That business of art
Somewhere in the innumerable rule books written by Tono since the foundation of the Host Club, there was something about not sprawling gracelessly over a desk the second recess started. Over the first two hours of morning classes, Hikaru idly reasoned that Tono was an alien and as such ran on a long-lasting alien (or possibly French) battery. He would be punished for that. Hikaru didn't know how yet, but something had to be done, because it was just unfair.
Damn, he was tired. Kaoru, sitting at his side and staring at Hikaru's desk as if trying to decide whether it would make an acceptable pillow, was not doing any better.
When Hikaru opened his eyes after half a second of rest, there was a pair of dresses in front of him.
Really, he didn't mind being popular. However much he could complain, he enjoyed the attention: the feeling of being looked at, the excited whispers that bloomed wherever he and his brother walked. Hell, even the truckloads of chocolate on Valentine's day.
Right now, though, he felt a lot like Hani-senpai when his nap got interrupted.
"Kaoru-kun, Hikaru-kun," one of the dresses said hesitantly, as if she wasn't sure she wanted to be heard. He glanced up blearily and tried to remember why her face was familiar. It clicked when, from the corner of his eye, he saw Kaoru smile charmingly at her. Club guest. Right. Pay attention.
"Is there anything we can do for you?"
She blushed and looked down, batting her eyelashes coyly. What was that girl's name again? She and her friend were in class 2C and frequent customers of theirs, but he couldn't seem to remember what either of them was called. Sleep deprivation was a bitch.
"We were wondering if the two of you would like to go to that new tea salon? We hear their cakes are delicious," she offered, smiling shyly, and Hikaru was bored with the conversation already.
"After club activities, of course!" She offered, cutting Kaoru's answer short with a hopeful smile.
There was no helping it. Hikaru wrapped an arm around his brother's shoulders and gazed at him lovingly. "I'm really sorry, but I kept Kaoru up quite late last night, and we'll need to rest today."
Kaoru looked back with eyes that saw only him, gave a brilliant smile, raised a hand to brush against Hikaru's cheek, and a few seconds later they heard the sound of retreating feet.
"Making photo montages of Haruhi," Kaoru completed once the girls were at a safe distance. "Wonder what they imagined?"
Hikaru shrugged, said "Girls," and let his forehead fall back on his free arm.
Art class was always a relief after a long day. It meant freedom to move around, not do much and plot the afternoon's scenes with Kaoru. Professor Takahashi was old and sweet, a woman who'd taught the same class for the past thirty years. She'd long since understood that a conflict with the Hitachiin twins was far up on the list of things she didn't want to do before she retired, and she left them alone. In return they more or less left her alone as well, and everything ran smoothly.
"What is this?" Hikaru heard an angry voice demand at the other side of the room, in a tone that suggested that no answer would be satisfactory at this point. He craned his neck to see what was happening, and found an unfamiliar woman glaring at Inoue's current project, an almost perfect reproduction of La Gioconda.
Inoue held a solid third place in this class and wasn't used to being addressed this roughly when it came to art. She tried to stammer an answer, but the woman had already gone to look at other students' pieces.
By then most of the class was focused on her, and for once Hikaru regretted that he couldn't make out the words in the whispering that floated all around him.
"Very well," the woman said when she reached the desk. She was tallish, long hair gathered in a tight bun that didn't suit her face at all, and had paint stains on her blouse. "My name is Sae Watanabe, and I will be replacing your art teacher until the end of the year." The whispering doubled.
"Professor Takahashi has had an unfortunate accident and is currently in the hospital. If any of you wish to give her some tokens of interest or good will, I will leave the contact information with your class president."
In the space of three sentences, silence had fallen over the class. Even Hikaru found his interest somewhat stirred. If nothing else it was a change of pace, a break in a routine that had recently become boring again.
"Now that the obligatory presentations are done, will someone please explain to me what in the world you've been doing?"
Inoue, who was apparently a lot braver than Hikaru had given her credit for, rose up to say "our current project is to make a copy of a recognized piece of art, as close to perfect as possible."
