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Start Your Engines!

Chapter 23

Chapter 23:  Start Your Engines!

 

     "Could you tell me why we're here again?" Miroku asked plaintively, trying to keep track of Inuyasha as they plowed their way through the crowds. Inuyasha ignored him and continued to mutter to himself.

 

     "It couldn't be him. It must be somebody else. Kagome said that they were on the other side of the mall. What was she doing over there? They couldn't have been in the jewelry store; it's not big enough to have its own bathroom. Ditto for the hair salon. Aha! Here it is! J.C. Penney's. Clothing, jewelry, towels… just like Shiro said."

 

     "Who are we looking for?" Miroku ran into Inuyasha when he abruptly stopped. He rubbed his nose with one hand and frowned at the back of his friend's head. A pretty salesgirl wandered by in a very short skirt. Miroku’s eyes widened in appreciation. Reflexively, he looked around for Sango. She never understood his fascination with the female form. Well, what she didn't know wouldn't hurt him--his lady love had a powerful right hook.

 

     "You there!" Inuyasha called out before Miroku could open his mouth. "We're looking for someone!" The salesgirl glanced around, before turning to face them and pointing at herself with a questioning look. Her nametag read Ani.

 

     "Of course I'm talking to you! Do you see anyone else around here?" The salesgirl opened her mouth to respond to the question, but Inuyasha cut her off. "Never mind that! Can you tell us where to find Kouga?"

 

     A look of comprehension flooded the salesgirl's face. "Oh! You're looking for Kouga?" She dropped her eyes, a light blush suffusing her cheeks. "You can't miss him! He's the hottest guy around." She sighed. "Kouga is so cool."

 

     Inuyasha resisted the urge to shake the little twit until her brains rattled. "I don't care if he's hot, cold, or lukewarm! Just tell me where to find him!"

 

     "No need to shout, Mr. Rude." The girl pointed to another part of the store. "He's in bathroom supplies this evening." Inuyasha turned in the direction she pointed. "Wait!"

 

     Inuyasha stopped, throwing an annoyed look over his shoulder. "What?" The salesgirl thrust a piece of paper at him.

 

     "It's my phone number." She hastened on to explain. "Sales associates aren't allowed to fraternize on company time. Could you give this to Kouga?" Without waiting for a response she started walking away. "Gotta dash! Thanks a bunch!"

 

     Miroku plucked the paper from Inuyasha's fingers. "I'll take that. Wouldn't want you to lose it." He slipped it into a pocket.

 

     "You know," Inuyasha said conversationally, "Sango is going to beat you to within an inch of your perverted life when she finds that scrap of paper."

 

     Miroku turned pale. He pulled out the paper and looked at it regretfully. "You're right. Why take the risk?" Unable to find a garbage can, and forgetting that they had promised to deliver it to Kouga, he did the next best thing.

 

     "Tasty?" Inuyasha asked with a wicked grin on his face.

 

     "Could use some salt," Miroku mumbled around a mouthful of wood pulp.

 

     Scanning the area, Inuyasha suddenly pulled Miroku behind a display stand of fluffy towels. Miroku gagged as he choked on the phone number he was trying to swallow. Inuyasha made shushing motions and cautiously peered over the top of a lime green bath towel.

 

     Kouga leaned on the top of the check-out counter, favoring a customer with his charming grin. "It suits you perfectly, miss. The towels match the color of your eyes. And see how well the lotion dispenser fits in your delicate hand."

 

     The elderly woman giggled like a school girl. "I'm old enough to be your grandmother, young man."

 

     Kouga placed a hand dramatically over his heart. "Surely you jest! You can't be a day over twenty-five!"

 

     The woman giggled again and fluttered her eyelashes. Inuyasha made a face. How disgusting! She was actually flirting with him.

 

     Miroku pushed Inuyasha to the side so that he could see. "That's Kouga all right." He examined the young man who was busy charming the socks off of the old lady. "It looks like he's done very well for himself."

