Chapter 30:

"I hear you took the Exchange exam," was the first thing Kanon said when we were out of earshot. Getting out of said earshot took about ten minutes and landed us smack bang in the empty North Hall, that was experiencing construction due to its expansion—because Ouran High just wasn't complicated enough as it was.

I hugged my shoulders against the cold in the breezeway. I said nothing.

He smiled. "So it's true then! I thought you had given up on music. I'm glad you're getting back in the game. In fact, my dad's the one who brought it up. He's one of the judges, you know…assessing your application. He says keep up the good work."

"I see," I murmured.

Kanon's gaze softened when he saw me shudder. He shrugged off his jacket and muffler, wrapping both around me.

"Please, don't," I shook off the jacket. It had his signature scent all over it. The muffler I could handle, but it felt so wrong to be ensconced in his warmth. I didn't want that.

He took it back, unhurt by it. "You've got to stop treating me like I'm some bad guy," he laughed. "It'll start hurting my feelings you know. Ah, speaking of which, how's Yuki? Ryuu?"

"Why did you call me out here? You said it was important."

"Straight to the point, huh?"

"Kanon," I said calmly. "It's cold out and I already spend way too much time outside as is. I'm not pushing my luck and giving myself a cold."

"I want you to come with me on my World Tour next week—"

I groaned, turning on my heel.

"No! Wait, hear me out!" he grasped my wrist. "Dad says the Exchange Program is really hard to get in to. He's not gonna pull any strings, but even if he did, it'd still be hard for you to get that place. You're up against child prodigies who've had years of experience, Yana-chan," he squeezed my hand. "You're really pushing it if you think you can make it. So…think of this as a back-up. I told you to have an open mind, right? J-just consider my offer."

"It's kind of sudden isn't it?" I replied, shaking my head. "Wh-what'll I tell my mom? My dad? I can't just up and leave school and become a pop idol in seven days."

"I already talked to your mom—"

"What?"

"—and she said she was totally cool with it."

I pulled my hand out of his. "You talked to my mom?"

Kanon flinched. "Ah," he muttered. "I forgot that I shouldn't tell you that."

"You talked to my mom and she said she was okay with it? What about my dad?" I stumbled and Kanon had to right me. I shrugged his hand off in my anger, opting to garner support from the nearby pillar. "What about my opinion? I don't get a say in this anymore? Did she ever consult me about this? Noooo. What does my mom know about what I want anyway? I'm just an easy way for her to make money."

"…"

Even I recoiled at my own harshness.

"I-I didn't mean that last part," I whispered, running a hand through my hair.

"Are you still having problems with your family, Yana-chan?" Kanon queried, a serious tone to his hushed murmur.

I shrugged. "Things got better."

"No," he took a step towards me. "They really didn't."

"I don't want to talk about this right now," I raised my hands in front of me. "In fact…I think maybe I've had all I can take," I indicate my trembling knees. "I'm going to call this a day. I-I'll at least think about your offer, okay?"

And without another word, I hurried off.

...

I found pins in my History essay this morning.

As in, that's how random it was.

Literally, I just opened my bag and lo and behold, my 1000 word summary was riddled with thumbtacks.

And I don't even know WHY.

I mean, I understand the concept of senseless bullying, but at least, you know, let me understand why my essay has thumbtacks in it. Really, it's the least one could do. It took my hours to write it all out.

It's strange, but perhaps I'd gotten used to peace when it came to my relationship with the other female students.

But, apparently not, because I'm searching for my stolen glasses in the Main Hall.

"Aya-chan! Now isn't the time to be looking for something to eat!" Honey-sempai pointed at me, scolding atop Mori-sempai's shoulders. The feather boa around his neck made him that much more fabulous. "We have to set up these decorations before club ends!"

"Why do we have to set up anyway?" Haruhi lugged the box of flutes to a nearby wooden table. "Isn't there usually a party planner team we hire?"

"Even though Haruhi's poor and she should be used to doing these things because she can't afford catering—" the twins started.

