CHAPTER TWO

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Snapshots: Year 2023

1. (January, 29 years old, Fifth Avenue penthouse: dining area)

A magazine left open on the table, with highlights and annotations:

DESIGNER DYNASTY

The ruler's ultimate dream: success, prestige and longevity. What's next for the one who has it all? Rachel Tyler speaks to the reigning empress of Japanese fashion and her heirs apparent.

The year is 1984, a flame-haired girl rushes into the classroom an hour and forty-five minutes after the first bell. It is not her customary lateness that causes her teacher and classmates to do a double take. It is the earrings, the scarf, the gloves, the handbag – every day, the girl changes her appearance; every day, she modifies her school-issue uniform.

That same year, privately-owned Ouran Academy decided to crack down on students who flout uniform guidelines. – This is where a Host Club comes in handy. I'd wondered at her extraordinary enthusiasm whenever she volunteered to dress us for club. By then, it had been of little consequence to the twelve-year-old girl whether or not she falls in line with the rest of her schoolmates – her reputation has spread, and her distinguished peers have commissioned her to design clothing for them.

At fourteen, two of her designs were spotted at the annual charity gala hosted by the Suou Corporation.

At sixteen, her first full collection (subsequently dubbed 'the wine collection' due to its prominent tones of claret, burgundy, mulberry, nudes and bronze) made its debut. Drawing inspiration from the easy sophistication of the French, her clever use of colour and texture marked her as a true connoisseur of luxury.

This is Yuzuha Hitachiin in a nutshell: impossible to contain and impeccably dressed. – The sentence is self-contradictory and inane. How can Mother-in-law be summarised in a nutshell when she is impossible to contain?

For decades she has sat at the helm of the House of Hitachiin, founded by Amaterasu Hitachiin and her husband Tadao of the Ikendō, the illustrious school of ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement). An artisan of the kimono, Amaterasu Hitachiin is descended from a line of stylists to the Japanese Imperial Family. She combined her craft with that of her husband's, a skilled maker of kanzashi (hair ornaments) to establish the company in 1929.

Under Yuzuha Hitachiin's administration, the Hitachiin name has become the preeminent force in the Japanese fashion scene and her work contributes significantly to the direction of global fashion trends. With flagship stores located on avenue Montaigne in Paris and in Omotesandō, Tokyo, Hitachiin is a formidable force, not least because her three children are similarly artistically inclined and poised to inherit her throne – twins Hikaru and Kaoru, co-owners and creative directors of Flamingo&Maya, and their sister Ageha, who at twelve years of age is displaying the same precocity as her mother.

In a subversion of her childhood self, Hitachiin is fastidiously punctual for work. At exactly two in the afternoon, she strides in for the interview attired in a military style blazer, skinny slacks and killer heels. She is arresting, larger-than life; it is impossible to restrain oneself from ogling when she commands the spotlight effortlessly. Hitachiin offers tea and fluffy cushions while bidding me to make myself comfortable, then pushes a plate of churros at the photographer, insisting that he should try them because in her experience, "photographers work better on a full stomach. It makes their tempers less foul."

"So," she begins when she is satisfied that we are eating, "Ask away. My sons will join us in a minute. They're late because they're young. Young people enjoy the ego boost of making others wait for them. I know only two exceptions."

Who are they, I ask, watching as she casually removes her shoes and tucks her feet beneath her.

"My husband and my son-in-law," she replies, hushed amusement dancing in her eyes. – You assured me that you had a chat with her about her unfortunate penchant of laughing at me. The men in question are corporate heavyweights in the technology sector: Yasuhiro Hitachiin, president and CEO of Code Software, and Kyouya Hitachiin-Ootori of Cure Inc.

"Ah, everyone always says this: 'how do fashion and technology relate to each other?' Were you going to ask that?" she demands with an air of impatience. "It is not the industries that relate to each other, it's the people. Is it that you cannot love unless you understand the other person's work? Or maybe you want to do the other person's work? Nonsense. No imagination at all."

Hitachiin is known to abhor the stale and the prosaic, considering them to be worse company than fools. Stupidity can provoke laughter, she claims, but dullness is nothing more than an enemy of creativity. She does not take well to people who possess "a vapid mind and an insipid outlook", an accusation she levelled at Henry Leron, then the fashion editor of Fierce! magazine. Three years ago, Leron penned an article about Mei Yasumura (Hitachiin's apprentice from 2019-2020) in which he contended that Yasumura's ganguro background rendered her incapable of creating appropriately stylish clothing. Hitachiin believed that he had fallen into the lazy habit of typecasting new designers based on personal prejudice and made no secret about her disillusionment with his ability to continue in the editorial role.

Following the spat, Leron lambasted her 2021 F/W collection in a shocking piece of vitriol; when asked about it, Hitachiin notoriously replied, "I am unsurprised by his lack of originality. That is why he is a reporter and not a designer."

Several journalists took umbrage, boycotting her shows in support of the dignity of their profession, and at least one fashion blogger declined to review her collection that year. – The journalists may have been less offended if they'd known that she regularly commits such character defamations upon her own husband.

