InuYasha Fan Fiction ❯ Purity Oneshots ❯ Bellaniece's Birthday ( One-Shot )
[ X - Adult: No readers under 18. Contains Graphic Adult Themes/Extreme violence. ]
~A Purity Oneshot~
Dedicated to Melzilla.
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 . . .
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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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. “Sorry.”
Taking her time, she lifted the bud to her nose and closed her eyes as the heady, rich scent engulfed her senses. “Well, if you're going to bring me flowers when you stand me up, then I suppose it's all right,” she joked. “How's your patient?”
“He's fine,” Kichiro replied, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he lounged casually in the bathroom doorway. “At least, he'll be fine, anyway.”
He shot her one of those gentle smiles—the one that was almost shy though not quite. Nothing about Kichiro could be considered `shy'—that she adored. She'd seen that smile often over the years, usually on the face of one of their daughters when they'd been caught doing things that they knew better than to do. “Tell me that you got to eat dinner?”
She nodded slowly. “Luckily for you, I'd invited a guest, so it was just fine.”
“Mm,” she intoned with a smile as she leaned up to kiss Kichiro's cheek. “Dr. Sato.”
“Is that right?” he drawled, wrapping his arms around her before she could step away from him.
Bellaniece smiled and snuggled closer against Kichiro's chest. “He's a very good dancer, even though he told me that he isn't,” she said.
“You were dancing with another man?” he asked in a mock-stern tone.
“That's right, Izayoi-san,” she teased, “and he was very, very smoo-oo-ooth.”
“Not very fair, now is it, Izayoi-san? I spent my evening with a huge guy with hairy toes and a sore hip. I don't think he could have danced with me if I'd wanted him to.”
“Not your type?” she goaded quietly.
Kichiro let out a deep breath and shrugged. “Sadly, no.”
“Then it's a good thing that you're married, isn't it?”
Wrapping his arms more securely around her, he rested his cheek on her head. “A damn good thing, yes.”
Bellaniece sighed in a contented sort of way as she toyed with the undone button on the neck of his shirt. “Kichiro?”
“Do you remember when you asked me what I wanted for my birthday this year?”
She couldn't see his smile, but she could feel it in his youki. “You mean when you told me that you already had everything you could possibly want and that you'd be satisfied with a card and a kiss . . .?”
“And sexual favors,” she reminded him flippantly.
He chuckled. “Well, that's a given, isn't it?”
“Yes, but . . .”
“But . . .?” he repeated when she trailed off.
“Bu-u-ut,” she drawled as she pulled away from him, occupying herself with folding the hand towel and carefully arranging it on the counter beside the sink. “I've changed my mind—well, sort of.”
“Oh? You don't want the sexual favors?” he teased.
She giggled. “Absolutely! What's a birthday without some really hot, very illicit, and slightly illegal sex?”
“I don't think Uncle wants to bail us out of jail again, Belle-chan,” he remarked with a chuckle.
“We could always call Toga. He's just the cutest thing ever when he blushes, you know.”
“You've always had a thing for him, haven't you?”
Bellaniece laughed and grabbed Kichiro's hand to tug him out of the bathroom and into the master bedroom. “I think I have,” she admitted candidly. “If I'd met him before I'd met you and before he'd met Sierra—”
“Then I'd have thought there was something wrong with him, considering you were probably, what? Ten? Twelve?”
“Well, there is that,” she allowed. “Good thing that I met you, instead.”
“I don't know. You've got to watch out for quiet guys like Toga,” Kichiro mused as he shrugged off his shirt and draped it over a nearby chair. “I hear that they're the freakiest ones . . .”
“You think so?” she asked a little too hopefully.
Kichiro chuckled again as his slacks followed the shirt onto the chair. “No, not really. Now, about your birthday . . .?”
Nodding quickly at the not-so-subtle reminder, she discarded her robe and stretched out on the bed. “You remember when you took me to Kiseki last year?”
Pausing at the foot of the bed long enough to let his gaze travel up and down Bellaniece's naked frame, Kichiro smiled. “Yes, I do.”
“I'd like to go there again this year,” she concluded, rolling onto her side and propping her head on her hand, her smile turning a little wistful as she thought about the place in question. Situated at on the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, it was one of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, but it was more than that, really. The food, of course, was fantastic, but the relaxed atmosphere, coupled with the complete dedication to seeing that every customer was treated like the most important person in the room created an ambience that Bellaniece had loved. After all, didn't every woman want to be a princess?
“That might be a pretty tall order, Belle-chan,” Kichiro remarked thoughtfully. “It's pretty difficult to get reservations there on such short notice.”
“Well, if you can't, then you can't,” she allowed with a slight pout as she doodled small circles on the coverlet beneath her.
He chuckled and finally crawled onto the bed. “Let me see what I can do. If I can't get a reservation for your birthday, I'll make them for another time.”
She smiled as he leaned over her, as he bent to kiss her: a long, slow kiss meant to seduce her. The touch of his lips, of the warmth of his breath was a welcome sensation that set off a chain reaction that shot through her, unleashing a liquid heat that surged through her body with a power that left her breathless and dazed.
“Are you apologizing for standing me up?” she teased as he gathered her close, as his mouth trailed down to the fluttering pulse in her throat.
“You could say that,” he murmured, his voice muffled by her skin. “Is it working?”
Bellaniece closed her eyes as a gentle smile wavered on her lips. Holding him tight, savoring the feel of his flesh against hers . . . it was all she wanted; all she needed . . . “I'll let you know,” she replied breathlessly as his hands caressed her shoulders, her arms. “Ask me when we're finished.”
Kichiro frowned at the information that he read on the screen of the slim-file. According to the fire investigation team, the cause of the blaze was a short in one of the generators, which was what they'd figured. Still, it meant that the generator in question needed to be replaced, and even then, the safety of the patients was his primary concern. The malfunction hadn't been caught during the monthly equipment check, and that bothered him most, but even if he authorized more frequent safety inspections, he wasn't entirely sure that it would do any real good.
The sound of his cell phone cut through his thoughts, and he reached for the device without taking his eyes off the screen. “Izayoi.”
“Hi, Papa. We just got in.”
Kichiro dropped the file he'd been looking over and smiled as he settled back in the thickly cushioned chair. “How was your flight, Lexi?”
Alexandra let out a deep breath—a tired sound. “They lost our luggage,” she told him. “John's looking into it now, but there's no telling how long it'll take for the airline to track our things down.”
“Anything I can do?”
Another weary sigh. “Not really. I guess I'm going to have to spend the evening, running around Tokyo to buy some clothes and stuff.”
He nodded. “Do you have time to meet your old man for dinner?”
“Of course! Did you have somewhere in particular in mind?”
Kichiro smiled since he knew well enough where Alexandra would choose to eat now that she was back in Tokyo. She'd always loved a certain Mediterranean restaurant not far from the clinic. “How about Calon? That's your favorite, isn't it?”
Alexandra laughed. “Sure! We'll just catch a cab and meet you there.”
“A cab? You mean John didn't already arrange a rental?” Kichiro asked. That didn't exactly sound like John. The man was entirely too reliable to have overlooked something as basic as that.
“He did, but the company he'd made them with closes soon, so we'll probably have to wait till tomorrow to get it.”
“Then I'll come pick you up,” he offered as he checked his watch.
“Okay . . . but it seems strange to meet you for dinner without Mama.”
Kichiro agreed, but considering Bellaniece couldn't find out that her daughters were in town for another two days, then it was a small price to pay, in his estimation. Besides that, it was girls' night out, so Bellaniece had already left to meet with Sierra, Nezumi, and Meara for the evening. She'd mentioned something about trying out a new spa that had opened a couple weeks earlier, so even if he went home instead of meeting Alexandra, he'd end up with cup ramen, at best, and a depressingly quiet house . . . “Don't worry. Your mama's out spending my money.”
“As if you mind that,” Alexandra retorted with a giggle. “What about Bitty? Didn't she fly in yesterday?”
“She did, but she and Griffin are spending the evening with Shippou and Rin.”
“I still can't believe that those two are friends . . . that seems so weird,” Alexandra remarked. “I mean, Griffin's so serious, and Shippou . . . just isn't . . .”
“Yeah,” Kichiro allowed with a shrug. “Not exactly the two I'd put together, either. Anyway, I'll be there soon, okay?”
“All right,” she said. “I'll find John and meet you outside.”
“Ah, this is heaven . . .”
Bellaniece smiled and cracked one eye open to glance at Sierra, who was lounging in a massage chair with her feet kicked up, a gray-green mud mask covering her face, and a therapeutic cooling mask covering her eyes. “More heavenly than being at home with Toga?” she teased.
“Hmm, as much as I love him, I think I'd have to leave him if I ever met a man who did this when I sat on his lap,” she replied.
“Kami,” Nezumi muttered from the massage chair beside Sierra where she had her nose buried behind a Popular Mechanics magazine. “Don't give them any ideas, Sierra.”
“Well, they do make certain parts of men that . . . massage,” Bellaniece couldn't resist saying.
Meara giggled and turned her face away, though not before Bellaniece caught a flash of a very vivid flush that washed into her cheeks. “Oh, come on, Meara. You're married to Morio, and I know that that boy is as rotten as his father.”
“Morio's not rot—” Nezumi started to retort then heaved a sigh. “You're right. He's absolutely his father's son.”
Bellaniece pulled the spa robe a little tighter and sat up on the table she had been stretched out on. “I was meaning to ask you ladies what you're doing on Friday night?”
Nezumi poked her head over the top of the magazine to glance at Bellaniece before ducking behind it once more. “Ryomaru mentioned something about the movies,” she said. “He wants to see that new one—Bridges in Winter or whatever it's called.”
“Isn't that a chick-flick?” Sierra asked.
Nezumi snorted. “No, you're thinking of that Winter Echoes—the one where the girl dies of that disease. Bridges in Winter is an action movie.”
“Oh, yes . . . Morio said that you two went to see that one, too,” Meara commented, turning her attention to her mother-in-law.
“Ryomaru wanted to see it,” she grumbled.
Sierra pushed the mask up so that she could look at Nezumi. “He did?”
Nezumi rolled her eyes and flicked the magazine in a nonchalant sort of way. “She played volleyball in school, so he said it was a sports film.”
Sierra snorted. Meara giggled. Bellaniece smiled and shook her head. “Did he like it?”
Sierra tossed a cotton ball at her. “The movie!”
“I don't know. I say he cried at the end. He said he poked himself with his claw.”
Bellaniece couldn't help herself. Slapping her hands over her mouth did nothing to staunch the giggles that bubbled out of her. The idea of the big, tough youkai hunter, breaking down in tears because of a movie . . .? It was entirely too amusing, as far as she was concerned.
Sierra laughed, too, but Meara didn't look like she knew exactly what to think of the idea of her father-in-law crying over a movie. On the one hand, she looked like she might just laugh. On the other? She looked a little horrified . . .
A few minutes later, one of the girls who worked at the spa—she'd introduced herself as Yumi—knocked and let herself into the room with a tray of teacups and light crackers. “Sorry to disturb you,” she said with a small bow as she set the tray on a low table and proceeded to pour the hot liquid.
“Thank you,” Sierra said, pushing up the heat mask when Yumi handed her a delicate cup of richly fragrant tea.
“Okay, so Nezumi's going to the movies with Ryomaru . . . do you have plans, Sierra? Meara?” Bellaniece asked while Yumi finished handing out the tea. When she finished, she bowed once more and quietly backed out of the room.
“Toga said something about a business dinner,” Sierra said.
“Morio promised that he'd help me go through the spare room and get rid of some of his junk,” Meara replied happily.
Bellaniece paused long enough to give the younger woman a very disapproving look. “You've got to be kidding . . . cleaning out the extra room on a Friday night . . .? Don't tell me that you two have already settled into the old married couple thing. I think I need to have a talk with that boy.”
Meara giggled and waved a hand. “It's nothing like that,” she said. “He's just had to work late recently since they decided that his car design was going to anchor the new line, so he hasn't had the time to tackle it yet, but he did promise that this weekend, we'd get that room cleaned out.”
Sierra broke into a rather conspiratorial smile as she leaned toward Nezumi. “Is there a reason that they need that room cleaned out now?” she asked in a very loud whisper.
Nezumi dropped the magazine into her lap and shrugged offhandedly. “Not what you're getting at, no.”
Letting out a longsuffering sigh, Sierra slowly shook her head. “Meara, when are the two of you going to break down and do it? You love babies, and Morio's still a baby . . . you'd be great parents.”
Meara giggled a little nervously and slowly sipped her tea before answering. “We're not really in a hurry,” she said. It was the same answer she always gave whenever anyone asked her about their plans to have children.
Bellaniece leaned over to pat Meara's hand. “You're waiting till your sister comes, right?”
Meara shot her a grateful smile and nodded, but a second later, that smile faltered then faded away. “Morio is all right with it.”
Bellaniece smiled. Sierra's gaze took on a rather wistful glow while Nezumi chewed a cracker thoughtfully. “He's a good man,” Bellaniece said.
“He is,” Meara allowed as she set the teacup aside.
Sierra frowned at the sad expression on her face and turned a questioning eye on Nezumi. “Another letter she sent to Aislynn was returned, addressee unknown,” she said quietly.
Meara let out a brisk breath and smiled. “It doesn't matter,” she stated matter-of-factly. “She'll find me eventually. I just know it.”
Bellaniece wasn't sure why, but Meara's eternal optimism when it came to the baby sister she'd left behind so long ago almost brought tears to her eyes. Maybe it was because in the length of time that she'd known the young woman, that faith had never wavered, never faltered. When she looked at Meara and her gentle smile, Bellaniece had to admit that she believed that her sister really would come to find her. “Of course she will!”
