~A Purity Oneshot~
~~A Very Purity Christmas~~
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me …
.:December 13, 2034:.
Sparing a moment to glance up at the gray clouds hanging thickly overhead, Inutaisho Toga narrowed his amber eyes as he wondered vaguely if the skies were considering dropping some snow. With a sigh, he shook his head, turning back toward the clean porch. He doubted it. It simply didn’t snow very often in Tokyo, and even if it did, it was much too warm for it to stick around for more than a few hours, tops. It would be nice, though. His mate, Sierra had been born and raised in Chicago, Illinois in the United States, and it snowed a lot there . . .
As he reached for the door handle, he frowned. It was a given that the two tiny faces of his four-and-a-half year-old twin daughters, Chelsea and Charity were normally plastered to the long, narrow windows on either side of the door to watch for him. Their conspicuous absences were a bit depressing . . .
Brushing aside the vague sense of melancholy that assailed him over the slight, he pushed the door open and stepped into the house, a wan smile surfacing on his features as the scent of roasting chicken invaded his nostrils. “I’m home,” he called, the smile dissipating almost as quickly as it had appeared as he slipped off his shoes and straightened them against the raised wood floor. Something wasn’t right, was it? The house was just a little too quiet. With five children, three of whom were under the age of five, at home, it was never truly ‘quiet’, was it?
Sierra wasn’t in the kitchen, and Toga strode toward the living room, passing by the wall of framed pictures that Sierra had so carefully hung over the years since they’d been married. Snapshots of her family, of his family, and of Toga and their children so meticulously matted and framed that he’d thought more than once that a professional couldn’t have done a better job at it, and while he knew that it always was a labor of love for his wife, he also knew that many of those same photographs hurt her when she stopped to look at them.
He sighed, leaning against the high arching doorway as he took in the sight of Sierra, curled up in a small recliner, dozing quietly with the book she’d been trying to read propped on the arm of the chair. This year had been tough on her, and while she never really complained, he knew. He always knew what she was feeling . . .
Her mother had died a few years ago, and she’d gone to the funeral. It had been strained, though, since she hadn’t really changed since she’d married Toga nearly ten years before, and some of her relatives had looked at her strangely. While they were polite, she hadn’t missed the curious glances, the whispers that she hadn’t been able to discern, and it had bothered her though she hadn’t said any such thing to him about it.
Earlier this year, however, she’d been saddened to learn that one of her brothers—Mike—had suffered a massive heart attack and had passed away before help could arrive, and though she’d wanted to attend the funeral, she was afraid that her presence would again be questioned, potentially overshadowing the reason that they were gathering. It had been her decision, and Toga understood. He’d tried to coax her into attending for her own peace of mind, but she’d adamantly refused. Perhaps it had been inevitable, but he couldn’t help but blame himself for the ever-widening distance that she maintained with her remaining family. Breaking her ties was something that she’d understood would one day have to happen because the questions just couldn’t really be answered without giving away too much of the secret that preserved the peace between humans and youkai, and while her brothers all knew of the circumstances—Toga had told them all just before he’d married Sierra—they may not have really understood the ramifications of it all; not really.
Still Sierra smiled and laughed, assuring Toga that she was ‘just fine’ with a shake of her head as she cuddled with him late in the night in the quiet of their bedroom. She loved her children, and she was completely devoted to him, and he knew that, too. That didn’t do a thing to alleviate the sense of overwhelming guilt that assailed him whenever he stopped to consider the idea that she had given up everything she’d known just to be with him, and that was why he was determined to give her the best Christmas ever, bar none—something entirely special that might not take away that ache in her heart whenever she thought about those she loved and had left behind, but maybe—just maybe—it would help.
As though she sensed his perusal, she moaned softly and sat up, blinking quickly to clear away the lingering sleepiness that remained. Arching her back as she slowly stretched, she stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. “I’m home,” he said quietly, unwilling to speak louder and interrupt the peacefulness of the moment.
The smile that lit on her face was languorous but genuine as she pushed herself out of the chair and shuffled toward him. “Yes, you are,” she murmured, slipping her arms around his waist and leaning up to kiss his cheek. “Have a good day?”
“Mm,” he intoned, savoring the feel of her body so close to his as he caught her chin and lifted it, kissing her sweetly before hugging her tight. “What could be better than coming home to you?” he parried. “Where are my pups?”
She rolled her eyes but laughed for a moment. Her smile, however, slowly faded, and she shook her head as she let out a deep breath in a harsh gust. “Your pups,” she repeated thoughtfully. “Which pup are you missing?”
“Well, what about the twin ones—you know: the ones who always meet me at the front door?”
“Oh, that’s easy. They’re probably in their room playing with the new dolls you bought them.”
Cocking an eyebrow since he didn’t recall buying any such thing in the last few days, Toga grinned. “That I bought them?”
Sierra smiled again, letting her arms drop as she pulled away to straighten the cushions on the sofa. “Yes, that you bought them,” she reiterated.
“Nice,” he replied mildly, stuffing his hands into his pockets and shuffling over to Sierra’s side. “Was it a special occasion or was I just being extra generous today?”
She grinned at him over her shoulder as she bent over to pound on the side of the seat cushion to fluff it up. “They were begging for them when we went to the store to get that you-know-what for you-know-who.”
Chuckling at Sierra’s not-so-subtle hint, he nodded. “But it isn’t their birthday,” he pointed out reasonably.
“That’s what I said,” she agreed, straightening her back and dusting her hands together industriously. “Then they said that they would ask their daddy, and since I know you, I figured I might as well save you the trip to the store.”
“I’m such a softy,” he commented with a sage nod.
“Yes, you are,” she allowed. “They drink and they wet and they wear real diapers.”
“And here I thought that the twins were potty trained awhile ago,” he teased.
Sierra laughed and kissed his cheek again. “The dolls, Toga—the dolls.”
He grinned in response as he scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm . . . did I buy anything else that I should know about?” he asked.
“Nope, just the dolls.”
“All right,” he said with a vague nod, “so where are the rest of my pups?”
Rubbing her forehead, she shrugged offhandedly, retrieving her book and straightening the magazines and books that stood on the coffee table. “I’d imagine that Cassidy is hiding out in Coral’s room like always, and Gunnar . . .”
Frowning when she trailed off, Toga narrowed his eyes. It wasn’t like Sierra to hedge, and, judging from the look on her face, she was trying to find a good way to say whatever it was that she had on her mind. “Sierra?” he prodded gently.
Flopping onto the sofa as though her legs couldn’t hold her any longer, Sierra’s shoulders sagged just a little lower, and she rubbed her face in an exhausted sort of way. “Gunnar kind of . . . bit . . . Coral.”
That gave him pause, leaving him silent for a few minutes. “Mamoruzen bit her?” he repeated with a shake of his head, “as in, sank his teeth into her . . .?”
“Sounds about right,” she replied mildly. Heaving a sigh, she looked entirely defeated for a moment before forcing a smile that he knew damn well was for his benefit.
He grimaced and leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Okay, so where is he?”
That earned him a long look, as though she expected him to know where his son might well be hiding, and Toga grinned sheepishly since he had a good idea. “Where do you suppose he is?” she drawled.
“Of course,” he agreed with an apologetic grimace since he should have realized where his son would be hiding. “I’ll talk to him.”
She nodded then grabbed his hand when he started to move away. “Toga . . .”
She winced. “Don’t be too hard on him, okay? Coral . . . well, she isn’t entirely innocent. I don’t like that he bit her, but . . .”
Toga nodded slowly, sparing a moment to smile at his mate in an effort to reassure her that he wasn’t about to tear either his oldest or his youngest pup to shreds. “Do you know what they were fighting about?”
She shook her head then shrugged. “I’m not sure,” she admitted. “I left her in charge while the twins and I went to the store, and . . . well . . . all hell was breaking loose when I got home, and you know Coral. She said that he was being a pest, and he said that she was—and I quote—‘bad’.”
He digested that in silence for a second before nodding slowly. “Kitchen?” he asked though he supposed he didn’t really need to do so.
‘Well, I guess that answers your question as to why the house was so quiet,’ his youkai voice spoke up as he strode down the short hallway toward the bright and airy kitchen.
‘I suppose it does,’ he agreed with a slight frown. Still, it wasn’t like Mamoruzen to be given to something as base as biting. Even at two, nearly three, years old, the child tended to be more intellectual and didn’t resort to violence on a whole. Truth be told, it made Toga more curious than upset. After all, even though Mamoruzen was hanyou, therefore stronger than even adult humans, Coral was hanyou, as well, so the likelihood that he’d dealt her any real or lasting damage was slim at best, and while he wasn’t pleased that his son would do any such thing, he had to wonder exactly what Coral had done to instigate the biting.
There were no sounds of movement when Toga stepped into the kitchen; no fluttering of the pale yellow tablecloth that Sierra always put on the table after the family had eaten breakfast. Though dinner was always eaten in the dining room, the kitchen was always the hub of the house, and for reasons that Toga had never really grasped, Mamoruzen had taken to hiding under that table any time he perceived that he was in trouble.
Stopping beside the oval shaped table, he paused for a moment before knocking on the solid oak surface and hunkering down to peer under the hem of the cloth.
He almost smiled at the sight of his youngest offspring. Huddled into a tightly compacted albeit diminutive mass, he had his small arms wrapped around his shins, his bright golden eyes peering over the top of his knees. Upon meeting his father’s gaze, the tiny hanyou ears atop his head flattened out to either side, and he looked like he was waiting for the gauntlet to fall, so to speak
Reining in the urge to smile, Toga gestured at the open area beside Mamoruzen. “Can I come in?” he asked.
The little shoulders rose and fell as the boy ducked a little lower. “You won’t fit,” he muttered defensively.
He almost laughed out loud. “Oh, I don’t know,” he drawled slowly, taking a moment to eye the underside of the table. “I could give it a try, don’t you think?”
“Don’t care,” Mamoruzen mumbled, burying his face deeper against his knees.
It took a minute for Toga to manage squeezing himself into the compacted area. He supposed that it would appear a little ridiculous. After all, at nearly seven feet tall, his lanky frame wasn’t exactly given to the less-than-ample size restrictions imposed by his son’s choice of hideaways. “Mama tells me you’ve had a pretty rough day,” he said, hoping that he could coax Mamoruzen into telling him what happened.
Mamoruzen shot him a quick glance then shrugged again. “No,” he replied quietly. “Mama made me ramen.”
“For lunch, you mean?”
Mamoruzen nodded. “Yeah.”
“Ah-h-h,” Toga commented with a smile. “I’m jealous. All I had for lunch was a banana milk.”
He wasn’t surprised to see his son wrinkle his nose at that. “Ramen’s better,” he replied.
With a sigh, Mamoruzen shifted his eyes to the side in a questioning sort of way. “Mama could make ramen for you,” he offered tentatively.
Settling back against the solid leg of the table, Toga smiled as he draped his arm over his raised knee. “I’ll bet Mama’s making something better than ramen for dinner.”
The look he received for that told him plainly that Mamoruzen didn’t rightfully believe that there was something better than ramen, and Toga chuckled. “Uncle Yasha says ramen’s the best ninja food,” Mamoruzen pointed out simply.
“Possibly,” Toga allowed. “But your mother and sisters aren’t ninjas.”
Wrinkling his nose again, Mamoruzen’s ears twitched as he lifted his chin a notch. “Girls can’t be ninjas,” he decided with a shake of his head. “Girls are wenches.”
“You’d better not let your mama hear you say that.”
“I’m not scared of Mama,” he challenged though his ears did flatten momentarily.
Toga chuckled. “You’re not?” The child shook his head adamantly. Toga shrugged. “That’s good because I am.”
“You’re scared of Mama?”
“One day, son,” Toga said as an enigmatic little smile broke over his features, “you’ll have a healthy fear of a woman’s wrath, too.” Mamoruzen didn’t look like he quite understood that, and Toga chuckled again as he ruffled his son’s hair. “So . . . you want to tell me why you bit your sister?”
The slightly relaxed posture disappeared, and Toga wasn’t surprised when Mamoruzen scooted away just a little, his ears flattening once more, his chin lowering though his eyes brightened in what Toga could only assume was a sense of righteous indignation. “She’s a liar,” he stated in a rebellious tone.
“A liar?” he echoed with a raised eyebrow. That simply hadn’t been the answer that he’d been expecting.
Mamoruzen nodded solemnly. “Papa said that if you don’t keep your word, then you lie,” he pointed out, his chin lifting stubbornly.
“So I did,” Toga remarked. “Mind telling me what she lied about, then?”
The child shrugged as though he were trying to convince Toga that it didn’t matter to him. “She said she’d play with me,” Mamoruzen admitted with a consternated frown.
“When did she say that?”
“After breakfast,” he replied. “She said she would play with my Kubrick, but she said that she was too busy.”
“I see,” Toga said slowly as he began to understand what had caused the trouble. “So she gave you her word that she would play with you when she got home, but then she said she was too busy after school. Is that right?”
Mamoruzen nodded unhappily, his ears drooping as he scrunched down a little lower. “Yeah,” he said in a tiny voice.
“And that’s why you bit her?”
To his surprise, Mamoruzen shook his head almost vehemently as anger sparked once more behind his brightened eyes. “No!” he exclaimed hotly, pinning Toga with a furious glower. “I bited her because she said Mama was a liar.”
That gave Toga pause, and he blinked for a moment as he tried to make sense of his son’s claims. “She called her mama a liar?”
Mamoruzen nodded insistently then suddenly made a face and shook his head. “No . . .” he drawled as his scowl took on a more reflective air. “Not ‘zactly . . .”
Toga wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Mamoruzen’s assertions. “Okay,” he said, drawing the word out as though to encourage Mamoruzen to tell him exactly what he meant by that. “What, exactly, did she say?”
“She said . . .” he trailed off and winced then bit his lip for a moment before continuing. “She said there isn’t no Santa Claus . . . she said that you and Mama are Santa, but you and Mama aren’t fat, and the only one who wears red is Uncle Yasha . . .”
“I don’t think that’s exactly . . .” with a grimace, he trailed off then waved a hand to dispel the insane image that shot to the fore of Uncle Yasha in a Santa suit. “Never mind . . . You’re right. Your mama and I aren’t Santa Claus, and . . . and your uncle InuYasha isn’t, either.”
“See?” Mamoruzen blurted. “Coral’s bad, just like I said, because Mama and Papa don’t lie!”
Toga couldn’t contain the grimace that shot to the fore. Maybe telling their children that a character like Santa Claus was an untruth, but Sierra had always been so happy when she’d told them the white lie that Toga had always gone along with it, and with as hard as things had been for his mate lately, the very last thing he wanted was for anything to ruin the fragile sense of happiness that she was allowing herself this year. “So you . . . bit her . . .” he concluded.
Mamoruzen blushed, his eyes gaining a defiant sort of light, but then he wilted, looking just a little too sad as the sting of tears filled Toga’s nostrils though Mamoruzen stubbornly refused to let the moisture fall. “. . . Y-yeah . . .”
“Oh, Mamoruzen,” he sighed, shaking his head slowly. The boy uttered a sharp little whine as his ears flattened against his skull with the perceived disappointment in his father’s eyes. “That wasn’t very nice, was it?”
“Coral wasn’t very nice!” he protested then whined again as he cast Toga a worried glance. “Sorry, Papa,” he muttered at length.
“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to,” he pointed out reasonably.
Mamoruzen grimaced. “But she was mean!” he insisted.
Toga shook his head. “I wasn’t talking about your sister, either, though I think that’d be the nicer thing to do.”
He looked completely baffled, and Toga smiled wanly, patting his knee and holding out his other arm.
Mamoruzen scrambled off the floor and slipped onto his father’s lap though Toga could feel an underlying tension in the boy’s stance. “I meant,” he began slowly, careful to keep a neutral tone, “maybe you should tell your mama that you’re sorry. She doesn’t like it when you fight with your sisters, you know, and remember? We’re trying to make Mama extra happy this year . . .”
Wincing outwardly, Mamoruzen was obviously distressed by the idea of having upset his mother, and Toga had to fight back the feeling that he was playing dirty. “Mama’s mad at me?” he asked in a very tiny voice.
Toga let out a deep breath and rubbed Mamoruzen’s small back. “No, she’s not,” he replied. “Your mama never gets mad at you.” Mamoruzen brightened up at that, casting Toga an anxious look before he had a chance to continue. “But she is sad and a little upset,” he added for good measure.
Mamoruzen uttered another soft whine, and figuring that the boy had gotten the point, Toga relented. “I think it’d make her feel a lot better if you went and gave her a hug. Maybe even a kiss . . .”
Mamoruzen made a face at the blatant hint, but nodded slowly, scooting off his father’s lap and out from under the table. He stopped mid-crawl and looked back at his father, his gaze clouding over as a serious frown surfaced. “Papa?” he asked, his tiny voice reluctant yet earnest.
“Do you . . . do you believe in Santa?”
“I do,” Toga replied without batting an eyelash.
