He drew a deep breath before stepping out of the shadows on stage left in the stillness of the auditorium. He hadn't expected this magnitude of a turn out, and he had to admit that it was daunting. Quiet, introverted, he much preferred the tranquility of his house on the rocky shores of the Maine coast. Damn family friends and their penchant for laying on a guilt trip. If he hadn't answered the phone that day, he wouldn't be standing here now.
Clearing his throat as he approached the podium, situated center-stage in the wash of harsh lighting that made him feel wary, guarded, Cain had to wonder once more, just why he'd given in and come here. It smacked of stupidity, and it smacked of recklessness. Someone had left him a bottle of water. He wondered how bad it would look if he drained it before he even started to speak.
He could hear every hushed whisper, every body that shifted in the folding seats, every rustle of paper as the assembly waited patiently to hear his words of wisdom. 'The worst feeling isn't the complete vulnerability of being in the open,' he mused as he gripped the podium. 'It's not being able to see the enemy.'
Snorting inwardly at his own cryptic thoughts, he realized it had been just a little too long since he'd been the absolute center of attention. It was a conscious decision to leave it all behind. He hadn't made any sort of public appearance in years. She had been the one who loved the spotlight. He'd always preferred to stay behind the scenes, and in the end, he supposed it had added to his legend.
"Good afternoon," he began, his soft tones picked up and enhanced by the single microphone on the podium. "I'm Zelig Cain, and I want to thank you for inviting me to lecture."
Though it had been more years than he cared to think about since he had last used the Japanese language, he didn't falter as he launched into the prepared speech. Eyes adjusting to the blackened auditorium past the edge of the harshly lit stage, faces came into focus despite the lights that almost blinded him. Gaze roaming over the crowd of college students, seeing the blur of rapt expressions, he cleared his throat and continued with his lecture.
"The act of sculpting is, in and of itself, an act of love and devotion. If you believe in God, Buddha, Allah, or Kami, then you will find that taking the clay in your hands and forming it into something beautiful or grotesque, or even something between those two extremes, is like molding the universe, even if it is only a small portion of it."
His gaze continued to rove over the silent assembly. They looked so young, so full of possibilities that had yet to be explored. Shining youth, the hope of children who didn't realize that life could be cruel . . . Some humans held to that idyllic belief their whole life through, but he knew that wasn't so. He knew . . .
Something caught his eye; a flash of light in the darkness to the far left of the stage. The reflection of silver in the loathsome black . . . Cain narrowed his gaze but he did not falter in his speech. Pausing to sip the water, he breathed in, smelled her . . . Faint and mingled with the baser scent of the countless humans surrounding her, there was something about her that seemed familiar.
Squelching the irrational wash of impatience, Cain deliberately allowed himself another long drink of the water. He couldn't see her face but he could see her eyes—golden, glowing, curious and warm. Three rows back, she sat next to another woman but she, alone, captured his attention.
'Inu . . . hanyou? Who is she?'
Setting the water aside, Cain cleared his throat, sought to regain the composure she'd unwittingly taken from him. "In order to create art, you must reach deep inside yourself, extract the emotion in your soul—"
He could feel those golden eyes staring straight at him.
"—Apply it to the clay or the paint or whatever medium you choose—"
How old was she, to contain such intensity? He could feel her gaze; a palpable thing that lived and breathed.
His lecture rambled on. He's spent painstaking hours learning the words by heart. Forcing his eyes over the expanse of the auditorium, he tried to tell himself that he was being ridiculous. She was just some young girl, and by this time tomorrow, he'd be back in his seclusion half a world away . . .
Izayoi Gin slipped into the vacant seat on the end of the third row in the drafty auditorium. She's almost missed the lecture, no thanks to her baka brother. Kichiro had promised to drop her off at the college since she hated having to rely upon public transportation that bothered her extremely sensitive sense of smell, and since their parents were taking a short vacation at the beach house. Kichiro had overslept, woke up grouchy, and then yelled at her for letting him sleep in. 'Baka. I should have taken the bus.'
Digging out a notebook and pen while Brekichi-sensei, the head of the Fine Arts department of the university, introduced the guest speaker, Gin rolled her shoulders and licked her lips in anticipation. Zelig Cain was arguably the most influential sculptor in the world, and he was here, at her university, giving a lecture . . . If she had missed this because of that idiot brother of hers, she would have made him pay, and dearly.
She knew that he had been called eccentric, reclusive. She'd never seen a photograph of the enigmatic man. He didn't attend any of his openings, never had been spotted at any of his gallery showings. Gin absorbed art publications like some people—her cousin Shippou came to mind—devoured pocky. Zelig Cain's paintings and his sculptures were astounding. How he managed to capture so much feeling with his work was something that baffled Gin's mind.