"Never heard of photocopies, have you?" the teacher shot back.
Hikaru and Kaoru shared a glance. Commoner. Who in their right mind could ever believe that a photocopy was even close to the real thing? Tono would blow a fuse at the very thought.
If the level of the whispers was anything to judge by, the rest of the class agreed with them.
"I understand your surprise," she said once the noise had died down. "And that last statement may have been somewhat exaggerated. Nevertheless, this assignement is fundamentally stupid. What would it make you learn? Duplication isn't perfection. At its very best, it's redundancy."
Hikaru felt himself frown. People had told him and Kaoru similar things before, but there was something in the definitive way she was speaking that made his blood boil. And probably answering to the provocation wasn't the smartest thing to do, but-
He did, rising from his chair to say "And at its worse, professor?"
She glanced at him, then at the list in her hands. "Place seventeen... Kaoru Hitachiin?"
He didn't bother to correct her. They never did. If people couldn't figure out that they were being played, it was their problem, and that much more entertaining for the twins. She looked back up, and he saw her eyes widen slightly as she noticed Kaoru by his side. Then it was the usual dance: One, two, am I seeing double? And back to the list, just to check that the last name really was there twice. "And Hikaru Hitachiin."
Hikaru didn't even need to look to know that Kaoru had got up and nodded. Her eyes trailed from one to the other, and they'd practiced enough for Hikaru to know she had to be entertaining the thought of this being a trick, done with mirrors maybe, or a hologram projector. It was an accomplishment they'd always been proud of, but Hikaru couldn't help feeling defensive at the derogatory expression on her face. "How do people tell you apart?"
Hikaru smirked, knowing that on the other side of the intangible mirror Kaoru was doing the same.
"They don't," they said simultaneously. You won't, either.
She pursed her lips. "I see." They grinned in unison, although it was something of a disappointment. Was she admitting defeat already? They'd never broken a teacher this fast before.
She turned around, having apparently dismissed them already. "Counterfeit, forgery, reproduction, fraud, simulacrum," she threw over her shoulder. "You will find a lot of synonyms if you care to research them. Feel free to pick the one you think worst."
Hikaru's jaw clenched tighter than he'd ever thought possible as all eyes converged on them. He stood frozen on the spot, his fists clenched in fury, unable to figure out a single thing to say that wouldn't sound defensive or desperate.
"You may be seated," she said, still not turning around. "If there are no more interruption, we will move on to your work. Your current assignement is cancelled." She raised a hand to stop the protestations. "However, you may use whatever you have produced so far for your next project."
Hikaru was too busy digging holes in her head with the power of his mind to really listen. From the corner of his eye he saw Kaoru glancing at him repeatedly, but he kept glaring steadily at Watanabe.
"You can pick any subject you want. A building, a painting, a landscape, a hamburger. Anything. Choose it carefully, and appropriate it. The origin must still be recognizable, but your mark must be obvious as well."
"That's called a signature," Hikaru mumbled under his breath, unheard but for Kaoru, who snorted.
"Take something that exists and make it yours, so that anyone will recognize it as your work," she spared a disinterested glance in Hikaru's general direction, "as an individual."
"I think I hate her," Hikaru said the moment they were out of the classroom - just as Kaoru was saying "I think she hates us".
Kaoru chuckled. Hikaru was less than amused. "What are we going to do about her?" he asked, purposely paying no attention to the flutter of words around them, all gossip and whispers and how are they taking it? He didn't know himself. It disturbed him now, the attention, the glances - the inability to have a private conversation with his brother.
Kaoru shrugged. "If she seriously thinks that anyone can make something good without having learned by copying the masters, she's too stupid to be worth the trouble."
But she'd attacked them -and it didn't matter that he'd more or less attacked first, because he was entitled- and no one had ever gotten away with doing that.
"She's definitely not up to the standards of this school. Let's get her thrown out," he said brightly.
