Chapter 7 – Strike Midnight Part 1
-The Tree Hugger-
This was not in the job description. Sifting through dirt, okay. Living in the woods, fine. Spending time I could be conducting environmental research instead searching for a mythological jewel, whatever. I could handle all that, but I wasn't sure I could handle wearing a dress this tight and this… low cut and go traipsing around in front of some pompous, elitist society man.
"Relax," I heard Inuyasha's amused tone as he approached where I was standing in the doorway to the grand ballroom. He laughed and slung one arm casually around my waist. "You're going to be great, trust me."
"I can't believe you're making me wear this," I hissed. "I don't look like an archaeologist, I look like a-"
"You look gorgeous," he murmured, "you look like someone who will make an impression on the chairman."
"What kind of impression is that?" I groaned, suppressing a smile at his compliment. "Give me something expensive and I'll screw you?"
He chuckled, nuzzling his nose against my temple. "More like 'give me valuable ancient maps and I'll accidentally show up at your hotel room afterwards.'"
"Inuyasha…" I warned with a frown. I honestly did not want to give that kind of impression at my first high class social event.
"I'm kidding, don't worry about it." He released me but took my hand, adding as an afterthought, "just… stay by me, these guys can get a little ravenous." We entered the ballroom, and a look for disdain crossed his face. "They're wolves, after all."
I swallowed at that, and we both plastered on our most becoming smiles. Inuyasha really did look good that night. I never pictured him in a suit and tie, but something about the domesticated gentleman look was really appealing on Inuyasha, perhaps because he always seemed so wild. Why is it that women always so fiercely crave to tame men? I forced my eyes from him reluctantly in order to greet other attendees.
It was pretty obvious who was a member of the Ookami foundation and who was a guest. Aside from the ribbons pinned to the suits of the members, they had an amazingly strong air of superiority about them. I did my best to seem interested in their boasting and was amazed by their blatant flirtation. I don't know if they didn't notice my hand entwined with Inuyasha's or they just ignored it, but they were practically drooling. They didn't seem easily intimidated, either, because no matter how much Inuyasha glared or harrumphed they didn't stop their fawning. It was all I could do to keep my smile polite.
Of course, I wasn't the only one showered with attention. I should have guessed how well received Inuyasha would be by the ladies. He took it generally in stride, I was shocked by the sheer number of cordial smiles, nods, and laughs I witnessed him dish out. The only way I could tell it was still Inuyasha was that he squeezed my hand a little tighter when anyone got a little too close to either of us.
After what seemed like an eternity of strained polite chit-chat, there was a momentary reprieve when Inuyasha and I found ourselves near the other end of the ballroom in a clearing of people of sorts. When I was sure I was out of ear shot, I let out a breath, leaning my head on Inuyasha's shoulder.
"My god," I gasped. "Are we that much of a novelty?"
Inuyasha laughed, slipping his arm back around me and running his hand gently over my bare arm. "These same people go to these functions all the time," he explained. "It's like in breeding, we're something different. Besides," he added, his arm shifting to run his hand through my hair. "You're clearly the most beautiful girl in the room; of course they're going to flock to you."
I blushed, elbowing him gently under the ribs and touching my pendant, hidden beneath the trim of my dress bashfully. "Please," I chided, "you're like a magnet to these women."
He shook his head, casually blowing some bangs out of his eyes. "Nah, it's just my hair and eyes, these women are bored with their escorts and pool boys, so they…"
"No," I said slowly, turning to face him and sliding my hands up his shoulders to clasp behind his neck. I didn't say anything for a moment, ignoring his questioning gaze and letting my eyes focus on his tie. It really was strange, how Inuyasha tooted his own horn so much when it came to his professional skills, but how he sold himself short when it came to almost every other aspect of being human. I didn't really know what to say though, compliments would either make him suspicious or more eager to change the nature of our working relationship. "Inuyasha," I shook my head, toying with the hair at the base of his neck and finally looking into his eyes. "You…"
"Excuse me! Inuyasha! Can I call you Inuyasha?"
I turned in surprise, my hands falling back to my sides when I saw a team of cameras and microphones and reporters. All of them were grinning and seemed very excited to have found us. I blushed, dropping my arms from around his neck and attempting to step away from the lights and hubbub but Inuyasha tightened his arm round my waist, preventing my escape.
"You can call me whatever you want," Inuyasha grinned into the nearest camera, squeezing me gently against his side. "And this here is my partner, Higur-"
Partner? My eyes widened as they studied Inuyasha's cheerful profile. Not long ago, Inuyasha was hesitant to call me even his assistant. When had I been promoted? I held up a hand quickly, ducking politely out of Inuyasha's arm. "I think I'll let you field this one, Inuyasha."
