t an entirely bad idea.

Except . . .

“Yeah?  And how’s that gonna work when you smell like your father’s crusty nutsack?” Bas growled.

Morio blinked then grinned.  “Nutsack?  That’s awesome!  I gotta spend more time Stateside . . .”

Bas swung at him.  He ducked out of the way.

“You kind of smell like a crusty nutsack, too, Bas,” Mikio pointed out calmly, fiddling with the twitching ear again.

“Hell!  He’s bigger than the rest of us!  He smells like about five frigging crusty nutsacks!” Morio quipped just before he dashed around behind the sign to grin at Bas from a distance.

Bas snorted, his cheeks reddening under the inch of road dust we’d managed to pick up, too.  “All right, you bakas!  Enough talk about nutsacks!” I growled.

A few girls who looked to be about our ages but who hadn’t gotten close enough to figure out that we really did stink giggled loudly and abruptly hurried the other way.

Morio sighed.

Mikio did, too.  “Well, maybe we can talk them into letting us clean up or something,” he suggested though he sounded dubious at best.  “I mean, it can’t hurt to ask, right?”

“Come on,” Bas suddenly said, jerking his head in the direction of the brightly painted inn.

Morio said nothing as he and I watched Bas and Mikio walk away.  In hindsight, that was probably the biggest mistake we’d made at that point.  Too bad we really didn’t know what was coming next or the two of us just might have turned tail and run away.  Fast.

 

~__~

 

“No frigging way.”

“It’s the only way,” Mikio explained calmly and for what had to be the fifteenth time in as many minutes.

“It smelled like they were cooking oden,” Bas mused.

Morio shot Bas a quelling glance as his expression shifted into a very pronounced show of stubbornness—proof positive that he actually was an Izayoi, I suppose.  “I’m not hungry,” he lied belligerently.

“It smelled almost as good as Mama’s oden,” Mikio commented sagely.

I said nothing.  As far as I was concerned, I was with Morio on this one—surprisingly.

“Nothing’s as good as Grandma’s oden,” Morio shot back sullenly.

“And they have two rooms with real beds, not futons,” Bas ventured.  “Said that they’d let us have them cheap, too.”

Morio snorted and crossed his arms over his chest, glowering out over the haze of green that were the rice paddies surrounding the tiny village.

“And they have a hot spring, too,” Mikio commented at length.  “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve been to a real hot spring?”

“Really hot,” Bas added.  “The guy said that lots of folks come here just for the spring.  Supposed to be heavy in minerals and all that to help sore muscles and stuff.  Said people come here all the way from . . . where, Mikio?”

“Hokkaido,” Mikio replied without missing a beat.

Bas nodded.  “Right.  Hokkaido.”

My ears twitched.  Damn it, I couldn’t help it.  ‘A . . . hot spring . . .’

Morio looked like he was trying not to listen to them and was failing miserably.  “I . . . I don’t care,” he muttered, kicking at a stone lying in the dirt path.

Bas and Mikio exchanged looks that I supposed Morio and I weren’t supposed to have seen.  Well, too bad.  We did.  The bastards . . .

“Anyway, he said that there’s another inn where we could probably stay, but . . .

“But?” Morio couldn’t help asking, and rather impatiently at that.

Bas shrugged.  “It’s about three days’ walk from here.  That way,” he replied, jerking his head in a vague sort of way to indicate the direction.

Morio very nearly whined out loud.  Three days?  That was an eternity, wasn’t it?

At least, it seemed like that to me . . . Oden?  Real beds?  A hot spring?

All I knew was that I was stinky, I was sore, I was tired, I was hungry, and all those things that those bastards were telling us were sounding like heaven on earth at the moment.

I kind of felt like crying . . . or killing someone . . .

 

~__~

 

“Your, uh, boobs are . . . crooked.”

I pinned Bas with as furious a glower as I could possibly muster while concentrating on not blushing furiously as I smashed my hands against my makeshift ‘breasts’ and shoved the right one up level with the left one.  “I hate you,” I bit out from between clenched teeth.

If it were any consolation, Bas didn’t look any more comfortable with the situation than I was.  It wasn’t much of one, though; not at all.

“I don’t know,” Mikio ventured as he stood back, one arm crossed over his chest supporting his elbow with his index finger curled thoughtfully over his lips.  “I’m pretty sure that my girlfriend would have bigger breasts than that . . .”

“Shove it up your ass, Mikio.  I ran out of stuffing,” Morio growled.  “If you don’t love me for what I am, then why are we even together?”

Bas cleared his throat and leaned toward Mikio just a little.  “I think your girlfriend has PMS.”

Mikio nodded slowly.

Morio snorted.  “Keh!  You men don’t understand how hard it is to be pretty, do you?”

I rolled my eyes.  “Shut up, Morio!”

“Why do we have to be the girls?” Morio demanded in a petulant little pout.

Bas snorted and rolled his eyes since he’d already explained it a couple times.  “I told you, Morio.  The guy already saw Mikio and me, and he knows we’re guys.  You two were the only ones he didn’t see, so you have to be the girls . . . damned ugly girls, but girls, nonetheless.”

Morio wrinkled his nose.  “Speak for yourself, Bassie-boy.  I’m pretty!  Right, Gunnar?”

It was completely humiliating, damn it.  Either way one looked at it, there was just no ‘good side’ to it, either.  The future Japanese tai-youkai, dressed like a girl—and a really ugly girl, at that?  And pretending to be Bas the Barbarian’s girlfriend, no less . . . all for two stupid rooms at the confounded inn that catered only to couples . . .

Real beds, real food, and a hot spring, Gunnar . . . Keep your eye on the prize, will you?

Yeah, the pep talk, courtesy of my youkai voice wasn’t really helping.

What was the phrase Bas had used before?  Ah, yes: ‘Taking one for the team’.  I guess that this was one of those times, wasn’t it?

“They’re never going to believe that he’s a woman,” Mikio remarked, nodding at me as he made his assessment.

I snorted.

“Oh, I don’t know.  He’s definitely from the prettier side of the family tree . . .” Bas mused.

I ground my teeth together.

“It might help if he didn’t look so irritated,” Mikio went on thoughtfully.

Bas nodded.  “Why don’t you try smiling?”

I tried.  I’m pretty sure that it looked more like I was ready to rip someone’s head off with my teeth.  They grimaced.

“Well, I don’t care,” Morio suddenly blurted, though the livid blush that was quite discernable despite the layer of grime on his face, “I just want to get clean and get fed, so come on.”

I’ll never really understand exactly why I went along with their ridiculous plan, but I did.  I guess it was simply because we were all completely miserable and desperate.  That combination was a bad, bad thing, but there you have it.  So there I was, dressed normally enough except for the fake boobs that we’d concocted with the sufficient use of nasty socks and Ace bandages from our collective first aid kits.  I was arrogant enough to think that the innkeeper would never believe that I was a girl—Morio, maybe, but never me.  After all, wasn’t it apparent, just from looking at me that I was most certainly not a girl?

Of course, I hadn’t taken into consideration that, at fifteen, I wasn’t nearly as broad in the shoulders as I would be later, and my arms weren’t really very defined, either.  It wasn’t to say that I was underdeveloped by any means, but I certainly wasn’t as large or broad as Bas, who had apparently been born huge, to start with.  No, I was lankier, and my Japanese heritage didn’t help much, either.  I’d only actually started shaving a few months before, and I only had to do so about once a week, tops.  Morio was much the same, and maybe a little worse off.  He was definitely the shortest of us, and he was so hyperactive that he burned off anything he ever ate long before it could become fat or muscle.  In those days, he was pretty well skin and bones.

To help the ruse, both Bas and Mikio clubbed back their hair to give themselves more ‘manly’ looks, I suppose.  Whatever . . . and I’m not sure what perverted twist of fate actually fell into play there, but it was just assumed that I’d be Bas’ ‘girlfriend’ and that Morio would be Mikio’s main squeeze.

And to this day, I try desperately not to think about the rest of it.  Suffice it to say that I’m not entirely sure that I’d do it again if I had to.

The innkeeper, as it turned out, was a squat little man in his late sixties or early seventies with thick glasses that he had to squint to see out of with a roly-poly little round wife that bowed and smiled and bowed some more without saying a word.  Still, as we stood there in the entryway being greeted by the keeper’s wife, the man stood back with his arms crossed over his chest, looking entirely suspect as he gave us the critical eye.

“You aren’t a girl,” he said, poking a finger in Morio’s direction.

His wife gasped, her hands flying up to flutter over her lips and looking properly affronted, all things considered.

Mikio cleared his throat.  “She, uh, has a glandular disorder,” he muttered, ear twitching wildly as he offered the man a polite bow.

“You have big hands like a boy,” the man went on, nodding at Morio, obviously still in doubt.  I quickly stuck my hands behind my back.

Morio and Mikio exchanged quick glances.  Morio looked like he was ready to bolt.

Hot springs and real beds,’ I told myself over and over again.

The man suddenly smiled and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest in a smug sort of way.  “Yes, yes . . . okay,” he agreed.  “I’ll show you to your rooms, yes?”

I think I might have let out a sigh of relief then as we fell in step behind the old man.  He led the way out of the back door and into the tranquil courtyard and along the open-air pathway.  He stopped at the first room and pushed the door aside.  “You want to clean up, yes?” he suggested.

“Kami, yes,” I blurted before I could stop myself.

The old man shot me a quick glance.  I clamped my mouth closed and tried to smile.

Bishounen!” he breathed, narrowing his eyes behind the thick glasses.

“Uh, n-no . . .” Bas hurried to say, giving me a quick jab with his elbow to shut me up, I supposed.  Clamping my mouth closed, I tried to think of a way to beat the hell out of him without it seeming entirely misplaced, given the circumstances . . . “She’s just . . . uh . . . a little hoarse; that’s all.  All that night, uh, air . . .”

The old man still looked rather perplexed and a lot dubious, but he nodded at Bas’ fumbled explanation.  And then, he stood back and waited almost expectantly.

Bas shot me a warning glance then gestured toward the room.  I suppose it was something like modern day chivalry.  I was still not amused.

The innkeeper cleared his throat and bowed.  “At this inn, it is customary to kiss your beloved to bestow good luck upon us,” he said and bowed again.  “Kissy kissy,” he finished in English, obviously having taken note that Bas spoke with a very discernable American accent.

I started to say that there was no way in the world that I was going to do any such thing.  After all, it was bad enough that I had demeaned myself by dressing up as a damned girl; there was no way come hell or high water that I was going to degenerate any further.

Unfortunately, Bas must’ve seen it on my face; my intention to tell them all to go straight to hell.  Before I could stop or think, there it was: the one thing that I still have nightmares about to this day: the kiss.

And it wasn’t that it was really that gross or even that long.  No, just a quick peck to show the innkeeper that we were, indeed, boyfriend and girlfriend—and the complete and utter humiliation that lingers in the back of my mind and soul and probably would till the end of time and beyond.

“Oh . . . my . . .” Morio said in a very high pitched falsetto.  If he were close enough for me to beat on him, I so would have . . .

That my face had to be completely red really didn’t help my cause, either, though the actual emotion was more of complete outrage.  Too bad that the innkeeper didn’t realize that little gem, damn it . . . My only saving grace was that a moment later, Bas pretty much pushed me into the room and closed the door with an audible sigh of relief, which saved me from further helpings of humble-pie dished up by the two bakas in the hallway.

 

~__~

 

The night was so silent that I could hear myself blink as I lay on the very edge of the huge bed.  Clean, fed, and reasonably assured that the public humiliation was all but over, I had to admit, however grudgingly, that it was nice to feel warm and dry and comfortable for the first time in days.  Bas was doing pretty much the same on the other side of the bed, neither of us willing to venture into what we silently considered ‘no man’s land’, and I could tell by the way he was breathing that he was still wide awake, too.  Outside in the night, I could hear the call of some birds, and I heaved a sigh.

“Hey, Gunnar . . .”

I considered ignoring him for just a moment then sighed yet again.  “What?”

His answer was long in coming.  “I . . . I was thinking,” he began then trailed off.

“About what?” I finally asked since it was quite obvious that he wasn’t about to go on.

The bed shuddered under his weight as he rolled over to face away from me, which was just fine, as far as I was concerned.  “I don’t think that we should tell anyone else about this,” he finally said.

I couldn’t help it.  Rolling over, I leaned up on my elbow and glowered at his back.  “Oh, you think?” I shot back sarcastically.  I was quite good with that back then . . .

Bas sighed, too.  “Well, there’s not really any real reason to tell anyone else about it, right?”

I snorted and flopped onto my back.  “Bas-tard,” I muttered under my breath.

“Oh, come on,” he grouched, smashing his head into his pillow in a rather grumpily.  “It’s not like I wanted to do that,” he went on.  “But you have to admit that it’s better than sleeping on the ground out there somewhere, right?”

Okay, so he had a point: a very small one.  “The hot spring was nice,” I admitted grudgingly.

Bas yawned.  “Besides, it could have been worse.”

“Oh?  How’s that?”

He shrugged, and judging from his tone of voice, he was starting to doze off.  “You could have had to kiss Morio.”

I sighed.  Again.

It was quiet for awhile.  I could feel the stress that had wrapped around my guts like a vise letting loose slowly.  A few minutes of comfortable silence . . . It was welcome.

“Oh, and Gunnar . . .?” Bas murmured.

“What?”

He stretched out a little more—not too much, though, since his legs were in danger of sticking off the end of the bed.  “If we stop at a convenience store tomorrow . . .”

“Yeah?”

He yawned again.  “You might want to pick up some Chap-Stick.”

A moment later, the bed started shaking, and I was sorely pressed not to knock the baka right off onto the floor.  Chap-Stick?  I needed Chap-Stick?

“Really.  Why don’t you pick up some breath mints?” I growled back.

Bas laughed harder, apparently finding amusement at my expense, which just figured.  His sense of humor was as warped as his father’s, after all.  I didn’t see anything funny about it, damn it.  I didn’t ask to be the girl, now did I?  It wasn’t my fault that Bas was unnaturally huge, was it?

Bas wound down at last and heaved a loud sigh.  “Maybe we’ll look back on this one day and laugh,” he remarked though he didn’t sound very positive about it.

I didn’t bother to respond to that.  There wasn’t a point, was there?  Our summer of freedom had somehow become my lifelong nightmare.  Think back about it and laugh?

Yeah, I didn’t think so, either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~The End~

Chapter Text

~~“All I Want for Christmas…”~~
~A Purity Oneshot~

 

 

~xXxXxXxXxXx~

~Cain~

~xXxXxXxXxXx~

 

The softest tickle woke Cain Zelig; the warmth that never failed to lend him a sense of encompassing well-being drawing a vague sort of smile from the North American tai-youkai as the lithe form of his mate snuggled closer under the thick chenille blanket that he’d pulled over them both just before drifting off to sleep.  Yawning wide, loath to open his eyes when the satisfaction of holding Gin close was so much more rewarding, Cain figured that he could use an extra hour or two of shut-eye . . .

“Cain?” Gin said quietly, her voice still a little muffled since she still had her head tucked securely under his chin, her fingers wrapped tightly into the strands of his golden bronze hair.

“Hmm?” he drawled, rubbing her shoulder with idle fingers.

She sighed happily, wiggling around to kiss his cheek before snuggling against him once more.  “You know what today is, don’t you?”

Cain nodded.  “It’s let the tai-youkai sleep in day,” he said.

Gin giggled and gave him a squeeze before sitting up and leaning over, stretching her fingers as far as she could in an effort to reach the teal silk robe that she’d discarded on the end of the huge bed.  “No, silly!  It’s the day!”

Draping his arm over his face, Cain managed not to grin—barely.  In the years since he and Gin had met, she really hadn’t changed that much.  She still had that one-track mind, and most of the time, it was centered on her one weakness.  “The day?  What’s the day?” he teased, knowing very well exactly what she was talking about since she’d been chattering on and on about it all last evening—at least until he’d managed to distract her with something far more enjoyable, that was . . .

Gin rolled her eyes and flopped back down beside him, landing dead-center on his chest, her bright golden eyes wide and sparkling.  He let out an exaggerated grunt, and she giggled.  True enough, she was so tiny that her paltry weight wasn’t nearly enough to knock the breath out of him, and she knew it.  “Oh, please, Zelig-sensei,” she complained, tugging his arm away from his eyes.  “That didn’t hurt!”

“That’s not true,” he argued with a mock frown.  “It killed me.  I’m dying.  I think my vision’s starting to fade . . .”

She giggled even more and tried to sit up only to squeal as his arms locked around her.  The sound escalated when he rolled to the side, effectively pinning her against the mattress as he rubbed his stubbly face against hers.  “It is not,” she managed between fits of laughter.  “Please, Cain?  You promised!

Heaving a sigh since he actually had promised—it was a last-ditch effort to convince her to let him distract her—he rolled over and leaned on his elbow, shaking his head slowly, watching as she shrugged into her robe as he tried to remind himself that he really was an honorable man.  “Okay,” he agreed, unable to keep the hint of disappointment out of his tone.  “You’re right; I promised.”

His reward was a brilliant smile that left him with the overwhelming sense of awe that such a creature really had chosen to be with him.  It was a feeling that he sincerely hoped never went away.  All too soon, however, the spell was broken as Gin hurried toward the steps that led down to the base level of the loft studio that he’d installed for them just after they’d gotten married, wiggling her fingers over her shoulder as she disappeared from view.

Flopping onto his back, Cain seriously considered whether or not Gin would have a fit if he conveniently forgot to get out of bed, but discarded the idea since he had a good feeling that while she wouldn’t gripe at him, she’d deal him one far worse by flattening her cute little hanyou ears against her head and telling him that she didn’t need to go; of course she didn’t . . .

And that would effectively make him feel like the complete ass he was for even considering trying to go back on his word.  After all, she only asked to do this . . . four times a year, tops . . .

At least she didn’t ask if you minded if her parents came to visit,’ his youkai blood piped up helpfully.

Cain snorted and sat up, lightly scratching the back of his neck as he wrinkled his nose at the reminder of Gin’s parents, or to be more precise, her father.  ‘That’s because she knows that I’ll tell her that I don’t care,’ he grumbled, wishing for all the world that it really wasn’t true.

Yeah, and she knows better, too.  Maybe it’s that ‘I-just-sucked-a-lemon’ look you always get on your ugly mug whenever she does ask.  Face it: you’re a piss-poor liar . . .’

Pfft!  Like her father doesn’t take advantage of every given opportunity to take potshots at me.’

Yeah, and like you don’t take advantage of every given opportunity to take those same potshots at Bellaniece’s mate.’

That’s entirely different.’

How so?

Perversely, Cain nearly grinned.  ‘Because he’s an ass-monkey—and I’m not.’

For the love of—how old are you, anyway?  Grow up, will you?

‘. . . Make me,’ he shot back, pulling on a pair of rumpled khaki slacks.  Gin had given up trying to iron his clothes long ago when he kept complaining about the starch and the feeling that he was wearing a damn business suit.

Nice, Zelig.  That’s really mature.  Anyway, you have to admit you do like her mother well enough.’

He had to concede that point.  He did like Gin’s mother.  Kagome Higurashi Izayoi was a kind, sweet woman—obviously where Gin had gotten her disposition since she certainly hadn’t gotten it from her surly, crabby, sarcastic, ill-mannered, angry father, InuYasha.  ‘Sure, I like her,’ he allowed.  ‘Not certain what she saw in him, but she seems sane enough otherwise . . .’

Yeah, well, you’d better get all that out of your system.  They’ll be here next week.’

Cain sighed.  As if he really needed that reminder, after all . . .

Still, he couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for himself as he pulled a faded teal rugby shirt over his head and ran down the steps.  One glance out the wall of windows was enough to draw a grimace from him.  It was snowing hard and had been for awhile, apparently, and while Gin was a good, safe driver, she wasn’t entirely comfortable driving in inclement conditions, either, so even if Cain wanted to back out of the impending excursion, there really wasn’t any way he would.

Anyway, he was thinking about it all wrong, he reasoned as he stepped into the bathroom and slowly shook his head.  Gin was showering—and singing one of their son’s newest songs, complete with words that were much nicer than anything that ever came out of Evan Zelig’s mouth, and Cain didn’t doubt for a moment that Gin really didn’t know what the actual words were or she might consider washing Evan’s mouth out with soap.  Then again, maybe not.  Her mind just didn’t work that way, and she didn’t quite understand that other people’s minds might be a little less innocent than hers was.  It was one of the things he adored about her.

It was also one of those things that normally ended in Cain’s agreement to do just about anything so long as it made Gin smile . . .

 

~xXxXxXxXxXx

~Gin~

~xXxXxXxXxXx~

 

I wonder what’s taking him so long . . .?’ Gin Izayoi Zelig mused, rubbing the fogged-over window and scowling at the snow that had been steadily falling all day.  The car was plenty toasty—Cain had left the engine running before telling her that he’d only be a minute and that she should wait here where it was warm.  She sighed, biting her lip as she tried to make out Cain’s silhouette in the sheet glass windows of the small grocery store.