The incident also highlights another well-known attribute of Hitachiin: she is an exacting but loyal mentor. Of the protégés that she has groomed, she has had a hand in assisting every one of them to establish their own labels: Ren Saejima in Shibuya, Roman Battelli in Milan, Asher Hudson-Brown in London, Yasumura in Harajuku and, of course, her own sons in New York.

The name of the twins' label draws its roots from the colours that Hitachiin used to dress them in – flamingo pink and maya blue. When reminded of her propensity to use them as her models, Hitachiin laughs, clear as a bell.

"They were the best, incomparable. Most children are very fussy with clothing – too loose, too tight, too scratchy. Hikaru and Kaoru were more so, because I was always criticising and reviewing clothes in front of them. That's why they cooperated when I took their measurements – they didn't want me to criticise what they wear! I didn't realise this until they were eight, but by then they'd already cultivated a basic fashion sense. – What she honestly means is: by then you'd acquired her habit and she hadn't wanted to forego the entertaining pastime of listening to Hikaru's and your insulting comments about other people's dress sense. If they had not taken an interest in design, I would have recommended modelling to them. But, I think, I am happier that they are designers."

She gives the distinct impression that she is uninterested in handing her legacy to her children on a silver plate. The impression is reinforced when her sons walk in, each giving her a kiss on the cheek before turning their attentions to anything else. It's an unmistakeable recognition of her authority. – Isn't it more that Mother-in-law enjoys embarrassing us in interviews when we don't appease her?

One of the brothers apologises for the both of them; they were caught in traffic. The rumours are true: when the twins do not speak they are virtually indistinguishable, the instant they talk they become identifiable.

The brother who hadn't apologised – Hikaru – asks if I've sampled the dark chocolate dip. The dips and the churros were made for his mother by his girlfriend, he freely informs me, and the dark chocolate is particularly good.

Hikaru Hitachiin's resemblance to his mother is immediate and striking. They come across as strong-willed and energetic, with an edge of insolence that gives them a dangerous charm. At the moment, he is dating Célia Álvarez Miguel, the real estate heiress with whom he has been in a turbulent, on-off relationship for six years. – An apt description. Your brother has left several dozen messages on our phone; either the atelier has burnt down overnight or he may have just broken up with her again. When questioned about his sources of inspiration, he references her homeland – Álvarez Miguel hails from Spain, a country steeped in art movements that endlessly fascinate him.

He tells of the time when they had attempted to begin their own art collection. After much judicious sourcing and purchasing, he and Álvarez Miguel had amassed a respectable number of paintings and sculptures, enough to form a small gallery in her mansion in Barcelona – only to donate everything to various museums around the world. "With things like art, you always want to own it, you know? That wish will stay forever, but then you realise that great art is meant to be seen by as many people as possible. "

Hikaru is unexpectedly forthcoming about his relationship, unlike his brother Kaoru, who merely answers, "We're quite well, thank you" in response to an inquiry after him and his spouse. Even when prompted to put in his two cents regarding his mother's opinion on cross-industry marriages, Kaoru does not take the bait.

Famously reticent to discuss his marriage and private life, Kaoru Hitachiin-Ootori remains a tough nut to crack after nearly twenty years in an industry where public exposure is often the norm. At first glance, he is as irrepressible as the members of his family are reputed to be; upon closer inspection his presence feels different – mellower, more subdued.

The Hitachiins embody the combination of qualities common to many creative spirits: a mix of unconventional vision and uncompromising focus blended with a mercurial nature and a perpetual fear of failure. With the younger twin, however, there is a disarming fragility that ensnares slowly but surely, translating into an alluring sensuality that one cannot help but be captivated by. It bears repeating that to underestimate him would be a grave mistake, for his history – what is known of it, at least – functions as a cautionary tale of the strength that must needs be hidden within. – This paragraph is truly delightful. Without a doubt the best part of the article. Its accuracy is astonishing.

As the brothers have never designed separately, it can be challenging to pinpoint the actual brains behind any particular outfit; but even in the melting pot of their ideas, an artist's work is invariably a reflection of the soul who made it. The grapevine proves itself right again: after half an hour with the twins, it is plain as day as to which design belongs to whom. – When reporters say this, I am almost certain that they will be wrong.

The hypothesis is put to them and they verify it – Liars: the confrontational, daring creations are the domain of the elder while the subtle, teasing designs – Your bold, take-charge side is equally, ravishingly sexy are those of the younger. – And indeed, she is wrong.

Have the brothers ever felt like taking a break from their close working relationship?

"We're most successful when we play off each other," Hikaru asserts.

His twin readily agrees. "Our best ideas are usually discovered in dialogue and collaborative experimentation. That doesn't mean that each of us doesn't grow as an individual designer. There's no reason why being in a partnership should hinder personal development."