He looked at me curiously, catching my wrist as I backed away. "But Kago-"
I shook my head firmly. "This is your project, you get the publicity."
He tugged me closer by the waist, cocking his head to the side slightly. "What are you talking about? We're in this together, and-"
I took hold of his hand with my free one, carefully unwinding his fingers from around my wrist. "I'm camera shy," I fibbed. "You go ahead, I'm going to press some more flesh."
Really, I was anxious about the reporters asking too many questions, knowing too much. Inuyasha and company didn't know that I wasn't an archaeologist, and I intended to keep it that way. I was sure the press would somehow air my secrets if they got a chance, so I thought it was best to fly low for now.
I nodded once more at his questioning gaze as I turned away from him towards the vast expanse of the ballroom. I didn't know whether to be impressed or feel sorry for these people. What could they possibly do with all their money? Just rush from one black and white party to the next? I surveyed the crowd warily, wondering what the appeal of a black and white ball was, anyway. It was so stark, so cold…
I sat on the living room sofa, my legs barely reaching over the edge, my little hands fisted in the front of my black dress, my eyes running over the shiny curves of my black patent leather shoes. The room was stuffy and filled with people dressed in dark clothes, moving about and speaking softly. Every surface in the room was covered in flowers or cards or unsatisfying food: little sandwiches, cheese and crackers, grapes.
I wasn't sure what to think, how to feel. I tried to understand what the adults around me were saying, but it didn't make sense, even though I knew what all the words meant.
"Such a tragedy," they whispered. "When she put the baby down to sleep it was fine."
"They barely brought it home from the hospital."
"The next morning it just… didn't wake up."
"The hospital said there's no explanation, it just happens sometimes… baby's go to sleep, and…"
"…crib death, they call it…"
I tried to wrap my mind around these words, but I just didn't get it. How could my new sibling be fine and then… dead? How could that be?
"Keyra wanted this baby so badly…I don't know how she will recover from this."
I felt sick and confused, suffocated by all of these people I didn't know and their black clothes. I didn't recognize my living room, I wanted the presents and the balloons back, wanted the cold and the stuffiness gone, wanted my mother.
But my mother had locked herself up in her room the night she found the cradle cold, and had not come out since. I wondered if she would ever come out, even weeks later, on my birthday.
I squinted, clearing my head of the fog of my memories, trying to reorient myself. I was now near the large glass windows on one side of the ballroom, far from where the cameras were still flashing at Inuyasha, one hand clutching a half-empty glass of champagne. How much had I had? How many people had I conversed with on autopilot? I furrowed my brow, trying to recall the events of the last twenty minutes.
I looked up, startled, to see a man standing in front of me with a cocky, but charming smile. His long black hair was swept back in a low ponytail, and the ribbon on his lapel was gold, unlike the blue ones the rest of the members wore.
His smile widened as I shook his offered hand. "I don't believe we've met…" he raised my hand to his lips briefly and I blushed. I don't think my hand had been kissed since my mom would pick me up from preschool, pretending to be my knight in shining armor. The man in front of me now straightened, releasing my hand and extending his arm instead. "Would you care to dance?
I was about to decline by default when I noticed the man's gaze lingering a little too long at the dipping neckline of my dress. I set my jaw, annoyed and wanting to smack him, but it occurred to me that he fit the description of the man I was looking for perfectly. Long hair, special ribbon, horny. Why, hello Mr. Chairman.
"I would be delighted," I gritted out, trying my best to sound delighted.
He nodded and led me towards the center of the room under the chandelier where couples were dancing, a sea of swaying and twirling black and white.
I chewed on my lower lip, trying to remember the little I knew about waltzing. One, two, three… no, there were "ands" in there, and maybe there were four counts?
Before I knew it, my hand was in his and his other was at my waist, mine on his shoulder. We seemed a little closer together than the couples around us, but I didn't feel violated yet, so I kept my mouth shut, a prim smile on my lips.
"I'm the chairman of the Ookami Foundation," he announced, and I tried my best to look impressed and pleasantly surprised. "But you, my lady, may call my Kouga."
I giggled and smiled shyly, my insides twisting at the honeyed arrogance in his voice. Pretending to be enamored with this guy was going to be easy – there's no chance he would ever question someone's admiration of him.
The dancing was fairly easy, and I was hardly distracted by counting my steps since Kouga lead so aggressively. I answered softly when he asked for my own name.
