“So, are you guys excited?”
It was dark, only the soft glow of streetlamps and the incandescent light emanating from the cars they drove past illuminating the night. Kagome didn’t respond at first, eyes and smile tight as she focused on the road. It was a hard question to answer, even though Kara’s cheerful energy washed over and surrounded her. Sharing enthusiasm when the event she referred to heralded so much heartache in her past was hard.
“I am relieved that this wait is almost over,” Kagome hedged. As she eased onto the highway, she felt a delicate hand rest on her leg.
“Is Daddy having a hard time too?”
Kagome did smile then, Kara’s moniker for Sesshoumaru always warming her heart. They had adopted the American girl eighteen years before when she was three, and her sunny demeanor was a joy to be around. The only thing in her whole life she had been exceedingly stubborn about was what she called her father.
Risking a quick glance at Kara’s face, Kagome found only understanding in the young woman’s blue eyes and tried to smile again. “Wouldn’t you?”
Kara’s own smile was gentle as she pushed her perfectly curled blonde hair away from her face. “Probably. But it wouldn’t change the fact that I love you and still looked forward recommitting my life to you. You’re allowed to be excited about the vow renewal despite all the crap going on.” She squeezed Kagome’s leg reassuringly and then flipped down the mirror, digging into her purse for her makeup. “Thanks for picking me up from the airport even though things are crazy right now. I feel like the biggest loser in the world that I couldn’t make it for Grandpa’s funeral.”
At the mention of Grandpa, Kagome swallowed back tears, and her hands gripped the steering wheel just a bit tighter. His death was hard for several reasons, the least of which being that it signaled one of the hardest times in her life starting soon—even if it was technically in her past.
The loud smack of lips from the seat beside her as Kara slapped on some lip gloss pulled her from her thoughts, and she exhaled heavily. “Grandpa knew you loved him. We have some pictures you can take back with you. Your boss, on the other hand, is a jerk for not letting you come sooner.”
Kara giggled. “Yeah, Naoki called and let him know that one personally. Chris, however, literally came down to the office and got all up in his business just a couple hours before he flew out to be here. You should’ve seen the old bastard’s face.”
Kagome laughed out loud at the mention of their other human American child and finally turned onto their property. Chris was almost thirty, a dedicated businessman and bachelor, and had a temper that rivaled Miyu’s on a bad day if someone messed with his family. “That would’ve been a sight to see.”
“Oh, it was. Like, remember when Daddy got pissed at Naoki for dressing up like him and twerking on YouTube?” She laughed out loud, clutching at her stomach. “So much worse than that.”
Shaking her head, Kagome couldn’t hide her grin. Their children had always kept them on their toes, but Naoki especially had a knack for getting under Sesshoumaru’s skin. The fact that they looked almost identical just made it easy for him to find ways to get on the daiyoukai’s nerves.
“Ooooh, there’s the house! Loving all the lanterns lining the driveway!”
Turning into said driveway, Kagome slowed the car. “You can thank Enmei for that. He insisted on doing it after Umeko and his Hiromi slipped out after dark one night to go exploring.”
Kara’s eyes widened, her panic at the thought evident. “Well, that’s terrifying. Bet Daddy and Enmei flipped.”
“Flipped is putting it lightly.” And I had a panic attack that lasted all night. Easing to a stop, Kagome put the car in park and turned to Kara. “We’re here.”
Grinning, Kara leaned over and quickly hugged her, bouncing in her seat a bit as she undid her belt. “I’m so excited to be back here and see everyone. Sometimes it sucks living on another continent.”
Undoing her own belt, Kagome silently agreed. It was never easy having family spread thin, and the closeness she shared with hers—large as it was—made that even more difficult. With a sigh, she watched Kara race up to the door, fling it open, and disappear inside before stepping out of the car.
“What I’d do for some of your energy right now, Kara,” she murmured to herself, shouldering her purse. And peace.
Especially at a time like this.
