Disclaimer: Ouran High School Host Club, its plot and characters, belong to Hatori Bisco. The song lyrics belong to HIM. Anything else is mine, so please ask before borrowing.
Note: Okay, final chapter! Hah, and you were worried! Thank you SO much to everyone who had read, and twice as much to those who have reviewed, you have no idea how much it means! Please enjoy this final installment!
Chapter 3/3 = 1
Just one kiss and I'm alive
One kiss and I'm ready to die
Cause you're so beautiful…
In spite of all her hard won insight, four days had passed and not one of Haruhi's shiny new convictions towards Nekozawa had yet born fruit. The day after her abduction by a pre-schooler and daring escape from the Nekozawa estate, her responsibilities had seemed to snowball down on top of her all at once. For the rest of the week she remained repentantly busy making up for her recent distractions, catching up on school work she had missed while her mind had been wandering in class, and a housework she had been neglecting while it had continued to wander at home.
Even so, an unguarded moment or two found her staring thoughtfully into the distance, and it was not grocery lists that filled her mind in those moments, but candlelight in golden hair and the pungent spice of incense and fervent whispers in the darkness. Once or twice she even let her eyes wander to the shadowiest corners of her surroundings, even though her unrealistic hopes of catching a flutter of black fabric or a glimpse of blue eyes shining cat-like in the dark were dashed every time. Whenever this happened, she would shake herself and shove those thoughts down into the backroom of her brain where she'd kenneled the creature of sensation, but not without a twinge of regret at the loss. It had been less than a week, but there was no denying that she missed Nekozawa-senpai. It made little sense, since she'd barely been able to near him to begin with, but there was no denying it.
As an added bonus, just in case she hadn't accumulated enough trouble of her own making, both Tamaki and her father seemed to have launched separate yet synchronous campaigns to break her spirit through puppy-dog-eye sieges and spontaneous hug attacks. The least little thing she did could trigger a landmine of melodramatic tears and at any given moment she might be tackled to the ground or into a wall with a "Oh my precious daughter is growing into a fine woman!" or "Even after you don your white veil, you must never forget your loving father!" (Who said what? It couldn't matter less – the two of them seemed to have hired the same script writer for the non-stop stage drama that they called life.)
By Monday morning, Haruhi was exhausted and thoroughly exasperated. Yet in spite of it all, she found herself reluctantly grateful to her two 'fathers', for they had, through constant hammering, all but beaten her back into her apathetic equilibrium. What good had over-thinking gotten her, really? Nothing but a headache and a lot of extra work. She knew where she stood, and she was relatively certain she knew where Nekozawa stood. Now it was just a question of doing something about it.
Just what she should do about it was another patch of thorns to untangle; she had no experience at all in these matters, and after recent events, the very idea of asking anyone at Ouran or at home for advice gave her ominous chills. But rather than fall to fuming and fussing and scheming (and proving she belonged in the Host Club – an idea she refused to face in spite of the still wonderful and unbelievable fact that she was now choosing it) she had determined that the best course was to simply wait and see what would happen. She would go with the flow.
It was in this newly restored Zen state of mind that she glimpsed from the corner of her eye a certain cursed cat puppet lying crumpled on the pavement. Her mouth tugged upward at the corners. So far, her lack of plan was a working perfectly.
Umehito, on the other hand, far from calm and collected, was in a state of near-meltdown as he lurked manically from column to column through the peripheries of the school corridors, searching for the missing Bereznoff.
He'd spent his four Fujioka-less days deliberating over the insights he'd gleaned from the hosts, and weighing the odds of rejection against the near debilitating ache for her that had taken up residence in his chest and would not abate. As if that weren't enough, he had to find time to fret over the strange looks he kept getting from the members of the Host Club, hostile glares or knowing smiles, and whispering, always whispering behind his back.
If he'd thought to escape the ominous murmuring and askance glances once home on Friday afternoon, he'd been both disappointed and disturbed to find himself subjected to more of the same. Ever since Kirimi found his journal and commissioned that remarkable little figurine of Fujioka - a beguiling gothic pixie that enchanted him out of even his supreme irritation that he apparently had zero privacy even in his own bedroom – the staff had been drifting around him, tittering and scattering like oversized rats whenever he whipped around to scowl at them.
To crown his troubles, he had not encountered Fujioka even once since his chat/hostage experience with the Host Club, not even long enough to have her take one look at him and bolt in the opposite direction. The acute loneliness of her absence weighed on him. As the hours ticked by, the richness and depth of the immaculate darkness Umehito surrounded himself with had begun to flatten and lose its wonder. The walls had seemed to tower and lean in over him wherever he went. His shoulders were heavy and his chest ached hollowly. He was tempted believe he was being haunted by a ghost with a grudge, but deep down, he knew it wasn't anything so interesting or easily remedied. He just missed her.
The Hosts had said she wasn't angry with him. They said she'd been pleased with his gift. A warm well of emotion bubbled up in his chest at the thought, and it boded well if true, but a cold knot buried at the bottom of his heart still leeched a venomous uncertainty into his veins, and it coursed through him almost brutally as the days passed. That freezing point of fear and doubt, standing in stark but unwavering counterpoint to every other instinct that drove him, whispered to him that maybe it was better if he never found out how she felt. That way he could still dream…
He felt sure he could find the answer if he could just see her again. After all, how else was he supposed to figure out what she was thinking? He'd already tried scrying, divination and even a long shot at psychometry with a pencil eraser Ohtori-kun had sold him at an outrageous price, but his third eye remained solidly clouded and the future firmly shrouded in mystery. Surely this was Bereznoff's doing, a well deserved denial of favor after the ill-use the cursed cat had been subjected to recently (though curiously, Bereznoff's aura of malevolent wrath had inexplicably abated ever since he had returned to clean up the mess Kirimi had made of his altar.)
By Monday morning he was so paranoid, distracted and despondent that, as he sat in the darkest corner of the classroom radiating a portentous miasma of gloom and glaring almost defiantly into the conflagration of the shining creatures laughing and talking all around him, he didn't even realize at first that Bereznoff had abandoned him in body as well as in spirit. Then Haninozuka, his cloud of little pink flowers wilting in the sinister fog of Umehito's harried despondency, asked him if he was lonely because his cat had stayed home today. Umehito had nearly jumped out of his skin when he looked down and found his hand bare. Thanking Haninozuka with a Black Magic coupon for a free jinx with the purchase of two curses, (the smaller boy had grinned with a little too much force and shuffled backwards with a slightly monotone giggle – it warmed Umehito's heart to see his classmate clearly so well pleased with his gift that he was speechless), he leapt out of his seat with enough momentum to send the wilted cloud of flowers splattering all over the floor, walls, and Morinozuka, and scurried out to find his fallen icon.
It was in this frantic state that he at last stumbled upon the object of his desire and constant rumination, as she shifted her school bag higher on her shoulder and crouched to pick up Bereznoff, where he lay waiting on the walk way. Umehito nearly wept with relief – not only at finding his cat doll, but because clearly Bereznoff was not angry with him. Just the opposite, he must be in an extremely benevolent mood - he had led Umehito to where he most wanted to be. The serendipity was too marked to be mere coincidence.
