Apologies for the late submission of this chapter; it was very difficult to write.
Thank you so much for your reviews, LaurenLovesSouthPark, nicluvly, and Mimi-dudette.
A lot of wild speculations which have yet to be satisfied... the time will honestly come!
My continuing thanks to liquidity and Social Safari for their supportive beta-reading.
They always seem to catch what I miss and make the chapters all that more dramatic.
When Kazukiyo screamed, staggering away from the snowman near the edge of the hill, they thought it was simply a joke, just another act of cowardice from their easily frightened classmate. They were used to seeing him terrified, used to the way he would stutter and panic over the silliest of things, such as shadows flung by the fire or dimly lit corridors, but it was hardly a joke this time: Kazukiyo's face said so. Stunned by the scream and its raw emotion, Hikaru, Hunny, and Tamaki merely stared at his open-mouthed panic, watching him move. What could have scared him so much by peering at a snowman?
'Pres!' shouted Hikaru, recovering first. He grabbed Kazukiyo to stop him, scared the boy would slip, only to find that he had willingly run into Hikaru's arms. Bewildered, the eldest twin sought the guidance of Hunny and Tamaki, who were approaching the snowman again, one on either side. 'What did you see?' Hikaru asked Kazukiyo, shaking the boy for an answer. 'What the hell is the matter with you?' He looked towards the snowman, about to investigate, yet his classmate held him back with an overly fierce grip.
'Don't,' Kazukiyo half-whispered, 'please don't.'
But his words came too late for the chairman's son. They could see Tamaki's expression just beyond the snowman's shoulder: it was fixed with a horrible tension, of the kind that should never be seen on the face of a friend; and surprisingly, there were tears, great curtains blurring his eyes. He was crying in silence, crying before he even knew it, and nothing Hunny-sempai could say would make the falling tears stop.
Finally, Hikaru went over, leaving Kazukiyo alone, and stood with Tamaki in front of the snowman. While the wind blew in gusts, sending strong, sweeping waves to chase across the ground and dance like ghosts in the snow, Hikaru was quiet, suddenly afraid. Until that moment, the thoughts consuming his mind had been about Kaoru and how he wanted more than anything to be with him at the lodge. And it was only right that Hikaru should be, given what had happened last night, but the others could hardly know that, and Hikaru would never tell. So he steeled himself, summoning the courage to lift his chin and understand what had caused this unusual terror.
He shifted his gaze to the snowman's head.
Blinking, Hikaru swerved, unable to believe. He recognised who was hidden there. He knew who this person was. But how could it be? How was it possible? He turned again to the snowman and studied the perfect skin surrounding its nose and the peaceful droop of its half-closed eyelids. This face could come to life any second now and say it was just a joke, except there was no chance on earth that it would ever be doing that.
Beside him, arms reached forward to rest on the snowman and Tamaki's shoulders shook as he hugged the motionless figure. Hikaru felt ill. He wanted to cry. Without a word, he placed a hand on Tamaki's coat and dared to look at Hunny. The third-year blinked as well, straining to smile, and for the rarest instance in Hikaru's life, there was someone else in the world that mattered more than Kaoru.
'Let's what?' Tamaki demanded in a muffled voice. 'Let's bring him back to life?' Furious, he started to claw at the snowman, tearing bits of ice from the unrelenting structure. When Hikaru intervened, halting the assault with a desperate embrace, the blond froze and examined his gloves, breathing hard. 'My best friend,' he uttered. 'My best friend.'
'I know, Tono,' said Hikaru, 'I know,' and guided his overwhelmed sempai away from the snowman and boulder-strewn ravine.
Haruhi checked the time on her wristwatch, a small-faced clock with an inexpensive strap. The stainless steel hands were bunched towards ten, two hours since the search party left. Sighing, she sipped the last of her lukewarm coffee and squinted through binoculars trained on the hills. If Tamaki had been in charge of stocking the lodge, they would have owned the finest binoculars on the market with loads of superfluous extras. For once, Haruhi would have welcomed this extravagance, if only to gain a clearer view of the landscape and comprehend why the boys had lingered in the distance. Despite leaving early to cover as much terrain as they could, hunting for Kyouya and Renge, the search party seemed to have stayed on the same hill all morning, and no longer amongst them was the snowman, its body knocked down to half the original height.