The kitchen was a cacophony of sounds and smells when Kagome finally made her way into the house. Setting her purse down on the console, she closed her eyes and inhaled, letting the evidence of her children’s presence wash over her and sink into her bones, and a sad smile pulled at her lips. It was bittersweet. So many children had come into their family over the years, each one loved, cherished, and protected whether blood or adopted, but the nature of mortality meant that there would never be a moment where their family was whole.
“It is an unkind reality.”
His voice pulled her from her private grief, and she turned to find the only one who knew exactly what she felt learning against the wall in the entry way. He looked like she felt, and her eyes softened. “Hi, Babe.”
She laughed quietly when he arched a brow. Modern terms of endearment usually threw him for a loop, especially babe. The first time she had used it, he lectured her on how it made no sense because he was older than her by centuries; therefore, she was the babe.
That lecture had backfired on him, and he’d been stuck with it since. He stared at her, not really mad about the nickname, his eyes holding the bittersweet marriage of anguish and love she felt in her core when she listened to the sounds of their family.
Without a sound, he approached and bent to kiss her. “Hello. Babe.”
Closing her eyes and smiling, she let him fold her into his arms, happy to enjoy a moment of peace and closeness amid the chaos. She noticed a glass of wine in his hand and stole a sip. “Oh, that’s delicious.”
“Chris stopped over in Napa Valley before arriving.”
Kagome looked up, resting her chin on his sternum. “Napa? He’s been here a week. Where’s he been hiding this?”
Sesshoumaru took a sip and almost smiled. “Far out of sight of the females. I believe he may have swung by your mother’s before getting here.”
“Well, I’m glad he did.” She took another sip as he held the glass to her lips. “Sayuri would do this in on her own given the chance.”
The low resonance of a chuckle vibrated against her. “She would only succeed if Yuna did not find it first.”
With a melodramatic sigh, she rested her head back on his chest. “Could’ve been tequila.”
“Akari is enough to handle with that one.”
The sharp tattoo of his heartbeat drummed against her cheek. To the casual eye, he exuded calm, but she knew him better than that and recognized the turmoil flowing in his veins locked just under the surface. It was barely restrained by the practiced control intrinsic to him. It ebbed and flowed as they held each other, his disquiet only outwardly evident by unconscious swirling of the wine in its glass.
She wrapped her arms tighter and pressed closer. “Are you okay?”
He didn’t answer at first, and she heard a swallow resonate behind his ribs. “I will be.”
“What can I—"
One of their daughters swearing in the kitchen cut her off.
“Fuck. Does anyone know where Papa is? I can’t get this jar open.”
“Seriously, Hanako? There are other youkai in here too. Give me the jar.”
“Touch it and die, Enmei. Last jar you opened shattered in your hands, and I had this imported. Now, where’s Papa?”
Their timing was impeccable as always. Kagome’s mood lightened a bit, and she craned her neck back to find some of the melancholy melting away from Sesshoumaru’s face as well. She offered him a grin, wanting to share the humor of the situation. It was small, but he smiled back.
“They have been quarreling for hours.” It wasn’t a complaint, and his look grew fond. “There has not been a moment of peace since you left.”
Eyes sparkling, she took another sip of the wine when it was offered. “So, you’ve been hiding here from them?”
He lifted his chin then, gold eyes looking down with a quiet mischief behind them as he cocked his head and allowed the evidence of his smile to stay. “I will not deny it.”
She choked back a laugh. “Can’t say I blame you.”
A crash sounded from the kitchen.
“Hands OFF. Papa, where’d you go?”
“Just let me open it, Hanako! Or, I don’t know, give it to Akari.”
“When hell freezes over, Mothman. Papa!”
“Oh, for the love of…Sesshoumaru!”
Sesshoumaru’s look darkened, and Kagome struggled to hold her laughter.
Growling under his breath, he took the glass of wine back and took another sip before he spoke. “If I hear anything other than father again tonight I will—”
“Daddy, are you in here?”
Kagome did laugh then, nearly spitting wine when he let his control slip and rolled his eyes.
“That does not count.”
Clueless to her parent’s conversation, Kara came around the corner, smiling brightly as she set eyes on them with the pilfered jar in her hand. “Aw, look at you two. All snuggled up like newlyweds and—"
Sesshoumaru snatched the jar in question out of her hands, popped the lid, and handed it back. “Goodbye, Kara.”