Mamoruzen considered that for a moment then grinned. “Me, too!” he said.
Toga chuckled, struck by how simplistic a child’s system of belief truly was. “Now go find your mama.”
The ebullience that had just been discovered seemed to abate in light of the daunting task of apologizing to his mama, and Mamoruzen’s ears drooped slightly as he slowly stood up, his feet shuffling in a sort of understated reticence as he padded off to find his mother.
Toga shifted and brought up his knees, looping his hands together around his ankles and letting a wan smile play on his lips as he watched his son’s departure. ‘Coral,’ he thought with an inward sigh. ‘What am I going to do with you?’
The eldest of his brood was ten going on thirty, or so it would seem. Sierra had said more than once that she wasn’t sure exactly who the girl had inherited her attitude from. Not exactly what could be called the Inutaisho aloofness that Toga’s father, Sesshoumaru possessed in spades nor the fearsome and awe-inspiring temper that his mother, Kagura was known for, Coral’s attitude was something all her own. She also didn’t ascribe to Toga’s laid back way of looking at things or even Sierra’s tendency to take things as they came. Serious to a fault, she was, and Toga couldn’t rightfully recall a time when she’d ever really let go or been what he’d call ‘silly’. She laughed a lot, certainly, but she’d simply not been as happy-go-lucky as most children were.
She wanted to be an overachiever, thrived under pressure and always—always—went above and beyond what was expected of her. That was the problem, Toga supposed. He had a good feeling that his daughter had prioritized her school work above her promise to her brother, and therein laid the problem.
Not that he could really find fault with her for her desire to excel. Unfortunately, he could understand both of his children’s sides of the story—or at least, assuming that he’d gotten the situation straight in his head, that was . . .
Heaving a sigh as he crawled out from under the table, Toga shook his head. It seemed to him that both Coral and Mamoruzen were just too much alike when it came down to it. That was the real reason that things had turned out this way. The two seemed to get along really well or really poorly, depending, and while Coral tended to be the best at exercising self-control, even she had her limits.
No, it was normal for Sierra to tell him that the twins and Mamoruzen had gotten into an argument, usually stemming from the girls’ insistence that they needed to share Mamoruzen’s toys. Unfortunately, he tended to see his things as ‘boy’s toys’, therefore inappropriate for girls to play with. More often than not, the twins wanted to play with his toys simply because they knew it would tweak his nose, and all Toga could say about that was that his son was getting a lot of practice in controlling his emotions, too.
Of course, he was damn good at it, all things considered. The boy was almost three years old, and Toga honestly couldn’t remember Mamoruzen ever biting anyone, at least, not intentionally. That he’d lost his temper and bit Coral spoke volumes, and while that wasn’t acceptable at all, Toga wasn’t naïve enough to think that Coral was guiltless in it, either.
Scratching his head as he headed out of the kitchen and through the living room, he wasn’t surprised to find his son sitting on the sofa beside his mother. Sierra squeezed the boy’s shoulders then proceeded to kiss his cheek. Mamoruzen didn’t look like he was enjoying the overabundance of attention, but he tolerated it remarkably well.
With a chuckle, Toga paused long enough to kiss Sierra’s forehead and ruffle his son’s hair before moving off toward the stairs.
He knocked on the first door at the top of the landing and draped his hands on his lean hips to wait.
“For the last time, go away, you pest!” Coral’s irritated voice came through the closed door.
Toga cocked an eyebrow and pushed the door aside to level a quizzical look at his eldest daughter. “A pest, am I?” he challenged mildly.
Coral scowled at him, dropping the pen onto the textbook open on her desk. “Sorry, Papa,” she muttered, cheeks pinking slightly at the mistake. “Mamoruzen smells just like you,” she pointed out.
“He doesn’t smell just like me,” Toga remarked, not surprised to find Cassidy lying on her stomach across the foot of Coral’s bed with her feet kicked up in the air and chewing thoughtfully on a pencil as she looked over her homework. Frowning when he caught sight of the white bandage wrap that peeked out from under the rolled-up cuff of Coral’s right sleeve, Toga decided to ignore it for the time being while he worked on getting a more holistic overview of what had come to pass. “Have you been hiding up here since you got home from school?”
“I’m not hiding,” Coral said with a shake of her head. “I’m doing homework. That’s completely different.”
Jamming his hands into his pockets, he leaned casually in the doorway. “Cassidy, why don’t you go see if your mother needs help with dinner?” he suggested, smiling at his second-oldest daughter.
“Well, Coral was helping me with some of my math problems,” she hedged.
“You can ask her later if you need help . . . You could ask me, if you wanted to. I’m not too bad at math.”
Cassidy bit her lip, her worried gaze slipping from him to Coral and back again. “Okay, Papa,” she said as she stood up, gathering her books together and slipping past him. Toga caught her before she could get away, giving her shoulder’s a quick squeeze before letting her go downstairs.
“Coral, would you mind putting that away until we’re done talking?”
She did as he asked though she didn’t look like she wanted to comply. “Papa, I know what you’re going to say, and you’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have let Mamoruzen get to me, but honestly, he was being such a pain, and I have a ton of homework to d—”
“And what did you do to set him off so badly?” he cut in, raising his voice just enough to be heard over Coral.
“I didn’t do anything,” she replied calmly enough, and it struck Toga once again that even at ten years old, this particular daughter of his was a little scary. A sudden vision of a grown-up Coral flashed through his mind, and he grimaced inwardly. No doubt about it, she was going to intimidate the hell out of most men one day . . . “Mamoruzen has to learn that he can’t always have his way.”
“While I appreciate that you wish to help your brother on his road to enlightenment,” Toga began slowly, “I think that maybe you should leave that particular lesson to your mother and me.”
“Sorry, Papa,” she apologized again, “really, I am, but I have to get this paper done, and then I’ve got three more papers to write for tomorrow. I’ll be up all night working on this stuff as it is, and—”
“Absolutely not,” Toga interrupted with a scowl and a shake of his head. “School is very important, of course, but so is making sure that you get your rest. Even then, I want to know exactly what happened between you and Mamoruzen.”
She stared at him blankly for a minute then shrugged. “He started pestering me the minute I walked through the door,” she complained.
Toga nodded. “Did you tell him that you’d play with him when you got home?”
Coral shot him a rare almost guilty glance. “Yes, but I didn’t know that my teachers were all going to unload on me today.”
“But you gave him your word.”
She grimaced, pushing herself to her feet and stomping over to her small bookshelf. “I don’t have time to play, Papa,” she replied flatly. “If I don’t get decent grades, I won’t get into the high school that I want, and if I can’t get into the high school I want, then I won’t get into a good college. If I don’t get into a good college, I’ll never be able to take over Inutaisho Industries—all because I have to drop everything to play Kubrick with Mamoruzen.”
“Don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?” Toga asked, unable to keep his lips from twitching though the smile that he felt deep down didn’t surface. It wasn’t like her to over-exaggerate, after all . . . “You want to work for Inutaisho Industries?”
She spared him a droll look. “I want to run Inutaisho Industries,” she corrected calmly, “but I won’t be able to if I can’t get into a good—”
“One thing at a time, Coral,” Toga said with a grimace. “You really ought to take it easier on me. You know, you could let me think that you’re still my little girl and all that?”
“Oh, Papa, you still think I’m a baby when I’m not,” she argued reasonably. “Mama even bought me bras the other day, and—”
“Keh! Kami, I think I feel an aneurism coming on,” Toga snorted, rubbing his temples at the mention of the word, ‘bras’.
“Having breasts is a natural part of a woman’s life,” she went on airily. “Mama has breasts.”
“Yeah, I’m not discussing your—or your mama’s—If you think that you’re going to sidetrack me from the issue of you and your brother, you’re sadly mistaken, Coral,” he growled irritably.
Coral sighed and shook her head, grabbing a book from the shelf and stomping back to her desk once more. “There’s nothing else to tell,” she informed him. “I came up here to study, and he kept barging in over and over, calling me a liar, telling me that I was bad, insisting that Santa Claus won’t give me anything for Christmas because I’m a liar, and that I’d just get a stocking full of coal on Christmas morning.”
Toga let out a deep breath since the rest of the story had pretty well fallen into place. “So you told him that there’s no Santa Claus.”
“There isn’t,” she replied defensively.
“And it would hurt to let Mamoruzen believe that there is?” he asked quietly.
Coral made a face as she flopped down at her desk once more. “Won’t he just be disappointed when he figures out that there isn’t a Santa Claus?”
Toga squinted, staring at his daughter as though he were trying to read her mind. “You were disappointed when you figured out that your mother and I are Santa Claus?”
“A little,” she admitted with an offhanded shrug. “Besides, Mamoruzen’s supposed to be the next tai-youkai, right? So isn’t it a bad idea to fill his head with silly thoughts of fat men in red clothes?”
Rubbing his forehead, Toga sighed quietly. He understood what she meant; of course, he did. Maybe she’d overheard him saying one time too many that, as tai-youkai, he couldn’t afford the luxury of entertaining whimsical thoughts when it came to certain matters. He’d said it to Sierra on the rare occasion when they’d disagree over something that Toga had to do. It came part and parcel with his position, and as much as he disliked the decisions he sometimes had to make, he couldn’t shirk them off on someone else, either. Fair or not didn’t really matter; not when he had to be the bottom line. The problem was that Mamoruzen was a child, and regardless of the title that would one day be his, Toga tended to believe that Sierra was right: the boy was still just a little boy, and little boys should be allowed the time to be little boys: to believe in the same things that most little boys believed in.
‘Things like Santa Claus,’ he thought with an inward grimace.
“Did you believe in Santa Claus?” Coral asked suddenly, her brow furrowing as she shot her father a very direct stare.
Blinking away the lingering thoughts that whispered in his mind, Toga pressed his lips together and strode over to the chair beside her, tugging on his slacks as he sank down and leaned forward, tapping his fingertips together between his spread knees. “No, I didn’t,” he admitted, then quickly added, “but my parents—your grandparents—aren’t American, either.”
“It still seems a bit silly to me,” she replied dubiously.
“Silly or not, it makes your mother happy,” Toga pointed out with a raised eyebrow. “You remember, right? This year’s been really tough on her, and I know that it’s a little hard for you to understand since you’ve never really gotten a chance to get to know your uncles, but your mother . . . She misses them.”
Coral’s cheeks pinked slightly at the gentle reminder. “I know,” she muttered with a shake of her head. “This is supposed to be Mama’s best Christmas, ever, and I’m sorry . . . I wouldn’t have said it, really I wouldn’t have, but Mamoruzen was just pestering and pestering and—”
“And he’s two years old,” Toga cut in. “He likes you. He thinks you’re fun. Is it such a terrible thing that your brother wants you to play with him for a little while?”
With a grimace, Coral shook her head. “No,” she allowed.
Toga finally relented with a small smile designed to let his daughter know that he wasn’t really upset with her. “Good, now let me see your arm.”
“It’s fine, Papa,” she insisted, unconsciously covering the bandage on her arm with her hand.
“I’m sure it is,” he said, gently pushing her hand away and grasping her wrist. “Now let me see it.”
“Cassidy already took care of it,” she pointed out though she didn’t try to pull away from him.
Toga chuckled as he carefully peeled back the white medical tape. “I figured as much.” Cassidy always took care of bandaging cuts and scrapes. A regular little mama, he figured, even if she were only nine years old. Rubbing the pad of his thumb over the small puncture wounds that were closing up nicely despite the mottled and bruised flesh that surrounded them, he sighed. “Yeah, I think you’ll live,” he remarked mildly.
“I guess I sort of deserved it,” she admitted, carefully securing the bandage in place once more, likely to keep her mother from seeing the bruising than because she needed the coverage.
“Well, he knows better than to bite,” Toga said, bracing his weight on his knees and pushing himself to his feet. “Anyway, do what you can with your homework, but you’re absolutely not staying up all night to finish it, either.” He walked to the doorway then stopped long enough to look back at his daughter. “I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”
“I’ll just grab a snack later,” she murmured, having already buried her nose in one of her books again.
“Absolutely not,” he informed her. “Dinner with your family is non-negotiable.”
She heaved a sigh but didn’t argue, and satisfied that he’d made his point, Toga pulled the door closed behind himself as he stepped into the hallway again.
He sighed. ‘Three down; two to go . . . speaking of ‘two’, where are those girls . . .?’
Before he could make a move to find out, he grunted as a tiny body barreled into the back of his legs. Catching himself on the door frame, he craned his neck to peer over his shoulder just in time to see a flurry of black hair as one of the two children who hadn’t been accounted for clawed her way up his back, locking her plump little arms around his neck as she dug her knees into his spine to haul herself up and kiss his cheek. “Papa!” Chelsea yelled, forgetting for a moment that he was youkai, therefore blessed with very acute hearing and that she was, in effect, screaming in his ear.
He flinched and smiled, ferreting a hand under her arm to alleviate the choking. “How’s my girl?” he asked with a smile.
Chelsea giggled and kissed him again. “I missed Papa!” she insisted.
“I missed you, too,” he replied as little hands seized his free arm and tugged. “And there’s my last girl,” he greeted, extending his arm to scoop up his oldest twin daughter. “Good for Mama?”
Charity smiled. “I’m a good girl!” she announced.
“Yes, you are,” he intoned, kissing her forehead and wrinkling his nose a few times when her ears twitched just enough to tickle him. “Oh, are these the babies I bought you?”
Charity held up her new doll proudly. “I named mine Yuki,” she informed him.
“Wow, she’s really pretty,” Toga agreed. “I have excellent taste in dolls, ne?”
Charity giggled happily, and Toga jerked back when Chelsea shoved her doll in his face. “This one’s Mai,” she said.
“How’d Mai get up there?” he asked with a chuckle.
“She was on my back,” Chelsea said.
“She’s very pretty, too,” he remarked.
Chelsea bounced up and down a few times. “Yeah! They’re twins like us!”
Laughing since she hadn’t quite realized that sisters couldn’t actually have a set of shared twins, Toga nodded in agreement. “So does this make me a grandpa?” he asked instead.
Charity cuddled against his shoulder with her doll held firmly in her arms. “Uh-huh.”
“Mai wants a kiss!” Chelsea insisted, bumping Toga’s nose with the plastic head as she jammed the doll in his face once more.
Toga made a show of kissing the toy as he carefully negotiated the staircase. “Yuki, too!” Charity added.
The girls were satisfied with Toga’s doll-kissing endeavor by the time they reached the bottom of the staircase, and he smiled as he set Charity on her feet once more. “Why don’t you girls go find Mama and see if she needs any help?” he told them.
Chelsea dropped to the floor, landing in a squat, and she shoved the doll into his arms before taking off at break-neck speed in the general direction of the kitchen. “Okay, Papa!” Charity called over her shoulder as she ran after her twin. After a moment, though, she darted back, holding out her doll for him to take. “No babies in the kitchen when Mama’s cooking!” she reminded him before dashing off once more.
Toga smiled and shook his head, staring at the dolls in his hands. “I guess that means Grandpa gets to babysit,” he said.
He couldn’t be certain, but he was almost sure that one of the dolls winked at him.
.:December 14, 2034:.
“You’ll be careful, right?”
Setting the last suitcase on the floor in the foyer of the Zelig mansion, Cain Zelig smiled at his mate as she worried on her bottom lip. Smoothing her short tan miniskirt, she looked more like a school girl than the wife of the North American tai-youkai, and he wondered not for the first time, how he’d ever been lucky enough to deserve her, in the first place. “You know I will be,” he said quietly, drawing her into his arms and kissing her forehead.
“I know,” Gin said then sighed. “It’s just . . . I worry; that’s all. I hate this—really hate it.”
He sighed, too. She’d said that in such a tiny voice, attesting to the upset that was almost palpable in the air. It was always a sore point whenever they traveled. Because of the risk that something could happen, it was standard practice for a tai-youkai and his heir not to travel together even if they were going to the same place, and while Gin had wanted to make the trip to Japan to see her family sooner, it was difficult to find two complimentary flights that wouldn’t separate them for more than a few hours. Cain’s flight would leave an hour after Gin and Bas’, but she would have a four hour layover in London since they’d both learned that it was best to give the child a chance to stretch his legs and work out some of his energy reserves. Cain, however, would have to change planes in Madrid, but he would have to hurry to make sure that he caught his connecting flight. It was a lot of trouble, and if he were entirely truthful, he wasn’t overly keen on the idea of traveling this way, either, but for reasons that he’d never completely comprehend, she actually seemed to like her father . . . “But you want to go, don’t you?” he prodded gently.
“Of course I do,” she replied when he gave her shoulders a little squeeze. Then she drew a deep breath, pressing her hand against the soft angora sweater that hugged her curves so nicely—a Christmas present he’d gotten for her last year, one of her favorites. She loved soft and cuddly things, after all . . . “It’s just a few hours,” she said with a decided nod. “Less than a day . . .”
“I’ll wait for you at the airport,” he assured her.
Her smile was bright and beautiful. “Besides, I’ll have Sebastian there to protect me.”