Just as Umehito was about to embarrass himself drastically by rushing tearfully up to reclaim his lost property, Fujioka's face turned ever so slightly, and the morning light lost itself in her eyes, shimmering there as she smiled gently down at the cursed cat. Radiant. Umehito froze midstride, overwhelmed, and instinctively pulled his outstretched hand back towards his chest as though fearing to be burned.
But… it was Fujioka.
In spite of all that had changed between them in the past days, Fujioka had never burned him like others did. She was the one who warmed him…When did I forget that?
Somehow the depth of doubt and dread he had endured all this time suddenly seemed vaguely ridiculous. So, even as that cold place in his chest told him that he was flying into an electric bug zapper, Umehito squared his shoulders (though he kept his head bent – it was a bright day, after all) and crept forward into the light.
At the whispering of his cloak on the pavement, Fujioka glanced up from her placid examination of Bereznoff's features and her fathomless eyes locked upon him. They widened with recognition and her lips parted ever so slightly – just enough to draw his attention to them. Umehito felt her gaze like a physical presence washing over him, caressing his limbs, turning his nerves into fuses and sending sparks racing through his body, up his neck to explode a deep stain of crimson through his cheeks. What was she thinking with such a look on her face? The forgotten pendulum in his chest, rusted solidly in the realm of doubt for so long that it was dusted in cobwebs, rattled desperately. For a long, torturous moment, Umehito was sure she would startle and run once more. He braced himself for the wave of cold disappointment and longing...
Then she smiled. It was the same gentle, shining smile that always scattered stars under his skin, and if it was tinged with an uncharacteristic shyness, it only added to her magnetism. Umehito's breath shuddered out between parted lips; he was almost in pain from the bliss of her mere acknowledgment, as the pesky pendulum jerked and scraped its way loose and started to descend. He clenched his fists tightly inside the folds of his cloak to keep them from doing something rash and unforgivable without his permission, like maybe wrapping around her arms and pulling her close, into the confines of his all concealing cloak, into a world for just the two of them, shielded from light and prying eyes, where he could…
Umehito revisited that old familiar idea of fainting as she took a step towards him and jolted him out of what had promised to be a most inconveniently delightful fantasy so forcefully that he almost tripped over his cloak (quite a feat, since he was standing still).
"Ohayo, senpai," Fujioka greeted him, quiet but deliberate.
"O-Ohayo, Fujioka-k-kun…-san… er... um…" Umehito suddenly wished he was more turtle than moth, because he was experiencing a distinctive urge to pull his head down between his shoulders into his body cavity and hide while his tongue tied her name in a horrible, awkward knot.
"Why don't you just call me, 'Haruhi'," she suggested, saving him, instantly soothing his embarrassment, replacing it with amazement and washing him with a bright flush of pleasure, all with one small sentence.
He watched in awe as she glanced down, her fingers running in an absent, nervous motion over one of Bereznoff's paws (he had never envied the cursed cat more) and a faint tinge of pink brightened her cheeks prettily. Umehito felt his eyelids grow heavy at the nearly hypnotic sight. How had he ever mistaken her for a boy? She was resplendent. A pleasant hum of tension took up residence at the base of his skull, spreading through his shoulders, but settling like a mantle rather than a yoke. Fujioka – Haruhi he corrected himself wonderingly - had him spellbound as surely as the craftiest sorceress, and all without a single drop of magic. The moth inside him strained towards her gentle glow.
"Th… Then, please call me… Ume…hito…" The sentence fizzled at the end, but he got it out just in time for both of them to stand there staring at the ground between them in awkward silence that hummed with a pleasant electrical anxiety.
"So… then… I was wondering…" Fujioka – no, Haruhi (blush) lifted her head suddenly, apprehension snapping in her expression as she shifted from foot to foot and flicked her gaze too and fro, "wondering… um… how was your weekend?"
She grimaced instantly at her own words and ducked her head again; Umehito had the distinct impression she had meant to say something else.
"Interminable," he answered honestly and without hesitation, startling himself. His mouth was moving without his permission. But it was only the truth, and now that she was in front of him, it was so strikingly clear exactly why. The cold, hollow ache was gone, driven out and filled up with her nearness. In spite of his jangling nerves, all he wanted to be even closer. "I think I was waiting for…"
Her head rose in curiosity, and it brought her face to into line with his as he loomed over her, though he had no memory of having moved closer to her. In his mind the moth fluttered furiously shouting warnings – You're at school! She's dressed like a boy! You'll just cause her trouble! You haven't even appeased the cat gods yet! Bereznoff's wrath will be terrible! None of it mattered, at least, not enough to stop him, and desire flowed over reason like a rising river, frothing and eddying, and then splashing into a uniform stillness with the singular, driving purpose of a deep, rushing torrent.
Their eyes locked and her breath caught audibly at whatever she saw there. The voice of censure faded to a buzz of background noise, so unimportant compared to what she made him feel just with the force of her undivided focus. Her eyelids fluttered as her gaze darted to his mouth and back, and that infinitesimal motion, like the flicker of a flame, was all it took to burn away his last shred of sense. Fire and water crashed together into a billowing haze of steam that swirled and misted the world around him into unreality. All there was, was sensation, and her.
Just like the last time, her eyes grew larger and deeper as the shadow of his hood fell over her face, but instead of wide and shocked, they grew lidded, and her face slowly lifted towards his, chin tilted up, neck extended as though she were straining to close the distance between them. As though she too could feel this inexorable pull, this force of nature, like gravity pulling a comet into a black hole, slowly pushing aside the interloping daylight that separated them, closer, until not even the embracing darkness was welcome between their lips…
There was a sudden whoosh!, a flash of red, a startling eep! and Umehito's eyelids flew open (when had they closed…?) to find he was standing on the sunlit pavement, Bereznoff in one hand, a crisp white envelope in the other, and no one else in sight. He blinked, then blinked again, shook his head, and worried for about 2.5 seconds that maybe he'd dreamed the whole thing…
"Hikaru! Kaoru! Put me down! This instant!" Fujioka – Haruhi – shouted from somewhere behind him. He whirled in place, rigid and still blinking owlishly from the shock and the loss of her nearness, to see two red-headed demons literally carrying her off towards the school.
"Denied!" they replied in unison.
"The bell is about to ring," said the one that had her thrown over his shoulder at the hip.
"We wouldn't want our dear male friend Haruhi to be late for class because he was being molested by a kiss-maniac in front of the school," the other concurred dryly as he jostled her upper body higher on his shoulder, leaving her arms to hang down his back. She shot the back of his head a dirty look. "You have to wait until your fairy god-father turns you into a princess…" he finished esoterically, managing to sound sullen and mischievous all at once.
If more was said, Umehito didn't hear it as they pushed their way through the front doors. He had one last glimpse of Haruhi's eyes, smoldering with a barely banked heat cut with a dash of frustration. They both unnerved and excited him as they flashed in his direction one last time. Then he was alone in the sunlight. Slowly coming back to himself after what he was beginning to believe may have been an out-of-body experience, he cringed into the shade of an obliging tree and righted Bereznoff on his hand. Then he glanced down at the envelope.
Numbed and frustrated from the sudden turn of events, distantly curious, but mostly lacking for anything more productive to do while he continued to recollect his scattered wits, he cautiously opened it.
You are cordially invited to…
Umehito scanned the page with growing confusion, but before he could form even the most rudimentary opinion on the situation, the clang of the class bell sent a shock through him and he tucked the paper safely inside his cloak as he raced for his classroom.
