I am very, very sorry about my long break from posting. The truth of the matter is that I'm a full-time college student, and this past semester was extremely tough. I just didn't have the time or energy to write. But we're in the home stretch now with Seven Ways, so hang with me, folks. I'm back, and I fully plan to finish what I started, even if it takes until Christmas (incidentally, I'd originally planned to finish this story around Christmas 2010 – just look how that turned out).
I apologize for any punctuation errors in this chapter. I caught a few that happened when I switched word processors, but I'm sure I didn't catch them all.
Over the next four days, not a single student in the Ouran Institute had not heard at least one version of the story of Hikaru's capture. While most retellings were exaggerated to include such heroic acts as Hikaru throwing himself at the guard or getting bodily dragged out of the library, most were at least partially accurate, and Hikaru was quickly going down in Ouran history as a hero; a fearless pioneer, sacrificing himself for the cause of scouting out enemy territory (and not to mention stepping in front of a proverbial bullet for the most popular boy in school).
Are we thinking about the same guy? Haruhi couldn't help but wonder to herself. It seemed impossible that rude, selfish, immature Hikaru Hitachiin could ever be considered some kind of savior, but Haruhi supposed that there had to be at least a little good in everybody. Hikaru's had just waited until now to show.
But when the fifth day came and went and Hikaru had not returned, the mood shifted from triumph to concern, and quickly to a simmering uneasiness that spread like an illness. His belongings were still thrown about in the room he shared with Mori, as though his return should be expected at any moment. Teachers noted his absence with nonchalance, as if he was simply suffering from a head cold. But amongst the students, tensions were higher than ever.
"Damn it, I can't stand being so useless." Kaoru jabbed his fork through the chicken on his plate, and it made a grating screech on the ceramic beneath. "I swear, if they've laid one hand on him someone's getting a slow, painful death."
"Death by hallucination?" Kyouya asked, amused. "I wouldn't mind seeing that." For the first time since Haruhi had known him, there were the makings of black circles beneath his eyes. It was unnerving.
Kaoru scowled. "Did I look like I was talking to you?"
Kyouya swirled around the contents of his teacup. "Seeing as how you were addressing the table as a whole, I felt it was fully within my right to express my opinion."
Haruhi was trying her hardest to tune them out, focusing instead on the chatter around her and the headache starting to prickle at the nape of her neck. But after several minutes, the tension was too stifling, and she rose from the table. There were two hours left before curfew, and she decided that they would best be spent in the library, far away from any of the boys.
To her annoyance, as soon as Haruhi turned to leave the table, she heard the scraping of another chair behind her.
"Hey, I'm coming with you!" Renge smoothed out her skirt and clumsily shoved her chair back under the table. "Wait just a second."
"Hold on, I'm leaving too." Two seats down from Renge, Kasanoda was also pushing in his chair. Haruhi was apparently not the only one who had noticed the painfully tense atmosphere.
"Some argument, huh?" Renge asked as soon as she caught up with Haruhi, a slouching Kasanoda at her heels.
Haruhi frowned. "I've never seen Kaoru like that before. It was kind of weird."
Renge looked surprised for a moment, and then her face settled into an expression of matronly understanding. "Ah, I keep forgetting you haven't known them as long as we have.
Kasanoda rubbed the back of his neck. "Whoever said Kaoru was the gentle one needs to check their sources. Once you get them angry they're pretty much the same person."
This was news to Haruhi, and it made her feel a bit cheated. She had assumed that, out of all of the Hosts, she'd gotten to know the twins the best. In particular, she was actually quite fond of Kaoru. But after all, he had been raised alongside Hikaru for fifteen years; they were bound to share some personality traits.
"Yeah, Kaoru can be pretty cool," Renge went on, "but he has a berserk button. Threaten his brother and you're gonna see some blood get spilled."
Haruhi raised her eyebrows. "I hope you don't mean that literally."