The benefits of their partnership are undeniable. During fashion season, after working on their label for the New York fashion week, they join their mother in Paris. In addition, they are partial to managing their business themselves: Flamingo&Maya has a store in Aoyama – another of Tokyo's entertainment and shopping hubs – in addition to the one on Manhattan's Seventh Avenue. Contrary to popular expectation, the twins had declined to bid for a shop space near their mother (made available after the bankruptcy of UrbanTwist, Ltd.). The reason for Aoyama as opposed to Omotesandō has never been clarified, though it is generally accepted that the decision was prompted by Hitachiin-Ootori's desire to stay in the Minato Ward, where the Japanese division of Cure Inc is headquartered.

Professional relationships are complex and frequently fraught with danger. Do their artistic disagreements place their familial relationships in jeopardy?

"Not at all," Hitachiin Sr. denies. "It is a new dimension to the existing relationship. You must arrange your priorities. It is a matter of self-discipline and trust. You have to trust that your family will pull you aside for things that are unrelated to work."

The twins – seated on both sides of their mother – are nodding in sync.

"Just as we don't let the fact that we are family stop us from expressing our professional opinions," Hikaru affirms, and his brother says, "It goes both ways."

Judging from their previous answer, it is unlikely that any of them have difficulty critiquing their family members' works?

All three react in a perfect chorus: "No, never!"

They laugh, familiar and at ease.

The brothers agree that it is important for them to prove themselves as worthy successors. "Our mother does have high expectations," Hikaru concedes, provoking a toothy smile from Hitachiin Sr., "but we put the most pressure on ourselves. The way we see it, we shouldn't allow ourselves to inherit unless we can make it prosper. We can't let ourselves down, or our mother, or our whole family, really."

"Taking things for granted is the surest way to lose them," Hitachiin-Ootori concurs. "Right now, we are not concentrating so much on these issues. Those are things that should be put aside. What we need to do is work hard. Our mother will know if the time is right."

Their mother appears gratified by their commitment. Empires are not built in a day, but they may certainly be torn down in one. With children who adopt such a sober attitude towards their immensely privileged birth, perhaps she is considering retirement when she turns 51 on the 18th of February this year?

The expression on her face is sharply withering. "Not on your life."

Verdict: alternately rife with falsehoods and piercing insights. An engaging read.

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Affixed is a post-it note:

Dinner at 7?

I'll pick you up at the atelier.

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2. (February, 29 years old, Fifth Avenue penthouse)

Kaoru is boiling, physically and metaphorically.

"Hikaru, for fuck's sake," he shouts into the phone, pacing agitatedly about the house. "We need to give Emily time to make it! Just because she is the première main doesn't mean she has magic! Even if the new batch of leather arrives right this instant, we still won't have enough time to finish the dress! We're just going to leave it out of the show, okay?"

He leans against the kitchen bench, feeling rather faint from the fever. All he'd wanted was a glass of water before returning to bed. Alas, luck is not on his side.

"It's my design, of course I'm disappointed, idiot!" he says, rubbing his eyes wearily. The intermittent chills and heat are making his bones hurt. "But I don't want to do it half-heartedly! You know we tried using that other fabric as replacement; it's just not stiff enough to hold the shape. It looked like a failed meringue, Hikaru."

Hikaru lets out a string of curses at the ex-intern who'd accidentally set off the sprinkler system in their storage warehouse because he'd been lazy and careless, lighting up a cigarette right at its entrance instead of moving further away and totally destroying their specially treated leather. Hikaru asks if Kaoru can tweak the design to allow for a drape to compensate for the unfinished torso. It's a real pity not to show it, he says.

"I know," Kaoru sighs, making his way to the atelier. Thematically speaking, it's unlikely that this dress will be recycled for use in another season. "Ugh, okay, you know what? The more I study this dress, the more I hate it. The collection can stand without it."

His brother erupts into a barrage of disagreements; Kaoru doesn't hear him, distracted by the unexpected 'ding' of the elevator in their private lift lobby.

The front doors swing open to reveal Kyouya – who appears to be shirking his duties for the day – looking rather bewildered to find him awake and about.

An automatic smile tugs at Kaoru's lips, reciprocated immediately by his husband until his husband realises what he is doing with the phone and sketches in his hands.

"Uhhh, Hikaru, I'm going to have to hang up. Kyouya's home and glaring at me."

"Wait! The dress, yes or no? Emily and I can try to modify it!"

If anything, Kyouya's expression intensifies at Hikaru's refusal to shut up. He marches over to Kaoru in four long strides and confiscates the phone in one smooth motion. "Hitachiin Hikaru, are you or are you not aware that Kaoru is unwell?"

"Er, um, yeah," Hikaru stammers. Kaoru can imagine his contrite expression with no difficulty. "Wasn't I the one who told you that! You know he'll kill me if I don't ask him about this. He cares about his work more than – "

"And are you or are you not aware that sick people require plenty of rest?" Kyouya interrupts curtly. "I see that you have not factored in the possibility that I might be the one to kill you."

"Oooh," Hikaru sasses. "Says the person who attends board meetings while coughing his lungs out."

Recognising the warning signs, Kaoru kisses Kyouya's cheek and quickly steals the phone back.

"Just one minute. One. Please?" he begs, and steamrolls on without waiting for Kyouya to agree, "Look, Hikaru, we've got enough on our plate with the rest of the collection. I think we should focus on those first."

