Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 07 Moonlight

~Chapter Seven~




“Is it not to your liking?”


Kendall gave a little start and shot Zain a nervous glance, offering him a nervous little smile that she hoped wasn’t nearly as thin as it felt.  “Oh, no, it’s wonderful,” she insisted, sticking a small bite of herb-roasted chicken breast into her mouth.  It really was perfect, just as beautiful as the restaurant where they sat—the Hightower, located at the top of the Jericho Corporation’s head office building, a five star establishment that overlooked the shores of Lake Michigan.


He had offered to call for reservations somewhere else, and she had little doubt that he would have problems getting into any of them, considering who his family was, but he had mentioned that the Hightower was one of the better establishments in the city, and to be honest, she’d always rather wondered what it would be like to have dinner there, anyway.


After they’d arrived, they were taken to the Jericho family’s private dining room, which was at least half the size of the rest of the place and came complete with its own private staff of waiters as well as a live piano player discreetly tucked off to the side and veiled in half-shadows.  The décor was lavish and undoubtedly very expensive in rich, dark shades—umbers and rich forest greens, golds and navy just shades above black—that were designed to enhance instead of overwhelm.


“They do rent out this room from time to time,” Zain admitted quietly as he glanced around.  “But if we call, they free it up for us.  We normally just use it if we have to entertain here in the city, and that doesn’t happen too often.”


He’d said it like it was par for course, and for someone like him, Kendall supposed it was.  “But your family lives here, don’t they?”


He shrugged offhandedly, bright orange eyes glowing brighter in the incandescence of the candle arrangement in the middle of the table.  “Yes . . . no . . .” He shook his head.  “They live just outside of the city.  I believe your father’s been there many times.”


“My father travels quite a bit on business,” Kendall admitted, gaze dropping away as she tried to forget that the man in question was currently in the city currently—as well as what had actually brought him here, too.


Zain didn’t comment on her quick reply, but she could feel his eyes on her, could feel the weight of his unasked questions, but whether he was unsure if she would answer or maybe he felt as though he had no right to pry, she didn’t know.


“These vegetables are very well done,” she went on, a false brightness entering her tone as she hoped that he didn’t remark upon her abrupt change in topics.  “Not too overcooked, not too heavily seasoned . . .”


“They are far more palatable than in other places I’ve dined,” he allowed.  She could sense a hint of amusement in the depths of his voice, though she wasn’t entirely sure why that would be.  “I must admit, however, I’ve never been a huge fan of vegetables.”


Kendall laughed suddenly, quietly, setting her fork and knife aside as she gave up her pretense of trying to eat.  “I’m sorry.  I guess I’m not very good at making small talk, am I?”


To her surprise, he chuckled: a deep, throaty sound, unexpectedly warm, almost intimate.  “I wouldn’t know,” he said simply.  “I’m not very good at it myself.”


Somehow, though, his comment was enough to loosen the invisible grip that had tightened around her stomach when she’d first heard her father’s voice over the telephone last night.  “That seems like a strange thing to say, given who you are,” she pointed out.


“Does it?” he countered mildly, reaching for a glass of wine, swirling the contents idly as a thoughtful sort of scowl surfaced on his features.  Kendall bit her lip, watching him while trying not to stare.  It was  a hard thing to do, all things considered.  There was a certain air of foreboding about him, a commanding sort of allusion in every movement he made, doubtless instilled in him through a lifetime of being raised as with the knowledge of his station.  It was worn as easily as a comfortable tee-shirt: a second skin, and she doubted very much that he even realized that he possessed it, at all.


Handsome, surely, and yet, she had to wonder if he even realized that much.  He didn’t strike her as the kind to pay any attention to that sort of thing.  If he did, then would he really be sitting here, having dinner with someone who wasn’t really that skilled at the subtle innuendo, the articulate little games that other girls seemed to understand without much effort at all?


And still . . .