Don’t worry about it, doll. Maybe he had to look for them.’

Wrinkling her nose, Gin shook her head.  ‘I can’t believe that none of the stores we’ve been to have any in stock,’ she mused.  ‘I mean, they’re always on the shelves on December first . . .’

Well, you heard the one gentleman, didn’t you?  He said that they were sold out.’

I know, but they can’t all be sold out, can they?  I mean, that’d be like a conspiracy or something . . . the Anti-Gin Movement . . .’

Now you’re just being ridiculous.  You don’t really think that someone’s out to get you, do you?’ her youkai chided.

It could be,’ Gin argued stubbornly.  ‘Why else would every store be out of my Reese’s peanut butter cup Christmas trees?

Her youkai sighed.  ‘That’s another thing: how long are you going to make Cain drive you around?  Why don’t you just get a couple of regular candy bars?

Biting her lip and unable to help the slight flattening of her ears when Cain emerged from the store without a tell-tale plastic bag to show for his efforts, Gin tamped down the surge of disappointment that this store also appeared to be out of her treasured Christmas tree peanut butter cups.  ‘You’re right,’ she allowed, albeit grudgingly.  ‘It’s just that the shaped ones have more peanut butter . . . and thicker chocolate, too . . .’

“No luck?” she asked, unable to keep her ears from flattening just a little as Cain got back into the Range Rover.

“I’m sorry, baby girl,” he said, grimacing at her obvious disappointment.  “That’s the last store in Bevelle,” he told her.  “I can’t believe everyone’s sold out of them.”

“Oh,” she breathed, biting her lip and staring at her hands clasped in her lap.  “I see . . .”

He heaved a sigh and shook his bangs out of his eyes before fastening his seat belt and cupping his hands together to blow into them.  “We can go a little further if you want,” he offered.

Forcing a smile, Gin reached over and placed a hand on her husband’s arm.  “No, it’s fine,” she said, willing herself to sound cheerful.  “Maybe just a regular peanut butter cup . . .”

Dark blue eyes narrowing as he slowly regarded her, Cain smiled that lopsided little grin that she so loved and slowly shook his head.  “It’s not so bad out,” he told her as he leaned in to kiss her cheek.  “Besides, it’s been awhile since we’ve gone anywhere alone . . .”

She smiled happily, and pulled him back down for a quick little kiss.  “If you’re sure, Zelig-sensei,” she said.

Cain rolled his eyes but chuckled.  “Whatever you want, Gin.”

“Surely they’ll have some in Walton,” she maintained.  Walton was about half an hour away to the east along the Maine coast.

Cain nodded, adjusting the rearview mirror before putting the vehicle in gear and slowly pulling out of the small store parking lot.

 

~xXxXxXxXxXx~

~Cain~

~xXxXxXxXxXx~

 

It just wasn’t possible, was it?  It really wasn’t.  It went against every single law of nature, didn’t it?  It really couldn’t be, and yet . . .

Cain Zelig sighed, rubbing his face with a tired hand as he stared incredulously at the young man stocking shelves in the tiny mom-and-pop grocery store.  His bright copper hair was so bright that it made him look like he was positively glowing, and the generous freckles that covered the bridge of his nose and the apples of his cheeks . . . well, at least the poor pup didn’t have buck teeth, Cain supposed . . . “You’re sold out?” he repeated with a shake of his head.

“Yes, sir,” the boy said, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other as he glanced around almost nervously.

Drawing a deep breath to stave back the bitter bite of exasperation, Cain sighed.  “Damn,” he muttered, more to himself than to the young man.  “What the hell is going on?”

“Maybe they’ve got some at Wendell’s,” the young man said, scratching the back of his neck.

Cain shook his head.  “Nope . . . No one has them.  Everyone’s sold out.”

“Sold out?”

“Yes, sold out.”

The pup looked as perplexed as Cain was.  “Sold out?” he repeated as though he thought that doing so might change Cain’s answer.

Cain nodded slowly, letting out his breath in a long gust.

“Well, we do have these,” the boy said, grabbing a package of regular Reese’s peanut butter cups off the shelf and extending them to Cain.

He stared at the candy for a few moments then took the package, figuring that it was better than nothing, never mind that he was pretty sure that, while Gin would accept these, he’d still end up feeling like he’d let her down, and all because the powers-that-be seemed to be set against him at the moment.  She’d smile, and she’d eat them gladly, and all the while, he’d know, wouldn’t he?  He’d know that he’d failed in keeping a promise to her, and it didn’t help to tell himself that he really couldn’t do anything about it, in the long run.

They’d been driving all day from town to town all over the area in hopes of finding the peanut butter cup Christmas trees that Gin craved.  Of course, around Valentine’s Day, it was the heart shaped ones.  At Easter, it was the egg shaped ones.  Come fall, it was the pumpkin shaped ones, and now . . . Cain sighed, wondering absently if the people at the Reese’s company would think that he was just a little out of his mind if he were to call them and ask them to sell him a case of the stupid things . . .

It just didn’t make sense, damn it.  Who in their right mind would be buying up all the peanut butter cup Christmas trees in the state of Maine—and Cain knew it, didn’t he?  He’d been driving all over the blasted state in search of the elusive candy treat all damned day . . .

You would,’ his youkai pointed out.

Cain snorted, following the boy through the small store toward the single checkout counter.  ‘Yeah, and the operative there would be ‘in their right mind’ . . .’

The boy didn’t say anything else as he slipped behind the counter and rang up the six-pack of peanut butter cups.  “Two ninety-nine,” he said.

Cain rubbed his eyes and glanced over at the magazines that Gin was currently inspecting.  Her little ears kept twitching, but she seemed absorbed in a copy of People magazine.  The jaunty little red beret perched sideways on her head seemed that much starker beside the palest strands of her slivery hair, just now pulled over her shoulder, cascading nearly to her tiny waist.  “A pack of Marlboro Reds, too,” he said, unconsciously lowering his voice lest his diminutive wife should hear.

“Can I see your ID, please?”

Cain blinked but complied, wondering vaguely when the last time he’d been asked to show ID to purchase cigarettes was.  He was nearly three hundred and fifty years old, for the love of God, and he was suddenly being carded?  It was laughable—well, almost.  At the moment, Cain was sorely pressed to find humor in much of anything, given the circumstances . . .

The young man looked over the card—it officially listed Cain’s age as forty.  It also officially gave his name as Caine Zelig.  The slight change in the spelling of his name had been necessary a few years ago when he’d had to retire the reclusive artist persona he’d lived for so long.  Still, the change wasn’t enough to be noteworthy, aside from having to remember to add the ‘e’ on the end of his first name whenever he signed human documentation.

“You’re from Bevelle?” the boy asked, scowling at the address given on Cain’s driver’s license.

“Yeah,” Cain replied, only halfway paying attention as his gaze sought out Gin once more.

“Wow, you’re like . . . four hours from home,” he commented then whistled low.  “You really came all this way just to buy some peanut butter cup Christmas trees?”

Cain stifled a longsuffering sigh since he really didn’t want to admit that he’d done any such thing.  “Yeah,” he finally said, unable to help the wry little smile that twisted his lips in the doing.

“Why?  I mean, the stuff in those is the same . . . there’s not a shortage of those, is there?” he asked, nodding at the package of candy bars still lying on the counter.

Cain retrieved the pack of cigarettes the pup had slipped onto the counter and shook his head.  “So far as I know?  No . . . just the trees.”

“That kind of sucks, doesn’t it?  Driving all the way out here . . .”

“Yeah, it kind of does,” Cain agreed ruefully.

“But why?”

Cain didn’t answer right away, though the smile that hadn’t dissipated widened slightly.  Catching the young man’s eye, he jerked his head toward the silver haired woman still poring over the magazine.  She was leaning slightly against the shelf, her figure buried beneath one of Cain’s fisherman’s sweaters and a thick wool coat trimmed with white fur around her slender wrists; around the gently flaring waist of the garment.  Even still, the delicateness of her features shone through, despite the jeans she wore and the clunky white boots on her feet.  As if she sensed their perusal, she glanced up only to break into a wide smile as she slipped the magazine back onto the rack and skipped over to Cain’s side.

“Did you find any?” she asked a little breathlessly, her golden eyes dancing with a sparkling brightness.

“No, baby girl.  I’m sorry,” he said, slipping an arm around her waist and grinning a little more when he noticed the pup’s awestruck stare.

She tried not to let her disappointment show; he had to give her that.  Still, it didn’t take much to see the slight drooping of her shoulders or the momentary frown that was easily displaced by the smile that wasn’t quite as bright as the one it was replacing.  “Oh . . . well, that’s okay,” she assured him, hugging him quickly and rising up on tip-toe as she tugged him down to kiss his cheek as she struggled to hide her disappointment.  It somehow made Cain feel like even more of a failure . . . “I don’t need them,” she insisted.

The boy shook his head slowly, brows drawing together as though he was contemplating something very serious, and he cleared his throat suddenly.  “I, uh . . . well, see, I bought a pack of them before my shift started . . . my mom loves them, you know?  Anyway . . . why don’t you take them?” he said, stooping over to retrieve something from under the counter.

Gin squealed happily when the boy produced a six-count package of the long-sought treats.  “Really?” she asked breathlessly, turning her powerful gaze on the boy, and for a second—only a second—Cain almost felt sorry for the poor pup.  He didn’t stand any better chance against Gin than Cain, himself, did . . .

“Uh . . . oh, I don’t—” Cain began.

The boy shook his head stubbornly.  “I insist . . . y-you guys have been driving around all day, huh?  Sounds like you could use these more than my ma.”

Cain could see it in Gin’s expression: she wanted to accept the pup’s generosity, but was loath to do it, especially after hearing that the candy was intended for his mother.  She shot Cain a quick glance, and he smiled at her.  “It’s all right, baby girl.  I’ll pay him extra.”

Her smile was bright and instantaneous.  With a happy squeak, she hopped up, bracing her weight on her hands as she leaned in and quickly brushed a kiss over the young man’s face that quickly darkened to clash horribly with his orangey-red hair.  That done, she nabbed the package of candy, shot Cain an exultant grin, and dashed out the door with her treasure.

Cain had to clear his throat a few times in order to break the lad out of his stupor, and it was all he could do not to laugh out loud when the guy turned his stricken expression on Cain once more.  “I-I-I think I feel a little sorry for you,” he stammered, his cheeks reddening almost painfully.

“Yeah, well, there are some perks,” he confessed then chuckled as he dug his wallet out again.  “Let me give you a little extra,” he said.  “Buy something else for your mother.”

“Uh, no,” he insisted, reaching for the package of plain peanut butter cups.  “Just call it even,” he said.

He still looked completely shell-shocked, and Cain couldn’t help but laugh as he dropped a couple of twenty dollar bills onto the counter before striding out of the store.

 

~xXxXxXxXxXx~

 

It was well after ten at night when they finally pulled into the driveway in front of the mansion that they called home.  Gin was chattering a mile a minute, having devoured all six peanut butter Christmas trees long ago and proving once more why Gin and sugar just didn’t mix.  Sometimes it was difficult for him to reconcile her in his mind as the mother of three grown children.  She was still the same woman at heart that he’d met so many years ago.

“—And you know, if they dipped the trees into chocolate again, then there’d be even more Christmas tree to love,” Gin was explaining.  Somewhere along the way, she’d decided that she needed to write the Hershey’s company to suggest a new line of double-dipped peanut butter trees—God forbid . . .

“I don’t know, Gin, I’d say that there’s more than enough chocolate on them, as it is,” he remarked.

Gin waved her hands dismissively.  “You can never have too much chocolate, Zelig-sensei,” she rebuked.

“If you don’t stop eating every peanut butter cup you get your baby-hands on, you’ll turn into one,” he told her.

She laughed and clapped her hands, looking positively giddy at the idea of turning into a peanut butter Gin.  “That’d be so great!” she exclaimed as Cain parked the Range Rover and killed the engine.  The snow was still falling though it had let up quite a bit.  If it kept up, they’d likely be snowed in by morning—not entirely a horrid thought, if anyone wanted his honest opinion . . . “If I were a peanut butter cup, you could eat me!” she went on.

Cain nearly choked as he stumbled out of the vehicle.  Years ago, he’d told Gin that she needed to think about what she was saying before it came out of her mouth, and while she was a little better with it, she still tended to say things in such a way that they could be considered racy—that was, if the listener didn’t know Gin for themselves . . . She was just too sweet and naïve to realize that some of the things she said could and were taken in a completely different light, and to be honest, it was one of those things that Cain just wouldn’t change about her; not for anything in the world . . .

She hopped out of the door as soon as Cain opened it for her.  With a giggle, she threw herself against his chest and kissed him soundly.  “You’re my hero, Cain Zelig,” she said between kisses.  “You drove me around all day just to find my candy!”

Cain chuckled and kissed Gin back before setting her on her feet once more.  “I don’t know about hero,” he told her.  “But if you want to think so . . .”

“I’ll make you an extra special cake tonight!” she promised.  “One of those coffee cakes you love, and—Evan!”

Cain shook his head, narrowing his eyes in confusion.  “Evan?” he echoed.

Gin giggled and nodded toward the front porch.  “My baby!  When did you get here?”

Blinking suddenly at Gin’s lightning fast change of topics, Cain finally noticed his youngest son standing on the porch with his arms crossed over his bare chest and a smug grin embedded on his face.  “Mama!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms open to beckon Gin closer for a hug.  He stepped forward to greet his mother, and Cain shook his head when he noticed that Evan wasn’t wearing shoes, either.  In fact, he might as well have been naked, too, considering that the boy’s jeans were so worn and torn that they seemed to be held together by little more than knots in the frayed tangles that created a network of tangled strands.

“The fastest rising star on the planet, and you can’t afford decent clothes?” Cain drawled, following Gin onto the porch, albeit at a much slower pace.

Evan just grinned at his father.  “Where you been all day, Cain?”

Leveling a pointed look at his son, Cain grunted indelicately.  “It’s ‘Dad’, Evan, and where do you think we were?”

“Today’s the day that the peanut butter Christmas trees were put out for sale,” Gin clarified.

Evan chuckled.  “You don’t say?  Well, hell . . . so you drove her around trying to find candy?” he teased.

Cain shook his head and stepped around his son to open the door.  “Of course I did,” he replied.  “Anyway, would you get inside before you end up sick?”

The amusement in Evan’s sapphire gaze didn’t diminish, but he did wrap a protective arm around his mother’s shoulders.  “I am youkai, after all,” he needlessly reminded Cain.  “Youkai don’t get sick.”

“Yes, well, if it’s all the same to you, I’d appreciate it if you would get inside, anyway.”

That said, Cain turned on his heel and strode into the house, only to stop short at the huge cardboard box sitting on the floor.  It wasn’t wrapped in Christmas paper, but it did have a huge tangle of ribbons tied around it.  “What’s this?” Cain asked, half-afraid to hear the answer.

Evan followed Gin into the house and closed the door with a smirk on his face.  “It’s an early Christmas present for my mama,” he explained.

“For me?” she repeated.

Evan nodded slowly.  “Yep.  Go ahead, Mama . . . open it.”

She didn’t need to be asked twice.  Hunkering down beside the box, she couldn’t even get her arms around it, and she spared him a quick glance before cutting through the ribbons with her razor-sharp claws.

Tossing the ribbon onto the floor, she pulled the flaps open and gasped . . .

Cain wasn’t sure what, exactly, he expected.  Evan wasn’t really known for being conventional, after all.  Still, he hadn’t expected what he did see, and he could only blink as Gin dug into the box with a very happy squeal only to pull out . . .

“Oh, hell!” Cain grumbled, shaking his head as the truth slowly dawned on him.  He’d spent the entire day driving around the Maine countryside, and Evan . . . Evan had been just a little faster, buying every package of peanut butter Christmas trees from every store that he saw . . . “You were the little shit who did that?” he demanded.

Evan’s already smug grin widened as Bas appeared from the direction of the kitchen.  He stopped short, eyes flaring wide when he saw the contents of Evan’s ‘present’.  Gin had already managed to unwrap two of them, and she alternated hands, very happily eating both of the candies.  Bas grimaced and skirted around the others only to stop beside Cain.  “That can’t be a good idea,” he mumbled, more to himself than to his father.

“Oh, my,” Bas’ mate, Sydnie said as she followed Bas out of the kitchen with a full, frothy glass of ice-cold milk.

Cain sighed and shrugged.  “Don’t suppose it is.”

“Oh, Bassie!  I think it’s cute,” Jillian Zelig Jamison remarked as she leaned up to kiss her father’s cheek.

“You would,” Jillian’s mate and long time best friend, Gavin said as he tugged his wife back aginst his chest and wrapped his arms around her waist.

“Sure, it’s cute,” Cain said in a resigned sort of tone.  At the rate Gin was going, she was going to be so hyped up on sugar that he might well have to scrape her off the ceiling.

“You’re such a sweet boy!” Gin said between bites of candy.

“Of course I am,” he agreed, wrapping his arms around his mother and leaning his chin on her shoulder.

“I need something to drink with this,” Gin decided before hurrying off toward the kitchen.

Evan watched her disappear around the corner before turning his entirely-too-pleased expression on his father.  “Top that, old man,” he goaded.

Cain rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he narrowed his eyes on his wayward son.   True enough, Evan might well have topped Cain’s contribution to Gin’s candy habit, at least for the day, but he wasn’t about to give up, either.  Besides, Cain didn’t doubt for a moment that Gin was gong to try to eat every single candy bar in the huge box, and God only help him if she did . . . “Don’t worry, Evan,” Cain said slowly, wondering if she'd notice if he hid the rest of the peanut butter cup Christmas trees . . . Unfortunately, he had a sinking suspicion that she most certainly would.  “I think I can hold my own.”

“Sure, you can,” Evan goaded.  “Sure, you can . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~The End~

 

Chapter Text

~A Purity Oneshot~
~Silent Night~

 

-O-O-O-O-O

Silent night Holy night … 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 16, 2071:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

It was strangely cold—frigid, really—with a wind that felt as though it were slicing right through him as he hunched his shoulders forward and ducked his chin, ears flattening against his skull as he quickened his pace on the winding path that meandered through InuYasha’s Forest.  ‘K-kami . . .’

For half a heartbeat, he actually had considered turning right around and getting back onto the bus that he’d just stepped out of, but he’d promised, hadn’t he?  Dinner with the family . . . The house would be warm, and that thought was more than enough to keep his feet moving despite the bone-deep chill that had already seeped into his body through the sensible suit he’d opted to wear to work this morning as well as the slate-gray, worsted-wool and cashmere top coat that looked nice but wasn’t nearly as warm as it looked like it would be in the store.

The song in the trees sounded more like a lament: a wrenching moan that twisted around his guts like an invisible vise.  He’d grown up here, listening to those sounds.  When he was small, he’d thought that the gurgle of water, the whisper of the leaves dancing on their precarious legs as they dangled from a thousand tree branches, sounded like a lullaby.  Now . . .?

Now he just wanted to escape it all, to find himself closeted away in the safety—the sanctuary—of the small house deep in the forest.

Pulling the lapels of the coat together just under his chin, he moved on, blinking fast as the wind whipped his long, silvery hair into his face, his eyes, gritting his teeth as the thin soles of the black patent leather dress shoes he’d chosen this morning slipped on the stones that were the darkened path.  It seemed to him that the wind was growing steadily worse, and without warning, he winced as his left ear started twitching crazily.

Damn it . . .’

But he was almost there.  Daring the wind to peek ahead of him, he could discern the faint glow of the lights inside the house: his destination.  When he’d spoken to his mother on the phone earlier, she’d assured him that she was looking forward to his visit.  He shook his head and kept moving.  The way she talked, she never got to see him, and that was just stupid, really.  He stopped in at least twice a week for dinner, and in the rare instance that he wasn’t able to, Izayoi Kagome had a habit of stopping by the office where he worked, arms laden with care packages, ranging from ready-to-heat dinners and the like to books that she figured he’d like to read and even the occasional bit for home decoration that she’d seen and ‘immediately thought of him’ . . .

He shook his head, chiding himself mentally for his less-than-forgiving line of thoughts.  His mother cared, and he knew well enough that she wasn’t just like that for his benefit.  She had a habit of doing that sort of thing all the time for his other siblings, too—didn’t she always have a box beside the front door where she put things for the latest care package she was working on for his only sister, Gin?  Kagome mailed out a package every month for her, and he’d seen often enough, the other things that Kagome had picked up for one sibling or another.

Still, the nagging feeling that he was still little more than a pup in her eyes grated on him.

Of course, maybe he wouldn’t feel that way if Kagome didn’t go out of her way to baby him, and the worst of it, really?  Well, he had to admit that he let her do it.  No, he just didn’t have it in him to fuss at her.  She was his mama, and he loved her, even if she did drive him to the very brink of his sanity sometimes . . .