"We are! But that dress is part of the collection! By the way, we're having a hell of a lot of problems with the feather skirt. It sits unevenly on the model's waist and Emily says that the stitching will pucker up if – "

It's very difficult to pay attention when Kyouya fuses their bodies together and starts doing things. He's clearly decided that playing hardball isn't going to get him the results he desires and he's switched tactics.

Manipulative copycat.

"Right, exactly. So let's solve those first!" Kaoru says through gritted teeth, squirming in the embrace.

Kyouya has begun backing him into their room, step by step.

"No! Forget it, Hikaru. I'm throwing it away now, okay?" he announces, recklessly crumpling up the sketch near the mouthpiece of the phone and flinging it to who-knows-where. "Hear that? I'm chucking it. It's gone. No more worrying about it. End of story. I'm going now, bye."

Before he can press the button on their cordless, he finds himself locked in a masterful kiss.

"Well, this role reversal business never gets old," he comments breathlessly when Kyouya lets him up for air. This type of occurrence typically happens only once or twice a year; usually Kyouya is the one shouting into the phone – no, issuing orders in cutting and deadly tones that rip his lackeys to shreds, while Kaoru is the one covering his neck with fluttery, butterfly kisses to show his support.

He can feel Kyouya's smirk against his collarbone.

"Does this mean that I should do to you what you usually do to me?" Kaoru asks innocently.

Kyouya chuckles, the sound low and seductive. "Ordinarily, you would already be on the receiving end of some stress relief, but today the answer is 'no'. Your temperature doesn't need raising."

"Aww. Please? I'll lie very still; you can do all the work."

Kyouya's gaze is darkly amused. "You? Lie still?"

Kaoru cannot stop his lips from pushing into a pout at how insufferably smug he looks. He turns his back on Kyouya deliberately, swinging his hips with a devil-may-care attitude. "My, complimenting your own skill. How shameless."

"Your reactions are compliment enough," Kyouya rejoins.

Prepared to scowl indignantly, he faces Kyouya only to be pushed onto the bed without further ado. "Go on, under the covers. That headache of yours must feel terrible by now."

Loathe as Kaoru is to admit it, he's right. Obediently, he slips in and makes himself comfortable, and Kyouya pulls the thin blanket up over him. It hits him, then, that Kyouya is here – with him, for him; all the sharp pangs of longing that have been building up in him are rising up to strangle him.

"It is awful," Kaoru concedes, "but not seeing you for an entire week is so much worse."

It happens every single time during the lead-up to the two fashion seasons, no matter how much they plan, no matter how much they try. Funny, when he'd been a child he'd blamed his mother a little for being absent, for making them miss her – never would he have guessed that professional accomplishment could contain such a bitter aftertaste. The inevitability of it all, the yawning chasm of that endless missing… these days when he meets her, he truly sees her, and forgiveness had crept up on him like the sensation of falling asleep – gradual and unremarkable, but the path to something necessary and essential to life.

"You're wonderful for putting up with this," he says, kissing Kyouya's knuckles.

"Silly creature," Kyouya chides. "How many times have I told you that that is not the case?"

Kaoru laughs weakly. He is utterly relaxed and content, and now – now too, he finally understands why his mother and grandmother are in the habit of bringing their husbands along to wherever they are going.

"You can go back to the office if you want. I can manage from here," he tells Kyouya, because what he honestly wants to say is, 'stay', and 'don't go', and 'come to bed with me' even though it's only three in the afternoon.

His eyes fall shut; Kyouya leans over and brushes a lingering kiss on his right eyelid, then the left.

Moving silently as always, he exits the room.

Kaoru drifts hazily, listening to the pounding drumbeats of his head. They really are unnaturally loud and relentless.

Oh, crap. I forgot.

He'd been sidetracked from taking his afternoon dose of the medicine!

In his muddled state, he contemplates how upset Kyouya will be with him if he skips the dose. He can't lift his head from the pillow; it's too much effort. Seven years they have lived here, and this is the closest that Kaoru has ever come to regretting their joint decision not to employ live-in domestic servants in order to enjoy greater privacy. No, no regrets at all for a place that is theirs and theirs alone.

Just as he is summoning his energy to sit up, the bed dips on one side.

"You're still awake. Good. You've forgotten to take your medicine," Kyouya states, ridiculously certain about it. "I've brought it for you."

Kaoru struggles to rouse himself, and when he succeeds he can only stare.

"I know the prescription," Kyouya explains, not needing to be prompted. He pokes two tablets out of their foil capsules. "At your level of severity, you would have been given 10 tablets to start. There are 8 here, when there should be only 6."

Kaoru smiles, heart in his throat. "Thank you."

He hands the glass back to Kyouya after he's done with the pills, and to his unending amazement Kyouya produces a damp, ice-cold cloth and presses it onto his forehead.

"It's almost unbelievable that this is the first time you've fallen sick due to a fashion show. I would've expected it to happen earlier, and more often," Kyouya remarks.

"Aren't you – "

"I'm not going anywhere."

There is so much that Kaoru wants to say, but nothing he needs to say.

Kyouya settles into his side of the bed and holds Kaoru to himself. His scent, his presence, the rhythm of his breathing; they feel like home.