But Renge didn't seem to hear her. "I think it's sweet, personally. That kind of brotherly devotion deserves a medal."
"Something like that," Kasanoda muttered.
They reached Renge's room first, and with a breezy wave she slipped through the closed door. The hallway suddenly seemed much quieter.
Kasanoda cleared his throat. "You, um, seem pretty calm about this whole thing."
"What whole thing?" Haruhi was not paying attention; instead, her eyes were focused on the picture windows. More bars had cropped up in the past couple of days, and the sight made her legs feel weak.
"I mean about Hikaru," Kasanoda corrected, his face flushing. "You've really kept your cool. It's... cool."
Haruhi felt the edge of her mouth twitch upward, though she couldn't muster a full smile. "Well it's not like arguing and freaking out about it is going to help him," she said, which warranted a strange look from Kasanoda.
"You don't mean..." He stopped walking, and looked down at Haruhi with a sort of strangled concern. "You aren't going to try and do something, are you?"
Haruhi chewed on her lip. What she wanted to say was, No, I hadn't meant it like that. Stop worrying. But somewhere in her gut, she felt a strange stirring, like some unspoken emotion was trying to worm its way out. Keeping her mouth shut tight, Haruhi shook her head, hoping that her troubling train of thought wasn't evident on her face.
"O-of course not," she finally stammered. "Whatever happens, happens. No point in getting myself in trouble too, right?"
But as she spoke, the feeling in her stomach grew stronger.
Kasanoda looked her in the eye for a few seconds, and then let out a weary breath. They were reaching her room now, and he took a step back while Haruhi fiddled with the lock. "Just be careful, okay?" he said quietly. "Don't do anything too rash."
Haruhi put on her brightest smile. "Relax, okay? You don't have to worry about me."
For a few moments Kasanoda looked like he was about to argue, but then the expression on his face turned into one of resignation. He gave her a weak smile and said, "See you tomorrow, Fujioka."
And with that, the boy shoved his hands in his pockets and slouched off down the hall. Haruhi slipped inside her dark room and closed the door behind her. With her hand still on the knob, she counted down from three hundred.
And when she reached zero, she turned the knob and stepped back out into the hall.
Curfew was still forty-five minutes away, but the school was already eerily still. The maze-like halls were dim and dusty, and more than once Haruhi caught herself gasping at a sudden creak of the floor. She clutched her math notebook in her arms, shakily prepared with an excuse about getting lost on the way to help a friend with homework, lest she get caught. But the whole way to the third floor, she met no one.
It had been weeks since she had been up here. If anything, the changes on the third floor were even more drastic than those in other parts of the building. Entire hallways had been blocked off with makeshift walls and metal doors, and some of the windows were covered not with bars, but with metal plating. This floor was still being used for dorm rooms and classrooms, which could only mean one thing.
Whatever was on the fourth floor now was being given the highest security possible. There was no way she was getting within a hundred feet of the fourth floor stairwell, not if the entire third floor looked like this.
Haruhi rubbed at her eyes. She was getting a tension headache, and the flickering lights were not helping. She knew that she should just go back to her room, go to bed, and hope for the best. That was the safe thing to do.
But for the first time in her life, Haruhi was tired of doing the safe thing. And that, above all, scared her. That feeling in her stomach, the strange stirring instigated by Kasanoda's words – Haruhi was beginning to realize what that had been.
She blinked hard a few times, and rubbed at her temples. No one else was going to try to figure this out – Kyouya was milking the situation for whatever information he could, and all of the others either didn't care at all, or were too busy passing the blame to try and do something about it. Haruhi wished to no end that she could feel that way right now; that she could ignore the higher duty that was beginning to tug on the back of her mind, and just go live her own life. To hell with destiny and prophecies and all of this crap.
It was at this moment that something – a murmur of noise – pulled her out of her thoughts. By the time she recognized two voices just around the corner, she had only seconds to hide. Her heart pounding in her ears, Haruhi ducked behind a velvet drape, choking on the resulting dust cloud, and tucked herself into the darkest corner she could manage. The voices sifted into clarity, and Haruhi held her breath.