 By the time he stepped up onto the porch and stomped his feet to knock off as much dust and dirt as he could, his fingertips as well as the tips of his ears were numb.  He could still feel the left one, twitching wildly, but it was in a vague sort of way.  Reaching for the handle and wondering absently if he’d be able to open it or not, he blinked in surprise as the door swung open before he could touch it.

“Oh, sweetie, it’s cold out here, isn’t it?” Izayoi Kagome crooned as she stepped back to allow him to step inside as she rubbed her forearms against the bitter chill that blew in with him.

“A little,” he replied in more of a mumble.  She hurriedly grasped the collar of his coat as he started to pull it off.  “Thanks.”

She waved off his gratitude with a flick of her wrist as she industriously shook out the garment and hung it on the brass hook beside the door.  “Don’t be silly, Mikio!  This is your home—even if you did choose to move into the city.”

She didn’t see his grimace as he carefully removed his shoes and reached for the nearby mules that she kept around for him.  “I-I know,” he muttered, keeping his face averted as he pushed himself to his feet again.  “Where’s Papa?”

He didn’t miss the slight faltering in her movements as she cleaned off his coat with a soft brush she kept in the table beside the door.  “Oh, you know him.  He’s here somewhere,” she replied in a falsely bright tone.  “Why don’t you go in the living room?  Dinner’s not quite ready yet, but it will be soon.”

Mikio stared at her for a moment but gathered nothing from the clipped, confident motions as she continued her tasks.  Shaking his head, he brushed aside the feeling of suspicion that had surfaced just moments before.  He had to be imagining things . . . “Okay.”

She paused long enough to offer him a bright smile and to tug him down so that she could kiss his cheek.  “I’ll get you some tea in a minute.”

He nodded and shuffled off toward the living room then ducked as a tablet of paper came flying down the steps from the loft—his father’s study.  “Keh!  Sorry ‘bout that,” Izayoi InuYasha grumbled as he stomped down the steps with an irritated scowl on his face and his little white hanyou ears twitching atop his head.

Retrieving the tablet, Mikio held it out to his father, who snatched it away and tossed it in the general vicinity of the nearby sofa.  “To hell with that,” he growled.  “I’ll deal with it later.”

“What was it?” Mikio asked, frowning at the notebook.

InuYasha grunted, planting his hands on his lean hips and glowering in the same direction as his son.  “The board wants to cut funding for the martial arts department.”

Mikio nodded.  It wasn’t a secret that the Japanese market was in a bit of a slump of late, and the alternative school that InuYasha had founded years ago was starting to feel some of the impact of it, too.  “So you’re trying to figure out how to keep from doing that,” Mikio surmised.

InuYasha nodded.  “Yeah, something like that.”

He shot his father a wan grin and shrugged.  “You’ll get it,” he encouraged.  “You always do.”

InuYasha didn’t look quite as convinced as Mikio sounded, but he nodded and rubbed his forehead in an exasperated sort of way.  “Sure thing.”

Mikio dug his hands into his pockets, ignoring the lingering numbness in his fingers.  “Mama have any ideas?  She normally comes up with some interesting ones . . .”

InuYasha snorted loudly.  “Ain’t asked her,” he muttered in a rather terse way.  “You been practicing?”

Blinking at the abrupt change in topics, Mikio shook his head.  “To tell the truth, I haven’t had as much time to do that lately,” he admitted.

InuYasha didn’t look too impressed with Mikio’s admission.  “Is that right?” he countered acerbically.

“I’ll do better,” Mikio muttered, absently wondering how it was that his parents could manage to make him feel as though he were no better than a three-year-old pup with scarcely more than a raised-eyebrow-ed expression or even something as simple as an inflection in their tones of voices . . . “Sorry, Papa.”

The mumbled apology earned him another probing look as the older hanyou crossed his arms over his chest.  “Don’t apologize to me, pup,” he countered almost mildly, “just don’t let yourself down.”

Mikio nodded stiffly as Kagome stepped into the living room.  “Dinner’s ready,” she said.  Mikio turned to acknowledge his mother’s words, but stopped short at the very tight little smile on her face.  Oh, maybe it might have fooled a stranger, but he could see right through it.  The good-natured light that normally illuminated her eyes was conspicuously missing, and as she caught her mate’s glance, that pitifully thin smile only widened.

InuYasha said nothing, however, opting instead to stomp off toward the kitchen, instead.  He followed behind, trying to shake off the unsettling feeling that something was very, very wrong.

Neither of his parents said anything as they sat down at the table.  Kagome smiled at her son as she served up a plate for him.  Mikio blinked as he stared at the food.  ‘Curry . . .?  She . . . she made curry . . .?

Heck, he knew as well as anyone that InuYasha despised anything ‘spicy’, as Kagome’s curry tended to be.  Mikio loved it, sure, but the only times he could recall his mother cooking such things was when she was irritated with the surly hanyou she called her mate, and Mikio knew that, too . . .

No doubt about it, something’s not right here . . .’

And even more curious?  Mikio blinked as he watched in unabashed surprise as his father shoveled the food into his mouth without as much as a flinch or a grimace.

Nope, just a stony silence that fell as thickly as a funeral pall.

Kagome cleared her throat.  “Mikio, dear, would you pass this to your father?”

Mikio blinked again, his ear twitching in an erratic, nervous sort of way, as he slowly, hesitantly, accepted the cup of tea his mother had just poured and handed it over to his father.

“Keh.  Tell her I don’t want it, thanks,” InuYasha grumbled, his face darkening in coloring as he stubbornly finished off his first serving.

Kagome paused for a moment before pasting on an even larger, definitely more tolerant smile.  “Darling, would you tell your father that I’ll be more than happy to get something else for him to drink if the tea is too hot.”

Mikio opened and closed his mouth a few times, as he slowly, slowly turned to face his father once more.  “Uh . . .”

“Tell her that the tea’s fine,” InuYasha growled.  “I just don’t want it.”

He frowned and shrugged, offering his mother a rather pathetic little half-smile that probably seemed more like a grimace.  “P-Papa doesn’t want it.”

For the briefest of moments, Mikio thought that his darling mother really was about to blow the proverbial ass-gasket, but a second later, she smiled again.  “Of course,” she agreed in a syrupy sweet tone.  “Would you be a doll and ask him if he’d like another helping?”

Mikio nodded, positive that his face had to be as scarlet as his father’s tee-shirt.  “Do you want more, Papa?” he muttered.

InuYasha snorted, narrowing his eyes almost dangerously as he opened his mouth, probably to tell his mate exactly what he thought of dinner.  Suddenly, though, he snapped it closed and nodded just one time.  “Yes,” he bit out, “because it’s delicious.”

Mikio’s eyes widened as Kagome stood up and refilled her mate’s plate, but she didn’t speak again until she’d set the plate before InuYasha and sat back down again.  “So, Mikio, have you heard from your sister?  I talked to her the other day, and she mentioned that she was trying to talk Cain into bringing her here for Christmas . . .”

InuYasha snorted but concentrated on his food.

“Uh, no,” Mikio confessed.  “I-I hope she can make it . . .”

“She could come and leave that damned bastard at home,” InuYasha pointed out in a completely surly sort of tone.

“Of course she’d want to bring her mate along,” Kagome went on as though she hadn’t heard InuYasha’s commentary.  “I mean, it’s only natural, right?”  She sighed and smiled—it was almost a normal looking one, at last.  “I really like that Cain.  He’s such a nice, easygoing guy.”

InuYasha snorted again.

Kagome ignored him and went on.  “He really takes wonderful care of Gin, doesn’t he?  You know, I don’t think that there’s anything he wouldn’t do for her, too . . .” Her smile turned a little wistful, and she sighed.  “Just a really, really nice man . . .”

“Tell your mama that if she likes that bastard so fucking much, she’s welcome to go live with him,” InuYasha mumbled.

“Uh . . .” Mikio stammered, ear twitching almost painfully now.

Kagome rolled her eyes and waved a hand in blatant dismissal.  “Tell your father that I’m perfectly happy here, of course.  I just meant that he ought to be pleased that Gin’s found such a wonderful mate.”

InuYasha slowly lifted his golden eyes to glower at his mate for several moments before he nodded curtly and blinked just once.  “Tell your mama that dinner was . . . fantastic . . . but I gotta get back to that damned proposal.  Wouldn’t want someone to think that I forgot about it, now would I?”

Mikio didn’t respond as he watched his father stand up and stomp out of the kitchen again.  He wasn’t sure if the strain of them both being in the same room was better or worse than the absolute silence that followed his departure.

“Would you like some more, dear?” Kagome asked suddenly, flicking a finger at Mikio’s untouched plate.

Mikio shook his head.  “Uh, no, thanks,” he managed.  “I, uh, had a late lunch . . .”

She stood up and plastered her hand against his forehead, uttering a sort of clucking sound as she tipped his head back to stare down into his face.  “Are you getting enough sleep?  Eating balanced meals?  You look a little flushed, sweetie . . .”

“I’m okay, Mama,” he replied, gently brushing her hands away and forcing himself to dig into his untouched food.  “What about you and Papa?  Are you . . . are you all right?”

With a falsely bright laugh, Kagome waved her hand again.  “Your father and I are just fine,” she assured him.  “Just fine!”

He said nothing as he continued to eat his dinner.  It could have been cardboard for all the flavor it held for him.  He didn’t doubt for a moment that it was delicious, but the strain that was still lingering in the air was more than enough to prevent him from being able to actually taste a damn thing.  A knot was forming deep in his gut; one that he just couldn’t ignore.  Grimacing at the plate in front of him, he stubbornly continued to eat.

“You know, I was thinking about cleaning out the cupboards,” Kagome said suddenly as she set her plate in the sink and whipped around to face him again.  “If your sister’s coming for Christmas, then I really think that I should . . .”

Mikio didn’t know what to say to that, so he stayed quiet, watching as Kagome strode over to retrieve a good-sized box that hadn’t been taken out to the recycling bins.  She snatched it off the floor and gave it a quick once-over before turning it bottom-side up over the trashcan and tapping on the bottom.

He just didn’t get it.  Sure, he was used to his parents’ bickering.  It was par for course in the Izayoi house.  It always had bothered him, but he’d grown a little more accustomed to it over the years.  Still, this wasn’t normal.  The tension that he simply couldn’t ignore was a painful thing, and even if his mother wished to pretend that nothing at all was wrong, he knew better.  He wasn’t stupid, after all . . .

Kagome hummed to herself as she opened the cupboards and rifled through the contents, and he heard the thumps as she stacked things in the box.  Mikio didn’t pay a lot of attention, however, lost as he was in his own contemplations.  Something told him that he wasn’t about to get a real answer out of his father, either, even if he were to ask.  That didn’t reassure him, though.  No, if anything, it made him feel just a little worse.

By some miracle, Mikio did manage to choke down all of his food, and without a word, he set the plate in the sink.  Kagome was still quite busy in her impromptu cleaning and didn’t remark as her son headed out of the kitchen, too.

It wasn’t hard to find InuYasha.  He was in his study once more, growling to himself over the notepad that he’d tossed down the stairs before dinner.  It took a moment for him to realize that Mikio was standing at the head of the stairs, and when he finally did, he heaved a sigh, dropping the notebook on his desk in favor of rubbing his temple as he slumped down a little deeper behind his desk.

“Papa . . .” Mikio heard himself saying, unsure what he really wanted to ask InuYasha.

“Yeah?”

Mikio squared his shoulders and tried to shrug nonchalantly.  “Are you . . . and Mama . . . fighting?”

That question brought the hanyou out of his chair, and he paced the length of the floor and back again before answering.  “Nope,” he lied.  Mikio knew it was a lie.

“You . . . you’re sure?”

InuYasha snorted indelicately.  “Keh!  Nothing’s wrong, pup,” he insisted.

Mikio frowned, unable to understand exactly why his parents were acting so strangely.  In the end, though, he couldn’t really get either of them to talk when they didn’t seem to be interested in coming clean.  “G-good,” he replied.  “That’s good, then.”

InuYasha turned to face Mikio, staring at him in that direct sort of way that he tended to do whenever Mikio said something that InuYasha didn’t believe.  At times like that, Mikio was pretty positive that his father had somehow mastered the art of lie detection.  He’d thought before that his father would make a damn fine attorney, if he had the patience for it.  Now, though . . .

But his cell phone rang, and InuYasha spared a moment to stare at his son for a long moment before turning around and grabbing the device.  “Izayoi.”

Mikio let out an audible breath and headed back down the steps.  He hadn’t figured that he’d get a real answer out of InuYasha; not really.  Still, he couldn’t help but be a little disappointed about it, too . . .

It wasn’t the first time that he’d sensed a good amount of tension in the air, though, either.  No, the difference was that it was the first time he’d ever seen the two of them behave like this.  Yelling, arguing, sure.  Those were the things that he had come to expect from one of InuYasha and Kagome’s infamous ‘moments’. This weird silence?  Being overly nice to one another, and then to resort to snide, almost catty, commentary?  Mikio just didn’t know what to do with that; not at all . . .

Stepping off the stairs, Mikio absently reached up to smash his palm against his wildly twitching ear.  His nerves never had been that good, but stress tended to make the entire thing worse, too.  Kichiro had always told him that it was natural, considering the precarious balance that Mikio’s body had, to start with.  If he were smart, he’d get the hell out of the house before he ended up flat on his back on the floor . . .

Biting his lip, he considered that for a moment then grimaced as visions of his mother’s overwhelming concern crashed down on him.  She’d probably end up demanding that he stay the night as she was hightailing it toward the telephone to call Kichiro to drag him over to give Mikio a full-out checkup—exactly what she’d done awhile back when he’d inadvertently ended up crashing to the floor during one of his less-than-shining moments.

Too bad he couldn’t bring himself just to slip out the door, and even if he could, he’d end up feeling guilty about it for the next year or so, and considering he was still feeling a little bad about moving out of the forest and into an apartment deep in the heart of Tokyo, he figured that it would be just a little more than he could take.  Besides that, Kagome had an uncanny guilt sensor embedded deep within her.  He didn’t doubt for a moment that she’d know, and she wasn’t above using that guilt to her advantage, either.  She’d have him talked into moving back home faster than he’d be able to blink . . .

You know, Mikio, there’s a good chance that you’re the reason why they’re fighting . . .’

That sentiment was enough to draw another grimace from him.  He’d been trying not to consider that idea, and, thanks to his youkai voice, there it was, staring him in the face.  ‘M . . . maybe not . . .’

But he didn’t really believe that, either . . . His mother had been against his moving away from the forest from the start.  InuYasha?  Well, his father had looked concerned, but he’d brushed it off quickly enough, stating that Mikio should do what he needed to do, and that Kagome would be better off to help him pack his things.

It’s entirely possible,’ his youkai went on philosophically.  ‘What else do those two ever argue about?

The grimace shifted into a very long, very drawn out sigh.  ‘That’s . . . true . . .’

And that was a fact, too.  He didn’t like it, no, but there wasn’t any real way to refute the truth of it.  Kagome was seemingly convinced that Mikio was still a baby.  InuYasha maintained that Mikio was well old enough to be let alone.  The stances weren’t so easily reconciled, either, and that left Mikio smack dab in the middle more often than not.

“Mikio?  Is that you?” his mother called from the kitchen.

Mikio let out a deep breath, shaking off the bleak thoughts that plagued him.  “Yeah,” he called back.  “I should probably get going . . .”

“Oh, wait a minute,” Kagome exclaimed as she hurried out of the kitchen with the box in her arms.  “Did you say something?”

He blinked and shook his head, unable to make sense of what she was carrying.  “Eh?  Nothing important,” he insisted, scratching his head in complete befuddlement.  “Mama . . .?”

She smiled a little wearily and shrugged as she shoved the box into his arms.  “I made some room in the cupboards,” she explained as though it were nothing at all.  “If your sister is coming, then I need to get some groceries, and those things were just taking up space.”

Just . . . taking up . . . space . . .?’ Mikio wondered.  It made no more sense to him than the rest of their odd behavior did, and he sighed inwardly.  “But . . . isn’t that Papa’s ninja food?”

Kagome didn’t even bat an eyelash.  “So he can go out and get more . . . unless he’s forgotten the way to the store, that is . . .”

“Forgotten?” he echoed.

She waved a hand dismissively.  “Never mind, sweetie.  Just wondering if hanyous can go senile; that’s all . . .”

Her answer was entirely suspect, as far as Mikio was concerned, but there was a strange sort of hardness in his mother’s expression that he just didn’t dare question.

And he wasn’t entirely certain how he managed to get out of the house without his mother taking issue with what had to be his odd behavior, but the longer he stayed, the more uncomfortable he became.  Luckily for him, though, his father didn’t come downstairs, which was just as well since he was relatively certain that seeing Mikio with every last container of ramen in the house stuffed into the box that his mother had insisted that he take with him would have probably brought about the commencement of World War III . . .

All he knew was that he had no idea what was going on in that house, and as he strode down the dirt road that led away from the front door, he sighed.  ‘Mama, cooking curry and giving away Papa’s ramen?  That . . . that just can’t be good . . . Not at all . . .’

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 16, 2071:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“Have you ever noticed, just how quiet the house is nowadays?”

Izayoi Kichiro glanced up, letting the pen in his hand drop to the tablet of paper where he’d been jotting notes on his current research as he met the almost sad look on his mate’s beautiful face.  “Yeah,” he admitted.  “It is, isn’t it?”

Bellaniece shuffled into the room, crossing her arms over her chest as the rueful expression deepened into something akin to melancholy.  “Not that I mind having you all to myself,” she allowed with a little shrug, “but . . . oh, I miss my girls . . .”

He smiled wanly and held out a hand to beckon her closer.  “Sami’ll be here tomorrow, and Isabelle and Griffin are coming in a few days, right?  Lexi promised that she’d try, and I’m sure that John will convince her to drag herself away from work long enough to be here for the holiday.  Then your house will be filled with your girls once more.”

“Don’t forget Kurt,” she chided.

“I was trying to,” Kichiro grumbled since he highly doubted he’d ever like that particular man.   To be honest, he still hadn’t quite reconciled himself to the idea that his daughter really had chosen to marry the likes of Kurt Drevin, but he was dealing with it.  Slowly.

“Hmm, but you promised you’d try to get along with him,” she reminded him.

He rolled his eyes and wiggled his fingers.  “You doubt my integrity?”

“Of course not.”  She sighed then smiled as she slipped her hand into his and let him tug her into his lap.  “That’s true . . . you’re such a smart man . . .”

Chuckling quietly, he kissed her forehead and wrapped his arms around her.  “You think so?  Well, how about this: why don’t we call it an early night, and you can show me just how much you like smart men?”

“Oh, now that’s a fantastic idea,” she purred, sparing a moment to kiss his cheek before getting to her feet and waiting for him to put his paperwork away.

“Have I told you that I’m glad you’ve decided to take a couple weeks off for the holidays?” Bellaniece asked as he shut off the light and tugged her out of the study.

“Ah, well, you can thank me for that, too,” he offered magnanimously.

Bellaniece giggled and let go of his hand long enough to reach for the lamp on the table behind the sofa but stopped when the knock sounded on the front door.

Kichiro made a face and shook his head, casting his mate an apologetic little smile as he moved off to answer it.  She blew him a kiss and picked up a stack of magazines before heading toward the kitchen to stow them in the recycling bin.

The blast of cold air that hit him straight on was blunted only by the lanky form of his younger brother when he opened the door.  Mikio looked distinctly troubled, and Kichiro stepped back to let him in as he caught a glimpse of the huge box of what looked to be ramen in Mikio’s arms.  “Taking donations?” he asked baldly as he closed the door and leaned against it.

“Uh, no,” Mikio commented, setting the box on the table beside the door.  “Mama gave this to me.”

That did get Kichiro’s attention.  “She gave you ramen?”

Mikio grimaced, holding up the box as he explained, “Papa’s ramen.”

“The old man’s . . .?” 

Mikio jerked his head once in a nod, then shrugged.  “Have you been over there today?” he asked instead, ignoring Kichiro’s question.

“No,” Kichiro replied.  “Why?”

Mikio heaved a sigh, his ears flattening momentarily as he shrugged off his coat and stooped down to remove his shoes.  “I think . . . they’re fighting,” he admitted.

Kichiro shifted his jaw as he considered that.  “Don’t worry about it too much,” he finally stated.  “Those two aren’t happy unless they’re arguing.”

Mikio shook his head stubbornly, pinning Kichiro with a blatantly defiant sort of look—something that wasn’t very common from that particular brother.  “No, you don’t understand,” he grumbled.  “I don’t mean they’re fighting, exactly.  More like they aren’t talking to each other.”

Blinking quickly, Kichiro snapped his mouth closed on the reassurances he’d already been forming.  It always seemed like Mikio tended to be hypersensitive to his parents’ moods, but that they weren’t speaking? That was odd . . . “What do you mean?”