"Careful, I don't want you falling sick too," Kaoru mumbles.

"I hardly ever do. Ootoris are very health-conscious."

"I seem to recall a particular board meeting – "

He is silenced with another kiss. Kyouya could have said, "health-conscious does not mean invincible", or "one board meeting means the exception and not the rule", both are completely logical and reasonable, but they choose to make it absurdly easy for each other to demand and obtain kisses, surrendering victory in fights or in arguments for a mutually pleasing solution instead.

It just makes so much sense to them.

Nestling snugly against Kyouya as crisp, pitch-perfect English washes over him, he tries to force himself to remain conscious for as long as possible to savour the bliss of this transient moment.

"… more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure."

Kyouya is no Tamaki. In reading aloud, he does not do voices nor feels the compunction to do so. However, there's one thing that Kaoru suspects he does subconsciously, a fact that he has been consistently reluctant to bring to Kyouya's attention because of how cute it is – elegant elocution aside, Kyouya always sounds a smidge snobbier when he is reading the parts of highborn characters.

"… glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different."

He sniggers, though this is by no means the first time he's heard the story. God, Kyouya always knows the right book to read to cheer him up.

And, just as he thinks of knotting their hands together, Kyouya reaches for him first.

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3. (March, 29 years old, Hawaii)

"Hmm, I thought you said you were sufficiently rested. Will you enlighten me as to why you appear to remain on a sleep-deprived high?" Kyouya says in a monotone.

Kaoru laughs in response and races down the expanse of fine, moonlit sand, his grass skirt flapping in the wind. His husband trails behind, breezing along the shoreline like the epitome of cool.

Far in the distance, the lights of the little local bar twinkle brightly. The occasional outburst of merrymaking travels to them; they are a world away, safe under the cover of nightfall and free from the burdens of work.

He stops and inhales the saltwater smell, wriggling his toes when the receding wave buries it in sand-cement.

Immediately after the chaos of February, Kyouya had whisked him away, installed him in a villa and ordered him to sleep for as long as was needed. No disruptions, Kyouya had said when taking them off the face of the earth – I haven't brought my laptop, and you can't bring your phone.

And Kaoru had woken up to warm limbs and unshielded black-grey eyes, then food, and spa, and the feeling of weightlessness and immortality.

His skin tingles with the heat of a gaze.

"Like what you see?" he asks, like he had at the start of them.

"I suppose," Kyouya replies nonchalantly.

Slowly, purposefully, Kaoru removes the tropical flower lei and unties the coconut shells. They roll off his fingers soundlessly. "Better?"

"Quite."

He pivots on his heels and watches Kyouya from underneath his lashes. Kyouya is a paradox, a furnace in a fridge – an incandescent core enclosed within a self-possessed and level-headed being, with a pale complexion that better complements cool colours and extremities that are perpetually freezing.

Layer after layer of time has not dimmed the force of Kaoru's desire. Still his pulse races, still the fire pools in his gut, still the willingness to yield all of himself.

In the shifting shades of darkness, Kyouya is king; Kaoru is helpless to resist the sultry draw of that gravity. He goes where he is summoned, and presses his whole body into Kyouya's like a solemn vow. The skirt rustles against his thigh, its leaves limp from prolonged wear and light perspiration from when Kaoru had entertained the locals and tourists in an impromptu performance – a decoy, for his true motives had been to tempt and lead astray. He hooks his thumb in the waistband, a little bit coy, as if to say, 'more?'

Languidly, Kyouya flicks his eyes from head to toe provocatively, and does not cede.

They often play games with each other to hide the fact that they do not actually play games with each other. Between them is honesty, both its brutality and its comfort – their reasoning is twisted: you are not a game to me, this is not a game to me, it's so real that I can hardly bear it, so let's play.

To pursue and be pursued, to build and to destroy the other, that is their way. They are plotters, elaborate in strategy and patient in execution, driving each other up the wall until one of them gives in and slams the other into the bed or against the nearest available surface.

As he presses his mouth against Kyouya's, he becomes aware that he will not triumph today. Kyouya's perseverance will hold fast. They will return to the villa while still enmeshed in this impasse, lying side by side in close proximity and half-deranged with want. The night will be sleepless and interminable, but never mind, because come morning Kyouya's defences will crack and this round will belong to him.

Come morning, he will climb on top of Kyouya and challenge him, an echo of their very first time: 'What's the use of liking what you see if you're not going to do anything about it?'

He may have acquiesced to leaving his phone at home (thus condemning Hikaru to despair), but he never travels without his Hermès scarves, and tomorrow he shall show Kyouya just what he can do with them.

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4. (April, 29 years old, Fifth Avenue penthouse)

Kyouya wakes up at 12:27 PM on the 12th. Kaoru can't do much else than stare at him with a stupid, goofy grin. He leans over and seals their lips together, exacerbating and extending Kyouya's adorably disoriented state.

"Mmph," Kyouya says. "Good morning."

"Good afternoon," Kaoru corrects, letting his hands roam everywhere. He nods at the congratulatory cards on the sidetable. "My parents and Fuyumi-neesan send their love."