"Bereznoff, I can't tell if you're blessing me or cursing me…" he muttered, glancing at the cat, his heart and head spinning as his brain converted the encounter from an experience into a memory; Bereznoff cocked his feline head and glanced shiftily away. Umehito smirked darkly, and the hollow of his chest tingled almost painfully at the memory of the way she had moved to meet him in the shadow of his cloak... "… but whichever it is, please keep it up."
Haruhi made a monumental effort to pay attention in class, she really did. But though her eyes were focused on the blackboard, the geometric algorithms all blurred together and the teacher's voice droned around her head like a fly, and was just as easily swatted aside by the frustrated creature of sensation. It was no use. All her hours of hard work and mental preparation, shattered. What was she getting herself into?
She was irritated with the twins of course, for their high-handed man-handling of her person. But then, not only was she all too used to it by now, on another level she was actually grateful to them. What was she thinking, leaning in to kiss her upperclassman in full view of the school and anyone who happened to look out a window?
I was going with the flow, right? She barely restrained herself from disrupting class with an undignified snort at that thought. There was going with the flow, and then there was drowning (albeit drowning happily) in it. The simple truth was that she hadn't been thinking at all. It was risky and thoughtless. But looking back, she couldn't see how it could have been different, for there was nothing simple about this unquenched craving he had woken in her. Indeed, it seemed to complicate everything.
She had been irrationally proud of herself for standing her ground when Nekozawa-senpai had detached himself from the shadows like a particularly large blob of ink dripping onto the bright surface of the walkway. In spite of her prior resolution to face him and let events take their course, it had been a near thing, as a completely irrational instinct that ran counter to all her determination and desires urged her to put several miles between herself and this strange boy that so thoroughly confused and enthralled her.
But the moment he'd drawn near her, that had all changed without warning.
It must have been the sight of his face, she realized upon reflection, so often hidden from view, so close and for once so unguarded; that intense look of longing in his eyes focused directly on her, resonating with the hunger pangs that she'd fended off all weekend long. The straining strings that pulled at her to run had rebounded like a slingshot, as every last semblance of self-control and sagacity had flown straight out the front gate and halfway to Hokkaido. All that had been left in its place was sensation, or rather the want of it.
She'd been powerless against the mystery of his presence as it engulfed her and lifted her away from herself, a leaf torn from its mooring branch to be swept skyward by the swelling currents of the wind. All that worry over thoughts and emotions, yet she had forgotten how incredible it had felt to be kissed, and how enticing the prospect of being kissed again was shaping up to be.
It was now hours later, and the creature of sensation was still roaming restlessly under her skin, craving something she couldn't even fully define, making her fingers clench into fists and her teeth worry at her bottom lip. This was going to do terrible damage to her test scores, it was already obvious. Try as she might to memorize the names of Sengoku warlords and conjugate verbs in French, all she could really think about was the moment she could escape to find her awkward, black-clad blue-eyed moth-boy, and find out what exactly it was she was missing.
As expected, love certainly could be inconvenient, irrational and irritating. So tiresome! Problematic! Awkward!
A smile ghosted over her face. How strange that she could not bring herself to wish it gone…
Finally, mercifully, the last bell rang. Haruhi had her things packed in record time and was marching for the door with an almost grim determination, when two arms belonging to two redheaded jackals hooked under hers, one on each side, and arrested her movement. She very nearly growled at the identical expressions of cynical mischief gracing the charming faces of her captors. This routine was getting old fast.
"Now Haruhi," Kaoru began as they lifted her bodily once again, this time carrying her with one arm each under her armpits so that she dangled between them like a child. "We understand your frustration…"
"…and we don't like it any more than you do," Hikaru went on, and there was a grudging edge to his voice that said he really didn't much like whatever it was they were talking about.
"… but Milord has spoken," Kaoru finished, shooting his brother a look, to which Hikaru sighed and rolled his eyes, but said nothing. "And in spite of everything, he's probably right…"
"What are you talking about?" Haruhi demanded, her words snappish, but her body already sagging with practiced resignation as they hauled her up the stairs towards the Third Music Room and whatever insanity awaited her this time.
"All in good time," Hikaru pronounced sullenly.
"Good things come to those who wait," Kaoru elaborated unhelpfully, winking subtly at her as they pushed open the door open.
At last Haruhi found herself set upon her own two feet, whirled around and was met with the surprise that had been laid out for her by the Host Club.
Her mouth dropped open. How did they… no, no, she was now far beyond underestimating the lengths to which rich bastards with a questionable grip on reality would go… crazy rich bastards who were so thoughtful and oddly selfless in the strangest ways, until it became impossible for her to stay angry with them…
"Haru-chan! Haru-chan!" Hunny trilled. "Do you like it?" Mori stood over his shoulder with a small smile on his face, and said nothing.
"Ne, Hikaru, do you think she's going to put up a fight?"
"You were right, Kaoru, we should have just handed her over to the otaku."
"Be grateful, Haruhi," Kyoya added coolly. "Renge wanted to use chloroform."
"And she mentioned something about dressing your unconscious body," Hikaru interjected.
"And then locking you in a dark closet until everything was ready," Kaoru finished.
"I found a shock collar and a gimp mask in her school bag!" Hunny interjected enthusiastically. Mori silently lifted one hand to display the evidence, complete with a little padlock and remote control.
The deadpan pall that darkened Haruhi's expression was due in equal parts to Renge's escalating tendencies, and to the fact that she wasn't the least bit shocked by them anymore.
"Renge is a remarkable person. In various ways."
But even this couldn't entirely dampen her growing excitement…
"Don't bother trying to resist," Renge appeared on cue beside Haruhi, apparently from thin air, to leer lasciviously between Haruhi and the surprise. "It's already arranged, so you might as well abandon all hope and submit to…"
"I'll do it," Haruhi interrupted. As the others gaped at her in open astonishment, she reached out and pinched a swath of fabric between her fingers, testing the sensation of it. She glanced at them, and smiled with an uncharacteristic mixture of smugness and shyness.
Kyoya cleared his throat. "Well that's one battle won." His pen paused over his ledger and flicked nonchalantly at the far end of the room. (The curtains there fluttered inconspicuously as Tachibana's minions – on reserve just in case - acknowledged the signal to stand down and silently slipped out the back way.) "But are you sure you're okay with this, Haruhi? People are sure to talk. All else aside, your designator demographic is sure to be affected."
Haruhi looked away, weighing his words as the fabric trailed through her fingers.
"You're right. I don't know what will happen," Haruhi replied soberly. "But I think its time to find out. About many things…"
Kyoya met her eyes levelly for a long moment, before he sighed and turned towards the window.
"And you, Tamaki?" For the first time Haruhi noticed the Host King standing unusually still with his back to the room, gazing out the window. "Are you really alright with this?"
"Kyoya-senpai is being awfully thoughtful," Kaoru commented inquisitively. "Is it going to rain tomorrow?"
"Don't be absurd," Kyoya snapped, adjusting his glasses. "If Tamaki comes back to his senses and falls to pieces, who do you think will be left shoveling the tear-soaked remains into the garbage can?"
"Ah. That's more like it."
After a long moment, Tamaki sighed long-sufferingly and let his chin fall against his chest.
"There are but two lasting gifts we can give our children," he intoned solemnly, tilting his head back so that the sunlight lit up his hair like a halo. "The first is roots – the last is wings."