Apparently relieved that Kichiro was taking him seriously, Mikio let out a deep breath and slowly shook his head.  “I mean that they kept telling me to tell the other one stuff . . . and . . .”

“And?” Kichiro prompted when Mikio trailed off.

Mikio grimaced again.  “And . . . See, Mama made curry tonight for dinner . . . and Papa . . .” He trailed off, scratching his head, as though he were trying to put his thoughts into words.  “He ate it . . .”

“Oh . . . wow . . .” Kichiro muttered, letting out a low whistle as he slowly shook his head.  “The old man ate it?  Is that right?”

He nodded.  “Then she gave me Papa’s ninja food, and I . . . well, I got out of there.”

Kichiro nodded, too, expression shifting into a scowl as he commiserated with his brother.  Mikio, he knew, hated to be caught up in any sort of contention, especially when it involved their parents.  Kichiro, of course, was damn good at ignoring InuYasha and Kagome’s little tiffs, but then, Mikio had always been far more attuned to it than he was.  “I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said with a half-hearted shrug.  “I mean, hell . . . those two aren’t happy unless they’re arguing about something.”

Mikio’s grimace deepened at Kichiro’s attempt to make light of the situation. Scratching his head, he didn’t look like he was buying.  “It’s not like that,” he muttered, shaking his head stubbornly.  “They weren’t fighting, Kich.  They just weren’t talking.”

That was enough to give him pause. If what Mikio said were true, then it would be different, no doubt about it.  Not talking?  That was odd . . . “Are you sure you’re not reading more into it than what’s there?” he asked cautiously.

He wasn’t surprised when Mikio shot him a fulminating glower.  “Forget it,” he mumbled, veering away and stuffing his feet into his shoes.

“Wait, wait,” Kichiro insisted, grabbing Mikio’s arm and pulling him back.  Glancing at his watch, he sighed.  “Look, if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll go over and see what’s going on.”

Nodding grudgingly, Mikio draped his hands on his hips, saying nothing as Kichiro sat on the edge of the platform to slip on his shoes.

“Belle-chan, I’m stepping out for a minute,” he called, tugging on his shoestrings.

She stepped into the foyer and leaned against the doorway.  “Is something wrong?” she asked, her pretty face contorted in a worried frown.

He spared a moment to cast her a quick grin.  “Nah.  Just going to check up on Mama and the old man.”

She didn’t look entirely pleased, but she did nod once.  “All right,” she allowed then smiled as she turned to face Mikio, who was also putting on his shoes.  “I’ll make a pot of coffee for you two when you get back. It’s pretty cold out there, isn’t it?”

“Thank you,” he called after her as she sashayed out of the foyer.  Pushing himself to his feet, he reached for his coat as Mikio waited impatiently.  “Eh, let’s see what’s going on.”

Kichiro reached for the door handle and pulled it open, only to blink and step back quickly when InuYasha stepped inside, his expression inscrutable, though the irritation he was suffering was blatantly obvious.  Without a word, he glanced around, spotting the cardboard box of ramen on the table, and he snatched it up and whipped around, stomping back out the door once more.

Mikio blinked and shook his head, gesturing at the empty doorway.  “You see?” he blurted without preamble.

Kichiro nodded slowly, scowling at the disappearing form of their father as he hauled ass toward the trees.

The night was colder than normal, Kichiro noted as they stepped outside.  Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he glanced back at Mikio in time to see him hunch his shoulders forward and tug his lapels closed.

No doubt about it, there really was something odd going on.  That Kagome had actually given away the old man’s ramen was curious enough, but the odd lack of any real commentary when he’d come to retrieve it was even stranger, and the longer that Kichiro dwelled upon it, the more surreal it seemed to him.

“Stay out here,” he said when the two of them reached the edge of the clearing where the familiar house stood.  Mikio nodded and hung back, leaning against one of the stout tree trunks to wait.  Kichiro started away, and when he glanced over his shoulder, he had to do a double take since his brother had managed to fade in with his surroundings.  Too bad the flash of wispy silver—his hair—gave him away . . .

The house was calm and quiet when Kichiro stepped inside and pushed the door closed. He could feel his parents’ presences, and he didn’t sense any real tension in the air.  That didn’t make sense, did it? Mikio wouldn’t have exaggerated everything, and he knew it.  Still, he would have to be the first to admit that his younger brother actually did tend to overanalyze things when it came to their parents, and not that Kichiro blamed him; not really.

Ever since he was a pup, InuYasha and Kagome had differed with one another regarding Mikio and his unique problems.  That had only gotten worse over time, and everyone knew that, too.  Kagome tended to over-mother him while InuYasha was of the opinion that Mikio didn’t want or need to be coddled—true enough, in Kichiro’s opinion.  Then again, after dealing with his own daughter’s disappearance earlier in the year, he couldn’t rightfully say that he didn’t understand Kagome’s feelings, either.

Of course, that was neither here nor there.  Mikio was the one who invariably felt as though he were trapped in the middle, and given his aversion to being the center of attention, Kichiro couldn’t rightfully blame him for that, either.

“Oh, Kichiro!  Is everything all right?” Kagome asked, glancing around in what could only be described as a completely suspect sort of way.

Kichiro nodded and smiled at his mother.  “Yeah, fine,” he assured her as he leaned down to kiss her cheek.  “Just thought I’d come by to see if you’d heard from Gin yet . . . Belle-chan was wondering if her . . .” He made a face, still unable to quite reconcile the knowledge that Bellaniece really was that ass’ flesh and blood despite the passage of years.  “Well, if Cain was going to be here for Christmas.”

Kagome sighed and waved a hand before offering a little shrug and a wan smile.  “I haven’t heard for sure yet,” she replied.  “I hope so . . . I mean, it just never feels quite right to have Christmas without your sister.”

Kichiro bit his lip and frowned.  She seemed normal, didn’t she?  Just what was going on . . .? “Is the old man around?  I wanted to ask him something,” he plunged on, eyeing his mother somewhat covertly, trying to discern any odd reactions.

She rubbed her forehead and forced her smile to brighten.  “Your father?  Oh, he’s around here somewhere,” she hedged.  “Why don’t you sit down and have a cup of tea?  I just made a fresh pot . . .”

“Ah, well, I really can’t.  Belle-chan’s waiting up for me . . .”

Kagome made a face then shrugged.  “You shouldn’t keep a woman waiting,” she chided.

Kichiro chuckled.  “I won’t,” he promised.  “Mama . . . tell me something?”

Kagome grabbed the brush off the table and started gently cleaning his coat that he was still wearing.  “Anything, sweetie.”

Craning his neck to peer over his shoulder, Kichiro probed his mother’s face for a long moment.  She had her gaze averted, intent on her task, and she gave away nothing in her serene expression.  “Are you and the old man . . . okay?”

She faltered mid-stroke and shot him an almost nervous sort of glance.  “O-of course we are, Kichiro,” she murmured, eyelashes fluttering as a wash of uncomfortable color surfaced in her cheeks.  “Why wouldn’t we be?”

He shook his head.  “I don’t know.  It just feels a little weird.”

She heaved a sigh and dropped the brush on the table again before crossing her arms over her chest and offering a belligerent little shrug.  “Don’t you worry about us; do you hear?  We’re fine—just fine.”

He stared at her for another minute, unsure whether or not he ought to believe her adamant claims.  In the end, though, he couldn’t get Mikio’s statement out of his head: “And . . . See, Mama made curry tonight for dinner . . . and Papa . . . He ate it . . .”

But he didn’t argue with her, either, as he kissed his mother goodnight and slipped back out of the house once more.  Yeah, it was strange.  Mikio was right.  Too bad he was no closer than Mikio in figuring out exactly what the hell was going on . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 17,  2071:.
.:Bevelle, Maine:.

 

Gin Zelig whimpered and burrowed a little closer to her mate’s side when the obtrusive tone of the ringing phone broke through the comfortable silence with all the finesse of fingernails on a chalkboard.  Beside her, Cain Zelig grunted, refusing to open his eyes as he groped clumsily for the offending device.

“H-hello?” he rasped out, his voice still thick with sleep.

“Ah, I’m so sorry, Zelig-san,” a distinctly Japanese voice greeted quietly.  “I must have miscalculated the time difference . . .”

Forcing an eye open, Cain glanced at the glowing red numbers on the alarm clock beside him.  ‘Five a.m.?  Damn . . .’

“I’m sorry,” he apologized again.  “I just wanted to talk to Gin, but I’ll call back later.”

“Okay,” Cain muttered, reaching over to hang up the receiver without a second thought.

Gin sat up quickly, grabbing the phone before he could accomplish it.  “Cain!” she chided.  “That sounded like Mikio!”

He stifled a yawn with the back of his wrist as he gave her a little squeeze.  “That’s because it is Mikio.”

“Is something wrong?” she demanded, her eyebrows furrowed in a marked frown.

Cain nodded, grudgingly admitting that Mikio did tend to be a lot more mindful of time differences, and that he had ignored them this time?  Well, it probably didn’t bode well . . . “He sounds a little upset.”

She spared a moment to frown at him then reluctantly brought the phone to her ear.  “Mikio?  What’s the matter?”

“Gin?  I’m sorry . . . I just . . . A-are you coming home for Christmas?” Mikio asked suddenly.

Gin rubbed her forehead, struggling to clear her mind.  She’d never been that sharp first thing in the morning, and Cain had kept her up rather late the night before—something about needing a back rub that she never did get around to giving him—she was even more tired than usual.  “Coming home?” she echoed dully.

Mikio cleared his throat.  “Mama was hoping . . . a-and . . .”

“We are home, Gin,” Cain grumbled, tugging her down beside him and pulling her close.  She didn’t miss the little flinch when the cool plastic phone receiver touched his very warm skin.

“Hold on a minute, Mikio,” she said, lowering the receiver to smash it against the soft flannel sheet.  “But, Cain . . .” she began in a plaintive tone.  “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Mama and Papa, and—”

“And they were here for months and months—here—as in, living here, in my house—under my roof—up my ass,” he argued a little too reasonably.

Gin blinked and slowly shook her head.  “I don’t think Mama was ever up your . . . heinie,” she pointed out.

Cain snorted.

“Please?”

He grunted.

“Don’t you want to see Bellaniece?”

“Bellaniece?  Yes.  Your father?  I’ll pass.”

She wrinkled her nose.  “Papa’s not that bad.”

“Yeah,” he agreed rather acerbically, “about as nice as having ringworm . . .”

“You’ve had ringworm?”

Cain rolled his eyes.  “Focus, baby girl.  Focus.”

She heaved a sigh designed to let him know exactly what she thought of his stubborn insistence.  He glanced at her then heaved a sigh.  “That is completely unfair,” he pointed out, pushing her gently toward the far side of the bed as he tossed back the blankets and rolled to his feet.

She blinked a few times, unsure what he was talking about.  “What?”

He snorted again, waving a hand in the general direction of her head.  “That!

Gin reached up and touched her hair, realizing a moment too late that she’d inadvertently flattened her ears.  Opening her mouth to protest her innocence, she sighed.  He was already halfway down the metal steps that led to the studio he used for his artwork.  She sat up on her knees and peered over the edge of the railing, only to see Cain swipe up his cell phone and to flick through the numbers it contained.  “Yeah, hi . . . I need to book a flight, please . . . Tokyo, Japan . . .”

She couldn’t decide if she ought to feel really bad or really giddy, all things considered.  She settled for promising herself that she’d make an extra special cake for him as she lifted the receiver again.  “Mikio?  We’ll be there,” she promised.

He breathed an audible sigh of relief.  “Good . . .”

“Is something wrong?” she pressed again.

“Uh . . . I’ll talk to you when you get here,” he promised.

Gin frowned.  “Okay,” she agreed slowly, ears quirking when she intercepted the faint rustle of what sounded like a plastic wrapper . . . a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrapper . . .

“I’ll let you go then,” Mikio went on.  “Have a safe flight.”

Gin wasn’t sure if she answered him or not.  Dropping the receiver carelessly on the coverlet, she bounded out of the bed and down the steps, the rattle of candy wrappers filling her ears . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 17, 2071:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“You really think he’ll be able to find out anything?”

Kichiro shrugged without taking his eyes off the front of the house.  “Probably not.”

Mikio let out a deep breath and fiddled with his twitching left ear as he frowned up at his brother, crouched in the lower branches of the tree above him.  “But he has to, right?  I mean, Mama and Papa . . . they’ve got to be talking by now, don’t they?”

“You’d think,” Kichiro muttered.  “They normally don’t stay mad at each other that long . . .”

“They seemed like they still were . . . or whatever they’re calling it.  I guess it’s not fighting if they’re not talking, is it?” Mikio grumbled.

“Oi, here he comes . . .”

Mikio shifted his gaze in time to see their eldest brother stomp out of the Izayoi house, straight toward them.

“Well?” Kichiro demanded as he dropped from the branches in front of Ryomaru.

Ryomaru shook his head and snorted.  “They said they ain’t fighting,” he replied.

Kichiro considered that with a frown.  “So they weren’t?”

“Dunno . . . Mother asked if anyone had seen her cell, and the old man said that she’d probably forgotten where she stuck it since she’s been having trouble with her memory lately.”

The other two brothers blinked.  Mikio was the first to recover.  “She has?”

Ryomaru shrugged.  “Mother said that the old man must be losing his marbles . . . something about spending fifty years pinned to a tree probably did it.”

Kichiro whistled.  Mikio flinched.  Ryomaru sighed and glanced around, finally settling upon staring up through the branches of the trees.  “You know what this means, don’t you?”

Kichiro thought it over and nodded.  “Guess it can’t be helped, can it?”

“Nope,” Ryomaru intoned.

Mikio shook his head.  “What?”

The twins looked at each other and very seriously, very slowly nodded.

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 17, 2071:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“Don’t be obvious about it.”

“And don’t be fucking stupid, either.”

“Please don’t tell them that we asked you to do it.”

Toga spared a moment to pin each of the Izayoi brothers with a probing stare before shaking his head and glancing through the trees at the house.  “I know; I know,” he reassured them for what had to be the hundredth time since Kichiro had talked him into coming out to see if he could get anything out of his aunt and uncle.  “Refresh my memory, would you?  Why is it that you think I can get them to talk if you couldn’t?”

Ryomaru snorted.  “Because they like you,” he grumbled.

Toga rolled his eyes.  “Oh, yeah, that’s right.”

“W . . . They like me,” Mikio muttered, clearly irritated by the insinuation.

Kichiro chuckled.  “Yeah, but you’re the baby, so you don’t count.  Parents never tell the baby anything.  It’s an unwritten rule.”

Mikio snorted—a sound that was wholly out of character for him.

Toga heaved a sigh, scratching his head thoughtfully as he stared at the nearby house.  “I don’t know,” he drawled at length.  “If they wanted you three to know what, if anything, was going on, they’d have told you; don’t you think?”

That earned him three very significant glowers.  “Get your ass in there and take one for the team, you wuss,” Ryomaru growled.

Kichiro clapped Toga on the shoulder and shoved him hard.  “If you don’t come back, I’ll marry Sierra and start my harem.”

Toga snorted.  “Keh!  As if she’d want a baka like you—you’re like the hamburger listed on the menu just after the prime rib.”

“I’m like the after dinner mint following a really crappy, highly overpriced meal,” Kichiro quipped.  “Now move.”

Toga shook his head but stomped away, heading toward the house.

“Think they’ll tell him anything?” Mikio asked at length.

Ryomaru grunted.  “Hells, no,” he shot back.  “With any luck, though, the old man’ll thump him a good one.”

“I don’t know,” Mikio drawled slowly.  “Maybe they’ll tell him something . . .”

Kichiro nodded but remained silent.

“What . . . the hell are you doing?”

Mikio turned at the sound of his nephew’s voice in time to catch Zelig Sebastian’s expression of complete confusion with just a hint of trepidation clouding his bright golden eyes.  “Da-da-da-da,” Bailey, Bas’ son, burbled from the safety of his father’s arms.

“They’re arguing—or something,” Mikio muttered, jerking his head in the general direction of the Izayoi house.

Bas shifted Bailey from the right side to his left, absently tugging on the little white fur hood that was perched atop his downy head.  The tiny silver bell sewed to the top of the cap jingled merrily, catching Ryomaru’s attention and forcing the hanyou to do a classic double take.  “Oh, for the love of kami . . .” he muttered, waving a hand at the pup.  “Who the fuck put that on there?”

Bas rolled his eyes but grinned.  “Sydnie thought it was cute,” he pointed out mildly.

“He ain’t a fucking cow,” Ryomaru grumbled with a shake of his head.  “Putting damn bells on the next fucking tai-youkai?  Keh!”

Bas ignored Ryomaru’s condemnations and gave the bell another little flick with his claw.  “So . . . gonna tell me what the hell you’re doing out here?” he prodded.

Mikio let out a deep breath, unable to resist as he reached over to give the bell a flick, too.  Bailey squealed happily just before jamming his mitten-covered hand into his mouth.  “We’re waiting to see if Toga has any luck in finding out why Mama and Papa are fighting.”

Bas considered that then shrugged offhandedly.  “Well, aren’t they usually fighting?”

“Yeah, it’s different this time,” Mikio insisted.

Bas didn’t look like he was buying into it, but he finally shrugged again as Ryomaru, in a fit of irritation, cut the bell off Bailey’s hat and tossed it aside.  Bas rolled his eyes.  Bailey just blinked at his great-uncle.  “So you sent Toga in there?  Why didn’t you guys try to find out?”

Kichiro snorted.  “We did.  Didn’t work—obviously.”

“Hmm, looks like it didn’t work for him, either,” Bas remarked as Toga slipped out of the house and slowly shook his head.

“Well, balls!” Ryomaru hissed.

Mikio slowly nodded.

“Uncle Yasha said that everything’s—and I quote—fine—fucking fine . . . so get the hell outta here,” Toga said as he drew abreast of the gathering.

“Kami, you suck,” Ryomaru grumbled, draping his hands on his hips and shaking his head at his cousin.

“Losing your touch, Toga?” Kichiro goaded.

Toga narrowed his gaze and pinned each of the twins with a somewhat bored expression.  “I told you it wouldn’t work, if you’ll recall.”

“So what are we going to do next?” Mikio cut in before the discussion degenerated any further.

“Keh!  Send the pup in there . . . Mother’s a sucker for pups,” Ryomaru suggested.

“Maybe, but that won’t really get an answer out of them, don’t you think?” Bas argued.

Kichiro clapped Bas on the shoulder.  “Can’t hurt, can it?”

“You know, I’m morally against the idea of using my son to try to trick Grandma,” Bas pointed out as he started toward the house.

“Just shut up and do it!” Kichiro hissed.

Bas kept walking, nodding to indicate that he’d heard his uncle though he didn’t respond.

Heaving a sigh, Kichiro shifted his gaze to the side, staring at Toga for several long moments.  “Did you even try to find out, or did you just go in there and tell him that we’d sent you?”

Toga wrinkled his nose.  “I was subtle,” he insisted.

“Baka,” Ryomaru muttered under his breath, reaching over to whack the back of Toga’s head.

Toga must’ve realized what was coming, and he ducked just in time.  Luckily for him, Ryomaru missed, but he didn’t miss Kichiro, who swung around to glower at his brother.  “What the hell was that for, bastard?” he demanded.

Ryomaru snorted.  “Keh!  That Toga-fucker ducked,” he explained.

Kichiro didn’t look like he was going to buy the explanation.  A moment later, his hand shot out, grasping Ryomaru’s nipple and twisting hard.

Oww-w-w!” Ryomaru howled, spinning away from Kichiro’s iron grip-of-doom.  “Nipple stud—nipple stud—nipple stud—nipple stud!”

“Baka—baka—baka—baka,” Toga muttered.

The twins glanced at each other then at Toga, who was still watching the house with avid intensity.  Mikio blinked and barely had enough time to hop back as the two older Izayoi brothers lunged at Toga.  One minute, the current Japanese tai-youkai was standing there, completely oblivious to the mayhem heading his way.  The next minute, he had his dignity down around his ankles.

Mikio let out a deep breath and shook his head as Toga yanked his pants pack up and glowered at the twins.  “You’d think that you’d have outgrown that,” he grumbled.

Ryomaru grinned unrepentantly.  “Yeah, you’d think.”

Too bad no one got a chance to retort.  A sudden rattle in the barren tree branches above gave way to a chorus of pained cries.  A heavy ‘thump’ atop his head, and Mikio saw stars as he gripped his head and uttered a low groan.

The stars cleared slowly, and Mikio grimace as he found himself staring at the blatant irritation on his father’s face as he glowered at each and every one of them.  “What the fuck do you all think you’re doing?”  InuYasha demanded.

Ryomaru was the first to recover enough to answer.  “Just . . . hanging out, old man,” he mumbled, rubbing his head where InuYasha’s fist had connected.