What were they doing, messing with the snowman?
Bored, she rolled drops of coffee clinging to the bottom of her cup. What else could she do until the others returned? For the past hour, she had kept a vigil next to the second-storey window, glancing from book to binoculars and back again as the minutes ticked by. Occasionally, she would brew a saucepan of coffee for her empty thermal flask or visit Mori-sempai who was napping in the study, but other than that, there was little else to do and Haruhi was becoming increasingly restless.
She stretched her legs and rose from the cushioned chair she had positioned in the hallway. At least someone isn't worried, she thought, checking on Mori-sempai once more, where he slept on folded arms upon the locked writing desk.
It would have been nice to sleep like that, without a care in the world, but Kaoru's health, along with Kyouya missing, had left Haruhi wide awake long into the night. These worries had forced her to wander, ending her meandering post-midnight tour in the lounge, where she had stared at the hearth glowing low in its grate. It was then that Tamaki had joined her, startled by her presence as she stirred on the sofa and no doubt worried by thoughts of his own. She remembered how the dark had made him appear both haggard and fragile, strands of blond hair screening his eyes and lending that amiable smile a grim sort of sarcasm. 'Hey,' was all Tamaki had said as he settled down beside her, and spoke no more for the length of his stay, not even in response to her awkward conversation.
Since Kyouya went missing, there was something different about Tamaki, something not everyone could put their finger on. To people like Haruhi, of course, it was plain that he was feeling Kyouya's absence. Without someone to question his whims or ward away the gloom with prudence and logic, Tamaki seemed to feel it was necessary to exhibit these qualities himself and act in a manner that would have made Kyouya proud, had he been around to witness it. Not that a quieter and more sensible Tamaki would have been particularly wrong; the others thought nothing less of him for actually making some sense and behaving like a proper leader for once. All the same, it was strange, this different Tamaki Suou, and while he had rested elbows on thighs in hushed meditation, narrowing his eyes at the dying embers, Haruhi wished that she had somehow reached out to him, to tell him that everything would be okay.
With a sigh, Haruhi closed the door to the study and walked downstairs to the scarlet bedroom with Kaoru. He had been talking to Momoka-san the last time she saw him, assuring the girl – in a tone she had never heard before – that even he, too, sometimes failed to matter. Embarrassed, Haruhi had withdrawn from the second-storey landing, flinching when a door slammed swiftly in the background. Was everyone strange now that Kyouya was missing? Where were all the nonchalant rich kids? She lingered by the scarlet room and listened, then quietly knocked on the door in case the twin was asleep.
'Hello,' came his flat reply, a sign that he was reading.
Haruhi entered. 'It's only me.'
'Oh, hey!' said Kaoru, quickly deserting his book. 'All quiet on the northern front?'
'Too quiet.' She drew closer to the bed, and without permission, took the bruised face between her hands, carefully tilting its startled countenance this way and that. 'Are you feeling alright? You're looking much better.'
Surmounting the intimate scrutiny, Kaoru winked, a gesture which emphasised his blackened right eye and the soreness affecting his bandaged temple. 'Why, thank you, I was thinking the same thing myself.'
'So where's Momoka?'
'Bringing water,' said Kaoru, consulting his watch, 'though I think she must have got lost.'
Haruhi's smile induced a blush as she glanced at the window with its panes of solid white.
'How are you holding up?'
'Just fine. Why do you ask?'
'Because no one has really asked you.'
'Oh,' said Haruhi, surprised. She supposed the statement was true. Then again, she was accustomed to dealing with things alone, being a commoner without inheritance or servants. 'I'll check on Momoka-san for you. Shout if you need something else.' Then she stepped into the hallway, relieved for some reason. 'Of course I'm fine,' Haruhi whispered. 'Of course I am.' As she strolled away from the scarlet room, the heel of her foot slipped on the parquet floor, almost causing the girl to lose her balance. 'Great,' she muttered, inspecting the puddle and gazing up at the damp patch expanding on the ceiling. Wearily, Haruhi climbed the stairs, with the intention of asking Mori where he had stored the DIY kit.