Cain chuckled since Sebastian had just turned three years old a few months ago. Still, if it made her feel better, then who was he to argue with her? “Everything will be just fine, baby girl. Bas!”
He heard his son before he saw him. The voice had drifted out of the living room where the boy was taking an inordinate amount of time in saying goodbye to his favorite companion, the family’s dog, Punkin. When he did emerge, he had a thoughtful scowl on his little face, and he shuffled his feet in obvious reluctance. “What about Punkin?” he asked slowly, his golden eyes so very much like his mother’s sober, solemn.
Cain knelt down and held out Bas’ coat. “I told you. Ben’s coming over later to pick him up. They’ll spend Christmas together.”
Bas wasn’t convinced. “But what about Punkin’s presents?”
“Ben promised he’d take those with him,” Cain reminded him. “Besides, you know that Punkin hates traveling.”
“He throws up in the car,” Bas remarked slowly as he stuck his right arm into the sleeve. “Will he throw up in Ben’s car?”
“We can hope so,” Cain replied. Gin smacked his shoulder, and he shot her an unrepentant grin.
Bas considered his father’s words. “So he’d throw up on a plane?” he finally asked.
Gin uttered an uncomfortable sound at the unpleasant reminder, and Cain chuckled. “Yeah, I think he would, probably all over the place. Then he’d throw up all over your stuff, and that’d be a little nasty, don’t you think?” he added for good measure.
Bas nodded. “Really nasty,” he agreed. “The last time he throwed up, there was hair in it. I think he ate a squirrel . . .”
“Okay,” Gin cut in suddenly, her tone falsely bright. “Time to go or we’ll miss our planes. You want to go see Grandma and Grandpa, don’t you?”
He must have forgotten about that part of the deal. Nodding vigorously, he tugged the coat out of Cain’s hands. “I can do it, Daddy,” he insisted.
“Sure, you can,” Cain agreed, pushing himself to his feet once more. Intercepting the vaguely disturbed expression on his wife’s face, he smiled as he retrieved the two large suitcases. “Don’t worry, Gin,” he told her as he stepped onto the front porch and waited for her to lock the door behind her. “I’m sure that the squirrel didn’t feel it.”
She wrinkled her nose but giggled—exactly the reaction he’d been fishing for. “You’re horrible!” she chided.
“So you say, baby-girl.”
“It’ll be nice to spend the holiday with family, don’t you think?” she asked, dropping her keys into her purse as Bas ran down the steps and toward Cain’s truck.
“Of course,” he agreed, barely managing to hide a grimace since he could think of a host of things he’d rather do than spend any time at all with InuYasha Izayoi. Cain forced a smile when Gin glanced over her shoulder at him. He would, however, enjoy seeing his daughter and granddaughters, he had to admit. Maybe the trip wouldn’t be that bad, after all . . .
.:December 15, 2034:.
“Do I believe in Santa Claus?”
Pausing with her knife poised in the air over the vegetables she’d been slicing for the oden she was making for dinner, Izayoi Kagome blinked and glanced over her shoulder at her youngest son. Frowning slightly as he chewed on the end of a crayon and idly fingered his ever-twitching ear. “Here,” she said, grabbing a bowl of rice crackers off the counter and setting them on the table beside the half-done drawing he’d been working on. “I’ll bet these tastes better than the crayon.”
Blinking as though to clear away a daydream, the child pulled the crayon away and stared at it with a rather blank expression. “Sorry, Mama,” he muttered, his little cheeks pinking slightly. Kagome stifled a sigh and ruffled his hair affectionately. Mikio did so hate to disappoint his parents, and while she wasn’t upset with him, he probably viewed the gentle reminder that he wasn’t to chew on his crayons as the gravest of trespasses that he could commit.
Smiling gently, she turned back toward the counter once more, ignoring the blue streak that smeared the corner of Mikio’s mouth. “Suppose you tell me why you’re asking whether or not you believe in Santa Claus,” she asked.
He didn’t answer right away, and she heard his little claws scrape against the wooden bowl; the slow and thorough chewing of the crackers. “Mamoruzen said that Santa brings him presents on Christmas.”
“Well,” Kagome said as she resumed the cutting of the vegetables, “do you want to believe in Santa?”
“Would he bring me presents, too?”
Pressing her lips together as she struggled not to laugh out loud, Kagome cleared her throat as she glanced out the window over the sink. InuYasha was nowhere to be seen, meaning that he was still in the dojo, training with Ryomaru, their eldest son. “I would suppose so.”
She turned in time to see the happy smile surface on the five year-old’s face. The smile was short lived, though. It faltered, giving way to a look of acute distress. “Mama?” he said, his voice rising in pitch in testimony of his anxiety.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, scooping up the veggies and dropping them into a bowl.
“Papa won’t kill him, will he? Santa Claus?”
Biting her lip as the altogether disturbing image of InuYasha, Tetsusaiga in hand as he stood before the huge fireplace, waiting for the benevolent fat man to emerge from the chimney, came to mind. “Oh, your papa wouldn’t do that,” she assured Mikio, proud of the evenness in her voice.
“What wouldn’t I do, wench?”
“Papa!” Mikio greeted enthusiastically, hopping up and darting over to his father. Kagome sucked in a sharp breath but didn’t say anything as InuYasha’s quick reflexes managed to catch and steady Mikio when he tripped over his own feet.
“Thought Mama told you not to run in the house,” InuYasha reminded in an uncharacteristically gentle tone—the one he always used when reprimanding the youngest of their four children. He, too, realized how sensitive Mikio was, and to that end, he tended to deal with his youngest son in a much different manner than he ever had with the older two.
Still, Mikio’s shoulders slumped at the sound of InuYasha’s words, his ears flattening, pointing straight out to either side as he stared at the floor and shuffled his feet.
InuYasha snorted and scooped up the child, sparing a moment to rub Mikio’s head—his silent reassurance that he wasn’t really angry at the boy, she supposed. “So what wouldn’t I do?” he demanded once more as he leaned down to brush a quick kiss over Kagome’s lips.
“You wouldn’t kill Santa Claus, would you, Papa?” Mikio blurted before Kagome had a chance to answer.
“Santa Claus?” InuYasha echoed blankly. “Have you been gnawing on your crayons again?”
Mikio squinted but nodded, his hand shooting up to fiddle with his twitching ear once more. “I forgot,” he murmured.
“Didn’t you feed him?” InuYasha asked, his gaze shifting to his mate.
Kagome rolled her eyes as she filled the hotpot with the cut vegetables. “Of course I did, dog-boy.”
“Keh!” he snorted loudly, “and no, I wouldn’t kill the old bastard, even though he shouldn’t be breaking into people’s houses.”
“InuYasha,” Kagome began in a warning tone.
InuYasha ignored her.
“But he brings presents, and that’s okay, right, Papa?” Mikio argued.
“Breaking in is breaking in, and—” Cutting himself off abruptly and rolling his eyes when he intercepted the darkened frown that Kagome was shooting him, InuYasha relented. “Guess it ain’t like he’s stealing nothing,” he muttered though he still looked like he wasn’t entirely sure he liked the idea of Santa Claus.
“Mamoruzen says that he makes a list of things he wants from Santa,” Mikio went on, apparently satisfied that InuYasha wouldn’t be lying in wait to take down the jolly old elf. “Should I make one?”
“Of course you should,” Kagome said brightly before InuYasha could answer as she plucked her son out of his father’s arms and set him on the floor. The hanyou looked like he had some sort of comment that he’d like to make, and whatever it was, Kagome knew very well that it would probably not have been overly positive . . . “Sit down, InuYasha,” she commanded with a shake of her head when she caught sight of the small laceration on his arm. It wasn’t deep, she could tell from a glance, but it had been enough to cut through the fire rat haori, and that was more than enough to agitate her. The fire rat clothing was a gift from InuYasha’s parents—his father gave it to his mother, and his mother had passed it on to her son—and since it had been formed from the pelts of the fire rats, it held special powers that exceeded normal clothing. Stronger than most armor—at least the armor that warriors had worn back in Sengoku Jidai—and resistant to fire, it had saved his life and hers more than once over the years, and while he didn’t wear them all the time like he used to, he did wear them whenever he was training, at Kagome’s insistence, of course.
“It’s ripped,” she said, casting him a meaningful look as she pushed the haori off his shoulder to better inspect his arm after he’d plopped into a chair at the table.
“It’ll fix itself, if you recall,” he reminded her in a tone that stated plainly that he thought she was simply fretting over nothing.
Kagome waited to comment until Mikio had gathered up his crayons and shuffled out of the room. “I know it’ll fix itself,” she said, rummaging through the huge first aid kit she kept under the sink.
Making a show of rolling his eyes, InuYasha slowly shook his head. “It’s just a scratch, Kagome—a scratch.”
“I realize that,” she replied tightly. “You know, if you hadn’t had this on, you’d probably be missing an arm right now.”
“It wasn’t that bad, wench,” he grumbled though he didn’t sound completely convinced. “Ryomaru got in a lucky hit, is all.”
“A lucky hit,” she repeated, gritting her teeth when he hissed in response to the iodine solution she was using to clean the wound. “That’s what you said the last time.”
Heaving a sigh and probably cursing Kagome’s powers of memory, InuYasha scrunched his face up into what she normally referred to as, ‘The Pout’, glowering up at her without lifting his chin. “I’m still alive, ain’t I?”
His belligerent answer had her hackles rising, and she took her time wiping the wound, which only served to add to InuYasha’s irritation. It was still too fresh in her mind, though. He and Ryomaru had been sparring in the yard last spring, and InuYasha had glanced over just in time to see Mikio nearly topple down the patio steps, and he’d reacted before he’d taken into consideration that he was already in the middle of a fight. Unfortunately, Ryomaru had already been in mid-swing and hadn’t been able to stop his movements in time to avoid hitting InuYasha. InuYasha had ended up with a lurid gash about five inches deep in his side just under his ribs.
That was why Kagome had insisted that he wear the fire rat clothing whenever he trained. He’d been irritated at the time since he’d given her the clothes years ago before they were married, but she’d insisted. It had just been too long since she’d had to worry about InuYasha getting hurt, she supposed, but the gut wrenching panic that had surged through her at the time was too bitter and too real to forget any time soon.
“Yes, dog-boy, you’re still alive,” she agreed rather acerbically.
He snorted but didn’t respond, turning his face to the side in a stubborn sort of way as she carefully taped a gauze pad over the cut.
“So why’s my pup asking about that ‘Santa Claus’?” he finally asked, breaking the stony silence that had fallen over the kitchen.
Snapping the first aid kit closed, Kagome tugged it off the table to put it away. “He said Mamoruzen believes in Santa, and he wanted to know if it was all right if he believed in him, too.”
“Why would he want to do a damn thing like that?”
Leaning against the counter, Kagome crossed her arms over her stomach and finally smiled. “Why do you think, InuYasha?”
“We’re Japanese,” he reminded her unnecessarily.
“Yeah, and he’s five,” she pointed out.
Bracing her foot against the cupboard door, she pushed herself away from it and wandered over to the refrigerator. “So . . .” she drawled, pulling a bottle of water from the chest and breaking the seal around the cap before sliding it across the table to her mate, “he’s thinking that he’ll get more presents if he believes in Santa Claus.”
InuYasha caught the bottle and grunted as he stood up, tugging the haori back into place again. “That’s just stupid,” he grumbled as he headed for the doorway. “He gets enough presents, and besides: what’s so great about some baka in a red suit with white hair?”
Kagome blinked as she stared at InuYasha, pressing her lips together so tightly that they hurt as she struggled to keep from laughing—or pointing out the irony of his words. Neither of those options would be welcome, all things considered . . . Unfortunately, the longer she looked at him, the more difficult it became for her to keep from laughing outright, and he stopped short to peer back at her as her cheeks started puffing in and out in a vain effort to stave back the ill-placed humor.
“What’s so damn funny?” he demanded.
Kagome shook her head. “A . . . baka in a . . . red . . . suit . . . with white . . . hair,” she choked out.
He looked perplexed for a minute, but growled as he looked down at himself. Clad in red from head to foot with his silver-white hair falling over his shoulders, he couldn’t miss the comparison, not really.
“That’s not—I don’t—You’re not—I’m not fucking fat!” he bellowed and stomped out of the kitchen.
She managed to refrain from dissolving in laughter—at least, she did until she heard the sliding glass door slam closed.
.:December 15, 2034:.
“You know, this is nice.”
Glancing up from the photography magazine she’d been reading, Sierra couldn’t help but smile. Stretched out on his side on the floor, Toga was letting their son beat him at Mega Puppy Power Racing, one of Gunnar’s favorite video games.
“What’s nice?” she asked, shaking her head when Toga lost again.
Gunnar yelled in celebration of his victory, and Toga flopped over onto his back, the amber eyes she knew so well illuminated with an amused sort of light. He chuckled. “This,” he replied, shifting his eyes around before returning his gaze to her once more. “No curlers, no makeup, no nail polish, no hair ribbons . . . Just video games with my boy. You know: nice.”
“You love your daughters, and you know you do,” she pointed out since he had been subjected to all of those things at one time or another during the time since he’d become a father. The twins—his girls—were the worst about it, but every one of their daughters had primped, painted, and otherwise tortured him at one time or another . . .
“I do love my daughters,” he agreed amiably. “However, there’s something to be said about a man looking like a man, don’t you think?”
She looked as though it were on the tip of her tongue to tease him since she’d told him many, many times through the years that he could only be adequately described as ‘pretty’. “Yes, dear,” she replied instead.
“Mamoruzen, why don’t we put the game up and play something else?” Toga suggested, sparing a moment to glance at the clock on the fireplace mantle. The boy still had awhile before it would be time for bed, and as much as Toga enjoyed the games, Sierra was of the misguided impression that video games rotted one’s mind, and they’d already been playing for well over an hour.
“I’m hungry,” Mamoruzen said suddenly as he scooted toward the shelf where the video game console rested.
“Hmm, you want some cookies?” Sierra asked.
Mamoruzen nodded as he stashed the controllers away. Sierra uncurled her legs and stood to see to the snack.
“So what do you want to play with now?” Toga asked, pushing himself up on his elbow. Mamoruzen crawled over to his side and shrugged.
He looked like he had something on his mind, but he didn’t seem to know how to say whatever it was. Twisting his hands in an uncharacteristically nervous sort of way, a thoughtful scowl wrinkled his brow as his ears flattened just the tiniest bit.
“Something wrong?” Toga asked mildly.
Mamoruzen shrugged again but didn’t look at his father. “Coral was right,” he finally said in a very small voice.
“Is that so? What was she right about?”
“There’s no Santa,” he muttered, his cheeks pinking in understated outrage, and the wizened look he shot his father was enough to make Toga grimace. Eyes wide and sober, full of a sense of sadness that colored his youki and stung Toga, Mamoruzen looked completely betrayed.
“Why do you say that?” Toga asked gently, brushing aside the acute sense of guilt that he’d helped to add to his son’s disappointment. “Did something happen?”
“Oh, that,” Sierra commented as she hurried back into the room with a bamboo tray laden with cookies and a small plastic tumbler full of milk. “Belle and I took him and the girls to go see Santa today,” she went on as she set the tray on the floor beside her son and sat down. “Remember? I told you . . .”
Toga nodded. A few of the larger and nicer hotels in Tokyo employed Santa Clauses as a courtesy for foreign guests and their children, and Sierra always took their children to see the Santa—at least, the children who still believed in him, that was. “The hotel Santa, you mean?”
“Yeah. Anyway, it was . . . well . . .”
Hefting his eyebrows at Sierra’s reluctant tone, Toga waited in silence for her to continue.
She sighed and shook her head, wincing at the memory of whatever had happened.
“His beard came off!” Mamoruzen blurted indignantly moments before jamming half a cookie into his mouth.
Toga pressed his lips together in a thin line, determined not to laugh at his son’s disgruntled face. “His beard . . . came . . . off?”
Sierra nodded. “Charity screamed.”
“That’s ‘cause she’s a girl,” Mamoruzen muttered, his obvious disdain growing even more apparent at the reminder.
“Oh . . . wow . . .” Casting Sierra a sympathetic sort of glance, he slowly shook his head. “I don’t even know what to say to that,” he admitted.
Sierra let her forehead drop against Toga’s arm as she stifled a sigh. “Well, the girl ahead of us in line was a little intimidated by Santa—not uncommon, I don’t think. I was a little scared of the big guy when I was small, too. Anyway, she flipped out when the elves were trying to help her get up on Santa’s lap, and during her struggle to get away from him, she sort of grabbed his beard, and . . .” Trailing off with a wince and a sigh, Sierra shook her head. “It was very traumatic,” she told Toga. “Charity refused to talk to him, and Chelsea . . .”
Almost afraid to hear what the most rambunctious of his brood had done, he squinted slightly and slipped an arm around Sierra’s waist. “That bad, was it?”
