All this time I can't believe I couldn't see
Kept in the dark but you were there in front of me
I've been sleeping a thousand years it seems
Got to open my eyes to everything...
From the song Bring Me To Life (the Fallen album), by Evanescence
The night of the ball came without my ever having stepped inside a single boutique. The last thing I wanted to do was celebrate Shizuru's engagement to someone else beyond the minimum required for appearances. So I decided to a wear a dress that had belonged to my mother. More than anything else, it would remind me of her and give me the fortitude to endure the evening that lay ahead.
When Mai knocked on my door with the rest of the girls, I'd been sitting at my bureau for half an hour trying to compose myself. At the sight of me, Mai had looked taken aback, while Midori had broken out into wolf whistles. Nao Yuuki was the first to speak.
"Not bad, Kuga. Right when we're about to forget you're actually a girl, you do something once in a while that proves you're actually female."
Chie looked at me approvingly. "Midnight blue floor-length gown with a one-shoulder neckline and a silver choker with matching bracelets. And of course, you've kept your hair down."
My cheeks were beginning to burn under their scrutiny. "We should be going," I said. "It'll be rude to keep the happy couple waiting."
As things turned out, we needn't have worried about punctuality. The sheer number of guests that crowded the Fuka Academy Director's Residence made it impossible to keep track of people's comings and goings. For a good hour, we saw neither Shizuru nor Solomon. This, combined with the stares that I was getting rather too frequently, made me decide to retreat into the safety of an abandoned balcony.
And that was when I ran straight into her. We were only a few feet away from each other when recognition set in.
She looked absolutely breathtaking.
She wore a burgundy floor-length strapless gown and a necklace with a ruby pendant that matched her eyes to perfection. I couldn't help staring at her: at the creamy expanse of neck and shoulder that ended in a generous swell of cleavage, at the graceful curve of jawbone that was partially hidden by wisps of her upswept hair. When I looked into her eyes, I could see that she had been staring at me as well.
There was raw hunger in her gaze. And I knew she could see the same in mine.
I could feel the tension building between the both of us. And at the exact moment that I knew that I had to yield, Reito Kanzaki materialized from out of the darkness.
"Ah, Shizuru-san, Natsuki-san! How lucky can I get to have the two most beautiful graduates of Fuka Academy all to myself?"
Shizuru's voice was mild when she spoke, but I could detect just the slightest hint of steel. "Reito-kun, have you been lying in ambush this whole time?"
Reito looked wounded as he stepped forward. "Really, Shizuru-san, you're too cruel. And even if you did happen to be right, which isn't the case at all, one can't say that I haven't been rewarded for my efforts." With this, he gallantly offered an arm to the both of us, which we each accepted with sighs of mutual resignation.
Our entrance into the ballroom caused a bit of a stir - which was hardly surprising given that most of the people in the ballroom had been in love with either one of my companions during their time at the Academy. We were met at the bottom of the stairs by Solomon, who looked resplendent in a white tuxedo. He bent down to kiss my hand, and when he looked at me, I could understand easily enough how any woman could want him. He had a way of looking at people that made them feel that only they existed. "You're looking especially lovely this evening, Kuga-san," he murmured softly. Then he turned his attentions toward Shizuru, and the look that passed between them made me turn away, heartsick.
"That leaves just the two of us then, Natsuki-san," Reito remarked cheerfully. I gave him a wan smile, feeling too defeated suddenly to respond with my usual sarcasm.
As the orchestra began to strike the chords of a waltz, Reito started steering me towards the dance floor. I stopped, and quite literally dug in my heels. He turned around and looked at me questioningly.
"I don't dance."
He gazed at me for a while, then smiled with surprising gentleness. "I think you'll find that you're a splendid dancer, Natsuki-san. Just leave everything to me, okay?"
After a moment, I nodded. Anything was better than having to watch Shizuru in Solomon's arms. It felt strange to be held so close, but Reito acted like the perfect gentleman. He was also an excellent dancer, and I found it surprisingly easy to simply give in to his lead. At some point I closed my eyes, content to merely follow, finding the rhythmic and mindless movement a solace after the turmoil of the past few days.
It was only when I heard the applause that I opened my eyes - and found Reito's face uncomfortably close to mine. "See, didn't I tell you? You dance beautifully, Natsuki-san." He let go of me gracefully and bowed slightly to our audience, which, I realized with no little embarrassment, consisted of most of the room's occupants.
Feeling slightly panicky, I scanned the room and immediately made a beeline towards a bobbing head of orange hair.
"Natsuki!" Mai enthused. "I didn't know you danced!" Her boyfriend, Yuuichi, greeted me with a nod. "I didn't know you had a thing with Reito-san either," she waggled her eyebrows mischievously.
"Kanzaki?" I frowned, confused. "There's nothing going on with Kanzaki at all! And I don't dance either."
"Well," Yuuichi stated calmly, "that's what you were doing out there anyway."
Behind me, I could hear the orchestra starting enthusiastically into a swing. "And that," Mai said, grabbing Yuuichi's hand, "is what we're about to do there ourselves. Come on, you."