“Ryomaru wanted to storm MacDonnough's house and bring her here to live with Meara . . . and InuYasha said he'd be happy to lend a hand,” Nezumi commented as she frowned at the clear coat of nail polish on her freshly manicured fingers—entirely impractical, given that she still worked part time as a mechanic.
“If he'd done that, he'd have scared the wits out of her,” Sierra said as she reached for a handful of tissues to wipe the mask off her face. “She was still a baby at the time.”
“Oh, I'm not talking about back then,” Nezumi scoffed, rolling her eyes. “That baka just said it a couple days ago.”
“Everything's going to be just fine; you'll see,” Meara stated.
Bellaniece got up to set her empty teacup back on the table and took Meara's empty one, too. “Well, I can't wait to meet her,” she said.
Sierra nodded. “Absolutely.”
“And I'll do my best to keep Ryomaru far, far away from her,” Nezumi promised.
“Did you have something special planned for Friday night?” Sierra asked as she settled back and pulled the heated mask down over her eyes again.
“Kichiro's going to try to get reservations at Kiseki, but I doubt he'll be able to on such short notice, so I thought we could all get together for dinner and dancing or something,” Bellaniece mused as she slowly stretched and stifled a yawn.
“Kiseki?” Nezumi intoned with a raised eyebrow as she flipped her long, black ponytail over her shoulder. “Aren't they booked months in advance?”
“Yeah, that's what I thought,” she admitted with a rueful grin.
Bellaniece laughed as she picked up the latest issue of Smile!, one of the newest and hottest fashion magazines in Japan.
“Are you ladies ready for the seaweed wrap?” Yumi asked as she entered the room again.
It was kind of depressing, wasn't it? Everyone was going to be busy on her birthday. Then again, they all had their own lives, too, just as she did, and she could understand that easily enough. Besides, her daughters were always very good about calling her to wish her a happy birthday, and that was more than enough to make it a special day.
“I can't believe how big she is!” Alexandra exclaimed quietly as she leaned to the side to get a better look at the child sitting in her lap.
“She looks good with a baby, doesn't she?” Kichiro commented, casting John a knowing glance.
John chuckled and shrugged candidly. “She always looks good,” he replied smoothly.
Kichiro didn't miss the grateful smile that his daughter shot her long-time boyfriend. He still hadn't quite figured out the two of them. They'd been dating for years, ever since they'd met in college, and they seemed perfectly content with each other, but they hadn't become mates yet, and as far as Kichiro could tell, they didn't seem to be in a hurry to do it, anyway.
Takara giggled and nibbled on the onigiri that she'd managed to nab from Alexandra's plate. They'd run into InuYasha and Kagome with the one-year-old in tow when they'd entered the restaurant, who had insisted that Kichiro, Alexandra, and John join them.
“You don't come home often enough, Alexandra,” Kagome chided as she smiled at her daughter and granddaughter.
Alexandra carefully pulled a noodle from her plate and held it out to Takara. She wrinkled her nose and turned her face away to avoid the food. “Ninja! Ninja!” she insisted.
InuYasha grunted out what might have been a half-laugh. Kagome rolled her eyes. “She'd eat nothing but ramen if I let her,” she admitted in a defeated tone of voice.
Kichiro chuckled and shook his head. “Spoiled already, old man?” he teased.
InuYasha didn't look the least bit cowed by the accusation. “She knows what's good,” he replied.
Takara peered over the top of the onigiri at her brother, her bright golden eyes round and wide. It reminded Kichiro of another face at another time, but one that was startlingly similar: his other sister, Gin. The two could have been twins really. They both looked just like their mama, so it wasn't surprising, he supposed. Still, he had to wonder if InuYasha's over-protectiveness where Gin was concerned as going to be as much of a problem this time around or if their father, legendary for his lack of patience and overall temper, was going to be able to loosen the reins when it came to Takara.
“Gin called earlier and said that she and Cain would be here tomorrow with Kurt and Samantha,” Kagome remarked. “It's too bad that Sebastian and Sydnie can't make it.”
“Yeah, Evan said he can't, either. Something about being in the middle of Bucharest, I think,” Kichiro said. “The life of a rock star, I guess.”
“I worry about that one,” John commented with a good-natured grin. “He's a little wild.”
“A little?” Alexandra blurted with a laugh. “I'm still trying to figure out how Aunt Gin could possibly have had a son like him.”
“It's that damned Zelig's fault,” InuYasha muttered.
Kagome rolled her eyes but laughed as she fished Takara's plastic sipper-cup out of her bag. She set it on the table, but the girl completely ignored it. She'd gotten to the umeboshii in the center of the onigiri and was far more interested in it than she was in the juice in the cup her mother had provided. “Cain's a very nice man,” Kagome insisted, reaching over to tweak InuYasha's ear.
He snorted indelicately and scowled, though Kichiro didn't miss the trace hint of pink that dusted his father's cheeks. It figured. InuYasha might bluster and grumble, but there wasn't a doubt in anyone's mind that he absolutely adored his wife and mate. “Keh! Whatever, wench,” he muttered.
“Ani-tan!” Takara suddenly exclaimed, dropping the onigiri and throwing her arms out toward Kichiro. He chuckled but picked her up, and she settled against his chest with a contented sigh, handing him what was left of the rice ball before stuffing her fingers into her mouth as she peered around at the rest of the occupants of the table.
Alexandra smiled and leaned back in her seat. “So Takara loves you best, does she?”
Kichiro shrugged and smoothed Takara's downy hair with a gentle hand. “Of course she does,” he said. “If you had a choice between Ryo and me, who would you choose?”
“Me,” another voice said, much to Kichiro's amusement. “Alexandra. John. I hope your flight went smoothly.”
Alexandra stood up and hugged Mikio tight as he leaned down to let her kiss his cheek. “It's so good to see you,” she said, giving his hands an affectionate squeeze.
Mikio smiled and ducked his head shyly. “It's good to see you, too.”
“Nii-tan! Nii-tan!” Takara squealed, the once-content child pushing against Kichiro's chest in an effort to get to her hands-down favorite sibling.
Mikio made a hasty bow to John in greeting before scooping up Takara and cuddling her against his shoulder.
Kichiro sighed melodramatically but grinned. “Obviously, Mikio's her favorite.”
“I always thought that he had more of a way with the women,” Alexandra teased as she took her seat once more. Mikio walked around the table to kiss his mother on the cheek before slipping into the empty chair that InuYasha had grabbed from a vacant table nearby when Mikio had first appeared.
“Uh, I don't know about that,” Mikio murmured as he settled Takara on his lap. “Sorry I'm late, Mama.”
Kagome waved a hand dismissively and handed Takara the sipper-cup. This time, the child took it happily and clenched the extended plastic mouthpiece between her teeth. “You didn't see Ryomaru?”
“No,” he replied, absently fiddling with his twitching ear. “Toga mentioned that he needed to talk to him, though, so . . .”
Kichiro nodded, the implication clear. If Toga needed to speak to Ryomaru, it probably had something to do with a hunt, so the odds that he'd be able to meet them wasn't too good. “That's fine,” he said. He didn't miss the quick glance that Kagome shot InuYasha. That was normal enough, he supposed. It didn't matter how old they got or how good Ryomaru was at his job. That mother's fear that something could potentially happen to her child would always be there, somewhere in the back of Kagome's mind.
“Well, I'm glad you're here, anyway,” Kichiro remarked. “Will you have time to do a favor for me before the party?”
Mikio frowned thoughtfully and slowly nodded. “I can try,” he offered, carefully observing InuYasha's mantra: never make a promise that you don't know that you can keep.
“I've arranged for a special surprise for her, but I'll be kind of busy, making sure that everything is set up right, so if you could pick it up, I'd owe you one,” Kichiro said.
“Oh, I can do that,” Mikio allowed. “Just tell me where I need to go.”
“I'll send you the information later,” Kichiro agreed.
“Why the hell aren't you two married yet?” InuYasha demanded suddenly, pinning Alexandra and John with his formidable glower.
Alexandra blinked and shot John a quick glance before shifting almost nervously in her seat and offering a completely self-conscious shrug. “We haven't really talked about it,” she said quietly.
“You've been together long enough,” InuYasha went on without indicating whether he'd heard his granddaughter or not. “Either you're mates or you're not.”
John chuckled and reached for the glass of beer in front of him. “Lexi's research is important,” he said calmly as he glanced at her and smiled a little wider. “Besides, she's definitely worth waiting for.”
InuYasha snorted again but seemed satisfied enough to let the subject drop, at least for the moment. Kichiro had questions, himself, but he had faith that the two of them would work things out by themselves.
Kagome looked around, her eyes shining as a gentle smile toyed with her lips. Nothing made her quite as happy as seeing family members that she hadn't been able to see in awhile. Kichiro knew the feeling, and when her gaze locked with his and her smile widened just a touch, he nodded slowly.
It only served to make him feel a little more anticipation at seeing Bellaniece's reaction to having all of her daughters home once more . . .
Bellaniece clicked off the cell phone and frowned at it for a moment before letting it slip idly through her fingers onto the table top. `It's strange, isn't it? Daddy never turns his cell off . . .'
`Maybe he and Gin are having some `alone time',' her youkai-voice pointed out reasonably.
She couldn't help but worry, though. It really was odd, no doubt about it. `Even if that were the case, he still wouldn't have turned it off. He never does. He just wouldn't have answered, was all . . .'
`You're worried about nothing,' the voice chided. `Your daddy is a big boy. He's fine—just fine.'
`Still . . .'
Shaking her head as she pushed herself up from the table, and pulled on the white lab coat with her name embroidered on the breast pocket.
It wasn't just that her father's phone was turned off; it was that she hadn't been able to reach anyone she'd tried to call. Gin's cell was also turned off, and Isabelle hadn't answered, either. Then she'd tried to call Samantha to ask her if she could swing past Cain's house just to make sure that everything was all right, but there was no answer at her house, and her cell had also been turned off, as well, and if that wasn't odd enough, not even Sebastian had answered his phone.
No, it was definitely not just her imagination.
“You look troubled.”
Bellaniece sucked in a sharp breath and whirled around to face Dr. Sato. “Oh, uh, n-no,” she blurted, pasting on what she hoped was a bright smile. “Everything's fine.”
He didn't look like he believed her. Crossing his arms over his chest, he ducked his chin slightly as he continued to regard her carefully. Finally, he shook his head and scratched his temple thoughtfully. “If you're preoccupied, it will affect your work,” he pointed out with a rather bashful little grin. “You're not going to ruin months of my research because you're distracted, are you?”
“Wh—oh! No! No, of course not!” she hurried to say.
“It's none of my business,” he replied quickly, waving a hand as though to forestall any explanation that she might have been ready to make. “It troubles me to see a woman like you looking so worried.”
Blinking at his softly uttered words, Bellaniece didn't know what to say. Dr. Sato turned away, heading for the hall that led to the research labs, but not before she saw the acute redness that had filtered into the man's cheeks. Biting her lip, she picked up her phone, dropped it into her pocket, and followed him out the door and down the corridor.
“You, uh, mentioned that you wanted to leave a little early tomorrow?” Dr. Sato asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had fallen between the two of them.
Bellaniece nodded, brushing aside the lingering worries that still plagued the back of her mind. “If that's all right,” she began in an apologetic tone.
“No, it's fine,” he blurted quickly. “Weekend plans, I suppose?”
“Well, sort of,” she admitted as she picked up a tray of beakers to put in the sterilizing unit. “It's my birthday.”
“Your birthday?” he repeated, glancing up from the clipboard. “Congratulations.”
Bellaniece laughed and wrinkled her nose. “Birthdays aren't supposed to be exciting when you're my age, are they?”
Tossing the clipboard onto the worktable beside him, Dr. Sato crossed his arms over his chest and smiled shyly. “Aren't birthdays meant to be celebrated?”
“Hmm, maybe,” she allowed, the soft clink of the glass beakers reminding her of mornings past when she'd wash the dishes after she'd seen her daughters off to school. Those days seemed so far away now, but the memories that she had were more than enough to placate her. An unexpectedly sharp pang shot through her, and just for a moment, she thought she could hear the faraway chime of little girls' laughter . . .
“Did you ask for anything special? I imagine that Izayoi-san would give you whatever you wished for, wouldn't he?”
“He would,” she said with a little shake of her head. “It's funny. I asked for something silly that I knew he couldn't give me so that he wouldn't feel bad if he should happen to figure out what I really wanted.”
Dr. Sato's brow furrowed in confusion. “Why would he feel bad?”
Letting out a wistful breath, Bellaniece smiled, just the same. “Because it's even more impossible than the silly thing that I did ask for.”
He looked like he was trying to decide whether or not to ask her for clarification. In the end, though, he must have decided that it was too invasive. He started to stand up straight, started to reach for the clipboard again. Bellaniece's soft sigh stopped him. “If I were to tell him that I'd love nothing better than to have all my girls come home to visit, he'd try to talk them into it, and then he'd feel badly if he couldn't convince them,” she admitted with a brisk shrug. “They're grown, and they have lives of their own, and that makes me so happy. Sometimes, though, I just miss having them nearby,” she went on, unsure why she was telling Dr. Sato all of this yet strangely unable to stop, either. “Not one of them lives in Japan—Isabelle lives in the United States with her husband . . . Lexi lives in Australia, and my baby, Samantha . . . She's also in the United States with her husband and their daughter . . .”
“That is far,” he murmured. He looked like he wasn't sure exactly what to say to her, and he looked rather uncomfortable, too, but he met her gaze for just a moment, and he smiled in what she figured must have been an encouraging sort of way. “They come home to visit, though, don't they?”
Bellaniece could feel her smile wavering on her lips, and to her horror, she couldn't stop herself as tiny prickles erupted behind her eyelids, as the room seemed to flow together as her vision clouded over. Her hand was shaking when she dashed it over her eyes. “Oh, of course they do!” she said, unable to help the defensiveness that crept into her tone any more than she could control the slightly screechy quality in her voice. “They come home to visit, but . . . but never together. It . . . it isn't the same . . .”
