Kaoru was jet-lagged. After spending two weeks in a city on the other side of the world, he wanted nothing more than to curl up on his ergonomic mattress and lose himself in the realm of sleep. The business trip had physically and mentally drained him. Besides spinning introductions to his mother's friends and colleagues, promoting her summer collection or finding his own amusement, the simple act of experiencing these things without Hikaru had really worn him out. It was rare for Kaoru to feel this way as he would normally vanish behind the façade of his twin, allowing Hikaru to take the lead and speak on his behalf, but there had been no one else on this business trip to hide Kaoru or enable him to hide.
As a consequence, the topic of conversation seemed to focus on Hikaru's whereabouts and whether it felt strange for Kaoru to be somewhere by himself. Some of his mother's friends were not even aware of Kaoru having a twin, a fact which Kaoru found very difficult to believe and very bizarre to deal with. Whenever he had to explain that there was someone who looked just like him back in Japan, identical in every way thinkable, they were pleasantly surprised, and from Kaoru's perspective, possibly humouring him, as if it were a joke. So when Kaoru finally returned home, deeply perturbed by these new revelations, he could not wait to see his twin Hikaru again.
Impatient, Kaoru tapped an index finger on his armrest, feeling that the faster he tapped, the faster the limousine would progress up the driveway – he ceased the instant he saw someone waiting in the distance. Hikaru, thought Kaoru, straining against his seatbelt and pressing his cheek on the tinted window.
Before the limo had properly stopped, the door flung open and the twins gave each other a bone-crushing hug whilst chattering with undisguised relief at being together again. For a moment, Hikaru broke the embrace to welcome their grinning mother, who deftly placed something on the older twin's ear, which Hikaru discovered to be a tiny nutcracker hanging on a loop of string. 'Thanks, Mum!' said Hikaru, adding it to the other charms hanging on his cell-phone. Kaoru watched, somehow disappointed.
'Well, I'm tired now,' said Kaoru, following the heavy-laden porters into the Hitachiin mansion. He felt a hand on his shoulder, heard the concern. In that practised way he had perfected overseas, Kaoru smiled. 'We took loads of photos. You should see them while I'm freshening up.' The hand fell away and Kaoru could sense his brother's gaze, even as he climbed the grand staircase and walked out of sight.
Everything was different.
In the bedroom they shared, Kaoru flopped onto the ergonomic mattress he had dreamed about and closed his eyes, breathing in the familiar scent of his brother on the pillows and blankets. It would have to end someday, he thought, this comforting universe. The end had already begun with their parents taking one twin halfway across the world whilst leaving the other at home. Their parents had humoured them – Kaoru could see this now – hoping that the twins would someday decide for themselves without being told, without being pushed. But now they were being pushed. They were being pushed to become two separate people, and Kaoru, for one, was not confident that the time was right.
From the third floor, he could hear Hikaru and his mother laughing and wished that he was down there too, but it was his own fault for staying awake the entire journey. Had he not discovered the economy class, a section of the plane where only commoners were seated, perhaps Kaoru would have had some rest, yet was it not so weird to see everyone sitting in rows, tightly packed like an audience at the cinema, eating food in plastic containers like Haruhi's bento box, using plastic cutlery as if they were children…?
'Can't get to sleep?'
Kaoru's eyes flicked from the ceiling to the door: a middle-aged man was standing there, holding a tray with a canned energy drink beside a folded napkin. 'Hi, Dad,' said Kaoru, almost mistaking him for a servant. 'What have you got there?'
His father entered, closing the door behind him, and presented the tray to his son. 'A natural and organic pick-me-up: just for you.'
The can sparkled in the afternoon light; Kaoru was touched. 'Thanks, Dad. I really appreciate this.'
'So how was your trip? Was it exciting?'
'Exciting?' mused Kaoru, wrapping the can with the napkin to remove its chill and keep it dry.
He supposed the trip had been exciting. At first, it had seemed almost liberating to be away from his twin, embarking at last on the path to being different. He could go anywhere as himself without people being confused or forcing them to pick which was Hikaru, which was Kaoru. It was a challenge Kaoru felt he could meet head on – he had even said this to Hikaru, hoping that nonchalance would make the fortnight less daunting, less worrying.
