Disclaimer: Not mine. The characters belong to Takaya-sensei. Hopefully she'll forgive me after I'm done with them...

Anima: Chapter One

"I need your help, Ha-san."

"Of course, Shigure. Anything. What's wrong?"

He never forgot his first. His muse.

The gallery showing was, much like he'd anticipated, overcrowded and uninspired. Shigure walked slowly through the gallery, barely noticing the art as he picked up bits and slivers of conversation hovering around him like a stagnant fog.

"--brilliant, just brilliant--"

"--urban inspiration? How unique!"

"They say he studied with--"

More pandering masses, more of the herd mentality: tell them it's unique, and they'll agree; tell them it's brilliant, and they'll buy it. Hundreds of thousands would be spent by these "connoisseurs" on soulless, mindless splashes of clashing paint on cheap canvas. Shigure's steps wove around and past the clusters of mindless sheep, meticulously avoiding contact as they stood huddled around a sculpture or painting, praising it in hushed, reverent tones. He stopped listening to them before long.

The main exhibits of the night stood out in painful, jarring contrast against the soft light and classic structure of the gallery. Squares of steel, polished to a shine and riveted to other squares of steel, the glossy surface marred with spay paint, all of it placed neatly on their pedestals for tedious, unimaginative people to worship.

"Urban" inspiration – they were calling it, as the artist had spent time in New York. Shigure rolled his eyes. They knew nothing about beauty, nothing about inspiration, nothing about the excruciating process of art. They knew absolutely nothing, and yet they dared show their faces here, trying to fool each other into believing they held some advanced level of sophistication. Playing make-believe as they spouted nonsense in efforts to draw in other, more easily beguiled admirers into praising their passion, their soul.

He turned to leave, unable to stand the feel of these empty, revoltingly superficial shells choking his senses any longer. His movements reflected his disgust as well as his impatience, but as he turned, his eye caught a flash of color out of place among steel and painted concrete. A curious frown formed at his brow as he paused, tilting his head and taking a few steps closer.

Her hair -- brown -- shone with threads of gold and auburn when she moved; it was upswept, and when she moved beneath the gallery lighting, color seemed to come alive, bouncing when light hit the long locks, twisted into a chignon and held in place with two slim, ornamental sticks. When she turned her head, mother of pearl glinted at him.

Shigure's gaze trailed downward from her hair, following the line of her slender neck down to the graceful curve of her spine. The woman's evening dress left the full expanse of her back completely bare and the unhindered view of flawless, pale flesh glowing in the soft light made his breath catch. Unhurried steps brought him to her side where he stood for a moment or two, following her gaze. Silently, she studied the painting on the wall, never saying a word to him.

Several more beats of silence passed before he cleared his throat. "What do you think of it?" he inquired politely, his tone indifferent as he braced himself for the disappointment of hearing the same hollow sentiments echo from her lips.

The young woman looked up suddenly; hazel eyes framed with thick lashes blinked in surprise at his presence. "I beg your pardon?" she asked quietly. There was an accent laced through her words, a gentle lilt, but unmistakably present. Her syllables were a bit too clipped, her pronunciation too careful for the language to be her first. She sounded… yes, she sounded European -- British was his first guess.

Shigure nodded once at the painting hanging on the wall to indicate the topic of his inquiry. "You appeared to be studying this one quite intently. Do you like it?" Thrashes of black and grey, crossed with careless streaks of silver filled the stark white canvas -- hideously abstract and stylishly urban.

She said nothing for several seconds. "I don't particularly care for it."

His brows lifted. "Oh?"

"It's..." she fell silent, gazing at the piece. "It's like everything else here -- hard lines and sharp angles. I find it..." again she paused, obviously searching for the word she wanted to use, "unoriginal. Inspiration should not lead you to mimic the thing that inspired you." Shaking her head slowly, the woman pursed her lips in thought. "Besides, it's too inorganic for my taste, too cold. There's no color in it, no life."

Shigure's eyes widened a fraction as his brows rose in surprise at the candid, wholly unexpected observation. After wave upon wave of blind, monotonous praise and simpering interpretations, the last thing he'd thought to find was an opinion similar to his own -- dissenting, unimpressed. It was gratifying in its discordance from the hollow acclaim of the masses.

Shigure's lips slowly curved upwards as she met his gaze with a speculative one of her own until an answering smile tugged at her lips.

"Please, forgive my lack of manners," he said smoothly, leaning forward in a bow. "My name is Sohma Shigure."