Surprised, Kyouya props himself up on his elbows. "Why didn't you wake me earlier? We would've been able to spend more time together."

"Well," Kaoru replies fondly, crawling up to straddle his waist, "that was meant as a present, Low Blood Pressure Evil Lord."

Kyouya huffs in disapproval. "It's our anniversary. I can catch up on sleep some other time."

"You can but you won't," Kaoru scolds. "And you say I'm the silly one."

"Only because you are," Kyouya snarks, fully alert as he rolls them over. "You think I want to sleep when there are other more interesting things I would prefer to do?"

"We have a lunch booking at one," Kaoru feels compelled to mention before speech becomes an impossibility. The others will be waiting at the restaurant and it's going to be so awkward to explain if they're not on time. They have a tradition: everyone meets up to celebrate the wedding anniversaries of club members during lunchtime, and dinner is meant for the couple alone – it's an homage to the irrefutable truth that none of their marriages could have been realised without the support of the rest. That one time that Mori and his wife had been late, Haruhi and Hikaru hadn't been able to look at them for hours until it'd been revealed that they'd been delayed from having to console their son, who'd flipped out at being left behind.

It's an adults' gathering; the parents tend not to bring the children along, but it's not like they'll be able to blame their tardiness on any children, is it?

Kyouya doesn't even acknowledge it, appearing for all the world as though he could not possibly care less. To be frank, Kaoru feels a growing indifference to the consequences, too.

When they stroll in twenty minutes late, Hikaru takes one look at him and declares, "I don't want to know."

"I wasn't going to tell you anyway!" Kaoru retorts.

As with the Mori incident, Honey is the worst, the absolute worst. He is the picture of innocence but one cannot shake the creeping suspicion that an incredible evil is concealed behind those large (knowing) eyes. With Reiko-san at his side, the effect is horrifically amplified.

Kaoru listens as Kyouya receives status updates of his goddaughter, then joins Hikaru in recounting the story of the blasted ex-intern. They lend their ears to Haruhi when she tells them of her desire to obtain a higher degree, and heckle Tamaki when he tries to hint at his desire to have more children.

They pass the afternoon this way, carefree and young. Their friends ply them with gifts and well-wishes, especially Tamaki, who has a great deal of leftover exuberance from his birthday a few days prior. Sometimes Kyouya rues that they picked April to get married, but auspicious dates being what they are, well… there'd been the drizzle of spring rain on the day, too – a good omen.

In the evening they go to The Met to drown in soaring music and to grope each other surreptitiously in the opera box, and when they return home, Kaoru gives Kyouya the simplest gift he's ever given: a card.

My beloved Kyouya,

And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You'll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.

And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about.

Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakumi

Thank you for choosing me after your storm.

Yours, Kaoru

.


.

5. (May, 29 years old, Morinozuka estate)

"Hikaru-ojichan!"

As soon as they arrive Masaya toddles up to a very doting Hikaru, who picks him up without hesitation and throws him into the air, once, twice, and they cuddle each other like they've never known anyone else more perfect.

"What, don't I get a greeting?" Kaoru grouses.

It is one of the mysteries of the universe why Mori's son is so irrationally, madly attached to Hikaru. In the arena of speech, the boy had been a slow learner; however once he'd discovered its joys, it'd become his favourite thing ever – he talks a lot, almost as though he's made it his life mission to fill his father's quota on his behalf.

"Yes you do, Kao-chan," Honey laughs. Kaoru bends down slightly for Honey to kiss his forehead. Honey had grown a bit taller after high school; he's about 1.57 m now, below average and still shorter than Yasuchika.

"Come and have tea, Hikaru- and Kaoru-ojichan!" Masaya exhorts, dragging Hikaru into the house eagerly. "Otousan says that you'll be tired after the long flight."

Kaoru yawns involuntarily in agreement. He and Hikaru had come here directly after landing for Mori's birthday party. This whole Tokyo-New York setup is exhausting; that they manage to squeeze each other into their hectic lives is a testament of their commitment to their little club. It's a complex situation: when Honey goes to the U.S. to provide combat training, he makes it a point to visit the twins and Kyouya; Tamaki and Haruhi similarly make the effort when they circle the globe to the host countries of the multinational Suou Corporation; as for the twins and Kyouya, they primarily oscillate between their bases of operations in the two cities. Hikaru, Kaoru and Tamaki also often go to France.

They owe much to Mori for not drifting apart. Solid as a rock, he anchors them to Tokyo steadfastly, being the only one of them who is not effectively nomadic.

Over on the tatami mat, Kyouya gives him a long-suffering look. The only clarification that Kaoru needs is the sight of Tamaki seated beside him.

"Kaoru!" Tamaki exclaims in anguish. "My daughter is going through a rebellious phase!"

"Hai, hai," Kaoru says, giving Tamaki a hug. Tamaki fairly crushes him into scrap. "So Lila-chan didn't invite you to her piano recital. Haruhi and you had work anyway."

"I could have postponed it!" Tamaki squawks, turning on the waterworks. "I would have! There's nothing more important to a father than his children!"