Sierra nodded then buried her face in her hands. “Chelsea ran right up to him and . . . and ripped the beard off for a second . . . time . . . So Charity started sobbing all over again; Bitty Belle didn’t look like she understood what was happening, but Alexandra started wailing because Charity was, and as you know, Alexandra never cries . . . it was a mess.”
Toga grimaced. He’d figured it was something like that . . . “So what did you do?”
Spreading her fingers apart enough to peer at him without lowering her hands, Sierra blinked a couple times. “What do you think I did? I grabbed the kids and got the hell out of there.”
“Well,” he drawled, trying to figure out a way to convince her that what she thought was so terrible really wasn’t so bad, after all.
“If he was really Santa, then his beard wouldn’t have come off,” Mamoruzen decided with a sorrowful little shrug.
Sierra shot him a helpless sort of glance, and Toga sat up, racking his brain for any sort of explanation that might salvage the situation. “You know, Mamoruzen,” he said slowly, “you don’t really think that one man—one Santa—can be in all the places like the hotels at once, do you?”
He appeared to consider that for a long moment, gnawing on his lower lip in an entirely thoughtful sort of way. “No-o-o,” he replied at length.
“That’s right,” he went on as sudden inspiration took root. “He can’t. I mean, it’s much more important for him to stay at the North Pole to make all the toys he’s going to give away, right?”
Mamoruzen didn’t look entirely convinced, but he nodded slowly.
“The guy at the store—he wasn’t the real Santa. He was just . . . one of Santa’s helpers, you see? This time of year, Santa’s helpers are all over, and they go back and tell Santa what all the children tell them that they want.”
The sadness in the golden eyes abated as Mamoruzen hesitantly lifted his gaze to meet his father’s. “R-really?” he asked in a breathless sort of tone.
Sierra kissed Toga’s cheek as he nodded. “Absolutely,” Toga reassured him. With a chuckle, he pulled the boy into his lap and leaned in close. “Normally we don’t tell children this sort of thing, but . . . well, I don’t think Santa will mind.”
“It’s a secret?” Mamoruzen asked, his eyes brightening at the idea of being told such a serious thing.
“Yes, a secret,” Toga agreed. “So you can’t tell anyone, okay?”
“What about your daughters?” Sierra interrupted, lifting an eyebrow as she smiled at her mate.
Toga chuckled. “I suppose we should probably tell them, too,” he allowed.
“Mama, I didn’t get to talk to Santa’s helper!” Mamoruzen suddenly exclaimed.
Sierra laughed softly and leaned forward to kiss his cheek. “I’ll take you to see him tomorrow; how’s that?”
He nodded then tilted his head back to look at Toga. “I won’t pull his beard off,” he promised.
Toga groaned but smiled. “Kami, I hope not.”
“All right; all right. It’s time for little boys to go to bed,” Sierra said briskly.
“But I’m not tired,” Mamoruzen insisted just before a wide yawn interrupted him.
Toga pushed himself to his feet and scooped up his son. “I know,” he said in commiserating tone. “Your mama and I are, though, and we can’t go to bed until you do.”
“I’m almost three,” Mamoruzen pointed out as Toga headed for the stairs.
“So you are.”
“I can stay up when I’m three?”
“We’ll see,” Toga replied. “We’ll see.”
.:December 15, 2034:.
“So Santa’s beard came off, did it?” Izayoi Kichiro asked with the barest hint of a smile quirking the corners of his lips as he stared into the huge, round eyes of his oldest daughter.
She nodded emphatically, her little claws digging unconsciously into the sleeve of her father’s shirt. “Why’d it do that, Papa? Why?” she demanded in her tiny, sing-song voice.
“Well,” Kichiro drawled, scratching his chin as he considered her question. “He’d get pretty warm under that beard, don’t you think? I think it kind of makes sense that it comes off, don’t you?”
Isabelle’s little face scrunched up in a thoughtful scowl. “Ooh,” she finally breathed.
“Yeah,” he said, kissing her forehead. “So did you get to tell him what you want?”
“No,” she admitted with a sad shake of her head, “but Mama helped me write a letter.”
Kichiro chuckled. “Then I’m sure you’ll get exactly what you asked for.”
“I asked for a new doll,” she said. “One in a Christmas dress!”
“A red one or a green one?”
She giggled. “A red one for me and a green one for Lexi!”
“Wow, that sounds really pretty,” he agreed.
She nodded happily and wiggled around on his lap until she managed to get up on her knees to kiss his cheek. “I like pretty!”
He laughed as Bellaniece breezed into the room with their youngest daughter, Alexandra, peering out from under a pretty pink towel in her mama’s arms. Holding an arm out for her, he took the squirming girl while Bellaniece scooped Isabelle up. “Time for your bath, baby,” she half-sang as she cuddled with her daughter.
“Where’s my kiss, Belle-chan?” Kichiro asked pointedly.
“Of course, my lover,” she agreed with a giggle. With a smile full of mischief, she leaned to the side, her lips warm and welcoming—much headier than a quick kiss ought to have been.
He heaved a sigh. “You’re a wicked woman,” he informed her.
She winked at him, her deep blue eyes sparkling. “I’ll show you how wicked I can be later,” she promised.
A delicious shiver raced up his spine, and he grinned. “Oh, will you now?” he murmured in a husky tone.
Her laughter trailed in her wake as she sauntered out of the room with a babbling Isabelle nestled safely in her arms. Kichiro watched her go as his smile widened lazily, and he chuckled softly when he turned his attention back to his one and a half year old daughter still wrapped comfortably in a thick pink towel. When he looked at her, she smiled, her blue eyes sparkling as the dimple that dug deep into her left cheek emerged. She was such a happy baby—he could only remember her truly crying once or twice in her short lifetime—that there wasn’t a doubt in Kichiro’s mind that she was absolutely, positively her mother’s child, after all.
“And what do you think you’re laughing at?” he drawled.
Alexandra gurgled happily.
Rubbing his cheek against the downy skin of her cheek, he stood, carefully cradling her against his chest, and slowly wandered over to the baby grand piano. “You want to learn how to play?” he asked.
Alexandra nodded, poking one hand out of her towel and gingerly pressing on the keys. She giggled out loud when the dulcet tones of the instrument sounded in the quiet.
Kichiro played the scale a few times. Alexandra, like always, placed her hand on the back of his. “You’re getting better,” he informed her.
She laughed, stuffing her free hand into her mouth as her cheeks pinked at the perceived praise. She was more than happy to listen to him play, though, with her hand resting atop his.
The thump of little feet announced the arrival of his oldest daughter as she wiggled her way up onto the bench. “Me, too, Papa!” Isabelle demanded, ducking under his arm so that she could crawl onto his lap beside her sister.
“Keh! Your hair’s soaked,” he complained without any real conviction. “Didn’t your mama dry you off?”
“Oh, please!” Bellaniece intoned. “You think she’d stand still long enough for that when she heard you playing?”
Kichiro grinned and gave a curt shrug. “Okay, girls. You’ve been practicing, right?”
Isabelle nodded enthusiastically as she sat up a little straighter and plunked out a few incongruent notes. Alexandra, watching her sister closely, followed suit while Kichiro concentrated on holding onto his girls so that they didn’t slip off his lap in their exuberance.
Bellaniece slipped her hands down his chest as she pressed her body against his back. “Do you have any idea how much you turn me on when you play with your daughters?” she murmured into his ear.
“Is that so?” he challenged softly, peering over his shoulder at her.
She smiled. “Yes, my lover. It’s one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Of course it is,” he agreed. “Now be a good girl until they go to bed.”
Bellaniece heaved a melodramatic sigh and stepped away, only to lean on the edge of the piano, her eyes shining as she watched her family play.
“Okay, you two,” Kichiro finally said, giving both his daughters a little squeeze. “It’s about bed time, so be good and get into your nightgowns, and I’ll play you a song.”
Belle laughed softly and pushed away from the piano, hurrying off to gather their clothes. Isabelle swung around and hopped down, dancing in small circles in her pink towel. Alexandra wiggled to get down, too, and she ran over to join her big sister.
It didn’t take long to dress the girls since they loved this time of the evening as much as their father did. Clean and comfortable, they climbed into a thickly cushioned easy chair with their mother and settled back to listen while Kichiro serenaded them in the ambient light cast by the glimmering Christmas tree that stood in the corner of the living room.
There really was a special something in the air at this time of year, he had to admit. Because Bellaniece was American by birth, she’d always demanded that they celebrate the season in much the same fashion as she had back home, and to that end, Kichiro had never complained when she’d dragged him from place in search of decorations and ornaments. He tromped through the forest every year while Isabelle told him which bits of greenery she wanted. Sometimes it took hours for her to hand select each and every bough that she wanted, and yet it always made her so very happy that he hadn’t even thought to complain.
She spent days arranging that greenery: tying boughs to the mantle over the fireplace with red velvet bows; hiding cinnamon sticks amongst the pieces all around the room. For hours, she’d sit and stick cloves, one by one, into oranges because, she said, they smelled like Christmas, and they did, he supposed. Christmas, she’d told him before, was a magical time: one of the few that she could remember hearing her father laugh—really laugh. Kichiro supposed it made sense. There was something entirely innocent and fresh about the season, and it was that awe as seen through the eyes of a child that had appealed to the artistic side of Cain Zelig.
He had to admit that he loved it, too. The act of playing piano had always helped him to forget the stress of the day and coupled with the aromatic smells that held a strange sense of warmth and family, it really as something special—even more special than it was every other night that he performed for his family. He made a point to do it, regardless of whatever else might be threatening to draw him away, and while his life tended to be much less hectic these days, it remained something that he did purely for pleasure. There was something about the melodious tones that helped to lull his daughters, as well. They were both sleeping midway through the second song though he was in no real hurry to stop playing.
After the song was over, he carefully lowered the cover over the keyboard and stood up. Bellaniece’s smile was brilliant as he carefully picked up Isabelle to carry her off to bed. She snuggled Alexandra close and followed.
They didn’t wake up when they were tucked in. It never failed to amuse Kichiro. Though they had enough rooms for the girls to have their own, Isabelle, who had been fascinated by her mother’s growing belly, had insisted that Alexandra share her room when they’d brought her home from the hospital. He figured that they’d end up with their own domains eventually, but for now, both girls seemed content with being near one another, and while neither one usually came into her parents’ room at night, more often than not, Alexandra would crawl into Isabelle’s bed long before morning.
The long and short of it was that, in his eyes, the two were little angels. He used to laugh when Bellaniece had talked about such fanciful things, but he really couldn’t think of a better way to describe his girls—all three of them. Kissing each of his daughters in turn, he slipped an arm around Bellaniece’s waist as they watched them for a long minute.
“They look so much like you, it’s frightening,” Kichiro murmured as he leaned down to kiss his wife’s cheek.
Bellaniece smiled up at him and grabbed his hand to tug him out of the room. “Frightening? Why?”
Heaving an exaggerated sigh, he let her lead him down the darkened hallway toward their bedroom. “Because, Belle-chan, I know damn well what I think every time I look at you, and I’d rather not think about some pup having those same thoughts when he’s looking at my little girls.”
“Oh? Don’t tell me you’re going to be an overprotective father,” she teased as he pushed their door closed and started to unbutton his shirt.
“Kami, no,” he assured her. “Doesn’t do any good, anyway. All that would accomplish would be to make my girls feel as though they’d somehow let me down when they didn’t do any such thing.”
“You’re talking about your father and Gin,” she murmured. It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah,” he allowed slowly then shook his head, “and no . . . That wasn’t really the old man’s intention. He just wanted to protect and shelter her, after all.” Dropping the shirt onto the floor in a careless heap, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and wandered over to the long windows. “I don’t have a doubt in my mind that that’s why she ended up with a bastard like your—”
“Izayoi Kichiro, you’re not really calling my daddy a bastard, are you?” she interrupted with a raised eyebrow and her arms crossed over her chest.
He rolled his eyes and snorted indelicately. “I believe I was, princess,” he parried.
“Fine then. Get it all out of your system since he’ll be here tomorrow,” she reminded him.
That earned her a darkened scowl. “I know,” he mumbled since his father had been griping about that very thing earlier in the day when he’d stopped by the dojo to say hello while InuYasha and Kichiro’s twin, Ryomaru were sparring. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and his plane will go down somewhere over the Atlantic . . .”
Bellaniece gasped softly and shook her head. “Keep it up, Izayoi,” she warned. “Need I remind you that as your sister’s mate that should something happen to Daddy then the same would happen to her?”
Rolling his eyes since he was joking—or at least, he was mostly joking—he made a face and grunted. “I just don’t like him,” he complained.
“You don’t have to,” she assured him. “You’re married to me, not Daddy, remember?”
“Thank kami for that.”
She tossed a pillow at him as she crawled onto their bed, her bare skin glowing in a golden hue as she stretched languorously. Kichiro nearly groaned out loud. Laying on her side with one leg bent forward, her absolutely perfect breasts rising and falling with every breath she drew, he stood, transfixed, watching her as she rolled onto her belly, as she tucked her arms against her sides, elbows bent with her hands hidden under the thick pillow. She was beautiful, and damned if she didn’t know it, too. “Are you coming to bed, Kichiro?” she asked in the throaty tone that never failed to send shivers straight down his spine.
“You’re not tired from chasing your daughters around all day?” he couldn’t resist teasing.
“I’m never too tired for you, my lover.”
Grinning slightly as his slacks joined the shirt he’d discarded on the floor, he settled himself on the bed beside his mate.
“You know,” Bellaniece said as she reached out to run her fingertips down the center of his chest, “I was thinking . . .”
“Think ‘lower’, Belle-chan,” he said.
She giggled and rolled onto her side, tucking her hands together under her cheek. “Would you mind if I asked to have Sebastian spend the night tomorrow?”
“That’s fine,” he agreed, pulling her into his arms, pressing his hips against hers. She uttered a guttural moan, her eyes slipping closed for a moment before she forced them open again, the blaze of igniting passion adding a shocking brightness to the underlying sense of lethargy.
“Thank you,” she nearly purred. “It’ll be a nice treat for Daddy and Gin, don’t you think?”
Sidetracked by the curve of her throat, Kichiro nibbled gently as Bellaniece’s pulse quickened. “Treat?” he asked between kisses.
“Yeah,” she replied in a breathless sort of way. “They’ll be separated for almost a whole day traveling over. They’ll want to have some alone time, don’t you think?”
Warning bells chimed softly in the back of his mind. Kichiro ignored them. “I doubt that it’s going to make a difference whether or not Sebastian’s there.”
“That’s true,” she agreed with a contented little sigh as her fingertips glided over the smooth flesh of his back. “It didn’t stop them when we walked in, did it?”
And that reminder was like a dousing of ice cold water, as far as Kichiro was concerned. He’d had nightmares about that day, damn it. After weeks of cajoling, Bellaniece had finally managed to talk him into taking her on vacation, and she’d chosen to go back to Maine for a visit. Thing was, she wanted to surprise her father, and that had been the biggest mistake. Kichiro had been exhausted from traveling, edgy from the ride from the airport to the Zelig mansion via taxi, and by the time they’d reached the place, he’d been ready to drop into bed to sleep for a week.
They hadn’t bothered to knock on the doors, however. After all, it was Bellaniece’s childhood home, wasn’t it? What he hadn’t expected to see was Cain Zelig’s ass as he defiled Kichiro’s sister right there in the foyer on the stairs in the middle of the day for anyone to see.
“Oh, that’s it,” he stated abruptly, letting go of his mate and flopping over onto his other side, effectively presenting Bellaniece with his back. “That scarred me for life, you know.”
She laughed at him—he’d known she would. “It did not,” she countered.
‘Heartless,’ he fumed, unable to repress the all-out grimace as the vision of that awful day assailed him once more. “There are some things in this world that are not meant to be seen by living eyes,” he informed her brusquely, raising his voice to be heard over the escalating torrent of giggles that escaped her, “and your father’s naked ass is one of those things.”
“Your baby sister likes my daddy’s naked ass,” she quipped, rubbing his back in an effort to assuage his battered psyche.
“Yeah, that’s really not helping, Belle-chan.”
She laughed harder. “Aww, well, let’s see if I can’t help you repress that memory again,” she offered, her hands slipping around his waist.
He pushed her hands back and snorted. “Forget it, wench. You sank my battleship.”
“I . . . what?” she exclaimed before dissolving in another round of giggles.
“Yeah, that’s right. You heard me. Sank. Broken. Done. Finished. I’m picking up my marbles, and I’m going home.”
“I love you,” Bellaniece said, placing a loud kiss on the back of his shoulder.
“You love to torment me,” he pouted.
She laughed again, her hands slipping around him once more though this time, he didn’t try to stop her. “I’m sorry, lover,” she said though her apology was ruined when she laughed out loud again. “Let me see if I can raise your battleship, shall I?”
He grunted at her choice of words but didn’t fight her when she tugged him onto his back and with a devilish little glint in her eyes and scooted toward the foot of the bed . . .
.:December 21, 2034:.