"Hikaru." They were in the currently deserted North corridor, and Kaoru's grip on Hikaru's wrist, his expression, his voice weren't so mild anymore. "Why are you getting so upset over this? Her opinion doesn't matter. And anyway, we're not identical. You know that." They both did. Always had. What isn't me is you and what isn't you is me: it was the very definition of the world. They were different, could both name half a dozen obvious things that told them apart.
But if no one else did, weren't they just fooling themselves?
They hadn't planned on playing the game that day, but Hikaru started it anyway, almost out of self-defence. It was stupid, really, but this was familiar and reassuring. No one around them could tell them apart and maybe they never would, but that was something they were in control of.
Except they weren't. And when Haruhi mindlessly pointed out the criteria she used to tell them apart, Hikaru felt himself tense as Kaoru failed to contain his laughter.
That's it? That's how she can tell? he thought, and for a moment forgot that he should have been laughing too, because as a means to tell them apart it sucked as much as Tono's "I found out that Kaoru is right-handed".
He should have been laughing.
But he snapped. Then Kaoru did as well, and everything pretty much went to hell after that.
"Hani-senpai, I heard about this new tea salon, d'you want to check it out with me later? They have cake."
His upperclassman blinked at him, but the promise of sweets won over curiosity and concern. He was reliable that way. Hikaru grinned, glanced at Hani's oversized shadow, and quickly added "Mori-senpai too, of course."
Mori grunted in approval (probably), and Hani's smile got even brighter. In the background, Hikaru heard Tamaki say "Ah, yes! I, as the father, should bring all my-" and stop, probably shot down by a withering look from their 'mother'.
There was no other interruption, and the three of them headed out as soon as club activities were over, Hikaru walking half a step ahead of the others. He took a minute to tell the Hitachiin driver that he'd come back home by his own means and entirely ignore the question about his brother, and followed his elders into the Haninozuka Roll's Royce.
The tea salon was nice but dull, with traditional decoration and a list of teas just a bit shorter than at the Mariage Frères in Paris where his mother took them everytime they went to France. The manager, a long-time fan of the Hitachiin ikebana, immediately recognized him and gave him VIP treatment, which was another term for 'skipping the queue and getting free cake'.
It wasn't enough, of course. With Hani around, it was never going to be enough, even after Mori had subtly pushed his plate towards him. After a while, Hikaru did the same. The cake looked good, but he wasn't that tempted.
"Saaaay, Hika-chan, are you going to make up with Kao-chan soon?" Hani asked once he'd eaten five large slices of cake. It was in good will, Hikaru could tell; the boy was genuinely concerned and just trying to help.
Nevertheless, not the best of approaches.
"Who cares?" he snapped irritably, pushing away the cup of Assam tea he'd been fidgeting with for half an hour.
"But if you and Kao-chan are fighting-"
Taking Mori along had been a very good idea, all things considered. He didn't say much, but was always there to tamper Hani's excessive enthusiasm.
The perfect pair, Hikaru thought dully as he watched Hani pout, nod, then smile and ask for more cake as if nothing had happened. Maybe it's them.
Hikaru didn't get in the car with them, stating that he wanted to wander around the busy commercial streets for a while. There wasn't much to do, though. The windows were all too crowded or too bright or too small or had nothing interesting in them. He wasn't carrying that much money with him anyway, but his sudden inability to find anything worth wanting (therefore having) was putting him in even worse a mood than before.
After about an hour he found a bench to sit on and stared blankly at the setting sun, not a single thought crossing his mind until the street lights had turned on. And then he saw it, the only thing he wanted at the moment: something that could be his and his alone and would say, without a doubt, this is me.
It took a bit of a search, but once he knew what he wanted it wasn't that hard to find, and what little money he had with him was just about enough.
Afterwards he grabbed his phone -no missed call and no new email, he noticed- and called for a driver to come pick him up. He stared out the window the whole ride back, uncomfortable with being alone in a car that felt too big somehow.
His mother kept talking about how hard it was to take care of such a big mansion (according to her, the maids had to be watched at all times or sentient life might start growing in one of the rarely used guest rooms), but in this occasion Hikaru could see the bright side: if you wanted to get from one point to another without being seen, you could.