"Was all that really necessary?" Haruhi grumbled.

"—she has a point. It's rare for Boss to make us do the decorations ourselves," Hikaru draped the polished tables in flawless, clean white cloth before Kaoru placed a silver tray of hors d'oeuvres on top of each.

"And he goes off on his own for Snow Watch."

"He's too irresponsible," Hikaru and Kaoru exchanged glances and chimed in unison.

"It's a good way to strengthen and cement bonds between club members," Tatsumi nodded, bringing in the cherub ice sculpture over her shoulder like it was a bag of feathers. "That's good leadership, I respect Suoh for that. Where am I putting this, Ootori?"

"Right over there with the others, Tatsumi-sempai," Kyoya pointed to the centre of the room where an assortment of Judo members were erecting the second largest ice sculpture—which Tatsumi brought in with ONE HAND—with little to no difficulty.

"It's scary how Tatsumi-sempai has already become one of his henchmen," Haruhi murmured.

"Such is the power of the Shadow King," the twins muttered reverently. "Also…Tatsumi-sempai's reason for coming is way too obvious."

"Morinozuka, can you carry this?" Tatsumi flushed, extending the sculpture.

Mori nodded.

He took the sculpture from her.

The second it left her hands, Mori's arms sank to the ground under the angel's weight.

Tatsumi moved away from him, her eyes glittering with her clenched fists of victory at her sides. "Yosh! In this test of strength I was definitely victorious!"

"She's still as competitive as ever I see," Haruhi deadpanned.

"Her reason for coming is way more complex than it seems," Hikaru and Kaoru stated resignedly.

"She's complicated alright," Kyoya affirmed, sidling up to the group of slackers known as us, "but she is efficient. Especially when you give her the motivation of outdoing Mori-sempai."

I want to point out that what Kyoya's doing is outright, plain and simple manipulation but I highly doubt anyone will take me seriously if I pop my head out from underneath a table.

"In any case, let's all do our best today. The Winter Benefit is an extremely important charity ball that only the most influential clubs earn the privilege to host," Kyoya smiled kindly—it was actually kind of chilling when you realize that the last time he smiled at me like that was when I accidentally broke a multimillion dollar vase. "So let's all behave and act like gentlemen," my hackles rose when he looked at me for the very last part.

I'm a girl, damn you…oh, hey, my glasses!

And so, night fell on the 56th Annual Winter Benefit.

Now, trust me when I say I've been to a swanky ball or two, but the effect is never lost on me whenever I attend a formal event at Ouran.

That moment when the doors to the Main Hall are opened for you always takes my breath away, seeing all those dolled up girls in their fancy dresses and the male guests in tuxedos and with hair slicked back neatly and it gets you thinking that, wow, rich people really do love the extravagant.

Don't get me started on the quartet tonight, the main reason why I'm swaying from side to side even though my heels will put up with no misbehaviour from my clumsy feet tonight. As usual, I've taken my position near the refreshments table with a flute of sparkling cider in one hand and the other trying as it may to not twitch whilst it's all fisted up in the material of my dress.

I smile.

Yeah, okay, I'm kind of happy.

My hair behaved enough to get tied back into a high ponytail so I could wear jewellery without qualms of having tendrils entangled in a torrid love affair with my chandelier earrings.

Also, nobody has seen me yet.

I curled my fingers around the purple cloth again and again, nervously.

I'm the only one downstairs and technically 'attending' rather than 'hosting' so I don't have what it takes to come down the stairs when the lights dim in order to announce the arrival of the Host Club. They all descend as the violinist does his damnedest to set the mood.

Prince-like.

Elegant.

Those are the words that come to mind as the crowd reaches a hush.

And I'm sort of filled with the kind of pride a mom would have watching her sons graduate from college as all the members reach the ground floor, all of them matching in stunning white two piece suits—that cost so much of a fortune, Kyoya wouldn't even let me see them up until now, lest my dirty commoner eyes soil them.

Tamaki naturally makes a dive for the mic, only for Kyoya to swing it out of his way.

"Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome to the Winter Benefit, held this year by the Ouran Host Club," Kyoya's pleasant voice reverberated in the room. "Truly, it is an honour and a gracious gift that all of us are attending this prestigious event. I'd also like to welcome our guest of honour, Kanon Iwasaki, of the Iwasaki Records fame."

Cue polite clapping and the ever-so-common outburst of, "We love you KANON!" here and there.

Kanon waved shyly.

"We will have our president's greeting shortly after the first few dances," Kyoya-sempai finished, giving Tamaki a specific look. I figured Tamaki knew he was supposed to be speaking later, but wasn't able to resist the temptation.

That's when the music overwhelmed the chatter in the hall and all the couples paired up. However, this wasn't before the habitual clamour of girls battling to get the first dance with one of the hosts.

It's still kind of scary to watch though.

"Tamaki, dance with me!"

"No, with me!"

"Tamaki, no fair. You promised to dance with me."

"One at a time my kittens," the Host Club Prince insisted, widening his arms with a serene smile on his face. "There's enough of me to go around. And the night," he winked, "is still young."

"Oh, Tamaki!" the girls fawned.

"He's certainly in his element," I overheard Haruhi say as she waltzed a girl near me.

That he certainly was.

But enough about that, all this lingering has made me hungry.

Where's all the finger food?

I scrounge the table for little sandwiches—because fancy tuna, caviar and steamed lobster are just a little too heavy for me to call 'snacks'.

I'm rotating my flute around in boredom when I realize that, from across the room, Kaoru's staring.

Pretty intensely at that.

I raise a hand and wave nervously.

He takes it as his cue to smile politely at the girls thronging him and excuse himself. Hikaru gives him a look of betrayal that is shortly replaced by one of curiosity when he sees that Kaoru's path is leading directly to me.

Er, uhm…

I fiddle with my flute even more.

"Aya."

I'm still looking down when I nod in affirmation that I had heard him.

"That dress. You…"

Yeaaah. Kyoya's still kind of peeved I dressed myself today.

This was when his voice went so soft I could barely hear him. "You wore my dress."

"I-I know it's not really suitable for formal wear. I mean, it is. But…n-not rich people formal wear. Everyone is wearing all this frilly chiffon and stuff. So, it's kind of inappropriate. But I saw it in my closet and I figured I should wear it. Since this benefit thing is kind of huge. Er, more like super huge right?" I laughed tonelessly. "I-I just thought that once in a while, I'd want you to see it. I mean—"

"Do you want to dance?"

Well.

"I'd actually really love to," I breathed out, taking his proffered arm with no hesitation.

Really, I'm glad Kaoru hadn't been my first dance partner up until then. It made it that much more perfect when I didn't step on his feet or put my hand on his waist instead of his shoulder and make him feel super uncomfortable.

Still, alright, I stepped on his foot—once—and he had to correct my movements once or twice but who cares, perfection isn't everything, right?

"You should have told me you were going to wear it."

"It was kind of a touch-and-go moment, to be honest."

"Still," he tilted his head so that our foreheads touched. "You look perfect in it."

I flushed at his close proximity.

I buried my face in his chest when I whispered.

"I'm glad," I squeezed his hand.

After a few minutes of silent slow dancing, I realized Kaoru's chest had sort of constricted awkwardly.

"Aya?"

"Mmmh?" I murmured sleepily, my cheek still on his chest, listening to his heartbeat.

"I have to ask."

"Ask what?" I replied coyly. Hoho so he had noticed my strawberry scented shampoo! It was a good thing too, considering I had literally marinated my hair in the stuff with my head upside down in a tub like I was disinfecting it—don't judge the lengths I go to.

"Are you really going to Lobelia?"

I bristled.

"I mean, I don't want to stop you if it's something you really want to do," he hugged me to his chest. "But I can't really say I'm wholeheartedly behind you going there. What about the Host Club?"

I paused.

To be honest, I'd never really thought about it. I took the exam in summer, back when I really didn't care about anyone in the Host Club besides Haruhi. And by the time I realized I'd fallen in love with a member…well, my registration was already being reviewed.

