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― 馨物語 ―
KAORU MONOGATARI ARC

In Medias Res miniseries, Part IV of VI

Title: Checkmate
Pairing(s): Kaoru/club member
Rating: M
Disclaimer: Ouran High School Host Club belongs to Hatori Bisco and related companies.
Word Count: approximately 30,000 words in 6 parts. [Complete]

Complete summary: Straight 'in the middle of things'. Kaoru has been seeing one of his host club colleagues on the sly. Everything has now come to a head and it's time to decide the course of the future.



CHECKMATE


"Nothing you have not given away will ever really be yours." – C.S. Lewis


"Oh, Kaoru/-kun/-san!" about a dozen voices exclaim in a chorus when the bride-to-be emerges from behind the changing screen, Kaoru standing at her back.

He smiles, pleased and proud, and bows in acknowledgement at the lavish compliments. It is flawless on her, as he'd known it would be from the fitting process. Hayashida-san had insisted on a test drive before the party, and they are ensconced in the plush dressing-room of her enormous bedroom suite with a group of women including the sisters and best friends of the bride and groom.

The ooohs and ahhhs do not cease as the magnificent wedding gown glitters beneath the light of the chandelier, marveled at from every angle by its applauding audience.

"And here's the jewellery to go with it," Kaoru announces, whipping out a velvet-lined box with a flourish. The bride-to-be gasps, flushes pink with joy and turns around for Kaoru to drape the dainty necklace around her.

When she is adorned with every item of jewellery painstakingly designed by the top artisans of the craft (with Kaoru's input, naturally), Kaoru goes to his bag to fetch pins to affix the veil and tiara to the elegant updo. Haruhi hands the tiny box to him and clasps his fingers surreptitiously, her face crumpling for a fleeting moment.

Don't, Kaoru tells her silently, knowing that he is transparent to her. If somebody sees, it'll be disastrous.

She nods and actually offers to help him.

In another suite down the hall, maybe the groom-to-be has opened the clothes boxes that Kaoru had not the courage to personally deliver to him. Maybe he will be uninterested in trying them on; maybe Hikaru and the rest of the club will have to talk him into letting them check the fit for the final time. Will he know that Kaoru was the one who made it, stitch-by-stitch like a tailor instead of the couturier he is, even if Hayashida-san had implicitly banned him from designing it? Will he know despite the ample precautions that Kaoru had taken to erase any identifying traces of his workmanship?

The complete ensemble is stunning on Hayashida-san.

Haruhi had been no less beautiful in her gown, but Hayashida-san has the advantage of height and a curvier figure than Haruhi. There's no possibility of mistaking this woman for a male.

As they are heaping praise on the bride-to-be, the bedroom door opens suddenly and men's voices are heard. Being the Roi Grand, of course Tamaki has the master key, but only one person would have the gall.

Hayashida-san barely manages to dash behind the screen before the groom appears in the doorway to the dressing-room, utterly barefaced and nonchalant about it. Kaoru has to force himself to breathe, because this – this, typically inflames in him a whirlwind of lust and it's tacit permission, really, to wantonly jump his unfairly debonair partner to make him lose his cool.

The women (Haruhi excluded) go into a frenzy to shield Hayashida-san from view.

"Kyouya!" Fuyumi-san rebukes. "It's unlucky for the groom to see the bride in her wedding dress before the ceremony!"

He gets a glint in his eyes – his patented 'like I care' look with a deceptively polite smile. "Father has arrived and is waiting in the restaurant with our brothers. I am to escort Erisa-san down to dinner."

The women chase him away just as he squeezes the last syllable out. Some of them are unconvinced at the ability of the men to behave themselves in the suite and head out with him; another portion decides that they should seat themselves at the tables first; after an inordinate amount of hustle and bustle, Kaoru is the only person left in the dressing-room with Hayashida-san to assist her out of her gown and accessories.

Expertly, he lays the jewellery onto the cushions and unzips the dress for Hayashida-san, providing instructions on how best to remove it before rounding the screen to give her privacy.

When she passes it to him, he sets about hanging it up in a way that will afford it maximum protection before the big day.

"Kaoru-san," she requests amidst the rustle of clothing, "will you style my hair for the dinner?"

"Sure. Whenever you're ready."