"Oooh… Tama-chan is really deep, ne Takashi?"
"There's no way Milord came up with that on his own."
"Tamaki, just answer a question simply for once, or I won't be responsible for my actions."
With a flourish of melodrama, Tamaki whirled, striking a heroic pose as the sunlight shone around him like a halo. Haruhi wondered inwardly how long it had taken him to find that exact spot in front of the window, or if perhaps these things just happened randomly around him, and what the planet Earth might be like if he were to use that power to some useful purpose…
"As Haruhi's adoring father," Tamaki continued, stepping forward, arm extended as he delivered his prose, "I have striven to give you the strongest and most well-nourished of roots, educating you in the ways of the world and lovingly guiding you down the path of…"
"Oh, it's a quote from an American journalist from fifty years ago," Renge announced where she bent over her limited edition Ukidoki Memorial signature laptop, Hikaru and Kaoru hovering over her shoulder and scanning the screen.
"I knew Milord didn't come up with that on his own."
"Ne, Takashi, should I eat strawberry cake or chocolate cake, today?"
"Hello, Tachibana? I need you back up here. Bring rope."
"Strawberry cake has more vitamins, Mitsukuni."
"…and now that your roots have grown deeps and strong…"
Tamaki, eyes closed in the throes of enthusiasm, arms extended, oblivious to his lack of audience, glided to a halt in front of Haruhi, who was peered up at him with a deadpan expression. Then abruptly he leaned down and cocked his head to one side, and his whole demeanor changing as he smile a sweet, slightly sad smile and looked her in the eye, direct and sincere…
"…take wing, Haruhi. But remember to come back to us, ne?"
Haruhi found herself blushing without knowing why. The others had stopped their various activities and turned to the pair in the middle of the room. They each wore their own version of the same wistful, warm expression.
Haruhi blinked around the suddenly hushed room at the eclectic mix of rich bastards that had inexplicably become her friends. Grudgingly, she decided that it wouldn't be so bad if this was where she belonged. As so often of late, this decision was hand-crafted to furnish her with the illusion that she had some kind of grip on her strange, crazy and never-dull life, as she reached it just about three seconds after she felt an answering smile gently settling over her face, and had already given the only possible response.
Umehito acknowledged two pertinent facts as he fidgeted fitfully outside the door the Third Music Room, both hands worrying at the edges of the curious invitation.
The first was that this situation had 'trap' written all over it in ten-meter tall flashing neon lights.
The second was that, as Haruhi (even if she had given him permission to call her by name, he could barely even manage it in his head without blushing) was likely just beyond, he did not care.
After their so-very-rudely interrupted conversation earlier, Umehito had all but ripped that damnable swinging pendulum of hope and despair right off its hinges. While that small, cold part of him still quailed in terror of her rejection, a much larger part of him was nearly beyond caring as long as he could see her again. It had thoroughly bullied that smaller voice into submission. He was so driven to distraction by that unfulfilled promise implied by her upturned lips that now, hours of daydreaming later, all insecurities and humiliation seemed to pale in comparison to the prospect of closing that distance once more. If he had to walk a labyrinth of dangerous creatures of light to get to her, so be it.
Or he'd thought so right up until he'd found himself standing before these doors.
He had bravely left Bereznoff in the care of the Black Magic Club members, who had cheered him on and promised to offer sacrifices to the cursed doll to bring him good luck in his foray into the unknown. If he was going to do this, he'd decided that he needed to do it on his own (and the more he daydreamed, the more having two hands free seemed like an incredibly good idea). Nevertheless, standing before the gates of what had equal chance of turning out to be heaven or hell, Umehito was craving some divine protection.
Stalling as he willed his hammering heart to calm, he re-read the curious missive (which turned out to be one among many such invitations he'd spotted circulating amongst the female population throughout the day) that had brought him here..
You are cordially invited to:
Ouran High School Host Club
'Dark Night of the Soul'
Bite the forbidden fruit if you dare
Step into the shadows
To tempt these dark souls with your pure and innocent light
And be tempted with your darkest desires
It did sound like his kind of party, but the Host Club had never invited him to an event before. And if it wasn't a trap, then in light of the theme, why not invite the entire Black Magic Club? None of the others had gotten an invitation… Perhaps giving the invitation to the club president was meant to include everyone? Umehito bit on his thumbnail apprehensively, an unpleasant habit that Bereznoff usually protected him from, as he remembered the pseudo-interrogation of the previous week, and the hair-raising way the Host Club's eyes had been following him ever since. No, the most likely explanation was still a trap, and it didn't seem wise to get caught. Once again that flitting spot of cold lanced through his heart, telling him to quit gambling against impossible odds and walk away while he still had a shred of dignity. Yet the thought of moving away from Haruhi caused him more pain than he knew what to do with.
He sighed in frustration. What kind of theme was this for that flashy group anyway? That shining world, draped in shadows? It was a ridiculous notion. Umehito shook his head as he tried to picture it and failed.
But there was one way to see what such a dichotomy would look like. He had to admit that he was curious…
Haruhi's fathomless brown eyes and soft pink lips swarmed unbidden to the front of his mind, along with the way she smiled, the way she spoke, the way she felt pinning him to the wall of the stairwell with her arms wrapped around him...
"For her, then..."
Swallowing his pounding heart back down his throat, he reached out and pushed the doors open.
Instead of the customary burst of radiance, the doors opened with a gust of some darkly fragrant spice and a fluttering of black rose petals, to reveal a gaping rectangle if inky black darkness. From within came a disembodied greeting, at once foreboding and enticing…
Déjà vu gripped Umehito just in time for him to mutter "I knew it," and sigh in defeat, as arms shot out of the darkness and hauled him in. He was blind for a long moment, and then alarmingly he was being manhandled out of his cloak. "Eh? Eh? Eh?!" The darkness spun dizzyingly and before Umehito knew what was happening, he spun and stumbled through a heavy black curtain and into another world.
The room was dark, and softly throbbing ambient music made the dimness vibrate and thicken until it was almost alive. The windows covered with heavy black curtains like the one through which Umehito had been unceremoniously thrust, and lit only by candelabra. They cast warm blobs of light, islands of gentle luminescence in a sea of liquid shadows. At seemingly random intervals, more black curtains had been hung throughout the room to form something like a maze of clinging fabric, but they were transparent, some gauzy, others of rose-patterned lace, still others like sheer netting, so that the air itself seemed tangible and each little pool of light seemed secluded and remote, but could be peeked in upon, lending an illicit feel of the forbidden to every innocuous word and action. Umehito savored an unbidden shiver of ecstasy at the quality of the atmosphere. The room was almost sinfully decadent. Who could have guessed the Host Club had this in them?
Through the fog of fabric, each illuminated area showed Umehito clusters of blushing, giggling girls, all dressed alike in simple white dresses – like virgin sacrifices, Umehito mused with nearly malevolently delight. Amidst each cluster of ladies were members of the Host Club as he had never seen them before: decked in black clothing of leather, nylon and velvet, silver jewelry, eyes ringed with black liner, fingers tipped with black nail polish.