Kara’s grin was saccharine as she took the jar and turned back to the kitchen. She waited until she was out of sight before shouting. “Lovebirds are hiding by the front door!”
Kagome sighed, her hope of continued privacy shattered. “It’s a shame we can’t ground her anymore.”
“It never did any good anyway.”
The memory of their bubbly blonde girl sneaking out a second story window when she was sixteen only to come face to face with a giant, white dog popped unbidden into her mind, and she snickered. “We got some good memories out of it.”
Sesshoumaru’s eyes dulled a bit then, his expression tightening. “There are too many memories.” Downing the rest of the wine, he let go of her and stepped away for a moment to set the glass on the console before reaching for her hand. “Come with me.”
Hers slid easily into his, and she followed him out into the night. Cold starlight twinkled overhead and the crispness in the air chilled her cheeks. But unlike many nights like this they had shared, it wasn’t quiet. The sounds of their family still echoed from inside the house, and the mashup of voices from the group of them gathered in the backyard washed over them as they headed down the dark drive.
As happy as her family made her, it was times like this she missed the peace of the past most. “Remember when we could just run off into the dark and not worry about anyone seeing or stopping us?”
He stared straight ahead, but his smile was wistful when he drew her arm through his and pulled her closer. “I remember.”
His warmth pushed into her, and Kagome leaned into his side as they walked. “Sometimes the past seems like it was easier.”
She realized too late what she said, the intimacy of the moment shattering as he stiffened beside her. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she stopped and stepped in front of him. Of all the careless things she could’ve said right then, that ranked right at the top of the list. “Sesshoumaru, that’s not what I meant.”
He looked straight over her head, refusing to look at her. “It’s fine.”
Again, Kagome kicked herself mentally. This was the worst possible time and worst possible day to be having this conversation. “Sesshoumaru? Sesshoumaru, look at me, please.”
Lips pursed, he slowly let his eyes drift down to her face, but the tension in his jaw made it clear he wasn’t keen to discuss things with her at the moment.
Her hands reached up and gently stroked his cheeks, trying to ease the pain he tried—and failed—to hide behind his irritation. “I would change the past if I could.”
He nodded, looking away again. “But you cannot.”
Closing her eyes before her own upset broke free, she cupped the back of his head and pulled his face down to her, pressing her forehead to his. “I’m sorry.” She swallowed thickly, breathing in the scent of him. Sandalwood. He always smelled of sandalwood, the forest, and warm spices, and she loved it and the immediate comfort it brought. Tilting her chin, she let her lips drift over his. “I will always be sorry, Sesshoumaru. If I could change things, I would.”
His hands gripped at her waist, and he leaned more heavily into her. “I know.”
She pulled back then as she offered a weak smile. “It’s just harder this year, isn’t it?”
“We knew it would be.” He didn’t meet her eyes for long, but his hand found hers again, lacing their fingers. After what felt like an eternity, he squeezed reassuringly. “We made it through this before. It will not break us now.”
Kagome could only nod as her tears burned. He was right; she knew he was. And though she didn’t deserve it, she had his understanding. “I don’t want this to ruin tonight.”
His features calmed, and he lightly bumped her shoulder. “It will not.”
Before she could speak again, the high-pitched cry of their newest family addition pierced the night. Sho was five weeks old, nursing, and likely unhappy that his last feeding had come from a bottle since she had gone to the airport to pick up Kara.
“Oh, baby boy sounds mad,” she murmured, looking back at the house.
Sesshoumaru nodded, eyes following hers. “He’s in the backyard with your mother.”
The hunger cries grew louder, and completely outside of her control, Kagome’s hormones responded for her. Dread sank into her stomach as she felt the let-down reflex kick in. “Oh no.”
Sesshoumaru looked down, concern in his voice. “Oh no?”