Just beneath that highly refined surface, just below the self-confidence that almost bordered upon a certain arrogance, she could feel it, couldn’t she?  That restlessness that she knew well enough, that inner burn that was searching for something else, something just a little different—something more.  It was that part of him that, whether he sensed it himself or not, that had drawn her in, that had spoken to her in quiet whispers, and even though she had very little doubt that a great many found the man to be completely intimidating, she couldn’t say that she was scared of him despite her initial feeling that she really ought to be.


There was something in his gaze, something a little sad, a little lost, and though she couldn’t help but wonder if she weren’t simply imagining that, she was positive on some level that she was right on the money.  That was the reason that she’d accepted his offer to take her to dinner.  That was the reason that she had yet to dissolve into a puddle of raw nerves . . .


“You mean to tell me that I should be . . . what?  Good at everything, and all because I’m to be the future tai-youkai?” he challenged, but he seemed more amused than irritated.


“I would think that should better suit the image of the Fourth, my lord,” she quipped, unable to hide the little smile that tugged on her lips.


He chuckled again as a distinct trill raced up her spine and back down again, settling in a strange sort of tremor deep in her belly.  “I could have sworn that I told you my name,” he chided.


“Is that really appropriate?” she replied.


For the briefest of moments, he looked a little disgruntled, as though it really did bother him that she so adamantly refused to call him by name.  “And if I were to say that it offends me that you call me, ‘my lord’?”


Her smile faltered, and she ducked her chin.  “Then I would say that I apologize for offending you . . . my lord.”


Another breathy chuckle, all hints of irritation gone as quickly as it had come, and he slowly shook his head as he dropped his napkin on his plate and slowly got to his feet.  “I would think that a woman I’ve invited on a date would be more willing to address me by name,” he remarked.  He stepped around the table, stopped before her, and held out his hand.


She couldn’t help the flush that seeped into her skin at the allusion of intimacy.  “I-Is that what this is?” she mused, slowly lifting her gaze to meet his, even slower to slip her hand into his.  “A date . . .?”


He gently pulled her to her feet and led her over to the sliding glass doors that opened onto a private balcony.  The wind that hit them as they stepped outside ruffled his hair, tossing the midnight strands in a wanton frenzy.  “At the risk of being forward, I would like to think it is,” he said, lifting his chin, shifting his eyes upward as the light of the nearly full moon bathed his skin in a bluish hue—a shadow against a darker shadow—and only his eyes seemed to glow.  Was he staring at the few stars that dotted the sky so high above?  Was he looking for something in the vast expanse of indigo?  Was he seeing anything at all?


She wanted to see what it was that he saw, wanted to know just what was going through his mind.  The voice in the back of her mind whispered to her, reminding her that she really wasn’t free to do things as simple as to go on an innocent date, that somewhere in the city laid out around them, her father was waiting to tell her the things that somehow seemed a million miles away, at least for the moment.  Stealing another glance at the man beside her, Kendall bit her lip.


It was okay, wasn’t it?  It was okay to pretend, at least for a moment.  It would be all right to feign ignorance, to allow herself just this one moment, this one evening, before the things beyond her control swept her away . . .






“So what will you do when you graduate from the Conservatory?”


Kendall sighed and gave a little shrug, clasping her hands together in front of her, her shoes dangling from her fingers as she wandered along beside him.  “I don’t know,” she said softly.  “I . . . I haven’t really thought about it.”


“But you’re in your last year, aren’t you?” Zain challenged, stuffing his hands into his pockets.  “Will you further your studies in piano?”


“No,” she replied thoughtfully, pushing an errant lock of hair back behind her ear.  “I don’t really like it.  I’d much rather just enjoy playing for myself.”


He frowned.  “Then why attend the Conservatory at all?  I thought that most people who do are looking to go on to professional careers.”


She laughed, but the sound was tinged with a trace amount of bitterness—an emotion that took him a little by surprise coming from her.  “For me . . . For me, it was more of an escape.”


“Escape?” he echoed, shaking his head slowly.  “From what?”


“Nothing,” she replied in almost a monotone.  Then she drew a deep breath and shook her head, as though she were trying to refute her own claims.  “Everything.”