He made good use of it and headed straight for a guest bedroom on the third floor, where not a speck of dust could be seen despite it being one of the smallest and least-used in the house. What it did have was a bathroom with running water and clean towels, and that was all Hikaru needed.
When he looked at the mirror an hour later, all he saw was a guy with a frown and his hair dyed a bright, insensible color. For the first time in his life it wasn't Kaoru looking back.
Hikaru stared wide-eyed at his reflection as he breathed out slowly.
Then he ran, to a place without mirrors.
In the attic were a number of old dummies, discarded after too many years of use. He and Kaoru had occasionally used them for pranks, but right now they were making acceptable punching bags.
He just wanted to hurt something. Even as his knuckles turned white he wasn't sure who he was hitting there; Watanabe for starting the whole thing, Haruhi for proving her wrong and yet making things worse, or Kaoru for...
Being so much like him, always being around, not being here now, playing the game, making Hikaru the bad guy -even though they thought the same, they always thought the same- and then getting angry, letting Hikaru say things he'd never meant in his life, fighting back-
Being just as much of a bastard as Hikaru, deep down.
"What do you want?" Hikaru's victim of choice fell from the blow, and he pivoted to the next one like the basketball star he and his brother might have been, under other circumstances.
"You didn't come to dinner."
"Wasn't hungry." The answer came easily. He'd repeated it to himself enough times.
Another vicious punch, another fallen dummy and his hands were starting to hurt, between the scratches on his knuckles (vicious dummies these were) and how tight his fists were clenched.
"Go away." Don't leave. Make it better.
"Right." There was a muffled sound behind him, like something being set on the ground. "It's been a long day, so try not to make too much noise when you come to bed. Goodnight."
How could he be so fucking calm?
Hikaru turned around without a conscious thought, now more than willing to inflict physical violence on something else than an inanimate object. But Kaoru had already turned away, was heading out, and the would-be punch turned into a desperate grab midway; the next moment Hikaru was holding his brother tightly by the wrist and pulling him around. Don't you walk away from me.
He got nothing more than a glimpse of Kaoru's face, but they'd never needed more than that. Suddenly he was holding Kaoru against him, his fingers digging desperately in his brother's back.
Because Kaoru wasn't calm. He wasn't composed, he wasn't taking this lightly. He had a better handle on it, maybe; but he was just as distressed as Hikaru and wrapping his arms around him, pulling him even closer. At the edge of his vision Hikaru saw a drop of water fall from his hair to become a pink stain on his brother's shirt, and something like a sob escaped him.
"Kaoru- I didn't- I don't-" The words were all coming up at the same time, blocking one another in his throat. I didn't mean it, any of it, what the hell happened there I don't want to fight with you we never ever fight why are we fighting?
"I know." His and Kaoru's voices were so different that people had to be stupid to not be able to tell them apart, but right now they sounded the same, tight and close to breaking. "Hikaru, it's okay. I know." I didn't mean it either. I love you. Everything will be alright.
Funny, how easily Hikaru had taken the habit of playing the protective one in their game of brotherly love, when now he was the one sobbing, holding on for dear life and never, ever going to let go.
His stomach rumbled, and Kaoru chuckled against his neck. It tickled. It was the best feeling he'd had all day.
"I brought you some food." The smell of it was rather enticing now that his stomach wasn't clenched so tight anymore, but Hikaru didn't twitch a muscle away from his brother.
"Yeah. Thanks." He was calming down a little, unclenching his fingers from the cotton of Kaoru's shirt as his breathing slowed down to normal. It was comfortable here, safe, and he was exhausted suddenly and if he could just stay like that for a few more minutes-
"We should get downstairs. It's freezing up here, you're going to catch a cold." Hikaru nodded, and they reluctantly disentangled from each other. They rushed to their room a little more quickly than good manners allowed, only stopping to hand off the tray of food to the first maid they met, with instructions to double the quantity, heat it up, and bring it to them. Kaoru had hardly had more dinner than Hikaru had, and somehow knowing that felt good, too.