Kagome slipped into the chair across from Sierra and smiled. “You look a bit frazzled,” she commented.
“That bad?” Sierra asked with a slight grimace. There were times when she thought that the woman they called ‘miko’ was entirely too perceptive by far. In fact, she’d been of two minds about stopping by to drop off the handwritten invitation to her son’s birthday-party-slash-Christmas-Eve-party that she’d neglected to deliver before. That they already knew about the party and were planning on attending was arbitrary. Sierra wasn’t sure why she felt as though she were so far behind on everything lately . . .
“No, not bad,” Kagome reiterated. “Is something wrong?”
Heaving a sigh, Sierra peered over her shoulder to see where her children were. The twins were crawling all over InuYasha while Gunnar and Mikio sat quietly on the floor playing with a toy truck. Turning back to face Kagome once more, she couldn’t help the wry smile and shake of her head as a sigh slipped from her. “It’s nothing, really . . . just . . . Toga, you know? He’s trying so hard to make this Christmas special for me, and I love him for that, but . . .”
“But . . .?” Kagome prompted gently when Sierra trailed off.
Sierra shrugged and sipped the tea. “But the harder he tries, the worse I feel.” With a sigh and a stubborn shake of her head, Sierra shot Kagome a belligerent look. “It shouldn’t be that way, right? I mean, we’ve always shared everything, and now it feels like . . . I-I don’t know . . . it feels like he’s decided that he has to make me happy, and that’s not how it should be. We should be making each other happy, and . . . and he’s not letting me do that for him.”
Kagome considered that for a long moment and nodded, her deep brown eyes troubled as she pondered what Sierra had said. “You’re right,” she said at length. “That is how it should be. He’s just trying to protect you, I think. You’ve had a pretty rough year, after all, and I think he’s simply hoping that you have an extra happy holiday.”
“I know,” Sierra said then waved a hand in blatant dismissal as she tucked a strand of strawberry blonde hair behind her ear. “Then, too, there’s this . . .” trailing off for a moment, Sierra glanced at her children before leaning toward Kagome to whisper, “. . . Santa business . . .”
She nodded again and sat back with another heavy sigh. “Gunnar’s already starting to question it. He’s so little, you know? And everyone expects so much of him . . . Sometimes I think that he’s going to grow up and miss his entire childhood because of everything that he’s going to be, and I . . .” with another tired sigh, she rubbed her temples and paused as though to gather her thoughts together. “I just wanted him to think like a child, even if it is only about Santa Claus. Do you know what he said to the Santa I took him to after the beard debacle?”
Kagome bit her lip, almost afraid to hear it. “No, what?”
“He told him that he knew he wasn’t really Santa but if he should see the real one, that he’d like a Kubrick robot with red laser eyes.”
“Oh . . . my . . .”
Sierra shook her head and finished her tea. “I don’t know . . . I mean, I know I can’t keep him little forever, but it just seems to me that he’s trying to grow up a lot faster than I’d like.”
“They do that, don’t they?” Kagome asked softly.
Sierra sighed, rubbing her forehead as a wave of sadness washed over her. “Yeah . . . I just bought Coral her first bras the other day. Toga was a little unnerved.”
“I’ll bet he was,” she agreed. “I remember when I bought those for Gin. InuYasha wouldn’t speak to me for a week.”
Sierra laughed—a good sign, in Kagome’s estimation. “Why can I believe that?”
“Besides, Mamoruzen is becoming a really great young man. You’ve got a lot to be proud of.”
Sierra opened her mouth to reply but was cut short by raised voices coming from the living room. “No, Chelsea! Go ‘way!”
“I just want to see it, ‘Moruzen!”
“You can see it fine! You don’t have to touch it to see it!”
Chelsea wasn’t impressed. “You have to share!”
“Not with you, baka! Go play with your stupid dolls!”
“Oi!” The squabbling stopped at the sound of that particular voice. Sierra wasn’t surprised. The children weren’t really inclined to argue with InuYasha, after all. “Let her see the truck, Mikio,” he went on.
“. . . Oka-a-ay . . .”
Sierra pressed her lips together and slowly shook her head. “I should have InuYasha come by whenever Toga’s not home. They listen to him.”
Kagome laughed. Sierra would have if she hadn’t been serious. Neither woman was surprised when two little boys trudged into the kitchen with varying degrees of disgust evident on their little faces. “I want a truck that isn’t for girls,” Gunnar announced loudly as he plopped into a chair at the table, balling his hands into fists as he plunked his elbows on the table and smashed his cheeks into his fists.
“Me, too,” Mikio decided though he didn’t pout quite as much as Gunnar did.
“Uncle Yasha likes girls better than boys,” Gunnar went on. Mikio’s ears flattened for a moment.
“I don’t like girls better,” InuYasha grumbled as he stomped into the kitchen. “They just get hella loud when they don’t get their way.”
Sierra shook her head but smiled as she stood to take her cup to the sink. “Did you boys drag a bunch of stuff out?” she asked pointedly.
“No-o-o,” Gunnar drawled.
“Are you sure?”
He pondered that for a moment then hopped down. “C’mon, Mikio! Let’s go see!”
The two ran off again, and Sierra shook her head. “Thanks for the tea, Kagome,” she said, hurrying over to hug the miko.
Kagome smiled. “Any time.”
“You will be at the party, then?”
She hurried into the living room then, calling to the twins to put the toys away and get their coats on.
Kagome sat for a moment, her chin on her hand, her face taking on a thoughtful lilt.
“I don’t like that look, wench,” InuYasha commented dryly.
He narrowed his eyes as though he were trying to read her mind. “That look,” he said again. “It’s the one you get when you’re thinking about meddling.”
“I don’t meddle!” she exclaimed indignantly.
“Keh! And I don’t breathe.”
She rolled her eyes and started to protest again, but two little girls wrapped in coats, scarves, and mittens, darted into the room to hug her. “Bye!” Charity sang.
Kagome giggled and adjusted the girl’s hood. “I’ll see you in a couple of days, won’t I?”
Charity smiled brightly as she threw her little arms around Kagome’s neck. “For ‘Moruzen’s birthday?”
She nodded then choked as Chelsea joined the hug.
“InuYasha,” Sierra said as she hurried into the kitchen with Mikio in tow. The boy had his head tilted back with a wad of tissue paper smashed under his nose. “I don’t think it’s a huge deal, but . . .”
With a loud scrape of the chair, InuYasha stood and stalked over to his son. “Let’s see,” he demanded in a gruff yet gentle tone as he pulled Mikio’s hands down to get a look at the injury. “You fall?”
Mikio nodded with a sniffle as Kagome got to her feet. “Yes, Papa,” he mumbled. At the sight of the blood dripping from his nose, Charity broke into a loud wail, and Kagome put her hand on Chelsea’s shoulder to keep the girl from running over to poke Mikio’s injury.
InuYasha pressed the tissue to his nose again. “Hold this,” he commanded as he helped Mikio into the chair that he’d just vacated.
Sierra grabbed the girls’ hands and winced apologetically. “I’ll get these two out of your hair. Gunnar said that Mikio tripped and fell against the doorknob.”
With a flutter of her hand to let Sierra know that she’d heard her, Kagome dampened a cloth under the cold water tap and wrung it out before hurrying over to Mikio. It wasn’t nearly as bad as she’d feared, thankfully. The skin was a bit swollen and very red, but he didn’t seem to be bruising. “Use this,” she said, taking the blood-stained tissues and tossing them into the trash can while Mikio took the cool cloth and dabbed at his nose. “Do you need to go lie down awhile?”
InuYasha snorted indelicately. “He’s tough,” he assured her. “He’s hanyou, ain’t he?”
She shot him a quelling glance before ruffling Mikio’s hair. “I know he’s tough,” she agreed with a wan smile directed at her son. “Just be more careful next time, won’t you?”
Mikio nodded, blinking over the top of the cloth. “Will we still go to Gunnar’s house?”
“Of course we will,” she assured him. “You want to, right?”
He nodded again as his gaze skittered away to look at his father. InuYasha grunted in response. Only then did Mikio relax enough to smile back just a little bit.
.:December 22, 2034:.
“Lie still or you’ll mess me up.”
The crinkle of wrapping paper resounded in the quiet, only to be reflected in the happy laughter that followed seconds later as Izayoi Ryomaru ripped a long strip of tape off the roll and slapped it onto the seam of the overlapping paper.
Morio giggled and peeked out of the folds, a mischievous glint illuminating his golden eyes. “I’m not a present!” the three year-old declared.
“You don’t want to be Mama’s present?” Ryomaru asked.
Morio considered that. “I’ll be Mama’s present!” he yelled.
“You won’t be if you don’t hold still,” Ryomaru warned, tugging another mammoth strip of tape.
“It’s sticky to my toes!” Morio complained with a hoot of laughter.
Izayoi Deirdre, better known as Nezumi, sighed and shook her head, her lips pressed together in a thin line that bespoke her impatience with the task at hand. She’d never been particularly skilled at things that were most commonly considered ‘women’s work’, and wrapping gifts, in her opinion, was definitely ‘women’s work’. “You two are wasting that paper,” she pointed out dryly.
Ryomaru paused long enough to cast her a cheesy grin. “Aren’t you done yet, Nez?”
“Baka,” she muttered, slapping the back of her hand against the center of her husband’s chest.
His grin widened. “I love it when you beat me, you know,” he pointed out.
She snorted loudly but couldn’t staunch the flush that shot to the fore. “Incorrigible baka,” she amended.
“I’m a baka, too!” Morio exclaimed suddenly, sitting up straight and effectively ruining his father’s wrapping job.
Ryomaru laughed, flopping onto his back as he bestowed his son with an inordinately proud grin. “Abso-fucking-lutely,” he said.
Nezumi rolled her eyes and reached over to grab Ryomaru’s hand and smashed the tip of his index finger onto the ribbon crossed over the gift she’d been fighting with for the last twenty minutes. “That’s not really something that he ought to be proud of, Ryo.”
Rolling onto his knees, he crawled closer and kissed her cheek. “Says you,” he countered.
She paused long enough to eye him blankly. “How old are you? Three?”
“Now that ain’t right, Nez,” he quipped with a very, very fake pout on his face. “Oi! Save the finger!” Ryomaru grouched when Nezumi yanked the ends of the ribbon tight.
“Kami, you’re such a baby,” she insisted.
“Papa’s not the baby!” Morio argued emphatically. “I’m the baby! Me! Izza me—Morio!”
Pursing her lips as she struggled not to laugh, she shook her head at her husband, who was grinning from ear to ear. “That’s one of the most messed up things you’ve ever taught that boy,” she remarked as the barest hint of a smile twitched on her lips.
Ryomaru laughed. “Aww, come on, Nez! Who doesn’t love the Mario Brothers games?”
“I love games!” Morio insisted. “We’re gonna play a game, Papa?”
Ryomaru’s laughter escalated. “I ain’t finished wrapping you up yet. Besides, you’re a present, right? You’ll be under the tree for a few days.”
“But what if I gotta pee?”
“Dunno what to tell you, Morio. Guess you’ll just have to hold it till Mama opens her present,” Ryomaru teased.
“I can’t hold it that long!” the child protested.
“I suppose you could just pee on the tree,” Ryomaru decided, scratching his chin thoughtfully.
Nezumi’s head jerked up, and she snapped her mouth closed as her cheeks pinked just a touch. “Pee on your father,” she grumbled. “Baka.”
“Okay!” Morio agreed, crawling out of the cocoon of wrapping paper and reaching for the dull silver snap of his jeans.
“Keh! Fat fucking chance!” Ryomaru said, standing up and hefting his giggling child over his shoulder. “I expect you to be finished when I get back!”
Nezumi tossed a preformed red bow at her husband’s head. “You’re such a doofus.”
“Yeah, and you married me anyway, wench. What does that say about you?”
He strode out of the room before she could retort, and with a shake of her head, she reached for the next box with a groan. There was a good chance that the other parents weren’t necessarily going to thank them for the gifts her husband had chosen for the kids, and while Nezumi thought on the basest of levels that they looked like fun, as a mother, she supposed that she ought to protest them, herself.
‘Paintball guns,’ she thought with a wry grimace. ‘We’re going to be banned from Christmas parties for the next hundred years or more . . .’
It was funny, really. Both she and Ryomaru were Japanese, but Nezumi’s mother, Kate, was American, and while she’d died long ago, Nezumi could still remember the precious few Christmases her family had celebrated when her mother was still alive. Kate Barber Matako had loved the holiday, and as a child, Nezumi had, too. Maybe it wasn’t so odd that she’d want to celebrate such a happy memory with her own child and husband now.
Ryomaru had liked the idea from the start, and why wouldn’t he? Christmas, to him, meant presents, and that was more than enough reason for him to be completely gung-ho about it.
Morio’s laughter announced his return long before he darted into the room. “Is that for me?” he asked as he crawled into his mother’s lap.
“Silly. Would I be wrapping your presents in front of you?” she challenged with a quirked eyebrow as she pushed the length of her long black ponytail over her shoulder.
“Yes?” Morio replied hopefully.
“Nope,” she countered, smiling as he pushed his head under her chin and wiggled his ears to tickle her. “Sit still, will you?” she said with a laugh.
He leaned up to plant an obscenely loud kiss on her cheek as Ryomaru plopped down beside her. “He loves his mama,” Ryomaru said with a wide grin.
“Of course he—Morio!” Nezumi exclaimed suddenly when the boy started wiggling around, only to stop suddenly, long enough to rip a loud fart right in her lap.
“Oi! No farting on your mama!” Ryomaru insisted with a bark of laughter as he grabbed the insanely laughing boy and propelling him toward the doorway with a light tap on Morio’s bottom.
“You’re a hypocrite,” she mumbled, waving a hand in front of her face as she got up on her knees to move to the other side of the pile of presents that had yet to be wrapped.
“Keh! Shows what you know,” he shot back. “I never fart on my mama.”
“I’ll say it again,” she retorted, “baka. Anyway, I did tell you that you put too much cabbage in that hotpot you made for dinner.”
“You dare criticize the chef du jour?”
“Do you even know what ‘du jour’ means?”
She rolled her eyes and grunted as she leaned forward to nab the last of the paintball guns. “Figures.”
He laughed, stretching out on his side as his gaze took on a lazy glow. “Do you know what it means?”
“Nope,” she stated flatly, “but I’m not the one tossing into sentences, either.”
“You know something?” he said suddenly, his voice dropping into a husky sort of drawl that always sent a tremor of altogether nice shivers down her spine.
“What?” she asked without daring a glance at him. She never could quite figure out what set him off, anyway. He seemed to get the strangest of ideas at the oddest of times.
“You’re sexy as hell.”
She couldn’t help the disbelieving look she cast him since she was still wearing the cut off sweat pants and rumpled, oversized tee-shirt that she’d worn all day while she cleaned the house. “Have you been sniffing stuff in the medicine cabinet again?” she asked quizzically.
He moved faster than she could discern—something that never ceased to amaze her about him. With a sharp gasp, she blinked in surprise as he rolled her over and leaned down to kiss her playfully. “Sexy as hell, Deirdre,” he murmured.
“. . . Baka,” she whispered, bemused by the use of her given name.
“I see my presents!” Morio called from the doorway.
Arching her back as she craned her head back to look at the child, Nezumi pushed on Ryomaru’s shoulders to move him. “Did you pick up your toys yet?” she asked pointedly.
Morio wasn’t daunted. “No.”
Ryomaru sighed, figuring that he wasn’t going to be able to distract her as easily as he might have hoped. “Come on, boy,” he said as he pushed himself to his feet. “You know, Santa won’t bring you nothin’ if you don’t keep your other stuff put away.”
“Yuh-huh,” Morio countered as his mother shook her head and watched the two leave.
Heaving a sigh as she frowned at the mountain of presents that seemed to have gotten larger instead of smaller, she reached for another roll of paper . . .
.:December 22, 2034:.
“Do I have to?”
“This isn’t negotiable.”
“Father . . .”
Without looking up from his newspaper, Senkuro Seiji cleared his throat. “You heard your mother,” he replied.
Rinji snorted. “I’ll be bored,” he predicted darkly.
Aiko set her chopsticks aside and leveled a no-nonsense look at her son. “You can hang out with Coral,” she pointed out reasonably.
“Coral?” he echoed incredulously, his eyebrows disappearing under the thick fringe of silver hair that framed his face. “That’s worse than being bored!”
Hiding a smile behind a cup of tea that she slowly sipped, Aiko schooled her features before answering. “Aren’t you being a bit melodramatic?”
“No,” Rinji insisted with a shake of his head. “She’s evil, I tell you! And her friends are just as bent as she is.”
Seiji finally peered around the bent corner of the paper. “Funny. I always thought that Coral was pretty tall for her age.”
That earned his father a scowl. “That’s what I mean!” he explained hotly. “She’s taller than most of my friends—and she’s younger! She’s a freak—a giant—an Amazon—a nightmare.”
“And she’s your cousin,” Aiko reminded him gently.