She comes out in a gorgeous sapphire blue cocktail dress. "Thank you. You have such skill with the hair iron."

Kaoru laughs and indicates the chair by the mirror. "I've undergone training, that's all."

Hayashida-san sits, and he begins to separate her hair into manageable sections and curls one of those sections around the iron. Three-quarters through, she says, "Kaoru-san, I do not want you there at the ceremony."

Kaoru almost burns his fingers.

"Nor the dinner reception."

He sighs, placing the iron on the dresser and pulling up a chair. "Hayashida-san, Kyouya-senpai is one of my best friends."

She regards him with disdainful scorn. "He's more than that. Earlier I was uncertain but now there is no doubt in my mind. I know I am not unattractive, he is persistently distant and unmoved – I began to suspect he might have someone else in his life; I know for a fact that the women whose names are associated with him are products of the media's rumour-mongering, so although it was unthinkable, I suspected the members of your infamous school club, eventually narrowing it down to you."

At a loss as to what to say, Kaoru takes in a deep breath and releases it slowly.

"I can see why he liked you. You are not without appeal," she concedes, catching Kaoru off guard. "However, that does not entitle you to have him and it is not a valid reason for me to bow out. He has no future with you; you must see that, Kaoru-san. He may not love me yet, but we are an excellent match and love can be cultivated with time and proximity."

"I know," Kaoru tells her, keeping any compassion in check in order not to sound condescending. Of all the people on earth, he has extensively observed Kyouya and he knows what factors will boost Kyouya's rate of success. These factors essentially coincide in her – no, they are her. She is his success personified, because Ootori-sama has unequivocally pledged to her parents that the family business will go to Kyouya and her. "I'm not a threat, Hayashida-san. I will not sabotage this wedding, and I refuse to be involved with people who are married."

"Absent yourself from the entirety of the wedding, and when I am Mrs. Ootori I will believe you."

She's afraid that Kyouya will pick me over her at the last minute, Kaoru realises. That's true, such a scandal would be too huge to live down. God, the fear must be eating her alive.

"I understand. You have my word," Kaoru says solemnly. "I will make myself scarce."

"Good. Hurry, please, I don't want to keep my future father-in-law waiting any longer."

.

-------

.


"Kaoru."

Unexpectedly, someone pulls Kaoru into a big, comforting embrace, large hands bracing Kaoru's back and head gently.

"Mori-senpai…" Kaoru mumbles, feeling himself crumble and shatter apart against his will. When he tries to escape with an edge of delirious urgency, Honey wraps himself around him from the back and traps him there.

This is exactly what Kaoru had to avoid at all costs. He tears himself away by pushing them none too kindly, apologising for the rudeness of his actions without regretting the actions themselves. The image is wrong and tacky, sending out the impossibly crass messages that he's a victimised martyr when he's anything but. Of all the days his seniors could have hugged him and he'd have loved it, why now?

Quickly, nervously, Kaoru scans the area. The informal dinner is in full swing, and the guests are milling about in Haiku, the traditional Japanese restaurant located by the lobby of Roi Grand. The premises are booked out for the day, giving them free rein to open the shoji screen separators, wander the tatami rooms, and stroll around the wooden deck that leads to the outdoors Zen rock garden.

Thankfully, they are concealed at the far edge of the garden so no non-club member had witnessed it – as usual, the seniors are unimpeachable in their actions.

"What's everyone doing here?" Kaoru asks tiredly, lowering himself onto a stone bench. "You guys should know better. Some of you go back in, please."

"You look awful, Kaoru," Haruhi says bluntly, a frown creasing her forehead.

"I don't, you know. It's just your mind adding extra colour to your perception."

"You really do," Hikaru asserts.

"It's work," Kaoru explains. "Three months is a really narrow turnaround period for a commission such as that."

"Because she made you design the jewellery and even the flower arrangements, for fuck's sake. The bridal bouquet, the corsages, the boutonnières – who the hell does she think you are?! Why doesn't she just ask you to design the ballroom or, hey, let's throw in the architecture of the shrine too!"

"Hikaru, we've – "

"No, actually, who the hell does she think she is?!"

"A Hayashida, that's who!" Kaoru hisses. "A soon-to-be-Ootori. Business is business, okay? These two families are fucking good business, I am a fucking ace practitioner of ikebana and an even better fashion designer, so shut. up. about. it."