Her answer confused him, and yet, somewhere deep down, it also made perfect sense.  “Are you old enough to want to escape from everything?”


Her back stiffened at the slight challenge in his tone.  “Is there a certain age when it’s all right to realize that you hate everything around you?”


He was even more surprised at the vehemence in her quiet voice, the underlying feeling that he knew she’d been trying to hide.  “I suppose there isn’t,” he allowed.  “But why would you hate everything around you?”


Darkened eyes staring at him with an intensity that most men did not possess.  “Don’t you understand it better than anyone?” she asked quietly.


The corner of his lips quirked up in a small smile.  “I can’t say that I’ve ever hated my life to that extent.  Why are you so unhappy with yours?”


She stopped abruptly, sank down in the sand, digging her toes into the dirt as she stared out over the lake.  “From the time I can remember, every single thing in my life has always been decided for me—my clothes, my schools, my lessons . . . even my friends, to an extent.  If they weren’t good enough . . .” Trailing off, she lifted a handful of sand and watched it trickle through her fingers.  Then she shook her head.  “I came to the Conservatory because I thought . . .”


Zain hunkered down beside her, resting his elbows on his knees.  “You thought you could gain a little bit of freedom,” he finished for her.


“Something like that.”


“And did you?”


She smiled, but it was sad, lonely, pooling in her blue eyes with the reflection of the moon.  “No.”  Then she laughed, but it was rough, uneven, almost like she was crying, but she wasn’t.  “I’m sorry,” she said, forcing a little laugh into her shaky words.  “I have to be the worst date, ever.”


“I don’t know,” he admitted, unsure why he was doing any such thing.  “Can’t say I’ve actually been on that many before.”


His answer seemed to surprise her.  “You haven’t?”


“Well, I tend to be a little busy,” he replied then let out a deep breath.  “I’ve taken women to some of the social functions that I can’t avoid, but it was never anything more than a perfunctory appearance.  To be honest, I can’t say that I’ve met many women I’ve been interested enough in to bother.”


For a moment, she didn’t look like she was entirely sure what to do or say.  In the end, she bent her knees, tucked her feet up under her, and if she realized that the dress she wore wasn’t exactly made for lazing around on the beach at eleven o’clock at night, she didn’t show it.  “Then I thank you for dinner,” she said softly, almost primly.


He nodded.  “My pleasure.”


Turning her head just enough to look at him, she suddenly smiled.  That smile escalated into a giggle, then blossomed into gales of laughter so powerful that she lifted a hand to her mouth as though to try to staunch the flow.  It didn’t really work.  “What’s so funny?” he had to ask when she offered no explanation.


“You know, my best friend is going to be so jealous.”


“Why is that?”


Waving the hand that had been fluttering over her lips, Kendall ducked her head just for a moment, but even in the wan moonlight, he could tell that she was still smiling.  “She’s had a crush on you for years, ever since a little party that you attended.  You gave her a flower.”


Zain blinked and slowly shook his head as he tried to recall something like that, but nothing really came to mind.  “Did I?”


She nodded.  “A stargazer lily,” she replied.  “Like I said, it was years ago.  She was just a child.  It’s not surprising if you don’t remember.”


Eyes flaring wide as a spark of a memory flickered to life, Zain chuckled.  “No, wait, I think . . . She was just a little girl, wasn’t she?  Wearing a little yellow dress . . . gold hair . . .?  Her parents dragged her to the garden party, and she looked completely bored . . .”


Kendall giggled.  “You do remember it.”


“Vaguely,” he admitted.  “She was very cute.”


“She’ll be thrilled that you remember it, at all.”


Zain shrugged.  “Unfortunately, I cannot say that I was looking to make a lasting impression on her.”


“But you did,” Kendall insisted.  “She was heartbroken that she couldn’t attend your performance at the Conservatory, but she’s in the violin division.”


He chuckled softly.  “You’ll have to extend my regards to her.”


She nodded, and the smile on her face seemed more natural than any of the others so far.