"Kagome, hm?" he practically purred. "Very pretty name. Well Kagome, either you are an extremely beautiful man in a dress, or you are someone's guest here tonight."
Heh, cheesy way to find out who your rival of the evening is, buddy. I contained my smirk and nodded. "I'm with Inuyasha."
Kouga paled almost undetectably, looking earnestly surprised at that news. "Inuyasha? Last I'd heard, he'd sworn off women."
"Oh no, nothing like that," I said quickly. "I'm his partner – his assistant."
Kouga looked pleased by that answer, the flirtatious glint returning to his eyes. "Oh, I see. So how goes the search for the Shikon no Tama?"
I ignored his amused, patronizing tone and put on my best pout, practically batting my eyelashes. "Not so well, unfortunately. We are in desperate need of some maps from the feudal era to aid our research, but we just can't find any."
"Really?" Kouga said skeptically. "That can't be, Inuyasha has one of the largest collections of feudal maps in the country – next to mine, that is."
I shook my head sadly, pleased with the direction the conversation was headed. "There was a fire, all the maps were lost."
"Oh right," Kouga said, his expression grim. "All the maps and then some, if I recall."
"Yes, and if we don't have the help of those maps, we won't be able to renew our funding, and if our funding isn't renewed…" I lowered my head, leaning my cheek on Kouga's shoulder. "I'll lose my job! I just don't know what I'll do if that happens, Kouga. I'm so worried."
"Hey, chin up!" Kouga grinned, his hand drifting suspiciously low on my backside, which I summoned all of my patience to ignore. He should give Miroku some suave lessons. "I am not one to ignore a lady in need. Maybe I could lend you my collection."
A genuine smile crossed my face as I made my eyes as huge and grateful as possible. "Oh Kouga, you'd do that… for me? You are so generous. All of the praise I've heard about you is true! I don't know how I can ever thank you…"
We'd paused in our dancing, and Kouga released my hand to stroke my cheek, his thumb brushing slowly over my lower lip. I froze, unsure of what to do. I wanted to push him away, but I didn't want him to take offense and withdraw his offer. I settled for holding perfectly still, impossibly aware of his breath on my face as he leaned down towards me.
"I can think of a way," he whispered, his eyes sliding shut.
I panicked, my breath catching in my throat as his lips drew closer to mine. Oh, no.
Do something, Kagome! Don't just stand there!
"May I cut in?"
We sprang apart and relief flooded my senses at the sight of Inuyasha standing casually next to us, tapping Kouga's shoulder as the social rule calls for.
Kouga was obviously peeved, his mouth forming some objection, but Inuyasha nodded with a smile, taking me into his arms. "Thanks! Lovely party."
I repressed a grin as he swept me away from Kouga and into the crowd. Once we were out of Kouga's hearing I groaned, lacing my fingers through his. "Perfect timing, my god Inuyasha, thank you so-"
"You don't have to kiss him," he huffed, adding as an after though, "Wench. I wanted you to butter him up, so –"
"Thanks to you," I murmured, silencing his grumbling. "I didn't kiss him, I did, however, get access to his map collection.
-The Grave Robber-
My smile became an all out grin. "You did? That's great! Damn, you're fast, it took even Kikyou a whole night to get what she wanted out of that fucking wolf." I laughed, but my laughter died quickly when I saw Kagome's solemn face and realized what I had just said. "Ah… I stumbled for something to say, slowing in our dance. "That is…"
Kagome shook her head with a slight smile, dismissing my mistake with some unusual wave of mercy. I smiled in relief, picking up the pace a little when the orchestra began a new upbeat, almost swing song. I don't know why Kagome didn't smack me over that slip up, but I wasn't going to argue with her. Instead I let go of one of her hands and spun her away from me, then back. She laughed, retreating closer to my chest.
"So," she said, "how was your interview?"
"Great!" I replied, quickening the pace even more as we whirled around the dance floor. "They seemed really interested in my work, I told them all about it." I twirled her once in front of me, catching her by the waist when she almost lost her balance. "I really think this could be good for the project, Kagome, I really think they're going to give us some serious publicity."
Kagome grinned, panting slightly but clearly enjoying herself. "I'm so glad, Inuyasha. It seems we have lots to celebrate tonight."
I hummed in affirmative and lunged forward as the song died down, dipping her low and smiling warmly when her surprise seemed to melt into gentle affection. I paused a moment, inhaling her scent as I nuzzled her neck then admiring the way the soft golden light from the chandelier danced in her eyes. I hope she knew that she was unique to me. That any reference I made to Kikyou now was merely reflexive. I can never completely erase Kikyou from my heart or my memory, but Kagome is singular, she is the only one.