Mori grips Hikaru's shoulder to cut off his reply. At once, Hikaru sags with remorse and misery, causing the same feelings to flare within Kaoru instantly.

"Sorry," they both say simultaneously, and Hikaru grabs one of Kaoru's hands to tug him upwards into a smothering hug.

Kaoru wriggles out of it. "Stop that. All of you have to stop doing that; I can't handle it."

"You used to wish we'd do it more often," Tamaki whispers sorrowfully.

Kaoru has to smile at that. "I still do. I absolutely still do. One day I will make up for this, so you'd better be prepared to be hugged to death, Tono."

He doesn't accept it, Kaoru senses that he doesn't –

Tamaki, Haruhi, Hikaru, Honey and Mori launch a coordinated offensive, locking him in with nowhere to go.

In the middle of the group hug, Kaoru quips with the extraordinary calmness of impending hysteria, "Are you trying to make me cry?"

"It's okay now, Kao-chan. Everything's okay now. If you want to cry, you can."

"Great, Honey-senpai. I'll do that when I go home today. In fact, I'll go home this second – the dinner's practically over, isn't it? I don't have to stay and drink, but you guys feel free to stay, okay?"

Tamaki is crying, Kaoru notes with detached horror, and so is Hikaru. Haruhi looks close to it while the seniors are drawn and ashen.

"Hey…" Kaoru breathes, patting them lovingly and planting a kiss on their cheeks. "Seriously, we can't do this here. Come on, stop. Get a hold of yourselves. We can't jeopardise Kyouya's wed – Kyouya-senpai's wedding. He's your friend too, you know, you can't take my side over his."

He fishes in his pocket for a packet of tissues and wipes their tears for them. "I'll stay and get drunk with you, all right? I'll stay. Please, please stop."

They do, but they won't unhand him.

"Let us hold you for a minute more," Tamaki insists, and Kaoru humours them because he loves them so much it hurts.

When they finally split apart, they all giggle a little. Kaoru ensures that they are presentable – adjusting their ties, rearranging their hair, straightening their jackets, smoothing out Haruhi's dress – before allowing any of them to make their way back in.

Hikaru halts his fussing with another bear hug and a kiss that transcends time and space.

"Yes, yes," Kaoru says lightly, taking on an inquiring demeanor when Hikaru clutches on even tighter.

"Take care, Kaoru," Hikaru orders, voice muffled.

"… Huh?"

"Take care of yourself," Mori echoes affectionately.

They drag him indoors and start playing a commoners' drinking game suggested by Tamaki.

.

-------

.


Kaoru inches his zabuton closer to Haruhi and slumps sideways on her in exhaustion. She supports his weight with the ease of long practice, accustomed to this sort of behaviour from the twins.

"Kaoru," Haruhi says in an undertone. "After this blows over, let's go on a holiday?"

Warmed to the core, Kaoru grins at her. "You bet. I want to go to Argentina."

She nods. "I'll arrange it."

"Haruhi," he murmurs, watching the other people around the table, "why are you so amazing?"

"I'm not the person who designed that gown," she says dryly, also keeping her eyes on the Ootoris. Hayashida-san's friends have left and apart from the two families soon to be bound by matrimony, only the ex-host-club members remain lounging about lazily. Hayashida-san is glued to Kyouya's side, and Kaoru knows that Haruhi feels sympathetic towards her as well. At least, neither Kaoru nor Haruhi has had to settle for the indifferent scraps of a lover's heart and they have first-hand experience of the blistering frostiness Kyouya is capable of.

Earnestly, Kaoru asks, "You liked it?"

She nods again and flicks a glance to her husband, who is miraculously chatting quietly with Hikaru and Mori. "It's the most beautiful dress I've ever seen. Sometimes I think clothes can be a bit shallow, but when I see yours and Hikaru's creations, I can understand their purpose… I know why people feel good in them."

Kaoru laughs. "Perfect art has no purpose."

Brown eyes look at him knowingly. Too simply for a truth this frightening, she says, "You're becoming a piece of art yourself, Kaoru."

He falls silent.

"Isn't it? Infinitely beautiful but ultimately impractical, a luxury but not a necessity, waiting for the one collector who will treasure you but subjecting yourself to their power to keep you or give you up."