The body twinkled as crystals of ice tumbled past its supine form, rolling over fabric glued to its skin and settling in wrinkles frozen into place. Without glasses, the Shadow King looked different: he seemed younger, more handsome, and far less severe than what anyone was used to. While the skin around his face was more or less intact, blanched by the frost, flawless as a statue's, the brown eyes were pale, and the lips had curled back over dull, yet perfect, teeth.
It had been difficult to extract the body from its tomb. Overnight, a drop in temperature had softened the ice enough to crack the snowman open, though prying the body's legs from its torso had taken most of an hour. When the body finally came loose, destroying what little remained of the melting snowman, it nearly made Hunny and Hikaru sick to examine the fate of its legs. Turning the body over and gingerly brushing away what snow had covered it anew, it soon became obvious how the body had fit into a structure so small: its legs had been folded at the knees, calves bound to flanks by a thin sheet of ice, making the body appear freakishly short as it lay stiff and strange in the lumpy snow.
'Tell me it isn't true,' Tamaki appealed to Hunny and Kazukiyo, his last allies in a crumbling reality. The blond was kneeling next to the body, eyes wide and shaking with grief. During the excavation, he had stood apart from the others, too numb to assist with the chipping and digging, yet briefly restored to his senses as he struggled to repress what the body would reveal.
Resting his chin on the soft head of Usa-chan, Hunny murmured, 'You know I can't say that, Tama-chan. It really is–'
'Please, Kazukiyo-kun! It isn't true, is it?'
'I'm really sorry...' came the first-year's stricken reply from where he sat on the hill.
'Hikaru?' Tamaki persisted, turning to the twin on his left. The plea was turning desperate, in danger of further tears, but there was nothing that Hikaru could say to reduce Tamaki's distress.
'It's him,' he said, just as a gust of wind sprayed the body with a fresh wave of crystals. 'They wanted him to fit in the snowman, to hide the fact that they killed him.' Fists grabbed Hikaru by the lapels of his jacket, yanking on the scarf with vicious censor. All the same, Hikaru bore this act of despair with a stoic glower, until Tamaki loosened his grip and let the truth continue.
Amongst those gathered, only Hikaru had the courage to keep studying the corpse, as if comprehending the horror would somehow solve the crime. And it was a crime, to kill another person, and it was clear not only to Hikaru, but to the others as well, how Kyouya's death was not an accident. Removing the body had nearly severed its head, but the skin around Kyouya's throat, leathery with ice, had preserved the violent breach between skull and spine, displaying the cause of his chilling demise through a dark, ugly ring.
'Was he strangled?' Kazukiyo asked, approaching the group once more with folded arms and a slight sour smell.
Hikaru nudged the head, causing it to rock with unnatural ease at angles no human head should have managed. 'No,' said Hikaru hoarsely, to the sound of his classmate's renewed bout of vomiting. He wiped his gloves in the snow and met the gaze of Hunny, then Tamaki, before saying, 'What is going on? Who the fuck is doing this?'
'It – it can't be one of us,' Tamaki mumbled, retreating from Hikaru's glare as he tried to absorb this horrendous possibility.
Hikaru blinked, and momentarily, could not reply, appalled by his own conclusion. Of course it can't be one of us, he thought, but who else is here but us? He considered the body, voiceless in the snow, and strived to create an alternate meaning. Perhaps the guy had – or maybe he had decided to – Hikaru raked his hair, pulled on its strands. 'I know,' he answered belatedly, 'but–' He covered his mouth. Tears were pouring down. 'Just who the fuck is doing this? It can't be one of us… it can't be…'
'Renge!' Momoka exclaimed, after overcoming her shock. 'When did you get back? The others have just gone out looking for you. We've all been so worried!' She stepped eagerly towards the girl, pleased to have her friend safe and sound, though not entirely distracted from her original task. 'You'll never believe who I was talking to just now,' she continued excitedly, approaching the sink with an empty tumbler. 'Kaoru Hitachiin! He's still unwell from the night before, but he's so nice and really interesting. I think we're getting along really well!'