She wanted to do that, too.
After graduating from school, she had gone to work for her cousin, Toga as a receptionist while she tried to decide what she wanted to do with her life. The time she'd spent doing that had convinced her she would never, ever be able to deal with a nine-to-five job. She'd left Toga's company after a year to work at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, and in that time, she had discovered a love of fine art and had developed a fascination for Zelig-san's work during one of his temporary exhibits. Since then, she'd looked for any and all information she could find on the reclusive artist. She'd written him countless letters but had been too much of a coward to send even one. 'Kami . . . if Papa knew . . .'
Gin grimaced and shifted uncomfortably in her seat, flicking her long silver hair over her shoulder as she bit her bottom lip. Izayoi InuYasha hated cowards. Gin knew that. To admit to being afraid . . . that would be the greatest letdown. He had taught all of his children early on that fear was not something a hanyou should admit, not ever.
And, to that end, she supposed, he'd also gone out of his way to show his children his love and affection, even if it was never spoken, and even if it was, more often than not, the exact opposite of what he said. InuYasha might be the first one to point out to his children when they'd done something colossally stupid, but he was also the first one to stand up for his children, right or wrong. Truthfully, Gin was more of a Papa's girl than a Mama's girl. She always felt safe around her father, and while Kagome was kind and gentle, loving and doting, InuYasha had always been Gin's security.
In fact, the only thing they didn't agree on was the subject of Gin going on dates, which was completely stupid, really, since Gin was nearly twenty-five now. Maybe she shouldn't have taken those three years off before going to college. Then again, it might not have mattered. In his mind, Gin would always be his little girl, and she had a feeling that no man would ever quite measure up.
An expectant hush fell over the crowd. Normally these kinds of lectures only drew art students. This one was special. Television and radio stations had sent reporters. The auditorium held a near capacity-crowd today, and with the exception of the one empty seat beside her, Gin didn't think there were any other seats to be had. If it weren't for her hanyou senses, she might have had to stand at the back of the auditorium with the other late arrivals. Her sight was good, and her sense of smell was keen. It hadn't taken her long to figure out that there were two seats left vacant, and she hadn't questioned her luck that they were also very close to the stage.
"Gin-chan? Hi! Is that seat taken?"
Gin started out of her reverie and sat up straight to allow her cousin-in-law to scoot past her. Slipping into the one vacant seat, Inutaisho Sierra flipped back a lock of her strawberry blonde hair and dug out the small digital recorder.
Talk was cut short when the man stepped out of the darkness behind the curtains. Tall—very tall—possibly taller than her uncle, Sesshoumaru, the man shuffled toward the podium in somewhat nervous fashion. Hands jammed into the pockets of his baggy, rumpled khaki slacks, pushing up the sides of the shapeless black cotton shirt, he should have looked hapless, slovenly. He seemed more casual than careless, and the long bronze hair caught back in a ponytail at the nape of his neck flipped from side to side as he sauntered forward.
'He's . . . youkai . . .' Gin thought as her gaze narrowed. With the convolution of scents and the mass of people so close to her, it was too hard for her to discern what kind of youkai he was. She sat up straighter, clasped her notebook to her chest as she frowned in concentration.
"Good afternoon. I'm Zelig Cain, and I want to thank you for inviting me to lecture."
His voice was a low, soft rumble that rushed over her like a gentle breeze. The melodic quality of his timbre was soothing, mesmerizing. 'Stop it! Listen to what he's saying, Gin! You're acting . . . well, you're acting like . . . Kich . . . or Ryo . . .'
Why was it that the thought of her equally idiotic twin brothers was like a dousing of cold water on her senses?
Dropping her notebook onto her lap while she rubbed the gooseflesh off her arms, Gin frowned into the darkness. She didn't know anything about him except that his artwork was exquisite. She respected his work, the intricacy, the detail. He was youkai just like any youkai—just like any man. They were all fallible. They were all imperfect.
The notebook started to slip from her lap. Gin leaned forward to catch it. Zelig-san faltered in his speech, and for a brief, crazed moment as she sat back up and bit her lip, pushing back her slight discomfort; she had the strangest feeling that he was staring straight at her.
But he had only paused to sip the water that had been left on the podium for him. Continuing with his speech, he seemed to shed the obvious discomfort as he spoke. His voice took on a gentler cadence, a softer quality as his stance relaxed, and he grinned just a little.
Gin didn't realize her hand was moving against the tablet of paper, didn't pay attention to the bold lines of the black ink pen. Capturing the lines of the man's stance, his expression, she digested what he said as his likeness came to life on the paper.