"… Haruhi, that was unbelievably hurtful."

"I'm very angry at you," she informs him candidly. The screen of Tamaki's phone flashes with an incoming call; she hands it to him along with her phone (for whatever reason) and he excuses himself promptly, passing the waiter who walks in with more sake to be served to the two families – over the course of the dinner, they must have hammered out several almost-contracts for the export of medicines to the countless foreign countries in which Hayashida-san's family has links with.

"Papa, will it be all right for Father-in-law-sama and Kyouya-san to come to the international industry convention next month? We can ship globally but Father-in-law-sama will need local means of transporting the medicines to the hospitals. Father-in-law-sama, do you think it will be useful for you to meet representatives from locally-based – "

Ootori-sama values Hayashida-san and she, him; on her father's side she is a shipping heiress, on her mother's side she is the princess of Japan's foremost air freight company – she brings a lot to their family and gets as much in return.

" – Excellent idea, my daughter! Yoshio-san, it will be held in Belgium this year on the – "

The transactional nature of their conversations is obvious even to untrained ears – the parents of the bride and groom have treated this as a gigantic business negotiation.

"My, my, Erisa, isn't it too soon? That's only two days after you and Kyouya-kun return from your honeymoon! Don't you lovebirds want to take your time after looking forward to this wedding for so long? I'm sure in future – "

The loose curls piled atop Hayashida-san's head bounce vigorously. "No, Mama, it isn't too soon. Kyouya-san and I are looking forward to making a life together more than anything!"

Mama Hayashida laughs. "Is that so, Kyouya-kun? Do you wish to go?"

"How can I pass up such a golden opportunity?" Kyouya is on autopilot, host mode cranked up to the max in a way that never fails to make Kaoru smile. Maybe he finds this insincerity funny precisely because he is one of a handful of recipients of Kyouya's sincerity.

Papa Hayashida joins in with a hearty, full-bodied belly laugh, Hayashida-san contributes with her tinkling crystal-glass chirp.

"Not that we don't want to get married!" she qualifies as the fusuma slides open to admit Tamaki.

Honey scoots along the tatami mats to them. "Kao-chan, listen: no matter what,you will always have us."

"Come hell or high water," Hikaru agrees with an unholy smirk, withdrawing a slim clearfile from inside his suit jacket.

Perplexed and rattled, Kaoru looks to the others frantically.

Kyouya's dark eyes are waiting, craving, like a starving orphan for a morsel of food or a prisoner towards the limitless blue sky –

Tamaki inclines his head, almost imperceptible.

Time slows down, distilled into a blazing starbright moment of blinding illumination.

Everything, everything…!

The reason Hikaru hadn't gone on a murderous rampage, the reason no one feels the slightest need to pick sides, the reason Kyouya had dallied at the graveyard, the reason it'd seemed just like old times at the café earlier, the reason for that scene in the rock garden –

Oh my god.

Kyouya had been saying goodbye to his mother; Kaoru's friends had been saying goodbye too – they knew Kyouya was going to choose him and take him away to the ends of the earth to avoid what will no doubt be a grisly, blood-soaked furore –

Kaoru shoots to his feet. "I'm not feeling well I'm going home thank you for your generous hospitality Ootori-sama and both Hayashida-samas!"

It does not manage to quell Kyouya's, "I'd like to get married, but unfortunately not to you."

God, Hayashida-san's face.

"Not to you in a week's time, he means, because a week is too long for Kyouya-senpai to wait to be with you!" Kaoru cries, willing Kyouya to sit back down. "If he could he'd marry you right this – "

"Shut it, Kaoru," Hikaru says kindly, resisting Kaoru's efforts to drag him away.

The Ootoris and Hayashidas are swiftly going from bewildered to incensed.

Seeing that his brother won't budge, Kaoru knows he has to leave himself and he strides to the exit while trying to show the requisite courtesy. Please, there must still be some way to salvage this situation!

"Sign it, Kyouya-senpai."

Kaoru pivots back in a flurry as Hikaru casually tosses the clearfile on the table and clicks his pen with a distinct note of triumph.

"What – what is that?" Kaoru asks fearfully.

Lightning-fast, Kyouya leafs through the pages and, satisfied, inscribes his signature.

