Chapter 1: How to Handle a Woman
The blade slipped though the raw, tender cut of beef as if it were water, each slice perfectly identical in size, and yet his hands moved deftly at an incredible speed. Inuyasha barely even had to think about what he was doing—it was almost second nature, the motions and calculations of distance and speed and pressure so deeply imprinted on his muscles that they acted of their own accord. He heard the men and women and children seated around the table that surrounded the grill give a collective gasp as he finished slicing with a flourish and twirled the knife around his index finger before sliding it easily back into the sheath at his belt, a self-satisfied smirk tilting his lips. He paid no attention to their faces—they might as well not have had them for all he cared—but he knew that every eye at the table was trained on his hands and arms, every expression agape with wonder at his uncommon skill. Although most of them had been served by now, and all had at least some food on their plates, their meals were virtually untouched, so entranced were they all by his performance. This didn’t surprise him—he always seemed to have this effect on people.
He served up the cubes of perfectly cooked filet mignon to the last two customers and immediately set about cleaning the grill, acknowledging their enthusiastic applause and whistles with only a curt nod before returning to the kitchen with his cart.
“You ought to be more careful, Inuyasha,” Miroku scolded with a mischievous grin as he fell in step beside him with his own cart. “That girl on the end with the long blonde hair looked like she was in danger of hyperventilating and fainting at the sight of you. Wouldn’t want her to fall onto the grill and earn you a lawsuit.”
“Feh,” he scoffed, knowing Miroku was teasing him—but he couldn’t suppress a smug grin nonetheless. He’d noticed the girl—or her breasts, anyway. Never really bothered to look much higher than that.
“So what was the score tonight? Five?” he asked as they returned their carts to the alcove and emptied them of their contents. The kitchen was more or less quiet by now—the last seating had been a half an hour ago, so there was no one else there but the busboys washing dishes at the back and straightening up the counters.
“Seven,” Inuyasha replied as he cleaned his and Miroku’s utensils over at the chefs’ sink. “There was a couple that came in after that party of ten, and then another couple that joined them.”
“No, no, no—you don’t get to count them as two if they were together.”
“But they both asked for me separately—they came in at different times.”
“Yeah, but they were meeting each other,” Miroku pointed out, putting a couple of seasoning shakers and a bottle of cooking oil back on the shelf, “the second couple probably just didn’t know the first couple had already requested you.”
Inuyasha rolled his eyes. “Fine, six then.”
“Not as many as a few days ago—you must be slipping,” Miroku grinned, making a ‘tsking’ noise with his tongue.
“It’s a Tuesday—business is slower,” Inuyasha justified with a shrug, carefully toweling dry the sharp blade of his knife. Miroku’s he left in the dish drainer. Seeing this, Miroku slanted him a look and stepped around to dry his own knife and spatula.
The dark-haired man was about to reply when the door swung open with a light squeak and Sango appeared, heaving a weary sigh and adjusting her obi as she crossed over to them. Miroku slung an arm around her waist and grinned at her, immediately changing focus. “Sango dearest, don’t you look lovely this evening,” he said, his hand sliding surreptitiously from her waist toward her rear end.
She gave him a wry look and nudged him in the ribs, making Inuyasha grin. “Not tonight, okay? I’m really beat.”
“Does that mean you’re not coming over when we finish up?”
“Sorry—I’ve got to be in early tomorrow. Apparently we’re hiring a new chef, and Kikyo asked me to show him around. He’s supposed to be really good, too—came with great recommendations, won a bunch of local competitions and things. Don’t spread it around though—I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I think that’s what the meeting is for though.”
“What meeting?” Inuyasha asked.
“Staff meeting, after we close up tonight.”
“Seriously? Fuck that, I just did eight hours—I don’t wanna hang around here till close. Why do we need to have a meeting about this anyway? Who cares about some newbie chef?”
“Don’t ask me,” Sango said with a shrug. “Now quit slacking, boys—get back to work.”
“Doing what, exactly?” Inuyasha grumbled. “We just finished our last tables.”
“You remember how to clear dishes, don’t you, Iron Chef?” Sango said wryly, heading for the door. “If you’re going to be around anyway, might as well make yourselves useful.”
As soon as she disappeared back into the dining room, Miroku and Inuyasha looked at each other. “Catch the Late Show?” Miroku suggested.
“You’re on,” Inuyasha agreed, and they headed through the back door into the staff room to kick back in front of the TV until they were summoned.
An hour or so later, after the last customers had paid their checks and the last of the dishes had been cleared away, the entire staff gathered around one of the tables at the back of the restaurant, near the door to the office, waiting for Kikyo and this mysterious new chef to finish up with their meeting. Inuyasha, of course, got one of the chairs, the other chefs filling in around him (although Sango also had a chair, even though she was a waitress—she had seniority. And she was sleeping with a chef…), while the waitresses, hosts, and hostesses stood around them, and the lowly bus boys crowded around the back. Despite this place of honor, Inuyasha rapped his nails impatiently against the edge of the table, eager to get back to his apartment and watch the Cubs game he’d taped that afternoon. Finally, the door opened and Kikyo stepped out, shadowed by a pretty young woman who gave them all a slightly nervous smile. Inuyasha frowned slightly, wondering who this woman could be. There didn’t seem to be anyone else left in the office—Sango must have gotten it wrong. They were getting a new waitress, not a new chef.
“Good, you’re all here,” Kikyo said in a businesslike tone, stepping in front of the group. “Don’t worry, this will be a short meeting—I know you’re all anxious to get home. I just wanted to introduce you all to our newest chef—Kagome Higurashi.”
The young woman took a step forward and gave a small wave, her smile widening slightly as she tried to exhibit an air of confidence. “Hi all—it’s wonderful to meet you. I really look forward to working with all of you.”
Her words seemed to break the spell of shock, and everyone resumed breathing. Some (mostly the waitresses) returned her smile and greeting sincerely, and he could see her nervousness ease a bit at this. Sango even stood up and reached across the table to shake the woman’s hand, her smile so triumphant it was almost fierce. Miroku stood as well, and offered his trademark kind-yet-flirtatious welcome, opening the way for the other chefs to follow suit. The busboys couldn’t do much more than peek over everyone else’s shoulders and wave.
Inuyasha, meanwhile, remained exactly where he was, his expression stony.
When her eyes flicked over to him, her smile faltered slightly, but she strapped it back on. “Inuyasha Takahashi—I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s really nice to finally meet you,” she said, extending her hand. He ignored it, offering only a grunt of acknowledgement before glancing away. Stupid wench. Where did she get off, anyway? Could he have made it any more obvious that he was none too happy to meet her? Bitch couldn’t take a damn hint if it hit her upside the head.
The meeting more or less unraveled into an impromptu welcome party, everyone crowding around Kagome, asking her about where she’d studied, where she’d worked before, how many competitions she’d won. Although Inuyasha remained stubbornly standoffish, he couldn’t help picking up on the fact that Sango’s brief mention of this new chef’s qualifications earlier on had been, if anything, and understatement. Despite her embarrassed modesty, it was clear that this woman had done very well for herself so far. Of course, that had been before. This was the big-time. Restaurants of this caliber set the bar just a little bit higher than the dime-a-dozen, proletarian hibachi chains this wench had no doubt worked in as she was honing her craft. Sooner or later she would realize she was in over her head. It had to happen.
At long last everyone else trickled away, and Inuyasha watched Kikyo disappear back into her office, presumably to finish up some last minute work before heading home herself. Yeah, fat chance. He followed her, shoving the door open so hard it banged against the wall and swung nearly completely shut behind him. He didn’t bother to close it the rest of the way—the others had all left by now, so it wasn’t like there was anyone around to hear.
“What the hell were you thinking, Kikyo?” he demanded.
She looked up from her computer, apparently only mildly surprised to find him there. “What was I thinking about what, Inuyasha?” He hated it when she did that.
“You know what—hiring that rabbity wench out there as a chef. Seriously, I can’t believe you—you really think she’ll make it more than a day or two around here?”
“I think she’ll make it a lot longer than that,” she replied, turning her eyes back to the screen and continuing to clatter away at the keyboard as if he were only a mildly interesting radio show that occasionally required her response.
“Dammit, Kikyo, cut that out!”
She heaved a sigh and glanced over at him tolerantly. “What now?”
“You know I hate that—just quit it with the keyboard and pay attention to me! I’ve got a serious problem—”
“Well that much is obvious,” she interjected wryly.
Inuyasha growled, clenching his fists convulsively, wishing he could wrap them around her throat. “Like I was saying, I’ve got a problem with that wench, so quit doing the books and listen to what I’m saying.”
“Staff meeting seating arrangements notwithstanding, Inuyasha, the world doesn’t revolve around you. Putting aside the fact that you’ve just barely met her, frankly, I don’t give a damn whether you’ve got a problem with Kagome—deal with it. Ignore her or fuck her or do whatever you have to do to get past it, but deal with it.”
“Oh, yeah, sure—you’d just love it if I fucked her, wouldn’t you. That wouldn’t bother you a bit,” he spat, a forcing his expression into a cocky grin.
She replied with a sour smile. “Well it worked pretty well with us. Six months in your bed and I’m not even tempted anymore.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Never did know a good thing when you saw it, did you—that explains this Kagori business.”
“That’s Kagome—and like I said, if you’re determined to be a jackass about this, do it on your own time. I’m standing by my decision.”
“But don’t you get it?” he spluttered, struggling to make up for lost ground. “There’s no way a woman can be a hibachi chef.”
Kikyo’s eyebrows disappeared behind her neat bangs, and she settled back in her chair coolly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Is that so? Why, pray tell?”
“Because,” he snapped back, racking his brain for plausible examples, “they’re too short. It’s harder to work the grill. And they don’t have as much upper-body strength—you’ve got to have power to work the knives properly.”
Kikyo snorted. “It’s cooking, Inuyasha, not car-pulling.”
“But—her breasts will get in the way! They’re a fire hazard!”
“She’s not exactly flat-chested, but I don’t think there’s much risk of her breasts catching on fire while she’s standing over the grill.”
“Okay fine, then what about her hair?” he pointed out smugly.
She blinked bemusedly. “Yours is longer.”
“Face it, Inuyasha,” she said finally, before he could conjure another wild justification. “This isn’t about her—it’s about you. You’re just threatened by the fact that this woman can do what you can do—and pretty damn well, if her reputation does her justice.”
“Feh—no one can do what I can do, man or woman. That’s not the point.”
“I see,” she shut down her computer and got to her feet, “well, nice to know you haven’t lost that trademark humility I so adored. It’s a wonder I didn’t shut that big fat head of yours in a car door one of those days.”
“Like you were any fucking picnic,” he rejoined. “You’d have that goddamn Blackberry implanted in your arm if you could. I used to have dreams you’d be fucking me, but thinking of it.”
“At least the Blackberry vibrates,” she replied tartly, shouldering her briefcase and heading for the door.
Inuyasha’s eyes flashed as they followed her, and he marched after her through the restaurant. “Hey, you didn’t have any complaints at the time.”
“If I had you wouldn’t have heard them,” she tossed back, flicking off the lights and heading out the door. “You were always asleep before I even realized it was over.”
He growled again, rounding on her once they’d reached the pavement. “Frigid, tight-assed bitch!” he snarled when he couldn’t come up with anything cleverer.
“I’ll take that to mean you concede this match to me. Night, Inuyasha,” she said with a wave, turning towards her car.
“Wait!” he called after her. “We haven’t settled this Kagome thing yet!”
“As far as I’m concerned,” she unlocked the door and set her briefcase on the passenger’s seat, “it’s settled. If you want to continue arguing, you can, but I’m afraid you’ll have to do it alone.” And with that, she slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine.
He watched her pull out of the parking lot before heading to his own car. Damn that wench.
* * *
Kagome opened the front door of the apartment to the sounds of someone bustling about in the kitchen. Frowning curiously and glancing at her watch, she peaked around the doorjamb to find her roommate pouring a freshly sliced red pepper into a pot of noodles and peanut sauce on the stove.
“What are you still doing up?” she asked. “It’s after midnight.”
Hojo glanced up and gave her a smile. “Working on some reports I’ve been putting off—just thought I’d take a dinner break. You hungry?”
“Starved,” she replied. “I was so nervous about this job I skipped dinner. Smells delicious, by the way.”
“That’s good, cause we’ll be eating this stuff for a week,” he said with a chuckle. “The recipe was a little bigger than I thought.”
She grinned. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Just grab us a couple of bowls and dish up.” He tapped the spoon on the side of the pot and set it in the spoon rest on the counter. “Milk?”
He retrieved the milk from the fridge and poured them each a glass while she dished up the noodles. “So, how did it go?”
“Well, the meeting with Kikyo was fine,” she began, trading him a bowl for a glass as they settled at the kitchen table across from one another. “We got all the paperwork straightened out, and by the end of it all I wasn’t quite as intimidated by her as I had been the first time.”
“What about your coworkers? Did they seem nice?” he asked, twirling a few noodles around his fork and taking a bite.
“For the most part,” she shrugged, taking a bite herself, thoughtfully. “Mm—this is really good. Where’d you get the recipe?”
“Thanks. It’s my aunt’s. She’s always sending me cookbooks. I think she thinks I’m gay.”
She frowned. “Because she sends you cookbooks?”
“No, because every time I visit her she asks me if I’ve got a new man in my life yet.”
Kagome snorted into her noodles. “Well why don’t you just tell her about Maggie?”
“I tried—she didn’t believe me.”
“Because she knows I live with you, but that we aren’t together, and I guess in her mind that automatically means I’m gay.”
“Ah,” Kagome said with a slow nod. “I get it.”
He smiled and shook his head ruefully. “I don’t. But anyway, you were saying?”
“Oh yeah—well, most of the people were really nice, but there was this one guy who seemed like a real jerk,” she said with a shrug, winding up another bite of noodles. “It was too bad, too—I hear he’s one of the best.”
“What was wrong with him?”
“Well, he just sort of sat there, staring at me, like I was the creature from the Black Lagoon.”
“Maybe he was just overwhelmed by your beauty.”
She laughed wryly. “I wish.”
“Hey, stranger things have happened.”
“Believe me, that wasn’t it. I’m not vain, but I think I can tell when a guy’s attracted to me—and this guy was about as repulsed as you can get.”
“Not possible,” Hojo protested easily, glancing down at his meal.
Kagome observed him surreptitiously through her eyelashes, wishing they would move on to another topic. Things always got a little awkward whenever they broached—however indirectly—the subject of attraction. Hojo had had a major crush on her through most of high school, and although she had never returned his feelings, they had managed to remain friends even while she’d been away at college. Now that she was back in town and they were sharing an apartment, he assured her that he had put those feelings behind him—and he was, in fact, seeing someone else—but at times she suspected that he hadn’t put his feelings for her behind him quite as firmly as he claimed. Overall, well…things just ran more smoothly if they avoided the subject altogether.
“So,” he said, finally picking up on her desire for a shift in topic, “you ready for tomorrow? First official day as a chef at the hottest hibachi restaurant this side of Cincinnati?”
She grinned. “You bet.”
* * *
Inuyasha opened the front door of his apartment and flipped on the light, tossing his car keys onto the coffee table and heading for the kitchen. After a few moments of consideration, he pulled a Heineken from the fridge and popped the top, and then grabbed a can of Spaghetti-Os from the cupboard and opened it. You’d think a professional chef could come up with something a little more adventurous and nutritious for dinner than pasta in a can, but Inuyasha had never been particularly interested in the culinary aspects of his profession—he was in it for the sport of it. Grabbing a fork from the drawer on his way back into the living room, he plunked down on the sofa and picked up the remote, turning on the tape of the game that was in the VCR, right where he’d left it.
It wasn’t one of the most exciting games of the season, but it had its moments—and yet Inuyasha still couldn’t seem to keep his mind focused on it. It kept drifting back to his annoyance over his new coworker, and the residual frustration over that argument he’d had with Kikyo. Damn bitch wouldn’t listen to a word he said if her life depended on it—she had it in for him, he knew it. She’d been busting his ass ever since they’d broken up. And yeah, sure, he wasn’t perfect—but really, she’d gotten in a couple of low blows that night. Like that jab about the vibrating Blackberry. Sure, he knew she was just egging him on—that was one department where he’d never had any problems—but still, it pissed him off.
Releasing a growl of frustration as he realized he’d just missed a nice hit by Soriano and rewound the tape a bit to catch it, he resolved to put it all out of his mind and just fucking watch the game. He could figure out all that other crap later. For now he just wanted to relax and enjoy a cold beer and a good game—so that was exactly what he was going to do.
The Cubs lost.
Chapter 2: Anything You Can Do
So far, her first day was going relatively well—better than she’d expected, at least. She still hadn’t quite gotten over the fact that she was actually working here, at Katana, easily the most renowned Teppanyaki restaurant in the Midwest. This was one of those places where people actually dressed up to go to dinner—a little different from the more run-of-the-mill, jeans and t-shirt places she had worked at previously. The sophisticated, Japanese-inspired architecture of the place, complete with tatami mats on the floors, rice paper screens dividing the larger rooms into alcoves of two or three tables each, rich, dark woodwork accenting the walls and ceiling, and even an elaborate Zen garden that served as a waiting room, created an aura of elegance and exoticism—and yet, in a strange sort of way, she found it rather comforting. It reminded her of the shrine where she had lived as a child, before her father had passed away and they’d moved to the States. Of course, this place had a polished, contemporary finish to it that made it a bit different—but still, it was a taste of home. The wealthy, powerful, and sometimes downright intimidating clientele, however, were another story. The thought of staining an unlucky patron’s five-hundred-dollar blazer with a stray drop of cooking oil was enough to have her erring on the side of caution and staying to her more conservative tricks—at least for the time being. Not that she lacked any confidence in her own skills; she knew she had earned this. But still, better not to tempt fate on her very first day.
She finished butterflying a line of shrimp and separated the tender, fleshy pieces from any stray tails, which she collected in a little pile off to her left. Adding a squeeze of lemon and a generous pat of butter, she spread and gathered the shrimp pieces across the grill a bit to see that the flavors were equally distributed and that the shrimp would cook evenly. Then, setting it aside to grill, she turned back to the tails and, flashing a smile at the young boy on the left whose eyes lit up as he realized where she was going, began flipping them one by one into various receptacles. The first two received a mild “Ooh,” as they slipped neatly into the front pocket of her jacket; a more impressed “Ahh,” as she flipped a few more squarely into the top of her hat; and then an appreciative round of applause as she sent a couple up around the back of her neck to settle in her pocket as well. Finally, with three remaining, she set about juggling them in the air between two spatulas, and then, without looking, landed them one by one on the young boy’s plate. He laughed and clapped all the louder, his parents and the other guests at the table chuckling as well. She grinned at him and slid the shrimp tales back onto her spatula, discarding them.
“Well, how are you all enjoying the work of the newest member of our team?” Miroku said jovially, coming up behind her as she dished out the freshly-cooked shrimp. He was working a lighter shift today, splitting his time between serving tables and shadowing her, just to make sure she was settling in alright.
The customers responded with a smattering of applause and appreciative murmurs as they dug into their food, and Kagome flashed him a grin of thanks, which he returned with a wink, disappearing again.
The rest of the meal went just as smoothly, her burden to perform for them easing in direct proportion to the amount of food on the customers’ plates. Just as she was passing out the last couple of main courses, a flash and collective gasp of amazement drew her attention to one of the tables across the room, where a burst of flame vaguely resembling a mushroom cloud was just dissipating into the vent above the grill. The customers at that table, and even a few at the surrounding tables, cheered enthusiastically, but the surly, silver-haired chef barely even looked up from what he was doing—and yet even from here she could tell it was merely an affectation. He was basking in their praise like a pig in the mud. With a small shake of her head, she returned to her own work, cleaning the grill and offering refills of dipping sauce to any who desired it.
When she left the table, grinning to acknowledge their grateful applause, Miroku was waiting for her near the entrance to the kitchen, and fell in step beside her. “So, how are you holding up?” he asked as they disappeared through the swinging doors into the bustling kitchen.
She slid the cart into its alcove and turned back to him, hands on her hips with a sigh of accomplishment. “Alright, I guess. It’s hard work, but I love it. And these grills are fantastic.”
“State of the art,” Miroku concurred, and then slyly gripped her arm, running his thumb comfortingly over her shoulder. “If you run into any problems, though, don’t hesitate to call me. Even these fancy-schmancy grills can be tricky at times, and I can usually fix them when they do. I’m a man of many talents.”
“Yeah, Sango warned me about that,” Kagome said with a wry smile, glancing pointedly at his hand on her shoulder.
“A quick one. Good to know,” he replied approvingly, removing the hand. “You’ll fit in well around here.”
“I hope so,” she said, leaning back against the counter—and then, as if on cue, Inuyasha burst in through the door from the dining room, slipping his cart into the alcove and then brushing past her roughly, not so much as sparing her a glance.
She watched him with an irritated frown as he went to wash his utensils in one of the far sinks and check the updated order board for his next assignment. “What’s that guy’s problem anyway? Since the moment I walked in here he’s treated me like I shot his dog.”
“Inuyasha?” Miroku said, glancing over at the subject of her scrutiny. “Oh, don’t mind him. He’s always like that.”
“Not to you,” she pointed out. “Or Sango, or pretty much any of the other chefs or waitresses. Maybe some of the busboys—but even them he just doesn’t seem to notice. With me, it’s like he’s going out of his way to make sure I know I’m a speck of dirt underneath his feet.”
“Fair enough,” Miroku conceded. “I think he’s just having a little trouble…adjusting to the news. Inuyasha doesn’t handle change particularly well. But really, he’s not that bad once you get to know him. Deep down.”
She raised an eyebrow skeptically.
“Really deep down,” he qualified.
She still wasn’t convinced, but simply heaved a sigh and glanced back over Miroku’s shoulder to where the silver-haired man was now snatching ingredients from the shelves and loading up a fresh cart. “If you say so…”
The rest of the evening passed relatively uneventfully—except for the occasional flash or burst of applause from somewhere in the room. Eventually she stopped even bothering to look up when it happened; it was obvious whose table it was. On the upside, as the night wore on, she found herself compelled to be a little more adventurous and outgoing. Every distant flare of excitement fueled the fire within her, and soon she was joking with the customers right from the moment she arrived, and even incorporating some of her more daring tricks into each meal. None of them involved giant fireballs, but her customers all seemed to leave quite exhilarated and satisfied nonetheless. As far as she was concerned, even in entertainment, sound and fury signified nothing.
Despite her exhaustion, at the end of the night she hung back with Sango as she closed the place up. She had taken the train in that morning since her car was in the shop, and Sango had offered her a ride home. The train could be a bit treacherous at this hour, so she’d agreed—and anyway, she’d taken a liking to Sango ever since that bold handshake the night before, when they’d first been introduced. The woman had a sharp wit, and knew how to deal with guys like Inuyasha and Miroku without being as forbidding and standoffish as Kikyo. Kagome saw in her a kindred spirit, of sorts—and she got the feeling that Sango saw in Kagome the same thing.
“You’re sure you don’t mind giving me a ride?” Kagome asked as Sango punched in the security code to arm the system and locked the door behind them.
“Absolutely—you’re right on my way. Don’t worry about it,” Sango replied with a smile.
“Thanks,” Kagome replied, following Sango across the now-empty parking lot. “I really appreciate it. I thought my car would hold up for a few more months, but I think the trip back here pretty much killed it.”
“Where was it you lived before again?”
“Minneapolis. I went to college at Carleton, and then I did my chef’s training at the School of Culinary Arts,” she replied, climbing into the car.
“Nice. I have a cousin who lives in Minneapolis—it’s a nice place.”
“I liked it. It’s good to be back in Chicago, though.”
“You grew up here?”
“We moved from Tokyo when I was seven, but I lived here until college. Most of my friends and family are here now. How about you?”
“Oh, I’m a native—lived here all my life. My grandparents on my Dad’s side were from Osaka, though—they immigrated just before the war. But my mom’s family is Irish Catholic—and most of them live around here, so I guess I just never felt the need to wander.” She laughed. “I didn’t even leave home to go to college—I went to Northwestern.”
“That’s a good school—I applied there.”
“Yeah, it was alright. Frankly, I’m glad to be done with it. Education is nice, but being able to pay your own bills is nice too.”
“Amen to that.”
“And I have to say, I never thought I’d end up a waitress…but I actually really enjoy it. Sure, it’s not exactly glamorous or intellectually stimulating, but the money is good, and the people are nice. Well, interesting, if nothing else.”
“Speaking of which, how long have you and Miroku been together?” Kagome asked slyly.
A smile spread across Sango’s face. “Three months—give or take.”
“And…it’s good. It’s really good. He’s a pathological flirt—”
“I noticed,” Kagome interjected wryly.
“—but he’s really a good guy deep down.”
“Hm. I seem to be hearing that a lot lately.”
Sango frowned curiously. “That Miroku’s a good guy?”
“No—but Miroku said the same thing about Inuyasha.”
“Ah—well now that’s a matter of opinion. Frankly, I think he’s a jackass. As far as I know, Miroku’s the only one who can stand him. Kikyo used to be able to, but that ended awhile ago.”
“They were together?”
“Briefly. It made for some interesting conversations in the staff room, I’ll say that much. But really I think we’re all better off with them apart. Things are more peaceful that way. Most of the time, anyway.”
“Yeah, well, I can definitely imagine that. He’s not exactly the warm and fuzzy type, is he.”
Kagome paused for a moment, pondering the wisdom of her next question—but then decided she couldn’t resist. “Tell me if I’m crazy, but does it seem to you like he hates me in particular?”
Sango glanced over at her apologetically. “Yeah, kind of.”
“Do you have any idea why?”
“Oh, that’s easy—you’re a woman.”
Kagome’s eyebrows shot up. “You can’t be serious. That’s the reason?”
“Of course. You know the type. He’s a big, strong, macho man, and he makes a living throwing fire and knives around, so obviously women shouldn’t be able to do that. He’s your classic male chauvinist pig.”
Kagome frowned out the front window. “I guess. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t taken flack from guys before, doing what I do, but…I don’t know. I just felt like there ought to be a better reason. None of the other guys around here seem to have a problem with me being a woman.”
“None of the other guys are Inuyasha.”
She had a point there.
* * *
Inuyasha was not happy.
It had been nearly a month since that Kagome woman had begun working at the restaurant, and things were getting worse by the day. Really, she was a nuisance. Several times on any given evening he’d be going about his business, impressing the pants off a group of hoity-toity customers with his usual tricks—and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, there would be this roll of laughter, or sometimes a massive cheer from some other table across the room; and invariably, it was Kagome’s. He couldn’t begin to understand it. Whenever he glanced over to where she was working, she never seemed to be doing anything all that impressive—just smiling and laughing and talking to the customers, maybe flipping a shrimp tail into her pocket (really, that was like Teppanyaki 101. Any idiot could do that). None of her tricks even involved any fire. So what the hell was all the fuss about? It was damn annoying—not to mention distracting. The other day he’d just about cut his finger off when one of these mysterious cheers had risen up out of nowhere from just a couple of tables behind him. Okay, so maybe she wasn’t a fire-hazard, but there ought to be something in the safety code about disruptively loud noises.
Well, except when they came from his tables. That was just expected—everybody knew that.
Inuyasha pushed his cart roughly through the kitchen door to find Miroku at the sink, washing his utensils. The other man glanced up with a slightly wicked grin.
“So what’s the score today, Inuyasha?”
“I’d say about twelve or thirteen,” he replied with a shrug, not looking up from his own utensils as he joined Miroku at the sink.
“And…that would be bullshit,” Miroku replied, earning himself a dark glare. “I just stopped by the front—your tally is eight, my friend.”
“Well why the fuck didn’t you say that in the first place?” Inuyasha growled.
“And miss the expression on your face?”
Inuyasha rolled his eyes and re-sheathed his knife with a “klack,” turning away to grab the next order slip off the board and collect the necessary supplies. Miroku leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms, watching Inuyasha bustle about.
“Wanna hear Kagome’s score?”
“Who are you, Howard Cosell?” Inuyasha bristled. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“Fifteen,” Miroku replied, as if he had not spoken.
Inuyasha froze, a porcelain ramekin exploding in his grip—but he barely noticed. Fifteen? Fifteen? On a night when he’d only had eight requests, she had had fifteen? Oh no. No, no, no—not acceptable. No fucking way.
Tossing the shattered remains of the ramekin into the garbage, he hastily pulled together the rest of his supplies, furious determination pumping through his veins. She wanted to play? Fine. They’d play. He was going to get out there and give that next table the best damn show they’d ever seen. If she didn’t have the common sense to see that she was out of her league (and she was out of her league—he knew that even if no one else did), then he’d just have to show her. He wasn’t going to let some perky, smiley little bitch come in here and steal his throne out from under him. He’d just have to take it back by force.
As he rounded the edge of one of the rice paper screens, heading for table eight, who should he find just settling in at table nine, directly facing him, but the she-devil herself: Kagome.
She glanced up at him in mild surprise—but only faltered slightly, immediately returning her attention to the grill, where she was currently laying out a set of ramekins, preparing to fill them with the proper dipping sauces. Oh no—thought she could just ignore him, did she? Well if so, she was in for a bit of a shock.
It began simply enough. He fired up the grill, passed out the sauces, started frying the rice—all the while keeping one eye on the grill, and the other on her. When she formed her pile of rice into a heart and made it “beat” by sliding her spatula underneath it and tapping the handle (meanwhile giving the middle-aged man on the end a playfully flirty look that elicited an “Isn’t that cute?” chuckle from the entire table), he formed his into a scale replica of the Pyramids of Giza, complete with little mushroom “tourists” wandering around the base. When she stacked her onion rings into a miniature Mt. Fuji and made it steam from the top, he pulled a lighter from his cart and made his shoot flames. When she passed out the rice bowls with a few smiles and cheerful conversation, he did so by stacking them all on top of one of his spatulas and flipping them one by one onto the other to be delivered promptly to the proper customers. With each trick, she cast a sidelong glance in his direction, looking at him as if she was wondering about his sanity—but he merely replied with an evil smirk.
It wasn’t until she started in on the shrimp-tail routine that things really got interesting. Deciding to up the stakes a bit, Inuyasha, who was also preparing the shrimp course, couldn’t resist flicking one of his own shrimp tails in her direction.
She glanced up at him, startled—but she caught it, square in the front pocket. Damn her.
He tried again, this time sending it far enough off course that she would have to work, but not so far that it wasn’t obvious where he was aiming. She caught it again, this time in her hat—and gave him a look that plainly said, “What on earth are you doing?”
But he was just getting started. He raised his eyebrows at her, telegraphing, “Chicken?”
She narrowed her eyes, and his flashed in triumph. Now he had her—she’d walked right into his trap. There was no way she could beat him at this game. He was the champ—literally.
She flicked one of her own shrimp tails in his direction—and he caught it on the flat of his knife without looking, flipping it into his hat easily. Then, in one fluid motion, he fired off two more in her direction—and she caught them both, one in the pocket, the other in the hat, finishing it off with an innocent yet somehow wicked smile.
By this time, the customers had become aware of the little battle of wills taking place above their heads (he supposed the flying shrimp tails had probably tipped them off) and were edging their chairs out from between the tables to the edges of the “arena,” the better to observe what was going on. Not that he much cared, but they all seemed more surprised and curious than upset—some of them even seemed to think that they were playacting, that it was something they’d planned in advance. So much the better—now that they were out of the way, this would be that much easier.
Inuyasha started butterflying his line of shrimp—but rather than doing them all in a row as usual, he did one himself and, without looking, flicked the next across to Kagome. Taking the hint, she butterflied it herself and shot the pieces right back at him, just as he was shooting her another, and butterflying one again himself. When she flicked him an unbutterflied shrimp of her own, he didn’t miss a beat, butterflying it himself and sending it right back. Before long they had found a pattern, their hands moving at top speed, shrimp pieces in various states of preparation flying back and forth—but neither lost their place, each always knowing what to do. He was loathe to admit it, even silently, but the bitch could give as good as she got.
When at last the shrimp were finished, the ring of spectators let out a whooping cheer that reverberated throughout the restaurant, turning more than a few heads in their direction—but they had already moved on to the next challenge. He led the way by flipping his shrimp pieces one-by-one neatly across the gap to land on the plates at her table, and she followed suit, starting from the opposite end so that the arcs of flying shrimp crossed in the middle—and then it was on to the meat. Poultry first—a chicken breast landed before Kagome and she sliced it up, flipping the pieces back to him to be cooked. He surrounded them in a ring of cooking oil and used his lighter to execute his trademark “flaming mushroom cloud” maneuver, which earned him another round of applause. Of course, he failed to notice as he did this that Kagome had used those few spare moments to arrange a fresh lobster tail among an assortment of vegetables such that it looked like a mermaid, earning her a heartfelt “Aww,” and a smattering of cheers and whistles.
By this time pretty much everyone in the restaurant—including the rest of the staff—had drifted away from their tables and come over to watch the show. Having moved on to the filet mignon, Inuyasha was running out of tricks—at least tricks he didn’t need extra supplies for—but he knew they needed a big finish of some kind to keep the crowd from turning on them…and preferably one that made him look better than her. Usually fire was his solution to this—but he’d already played the “fireball” card, and he wasn’t sure he could get away with anything else with only what he had on his cart. Finally, he started them in on a juggling round, with six bite-sized pieces of filet mignon between them, passing them back and forth two at a time while keeping the others airborne with their spatulas—and then he started eating them one-by-one, until he had them all. The crowd burst into applause as he lifted his hands in the air in triumph, grinning around at all of them—at least as much as he could grin, with half a steak in his mouth. Kagome was giving him a tolerant look, but he knew jealousy when he saw it, and quirked a scathing eyebrow back at her. She gave him a slight, exasperated shake of the head before turning a beaming smile on their audience and taking a couple of small, polite bows, laughing along with the crowd. Then she edged around the side of her grill, still smiling and waving modestly to the people as she passed, and grabbed him firmly by the arm, her fingernails digging into his flesh through the sleeve. As she dragged him off toward the kitchen, he heard Miroku taking over as ringleader before the crowd (“Inuyasha Takahashi and Kagome Higurashi—weren’t they great, ladies and gentlemen?”), jovially herding everyone back to their proper tables.
As soon as they were safely out of sight behind the kitchen doors, Kagome rounded on him, looking livid. “Just what exactly did I do to you?” she demanded.
He turned away just long enough to spit the meat he was holding in his mouth into the trash. “Hey, wench, if you can’t stand the heat, get the fuck out of my kitchen.”
“This is not your kitchen, Inuyasha, and I’ve got as much right to be here as you have. Besides, seems to me like you’re the one who ‘can’t stand the heat.’”
His eyes flashed. “Now listen here, bitch—you don’t know who you’re dealing with. You think you’ve got something to show for yourself with your measly little awards and a lot of dumb jokes? Well I’ve got a shelf full of trophies that says differently.”
“Oh yeah? Well if all I’ve got are a bunch of ‘measly awards’ and ‘dumb jokes,’ then explain to me why you’ve been acting like a dog defending your turf since the second I walked in here!”
“I—” he began, floundering for a moment when no obvious retort came to mind. “Don’t flatter yourself! I’ve got nothing to defend from the likes of you. I just can’t stand to see you make a fool of yourself any longer than you have to.”
“Oh, well now that’s believable,” she drawled, crossing her arms over her chest.
But the squeal of the door hinge interrupted him before he could complete the thought, and both of them glanced over to see Kikyo standing there, fixing them with a rather dry expression.
Kagome opened her mouth, but apparently couldn’t think of anything to say, so she simply snapped it shut again.
Fortunately, Kikyo saved her the trouble. “I’d like to see you both in my office, please—not now,” she corrected when they both moved to follow her, “after the shift closes.” And with that, she left them to themselves.
As soon as Kikyo was gone, Kagome shot Inuyasha a furious look—and without another word, she shoved her way back through the kitchen door into the main dining room.
Since Miroku and Sango had seen to it that the two tables involved in the “battle” had all the correct orders in all the correct places, Inuyasha was able to move on to his next table. He conducted himself in a more subdued manner for the rest of the evening, not paying much attention to what he was doing. Of course, he didn’t need to—he could prepare one of these meals in his sleep by now—but in any case, he was a bit preoccupied. He wasn’t exactly worried about meeting with Kikyo after work—getting chewed out by her certainly wasn’t his idea of fun, but he highly doubted it would be any worse than that. He knew she wouldn’t fire him—after all, he was the restaurant’s undisputed star chef (or at least he had been until recently…). Actually, there was one possible bright spot in all of this: Kikyo was used to these sorts of antics from him, but Kagome was new. She didn’t have a record of excellence yet, like he did. He didn’t want to get his hopes up too high just yet, but the thought of being there to see her face as Kikyo told her she was fired made his heart sing with sadistic joy.
By the time the place had cleared out and he had changed back into his jeans and t-shirt, he could barely keep the bounce out of his step as he walked up to Kikyo’s office door. Kagome arrived beside him just as he knocked, her back ramrod straight, not sparing him so much as a glance. Well, at least she’d gotten it through her thick head that they could never be “friends.” That was a step in the right direction.
“Come in,” Kikyo answered, and Kagome pushed ahead of him through the door, taking a seat primly in one of the chairs before the desk while Inuyasha slouched into the other one.
“Well,” their boss began, leaning towards them and resting her clasped hands on the desk before her, “it seems we’ve had a bit of excitement this evening. Would either of you care to tell me exactly what happened?”
Kagome edged forward in her chair immediately. “I am so, so sorry—he did start it, I have to say that, but I never should have let him goad me into going along with it. It was totally irresponsible and unprofessional, and I swear it will never, ever—”
“Oh, cut the crap,” he interrupted. “Yeah, sure, I started it, but you were as into it as I was and you know it.”
“You stay out of this,” Kagome snapped, rounding on him briefly before turning back to Kikyo. “I know it was wrong, but I promise, if you’ll just give me one more chance—”
But this time it was Kikyo who interrupted, holding up a hand for silence. “Relax, Kagome,” she said, rather more kindly than Inuyasha had expected—which somehow made him uneasy, “I didn’t call you in here to fire you.”
“You didn’t?” they both said in unison, exchanging a sideways glare of annoyance afterwards.
“No. Oh, don’t get me wrong—I don’t suggest you two make a habit of starting food fights in the middle of the dinner seating—but no one got hurt, the customers enjoyed the show, and everyone went home happy, so ultimately there was no harm done. Actually, I asked you here because I have a bit of good news for both of you.”
“Good news?” Kagome repeated, frowning in bewilderment.
“I think so, anyway,” Kikyo continued. “As you two must have figured out by now, you’re easily our most popular chefs—and as you demonstrated this evening, you both have a great deal of technical skill and performance instinct.”
Oh no. He had a sneaking suspicion he knew where this was going, and he didn’t like it one bit. It couldn’t be—the prospect was too horrible.
“And, as you may also be aware, Kagome, the annual North American Teppanyaki Championships in New York will be taking place in just a few weeks. We always send our two best people, and this year it’s even more imperative that our representatives be the top in the field. You see, it’s the tenth anniversary of the competition, so the purse is nearly four times the usual amount—and of course, the potential gains in terms of prestige and publicity are much higher than usual as well. So, this year I would like to send…”
No. No, no, no…
In the haze of his self-pity, Inuyasha was only dimly aware of the outside world—but Kagome, for her part, looked rather dumbstruck.
“Uh…us two?” she repeated. “You mean me and…Inuyasha?”
Kikyo smiled almost apologetically and nodded.
“You’ll be there for a week, and of course all your expenses will be paid,” Kikyo carried on to explain. “I don’t know how familiar you are with the format of the competition, Kagome, but Inuyasha can answer any questions you may have—he’s been the champion for the last three years.” When she caught sight of Inuyasha’s death glare, she gave a wry smile and amended, “Perhaps you’d be better off asking Miroku instead. He’s usually been the one to go along, but, well, now that you’ve shown such potential… Anyway, the details can all be ironed out later, but for the time being, pencil it into your schedules, will you? I know you’ll both be fantastic.”
In a slight daze, they both got up to leave the office. It wasn’t until the door clicked shut behind them that the spell was broken and they rounded on each other.
Inuyasha beat her to the punch. “Drop out.”
“What?” she snapped back, careful to keep her voice hushed, wary of the various staff members still cleaning up the place.
“Hey, I know you don’t want to spend a week with me any more than I want to spend one with you.”
“So? Why should I be the one to drop out?”
“Because, you’re new,” he replied, as if it were obvious—which it was.
Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to agree. “Exactly—you’ve won it three times. Now it’s my turn.”
“Hey, I’m only looking out for you. Just trying to prevent you from making a total fool of yourself.”
“Oh bullshit,” she hissed. “You’re just afraid I’ll beat you.”
“Am not! I just don’t want to spend a week listening to your whining.”
“Yeah, your whining!”
She made a frustrated sound, almost a growl. “You jackass! Well if you’re so worried about it, you drop out.”
For a moment they simply stood there, at an impasse—but finally it was clear that neither one was going to be the one to back down or drop out. She might have been an obnoxious, insufferable bitch, but he had to admit—she was stubborn.
Unfortunately for both of them, so was he.
* * *
Kagome leaned back against the front door of the apartment as she closed it behind her, heaving a sigh and closing her eyes.
“Hey,” Hojo said, and she heard him flick off the TV, heard the couch cushions creak slightly as he got to his feet. She wasn’t surprised to find him up—he usually seemed to be awake, watching a movie or cooking or just finishing up some work, when she got home. “What’s up?”
She opened her eyes to give him a weary smile. “Guess who’s representing Katana at the tenth anniversary of the North American Teppanyaki Championships in New York City.”
“No kidding—really?” he said, breaking into a smile and grasping her by the shoulders. “That’s fantastic! Congratulations!”
She nodded halfheartedly. “Thanks—but that’s only the good news.”
He frowned in concern. “What’s the bad news?”
“Guess who’s going with me?” she replied, giving him a wry look.
“Uh-oh. The jerky guy?”
“Who else?” she said with a shrug—then she let Hojo pull her into a comforting hug, wrapping her arms loosely around his waist and resting her cheek against his soft, t-shirt-covered shoulder.
“What’re you going to do?” he asked, his right hand rubbing soothing circles on her back.
She shrugged again, still in his embrace, and mumbled, “Put up with it, I guess. I mean, this is the chance of a lifetime—and there’s no way he’s going to back out. If he’s anything, he’s stubborn. And I’m certainly not about to back out, so…I guess we’ll just have to go and do our best not to drive each other crazy. It shouldn’t be that hard—I mean, it’s not like we’ll be sharing a room or anything. We’ll only have to see each other at the actual competition functions, maybe take a few pictures together for publicity. We’ll just stay out of each other’s way, and it’ll be fine.”
“Yeah…that makes sense. You’ll figure it out, I know you will. And hey, it’s only a week, right?” he said encouragingly, pulling her closer by a fraction.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “Still, what am I going to do for a week in New York all by myself?” Suddenly a thought occurred to her and she pulled back to face him. “Hey—you could come with me!”
“Yeah—the restaurant is paying for my room, so all you’d have to buy would be the plane ticket. It would be so much fun—and maybe you could keep me from wringing that smug jackass’s neck.” He still looked apprehensive, so she gave him a beseeching look. “Please? I really don’t want to have to deal with him alone…”
He sighed, looking her in the eyes, and she felt like he was searching for something, but she wasn’t sure what it was. “I don’t know…when is it?”
“Three weeks from Saturday.”
He winced. “I…I can’t. I’m sorry,” he said, and from his expression she could tell he really meant it. In fact, he looked more disappointed than she was. “I’m working on a big project for one of our major clients, and the deal closes that week—I have to be here. But I wish I could go—really, I do.”
She gave him a small, understanding smile and nod and eased herself out of his arms. “That’s okay,” she said, “I understand. Listen I…I’m really beat. I should probably turn in.”
“Okay. See you in the morning,” he replied, flashing a smile back at her.
She flicked her eyes back to his briefly, feeling a slight awkwardness, as though she’d walked into the wrong room and had only just realized it—and then she turned away and headed off to her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
It was probably better that he couldn’t come with her, now that she thought about it. That expression on his face when he’d had to turn her down had said it all. She probably shouldn’t have let him hold her for so long—but it had just felt so comfortable. It was nice having someone to come home to, someone to complain to when things were bad, and someone to celebrate with when they were good. She liked that about their relationship—no matter what, he was always on her side. But sometimes she worried that she was taking advantage of him, somehow, and that was the last thing she wanted. Then again, maybe she was just being arrogant and paranoid, reading too much into things. He was her friend, and he wanted to be able to support her—that was only natural.
In any case, she was back at square one. A week alone in a strange city with only Inuyasha for company loomed ahead of her like Mount Doom on the horizon of Mordor, and she was still short a Samwise. Tossing her purse on the bed, she picked up her cordless from the nightstand and dialed Sango’s number, hoping she’d still be up.
Fortune smiled upon her when Sango’s voice answered on the second ring. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Kagome! I heard the news—you excited?”
“Well, yes and no,” she answered noncommittally.
“Ah,” Sango said ruefully. “The Inuyasha thing, right?”
“Yeah,” Kagome sighed, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. “Actually, that’s why I’m calling. Look, I know it’s kind of a lot to ask, but do you think you could ask Kikyo for the week off and come with me? You could share my room, so you’d only have to pay the airfare. Hell, I’ll split it with you if you want—I just don’t want to have to deal with him for an entire week by myself.”
Sango gave a commiserating sigh. “Yeah, I know what you mean. No picnic, is he.”
“So…will you do it?”
“I don’t know…”
“Oh come on,” Kagome begged. “Think about it at least?”
Sango hesitated slightly before replying—but at last she nodded and said, “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you! Thank you so much—I really owe you one, Sango.”
“Calm down already, I don’t even know if it’ll work out.”
“Oh come on, give me a break here, I’m hanging on by a thread,” Kagome joked, and Sango laughed.
“Yeah, yeah, okay. Listen, I’ve got a pot on the stove here, so I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay,” Kagome agreed. “Thanks again, though, really.”
“Don’t worry about it. Bye.”
Sango leaned back against the kitchen counter as they hung up, setting the phone aside and heaving a sigh. Well, a week in New York would be nice—assuming she could get Kikyo to agree to let her off. With their two best chefs already gone, the place was sure to be short-staffed—but then again, one more person gone couldn’t make that big a difference, could it?
“Guess who I just got off the phone with,” she said as Miroku walked back into the kitchen and crossed to stir the pot of chili that was on the stove.
“Kagome?” he replied, and she turned to him with a surprised frown.
“How’d you know?”
He glanced over at her, raising an eyebrow in amusement. “Inuyasha just called me on my cell.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding her comprehension. “Let me guess—he wants you to come along and play referee?”
“Well, they may hate each other’s guts, but you’ve got to admit, they sure do think alike.”
“Can’t argue with you there,” she agreed. “What did you say?”
“Told him I’d talk to Kikyo about it. You?”
“Same. When do you think we should—” But she was cut off as the handset she’d left on the counter only moments ago began ringing again. Miroku reached across the stove to pick it up.
“Hello?” His eyebrows raised in mild surprise as the voice on the other end responded, and Sango gave him a questioning look. “Kikyo,” he mouthed.