 

     Inuyasha scowled. There was no doubt in his mind that this was the same girlfriend-stealing creep who had made his school years a nightmare. He could only be thankful that Kikyo had never fallen for Kouga's outrageous flattery. He might have been spared some heartache, but then Shiro would never have come into his life.

 

     "He doesn’t look so great to me." Inuyasha growled in a harsh whisper. “What’s he got that I don’t?”

 

     Miroku took his time before answering. He glanced repeatedly between Kouga and the fuming Inuyasha. The old woman finally purchased four towels, a lotion dispenser, and a soap dish shaped like a duck under Kouga's careful blend of flattery and charm.

 

     "Where should I start?" Miroku began to count reasons on his fingers. "Kouga is handsome, if we are to believe the salesgirl and the old woman. He's polite and friendly. He's attentive to the needs of the customer. He's smiling." Miroku looked pointedly at Inuyasha who was wearing a fierce scowl. Mothers with young children were giving him a wide berth when they saw him. "What's the opposite of obnoxious? Oh, yes, he's charming. Should I go on?"

 

     Inuyasha shot him a glare. "You do and Sango will be a widow before she's even married."

 

     Miroku lost his teasing grin, assuming an unusually serious expression. "Listen, Inuyasha. We've both had our share of troubles with Kouga. But Kagome's a smart girl. She's not the type to fall for Kouga's flattery."

 

     "What do you mean, Miroku?" Inuyasha's voice was rough with the first stirrings of jealousy. He continued to watch Kouga through narrowed eyes. The multi-talented salesman was now juggling five decorative soaps for the awed delight of three young children.

 

     Miroku sighed. "Just be careful, my friend. Don't say anything you might regret later just because you're jealous."

 

^**^

 

     Three days later and Inuyasha was able to put Kouga out of his mind. He was even able to laugh about his worries. Privately of course--Kagome became annoyed if he displayed too much jealousy. But who wouldn't be a little bit concerned. Kagome was wonderful, not to mention beautiful and a joy to be around, and she loved Shiro as if he was her own. He couldn't help thinking that some other man would recognize those same qualities and steal her away.

 

     "Earth to Inuyasha." He blinked and met Kagome's eyes. "Is something wrong? You seem a little out of it today."

 

     Inuyasha forced away all lingering thoughts of Kouga. He tightened his hand on Shiro’s, walking between them, and smiled. "I'm fine. Just thinking."

 

     "Well, don't think too hard," she teased. "You don't want to hurt yourself."

 

     Inuyasha feigned an expression of hurt. Kagome snorted at the look on his face and they both dissolved in laughter. Shiro, who hadn't really been paying attention, started laughing because everyone else was laughing. This made Kagome and Inuyasha laugh harder.

 

     If Kagome had been paying attention to where she was going, then she wouldn't have tripped. But she was watching Inuyasha and didn't see the uneven patch of sidewalk. The toe of her shoe caught on the broken edge. She lurched and crashed into the person who was just passing by, arms laden with groceries.

 

     Cans rolled, mixing with the apples and potatoes. A carton of eggs landed with a splat. Kagome opened her eyes, surprised that she didn't fall, and met a pair of concerned blue eyes.

 

     "Are you falling for me, beautiful Kagome?" Kouga asked, his hands grasping her arms to keep her upright. Kagome blushed and tried to twist away. He tightened his grip, smiling in his usual charming manner.

 

     Inuyasha grabbed a hold of Kagome, pulling her away from Kouga. "Are you all right, angel?" He glared at Kouga, hoping that he would take the hint.

 

     "Did you hurt yourself, 'Gome?" Shiro asked, concern clouding his violet eyes.

 

     "I'm fine." Kagome smiled reassuringly at Shiro. She stepped away from Inuyasha and turned that same smile on Kouga. "Thanks to Kouga."

 

     Kouga finally seemed to realize that Inuyasha was there. His grin took on a challenging tilt. "If it isn't Inuyasha. Long time no see. I'd ask what you've been up to, but I can see that you've been busy." His gaze passed over Shiro and slid in Kagome's direction.