InuYasha snorted.  “Mind your own fucking business,” he growled, crossing his arms over his chest and looking entirely formidable.

The four exchanged significant looks.  Kichiro cleared his throat.  “Okay,” he allowed, having gotten over the sting of InuYasha’s impromptu ‘correction’.  “How about you tell us why you and Mama aren’t seeing eye to eye?”

“Keh!  Get the hell outta my forest, pup,” InuYasha snarled as he pivoted on his heel and started to stomp away.

Kichiro cleared his throat.  “But . . . uh . . . we live here, old man,” he pointed out a little too reasonably.  “At least, some of us do . . .”

For a moment, Mikio really thought that InuYasha was going to come right back and thump them all once more.  Instead, though, he muttered something that they were all better off not hearing before he moved on.

“Guess he figured out what we were doing,” Kichiro remarked after InuYasha had disappeared into the house once more.

Toga let out a deep breath and nodded.  “Are you going to give up?”

Ryomaru snorted.  “Hell, no,” he retorted.  “Now I really, really wanna know what’s going on . . .”

Mikio heaved a sigh, idly scratching his head as he stared at the house, too.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Me, too . . .”

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 17, 2071:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“So . . . Kichiro, Ryomaru, Bas, and Father all went in there, got nothing except a good thump on the head, and you want me to take a shot at it now, too?”

Ears flicking just slightly as he gazed steadily at Mikio, Inutaisho Mamoruzen—Gunnar, to most everyone—somehow managed to look bored as well as a little condescending.  Mikio shrugged.  “Uh, yeah.”

Gunnar nodded slowly.  “And why would I do that?” he countered.

Mikio stuffed his hands into his pockets, trying to ignore the brisk wind that had continued from the night before, even if it had dulled just enough to keep from feeling like a series of razor blades against his bare skin.  “Because it’ll ruin the holiday if they’re still arguing on Christmas Eve, and your father really hates it when your mother’s Christmases get ruined.”

Gunnar opened his mouth to argue then snapped it closed when Toga nodded ever so slowly.  “I do,” Toga agreed nonchalantly.  “I really, really do.”

“Fine,” Gunnar uttered tersely.

Bas caught Gunnar’s arm before the latter could walk away.  “Do me a favor, would you?”

Gunnar rolled his eyes but raised his eyebrows at Bas in silent question.

“Retrieve Bailey for me.  Grandma sort of claimed him.”

He actually looked at Bas as though he’d just sprouted another head.  “He’s a baby, Bas.  I don’t do babies, remember?”

Bas made a face.  “Don’t be stupid, Gun.  All you have to do is bring him out with you.  You’ll have him in your arms all of, what?  A minute?  Get a grip.”

Gunnar didn’t look like he wanted to comply, but he finally nodded curtly and walked away.

Mikio cleared his throat.  “You actually trust him to bring out Bailey?”

“As long as he doesn’t drop him, sure,” Bas replied.

“Bailey’ll be scarred for life,” Mikio predicted.

“Nah,” Bas said then sighed.  “Well, maybe . . .”

To be honest, Mikio didn’t really expect Gunnar to have any more luck than anyone else had thus far.  In fact, he was starting to wonder whether or not anyone actually would.  His last great hope was Gin, of course.  InuYasha had always had a soft spot for his only daughter, after all.  She wouldn’t be in until tomorrow, though, and it was luck that she was able to get a flight on such short notice, in the first place . . .

But he really was getting desperate, no doubt about it.  Gunnar had showed up shortly after Bas’ defeat.  He’d arrived this morning, maintaining that his mother had insisted, and he couldn’t ignore her, now could he?  Certainly not.

“I brought coffee.”

Kichiro turned and smiled as Bellaniece stepped out of the foliage behind the gathering with a very large thermos of coffee and a stack of Styrofoam cups.

“Thanks, princess,” he said, taking the thermos from her and turning the cap.

“You mean, you guys still haven’t given up?” Nezumi, Ryomaru’s mate asked, as she held out a thin, cardboard box of pastries.

“Aren’t you supposed to be picking up Sami at the airport?” Kichiro suddenly asked.

Bellaniece heaved a sigh but smiled.  “They’re not coming after all,” she explained.  “Sami called to say that Tanny was fine—until they got her onto the plane, and it started to move.  The poor thing freaked out, and they ended up having to bring out the rollaway so that they could get off.  The passengers were a little upset since they all had to disembark and wait in the airport while the plane was re-readied for take off . . .”

Kichiro whistled and grimaced.  “Damn,” he muttered, dumping coffee into the cup that Bellaniece was holding out.

“Poor little thing!  Her first real Christmas and everything,” Bellaniece went on, handing the filled cup to Mikio and presenting an empty one.  “I guess it can’t be helped, all things considered . . .”

Mikio figured that was true, too.  Tanny . . . well, he’d been told that the child was still a little skittish when it came to being out and about in the public, so it wasn’t entirely surprising.  After spending so long in the research facility where she was born, she really was making remarkable progress, as far as he could see, and while he’d been looking forward to seeing Sami and meeting both her mate as well as her adopted daughter, he understood why she wasn’t going to be able to make it, after all.

“Where’s Sydnie?” Nezumi asked Bas as he reached for a pastry.

“Planes are hard on her.  She’s sleeping off a headache at Mom and Dad’s house,” he explained.

“And you’re hanging out in the forest?”  She looked around suddenly, confusion marring her brow.  “Where’s Bailey?”

He shrugged.  “Well, I was going to make the rounds, but Grandma got a hold of him . . .”

Nezumi nodded.  “Yeah, she used to do that when Morio was little, too.”

“Are you guys going to camp out here or something?” Sierra asked as she joined the group.

Toga slipped an arm around her and kissed her forehead.  “No . . . At least, I don’t think so . . .”

Sierra rolled her eyes but hugged Toga back.  “You know, if they haven’t told you anything, then they’re probably not going to.”

“They’ll crack sooner or later,” Ryomaru grunted with a determined edge in his voice just before he downed an entire cup of steaming hot coffee.  Staring down into the empty cup with a slight frown, he shook his head.  “You know, this would have been better if you’d grated up some cinnamon in it . . .”

Bellaniece laughed.  “I’ll try that next time,” she promised.

Kichiro snorted.  “Kami . . . Cooking tips from Ryo . . .”

“At least you don’t live with him,” Nezumi grumbled.  “I made him an egg the other day, and he had to re-cook it . . .”

“Oi, wench,” he growled.

“Ah, look . . . Gunsie’s been shot down, too . . .” Bas broke in, nodding in the direction of the house.

Mikio looked.  Sure enough, Gunnar was stomping toward them, sans Bailey, with a rather pronounced scowl on his face.  Shaking his head when he spotted the rapidly growing number of people gathered  within the relative obscurity of the trees, he sighed.  “You realize that at this point, they know what’s going on,” he pointed out.

Kichiro shrugged.  “Yeah, we figured.  Eventually they might give in, though, since they know that we’ll keep trying.”

Gunnar flicked an imaginary bit of lint off the sleeve of his overcoat.  “Or hell will freeze over,” he countered.  “Face it: Uncle Yasha has gotten stubbornness down to a science.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bas grumped.  “Where’s my son?”

To Mikio’s surprise, Gunnar actually grinned.  “Aunt Gome said that if you want him, come and take him.”

Bas grimaced since he, like everyone else, wasn’t about to go in there and challenge Kagome.  “Damn . . . Sydnie’s gonna kill me if I go back to Mom and Dad’s without Bailey . . .”

“Serves you right for trying to use your pup to get them to ‘fess up,” Ryomaru gloated.

Bas sighed and rubbed his face in a completely defeated sort of way.

“Well, why didn’t you tell me you were having a family reunion out here?” Morio grouched as he stomped out of the trees, dragging his mate along behind him by the hand.  “I’d have brought some coffee or something.”

“God, no,” Meara interjected, quickly shaking her head.

“I make killer coffee,” he quipped.

“In every sense of the word,” she shot back sweetly.

“I made some, and no one’s died from drinking it . . . yet,” Bellaniece pointed out.

“Oh, thank you,” Meara said, letting go of Morio’s hand in favor of accepting a cup of good coffee.

“So what are we doing out here?” Morio drawled.

Gunnar frowned at his cousin for a moment before pinning Mikio with a marked stare.  “Didn’t you send him in?”

Mikio shook his head.  “No . . . Hadn’t thought of it.”

The rest of them slowly turned to eye Morio carefully, each of them pondering in their minds, whether or not they actually thought that he’d have any better luck.

“Oh, sweet!” Morio exclaimed, grabbing a pastry and shoving damn near all of it into his mouth in one bite.  “Arigato, Mama-san,” he garbled, crumbs dropping from his gaping maw.

Nezumi stared, nonplussed, at her son.  “Just like your father,” she muttered.

Ryomaru, not to be outdone, snatched a pastry, too, but he managed to shove the entire thing into his mouth.  “Uh-uh,” he burbled.  “I got a bigger mouth . . . among other things . . .”

“Wow . . . and that . . . is my twin,” Kichiro grumbled with a shake of his head.

“Oh, is Bailey with you?” Meara asked, touching Bas’ arm to gain his attention.

Bas nodded and then grimaced.  “Yeah, but Grandma sort of . . . Well, we’re pretty sure that she’s holding him hostage.”

Meara giggled and started to hurry away.

“Bring him back with you if you can spring him!” Bas hissed in a loud whisper.  He grimaced when the front door opened and InuYasha stomped out, passing Meara with little more than a nod to indicate that he’d seen her.  Not surprisingly, he made a beeline toward them, planting himself in front of them with a no-nonsense look on his face.

“Oi, ol’ man,” Morio said.  He still hadn’t finished the pastry in his mouth.  “’Ant  ‘ome  ‘offee?”

InuYasha snorted.  “You three: baka, baka’s twin, and son of the bastard.  Come with me.”

Kichiro, Ryomaru, and Toga exchanged almost worried looks—probably because in the length of time since he’d last been out there, InuYasha had found the time to don his sword.

“Something on your mind, old man?” Kichiro asked innocently.

“Keh!  If you got enough time to loiter in my forest, then you got enough time to practice.”

“But, um, what about them?” Toga hedged, nodding at the younger men as he tried his level best to look completely innocent.

InuYasha snorted again.  “Oh, they’ll get their turns, too.  Now move it.”

“You know, Uncle, if you beat me, you’ll be tai-youkai,” Toga pointed out as he reluctantly followed InuYasha.

“I ain’t gonna beat you,” InuYasha grouched.  “Just gonna beat on you, pup.”

“And somehow, that just doesn’t make me feel any better,” Toga grumbled.

“This is so nice,” Morio said, slinging an arm around Bas and Gunnar’s necks as he wheedled his way between them.  “We never get together like this anymore.”

“Yeah, there’s a reason for that,” Gunnar replied acerbically, trying to shrug off Morio’s grasp.

“It makes me feel so warm and cozy inside . . . kind of like having gas . . .”

Gunnar tried harder to shake off Morio.  “Baka.”

Morio grinned.  “I love you guys!” he gushed.  Mikio flinched just in time to avoid seeing Morio smack his lips against Gunnar’s cheek.

“Don’t even think about it,” Bas warned, shoving Morio aside when the miscreant turned to look at him.

Morio grinned.  “Just like old times, eh, Mammy?  Except you’re not Bas’ girlfriend anymore.”

Gunnar whipped around to go after Morio.  He laughed and quickly ducked behind his mother, sparing a moment to give her a loud, slurpy sounding kiss on the cheek.

“Go in there and see if you can get any information out of Grandma,” Bas interrupted before Gunnar could deal Morio any real damage.

Morio shook his head.  “Why?  What kind of information?”

Mikio twiddled his twitching left ear and leaned back against a stout tree trunk.  “She and Papa aren’t exactly talking.”

He blinked.  “You don’t say . . .”

“Just go see if you can find out anything,” Gunnar added.  “I’ve got better things to do than standing around the forest, waiting for Uncle Yasha to beat the hell out of me.”

As if in confirmation of Gunnar’s assessment, the distinct clank of metal meeting metal rang out in the distance.  Mikio grimaced.  True enough, InuYasha didn’t normally beat on Mikio since he wasn’t exactly what one might consider to be ‘dexterous’.  Still . . .

Morio hitched his shoulders as he stared at the house as though he had to steel his resolve before making the trek.  “All right,” he said at length, glancing back at them.  “I’m going in.”

“Grandma’s going to tear him up and leave him for the scavengers,” Bas predicted as Morio strode away.

“Yep,” Gunnar agreed.

“Aunt Nezumi might miss him,” Mikio remarked.

“Just a little,” Nezumi muttered.

“Now, boys, you’re going about this all wrong,” Bellaniece pointed out.  “Just going in there, demanding answers doesn’t work.  You need a woman’s touch.”

“I really don’t think I like where this is going,” Nezumi put in.

“That’s right,” Sierra agreed, stepping over beside Bellaniece and giving her shoulders a fortifying squeeze.  “And Belle, here, will show you exactly what she means—if Morio makes it out alive, that is.”

They didn’t have too long to wait, either.  Five minutes later, Morio was back, but at least this time, he had a nice plate of rice balls and what looked to be a thermos of tea. “Grandma says that it’s supposed to get cold again, so we’d better go somewhere warm before it does,” he told them.

Bas sighed and reached for a rice ball.  “Well, that figures.”

Gunnar snorted but took a riceball, too.  “Did you even ask if anything was wrong, Morio?” he demanded.

Morio grinned.  “Yeah, but she started talking about the weather and about how big Bailey’s gotten—you know, right, Bas?  That pup of yours is already as big as a battle tank.”

“Sydnie says she likes big puppies,” Bas replied, cheeks pinking slightly.

Gunnar snorted.  Morio grinned.  Mikio cleared his throat and pretended not to understand the double entendre.

Bellaniece giggled and set the thermos of coffee on the ground nearby.  “Come on, ladies.  Let’s go show the boys how it’s done.”

Nezumi looked like she’d rather do just about anything than to go along with the rest of the women.  Unfortunately for her, Sierra linked her arm through Nezumi’s right one while Bellaniece linked her arm through Nezumi’s left, effectively trapping her as the trio headed out of the trees.

Morio chuckled.  “Poor Mama,” he murmured in a tone that was less than sympathetic.  “Oi!  Don’t eat all the rice balls!”

“You snooze, you lose,” Bas shot back, stuffing another rice ball into his mouth.

Mikio sighed, staring at the house with a marked scowl on his face.  Somehow, he doubted that the women would have any more luck than they had . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 18, 2071:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

Ungh!

Mikio grimaced as a flash of light erupted from the sword held tight in his father’s hands, reverberating outward in a spiral of energy and motion, only to be cut off short when the streak of electric green shot out, wrapping around Tetsusaiga’s blade.  The earth shook as an explosion rumbled through the forest, and in another blinding flash of light, the gargantuan fang was neutralized by Sesshoumaru’s energy whip.

“I fucking hate you,” InuYasha snarled as he stepped back abruptly and slammed the useless, rusty sword into the scabbard strapped to his hip.

Sesshoumaru’s expression didn’t change despite the marked brightening in his eyes.  “The feeling is mutual, baka,” he replied dryly.

InuYasha snorted.  “Keh!  Damn the old man, anyway,” he muttered.

Mikio had been told a long time ago that it hadn’t  always been so.  Sesshoumaru didn’t have the ability to nullify the transformation when they’d been younger, and it was only something that he’d been able to develop over time.  Kagome surmised that it was likely that their father, the great and powerful Inu no Taisho, had wanted there to be a way for the brothers to be forced to deal with each other without having to resort to violence to do it.  As Sesshoumaru gained power, as InuYasha grew older and therefore better able to control the power contained in the sword the two had reached the proverbial stalemate.

“The likes of you will never defeat This Sesshoumaru,” he taunted.

“We’ll see about that, bastard,” InuYasha growled.  “Suppose you tell me why you bothered to show your ugly mug in my forest?”

“Tell me why you and the miko are not seeing eye to eye,” he challenged.

Draping his hands on his hips, InuYasha glowered at his half-brother, and Mikio turned his face away seconds before his father’s eyes lit on him.  “Dunno what you’re talking about,” he muttered.

Mikio felt his ears smash down against his skull, and he grimaced.

He hadn’t exactly meant to mention the problems to his uncle.  He really hadn’t.  But he’d gone to work earlier in the day, unable to concentrate on the basest of tasks.  By noon, Sesshoumaru had demanded to know, point blank, exactly what was eating at him.  Mikio had been reluctant, but he’d finally told Sesshoumaru what was going on, completing the tale with the fact that not even the women and their apparent ‘winning strategy’ had gotten Kagome to crack . . .

But the worst of it?  Aunt Kagura had overheard the tale, and, while Sesshoumaru might well have been willing to let InuYasha and Kagome to work it out themselves, Kagura, apparently, wasn’t so likeminded . . .

You realize, right?  If things really are that bad—if Kagome kicks him out—where do you suppose he’ll ask to stay?

Sesshoumaru stared at her for a full minute before responding in a very clipped tone, “Right outside her door, knowing that baka.”

Kagura rolled her eyes.  “And if it gets worse than that?  What if he asks to stay with us?  I wouldn’t mind, of course.  He is your brother, after all . . .”

Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes—the first crack in the Great Wall, or so it would seem.  “That will not happen,” he stated flatly.

It could,” she pointed out.  “I mean, he did stay with us for awhile, if you’ll recall.  When he first came through the well, he stayed with us then.”

Upon first glance, it would seem that Sesshoumaru wasn’t budging.  Mikio didn’t miss the slight narrowing of his uncle’s eyes.  “He would rather bite off his nose to spite his face than to ask me for anything,” he insisted.

Kagura shrugged and smiled almost politely.  “As his brother, you should probably offer to let him stay here.  After all, it would be the proper thing to do, all things considered.”

Sesshoumaru dug his claws into the desk.  It groaned obscenely in the otherwise quiet office.  “I have spoken, woman,” he said in as close to a grumble as Mikio had ever heard from him.

The polite smile widened into something akin to a victorious smirk as she headed for the door.  “Of course you have, Sesshoumaru.  I think I’ll have one of the girls ready the guest room, just in case.”

Ten minutes later, he and Mikio were carefully tucked away in Sesshoumaru’s luxury sedan, heading across Tokyo toward InuYasha’s forest.

“Is that right,” he challenged.  It wasn’t a question.

“Not a damn fucking thing,” InuYasha snarled, crossing his arms over his chest in a complete show of arrogant belligerence.

“Then keep your buiness away from my house,” Sesshoumaru warned.

There was a distinctly uncomfortable silence as the current Inu no Taisho stared at InuYasha for a moment before turning on his heel and stalking away.  Mikio considered trying to slip away, too, but that thought vanished when he felt his father’s formidable gaze light on him once more.

“What’re the odds that you didn’t have a damn thing to do with this?” InuYasha demanded curtly.

Mikio shifted nervously and tried to keep his ear from twitching.  It didn’t work.  “Well . . . I-I . . .”

“Keh!  Know something, pup?” his father went on as though Mikio hadn’t spoken at all.  “Your mama and I can figure things out on our own.  You got that?”

Mikio could feel the blood drain from his face, but he forced himself to nod, anyway.  “Y-yes, sir,” he mumbled, shuffling his feet in the dirt.

“And another thing,” InuYasha went on, his words gaining volume as they tumbled out, “there ain’t a damn thing going on, pup, so forget about it!”

Mikio forced himself to nod, trying to ignore the myriad of moments that flashed through his mind: moments when he’d tried to become as inconspicuous as possible while his parents argued and fussed over him; over a tripping incident or an inadvertent  slip . . . Too many times when he’d instigated fights without even trying, and now . . . “S-sorry, Papa,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper.

InuYasha snorted, sparing another moment to glower at him before stomping off toward the house.

Mikio watched him go through a veil of his eyelashes and sighed.  Everything InuYasha had said . . . it was the same stuff he always said to ‘reassure’ Mikio that they weren’t arguing over him . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 18, 2071:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“And they’ve been fighting ever since then?”

Mikio grimaced but nodded, tugging lightly on his left ear.

Gin wrung her hands and glanced up at her mate for reassurance.  Cain made a face but pulled her close against his side.  “Well, that’s not good . . .” she fretted.

“Maybe your mother’s just finally figured out that your father’s a jacka—” Cain began.

Cain!” she chided, slapping him lightly in the center of his chest.

“Nah, she figured that out a long time ago,” Ryomaru interjected with a shrug.  “This is pretty serious.”

“So I thought, you know . . . maybe Mama or Papa would tell you,” Mikio went on, ignoring his brother and brother-in-law’s commentary.

Gin nodded slowly.  “Okay,” she allowed thoughtfully.  “I’ll give it my best shot!”

Cain heaved a sigh as Gin hastily kissed his cheek and darted away.  “I hate to say it,” he drawled slowly as he scratched his chin, “and I do mean I hate to say it, but . . . but I think I’ve got to agree with InuYasha on this one.”