Slumping back onto a stool, Bellaniece covered her face with her hands. Why was it that the harder she tried to pull herself together, the more impossible it seemed? Truthfully, she wasn't even sure why she was suddenly so upset. A half-formed image of endless years seemed to stretch out before her, a vast expanse of time and space where those precious memories seemed to fade just a little more every time she looked back at the road she'd traveled . . . As proud as she was of her daughters, the feeling of sadness—a sorrow so deep that it felt as though she were drowning in it—felt so wide, so vast, bringing to mind those emotions she'd suffered when Samantha was missing . . . It was that sense of helplessness, of having no control at all over the fates of those whom she loved, that filled her with such an ominous dread, and yet . . .
And yet, she could feel a warring sense of profound joy, too—joy in the knowledge that the girls she'd loved and nurtured were able to share the love they possessed with others—the sense of pride that she had helped to instill that in them, even if her part had only been a small one. It was those conflicting emotions that had her in such a state, wasn't it?
`It's called hormones, Bellaniece. Get over it!' her youkai voice stated flatly. `You're scaring your boss, you know.'
Still, it took her another couple minutes before she was able to even begin to rein in her emotions. Wiping her eyes carefully, she sniffled and swallowed hard.
“H-here,” Dr. Sato said, jamming a handful of tissues under her nose.
Bellaniece reached out hesitantly and took them. “Thank you,” she whispered, carefully blotting at her eyes. “I don't know what came over me . . .”
“My mother always told me never to question why a woman cries,” he said with a shrug though he still looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Why don't you take the day off . . .?”
Standing up quickly, Bellaniece smoothed her skirt and stubbornly shook her head. “I'm fine; I promise,” she said. “Things have been a little stressful this week. It seems like I've not seen Kichiro as much as I normally do, and I'm sorry that I let it get to me.”
A sudden sense of understanding brightened his features as he slowly nodded. “I see. That makes sense. Izayoi-san is lucky to have such a devoted wife.”
“I don't know,” Bellaniece replied, her smile genuine as a hint of pinkness crept into her cheeks. Pressing the button on the locking mechanism of the sterilizing machine, she took her time as she set it to start. “I think we make our own luck, don't you?”
Dr. Sato chuckled and nodded once before reaching for the clipboard he'd tossed aside. “I guess you're right,” he agreed. “I'll have to keep that in mind.”
Kichiro tugged on the fabric of his slacks as he sat on the cool stone bench in the hazy light of the late afternoon sky. “You'd think that she'd be a little more exhausted after having spent so long on a plane,” he remarked as his gaze followed his four year-old granddaughter's form as the girl giggled and darted away from her father in the middle of the playground. They'd just arrived, and instead of heading straight to the hotel, they'd wanted to stop so that Tanny could stretch her legs and burn off some of her nervous energy.
It was a far cry from the toddler that Drevin had found in one of those so-called research facilities. Having spent the first bit of her life, locked in a cage and being tested and tortured, she hadn't even had a name. Even after Samantha and Kurt had adopted her, she'd had to learn everything that she should've been taught in the beginning, but seeing her now was nothing short of amazing. Laughing, running, basically acting like any other four year-old, no one would have ever guessed that she'd had such a hard time in the beginning. Kichiro would love to believe that it was solely because of Samantha's absolute dedication, but even he had to admit—though never out loud—that Drevin was very good with Tanny.
Beside him, Samantha snaked her hand under his elbow and giggled. “Sometimes I wish I had half her energy,” she allowed with a simple shrug. “Then again, maybe it was all the candy Kurt kept giving her to keep her occupied on the plane.”
“I'm surprised she's not bouncing off the walls,” Kichiro muttered under his breath.
Samantha groaned and sat up just enough to pin her father with a chagrined expression. “Grandma Gin even made some cupcakes for the trip, which just started a war, considering Grandpa wasn't too thrilled. It was cake, he said, and every cake she makes belongs to him . . .”
Kichiro snorted. “Keh. That damned Zelig is insane.”
Samantha giggled. “I don't know . . . He says she's his cake fairy, can you image? I think it's really cute.”
He snorted again. “You would.”
Her laughter died away, but the smile on her face didn't waver as she watched her husband and daughter as Drevin chased Tanny around the open grass. “I think that Tanny's helped Kurt almost as much as he's helped her,” Samantha remarked quietly, her blue eyes as dark and shining as her mother's. “I think he was meant to find her.”
“Your mama's going to be happy to see her . . . and you.”
Closing her eyes, she leaned on Kichiro's shoulder with a contented sigh. “Kurt was afraid that Tanny was going to have problems during the flight like she did the last time,” she admitted then laughed. “So he figured he'd buy her candy to occupy herself with. I didn't realize he was going to buy out the whole store, though . . .”
“Good thing she's hanyou,” Kichiro muttered with a shake of his head as he watched his granddaughter do a somersault in the grass. “Otherwise I'd hate to have your dentist bills.”
Samantha giggled and kissed Kichiro's cheek, then carefully wiped the pale pink lip gloss off his skin that she'd left behind. “Okay, okay, so tell me! Is there anything you need me to do for Mama's party?”
“Just show up,” he said with a smile. “Everything else is taken care of.”
Samantha's eyes took on a mischievous glow, her smile a rather impish tilt. “So . . .?”
Blinking, he slowly shook his head despite the little grin that surfaced. “So . . . what?”
She winked conspiratorially and leaned in closer. “So what did you get for her? A trip to Paris, maybe? You know how much Mama loves to shop.”
“Of course I know how much she loves to shop,” Kichiro remarked with a warm chuckle. “I also know that I end up paying for those trips for years afterward.”
Samantha rolled her eyes and wrinkled her nose. “As if you don't have the money to pay for all that,” she scoffed with a wave of her hand. “Besides, you love indulging Mama.”
“I do,” he agreed easily enough. “I really, really do.”
Kichiro's amusement dimmed when Kurt glanced over and smiled at Samantha. She laughed softly and waved back at him, and while Kichiro was relieved to know that the two of them were doing well, he just couldn't quite bring himself to trust Drevin, either. He figured that he'd never truly get over the events of the past, and he certainly wouldn't ever forget Kurt Drevin's part in it, either. It was all he could do to be civil to the man, even though the women in the family seemed to understand that he really was trying to make amends.
Bellaniece got along with him well enough. She never said anything derogatory about Drevin, but Kichiro saw traces of her own lingering ghosts every now and then. For a long while after they'd returned from Japan, she'd had nightmares, and though those had lessened over time, she still woke him up sometimes, her eyes hooded and darkened with irrational fear. She'd stare at him with those frightened shadows in the depths of her gaze, and he would make the call to his daughter, pretending that he just wanted to chat with her as Bellaniece huddled against his side, as he felt her wildly beating heart slowly even out and steady to a normal rate once more. It always seemed that it took her awhile to trust herself to speak after those nightmares, as though the mere memory of the torment that she'd endured day after day, week after week was just too much to bear. It was a feeling that he understood all too well himself. Thankfully, though, she didn't have them very often anymore. It fact, the last time had to have been a couple of months ago.
Both Bellaniece and Isabelle were actually on rather good terms with Drevin, he had to admit. On the one hand, he simply could not fathom how easy they could forgive him. On the other? Kichiro smiled a little sadly—barely a smile, really. On the other hand, he was a little jealous, too. As a father, he'd give anything to be able to wholeheartedly accept his daughter's mate, but it was that same feeling as a father that stood in his way at times. He certainly respected Drevin's abilities to purify and restrain youkai, and perhaps the ones he should harbor his grudge against were the ones who had convinced Drevin so long ago that all youkai were monsters—demons, and even though he told himself many, many times that he could understand that kind of hatred, that kind of loathing, he knew that somewhere deep down, he was still just as afraid for Samantha's well-being as he had been on that bitter night in early November when he'd first gotten the call that his daughter was missing.
As though in answer to Kichiro's thoughts, the man in question suddenly glanced at him, offered him a rather tight but surely genuine smile before kneeling down and pulling Tanny into his arms to whisper in her ear. The little girl giggled then broke away from her adoptive father, hoppity-skipping straight toward Kichiro with a brightness in her eyes that was most certainly the result of both Samantha and even Kurt's efforts to show her what life truly was. “Gwampa!” she exclaimed—she still hadn't outgrown the more childish way of speaking. “Gwampa! You gots tanny for me?”
Kichiro chuckled, unable to help himself at the absolute hopefulness in her anxious gaze. “Tanny, eh?” he echoed in English. “Guess if you learn to say the word right then your mama's going to have to change your name.”
Samantha giggled and squeezed his arm. Tanny's smile faded as a rather determined scowl came over her features. Without warning, she reached out, grabbing Kichiro's suit jacket and shoving it hastily aside in her quest to inspect him for the desired goodies. He couldn't help but laugh when, with a shriek of absolute delight, she delved into the breast pocket of his white dress shirt, only to come away with an unopened package of grape gummy candies. With that, she promptly plopped down in the grass beside the bench and set about trying to tear the bag open.
“That girl's got a one-track mind,” Kurt remarked as he wandered over, hands dug into the pockets of his jeans and a rather indulgent little grin on his face as he stared at his daughter. “The entire flight over, she kept asking me if you'd remember to bring her candy.”
“As if I'd forget something that important,” he replied with a shake of his head. Tanny seemed to be having some trouble with the wrapper, but when he reached down to offer his assistance, she yanked the packet away and stubbornly shook her head.
“She's become extremely independent lately,” Samantha explained quickly, as though she was worried that he would take offense to her desire to do for herself. “She won't even let me help her tie her shoes these days.”
“Hmm, I seem to recall a certain little girl who refused to let her mother or me help her do that, too,” Kichiro teased thoughtfully. “You didn't know how to do it, though, and you always ended up tying them in a mass of knots.”
She laughed softly and slowly nodded. “Mama would sit for hours and just pick them out without a word.”
“So that's where she gets it,” Kurt remarked, nodding at Tanny without taking his eyes off her.
“Yeah, but your mama learned quickly enough. She went out and bought you Velcro shoes, if I recall.”
“Velcro!” Kurt repeated suddenly, eyes widening just a little, as though the idea hadn't occurred to him before. “Hu-u-u-uh . . .”
They didn't really say much as they watched Tanny. She finally managed to get the package open on her own, and it seemed to Kichiro that it took her less time to devour them than it had taken her to break into the packet, to start with. After thoroughly inspecting the wrapper to make sure she hadn't missed any, she carefully stood up and threw it into the nearby trashcan before running over to Samantha and holding out her hands, palms up. “I need washing,” she said in her little sing-song voice.
Samantha laughed and shook her head. “You're supposed to wash your hands before you eat,” she reminded her as she got to her feet anyway. “Come on.” She paused long enough to cast Kurt and Kichiro a smile that Kichiro figured she meant to be sunny and bright. Too bad he'd discerned the trace hint of anxiety in her eyes . . . “We'll be right back,” she assured them.
“Take your time,” Kichiro called after them. Samantha glanced back and smiled again before hurrying Tanny along the path toward the public bathroom nearby.
Left alone with his son-in-law, Kichiro fell silent. It wasn't uncomfortable, but he'd be lying if he had tried to say that there wasn't a certain level of tension between the two.
Drevin was the first to break the silence, and when he did, he let out a deep breath. “I really admire you, you know,” he remarked at length, much to Kichiro's surprise.
“Admire me? Why?”
Kurt shrugged and shuffled his feet in the grass, staring at the ground as though he were looking for answers. “You're a hell of a father,” he finally said.
“Don't know about that,” Kichiro muttered, a sharp pang of guilt twisting his guts. He wasn't a good father, was he? He couldn't even rightfully deal with his own feelings when it came to this particular son-in-law . . .
Shaking his head quickly, Drevin finally looked at Kichiro with a contentious frown. “Every day I spend with Tanny, you know . . .? I play dolls with her and read her stories . . . make sure she brushes her teeth and washes behind her ears . . . even when I tuck her in at night . . .” He trailed off for a moment, his gaze slipping to the perimeter of trees that lined the border of the park. “That's the kind of stuff you did with Samantha, right? When she was young . . .”
Kichiro shrugged, unsure what he was supposed to say, unsure where Drevin was going with all this, in the first place.
Kurt sighed. “If someone did to Tanny what I did to Samantha, I wouldn't think twice about killing him,” he admitted quietly, a thick, dark emotion tingeing his voice, coloring the air around him. “Every day, they both become more and more necessary to me, and even if you can't forgive me, the fact that you're willing to go out of your way to be decent to me for Samantha's sake . . .” Shaking his head again, he managed a small smile. “I just wanted to say thank you.”
Kichiro stared at the sky for several moments, his gaze taking in the thin haze that never seemed to completely dissipate over the Tokyo cityscape. A strange sense of near familiarity swept through him as he considered Drevin's frank comments. Thankful that Kichiro was trying to be decent to him for his daughter's sake . . .? “You're wrong, you know,” he finally said.
Kichiro nodded, steepling his fingertips together as his hands dangled between his parted knees. “You'd do the exact same thing for Tanny,” he replied. “You'd do it because she's your daughter. You'd do it because . . .” he had to trail off long enough to swallow a lump that was growing in his throat, as he blinked rapidly to dispel the unwelcome moisture that threatened to blur his vision. A million moments flashed through his mind: the tiny infant nestled so close to her mama's heart . . . the little girl with the silver hair and deep blue eyes who stood, lips quivering, as she refused to cry when she said goodbye to her Mama and him on her first day of school . . . moments that he could neither count nor define that all gave silent testimony as to why he hadn't been able to hurt Drevin—really hurt him—as he had wanted to when he'd first found out about Drevin's involvement in Samantha's disappearance. Lowering his gaze, shifting his eyes without turning his head, only to stare at Kurt in a direct sort of way, he smiled just a little. “You'd do it because you love her.”