“Yeah. Oh no.” Kagome crossed her arms over her chest, already feeling milk soak through her nursing bra and pads and into her skin. Exhaling in frustration, she closed her eyes and let her head fall back. Maternal instincts could be a real hassle and had no regard for new blouses and anniversaries. Or her embarrassment. “I need your shirt. Now.”
After a brief moment of confusion, the smell of breastmilk hit his nose, and the previous tension dissipated at his unexpected laughter as he pulled the requested article of clothing over his head. “With every pup, Kagome.”
Kagome glared. “Stop laughing. If your children didn’t eat so much, the nursing pads may have been able to hold back the let-down.”
He took her soiled shirt and handed her his, a soft smile lingering on his lips. “I do not think that is how that works.”
Making a face at him, she shoved his shirt over her head and looked back at the house. “Just get us back there unseen, please. I need more than five minutes with you tonight, and the older bunch will give us crap for the next several hours if you turn up shirtless.” She grimaced then, feeling wet start to seep through his shirt as well. “Great.”
Before she could ask again, he hooked an arm around her waist and leapt.
“Okay, I have the thick, disposable nursing pads, reusable wool, or a good, old-fashioned dishtowel.”
From her upright position in her bed, Kagome held her hand out to her daughter-in-law, right breast still streaming milk unforgivingly through her nursing bra while Sho happily suckled away on the left. “This calls for a dishtowel.”
With an understanding laugh, Mariko quickly folded it into a thick square and handed it over, empathizing as Kagome stuffed it into the right side of her bra. “If it makes you feel better, I spent all of yesterday morning with one stuffed on one side or the other while Hana marathon nursed through her wings unfolding.”
Kagome smiled at the mention of her granddaughter. Hana had been born three days before Sho, and she appreciated having someone who had lived life nearly as long as she had going through new babies at this age with her. Their family dynamics were certainly different from any others she knew, but centuries of shared experiences left them a close-knit unit. “Hana unfolding and Sho teething. Sounds like none of us are getting sleep.”
Mariko shook her head sympathetically. “Nope. Enmei almost had to carry me out of the shower last night because I could barely stay standing on my feet.”
Someone knocked on the bedroom door.
“Mama, do you care if I come in?”
Kagome rolled her eyes at the sound of her son’s voice. “Emnei, how many times do I have to say nursing is perfectly natural?”
A moment later, an annoyed Enmei walked in with a bundled Hana in his arms. “Well, excuse me for having manners and not just barging in.” The tall moth youkai smiled at his wife and handed her their baby. “Hopefully she’s done going the distance, but she’s starting to whine.”
Kagome grinned at Mariko and patted Sesshoumaru’s side of the bed. “Get in.”
“Guess we’re having a nursing party.” Mariko climbed in next to Kagome and got Hana latched before the screaming could start. “Betcha you didn’t expect to spend your anniversary like this.”
Kagome smiled, rubbing Sho’s back as she did. Mariko held a special place in everyone’s heart. The human woman had been severely disfigured as a child when her home burned down, the entire bottom and then left half of her face stretched tight with scars that even a long life couldn’t fully heal. But she was kind and gentle with a fiery spirit, and she had captured Enmei’s attention from the moment he had laid eyes on her centuries earlier. “At least the company is good.”
Enmei interrupted them. “I’m going to go make sure Naoki and Chris don’t overcook the meat if you two are settled.” He leaned over to kiss Mariko and Hana. He was tall—even taller than Sesshoumaru—and had to bend a distance to do so. Despite, the lack of shared blood, the moth had the same, cascading silver hair as his father, although his eyes were lavender while cool patches of iridescent blues, purples, and greens reflected off his cheekbones and the bonier areas of his body instead of stripes. “Papa’s got everyone under ten plus Jiro rolling around in the backyard to keep them away from the stove, so don’t worry about the littles.” He stood and moved to the door. “Oh, and Naoki loaded a new video.”
Both Kagome’s brows shot up. “Oh, he did, did he?”
Enmei’s smile was downright devilish on his handsome features. “Someone’s definitely getting claws in his ass tonight.”
“What did he do?” Mariko asked, her curiosity having her reaching for her phone.