"... started to wake up this morning. That doc's got some strong stuff, though. Knocked him right back out."
"What've they found?" The first voice was unfamiliar, but the second definitely belonged to Kosmin.
"Nothing. Test results'll take awhile to be read and all."
The two men were nearly to Haruhi's curtain by now, but she had entirely forgotten about hiding. She felt sick to her stomach.
"They gonna keep him up there till then?"
"Don't know. Don't think anyone knows, except maybe the Boss."
"Hope they keep that one alive. He was a hoot when they first brought him in. Socked Zev right in the nose."
There was the soft, final click of a door closing, and the voices faded into a hum. Haruhi was frozen, her fists balled up in the fabric of her sweater, biting her lip to keep from making noise. She was feverish with anger; her chest burned, her stomach froze. Her hands shook, no matter how she clenched them.
All at once, she wished that she had not heard a thing.
Her thoughts began working again in phases. At first she could process her anger and her disbelief. Then, the murmur of guilt.. Finally, a resolution: she had to tell someone. She had to tell someone immediately. It didn't matter if they didn't care. It didn't matter if they scoffed and fought and threw insults around. Someone's life was on the line, and if they couldn't all get along, it was time to pose as a team and make something happen.
Haruhi did not realize her feet were moving until she was halfway to the grand staircase. It was still fifteen minutes before curfew, but the halls were deserted. She did not hear a whisper of noise, until she reached the mouth of her hallway. Just as she turned the corner, headed resolutely towards Tamaki's room, someone called her name.
"Hey, I've been looking for you all over!"
Haruhi looked over her shoulder, and her brow twitched with impatience. It was Shiro, the new kid.
"I don't have time to-"
"No, no!" He bounded up to match her pace, and she could see that his eyes were rimmed with red. "It's really important. You have to listen to me!"
Haruhi groaned, rubbing a fist across her eyes. "Make it quick." She paused, standing with her shoulder against the wall.
Shiro took a deep, shaky breath, and then launched into his story. "You know how I mentioned that my mom was sick?"
Haruhi made a noncommittal grunt.
"She was supposed to have some kind of treatment two weeks ago, and my grandfather said he'd call when they found out if it worked." His voice was hoarse and wavering. "But we aren't allowed to get letters or anything anymore, so I don't know what's going on back home, and it's really starting to make me worried, and I was just hoping that maybe... maybe you could help..." He trailed off, folding into himself.
"What do you want us to do about it?" Haruhi tried to sound gentle, but reality was clear and bitter in this case. She did not want to get the boy's hopes up.
"I don't know!" Shiro wailed. "Steal the phone, find where they keep the mail, help me get out of this place – something!"
Three very unlikely options, but Haruhi couldn't think of anything better. Her headache was beginning to pound at the back of her eyes again. This was not the time to be dealing with this.
"Why don't you go find Kyouya? He can help." Total lie.
Shiro sniffed loudly. "Where is he?"
Haruhi rattled off the room number, then gave Shiro a small, forced smile. "Don't worry, we'll do something about it. We all know how you feel." And with a light pat on the shoulder and a quick "Good luck", she turned her back on the boy and continued down the hall. Her body felt heavier with every step, and by the time she reached her room, she felt as though she was sinking slowly to the floor with guilt.
The room was empty; Haruhi made a note to thank divine providence for that. She slung her coat down in a chair and trooped into the bathroom, tying her hair up as she went. She slammed the door behind her, turned on the tap with too much force, and made sure to stomp with every step she took. Still, the burning anger did not leave her veins. She had no idea how she was going to convince the boys to take action, and time was not stopping for her to figure it out. One half of her mind tried to tell her that it would be fine – they would all come together soon, once they realized what grave danger Hikaru was in. But the other half, the logical half, knew that this was never going to work. The Hosts were too divided, and not even Haruhi would be able to change their opinions.