Jumping when the polite applause broke out in the auditorium, Gin hurriedly shoved the notebook and pen into her bag as she stifled the sigh of disappointment that the lecture was over. Zelig-san bowed his head then raised his hand in a farewell gesture before shoving his hand into his pocket and shuffling back off the stage again.
"That was fantastic!" Sierra remarked as she gathered her things together and stood up, hitching her bag over her shoulder with a bright smile. "He really is something, isn't he?"
"Yeah," Gin agreed, wondering for a moment whether Sierra had seen the sketch that was now safe in her own backpack. She sighed. "Sierra, can I get a copy of the speech? If it isn't too much trouble . . ."
Sierra waved her hand. "Not a problem at all. I thought you were taking notes."
"Yeah . . . There were a few things I didn't quite catch," Gin explained, hoping she didn't sound nearly as lame as she thought she did.
Sierra's grin took on a smug edge. "I can do that . . . I can do something else, too, if you're interested . . ."
"I don't know how, but I got an interview with Zelig-san. You want to meet him?"
"How? He doesn't give interviews . . . why you?"
Sierra shrugged. "Apparently Toga knows him . . . at least, knows of him. Toga said he's never really met him before. Anyway, you interested?"
'It's because Toga will be the next tai-youkai,' Gin realized with a start. She tended to forget that the Inutaisho and Izayoi names carried a lot of weight in certain circles since she had been raised around mostly humans. 'It's because Zelig-san is youkai . . .'
Gin winced. "I have a class . . ."
Sierra sighed. "All right, but you know, if I was given the chance to meet one of my real-life idols, I'd jump at it."
Gin slapped the back of one hand into her other palm, shifting her lips into a grimace as she tried to rationalize it in her head. Art appreciation was her next class, and it was nothing, really, but theory and bookwork that she could easily make up with minimal effort. Since it was a Friday, then she would have all weekend to do it, too, and the idea of actually getting to meet Zelig-san . . . It was too enticing to ignore.
"Are you sure it won't be a problem?" she asked, half-hoping that Sierra would rescind the offer, half-hoping that it wasn't just a joke at her expense.
Sierra laughed. "Come on, Gin-chan! You know you want to."
Gin finally broke into a smile, letting Sierra take her arm and drag her toward the stage through the wandering masses making their ways to the exits.
"Zelig-san! Thank you again for agreeing to speak today," Mitsu Brekichi said with a low bow as Cain stepped into the shadows off the stage.
"You're very welcome," Cain assured him as he offered the man a small smile. "If you'll excuse me, I've an interview and then a plane to catch."
"If you could spare a moment? I'd like to offer you a job. Just one semester . . . one of our art professors is having serious health problems, and we would be honored if you could fill the position."
Cain shook his head slowly. "I don't think I can," he said, measuring his words carefully.
The little man looked positively crestfallen. "Should you change your mind, the offer stands."
That wouldn't be happening, as far as Cain was concerned. Still he pasted on a tolerant smile and strode away from the head of the art department, heading directly to the doors at the back of the building as he pulled the slightly rumpled pack of Marlboro Reds from his pants pocket.
With a sigh as he leaned against the brick wall outside, Cain shook out a cigarette and lit it. Until last week, he hadn't smoked in years. Stress, he discovered, had a way of making him reach for old vices, and the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment . . . He blew a smoke ring, watched it disintegrate into the air before drawing another deep drag off the cigarette. He'd smoked more than two cartons of the damn things since he'd agreed to this stupid lecture.
'Bellaniece is going to kill me, if she finds out.'
Narrowing his eyes as he stared at the parking lot reserved for faculty, brushing aside the feeling of déjà vu that returning to Tokyo always inspired, he tried not to think about how long it had been since he had last ventured away from his home in Maine, let alone to the other side of the world.
He was tired, weary. He'd seen enough, done enough, lived enough—lived longer than he should have. He should have died long ago, and had it not been for Bellaniece not to mention his responsibilities, he would have, but Bellaniece was just an infant back then. He couldn't have left her alone, and now . . .
The sudden flash of bright golden eyes made him pause—made him smile. He'd never know who she was. A flash of guilt, the harsh reminder that his life had been promised to another, accompanied the thought. He was living on her time, borrowed his moments while she waited.
The girl with the beautiful silvery hair . . .
Maybe it was better that he didn't know her name.
Dropping the cigarette onto the pavement, he ground the smoldering butt under his heel. With a deep breath, he strode toward the doors, yanked them open and headed down the hallway to the room where the interviewer was waiting.
"You're making me nervous, Gin."
Shooting Sierra an apologetic look, Gin stalked around the classroom with the air of a caged animal. Nervous, edgy, she wiped her sweaty palms on her short blue skirt and stopped beside the sculpture on the table.
Sierra sucked in a quick breath and flinched. "Hey, I've got to run outside and throw some money into the parking meter . . . I'll be right back, okay?"