Tamaki has been traumatised about this for two days, inundating them with phone calls to bemoan the cruelty of his firstborn. They'd suggested that perhaps she had felt shy about having to perform for her talented father, and Tamaki had informed them that her teacher had pronounced her to be musically prodigious.

The shoji door slides open, a miniature Haruhi walks into the room clutching a book that appears to be from the Morinozuka library. Suou Chie, or Lila Chie Régine-Avril Suou (Hikaru had rolled his eyes – "Just because she's your daughter doesn't mean her name has to be as bombastic as yours, Tono.") goes to the corner and starts reading, entirely unruffled by the commotion.

"Kyouya! She listens to you! Tell her – tell her she must – "

"I'm really not anyone's mother, you know," Kyouya says dryly.

"But her mother doesn't see anything wrong with it!" Tamaki screeches, distraught by the inscrutable natures of the women in his family.

"Chie," Hikaru intervenes, taking pity on him (or perhaps it's for the sake of his eardrums), "apologise to your father and say that you'll invite him next time."

"Yes," Honey backs him up. "Chie-chan's father really loves Chie-chan, and he also loves music like Chie-chan, ne?"

"No, Papa can't come," she rejects them flat out.

"Gaaahn!" Tamaki is blown to smithereens. Masaya's jaw drops; he claps, entertained by the spectacle.

Kyouya sighs. "Lila, come here."

Compliantly, she sets her book down and settles herself on Kyouya's lap.

"Tell Godfather why you won't allow your parents to attend your recital," Kyouya says in a tone that brooks no refusal.

"Eh…?" she says, tilting her head to the right like she's the one who's perplexed. "Papa and Mama are tired. If they come to watch Chie, they'll have to work on the weekends."

"Huh? Huh?" everyone reacts explosively. Tamaki is brought to his knees by the revelation.

"There, you see? I can't believe you've been married to Haruhi for years. It baffles me that you continue to be unaccustomed to their brand of bluntness, Tamaki."

Hikaru pats Tamaki on the back, evidently feeling much more charitable to his plight.

"L – Lila-chan," Kaoru says, "you have to explain these sorts of things otherwise your father will get the wrong idea."

She looks at him with enormous chocolate-hued eyes. "Mama said she explained it to Papa."

Fortunately, Haruhi and Mori arrive before Tamaki disintegrates. Both of them are suited up lawyerly, so polished that Kaoru has to marvel at the tailoring.

Tamaki surges forward and seizes his wife by the shoulders. "Haruhi! It's not that Chie didn't want us there, she was trying to be a filial daughter! Why didn't you tell me?"

Haruhi blinks. "I did!"

Her husband emits several gurgling sounds.

"Are you certain, Haruhi?" Kyouya questions.

"Yes, it was just yesterday!" she answers. "On the phone, remember? I told you that she hadn't invited us because it upsets her that she doesn't get to spend much time with us."

"Exactly! Weren't you saying that she was angry we'd been neglecting her?" Tamaki says at the same time that Honey says, "Haru-chan, that's quite misleading", which had been interspersed with Hikaru's "What? Huh? What?"

Haruhi blinks again. "No, Chie wants us to keep our weekends free so she can have us all to herself. She wouldn't want us to push our meetings back when she can easily play the piano for us at home."

Absolute silence.

Kaoru recovers first, collapsing on Kyouya while doubled over with laughter. Kyouya pinches the bridge of his nose in an act of supreme forbearance.

"Can we celebrate Takashi-senpai's birthday now?" Hikaru asks, throwing his hands up in exasperation.

"Yay! Birthday!" Masaya chirps, showing off the fresh addition to his vocabulary.

The food is duly served for them to commence having a riot of a time.

Over cake, Kaoru meets Kyouya's eyes.

I want to draw those expressions.

Of course, Kyouya responds. I already have a story in mind. How can we relinquish the chance to commemorate such idiocy?

Five frames, do you think?

.


.

6. (June, the day Kaoru turns 30 years old, Paris)

A card:

My precious Kaoru,

Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being "in love" which any of us can convince ourselves we are.

Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernières

But after that storm had ripped the pretty blossoms from their branches, I knew for sure that all that was left over of me is tangled up with you.

Happy birthday.

Yours, Kyouya

.


.

7. (August-September, 30 years old, New York atelier of Flamingo&Maya)

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Thursday, 31 August 2023, 11:43 PM

I miss you horribly :((((

My yearning for you has approached such shameful levels that I have resorted to writing haikus for you:

Lingering along
with you, I long the longer
to belong with you.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
Subject: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Thursday, 31 August 2023, 11:52 PM

Dearest, wouldn't your energy be better utilised elsewhere?

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Thursday, 31 August 2023, 11:57 PM

Are you in your office? Is that why you sound heartless? T3T

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
Subject: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:00 AM

Yes, I am.

I'd rather you finish your work and go home with me.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:03 AM

We estimate that if we toil ceaselessly for all of tomorrow – oh, it's today now – and Saturday, we deserve a rest on Sunday! Emily is confident that the team will still make the deadline.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:10 AM

Excellent news. I will clear my calendar in anticipation of it.