If I was smart, I would have told her that, but whenever I opened my mouth I could never find the right words, or if I did I could never muster the damn courage to say them to her. I knew Kagome wasn't someone I needed to fear, but I felt like I don't really know her yet, that despite all our late night chats and our days spent working side by side, there was another layer to Kagome that I didn't even know about.
Well, it doesn't really matter, I smirked. There are ways to communicate without words. Smiling softly, I tilted my chin ever so slightly until my lips were mere centimeters from hers, our breath mingling in the air between us. She didn't push me away this time, in fact her eyes closed slowly in invitation. That was all the encouragement I needed, I…
…almost dropped Kagome when a blinding flash went off, and I scrambled to help her stand straight with stars in my eyes. I shook my head in an attempt to clear my vision and looked up to see one of the photographers I had been interviewing with earlier now looking extremely guilty.
"I'm so sorry," he stuttered clutching his camera. "I didn't mean to interrupt your moment, I just though it would make a good picture."
Any other night and I probably would have torn the guy's throat out. I don't generally like getting my picture taken, and he did completely destroy what would have been basically a perfect moment between Kagome and I, but hell, I was in such a great mood nothing could wipe the smile off of my face. I shrugged, brushing imaginary dust from Kagome's shoulders, just an excuse to touch her, and blew some silver bangs out of my eyes.
"Don't worry about it," I said to the blanched photographer. "Just get me a copy of that picture, eh?"
The photographer nodded in relief, bowing slightly as he retreated. "I will sir, I promise."
Kagome laughed, looping her arm casually through mine as we watched him weave into the crowd. "It seems your reputation proceeds you, that guy was scared out of his wits. Probably thought you were going to do him bodily harm." She eyed me suspiciously. "I thought you would, too."
"Didn't feel like it," I yawned, following the suddenly moving crowd towards the elegant table settings away from the dance floor, keeping Kagome's hand in mine.
A few hours, several courses, and quite a few glasses of wine later, Kagome and I stood from our seats, stuffed and a little tipsy. Or at least, she was tipsy and I was pretending to be. No normal human could drink as much as I did and not be tipsy, so I feigned slight loss of coordination to keep suspicions to a minimum. Not that Kagome would have noticed in her state.
I chuckled, steadying my companion with one arm as she swayed beside me. "Easy," I murmured. "You stay here, I'll go get our coats then we can go back to the hotel."
She nodded, letting go of where she had been clinging to my lapel and settling her grip on a nearby chair instead.
I made sure she was set before I pushed through the crowd to the coat room, tired and annoyed that the guys bringing out the coats were moving so slowly. It took much longer than I would have liked to wait in line, get our coats, and make my way back to the ballroom, but I was still surprised to find the place I left Kagome now completely empty.
The whole room was empty, actually, except for some staff sweeping and clearing the tables. There was no sign of Kagome anywhere. I sighed, rubbing my forehead with one hand and squeezing my eyes shut, trying not to jump to conclusions. Maybe she was in the bathroom. Maybe she got tired of waiting and went looking for me. Maybe…
"Hey," my ears perked up to a conversation between two of the staff clearing tables. "Did you see that long-haired mucky-muck come in hear and leave with the babe?"
I cursed under by breath as the other one responded. "Yeah, man, and I don't blame him. If I were that rich and that good-looking, there's no way I wouldn't go after that fine piece of ass."
I was at his throat in a second, my fingers flexing against his pulse point as I forced myself to ignore the disrespectful way he addressed Kagome in favor of focusing on the matter at hand. So much for my good mood. "Did you see which way they went?"
The man's eyes widened in fear as he swallowed against my hand and attempted to shake his head. "N-no," he gasped out, gesturing shakily to the back exit. "They just left through there, but I don't know where they leaving our coats on a nearby chair so as not to hinder my pursuit. Fists clenching at my sides as anger coiled up inside me, I hurried out the back door and cast about for some sign of them in the corridor. Kouga is such a fucking asshole. Doesn't he know a classy girl when he sees one? Or does he think he can screw all of my partners?
A/N – It's been a while, eh? Sorry for the delay, I was caught up in college and Full Metal Alchemist. Thanks to anyone who is still with me, and hello to new readers! This chapter and the next one was originally one huge chapter, but it was way too long for my tastes so I split it up and will be posting the next part soon. Questions, comments, and criticism greatly appreciated, as always!