 

     "Do you know each other?" Kagome asked. She turned to Inuyasha. "Why didn't you say something earlier, Inuyasha?"

 

     "Yeah, we went to school together." To avoid looking at Kouga, he watched Shiro who had started collecting the items that had fallen earlier. "I haven't seen him since graduation. Didn't even know he was back in town."

 

     Shiro chose that moment to come toddling over to them, his arms filled with canned goods. "I found some of your groceries, mister salesman." He deposited his load in Kouga's arms and bent down to examine the egg carton. A yellowish fluid had begun to collect under the carton. He looked up at Kouga, his little face solemn. "I think your eggs had an accident."

 

     Kouga reached down and ruffled Shiro's hair. "That's okay, sport. I'll just have to buy some more."

 

     Shiro grinned and retreated to his daddy's side. He continued to peer at Kouga curiously. "Do you know my daddy, mister salesman?"

 

     Kouga laughed. "I went to school with your daddy, sport. You can call me Kouga."

 

     "Don't you have someplace to be, Kouga?" Inuyasha demanded, ignoring Kagome's smack on the arm for his rudeness.

 

     "Well, I was on my way home, but I need to head back to the store to buy more groceries." Kagome mumbled an embarrassed apology. "Not your fault, beautiful. But you could make it up to me by letting me take you to lunch."

 

     Inuyasha clenched his fists. "Now wait a minute! What gives you the right--?"

 

     Laying a calming hand on his arm, Kagome smiled pleasantly at Kouga but directed her comment to Inuyasha. "He's just kidding. No need to get bent out of shape."

 

     "Of course, beautiful, but if you ever change your mind… " Kouga left the offer hanging. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and held out something to her. "If you're free this Saturday, come by the go-kart racetrack."

 

     Kagome accepted the papers, which turned out to be tickets to a go- kart race. "You're a racecar driver?"

 

     "It's something I do in my free time." Kouga shrugged modestly. "I hope to see you there." With a wave, he turned and sauntered away.

 

     "This sounds like fun." Kagome studied the three tickets. "Do you want to go to a go-kart race, Shiro?"

 

     "Yeah!" Shiro bounced excitedly. "I want to go! I want to go!"

 

     "Hold on," Inuyasha objected. "I didn't agree to this! You should ask me first before making promises! I--" He stopped and looked at the disappointed face of his son. His shoulders slumped and he admitted defeat. "Okay, we'll go."

 

     Linking her arm with his, Kagome smiled and took Shiro's hand with her other hand. "That's my Inuyasha! It'll be fun, you'll see."

 

^**^

 

     Kagome looked around and smiled. She took a deep breath, inhaling the smells of dirt and machinery. Underneath it all, she could detect the tantalizing aroma of buttered popcorn. Inuyasha grumbled that the sun was too bright, or that the air was too cold and Shiro needed a heavier jacket. Maybe he should go home and get one? Kagome ignored him.

 

     "Look, 'Gome!" Shiro tugged on her hand and pointed. "Balloons! Can I have one?" Brightly colored balloons bobbed in the gentle breeze, fastened to railings and chairs. One young man stood among a crowd of children, handing out more balloons.

 

     Kagome handed her tickets to the smiling woman at the gate. She craned her neck, trying to see everything. "Wow, so many people. I wonder what's going on today."

 

     "Would you like a balloon, little man?" Kagome looked over to see the balloon man offering a blue balloon to Shiro. Unexpectedly shy, Shiro turned to his daddy for approval. At Inuyasha's nod, Shiro reached forward.

 

     "I want red!" The balloon man didn't bat an eye, just exchanged the blue balloon for a red one. Kagome watched with a slight smile on her face as Inuyasha deftly tied a slip knot in the string and secured it about his son’s wrist.  Shiro jerked his arm to make the balloon dance, giggling in delight.

 

     "Hey, beautiful!" Kagome turned around at the sound of Kouga's voice. "Enjoying the show?" Kouga approached from the direction of the racetrack, clad in bright colors and with his helmet tucked under one arm.