Sango crossed her arms and waited semi-patiently, watching his expression transform itself from curiosity to amusement to almost mischievous joy. Most of the conversation seemed to be on her end, Miroku only interjecting the occasional “Mm-hm,” “Yep,” or “I agree. That’s what I thought.” Finally he nodded, saying, “Okay. Yeah sure, we’ll figure it out. No problem. Okay… Bye.”
“So?” Sango asked as he ended the call and put the handset back in the cradle where it belonged.
“Looks like we’re going to New York,” he said with a shrug.
“Nope,” he chuckled. “Guess there are more than two minds that think alike around here. Kikyo’s already booked us a room and airfare, all on the restaurant, of course, and she’s offered us the entire week off with pay in exchange for one simple favor.”
“And that would be?”
“In her words, ‘keeping her two prize chefs from bashing each other’s brains out.’”
Sango gave a wry laugh. “Easier said than done.”
“Indeed.” Miroku grinned and slid his arms around her waist. “But hey, at least we get a free vacation out of the deal.”
Sango laughed again, leaned up to give him a soft kiss. “Good point. I think it’s worth it.”
Chapter 3: One Little Slip
Once Kagome had come to terms with the idea of spending a week in New York with Inuyasha—and confirmed that not one, but two human buffers would be accompanying them on the trip—it had occurred to her that she would be participating in a major, high-profile competition in roughly three weeks, and she knew next to nothing about it. Oh, sure, she’d heard of it, and she had a passing familiarity with contests of this type (she’d even won a few, after all), but she’d never been involved with one that was quite on this level before—and since she’d never really been in this business for the awards or the acclaim, she hadn’t bothered to acquaint herself more thoroughly with the upper echelon of the competition circuit. However, if she was going to actually compete in this thing, she figured she ought to at least learn a bit more about what she would be expected to do before she went flitting off to New York to make a complete fool of herself.
So, to that end, the morning after finding out about the competition, she had called Miroku and offered him a free lunch at the diner down the street from his apartment in exchange for a full rundown on the whole thing, as well as any advice or inside information he might have to offer. Never one to turn down a free meal, Miroku had readily agreed.
“Alright,” he began, setting his coffee cup down beside his now half-empty plate and leaning forward against the edge of the Formica tabletop. Kagome, still nibbling on her French fries, nodded intently to indicate she was listening. “Well, basically the competition consists of three ‘rounds,’” Miroku explained. “The first one is called the Chance round. That one’s pretty much like any normal night here—except with a team of judges as your customers and an auditorium full of people watching. You get your menu and essential ingredients exactly ten minutes before your performance—any props or extras you want to have, you bring in yourself ahead of time, assuming they’re legal. Anyway, then you just go out there and do the best you can with what you’ve got. You’re scored on both the quality of the meal and on entertainment value—they’ve got a rubric you can download from the website that details the specific elements they look for. And the meals for that one are all standard fare—nothing tricky.
“The next one is the Fixed round. For that one there is a set of more elaborate dishes given out in advance—they probably just released the one for this year a couple of days ago, actually—and you come in with a prepared program. Again, you’re scored on both food quality and presentation elements, but the idea is to give you a chance to be a little more virtuosic, less improvisational.
“Finally, you’ve got the Pairs round. That one’s my favorite because you ge—”
“Whoa, whoa, hold the phone—pairs?” Kagome interrupted, her heart rate leaping upward. Miroku nodded innocently, but Kagome wasn’t comforted. “You don’t mean pairs as in…partners. As in…”
“’Fraid so,” Miroku admitted, his smile dry, but amused. “You and Inuyasha will be competing in that one together. But really, it won’t be that hard—what you two did that night at the restaurant was basically the same as the Pairs round. Except, of course, you usually plan it out in advance. And you usually do it without the death glares.”
“Ha, ha,” Kagome deadpanned. “Well so much for the idea of avoiding him all week. God, I’m starting to think maybe I’d be better off just dropping out after all.”
“Inuyasha would love that.”
“Yeah, I know—that’s the one thing keeping me in the race.”
Miroku grinned. “Come on, it won’t be that bad.”
“Not that bad? Do you realize this means we’ll have to rehearse together ahead of time? Can you imagine what that asshole will be like one-on-one with something like this?”
“Quite vividly, actually—you’re talking to your predecessor, remember?”
“Oh yeah,” she said sheepishly. “Sorry about that.”
“Hey, no hard feelings or anything—I’ve never been much for the competitions. I’ve usually been happy just playing second banana to our friend Lord of the Grill.”
“Yeah, well, you can bet I won’t be settling for that. No offense,” she added quickly.
“No, I can bet you won’t,” he agreed. “And that’s why you’re competing and I’m not.”
She looked him in the eyes, feeling her insecurities rise to the surface. “You really think so?”
“Hey, trust me—I know so,” he replied with a genuine smile.
She returned the gesture, feeling somewhat comforted. “Thanks—I hope you’re right. So…how does the scoring work on that one then? We’re competing against each other in the other rounds, aren’t we?”
“Well, the scoring is complicated on that one. There are teamwork elements and individual elements—and some of the individual elements are based on how well each member of the pair plays off of and works with the other. In the end, you don’t necessarily get the same score, but part of your individual score depends on your ability to work effectively with the other person. Bottom line, though, it’s an exhibition round—the main reason it was instated was to be a crowd pleaser. Part of the reasoning behind the whole competition is to honor good work and acknowledge the leaders in the field—but frankly, most of the point is to drum up publicity for the participating restaurants and make a boatload of money off the ticket sales. You’d be surprised how many people will pay to come watch us work without even getting to eat the food afterward. People even have groupies. Inuyasha had a stalker for a couple of months last year.”
“A stalker? There are people who stalk chefs?” Kagome muttered bemusedly.
“Apparently so,” Miroku replied with a shrug, taking a sip of his coffee.
“That’s…weird. Inuyasha, huh? You’d think even a stalker would have better taste.”
Miroku chuckled. “Can’t argue with that. Why stalk that fuss-pot when they could stalk a kind, debonair gentleman like myself?”
This time it was Kagome’s turn to laugh. “On second thought, the stalkers are probably safer with Inuyasha. He’d just slam doors in their faces—you’d actually take them up on all their kinky propositions, assuming they were pretty enough.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he smirked. “But whatever it is, don’t tell Sango…”
* * *
Kagome spent the next couple of days in and out of her own mind, trying to come up with the best way to broach the subject of the Pairs competition with Inuyasha. Although it hardly seemed possible, if anything the tension between the two of them had heightened since their meeting with Kikyo. Inuyasha’s glares had grown colder, and with each one he shot at her, Kagome felt her spine straighten a bit further. All in all, the atmosphere was not exactly conducive to amiable conversation, much less teamwork of any kind.
Finally, one day, while she was at one of the counters in the kitchen doing the prep work for her next table, a fat spiral notebook was dropped on the counter just to her left with a smack, making her jump. She glanced at it in confusion, and then over in the other direction to see Inuyasha heading for the door back out to the dining room.
“Hey!” she called, and he stopped and turned back, looking supremely annoyed. “What’s this?” She wiped her hands on the towel at her belt and brandished the notebook.
“What do you think?” he snapped. “Program for the Pairs round. Study it—and don’t fuck it up.” He turned to leave again, but she grabbed him by the arm. “What now?” he whined.
“Excuse me,” she gritted, notebook-bearing hand on her hip, “but don’t you think this is something we should have discussed and worked out together? I’m not your assistant, you know—we’re colleagues. Partners.”
He winced at the word, as if it caused him physical pain to hear it. She hoped it did. “Yeah, well, partner, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing—I do. Get it? Good. Now study the goddamn notebook, and we’ll run it a couple of times the week before we leave.” This time he yanked his arm from her grip and slipped out of the room before she could stop him again.
That evening, Kagome sat up late and read through the pages that described the routine Inuyasha had worked out for them. Surprise, surprise, he had cast himself as the star of the show. Her part in the routine seemed to be the rough equivalent of “wall with arms.” Typical. The whole thing made her so angry she was tempted to tear all the pages out and throw it back in his stupid face—but after a soothing cup of tea and a few deep breaths, she came up with a better idea. A self-satisfied smirk spreading across her face, she grabbed a blue felt-tipped pen from the kitchen drawer and the notebook from the counter and sat down to make a few changes.
The next day, she was the one to drop the notebook on the counter as Inuyasha was working. As she’d known it would, his voice stopped her just before she reached the kitchen door.
“What the hell is this? I told you to study this thing—don’t tell me you’ve fucking memorized it already.”
“Oh, no, certainly not,” she simpered. “I just made a few minor alterations to the program, and I thought you might like to see the revised version. Don’t worry, I kept a copy for myself.” And with that, she breezed out the door.
She did not get far.
Inuyasha caught up to her a few steps outside the kitchen and whirled her around. “What the hell did you do, wench?” he hissed. “You ruined it—there’s no way we can go in there with this crap!”
“You didn’t even read it!”
“I saw enough!”
“Excuse me,” Sango interrupted pointedly, appearing beside them. “Sorry to interrupt, but do you think you could take this someplace else? People are trying to eat out here.”
“Oh shut up, Sango,” Inuyasha snarled.
“Don’t tell her to shut up,” Kagome rebuked.
“I’ll say whatever I damn well please!”
“Guys!” Sango interrupted again, and they both rounded on her in unison.
The waitress looked from one to the other sternly, and Kagome gave her a sheepish grimace. “Sorry Sango. Come on, Inuyasha.” Grabbing the blustering hanyou by the arm, she dragged him back through the kitchen and into the staff room.
“Get off me!” he grumbled, shrugging out of her grip once they’d arrived.
“Do you always have to be such a troll?”
“Look who’s talking.”
“Hey, do unto others, buddy.”
“Whatever,” he dismissed. “Anyway, you’ve had your fun—now are you gonna do the program the right way or not?”
“Hell no! You could have written yourself in a cape and top hat and me in a sequined bikini and I wouldn’t have come off worse. I told you, I’m not your ‘lovely assistant’—”
“Least we agree on something,” he interjected.
“—and I’m not just going to stand by and let you take all the bows. Either this is an equal partnership, or there isn’t going to be one at all.”
“Oh yeah? Does that mean you’re quitting?”
“No, it means that if you won’t give me a part, I’m gonna take one for myself—and believe me, you won’t like the part I take.”
He barked a laugh. “Are you threatening me?”
“You bet your ass I’m threatening you. So what’s it going to be?”
He narrowed his eyes at her, and she could practically see those rusty old wheels grinding into motion. “Fine,” he said at last. “I’ll look it over—and get back to you with my notes.” Then he disappeared, leaving the door swinging wildly in his wake.
It took the better part of that week to come up with their actual routine. Inuyasha had brought the notebook back to her with another, only slightly more acceptable draft scrawled inside, and she’d upped the ante by sending it right back at him with her own version. He’d come back at her with another one, and she’d kept at it, back and forth, back and forth, until finally they ended up with a program that was about as close to a compromise as they were going to get. They’d each made a few concessions, and neither was entirely happy, but at least they were both willing to do it.
Then, in hopes of minimizing the amount of time they would actually have to spend together, they each devoted a measure of their free time during the following week to honing the skills that would be required of them in the routine, in addition to any tricks and techniques they were planning to utilize in their solo programs.
It was grueling work, making time for practicing on top of regular work hours and everything else, but Inuyasha, for his part, wasn’t troubled by it. Truth be told, he couldn’t think of many better ways to spend his Saturday nights than hovering over a hot grill with the steam dewing in his bangs, fighting the burning protests of his muscles as he drilled maneuvers over and over again and imagined the sweet burst of applause that would greet each one once he was back there in front of that crowd. He loved the rush, the feeling of being completely in control of his every movement, of having them in awe of him, completely at his mercy. He never felt quite as in control of his circumstances as when he was at the grill. And anyway, it beat going home to an empty apartment and watching “Who’s the Boss?” reruns.
But of course, things were a little different this time. This time, that wench Kagome had decided to stick her nose in where it didn’t belong and insisted on changing the Pairs program. He stabbed his cooking fork into a fresh piece of steak and sliced away at it ever more fiercely. Damn her. It was the one thing—the one thing—that had always been his, without question. He was the best. He liked being the best. He didn’t want to be “one of the best,” or (god forbid) “second best”—he just wanted everything to go back to normal, the way it had been before she’d shown up and started turning everything upside-down with all her…her…smiling, and laughing, and turning lobsters into mermaids and shit. What the hell was that, anyway? He just wanted his old life back—he wanted to be in control again.
Finally, a few days before they would be leaving for the contest, the two agreed reluctantly to meet after the restaurant had closed down for the evening and run through the program a few times, just to make sure everything worked and there were no major problems they had to fix before they left.
They spoke as little as possible, going through the tricks and transitions a few times with relatively few problems. Every so often she would make a mistake and he would snap at her, but she seemed to be making a special effort to be tolerant this evening, because her retorts were minimal, clipped and businesslike. This probably should have been a good thing, but somehow it only wound him up further. By the time they’d been practicing for nearly two hours, he was practically dying for her to shout at him, just so that he’d have an excuse to pick a real fight and blow off a little steam. It had been a very tense few weeks, after all, and usually his practice time was his chance to find release—but unfortunately, with the source of his tension right there with him the whole time, that was impossible.
She flicked a row of shrimp tails neatly across to his grill for him to rebound into his jacket pocket using his spatula—all except for the last one, which went wide and missed him completely. “Goddammit, Kagome!” he growled, throwing his spatula to the grill with a clang.
“What?” she snapped, her businesslike demeanor visibly cracking at last. “Yeah, okay, I missed one—fine! Sue me! We’ve been at this for three hours, Inuyasha—and for god’s sake, did I scream at you when you hit me in the face with the sirloin?”
“That was your fault! You were supposed to be ready to catch it!”
“I was ready to catch it—at the waist, not the chin! No wonder you want a talking wall for a partner—you’d be lucky to hit the broad side of a barn!”
“Oh yeah? Well I’d trade you for that talking wall any day—even a wall couldn’t yammer on any more than you do!”
She rolled her eyes at him. “That makes absolutely no sense.”
“Oh, well now that’s original.”
“Alright, you want original?” he fumed, storming over to her and grabbing her roughly by the wrist. “There’s only one way to shut up a cunt like you, and it’s sure as hell not to kiss you.”
Black flames shone in her pupils, and then a sharp crack filled the room as she slapped him hard across the face.
Her wrist disappeared from his loosened grip, and he blinked, lifting a slightly dazed hand to his jaw. Glancing up, he realized she was already halfway across the room and heading for the door at a brisk pace, her purse slung over her shoulder. “Hey,” he said, starting after her. That slap seemed to have knocked something out of him—he wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but he was glad it was gone. “Kagome, hang on a sec, will you?”
“This rehearsal is over, Inuyasha,” she said firmly, turning back to shoot him a stony glare. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The door squeaked slightly as she disappeared into the night, and Inuyasha slumped back against the nearest grill with a sigh, running a hand through his hair and rolling his eyes at himself. What the hell had come over him? Yeah, sure, he hated her guts—that went with out saying. But what he’d said—even for him, that had been crossing the line. There was just something about this woman—she could drive him nuts just by walking into a room, filling his brain with a haze until all that mattered was topping her, by whatever means necessary. Anyway, he supposed he was tired too—it had been a long week and a long day, and it was after two in the morning already. No surprise he was a little edgier than usual these days.
Grousing at being left with all the cleanup duties, Inuyasha set about clearing away the evidence of their practice session, munching on a few of the leftovers that were in better shape—dinner had been quite awhile ago, he now realized. Finally, with everything back in its proper place, he pulled his keys from his pocket, set the alarm, and headed for home. With any luck, things would have blown over by the next morning.
Chapter 4: Via Con Me
Kagome dropped another folded shirt into the open suitcase on her bed before scooting out across the living room and into the bathroom to dig through the cabinet for her razor. Stupid thing was never in the same place twice. Why couldn’t she learn to keep everything in a specific spot like any normal—ah! There it was, stuck behind the makeup bag. She grabbed that too, figuring she’d probably need it at some point, and crossed back toward her bedroom, flashing Hojo a quick smile where he sat at the dining table with the paper and a piece of toast.
“How’s the packing coming along?” he asked as she hurried by.
“Not bad,” she called back. “I think I’m almost done.”
“Uh-huh.” He didn’t sound convinced. “When did you say he was coming?”
“Ten. He’ll probably be late though. It’d be just like him to leave me standing on the corner like an idiot for half an hour, just for the hell of it. Oh! Damn.” She swung around the doorjamb and scurried to the kitchen this time, feeling Hojo’s eyes follow her over the top of his newspaper. It took a couple minutes of digging thorough the piles of mail and old magazines on the counter, but she soon came up with her driver’s license. “Wouldn’t want to forget this,” she joked sheepishly on her way back to the bedroom again.
“What was it doing in the kitchen?”
“Got carded at the liquor store the other night, and I kept forgetting to put it back in my wallet,” she explained.
“Yeah, speaking of which, wasn’t there a full bottle of pinot in the fridge just a couple of days ago? What happened to it?”
She paused in the midst of folding up an extra pair of jeans. “It’s been a stressful week, okay?” she replied, only a little defensively.
She could practically hear his eyebrows raise from the other room. “You drank it all?”
“Not all—I put a little in the pasta.”
She hesitated. “Quarter of a cup.”
There was a brief silence. And then: “You know, Kagome, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. There’s still time to get out of it. That other guy, Miroku—he’s going isn’t he? He could take your place.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she called back, trying to sound casual. “I couldn’t pull a switch like that on him this late in the game—it wouldn’t be fair. Besides, stressful as it is, I really do want to go through with this. For myself.” She rolled up a couple more pairs of socks and stuffed them in the nooks and crannies around her clothes.
“He can go screw himself, for all I care. Ah! Hairdryer…” She scampered back out across the living room, sliding a bit on the wood floor in her stocking feet. Retrieving her travel hairdryer from under the sink—those built-in hotel ones never had enough wind force for her thick hair—she turned around and slipped back out, only to run right into Hojo, who had stepped into her path. “Oh! Sorry…”
“Kagome,” he said seriously, grasping her shoulders and fixing her with his gaze, “are you sure you’re okay with this?”
She looked into his eyes and found herself smiling at the genuine concern she saw there—he really was a sweet guy. “Yes,” she replied sincerely. “Really.”
“Okay,” he agreed. “But call me if you need anything, okay? Even if it’s just to rant about what a jerk-off this Inuyasha guy is.”
She grinned and gave him a nod, skirting around him and slipping back into her bedroom to shove her hairdryer into her bag and zip it up the rest of the way. Heaving her purse and carry on onto her shoulder and slipping on her shoes, she lugged the slightly overstuffed suitcase to the floor and extended the handle, dragging it along with her as she headed for the door. “Bye Hojo! Have a great week, okay? I’ll call you.”
“You’d better,” he replied with a smile, settling back at the table to finish his toast. “Good luck!”
“Thanks!” she managed, just before she finished closing the door. Then it was down the stairs and out the door to the street to wait for Inuyasha.
She wasn’t sure whether to be happy or not when she exited the apartment building to find him already there waiting for her, leaning back against his scarlet sedan with his arms crossed over his chest. She hesitated only slightly in the doorway, and then resumed her stride with greater purpose, heading for the trunk. He rolled to his feet and walked around to open the back, taking the suitcase from her without a word and lifting it inside himself, and she turned away to climb into the passenger’s seat and wait.
They hadn’t actually seen each other since the incident a couple of days previous. Neither of them had been working full schedules the last few days, since Kikyo had given them a bit of extra time to prepare for the trip, and their hours had not overlapped. Kagome suspected this was not a coincidence. Not that Kikyo was aware of what had happened—she supposed she’d just figured it was safer to keep the matches and the gunpowder in separate drawers when it was possible to do so.
The car rocked slightly as the trunk thumped shut, and again when Inuyasha pulled open the door and slid into the driver’s seat, starting the engine and pulling back out into traffic. Kagome crossed her legs at the ankles and shifted in her seat, trying to make herself more comfortable. The light ahead of them turned green, and Kagome glanced out the window, her eyes sliding distantly over familiar storefronts as they swept past.
“Listen,” he said after a little while, his voice gruff, but also vaguely uncomfortable, “about the other night…”
She heaved a sigh, smiling wryly as she interrupted, “Hey, you know what—it was late, we were both tired and stressed out; let’s just…forget about it, okay?”
He released a breath, and there was a distinct note of relief in the way his shoulders seemed to relax as she said this. “Yeah. Okay,” he said, readjusting his grip on the steering wheel and taking a left onto a narrower street that would lead them out toward I-94.
Kagome rested her elbow on the windowsill, fist against her chin as she watched the uniform trees of this more residential street flick by. It was a moment or two before she realized she was nibbling anxiously at her thumbnail and made herself stop, folding her hands firmly in her lap. Finally, she took a deep breath and let it out resolutely.
“Listen,” she began, turning to him. His eyes flicked over to her with something like fear, but quickly returned to the road. “We’re going to be seeing a lot of each other this week whether we like it or not, and the fact is that this will be easier and more pleasant for both of us if we can at least try to get along. I’m not saying we have to like each other—I think we can both agree that’s not likely to happen anytime soon—but if we could at least do our best to just not get on each other’s nerves, maybe things will actually go relatively smoothly. Okay?”
He glanced at her again, frowning a little, looking skeptical. “Okay…” he muttered, though his tone was dubious.
“Good. So we’ve got a deal then, right? Truce?”
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.”
Well. That had gone well. Kagome shrugged mentally, shifting back to lean against the windowsill again—maybe it would do a little good, at least.
They rode the rest of the way in silence.
* * *
They met up with Miroku and Sango in the ticketing hall at O’Hare—the other two had already checked their luggage since they were on a different reservation from the Kagome and Inuyasha. Kagome pulled out her itinerary and headed over to one of the e-ticket alcoves to check-in herself and Inuyasha, since the reservation had been made in her name. Oddly enough, Inuyasha didn’t seem perturbed by this, and Kagome suspected that Miroku had always been “the keeper of the itinerary” on their previous trips. He was just used to being taken care of when it came to the pesky little details. Typical.
She scanned her credit card, but nothing came up; so she tried typing in the confirmation number—still nothing. Brow furrowing, she tried a WorldPerks number, then a retyping of the confirmation number, just in case she’d gotten it wrong—but no luck.
“What’s taking so long?” Inuyasha grumbled.
“I’m not sure,” she murmured distractedly, typing in the WorldPerks number again. “It’s not giving me the reservation.”
“What do you mean it’s not giving you the reservation?”
“Just what I said.”
“Well you confirmed it, didn’t you?” he snapped.
She took a calming breath, but couldn’t keep the edge out of her voice. “Yes, of course I did—but for some reason it’s not here.”
“That’s impossible. Move over,” he ordered, snatching the itinerary from her hand and shoving in front of the screen himself to start punching in the same numbers Kagome had been trying.
“Something wrong, Kagome?” Sango asked as she and Miroku wandered over from where they had been standing a few feet away.
“Looks like they’ve lost our reservation,” she sighed.
“Dammit,” Inuyasha hissed, grabbing his duffel bag up off the floor and marching over to one of the staffed counters. “Come on.”
“Inuyasha, there’s a line,” Kagome pointed out, but he shot her a glare and simply kept on walking, stepping up to the counter right in front of a middle aged couple, who looked at him in confusion. Kagome gave them an apologetic look as she caught up.
“Um, excuse me, sir,” the young, red-headed woman behind the counter began, looking uncertainly between Inuyasha and the older couple behind him.
“What the hell happened to our reservation?” he demanded, slapping the itinerary down onto the counter.
“Inuyasha, chill out,” Kagome implored. “Let’s just wait our turn, okay? We’ve got plenty of time.”
“No—this is bullshit.” He rounded on the red-head again. “Come on, where is it?”
“Inuyasha,” Kagome tugged at his arm, but the man of the older couple interrupted her.
“No, no—it’s okay, you two go ahead,” he said with a knowing smile that Kagome found rather confusing. “Honeymooners, right? We know what it’s like.”
“What?” Inuyasha whirled around, horrified, acknowledging the couple for the first time. “I am absolutely not—ow!”
“Yeah,” Kagome interrupted with a smile, digging her heel into Inuyasha’s foot, “it’s a bit hectic, isn’t it? Thanks very much for understanding.”
“No problem,” the older woman said with a wink, and the two of them headed off toward the other end of the counter where another ticket agent had just opened up.
“What in the fucking hell did you—” Inuyasha snarled at her, but she stopped him with a warning finger.
His jaw clenched, his eyes flashing. “I am not, nor will I ever be married to you.”
“Thank god for that,” she retorted in an undertone.
“Um, excuse me.” They both looked up at the red-head, who was giving them a nervous smile. “I found your reservation, but it looks like it’s been canceled.”
“Canceled?” Kagome replied. “How can that be? I just checked it last night.”
“It was canceled this morning,” the young woman explained. “But if you want, I can rebook it for you—those seats are still available.”
Kagome breathed a sigh of relief. “That would be excellent, thank you.”
“Sure,” the ticket agent replied, looking rather relieved herself. “The last-minute price will be five-hundred dollars.”
“Five-hundred dollars!” Inuyasha burst out. “You’re telling us we have to pay five-hundred dollars extra for tickets we already bought?”
“Well, actually it’s five-hundred per ticket.”
Kagome shushed him before turning back to the red-head. “You have got to be kidding me. We are not paying a thousand dollars for these tickets.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”
“The hell there isn’t!” Inuyasha growled. “You can give us our goddamn tickets or—”
“Inuyasha, lower your voice!”
He rounded on Kagome. “Oh, you shut up—this is all your fault anyway!”
“My fault? How is this my fault?”
“You were the one who was supposed to confirm the damn tickets—you must’ve canceled them by mistake.”
“I did not,” she defended. “Besides, they were canceled this morning—I haven’t been near them since last night.”
“Well you must’ve done it somehow!”
“I’m telling you, I—”
“Excuse me,” a new voice interrupted, and they both looked over to find an older, more sturdy-looking ticket agent joining the now visibly frightened red-head behind the desk. “Is there some sort of problem I can help you with?”
“You’re damn right there is,” Inuyasha grumbled, but Kagome silenced him with a look before turning to the new ticket agent. It took a bit of doing, but once Kagome had explained the situation to the older woman calmly, she took the place of the red-head at the desk (who looked quite relieved to be getting out of Inuyasha’s line of fire) and clattered away at the keyboard for a few minutes. Finally she was able to rebook them into their original reservation with only a minimal fee. Inuyasha still grumbled at having to pay it, even though they both knew they could get Kikyo to reimburse them later, but he limited himself to a mild surliness, at least. By the time they rejoined Miroku and Sango, who had understandably chosen to keep their distance during this little episode, neither was in the best of moods.
Miroku and Sango tried to keep things light and upbeat to rectify this, and Kagome probably would have been able to shake off her annoyance with little difficulty if it hadn’t been for Inuyasha. Inuyasha grumbled his way through security, he grumbled his way through the concourse, he grumbled his way through the jetway, and he grumbled his way all the way back to his seat. Of course he and Kagome were seated together, and of course he insisted on taking the window, leaving her with the aisle. Kagome had asked as they were walking through the airport if she could trade seats with Miroku or Sango, who were seated directly in front of them, but they had both refused. She couldn’t blame them. They wanted to sit together, after all, and neither one wanted to have to sit next to Grumpy. That happy privilege was all hers.
Blessedly, the grumbling eased somewhat as they settled into their seats and the plane taxied down the runway. Inuyasha seemed to be more or less content to stare out the window with his chin in his palm, watching the ground fall away as they took off and the clouds close in around them as they climbed higher and higher into the sky. Kagome pulled out a novel and tried to read, but she couldn’t seem to get into it, always getting distracted and rereading the same paragraphs over and over. She shifted around in her seat a bit, trying to get comfortable—no easy task.
“Quit kicking me,” Inuyasha snapped, shooting her a glare.
“I wasn’t kicking you—I was just trying to get comfortable. These seats are so cramped.”
“Oh come on, what are you complaining about—you’re a shrimp. Get your knee back over on your side.”
“It is on my side—you’re the one taking up all the leg room.”
“So? I have longer legs,” he justified. “And get your bag out of the way down there,” he nudged it roughly with his toe, “It’s crushing my foot.”
“That’s because your foot is on my side too,” she gritted, shoving at his ankle with her foot.
“Ow! Will you quit kicking me and stepping on me and shit?”
“Come off it—that wasn’t a kick, you big baby,” she said exasperatedly.
“It was too—and that thing at the ticket counter, that fucking hurt, wench.”
“I was just trying to stop you from being a jackass.”
“I was just trying to explain to those morons that we weren’t married.”
“So what if they thought we were married? It was a better excuse for your behavior than you just being a jerk.”
“Are you kidding me? I don’t want people going around thinking I’d marry you, bitch. I’ve got better taste than that.”
“Yeah, well I’m not crazy about the idea either, but still, at least it was better than having to explain that you’re a inveterate asshole.”
“Now, now, kids,” Miroku interrupted, appearing over the seat in front of them as he turned around to face them, “there’s still time to turn this plane around if you two can’t quit bickering.”
“Don’t think I won’t do it, because I will,” he warned with a smarmy grin.
“Ha ha, very funny. Fuck off.”
“Will you quit swearing?” Kagome hissed. “There could be kids on this plane.”
“Who gives a crap? It’s a free country—I can say whatever the fuck I want.”
“Yeah, and when you become too much of a nuisance, the staff of this airplane is free to kick us off.”
“Kick us off where? We’re like 30,000 feet above sea level.”
“Fine, then they won’t let us back on for the return trip.”
“Oh come on, how the hell are the people taking tickets for the second flight going to know that I was being a ‘nuisance’ on the first flight?”
“I don’t know—they’ll put us on a watch list in the computer or something.”
“That’s ridiculous—they wouldn’t bother to put us on a watch list just for a dumbass thing like swearing in a plane where there might be children somewhere within earshot.”
“Sure they would—it happens all the time.”
“Oh really? Name me one time where you’ve ever—”
“Okay!” Miroku interrupted, turning around again. “We get it. You hate each other. End of story. Now how about we play the quiet game for awhile? Whoever stays quiet the longest wins. That’s right, Inuyasha, if you stay quiet the longest, that means you beat Kagome at the quiet game—and Kagome, same goes for you. Starting…now.”
Inuyasha shot Miroku a glare, but crossed his arms over his chest and turned to look out the window, not saying a word. Kagome exchanged a look with Miroku that was half-grateful, half-sheepish, and then heaved a sigh and closed her eyes.
“Ha!” Inuyasha exclaimed, making her jump. “That was a noise! That counted—I win.”
“No, Inuyasha,” Miroku said patiently, turning around in his seat once more, “that did not count.”
“But you said whoever could be quiet the longest,” he pointed out. “You didn’t say the sound had to be words.”
“Oh for god’s sake,” she groaned. “What are you, eight?”
“I know you are, but what am I?” he spat.
“Alright,” Miroku interrupted again before they could get going. “Let’s just call that one a dry run. This time the rules are that in order to count, any sound uttered must be either words or other verbal sounds specifically intended to communicate or infuriate. This includes, but is not limited to, growls, scoffs, sarcastic laughs, and barks of any kind. It does not include ordinary respiratory functional noises such as breathing and yawning. Are we all clear on this now?”
Inuyasha and Kagome nodded sullenly.
“Good,” Miroku finished, turning back around in his seat once more with a heavy sigh of his own.
Inuyasha and Kagome glanced at each other with dislike—and then he jerked his gaze back toward the window, and she rolled her eyes, shifting a bit in her seat so that she was facing slightly away from him, hoping to get a little sleep before they landed.
Chapter 5: Something There
The rest of the flight was relatively uneventful, as was the process of retrieving their luggage at the baggage claim. Both Inuyasha and Kagome did a very good job of not speaking to one another, which was a welcome respite for their traveling companions—although at times the pointed silence became almost louder than the bickering. Almost.
The taxi line was long, and the air was a bit too muggy to be really comfortable, but Sango and Miroku placed themselves strategically between the other two in hopes of alleviating any potential friction. Sango and Kagome chatted about the books they were reading—Sango had just started Jonathan Tropper’s The Book of Joe, on Kagome’s recommendation—and Miroku engaged Inuyasha in a Cubs vs. White Sox debate that seemed to keep him relatively entertained. When they finally got to the head of the line, Miroku snagged the front seat next to the driver, flashing Sango a grin as she slipped into the middle of the backseat with the Bickersons. Sango’s answering smile was more like a grimace.
All in all, though the atmosphere on the forty-five minute ride into the city wasn’t exactly relaxed, it was good deal more pleasant than things had been so far, and it was beginning to look like maybe—just maybe—this whole trip might not be such a total fiasco after all.
Until they got to the check-in desk at the hotel.
The place was one of those grand, high-end, luxury business complexes in East Midtown—high ceilings, marble floors, all the furnishings sporting the same honey-glazed wood and tasteful golden chrome accents: a vase here, a narrow inlay there. Inuyasha and Miroku weren’t particularly impressed, having been there for several of these conferences in the past, but Sango and Kagome’s jaws dropped a centimeter in perfect unison the moment they stepped into the lobby.
“Whoa,” Kagome murmured. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
“Are you kidding,” Sango remarked, “If Oz had been like this, Dorothy never would’ve gone home…”
They both laughed, sharing a glance before letting their eyes sweep over the whole of the lobby, taking in the numerous collections of couches and coffee tables, elevators at the far end, a small restaurant and bar off to the left, and a corridor that looked as if it led to the conference and event rooms off to the right and back. Meanwhile, Miroku and Inuyasha headed over to the front desk to start the checking-in process. The women lingered a bit longer, and wandered over to join them just as Miroku was collecting the keys to his and Sango’s room. Kagome and Inuyasha exchanged a brief, irritable look as she took Miroku’s place at the counter and pulled their reservation information out of her purse, but they said nothing—which she decided to consider a step forward for them.
“Hi,” she said, giving the man behind the counter a smile. “We have a reservation for two singles, under the name Kagome Higurashi?”
The man nodded and typed something into the computer, clicking past a couple of things and then frowning slightly. “I’m sorry, could you spell that, please?”
“H-i-g…u-r-a…s-h-i,” she obliged, and he entered it into the computer once more—but once again that small frown creased his brow, and a disconcerting feeling of déjà vu began pooling in Kagome’s stomach.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t find any reservation under that name,” the man said. “Could it possibly be under a different name?”
“Uh…I don’t think so, but,” she glanced at Inuyasha, then back to the man, “try Takahashi—Inuyasha Takahashi.”
He nodded, typing this into the computer as well—but once again he shook his head apologetically. “Sorry—there doesn’t seem to be a reservation under that name either.”
“This is getting ridiculous,” Inuyasha grumbled, sinking to rest against the counter and running a hand through his hair. “We’ve been coming to this competition for years, and we’ve never had problems like this—dammit, it’s gotta be in there. Check again.”
The man raised his eyebrows skeptically, but did as he was told—of course, it was no use.
“Shit,” Kagome breathed, dropping her head into her hands. “Well, do you have any other rooms? We’ll take anything, really—any two rooms you’ve got.”
“I don’t know,” he said, turning back to the computer and beginning to type away again, “the place has been pretty much taken over for this competition, between the spectators and the competitors, but—oh! Actually, you’re in luck—looks like there was a cancellation, so we’ve got one queen-sized single available.”
Both pairs of eyes widened slightly. “You only have one room?” Inuyasha mumbled, dumbstruck.
“With one bed?” Kagome added.
They glanced at each other, both equally horrified at the prospect.
“Okay,” Kagome said, turning away, “Well then obviously we’ve just got to find another hotel.”
“Fine, you do that,” Inuyasha said, flashing her a smirk, “I’ll take the single.”
“Hey!” Kagome protested. “That’s not fair! If anyone should get it, it should be me.”
“How’s that, exactly?”
“Because, I’ve never been here before. And besides, I’m not a selfish asshole.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
“Not when I’m standing next to you it isn’t, you infantile, egotistical, son-of-a—”
“Ah-ah,” he interrupted, still smirking evilly, “what happened to that truce idea, hm? Breaking your own rules now, wench?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, but refused to dignify his remark with a response.
“Ah, excuse me,” the man at the desk cut in gently, drawing her attention back to him. “I’m afraid you may have some difficulty finding a room anywhere nearby on such short notice. This is one of the city’s busiest months for tourism as it is, but between the Teppanyaki competition here and the sci-fi convention being held at the Marriott a few blocks away, it’ll be nearly impossible to get in anywhere.”
Kagome heaved a sigh and dropped her head onto her arms on top of the counter, squeezing her eyes shut. It was looking like this was really their only viable option—but god, if she’d thought a week in a strange city with him would be bad, sharing a room with him for that entire week would be sure to kill her. And that wasn’t even a figure of speech. She seriously doubted that if she and Inuyasha spent a week in an enclosed space together they would both come out alive.
She tilted her head to the side far enough to slant a look up at Inuyasha, only to find him looking back at her with an identical expression of bitter resignation.
Returning to her full height and running a hand through her hair, she took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay—we’ll take it.”
It took a few more minutes to straighten out the details and get them their keys (as well as a few complementary meal vouchers for their trouble, which were nice, though not nearly sufficient compensation), but soon enough they each snatched one off the counter and grabbed their luggage, leading the way sullenly toward the elevators. Suddenly the gleaming fixtures seemed dull and lackluster, the walls and ceiling no longer open and spacious but cramped, almost suffocating.
The elevator doors slid shut before them, their golden inner surface reflecting the pair of them standing side by side, arms crossed over their chests and identical looks of disgruntlement on their faces. Kagome quickly uncrossed her arms and moved one hand to her hip, noticing as Miroku and Sango exchanged an obnoxiously amused glance behind their backs in the reflection.
There was a soft “ding,” and the doors slid open on the twenty-third floor. Miroku and Sango squeezed gently in-between Inuyasha and Kagome, who stepped aside only half-heartedly, reluctant to see their friends go. “We’ll give you a call in a little while, alright? After we all get settled in and all,” Sango said kindly, though Kagome could see that she was suppressing laughter, and noticed that she was carefully avoiding eye contact with Miroku.
“Sure,” she replied, managing a weary smile.
The couple disappeared off down the hall, and once more the doors closed, leaving them in silence. Kagome sighed and glanced up at the floor indicator, watching the light inch its way across from left to right. Finally, at the twenty-seventh floor, the doors slid open again, and Inuyasha strode out into the hallway the second the gap was wide enough. Readjusting her purse strap and setting her jaw, Kagome followed him.
It took him three tries to get the door open, because he kept yanking the card out of the card reader too fast. When Kagome tried to step in and do it herself, he shot her a razor-sharp glare, so she simply stepped back, crossed her arms, and waited “patiently.” On the last try, the lock clicked, and Inuyasha swung the door open, ushering her in with a sarcastic wave of his hand. She was careful to roll her suitcase over his foot on the way over the doorjamb.
They set about putting away their belongings. For nearly fifteen minutes, the only sounds to be heard were the slamming of drawers, the clinking of toothbrushes against the marble bathroom countertop, and the clattering of hangers in the closet. Kagome had moved on to emptying her carry-on of a few essentials onto the bedside table when Inuyasha strode around to the other side of the bed and started emptying his pockets as well, tossing his wallet and keys and spare travel documents onto the other bedside table. Pausing, she glanced from the pile of odds and ends to the book he’d dropped on the comforter (some new Dan Brown thriller—typical), and then up to his face. “What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.
He looked up, raising an eyebrow in annoyed confusion. “Building a nuclear bomb—what does it look like I’m doing?”
“You’re not seriously thinking that we’re going to share the bed, are you?” she said, almost laughing in disbelief.
“Not anymore,” he muttered.
“Good, then get your crap off that table and move it to the one by the couch,” she said, nodding her head toward the couch and coffee table set up across from the foot of the bed.
“Let me think…” he replied, mimicking deep contemplation. “No.”
“What do you mean ‘no’?”
“I mean no, I’m not gonna move my crap. If you don’t wanna share the bed, you sleep on the couch.”
“Hell no—I got here first!”
“I didn’t know it was a race!”
“Tough noogies—I got the bed, and I’m keeping it, and you are not setting one foot on it. End of story.”
“Well just watch me!” he snapped back, climbing onto the bed and sitting defiantly smack-dab in the middle of it.
“You bastard, I said get off!” she shouted, climbing onto the bed as well and shoving against his chest to try to send him sprawling backwards off the end of the bed. Unfortunately he was a bit stronger than she was, and she didn’t have quite enough leverage to do it—so when he grabbed onto her waist and started pushing her back, lifting her up so that her feet were scrabbling at the bedspread, it was all she could do to grab onto his neck just to keep from being thrown off. “Put me down!” she demanded, trying to kick her right leg in far enough to hit him in the groin. He noticed the movement in time and brought up a knee to block—but fortunately this caused him to loose his balance enough that Kagome wriggled free from his grip and scrambled back, retaliating by kicking out at him wherever she could reach.
“Ow, bitch!” he yelled when a stray foot clipped him in the ear, and he rolled off the end of the bed to escape—but he rounded on her immediately and snatched one of her flailing ankles to try to drag her bodily from the bed as well.
“No!” she screeched, grabbing onto the edge of the mattress and clinging to it for all she was worth.
“Sending mixed signals here, bitch,” he smirked back sarcastically. “Wasn’t that the whole point of not sharing the bed?”
She readjusted her grip on the bed to keep from slipping, and gritted out, “You are such a jackass.”
“Only when the situation calls for it,” he retorted, abandoning the tug of war in favor of a more devious tactic.
Kagome shrieked in surprise when his fingers started poking at her sides ticklishly, and she writhed away from them, knocking him over onto the bed in the process. “You bastard!” she yelled as she attacked him as well, and soon the two of them were rolling around on the bed, a tangle of shoving limbs, tickling fingers, squirming bodies and mingled strained laughter and shouts of anger. Gradually the laughter began to overcome the anger as the ridiculousness of what they—two fully-grown adults—had reduced themselves to began to dawn on them; and finally they came to rest side by side on their backs, lying at an angle across the bed, panting and exhausted.
Kagome let out a laugh, and covered her face with her hands, still trying to catch her breath. Had it really come to this? Had she really gone so far off the deep end that she’d let him drag her into a full-out wrestling match over a bed? What on earth had gotten into her these days?
“So I guess you have a weakness after all?” Inuyasha grumbled wryly.
“Right back at you, big guy,” she chuckled, glancing over and meeting his eyes with a half-smile. Then they both realized what they were doing and glanced away quickly.
“Feh,” Inuyasha snorted. “Like you could ever actually beat me at anything.”
Kagome heaved a sigh and shook her head wearily at the ceiling, refusing to take the bait. “Seriously, Inuyasha—don’t you ever get tired of being angry and petulant all the time? Doesn’t it ever just get old?”
Kagome rolled her eyes. Well that hadn’t worked. “Look—I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a long day. I’m tired, and I’m hungry,” she said, rolling to her feet and running a hand through her disheveled hair, “so I am going downstairs to the restaurant and trade in those hospitality coupons they gave us for a steak and a nice, big, fat, dry martini. If you want to come with me, you can, but on one condition,” she turned back to him, meeting his gaze steadily with a dry smile, “No more pissing me off, got it?”
He frowned at her appraisingly, arms still crossed over his chest—but at last he muttered, “Fine—I won’t if you won’t.”
Giving a small, wry laugh, she grabbed her purse from the floor, where it had landed during the fight, and turned towards the door, muttering under her breath, “Just tell me how…”
It took the better part of a meal—consisting of a steak for Kagome, a burger for Inuyasha, and an extra plate of onion rings between the two of them—and a steady flow of liquor, but by the time the clock over the bar was approaching eleven, they were actually carrying on what one might consider relatively amiable conversation.
“Actually,” Kagome said, nibbling on an onion ring and taking another sip of wine—after the first martini she’d decided to switch to pinot grigio, “we didn’t move to the States until I was seven, after my father passed away—I grew up in a shrine in Tokyo. Grandpa always hoped I’d grow up to be a miko.”
“Really? Well that explains a few things.”
“The fact that ever since you showed up it’s like the whole world revolves around you, for one thing.”
“Look who’s talking,” she countered. “And anyway, it’s not like I was the object of worship—we just ran the place. Haven’t you ever been to a shrine?”
He shook his head. “Never been to Japan. My parents moved here before I was born—Dad was with some big media company, and they sent him here to head up the Chicago offices.”
“But if your parents were first generation, they must have had friends and relatives back in Japan—haven’t you ever gone to visit them?”
“Nope. Dad died when I was six, and Mom hated traveling. Anyway, the only family I know of are my half-brother and my dad’s first wife—and from what I’ve heard, she and Dad weren’t exactly on great terms. Not surprising really—he was kind of an asshole. Except to Mom—she knew how to handle him, I guess.”
“Have you ever tried getting in touch with your brother?”
“Nah—what’s the point? I barely knew my Dad, and he’d be the only thing we had in common.”
“Still, it’s nice to have connections to your roots, and family to turn to when things get rough.”
“I take it you’re close to your family?”
“Very. Well, not as much as I used to be, since I’ve been living further away for awhile, but I’ve gotten to see them a lot more often since I moved back to Chicago. Hojo keeps telling me if he has to take one more message from my mother letting me know about a sale on fresh plums, he’ll put in a caller ID and start screening them.”
“Hojo’s your husband?” he asked, frowning slightly.
Kagome choked on her wine. “Mm-mm,” she corrected, shaking her head. “Roommate, sorry.” He raised an eyebrow in question, and she rolled her eyes, explaining, “We’ve been friends for years—he had a spare room, and I needed a place to stay, so I took him up on the offer. Besides, it’s nice not to come home to an empty house. But there’s never been anything romantic between us—at least not on my part.”
“So you’re telling me that you can afford your own place, but you choose to share one with somebody else?”
“And you’re not sleeping with him?”
“No. Why, is that so hard to believe?”
“Not for somebody like you, I guess.”
“Somebody like me?” she questioned with a frown, not sure whether to take offense or not.
“You know—a ‘people person.’”
She snorted, amused. “And that’s a bad thing?”
“Not bad—just weird.”
“Again, look who’s talking.”
“I’m not weird,” he defended, downing the last of his beer and setting the glass back down on the table, “just self-sufficient. There’s a difference.”
“Ah, self-sufficient—so that’s what you call it.”
The waitress arrived with another beer for Inuyasha and a refill of onion rings, so Kagome grabbed one of the piping-hot rings and nibbled on it. She knew she’d probably hate herself in the morning for eating so much food at such a late hour—but they tasted so good, she just couldn’t bring herself to care. Washing the fried treat down with a sip of pinot—an odd, but surprisingly good combination—she sat back in the booth and said, changing the subject, “You know, I’ve been thinking about the whole reservations mess.”
“Let me guess,” he said with a smirk, “you’ve finally seen the light and are ready to give up the bed,”
“Not on your life, buster,” she returned. “I’ll fight you for it as many times as I have to. And remember, I’ve got kneecaps, and I’m not afraid to use them.”
“You really are a bitch, aren’t you?”
“Only when the situation calls for it,” she replied with a grin, mimicking him. “Seriously though, don’t you think it’s a little odd? First the plane reservations, now the hotel reservations—that can’t be a coincidence.”