But I want to go.

I really do.

But…

I looked up at Kaoru's concerned face before looking down nervously. "What about me?" he murmured.

I don't want to leave this behind.

And here I had scoffed at Kanon's suggestion to leave Ouran with him when I was doing the exact same thing by myself.

I bit my lip.

"I don't want you to go," he moved closer to breathe this in my ear.

"You're being selfish," I said weakly.

Kaoru traced his fingers down the sides of my torso. The sensation was blazing, to say the least. "No. You're the selfish one."

Then he rested his hands on my waist and pushed me away from him gently so he could pretty much put the nail in the coffin with the intensity in his eyes. "For making me love you. And then deciding to up and leave."

I was…

Calmly, he took a step back.

I…

I can't even put into words the way that broke me.

I outstretched a hand to pull him back.

He merely smiled, with that look from back in the classroom. And in the Main Hall with the orchestra providing a soundtrack that would break anyone's heart, I finally figured out what that look was.

It was pain.

Kaoru was pained.

"Wait—!" I yelled above the music.

But by then, he had disappeared in the crowd.

I lowered my hand. "You're not fair," I said under my breath, my shoulders shaking with effort. "You're not fair at all."

"Hey, Yana-chan!" Kanon crept up behind me with a flute and a girl draped on his shoulder. The poor girl was clinging to him lest she lose him—that tends to happen when you don't have Kanon by the collar. "Great benefit, right?"

Oh, please Lord, not right now.

I gave him a look begging him to leave. That's how bad it was. I didn't even have the energy to argue or push him away.

When he caught the feebleness in my body language, he passed the flute to his date, who seemed kinda pissed, to be honest.

"Is everything alright?"

"Yup. Couldn't be better," I quipped lamely.

He gave me an annoyed glance. "I told you to think about my offer, but you don't have to beat yourself up over it," he patted my shoulder, retrieving his drink and passing it to me.

I want to laugh.

To the bitter end, it's always got to be about him.

"Have you ever considered the fact that my world doesn't revolve around you?"

"It doesn't," he shrugged. Kanon's lip lifted playfully, "but it would be much easier for the both of us if it did."

I laughed without humour, taking his offer and swallowing it in one gulp. Good. That got rid of my throbbing throat.

"So, did you have a lover's argument with the Host guy?"

I would choke if I was still drinking.

"No."

"Your make-up is about to run."

"I caught a cold. My eyes are watering."

"What's so great about the Host Club anyway?" Kanon muttered. "They treat you like a servant most of the time, they barely pay you minimum wage and yet you never complain. It pisses me off that you don't know your rights."

I blinked.

"On tour, I'd pay you top dollar and you'd get to go to all the places we said we would go when we were younger. It'd be just you and—"

"Kanon."

"At least hear me out," he insisted. "If it's fame or popularity that you're sticking around for—"

"You can't do this, Saki-chan!"

"Sssshh! Someone might hear you!"

I turned in their direction.

"We will now have the opening greetings from our very own President, Tamaki Suoh," Kyoya passed the mic to Tamaki.

"—that's why in my opinion—" Kanon droned.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and I personally extend my warmest welcome to the 56th Annual Winter Benefit!"

I blanked out.

Tamaki was coming down the stairs. And on the final step he paused to comment on the amount the Host Club was hoping to raise—ridiculous number of zeros, but hey, rich people.

My eyes kept darting back to the girls who were restlessly nudging themselves to the front. One of them was doing that darting eyes around the room thing whilst the other was clutching their flute nervously.

That's when I pushed through the crowd myself with Kanon yelping in surprise at my sudden movement before angrily snarling, "I wasn't done!"

Oh, no, they are not.

They nodded at each other.

The nervous looking girl stooped and dragged something from under one of the tables.

"KANON-KUN FOREVER!"

That's all that I managed to hear above the gasps of the crowd as a bucket of icy cold water was sent flying in Tamaki-sempai's direction.