It was this half of her mind that first came up with the plan.
Haruhi had not been back in the library since the fiasco, but she could still imagine the smell of wool and the echo of Kaoru's shouts. It seemed like weeks ago – not a mere few days.
The room was empty, save for the two customary guards by the double doors. Their eyes were trained on Haruhi from the moment she entered the library. All she had to do was use her powers once, maybe twice, and bam – the guards would be on her like ants. She'd be upstairs in minutes, and then...
That would be the hard part, of course. Getting caught was easy. But getting out?
Haruhi stretched her fingers. She knew what she could do. She had collapsed a building before, and she could do it again. It was going to be fine. It was going to go perfectly.
So why was her heart pounding in her fingertips?
She started on the lower shelves, making a show of pulling out books, examining the spines, and murmuring to herself. The fabric bindings hissed as she slid them in and out, and besides the shuffling of her shoes, it was the only noise in the room.
"So when was I gonna find out that I volunteered myself for Kyouya's super secret mission?"
Haruhi dropped the book she was holding, and it plunged to the floor with a dusty thud. Still trying to catch her breath, she whirled around to see a pair of angry hazel eyes looking up at her.
"Well?" Hunny prodded, leaning against the bookshelf. "Kyouya said it was your idea, so I figured you'd probably know how my name got offered up to pretty much risk death for this brat."
Haruhi pressed one finger to her lips. "Shut up, the guards can-"
"-hear absolutely nothing," Hunny finished. "You can thank me for that."
But that was still less than assuring. Slamming her book back in the shelf, Haruhi grabbed Hunny by the wrist and headed for the double doors. "We're talking about this upstairs. I don't know where you get the idea that I told him-"
"From Kyouya himself." Hunny snapped his fingers lightly as they passed the guards. They slipped out the doors without incident, and continued across the lobby. "He came to our room and was pretty much like, 'Here's Haruhi's idea, you're gonna do it, go ahead and write your will.'"
Haruhi groaned and rubbed at her temples. "I never even mentioned you. I just told Shiro to talk to Kyouya, that's it."
Something flashed in Hunny's eyes, but his harsh tone did not soften. "Well I'm not doing it."
"Of course you aren't." Haruhi felt the start of something raw and rough welling up in her chest. "Because if you did it, you'd be helping someone else for once, and Heaven forbid you should ever do something like that." She was surprised to see that Hunny looked hurt by her words, but she felt no guilt. "Just once, maybe you could think about someone other than yourself! Shiro's mother is sick, maybe even dying, and you won't stop thinking about your own safety long enough to help him out. Well in case you don't remember, we all knew there would be risks when we-"
"I don't want to die!"
Haruhi's vision went black with the energy of his outburst, and she stumbled at the thredshold of the dorm room door, her key clattering to the floor. She could hear Hunny breathing heavily behind her, but when her vision filtered back, she was surprised to see a sheen of tears around his eyes.
Hunny wiped his face, staying firmly in the doorway. Backlit by the lamps from the hall, his face was only half-visible. "You heard me. I don't want to die. And especially not for some stupid kid."
Gingerly, Haruhi tugged him into their room, shutting the door behind him. "And who says you're going to die?"
Hunny looked up at her, deathly serious. "They want us dead, Haruhi. Just look what's happened to Hikaru."
Haruhi could hear the echo of Kosmin's voice in her head, but no sooner had she opened her mouth than there was a rapid knocking on the door. Not daring to meet Hunny's eyes, she trudged over to answer it.
Renge's face was stark white, her hair still wet and stringy from a shower, and when she spoke it was with a nervous stammer.
"You guys gotta come quick!" She motioned down the hall. "Right now!"
Dazed, Haruhi stepped out of her dorm. "Why?" She wasn't sure she could stand anymore bad news.
But a weak smile broke out on Renge's face. "Hikaru's back."