“You’re just being paranoid,” Inuyasha said with a shrug, kicking his feet up onto the booth beside her and leaning back against his own. “Kikyo probably just screwed up the reservations, that’s all.”
“But the plane reservations were fine when I checked them last night—and Kikyo’s not exactly a scatterbrain. She’s pretty organized, from what I know of her.”
Inuyasha scoffed. “To a fault. That’s just it—she probably double-checked all the reservations for the ten millionth time right after you did and ended up canceling them all by mistake.”
“But Miroku’s and Sango’s were fine.”
“So she didn’t do a very thorough job,” he shrugged, taking another sip of his beer.
Kagome stalled for time by taking a sip of her wine as well, studying him over the rim of her glass. She was tempted to ask something that…might not go over too well. She was sure it wouldn’t under normal circumstances, but if there were ever a time she’d have a chance of satisfying her curiosity, it would be now. Then again, she wasn’t sure if it was worth risking this lovely little ceasefire they had going.
Oh what the hell—she couldn’t resist. “Inuyasha, can I ask you something? You don’t have to answer—I understand if you’d rather not.”
He quirked a quizzical eyebrow at her. “Shoot.”
“I’m just curious about…what happened between you and Kikyo.” His eyebrows both disappeared behind his bangs, and she rushed to explain. “I mean, no offense or anything, but—it’s just that you’re such…different people. I have a hard time picturing the two of you as a couple.”
“Yeah, so did she,” he said wryly, and it was Kagome’s turn to raise her eyebrows—but he seemed to suddenly realize what he’d just let slip, and cleared his throat, shifting in his seat to restore his air of nonchalance. “There’s not a whole lot to tell, really. It was mainly a physical thing, started pretty much as soon as I came to work at the restaurant and ended about six months later.”
“Why did it end?”
“The usual. She was a manipulative workaholic bitch, and I was a self-absorbed asshole. The real question is why it lasted as long as it did. God, I remember this one time we were supposed to go to some fancy-pants dinner party—some investor thing or something—and I got caught up in this poker game beforehand, I was winning a shitload of money…so I was a little late. Now that was a screaming match. It couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes, but she just wouldn’t let it go. You’d think the woman hadn’t kept me waiting before, three or four times a week, while she sat up there in her office doing the books. At least I was making money instead of just counting it. Fifteen minutes, maybe twenty—unbelievable.”
She tilted her head to the side, watching him thoughtfully, and the words slipped out before she could stop them: “It really bothers you, doesn’t it.”
He glanced over at her quickly, his expression unchanged, though he seemed slightly startled—but then he laughed it off half-heartedly. “Hey, whatever—shit happens. We were totally wrong for each other from the start, and we knew it—it was just one of those things. Still,” he glanced down at the table, sobering slightly as he ran his fingertips through the condensation on the side of his beer glass absently, “I think…sometimes I really hurt her.” Then he gave a wry laugh and looked up again, though he didn’t quite meet Kagome’s eyes. “Who knew a stone cold bitch like that could hurt, eh?”
Kagome gave a sort of half smile, still observing him as she lifted her glass to his. “Hey, like the song says—‘everybody hurts.’”
“I’ll drink to that,” he agreed, clinking his glass against hers and taking a deep sip of his beer. When he lifted his eyes again, their gazes met.
And something very, very strange happened.
She couldn’t look away. She wanted to, but her body wouldn’t respond—and somehow she could sense an identical internal struggle going on behind his eyes as well. It was like suddenly she could see straight through him—suddenly he wasn’t this big, dumb, obnoxious waste of space. He was a real person, in the flesh, sitting across from her, drinking a beer, just as trapped by her as she was by him. And suddenly, inexplicably, she was overwhelmed by the completely incomprehensible urge to lean across the table and kiss him.
“Can I get you anything else?”
The voice of the waitress released her from the spell, and she looked up a little too quickly, trying not to look too guilty and somehow give away what she’d just been thinking. Though it was entirely possible he already knew—that he had, in fact, been thinking the exact same thing—but she preferred to cling to the belief that that was not the case. The waitress, meanwhile, was smiling pleasantly, but Kagome could see a note of pleading in her expression, and it occurred to her that they were probably trying to close the place up. Of course, they didn’t want to kick out the hotel’s honored guests—the people here for the competition—but nonetheless the two of them had probably overstayed their welcome a bit. “No, nothing, thanks—we were just about to leave. You can just charge everything to our room.”
The waitress gave her a grateful smile and left, and Kagome downed the last of her drink, careful not to look at Inuyasha. As it turned out, though, this wasn’t really necessary, since he was already avoiding her gaze like the plague.
“Well, I think I’ll head off to bed—I mean, back to the room,” she amended. “To sleep.”
“Sounds good,” he replied, studying the wood paneling on the wall beside the table with undue interest. “I’ll just stay for a few minutes and finish my beer.”
“Good,” she said, breathing an inward sigh of relief. That left her plenty of time to pretend to be asleep when he arrived. “Well, goodnight then.”
“Night,” he muttered, still not glancing away from the wall as she slid out of the booth and headed for the lobby. When she reached the doorway, against her better judgment she glanced back—and although she couldn’t be sure, she would have sworn she caught him jerking his gaze away from her, as if he’d been staring after her only a second before.
Chapter 6: Children and Art
Kagome awoke the next morning to the sound of Inuyasha’s snoring. It was so loud that for a moment she couldn’t tell where in the room it was coming from, but after squinting over at the other side of the bed and finding it empty, she rubbed a sleepy hand across her face and pushed herself up to sit. A snore came again, and this time she was able to locate its source: Inuyasha was stretched out on the sofa, his feet sticking off the end about six inches. Judging by the fact that he was still wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing the night before, and he had apparently gotten in late enough that she had actually been asleep by the time he’d arrived, Kagome suspected he’d hung around downstairs for a little more than that one drink.
She slid out from beneath the covers and padded over to the dresser, pulling out a pair of jeans and a shirt, and then slipped into the bathroom to take her shower. Thankfully, he was still asleep when she got out fifteen minutes later, so she dried her hair, put on her makeup, grabbed her purse, and headed down to the main breakfast room, all without having to speak to him at all.
Sango and Miroku were already sitting at one of the many tables in the high-ceilinged room when she arrived, and Sango waved her over to join them.
“So what happened to you guys last night?” she asked as Kagome took a seat, arranging her napkin on her lap.
“There was no answer when we called your room, so we tried your cell, but you didn’t pick up. We were starting to wonder if you’d cracked each other’s heads open or something.”
Kagome tilted her head, nodding. “Something like that.”
“Can we assume then that Inuyasha is upstairs somewhere lying unconscious on the floor with a lump on his head?” Miroku quipped.
Kagome shot him a look, smiling. “Well, he’s unconscious, but it wasn’t my doing. Not directly, anyway. I think he had a little too much to drink.”
Sango raised an eyebrow. “When was this?”
“Last night. It’s a long, slightly embarrassing story, but let’s just say there was an altercation, and in the end we wound up going down to the bar for a couple of hours.”
“Both of you?”
Kagome nodded, grabbing a roll from the basket in the center and buttering it.
“Alone? You and Inuyasha?” Miroku added, sounding equally dumbstruck.
She nodded again, not looking up from her roll as she took a bite.
“How did that go?” he asked.
Kagome shrugged. “Fine, I guess. Actually, it wasn’t so bad really, once we both sort of relaxed and let our guards down.” Her breakfast companions shared a covert look, and Kagome straightened defensively. “What?”
“Nothing,” Miroku dismissed, the two of them returning to their breakfast.
Kagome glanced back and forth between them, still uneasy. “I’m not saying I actually like the guy or anything—I still think he’s a jerk most of the time. Just because he’s capable of carrying on a single conversation like a normal person doesn’t make him a nice guy.”
“Mm-hm,” Sango agreed, loading her fork with another bite of eggs. “You’re absolutely right.”
Somehow this didn’t satisfy Kagome—but she wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to hear, so she gave up, pulling a menu from the holder in the center and looking it over. Suddenly, despite all she had eaten the night before, she was feeling very hungry.
She had just finished ordering a stack of buttermilk pancakes with toast and a glass of skim milk, when the chair beside her was pulled out, and Inuyasha slumped into it. “Morning,” he grunted. Clearly he was not a morning person.
“Sleep well, Inuyasha?” Miroku asked with a grin.
“Stuff it,” he replied. “They got any coffee around here?”
“Well, they have eight different kinds of marmalade, so I would expect so.”
Inuyasha waved down a passing waitress. “Coffee—black. None of that fake sugar crap or anything.”
The waitress nodded tightly, but he had already turned away. Kagome gave her an apologetic smile, then flicked a glare at Inuyasha.
“What?” he demanded.
She sighed, taking a sip from her water glass. “Nothing.”
“Why is everyone up so damn early, anyway?”
“It’s almost ten o’clock,” Kagome pointed out. “Anyway, nobody said you had to get up. You can go back to bed if you want—registration isn’t until this afternoon.”
“Well I’m up now, so I might as well stay up.”
“Lucky us,” Miroku said under his breath, lifting his coffee cup in a mock toast and slanting his friend a look. Inuyasha rolled his eyes and slumped down in his seat.
“Well,” Sango said, with an air of changing the subject, “since we have until three before they open registration, Miroku and I thought maybe we should do some sight-seeing. I know you guys have been to New York before, but Kagome and I haven’t—and anyway, Miroku said you guys haven’t really done much of the touristy stuff when you’ve been here before. We could go to Ellis Island, or maybe take one of those double-decker tour busses—oh! Or there’s this new exhibit at the Met that I’ve heard is really interesting.”
“Sure,” Kagome said, mustering a smile. Truthfully, she wasn’t all that big on sight-seeing—at least not in the traditional touristy sense—but Sango sounded so enthusiastic she couldn’t help but agree. Anyway, they weren’t going to be in town for that long. She supposed she really ought to take advantage of it while she could.
“How about you, Inuyasha?” Miroku prompted.
Inuyasha met the other man’s gaze evenly for a moment, but at last answered with a halfhearted, “Why not?”
Looked like today was going to be about as much fun as the day before.
* * *
How did I ever let myself get talked into this? Inuyasha thought as the four of them got off the subway at 86th and Lex, walking among the pristine limestone buildings of the Upper East Side on their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He hated museums. The walking, the stopping, the standing, the waiting—it was like running the New York Marathon behind a row of geriatrics. Just the sight of that long white staircase and grand, classical façade had him half-bored already. But Sango and Kagome were all gung-ho about it, and even Miroku was sticking it out, so like hell he was going to sit back in the room and mope around all day.
They spent about an hour wandering through the Nineteenth-Century European Paintings exhibit at a snail’s pace, sidling up to portraits of dead people and blurry pictures of cathedrals and staring at them pensively for awhile before moving on. Inuyasha was half-tempted to ask the others what the hell they were looking for, because whatever it was, they never seemed to find it. Nobody did in these places. Everyone just kept wandering around in circles until either their attention spans gave out or their feet did.
From there they moseyed on through the Modern Art exhibit, and then downstairs to the Africa, Oceania, and the Americas exhibit. As they passed by an archway on the way, Inuyasha did a double-take, glimpsing a room full of swords and armor, and he almost called out to the others to redirect them—but thought better of it. Chances were it would only prolong the visit anyway. Not worth it.
The sign on the wall said something about superheroes and fashion as they rounded a corner into one of the special exhibition halls. This one was narrower than the others had been—a winding hallway lined with glass display cases rather than a series of open rooms. He approached the first one with curiosity, tucking his hands in his back pockets and coming up beside Kagome to inspect the oddly-clothed mannequins in the case. “That one doesn’t look too comfortable,” he commented, indicating a color-splattered, chrome-plated bodice with motorcycle handles at the hips and rear-view-mirrors sticking out past the shoulders.
Kagome snorted. “Not unless you have a removable liver. Look at the size of that waistline—it’s ridiculous.”
The corner of his lips quirked up, and he followed her as she moved along towards the next case. “There,” she said, pointing to a floor-length sequined gown with peacock feathers fanned out at the collar, “now at least that one might fit a human. Not crazy about the holes down the front of the dress, though. I think they might be a little revealing.”
He shrugged. “Probably not the right dress for communion, but I bet you’d get a lot of dates.”
“And make a lot of money,” she quipped.
“Okay, see, what’s up with that?” he said, crossing the hallway to another case, this one full of Batman-themed creations. “Next to the real Batman costume there those other two suits look really wimpy. It’s like a couple of kids stuck patches on their old black pants and turtlenecks for Halloween or something.”
Kagome laughed. “Hey, at least those clothes look comfortable. All the women’s ones we’ve seen so far look like they were built for Barbie—the old-school one with the spaghetti hips.”
“My great aunt used to call them that. You know, how they have those tiny waists and disproportionately wide hips.”
“Not really. I didn’t spend much time playing with Barbies.”
“Oh yeah,” she laughed. “Good point. Hey, now how about that?”
“What, that?” He pointed to a metal suit with a big plastic hose sticking out the crotch.
He shrugged. “I don’t really think it’s me.”
“Bet you’d get a lot of dates though,” she smirked, continuing down the line.
“I already get a lot of dates.”
“How do you know?”
“Don’t—just an educated guess. Ooh, I actually like that one,” she said, stopping by a display of Spiderman costumes and spider-themed dresses.
“Which, the orange one?”
“No, the cream one with the black spider webs.”
“It’s alright. I like the peacock one better though.”
“You would,” she muttered wryly.
“What are all these things anyway?” he asked, looking away from the case to face her. “I mean I recognize the superhero costumes, but what are all the others?”
“Haute couture—I guess they were modeled after the superhero costumes or something. I don’t know—I stopped actually reading the plaques a while back.”
Something in her tone made him raise an eyebrow. “You’re bored too?”
“To death,” she admitted. “But don’t tell Sango.”
“She’s having fun—I don’t want to spoil it.”
“But she’s only having fun thinking that you’re having fun—telling her you’re not isn’t spoiling it. It’s just the truth.”
“Yeah, well, I know this may be a foreign concept to you, but sometimes people do things and pretend to like them for the sake of other people. It’s called being a good sport.”
“No, it’s called being a pushover.”
She glared at him. “Better than being an asshole.”
“Hey, I came, didn’t I?” he protested, his blood pressure rising.
“Yes, but unlike me you haven’t even been making an effort to enjoy yourself—you’ve been dragging your feet the whole way.”
“So what? I may be an asshole, but at least I’m not a fake,” he snapped; and with that, he turned around and stalked the rest of the way out of the exhibit, ignoring the last couple of cases.
He caught up to Miroku and Sango waiting outside in the corridor, and crossed his arms over his chest in his usual fashion. Kagome joined them moments later, not sparing Inuyasha a glance as she turned to the other two with a big smile and an accomplished sigh. “Well, where to next?”
Miroku darted a mildly curious look at Inuyasha before addressing Kagome. “It’s getting close to time to head back, but since we’re here we thought it might be nice to grab a late lunch at one of the cafés. How does that sound?”
“Sure,” Kagome said, and Inuyasha suspected this enthusiasm was somewhat less feigned than before—if the pain in his feet was any indication, she was probably dying to sit down. Inuyasha gave a short nod of assent as well and followed the other two, Kagome falling in step beside him, though she still had yet to look at him.
They found their way to the balcony overlooking the entrance hall, where there was a seating area complete with white tablecloths and soft, live piano music in the background. They were seated at one of the tables nearest the balcony’s edge, Sango and Miroku on one side, Inuyasha and Kagome across from them. Still not looking at one another, Inuyasha and Kagome picked up their menus and began perusing them carefully.
“Mm,” Sango murmured, “I’m going to have to go with the ravioli.”
Kagome nodded. “That sounds good—maybe I’ll do the same.”
“Want to split one?” Sango asked, sliding her menu underneath her bread plate.
“Sure.” Kagome smiled, folding her menu in her lap as well.
“That Degas collection was really something, wasn’t it? I just love his ballet dancers.”
“Yeah—they were really nice.”
Inuyasha made a skeptical sound in the back of his throat, and Kagome shot him a glare.
“I liked the Monets better, though,” she continued, lifting her chin slightly. “They were more…”
“Textured?” Sango offered. “Yeah, I agree—I like his brush strokes. But Degas’ pastels have such a tangibility to them.”
“Mm-hm,” she nodded thoughtfully, “I know what you mean.”
Inuyasha grunted again, and Kagome kicked him under the table.
“Ow!” She shot him a glare, and he returned it full-force, hissing, “That hurt!”
“Then cut it out,” she hissed back.
“You cut it out!”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now, okay?”
“Is something wrong?” Sango asked, concerned.
“Nothing,” Kagome said quickly.
“Bullshit,” Inuyasha coughed.
Kagome rounded on him once more, not bothering to lower her voice this time. “If you don’t stop being a jackass, so help me, I’m gonna shove this bread knife up your ass.”
Miroku raised his eyebrows. “Now that I’d like to see.”
“Well I wouldn’t,” Sango interrupted. “Look you two, can we please just sit here and have a nice lunch? You guys seemed to be getting along so much better—what happened?”
Kagome fixed Inuyasha with an expectant look, silently renewing her threat. He rolled his eyes, shifting in his chair slightly, and answered reluctantly, “Nothing. Just the usual…”
Satisfied but still wary, Kagome turned back to the others with a smile. “What did you two think of the couture exhibit?”
The rest of the lunch was uneventful. Inuyasha behaved himself relatively well, maintaining a sullen silence while the other three chatted about the museum, the exhibits, the city, the weather. In fact, he didn’t say another word until they were back on the subway heading downtown, and he and Miroku were sharing a pole at one end of the train car.
“Well that was the afternoon from hell,” Inuyasha grumbled.
Miroku chuckled. “If you think that was hell, you’re in for a big surprise when you die, my friend.”
“Ha, ha,” he deadpanned. “Seriously—how do you put up with this stuff? Is she that good in the sack?”
“I don’t ‘put up with it,’ Inuyasha. I like museums.”
“Quit yanking me. She can’t hear you, y’know.”
“I know,” he said, laughing. “I’m serious—I actually like museums.”
“Get out,” Inuyasha scoffed.
“I do. I think they’re peaceful, and I think the art is interesting to look at. Besides, I like spending time with Sango—it doesn’t matter what we’re doing.”
“Come off it. The only reason any guy in his right mind would spend an afternoon in a museum is to impress some chick.”
“And the reason you just spent the afternoon in a museum would be?”
He faltered, thrown for a moment—then shrugged. “Who ever said I was in my right mind?”
He narrowed his eyes at Miroku, but his friend simply continued to regard him with a bland smile, so he looked away. His gaze landed instead on Kagome, who was in conversation with Sango near the next pole, several feet away. “Feh,” he mumbled.
It was a little after three o’clock when they reached the hotel once more, so they headed back through the conference complex to meeting room F, where the registration desk had been set up. The room was pretty much empty, except for a couple of folding tables stacked with information packets and registration books, which were set up at the far end, a woman with short blonde hair bustling around doing last-minute setup. Some guy Inuyasha vaguely recognized from one of the previous years waved to him and Miroku as he and another guy left with their packets. Miroku gave a friendly little wave back; Inuyasha only nodded noncommittally.
“Hi there—here to check in for the Teppanyaki Competition?” said the woman behind the table, looking up with a smile.
“Yep,” Kagome replied.
“Last names, please?”
“Takahashi and Higurashi,” Inuyasha answered, “from Katana.”
The woman paged through the book, paused, ran her finger over the list—then paged back a bit, ran over the list again—then forward again, just one page, perusing the list. “Sorry,” she said at last, looking up with a frown, “could they be under any other names?”
“Oh son of a goddamn bitch, not again,” Inuyasha grumbled, dragging a hand through his hair, and Kagome heaved a sigh as well, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“Sorry,” she mumbled wearily to the woman. “We seem to be running into a lot of problems at registration desks these days. Anyway, the names are Kagome Higurashi and Inuyasha Takahashi—and we’re absolutely positive we’re registered. Katana competes every year, from what I’m told—I can’t understand why we wouldn’t be in there.”
“Inuyasha Tak—you’re Inuyasha Takahashi?” the woman repeated, looking slightly dumbstruck.
“Yeah. What of it?” he groused.
Kagome elbowed him in the side.
“Nothing, it’s just, I thought you’d be…older,” the young woman fumbled awkwardly, turning her attention back to the book—though Kagome noticed she seemed to have a little trouble dragging her gaze away from Inuyasha. She raised her eyebrows slightly, crossing her arms over her chest. “A-anyway,” the blonde continued, “I don’t think there’s anything I can do. I’m sorry, but if you’re not on the list…”
“Excuse me?” Inuyasha snapped, disbelieving. “What do you mean there’s nothing you can do? I’ve won this competition three years running—you’re telling me I came all this way for shit just because I’m not on your damn list? The list is wrong! Fix it!”
“Inuyasha, calm down,” Kagome admonished.
But he was having none of it. “No! This is bullshit—I’m sick of it!”
“Look,” Kagome said, turning to the blonde, “please, there must be something you can do. We’ve paid all of our fees, we had all of our information in by the deadline—this must be some kind of clerical mix-up. Isn’t there anyone you can talk to?”
“Well, I might be able to—”
“Something the matter?” interrupted an unfamiliar voice from Kagome’s left—and she turned to come face to face with a tanned, dark-haired man sporting a sexy half-grin and piercing blue-green eyes.
“Uh—sorry?” she stumbled, caught off guard.
“Hey, Dee,” the man said, giving the blonde a nod, which she acknowledged shyly as she handed him his packet, not even bothering to ask his name. Then he turned back to Kagome. “You seemed like you were having a problem. Any way I can help?”
“Well, uh—I don’t know…”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Inuyasha cut in harshly. “We don’t need any of your help, asshole.”
Kagome glanced back at him, startled, to find Inuyasha glaring at Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome with unreasonable ire, even for him, considering all the man had done was offer them help when they needed it. “I take it you two know each other?”
“Stubborn as ever, Inuyasha,” the man said with a smirk. “Hey, Dee—I can vouch for my friends here. Mind if I just grab a couple of these extra packets?” he said walking over to the box and pulling out two of the unmarked ones.
“Well, you’re not really supposed…but…yeah, sure—okay,” Dee replied. Kagome wanted to smack her. Sure, the guy was handsome, but really—she ought to have a little more of a spine. Still, at least it had worked out in their favor.
He tossed one of the packets to Inuyasha and handed the second to Kagome, meeting her eyes with another captivating grin. “Looks like we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other this week. I always like to get to know my competition—feel like getting a drink with me tonight, after the dinner?”
“Ah, thanks, bu—”
A hand grasped her upper arm firmly and yanked her backwards, Inuyasha’s voice interrupting in a growl: “She’s busy.”
She shot a glare back at him and jerked her arm out of his grip—but he wasn’t paying attention to her, his gaze still fixed on the other man.
“Too bad,” the dark-haired man said with a shrug, still looking at her. “Maybe another time. My name’s Kouga, in any case—pleasure to meet you…”
“Kagome,” she finished, shaking his proffered hand. He held onto hers perhaps a little longer than was really necessary, running a thumb lightly over her knuckles.
“Kagome,” he repeated. “See you this evening. Bye Inuyasha.” And with a smug little mock salute, he strolled away.
Kagome gave Inuyasha a withering look before turning to leave the room as well.
“What?” he snapped, catching up to her, Miroku and Sango trailing behind them.
“I think that’s my line. What was with the pulling? I can speak for myself, you know.”
“You shouldn’t be speaking to him at all—he’s the competition. Plus, he’s the biggest jerk on the face of the planet.”
“Next to you, of course.”
“Feh. He’s an asshole. He walks all over people, thinks he’s god’s gift to the world, and he’s always got that obnoxious little smirk plastered to his face.”
“Oh, and the difference between you two would be?” she stopped, turning to face him expectantly.
He spluttered, spinning his wheels for a moment—then found his traction again. “Hey, I’m nowhere near as bad as he is. He just hides it better. You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?”
She sighed, continuing along the hallway. “You are not going to start that all over again. Anyway, it’s not like I was going to agree to go out with him—you just steamrollered over me before I had the chance to turn him down.”
“Well—you were hesitating.”
“I was not!”
“Here we go again,” Miroku sighed, wrapping an arm lazily around Sango’s waist as they followed the squabbling pair back out to the lobby.
“Think they’ll ever give it a rest?” Sango replied, slipping her arm around Miroku’s waist as well and leaning into him.
“Probably not. But on the upside, they probably also wouldn’t notice if we just disappeared for awhile.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “You thinking what I think you’re thinking?”
He shrugged. “Spending the afternoon having wild hotel sex, or listening to Laurel and Hardy here bicker for three hours—which sounds better to you?”
Sango glanced over at Inuyasha and Kagome, who were now arguing fiercely by one of the couches in the lobby, completely oblivious to everything else around them. Then she glanced over at the elevator that had just opened up to their right. “If we hurry, we could even fit in a nap. My feet are killing me…”
They slipped into the elevator just as the doors were closing, releasing a joint sigh of relief when the bickering was silenced. When they got back to Chicago, Sango thought, she was going to ask Kikyo for a raise.
Chapter 7: Chrysanthemum Tea
When they’d finally gotten tired of arguing, Inuyasha had stormed off to the hotel bar to watch some sports thing or other that was supposed to be on, and Kagome had gladly seized the opportunity to head back to the room. It wasn’t until she was actually on the elevator that she realized Miroku and Sango had disappeared at some point while they’d been distracted. Ah well—she couldn’t blame them. She was sick of listening to Inuyasha too.
She pushed back the curtains over the window to let in the sunlight—or at least the ambient light that reflected off the glass behemoth of a building that sat opposite the hotel—and then slipped off her shoes and settled herself in the middle of the bed with her legs folded beneath her, book resting on her knees. She read for an hour or so, enjoying the peace and quiet, the weight off her feet, and the air conditioning—but as the clock on the nightstand approached five, she reluctantly set the book aside and got to her feet. If she was going to make herself presentable in time for the opening dinner, she supposed she really ought to take a shower; so she grabbed a towel from the rack and closed the bathroom door, turning the water to a comfortable temperature and stripping out of her clothing.
Submerged in the warm waterfall, she lathered up her hair lazily and thought about the plights of the characters in the book she was reading, ran over some of the maneuvers she hoped to be able to incorporate into her performance in the following day’s competition, made a mental note to get up early and try to fit in a little extra time to practice and double-check her equipment, maybe even visit the arena and get a feel for the place. She studiously avoided thinking about Inuyasha, the museum, Inuyasha’s big mouth, Kouga, Inuyasha’s manhandling, and most of all the previous night’s conversation. She might not get many moments’ respite from him during this week, and she was determined not to poison what little time she had to herself by thinking about him.
She stepped out of the shower and toweled off her hair and skin, poking forlornly at the faint circles that had developed beneath her eyes—the price of stress and travelling. Maybe makeup would cover them. Wrapping a towel around her midsection, she stepped back out into the bedroom.
“Oh,” she started, faltering—and Inuyasha turned around, his just-shed t-shirt in his hands, his eyes widening slightly at her state of undress. She swallowed and put another hand on her towel. “Sorry, I didn’t realize—”
“No,” he interrupted, fidgeting with the shirt in his hands, still looking slightly distracted, “I shouldn’t have—”
“No, no—it’s your room too. I just thought you’d be—”
“Well I was—I just got back. I didn’t hear the—”
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, hitching her towel a little higher and dragging her gaze away from his rather nicely sculpted chest and shoulders. Not Arnold-Schwarzenegger-sculpted—just enough to serve as evidence that he worked with his hands for a living. Not that she was looking—which she wasn’t.
He shook himself and looked away, mildly dazed expression reverting to his usual scowl. “Well are you going to put some clothes on, or aren’t you?”
“Oh,” she started again, taking a halting step forward. He looked almost anxious for a moment as she came toward him before he realized she was heading for the closet behind him and stepped out of the way, giving her a wide berth. “Do you need to use the shower? I can just get my—”
“No—that’s okay. I was just going to go ahead and change.”
She retrieved her garment bag from the closet and crossed back to the dresser to get her underwear, which she tried her best to hide beneath the bag. He craned his neck surreptitiously to observe, before catching himself and giving himself another shake, turning resolutely away.
“Alright, well—I’ll just finish changing in the bathroom then,” she offered.
“Okay,” she finished, glancing back at him out of the corner of her eye, and then slipping back into the bathroom and closing the door behind her with a sigh of relief.
Well. That had been awkward.
She took her time getting dressed, drying and styling her hair, applying her makeup. Even after she was done, she dawdled a bit before the mirror, straightening out her side-swept bangs, tucking loose strands of hair into the roll at the back of her head, smoothing imaginary wrinkles from her long, royal-blue satin dress. Finally, when she was relatively certain he would be fully clothed, she pressed an ear to the door, listening for rustling fabric—just to double-check—and, satisfied, stepped back out into the bedroom.
To her relief, he was indeed dressed in a black tux—no tie, open collar—and stood fidgeting with his appearance in the mirror over the dresser. When she reappeared he stepped away quickly, clearing his throat and running a hand through his hair casually, as if to suggest he had simply been glancing in the mirror in passing. Kagome raised an eyebrow, but he ignored it.
“Nice dress,” he grunted.
“Thanks. You don’t look so bad yourself.”
He shrugged off the compliment and turned away, grabbing his wallet and key card from the table next to the couch and slipping them into his back pocket.
“Kouga’ll like it,” he mumbled under his breath.
“What, your tux?” she replied sarcastically, moving to the bedside and transferring the essentials from her regular purse to her evening one. Ah well—of course the relative pleasantness couldn’t last.
“Very funny. Sure prettied yourself up for him, didn’t you? You’ve been in there for like an hour.”
“I bought this dress before we even came here, Inuyasha, and I met the guy for all of five seconds—why the hell would I be prettying myself up for him?”
Point for Kagome.
“You ready to go downstairs?” she asked, hitching her purse string onto her shoulder and putting a hand on the door handle.
“Yeah, sure,” he mumbled, patting himself down for anything he might have forgotten before joining her. She opened the door, and he stepped through into the hallway, waiting for her to close the door behind them. “You know,” he speculated as they headed toward the elevator, “I’d bet you good money that your boyfriend is the one who’s been screwing with us these last couple of days.”
“What, the reservations? What makes you say that?”
“He’s an asshole,” he said, as if the remark were self-explanatory, coming to rest before the elevator doors with his hands in his pockets.
“Again, I feel compelled to point out, so are you.”
“Yeah, but I’m on your team.” She raised her eyebrows at that, and he backpedaled quickly. “I mean—we’re in the same boat, aren’t we? I’ve been screwed over just as much as you have.”
“Uh-huh,” she murmured, unconvinced. The elevator dinged, and they stepped between the gleaming gold-plated doors. “Well that still isn’t a reason why Kouga would bother to cancel our reservations.”
“He’s an asshole, and we’re the competition—not to mention, I’ve beaten the crap out of the bastard the last three years. What more reason does he need?”
“Innocent until proven guilty, I say. No offense, but I don’t think your extremely level-headed and well-thought-out testimony would quite hold up in a court of law. Besides, he helped us out with the competition registration, didn’t he?”
“Why are you defending him?” he demanded.
“I’m not defending him—I’m just saying we have no good reason to suspect him of anything. Jeez, now who’s being paranoid…”
“You shut up.”
The elevator doors opened once more, releasing them into the lobby, and they made their way back into the conference complex until they located Ballroom C. This room was somewhat larger and more elegant than the room in which they had registered for the competition, but it still had a certain professional minimalism to it. The ceiling was high, and the honey-stained parquet floors were polished to a shine, setting off the beige walls and cream-colored tablecloths to create a sense of cool sophistication. Most of the room was populated by round tables, each assigned to the delegations from the various restaurants in the competition. Toward the other end of the room there was a space, possibly intended for dancing, and beyond that a long table set up on a dais with a podium in the middle—she supposed this was where the judges and orchestrators of the tournament would be seated, though it was more or less empty at the moment. People were mingling among the tables, nibbling on hors d’oeuvres from the buffet set up to one side, or crowding around the open bar near the entrance.
“Hey, you two,” Sango said, coming up on Kagome’s right. “We were starting to get worried. Where have you been?”
“Just getting ready,” Kagome replied, carefully resisting the impulse to cast a sheepish glance at Inuyasha. “It took a little longer than expected. Anyway, where were you? I turned around and you’d disappeared on us.”
“Oh, nowhere in particular,” Miroku replied with a suggestive grin, putting his arm around Sango. She cast him a mildly scolding look, slightly mitigated by the smile tugging at her lips.
“We’re at that table up near the front,” Sango continued, indicating a table just to the right of the dance floor. “Miroku and I were just going to get drinks—you want anything?”
“Nothing for me, thanks,” Kagome answered.
“Get me a scotch rocks,” said Inuyasha.
The other two headed off toward the bar, leaving Kagome and Inuyasha to wend their way through the growing crowd to the table they’d been assigned. “So,” said Kagome as they both took their seats, “you know most of these people?”
He shrugged. “Not exactly.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I recognize a bunch of faces, but I don’t really keep track of names.”
“Except for Kouga’s, of course.”
“I make a special effort for people who piss me off.”
“I see. Well I guess that explains why you’ve never forgotten my name.”
He shot her a dry smile and settled back in his chair, drumming his fingertips on the tabletop. Kagome sighed and glanced around the room at the throngs of competitors and friends in their evening finery. She recognized a few faces from the lobby, but being new to the major competition circuit she had no frame of reference for connecting them with names or levels of skill. For that matter, she couldn’t tell the competitors from the supporters—although in a few cases she could make educated guesses.
Miroku returned with Inuyasha’s drink, and Kagome excused herself to go peruse the buffet table. She had just made her way up through the line to the stacks of clean plates when a voice purred in her ear, “Why, if it isn’t Kagome Higurashi.”
She glanced back to find Kouga standing just over her shoulder, sporting a roguish grin. She smiled back affably, hiding her amusement. “Hi, Kouga—funny meeting you here,” she joked as she took a plate and began selecting her appetizers—a crab puff here, a pesto and tomato canapé there.
Kouga strolled alongside her as she went, not taking anything for himself. “You ought to try the oysters,” he suggested, pointing them out. “They’re delicious—and you know what they say about oysters, don’t you?”
She snickered. “Yes, I do—and if it’s true, I think you’ve had enough of them for the evening.”
“Oh no—I’m oyster-free tonight, sweetheart. My attraction to you is all natural.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Is it? Well…thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied, his hand settling ever-so-slyly at her elbow. “Any chance you might be saving a dance for me later?”
“I don’t know—I’m not much of a dancer,” she demurred.
“Get out of here—with a graceful figure like yours? You were made for dancing, I’m sure of it.”
“Uh-huh. Well, all the same, it’s just not really my thing.”
“Oh come on, Kagome—what’s life without a little adventure?”
Her smile was slightly weary this time. “I’ll think about it, okay? No promises.”
“Very well. I’ll see you on the dance floor then,” he replied, flashing another grin before disappearing back into the crowd with the last word. Truth be told, the guy was sort of starting to get on her nerves. Not that she planned to tell Inuyasha that…
“So you are the famous Kagome Higurashi,” an unfamiliar voice said as she made her way back towards the table, its suddenness stopping her in her tracks. Looking around, she found a tall, thin, sallow-skinned man with long, dark hair observing her steadily. His eyes were as dark as his hair, though they seemed to have a strange reddish tint to them in the softened lighting of the ballroom.
“I am? I mean, I am Kagome Higurashi, of course,” she stammered, “but I’m not sure what you mean by ‘famous.’”
His lips bowed in a serene smile. There was nothing overtly threatening about him that she could pinpoint, but nonetheless the man cut a somewhat imposing and intimidating figure. “Oh, I assure you, your debut has been anxiously anticipated. Allow me to introduce myself—Naraku Onigumo.”
“Onigumo…” she murmured, shaking his proffered hand distractedly. “Of the restaurant? The one here in New York?”
“The same. And I noticed that you seem to have befriended my star chef.”
“Kouga? He works for you?”
Naraku nodded. “Only as of recently, but I have high hopes for him in the competition this year.”
“Yes—I’ve heard he’s quite good. He’ll be tough competition, I’m sure.”
“Indeed—as will you, I’m sure.”
“Thank you—I can only hope so,” she said, giving a rather awkward smile, which he did not return. “Well, I ought to be getting back to my table. It was very nice meeting you.”
“You as well,” he replied, merely continuing to stare at her until she finally turned away. She could feel his eyes following her all the way back to the table.
“What took you so long? Flirting with lover-boy?” Inuyasha groused.
“No,” she said evenly, shooting him a look. “Well, Kouga did find me, but I wasn’t flirting with him—and anyway, that’s not important. Do you know anything about Naraku Onigumo?”
Inuyasha frowned. “Not much—why?”
“I just had a really weird conversation with him. I got the feeling he’d sort of been watching me since I came in—maybe longer. I don’t know, it was just sort of…creepy.”
Inuyasha shrugged. “You’re imagining things. He’s always been sort of a weird guy—I don’t think it would have been anything about you in particular.”
“Oh—and it turns out Kouga’s working for him now. Apparently he just started recently.”
“What? Where is he?”
“No, this Naraku bastard—he’s gotta be up to something.”
“Inuyasha, three seconds ago you said he was just a weird guy and I was imagining things.”
“I know, but that was before I found out he was working with that rat-bastard Kouga.”
Kagome rolled her eyes and popped another mini shrimp toast into her mouth.
The sound system gave a small squeal, and all heads turned toward the podium at the center of the dais, where a little man was adjusting the microphone to the correct height. “Excuse me,” he said, tapping the microphone lightly. “Excuse me, if you’d all take your seats, please.”
The conversation died away as most of those who had been standing found their way back to their tables, and the little man shuffled through a stack of note cards, clearing his throat. “Thank you—thank you everyone, and welcome to the Tenth Annual North American Teppanyaki Conference Championships.” He paused for the polite round of applause that followed, and then continued, “It has been an excellent ten years thus far, and we of the NATC board are proud to welcome you, the finest representatives of our profession, here once more. We hope that this year’s competition will be only one of many more in the years to come.”
There was another round of applause. “Now, if I may, I would like to introduce to you my esteemed colleagues, as well as our fine and distinguished panel of judges…”
Kagome tuned out as he carried on with the introductions, clapping where appropriate. She had gone over the list of judges and their credentials in the process of studying the rules and procedures of the competition—the introductions, she was certain, were merely a formality. Scanning the faces of the men and women at the table idly, she frowned as she recognized the man on the end of the board members’ side. She nudged Inuyasha, and he leaned toward her as she whispered, “Naraku is on the board?”
“I don’t know,” she murmured back, pausing to join in on another round of applause, “a board member competing in the competition he’s helped plan—doesn’t that seem like a conflict of interest or an unfair advantage or something?”
“This isn’t the Olympics, Kagome—bottom line, the whole point of this competition is to raise the profiles of the restaurants competing. In other words, it’s to make money. If the board members couldn’t send representatives, there wouldn’t be any board members. Besides, as long as the judges are impartial, what difference does it make who does the planning?”
She shrugged. “I guess.”
The introductions and speeches and so forth went on for awhile longer, and then finally dinner was served. Good thing too, because by the time all the formalities were over, Kagome was starved. She’d only managed that one trip to the hors d’oeuvre bar, and those few little canapés hadn’t held her for long. She attacked her filet mignon the moment it was set before her—so quickly, in fact, that Inuyasha paused with his own fork hovering above his salmon to give her an inquisitive look. “What?” she mumbled, only slightly defensively. “I’m hungry…”
“No kidding…” he noted under his breath.
She glared at him, but didn’t respond.
Kagome all but cleaned her plate during the main course, so when the dessert arrived—an apple crisp—she found she couldn’t eat another bite.
“What’s the matter?” Sango asked, three quarters of the way through her own apple crisp and nodding toward Kagome’s untouched one. “Not a fan of apple?”
“No, no—I’m just full, that’s all. You can have it if you want.”
Kagome nodded and nudged the plate toward Sango for her to eat after she’d finished her own. Leaning back in her chair, she huffed out a breath and folded her hands over her stuffed belly. “If I had pants, I’d unbutton them. I ate way too much.”
“Charming,” Inuyasha remarked.
She cast him a sidelong look. “This from the man whose idea of charm is to set off small explosions on a hot grill.”
“Hey, it works doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know—I’ve never hung around to see if one of your little blonde bobbysoxers has actually followed you home.”
“Well then take my word for it,” he smirked.
She laughed. “Yeah, I guess I’ll have to, won’t I?”
“Excuse me,” a voice interrupted from just over Kagome’s right shoulder, and they both turned to look at Kouga, who was leaning over the back of her chair. “I believe you promised me a dance.”
She gave a wry chuckle and got to her feet. Strictly speaking, she hadn’t promised him anything—but she hoped that stretching for a bit would make her feel a little less bloated. And anyway, truth be told, she liked to dance, even if she wasn’t all that good at it—and what were the odds of anyone else asking her to do so this evening?
Kouga took her hand and led her out onto the floor where other couples had already started gathering, swaying to the gentle strains of the piano, violin, bass, and sax quartet. He was really quite a good dancer, it turned out—very graceful, confident, at ease with the lead, but not too pushy. Of course, he made up for that by ducking in to nuzzle her neck every so often.
“Sure you wouldn’t like that drink after all?” he murmured in her ear, and she shrugged away deftly, shaking her head.
“No thanks. After all, we’ve all got quite a day tomorrow—I really need to get to sleep.”
“Alright, alright—but you will come to the poker game tomorrow night, won’t you?”
“In one of the conference rooms. We have it every year—all the competitors and representatives are invited. It’s sort of half poker game, half cocktail party. You don’t even have to play if you don’t want to. I’m sure we could find some other way to pass the time.”
“Uh-huh,” she muttered, nudging him back to a safe distance once more as they continued to sway to the music. “Well that sounds lovely, but I really don’t think I’ll be able to make it.”
He chuckled. “You’re really not going to make this easy for me, are you?”
“No, I guess I’m not,” she agreed, smiling her amusement.
“That’s alright. I like a challenge.” His eyes lit on something over her shoulder, and his smirk widened slightly as he flicked his gaze back to hers. “Dog-boy is jealous.”
“Who, Inuyasha?” She laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. He hates me almost as much as he hates you.”
“Really?” he asked, skeptical, but amused.
He gave another short chuckle. “If you say so.”
They carried on for another minute or two, but on one of their passes near the table Kagome caught sight of Miroku leaning toward Sango, the both of them looking troubled. Sango placed a reassuring hand over his, but a moment later she got up from the table and made a beeline for the exit.
“Excuse me,” Kagome murmured distractedly, slipping out of Kouga’s embrace and crossing the floor to catch Miroku by the arm just as he rose to follow her. “What is it? Is she alright?”
Miroku glanced back at Kagome, a frown creasing his brow. “She said she didn’t feel well. Would you mind—?”
“Of course,” she interrupted, “I’ll check on her.”
She made her way out of the ballroom as well and, sure enough, found Sango in the nearest ladies room, heaving her guts out.
“Sango?” she asked tentatively when there was a pause. “Are you alright? Do you need any help?”
“I’m…I’m alright,” she replied in a raspy voice that made Kagome wince.
“Would you like me to take you back to your room? Do you think you can make it?”
“I...I think s—” But another wave of nausea proved her wrong.
Kagome tore several paper towels from the dispenser and passed them to Sango beneath the stall door.
“Thanks…” she croaked.
“You’re welcome. Is there anything else I can do?”
“No…I don’t think so. If I can just rest here a minute…I think I can make it back to the room…”
Kagome nodded. “I’ll wait here for you and help you back. Let me just step outside and give Miroku a call to let him know where we’re going—maybe the guys can meet us there.”
“No, don’t—I mean, I don’t want to cut their evening short.”
“Don’t be silly—this isn’t exactly the party of the century here. Besides, it’s nearly over. I’ll just be a second.”
It was another twenty minutes or so before Sango felt stable enough to leave the bathroom, and by then Miroku and Inuyasha were waiting in the hallway just outside. The three of them helped Sango back to the room, and Inuyasha and Kagome waited outside while Miroku helped her out of her dress and tried to make her comfortable.
“How is she?” Kagome asked as Miroku rejoined them in the hall a few minutes later.
“Better. She’s sleeping now. She insists it’s just a little food poisoning and that she’ll be fine in the morning. She thinks it was from the last apple crisp—she felt fine until then.”
Inuyasha frowned. “How do you get food poisoning from an apple crisp?”
Miroku and Kagome exchanged a dark look. “You don’t,” Miroku replied. “Someone has to put it there.”
“What—so you think someone was trying to poison Sango?”
“No,” he said with a shake of the head, then met Kagome’s gaze. “Someone was trying to poison Kagome.”
“It was your apple crisp, remember? She was fine after the first one—it was only after the second one that she started to feel sick.”
“So wait,” Inuyasha broke in, “you’re saying that somebody here is trying kill Kagome by poisoning her? What is this, Hamlet? Who does that?”
“I don’t think they’re trying to kill her—just take her out of commission long enough for her to forfeit the contest. A drug intended to kill—if it’s effective—won’t make the victim throw up, because that would weaken or even negate its effects.”
“But why me? Why would anybody want to take me out of commission? I’ve never even competed on this circuit before.”
“Who knows—maybe just because you’re an unknown quantity. Maybe someone has a grudge against you or the restaurant. Maybe…because you’re a woman.”
Kagome flicked her gaze briefly at Inuyasha’s profile as he scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous—who would do something like that for such a stupid reason?”
Miroku gave him a wry look. “Look who’s talking.”
Inuyasha’s face reddened slightly and he studiously avoided Kagome’s gaze. “Oh shut up.”
“So you’re telling me there are no other women in this competition?” Kagome asked, bringing the conversation back on track.
“I don’t think so,” Miroku replied. “As far as I know, you’re the first ever.”
“Huh,” Kagome murmured, crossing her arms over her midsection protectively. “Well that’s a little scary. Kinda wish Kikyo had mentioned that before I signed on.”
Miroku smiled. “Hey, don’t worry too much. It doesn’t seem like anyone’s out for blood here.”
“Yeah,” Inuyasha agreed. “We’ll just have to be a little more careful from now on—maybe do some investigating to see if we can figure out who’s behind this.”
She raised both eyebrows. “We?”
He cleared his throat and looked away, shrugging off her comment. “Of course ‘we.’ If you drop out before the third round, I’m out too, remember?”
“Oh,” she nodded, smiling slightly. “Yeah, I forgot.”
Miroku glanced back and forth between them, a dry smile curving his lips—but decided not to comment. “So, what’s the next step?”
“There’s a poker game tomorrow night—a bunch of the competitors are holding it in one of the conference rooms. Kouga mentioned it when we were dancing.”
Inuyasha shot her a look, but Miroku spoke before he had the chance. “Good—you two should go. I don’t know if Sango will be up to it, but if she is, we can come too. If any of them are responsible for the weird stuff that’s been happening lately—or if they know who might be responsible—we won’t get a better chance to get information out of them than at a party.”
“Yeah,” Inuyasha concurred reluctantly. “I suppose.”
“Well…alright, if you think it’ll help. But I think maybe we ought to call Kikyo in the morning as well. If this incident is connected to all the canceled reservations and everything, there could be more to come. Maybe she would be able to do something we can’t.”