He wasn’t impressed. “Did you know that I got in trouble the other day because she came into my class to deliver a stupid note from one of her baka friends? It was humiliating! I don’t want to be anywhere near her!”
“She’s family,” Aiko stated. “Besides, you know that this year is special. Your uncle is very concerned that your aunt has been unhappy lately, and he thinks that having the entire family together for the holiday will help to cheer her up.”
Rinji made a face at what he believed to be the lowest of underhanded tactics on his mother’s part. “I know,” he muttered, his cheeks pinking slightly.
Aiko wasn’t finished. “So wouldn’t you feel bad if your aunt asked where you were, and I had to tell her that you’d rather stay home—alone—than spend time with your family?”
“I get it; I get it,” he grumbled. “I’ll go.”
She smiled at the reluctance in his tone and stood up, ruffling his hair before she began clearing the table. “I’m so glad you’ve changed your mind.”
She didn’t miss the indelicate snort that followed her into the kitchen, but she did manage to hide her amused smile until after the swinging door had closed behind her. While she could appreciate his feelings on the matter, it didn’t mean that he would be able to get out of something as important as a family gathering. He was the oldest of the latest generation of children, and while he didn’t complain often, she knew that it had to be lonely for him. Even the little ones seemed to have bonded, becoming more friends than relatives, and it was a relationship that Rinji didn’t really have with anyone in their family.
With a sigh, she set the dishes in the sink and turned on the hot water tap. Coral, Toga and Sierra’s oldest daughter, was the closest to Rinji in age, but she supposed that the two were simply too different to actually be on friendly terms. Their personalities tended to clash too drastically. Rinji was quiet—almost shy—with a laid back sort of demeanor that could, at times, be misconstrued as carelessness, especially when viewed by someone with a more disciplined outlook, like Coral. That really wasn’t the case. Like his father, Rinji tended to analyze everything, and he could sit for hours pondering the different angles of something before acting on the decision he’d made as to which approach would be best. It was Aiko’s considered opinion that Coral might take things a bit too seriously. In any case, those fundamental differences had been the root cause of a number of arguments between the children whenever they were left alone together.
It had amused Aiko more than once over the years. For her brother, who always took everything in stride with a kind of calm and sense of humor that she’d always secretly admired, to have a daughter who was so vastly different must have taken some getting used to. Of the two of them, Aiko had always thought that she was more serious than Toga, to the point that she’d often wondered if he really understood the idea that he would one day be the Japanese tai-youkai. When they were younger, she had thought that it was a weakness—a deficit—in Toga’s character. As she’d grown older, though, she’d come to appreciate that part of him.
He did understand things, she knew. Maybe he understood things better than anyone else, and maybe that was the real reason why he’d smile and let so much roll off his shoulders. If he made a big deal out of things then everyone else would, too. Toga had a way of making situations seem less dire, alleviating undue worry or stress that wasn’t really needed in the first place. It was a gift, she supposed, though she’d never, ever admit as much to him. He was her brother, after all, and it was a sister’s job to knock her brother down a peg or two whenever it was warranted.
“Dinner was great,” Seiji said as he strolled into the kitchen with an empty wine glass in his hands.
“Oh? I’m glad you liked it. It was a new recipe. I slaved all day . . .”
Quirking his eyebrows at the cardboard take-out boxes stamped with the logo from a nearby restaurant—one of their favorites—atop the trashcan, he smiled. “I’ll bet you did,” he agreed with a grin.
“Well, I did have to lift the phone to call and order,” she teased.
He slipped his arms around her waist to pull her back against him. “Let’s hope you didn’t work too hard on dinner,” he murmured, kissing her cheek.
She reached over her shoulder and tugged his hair playfully. “Oh? Did you have something else planned?”
“I thought about you every second I was away,” he murmured, his lips trailing butterfly kisses along the curve of her throat.
“You were only gone for three days,” she reminded him as her eyes fluttered closed. The nearness of his body, the feel of his heartbeat soothed her. It was a beautiful thing, she knew. The bond of mates was so strong, so palpable . . .
He sighed, his youki brushing over hers in an invisible caress. “The longest three days of my life.”
Giggling softly at his outrageous words, she let her head fall further to the side, allowing him more access. “You could have told my father that you didn’t want to go.”
He chuckled in a completely condescending sort of way. “One does not tell Inutaisho Sesshoumaru, ‘no’, do they?”
“Mm, he might if he’s sleeping with Inutaisho Sesshoumaru’s daughter . . .”
“Ungh! Eww! Don’t you have a better place to do that?” Rinji complained as he stomped into the kitchen with his dishes.
“Better place?” Seiji echoed thoughtfully. “Where would you suggest?”
Rinji wrinkled his nose and shrugged. “I don’t know . . . some place with a door, maybe?”
“There’s a door on the kitchen,” Seiji reminded him.
“This is a public room,” he said with a shake of his head.
Seiji smiled, tightening his arms around his mate. “I’d hardly call anywhere in our home, ‘public’.”
Setting the plate on the counter, Rinji shot his father a chagrined look. “It’s part of my domain,” he clarified.
“You’re eleven, Rinji,” Seiji said as his smile widened. Aiko’s did, too, though the boy didn’t see it. “You’re not old enough to have a domain.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and leveled a look at Seiji. “You’ve got a bedroom for stuff like that, don’t you?”
Seiji chuckled, sparing a moment to nuzzle Aiko’s neck. “Do you hear that, Aiko? Our son thinks that we should take this to our bedroom . . .”
Smiling secretively as she leaned back to look up at her mate, Aiko nodded. “Maybe we should . . .”
“Forget it,” Rinji grumbled, shaking his head as though he had expected better from his parents. “I have homework, anyway.”
She couldn’t help but laugh at the dejected sort of air that fairly exuded from her son as he shuffled out of the kitchen again. “What happened to our little boy?” she asked as her laughter wound down, and she sighed. “You know, the one who always laughed at everything?”
“Was he ever little?”
That earned Seiji a sad little frown. “Why didn’t we ever have another child?” she asked suddenly.
Seiji looked surprised by her question. “I don’t know . . . do we want another one?”
Turning around so that she could slip her arms around his waist, she smiled. “I wouldn’t mind having another.”
“We could,” he agreed slowly, an almost bashful sort of smile surfacing on his features as he chuckled softly. “You were really cute, all round and chubby . . .”
Laying her temple against his shoulder, she laughed. “I was, wasn’t I?”
“Yes,” he replied, tightening his arms around her. “You absolutely were.”
.:December 24, 2034:.
Squinting at the yards of instructions spilling over the bed and onto the floor from the accordion-style folds, Toga carefully analyzed them. Pushing his glasses up with a crooked index finger, he shifted his gaze from the written text to the assembly in his hand. “Okay,” he concluded with a heavy exhalation, “this seems to be the guts of the thing. I think this is the right side . . . maybe . . .”
Sierra glanced up from the parts of the baby carriage she had carefully spread out on the floor. “I have every faith that you can do it, Toga,” she replied.
“Of course,” he quipped, hoping that he sounded a little more positive than he felt. “Two thousand, five hundred eighteen pieces . . . Are you sure that Mamoruzen actually asked Santa Claus for this?”
Sparing a moment to smile at him, she nodded. “A Kubrick robot with red laser eyes,” she repeated. “By the way, do you know? They were almost sold out of those. That was the last one, so it’s a good thing that I went to the store when I did, don’t you think?”
He grunted something completely unintelligible and set the wiring mechanism aside. “It’d be easier to wrap in the box,” he pointed out.
“Maybe,” she agreed as she scanned the much simpler diagram of the baby carriage and snapped one metal rod into the center of a white plastic wheel. “Then again, don’t you think it’d be much more impressive if the robot were already assembled? Besides, it’s an unwritten rule: Santa never delivers things that aren’t pre-assembled.”
“Keh!” he snorted but didn’t argue with her. “Santa also has a legion of little green men, doesn’t he?”
“Who do you think he is? The man from Mars?”
He shot her a grin then wrinkled his nose as he idly scanned the box. “Did you buy batteries for this?”
“It didn’t come with batteries?”
He shook his head and snapped a few more bricks into place. “Nope.”
“I’m sure we have some extra ones around here,” she said absently as she threaded the metal rod through the metal base of the carriage.
He glanced at her and grinned. “You wouldn’t want to trade, would you? I mean, I’d feel guilty as hell if you pinched your pretty little hands while you were putting that together.”
She shot him a knowing look and shook her head. “Forget it, dog-face. Kubricks are a manly toy, remember?”
“Fine, then,” he remarked. “Forget that I said that I’d feel guilty, too.”
Sierra giggled as she turned the carriage upright and snapped the pink hubcaps over the industrial bolts that held the wheels in place. “Done with the carriages,” she announced, rolling onto her knees and dusting her hands together.
Toga snapped two more bricks into place and held up his handiwork for her inspection. “How does it look?”
Narrowing her eyes and tilting her head to the side, she bit her lip as she considered the piece. “What . . . is that?” she finally asked.
“Tilt your head to the other side and stick out your tongue. That might help,” he muttered almost indignantly.
Sierra laughed. “Seriously, Toga . . . Is that the neck or something?”
“It’s a leg, Sierra,” he pointed out with a raised eyebrow. “See the row of black ones on the bottom? That’s his foot.”
“Of course, of course,” she agreed quickly. “How dumb of me . . . I . . . I see it now . . . of course I do . . .”
He rolled his eyes. “Wench,” he grumbled, dropping the leg and snatching up the instructions again while Sierra stowed the finished carriages in the walk-in closet.
“That just leaves Cassidy’s doll house,” she said as she emerged from the closet. “But that’ll have to wait until tomorrow night. Once it’s put together, I doubt it’ll fit in there.”
Frowning at the robot’s construction plans, Toga uttered a terse grunt to indicate that he’d heard his mate.
Sierra sighed and wandered over to the bed, flopping down across the foot of it and leaning on her elbows as she watched him carefully. “You’ve been working on that for the last two hours,” she pointed out.
Toga didn’t glance up, and he didn’t bother to answer, either, since he had been working on it for two hours—and in those two hours, he’d taken it apart no less than four times.
Sierra wasn’t daunted. “Why don’t you put that up and work on it again tomorrow night?”
That did earn her a look. “The instructions are written in five languages, and I’m fluent in all of them, so you’d think that I could figure this out, wouldn’t you?”
She pressed her lips together and nodded slowly, scrunching up her shoulders under the copious folds of the plain green nightshirt that she’d nabbed from his drawer. “Well, I suppose we could just leave it unassembled,” she began dubiously.
Toga snorted. “Forget it, Sierra. I can do this.”
“I’m sure you can,” she said in a tone that was far more indulgent than Toga liked.
She laughed and sat up, peering over her shoulder in such a way that was far more provocative than it ought to have been, given that she was wearing something that could only be described as demure. “It’s three a.m., and your mate is tired.”
“Tired,” he echoed with a wolfish grin. “You can go to sleep. I won’t bother you.”
“Is that so?” she countered as she scooted off the bed and leaned down, her hands resting on either side of his outstretched legs. “Why don’t you put that aside and come to bed with me?”
Toga wasn’t entirely certain exactly what thoughts flashed through his head. A million things, little more than whispers or half-formed ideas, maybe: a myriad of words that described her, and none of them were ever quite enough. The same girl he’d met so long ago with the flash of a smile and an enduring sense of innocence had evolved and developed into something other and yet at her essence, she always remained the same: a beautiful girl with his heart held loosely in the warmth of her hands.
“I thought you said that Mamoruzen would like this better if it were completely assembled,” he reminded her with a sigh.
Sierra smiled. “And I thought you said that you could do it, no problem.”
He grinned. “I am Santa Clause,” he teased.
“A damn fine Santa Clause,” she added, her eyes sparkling. With an exaggerated sigh, she paced the length of the room a few times as though she were considering something. Toga tapped the instructions with a tapered claw and sucked in his cheeks as he considered what he’d done wrong this time.
“Toga . . .” she drawled, stopping at the foot of the bed once more and grasping the tall post that stood well taller than she did.
The rustle of fabric registered in his mind in a vague sort of way. “Hmm?”
“Are you sure you won’t come to bed with me?” she asked again.
“In a bit. If I could just—” Cutting himself off abruptly, Toga leaned back as all thoughts of the toy disappeared when Sierra’s makeshift nightshirt fell over his hands. “Oh . . . k-k-kami . . .” he murmured, eyes widening as he lifting his gaze to lock on his mate.
Clad in a pair of very pretty little pink cotton panties, she smiled as her cheeks colored just a touch. “How about now?” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
Toga nodded, swallowing hard as his mouth went dry. Everything about her seemed to call out to him, and he had to clear his throat a few times as a sense of light headedness stole over him.
She laughed softly as she moved the box of Kubrick blocks off the bed and let Toga drag her into his arms . . .
.:December 24, 2034:.
“What’s that?” Cain Zelig asked as he grasped Gin’s arm to stop her before she charged up the porch steps.
Gin blinked and shook her head. “What’s what, Zelig-sensei?”
He narrowed his gaze on the festively decorated cake in her hands. “That.”
“It’s a Christmas cake,” she replied with a bright smile.
Nodding slowly, Cain pursed his lips and cocked an eyebrow. “I know that, baby girl,” he retorted dryly. “What I’m asking is: what you think you’re doing with it.”
“Now, Cain,” she began in the soothing tone that meant he wasn’t exactly going to like whatever she was about to say. “We can’t show up empty handed, now can we? After all, Sierra’s probably been working all week on food and stuff, don’t you think? That’d be rude!”
Cain snorted as Bas shuffled his feet on the porch. “We’ve got presents,” he pointed out in a reasonable tone.
Gin wrinkled her nose. “I told you last night while I was making this cake that it was for today.”
“You know what I thought,” he complained mildly.
The door opened, and Toga stepped back, rubbing Bas’ head as the child passed him. “Gin! Cain! I trust your flight wasn’t too bad?” With a smile, he jogged down the steps and took the cake from Gin’s hands before leaning down to kiss her cheek. “Here. Let me help you,” he said with a smile.
Cain opened his mouth to stop Toga. Gin was faster, jabbing her elbow into Cain’s ribs to stave back his commentary. “It was fine, Toga, and thanks,” she said sweetly.
Toga nodded and headed back toward the house once more. Cain uttered a low growl that was lost on the wind. “You’re giving away my cake,” he muttered, following as Gin led the way up the porch stairs and into the generous foyer.
“Christmas is the season for giving, Zelig-sensei,” she chided as she pulled her coat and scarf off.
“Oh, is it?” he challenged almost mildly—almost.
Gin shook her head. “Yes, it is,” she said with a stout nod.
He set the bag of gifts on the floor and draped his hands on his hips for a long moment as he slowly regarded his wife. She blinked when he finally nodded, as though he’d come to some sort of realization, and for reasons she didn’t examine too closely, she couldn’t help but feel a little worried, too. “You’re right, Gin,” he agreed.
She didn’t entirely trust the almost clipped tone of his voice, but she nodded. “I’ll make you another one when we go home,” she offered.
Again, he nodded. “Bas,” he called without looking away from her.
The boy ran back into the foyer from the living room. “Yeah?”
Cain hunkered down and curled his index and middle fingers to beckon Bas to him. “Got something for you,” he said.
“For me?” Bas echoed with a confused shake of his head.
“Yep, for you.”
Gin’s eyes widened when Cain dug into the inside pocket of his coat only to produce the familiar plastic packaging that she knew only too well. “There you go,” Cain said, handing his son a Reese’s peanut butter Christmas tree.
“Cain!” she gasped before she could stop herself and unable to control the completely stricken expression that surfaced.
Cain didn’t even bat an eyelash. “You said, yourself, baby girl: Christmas is the season for giving, and I’m giving this to your son.”
Gin’s mouth dropped open as an indignant blush rose high in her cheeks. Snapping her mouth closed, she swallowed hard and forced herself to nod as Bas frowned at the candy. “But Mama likes these,” he said with a confused shake of his head.
Gin grimaced at the expression on her son’s face. “Oh, i-i-it’s okay,” she stammered, pasting on a bright smile and giving Bas a quick hug. “You eat it, sweetie. Your papa’s right. Christmas is the season for giving.”
Bas’ frown deepened, and he stared at the candy for a long minute. Suddenly, though, his expression brightened, and he ripped the package open and broke the tree in half. “Here, Mama,” he said, stuffing the bottom half into her hand. “We can share.”
“Aww, you’re such a sweet boy!” Gin crooned, hugging her son again. “But Papa gave it to you.”
Bas smiled and shook his head as he jammed his half of the treat into his mouth. “I want to go play,” he said instead.
Gin let go of him and turned over the half of tree in her hand. “He’s such a good boy!” she exclaimed softly.
Cain snorted. “He’s a suck up,” he mumbled.
“He is not, and you could learn a thing or two from your son,” she countered.
“Pfft! I’m still not sharing that cake.”
Gin rolled her eyes but didn’t comment as Sierra hurried into the foyer to hug her.