The assembled men all turned to gawp at the North American tai-youkai.  “Come again?” Bas blurted incredulously.

Cain rolled his eyes.  “I mean, it is their business . . . Ever consider that you are all making it worse?”

Eyes lowered, unable to meet Cain’s direct gaze—even Gunnar, surprisingly, was in on this one.  “It’s not like their normal, err . . . moments,” Toga explained.  “I mean, they’re not talking at all.  If they were yelling at each other or something, then I wouldn’t worry . . . we wouldn’t worry . . . but it isn’t.”

They were all out here, weren’t they?  Mikio, Ryomaru, the ass-monkey, Toga, Bas, Toga, Gunnar, Morio . . . and from what he’d already overheard, even Sesshoumaru had been called upon to intervene, not that it had done any good at all.  Cain shook his head, leaning against a tree to wait with the rest of them.

“No way.”

“Oh, come on, Griffin!  Grandpa’s even said that he respects you, so—”

“Somehow, I find that entirely too hard to believe,” the surly bear-youkai remarked acerbically.

Isabelle waved her free hand as she dragged her unwilling spouse through the trees to join the rest of them.  “Well, okay, not in so many words, but he did imply it . . .”

Griffin spotted Cain and shot him what could only be described as a pleading sort of look—or at least as close to pleading as Griffin Marin ever managed to get.  “Talk some sense into her, will you?” he growled, jerking his head rather pathetically in the general direction of his mate.

Isabelle hurried over to kiss Cain’s ry obvious effort to change the subject.

“Shit . . . is that little fucker coming, too?” Bas asked.  “He doesn’t know how to fix problems; he only knows how to cause them.”

“Now, Bas, he is your brother, and your mother likes him, too,” Cain reminded him.

Bas heaved a sigh and shook his head since he probably didn’t understand how that could possibly be any more than Cain, himself, did.  “Let’s hope they’re talking before he gets here, then.”

“Well, that doesn’t look good . . .”

Cain turned to look in the direction that Kichiro was watching, only to see Gin wandering away from the house in the clearing with her arms crossed over her chest as she chewed on her lower lip.  Her ears were drooping—sticking out to the sides in a very clear indication that all did not go as planned.  When she stopped in front of Cain, however, she refused to look at him, sticking out her bottom lip in a marked pout.

“Well?” he prompted when she offered no explanation.

Wrinkling her nose, she bobbed her shoulders in a curt shrug.  “Mama told me to . . . mind my own business,” she admitted.

To his credit, Cain didn’t laugh.  He didn’t even crack a smile—something that really ought to have earned him some kind of award, given the circumstances.  He pulled her against his side and kissed the top of her head.  “Let them work it out for themselves,” he stated once more, albeit gently.

“Mikio’s right,” Gin went on with a determined shake of her head.  “There is something strange going on in there.”  She turned to Cain, her eyes aglow with a sheen of determination as she slapped her balled up fist into her open palm.  “We have got to find out what it is!”

He stifled a groan.  No doubt about it, the woman tended to discover her Izayoi stubborn streak at all the wrong times, didn’t she . . .?

“Gin . . .” he began then sighed.  He might as well have been talking to a wall for all the attention she paid him.

“Let’s see . . . who hasn’t asked them yet?”

The boys exchanged looks then shrugged.  “Just about everyone has,” Mikio allowed, looking thoroughly defeated.

“I say you should just let them alone,” Cain said loudly.

“What about Bellaniece, Nezumi, and Sierra?” Gin asked, completely ignoring his suggestion.

“Yesterday,” Ryomaru said.  “No luck.”

Gin tapped her cheek thoughtfully.  “Well, did you try using Bailey?” she queried at length.

Bas snorted.  “Kind of.”

“And that didn’t work?”

“Gin, would we be out here if the Bailey plan had worked?” Kichiro countered calmly.

“Oh,” she breathed.  “I guess not . . . but that would have worked on me . . .”

“Yeah, that’s what we thought, too.  Took all day to get him back, as it was,” Bas muttered.

Gin blinked.  “You mean, Mama wouldn’t let you have him back?”

He shrugged.  “Sydnie had to go in and retrieve him.”

“Oh . . .”

Letting out a deep breath, Cain pushed away from the tree and turned to leave.  Sooner or later, InuYasha and Kagome, both, were bound to lose what little patience they had, and he aimed to be far, far away when they did.

“Zelig-sensei!  Where are you going?”

Cain didn’t stop as he dug his hands into his pockets and shrugged his shoulders to adjust his coat.  “The house, Gin,” he called back.

“But . . . but Mama and Papa . . .”

“They’re fine, you know.  And they’re adults—or at least your mother is, but it’s cold out here, and I, for one, would rather be somewhere warm.”

She sighed, her upset tingeing her aura.  Cain almost turned back, but forced himself to keep moving.  No, this entire situation had ‘disaster’ written all over it, as far as he was concerned . . .

Besides that, Gin had taken the time to make him a very nice double chocolate layer cake before they’d gone to bed last night, and he fully intended to eat it all before any of his pups or grandpups showed up to try to steal it . . .

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

.:December 24, 2071:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“‘Dashing through the snow . . . lookin’ for a lay . . . o’er the streets we go . . . down to ol’ Broadway . . . The girls are looking phat . . . pink satin and fishnet tucks . . . I popped a woody in the car . . . and they all just wanted a f—’”

Cain smacked Evan upside the head as he passed the miscreant son of Satan on his way to the kitchen in the festively lit Izayoi house.  “Finish that and die, Evan,” he warned.

Evan grinned unrepentantly at his father without missing a beat on the acoustic guitar he’d brought along.

“Well, it’s not as uncomfortable as I figured it’d be,” Shippou remarked, sidling up beside Cain as he nodded toward InuYasha, who was being mauled at the moment by his seven month old grandson.  Bailey apparently thought that the hanyou was a jungle gym, and InuYasha didn’t seem to be inclined to correct this misconception, either.  “Aiko said she struck out, too.”

“Oh, she did, just like the rest of them,” Cain said, nodding toward the other side of the room where Toga, Ryomaru, Morio, Gavin, and Alexandra’s longtime boyfriend, John were completely enthralled with a racing video game.  Bas and Gunnar stood nearby, conversing—probably about work—in quiet tones.  The women were in the kitchen, probably driving Kagome crazy as she finished up the meal.  Sesshoumaru and Seiji, Aiko’s husband, stood nearby, conversing quietly with Griffin, who looked like he’d rather be anywhere than talking to the Inu no Taisho while Evan and Kichiro—two of a kind, in Cain’s unbiased opinion—played twisted versions of classic Christmas carols for their own entertainment.

In all actuality, though, the tension between InuYasha and Kagome wasn’t that strong of a thing, probably because they were nowhere near one another and hadn’t been all evening.

In fact, the only one who seemed to be feeling any of the tension at all was Mikio.  Sitting by himself near the fireplace as he stared pensively into the flames, the young man looked entirely introspective and maybe just a little sad . . .

“Did they talk you into trying to find out what was going on?” Cain couldn’t help but ask.

Shippou chuckled and sipped some wine before answering.  “Sure.  Got a good thump for the trouble, too.”

Cain shook his head, not entirely surprised to hear that.

“Eh, it’s been awhile since that’s happened,” Shippou went on with a careless shrug.  “Almost forgot how badly those hurt, you know.”

“You can forget something like that?”

The kitsune grinned.  “No, but it sounded good, right?”

Rolling his eyes, Cain chuckled as Shippou lifted his glass in silent salute before moving off to break up the conversation between Sesshoumaru and Griffin—probably saving the bear-youkai, anyway.

Kagome hurried into the room, sparing a moment to smile at her guests before she headed toward her mate.  “InuYasha, would you mind bringing in a bit more firewood?  It’s getting a little chilly in here.”

“I’ll get it, Mama,” Mikio said as he slowly got to his feet.

Kagome’s thin smile widened considerably.  “Thank you, sweetie.  Such a good boy!”

Mikio smiled back just a little, but the expression faltered after she turned to head back toward the kitchen again.

Cain frowned.  It was his considered opinion that Mikio tended to be a little too sensitive to his parents’ moods.  Hell, even if he was Gin’s brother, he wasn’t much older than their own son, Bas, and in the years that he’d watched Mikio grow up, Cain knew well enough that his physical shortcomings had somehow been ingrained into his psyche.

Without thinking on it too long, Cain followed Mikio out of the house and into the brisk night air.

“You all right?” he asked as he stopped behind the young lawyer.

Mikio shot Cain a rather nervous sort of glance and sank down on the pile of wood stacked neatly beside the house.  “M-me?  Yeah, I’m okay,” he muttered.

“Sure about that?”

Letting out a deep breath, Mikio’s ears twitched nervously as he lifted his gaze to the horizon of trees that stood in blackness against the glow of the city beyond.  Not for the first time, Cain noted the strange calm that had always existed here, as though Tokyo wasn’t nearby.  Somehow, the hustle and bustle was easy to forget in this place—an easy explanation as to how it could be that those two—InuYasha and Kagome—had managed to raise a daughter like Gin, and a son like Mikio . . .

“Mama . . . Mama didn’t want me to move out of the forest,” Mikio said quietly, breaking the companionable silence that had fallen between the men.  “I mean, she didn’t say so, but . . .” He shrugged, his gaze dropping to the barren ground.  “Y-you know something funny?  Gin always said that Papa was the one who didn’t want her to move to Maine with you, right?  But Mama . . . she holds on so tightly . . .”

Cain nodded slowly, hunching his shoulders slightly to shield himself against the rising wind.  “And you think that this whole thing is because of you?  That their entire disagreement is because you wanted to move a couple miles away from the forest?”

Mikio shot him a guilty sort of glance then jerked his head once in a nod.  “They never tell me, you know?  When they’re fighting over me, they never tell me . . .”

“But you know.”

“Of course I know.”

Cain sighed and rubbed his forehead.  He’d figured it was something like that.  He knew well enough that both InuYasha and Kagome meant well.  He might not care for InuYasha, but that didn’t mean that Cain believed him to be anything other than a good, if not rather unorthodox, father, even if he’d never actually ‘fess up to it.  Still, it baffled him that they really didn’t see what they were doing to their son in their collective desire to do right by him.  Then again, maybe they were too close to see it.

“I just . . . I just want them to stop,” he said in a half-whisper, as though he were talking more to himself than to Cain.  “I’m so . . . so sick of it . . .”

A half-formed memory that was more of a fleeting image than anything else flashed through Cain’s mind: a little boy, huddled on the beach with his hands up, covering his ears during a summer visit years ago . . . Mikio had inadvertently fallen out of a tree and skinned his knee.  InuYasha had maintained that he’d be just fine.  Kagome, true to form, had launched into full-out mothering mode.  An argument had ensued, and Mikio must have sneaked out the back door because when Cain had finally come out of the trance he’d been in while working on a painting in his studio when the raised voices rose too high to ignore, he’d spotted the boy on the beach, and later, he’d painted it . . .

Pushing himself to his feet, Mikio shook his head.  “M . . . maybe I should just move back here,” he mused.  “If it’d make them stop fighting . . .”

Cain grimaced.  “You know, I don’t think you should,” he remarked.  “Your parents—both of them—need to realize that you’re not a pup anymore.”

Mikio didn’t look convinced, not that Cain could blame him.

But a sudden anger rose in him, too—anger that InuYasha and Kagome could be blind to Mikio’s upset—anger that Mikio would let it go on and on; that he would rather do whatever his parents wanted instead of explaining to them that it was something he just needed to do.  Clapping Mikio on the shoulder, Cain gave his nephew a little squeeze.  “Just don’t jump to conclusions, Mikio.  Maybe you’re wrong about everything.”

“Maybe,” Mikio said weakly.  He didn’t sound like he believed Cain.

Cain forced a little smile and turned to go.

The women were finally out of the kitchen.  Cain had to wonder if Kagome had shooed them away.  Gin tended to do that, finding that it was simpler for her to do things than it was to try to work around everyone else.  She, however, was over with her father, coddling Bailey and smiling sweetly at the man who didn’t look old enough to have a full-grown daughter, let alone grandchildren or even great-grandchildren.  Cain paused for a moment, smiling as he watched her.  Something about Gin imbued him with a sense of peace.  She always had . . .

With a shake of his head, he headed for the kitchen.

Thought you said you weren’t going to get involved,’ his youkai taunted.

Cain snorted.  ‘Pfft!  I wasn’t going to.

So why are you?

I just . . . I just want them to stop.  I’m so . . . so sick of it . . .”

Guess that’s as good a reason as any . . .’

Sorta what I thought, too.

“Oh, Cain . . . do you need something?”  Kagome asked, glancing up from the pot she was stirring on the stove.

Stuffing his hands into his pockets, Cain leaned in the doorframe almost casually.  “Got a minute?”

She shot him a quick glance and a rather polite smile as she tapped the spoon against the edge of the pan and set it down.  “All right,” she said lightly.

Cain nodded.  “Look, I’m not going to ask you what’s going on between you and InuYasha.  It’s none of my business, and I can respect your privacy.”

She looked like she was going to deny everything.

Cain sighed and pushed away from the door.  “Thing is, Mikio . . . He thinks it’s all about him.  He thinks that you’re upset that he moved into the city.”

“Why would he think such a thing?” Kagome blurted, shaking her head as if she just couldn’t fathom it.

Cain shrugged.  “Does it matter?” he countered gently.

She opened her mouth to respond then snapped it closed again as a hint of a flush crept up her cheeks.  “No . . . no, I suppose it doesn’t . . .”

 

-O-O-O-O-O

.:December 24, 2071:.
.:Tokyo, Japan:.

 

“This is the last of them,” Mikio said as he set the glasses beside the sink.

Kagome smiled up at him—a true, genuine smile.  “Thank you.  You didn’t have to stay and help clean up.  Why don’t you go on out there and visit with your brothers and sister?”

“It’s okay, Mama.  I don’t mind.”

Her smile widened just a touch before slowly faltering as she continued to stare at him.  When a thoughtful frown replaced the joyful expression on her face, he nearly grimaced.  “Mikio . . . I think we need to talk.”

He blinked and shot her a guilty sort of glance.  Something about the seriousness in her expression almost frightened him, didn’t it?  “W-what about?” he heard himself asking, fighting to resist the urge to tug on his ear.

Letting out a long, deep breath, Kagome stared at him for a moment before drying her fingers on a pristine white towel and taking his hand to lead him out of the kitchen.  To his surprise, she walked right over and shut off the television, much to the surprise and slight chagrin of Kichiro and Ryomaru, who were still playing the video game that had preoccupied them for most of the evening.

Not for the first time, Mikio noted that the only ones who had remained were his siblings.  Even their mates had already gone home, and he had to wonder now whether that was by accident or design.  He had a feeling that it was the latter.

Kagome drew a deep breath and gestured for Mikio to sit.  He did, taking the empty chair beside the sofa.  “I asked your mates to go home,” she said, casting them each an apologetic sort of smile before her eyes flicked to the side—toward InuYasha, who was leaning against the fireplace with a completely inscrutable expression on his face.  “I think . . . I think that your father and I . . . Well, we owe you an explanation.”

The twins exchanged looks.  Gin looked rather anxious.  Mikio reached up to smash his twitching ear against his head.

Kagome sighed.  “Mikio . . . we weren’t upset that you chose to move into the city,” she went on.  “I’ll admit, I was worried, but that was your choice, and it’s okay.”

He shifted uncomfortably and swallowed hard, forcing himself to nod since that seemed to be what she wanted.

“In fact, it really has nothing to do with any of you,” Kagome explained, rubbing her hands together in a decidedly nervous sort of way.

“Way to chew it up and spit it out, wench,” InuYasha grumbled.  Mikio glanced at him, only to stop and stare when he saw the hint of pink staining his father’s cheeks.

She narrowed her eyes at her mate, her own face reddening just a touch.  “Then why don’t you tell them?” she countered.  “Unless you forgot, that is.”

He snorted.  “I didn’t forget,” he growled.  “I’d never forget something like that!  You’re the one who was supposed to keep track of it!  It’s not my fault when you should have reminded me like you do every other time!”

Mikio glanced at his siblings.  Judging from the expressions on their faces, they were pretty well as lost in the conversation as he was.  They also didn’t look like they were going to say a thing about it, either, which was all right, considering he wasn’t brave enough to, himself . . .

Pink was fast approaching red, though Mikio had a feeling that the color was accredited more to Kagome’s rising temper than embarrassment.  “You’re such a jerk!” she sputtered, balling her hands into fists at her sides.  “It’s not that big a mystery—not when it comes around every single month!

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Mikio realized that it was probably a good sign that they were yelling at each other again.  Too bad he was still trying to make sense of what they were yelling and having no luck . . .

Kichiro sat up suddenly, his eyes widening as a curt laugh escaped him.   “Oh, kami . . .!  You’re not saying . . .?”

Kagome blinked and stared at the younger of the twins, and for some reason, her face reddened just a little more.  “W-w-well,” she stammered.

InuYasha snorted and rolled his eyes, though his face was just as ruddy as Kagome’s.  “Yes, yes, that’s exactly what she’s tryin’ to tell you,” he growled.  “She’s gonna have a pup.”

Dead silence greeted InuYasha’s statement.  A moment later, the blur of silvery hair and a high-pitched yelp to accompany it erupted as Gin launched herself at her mother, catching her in a tight hug.  “Really?  Really, really?  Oh, that’s so fantastic, Mama!”

Kagome laughed weakly and hugged Gin back for a minute.  Then she let go and stepped back as her smile faltered, leaving behind a strange sense of sadness in its wake.

“What’s the matter?” Gin whispered.  “Mama?”

Kagome sighed and suddenly flopped down on a thickly cushioned ottoman, burying her face in her hands.  “He . . . he doesn’t want it,” she muttered, her voice muffled.

Four heads swung around to pin their father with incredulous looks.  InuYasha, himself, looked a little shocked—and a lot angry.  “What?” he bellowed.

“Well, you don’t,” Kagome went on in a tiny voice.  “All you said was that I should have reminded you, that it wasn’t your fault, remember?”

“Don’t be fucking stupid!” InuYasha shot back hotly, his fingers doing overtime as he fiddled with the now-defunct prayer beads hanging around his throat.  “Guess I shoulda remembered that being pregnant affects your brain, too!”

“Well, you did!” she retorted.

“Yeah, and you said that you didn’t fucking want a pup, so what the hell was I supposed to say?” he bellowed.

Kagome blinked in confused surprise.  “When did I say that?”

“Keh!  When you were bitching because you wouldn’t be able to go to Maine next spring!”

“That’s not what I meant!” Kagome insisted.  “All I said was that we’d have to change our plans, was all!”

“That’s the same fucking thing!”

“No, it’s not!”

“Yes, it is!”

Kagome uttered a frustrated growl, but the next thing out of her mouth surprised everyone.  “Oswuari!

He flinched, ears flattening, then blinked and snorted very loudly.  “Keh!  That don’t work anymore, wench!”

“I could change that, you know,” she threatened, finally lifting her face from her hands.

“You probably shouldn’t be upsetting Mama while she’s pregnant,” Kichiro pointed out reasonably.  He was the only one with a grin on his face.  Go figure.

InuYasha snorted again.  “I ate your damned curry!  What else did you want me to do?”

“You could have acted happy, you jerk!” Kagome bellowed.

“Happy?  I’m fucking ecstatic!  Can’t you tell?” he snarled back.

Kagome stared at him for a minute as if she was trying to figure something out.  InuYasha, standing with his hands crossed stubbornly over his chest and his signature scowl in place, rolled his eyes.  The tension was rising higher and higher, and Kichiro sighed, starting to rise from his seat, to intervene, if for no other reason than to calm down their mother.

And suddenly, she laughed.  It was the first true, heartfelt laugh that Mikio had heard from her in days.  InuYasha eyed her like she’d just lost what was left of her mind, but he wrapped his arms around her when she stood up and ran over to him.

Kichiro sank back down, his grin widening.  Gin hugged herself and made a happy little squeak.  Ryomaru looked visibly relieved, and Mikio?  Well, he was wondering if he had some Rolaids in his coat pocket . . .

“You’re really happy?” Kagome asked, leaning back to look up into InuYasha’s face.

He let out a deep sigh, his ears flattening for just a moment.  “Yeah, I’m happy . . . as long as he don’t end up like one of those two—” he waved a hand at the twins, “—or marry some bastard who thinks he’s gonna take her halfway around the fucking world.”

Gin giggled at the reference to Cain.

Kagome laughed weakly and leaned against her mate’s chest.  “I’m happy, too,” she said.

“W . . . wait . . .” Ryomaru drawled as a rather horrified expression donned.

“What’s the matter?” Gin asked, perching on the edge of the sofa and leaning in close to inspect Ryomaru’s face.

He grimaced like he’d just eaten something really, really bad.  “That means you two . . . ugh!

“They’ve done that a few times, Ryo,” Kichiro pointed out quietly.