“Good idea,” Miroku said with a nod. “Listen, I ought to get back to Sango in case she needs anything.”
“That’s alright—we should be getting to bed too,” Kagome agreed, taking Inuyasha by the arm and nudging him back toward the elevators. “Tell her we hope she feels better, alright?”
“I will. Goodnight,” he said with a wave before disappearing back into the hotel room.
The ride back up to their room was silent, each of them lost in his or her own thoughts. Kagome collected her things and changed in the bathroom while Inuyasha did the same out in the main room. By the time she emerged, clean-faced and ready for bed, he was already settling in on the couch, trying to get comfortable. She put her things away distractedly, still mulling over the strange turn events had taken this evening, and secretly (albeit guiltily, for Sango’s sake) thanking her lucky stars that she had been too full for dessert that evening. The last thing she needed this week was a bout of food poisoning. She was under enough pressure as it was.
Climbing under the covers, she flicked off the light and stared up at the ceiling, feeling her eyes slowly adjust to the darkness. All at once, a thought occurred to her, making her frown. She wasn’t sure why, exactly—just a hunch. There was no really solid reasoning—and yet, somehow it made sense…
“Inuyasha?” she murmured tentatively, wondering if he was even still awake.
His answering grunt confirmed that he was.
“Do you think it could be that Naraku guy?”
“Think what could be that Naraku guy?” he mumbled, his voice half muffled by the couch cushion.
“You know—that he could be the one behind the food poisoning and the reservations and everything.”
She heard him shifting around on the couch until finally he heaved a sigh, his voice no longer muffled. “I don’t know. Why?”
“Well, it just occurred to me that as a member of the board, he might have access to certain things that others wouldn’t. And when he spoke to me this evening, I got a really strange vibe from him. He called me ‘the famous Kagome Higurashi.’”
“I don’t know. Doesn’t that seem weird?”
“Kinda—but like I said, he’s always been weird. Anyway, he’d get in a shitload of trouble if he was caught tampering with the contestants, and he’s got plenty to lose. He’d have to have a pretty damn good reason to do something stupid like that. I don’t think the fact that he apparently thinks you’re famous quite qualifies.”
“I know—but maybe there’s something else. Something we’re not aware of.”
“Well that’s what we’re gonna be investigating isn’t it? Why worry about it now? Anyway, my money’s still on Kouga…”
Kagome laughed quietly. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Goodnight, Inuyasha.”
Resolving to put her troubles out of mind, she turned over to lie on her side and snuggled deep beneath the covers, letting her eyes fall closed and her breathing even out. It wasn’t until she was almost completely relaxed, on the cusp of unconsciousness, that it occurred to her that it ought to have been Inuyasha’s turn to have the bed.
Chapter 8: All or Nothing
Inuyasha awoke early the next morning, but even so he found that Kagome had already left—for where, he wasn’t sure, but he also didn’t particularly care. Sitting up on the couch, feet on the floor, he rubbed a hand over his sleepy face to try to force it to wake up. The other hand found its way over to the end table and fumbled around for his cell phone, which he flipped open—8:26. That would make it 7:26 back in Chicago. She’d probably be up.
Pressing a few buttons, he put the phone to his ear and pushed himself to his feet, yawning and stretching so that his back cracked and his jaw popped.
“Kikyo Kobayashi,” a voice answered, catching him mid-yawn.
“Inuyasha,” she replied, sounding weary. “Look, if you’ve called to complain about Kagome, I’m afraid I really don’t have time—”
“It’s not about Kagome,” he interrupted dismissively. “I mean, she’s still a pain in the ass, but that’s not why I’m calling. The thing is, something happened last night…” And he filled her in on the details of the dinner and Sango’s subsequent illness, as well as the difficulties with their travel arrangements. “Kagome thinks Naraku Onigumo might be behind it,” he finished, as Kikyo fell into a contemplative silence.
There was a pause, and he could almost hear her frown. “Why is that?”
“I don’t know—he said something strange to her at the dinner.”
“What did he say?”
Inuyasha’s brow wrinkled curiously at her somewhat anxious tone. “I don’t remember—something about her being famous.”
“That’s what Kagome said.”
“What? You think there might be something to it?” he questioned.
“I…I’m not sure, but—it’s possible…”
His frown deepened—it wasn’t usually like Kikyo to be so evasive. Cold and unrevealing, yes, but not evasive… “Is there something going on here I’m not getting?”
“In a word, yes—but I don’t have time to explain it just now. I’ll fill you in when I get there.”
Well, that sounded like the Kikyo he knew, at least. “When you get here? You’re coming out to the tournament?”
“Yes, as soon as I can. I have to be here today, but I’ll see if I can catch a red-eye out this evening. Listen, I’ve got to go—I’ll speak to you soon.”
“Okay, but—” Click.
Well…that had been a little weird.
Shrugging and tossing the phone onto the couch, he decided to go about his business—after all, he had more important things to worry about this morning than some theoretical evil plot. Today was the first day of the tournament, and he’d be damned if he was going to let all this other stuff distract him from what he’d come here to do in the first place: Beat the pants off Kagome.
Showered and changed into jogging pants and a loose cotton t-shirt, he headed downstairs to the fitness center in hopes of getting in a few miles before breakfast.
Unfortunately, it seemed Kagome had beaten him to the punch.
She glanced up as he appeared in the doorway, giving him a wry smile and a cheeky little wave from her treadmill, never missing a beat. He rolled his eyes and threw his sweat towel over his shoulder, strolling across the room to take his place on a treadmill two spots down from hers, leaving one empty in between. Soon his feet were beating out a steady rhythm on the conveyor belt, just slightly faster than hers.
“Rough night? You look like hell,” she commented blithely after they’d been running in silence for a minute or so.
“It wasn’t the night that did it,” he replied, tossing her a pointed glare.
Kagome sighed. “What happened to the whole ‘we’re on the same team’ thing?”
“When someone tries to poison you, we’re on the same team. When we’re actually competing, you’re on your own.”
“No halfway with you, is there?”
“All er nothin’, babe,” he smirked.
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Do you always have to have the last word?”
“Not always. Only when the question is whether or not I’m going to kick your ass.”
“Now that’s mature.”
“Feh. Maturity is overrated. Who cares how you play the game, as long as you win?”
Kagome shook her head, torn between annoyance and amusement. “That explains so much.”
“Inuyasha’s philosophy of life: Win at all costs.”
“Hey, I never said that—it’s not like I cheat or anything. I just don’t waste my time fussing about finesse.”
“There’s a shock.”
“Now who has to have the last word?” he needled. Kagome opened her mouth to reply, but thought better of it. Instead, she pressed the button on her treadmill a couple of times to jack up the speed until they were running roughly apace.
He shot her a glare and pressed his own button once, pulling ahead again.
She glared back, but refused to take the bait.
A few minutes later the door opened again, and in walked Kouga. “Why, if it isn’t the lovely Miss Kagome!” he greeted, his face lighting up as he crossed the room. “Oh—hiya, mutt-face,” he added in afterthought, mounting the empty treadmill between them.
Inuyasha spared him a look of disgust, but quickly returned his attention to his form, declining to comment.
Kouga started at a jog, but soon had himself up to a solid run, easily apace with Inuyasha’s. Then, with the ghost of a smirk, he took his speed up a notch.
Never one to be outdone—by anyone—Inuyasha did the same.
Almost casually, and with no apparent effort, Kouga nudged the ante up again.
Inuyasha followed, punching the button furiously and shooting Kouga an angry glare, though his face was growing slightly red with the effort of keeping up.
Kagome, meanwhile, watched the silent pissing contest in bemusement out of the corner of her eye, eyebrows arching higher and higher as Kouga continued to speed up into a rather impressive sprint, Inuyasha now struggling to keep up.
“Uh, Inuyasha, maybe you should take it down a notch…” she suggested gently, the rattling of his treadmill making her slightly nervous.
“Hey, you keep out of this, wen—”
But that little bit of distraction was enough to throw him off his balance, his left foot landing badly and sending him flailing to the ground—only to yelp as he was flung off the back of the treadmill into the wall. Kagome gasped and yanked her emergency break, hopping off her own treadmill and dashing over to where he sat in a crumpled heap, rubbing the spot where the back of his head had thwacked against the plaster.
“Inuyasha, are you alright?” she asked, genuinely concerned.
“I’m fine, dammit,” he grumbled, pushing her hand away when she tried to get a look at his head.
She gave an irritated sigh and sat back on her heels. “You know, they have these things—” she held up her emergency stop cord, still clipped to her shirt “—for a reason, moron. You could have broken your fool neck.”
“I said I’m fine, alright? Just drop it.”
Her reply was cut off by a snort of laughter from behind her, and she glanced back to see Kouga standing on his treadmill, practically doubled over in amusement. “Holy crap…that was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Seriously, dog-breath, you just made my week…”
“Feh—you bet I made your week, cause you won’t be laughing three days from now,” he shot back.
Kouga didn’t bat an eyelid. “Ha—don’t even care! That was totally worth it…”
In spite of herself, Kagome had to smother a bout of laughter herself. The image of Inuyasha as his feet were yanked out from under him and he was tossed across the room in a flurry of limbs was just too good.
“What are you laughing at?” he demanded of her, irked.
She snorted again at his comically pissed expression. “Hey, you made the rules, mister. Soon as someone tries to poison you, we’ll be friends again.”
He opened his mouth to snap back, but faltered as her last words registered. Kagome realized what she’d just said as well, and looked away quickly, clearing her throat and getting to her feet. She offered him a hand up without looking at him; he grumbled a bit, but took it.
“See you later, boys,” she said with a wave, grabbing her towel off the treadmill on her way to the door. “Gotta go take my shower,”
“Mind if I join you?” Kouga called roguishly.
“Not this time,” she replied with a dry smile, just before she disappeared.
* * *
The contestants’ waiting room was small but comfortable, furnished with several plush leather couches and a coffee table laden with snacks. Because their performance times were spaced at regular intervals throughout the day, not everyone was there at the same time—they were required to check in a half-hour before their scheduled start times, though they were welcome to check in earlier just to be safe. When Kagome arrived, there were three other people in the room. Two men she didn’t recognize hovered over in the corner near a plate of fruit, chatting amiably, catching up on their lives since last year’s tournament. The third person in the room was Inuyasha.
He was decked out in his chef’s uniform, standing over near the door to the arena with his supply cart, one hand scratching the back of his neck. When he heard the hall door close behind her, he glanced over and smirked.
She straightened slightly, tugged at the hem of her chef’s jacket to straighten it, and walked over to him.
“Nervous yet?” he asked impishly.
“Cool as a cucumber, thanks. You?”
“Never better. I could do this in my sleep.”
“If you fall off a few more treadmills, you might have to.”
The door leading to the arena opened and one of the monitors poked her head in. “Takahashi?”
Inuyasha raised a hand. “Yo.”
“You’re on deck,” she replied, nodding for him to follow her into the even smaller antechamber beyond.
“Good luck, partner,” Kagome said with mock sweetness, wiggling her fingers at him as he pushed his cart into the antechamber.
“You too, partner,” Inuyasha responded in kind, just before the door closed between them.
Kagome sighed and shook her head, taking a seat on one of the couches and nibbling on a piece of cantaloupe from a nearby platter. She wasn’t really hungry, but despite her assurances to Inuyasha, she actually was a bit nervous, and eating kept her hands busy. She always felt somewhat nervous before a tournament, and although she was no stranger to them, she had never competed in one on quite this scale before. Truth be told, a small part of her wondered if she might be a little out of her league—but the larger, louder part of her insisted that she could hold her own in any league she damn well pleased. Especially Inuyasha’s.
She took a few deep breaths, clenching and unclenching her fists a few times and shaking out her hands in hopes of transforming her nerves into usable energy. Then she got to her feet and retrieved her food cart from the storage locker in the corner, checking it over to see that all the necessary supplies—minus the main ingredients, which would be given to her along with the menu in the antechamber precisely ten minutes before she went on—were present and accounted for.
As she stood over near the door, waiting to be called, she kept catching herself fidgeting with the hem of her jacket, and having to force her fingers to calm down. Her feet were just itching to pace, but she knew that would only agitate her further, so she stayed put. After a moment or two, she realized the two men in the corner had stopped their conversation and were staring at her covertly. When her gaze flicked over to theirs, the taller of the two smiled sheepishly and glanced away with a chuckle.
“Whoops—caught, sorry. Kagome Higurashi from Katana, right?” he said, stepping forward and offering his hand in greeting. She nodded, and he continued, “Michael Yamamoto, from Musashi—San Francisco. This is Gen Hayashi—he’s from Murasame.”
“Seattle, right?” she asked, shaking the shorter man’s hand as well.
“Vancouver,” he corrected, with a friendly smile.
“Sorry, we didn’t mean to stare,” Michael said. “Just don’t get a whole lot of women around here, you know? Not that we have a problem with—I mean, we think there should be more women.” He gave a start and added quickly, “In the competition, that is—not that we were, like, ‘cruising’ you or anything. Not that we wouldn’t—I mean—oh crap…”
Kagome laughed, interrupting his increasingly feverish attempts to correct himself. “Don’t worry, I know what you meant—and thanks. That’s nice to hear. It’s a little unnerving to be the only one.”
“We’re not bothering you, are we?” Gen asked. “You look like you’re about to go on.”
“Oh no—actually, it’s kind of nice to have something to take my mind off it. I’m a little nervous.”
“Don’t be—you’ll do great, I’m sure of it,” Michael reassured her, and she could detect no sarcasm or ulterior motive. “Katana’s always got some of the best performers, so I know they wouldn’t have sent you if you weren’t pretty damn good. Just relax and it’ll be over before you know it.”
“Thanks,” she said, breathing a sigh and feeling a little of the tension leave her shoulders.
“Hey, you’re coming to the poker game tonight, right?” Gen asked.
“Hm?” she mumbled, confused for a second—but then she remembered, not only the poker game, but their little plan to hunt up leads on their would-be saboteur. “Oh, right—wouldn’t miss it.”
“Great—maybe we’ll see you there.”
“Sounds good,” she replied, giving them a smile and waving as they headed out the hall door. When their backs were turned, the smile slid from her face, replaced with an uneasy expression. Suddenly she couldn’t help wondering if that conversation had been as innocent as it seemed. There was no reason to think either of those men would have anything in particular against her—they’d never met her before, after all—but they were competitors, after all, and they seemed to have no doubts about Katana’s strong status in the competition. Nor were they ignorant of the fact that she was the only woman in the competition—and they had been lingering in the corner of the room, staring at her, even though neither was actually waiting to go on. Had they hung around just to spy on her? They’d seemed perfectly at ease with her presence—well, other than that little bout of runaway mouth—but what if Inuyasha wasn’t the only guy around here who had a problem with a woman being in the competition?
No—dammit, she was just being paranoid. These were two perfectly nice, polite strangers who had simply stopped over to introduce themselves to a newbie who looked nervous. End of story.
Kagome jumped slightly when the door to the antechamber clicked open, and the monitor poked her head in again. “Higurashi?” she said, giving a brief smile and crooking her finger. Kagome followed her in with her cart. She was given a small covered metal tray with an order menu taped to the top—six guests, fried rice and shrimp appetizers for all, one order of the seafood platter, two orders of chicken teriyaki, one filet mignon medium-rare, one well done, and a lobster tail.
A few minutes later, the door to the arena opened, uncorking a brief wave of enthusiastic cheering as Inuyasha slipped back into the antechamber with his empty cart and a smug expression on his face. He didn’t speak to Kagome as he passed, but the flick of his eyebrows as he walked by was all the challenge she needed. Her hands tightened on the handle of her cart, and she took a few more steadying breaths, jaw clenched in determination as she ran over her routine in her head, mapping it out for herself.
A few more minutes passed while the judges tallied up the scores and cleansed their palates, the grill was cleaned up, and the meals from the previous performance were cleared away. Then it was Kagome’s turn.
The monitor opened the door for her, and she entered the arena to a smattering of polite applause and a few encouraging hoots and hollers (she was pretty sure one of them was Sango). The grill was set up in the center of the floor with the six judges seated around it, each with a pad and pen before them on specially made stands that were set on an incline, so Kagome wouldn’t be able to see them writing or be distracted by their note-taking. About ten feet back from the grill on three sides were retractable sets of bleachers, filled with intent fans. She couldn’t see much of them because the lighting was so bright around the workspace, casting most of the rest of the room into shadow. Strangely, it made her feel closed in and overexposed at the same time—the cage of light at the center was somehow claustrophobic, but the teeming shadows seemed to stretch on into infinity, suggesting a crowd much larger than it probably was.
Steeling her nerves, she moved up to the grill, tripped the wheel lock on her cart, and waited for the start signal—then she was off.
It got better once she had actually begun to work. She found it easier to block out the feel of the crowd surrounding her and remind herself that she did, in fact, know what she was doing. Once she got into the groove a little bit, she began to pull a few of her usual tricks out of the bag, earning herself a few kind laughs, though perhaps not the enthusiastic response she could usually count on on her best days. Still, she tried her best not to let it get to her, to take each moment as it came and hope for the best.
When it was all over, the crowd burst into applause and cheers—not the roaring gale that had followed Inuyasha out of the room, but at least it was a few notches above the polite response she had received walking into the room, so she supposed that was something. As for the food itself, she knew she had made a couple of mistakes—the medium-rare steak was a little over done, and she’d fumbled her technique with the pepper shaker enough times that she knew it was going to cost her some points—but nothing fatal. She hoped.
She released a sigh as she returned to the relative safety of the antechamber. The monitor gave her a smile, and she returned it halfheartedly, but pushed straight on through to the waiting room. After she had locked her cart away again, she tugged her chef’s hat off her head, dumped the leftover shrimp tails from her hat and coat pocket into the trash, and slumped down onto the couch, resting her head in her hands.
Yes, she had done a respectable job. Respectable. But respectable didn’t win competitions—and based on the gales of applause Inuyasha had received, still echoing in her ears, she wasn’t anywhere close to beating him in this one at this point.
“Dammit…” she whispered.
Chapter 9: The Gamblers
When the day’s raw scores were posted that evening around dinnertime, Kagome’s doubts were confirmed: She had a 78 out of a possible 100. Inuyasha had a 93.
And he was positively insufferable about it, damn him.
After an otherwise lovely dinner in the hotel dining room—during which Inuyasha had been uncharacteristically boisterous, the traces of that smug little smirk never quite leaving his face—they had all gone off to their rooms to change. Kagome had quickly grabbed a pair of dark jeans and a violet button-down and claimed the bathroom for herself, leaving Inuyasha to dress in the bedroom. When she reemerged, he had traded his black work slacks for a pair of jeans and a grey t-shirt with a faded logo on the front—though unfortunately the smirk was still in place. She sat on the bed to slip on a pair of casual black heels and dig through her purse on the pretext of checking for her room key and cell phone. When he opened the hall door and leaned back against it, arms crossed, waiting with unusual patience, she stood and exited before him, blithely refusing to acknowledge his presence. He made no move to protest, falling in step beside her casually. She would have sworn she saw a canary feather stuck to his lower lip.
They met up with Miroku and Sango at their room, and headed up to one of the penthouse levels where the luxury suites were. “Nice moon out tonight,” Miroku said with a mild grin, breaking the silence in the elevator car.
“Yeah,” Inuyasha agreed, glancing past the other two towards Kagome. “Gotta be at least 93-percent full, don’t’cha think?”
Kagome shot him a dry look, but declined to respond. When the elevator dinged and the doors slid open, she was the first to step out, chin held slightly higher than usual.
They knew the suite number, but it was hardly necessary—the sounds of easy chatter and laughter drifted down the hallway, telling them exactly where the party was. Kagome reached the door first and knocked. Inuyasha came up beside her, hands in his back pockets, just as it opened.
“Hey, you made it!” said Michael, the man she’d met that morning in the waiting room. “Come on in!” He stepped aside to allow them entry and closed the door behind them, but stopped Kagome moving away with a gentle hand to her shoulder. “Say, I saw the scores,” he said with a sympathetic smile. “Tough luck. But don’t let it get to you—it’s always hardest the first time out. You’ve got plenty of time left to pull it out.”
She smiled back wryly. “Thanks—I appreciate it.”
“Meantime, grab yourself a drink. You’ve earned it,” he said with a wink, nodding toward the bar and moving off to rejoin the party.
“You know that guy?” Inuyasha said from just behind her, and she turned around, surprised to find him still standing there.
“I met him this morning—seems like he’s been coming here for awhile. Don’t you know him?”
He shrugged. “Why would I?”
She rolled her eyes. “Never mind…”
The actual poker game was set up at the dining table on the other side of the kitchen (which, for the moment, was serving mainly as a bar). There were only about five people actually playing, from what she could tell, but a crowd of men (and a few women, who Kagome presumed were wives and girlfriends of the contestants) stood around them with drinks in hand, kibitzing. Others were spread out around the living room area, which consisted of two couches facing each other, a chair at each end, set in the curve of a bay window that looked out onto the balcony.
Inuyasha grabbed himself a beer from the fridge and went over to elbow his way into the poker game. Miroku and Sango were already caught up talking to a man Kagome didn’t recognize—apparently an acquaintance of Miroku’s from earlier tournaments—so Kagome took Michael’s advice and poured herself a nice stiff drink. Sipping it carefully (turned out it was a tiny bit stiffer than she’d really intended), she wandered over to look out the window. The sun had set, though there was still a faint tinge of blue visible on the horizon, between the looming silhouettes of skyscrapers. Sure, it wasn’t exactly the fanciful wonderland you see in the movies—but she had to admit, from this angle, New York was pretty glamorous. A lovely place to visit, though she wasn’t sure she would want to live here.
“Hey—how about you? What do you think?”
Kagome glanced around, realizing the voice was addressing her. “‘Scuse me?”
The man on the couch grinned. “Sorry, I suppose that was rude of me,” he said. “We were just discussing today’s point spread. Michael here reckons we’ve still got a shot, but I’ve got odds on Katana. What do you think, Ms. Higurashi?”
She smirked, matching the stranger’s playfully arrogant demeanor. “Well, I think it’s a little early to count anybody out for good—but the fact is, we are going to kick your asses, so I suppose your caution is prudent.”
The man let out a bark of laughter and whacked Michael in the shoulder. “You were right about this one.”
“Sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” Kagome said, offering her hand.
“Probably ‘cause I didn’t drop it. Fujiyama—Bankotsu,” he replied, leaning forward to shake her hand awkwardly, as his other arm was trapped behind the shoulders of a leggy blonde who seemed vaguely bored with the conversation.
“Nice to meet you. You’re with Musashi, I take it?”
“I’m the owner.”
“Really? I thought only contestants were coming to this little gathering.”
“For the most part—we just dropped by to say hello. Didn’t want to miss out on all the fun. Actually,” he glanced at his date, who was looking at him out of the corner of her eye in mild annoyance, “we should probably be going. Don’t want to lose our reservation.”
They got up from the couch and said their goodbyes to the others in the seating area, before threading their way out toward the entrance, the man’s hand resting on the woman’s waist. Kagome took another sip of her drink and perched herself on the arm of one of the couches as the conversation picked up where it had left off.
Inuyasha, meanwhile, was trying to draw an inside straight. It wasn’t fucking working.
“Dammit,” he grumbled, throwing his cards down on the table. Fucking sevens.
“I take it that’s a fold?” Miroku said, glancing over at his friend.
“Ah go fold yourself,” Inuyasha replied. There was fifty bucks in that pot, dammit.
It was down to Miroku and yellow-shirt-guy—Inuyasha couldn’t remember his name—and either they both had cards, or they were both just equally good at bullshit, because neither one flinched. Yellow-shirt called the bet. He had two pair. Miroku had a full house.
Of course he did.
“Man,” said guy-to-Inuyasha’s-right (Tako? Tito? He knew it had an “o” in it…), “I’m getting cleaned out, guys. If we don’t quit playing for money soon, I’m gonna have to call it a night.”
Miroku did a quick shuffle, then a bridge, then rapped the edge of the deck against the tabletop. “Fair enough—what do you guys say we make this interesting?”
“Interesting?” Inuyasha scoffed. “We’re already betting money—what do you want to bet, stock options?”
Shuffle. Bridge. “I was thinking more like alcohol.”
“Drunk poker,” Inuyasha muttered wryly. “Now that sounds like a good idea.”
“Hey, as long as we’re taking the money out of the equation, it’s fine by me,” said yellow-shirt. The others all seemed amenable to the suggestion, so one of the kibitzers scooted over to the bar and returned with a tray of shotglasses filled with Goldschlager.
Yellow-shirt won the first hand with three of a kind, so all the others had to take a shot.
“God,” Inuyasha rasped, coughing slightly, “that’s disgusting—what the hell is in this stuff? It’s like whisky mixed with Red Hots…”
The poker game definitely got more interesting from there (yellow-shirt very nearly became no-shirt, after he lost so many times he forgot what kind of poker they were playing), and it didn’t take long for the trend to spread to the rest of the party. Kagome had long since finished her whiskey sour, and had taken a shot or two herself along with the guys on the couches. It was like being back in college—except legal, with better quality alcohol, and with less vomiting.
“Well, well—fancy meeting you here,” greeted a smooth voice from over her shoulder.
She glanced back, and smiled widely at finding Kouga standing there. “Hey! How are you?” she asked, getting to her feet (only swaying a tiny bit).
“Couldn’t be better. Get a drink with me?”
“Oh,” she laughed, glancing back at the coffee table littered with empty shot glasses, “probably shouldn’t. Don’t want to overdo it.”
“Don’t worry, Kagome—I’ll take care of you. I’ll mix you a small one, I promise.”
She sighed in resignation, still smiling, and looped her arm through his to walk over toward the bar. “Well, if you insist.”
He walked around behind the counter and started mixing them each a drink, while she leaned against the counter across from him.
“So—what have you been up to?” she asked. “Since this morning, I mean.”
“Pretty much the same as you, I’d expect. Why don’t you tell me what you were up to?”
“Oh, nothing much. Mostly listening to Inuyasha brag about his stupid score.”
“Shocking. Dog-turd never did learn any tact.”
“Oh, and you’re so well-mannered yourself?”
He shrugged, passing her one of the filled glasses. “Maybe not—but I fake it better, at least.” He gave her a wink, and she rolled her eyes in response—though she couldn’t deny the slight heating of her skin. Then again, maybe that was just the alcohol.
He ambled around the end of the bar, coming to lean against it, facing her. “Here’s looking at you,” he said, clinking his glass against hers, and she laughed, not completely sure whether she was laughing with him or at him. He didn’t seem to take offense either way though, merely flashing a handsome smirk.
“You’re the most captivating woman I’ve ever met,” he murmured, his voice smooth and seductive. She barely noticed his hand drifting over to rest on her hip.
“You barely know me,” she pointed out dryly. Maybe she would have been bothered by his advances if she were sober, but in her present state the most she could muster was amusement. And in any case, he was handsome—she couldn’t deny that. It was nice to have the attention.
“I know enough.” He was getting closer—not exactly making a solid move, just gradually sidling in. Just as it looked like he was going to try to kiss her, and before she’d decided whether she was going to stop him or not, an arm slung around her neck in a move that seemed half-embrace, half-headlock.
“Hey, Kouga,” he greeted scornfully, casually dragging Kagome back out of range—and nearly to the floor, given the state of her equilibrium. “What’s up?”
“Nothing that concerns you, mutt-face. We were having a conversation, if you don’t mind.”
“Nah, y’know, I think your conversation is over. We’ll see ya later.”
“Hey—hey, will you let go already?” Kagome complained as he dragged her across the room awkwardly, the two of them stumbling against each other like some sort of ill-balanced farm animal. “How many times do I have to tell you? I don’t need any rescuing.”
“Well excuse me for interrupting,” he said sarcastically. “If you were having such a bang-up time chatting with wolf-boy over there, feel free to go back and pick up where you left off. I just figured I’d ask you if you managed to get any dirt out of him before he shoved his tongue down your throat.”
She rolled her eyes. “No, darnit. I tried, but I don’t really know what to say. I mean, it might be a little obvious if I came right out with, ‘So, been privy to any evil plots lately?’”
“Yeah, right. Maybe I should take a shot at beating it out of him?”
“Because that would be so much more subtle,” she deadpanned.
He shrugged. “Alright, so I’ll just do it for the hell of it.”
“Don’t even think about it. We’re not paying for a wrecked hotel room. Come on, I haven’t gotten to play yet,” she said, grabbing his elbow and dragging him back to the poker table. Yellow-shirt-guy had headed back to his hotel room to sleep it off by now, so Kagome snagged his empty seat.
“What’s the game?” she asked.
“Five card draw,” Miroku replied, dealing her in.
It took awhile for her to get into the groove of the game—it had been a long time since she’d last played poker—and she took a couple more shots in the process. But soon she had the hang of it, and even won a couple of hands herself.
It had been a particularly fierce betting hand, but it was down to her and Inuyasha. She had a pair of queens, and she was banking on that menacing smirk of his being a bluff. The hell with him—she could give as good as she got.
“Inuyasha—what do you say we raise the stakes?”
“How ‘bout looser takes two shots? Seems only fair, considering the size of the pot.”
“Feh,” he scoffed. “We can do better than that. How ‘bout the looser takes a body shot off the winner?”
Her eyebrows rose at that. “What is this, a frat party? Hell no!”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. I mean, there is a 93-percent chance you could lose,” he taunted.
She narrowed her eyes at him heatedly. She knew she was going to regret this…eventually…but damn him, she couldn’t back down from that, and he knew it. “Fine,” she sighed. “Show your hand.”
She lifted her chin slightly in anticipated triumph as she fanned her cards on the table.
“Damn,” he said, throwing his cards down and shaking his head, making her smirk. But then he continued, “I was looking forward to that shot”—and flicked gloating eyes up to hers as he flipped over his cards: Three of a kind.
Damn, damn, damn it all to hell.
The cluster of increasingly rowdy spectators hooted like school kids when a classmate gets called to the principal’s office as Inuyasha reclined across the tabletop, hands behind his head and t-shirt slightly raised to expose a strip of his abdomen. Someone passed a shot forward to be placed over his navel, and Kagome stood between his knees at the edge of the table. Heaving a sigh and shaking her head, once again cursing her apparent inability to put dignity above a dare, she leaned forward and carefully plucked the shot glass from its perch with her teeth, downing the liquor within.
The juvenile hooting crescendoed accompanied with a smattering of applause.
Inuyasha sat up, smirking, and she shook her head again, glaring daggers at him. “I hate you.”
“Right back at you, babe.”
“Lick him! You gotta lick him!” some girl yelled from somewhere in the crowd.
“I’ll pass, thanks,” Kagome called back, wryly. “Listen, Inuyasha, I’ve got an early slot tomorrow, so I think I’m going to head back to the room.”
“Yeah, me too—I’ll walk you,” he replied, nodding his head toward the door as they wormed their way out from the center of the group.
“That wasn’t an invitation, you know,” she said primly.
“Ha-ha—like I’m looking for an invitation from you.”
Once they were out of the suite, Kagome fell off her shoe and nearly broke her ankle, but Inuyasha caught her before she hit the ground. “Watch it,” he said, looping an arm around her shoulder to keep her standing—and a little to keep himself standing she suspected. They weaved a bit as they lumbered awkwardly down the hallway, but fortunately they were in no huge hurry to get where they were going.
She staggered against his shoulder again as they entered the hotel room, and he snickered, nudging her upright.
“You okay there, Gorgeous George? You were downing those shots like Kool-aid.”
“You’re one to talk,” she retorted, leaning back against the door. “You must have had twice as many.”
“Yeah, and I’m twice your size, too,” he pointed out, propping his shoulder against the wall just beside her.
She shot him a glare, but didn’t bother to respond. He was probably right, though there was no way in hell she’d tell him that—she’d had too much to drink. She really ought to be getting to bed—but for the moment she was comfortable where she was, and she figured she was probably better off just staying here, at least until the floor stopped rolling and pitching beneath her feet.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw him move, swaying a bit closer toward her so that their shoulders were touching, and he was looking down at her from above. By ordinary measures he was too close, but her personal space gauges were all out of whack, so she found she didn’t mind. She couldn’t quite focus on his face, but from what she could tell he seemed to be watching her with a sort of pensive frown. Then, with all the grace of a beaver falling off a log, he leaned in closer, and everything went blurry as a pair of warm, soft lips brushed against hers experimentally.
There was a breath, and something to the effect of “Where the hell did that come from?” drifted through the transom of her mind. But then she tilted her head with the same vague sense of curiosity and returned the kiss, granting him permission to continue it with greater purpose, his hands coming to grasp her ribcage gently while hers wound around his neck.
Dimly, as if calling to her from across three football fields, her mind protested that this was about the worst idea she had ever had. (Well technically, she argued, the idea had been his—she was just going along with it. Her mind was not impressed.) Not only was it irresponsible and totally unlike her in general, but it was bound to turn an already combative working relationship into a real fiasco. But when her breasts brushed against the warm, firm plane of his chest, and he slipped his tongue—albeit rather clumsily—into her mouth, she found she just couldn’t bring herself to give a damn. It occurred to her that it had been an awfully long time since she’d been with anyone—six months, probably more, with the move and the new job and everything—and between the effects of accumulated abstinence and a few shots of liquor, his touch was a match, and she felt like she’d been dipped in kerosene. Yeah, sure, maybe it was a stupid idea—but really, how much harm could it possibly do? What was life without a little spontaneity? She’d earned a really bad decision or two by now, hadn’t she…?
He’d moved on from her mouth, and was now trailing wet, sensuous kisses down the side of her throat, tugging aside the neckline of her button-down shirt to nibble at her collar bone. She drew in a short breath when his left hand came up to fondle her breast, and he responded by leaning into her, pressing his hips up against hers. This was good. This was definitely good. Tomorrow was so very, very far away, and here he was, so close. She pressed back against him as well, running her hands down across his contoured back until they rested on his hips, pulling him closer.
They stumbled a little as they made their way blindly across the room, nearly tripping over a chair and what felt like a suitcase in the process—but finally the mattress caught her in the knees, and she fell back onto the bed, Inuyasha not far behind. He pinned her down with his weight, his right thigh resting between hers, and went to work at her throat again, his fingers nimbly flicking open the buttons of her shirt one by one until her bra was exposed, and his tongue lapped at the valley between her breasts. She grasped his head and arched against him, unconsciously grinding her hip against his crotch, which elicited a pleasurable growl from where his mouth was pressed against her skin. When his left hand unfastened her jeans and slid teasingly beneath the waistline, her free leg lifted of its own accord to wrap around his waist. Her breath was coming shorter and shorter underneath his touch, and she barely even noticed that he had moved away from her breasts until his lips closed over hers again, and she kissed him with renewed fervor.
Then, like an icy rainstorm from a clear blue sky, there came a knock at the door—and both of them froze. She blinked up at him in the darkness, feeling his chest rise and fall against hers in a slight pant, his expression like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar (so to speak…)—and even though they were still lit by nothing more than the moonlight drifting through the sheer curtains, it was as if somebody had suddenly flipped on the light. All those extremely good reasons not to do this that had seemed so unimportant a few minutes ago came rushing back to her—and the mood dropped from the air like a lead balloon.
The knock came again. “Kagome, you still awake?” Sango’s voice asked quietly.
He rolled off of her and removed his hand from her pants, wiping damp fingers on the bedspread. She shot him an annoyed, disgusted look as she sat up to rebutton her shirt, and he replied with one that clearly said, “You’re one to criticize,” before stalking off to the bathroom—to do what, she was careful not to ask herself. Double-checking that all her clothing had been restored to its rightful place, and running a hand through her hair self-consciously, Kagome got up from the bed and went to answer the door.
“Hey, Sango, what’s up?”
“Oh, good—sorry to bother you so late. I…” a curious expression flicked across her face as she took in the dark room and Kagome’s undoubtedly mussed appearance, and Kagome shifted awkwardly under her scrutiny, trying not to look too guilty. “I hope I didn’t…interrupt anything…”
“No!” Kagome replied, a little too emphatically. “No, of course not. I was just starting to get ready for bed.”
“Oh…okay. Well, anyway…Miroku and I were thinking of going to the Russian Tea Room for dinner tomorrow. It’s expensive, but we thought it’d be a kick, and the concierge said he could get us in on short notice. We were wondering if you two wanted to come along.”
“Sure!” Kagome said, wincing inwardly at her slightly overdone attempt to sound normal. “Sounds like fun.”
“Great—we’ll let you know on the timing tomorrow.”
Sango slanted her one last curious look, but Kagome simply forced herself to keep smiling and ignore it, giving her a little wave as she turned away. Finally she was able to close the door and drop the façade, resting her forehead against the doorjamb.
When she heard the bathroom door open quietly behind her, she squeezed her eyes shut even tighter. The sudden jolt of adrenaline in her system at nearly being “caught” had more or less wiped away most of the pleasant effects of the alcohol in her veins, leaving her with only the unpleasant ones—a slight sluggishness, mild nausea, a bitter flavor in her mouth (although she admitted that was probably partly him), and on top of that her head was beginning to pound. It wasn’t quite a headache yet, but it would be a bitch of one as soon as it managed to batter away the last remnants of her inebriated numbness.
“She gone?” he asked hesitantly.
“Mm-hm,” she replied, still not moving. She was a tiny bit afraid of what would happen when she looked at him. The most likely possibilities were that she would be either swept up once again in an irrational fit of desire, or that she would just melt into a puddle of embarrassment on the floor—neither of which sounded particularly appealing at the moment.
“So…what the hell was that?”
Her eyes snapped open, and she finally glanced over at him in bemusement. “You’re asking me?”
“Why the hell shouldn’t I ask you?” he snapped, brow lowering in a frown.
“Well you were the one who started it, after all,” she retorted, crossing her arms over her chest—until she realized she had missed the top button, and was inadvertently emphasizing her cleavage, so she dropped her hands back to her sides.
“You weren’t exactly fighting back though, were you?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Look—this obviously isn’t getting us anywhere. Why it happened isn’t important—what’s important is that we absolutely can not let it happen again.”
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me. I’m sorry I let it happen at all.”
“Let it happen? Excuse me, but who had whose hand down whose pants just a minute ago?”
“Oh come on, you were begging for it.”
“You’re one to talk,” she rejoined, flicking her gaze pointedly toward his crotch—which was still slightly more “contoured” than usual.
He gave a growl of frustration. “You know, you’re just lucky I’m not as much of a bastard as you think I am, bitch, because if I were, I’d have you on the floor in three seconds flat!”
“Oh yeah? I’d like to see you try!” she challenged, advancing on him.
“Don’t tempt me!” he snarled back, taking a step toward her as well.
It was happening again—she could feel it. The air was positively crackling with electricity, and part of her was painfully tempted to throw caution to the wind and just do it already, if only to get it out of her system—but the other part, the stronger part, the part that had previously been three football fields away, wouldn’t let her. If things were this bad after they’d only almost slept together, she couldn’t imagine how much more complicated it would make them if they actually did. And anyway, that would mean giving in and admitting to him that she was as attracted to him as he obviously was to her—and she hated giving in. Especially to that stubborn jackass.
Drawing on every ounce of poise and self-control she possessed, she inhaled slowly and straightened her spine. “Goodnight, Inuyasha,” she said coolly, skirting around him and crossing to grab her pajamas out of the dresser. She felt a tug on her arm and whirled back to face him.
“Wench—you gonna leave it like that?”
She gave him her sweetest, smuggest smile. “Yep. Now let go of me.”
He growled fiercely, but shoved her arm roughly away, turning his back on her to pace across the room. As soon as she reemerged from the bathroom, changed, face washed, teeth brushed, he swept past her into the bathroom himself, without a word. As she was climbing into bed, she heard the shower turn on, and smirked to herself as she buried her face in the pillows. Served him right.
Chapter 10: Pressure
Kagome awoke early the next morning and tiptoed around the room, opening and closing drawers as silently as possible, taking a couple of aspirin to banish the remnants of her hangover, and slipping silently out of the room. When she heard Inuyasha resume snoring on the other side of the door, she breathed a sigh of relief and continued on her way down to the gym.
She had the place to herself, which was just as well—she didn’t particularly feel like making small talk today. In fact, she didn’t feel much like talking or thinking at all. Every time she thought, she seemed to flash back to the near miss the night before, which in turn lead to a flood of self-recriminations.
She stepped onto the treadmill and powered it up, beginning with a steady walk to warm up her muscles. Pumping her arms back and forth determinedly with each step, she focused on her breathing, making each inhale deep and even. When she increased her speed to a jog, she patterned her breathing to match her steps—three steps for each inhale, two for each exhale—so she would begin each exhale on alternating feet, evening out the harshest moments of impact.
What the hell had she been thinking?
Well, that was simple—she hadn’t been thinking. She’d been drunk off her ass, and it had been dark, and it had been late, and she had been suggestible, and he had been there, and he had made a move, and she had gone along with it. That was all.
Except…she hadn’t been that drunk.
She punched the speed of the treadmill up a few notches, concentrated on the breath expanding harshly against her ribcage and then being forced back out.
She could still feel his hands against her skin, warm and hard, yet surprisingly gentle. And his lips; as awkward and graceless as that first pass had been, she couldn’t deny the spark she had felt deep inside her, even from that first touch. She’d kissed many a clumsy frog over the years, especially in college—but this had been different. She hadn’t felt that vague sense of grittiness that always seemed to accompany a one-night stand—the simultaneous shame and pride in the knowledge that he was interested in her only for her body, nothing more. And that was an incredibly dangerous impression to have, because it meant that either he was very good at pretending to want more…or he actually did want more, whether he knew it or not.
Or perhaps, worse yet, that she was the one who wanted more, and it was throwing her radar out of whack.
She shook her head to banish the thought and punched the speed up a few more notches, until it took all of her concentration to keep up with the grueling pace. When her left foot landed badly, she managed to catch herself on the handrails and move her feet to the sides of the treadmill just in time to avoid a nasty fall. It was at that moment that she noticed she had forgotten to clip on the emergency break cord.
She picked up the clip sitting on the control panel and turned it over in her hand wryly, then tossed it back into the empty cup holder with a sigh. “Fuck.”
* * *
Inuyasha flinched at the knock on the door, then groaned and rolled over, burying his face in the pillow and pulling his blanket up over his head.
The knock came again, a little louder.
“Fuck off!” he mumbled, his voice slightly muffled by the pillow.
The three loud, sharp knocks that answered brooked no argument, and he lurched up from the couch involuntarily. “I’m up, I’m up…” he grumbled, untangling his legs from the blanket and stumbling off the cushions and onto the floor. Yawning and scratching an ear, he ambled over and reached for the chain lock, frowning slightly to find that it was already open. He glanced automatically at the bed, and confirmed that Kagome was missing. Just as well—she was the last person in the world he wanted to see right now.
When he opened the door, Kikyo met his rumpled appearance with a cool smirk. “Morning, sunshine.”
Okay, second to last person.
He turned away, shoving the door closed again without a word—but Kikyo caught it deftly and followed him into the room, unfazed.
“I see you’re your usual chipper self,” she said dryly, flipping on the overhead light as he climbed back onto the couch and rolled over to face away from her.
“What are you doing here, Kikyo? It’s like seven in the morning.”
“It’s nine-thirty, Inuyasha.”
“Six of one,” he replied.
She crossed her arms over her chest and regarded his back shrewdly. “Rough night?”
“Why does everybody keep asking me that?”
“I see. Can I take that as a yes?”
“Ah. Thought so.” Brushing a piece of lint from her tailored skirt, Kikyo took a seat on the foot of the bed, crossing her legs elegantly at the knees. “Then I take it you’re not interested in hearing what I’ve uncovered so far with regards to the poisoning and the difficulties with your travel arrangements?”
He didn’t answer, but one of his ears flicked toward her nonetheless, making her smirk.
“Come on—up-up-up,” she admonished, standing once more to lean over and smack him on the butt.
“Hey!” he protested, jerking away and shooting a glare at her over his shoulder. “That’s sexual harassment, you know.”
Kikyo was unimpressed. “It’s a little late for you to become a stickler about workplace ethics, Inuyasha.”
He grumbled a bit, but shoved the blankets off of himself and rolled to his feet once more, collecting a pair of jeans and a t-shirt from the dresser and giving her an irritable look as he shuffled into the bathroom to change and wash up.
When he reemerged, Kikyo stood and took him firmly by the arm, dragging him with her out of the room.
“Hey, where are we going?” he mumbled, patting his back pocket to make sure he had his room key.
“Down to the dining room—I told Miroku and Sango we would meet them there. Do you know where Kagome is?”
“Why should I?” he replied with a shrug.
But just as they were heading off down the hall, the elevator dinged in the distance, and Kagome rounded the corner to face them, stopping short with an expression of mild surprise and irritation. Both feelings were mutual.
Her eyes narrowed coolly at Inuyasha, but her brow seemed to twitch into a frown as her gaze flicked to Kikyo’s hand on his arm. The frown disappeared quickly, however, as she turned to greet their boss with a smile that was only slightly forced. “Hi, Kikyo—I didn’t know you were coming out.”
“Inuyasha told me about the difficulties you’ve been having, so I thought I ought to come out here and see if I can straighten things out.”
Her gaze darted to Inuyasha in alarm for a moment, before understanding dawned. “Oh! You mean the reservations and everything.”
Kikyo raised an eyebrow at that, but declined to comment. “Yes. We’re meeting Sango and Miroku in the dining room to go over what I know so far.”
“Right,” she nodded quickly, “I’ll join you as soon as I’ve had my shower. I’ll only be a minute.”
And with that, she slipped past them into the room, studiously ignoring Inuyasha.
Kikyo took note of this, as well as Inuyasha’s stiffened posture as she passed, and heaved an inward sigh. She hoped, for everyone’s sake, that her eyes were playing tricks on her.
* * *
The others were just digging into their food when Kagome arrived, hair still slightly damp. Inuyasha didn’t spare her a glance as she took a seat across from him, between Sango and Kikyo, and she likewise avoided his gaze.
“Good,” Kikyo said, giving their newest companion an approving nod and setting her coffee cup back on its saucer. “Now, as I was saying, about the travel complications: The fact is that all of the travel arrangements for the tournament are made through the board—partly for logistical reasons, but also because they’re able to get us certain group discounts if we all register our people through the organization. Of course, that means that theoretically any one of the board members could have accessed the files containing your flight and hotel reservation information with no trouble at all.”
“So any one of them could have done it?” Sango asked, eyebrows raised.
“They have access, yes,” Kikyo confirmed. “The real question is why they would bother.”
Inuyasha scoffed at that. “Isn’t it obvious? It’s a fucking competition, and we win every time. If what you’re saying is true, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen every fucking year.”
Kikyo heaved a sigh and took another sip of her coffee, shaking her head. “Inuyasha, it may be a competition for you, but for us—the owners—it’s a publicity stunt.” She ignored his indignant huff at this statement. “Really, the revenues generated by the event itself and its resulting publicity for everyone involved are worth a lot more than any incremental amount of prestige that comes with actually winning. I have trouble believing that any of the owners would risk the loss of those revenues—not to mention the bad press, future disqualification, and possible criminal charges—just for some virtually worthless trophy.”
“Hey!” Inuyasha protested, but Kikyo silenced him with a look.