Haninozuka was barely recognizable as himself, all in black, and while his shirt sported a skull with little hearts for eyes, he had adopted a dark, haughty expression, and seemed like nothing so much as a tiny, adorable goth yakuza. He lay with his head propped on one girl's lap, his legs across the lap of another, while the first fed him chocolates with stars in her eyes. Across from him, Morinozuka was also decked in black, his sleeves cut off at the shoulders to leave his arms bare and a spiked collar around his neck. The normally stone-faced tower of a boy should have been forbidding in this atmosphere, but somehow the darkness agreed with his aura, and in his element, he looked rather mysterious and thoughtful without any help from his cousin.
The truly terrifying one, perhaps a bit too much in his element, was seated just outside a different pool of light, ringed by anxious looking girls that occasionally tittered nervously. Twin glints of candlelight reflecting off of glass lenses floated in a particularly thick pool of shadows just outside the light – uncomfortably similar in appearance to demonically glinting feline eyes. The ominous click, click, click of the Pineapple laptop – which inexplicably and hair-raisingly did not seem to give off any light to illuminate his features as he worked – marked this as Ohtori-kun's station. Here was the Shadow King, holding court in his true form – his designators went on laughing nervously and inconspicuously inching closer to the candle light, (though not one of them actually stood up and left, Umehito noted) unnerved by the real thing.
Yet another area was packed with ladies admiring the Hitachiin twins, both dressed identically long-sleeve mesh shirts and black jeans with studded belts, their hair spiked up and tipped with points of black. The only distinguishing feature between them was a leather collar that circled one twin's neck. It was affixed to a leash that the other twin held in a firm, commanding grip. As Umehito watched, the collared twin murmured some sullen remark, and like lightening, his brother jerked the leash forward and up. Holding his twin possessively in place, he leaned over him with a wolfish smirk, brought his face in close and whispered something only those nearby could hear. Whatever it was, his twin blushed and looked down, lips parted in a longing gasp. A squeal erupted from the surrounding spectators, and one freshman girl actually swooned against her friend's shoulder while a third girl fanned her absently, eyes still glued to the spectacle.
Umehito was awed, not for the first time, by the depth of dedication Suoh-kun and his minions displayed in their art. They were truly impressive individuals, each in their own way. It might once have been something of a dream of his to live up to that example, but it didn't hurt as much as it used to, to admit that that was probably impossible. They were just too amazing. As he glanced down with a bittersweet little smile, he was greeted with another surprise. His cloak was indeed gone, and the comforting concealment of his black wig had been stolen from him as well. Not only that, his blue uniform jacket had been replaced with a black blazer, his school tie was missing, and the top button of his shirt had been undone. He didn't know whether to be unnerved or impressed. Perhaps they really are too amazing…
Quiet whispers reached his ears, and he cast his eyes around to see several of the girls glancing and gesturing towards him. Embarrassed he hunched his shoulders, trying to make himself inconspicuous, but after a moment he realized that they were not shrinking from him as they usually did. In fact, a few of their gazes were openly appraising, curious rather than anxious… Umehito realized with a start that they probably didn't know who they were looking at. None of his school mates besides the Host Club had ever seen him without his robes.
It dawned on him then with striking clarity - the Host Club had created a fantasy world tailor-made to his tastes, and had donned costumes so that he could shed his…
Blinking his way through this revelation, he still didn't know what to make of it, but his shoulders relaxed and he was able to stand a bit straighter, the shade of anonymity concealing his ingrown insecurities more effectively than any cloak ever could, until only one lingered. But it was a big one. His eyes swept the rich dimness to no avail. It didn't matter really matter how he seemed to other girls if one in particular wasn't there to weigh in…
Where was Haruhi?
Haruhi tugged at her clothes nervously and peeked once more around the drape of gauzy black cloth that hid her from view. This had seemed like an excellent idea at the time, but now that the moment had come… The clothes were beautiful, but surely she must look ridiculous in them. What would her designators think? Would the Host Club suffer for it? And… what would he think?
Chewing on her lip, she glanced out again, and her breath caught in her chest.
Nekozawa-senpai stood alone in the labyrinth of silk and shadows that the Third Music Room had become, looking nervous and bemused, but oddly at ease, his head held high. His blue eyes and golden hair shimmered in the candle light. At the sight of his face, bare of concealment, chin tilted in something like determination, her heart started to pound. In that frozen moment, the creature of sensation was curiously silent, and the awkward moth boy was nowhere to be seen. It was just Haruhi Fujioka gazing longingly at Umehito Nekozawa.
Pink bloomed on her cheeks. It amazed her that such a person found her interesting. Doubt nagged at her in a sudden, fierce assult. What if she was reading his intentions wrong? After all, she had a track record; memories of Arai-kun's mistaken confession still made her cringe.
Yet there was only one way to learn the truth and dispel her doubts.
Nekozawa was standing straight, eyes forward and searching, even though he was surrounded by people that made him uncomfortable. He was being so brave. Somehow it made her want to be brave too. It made her back straighten and her shoulders square and her chest tighten achingly. He was giving her courage just by being there. Haruhi marveled at the emotion. The hours of inconvenience and frustration seemed to melt and dissolve away in the glowing warmth that pervaded her chest. Right now they seemed such a small price to pay. The creature of sensation nuzzled her knowingly, sending sparks skittering through her system to dance over the growing warmth that began a slow burn beneath her skin as she took a deep breath and made her resolve. For him, then...
"Love, huh?" she murmured to herself. Her cheeks pinked once more as she smiled inwardly. It was powerful stuff.
No traps had been sprung so far. That didn't set Umehito at ease in the slightest. If anything, the hosts seemed to be going to exceptional lengths to avoid noticing his presence as he lurked aimlessly (and admittedly rather less dramatically than he was used to, given his lack of paraphernalia) through the maze of candlelight and lace. It only proved they were up to something. And Haruhi was nowhere to be seen. This was not shaping up into a promising situation. In fact, that little cold spot was gainging ground beneath his breast bone, and he grew progressively more certain that any minute now...
A spotlight burst brilliantly to life, suddenly enough make Umehito cringe as he raised his arms instinctively to cover his face.
But to his genuine astonishment, it was not aimed at him for once.
His arms lowered to his sides as his eyes adjusted to discover Suoh-kun, standing centered in the white-hot pool of light, posed with one foot up on a coffee table so that he could lean on his bent knee with slightly reckless abandon.
He was dressed like someone's fantasy of a gothic rockstar. A black jacket with a ruff of black feathers to cradle his golden head opened to reveal that he wore no shirt underneath, only a studded black collar and a chain with a gothic cross hanging from it. His black jeans, complete with a matching studded belt, were ripped haphazardly, and disappeared into knee-high leather boots that buckled all down the front and laced up the back. Black tipped fingers of one hand came up to cradle his chin and trace beneath black painted lips. His violet eyes flashed more vibrantly than ever thanks to the ring of dark eyeliner accenting them. In his other hand, he extended a white rose with dye blackening the tips of the petals.
He was every inch the radiant Host King, even while decked in the trappings of darkness. Umehito found himself tempted to applaud with stars in his eyes.
"Welcome, princesses," he intoned solemnly, but with a dangerous smirk that made several girls squeal out loud, "to the Host Club's Dark Night of the Soul. Shadows conceal many secrets. Now is the time for baring your hearts, and your most illicit desires."
Though he doubted Suoh could see past the blinding molten glare of the spotlight, the younger boy met Umehito's eyes as he said this. After a tense moment, something softened in Suoh's eyes and he seemed to turn back to the crowd at large, though his posture never changed.