On the contrary, it made Hikaru feel worse.
'I can't believe I'm not coming,' his twin had fumed, the fragments of a broken ornament scattered at his feet. 'Why are they doing this? Why are they separating us?'
Kaoru studied the carpet, crestfallen. The ornament was a horse – had been a horse – brought back from one of their father's trips to America. Although it was hardly the most expensive of items, its destruction was wrong in some way, as if Hikaru had destroyed not only their father's affection but Hikaru's own.
'They said it's for the best,' Kaoru had mumbled. 'Come on, Hikaru, it's not that bad. It's only for two weeks. Think of all the fun you'll have with Tamaki and the Host Club. You'll have Haruhi all to yourself. Think of all the fun you'll be having with her.'
'But I want to have fun with you!'
'And you will: when I come back.'
Hands grabbed Kaoru by the arms, pinning him to the spot. 'Why are you being like this? You're acting as if it's no big deal.'
'It's not fair to leave me behind and you know it.'
'This isn't about fairness, Hikaru…'
'Then what is this about?'
All the way to the airport, Kaoru had thought very hard, smiling weakly at his mother's attempts to cheer him up on the plane. What was this really about? Silent, Kaoru flicked through his English phrase book, mouthing the introduction his mother had written. She was fluent in English now – fluent, at least, in the pleasantries and talk of fashion – so he trusted her pronunciation and command over grammar, trusted that she had not included an embarrassing confession on his childhood somewhere.
'This sentence here,' said Kaoru, underlining the words with his manicured finger, 'what does it mean?'
His mother glanced over her magazine. 'It means "I have an older brother and his name is Hikaru".'
'What's the English for "twin"?'
'You won't need it.'
Kaoru felt a moment of panic. 'But I am a twin.'
'Everyone knows that, so there's no need for you to repeat yourself.' The magazine shook at his mother's private joke. 'You're not angry with me for doing this, are you?'
'It's only a word, I guess…'
'No,' said his mother, 'are you angry with me for bringing you alone?'
His father coughed.
Kaoru jumped. 'The trip was okay,' he said, mortified at forgetting his father. The man was perched on the end of the bed, a place where Kaoru had rarely seen him since he and Hikaru were little.
'What's the matter?'
Kaoru stared at the proffered handkerchief; he laughed and accepted, wiping his eyes. 'You could always tell, couldn't you?'
'Which one is Hikaru, which one is Kaoru? No, I couldn't always tell. You might think that I'm never around, that I never pay attention to either of my sons, but I've seen you and Hikaru grow up and I've come to know your differences. That time you were eavesdropping on me and Haruhi – pretty impressive, huh?'
'But it still bothers you that your mother can't tell.'
'I'm over it. That was years ago.'
'Please, don't hate her for it. The reason why she can't tell the difference is because she doesn't want to.'
'Well thanks, Dad; that makes me feel so much better.'
'I didn't mean it that way…'
'She still can't tell us apart. Don't you think that's terrible?'
'Kaoru, will you try something for me?'
'Who's your favourite, me or your mother?'
Kaoru was poised to laugh, but the expression on his father's face was very serious. Kaoru considered the question. Who would he choose: mother or father? From an outsider's perspective, he would probably choose his mother because she had played a more prominent role in his and Hikaru's childhood. She would dress them up, show them off at parties, and play the "Which is Hikaru, which is Kaoru?" game, despite getting their names wrong on a regular basis.
Then again, perhaps Kaoru would rather choose his father, the most reserved member of the family who could tell the twins apart without any problems. That instance where Kaoru had been eavesdropping: he realised for the first time how accurate his father could be, especially from only seeing through a gap in the door! That recognition had been pretty amazing…
Still, it did not make the choice any easier.
'I get it,' murmured Kaoru, closing his eyes. 'She doesn't want to choose.'
'That's right.' A palm rested on his hair, warm and consoling. 'Thank you, Kaoru. Sleep well.'