“Alright,” Miroku leaned forward, brow furrowed, “so who do you think is responsible, if not the owners? Who else could have accessed the files? Or are you saying that the poisoning was the only real attack, and the travel mix-ups were just a coincidence?”
“That’s a possibility, but it seems unlikely,” Kikyo replied. “After all, that would be a pretty big coincidence. No, my best guess at this point is that some employee—one of the contestants, most likely—has managed to gain access to his boss’s files without his knowledge. Either that, or…”
“Or what?” Kagome prompted, feeling tenser by the moment.
“Or…the motive could be a personal one,” she finished.
They all took a moment to digest this.
“Well,” Kagome said finally, “I don’t know how that could be. I mean, I’ve never met any of the owners, at least not before this week, and I can’t imagine any reason why any of them should have any sort of personal grudge against me.”
“No, I can’t imagine they would,” Kikyo said with a wry smile, “but I wasn’t talking about you.”
Sango frowned. “Who then?”
Kikyo sighed, smile tightening bitterly. “Me.”
Four pairs of eyebrows shot up.
“How do you figure that?” Inuyasha asked.
She finished off the last of her coffee and settled back in her chair, one manicured hand resting casually on the wooden armrest. “When I first graduated from business school, I took a job as an assistant to a certain entrepreneur who had just opened a successful upscale teppanyaki restaurant. He was a bit of a ruthless slime, but that was what made him such a good businessman. He taught me everything he knew,” she added with a smirk. “Anyway, I suspected he had a thing for me when he hired me, but I made it clear from the beginning that nothing would ever happen between us, and he seemed to accept that, more or less. He didn’t take it very well when I left to start my own restaurant, however, and although our dealings since have been cordial, I don’t think he’s ever stopped holding a grudge. I never thought he’d actually do anything about it—but now I’m beginning to think I’ve underestimated him.”
“Who was it?” Sango asked.
“Who else?” Kikyo said dryly. “Naraku Onigumo.”
“Ha! I knew it!” Inuyasha burst out. “I knew he and that fucking wolf were up to no good!”
Kagome cast him a withering look and made a disparaging noise in the back of her throat, shifting in her seat. He shot her a glare in return, but maintained the stony silence.
Miroku and Sango exchanged a wary glance before turning their attention back to Kikyo, who was pretending not to notice the silent symphony of conversation taking place around her.
“So…what now?” Miroku asked.
“Well,” Kikyo leaned forward again, pouring herself another small cup of coffee from the carafe in the center of the table, “I’m hoping that my presence here will discourage any further plots, but I’m also planning to do a little investigating. There’s a board meeting this afternoon, and I intend to drop by and send out a few feelers. If it is one of the board members who is responsible, maybe he’ll be scared off by the knowledge that we’re investigating—and if it isn’t, maybe one of them will be able to give us a lead. In any case, you should all keep your eyes peeled—and for god’s sake, be careful. The longer this goes on, the more desperate the culprit may become.”
Kagome swallowed at that.
The conversation moved on to other things, but Kagome didn’t find herself participating much. She ate a bit, but mostly she ended up picking at her food, staring into space. With everything…else…she hadn’t had much chance to think about the “saboteur” for the last day or so—but now it was starting to unnerve her again. It still didn’t seem quite real. Would someone actually try to hurt her just because of some competition, or some grudge that she wasn’t even a part of?
She glanced up to find Inuyasha staring at her with an unreadable expression on his face—which turned quickly into annoyance before he flicked his gaze sharply away.
She narrowed her eyes at him, giving a small, bitter sigh, and gave up on her food, excusing herself to prepare for her time slot in the second round of the tournament. As she left the dining room, running her fingers through her damp hair to loosen the sticky locks and help them dry faster, her mind drifted back to the subject she had been trying earlier to avoid, with little success. By now it was making her less flustered and more simply annoyed. It was just another complication she really didn’t need right now—not this week, not this month, and not ever.
It had bothered her to see Kikyo’s hand on his arm as she dragged him out of the hotel room that morning—and more than anything, it bothered her that it bothered her. After all, she knew there was nothing between those two. Not that it mattered, of course, but still. Sure, they’d had a fling awhile back, but it was obvious to anyone who knew them that they were completely incompatible, and it didn’t seem likely that they would be tempted to go down that road again. And yet, couldn’t the same be said of Inuyasha and Kagome? But look what had happened—or almost happened—between them?
But that was completely different, she argued with herself—after all, they hadn’t confronted the issue before. They were just reacting to the friction of being in such close quarters for an extended period under high-pressure circumstances. That didn’t have to mean that they were going to actually do anything about it—and even if they did, it wouldn’t necessarily turn out the way things had for Inuyasha and Kikyo. In any case, that was irrelevant, because they weren’t going to go down that road, and even if they did, there was no reason why it needed to mean anything more than it had meant for Inuyasha and Kikyo—it could just be a fling. But it wasn’t going to happen, anyway—why bother, if it was only a fling? She wasn’t that attracted to him. It probably wasn’t even really him that she was attracted to—just the idea of it all, of this fiery, steamy romance that couldn’t possibly turn out to be as intriguing in real life as it was in the movies because she wasn’t built like that, and he was an asshole, and anyway the whole thing would just be one big mess…
It took the elevator doors—which had been hanging open at her floor for several seconds now—starting to slide closed to break into Kagome’s increasingly fevered musings, and she dove forward to catch them before she ended up on the way back to the lobby. Disgusted with herself, she heaved another sigh and straightened her shirt primly before setting off toward the room.
At first, when she entered, she was indignant to find that Inuyasha had left the place such a mess when he was getting dressed—clothes all over the floor, the blankets torn off the couch and bed and piled in the middle of the mattress—but then she realized that she had been the last one to leave the room. The place certainly hadn’t been in such disarray when she had left it an hour ago, and unless Inuyasha had snuck away at some point during breakfast without her noticing, he hadn’t been back since. Which could mean only one thing: Someone else had been here.
And what was more, they seemed to have been looking for something.
Nerves on edge, she patted her pockets instinctively for her room key, but she hadn’t taken anything else with her downstairs. Her purse lay open on the nightstand, and she crossed to it, digging through it for her wallet, cell phone, credit cards and other valuables—but all seemed present and accounted for. She wasn’t sure where Inuyasha kept his valuables, but she imagined he had his wallet with him—he’d have to check for the rest when he returned. She turned to the bathroom where she kept her toiletries, including the jewelry she’d brought along—but paused suddenly beside the half-open door, heart-racing. What if the intruder was still here? What if he’d heard her coming and tried to hide, ready to attack if she got too close?
Swallowing, moving as quietly as she could, she slipped off her shoes so they wouldn’t make any noise on the tiled floor and picked up the nearest potential weapon she could find—a wooden hanger lying on the dresser. Then, pressing her lips together and willing the door hinge not to squeak, she pushed it open a few more centimeters and peaked her head around the doorjamb. She caught sight of a shock of dark hair and a piercing brown eye staring directly at her and jumped, ducking back—then bit her tongue in self-reproach as it registered that she had only seen her own reflection in the mirror opposite. Shaking off the shock and steeling her courage once more to press on, she peaked around the edge of the door again and did a quick sweep of the room—no one so far. Still, the dark blue shower curtain—had she left it closed, or open?—blocked her view of the shower…
As she slipped silently around the door and into the room, eyes darting about for any signs of movement, her heart pounded in her throat. She raised the hanger in the most threatening manner possible, gripping it tightly, and moistened her lips, reaching out toward the edge of the shower curtain. Then, all at once, she yanked it back, muscles jerking to defend herself.
Melting in relief, she dropped to a seat on the edge of the tub and tried to catch her breath. As her pulse finally began to return to normal, she shook her head and pushed herself back to her feet, setting her “weapon” down on the counter and digging through her toiletries bag to check on her jewelry. Nothing seemed to be missing.
Puzzled, she leaned a hip against the counter and crossed her arms over her chest. What on earth could they have been after? None of the obvious things seemed to be missing, and the intruder had apparently felt it necessary to dig through all their clothes and belongings in search of whatever it was. But what on earth could they possibly have that anyone would go through all that trouble to get?
Just then, a soft clicking sound met her ears from the other room, and all the little hairs stood up on the back of her neck, her senses once more on the alert. She listened hard, barely even breathing, and heard another click, and a low, almost inaudible creak—the hall door handle turning ever so slowly, and then the door itself carefully, quietly being cracked open…
Shit. Whoever it was, it seemed they’d come back to finish the job…
Kagome picked the hanger up off the counter silently, wincing when the metal hook brushed against the marble surface, and crept back over toward the door to the bedroom. She could hear a rustle of fabric—sounded as if the intruder was rifling through the clothes strewn over the floor, perhaps shaking them to see if he’d missed anything in his earlier search. She heard him toss a pile onto the bed, then pick up a couple of things a little closer to the bathroom and shake these out as well, followed by a quiet grunt of apparent disappointment. Then she heard footsteps padding along the carpet, and realized with a jolt that he was heading directly for the bathroom. Adrenaline flooding her veins, she knew it was now or never. At least if she made the first move, she’d have the advantage of surprise—maybe she could stun him long enough to make a break for the door and run for help.
In one movement, she threw back the door with a yell and dove into the bedroom, swinging the hanger down sharply as hard as she could. She felt it smack something solid just as she barreled face-first into a firm, muscled chest, struggling against her attacker’s grip.
“Ow! What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
She froze at the sound of the familiar voice, only to be grabbed by the shoulders and pushed back to arm’s length, face to face with a highly disgruntled hanyou.
“Inuyasha!” she breathed in relief, throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him tightly. He stiffened in surprise, and her eyes flew open wide as she realized what she was doing, backing off just as quickly. “I’m sorry, I—I thought…well, someone broke into the room, as you can see…” she motioned to the mess surrounding them. “It was like this when I came in, and I thought—I mean, you were sneaking in like some kind of…and I thought…” She shook her head, trying to get her feet underneath her again. “Why were you sneaking in anyway? You scared me to death,” she scolded.
“Coulda fooled me,” he grumbled, turning away to pick up a few more clothes and rubbing his skull where she’d whacked him with the hanger.
“You didn’t answer my question,” she said irritably, tossing the hanger onto the bed and crossing her arms over her chest. “Why were you sneaking around here like a criminal?”
“Because I didn’t want to see—” he snapped back, whirling around—but then paused and returned to sorting his clothes from hers. “Nevermind.”
Kagome rolled her eyes, but decided to let it go, since frankly she didn’t want to discuss the subject they were skirting any more than he did. Instead, she stepped up to the bed and began picking her own clothes out of the pile. “Ouch!” she protested, when he slapped her hand out of the way as she reached for a white t-shirt. “That one’s mine!”
“It is not—see?” he countered, shoving the “men’s” label in her face.
“Alright, alright,” she muttered, pushing his arm out of the way again.
Once she’d collected her belongings and started folding them into the drawers again, a frown crossed her face as she realized that something did seem to be missing after all. She opened the drawer a little wider and reached into the back corners, but it wasn’t there. Beginning to get worried, she opened each of her other two drawers and rifled through their contents, just in case she’d moved it and forgotten—but still, no dice. When she shoved her way into Inuyasha’s drawers, thinking perhaps she could have put it in one of them by mistake, he grumbled and nudged her back.
“Hey, get out of there. You sure you weren’t the one who made this mess, cause you seem to be doing a pretty good job of repeating it.”
“Inuyasha, it’s gone!” she said, turning to him in a panic.
His brow lowered in mild concern. “What’s gone?”
“My utensil case!” she replied, tearing back into her top drawer and shaking out each item of clothing before throwing it back onto the floor. “The one with all my knives and spatulas. Inuyasha, I have to be down there in fifteen minutes—what am I going to do?”
“Shit…” he murmured, watching her whip herself into a frenzy as she tossed clothes out of the second drawer. “Hey—hey, calm down,” he interrupted finally, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her away from the dresser. “Just relax, okay. We’ll figure it out. Look, you—you can use my set, alright?”
“Really?” she replied, relief lighting her face.
“Yeah,” he said gruffly, looking away. “My slot isn’t until late afternoon, so it’s no problem. Just make sure you wash them and sharpen them good when you’re done.”
“Inuyasha…” she began—then took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to restore the natural composure she seemed to have been searching for all morning long. “Thank you.”
“Don’t worry about it—here,” he replied, digging his own utensil set out of the closet and handing it to her, still not looking at her.
“Thanks,” she said again, accepting it meekly. “I’ll take good care of it, I promise.”
“Yeah, whatever—you better finish getting ready, or you’re gonna be late.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” She hesitated only a moment longer before grabbing her uniform from the top of the dresser, where she’d thrown it while searching the drawers, and slipping into the bathroom to change. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw him watching her out of the corner of her eye as she closed the door.
* * *
She would have thought that using an unfamiliar set of tools would put her at a disadvantage in the competition, but somehow these well-worn wooden handles seemed to mold perfectly against her palms, the knife weighted exactly right and sharpened to a fine edge, the blade of the spatula fashioned with a perfect balance of flexibility and strength.
Much to her relief, the nerves that she had battled in the last round seemed to have vanished as well. Somehow, in light of everything else that was going on outside the doors of the arena, the scrutiny of a few judges and a couple hundred spectators seemed of little consequence. This, she understood. This she knew how to handle.
And it showed.
Chapter 11: Running on Empty
Almost immediately after Kagome had left to go down to the match, Inuyasha took off for the gym to get in his morning workout and blow off a little steam. He wasn’t even exactly sure what he was angry about—he just felt antsy, like there were all sorts of little annoyances running around inside of him, and he couldn’t make them stand still long enough to find out what they were. Not that he really wanted to—he just wanted them to leave him the fuck alone.
There were a few other people around by this time, but thankfully no familiar faces. Instead of starting with the treadmills, as usual, he headed over to the other end of the room where there was a punching bag rig. He didn’t have any boxing gloves, but he didn’t need them—he just walked right up to the bowling-ball-sized speed bag and started going at it until it was rattling against the rig in a satisfying rhythm, his muscles burning pleasantly in his shoulders and arms with each punch. No thoughts, no anxieties, no desires—they were all successfully drowned out, and he reveled in the comfort of the blankness. And yet, the vague sense of agitation crawling beneath his skin seemed unwilling to subside.
Growing frustrated with his frustration, he rounded on the larger punching bag and started attacking it with a flurry of punches and kicks that made the whole rig shudder dangerously. When his sand-filled opponent showed no signs of weakening, he stepped up his game just that much further, until he was battling it so vocally and enthusiastically that the other occupants of the gym were staring in turns at him and each other, wondering what the hell was wrong with him—not that he noticed this, of course. A few of them even quit their workouts early and ducked silently out of the room, watching him warily as they slipped away.
By the time he finally gave up, collapsing back onto the mat below him and panting for breath, the gym was empty.
Inuyasha stared up at the ceiling for a few minutes, listening to the punching bag creak innocently as it swung back and forth near his feet, thoroughly undamaged.
What the hell was wrong with him today?
He opened and closed his right fist in front of his face, noticing that his knuckles felt slightly bruised and giving a wry laugh. Tilting his head back slightly, he glanced over at the clock above the door—when had it gotten so late? He needed to head upstairs to get ready if he was going to make his call time.
Picking himself up off the floor, he ran a hand through his rumpled hair as he made his way back upstairs. His skin still felt itchy with annoyance, but at least he felt a little better than before. A little. He picked at some of the knots he’d created in his long, thick mane during the workout and tried to do a mental rundown of his routine—most of it was pretty standard, but he always liked to throw in a new trick here and there to keep things interesting and justify his exalted status. The fingers of his right hand twitched unconsciously at his side in the elevator, mimicking the motions of a knife twirl or a shrimp-tail flick.
When he got back to the room, he tugged his sweaty t-shirt off over his head—after peeking into the bathroom to make sure his insane roommate wasn’t lying in wait to bean him with a coat hanger again—and tossed it on top of his suitcase, working at the button of his jeans with one hand while he dug through the closet for his chef’s jacket with the other. It wasn’t until he’d turned back toward the dresser for his black slacks that he noticed his knife set sitting on top of it, a note attached. Pausing with an inexplicable scowl, he tossed the chef’s jacket onto the bed and crossed over to the dresser, picking up the handwritten note.
Thanks again, Inuyasha—I really appreciate you letting me borrow these. Thoroughly cleaned and sharpened, as promised.
Inuyasha stared at the note for a bit longer than was strictly necessary, considering the brevity and straightforwardness of its contents—then, grumbling at his own odd behavior, he crumpled it up and tossed it in the wastepaper basket, turning to grab his slacks out of the top drawer so he could finish changing.
It was no use. The frustration was back, creeping up on him again. By the time he got down to the antechamber outside the arena, he was ready for another punching bag.
* * *
Technically Kikyo was invited to the board meeting that afternoon, because technically she was a member of the board. All the owners were—technically. However, given that she hadn’t attended a board meeting once since Katana had joined the competition circuit, and given that the others all thought she was still out in Chicago, she knew she wouldn’t be expected.
She preferred it that way.
She glanced at her profile in the mirror lining the hallway as she rounded the last corner on the way to the conference room, checking her makeup and straightening her suit jacket out of habit. Then she pulled open the door and swept inside. “Hello all.”
A room full of raised eyebrows greeted her from the far end of the long conference table, and she allowed herself a satisfied smile. Most of the other owners were in attendance: Kaede, Hakudoushi, Totousai, Bankotsu, Naraku of course—he had managed to snag the place at the head of the table, making him the first one to meet her eye when she walked in the door. He didn’t look pleased to see her, but then he never looked pleased about much of anything. She didn’t bother taking a seat herself—she didn’t plan on staying long.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she said smoothly, resting her hands on the back of the empty chair at the near end of the table. “I just got into town this morning—my staff tell me there have been some rather odd things happening lately. Some trouble with reservations, a case of food poisoning—they suspect foul play, but of course I reassured them that none of us would tolerate anything of the sort from any of our employees. Still, I just thought I should let you all know so that you can be on the lookout. As far as I know these incidents have only affected my people, but you’ll no doubt want to warn your own to be careful, just in case. I’ll be speaking to the judges’ panel as well, keeping them appraised of any new developments. And if any of you should hear anything,” she let her gaze slide casually away from the other board members to meet Naraku’s eyes head-on, “we’d certainly appreciate the information.”
He didn’t so much as blink, merely giving a tolerant nod in answer to her request. Then he settled back in his chair, lacing his fingers together across his stomach. “Anything else?”
Kikyo smiled coolly. “Nope. I’ll see you all at the afternoon matches.”
* * *
It was fucking bullshit, that was what it was.
Fuck. Could those numbers be right?
He scanned the mental image of the day’s scoreboard once again, but he knew there was no mistake—not with his eyesight, anyway. He’d only looked at the damn thing about a million and a half times. Growling low in his throat, he turned his collar up against the chilly evening breeze and stuffed his hands into his pockets, taking his brisk walk up a notch. The others had gone ahead to the restaurant just after the scores had been posted; he’d taken a detour to the hotel bar.
Ninety-seven. Ninety-seven. She’d gotten a goddamn fucking ninety-seven to his frankly pitiful eighty. How in the hell could that possibly be right? Sure, he’d been a little distracted…but eighty?
He ran a hand through his hair as he ducked into the warm, cozy restaurant, smoothing it out from the breeze. The place was rather dim, decorated in reds and golds with dark wood paneling and mirrors on the walls. Classy—a little snooty and old-fashioned for his taste, actually. It didn’t take long to identify Kagome, Miroku, and Sango sitting in a booth near the back and looking downright celebratory, and he shrugged off the ingratiating hostess to wend his way back to them on his own.
“Hey,” he muttered, slumping onto the end of the curved booth, next to Miroku and across from Kagome—whose gaze he carefully avoided.
“Hi, Inuyasha,” Kagome greeted pleasantly, ignoring his surliness and offering a benevolent olive branch instead. He flicked a blank glance in her direction, and her smile dimmed slightly. If she thought she was going to get away with acting like the “bigger person” just because she happened to have a teeny, tiny little edge in the scores at the moment, she had another thing coming.
“Have you guys ordered yet?” Inuyasha asked, addressing Miroku and Sango.
“Not yet,” Miroku answered, though the look he gave Inuyasha as he said it admonished him to behave himself. Ha—fat chance.
Wait—well, that is, he was behaving himself. Meddling jackass. Mind your own business, Inuyasha eyeballed back.
“Well, we did order a bottle of champagne,” Sango corrected, eyeing Inuyasha rather coolly. “To celebrate.”
“Of course,” she said, giving him a challenging smile. Kagome gave Sango a look that implored her to just drop it, but she ignored it. “After all, the two of you have the top two spots in the tournament so far. That’s something to celebrate, isn’t it?”
Inuyasha smiled tightly. “Of course.”
Everyone returned to their menus.
The clink of silverware and the mild hum of surrounding conversations didn’t quite drown out the ringing silence.
Miroku turned a page. “Mm—they have duck. That sounds good…”
Kagome nodded, still staring at her own menu. “Mmm…”
Inuyasha glanced up at her over the top of his menu, but she didn’t notice. Sango, on the other hand, was still shooting occasional glares in his direction. He ducked back down into the menu.
“Shit,” he mumbled, his eyes straying over to the caviar price list. “Three-hundred bucks for an ounce of fish eggs? What the hell is that?”
Miroku rolled his eyes. “Inuyasha…”
“What? It’s fucking ridiculous, that’s all I’m saying.”
Sango turned a page in her menu, one eyebrow arched in annoyance.
Kagome put down her menu, heaving a bracing sigh and sitting back, turning to Miroku and Sango. “So, what did you two do today? Besides going to the matches, of course.”
“Oh, not a whole lot,” Miroku replied, setting his menu aside as well and seizing gratefully on Kagome’s endeavor to break the tension. “Wasn’t a whole lot of time between…the ones we wanted to see, so we just grabbed a quick bite at the hotel and did a little window shopping in the meantime.”
“That sounds nice. Did you buy anything?”
“Not me,” Miroku shrugged. “Sango bought something from one of the street vendors, a wallet I think.”
“Oh yeah?” Kagome turned to Sango. “What kind?”
“Oh, just one of those Coach knockoffs. Pretty good one though. Real leather interior, I think.”
“Nice. You’ll have to tell me where you found it—I might go get one for myself.”
Inuyasha couldn’t help a small roll of the eyes at the inanity of this conversation. It was bad enough to have to sit here with the three of them when they all knew perfectly well that Kagome was beating him—which ought to have been impossible, and they all damn well knew that too—but if things didn’t get a hell of a lot more interesting pretty quickly he was going to have to go into the restroom and try to bludgeon himself into unconsciousness with the toilet paper dispenser. It would be a lot less painful than sitting here—with her…
“Inuyasha?” Kagome snapped her fingers in front of his face, and he jerked back, realizing he’d been staring at her as he’d drifted off. And she’d noticed. Dammit.
“What?” he grumbled, shifting in his seat and busying himself with spreading his napkin over his lap.
“Just wanted to make sure you were still awake. Didn’t want you sliding out of your chair and tripping a waiter or something.”
“I can take care of myself, thanks,” he snapped.
Kagome’s expression thinned, but she refused to rise to his bait, instead just setting her jaw and returning to the conversation she’d been having with the others. For some reason this just annoyed him more than if she’d kept talking to him. He didn’t want to talk to her—he didn’t want to be near her—but he didn’t want to be ignored by her either. He didn’t want to be tolerated. He wanted…
Actually, he had no idea what he wanted. He just didn’t want this.
Unfortunately, “this” lasted another hour and a half. Mostly the other three chattered away, covering such riveting subjects as preferred toppings on eggs Benedict, the cheapest place to buy reusable coffee filters back in Chicago, and whether Holiday Inn or White Christmas was the better cheesy Christmas movie. He almost chimed in on that one—obviously it was White Christmas—but he stopped short when he realized that it would mean siding with Kagome. Wasn’t worth it. Every time he felt tempted to join the conversation, he shut himself up by ordering another scotch.
Once they had paid the check, they walked back to the hotel, Inuyasha hanging back a few feet so that he could continue his stubborn silence without interruption. They all got into the elevator together, but Miroku and Sango soon departed when it reached their floor. After that, silence. Tense, uncomfortable, inhospitable silence.
She was mad. Weird—he hadn’t even noticed. He’d thought he was the only one who was mad—she’d seemed happy enough to chatter away with Miroku and Sango once they had given up trying to draw him out. But now that they were alone and the conversation had died away, he could see she was positively steaming.
Wait, what the hell was she mad about? She was the one who was fucking winning. She had no right whatsoever to be mad at him—bitch…
She was the first one out of the elevator, proceeding down the hallway at a sharp clip and arriving at the hotel room several feet ahead of him. When she breezed inside, she shoved the door carelessly behind her so that he had to reach out and grab it to keep it from breaking his nose.
“What the hell is your problem?” he asked irritably as he shut the door behind him.
She rounded on him, throwing her purse down on the bed, indignation flaring in her expression. “What’s my problem?”
“What’s my problem?”
“Yeah, what’s your problem—what are you, a fucking parrot?”
“I’ll tell you what my problem is—you. You’re my problem.”
“Yes, you—what else!”
“How am I your problem?”
“Oh, don’t hand me that—you know damn well. You’ve been sulking like a five year old all evening just because I got a higher score than you in the stupid contest.”
“I haven’t been sulking!”
“Hey, just because I didn’t feel like being all chatty doesn’t mean I was fucking sulking—stop treating me like a child!”
“Stop acting like one!”
They glared at one another for a moment, and then Kagome broke away with a frustrated sigh, apparently trying to get a rein on her anger. She kneaded her forehead with one hand as she turned back to him. “Really—I can’t believe I was actually starting to think you might not be so bad underneath all that selfish crap, if anyone could ever sandblast it away—but it’s all the same underneath, too. It’s all petty backbiting and competition, all of it—”
“Of course, I’m fucking competitive—it’s a competition!”
“But it never ends! You just can’t stand to see someone else do well, even just a little bit—not if it comes at your expense.”
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about—just back off, alright?”
“What?” she snapped, advancing on him in challenge. “What is it? What is this selfish, narcissistic, petulant little obsession you have with this competition?”
There was a moment’s pause—and then his restraint snapped, and he took the bait, gripping her shoulders roughly to snarl into her face. “It’s mine, alright? It’s all I’ve got, and I’m not giving it up to you or anyone else! This is what I am,” he shook her, “this is it! And if you don’t like it, you can just go to hell—I don’t take this shit from anybody, got it? Especially not you.”
For a moment they held still, their faces mere inches apart, Kagome staring at him with a mixture of fear and pity. He wasn’t sure which one he hated more—but there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t lose this. If he lost this, he lost everything.
He pushed her away and paced across the room—faltered and turned back as if to continue the fight—but she was still standing there, looking at him like he’d just grown a second head. It was no good.
He turned and walked right out of the room, slamming the door shut behind him. No way was he spending the night in there—he’d have to crash at Miroku and Sango’s.
As he stormed off down the hallway toward the stairwell, hoping the exercise would give him a chance to blow off some steam, he failed to notice the person who rounded the corner into the hallway behind him, following silently.
Chapter 12: Suspicion
Kagome rolled over onto her back, staring up at the ceiling, which was already reflecting a dim blue light through the curtains over the window. She had finally fallen into a fitful sleep a couple of hours after midnight, but it hadn’t done her much good. She couldn’t stop thinking about that argument she’d had with Inuyasha the night before. That look on his face when he’d grabbed her by the shoulders—there had been something so desperate about it. She didn’t know whether to be worried or disgusted or…something. She just didn’t know.
He hadn’t come back at all during the night—she was sure she would have heard him come in, but even if she hadn’t she was sure she would have been able to hear him snoring away at the foot of the bed, or at least breathing. But she could hear neither, so that meant either he was still gone, or he was dead.
She snorted at that thought and rolled over onto her side, squinting at the illuminated digits on the alarm clock beside the bed—five forty-five in the morning. She rolled her eyes in self-disgust, heaving a sigh and half-burying her face in the pillow. If she was going to make any kind of a decent showing in the pairs competition that afternoon, she knew she really ought to take advantage of this empty morning and get a few more hours to make up for all the sleep she’d lost during the night—but, exhausted as she was, she knew that wasn’t in the cards. For better or worse, she was now officially awake.
Conceding defeat, she slid over to the edge of the bed and pushed aside the covers, sitting up and rubbing a hand over her face. Then reluctantly, she got to her feet and went to take her shower.
The warm water helped somewhat to wash away the fuzziness of a bad night’s sleep, and a nice shampoo always made her feel considerably fresher. Toweling off, she slipped into a pair of jeans and a sweater, leaving her hair wrapped up in the towel as she went to slip back into the bedroom. When her hand grasped the doorknob, she found she was a little hesitant to open it, afraid that Inuyasha would have returned while she was in the shower. Then she realized she was being an idiot and just opened the damn door, scoffing at herself.
He wasn’t there.
Thinking that maybe having another voice in the room would help her take her mind off things a little, Kagome flipped on the television. It was set to some morning news program—looked like one of the local channels—and she left it there, listening absently as she toweled off her hair.
“…Well, when workplace violence is perpetrated by an existing employee, statistically the perpetrator tends to be a male between the ages of twenty and forty-five.”
She grabbed her brush off of the dresser with her free hand and tossed it onto the bed, scrunching the towel around the ends of her hair with the other. Then she hung the towel on the bathroom doorknob to dry, running her fingers loosely through her the wet strands to shake them out as she crossed over to sit on the edge of the bed and begin to brush.
“Now, it is true that roughly two-thirds of workplace violence situations are perpetrated by strangers, as in a robbery or a situation with a disgruntled customer. However, in these cases the victims are usually male. When a female is attacked, it’s usually by someone she knows.”
Her brushing movements became slower as she glanced over at the television, frowning curiously at the news anchor and his guest—some sort of college professor, from the looks of him.
“What are some of the warning signs?”
“A person at risk of committing workplace violence will generally tend to be very aggressive and possessive about his space, and particularly territorial about his job. He’ll tend to be very excitable and easily frustrated, sort of a hair-trigger type. People should be especially wary of such persons who have access to and expertise with any kind of weaponry.”
Kagome’s eyes widened slightly, and she stopped brushing altogether, glancing over at the knife kit sitting on the dresser and then back to the television.
“An at-risk person may also be a loner, someone who avoids contact with others, and especially one who has antagonistic relationships with co-workers, and who exhibits signs of obsession or frustration regarding his career.”
“Well, Dr. Hamline, thank you very much for your time—”
“—Speaking of workplace conflicts, this week has been a particularly contentious one on Capitol Hill as thousands of protesters descended on Washington…”
Kagome continued to stare at the television for several minutes, brow furrowed nervously, though her brain had tuned out. The other morning, when she’d been searching for the intruder, Inuyasha had taken such care to slip quietly into the room. Why? Why was he so afraid of seeing her? Only her equipment had been missing, hadn’t it—and he’d been so conveniently generous with his own set. She kept seeing that look on his face again, the one from the night before. The one that had looked…desperate.
Territorial about his job.
Expert with weaponry.
This tournament was all he had—he’d said it himself. And he wasn’t giving it up to anybody.
Especially not her.
No—no, no, she was being ridiculous again, and she knew it. Shaking her head and taking a deep breath, she stood up and resumed brushing her hair with renewed vigor. There was just no way that Inuyasha was responsible for all the weird stuff that had been happening the past week. Yes, he was a selfish, childish, competitive, obnoxious, whiny little prick, but she’d never known him to be deceitful or intentionally cruel. Messing with the reservations, maybe, but poisoning people and stealing expensive equipment just wouldn’t be like him. Would it?
When a female is attacked, it’s usually by someone she knows.
That was really the question, wasn’t it—just how well did she know Inuyasha?
Kagome finished pulling herself together rather quickly, realizing that it probably wouldn’t be long before Inuyasha came back from…wherever he’d been all night to grab a new set of clothes. She suddenly didn’t want to be here when he arrived, so she grabbed her purse and headed down to the breakfast room. As she walked through the hallways and waited for the elevator, she kept catching herself peaking over her shoulder, as though she was afraid he was going to creep up on her from behind or something—which she knew was the most ridiculous thing yet, but somehow she still couldn’t seem to shake the burgeoning feeling of paranoia that was trying to swallow her up. When she forced herself to resist the impulse to check behind her, it only served to make the feeling stronger. Finally she arrived in the nearly-empty breakfast room, choosing a table near the back and determinedly burying herself in the menu. When the waiter came over, she ordered herself a stack of pancakes with extra butter, hoping a nice heavy meal would help to distract her.
She was just beginning to feel a little more secure, settling in with a cup of strong, bracing black coffee, when suddenly a pair of hands were clamped over her eyes from behind, blinding her and making her jump so hard she nearly upended her cup.
Her breath escaped her in a rush of relief as she recognized the voice. “Hojo—what are you doing here?”
He let her go, and she stood up to greet her grinning roommate with an only slightly strained smile and a grateful hug.
“My project got wrapped up early, and they needed someone to attend a board meeting here in New York in a couple of days, so I volunteered,” he replied.
Kagome sighed, her smile turning a bit more genuine as the shock wore off, and she realized she really was glad to see him. “That’s wonderful—you have no idea how glad I am that you’re here,” she said, hugging him once more. “I’ve really missed you.”
“Thanks,” he said, sounding slightly stunned. “I’ve missed you too.”
Finally she pulled away and offered him a seat, settling back into her own just as her breakfast was being delivered. Hojo ordered a cup of coffee as well.
“So,” he said as the waiter walked away, “how are things going?”
“Pretty well—I’m in the lead at the moment.”
“That’s fantastic! Congratulations!”
“Thanks,” she said noncommittally, and he gave her a sideways look.
“Something the matter?”
She smiled wryly. “Not sure where to start.”
“Uh-oh—what’s he done now?”
“Who?” Kagome asked, suddenly on her guard.
“Jerkwad—that guy from the restaurant, the one you’re always complaining about.”
“Ah,” she replied, shifting in her seat and taking another sip of coffee. “Well, it’s complicated. I mean, it’s not just him that’s the problem. See, a lot of weird things have been happening since we got here.”
“What kind of weird things?” Hojo asked, looking concerned.
Kagome set about filling him in on what had been going on the past few days, finding that it was a bit of a relief to have an outside person to tell it all to, like she was getting it off her chest. Well, most of it. She glossed over a few of the details—mainly those surrounding her occasional brief and strange encounters with Inuyasha. That she wasn’t really ready to talk to anyone about—even herself. And she wouldn’t know what to say about them if she did.
Meanwhile, across the room, Inuyasha and Miroku had entered and taken a seat at a table some distance away. Normally they would have gone over to join Kagome, but they’d seen her embracing a man they didn’t recognize just as they’d walked in, and—sensing Inuyasha falter at the sight—Miroku had decided that now probably wasn’t the best time to pop over and introduce themselves.
Even sitting at their own table, the already surly Inuyasha’s mood seemed to have darkened considerably since they’d entered the room, and Miroku’s halfhearted attempts at conversation were largely rebuffed with vague grunts and grumbles. Every once in awhile Miroku even caught him flicking a look over at the other table out of the corner of his eye. Sango joined them soon, however, so she and Miroku were able to carry on a conversation together, leaving Inuyasha to himself.
Just as they were finishing their meal, Miroku noticed a man in a suit, who he thought was one of the competition judges, enter the breakfast room accompanied by two uniformed hotel security guards. They were muttering to each other, casting their eyes over the people in the room, until finally they fixed on their table. The judge in the suit pointed, and the two security guards led the way determinedly toward them.
“Inuyasha,” Miroku said, nudging his friend on the arm.
“What?” Inuyasha grumbled. Miroku nodded toward the approaching men, and Inuyasha turned curiously just as they came to a stop beside his chair.
“Inuyasha Takahashi?” one of the security guards said.
“Yeah,” he replied with an incredulous frown.
“Sir, you’ll have to come with us,” said the other guard.
“Come with you? Why?”
“Please sir,” the guard repeated evenly, laying an encouraging hand on Inuyasha’s arm, “if you’ll just come with us.”
Inuyasha jerked his arm away. “No—you tell me what the hell this is about.”
“Sir—” the other guard began, but the judge lifted a hand to silence him.
“Mr. Takahashi, there’s been an accusation.”
“An accusation?” Inuyasha said, getting to his feet to face the three men fully. “An accusation of what, exactly?”
“It has been reported that you were witnessed trying to…coerce one of the competition judges to manipulate the scores in your favor.”
“What?” Inuyasha bellowed, indignant.
“What’s going on?” Kagome broke in curiously as she reached their table. Her friend was at her shoulder, hanging back a bit awkwardly.
“Apparently somebody says they saw Inuyasha trying to bribe a judge or something,” Sango repeated.
“This is bullshit,” Inuyasha fumed, yanking his arm away from the guard again, who had made another grab for it. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
“Inuyasha, calm down,” Miroku admonished sternly. “You’re not helping.”
“Calm down!” He rounded on Miroku. “They just accused me of cheating!”
“I know that, but shouting about it isn’t going to convince them otherwise. Let’s just go with them and talk this through reasonably—if there’s been a mistake, we should be able to straighten it out without any problems. Alright?”
Inuyasha glared at Miroku, then back at the judge and his two thugs—but finally he heaved a resigned sigh. “Fine. Lead the way.”
The security guards flanked Inuyasha on either side, and the others followed as they threaded their way out of the dining room. Kagome made to follow as well, but paused after a couple of steps, remembering Hojo.
“Oh—Hojo, maybe you’d better—”
“I’ll wait here,” he finished for her, giving her a “don’t worry about me” smile.
She smiled back apologetically. “Thanks. I’ll be back soon.” And then she turned and left, jogging to catch up with the others in the lobby.
The judge and his guards lead the four of them into the business complex of the hotel and finally around to one of the smaller conference rooms. Opening the door, he stepped in and held it back for the others to enter.
When they filed into the room, they found that Kikyo was already there, standing next to the conference table with her arms crossed over her chest, her expression decidedly grim. Kagome saw Inuyasha give a questioning frown in her direction, but she revealed nothing, as usual. He went to stand near the end of the conference table next to Miroku, Kagome and Sango sidling up beside Kikyo on the near side of the table. The two security guards hovered over near the door, and the judge came to stand before Inuyasha, addressing him directly.
“So, now can you tell me what’s going on here?” Inuyasha said impatiently. “Where’d you get this crazy idea that I tried to bribe a judge?”
“I’ll get to that in a moment,” the judge said. “First, I have a few questions for you.”
Inuyasha rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. “Fine, whatever you got.”
“You left your hotel room late yesterday evening, correct?”
Inuyasha’s eyes flicked over to meet Kagome’s briefly, and she quickly looked away. “Yeah, so?”
“About what time would you say it was when you left?”
“I don’t know—maybe eleven, eleven fifteen, something like that,” he shrugged. “What does this have to do with anything?”
The judge ignored his question. “At around midnight, you arrived at Mr. Hayashi and Ms Kuonji’s room—does that sound right?”
“Yeah, I guess—get to the point already, will you?”
“Can you tell me what you were doing in the meantime?”
Inuyasha scowled. “That’s none of your damn business, that’s what I was doing.”
“Unfortunately, I can’t accept that answer, Mr. Takahashi. You see, a member of the hotel’s wait staff observed you outside the hotel room of Hanae Bryant, one of our judges, at approximately eleven thirty-five last night.”
Inuyasha frowned, not liking where this was going.
“The waiter, Mr. Giordano, says that you knocked on the door, and then proceeded to proposition Ms Bryant, offering her sexual favors in exchange for a better score in the final round of the tournament.”
“What?” Inuyasha gaped.
“That’s ridiculous,” Miroku said.
“No kidding! I don’t pull shit like that,” Inuyasha jerked his head toward his friend, “I’m not Miroku!”
Miroku scowled at that and muttered, “Thanks a lot.”
But Inuyasha just waved him off. “Oh you know what I mean. Come on, this is ridiculous—what about the judge? She ought to be able to tell you I never went to her room.”
“Ms Bryant wasn’t in her room at the time—the panel meeting yesterday evening ran late, so she was with the rest of us down here in the conference rooms. We tried to confirm Mr. Giordano’s story by checking the security tapes, but when we did we found that the particular tape we needed was missing, and there was evidence that the door to the surveillance room had been forced.”
“Oh, so I suppose you think I broke in and stole the tape too, right? What a load of—”
“Inuyasha,” Miroku cautioned. Inuyasha flicked him a glare, but shut up all the same.
“Unfortunately,” the judge continued, “that’s not all. When we discovered the security breach, we went to the manager of the hotel, and he gave us access to your storage locker down by the arena. We didn’t find the missing tape, but we did find this.” He motioned to one of the security guards, who produced a small, black leather knife case, which the judge then placed on the conference table.
“That’s mine,” Kagome said, stepping forward in surprise. She picked it up and glanced up at Inuyasha, who looked back at her like a trapped animal. What was he doing with the knife set? If he’d found it, why hadn’t he told her? If he hadn’t, how had it gotten into his locker? If he’d taken it…
She set her jaw nervously, stepping back and clutching the knife case close to her stomach. She didn’t know what to think anymore.
Seeing her close off, Inuyasha looked away, fuming. “Look—this is ridiculous. I just went for a walk, okay? I…had to blow off some steam, and I wandered around for awhile before I went to Miroku’s—that’s it.”
“Can anyone confirm that?”
“No—but come on, you can’t just blame me for everything that’s been going on around here based on a couple of stupid coincidences or…whatever they are. It’s not fair—all your evidence against me is completely circumstantial.”
The judge stood his ground. “We have eyewitness testimony stating that you were observed trying to influence a judge—that’s hardly circumstantial evidence.”
“But you’ve got no proof,” Inuyasha insisted. “It’s just his word against mine!”
“These are very serious charges, Mr. Takahashi, and given the profusion of evidence against you—circumstantial though some of it may be—we have to do what is best for the organization and the integrity of the competition.”
“This is not a legal proceeding,” the judge continued, cutting him off. “The panel reserves the right to disqualify any competitor at any time if we feel that we have sufficient cause—you knew that when you signed up.” The older man sighed heavily, his demeanor of authority slipping a bit to reveal a small measure of pity. “I’m sorry—that’s the way it has to be. If you can produce a satisfactory alibi before two o’clock this afternoon, we’ll reinstate you and allow you to compete in the final round of the tournament.”
Inuyasha gave a growl of frustration, clearly trying to rein in his temper. “Look, I didn’t steal that knife set, okay?” He indicated the others in the room. “These guys can vouch for me. I was with them when the break-in happened. Kagome was heading back to the room just as Kikyo and I were going downstairs. Kagome met us downstairs again, but she left to go back to the room before I did—by the time I got back up there, Kagome was already there, and whoever stole the knives had already come and gone.”
The judge frowned, shifting his gaze to Kikyo and Kagome for confirmation. “Is this true?”
“Yes,” Kikyo said firmly, and Kagome nodded silently, though she kept her expression closed.
“But,” the judge continued, turning back to Inuyasha, “that still doesn’t explain how the knife set ended up locked in your supply locker.”
“Well obviously whoever took it put it in there to make it look like I did it.”
“That’s impossible—the only key to the locker, besides your own, was a backup passkey that’s kept in the hotel manager’s office, and there’s no evidence that his office has been tampered with in any way. Unless your key was stolen at some point and you failed to report it, the only way anyone could have gotten into your locker is if you gave them entry yourself. Now, has your key been stolen at any time in the last couple of days?”
Inuyasha sagged slightly. “No.”
“But,” Sango broke in, “why would he have gone to the trouble of getting someone else to break into the room and steal the knives when he could just as easily have stolen them himself without going to all that trouble.”
“Yeah, right!” Inuyasha said, perking up a bit. “Thanks, Sango.”
Sango gave him an uneasy, almost sheepish smile.
“To throw Ms Higurashi off the trail, presumably,” the judge said. “If the knives had disappeared at a time when he had been alone in the room, and there were no evidence of a break-in, it would be pretty obvious who had taken them.”
“Oh…yeah,” Sango conceded.
Inuyasha slumped into the nearest seat at the conference table, looking dejected.
“In any case, that would still leave the matter of the incident with the judge and the missing security tape. I’m sorry—unless you can provide a solid alibi to vindicate yourself, I’m afraid we’re going to have to disqualify you from the tournament.”
“But wait,” Sango interrupted. “You can’t do that—that’ll mean Kagome is disqualified as well.”
“I know that, and I am sorry,” the judge replied, giving a wearily sympathetic smile. “But we really have no choice. You can put in a substitute if you have one, so that Ms Higurashi could still compete in the third round.”
Everyone’s eyes flicked to Miroku, who in turn glanced over at Inuyasha. Inuyasha’s jaw tightened, and he looked away, chin resting on his fist.
“Let me know what you’d like to do before two o’clock this afternoon. After that, it’s out of my hands.” The judge and the two guards swept out of the room, leaving the rest in heavy silence.
“You guys believe me, don’t you?” Inuyasha asked gravely after a minute or two, looking around the room at all of them. One by one they shifted their gazes toward Kagome, watching her for an answer.
Kagome looked around at all the pairs of eyes resting on her—and finally met Inuyasha’s. She swallowed, fidgeting with the clasp of the knife case clutched in her hands. “I…I don’t know.”
Hurt flickered in his expression, but only for a moment. He dropped his gaze again.
Sango shifted uncomfortably and exchanged a troubled glance with Miroku. Kikyo dropped her hands to her hips with a mildly frustrated sigh.
“Can I speak to Kagome alone for a minute?” Inuyasha said finally, not looking up.
Everyone looked at Kagome again for her approval. She glanced around and then nodded. “It’s okay.”
The others accepted this, turning to file out of the room. Sango paused in the doorway and said pointedly, “We’ll be right outside waiting for you, alright?”
Kagome replied with a wan smile, “Yes, thanks, Sango.”
Sango gave Inuyasha one last warning look before letting the door click shut behind her.
Inuyasha pushed himself to his feet and rounded the end of the conference table, coming to stand before Kagome, just a few feet away. “Look, I’m sorry for last night. You were right, okay? I was being a jerk. And…I’m sorry for that.”
He seemed to be waiting for a response. Kagome nodded slowly. “That’s okay.”
He nodded back. “Thanks.” And then, with some effort, he looked her straight in the eyes. “Kagome—I know you don’t have much reason to believe me right now, and a lot of reasons not to, but I swear, I didn’t do it—any of it. I didn’t go to that judge’s room last night, I didn’t mess with our reservations, I didn’t steal your knife set, and I definitely didn’t try to poison you. I may be a jerk, but I’m not a cheat, and I would never…I would never try to hurt you. I promise, I wouldn’t—if nothing else, you’ve got to believe that.”
Kagome swallowed, looking back at him steadily, trying to decide whether she could really trust him or not. That was what it all came down to, really—trust. The truth was that she barely knew this man at all. They’d been fighting each other tooth and nail since the day they’d met; they hated each other, and yet, there were moments when they didn’t. She’d never met anyone so stubborn and arrogant and infuriating in her entire life, someone that just made her want to kill him sometimes. So why did it bother her so much to think that he was the bad guy in all of this? It made perfect sense, after all. He’d been antagonistic towards the idea of a female colleague even before he’d actually spoken to her, and he’d done his best to make her life a living hell ever since. He was the enemy—but she had also come to think of him as a friend.