Bellaniece sat at the kitchen table with Takara on her lap as the toddler babbled at the two chunky plastic dolls she held firmly in her dimpled little hands. Trying for an air of nonchalance as she waited patiently for Kagome to pour a cup of tea for her, she seemed like she was absorbed in what the child was saying—a silly conversation between her toys—instead of what she was really doing—worrying over the strange phone calls earlier in the day.
“—so InuYasha let his temper get the better of him and ended up threatening the head of the Parents' Association with disembowelment . . .” Kagome trailed off and slowly, wearily shook her head. “You'd think that he'd have learned how to control that temper of his over time, wouldn't you?”
Bellaniece pressed her lips together to stave back the smile that threatened to turn up her lips. In the length of time that she'd known InuYasha, she couldn't say that he was known for his patience, after all, and Kagome, of all people, knew that better than anyone. “And did he carry through with his threat?” she couldn't help asking.
Kagome let out a deep breath that sent the bangs fringing her forehead skyward. “Well, he does stop short of inflicting actual bodily damage these days . . . I guess that's some progress, right?” she admitted rather sheepishly as she set a cup of tea on the table near Bellaniece and sat down beside her with an encouraging smile. “Now why don't you tell me why you really came by?”
Opening her mouth to protest, Bellaniece gave up a moment later and shook her head with a sigh, idly stroking Takara's hair as she tried to compose her thoughts. “I tried to call Daddy earlier,” she admitted with a shrug, as though she was trying to downplay her worries, and maybe she was. “His phone was switched off, and there was no answer at the house, either.”
Kagome nodded slowly, digesting what Bellaniece had said. “Did you try Gin's phone?”
“Yeah . . . hers was turned off, too.”
For some reason, Kagome didn't seem at all surprised. “I'm sure that there's a logical reason for it,” she finally said, reaching over to pat her hand in a completely reassuring sort of way that only seemed to make her feel just a little bit worse. “Did you try again?”
The smile that Bellaniece was trying to maintain faded quickly as she jerked her head once in a nod. “Out of service area.”
Kagome considered that then stood abruptly and hurried over to the cupboard. “Come to think of it, Gin did say something about a weekend getaway,” she said. “That must be why. Don't worry about it, okay?” Yanking open a cupboard, she poked around for a minute before pulling out a box of chocolates that she promptly plunked down on the table beside Bellaniece's untouched cup of tea. “Have you tried these?” she asked, clearly trying to change the course of the conversation. “Kagura had some at her house the other day, and they're just fantastic.”
Stifling a sigh, Bellaniece reached into the bag and pulled out a foil-wrapped package. “Weekend getaways are nice,” she allowed as she slowly unwrapped the piece of chocolate. “Daddy didn't mention that to me . . . Did Gin say where they were going?”
Kagome paused for a moment before taking her seat once more, but her smile didn't falter. “Oh, she mentioned something about a fancy restaurant that she wanted to try out,” she replied brightly.
Bellaniece's eyes widened. Gin had mentioned awhile back that she wanted to eat at a new place in New York City that she'd read a glowing review for in Fine Dining magazine. It had to have taken quite a bit of persuading, though, considering that Cain really, really hated big cities. In fact, he joked a lot that he had to reserve all of his patience for the trips that they took to Japan. “Wow,” she drawled thoughtfully, breaking a small bite of chocolate off the piece in her hand to offer to Takara. That made sense, didn't it? Suddenly, she felt a little sheepish for having been so concerned all day. Her father was an adult, after all. He really didn't have to clear his plans with her, especially when she lived half a world away. “She must've talked him into taking her to that restaurant she'd read about . . . Did she say how she managed to bribe Daddy into taking her to New York City?”
“No, she didn't,” Kagome said quickly. “I don't think it was that difficult, though. Seems to me that he likes to do things that make her happy.”
Bellaniece started to laugh, but the sound ended in a curt gasp as Takara sank her budding teeth into her finger—hard. “Ow!”
“Takara! No biting!” Kagome chided sternly but not angrily. The child blinked and stared at her mother for a moment before her wide golden eyes filled with tears and the sniffling began.
Bellaniece checked her fingertip over and smiled at Kagome reassuringly. “It's fine,” she said, taking a moment to kiss the girl's head in reassurance. The little fangs that Bellaniece knew to be razor-sharp had missed, thankfully, so she hadn't drawn blood. “It startled me more than anything.”
Kagome didn't look entirely convinced as she reached out to take Bellaniece's hand to inspect the finger for herself. “She bit InuYasha yesterday,” she admitted. “He was feeding her chocolate then, too, come to think of it . . .”
“What did he do about it?”
Kagome snorted—a strange sort of sound coming from her. “You know him. He just told her that she'd have to bite a lot harder if she wanted to hurt him, the baka . . .”
“Mama!” Takara wailed, stuffing her fingers into her mouth in between sobs.
Kagome sighed and shook her head but let go of Bellaniece's hand, apparently satisfied that Takara hadn't inflicted any lasting damage before picking up her daughter and settling her against her shoulder.
“What's all the ruckus in here?” InuYasha demanded as he strode into the kitchen with his arms crossed over his chest.
“Takara bit Bellaniece,” Kagome said without looking at her mate.
InuYasha's thoughtful scowl shifted to his daughter, who intercepted the expression and sobbed louder. Not surprising. Takara hated it when Kagome scolded her, but if she thought that she'd displeased her father? The girl was absolutely inconsolable. “What'd I tell you about that?” he asked in a remarkably calm tone as he plucked the child out of her mother's arm and leaned back to eye his daughter.
She sniffled and babbled nonsense that she probably hoped would placate the surly hanyou. It didn't, and her ears flattened in response. “No bite wenches,” Takara finally muttered.
Bellaniece clapped a hand over her mouth before the bark of laughter that rose in her throat managed to spill over.
Kagome heaved a sigh and rolled her eyes with a shake of her head. “Baka,” she muttered under her breath.
InuYasha grunted then nodded once. “That's right.”
“Gomen, gomen,” Takara mumbled around her fist that she refused to remove from her mouth. Bellaniece laughed and held up her finger to show Takara that she wasn't really hurt, after all. The girl sniffled again, and InuYasha reached over, grabbed a handful of chocolates out of the box, and strode out of the room with Takara in his arms.
“Well, I guess that worked well enough,” Bellaniece managed to say without giggling. “I mean, it's the same thing he told Mikio, too, and Mikio turned out all right.”
“Mikio turned out all right despite his father's advice,” Kagome grumbled.
Bellaniece laughed and glanced at her watch. It was later than she thought, and she grimaced. “I'd better get going,” she said as she stood up and set her teacup in the sink. “Kichiro should be home soon.”
Kagome got up to follow Bellaniece through the house. “He stopped by earlier,” she commented. “He said that the two of you haven't gotten to spend a lot of time together in the last couple weeks.”
Letting out a deep breath, she grimaced as Kagome handed her a long handled shoe horn so that she didn't have to sit down to pull on her shoes. “Yeah, but I've already made arrangements to get off work early tomorrow night, so we'll just have to do some catching up.”
“I'm sure that'll make him happy,” Kagome replied with a smile. “Be careful walking home.”
Bellaniece nodded and spared a moment to smile at her mother-in-law before slipping out the front door and into the balmy summer night.
“You've gotten a helluva lot better at making cakes, baby girl,” Ryomaru remarked as he lifted the piece off the plate and stuffed it into his mouth without a fork.
Gin giggled then wrinkled her nose before glancing over her shoulder at the closed bedroom door of the hotel suite they'd reserved for the night since Kichiro was afraid that Bellaniece would sense her father's presence if they stayed in their house in the forest. Luckily for them, Cain was sleeping in since the brothers had decided shortly upon showing up to see their sister that they definitely needed to help Zelig eat the rest of his cake from the night before.
“It's spicy,” Mikio commented, slowly chewing the sensible bite he'd taken as his ear twitched almost nervously. “It's good, though.”
“I added just a bit of cayenne pepper to enhance the chocolate,” Gin said happily. “Cain really likes it even though the first time I added it, he looked at me like I'd broken his favorite toy.”
“Oh, yeah? That why he's still in bed?” Kichiro couldn't help but ask.
Gin blinked and frowned thoughtfully. “No . . . the first time I added cayenne pepper to chocolate cake was years ago . . .”
Ryomaru snorted and reached over to slap Kichiro's arm. “Don't be a damn pervert,” he grumbled, sprinkling the table with cake crumbs.
“Don't talk with your mouth full,” Kichiro shot back with a slap of his own.
Mikio chuckled and pushed his empty plate away. “If you two keep at it, you'll wake Cain up, and then you'll have to explain—”
“What are you two doing here, and why are you eating my cake?”
Ryomaru swallowed fast and grinned unrepentantly at his brother-in-law. Then he belched. Loudly.
Kichiro, however, took the higher moral ground, deliberately taking his time in scooping up the last bite of his piece of cake and making a show of sticking it into his mouth.
“Now, Cain, it was just the leftovers from the one I made you yesterday,” Gin hurried to explain, hopping up from the table and rushing over to plant her hands in the center of her husband's bared chest as said-husband continued to glower at the twins. The idea that Mikio, too, had just finished a slice of the forbidden treat had either slipped his notice or didn't garner nearly as much irritation as the idea that Kichiro and Ryomaru had been given some. Kichiro figured that it was the latter option since Zelig had always had a bit of a soft spot for Mikio . . .
“Yeah,” Cain muttered, narrowing his eyes at Gin, “the one you made for me. Now what am I supposed to eat for breakfast?”
It struck Kichiro, just how childish Cain sounded at moment like these though he didn't comment on it. That would just be mean, and Kichiro was above being mean just for the sake of it. He wasn't above the idea of needling ol' Zelig, though . . . “Gin said that she wanted to open a bakery,” he remarked, nudging Ryomaru with his elbow to get his twin to play along.
Ryomaru glanced at Kichiro and broke into a wide grin. “Yeah . . . said she wanted to call it . . . what was that name again, Kich?”
“The Cake Fairy,” Kichiro supplied.
Mikio snapped his mouth closed and crossed his arms over his chest, his expression saying quite loudly that he figured that the twins were in for it, and that he wanted no part of whatever the `it' was that was about to befall them.
“The Ca—No way,” Cain barked.
Gin's eyes widened as she wheeled around to pin both Kichiro and Ryomaru with an incredulous look. “I did not!” she blurted.
“Sounds like a damn good idea to me,” Ryomaru allowed thoughtfully.
“Ryomaru!” Gin exclaimed when Cain said nothing but cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Yep, especially that coffee cake of hers with the toffee pieces in it,” Kichiro added.
“Is that right?” Cain asked quietly. Kichiro figured that if one were to look closely, one might actually see steam rising off the man's head.
Mikio shook his head. “Stop before you get her killed,” he said.
Ryomaru's grin widened as Kichiro drained the last of his coffee.
“You know, it might be fun to own a cake shop,” Gin remarked suddenly.
Cain's mouth dropped open in obvious shock, and he stood there for a few seconds, completely at a loss for words before finally turning on his heel and stomping toward the bedroom once more. “I hate your brothers,” he muttered without pausing in his gait.
Gin started to go after him but stopped when the hotel phone rang. Still, she looked like she wasn't sure whether she ought to ignore it or not for a moment, but in the end, she darted across the room and grabbed the receiver. “Hello . . .? Oh, Nezumi! Yes, he is . . . Just a moment.” She set the receiver down carefully and pivoted to look at her brothers. “It's for you, Ryomaru. Apparently, you forgot your cell phone.”
Ryomaru stood up, patting his pockets as though he didn't believe her. Then he snorted and strode over to answer the call. “Oi, Nez . . . Well, I—uh . . . I know; I know . . . Yes, dear . . .” Dropping the receiver back into the cradle again, he shot Gin a sheepish smile. “I gotta go,” he said.
“That's just pathetic,” Kichiro muttered, rolling his eyes as he stood up and hugged Gin despite her silent show of protest. She was still irked with him, but she never stayed mad, so he wasn't too worried. “I've got to go, too,” he told her. “See you tonight?”
Gin rolled her eyes and shoved at him. He didn't move. “For Bellaniece only,” she pouted.
Kichiro chuckled and kissed her on the cheek.
“Tell Zelig thanks for the cake,” Ryomaru called over his shoulder as he strode toward the door.
“She's going to get us back for that one,” Kichiro predicted as the two stepped into the hallway and pulled the door closed.
“Eh, she'll try,” Ryomaru agreed, digging his hands into his pockets as they headed for the stairs. “She still ain't scary.”
“Spoken like a true baka,” Kichiro shot back as he pushed the heavy metal door open and ran lightly down the first flight. “All women are scary.”
“Only when you're pussy-whupped,” Ryomaru retorted, falling into step beside Kichiro.
“Yes, dear,” Kichiro mimicked.
Ryomaru shoved him with his shoulder. Kichiro stumbled slightly but caught himself easily enough. “Nez is already ticked at me,” he explained. “Don't need to piss her off more, considering I just bought her that damned blow-torch she wanted. She'd fry my ass . . .”
“Why's she mad at you?”
“Keh! Did you know there's a new grading on the road that runs past Inutaisho Industries?”
Kichiro frowned and shook his head. “Nope.”
“Yeah, well, I didn't, either, until yesterday. Hit that damned grading and bottomed out the car—hella awesome shower of sparks, from what I could see in the rearview mirror . . .”
Kichiro grimaced. “What'd you tear off the car this time?”
Ryomaru grimaced, too, then grinned. “I dunno, but it made a weird fucking noise all the way home, and it was hard as hell to steer . . .”