"Take care and beware, my precious flowers. Your pure and radiant hearts shine like beacons in our labyrinth of night. Have a care, lest you tempt these beings of the shadow to swallow you up."
With a flourish, he tossed the rose into the crowd, and the spotlight went dark.
The girls giggled and cried out in of mock fear, overjoyed with the game, and many of them swarmed forward to crowd around Suoh, apparently eager to be gobbled up as promised. Remarkable. Did girls like this sort of thing? Perhaps that was why he had been invited. Perhaps the hosts were trying to be friendly. Perhaps this would usher in a new era of inter-club cooperation, and herald the birth of a whole new marketing campaign for the Black Magic Club. After all, love jinxes and hexes were Kanazuki's specialty. Haninozuka should have invited her, she would have been elated to try out some of her new curses in such a charming atmosphere… It made sense. They probably felt sorry for him. They were probably trying to cheer him up…
He didn't feel cheered. In spite of his delight in the enchanting atmosphere, the novelty of anonymity and the bittersweet thrill of an overture from these creatures of light that he'd baited for so long, all he felt was the vast vein of loneliness tracing a fissure through the core of his heart and welling with frothing rush of cold, bitter disappointment.
Because she wasn't there. It made everything hollow. Umehito shook his head sadly. He suddenly didn't care about invitations or traps or selling cursed icons. He didn't want to be there anymore. He turned towards the door.
And then, as if on cue, the curtains on the far side of the room shifted. Umehito glanced instinctively towards the movement, and just like that, sudden as lightening splitting a storm, all his dark distress disappeared as he found himself witnessing a dream with his waking eyes.
"Haruhi…" he whispered, eyes wide, lips parting as the air rushed from his lungs as though from a physical blow to the chest.
She was dazzling. So much so that for a moment Umehito was afraid. She offered a sincere smile to a group of openly gaping girls in the nearest pool of candlelight, then turned to the nearby sideboard to check the refreshment trays.
His feet were carrying him towards her before he even realized he was in motion, a moth to its flame, brushing aside curtains as he went. As the sight of her became clearer with each lifting veil, and he better understood what he was seeing, he spared a moment's further annoyance at his family's prying staff, before it was swept away by gratitude. Then that too vanished behind him like a shed cloak, and all there was, was Umehito Nekozawa staring at Haruhi Fujioka.
Haruhi as he'd never seen her before.
Haruhi dressed like a woman.
Not just that… Haruhi dressed like his sister's doll. Like his drawing. Like his fantasy… he shivered and stumbled to a halt half a meter from her, speechless.
The costume was accurately replicated down to the slightest detail. But there was no comparing a drawing or a doll to the real thing. As expected, the vermillion and black lace suited her exquisitely. The bodice and full skirt accentuated her slender figure, always before hidden under the (extremely, utterly, criminally) wrong sort of clothes. The nylons and gauntlets cut with crisscrossing ribbons patterned the newly exposed alabaster of her arms and legs. Her skin seemed to glow in the ambient candlelight, transforming that bareness into mouthwatering temptation, particularly the square of white flesh above the tease of the neckline, the shadowed indentation of her collarbone competing for his fascination with the choker that adorned and drew attention to the slender line of her neck…
His face felt hot as he pressed the back of his hand against his lips and tried to collect himself. His eyes ached from want of blinking and his heart felt like it would batter its way right out of his chest. How could anything real be so beautiful…
A flurry of movement just past her arresting form somehow managed to snag his attention. His eyes flicked up just in time to see Kuretake-san give him a thumbs-up and an exaggerated wink before she turned and hustled a giggling, starry-eyed Kirimi-chan away through the curtains and out of sight. The distraction could not have come at a better moment, for it reminded Umehito that he needed to breathe.
At the gust of his gasp, Haruhi paused in her activity. She stood there, stock still, for an endless moment before her head turned slowly towards him. The black satin of the ribbon tied in her hair hung down the side of her face, so that she seemed to be peeking almost coyly around edge of it as she met his eyes over her shoulder. His heart missed a beat.
Then, slowly, a small, shy smile spread over her face. Umehito swallowed hard as his head swam with the sight it, but he didn't dare even toy with the idea of fainting. Now that he'd stepped this far into the flames, he would not miss a single moment of its splendor, even if it killed him. That nagging, sinister voice at the back of his head reminded him coldly that a moth rarely survived its passion for the flame, but he smothered it with quiet determination. Eyes filled with her, he couldn't bring himself to care if she burnt him up, as long as he could stand beside her while she did it.
But her eyes were deep and clear as she abandoned the sideboard and turned towards him. They held no games or teasing as they swept over him. Serene and straightforward – unreadable in his current state, but even he could see that as she looked at him, it was with an open honesty that spoke of more than mere polite acquaintance. It held a measure of faith and trust. And a promise acceptance that obliterated a crumbling wall somewhere inside him, one so old he'd forgotten it was even there. Heat rushed over that cold spot just beneath his heart. He took another involuntary step towards her, his eyes fluttering with surprise as he caught his forward motion and just barely held himself in check.
"Irashaimase, Neko… erm, Umehito." Haruhi greeted, tilting her head slightly so that the ribbon in her hair brushed against her cheek.
"Th-thank you for the invitation, H-Haruhi."
His courage in speaking her name was rewarded as her calm rippled, and she glanced down as her cheeks pinked prettily. A flock of moths began fluttering in Umehito's stomach, yet somehow it galvanized him to see he wasn't the only one who was flustered. He followed her gaze down her body, to where her small hands smoothed over the satin of the corset and the lace of the skirt, which emphasized her slim waist and the gentle flare of her hips. His mouth went dry.
"Do… do you like it?" Haruhi asked with uncharacteristic uncertainty as she took note of his appraisal. A flash of consternation furrowed her brow, and she looked momentarily perplexed, as though confused by her own question, but then seemed to dismiss her own bewilderment, and opened her arms slightly to indicate her appearance.
He nodded dumbly, mind in traction. You're a paragon… the moon in the sky… you're unparalleled… Panic lanced through him as her eyes shifted away from his, made even more uncertain by his stunned silence. Say something, you idiot!
"You're beautiful – er, it! It's beautiful! I mean, it's beautiful on you… th-that is… um…" Umehito flinched, lowering his head and missing his wig and cloak. When the floor refused to obligingly open up and swallow him into the pits of hell, he clenched his jaw and tried to stop over thinking. Steeling himself, he looked up and once more tumbled headfirst into her eyes.
"Gentle radiance… candlelight, starlight, firefly… charming as the moon…"
The words flowed from his mouth with a quiet admiration and the sure conviction of statements of fact, long before he could do anything to stop them. Color flooded over the last hint of paleness in his cheeks and the compulsion to fist his fingers in his hair and start pulling was nearly overwhelming. Of course the bad poetry from his journal would mean nothing to her – she would not realize that he was saying that she was everything he had ever dreamed or imagined, and so much more…
But as he watched from behind his lashes, her eyes widened, then softened, and her cheeks lit with a blushing glow of warmth that stole the breath from his lungs once again.
Could it be she understood? His chest constricted with longing.
His words were cut off by a quietly pitiful whimpering from beyond a nearby curtain. Umehito and Haruhi blinked and turned in unison to see two of Haruhi's regular designators lurking behind it, identical waterfalls of tears pouring down their faces into a puddle that threatened to ruin the silk they were clinging to. Beside them, Renge stood with her hands on her hips, grinning with smug satisfaction.