Cain sighed and hung his coat over one of the hooks on the wall before he levered his shoes off and followed Bas into the living room. The women, it seemed, had forgotten that he was even there . . .
He was surprised to find his son standing just inside the doorway looking around with an almost timid sort of expression. Gunnar and the girls were sitting near the television playing a video game, and judging from the looks of it, they were the first to have arrived for the party. Bas could be quiet, sure, but bashful? Cain smiled to himself and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “What’s the trouble?” he asked.
Bas glanced up at him then shrugged in what Cain figured was a show of mock bravado. “Nothin’,” he muttered as he shuffled his feet.
“Why don’t you go over and play with Gunnar?”
Bas shrugged again. “Do I know him?” he asked in a reluctant and almost irritated tone of voice.
Cain chuckled. “Yeah, you do, but I guess it’s been awhile since you saw him last time. You don’t remember him?”
The self-disgust on Bas’ face intensified. “No,” he admitted.
“I suppose it has been awhile,” Toga remarked, having overheard the conversation. “I doubt they remember one another. Mamoruzen, come here.”
The boy’s hanyou ears flicked, and Cain could almost hear the thoughts churning in his head. He probably wondered if he could get away with pretending that he hadn’t heard his father. In the end, though, Gunnar paused the game and hopped up, telling his sisters in Japanese that they’d better leave his game alone before he ran over to Toga’s side.
Toga grinned and pushed Gunnar forward a step. “Mamoruzen, this is your cousin, Sebastian,” he said in English.
Gunnar regarded Bas for several moments, as though he were trying to decide if he knew Bas or not. He wasn’t much shorter than Bas which was a little surprising since most children his age were so much littler than Bas was, but he was quite a bit slimmer. Gunnar wasn’t what Cain would have considered scrawny by any means, but he wasn’t nearly as broad of build as Bas, either. Still, Gunnar paused to size up Bas though not in a threatening sort of way, and in the end, he bowed quickly, his ears flicking in an effort to hear and likely assess everything going on around him. It was obvious to Cain that the boy didn’t seem to like lowering his head for anyone, and he had to wonder if that was an inborn trait or something that he’d developed over time, but he couldn’t help but grin a little when Bas reciprocated the gesture. “Pleased to meet you,” Gunnar said formally.
“Hajimemashite,” Bas replied.
Gunnar looked surprised at the Japanese greeting, and Toga chuckled. “His mother is Japanese,” Toga reminded his son.
Gunnar thought that over for a moment then seemed to perk up. “My mama is American,” he told Bas.
“Really? You like football?”
Gunnar looked a little confused by Bas’ question, and Cain chuckled. “He’s obsessed, just like his mother,” he told Toga.
Toga grinned. “Gin likes football?”
Cain nodded and sighed. She’d stumbled across the sport shortly after they’d returned home after Bas’ birth, and she’d been enthralled, which just figured. “Yes,” he replied mildly.
“What’s football?” Gunnar asked in a tone that stated quite plainly that he disliked having to ask what something was.
“It’s a game,” Bas clarified, looking a little baffled that someone might not know what football was. “Daddy,” he said, turning to Cain and tugging on the hem of his untucked shirt. “Can I give him the present?”
Cain smiled and nodded once, and Bas darted away toward the foyer to retrieve the present that he’d helped his mother pick out before they’d left the States. There were other gifts, of course, but he knew which one Bas was talking about: the football that they’d brought especially for Gunnar’s birthday. At the time, Cain had reminded Gin that if he were into a sport, it would likely be baseball, but Gin had waved him off and assured him that surely the boy would love football as soon as he understood it. Cain wasn’t as sure, but Gin seemed convinced.
“Here!” Bas exclaimed as he darted back into the living room with an oblong shaped wrapped package in his hands. “Happy birthday.”
Gunnar’s gaze brightened as he looked at the festive wrapping paper that Gin and Bas had finger painted. He took the package and started to tear into the paper. Toga cleared his throat. “Mamoruzen . . .”
The boy shot his father a quick glance, his ears flattening momentarily before he faced Bas again. “Thank you,” he said.
Bas grinned as Gunnar dug into the paper once more. “What’s this?” he asked, frowning at the regulation size Nerf football.
“It’s a football,” Bas replied.
“It’s not round,” Gunnar said thoughtfully. “Balls are round.”
“Footballs aren’t round,” Bas countered. “Come on! I’ll show you,” he offered.
Gunnar looked a little dubious, but he nodded.
“Outside,” Toga called as the two boys started to run off.
Cain laughed and shook his head when they both did a U-turn in the middle of the room to grab their coats, hats, and shoes in the foyer.
.:December 24, 2034:.
“Can I play?”
Gunnar caught the football and paused to glance at Isabelle before passing it back to Bas again. While he wasn’t entirely sure he liked this game, Bas seemed to, he figured that playing it was fine. It was better now since Cain had come outside long enough to teach Gunnar the proper way to throw the ball.
Bas frowned at the girl and slowly shook his head. “No,” he stated flatly.
Her face crumpled into a mix of a pout and a scowl as her bottom lip jutted out angrily. “Why not?” she demanded, crossing her arms over her chest, holding her doll close.
“Because you’re a wench!” Morio said as he darted past, intercepting the pass intended for Bas. He and Mikio had arrived a few minutes after Bas and Gunnar had gone outside to play.
“A really stinky wench,” Mikio added for good measure.
“I don’t stink!” Isabelle shot back, her cheeks pinking with her sense of indignation.
Morio guffawed. “Stinky Bitty, stinky Bitty!” he crowed, underhanded tossing the ball to Bas.
“Shut up, Morio!” Isabelle yelled, stomping her foot to emphasize her words.
“Stinky, smelly Bitty-Belle-y!” he taunted.
Gunnar opened his mouth to tell Morio to stop it since he could see the suspect brightness in Isabelle’s eyes. He didn’t get the chance. In a blur of movement, Isabelle shot past, and with a loud growl, she shoved Morio hard, sending him sprawling face down across the deadened yard.
Bas blinked, lowering the ball as he stared at his cousin. “Ni-i-ice,” he breathed appreciatively.
“Hrumph!” Isabelle snorted, tossing her head as she stomped over to plop down under a nearby tree. “Stupid boys,” she muttered. Moments later, though, the angry scowl dissipated, leaving behind a sense of melancholy that she couldn’t hide.
Gunnar frowned as he caught the ball and tossed it to Mikio. Mikio bobbled it but managed to hang on. It was nice to play with the boys, but he couldn’t help but feel a little bad for leaving Isabelle out. After all, it wasn’t her fault that she was a girl . . .
Kichiro stepped outside and grinned at Mikio’s attempt to throw the football. For a child who had never actually touched a real football before, he wasn’t too shabby.
His smile faded, though, when he spotted the lone figure sitting beneath the sakura tree. Frowning as he started toward her, he had a good idea of what was bothering his daughter before he reached her side. “What are you doing over here, baby?” he asked quietly as he knelt beside her.
She cast him a sad sort of look and shrugged. “They won’t let me play,” she said.
“What? Why not?”
“Because I’m a girl,” she replied quietly.
Kichiro considered that as he watched the boys. He could understand that. Every last one of those boys would play with Isabelle if they were left alone, but when they were all together, he supposed that they’d prefer to play with each other. He and Ryomaru were the same way when Gin was little, weren’t they? How many times had they tried to ditch her just because she was a girl? “You want to play football?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow. He figured that it had less to do with any real desire to play football than it did that she simply wanted to hang out with the boys, and he smiled.
“They won’t let me,” she reminded him with a defeated shake of her head.
“Oh, I think I can talk them into it,” he said as his smile widened, and he stood. “Come on.”
She didn’t look convinced, but she got to her feet and held her arms up for him.
Sparing a moment to kiss her cheek, he headed back toward the house to recruit players.
Ryomaru and Toga were sitting on the floor in front of the television playing Ryomaru’s new racing game that he’d brought over. Kichiro purposefully stepped in front of them.
“Oi!” Ryomaru exclaimed, leaning to the side in a futile effort to see around his twin brother.
Toga paused the game. “Something you wanted?”
“How about you two do me a favor? Better yet, a favor for Baby-Belle.”
“What sort of favor?” Ryomaru asked, setting the controller aside.
Kichiro grinned. “She wants to play football, but the boys won’t let her.”
“Oh, is that so?” Toga mused.
Kichiro nodded. “So how ‘bout it? Feel like a friendly game?”
Ryomaru grinned and got to his feet, and Toga quickly followed suit. “Football’s not so bad,” Ryomaru ventured, “unless you’re playing with the old man.”
“Why’s that?” Toga asked.
Ryomaru shrugged. “You mean you gotta ask? He’d just as soon punch you in the face and take the ball than tackle you.”
Toga choked out a laugh then nodded. “Yeah,” he decided, “that sounds about right . . .”
“Speaking of the old man,” Kichiro cut in with a scowl as his eyes shifted over the living room, “where’d he go?”
Ryomaru glanced around, too. “Dunno,” he said. “He was here earlier.”
Kichiro shook his head in dismissal as he bounced Isabelle in his arms. “Let’s go find a few more guys, little girl.”
Isabelle nodded happily, and her brilliant smile was his reward.
.:December 24, 2034:.
“You could go out there and join them,” Inutaisho Kagura said softly as she stood beside her mate and husband and rubbed his back.
Sesshoumaru shifted his gaze to her before returning it to the activity outside. “I think I shall watch,” he replied.
Kagura smiled. “Football,” she remarked with a raised eyebrow. “Another excuse for grown men to act like children, if you ask me.”
He didn’t smile though his eyes brightened as a quiet sign of his amusement. “My thoughts, exactly,” he allowed. “Though I doubt that InuYasha’s brood would need encouragement such as that.”
“Hmm,” Kagura intoned. “Is it really a good idea for them to be tackling those children?”
Before Sesshoumaru could respond, young Sebastian caught the ball and was taken down by Kichiro. The boy hopped right back up, dusted himself off, and laughed. “I don’t believe that they can hurt that one,” Sesshoumaru commented dryly.
She shook her head. It had both amused and surprised her, how big Gin’s son was. Of course, Cain wasn’t a small man, by any means, but Gin was about as delicate as they came. The three year old child was large for his age, and Gin had said more than once that it was easy to forget just how young Sebastian really was since he wasn’t merely tall but also tended to be quite serious most of the time.
“What do you suppose those two are doing?”
Blinking quickly to dispel her quiet musings, Kagura frowned as Mamoruzen and Morio crept toward the house. The two behaved as though they were attempting to keep from drawing undue notice, and Kagura narrowed her gaze. “It doesn’t look good, does it?”
“I should have known that Ryomaru’s son would be as much of a miscreant as his sire,” Sesshoumaru replied.
The two boys crept into the house as Morio whispered something to Mamoruzen. They glanced around as if they were trying to ascertain whether or not they were being watched and, satisfied that they weren’t, they scooted toward the huge tree standing in the corner of the room. Sesshoumaru watched in silence as they nabbed two festively wrapped packages and ran back outside.
“You’re not going to stop them?” Kagura asked at length.
Sesshoumaru shot his mate a blank sort of look. “Should I?”
“Do you think they’re going to make mischief?”
“They’re boys,” Sesshoumaru remarked dryly. “They always make mischief.”
Kagura shook her head. As true as that may be, she wasn’t entirely certain that whatever they had in mind would be a welcome diversion. Still, it was with a heavy dose of amusement that she watched the two creep toward the edge of the patio, ducking down below the waist high stone banister with what looked to be guns of some sort in their little hands. “What on earth . . .?” she murmured as the boys took careful aim.
Sesshoumaru didn’t speak when the first shots were fired. One of the boys hit Toga in the center of his back as a splatter of orange dye marred the white shirt. The other hit Seiji with a smear of lemon yellow.
“Paintball guns,” Kagura muttered, shaking her head. “Who would be stupid enough to buy those children something like that?”
Sesshoumaru’s eyes narrowed as he watched Ryomaru double over with laughter. “Him,” he stated flatly.
Kagura sighed. “Well, that makes sense,” she allowed as the football game broke up. Bas took off for the house, probably to claim his own paintball gun, and Ryomaru scooped up Mikio and set off at a sprint, too.
“Oh, my,” Sierra breathed as she stopped beside Kagura and took in the scene outside as though she were witnessing the combing of a murder crime scene. “Those things have ‘Ryomaru’ written all over them . . .”
Sesshoumaru shook his head as he observed the anomaly that was full grown men as they degenerated into little boys once more. Toga managed to coax Mamoruzen’s paintball gun away from him, and he turned in time to blast Kichiro, who spun around, curling himself around his young daughter to shield her from Morio’s attempt to shoot her. Bas ran back outside with his newly emancipated gun, and he shot Mamoruzen and Morio, both, in short order.
“What are the odds that they’ll run out of ammunition in the next half hour?” Sierra asked dubiously.
“Ryomaru bought refill packs, too,” Nezumi commented as she stepped up beside Sierra. “Does that stuff come out of hair?”
Sierra made a face since Morio’s hair was streaked with color, and Ryomaru had a bright green streak running down from just below his ear. “What a mess . . .”
“Well, they look like they’re having some fun,” Gin said, trying to come up with a positive side to the desecration that they were witnessing.
“Deplorable,” Sesshoumaru murmured.
“As long as they keep it out there,” Cain remarked wryly. “Oh, that looked like it hurt.”
Sesshoumaru was inclined to agree. Morio, the little devil, had just finished nailing his father right in the crotch with an electric blue paintball.
“They know better than to aim at anyone’s faces, don’t they?” Gin asked suddenly.
Kagura rubbed her face and shook her head. “I have my doubts that it would hurt any of the men out there.”
Mikio shot Bas in the butt. Bas grabbed the offending cheek and whipped around to retaliate as Mamoruzen aimed at his American cousin.
Sesshoumaru glanced quickly at Cain. “Will you save your heir, Zelig?” he asked.
“Bas is pretty tough,” Cain mused.
“What a mess,” Aiko commented as she and Rin wandered over to watch. She had a smile on her face as she watched her son battling with his father for possession of his paintball gun. “And Rinji said that he wasn’t going to have fun today.”
Rin laughed and waved a hand. “Where’s Shippou?” she asked suddenly.
Sesshoumaru narrowed his gaze as he stared around the yard and finally spotted the kitsune sitting in the low boughs of a tree close to where they had been playing football. He seemed to be enjoying the fray below without actually participating. “He is hiding, of course,” he said.
Rin laughed, tucking a lock of jet black hair behind her ear as she followed the direction of Sesshoumaru’s gaze to locate her spouse. “That figures, the chicken,” she grumbled.
But it looked like the excitement might be winding down. Judging from the look of it, it seemed like they might have run out of paintballs. Sesshoumaru stepped away and strode toward the doors. No sooner had he stepped outside, however, than a stinging ‘ping’ hit him dead center in the chest. Taking a moment to examine the damage—and the bright red paint that marred his pristine white shirt—he slowly raised his head and looked to see exactly who had done the deed.
Toga stood with the gun in his hand and an oddly pinched expression on his face. In his other arm was Mamoruzen who had his face buried against his father’s shoulder and stubbornly refused to look at his grandfather. Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes. “Am I to believe that this was your doing, Toga?” he asked in a bored tone of voice.
Toga coughed and forced a small grin. “Uh, yes. Yes, I did it,” he replied.
Sesshoumaru nodded but said nothing as he turned on his heel and strode back into the house once more.
Only then did Mamoruzen lift his chin and rather hesitantly peer over where his grandfather had been standing. “Is he mad at me?” the boy asked anxiously.
Toga’s smile widened. “I don’t think so,” he assured him.
Mamoruzen didn’t look completely convinced.
“Don’t worry. He thinks I did it,” Toga went on glibly since he knew damn well that his father was fully aware as to who, exactly, had fired that shot. “You’ve got pretty good aim,” he couldn’t resist adding.
“I was aiming for Bas!” Mamoruzen argued.
Toga laughed and set his son back on his feet once more. “I know you were,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Your grandfather’s pretty tough. I don’t think one little paintball is going to hurt him.”
“Really?” Mamoruzen asked dubiously.
Toga chuckled again and rubbed Mamoruzen’s head affectionately. “Really.”
.:December 24, 2034:.
“I feel fucking stupid,” InuYasha grouched for the twentieth time in less than an hour since they’d left the house in the forest.
Kagome paused long enough to straighten the gray wig and smooth her bright red velvet dress. “I don’t think Santa Claus swears,” she said mildly.
“Keh! You look weird, too,” he pointed out.
“Don’t forget the sack of toys,” she reminded him.
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, stomping around the car as she pressed the button on the keychain to release the trunk. “Tell me again: why am I doing this?”
“Because the children will love it,” she replied, hiding her smile at the unlikely Santa Claus.
He muttered something that Kagome was probably better off not hearing, and with a longsuffering sigh, he yanked the brown suede bag out of the trunk and hefted it over his shoulder and closed the trunk with a thud. “I told you I didn’t trust that look,” he informed her as he scowled at her. At least, she thought he was scowling at her. She couldn’t tell for sure with his face hidden by the thick fake mustache and beard. “Any time you get that look on your face, it means that you’re gonna torture me, wench.”