InuYasha snorted, his face reddening even more.  “Oh, get the fuck outta here!” he growled.

Kagome giggled as her children filed over to hug her.  Ryomaru, for the most part, still looked rather grossed-out.  “It ain’t that they did it,” he explained in a grumpy tone.  “It’s that they’re making it so fucking obvious . . .”

Kichiro rolled his eyes and propelled his brother toward the door.

Mikio slowly got to his feet and approached his mother as Gin, still giggling, hurried out of the room.

Kagome hugged him but caught his hand before he could turn to go.  “Mikio . . . I’m sorry,” she said softly, reaching out to touch his face.

He smiled.  “I’m happy for you, Mama, Papa.”

“Good,” InuYasha said.  “Now get the hell outta here so we can have some privacy.”

Mikio chuckled—it felt like it’d been a long time since he’d done that—and followed his siblings out of the living room.

“Not nearly as bad as it could have been,” Kichiro said as he handed Mikio his coat.

Ryomaru snorted indelicately and pinned his twin with a fierce scowl.  “Bad enough,” he retorted.  “Old sex.  That’s just nasty.”

“I heard that, Ryo,” InuYasha’s voice carried from the living room.  “You’d better be outta here when I get there or I’ll show you how fucking old I really am . . .”

Ryomaru made a face, throwing open the front door and grabbing a squealing Gin around the waist to toss her over his shoulder as the four siblings hurried out into the night.

“Merry Christmas,” Kichiro said, glancing at his watch as they reached the road leading away from the house.

Mikio grinned and peered back over his shoulder in time to see the porch light go out behind them.  “Yeah,” he said with a laugh as a couple of fat snowflakes fell to touch his eyelashes.  “Merry Christmas . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~The End~

Chapter Text

~A Purity Oneshot~
~Bellaniece’s Birthday~

 

-O-O-O-O-O-

 

.:Summer 2073:.

 

Izayoi Kichiro flicked his wrist and frowned at his watch.

Almost eight . . .’

Stifling a sigh, he leaned forward slightly, golden eyes shifting quickly at the street outside the car windows.  Traffic was at a stand-still and had been for the last ten minutes, but as closely as the cars were packed, it would take some serious maneuvering to navigate the maze they created if he opted to continue on foot.  He should have walked; he really should have, but it was too humid to do that for more than a block or two comfortably, and he was headed across the city to a quiet but trendy restaurant that was one of his wife’s favorites.

He was supposed to meet Bellaniece almost an hour ago, and he’d thought about calling her—until he’d realized that he’d forgotten his cell phone back at the office.  No doubt about it, he was going to have some explaining to do.

Drumming his fingers on the armrest, he tried to contain the impatience that rolled through him.  It was a somewhat odd feeling, really.  He was old enough that he’d learned long ago to control that sort of emotion, or so he’d thought.  Then again, he supposed he always looked forward to seeing her, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he’d feel that way even now.

Wrinkling his nose as the cab driver turned up the air conditioning in the cramped space, Kichiro refrained from comment.  He was comfortable enough despite the cloistering humidity that seemed to cling to the streets of Tokyo outside the car.  Summer in the city was generally a fairly uncomfortable affair at this time of year, but this season seemed worse than usual.  Despite the number of years that had passed since Bellaniece had first come to Tokyo, she still wasn’t completely acclimated to the heat and, often, the humidity, though she had said more than once that Kichiro must have been really ‘clever’ when he’d planned his house in his father’s forest.  She seemed to believe that he’d designed and constructed it himself even though he’d told her more than once that he was certainly no architect . . . ‘Funny, though . . .’ he thought with the slightest of smiles just barely quirking the corners of his mouth.  Together, they’d raised three gorgeous daughters—gorgeous because every last one of those daughters looked like their mother, as far as Kichiro was concerned—and even now, their youngest was a new mother with her first child—adopted, yes, but still hers.

That thought, though, was enough to wipe the smile right off his face.  As much as Kichiro adored Samantha, the same could not be said about her mate, and if Kichiro had had his druthers, the little bastard would be dead now, not married to her . . .

But she loved him—kami only knew why.  It wasn’t something that Kichiro was ever going to understand, and while he could and did tolerate Kurt Drevin for his daughter’s sake, he wasn’t sure he’d ever really say that he liked him at all.  He’d be the first to admit that Drevin was a damn good father, and he’d even say that he’d never witnessed the man lose his temper with Samantha or anything like that.  Still, even now, years after Drevin had kidnapped and handed her over to a gang of bastards who called themselves medical researchers and who tortured and humiliated his daughter for far too long for Kichiro to tolerate, forgiveness was a difficult thing to come by, especially when he recalled the utter sense of helplessness that he and Bellaniece had both endured as they’d searched frantically for the daughter that had just disappeared . . .

Knock it off, Izayoi,’ his youkai voice chided.  ‘Thinking about that isn’t going to do you a damn bit of good, and if you keep it up, you’re going to get yourself in trouble when you see them, and that won’t please your mate, will it?

Snorting inwardly and grudgingly admitting that his youkai voice had a valid point, Kichiro drew a few deep breaths, ignoring the stale, stagnant odors in the vehicle, he forced his mind away from that one sore point.  No, better to be glad that Samantha and her family were going to be able to fly in as a surprise for the birthday celebration since Tanny, the rambunctious four year old, was notorious for not traveling well.  But the party was only a few days away—the same party that he’d been able to keep a secret from his mate.  Her family, her friends, her children, and her favorite restaurant, Kiseki . . . It was going to be perfect—absolutely perfect . . .

He wasn’t sure what entity he needed to offer thanks to, though, but he was pretty sure that he’d have to do a hell of a lot of praying after the fact since Samantha wasn’t the only one who was going to make it.  His eldest daughter, Isabelle, was also coming, as was his middle daughter, Alexandra.  Kichiro was fairly certain that he had Alexandra’s long-time boyfriend, John to thank for that.  Left to her own devices, Alexandra tended to forget about everything but whatever research she was working on at the time.  Luckily, John possessed a broader mind, so all Kichiro had to do was mention it to John once in passing.

It was a shame, as far as he was concerned.  With his daughters living on other continents—Isabelle and her husband, Griffin, as well as Samantha and that damned Drevin lived in the United States while Alexandra and John lived in Australia—they didn’t get to see their children as often as they would have liked.  Samantha was the only one with a child at the moment, but it wouldn’t surprise Kichiro if Isabelle and her mate had a child soon, too.  Bellaniece had hinted a few times that she wouldn’t mind moving back to Maine where she had been raised, but Kichiro wasn’t entirely keen on that idea.  As the smarter, sexier, smoother, funnier, and generally better half of a pair of identical twins, he wasn’t too keen on living so far away from his brother, not to mention his parents, who also lived nearby.  Besides, if he were to leave Ryomaru to his own devices, there was a good chance that either he’d break something, maim someone, or end up in the proverbial doghouse with his wife . . .

You know damn well that the reason you wouldn’t move to Maine if they paid you is because it’s too close to her fucking father,’ his youkai voice goaded.

Yeah . . . there’s that, too . . .’

Undoubtedly, things were a lot simpler before he’d met Bellaniece and her father.  Back then, he was a practicing plastic surgeon—one of the most successful plastic surgeons in Tokyo—and it was his profession that had brought Bellaniece into his life: the little girl who was trying to grow up faster than she ought to, or so he’d thought at the time.  Everything would’ve been great, too, if it hadn’t been for her father, Cain.  Somehow, that man had managed to weasel his way into Kichiro’s sister, Gin’s life, and though they were happily married now, there was a lot of pain suffered on both sides before they were able to work through everything.  Of course, Kichiro knew that Zelig had also been hurt in the process.  Gin was nothing if not stubborn to a fault, but Gin . . . she’d almost lost her life because of Zelig’s ignorance, and that was a little harder to forget.  Seeing her tiny body, wasted away to nothing at all . . . seeing her barely clinging to life . . . It wasn’t something that he would ever forget.

Kichiro blinked away the bleak memories as the car finally rolled forward.  Dwelling on those kinds of thoughts was really not a good idea considering he was going to have to deal with both Kurt Drevin as well as Cain Zelig soon enough.  He snorted.  ‘My two favorite people.’  Too bad he was related to both by marriage . . .

Count your blessings instead, Izayoi,’ his youkai chided in a tone that sounded entirely too much like his baka-twin.

My blessings . . .?

Yeah . . . at least the car’s moving, right?

So he had to allow that there was that.  Crawling at a snail’s pace was better than not moving at all, he supposed, and he sighed, wishing that he’d chosen to walk to the restaurant where he was supposed to meet his wife.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Izayoi Bellaniece glanced discreetly at her watch and bit her lip as she tucked a long strand of golden bronze hair that had escaped the sensible chignon behind her ear.

Almost eight,’ she thought with an inward sigh.  ‘Kichiro is going to kill me . . .’

Oh, give him a call, Belle.  I’m sure he’ll understand.’

Stifling a sigh, she took heart in the words of her youkai voice.  He’d understand, of course.  Kichiro wasn’t really the kind of man to blow things out of proportion, and she knew it.  Besides, it wasn’t like she had a choice, and Kichiro had thought that taking the temporary position as the assistant to the head of research and development at Seigato Medical was a good idea.  In doing so, she was helping out one of Kichiro’s old school-chums as well as med-school friend, and since Kichiro was still in the preliminary stages of research on the latest thing that he was looking into, there wasn’t much for Bellaniece to help him with, anyway.

“So how is Izayoi-san these days?”

Bellaniece blinked and smoothed the pristine white lab coat.  “Kichiro?  He’s fine,” she replied with a weak little smile.  “Busy, as always, of course.”

Sato Ken chuckled, slight crinkles appearing at the corners of his eyes.  The seal-youkai was the same age as Kichiro.  He looked like he might have been in his early twenties . . . “That sounds about right,” he allowed before turning his attention back to the microscope.  “Interesting . . . the cells divided a lot faster than I thought they would . . . Take a look.”

She scooted a little closer and leaned down to peer into the microscope.  Magnified so many times, the cells that they’d isolated had nearly doubled in number.  Even as she watched, though, those same cells seemed to be growing larger, fed by the solution they were suspended in . . . “That’s dangerous,” she murmured without taking her eyes off the sample.

“Herznivochev is a particularly aggressive form of cancer,” he admitted, his breath brushing over the nape of her neck as he leaned in closer, as though he were trying to peer over her shoulder to get a good look.  “If I can figure out why it spreads so rapidly, there is hope that we can stop it, too.”

She nodded and stepped aside, allowing him access to the microscope again.  In the last few years, this new strain of cancer had become a more and more common occurrence, and while there were many hypotheses as to how it was contracted, no one knew for certain.  What they did know was that, by the time it was detected, it was too late for the patient.  There was a one hundred percent fatality rate within weeks of being diagnosed with the disease.  So far, instances had been confirmed all over the world, too, which was something else that made it hard to predict or understand.

“They’re splitting again,” he said, his tone more of a growl than a statement.  “Damn it.”

Glancing up from the notes she’d been jotting in the journal where they recorded their observations, Bellaniece bit her lip.  Kichiro had mentioned that one of Dr. Sato’s close friends had died of the disease: one of the first cases diagnosed in Japan.  To him, it was a kind of crusade, she supposed, the reason that he stayed late into the night, that he operated on little or no sleep, that he could be so passionate about finding a cure . . .

 In fact, it was his absolute dedication that had kept Bellaniece from mentioning the hour.  She was supposed to leave at five, which should have given her enough time to run home, shower, change, and head out to meet Kichiro at the restaurant.  As it was, she wouldn’t even be on time if she left now and headed straight across town.

“Ah, I’m sorry . . . I completely lost track of time,” Dr. Sato said with a wry grimace.  “You should’ve gone home awhile ago . . .”

Bellaniece waved a hand to stave off the apologies.  “It’s okay,” she assured him.  “I’m going to go meet Kichiro for dinner . . . why don’t you come along, sensei?”

Dr. Sato blushed and cleared his throat nervously.  “I don’t want to intrude,” he replied.

Making quick work of stacking together the research notes and journal, Bellaniece laughed.  “Don’t be silly!  You’re one of Kichiro’s old friends, right?  I’m sure that he’d love to have you join us!”

Forcing a rather curt bark of laughter, Dr. Sato shook his head.  He looked a bit scruffy, didn’t he?  He was so one-track-minded that he must’ve forgotten that he could benefit from a good shave, she supposed.  Biting her lip, she tried to suppress her sudden amusement.  Lucky for him that he didn’t have to worry about more things, like getting his hair cut and the like.  Being youkai had its advantages . . .

“I think Izayoi-san would rather maim me than eat with me when I’ve kept his precious wife out so late,” he half-teased.  Strangely, though, there was an underlying hint of almost-sadness behind his words.  “Have a good night.”

Bellaniece didn’t stop to dwell on the odd emotion too long.  “Don’t work too late,” she called over her shoulder.  He glanced up at her and shot her a rather quizzical, lopsided grin. Casting the doctor a friendly smile in parting, she gathered her things and headed for the door . . .

 

~*~*~*~

 

“Tadaima.”

Kichiro stepped into the quiet foyer and frowned as he sat down to remove his shoes.  The still house felt depressingly empty despite the sight of Bellaniece’s purse on the table near the door.  A moment later, though, he heard the soft thump of his mate’s footsteps, and he looked up in time to see her smiling face as she hurried around the corner to greet him.

“Sorry,” he muttered under his breath, unable to staunch the slight hint of redness that seeped into his cheeks as he slowly pushed himself to his feet and turned to face her properly.  “I didn’t mean to stand you up.”

Bellaniece’s smile turned sheepish, too, as she clasped her hands before herself.  “And here I thought that you’d be angry at me for doing that to you,” she confessed.

Kichiro blinked and stared at her for a long moment.  “You stood me up?” he couldn’t help asking.

She grimaced slightly and bit her lip.  “I didn’t get out of the lab till after eight,” she admitted with a little shrug.  “I tried to call you, but you didn’t answer . . . Anyway, I went straight to the restaurant, but you weren’t there, and it was so late that I figured you must’ve come home.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he told her with a slightly wry smile.  “I forgot my phone at the office and ended up stuck in traffic, and by the time I got to the restaurant, they said you’d just left.  I’m sorry, Belle-chan.”

Her smile was genuine when she hurried forward, slipping her arms around his neck as she rose on her tiptoes to kiss him.  “I suppose I could be convinced to whip up something for you,” she offered.

Kichiro grinned.  “Grilled cheese, you mean?” he teased.

Bellaniece made a face, her lips pursing in a pouting moue as she let go of him and pivoted on her heel to stalk away.  “I can make more than grilled cheese,” she reminded him.

He laughed and caught her wrist, tugging her back to him before she could escape.  “Of course you can,” he allowed with a breathy chuckle.  “You also make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a mean cup of instant noodles.”

“I can cook more than that nowadays,” she pointed out haughtily though her eyes were alight with amusement.  “Besides, you never complain any other time.”

“I’m not complaining now,” he countered as he locked his hands behind her back.  “You do have other talents, after all . . .”

“I do, don’t I?” she asked brightly, entwining her fingers in the base of the braid that hung down his back.

Kichiro chuckled and stole a quick kiss.  “How ‘bout we try the restaurant tomorrow night?” he suggested.

The incandescence that illuminated Bellaniece’s gaze seemed to heighten as her smile widened.  “I’d love that,” she assured him.  “Now about tonight . . .”

He opened his mouth to answer her witty banter, but the trill of the telephone cut him off.  Kichiro let out a deep breath as Bellaniece giggled and stepped away.  “You get that, and I’ll see what I can do in the kitchen,” she quipped.

He watched her go with an idle little smile quirking his lips before stepping around the corner to grab the phone receiver.  “Izayoi,” he said as he brought the piece to his ear.

“Sensei, I’m sorry for calling you so late,” the well-graveled voice of Ginta, the head of operations at the Izayoi Clinic, greeted him.  “We’ve got a problem down here . . .”

“What kind of problem?” Kichiro asked, leaning back to peer into the kitchen.  Bellaniece was poking around in the refrigerator, and she didn’t seem to be listening at all.

The man let out a long breath—a rather strange sound coming from the older tiger-youkai.  “It seems like one of the backup generators overheated, and the fire department wasn’t very careful in containing the blaze.”

“How bad?”

“It would have been better if we’d have handled it ourselves,” he muttered, clearly irritated at the mess that the emergency response team had left behind.  “The staff is bringing the patients back in now.  The evacuation went smoothly, but a lot of the patients are understandably distressed.”

Kichiro sighed and rubbed his forehead.  “Damn.  I’ll be right there.”  Clicking the ‘standby’ button, he dropped the receiver on the table as he strode past into the kitchen.  “Sorry, Belle-chan, I’ve got to go.”

“What?  Why?  Where?” she asked, a thoughtful frown replacing the pretty smile that had been gracing her features.

“There was a small fire at the clinic,” he said as he headed toward the foyer once more.  “They’re bringing the patients back in now, but I want to see what’s going on.”

“Oh, my God . . . Was anyone hurt?”

He leaned down to tug on his shoes.  “No, I don’t think so.  Ginta-san said it wasn’t a rampant blaze.”

Though she looked a little mollified, she didn’t look at all appeased.  “Do you want me to come with you?”

Kichiro spared a moment to smile at his mate.  “No.  Go on to bed, and I’ll try to hurry.”

Bellaniece didn’t look like she wanted to comply, but she gave one curt nod and crossed her arms over her chest.  “Take your time, lover,” she insisted.  “The patients are most important.”

He managed a wan little grin and stood up to give her a quick squeeze and a kiss on the temple.  “Get some sleep,” he told her.  “I’ll be home when I can.”

She was smiling at him when he closed the door behind himself.

 

~*~*~*~

 

“Here.”

Bellaniece blinked and glanced up from the blank display on her cell phone to stare at the Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee dancing before her eyes.  “Oh, thank you,” she said, slipping the phone into her pocket with her right hand and taking the cup in her left.

“You seem a bit preoccupied today,” Dr. Sato commented as he leaned against the high lab table and casually sipped his coffee.  “Is everything all right?”

“Of course,” she said, smiling brightly, hoping that he couldn’t really see through the thin veil she wore over the worry that had been nagging at her.  “Kichiro is supposed to call me to let me know what the investigator said about the fire.”

“And he hasn’t called yet.”  It wasn’t a question.

She nodded slowly.  “He will,” she said suddenly, unable to keep the hint of defensiveness out of her tone.

He cast her a rather bashful sort of grin and nodded.  “He will,” he agreed easily enough.  “Izayoi-san isn’t one to break his word.”

Bellaniece’s smile faltered.  Dr. Sato sounded reassuring, certainly, but she hadn’t missed the slight hint of some darker emotion that had flickered behind his gaze.  It wasn’t the first time she’d seen that, either, come to think of it.  No, she’d seen it the night she’d asked him to join Kichiro and her for dinner, hadn’t she . . .?  “Kichiro said that you were old friends,” she began slowly, cautiously.

“That’s right,” Dr. Sato agreed.  “In fact, we often competed, you know, for top marks or for research assignments . . . I guess you could say that we were rivals.”

“Rivals?  Is that right?”

He shrugged and drained the rest of his coffee before forcing a hollow laugh.  “Most of the time, he won.”

“I don’t know about that,” she allowed, trying to keep the conversation upbeat.  “I’m sure you won your fair share, too.”

“Not when it mattered,” he said.  For a moment, that sad expression returned, but he masked it quickly enough behind a little grin.  “He stole my girlfriend,” he admitted at length, but just as quickly, he shook his head.  “Well, not intentionally.  I introduced them at a party, and she wasn’t very good at hiding her fascination for him.”  Letting out a deep breath and a somewhat terse bark of laughter, he shrugged.  “Good thing she wasn’t my mate.”

“He didn’t . . . he didn’t go after her, did he?” she couldn’t help but ask.  She didn’t really think that he would have done any such thing, but he’d told her often enough that he was a pretty horrible guy when he was younger, too . . .

Dr. Sato waved a hand quickly as he shot Bellaniece a rather startled sort of glance.  “Oh, no!  Never!  Izayoi-san wasn’t like that.  In fact, I don’t think that he really knew that she was looking at him.”  Letting out a deep breath, the researcher pushed away from the table and slowly, deliberately, headed back toward the workstation he’d abandoned when he’d decided to take a coffee break.  “It was always like that for him, though . . . Women loved him without him doing a thing to encourage them.”  Suddenly, he barked out a terse laugh and shook his head.  “Everything came easy to him . . .”

Bellaniece didn’t answer right away.  In truth, she wasn’t sure what she could say.  That sadness, that dark emotion . . . was Dr. Sato jealous of Kichiro . . .?

“It didn’t surprise me to see that he’d found such a beautiful wife,” he said as he bent over the microscope once more.  “My sister always liked him, too . . .”

Bellaniece gritted her teeth for a moment then smiled.  “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I didn’t make it easy for him.”