Shaking his head, Kichiro couldn't say that he was surprised by Ryomaru's luck. Knowing him, he'd taken the strip of road too fast, anyway. As far as Kichiro could tell, Ryomaru ought to be glad that his wife could fix stuff like that—and try a little harder not to break the car, to begin with . . .
“So what time is that thing tonight, anyway?” Ryomaru asked, changing the subject as they hit the landing at the twenty-fifth floor.
“Six,” Kichiro reminded him. “Speaking of, I had a favor to ask of you.”
“A favor, eh?” Ryomaru chuckled and grinned in a rather smug sort of way. “Who else would you ask but your older, wiser, smarter, handsomer brother?”
“Keh!” Kichiro snorted. “Everyone else is doing other things, and you're the only one left that's supposed to be in Tokyo right now . . . Did you just say `handsomer'?”
“Yeah, I did,” Ryomaru said, his already cheesy grin widening to ridiculous proportions. “What kind of favor?”
“I need you to pick up Belle and bring her to the restaurant.”
“Aw, man! Why do I gotta pick up Grabby?”
“I just told you why,” Kichiro explained. “I'd do it, but I've got to make sure that everything's perfect there. Mikio's taking care of a few other things for me, the old man's going to be late anyway because of that school board meeting tonight, Toga—”
“All right; fine,” Ryomaru interrupted to stave off Kichiro's long explanation. “Talk about favors . . . if she touches my ears again, I swear I'll beat on you.”
“If you think you can,” Kichiro goaded.
“Balls! I know I can,” Ryomaru shot back.
“You're too slow to beat on me, fat ass.”
“Keep talking, baby brother.”
“Yeah, if you were only as good at fighting as you are at wrecking your car . . .”
Ryomaru grimaced, but the effect was ruined by the cheesy grin that surfaced a moment later. “Now, that really hurt, Kich,” he grumbled.
Kichiro grinned back at his brother. “The truth usually does, baka.”
“You really didn't have to bring me here,” Bellaniece commented as she smoothed the skirt of the black silk dress and waited for the elevator in the lobby of the Tokyo Mirabal Hotel. The skies had been threatening rain all day, but luckily, they'd managed to arrive before it had started. No sooner had they stepped inside, however, than the first droplets had started to fall.
Ryomaru shrugged offhandedly, impatiently tapping his foot. He hated elevators as much as Kichiro did, she knew, but he must have realized that she wouldn't really relish taking thirty-two flights of stairs in three-inch heels, either. He was garnering some strange glances, though, and considering he was wearing a pair of rather worn jeans and a nondescript black tee-shirt that was faded just enough that the few raindrops that had fallen on him were noticeable enough on his shoulders, she could understand why. Most of the clientele in the posh hotel were dressed in designer labels that had to have cost a fortune. Then again, both Ryomaru as well as Kichiro tended to draw a lot of notice, no matter where they went, just because of their uncommonly good looks . . .
It had surprised her when she'd opened the door to find him standing on the porch, but he'd said that Kichiro had been caught up a little longer than he'd anticipated so he'd asked Ryomaru to pick her up. What had surprised her more, however, was where they were going. To her amazement, Kichiro really had gotten last minute reservations for Kiseki, which was located on the top floor of the hotel. Still, she had little doubt in her mind that he'd probably had to ask his uncle to pull some strings, which was not something that he particularly enjoyed doing, but she knew that he would have if he thought it'd make her happy. She'd have to send Kagura flowers or something in the morning—and be extra nice to Kichiro later . . .
“Yeah, it was on my way to the movies, anyway,” he muttered under his breath. If he was aware of the looks he was garnering from the hotel patrons who kept stopping to stare at him, he made no mention.
“Maybe, but you really don't have to escort me upstairs,” she pointed out reasonably.
The burnished mirrored elevator doors slid open, revealing the lush interior of the small compartment. Upholstered with the finest mocha velvet from the highly polished teak railing down to the floor with creamy ivory opalescent paneling above, the running lights that lined the perimeter of the cubicle was soft and inviting. She supposed that it was designed to give an air of opulence, but in reality, she couldn't help but feel like she was gazing into an open coffin whenever she looked inside. For some ungodly reason, that thought struck her as humorous, and she had to clear her throat to keep from giggling out loud as Ryomaru waved his arm to indicate that she should go first.
“Don't worry about it,” Ryomaru said as he slumped against the wall just inside the door and slapped his hand over the control panel to close the doors. “I need to talk to Kich anyway.”
Bellaniece nodded as she dug into her purse for her compact. “Why isn't Nezumi with you?”
“You kidding me?” he scoffed, casting Bellaniece a droll look that said plainly that he figured she ought to know the answer to that particular question. He grimaced when the elevator jerked to life. “She's been working on my car all day. Looks like a grease monkey. She said she'd meet me at the theater after she got cleaned up.”
“What'd you do to your car this time?” she asked, carefully retouching her lip gloss in the small mirror.
“Why does everyone just assume that I broke the damn thing?” he grumbled. “It coulda just broke on its own, couldn't it?”
“It could have,” she agreed easily enough as she tucked the compact away once more. “It didn't, though, did it?”
Ryomaru rolled his eyes and snorted loudly. “I don't wanna talk about it,” he grouched. “It was an accident—an accident.”
Bellaniece giggled and leaned against the railing, staring at her brother-in-law for several moments while the floors ticked by, one after another. “So don't you have anything to say to me today?” she finally prompted.
Ryomaru shot her a cursory glance, as though he had no idea what she was fishing for. Suddenly, however, his eyes widened then narrowed. “Oi, are you getting crow's feet around your eyes?”
Bellaniece blinked and let out a deep breath, wondering vaguely if there was some sort of trap door under the thick carpeting—and wondering whether nor not anyone really would miss him if she pushed him out of the elevator. “No, I'm not,” she informed him brusquely. “Jerk.”
Ryomaru laughed at her choice of insults. “Better be careful, Grabby. Women your age start to let things migrate south, if you know what I mean,” he retorted.
“Oh, you're such an ass!” she told him. “A huge one!”
“Ain't nothing wrong with my ass,” he said. “Been staring at it lately, have you?” Reaching over his head, he arched his back in a careless stretch. “Sorry, but can't say I'm interested. You're too high maintenance for me.”
“High maintenance?” she echoed, her cheeks pinking at the intentional slur. “Is that right, Mr. I-Break-My-Car-Daily?”
He rolled his eyes and snorted. “Keh! Didn't I tell you that was an accident?”
“You're a walking, talking accident, Ryomaru,” she assured him. “What's the word?” She tapped her chin with a carefully manicured claw then suddenly snapped her fingers. “Ah, yes! Ba-a-a-aka.”
“Yeah, whatever,” he tossed back with a rather nasty little grin. “Maybe you should get a little more exercise before Kich figures out that he'd rather have a younger model.”
“Don't you worry about that,” she replied smoothly. “I'm taking good care of your brother. He has no need to look elsewhere, now or ever.” Sure, she knew that he was just trying to get under her skin. Ryomaru loved to do that, after all. Still, she had to admit that trading barbs with him was kind of fun in a really perverse kind of way . . . “I'd worry more about yourself if I were you,” she went on, waving a hand in an airy, dismissive gesture. “Nezumi's a gorgeous woman. Eventually, she's going to realize that you're a doofus and find herself a man with a brain.”
“Keh! She'll never figure that out,” he shot back with a completely arrogant grin. “Besides, Nez knows she's got a real man, unlike Kich, who apparently don't know how to make a son.”
“Kichiro's got it right,” she retorted, schooling her features to hide a smile of her own. “He just wanted girls, you know. That way he's the king of the castle and gets all the attention he could possibly want. Your poor mate has to constantly cater to your ego, doesn't she? It's a wonder you don't force her into a kimono and a subservient `get thee behind me' role.”
He opened his mouth to reply but was cut off short when the elevator gave an unpleasant lurch then groaned to a stop as the lights flickered then cut out with a sharp hiss of an electrical surge. A few seconds later, a very dim overhead fluorescent bulb switched on, casting the elevator in an eerie kind of half-light. “Fuck!” he exclaimed, pushing himself away from the railing and casting a wild eye around the enclosed space. “What the hell did you do?”
“Me?” she squeaked indignantly, shaking her head in wonder at his audacity. “It's because you have bad karma, poochie. Ever heard the phrase, `What goes around, comes around'?”
He snorted and yanked open the panel that covered the emergency phone. “Oi!” he barked when someone answered the call. “I'm stuck in your fucking elevator!”
Pressing her lips together, Bellaniece crossed her arms over her chest and slowly shook her head.
“Well, do something, can't you? Don't you have backup generators or something?” Pacing the floor like a caged animal, Ryomaru looked like he was considering committing some kind of mayhem. “Just hurry up!” Slapping the phone back into the cradle once more, Ryomaru didn't look any happier about the situation. “Damn! I don't wanna be stuck in here with you!” he growled, flopping back against the railing with a very dejected kind of air.
“Suck it up, big boy. You're not exactly my idea of a dream date, either,” she said dryly. “Did they tell you what happened?”
Ryomaru snorted. “The storm cut the power to damn near half of Tokyo.”
“What about the backup generators?”
That earned her a droll scowl. “Some shit about it taking a few minutes for them to kick into full gear.”
“So we're only stuck for a few minutes? Then what are you whining about?” she couldn't resist adding.
He didn't look impressed by her bravado. “I fucking hate elevators,” he growled. For a moment, he looked like he was going to do something rash, like try to claw his way out, but he must've thought better of it. Still, his ears were twitching like crazy—a sure sign of his irritation—and he pushed himself away from the wall with a muffled growl before stalking across the floor and back again. Opening and closing his fists in complete agitation, he looked like he was about ready to snap, and suddenly, Bellaniece's eyes widened as a strange thought occurred to her. “Ryomaru?”
Bellaniece cleared her throat and tried for a neutral tone of voice. “You're not . . . claustrophobic, are you?”
“Keh! As if!” he retorted. “I ain't scared of nothing!”
She let it go since she figured that antagonizing him would only make things worse. He wasn't a true claustrophobe, as far as she could tell. He hadn't had any issues about getting into the elevator, in the first place, but for someone who was so used to running free through the forests, being in such a confined space was obviously wearing thin on his nerves. “You know, today is my birthday,” she commented in an effort to distract the surly hanyou more than anything else.
Ryomaru paused for a moment. He was eyeballing the ceiling, probably looking for an emergency hatch. “I know,” he muttered as he turned his attention back to his investigation. “Get this damn thing moving!”
“Calm down,” she chided. “I'm sure that it won't be too much longer.”
The electricity flickered for a moment but died again. Ryomaru gritted his teeth and uttered a terse grunt as he grabbed the phone again. “Yeah, why the hell is it taking so long?” he barked into the receiver.
`He really doesn't possess even an ounce of patience, does he?' her youkai voice mused.
Bellaniece had to agree. Funny how he and Kichiro looked exactly alike but acted so very different. Twins really were fascinating, weren't they? True, Ryomaru possessed a much wilder nature whereas Kichiro was completely refined, but that wasn't the only difference, either. Those two complimented each other, and though there wasn't any danger of mistaking one for the other, she could certainly appreciate them both in their own rights.
But that was neither here nor there. At the moment, she needed to try to distract Ryomaru before he really did lose what little control he had over his formidable temper. He was far too reactive, and maybe a little too much like his father, possessing the often frustrating habit of acting first and thinking later.
“Look, I don't care what it takes, just get me the hell out of here!” he growled before slamming the phone down once more. “Damned bastards! If they don't get this thing moving right now, I swear on all that's holy I'll redecorate this place in ways that they've never even considered!”
“You know,” Bellaniece began thoughtfully, casually leaning back and crossing her ankles, “it's okay to admit that you're scared. There's no shame in it. Everyone's scared of something in life. The key to overcoming your fears is to face the fact that you have them.”
“I ain't scared!” he grumped, narrowing his eyes on her. Even in the dimly lit space, those eyes were glowing in an entirely unnatural sort of way. “Don't be stupid!”
“I'm scared of spiders,” Bellaniece went on, completely ignoring Ryomaru's tirade.
“Keh! You would be.”
“And you're scared of elevators.”
“I am not!” he bellowed.
She almost laughed but managed to keep a straight face. “Tell me, Ryomaru . . . did you have a bad elevator experience when you were little?”
“Aw, shut the fuck up, Grabby,” he muttered. Even in the dusky light, she could discern the hint of pink that had risen to the surface of his skin.
“Now, now, you know you like me,” she went on, waving a hand airily.
“The hell I do! I tolerate you since you're married to that baka twin of mine!” he insisted.
She giggled and pushed herself away from the wall, slowly wandering in Ryomaru's direction. “You know, you're really cute in a completely barbaric kind of way when you start frothing at the mouth,” she goaded.
“Get back over on your own side of the elevator,” he growled, crossing his arms over his chest stubbornly.
Ignoring his blustering, she reached out, latching onto his ear to rub the fuzzy appendage. “But you're really nothing but a big ol' puppy!”
“Knock it the fuck off, woman!” Ryomaru growled, knocking away her hand with a grimace since she'd had a rather firm hold on his ear.
Bellaniece wasn't deterred. “So soft!” she crooned, grabbing his other ear with another giggle.
“I'm warning you—”
Slapping her hand aside didn't end the barrage on his ears. Alternating hands, she kept snagging them, only to have him thwart her easily enough. But the master plan was working. Ryomaru might well be irritated at her, but at least he seemed to have forgotten that they were stuck in an elevator. He didn't even notice when the cubicle jerked into motion once more.
She didn't notice it, either. Bedeviling Ryomaru was proving to be a lot more entertaining than it probably should have been. Growling in earnest, he looked like he was ready to throttle her as he tried to duck to the side in an effort to evade her nimble fingers. “Get the hell off me!”
“What's the matter, Ryomaru? If you have ears like that, you really ought to share them more,” she said.