"Ne, ne, Renge-chan," one girl whined miserably, "Could it be that Haruhi really is a girl?"
Renge scoffed, buffed the nails of one hand against her dress, and examined them with a casual disdain.
"Of course Haruhi's a girl," she replied, oozing contempt and disappointment. "It's her 'type' – the 'gender bender'. Don't tell me you didn't know! Everyone else did. Where is your pride as an otaku? I feel like I haven't taught you anything."
Both girls rocked back as though they'd been smacked across the face with a brick. After a frozen instant, their backs straightened as they frantically waved their hands and shook their heads.
"No, I… I knew it all along!" the second girl claimed, sniffing and scrubbing at her eyes.
"Well, s-so did I! I was just making sure it was okay to say so!" insisted the first. She glanced forlornly over her shoulder at the bemused Haruhi, offered her a shaky smile, then waved. "S-see you next time, Haruhi! I'll designate you again for sure!"
Renge smirked conspiratorially at Haruhi, then swept away into the shadows, leading her shell shocked disciples away into a brave new world as she expounded upon the refined sense of moe embodied by the cross-dresser.
Umehito cocked his head admiringly at Renge's own personal brand of black magic. Then he could no longer spare brain cells to wonder at her craftiness, and turned unerringly back to the current center of his universe. Haruhi was still staring after the girls, looking slightly worried and slightly amused, and more than a little annoyed.
"They'll be fine," she muttered under her breath with a sigh.
Her lips turned up in an introspective little smile, and her eyes connected to his once more with a searing electrical jolt. How was it that she make his heart leap just by looking at him? The electricity of her gaze tingled along his skin as her pupils dilated with an echo of his own rapt longing. She opened her mouth to speak, and he felt himself leaning forward, hanging on the slope of her lips…
…then nearly toppled over sideways as Suoh popped up between them, all wagging tail and wiggling ears, like a sparkly-eyed goth-rock puppy.
"Haruhi! Wasn't my speech of darkness inspiring?"
"Tamaki-senpai!" Haruhi huffed, pursing her lips and shoving at his shoulders as he nuzzled her cheek. "I'm trying to have a conversation with…"
A sonic crack and a demonic flash of red light sliced the air as Suoh abandoned Haruhi mid-sentence and spun around. Umehito found his shoulders clamped tightly in his tearfully impassioned grasp. (All the while, it didn't escape his notice that the younger boy was wearing a lucky rabbit's foot on his belt, a four leaf clover on his lapel and a rather pungent clove of garlic around his neck.)
"You have my blessing, son!" Suoh informed him gravely, pulling back to look Umehito in the eye. "But no blood sacrifices or contracts with the lord of darkness! And remember, if you misbehave, I have a set of devious doppelgangers at the end of my leash…"
He left the sentence to trail of ominously, and looked pointedly over Umehito's shoulder, where the Hitachiin twins were watching him with unnervingly unblinking identically intent expressions that reminded him of cats watching a bird fluttering in a cage. Bewildered, but genuinely worried, Umehito gave an obedient nod. He was rewarded with Suoh's benevolent withdrawal.
"Be a good girl, Haruhi, and write to your father," he said, waving a black lace handkerchief at her as he drifted away into the darkness.
Haruhi and Umehito stood, disconcerted, in the awkward silence he left in his wake, both thrown off kilter and half afraid to speak for fear of being interrupted again – there was only so much courage to go around.
Umehito cringed inwardly as the silence lengthened, chafing his thumb over his index finger nervously. He wanted to fill that silence with witty conversation to charm her, or even bewilder and annoy her into scolding him, like Suoh did. He wanted to make her tilt her head so that her ribbon brushed her silky cheek, make her smile that shy smile again...
But he was no host. He was a boy in a black cloak and wig, but without his black cloak and wig, in a room full of strange creatures of light hiding themselves in darkness, trying to woo a celestial being as far beyond his reach as the moon… he had possibly fallen down a rabbit hole at some point, but he was fresh out of impossible things.
In the background, the music changed. Umehito recognized the song, it was from one of his favorite European goth rock bands, and the lyrics were eerily appropriate to the moment.
Oh girl, we are the same,
We are young and lost and so afraid…
There's no cure for the pain…
No shelter from the rain…
All our prayers seem to fade…
Suddenly, Haruhi took a determined step forward, hands curling in little fists against her corset. Her face was lit with an almost defiant determination, and Umehito felt his cheeks heat. If her usual expression was serene and calming, this look of determination mixed with trepidation was absolutely adorable! He felt a sudden kinship for the rest of the Host Club, who seemed unable to refrain from cuddling her at regular intervals. He considered what it might be like to wrap small form in an embrace and cradle her warmth against his chest, his face nestled against her fine soft hair. He wondered what her hair would smell like... The wave of longing his imagination generated at that idea was so intense that he had to drag his attention kicking and screaming back to the reality in front of him as she at last found her voice.
"I want to thank you… Umehito…"
He died a small, ecstatic death at the way her lips wrapped around his name. Her voice was earnest, almost pleading, as though imploring him to understand her feelings, even if she couldn't express them adequately. As she had done for him. He leaned forward, aching to try, for both their sakes. He wanted to understand anything about her that she was willing to share with him. Her head bowed slightly, so she was looking him in the chest as she continued pensively.
"It's because of what you did for me that I am free to wear this dress and tell my friends who I am… that I'm free to choose who I want to be, and where I want to be… I knew that I wanted it, but I hadn't realized what a burden had been weighing on my shoulders until you lifted it for me."
She lifted her flushed face to his once more, and though there was again an uncharacteristic uncertainty in the set of her jaw, her eyes were pools of deep serenity and safety.
"…so I wanted to tell you…" she went on with a small, warm smile, undaunted in spite of what was probably some idiotic look of slack-jawed amazement painted all over his face; she sparkled as she gazed up at him, saying it with her face, her hands, her form, her lips, and her entire presence:
In the darkness, the music crooned on…
Oh girl, we are the same
We are strong and blessed and so brave…
With souls to be saved…
And faith regained…
All our tears wiped away…
Umehito's eyes fluttered closed for a long moment as the burn of her words settled in his chest and radiated outward in a tingling haze of warmth, relief and elation. She drove back the last clinging webs of doubt, and engulfed in the rush and sensation of her nearness, he took his final plunge of his descent into the heart of the flame.
"I… I am happy I could find a way to help you," he blurted, blushing for all he was worth. "Something I could give you. Because we're so different, but I believe that you were right. That… we're alike. And I wanted to make you happy because you've made me very happy. Just by being who you are." Squeezing his eyes shut, he confessed in a bursting dam of emotion. "Man, or woman, whoever you are, or whoever you want to be… you are you… you comfort me and fascinate me… and I wanted to please you and… and I… I really…"
Here his jaw clenched up, frustration and something frantic striking through the heart of him like spears of burning ice. Trembling slightly at the unexpected force of what he felt for her, he couldn't make himself finish the sentence. Words seemed too shallow for this feeling. How could he ever communicate this emotion to her…?
His heart lurched out of rhythm as he felt a gentle caress along his jaw. Her hand was warm where it brushed his cheek, and his eyes popped open wide to stare at her with apprehensive wonder.