Gin nodded without answering as she stared at the sculpture. Sierra's shoes clicked against the linoleum floor as she hurried out of the room.
The sculpture seemed unfinished; a woman with flowing hair rising out of a nondescript block of white marble. Naked to the hips where she melded into the base of the sculpture, she seemed to be reaching for something that she couldn't quite grasp. Gin couldn't help but admire the beauty of the proportions, the absolute surreal quality of the intricate work. She'd seen pictures of it in books and magazines. It was one of the few sculptures that Zelig-san had never offered for sale. Because of that, the piece was worth more than most of his other sculptures. It seemed strange to her, that he would bring this all the way from his home in America when he was supposed to be returning soon enough. 'But why did he bring it with him?'
As if in a trance, she touched the cold stone, tilting her head to the side as she traced a claw down the curves of the work, the intricacies of the lines. She could almost feel the love that went into the carving of such a meticulous piece. The stone seemed to have absorbed the very essence of the artist.
"Don't touch that!"
Gin gasped and jumped as she jerked her hand away from the sculpture. She hadn't realized that she had been touching it, not really. She certainly hadn't meant any offense to the man who was now glaring at her as though she had been trying to break the piece. And why did she feel like she was a little girl all over again, like she'd just been caught trying to sneak a cookie before dinner?
"S-Sorry," she mumbled, bowing more to hide the hot flood of humiliated color that washed into her cheeks than as a show of respect. "It—I—uh—"
He sighed, dragging a hand over his face. "Are you the interviewer?"
His question caught her off-guard, and Gin blinked in confusion as she straightened her back. "Wha—? No . . . She had to put money into the parking meter."
He shook his head slowly, still eyeing Gin as though he thought she was going to reach over, nab the sculpture, and toss it onto the floor. She scooted farther away. That seemed to appease him just a little. "Who are you then?"
"I'm, uh, Gin. Izayoi Gin. Sierra-chan-is-my-cousin—Well-not-exactly-my-cousin—She-married-my-cousin-so-she's-my-cousin-by-marriage. She's-the-one-who-is-doing-the-interview-and—"
"Do you always talk so fast?"
"Just when I'm nervous."
"Why are you nervous?"
"B-Because you're—" she swallowed hard, "—glaring at me."
He seemed surprised at her statement, as though he didn't realize he was still glaring. Shaking his head, he suddenly uttered a terse laugh. Gin blinked in surprise as the scowl dissipated, as his sapphire blue eyes sparkled with the change in expression. "I apologize. That sculpture . . . No one else touches it."
"You . . . You're inu-youkai."
He nodded slowly, leaning back against the desk as he crossed his arms over his chest. "And you're inu-hanyou."
Gin smiled. "I am."
"Izayoi? Your father . . . ?"
Gin stifled a sigh and nodded. "My father is Izayoi InuYasha. You've heard of him, I take it?"
"Of course I have. And your uncle? How is he?"
"You know Sesshoumaru-oji-san, too? He's fine. They're all well."
"Good. It's been awhile. I never met your father, but your uncle and I go way back."
"Wait," Gin said slowly, gaze narrowing as she regarded the youkai before her. "You're the North American tai-youkai?"
He nodded again.
"But your name—?"
His chuckles cut her off. "One cannot endure centuries, Gin, without having different names to keep from drawing notice."
She shrugged. "I suppose," she agreed noncommittally. "I guess it would seem strange if your public image had been around for hundreds of years."
"Don't worry. Cain Zelig suits my purposes."
Gin hopped up on the worktable behind her, crossing her ankles and leaning forward as she swung her feet. "I'm so glad you lectured today. I'm a huge fan of your work. You're the reason I decided I wanted to study art. They had an exhibit at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, and . . ." She broke off with a nervous laugh, shaking her head with a sigh. "Sounds silly, doesn't it?"
"Not at all. You're a student here?"
"Yes. I took a few years off . . . figured out I don't cut it in the real world."
He seemed startled, as though something she'd said surprised him. Slowly he nodded, a vague look of recognition lighting his gaze. "Yeah."
"I'm sorry I'm late," Sierra said as she hurried back into the room. "The meters around here only allow up to an hour . . . Anyway, I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview. I'm Sierra Inutaisho."
Almost reluctantly, Cain dragged his eyes off Gin. Smiling tightly, he shook Sierra's hand before gesturing for her to have a seat.
Gin sat back; content to listen to the interview. Soft spoken yet forceful, something about Cain Zelig commanded quiet respect. His gaze drifted to her a few times. Once he almost smiled at her. Gin bit her lip, tried to keep from fidgeting. If Sierra noticed, she didn't comment. Maybe Gin was imagining things.
He was fascinating.