“Ow! Watch your fucking claws, will you?” he grumbled when she accidentally caught the tip of his ear as he shoved her hand away again.
“I didn't even break the skin, you big baby!” she taunted.
“Yeah, I'll break something if you don't knock it the fuck off!” he hollered.
“So you say; so you say,” she tossed back. “Now stand still!”
“Over my dead damn body, Grabby!”
“Don't be such a baby!”
“I'll show you a baby!”
“Oh . . . wow . . .”
Bellaniece stopped mid-grab as the elevator doors slipped open. Kichiro stood just outside with his hands on his hips and a rather amused, if not completely smug sort of grin on his face. The immaculately tailored Bahn Wong suit he wore fit him perfectly, the dusty black color of it making the silver of his hair even starker in contrast, and his glasses caught the ambient light illuminating the foyer of Kiseki, golden eyes glowing lazily.
Ryomaru, also having stopped in the midst of repelling her advances, was the first to recover. “Do something about your mate, damn it!” he growled, shoving Bellaniece away though not hard enough to hurt her before brushing past Kichiro and out of the elevator.
Bellaniece slowly broke into a smile when Kichiro reached out, flattening his hand against the door sensor to keep it open a little while longer. “You're late, Belle-chan,” he said quietly.
She laughed softly and finally stepped forward, only to be captured in Kichiro's strong embrace as he let go of the elevator and wrapped his arms around her. “I'm sorry about that,” she murmured, closing her eyes as the scent of him felt like a welcome home. “See, I was stuck in that little box with a man who suffers from a mild case of claustrophobia.”
She felt his laughter but didn't hear it more than a breathy exhalation. “Is that right?”
Sparing a long moment to hold her close, Kichiro didn't seem to be in any hurry to relinquish his hold on her, though he did lift her chin as he lowered his lips to hers. After a minute, though, he let go, offering his elbow to escort her into the restaurant. With a smile, she slipped her hand under his arm and let him lead her forward.
“Good evening, Izayoi-san,” the maitre d' greeted with a low bow. “Your table is ready.”
“Thank you,” Kichiro said.
Bellaniece stopped short with a harsh gasp when they walked through the high archway that led to the restaurant. Eyes widening in disbelief, she felt her mind go perfectly blank as she blinked in wonder at the sight before her. Beside every table stood people she knew, and the greeting had come from all of those assembled. Unable to speak as her gaze swept over the gathering, she saw all of Kichiro's Japanese relatives, all of whom were smiling.
She gasped again as a dark haired blur rushed toward her, weaving her way through the throng of people, straight toward Bellaniece, who managed to kneel down and open her arms just in time to intercept the happily shrieking child. “T-Tanny,” she breathed as she gathered the girl close, as tears clouded her vision, and she closed her eyes but not in time to stave back two fat tears that rolled down her cheeks. “Oh, sweetie . . .”
“You're not really going to cry, are you, princess?” Kichiro murmured in her ear. He'd hunkered down beside her, was rubbing the small of her back.
She choked out a laugh as Tanny babbled in her ear. Her senses were overwhelmed, the giddy pleasure that she felt, simply being surrounded by so many of her loved ones was too intense. Samantha and Kurt had made the trip home, just for her? She laughed and sniffled and carefully wiped her eyes. “Where's your mommy, sweetie?” she asked, pushing Tanny back far enough to look at her face.
Tanny giggled and carted around, dashing back the way she'd come. Kichiro chuckled and helped her to her feet once more. Bellaniece shot her mate a grateful glance before shifting her still-watery gaze over the gathering, and then . . .
And then she noticed what she hadn't before. Near the front of the restaurant at a long table that had been created by pushing together a number of smaller ones, stood all three of her daughters along with their significant others—and her father with Gin beside him. They were all smiling at her, and when she finally saw them, she couldn't contain the sob that welled up in her throat.
She didn't remember running to them, didn't notice when everyone stepped aside, allowing her an open path to her daughters and her father. Trying to hug them all at once amid a wash of happy tears, she wanted to touch them—all of them—to reassure herself that they were there, that they were real and not simply something she'd dreamed up.
“Happy birthday, Mama,” Isabelle said as she gave Bellaniece a tight squeeze.
“Happy birthday. I love you,” Alexandra whispered, her voice thick with tears of her own.
“Surprise, Mama,” Samantha added with an impish little giggle.
“Happy birthday, my lady,” Cain said, that charming little lopsided grin of his firmly in place.
Bellaniece could only laugh, unable to find the words to say as her mind spun a mile a minute.
“All right; all right. I hate to break up the sob-fest going on there, but the gates of the coliseum are going to be opened in less than an hour, so can we get a move on this party?”
Bellaniece gasped softly and glanced around. The voice she'd heard had most definitely come over the restaurant's PA system, and when she finally noticed the huge screen that had dropped out of the ceiling, she smiled. Evan Zelig, a.k.a. Zel Roka, most notably her baby brother grinned at her, his face magnified on the screen. Satisfied that he'd gained her attention, he strummed a few notes on the acoustic guitar settled on his lap before launching into a surprisingly traditional version of `Happy Birthday to You'.
“Sorry I couldn't make it in for you,” he apologized after the song ended.
Bellaniece laughed and shook her head. “Look at you! You look like a rock star,” she said, gazing at the small camera set up near the screen. Hair a vibrant shade of flaming red and wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses that hid his eyes with a pair of ripped and faded jeans and a black and gold patterned shirt hanging wide open, there was something entirely glamorous about his easy grace, the lethargy in his movements. If he weren't her younger brother, she'd have to admit that there was something inherently sexy about him. It really was pretty easy to see just why he'd become the biggest attraction on the planet . . .
“Aw, hell, Bella! I am a rock star!” Evan reminded her. “Oh, and before I forget, Maddy sends her love, too. I tried to get her to sing with me, but she said that no one would thank her for it.”
Bellaniece blew Evan a kiss as Kichiro slipped his arm around her waist. “Send her my love.”
“Absolutely,” Evan drawled with a lazy wink. “Hey, Kich, you ready to do this?”
She turned to glance at her mate, only to find him smiling at her. Of course she'd seen the piano near the screen, but it was always there, often being played by a musician employed by the establishment. “Are you going to play for me?” she teased.
Kichiro's grin widened as he stepped away from her and straightened his tie dramatically. “I think I could be persuaded.” He led her over to the table and pulled out a chair for her before kissing her on the cheek and wandering over to the piano. Her daughters sat close to her, murmuring to each other under their breath. Bellaniece didn't hear what they were talking about. Staring at her mate, she couldn't help the tender little smile that turned up her lips.
“Ready, Kich?” Evan asked, drumming his thumb on the side of his guitar while Kichiro sat down and played a few scales to warm up.
Kichiro glanced at Bellaniece and winked as silence quickly fell over the room. It seemed like everyone was waiting to hear what he was going to play, and while Bellaniece knew that Kichiro wasn't exactly fond of playing for an audience, she also knew that he loved to do anything that he thought might please her.
“Evan and I wrote this song for you, Belle-chan,” Kichiro said. From her vantage point, she thought that he might be blushing just a little, and her smile widened. The song started out quietly, softly like a lullaby or a love song.
Kichiro's voice was sweet, even, tinged with emotion that sent a pleasant ripple down her spine. He sang the words in Japanese, only to be echoed in English in Evan's quiet tone. The mingling harmony of the two voices was beautiful, poignant, daring, and strong: a love song in its purest form . . .
As the last notes died away in the unbreakable quiet, Bellaniece had to wipe away a single tear that slipped down her cheek. Isabelle laughed softly and leaned in close to dab the moisture away with a crisp white handkerchief. The applause that broke out held none of the perfunctory monotones that sometimes happened after such a display, and as Bellaniece rose to her feet to hurry over to her mate, she noticed with a soft giggle that she wasn't the only one who had to dry her eyes. “You wrote that for me?” she asked a little breathlessly as Kichiro slowly got to his feet and stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets.
“You think I'd come up here and make a fool of myself for anyone else?” he drawled.
Bellaniece pulled him down and kissed his cheek. “It was beautiful,” she assured him. Suddenly, though, her smile faltered, and she sighed. “I wish I'd thought to record it.”
Kichiro chuckled and slipped an arm around her.
“Don't worry about that,” Evan said, standing up and setting the guitar in a nearby rack. “We'll record it for you in a few months when I'm in Japan.”
“Is that a promise?” she couldn't resist asking.
“Absolutely,” he assured her. “I hate to play and run, but I got a show to do tonight. Happy birthday, Bella. Sorry I couldn't make it.”
“Thank you, Evan,” she said, kissing her palm and waving her arm to send it to him.
Evan turned his head and jutted out his cheek, then jerked back as though he'd caught it. “Why don't you come out with me for awhile?” he teased with a wink. “You'd make a damn fine groupie, you know.”
She laughed while Kichiro shook his head but chuckled.
“Later,” Evan called, raising a hand in farewell. “Love you, Mama!”
Bellaniece glanced over just in time to see Gin blow Evan a kiss, too. A moment later, the screen went blank, and Kichiro let out a deep breath. “You know,” he began with a rather devilish little grin, “it's harder than hell to keep a secret from you.”
He nodded slowly as a string quartet slipped into chairs near the piano and started tuning their instruments. “Yes, however . . . I have managed to arrange one thing that I know you've been dying to do.”
He didn't reply. Instead, he maneuvered her over to the nearest table and stopped. “Toga, here, told me that he'd absolutely love to have the first dance with you.”
Toga stood up, his cheeks pinking slightly as Sierra giggled behind a strategically placed hand. “Would you do me the honor?” Toga asked. Bellaniece had to wonder exactly how Kichiro had managed to talk his cousin into compliance.
“I would love to,” she replied happily. Kichiro stepped back as Toga gestured at the dance floor.
“Take your time,” Sierra called after them, her amusement thick in her voice. Toga chuckled but didn't say a word as he turned to face Bellaniece, carefully placing his hand on the small of her back and maintaining an appropriate distance between the two of them.
“So how did he convince you to dance with me?” she asked as he carefully positioned his hands on her.
Toga's slight blush deepened. “What makes you think I didn't volunteer?” he countered with a rather shy smile despite the heightened color in his cheeks.
Arching an eyebrow, Bellaniece tried to decipher whether she believed him or not. “Did you really?”
“Of course,” he replied with a soft chuckle.
“And here I thought that you were a little afraid of me,” she teased lightly.
Toga rolled his eyes but his smile didn't falter. “I wouldn't call it `fear', exactly . . .”
“Why not? Fearing something just a little is good for you, or so I've heard.”
“I'm pretty sure that there are far more frightening things in this world than you,” he drawled thoughtfully.
Bellaniece smiled and shook her head. “Then what would you call it?” she challenged.
“I'd say that I harbor a healthy respect for you,” he said glibly, his boyish grin back in place. In fact, he looked rather proud of himself, all things considered, like a child who had just gotten the best report card in the class.
“Hmm, I like that,” she decided with a giggle, glancing over at the table in time to see all three of her daughters surround Kichiro and herd him off toward the dance floor. “Sierra said you were going to a hopelessly boring business dinner tonight,” she pointed out.
“Oh, yeah, that,” he drawled. “It fell through. Hope you don't mind that we crashed your party, instead.”
“Speaking of party crashing,” she said without taking her gaze off her husband and daughters. The four of them were laughing, dancing together without any real structure, and having the time of their lives. “Toga . . .”
He chuckled and let his arms fall away from her as he stepped back and bowed. “By all means,” he approved. “Happy birthday.”
She reached over and gave Toga's forearm a quick squeeze before hurrying over to join her family.
“What's this? Gave up a chance to have Toga all to yourself for us?” Kichiro teased with a wink.
Isabelle and Alexandra slipped their arms around their mother and laughed. “Now, Papa, you know that Mama just doesn't want to share you with anyone,” Alexandra quipped.
“Not that I blame her, of course,” Samantha added. “I mean, Papa is the cutest guy here . . .”
“Of course I am,” he agreed with a knowing nod.
Samantha giggled and tugged Kichiro's arm until he leaned down to receive a kiss on the cheek. “You don't know how hard it was to keep everything a secret!”
“I can't believe that you all made it,” Bellaniece admitted. Oddly, her voice was rasping and a little harsh.
Kichiro rolled his eyes but grinned. “You're not supposed to cry on your birthday, you know,” he told her as he reached forward to grasp her hands and pull her toward him. “Why don't you three go find your mates while I dance with your mama?”
“Talk about your subtle hints,” Isabelle said with a melodramatic sigh when she caught sight of said-mate, who was sitting beside Shippou talking about something that she couldn't hear. She must've decided that trying to distract Griffin would be too much work, because she headed toward Morio, instead, grabbing his hand with a bright smile despite his protests that his mate would get jealous to drag him off to dance. Samantha hurried over to join Kurt and Tanny, and Alexandra spared a moment to kiss her mother's cheek before wandering off in the direction of her surly hanyou grandfather, probably to pester him into dancing with her.
Kichiro kissed Bellaniece's temple as she watched her daughters, each going their own ways, and sighed, but it was a contented sound and not at all wistful or sad. “They grew up a little too fast, didn't they?” he murmured quietly.
“But they grew up beautifully,” she breathed. A tiny bit of moisture clouded her gaze, but only for a moment. Those little girls she'd watched over the years as they'd run to her and dash away once more . . . stunning, they were—absolutely gorgeous.
Kichiro's chuckle was airy, breathy, stirring the fine hair that had escaped the simple twist she'd arranged earlier. The floating light of the glowing lanterns situated on each table seemed to converge in his eyes when she turned her head to look at him once more. She felt that familiar moment where her body went suddenly still, as her heart missed a beat only to thunder back to life a second later, and it seemed like years had somehow melted away. That instant of recognition that had nothing at all to do with the things she knew but centered around the idea that she knew now what she'd realized in that moment so long ago the first time she'd set eyes on Izayoi Kichiro: there was no one else quite like him, and there never would be.