“Let’s hear your Santa laugh,” she prompted as they headed for the well lit porch.
“Ha-ha-ha,” he growled.
Kagome rolled her eyes. “I think it’s ‘ho-ho-ho’.”
“What the hell ever,” he grumped. “Fuck this shit. I’m goin’ home.”
She caught his elbow before he could take off and swung him around toward the door again. “You need to work on your ‘jolly’,” she said with a shake of her head as she peered over the wire rimmed spectacles.
“I’ll show you ‘jolly’, wench,” he grumbled. “Let’s get this fucking over with.”
It was all she could do not to laugh outright at the absolute sense of indignation evident on his face as he stomped onto the porch and waited for Kagome to ring the bell.
To be honest, she never would have suggested it if she didn’t know full well that InuYasha might grumble and grouch, but he adored the children, and if it would make them happy, he’d do it. She just couldn’t shake the image of Sierra’s forlorn expression when she’d said that she worried about Mamoruzen being forced into adulthood before he had a chance to be a child, and to that end, she’d started to form an idea . . .
Sierra opened the door and blinked in surprise, her mouth falling open as she blinked in surprise. “Oh . . . my . . .” she whispered, her fingers fluttering over her lips as her expression shifted into a pinched sort of look and a distinct flush as she struggled not to laugh. “S-Santa . . . and Mrs. Claus . . . Please, come in!” She pushed the door open a little wider and headed back into the house. “Children,” she called, pausing at the bottom of the staircase. “There’s someone here to see you!”
Biting her lip to keep from laughing outright, Kagome followed Sierra into the house. The distinct rumble of running feet resounded as the children tumbled down the stairs onto the bottom landing. They stopped short, crowding close to the banister as they stared curiously at the new arrivals. Rinji blinked and seemed as though he wasn’t quite certain what he should make of it. Coral stared, her expression completely nonplussed. Cassidy looked vaguely amused. The twins had matching expressions of wide-eyed wonder. Isabelle stood between Sebastian and Morio with a half-scared, half-bewildered frown while the boys looked like they couldn’t quite make sense of what they saw. Mamoruzen stood behind Isabelle with a thoughtful scowl on his face, but Mikio . . . poor Mikio looked completely distressed, rubbing his twitching ear as he nervously danced from one foot to the other. All of the younger children wore special Christmas pajamas—the girls in red, the boys in blue—the full-body fleece kind with the feet sewed in and the squares that buttoned over their bottoms.
“Well, get in the living room,” InuYasha grumbled when Kagome elbowed him in the side. “They look like they think I’m gonna eat ‘em,” he mumbled under his breath as the children proceeded down the remaining steps, skirting wide around the couple as they backed into the other room.
“Maybe if you smiled, Santa,” she whispered back. True enough, they did look freaked out. It probably stemmed more from the fact that they likely felt as though they knew who he was even though Kagome had tried spritzing them both with winter berry scented spray to mask their scents a little.
“Keh! Don’t push your luck, wench.”
The talking in the living room died away when they stepped through the doorway. Greeted by varying degrees of amused looks, Kagome wasn’t surprised when Sesshoumaru trailed off in whatever he had been saying to Cain, his eyes flaring slightly as he slowly shook his head.
“I think Santa brought presents,” Kagome said, breaking the silence that had fallen over the assembly.
“Keh!” InuYasha snorted. “Ho-ho-ho . . .”
Kagome figured that the half-snarled sound was about as good as she was going to get out of him, and she smiled a bit wider, reaching into the huge bag for the first gift. “This one’s for Isabelle,” she read the name on the card.
Isabelle didn’t move until Sebastian leaned down and whispered something in her ear. Kagome could only imagine what he might have said, because the girl’s expression took on a stubborn lilt, and she lifted her chin, reluctantly stepping away from the safety of her cousins to accept the gift that Kagome had stuck into InuYasha’s hands.
“Thank you, Santa,” she whispered, blue eyes wide though her bottom lip trembled slightly.
InuYasha handed her the gift and ruffled her hair. Only then did she smile, and she threw her arms around InuYasha’s waist and hugged him tight before running over to her parents with the gift in her hands.
As they gave out the presents, the rest of the children seemed to relax. Sebastian stared at InuYasha rather curiously, as though he knew who Santa really was but wasn’t entirely sure whether or not he ought to say something. Morio grinned and yelled happily when he got his gift. Charity, true to form, screamed for a minute before reluctantly accepting her present. Chelsea, with memories of her run-in with the fake hotel Santa still fresh in her mind, started to reach for InuYasha’s fake beard. He was quicker, though, sticking her gift into her hand and pulling back far enough that she couldn’t quite grasp the faux hair. Cassidy giggled and gave them each a hug, and Rinji, who didn’t look at all sure about what, exactly, he was supposed to do, bowed in thanks but seemed very pleased with the new iPod he’d been given. Coral hugged Kagome and whispered that her hair wasn’t straight before taking her present, and baby Alexandra just smiled, enchanted with the pink wrapping paper that covered her gift.
That left Mikio and Mamoruzen standing off to the side where they waited. When Kagome read Mamoruzen’s name, the child shuffled forward in a rather calculated manner, tilting his head from side to side as he stared at InuYasha.
“Come here and get your present,” InuYasha said in the tone that Kagome knew meant that the hanyou was starting to relax just a little.
Mamoruzen didn’t move right away. Suddenly, his eyes flared wide, and he shook his head quickly. “You’re not Santa!” he exclaimed. “You’re Uncle—ow-w-w-w!”
Kagome’s mouth dropped open as InuYasha’s fist connected with the top of the child’s head. Mamoruzen crouched down, gripping his head in his little hands. “I look like fucking Santa, don’t I?” InuYasha growled.
“Inu—Santa!” Kagome hissed, pushing his hand back before he could take another swing at the boy. “It’s Christmas Eve, remember?”
“Mm,” Ryomaru remarked from where he sat on the sofa. “I remember those. Damn, they hurt, too.”
Shippou rubbed his head in commiseration as he nodded his agreement with Ryomaru’s statement.
“Yeah,” Kichiro agreed since he’d been treated to the thumping on occasion, too.
Toga winced. He’d only gotten that sort of punishment once, and he, too, remembered it well.
“Now take your present,” InuYasha mumbled, shoving the package at Mamoruzen.
The boy stood up slowly and accepted the gift, rubbing his head as he wandered over to his mother and father.
Kagome stifled a sigh and pulled the last of the presents out of the bag. “Mikio,” she read and looked at her son.
Mikio’s eyes flared wide, and he quickly shook his head, backing up until he smacked into the wall. When InuYasha started toward him with the package in his hand, the boy let out a terrified yelp and darted across the room to duck behind Sesshoumaru, who muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, ‘baka’.
“Don’t you want your present, Mikio?” Kagome asked, taking the gift from InuYasha and stepping toward her son.
Mikio shook his head adamantly and tucked himself away a little more.
InuYasha stomped over to Sesshoumaru, arms crossed over his chest stubbornly. “Outta my way,” he growled.
Sesshoumaru shook his head and didn’t budge. “Apparently my nephew does not care for Santa Claus,” he pointed out.
InuYasha snorted. “And Santa don’t care for bastards,” he shot back.
“All right, you two,” Kagura cut in as she leveled a warning look at both of them. “Must I remind you that it’s Christmas? There will be no fighting, bloodshed, or mayhem of any kind. Do you understand?”
Sesshoumaru didn’t change expression as he shifted his gaze from his half-brother to his mate. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Kagura,” he replied smoothly.
InuYasha just snorted again, looking completely put out since his son still wouldn’t come out from behind Sesshoumaru. “C’mon, wench,” he growled, whipping around on his heel and grabbing Kagome’s arm.
Kagome waved and let InuYasha drag her out of the living room. “That went well,” he sneered sarcastically as he pulled the door closed behind them.
Kagome giggled suddenly as she tugged the Mrs. Claus wig off her head. “It wasn’t so bad,” she said.
He didn’t stop until he’d reached the car, and Kagome shook her head as he made quick work of removing the Santa suit. “Be careful,” she admonished, struggling to reach the zipper that ran down the back of her dress. “I have to return those Monday, you know.”
“My own pup won’t have a damn thing to do with me,” he fumed, kicking off the black boots with a marked scowl.
Kagome shook her head, carefully brushing out the wrinkles in the dress before popping the trunk and arranging it inside. “That’s because you beat on Mamoruzen—you know, you could have scarred him for life.”
He snorted, dumping the costume in the trunk in a careless heap. “Fat fucking chance,” he told her. “That pup’s made of stronger stuff than that.”
She smiled and slipped her arms around his waist. “You’re right,” she agreed. “He is, but I tell you, I think you’re the worst behaved Santa, ever.”
“Keh!” he scoffed, and in the wan light filtering from the porch, she could see his cheeks pink just a little. “I gave them the presents, didn’t I?”
Kagome leaned up to kiss his cheek. “Yes,” she said as she smiled despite the heavy sigh she let slip, “you certainly did.”
.:December 25, 2034:.
Toga glanced at the clock and tried not to grimace. ‘Nearly five in the morning . . .’
And he’d been up all night trying to put the stupid Kubrick robot with red laser eyes together while Sierra had worked on the doll house. She’d finished assembling the five-foot-tall structure about two hours ago, and despite Toga’s insistence that he’d carry it down ‘in a bit’, she’d done that, too. No, it was all he could do to put together the stupid robot, damn it all.
“Don’t tell me that it’s going to beat you,” Sierra quipped when she returned from taking the doll house downstairs only to find him disassembling part of what he’d just spent a few hours putting together.
He didn’t even look up at her. “I forgot to put in the robot system,” he replied.
“I could help you if you wanted,” she offered in a carefully neutral tone.
“Thanks, Sierra, but I can do this.”
“If you’re sure,” she went on.
He shot her a scowl before turning his attention back to the robot again. “I’m sure.”
“How are we doing?” she asked as she reached over to rub his knee.
“I think,” he said slowly, turning the robot from side to side to inspect it, “I might be finished . . .”
She sounded entirely too surprised, in his estimation. “Yes.”
“Good,” she replied, flicking her arm to move the nightshirt sleeve off her watch. “And just in time, too.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Not too bad, don’t you think?” he asked, holding up the robot for her perusal.
She cocked her head to the side and considered it. “Did you put the batteries in?”
Toga’s sense of accomplishment wavered. “Damn it,” he muttered.
Sierra laughed. “Better I tell you now than Gunnar wonder why it won’t work tomorrow, don’t you think?”
He heaved a sigh and shot her a longsuffering glance before prying some of the back blocks loose to uncover the battery box. Luckily, it only took a few minutes to accomplish the task, and then he smiled triumphantly while Sierra tied a red ribbon around the robot’s neck, complete with a tag that read, ‘To Mamoruzen, From Santa.’ Toga spared another minute to enjoy his handiwork before holding it out to Sierra.
“Don’t you want to put it under the tree?” she asked as she sat up.
Toga shrugged. “I was thinking more of trying to catch a few minutes’ sleep before the pups come barreling in here,” he said with a yawn.
Sierra rolled her eyes. “Come on, Toga. We can lie down on the sofa till they get up.”
“Sounds good,” he agreed as he followed her out of the room and down the darkened hallway.
There wasn’t a sound from any of the children’s bedrooms as they passed, and Toga grimaced when one of the steps groaned under his weight. Still it seemed that luck was with them as they managed to get the robot under the tree without incident and without unexpected interruption. Toga adjusted the robot a little, smiling as the red laser eyes flashed, and he stood up, pulling Sierra against his chest as the two took in the sight of the softly glowing tree. “What are you thinking?” he asked quietly.
Sierra sighed and rubbed his forearms. “That I’m lucky—really lucky,” she replied. “Thank you, Toga.”
Tilting her head back, she kissed his cheek. “For everything . . . for putting up with me, even when I’m being moody.”
“I hardly put up with you, Sierra,” he chided, tightening his arms around her and rubbing her shoulders in an idle sort of way. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
He smiled and kissed her temple before letting his arms drop. Pulling her over to the sofa, he stretched out and tugged her down with him. “What are the odds that they’ll sleep till six?” he pondered.
She laughed and snuggled against his chest. “Slim to none,” she predicted.
“Yeah, that’s rather what I thought,” he admitted with a sigh.
Sierra laughed and tugged on a handful of Toga’s hair. “This is nice, isn’t it?”
“Mm, nice,” he echoed, letting his eyes drift closed.
She kissed him softly, gently, no more than a tease of a kiss, a nibble on his lips.
“Careful, Sie, or we may have to go back upstairs, and if we do that, the pups might be a little upset, don’t you think?”
“Pups? What pups?”
He chuckled and shifted slightly, enough to pin her between himself and the back of the sofa as he took control of the kiss.
“Toga?” she murmured between kisses.
She uttered an airy laugh as the dull thump of feet on the stairs interrupted the serenity of the moment. “Your . . . pups . . .” she said.
Heaving a sigh, he leaned away just enough to smile at her. “They have impeccable timing, don’t they?”
She laughed, her eyes glowing softly, her cheeks flushed as her lips trembled just the slightest bit with every breath she drew.
“Presents!” Charity exclaimed as she and Chelsea ran, hand in hand, into the room. Cassidy hurried in after them with a tray of juice boxes and rice balls that she’d helped make the day before. Coral was the last to arrive, and she carried a still-sleepy looking Mamoruzen in her arms. “Santa came! Santa came!”
Mamoruzen blinked and rubbed his eyes with a balled-up fist. Coral leaned in close to his ear and whispered something as she pointed at the Kubrick robot with red laser eyes under the tree.
The boy struggled to get down and darted away the moment his feet touched the floor, and for once, Coral didn’t try to act grown up, skittering over and carefully moving presents aside as she searched for hers.
They watched in silence for awhile, enjoying the happy exclamations mingling with the sound of ripping paper as their children worked on demolishing hours of work spent wrapping those gifts. Mamoruzen, however, seemed to be far more enthralled with the robot than he was with anything else. Toga couldn’t help but grin as he watched his son return to the present time after time.
“You know,” Sierra said, leaning toward Toga and lowering her voice to just above a whisper, “I don’t think they even notice that we’re in here.”
“I doubt it, too,” he agreed then shot her a calculated grin. “In fact, I bet we could sneak right out of here, and they’d never know it.”
“I don’t think I like what you’re implying,” she teased.
He chuckled and leaned down to nuzzle her neck. “Call it revenge for distracting me last night,” he murmured.
She giggled. “Did I do that?”
“I think you did.”
“Well, I suppose I do know everything that’s under the tree,” she mused at length.
Toga nodded and shot her a grin as he pulled her to her feet and pressed his index finger to his lips as he tugged her from the room.
She glanced over her shoulder and grimaced. “I don’t know,” she began slowly, “this feels so sneaky . . .”
“I know,” he agreed. “That’s what makes it fun, don’t you think?”
She rolled her eyes but laughed. “What if—?”
Pulling her into his arms at the bottom of the staircase, Toga kissed her thoroughly: a kiss designed to weaken her resistance and persuade her that she wanted to follow him anywhere. It worked, leaving her completely breathless, dazed, clinging to him in a limp sort of way with her gaze veiled by a haze of unspoken passion. “Coral’s in there. She’ll watch out for the others,” he said, lifting her right hand to his lips and grazing his lips over her knuckles. “Besides that, we’re not going far, are we?”
“No,” she agreed absently, her gaze locked on his lips. “No, we’re not . . .”
He grinned at her—the same lopsided, endearingly sweet sort of smile that she’d loved from the start, and, smashing her hand over her mouth, she laughed. “You’d better be quiet or we’ll get caught,” he warned her.
“You’re terrible,” she accused but didn’t try to pull away.
Mamoruzen hollered from the living room where his sisters were apparently trying to get a good look at his robot. “No!” he yelled. “Go play with your girly dolls!”
“I just wanna play with it, ‘Moruzen!” Chelsea complained. “I’ll let you see my baby.”
The boy uttered a warning growl. “I said no!”
Sierra started to turn back. Toga grabbed her hand to stop her. “They’ll be fine,” he assured her.
Pressing his index finger against her lips, Toga chuckled and pulled her close to kiss her again. “Come on, Inutaisho Sierra. Let’s go find your Christmas spirit.”
Sierra laughed as Toga swept her into his arms since she had a fair guess as to where he had in mind to start looking. “Oh, is that what you’re calling it now?” she parried as she slipped her hands around his neck when he started up the staircase.
“I’ll call it whatever you want me to call it,” he assured her with a bashful sort of grin, “but only for you, Sierra. Only for you . . .”
Kubrick: Japanese LEGO toys.
Mario Brothers copyright Nintendo.
== == == == == == == == == ==
Final Thought from Gunnar:
… But he wasn’t Santa …
Blanket disclaimer for A Very Purity Christmas: 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.