"I'm really glad you decided to take off your cloak, even if its just for today," she confided almost casually, her conversational tone inexplicably easing his wildly lurching heart. She brushed at a stray strand of his blond hair. "I like being able to see your face."
Her hand traveled down his face, along the line of his neck to trail a line of fire over his shoulder and down to rest boldly on his chest, right over his hammering heart. He was amazed to see that her breathing was ever so slightly labored, as though she'd been running, and he realized, astonished and entranced, that her heart must be beating at least as fast as his.
"You interest me as well," she confessed, so straightforward and easily honest that it shamed him even as his lips tugged back in a hapless ghost of a smile. "If you don't mind… I would really like to know you better. I… really like you, Umehito."
Time seemed to crack and shatter and slow to a crawl for an eternal instant as his arms took on a life of their own and came up to grip her shoulders. Her eyes widened in surprise as he pulled her towards him with enough force to make her collide with his chest. He could sympathize. He had surprised himself, and his eyes were as wide as hers as their gazes met over the endless expanse of inches that separated them. He could feel the lace and satin under his fingers, warm as the skin just underneath... his breath caught in his throat.
They stared at each other, owl-eyed and speechless, for a long moment. And then their expressions turned knowing as a wordless understanding bridged the swirling chaos between them. Neither of them was getting out of this unscathed. The moth in him had already burnt to a cinder and all that was left was a man looking down at the girl he was falling ever deeper in love with. The next move was inevitable, a fixed point in time, destined.
As his head bent close to hers, it seemed he saw something wild wake up in her eyes, stretch, purr and begin to knead with delight… He stopped a millimeter from her mouth, impulsively drawing a teasing line up the bridge of her nose with the tip of his, some rebellious corner of him, driven mad by her closeness, insolently prolonging and savoring the last instant of suspense. It made her shiver in the most enticing way and a delicate zephyr of her warm breath stole between her parted lips at his touch. It put him beyond patience. He pressed her waiting lips with his own.
A sudden chorus of cheers, squeals of delight, dreamy sighs and shouts of encouragement erupted around the room, as the captive audience they had acquired at some point could no longer hold back their excitement. But the pair were deaf to it as Haruhi fisted her fingers in the fabric of Umehito's jacket and pressed back. He felt a momentary graze wet warmth along his lower lip and it sizzled through every single cell of his body. Her kiss was as soft and firm as he remembered, and full of want and welcome and formless possibilities that they alone could discover together.
The music swelled and swirled in the air around them, and over the sounds of girlish excitement could just be detected the dulcet melody of the song…
In joy and sorrow, my home's in your arms,
In word so hollow it's breaking my heart…
In joy and sorrow, my home's in your arms,
In words so hollow it's breaking my heart.
The kiss was lingering, but all too short as they slowly returned to the waking world. Yet as they pulled slowly apart, the space that grew between their tingling lips seemed to sing with an electrical promise – they were separated for now, but there was no escape – they would soon meet again.
Time, which had seemed to falter to stillness in rapt fascination at their embrace, began to stumble forward once more, and the pair became aware of their raucous audience. Umehito thought there just might be steam coming out of his ears as all the blood in his body rushed straight to his face - a physiological miracle that only caused more giggles and romantic sighs to waft up out of the voracious crowd.
Haruhi was noticeably red as well, but her shy smile turned wry as she glanced around at the salivating fangirls drugged on an extreme overdose of hormones and moe, and the bittersweet expressions of grudging approval on the faces of her clubmates, then took Umehito's hand and pulled him away towards an unoccupied sofa set in one of the lace-encircled alcoves. Deciding on the spur of the moment to be philosophical about his mortification, he went willingly, grinning a bashful, idiotic grin at the back of her head all the while.
The spectators watched, some deftly, others shamelessly, as the pair sat down side by side, keeping a decorous distance that only inflamed the observers' imaginations; in spite of their sudden unaccountable shyness, there was a silent electricity sparking in the air between the two. They sat and savored their tea and made halting, earnest conversation, taking the first tricky steps on the journey towards learning each others hearts.
"Well, Father?" Kyoya murmured as he stepped up beside the sofa where Tamaki knelt, watching the new-minted couple over the backrest with his chin propped on his hand. "Are you satisfied?"
"Of course, Mother," Tamaki replied, voice unusually subdued, almost wistful. His eyelashes shadowed his lavender gaze and there was a sad, dreamy, sincere smile on his face. "The Host Club exists to bring joy to women. Look at her." He nodded in Haruhi's direction. "She's happy."
Kyoya followed his gaze assessingly for a few moments, then glanced back down at his friend with a small, knowing smirk. In spite of everything, Tamaki was as kind as he was (occasionally) wise in his own off-beat way. Not that he was ever going to let Tamaki know it - he doubted he could endure the backwash of vanity off of Tamaki's overblown opinion of himself without strangling him, and he had every intention of using him shamelessly to his fullest advantage... But he acknowledged it nonetheless.
In one corner of the room Hikaru and Kaoru had gone back to playing erotic punishment games, while near the cupboard, Hunny-senpai cuddled Usa-chan (which currently wore a black spiked collar around its neck) while Mori-senpai loomed over him with benign menace, holding with a plate of chocolate confections. Across the room, Renge was perched upon her dais, diagramming drag queen fashion for a huddled mass of otaku refugees from Haruhi's camp. Kyoya thought he caught a glimpse of a chimpanzee swinging from the rafters, narrowly avoiding the tranquilizer dart from a blowgun wielded by one of his personal police force, whom he'd called in to double as decorators. He glanced down at his friend again, the back towards the object of his stalwart observation.
Haruhi, the androgynous commoner dressed like a dark princess, next to Nekozawa-senpai, the prince of darkness, looking innocent as an angel as he blushed and stammered, causing Haruhi to laugh warmly as she offered him a plate of scones, and eliciting a shy smile and a look of pure adoration from the boy next to her in return. Kyoya deftly pushed his glasses up his nose with the tip of his index finger, bemused.
They were all strange animals in their own way. Yet somehow those two odd, unlikely creatures, were the strangest of all. Anyone who knew them would say they made the most improbable pair imaginable.
And yet everyone who chanced to glance over at them in enthusiastic excitement or bittersweet acceptance that day could only agree: stripped of all their masks, finally facing each other properly, striving to understand with their minds what their hearts and bodies already knew, they seemed to see each other clearly at last. Different as they were, and strange as it seemed, it was plain to one and all that they fit together like it was the most natural thing in the world.
...oh, no. This is only the beginning.
Note: But no, really, this is the end! Thank you once more to everyone who has read this story all the way through! I had so much fun writing it - even though I accidentally took that tiny five year break between chapters... In truth, I've had so much fun that I'm thinking of writing a sequel; after all there is plenty left of adventures for these two strange creatures to uncover! Review and let me know what you think! I've already got a few ideas, but suggestions are always welcome!
Thanks again to all my readers, and especially my reviewers. Nursing school is a little piece of hell on earth, so I may be a while, but if you liked this, please keep an eye out for more fics, for I assure you, you have not seen the last of me! (dat dat daaaah...)
Soundtrack for this fanfic:
Killing Loneliness - by HIM
Funeral of Hearts - by HIM
Under the Rose - by HIM
Pretending - by HIM
Beautiful - by HIM
In Joy and Sorrow - by HIM