The faucet flowed like thunder, conquering the space of the limited bathroom. Only when the tumbler was completely full did Momoka realise how odd it was for Renge to be silent. Turning, she saw her friend perched on the edge of the bathtub, gripping the thighs of her damp, stained jeans and staring at the wall with its stripes of pink and yellow. There were emotions in Renge's face which Momoka had never witnessed before. Something like rage tinged with quiet anguish. 'Are you alright?' inquired Momoka, a bit cautiously. 'What's wrong? Do you want me to–'
The girl shook her head: a slow, mechanical movement. 'Who's here?' she demanded, fingers squeezing the fabric of her jeans. Her behaviour was upsetting, and not how Momoka had imagined their reunion at all.
'Kaoru, Haruhi, and Mori–'
Eyes flicked to the door where Momoka stood motionless, clutching a glass of water; they stared, as if assessing her. 'Is that all?'
'What about Kyouya? Have they found him yet?'
'Tamaki and the others went out to–'
'So they haven't found him.'
Momoka swallowed. 'Renge, tell me what's going on. Why are you being like this?' She flinched as the girl sprang from the bathtub, standing with arms trembling at her sides.
'I'll show you,' said Renge, voice controlled. Without further explanation, she brushed past the Vice-president of Class 1-A and tried to open the door, only to find that it was still locked on the inside. 'We'll have to start doing that,' she said, mostly to herself, before turning the bolt with an audible click.
The book lay undisturbed on the blankets, forgotten by Kaoru as he considered his reflection in a round compact mirror. He was in a sorry-looking state with his black eye and bandage, no matter how kindly the others chose to comment. Broken features, so unlike the person he recognised, seemed to fascinate more than alarm him as he shifted the mirror from left to right in an effort to gauge every aspect. Hikaru was right: he would not suffer much in the long-run; the two of them would continue to look the same once all the injuries had healed. Nevertheless, the prospect of these cuts and bruises healing over time left Kaoru feeling anxious; he wanted something else as distinctive to quickly replace them. After all, they made his identity now, and people could tell him apart from his brother without having to guess. Not that being a twin was somehow a chore – it was nothing like that at all – just that, sometimes, it was nice to feel like he actually existed, that he was actually a person who was separate from Hikaru.
Guilty with where these thoughts were going, Kaoru closed the compact and tried to reach for the book he had discarded earlier. The movement hurt him, causing unnecessary tears to prickle at his eyes. He really missed Hikaru. He wanted his brother back. Why did I tell him to go with the search party? What if I don't get to see him again? Kaoru inhaled to stop the sobs rising. He needed someone else in the room to distract him.
Composed again, his thoughts turned to prior events, still puzzled by his reaction to a flimsy memory. 'What did I see?' he wondered. It had something to do with Kyouya, that much he knew for certain, but the image of what happened next was as blurry as a dream, altering with the tide of Kaoru's changing moods.
'You've been here all this time?' said Haruhi from somewhere in the hallway.
Kaoru stilled, suddenly curious.
'No,' said Renge, abruptly, 'but there's something I have to tell you. When do the others return?'
'I don't know,' said Haruhi. 'Soon, I hope.'
Timidly, Momoka entered the bedroom, perturbed by the reappearance of her friend. To Kaoru's dismay, she closed the door, muffling the conversation between Renge and Haruhi.
'Momoka, what's wrong?' Kaoru asked, straining to hear past the door.
Before answering, Momoka tucked some hair behind her ear. 'Something's up with Renge.'
'You mean she's stopped doing cosplay?'
'I heard that,' interrupted the girl in question, opening the door.
Not a usual fan of the self-proclaimed Manager of the Host Club, Kaoru readied himself to challenge whatever drama the girl had to offer, only to find all retorts useless on his lips. 'What is it?' said Kaoru, struck by Renge's expression.
'It's Kyouya,' she said. 'He's–'
'Hello, anyone around?'