After the show I shall abduct you.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:17 AM

You can answer to my mother when I don't turn up for Paris Week.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:20 AM

Oh? Minutes ago you professed a wish to belong to me. To permit yourself to be abducted is truancy on your part. As I have proven myself to be consistently responsible, your mother will believe you to be the delinquent.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:21 AM

Fiend.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:21 AM

You assume that I will be your willing captive.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:21 AM

Maple syrup tour. Québec, Vermont, New Hampshire.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:22 AM

Your evilness knows no bounds.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:22 AM

Why thank you.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:23 AM

A bargain: after both the NY and Paris shows. I'll allow you to have your wicked way with me.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:23 AM

I'm curious: when do you not allow me to have my wicked way with you?

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:23 AM

Continue in this vein and you may find out when. Last offer: I'll join you for the bloody takeover I know you're planning.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:24 AM

Interesting. Do you mean to convince your father to champion my cause?

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:24 AM

I'm your champion, silly. My shares are at your disposal. My dad has long resigned himself to the inescapable fate of his son-in-law usurping the sovereignty over his company.

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:24 AM

All that I conquer is to serve you better, my Kaoru.

Here are my terms: collaboration on the takeover AND your patient understanding while I am swamped in work AND allowing me to spoil you rotten.

Do we have an accord?

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:24 AM

Deal.

I'm going back to work so that Hikaru can have a break.

Go home and rest, please?

.

From: Hitachiin-Ootori Kyouya
To: Hitachiin-Ootori Kaoru
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: At what point does caffeine lose its efficacy?
Date: Friday, 1 September 2023, 12:25 AM

All right. Please take care of yourself.

I miss you, too.

.


.

Notes

(a) It took 3 days to write snapshots 2-7, and the article in snapshot 1 required 3 days on its own. Omg. Journalists and reporters, I do not at all share Yuzuha's opinion about your profession. The creation of the backstory for the Hitachiin legacy was frightfully difficult, though I wanted to do it because it was a way of transmitting a vast amount of information for the framework of this story.

That, and I adore mixed-media stories. Believe me, I would have drawn the 5-panel comic if I could.

Hitachiin Amaterasu (常陸院 · 天照): Obviously, in true Hitachiin style, she is a strong character. Her regal name is meant to reflect this. 'Amaterasu' is composed of the elements ama "heaven, sky" and terasu "to shine," hence "shining over heaven." In mythology, this is the name of a sun goddess who rules the heavens.

Hitachiin Tadao (常陸院 · 忠夫): His name means "loyal man".

And I have searched for a suitable name for dear Mr Hitachiin for ages and ages. I love the twins' parents, can you tell? Here it is:

Hitachiin Yasuhiro (常陸院 · 泰裕): Yasuhiro can actually be written in one of 4 different kanji.

1 - 泰裕: "calm and leisurely"

2 - 泰弘: "most calm"

3 - 恭弘: "most respectful"

4 - 泰博: "abundant tranquillity"

Yes, the point is that he is an OASIS OF CALM. *cracks up*

(b) The twins' comments about playing off each other are actually from Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

(c) At the end of snapshot 2, Kyouya is reading The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde.

(d) Morinozuka Masaya (銛之塚 · 昌也) is named after the actor who plays Mori in the Ouran live action. The other cast members report that Nakamura Masaya talks a lot.

(e) The kanji for Suou Chie: 須王· 智恵

To be frank, I am ludicrously proud of this name: Lila Chie Régine-Avril Suou. Each individual name carries a meaning, and hunting and piecing the name together so that it makes sense and sounds nice was an awful task. I must have changed it 10-15 times.

.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to everyone who read; reviewed; read and reviewed.

It is all right if you haven't watched the movie that the story is based on. After all, I extracted only the premise and nothing else. The other instalments of the Movie Adaptations Series (if I manage to make them a reality) will also only have been inspired by the original book/movie.

It made me sad, to note that some of you think that this fic will (probably) make you cry. Because, really I just wrote this to indulge in shameless, gratuitous domestic fluff. This chapter would have alerted you to that fact. LOL. Please do not misunderstand the purpose of this fic. THE PURPOSE OF THIS FIC IS INSTANT GRATIFICATION.

You see, a lot of the time, writers start a fic and they can't ever be sure that they will finish it. This is a problem because one of the things that I like in a fic is the simmering build-up of a believable relationship. I can make all sorts of promises, but I can't ever be sure that I will complete it until it actually happens. And if I don't finish it, neither I nor anyone who reads it will get to the good parts.

So, the concept of "a love story told in reverse" appealed to me – it meant that I could go backwards and do the other thing I like best, which is FLUFF, SUGARY, TOOTHACHE-GIVING FLUFF.

My one wish, and the greatest challenge of writing BAR, is that Kyouya and Kaoru's relationship is real to you. I hope that anyone who reads this will feel that they've really had a life together – made it together, lived it together, so that even though you don't know (yet) what they've been through to get here, you know that they are happy to be here with each other.

Writing this chapter was pure joy for me, I hope it puts a smile on your face too!

31/8/2011