Hikaru could tell that his brother had done his best not to look too hard, but from the moment their bedroom door closed on them, Kaoru stared. Hikaru tried to pretend he didn't notice why.
"You missed a spot," Kaoru said after a while, sliding a hand up the nape of Hikaru's neck to play with his hair. "Got some strands there that aren't bright pink." The hand moved down to his back as Kaoru took a step forward and hugged him again, burrowing his forehead in the crook of Hikaru's neck. "Though considering the state of the bathroom, I'm surprised you got any on your head at all. Anyway, it's a pretty poor job. Got any dye left so I can smooth it over?"
That suggestion struck Hikaru unpleasantly, but it was harder to get offended when they were touching. "Nah, it'll wash off in a few shampoos. Give me an hour in the shower and I'll be back to normal." Not right now, though. He wasn't letting Kaoru out of his sight. In fact he wasn't going to pull away anytime soon, because he wasn't sure he could trust himself not to do something stupid right now.
But it was the last thing he needed to worry about at the moment, this permanent low-key want of his brother that spiked at the most inconvenient of times. They were both here, now, and they weren't fighting and anything else could wait.
"Actually," Kaoru said in a very familiar voice, "I was thinking we should keep fighting for a little while. Just to make things interesting." That was a keyword in the Hitachiin twins' vocabulary, and despite his discomfort at the thought of keeping up the fight, Hikaru felt his lips twitching.
"You have a plan." It wasn't even a question.
"I have a plan," Kaoru confirmed, grinning.
It was a good plan. They spent the best part of the night perfecting it, with all the variations that could be induced by the rest of the Host Club's behaviour. There were a lot of them. Tono had a tendancy for random actions that made planning ahead somewhat difficult.
Eventually they wrapped it up, and managed to catch three hours of much needed sleep, curled together on Kaoru's bed.
They made their way to school separately the next day, and the morning went as planned. By noon Hikaru could tell that Haruhi was close to breaking, but the cafeteria incident unexpectedly put the strain on the rest of the Host Club, and they had to keep up the fight until club time.
Anytime there was a break in the active fighting, Hikaru had to marvel at the fact that everyone was buying it. They were in perfect sync at all times: same words and symmetrical moves, almost sharing a (very competitive) brain. Yet no one seemed to doubt that the Hitachiin twins were having the fight of a lifetime. He kept an ear on the blossoming gossip, and had to admit that some of it was pretty entertaining.
Among their customers there seemed to be a lot of variations on the theme of one of them having an affair with another member of the Host Club. He even caught two girls gossipping about seeing Kaoru with Nekozawa at recess. The notion made him a little tetchy; the meeting had definitely happened (page twenty-five of the script), but one of them had allegedly witnessed kissing and/or groping, and the thought was as unpleasant as it was ridiculous.
Of the ones who didn't believe in the brotherly love, a good proportion assumed that the fight had started over who would inherit the Hitachiin fortune. All things considered, very few of their classmates even remotely linked it to the latest art lesson.
Haruhi just rolled her eyes the whole time.
Making her snap took a lot more effort than they'd expected. They pushed it all the way, until the point where Hikaru had to scream "I hate you!" in an ultimate eruption of fake hatred. It was in the scenario, black on white in Kaoru's slightly rounder handwriting, but the words still tasted bitter in his mouth.
After that, the bump on his head came as a huge relief.
The club members were given a private performance of their trademark brotherly love, and if the words were a little more genuine than usual, no one called them on it. They didn't notice, either, when Hikaru's hold tightened around Kaoru's shoulders, or when Kaoru's hand slid down Hikaru's back to clench in his uniform jacket.
"What are we going to do about Watanabe?" Hikaru asked the next evening, sprawled across the two beds in a soft green bathrobe. They were just out of the shower; all the dye was washed away and there was nothing in the immediate future but a long, blissful night of uninterrupted sleep.