“What are you thinking?” he asked gently, softly, reaching up to smooth her hair back out of her face.
“How much I love you,” she replied almost in a whisper, as though she were afraid to speak louder, as though she thought that she might ruin the moment if she did.
Even in the ambient lighting, she could discern the tell-tale hint of a blush that suffused his skin as he quickly looked away. He wasn't shy, no, but every so often, she could catch him off guard, she supposed. “Is that right?”
She nodded, closing her eyes for a moment as he pulled her a little closer, as the strains of the old waltz moved them across the floor. “You know, I knew you'd make me happy,” she went on, purposefully keeping her tone bright, “I just didn't realize how much.”
“Well, I do try,” he agreed easily enough.
“How many women can say that their husbands wrote them a song for their birthdays?” she couldn't help adding.
Kichiro snorted. “Keh! What else could I have possibly given you?”
“Because you've already bought me everything I could possibly want?” she half-teased. It was true, though, wasn't it? He really had . . .
He rolled his eyes, apparently not about to fall victim to Bellaniece's gentle cajoling. “Because nothing really seemed special enough,” he corrected. “You're a hard woman to buy for, princess.”
“I'm not,” she assured him with a smile. “I'm easy—especially for you.”
“We'll see about that later,” he promised as he leaned in to kiss her.
“Spoken like a true reprobate,” Cain Zelig remarked as acerbically as he interrupted the moment with a slight shake of his head at Kichiro followed in short order by a lopsided little grin at his daughter. “May I cut in?”
“Hmm,” Kichiro drawled as he pretended to consider it. “No. Go find your own mate, you old bastard. This one is mine.”
“God, you're such a little fucker,” Cain said mildly as he reached out to tug his daughter out of Kichiro's grasp. To Bellaniece's everlasting chagrin—and amusement, Kichiro was grinning rather smugly.
“I'll find you later,” she called over her shoulder as her father pulled her away to dance. “You two get along so well,” she couldn't help adding.
Cain snorted. “Pfft. I'm still not entirely sure what you saw in Dr. Douche-bag,” he grouched.
Bellaniece had to bite down hard on the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing at that barb. “Oh, now, Daddy, he does have his saving graces.”
He looked dubious at best as Bellaniece fiddled with the long bronze ponytail that hung over his shoulder. “Name one.”
Bellaniece smiled sweetly at her father. “He has a really large penis.”
Cain stopped mid-step, mouth falling open as a pink rose to tinge his cheeks seconds before he narrowed his eyes. “I'm going to pretend that I didn't hear that,” he ground out from between clenched teeth.
She laughed and kissed Cain's cheek, but couldn't resist adding, “You can pretend if you want, but it doesn't change the fact that Dr. Douche-bag doesn't need to pad the ol' medical bag, if you know what I mean.”
Cain sighed. “And I'll pretend I have no idea what you're talking about there, too.”
Bellaniece rolled her eyes and slowly shook her head though her smile hadn't waned at all. “You realize, right? We've had three daughters, which means that I'm quite familiar with what is or isn't in Kichiro's pants.”
“I knew I never should've left you here with that guy.”
Bellaniece laughed and finally figured she ought to let her poor father off the hook before he had a stroke, right on the spot. “Bas and Sydnie didn't make it?” She sighed. “I wish I could see their children more often.”
She could feel Cain relax just a little at the change of subjects. “Ben needed to talk to one of us, and it couldn't wait, so Bas thought it was more important that I come instead,” he said. He didn't look entirely pleased about it, though.
“You don't like the idea of leaving Bas to take care of business?” she asked with a frown. That didn't really sound like Cain; not at all.
Cain shook his head. “It's not that. Bas is quite capable of taking care of things. I just know that he was planning on being here. In fact, I think that he and Sydnie were both looking forward to it.”
“And Gavin and Jillian?”
“They had a fire out at the ranch last week. Gavin said that they lost almost half of their cattle and a few of the horses, too.”
Bellaniece grimaced. She hadn't heard about that. “Is everyone all right?”
Smiling in a reassuring way, Cain nodded quickly to alleviate Bellaniece's worries. “Yeah. They only lost some of the stock, but Gavin did mention that Hank was burned pretty badly while he was trying to get all the horses out of the stable. I don't imagine that there's any permanent damage, but he'll be laid up for awhile, so Gavin and Jilli flew out there to take care of things until Hank's on his feet again and things are cleaned up, but she sends her love.”
That, at least, made her feel a little better. As long as no one was seriously hurt, then it was okay. She didn't know Hank very well and had only met him briefly when she'd attended Gavin and Jillian's wedding years ago, but he had seemed pretty tough, and if Cain wasn't concerned, then she figured that was good enough for her. It didn't surprise her that Jillian would want to rush right out to the ranch. Even if she didn't have a vested interest in it, she'd want to help with the clean-up process.
Smiling slightly, Bellaniece shook her head. Sometimes it was hard to remember that her siblings were all grown up, too. Since they were all born well after she'd married Kichiro, it was easier to think of them all as small children, considering Bas, the nearest to her in age, was born less than a week before her own daughter, Isabelle. Evan might be an adult, but as far as Bellaniece was concerned, he'd always retain some of his teenage mischief—maybe a little too much, really, and Jillian? Married or not, Jilli would always be Jilli, with the glowing eyes and the million dollar smile that never lost value just because she used it so often . . . the boy and girl who were so close in age that they might as well have been born twins . . .
“They don't stay little very long, do they?”
Bellaniece blinked and smiled at her father. Sometimes it seemed like he could read her mind, didn't it? A sudden pang shot through her chest, and she nodded. For the briefest of moments, she could see herself: a tiny girl, sitting on the floor of her father's studio, playing with her dolls while he worked silently. It seemed like yesterday. It seemed like a lifetime ago. “You're thinking about me, aren't you?”
Cain looked startled by the question, but he barked out a terse laugh. “I guess I am,” he admitted with a shrug and a sigh. “I don't think I ever told you . . . I owe you my life, you know.”
Biting her lip, Bellaniece's smile faded as she slowly shook her head. “Daddy, that's not true,” she said quietly, touching his cheek, savoring the slight feel of barely sprouted stubble under her sensitive hand.
“It is,” he said—a matter-of-fact statement. The light that pooled in the depths of his gaze was clear and bright, filled with emotion that, as a child, Bellaniece had never fully grasped. Now that she had children of her own, however . . .
“It still bothers you, doesn't it? My birthday . . .”
Cain looked genuinely surprised at Bellaniece's question. Staring at her for a long moment, he frowned slightly as he considered his answer. Bellaniece broke the eye contact first, though, brushing at an imaginary bit of lint on Cain's immaculate black silk dinner jacket. “I suppose that it always will,” he admitted at length, his tone more philosophical than anything. “Not because it's your birthday, though.”
“Maybe it would have been nice to have had a mother,” she went on, smoothing the fabric under her fingertips and still avoiding her father's gaze. “Then again, I did have you all to myself, and I have to admit that it was pretty nice, too.”
He sighed, catching her hand and stopping mid-dance. “Bellaniece . . .”
She could see it in his face. He was going to apologize to her: apologize for the fact that she'd grown up without a mother; apologize for feeling as though he'd taken that from her; apologize for the millions of things that Bellaniece could remember having done with her own girls that she'd never gotten the opportunity to share with Isabelle Kroft Zelig—the mother she'd never known. “It's my birthday,” she reminded him quietly, unable to contain the gentle pleading in her voice.
Cain frowned but finally smiled wanly, as though he'd understood exactly what she was trying to tell him. “Every time I watched you, running through the grass or falling asleep beneath that white ash tree . . . when you laughed or cried or weren't sure what you were supposed to be feeling . . .” He paused, drawing a deep breath as that beloved lopsided grin surfaced once more despite the soft sigh that slipped from him as he pulled her closer, as though he needed to have some kind of phantom reassurance that she was there. “I watched my father waste away to a shadow of himself, and I remember the day he left me with Sesshoumaru, and I never . . . I couldn't . . .” Grimacing, Cain swallowed hard before he could continue with what he was trying to say. “I didn't want you to know what that kind of loneliness felt like.”
She smiled, wiping away a single tear with her knuckle before choking out a laugh. “And I never did, Daddy. You survived for me, but you live for Gin . . . and that's okay, because that's how it's supposed to be.” Casting him an impish grin, she couldn't help adding, “Just like I live for Dr. Douche-bag.”
“Pfft,” Cain snorted and rolled his eyes. “You used to be such a good little girl . . .”
“I'm still good,” she assured him with a wink. “If you ask Kichiro, I'm sure that he'd love to tell you just how good I am, too.”
Bellaniece giggle escalated into a full-blown laugh when Cain groaned and shook his head.
“Hell if she ain't danced with every-fucking-body but you.”
Kichiro chuckled, dragging his gaze off his wife who was dancing with Dr. Sato at the moment to glance at Ryomaru. True enough, she had yet to stop dancing, and she'd already danced with both of her son-in-laws as well as the might-as-well-be son-in-law along with a good number of the men in attendance. She'd even gotten InuYasha to dance with her, which had amused Kichiro to no end, considering the old man had looked entirely uncomfortable pretty much the whole time. In fact, the only times she'd stopped dancing was the couple of times that the string ensemble had taken breaks and when Bas and Gunnar, followed later by Jillian, had appeared on the big screen via the webcam to send her personal well wishes. “It's her birthday,” he said, as though to explain himself to his twin.
Ryomaru snorted. “Keh! Birthday or not, she's still a pain in the ass.”
“Oh, so you're still ticked off because she was trying to grope your ear in the elevator.”
Ryomaru snorted again. “Keh! As if! Like I can help it that women prefer my ears to yours.”
That earned the youkai hunter a very pronounced rolling of the eyes. “So you're growing a fat ego to match your copious amount of ass?”
Waving a hand as he leaned back on the bar behind him, Kichiro chuckled. “Never mind, Ryo.”
Ears twitching in obvious irritation, probably at his brother's injudicious use of a `big word', Ryomaru grunted loudly, crossing his arms over his chest. “What the hell ever, Kichi.”
Kichiro shot his brother a bored stare. “Did you just call me `Kichi'?”
The shit eating grin was back in place. “Whatcha gonna do about it, Kichi?”
“I hardly think that the management would appreciate it if you succeeded in goading someone into a fight here,” Kichiro pointed out calmly, opting instead to ignore the childhood nickname that Ryomaru had always used to get Kichiro's hackles rising.
“Just because you know that you'd lose,” Ryomaru shot back.
“You're not really trying to start a fight with your brother again, are you?”
Ryomaru turned his grin onto his mate, who didn't look like she was going to buy it, either. “Not at all; just stating fact.”
“I've seen you fight him lots of times,” she pointed out a little too reasonably, “and I've yet to see you actually win.”
“Keh!” Ryomaru growled, irritation firmly back in place once more. “Then you ain't been watching.”
“I watch well enough, baka, but you can't hit what you can't catch, in the first place.”
“Touché, Nez,” Kichiro muttered under his breath as he lifted a glass of beer to his lips.
Nezumi rolled her eyes and let out a deep breath. “I'm just going to remind you that you promised that there'd be no pants-ing tonight.”
“Aww, hell, take away all my fun, why don't you?” Ryomaru grumbled.
Shaking her head—Kichiro still wasn't sure exactly why someone as level-headed as Nezumi had married someone as asinine as Ryomaru, anyway—Nezumi leveled a no-nonsense look at her mate. “You didn't make that promise to me, you know. You made it to your mother.”
Ryomaru rolled his eyes again, but the overall effect was ruined when he chuckled a moment later. “Yeah, the old man was pretty sore about it the last time,” he admitted.
Kichiro chuckled, too, since the `last time' in question had ended with the twins inadvertently pants-ing their father, who was not at all amused or impressed with his elder sons. The two had to lie low for about three weeks afterward—a small price to pay for having pants-ed the un-pants-able, in their estimation. Of course, it hadn't helped that Ryomaru, genius that he was, had blurted in explanation that they'd thought that InuYasha was Toga . . .
“Did Uncle Yasha ever kick your asses for that?” Toga asked as he approached the bar. “Beer, please.”
“No, but I have very little doubt that he will eventually,” Kichiro replied.
Toga nodded, grinning a little too smugly at the idea of Kichiro and Ryomaru garnering the comeuppance that he figured they deserved. “Maybe I should ask him to call me when he does.”
“Bastard,” Ryomaru grunted.
Toga took the beer that the bartender had set down for him and leaned lazily against the counter. “I'll even bring the popcorn.”
“I should sell tickets,” Mikio remarked as he wandered over to add his two cents. “Bet I could make a small fortune from everyone who would love to see you two get your asses handed to you.”
Ryomaru grunted but broke into a rather wolfish grin. “Just remember who hooked you up with a porn fix when you were still just a pup.”
Mikio blushed and wrinkled his nose as his ear twitched almost nervously. “I didn't ask for it,” he muttered.
“Maybe not, but you did watch it,” Kichiro pointed out, gesturing at his younger brother with his half-empty beer glass.
“Only because the two of you made me,” he retorted.
Okay, so that was true enough, Kichiro had to admit. Mikio, thirteen at the time, had probably wanted to run away. He just never had been good with that sort of thing. Kichiro had figured that it had a lot to do with the balance issues that plagued Mikio ever since he was a pup. `Clumsy' was a good way to describe him, and Mikio would be the first to say it, too. Even though he'd never admitted as much, it was likely the reason why he'd never had a real girlfriend before, and the twins knew that. That was why they tended to go out of their way to encourage Mikio. Of course, the whole porn idea had been Ryomaru's, and Kichiro hadn't really figured that it would work, but it had seemed like a good idea at the time—definitely one with the potential to amuse, at the very least.