"Tachibana-san will get a copy of it before the day is out," Hikaru guarantees.

"What is that?" Kaoru demands.

"Your pre-nup," Hikaru says cheerfully. "You wouldn't sue Kyouya-senpai even if he bankrupted you and left you for dead, so we devised a way for me to be a party to the contract instead."

Kaoru lunges for the document.

Mori snatches it out of his reach and vanishes from the room in the time it takes to blink.

"Are you mad?! Why did you sign it?! Mori-senpai, give it back!"

The screens part to reveal Kyouya's team and not Mori. They bow and Tachibana says, "Kyouya-sama, the car is waiting."

Kaoru backs away in panic when Kyouya moves towards him.

"Hikaru, dissolve the contract."

"No way."

"If you love me, dissolve it!"

Kyouya interrupts smoothly, "The existence of this contract is proof that we love you."

Tamaki stands at his back, the two kings of the old host club united. "And it is the only reason we consented to let Kyouya test you for three whole months while we stood by the sidelines and watched you suffer."

"… Test?" Kaoru's breath hitches.

"A wager, Kao-chan," Honey explains. "Did Kao-chan really think that Hika-chan or the rest of us wouldn't confront Kyou-chan when we found out?"

Kaoru glares at them.

"Kyou-chan wanted to see how Kao-chan would react when forced to choose between his welfare and yours, even if Kyou-chan ignores you, even if the pain must have been intolerable, even if Kao-chan had the option to be petty and take revenge. In exchange for our inaction, if Kao-chan leaked this information to the press then it serves Kyou-chan right and he won't blame you, or, if Kao-chan stays true, then Kyou-chan not only signs that contract but spends this lifetime making it up to you." Honey finishes rather threateningly, and Kyouya dips his head in affirmation of that vow.

Hikaru chortles. "To be fair, Kyouya-senpai, it was totally rigged. A few times I couldn't take it and actually tried to get him to give up, but really I knew Kaoru would pass."

"So did I." Kyouya smiles, a little smug and a little soft. Breezily, he states, "If I am to give up my entire inheritance for you, I had to be certain."

"Hikaru, how could you do this to me?" Kaoru whispers.

"Don't worry, I'll never forgive myself," Hikaru's voice cracks sadly. "It killed me to have to pretend that I didn't know what Kyouya-senpai was doing, and you probably didn't notice only because you were so zoned out from heartbreak."

"Not that!" Kaoru snaps, livid. "Months! Months I told you how important this marriage is and months I pleaded with you to let it happen! How could you do this to me?! Are the things that are important to me just so trivial to you?! You should have talked him out of it!"

Kaoru turns on his friends. "All of you should have talked him out of it! Do you have no sense at all?! Tono, don't you know what such a decision would mean?!"

"You've placed me above everything else," Kyouya points out, "why can't I do the same for you? If you won't stretch your hand out to take what's yours, I'll have to come to you then, won't I?"

Game over.

Ootori-sama is seething, Fuyumi-san is crushed and her brothers are too shocked to be pleased that Kyouya has taken himself out of the competition. Hayashida-san's parents are gobsmacked, and Hayashida-san…

Her expression is indescribable, only that she hates him with every fibre of her being.

"Don't do this!" Kaoru begs mindlessly, knees buckling. "Don't do this, please! Kyouya-senpai, apologise to your father! Apologise to Hayashida-san! It's not worth it! Don't throw away your future!"

"You are my future. Stop with the 'senpai'."

"I can't carry this guilt, why can't you understand this?! I can move on, but I can't live with the knowledge that I've caused you to fail! What about your family? Fuyumi-san is crying, I know you care!"

Tamaki bends down to bring himself level with Kaoru, pressing his hands to either side of Kaoru's head to lift it and with his thumbs he tenderly brushes away – tears? When had he started crying too?

"Wrong," Tamaki corrects as Hikaru sidles up to them to cradle him. "Wrong, Kaoru. What Kyouya wants is to succeed, and you are the one who will give him the best chance of success. The people that he values, the dreams that he pursues – they are as precious to you as they are to him."

"With Hayashida-san it isn't even a chance, it's a done deal! Kyouya-senpai will have everything! This is the stupidest move in the history of stupid moves!"

Perfectly creased trousers appear in his sight; familiar fingers thread intimately through his hair. "Do you need me to say it?"