He was looking at her with that same desperation again, but this time it wasn’t the least bit threatening. This time he just looked…helpless.
All at once, she surprised both of them by stepping forward and wrapping her arms tightly around his waist, her cheek pressed against his chest. He stood stunned for a moment before cautiously putting his arms around her as well, returning the embrace.
“I believe you,” she replied, her voice slightly muffled.
His arms tightened around her slightly as he breathed a sigh of relief, resting his cheek on the crown of her head. “Thanks,” he murmured.
They stood there like that for several long minutes. Then, finally, Kagome eased away, and they stepped apart. She cleared her throat, smoothing out her hair and straightening the hem of her shirt, swiping a trace of moisture from the corner of her eye. He shoved his hands in his back pockets, rocking back on his heels and glancing off to the side, putting on a show of peering at some inconsequential spot on the wall.
“Well,” Kagome said, crossing her arms over her chest and trying to affect a businesslike tone. “If we’re going to salvage this situation, then we’d better figure out how to get you off the hook—and fast.”
“Right. How do we do that?”
“Well, if you didn’t go to the judge’s room, then whoever says you did was either badly mistaken, or on the take.”
“Probably the second one.”
“Yeah—given all the weird stuff that’s been happening, that was my guess too,” Kagome concurred.
“So we start with the waiter then?”
“Right—have to track him down and find out exactly what he saw. And hopefully figure out who paid him to ‘see’ it.”
Kagome flicked her eyes up to his again, and held them for a moment. Then she smiled and glanced away, turning toward the door out of the conference room. “Come on—let’s get going.”
Chapter 13: Putting It Together
“Excuse me?” Kagome called out politely as she tapped the bell on the reception desk with impatience. When no response was forthcoming, she leaned over the desk and craned her neck to either side to see if somebody was hiding behind one of the pillars or something. She rang the bell again and called a little louder, “Hello? Anybody here?”
“Figures,” Inuyasha grumbled, slouching against the desk with his elbow propping him up. “There were like fifty people out here when we walked by before. Damn union breaks.”
“Inuyasha, you belong to a union.”
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Shut up.”
She couldn’t suppress a grin as she turned back to the counter and tapped the bell five more times. “Hello…?”
A door opened down at the other end of the counter and a man in a dark suit hurried out from the back room, hospitality smile firmly in place.
“Finally,” Inuyasha muttered. Kagome elbowed him in the side. “Ouch,” he whined, rubbing his bruised ribs, “cut that out.”
“So sorry to keep you waiting,” the man said a bit tightly as he approached them. “How can I help you?”
“Hi,” Kagome began, “we need to get in touch with one of your waiters. A mister…”
“Giordano,” Inuyasha chimed in.
“Is there some sort of problem?” the concierge said, brow furrowing in concern.
“Ah, not exactly,” Kagome answered quickly, before Inuyasha had a chance to speak up. “We just need to talk to him. We think he might be able to clear up a misunderstanding for us.”
“I see. Well, I’m afraid Mr. Giordano isn’t working today, but I can have him speak to you when he comes in tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Inuyasha interjected.
Kagome jumped in again before he could get going. “We really need to speak to him as soon as possible—it’s kind of important.”
“Well, I’m not really sure what I can do for you,” the man shrugged politely, “he’s simply not here.”
“Couldn’t you call him or something?” she asked.
“I don’t know—I don’t really think that would be appropriate…”
“Please,” Kagome entreated, leaning in a little further, a little more urgency in her voice. “We just need to speak to him. I wouldn’t ask, but it really is important.”
The concierge looked from one anxious face to the other, and finally relented. “Alright. I’ll see if I can get in touch with him. If you’ll just wait here please.”
“Thank you!” Kagome said as the man stepped away to use a phone a little further on down the counter, “We really appreciate it.” Then she turned back to face Inuyasha crossing her arms over her chest with an accomplished sigh.
“So,” he said, mirroring her stance, “what do we do when we get ahold of him?”
Kagome shrugged, a little sheepishly. “Not sure—I’m playing this by ear. Listen, I have been thinking though—what if it really was a mistake? I mean, maybe he saw someone else trying to proposition the judge, and just thought it was you.”
“It’s possible, I guess.”
“Is there anyone else in the tournament who looks like you?”
Inuyasha gave her a dry look.
“Right,” she said, waving off her previous statement, “stupid question. But still, he probably doesn’t know all of our names—maybe he just got the names crossed.”
“Oh come on—like you said, he probably wouldn’t know our names at all. He probably gave them a description, not a name.”
“Good point.” Kagome nibbled on her thumbnail, casting her eyes over toward one of the flower arrangements set up beside the couches in the waiting area. “Guess we’re back to the payoff theory then—unless there’s some reason he might have a personal grudge against you or something.”
“Why would some random waiter in a hotel have a grudge against me?”
This time it was Kagome’s turn to reply with a dry look.
Inuyasha bristled. “Oh come on, I’m not that bad…”
She rolled her eyes. “Well anyway, even if he did have a grudge against you for some reason, it seems unlikely that anyone would go to that much trouble just to take revenge on an asshole customer.”
Inuyasha scowled at that, but didn’t reply.
“But who would’ve gone to the trouble of paying him to do it?” Kagome continued.
“Same people who would go to the trouble of poisoning your dessert and breaking into our room.”
“Right—but who is that? I mean, so far we’ve been looking for someone who might have something against me, not you.”
“Still could be—if I’m out, you’re out too, remember?”
“Not if Miroku steps in.”
“But whoever did this wouldn’t know that, would they?”
“They might,” she said, “depends on who it is.”
“Which takes us back to the first question—who is it?”
And neither of them had an answer for that.
* * *
While Inuyasha and Kagome were downstairs trying to track down Inuyasha’s accuser, Sango and Miroku were up on the administrative floor speaking with the hotel manager in his office.
“I’m sorry,” said the finely-dressed, middle-aged man behind the desk. “I do wish I could be of more help, but I’m absolutely certain that the passkey could not have been used to break in to the storage lockers. As I told your officials, the passkey is kept securely locked inside my office. My assistant manager is the only other person who has access to the safe, and both he and I had left for the evening by the time the incident occurred.”
“I realize that,” Miroku said, “but the knives were stolen that morning. Theoretically, whoever took them could have stashed them away at any time during the day. It probably would have been late afternoon at least, after Inuyasha had finished his slot in the tournament—but it still could have been well before the incident with the judge late that evening. Are you sure no one had access to the safe earlier that day?”
“I was in my office all afternoon—no one would have been able to get to it without my knowledge. In any case, as I said, the assistant manager is the only other person who knows the code, and I can personally vouch for him.”
“What about after you left?” Sango said. “Is it possible someone could have broken into your office?”
The manager shook his head. “No one else has a key to the office, and there was no evidence of a break in.”
Sango deflated, frowning in mild consternation.
“Look, I really do wish I could help you, but I have an awful lot of work to get done at the moment…”
“Right,” Miroku said with a thin smile and a resigned sigh. “We won’t take up any more of your time then. Thank you very much for your help.”
They shook hands across the desk, and Sango and Miroku slipped quietly out of the office. Once outside, they shared an ominous glance. Miroku nodded in the direction of the corridor outside the office section of the building, back in the guest area, indicating that they ought to get a little distance from the offices before they spoke.
Once they were on their way down the empty carpeted hallway towards the elevators at a leisurely pace, Sango said, “So—what do you think?”
“Hard to say,” Miroku shrugged, hands in his pockets. “I don’t think he was lying.”
Sango shook her head. “Neither do I—he seemed like he was really trying to help. But if Inuyasha wasn’t the one who opened the storage locker, somebody had to have gotten access to that passkey. There’s just no other way.”
“Unless they stole Inuyasha’s key,” Miroku pointed out.
“He said he had it with him, remember? How could someone have stolen it out of his pocket and put it back without him noticing?”
Miroku shrugged. “A really good pickpocket could do it.”
“But what are the odds that whoever did this happens to be a really good pickpocket?”
“I don’t know. What are the odds that they have the knowhow to break into a locked safe in a locked office without leaving any evidence of tampering?”
“True.” Sango sighed and leaned back against the wall beside the elevator, frowning again.
Miroku ran a hand through his hair, staring down at the carpet in thought.
“It’s that assistant manager we’ve got to talk to,” Sango said. “He’s the only other lead we’ve got. Maybe he got to the key at some point without the manager realizing—sometime when he stepped out to use the restroom or something.”
“And the fact that the manager vouches for him?”
Sango shrugged. “Maybe the assistant mislaid the key somewhere, and somebody used it without his knowing.”
“So you’re saying that the assistant manager snuck into the manager’s office while he was in the bathroom, took out the key without telling him, mislaid it for long enough that someone else could use it without his realizing that someone else had taken it, found it again, and somehow put it back in the safe while the manager was in the bathroom—a second time, presumably—without telling him about that either? And all of this was completely innocent coincidence?”
Sango grimaced. “Okay, so maybe not. Then maybe the assistant manager just isn’t as trustworthy as the manager seems to think.”
“That’d be my guess.”
“It still doesn’t explain how he got to the key though. I mean, like you said, if he slipped in there while the manager was in the restroom or something, that wouldn’t give him a whole lot of time to use the key and put it back.”
“True,” Miroku said, nodding. Then a thoughtful frown crossed his face. He glanced up at Sango. “Wait a sec,” he glanced up at Sango, “what if he stole the passkey ahead of time and made a copy?”
Sango’s eyebrows raised. “Can you do that with a passkey?”
“I don’t know—I would assume so, if you took it to the right place.”
“But wouldn’t someone have noticed that it was missing?”
Miroku shook his head. “Not if they didn’t have a reason to use it. Since nothing had happened with the storage lockers yet, I don’t know why they would have.”
“Well, if you’re right, then this all would have to have been planned a bit in advance. You think maybe the person behind all this stuff has been using the assistant manager as a sort of inside man?”
“It would explain a hell of a lot—the room reservations, the fact that whoever it was managed to get a particular meal poisoned at the opening dinner.”
“Don’t remind me,” Sango said wryly.
Miroku grinned in sympathy. “But it makes sense, right? Whoever did all that had to have somebody working from the inside—how else would you pull it off? And if you had someone on the inside, something like breaking into a hotel room would be a piece of cake.”
“We’re back to Naraku again,” Sango said.
“Because, if you’re right, then whoever is doing this has got to have the resources to pay off a lot of people—the assistant manager alone probably demands a hefty fee, especially if he’s basically on retainer. A job like his at a place like this pays a nice salary—he’d have to have good reason to risk all that. I doubt any of the individual contestants in the tournament could afford to pull off something like this.”
* * *
Inuyasha and Kagome both glanced over as the man behind the desk hung up the phone and came back over to them. “I’m sorry,” he said politely, “but there’s no answer at Mr. Giordano’s home.”
“Don’t you have a cell number?” Kagome said. “A street address? An email? Anything—we really need to get in touch with this guy as quickly as possible.”
“I understand that ma’am, but I’m sure you can understand that we can’t go around giving out our employees personal information to guests.”
“I know but—there must be something else you can do. Some other way we might be able to contact him.”
“I’m very sorry ma’am,” the man shook his head with gentle finality, “I’ve done all I can.”
Kagome’s shoulders sagged in disappointment, but she nodded her acceptance. “Thank you anyway,” she mumbled, defeated, pushing away from the desk to walk out towards the sitting area in the center of the lobby, Inuyasha trailing behind her.
“Well, what now?” she said glumly, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning against the back of one of the empty wing-backed chairs. She suddenly realized Inuyasha had been unusually quiet for the last few minutes, and looked up at him to find him looking not nearly as dejected as she was. In fact, he looked downright gleeful. “What are you smiling about?” she asked, wondering if he had finally cracked.
“I’ve got our next lead,” he grinned, pulling his left hand from his back pocket and showing her the inside of his wrist—where there was a hastily-scribbled address written out in ball-point pen.
She grabbed his hand and examined it closer, then looked up at him again, duly impressed. “The bell boy?”
He nodded smugly. “Read it from the address book the guy left open on the counter while you had him busy with your pleading.”
“Well I’ll be damned. So you do have more than rocks and sharp objects rolling around in that pretty little head of yours.”
Inuyasha wasn’t sure whether to take this as a compliment or not, so he ignored it. “Come on, let’s get going—we’ve got to hurry if we’re going to make it to Alphabet City and back before the deadline.”
“Right,” she said, and they moved toward the front door—but then she stopped short with a gasp.
Inuyasha turned back impatiently. “What now?”
“Hojo,” she said, “I completely forgot. I’ll just be a second.” Then she whirled around and jogged off to the dining room, Inuyasha following her at a distance with an irritated grumble.
Hojo stood up from the table when he saw Kagome coming. “Is everything alright?” he asked.
“Fine, fine—something’s just come up that we have to take care of right away, before the round this afternoon. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to dash. I’ll see you later on though, okay?”
“Sure, don’t worry about me—I’ll be there for the round, and I’ll see you afterward for sure.”
“Of course,” she said, with a grateful smile. “Thank you, Hojo—it’s really great to see you, honestly. Bye!”
She turned around and nearly ran into Inuyasha, not expecting him to be so close behind her, eyeing Hojo with a vaguely disgruntled expression—but it was better than outright hostility, so that was practically high praise from him. “Come on,” she said, grabbing him by the elbow and dragging him toward the door again, forcing him to relinquish his closed-off stance.
* * *
Kikyo followed the security guard down several back hallways to the security room, where all the monitors and recording equipment for the building’s security system were kept.
“Here we are,” the man said with an easy smile, turning to face a plain metal door in the whitewashed cinderblock hallway, labeled only “Security.” The guard pulled a heavy ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door, pulling it open to allow Kikyo inside.
It wasn’t a terribly large room, probably about fifteen feet by fifteen feet, but every inch of wall and desk space was taken up with monitors, electronic equipment, recording media, and filing cabinets.
“These are all the visual monitors,” the guard said, pointing out the television screens, “And over here,” he led her to one of the cabinets and pulled out a drawer, which turned out to be filled with neatly organized digital tapes, the rows marked with dates and times on white duct tape that looked like it had been removed and replaced frequently, “is where the missing tape was stolen from.” He pointed out a gap in one of the rows.
Kikyo nodded, mulling this over. Then she turned to the guard. “I’d like to have a look at the door lock if you don’t mind.”
“Of course,” the man said, gesturing back toward the door, “be my guest.”
As she walked back over to the door, Kikyo pulled a pen light from her pocket and switched it on, crouching down to inspect the lock from the outside of the door. She had a little bit of experience in lock picking technique herself—mostly from breaking into her parents’ liquor cabinet when she was a teenager, and jimmying a few doors in college (occasionally to open up a locked classroom for an impromptu study session, but more often to steal leftovers from the dining hall or play pranks on friends and enemies in the dorms—she’d gone through a bit of a rebellious phase…). From her relatively limited experience, she could tell that this was the work of someone who knew what they were doing, and was experienced at working quickly with sharp tools—quickly, because according to the security team the intruder couldn’t possibly have had more than a minute or two to get in before he would have been spotted. In any case, it seemed unlikely that a bell boy (unless he happened to be a master criminal in his off-hours) could have been the one to actually break in and steal the tape, which meant that others were directly involved in the scheme, not just pulling the strings from a distance. Also, judging by the speed and fine motor skills involved, it struck her as entirely plausible that a teppanyaki chef might have been the one to pick the lock—but then that little piece of information didn’t bode very well for Inuyasha’s chances of being exonerated, so she figured she’d keep it to herself for the time being.
Another thing Kikyo noticed as she strolled through the security room was just how complex the system was. The technology seemed simple enough, perhaps even a little out of date, made up of rows on rows of monitors stacked on top of one another, the feeds being recorded on digital cassettes—but the sheer number of monitors and feeds and tapes being recorded would have made it very difficult for someone to sneak in here and steal a specific tape without already knowing exactly what they were looking for and where to find it. It might be possible for a bell boy to know that, but that too seemed unlikely—and since the lock was probably picked by someone other than the bell boy, it seemed more likely that the information had come from a third source, either a member of the security team or someone in management with a high enough rank to be familiar with the security systems. Since any member of the security team could have gotten access to the room and the tapes easily without bothering to pick the lock, Kikyo was leaning toward the management theory. But where that path could lead her from there, she hadn’t a clue.
“Thank you very much,” she said, surfacing from her thoughts and turning to her guide with a smooth smile, “this has been very helpful.”
“No problem ma’am—just let us know if there’s anything else we can do and we’ll do our best to help you out.”
She gave a curt nod and then turned to leave the security room and find her way back out to the hotel proper. As she walked, her thoughts continued to turn themselves over and over, searching for connections, clues she might have missed. But no matter what path she took, it always seemed to lead her to the same place.
Chapter 14: It Takes Two
Inuyasha flagged down a cab on the avenue outside the hotel, opening the door to usher Kagome in almost before the car had completely stopped. He swung in after her and closed the door behind them, giving the driver an intersection near the address they were looking for and telling him to step on it. The traffic was a bit hairy, but it eased up as they got further from Midtown and down into the lower-slung, less-well-cared-for streets and buildings of the Lower East Side. The intersection they got out at was at the corner of a small, overgrown park with rusty fencing all around it, facing on a row of mismatched residential buildings and storefronts, their narrow entrances squeezed into the occasional alcove. It was the kind of neighborhood that Kagome wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time in after dark, but in broad daylight with another person to back her up she felt reasonably safe, if not exactly in her element.
They walked down the block, scanning the buildings for numbers to help them get their bearings, until finally they found the one they wanted—a scratched and crooked metal “208” screwed to the brick above a thickly-painted black metal door. Inuyasha mounted the few steps up to the doorway and scanned the names on the apartment buzzers, Kagome peering around his shoulder. There was a buzzer for number four, but the faded handwritten name on the slip of paper jammed in next to it wasn’t Giordano.
“Do you think we’ve got the wrong address?” Kagome asked, looking up at Inuyasha’s profile.
He glanced at her over his shoulder, then turned back to the buzzers. “I don’t know. Might just be an old name tag that never got replaced. Landlords of buildings like this aren’t exactly known for their prompt service.”
“Are you going to try it then?”
He shrugged. “Not much choice, is there—it’s this or back to square one.” He reached out and pressed the buzzer down for a couple of seconds.
Kagome and Inuyasha looked at each other for a moment. Then Inuyasha turned back to the buzzer and pressed the button again, a little longer this time. There was a brief silence, and then the speaker crackled to life.
“Hello? Who’s there?” the voice said.
Inuyasha exchanged a brief glance with Kagome, hesitating only a fraction of a second before saying, “Package delivery.”
A pause. Then another crackle. “Just leave it on the stoop.”
Inuyasha looked to Kagome for help. She could only shrug, drawing a blank—the package thing was his gambit. Then Inuyasha turned back to the speaker. “I can’t—it’s a FedEx. I need a signature.”
There was a longer pause this time, and for a second they thought he might not answer—but finally the speaker crackled again, and they heard the voice say in clipped tones, “Fine, bring it up.”
The door beside them buzzed as the lock was released, and Kagome reached over to open the door quickly before it locked again. They made their way into the dim, narrow hallway and up a steep set of wooden stairs that creaked underneath their every movement. Just around the corner at the top of the second flight of stairs, they found apartment number four—the metal number plate just as thickly painted to the door’s surface as all the other doors in this place seemed to be from decades of coat after coat being slapped on over scuffs and scratches. Inuyasha knocked.
They heard the floor creaking on the other side of the door, someone bumping into something as they crossed toward them, and then a couple of locks turning just before the door opened.
The man was roughly Kagome’s height, dark-haired, and of relatively slight build—quite young actually, probably about college-aged. He saw Kagome first, and his expression grew suspicious as he took in her lack of uniform—or package. “Hey,” he said, “you’re not from Fed—oh, shit…” He’d finally noticed Inuyasha, and his eyes widened with sudden realization.
Inuyasha threw out a hand to stop the door as the man tried to slam it in their faces. “Hey—so you do recognize me. I’m flattered.”
The man continued to try to push the door closed, but it didn’t budge an inch under Inuyasha’s firm grip. “Look, I don’t know anything—I didn’t mean any harm, so just leave me alone, okay? The cops’ll be here in seconds if you do anything, I guarantee it.”
“Oh, I’m not here to hurt you,” Inuyasha said in an even tone that was still somehow menacing. “I’m just here to give you a friendly little nudge in the right direction…”
“Please,” the man said, looking perhaps even more frightened. “Please don’t make me. I need this job—really, I do.”
“Well then you should have thought of that before you started taking bribes to fuck with people!” Inuyasha growled.
“Inuyasha,” Kagome chided, grabbing the back of his shirt and holding him back with a warning look. Then she turned back to the frightened bell-boy. “Look, we’re not trying to get you fired—”
“Why the hell not?” Inuyasha interrupted. “It’s obvious he knew exactly what he was doing!”
Kagome ignored him, carrying on calmly, “We’re just trying to get to the bottom of this, really—both of our careers are on the line here too. We need your help. We need you to tell the truth about what happened. You know that’s the right thing to do.”
He still looked afraid, but he seemed to be wavering a bit, avoiding Kagome’s gaze. “I…I’m sorry—I didn’t mean any harm, really. It’s just, I owed this guy a bunch of money, and when they offered me—I couldn’t turn it down, you know? I needed the cash. But I can’t afford to lose my job, I just can’t.”
“I know,” Kagome said understandingly. “Look, you don’t have to tell them the whole truth, alright?”
“Yes he does!” Inuyasha burst out.
Kagome glared at him more sharply this time, gritting out a harsher warning. Then she turned back to the other man, all sympathy once more. “Just tell them you were mistaken—that maybe you didn’t see quite what you thought you saw. Maybe that will be enough to get us back in the round.”
The man looked back and forth from Inuyasha’s angry face to Kagome’s kind and pleading one—and finally he gave a sigh, losing heart. “Alright. Alright, I’ll do it. Just let me get my keys.” He left the door open as he moved back into the small apartment, and Inuyasha followed him in, not letting him out of his sight in case the guy tried to make a run for it—but he simply did as he’d said, grabbing his keys and wallet from the counter and leading the way back out the door.
They kept him between them as they walked down the stairs again and out onto the street, walking as far as the corner to flag a cab back uptown. Inuyasha called Kikyo on his cell on the way back, so by the time they reached the hotel all the interested parties—their people, the judge, and the hotel manager—were assembled once more in the conference room, waiting for the other three to join them. They all sat around the conference table as the manager and the judge questioned the bell-boy, trying to discern the details of his “revised” story.
“So you’re saying you thought it was Inuyasha you saw, but now you’re not certain,” the judge said, observing the man skeptically over the frame of his glasses.
Mr. Giordano nodded, staring down at the table in front of him.
“What exactly made you think it was Mr. Takahashi you saw in the first place?”
The bell-boy fidgeted with the cuffs of his sleeves, casting about for a few moments before saying, “His—his hair, I think. I noticed how long it was, but I think, maybe…it was darker or something. On the guy I saw.”
“So you believe the man who propositioned the judge had hair of a similar length, but darker?”
“Yeah—I mean, maybe. I just didn’t get a very good look, that’s all. Maybe it wasn’t even somebody from the contest.”
“But why would someone who wasn’t in the contest ask a judge to tamper with their score?”
“I…” he floundered, “I…I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t hear what I thought I heard.”
The judge gave an irritated sigh, exchanging a troubled look with the manager. “Mr. Giordano, this morning you stated that you had clearly seen Inuyasha Takahashi visiting the room of a judge and asking her plainly for an improved score in return for sexual favors, and now you’re telling us that it’s possible that none of that happened at all? Exactly which of these stories do you expect us to believe?”
The bell-boy looked up from beneath his bangs, searching the faces around him for help, but finding none, even from Kagome—whose expression was apologetic, but impassive. She had known, of course, that he wouldn’t be able to get away with this vague retraction—but he’d made his own bed already. She’d only gently tucked him in.
When the bell-boy didn’t answer, the judge and the manager exchanged another glance, conversing silently. Then the manager addressed the rest of the group. “I’m terribly sorry to everyone for all this trouble—it appears we have a few staff problems,” he eyed the cowering bell-boy irritably, “around here of which I was unaware. I assure you, we will pursue this matter to its conclusion.”
The bell-boy looked up, paling slightly, but the judge took over. “In the meantime, Mr. Takahashi,” he turned toward Inuyasha, who was sitting to his left, “as Mr. Giordano’s eyewitness account was the strongest evidence against you, until this matter is sorted I cannot in good conscience disqualify you from the tournament. You will be allowed to compete this afternoon.”
“Yes!” he thumped his fist on the desk and got to his feet, Kagome giving a whoop and leaping up beside him, throwing her arms around his neck. He caught her up off her feet for a moment—before they both seemed to realize what they were doing and quickly parted, though the expressions of relief and excitement remained, if a bit rosier than before. Miroku clapped Inuyasha on the back, and Sango gave Kagome a hug of congratulations as the Katana contingent quickly exited the conference room, Kikyo trailing behind the others with a slightly more dignified gait, though her triumphant smile betrayed her shared enthusiasm.
“Fuck yeah!” Inuyasha said once out in the hall, punching the air and turning to walk backwards so he could face the others. “I knew we could do it!”
“Yeah, we always look to you for that good old cockeyed optimism, Inuyasha,” Miroku joked wryly.
“Come on, Inuyasha,” Kagome said, glancing at her watch and quickening her pace a bit to catch up to him, “we’d better get going if we’re going to make the call time. We still have to change.”
“Right,” he said, and turned forward again, the two of them breaking into a jog back to the elevators, leaving the others behind at their more leisurely pace.
They bustled about the hotel room, pulling together supplies, grabbing pieces of uniforms, nearly bumping into each other a couple of times in their haste—but the energy was palpable, and for once unflinchingly positive. They made it down to the staging area just in time to check in, and quickly retrieved their carts from the storage lockers, checking them over for all the supplies and ingredients they needed for their routine. When they were finally set in the antechamber, waiting to enter the stage, Kagome glanced over at Inuyasha and flashed him an unfettered grin—and he returned it in kind. After such a narrow escape, it seemed like nothing could stop them now.
And as it turned out, nothing could.
They sailed through the routine like never before—the timing was perfect, not a movement out of place. Both of them were fully concentrated, at the absolute top of their game—and what was more, they enjoyed it. They enjoyed the flow of the way they worked together, finally, without all the prejudices and resentments and distractions and frustrations in the way, they found their styles meshed effortlessly, complementing each other but never clashing, all harmony without dissonance. For the first time they were truly working together, as a team. When the set was through, Kagome knew it was the best performance she had ever given in her life—and Inuyasha knew the same.
The scores wouldn’t be revealed until the following evening at the awards banquet, but everyone seemed to feel a party was in order nonetheless—if only to celebrate the wonderful performance they had managed despite the day’s inauspicious start.
Kikyo sprang for dinner for the whole Katana crew—Hojo included—so after Inuyasha and Kagome had had a chance to change back into their street clothes the whole lot of them piled out onto the sidewalk, laughing, still reliving the highlights of the match. They found a little Italian place around the block that was down below street level, with a kitschy sort of painted-brick and palate-knife-textured-plaster atmosphere, with murals of Italy as seen through windows painted on the walls. There was a piano player as well, running through a few old standards, occasionally singing a number or two in the background as they ate and drank and talked. By the time they’d finished with their meal, they were practically the only people left in the place, besides a couple or two over at the bar—but none of them were quite ready to go home yet.
Miroku pulled a slightly tipsy Sango to her feet and started dancing with her right in the middle of the dining room, moving to the tune of the pianist’s bubbly rendition of “A Wink and a Smile”—and with each exaggerated wink and roguish smile Miroku tossed her way, Sango pretended to faint into his arms, swaying with him across their impromptu dance floor. The others laughed and applauded the performance—and when the pianist segued seamlessly into an equally up-tempo “The More I See You,” Inuyasha was surprised to see Kagome get up from her chair beside him, grab him by the arm and drag him onto the floor as well. Truth was, he didn’t fight her all that hard—and soon his arm was around her waist, her hand in his, and the two of them were stepping circles around each other, laughing as they tripped over each other’s feet.
Kagome, for her part, was impressed to find that Inuyasha was actually rather a good dancer, once the two of them found their sea legs. He didn’t really seem like the dancing type—but then he was certainly in good enough shape, and he was in a business that required a lot of coordination and precise timing, so she supposed it wasn’t so strange that he would take to it naturally.
He lifted his arm and Kagome spun underneath it out to arms length, then back again, into his arms to carry on their sloppy imitation of a foxtrot.
“Hey, you’re not half bad,” she said.
Inuyasha grinned, playfully smug. “What’d you expect? I don’t like to lose.”
She rolled her eyes, but could muster little genuine exasperation. “Always a competition with you, isn’t it?”
“What’s the point of doing something if you’re just gonna suck at it?” he shrugged.
“Well I don’t know about you, Fred Astaire, but I sometimes do things just because they’re fun.”
“Feh. Everything’s more fun when you win,” he smirked.
Kagome laughed, shaking her head and conceding the point to him.
“Listen, Kagome,” he said, sobering just a little. “I want to thank you for helping me out this afternoon.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Well that’s a first.”
“Aw, come on, don’t mess me around—I’m serious. I couldn’t have gotten that bell-boy to crack without you—or at least if I had I probably would have done it by punching his face in, and that still wouldn’t have gotten me back in the match cause I’d be in jail right about now.”
She laughed. “Any time. Hey, if we ever get tired of cooking, maybe we should go into the police force—we make quite a nice good-cop/bad-cop duo…”
“Long as I get to be the bad cop,” he said with a shrug.
She laughed again. “Well at least we’ve finally found something we can agree on.”
“Oh I don’t know,” he said, twirling her around so his arms were wrapped around her front, her back pressed up against his chest, “I think we could find a few more. Chocolate?”
“Yummy,” Kagome said as he twirled her to face him again. “Christmas?”
“Best day of the year,” he replied, dipping her deeply out to the side. “Fresh air?”
“Can’t live without it,” she said as he swung her back up to stand again. “Sex?”
Inuyasha overbalanced slightly and had to step back to keep them from falling over as Kagome realized what she’d just said, and Inuyasha’s eyes widened in surprise. They stared at each other for a moment, caught between awkwardness and giddiness—and then Inuyasha snorted with laughter, breaking the tension, and Kagome followed suit, dropping her forehead against his chest to hide her reddening face.
“I think we were safer with chocolate,” Inuyasha said, resuming the dance, twirling her out to arms length again before pulling her close enough that she could rest her cheek against his shoulder, then length of their bodies not quite touching.
“Much,” Kagome laughed as they continued to sway to the last few bars of the music.
Even Kikyo and Hojo had joined in by this time, dancing together, as well as one of the couples from the bar—and by the time they all finally wandered out onto the sidewalk later that night, the staff were sweeping the floors and stacking the chairs, preparing to close. Kikyo left a generous tip for the pianist and the waiters as the gang of them made their way up the stairs to the street, heading back to the hotel.
Kagome and Inuyasha didn’t say much to each other on the way up to their room, but it was a pleasant silence, each of them enjoying the rare cessation of hostilities, hoping it would hold out just a little longer. Kagome unlocked the door to the hotel room, and wandered inside, dropping her purse on the floor next to the bed as Inuyasha flipped on the light and closed the door behind them. She glanced over at him from beneath her bangs as she removed her earrings, placing them on the bedside table, watching him grab his sweats and t-shirt off the couch and circle around behind her to go into the bathroom. She changed in the outer room, trading her jeans and top for a t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. When Inuyasha emerged from the bathroom, she nearly walked into him, giving him a sheepish smile and stepping aside to let him pass before going in to brush her teeth.
She lingered there for longer than she needed to, her mind turning over and over as she absently scrubbed away at her teeth. She watched him pass back and forth across the doorway reflected in the bathroom mirror, putting away his clothes from the day, taking off his watch, setting up his bedding on the couch. When she realized how long she’d been staring, she shook herself out of it and finished brushing her teeth, rinsing out the brush and propping it against her toothpaste tube on the countertop. When she walked back into the bedroom, the overhead light was off, and Inuyasha was settling in on the couch, trying to get comfortable.
Kagome peeled back the covers and climbed into bed, turning off her bedside lamp and rolling to her side, closing her eyes to try to fall asleep. But they didn’t seem to want to stay closed.
Inuyasha shifted around on the couch, the springs creaking underneath him until he found a new position.
Kagome caught herself watching the illuminated numbers on the digital bedside clock tick forward slowly, and forced her eyes to close again.
Another rustling from the direction of the couch as Inuyasha sat up, punched his pillow a few times, then readjusted and flopped back down again.
Once again, Kagome’s eyes drifted open.
When Inuyasha started to shift around again, Kagome rolled to her back and put her hands over her face, scrubbing at her eyes with the heels of her palms, then lowering her elbows with a sigh until her hands were resting on her stomach and she was staring up at the ceiling.
“Inuyasha,” she said quietly. “Are you awake?”
“Mm-hm,” he replied, his voice only slightly muffled by the couch.
She took a breath—then pushed herself up to sit, peeling back the covers on the empty side of the bed. “Inuyasha…why don’t you come join me over here for the night?”
She thought she could almost hear his muscles tense, his eyes open. And then she saw a shadowy shape morphing up from the surface of the couch, twisting until his eyes glinted curiously at her in the moonlight. She didn’t look away. “What do you mean, exactly?” he said, a bit wary, though carefully non-confrontational.
She gave a small sigh. “What do you think I mean?”
His eyes narrowed a bit further. “Really?”
Now she was starting to get a little annoyed. “Well, if you don’t want to—”
“No, no, it’s just…I want to make sure we’re on the same page here.”
“We are,” she said. And then, a little softer, a little lower, “Trust me.”
He hesitated a moment longer. “You’re sure about this?”
“No,” she said. “Are you?”
For some reason, that seemed to decide it for him. He pushed himself slowly up off the couch and padded across the carpet, and she felt the mattress shift underneath her as he sat down, perhaps a little more gently than he normally would, before pulling his legs up under the covers. And then he turned to her.
For a few moments he just looked her in the eye, and she tried to read his thoughts in the dim light—but for someone who seemed to have so little ability to conceal his emotions, he certainly could be an enigma at times. Still, when she leaned forward cautiously to brush her lips against his, he was there to catch her. His hand came up to her face, his thumb just sweeping over her cheekbone, and then he tilted her head slightly to deepen the kiss. Her fingertips brushed up his sides, over his t-shirt, and came to rest with her palms flat against his shoulder blades, her fingernails grazing him lightly through the thin cotton as she pulled herself closer up against him. She felt herself sinking back down into the mattress, Inuyasha following her down so that he was leaning over her, their bodies flush with one another—and suddenly they were right back where they’d been the other night, all the energy they’d been putting into fighting one another this past week—these past months—flowing out of them in the form of passion. Except it wasn’t the same as last time—this time there was no alcohol to blame. This time it was clear-headed—they both knew exactly what they were doing, and they were doing it anyway.
This time there was no little voice to stop her. Or if there was, she had given it up for a lost cause. There was nothing Kagome wanted more at this moment than Inuyasha—and for now, at least, that was all that mattered.
Chapter 15: There She Goes
Kagome awoke to the feeling of a gentle weight wrapped around her waist, a comfortable warmth pressed against her back, and a feeling of dread pooling in her stomach.
It wasn’t that last night hadn’t been wonderful—it had. It had been fantastic, actually, exactly what she’d needed. No one had made her feel the way she’d felt with him in a long time—maybe ever. (But no, that was a scary thought. It couldn’t have been that good, could it?) The trouble was that last night was always going to be followed by this morning, and the morning after that, and lunch shifts and dinner shifts and staff meetings and office parties and…competitions. Many, many competitions. And this was going to change everything. Or perhaps even worse, it might change absolutely nothing.
She tilted her face down into the pillow and squeezed her eyes shut, willing all of it to go away, wishing she could wind back the clock and not be such an idiot.
Why did it have to be him? Why did she have to feel this way about him? Because it was about feelings now, not just sex or hostility or competition, and she knew that—at least on her side of things. Which was ridiculous—she should have seen this coming a mile off. And maybe she had—she’d caught her first glimpse of it that day in the bar, when they’d finally managed to talk to each other like human beings. She should have nipped it in the bud right there and then, distanced herself from him as much as possible, but she hadn’t, not really—not enough. And he was a jerk—he really was—he drove her crazy. No one could make her as angry as he could—but then, too, no one could make her feel anything as much as he could, and that was frightening and wonderful at the same time. He exhausted her, but she only wanted more.
Which was exactly why she had to end this, now, before it started. She might not have seen quite where this was going from the beginning, back when she could still escape unscathed, but she could see it now—this was a train wreck waiting to happen. He’d gotten inside her, in more ways than one. Everything she could think of—all those things that had annoyed her from the start, his gruffness, his competitiveness, those childish fireballs and flashy tricks, that need for attention, need to be the best, to always push things just a little bit too far—she could remember how much they had pissed her off, and they still did, but at the same time she caught herself smiling, resting her palm over the back of his hand where it lay across her stomach and squeezing it gently, like she was afraid he would get up and leave her cold at any minute. She hated herself for it, but she wanted him here—she wanted to believe that maybe, in his own strange way, he needed her. Maybe she wasn’t just imagining the protective way he was curled around her; maybe it wasn’t that he was just savoring the sensation of a female in his arms, but that being with her had made life better for a little while, made him better—filled a space inside him he hadn’t known was empty. Because that was how she felt about him.
And that was why she had to get out. Fast.
Carefully, gently as possible, one limb at a time, she slid herself out from underneath his arm and over the edge of the mattress, trying her best not to disturb him. She crouched at the bedside and watched him sleep for a moment, barely breathing, just to make sure she hadn’t roused him—and then she quietly stood up and tiptoed across the room to the dresser. Easing open a drawer, she snatched out what she needed and slipped into the bathroom to take a quick shower and get dressed. He was still sleeping when she emerged again fifteen minutes later, and she moved just close enough to grab her purse and room key from beside the bed. Hand on the door handle, she glanced back at him one more time, the golden morning glow from the window lighting the edges of his mussed hair, coloring the outline of his shoulder against his shadowed chest—and her heart squeezed inside of her. She gritted her teeth and slipped out into the hallway, closing the door behind her.
* * *
Inuyasha awoke alone.
The mattress was still warm beside him, where she had spent the night in his arms, but she was nowhere to be seen. She must have been pretty careful in order to sneak out without waking him, and he wondered why she would do that. She couldn’t even look him in the face in the morning? Couldn’t even leave him a note?
Did she regret it?
He rolled to his back, rubbing his hands over his face and staring up at the ceiling. He didn’t regret it. He wanted to, and he knew he probably should, but he didn’t. Being with Kagome was like being with no one else he’d ever been with before. He wasn’t sure why that was, but it was absolutely true. No contest. Not that there would have been a whole lot of contest anyway—for all his bravado, he really hadn’t been with that many women before. Kikyo had been his longest continuous relationship, and that had foundered unceremoniously after six months. Other than that, a few brief relationships in college—no one else had been able to stand him for long—and a handful of one night stands.
Was that what this was going to turn out to be? He wasn’t sure. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted it to be or not. No, that wasn’t true—he didn’t want it to be a one night stand. A one night stand was someone you slept with and then forgot, someone you never saw again. He didn’t want it to be that way with Kagome. As much as she pissed him off, he didn’t want her to disappear—and even if she did, he knew he could never forget her. She was too far under his skin.
Inuyasha got up, grabbed a few things, and went into the bathroom to take his shower. He took his time about it, shampooing his hair thoroughly under the warm water, his mind repeatedly drifting back to the night before, when things had been suddenly so good between them. When he got out, he half hoped that maybe she’d be back, hanging out in the bedroom with a book and a muffin from downstairs, giving him a casual smile, and everything would be okay again. He’d find out he was wrong—she’d just slipped out for a minute and hadn’t wanted to wake him, how silly of him to worry. Of course she was coming back—this was her room after all.
But she wasn’t back. The room was still empty, the bedclothes still rumpled exactly as he’d left them.
* * *
“Are you sure this is a good idea, Sango?” Miroku whispered as he followed her quietly down one of the narrow back hallways within the office section of the hotel.
“Since when are you so squeamish?” she whispered back, giving him the eye over her shoulder.
He gave her a dry look. “I only meant that maybe there’s a better way to go about this than sneaking around breaking into people’s offices. Doesn’t it seem a little counterproductive to get evidence of a crime by committing one yourself?”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” she dismissed. “It’s not a crime—it’s just a slightly questionable tactic.”
“I’m not sure the judge will agree with that distinction.”
She cast him a withering look. “Well you were there when we spoke to the manager—he backs this guy to the hilt. I don’t think he’d be likely to help us conduct the search if we asked, do you?”
“No,” Miroku admitted reluctantly.
“Fine. So if we want to find out what’s really been going on here, we’re going to have to connect a few dots ourselves—then maybe he’ll at least consider the possibility.”
“Whatever you say, Sango,” he muttered, conceding defeat. They stepped around the corner of a row of empty cubicles into a short, dim, interior hallway, at the other end of which was another long hallway that ran parallel to the first. On the far side of this hallway were the executive offices—the ones for employees important enough to have proper windows, rather than just what little daylight seeped through the overhead transoms into the cubicles on the near side of the hallway. They could hear voices and activity in this corridor, so Sango led them right up to the edge, keeping them just out of sight in the shadowy hallway. The second office door down to their right was labeled “Peter Simpson, Assistant Manager.” It was propped open just slightly, and she could see the assistant manager himself moving around inside—a tall man, mid-forties-ish, with the bland good looks of a successful politician, his dark hair just beginning to gray at the temples. He seemed to be talking on the phone, pacing back and forth across the narrow gap as he paged through a document in his hand.
After a few minutes, they heard him hang up the phone, and he disappeared from view. There were faint sounds of shuffling papers, a stack of something being moved from one place to another. Then, suddenly, the door swung open and the assistant manager stepped out into the hall, forcing Sango to shrink back against Miroku to avoid being seen. He paused for a moment, glancing toward each end of the corridor as though getting his bearings—and then he set off down the hall in the opposite direction from where Miroku and Sango were standing, making them both breathe a small sigh of relief.
Once he was safely out of the way, Sango glanced back at Miroku to signal that he should follow her, and then she stepped out into the hallway—right in front of a young bleached-blonde woman in a pencil skirt and sweater, with a stack of files clutched to her chest.
“Oh!” the woman said, surprised yet unflinchingly cheerful. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there—can I help you?”
“Ahh…we were…” Sango floundered.
“We’re with the tournament group,” Miroku swooped in deftly. “We were supposed to have a meeting scheduled with Mr. Simpson, but we’ve gotten a little turned around looking for his office and I’m afraid we may be a bit late.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that—better late than never,” the woman said brightly. “I don’t think I have you on the schedule, but things have been so hectic this week, these things sometimes don’t quite make it to my desk. Anyway, Mr. Simpson just stepped out for a moment, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you wait for him in his office.”
“That’d be perfect, thanks,” Miroku said, grinning back at the woman as she pushed open the door to the office to allow them entry. Sango gave him a slightly sour look out of the corner of her eye for his unmistakable flirting. He flicked a mildly warning look back at her as they closed the door most of the way behind them.
“That one was purely business,” he said, dropping his voice low to cut off her scolding before it started.
She lifted both hands in a non-combative gesture. “I didn’t say anything,” she muttered back, then circled around the desk to sit in the assistant manager’s chair. “Now keep a lookout,” she whispered, nodding toward the door.
Miroku nodded back halfheartedly and crossed his arms as he leaned against the wall, peering unobtrusively out through the narrow gap left between the door and the doorjamb.
Sango began opening drawers, rifling through each one as quickly and quietly as possible without disturbing the contents too much. Most of what she found was disappointingly ordinary—staplers, rubber bands, paperclips, files, scrap paper, little to distinguish this from any other boring middle-management office. When she finished searching the desk drawers, she pressed her lips together in a frown and glanced around the room, hands on her hips. Then she got up and searched through the filing cabinets—which mostly contained files, of course, though she did check specially for anything filed under “key” or “passkey.” No luck. Running out of logical places to look, she started plucking books from the bookshelves that covered one wall, opening them each one by one before replacing them carefully. Miroku glanced from the doorway over to Sango and did a double take.
“Sango, this isn’t a spy film,” he said, keeping his voice low. “What do you think you’re going to find, a false book?”
“Well I don’t know,” she rounded on him, throwing up both hands, one of them still clutching a copy of Fodor’s New York City Guide 2003. “You come look then.”
Miroku went back over to the desk and started searching the drawers again a little more thoroughly while Sango replaced the Fodor’s Guide and took up his position at the door, leaning one shoulder against the wall with her arms crossed over her chest.
“I checked all those already, you know,” she muttered over at him. Miroku shot her a look but didn’t reply, continuing to shift the contents of the drawers.
A few minutes passed with Miroku crouched on the floor, digging around in the middle drawer on the right-hand side of the desk. “I’m just not finding anything, Sango.”
“See, I told you,” she replied with a slightly smug smile.
He sat back on his heels and looked up at her. “Alright, so what do you say we get out of here then before somebody catches us?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, it has to be here,” Sango said, coming back around the desk to reexamine the drawers on the other side of the desk. Miroku sighed and moved on to the bottom drawer on his side, plunging himself elbow deep into the contents in search of anything that might hide a key. Sango started pulling boxes of paperclips and stacks of scrap paper and notepads out of the top drawer on her side, placing them on the desk to get a better look at the back of the drawer. Then, as she felt around way in the back, her fingers closed around a small metal box—an Altoids tin. But there was something strange about it—it was too heavy to be empty, but when she shook it, nothing rattled.
“Miroku!” she said, turning to him excitedly and shaking the silent tin again.
He looked up at her, then at the tin, then back up at her, comprehending. “Is that what I think it is?”
Someone cleared their throat to her left, and the bottom dropped out of Sango’s stomach as she and Miroku both looked over to see the hotel manager regarding them sternly from the doorway.
“Oops…” she said.
Miroku gave her an “I told you so” look, but didn’t comment.
“Is there any point in my asking what you two are doing in here?” the manager said crossing his arms over his chest.
Sango got to her feet slowly, giving him a placating look as Miroku hastily put back the contents of the drawers they’d been interfering with—all except for the tin, which was still in Sango’s hand. “We’re really sorry, sir—I know we shouldn’t be in here, and I know this looks bad—”
“That’s an understatement,” the manager muttered.
“—but you see, we have reason to believe your assistant manager may have been involved in some of the strange things that have been happening to our friends, and—”
He cut her off with a dismissive gesture. “Now I thought we settled all that yesterday—I told you, I can personally vouch for Mr. Simpson’s character, and he is the only other person with access to the passkey.”
“I know, sir—but we know for certain that our friends couldn’t have been responsible for the locker break in, and we thought that if we could just find evidence that Mr. Simpson was involved then maybe you would be willing to investigate further. I mean, obviously you wouldn’t want someone untrustworthy holding such a high position in your staff, would you?”
The manager gave her a shrewd look, but she seemed to be getting through to him at least a little. “I see. Well?”
A bit of the peevishness came back into his expression. “Have you found anything?”
“Oh—well, I’m not exactly sure, but if this,” she held up the small tin in her hand, “is what I think it is, then yeah, I’d say we’ve found something.”