“Is that right?”

Her smile widened at the understated amusement in his tone.  “You know, I’m supposed to meet Kichiro for dinner tonight.  I’d be honored if you’d join us.”

He glanced back at her but didn’t straighten up, and for a moment, Bellaniece thought that he was going to decline.  “I’d like that,” he agreed at length.

Bellaniece smiled and gave a nod.  “Good.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

“I’m telling you, I’m fine, Jezebel.  Stop worrying about nothing,” Griffin Marin grumbled as he shifted slightly in the passenger seat of the violet convertible.

Kichiro glanced into the rearview mirror in time to see his daughter roll her eyes despite the tolerant little smile that graced her lips.  “He was fidgeting the entire flight, and I know he was uncomfortable during the last hour or so,” she explained, neatly ignoring her mate’s claims to the contrary.

“Pain or just stiffness from being confined to your seat?” Kichiro asked.

Griffin grunted and turned his attention out the window as the streets of Tokyo crept past.  “Just a little stiffness,” he mumbled.

It made sense, as far as Kichiro was concerned.  Though the bear-youkai had undergone some reconstructive surgeries already to shave away at the gross accumulation of scar tissue that plagued some of his joints over the years, he still needed at least one, maybe two, more in order to alleviate most of his problems that had developed over time.  A little stiffness was to be expected, but at least he was able to make such a long flight now.  When Kichiro had first met Griffin years ago, such a thing wasn’t possible, which was why the first series of surgeries had taken place in the States.  All the same, though, he could sense the discomfort thick in Griffin’s youki, and that was enough to worry him, at least somewhat.

“You know, why don’t we stop at the clinic so I can take a look at you?” he offered in what he hoped was a neutral enough tone.  “It’s on the way to the hotel, anyway.”

Surprisingly, Griffin didn’t argue, which was more than enough to reaffirm in Kichiro’s mind that Isabelle’s worries were grounded.

“It seems a little weird to stay at a hotel here,” Isabelle said, obviously content to stop commenting on Griffin’s condition since Kichiro had offered to take a look at him.  “You’re sure that Mama doesn’t know we were coming?”

“I’m positive,” Kichiro replied as he flicked on the signal to turn at the next intersection.  “You think that Tanny’s okay to travel?  She’s not going to spend the entire flight, howling and covering her ears this time, is she?”  He made a face since that was exactly what she’d done the one and only other time she’d flown to Japan with her parents.

Isabelle’s amusement was reassuring.  Kichiro smiled.  Kami, he’d missed his girls’ laughter . . . “Samantha assured me that she has a secret weapon this time.”

“Secret weapon?” Kichiro asked, glancing at his daughter in the rearview mirror.

Isabelle grinned impishly.  “She’s got a nice, big carry-on bag filled with lots of stuff that she swears will preoccupy Tanny for the duration.”

“Drevin said he wasn’t sure it was a good idea,” Griffin mumbled under his breath.

“Only because Papa and he don’t get along very well,” Isabelle shot back playfully, but Kichiro could feel his daughter’s gaze attempting to probe into his skull.  “Admit it: he’s growing on you, isn’t he?”

Kichiro snorted indelicately and stole a glance at Griffin.  In the waning light of the oncoming evening, he could still discern the slight pallor in the man’s skin, and he frowned.  “Absolutely,” he agreed tightly—a direct contradiction to his claim to the contrary, “like a wicked case of herpes.”

Isabelle laughed in response.  Griffin shook his head.  Kichiro knew well enough that the rest of them had pretty much forgiven Kurt, if only for Samantha’s sake.  He, however, just couldn’t quite do it, even if he could and did bend over backward to be polite to the man his youngest daughter had chosen.

It didn’t take long to reach the clinic, which was a good thing, considering Griffin was growing more and more restless by the second, and if Kichiro hadn’t been sure that he was in pain before, he was when he stopped the car.  Jaws bulging as the bear-youkai ground his teeth together in an effort to keep from letting his mate know just how uncomfortable he was, he’d also broken into a fine sheen of sweat.  Kichiro watched carefully as his son-in-law slowly got out of the vehicle, but he was slightly relieved to see the slight relaxing of Griffin’s features as he slowly stood and finally got a chance to stretch out the limbs that had been cramped up for far too long.

Glancing back at Isabelle, though, Kichiro frowned.  He doubted that Griffin wanted Isabelle to stick around and fuss over him.  He did have his pride, after all, and for that, Kichiro really couldn’t blame him, so with that in mind, he grasped his daughter’s shoulder when she started to hurry past him to her husband’s side.  “Baby, why don’t you go on to the hotel and relax awhile?  You look exhausted.”

Isabelle glanced up at her father, ready to protest, but she must have understood the look he gave her, and slowly, reluctantly, she nodded.  “I’ll take a cab,” she told him with a bright smile and a semi-concerned look at her husband.

“Don’t worry,” he told her with a shrug as he dropped the keys to his car into her hand.  “We’ll walk over after we’re finished up here.  It’s only a couple blocks, anyway, and I think that the walk will do him some good.”

Her golden eyes shifted to her mate when Kichiro shrugged a shoulder to indicate who the ‘we’ to whom he was referring was.  “I’ll order room service after I take a quick shower,” she offered.  “Should I order something for you, Papa?”

“I’m meeting your mama for dinner,” he said as he glanced at his watch.  ‘Damn . . . late, two nights in a row . . .’ Letting out a deep breath, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and stepped back onto the curb as Isabelle blew a kiss to her mate and climbed into the car behind the steering wheel.  He’d give Bellaniece a quick call once he got inside.  She’d understand, of course, especially once she found out that her daughters were all coming home for her birthday . . .

 

~*~*~*~

 

The soft clink of glassware punctuated the silence that had fallen between Bellaniece and Dr. Sato as they sat at the cozy table in the softly lit corner of the restaurant.  It was the table that Bellaniece and Kichiro always shared when they frequented the establishment, though tonight it had been set for three instead of the normal two places.

“May I get drinks for you while you’re looking over the menu?” the waiter asked with a smile.

Bellaniece waved a hand dismissively.  “Water’s fine for now,” she replied.

“Mineral water, please,” Dr. Sato added.  “Thank you.”

The waiter bowed and backed away from the table as the soft chime of Bellaniece’s cell phone interrupted.  “Excuse me,” she said, fishing the device out of her pocket and glancing at the name on the caller ID.  “Hmm, aren’t you supposed to be here already?” she asked in lieu of a greeting when she clicked the button to connect the call.

Kichiro chuckled, a breathy, airy sound that sent a very distinct shiver down Bellaniece’s spine.  “Sorry, Belle-chan.  I’m still at the clinic.  A patient came in, and I really need to take a look at him.”

She smiled.  “An emergency is an emergency,” she allowed with a shrug.  “Take good care of him, sensei.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he promised.

She hung up with a sigh even as her smile widened.  That was one of the things that she loved about Kichiro: his absolute devotion and the care with which he took care of his patients.

“Was that Izayoi-san?”

Blinking rapidly, she lifted her gaze to meet Dr. Sato’s questioning expression.  “Yes.  He had an emergency patient, so he’s going to be late.”

“He’s dedicated.”

“Of course he is,” she replied.  “That’s what makes him a good doctor, isn’t it?”

He nodded and offered a small shrug.  “I’m impressed that he still finds time to see patients.  I thought he was more interested in research these days.  The work he did with the markings was amazing, really.”  He chuckled suddenly, and Bellaniece couldn’t help but smile, too.  The man was far too serious by half, but when he laughed, she couldn’t help but notice that he really was a very good-looking man.  “He always told me that figuring it out was dumb luck.”

“It was more of a logical conclusion, I think,” she assured him as she set the menu aside and nodded at the waiter who quietly slipped their drinks onto the table.  “We’re waiting for my husband,” she explained.  The waiter nodded and left as silently as he’d approached.  “I have to admit, though, I’m glad he still sees some patients.  He’s very good with people.”

Dr. Sato sat back and nodded.  “He is.  He caused quite the uproar when he gave up plastic surgery.  A few surgeons that I worked with at the time were a little too pleased at the number of new patients they landed when Izayoi-san started refusing to see new ones.”

Bellaniece shrugged, as though that was of no account.  “He said that he’d rather do something to help people instead of fixing their perceived, if not non-existent, flaws.  Besides, plastic surgery didn’t really make him happy.  He just wanted to bide his time until he had enough support to work on his research all the time.”

“Some surgeons wouldn’t care as long as they got paid,” he pointed out.

“But you know Kichiro, don’t you?  Does it really surprise you that he’d be unhappy with that?”

“No, I don’t think it does,” he confessed with a sheepish grin.  “Actually, I was hoping that I could speak with him over dinner, perhaps get his take on the data I’ve collected thus far.”

Bellaniece laughed.  “So you’re going to turn this into a business dinner?  Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

He had the grace to blush slightly.  “You probably don’t feel like talking about that, do you?”

“Not exactly,” she assured him.  “Actually, I don’t mind, at all.”

“That sounded very diplomatic,” he said with a knowing kind of nod.   He chuckled, straightening his necktie in a decidedly nervous fashion.  Out of his lab coat, the poor man just didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with himself . . . “I wouldn’t dream of infringing upon your dinner.”

“You’re not.  I invited you, remember?” she reminded him with a gentle smile then suddenly sat up a little straighter.  “Oh!  It’s one of my favorite songs!  Can you dance, sensei?”

Dr. Sato looked surprised for a moment, but he finally nodded.  “Uh, probably not as well as Izayoi-san . . .”

Bellaniece stood up, grabbing the doctor’s hand and tugging him off toward the dance floor.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Kichiro frowned in concentration as he carefully squeezed Griffin’s elbow.  Griffin sucked in a sharp breath but didn’t jerk away.  The joint was quite swollen and had to be giving him quite a bit of trouble, but Marin had lived with that kind of pain for so long that he’d learned how to hide it well enough.

“Does this hurt?” Kichiro asked, his fingers moving away from the elbow.  He was waiting for the x-rays that he’d ordered about an hour ago to come back from the lab.  Ordinarily, it wouldn’t have taken that long for something as standard as that, but everything had been a little slower in the facility since the generator fire the night before.

Griffin grunted in response.  Kichiro figured that was a ‘no’.

“How about your knees?” he asked instead, pushing his feet against the floor to propel himself backward.

“Pretty bad,” Griffin admitted.

Kichiro nodded slowly.  If the man was willing to admit that much, then he had to be hurting a lot more than he was letting on.  “I can give you some muscle relaxers that should help the pain, at least enough to allow you to get some rest tonight.  I suggest that you visit the old man’s dojo tomorrow morning to shake some of that stiffness out, too.  I’ll give him a call later to tell him to look for you.”

“Is your mama out of town?” Griffin asked, peering at Kichiro from under the thick fringe of his eyelashes.

Kichiro nearly smiled but managed to contain himself.  Griffin didn’t mind the light workouts that InuYasha tended to insist upon, even if he did grumble that the ‘youngster’—only amusing since InuYasha was technically born before Griffin was—was trying to ‘break him’, but he wasn’t about to let Kagome practice her newly acquired skill on him, either.

Now, be fair, Kich.  You were more than a little reluctant to let her practice on you, too, if you’ll recall,’ his youkai-voice reminded him.

But she was just studying then.  She’s completely certified now, thank you very much.’

Which was true enough.  When Izayoi Kagome had announced that she wanted to study the ancient art of acupuncture, InuYasha had snorted very loudly and declared that there was no way, come hell or high water, that she was ever going to use him as a hanyou pincushion.  Ryomaru, bastard that he was, had seconded that sentiment, and Kichiro had started to agree, as well—until he’d seen the hopeful expression on his mother’s face, anyway . . . Before her training was over, Kichiro figured that he’d had more needles stuck into his body than he’d really care to think about.

“I bet that the acupuncture would help you a lot,” he ventured, mostly because he knew well enough, what Marin was likely to think of the idea.

“Think I’d rather suffer,” he retorted.

His response was a lot milder than Kichiro had figured it would be.  “You don’t trust my mama?” he couldn’t help asking.

Griffin snorted, rubbing his right elbow with a thoughtful scowl.  “I trust your mother just fine.  It’s those needles of hers that I don’t care for.”

“It would help you, though,” Kichiro added as his amusement faded slightly.  One of the lab techs bustled into the room with the folder of x-rays and handed them to Kichiro without a word.  He nodded his thanks as he got to his feet to stride over to the light.

It wasn’t as bad as he’d feared.  There was some swelling around Griffin’s hip and knee, but it wasn’t nearly as pronounced as he’d thought it might be.  It was just the joints that were bothering him because of the internal scarring that still remained.  Because it had developed over such a long period of time, Kichiro had been reluctant to remove it all in one go.  The youkai’s body had changed over time as blood vessels had shifted to accommodate the extra tissue, and so the hypothesis was that if Kichiro worked to remove the obstructing mass little by little, it should shift back to its normal positioning in much the same way.  That was the reason that Marin still had some trouble with his right hip, enough so that the hours of sitting still on the plane had been very hard on him.

“There’s some inflammation,” Kichiro remarked without taking his eyes off the first film.  “It’s not too bad, though, and I imagine you’ll be fine in a day or two.  I can give you a shot to relax the area if you want.”

Griffin opened his mouth, probably to decline, then snapped it closed with a sigh.  “All right,” he reluctantly agreed.

Kichiro shuffled through the x-rays and held another one up to the pane of light.  He’d never say it out loud, mostly because it would only serve to embarrass his son-in-law, but he had to admit that Griffin had changed since he’d married Isabelle.  Accepting any kind help in coping with the pain he’d learned to live with used to be an unacceptable prospect for him, and now . . .

“All right,” Kichiro said, stuffing the films back into the oversized folder that they’d been delivered in.  “I can give you an injection now that should be enough to take the edge off of your discomfort for the night, and I’ll also give you a few pain killers that you can use if and when you need them.  I’ll make sure that you’ve got enough of them in case you have the same problem on your return flight, too.”

“I think the shot will do it,” he muttered, cheeks pinking slightly as he studiously avoided Kichiro’s gaze.

“Then if you don’t need them, throw them away when you get back to Maine.”

Griffin nodded and let out a deep breath as he pushed himself off the examination table and onto his feet.  The ruddy hue in his cheeks darkened slightly as he slowly paced the floor.  The constriction in his youki loosened just a little, and Kichiro nodded in approval.  Griffin’s movements might be slow and a bit stunted, but the exercise was helping, and that was good enough.

It didn’t take long for Kichiro to measure out the medicine and administer the shot directly into Griffin’s hip, but the benefits were obvious a few minutes later.  His limp became a little less pronounced, and the aura around him seemed to calm enough that he was able to get dressed much faster than he’d been able to disrobe.  He stood quietly near the door while Kichiro jotted out a prescription for some mid-grade pain killers, and while Griffin stated once more that he didn’t need the pills, he did take the slip of paper and stowed it in his pocket.

“It’s about time for the next surgery, isn’t it?” Griffin asked as the two of them stepped out of the clinic and onto the sidewalk.

“If you’re feeling up to it,” Kichiro remarked.  “There’s no hurry, though.  The next one is going to be a lot more intense.”

Griffin didn’t comment, which wasn’t at all surprising.  He wasn’t very good at showing his emotions, and, while he’d gotten better about it over time, he still tended to keep his worries to himself until Isabelle managed to badger it out of him.

“Thanks for bringing Baby-Belle home in time for her mama’s birthday,” Kichiro said as the two men rounded the corner at the end of the block and headed toward the hotel.  “It’ll mean the world to her.”

Griffin shrugged off Kichiro’s gratitude and muttered something under his breath that Kichiro couldn’t quite discern in the rush of traffic on the city streets.  “She threatened to force me to take her to Hawaii if we didn’t come here,” he went on, the utter disdain on his features speaking volumes about Griffin’s lack of overall enthusiasm for that plan.  “Then she threatened to buy me a damn Speedo.”

He nearly choked.  He really did.  He coughed instead.  “A Speedo?  As in . . .?”

Griffin’s scowl turned about ten shades darker.  “As in, over my dead body,” he grumbled.

Kichiro chuckled.  “So bringing her here was the lesser of the two evils?”

“Something like that.”

“Yeah . . . can’t say you strike me as a ‘Speedo’ kind of guy . . .”

Griffin sighed and shot Kichiro a rather frustrated look.  “That’s . . . not funny,” he mumbled with a shake of his shaggy head.  “I told her that she ought to be more practical like her sister, but she never has listened to reason.”

“Practical?  I’m going to assume that you’re talking about Alexandra.”

Griffin nodded, his gait smoothing out as the shot that Kichiro had administered kicked in with full force.  “Sami’s got a good head on her shoulders, but . . .”

“Yeah, I used to think so, too, till she decided to marry that little bastard,” Kichiro muttered.

Griffin let out a deep breath and shook his head quickly.  “Well, that wasn’t what I meant.”

“Oh?  Did my youngest do something that I don’t know about?”

Uttering a terse grunt that Kichiro recognized as a general discomfort with discussing whatever it was that he’d seen, Griffin didn’t answer right away as he shifted his gaze to the side, away from Kichiro in a blatant show of feigned indifference.

“That bad?”

“Uh, no . . .” Griffin blurted quickly.  The stark lights of the streetlamps that lined the sidewalk cast harsh shadows on the youkai’s face, lending him an almost frightening sort of air.  Coupled with the scowl on his face, it was no wonder that the other pedestrians were giving the two a rather wide berth . . . “It’s that crazy old man—Old Granger.”

Kichiro almost laughed—almost.  True enough, he’d seen Old Granger in action.  He didn’t act like a grandfather at all, as far as Kichiro could tell.  No, he kind of acted like a horny teenager . . .  “What’d he do this time?” he couldn’t help but ask.

That question earned Kichiro a decided glower.  “Apparently, Samantha invited him to visit last week to surprise Drevin, and then she thought it’d be nice for him to take the old loon to a girly bar, so she called Isabelle at three in the morning to ask her to come over and stay with Tanny since she had to go bail Drevin and his grandfather out of jail.”

“Jail?” Kichiro barked incredulously.  “That little—”

“Old Granger managed to climb on the stage, offered the dancers his ‘choppers’ if they’d remove their underpants, and he wouldn’t get down while he offered to let them see some . . . really old parts . . .” Trailing off with a wince, Griffin shook his head.  Kichiro wasn’t sure whether the talk of the girly bar was bothering him or whether it was the idea of said-really-old-parts that was doing it.  Either way, it would have been funny—if Kichiro wasn’t irritated enough at the idea of his baby’s husband, landing himself in jail for something so stupid.  Yet another strike against that baka, as far as he was concerned.  Maybe he could talk Samantha into staying in Japan for awhile . . .

“Did he show the girls his really old parts?” he couldn’t resist asking, mostly to see the bear-youkai’s reaction.

Griffin looked positively horrified.  “Good God, I hope to hell not.”

“Yeah, I kind of do, too,” Kichiro admitted.  “Sami should have let them rot in there.”

“That’s what I said,” Griffin agreed.  “If Drevin was stupid enough to take Granger there, then I don’t feel too sorry for him . . . and Samantha . . . she thought it was funny . . .”

“Maybe I should get a blood sample from him.  That guy’s gotta be pushing a hundred, and there’s got to be a logical reason for that.  Seems like he does everything that a person shouldn’t do to live a long and healthy life.  You’d think he’d be dead by now,” Kichiro mused more to himself than to Griffin.

“Considering all he does is drink and chase women?  If the booze doesn’t kill him, the women might.”

Kichiro laughed as they paused at the corner across the street from the hotel.  When he’d first met Griffin Marin, he never would have guessed that the man really did possess a pretty good sense of humor.  So awkward and shy, preferring to live quietly by himself, he had opted to keep to himself, quietly trying to make amends for what he perceived to be his mistakes of the past.  He still wasn’t exactly what Kichiro would consider to be ‘social’, but he was a little more outgoing than he used to be . . .

Griffin smiled just a little—barely more than a slight tick in the muscles around his mouth.  Suddenly, though, his frown was back as he narrowed his eyes at the clock on a huge tower in the distance.  “Uh, weren’t you supposed to meet Bellaniece for dinner?”

That killed Kichiro’s amusement quickly enough.  Following the direction of Griffin’s gaze, he stifled a sigh when he realized that it was nearly ten o’clock.  “Yeah, she’s probably gone home by now,” he muttered.  “Damn.”

“Sorry,” Griffin replied.

Shaking his head, Kichiro forced a rueful smile.  “Eh, don’t worry about it.  She’ll understand.”

Griffin didn’t look entirely convinced, but he slowly nodded.

“Anyway, try to keep Isabelle under wraps for the next couple days until the party?”

Griffin rolled his eyes but nodded again.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

Bellaniece blinked and leaned back slightly when the pale peach rose appeared in front of her.  “Guess I was a little later than I thought,” Kichiro said quietly as she quickly wiped her hands on the towel and reached for the stem.