Kaoru looks up hopelessly.

Kyouya sighs. "I would have everything, but I wouldn't have you."

Nobody reacts to a confession of this magnitude – everyone is barely able to use their lungs, much less any other part of their bodies.

"Of course," Kyouya continues, forever an Ootori, "with you I will build my own empire."

Someone apparently has the presence of mind to burst into laughter. "Kyouya-senpai banzai!"

Kyouya smirks and pats Hikaru's head fondly. "It must have been hard on you too. Thank you for having faith in me."

Hikaru winks.

"Enough of this!" Hayashida-san intervenes angrily, splotches of red high on her cheeks. "Leave now, Kaoru-san!"

It is as though her recovery unfreezes the others and everyone leaps up to begin clamouring, resulting in a hostile cacophonous uproar. Only Haruhi and Kaoru remain as they are – she is seated and calm, he feels too frail to stand.

"Preposterous!" Both Hayashida parents hit the ceiling, loudly demanding that Ootori-sama account for this.

Ootori-sama's eyes are narrowed to dangerous slits and the whiteness of his face stands out starkly against his black suit. "Kyouya, you will cease this nonsense at once."

The temperature of the whole hotel plunges to sub-zero.

Yuuichi-san, Fuyumi-san, Akito-san and Kyouya all lean back a fraction, tiny and unnoticeable except to those who know to look.

Kyouya's still afraid of his father. Kaoru closes his eyes against the flood of emotions. Yes, of course – it's too ingrained and there will always be traces of it within the children, but he's standing there between you and his father, he's standing there for you!

Ferociously, Hayashida-san declares, "I will overlook this if you leave now, Kaoru-san. Think of our families' reputations! Only you can preserve them, do you want to bring shame on Kyouya-san's family? Are you going to be selfish?"

Kaoru has to give her credit: she really knows to attack her opponents' weak spots – what a splendidly lethal partner she would have been for Kyouya!

He struggles to his feet.

Wordlessly, he bows to her and makes for the door.

He keeps walking even when someone commands, "Stay where you are!" because it's clearly directed at the person who would follow him – Kyouya.

The ex-host-club shouts his name and Team Kyouya blocks him from fleeing.

As predicted, Ootori-sama issues more cutting commands to the servants.

"We're sorry, Master," the three men staunchly refuse. "We answer only to Kyouya-sama."

"Just this evening," Kaoru reveals, "I told Hayashida-san that I will not sabotage this wedding. If the three of you know what's good for Kyouya-senpai, move aside."

"What's good for Kyouya-sama is what he chooses, Kaoru-sama," Hotta says loyally.

"Quite," Kyouya says, taking a few steps towards Kaoru.

"Boy!" Papa Hayashida roars, addressing Kyouya but stalking towards Kaoru menacingly. "Have you not humiliated my family enough?!"

Aijima springs forward to act as a shield as Hotta wraps a muscled arm around Kaoru's midriff and carries him to safety.

"Kaoru-san doesn't want you!" Hayashida-san shrieks, composure finally smashed to smithereens. "So what if you feel for him, Kyouya-san? Kaoru-san is still adamant on leaving! He knows he can only be a fling for you, why don't you know it?!"

Hikaru explodes. "Watch your mouth!"

"Kyouya-kun, to choose that boy over my daughter is ludicrous! Everyone knows the Hitachiin twins are offensive, impudent brats!" Mama Hayashida adds fuel to the raging fire. "Behaving indecently in broad daylight since childhood! Did this slutty brat throw himself at you after his brother found a girlfriend and no longer wanted to commit immoralities with him?"

Even Haruhi gasps.

Mori materialises out of thin air to restrain Hikaru.

"We know that Hayashida-san is hurting on behalf of your daughter and your pride is wounded," Honey snarls, fully descended into his AB devil mode, "but say anything to that effect again and you face the combined wrath of our families."

Kyouya is bloodless with fury.

"Kaoru-san doesn't want to be a nuisance! He doesn't want you despite all you've done for him, Kyouya-san!" Hayashida-san repeats. "Accept it!"

"Accept it? And marry you, I presume you mean? By this point, a harmonious marriage between you and me is impossible. Besides, who are you to tell me about my Kaoru? The things he wants the most, he also pushes away with the greatest force, though this is hardly something you'd know, is it?"