The two fell silent for a while, staring out over the water, staring at the moon, reflected in distorted ripples on the ever-moving swells.  Zain asked himself for the hundredth time, just why he’d wanted to take her to dinner.  It had seemed like the natural thing to do at the time, and yet . . .


Yet he wasn’t lying when he had told her that he hadn’t dated many women.  For the most part, he had told himself that he didn’t have the time to bother, but he knew well enough that the true reason was simply that he hadn’t met anyone he’d wanted to devote that kind of time and energy to, and for good reason.  Having spent his entire life believing that he would just marry whomever his father had chosen, it wasn’t something that he had worried about, all things considered.


So what was it about her?


He still didn’t know the answer.  Gorgeous, certainly, enough so that any man would have to take notice of her, but he’d met enough gorgeous women over time that he couldn’t delude himself into thinking that it was the only reason.  Her piano playing was something that he was drawn to, but that wouldn’t have been enough, either.  No, honestly, he really didn’t know why, and yet, there was a strange compulsion, too, as though a part of him needed to be near her . . .


That was ridiculous, wasn’t it?  Compelled to be near her?  But he didn’t even know the first thing about her; not really.


Shifting his gaze to the side, staring at her profile, he could once more sense that underlying sadness, that restlessness, that near-desperation in her.


Is there a certain age when it’s all right to realize that you hate everything around you?


No, Zain never had, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t grasp the meaning of her question.  A lady of her station?  A youkai woman, the daughter of a high-ranking man—a general, no less?  Yes, he supposed that her life had been dictated to her in a way that his never was.  While he had been raised with rules and expectations, there had also existed a certain level of freedom, and, he suspected, it was more than she’d ever been allowed.


“So,” he said slowly, quietly, as though he feared that raising his voice might startle her.  “What kinds of things do you want to do?”


She seemed a little confused by his question.  “Right now?”


He shrugged.  “You said you wanted a little freedom, didn’t you?  So if you had that freedom, what kinds of things would you do?”


She considered that for a moment, her eyes taking on a deeper sparkle, innumerable stars rising and falling in her gaze, and she smiled.  “I . . . I don’t know,” she began cautiously.  “I think I’d like to just go, you know, wherever, whenever . . . See places, meet people . . .” She giggled suddenly.  “Eat things from street vendors . . . shop in a second-hand boutique . . . Play with children in a park . . .” Trailing off with a happy sigh, she indulged her thoughts for another moment before squaring her shoulders and casting him a decidedly nervous sort of glance.  “I sound silly, don’t I?”


“Not really,” he replied.  “I can’t say that I’ve done all of those things, either.”


“You don’t really look the type to shop in a second-hand boutique—or buy food from street vendors, anyway,” she pointed out.  He could hear the teasing note in her voice.  It didn’t hide the longing, however.


“I’ll take you to do those things,” he said before he could stop himself, before he could think it through.  It was more of an impulse—an entirely foreign idea to him.  “As long as you don’t make me wear anything you find in those boutiques.”


“Would you eat a hot dog if I bought you one of those?” she asked.


He chuckled.  “Okay, I might not do that, either.”  But his smile widened a few degrees.  “Well, maybe, if you asked nicely.”


She laughed, but the expression on her face told him plainly that she honestly believed that he was simply humoring her.  For reasons that he didn’t dwell upon, that thought bothered him.  A lot.


“Tomorrow,” he said in a tone that left no room for argument.


She blinked once, twice, shook her head in silent confusion.  “What’s tomorrow?”


Pushing himself to his feet, he leaned down to offer her a hand.  “You pick something you’d like to do, and I’ll take you to do it.”


She stopped, her hand grasped firmly in his, her face registering her surprise, but with that surprise, there was also the hint of cautious hope, and the smile that she shot him was timid yet radiant.  “R-Really . . .?” she asked slowly, quietly.


He gently tugged her to her feet and nodded.  “Yes,” he said.  “Really.”


 <<< 06: Control

08: Expectations >>>



All the characters in The Fulcrum belong to me.
Any similarities to any person, alive or dead, real or implied, are coincidental.



posted by Sueric at 12:15 am  

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