“Well then, by all means, open it up.”
Sango nodded and pried open the lid of the small metal box—and sure enough, inside it was full of a thick, dark-blue clay, in the surface of which were two impressions of the same key—one of each side. She turned the box around and presented it to the manager, giving him an apologetic smile.
His expression shifted to one of concern, and his arms fell to his sides as he stepped forward to inspect the box more closely, taking it from Sango. “You found this in the desk?” he confirmed, turning it over in his hands, running the pad of his thumb over the impressions in the clay. Sango nodded, and the manager closed the box again, slipping it into his pocket and regarding the two of them with a different sort of disappointment in his face, his annoyance at them smothered by larger concerns.
He nodded vaguely at them, his thoughts still half elsewhere. “I see. Well, you still shouldn’t be here—but then I guess I’ve been somewhat remiss in my job as well, or so it seems. I promise you that I will investigate this matter thoroughly, and I’ll keep you appraised. We’ll find out who was behind your friends’ troubles.”
“Thank you,” Miroku said.
“Not at all,” the manager dismissed. “Now you two had better get out of here before my colleague returns. I’d like to have a little more information before I tip my hand, if possible.”
“Right,” Sango said, skirting around the desk to head for the door, Miroku close behind her. “And we’re sorry again for all the trouble.”
The manager waved them off as he followed them out, closing the door to the office behind them and heading off in the other direction. Once he was out of sight, Miroku and Sango exchanged a brief “that was close” look as they moved off together back the way they had come, eager to return to the guest area of the hotel.
* * *
“…so their council sent back the agreement with a brand new set of provisions just a couple of hours before the deal was meant to close. Have to say I’m really glad I’m not in the office today, because it sounds like they’re having a bit of a nightmare with it. I’ve been getting phone calls and emails on it all morning.”
Kagome nibbled on the end of a french fry, eyes glazed as she stared out over the edge of the booth she and Hojo were sitting at in the bar, watching people come and go through the hotel lobby. It was only when she heard his voice angle up with the cadence of a question that she realized she hadn’t really been listening to him.
“Hm?” she said, snapping herself back to attention.
“I said are you feeling okay? You look a little troubled.”
“I’m fine, Hojo,” she said, setting down her half-eaten fry and affecting an easy smile. He didn’t seem totally convinced.
“Well, what have you been up to since I last saw you?”
Her eyes widened slightly as her heart leapt into her throat. “What do you mean?”
“I mean this morning,” he said, looking at her oddly again, though he chose not to comment. “Do anything interesting?”
“Oh,” she said, relaxing slightly. “No, not really. Just been hanging around, taking it easy for awhile.”
“Yeah. I suppose you must be pretty anxious, huh?”
“Why do you say that?” she said, pulse jolting again, though she tried to keep her voice casual.
“Well, with the awards dinner tonight and everything.”
“Oh—of course. Right,” she said, wishing she could flick herself in the head. She’d nearly forgotten about the tournament altogether. Somehow all that seemed a long way off right now.
Something white caught her eye, and she glanced over the wall of the booth again to see Inuyasha walking across the lobby. He wasn’t facing quite her direction, but she felt herself hunch down a bit instinctively nonetheless.
She knew she needed to talk to him, preferably soon. She wanted to make sure he didn’t have any illusions that what had happened the night before would be happening again on a regular basis, and it was only fair to him to address the subject like the adults they were. But she just wasn’t ready to do it quite yet. Maybe sometime this afternoon. Definitely today. Tonight at the very latest.
She was still watching him over the edge of the booth as he spoke to one of the attendants at the front desk—and then she ducked down again sharply when he turned and started walking towards the bar. “Shit,” she whispered in spite of herself.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Kagome?” Hojo asked again, looking at her a bit strangely. She had forgotten he was there again.
“Uh, yeah—absolutely fine, don’t worry about me. Listen though, I just remembered something really important I have to make sure I get done before the dinner this evening, so I think I’m going to have to bail on you. Can you cover the check for me? I’ll pay you back later, I promise.”
“Of course, Kagome—don’t worry about it, but—”
“Thanks, Hojo,” she said quickly, grabbing her purse and sliding out of the booth, darting quickly between tables toward the opposite end of the bar area where there was a second exit. When she was safely out of sight around the side of the half-wall separating the bar from the lobby, she paused and turned back, creeping up to peek back into the bar area from beneath the shade of a hanging potted plant. Inuyasha was at the other entrance, scanning the faces of the bar patrons for someone until he finally landed on Hojo. He walked up to the booth where the two of them had been sitting together and spoke to Hojo briefly, gesturing to Kagome’s recently vacated seat and the half-eaten plate of food she’d left there. Hojo responded, motioning toward the back of the bar, in the direction she had left, and Inuyasha turned toward her. Kagome ducked out of sight around the wide wooden pillar, hoping he hadn’t seen her, or noticed the fact that she’d accidentally bumped the hanging basket as she stepped back, causing it to swing. “Shit,” she muttered again, and hurried off down the corridor that led past the breakfast room, away from the lobby and the main elevators. At least she knew he was away from the room at the moment—she could sneak back upstairs and grab her things for the evening, stash them in Sango and Miroku’s room until she was ready to change.
But she definitely was going to talk to him. Soon. Tomorrow, at least…
* * *
Inuyasha wasn’t stupid. He’d seen the dark shock of hair swing around the corner behind the pillar, noticed the swinging plant basket—it didn’t take fucking Sherlock Holmes to figure out that Kagome was avoiding him.
Rather than give chase, Inuyasha turned and took a detour over to one of the empty barstools, ordering a Stella. He sat there for awhile, nursing his drink and pretending to pay attention to whatever sports thing was on the television in the corner, but neither really held his interest. He wasn’t even sure what teams were playing.
He’d been keeping an eye out for Kagome all morning, figuring he’d have to run into her somewhere—it was a big hotel, but the common areas tended to be in roughly the same location. Unless you were trying not to, you’d run into pretty much everybody eventually. When he hadn’t found her in the breakfast room with Miroku and Sango or in the gym during his workout, he’d gone back to the hotel room to clean up and change and found that she wasn’t there either. Then he’d decided to try to track her down—you never knew, maybe something had happened to her. The tournament was over, but whoever had been meddling with them all week might still feel they had a score to settle—so he’d checked at the desk to see if the attendant had seen her at all, and he’d directed Inuyasha to the bar. Where he’d found Hojo sitting across from Kagome’s recently vacated seat, and a swinging plant marking her escape route.
He made his way through a couple more beers, a plate of onion rings, and another half a game that he didn’t pay attention to—he thought it might have been a curling match, actually, but he couldn’t remember—before finally noticing how late it was, and realizing he really ought to be getting upstairs to get changed. And hey, maybe Kagome would be there. She’d have to turn up sooner or later, if only to get dressed.
He pressed a hand to his stomach, stifling a burp, as he waited for the elevator in the lobby. His center of gravity tilted just slightly as the elevator took off toward the upper floors, and it occurred to him that maybe he should’ve had more to eat than just the onion rings with those beers. Ah well—it’d be dinner soon enough. He could hold out till then.
When he got back to the room, he found the bed neat and tidy, looking as though it had never been slept in, and new towels in the bathroom—housekeeping had been and gone. But no Kagome. Her garment bag was gone too, as was her makeup bag from the bathroom, though the rest of her things were still here. She must have gone to change in Miroku and Sango’s room.
His shoulders fell slightly at that, and he glared down at the bed, chewing at the inside of his cheek with his back teeth. Damn.
Chapter 16: Night and Day
“Sango, do you mind?” Kagome asked, gesturing to the half-zipped zipper at the back of her dress. Sango nodded, turning away from the bathroom mirror to help her pull the zipper the rest of the way up.
“Kagome,” Sango said offhandedly as she worked, “mind if I ask you something?”
“Well, not that we mind or anything, but—why exactly are you getting dressed in our room instead of yours?”
Kagome hesitated, hand still holding her hair up out of the way of the zipper even though Sango had finished. She cast a fleeting glance at her friend’s reflection, which stood watching her with hands on hips. “It’s…a little complicated,” Kagome said finally, dropping her hair and turning to the counter to grab her brush.
“Complicated how? You two seemed to be getting along so much better yesterday. You’re not fighting again, are you?”
Kagome paused mid-brush—but then she forced herself to continue, acting as if there had been no interruption. “Not exactly. I just thought maybe it would be better if we each had a little space.”
Sango crossed her arms, giving Kagome a skeptical look, but Kagome ignored this, setting down her brush and turning next to her makeup bag to pull out her eyeliner.
“Are you sure that’s all it is?” Sango asked.
“Of course,” Kagome said, leaning in toward the mirror and concentrating perhaps a little more than necessary on applying her eye makeup. “What else would it be?”
“You tell me,” Sango said, turning to her own toiletries bag to retrieve a pair of earrings for herself.
They worked in silence for a few minutes, Kagome finishing up her eye makeup as Sango applied a bit of lipstick. Finally, when she’d put the finishing touches on her own hair, Sango gave a sigh and turned to Kagome, one hand at her waist. “Look, Kagome,” she said frankly, “I know this is none of my business and I have no idea what is or isn’t going on between you two, but—just be careful, okay?”
Kagome cast her a curious look.
“I know I’ve never been Inuyasha’s biggest fan, but I’ve known him a long time. He’s tough, but the guy’s not made of stone. And he’s not exactly the best at handling interpersonal relationships, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. If you get involved—or if you are involved—just…make sure you know what you’re doing.”
Kagome returned her attention to the mirror to finish applying her lipstick. “I told you, Sango—it’s nothing like that. Things between Inuyasha and me are the same as they’ve always been.”
Sango nodded her acceptance—but she didn’t seem convinced.
Sango and Miroku were soon ready to leave, but Kagome dawdled a bit longer over her hair, telling them to head on down without her—she’d meet them at the table. As soon as she heard the door close in the bedroom behind her, she stopped brushing, tossing the brush back into her toiletries bag. She sighed and crossed her arms, shifting her weight and meeting the eyes of her reflection. She looked as good as she’d ever looked, and yet she felt a mess—like the dress didn’t fit, the makeup was just slapped on. Nothing could quite cover up how lousy she felt underneath it all. If she’d had her choice, she’d have changed into sweats and pulled the covers up over her head right now. Anything to avoid going downstairs and facing the music.
When she stepped into the ballroom, Kagome’s eyes landed immediately on Inuyasha, his long white hair visible from across the room as he sat with his back to her at the Katana table up near the front. She faltered in the doorway—not that she had seriously expected to be able to avoid him straight on through the banquet, obviously, but she wasn’t exactly looking forward to this. She’d put it off for as long as possible, but no longer. Taking a breath and straightening her spine, she threaded through the tables until she came to theirs, choosing a seat on the other side of Sango and Miroku, so she wouldn’t be too near Inuyasha—though of course this had the unfortunate side effect of placing her nearly directly across from him at the round table. She greeted Miroku and Sango her eyes darting casually past Inuyasha, trying to avoid his gaze without pointedly ignoring him as she pulled her chair up to the table. She couldn’t help flicking a quick glance in his direction though—and as soon as she did, she wished she hadn’t. He wasn’t looking at her, she couldn’t tell if he’d even noticed her approach, as he was glaring vaguely at the middle distance off to her right.
“How are you feeling, Kagome?” Sango asked.
Kagome started—but then realized she was only talking about the awards ceremony. “Oh—fine. I mean, nervous, obviously, but pretty good,” she replied, giving an uneasy smile. She hoped the uneasiness seemed due to the contest and nothing else—Sango didn’t show any signs of wanting to resume their earlier conversation. Kagome couldn’t help noticing that Miroku was giving Inuyasha a rather shrewd look. If anyone could read anything through that thick skull, it was Miroku.
“Do either of you know what’s on the menu?” Kagome asked Miroku, pulling his attention away from Inuyasha.
“Hm?” Miroku mumbled, then looked over at Kagome. “Oh—lobster tail or something, I think.”
“Wow, they really go all out,” Kagome said, reaching for a roll from the basket in the center.
“Yeah, I guess they want to close the show with a bang.” Miroku murmured back, but his attention was drifting back to Inuyasha again, who had started to rap his fingernails lightly on the tablecloth, still not acknowledging Kagome’s presence.
Both Kikyo and Hojo joined the table before long, and Kagome turned gratefully as Hojo took the seat beside her, taking refuge in conversation with him for awhile. Soon dinners were being served, and the meal was pleasant enough, though Kagome couldn’t bring herself to eat very much of it. Her stomach was twisted into knots—but which knots were due to the awards and which ones were due to the night before, she couldn’t be sure. The whole thing was tied up together into one big ball of stress. All she knew was that whatever it was she wanted to get past it as soon as possible. When all the main courses had been cleared away and people were finished or still nibbling at their desserts, finally the master of ceremonies got up to speak.
There were a couple of short addresses from the board, and a few secondary awards were given out—Kouga even won one for technique, due to an innovative little move he’d developed where he made steam appear briefly in the shape of a whirlwind—but the moment everyone was really waiting for was saved until the end. Finally, as a round of applause for the last secondary award died away, the emcee returned to the podium.
“Well, I think that about wraps things up, doesn’t it?” he joked, and the audience laughed, a bit of the nervous energy subsiding from the room. “No, no,” the emcee chuckled, “I suppose we really should give out this little ditty…” He picked up the trophy from the center of the dais behind him and placed it before him on one corner of the podium.
Then he pulled a shiny red envelope from the inside pocket of his tuxedo and broke the seal, pulling the card from inside and propping it open just an inch with his thumb. “And the winner of the Tenth Annual North American Teppanyaki Championship, this year’s Grand Champion, is…”
He flipped open the card.
“Kagome Higurashi, from Katana, Chicago!”
All of her breath left her even as the cheers of the audience lifted her from her seat. She could hardly believe it, glancing back down at Sango and Miroku, looking for confirmation that she had really heard what she thought she had. Their enthusiastic smiles and cheers were confirmation enough—yet even as she glided toward the podium, weaving between the front few tables, she still couldn’t quite believe it. The emcee placed the trophy in her hands and joined the audience in their applause, and she looked out over the crowd, nodding her thanks, hardly knowing what to say.
“I…I really am speechless,” she said as the applause died away. “I didn’t think that could literally happen to a person, but I honestly don’t know what to say.” The audience laughed, and she laughed a little too, steadying slightly as she tried to collect her thoughts. “This is such an honor, really—thank you so much to the judges and to the board, and of course to all those who’ve come out to watch and support us throughout the tournament—you make all of this possible, and you’re the reason we do it. And of course, thank you so much to my friends at Katana, all of you—I couldn’t have done this without you. Thanks!”
The audience applauded again as she lifted the trophy and gave a gleeful grin—and then she slipped out of the spotlight, the applause following her back to her seat. When she reached the table, however, all the happiness sapped out of her as she met Inuyasha’s gaze. It wasn’t even angry or petulant or combative—it was just blank. When she resumed her seat, he looked away again—and this time, she was relieved.
After the emcee wrapped things up, the band began to play again, and people started wandering onto the dance floor.
“Feel like a dance, Kagome?” Hojo asked her.
Kagome nodded perhaps a little too enthusiastically—anything to get away from the table and Inuyasha’s stony silence. He took her by the hand, and the two of them dipped back and forth in between the tables, a few people tapping Kagome on the arm along the way to express their congratulations—several women in particular gave her a little thumbs up. She smiled and waved back, feeling awkward, but appreciative. She was relieved when they reached the dance floor, where she could relax into Hojo’s arms as they swayed easily back and forth to the music.
Meanwhile, back at the table, Inuyasha was watching Kagome and Hojo over the rim of his water glass. They were dancing just a little too close, a little too comfortably for his taste.
“Inuyasha, are you alright?” Miroku’s lowered voice in his ear startled him back to himself.
“I’m fine,” he grumbled.
Miroku looked wholly unconvinced. “Are you sure? Did something ‘happen’ between you and Kagome last night?”
Inuyasha glared at him. “None of your business.”
The slight raise of Miroku’s eyebrows told Inuyasha that he knew that meant “yes.” Inuyasha put down his water glass hard enough that a bit of the water sloshed out onto the tablecloth, and then he got to his feet and marched off in the direction of the bar before the other man could ask him any more questions.
“Scotch on the rocks,” he said when he reached the bartender, slapping a few bills down on the countertop.
“What kind would you prefer? We have Macallan, Glenfiddich—”
“Whatever’s closest,” Inuyasha interrupted, and the bartender nodded, grabbing a bottle from the counter and pouring Inuyasha a stiff drink. Inuyasha snatched it up off the counter and stalked away, leaving his change as a rather hefty tip. People milling from table to table soon interrupted his flow—but in between the wanderers he caught sight of Kikyo, who was hovering over near the wall, observing the festivities from a distance as she nursed a very dry martini.
Inuyasha edged through the last of the crowd and sidled up to stand beside her, taking a sip of his scotch, one hand in his pants pocket. She didn’t glance at him, but he knew she knew he was there.
“Kikyo,” he said after they had stood in silence for awhile, “can I ask you something?”
“Be my guest,” she said, still watching the crowd.
He swirled the ice around in his drink, peering thoughtfully down into the amber liquid. “When you and I were together, we didn’t have any problems…in the bedroom area, did we?”
Kikyo choked on her martini. That definitely wasn’t the question she had expected.
“I mean,” Inuyasha went on quickly, “I was alright wasn’t I?”
“Yes, Inuyasha,” Kikyo rasped, still clearing the gin out of her throat, “I think it’s safe to say the bedroom was the one room of the house where we didn’t have problems. What’s brought all this on?”
Inuyasha shrugged and took another drink, avoiding her gaze. “Nothing.”
Kikyo regarded him shrewdly. “You slept with Kagome, didn’t you.”
Inuyasha shot her an annoyed look—but it soon withered into one slightly more dejected as he glanced away again. “I just don’t get it,” he said. “Things were so good last night—but today she’s avoiding me. Am I really that bad?”
Kikyo rolled her eyes. “Inuyasha, I told you—”
“No, no, I don’t mean bad in bed, I mean me—am I really that horrible to be around?”
“Sometimes,” she said frankly.
He gave her another disgruntled look, but she returned it flatly. “Well I’m not going to lie to you, am I?” she said. “You can be a complete ass sometimes, and you know it—and so does Kagome. But you have your good moments too, and if you were willing to work on it you might even have more of them. I guess the question is whether or not she wants to put that time in. Maybe she does—and maybe she doesn’t. That’s not something you can control.”
Inuyasha didn’t reply, instead took another sip of his scotch and dropped his gaze to the floor, a frown creasing his brow. They stood in silence again for awhile, and Kikyo plucked the olive from her martini, biting it neatly from the toothpick and watching the crowd ebb and flow in between the tables. Just as Kikyo was about to move away to exchange her empty glass for a full one, Inuyasha’s voice stopped her.
“I don’t know if I ever said it, but—I’m sorry.”
She looked back at him, mildly surprised. “For what?”
He looked her in the eye, a rare sincerity in his humbled expression. “For the way things ended between us. And the way they started. And all the stuff in between—all the bad bits.”
A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, and her expression softened. “It wasn’t all you, Inuyasha—I was as much to blame as you were. And I’m sorry too—for all the bad bits.”
He nodded his acknowledgement, feeling slightly relieved. He hadn’t realized how much he’d needed to say that, to hear that—and it hadn’t been nearly as hard to say as he’d thought it would be. He wondered why he’d waited so long.
Kikyo turned away and wandered into the crowd, leaving him to his thoughts.
Back out on the dance floor, Hojo and Kagome swayed to the music, her hand grasped lightly in his, his arm around her waist. She was enjoying the easy rhythm and movement, though her thoughts kept drifting away to other things, as much as she tried to clear her head and enjoy the moment.
“Long week, eh?” Hojo said knowingly, catching one of her far-off expressions.
She gave a slightly wan smile as he turned her around underneath his arm, then pulled her back towards him again. “You have no idea.”
“Oh, I think I do,” he said knowingly, holding her close as they swayed to the upbeat music.
“Oh, I think you don’t,” she said wryly.
“Twenty bucks says I can guess,” he said.
She laughed, and he twirled her out to arm’s length again. “You’re on,” she said, before twirling back so that they were face to face again.
“There’s something going on between you and that Inuyasha guy, isn’t there,” he said simply, and Kagome looked at him, startled.
She tried to recover, affecting a casual tone. “What makes you say that?”
His expression flattened. “Kagome, I’m not an idiot. You’ve been running around in a daze all day, and you disappeared from the bar this afternoon just a few seconds before Inuyasha came around looking for you.”
“I told you, I had a few things I needed to take care of. There’s nothing going on between us,” she protested, slightly annoyed—how many times was she going to have to have this conversation today?
“Besides,” he continued, “you haven’t been able to stop talking about him ever since you started this job.”
“Well that was different,” she dismissed impatiently.
He raised an eyebrow. “Was it?”
“Yes!” she said—and then, flustered, “I mean…no. I mean—that’s not fair. It’s like a trick question.”
Hojo rolled his eyes. “Kagome…”
“Hojo, just drop it, okay? There’s nothing between us—there can’t be, and there won’t be.”
He looked at her steadily. “There is though, isn’t there.”
The two of them came to a stop as she looked back at him—and for the first time she noticed the little flicker of disappointment and resignation hidden behind his eyes. And then she understood.
“Oh, damn,” she said quietly, her annoyance fading swiftly into guilt. “I’ve done it again, haven’t I?”
He shook his head wearily, trying to stop her. “Kagome, you don’t—”
“No, I have—I knew it, I knew this was going to happen. I shouldn’t have—”
“It’s not your fault,” he cut in. “It was me. I was just…seeing what I wanted to see. As usual.”
“But I should have seen it coming. I did see it coming. God, I’m blind as a bat these days—I just get so caught up, and it was so nice having someone…someone to come home to. But I knew this was going to happen, and I should have stopped it.”
“Hey, come on, don’t beat yourself up,” he said with a sad half-smile. “You made your feelings clear from the beginning. If anybody led me on or took advantage of me here, it was me.”
“No—Kagome, I care about you. You know that. And that’ll always be true, no matter what your feelings are for me. I want you to be happy. And if this Inuyasha guy—”
She gave a short, humorless laugh glancing down at his tie. “Hojo, really, there’s nothing between us—not on his part, anyway. It’s just…it’s just not like that.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
Kagome looked up at him again, then followed his gaze over her shoulder and across the room to where Inuyasha was standing by himself over near the wall, one hand in his pocket as he nursed a scotch and regarded the two of them with furrowed brow. He looked away as soon as she’d seen him, but she had seen him. And for just a moment, she wasn’t sure anymore.
But then she looked back at Hojo again and shook her head. “It would never work.”
Hojo smiled a little and squeezed her hand gently. “How would you know unless you try?”
She glanced away again, this time over his shoulder. “You’re much too nice to me, do you know that? I don’t deserve it—especially from you.”
Hojo hooked a finger under her chin and drew her gaze back to him, meeting her eyes seriously. “Kagome, you deserve only the best. Don’t ever forget that.”
He held her gaze for a long moment—and then the moment passed and he looked away again, releasing her to step back a bit. “I should probably get going, really,” he said, pressing his lips together in a slightly stretched smile, taking his out. “It’s getting late, and I told Maggie I’d give her a call tonight after the banquet. I’ll see you back in Chicago, alright?”
Kagome nodded. Then Hojo nodded. Then he turned and made his way off of the dance floor, weaving in between the tables toward the door until he disappeared into the crowd.
0 for 2, Kagome thought to herself glumly as she moved off of the dance floor herself and meandered slowly toward the bar. With those odds, it’s a wonder I’ve managed to win anything at all.
She stopped short as someone stepped smoothly into her path—and when she glanced up, she saw that it was Naraku, looking as sallow and humorless as ever. For a moment she regarded him uneasily, not sure quite what he was up to—but then, quite unexpectedly, he extended a hand to her.
“Congratulations,” he said.
Once she shook off the surprise, she managed to grasp his hand and accept the gesture. “Thank you. It was a tough competition.”
“Indeed,” he said. “I happen to know you’ve had rather a trying week all around.”
Kagome wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but he breezed on before she could ask.
“You’re a talented young woman, Ms Higurashi,” Naraku continued. “In fact, I’d like you to come work for me.”
Now that she had definitely not expected. “Excuse me?”
“I’m offering you a job,” he said, only mildly peeved at her apparent thick-headedness. “I’d like you to come work as a chef at my restaurant here in New York. I’m willing to pay you double what you currently make.”
“How do you know what I currently make?” she blurted out.
The shadow of a smile curved his lips. “I make it my business to know these things. In any case, the job also comes with an apartment in one of my buildings—at a generously discounted rent—and numerous other perks that I’m sure you’ll find more than satisfactory.”
“I see. Well, I’m…flattered,” she said—and she was, in addition to being a bit overwhelmed and baffled. “I’ll have to think about it though—can I get back to you?”
His eyebrow arched peevishly at her lack of enthusiasm at the offer, but he returned a curt nod. “Of course. Call me whenever you’re ready to accept.” And then, as quickly as he had appeared, he turned and disappeared into the crowd again, leaving Kagome to flounder in his wake.
She thought about continuing on her way to the bar, but the line had gotten longer while she’d been delayed, and she was starting to feel a little claustrophobic surrounded by all these people all of a sudden. Instead, she changed direction to where the crowd thinned out a bit and slipped out one of the back doors of the ballroom into an empty corridor. There was a restroom somewhere down this way, she knew—maybe if she could splash a little water on her face.
She found the restroom just a few yards along down the corridor and swung inside, closing the door behind her and leaning back against it, taking a few deep breaths. A little voice at the back of her mind reminded her that she had just won the entire competition—she had done exactly what she had set out to do, proven herself worthy of her position at the restaurant and her place in this contest. More than worthy—she’d won it, the whole thing, over everyone. She’d just been offered a job at one of the top restaurants in the country—Onigumo had a Michelin star, for god’s sake. Any normal person would be on top of the world right now if they were in her position. So why did she feel so lousy?
She walked over to the sink, grabbed a couple of paper towels from the dispenser and ran them underneath the cold tap, squeezing them out until they were just a bit damp, and then patting them over her cheekbones, tidying up the makeup around her eyes, dabbing at her throat. Then she tossed the damp towels in the garbage and grabbed a couple of dry ones, wiping the moisture from her face and hands and taking a deep breath, trying to find the energy to go back in there and face them all again, at least pretend she was happy. Nothing worse than a moping guest of honor.
Finally she pulled open the door into the corridor and walked slowly along the carpet, back in the direction of the music coming from the ballroom. She wasn’t particularly looking forward to getting there.
As it turned out, she was in luck.
A weight barreled into her from the side, and suddenly there was a hand clamped over her face, an arm wrapped around her waist, digging into her stomach and yanking her backwards up against a firm chest so that she was lifted slightly off the ground. She panicked, scratching at the hand over her face, trying to call for help, kicking out in all directions as her captor dragged her down an unlit side corridor—but it was no good. No one would be able to hear her muffled shouts over the music, and he had taken her too much by surprise, his grip too strong. There was nothing she could do to stop him.
Chapter 17: Losing My Mind
Kagome struggled as hard as she could, trying to aim her heels back at her kidnapper’s kneecaps as he shoved the two of them through a heavy doorway into a concrete stairwell and started muscling her down the stairs. She could hear his breathing becoming more labored as her efforts redoubled, forcing him to put more energy into preventing her from throwing them both down the stairs—but still he said nothing. She tried to turn her head and at least get a glimpse of him, but his grip on her face was too tight, pressing her head firmly back against his collar bone. Finally they burst out of the stairwell and into a dimly-lit underground garage. The sound of the door slamming shut behind them echoed throughout the vast concrete catacomb, and Kagome swallowed, feeling herself begin to tremble.
Her captor still didn’t reveal himself, but somewhere in front of her, out of the darkness, the echo of the door slam faded into a slow, steady clicking sound, like fine Italian shoes on hard, cold ground. Then she saw a figure moving toward her out of the shadows, strips of light flickering over the creases in his trousers, the lapels of his tailored coat, and then, finally, over his face.
That face. Where had she seen him before?
“Bankotsu?” she mumbled against the hand still pressed over her mouth. That was it—at the poker game. He was one of the owners. He worked with…
Her captor shoved her aside, and she staggered to find her balance, nearly tripping over the hem of her dress. When she looked up again she saw the man striding over to stand by Bankotsu—and when he turned back to face her she could hardly believe it, even though it was exactly who she’d known it must be.
“Michael?” she said, dumbstruck. “You?”
The man gave a short, cold laugh, crossing his arms over his chest. The look in his eyes was dark and a little bit feral, out of place on his otherwise gentle features. “You really don’t remember me, do you?”
Now she was really confused. “What do you mean I don’t remember you? We just met—I saw you just the other day.”
“You stupid bitch,” he spat. “You still can’t see past the end of your fucking nose, can you. I’ve known you for years—but I guess you never bothered to notice me. Too wrapped up in your fucking career, too busy trading shallow smiles with all your rich customers to bother with someone like me. No, you had better things to do.”
Kagome shook her head, racking her brain for some clue, frightened by the ferocity of this man’s hatred for her. “I’m sorry—I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are you?”
“I was a colleague of yours, though I doubt you ever would have thought of me as such. I used to bus tables at The Firebrand—ring a bell?”
She knew the place, sure enough—it was one of the first restaurants she’d worked at while she was in school, a little hole-in-the-wall sort of joint; half the grills were broken at any given time, and the schedules had been pretty grueling, especially combined with her classes. She’d hardly had time to breathe, much less get to know anyone besides a few of the chefs. But there had been one bus boy, hadn’t there—a little on the shy side, but always hanging around her, spying on her while she was working, getting in her way whenever she turned around. He had asked her to go for a drink after a very long shift one day, and she had laughed. She had laughed. She’d felt bad about it afterwards, thought she might have hurt his feelings—but he’d stopped bothering her after that, so she hadn’t thought much of it.
Well, apparently he had.
When a female is attacked, it’s usually by someone she knows…
“Hikaru?” she said tentatively.
His eyebrows raised slightly, but somehow it only made his expression look colder. “So you do remember.”
He was taller now, had clearly filled out in the intervening years, but now that she knew who he was she could see the resemblance. He’d always been a little strange, but she’d thought him harmless enough. The man standing before her seemed anything but harmless.
“Enough with the reunions,” Bankotsu interrupted. “We don’t have a lot of time here—do what you’ve got to do and let’s get out of here.”
Hikaru looked over at Bankotsu irritably, but nodded, then started to move toward her.
“Wait,” she started to back toward the door, “what are you going to do?” But immediately there were two pairs of hands holding her in place from either side—two men dressed in black had stepped forward from either side of the stairwell door to flank her, preventing her escape.
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a switchblade, flicking the blade into place so it glinted eerily in the dull greenish light overhead. She swallowed as he drew the flat of the knife down along her cheek, the cold steel stinging her skin, though not breaking it.
“I thought it would be enough to take you down in the tournament,” he purred, his face so close she could feel his breath skating over her lips, “to see that you lost one way or another—to show you that no woman can best a man at this game, no matter how good she thinks she is. But that didn’t work out quite the way I’d planned it, did it?” He tilted his head a bit, as though expecting her to answer—but she said nothing. “So we’ll just have to play another game…”
Suddenly he slashed the knife downward and out to the side, making her gasp in pain and fear as the blade severed the strap of her dress, drawing a thin, shallow line of blood as it grazed her shoulder.
She tried again to get away, but the men behind her held her fast. “No,” she begged, her breath coming a bit faster and higher in her chest, “please don’t. You don’t have to do this.”
“Oh,” he said, his eyes dark and eerily blank, barely even reflecting what little light there was around them, “I think I do.” Then he bent down, drawing his hand over the smooth fabric that covered her hip, her thigh, her calf, until he had hold of the hem of her dress—and with a sharp ripping sound, drew the knife slowly through it to make a long, jagged cut all the way up to her upper thigh. When he stepped in closer to slip his hand underneath the torn edges of the fabric and run a cold palm up along her skin, two things happened at once.
Kagome yanked her other leg upward sharply, taking advantage of his position to ram her knee into his groin—and the door behind her banged open, a heavy weight barreling into the man holding onto her left side.
The whole gang of them lurched forward as Kagome’s left-hand captor was wrenched away from her, knocked to the ground, and Hikaru doubled over, her shoulder hitting him in the gut as well as she staggered forward. The other thug’s grip on her loosened as well from the sudden movement, and she managed to land a sharp kick with her high heel to his midsection before wrestling the knife from Hikaru’s grip. He tried to grab her from behind and redirect enough energy to shove the knife up into her stomach—but someone else dragged him off from on top of her before he could manage it and shoved him to the ground. She rounded on him sharply and drove a knee into his chest, putting her full weight on top of him with the switchblade to his throat. “Now it’s my turn to chose the game,” she gritted out, pressing the knife in just a little bit harder, just enough to hurt the bastard. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the other two henchmen scrambling to their feet, hear three pairs of footsteps tearing away across the echoing concrete as the others gave Hikaru up for lost and made their escape.
“Loyal friends you’ve got there, asshole,” said a gruff voice from in front of her, and Kagome looked up to see her unexpected ally kneeling in front of her, pinning Hikaru’s arms up above his head.
“Inuyasha?” she said, nearly losing her grip on the knife at Hikaru’s throat. “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
He gave her a slightly disgruntled look and said sarcastically, “You’re welcome.”
She rolled her eyes. “Thank you. Now how did you find me?”
He looked down, making a show of being absolutely certain that he was holding Hikaru’s arms down securely. “You disappeared and you didn’t come back. I went to check on you, and I saw one of your earrings lying on the carpet in the hall leading down to the stairwell.”
She lifted her free hand up to check her earlobes—sure enough, one of her earrings was missing. She gaped at him, amazed he’d managed to find and follow such an obscure little clue. “Wow. Thank you, Inuyasha.”
He looked up at her briefly, his expression unreadable—and then he shrugged it off and looked away again. “Yeah, well, like I said, it’s no problem. Now come on, let’s get this jackass upstairs and call the police. Unless you’re enjoying this,” he said, nodding at her position straddling the man’s ribcage as he struggled to breathe.
“Hardly,” she said dryly, and pushed herself off of him, making sure not to let him get the upper hand—but now that it was two against one, and he seemed to have more or less passed out from lack of breath, she figured he wasn’t likely to put up much of a fight.
Inuyasha hefted Hikaru up into a fireman’s carry, and the two of them made their way back up to the main floor and into the carpeted hallway. As they rounded a bend into a second, larger corridor, they saw Miroku and Sango coming towards them from the direction of the ballroom.
Miroku gaped at them as they approached, taking in their torn and dirty formalwear, as well as the cut on Kagome’s arm. “What the hell happened to you two?”
“It’s a long story,” Kagome said. “But the good news is we solved the big mystery.” She gestured toward the limp figure slung over Inuyasha’s shoulder, and Miroku peered around at the face hanging upside-down at Inuyasha’s back.
“Actually, his name is Hikaru,” Kagome corrected. “But that’s a long story too. Come on, we’ve got to track down the manager and the head judge so we can settle all this.”
“I’ll go grab Kikyo and the judge,” Sango volunteered. “They’re probably still in the ballroom. You three track down the manager.”
“Right,” Miroku said, joining the others as they continued on their way out to the lobby.
The front desk attendant’s eyes widened as he noticed their approach—four people, all in formalwear, two a bit roughed up, and one clearly unconscious…or dead?—but Miroku ignored his surprise, easily taking the lead as the least-intimidating-looking figure in their motley crew.
“Excuse me, we need to speak to the hotel manager please.”
“Uh…can I ask what this is about?” the man said nervously, not taking his eyes off the limp figure hanging from Inuyasha’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
“There’s…been a bit of an incident,” Kagome said carefully, following the man’s gaze to the unconscious Hikaru and back.
“Just tell him we’re from Katana,” Inuyasha cut in, shifting the unconscious man’s weight a little higher up on his shoulder. “He’ll know what it’s about.”
The desk attendant nodded dumbly, still not looking away from the body, but reached for the phone and rang up to the offices. Fortunately, the manager was still in, working late.
“Yes…from Katana…” the attendant said. “It looks like someone’s been hurt… Right, I’ll tell them.”
The attendant hung up the phone and motioned toward one of the security guards standing over at the security desk. When the guard came over, he said, “Please escort these four to conference room B—the manager will be meeting them there, and he’d like you to keep an eye on everyone until they can get everything straightened out.”
The guard nodded and motioned back toward one of his fellows, indicating he should join them. Then the whole gang of them, growing by the moment, made their way back once again to the same conference room they’d been using for their ever increasing number of meetings with contest officials. Kikyo, Sango, and the judge were there waiting for them when they arrived.
Inuyasha tipped Hikaru none-too-gently into the nearest conference chair, and the man winced and clutched at his midsection, stirring and beginning to come around. When he did, he found everyone in the room standing around him, staring down at him with varying degrees of displeasure. His expression was insolent, but nonetheless he seemed to realize the game was up.
The door opened behind them once again, and the manager walked in, circling around to face the group, taking in the disheveled states of a few of those in attendance.
“So,” he said, with the air of a principal addressing a group of troublesome students. “I think it’s time we finally had the whole story, don’t you?”
Everyone took their seats around the conference table, the two security guards taking up position on either side of Hikaru as one of them pulled out a small notepad to take notes on the proceedings. Kagome began by explaining what had happened in the garage, and about her brief history with Hikaru. When she reached the part about how he’d cut her with the knife and tried to sexually assault her, she noticed Inuyasha shooting death glares at the man across the table, looking like he was seriously considering climbing over the tabletop to throttle him. But he stayed put and held his peace, letting the manager take the lead.
“So,” the manager said when Kagome had finished, “Mr.—Yamamoto, was it?”
Hikaru didn’t answer, merely stared back at him stonily.
“What can you tell us about the other incidents that have taken place recently?”
“What is it you want to know?” the man said evenly.
“Can I take that to mean that you were involved in the theft of Ms Higurashi’s equipment, the framing of Mr. Takahashi, and the poisoning of Ms Kuonji?”
“That last one didn’t exactly go to plan,” he said with a dark half-smirk. “But yeah. I was involved. I think that’s pretty clear now, don’t you?”
The manager nodded slowly, refusing to rise to the man’s baiting tone. “And what can you tell us about exactly what happened?”
“Why should I tell you anything at all?”
“Because you’ve been caught red-handed, you’ve just admitted your involvement, and you clearly weren’t working alone. You know as well as I do that you’ll be in a more favorable legal position if you cooperate and tell us everything you know.”
Hikaru sighed and settled back in his chair, but his expression remained unchanged. It was clear that he did, indeed, know this. “Fine then—if you need me to spell it out for you. Bankotsu is really the mastermind here—though this operation was mine. I’ve worked for him for a few years now, at the restaurant of course, but also doing a little dirty work on the side. He’s a clever guy. I thought he might be able to help me get what I needed—and in return, I was willing to help him.
“So I ran his errands, and he fixed things for me at the tournament. He was the one who messed with the reservations—he’s on the board—and when that didn’t work he got me into the kitchens to poison that dessert. And then into Higurashi’s hotel room to steal those knives, and the locker to stash them away.”
“How did he manage that?” the manager asked. “The kitchens, the hotel room, the locker?”
“How do you think? An inside man. Your assistant manager has been on Bankotsu’s payroll for years. Don’t bother going after Simpson now though,” Hikaru shrugged. “Bankotsu will have tipped him off the second they headed out of here—he’ll be long gone by now. They all will.”
Sango, Miroku, and the manager all looked at each other, thinking the same thing. The manager stood up and motioned to the two of them. “You’re with me.”
“Right,” Miroku said, and he and Sango got up from their chairs as well, following him to the door.
“We’ll be back soon,” Sango called over her shoulder as the three of them left, leaving the others staring after them, slightly perplexed.
The administrative floor was mostly dark, all of the offices and cubicles empty at this late hour. Only the emergency lights illuminated the hallway, except for the little bit of light that spilled out from the manager’s office, where he had been working late. And there was one other door ajar, further down the hall, though the lights inside were off.
The manager led the way quietly, and they could hear rustling noises as they approached the assistant manager’s office. When they reached it, the manager pushed the door open silently.
The man they found kneeling on the floor, rummaging through all the drawers in the desk in a rumpled sweater and a pair of khakis, looked decidedly less the calm, cool politician he had looked when they’d seen him earlier that day. When the manager flipped on the overhead light, the man froze, his gaze darting up to them like that of a trapped animal.
“Looking for this?” the manager said evenly, reaching into his pocket and holding up the Altoids tin.
Mr. Simpson’s eyes flicked from the manager’s face to the object in his hand—and he paled.
They returned to the conference room shortly, Mr. Simpson in tow, and sat him down at the conference table beside Hikaru. Simpson gave Hikaru a resentful look as he straightened his sweater and rested his elbows on the table in front of him, hunkering in to face the music—but Hikaru didn’t even acknowledge that he was there.
It took another few hours to get the whole story straightened out. Apparently Hikaru had trained as a chef sometime after Kagome had known him, though he had never been particularly good. He had been given a place at Bankotsu’s restaurant mainly because he was willing to do jobs for him on the side—and he had agreed to do this in exchange for help in tracking down some woman who had wronged him in the past so he could take his revenge on her. Bankotsu hadn’t known the details, but he hadn’t really been interested—as long as Hikaru did as he was told, Bankotsu had promised to find this woman and get him what he needed to get back at her.
Although Bankotsu had had Mr. Simpson on retainer for years (mostly to help him skirt minor inconveniences and manage a few illicit activities unrelated to the tournaments), the bell-boy, Mr. Giordano, had been a pawn—they’d gone to him because the assistant manager happened to know he had debts he was in danger of defaulting on and he needed some quick cash. At Kagome’s pleading, the hotel manager agreed not to fire Mr. Giordano or press charges against him, but to put him on probation pending any further infractions.
After the NYPD arrived and conferred with the security guards, everyone had to remain and take turns delivering individual statements. At some point someone brought Kagome a hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the hotel’s logo to give her a bit more coverage than her ruined dress could provide. The police asked if she needed medical attention as well, but she insisted she didn’t—the wound on her shoulder was barely a scratch, and she felt silly having it fussed over.
The others gradually peeled off to bed as their parts in the process finished—they had flights back to Chicago the next day after all—but Kagome and Inuyasha were kept behind longer than most, as they had been most closely involved in everything that had happened. Finally the police cleared out, both Hikaru and Mr. Simpson were led away in handcuffs, and Kagome and Inuyasha found that only the two of them were left there in the conference room.
Kagome sat in one of the chairs, staring unseeingly at the trophy as she ran the tips of her fingers back and forth across the edge of the base. Someone had brought it and her purse from the ballroom in the midst of all the chaos, maybe the same person who had brought her the sweatshirt she was wearing—she wasn’t sure. It had been hard to keep track of everything once the police had finally arrived. The party had long since ended, of course, chairs and tables probably all stacked away, everyone tucked safe in their hotel rooms for one last sleep before the flights home. Suddenly, Kagome felt incredibly tired.
“Are you alright?” Inuyasha asked, standing a few feet away with his hands in the pockets of his tuxedo slacks. His collar was unbuttoned and there was a large tear in his shirtsleeve, his suit coat crumpled up on the table in front of her—but somehow he almost looked more normal in a ripped and scuffed up tuxedo than in a tidy one. Something about it seemed to suit him.
Kagome nodded, not looking up at him. Inuyasha stared at her for a few seconds longer, then frowned and gave a grumble low in his throat, turning to pace across the room and back again, back and forth.
Finally, Kagome sighed and closed her eyes, palm flattening on the conference table surface. “Look, Inuyasha…about last night—”
“What about it?” he snapped.
She looked up at him, startled by his aggressive tone—but he had already resumed his pacing and wasn’t looking at her. “Last night…” she continued, returning her gaze to her hands, “last night was a mistake. Clearly. I think we both knew that right after it happened.”
Inuyasha stopped in his tracks, but didn’t look back at her, his jaw clenching.
“I mean, we work together,” Kagome elaborated, somehow talking to herself as much as him, “we have to see each other every day. And just because we have a few laughs and a friendly conversation every once in awhile doesn’t paper over the fact that we can hardly stand to be in the same room with each other most of the time, so—I just want to make sure we’re both on the same page, alright? It was a fun night, and I’m glad we got it out of our systems—but we probably shouldn’t ever let that happen again.”
Inuyasha could feel his teeth grinding as he tried to contain the storm brewing inside him. He suddenly wanted to hurt her—not physically, of course, but he wanted to say something that would sting, to make her feel what he was feeling right now. Usually it came naturally to him, the biting remark was out of his mouth before he knew it—but this time he wanted to inflict pain and nothing would come. Because what she was saying was like a knife in his chest. A few laughs? Was that all it was to her? Was that all he was—just a joke? Just someone she could tolerate every once in awhile? God—how could he have been such an idiot?
“Fine,” he said eventually, his voice even, toneless, almost defeated. Then he glanced over at her again, just out of the corner of his eye, and saw that her gaze had fallen once more on the trophy, her fingertips absently tracing the carved letters on the name plate. The knife twisted.
“I guess you’re happy now, aren’t you?” he said bitterly.
Kagome looked up at him, wondering if he’d gone insane. Stranger things had happened that night. “Happy about what?”
He flung an arm at the trophy. “That thing, obviously—that’s what this was all about, when it comes down to it, wasn’t it? Well now you’ve done it. You showed me, you showed that rat bastard Michael or Hikaru or whatever his name was, you showed everybody. So there you go. Are you happy now?”
Kagome narrowed her eyes at him, still not sure she was hearing this. “Are you serious?”
“Why the fuck wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t believe it,” she fumed, getting to her feet as anger flared inside her. “You’re just like them!”
“Just like who?” he snarled.
“Just like Hikaru and Bankotsu!”
“The hell I am!” Inuyasha shouted back, taking a step in her direction. “I would never do something like that to you!”
“Oh,” Kagome gave a harsh laugh, “don’t I know it—but what you do is worse!”
“Worse? How is it worse?”
“Because,” her cheeks colored in anger, her voice nearly sticking in her throat as she forced the words out, “you swagger around making a jackass out of yourself all the time but you somehow still manage to convince me you’re not so bad—and then, the second I start trusting you you slap me down again!”
“I slapped you down?” he said, aghast. “You’re the one who keeps disappearing!”
“You just can’t stand the idea of someone being better than you at anything—of me being better than you, even for a second, because if I am then it’s like your whole world falls apart. You’re so lost that if you can’t be the best at every single second, you don’t know who the hell you are!”
His eyes flamed. “It should have been mine and you know it!”
“How? How exactly do I know that?”
“A tenth of a point, Kagome!” he shouted, getting in her face until they were nearly nose to nose. He was so angry now he didn’t know what to do with himself. “You won by a tenth of a fucking point!”
“You know what, fine!” she spat. “I don’t want to hear it anymore,” she snatched her purse up off the table and pointed it back at the trophy that had been sitting beside it. “If that goddamn trophy is all you care about then you can have it, alright? I’m done. Dammit, I knew this was a mistake—I told myself from the beginning, but I didn’t listen to myself.”
“Knew what was a mistake?” he said, narrowing his eyes at her.