Dangling limply like a marionette slung over Hotta's arm, Kaoru numbly says, "No."

Unplanned, his pindrop utterance carries through the area because its timing lands exactly in the middle of a pause. Everyone turns to stare.

Hotta releases him carefully.

"No, I don't want you," Kaoru says brokenly. "I don't recognise you."

Impatiently, Hikaru advises, "Kaoru, stop denying it. It's futile."

"The person I fell for, my Kyouya, weighs everything up in his mind and is level-headed, realistic, farsighted, dependable and organised to a fault. He has priorities and plenty of common sense, understands duty and hates to cause a scene. His heritage, his name, his family are deeply cherished by him. To his acquaintances and the world at large, his medical roots have taught him to 'first do no harm'; to those close to him he is insanely protective, and there is no way he would make a whimsical decision that would cripple his family's standing and recklessly abandon Hayashida-san to be mauled by the press."

His old friends beam brilliantly at him, their radiance rivaling the noonday sun.

"See? Completely futile," Hikaru teases.

Kaoru blinks in disbelief. Don't tell me… the real reason for Kyouya's extreme overload of work…

"Such an affront," Kyouya drawls, all silk satin and dark chocolate. "After demonstrating your conviction in my meritorious qualities, surely you must know that I have plans for every contingency."

"… You… didn't…"

"He did!" Tamaki and Hikaru exclaim gleefully.

"We did." Kyouya sets the record straight.

Kaoru is riveted, unable to stem the stream of tears. His heart is still hurting, no, it's scorched, which is crazy because his feelings have been flipped downside up.

"Congratulations…" he exhales unsteadily, knowing that he is on the verge of surrender.

"Much better." Kyouya nods, and delivers the coup de grâce to break his resistance: "The next time you make my clothes, let them bear your hallmark."

Kaoru flies to him.

His beloved catches him effortlessly, as he always has and so he always will.

Pandemonium ensues.

Papa Hayashida's railing is deafening and directionless, spraying everyone with his malice; Mama Hayashida is raising a stink, calling Kaoru a range of successively more belittling and derogatory names; one too many names sets Haruhi off and she begins to defend Kaoru with the same stinging ire that she'd shown in high school when the twins would engage in sham fights, Hikaru gangs up with her to trade insults with Mama Hayashida blow-for-blow; Fuyumi-san is trying to persuade Kyouya to go home and discuss the issue with Ootori-sama; Akito-san has decided to be hopping mad about the harm to the family's image and is castigating his younger brother for being irresponsible; like his sister Yuuichi-san is firing reasonable arguments at his father non-stop to get Ootori-sama to relocate the melee back to home ground; steam is evaporating off Ootori-sama as the two blond ex-hosts take on this boss fight and Ootori-sama is warning them about the talk he will be having with the Haninozuka and Suou parents; Hayashida-san is unmoving and Mori is keeping an eye on her in case she snaps – ah, she does, launching herself at the entwined couple and Mori dives to seize her in virtually the same manner as Hotta had handled Kaoru; the three servants have regrouped, watching their higher-ups duke it out with each other in a battle royal.

Kaoru sucks in a strangled breath and gawks with unadulterated terror at the catastrophic consequences. If this is the reaction on a small scale, what will the big scale be like?

From the refuge of Kyouya's arms, someone else intrudes to separate them and bodily hoists Kaoru up to retreat from the epicentre. Kaoru doesn't repel the grip because the balmy scent tells him that it's Hotta carrying him off – Aijima shuts the fusuma on them as Hayashida-san screams, "Kaoru-san, you are not keeping your word!"

An ear-piercing tweet reverberates out from the room that Kaoru has just been removed from – it's Tachibana's portable buzzer that he attaches to his keyring for use in times of emergencies. In the deserted restaurant, the absence of sound is twice as foreboding.

"He is honouring a prior agreement with me, and I, him – which by definition takes precedence over either of our agreements with you," is the last discernible sentence Kaoru hears as Hotta clears the array of empty tables and exits through the back door of the kitchen to a parked jet-black car that is almost blended into the dead of the night.

/i
Next: Chapter 5: The Price You're Paying For It
Previous: Chapter 3: Endgame Move
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Delphia

July 2012

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