Their heads jerked as one to where footsteps were sounding on the second-storey hallway. Being the closest, Haruhi rushed to the staircase and called to the newcomers, 'Down here! Renge's back. She has something to tell us!' Without protest, the search party members obeyed, soon emerging through the door of the scarlet bedroom, tired and wary.
Seeing his twin on the bed, Hikaru urgently hugged him, heedless of the pain this induced in Kaoru's aching back, though the action did not come speedily enough, for Kaoru noticed the redness of Hikaru's eyes.
'Is everyone here?' Renge inquired, visually counting the youths who were now occupying the room and looking at her with stares of varying dread and disbelief.
'No,' recalled Haruhi, 'I'll go fetch Mori-sempai,' and disappeared from the room, leaving behind her an atmosphere of tension.
'Renge-chan, what's this for?' said Hunny, cocking his head as he listened to Haruhi's progress along the second-storey hallway. His eyes were reddish too, and for once, Renge had nothing to criticise in the third-year's deliberate cuteness: she smiled a little and blinked a few times, which sent an unfathomable chill through the younger twin's scalp.
'I'll tell you in a minute, when everyone's here,' Renge said, much to Tamaki's annoyance.
'If what you have to say is anything other than sorry for swanning off in the middle of the bloody night, then I don't want to even hear about it!'
Renge blanched. 'B-but, Tamaki,' she began, almost on the verge of tears.
'Where the blazes have you been? And what the hell is this meeting for?' Hunny tugged a little on Tamaki's coat; he turned away, enraged. Only when he had sufficiently calmed did he speak to Renge again. 'So many people have been worried about you,' he told her, 'and we've looked for you all morning, wondering where you were.'
'I'm – I'm sorry,' murmured Renge, bowing deeply in Tamaki's direction. Then she bowed to everyone else in the room, who met her apology with self-conscious nods.
'We have something to tell you too,' said Hunny, as he squeezed the body of Usa-chan, 'but we'll wait for Takashi and Haru-chan to come back.'
'Hikaru,' whispered Kaoru, 'what's going on?' But Hikaru declined to answer, maintaining, instead, the painful embrace.
Meanwhile, there was silence.
And no footsteps on their way down the nearby staircase.
'Haruhi-kun, what's taking so long?' cried Renge, growing impatient.
'I'll get her,' said Tamaki, and departed the scene before the pronoun could be disputed.
Haruhi waited, then knocked on the study door and waited again. She had done this twice in a row, respectful of Mori's privacy, although she wondered just how tired he really was to ignore her once again. 'I'm coming in,' she declared, and opened the door to reveal the reticent teen exactly as she left him. 'There's a meeting downstairs, Mori-sempai. Renge says it's important.'
No response. Not even a muscle.
'Mori-sempai, are you sleeping?' She moved towards the writing desk where he lay on folded arms. 'Mori-sempai, you have to wake up now.' A hand reached out to shake him by the shoulder, but the sight of something damp on the fabric of Mori's sweater quietly drew her attention. It looked like water beneath his arms…
'Really…?' remarked Haruhi; partly amused. All the same, she touched his shoulder and gave it a shake, and it was then that she froze at the sight of something else.
'Haruhi, are you in here?'
She jumped at Tamaki's query, confirming even more what her mind was swiftly suggesting. 'T-Tamaki, can you come in here?'
Tamaki entered the study and they looked at one another, each taking in how the other had dramatically changed since they parted company some hours before. From the writing desk, she could tell that the chairman's son was in a daze, his bloodshot stare so thoroughly confused that he could barely form a sentence. He was probably stunned by the state of her slippers as she stood in a puddle, watching the writing desk leak surreptitiously beside her.
Numb, Haruhi raised and rolled her trembling hand with strangely dull interest. All over her skin was a dry, sticky mess of various reds and browns, with more of it stretching beyond the sleeping senior. Whoever had built the lodge had done so without a spirit level, and the desk, slanting on the floor through no fault of its own, had sufficiently hidden what had damaged the body by tipping the blood flow away from her.
'All this time,' Haruhi whispered, 'and I never knew.' Tamaki leaned against the wall and held out his palm. She reached for him, let him draw her close, and once her face was pressed within his coat, allowed the tears to fall.