 

     "It's amazing, Kouga," she replied. Inuyasha snorted and crossed his arms over his chest.

 

     "Something wrong, Inuyasha?" Kouga asked mildly. You don't look like you're having fun." Inuyasha pointedly looked in the other direction, not bothering to answer. "Actually, I'm surprised you came. You should have let Kagome come by herself instead of following her like a puppy."

 

     Whipping his head around, Inuyasha glared at Kouga. "What did you call me?"

 

     Kagome stepped between them, hastily trying to think of something to say to prevent a fight. "What's going on, Kouga? Why all the people and reporters?"

 

     "This," and the sweep of Kouga's arms took in the entire area, "is our annual fundraiser for the children's hospital. All proceeds go to benefit terminally ill children."

 

     "That's wonderful!" Kagome clasped her hands together, her eyes shining. She turned to look at Inuyasha. "Isn't that wonderful?"

 

     "Feh! Whatever," Inuyasha muttered. Kagome frowned at him.

 

     "Well, I think it's wonderful," Kagome asserted. Inuyasha had been acting odd lately. Shrugging, she decided to ignore his strange behavior and enjoy the excitement of the race.

 

     Shiro tugged on Kouga's pant leg to get his attention. "I like your outfit. Are you really going to race?"

 

     "Sure am, sport." He dropped his helmet on Shiro's head. The little boy giggled as the too big helmet slipped over his eyes. "Why don't I show you my go-kart before I have to get ready?"

 

     "Yay!" Shiro willingly took Kouga's hand. Kagome pulled a still grumbling Inuyasha after them, smiling indulgently as Shiro began peppering Kouga with questions.

 

     A short time later, the three of them stood pressed against the railing encircling the track. Only the privilege of knowing Kouga had allowed them to get this close. The stands were packed. Several excited children, chosen representatives from the hospital, screamed and yelled from their seats in the V.I.P. area.

 

     Kouga waved at the cheering crowd as the go-karts drove one slow lap around the track. The loudspeaker buzzed and crackled, barely heard above the rumble of the engines and the screaming of the fans. The eight go-karts lined up on the starting line that would also be the finish line at the end of the race.

 

     "Ladies and gentlemen," the loudspeaker echoed over the noise of the crowd. "Welcome to the third annual go-kart derby! All of the money we take in tonight will go to the children's hospital right here in our own city! May we have a round of applause for go-kart driver Kouga for his efforts in founding the derby?" Anything else that might have been said was drowned out by the cheers from the crowd. Surprised, Kagome turned to Inuyasha. Since the noise was too great for them to talk, he just shrugged to let her know that he hadn't known about this either.

 

     There was a burst of static from the loudspeaker. All of the engines roared in readiness as if that had been a signal. Lights flashed green. And they were off! Shiro leaned over the railing, shouting in excitement. Inuyasha grabbed the back of his shirt to keep him from tumbling onto the track.

 

     Kagome strained to see through the dust that cloaked the racers. By the far turn, the racers had sorted themselves into some kind of order. She could see the red and yellow that was Kouga holding steady in third place. In a ten lap race, it didn't matter who took the lead first. Only the finishing lap counted.

 

     It must have been the fifth lap that it happened. Or maybe it was the sixth. Kouga had held onto third place despite the jockeying of the other drivers. He made his move just as they were approaching the stands. He lifted one hand to wave--to Kagome or to his fans, it didn't really matter. The kart in second place, a young racer out to make a name for himself in his first race, briefly lost control. He veered into Kouga's path. Kouga swerved. They collided with enough impact to flip Kouga's kart into the air. For a breathless moment, it seemed to hang suspended in the air. Then it hit the ground, rolling several times before coming to rest upside down. Kagome's scream was lost in the uproar from the stands. The loudspeaker crackled to life.

 

     "Please let the emergency personnel through! Stay calm! Everything is under control! I repeat, everything is under control!"

 

^**^

 

Food for thought (courtesy of Cattykit):

 

Nothing would ever get done if it weren't for the last minute

copyright: The Literary Dragon 2004