What the twins hadn't counted on was that the whole porn debacle had resulted in Mikio trying his level best to avoid his brothers for months afterward. Good thing he'd eventually decided to forgive them . . . maybe . . .
“Would you really sell out your brothers like that, Mikio?” Kichiro couldn't help but ask.
Mikio appeared to consider that for a moment before nodding slowly. “Yes, I think I would,” he replied.
“Spoken like a true Izayoi,” Ryomaru added with a thoroughly amused chortle.
“Baka,” Nezumi muttered, shaking her head as she offered one long, low sigh.
“Papa, just the man I was looking for,” Cassidy Inutaisho, Toga's second to eldest daughter, said as she slipped her arm under her father's elbow. “Care to dance with me?”
Setting the beer he'd been holding aside, he grinned. “Absolutely.” Sparing a moment to pin both of the twins with a stern look, he shook his head. “Behave, you two miscreants,” he warned before leading his daughter off.
“Well, if it isn't my favorite mama in the whole, wide world!” Morio greeted with a bear hug from behind and a loud, sloppy kiss on Nezumi's cheek.
“And your only mama,” Ryomaru pointed out.
“That's irrelevant, old man,” Morio insisted with an easy smile and a wave of his hand. “Mama knows that I love her, doncha?”
“I know you're up to something,” she said, arching a sooty brow in silent question. “Care to tell me what you want?”
“Why, mama, don't you trust me? Your one and only beloved son? The apple of your eye? The honey in your tea? The butter on your bread? That hurts!” Morio lamented.
Not surprisingly, Nezumi rolled her eyes. “Can it, Shakespeare. You got in trouble with Meara again, didn't you?”
Morio's cocky grin widened as he made a show of adjusting his fuchsia silk neck tie. Ryomaru had mentioned how awful it was. Kichiro was inclined to agree. `Awful' didn't rightfully describe it though. Maybe something more like `abhorrent' . . . “I'm never in trouble with Meara,” he bragged airily. “She worships the ground I walk on . . .”
“I don't know if I'd say `worships',” Meara remarked as she stepped past her mate and headed for Mikio to greet him with a kiss on the cheek. “But you do bring me flowers, so I guess I cannot complain.”
“You clash with that monstrosity that your husband calls a necktie,” Mikio pointed out despite the heightened color in his cheeks—a direct result of the impromptu kiss he'd received only moments before.
Meara laughed softly, smoothing the slightly flaring skirt of her blood red dress. “I told him that,” she admitted with a little shrug. “He said that he had to wear it to uphold his honor as an Izayoi. Something about a dare . . .?”
“That tie ain't got a damn thing to do with being an Izayoi,” InuYasha grumbled as he strode across the floor, glowering at his grandson. “Twisted little monkey.”
“Sorry, old man, I had to do it or suffer the curse of the dreadnaught necktie.”
“Who dared you to wear a thing like that?” Kichiro asked before InuYasha got a chance to respond.
“Keh. Now why don't that surprise me?” InuYasha shorted indelicately and for a moment, he looked like he was considering thumping Morio upside the head. He either decided that it wasn't the time or place for that or he'd decided that it wouldn't really do any good. Kichiro figured that it was likely the latter reason. For reasons that no one really understood, Morio seemed to delight in doing just about anything that might nerve some of the more conservative members of the family. “Izayoi honor, my ass . . .”
“I don't know,” Morio went on as though he hadn't heard his grandfather's mumbled words, “I think Sesshoumaru would look better in this than I do . . .” Pulling the tie out to give it a critical once-over, he shrugged as he let it drop back into place. “Kind of matches his eye shadow.”
Unfortunately, Kichiro had just taken a healthy swig of his drink, and he choked on the guffaw of laughter trapped under the liquid. Ryomaru, the ass, reached over to thump him hard in the middle of his back while Nezumi clenched her jaw, nostrils flaring though to her credit, no laughter spilled out. Mikio coughed suddenly before abruptly turning to face the bartender. Meara half-giggled, half-gasped and smothered the sound with her hand, but InuYasha . . . InuYasha looked like he wasn't sure if he wanted to laugh or go after his grandson. In the end, he snorted loudly before turning on his heel and stomping away again.
“What? Was it something I said?” Morio deadpanned, casting an earnest look around the assembly.
Meara sighed and shook her head though the lingering traces of a smile lingered. Grasping Morio's hand, she tugged him toward the dance floor. “Come on before you get clobbered or something,” she said.
Morio laughed but shot a grin over his shoulder before letting Meara drag him off.
“C'mon, wench. Dance with me,” Ryomaru insisted. Nezumi didn't look like she wanted to do any such thing, but Ryomaru wasn't taking no for an answer, and with a resigned sigh, she gave in.
“Bellaniece looks lovely tonight,” Mikio remarked, breaking the sudden silence that had fallen over the two of them.
Eyes unconsciously seeking out the woman in question, Kichiro couldn't help the smile that slowly surfaced. Laughing at something that her current dance partner—she'd managed to exchange Sato for John—had said, she seemed to be shining, glowing brighter than anyone else, and he smiled. He didn't recognize the little black dress she wore, and that was all right. The graceful flow of the short skirt around her legs was understated yet provocative, the soft glimmer of the diamond necklace and earrings that he'd bought for her so long ago adding a shimmer to her movements but didn't detract from the incandescence of her. “That woman,” he said softly, almost more to himself than to his brother, “is always lovely.”
Mikio chuckled and nodded. “I stand corrected,” he allowed. Then he clapped Kichiro's shoulder and shuffled away, leaving Kichiro alone once more.
He had to admit that he was rather proud of the party he'd managed to plan for her this year. When he'd found out that Cain had never really celebrated her birthday, Kichiro had decided that all of Bellaniece's birthdays needed to be just as special as she was. It was the one thing that he felt he could do and come out on the higher side than the father to whom Bellaniece compared all other men. Maybe that was a silly thing to think, given that she'd chosen to marry him, after all, but it wasn't such a bad thing; not really. It ensured that he constantly strove to please her, didn't it? It goaded him to do the extra things that might make her smile, and in the end, that was worth it, as far as he was concerned.
“You always were the lucky one.”
Blinking away the idle thoughts he'd been indulging himself in, Kichiro slowly turned to face his old school chum. The man looked entirely uncomfortable out of his standard white lab coat, but he had agreed readily enough to attend the party, and when he noticed Kichiro's attention, he smiled a little self-consciously. “Lucky?” Kichiro echoed.
Sato shrugged then let out a nervous little laugh. “Your mate, your family . . .” Trailing off, he shook his head and chuckled kind of sadly. “All those things I think I forgot to look for . . . I envy you . . . I think I've always envied you.”
“You shouldn't,” Kichiro argued, lifting his empty glass as he caught the bartender's eye. The man nodded as Kichiro set the glass on the counter and turned his attention back to the researcher once more. “Belle-chan chose me despite my best efforts to keep her from doing it.”
Sato accepted the glass of beer that the bartender set in front of him with a slight bow of his head, swallowing a healthy gulp before responding to Kichiro. “I spend so much time with cultures and lab equipment that I think I've forgotten how to interact with people.”
“So get out of the damn lab and remind yourself what it's like on the outside,” Kichiro challenged. “It sounds simple, but it's not. I guess you know that, right?” Gaze wandering back to the woman dancing nearby, he smiled. “Find your own princess to spoil, and if you're damn lucky, she'll spoil you back.”
“You make it sound easy,” Sato remarked with a rueful sigh.
“It can be,” he replied with a simplistic shrug. “It's as simple and as difficult as that.”
Pushing himself onto a stool, Dr. Sato's smile faded as a thoughtful frown rose to replace it. “My parents were old school.”
“I knew that they were devoted to each other, but they weren't very good at showing it. Your family—your entire family . . . they've always made me feel uncomfortable . . . and they've always made me wonder . . .”
Kichiro nodded slowly. He understood what Sato was trying to say. That his family tended to be a bit more demonstrative in their affections than many Japanese households were was something that he'd realized early on, but even so, there was a certain allure to it all, as well. The security of knowing exactly where you stood with any given member of the family was welcome. Even if he hadn't understood it very well when he was younger, Kichiro had thought more often than once that maybe the same family that could be volatile and at odds one moment and yet tender and loving the next . . . Maybe that family was the real reason that he'd taken for granted that he could do anything he wanted to do as long as they supported him. They wouldn't have cared if he had chosen to be a doctor or a rock star, a youkai hunter or a corporate lawyer, their feelings for him wouldn't have changed. It wasn't something that he'd ever had to assume. It was something he'd known all of his life because his family had no qualms in showing it.
Sato let out a deep breath, stared into the frothy foam atop the beer in his glass for several seconds, as though he were trying to compose his thoughts. “I think I'd rather have a family like yours than one like mine,” he finally confessed.
“You'll find it,” Kichiro heard himself saying, amused on some level that he was giving advice.
Sato smiled again, and this time, the expression was far more natural than it had been. “Yes, and then you can envy my happiness.”
With a chuckle, Kichiro nodded again. “Absolutely,” he said. Sato bowed and turned to go.
`Envy him, huh?' his youkai voice chimed in.
His grin widened as he watched the doctor who had stopped to talk to Sesshoumaru. `Maybe . . .'
“You made him feel better.”
Kichiro slowly turned to cast a discerning eye on his mate as Bellaniece slipped her arms around his waist, a gentle smile gracing her lips. “Did I?”
She laughed and nodded just once in response. “I wondered if he was jealous of you,” she admitted. “Something about his tone whenever he talked about you, I guess . . .”
“Well, I'd be jealous of me, too, if I wasn't me.”
“You have a big heart, Izayoi-san,” she remarked, leaning up on her toes to kiss his cheek.
Kichiro snorted but smiled, trying to brush off the praise without Bellaniece realizing it. “For you,” he allowed with an offhanded shrug.
Bellaniece sighed happily and plucked the beer out of his hand, draining the glass in a series of gulps as he watched the motion in the creamy expanse of her throat. “I can't believe that you did all this for me,” she said softly, rubbing his chest in small circles.
Kichiro heaved a sigh, as much because of the electricity of her touch as it was from the frustration that there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it . . . yet. “Keep it up, Belle-chan, and I might have to see if I can't find a closet or something somewhere . . .”
“Well,” she drawled, arching one eyebrow as she stared at her mate, “we are in a hotel, aren't we? Doesn't your uncle own the penthouse suite here. . .?”
His grin was lazy, seductive, and he could feel her heartbeat quicken. “I imagine he probably does,” he admitted.
Bellaniece giggled as he leaned down to kiss her, her hands roaming up to catch hold behind his neck, holding him close to deepen the kiss if he'd thought about making it a sweet, short affair. He hadn't, but that was quite fine with him, too.
“Thank you for bringing my babies back home,” she whispered between kisses.
“Thank you for giving me those babies to bring home,” he countered.
“Do you think they'll miss us if we go somewhere so that I can thank you properly?”
Kichiro chuckled and let go of her, only to catch her hand instead, pulling her through the crowd of well-wishers and ignoring anyone who tried to stop them. Behind him, Bellaniece laughed out loud, the sound of her amusement like a balm on his rioting senses, and he couldn't help but to laugh, too.
Across the room at the long table near the screen where those who hadn't been able to make it had appeared to send their love, three women giggled as they watched the retreating couple.
“I knew that was going to happen,” Isabelle commented, her golden eyes bright as she watched her parents slip out the archway.
“As if there was ever a question,” Alexandra added, shaking her head in dismay despite the grin on her face.
“Oh! You two owe me fifty bucks, so pay up!” Samantha added as Tanny, nestled on her lap, shoved a handful of grape gummy candy into her mouth.
Isabelle blinked and glanced at her watch. “No way! You said three hours!” she objected.
Samantha wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, and you two said less time than that, so I win by default.”
Alexandra heaved a sigh but dug into her evening purse for some money. “Figures,” she muttered but laughed as she slapped the cash into Samantha's outstretched hand. Isabelle shook her head but complied, too.
“Actually, I believe that's mine.” Samantha gasped as a hand whipped out to snatch the money away from her, and when she turned to look over her shoulder, she laughed. “I said four hours, and it's been four hours and five minutes.”
“You weren't a part of the betting pool!” Samantha protested with a giggle.
“Oh, he did,” John assured her with a good natured wink. “Actually, I think we all did . . .”
“Is that right?” Alexandra asked.
John slapped another fifty bucks into Griffin's hand as Kurt dug out his share of the prize winnings. After a moment of pause, he doubled that, adding Samantha's portion to the pot.
Isabelle beamed at her mate, who had apparently joined the betting pool without her realizing it. “That's my Pooh Bear!”
The bear youkai grunted something entirely unintelligible, cheeks reddening as he stuffed the money into his pocket and lumbered away.
“Where are you going?” Isabelle called after him.
Griffin grunted but didn't stop moving. “Where do you think? I'm going to collect the rest of my winnings.”
Tadaima: “I'm back (home).”
Onigiri: rice ball.
Umeboshii: pickled ume fruit closely related to the apricot that is frequently used as a filling in onigiri.
Ani-tan: This is Takara's name for Kichiro. Because she's too small to properly say his name, she calls him this instead.
Nii-tan: This is Takara's name for Mikio.
An extra special thanks to Greta, who betas EVERYTHING, and the two stand-ins for Mel since she obviously couldn't beta her gift, right? So special thanks to both MouF and psyco_chick32 for adding to my frustration. LOL. I'm kidding! You guys really helped me out!
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Final Thought fromGriffin:
Easiest money I've ever made …
Blanket disclaimer for Bellaniece's Birthday: I do not claim any rights to InuYasha or the characters associated with the anime/manga. Those rights belong to Rumiko Takahashi, et al. I do offer my thanks to her for creating such vivid characters for me to terrorize.