"Hmmmm," Kaoru half-mumbled half-yawned. He was laying on his own bed, gazing at the ceiling, his legs casually tangled with Hikaru's. "I still don't get why you're so worked up about her."
Hikaru propped himself up on an elbow to look at his brother, stuck for a moment by the unprecedented task of having to explain something to him in actual words.
"She's annoying," he came up with at last.
"She is," Kaoru agreed. "But that's still not worth giving yourself an ulcer over, and getting her thrown out isn't going to prove her wrong."
Hikaru groaned. "I hate it when you're being reasonable."
"I only do it to keep you on edge," Kaoru said with a smile, still staring off in the distance. Still not really caring.
So Hikaru carefully gave his best puppy look, learned from months of exposure to the self-declared King, and remained stubbornly silent until Kaoru sighed and looked at him, reaching out to pat his head.
"We'll figure something out. Just not tonight, okay? It's been a long couple of days."
Hikaru nuzzled into the touch, grinning.
When the twins wanted rid of someone, they tended to get personal. Hikaru was vaguely aware that some people would call that unsporting, but they were losers who'd never amount to anything. You couldn't expect to win without fighting dirty sometimes, and the Hitachiins had been winners for eight generations.
The first step to it was gathering information, which should have been no problem whatsoever. Their network was a lot more developped than it had been back when they were trying to get Tono off their back.
Or it would have been, if they'd had access to it.
"You will not attack professor Watanabe," Kyouya said before Hikaru was into his second sentence.
"I haven't even finished explaining," Hikaru protested.
"And you won't. It seems she was appointed here as a personal favour to a member of the board, and I will not allow any member of the host club to get into an open confrontation with someone with these connexions."
"Fine," Hikaru snapped before turning away, already thinking about plan B.
Kyouya called his name in the chilly tone that always made him want to grab Kaoru and run for cover, and he turned around with the most innocent smile he could muster.
"I must insist. Don't antagonize her." The smile on Kyouya's face was reminiscent of penguins, polar bears, and all sorts of things that lived in temperatures unfit for human beings.
Hikaru quickly went back to the relative safety of his brother and their customers.
Left with nothing but the rather unsatisfactory options of resorting to anonymous pranks (but what was that going to prove?) or doing the stupid assignment in such a way she would have to admit that two were better than one, Hikaru started brainstorming.
His first idea was to kidnap Haruhi and present her, properly dressed and made up, as their joint art project.
Kaoru flatly refused to proceed with it.
"We need something good," he mused aloud at lunch the next day, tracing random patterns in his foie gras with the tip of his fork.
Kaoru's participation wasn't going further than this on the day of a maths test, Hikaru knew. He tried to focus on the problem at hand instead of getting irritated at his brother's lack of enthusiasm. "We can't do some kind of yin and yang thing, so..."
Kaoru looked up at him curiously. "I thought that was the plan?"
Hikaru sighed. "That's not the plan. That's the lame last resort when we don't come up with anything better. What we need is something that can be split in two standalone parts."
"Whole greater than the sum of the parts, I get it."
"Got any ideas?"
Tiger and dragon? he scribbled on a scrap of paper in the middle of French conversation class. He rolled it in a crude ball and sent it over Haruhi's head, to land right on Kaoru's notes.
He watched his brother open the message and shake his head with an indulgent smile. When the answer flew back it was accompanied by a mildly annoyed look from Haruhi.
Sure. I'll wear the cat costume, you can be the lizard.
The answer, of course, hit when he wasn't looking for it.
He was spinning on his chair, making helpful suggestions as Kaoru 'improved' the graphics of the Host Club's website at Tono's order. One moment they were debating how the guy had managed to survive for so long when he clearly never learned, the next Kaoru froze mid-manipulation and they turned to grin at each other.
Hikaru had had it all wrong. He'd been looking for something that could be cut in two like pieces of a puzzle, but that wasn't them.
Two different versions of the same thing that combined into perfection. And Hikaru knew exactly what they could use.
"Let's go have some tea."
The byōbu was a simple one, a landscape in one panel with clearly defined edges and a limited number of colors.