Laughing, Enmei shook his head. “You’ll want to watch it after those two are done nursing. You’ll wake them up otherwise.” He reached for the doorknob. “Okay, I’m out.”
The two women sat in silence for a moment, only the sounds of the nursing babies filling the bedroom. But seconds later, Mariko reached for her phone again.
“We can at least see what screenshot is on the video cover.” Happily bringing up the video app, she searched for Naoki’s channel, eyes going wide when she found it. “Enmei’s right. He’s dead.”
Kagome’s own eyes blew wide when she leaned over to look, but she snickered. “Oh, these two need to nurse faster.”
With a sigh, Mariko dropped the phone. “I shouldn’t have looked. Now I’m dying to watch.” She giggled, if we didn’t know it was Naoki—”
“Oh, I know. And the first time he posted a video, he hid his ears. I didn’t know it wasn’t Sesshoumaru at first.”
Mariko laughed louder then. “Well, we all know Inupapa can dance if he has to. He just doesn’t like to.”
Kagome tried to smile at the memory Mariko referred to, but it failed to reach her eyes. Even nearly five hundred years later, that one still stung despite the good in it too.
Beside her, the other woman groaned. “I’m sorry, Kagome. I wasn’t thinking.”
With a shake of her head, she offered Mariko a small smile. “No, it’s okay. It’s just one of those things.” She shrugged. “I don’t know that something like that ever fully heals.”
“Are you two okay?” Mariko asked gently.
Her eyes were earnest—as earnest and understanding as they had been centuries before in the face of the worst mistake of her life—and Kagome felt her appreciation for her daughter-in-law deepen.
“We’re okay,” she finally answered quietly. “The memories are hard right now. Facing them like this again so soon after losing Grandpa makes them harder.” Her voice grew quieter. “I know he’s feeling it more than he wants to let on, and it hurts to see him hurt.” She swallowed. “Hurts to know I caused it, even after all this time.”
Mariko reached over and squeezed her hand. “Sounds like you two could use some alone time tonight.”
Kagome laughed, wiping her tears, and switched Sho to her other side. “It would definitely help, but with this little teether, I think we’re going to be a boring, old couple tonight.”
“There’s nothing boring about either of you, Kagome.” Mischief twinkled in her dark eyes. “Though I’d pay some serious money to see Sesshoumaru cut loose like Naoki in those videos.”
“You and me both.” Kagome looked down at Sho and scratched his ears. “I’m starved. Think dinner will be ready by the time these two are done?”
“I’m sneaking dessert early if it’s not. But we are watching that video before we go out there.”
“Agreed on both accounts.” Sho chose that moment to sleepily unlatch and yawn, smacking his lips after as furry black ears drooped in his milk-drunk stupor. Carefully scooting off the bed, Kagome laid him in his bassinet and stroked the top of his head as blue eyes that appeared to be identical to hers closed. After Maya and Miyu, all of their biological children had come out with their father’s silver hair until this newest little bundle, and she was still marveling at dark, downy silk atop his head. She smiled softly at her sleepy baby. “I’ll be right back.”
Mariko nodded, adjusting Hana. “I’ll be here.”
Stealing through her bathroom to the walk-in, Kagome carefully went through her clothing, trying to find something that looked nice but was still functional in case there was a repeat of her earlier incident. Pulling a blue sweater off its hanger, she snagged a new bra and nursing pads and quickly changed before going back into the bathroom to touch up her makeup.
The face that met her in the mirror was still young except for her eyes. Her eyes, no matter how youthful her face, could never hide the truth about her age, centuries of grief and realities too grueling to dwell on for long having turned the blue depths into a storm that permanently displayed their grey undertone years before.
You only have yourself to blame.
No, not right now. There was plenty of time to rake herself over the coals later. Shaking off her melancholy, she quickly ran a brush through her short, black hair and smeared a nude gloss on her lips. Eye makeup she skipped.
Over the years she had gotten better about holding back the floodgates around her family. Life itself had hardened her resolve and built a new stamina against tears. But there were a few things that could still rip them out of her without mercy.
The memory tied to Grandpa’s death was one of them.