“This!” she flung an arm out at him, at the whole room, at the whole world for all she knew, “All of this! I never should have gotten involved with you—you’re a child, Inuyasha, and I’m sick of being your babysitter, sick of getting dragged down to your level and making a fool of myself trying to compete with you. I’m just not going to do it anymore—I’m done! I don’t want to care about this anymore, and I don’t want to care about you. So that’s it. You want the trophy, Inuyasha?” She grabbed it from the table, brandishing it at him. “Take it. Really, take it, I don’t want it. If that’ll make you happy, then it’s yours.” When he didn’t move to do so, she marched toward him on her way to the door, shoving the trophy into his abdomen as she passed, forcing him to lurch and grab hold of it.
“No!” she interrupted, turning back sharply in the doorway. “No more—I don’t care what you have to say. I thought maybe we’d made some progress this last week, but it’s obvious we’re still right back where we started. Well, you win, Inuyasha—I give. You got what you wanted.”
Inuyasha glared after her as she slammed the door behind her, wondering just what she meant by that. Then he glanced down at the trophy clutched in his hands, the shining plate carved with her name—and he sighed, grasping it in one hand and letting it drop to his side.
When Inuyasha got back to the room, he found this time she really was gone. Her drawers were all cleaned out, her half of the closet was empty, her suitcase was missing—even her toothbrush was gone. It was like she’d never been there at all.
* * *
Kagome sat in one of the leather chairs in the waiting area at gate B25 at JFK. She was trying to read her book, but her eyes kept sliding out of focus, her gaze drifting up to stare out across the dark runway at nothing in particular. The terminal was nearly empty, save for one or two other late-night passengers or connecting travelers working on computers or resting on their carry-on bags as they dozed. She was on standby for the next flight out, but it wasn’t for a couple of hours yet.
She kept thinking back to that last conversation with Inuyasha, wincing as she remembered all she’d said. She’d said a few things that had perhaps been a little harsh, a little over the line—but dammit, he’d definitely pushed her to it. After all they’d been through this past week, it was still all about the trophy for him. After she’d been attacked and nearly violated, or worse, all he could do was needle her about her victory, however thin the margin. He couldn’t just be happy for her, no—the prize had to be his. After all, she was only a woman.
She’d told him that she didn’t want to care about him anymore—but the truth was she did care, too much. And he obviously didn’t feel the same. To him it was all still just a game. She needed to get out of this, to put some distance between the two of them so that she could get her head together. Being around him before had been a chore, but now…it just hurt too much.
Kagome tried to return to her book, but she just ended up reading the same paragraph over and over again, none of the words sinking in. She was incredibly tired, and her head was beginning to ache from the long day and night that had gone before—but she wasn’t going to return to the hotel, so there was nothing to do but to keep waiting. Finally, around five in the morning, she was given a seat on the flight back to O’Hare. The sun was just beginning to light the horizon as the plane pulled around to taxi along the runway, and Kagome blinked heavily at it, leaning her head against the wall beside the window. Eventually, her eyes closed and failed to open again. She slept the rest of the way home.
Chapter 18: Thanks That Was Fun
Inuyasha didn’t see Kagome at all for a few days after they returned to Chicago. He thought about trying to call her a couple of times, but every time he went to pick up the phone something stopped him. He figured he’d have to run into her at the restaurant eventually. They’d have it out, hash things through, question each other’s parentage, and then everything would be back to normal, just like it was before. That was all he wanted, for everything to go back to the way it was—he just wanted his old life back.
Then, finally, about a week and a half after they’d all returned from the tournament, Inuyasha pushed his way into the restaurant one Thursday afternoon as the staff were getting ready for the dinner shift—and he saw Kagome there at the other end of the dining room. She was standing just outside the door to the office speaking to Kikyo quietly, and he noticed she was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt—not exactly up to uniform code. Inuyasha hesitated in the entryway, frowning, wondering what they could be talking about, why Kagome wasn’t dressed for work—and even though he’d been hoping to see her every day since they’d come back, he suddenly felt nervous at the prospect of actually meeting her face to face.
Consciously relaxing his shoulders and trying to act as though he’d only just casually noticed her, he continued into the restaurant, strolling between the tables toward the back of the restaurant. Kagome and Kikyo finished their conversation when he was about halfway there, and she faltered when she turned and saw him coming toward her. He half expected a glare or a snide remark or at least a pointed lifting of her chin as she “ignored him”—but he got none of those. Instead she simply shifted her gaze away and started walking back in his direction—but not towards him. She was headed for the door.
Inuyasha felt thrown, almost panicked, and reached out to grab her arm as she tried to brush past him, all his plans to play it cool suddenly evaporating. “Hey—Kagome—don’t you think we should talk or something?” he said, his voice sounding a bit meeker than he had expected.
She looked back at him for a moment, perhaps considering it, her expression unreadable. He expected a “There’s nothing to talk about,” or maybe even a dry “I’m listening.” But she didn’t say that.
Instead she looked away again, pulling her arm easily out of his grip, and said tonelessly, without anger, “Goodbye, Inuyasha.” And then she kept walking.
He watched her go for a moment, stunned, not sure what to do with himself. Whatever he had expected from this encounter, it had not been this. Screaming and sniping and hurling insults he knew what to do with, but this was something new.
I don’t want to care about this anymore, and I don’t want to care about you…
If she’d baited him or challenged him even a little bit he would have known how to react, but how do you argue with indifference?
“Kagome,” he said, but she just kept walking. He jogged after her, calling her name again a little louder—still no response except to quicken her pace just slightly. She pushed her way through the front door and he followed her, swinging through after her and watching her march straight on across the parking lot, never glancing back.
“Kagome!” he yelled as she climbed into her car, started the engine, and began to pull out of her spot. As the car turned to pass in front of the doorway, he jogged over as if to step in front of it—but she just drove right by, not even looking at him. He watched her swing around out of the parking lot and onto the street, disappearing into the midday traffic.
Deflated, he stood there for a few moments, just staring after her, not really sure what had just happened. Then Inuyasha ran a hand through his hair and scowled to himself as he turned to go back inside the restaurant. When he did, he found Kikyo leaning against the reservations podium, watching him with an expression somewhere between smugness and wryness. He turned his scowl on her instead, grateful to have found a suitable scapegoat.
“Where is she going?” he demanded.
Kikyo’s expression said “isn’t that obvious?”, but she answered him nonetheless. “New York. Naraku offered her a job at Onigumo, and she took it.”
“What?” Inuyasha barked.
Kikyo shrugged. “I tried to talk her out of it, but she was adamant—I have to admit, it’s good money.”
“Screw the money,” Inuyasha snapped. “How can she just leave like that?”
Kikyo raised an eyebrow. “Heaven only knows, Inuyasha,” she said dryly, and then she wandered off back toward her office. Inuyasha glared after her, not sure what to make of that last jab—but he was pretty sure it was directed at him somehow.
* * *
Kagome took another small sip of her drink and pulled at the hem of her slightly-too-little black dress under the table. She’d bought it for the occasional date, but she’d been getting a lot more use out of it these last few months, as it was really the only thing she owned that was appropriate for the kind of clubs the Onigumo crowd liked to frequent. At least once a week these days she found herself sitting in one of these colorfully dark places, listening to the overdriven house music, nursing a small drink, tugging at her skirt, wishing she could change out of her stilettos and into something sensible. But the others all seemed to be having so much fun, and she didn’t want to be anti-social—it was only one or two nights a week, after all, and it wasn’t like she didn’t have plenty of time to catch up on her sleep. She only worked afternoons and evenings, and even at that her schedule was relatively light for the amount of money she was making. It was really a pretty sweet deal. No wonder even the waitresses and a few of the bus boys could afford to go to these kinds of clubs on a regular basis.
“Hey, Kagome,” Kouga’s voice purred in her ear as he emerged from the crowd behind her. “How about a dance?”
She gave him an apologetic smile and shook her head. “I’m alright, thanks.”
“Oh come on,” he said, prying her hand from around her drink and pulling her to her feet, “you can’t just sit here all night—you’ve got to have a little fun.”
Kagome relinquished her seat and followed him reluctantly out into the crush of bodies moving and twisting on the dance floor. She liked to dance—but not so much like this, this sort of strange, oversexualized mating ritual that seemed to take itself much too seriously. It made her feel out of place, and frankly a bit bored. There was little hope of conversation over the blaring music, and even if there were she wouldn’t know who to talk to or what to talk about. Kouga was nice enough, and she enjoyed his company to a point—that point being the one where he always shifted gears and tried to get her into bed. In the case of tonight, she expected this to occur somewhere in the middle of their dance. He was so predictable.
But the others—she just didn’t have much to say to them. They were nice enough, she supposed. The chefs tended to be a little self-involved and obsessed with their own careers (where had she seen that before?), and the waitresses tended to be a little vain and vapid—and they were indeed all waitresses, no waiters. The kitchen staff and chefs were all men except for Kagome, and the waitstaff were all women, no exceptions—which made Kagome feel like a bit of a curiosity to be gawked at, more than she had ever been at Katana. Other than Inuyasha, everyone at Katana had made her feel welcome right from the start. Sango and the other women had been a bit gung-ho about her breaking into the chef circle, but the truth was it hadn’t ever seemed like that big of a deal—except with Inuyasha, of course, but that had made him the odd one out. But in this rather more formal, more traditional group, Kagome definitely felt like the outlier.
But then, the money was really good. So there was that.
Her feet were starting to ache, and she really wanted to sit down—but she kept dancing, because Kouga was still enjoying himself, and she didn’t really relish the thought of going back to her lonely perch and trying to look like she belonged there and was just fine sitting there on her own, drink in hand.
And then, something occurred to her: She was having a terrible time. Really, truly, awful. Next to this, even wallowing alone in her empty apartment like a shut-in seemed infinitely preferable. And she didn’t feel any more a part of this group sitting around here waiting for them to get tired and go home than she would if she were actually at home—in fact, if it was possible, she felt even lonelier surrounded by all these people than she would have if she were actually alone. Suddenly an empty apartment seemed not so bad—at least there she could hear herself think.
So…why exactly was she here? Again? Making herself miserable? Again?
“Kouga?” she said loudly in his ear, trying to speak over the music.
“I think I’m going to head home now,” she said.
He pulled back to face her, surprised, grasping her hands to keep her from sliding away. “Do you want me to take you?” he asked, quirking a suggestive eyebrow—but he’d tried this trick enough times that he didn’t even falter at her wry shake of the head.
“No thanks, I’ll be fine on my own. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay, if you’re sure,” he said with a shrug.
She nodded, peeling her hands from his, lips pressed together in a tired smile—and then she inched her way through the crowd toward the front of the club. After retrieving her leather coat from the coat check, she pulled it around herself and slipped down the stairs, swimming against the stream, until finally she was out on the sidewalk again, the chilly fall breeze raising goosebumps on her unprotected legs. But despite the chill, it was a relief to be free of the noise and the shifting crowds, so she shoved her hands in her jacket pockets and strolled slowly down the street toward Broadway where she knew she’d have better luck finding a cab uptown.
Once she’d hailed a cab and given the driver her address, she settled back into the seat and slipped off her shoes, bending her feet back and forth to restore circulation. She watched the storefronts flick by outside the window, counting the streets as they slipped away toward her building on the Upper West Side. When he pulled up outside her front door, she scanned her credit card to pay the fare and slid out of the cab again, shoes hooked on her fingers, and walked barefoot across the wide sidewalk, nodding her thanks to the doorman as he held open the door to the lobby.
The marble floor was cold on her feet, but it was still better than putting her shoes back on—and there was a carpet in front of the elevator anyway, so she was comfortable as she waited. She rode up to the fourteenth floor, padded down the hallway, and let herself into her apartment.
It was dark, so she flipped on the light. There were no sounds of cooking in the kitchen, no other people’s clothes tossed around the room, no rumpled sheets on the couch. All the mail on the dining room table was addressed to her, all the books on the shelves were hers, all the channel presets on the remote control had been chosen by her. There was nothing in this apartment except what she brought into it. And everything was exactly as she had left it.
She dropped her shoes, purse, and jacket on the dining room table and walked into the kitchen, flicking the light switch as she entered. The red light was blinking on the phone handset. Kagome picked it up off the cradle, put it on speakerphone, pressed the button for voicemail and set it down on the kitchen counter as she set about tidying up some leftover dishes from earlier in the day.
“You have three new messages,” the flat, recorded voice stated. “To listen to your messages, please press one.”
Kagome flicked the water from her hand and pressed one, then returned to rinsing out a cereal bowl.
“Hey Kagome,” Kouga’s voice said, “just wanted to see if you’re up for going out tonight, a bunch of us were thinking maybe Blue or Thesis—anyway, I’ll catch you at the restaurant. Talk to you later.”
“To delete this message, press seven—”
Kagome pressed seven.
“Hi, my name is Sandra, I’m calling on behalf of Bank of America to tell you about an exciting new offer—”
Kagome pressed seven.
There was a momentary silence at the beginning of the next message. And then: “Hey, Kagome,” she stopped what she was doing at the sound of the voice, resting her wrists against the lip of the sink and staring at the phone, “it’s Inuyasha. I was just…calling to see how you are, I guess. Call me back when you get a chance. Bye.”
She reached for a towel to dry her hands, then picked up the phone, still staring at it, running the pad of her thumb over the numbers.
“To erase this message, press seven. To reply to it, press eight. To save it, press nine. To mark this message as unread, press nine-one. To hear more options, press zero.”
The voice fell silent.
Kagome pressed seven.
Then she turned off the phone, replaced it in its cradle, and carried on into the living room, leaving the rest of the dishes until morning.
For a little while, Kagome puttered around the apartment, enjoying the peace and quiet. She did a crossword puzzle, read a chapter of her book, watched a little late-night television. It was nice not to have to fight for the remote or worry about the volume level while someone in the next room was working or trying to fall asleep. And there was no one there to judge her when she got sucked into watching an infomercial about some fancy new food-processing contraption on QVC. When she caught herself starting to nod off in front of the television, she turned it off, changed into her pajamas, and crawled into bed. She fell asleep easily in the silence—though her feet were a bit cold even beneath the comforter, and she only seemed to take up the right half the bed. She wasn’t sure when she had stopped sleeping in the middle.
* * *
Sango leaned against one of the dividing walls in the restaurant dining room, watching Inuyasha at work from around the corner. She almost felt sorry for him. Wouldn’t have believed that was possible a little while ago, but it was true. Everything just seemed out of sync with him these days. He was usually so confident and overbearing—and even she had to admit he had the skills to back it up. He could move with a speed and precision that most other chefs could only aspire to, and even his more daring tricks never seemed to get out of hand. But now it seemed all of that was slipping through his fingers—literally. He seemed suddenly uncertain of himself, distracted, kept dropping or forgetting things. His movements were clumsy and inexpert. He got the job done, but only just—he was nothing like his old self. And she did—she felt sorry for him. Never before had she seen him so…lost.
“Should I be jealous?” Miroku’s voice purred in her ear.
She cast an even look back at his smirk, then glanced back towards Inuyasha. “Do you think he’s alright?”
“Who, Inuyasha? Why shouldn’t he be?”
“Oh, come on, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. He’s been in a daze ever since Kagome left.”
“Of course I’ve noticed,” Miroku sighed, crossing his arms and shifting his weight a bit. “So he’s having a bit of a rough time. He’ll get over it eventually.”
“A bit of a rough time? It’s been five months.”
Miroku shrugged. “So he’s having a long bit of a rough time. There isn’t much we can do about it, is there?”
“No, I suppose not. I mean, Kagome always insisted there was nothing going on between the two of them, but I’m not sure that was entirely true.”
“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t,” Miroku said. “You know they slept together that night before the banquet.”
Sango gaped at him. “How do you know?”
“Inuyasha told me.”
She gave him a skeptical look. He glanced at her, then shrugged and turned back to Inuyasha. “Okay, not in so many words—but believe me, he as good as told me.”
She hit him on the shoulder. “So how come you never told me then?”
“I assumed you’d hear it from Kagome.”
“Hardly,” Sango said, crossing her arms and turning back towards Inuyasha. “When I asked her, she told me flat out that nothing had happened, and every time I’ve talked to her since she’s completely avoided the subject. She doesn’t even ask how he’s doing.”
Miroku looked at her flatly. “And that doesn’t tell you anything?”
She frowned. “Like what?”
“Nevermind,” he sighed. “Remind me to give you a crash course in reading between the lines.”
She whacked him lightly on the shoulder again for good measure.
“Are we brushing up on our wildlife observation skills today?” Kikyo’s voice came from behind them, and they both turned around to find her observing them with an arched eyebrow.
“Ah, no,” Sango said sheepishly. “Sorry, Kikyo.”
The other woman nodded. “Just get back to work, alright? And don’t feed the canines…”
Sango and Miroku exchanged one last look of resignation as Kikyo walked away. Then they both turned in opposite directions and carried on with their business, leaving Inuyasha to his own.
* * *
Inuyasha unlocked the door to his apartment, pushing his way inside and dropping his keys on the table beside the entryway. Closing the door beside him, he shrugged out of his jacket and tossed it over the back of one of the living room chairs, rubbing his hands over his face. He winced and swore as this put pressure on the cut on his finger, making it twinge, and he glared down at the band-aid-covered wound near the tip of his index finger—one of several slip-ups recently. He just couldn’t seem to make himself concentrate these days. He’d been through more band-aids in the last few months than he had in the three years before that. It was damn annoying.
He peeled back the damp, curling bandage to inspect the wound—not too deep, but probably worth putting a little antiseptic on it, as he hadn’t had any at the restaurant. He crossed to the bathroom and dug through the disorganized yet nearly-empty medicine cabinet, past empty toothpaste tubes and cologne bottles he’d just never bothered to throw away, and plucked out a scrunched tube of antiseptic and a band-aid. Squeezing a dab of goo onto the cut, he covered it once again with a fresh band-aid, and then looked up at the mess of bottles and other detritus he’d knocked out onto the counter in his search. Normally he’d just leave it there—but this time he faltered. Instead, he reached down and grabbed the wastepaper basket beside the toilet and started picking through the bottles, shaking and inspecting them one by one, tossing out the empties and placing only the usable ones back in the cabinet, a little more neatly than before. On the way out of the bathroom, he flicked off the light.
On his way to the kitchen, his eye was caught by the glint of the overhead light reflecting in the gold-plating on one of his several award trophies, and he found himself slowing to a stop in front of the bookcase in the living room, gazing impassively up at his collection on the top shelf. The ones at the back were quite dusty—he hadn’t noticed. Not that he ever really took them down from there, and he wasn’t really much for cleaning. In fact, he hardly ever even looked at them, except when he was clearing space for a new one. It was getting a bit crowded up there.
He dropped his gaze to the first drawer just below the open display shelves, the other two of which were filled with cookbooks and dictionaries and things, all just as dusty and disused as the awards above. He grasped the wooden knobs on either side and pulled open the drawer, reaching for the trophy that sat inside it, stuffed down beside a stack of mismatched placemats and cloth napkins he’d never had cause to use.
Kagome Higurashi, Grand Champion, 10th Annual North American Teppanyaki Championship
He turned the trophy over in his hands, feeling the weight of it, and glanced back up at that dusty top shelf filled with similar trophies, several identical to the one he held in his hands. Then he looked down again, running a thumb unconsciously over the finely carved, curly letters that spelled out her name. He sighed and tossed the trophy back into the pile of placemats, shoving the drawer closed again and carrying on his way to the kitchen without a second look.
He crossed to the cupboard next to the sink and grabbed a can of Spaghettios, turning to go fetch a pot from the other cupboard—but his left hand didn’t let go of the cupboard door, and he swung around, hesitating, peering down at the can in his hand, the cartoon pasta-ring grinning up at him enthusiastically. He opened his hand slightly, rolling the can over so he could see the nutrition facts on the back, lips pursed to the side as he frowned over lists of preservatives he’d never even heard of. He grasped the can again, shaking it back and forth in his hand and glancing up at the cupboard filled with countless other cans of pasta, easy packaged meals, and snack foods, all in brightly colored packaging. He set the can of Spaghettios down on the counter and started digging through the cabinet, lifting cracker boxes and Pringles cans, trying to see what was at the back. Finally he managed to track down a can of diced tomatoes and a few quite old and nearly full jars of spices, tucked way at the back. He looked over these meager ingredients doubtfully, then turned to the refrigerator. There wasn’t much there except for beer and a few half-full takeout containers, and a package of grated mozzarella that was a month or two past its sell-by date. He dug through the freezer as well, and although most of it was full of microwave meals, he did find a rather freezer-burned store-packaged chicken breast frozen to the ice on the back wall of the freezer.
A little more digging around the kitchen turned up a half a package of linguini and a couple of onions that were still at least partly salvageable, and soon he had the makings of a passable batch of chicken primavera pasta. He set the table with a plate and silverware and even a napkin—one of the cloth ones, which still had the price tag stuck to the back—poured his beer into a glass, and settled down to a hot meal at the kitchen table he rarely used as anything but a place to put the mail. As he curled a few strands of pasta around his fork and took his first bite, he had to admit, it wasn’t bad for something cobbled together at the spur of the moment. In all his years as a chef, he had really only rarely eaten his own cooking. Turned out it wasn’t just nice to look at—it actually tasted pretty damn good too.
As he took a sip of his beer, his eyes fell upon the empty chair sitting across from him at the table—and the pride of putting together a decent meal for himself leached out of him a bit.
He finished about half of the meal, but soon his appetite had left him. Finally he gave up, tossed the cloth napkin back on the table and got up, marching back into the living room to dig through his jacket pockets and fish out his cell phone. He scrolled to the number he wanted and pressed send. He heard the other end ring once…twice…
“Hey, Miroku, it’s me—you want to get a drink or something?”
“Inuyasha? It’s after midnight.”
“So? You don’t work until like four tomorrow.”
“I know, but I’m at Sango’s—we’re just having a bite to eat and then we’re heading to bed.”
“So bring her along then,” Inuyasha shrugged.
He could almost hear his friend’s eye-roll. “Inuyasha, not tonight—I’m beat, okay? Some other time.”
His shoulders sagged slightly, and he pouted. “Fine, whatever.”
“Goodnight, Inuyasha,” Miroku said.
“Yeah, yeah—see you tomorrow,” Inuyasha grumbled. Then he hung up the call and dropped his hand to rest on the back of the chair, scowling to himself as he tapped the edge of the cell phone against the cushion. For a moment he tried to think if there was anyone else he could call—but Sango was with Miroku, and the only other person he could think of who might not sic the cops on him for calling at this hour was Kikyo. But getting shot down by his boss/ex-girlfriend in addition to his best friend didn’t really seem like it would improve his evening.
Then he had another thought. He glanced down at the cell phone again and scrolled through the address book until he found the number he wanted. He stared at Kagome’s name highlighted on the screen, thumb hovering over the green call button. He’d tried her a few times before, a month or so ago. She’d never called him back.
He hit the red button instead, and tossed the phone down onto the chair seat a little harder than necessary, making it bounce carelessly against the cushion.
Leaning a hip against the back of the chair and crossing his arms, he glanced back into the kitchen at his half-finished meal, almost decided to leave it there and clean the mess up later—but he didn’t, quite. Instead he shuffled back into the kitchen, rinsed out one of the empty plastic takeout containers that was sitting next to the sink, waiting to be thrown away, and put away the leftovers, rinsing off his dishes as well and leaving the empty saucepan to soak in the sink. Then he walked back out to the living room and sat down on the couch, flipping on the TV. He hoped maybe another voice in the room would help him clear his head a little bit.
He watched sports highlights for an hour or so, but it didn’t really hold his interest, his mind drifting away from time to time. He flipped through a few other channels, watched a few minutes of some late-night comedian who didn’t make him laugh, a few minutes of some old movie that didn’t quite make sense. Finally he flipped the TV off and tossed the remote aside again, getting to his feet to go get ready for bed.
He crawled under the covers and rolled to his side, burying his face in the pillow and trying not to listen to the darkness.
He tossed and turned for awhile, no closer to sleep than he had been hours before. His eyes fell open on the empty space on the other side of the bed. He wasn’t sure exactly when he had started to sleep only on the left side of the bed. He’d always spread out across pretty much the whole thing before, but for some reason these days he just never seemed to take up as much space as he used to. He grumbled and pushed himself up from the mattress, shoving aside the covers and getting to his feet, snatching his pillow off the bed and carrying it with him into the living room where he curled up on the couch, facing away from the rest of the room.
The apartment had never felt so quiet to him before as it had of late. He’d always liked his space, valued his privacy. But somehow, these days, the space seemed more like emptiness.
Chapter 19: 500 Miles
The weather was brisk, but the afternoon sunshine added a little bit of warmth when Kagome managed to walk on the sunny side of the street. She’d been out doing a little shopping, treating herself to a few new things—she still wasn’t quite used to having so much disposable income, but it was nice to be able to buy what she wanted without having to feel guilty afterwards.
She stepped into the lobby of her building and crossed to the alcove lined with brass mailboxes off to the left. She had to shift a few bags around to free up a hand to retrieve the mail, but soon managed it and closed her slot again, heading over to the elevator. On the way up she tried to rearrange things again to keep the bag handles from cutting into her elbow, but there was no really good way to hold everything comfortably at once.
When she reached her apartment, Kagome clamped the stack of mail in her mouth to free up a hand so she could dig her keys out of her purse and open the door. Once inside, she nudged the door shut again with her heel and shouldered her purse and purchases off onto the dining table, shrugging out of her jacket as well and hanging it neatly over the back of the nearest chair. Then she grabbed the mail out of her mouth again and started sorting through it—bills, credit card offers, coupons, more bills. She never really expected anything more interesting, but somehow it was always a letdown nonetheless.
Tossing a few items of pure junk mail into the recycling, unopened, she slipped a finger underneath the flap of the American Express bill and started to tear open the envelope as she wandered down the step from the wood-floored entryway into the carpeted living room. A flicker of something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye, and she stopped short, frowning at the armchair across from her, at the other end of the couch.
How did that get there?
Kagome dropped the small stack of half-opened bills onto the coffee table and walked over to the armchair, bending down to pick up the trophy and turn it over in her hands. It was definitely the same trophy—had her name on it and everything.
“Thought you might want that back.”
Kagome jolted and jerked around at the voice just a few feet behind her. “Jesus,” she breathed irritably, pressing a hand to her chest and glaring at Inuyasha. “Don’t do that—you scared the hell out of me. What are you doing here?”
“Just came to bring you the trophy,” he said, pointing to the object still in her hands.
“Haven’t you ever heard of UPS?” she grumbled, tossing the thing back down onto the chair and crossing her arms. “Besides, I told you, I don’t want it.”
“Well I don’t want it either.”
She scoffed. “I find that hard to believe.”
“Well it’s true,” he said. “It’s not mine. I didn’t win it, and I don’t want it.”
“By less than a percent,” she parroted tartly.
But he didn’t rise to the bait. “I didn’t win it.”
She glared at him, but he only met her gaze evenly. Finally she was the one who had to look away. “How did you get in here anyway? Call your friend Hikaru and have him pick the lock for you?”
“Kagome…” he warned.
“Don’t you ‘Kagome’ me—you’re the one who just broke into my apartment.”
“I didn’t ‘break-in’—Kikyo knows the building manager from when she used to live here. She made a couple of calls for me, and he let me in.”
“On what planet is that not breaking in?”
“Well it’s not like I’m here to rob you,” he snapped. “I tried calling, but you never picked up.”
“You know, most people would take that as a hint.”
“Well I’m not most people.”
“Oh,” she laughed harshly, “don’t I know it. Look—fine, okay, I’ll take the damn trophy back. You can stop feeling guilty and go back home and get on with your life now, alright? You happy?”
Inuyasha glanced away, shoving his hands in his back pockets. “No,” he said quietly, staring down at the floor in front of his feet.
Kagome frowned, looking slightly askance at him. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
He sighed, a little annoyed, a little frustrated. “I mean no, I’m not happy. I thought I was, but I’m not. At least…I’m not anymore.”
Kagome tilted her chin up slightly, still more confused. “What are you talking about?”
He gave a sharp growl of annoyance and glared at her. “You’re gonna make me say it, aren’t you?”
Kagome threw up her hands, nonplussed. “I don’t know what you’re trying to say!”
“Alright, alright,” he said, “it’s just…it’s not easy, okay? I’m not good at this.”
“Not good at what?”
“This! All this…feelings stuff.”
“Feelings? What kind of feelings?”
“For fuck’s sake, Kagome, I came all this way, will you at least just back off for a sec and let me way what I’ve got to say?”
“So say it, already!”
“I’m trying!” he growled, turning away to pace across the carpet and get his head on straight. Then, when he seemed to have gathered his courage, he stalked back over to face her again. “Look—here’s the thing. I’m just going to come out and say it, and if you want to throw it back in my face when it’s over, that’s fine, whatever, it’s up to you—but I’m going crazy here, so I’ve got to get this off my chest, because if I don’t I’m totally fucked.”
“Okay…” Kagome said warily.
“That week—that week that we spent together at the tournament…it’s been months, but somehow it seems like it was just a little while ago, you know? I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since, and even all that time before when we were—I mean, when I was acting like—”
He got tangled up somewhere in the middle of that thought, and Kagome peered at him, still lost. “Well you’re off to a really good start so far, I think…”
He sighed, backing up. “I know I was a jerk. When you first showed up, all I could think of was how much I had to lose and how humiliating it would be to have you take it from me, just like that—a woman chef. I’m not proud of that,” he added quickly, stifling her response. “It’s just the truth. But something changed that week. Or maybe it was before that—I don’t know exactly when it happened, but by the time it was all over I knew I had lost big time. Not the tournament—I’ve got a shelf full of those stupid trophies, one more wasn’t going to make a difference. It took me awhile to really realize it, but the thing I really cared about losing that week…was you.”
Kagome said nothing. The air itself was begging her for a response, but she was drawing a blank. Was he really saying what she thought he was saying?
“And I know you probably don’t feel that way about me—you made that pretty clear after that night when we…that night before the awards dinner. And I don’t blame you—it’s not like it’s your fault I’m such an arrogant fucking prick who drives away anyone who can stand him for half a minute—but I wanted you to know…how I felt. Because even if you don’t care about me—I know I won’t ever regret that week, or that night that we were together. You…you made me care about something for a change. Something more than just myself.”
They stared at each other for a long time, neither sure just what to say next. Finally Inuyasha looked away again. “So anyway, that’s it. I’ll get out of your hair now—sorry I bothered you…” He turned and walked quickly up into the entryway, reaching for the door.
“Inuyasha, wait,” Kagome called after him, and he paused with his hand on the door handle, not looking back as Kagome came up to stand behind him, just a couple of feet away.
She let out a frustrated sigh, and he looked back at her, confused.
“You see?” she said, throwing a hand out at him as if to show how he’d somehow put his foot in it again. “This is it—this is exactly why we would never work together. It’s always about you—always about your feelings and what you want and what you need. You said your piece and now you’re just clearing out. What about what I feel?”
Now he was pissed. He let go of the door handle and took a step toward her, shouting, “Well why the hell do you think I came here? What more do you want me to say?”
“I don’t want you to say anything,” she countered, stamping her foot, “I want you to ask me!”
“That’s what I just—you—aaaarrgh you are such a pill sometimes, you know that!” he ground out, clenching his fists as if tempted to grab her by the throat.
“Still not hearing a question!” Kagome countered in an almost singsong tone.
“Alright, fine then!” he snapped, exasperated. “How do you—”
But he stopped short, the words sticking in his throat, making him lose his nerve. It was harder than he’d thought it would be, asking her this face to face, her eyes gleaming up at him like twin suns—beautiful, but too bright. Because asking the question meant listening to the answer. He swallowed, the steam seeping out of him rapidly. “How do you feel about me?”
She glared at him for a long moment, then crossed her arms and looked away with a sigh. “I hate you,” she said quietly.
His eyes flashed with irritation. “Well thanks a lot for walking me into that one!” he growled.
“Let me finish!” she snapped, glaring at him again. “It’s true, alright, sometimes I really hate you—you make me angrier than anyone I’ve ever met, and you’re so stubborn and full of yourself I just don’t know what to do with you sometimes. But these past few months…” she trailed off, unfolding her arms and looking down at her hands, rubbing her thumb across her palm absently.
She sighed and looked up at him again. “I’ve missed you too. And sometimes I don’t hate you. Sometimes I can’t even remember why I hated you.”
She caught the hit of a smirk that was tugging on his lips, and her eyes narrowed a bit, the aggravation returning. “And then,” she said, “just when I start to think you’re not such a bad guy—there you are again acting all possessive and trying to manipulate me into whatever—”
Inuyasha growled his frustration. “I’m not trying to manipulate you, Kagome—I’m not trying to win you or possess you or control you—I’m just trying to tell you I’m in love with you, and you’re not listening!”
Kagome stared at him, her previous accusation dying on her lips. He looked as if he sort of wished he could take that back, as if it had slipped out without permission—but he didn’t look away.
“You’re in love with me?” she said, dumbstruck.
“I think so, yeah,” he said, nodding, as if still getting used to the idea himself.
She shook her head, still not convinced. “Inuyasha, how could you be in love with me? We barely know each other!”
He looked her in the eyes and gave her the ghost of a smile. “I know you,” he said quietly.
And she was surprised to find that she believed him.
“You’re like me,” he said. “Except crazier.”
Kagome rolled her eyes. “Oh, well, now that’s rich. Which one of us is Mister Fireball?”
“Well which one of us runs for the hills every time things get a little bit serious?”
“We both do that!” she pointed out, advancing on him. “And at least I don’t lash out at people who try to talk to me like an adult!”
“No, you just play hide and seek!” he countered, taking a step toward her.
“You are such a jerk!”
“And you are such a bi—”
But he wasn’t quite able to finish that last word before she reached out, took two fistfuls of his hair, and dragged herself up to crush her lips against his. He was caught off guard for a moment—but soon swept that aside and wrapped his arms around her to make sure she wouldn’t escape this time.
Several breathless moments passed in which there was no arguing, no bickering, no hurling of insults—just the sound and the feel of the two of them together, finally, possibly, in complete agreement. When they finally came up for air, parting only a few inches, their arms still wrapped around each other, he looked down into her eyes, which looked right back up at him.
“How much of all that did you mean?” she asked breathlessly.
He frowned in slight annoyance that she’d even ask the question. “All of it,” he grumbled in a ‘duh’ tone of voice. But then he reconsidered, amending, “Well, all of the good parts—don’t listen to the bad parts. How about you? Did you mean what you said?”
She nodded. “Only the good parts for me too though.”
“Deal,” he said, leaning in to kiss her softly again. Then he pulled back a bit and looked down at her, a little uncertain. “You’re not planning to run away again, are you?” he said warily, even though the grip he had on her would hardly have allowed it. But if anyone could thwart him, it was her.
A smile curved her lips, and she shook her head slowly, never taking her eyes from his.
“Good,” he said. And then he captured her lips again, holding her to her promise.
* * *
A couple of hours later, the two of them were tangled together in the sheets of Kagome’s bed, Inuyasha’s arms wrapped around her, his body pressed against her back as she dozed lightly against his arm. He was a little sleepy too—it had been a long flight, not to mention the workout they’d just had—but he was determined not to fall asleep. Just in case he woke up and found out this was a dream. Or woke up and found that she was gone again, which was a little more plausible.
Only a little though. This was her apartment, after all.
“Inuyasha?” she said sleepily, eyes closed.
He tensed slightly, part of him still worried there might be a reversal in the offing. “Sorry for what?” he asked carefully.
She shifted around underneath the covers so that she was facing him, resting her head on her bent arm in the mirror of his position and opening her eyes to look at him seriously. “For that day—the last day of the tournament. I think I’ve been blaming you for everything, and I shouldn’t have. I mean, it was your fault the way things started between us—but I think it was my fault the way they ended up.”
She sighed, glancing down at the narrow space between them on the mattress. “I was a coward,” she admitted. “After that night we spent together, I knew I was falling for you, but—I didn’t believe that you could possibly have the same feelings for me. I thought I was the only one at risk of being hurt, and I…I was just trying to protect myself.” Her eyes lifted to meet his again. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Inuyasha. I’m sorry if I did.”
He looked back at her for a moment, then gave a small nod of acknowledgement—and he could see a little bit of tension, a little bit of nervousness seep out of her frame at his silent acceptance, a smile flickering on her face. She reached out a hand to run her fingertip over the line of his jaw, her eyes meeting it as she traced the contours of his chin, and her smile turned slightly on its side.
“Anyway, you know how things are with us,” she continued. “Even if you did feel what I was feeling, I thought I’d be doing us both a favor stopping this…whatever it is before it started. And then when you got all huffy about the trophy and everything, I just figured I’d been right—you really didn’t care about me.”
He grasped her hand at his face, curling it inside his own and drawing her eyes back up to his. “Kagome, I only made a big deal about the trophy because I thought that you didn’t—”
“I know,” she said, squeezing his hand to reassure him. “I know that now. That’s why I’m sorry. The whole thing was as much my fault as it was yours.” She smiled wryly up at him. “Sometimes I think you bring out the worst in me, you know that? I was a grown-up before I met you.”
He grinned at her, shrugging a shoulder. “Being a grown up is overrated. I can take a beating every now and then—as long as you always come back.” His hand parted from hers and brushed down her side, coming to rest on her sheet-covered hip and squeezing gently. “Especially if the makeup sex is as good as it was this time.”
She flicked the back of her hand against his chest scoldingly, but the gesture was undercut by the satisfied smile tugging at her lips.
He leaned over her and kissed her softly. “So,” he murmured, then kissed her again just as briefly, teasing, “exactly how long do you think we can stay like this before you get it in your head to run away again?”
She chuckled as his lips closed over hers again, and the sensation of it ran straight from her body into his. “Well I’m not going anywhere, but you are,” she replied, parting from his lips to kiss him on the chin, then making her way slowly along his jaw and down his neck to the hollow of his shoulder. “When do you have to be back in Chicago?”
Inuyasha went still and didn’t answer, so Kagome opened her eyes and pulled back a bit, glancing up at him curiously. He was absently nibbling at the inside of his lower lip, looking away at something across the room. “Inuyasha?” she prompted.
He glanced down at her, then away again. “Well,” he began, “I was thinking…I might move here. Not, like, into your apartment,” he clarified quickly, “just…to New York. To be near you.”
Kagome stared at him. “Seriously?”
He nodded, still not looking at her. She shifted herself up a bit higher so she could face him properly, supporting herself on an elbow. “But, what about the restaurant? What about your career?”
He shrugged, finally meeting her gaze sincerely, if somewhat sheepishly. “I don’t care about that. I can get a job anywhere, even if it’s just as a regular chef or something, and it’s not like anything else is really tying me down. If it’s a choice between going back to an empty apartment halfway across the country with only an armload of trophies for company or being here with you…I’d rather be here.”
“Weren’t you the one who once told me I needed to learn to be alone?”
“Maybe I did, I don’t know—but I guess it’s possible to get too good at it too. If it is, I’m it.”
Kagome smiled at that, stroking a hand over his cheek, down his throat, and resting her palm flat against his chest. “Inuyasha, you don’t have to move to New York.”
His eyes darted to hers with an almost plaintive look. “But I told you, I want to be near you.”
“I know,” she said. “I just mean…I’ll move back to Chicago.”
His expression brightened. “Really?”
She nodded. “Yeah. My family is there, my friends are there—and frankly, even though he wasn’t behind all the plotting, I still think Naraku is really creepy. And despite the pay, I have to admit this job isn’t really shaping up the way I’d hoped. Besides, the only real reason I moved away in the first place was because of you—so if we’re going to make a go of it, I’d just as soon do it in Chicago.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, searching her eyes for doubt. “Because I meant what I said—I really would move here for you.”
“I know,” she said with a smile, shifting to rest her cheek against his chest and wrap her arms around his waist. “That’s why I’m coming back.”
* * *
It took a couple of months to get everything straightened out. Kikyo was more than happy to give Kagome back her old job—in fact, from the sound of her voice on the phone when Kagome called, she had a funny feeling Kikyo had been expecting exactly this outcome from the moment Inuyasha had gotten on the plane to come after her. Kagome gave her two weeks’ notice at Onigumo, which Naraku accepted cordially, though not without a bit of pique. Kouga threw her a farewell party, and it was all she could do to talk Inuyasha out of dropping another few hundred bucks on a flight back out to New York so he could keep the other man’s hands off her all night. Kouga behaved himself even without Inuyasha on guard duty, however, accepting defeat more gracefully than Kagome would have expected, and she was cheered to feel that at least she was leaving one genuine friend behind. She didn’t mention this to Inuyasha, of course.
After a couple of weeks spent packing, Kouga helped her load up a rented truck, and she drove the distance back to Chicago in a couple of days. Inuyasha had helped her find an apartment back in town while she’d still been in New York—obviously the Hojo arrangement was out of the picture, and although she sort of got the feeling Inuyasha would have preferred that she just move right into his place, she knew it would be best for them to at least begin the relationship with more than a few feet of space between them. Otherwise they might end up with no relationship and no remaining breakable objects. Still, she couldn’t help noticing that the apartment he steered her towards turned out to be only a couple of blocks from his place. She grinned at this but said nothing as she signed the lease.
* * *
It was a Saturday night, and the restaurant was busier than ever. Miroku was taking his time doing a bit of prep work in the kitchen, having finally earned a small respite in his table flow. Inuyasha was there too, sharpening his knife set on one of the handheld steal sharpening rods from the counter over near the door to the dining room.
Miroku glanced up at the squeal of the door hinge, seeing Kagome swing in and park her spent cart off to the right to be unloaded by the kitchen staff.
“What’s the count so far?” Inuyasha asked her, glancing up as well.
“Seven,” she said, grabbing her next ticket off the post board and breezing past him to load up a fresh cart. “You?”
“Eight,” he smirked.
“Oh really,” she said grinning at him skeptically as she grabbed supplies from the shelves one by one. “I’ll have to double-check that with Kikyo next time I’m up front.”
“So untrusting, Kagome?” he said in mock offense, shaking his head as he inspected the blade of the knife he was working on, then returned to sharpening it just a bit more.
“You’re one to talk,” she said as she passed by again in the other direction, heading for the door.
He reached out and gave her ponytail a tug as she walked by.
“Get off,” she laughed, batting his hand away without looking back. “You pull on my pigtails and I’ll pull on yours.”
“Promise?” he called after her.
She cast him a sly look and shouldered her way out of the kitchen and back into the dining room. Inuyasha turned back to what he was doing, unable to suppress a gleeful grin.
Miroku sidled up beside him to rinse a few utensils in the sink at Inuyasha’s elbow. “So,” he said casually, “I take it things are still going well?”
“As if it’s any of your business,” Inuyasha muttered, but he couldn’t muster any genuine annoyance.
“Inuyasha, as someone who has to work next to you day in and day out, for better or worse, richer or poorer, cheerier or grumpier, believe me, I have a vested interest in your happiness,” the other man countered.
Inuyasha chuckled, by now slipping his freshly sharpened knives back into their case and reattaching it to his belt.
“Seriously though,” Miroku said, glancing over at his friend, “how are things?”
Inuyasha glanced over at him briefly, then over at the door through which Kagome had just disappeared, and Miroku marveled at the rare look of contentment that settled over his features.
“Things are…good,” he said. And for once there was no sarcasm, no muttering, no grumbling, no hedging. Even Inuyasha seemed surprised by how easy it was to say.
And then the moment passed, and Inuyasha shrugged it off, turning to the post board to grab the ticket for his next table. Miroku looked askance at him as Inuyasha loaded up his cart, seeming suddenly in a hurry.
“Where’s the fire?” he asked, bemused.
“Shut up,” he grumbled. “I’m only on six—got to up my game if I’m going to beat her. Don’t tell Kagome.”
“Right,” Miroku said, nodding indulgently.
Well, some things just don’t change.
The night carried on pretty much as usual, the constant hum of conversation throughout the restaurant interrupted only by the occasional laugh or cheer from one of Kagome’s tables, and the occasional fireball (and accompanying sounds of appreciation) from one of Inuyasha’s. After the doors were closed and the grills were cleaned, Inuyasha and Kagome both climbed into Kagome’s car and headed back to his place for the evening.
“Inuyasha,” she sighed as he opened the door to the apartment and followed her in, “you can’t just steal Kouga’s move.” She shrugged out of her jacket and placed it on the hook beside the door before moving toward the kitchen.
“I’m not stealing it,” he countered, tossing his own jacket onto the chair and following her. “His was a whirlwind of steam—mine is a whirlwind of fire.”
Kagome reached up into the well-stocked cupboard and started pulling down ingredients as Inuyasha preheated the pan on the stove and started clearing off the kitchen table. “What is it with you and fire anyway?” she asked as she stretched for a jar of garlic powder that had somehow ended up on the top shelf.
Inuyasha reached up easily and plucked down the garlic powder, placing it in her hand and flashing her an easy grin. “Fire is cool,” he said simply.
“Sure, but it’s not the only trick in the book,” she pointed out, closing the cabinet and turning to lean back against the counter as he moved over to the fridge to shuffle through the stack of fresh fruits and retrieve the package of tenderloin filets stuck in the back. “You can change it up every now and again, you know.”
He shrugged a shoulder, grabbing a knife and cutting board from the rack beside the refrigerator and beginning to slice the meat into bite-sized pieces. “That’s your job,” he said.
Kagome rolled her eyes and fished a can opener out of the drawer to start working away at the cans she’d set out on the counter. “Well you’d better make it your job too, big guy—never know when you’ll start getting rusty.”
“Rusty? Ha! Twenty-one requests tonight—does that sound like I’m getting rusty to you?”
“Inuyasha, you did not have twenty-one requests.”
“I did so!”
“That table who asked for the birthday cake doesn’t count.”
“Well I made the cake, didn’t I?”
“Only because it was your turn! And that one where the three couples each requested you separately—”
“Oh come on, that counts!”
“They were meeting each other there!”
“So? We don’t know they planned it ahead of time.”
Kagome sighed and shook her head, grinning to herself as she continued preparing her part of the meal. They were going on four months now since her return from New York. She still had her apartment down the street, but she didn’t really spend much time there, to be honest. It was Inuyasha’s place that felt like home. The relationship was contentious, to say the least, and when she thought about it too hard she realized they really did seem to spend an awful lot of time arguing. But the strange thing was, it didn’t bother her. It was comfortable arguing, without any real anger—like a game, each of them scoring points of one another, though no one was really bothering to tally them up. It was fun. Most of the time, anyway. But then the angry fights just meant they got to have that much more fun making up afterwards—and as per their deal, the makeup sex had continued to be of an exceptionally high standard. Sometimes Kagome got the feeling Inuyasha picked fights with her just to have an excuse to make up afterward. She didn’t mind.
Whatever it was, this weird love-hate of theirs, it seemed to work for them. It made them happy—for now, anyway. And hopefully it would for a long time to come. Anyway, like the saying goes, if you can’t stand the heat…
“Ow!” Inuyasha yelped and snatched his hand away as he tried to grab an unprotected metal pot handle.
Kagome smirked and waggled her fingers at him inside a well-used oven mitt.
“Shut up,” he grumbled, inspecting his burned hand and glaring back at her. But there was a hint of a grin in his eyes.