Kaoru stared at it for a minute, then shook his head. "It would be perfect, but we don't have enough time."
Hikaru groaned and sank back in his chair.
Kaoru leaned over the table to steal a forkful of his cake. "Are you going to eat this? It's good."
"I haven't even tried it yet," Hikaru pointed out as Kaoru went back for more. "Get your own," he scolded, but pushed his plate to the middle of the table.
"It wouldn't be as good," Kaoru retorted with that logic only they could understand, and fed him the next forkful. It was delicious, and Hikaru gestured for a waitress to bring more.
"It'd be tough," Hikaru said once they were done feeding each other, half for the fun of drawing all the looks to them and half because it really did taste better that way. "But I think we can pull it off."
"What if she doesn't see it?" Kaoru asked contemplatively.
"Then she sucks and we get to feel superior for the rest of the year whatever she says," Hikaru said. "Are you with me?"
Kaoru looked at him with a curious air for a moment, then reached over to wipe some cream off his cheek. "Aren't I always?"
Hikaru resisted the impulse to say something mushy and stupid.
'Tough', it turned out, had been a gross underestimation. Hikaru had been so focused on this is it and she'll never step a toe out of line again that he'd forgotten they had absolutely no experience with this.
For the next two weeks all their free time was spent working on that project, leaving them to rely on reserve scripts and improvisation at the club.
Finding paper with the right opacity took two days. Building two exactly identical frames that could both stand alone and be attached together cost three, a small scar on the inside of Kaoru's hand where a nail had slipped, and a hole in the floor of their mother's atelier where Hikaru had thrown the hammer in frustration.
The line art came first, on paper so thin each touch of the brush threatened to make a hole in it. Kaoru handled that, leaving Hikaru to deal with their backlog of homework for three days until they reached the last stage.
By the last evening only Hikaru's stubborness stopped him from giving up and offering to call in sick.
He gave the finishing touch a few minutes before midnight, and took a step back to admire his handiwork.
"Looks good," Kaoru said behind him, fresh out of the shower.
The lines on Kaoru's byōbu were too marked, too harsh. The colors on Hikaru's were too bright and bleeding into each other where there should have been clear delineations.
"It's a style," Hikaru answered in fake humility.
"Come on, put them together."
Edges and colors came together, balancing each other perfectly.
The accumulated tension of the past two weeks flew off Hikaru's shoulders, and he suddenly noticed that every single muscle in his body was aching.
"I don't want to sound arrogant or anything," Kaoru said from the bed, "but this is a masterpiece."
He waved a small bottle at Hikaru, who collapsed on the bed, eyes closed and legs dangling over the edge. "Is this what I hope it is?"
He felt Kaoru move closer, then fingers in his hair, gently massaging his scalp. "Of course. Take off your shirt."
Hikaru complied with a happy sigh and crawled up the bed, onto the towel Kaoru had set up for him. "You know, when I said I couldn't get a better brother if I searched the whole world?"
Hikaru twitched as a drop of cold liquid fell between his shoulderblades, but then Kaoru put his hands on his back, and they were nice and warm and that had to be the definition of bliss. "Totally meant it," he garbled half-coherently.
"Glad you think so," Kaoru answered with a soft smile in his voice, and then all was silent except for Hikaru's purring as his back muscles melted under his brother's hands.
"You look happy," Haruhi noted suspiciously the next morning.
Hikaru beamed at her, aware that half the female population of the class was relying on these morning conversations for entertainment and gossip. "I got some special treatment last night," he told her. At his side, Kaoru blushed on command but didn't protest the disclosure of such private information. There was no need.
"I don't want to know," Haruhi said flatly, opening her textbook. There was a collective sigh from the not-so-subtle audience, and Hikaru grinned inwardly. Only the natural rookie could get away with disappointing the twins' customers time and time again.
"You're missing out," he pushed, winking at her suggestively.
The girls held their collective breath, to no avail.
"Whatever," Haruhi said, not even bothering to roll her eyes at him anymore.
It was going to be a good day.