"Claire," she replied, reciprocating the gesture with practiced ease. "Claire Bennett. It's a pleasure, Mist-- ah... Sohma-san."

When they were again face to face, he smiled; this time the tilt of his lips held more genuine warmth. "I assure you, Bennett-san, the pleasure is mine." Clearing his throat, he tucked his arms habitually into the voluminous sleeves of his kimono as he cast a searching look around the gallery. "Don't tell me; your less than glowing review of Hakamoto's art alienated all your friends, didn't it?"

She chuckled, mimicking his glance before looking back at him almost teasingly. "Actually, I came out on my own. Intolerable boredom and morbid curiosity are powerful motivators, wouldn't you say?"

"Ah, boredom and curiosity." Shigure nodded sagely. "I believe there are a few proverbs to that effect, aren't there?'

"The devil makes work for idle hands?"

"That would be one, yes." His lips quirked as he sent her an amused grin. "Can you guess the other?"

"The other -- oh, that's too easy, Sohma-san. Curiosity killed the cat."

He leaned in, perhaps closer than propriety would have dictated, his line of sight dropping meaningfully to her lips. "But satisfaction brought it back, ne?"

A faint flush warmed her cheeks, but she did not demur. "You sound as if you know something about satisfaction, Sohma-san."

Something that looked a great deal like promise flickered in the depths of his eyes as he tilted his head to give the impression of thinking her remark over. "I would never presume such a thing, Bennett-san," he returned lightly, his eyes wide and patently guileless.

He didn't expect her to believe it. He rather hoped she wouldn't.

Claire shifted her weight a bit, and the fact that the subtle movement lifted her breasts slightly did not go unnoticed by Shigure. "You wouldn't presume to know anything about satisfaction?" she asked, arching an eyebrow slightly. She paused for a moment, sending him a blatantly appraising look. "How disappointing."

Taking half a step closer, he looked down, regarding her. "Ah, Bennett-san -- I am a great many things, but I am most certainly not disappointing." His voice was low, his tone silken -- the aural equivalent of warm honey.

A muscle moved in her throat as she swallowed. "Perhaps I misunderstood, Sohma-san. But you did say--"

"I said I would not presume to know anything about satisfaction -- yes, that's quite true. However, it is my fervent desire to learn, to continuously educate myself in such an important subject. No one man should presume to know about something so vast as satisfaction. That is arrogance, my dear Bennett-san. It is but my humble wish to study this enigma, this mystery we call 'satisfaction,' so that someday I might be lucky enough to call it a skill."

"I see," she murmured, earthen eyes watching him intently. "That's quite a shame, because while I would never have expected to find a master of the art, I had hoped to find someone who was more than a pupil." Her full lips tugged into a tiny, wicked smirk. "I guess I'll just have to keep looking."

Shigure closed his eyes, clucking his tongue mournfully. "Why, oh why must lovely women willfully misunderstand me?" he murmured, his expression one of mock lament.

"Come now, Sohma-san, we willful females must have something with which to entertain ourselves -- wouldn't you agree?"

"I do, quite. But more on that in a moment." He held one finger up. "What I think you're failing to understand, Bennett-san, is that a student can devote years of his life to the study of a subject -- decades, even -- and still consider himself a student simply because he is too modest and too aware of his shortcomings to consider himself anything more."

"I see," she murmured, the gleam in her eyes sparking and heating into something unmistakably clear: desire. They had returned each other's volleys for quite long enough; it was time to elevate the level of the game. "Odd. I hadn't thought you particularly..." she paused meaningfully, "modest." Slender shoulders lifted in a graceful shrug. "My mistake, Sohma-san. It won't happen again."

It was at that point that Claire took a small step closer, closing the distance between them almost entirely. Shigure caught the scent of her perfume, a delicate, musky scent, twined with spice, and he savored it as he looked down at her. The air around them became charged, their common dissention the thread that had at first drawn them to each other, and now the thread of common attraction winding them tighter.

She inclined her head a bit, meeting his gaze fully. "So, Sohma-san, tell me. What are these... shortcomings?"

"Well, Bennett-san, it seems to me that it wouldn't be quite fair for me to simply list them for you. It's the sort of thing you must judge for yourself -- wouldn't you say?"

There was no confusion, no misunderstanding -- there was no misinterpretation at all. Her smile was slow as her eyes darkened, watching him with unconcealed appreciation. "I can think of nothing I'd prefer, Sohma-san."

"And," he added, "should you require any assistance in this evaluation, I'm certain my cousin Ayame would be only too eager to offer his input as well."

This was where he would have expected her eyes to widen as she took a hasty step back. This was the point at which she was supposed to blush and mumble a hurried excuse before turning and disappearing into the herd she had deserted earlier. This was where he expected to alienate her completely.

Such was not the case, and it pleased him.

Her tongue slipped out to wet her lips -- his eyes were riveted on her lips -- and she gave him another small smile as her eyebrow tilted just a fraction. "How convenient," she said quietly, her tone almost a purr. "I do appreciate having someone with whom I can confer on such... pleasant matters."

"My, my -- that is convenient," he replied with a soft chuckle. "Perhaps, if it wouldn't be too bold of me to say so, we might find somewhere else more conducive to observation?"

She appeared to consider it for a few moments. "Personally, I think that's a marvelous idea. This..." she hesitated, choosing her words carefully. After a moment or two, a tiny, derisive smile curved her mouth as she nodded at the gaggle of onlookers. The ignorant masses were still crooning over what they had the audacity to call "art." She cleared her throat pointedly. "This... environment isn't favorable to what one might call unfettered thought."

Shigure flashed her a bright smile that illuminated his features. "Excellent! Then we are in agreement." Offering his arm, he shot one last glance back at the crowd. For a moment it appeared to resemble the art it admired: grey, still, bloodless. He blinked once, and the illusion had vanished; once again they were moving around, murmuring amongst themselves. Shaking off the sensation, he led the woman out of the gallery.

They stepped out into the night, the air charged with nocturnal energy. The sudden rush of noise was a remarkable contrast to the misplaced reverence inside the gallery. Shigure's eyebrows drew together in thought as he considered his various options.

"Would you care for a drink, Bennett-san?"

She thought it over before gracing him with an answering smile. "A drink sounds marvelous."
The establishment he'd chosen was quietly upscale. A place most commonly frequented by high-level executives looking for a chance to pause before abandoning the banality afforded them by high rise office buildings in exchange for homes filled with shrewish wives and thankless children. However it was late enough that only a smattering of people remained when Shigure led his impromptu companion through the door, and for that he was thankful.

By and large, he had a passing tolerance for mankind; they annoyed him in their ignorance, but he was often able to simply ignore them. And, as it happened, the evening at the gallery had already soaked up a majority of what little patience he might have had left. The maître d' -assuming they were lovers- showed them to a table situated in the back. Neither of them took the initiative to correct him.

He wanted to see how she behaved; he wanted to see her stripped of her social mask. Shigure knew better than most the ease with which one could shift and adapt to different situations -- different people. Was she such a chameleon? Was she truly what she had appeared to be under the gallery lighting?

He very sincerely doubted it.

And so, he watched her, skilled eyes tracking the nuances of her gestures, in her expression. He kept waiting for her to stumble, to slip, to reveal herself as something other than what she was presenting herself as.
It came, but not in the way Shigure was anticipating. He'd sat with her for a few hours, asking questions and answering them in turn. She was a doctoral candidate from Cambridge: archaeology. She had a passing appreciation for art, but did not pretend to be an expert. Simply put, she preferred classic to modern, old to new, simple to cluttered, and held a fondness for yamato-e -- Suibokuga, in particular.

As they sat, drinking their way through one, then two bottles of sake, Shigure found himself contemplating the feel of her body crushed against his; he imagined his palms coasting across her slender frame with its subtle curves. His fingers itched to slide the ornamental sticks from her hair, releasing the chignon in a glorious tumble of spun mahogany. And, judging from the way her eyes dropped to his lips when he spoke, Shigure had a feeling her mind was on much the same track.

He tilted his head in consideration. "Have you ever tried Otokoyama, Bennett-san?"

Her brows drew together gracefully. "I don't believe I've ever had the pleasure."

"I have a bottle," he replied lightly, letting the invitation hang in the air, unspoken but there.

A short beat of silence passed during which time her eyes dipped suggestively. "On you?"

He laughed at that. "Alas, no, not on me. At home." One inky brow arched, and a small, secretive smile flitted across his lips. "If you like, I could ask my cousin to put it on ice for us."

Claire paused briefly, her expression contorting in puzzlement. "On ice? But I always thought --"

He cut her off, holding his hand up. "My lovely Bennett-san, do trust me on this."

She smiled, and there was no mistaking the promise in it. "Very well, Sohma-san. I will simply have to defer to your broad base of knowledge. If you know as much about wine as you seem to know about art..."

He leaned forward, propping his chin upon his open palm, catching her with his dark gaze. "I daresay I know a great deal more about art… Bennett-san."